Movie Review: Judy (2019)

Based on a stage play, The End of the Rainbow, Judy starring Renee Zellweger as Judy Garland takes too many falls. This biographical film, directed by Rupert Goold, is relatively innocuous.

Its maudlin theme is that this woman, an astonishing movie star (Judgment at Nuremberg, A Star is Born (1954), Meet Me in St. Louis, The Wizard of Oz, Easter Parade), singer and entertainer whose alcoholism and drug addiction killed her by age 47, was doomed. But Judy is neither dramatized at the proper depth for the caliber of its subject nor does it accomplish a successful depiction of Garland, who married several men including Vincente Minnelli and Sid Luft (Rufus Sewell) and mothered three children, all portrayed here.

Judy’s mixed success is not necessarily Zellweger’s fault. She’s a fine actress with a good record. But she’s either been misdirected, misguided by the script or ventured out of her league playing Garland, whom Zellweger portrays in fragments. Just when you’re willing to go along with the depiction, and there is both resemblance and success in her performance, an overly mannered tic or expression betrays the actress and you’re out of the movie. Judy is telescoped in flashbacks and her final London stage engagement, so end-stage career acts are portrayed. Zellweger (Chicago), singing in her own voice, hasn’t got the pipes.

Domineering movie studio types, a tracheotomy, attempt at suicide, custody battle with Luft over the two kids, poverty, a crush on Mickey Rooney and the chronic need stemming from the child star’s damaged ego to gain intimacy with an audience; all of these, much of it happening off screen, drive Garland’s addiction to drugs and booze. A party at daughter Liza’s, who’d go on to face similar struggles, leads to another marriage to another man that needs and doesn’t satisfy Judy. Addiction’s vicious spiral gets its due.

Judy doesn’t give Garland her due. It’s possible to make a late life movie about her without depicting her in her finest vocal form. Yet Judy gets bogged down in too many disparate segments without any single theme. Her London engagement, for example, becomes the focal point for her swan song, Judy suggests, leading to a climax in which she gains some deeper form of audience bond. This would’ve been more effective, however, with better seeding through exposition.

Oddly, Zellweger’s created more of a smaller-scale caricature of the maudlin caricature that’s been the mainstay of the gay male adoration than a convincing portrayal of a real-life falling star. There are finer moments, especially with a gay couple in an arc that nicely cashes in on the best of Judy‘s subplots and themes. Jessie Buckley (the fireman’s wife in Chernobyl) has a lovely turn as Judy’s main contact during the London show. An actor named Finn Witrock (La La Land, TV’s The Normal Heart) plays one of the men who becomes one of the husbands. Michael Gambon is fine, too, and Judy looks and sounds terrific.

Judy Garland deserves something either deeper or lighter than Judy. This is because something about her stardom and demise has been lost, very, seriously lost and fouled up, since she self-destructed. A scene in which her doctor, giving her an injection as he admits his childhood admiration for her portrayal of Dorothy Gale in The Wizard of Oz, gets at what this movie needs and lacks.

After skimming the surfaces of her sordid past, which is all Judy ultimately does, he urges her toward proper self-care, an idea rooted in egoism which is only, very rarely properly practiced let alone properly understood. Liza Minnelli, whose thoughts on her mother are very serious, deep and profound, lives and talks as though she gets what egoism means. So does Elton John. Both are addicts and survivors, for the moment, and, like Judy Garland and others such as Whitney, Elvis and Amy Winehouse, they’re stars whose ability radiates.

Judy, to paraphrase the poem that, if realized, gets and keeps you clean and sober, hasn’t the wisdom to show the difference.


Movie Review: Rocketman

Purging ‘the devil’ inside is the catalyst in the musical Rocketman. Paramount’s movie about rock star Elton John’s life in songs unfolds in an exaggerated, though not preposterous, recreation of reality complete with dancing, singing and stylized, cinematic theatricality. It’s as bedazzled as you’d have reason to expect it to be.

Rocketman is more intimate than you think, however. More so if you know, contemplate and mine Elton John’s songs and the facts about his life. If not, you may still enjoy the movie, but only if you take it on its terms and none other. Rocketman, like La La Land, may be an acquired taste; this picture (like that other picture, which is 2016’s best picture) is not an overly sentimental or polished depiction of what it means to strive to express oneself as an LA artist.

Like the singer and songwriter’s singular tributes to Marilyn, Diana and his namesake, John Lennon, each destroyed in their prime, Elton John’s musical about his life shows what it means to grind, hurt and “still feel the pain of the scars that won’t heal”, to borrow a line from one of his hit songs. Rocketman dramatizes the brittle, wretched cost of infamy, stardom and fame. It is unyielding in this sense. It is also uncanny.

Screenwriter Lee Hall (War Horse, Billy Elliot, Victoria & Abdul) and director Dexter Fletcher, with Elton John’s apparent endorsement, move through the stages and keys of his life, if not entirely the catalogue of his music (how could they?) with tact, deft and ruthless editing, lighting and stagecraft. The result is sensational. So is Taron Egerton in the lead.

Rocketman takes off as a musical — strictly framed in the subject’s songs — about the whole man. Unlike other movies about real people, this one revolves around more than a streak of egoism.

“I want to get better,” Elton John plainly says at an early point in the film. The rest plays out from there, from his curiosity about his father’s recording of Count Basie and navigating toxic parents to his inner rage — “The Bitch is Back” — and onward. Whether his first kiss from one who sees in him his true self or a colleague’s advice to kill the self you seek to transform so you can become who you want to be, Elton’s ego is central.

Rocketman is explicitly and unabashedly sexual, erotic and meaningful. There’s no catering to Others as in last year’s Bohemian Rhapsody, which delivered songs at the expense of story. This is the tale of a self-made man and, accordingly, this means showing man as a man and this means sex, love and being gay. This is essential to why Elton John shaped his own life.

A duet of “Streets of Laredo” gives that song its due for the first time since Bang the Drum Slowly (1973) borrowed pathos and the title’s phrase; its carefully framed scene gently lays the foundation for the most loving one in Elton John’s life: Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell in a warm, equally perfect performance). But the magic, memory and wonder of Rocketman will depend on your experience of these songs in your life, if any. If you’ve never heard them, you are in for a fabulous treat.

From the spine-chilling discovery and delivery of “Your Song” to deep and abiding love and admiration in Bernie’s eyes, and back around to the ache of a gay man’s (really, any one’s) unrequited love for the unattainable, Fletcher and Hall integrate egoism into Elton’s pain points. Then, they wrap the picture neatly, almost prayerfully, in what matters about the one who was once a pudgy, unloved boy named Reg; that, like Scarlett in Gone With the Wind, the child’s on the outside looking into what’s eluding his life.

Liberation, i.e., tagging, owning and loving himself, through the hard work of achieving intimacy, this is the legacy of Elton John’s music and life, caught with care and attention to detail here. Pardon the bad wigs. Forget that no one can fully recreate Elton John in his signature (nor breathtakingly handsome Bernie Taupin). Everything works to serve the story, not the other way around. This is an awesome achievement. Even Bryce Dallas Howard as the mother shines.

Rocketman, from choreography, photography and every element of design to poignantly, ingeniously conceived plot points such as “Crocodile Rock”, “Honky Cat” and “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road”, fulfills its theme that selfishness is virtuous. When someone accuses Elton of being selfish in a climactic scene of dramatized introspection, his response cleverly embeds a rejection of both underlying morality and rendered judgment.

“Real love’s hard to come by, so you find a way to cope without it,” Elton says about drugs and suicidal tendencies coiled in keeping up appearances and faking reality, which nearly everyone pushes him to do.

While Rocketman doesn’t sugarcoat these details, it also isn’t stingy in depicting what it means to save the life which is your own. In lavish and elaborate production numbers, Rocketman shows what Elton John’s done to struggle, melt down, frolic and rise, float and align with his surroundings as he’s propelled to new heights. It revels in the sense of alienation expressed in the song which is its title’s springboard, “Rocket Man”.

Rocketman spins, curves and adorns the extremely difficult, emotional and nuanced art of living. Through a selection of the artist’s songs of life, the immensely watchable and magnetic Rocketman lights up the arc of Elton John’s life, from learning what’s poisonous to embracing himself. You’ll feel elevated, crushed and empowered. You’ll know what it feels like for the man who creates and happens to be gay and trapped by anger, drugs and alcohol for repressing himself. Clarity is Rocketman‘s aftereffect. And it radiates pure Elton John.

Movie Review: The Nutcracker and the Four Realms

Any movie directed by two of Hollywood’s most able directors, Lasse Hallstrom (The Hundred-Foot Journey, CasanovaAn Unfinished Life, Chocolat, A Dog’s Purpose) and Joe Johnston (Captain AmericaJumanji, The Wolfman), is bound to be good, right? Disney’s The Nutcracker and the Four Realms, based on the famous Christmas ballet, isn’t a bad movie at all. Parts of it are wonderfully isolated and restrained. Parts of it are breathtaking and beautiful. Johnston’s arresting visuals and Hallstrom’s gilded storytelling and sense of musical-pictorial grace seamlessly blend at times into a magical movie.

And a movie which begins with a reference to Isaac Newton’s third law of physics promises to be distinctive. With Keira Knightley (Collateral Beauty, a magical Christmas movie in itself) looking like Faye Dunaway and evoking Marilyn Monroe as the Sugar Plum Fairy, The Nutcracker adds an eccentric streak. Indeed, this 90-minute movie tucks in everything from a theme to “trust yourself”, a leading girl (Mackenzie Foy, Interstellar) who’s a budding mechanical engineer, men wearing makeup and Morgan Freeman (Feast of Love) as an eye-patched wise man.

All that and more is stuffed into yet another Disney picture in which the mother has died. Stuffing these parts into the movie somehow puts this otherwise enchanting film into the category of overproduced fantasy (though not nearly as dull as John Carter, The Golden Compass or those godawful Narnia films). The Nutcracker is predictable and strangely chaste. For example, the girl, when she enters this other world at a Christmas party, meets a handsome captain (Jayden Fowora-Knight). Their relationship, which serves as a major plot point, curiously goes flat.

As a story partly depicted in ballet, which comes about in The Nutcracker‘s most striking visual scenes, the storybook style can be both inviting and marvelous. Early scenes of the girl in the new fantasy land depict long, magnificent icicles in a Christmas tree forest where the mystery of a gift from the girl’s late mother deepens and is stolen away. If you know The Nutcracker ballet, and it’s hard to imagine that there’s anyone left who’s never been exposed to this classic score, characters and tale in some way, you know the characters and essential story.

But screenwriter Ashleigh Powell adds an engine, mice attacks, battle scenes, and the grieving father (Matthew Macfadyen). There’s frankly too much of everything and not enough character development for the girl, who climbs rocks in a skirt and never gets the depth to seem anything but distant, detached and really intelligent. The kitchen sink quality creeps in, making the climax and resolution less effective.

“Discipline, order, control” prominently turn out to be the cues for The Nutcracker‘s child-friendly warning against authoritarianism. But the public service announcement-like sensibility in which the STEM-ready girl’s intelligence is sewn into The Nutcracker and the Four Realms undercuts the sense that she’s really present and invested in solving the puzzle. It’s not that Foy makes the girl’s voyage look too easy. The problem is that she looks too often like she doesn’t learn or gain life-changing insights, as Alice purposefully does in Alice in Wonderland or breathless Dorothy does when going home in The Wizard of Oz. There’s music and a mirror but this girl seems to be biding her time.

Still, you get to see Helen Mirren (The Hundred-Foot Journey, White Nights, Collateral Beauty, The Queen, Hitchcock) brandishing a whip amid parts of a beloved ballet remade with the stylized panache of two masterful filmmakers.

Movie Review: “A Star is Born” (2018)

Directed by its leading man, Bradley Cooper (American Sniper) and co-starring the singer known as Lady Gaga, billed as Lady Gaga, the new remake of A Star is Born is good. Yet it is also a disappointingly missed opportunity. This is not the best version.

Hitting the main points of William Wellman’s sterling original 1937 film (read a roundup of my reviews of each previous version here), with nods to the 1976 remake, Cooper’s version, adapted by Eric Roth (Forrest Gump, Munich, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) makes an impact. Given its essential theme contrasting selflessness with selfishness, which is more relevant than ever before, that’s to be expected.

However, absent certain elements, especially the role of the collective in spreading nihilism and explicitly dramatizing what destroys man at his best, it is also partial.

A Star is Born starts with guitar-playing vocalist Cooper’s banging out hard rock with his band before bingeing on hard liquor while his driver totes him around Los Angeles. The lengthy movie about a man on the way down meeting a woman on the way up recasts the falling star in a clinically correct mental health context. Unless you know how this story ends, look for plot clues.

Spiraling rocker Jackson Maine meets Gaga’s talented, rising singer Ally when she’s done up as Edith Piaf in a bar where men dress and lip synch as women. For her part, Gaga sings with gusto in her signature style, in which she starts singing and veers into belting the tune. As a performer, she conveys both a sense of commitment and a stage presence. As an actress, Lady Gaga is good, not great, as the insecure artist.

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Lady Gaga’s Ally snaps Bradley Cooper’s scruffy, blue-eyed Jack out of his stupor long enough with her theatricality — she descends into the cabaret audience with a rose — for him to notice that she toasts with a martini and two olives. It’s love at first sight.

Or something like it. Whatever else, Jack and Ally share the artist’s curse of chronic self-doubt. Even after grizzled, drunken hunk Jack, who fills every stadium seat with his blend of rip-roarin’ country-rock, charms the club’s drag queens with a down-home song, he apologizes, confiding to Ally that he thinks he “fucked that song up”. This, too, is a clue.

That an insecure star tutors an insecure ingenue and what becomes of both drives A Star is Born. When the movie lingers on their songwriting, it’s hard to resist. Their moment begins in earnest in an empty late-night retail parking lot that’s both indelible to LA and setting for the best scenes in the picture. Here, with no one else in sight, the artists show their humanity through showing themselves. Like in real life, especially in the city of stars.

When Ally answers “me” after Jack asks her who’ll take care of her injury, their character lines are drawn. In the years since the original, it is telling that the tale of a presumably privileged male being crushed while molding the presumably disadvantaged female still captures an audience’s imagination. Gaga grasps the character’s requisite strength through empathy. But Ally’s undeniable empathy starts with herself.

This is emblematic of Gaga’s star persona and best performances. Ally draws upon her own self-care with a father (Andrew Dice Clay) who projects his self-denial; she sees in Jackson Maine what she sees in her father like a mile of bad road ahead. “He’s a drunk,” she observes about Jack early in the picture. The redeemable drunk is central to the story. Ally, too, wants to cash in on the promise of what Jack says he sees in her, so she follows him into the downward spiral.

Featuring Sam Elliott (Grandma) as Jack’s strong-minded older brother, a complicated relationship which is never fully explained, with Anthony Ramos as Ally’s best friend, A Star is Born descends and ascends with a series of pop and rock songs. When Jack and Ally duet on stage that “we’re far from the shallow now”, it underscores that life is made or broken on how one handles hardship.

Cooper inhabits the role, down to the evident pain on his face when he sings his new lover’s lyrics, to the point that his Jackson Maine is the most introverted version of the character. There’s not enough of Jack’s appeal on display, other than flashes of his blue eyes and occasional guitar riffs. His character fades amid mumbling, outbursts and the alcoholic’s constantly oozing skin. He smokes, snorts and gulps his way into oblivion, hiding behind facial hair, rage and music.

Only Ally brings him out. Together, they spontaneously write songs while touring, play with a puppy and get silly, often with looming clues such as Hollywood’s Chateau Marmont in the backdrop. Credit goes to Cooper, Roth and others for the film’s veracity in depicting the scenario that plays out. Toxic behavior, from enabling and codependent action to the tendency toward self-abnegation, let alone the drug use, rings searingly true.

Director Cooper’s first feature film is too long and unrefined; it needs editing. Scenes don’t play out. In fact, they get choppier as the picture goes on. A key plot point never gets developed. Ally’s best friend, amicably played by Ramos, comes and goes without realism.

A Star is Born wraps too quickly and neatly but not without having made that impact. It isn’t the best version, which remains the original, though it isn’t the worst. And while the 1937 picture starring Janet Gaynor and Frederic March is still the best because it depicts with perfection the quality that makes the drunk irresistible, this movie retains enough of the story’s intimacy, depth and poignancy to stir today’s audiences. The seasoned, discriminating movie fan will want more. But for most, while the gushing praise is mostly unmerited, this new version of the classic tragedy will (have to) do.

Incidentally, the show I attended at Hollywood’s Cinerama Dome was unfortunately prefaced by what amounts to an ad for the movie, a creeping and bad trend, which puts the audience in the movie, telling the audience what to think, before the picture begins.

Movie Review: Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again

Dabbling in what made the 2008 original enjoyable, this summer’s sequel to Mamma Mia! is another welcome exercise in gaiety and lightness. With players draped in loose-fitting cotton, gathering in the sun-kissed Greek isles on the premise that the individual of any age can and ought to “do something radical and wonderful”, Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again‘s as carefree as the original ten years ago.

Amanda Seyfried (Cosette in Les Miserables and Letters to Juliet) returns, as do most of the original cast, as Sophie, daughter of free spirit Donna (Meryl Streep) who has died. Sophie plans to re-open the boutique hotel her late mother had created in the Greek islands. This is the plot. Sophie’s husband Sky (Dominic Cooper), who married Sophie in the original with the spirit of a pagan festival, is on a work assignment in New York City pondering a job offer. All of this is built again around ABBA’s rich, melodic pop songs.

Andy Garcia, Cher and Meryl Streep appear in small roles or cameos that feel like afterthoughts and, while they do not add to the movie, they do not detract or distract from it, either. The rest of the cast — including Stellan Skarsgard, Pierce Brosnan and Colin Firth as Sophie’s three fathers — is terrific, though Lily James (Darkest Hour, Baby Driver, Cinderella) continues to impress as an actress, portraying Sophie’s mother in her youth. Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again begins and ends as a kind of musical postcard, teeming with life. English writer and director Ol Parker (The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) takes over directing from Phyllida Lloyd (The Iron Lady) with fine results.

Imaginatively filming island bicycling, traipsing and singing while dancing with clever transitions, and keeping godawful singer Pierce Brosnan in line, Parker unfolds the movie’s grief recovery theme in flashbacks. As young Donna, Sophie’s mother, Lily James is perfectly winsome, embracing youth with an unorthodox valedictory speech at Oxford, seducing gorgeous young men in Paris and the Mediterranean and starting her career as an entrepreneur whose voice is as “sweet as sugar cane”.

Contrasting the persevering single mother with a daughter who integrates her parents’ (including each of her three dads) best qualities and, of course, songs which invite you to think twice as you swoon along, so is Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again.