Latest Entries »

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

florence-foster-jenkins-posterA wealthy and connected socialite deludes herself that she is a talented soprano and aims for staging a concert at Carnegie Hall, topping all of her other dubious musical accomplishments. Her doting husband and compliant accompanist enable her, and no one else speaks out, until a reporter who attends the concert cries “the emperor has no clothes” and bursts her bubble.

Very funny stuff. And the funniest part? It all happened! Yes, truth is truly stranger than fiction.

Streep, left, as Lady Florece, as she liked to be called, and the real Florence at right.

St. Clair Bayfield was Florence’s longtime companion, though it seems they were not actually married.

Director Stephen Frears’ film Florence Foster Jenkins is engaging and fun to watch, and it’s one of those slices of little-known history that makes you want to learn more. I love these kinds of films, when they are executed as well as this one is. Of course there are the instances of Hollywood poetic license to add drama, but the story is just a hoot.

 

Playing the lead is Meryl Streep, whose performance is, as ever, marvelous. She dexterously emulates tone-deafness, and her character is affable as the afflicted yet undauntedly persevering Lady Florence. Hugh Grant falls smoothly into the role of her amiable and facilitating husband, with a mixture of saintly patience and all-too-human appetites.

 

Cosme McMoon was at the height of his piano-playing career with Lady Florence, and he ended up becoming interested in bodybuilding.

The toughest sell for me was the casting of Simon Helberg (Big Bang Theory) as Cosme McMoon, Florence’s piano accompanist. It’s a personal thing, I concede. Helberg is perfect for the role. He is geeky and puny and a talented piano player, like the real McMoon (which some purport was a pseudonym to protect the real performer’s reputation). But I could not get over seeing Howard Wolowitz on the screen, and I expected him to be living with his mother when Florence goes to see him, and yelling, “All right, Ma!” when she summons from offstage.

The supporting cast adds depth and flavor to the story, perfectly helping depict the grand deception that served Florence’s fantasy.  They used her, and she used them. Ah, the rich.

A

%d bloggers like this: