REVIEW: “Judy” (2019)

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Sadly the well-documented story of Judy Garland is more tragic than beautiful. The incredibly talented but perpetually troubled star of stage and screen was beloved internationally. An amazingly versatile entertainer, Garland would go on to win an Oscar, a Grammy, a Tony, a Golden Globe, and even nominated for an Emmy.

But behind the scenes Garland’s life was marked by mental and physical health struggles, addiction, and financial woes. Director Rupert Goold’s “Judy” takes place on the downside of Garland’s career, from December 1968 and into early 1969, a mere six months before Garland would die from an accidental overdose. It’s an unpretentious and sugar-free account of a falling star’s life as a performer and a mother.

Renée Zellweger commits every ounce of herself to capturing Judy Garland’s many physical and emotional complexities. Essentially homeless and with her two stability-starved children in tow, adult Judy is on the ropes from the start. Her frustrated ex-husband and the children’s father Sid Lift (Rufus Sewell) agrees to take the kids while Judy accepts a five-week engagement at the snazzy London night club Talk of the Town. Her plan is to make enough money to come back to Los Angeles, buy a home, and raise her children. No more performing, no more touring.

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© 2019 Roadside Attractions. All rights reserved

Judy arrives in London and is immediately given a stacked schedule by her assigned handler Rosalyn (a very good Jessie Buckley). Her first show goes great, bringing a rousing ovation from the crowd and rave reviews from local critics. But despite her consummate professionalism and personal drive (she knows what’s at stake), Judy’s fragility and insecurity makes every appearance brim with uncertainty. So she pops more pills, gets less sleep, and crumbles before our very eyes.

The story is occasionally interrupted by a series of effective vignettes which look back to Judy’s teen years at MGM (she’s earnestly portrayed in these scenes by Darci Shaw). It paints a sobering picture of a young girl from Grand Rapids, Minnesota caught in the gears of the greedy, abusive studio-era Hollywood machine. Judy is treated as property – overworked and constantly reminded by studio head Louis B. Mayer (Richard Cordery) that there are plenty of prettier girls out there. And aside from shattering her self-esteem, Judy is fed pills that curb her appetite and lay the groundwork for her crippling future addictions.

While these flashbacks do feel very biopic-ish, they do bring to light a thoughtful cause-and-effect dynamic. The film doesn’t fully exonerate Garland from her self-destructive behavior and poor choices, but it does offer some meaningful context and earns her sympathy from those who may not be familiar with her tempestuous life story.

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© 2019 Roadside Attractions. All rights reserved

Back to Zellweger, she truly is the driving force of the movie and her performance is more than a imitation, it’s an immersion. Zellweger disappears, replaced by a meticulously performed and fully realized likeness to Judy Garland. We see the many distinct mannerisms: the nervous twitches, forced smiles, squinty stares. And there is a genuine awkwardness to her movements befitting someone walking precariously along a psychological ledge.

And Zellweger sings all of her own tunes. While she may not especially sound like Garland, the emotional resonance from her mixture of song and performance makes it an easy sell. And I’ve read that at this stage in her career Garland’s hard living had taken a toll on her voice. It brought a level of uncertainty to every stage appearance and only added to the singer’s many insecurities. Zellweger channels it through a passionate and wholehearted effort.

I want what everybody wants,” Judy tells a prying talk-show host. “I just have a harder time getting it.” These are the moments when “Judy” is at its best – when it is digging into the wounded psyche of one of entertainment’s biggest icons. The film does chase a few rabbits (there is an encounter with a fictitious middle-aged gay couple that comes across as overly scripted and manipulative), her marriage to her fifth and final husband Mickey Deans (Finn Wittrock) feels shortchanged, and there are moments where the film is too dependent on Zellweger’s performance to carry it. Still, as an unvarnished look at Judy Garland’s last stand against her demons, the movie works better than expected.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

3-5-stars

 

REVIEW: “Just Mercy” (2019)

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Destin Daniel Cretton’s filmmaking career has been on quite the upward trajectory. He earned a lot of attention with his 2013 indie drama “Short Term 12”. He was given a bigger budget and a meatier cast for his 2017 followup “The Glass Castle”. In 2021 he’s set to enter the big budget Marvel Universe as director of “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings”. But before that, he has an upcoming movie that’s definitely worth some attention.

Cretton’s new film is “Just Mercy”, a legal drama based on the memoir of tireless civil rights attorney Bryan Stevenson. It centers around Stevenson’s early work in Alabama during the 1980’s, specifically on the case of Walter McMillan, a wrongfully accused black man sentenced to death for the killing of a young white woman. Cretton’s film offers no frills, no excess, no attempts to push the envelope. It’s very focused on good old-fashioned storytelling and as a result this powerful story is given the attention it needs.

