Movie reviews: By-the-book 'Bohemian Rhapsody' time-twister will leave you humming
Film critic and pop culture historian Richard Crouse shares his take on three movies opening in cinemas across Canada this weekend: "Bohemian Rhapsody" "The Nutcracker and the Four Realms" and "Suspiria."
BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY: 3 STARS
I have very fond memories of Queen. They were one of the biggest bands in the world when I was in my early teens and their brand of pomp rock appealed to my young ears. "Bohemian Rhapsody," the band's best-known song and masterpiece, isn't a dance song by any stretch of the imagination, but that didn't stop my classmates and me from giving it a go in the school gym.
The slower introduction and the rockin' last part are fairly easy to move around the room to, it's the operatic middle section that would have caused less determined kids to abandon the dance floor. But, in a moment I have never forgotten, my school chums spontaneously came together like a roomful of Maria Callases and Luciano Pavarottis to sing lines like, "Scaramouch, Scaramouch will you do the fandango?" at the top of their lungs.
That song brought us all together, the romantics, the head bangers, the nerds; everyone stood up and was heard. It was fantastic. Magnifico even. I wish I could say the same about the new film "Bohemian Rhapsody" starring Rami Malek as the late, great Freddie Mercury.
Mercury was not a subtle performer and that spirit has rubbed off on the film, for better but mostly for worse. The performance scenes are fun, over-the-top and enjoyable. It's when Mercury doesn't have a microphone in his hand that the movie suffers. "We need to get experimental," he says to EMI executive Ray Foster (Mike Myers). Too bad screenwriter Anthony McCarten ("Darkest Hour," "The Theory of Everything") only wrote the line and didn't take it to heart.
With a script researched by Wikipedia the film zips through the band's career and singer's personal life, focussing on the high points — the writing of "Bohemian Rhapsody" and Live Aid — while giving the truly dramatic details a boilerplate treatment.
Mercury's homosexuality is addressed but not deeply explored. He has relationships with two men, Paul Prenter (Allen Leech) and Jim Hutton (Aaron McCusker), and we see him visit a fetish club but not until the movie is half over. Before then it spends a great deal of time establishing the bond with Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton), a woman he called the love of his life.
In the film's best dramatic scene he comes out of the closet, admitting to her that while he loves her he also thinks he may be bisexual. She disabuses him of the notion, admitting she knows he is gay. It's a tender scene that sheds light on their connection more than anything that comes before or after.
As for the band, if not for their brightly coloured wardrobe, Brian May (Gwilym Lee), Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy) and John Deacon (Joe Mazzello) would barely make an impression. They are there to stand behind Mercury and start the occasional argument so he can whip out a bon mot, smirk and flit away.
Mercury, of course, is the most compelling character. Overcome with father issues and a desire to perform both on stage and off he's also a man who allows himself to be manipulated by a lover who clearly does not have his best interest in mind. Malek, fake teeth and all, does a good imitation of Mercury. He can strut and swagger but it feels like an impression, a very good one, but one that never goes beyond skin deep. To paraphrase one of Mercury's most famous lyrics, "it never feels like real life, it feels like fantasy."
Brian May and Roger Taylor were directly involved with the making of the movie so it shouldn't come as a surprise that the story has an "authorized" feel to it, but it is puzzling how the timeline has been twisted to fit the narrative. The montage of their first tour of America is set to "Fat Bottom Girls," a tune they wouldn't write for another four years and the writing of "We Will Rock You" is off by three years.
Those are fan details and easily forgiven narratively. What's more troubling is the film's handling of Mercury's AIDS diagnosis. The movie portrays Mercury telling his band mates, three men he calls "his family," about his illness a week before Live Aid in July 1985. Jim Hutton, Mercury's boyfriend at the time of his death, says the singer was diagnosed in late April 1987, years after the events in the film. Moving a song or two through time is one thing. Playing around with the life-and-death details of Mercury's illness for dramatic effect is quite another.
"Bohemian Rhapsody" ends with a rousing recreation of the band's legendary twenty-minute Live Aid set. Cut back to four songs ("Bohemian Rhapsody," "Radio Ga Ga," "Hammer to Fall" and "We Are the Champions") it captures their fist-pumping triumph on the Wembley stage. It also sends audiences out of the theatre with some of Queen's biggest hits ringing in their ears. It's the Principle of Recency, wherein the thing you experience last is the thing you remember most, like a delicious, sugary dessert at the end of a bland meal. The "Live Aid" impersonation is an effective and memorable way to end a by-the-book movie.
