Bohemian Rhapsody (2018)

2018 #230
Bryan Singer | 134 mins | cinema | 2.39:1 | UK & USA / English | 12A / PG-13

Bohemian Rhapsody

Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?

So go the opening lines to the song Bohemian Rhapsody (Bo Rhap to its friends), Queen’s six-minute prog-rock suite that is one of the best-selling and most-acclaimed songs of all time. And those lines could hardly be more relevant to the film that’s borrowed its title, given that much of the discourse about the film has revolved around the issue of its truthfulness. This (in part) has led to a huge divide in the opinions of critics and audiences: whereas the former gave it a Rotten Tomatoes rating of just 55% when it released (it’s since climbed up to 61%), audiences have driven it to be the #1 film at the worldwide box office and placed it on the IMDb Top 250, where it’s actually rising up the chart (it was at #136 after I saw it last Thursday, but is at #126 as of writing). Well, there’s a scene in the film where Bohemian Rhapsody debuts on the radio, and as it plays the screen gradually fills with quotes from contemporary reviews, all of them mercilessly slagging it off — the irony, obviously, being that we all know what a ginormous hit the song would become. Some things never change, eh?

Bohemian Rhapsody: The Movie is, of course, a biopic of performer extraordinaire Freddie Mercury and the band he fronted, Queen. The film begins in 1970, introducing us to Farrokh Bulsara (Rami Malek) — Heathrow baggage handler by day, wannabe party animal by night, who prefers to go by the name Freddie. He’s been following the fortunes of student band Smile, and when their lead singer quits he offers his services to the remaining members, guitarist Brian May (Gwilym Lee) and drummer Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy); and with the addition of bassist John Deacon (Joe Mazzello), the line-up is complete. As he begins a relationship with shopgirl Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton), Freddie’s confidence as a performer grows: he changes his surname to Mercury and coerces the band into recording an album, where their unusual style gets them noticed by a record label and… well, you can imagine where it goes from there.

Killer Queen

And that’s another problem that critics have had with the movie: you can imagine where it goes from there not just because you know Queen are an incredibly popular and successful band, but because you’ve seen this story a dozen times before in any other music biopic you care to name. Many critics have favoured naming Walk Hard, a spoof of the genre, wondering how audiences can accept such familiar tricks after they’ve already been spoofed. Well, consider this: 2½-week-old Bo Rhap already has more IMDb ratings than 11-year-old Walk Hard.

Look, I’m trying not to gloat, but here’s a thing: I’ve been a fan of Queen’s music for as long as I can remember. I grew up listening to their first Greatest Hits album a lot. I’d wager a lot of British people have a similar affiliation, considering that’s the best-selling album of all time here. Heck, it’s only really Americans that should’ve been caught by surprise by the film’s success: it’s my understanding that Queen have always been something of a niche, cult group there, whereas in the rest of the world they’re pretty damn huge (some estimates put them among the top ten best-selling music artists of all time). As the aforementioned Bo Rhap reviews scene suggests, audiences have often been ahead of the critical curve when it comes to appreciating the band’s genius, and maybe it’s the same with their biopic.

That said, a lot of the film is made up of quite run-of-the-mill music biopic material. I don’t think it merits the level of vitriol some critics have hit, because it’s not executed badly, it’s just nothing particularly unusual either. But the film does have one big advantage: it’s about Queen. Some of their magic can’t help but rub off. We’re not watching any old band playing any old songs — it’s Freddie Mercury and Queen, creating Bohemian Rhapsody, We Will Rock You, Another One Bites the Dust; performing Killer Queen, Fat Bottomed Girls, Love of My Life, I Want to Break Free, Radio Ga Ga, We Are the Champions… The film itself may be not be a classic-in-waiting, but with these people, those songs, and the performances of both, fans of Queen’s music surely can’t help but be entertained. And when their fans number, well, most people, that’s when you get a crowd-pleasing #1-in-the-world box office hit.