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Michael B. Jordan plays Stevenson, fresh out of Harvard Law School and eager to make a difference. He leaves his home in Delaware and moves to Montgomery County, Alabama (which is ironically where Harper Lee penned her classic “To Kill a Mockingbird“). He had previously went there to serve an internship and it left a profound impression. Now as a full-on attorney he returns to offer legal assistance free of charge to death row inmates in need of it.

With the help of a local true believer Eva Ansley (played by Cretton favorite Brie Larson) Bryan is able to launch his Equal Justice Initiative. But the ‘good ol’ boy’ justice system doesn’t take kindly to Bryan’s meddling especially when he takes the case of Walter McMillan (who is better known around town as Johnny D). He’s played by a dialed-back Jamie Foxx who gives one of his best performances in years.

Despite there being an overwhelming lack of evidence, Walter was sentenced to death in 1987. Over the next few years he would remain in prison following one failed attempt after another at securing him a new trial. It takes some work, but the understandably cynical and jaded Walter finally agrees to let Bryan take over his case. But as countless obstacles arise, Bryan learns that getting a black man off of death row is no easy task, especially in such a racially-charged environment.

Cretton rarely veers from the McMillan case but one instance where he does happens to be the film’s most powerful scene. It involves Rob Morgan’s heartbreaking portrayal of a Vietnam vet suffering from PTSD. He too is on death row for planting a bomb that inadvertently kills a young girl. Morgan is a natural and shows us a man tortured by what he has done but also clearly suffering from post-war trauma. It leads to a devastating sequence that is Cretton’s best work to date.

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“Just Mercy” digs deep into the blatant injustices and frustrating roadblocks put up by the local authorities. There’s no help from the newly elected district attorney (Rafe Spall) who is more concerned about soiling his reputation with the community than considering Bryan’s motions. Even game-changing revelations about the prosecution’s key witness (played by a terrific Tim Blake Nelson) isn’t enough to tip the racially-biased scales.

It all makes for a troubling and eye-opening examination of institutional racism from a time not so long ago (keep in mind this isn’t set in the 1960’s). The movie doesn’t feel particularly fresh or new but it’s unwavering in its honesty and dedication to its characters (with the exception is Larson’s Eva who is terribly underdeveloped). And I can already hear some criticizing it for not being “angry enough”. But in reality not every film needs to scream from the rooftops. Sometimes simply letting a story speak truth for itself is just as effective.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars

REVIEW: “Jojo Rabbit”

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While Charlie Chaplin, Mel Brooks, and even Donald Duck have taken shots at lampooning Adolph Hitler, Nazi and holocaust humor still falls into touchy territory. But out of all modern day filmmakers, who better than New Zealand native Taika Waititi to make us laugh and squirm by jumping headfirst into hate-fueled marsh of late World War II Naziism.

Waititi earned a lot of attention when he entered into Marvel’s MCU to make “Thor: Ragnarok”. But his biggest fans love him for his more intimate original comedies like “What We Do in the Shadows” and “Hunt for the Wilderpeople”. His new film “Jojo Rabbit” falls in with those smaller gems and you could make a strong case that it is Waititi’s best movie to date.

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There are so many great elements at work that make “Jojo Rabbit” such an incredible experience. It’s laugh-out-loud funny with Waititi’s signature off-beat humor hitting most all of its marks. At the same time there are several moments that jolt us back to reality, reminding us that we’re dealing with weighty and often unspeakable matters. Amazingly, Waititi manages these seismic tonal shifts in ways you wouldn’t think possible. And the film’s ability to make you laugh, cry, or be utterly appalled is one of its many strengths.

Set during the waning years of World War II, the story centers on Johannes “Jojo” Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis), a 10-year-old German boy who’s oblivious to the horrors of the war and who blindly loves his Führer. In fact, his imaginary friend is none other than Hitler himself (outlandishly played by Waititi). The bulk of the film is told from his perspective and follows him as he routinely crosses path with the myriad of colorful and often hilarious side characters.

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© 2019 Fox Searchlight Pictures All Rights Reserved

An early sequence gives us a lot of context. Jojo and his best friend Yorki (an infectiously adorable Archie Yates) attend a Nazi Youth Camp. There they’ll be trained in the youthful arts of recognizing Jews, knife throwing, and tossing live grenades. Oh, and during recreation time they’ll get to unwind by burning books. Running the camp is Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell), a disillusioned sot recently demoted from the battlefield and keenly aware that the Nazi war effort is on its last leg.

