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Judy

27 Sep

‘Judy’: She knows there’s no place like home, but can’t get any closer than stage in London

 

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“Judy,” the biopic about stage icon Judy Garland, is just right focusing on her “hot mess” last chapter as an in-residence performer at a London theater club, her better days interspersed through deft editing and seamless narrative framing. It is a tad oversentimental at times, but overall a bittersweet pill that finds its mark effectively, and three-time Oscar nominee and one-time winner Renée Zellweger knocks it out of the park as the it girl whose star has faded; she’s about as sure a bet to be in Oscar talks as Leo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt.

The script, written with purpose and verve by Tom Edge (“The Crown”), sets us up with Judy and her two youngest, Lorna and Joey (played by Bella Ramsey from “Game of Thrones” and Lewin Lloyd) circa 1969, being evicted from their hotel digs. She’s broke and broken and just wants to be a mother to her children, but there are bills to be paid, no one in the states who will give the unreliable pill-popper a role or a gig and a custody battle brewing with ex-husband Sid Luft (Rufus Sewell). Before London calls there’s a brief L.A. house party with older daughter Liza Minnelli (Gemma-Leah Devereux – stunning) and an uplifting but ultimately unfortunate encounter with a mod hipster Mickey Deans (Finn Wittrock), who would become her last husband.

The whole saga is sad, with fleeting moments of uplift: Judy is always “on” when on stage or talking to an adoring public, but her own worst enemy sodden with booze and pills after the curtain drops. In flashbacks to her younger days (Darci Shaw crushes it as the young Judy), she’s simultaneously given an avuncular embrace and manipulated malevolently by MGM head Louis B. Mayer (Richard Cordery) on the set of “The Wizard of Oz,” where studio handlers forbid her food and feed her uppers and downers instead; and men in general attach themselves and milk her throughout her life. About the most love and respect the star gets beyond her progeny comes from her stiff-upper-lip handler in London, Rosalyn (Jessie Buckley) and her young bandleader, Burt (Royce Pierreson). One of the film’s more whimsical and fun moments comes when Mickey comments in a bar about a new, experimental Beatles album – and floats the idea of Judy performing with The Rolling Stones. The crowd is nonplussed, but Judy drinks up hungrily the shot of possibility and confidence.

Director Rupert Goold, who’s mostly orchestrated stage theater, and cinematographer Ole Bratt Birkeland stage and frame the performances stunningly, especially in the use of light and closeups, and with engrossing intimacy. Of course, it all hangs on the star who’s on in every take. One telling scene comes during a TV interview, when a journalist tries to dig in on the former starlet about her “unreliability” and messy custody proceedings and gets blowback: “I’m Judy Garland for one hour on stage and then I’m a member of family just like anybody else.” Sadly, that never really became the case, and you can feel that palpably in Zellweger’s performance. 

Fictional films such as “A Star is Born” (Garland starred in the 1954 version with James Mason) and “All that Jazz” tackle the toll of stardom and its perils, but “Judy” lives it, and through it, you live it too. It breaks your heart, not from the usual distance, but deep down inside with the painful desire of someone who just wants to be loved unconditionally.

Downton Abbey

20 Sep

‘Downton Abbey’: King and queen are coming, and it’s a roiling pain upstairs and downstairs

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A quaint, tight little package that should warm the nostalgic hearts of loyalists of the PBS series that shut down four years ago, “Downton Abbey” is more of an apt TV sendoff than, say, the “Sex and the City” films (and it turns out Michael Engler, the director here, helmed episodes of each). For one thing, the plot is focused on closure rather than future opportunities, and it doesn’t play like an extended episode.

The intrinsic charm of “Downton Abbey,” small or big, has always been its focus on those doing the cooking, tidying and fluffing in the bowels of the grand estate. It’s post-World War I, yet the entitlements of the feudal past remain – if just barely, as the modern world and its complicated economics are crashing in to alter the staid landscape. The earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) and his wife, the countess of Grantham (Elizabeth McGovern) are decent manse overlords, as manse overloads go; after taking in the series (I’m a dabbler, I must confess) and Robert Altman’s “Gosford Park” (2001, also written by Julien Fellowes, who won an Oscar for his effort) you wonder if all such passed-on grand estates are so civil and seamlessly run, with dignity between class barriers.

Sorry, I digress. Most everybody at the Abbey is on fine terms and happy at the onset, except maybe Lady Mary Talbot (Michelle Dockery), who frets about the mounting financial pressures of the infringing modern era and relentless upkeep of the manor. Then a neat but stressful gem gets dropped in their lap: King George V and Queen Mary are coming to Yorkshire for a visit and will take up digs at the Abbey. “Oh happy days” is the immediate reaction, but faces dim when it’s announced the Abbey’s staff will be replaced top to bottom by the king’s staff, who carry very little respect or empathy for the Granthamers (“I am not a butler, I am the King’s Page of the Backstairs,” one brassy prick retorts) and that is where the heat for the film begins to build and ultimately the tinder gets lit – when the Abbey lot decide they’re not going to take it. It’s good stiff-upper-lip oneupmanship three tiers down, while above, Maggie Smith’s persnickety grand dame Lady Violet has it in for Lady Maud (Imelda Staunton), who bestows too much public fondness for her maid.

More harrowing is the ferreting out of a possible assassination attempt and Barrow (Robert James-Collier), the onetime footman promoted to butler, diving into Yorkshire’s gay underground and the absurdly Draconian (and sad) reaction by authorities during a bust. It’s the film’s most biting (and practically lone) barb of social commentary.

Where fans of the series might feel shorted is that there’s too much packed in to too little. Character and conflict are pushed by plot, and screen time feels meted by slivers of the clock and not significance. What’s up there feels like it could go another hour (it’s right at two) or have a Part II. Also, mind you, Engler is no Altman, who with “Short Cuts”(1993), “Nashville” (1975) and “Gosford Park” to prove the point, was a master of the hydra-headed narrative. Engler does a fine enough job, and to be fair “Gosford” was built from the bottom up (in collaboration with Altman actor/writer Bob Balaban), whereas this “Abbey” is a retrofit for the faithful. It’s not grand, but it does do what it does with dignity and grace.

Ad Astra

19 Sep

 

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The title of James Gray’s latest epic odyssey as translated from Latin simply means, “to the stars.” It’s a pretty highfalutin term for a film that’s fairly slack on the sci side of this sci-fi quest that takes us to the moon, the red planet and beyond. Its biggest boost is its star, Brad Pitt, coming in reentry-hot after an Oscar-worthy turn as a bum-around stuntman in “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood.” He’s solid here as Major Roy McBride, a man with a low resting heartbeat and few emotional attachments. He’s distant from his wife (Liv Tyler) and has no kids, so he’s cool, calm and able to MacGyver his way out of any hairy situation no matter how impossible or far out in space.

The film begins with a bravura sequence (worthy of “First Man” comparisons) where, in the not too distant future, Roy is working on an antenna projecting up and out of earth’s atmosphere that gets struck by a rogue energy wave. The massive spire implodes, collapsing back to earth in a long, slow chain of events that call eerily to mind the 9/11 attacks. Roy, with some cool thinking, survives, but more than 40,000 people are killed by the surge from somewhere out in the galaxy.

The purpose of the tower, we’re told, is to communicate with other intelligent life, because humans cannot survive much longer on their own – the implications being that we’ve messed up the planet and are looking for someone to bail us out, though that’s never really articulated. If you’re thinking the Tower of Babel or “Contact” (1997) you’d be correct, but with the death toll from the wave and more on the way, phoning ET gets dropped as the surge and its source become job numero uno. Naturally the brass at Space Command (a branch of the military) pick Roy (can anyone ever pass over Brad Pitt?) for the need-to-know mission, and also, what’s that? Those in the know think the shockwaves are coming from Neptune, where some years earlier Roy’s father (Tommy Lee Jones) led a mission and may still be alive.

Yup, daddy issues run deep, but not with much emotional effect. The journey to Neptune is a damn fine amusement ride, beginning with the running of a gantlet of pirates on the dark side of the moon to the abandoned spaceship where a lab experiment has gone wildly amok and the penultimate stop, Mars, run by an effete with a mini-man bun and myriad agendas. But it’s there on Heinlein’s precious planet and beyond that the film begins to drift. The mission and the stunts lose their importance, the sense of urgency and peril get nipped, and all we’re left with is something of a stripped-down existential quest, a diet lite posturing of “Apocalypse Now” (1979) or “Interstellar” (2014) without a credible force (or fully baked cause) to reckon with (i.e., Brando’s Kurtz or Matt Damon’s rogue astronaut). All of a sudden, the slog to the outer limits feels all for naught. Also challenging to logic and scientific principal, these guys hop planets like catching the noon Greyhound to Penn Station. There’s no warp speed, wormhole or stasis sleep – in short, the sense of time and space feels distorted, if not ignored.

Gray, who cut his teeth with gritty crime thrillers such as “Little Odessa” (1994) and “We Own the Night” (2007), last turned in “The Lost City of Z” (2017), an account of British explorer Percy Fawcett’s quest to find signs of early civilization in the Amazon. That film, another journey into the vast unknown, feels like boilerplate for “Ad Astra.” It’d be fair to call it a Z-peat, but in the real-life account, Fawcett always seemed one fateful decision away from ruin. Here, Pitt’s Roy, while steeped in palpable, reflective soulfulness, is so can-do capable that Kryptonite has no shot of buckling a knee. Pitt, for better or for worse, has become something of an icon and a brand, like Tom Cruise (impossible to separate the celebrity from the performer) – and while that worked to everyone’s advantage (shirtless scene and all) in Tarantino’s Tinseltown fable, Gray never imbues his hero with enough vulnerability, or even a hint of it. “Ad Astra” is like a 5 Hour Energy drink: a sharp, pure blast of wow, until you come down and it leaves you empty and wanting.

The Goldfinch

14 Sep

‘The Goldfinch’: Tartt adaptation never soars, but tale’s also not as bad as it’s been painted

 

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With waves of discontent rolling out of the Toronto Film Festival, John Crowley’s adaptation of Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “The Goldfinch” seems poised to join “The Bonfire of the Vanities” as one of the great miscues of transposing popular contemporary literature to the big screen. Having seen it for myself, I’m not so sure that’s the case; it’s got its share of flaws, but that’s mostly because it tries to pack in too much (the 800-page novel is a lot to bite off) and Tartt’s central theme about the lingering burn of grief gets lost, as does a sense of character and character motivation.

The most rocked in Crowley’s sea of emotional turbulence is its dour anti-hero, Theo Decker (Ansel Elgort, “Baby Driver”), who gets hit with a lot of bad shit but mostly caroms passively from one frying pan to the next, his fate and actions shaped by that of others. The film moves in a series of times shifts that transition seamlessly and are most effective in their early stagings around the young Theo (Oakes Fegley, of “Pete’s Dragon,” excellent here) seeking security and a sense of home after his mother is killed in a terrorist bombing at The Met. Dad (Luke Wilson) happens to be missing (abandoned the family, whereabouts unknown) so Theo moves in with the family of a fellow New York City prep school friend (Ryan Foust), where the family matriarch (a staid and elegant Nicole Kidman) comes regularly to Theo offering kind and compassionate coos.

Given the heft and span of Tartt’s work, there’s a lot of moving pieces – perhaps too many. Theo’s stay in the in Barbours’ flush Manhattan doesn’t last long; dad reappears; and then there’s Carel Fabritius’ painting of the title that looms over every frame and drives the plot with celerity as it nears conclusion.

Fans of the novel may have greater cause for disappointment, but the film’s never boring. Though long, it’s also riddled with enough bad-situation-gone-worse scenarios and compelling, human-touch moments to hold the audience’s attention, not to mention that it’s shot by Roger Deakins, a 13-time Academy Award nominee and once winner (“Blade Runner 2049”); to say it looks good would be an understatement. The acting also really anchors Crowley’s uneven interpretation. Elgort, given the least to work with, has enough natural charisma – like Kidman – to push the role further than the script by Peter Straughan (“Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”) dares, and one’s coming-of-age heartstrings get tugged by the chemistry Fegley’s young Theo has with Foust’s chum, as well as a feral young Russian immigrant (Finn Wolfhard, alluring with a moppish head of hair and porcelain skin) whom Theo meets in the Vegas desert. The whole New York side of the story (then and now) get a warm avuncular embrace by the presence of Jeffrey Wright as an antiques dealer who mentors Theo. His reflective compassion and Kidman’s grace against indignity buoy each scene they’re in. Like the chained bird in Fabritius’ painting, Crowley’s screen adaptation is hindered from taking flight – by its ambition, scope and eddies of emotional indifference. The pieces are there, but they don’t cohere, resulting in more of a warble than a melodious song of grief.

Hustlers

13 Sep

 

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“The Wolf of Wall Street” (2013), “The Big Short” (2015) and “Wall Street” (1987) all capture fast cash and high times in vivid blurs of overindulgence, articulated through mounds of designer drugs, $100 bottles of champagne and long-legged women in G-strings sashaying about for well-fleeced oglers. “Hustlers” takes all that and flips it on its head – kind of.

The time is 2007, pre-“Big Short” or, more accurately, about the same time, since it’s before the market collapse, and the folks raking in gobs of green on Wall Street are also shelling it out to a posse of pole dancers at a semi-swank Manhattan club. This also being pre-#MeToo, bad behavior and Robert Kraft-like expectations are all part of the landscape. The film, based on on a New York Magazine article, begins with fairy tale roots as Destiny (Constance Wu), the byproduct of a bad immigrant story, short on degrees and in need of cash to support her granny, takes up lap dance duty at the club – “Magic Mike” this is not. Stuck in that rut, she winds up being taken being under the wing (and enormous fur jacket) of Ramona (Jennifer Lopez), the club’s den queen. The pair team up, dance their tassels off, money flows in buckets and life is grand until that market collapse.

It’s there that the film begins to lose its own value, as the pair and their crew – needing to support kids and expensive digs – begin to shake down those still thriving on Wall Street by giving them essentially what amounts to roofies and maxing out their credit cards. It’s not a pretty picture.

It feels right that this tale of quasi-female empowerment be told by a woman, and while Lorene Scafaria shows plenty of game early on, hyping up the glitz and sleazy glamor and capturing the raucous backstage banter and J-Lo crushing it on the pole – her form and physicality are beyond age-defying – the film meanders as the narrative in the later years employs the device of the journalist (Julia Stiles) asking Destiny to rewind the ring’s exploits after a takedown. It becomes “Goodfellas” lite. Scafaria tosses in a few cinematic tricks to keep things interesting, such as the still moving lips of Destiny and the journalist gone silent after Destiny shuts of the recording device, but there’s not enough gonzo quirk as in Adam McKay’s “Big Short” to really merit them. The real pull here is the bond forged onscreen between Wu, Lopez and the others running the operation, but even that gets frayed and lost in the end.

Wu, who’s been trying to break free from the small screen (“Fresh Off the Boat,” primarily) the same way Jennifer Aniston did nearly two decades ago, makes a bigger, bold stride toward center stage following her turn in the hit “Crazy Rich Asians,” but here too, she becomes more of a plot-flow funnel point; the film’s consumed by Lopez every time she’s onscreen – it’s Lopez’s best work since the quirky crime caper-cum-romance “Out of Sight” back in 1998.

Yes Cardi B, is in the mix, and perfectly outlandish. Early century icon Usher shows up as himself to shower the posse on stage with wads of green. Those cameos come early, but as the money and the watering hole dry up and more desperate measures abound, the film loses its fangs, hanging on a broken Destiny wondering about her friend and mentor. Wu is fantastic in those scenes, but by that time something in the bigger picture feels missing, and we feel shorted emotionally as the tale of Ramona and Destiny gets rolled into a lesson of the times.

Ray & Liz

11 Sep

‘Ray & Liz’: Harrowing rewind to a childhood where the guardians are ones to watch out for

By Tom Meek

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Photographer turned filmmaker Richard Billingham reworked a photo exhibit he did about his parents and childhood as material for his first feature. If that sounds somewhat bland, consider Billingham’s profession and know that the film is shot in close, aesthetic framings that make such mundane acts as smoking a cigarette or drinking a shot of rotgut enigmatic and alluring. Also know that Billingham grew up under grim conditions in a seedy housing project in Dudley, near Birmingham, England. The film is staged and shot in the same locale. The fact it’s so autobiographical and steeped in neglect and emotional abuse only makes “Ray & Liz” all that much compelling (and hard) to drink in.

The saga of Ray and Liz–as well as a young Richard and his younger brother, Jason–is told in three time shifts. We catch up with Ray (Patrick Romer as the older Ray), a bird-faced man who lives in spare, one-room apartment high up in the projects, where all he does is lie in bed or drink. We never see him leave his apartment; he’s delivered bourbon and rye that are put carefully on a side table so Ray can perch on the edge of his bed and binge. He imbibes so vampirically and rapaciously it’s chilling–I’d take Ray in a drink-off versus a platoon of fraternity boys on a spring break bender. 

More chilling–yes, more chilling–is the dial-back to the 1980s, to a larger flat on a lower level of that project where Ray (Justin Salinger) and Liz (Ella Smith) chain smoke and pretty much demand that the boys (Jacob Tuton and Callum Slater) steer clear and remain quiet or else. A tattooed and ring-adorned (think brass knuckles) Liz bears the countenance of a deeply perturbed bovine ready to charge at the first sight of red; an analogy that comes to life after Ray and Liz unwisely leave toddler-aged Jason in the charge of a cognitively challenged relative named Lol (Tony Way, nailing a complex part with nuance and verve) who, at the goading of manipulative neighbor (Sam Gittins), hits Ray’s liquor stash. When Ray and Liz return, Lol’s vomited all over the apartment and passed out as a naked Jason, covered in shoe polish, runs around with a knife in hand. It doesn’t matter that the dubious interloper may be responsible; Liz’s unquenchable wrath, and its manifestation on the helpless Lol, is a scene that will not soon leave you.

There’s another shift–unlabeled, without overt anchoring, because there’s no need in a film so intimate and even claustrophobic–to a 10-year-old Jason again at risk. It pales by comparison, though it’s unnerving to learn that Ray and Liz manage the boys primarily for welfare benefits. The reunion with the older Ray, higher up, living the sot good life, is at once bleak and empowering the way “Leaving Las Vegas” was back in 1995. What’s wrong with a man doing what he loves, right? The win here is Billingham’s artful delivery–think of the texture painter Julian Schnabel brought to “Before Night Falls” (2000) and “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” (2007)–and a domestic horror story, told with earnest insight. I’m not sure where Billingham will go next, but I’m there with rapt anticipation.

Aquarela

29 Aug

‘Aquarela’: Stunning environmental images from Kossakovsky might leave you gasping

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Had you asked me about four weeks ago, “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood” would have been the definitive must-see-on-the-big-screen movie. Why? Well, Robert Richardson’s lush era-illuminating cinematography, for one thing, and the amazing sets that re-create 1969 Los Angeles. But the answer changed last week after I drank in a screening of Victor Kossakovsky’s commanding contemplation about water, “Aquarela.” It was an outright obliteration with all the shock and awe that only Mother Nature can deliver when at her extreme-weather fiercest.

“Aquarela” doesn’t have a narrative arc in the conventional sense. It’s more a mounting experience that washes over you. Tagging it as a hybrid of a Godfrey Reggio film (“Koyaanisqatsi”) and an ICA visual art installation doesn’t quite do it justice, but it gets you close. There’s little human dialogue and never any location tags as it slips seamlessly from Siberia to Greenland, California and ultimately, the breathtaking Angel Falls in Venezuela – with a harrowing few moments inside the wrath of Hurricane Irma. Much of the soundtrack too comes from mama nature herself: the perilous pop and crack of vast spans of ice, towering waves crashing down and the harsh, whistling whip of the wind; to take the edginess of this beautifully frightening omnipotence higher, the punk-metal music by the aptly named group Apocalyptical (imagine a Gwar and Nine Inch Nails collaboration) digs into your temples at turns. It’s almost too much, but that’s part of the point. 

The film begins with its most placid, yet harrowing sequence as team of Siberians retrieve a car from beneath an ice-capped lake using just old-fashioned wood and rope tackle. It’s riveting, though a tedious task to observe as they work in near silence, often lying prone to peer through the thick crystal sheet and occasionally crashing through the surface with nonchalant regard. We learn those who drove the car escaped through the hatch – driving on the ice is how these guys get around. Later we see from afar another car cruising the ice, and it too drops from sight. The ensuing scene will not soon leave you.

The film mostly showcases its subject’s majestic indomitableness in aesthetically wondrous framings that are at once hypnotic and eye popping – an exception being a look at those pinned down by Irma and fighting to hold on amid devastating mudslides and massive flooding. There’s no question the film’s a dispatch underscoring climate change and the need for us to clean up our act. Hard to argue, and done so in subtly contemplative fashion the way Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel’s 2013 locally shot documentary, “Leviathan” and Werner Herzog’s 2007 cold dive “Encounters at the End of the Word” so elegantly did. 

The real power in “Aquarela” is Kossakovsky‘s patiently observant cinematography, which captures some moments that even seem implausible – yet there they are. Kossakovsky shot the film at 96 frames, something of a broadening trend. It’s a true spectacle and wonderment that should taken in its intended natural format.