We Will Rock You

Much of the film toddles along nicely, mixing some predictable plotting with other bits that really work. It does a good job of little things that make the band feel like a group of friends — the scenes where they’re conceiving songs, collaborating, teasing each other; just little touches that sell the atmosphere of mates working together. Any scene where they’re called on to perform on stage has all the strutting majesty of the real band (I’ll come to the biggest instance of that later). Inhabiting those roles, the actors playing Queen are superb. It’s never easy playing an icon, but Malek excels as Freddie, and an Oscar nomination may well be on the cards. In the less showy roles, Gwilym Lee and Ben Hardy are both likeable as the thoroughly decent Brian and more hotheaded Roger, respectively, though Joe Mazzello has less to do as quiet John Deacon, often just pulling silly faces in the background.

I also think the film makes a fair fist of depicting Freddie’s love life. We’ve had a fair few high-profile gay movies recently (Moonlight, Call Me by Your Name, Love Simon), and compared to those Bo Rhap clearly didn’t foreground his homosexuality as much as some viewers would like. Each to their own, but I reckon the film splits itself about 50/50 between Freddie’s personal life and the band’s story, and I don’t think it shies away from his gayness (albeit in a PG-13 way — no beach stroking or peach abusing here).

Even more of an elephant in the room has been the film’s directorial situation: planned and part-directed by Bryan Singer, he was eventually fired from production, with the rest of the shoot (reported to be about a third) and post-production completed by Dexter Fletcher. Singer gets the sole credit because the Director’s Guild of America specifies that only one director may be credited (that’s a whole kettle of fish we’ll leave for another day) and there seems little doubt Singer contributed more on balance than Fletcher, especially as Fletcher has said his job was to complete the work that had already been started. Bearing this situation in mind, it’s particularly interesting that, while much of the film is shot quite matter-of-factly, there are occasional bold directorial flourishes that make you query: who was responsible? Did Fletcher tart things up? Were they Singer’s idea (and so should there have been more)? Unless we ever get a breakdown of who did what, I guess we’ll never know.

Love of My Life

One thing that did intrigue me slightly is that the film isn’t in 3D. That format’s mainly reserved for post-converted blockbusters now, sure, but both Singer and Queen guitarist (and a producer of the film) Brian May are fans of stereography: Singer actually shot his last two X-Mens in 3D (as opposed to just post-converting, as most do nowadays), while May is something of an authority on the subject, even having designed a viewer for 3D photos and published several books (including one of his 3D photos of Queen). So, basically, I’m passingly surprised they didn’t choose to shoot in 3D. Maybe they asked and the studio just wouldn’t pony up the cost. Who knows. It doesn’t really matter… though, actually, I think the finale could’ve looked fantastic in three dimensions.

Ah, the finale. Earlier, I said the film begins in 1970 — that’s not quite true. It actually begins with a flash-forward to Live Aid, the 1985 charity concert that included a famous set by Queen, and which the rest of the film eventually leads us back to. It’s a natural place to choose to conclude the movie: it was a huge triumph for the band, their set regarded by many as among the greatest rock concerts of all time, and certainly a happier endpoint than Freddie’s death a few years later — it seems more fitting to end with him on top of the world than sadly fading away. But even knowing all these facts doesn’t prepare you for the power of what’s actually on screen. It’s truly an incredible set piece, especially when experienced on a huge screen with a thumping surround sound setup. It literally made my hair stand on end and almost brought tears to my eyes. The version in the film isn’t actually the whole set that was played, but they did film it all and it’s being cut together as a Blu-ray extra. I can’t wait. Even as it stands, though, it’s a barnstorming conclusion to the movie; a sequence of such power it justifies the film’s very existence.

We Are the Champions

And so we come to the rub: the rating. Can you give a film full marks for pulling off one key 20-minute sequence so exceptionally? Well, that’s sort of what I was just saying: by itself, the Live Aid scene is enough to tempt me to give the whole film full marks, I thought it was that good. But the rest of the movie isn’t at the same level — it ticks along decently and I enjoyed it all, don’t get me wrong, but it doesn’t really transcend its genre or subject matter. So, it’s a 4… but Live Aid may yet earn the film a spot on my best-of-year list nonetheless.

4 out of 5

Highlander (1986)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #43

There can be only one.

