JUDY (2019) – Renee Zellweger Outstanding in Judy Garland Bio Pic

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Renee Zellweger as Judy Garland in JUDY (2019).

There’s no business like show business!

Ain’t that the truth!

The movie business is unlike any other. It exists in a world of its own making, one that exists outside the laws which govern you and me.  The pressures put upon its stars, especially those of yesteryear, often crushed their hopes, dreams, and ultimately their lives.

Such is the story told in JUDY (2019), the new bio pic of Judy Garland, the child star who played Dorothy in THE WIZARD OF OZ (1939) whose troubled life remained so until she died of an accidental drug overdose on June 22, 1969 at the age of 47.

JUDY features a phenomenal performance by Renee Zellweger as Judy Garland that is as emotional as it is riveting. It’s also the main reason to see this one.

While JUDY opens on the set of THE WIZARD OF OZ with a young Judy Garland (Darci Shaw) being lectured by MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer (Richard Cordery), the film does not take on the entirety of Judy Garland’s life but rather the entertainer’s final few months, when in desperate need of money, she went on tour in London which would turn out to be her final performances.

But it opens with a young Judy being given a “choice” by  Mayer. If she’s unhappy, she can walk away from show business, Mayer says, or because of her voice, she can become something that will set her apart from all the other girls in the nation. He also is quick to remind her of her roots and her real name Frances Ethel Gumm, the implication being that she is nothing without him. The film returns to these creepy moments with Garland and Mayer in flashbacks throughout the story, serving as a reminder of just how controlling Mayer and the studio was of Garland and how much damage they actually did to her, often preventing her from eating to avoid weight gain and instead feeding her with pills.

But the bulk of the film takes place in late 1968, when Garland was on tour in London. Garland is struggling to make ends meet as she is trying to provide for her two younger children, while their father Sidney Luft (Rufus Sewell) is fighting for custody since he believes he can provide them with a steady home.

Garland is advised to accept a gig in London where she will be paid much more than she is currently being paid in the U.S. She has no choice but to accept. She also has to leave her children behind with their dad, a decision that pains her greatly.

The film chronicles what happens during these performances, as Garland endeavors to overcome stage fright, insomnia, and drug dependency, all the while driven to perform even when she has nothing left.

Renee Zellweger knocks it out of the park as Judy Garland. She loses herself in the role, and for the entirety of this movie, I felt as if I were watching the real Garland on-screen. Her performance is every bit as good as Taron Egerton’s turn as Elton John in ROCKETMAN (2019) earlier this year. I would imagine both of these actors will be noticed come Oscar time.

As a whole, JUDY isn’t as creative or captivating as ROCKETMAN, as its script simply isn’t as innovative nor does it cover the full scope of Garland’s life as ROCKETMAN did for Elton John. As such, JUDY reminded me more of another show biz movie, STAN & OLLIE (2018), which recounted the final tour of comedy duo Laurel and Hardy, which was also in Great Britain by the way. Both films show entertainers battling through their swan songs.

JUDY is actually a bit better than STAN & OLLIE because of Renee Zellweger’s performance as Judy Garland. There are some moments in JUDY where Zellweger brings the house down. Her climactic rendition of “Over the Rainbow” is certainly one of them. She captures Judy Garland’s ability to reach into people’s hearts and move them to tears. In terms of cinema, it’s up there with Egerton’s moment in ROCKETMAN where Elton John performs at the Troubadour club in Los Angeles.

She also has a great line when she’s being interviewed on British television and she takes offense to some of the personal questions. She says “I’m only Judy Garland for 90 minutes a night. The rest of the time I’m a real person, a mother who’s trying to raise her children like any other mother.”

I’m not sure if I’m prepared to say that this is Rene Zellweger’s best performance, but it’s in the conversation. She’s sensational here. Again, I felt as if I were watching the real Judy Garland.

The rest of the cast is also commendable. I liked Jessie Buckley who plays Rosalyn Wilder, Judy’s contact and handler in London. Rosalyn has no idea that Garland is in the shape she is in, in terms of not wanting to perform, and Buckley does a nice job showing Wilder dealing with the star with unceasing patience.

Finn Wittrock is convincing as Mickey Deans, the energetic and young entrepreneur who becomes Garland’s fifth husband. Likewise, Rufus Sewell is solid as Garland’s previous husband Sidney Luft.

And I enjoyed Darci Shaw in her brief scenes as a young Judy Garland.

The screenplay by Tom Edge based on the stage play “End of the Rainbow” by Peter Quilter is better than critics are giving it credit for. It makes its point that Garland was manipulated by the industry at a young age, a manipulation that took its toll on her, and shows during her final months the pains she was dealing with, all the while remaining driven to perform, as if performing were more of an addiction for her than the pills she was taking.

