Weekly Wilson - Blog of Author Connie C. Wilson

Welcome to WeeklyWilson.com, where author/film critic Connie (Corcoran) Wilson avoids totally losing her marbles in semi-retirement by writing about film (see the Chicago Film Festival reviews and SXSW), politics and books—-her own books and those of other people. You'll also find her diverging frequently to share humorous (or not-so-humorous) anecdotes and concerns. Try it! You'll like it!

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“Waves” Directed by Trey Edward Shults Premieres in Chicago on Oct. 20th

Taylor Russell and Kelvin Harrison, Jr., stars of “Waves” at the Chicago Premiere. (Photo by Connie Wilson).

Acclaimed Writer/Director Trey Edward Shults brings “Waves” to the screen with a cast that includes both new and seasoned performers, all in top-notch form. The film’s camera work is beautiful, which makes sense when it is Shults, who learned so much working with the legendary Terrence Malick. (Shults gave huge props to his D.P., True Daniels.

The screen goes  black  5 times, as though the film was over, a la the film “At Eternity’s Gate” (Julian Schmabel). The film is beautiful, whether it is the two leads frolicking in a sprinkler or a sunset or a party scene.

(L to R) Writer/Director Trey Edward Shults, Chicago Cinema Artistic Director Mimi Plauche, Taylor Russell, and Kelvin Harrison, Jr., at the Chicago Premiere of “Waves” on Oct. 20th. (Photo by Connie Wilson).  

“Waves” is really two films in one. You can’t tell what the movie is really about from the trailer. Suffice it to say that w become vitally interested in young athlete Tyler Williams (Kelvin Harrison, Jr.) as he tries to live up to his father’s dreams for him to go to state as a wrestler and to succeed  in life. The romance between Tyler and Alexis (Alexa Demie of “Euphoria”) comprises the first half of the film. As the song used put it, “What a difference a day makes.” The Wiliams family (Father Ron, Step-mother Catharine, sister Emily and Tyler) will never be the same following the Tyler/Alexis storyline. A line of dialogue: “All we have is now.” (Clifton Collins, Jr., is wasted in a very small role as Alexis’ father). The cast includes Sterling K. Brown (“This Is Us”) as the demanding father and Oscar-nominee Lucas Hedges as Luke, the boyfriend of Emily. (Fellow director Harmony Korine of “The Beach Bum” is listed in the credits are Mr. Stanley. His films are image-heavy and story-light and he listed painting and art as major parts of his career.)

The first half of the film focuses on Tyler and Alexis.

Writer/Director Trey Shults, and stars Taylor Russell and Kelvin Harrison, Jr., are interviewed on the Red Carpet in Chicago on Oct. 20th at the Chicago Premiere of “Waves.” (Photo by Connie Wilson).

The second half focuses on Tyler’s sister Emily (Taylor Russell). Her budding romance with Lucas Hedges as Luke includes a touching scene with Luke’s dying, estranged father. But the entire Williams family unit is affected by what occurs earlier between Tyler and Alexis.  Losing sight of Tyler almost completely in the second half doesn’t benefit the film’s plot, which director Trey Edward Shults said was largely autobiographical and/or “personal,” in that it had happened to people close to him.

The film is a cinematic  tour de force, which has been true of the films with which Shults has been associated, including “It Comes At Night,” which also featured Kelvin Harrison, Jr. in its cast. In the Q&A following the film, audience members got a crash course in aspect ratios. (185, 133, 240, 266, native anamorphic et. al) and there’ll be more from the Q&A in a more complete review. Opens November 15th.

Genre: Drama

Writer/Director: Trey Edward Shults

Stars:  Kelvin Harrison, Jr., Taylor Russell, Sterling K. Brown, Lucas Hedges, Alexa Demie, Renee Elise Goldsberry.

