Tag Archives: 2018

Bohemian Rhapsody

Freddie Mercury and his Queen bandmates get the biopic treatment in Bohemian Rhapsody, an occasionally inspiring but generally middling overview of the arena rock group and its larger-than-life lead singer. Creative differences between the real-life band’s surviving members and Sacha Baron Cohen, who was originally slated to play Mercury, have loomed over the production since 2010 and it’s no big surprise that the band ultimately favored a more play-it-safe approach with the material. With a rousing soundtrack and a litany of on-the-road montages, die-hard Queen fans will have plenty to enjoy in this film but those looking for a deeper dive will likely be disappointed.

We’re introduced to Mercury (Rami Malek) as he meets guitarist Brian May (Gwilym Lee) and drummer Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy) the night that they serendipitously find themselves in need of a new lead singer. With the addition of bassist John Deacon (Joseph Mazzello), the group re-forms under the name Queen and begins selling out shows around the world after the success of their debut album. The film skims through the highs and lows of the band’s career but tends to focus on the struggles of its elusive lead singer, including his atypical relationship with girlfriend Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton) and his hard partying lifestyle that would eventually drive a wedge between himself and the group.

The cast, aside from the distracting presence of Mike Myers, is well-realized and each performer does solid work in their respective roles but it’s Malek who shines brightest in the spotlight. He gives an appropriately commanding performance that’s worthy of the towering persona that Mercury exuded in real life and by the time we get to the iconic Live Aid performance, Malek is practically indistinguishable from the real Freddie as he struts around the stage. In addition to mastering Mercury’s slinky physicality and stunning vocal range, Malek also digs past the singer’s haughty exterior to reveal a wounded soul with more insecurity than he’s willing to let on.

The biggest issues with Bohemian Rhapsody tend to come from behind the camera and generally center around the thoroughly unimaginative storytelling from director Bryan Singer, who was fired about one month before filming ended. From the introduction of Freddie’s disapproving parents to the pleas from Mary Austin that Freddie’s “burning the candle at both ends”, Singer leaves no rock-biopic cliché unturned; he follows a well-worn formula that even those unfamiliar with the genre will be able to pick up on early in the film. It’s also apparent that Singer has little to say about the band’s legacy and it seems the influence of May and Taylor as executive producers has steered the film towards hagiography.

It’s unfortunate that the life of a musical firebrand like Freddie Mercury has been sanitized to this degree but this is clearly the kind of innocuous product that 20th Century thought would play best to general audiences. Even though the script is full of moments that range from unlikely to downright false, screenwriter Anthony McCarten does land some quality zingers as Mercury and crew snipe with higher-ups in the record industry. Bohemian Rhapsody is at its best when it focuses on the hard work of four musicians who crafted 15 studio albums in their relatively limited time together but as an examination of a rock icon, it’s regrettably tame and toothless.

Score – 2.5/5

Coming to theaters this weekend:
The Grinch, starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Rashida Jones, is the latest update on the 1957 Dr. Seuss book about a grumpy creature who’s out to ruin Christmas for the nearby people of Whoville.
The Girl in the Spider’s Web: A New Dragon Tattoo Story, starring Claire Foy and LaKeith Stanfield, follows hacker Lisbeth Salander as she squares off against a foe who has ties to her past.
Overlord, starring Jovan Adepo and Wyatt Russell, is a World War II horror film that pits American paratroopers against violent creatures bred from a secret Nazi experiment.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

The Sisters Brothers

The Sisters Brothers, the first English-language feature from French director Jacques Audiard, stars John C Reilly and Joaquin Phoenix as Eli and Charlie Sisters, two guns-for-hire caught in the middle of the California Gold Rush. Their latest mission, handed down from their employer known simply as The Commodore (Rutger Hauer), revolves around a scientist named Hermann Warm (Riz Ahmed), who has allegedly developed a chemical that makes underwater gold much easier to locate. Also hot on Warm’s trail is detective John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal), who hopes to extract the secret formula from the chemist before the Sisters finish the job.