It also provides the film with some wonderful moments. My favorite, when a pair of fans, a gay couple who idolize Garland, remain outside the theater to see her, is one of the best sequences in the film.  When she meets them she asks if they’d like to join her for dinner. Their reaction, a moment of being star struck is a genuine one, but yet it doesn’t stop there. They are unable to find an eatery open at that time of night, much to their chagrin, and so they invite her back to their apartment so they can cook her dinner. It’s a poignant, entertaining sequence. These scenes also provide some social commentary on the treatment of gays both then and now.

Director Rupert Goold keeps this one straightforward and grounded in reality. It’s not the off the charts spectacle of ROCKETMAN, but it works nonetheless. The musical numbers are all effective, and Zellweger captures Garland’s movements and mannerisms to perfection.

Again, one of the best moments in the film is Garland’s rendition of “Over the Rainbow” and her words before singing the song, where she talks about everyone’s journey towards wherever it is they want to go, and that in this life,  regardless of the result, it’s the journey itself that is most valued.

JUDY is getting mixed reviews, and other than Renee Zellweger’s performance as Judy Garland, critics don’t have a lot of kind things to say about the film. But the movie as a whole worked for me, and there’s a lot to learn here from Judy Garland’s story as depicted in this movie.

I’d like to think that Judy Garland did not die in vain, that somewhere over the rainbow “the dreams that you dare to dream really do come true.”

Which after all is the point of JUDY, that in spite of how one’s journey ends, and all of our journeys will end the same way, the work towards making one’s dreams come true is what matters and is worth every ounce of pain one endures to get there.

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ONCE UPON A TIME— IN HOLLYWOOD (2019) – Tarantino’s 9th Film Enters Fairy Tale Territory

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At first glance,  ONCE UPON A TIME— IN HOLLYWOOD (2019), the ninth film by Quentin Tarantino, seems to be an exercise in style over substance.

It takes place in Hollywood in 1969, and Tarantino masterfully captures the look, feel, and very essence of the time, with impeccable costumes, set design, and a killer soundtrack. Watching this movie, I really felt as if I had been transported via time machine back to 1969. The experience was that authentic.

Tarantino also gets top-notch performances from everyone involved, especially his two leads, Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt, and Margot Robbie.

The style, the filmmaking expertise, it’s all there.

But the substance? The story?

That’s harder to find because ONCE UPON A TIME— IN HOLLYWOOD takes its sweet time, and for most of its two-hour and forty-one minute running time, it’s not in a hurry to get anywhere, and so it tells its multiple stories with as much urgency as two guys sitting inside a saloon drinking whiskey. In short, it’s not going anywhere anytime soon.

And yet it’s told with an affection that clearly shows this time period and these characters and their stories were a labor of love by Tarantino. And it’s all light and funny, in spite of the fact that it’s built around one of the darkest chapters in Hollywood history, the brutal murder of a pregnant Sharon Tate and her friends by Charles Manson’s insane minions. There is a strong sense of dread throughout the movie, knowing what’s to come, and then— well, then Tarantino decides to have some fun at our expense.

ONCE UPON A TIME— IN HOLLYWOOD is mostly the story of two men, actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stuntman and best friend Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt).  Dalton is somewhat of a “has-been,” as his last major starring role in a western TV series was from a decade earlier. Now, he’s reduced to playing the villains on 1960s TV shows like MANNIX and THE FBI.

This is clearly wearing on Dalton and is one of the prevalent themes in the movie, of how quickly success can pass one by, and how artists of a certain age need to work harder and be open to reinventing themselves if they want to remain relevant. There’s a lot of truth to this part of the movie. As we age, we have to make adjustments. One of the ways Dalton eventually reinvents himself is by going to Italy to make “spaghetti westerns,” and so it’s easy to see here how Dalton’s story is inspired by the real life story of Clint Eastwood, who did the same thing in the 1960s.

Stuntman Cliff Booth’s best days are also behind him, but he’s taking it much better than Dalton, because, as he says, he was never a star to begin with and so as far as he is concerned he’s still living the dream. He enjoys being Dalton’s “gofer,” driving the actor wherever he needs to go, being a handyman around Dalton’s home, and just hanging out.

Dalton, who lives in a Hollywood mansion, is miserable, while Cliff, who lives in a trailer behind a drive-in movie theater, is happy, but this doesn’t stop the two men from being best friends. They truly like each other and care for each other, and the dynamic between DiCaprio and Pitt in these roles is a highlight of the movie.

And while Dalton and Cliff Booth are fictional characters, their famous neighbors, Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate, are not. They are real, and tragically, Sharon Tate’s life was cut short on August 9, 1969 by the insane groupies of Charles Manson.

So, ONCE UPON A TIME— IN HOLLYWOOD also tells the parallel story of Sharon Tate, and the film really allows its audience to get to know Tate as a person.

These parallel stories move forward until that fateful night in August 1969, and in spite of the comedic elements of this movie, there is a sense of dread throughout, that builds as the film reaches its conclusion, a conclusion that suddenly introduces a major plot twist allowing the film to keep its light tone. I have to admit, for me, this was a head scratcher.

As a result, I’m not so sure ONCE UPON A TIME— IN HOLLYWOOD works as a whole, but it does have a lot of little parts that work very well.

The best part by far are the two performances by Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt. They work really well together, but this isn’t a buddy movie, and so they’re just as good if not better in scenes where they are not together. Some of DiCaprio’s best scenes are when Rick Dalton is acting as the villain in a 60s TV western, trying to prove that he still has what it takes. DiCaprio also enjoys a couple of outstanding scenes with a child actor played by Julia Butters who at one point tells him sincerely that his performance with her was some of the best acting she had ever seen.

Pitt’s Cliff Booth is the livelier of the two characters and the one who is larger than life. Cliff, as we learn later, lives in a veil of infamous secrecy as rumor has it that he killed his wife and got away with it. Cliff also enjoys a fun scene in which he tangles with Bruce Lee, one of the more memorable sequences in the movie. 

Cliff is also one of the connections to the Manson family, as he befriends a young woman Pussycat (Margaret Qualley) who’s part of the Manson clan. And a quick shout-out to Margaret Qualley who steals the few scenes she is in with one of the most energetic performances in the movie. She’s terrific.

The scene where Cliff drives Pussycat back to the ranch where the Manson family resides is a perfect microcosm for the entire movie. Cliff brings Pussycat to the ranch, a place he worked at years earlier. Concerned that this group of hippies may be taking advantage of the ranch’s elderly owner, George Spahn (Bruce Dern), Cliff wants to make sure the man is all right.

In an extremely long and meandering sequence, a lot like the entire movie, Cliff gradually makes his way through the various members of the clan, learning where George is supposed to be “napping.” He eventually makes his way to George’s room, and in a scene where you fully expect George to be dead, it turns out he is only napping, and what follows is a highly comedic banter between Brad Pitt and Bruce Dern, which is the route the film ultimately takes.

Which brings us to Sharon Tate. As I said, Margot Robbie is excellent in the role. On the surface, Robbie makes less of an impact than DiCaprio and Pitt because she has far less screen time than they do, but underneath the comedy and the drama Tate’s quiet spirit drives things along, and Robbie’s performance makes this happen.

Unfortunately, people can be defined by their deaths, especially if they were murdered. Tarantino seems to be pushing back against this notion with Sharon Tate. In ONCE UPON A TIME— IN HOLLYWOOD, Tarantino lovingly crafts Sharon Tate as a real person and not just as a footnote to the Manson murders. The film paints a portrait of Tate as a beautiful person, and really allows that persona to sink into its audience. I liked this. A lot. However, I would have liked it even more had Margot Robbie been given more screen time as Tate. She largely plays second fiddle to main characters Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth.

The entire cast is wonderful. I’ve already mentioned Bruce Dern and Margaret Qualley, but the film also has key contributions from Kurt Russell and Timothy Olyphant.  Also present are Dakota Fanning and Al Pacino, and look fast for Maya Hawke who is currently starring in Season 3 of Netflix’ STRANGER THINGS.

So, you have this meandering movie, which looks terrific and features powerhouse performances by lots of talented actors, with a fairly funny script, although the dialogue is somewhat subdued from the usual Quentin Tarantino fare, and it’s taking its sweet time, taking its audience for a pleasant ride with the knowledge that tragedy awaits. All of this, I didn’t mind and mostly enjoyed.

But it’s the ending of ONCE UPON A TIME— IN HOLLYWOOD that I find most problematic and is the part of the movie that is the least effective. To avoid spoilers, I will not get into details, but what happens here is the film enters into the realm of alternate reality, and once it does that, well, all that came before must now be looked at with a different lens, and a new question arises, which is, why did we just watch all this? 

In other words, for me, one of the reasons the movie had worked so well up until the ending was it was a piece of historical fiction. Fictional characters were appearing in a real setting (1969 Hollywood) with a canvas of real events in the background. Once these events are changed, the film enters the world of fantasy, of historical reimagining, and once this is done, I don’t think the film possesses the same impact.

In short, to turn this tragic story into a comedy, even with the best intentions, is something I’m not sure entirely works.

At times, ONCE UPON A TIME— IN HOLLYWOOD seems to be a love letter to Sharon Tate. I liked this part.

At other times, most in fact, it’s a take-no- prisoners shoot-em-up dramedy about an aging movie/TV star and his laid back infallible stunt man. I liked this part, too.

But the last part, the punch line, seems to be Quentin Tarantino’s desire to do what he did to the Nazis in INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS (2009) to Charles Manson and his “family.” It’s this last part that, while good for some laughs, seems the most out-of-place.  While there are hints in the film that this is where this story is going to go, it still feels jarring to watch the events unfold, events that change history, and thrust the movie head first into fairy tale territory, appropriate I guess for a movie entitled ONCE UPON A TIME— IN HOLLYWOOD.

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