The LEGO Batman Movie review: Lego just fixed the DC Superhero Universe

Let’s face it: The LEGO Movie was awesome. The Phil Lord and Chris Miller-directed animation took a beloved toy and turned it into a wonderful, colourful, surreal song-filled fantasia. Oh, and just when you thought it couldn’t get better, it had Batman in it. Voiced by Arrested Development‘s Will Arnett, channelling a little of Christian Bale’s gravelly gravitas, this Dark Knight ripped on the gloomy über-hero persona with real chutzpah.

So now Gotham’s finest gets his own LEGO movie. A spin-off film based around a best-selling toy tie-in might sound like one almighty corporate love-in, but thankfully The LEGO Batman Movie is nothing of the sort. Right from the very beginning, as Arnett’s voiceover muses on the passing studio logos (“Warner Bros? Why not Warner Brothers?”), it’s clear that this brick-based bundle of joy is taking the same way approach as its predecessor.

With Lord and Miller now fully embroiled in shooting Star Wars’ young Han Solo spin-off movie, in steps Chris McKay, the director best known for TV animation Robot Chicken (and its various Star Wars-themed incarnations). He’s also a more-than-able deputy for Lord and Miller, who employed him to oversee the animation, effects, and lighting on The LEGO Movie when they were directing 22 Jump Street.

For all the tangential connections to The LEGO Movie, this is very much a Batman flick. So don’t expect a cameo from Emmet, Benny the Spaceman or Princess Unikitty. Set in a LEGO-built Gotham, Arnett’s Caped Crusader follows the Batman mythology tightly. The alter-ego of billionaire Bruce Wayne, he’s the crime-fighting vigilante who oversees operations from his Batcave, with just his butler Alfred Pennyworth (voiced by Ralph Fiennes) for the company.

Sitting home alone, the superhero enjoys some pretty long Dark Knights of the soul, eating microwaved lobster Thermidor and watching Jerry Maguire in his home cinema. While he laughs at the “you complete me” scene, really, deep down, the Bat needs someone to love. Or even hate. The Joker (Zach Galifianakis) recognizes this, becoming most upset when Batman refuses to acknowledge that this deadly prankster is his greatest enemy.

With Commissioner Gordon’s daughter Barbara (Rosario Dawson) now in charge and saying Batman’s vigilante antics have not exactly lowered the crime rate in Gotham, the Caped Crusader becomes even more redundant when the Joker cooks up a sneaky plot, giving himself up for a spell in Arkham Asylum. His plan? To get himself beamed up to the Phantom Zone, that netherworld in space where Superman banished General Zod (a lovely in-joke sees newsreel footage of this provided by one Zack Snyder).

Meanwhile, with Batman moping around, he barely even notices the arrival of a young orphan named Dick Grayson (Michael Cera) in his life – at least until the script starts banging us all over the head with themes of family and togetherness. Even if that gets a little tedious, the avalanche of quick-fire gags keeps you going. Like the moment Batman turns up at Superman’s Fortress of Solitude, and everyone from the Justice League is partying there without him.

While the film riffs on the Batman v Superman rivalry, what is heartening is that McKay and his writers don’t embrace just the Snyder or even Nolan versions of the Dark Knight. One brilliant sequence, so rapid it’ll be worth buying the DVD to watch it again, illustrates every Batman all the way back to the campy Adam West days (that TV show’s hoary old technique of using cartoon words like “pow” on a screen to accompany fight sequences also gets a look-in).

While the film doesn’t have a keynote song that comes anywhere near The LEGO Movie‘s infernally catchy ‘Everything Is Awesome’, it does use music well – notably every time Bruce Wayne/Batman sees Barbara, a burst of Cutting Crew’s ’80s classic ‘(I Just) Died In Your Arms’ crashes onto the soundtrack. Much like The LEGO Movie, there’s plenty of nostalgia for big kids to wallow in – although the final act does rather get swamped in retro-appeal as villains far beyond the D.C. universe are unleashed.

If there’s a disappointment, it’s that the LEGO aspect of the film is rather sidelined. Yes, everything is still made of that beautifully tactile plastic but there are precious few building sequences. Why have one of the greatest toys and not play with it? Rather, it seems McKay and co. are more interested in mocking the superhero genre, from ribbing Suicide Squad, and the ridiculous idea of getting criminals to fight other criminals, to taking super-villains (Condiments Man, anyone?) to the lunatic extreme.

While The LEGO Batman Movie does get bogged down in too much plot, there’s no question it’s a refreshing kick up the Bat-side for a character who has, perhaps, been overused in cinema of late. But the really tricky outcome for Warners, the studio behind this and the live-action Batman films, is that this version is a lot more appealing than spending time in Snyder’s current, dour take on the DC universe.

Maybe there’s still time to retro-animate his upcoming Justice League movie with LEGO bricks.


The Equalizer

I’ll bite: I wasn’t one of the throngs of people clamoring to see a sequel to Denzel Washington’s slow-burn 2014 thriller retooling of the classic 80’s show, The Equalizer. Sure, it was a worthwhile film for those who admire Washington’s getting-his-hands-dirty vigilante justice routine, but it never spoke to me as much more than a run-of-the-mill Taken variant in which an aging movie star puts to use his considerable screen presence to dole out violent brutality to a clutch of deserving douchebags. Well, switch of the safeties lads, because Denzel once again takes to the mean streets of American society as he takes on not just a gaggle of injustices he witnesses, but the vengeance upon those who killed his friend and former work colleague. Where the first Equalizer felt torn from the pavement of Boston, the sequel spreads it wings internationally and sprinkles Eurotrash flavor and covert subterfuge within its laconic style, although the bruising violence and strong-arm take-downs inflicted by the leading man feel heftier and more superheroic than reality might provide.

Robert McCall (Washington) lives in upstate Massachusetts, in an urban apartment complex where he works as a Lyft driver taking people too and from appointments in his spare time. Through this interaction with the public, McCall uses his CIA training to deal out justice to those he sees as doing the wrong thing – everyone from kidnapped children, an elderly war survivor looking for a picture of his long-lost sister, to an abused call-girl and even a young black kid (Ashton Sanders) skimming the periphery of neighborhood crime gangs, McCall puts the wrong to right with his stoic sense of duty and pride. When McCall’s friend and former agency colleague, Susan Plummer (Melissa Leo) is killed in Brussels, McCall works with his former partner Dave York (Pedro Pascal) to solve the case, a case which has become far more personal than any preceding it.

The Equalizer 2 feels like Denzel is in cruise control. This isn’t a film with a rough edge, like the first film, this is a far cleaner enterprise both in execution and overall tone. Antoine Fuqua’s directorial choices over the journey have ranged from generally acceptable (Training Day, Southpaw) to mediocre (King Arthur, The Magnificent Seven) to at least one excellent (Olympus Has Fallen) and EQ2 (as it’s colloquially referred) sits comfortably in the entertaining-but-never-memorable category of his output. Fuqua’s success in teaming up with Washington has led us a merry dance of frustrating ambivalence over the journey (I was one of the few who wasn’t entranced with Washington’s Oscar win for Training Day) and this film isn’t going to show up on too many highlight reels, let’s say that. It’s a film of inestimable blandness, a film in which the outcome is foregone before the opening credits unspool and for whom this reviewer felt sagged considerably during its many, many moments of introspective gloom. A film such as The Equalizer 2 should click, feel tense, offer punctuated action and a sense of tension building to a climax worthy of Denzel’s caliber of ability, but alas, it’s a meek, mild, tension-free affair replete with a wasted Melissa Leo, a more wasted Bill Pullman, and another eye-squelching turn from Game Of Thrones‘ alum Pedro Pascal.

Richard Wenk’s screenplay offers plenty of opportunity for Washington’s McCall to really dig into his personal backstory, certainly more so than the first film did, and to a degree the hints and glimpses of the character’s storied past work to build a jigsaw puzzle of an enigma of a riddle of a man, which keeps the mental juices flowing even as Denzel punches, shoots, kicks and blusters his way through a series of inevitably violent and bloody action sequences that rapidly deflate through inexplicably incoherent editing and that juddery, quick-cut camerawork that frustrates more than it excites. The film’s opening scene, in which Denzel rescues a kidnapped girl aboard a train to Istanbul (why Istanbul? It could happen anywhere, and it matters not a jot to the overall story…) sets the stage with style and a panache that only the great man can deliver, but once stateside the story fumbles with confused motives and ineptly twisty plot developments that, when you’re not rolling your eyes, will make you roll your eyes.

To be frank, the fun of Equalizer 2 isn’t the plot or even the characters so much as it’s just cool seeing Denzel take down a bunch of assholes who you know deserve to be taken down. And yet, Denzel’s stoic persona in the role suits the actor’s borderline disinterested affectation; one might replace Washington with a plank of pine and have just as much emotional content to contend with. Brief elements of angsty weight wash ashore in this beachhead of bruising batterings, such as McCall’s relationship with young wannabe hoodlum Miles (an outclassed Ashton Sanders, who tries his best but is horribly out of his depth against a far better actor in Denzel) are enjoyable but they feel second-hand contrasted against the bigger picture the film is trying to sell us on. When Washington’s pious moralizing tries to blend with his hammer-handed approach to street justice it’s like oil and water coming together: the result isn’t pretty. Melissa Leo’s reprisal of her role as Susan, a friend of McCall’s from the agency days, is relatively short-lived and lacks the import the script demands, Bill Pullman’s paycheck work as Susan’s bereaved husband isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on, and the smattering of other supporting characters, such as Orson Bean as an elderly Holocaust survivor, Sakina Jaffrey as a community garden tender, and Adam Karst as a Turkish father who kidnaps his own daughter in retaliation against his ex-wife, provide ballast to the relatively thin weightiness afforded to McCall’s monolithic status in the story.

Nobody in the film is totally terrible, nor is the film totally unwatchable. It’s just a film that’s… there, content to exist offering little by way of self-reflection or social examination, a run-of-the-mill actioner that’s perceptibly light on actual action and deftly brief when the action does take place, and lacking a real edginess the first film seemed to contain in spades. There’s no sense of interest in front of the camera: you know you’re spent before earnings when even Denzel appears to just be phoning it in. Fuqua’s action sequences do offer mild entertainment, although they’re far too higgledy-piggledy and slap-dash to really maintain enthusiasm. The hand-to-hand combat elements are too quick, the film’s only car attack sequence is too concertinaed between context and tension, and the wind-soaked Massachusetts storm finale, reminiscent of a Tom Clancy novel, is well mounted from a production standpoint but ultimately duller than soap.