Advertising for this film has pitched it as a kind of buddy comedy between Reilly and Phoenix and with the former’s work alongside Will Ferrell in Talladega Nights and Step Brothers, the strategy seems sound. The truth is that this is much more of a straight-ahead Western; sure, it has a few quirks here and there but the general tone is more stoic and somber than the trailer lets on. Having said that, I appreciated that this film stuck to its genre so thoroughly, especially in a time when the closest thing to Westerns that are typically released tend to be action movies that just happen to be set in the Old West.

The central conflict and its embedded themes are tied directly to the film’s setting in the mid-19th century, a time when so much of the country ran rampant with lawlessness while beacons of civility could be found in emerging cities. Eli finds himself drawn to these indicators of a burgeoning modern society; he’s taken with curiosity as he’s introduced to a toothbrush and giggles with glee as he flushes a toilet for the first time in their San Francisco hotel. Charlie, the younger and more impulsive of the brothers, is more skeptical of the changing times and doesn’t see how his violent urges could fit into a more decent and polite community.

Audiard unpacks these themes delicately across the movie’s 2-hour runtime and while the first half can feel a bit aimless and slow at times, the film’s second half picks up considerably as the four main characters converge in the wilderness. While Reilly and Phoenix aren’t always convincing as actual brothers, the two fine actors do turn in reliably great performances as two men whose ideologies seem to be veering in different directions. Ahmed and Gyllenhaal do fine work as well, despite the latter’s slightly ponderous accent choice, but the screenplay doesn’t quite develop their characters as much as I would have liked.

The script, co-written by Audiard with Thomas Bidegain, not only provides some contemplative dialogue between the four men but also keeps the audience on their toes with some unexpected turns in the story. Aside from a couple comedic moments, the movie largely feels like a traditional Western and is often refreshingly old-fashioned. In its evocation of greed and its focus on camaraderie amongst characters in dire circumstances, I was reminded of the John Huston classic The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Like that film, The Sisters Brothers finishes strong by building to a final scene that perfectly ties up everything that came before it.

Score – 3.5/5

Coming to theaters this weekend:
Bohemian Rhapsody, starring Rami Malek and Lucy Boynton, is the highly anticipated biopic about the stadium rock band Queen and specifically its eccentric lead singer Freddie Mercury.
The Nutcracker and the Four Realms, starring Keira Knightley and Mackenzie Foy, is the latest adaptation of Tchaikovsky’s ballet The Nutcracker about a young girl who is transported to a magical world.
Suspiria, starring Dakota Johnson and Tilda Swinton, is Luca Guadagnino’s remake of the 1977 giallo classic about a young dancer who joins a distinguished dance academy that holds disturbing secrets.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Halloween

Michael Myers is back to his murderous ways again with this latest installment in the Halloween franchise that forgoes all of its previous movies with the exception of the 1978 slasher classic. The idea of positioning Halloween (confusingly, the third film in the series with that title) as a direct sequel set 40 years after the original is one of several potentially rewarding concepts that went into the development of this newest entry. Unfortunately, these decisions are overridden by the same trite storytelling techniques that we’ve seen countless times both in this series and in other slasher films for the past four decades.

We’re re-introduced to Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) as a grandmother who is still traumatized from her initial run-in with Michael Myers but who has also been actively preparing for what she sees as his inevitable return. We learn that this fixation with the masked killer cost her two marriages and the relationships with her daughter Karen (Judy Greer) and her granddaughter Allyson (Andi Matichak). When the prison bus that’s transporting Myers (played by both Nick Castle and James Jude Courtney) crashes, Laurie seeks to protect her family at all costs as the seemingly unstoppable evil descends upon Haddonfield once again.

Director David Gordon Green has helmed both independent dramas and mainstream comedies in his prolific career but his inexperience with the horror genre is evident early on in Halloween. Whereas John Carpenter sets things up brilliantly with an unforgettable opening in the 1978 original, Gordon Green isn’t as successful in creating the same kind of chilly atmosphere that’s integral for scary movies to function. To his credit, he does cleverly invert some key moments from its predecessor for the sake of juxtaposition but there aren’t enough new ideas that stand independent from the ones that Carpenter developed all those years ago.

