Friday, September 27, 2019

“JUDY” STRUGGLES TO BRING AN ICON TO LIFE



“A is for effort,” as the saying goes, but as a work of cinema or a truly affecting biopic, director Rupert Goold’s JUDY doesn’t quite make the grade. The production values are strong, star Renee Zellweger gives it her all, and the story of Judy Garland is an inherently compelling one, but this take on her life comes up short. It simply doesn’t go deep enough and fails to truly illuminate her backstory, her talent, or what made her the icon that she was and still remains today, 50 years after her tragic death by an accidental barbiturate overdose.

Goold’s missteps start with using screenwriter Tom Edges’ adaption of the controversial 2012 stage production END OF THE RAINBOW by Peter Quilter. The play told the story of the final weeks of Judy Garland’s life in London when she was performing at the famed nightclub The Talk of the Town. The work had as many fans as it did distractors, and genuine Judy aficionados were more inclined to be wholly outraged by its overemphasis on her drug use and the host of inaccuracies and other liberties taken with Garland’s biography in it. Granted, a play or a film can take license with genuine history, but in both the play and this screenplay, there are too many instances of it that seem like cheap shots and they end up seriously marring the telling. 

The film also skimps on a lot of basic back story that would help in one's viewing. Few of us are Garland aficionados and yet so much of this film assumes we all know oodles about her checkered history as a child star, the battles she had with men and money, and the star’s steep career decline in the last decade of her life. JUDY just plops us down into the middle of all of it, eschewing proper exposition in favor of bite-sized, and inflammatory introductory bits. Maybe the movie ROCKETMAN approached Elton John’s life with too much of a primer take, but at least it gave the audience a proper sense of that superstar’s life starting with his childhood. JUDY doesn’t, favoring shock value over context from the very start. 

Right off the bat, the film starts out with a vicious monologue by MGM mogul L.B. Mayer (Richard Cordery) as he dresses down a young Judy (Darci Shaw) on the set of THE WIZARD OF OZ. By his tone, we’re supposed to gather she’s been stalling the production and making trouble. The film was plagued by oodles of production problems, but the way Mayer insults her looks, talent, and level of professionalism, you’d think Garland was the Wicked Witch herself. It doesn’t help that Shaw looks to be about 11 when Garland was 17 at the time and a rather womanly 17 at that. It also hurts that Shaw looks nothing like Garland, or Zellweger for that matter, and projects nothing of Judy’s essence. This misguided scene starts off the movie on a horrendously ugly note, going out of its way to play “dramatically,” but instead it comes off more like tabloid hysteria.  

From there, we’re introduced to the adult Garland as she performs in a cheap club with her two children, earning a measly 150 bucks for her song and dance. Zellweger’s physical transformation is impressive, and she captures Garland’s blend of heart-on-her-sleeve earnestness mixed with a superstar’s haughtiness. Even so, the script undercuts her by short-changing the explanation of why she’s struggling to find work, what ruined her finances or any salient details about the relationship she has with ex-husband Sid Luft (Rufus Sewell). He’s portrayed here as a sinister gangster-type, little more, even though that’s far too simplistic a take on the complex man whom she was married to for 13 years, served as her manager, and produced her lauded remake of A STAR IS BORN. 

The film fails to flesh out such details properly, missing an opportunity to set the record straight and illuminate Garland's financial troubles due to her corrupt agents Freddie Fields and David Begelman. They not only mismanaged her money, they even embezzled her personal funds. The script also plays fast and loose with Lorna Luft (Bella Ramsey), Judy and Sid’s daughter. Ramsey is a petite actress, yet she’s made up and photographed in JUDY to look even younger, coming off like a child of maybe 12. In actuality, Luft was 16 during the film’s time period of 1969, and very aware of all that was going on around her. 

JUDY is more successful when the story moves to Garland's five-week run at the London cabaret later that year. There, the film takes an uptick, showcasing her command on stage, and balancing good moments with bad in the portrayal of her backstage machinations. Zellweger is particularly effective in the scenes with Garland’s handler Rosalyn Wilder (Jessie Buckley, wonderful in a tricky role) as she struggles to handle the pressures of being a headliner there. The scenes between the two women crackle with suspense and feeling as Wilder both plays confidante and nanny to her charge and her many moods.  