Despite offering more of Denzel being badass (which I’m happy to admit I’ll always seek out and hope for the best) The Equalizer 2 is a routine, humdrum action flick that lacks urgency or a sense of genuine agency. The stakes matter little, the characters (McCall aside) are predictably generic, and Fuqua’s direction feels too much like Terence Malick stepped in to helm the quieter moments. Washington elevates the preposterous material far more than it deserves (one suspects the script is a reworked story from a completely different film altogether, re-purposed to fit this franchise’s aesthetic, although I cannot prove it) and if nothing else the way he double-totes the guns and fists throughout is screen-cool as usual. Sadly, however, The Equalizer 2 barely registers among the swag of like-minded films out there, and I can’t say you’ll remember it once it’s finished.

The Other Side of The Wind

The cinema landscape lost a titan the day Orson Welles passed in 1985. With him, multiple projects in development at the time, including the almost entirely shot but unfinished The Other Side of The Wind. The project stagnated in the years after Welles’ death, with fitful efforts to posthumously release it climaxing in a problematic legal quagmire that eventually shut the whole thing down. Now, nearly 50 years after cameras started rolling on the film, Netflix has pushed their considerable resources towards bringing it to fruition. Utilizing Welles’ own notes and scripts, and the hundreds of hours of footage buried in legal vaults, the studio have released the final posthumous film of the great director, a visionary craftsman, and storyteller who may or may not have one last great surprise for us all.

I wouldn’t call The Other Side Of The Wind a trainwreck, but the end result of what would have to be millions of dollars spent completing it will be wasted on the vast, vast majority of people who try and watch it. Centered around a film screening party for a famous Hollywood director (John Huston), the evening dissolves into a smattering of insults and half-manifested ego jolts, as various acolytes, reporters and actors congregate to witness the supposed “rebirth” of JJ Hannaford’s waning career. Interspersed within the film proper is the screening of a film-within-a-film, in which a variously clad and nude woman (Oja Kodar) seduces a similarly clad or nude man (Bob Random) and cavort in various studio backdrop locations; it’s this film that Hannaford is expecting to resurrect his career.

I lied. The Other Side Of The Wind is a trainwreck. A discombobulating, frustratingly esoteric affair without a shred of redemptive narrative urgency, Welles’ unfinished film should have remained exactly that: unfinished. A terrific cast is absolutely wasted in this documentary-style ramble, a treatise in timewasting and an exercise in tedium writ large on the small screen of Netflix. The film’s reputed autobiographical tones seem fixated on Huston’s aging Hollywood stalwart at the expense of just about everything else, although the sidebar effort of Oja Kodar’s near continued state of undress throughout is purposefully “erotic nonsense” that feels more like exploitation than something Welles’ might concoct. It’s hard to sit this film together alongside the likes of Citizen KaneThe Lady From Shanghai or A Touch of Evil, what with its discotheque of visual kineticism and frantic editorial dictates. The story – such as it is – is confusing and hard to follow, the characters bewildering in motivation, and the film’s gamut of aspect ratio shifts, alternating color palette, as well as Michael Legrand’s jazzy soundtrack, form a thesis of amateurish film-school repertory theatre transformed into a visual medium, and not a good one at that.

The concept of the film itself isn’t particularly well defined, the jiggly documentary cameras following Hannaford and his moving roadshow wherever they venture, from private screening room to the highways of California to the swanky mansion Hannaford resides at, and this fly-on-the-wall style might feel more potent if the editing wasn’t so jarringly frantic. Guys, hold a shot for more than three or four seconds, okay? The lack of visual context makes it hard to really concentrate on what’s being said, who’s saying it, and what the hell it all means, with Huston and co-star Peter Bogdanovich’s mellifluous narratives and monologues trying (from what I can tell) to crystallize the nature of Old Hollywood’s sudden slide into New Hollywood’s laissez faire attitudes and just fumbling the concept badly. I’m pretty sure there’s an arc for both characters hidden in here, but neither Welles’ script nor Bob Murawski’s co-editing credit can find them.  The protracted film-within-a-film sequences involving Kodar and the fabulously named Bob Random offer naught to the picture other than scant titillation – Kodar was Orson Welles’ real-life partner by the time the film was being shot, and it’s little wonder his camera lavishes attention on her lithesome frame, somewhat voyeuristically according to the film style of the day – and its inclusion seems redolent of Welles’ auteurism.

It’s hard to review a film such as this in the context of a 2018 release. The film was shot almost fifty years ago: some of the jargon and lingo used within the script will make young viewers scratch their heads and older viewers shudder with anachronistic awkwardness, and it’s this jarring sense of time-bypass that makes The Other Side Of The Wind feel too locked into the 1970s. A time capsule of exploratory cinema? Okay, sure, but that doesn’t mean it’s any good. A frustrating experiment in style over substance, an incoherent overall point and some egregious editorial and cinematographic decisions, as well as a flagrantly pornographic focus on Oja Kodar for no apparent reason, and this film comes highly not recommended. Welles fans may lap it up or find things to dig out of it that I couldn’t, but casual filmgoers or happenstance Netflix button clickers will come away wondering what the hell is going on, and entirely displeased.

