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Bohemian Rhapsody (2018)
A biopic that actually LIKES its subject
Plenty has been said about this very special film already, so I'll just focus on what I think makes it truly unique. Most showbiz biopics very obviously hold their subject in contempt. There's a lot of dwelling on the negatives in the person's life - a lot of scenes of sex-drugs-rock and roll, temper tantrums, diva moments, etc. The film is usually saying, "Yes, this person accomplished great things, but he/she was an ABSOLUTE RAT! Don't you feel superior to him/her?" Not this film. It doesn't shy away from the darker aspects of Freddie Mercury's life, but it doesn't wallow in them, either. Instead, it focuses on the positives - the way iconic songs were created, the friendships between the band members - and there's a healthy dose of humor. (Ben Hardy, who's the focus of the funniest scenes, is the unsung hero of this film. Rami Malek may be the captain of this ship, but Hardy is definitely the first mate). Remarkably for a film set in the music industry of the '70s and '80s, there isn't a single shot of a person doing a rail of coke. A whitewash? Maybe. But you get the impression that the filmmakers were saying, "That's not what was important. This guy's personality and his relationships with the people closest to him? THAT is important." You leave the theater feeling positive and uplifted - because even though it ends on a sad note (Freddie's AIDS diagnosis), it goes out with warmth - his reconciliation with his parents and his legendary Live Aid performance. You end up thinking that Freddie might have had his issues, but in the end? He was an okay guy. And his bandmates? They were okay guys, too. Combine that positivity with the acting quality, the sharp writing and Queen's incredible music and you have an unbeatable package. No wonder people see this over and over - I plan to as well.
The Grinch (2018)
A Pleasant Surprise
I admit I was deeply cynical going into this one. I have a deep love for Chuck Jones' original cartoon (I can just about recite the narration by heart) and the memory of Jim Carrey's disastrous version was still fresh in my mind. Also, as much as I adore the Minions, there was the fear that Illumination would overload it with burp and fart jokes and "over-hip-ify" the material.
Imagine my surprise when the finished product turned out to be a delight. It may not follow Seuss' text to the letter, but it's definitely in the spirit of the original. It delivers a believable story about a loner grouch who's gradually driven to rage by the relentless cheeriness around him until he snaps and commits the ultimate act of grand larceny. The parallel storyline about Cindy Lou Who and her quest to talk to Santa in person had a modern feel without seemingly self-consciously hip (she and her friends were reminiscent of Gru's girls in the Despicable Me films). And, yes, there was a bit of crude humor, but it didn't distract from the overall storyline.
Most impressively of all, they managed to give the Grinch a believable motive for his attitude without hammering you over the head with it, adding poignancy to the ending. (This is something that could have gone horribly wrong if handled badly - see the Johnny Depp Willy Wonka). The result was a more, well, human Grinch. (It's also notable that this incarnation is a lot kinder to his long-suffering dog, Max, than previous ones).
Plus, Illumination went all out with the visuals for this. Whoville is a Christmas wonderland. Mount Crumpit is appropriately bleak (but still with a touch of Seuss-like whimsy), and characters look like 3-D versions of Seuss' creations while also working as modern CGI creations.
Overall, the Jones version is the gold standard of the Grinch, but this is a worthy modern take. There's something here for all ages to enjoy.
Beauty and the Beast (1991)
More relevant now than ever, in a way
Beauty and the Beast is a gorgeous and enchanting fairy tale, to be sure, but Disney packed a lot of subtle social commentary on small town small mindedness in there. The people in the village Belle lives in dismiss her as "odd" for being an intelligent and bookish woman, fear the Beast because of his appearance, and worship the loutish Gaston, the very epitome of a musclebound meathead - and toxic masculinity.
The latter character, who seemed like a thinking woman's worst nightmare when the film first came out, is now even more creepy, because his continual harassment of Belle reeks of Me Too. This makes him a hundred times more horrifying than more traditional Disney villains like Ursula or Malificent. Evil witches are only in fiction. Gaston clones are everywhere.
Ultimately, the film's message is the triumph of open minds over closed ones, and that even society's so-called rejects can hold their heads high and triumph in the end. I can't imagine a more positive message to convey to kids.
Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018)
Should Have Been About Lando Instead
By far, the best thing about this movie is Donald Glover as Lando. He's outstanding - charming and charismatic whether he's gambling against Han or bantering with his femme-droid co-pilot. The rest of the film is an average Star Wars film - not as good as the original trilogy, not as bad as the prequels. The main problem is it's hard to believe that this Han grew up to be Harrison Ford's classic character. He's too, well, boyish, despite his cocky swagger. There's some fun set pieces here, to be sure, especially the aforementioned card game, the train heist and the Kessel run - for those scenes, and Lando, I'm giving it as high a rating as I am. The worst thing about this film's flopping is we will never get a chance to see how awesome "Lando, A Star Wars Story" would have been.
The Girl in Lovers Lane (1960)
Better Than Average Bot Fodder
For years, when MST3K fans have been polled about which riffed films were "not completely terrible," this movie has come up (along with the Godzilla and Gamera movies). It's easy to see why - unlike complete train wrecks like Space Mutiny and Manos the Hands Of Fate, you can tell that this could have been a halfway decent film if it had a little more of a budget - better sets, better costumes, a competent script editor to fix the problematic ending. The acting isn't terrible, some of the characters are actually likable, and Jack Elam's villain is genuinely creepy. It made for a very underrated MST3K episode - one of the funniest of the later Joel era. (The show's writers reported being genuinely traumatized by the film's ending - and you just KNOW that it was a rare film that could get that crew to genuinely care about the characters).
Black Panther (2018)
A Girl Power Movie Masquerading As A Male Superhero Film!
It may be named after its male lead, but don't let that fool you - this is the most girl-power film since, well, Wonder Woman. Full of smart, strong ladies who kick major butt, this film is more feminist than most movies aimed at women! Not to mention the almost Shakespearean royal power struggle at the center of the plot, the well-thought-out worldbuilding that draws respectfully on African culture, the super-cool tech, the humor, the fact that all the major characters are more well-rounded than in most superhero films . . . This is one case where you can believe the hype! It's a pure entertainment package that delivers on every level.
Loving Vincent (2017)
A Visual Feast Like None Other
If you've ever had the privilege to see a Van Gogh up close, you know that the painting always seems to be in a state of kinetic motion, with its vibrant colors and furious brushstrokes. Loving Vincent takes that motion to the next logical step - it literally animates the paintings. A team of artists copied Van Gogh's works precisely - color for color, stroke for stroke - and then set them in motion, using them as the basis for a detective story of sorts tracing the last days of the painter's life.
Watching this film, your eyes are dazzled over and over. You keep thinking, "Haven't I seen this painting somewhere before?" - and then, when you see the closing credits (which display the animators' reference materials), you realize that you have. Every character in this film is based on a person in Van Gogh's art, every backdrop is drawn from his landscapes. It took a lot of imagination to put all those parts together and make it a whole. (You're going to want to see this on a real theater screen if the opportunity presents itself. I'm not sure if the depth of the details will be conveyed in smartphone or tablet viewing).
Other reviewers have pointed out that the story is the film's weakest point, and I will agree with that - I've knocked off a star for that reason. But, really, the story is not what you're going to be coming to this film for. With visuals this sumptuous, you don't really need an Oscar-quality script.
I will say one thing about the story, though - kudos to the filmmakers for getting The Ear out of the way early on in the plot. You know going into a film about Van Gogh that it's going to be dealt with, you sit there half-cringing waiting for the moment . . . and the filmmakers made it one of the first flashback sequences. "Okay, you all know it's coming, here it is. Now you can put that aside and focus on the rest of our film."
It's not a film for everyone, but those who enjoy art should make a point of seeing this - and for admirers of Van Gogh, it's essential.
(I'd love to see the Academy throw this film some love in the Best Animated Feature division, by the way - but you just know they're going to give the ultimate prize to the Big Disney Film Of The Year).