Country: UK
Language: English
Runtime: 116 minutes | 111 minutes (US theatrical cut)
BBFC: 15
MPAA: R

Original Release: 7th March 1986 (USA)
UK Release: 29th August 1986
First Seen: TV, 6th October 2000 (probably)

Stars
Christopher Lambert (Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes, Mortal Kombat)
Sean Connery (Goldfinger, The Rock)
Roxanne Hart (The Verdict, Pulse)
Clancy Brown (The Shawshank Redemption, The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie)

Director
Russell Mulcahy (The Shadow, Resident Evil: Extinction)

Screenwriters
Peter Bellwood (St. Helens, Highlander II: The Quickening)
Larry Ferguson (Beverly Hills Cop II, The Hunt for Red October)
Gregory Widen (Backdraft, The Prophecy)

Story by
Gregory Widen (see above)

The Story
Connor MacLeod is an immortal, a race of men living in secret among the rest of us, who must one day come together for the Gathering, after which there can be only one immortal left standing. That time comes in New York, 1985, as hulking savage the Kurgan hunts down the remaining immortals so that he can be the only one, and use the power that imbues to dominate the world. MacLeod is the only man in his way. Who will win? After all, there can be only— yeah, okay, you get it.

Our Hero
There can be only one Connor MacLeod, the 16th Century Scotsman with a suspiciously European accent who can live forever (who wants to live forever, anyway?)… unless someone lops his head off. That tends to do for most people, to be fair.

Our Villain
The strong and silent type, the Kurgan is certainly a physically imposing menace. Also immortal except for the decapitation thing. Wants MacLeod’s head, literally.

Best Supporting Character
Juan Sanchez Villa-Lobos Ramirez — the perpetually Scottish-accented Sean Connery as an Egyptian from Spain. It’s that kind of movie.

Memorable Quote
Connor MacLeod: “I’ve been alive for four and a half centuries, and I cannot die.”
Brenda: “Well, everyone has got their problems.”

Quote Most Likely To Be Used in Everyday Conversation
“There can be only one!” — everyone

Memorable Scene
(Spoilers!) As Connor talks with his assistant Rachel, an old woman, the film flashes back to World War 2: fleeing from Nazi soldiers, Connor runs into a barn, where he discovers a little girl hiding — Rachel. When a German officer turns up, Connor takes a bullet for her… then gets up and kills the officer, of course. This scene wasn’t even in the truncated US theatrical cut (it’s the largest single deletion, as detailed here), but has always stuck in my mind. It’s one of the best executions of the concept of the immortal: his only friend, an old woman, is someone he rescued as a little girl. (Short-lived half-decent US procedural crime series Forever explored this same concept more thoroughly over its single season a couple of years ago.)

Memorable Song
Who Wants to Live Forever is one of Queen’s best songs — and it was written by Brian May on the cab ride home after watching some rough footage from the movie! The band had only intended to record one song for the film, but after enjoying that footage they were inspired to compose more. The exact number of tracks they produced varies depending which source you listen to — they’re all on the A Kind of Magic album, but not all the tracks on that album were for Highlander. The exception is their recording of New York, New York for the film, which has never been released.

Technical Wizardry
Before CGI, filmmakers had to find other ways to do things like make swords spark when they clash. Animation was one method, of course. Not in Highlander, though. No, they attached a wire to each sword that then went down the arms of the actors to a car battery. One wire was connected to the positive terminal, the other to the negative terminal, so that when the blades touched there was an arc of electricity. Sounds super safe. Imagine the insurance costs of possibly electrocuting two lead actors…

Letting the Side Down
You might say the accents, but I think they’re part of the charm.

Making of
The opening scene was scripted to take place during a hockey match, emphasising the violence of the sport in contrast to the flashbacks of Connor warring in Scotland. The NHL weren’t impressed and refused permission. It was replaced with a wrestling match, which is presumably less violent than hockey.