So as you can tell much of the humor is built around some ugly and reprehensible history. This includes the abhorrent child brainwashing, vile antisemitism, and of course the Holocaust. Enter Thomasin McKenzie, the fabulous young New Zealander who was so good in Debra Granik’s “Leave No Trace”. She plays Elsa, a Jewish teen who Jojo’s mother (Scarlett Johansson) has been hiding in the walls of their home. When Jojo discovers her not only does Elsa challenge his ignorance and blind hatred but also his entire indoctrinated worldview.

McKenzie has a sublime ability to convey so much through the softest voice and most earnest expression. Even when her character is challenging Jojo she does it with a quiet gentleness that earns every ounce of our empathy. She shares a good chemistry with the younger Davis who exudes a ton of personality. Johansson brings a lot of heart to the story. Rockwell plays a sarcastic goof (something he does really well). And there are other smaller but equally enjoyable roles from Rebel Wilson and Stephen Merchant.

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© 2019 Fox Searchlight Pictures All Rights Reserved

“Jojo Rabbit” advertises itself as an “anti-hate satire” and while its a fitting description that sounds really good, the historical baggage is sure to be too much for some people to handle. Personally, I loved its audacity and even more its capacity to make me both laugh and cry. And hats off to Waititi for not crossing the line into the tasteless and offensive while never skirting around the hateful prejudices or repulsive ideologies.

But as the film’s ending quote from poet Rainer Rilke’s so appropriately states “No feeling is final.” And that is the timely message of “Jojo Rabbit”. A young German boy perfecting his “Heil Hitler!” salute in the opening scene eventually sees through veil of hate. And through his journey Waititi shows that meaningful change is indeed possible. Sure, it could have dove deeper into the Nazi atrocities, but that would make for a much different movie. Other films have already done that well. Let “Jojo Rabbit” speak with its own unique voice because it truly has something beautiful to say.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

4-5-stars

REVIEW: “Joker” (2019)

The concept of the new “Joker” movie should have been enough to excite me from the start. A dark, psychological, and unflinching dig into the mentally fractured life of the most iconic DC Comics villain? Right up my alley. And then you top it off by casting the insanely intense and always committed Joaquin Phoenix. All the ingredients are there yet since the very first trailer I found myself more cautious than enthusiastic.

Three concerns kept my expectations in check. 1) The film is from Todd Phillips whose movies I generally struggle with and who has never done anything quite like this. Could he pull it off? 2) Phillips came out early saying “people are gonna be mad“. Did that mean he was straying completely away from the source material and simply milking the Joker name for attention and publicity? 3) Lastly, much of what makes Joker so unsettling comes from the mysteries of who he is and where he comes from. Would lifting that veil strip the character of his signature menace?

The quick answers to those questions: Yes, No, and No. More pointedly, what Phillips has made is pretty spectacular – a relentlessly grim character study of a madman on the edge and a stinging rebuke of the morally bankrupt society that pushes him over it. Furthermore, no one can say “Joker” is politically agnostic, but its societal critique is far from one-sided and the film features more narrative and critical depth than I ever expected. Oh, and it’s also one cracking setup for one of pop culture’s most sinister villains.

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“Joker” is a comic book movie similar to “Logan” in that it was let off the studio leash and allowed to make its own rules. It isn’t bound by any genre convention or expectation and it has no direct tie to any previous DC movie. This gave Phillips and company a ton of freedom and obviously they ran with it. Most surprising to me (a long-time fan of the Clown Prince) is how Phillips impressively balances having an original vision with capturing the essence of such an established character.

The movie’s bleakness begins with its introduction to Arthur Fleck (Phoenix) who lives with his sickly mother (Frances Conroy) on the impoverished outskirts of Gotham City. Arthur is an ambitious but unstable man who works for a rag-tag clown-for-hire agency but dreams of one day being a stand-up comedian. From the very beginning we know the deck is stacked against him and that’s a big part of Phillips’ message.

You could say Arthur represents society’s fringe, the dismissed and disenfranchised. They are vividly contrasted with the powerful upper-class elites embodied in billionaire Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen). The concept of the ‘haves’ vs. ‘have-nots’ is a central premise and it’s often quite potent. Other times it can be glaringly on-the-nose. But it does feed the idea that Gotham is a powder keg where crime and poverty grows in one community while the other seems oblivious to it.