Length: 135 minutes

 

“Ford v. Ferrari” and “Girl on the Third Floor” in Chicago

“Ford v Ferrari” – In what is sure to be one of the best movies of the year, Christian Bale and Matt Damon recreate the face-off between Ford Motor Company and Ferrari at the 24 Hour of LeMans in 1966.  Everything about the movie is top-notch, including the performances, the cinematography, and the music by Marco Beltrami and Buck Sanders.  Besides that, it’s a true story of legendary racer and sports car designer Carroll Shelby and ace driver Ken Miles. Originally titled “Go Like Hell” with rumors of Brad Pitt or Tom Cruise to star, the casting is great and it’s a truly entertaining film. (Releases Nov. 15th)

“Girl on the Third Floor” – Producer-turned-Director Travis Stevens shepherds a Chicago cast through a haunted house in Frankfurt, Illinois on the outskirts of the windy city. Queensbury Productions cast WWE fighter C.M. Punk (Don Koch as Phil Brooks) as the expectant father fixing up the house so that he and his pregnant wife can move to the burbs. The house has a different agenda for the couple, who are trying to rebuild their lives together after the tattooed husband ripped off the retirement funds of his clients in the investment business (and cheated on the Mrs.). Two months of shooting produced electrical outlets that ooze, gallons of gushing blood, marbles that mysteriously roll about on their own and a totally chill German Shepherd called Cooper in the film. In real life, Ryker, the German Shepherd, died before the film was released, which is too bad, because he was the best thing in it. Able support from Travis Delgado as black friend Milo Stone and music by Steve Albini. (Streaming on October 25th and in select theaters.).

“Zombieland: Double Tap” Out Now

“Zombieland: Double Tap” opens today in theaters. Right from the opening credits, you know you’re in for more  irreverent humor a la 2009’s “Zombieland”. It starts with the Columbia lady on her pedestal using the torch to beat down two zombies attacking her. There is also a voice-over from Jesse Eisenberg, thanking audiences for choosing this form of zombie viewing from all those available.

The bar is set low enough in this sequel, as one critic put it, to step over it handily. This is a continuation of the fearsome foursome that roamed the Apocalyptic land in 2009, with Woody Harrelson as Tallahassee, Abigail Breslin (“Little Miss Sunshine”) as Little Rock, Emma Stone as Wichita and Jesse Eisenberg as Columbus. To that original cast, add Rosario Dawson as Nevada, new girl Zoey Deutch (“The Politician”) as Madison, Avan Jogia as Berkeley, Luke Wilson as Albuquerque and Thomas Middleditch as Flagstaff. The cast even includes WWW fighter Michael Wilkerson as a T800 zombie (“new and improved” zombies). Keep in mind that in the intervening 10 years, Emma Stone has actually won an Oscar (“La La Land”) and all three of her partners in this film (Harrelson, Breslin and Eisenberg) were Oscar nominees.

The film is basically a straightforward road trip, with stops along the way at the abandoned White House, a similarly abandoned mall, Graceland, an Elvis-themed motel near Graceland, and a hippie compound called Babylon, where all guns are melted down to make peace symbols. The search is on for Abigail Breslin’s character, who has split with a Berkeley musician who is a pacifist (much humor mined there via Avan Jogia’s character.) There’s even a cameo post-film with Bill Murray being Bill Murray in a room full of zombies, armed only with a metal folding chair. (Don’t leave before it screens). More tongue-in-cheek humor.

THE GOOD

Newcomer Madison, the blonde Valley Girl played by Zoey Deutch, is a welcome comic relief addition. The screenwriters (Dave Callahan, Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick) previously scripted the snarky dialogue for Ryan Reynolds in the “Deadpool” franchise; and the director of “Zombieland: Double Tap,” Ruben Fleischer, reprises his directing duties from the first 2009 film. When Madison is first encountered at an abandoned mall, Harrelson asks her if she lives there. Her answer? “No, Paul Blart.”

On Opening Night of the Chicago International Film Festival after-hours offerings the theater was sold out; the audience left satisfied. For those who want a steady diet of head-bashing, there are plenty of fights to keep them entertained. This night there was even a zombie costume contest, with a Tallahassee look-alike winning from among five local entries.

Some of the lines that the addition of the new blonde airhead enables were priceless. Most viewers will have seen the trailer clip where Woody tells Eisenberg that they should hit the road again and leave Madison behind (she had been hiding out in a freezer in the abandoned mall). When Eisenberg protests that Madison shouldn’t be left behind because the zombies will get her, Woody responds, “Zombies eat brains and she ain’t got any.” The scene where Woody gets out of the mini-van that he loathes, ostensibly to load massive quantities of Madison’s pink luggage into the back is great. He waits until she re-enters the car, then gets behind the wheel and drives off, leaving all Madison’s luggage on the road, while the “rule” that Columbus has created about “traveling light” is flashed on the screen. Woody, in typical Harrelson manner, says, “Rules are for pussies.” There is also this line, “If you love something, you shoot it in the face so it doesn’t become a blood-sucking monster.”

THE BAD

The airhead blonde worked well, thanks to new-comer Zooey Deutch (television’s “The Politician”), but the new duo of Luke Wilson and Thomas Middleditch as Albuquerque and Flagstaff were not as amusing. The joke is this: the two, who drive a gigantic vehicle referenced as Big Fat Death, are doppelgangers of Woody and Jesse’s characters. They have the same annoying mannerisms, down to a close resemblance, physically, of Middleditch to Eisenberg. (They don’t last long in the plot, so there’s that.)

This is not a movie that requires advanced degrees to understand, nor does it have any connection to reality. The zombie genre, complete with television’s “The Walking Dead,” was just beginning to become ubiquitous in 2009 (“The Walking Dead” premiered in 2010), but the market has become considerably more saturated in the ensuing ten years. Some viewers enjoy the zombie head-bashing more than others. But it is a genre that is now entering season 10 on television, so it’s  well-established. (And, yes, I realize that “Night of the Living Dead” goes all the way back to 1968 and George Romero—who died in 2017—mined this vein long before anyone else.)

Overall, fans of the original film and the zombie genre in general will be pleased. You don’t have to think very hard as you enjoy this salute to brain-dead zombie lore. It’s a quintessential popcorn movie and that is what a lot of folks in this country seem to need right now.

Genre:  Comedy/Action/Horror

Actors:  Woody Harrelson, Emma Stone, Abigail Breslin, Jesse Eisenberg, Luke Wilson, Zooey Deutch, Rosario Dawson, Avan Jogia, Thomas Middleditch

Length:  99 minutes

Director:  Ruben Fleischer

Screenwriters:  Dave Callahan, Rhett Reese, Paul Wernick

Cinematography:  Chung-hoon Chung

 

55th Chicago International Film Festival Begins October 16th

The 55th Chicago International Film Festival starts Wednesday, October 16th, opening with Edward Norton directing and starring in the film adaptation of “Motherless Brooklyn” (with Bruce Willis co-starring). The book, by Jonathan Lethem, won the New York Book Circle Award some years back and it has been a long time coming to the screen. “Motherless Brooklyn” will open the 55th year for America’s longest-running film competition, which runs from October 16th through October 27th.

THE WHISTLERS
It hasn’t opened to the public yet, but critics have already had the opportunity to see the new film from Corneliu Porumboiu, “The Whistlers,” which will be the Czech Republic’s entry for the Academy Awards. The involved noir tale follows the adventures of a corrupt, middle-aged policeman named Cristi (Vlad Ivanov) who travels from Bucharest to the Canary islands to study the ancient Aboriginal whistling language, which allows criminals to communicate clandestinely. Director Porumboiu, in interviews from Cannes, says he became interested in this authentic language after seeing a piece on television describing it. There’s a femme fatale named Gilad (homage to Rita Hayworth intentional), quick clips of “The Searchers” (which is one reason the original title, “La Gomera,” was changed to “The Whistlers”) and a gorgeous opportunity to see lighted garden display in Singapore, which runs 12 minutes and shows two times a night. It’s a complicated caper plot. When asked about the finale Hong Kong Gardens light show and how he knew about it, Porumboiu said, “YouTube.” (Romanian English with subtitles, 97 minutes).

8 – A SOUTH AFRICAN HORROR STORY
This film from director Harold Holscher has a wonderfully moody, menacing, supernatural plot and the South African cinematography is gorgeous. It revolves around a black man named Lazarus (aptly named) and his interaction with a South African family returning to their family farm after many years. A little girl named Mary will be the focus of the film and the spine-tingling, creepy, well-acted central performance by Tahamano Sebe as Lazarus holds the film together. The female performances, especially the ingenue, Mary, are not as impressive, but there are visceral scares and a heartbreaking plot. (98 minutes)


FORMAN vs FORMAN
This documentary traces the life and achievements of Milos Forman, who won Oscars for directing both “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” in 1975 and “Amadeus” in 1984. There are a multitude of film clips of young Milos, his parents, Prague where he grew up, and some personal shots from his widow. Forman died on April 13, 2018, and this documentary about his life, directed by Helena Trestikova and Jakub Hejna is a treasure trove of archival footage that traces Forman’s life and career. Both of Forman’s parents are taken away to concentration camps when he was young, leaving him feeling like an outsider in the world. (His mother died in Auschwitz and his father in Buchenwald.) It’s well worth a look. (78 minutes)

JUST 6.5
Saving the best of those I’ve seen so far for last, from Iran comes this riveting story of detective Samad (Peyman Maadi, of “A Separation”), whose mission is to bring down powerful drug kingpin Nasser Khakzad. The first 8 minutes of this film is as riveting and intense as the opening of “Shallow Grave.” There is a foot chase through winding alleyways that forces the runner over a fence and (inadvertently) into a deep hole where he is buried alive. The film was a hit in its native land and it’s easy to see why. It’s a high-octane look at the drug trade and the criminal justice system in Iran. (Farsi with subtitles, 135 minutes)

“El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie” Is Great for “Breaking Bad” Fans

Robert Forster, who passed away on Oct. 11, 2019. Photo taken on Oct. 15, 2018 at the Chicago International Film Festival by Connie Wilson at 9 p.m. at the showing of “What They Had.” (Who knew Robert had only 361 days left on the planet?)

We watched “El Camino: The Breaking Bad Movie” last night and liked it very much

.There are numerous flashbacks that provide some “Walt” for those who have to have Walt with their Jessie.

Since the original series had been off the air for 6 years, I confess to being hazy on some of the finer TV plot points. For example, I did remember that Jessie was kept in a cage and tortured and forced to make crystal meth, but the contraption used to give him mobility was totally forgotten by me, until it re-emerges in this film.

The “shoot-out at the O.K. Corral” part is quite good. (See it to find out what I mean).

Jessie’s desperate attempt to get money to finance his “disappearing” act was well done, with a run-in with “police” that is very creative. This part involves Robert Forster, who helped Walt hide out in the TV series.

Yesterday Robert Forster, 78, known as “the Disappearer” in the original TV series and the long-ago star of “Medium Cool” back in the sixties (one of the few—-perhaps only—-examples of cinema verite in the U.S.) unexpectedly died of brain cancer. I met Forster in October of 2018 as he made the film festival rounds on behalf of “What They Had,” a very good film with Michael Shannon, Vera Farmigia and Blythe Danner co-starring about an elderly couple coping with the wife’s encroaching Alzheimer’s disease.

Forster was perfect in the part of her devoted elderly husband, but when I saw him standing in the aisle as I walked to my seat (he was leaning against the wall at the time, in preparation for the post showing Q&A) I had to go over and introduce myself and tell him how much I admired his work in “Medium Cool” and many other projects. He was genuinely warm and friendly, and we chatted briefly for a few moments before I took my seat. Then, he talked about his career, both in an interview in the Chicago “Tribune” but also onstage, and, once again, cemented my admiration.

This is Forster’s final film role. I was struck, when he first came onscreen, by how much he had aged in just one year, as it was October of 2018 when I met him in person. It is one year later, I am about to leave for the October film festival again, but Robert looked like 5 years had passed. I assumed it was make-up. And then I heard that he had died, of brain cancer.

I found the arc that Jessie traverses in this film believable and well-acted and another reason it rang a particularly intense bell with me, besides the information in the paragraph above, is that we just returned from a tour of Alaska and Alaska has an important role in the plot.

I definitely recommend the film for fans of “Breaking Bad.”

“Joker” May Bring Joaquin an Oscar

JOKER

Joaquin Phoenix has turned in another riveting, intense performance in “Joker,” this time as Arthur Fleck, a mentally ill young man who lives with his invalid mother and works as a clown. In the opening scene, he is twirling a sign on the rat-infested, garbage-strewn streets of Gotham (1970s New York City) when 5 young men steal his “Everything must go!” sign and beat him up in an alley.

If you think this is grim, just wait.

Joaquin has pretty much made a career out of playing character parts that Bruce Dern of 30 years ago, Crispin Glover of 20 years ago, or Michael Shannon of today might play. He is intense and strange, excelling, as one critic put it, in films that depict “exquisite isolation.” In this film, for which he lost 15 pounds, he looks emaciated, like Christian Bale in “The Mechanic.” He claims it helped him with his weirdly artistic dance moves to be lighter on his feet. Arthur (Phoenix) laughs inappropriately and compulsively and may suffer from pseudobulbar affect disorder (or any of a series of ailments often related to traumatic brain injury and/or schizophrenia). It is off-putting and uncomfortable; he even carries a small card explaining his condition to strangers, much like the deaf have used.

The tour-de-force part of Arthur Fleck is eerily reminiscent of Travis Bickle in 1976’s “Taxi Driver.” This part also builds on Heath Ledger’s Oscar-winning turn as the Joker in “The Dark Knight Rises” and gives us a back story for Joker that is different from the ones in other “Batman” films. Oscar history could repeat itself with a gold statuette for Joaquin, but the film, itself, does not seem Oscar-worthy, to me.

Joaquin has been acting since the early eighties. Many of his best performances have utilized his personal projection of a sense of strange intensity. I remember seeing him on David Letterman’s show on February 11th, 2009, when he claimed he was giving up acting for good to become a rapper. He acted weird, strange and was monosyllabic. Letterman played off that, as he used to do when Crispin Glover came on the show and acted like a World Class Weirdo. (Remember the kicking sequence with Glover on the show?)

At the time, Joaquin was making the movie “I’m Still Here” with his then brother-in-law (Casey Affleck). As it turned out, they thought it would be a good promotional stunt to have Joaquin claim he was quitting acting to become a rapper. Later, on September 22, 2010, Joaquin returned to Letterman’s “Tonight” show to admit that he was actually not finished with acting. Each time, Phoenix came across as supremely weird, strange, and intense. He’s supposed to be engaged to frequent co-star Mara Rooney now, so perhaps both of those television appearances were just good examples of his acting ability.

Whatever. He fooled most of us, and, therefore, his persona with the public and the press has been close to that of Arthur Fleck. The part of “Joker” was perfect for him.  Director/Writer Todd Phillips (the “Hangover” movies) said that he never wanted to develop a Plan B for any other casting, because he always intended to cast Phoenix in the part.

When New York Times writer David Itzkoff pointed out while interviewing Phoenix that he seemed to be the “go to” character actor for such over-the-top intense performances  and that Phoenix could continue acting characters like this for a very long time, the actor responded, “Oh, really?” in a sarcastic voice as dry as sandpaper. “Well, good. Thank you so much. That’s great. I was worried.”

Then, said Itzkoff, “he grinned and let out a laugh to let me know he was kidding. (Or was he?”)

THE GOOD

The Acting

Joaquin Phoenix is a good bet for an Oscar nomination and, potentially, for a win, although it’s still early for making those predictions.

The film is powerful, but about as grim a film as you can find. Still, there were many great supporting turns from the rest of the cast including Frances Conroy (“Six Feet Under,” “American Horror Story”) as his mother, Robert DeNiro as  talk show host Murray Franklin and Zazee Beetz as his next-door neighbor Sophie Dumond. The use of DeNiro as the late night talk show host modeled on Johnny Carson elicited echoes of Jerry Lewis’ 1982 film “King of Comedy,” where DeNiro played Rupert Pupkin.

Cinematography & Editing:

Director/Writer Todd Phillips (who co-wrote the screenplay with Scott Silver) has used an interesting mix of “Is this really happening?” cinema, woven together to leave it up to the audience to determine whether what Arthur Fleck is experiencing is wishful thinking or really happening. Audiences today are fairly savvy. We are used to having to figure out some of the connecting tissue of a film on our own, and Phillips handles that beautifully, along with the assistance of cinematographer Lawrence Sher, who seems to love to dwell on Phoenix in close-up. Phillips does a good job of incorporating the seamy, rat-infested city of Gotham as almost a character in itself, and the many nods to Scorsese’s classic films show that, “Hangover” or no “Hangover,” Phillips recognizes a modern-day cinematic icon’s quality work when he sees it. All nice touches.

THE BAD:

Music:

I was not a fan of the cello-heavy score by the 31 people listed as being in charge of the music for the film. It was overpoweringly dark, screaming, “Feel sorry for Arthur” at every plot turn.

Plot:

That last remark brings me to the fact that we are primed to feel sorry for/excuse Arthur for his misdeeds. There isn’t a single murder that takes place (and there are plenty, most of them bloody) that some rationale or excuse as to why Arthur would have committed the bloodthirsty crime can’t be ginned up to defend or excuse this poor mentally-ill man (who seems completely amoral by film’s end, if not before).

When Arthur first turns homicidal on a subway train,  he has acted in self defense. The plot channels Bernard Goetz, who shot and wounded four African-American youths on a Manhattan subway train in 1984. Only this time “the enemy” is Wall Street and it is three young white Wall Street brokers, insensitive louts all, who abuse and mistreat poor Arthur before he snaps. That brings about the violence. The viewer does feel that the audience is supposed to sympathize with the poor beaten-down loser that Joaquin is portraying so well. We’re rooting for “the little guy” standing up for himself, even if you feel that a sane person would have taken his chances with the NYPD, since the subway shootings seem justified.

After that, while excuses/rationales/reasons are still given for every single murder, feeling sorry for poor Arthur goes downhill fast.

The entire idea of the poor versus the rich is elevated to new heights when portions of Arthur’s comedy act showing him laughing hysterically and uncontrollably are broadcast on Murray Franklin’s show. Arthur becomes a lightning rod for the general sense of malaise and unrest abroad in the land. “Is it just me, or is it getting crazier out there?” asks Arthur, at one point.

It’s not just you, Arthur. It IS getting crazier out there, and most of us know why.

It is interesting to have a homicidal, mentally-ill killer elevated, by film’s end, almost to the point of “leader of the pack,” but maybe not such a great idea. We can always bring back Steve Bannon, who wants to tear down everything in order to create “the Fourth Turning” (as he himself articulated in the Erroll Morris “American Dharma” documentary).

Permissive nods towards out-of-control violence of any kind should be quickly squelched, whenever and wherever they crop up. Arthur’s sad plight illustrates many of the issues this country is facing. Indeed, problems that the entire world is facing: the ‘haves vs have nots” battle, etc. But letting anarchy rule doesn’t seem like the best solution, regardless of our emotional empathy for Arthur Fleck and embattled little people the world over.

Fun Facts About Madonna

(https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0099422/?ref_=nv_sr_1?ref_=nv_sr_1)

Renee Zellweger Lights Up Screen in “Judy” Bio-Pic

“I don’t know how these stories get started, but I do not approve nor sanction the upcoming film about Judy Garland in any way. Any reports to the contrary are 100% fiction.” So said the largely MIA Liza Minelli about the bio-pic “Judy”, which focuses on her mother, Judy Garland. The performance should earn Renee Zellwegger an Oscar nomination for Best Actress.

Zellwegger’s singing is good, too, complete with the awkward, nervous, arm-flailing delivery that those of us old enough to remember the real Garland associate with her.

“Judy” focuses on Judy Garland’s final shows in London at the Talk of the Town nightclub in 1969. She appeared for a five-week run that paid her $2,500 pounds weekly ($3,085 in dollars).

At that point in time Judy was considered unreliable and her life-long addiction to uppers and downers, dating from her childhood studio days, was contributing to her quickly failing health. She would be dead three months after these appearances, on June 22, 1969, at the age of 47.

THE GOOD

Acting: Renee Zellweger’s performance inhabiting the neurotic Judy Garland is the best thing about this bio-pic. It was nice seeing Finn Wittrock (“Write When You Get Work,” “American Horror Story”) finally get a chance at a “big” film, playing her last husband Mickey Deans, although the chemistry he and Zellweger generate was muted, at best; the film is very chaste in terms of depicting Judy Garland’s long history as a sexual being. The studio forced Garland to abort Tyrone Powers’ child in 1943 and, earlier, to end an “unapproved” pregnancy in 1941. We get no sense of Judy’s first 3 husbands. Vincent Minnelli (father of Liza) is omitted. Only Sid Luft and the 12-years-younger Mickey Deans are depicted, even though Deans was married to her for less than 3 months. Others deserving praise for their performances would include Darci Shaw as the young Judy Garland, and Jessie Buckley as Rosalyn Wilder, who is assigned to ride herd on the unreliable songstress during her London run.

Music: The quintessential Garland classics tell the story through familiar lyrics.”I’ll go my way by myself, I’m by myself, alone. I’ll have to deny myself love and laughter and friends…No one knows better than I myself know.”  Or, later: “For once in my life I won’t let sorrow hurt me” or “As long as I know I have love in my life I can make it.” Zellweger has not sung since “Chicago” in 2002; she is terrific.

Costuming & Make-Up: Jany Temime does a fantastic job of dressing Renee  as Judy. I did wonder how an actress who is supposed to be so broke found the money for such elaborate outfits and furs. The make-up and hair folks deserve plaudits for transforming Zellweger into a passable Garland. There were about 13 credited make-up folks and it took them 2 hours. It wouldn’t surprise me if they, too,  snagged Oscar nominations on February 9, 2020.

THE BAD

Unnecessary Backstory: The opening “set up” of Judy speaking with L.B. Mayer on the set of “The Wizard of Oz” is used to establish the pattern that most of us already knew. The studio forced the 4’ 11 ½” Garland to diet and plied her with pills to keep her performing in good voice. Then it was barbiturates to help her to sleep. In her adult years, Judy became an insomniac, an alcoholic, and  died of a barbiturate overdose that was deemed accidental, despite a couple of earlier documented suicide attempts.

Doting mother? The film insists that Judy was a devoted mother and depicts her traveling in a cab late at night with her two children by Sid Luft, Lorna and Joseph. They are turned away from their hotel for non-payment of the bill and end up going to Sid Luft’s house. The children appear to be of elementary school age—certainly not more than junior high school age—yet the setting for the film is 1968-1969.  At that time, the two Luft children would have been about 13 and 16.  Liza Minnelli, age 22 or 23 then, is shown only in a brief party scene where Judy “meets cute” with Mickey Dean (he actually met her while delivering illicit drugs.)

With the ages of her offspring much older than what is portrayed, the heart-rending conversation from an old-style red British phone booth where Judy more-or-less “gives up” her children becomes less touching. Judy stayed in London for three more months after her run at the Talk of the Town ended, ultimately dying at a rented house on Cadogan Lane, Belgravia, London, found by her fifth husband of only 3 months, Mickey Deans, in the bathroom on June 22, 1969. There is also a suggestion that ex-husband Sid Luft lost much of Judy’s money at the race track. Other sources say that subsequent managers after Luft mismanaged and embezzled her earnings. (One of them was Freddy Fields, husband of Polly Bergen).

This Rupert Goold adaptation of the stage play “End of the Rainbow” scripted by Tom Edge and Peter Quilter has been called “bland” by some critics and “melodramatic” by others. The scene with Judy befriending a gay couple was praised by some and castigated by others as implausible. The film really is most alive and engrossing whenever “Judy” sings. It soars in those scenes.One thing is certain: Renee Zellweger does a fantastic job of inhabiting and interpreting the trials and tribulations of a troubled icon.

 

“Ad Astra” Features Brad Pitt in Space

“Ad Astra” translates to “To the Stars” and in this James Gray-directed film, which opened Friday, September 20th, Brad Pitt travels to the far reaches of outer space in search of his astronaut father long thought to be dead. (Tommy Lee Jones).”

The setting is “The near future.  A time of both hope and conflict.” Earth has apparently established several bases on neighboring celestial bodies, including a base on the moon and an underground base on Mars that is one of the few such human outposts not harmed by recurring uncontrolled releases of anti-matter. The authorities think the electrical impulses originate from the long-ago Lima Project, which  H. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones) headed up, journeying as far as Neptune and Saturn, the farthest point man has penetrated in space.

Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) is assigned to find his father and the fear is definitely unspoken but potential that he will be part of a mission to eliminate the now-famous space hero. Brad is told, by Donald Sutherland as Colonel Pruitt, an old friend of the senior McBride, that suspicion for the electrical battering that the solar system is taking, which threatens Earth and the very survival of mankind, is perhaps something that H. Clifford McBride has caused. So, they reach out to his now 45-year-old son—also an astronaut—hoping that this tie to the man who may be intentionally hiding out—-will help find him.

I was reminded of Colonel Kurtz in “Apocalypse Now,” with Pitt playing the Martin Sheen part as the man sent to find Marlon Brando’s mad man/god. There is a religious undercurrent running throughout the film, including these words, spoken upon the burial in space of a deceased colleague: “May you meet your Redeemer face-to-face and enjoy the vision of God forever.” H. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), a believer in alien life forms, says, “I know for certain I am doing God’s work.” He was so convinced that his expedition would find intelligent life in the universe that he took drastic steps to prevent a mutiny from the others in his party. Ironically, the son performs an act nearly as violent in order to find his father.

Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) ponders the meaning of existence at several points. “We go to work. We do our jobs.  We’re here and then we’re gone,” says the alienated Pitt. He is a cool customer who, more than once recites in voice-over the information that “I am focused on the essential to the exclusion of all else.” Compartmentalized is another way he describes his ability to deal with emotions. He seems to recognize, early on, (especially after the fantastic opening sequence where he survives a harrowing space accident where a robotic arm crashes and takes the orbiting space station down with it), that “ I should feel something. I survived.”  By film’s end, the very basic lesson that we must live and love those close to us and that his father “could only see what was not there, and missed what was right in front of him” has been conveyed.

I couldn’t help but remember Jennifer Aniston’s remark at the time of her divorce from Pitt that he was “lacking an emotional sensitivity chip.” I did find Pitt’s acting spot-on, especially in the scene where he abandons the script that has been prepared for him and speaks from the heart via a secure laser transmission designed to reach his father, wherever he may be hiding in the Universe. The younger McBride acknowledges early on that “I don’t know if I hope to find him or finally be free of him,” but admits that, “I must accept the fact I never really knew him.”

Another echo from an iconic flick is that of “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Not only is the path through the solar system that Brad’s character takes the same as that of the ship in Stanley Kubrick’s film, but James Gray finds a way to work in apes—something that seemed out of the realm of possibility.

THE GOOD

Cinematography & Visual Effects:

Hoyte van Hoytema’s cinematography is fantastic. The sets and visual effects in “Ad Astra” are completely believable. It’s a bit off-putting to see the base on the Moon crassly commercialized, right down to a Subway restaurant and a Virgin Atlantic store, but the set design and the harrowing action sequences set in space are completely believable and well done.

Acting:

Nicely-done, Brad Pitt! It’s great to see him back in leading man form and aging gracefully. This is the second film for Pitt this year that showed he is more than a pretty face, with his pairing with Leonardo DiCaprio in “Once Upon A Time in Hollywood” worthy of a Best Supporting Actor nod and this solo turn equally good. It’s nice to see a return to form for Pitt, who has too often had his acting ability obscured by his good looks and the ubiquitous press coverage of Brangelina.

Screenplay & Directing:

The screenplay was written by James Gray and Ethan Gross and directed by James Gray (“The Lost City of Z,” “The Immigrants”).  Brad Pitt and James Gray had planned to work together on two previous occasions, but circumstances intervened. Gray, in an NPR interview, acknowledged the “mash-up” of “Apocalypse Now” and “2001: A Space Odyssey” and expressed his admiration for character-driven films of the seventies, and is also quoted as having said, “This all sounds very pretentious, but I feel like love is a very important subject.”

THE BAD

Acting:

While Brad Pitt is fine in his leading man role, there is a waste of the talent of other cast members. Most notably, Liv Tyler has almost no part at all as the love interest who complains that even when he is there, Pitt is MIA. It as sheer coincidence that I watched a television special entitled “The Last Hours of Phil Hartman” that detailed how Hartman’s wife, possibly influenced by drugs and drink, but growing increasingly frustrated by his workaholic tendencies and his emotional distance from her, shot and killed him and then herself. While there is no homicidal wife in this space opera, the emotional underpinnings of the film are universal.

Donald Sutherland is another fine talent who is wasted in a very small part as Colonel Pruitt, an old friend of Tommy Lee Jones. He isn’t in the film for long. It seems as though the sequence in which Sutherland appears  could be eliminated entirely without any harm to the narrative structure. Ruth Negga (“Loving”) also has a brief appearance as Helen Lantos, the Commander of the Mars space base, who assists Brad Pitt as he attempts to board the ship that will journey to Jupiter seeking his father, who Brad last saw at age sixteen.

While there are many exciting sequences, sometimes it feels as though they are being strung together like beads on a necklace. It is an exciting film, but there are slow portions in between the stringing of those action beads. And the film feels long, because it is—a distressingly common trend, it seems.

I’m wondering how the space aficionados will deal with facts in the film that are dropped into the mix, like the fact that it is going to take Pitt 79 days, 4 hours and 8 minutes to get from Mars to Neptune. I don’t pretend to know enough to begin to poke holes in scientific inaccuracies.

 

80 Iconic Dresses from Movies

80 Iconic Dresses from Movies

infographic of 80 iconic dresses from movies

80 Iconic Dresses from Movies – Lulus

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