“Bohemian Rhapsody” is a biopic that is more resonant in theory than in practice, a study of Freddie Mercury that seems like it was filmed after its director and writer researched their subject over one brief afternoon on Wikipedia. What a shame it comes to this – that after years of false starts and changing casting decisions and ambitious goals, a film about one of the most profound entertainers of his time is barely motivated to offer the basic outline of his journey, much less a few precious insights. For a good while, it appears to be going somewhere: a series of early scenes feature the avid and gifted Mercury (played here with precision by Rami Malek) charm his way into a job as a college band’s lead singer, push them towards big gigs, master a distinct sense of showmanship on stage and even negotiate the band’s future in a record deal with significant creative control. Yet as the scenes pass and the camera peers into recording sessions to catch a glimpse of their intricate creative process, we begin to sense a distinct absence of a group dynamic. Their dramatic interest is curiously muted. Does that not, in itself, contradict the very nature of the Mercury persona, who moved as if guided by magic on stage while guarding over deep and meaningful relationships, including those with his bandmates, behind the scenes?
Imagine, if you will, a world in which images on a cellphone screen secretly possess free will. They don’t so much exist as they consciously regard themselves as tools in a grand purpose, which involves competing for popularity against those who are either eccentric or unconventional. By the most basic principle of an outline, what goes on in their small world is the equivalent the modern high school social structure – all about cliques and illusions instead of any sense of individualism. That makes it rough for anyone attempting to break free of that monotony, but teenagers at least have an outlet: those constraints come to an end after four years. What of the poor helpless beings that populate “The Emoji Movie,” who are resigned to live an unending existence of tedium for the sake of keeping pace with the demands of their owner’s anxious trigger fingers? What happens if someone can’t conform to the expectation? A conflict ensues when one of them shows emotions he ought not to be programmed with, leading to a suggested malfunction that could potentially destroy them all in a massive hard drive reboot. But if that will erase everything, including them, then why has no one bothered to inform them that most cellphones tend to die out after a three-year stint anyway?
If most modern films consciously exploit a spiritual link to the past, then “You Were Never Really Here” shares its most fundamental detail with the great “Taxi Driver.” Both are stories in which men weather the curse of exhaustive past traumas, all the while using them to mask a brooding contempt for civilization. In relation to these worldviews, each sees children as victims of a corrupt paradigm that must be dismantled, be it through activism or slaughter. The conflicted antihero of Scorsese’s film kept the company of a young teenage prostitute as motivation to pick up arms and become her protector, and now comes Joe, played by Joaquin Phoenix, a loner who is hired by others to save teenage girls from human trafficking, and then murder their enslavers. At first the routine seems too coarse and vulgar, even in the framework of a film saturated in nihilism, but a thoughtful picture becomes clearer with each passing sequence: this is a man who was exposed to violence when he was too young to process it, and the psychological wound it created is more easily soothed through vengeance for the innocent.
It appears, quite likely, that I have simply misinterpreted the bloody jaunts orchestrated by one Angela Baker. After two movies in which we see her do away with nearly all her peers, usually in moments where awkward posture emphasizes her meek stature next to victims that otherwise ought to be able to overpower the situation, a reader has wisely chimed in that she may have just been kidding the whole time. “These movies are supposed to be funny!”, he confesses. Ok, let’s go with that for the sake of moving through “Sleepaway Camp III,” which occurs one year after the events of the previous, when the community seems to still permeate the stigma of tragedy. Yes, it is entirely possible to view the fact that this year’s roster of participants camping on the same grounds as the previous murders is hilarious – after all, who would be stupid enough to really allow the possibility, especially knowing that the culprit was still at large? Or how about the fact that the camp counselors function less like authorities and more like clueless caricatures, unwise to Angela’s mayhem until they are staring back at her instruments of death? How about that whopper of a development of a supporting player named Barney, who is actually a cop, and the father of a son who was beheaded by Angela the year prior? Normally we would assume he is there to be a protector to those who might face repeating history, but those clever old writers have stumped us; he doesn’t realize she is back on campgrounds until staring at the loaded end of a gun. What a romp of a good time all of us could have had, if we knew from the start that this was done with a tongue firmly planted in the filmmaker’s cheek!
The title alone inspires more thought than anything occurring on screen. What do these campers have to be unhappy about, you might ask? Are the would-be victims of yet another massacre in the great outdoors as miserable as the first warning insists? If so, what is the source of their discontent? Could it be they are dejected because all their friends start randomly disappearing? Not really, as that does little to affect their routine. Are they angered by the overzealous discipline instilled on them by a camp counsellor who treats them like infants? Hardly; her tactics provide the fuel for their own consistent rebellion. Are they just generally depressed? Not at all, otherwise they wouldn’t banter with one another like teenagers at a frat party for nearly every scene they occupy. No, these people are in total bliss of what they are doing, ignorant of what is coming for them. So what is it that constitutes that strange insinuation? I have a theory it’s an in-joke for the actors, all of whom look uncomfortable reciting inane dialogue while they are provided awkward overlapping speaking cues. That is the least of their worries. Unfortunately, by the time something strange or foreboding makes itself known to any of them, they are all in situations in which they will be murdered by someone with a strange axe to grind, usually before there is a chance to react. The real unhappy ones should be the audience: not only does the film contain no mystery or buildup, it reveals the face of the murderer before the opening credits have rolled.
Long ago in the alcoves of the purest childhood memories, a charming nanny fell from the sky over England and became a lynchpin for the ambitious daydreams of young moviegoers. Although five decades have come and gone since “Mary Poppins” instilled that impression and captivated many a heart, rarely does she escape the notice of those in the recent generations, who have stockpiled their own experiences as the film endures across all the traditional time barriers. It was perhaps always inevitable, therefore, that the legend would eventually inspire thoughts of a follow-up, especially given how eager the Disney brand is to repeat its own history. And now in the midst of a parade of live-action remakes and reboots comes “Mary Poppins Returns,” in which we are presented the opportunity to spend another two colorful hours in the company of an unassuming caregiver who whisks her subjects into the world of elaborate musical fantasy. It goes without saying that there was little possibility of anyone besting the great adventures of the first film, but the good news is that even cynics of this formula will leave the theater feeling thankful for the chance to engage with a delightful spectacle rather than a pointless retread.
There is no easy entry point for those fascinated by the world Yorgos Lanthimos creates in “Dogtooth,” but the impenetrable nature of the material burns through our curiosity like a hot knife cutting through margarine. Here is where the very heart of the director’s well-known panache for elaborate absurdism drew its first beat, in a story of a family so far removed from the civilized world that they could very well be existing on a sound stage. Sometimes that even seems like a legitimate possibility, particularly as we attempt to pigeonhole the plot details through our knowledge of film convention; there are scenes modulated as if they are hinting at something grandiose, like a great reveal just waiting to be uncovered. Our mistake, and therefore his asset, is assuming this all leads to some sort of payoff. This is a movie that demands us to simply observe, contemplate and react without riding any of the traditional waves. There are no reveals, no sudden twists of fate beckoning us on towards a detail highlighting the literal context. And to show any patience with whatever endurance test drives these characters, we are asked to accept them not as fully realized people roused by curiosity, but as experiments comfortable with their cultural isolation.
Vampires rarely require the companionship of fearless dupes to function as predators, but it certainly changes up the monotony of an exhausting routine. Luckily for one featured in “Twilight,” he makes the company of a teenage girl who audaciously regards him as an equal. Maybe that’s part of what cripples the movie surrounding them: it misconstrues the dynamic that is otherwise fundamental. These are not unions established by conflicted beasts and ambivalent humans, but by souls who find that their alienation is one helluva common interest to flirt over. Sometimes, they even share in the same sense of hormonal desire – hers new and emerging, his apparently immune to hundreds of years of undeath. They circle around the point until there is no way to avoid the inevitable: their awkward exchanges and forceful outbursts are a mechanism standing in for eventual foreplay. That might have worked in a film that had any sense of what characters were about beyond their need to touch the forbidden, but like most great psychological lessons in the hands of novices, this is a story far more interested in dancing to rhythms than understanding melody.
When a novice filmmaker exceeds the restrictions of a formula, he proves he may have a talent. When he unsuccessfully attempts the challenge a second time, one wonders if that talent may have just been dumb luck. That becomes the point of consideration throughout the course of “Hell House LLC 2: The Abaddon Hotel,” a sequel that has more questionable distinctions than just a convoluted title. The contrast is made more obvious by how young Stephen Cognetti contradicts the simplicity of his first endeavor, a film that, you may recall, used no CGI and generated monumental scares from camera angles, editing tricks and convincing performances. By most estimations it was a terrific little movie that harbored all the necessities of quality horror. But now he and a new cast of unknowns has been overtaken by the need to stuff a follow-up with laborious explanations, one-note acting, countless subplots involving paranormal experts and one-off viral sensations, confusing shifts between timelines and a final reveal that destroys whatever mystique is left in the premise. If our first trip through the notorious Hell House was wrought with thrilling dangers, here is a reminder that going back is rarely worth the price of admission.
The story goes, as it must, through the grinder of utterly dependable formula: a terrible and inexplicable event occurs to people, and years later the footage of the victims winds up in the hands of mystified onlookers. This is the initial pitch made by “Hell House, LLC,” yet another entry into the “found footage” division of horror films, where the accounts of would-be victims are well-documented by the cameras they hold. This time, the prey has abandoned notions of searching for vengeful witches or spiritual hauntings and have come to, basically, document something less ominous – that is, putting together a local Halloween attraction in Abaddon, New York. Unbeknownst to them, alas, the abandoned hotel that comes to be the site of their frightful venture is more than just dark rooms filled with strange noises and creaking floorboards. It seems to permeate some sort of threatening energy. Sometimes, the viewing lens will even spy this possibility – shadows in corners, symbols etched on the basement walls, figures moving through doorways, and Halloween props that move entirely on their own. Did they bring some sore of malevolence in there with them, or was it always there, lying dormant? Some wisely suggest leaving behind the project, but one stubborn proprietor refuses, leading to a chaotic and frightening opening night in which 15 people pay with their lives, including most of the original managers.
In Hollywood’s second year as a force of dissent in the climate of Trumpism, no greater achievement resonated with the public more than “Black Panther.” Against all forecasts and most common trends it was a movie that broke the barriers of its genre, becoming the first film featuring a significant cast of black actors to cross the billion-dollar threshold. In a time when there is more demand for the representation of minorities in studio output, this was comforting: it meant that the mainstream element was, at long last, reflecting the diversity of modern American society, and doing so while sneering gleefully at traditionalists still pining for more of the same. Those were the sorts who nursed their cynicism into indignity, particularly as their more favored choices – violent action vehicles and remakes – often stalled at a box office overrun with the audacity of inclusion.
Somewhere in the elegance and luxury of 18th century England, Yorgos Lanthimos has uncovered a grotesque social underbelly. It exists not in the villages of the poverty-stricken or the back alleys of seedy tradesmen, but in the very corridors that surround Queen Anne, who has taken ill and depends on the council of devoted servants that are intoxicated by their own prestige. In many cases, they also seem destined to break all notions of social code, and there is a scene early on that exemplifies this: Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz), the queen’s closest consort, exchanges barbs with Harley (Nicholas Hoult) about the trajectory of war with France. He is opposed to it, but her venomous gaze seems to revel in his protest. Is she doing it because she believes in approving excessively high land taxes, or is she getting off on her own grip of the power hammer? What makes that scene, and so many others, so utterly biting is how the characters treat the concept of speech. It is a weapon against influence, not a bridge to understanding it. And for two hours we pause and watch as public formalities spill over into private sessions filled with scheming and cruelty, as if destinies are written from the blood and tears of the betrayed. At some point a background figure among them proves to be the most menacing of all: someone who will come to play at the table like a pupil silently undermining its teacher, even if it may be at the cost of more than just mere loyalties.
Did the characters of “Home Alone” survive the ordeal of the original film, or could they have slipped into an alternate timeline before cameras showed up for the sequel? This is one of many questions worth mulling over as the events of “Home Alone 2: Lost in New York” play out in all their absurd glory, right down to a shameless and patronizing third act, which even contains a scene where young Kevin McCallister (Macaulay Culkin) tries to lecture a homeless woman on living in fear of a broken heart. Where does he get the nerve? Perhaps he was empowered by enduring through the climax of the first film, where he outsmarted two burglars with comic savagery. Maybe surviving alone, stranded from his family, gave him pause to recognize his own fierce independence. Maybe being on the streets of Manhattan have hardened his edge. Or most likely he has just become the victim of writing that has lost its grip on any form of tangible reality. This is not a hard possibility to assume, after all, particularly when you consider everything that leads to that point. Here is a film where the adults lack common logic, parents are deluded to think they have a shred of credibility, and situations are contrived for the purpose of a cartoonish agenda that moves from one ridiculous moment to the next without any substantial point. Whatever merits we attach to the first film in this series, they are all but abandoned somewhere in the mess of a follow-up.
For some well-versed in the unremorseful extremism of Lars von Trier’s films, “The House That Jack Built” will play like business as usual. Others still may observe it as an exercise in arrogance and perversion, well exceeding the necessities of its premise. Both perspectives skirt the more devious intention lurking beneath. Sure, this is a film that walks, talks and personifies the idea of what a serial killer must be – right down to the rigid and perceptive way he uses his victims as set pieces in an elaborate show of self-proclaimed artistry – but beneath those disturbing exteriors is a critical essay about how a filmmaker with cynical worldviews sees himself in a reality that tries desperately to stifle his chaotic creations. To him, Jack is a self-projection, and his victims the willing cattle of a slaughter they seem subconsciously willing to submit to. Most important directors at some point in their career will create these sorts of on-screen avatars to symbolize their ideology, usually for the sake of revealing themselves to an audience caught up in misconceptions. Von Trier’s distinction comes from less generous conceits: he relishes this chance to play on your aesthetic limits and doesn’t care how you will respond.
A cheery outlaw kicks back in the saddle of a wandering horse while singing a whimsical melody. A foreboding figure enters a bank, attempts to rob it, and is thrust into a series of repeating encounters with a hangman’s noose. A crippled orator with exemplary memory skills is peddled across the frontier by an impresario with dark ulterior motives. An old man, seeking fortune, sets up camp in a beautiful valley to discover its great secrets, even though it may be at the cost of his safety. Siblings join the Oregon trail with monetary agendas, only to be thwarted by disease and unlikely circumstances. And a carriage carrying five strangers wanders through the desolate hills before diverting them, quite literally, into the middle of an existential crisis. Somehow, someway, all these narrative threads matter enough to the Coen brothers to make up the six stories of “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” an anthology that claims to be about the varying sorts of personalities populating the Old West. But I suspect the agenda runs deeper for them than that. And as I sat and observed their yarns, dumbfounded by some and enthralled by others, I looked beyond the zealous wonder of their film to sense a transcendent undertow, as if they were summarizing the entirety of their careers in episodes that each play like the different ideals they carry in an aesthetic arsenal.