Bohemian Rhapsody

Posted on November 1, 2018 at 5:30 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, suggestive material, drug content and language
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol and drugs
Violence/ Scariness: Medical issues, sad death
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: November 1, 2018

Copyright 20th Century Fox 2018
“Bohemian Rhapsody” is a just-good movie with a great performance based on the life of a once-to-a-planet musician of endless talent and magnetism and a four-octave range of unmatched clarity and suppleness. In other words, it is entertaining, if not illuminating. Indeed, it is strange that a movie about fictional rock and pop stars, the 2018 version of “A Star is Born” is more insightful about what it is like to perform at that level than this movie based on the life of Freddie Mercury, the brilliantly genre-bending front man of power rock band Queen.

Musician biopics have a huge advantage over movies telling the life stories of writers, visual artists, and other public figures. It is, of course, the music. Whether the movie is highly fictionalized with Cary Grant as Cole Porter or Mickey Rooney as Lorenz Hart, in films that pretended they were not gay, or more honest, like Oscar winners Sissy Spacek as Loretta Lynn and Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles, the highlight of the films will always be the music that made the real-life characters stars. “Bohemian Rhapsody” has Queen’s rousing masterpieces and Rami Malek channels Mercury superbly, especially in those performance scenes, with a breathtaking re-creation of Queen’s legendary Live Aid performance in the film’s climactic scene.

The biggest risk in a biographical movie about a musician, though, is avoiding “VH1 Behind the Music”-itis. Unfortunately, real life for future Rock and Roll Hall of Famers does tend to follow the same pattern, and that is why we see the same scenes over and over. The family wants them to get a respectable job and not waste time on music. The early struggles. The recording session where someone in the control room says, “Wait a second, these guys have something special! Let me call my friend in the music business to sign them up.” The Vorkapich montage of tour dates to increasingly enthusiastic crowds. Yay, success! Yay, EXCESS! The squabbles. The industry executive who does not want them to be innovative (in this case, a sly meta-joke as he is portrayed by an unrecognizable Mike Meyers, whose iconic head-banging to the film’s title song in “Wayne’s World” created another generation of fans). The breakups. The reconciliation. It’s very hard to tell that story again and make it specific enough to stand out.

And then there is the other risk. Either the surviving members of the band are not involved, so you risk authenticity, or they do participate, as Brian May and Roger Taylor did here, so we see their version, which may be spun, even sanitized.

Freddie Mercury was born Farrokh Bulsara, to a Parsi family from the Zoroastrian community of the Indian subcontinent. We first see him in the film working as an airport baggage handler, being called by the (inaccurate) racist epithet “Paki.” Farroukh, already calling himself Freddie, is a fan of a popular local rock group called Smile. When their lead singer quits, he does an impromptu demonstration of his stunningly melodic voice, explaining that his overbite is caused by an extra set of incisors, which he credits for his range. The film then trudges through the steps outlined above.

The dramatic scenes are soapy and predictable — betrayed by a manager, estrangement from the band, too many cats, too many parties, learning that you can’t escape yourself, some reconciliation. Lucy Boynton (continuing her connection to 80’s music from “Sing Street”) is lovely as the ever-loyal Mary, who was Freddie’s closest friend, even after their romantic relationship ended because he was gay. The other band members barely register as individuals; more time is given to Myers’ stunt casting as the record industry guy who tells them that the six-minute “Bohemian Rhapsody” will never be played by teenagers in a car (get it? that’s what happens in “Wayne’s World!”). The “this is how we wrote that song” sections are especially weak. The songs themselves, though, are as captivating as ever and Malek, who struggles a bit with the overbite prosthetic, recreates them with all they buoyancy and flamboyance Freddie would want.

Parents should know that this film has the expected sex, drugs, and rock and roll in a story of a real-life rock star, with strong language, sexual references and non-explicit situations, and wild partying, along with medical issues and a sad death.

Family discussion: Who understood Freddie best? Why was Live Aid so important to him?

If you like this, try: the documentary “The Story of Queen: Mercury Rising” and YouTube clips of the Live Aid performance

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A Star is Born

Posted on October 3, 2018 at 5:52 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language throughout, some sexuality/nudity and substance abuse
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol and drug abuse
Violence/ Scariness: Some fights, medical issues, suicide
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: October 5, 2018
Copyright 2018 Warner Brothers

There are movies like “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” that are periodically remade to reflect changing times. And then there is “A Star is Born,” with its fifth version in just under 90 years, where the difference is in the details of the characters and performances but the theme remains the same. Going back to 1932, with “What Price Hollywood,” and then the Janet Gaynor/Judy Garland/Barbra Streisand versions of this same name, it remains the story of a fading male performer with substance abuse problems who falls in love with a young, talented female, helps her become a star, and then realizes he is in her way.