Less successful is how the film presents Garland’s fifth and final husband Mickey Deans. As played by Finn Wittrock, he’s a handsome scoundrel and little else. Even when he and Judy are playing happy newlyweds, Wittrock is directed to leer out from under his brows and it makes him too easy of a bad guy. Same with Sewell, who comes to visit London and reads each of his lines as if he was directed to hiss them. It’s clear Goold is siding with Judy against these two men, but it begs the question why she'd ever marry such two-dimensional villains. 

Zellweger insisted on doing her own singing, and she’s got a good voice, but she cannot convey Garland’s command or timbre wholly onstage. One of the things that made Garland such a star was that even though she was only 4’11”, her voice made her seem ten feet tall. Even with her health issues, Garland’s contralto remained clear and bold. The film showcases musical numbers onstage a half dozen times and despite Zellweger’s best efforts, it would’ve helped the audience understand Judy’s prowess better if the Oscar-winning actress had chosen to lip-synch instead.

That’s what Judy Davis did in the 2001 ABC miniseries JUDY GARLAND: ME AND MY SHADOWS, and it helped to make for a more accurate performance. Davis won an Emmy for her efforts, as did ingenue Tammy Blanchard for rendering the young Garland so vividly as well, but both were wise enough to not attempt Garland’s distinct singing voice. Of course, that production also had six hours to tell the tale and came off fuller than JUDY, a mere 118 minutes. Still, the film should’ve managed its narrative better, spending less time on the songs that don’t quite resonate as they should, and more on getting the facts and nuance right.

Ironically, for all of the missed opportunities to present the actual history of Garland, et al. more accurately, the film works best in its one completely fictional scene. Garland befriends a gay couple who have frequented her show numerous times, joining them for a late supper at their flat. There, she bonds with them, especially Dan (a splendid Andy Nyman) as he talks about the difficulties of living as someone whom society diminishes. Judy all too readily relates because she too has been belittled in so many ways, starting with Mayer and the demands of Hollywood way back when. This film makes a valiant attempt at showing the human side of the superstar, but despite courageous work by Zellweger, the story simply misses too much of Judy. 

Sunday, September 22, 2019

JULIE ANDREWS IS THE 48TH RECIPIENT OF THE AFI LIFE ACHIEVEMENT AWARD

Original caricature by Jeff York of Julie Andrews in THE SOUND OF MUSIC. (copyright 2019)

The AFI Life Achievement Award is a career award that has often courted controversy. The trustees of the American Film Institute notoriously gave the award to Tom Hanks in 2002, when he was merely 45. The award has never gone to a screenwriter unless he was also a director. And perhaps most notoriously, they’ve only honored one artist who wasn’t an actor or director, and that was composer John Williams in 2016. This year, there’s little argument to be had in debating the merits of their choice as the 48th recipient – actress Julie Andrews. She is wholly worthy if not a slightly surprising choice this late in the game. 

Some, including yours truly, thought that perhaps the AFI had overlooked Andrews. After all, the trustees have ignored many worthy artists over the decades – Charlie Chaplin, Groucho Marx, Edith Head, Ernest Lehman, William Holden, Robert Redford, and Michael Caine, just to name seven - and with the latest recipients being younger ones like George Clooney and Denzel Washington, it appeared that they may have forgotten about the 83-year-old Andrews. Fortunately, that was not the case. Indeed, Andrews lives up to the ideals of the AFI award better than most, and it was wise for the trustees to backtrack and honor someone whose career started onscreen back in the 1940s.

The two tenets that are supposed to determine the American Film Institute’s Life Achievement Award choices are fundamentally advancing the art of film and big screen achievements that have stood the test of time. Andrews has done both demonstrably. Many of her films, like MARY POPPINS, THE SOUND OF MUSIC, THE AMERICANIZATION OF EMILY, 10, and VICTOR/VICTORIA are esteemed and beloved classics. Andrews is one of those rarest of rare talents who have become iconic. This is in part due to her talent, persona, and ability to pull off comedy, drama, romance, thrillers, and musicals. She's also quite simply, one helluva actress.

