Bohemian Rhapsody

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Bohemian Rhapsody is not the worst film my eyes have ever seen. However, its high production values, the near mythic status of the picture’s protagonists, and the wild critical and popular acclaim this has received creates in me a righteous anger, an irrepressible urge to cry out to the heavens: THIS MOVIE IS AN AFFRONT AGAINST AN ENTIRE ART FORM!!

A cruel reminder to aspiring writers everywhere of how cold and unfair the universe is, a major Hollywood studio paid good money to produce a script that’s simply a collection of Wikipedia tidbits on one of music’s most popular bands. There is nothing here that wouldn’t be out of place if you gave a writing assignment to high schoolers on the life of Freddie Mercury. Actually, I’m sure those essays would at least attempt to provide some explanation as to why Mercury had a drug problem, or why he felt so empty despite engaging in orgies each night. Because you know what this script does? Nothing. It simply walks us through a Freddie Mercury for Dummies recreation that’s never as complex or even as wild as anything the man ever did. Seriously, there’s a scene in which Mercury gets up on a couch in the middle of a party, shouts something like “the party is just getting started!”, everybody cheers, and then the scene just…ends.

There’s plenty of stuff like that. Freddie Mercury walking into a gay bar, except is it really a gay bar? I can’t tell because the scene is interspersed with footage of a record spinning, which is actually one of the better applications of editing in a movie that mistakes it for “cut to many reaction shots as possible in every freaking scene”.

As for the conflict? There is none. Sure, the band members fight and break up, Freddie doesn’t get along with his dad, he fires his longtime manager, he gets divorced, he is manipulated by an evil henchman then breaks up with him under the rain, he is diagnosed with AIDS, and yet none of this holds any weight.

Consider the following: Mercury brings shame to his father in the opening scene. Then the old man is never seen nor heard of again. Then 10 minutes before the movie ends, Freddie Mercury hugs his dad and forgives him, and his father cries in Mercury’s arms. Such shoddy attempts at redemption in character arcs are fine if you’re watching cartoons or are not familiar with literature, but in a movie of this caliber with the protagonist being who he was? It’s not even lazy, it’s perverse. It’s doing the bare minimum to trick the audience into believing catharsis has been acquired, when in reality they might as well be witnessing two strangers hug for random reasons.

There is no depth to any of this, no attempt to humanize the gods that went on stage and drove everybody to ecstasy with their music. This is just actors wearing wigs and playing the favorite songs of everyone who after watching it, later went on IMDB and submitted their Oscar ballots with a note saying “play them again!”.

F

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Assassination Nation

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Visually exciting but frenetic in its themes-what else can you expect from a movie entirely made up of Twitter talking points-, Assassination Nation is sadly a product for our age: moronic characters sermonizing to crowds who lack as much self-awareness as they do.

D+

Columbus

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I’ve never seen a film as obsessed with symmetry as Columbus. Yes, I’m familiar with Wes Anderson’s oeuvre and its painstakingly perfect set designs, but their primary function is to be, well, sets. Columbus’s attention to detail runs deeper than being aesthetically pleasing.

The composition here is perfect, but not only when architecture is involved. Whenever Jin (John Cho) and Cassandra (Haley Lu Richardson) are together, the camera frames them perfectly symmetrical, Cassandra usually occupying the space to the right, and Jin the left. On the occasions in which the camera captures them on opposing screen sides, it’s usually with a purpose. Their first meeting, in which Jin is on the right and Cassandra on the left, is literally delineated by a steel fence that separates the two, splitting the frame neatly in half.

This mirroring also applies to the plot itself, as both characters have rocky relationships with their parents. Jin resents his dad for making him come back to him, and Cassandra is sad because she doesn’t feel she can leave her mom behind. I wasn’t exaggerating when I began talking about how crazy the uniformity is.

The only downside is that at times everything feels too neat, too much like a movie. Life will never look as it does here. There’s not a wasted shot, which makes things feel a bit artificial from time to time. However, it doesn’t stop it from being an affecting little movie.

