Movie: Bohemian Rhapsody

I like the music of Queen, and I find Freddie Mercury a very interesting person. What I’d really like to do right now is dig up a good biography of him because this movie… falls short.

Bohemian Rhapsody skims the surface of the formation and rise to fame of Queen, with a focus on Mercury. Yet that focus does not delve, and what the movie mostly serves up is a series of vignettes about how some of their best-known songs were conceived. That’s fine, I suppose, and there are some great musical moments, but it doesn’t do much to create tension.

From what I can tell, they tried to manufacture some tension by:

  • showing some record execs that didn’t believe “Bohemian Rhapsody” could be a hit
  • showing Freddie being in love with Mary, even slightly jealous about her falling in love with someone else and having a baby… except that really wasn’t explored very much
  • showing Freddie partying hard while the rest of the band wanted to go home to their families (in, like, one or two scenes)
  • showing Freddie often being late for things
  • showing Freddie being offered a solo contract and the band reacting badly
  • showing Freddie breaking the news of his illness to the band

None of the above is deeply examined by the movie; each is a mere plot point in what really is just a kind of film timeline of events. And timelines aren’t all that interesting to watch.

Nor is this timeline accurate. I won’t bother to list it all here; Wikipedia has done it for me. And while Bohemian Rhapsody is hardly the first (or last) movie to play fast and loose with the truth, the fact that it does so in order to up the tension—and yet the tension remains nil—is part of what makes the film fail in my eyes.

Yet I know many who love this movie. And I will say the actors do a tremendous job with what they’re given. I was a teensy bit distracted by Malek’s false teeth at first, but I got used to them as the film went on. Yet, despite that toothiness, I’d say this movie is largely toothless.

Movies: The Favourite

Political intrigue. Backstabbing. Sex. And big costumes. What more could anyone want from a film?

The Favourite is a take on Queen Anne of Britain’s (r. 1707-1714) relationships with Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough, and Abigail [Hill] Masham. While most historians believe that Anne was not a lesbian, this film depicts otherwise. I don’t know if this is simply to titillate the viewers or to create a fulcrum of tension, but I guess it’s entertaining anyway.

Sarah is Anne’s right-hand lady-in-waiting, and she’s taken it on herself to issue orders not only in the Queen’s stead, but to the Queen directly as well! One wonders why Anne would have allowed someone to behave in such a way towards her, but Olivia Colman’s portrayal is wonderfully nuanced. In this take, Anne is insecure as well as ill and leans on the more forceful Sarah for support. Sarah accepts this responsibility—indeed, she nurses Anne’s self-doubts by undercutting her confidence, all the while saying it proves she is a true friend because she will not lie to make Anne feel better. Well, this may be accurate to some extent, but there are ways to be truthful and kind. Sarah is not the latter.

Along comes Abigail, who is kind, and who learns at the hand of Sarah how to also be false. You can see where this is going.

What’s interesting to watch is the way the scales tip as the movie goes on. At first Sarah is the clear villain, but then she becomes the victim of Abigail’s growing ambition. Did she get what she deserved? The real casualty here is, of course, poor Anne, who loses a dear friend (and, in this version, lover). Again, one wonders however whether she is better off without Sarah as her shield/crutch.

So is the movie as good as the hype? I enjoyed it very much, though felt it was gratuitous in some places. Well, costume dramas often can be. And I loved the bunnies. Colman definitely merits the accolades she’s received, and I’d give Weisz an edge over Stone, but both are very good in this film. It helps to know a bit of the political history in order to follow the plot, but even if you don’t, you can get the gist of things. Overall, if asked to give a star rating, I’d say 4.5.

Movies: The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part

Voices by: Chris Pratt, Elizabeth Banks, Will Arnett, Tiffany Haddish, Stephanie Beatriz, Alison Brie, Nick Offerman
Directed by: Mike Mitchell
Written by: Phil Lord & Christopher Miller (screenplay); Phil Lord, Christopher Miller & Matthew Fogel (story)
Warner Bros., 2019
PG; 106 minutes
4 stars (out of 5)

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I’ve often said that the real problem with making an excellent movie (or television show, or writing an excellent book) is that it sets an expectation for everything after to be at least as good or better. And that level of excellence is impossible to sustain. “Quit while you’re ahead” is a saying for a reason.

Hollywood, however, has zero sense of going out while on top. It likes to run franchises into the ground, eking out every last bit of money from movie goers. In fact, even when things are terrible, it will keep making more of them if people keep paying to see them.

