Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Green Book

Director: Peter Farrelly
Starring: Viggo Mortensen, Mahershala Ali, Linda Cardellini, Dimiter D. Marinov, Mike Hatton, Iqbal Theba, Sebastian Maniscalco, Von Lewis
Running Time: 130 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

If you're going to make a film set in the past or present that in any way touches on the issue of racism, it's best to prepare yourself. Make sure you have all your bases covered, do your homework, insure there aren't any inaccuracies and brace for the inevitable backlash. What the backlash will be or why it exists may as well be anyone's guess, but when you tackle a topic as sensitive as this and it's based on a true story, at least some controversy is inevitable. Peter Farrelly found this out the hard way upon signing on to co-write and direct Green Book, a film detailing the bond that develops between a renowned African-American  pianist and an Italian bouncer when the latter serves as the musician's driver and bodyguard for his 1962 Deep South concert tour.

Covering a shameful part of U.S. history while keeping a relatively light tone in the face of its deadly serious subject matter was enough to raise eyebrows in a year that saw Black Panther and BlackKklansman nominated for Best Picture. That it was made by the director of Dumb and Dumber  and drew comparisons to Driving Miss Daisy would seem to be the final straw, until it actually won the top prize on Oscar night, defeating films considered more progressive and a better indication of where we're culturally headed. If rumors are true, Farrelly's picture turns back the clock to when Hollywood was only capable of telling the stories of black people through white characters, and a show of support is akin to a vote for the establishment.

Of course, none of these aforementioned points have anything to do with the movie Green Book. and when you actually sit down to watch it, that all turns into background noise. It's not that the controversy should be casually dismissed, but rather it becomes a major distraction when trying to form even the most subjective opinions on the film. That it's inspired this much debate is a credit to the picture, but eventually you reach a place where even that needs to be shelved in order to examine what's directly in front of you. Some may wonder what all the fuss was about, as the most noteworthy thing about it just might be how competently made and inoffensive it is.

Frank "Tony Lip" Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen) is a New York City bouncer working at the Copacabana when he gets word that the nightclub is temporarily closing for renovations and he'll need to find a paying job for the next couple of months in order to continue providing for his wife, Dolores (Linda Cardellini) and their young kids. So when a call goes out looking for a driver, Tony arrives for an interview above Carnegie Hall to meet a man referred to as "Doc." The doc in question is African American pianist, Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), who's looking for a driver and bodyguard for his eight-week concert tour through the Midwest and Deep South.

Hailing from what seem like entirely different worlds, the refined, cultured musician hires the tough talking Italian from the Bronx, with the record label supplying Tony with a copy of the Green Book, a guide specifically detailing all the motels, restaurants and gas stations that will serve African Americans. They clash almost immediately as the awkwardness of the foul-mouthed, bigoted Tony cheuffering a highly educated black man through the Deep South in the '60's is matched only by their wildly differing dispositions. But as the trip progresses, they start to find a common ground, as Tony is impressed by Don's talent as a musician while simultaneously being appalled at the treatment he receives by the racist white audiences he performs for.

If plenty of comparisons have already been made to a reverse Driving Miss Daisy in terms of both plot and tone, the road trip aspect of the story actually comes closer to recalling Planes, Trains and Automobiles, minus the two former means of transportation. There are many moments and extended sequences that tackle the racism Don faces at nearly every stop, but a lot of the picture frequently consists of scenes of them arguing and offending each another, like a bickering odd couple of sorts. It's here where the script does actually resemble a more traditional Farrelly project, even if no one would ever think to confuse it with a conventional comedy.

That those scenes co-exist alongside more unnerving ones involving racism in which Don is bailed out of potentially volatile situations by Tony have lead to complaints about this being the latest example of Hollywood's "white guilt," or perceived inability to tell stories about African American characters unless it's filtered through the heroics of some kind of white savior. But that doesn't seem fair in this case since this is one of those rare cinematic interpretations of "true events" (co-written by Tony Vallelonga's son Nick) that gets most of its facts right, to the point that it was even approved by the two protagonists before their recent passings. And despite recent complaints from Don Shirley's family that their relationship to him was misrepresented or accusations that Don's homosexuality is brushed under the rug, neither of those issues seem particularly relevant to the film or what it's about. Especially the former, which isn't even really addressed enough to warrant such a negative reaction.

Through Mahershala Ali's performance, we recognize that this a story as much about identity as race, with Don having earned the respect of white society as a musician of considerable talent, worthy of playing their parties if only so they can feel more cultured and refined. But the second that playing ends, it's clear he hasn't earned that respect from them as a human being because of the color of his skin. He can't eat at the restaurants where he performs or use their bathrooms, and he also feels like an outsider at the predominantly black "Green Book" motels at which he stays since his station in life differs so drastically from theirs.

Everything from Ali's posture, to how succinctly he speaks each word is not only meant to reflect an individual with impeccable class and intelligence, but someone repressed and hurt enough to use it as an armor to deflect the prejudice he encounters. Playing Don as outwardly cool and composed, Ali just barely lets us see through the cracks to the suffering, which makes it all the more difficult to watch. Tony has no identity crisis, as he's unapologetically himself in the most blunt, abrasive way possible, often to his own detriment.

Tony's bigotry comes mostly from ignorance, but even he has to draw the line when he sees how disrespected his boss is, accurately assessing that if Don is permitted to perform in these establishments, it's insane that he's forbidden to sit and eat there. Transforming himself by adding more than a few extra pounds and a Bronx accent, Mortensen's portrayal of Tony is definitely one of his more entertaining turns if only because we've never seen  the actor, who's known for darker, more intense roles, tackle anything so over-the-top before. He becomes the perfect foil for the more subdued Ali, who feels more like the film's true lead, regardless of how they were categorized during awards season.

That most were ready to tear this effort to shreds sight unseen doesn't mean it isn't still a fairly predictable, crowd-pleasing picture that recalls a simpler time in Hollywood when no one was afraid to rock anyone's boat when handling potentially delicate material. Farrelly doesn't take risks or push any buttons in delivering a satisfying, heartwarming story that confronts racism, sometimes powerfully. And while most of that power comes from the performances, the one thing that's been lost in the conversation is the film's actual quality, which will ultimately have the final say in determining how well or poorly Green Book will age. Even if the reaction it's garnered may build the best argument yet for the Best Picture Oscar as a snapshot of the year in which it was released. For better or worse.  

