For a review of “Bohemian Rhapsody,”
We can stipulate a few things about “Bohemian Rhap- sody.” We can stipulate that it’s not a great movie. We can stipulate that, in many ways, it’s not even a very good movie. As a trite, often laughably cliched biopic of Queen frontman Freddie Mercury, an enterprise that should have been as daring and flamboyantly theatrical as its subject winds up being bowdlerized, Wiki-fied, distortingly compressed and unforgivably conventional. And yet.
We can also stipulate that, despite the myriad shortcomings of its parts, the sum of “Bohemian Rhapsody” winds up being giddily entertaining, first as an exercise in so-bad-it’s-funny kitsch, and ultimately as something far more meaningful and thrilling. Every now and then, a film comes along that defies the demands of taste, formal sophistication, even artistic honesty to succeed simply on the level of pure, inexplicable pleasure. “Bohemian Rhapsody” is just that cinematic unicorn: the bad movie that works, even when it shouldn’t.
As a whirligig tour through Mercury’s rise and tragic end (he died from AIDS-related pneumonia in 1991), “Bohemian Rhapsody” hits all the expected notes: We meet young Farrokh Bulsara (Rami Malek), the son of immigrants from Zanzibar, when he’s working as a baggage handler at Heathrow Airport, writing songs on the fly and making pilgrimages to a local club to hear his favorite band, Smile. When that group’s lead singer quits, Bulsara holds his own impromptu audition in the parking lot, wowing guitarist Brian May (Gwilym Lee) and drummer Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy) with his soaring range and instant harmonizability. Not since Ally sang “Shallow” for Jackson Maine outside Super A Foods have the musical gods smiled so fortuitously.
What follows is the stuff of familiar history: Renamed Queen at the suggestion of Bulsara (who already called himself Freddie and went on to adopt the stage name Mercury), the band becomes hugely popular throughout the 1970s and 1980s, creating pop anthems and an extravagant stage show that defies rock’s grittily macho self-image and proves improbably galvanizing.
Meanwhile, Freddie proposes to the love of his life, Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton), even though deep in both their hearts, they know that he’s gay. As Freddie’s fame grows, so do his conflicts: with his own sexual identity, with an unscrupulous manager, with isolation and drugs and, finally, with the band that made him a star.
Part of what makes the plot of “Bohemian Rhapsody” so dreary is that it doesn’t illuminate anything beyond what the audience probably already knows (or, just as likely, knows more about). Schematic and shallow, it flits from one hoary set piece to the next with all of the insight, surprise and psychological depth of a sanitized “Behind the Music” episode or unironic remake of “Walk Hard.”
If anyone doubted that cinema is an actor’s medium, “Bohemian Rhapsody” arrives as indisputable proof. Even behind a set of distracting prosthetic teeth simulating Freddie’s famous overbite, Malek delivers a committed, thoroughly inhabited performance, which winds up transcending the regrettably thin material at hand. Considerably shorter than his character, Malek nonetheless masters the muscular swagger and captivating stage presence of a man who, when he sings in front of his first big crowd, announces that he’s finally discovered his life’s calling. Even at his most fey and alien-looking, Malek makes that statement utterly credible.
Happily — and crucially — the supporting roles in “Bohemian Rhapsody” are just as well-judged, As an end-credits montage suggests, the actors playing May, Taylor and bassist John Deacon (Joseph Mazzello) look eerily like their real-life analogues. The best parts of “Bohemian Rhapsody” have less to do with Freddie’s tribulations than the mysterious alchemy of a collaboration between four selfdescribed misfits that on paper never would have worked, but yielded uncanny and enduring results.
“Bohemian Rhapsody” ends with one of the most memorable movie finales in recent memory, when the filmmakers restage, almost note for note, Queen’s appearance at Live Aid in 1985, a performance that went down in history as perhaps the finest live set ever, and one that convinced those who had dismissed Queen as a camp event of the group’s technical prowess and electrifying showmanship. It’s a bravura passage, in which Malek’s physical presence fuses seamlessly with Freddie’s slightly ragged voice. As he gains strength, so does the scene and, by extension, the movie, which take on weight and emotion and an inescapable, infectious joy.
“Bohemian Rhapsody” might have started out as an ode to the supernatural talent of one man. It ends as a testament to a band, and simply how good they made their fans feel.
“Bohemian Rhapsody,” a Twentieth Century Fox release, is rated PG-13 for mature thematic elements, suggestive material, drug use and strong language. Running time: 13 minutes. ★★½
In its broadest parameters, Disney’s “The Nutcracker and the Four Realms” hews only loosely to its source materials: German writer E.T.A. Hoffmann’s 1816 fantasy story “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King” and the twoact ballet - now a staple of Christmastime entertainment - that is based on it. Otherwise, the film, a mix of live action and CGI, is, for better and for worse, pure Disney.
What that means is a visual spectacle that is wildly imaginative, dazzling and, more often than not, charming, harnessed to a screenplay (by Ashleigh Powell) that pads out the slender, dreamlike fable at its heart with an at times needlessly busy narrative that evokes “Alice in Wonderland,” “The Chronicles of Narnia” and, at its most extravagant, Cirque du Soleil. That said, the movie also includes passages of simple ballet featuring Misty Copeland. While doing little to advance the larger story, the beautiful dance sequences make for a delightful reminder of the film’s roots. The score, by James Newton Howard, also mixes in plentiful chunks of Tchaikovsky’s familiar music.
As with most versions of the ballet, the story centers on a girl named Clara Stahlbaum (Mackenzie Foy) and opens at a Christmas Eve party that is attended by her father (Matthew Macfadyen) and godfather (Morgan Freeman), a toymaker of ingenious contrivances named Drosselmeyer. In this London-set version of the tale, when Clara wanders off in search of her present from Drosselmeyer, the key to a locked, ornate metal egg, she enters -— via a “Narnia”-like magic portal — an alternate universe.
There, she meets the film’s title character: a wooden nutcracker who has turned into a young soldier named Philip (Jayden Fowora-Knight). He introduces Clara to four realms: the lands of Sweets, Snowflakes, Flowers and Amusements, each one reigned over by a different regent (played to perfection by Keira Knightley, Richard E. Grant, Eugenio Derbez and Helen Mirren, respectively). In this telling, there is dissent among the regents, and Mirren’s character — known as Mother Ginger, a character from the ballet under whose voluminous skirts live a coterie of clowns — is presented as the villain. But all is not as it seems. In Powell’s screenplay, as in the ballet, a battle ensues among mice, tin soldiers, Clara, Philip and various others, but it is in service of an extraneous power struggle that doesn’t make much logical sense if you think about it too hard. A subplot involves Clara’s journey of self-discovery and feminist empowerment, a seemingly de rigueur plot point these days in every female-centric Disney offering from “Beauty and the Beast” to “A Wrinkle in Time.” And good for them. “The Nutcracker and the Four Realms” can be a little bit scary at times. The Mouse King, for instance, is a horse-size mouse-cloud made up of hundreds of squirming, normal-size rodents. Kudos to the special effects team that dreamed this thing up, but ew. Otherwise, the action is all make-believe, involving, for the most part, toys with nonlethal weapons.
In the end, “Nutcracker” is a delightfully old-school diversion. The plot may not always hum with the clockwork precision of one of Drosselmeyer’s mechanical toys, but like a music box, it nevertheless plays a sweet tune.
“The Nutcracker,” a Disney releaase, is rated PG. Running time: 90 minutes.
Mackenzie Foy, left, and Keira Knightley stars in the new Disney release “The Nutcracker and the Four Realms.”