The biggest irony about the fact that I have a master’s degree in film (officially received last week!) is that I don’t actually enjoy watching movies that much. Generally I go to the cinema about twice a year, and when Oscars season rolls around I feel lucky if I’ve seen one of the Best Picture nominees. I am a huge fan of awards shows and always watch them, so this year I thought I’d try to be informed instead of just deciding that I was going for certain films for arbitrary reasons. (My usual reason: there is someone other than an old white guy prominently attached to it.) Here are my thoughts on the first batch of films I’ve seen recently, with more to come as we get closer to the Oscars.
A Star Is Born, dir. Bradley Cooper
Listen, I hated this movie so much. I thought it would be cheesy but still enjoyable, but NO. Leaving behind the extremely unbelievable narrative of seasoned country-rock singer Jackson Maine’s discovery of singer-songwriter Ally performing as a bioqueen at a drag bar, their relationship is uncomfortable and unhealthy the entire time. The film attempts to create an alibi for itself by showing us that Ally is a “strong woman”: she punches a cop and tells Jackson to get his shit together, but their marriage is never the “couple goals” the film wants us to believe it is. I mean, am I supposed to like a man who tells his naked wife that she’s ugly and untalented? We’re supposed to feel sorry for Jackson because he’s struggling with addiction, but the film doesn’t do a very good job of exploring that in a nuanced way – and, regardless, illness cannot ever excuse abusive behaviour.
I’m not against the idea of developing the Jackson character (since he is pretty underdeveloped in the three previous versions of this film), but Bradley Cooper does kind of make it all about him and not about the titular star. The entire point of this narrative is that the man is eclipsed by the woman. Jackson Maine was eclipsed, but Bradley Cooper surely did not let himself be, which is kind of like, you know, why not just write a new movie instead of remaking one that is fundamentally Not About Bradley Cooper? Look – the performances are stellar, the music is good. I admit I was immediately pleased to hear Jackson’s shitty dad rock, because it is the only music his character could possibly make. Yes. That is perfect. It’s the actual plot and characterization that sinks the entire thing for me. Lady Gaga’s Ally is caught between the warring interests of two men (her shitty husband and her shitty manager), and even though she attempts to assert herself ultimately she sacrifices so much for a husband who doesn’t even want her to have creative control over her career.
Here’s a detail that I think is representative of the film as a whole: Ally performs mononymously, and we never learn her last name – that is, until the end of the film when she introduces herself as “Ally Maine”. She never has her own identity entirely separate from Jackson: when we hear her full name, it is one that belongs to him, too. From the start of the film, she is his pet project, and then her manager’s. She never belongs to herself. This film is outwardly regressive and even misogynistic. The allure of this classic Hollywood story is obvious, but its politics need to be updated. (I say that hypothetically because I sincerely hope nobody makes a fifth version of this film.)
Beautiful Boy, dir. Felix Van Groeningen
Based on a pair of memoirs by father and son duo David and Nic Sheff, Beautiful Boy chronicles Nic’s addiction to crystal meth. Hollywood it-boy Timothée Chalamet does a great job as Nic; Steve Carell, as his father, is perfectly adequate, though it’s an easier role. In general, I think “adequate” is the right descriptor for this one. It’s good, but not great. It tries too hard to convince us that it’s deep and important and sad without ever actually inducing those emotions convincingly; it relies on its subject matter and certain unconventional formal choices (particularly in its chronology) to make us think it’s A Serious Film. Well, I am here to say that we have all seen films with unusual cinematography and non-linear timelines, and it takes more nowadays to actually be impressive.
I have also been thinking a lot about how this is the story of affluent, articulate white people with the ability to self-represent in a way that many people with addiction cannot. David and Nic Sheff are both writers, both able to control the narrative in a way that will always ultimately be read as sympathetic. The film takes great pains to show us that these are cultured people: Nic’s stepmother Karen is an artist; his father is a writer; there’s a framed letter from Keith Haring to Nic on the wall. They also appear to be an intact nuclear family. Nic is close with his stepmother (though his relationship with his mother is more strained); Karen and David’s marriage seems rock solid; they have two blonde little kids who adore their older brother Nic. The film lingers on the family unit, particularly through the innocence of childhood, using Nic’s siblings and flashbacks to Nic’s childhood to assert the tragic effect of addiction on the picture-perfect nuclear family devastated by something they don’t deserve.
I think the most potent message of this film is that addiction is a disease that can come for anybody. Nic’s upbringing, financial stability, and intelligence don’t insulate him from addiction, and it is perhaps all the more jarring that his drug of choice is crystal meth – typically seen as a low-class drug. I’m glad this story has been told. I’m glad there is something in the media that works to destigmatize addiction and to assert – however briefly – that accepted models of rehabilitation may not be particularly effective, that relapse is not a moral failing. But I have to ask why this is the story that is being told. Even the film’s title is a privilege: if Nic were poor, or not white, or from a broken home, would audiences find it credible that he is a “beautiful boy”, with all the connotations of innocence and morality that come with the phrase? Doubtful. I hope that this film opens the door for more of its kind, for stories that do not revolve around the privileged class, but I do worry that the sobs I heard in the theatre were only a sympathetic reaction to this specific story.
Bohemian Rhapsody, dir. Bryan Singer
I predicted that Bohemian Rhapsody would be an overproduced, politically sterile production with lots of enjoyable spectacle, which is basically what it was. However, my enjoyment of this film was at its highest when I was in the theatre; pretty much the second I left I began to feel less enthusiastic. Let’s get the good out of the way: Rami Malek’s electric portrayal of Freddie Mercury obviously elevates the entire production. (I watched several interviews with him where he describes the rigourous preparation he went through for the role: watching Queen’s 1985 Live Aid performance 1500 times, working with a movement coach for hours a day to embody Freddie’s nearly inimitable aura. He worked his ass off for this role, and it truly shows.) The concert scenes are generally lots of fun. The supporting cast did a good job with roles that are, of course, far less interesting than Malek’s Mercury. The costume design was perfect; every single look Freddie served was almost painfully good.
However, this is a PG-13 film with Roger Taylor and Brian May serving as executive producers, which means that it’s necessarily watered down and rather sympathetic towards them. It’s formally an incredibly standard biopic, and cinematically it’s not very interesting either. It’s as if this film doesn’t even know how unprecedented its titular song is, and its own boring aesthetics do nothing to mirror Queen’s theatricality. I feel that this film had such a missed opportunity to harness aesthetic ingenuity in a way that added deeper meaning, that supported Freddie’s own singular artistic vision. The film’s engagement with social issues is laughable: a few people hurl racial slurs at Freddie, but that’s as far it takes us on that topic. Freddie is also portrayed as debauched, with a large appetite for sex and drugs, which is in direct opposition to his bandmates’ sober heterosexual lifestyles. (I mean, come on, who is actually going to believe that a bunch of rockstars in the 70s and 80s were models of abstinence?) At one point Freddie throws a wild, raucous party and Roger leaves in disgust, creating a clear delineation that separates Freddie’s antics from everyone else’s relative wholesomeness. The amount of time the film devotes to his one-time fiancée Mary Austin (who was indisputably an enormous part of his life) versus his partner Jim Hutton, who he was with for six years until his death, is very telling. The film explicitly claims him as a gay man but does not allow his male partner any real narrative importance. He is allowed to kiss him a single time. Freddie’s AIDS diagnosis is also individualized, completely stripped of sociopolitical context.
The film indulges in myth-making in a way that is certainly historically questionable if not blatantly inaccurate. It tends to collapse events of import in Freddie’s private life and the band’s successes. The night he joins the band, he meets Mary Austin; immediately after he and Mary get engaged, he receives news of professional success; he reconnects with Jim Hutton the day of Queen’s 1985 Live Aid performance. (Notably, it’s his AIDS diagnosis which inspires him to reconnect with the band and perform at Live Aid, though in real life he didn’t actually receive it until 1987.) It’s all a bit too tidy, though it makes for a great story. As my friend Katie said of this bizarre timeline, “Freddie Mercury only had four days in his entire life.”
I guess not everything has to be political, and this can just be a fun movie about Queen with some great musical performances. But it does rub me the wrong way that a film about a gay man of colour who died of AIDS is just so completely devoid of any political potential, that Freddie Mercury’s subversive aesthetic, immense talent, and success in a racist, homophobic society are watered down to, you know, a fun movie that you can bring your kids to. Basically I wanted Todd Haynes to direct this, because he can do a gay period music movie like nobody else. (Imagine if this film had been half as interesting as Velvet Goldmine!)
Also, I spent the entire movie waiting for a performance of “Bohemian Rhapsody” in its entirety, some overproduced epic montage, and IT NEVER HAPPENED. I mean, for God’s sake, Glee realizes this song to its full potential better than the film named after it. Like if a film named Bohemian Rhapsody didn’t even come close to touching Jesse St. James singing the entire song at regionals while Quinn gives birth, a scene which aired over eight years ago… that is sad. (Anyway I definitely don’t want to talk about my intimate knowledge of season one of Glee, but that episode Did That.)
Next on my list are Widows and If Beale Street Could Talk, and we’ll have to see what else comes out that tempts me. Any Oscar-worthy recent releases you think I should check out on half price Tuesday?
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