Next time…
There should be only one! No one pays much attention to anything Highlander-related beyond the first film anymore, it feels like, but there’s a whopping great franchise lurking underneath that surface. It begins with much-maligned sequel Highlander II: The Quickening, also directed by Mulcahy and starring Lambert and Connery, which is set in the future and explains away the immortals as being aliens, or something. In spite of the minor improvement in the form of a “Renegade Version” director’s cut, the rest of the franchise ignores it. Spin-off TV series Highlander: The Series began in 1992, following the adventures of Duncan MacLeod (Adrian Paul), another immortal from the same clan. It ran for six seasons, begetting a spin-off of its own, Highlander: The Raven, which only lasted one. An animated series set in a post-apocalyptic future began in 1994, titled Highlander: The Animated Series (imaginative with their names, weren’t they?), which followed “the last of the MacLeods”, Quentin. It lasted for 40 episodes across two seasons. Also in 1994, second sequel Highlander III: The Sorcerer (aka Highlander: The Final Dimension) returned to the story of Connor MacLeod, ignoring both The Quickening and the TV series. Apparently it’s just a rehash of the first movie. After the TV series ended, fourth film Highlander: Endgame attempted to merge the two branches of the franchise, with a movie that followed Duncan MacLeod and led him to encounter Connor. It’s been shown on the BBC with surprising regularity. For some reason they made an anime movie in 2007, Highlander: The Search for Vengeance, which pits Colin MacLeod (yes, another one) against an immortal Roman general in a post-apocalyptic future. What is it with animation and post-apocalyptic futures? The whole shebang ultimately ground to a halt with Highlander: The Source, a post-Endgame continuation that was supposed to be the first of a trilogy but didn’t go down very well (plus ça change). It’s also been shown on the BBC with surprising regularity. There are also novels, a Flash-animated webseries, a handful of comic books released in the mid-’00s, and a couple of series of audio dramas from Big Finish that continue the TV series. A remake/reboot has been in development since 2008.

What the Critics Said
“Film starts out with a fantastic sword-fighting scene in the garage of Madison Square Garden and then jumps to a medieval battle between the clans set in 16th-century Scotland. Adding to the confusion in time, director Russell Mulcahy can’t seem to decide from one scene to the next whether he’s making a sci-fi, thriller, horror, music video or romance – end result is a mishmash.” — Variety (they say that as if it’s a bad thing!)

Score: 68%

What the Public Say
“I hear this won the Oscar for Best Movie Ever Made.” — Jope @ Blu-ray.com

Verdict

Highlander is a cult favourite — many reviews will tell you as much. I guess I’m in that cult, then, because I bloody love it. Of course it’s preposterous, of course the screenplay and performances are ridiculous, and of course it’s directed as much like an ’80s music video as it is a film… but it’s also a fantastic fantasy concept, so rich for further exploration that they keep trying to do just that (even though they keep messing it up). Also, it’s about men who have sword fights — excitingly choreographed sword fights — so, yeah, it’s right up my alley in that, too. Highlander may not be a “great film” in the artistic history-of-the-medium sense, but my goodness is it a great film.

A 30th anniversary restoration of Highlander is released on DVD and Blu-ray next month.

#44 will be… the best Fantastic Four movie.

Flash Gordon (1980)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #30

Pathetic earthlings…
Who can save you now?

Country: UK & USA
Language: English
Runtime: 115 minutes
BBFC: A (1980) | PG (1987)
MPAA: PG

Original Release: 5th December 1980 (USA)
UK Release: 11th December 1980
First Seen: c.1995

Stars
Sam J. Jones (10, Ted)
Melody Anderson (Dead & Buried, Firewalker)
Max von Sydow (The Seventh Seal, The Exorcist)
Topol (Fiddler on the Roof, For Your Eyes Only)
Ornella Muti (The Last Woman, Tales of Ordinary Madness)

Director
Mike Hodges (Get Carter, Croupier)

Screenwriter
Lorenzo Semple Jr. (Batman: The Movie, Three Days of the Condor)

Adaptation by
Michael Allin (Enter the Dragon, I’ll Be Home for Christmas)

Based on
Flash Gordon, a newspaper comic strip created by Alex Raymond.

The Story
American football player Flash Gordon and journalist Dale Arden accidentally end up on the spaceship of scientist Dr Zarkov, which transports them to the planet Mongo. There, they learn the planet’s evil Emperor, Ming the Merciless, is subjecting Earth to natural disasters in a bid to destroy it. Flash must unite the warring factions on Mongo to defeat Ming and save the Earth.

Our Hero
He’s a miracle, king of the impossible. Just a man, with a man’s courage, but he can never fail. He’ll save every one of us. Flash! Ah-ah!

Our Villains
Max von Sydow is deliciously villainous as evil emperor Ming the Merciless. There’s a handful of similarly entertaining underlings, too, like scheming right-hand-man Klytus, who gets a great death, and right-hand-woman Kala, who gets some of the very best lines.

Best Supporting Character
Prince Vultan may be culturally iconic for one two-word exclamation, but it kind of encapsulates the presence he brings throughout the film.

Memorable Quote
Zogi: “Do you, Ming the Merciless, Ruler of the Universe, take this Earthling Dale Arden, to be your Empress of the Hour?”
Ming: “Of the hour, yes.”
Zogi: “Do you promise to use her as you will?”
Ming: “Certainly!”
Zogi: “Not to blast her into space? …uh, until such time as you grow weary of her.”
Ming: “I do.”

Quote Most Likely To Be Used in Everyday Conversation
“Gordon’s alive?!” — Prince Vultan
(Not that it’s likely to be appropriate in everyday conversation, but you’re still going to hear it said — especially if you’re ever around Brian Blessed.)

Memorable Scene
In Ming’s harem, Flash’s love interest Dale and Ming’s rebellious daughter Aura end up wrestling on a giant bed. Kinky! But it’s knowingly directed, with cutaways to sniggering servants indicating a deliberate commentary on such gratuitous girl-on-girl spectacles in other films.

Write the Theme Tune…
“Dum dum dum dum dum dum dum dum FLASH! Ah-ah! Saviour of the universe!” Rock group Queen composed the entire score for Flash Gordon, and their unmistakeable sound is a significant part of the film. Best of all is that main theme, surely one of the most memorable and hummable pop themes for a movie ever recorded. If you’re interested in the making of the soundtrack, there’s a detailed article on Queen’s official site.

Technical Wizardry
The design work is great. The sets, costumes, and spaceships are all huge, vibrant, retro, often ridiculous, and wonderful.

Truly Special Effect
Skies full of swirling rainbow colours, rainbow clouds for the spaceships to float through, platforms that tilt over a rainbow vortex… OK, there’s a lot of rainbows, but it’s unique and looks great.

Letting the Side Down
There is so little that’s bad about Flash Gordon that I’ve left this section in just to point out that there is nothing bad about Flash Gordon.

Previously on…
The most famous earlier version of Flash Gordon must be the three cinema serials starring Buster Crabbe that were produced between 1936 and 1940. They’re great fun (I nearly made space for one of them on this list, but… not quite). There was also a live-action TV series in the ’50s and an animated one in 1979.

Next time…
An animated TV movie followed that last TV series in 1982. Flash was part of the Defenders of the Earth animated series in the mid ’80s, alongside other heroes such as the Phantom. Another animated series came along in 1996, while a live-action reboot was attempted in 2007. It looked terrible, and I’ve heard it’s one of the worst TV shows ever made. Reports of a new film being in development come along now and then, with Kingsman’s Matthew Vaughn being the most recently attached director. Until that rolls around, Flash’s main claim to current pop culture relevance comes courtesy of Ted and its sequel.

Awards
3 BAFTA nominations (Music (because Queen), Costume Design, Production Design/Art Direction)
3 Saturn nominations (Science Fiction Film, Supporting Actor (Max von Sydow), Costumes)
1 Razzie nomination (Worst Actor (Sam J. Jones))
Nominated for the Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation

What the Critics Said
Flash Gordon is played for laughs, and wisely so. It is no more sophisticated than the comic strip it’s based on, and that takes the curse off of material that was old before it was born. This is space opera, a genre invented by Edgar Rice Burroughs and Hugo Gernsback and other men of unlimited imagination harnessed to definitely limited skills. It’s fun to see it done with energy and love and without the pseudo-meaningful apparatus of the Force and Trekkie Power.” — Roger Ebert

Score: 82%

What the Public Say
Star Wars was squarely heterosexual, but Flash Gordon could only have emerged from the same pop-culture closet that birthed David Bowie, Elton John, Mick Jagger, and Freddie Mercury […] As for the empty-headed dialogue and the puerile plot, isn’t it obvious those are both part of the point? Everyone involved (well, except maybe Sam J. Jones) knows precisely what this is and performs accordingly, with a straight face but with a small gleam in the eye. […] I don’t know if I’d want to know anyone who couldn’t love this movie, or at least enjoy it on some level.” — Rob Gonsalves, eFilmCritic.com

Elsewhere on 100 Films
In 2009 I said that Flash Gordon was better than Star Wars. Well, I mean, I don’t know if I exactly stand by that, but I’m also not going to contradict it — Flash Gordon is awesome.

Verdict

Once reviled for being a laughably silly Star Wars cash in, the world has gradually begun to realise the truth: that Flash Gordon was always in on the joke. And it’s so obviously in on the joke, it makes a lot of the old reviews criticising it look embarrassingly tin-eared. It’s not meant to be a serious sci-fi adventure, like its big-screen Trek and Wars contemporaries. It’s designed to be camp, colourful, over-the-top, driven by cliffhangers and wackiness. It’s funny, it’s fun — it’s Flash! Ah-ah!

#31 will be… slightly more expensive.

Iron Eagle (1986)

2010 #122
Sidney J. Furie | 112 mins | TV | 15 / PG-13

You know how sometimes you see a bit of a movie on TV and you end up watching just long enough to get caught up so much you’re in for the long haul, no matter what the quality? No? Maybe it’s just me (usually around this time of year, it seems). Iron Eagle is, naturally, my latest example of this phenomena.

Quite what drew me to Iron Eagle I’m not sure. Perhaps it was seeing a young David Suchet. Perhaps it was the ludicrous ease with which a bunch of teenagers pilfered a variety of highly sensitive materials from an airforce base in the sequence I happened to catch upon ending a recording I’d been watching. Whatever it was, after being suckered for ten minutes I had to rewind and give it a full go. (Sadly my digibox’s rewind didn’t quite get back to the beginning of the film, but I don’t think it’s likely to change my opinion.)

The whole of Iron Eagle is like the sequence I mentioned: daft and implausible. The plot, for those unaware of the film (which included me), is that an American pilot is captured by Qatar due to flying into their airspace, even though he was hundreds of miles outside it. When he’s sentenced to execution and the US Government refuses to do anything practical to get him back, his teenage son — who he’s been illicitly teaching to fly fighter jets — resolves to steal one and go get his dad. Hells yeah! Or something.

Like I said, daft and implausible. And that isn’t necessarily a problem, but as you watch Iron Eagle you can’t help but wonder if the filmmakers are trying to convince viewers it could be plausible. And it isn’t. Not in the slightest.

Suchet would make an excellent villain — the role he’s cast in — but he’s criminally underused. He’s even dispatched out of hand at the end. None of the other performances are really worth noting. Jason Gedrick, as the son, may look the part — in an ’80s kinda way — of the kid who’s actually a hot-shot pilot, but his acting chops are choppy. He went on to be in Boomtown, incidentally, a much underrated cop show that I really rather liked. I don’t really recall him in it.

Talking of Other Things People Have Done, did you recognise the director’s name? Furie helmed not only the risible Superman IV (I’m not sure I’ve seen all of that, but I’ve seen enough to know it’s risible) and… The Ipcress File. The Ipcress File! I’ve not seen that either, but I think we all know this is a serious step down. Poor man. His career went on to include Iron Eagle II and the direct-to-video Iron Eagle IV. Yes, there are four of them, and apparently they’re even worse and not in keeping with the spirit of this first. Poor man.

On the bright side, the son likes to listen to music while flying his fighter jet (as you can see, the plausibility just goes on and on), one of his choice tracks being Queen’s One Vision. Anything featuring a Queen song multiple times can’t be all bad.

2 out of 5