Don’t be afraid. The second Lego movie is not terrible. It’s just not as good as the first one, and that’s not at all surprising. The first one was fresh and unexpected. This one had a lot—perhaps too much—to live up to.

If you recall the end of the first film, little sister and her Duplo blocks had invaded Bricksburg. This movie picks up five years later and tackles the theme of growing up, losing one’s imagination, and sibling rivals. It’s a lot to pack in. But basically, Bianca (that’s the sister) takes some of Finn’s (that’s the brother) Legos and he goes on a quest to get them back. This quest takes the shape of Emmet having to rescue his abducted friends.

That’s as much as I’ll tell you; I wouldn’t want to spoil anything. I will say there are a number of references (such as new character Rex being billed as a “raptor trainer” a la Chris Pratt’s Owen in the Jurassic World franchise… Oh, and yes, there are raptors).

Bottom line is that I did laugh a few times, and I did find the movie super cute. But it also felt like it was trying a little too hard in its themes, leaning a little too much on the music, and it just doesn’t breathe. The new characters aren’t given much development, and the familiar ones are too one-note here.

Still, my kids loved it, and they came home and *gasp* went to play Legos together. So… that’s a win.

Movie: Abducted in Plain Sight

Okay, I don’t want to make these people feel any worse than they already do, and as the old saying goes, “Times were different then,” but geez.

This documentary is about a woman named Jan who, as a little girl, was abducted and sexual abused by a family friend—twice. The friend’s name was Robert, but everyone refers to him as “B” (for “Bob,” I think). B set up a long con that involved seducing Jan’s mother and also tricking Jan’s father into some homosexual situations… That right there leaves you to wonder, doesn’t it? That and the fact that B also convinced the parents to let him sleep in Jan’s bed as part of some ongoing “therapy” he was going through? I can’t imagine any circumstance—any friendship strong enough—that I’d let a grown man (or anyone, for that matter) sleep in my daughter’s bed. So, you know, it’s really difficult to not just yell at your television while watching this: “What are you thinking? How stupid are you?”

Now, they insist B was a master manipulator, super charming. Proof of this is provided in the fact he was a great car salesman, I guess? And not having been there, in these people’s shoes, I want to give them the benefit of the doubt. But the documentary does little to help that. The parents, in interviews, give limp excuses and explanations for their actions. An FBI agent calls them “naive,” which feels like an insane understatement. I’d say there’s a mixture of naiveté and just utter lack of judgement. Like, complete inability to accurately judge character. And/or a huge helping of denial. After all, no one wants to believe a family friend is preying on one’s child. But where were the protective instincts? Apparently they had none?

I will say that B clearly planned things out. He created an entire story to compel Jan’s cooperation and silence. In that much, he really was a master manipulator.

This documentary is equal parts fascinating and frustrating. It left me with a sense of disbelief and “what just happened?” I feel for Jan and her family; their pain is clear and evident in their interviews. What a wreckage. No matter how naive, no one deserves what was done to them. I’m glad they’ve been able to unburden, even if it was difficult for them to step up and speak out, knowing how the world might judge them in kind. Good on them for their courage.

Movies: Fyre Fraud

Okay, so this is the documentary about the Fyre Festival that’s on Hulu. (I wrote about the Netflix one a couple posts back; scroll down to read it if you’re interested.)

Again, a short recap of what the Fyre Festival was intended to be: a major, exclusive music festival on a private island in the Bahamas. What it actually was: a horrendous mess. Billy McFarland helmed the whole thing, the idea being that this festival would bring attention to the Fyre app he had developed (with Ja Rule). But McFarland is a compulsive liar and scammer who comes up with big ideas, gets people to pour money into them, and then the ideas go nowhere. So after creating a cool viral video advertising everything Fyre Festival was going to be, and after getting many “social media influencers” (because that’s a job title now, apparently) to tweet or post on Instagram or whatever, he sold a ton of expensive tickets to this event that had zero planning behind it. He made promises of villas and yachts and getting to hang out with models and musicians, but he couldn’t back any of these up with, you know, reality.

Things got really bad when McFarland basically began making up numbers about how much money they already had, thus encouraging more investors to toss cash in the pot. That’s where the “fraud” part comes in.

Fyre Fraud has a bit of an edge over the Netflix documentary because it actually features an interview with McFarland, and we get to watch him (a) make up lies on the spot, and (b) squirm when he can’t lie his way out of the questions being asked. This film also talks to some of those social media influencers, the self-centered little do-nothings whose whole “jobs” are to… exist? Tell people their opinions? This is definitely the one to watch if you’re a little older and hate millennials. (For the record, I don’t hate them, but many seem to think the best way to contribute to the world is to film themselves constantly, as though the world is simply waiting to get a glimpse or hear what they have to say. Blame the technology, I guess—YouTube, Instagram, etc.—but I think there’s some fault in them, too. The need for perpetual attention and validation is a kind of illness, and they would benefit from a social media diet.)

