BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY (2018)

October 25, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. That VOICE! During my life, I’ve been fortunate enough to see many of rock’s greatest bands live in concert, including: The Who, The Rolling Stones, Bad Company, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, and AC/DC. Each of these bands are amazing, but no other concert combined the energy, showmanship and musicianship as Queen (two different tours). And certainly no other lead singer donned a Harlequin leotard … only Freddie Mercury could make that look seem natural.

This is such an odd movie, and one that is somewhat difficult to discuss. It’s billed as an “inspiring story”, though one wonders how self-destructive living, an acrimonious band break-up, and dying young of AIDS could be considered inspiring. It’s not supposed to be a biopic, but the vast majority of the screen time is devoted to Freddie Mercury. And to really confound us, the film kind of drags (pun possibly intended) during the personal story times … and then explodes with greatness during the band and live performance segments.

Rami Malek plays Freddie Mercury, and he perfectly captures the swagger and strut of one of rock’s greatest theatrical showmen. Mercury was born Farrokh Bulsari in Zanzibar, and the film shows us his conservative family and time spent working as a baggage handler at Heathrow. Of course, things change quickly once he joins up with guitarist Brian May (played here by Gwylim Lee) and drummer Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy, MARY SHELLEY). When bassist John Deacon (Joseph Mazzello) is added, Queen is born.

With a story and script from two Oscar nominated writers, Peter Morgan (THE QUEEN, ironically) and Anthony McCarten (THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING), it’s surprising that much of the film is downright slow – especially the bits with frenemy Paul (Allen Leach). Perhaps this is more a factor of the issues with the director’s chair, where Bryan Singer is credited despite being fired during production. Cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel filled in until Dexter Fletcher (next year’s Elton John biopic ROCKETMAN) was hired to complete the film. Lucy Boynton (so good in SING STREET) holds her own as Mercury’s wife and friend Mary Austin, and Mike Myers plays producer Ray Foster (with a tip of the cap to WAYNE’S WORLD). Other supporting work comes courtesy of Dickie Beau as influential DJ Kenny Everett, Aiden Gillen, Tom Hollander and Aaron McCusker.

The 20th Century Fox opening fanfare has its own Queen version, and is not to be missed as the film begins. Of course, it’s the infamous 1985 Live Aid performance that is the film’s highlight and one that will leave every audience member pumped up, smiling, and singing along. It’s a stunning sequence on a custom built Wembley Stadium stage, and it helps erase much of the tedium of the film’s non-band scenes. Erasing any doubt as to whether the film is worth the price of addition … hearing that VOICE at full volume on today’s theatrical sound systems. Killer Queen.

watch the trailer:

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PAPILLON (2018)

August 23, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. It seems like most every remake that comes around begs the question, “Why?” This is especially true when the film being remade is a favorite such as 1973’s PAPILLON. The original was directed by Oscar winner Franklin J. Schaffner (PATTON, THE PLANET OF THE APES, THE BOYS FROM BRAZIL), and starred two legendary actors, Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman. The screenplay was written by Dalton Trumbo and Lorenzo Semple Jr, and was based on the Henri Carriere books “Papillon” and “Banco”. Mr. Carriere was, of course, the titular Papillon himself, and though the specifics of his stories have been met with skepticism over the years, he nonetheless delivered some fascinating material.

So why make the film again 45 years later? Well this is a kinder, gentler version and features two of today’s most popular actors: Charlie Hunnam (“Sons of Anarchy”) and Rami Malek (“Mr. Robot”) as Papillon and Louis Dega, respectively. The screenplay from Aaron Guzikowski (PRISONERS) focuses more on the friendship and less on the brutal prison environment. Director Michael Noer (I’m admittedly unfamiliar with his previous work) delivers a movie that looks very good and works as an example of loyalty and bonding.

