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Bohemian Rhapsody is a biopic of Freddie Mercury (Rami Malek), the iconic lead singer of the British rock band Queen. It starts with the early life of Freddie, whose birth name was Farrokh Bulsara, was born in Zanzibar, and grew up there and in India before moving to England with this family.

He is widely regarded as one of the best singers in rock history with a vocal range of four octaves. Freddie broke through stereotypes and conquered convention when he lead the band Queen through a meteoric rise in the 1980s.

Freddie’s lifestyle almost ruined the band. They reunited just before the Live Aid concert in 1985. Their performance at that concert is widely regarded as the greatest rock performance of all time.

The movie was criticized for flattening out the Freddie Mercury character, but I don’t know how you could give it any more depth in a movie. Yes, to the music critics and people studying the persona of the famed singer, no movie can ever do it justice.

But for the average person, like me, who really wasn’t that into any specific band, Bohemian Rhapsody has prompted me to study up on Queen, read more about Freddie, and relive some of those iconic moments in rock history.

Rami Malek did an amazing job playing Freddie. He warned the producers that he is not a singer. The soundtrack is original Queen, and the voice of Freddie. The New York Times also reported that Rami’s voice is mixed in with Marc Matel, a Canadian singer who is known as one of the best Freddie soundalikes.

I was rocking, I was reminiscing, and I was thoroughly enjoying the Bohemian Rhapsody. It’s a killer soundtrack.

 

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Can You Ever Forgive Me is based on the true story of Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy), a celebrity biographer whose books were once on the bestseller lists in the 1970 and 1980 decades. In 1991, her career in decline, she is broke and cannot pay her rent. She is a curmudgeon. When her cat gets ill and the veterinarian refuses treatment because she already owes $78, which she cannot pay, she gets desperate.

By coincidence she discovers that there is a market for original documents, particularly signed letters, by celebrities. Collectors will pay several hundred dollars for an authentic letter.

She collects a few different vintage typewriters, practices forging of signatures, and starts cranking out fake letters. That quickly takes care of groceries, rent and veterinarian bills and she is back in business. Eventually she recruits her gay friend Jack (Richard E. Grant) to do the peddling, while she is producing the product.

Can You Ever Forgive Me is about artists and writers and their careers. Every career has a peak, and there is a downslide from that peak and for some, who saved up enough resources, it is bearable, and for others, like Lee, it is catastrophic. She is not willing to accept her situation, will not bow to taking on a “regular” job like the rest of us, but is obsessed with using her writing skills to make a living. She almost succeeds.

Eventually, however, a house built on deception will come crashing down.

 

 

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I have waited for In Saturn’s Rings for several years and have followed their Facebook page. It took the producers years longer to finish it than they thought it would. It was supposed to be done on December 31, 2014, but was finally finished on May 4, 2018. It is a 42-minute documentary made exclusively from real photographs taken by spacecraft, from the Hubble Space Telescope to the Cassini-Huygens space craft. The movie uses no computer generated graphics (CGI) technology. All images are arrangements of actual photographs.

There are not many places in the country where the film is currently shown. On my visit to New York City I decided to go out to the New York Hall of Science in Flushing, NY, about 30 minutes outside of Manhattan where it is currently playing.

I have always been fascinated with Saturn and its rings, and I have written plenty about it here. Here is one of my descriptions from almost five years ago where I marvel about floating in the rings and then actually refer to this movie.

But I was disappointed. Perhaps I am spoiled by the amazing CGI production in movies and documentaries where pictures are enhanced and animations are smooth and stunning. In Saturn’s Rings seemed flat and boring in comparison. But again – I realize that there is value in looking at actual photographs, not made-up stuff. And I give the producer credit for that.

However, there is too much fluff in the movie. It starts out with the Big Bang and plays images of Hubble of distant galaxies. Then it moves into an odd collage of photographs of science and scientists, wasting a lot of time on those flying and merging still photographs that didn’t add any value to the message or the film itself. There were fillers, and there were too many of them.

The film is narrated in parts, but some of the descriptions of images were subtitled rather than narrated. I found that annoying. The images were there for a short time, and rather than looking at the images, I found myself reading the captions that described what I was looking at while the narrator was silent. Then the images were gone and the next ones came up. I missed them. This happened a lot.

In Saturn’s Rings is an admirable effort but ultimately not worth it. The images you see in the movie would be much more valuable in a book. Buy a book on the Cassini mission and I am sure you will see the best photographs there. You can read the captions in leisure, and then look at the images as long as you want. In the movie, you only have a few seconds before the next one comes along. Having the image move, or zoom in or out is not adding enough value to account for the brevity of the viewing experience.

As coincidence would have it, I was flipping through the channels yesterday and came across the Science Channel and found Space’s Deepest Secrets – Cassini’s Grand Finale. This was a documentary about the Cassini mission and it showed spectacular graphics of Saturn taken by Cassini but it also provided professional narration and interviews of scientists along with the history of the program. The subject was similar to that of In Saturn’s Rings, but done much better.

 

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First Man follows Neil Armstrong from 1961 to 1969 on his journey to be the first man to step on the moon.

We are in the space capsule with Armstrong and his fellow astronauts as they are launched, and we are in the homes and at backyard BBQs of the men and women in the early space program.

In the media, and in our nostalgic memories, we think of going into space as a romantic endeavor. Watching First Man changes this, as we witness the tremendous forces acting on the fragile human body as it is strapped into a couch on top of a gigantic rocket. We see the fear and the emotional and physical stress in the eyes of the astronauts as they embark on missions where a million moving parts have to hold together, and a million sequences of events have to work perfectly, over a period of many days, and where any failure of any type results in catastrophe – and death of the astronauts.

Armstrong was a cool dude who did not get rattled, either by a crash during a test flight of his experimental craft from which he bailed out literally a fraction of a second before it exploded, nor by the fury and agony of his wife who chastises him when he does not want to face his boys before leaving on his historic journey. History has shown that Armstrong’s steel nerves and calm under pressure made the mission successful.

I was a twelve-year-old boy who was allowed to stay up all night on July 20, 1969. Armstrong stepped onto the moon in the wee hours of the morning local time in Germany. And I remember being in awe, and being inspired, and looking forward to a life where I knew I would eventually be able to travel to the moon as tourist and visit the Apollo-11 landing site as a historic museum exhibit. It is now over 49 years later, and I realize that I had no idea that the Apollo landings would not just be the first landings on the moon, but  possibly also the last ones – in my lifetime.

I enjoyed First Man a lot. I have come criticisms. This is a movie review, after all:

I liked the flying and technical scenes, and I didn’t care too much about all the stuff at home and in the back yard. The acting was okay, but didn’t blow me away.

We saw a lot of footage of shake, rattle and roll, first in 1961 when Armstrong did a test flight in an F-104 where he literally skipped outside of the atmosphere by accident, then during the Gemini launch, then when the capsule went into an uncontrolled roll, and finally, when Apollo-11 launched. There was too much footage of launches from the point of view of the astronauts, but no re-entries, no landings, no recovery on the water, all the good stuff. The missions jumped forward days at a time skipping sequences that would have been interesting to me. There wasn’t a single shot of the large, looming moon during the journey there, nor any expression of awe by the journeyers. The real action that I was there to see went by too fast.

We caught glimpses of the life of Neil Armstrong and his family, but we didn’t get a good enough look at the space program, and that’s what I went to see when I bought the ticket for First Man. It was a long movie, at 138 minutes, and those minutes could have been used more effectively.

That being said, I am glad I went.

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We the Animals is the story of three brothers of a Puerto Rican family in the U.S. who have a strong bond amongst each other. Manny and Joel are the older ones (somewhere between 10 and 12 years old) and Jonah is the youngest at 10. Jonah is different. He is more sensitive, and likes to draw. To avoid ridicule, he does it when hiding under this bed where he has stashed his notebook inside the bottom of the mattress. Their father, Paps, is loving and supportive to them, but abuses his wife and from time to time abandons the family. Their mother, Ma, is very young and tries to shelter the boys, particularly Jonah, from the world. But she is not very successful, as she descends into depression and virtually abandons her care of her kids for days on end. The boys are left to fend for themselves, by stealing, by scavenging, and by sticking to each other. We the Animals!

This is a thought-provoking film with interesting, refreshing cinematography, quite a bit of fantasy, that gets into the heads of the boys. Their acting is superb. But I found the movie hard to watch, due to the disturbing subject matter.  After a while I felt I knew what the story was, and I just wanted it to be over. I was bored. It ended abruptly after 92 minutes, but if it had ended after 60 minutes, I would not have missed anything either.

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Set in the last ice age in Europe, a tribe of Cro-Magnon men goes on a hunting trip. Keda, the chief’s son, comes along for the first time. His proud father is teaching him how to hunt, and how to be a man. But during the hunt things go horribly wrong, a buffalo charges Keda and throws him off a steep cliff. The hunting party can only assume he is dead and eventually they leave, the distraught father almost being dragged away by his friends.

Miraculously, the boy survives and must now fend for himself, fight off predators, and somehow find his way home, before winter comes and makes travel impossible. When a pack of wolves attack him,  he barely escapes into a tree, but he injures one of them. The wolf and the boy reluctantly form a bond and protect each other as they try to journey home. He calls the wolf Alpha.

Alpha is a survival movie. We see and feel how prehistoric people lived and survived. The landscape didn’t look like Europe 20,000 years ago to me, but rather more like South Dakota, but that is a minor point. I liked the fact that the tribe didn’t speak English. That would have been too easy and too distracting. They spoke their own language, accompanied by easy to read subtitles. This helped make the film more realistic.

I marvel about prehistory, and how unlikely it was that men survived at all, and how amazing it is that we’re all here today, descendants of these very Cro-Magnon men. If you have ever speculated how humans first started domesticating dogs, this is the movie to watch.

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I didn’t grow up as a boy in America, so I didn’t actually know the story of Christopher Robin and his stuffed animals, including the iconic Winnie the Pooh, the donkey Eeyore and of course, the piglet.

Watching this movie has caught me up. It’s a story about the boy Christopher who grew up in the Hundred Acre Wood, access to which is through a magical tree.

The movie is portrayed to be “not just for children” and so The Woman talked me into going to see it with her. Ok, yes, it was heartwarming, not even as corny as I expected it to be, and the acting was actually pretty good.

But I have to say – this is a movie for children – really. It’s about important lessons in life.

Take your kids!

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Simon is a well-adjusted high school senior. For his 17th birthday, his parents give him a car. His sister adores him, and his parents are professionals.  They live in a nice home in the suburbs. Simon is part of a group of good friends. He participates in the high school play. His life is perfect. Except for this massive secret he carries around with him: he is gay.

He senses that it’s time to come out and unburden himself from this load and he is starting to think of a plan. But then, by accident, he walks away from a computer in the library with his email account open – and his secret is there for an enterprising classmate to explore. His plans go sideways very quickly and his coming out is not at all what he had in mind.

Love, Simon is a coming of age movie of a fairytale kind. It’s a teenage soap opera. The world is perfect. I could not figure out where it played. The landscape looks like somewhere in Pennsylvania, but there is no foul weather at Thanksgiving and no snow at Christmas. Everyone lives in stately houses. All the kids in high school look healthy, well-adjusted, smart and engaged. The teachers and the principal are models of their profession. There are no bullies. There are no villains in this movie. Simon’s parents are perfect. His mother is a counselor (or doctor, it was not clear to me) and his father a sensitive, caring man. His sister is an aspiring chef who cooks the meals for the family.

It’s a perfect little world, except for Simon’s homosexuality. But even that is not controversial. It’s like the entire school was waiting for Simon to come out and be happy ever after.

Love, Simon is cute and entertaining. And that’s all I have to say.

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Two and a half hours of action scenes and a plot no human could possibly follow. About half-way through I was ready to be done. If you want action thrillers, I guess that’s your movie. Rotten Tomatoes gave it 97%.

All I can remember the day after is: long, endless motorcycle chases, Paris cops, helicopters, mountains, and badass anarchists with stolen plutonium and nuclear weapons. And, ah, CIA and spies and double agents and triple agents.

Here is my review:

 

Don’t bother!

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There isn’t an American alive who has not heard the name Chappaquiddick, an odd name that nobody before 1969 would have known how to even pronounce.

With both of his famous brothers assassinated, Senator Ted Kennedy was the star of the Democratic party and well on his way to the White House. One fateful night, he had too much to drink and went for a drive with a young woman who was an aide to his brother before and whom he tried to recruit. He loses control of his car as he drives off a bridge. The car flips over and end up wheels up in the water.

He comes to in the water outside of the car, but the car is closed, and the woman is still insight, fighting to get out. He tries to free her but is not successful and eventually walks away. It’s not clear to the viewer how this was even possible. But that’s his story.

As the night progresses, he makes a number of mistakes, and by morning, the Kennedy spin machine is in full swing. We witness political power gone unchecked, when his aides start fabricating the reality they need for their wonder boy to continue to have a political future.

Ted didn’t run for president for 1972, like he had planned. American history may have been forever changed that night in Chappaquiddick. Ted ran for president in 1980 but did not succeed. However, he did continue to serve in the United States Senate until his death in 2009. As a senator for 47 years, he was the fourth-longest-continuously-serving senator in U.S. history.

The movie Chappaquiddick tells this mystery story for those of us that never really studied the details, and it gives an inside glimpse into one of America’s most powerful families of the 1960s.

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Joe (Joaquin Phoenix) is a hired gun who tracks down missing girls. He is a veteran of the Special Forces and a former FBI agent. Haunted by violent flashbacks to his own childhood under the boot of an abusive father, and traumatized by his experiences as a soldier, he has more demons in his own head than the real world could ever hurl at him.

It’s not clear what drives such a man to a career where he would encounter brutal violence by the real scum of humanity, those that think it’s right to drug young girls so they can use them as prostitutes and sex slaves. Joe’s favorite weapon in his fight seems to be a hammer.

That should give you an idea that this is not shoot me up gangster movie. This is a film where you sometimes end up closing your eyes because you really don’t want to see what’s going to happen next.

He lovingly cares for his elderly mother in his New York City home. When she gets killed while somebody is trying to get to him, he realizes that the case he is working on may not be as simple as he thought. And that is the start of his one-man war against some very powerful people.

The plot is mysterious and riveting at the same time. I have to admit, to fully understand it, I had to look it up on Wikipedia afterwards to fill in some of the blanks.

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John Callahan (Joaquin Phoenix) was a 21-year-old alcoholic when he went out bar hopping with his friend Dexter (Jack Black) in his VW bug. Late at night, Dexter passed out and drove the bug into a pole at 90 miles per hour. He walked away with hardly a scratch. John was paralyzed from the shoulders down.

But that didn’t stop him from drinking. He kept at it for another six years before he found himself in a group of Alcoholics Anonymous sponsored by Donny (Jonah Hill).

As he came to terms with his situation he discovered that he had a knack for dark humor and he started drawing cartoons. Eventually he was able to publish them in the local paper in Portland and, while many people were offended due to the nature of his subjects, he found an international following and fame.

The movie is based on the real life story of John Callahan. Adapted by Gus Van Sant from Callaghan’s autobiography, it is a powerful treatment of addiction and alcoholism, and it illustrates vigorously what it does to a person’s dignity and well-being. Obviously most people do not have Callahan’s zest for life and humor, and his luck and skill to pull off a successful career, partly based on his experiences in life.

A couple of observations: Joaquin Phoenix does a remarkable job with this role. Jack Black looks like he gained an incredible amount of weight. I hardly recognized him. And – this is the most remarkable fact – I didn’t even realize that Donny was played by Jonah Hill (see the person on the right in the photo above). He looks so different from his usual roles, he is so much slimmer, it never even crossed my mind that it was Jonah Hill. Now I want to watch the movie again just to observe his performance.

Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot is a powerful movie that is NOT a comedy, as the trailer might make you believe.

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Oh, how the Tomatometer can be right on for me, and then completely off. Yesterday I reviewed Leave No Trace with a score of 100% on Rotten Tomatoes. I have it 4 stars.

In contrast, Blockers has a score of 83% and it gets half a star from me.

It starts out well enough, when three girls walk up the sidewalk to their elementary school on the first day of school. Three parents stand there, slightly teary eyed, seeing them off. The girls hold hands and gingerly walk up the steps of the school into their new lives. The parents realize that they may see more of each other in the years to come.

Roll forward to the “end” of school – prom night. The girls have become fast friends, and so have the parents. Spying on a chat log one of the girls leaves on in her room, the parents realize their daughters have made a pact to lose their virginity on prom night. They freak out and make their own dubious pact to block this from happening.

The entire movie is a string of contrived situations, trite prom scenes that have been used in every movie about proms since movies have been made, with accents like unrealistic vomiting in the limo. I have a disdain for all movies with graphic and explicit projectile vomiting. Inexplicably, they had to add a couple of flashes of close-ups of hairy dad testicles being squeezed for no reason in the plot other than to be, well, gross. It’s hard to un-see those images once you were subjected to them. Yuck.

I watched the movie because it was late, I was too tired to read, and I kept thinking it would get better. I chuckled and laughed at times, not because it was funny, but mostly because the movie was so bad, it was a laugh of embarrassment.

83% on the Tomatometer, go figure!

Do not waste your time or money.

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Will (Ben Foster) is a young homeless veteran haunted by demons most of us can’t even imagine. He lives completely off the grid in the woods outside of Portland, Oregon with his teenage daughter, Tom (Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie). By off the grid I mean under a tarp deep in the forest, hiding their footprints on the way in so nobody knows they are there. Tom’s mother died, we don’t know how, before she can remember. Will teaches his daughter survival skills as well as the laws of homelessness. She is surprisingly educated and well-adjusted.

But then they get caught, and social services closes in on them, trying to integrate them into society one step at a time. Tom takes well to her new environment, but Will cannot function in the normal world. Again and again he walks away with nothing but a set of boots, a backpack and his teenage daughter in tow.

Leave No Trace is an intense drama accentuated by brilliant cinematography and a poignant musical score. It gives us a view into the desperate world of homelessness and has us guessing about the horrible trauma a man must have gone through to end up like Will in the wilderness. And yet, the support system is not demonized in this story, the social workers are caring and giving and really trying to help. The friends they meet along their journey are a motley group of aged hippies, beaten veterans and country folks trying to find their way. We see a corner of Americana that is as real as Starbucks and freeways and iPhones, but just a few miles off into the hinterland, past a few stop lights at the edge of town. That is where life happens, accompanied by a guitar in calloused hands, stringy long hair tied in a ponytail by a scrunchy, in the shelters of beat-up trailers under giant trees.

Leave No Trace received a perfect 100% by Rotten Tomatoes and it deserves every bit of it.

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Four young men hatch up a plan for a heist – stealing some of the most valuable books in the world, like one by Darwin, another by Audubon, all locked up securely in a local library/museum.

When you think of a heist, you think of Oceans 11, where a group of experts in various disciplines with nerves of steel get together, draw up detailed plans of every possible angle and contingency, and then execute the plan.

But the most well-rehearsed plan can go wrong, or very wrong. These young men are about to find out.

American Animals is a true story in the truest sense. It is actually narrated by the four real protagonists in real-life. Then, as they introduce section after section, the movie switches back to the actors who play out the plot.

This is extremely well done. The story is utterly entertaining. The sound track is superb. The cadence of the movie brings you along for the ride, all the way into the intense pressure of executing the heist itself, or rather, screwing it up.

American Animals is about four men who decide to do something extraordinary with their lives – and that’s exactly what they end up doing – albeit in a way, and with an outcome, that they didn’t expect themselves.

Definitely – go and see American Animals.

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