Sunday, March 17, 2019

Creed II

Director: Steven Caple Jr.
Starring: Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, Tessa Thompson, Dolph Lundgren, Florian "Big Nasty" Munteanu, Phylicia Rashad, Wood Harris, Andre Ward, Brigitte Nielsen, Milo Ventimiglia, Russell Hornsby
Running Time: 130 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★★ (out of ★★★★)
When Ryan Coogler's Creed was released in 2015, it was just the shot of adrenaline the ailing Rocky franchise needed, yielding results even better than anyone expected. Just the very idea to center the film around Apollo Creed's son and have him trained by his late father's friend and foe Rocky Balboa was inspired. Casting Michael B. Jordan as the lead opposite Sylvester Stallone was ingenious. It presented all these new, exciting possibilities, and more amazingly, followed through on them, erasing memories of the inferior sequels that brought shame and even occasional embarrassment to the series. More importantly, Creed didn't feel like a Rocky film, and yet in many ways when it mattered most, it did, reconnecting us to what we loved most about these movies and bringing a sense of renewed purpose to Stallone's role. His Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination, and the deflated looks of disappointment we saw in that room when he lost, stands as proof.

The justifiable acclaim only solidified the inevitability of sequels, and with that would always come the risk that the franchise could settle back into its predictable rhythm. So when Coogler bowed out of this to make a little movie with Jordan called Black Panther, it seemed our worst suspicions that the series would host a revolving door of directors lacking a distinct vision, were about to be confirmed. But with the foundation already laid, Steven Caple Jr.'s Creed II successfully picks up where we left off, and while it does follow a familar formula and lacks some of the previous film's freshness and energy, it's a worthy successor.

In again drawing heavily from the Rocky legacy (this time Rocky IV) to jumpstart a new story, it's at least one worth telling, featuring a villainous return fans of the franchise can legitimately claim they've waited decades for. Despite good reason for concern moving forward, this one works because the personal nature of the story and a continued emphasis on the relationship between the main characters that's been carried over from the first entry.

Three years after his loss to "Pretty" Ricky Conlan, Adonis Creed (Jordan) has amassed enough victories to earn a shot at the WBC World Heavyweight Championship, which he wins from Danny "Stuntman" Wheeler. On top of the boxing world and a major star, Adonis proposes to girlfriend Bianca Taylor (Tessa Thompson) who agrees to marry him while suggesting they move out to the West Coast  to start their new lives together. Hesitant to leave his hometown of Philadelphia, as well his trainer and mentor Rocky Balboa (Stallone), Adonis has a ferocious new challenger looking for a shot in Viktor Drago (Florian "Big Nasty" Munteanu).

Viktor's been trained and groomed from an early age as a fighting machine by his father, Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren), who killed Adonis' dad, Apollo Creed, in the ring over thirty years earlier before being defeated by Rocky in Moscow. Disgraced by his home country in the years since that humiliating defeat, Ivan hopes that through Viktor he can earn some measure of redemption, and even possibly some respect from well-off ex-wife Ludmilla (Brigitte Nielsen). But Adonis' reasons for taking the fight is what worries Rocky, Bianca and his stepmother and Apollo's widow, Mary Anne (Phylicia Rashad). With the self-imposed pressure of  avenging his father's death, Adonis enters the ring with one thing in mind: revenge. And Viktor smells blood. 

It's probably not a good sign for the protagonist that the "big fight" around which the entire axis of this installment revolves occurs within the first 45 minutes of the picture. The build-up to it is quite impressive as the screenplay makes a legitimate case that Adonis could get killed in the ring just as his father did, only this time at the hands of the younger Drago. It also helps that there's an over thirty year backstory to draw from that comes from one of the more beloved entries in the series. If not neccessarily a great film, Rocky IV is nothing if not memorably entertaining due to the presence of a larger-than-life, almost cartoonish adversary in Ivan Drago, so it makes perfect sense to try to recapture that magic for the first Creed sequel.

As a character, Drago's son, like many of the opponents in adversaries in both franchises is kind of a wet blanket, but at least he's given a purpose through his father's quest for redemption. And similarly to how we were treated to a really compelling "where are they now?" in last year's Karate Kid sequel series, it's great to see Lundgren return to the role that made him. Playing Drago as a bitter, pitiable man living through his adult son, he's still somehow reeeling from the loss dealt to him by Rocky all these years later, and that feels just about right.  But as well developed as the villainous side of the equation is, the movie's bread is still buttered with the internal struggle of Adonis reconciling his father's death and finding out who he is the hard way.

It's not a spoiler to reveal his title defense against Viktor is a disaster that breaks him mentally and physically, challenging not only his will to continue boxing, but the important relationships in his life as well. While his bond with Bianca (Thompson, great again) faces some serious obstacles accompanied by euphoric highs, it's his friendship with Rocky that's most tested. He doesn't want his protege fighting this guy for glaringly obvious reasons, but an added element is that he doesn't believe Adonis' head is in the right place. It'll be up to both of them to get it there. Ironically enough, the movie soars highest when entering familar fomulaic territory, leaning into the franchise tenants of training montages and personal redemption. One advanatge the Creed films undoubtedly have over what came before it is the realism and authenticity of the boxing scenes, which are electrifyingly staged and suprisingly suspenseful, especially considering both fight outcomes in this aren't exactly in doubt.

Against all better judgment, we're hooked, mainly because the dynamic Michael B. Jordan has taken us on a journey with this character, infusing Adonis with a determination, anger and sensitivity that matches, if not surpasses, anything we've previously seen in the Rocky films. When his body and spirit are seemingly shattered, it's Stallone's character who continues to be properly positioned opposite him, playing on all the strengths he brought as a lead, but in a more appropriate supporting role that reminds us how formidable a presence he can be on screen. While not exactly surprises, brief but impactful appearances by Nielsen and Milo Ventimiglia as Rocky's estranged son Robert are seamlessly incorporated, the latter benefitting from being a bigger star now than when he appeared in the forgettable slog that was 2006's Rocky Balboa.

Making his feature directorial debut, Steven Caple Jr. deserves credit for not only avoiding to screw up a good thing, but doing right by these characters and the series, which now seems poised for yet another outing. But any Creed sequel, while completely expected, was still far from a guarantee to work. While no real risks are taken and Caple plays it as safe as possible within the confines of a very predictable formula, that was undeniably the right route to take here. If we get another film that shakes out identically to these first two, then we can start talking about the possibility of audiences tiring of it and re-experiencing the fatigue associated with the Rocky series. Until then it's best to enjoy the ride since Creed II has very little worth complaining about, delivering more than enough to please both casual and diehard fans alike.       