The film opens in 1931 Paris and we witness Papillon (so known because of the butterfly tattoo on his chest) doing what he does … safecracking for a powerful mobster. He seems to be living the good life with his girlfriend (played by Eve Hewson, Bono’s daughter) and they have plans to escape this life of crime – always an ominous sign in movies. Sure enough, he is framed for murder and sent to the penal colony in French Guiana. It’s there that he meets Louis Dega (Malek), a master counterfeiter. Dega is a soft and slight man, and the wad of cash hidden in his nether-regions puts a target squarely on his back. So Papillon’s brawn and need for cash to grease the wheels of his escape, and Dega’s need for protection, make this the match made in heaven (or in this case, hell).

Being a man of eternal optimism, Papillon never loses faith that he will escape, even when the warden (a terrific Yorick van Wageningen from Fincher’s THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO) explains that hope is his enemy. The years spent in solitary confinement rob Papillon of years and weight, but never hope. A final stint on Devil’s Island reunites the two men who share a bond that only such harsh circumstances could build. Since we know that Henri Carriere wrote the manuscripts for the books in 1969, the ending is known before we start; however it’s the telling of the story that allows us to come to know both Papillon and Dega.

This latest script does a better job of developing the friendship, as well as providing Papi’s past and reason to live. The original nailed a man’s commitment to surviving, while this one makes hope more of a philosophy. Lacking the magic of McQueen, Mr. Noer’s version doesn’t quite compare, but for those who have never seen the 1973 film, this one should prove quite engaging – even if we old-timers don’t buy into the kinder/gentler approach.

Watch the trailer:


DIFF 2017: Day Six

April 8, 2017

The Dallas International Film Festival runs March 31 – April 9, 2017

 It’s hump day Wednesday and I’m feeling a bit refreshed after only two movies yesterday. Flashing the wisdom that should accompany my age, I have followed up two-for-Tuesday with another two movie day today. Both films are narratives, so my documentary addiction is on hold until tomorrow. Below is a recap of the two films I watched on Wednesday April 5, 2017:

 

BUSTER’S MAL HEART

A film festival wouldn’t be complete without at least one mind-blowing avant-garde cinematic experience. I’m not the kind that needs every ending neatly bow-wrapped, and I often enjoy having conventional story structure challenged and even dissolved. Writer/director Sarah Adina Smith seems to thrive in such an environment in this twisty psychological thriller covering three timelines (one of which may be a dream) … or a split personality … or two/three men from one … or some combination … or something else entirely that I might have missed. (I’m not too proud to admit this distinct possibility).

When a filmmaker bravely dives into the bizarre, casting becomes crucial. Ms. Smith nails it with Rami Malek, DJ Qualls and Kate Lyn Sheil. Thanks to the popularity of TV’s “Mr. Robot”, Malek is now a leading man – albeit a tad unconventional. Here he plays Jonah, a struggling family man with a wife (Ms. Sheil) and young child. Working as a night Concierge at a hotel, Jonah tries to make the best of the lack of sleep and minimal contact with his family. In addition to Jonah, Malek plays Buster, a slippery and hirsute mountain man who negotiates his way through the Montana mountains by hanging out in the multi-million dollar vacation homes vacated by their owners for the snowy winter months.

The film bounces between 3 periods for Jonah/Buster: the elusive mountain man running from the law, the bleak nights of the family man, and a dream-like sequence where he is adrift at sea in a row boat. Throughout the film, references to “sphincter” and multiple proclamations that “The Inversion is coming” lead us to believe there could be a sci-fi connection or an apocalyptic ending headed our way. Instead, it’s “the belly of the whale” that might unlock the mystery or mysteries serenaded by the thunderous techno-bass bass. It’s a head-scratcher for sure, but one that manages to keep us engaged despite our whirlwind of theories and uncertainly.

 

KATIE SAYS GOODBYE

The latest exciting new filmmaker to burst on the scene is writer/director Wayne Roberts, whose wonderful indie is my favorite narrative of the festival so far. Of course there will be those who decry yet another film exploitation of women as a victim of society. However, there is definitely another way to view the story of Katie, the good-hearted dreamer played beautifully by Olivia Cooke (“Bates Motel”).