It’s a shame that the script, co-written by Green with Jeff Fradley and comedic actor Danny McBride, relies so heavily on the kinds of well-worn cliches that they’d probably be better off skewering instead of embracing. Any of the comedy that does turn up, like two cops bickering about banh mi sandwiches as they wait for Myers to appear, feels forced and completely inorganic to the scenarios that arise from the plot. There is a meta moment, when a hapless teen unwittingly asks Michael “have you ever really liked a girl and you just couldn’t have her?”, that hints at a much more self-aware and potentially fun film that could have been.

Instead, we’re treated to the same setups and slayings that I suppose are integral to this genre but each death seems to have less meaning as the runtime moves along. In the 1978 original, Michael kills 5 people; here, I lost count about 30 minutes in. It doesn’t help that the editing is particularly slap-dash and unexpectedly sloppy in places; I counted multiple instances in which the lines that an actor was speaking didn’t match with the movement of their mouth. Fans of this series may respond positively to this newest entry that also could reboot the franchise but for more casual moviegoers, Halloween is likely to come across as a rather hollow experience.

Score – 2.5/5

Coming to theaters this weekend:
Hunter Killer, starring Gerard Butler and Gary Oldman, follows a group of Navy SEALs aboard a submarine as they attempt to rescue the kidnapped Russian President.
Mid90s, starring Sunny Suljic and Lucas Hedges, is a coming-of-age comedy-drama written and directed by Jonah Hill about troubled teenagers skateboarding through 1990s Los Angeles.
Opening at Cinema Center is Puzzle, starring Kelly Macdonald and Irrfan Khan, which is a romantic drama about a suburban wife and mother who uncovers a new found passion for solving jigsaw puzzles.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

First Man

Academy Award-winning director Damien Chazelle reunites with his La La Land star Ryan Gosling in First Man, an emotionally enthralling and sensorily spectacular account of Neil Armstrong’s life leading up to the Moon landing. Not only is this a fitting biopic for an American hero, it’s also an ode to the men and women who dared to do the impossible and made incredible sacrifices so that we could extend our reach in the universe. What’s distinctive about Chazelle’s vision of space travel is how he tethers the hopes and dreams of NASA’s brightest to the overwhelmingly dangerous operations necessary for Apollo 11’s success.

Opening in 1961 with a thrilling sequence in which Armstrong (Gosling) heads up an atmosphere-piercing flight test gone awry, we’re introduced to his wife Jan (Claire Foy) as the two are coping with the loss of their young daughter. Upon moving to Houston for a fresh start, Armstrong moves up the ranks at NASA and is soon involved in the Gemini program, during which critical tasks are mastered for use in the Apollo missions. With pressure mounting from the Space Race, Apollo 11 is carried out in the summer of 1969 with Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll) becoming the first two men to walk on the Moon.

As much as this is a film about the space program and the incredible amount of work that it took to get America to the Moon, it’s also an engaging personal story about the toll those efforts took on the people involved. Screenwriter Josh Singer balances the no-nonsense mechanics of the missions with intimate sequences of home life between Armstrong and his increasingly alienated family. Foy is particularly good portraying a wife wracked with anxiety over the new perils that face her husband with each new development in his profession. Gosling also turns out to be an excellent fit to play the titular character, stripping away his typical levels of charm to play an engineer whose head is always in his work.

In addition to casting Gosling again, Chazelle has also re-teamed with the technical leads from La La Land and achieves a similar level of success with them in this film. The musical score by Justin Hurwitz is tempered with a beautiful combination of worry and wonder, led by a mournful and spellbinding theremin that recalls sci-fi movies of the 50s and 60s. It took a little time for me to get on board with the look of the film, but cinematographer Linus Sandgren does find a rhythm after a few initial missteps to produce plenty of indelible images. But the MVP from a technical standpoint is editor Tom Cross, who won Best Editing for Chazelle’s Whiplash and does a stunning job of piecing together some extremely tense setpieces.