But it’s not as though Arthur finds compassion among the hardened lower-class. Even there he is considered an outcast. The lone exception is a sweet single mom (Zazie Beetz) who lives in the apartment down the hall. But even she can’t keep Arthur from cracking. Soon his fragile optimism gives way to angst and bitterness revealing something much darker curdling within him. In a way he begins to mirror Gotham City – a ticking time-bomb inevitably bound to explode. This leads the story deeper into the depths of human depravity as Arthur inadvertently triggers an equally vile side of humanity masquerading as an uprising.

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All of those story beats are important but the real genius of “Joker” is in how it puts us in Arthur’s head. The entire story is told from his point of view. It’s a critical use of perspective that drives the movie and infuses it with some unexpected psychological layers. Arthur is our narrator, our guide through a madman’s mind as his derangement festers. But how reliable is he and how much of what we see can we believe? This fact vs. fiction dynamic is key.

There lies the wickedly effective trick Phillips and his co-screenwriter Scott Silver pull off smashingly. And it’s one that has provoked a bevy of different interpretations. Take the controversies that have sprung up since the film’s enthusiastic debut at the Venice Film Festival. Accusations that it incites and/or condones violence comes from very strict and literal readings of a few provocative scenes. But nothing about the story or its structure encourages a strict, literal reading.

I don’t want to completely dismiss the criticisms simply because I can’t speak to how it may effect someone in a troubled head-space. And while the film doesn’t aim to be a comprehensive examination of mental illness, some could find it’s tough-minded and unwavering portrayal of its subject matter to be problematic. Despite that, neither the movie’s message nor its intent is the promotion or acceptance of violence. In fact, its convictions are far more judgmental and damning.

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Perhaps most important is how the script allows plenty of room for Joaquin Phoenix to let loose. His performance is raw, intense and hypnotic. You simply can’t take your eyes off of him. Whether it’s his jarring physical transformation (rumor has it he lost over 50 lbs for the role) or the chilling gaze of his cold, empty eyes. Phoenix brings an astonishing amount of ‘new’ to a character that’s been done many times before. I can’t see a scenario where he doesn’t get his fourth Oscar nomination.

Other standout reasons for the film’s success: Icelandic composer Hildur Guðnadóttir creates what is easily one of my favorite scores of the year. Her music is haunting and unsettling yet never intrusive. And so often it’s pivotal in developing and managing the film’s edgy tone. Cinematographer Lawrence Sher shoots both Arthur and Gotham with the same gritty, arresting visual aesthetic and several of his images are still etched in my mind. And I haven’t even mentioned Robert De Niro. He plays Gotham City’s Johnny Carson, a late night talk show host named Murray Franklin. Think Rupert Pupkin if he had made it big. He is who Arthur dreams of one day becoming.

As “Joker” slow-walks us towards its eventual maelstrom of iniquity it never spells out how we should feel about its titular character. It burrows under our skin and plays with our perceptions, but ultimately it’s up to us to sort it all out and reach our own conclusions. Considering the controversies maybe that has backfired a bit. But a more thoughtful evaluation reveals an audacious film that isn’t cavalier towards its violence nor numb to its effects. I saw it as a terrifying warning and an indictment of a society that not only creates monsters but often lifts them up. Then again, maybe that’s all in my head.

VERDICT – 5 STARS

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REVIEW: “John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum”

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Who would have thought back in 2014 that a meager budgeted action flick about a hitman avenging his dog’s death would turn into a hugely popular neo-noir franchise complete with its own growing mythology and cast of characters? I know I didn’t but I sure have enjoyed the crazy ride.

“John Wick” was a lot of fun. 2017’s follow-up was wilder and added a ton to what we can call the John Wick Universe. Now we get “John Wick: Chapter 3 – “Parabellum” and it takes everything from the previous two movies and ramps it up crazy levels. And trust me, I say that as the highest compliment.

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“Parabellum” (which is Latin for “Prepare for War”) begins with the action dialed to 10. Keanu Reeves returns as the title character and right out of the gate he’s on the run in downtown Manhattan. After breaking some established underworld rules through an unsanctioned killing (see Chapter 2), John Wick is declared “excommunicado” by the ruling High Table. For those uninitiated in John Wick Universe vocabulary, this means he is officially persona non grata and has all of his underworld rights and privileges revoked. No one can help him on penalty of death and a $14 million bounty is placed on his head.

The open contract makes John Wick an immediate target for gangs, assassins, and bounty hunters. Former stuntman and returning director Chad Stahelski wastes no time diving into his steady diet of bullets, blades, and blood. The action is relentless but at the same time exhilarating, intense, brutal, and wickedly choreographed. Obviously there is no Oscar category for fight choreography but if their was this would be your frontrunner.

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Smartly, “Parabellum” never ever takes itself seriously. I mean in the opening few minutes a man gets beat to death with a library book of all things. And John riding horseback through downtown New York City traffic is…well, you know. So the movie knows exactly what it is. And not only is it completely self-aware, but it fully embraces its over-the-top absurdity.

Several new characters appear who help build the mythology. A devious and mysterious person known only as the Adjudicator (Asia Kate Dillon) gives more insight into the clandestine High Table. Halle Berry crushes it playing Sofia, a dog-loving former associate of John’s who’s also really good at killing. And Anjelica Huston shows up as the cryptic Director, a woman of immeasurable clout.

Then you have the returning pieces. The wonderful Ian McShane is back as Winston, the owner/operator of the Continental Hotel. Lawrence Fishburne returns as the seemingly good-hearted crime lord The Bowery King. And can I just say I love Lance Reddick as Charon, the Continental’s concierge. He’s always great behind the front desk, but Chapter 3 let’s him roll up his sleeves and really get to work.

Keanu Reeves stars as 'John Wick' in JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 3 - PARABELLUM.

I would be lying if I didn’t admit to finding the big final fight just a hair exhausting. I think it’s because by that time we had seen everything in the film’s arsenal. Over-the-shoulder flips, sliced limbs, bloody headshots, people tossed through panes of glass, among so much more. But that doesn’t mean the ending doesn’t satisfy. Quite the opposite. I love where “Parabellum” lands and it clearly has its sights on a Chapter 4.

So the John Wick franchise entered Chapter 3 in high gear and left it screaming towards the next installment in overdrive. “Parabellum” is an old-school action-lover’s dream with a body count that easily rivals anything put up by Schwarzenegger or Stallone in the 1980’s. Yet it’s loaded with style and character. It has an ever-present but often subtle sense of humor and Keanu Reeves has charisma to spare. It left me hungry for more and judging by the box office I’m not alone.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

4-5-stars

REVIEW: “Just A Breath Away”

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A lethal toxic fog of unknown origin is the chief antagonist in Canadian director Daniel Roby’s “Just A Breath Away”. French language films set in Paris tend to be romantic comedies, dramas, or period pieces. Roby and a team of three writers offer us a light blend of genres but at its core their movie is very much a disaster thriller. And despite its modest budget, the scale and scope of the disaster is larger than you would expect.

The film’s lone shortcoming is in the development of its characters. It’s not a huge issue since we do get all the information we need to have emotional connections with them. But it does feel like it misses some opportunities to dig deeper into these people and what makes their relationships work.

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Romain Duris and Olga Kurylenko play Mathieu and Anna, parents of a young daughter named Sarah (Belgian actress Fantine Harduin) who suffers from Stimberger’s Syndrome. It’s a genetic condition that restricts Sarah to living in a hermetic bubble chamber. For over 12 years Mathieu and Anna have searched for a cure and it has clearly taken a toll on their marriage. Anna seems content with finally having her daughter home. Mathieu is still looking for a cure and willing to try anything, even an experimental treatment in far off Canada.

Then along comes trouble. A sudden earthquake unleashes a toxic gas from underground. It sweeps through the entire city sending Paris into chaos and killing anyone who inhales it. As the deadly fog-like cloud settles, only those in top floor apartments and on rooftops are left to survive. Mathieu and Anna are forced to leave Sarah in the protection of her bubble as they scramble to the top floor of their apartment building.

What makes the tension even thicker is a city-wide blackout which forces Sarah’s chamber to switch to auxiliary power. With a limited battery life and their daughter on a gas-filled lower floor, Mathieu and Anna must find a way to keep their daughter alive amid seemingly impossible circumstances.

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Ruby cut his cinematic teeth in cinematography and you get a really good sense of that. He and his cinematographer Pierre-Yves Bastard offer up several striking and creative images. Some of the best are rooftop shots looking out across the city while capturing the fog’s widespread effect. Just as impressive is his clever use of camera angles and movement specifically in some of the more action-oriented scenes.

Duris and Kurylenko both give really good performances as does 88-year-old Michel Robin who plays the kind elderly owner of the top floor apartment who gives Mathieu and Anna refuge. They all help give “Just A Breath Away” just enough emotional heft. Daniel Roby does the rest, directing a tense and imaginative disaster picture that doesn’t get bogged down in origins. We never fully know what caused the catastrophe which may frustrate some. I must say it didn’t bother me at all.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars