Mini Film Reviews: Bad Times, Old Man, Rhapsody
Bad Times at the El Boyale
Wrtier/director Drew Goddard’s Bad Times at the El Royale starts out very much like Quentin Tarentino’s Hateful Eight. A series of mysterious characters show up at an inn, and we know just two things: first, no one is quite who they say they are, and second, before the evening is done, most of these people will be dead.
In this case, the iconic era is not the Old West but 1969, the last year of the 1960s, and the joy of the film for some is that it ultimately becomes an exploration of the 1960s. I was only a little kid at the time, but no-one who lived through those years…. the Vietnam War, an out-of-control CIA, the rise of Soul music, the Charles Manson cult and other strange organizations… can ever forget them.
But that’s not enough to making a movie watchable. What does make it watchable are those mysterious characters, so obviously Not What They Seem: It’s pre-ordained conclusion that Jeff Bridges is no priest and that Jon Hamm, as a jokey vacuum-cleaner salesmen is something more than he seems.
That Bridges turns out to be something less than clerical was almost inevitable; what’s more surprising is that there’s more of a priest in him than he himself suspects, and you really have to see the film to know what I mean. Dakota Johnson is a femme fatale who is much more than that. She’s a woman with a mission, but when the revelation comes as to what that mission is, it’s surprising indeed.
The Old Man and the Gun
This is supposed to be aging leading man Robert Redford’s last film, and he seems to be a man on a mission: to mount the Redford charm offensive one last time, to show that his career was always more about his personality and his intelligence than his looks. He’s chosen an interesting path in his career: to resist plastic surgery with a vengeance, to be a natural man. As for his blonde hair with a tiny trace of strawberry blonde: miraculously, that’s all still there, with only the tiniest tufts of grey starting to emerge at the sides. He’s the Natural Man, proving that he can age gracefully.
It’s visually interesting. Where once the camera love the angles of his face, while makeup smoothed over any pockmarks, it now explores the ridges of his face like the canyons and river beds of the Old West. And the film, though set in the Midwest, seems to be an ironic tribute to the Westerns of the past with their likable outlaws. This is the Sundance Kid, somehow surviving the massacre in Bolivia, now allowed to grow old.
The result is a good-natured film that doesn’t seem to be about anything so much as a career retrospective. The main character, named Forest Tucker, is pursued by lawman Casey Affleck, who finds documentary and photographic evidence as the criminal as a young man. David Lowery cleverly and deftly works in decades-old pictures of the young Redford… and those of us of a certain age will think, We’ve known this guy for quite a while now. Sad to see you go.
The mark of a great bio-pic is one that tells the story of the lifelong pursuit (or at least temporary pursuit) of a great dream; this is why the movie Gandhi towers above the rest. Bohemian Rhapsody reaches this plateau about twenty-five minutes before the credits… it’s then that rock singer Freddy Mercury’s life reaches a crisis point, leading up to the famous Live-Aid concert in the 1980s that broke all records.
That’s when the film finally takes off for the stratosphere. Much of the film up to that point feels earthbound by comparison. Young Freddy, gifted with an overbite that strangely makes him into a great singer with the fantastic range of four octaves, lucks into meeting with three other band mates similarly destined for greatness as the musical group “Queen.” The four of them quickly proceed to take 1970s and 1980s pop/rock music by storm.
The big discovery here is Rami Malek in the lead role of Freddie Mercury. The film does concern itself with the rest of the band (Gwilym Lee, Ben Hardy, and Joseph Mozzello), but to say that Malek steals the movie is an understatement. He inhabits the role, living out Freddy’s self-doubts and quirks. (He loves cats, not that this is a bad thing.) There’s some arguments here and there, and some fantastic guitar rifts, reminding us that Queen was never precisely a one-man show.
Seeds of interpersonal conflict are planted: Freddy’s confusion over his sexuality (which, had he been born twenty years later, would be almost a non-issue), the advisability of playing a song six-minutes long on the radio, and the constant search to define one’s family amid career, emotional ties, and the traditions of one’s ancestors. Freddy Mercury was brought up Persian and Zoroastrian.
But the demons are exorcised by the tour-de-force brilliance of the last scenes. It’s worth at least the price of a Queen DVD, and maybe then some. Shakepseare would say: If you have tears, prepare to shed them now. Freddy Mercury would say: We will, we will, rock you.