B+

I, Daniel Blake

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“I feel like I’m in a time warp”, says Daniel Blake (Dave Johns) more to himself than to the nameless, faceless bureaucrat who’s been making him wait on the phone for an hour. By the end of I, Daniel Blake, the titular hero would have indeed journeyed from one ridiculous scenario to the other.

Director Ken Loach, widely known for his overtly political filmography, approaches Blake’s misadventures with a mentality of “the less excitement, the better”, and it shows. The film is a series of episodes in which the protagonists shuffle from one demeaning event to another, their dignity slowly eroding. It’s very uncomfortable to sit through, but no doubt it’s also necessary.

B

Listen to me Marlon

“Then I saw it, I saw a mom who would die for her son, a man who would kill for his wife, a boy, angry & alone, laid out in front of him the bad path. I saw it & the path was a circle, round & round.”

The first film I watched post Christian conversion was Looper, the time travel adventure from which the above quote is taken. Could I have asked for a better start to my movie watching career? I make it no secret that I am only here due to the grace and love of Almighty God, His grace extending to the way I experience and process cinema. The themes present in Looper would open the door for me to view movies as much more than just images on the screen, giving way to the exploration of the idea of love as the ultimate catalyst that molds human behavior. This culminated with the discovery that film presented the reality given voice by the apostle when he cries out “what a wretched man I am! who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death?”

Listen to Me Marlon is an illuminating document on the pressing need for a Savior. It is a fascinating, sometimes deeply rueful account of a man who had everything. I would have loved to have his money! But speaking more to my nature, I would have loved to possess his good looks and flirtatious demeanor! There’s a scene depicting Marlon Brandon talking up a reporter who’s interviewing him, and it’s something to behold. His smirk, knowing full well she’s liking what he’s saying; her averted gaze, not believing this is actually happening. Here’s a man who knows he can get anybody he wants. How cool is that?

Of course the easy thing to say now would be, “but even after having everything, he was still unhappy. money doesn’t buy happiness!”. But that would miss the point entirely, removing any nuance from our lives and painting those with material wealth as less noble than the rest of us. Indeed, the documentary features many scenes of a Brandon entirely at bliss. The goal of the documentary is never to make us pity Marlon Brandon, nor is it asking us to understand him (is understanding a life, even our own, ever possible?). No, for the 100 minutes that Marlon Brando speaks directly to us the goal is quite simple: empathize.

Empathize not with a universally beloved movie star, but with a human being who was born on the same planet as the rest of us. Indeed, Brando’s story is our story, the small details varying but the overall picture looking the same: a life in a world with pain as its principal currency, with every soul aching for a more permanent release than wealth, or family, or sex.

And so as a circle that goes round and round, we’re back at the quote that opened this piece. If you’ve seen Looper, you know that immediately after uttering those words, Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), the protagonist of the story, sacrifices himself to break the vicious circle of hopelessness. We too have somebody who sacrificed himself for us, for each and every one of us, so we could be free. I think you already know His name.

50/50

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He’s on the phone with his therapist, who’s also his friend, and tells her “I wish you were my girlfriend”. There’s no self-pity in his words, and a sense of desperation is nowhere to be found. Rather it is the logical next step of a man who has at long last made peace with the fact that he’s dying, harboring no other desire but that of speaking truth.

B+

Midnight Cowboy

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My knowledge of Midnight Cowboy prior to watching it began and ended with the famous “I’m walking here!” line. It seemed like a funny scene. Indeed, the movie features a handful of moments that could be labeled comedic, but make no mistake: there’s nothing funny about any of it.

In fact, not only is it not funny, it’s a deeply sad look at characters who very rarely get their stories told. As such, despite the film being half a century old, some things still surprise. Take for instance Rico Rizzo’s (Dustin Hoffman) home. The man lives in an abandoned, closed off building, and the director takes its time to show the audience how exactly living in an empty place works like. There’s crummy mattresses, a refrigerator used as a storage box, a curtain that appears to be made out of paper.

What’s left the film bouncing around in my head is its pervasive sense of loneliness. Not because it exists but because even then, 50 years ago, it was being introduced in cinema. I’ve gotten used to seeing multiple examinations of sad and lonely characters in film, but they are all product of the 21st century. This made sense to me. But to discover that humans have been carrying this burden since the beginning of time? How despairing.

A- 

Juno

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The humor bellying Juno reminds me of the once great sitcom Community. What made that show work tremendously, at least for its first 3 seasons before its butchering by hubris, was its deft balance of goofy and heartfelt. It’s characters would wittily banter back and forth for an episode, while never losing sight of the emotional core, be it familial neglect or loneliness.

Juno is a great comedy not because its characters feel real (has there ever been such a smart alek 16 year old?), but because they feel alive. Their dilemmas and desires mirror our own, and make us feel less lonely. If characters who think and speak like everybody in the Juno universe can struggle, but finally succeed at getting their life together, then maybe so can we.

B+

The Fountain

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I would stay up until the early morning hours awaiting her reply. Unable to fall asleep, I’d leave my computer on the floor and lie in bed, grieving for her. Every so often I would hit Refresh, and the same result would greet me: nothing. I must have repeated this routine every night until I began taking sleep medication.

It would be a lie to write that I have thought of Bella everyday for the past seven years. The truth is, I didn’t have to; she was there without me searching my memories for her. Her absence became a part of my nature, as normal to me now as taking a breath every second.

Too often the visual representations of love that Hollywood conjures on the screen are vapid, only paying lip service to the most powerful of human forces in an attempt to appeal to the widest possible demographic. But before it sounds like I am complaining, I must clarify that this trend has worked to my advantage. Without this surface level Hollywood product, I would have missed out on the rare movies that possess the audacity to examine love in all of its hideous glory, since they would stop being rare.

Pictures such as Atonement, the Before trilogy, Blue is the Warmest Color; these films have burrowed deep into my soul, becoming more like moments experienced than mere movies watched. They have made me feel a less broken, defective man by giving me a glimpse that yes, true love does alter your humanity and there’s no shame in ruing over someone whose face you haven’t seen nor voice heard in seven years.

Does this mean that The Fountain is as phenomenal a film as the ones I listed above? Hardly! Yet its messiness-which is what impedes it from being sublime-is what also grants it its staying power. Were my grief ever to be visualized, it would resemble something like The Fountain: cutting between timelines, consumed by rage and sadness and fear, and surrounded by the woman I love at every turn. There is no order to thoughts, no rationality to be found when the heart is bleeding out. Throughout the entire film, Tommy (Hugh Jackman) is a man possessed to do the impossible, and his heroic efforts are moving to behold.

The atmosphere the film creates is one that absolutely envelops the viewer. Is it melancholia that you’re left with? The sense that the doom of love is an unstoppable fact of life. Or is it hope? The reminder that our bodies are indeed the prison of our spirits, and that there should be gratitude for the brief time we spent in love, making our flesh forget about the woes of the world. What’s certain is that there’s few films with the cumulative effect that The Fountain has had on yours truly (watched it twice in 24 hours!).

A beautiful and tender motion picture that underneath its loopy facade holds a resonant truth, The Fountain may very well be a fairy tale, but its one anchored in raw and unshakable realities. Yes, love transcends every boundary of time and space, but in the end the film  settles on a quieter and equally noble note. There’s no weakness in saying bye, and there’s beauty in letting go.

A- 

Brigsby Bear

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It’s not that movies make me feel less lonely. If anything, depending on the quality or subject matter, they remind me of it, reinforce it even. Movies join me in loneliness, they can make me understand how I got there, and maybe also how to get better. I know I am undeserving of the gift of experiencing films, and I thank God for it. However, several times now I have thought whether watching them has warped my perception of the real world.

Could it be that what I perceive as personal and shameful failures, for example my perpetual singleness, is more due to the gross expectations Hollywood set for me than for who I am? An interesting thought, and one that I’m hesitant to hold on for fear of it removing the sense of responsibility I now carry. That it’s me, and I must get better somehow.