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Jim Schembri’s new release movie reviews. Thu 01 Nov, 2018

Jim Schembri

BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY (134 minutes) M

The long-awaited, much-feared biopic of Queen lead singer Freddie Mercury turns out, thankfully, to be a respectable and respectful tribute to glam rock’s most flamboyant ambassador.

Bearing a magnificent dental prosthetic that faithfully replicates Mercury’s signature set of jutting teeth, Rami Malek carries the film with aplomb, taking flight with Mercury’s more outlandish moments but returning to earth when revealing the lonely underside to Mercury’s boisterous, promiscuous character.

Unlike the band itself, which garnished a string of hits throughout the 1970s and 80s with stunning stage shows and eye-catching videos, the film is fairly conventional.

Beginning with his early life as a baggage handler, it unwinds as a straightforward, linear story, highlighting how Mercury’s humble appeal to the band to allow him to replace its lead singer was motivated by the need to escape the safe suburban nest his father had built for him.

Though the focus is on Mercury, the film also serves as a thinly veiled documentary about the way the band members collaborated creatively, explaining the origin and meaning of some of Queen’s biggest hits such as I’m In Love With My Car, We Will Rock You and, of course, Bohemian Rhapsody. Each member gets their moment in the spotlight, including bassist John Deacon, the one guy whose name most people have trouble remembering.

The film sports some rough edges. The opening half hour or so is very clunky as the film jumps over, skims through or side-steps major events in the band’s life. Queen’s conquering of America and the band’s swelling global fame are covered in a flash, the hatred by some quarters of the music press isn’t covered at all.

Things settle once the composition of the album A Night At The Opera begins. It’s here the landmark song gets its due, though it’s far from earnest.

The scene where the band defends the arguably nonsensical lyrics of Bohemian Rhapsody to their manager (Mike Myers) as poetry is a hoot, the value-add being the global in-joke of how in Wayne’s World four guys, including Myers, headbang to the song in a car.

We get a big tonal shift as Mercury’s embrace of fame and ego becomes ever more tenuous and tensions within the band begin pulling it apart.

Queen fans are bound to love Bohemian Rhapsody, though given the visual flair the band was famous for, the film itself is not as cinematic as one might have hoped. There are an awful lot of scenes involving men in rooms talking about music and record deals.

Only in the last stretch of the film, foreshadowed by the impressive opening tracking shot of Mercury preparing to perform, does it really deliver on the live spectacle the band was.

Recreating the global Live Aid concert, the camera sweeps over the crowds at Wembley Stadium as the reformed Queen performs its now-classic 20-minute set. The recreation is so good one wishes the film actually had more Queen music! We get plenty of snippets, such as when they are on the set of music videos, but their brevity is annoying because the songs are so ingrained. As somebody who often complains about films being too long, this reviewer would have happily sat through a longer film with more music and performance recreations.

Though the characters discuss the lifestyle of rampant gay sex and drug abuse Mercury indulged in, the film holds back from portraying anything too graphically.

Some souls have complained about this approach, accusing the film of going soft and being overly kind to Mercury. A more accurate interpretation would be to consider it a triumph of good taste over vulgarity, something of which Mercury himself could never have been accused.

After years in development, Bohemian Rhapsody comes to us after surviving a series of expensive snags.

Produced by the remaining members of Queen – Brian May (guitarist); Roger Taylor (drummer); John Deacon (bass) – their sensitivities over how Mercury was to be portrayed resulted in creative clashes with original actor Sacha Baron Cohen (Ali G; Borat). He had to be replaced after complaining about how the film would sanitise Mercury’s roller-coaster ride through fame.

Infinitely more troubling, the original director Bryan Singer (Apt Pupil; X-Men; Valkyrie) had to be fired towards the end of the shoot because of on-going fights with the cast and the producers. He was replaced by Dexter Fletcher (credited only as a producer on the film), who has just finished directing the Elton John biopic Rocketman.

This might account for some of the film’s jagged edges. Make no mistake: it’s a tough task for one director to take over the work of another during an expensive shooting schedule.

Despite all these ructions, Bohemian Rhapsody somehow survives to deliver a satisfying, entertaining, qualified tribute to Freddie Mercury, an artist who was clearly uninterested in taking his cue from anything other than his own out-sized, double-edged ego.

 

WILDLIFE ***1/2 (105 minutes) M

Actor Paul Dano (There Will Be Blood) proves himself an adept, understated and nuanced dramatic director with his feature debut about a troubled marriage.

Set in 1960, a loving couple (Jake Gyllenhaal and Cate Mulligan) suffer sudden financial strain that quickly puts their lives and relationship under strain.

It’s a wisp of a story, to be honest, which moves slowly and not very far, yet Dano’s assured direction elicits a trio of great performances from Gyllenhaal, Mulligan and Australian teen actor Ed Oxenbould (Paper Planes), who excels as their emotionally confused son. A terrific, compelling drama.

 

HUNTER KILLER ***1/2 (121 minutes) MA

Movie Law dictates that any worthwhile submarine film has got to have scenes showing the following three things: (1) the captain yelling “dive dive dive!” as the sub dives dives dives; (2) tense scenes where the crew are fearfully silent, waiting to see if they’re going to get hit by a torpedo or a depth charge or a sea mine; and (3) sailors in a stricken sub up to their knees in sea water as it sprays onto them from leaks that are exactly the height of a shower head.

Those and many other wonderful submarine-movie cliches are featured in Hunter Killer, an extremely entertaining, cookie-cut action thriller that falls straight in line with Crimson Tide, K-19: The Widowmaker and The Hunt for Red October.

It’s packed with loads of big-screen, FX-driven set-pieces with all manner of missiles, jet fighters and warships being brought into play. If you like your Hollywood military porn large and flashy and made with the full co-operation of the United States Department of Defense – so no violations of conduct or protocol, thank y’all very much – Hunter Killer is a marvelous made-to-order time killer.

Then again, the film stars Gerard Butler, so you can’t have everything. Taking yet another stab at an American accent, Butler plays a dedicated, squared-away sub commander who has to co-ordinate with a SEAL team as well as the Pentagon brass – you’ll enjoy the lovely, scenery-chewing turn by Gary Oldman as an angry, war-loving admiral – in trying to save the President of Russia, a country now under threat from a rogue commander who wants a war with the US, the silly fool.

Butler doesn’t do a bad job, especially given how he is confined to the sub most of the time while others get to do all the exciting action stuff, yet his vocal delivery sometimes sounds like he has a walnut in his mouth.

As with Den of Thieves, Butler is also a producer on this, so he at least deserves credit for getting behind his own projects, and we all wish him Godspeed, so long as he avoids doing any more rom-coms (PS: I Love You, The Bounty Hunter, anyone?)

With a little generosity of spirit, you could include these modern submarine films as being part of the sub-genre of war films that are set mostly in and around submarines.

Among the best are: Das Boot (1981); We Dive At Dawn (1943); Morning Departure (1946); Ice Station Zebra (1968); Run Silent, Run Deep (1958); Up Periscope (1959); and The Enemy Below (1957, with Robert Mitchum and Curt Jurgens – and probably the best of the bunch).

Hunter Killer doesn’t hit classic status, but you can’t fault it for its scale, its plethora of fireballs or its determination to try and say something positive about Russia.

And just to fill out the submarine-movie cliche list, Hunter Killer also features: underwater shots of torpedoes looking for their targets; subs almost-nearly-but-not-quite getting hit; subs getting hit and breaking in half; underwater explosions that are shown breaking the surface with a volcanic wall of water; an injured sailor in damaged sub who is pinned down by heavy equipment as the water rises; and, of course, majestic shots of a submarine in an emergency ascent breaking the water’s surface at a 45-degree angle.

Keep your glorious sunsets. Nothing can beat the beauty or grace of such a thing.

 

CHARMING ** (85 minutes) G

Pretty wet, though mercifully brief,  musical animated fairy tale parody about Prince Charming trying to find true love while reconciling his simultaneous relationships with Snow White, Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella, who all appear in this film as snooty, obnoxious valley girls.

Kids probably won’t pick up on the forced, pro-feminist theme here, but the film unspools like something that’s been politically corrected to within an inch of its life.

The voice cast includes Demi Lovato, Ashley Tisdale, Avril Lavigne and Sia, which apparently imbues it with some sort of youth demo cred. John Cleese also appears to give voice to the fairy godmother.

Unlike most animated features, which like to incorporate a layer of humour grown-ups can enjoy, adults might find it tough to sit through Charming without surreptitiously checking their email.

 

FAHRENHEIT 11/9 *** (128 minutes) M

The latest anti-Republican tirade from the Oscar-winning maker of films that some people mistake for documentaries is actually quite a hoot.

As he proved with 2004’s Fahrenheit 9/11, director Michael  Moore is a high-order propagandist who knows how to edit for effect.

Here he uses all his favourite tools – comedy cuts; mood-enhancing music; rhetorical narration, etc – to lash out at President Donald Trump, who at one point is accused of being a sexual deviant because of remarks he’s made about how pretty he thinks his daughter Ivanka is.

Oddly, an interesting, legitimate segment about bad drinking water sits inside this film like a stand-alone documentary that was dropped in.

Aside from that, most of the film is the usual partisan BS, cleverly packaged in a way that will even allow Moore’s detractors to sit back and enjoy.

Timed to disrupt Republican support at the mid-term elections in the US, Fahrenheit 11/9 will no doubt be heralded by Moore fans as having had an influence on the result, whichever way the count goes. More level-headed people will see it for the clowning political novelty it is.

 

JOURNEY BEYOND FEAR ***1/2 (100 minutes) PG

Whatever side of the immigration debate you sit on you’d have to have a heart of solid granite not to be moved by Robyn Hughan’s remarkable, humanist chronicle of a refugee family in limbo as it waits for Australia to process its paperwork.

Hughan spent seven years filming an Afghan family stranded in Malaysia, and what an emotionally barbed, heart-ripping story of woe she reveals.

The focus of the film is Zahra, a teenage girl who sacrifices her education to earn money for her impoverished family, only to find herself repeatedly exploited by shameless employers.

That trauma, combined with endless waiting to see if they can resettle in Australia, almost pushes Zahra to a point of annihilation.

Apart from a few captions at the end, Hughan doesn’t seem keen to permeate the film with political point scoring, something she easily could have done with narration and commentary.

Instead, the focus is solely on the people caught up in the horrific state of being stateless, something that comes across as slow torture.

There’s one telling moment when the family is speaking via phone to an Australian human rights group, and Hughan speaks out from behind her camera, trying to help. Out of frame, her tremulous voice makes clear how difficult it is to be in the middle of such a situation and remain objective.

 

THE CLEANERS ***1/2 (89 minutes) MA

The line between responsible oversight and outright censorship on the internet is explored in great detail in this absorbing German documentary.

People whose job it is to allow or deny certain material onto the web explain the stresses and responsibilities their jobs bring, with some enjoying more moral clarity than others.

A terrific documentary, timely and more than a little frightening.  At ACMI.

 

BOOK WEEK **1/2 (101 minutes) M

As a high school teacher with almost no mojo left, Nicholas Cutler (Alan Dukes) is a slovenly, dismissive curmudgeon unhappy with his lot as a one-hit-wonder author who doubts his ability to stir the creative juices sufficiently to produce another publishable work.

Yet when strong interest is shown for a piece of literary fodder he has penned, things begin looking up, however tentatively.

But his life is beset with complications, including mentoring a student, dealing with an affair, an unhappy father (Nicholas Pope), an ambitious pupil and a school system that doesn’t seem to much like his square-peg approach to teaching.

There are very good performances all round in this low-budget Aussie ensemble comedy, but with so much going on it’s sometimes hard keeping track of all the story threads.

Writer/director/producer Heath Davis keeps a lot of plates spinning as Cutler deals with the issues of ego and compromise, and while he clearly had a committed cast one wonders how more engaging events might have been had things not been so cluttered.

Raising much of his $100,000 budget independently, including crowdfunding, Heath Davis made Book Week after returning from a decade-long sojourn to America where he tried getting a film made.

It was not a happy experience.

Davis was kind enough to take a Skype call to discuss Book Week and to detail what life is like in “development hell”, that special place where Hollywood keeps you hoping that your film might just get made if you hang in there long enough.

Please enjoy.

Jim Schembri
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