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Bliss Is a State of Mind

During the pandemic, I’ve embarked on a journey of wild abandon when it comes to movie-watching, seeing films that otherwise might not have attracted my interest.

Such is the case with Bliss (2021), written and directed by Mike Cahill (Another Earth, I Origins). Based on previews, it looked only mildly interesting—another in a long list of movies about altered realities. And it is that, in part. But it’s so much more.

It begins with a man named Greg (Owen Wilson), estranged from family and struggling with delusion and drug addiction, spending hours on end drawing an idyllic place he dreams of, who consequently becomes homeless. He encounters a woman named Isabel (Selma Hayek), who helps him, shelters him in her rather lovely outdoor abode—complete with a sunflower named Ophelia—and convinces him that this world is a simulation she has actually created, over which they can have amazing power with the help of a little yellow pill. Whenever they take the pill, they wreak havoc among those who are “not real” like they are.

The two worlds of Greg and Isabel (Bliss, 2021).

One of these fake simulation-bound beings, Isabel claims, is the person Greg knows as his daughter, Emily (Nesta Cooper, who steals every scene she’s in). She is searching for her father and wants to stay connected, unlike her brother, who chooses to no longer to deal with his father’s deep issues.

For Greg and Isabel, there’s also a little blue pill. Taking enough of these, by inhaling them through a special device, takes them back to “reality,” the paradise that Greg has been drawing. There, Greg and Isabel are married and are doctors who have created the not-so-pleasant simulated world to help people appreciate what they have in real life.

Greg, not remembering this life except for vague flashes, is torn between its perfection and the heartstrings drawing him back to his daughter, even though his life in that world is broken. The latter is fueled by Emily appearing in Greg’s “real life,” though she’s supposed to be only a figment in the simulated one, to tell him she understands he has two realities and hopes he’ll choose what’s best for him.

Ah, if only people could all be so understanding of one another.

Bliss has received poor critical reviews, apparently mainly based on that it’s confusing and disjointed. I rather felt like that was the point. It seems to be an inventive portrayal of mental illness and drug dependency. The never-heavy-handed observations that the film invites range from how people with such issues are treated by society, law enforcement, and even their own families (mind you, not without reasonable grounds), to the idea that bliss really is a state of mind and people choose whether to be happy where they are.

Watch for appearance by Bill Nye “The Science Guy” and philosopher Slavoj Žižek.

This thought-provoking film inspires me to see Cahill’s other films soon.

Judy Garland was America’s sweetheart for a time, including being immortalized as

Judy Garland as Dorothy Gale in THE WIZARD OF OZ, 1939.

Judy Garland as Dorothy Gale in THE WIZARD OF OZ, 1939.

Dorothy Gale in The Wizard of Oz in 1939. Behind the scenes, Garland suffered from lifelong insecurity, anger about the constraints she faced, substance abuse, and reliability issues that eventually lost her the ability to make a living. It also meant she could not provide a stable home for her two younger children, Lorna and Joey Luft (Liza Minelli was grown by then).

These are the things revealed in the 2019 film Judy, starring Renée Zellwegger. The story focuses on Judy’s final year or so (with flashbacks to her ingénue beginnings), when she left her kids to make some money abroad (although the locations of her final shows are a bit historically muddled, obviously for dramatic purposes) so she could win back custody of her kids.

Meanwhile, the children are left with ex-husband Sidney Luft, portrayed by Rufus Sewell (Dark City, A Knight’s Tale), who unfortunately has few and forgettable scenes as a rather flat, one-note personality. Garland’s fifth and final husband, Mickey Deans, is played by Finn Wittrock (American Horror Story, 2014–16). While he has a bit more of a visible role as the last intimate partner in Garland’s life, it’s still a thin characterization. It’s as though Zellwegger as Garland stays in sharp focus while all those around her are shot through a lens smeared with Vaseline.

Zellwegger as Garland in JUDY, 2019.

Zellwegger as Garland in JUDY, 2019.

In fact, the entire film seems crafted solely to showcase the acting and singing mimicry of Zellwegger, rather than telling the story of Garland’s triumphs and tragedies. An excellent review by Alison Willmore describes this show without a soul. Yes, Zellwegger might get an Oscar for this performance, but it seems rather exploitive. Garland was, after all, much more than the sum of these unhappy terminal situations.

In some moments, Zellwegger sublimely captures Garland’s look and movements, and even approximates her voice (though, like the excellent effort of Taron Egerton in Rocketman, no one can truly replicate inimitable voices like those of Elton John or Judy Garland).

But throughout most of the film, I was struck by the stark differences: Zellwegger is 50, emaciated, and really showing her age. Garland had withered toward the end of her 47 years due to prolonged drug use, but she still had the beautiful wide eyes and round cheeks that made her downright adorable all her life. Zellwegger also has ingrained expressions, like pursing her lips and squinting her eyes, that make her instantly recognizable—but as herself—that creep in and blow any illusion she casts of being the woman she portrays.

Garland and husband Deans, about 6 months before her death.

Garland and husband Deans, about 6 months before her death.

Theater director Rupert Goold does a commendable job with the pacing and imagery of Judy, and this film is worth watching. However, in the end, it’s depressing and shallow. It doesn’t touch the triumphant aspects of Garland’s life that can be celebrated and instead focuses on only the heartbreak. Lorna Luft sums up some of these shortcomings in a recent interview. Of course, an excellent performance shouldn’t and can’t be spoiled by mere expressions, but that’s how thin the veneer seems here. It’s dress-up and make-believe, rather than phenomenal true-life character portrayal. IMHO, it’s just not on the same wavelength as the performances of Geoffrey Rush in Shine, Laurence Fishburne and Angela Bassett in What’s Love Got to Do with It?, Gary Oldman in Darkest Hour, Meryl Streep in The Iron Lady, and even Julia Roberts as Erin Brokovich. Though some of these portrayals required some makeup, it’s the actors’ deep dive into the humanity of each character that makes these films amazing.

Unlike some of the historical character films mentioned above, which I can and have watched again and again, I’ll probably not return to Judy. That quality of “I’d watch it again” is a bellwether of movie success to me.

If you’ve seen the movie, chime in about what you think. Will Zellwegger’s performance join the pantheon of best real-life character portrayals?

Quentin Tarantino. The writer/director’s name inspires all kinds of reactions. It hasn’t changed with this latest (and possibly penultimate) entry in his filmography.

Mr. White (Harvey Keitel) inspects the wounds of Mr. Orange (Tim Roth) in Reservoir Dogs.

Mr. White (Harvey Keitel) inspects the wounds of Mr. Orange (Tim Roth) in Reservoir Dogs. Credit: ©Miramax/Courtesy Everett Collection

I’ve enjoyed Tarantino’s movies since he had the audacity to have a central character bleed out through an entire film while various versions of his demise played out. This was 1992’s Reservoir Dogs, which remains one of my absolute favorite movies. (Of course, I can’t listen to “Stuck in the Middle with You” anymore …)

Of course, you have to love fake grisliness and buckets of stage blood as much Tarantino seems to. You also have to be comfortable with biting satire and nonlinear storytelling. I happen to adore all this about Tarantino’s storytelling,  and so I’ve been enthralled since the start by subsequent gems like Pulp Fiction (1994), Kill Bill Vol. 1 and 2 (2003, 2004), and The Hateful Eight (2015).

In 2009, with Inglourious Basterds, Tarantino also started what has become a tidy little group of revisionist films. At first, they seemed a bit incongruous with the filmmaker’s other gritty action-fantasies. But I learned that my gut reaction to watching them was satisfaction—the kind that a bullied kid might feel when being able to one-up a tormentor in a definitive way.

From left, Margot Robbie (who plays Sharon Tate in the film), Quentin Tarantino, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Brad Pitt at Cannes.

From left, Margot Robbie (who plays Sharon Tate in the film), Quentin Tarantino, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Brad Pitt at Cannes. Credit: Loic Venance/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

  • In Basterds, the historical question posed is “What if an imagined plot to kill Hitler and Goebbels had succeeded and shaved at least a year off WWII?” Lovely idea.
  • In Django Unchained (2012), it’s “What if a chain gang slave gains freedom and becomes an avenging vigilante?” Gratifying.
  • And in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019), it’s “What if a has-been actor named Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) had lived next door to the Polanski residence, and along with his stunt-double-turned-chauffeur Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), foiled the Manson Family murders in 1969?” Yes!

This aspect of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is most satisfying, especially when it comes with the usual Tarantino-movie dollop of ultraviolence—of course, this time visited on the would-be murderers. How many people who remember the gruesome news at the time didn’t wish some form of such agony on the killers? Well, in the movie, we get that—they’re shot, bludgeoned, attacked by a dog, set on fire, and drowned. It’s a very cathartic release for some of the dormant anger about the mindless carnage of those brutal slayings in ’69 in the name of, what? —exacerbating racial tension? —getting revenge on the privileged “piggies”? It’s all too grotesque.

Cliff visits the former Western studio where the Manson Family members are staying.

Cliff visits the former Western studio where the Manson Family members are staying. Credit: Screenshot

But before you run off screaming about how disgusting this movie must be, wait! There’s comedy too, and droll caricatures of Hollywood types, and the whole amusing story of how Rick Dalton’s career has declined, and what’s happened to stuntman Cliff along the way. As in Tarantino’s other films, there aren’t protracted monologues or montages with backstories; the audience pieces together characters as we all do in real life—what we see people do, and what we hear about them. This creates a dynamic relationship with the story and less chance of predictability.

There’s a hilarious example of this in the film: We hear Cliff Booth being referred to as a wife-killer who got away with it. Shocking! We get just one flashback, which salaciously dangles possible motive and opportunity, but we don’t see him do it. Ingenious.

So, why don’t I love this movie as much as most of Tarantino’s work? Don’t get me wrong—I like it a lot … it made me think and feel, and it made me want to see it again.

The film is filled with retro music and art, like this poster depicting a spaghetti western starring fictional actor Rick Dalton.

The film is filled with retro music and art, like this poster depicting a spaghetti western starring fictional actor Rick Dalton. Credit: Sony

Maybe it’s one early reaction I had: This is like watching a Tarantino film in slow motion. Everything seemed muted from the typical pace and intensity of his films. I appreciate the time taken to introduce Dalton and Booth, and the completely separate story told, but that takes up most of the film. Booth’s run-in with the Manson Family is an interesting intersection, but otherwise we don’t see much of that crew until the last few minutes. A similar tack was taken in Inglourious Basterds, but here it seems lethargic. For instance, there are entire minutes taken to set a mood with a song of the era, but without any background action, other than, say, one of the characters driving in a car. Maybe this slower, sleepier style will grow on me. Maybe it was intentional to lend more oomph to the final frenetic scenes of dispatching the would-be-killers.

Another issue I had is some of the characters nearly being left on the cutting room floor—or, rather, maybe they should have been. Timothy Oliphant playing James Stacy is one, and Dakota Fanning’s portrayal of Squeaky Fromme is another. Basically, their turns were so inconsequential, they really didn’t need to be in the film. That’s a waste of talent, and it’s unexpected from a director who typically gains rich results even from roles filled by non-actors.

On the other hand, some smaller roles are splendid. Bruce Dern as the decrepit ghost-town-studio owner “hosting” the Manson Family is one. Another is Damien Lewis as Steve McQueen—uncanny!

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is not for everyone, but if you’re game for such stuff, it’s marvelous satire and darkly imagined reparation. It also whets the appetite for Tarantino’s reportedly last film to come (as he plans to retire). Personally, I can’t wait.

It seems to be the year of films that explore the music icons of my generation. Just a couple of weeks ago, I wrote about a biopic about Queen and a bio-fantasy about Elton John in the blog Rocketman Flies High on the Heels of Bohemian Rhapsody. Now, here we are with an even more imaginative take on what the Beatles have meant to the world, as explored in Yesterday, directed by the marvelous Danny Boyle (Shallow Grave, Trainspotting, 28 Days Later, Slumdog Millionaire, 127 Days).

The clever concept reminded me of It’s a Wonderful Life. During a mysterious global power outage, the main character, Jack Malik (Himesh Patel), gets hit by a bus. When he recovers, the struggling songwriter discovers that suddenly no one remembers the Beatles—never heard of them. They also never heard of several other ubiquitous elements of modern life, but I won’t give those away here.

Jack’s failure as a performer quickly turns into unimaginable success as he passes himself off as the writer of beloved songs like “Hey Jude,” “Let It Be,” and—of course—“Yesterday.” But after an alternative-universe kind of meeting with one of the Beatles-who-were, he realizes that lying to the world—and losing the love of his life (played by the lovely Lily James)—is just not how he wants to live.

Sure, there are TONS of plot holes and some heavy-handed handling of just how AMAZING the Beatles were (they’re compared at various points to Leonardo da Vinci and Mozart), but it’s an enjoyable fantasy film. It pokes fun at many modern foibles, includes apropos “playing themselves” appearances by Ed Sheeran and James Corden, and features the music of the Beatles. Yeah, those songs really are great, and that’s why they endure and a movie like this can be made about them.

So leave the disbelief at home and enjoy the situational comedy and romance. It’s like something they write songs about.

James Corden plays himself.

In Yesterday, Jack appears on James Corden’s talkshow.

Looks like there are more films about our favorite music to come, as Blinded by the Light comes to the screen to tell a story about the inspiration that Bruce Springsteen’s music offers. And I for one can’t wait to see what comes after that!

Rocketman - Taron Egerton

Taron Egerton as Elton John

As a kid, I listened to Elton John records almost as much as I wore out the grooves in the vinyl of my Queen LPs!  So, I found it amusing that the film Rocketman emerged on the heels of Bohemian Rhapsody and its success. The two movies take different approaches with poetic license when it comes to rendering the rock-legend biopic. And, interestingly, b Dexter Fletcher directed both films (though Bryan Singer is director-of-record for Rhapsody, having started the project).

The first concert I ever attended was Queen, back in the day. (Yes, I realized I am dating myself.) I was and remain an avid fan, especially of classic Queen through about the News of the World release. Naturally, I approached the Rhapsody film with a critical eye. Yes, there are some easily spotted inaccuracies, and I was particularly miffed to see a blue-eyed Freddie Mercury, but it seemed that’s all anyone focused on. Overall, the movie is rousing and entertaining. I loved it, bought the DVD, watched it again, and will in the future!

cast of Bohemian Rhapsody.

The cast of Bohemian Rhapsody: dead ringers for the band Queen.

But maybe “reality” was the issue: Rhapsody seemed to make painstaking efforts to be realistic—the cast were dead ringers for the band members, the band’s inimitable soundtracks were beautifully blended in, and Rami Malek even had a movement coach to emulate Freddie Mercury’s stage strutting. Possibly the attention to these details acutely pointed out the inattention (intentional or not) to other facts about when and why certain events happened. When that happens, suspension of disbelief is tough to attain with a straightforward biopic.

Such is not the case with Rocketman. From start to end, the film is filled with fantasy sequences and metaphor. For instance, rather than presenting Elton John and Bernie Taupin’s songs in any semblance of chronological release order, it peppers the story with them wherever they reflect events in Elton’s life. The music is not confined to concert scenes; people burst into song and dance as needed. Lapses in the time continuum represent the drug-and-alcohol-induced confusion that Elton suffered before seeking help.

The most powerful metaphor in the film starts with the first frame and continues through almost to the end. In a classic example of retrospective narrative, Elton reveals how he plummeted to his low point as he talks to a support group at a rehab facility. As the film pops back in on him telling his tale, he’s also removing pieces of a bejeweled devil outfit and eventually ends up in a simple tracksuit. After that, he’s back to being Elton—albeit a sober one—as he dons a showman’s outfit for a rousing rendition of “I’m Still Standing.” It’s all tongue-in-cheek fun and pretty immune to any nitpicky fact-checking.

Taron Egerton as Elton John in a devil suitRocketman also avoids lip-sync analysis by actually having the lead actor sing. Luckily, Taron Egerton is not only a good actor but a decent singer. Anyone (like me) who knows every note of at least two dozen Elton John songs by heart can tell immediately it’s not Elton’s voice. But Egerton does an amazing job, and the way this fantasy-musical-biopic is structured, it fits right in with the story and allows the character to modulate for a scene in ways that a soundtrack never could.

Taron Egerton as Elton John at the Troubadour

Photo by David Appleby/Paramount/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock (10242448j) Taron Egerton as Elton John ‘Rocketman’ Film – 2019

The fantasy aspects also mean that the adult Elton John can talk face to face with the young Reggie Dwight that he was, and characters can float in thin air to reflect the euphoric excitement of Elton’s American debut at the Troubadour.

In the end, both Bohemian Rhapsody and Rocketman are wonderful films about the rock of my youth. I’m hard-pressed to choose the one I’d like to have with me on a deserted island.


Cheers and happy moviegoing!


Postscript: I was fortunate enough to see Elton John’s final Saturday night concert in residency at Caesar’s Palace before his retirement in May 2018.Elton John in concert at Caesar's Palace May 2018

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