It is perhaps surprising that this story still carries so much power to move us. It could be corny and dated. After all, stars these days go to rehab and then come out to tell their stories of redemption and healthy habits on the cover of People Magazine. The credit for this latest version’s compelling power goes to its director/co-writer/star, Bradley Cooper, who has told the story with verve, specificity, and conviction, and who wisely selected pop superstar Lady Gaga to play the part of the young singer. Life imitates art for the performer originally as famous for her transgressive videos and wild attire (who can forget the meat dress, now at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame museum?) as for her music. Reportedly, when Cooper met the artist originally known as Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta, he wiped the makeup off her face and told her that was how he wanted her to be seen in the film. Her character, Ally, would not be the highly burnished, defiantly confident, even brazen pop performer in grotesque haute couture, but the real girl underneath. That girl is a revelation. The emotions we see on her face as he tries to pull her onstage for the first time, and then her resolve as she steps out from the wings are achingly honest.

Writer/director/co-star Bradley Cooper shows as much evident pride and pleasure in showing her to us as his character, Jackson Maine, does in pulling Ally onstage to introduce her to the audience by making her sing, for the first time, her own songs. His careful attention to every detail is evident in every moment and he has a true musician’s sense of pace and timing. The songs are not just lovely; each of them is meaningful in revealing character and helps to tell the story. The two most recent “Star is Born” movies had their songs nominated for Oscars. One was a winner; the other should have been. This follows in that tradition and I hereby predict that “Shallow” will win this year’s Best Song and that Lady Gaga will be nominated as well.

Cooper’s script reflects the intensive textual analysis he learned in his studies at the Actors Studio and his direction reflects his deep understanding of the importance of creating a safe space for actors to take risks and be completely vulnerable on screen. His own performance is meticulously considered. We see his struggle, his pain, and his passion for music. But like his character, it is very much in service to Lady Gaga as Ally. Cooper says that the idea for the film came to him when he was backstage at a Metallica concert, where he could see the intimacy of the experience of the musicians working together on stage at the same time he saw the immensity of the crowd caught up in the experience. He creates that for us here, and one of the movie’s best images is the small, private smile we see when Jackson begins his signature song. For a moment, the agony of his world disappears and all that is left is the music and the connection it makes to the audience.

Ally gives him that feeling, too. Helping her pulls him out of himself, at least for a while. But his past and dark thoughts about his future are too much to bear.

Cooper also has some small but lovely tributes to the earlier versions of the story, to James Mason wiping off Judy Garland’s garish make-up and to the bathtub scene with Streisand and Kristofferson. But this is very much a stand-alone, a timeless story of love and loss, and a stunning debut from a director who arrives fully present, utterly committed, and astonishingly in control of a vision that is a work of art and completely heartfelt.

SPOILER ALERT: All of the other versions of this story end with a suicide that is portrayed as tragic but also noble, a sacrifice to make it possible for another person to succeed. I was very concerned going into this film that it would perpetuate this toxic romanticized notion. Cooper finds a way to mitigate that to some extent, but viewers should know that it remains a very troubling issue and is the reason I did not give the film a higher grade.

Parents should know that this film has very strong language, alcohol and drug abuse, some fighting, sexual references and situations, some nudity, and suicide.

Family discussion: Why didn’t Jackson tell Ally the truth about what was happening to him? What will Ally do next? How is this version of the story different from the previous films?

If you like this, try: the earlier versions of the story, with Frederic March and Janet Gaynor, Judy Garland and James Mason, and Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson

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Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again

Posted on July 19, 2018 at 5:40 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for some suggestive material
Profanity: Some mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and drunkenness
Violence/ Scariness: None
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: July 20, 2018
Date Released to DVD: October 22, 2018

Copyright 2018 Universal
Pretty music, pretty scenery, pretty people – here they go again, my my, and how can we resist them? Lesser songs, better singers, higher platform shoes, more romance, a horse, a goat, a boat, a romantic last-minute wedding interruption, returning cast members and a whole new group to play younger versions of the older characters.

Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again” finds the young woman with three fathers (Amanda Seyfried as Sophie) about to realize her mother’s dream of a luxury hotel on the idyllic island of Kalokairi (the Greek island of Skopelos in the original, in this one the Croatian island of Vis, which gave the production tax breaks).

It is bittersweet because her mother (Meryl Streep as Donna) has died. She and her step- and one of three possible biological fathers (Pierce Brosnan), conveniently an architect, miss her dearly. “It will get better,” she reassures him. “Yes, just not quite yet,” he answers. Working on the grand opening party makes her feel closer to her mother. But she also misses Sky (Dominic Cooper), who is getting training in hotel management and has been offered a dream job half a world away. She also wishes her other two fathers could be there for the opening, straight-laced British lawyer Harry (Colin Firth), who is negotiating a big merger in Japan, and Bill (Stellan Skarsgård), who is getting an award for being Sweden’s greatest person because this movie does not really care enough about minor details to Google an actual award or invent a plausible one. And why should it? This is a movie that asks us to believe Cher is Meryl Streep’s mother. And that someone could have a daughter in 1980 who would still be in her early 20’s.

While Sophie is planning “the most incredible party of all time,” the primary focus of the film is on filling in the dot, dot, dots of Donna’s origin story, from her college graduation in 1979 (the math does not really add up here, either), her friendship (and performances) with Tanya (Jessica Keenan Wynn as the deliciously acerbic younger version of the character played by Christine Baranski) and Rosie (Alexa Davies as the younger version of the tender-hearted character played by Julie Walter), and her encounters with Bill, Harry, and Sam (younger versions played by Josh Dylan, Hugh Skinner, and Jeremy Irvine).

Lily James (“Baby Driver,” “Cinderella”) plays the young Donna, wearing gold platform boots under her graduation gown as she strides to the podium to give the graduation speech, then tosses off the gown to reveal a wild mash-up of a costume that could only be found in an ABBA performance or perhaps on display at the Bad Taste Museum in the Hall of What Were They Thinking. Her friends join her on stage for a jubilant performance of “I Kissed a Teacher,” and then bid her farewell as she embarks on her adventure. In France, she meets a shy Englishman. It is Harry. In one of the movie’s highlights, they sing and dance to a rousing “Waterloo” in a restaurant. She next meets Bill, who gives her a ride on his boat

And then she meets Sam, who wins her heart and then breaks it. By then she is pregnant, and by then she knows that this island is where she wants to make her home.

There is more skill in the crystalline harmonies, rock star poses, screen saver vistas, and segues between time and space than in the storyline, which is both too sad and too silly. Pierce Brosnan still can’t sing. The script often sounds like it was badly translated from the original Swedish. But it’s a cool treat on a hot summer evening, and let’s face it — you couldn’t escape if you wanted to.

NOTE: Wynn is the latest in five generations of one of the most luminary of show business families, including actors Ed Wynn (“Mary Poppins”) and Kennan Wynn (“Dr. Strangelove”) and writer Tracy Kennan Wynn (“The Longest Yard”). And of course, be sure to stay through the end credits for a final musical number!

Parents should know that this film includes sexual references and non-explicit situations, questions of paternity, some sexual humor, childbirth scene, some mild language, and some alcohol.

Family discussion: How do you bolster your friends and family? What makes your soul shine? How do you make a complicated problem simple?

If you like this, try: the first “Mamma Mia” and “Walking on Sunshine” and read Susan Wloszczyna’s interview with Judy Craymer, who came up with the idea of turning ABBA’s songs into a play.

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Celebrate Mother’s Day with a Mamma Mia Sing-Along!!

Posted on May 9, 2018 at 3:10 pm

You know what moms love?  Well, breakfast in bed, of course, and hand-made cards and poems, but after that, they love “Mamma Mia!”  And there are free screenings all across the country this Sunday for Mother’s Day!

Copyright Universal 2018

In anticipation of its upcoming Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, Universal Pictures today announced that free sing-along screenings of the blockbuster musical comedy Mamma Mia! will be available on Mother’s Day, Sunday, May 13, at 25 theater locations across the U.S. and Canada. Each guest who requests a ticket the day of the screening—at a participating location—will be given one free admission to the 10:00 a.m. showing, up to theater capacity.

Free tickets will be available on a first-come, first-served basis and may only be picked up at the theater box office starting at 9:00 a.m. on Sunday, May 13. This offer is valid for the 10:00 a.m. showing of Mamma Mia! The Movie on May 13, at participating locations only.

For more information and a list of theaters offering the special screenings, please visit www.MammasDaySingAlong.com

And get ready for a prequel/sequel, coming July 20, 2018!

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Based on a play Musical

25 Great Musicals

Posted on April 9, 2018 at 9:08 am

I love movie musicals and I especially love the movie musicals of the studio era, with stars like Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Gene Kelly, Judy Garland, Rita Hayworth, Debbie Reynolds, and Bob Fosse.

 has put together a terrific list of 25 of the all-time best movie musicals, all highly recommended.  I’d also add: “Bells are Ringing,” “The Music Man,” “Kiss Me Kate,” “Let’s Make Love,” “The King and I,” and so many more.

Some of my favorites include:

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