That said, the other documentary interviewed a wider variety of people and looked more closely at the people trying to make the festival happen, while this one focused on McFarland’s fraud, hence the title. So watching both is not entirely redundant. In fact, I’d certainly start with the Netflix one as a base of information. But Fyre Fraud is a bit more laughable, so it’s a good way to finish off the pair. Think of one as the wine you drink with your main course and the other as a dessert wine. Different, but all part of the bigger meal.

Movies: Fyre

This documentary plays into a viewer’s love of schadenfreude. Here are a bunch of rich kids paying tons of money to go to some exclusive music festival and… Well, you probably know how this ends.

For those who haven’t heard about Fyre, it was a festival that was supposed to happen in April/May 2017 on a private island in the Bahamas. The festival was named for an app that was designed to make it easy to book big-name acts so that people didn’t have to hunt down booking agents, managers, and the like. That’s not a terrible idea, assuming you have enough people with tons of money looking to throw said money at rock stars or whatever (well, and I suppose plenty of corporations organize big events, too; my husband’s company holds a huge concert each June), but delve a little deeper and you’ll discover there were termites in the woodwork all along.

See, Fyre Media was founded by Billy McFarland, who already had some questionable successes with previous big ideas (Magnesis). Basically, McFarland could talk a good game, but had no ability to follow through. So, with Fyre Festival, he saw this chance to live large with the rich and famous, and he sold that dream to a few hundred others via a promotional video and by using “social media influencers” to create buzz. But when it came time to actually, you know, put together a festival? He was utterly useless. Worse, he kept throwing around money he didn’t have.

This documentary is fairly entertaining in that it interviews many, many people who were involved in Fyre Media and the Fyre Festival. They all throw McFarland under the bus, of course, but he seems to deserve it. After it all fell apart, as he faced litigation, McFarland was already creating yet another scheme. The guy is compulsive.

But at the core, this is the story of one rich kid bilking a bunch of other rich kids. I don’t feel sorry for either side there. I do feel sorry for the workers on Great Exuma who never got paid. It’s one thing to take money from people who have it to spare; it’s another thing entirely to take it from people who don’t have much to begin with.

Overall, a somewhat enjoyable documentary if you enjoy being wowed by the utter stupidity of some people and the audacity of others.

Movies: Hearts Beat Loud

“Poignant” is the word that came to mind while watching this little indie film. I don’t know if that fits, exactly, but it’s what I actively thought at the time.

This movie stars Nick Offerman as Frank, single father to Sam, who is taking classes over the summer before leaving NY to attend UCLA. Frank has run a record store called Red Hook Records for 17 years, but now too broke to pay the rent, he has to close the place and find another job. He also has a mother (Blythe Danner) who “gets confused sometimes” and yet refuses to give up her rent-controlled apartment to live with Frank.

There are a couple of B storylines: Nick’s landlord Leslie is giving him mixed signals, and Sam falls in love with a girl named Rose. But the chief conflict is that Frank and Sam “jam” together, and after recording a song one night, Frank uploads it to Spotify and it gets put on a “new indies” playlist. It gets enough attention that there is interest in repping them, but Sam isn’t happy with her dad’s push for stardom. He used to be in a band with her mother, who sadly died in a bicycle accident, and Sam sees his desire to return to the limelight as pathetic. She doesn’t want to sign a contract and go on tour; she wants to go to med school.

As an aside, let me just say that I like to “collect” people who share the same birthday as me (date, not year), and Kiersey Clemons, who plays Sam, does! She really does have a magnificent voice, and she’s incredibly talented as an actress as well. No need for my well wishes, however, as she’s lined up to play Iris opposite Ezra Miller in a Flash movie. She’s well on her way.

Hearts Beat Loud is a small film, zeroed in on Offerman’s Frank as he navigates major life upheaval. While the storyline with Blythe Danner didn’t seem to go much of anywhere, overall this is a movie worth curling up with. If you liked Begin Again, or enjoy films of that sort, you’d probably like this one as well.