Sunday, March 10, 2019

The Front Runner

Director: Jason Reitman
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Vera Farmiga, J.K. Simmons, Alfred Molina, Sara Paxton, Mamoudou Athie, Kaitlyn Dever, Toby Huss, Molly Ephraim, Steve Zissis, Spencer Garrett, Ari Graynor, Bill Burr, Mike Judge, Kevin Pollack, Mark O' Brien
Running Time: 113 min.
Rating: R

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

Does it matter? That's the question at the center of Jason Reitman's The Front Runner, which details Senator Gary Hart's unsuccessful 1988 Presidential bid. At one point not only a lock for the nod, but seemingly the White House, all of Hart's political ambitions came crashing down in the span of merely three weeks. Young, good-looking, charismatic and full of fresh ideas, his campaign was derailed because he had an ex-marital affair. But that wasn't the story. The real story was that it was the first time anyone bothered to care. The media. The public. His colleagues. For the previous 200 years, politicians got free passes in their private lives, which remained just that: private. Hart's timing was terrible, his ascent having arrived on the precipice of a major sea change in our culture that's carried over into today: when news became entertainment.

Hart felt the wrath when character and trustworthiness in our public figures suddenly became an issue and the press realized they could make bank exposing it. In other words, he really stepped in it and the way he reacted, or rather didn't, circles back to that question of whether a public figure's private business should really matter, and whether that matters when he's a politician seeking the highest office in the land. It's a question we're still wrestling with and one Reitman thoroughly examines here with surprising insight and objectivity.

After losing the 1984 Democratic Presidential nomination to Walter Mondale, idealistic, rejuvenated Colorado Senator Gary Hart (Hugh Jackman) returns four years later, entering the 1988 race, quickly becoming the front runner to earn the nomination that earlier alluded him. With wife Lee (Vera Farmiga) and daughter Andrea (Kaitlyn Dever) in his corner, Hart seems to be the ideal family values candidate, telling it like it is and promising to put the people and country first. There's only one problem: his marriage. Or more specifically, an affair he's having with a Florida-based model named Donna Shaw (Sara Paxton), whose best friend tips off Miami Herald reporter Tom Fiedler (Steve Zissis) about their secret excursions.

With Washington Post's A.J. Parker (Mamoudou Athie) also cornering Hart about his extracurricular activities in an interview, the senator becomes defensive as ever, lashing out at anyone daring to bring up his personal life. But he's in trouble, and despite loyal supporters like hard-nosed campaign manager (Bill Dixon) and scheduler Irene Kelly (Molly Ephraim) telling him otherwise, Hart stubbornly stays the course, even as the media has a field day exposing his transgressions. Unfortunately, the only course he's now headed on would seem to lead toward political infamy and embarassment rather than the White House.

Reitman's casting of Hugh Jackman as the embattled senator is meant to convey something that perhaps another actor in the role wouldn't. Despite what you may have seen or read about Hart or any of the paralells between him and Jackman as far as their likability, charisma, or ability to hold an audience, they're worlds apart. And if we're going strictly on appearance, they actually look nothing alike. The choice is clearly meant to idealize both Hart himself and his campaign, but it works. It's as if the producers asked themselves which actor would make the senator look ten times better than he actually was, which isn't to say he wasn't a strong candidate in reality. But in Jackman's shoes, he manages to seem even better and more trustworthy. How could you not vote for this guy? And that makes his eventual collapse all the more disappointing and symbolic.

While we expect Jackman would excel at playing a baby-kissing, family-oriented man of the people, what he best captures is Hart's hubris. His complete disbelief that anyone would want to talk about  his personal life instead of the issues or the country. He's also personally offended, demanding that what he does on his own time is off limits without exception. In one sense, his idealism is commendable, but it's also becoming increasingly unrealistic, shading him as an entitled egomaniac. It's the push and pull between the two sides of this man's character, or sometimes lack thereof, that make for such a compelling implosion.  His failure to grasp that nothing is off limits anymore and how that leads to his undoing is what makes the picture engaging, despite an opening half hour that lures us into thinking we're watching a dry political docudrama.

One of the best scenes occur between Jackman and J.K. Simmons' as Hart's campaign manager, who attempts to convince him that, morals and fairness aside, the coverage of the scandal is quickly eating away at everything he and his staffers have been working for. Of course, it falls on deaf ears as Hart continually refuses to acknowledge its existence and plows forward, rewriting his speeches while dismissing the allegations so flippantly that it gives a whole new inflexible meaning to the phrase "staying on topic."

There's never a moment of self-reflection, even when being followed and ambushed outside his D.C. residence, camera in his face while questions are being fired. Yet as unlikable as he is and how little remorse he seems to show, Hart still makes a valid point that if we used this criteria to judge our leaders we wouldn't have had a Martin Luther King or John F. Kennedy, both of whom were serial womanizers in an era where their indiscretions were protected. Why should he be treated any differently? The answer's simple: he's entered a different era.

If Hart has a rough time adjusting to this paradigm shift, the media has just as difficult a time figuring out how to handle it. And it's here where some of the accusations that Reitman didn't dig deep enough or just grazed the surface of the story's implications don't hold water. He takes us inside these newsrooms showing how they struggle and debate the merits of covering this, and how. Some, like Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee (Alfred Molina), are all in, while trepidatious Post reporter A.J. Parker's guilt at exposing Hart is pitted against his equally strong moral sense of responsibility as a journalist.

In a cast loaded with valuable utility players, few make as strong an impression as Molly Ephraim as the fictional Irene Kelly, a political handler who now must handle the "other woman" in the scandal, Donna Shaw. In doing this, she realizes that aside from the young woman's naivete and poor judgment, she'll be a casualty. The senator will suffer the political fallout but the scandal will follow her wherever she goes after she's dragged through the mud by the media and Hart's team. She's not as strong as Vera Farmiga's more hardened Lee Hart,  putting on a tough public face to shield herself and daughter Andrea from the humiliation her husband's actions caused, only confirming what she suspected of him all along.

At its core, The Front Runner is a process picture, and while it won't anytime soon be confused with the likes of All The President's Men or Zodiac as far as how deep or skillfully it takes us into the newsroom, it makes for an effective snapshot of a little discussed turning point for American politics and in our culture. The true events dramatized in the former film heavily played into what would eventually take down Gary Hart. Post-Watergate, everyone in the press wanted to be crusaders, and found their perfect vehicle with this candidate, who didn't exactly do himself any favors with his actions, regardless of how much luckier his predecessors may have been. It's one thing to apologize, but it's another entirely to apologize for getting caught.