Of course it all comes back to the vision laid out by Chazelle; in keeping the action focused on the point-of-view of the astronauts as they’re crammed into their spacecrafts, he has created an experience that’s as claustrophobic and intense as any of its kind since Apollo 13. IMAX is becoming more of a gimmick than a necessity for most movies released these days, but seeing this film in IMAX is necessary not only for the enhanced picture but for the dynamic sound design that accompanies it. First Man is a first-rate docudrama about the spirit of innovation that led to triumphs in the past and will continue to do so in the future.

Score – 4.5/5

Coming to theaters this weekend:
Halloween, starring Jamie Lee Curtis and Judy Greer, is a direct sequel to the 1978 horror classic that finds serial killer Michael Myers escaping prison once again to wreak havoc during the titular holiday.
The Hate U Give, starring Amandla Stenberg and Regina Hall, is an adaptation of the best-selling novel by Angie Thomas about a teenager whose life is shattered after her childhood friend is murdered by a police officer.
The Sisters Brothers, starring John C. Reilly and Joaquin Phoenix, is a Western dark comedy that follows a pair of assassins as they track down a notorious gold prospector (played by Jake Gyllenhaal) during the California Gold Rush.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Venom

There is a time in which Venom, the new Sony-backed superhero movie featuring a popular character from the Spider-Man comics, could have likely passed as a decent entry into the genre. If it had arrived prior to 2008, the year game-changers like Iron Man and The Dark Knight hit theaters, then it’s possible that its muddled blend of faux-gritty realism and buddy movie antics could have played as novel or even subversive. The problem is that we’ve since had 10 years of seemingly innumerable superhero films and it’s more than a bit puzzling that Sony thought they could release something this flat and uninspired in 2018.

Tom Hardy bumbles his way through a thoroughly gonzo performance as Eddie Brock, an investigative reporter whose unethical practices lead to him lose both his job and fiancé Anne (Michelle Williams) in the same day. After trying to exact revenge on Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed), the head of a shady bioengineering company called the Life Foundation, he gets tangled up with an alien entity called a symbiote and is subsequently “taken over” by the foreign creature named Venom. Now sporting a new set of superpowers that allow him to mow through henchmen left and right, Brock vows to stop Drake before he unleashes his dangerous symbiotes into the world.

The big problems with Venom start with the bone-headed script, which not only regurgitates tropes that are well past exhausted by now but also bounces around from one plot point to another without a shred of logic attached. It doesn’t help that it also includes dubious lines of dialogue like the supposedly menacing “have a nice life” and the downright bizarre “ain’t nothing change but the weather”. Save for some of the bi-play between Brock and Venom, particularly one exchange that occurs at the top floor of a high building, most of the comedy falls flat and feels completely at odds with the dark and moody tone that director Ruben Fleischer is attempting to establish.

Hardy, who also voices the carnivorous Venom creature, is perhaps the only person trying to do something interesting but different doesn’t always mean better. Lurching around like the alien-possessed farmer from Men In Black, he chooses to voice Brock like a marble-mouthed buffoon who can rarely stay ahead of the curve. Meanwhile, fantastically over-qualified supporting players like Williams and Ahmed are hindered by inconsistent and generally dopey characters that don’t add any dimension to the already lackluster story.

Like the inky substance that overtakes the film’s protagonist, Venom also has an especially murky and lifeless look to it. As is becoming more routine for blockbusters these days, the majority of the scenes take place at night to disguise sloppy CGI and editing. The film’s final fight scene, which looks like it’s set in an exploding silly string factory, is both visually incomprehensible and unappealing. It’s another swing-and-a-miss by Sony, who leased the rights for some of the Spider-Man characters to Marvel Studios but obviously retained control of Venom on the hopes that they could score a hit sans the web-slinger. Unfortunately, I fear they will indeed have financial success with Venom, which means we’ll have plenty more cash-grabbing superhero ventures for years to come.

