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)

_______________________________________________________

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.

Good vs. Memorable

Sometimes I’m asked, “What books do you think are good?” and that is a very broad question because “good” is subjective. Also, it depends on your criteria for “good.” Do you mean “well written”? Do you mean “entertaining”? Do you mean books with characters I fell in love with? Or do you mean books that have stayed with me for years, despite whether I actively enjoyed reading them?

There is, perhaps, a fair argument that a book cannot be very good if it can be forgotten the moment you finish reading it. However, not all writers are aiming to live in long memory. While I hope readers enjoy Brynnde and Faebourne, I understand that those books and others like them are often kind of like candy floss, melting away as the reader moves on to the next thing.

Then again, just because a book is memorable, that doesn’t mean it is (or was) enjoyable to read. Sometimes it’s quite the opposite—we remember books (or movies) precisely because they had such a negative impact on us. Yet one could argue the author has done a “good” job because he or she has made the book into something you will never forget. No such thing as bad publicity? Some authors and filmmakers actively attempt to shock and discomfit their readers/viewers. If they do so, they consider themselves successful, even if critics and viewers hate their work.

Sometimes, though, it’s a neutral thing that, for whatever reason, leaves an impression. I was once talking to a friend of mine about (if I remember correctly, and if I don’t, it probably disproves me) Needful Things by Stephen King. And at one point we both said at the same time: “When Alan catches the glass.” This references a very specific scene in the book, one that has stuck in both our brains for years. After all, I’ve only read that book once, when I was about sixteen or seventeen years old. I don’t remember much about it, but Alan catching the glass is burned into my brain… and velvet Elvis paintings.

At the same time, there are plenty of books I can recall liking, but if you asked me for specifics now, I wouldn’t be able to give you any. I loved “The Turn of the Screw” (and The Innocents), but I can’t give you any details on what about the story or film I particularly enjoyed. I only have this general feeling of: Oh, yes, I liked that one. This is true of so many books and movies, probably because we’re designed to remember what we dislike—what affects us badly—more than what we like. This is an old part of the brain, a holdover from the days when we needed to remember which plants made us sick or which animals were dangerous. But it’s the part of the brain that, today, makes us more likely to write a letter of complaint, or a bad review, than to praise something.

So what am I getting at here? I’m only pointing out that “good” is measured in many different ways. You can say, “I liked it,” but can you articulate why? And even if you don’t like something, if it stays in your mind and follows you around, does that make it “good,” at least on some level?

What books or movies have stuck with you over time? Did you like them? Or have they made an impression precisely because they were terrible? I’d love to hear about them in the comments!

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.

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.

Movies: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

Voices by: Shameik Moore, Jake Johnson, Hailee Steinfeld, Mahershala Ali, Lily Tomlin, Nicolas Cage
Directed by: Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, Rodney Rothman
Written by: Phil Lord & Rodney Rothman (screenplay); Phil Lord (story); from characters created by a whole list of people I can’t be bothered to type here
Columbia Pictures/Sony/Marvel, 2018
PG; 117 minutes
4.5 stars (out of 5)

_______________________________________________________

It’s no secret that I’m long over superhero movies. Marvel in particular has been crumbling under its own weight for a while now. A large part of the problem (though there are many) is that these movies have begun to take themselves too seriously. They’re constantly seeking to up the stakes and lay on the drama. Yet the result is the audience becomes numb to the would-be tension. Instead of feeling like stakes are higher, it has come to feel like there are no stakes at all. Everyone comes back, after all. “We can rebuild, rebirth, turn back time; we have the technology.”

But I still enjoy some superhero movies. Guardians of the Galaxy and Thor: Ragnarok are two of my favorites, and why? Because they don’t take themselves too seriously. Spider-Man: Homecoming was similar, though the need to shoehorn in Stark and tie it all to the Avengers… Ugh. Not everything has to be a crossover, guys. This isn’t fan fiction (though it sure does feel like it these days—except I’ve read better fan fiction than a lot of these scripts).

Okay, but what about this movie? I went in with no real expectations and no particular background knowledge of Spider-Man outside the films I’ve seen (Tobey Maguire, yes; Andrew Garfield, no; Tom Holland, yes) and what my husband sometimes tries to explain to me while my eyes glaze over. I’d heard, for example, that Gwen becomes Spider-Something at some point… That there were multiple universes… Yeah, that’s about it.

Into the Spider-Verse follows the origin story of Miles Morales, one of the many incarnations of Spider-Man. Miles is smart and awkward, new to a private high school where the expectations are higher. Meanwhile, he just wants to do his art (graffiti). While doing just that, he gets bitten by a radioactive spider and… You can guess the rest.

One supercollider-that-opens-other-dimensions later, Miles is joined by a number of other Spider-Peeps. He learns the ropes while trying to get everyone back to their respective universes. Then he must destroy the collider to keep the world (or at least NYC) stable.

It’s a straight-forward plot, which I really appreciated. These days, all the plots feel so convoluted as to be nonsense, just a backdrop for character drama. This felt refreshing by comparison.

The animation style, too, was really nice. This is a visually pleasing movie, and it really is like watching a comic book.

Viewers don’t have to know much about Spider-Man to get anything out of this film either. Once again, so nice not to have to watch twenty other films first to understand the story or know the characters.

Of course, there’s the imminent danger that this did well enough that they’ll turn it into a long, complicated series in its own right. But let’s hope not. For once, maybe they could just leave well enough alone and let us have nice things instead of ruining everything in their pursuit of profits.

Sigh.

Things don’t have to be complex to be good. In fact, there’s a tipping point at which they get so elaborate they turn bad. You know, it’s like jewelry, or architecture. There’s a pleasant level of embellishment, but that one extra piece or detail turns it from stylish to tacky in an instant. The Marvel Universe has become just that: tacky. But this movie, over here on its own and minding its own business—it’s chic. Fun. Well worth viewing. It doesn’t stumble under the weight of anything before it, nor does it try too hard to be “important.” It’s just a really good movie. And in a world filled to the brim with superheroes of all sorts, this one somehow manages to stand out like a rare gem.