Crazy Rich Asians

What a gloriously fun movie this is! Crazy Rich Asians is a warm-spirited, energetic and always funny romantic-comedy (rare these days) boasting an entirely Asian-American cast (even rarer) about a story of wealth and social class (don’t let that stop you!) and a supposedly forbidden love. It’s gloriously sentimental, dazzling in color and vibrancy and Singaporean opulence, and led by a capable cast of actors (especially Constance Wu) who will have you gobbling this down like a good fish-head curry.

American economics professor Rachel Chu (Constance Wu) is happily in love with the impossibly handsome Nick Young (Henry Golding), and is excited to be traveling to meet Nick’s family at their home in Singapore, as well as attending the wedding of one of Nick’s best friends. Knowing almost nothing about his family, Rachel is shocked to learn that Nick comes from one of the wealthiest families in the Republic, and is thrust into the opulent lifestyle of the island’s social elite. Nick’s mother, Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh) is disapproving of Nick’s choice in a woman and sets about seeking to undermine Rachel’s confidence. Rachel, meeting a college friend (Awkwafina), learns more about Nick’s family’s incredible wealth, and his maladjusted family members including cousin Astrid (Gemma Chan), elderly grandmother Shang Su Yi (Lisa Lu), and a former girlfriend in Amanda Ling (Jing Lusi). But as she soon discovers, amidst the opulent bling and shallow social climbing, remaining in Nick’s life may just be the hardest thing she’s ever had to do.

Crazy Rich Asians are, on a genetic level, a virtual play-by-play of every romantic comedy trope cinema has ever invented. From the bright and bubbly lead female role, intelligent and ubiquitously pure of heart, her handsome beau, the condescending and ice-cold potential mother-in-law, the laugh-riot crazy best friend (Awkwafina, easily the best part of the whole movie), and the token gay fashionista cliche (Nico Santos, who gets the best lines of all), not to mention the gaggle of archetypal disapproving and totally nutty supporting roles, and the film’s playbook isn’t so far removed from the generic white Hollywood template. What the film does do in thrusting the Asian culture at the story is show us that, regardless of race, we really all do (and are) the same: based on Kevin Kwan’s book of the same name, the film’s screenplay is a fairly brisk, delightful affair by Adele Lim and Peter Chiarelli, plastering bright colors and broad, easy to understand brushstrokes in what turns out to be a fairly cutesy, aww-shucks story of love and fantasy.

I say fantasy because Crazy Rich Asians speak to the very notion of feminine romanticism cinema. The debonair, handsome, intelligent and impossibly wealthy boyfriend-slash-lover, the domineering mother, the tragic personal backstory and the lavish, lush lifestyle of Singapore’s rich-and-powerful could just as easily transfer to a clutch of New York or London-set stories of similar persuasion: this isn’t a criticism as much as a single note on the film’s shallow depth of field, and Crazy Rich Asians taps than vein of gold and absolutely pillage it to the end. However, and here’s the crux of the critique, the film doesn’t ever feel predictable or interminable like so many of its ilk do, due entirely to the charisma and utter charm of its astonishingly beautiful cast.

Constance Wu’s “plain Jane” Rachel has the kind of arc every woman dreams of, to be swept off her feet by a handsome heir to a property fortune. Wu’s accessibility in the role, her innocence and eventual transition to strong-willed female lead opposite Henry Golding’s mannered leading man, avoids cloying wilting-flower tropes and paints the woman as a success in her own right. She doesn’t need Nick Young to complete her, but their love is a heady mix of realism and practicality. Golding, for his part, plays Nick young with a warmth and charm that should see him become a legitimate film star in Hollywood, and the chemistry between the pair is palpable. The third wheel in this troublesome tiff is Michelle Yeoh’s Eleanor, the matriarch of the Young family and mother to Nick, who doesn’t approve of Rachel and her relatively lower social class. Yeoh does excellent work giving Eleanor a real sense of depth, rather than simply being a caricature of every woman’s hated in-law, and provides the role with motivation and believable maternal instincts, whether we agree with them or not. That’s a difficult task, and I think Yeoh succeeds admirably.

The rest of the supporting cast are both known and unknown, and all really good. Ken Jeong (whom I normally despise) pitches his mad-crazy friend father role with perfection, the affably offensive stand-up comedian Ronny Chieng is a riot, Genna Chan brings weight to her own subplot involving the breakdown of her marriage to a similarly low-status man, and Jimmy O. Yang as Nicks’ utterly reprehensible former arch-nemesis and now fellow groomsman does his best to offend literally everyone with his clothing and manner: the entire cast has a moment to shine in Jon M Chu’s film, each given several laughs and all of them immediately accessible via archetypal, easy-to-spot character beats. As I said, the film doesn’t reinvent the wheel, it just gives it a flashy paint-job and throws some serious bling at it.

The film also stands as a showcase of Singapore’s luxurious standing in world trade and beauty. The city looks a treat on the big screen, the opulent skyscrapers mixed with the traditional Asian streetlife, and the barrage of wealth on display would make a Fast & Furious film blush. From cars, clothes, houses and palatial hotels, not to mention a bachelor party taking place offshore on a working container ship, Crazy Rich Asians has the aesthetic of extreme wealth pulsating through its brightly lit sequences, a frantic modernity of technical precision and the best Hollywood can buy giving the film an electrified freshness that’s hard to deny. I didn’t: I really enjoyed the hell out of this movie, and if I’m honest I wasn’t expecting to. I normally balk at romantic comedies, but Crazy Rich Asians worked its oriental magic on me and I have swept away with its broad characters, lavish setting and pop-culture-ready soundtrack. Production design and cinematography play a huge part in making the film feel larger than it really is, and it feels like a film made for $100m instead of $30m.

For a fun, energetic, often hilariously over-the-top Asian-flavoured romantic comedy I cannot recommend this film highly enough. A beguiling cast, sumptuous location filming and extravagant superficiality contrasted against a rapidly disappearing sense of familial respect and honor, and a tried-and-true fantasy narrative that’ll keep the romantics among us sated, Crazy Rich Asians is an absolute blast and comes thoroughly endorsed by this self-proclaimed non-romantic. For what it’s worth, I had a great time.

Bohemian Rhapsody

Although considered rock royalty today, British supergroup Queen were mildly dismissed back in the day by a variety of critics and record producers, until their meteoric rise to the top (and back down) culminated with a legendary performance for Live Aid, ostensibly to raise money for starving children in Africa, in the mid-1980s. Queen, led by the charismatic and vocal Freddie Mercury, gave us stadium and radio anthems such as “We Will Rock You”, “Radio Gaga”, “We Are The Champions” as well as the titular “Bohemian Rhapsody”, a quasi-operatic ballad that transformed the group and became a symbol of their status within the music industry. Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody, a film mired in production woes, skims the surface of Mercury’s controversial life as well as the potted history of Queen’s successes, offering a swaggering love-letter to the legendary group that you’ll love despite feeling like it doesn’t quite go far enough in digging into the meat of the people involved.

In the early 1970s, a struggling English band Smile is followed by prodigious musical talent Farrokh Bulsara (Rami Malek), who offers to sing for them when their original lead singer suddenly quits. Assuming the name Freddie Mercury,  the band, comprising lead guitarist Brian May (Gwylim Lee – The Tourist), bass guitarist John Deacon (Joseph Mazzello – The Pacific) and incoming drummer Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy – X-Men: Apocalypse), re-purpose their brand as Queen and soon become successful. Their agent, John Reid (Aidan Gillen – Game Of Thrones) and lawyer Jim Beech (Tom Hollander – Pirates Of The Caribbean) take the band to America to tour, where their debut album becomes a smash hit. As their success rises, however, Freddie’s eccentric behaviors cause friction, and his relationship with girlfriend Mary (Lucy Boynton – Sing Street, Apostle) sours, Queen’s greatest test may come with continuing to produce their particular brand of anthemic rock despite all the obstacles in their way.

Biographical films rarely tell the absolute truth. Given there are almost always two sides to every story, the biopic genre is inevitably flawed in favor of whoever is producing the film, and the specific story they want to tell. Bohemian Rhapsody is produced by the remaining Queen members, so as you’d imagine it paints the band in a (mainly) good light despite the well-known problems faced by the group and Freddie Mercury during the ’70s and ’80s. The film plays like a stadium concert: pick the best bits the audience will know, ratchet up the volume, and saturate the screen with slick visuals to get the feet tapping and the hands clapping. It’s a biopic so in love with its subject matter that even the melancholy, dramatic moments are plundered by the enthusiastic recreations of famous Queen touchstones, from Genesis of their most famous tracks (the sequence involving the recording of “Bohemian Rhapsody” is terrifically done) to Freddie’s AIDS diagnosis, culminating in the iconic Live Aid performance at Wembley Stadium in 1985. Less a criticism than a note of caution for those hoping Bohemian Rhapsody might be a warts-n-all work, the film’s gangbuster musical soundtrack and dedicated performances by all involved – particularly Malek as Freddie, a role he was seemingly born to play – will delight hardcore fans of the band but not quite satiate the thirst for a deeper understanding of Freddy’s predilections.

Oscar-nominated screenwriter Anthony McCarten (The Theory of Everything, Darkest Hour) takes on the mammoth task of turning a decade-and-a-half of Queen into a two-hour movie, and to be fair he does a really, really good job. This isn’t the stuff that’ll see him on the Academy stage, but in terms of pure crowd-pleasing potted-history work, it’s right up there. It’s also both incredibly funny and desperately melancholy: we all know what happens to Freddie Mercury later in his life, so with every soaring ballad and lip-twitching monologue the weight of foreknowledge tends to revel in our sense of loss, a lament of what we lost when the man died of HIV-AIDS in 1991. McCarten’s writing doesn’t so much delve into Freddie’s somewhat tragic backstory as it offers a piecemeal generic familial issue to prop up its lack of dramatic urgency.

Freddie’s fractious relationship with his father (Ace Bhatti, given very little room to work, sadly) is largely formulaic, a broad-side easy-to-understand way of giving Freddy a sense of personal loss to juxtapose against his incredible public success. His equally bizarre relationship with Mary Austin, played by doe-eyed Lucy Boynton, with whom he is married before realizing he is a homosexual, is examined in far more detail but never quite generates the passion behind his life we need – although a late-scene confrontation between the pair is somewhat cathartic – leaving McCarten’s script to simply retread the rise, fall and resurrection of Queen as a band through the most popular era of their existence. I say that like it’s a bad thing (it isn’t), but I wanted to understand more about Freddy the man rather than the performer, and his relationships (particularly with the members of Queen), rather than be just an excuse to recreate classic moments of the band’s history to a thunderous Dolby Atmos soundtrack. If it sounds like I was disappointed with the film, I apologize, because I really did like it, I just felt that reflecting on the band’s career and Freddie’s struggles with identity and sexuality and relational confusion didn’t go far enough, or far enough for me to make the film a work of genuineness. That’s what’s missing here, genuineness. The film’s struggle to balance Queen’s version of the truth with the actual truth is weighted heavily in favor of the band.

But look, it’s a film designed to please crowds and it certainly does that. Initially directed by X-Men helmer Bryan Singer, before being booted by Fox after going AWOL and replaced with Dexter Fletcher (Singer retains directorial credit, with Fletcher getting a producer credit for his troubles), the film is a barrage of sound and music and dedicated performances. As Mercury, Rami Malek absolutely holds your attention throughout, a charismatic and charming portrayal of a man struggling with his own inner demons, as pure a lost creative soul as there has ever been, and the actor’s physical mannerisms (how they got his teeth to protrude like Mercury’s I’ll never know) and showmanship are a far cry from his more subdued work in Mr. Robot. Malik is the reason to see this, without a doubt. His co-stars as Queen are excellent, particularly Jurassic Park kid-grown-up Joseph Mazzello and Gwylim Lee as John Deacon and Brian May respectively, while Tom Hollander’s work as the band’s lawyer-turned-manager is absolutely brilliant. A scene involving record producer Ray Foster, played by Mike Myers, discussing the merits of the band’s iconic track “Bohemian Rhapsody,” is so beautifully meta, fans of Wayne and Garth will be squirming in their seats with glee.

Allen Leech (Downton Abbey) has the hard task of playing the film’s “antagonist”, Paul Prenter, the man who single-handedly almost stole the world of Queen from us, and it’s this aspect of the film I was troubled by. Prenter became Mercury’s personal manager following his marriage breakdown with Mary, and in Bohemian Rhapsody he’s portrayed as a slimy, insidious leech desperate to sponge off Freddie’s success for his own pleasure. Mixing historical truths to manufacture a more rounded dramatic narrative with the character, the film portrays Prenter as being a retaliatory type who “outs” Mercury following his firing prior to the Live Aid concert (in reality, Prenter was fired the year after Live Aid, and gave his scathing interview to a newspaper rather than television, as depicted here), and you get the sense that in trying to maximize emotional heft, Singer/Fletcher and McCarten had to flex the truth a bit to make it… well, sing. Leech’s work is effective in that he makes Prenter a hiss-worthy villain, but I suspect the truth about his relationship with Freddie was far less one-note and a load more complicated than that given us here.

The recreations of classic Queen moments, including a scene showcasing their most famous music video (“I Want To Break Free”), their US tour concerts, and of course the amazing 20-minute Wembley Live Aid set (condensed down to somewhere between ten and fifteen minutes of pure musical joy in this film), are produced superbly, enabled by stunning costume and set design and some terrific cinematography by sublime Thomas Newton Sigel. The photography in the film is beautiful, with some truly stunning shots enabling whoever directed the film to showcase their proficiency and talent in creating the bohemian world of Mercury’s legendary frontman status. The visual effects work well (although get a bit wobbly by the time Wembley arrives) and the thunderous Queen song soundtrack, which absolutely slays in every sense, will have you singing along for the entire movie.

Bohemian Rhapsody is a film that approaches its subject matter with withering glee and an almost fawning adoration. It paints the Queen members in a lovely light, a camaraderie you just know is glossed over somewhat for the sake of dramatic expediency, and those outside the band as mere hangers-on who seek to ride the coattails to success. It portrays Freddie as a lost child of acceptance, seeking confirmation of self through the music he produced and the fame he achieved. The film’s sense of humor is cheeky and you’ll spend a lot of time laughing quietly to yourself if not out loud, and the central performances are genuinely excellent despite a narrative thinness to everyone other than Malek’s Freddie. Superbly mounted and boasting an instant-classic soundtrack, Bohemian Rhapsody pleases the masses and entertains the fans but doesn’t feel like it’s offering something new, rather taking us on a hand-held tour down memory lane with some dynamite concert performances thrown in. There’s no dirt, no real digging into what made Queen tick, and if that’s what you’re after you may feel shortchanged. The rest of us, however, will come away thoroughly entertained.

‘HALLOWEEN’ 2018 is the face-off Laurie Strode and Michael Myers Deserve

n trailers and TV spots, the 2018 Halloween leans heavily on Jamie Lee Curtis as Laurie Strode the Badass. She’s been waiting 40 years to kill her tormentor, Michael Myers, practicing her marksmanship and building out her home defenses, right down to the hidden bunker beneath her kitchen counter. But what’s not captured in advertising is how much Laurie hurts, how much she encounter with Michael as a teenager upended her life forever, damaging her family and future. Halloween may not be subtle about how Laurie deals with her trauma (for example, by chugging any alcohol at hand), but it’s still surprisingly heart-rending to see a slasher movie deal so forthrightly with the wreckage its killers leave behind. More than just a 40-year-old grudge match, Halloween is about generational damage, as Michael’s violence is visited upon Laurie’s daughter Karen (Judy Greer) and granddaughter Allyson (Andi Matichak).

But Halloween needs more than the Strode women to be a proper slasher. While much of what you’ll read about the new Halloween are the ways in which it’s innovative, it’s clear the moment Michael attacks a gas station just how much 2018’s Halloween isn’t a deconstruction, but a slasher movie down to its knife-scraped bones. The body count is high and knifes poke out the other side as Michael stabs his way across Haddonfield, Illinois.

David Gordon Green and his co-writers, Danny McBride and Jeff Fradley (Vice Principals) pay close attention to the 1978 original, resurfacing lessons other sequels lost. This new Halloweenisn’t referential or stuffed with easter eggs. There’s no embarrassing shout-outs. (It’s one of several ways Halloween is a better sequel to a decades-old franchise than The Force Awakens.) Instead, there are smart inversions of moments from the original, one of which sent up a roar of cheering in my theater.

In both the 1978 original and 2018’s Halloween, we spend substantial time viewing events from Michael’s perspective. Unlike in sequels, where Michael pops up anywhere and everywhere, seemingly omnipresent, there’s a deliberate, lumbering reality to where and how Michael stalks. In ‘78, the camera follows Michael following Laurie; in ‘18 we watch as Michael bludgeons and cuts a swathe of destruction through adjoining houses. When he disappears around one corner, his subsequent move doesn’t teleport him somewhere else. Instead, we wait for him to reemerge, our breaths held, as his next victim looks out the blinds towards us. Michael is deliberate and constant in this latest Halloween in ways he rarely was in previous, inferior sequels.

Unlike the sex-charged Rob Zombie versions, full of high school girls who talk just like Zombie’s omnipresent, foulmouthed bumpkins (who happen to listen to music preferred by a middle-aged man), the ‘18 Halloween feels more naturally teenaged than any slasher since Scream. Like in the original, teenage life is dangerous in Halloween because of the separate society high schoolers have from adult life. The slasher genre post- Halloween has commonly moralized teenage sex and drug use, making the sexpots and potheads easy victims. (This is not as true in the original Halloween, where Laurie shares a joint in a car.) In contrast, the latest Halloween takes Allyson’s high school drama as seriously as the end of Laurie’s decades-long ceasefire with Michael.

All of this makes for a Halloween that’s characterful, surprisingly funny and one of the best horror movies of 2018. But this generational split narrative does have downsides. Gone is the tight focus and effortless plotting of the original, which could be as easily followed on mute. The plot of this Halloween feels more episodic and less unrelentingly real-time as the original. After smashing up the Haddonfield trick-or-treat scene, Halloween takes a breather, teeing up events for the final confrontation miles away, at Laurie’s forest compound. This requires a character decision many will loathe, but I found charming because it mirrors our own inability to understand what makes Michael tick (and presumably the writers’ frustration at same). Regardless, this plot turn is quickly overshadowed by Laurie and Michael’s fist-clenching face-off.

It’s a showdown that’s remarkable for its sustained tension as well as its restraint. This isn’tFreddy vs. Jason, with Laurie going knife-to-knife against the Boogeyman with martial arts. Instead, it feels calculated in a way an encounter obsessed over for decades deserves to be. And, like all of the best-laid plans, it quickly falls to pieces. It may be Myers driven into the closet with the slatted doors this time, but Halloween reminds us why Michael is the original Boogeyman, and still the best.

Green Book Has Great Acting, Unsuitable Title and Racism for White People

When I sat down to watch the movie Green Book, I was expecting to get a visual education on the historical use of The Negro Motorist Green Book by Victor Hugo Green. Green published the guidebook from 1936 to 1966 for black travelers in the Jim Crow era whose trips took them through areas that were openly racist and discriminatory toward black people.

This film was not about the actual Green Book. In fact, the actual Green Book is more of a day player or under-fiver in this film.

The film Green Book is a dramatization of the real-life friendship formed between Dr. Don Shirley—a Jamaican-American world-class pianist—and Tony Vallelonga, an Italian-American nightclub bouncer from New York City who Shirley hires to be his personal driver and bodyguard during a concert tour that takes him through the Jim Crow South.

In her review for Shadow and Act, writer Brooke Obie calls the film a “poorly titled white savior film” that centers white people in a black story. She pans the film as a “reverse-Driving Miss Daisy” and criticizes the fact that it leaves out a lot of Shirley’s story in favor of propping Vallelonga up as some sort of hero.

I do not disagree with Obie’s critique. It is definitely problematic in that it seems to gloss over the true horrors of the Jim Crow South and just how bad it was for blacks who traveled through and lived there. We never get to see Mahershala Ali, who does a splendid and regal turn as Dr. Shirley, display that gripping fear that black people feel even today whenever they drive down those dark country roads at night—let alone in 1962 when the film is set.

The potential dangers they face are never addressed in the film. Instead, Ali’s Shirley sits comfortably in the backseat, taking in the countryside and even sleeping innocently and comfortably as his white bodyguard—played by the immensely talented Viggo Mortensen—drives him through towns where black bodies likely swung from trees and where at times the only light probably came from burning crosses and white hoods.

We don’t experience any of that, and the significance and importance of the actual Green Book is lost as a result.