Books: The Legend of the Seventh Virgin by Victoria Holt

So, in the wake of re-reading The Black Opal and finding it disappointing, I decided to try another one of the Victoria Holt novels I have on my shelf. I’ve read them all, but it’s been a couple decades, so I don’t remember much about any of them except that I liked them an awful lot at the time. (Well, I remember finding the name Lavinia in The India Fan to be just the most elegant name… That’s literally the only thing I remember about all the Victoria Holt books I’ve read.) My question was: if, upon revisiting, The Black Opal wasn’t all that good, how do the others hold up?

The Legend of the Seventh Virgin is much older than The Black Opal, by almost three decades. So it’s probably not entirely fair to compare them as authors’ writing styles change over time. But these are the two I’ve read and refreshed my memory on, so these are the two we’re going with.

My chief complaint about The Black Opal was that the main character Carmel was really, really dull. Not so with the main character of TLOTSV. If anything, Kerensa Carlee suffers from a surfeit of personality. The problem here is that she’s not terribly likable. She is fixated on the local manor house known as the Abbas, determined to somehow make it her own. I guess she’s what some would consider a “strong female character,” but I think her counterpart Mellyora is stronger in a lot of ways (and much more engaging, though we only see everything through Kerensa’s eyes, as she is the narrator).

Cornwall, Victorian Era. Kerensa has big aspirations, not just for herself but for her brother Joe, who she is determined will be a doctor. Kerensa constantly wants people to do what she wants and is infuriated when they make choices different from the ones she thinks are best for them—but are really best for her, or suit her ambitions. I won’t spoil anything on the off chance you’d like to read this book at some point, but Kerensa is selfish and domineering, which she readily acknowledges but makes no attempt to change.

The other annoying thing is that Kerensa is repetitive in her narration, hitting the same points over and over again until readers want to scream, “Yes! We get it!” Time after time she goes on about her brother and how disappointed she is when he doesn’t become a doctor but instead a mere veterinarian. (I guess that was a minor spoiler. Sorry.) She harps on the house, her goals for her son Carlyon… [As an aside, I once had a bad review for one of my books because the reader didn’t find the names believable for the time period, but I ain’t got nothin’ on Victoria Holt. Just sayin’.] Kerensa orchestrates things in an all-out attempt to make her dreams come true, but the costs turn out to be great as well.

I suppose a lot of the fun in reading a Victoria Holt novel is that they’re so outlandish. They’re historical gothic romance, really, and I’m not sure much can be expected of them. I did find TLOTSV to be more absorbing than The Black Opal, but toward the end I was skimming. There were a number of false endings of a sort—just when you thought everything was settled, some other little thing would pop up and happen. If you’re a savvy reader, many of the twists were telegraphed, though I still enjoyed them for the high drama they were.

I have a few more of Holt’s books, but I’m going to take a break before trying any more of them. Although I used to read them one after another like a kid scarfing down candy, I feel I need a bit of a palate cleanser before tackling another.

Movies: The House with a Clock in Its Walls

My kids were asking for a movie night, and this one was family friendly and streaming (the only two criteria). I vaguely recall reading and like John Bellairs’ book when I was younger, but I don’t remember the book itself in any detail… What, I wonder, does that say about it?

The movie is about Lewis, whose parents have died in a terrible car accident, so he has gone to live with an uncle he never knew he had. Uncle Jonathan (played with aplomb by Jack Black) lives in a house as weird as he is, and with a platonic friend Mrs. Zimmerman (Cate Blanchett). I really enjoyed watching these two; they seemed to be having fun, and my nine-year-old son laughed like a loon at all the banter and physical comedy this movie had to offer.

This is, in fact, exactly the kind of movie I would have adored at that age. However, be forewarned that, while my youngest did enjoy it, he was also a bit “creeped out,” as he put it, and we had to take extra care putting him to bed for the night. The creepy stuff includes animated dolls/mannequins, which I must agree is the basis for many a nightmare.

The story itself is fairly linear and goes without any real surprises: at first Lewis thinks Jonathan might be evil, but then he finds out his uncle is simply a warlock. Magic ensues, things go wrong, etc.

The production values are quite fine, and the movie is fun to watch as much for the colors and visuals as for the the silliness of the actors. I’m not sure why audiences didn’t enjoy it (46% on Rotten Tomatoes, though critics gave it 67%). Were they expecting something more sophisticated? It’s a kids’ movie based on a kids’ book, so it came in as exactly what I anticipated—slightly better than I expected, actually, given the ratings.

In short, it’s a solidly middling film, neither amazing nor terrible, just a fair amount of fun. I’d give it three stars out of five and say it’s worth watching with your kids (if you have them, or any you can borrow); otherwise, I’m not sure whether, as an adult, you’d find it worth your while. Maybe for nostalgia value. In any case, that’s a call you’ll have to make yourself.