Score – 1/5

Coming to theaters this weekend:
First Man, starring Ryan Gosling and Claire Foy, is a Neil Armstrong biopic covering the lead-up to the Apollo 11 mission and is the latest from Oscar-winning director Damien Chazelle.
Bad Times at the El Royale, starring Jeff Bridges and Dakota Johnson, follows seven strangers as they begin to uncover each others’ secrets during their stay at a novelty southwest hotel.
Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween, starring Jack Black and Wendi McLendon-Covey, looks to cull chills once again from the popular children’s horror book series by R. L. Stine.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Night School

From the Adam Sandler-centric Billy Madison to the one-two combination of 21 and 22 Jump Street, the idea of grown adults returning to high school is a concept that has played out in plenty of comedies over the years. Returning to the well once more is Night School, the new Kevin Hart vehicle (or HartBeat Production, according to a pre-credit logo) that does precious little to distinguish itself from the class. Along with co-star Tiffany Haddish, Hart brings his typical level of charm and dedication to the film but even with six credited writers on board, there just aren’t enough laughs built in to the script to make this trip back to school worth taking.

Hart stars as Teddy Walker, a barbecue grill salesman looking to move into a career in finance to keep pace with his successful fiancé Lisa (Megalyn Echikunwoke), despite the fact that he lacks a high school diploma. With the hopes that he can charm his way into a work-free GED, he attends night school classes at the same school he dropped out of years prior but is met head-on by the no-nonsense instructor Carrie (Tiffany Haddish). Together with his eccentric group of classmates, Teddy must learn to overcome the same obstacles that precluded him all those years ago.

The film gets off to a promising start, as director Malcolm D. Lee sets Teddy up as a likable guy who seems to have peaked early on in life, but each subsequent character is given less and less dimension by comparison. By the time we get to the first night school class, supporting players like Rob Riggle and Mary Lynn Rajskub are relegated to one or two introductory lines that don’t create enough of a foundation upon which to build clever jokes. The movie’s would-be climax, a late-night school break-in to steal answers to a practice test, spreads its humor thin across half a dozen characters and ends with a gross-out gag that feels out of place and off-putting.

Most of the laughs that land come from the verbal sparring between Hart and Haddish that’s established during their first scene together, in which she refers to him as a “burnt leprechaun”. As is typical for most Hart comedies, his diminutive stature is the center of quite a few jokes; I also appreciated the imposing low angles that cinematographer Greg Gardiner used to juxtapose the height difference between Hart and the film’s more domineering characters. This is especially evident in an early scene with the strict principal played by SNL‘s Taran Killam, whose bat-touting antics seem to be a riff on the Morgan Freeman character from Lean On Me.

Like its main character, the biggest problem that Night School faces is a critical lack of focus. Clearly the film is going for a Breakfast Club vibe where each character has their own dilemma to solve but with two major comedic talents at the forefront, there isn’t enough screen time for a whole class of students. Perhaps if Teddy had been paired with just one classmate, like the one played by Romany Malco (the two shared a hilarious scene in The 40-Year-Old Virgin), then there could have been some tighter comedic writing. Night School is good-natured and has an endearing message at its core but as a laugh-out-loud comedy, it doesn’t quite make the grade.

Score – 2.5/5

Coming to theaters this weekend:
Venom, starring Tom Hardy and Michelle Williams, is the latest Sony-backed Marvel superhero movie that focuses on a journalist who gains superpowers after coming in contact with an extraterrestrial parasite.
A Star is Born, starring Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga, is the third remake of the 1937 original film that follows the romance that develops between a road-worn country musician and an up-and-coming singer.
Also opening at Cinema Center this weekend is Blaze, starring Ben Dickey and Arrested Development‘s Alia Shawkat, which is a new biopic directed by Ethan Hawke that covers the life of country musician Blaze Foley.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Ep. #16 – 4th Quarter Rundown

On this solo episode, I run down some of the most notable releases coming out the next few months: