FilmSpace: Bohemian Rhapsody; First Man; Halloween

Film Critic Calum Cooper looks back at this week’s additional releases. Firstly, a Queen biopic that lacks the flamboyancy of its lead character, Damien Chazelle’s newest film on Neil Armstrong’s moon landing, and, just in time for the holiday of the same name, the follow up to John Carpenter’s 1978 classic Halloween.

Bohemian Rhapsody – ★★☆☆☆

Bohemian Rhapsody, the new biopic on Queen’s inception and fame, with a leaning on Freddie Mercury’s life, is a cinematic Wikipedia page. Perhaps an ironic branding given the historical inaccuracies, but it’s a film that gives us its story in a conveyer belt routine, with an unfortunately hollow emotional core.

It’s a disheartening outcome as there are some undeniably strong elements present. Rami Malek’s performance cannot be overstated. His imitation of Freddie Mercury’s personality and mannerisms is uncanny in its authenticity. He bodes commanding presence, and marvellously channels how eccentric a character Mercury was, while also delivering tranquil soulfulness behind the more pensive moments. It’s a genuinely great performance.

The music is also triumphantly intoxicating. But it’s arguably a moot point as we are talking about Queen here. Those already in love with their albums are likely going to be first in line for this film. Nevertheless, it is wonderful to hear their songs roar off the screen, with the climatic Live Aid performance at Wembley Stadium in 1985 being a highlight.

It goes through the stages of Queen’s founding and rise to success, but it never explores the psychological ramifications or deeper emotions of the band members themselves.

But it’s the film’s execution of story and character that lets it down. Bryan Singer may hold the directing credit, but, due to his behaviour on set, he replaced Dexter Fletcher well into the filming process. While it’s not inherently obvious that two directors worked on the film, there seems to be a lurking anxiety to its overall presentation, resulting in a film that feels far too bland and safe. As such, while the sets and editing are stylish, they don’t come off as especially euphoric or flamboyant.

Adding to the blandness is a narrative that feels rushed and clichéd. If it wasn’t based on a true story, albeit loosely so, you’d swear it was ticking off plot points on a check sheet. It goes through the stages of Queen’s founding and rise to success, but it never explores the psychological ramifications or deeper emotions of the band members themselves. They start off playing in pubs and end on a grand stadium with millions of fans. So does every other rising band in movies though. Deeper, more interesting attributes to Mercury, such as struggles with his sexuality, are either side-lined in favour of a tongue-in-cheek attitude (including an odd Wayne’s World reference due to Mike Myers’ cameo), or addressed with minimal dialogue or analysis. It’s difficult to get any real sense of what drove Queen prior to their fame, and when they are famous their song creations play out like an over-run greatest hits show.

With a better script, and more organised production, this film could’ve been on par with something like Straight Outta Compton. Instead it feels like half a film, one that’s unsure whether it wants to be fun or serious. I feel gutted for Malek most of all. In any other circumstance he’d likely be the frontrunner for Oscar buzz. Here however, his grand performance is undermined by a painfully mediocre experience around him.

First Man – ★★★☆☆

Damien Chazelle has been dazzling critics and moviegoers with his films, myself included. When your resume includes Whiplash and La La Land, it’s difficult for me not to be at least intrigued by your next project. While First Man overall doesn’t prove as strong a piece as Chazelle’s previous works, its merits are still something to behold.

The historic story of Apollo 11 and the 1969 moon landing is nothing new for cinema. But Chazelle opts to tell the story exclusively from Neil Armstrong’s perspective. The film explores his family life, personal tragedies, and astronaut training between 1961 and 1969, all building up to the day he took humanity’s first step on the moon. We all know Armstrong’s name, but few of us know what he was like as a person.

As it turns out, Armstrong was a stoic personality, despite his singular achievement in human history. He rarely expressed his feelings and always downplayed the size of his successes. For some reviewers, this makes Armstrong a rather difficult person to invest in, regardless of Ryan Gosling’s strong performance, as his suppressing of emotions can create a sense of detachment for the audience.

It’s a valid gripe. But I found the inclusion of his wife Janet (terrifically played by Claire Foy), to be instrumental in our understanding of Armstrong. While he’s fixated on his missions, Janet must deal with the harrowing potential outcomes, should they go horribly wrong. Two of the best scenes in the film are when she scolds NASA officials after a near disaster with Armstrong’s Gemini 8 mission, and when she practically forces Armstrong to tell their young sons that he could very well die. Through her eyes and emotions, we get a greater sense of personality to both her and her husband. She’s a supporting character who helps anchor the film.

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Subsequently, we also see how Armstrong looks to the moon for escapism. Behind First Man is a captivating look at grief. A heart-breaking ordeal befalls Armstrong at the start of the film, providing one of the few instances of him expressing sorrow. While his persistent anguish is not always clear, Chazelle showcases scenes of Armstrong looking up towards the moon in isolation, seeing it as a way to leave behind the pain of his past. What better way to untether yourself from earthly woes than to journey beyond the stars?

The film also bears the distinction of mesmerising cinematography, and a wonderful score to accompany it. It seamlessly merges 16mm and 35mm for its domestic scenes, while ramping up to IMAX for the moon landing itself, a sequence which is utterly breath-taking. Captured gorgeously and edited skilfully, it’s the only time seeing the moon landing in film where I genuinely felt like I was on the moon with Armstrong.

Among the movie’s more questionable creative decisions are how blandly other important figures in Apollo 11 are treated, notably Buzz Aldrin. There’s also the dreadful reliance on shaky cam, a technique which is understandable inside the capsules during launches, but infuriating when utilised for conversations between characters.

However, First Man remains engaging with its stellar craftsmanship and core themes. It’s hardly Chazelle’s best, but it’s still a strong title to add to his filmography.

Halloween (2018) – ★★★☆☆

Jamie Lee Curtis as Laurie Strode squares off against Michael Myers once again in yet another follow-up to the 1978 Carpenter classic. Retconning all previous entries in between, the film takes place forty years after the original, where Myers breaks out of prison for Halloween (2018). Convenient timing you may say, but who really cares? Realising that he’s coming back for her, Strode locks and loads inside her fortified home in the woods, ready to face and ultimately kill Myers herself this time.

I really like the original Halloween, but it’s definitely a product of its time. It capitalised off of the 1970s fear of serial killers terrifically, using atmosphere and a surprising lack of gore in order to heighten tension and fear, while also serving as an examination on evil. Several sequels, and even a remake, have attempted to recreate this effect in vain. Which is why it’s very satisfying to see this new film reject attempts to do the same thing, choosing to be its own experience with its own themes.

There are definitely parallels to this film and its original counterpart – from its opening titles to its story beats to some of its visuals and shots – but it jovially turns many of the similarities on its head. Rather than assume the role of the lone surviving virgin, a cliché she arguably started with the original Halloween, this new Laurie Strode has been hardened by her experiences. At the cost of a normal family life with her daughter and granddaughter (Judy Greer and Andi Matichak), Strode has obsessed over Michael Myers, waiting for his return so that she can not only end him, but hopefully quell the guilt and suffering she has had to live with for forty years.

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Trauma is the film’s underlying subject matter. Curtis is enormously engaging in her portrayal of this new Laurie, but the consequences of her horrifying ordeal have affected her and her next of kin. Their relationships are rocky due to Strode’s fixation on Myers, but they must unite and work through their differences when Myers inevitably returns. In doing this, the film reveals the full extent of trauma’s damage, using the ruthlessness and uncompromising nature of Michael Myers as a representation of its brutality. Meaning, when the showdown between Strode and Myers occurs, we’re essentially watching three generations of women come together to take back control from the source of their family trauma.

But that doesn’t mean favourable slasher gimmicks are abandoned. Long takes, bleak shadows, eerie angles and shots, and the classic soundtrack are all used to unsettling effect during Myers’ killing sprees, albeit with more gore than the original. The unnerving creativity of the kills are still present, and its atmosphere reaches stalactite coldness during the film’s riveting climax, especially in its execution of silence and commendable restraint on jump scares.

It’s far from perfect – the comedy doesn’t land very well, some plot points make no sense, and a lot of the granddaughter’s subplot involving dances and boyfriends did wear my patience a little thin – but it’s a fun horror film with intelligent things to say once you scratch beneath the apocalypse. It’s got nothing on Hereditary or A Quiet Place. But it’s an enjoyable new entry if you know what to expect from it. If I’ve learned anything though it’s that if the zombie apocalypse befalls earth tomorrow, I want Jamie Lee Curtis on my team.

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