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Schultz reviews: "Bohemian Rhapsody," "Nobody's Fool" and "The Nutcracker and the Four Realms"

Schultz reviews: "Bohemian Rhapsody," "Nobody's Fool" and "The Nutcracker and the Four Realms"

By Carl Schultz
schultzcarlschultz@aol.com

 

“Bohemian Rhapsody” Distributed by 20th Century-Fox Pictures, 134 Minutes, Rated PG-13, Released Nov. 2:

The 20-minute appearance by the rock group Queen at the Live Aid Concert at London’s Wembley Stadium on July 13, 1985, is consistently ranked among authorities such as Rolling Stone and Billboard magazines as the greatest live performance in the history of rock and roll music.  

Queen’s ranking at the top of the list takes into account such legendary performances as The Who at the Isle of Wight in 1970, Jimi Hendrix at Monterey Pop in 1967, Santana at Woodstock in 1969, Bruce Springsteen at The Roxy in 1978, Prince at Coachella in 2008, and The Beatles at Shea Stadium in 1965, or on the roof of their Apple headquarters in London in 1970.

The band’s blistering set at the 1985 global concert organized to alleviate starvation in Africa provides the climactic segment of the new motion picture “Bohemian Rhapsody,” which purports to be a biography of Queen and their flamboyant and sometimes bombastic lead singer, Freddie Mercury. Their concert appearance at Live Aid, which is recreated almost in its entirety at the end of the picture, unfortunately also provides about the movie’s only pulse-pounding moment ... and also its only wholly accurate depiction of a real-life event.

In theory, Queen should never have been as popular as they became: A pop band that combined the rudiments of 1950s-style rock and roll with the theatrical tradition of Gilbert and Sullivan and the English Music Halls, led by the vocal gymnastics of an androgynous lead singer with a flatly astonishing four-octave range, supported by virtuoso guitar instrumentation and soaring, impossibly tight harmonies that did for pop music what the Blue Angels do for aviation.

Queen and their most popular songs have never really left the pop radio airwaves in the years since lead singer Mercury’s death in 1991, remaining almost as popular today as they were during the band’s peak years from 1975 through 1985. While the much of the world was infected by the disco hysteria of the era led by the Bee Gees and their “Saturday Night Fever” soundtrack, and even the great McCartney was singing silly love songs, Queen released its masterpiece, the 1975 album “A Night at the Opera.”

“A Night at the Opera” contained Queen's biggest and most enduring hit single, an unlikely six-minute pastiche, which defied easy categorization. “Bohemian Rhapsody” combined elements of rock, ballad, choral and classical music with a heaping dose of opera, becoming almost a condensed history of modern music itself. And although the record was released 43 years ago last week, rarely a day passes that we don’t still hear the song played on television or the radio, in part or in its entirety.

Except in the movie biography which shares the song’s title. In “Bohemian Rhapsody” — the motion picture — we see the song being written and shaped, and get some idea of the low-tech methods the band employed to produce the record’s high-tech effects. But we never actually hear “Bohemian Rhapsody,” or any of Queen’s greatest hits, performed in their entirely, although we’re treated to brief, tantalizing snippets of songs throughout the picture’s 134-minute running time.

That’s partly why the Live Aid sequence is not only important to the picture as whole, but also vital to its existence: Because although “Bohemian Rhapsody” is a movie about one of the most influential bands in rock and roll history, by the time the concert sequence appears at about two hours into the picture the audience is nearly starving to hear some actual songs performed.

Anthony McCarten’s screenplay for “Bohemian Rhapsody” pushes the movie through the tried-and-true template of classic film biographies from “Rhapsody in Blue” in 1945 to “The Greatest Showman” last Christmas. In the process, the picture gets a lot of information wrong, creates drama where none existed in real life, and omits entirely Queen’s most creatively fertile and productive period, from 1975 to 1980.

As in most of the other film biographies you’ve ever seen, the central character — in this case Freddie Mercury — through hard work, persistence and a commitment to his own unique artistic vision rises to the pinnacle of show business success. Once achieving international fame and fortune, he falters and momentarily loses sight of his moral compass and ideals, and then achieves even greater success by rediscovering his original goals in time for the movie’s conclusion.

Unfortunately, in embracing the formula of other big screen biographical pictures, “Bohemian Rhapsody” also embraces most of the cliches and platitudes of an overworked genre. The picture is entertaining enough in a sanitized fable sort of way, but is almost worthless as a viable biographical document. In the end, the picture probably plays best for Queen fans, as if the picture was written to conform to the title instead of the other way around. Viewers unfamiliar with the band’s reputation will likely leave the theater with more questions than answers.

Being a rock and roll biography, the picture naturally includes scenes of rock star excess and debauchery, represented here mostly by Freddie’s parading shirtless with a monarch’s exaggerated crown perched atop his head through what seems to be a mildly raucous college fraternity party. Honestly, Sal Mineo being corrupted by a reefer-toting Yvonne Craig in 1959’s “The Gene Krupa Story” was a lot more shocking — and a lot more fun — than Freddie’s supposedly naughty behavior as depicted here.

By most accounts, the Freddie Mercury who appeared onstage as the front man for Queen all but disappeared between concerts and tours. According to friends and family, the performer in real life was shy and withdrawn, polite, respectful and well-spoken. Actor Rami Malek portrays Mercury with a sort of itchy charm, wearing a succession of wigs along with a dental appliance to simulate the singer’s signature overbite (Freddie explains early in the picture that he was born with four extra incisors). Malek’s augmented resemblance to the entertainer is remarkable, but only during the concluding Live Aid sequence does the actor achieve anything like symbiosis.

Among the supporting players, Welsh actor Gwilym Lee as Queen guitarist Brian May possesses the boyish good looks of a young Paul Newman, combined with an avuncular maturity and outward calm unusual in a rock star biography. Ben Hardy as drummer Roger Taylor has the sad sack loner persona displayed by movie drummers since Ringo Starr appeared in 1964’s “A Hard Day’s Night.” And as bassist John Deacon, that’s Joseph Mazzello, all grown up since his appearance as the endangered child in Steven Spielberg’s 1993 blockbuster “Jurassic Park.”

The troubled production history of “Bohemian Rhapsody” is nearly as dramatic as anything which appears onscreen. For years, actor and comedian Sacha Baron Cohen was associated with the role of Freddie Mercury. But ultimately Baron Cohen was rejected by surviving Queen members (and “Bohemian Rhapsody” co-executive producers) Brian May and Roger Taylor, allegedly over the actor’s strong association with comedic roles, as well as his desire to explore the seamier aspects of the Queen saga as opposed to the more sanitized approach favored by the band members.

Director Bryan Singer, best-known for his direction of a number of Marvel’s “X-Men” pictures, enthusiastically lobbied for the “Bohemian Rhapsody” assignment, and was eventually approved by 20th Century-Fox executives, albeit reluctantly. But Singer’s erratic behavior during the production created enormous friction between himself and the cast, primarily Malek. Following an unexplained three-day disappearance, Singer was fired from the picture and replaced by Dexter Fletcher, although as a result of Director’s Guild arbitration Singer retains sole credit as the film’s director.

Released to some 4,000 theaters across North America, distributor 20th Century-Fox hoped to earn $26 million from “Bohemian Rhapsody” during its opening weekend, but estimates were adjusted upward to $35 million following the film’s $18.4 opening day revenues. The actual amount earned was $50 million, giving the picture the number one spot at the box office.

“Bohemian Rhapsody” is rated PG-13 for adult themes and language, and some sexuality.

 

“Nobody’s Fool” Distributed by Paramount Pictures, 110 Minutes, Rated R, Released Nov. 2:

Much like the teaming of Mae West and W.C. Fields in 1940’s “My Little Chickadee” and Martha Raye and Charlie Chaplin in 1947’s “Monsieur Verdoux,” the long-awaited collaboration between comedic actress Tiffany Haddish and celebrated independent filmmaker Tyler Perry sounds better in theory than in actual practice, and promises more dividends than are ultimately delivered.

In “Nobody’s Fool,” buttoned-up advertising executive Danica is persuaded by her irresponsible mother to allow her spirited and irrepressible sister Tanya to move into her luxury apartment temporarily following her release from prison. Eventually Tanya upsets Danica’s well-ordered life ... as well as her unfulfilling and unrequited computer-based romance with an absentee suitor.

The difference between “Nobody’s Fool” and a classic of motion picture comedy is approximately 30 minutes. After a vastly entertaining and often uproariously funny first hour-and-a-half and an enormously satisfying resolution of its various plotlines, writer and director Tyler Perry decides to add an unnecessary diversion to the picture, and in the process extends its running time to nearly two hours.  

