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Oscars 2018 Best Picture Review: Bohemian Rhapsody

Rhapsody

In Bohemian Rhapsody, Rami Malek captures the essence of Freddie Mercury to a tee.

The musical biopic Bohemian Rhapsody came out in movie theatres this year. We’ve seen music biographies before. The big question is does this film simply chronicle Freddy Mercury’s life? Or does it do much more?

The film begins just as Queen is about to step to the stage to perform in the 1985 Live Aid Concert. The film then flashes back to 1970 when Smile is an English band consisting of Brian May, Roger Taylor and singer Tim Staffell. Faroukh ‘Freddie’ Bulsara is a Farsi immigrant who studies and also works as a baggage handler at Heathrow airport. Freddie faces a lot of discrimination for the color of his skin and mockery because of his hyperdontia which makes him look like he has a mega-overbite. However Freddie does lose himself in rock and roll.

One night, Staffell quits Smile in disappointment. Freddie was there attending the show. When he sees what happened, he asks to join the band. The band gets a rocky start as they play at small college gigs, but it looks promising and Freddie fully believes in them all. The rock singer gig does not go well with his family who feels he should earn his living more ‘honestly.’ Freddie also wins the attraction of college student Mary Austin during a clothes shopping trip. They start dating and romancing.

Over time, Queen gets bigger and they soon have to record an EP. It will cost a lot of money and Freddie agrees to sell the van for money. The EP is a success and it attracts major music producers including one from EMI Records interested in the band. The band changes their name to Queen and Freddie even legally changes his name to Freddie Mercury. The band is acquired by John Reid, Elton John’s manager, and assistant manager Paul Prenter. They bring the band to a gig on BBC’s Top Of The Pops where the band lip syncs Killer Queen. As success grows, including success in the US, Mary and Freddie get engaged. However soon after Freddie learns of his bisexuality.

The band try to record their album A Night At The Opera and the song Bohemian Rhapsody, but the song is too long and hard to perform. On top of that, producer Ray Foster is antagonistic on the band for both the song and the music for the whole album. After Foster refuses it as a single, Freddie gets a local DJ to play Bohemian Rhapsody. The song opens to a lot of negative reviews, but also scores big on the charts worldwide. However Freddie starts an affair with Prenter and has to call off the engagement with Mary. Mary is devastated, but agrees to remain friends.

In the film, the band has continued success in the early 1980’s with We Will Rock You. However the band experience tension both by Freddie’s lavish partying lifestyle and the increasing controlling ways of Prenter. Freddie even cheats on Paul with a waiter, but the waiter tells Freddie to find him after he finds himself. The friction between Freddie and the band grows to the point Freddie leaves the band to record a solo album upon the direction of Prenter. However it becomes obvious how much Prenter wants a piece of the action and Freddie both breaks up with him and fires him.

Soon Freddie learns he has HIV right when the devastating AIDS epidemic was at its most troubling times. He returns to the band confessing it was wrong for them to leave. They’re offered an appearance at the 1985 Live Aid Concert which will be broadcast worldwide to raise money for food supplies during the famine in Africa. This will be the band’s comeback concert, but it will take a lot of effort to bring the band back to their level of performance.

Just before the concert, Freddie confronts his parents to make peace with them. Freddie is also supported backstage by a pregnant Mary along with her husband David. Bob Geldof is hoping for a lot of call-in donations through this concert. Then Queen get on stage and it’s like they never missed a step. The crowd is blown away, television crowds are dazzled, and the donations accelerate like nobody’s business. Queen was back and alive!

There have been musical biographies in films done many times before. In order to make a winning story about a musician, the film will definitely have to include the music. That’s what made the musician great. The film will also have to include key events of the person’s life: the artistic moments, the triumphant moments and the struggles, even any tragedies. It’s all a matter of deciding the right moments for the right beginning, middle and end of the film.

The film does a smart move in making the Live Aid Concert the pivotal moment for Freddie Mercury both as the scene where the movie starts before flashing back in time and ultimately ending. The film also does a good job in picking out moments such as when Freddie joins the band Smile, changes it to Queen, first hits it big with Killer Queen releases their iconic Bohemian Rhapsody, faces friction as well as declining fame in the early 80’s, Freddie’s HIV diagnosis, and their return to winning the public at Live Aid.

However the film also risks disappointing a lot of Queen fans because of how inaccurate the story is. Despite Jim ‘Miami’ Beach being the film’s co-producer and May and Taylor being music consultants, The five biggest inaccuracies Queen fans are most likely to notice are, firstly, Freddie was actually introduced to Brian May and Roger Taylor of Smile by singer Tim Staffell when Staffell wanted to pursue further studies. Secondly, We Will Rock You was written and recorded in the late-70’s rather than the early-80’s. Thirdly, John Deacon was actually Queen’s fourth bassist rather than the original bassist. Fourthly, Queen never split up nor did they get back together at Live Aid. Freddie may have had solo work — the most famous being Barcelona: the duet with Montserrat Caballet — but Roger Taylor also had a solo album too. Fifthly, Freddie learned he was HIV-positive in 1987: after Live Aid. Those that know the true Queen story will know that a lot of these moments in the film were mostly common music-movie cliches rather than the truth about Queen.

Despite failing a lot of Queen fans with some of the inaccuracies and cliches, the film does succeed in a lot of ways and even presents some truths even Queen fans knew. Freddie did credit his extra teeth for his singing, he adored his cats, he held outlandish parties, the song Bohemian Rhapsody was considered too long and too ridiculous at first, Freddie did keep his ordeal with HIV and AIDS private as he did not want to be an object of pity, and finally his friendship with Mary Austin lasted until his death and she did live next door to him even while married to David. The film does stick to the truth in a lot of areas, including that of how Paul Prenter was a controlling person in Freddie’s life. However another added quality is that the film does an excellent job of capturing the essence and feel of Queen’s music. Those that haven’t heard much of Queen’s music will experience songs they never heard before. Those that are fans of the band will fall in love with the songs again. Also those that want to be rock musicians themselves will be inspired to pursue their dreams after watching the film. You not only hear the music, but you can also get the feel of a rock performer too.

The film has already grossed $844.4 million worldwide at press-time with $210.6 million coming from North America. However the film has also faced a ton of heat during the awards season. The cause for all of this was for director Bryan Singer. As you know, Singer has faced criminal charges of being a sex offender. How it happened that Dexter Fletcher stepped into directing the remainder of the film upon the departure of Bryan Singer is that Singer was fired after having violent clashes with Rami Malek. Singer, and not Fletcher, was credited as the film’s director. The awards season has seen the film win many accolades which many have voiced their displeasure about. Possibly due to hostility during the #MeToo movement, many are speaking their mind as if they’re saying a win for Bohemian Rhapsody is a win for a sex offender.  I personally feel that Fletcher should have been credited as director. However despite the fact that Singer was fired, people are still unhappy. Makes you wonder what will satisfy them all? Denying the film a release and trashing it altogether? This is a reflection on how toxic and bullying the free speech of social media can be.

Anthony McCarten in cooperation with Peter Morgan may have written a story that was more cliched than truth, but it did capture a lot of the essence of Queen and a lot of the essence of Freddie Mercury. As for the ending, I can understand why they went for the heavy drama by ending with the Live Aid Concert. I’d rather they went with the moment Freddie records The Show Must Go On. Those who know the story behind that will recognize it as one of the biggest triumphs of Mercury’s career and a testament of his mental toughness.

The film also captured the essence of Brian, John and Roger well too. Co-director Dexter Fletcher did a very good job of picking up where Singer left off and creates an exciting experience for the audience. However the biggest triumph is the performance of Rami Malek. Until Bohemian Rhapsody, he was facing the common difficulty of actors of Middle Eastern descent with limited opportunities. It almost seemed like the biggest thing he would ever be known for is playing the Pharaoh in the Night At The Museum movies. This also was not an easy task because Malek was not originally a fan of Queen. However that all changed when he was given the role. Malek was excellent in his performance and will blow away anyone who sees this film.

The actors portraying Brian, Roger and John — Gwilym Lee, Ben hardy and Joseph Mazzello, respectively — also added to the film. Lucy Boynton was also excellent as the friend Mary Austin. Even minor performances like Tom Hollander as Jim Beach, Mike Myers as Ray Foster, and Allen Leech as Paul Prenter did very well with the roles they were given. Julian Day did a very good job with the costuming, Aaron Haye did an excellent job with the set design, and the producers did a very good job in choosing the right songs for the film.

Bohemian Rhapsody has some noticeable errors in the film. However the film succeeds in capturing the spirit of Freddie Mercury, capturing the music of Queen and capturing the experience of a rock star. No wonder it dazzles those that see it.

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Oscars 2017 Best Picture Review: The Post

Post

Merly Streep plays newspaper head Katharine Graham in The Post.

The subject matter of The Post doesn’t sound like the type of subject matter that would win a big crowd, but it is a film worth seeing.

The story goes back in 1966 during the Vietnam War. Military analyst Daniel Ellsberg is in Vietnam with General Robert McNamara to document the progress of the war. McNamara admits to Ellsberg and President Johnson that the war is hopeless but has confidence in the effort, leaving Ellsberg disillusioned.

Years later, Ellsberg is now working for a military contractor and comes across classified documents showing the US’s decades-long involvement in the conflict in Vietnam going back to just a few years after World War II ended. Ellsberg discloses the documents to the New York Times.

It’s 1971. Katharine Graham is head of the Washington Post. It’s been a position she mastered with a lot of difficulty as it’s commonly seen as a ‘man’s position.’ Even though her family founded the Post, the position of the head went to her husband Philip instead of her. It was right after Philip’s suicide that Katharine became head. It’s not easy for a female to be head of a newspaper. Especially someone like Graham who has a good work ethic, but lacks experience and is constantly overruled by the aggressiveness of the men of the Post. On top of that, she seeks to gain an IPO for a stock market launch to propel the Post to greater strength. The Washington Post however is second-fiddle to the New York Times which always has the biggest news scoops, even the scoops of what’s happening in Washington.

Editor-in-chief Ben Bradlee is one of the men who work for her. He tries in vain to be one step ahead of the New York Times in coming up with the latest scoops, but falls short each time. Meanwhile McNamara, who is a friend of Graham’s, confesses to her of how he’s the subject of bad news in the New York Times. It’s through their constant expose of the government’s deception of the American public. However a court injunction blockades any further publication of such news by the Times.

Ellsberg is willing to provide the documents and opportunity to the Post to publish the stories. As they look through the stories to publish, lawyers to the Post advise against publishing the story, fearing the Nixon administration will press criminal charges. Graham seeks advice from McNamara, Bradlee and Post chairman Fritz Beebe of whether to publish. It’s made even more frustrating when the lawyer note that since  the sources are the same as the New York Times, Graham herself could be charged with contempt of court. It’s a gamble. Graham risks terminating the newspaper her family established. Alternatively, the Post won such a legal battle, it would establish itself as a major journalism source, much on the same level as the New York Times.

She agrees to have the story published. The White House retaliated by taking both the Times and the Post to the Supreme Court to argue their case of publishing classified document information being a First Amendment Right. Both newspapers receive almost unanimous support from the other newspapers in the US and they win their Supreme Court battle 6-3. An infuriated Nixon bans the Post from the White House. And the rest is infamy… for Nixon.

The film is more than just about a top secret story that needed to be exposed and makes journalism history. The story is also about the newspaper behind the story. We shouldn’t forget that this came at a time when The New York Times was the newspaper that delivered the biggest news about what was happening in the Oval Office and the ones to do it first. Even though the Washington Post was the newspaper of Washington, DC, it was more of a second-fiddle newspaper like the newspapers of the rest of the cities. The New York Times lead and all other newspapers, including the Washington Post followed. This story allowed the Washington Post take pole position towards what was happening in Washington. This would also allow for the Washington Post to be the prime newspaper to go to upon the breaking of the Watergate Scandal. Even despite the Post competing against the Times, they united when they faced the heat of the freedom-of-speech debate and won together.

The film is not simply about a history-making story, a legal breakthrough or even a milestone for a newspaper. It’s also the personal story of Katharine Graham and how she had to achieve greatness for herself. Katharine Graham was born into the paper and assumed control of it right after her husband died. It was always tradition that a man headed the newspaper. After the suicide of her husband, she headed it. The paper her ancestors founded and the paper she wants to propel into marketability. This news story could help be the boost she needed, but the court injunction against the New York Times causes her to put it on hold. Basically she’s gambling everything with this touchy story: the Times, her status as a leader, her role as a woman with power, her role as a mother, even her own personal freedom. In the end, that one decision caused left all of us convinced she did the right thing. She did more than just allow a story. She did more than boost the profile of the Washington Post. She created a breakthrough in freedom of speech and freedom of press. On top of that, she earned the respect from her male colleagues. That was rare back in the early 70’s.

This story is very relevant to the present. We always hear those words ‘fake news.’ We have a feeling that Donald Trump is like a big brother monster who wants to control everything. There are often times in which I wonder if the times of Nixon were worse than the times of Trump. I know all about Nixon and his lust for control. Whatever the times, the story and the court ruling against government censorship of the press serves as a reminder to all citizens that the press has the right to publish the truth to the public. The ruling of the New York Times vs. The United States of America back then was clear: “‘In the First Amendment the Founding Fathers gave the free press the protection it must have to fulfill its essential role in our democracy. The press was to serve the governed, not the governors.” That ruling still applies today.

Leave it to Steven Spielberg to direct a story that will capture our intrigue. Some would describe this type of story as a ‘boring story.’ Steven Spielberg knows how to direct it into something interesting and have us glued to the screens. The screenplay by Josh Singer and Liz Hannah also creates the right interest and intrigue. They’re able to take the chain of events surrounding the publishing of the story and turn it into a story of intrigue. Even a story from a humanist side.

Once again, Meryl Streep delivers in creating depth in a public figure. She gave Katharine Graham the right dimension and the right humanistic tone to make the story work. Tom Hanks also does an excellent job in his role as Ben Bradlee. He delivers in the character very well as he adds some dimension to Bradlee too. The supporting actors may have minor or limited roles, but they add to the film too. Janusz Kaminski does an excellent job of cinematography and John Williams again delivers a fitting score.

The Post is a journalism story that will keep one intrigued. It’s a story that’s very relevant today as it’s also about our own right to know the truth.

Oscars 2015 Best Picture Review: Spotlight

Spotlight stars Rachel McAdams, Michael Keaton and MArk Ruffalo as journalists ready to settle the score.

Spotlight stars Rachel McAdams, Michael Keaton and Mark Ruffalo as journalists ready to settle the score.

I’ll admit I saw Spotlight two months ago and I’ve been procrastinating at writing my review. Now that the Oscar nominations are out–actually only an hour ago– this is a better time than ever.

The film begins in the 1970’s of a priest being fired from his job as a teacher at a Catholic elementary school in Boston. Fast forward to 2001. The Boston Globe has a new editor, Marty Baron. He first learns of the investigative Spotlight team of the paper headed by Walter ‘Robby’ Robinson.

Baron gives the Spotlight team a story to chase: a story of a priest sexual abusing children and Cardinal Bernard Law knowing about it and doing nothing about it. It first starts as a pursuit on a single priest who was continuously moved around from school to school. Over time it they would uncover that there were many priests who also committed acts of sexual abuse on school children and they were all covered up by the Archdiocese.

This is one story they had to get to the bottom of. However they’re limited in terms of resources. Plus they need permission to access sealed documents and have a trial or even an inquiry happen and they doubt they can get it from a Catholic judge. They talk with a head of a victims rights group who himself was abused, they talk to other abuse victims, they talk to a lawyer who’s handling the cases of some of the victims and they even find through an ex-priest who tried to rehabilitate pedophile priests that there could be as 90 sex offenders in the clergy. Further research uncovers additional priests moved about upon their actions being revealed and being listed as ‘relocated’ or ‘resigned.’

In September 2001 it appears the Spotlight team is finally ready to release the story. Then 9/11 happens which makes every other news story in the world take a backseat and cause even a further delay of the story being printed. However the wait works for the better as one of the Spotlight reporters, Michael Rezendes, uncovers proof through publicly available documents that Law knew all about the abuse going on and ignored it. Then a major victory. The judge grants them the right to look into sealed documents. Just as they are about to print the story, Robinson confesses he published a list of pedophile priests in 1993 but he never followed up on it. As the story is published, it creates history.

I’m sure that some people would be nervous about this film and declare it ‘anti-Catholic.’ In fact if I were a conservative conspiracy theorist, I would say Spotlight is a film released by an anti-Catholic director who wonders where all the Catholic hate from liberals went once Pope Francis came to power and wants Spotlight to bring it back. But I’m not a conspiracy theorist nor am I a conservative pundit. In fact the film has received positive feedback from Vatican Radio and even the current Cardinal of Boston praised it in showing how the Archdiocese had to confront its wrong.

I will say that I’ve seen bigger even more savage attacks on the Catholic Church in films in the past, especially from Martin Scorsese. In fact I remember watching 2002’s The Magdalene Sisters where the nuns were depicted as total monsters. I feel films nowadays are less anti-Catholic than that of 20 years ago or even 40 years ago. In fact one thing I give the film credit for is that it looks at all sides. It may portray Cardinal Law as a conniver but it wasn’t hard on depiction of the priests. In fact one scene that stuck out to me was when one of the alleged priests was interviewed. He not only appeared confused in how he didn’t know what sexual abuse was but admitted that he was raped as a boy. That not only shocked me but left me wondering how many of the abusive priests were themselves sexually abused as a boy?

On a personal note, I will admit that when I first saw the film, I left the theatre asking myself “Jon, why did you return to the Catholic Church?” It was a dilemma for days but it did solve itself over time. In fact shortly after, I wrote on my Facebook page: “I gave the Catholic Church a second chance in 2003 and it better not blow it this time.” I will never excuse a priest for sexually abusing any child. I believe they should be brought to justice. In fact, Pope Benedict clarified the issue when he said: “Forgiveness is not a replacement for justice.” I know you can’t take back the past however you can improve the future. The Catholic Church has not become blind to the issue of sexual abuse. In fact I learned from one man who tried to enter into education for the priesthood he had to get a criminal record check, an HIV test and a psychiatric assessment. I’m happy that the Catholic Church is taking the best preventative measures to ensure this doesn’t happen again.

In fact off topic from the film, I will admit that sexual abuse and the various Diocese’s and Archdiocese’s bad handling of it is a problem but I will also say that it’s a problem that goes far beyond the Catholic Church. It’s a problem that exists in other churches as well, it exists within certain families, it exists within school and it even exists within children’s sports programs. In fact this decade’s biggest sexual-abuse-and-cover-up story came not from a Catholic institution but from coach Jerry Sandusky and the cover up from Penn State university. Makes you wonder why the priesthood gets a lot of defamation from the sexual abuse of those while children’s sports coaches don’t get the same defamation. A sex offender is a sex offender no matter what their profession or even if it’s not to do with a profession at all.  Same thing with Universities, especially since it’s only come to light that colleges have a known rape problem but they’re doing next to nothing about it.

Back to the film, I think the biggest thing the film was focusing on was the bad marriage of church and state. Separation of church and state is enforced in the American constitution but it’s not to say it does find its way mixed into politics one way or the other. In fact I don’t think Spotlight attacks the Catholic Church as a whole but actually attack the Archdiocese of Boston. The film presents how the Archdiocese of Boston has such a huge influence over the city. We’re talking about a city with a huge percentage of Catholics and with a history of the Catholic Church giving, providing and influencing the city. No wonder a city like Boston would have such high regard for the Archdiocese. No wonder most Bostonians would look at priests as father figures. No wonder also would that present the biggest difficulty in terms of getting the ugly truth out, especially with people having a high regard for the Church in power and with a Cardinal sweet-talking those determined to get the truth.

The theme of sexual abuse may be very prevalent in the film but I think the biggest focal point of the film was to show a group of reporters uncovering a scandalous story and bringing it to print. One thing is the film doesn’t make like the Spotlight team are the blemish-free good guys of the film. It’s made known near the beginning of the film that this information was given to them five years earlier. They themselves made a big mistake of their own by delaying the story. Sure, they did a whole whack of effort to finally bring it to press in 2002 but they could have done it sooner. I think that was the whole thing of Spotlight is that it was a movie disinterested in making the image of a hero out of anybody. Besides we already hear of the mistakes of having an image of somebody is a bad thing as one abuse victim admitted he looked at priests to be like God. I’m sure millions more have had that deluded image of the priest being like God in their head. However it also shows how easily people can be feel a sense of betrayal by a Church when such atrocities occur. You can’t really blame them for being that disheartened.

I give top credit to director/writer Tom McCarthy and his co-writer Josh Singer for directing a complex film that’s like a bunch of pieces of a puzzle that had to be put together. This is a story that’s set in the Spotlight room of the Boston Globe and set in various other places throughout and they had to both show all the different parts of the story and make them come together from time to time. They did a good job of making this complex story come together without straying off into unimportant territory. Also they did a very good job of writing a story of sexual abuse that was watchable. I’ve seen other films of sexual abuse that were more explicit like 1992’s The Boys Of St. Vincent. Mind you it was a 90’s thing to do explicit entertainment because envelope-pushing was all the rage back then because 1; you could never put enough nails in the coffin of the Hays Code and 2; because back then softening of scenes or leaving such things out was considered a form of ‘denial’ in art. Anyways these are not the 90’s anymore and watchability is values more. I’m sure if they showed scenes of abuse in the film, it would make it somewhat unwatchable for many. I feel they made a good choice of limiting the topic of abuse to conversations of victims with the journalists. Especially since the top point of the film is how they brought the story to press. Besides I don’t consider compromising elements in a film for the sake of making it more watchable to be a filmmaking weakness. It’s not the 90’s anymore and Tom McCarthy’s not among the likes of Lars Von Trier.

As for acting, there were a lot of great individual performances most notably from Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo and Rachel McAdams but none of them owned the film. In fact another top quality of the film is that it’s a combined effort from all the actors to play parts that don’t steal the show and add to the story telling by making it look like a unified effort. Even acting of the smaller roles that that of the abuse victims were excellent and added to the story. Overall this not simply a film that’s well-crafted. This is a film that does capture your intrigue. It’s a combined accomplishment from McCarthy, Singer and the actors.

Spotlight isn’t strictly about the incident. It’s about getting the story to the presses and the battles the Boston Globe had to go through to break the silence and finally get the word out. Keeps you interested from start to finish.