Monday, March 4, 2019

A Star is Born (2018)

Director: Bradley Cooper
Starring: Bradley Cooper, Lady Gaga, Sam Elliott, Dave Chappelle, Andrew Dice Clay, Anthony Ramos, Rafi Gavron, Greg Grunberg,
Running Time: 135 min.
Rating: R

★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

Bradley Cooper's A Star is Born is a tale of two movies. The first revolves around a drunk, self-destructive country rock star drowning in his troubled past who finds renewed creative purpose in discovering a new talent. It follows a trajectory not unlike 2009's Crazy Heart, with its lead actor channeling Kris Kristofferson in 1976's A Star is Born. The second is about a waitress and struggling part-time bar singer who suddenly gets her big break and falls in love with famous musician. For a little while, both two stories are beautifully told in lockstep, until they sharply diverge, splitting your allegiance and maddingly asking you to sympathize with a character who hasn't done anything to earn it. Worse yet, it's the wrong one. It's all downhill from there, taking us down a depressing path toward an inevitably doomed conclusion that's more frustrating than tragic.

In adapting material that's been previously brought to the screen multiple times with mixed results, Cooper makes a directorial debut that's unarguably impressive despite certain narrative weaknesses. He isn't blameless, but his direction, and especially his performance, are the least of the film's troubles. It starts strongly before grinding to a halt midway through and becoming the Lady Gaga Show. This isn't a knock on her so much as the character she's asked to play, who will test the patience of anyone who was even slightly on the fence about her casting. Musically, she's an inspired choice, but everything surrounding her just seems off the entire time, especially regarding the relationship at the heart of the film. By the time we get to an ending that doesn't work (and didn't the previous three times this has been made), I was confused as to what exactly I was supposed to think or feel. Alcoholism and drug addiction are diseases, but selling out isn't, as much as you may be tempted to rethink that after watching the "star" of the movie's title.

Famous country singer Jackson Maine (Cooper) prepares for each show by downing a mixture of booze and pills, and is only kept in check by his older half-brother and manager, Bobby (Sam Elliott). After a concert gig in California, Jack stumbles into a drag bar where he sees waitress and songwriter Ally (Gaga) perform. Instantly smitten and entranced by her performance, they're introduced and end up spending the night talking, as she confides in him her aspirations for a music career.

Inviting Ally to one of his concerts, Jack urges her to join him on stage to perform a song she's written, and after some initial hesitation, she agrees. With her career now off and running, they enter a romantic relationship together, but as her star rises with a new record deal and an overhauled image, Jack's continues to decline, Wrestling with addictions as he continues his longstanding feud with brother Bobby, a rift also develops in his relationship with Ally. The writing's on the wall: Jack needs to clean up his act, or risk losing everything.

The most rewarding scenes come early when we're still in the discovery stages of the story, both for the characters and audience. Of course, at the center of it is Ally and Jack's performance of the now ubiquitous Oscar-winning pop-power ballad, "Shallow," which is not only a huge, hooky powerhouse single that Gaga and Cooper sing the hell out of, but a more insightful distillation of the story's themes than so much of what follows. Everything from the opening credits leading into that moment when he calls her up to that stage are somewhat magical, and even if there are times when you doubt Jack would take this kind of interest in a drag club singer, Cooper puts it to rest with the sincerity of his performance.

Adopting a gravely voice and perpetually looking as if he awakened from a 10-hour nap, he's a more believable in this role than you'd expect and it's not a coincidence that the first half of the picture, focusing primarily on Jack, is the stronger one. Similarly, Gaga's best scenes as Ally (both onstage and off) come directly opposite Cooper, so it's a good thing nearly all of them are. It's only when Ally's made it that the story loses steam, devolving into a long-running therapy session that actually becomes a real challenge to sit through at times. Some of it stems from the fact that once this unknown waitress is plucked out of obscurity and discovered by Jack, there's no where for her to go but up while he continues his steady decline. And it's here where Gaga's casting, or really the casting of any famous singer, starts to present some problems.

Initially, we shared in Jack's sense of discovery of Ally because we've just never experienced Lady Gaga in such a grounded context before. It's kind of an odd observation, but because of the nature of her persona, she can becomes almost unrecognizable or invisible doing "regular" things like arguing with her dad (really well played by Andrew Dice Clay), being late for work, telling jokes, hanging out in parking lots or getting starstruck. She's great at all of this, but when the moment Ally signs that record deal with this obviously sleazy producer (Rafi Gavron), all bets are off. While you're never quite sure what exactly the movie wants you to think about that decision, it does seem to push Jack as a jealous drunk to be pitied for his out-of-control behavior. It's true, but Ally comes off as such a sellout and "her" music so spectacularly disposable, I'm not sure anyone could blame him.

These developments force Gaga to "play down" as Ally, who may as well now be Britney Spears if not the fact that it's unlikely she'd even deserve a residency in Vegas. And because Ally's transformation falls so squarely in the pop realm, we're jarringly reminded that a pop star is playing her. And of the one thing each incarnation of A Star Is Born has failed to do: Cast or make a rising star. It may seem insignificant, but it's maybe one of two elements that could have really helped since it appears Cooper insists on taking this story in a familiar direction...again.  

At one point a drunk Jack confronts Ally about her choices and we're clearly supposed to resent him and take her side for asserting independence in a male-driven industry. I think. But what should come off as the rantings of an alcoholic madman seem like sane, reasonable concerns directed at a record label puppet oblivious to the fact that she's popular and famous enough to entertain other options or even create some of her own. Sure, it's entirely possible Cooper's more self-aware than we think and there's some kind of meta sub-text going on in the screenplay regarding the pitfalls of fame, but none of it makes the screen. That's not to say there aren't positives to be found in these problematic second and third acts, even if most of them come from Matthew Libatique's cinematography and Cooper and Elliott's performances, which map out a complicated sibling rivalry gripping enough to carry its own film.

That the last twenty minutes feels like a depressingly cruel joke wouldn't be such a problem if the script had something more to say. There's also a scene at the Grammy Awards that's supposed to be dramatic but goes too over-the-top to be taken seriously, instead invoking uncomfortable laughs. While we should at least be grateful Cooper is smart enough not to go anywhere near the ludicrous event that closed the '76 version, it's maybe sadder that this incarnation started as something so much better than its predecessors. Maybe that's the point. Maybe we're supposed to be frustrated at these characters for wrecking each others lives, both of which were filled with so much promise. Unfortunately, the same could also be said for the film in which they appear. This take on A Star is Born does manages to put a fresh spin on a very familiar tale, but not without proving there are many different ways to make the same mistakes.

Monday, February 25, 2019

Burning Questions from the 2019 Oscars

Is it strange that after watching Bohemian Rhapsody, a "real" Queen performance felt somewhat disappointing?

Can it be a "real" Queen performance with a certain member missing?

Doesn't Adam Lambert have some big shoes to fill?

Was it intentional that the stage look like Donald Trump's hair?

After the first montage, were you worried that that's how they'd fill time without a host?

Were you relieved when Tina Fey, Amy Poehler and Maya Rudolph came out?

Did everyone breath a sigh of Oscar pool relief when Regina King won?

Does it make you (me) feel old that Regina King is now playing a grandmother?

Now that she has an Oscar, do you think she even cares?

Already keeping the censors busy on the second award?

Tom Morello introducing Vice?

Were you thinking Black Panther upsetting in Costume Design an omen for things to come?

Did that feeling double when it won production design?

Surprisingly, are you starting to feel the absence of a host?

But isn't the show moving along for a change?

Isn't that RBG song kind of awful?

Aren't all of Diane Warren's nominated songs?

Serena Williams?

Can we to assume the Academy didn't see last year's U.S. Open Final before inviting her?

Aren't you glad we weren't lectured again on the differences between Sound Editing and Sound Mixing?

8 awards given within the first hour?

This has to be some kind of record, right?

Aren't you just waiting for the show to suddenly come to a screeching halt and drag so it can end after midnight?

Should we start considering now whether Roma winning for Best Foreign Language Film helps or hurt its Best Picture chances?

Does Michael Keaton presenting remind me how he should have won for both Birdman and at least been nominated for The Founder?

Why did I let anyone talk me into to picking Vice for Editing?

How awesome was it that Laura Dern came out to the Jurassic Park theme?

Other than Bohemian Rhapsody, is Spider-Verse the 2018 film that most exceeded expectations?

Isn't that Buster Scruggs song, um, different?

Is it some kind of cruel joke that my power went out before Brie Larson presented?

Is it another cruel joke that Sam Jackson had to present the Original Screenplay Oscar to Green Book?

Didn't he look thrilled when it won?

Is Spike Lee ever going to win an Oscar?

Did they turn that f****ing clock on?

So, was that Gaga/Cooper performance any good?

Was it yet another cruel joke that my power came back in time for the In Memoriam montage?

I didn't miss Mike Myers and Dana Carvey...did I?

Was that the most subdued In Memoriam segment they've ever had?

Isn't that how it should be?

Did you see everyone fly out of their seats when Rami Malek name was read?

Do they like that guy or what?

Doesn't this feel like as much a win for Freddie Mercury as it does for Malek?

Isn't that proof that the right person won?

Think USA is kicking themselves for not ordering more seasons of Mr. Robot right about now?

Shouldn't Rami be glad they didn't?

Olivia Colman???!!!

Would anyone begrudge Glenn Close for being completely devastated?

Was she half out of her seat, paper in hand?

Do I look like a fool now for saying Close had her Career Achievement Oscar all locked up?

Doesn't everyone?

Did this just single-handedly ruin everyone's chances for a sweep in the Oscar Pool?

Honestly, wasn't it ruined way before that?

Best Director, already?

ABC has to be pleased with this abbreviated show, right?

Are you thinking "We'll see when the ratings come in?"

Didn't it just feel like there would be a Best Picture upset before the winner was even read?

Green Book??!!!

Why does it suddenly seem like we've taken a time machine back to 1989?

Do you think Spike Lee threw a tantrum?

If anyone's throwing a fit, shouldn't it be Glenn Close?

Have I ever done this poorly on my predictions?

Does this mean we're in for our annual conversation about overhauling the Academy...again?

Was the show really that short or did it just seem that way because I lost power halfway through?

Does this mean we'll actually get some sleep?

Can this host come back next year?

Saturday, February 23, 2019

2019 Oscar Predictions

The more things change, the more they stay the same. All the new ideas the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences attempted to introduce to make the Oscars more accessible have only landed us right back where we started. While part of that failure can be attributed to their inability to commit to anything, it's mostly due to many of those ideas (a "popular film" category, relegating important awards to commercial breaks) being bad ones that center around their obsession with shortening the show and increasing ratings. It's especially odd hearing so much about ratings when they've never mattered less and it's annually one of the highest-rated telecasts of the year behind the Super Bowl. But here we go again.

Unfortunately, all their panicking and poor planning has resulted in a situation where we won't have an Oscar host for the first time since 1989. And you know what? That's okay. They should get out of their own heads and just put on the show because this should be about celebrating movies and nothing else. Luckily for them, 2018 was a really strong year and the Oscar lineup features a handful of films that were hugely popular mixed in with some of the more obscure arthouse favorites they complain are dragging the ratings down. We're also guaranteed to get some lively musical performances, if nothing else. So let the show run long or don't. Just make it good.

Such a wildly diverse group of nominees has made this one of the more difficult years to predict, which is always more fun. With only the acting categories locked into place, it's tough to remember so many others that were this close, or in some cases, completely up for grabs. And once again,, the Best Picture category continues to shed it's reputation as the easiest to call by looking to be the tighest race of the night. They'll be legitimate suspense when that envelope is opened, and this time not just out of concern that the wrong winner will be announced.  Below are my predictions, along with some analysis of the major categories. As usual, I'm reserving the right to make any updates or changes right up until the start of the show. 

*Predicted Winners

Animated Feature Film:
Incredibles 2
Isle of Dogs
Ralph Breaks the Internet

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

Animated Short Film:
Animal Behaviour
Late Afternoon
One Small Step

Documentary Feature:
Free Solo
Hale County This Morning, This Evening
Minding the Gap
Of Fathers and Sons

Documentary Short Subject:
Black Sheep
End Game
A Night at the Garden
Period. End of Sentence.

Live Action Short Film:

Foreign Language Film:
Capernaum (Lebanon)
Cold War (Poland)
Never Look Away (Germany)
Roma (Mexico)
Shoplifters (Japan)

Film Editing:
BlackkKlansman (Bary Alexander Brown)
Bohemian Rhapsody (John Ottman)
The Favourite (Yorgos Mavropsaridis)
Green Book (Patrick J. Don Vito)
Vice (Hank Corwin)

Sound Editing:
Black Panther (Benjamin A Burtt and Steve Boeddeker)
Bohemian Rhapsody (John Warhurst and Nia Hartstone)
First Man (Ai-Ling Lee and Mildred Iatrou Morgan)
A Quiet Place (Ethan Van der Ryn and Erik Aadahi)
Roma (Sergio Diaz and Skip Lievsay)

Sound Mixing:
Black Panther (Steve Boeddeker, Brandon Proctor and Peter Devlin)
Bohemian Rhapsody (Paul Massey, Tim Cavagin and John Casali)
First Man (Jon Taylor, Frank A. Montano, Ai-Ling Lee and Mary H. Ellis)
Roma (Skip Lievsay, Craig Henighan and José Antonio Garcia)
A Star Is Born (Tom Ozanich, Dean Zupancic,  Jason Ruder and Steve Morrow)

Production Design:
Black Panther (Hannah Beachler and Jay Hart)
The Favourite (Fiona Crombie and Alice Felton)
First Man (Nathan Crowly and Kathy Lucas)
Mary Poppins Returns (John Myhre and Gordon Sim)
Roma (Eugenio Caballero and Barbara Enriquez)

Costume Design:
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (Mary Zophres)
Black Panther (Ruth Carter)
The Favourite (Sandy Powell)
Mary Poppins Returns (Sandy Powell)
Mary Queen of Scots (Alexandra Byrne)

Original Score:
Black Panther (Ludwig Goransson)
BlackkKlansman (Terence Blanchard)
If Beale Street Could Talk (Nicholas Britell)
Isle of Dogs (Alexandre Desplat)
Mary Poppins Returns (Marc Shaiman)

Original Song:
"All the Stars," Black Panther
"I’ll Fight," RBG
"The Place Where Lost Things Go," Mary Poppins Returns
"Shallow," A Star is Born
"When a Cowboy Trades His Spurs for Wings," The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

Makeup and Hairstyling:
Border (Goran Lundstrom and Pamela Goldammer)
Mary Queen of Scots (Jenny Shircore,  Marc Pilcher and Jessica Brooks)
Vice (Greg Cannom, Kate Biscoe and Patricia DeHaney)

Visual Effects:
Avengers: Infinity War (Dan DeLeeuw, Kelly Port, Russell Earl and Dan Sudick)
Christopher Robin (Christopher Lawrence, Michael Eames, Theo Jones and Chris Corbould)
First Man (Paul Lambert, Ian Hunter, Tristan Myles and J.D. Schwalm)
Ready Player One (Roger Guyett, Grady Cofer, Matthew E. Butler and DAvid Shirk)
Solo: A Star Wars Story (Rob Bredow, Patrick Tubach, Neal Scanlan and Dominic Tuohy)

Cold War (Lukasz Zal)
The Favourite (Robbie Ryan)
Never Look Away (Caleb Deschanel)
Roma (Alfonso Cuaron)
A Star is Born (Matthew Libatique)

Adapted Screenplay:
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (Joel and Ethan Coen)
BlackkKlansman (Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, Kevin Wilmott and Spike Lee)
Can You Ever Forgive Me? (Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty)
If Beale Street Could Talk (Barry Jenkins)
A Star is Born (Eric Roth, Bradley Cooper, Will Fetters)

It's a two-way race between BlackkKlansman and Can You Ever Forgive Me? and since Spike Lee's not winning for Director and his film has little chance of taking home Best Picture, it has to be honored somewhere. There's no better place than here, where everyone finally gets their opportunity to give Spike a standing ovation when he gets to that podium to deliver what's sure to be a memorable speech. But no film has picked up as much awards steam recently as Can You Ever Forgive Me? It could easily pull an upset, and only be a slight one since the Academy would trip over themselves to honor a movie about a writer (albeit a disgraced one) in a writing category. The other three nominees are strong, but just taking up space, especially A Star is Born, which has seen its Oscar prospects alarmingly dip in every category but Original Song over the past two months.

Original Screenplay:
The Favourite (Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara)
First Reformed (Paul Schrader)
Green Book (Nick Vallelonga, Brian Currie and Peter Farrelly)
Roma (Alfonso Cuaron)
Vice (Adam McKay)

This is a tough one, as literally any one of these could win. Vice is too devisive and more respected for its editing and acting than McKay's screenplay. Roma is a beloved techincal achievement and will be recognized in those corresponding categories, a couple of which are more prestigious than this. While I'd jump out of my seat if Paul Schrader won a career award for his brilliant, completely deserving First Reformed script, it's not happening given how overlooked the film's been elsewhere. That leaves The Favourite and Green Book. You may as well toss a coin. I'll go with the former since it has to win something besides Costume Design and most agree that the writing is one of the stronger aspects of that film. Still, Green Book could easily take this as the alleged "controversies" surrounding the material hasn't hurt it's chances as much as some would like to believe.    

Actress in a Supporting Role:
Amy Adams, Vice
Marina De Tavira, Roma
Regina King, If Beale Street Could Talk
Emma Stone, The Favourite
Rachel Weisz, The Favourite

Stone or Weisz could probably take this in a lesser year, but in this one they'll cancel each other out for the same film. Here's where we should say that Marina De Tavira is lucky just to be there, but given the widespread support for Roma, there's more to it than that. In a category that loves upsets, she shouldn't be counted out. Neither should Amy Adams, at least not completely, as you'd figure after six (!) nominations the Academy is tired of overlooking her. But Lynne Cheney just isn't the role. Despite some doubt over her not landing certain key precursor awards, this is Regina King's year and the feeling that If Beale Street Could Talk has been underepresented here should only help her cause. 

Actor in a Supporting Role:
Mahershala Ali, Green Book
Adam Driver, BlackkKlansman
Sam Elliot, A Star is Born
Richard E. Grant, Can You Ever Forgive Me
Sam Rockwell, Vice

Remember when everyone thought Sam Elliot was a lock for A Star is Born? Better yet, remember when everyone thought A Star is Born was a lock for everything? That's defintely in the rearview mirror now as this becomes a showdown between frontrunner Mahershala Ali and Can You Ever Richard E. Grant, who's closed the gap considerably as he continues to be showered with praise for his work in Can You Ever Forgive Me? Even those who dislike the movie agreee he's the best thing in it.  Rockwell and Driver are deserving nominees, but the roles were really too small for them to ever emerge as serious threats in this category. Mahershala still has the momentum, even while the small chance exists there could be an upset. Very small.

Actress in a Leading Role:
Yalitza Aparicio, Roma
Glenn Close, The Wife
Olivia Colman, The Favourite
Lady Gaga, A Star is Born
Melissa McCarthy, Can You Ever Forgive Me?

In what's becoming an annual tradition in the two major acting categories, a Oscar statue is reserved for a Lifetime Achievement Award. This year it goes to Glenn Close for The Wife, a movie no one's seen, and the few who have, hated. The purpose of this award is really just to get everyone complaining about all the times they overlooked her for better performances. Sarcasm aside, I actually don't have a big problem with them doing this since it's tough to put up a strong argument that Close shouldn't be winning an Oscar at this point, despite the quality of the film she's being honored for.

A bigger concern might be that many don't feel Close's performance is even nomination-worthy, which I can't testify to since I also haven't seen it. Regardless, this is the lock of the evening, insuring everyone scores at least one right in their Oscar pool. The Golden Globe speech sealed it and it's been smooth sailing for her ever since. Just the nomination is a win for Roma's Yalitza Aparicio, Gaga was out of the running a while ago and as much respect and momentum as McCarthy's gained, it's just not enough. Olivia Colman may be Glenn's closest competition, but there's really no competition at all here. 

Actor in a Leading Role:
Christian Bale, Vice
Bradley Cooper, A Star is Born
Willem Dafoe, At Eternity’s Gate
Rami Malek, Bohemian Rhapsody
Viggo Mortensen, Green Book

Christian Bale gave up. He clearly didn't want to win, which is fine since he probably doesn't care and has one already anyway. Still, there is that nagging feeling he could have gone further as just over a month ago he was being talked about as a lock, with many believing his embodiment of Dick Cheney in Vice ranks among his greatest acting feats. As is the story for every category A Star is Born has been nominated in, former frontrunner Bradley Cooper has fallen by the wayside, all the goodwill he garnered for writing, directing, acting and producing his passion project having completely evaporated for reasons I'll never quite understand. You know it's a good year when Mortensen's your weakest nominee. If Willem Dafoe won for At Eternity's Gate ABC would terminate their multi-year contract to air the Academy Awards on the spot. As great a performance as Dafoe likely gives, hardly a soul on Earth has seen that movie and a strong case can be made that he's in the underdog spot that should be occupied by Ethan Hawke.

So against all odds and appearing in a film that had more behind the scenes mayhem than any recent Best Picture nominee in recent history, Rami Malek has emerged as the clear favorite to take this for his complete transformation into Freddie Mercury for Bohemian Rhapsody. And it's only started to become clear within the past few weeks with Malek working just as tirelessly at supporting the movie as he did in preparing for the role. Despite mixed reviews, its director being fired and even possibly going to jail, he's managed to completely shift the narrative to being all about Queen's music and his performance. Seemingly just a nice,  humble guy who's said and done all the right things, The Academy can't wait to give him that statue and hear the speech. It's the rare Oscar win everyone's on board with.

Spike Lee, BlackkKlansman
Pavel Pawlikowski, Cold War
Yorgos Lanthimos, The Favourite
Alfonso Cuaron, Roma
Adam McKay, Vice

In many ways, this might be the most uninteresting category of the night. For one, a lot of names are missing that would have made this at least seem more competitive than it is. Bradley Cooper's absence is yet another harsh reminder of how far his film's fortunes have fallen. What a disaster. Regardless of whether Roma wins Best Picture, it's safe to say Cuaron still has this race locked up. The director who should be his closest rival (Green Book's Peter Farrelly) wasn't even nominated, leaving us with Spike Lee, who I just can't see the Academy rewarding no matter how successful BlackkKlansman has been. There's too much history there, and none of it good. But if there's a spoiler, it's him rather than Lanthimos or McKay. It's simply a shock Pawlikowski made it in. This is Cuaron's to lose and he won't.     

Best Picture:
Black Panther
Bohemian Rhapsody
The Favourite
Green Book
A Star is Born

As a black-and-white, foreign language film distributed by Netflix that lacks an editing nomination, Roma has a lot of things working against it. That, and the fact it's sure to win in the foreign film category seems to make a Best Picture win an impossibility. And yet, it not only has a really good chance, but is still pretty much the favorite right now. Green Book more traditionally fits what the Academy tends to go for and it's locked up all the necessary precursor awards (included the coveted PGA) that under other circumstances would sew up the win. But with no directing nomination and the unpredictabilty of the preferential balloting system, it could be on shaky ground. Combine that with the fact that many within the industry and media have unfavorably compared it to Driving Miss Daisy in terms of its regressive attitude toward race relations and it could face even bigger challenges.

In the year of Black Panther and BlackkKlansman, picking Green Book could be an especially bad look for an Academy that finally appeared to move forward in terms of diversity. Speaking of those, neither have enough gas in the tank to go all the way, with the latter having only a slightly better shot. And no one's giving a movie about Dick Cheney the Best Picture Oscar, regardless of how skillfully made it is. They may have been able to hold their noses long enough to vote for it, but that's where it ends. Enough's already been said about A Star is Born's downward spiral while The Favourite seems to be more respected than loved.

With a groundswell of support for Bohemian Rhapsody peaking at just the right time, it shouldn't be underestimated, as Academy members don't seem to share any of the same reservations about the film that critics do. They absolutely love it, but it's in this category where the Bryan Singer controversy starts to really become too much since there's no way he's getting anywhere near that award. It all comes down to Roma vs. Green Book, and a lot of people will probably be kicking themselves on Monday morning over their prediction, whatever the result. I opted for Roma, which just feels like the winner and has the most momentum right now.      

Friday, February 22, 2019

Bohemian Rhapsody

Director: Bryan Singer
Starring: Rami Malek, Lucy Boynton, Gwilym Lee, Ben Hardy, Joe Mazzello, Allen Leech, Aiden Gillan, Tom Hollander, Mike Myers, Aaron McCusker
Running Time: 134 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

Some music artists simply transcend the band with which they were a part, to the point that you even have a tough time even recalling the other members' names, regardless of their enormous contributions. There may be no better example of this in all of rock than Freddie Mercury and Queen. We could talk all day about how Bryan Singer's Bohemian Rhapsody is really a story about the band and that Brian May, Roger Taylor and John Deacon spent years behind the scenes making sure that  would shine through on screen. But make no mistake about it. The film was always only going to be about one man: Freddie Mercury. Queen IS Freddie Mercury. Freddie Mercury IS Queen.

Despite taking great pains to specifically detail and show what each member brought to the table, even going so far as to imply he couldn't musically survive without them, Mercury's shadow will always engulf them. As it should. There's something to be said for giving the fans what they want. Freddie always did, and now he's at the center of a film that does just the same, helping to explain how audiences worldwide have embraced what's been categorized by critics as a by-the-numbers music biopic. And to an extent, that's true.