Worse, the extended plotline essentially omits Haddish from the proceedings but includes an almost laughably gratuitous love scene, earning a first-ever R rating for a Tyler Perry comedy but mostly eliciting unexpected yawns from an audience which expected better from the considerable talents involved. Then the movie tacks on about two conclusions too many, including one final slapstick coda that’s more mean than funny.

In the end, “Nobody’s Fool” works best as a showcase for the wonderful Tiffany Haddish as the vivacious newly-paroled Tanya. The actress pulls out all the stops and delivers her best and most uproariously funny screen performance to date. In the process, despite some of the rough subject matter, Haddish further cements her position as not only the hardest-working performer in motion pictures, but also America’s New Sweetheart.

Tika Sumpter, who plays Haddish’s emotionally repressed sister Danica, also appeared in Perry’s “A Madea Christmas” from 2013, the 2014 hit “Ride Along” and its 2016 sequel, and the 2016 romance “Southside with You,” in which she portrayed a young Michelle Robinson Obama. Whoopi Goldberg phones it in as the sisters’ stoner mother. Omari Hardwick and Mehdad Brooks play Sumpter’s respective love interests. And there’s one significant surprise cameo appearance by a comedy superstar in a brief but funny supporting role.

Released to 2,468 theaters across North America, “Nobody’s Fool” was expected to earn $14 million during its opening weekend despite a disappointing critical reception. Audiences delivered that amount almost to the cent, scoring for Perry’s picture the number three spot in the nation’s theaters behind the Queen biography “Bohemian Rhapsody” and Disney’s “The Nutcracker and the Four Realms.”

“Nobody’s Fool” is rated R for adult language and sexuality, mature themes, and scenes of recreational drug use.

 

“The Nutcracker and the Four Realms” Distributed by Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, 99 Minutes, Rated PG, Released Nov. 2:

The services of two genuinely gifted directors — Joe Johnston and Lasse Hallstrom — were apparently required to produce this major motion picture disappointment, notable only for its mediocrity despite contributions from pros like Morgan Freeman, Helen Mirren and Keira Knightley.

During their first Christmas Eve following the death of their beloved mother, young Clara Stahlbaum and her two siblings receive from their melancholy father their late mother’s last gifts to them. Clara’s gift, an ornate egg-shaped lock box minus the key, leads her to the magical Kingdom of the Four Realms, where she soon learns she’s the queen-in-waiting, but first must save her domain from a siege by hostile forces.

There’s production design and art direction to spare in this colorful misfire, but precious little magic. Where Disney’s patented brand of cinematic enchantment is sorely required, the film instead resembles a pop-up greeting card: It’s nice enough, but certainly not sufficiently dazzling to truly please the audience, or explain a reported production budget north of $125 million.  

Young Mackenzie Foy in the pivotal role of Clara is certainly talented, and has the sunniest smile in ten counties, but lacks the charisma necessary to truly pull off her role as the savior of a magical kingdom. In the end, the picture fills the eye, but not the heart. There’s more enchantment in Disney’s similarly-themed 1961 version of “Babes in Toyland” starring Annette Funicello and Tommy Sands. In fact, there’s more enchantment in Hal Roach’s 1934 version of “Babes in Toyland” starring Stan and Ollie.

Based very loosely by screenwriter Ashleigh Powell on E.T.A. Hoffman’s short story “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King,” “The Nutcracker and the Four Realms” borrows imagery from motion picture sources as diverse as “The Wizard of Oz” and “Alice in Wonderland,” and occasionally includes some genuinely nightmarish elements.  

But despite onscreen credit for Marius Petipa’s “The Nutcracker Ballet," Tchaikovsky’s familiar Nutcracker themes are confined to incidental music and the film’s closing credits. Instead, James Newton Howard’s generic orchestral score gets the lion’s share of the onscreen listening time.

That’s Maestro Gustavo Dudamel conducting the London Symphony Orchestra in wraparound segments designed to resemble Disney’s “Fantasia.” Mexican star Eugenio Derbez, last seen in this summer’s “Overboard,” appears in the picture heavily disguised in a small role as Hawthorne, the ruler of the Land of Flowers.  

And despite her prominent billing in the film’s advertising, American Ballet Theatre principal dancer Misty Copeland appears onscreen only briefly, most memorably performing during the closing credit sequence to Tchaikovsky’s “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy,” and providing too late precisely the sort of Christmas magic the picture could’ve used more of.

“The Nutcracker and the Four Realms” is rated PG for some adult themes and disturbing images.

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