THE NUTCRACKER AND THE FOUR REALMS: 3 STARS
Based on E.T.A. Hoffmann's "The Nutcracker and the Mouse King" and Tchaikovsky's "Nutcracker" ballet, Disney's newest fantasy also adds in large, frothy dollops of "Alice in Wonderland, " "Narnia" and even "Pan's Labyrinth."
The action in "The Nutcracker And The Four Realms" begins like so many other Disney films, with the death of a parent.
It's Christmas and Clara (Mackenzie Foy) is still hurting from the recent loss of her mother. Her present is a beautiful ornamental egg once owned by her late mom. "To my beautiful Clara," reads the attached card. "Everything you need is inside. Love Mother."
There is something inside. Trouble is, she doesn't have the key required to open the egg.
A party game at her godfather Drosselmeyer's (Morgan Freeman) Christmas party leads her to the key but it remains out of reach, snatched up by a tiny mouse who lures Clara into the strange world of three realms: Land of Snowflakes, Land of Flowers and Land of Sweets.
There, with Phillip (Jayden Fowora-Knight), a soldier, and an army of mice she learns secrets about her past and embarks on adventures in search of the key. Who will help her — The Sugar Plum Fairy (Keira Knightley)? The Snow Realm King (Richard E. Grant)? Mother Ginger (Helen Mirren)? — and who will conspire against her?
"It won't be easy," says Drosselmeyer, "but it was her mother's dying wish."
The opulence of the set design, the whimsy of the story, the use of classical music and ballet will draw comparisons to "Fantasia" but this is different. It's part steampunk Christmas, part power princess tale about a girl who discovers, as her mother wrote, "everything you need is inside."
Foy capably holds the centre of the film but it is Knightley who has all the fun. She's a glittery-pink-powder-puff with cotton candy hair and a Betty Boop voice. She's in full pantomime mode, grabbing the spirit of the piece with both hands. Her spirited performance brings such much-needed oomph to the film.
"The Nutcracker And The Four Realms" has some fun moments — the Mouse King is cool but perhaps on the nightmarish side for very small kids — and a timely message that we are stronger together than divided, but often feels like an expensive Christmas card: beautiful to look at but flat.
SUSPIRIA: 3 ½ STARS
With his remake of the classic Dario Argento supernatural horror film "Suspiria" director Luca Guadagnino has made a film as glossy and grandiose as the original giallo. Maybe even more so. What he has also done is intellectualize the story to the point where you don't actually get scared you just think you do.
Set in 1977 Berlin, the film begins with a manic episode. The first of many. Patricia Hingle (Chloe Grace Moretz), on the run from the Tanz Ballet School, is distraught. Making her way to the office of her psychiatrist Dr. Josef Klemperer (Lutz Ebersdorf a.k.a. Tilda Swinton under an inch or two of make-up) she's in the midst of a breakdown, ranting about witches before disappearing into the city leaving Klemperer with more questions than answers.
Cut to the story of American ballet student Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson), Patricia's replacement at the prestigious dance school. A Mennonite from rural Ohio she arrives for an audition with the school's formidable head teacher Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton in more recognizable form) despite never having studied or danced professionally. Her raw talent is enough to earn her a berth with at the school and soon she has not only formed a bond with Blanc, but is dancing the lead in a production of the avant-garde piece "Volk."
Dr. Klemperer and Susie's roommate Sara (Mia Goth) think something is wonky at the school but can't figure out what is wrong. Imagine their surprise (SPOILER ALERT UNLESS YOU HAVE SEEN THE ORIGINAL FILM!) when it becomes apparent the school is run by a coven of witches intent on human sacrifice.
Guadagnino and screenwriter David Kajganich keep the bones of Argento's story, fleshing it out with much talk of the terrorist Baader-Mienhof bombings, Susie's backstory and Klemperer's search for his long lost wife. Aptly subtitled "Six Acts and an Epilogue Set in a Divided Berlin" the new version is an hour longer than the original and while it is visually stunning it feels padded for length.
Not to say there aren't memorable moments and ideas. A death-by-voo-doo-dance sequence is queasily beautiful and the film's climax, a Grand Guignol freak-out, must be seen to be believed. It's beautifully rendered, all grey skies and red rivers of blood, not nearly as lurid as Argento's movie — except, perhaps for the exploding head sequence — but it is solemn when it should shock.
Richard Crouse shares a toast with celebrity guests and pundits on the talk show Pop Life on CTV NewsChannel and CTV. Catch up on all the entertainment news, reviews and interviews at the Pop Life website.