Initially, Katie’s unflappable optimism seems unlikely, if not impossible. She walks miles to work along a dusty highway. She lives in a trailer park with her deadbeat mother (Mireille Enos), whom she supports both financially and emotionally. She works double-shifts as a waitress at a truck stop, where she’s known to toss in a couple extra bucks when a particularly frugal customer stiffs the other waitress. She also works a side job as a prostitute for locals and a regular trucker named Bear (Jim Belushi). Despite a life filled with *stuff*, Katie doggedly pursues her dream of saving enough money to move to San Francisco and become a hair stylist. Of course, she has to save enough money for her trip AND for her mother to live on. Her dream seems lofty, yet almost achievable.

When Katie falls for Bruno (Christopher Abbott), the new guy in town, she tries her best to fall in love and pull him into her dreams for a better life. It doesn’t take long before Bruno is made aware of Katie’s side job, and her fantasy world begins to crumble. On a daily basis, Katie happily (of course) drinks up the truck stop wisdom of diner owner Maybelle (Mary Steenburgen), who spouts such gems as “A man with a smile will hurt you”. Good intentions abound here, but we realize … even if Katie doesn’t … that the reality of people’s self-interest is the immovable object that so often tears down the dreamers of the world.

As with much of life, one’s enjoyment of the film is likely contingent upon the perspective you bring. A caustic, cynical view will have you waving off Katie’s lot in life as exploitive movie-making; while those who can share even a spoonful of Katie’s spirit, will find themselves rooting exuberantly for her dreams to come true … or at least to sustain her refreshing outlook on life and people.


THE MASTER (2012)

September 24, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. Critics seem to love it, while movie goers seem to be left grasping for meaning. This is director Paul Thomas Anderson‘s sixth film, and could be either his best or worst, depending on your tastes. What is clear, however, is that all the hoopla over this being an expose’ of Scientology was for nothing. In fact, the cult/religion in the film plays second fiddle to a mentally unstable drifter who you will find no real interest in following (yet unable to take your eyes off).

On the plus side, there are three terrific performances in the film. Joaquin Phoenix delivers a frightening, off beat character named Freddie Quell. Freddie suffers from PTSD after WWII and is some kind of freaky genius when it comes to moonshine and hooch. We see him utilize missile fuel, paint thinner, photographic chemicals, coconuts and Lysol. Never accept a drink from Freddie. Philip Seymour Hoffman is pure charisma and power as Lancaster Dodd, the character supposedly modeled on L Ron Hubbard, the writer and (some would say) con man who developed Scientology through his Dianetics theories. Hoffman is fascinating to watch and totally believable as a guy who draws in the suckers. His staunchest follower is his ice queen wife played with quiet intensity by Amy Adams. This is quite a different role for her and she really delivers the goods.

 Joaquin Phoenix deserves a few words. His physicality here approaches deformity and his sexual perversion is clear early on thanks to a beach scene. Phoenix looks emaciated, and somehow inverts his shoulders and wears a constant grimace that would make Michael Shannon proud. Much of his performance reminded me of a young Marlon Brando … high praise indeed. Many of director Anderson’s films deal with the surrogate father/son relationship, and Phoenix is at his best when desperately seeking acceptance from his would-be father figure, Lancaster Dodd.

 Though Scientology is never mentioned, the “processing” demonstrated certainly fits right in with the early methods. Still, the weakness of the movie stems from the story. Following Freddie leaves a gaping hole in substance. There’s just not much to this broken man. On the other hand, we constantly want to know more about The Master, Lancaster Dodd.

Technically, it’s a stunning and beautiful movie with moments of cinematic greatness. From an entertainment perspective, some might find the second half downright boring and uninteresting. If not for the Oscar worthy performances and the stellar camera work and interesting camera angles, even more people probably would have walked out during the film. Jonny Greenwood is back (There Will Be Blood) with Anderson, and again delivers the perfect accompaniment. With some script work, this could have been a truly great film. Instead, we get just-missed greatness from a true auteur.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you want to see 3 Oscar worthy performances OR unusual filmmaking and story telling is worth a couple hours of your time … especially when presented by an auteur like Paul Thomas Anderson

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: oddball characters and expert technical filmmaking are not enough to maintain your interest

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fJ1O1vb9AUU