Andrews is also a one-of-a-kind-star, one whom there is simply no other like. Name one actress in the history of film who has such a unique combination of intelligence, grace, bearing, wholesomeness, sexiness, a four-octave range, and a sense of continual joie de vivre to her approach in life. You cannot. The fact that she’s British only ensures all the more that she is a singular sensation. 

She has won all kinds of major awards during her career, including an Academy Award, a BAFTA, five Golden Globes, three Grammys, two Emmys, the Screen Actors Guild Lifetime Achievement Award, and the Kennedy Center Honors Award. In addition to her big-screen work, she was a major music hall performer as a child, the original Eliza Doolittle in MY FAIR LADY and Queen Guinevere in CAMELOT on the Broadway stage, as well as the original CINDERELLA for Rodgers and Hammerstein on television in 1957. (That musical special was seen live by over 100 million viewers.)

Of course, Andrews holds a special place in audiences’ hearts because she was very likely the first movie star that millions upon millions of children fell in love with due to her endearing and enduring performances as MARY POPPINS and Maria von Trapp in THE SOUND OF MUSIC. Singing dozens of classic songs like “Spoonful of Sugar” and “Do-Re-Mi,” who from age eight to 80 didn't fall in love with her? I know I did. And that love hasn't wavered in over five decades. 

I’ve taken issue before with the AFI trustees for their choices and snubs, but this selection I wholeheartedly endorse. Julie Andrews deserves this incredible honor and I can hardly wait to see her receive it next April. Bravo!

Friday, September 20, 2019

"AD ASTRA" EXPLORES THE OUTER REACHES OF SPACE AND THE INNERMOST FEELINGS OF MAN



The title AD ASTRA is Latin for “to the stars.” Perhaps it’s a touch on-the-nose for a space travel adventure, but this is more of a character study anyway. The outer edges of the galaxy may be where Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) may travel in search of his long-lost astronaut father Clifford (Tommy Lee Jones), but his truest exploration is one of introspection. That’s not to say that the spaceman’s adventures aren’t exciting. They are, but filmmaker James Gray’s latest movie is more intellectual than visceral. Still, it's a film that is both intensely thrilling and profoundly moving. 

The story, taking place in the not too distance future, starts off with Roy acing some astronaut duties while scaling a space station. Suddenly, an unknown surge of energy shakes the super-structure like an earthquake. Ginormous pieces plummet, NASA employees fall to their deaths, and Roy himself takes a nasty tumble. His cool-head prevails though as he manages to grab a beam to break his fall. The ever-responsible Roy even manages to save some of the structure from further destruction. He understands NASA’s investments and his responsibilities to the program are baked into his core.

From there, Roy is called upon by his government to put himself in harm’s way once again. The brass identifies the surge coming from the outer regions of  the planet Neptune and they suspect its source is a spaceship thought lost 15 years ago. That vessel’s mission was to find new life in the galaxy, and it was manned by Roy’s legendary astronaut father. When earth lost contact with the ship over a decade ago, everyone assumed that the crew aboard perished, including Clifford. Now, his son must fathom that his dad may still be alive while he works against the clock to save planet Earth from another destructive surge.  

It’s a steep ask, but Roy is all about the job. And as he travels to the outer reaches of space, the veteran astronaut is constantly being monitored on whether he’s up to the task. Much is made about Roy’s heart rate never rising above 80 during recorded crisis’ and indeed, Roy is as cool as a cucumber even when his adventures encounter moon pirates, unexpected explosions, and other obstacles. 

But as he journeys farther through the galaxy, Roy also burrows deeper into his memories and emotions. He dwells on the final days of his broken marriage - Liv Tyler cameos as his wife - as well as past conflicts with his dad when he was a boy. Roy’s cool starts to crack even more when he discovers that the government hasn’t been wholly honest with him about the mission, and some he encounters who are supposed to be friends turn out to be foes. Still, he remains resolute and even stoic, never losing control of his emotions or the mission despite all the distractions. 

Much has been made about Roy’s stoicism during the film’s press junket, including a perception that such astronaut-themed films are chock full of “toxic masculinity.” (Brad Pitt has commented explicitly on this in interviews.) The themes at play here are more complex than that, most notably in the examination of the incredible commitment it takes to be an astronaut. Life is on the line every moment an astronaut is in space, even more so with a mission to save the planet as Roy is handed. This film is much more about exploring the limits of control and honor. 

Brad Pitt is having quite a summer, already being talked up as the odds-on favorite to win a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his turn in ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD. Don’t be surprised if he nets a Best Actor nomination for this film too, as he brings incredible gravitas and poignancy to the role. The fact that he does so much with very few words makes his acting achievement all the more striking. There are few actors today who can hold the screen as well as he does. 

Gray’s script, co-written with Ethan Gross, is as minimalist as Roy in its way. It too is serious and economical, never overdoing a set piece or a scene’s dialogue. Secondary characters, played by the likes of Donald Sutherland and Ruth Negga, have good moments onscreen, but they’re fleeting. They recede from focus as Roy concentrates on his mission, eschewing passersby from his focus. The special effects are terrific, as is the moody score, without ever being “showy.” All the better to complement the character study, rather than overwhelm it with grandeur.  

There are many surprises throughout the story, including some vivid violence, and a significantly higher body count than one would imagine for such a cerebral sci-fi adventure. But then again, this story is all about the costs that come with such a dangerous profession. It's not toxic masculinity, it’s every day at the office for jobs that asks people to put their lives on the line, be they soldiers, the police, or astronauts. Some careers are just more demanding than others as this enthralling film showcases.

Thursday, September 12, 2019

"HUSTLERS" EARNESTLY STRUTS ITS STUFF


A film chock full of strip club scenes might seem like unusual material for a female filmmaker to helm, but writer/director Lorene Scafaria knows that the story of HUSTLERS isn’t about sex any more than a strip club is. Both are about power dynamics. Based on Jessica Pressler’s 2015 New York magazine article about how a group of savvy Big Apple strippers scammed a bunch of Wall Street wolves out of major bucks, Scafaria brings the material to life as a rollicking caper with heavy feminist overtones. She may overdo some of the sexual politics and underdo some of the characterizations, but it’s never less than earnest and involving, half OCEAN’S ELEVEN and half GOODFELLAS.  

Scafaria’s script starts in 2007 with Destiny (Constance Wu) struggling to fit in at the big-time, financial district strip club where she’s just been hired. Having to interact with grabby, drooling pervs in $3,000 suits makes her wince, almost as much as watching her earned cash get swiped by the male club management at the end of a shift. Fortunate for her, Destiny will soon be taught how to keep more money, as well as her dignity intact, when she befriends the veteran performer Ramona (Jennifer Lopez). Ramona is the walking personification of power in such a place, strutting her stuff, earning her dough and keeping it, and keeping a cool head above it all. It's not for nothing that we never see Ramona get wholly naked in the story. She's too big for it, as is the wise Scafaria who refuses to dwell on nudity, even during the dressing room scenes. 

Then, in 2008, a lot of the club’s Wall Street customers tank the global economy,  and suddenly, everyone has lost their shirts. Soon, the club is all but vacant, bleeding cash, and forcing Destiny, Ramona, and the other girls to try their hands at retail to make ends meet. The story lays it on a little thick too giving Destiny a debt-ridden grandma (Wai Ching Ho) to bail out, and Ramona is revealed to be a single mom with a grade-school daughter (Emma Batiz).

After barely making rent and paying their bills, the two besties cook up a scam where they’ll target some of their previous customers, party with them, slip them Mickey’s, and run up their credit cards while the dupes are half asleep. This works like a charm, earning the women thousands a night, with the men none the wiser or too embarrassed to report that they were out with strippers and couldn't remember all that occurred. 

It's a despicable con game, sure, but the movie regards such shenanigans as payback for these greedy shits robbing the populace of their savings, 401K’s, and livelihoods. Destiny, Ramona, and the other girls they soon employ into their grifting are merely leveling the playing field. Plus, most of their marks are cheating on their wives, misogynists, or rolling in dough – often, all three. Indeed, the film makes it all very on-the-nose when Ramona stridently points out that none of the Wall Street hoodlums ever went to jail for their 2008 sins. 

Scafaria is a good enough filmmaker, but too often she’ll underline or overdramatize to make her points. If she shows the gals walking in slow motion once to show the weight of their con, she repeats it a dozen times. A lot of her directorial technique owes a lot to Martin Scorsese, what with all the slow-motion, kinetic editing, roving camera, ambitious scale, and blending of all kinds of hit music on the soundtrack. If you’re going to steal, steal from the best they say, but sometimes it borders on a parody of GOODFELLAS in style and substance.

The director does draw sharp and memorable performances out of Wu and Lopez, particularly the latter who gives every scene her all. Lopez is real heart and soul of the piece despite being billed second, and it's her best screen work in eons. Unfortunately, Scafaria doesn’t do a lot with the other characters surrounding them. The men are all one-dimensional, and most of the women don’t have much that defines them either. In fact, the two main co-conspirators present in dozens of scenes seem to be given one singular trait by screenwriter Scafaria. Street-wise Mercedes (Keke Palmer) is sassy, and the nervous Annabelle (Lili Reinhart) throws up continually.

Even the usually terrific Julia Stiles comes up a little short in her role as a one-dimensional reporter earnestly tracking down the story. The scenes where she interviews Destiny are wholly unnecessary, and they drag down the picture. Strangely, these scenes are the only ones where Scafaria shows no visual dazzle. The camera is locked down and placed far too close to both Stiles and Wu as they discuss Destiny’s past transgressions. 

Still, even with those shortcomings, it’s nice to have Scafaria handling the material instead of some male director who'd exploit the material. Despite the world of stripping, there’s almost no nudity, no sex, and little time is even spent showcasing the dancers on the pole. What this filmmaker dwells in instead are the emotions of Destiny and Ramona during their tumultuous journey. 

At one point, Destiny has to get her daughter to school after a con goes wrong, and the exasperated mother rushes into school wearing her night garb of a mini skirt, thigh-high boots, and over-the-top accessories. The scene could’ve been played for laughs, what with all the other parents dropping their jaws at Destiny's trampy clothes, but Scafaria plays it for genuine pathos.  

It’s in moments like this, with its heart on the sleeve, er, tank, that the film is most successful. And in a movie that is all about power - giving it, taking it, and taking it back - these are the scenes that play out most potently. 

Friday, September 6, 2019

“IT: CHAPTER TWO” BETTERS THE FIRST FILM YET MAKES SIMILAR MISTAKES


If ever there was a horror film tailor-made for a sequel, IT was, well, it, as the source material book by Stephen King is bisected into two parts. The first half of the story tells of seven children in the small town of Derry, Maine battling an evil entity in 1957 that not only kills children but preys upon their fears as well, creating hallucinatory nightmares that lure them to their deaths. The second half of the story moves the period forward to 1984, where the same seven, now grown adults, must return to their hometown to battle the same entity that has returned. In 2017, the adaptation of the children’s story became a runaway box office hit. 

Now, in 2019, comes this obvious sequel entitled IT: CHAPTER  TWO. This new film improves upon some of the shortcomings of the first one, eliminating narrative confusion and raising the performances of the younger actors who perform here in new scenes filmed as flashbacks. It also doesn’t let Pennywise (Bill Skarsgard) overstay his welcome this time. He’s a good villain, but there was too much of him in the first film. This one also delivers much bigger scares, and the adult leads make a real difference in grounding the stakes and making it all play believably. 

Still, there is an issue with the consistency of tone throughout, and indeed, that is always the issue in adapting Stephen King for the big or small screen. King writes earnestly, no matter how outlandish the scenario is, and some films and miniseries have been better at conveying that than others. John Carpenter ensured that a killer ‘58 Plymouth Fury seemed all too real in 1983’s CHRISTINE, whereas Stephen King himself failed to make trucks feel the same when he directed MAXIMUM OVERDRIVE just three years later. When this film remains earnest, it works well, treating all of the visions coming to life as legitimate and lethal. The film loses its grip on some of the seriousness in the last 30 minutes, which is shocking considering the previous two hours did a credible and sincere job of addressing King's themes of sexism, racism, homophobia, and small-town isolationism. 

Things start off promisingly at the start; however, with an intense scene that would devastate in any drama, let alone a horror/fantasy like this one. The second chapter starts with a hate crime, just like King did in the novel. Two gay men are beaten up outside the Derry town carnival by three bigoted, bullying teens. Watching these innocent men get pummeled in the streets is absolutely horrifying. Then, one of the gay men gets tossed off the bridge into the river by the thugs, and as they race away, the evil clown Pennywise shows up to retrieve their victim. The evil entity ends up feasting on the gay man's midsection, killing him, and it is an all-too painful reminder of how the first film began with six-year-old Georgie dying from Pennywise's similar attack in the storm drain. 

For a while, this second chapter embraces such darkness full throttle. Its psychological terror continues too with the “loser’s club” members now all struggling with being adults. Their traumas from the past have not been erased, even if they’ve tried to put Pennywise, the entity, and the vicious murders in Derry out of their mind. Bill (James McAvoy) may be a successful novelist, but he’s fighting for the artistic integrity of his work as his books get made into movies. Jokester Richie (Bill Hader) has turned into a bitter and selfish asshole of a stand-up, one who loathes himself even more than the audiences he performs for. Ben (Jay Ryan) may be a successful architect, but he still harbors a lot of the insecurities he carried as an overweight child. Eddie (James Ransmore) is a successful financier, but you’d never know it from his ‘woe is me’ persona. And Beverly (Jessica Chastain) is married to a rich man who beats her routinely.  

Mike (Isiah Mustafa), the narrator of the story, stayed in Derry, but he’s still haunted by small-town myopia and the history of Pennywise. He gets by, managing the library, and living in the ramshackle apartment in the attic atop the building. Mike knows it's Pennywise's handiwork when that gay man is murdered, so he summons the others back to honor their vow to fight the entity should "It" ever return. Only one of the seven fails to show up in Derry a few days later. The cowardly Stanley (Andy Bean) was so freaked out by Mike’s call, he slits his wrists to bleed out in the bathtub. 

So now, the remaining six must wrestle with not only the murdering supernatural forces coursing through Derry once again but with their own damaged lives as well. It makes for a psychological thriller with a lot at stake, and the filmmakers give the material their all. Occasionally, screenwriter Gary Dauberman and director Any Muschietti over-emphasize points that are clear as a bell, but their earnestness is admirable, as well as all the detail they put into almost every scene. The adult cast is terrific and never condescend to the pulpy parts of the material. Special kudos should go to Hader for ensuring we buy all the silliness of the scene where he's chased by a giant Paul Bunyan statue run amuck. He makes it believable and exciting, not to mention wholly terrifying.  

Even better is the scene where Beverly revisits her apartment and has a run-in with the entity masquerading as a kindly old lady living there. When Beverly is distracted, Muschietti shows the old woman shaking uncontrollably in the background, and at one point, crossing into another room stark naked. It's cheekily humorous and eerie as hell. And then when the entity suddenly emerges from the kitchen as a 10-foot graying monster grabbing for Beverly, it provides one of the very best jump-scares in a film in years. 

All of the actors, particularly Chastain, Mustafa, and McAvoy play it perfectly. Their commitment to the melodrama works keeps us invested even when the CGI goes over the top. Unfortunately, everything pretty much does during the last 30 minutes. It becomes bigger, sillier, and loses a lot of the earnest goodwill it's built up till then. Richie and Eddie start quipping back and forth, spitting out bad lines like they're in an Arnold Schwarzenegger actioner. Blood, sand, and comic cameos overwhelm the emotions at play. Even one character vamps Jack Nicholson’s “Here’s Johnny!” line from THE SHINING. 

When one major character gets stabbed in the face, and another in the chest, and yet they act like they are mere flesh wounds, the credibility of it all starts to seriously wane. Worse yet, the climax goes on and on and on, overstaying its welcome and going off in too many tangents including having too many characters have run-ins with their childhood counterparts. 

There are other missteps too. While all the characters are developed well, the town itself is mostly inert. It played a much more significant part in the book and the first film, but here it’s relegated to the background. Would a run-down movie theater still be standing? And why is the dilapidated old house still standing when it was already a real estate eyesore 27 years ago? There never seem to be any other townsfolk around, or police nearby, even with a mental patient on the loose. Indeed, some judicious editing should have been supplied to the adaptation starting with the elimination of the Henry Bowers B-storyline from the book.  

IT: CHAPTER 2 looks like money and will probably make a fortune. It has more genuine scares than most horror entries these days, and the serious themes kept intact from the book make for something deeper and richer compared to most frighteners. If only the earnest approach, and some genuine discipline, remained present in the third act. It would've been better if it had.