This film spoon-feeds racism to white people, and that was never more evident than in the screening I attended in Los Angeles during the press junket.

There is a scene in the film in which Tony and Dr. Shirley enter a tailor’s shop in Georgia. Tony spots a suit that he thinks would look good on Don, and he points it out to him. He then asks the tailor to pull out the suit in Don’s size. The tailor thinks the suit is for Tony and happily hands it to him, directing him to a dressing room in the back to try it on. Tony, in turn, hands the suit to Dr. Shirley and tells him to try it on.

The tailor’s attitude immediately changes. With a look of fear and embarrassment on his face (because there’s no way this scene could have been portrayed without having the tailored look at least a little bit embarrassed by his own complicity in perpetuating racism and discrimination), he tells Dr. Shirley that he is not allowed to try the suit on. Instead, he advises him that he can buy the suit and then have it altered.

The mostly white audience watching the film with me collectively gasped as if this were the first time in their lives they had seen a depiction of racism.

The instances of racism in this film were mild compared to the actual racial terrorism black people experienced then and continue to experience. We have a sitting president who declared to the world he is a [white] nationalist and who enacts policies that are harmful to blacks and people of color in general—but somehow white people were surprised to see a scene in which a white man who hired Don Shirley to entertain his party guests insists that his black entertainment go outside to use an outhouse rather than the restroom inside his home.

I’m not here to make excuses for this movie. I actually enjoyed it, despite all of its flaws. It was funny in the right places, touching in the right places, and even as it erases the true ugliness of racism in its depiction, it provides something of a starting point for white people to wake up.

It is another in a long line of white savior movies such as The Green MileThe Blind SideFreedom WritersAmistadA Time to KillBlood Diamond, and Lincoln. As Obie says, it humanizes a racist and puts him in charge of telling a black man’s story.

Is that what white people need to understand that racism, white supremacy, and white privilege are still part of our everyday reality and something that black people continue to suffer under?

Do they have to see a white racist change his mind, become a lifelong friend to a black man (Shirley and Vallelonga remained good friends until they died just months apart in 2013), and invite said black man into his home to enjoy a holiday dinner with his astonished and apparently equally racist family in order for them to believe that this is how people were and still are?

The screenplay for the film was written by Vallelonga’s son Nick, who grew up hearing stories about the infamous road trip his father took with Shirley. He and director Peter Farrelly made the conscious decision to tell the story from a white perspective, and that is understandable since that is all they know. That doesn’t excuse the whitewashing that racism gets in this film, but it helps us to understand it a little bit better.

I would still contend that the film is worth seeing for everyone. It is clueless and offensive at points—like when Vallelonga contends that he is somehow blacker and understands blackness better than the man he is protecting from white hillbilly racists in the Deep South—but it is fun as a buddy pic if you are looking for a feel-good time for the holidays.

And, as I said earlier if this spoon-fed racism helps white people wake up from their Sleeping Beauty-esque stupor and recognize the work that needs to be done to actually make this country great again, then so be it.

I received an email from Harry Belafonte this morning. He had reached out to the studio and asked them who he could talk to in order to encourage people to give this film a chance. The studio pointed him in my direction, and this is what he sent me:

My wife Pamela and I just finished watching Green Book and although I don’t usually do this, I am compelled to drop this note to thank the filmmakers for having made this film for us all to see. I knew Don Shirley, and, in fact, had an office across the street from his at Carnegie Hall, and I experienced much of what he did at the same time. This movie is accurate, it is true, and it’s a wonderful movie that everyone should see.

The few people who appear to be objecting to the film’s depiction of the time and the man are dead wrong, and, if the basis of their resentment stems from it having been written and/or directed by someone who isn’t African American, I disagree with them even more. There are many perspectives from which to tell the same story and all can be true.

I personally thank the filmmakers for having told this important story from a very different lens, one no less compelling than any other.

So again, I say to the filmmakers, thank you, and congratulations.

Harry Belafonte

Yes, the story is told from a different lens, but I would not go so far as to say that the people objecting to that lens are “dead wrong.” I get what Belafonte is trying to say here. He was an artist and performer during those times and he had some of the same experiences Dr. Shirley did.

I would think that would make Mr. Belafonte more understanding about why some would take issue with the way the story was told. The movie is accurate in that it shows racism existed, but it is disingenuous to posit that those who think the story should have been told from a black perspective have somehow missed the point. Much like the choice to tell the story in the first place, the lens and what it does not show are conscious choices with real implications, artistic and otherwise.

The movie has a misleading title. It delivers racism in a way that makes it easy for white people to be comfortable as they watch it. It has great acting from both Ali and Mortensen.

But it is in fact yet another white savior movie in which the white person doesn’t really save the black person from anything. When that holiday dinner at the end of the movie is over, Shirley still steps back out into a world that considers him less than.

Shirley died in a world that still considered him less than.

We continue to live in a world that views black people as less than.

Green Book is not here to teach any lessons. It’s not here to end racism. It’s not here to increase white guilt. It is worth seeing for those (white people) who may need a primer on racism. It is worth seeing just for Mahershala Ali. It is worth seeing for Viggo Mortensen’s amazing tough-guy act.

It is worth seeing because nothing has changed.

As Mahershala Ali told me when I interviewed him about the film, “Discrimination is much more intelligent now.”

Keep that perspective in mind as you watch it.