Controlling parents, egomaniacal genius, failed marriage, self-loathing, band break-up, sex, drugs, record label disputes. It checks all the boxes. Even Mercury's audacity and eccentricity both on and off stage are qualities we've come to recognize in our rock stars. But before Freddie they weren't, and what the film really excels at (and hasn't gotten enough credit for) is in reflecting that breakthrough. And the turmoil brewing inside of a man who just wanted to perform, while still struggling to figure out exactly who he is. The cultural timing also feels right because Queen might just be one of the few classic rock bands that could still be considered underappreciated. It's not a coincidence that among a dream lineup of legendary artists that played 1985's epic Live Aid benefit concert, it's their performance rather than The Who's, The Stones', Bowie's or U2's that's most remembered today. More accurately, it's Mercury's.

The film wisely opens by teasing that concert and closes by taking us there, recreating a watershed cultural moment with chill-inducing emotional and historical accuracy. While many thrills come in seeing Queen get their due, Rami Malek's performance deserves more credit than the actual picture, which is fittingly only following his lead. At first, you're not sure what to make of it, until he submerges himself deeper and deeper, to the point that it becomes frightening just how much of a disappearing act it is. There's no trace of the performer left, leaving us to contemplate what it could have been like to experience Freddie Mercury as a person and performer, along with all the complications and contradictions that entail, not to mention the theatricality.  He's such a fascinating figure that the film can afford to just simply do its job and call it a day. 

It's 1970 when college student and airport baggage handler Farrokh "Freddie" Bulsara (Malek) goes to a London pub to see the band, Smile. Upon learning their lead singer just quit, Freddie, who's been writing his own songs, offers himself up as a replacement to guitarist Brian May (Gwilym Lee) and drummer Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy). At the show, he also meets a young woman named Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton), whom he begins to date and eventually marries. After taking Freddie on as their lead singer and adding John Deacon (Joe Mazzello) as bass guitarist, the band is rechristened "Queen," with  Bulsara legally adopting the name "Freddie Mercury."

Touring across Britain and selling out smaller venues everywhere, the band soon attracts the attention of famed music manager John Reid (Aiden Gillan). With a record deal and a hit album, they tour the U.S. and only grow bigger from there. But Freddie keeps wanting more, as he internally comes to grips with his own sexuality and takes bad advice from manager and self-serving hanger-on Paul Prenter (Allen Leech). With Queen in shambles due to his selfishness, Freddie heads down a path of personal and professional ruin by the late 70's. But before he can vanquish his own demons, he'll need to make amends with his own past, as well as the only family he's ever known.

Feeling most like a standard musical biopic in its detailing of Queen's formative years as an act, criticism has swirled aroubd the fact that dates and chronology were altered to fit the needs of the narrative, condensing key events in Mercury and the band's timeline. It's kind of surprising it's become an issue when far less accomplished biopics are routinely guilty of the same offense, if you can call it that. This isn't a documentary and unless the changes were due to some unintentional oversight (unlikely given Queen's direct involvement), they should only be judged in context of whether it detracts from the story. In this case, it doesn't at all. That these alterations have caused an uproar is more of a testament to how the media enjoys tearing down biopics and showing off their knowledge that that's not "exactly" how it happened.

It's easy to see how a strict, inflexible adherence to every facet of Freddie Mercury's life could easily do more harm than good, stifling the momentum of the narrative and removing any shred of unpredictability. Plus, wouldn't those nitpicking about historical accuracy then only shift their complaints to how safely the movie played it by sticking straight to the facts, in the exact order they happened? And besides, doing that would deprive us of the the film's most memorable scene. 

The scene in question comes when Queen and their lawyer Jim "Miami" Beach (Tom Hollander) are unsuccessfully pitching the six-minute "Bohemian Rhapsody" as the first single for their forthcoming "A Night at the Opera" album to doubting EMI executive Ray Foster (an unrecognizably great Mike Myers). We'll never know whether the events in that room played out exactly as they're depicted, but it's the kind of scene you can easily imagine did given what we know about the 70's music scene and that song, then years away from being appreciated as the group's magnum opus.

So to hear how unmarketable and inaccessible the song is it is out of the mouth of the actor partially responsible for introducing it to a new generation in the 90's, not only makes for an unforgettable meta moment. More surreal than seeing the blistering reviews scroll down the screen are the preceding scenes of them recording the song, which comes as a flicker in Mercury's mind that he makes his bandmates harness. In fact, most of the film consists of them trying to keep up with his energy and creativity.

Malek's performance couldn't exactly be considered a slow burn since everything in this picture moves at such a rapid pace, but his full immersion into the role does kind of sneak up on you. Concealing his Indian heritage and sparring with his demanding father, Freddie escapes from himself through music. And with it, realizes who he truly wants to be, evolving from an introspective lanky kid uncomfortable in his own skin to a wild showman discovering his true outlet onstage. It's here where he feels most at home, and it's when that rock star persona overtakes his life that Malek's embodiment of Mercury kicks into high gear.

Taking over a role originally intended for Sacha Baron Cohen (who exited early due to creative differences), much as been made of the fake teeth, the mannerisms, gestures and voice Malek invokes to physically transform himself. And he does, baring more than just a mere passing resemblance to the late singer. But it's when Freddie flies off the rails with drugs and debauchery in the last third of the film that you realize how much further the actor's gone than just physically channeling him.

The celebrity of "Freddie Mercury" soon infests his inner circle, allowing him to let indulgence and excess get in the way of what matters most. His marriage may have been doomed from the start, but the difference here is that the relationship with Mary doesn't end so much as radically change, creating a fairly unusual situation, as the two remain friends while Freddie wrestles and eventually comes to terms with his sexuality. And, of course, the eventual AIDS diagnosis that the screenplay and Malek handle just right, avoiding disease of the week movie tropes. 

It's true that the other members of Queen are supporting players who probably don't register as strongly as they should. Of them, Gwilym Lee accomplishes the most as Brian May, but even that's stretching it, as this was never going to be about any one of them individually. Nor should it be. What it does convey well is what they collectively contributed and Freddie's ultimate legacy, perfectly encapsulated by Malek in the film's thrilling final 40 minutes, taking you as close as possible to their 1985 Live Aid performance without literally being there. It's frighteningly accurate.

A Queen movie was always going to be a tightrope walk. That we've somehow gotten a PG-13 version that not only feels uncompromised, but does justice to Mercury and the band's significance feels like a miracle given all the problems that befell this production. We're still not even sure who to credit for directing it. Far from perfect, events and timelines are altered, liberties taken and dates changed. On the surface, there doesn't even seem to be much too it. And yet, Bohemian Rhapsody is still so ridiculously entertaining because it deeply understands what Queen and Freddie Mercury left us and the only thing that really matters: the music.