Saturday, September 28, 2019

Garlanded: JUDY

Judy, in standard biopic fashion, is as intermittently moving as it is surface-level false. At best, it works, yet even there its sentimental button-pushing is an artifice that never quite cracks the central problem of how to represent the interior life of one of Hollywood’s greatest icons. Here is Judy Garland, at the end of her life, drinking and pill-popping, lashing out at hecklers and quivering vulnerably and almost satisfied before the adoring crowds at her limited engagement at a London club. In six months she’ll be dead. Screenwriter Tom Edge and director Rupert Goold, crafting a tasteful-to-a-fault film with little visual or verbal flair, don’t really know what sort of story to tell, and are content to rehearse the standard takes on her story, and the easy psychologizing about what went wrong. We get fleeting flashbacks to her time making The Wizard of Oz. In some ways, the first scene is the film’s best, as vaguely lecherous MGM head Louis B. Mayer (Richard Cordery) leads a young Judy (Darci Shaw) out of a dark space of backstage doubt and onto a fake Yellow Brick Road set, and at one point in his monologue about how she’s so much better than “normal” girls in the audience they fleetingly make startling eye contact with the camera. We’re implicated in this moment, a culture devouring her without considering her personhood, but in the rest the blame is put on the studio serving her pills to go and pills to drop, working her nonstop. Then the bulk of the movie puts Judy at the other end of her career, with RenĂ©e Zellweger admirably inhabiting the role. She deserves all of the praise, as the movie is literally nothing without her. There were moments watching her stalk the stage or curled up despondent in her hotel suite or bitterly arguing with an ex-husband (Rufus Sewell) where I found myself thinking I was not watching an excellent impersonation, but Judy herself. That's movie magic. She’s a movingly fragile performer here, wasting away, crumbling inward, yet still able to pull it together to blast out a “Trolley Song” here and there. It’s a beguiling, interior performance, fully fleshing out what the film otherwise sketches in with cliches and received conventional wisdom about its subject. The scenes that most overtly deal with her persona or cultural import — an encounter with a gay couple outside the stage door, and one flashback with a dopey Mickey Rooney in a fake diner — are both moving and contrived, both true and not true in an instant. But they, like Zellweger, get at the simultaneous fragility and power that Garland possessed, what made her a star and keeps her alive. This shapeless movie can't extinguish the fire at its center.

Sunday, September 22, 2019


This weekend saw two small-screen short-form programs make the leap to feature length. The more improbable is Between Two Ferns: The Movie. It has its modest viral-video sketch-show origins in Zach Galifianakis’ funny, awkward, faux-amateur interview online shorts. He plays a fumbling marble-mouthed ignorant weirdo who alternately incisively insults and dopily repels his celebrity guests as they sit in a poorly-lit studio decorated only with two ferns. Their interactions — loosely scripted by Galifianakis and co-writer/director Scott Aukerman — are just funny enough to last the length of a usual online clip, perfect to be passed around on social media. So the prospect of making it a movie — even a a slim 80-minute one — is unlikely to work well. Somehow it does. This isn’t because it’s well-plotted. No, the thing’s a shambles, with an endless setup of mockumentary shenanigans and exposition like it’s emerging from a mid-aughts time-capsule launching into the barest bones road trip drudgery you’ve ever seen. Will Ferrell (playing a coked-up, cowboy-hat wearing, media-mogul version of himself) sends Galifianakis on a quest to make 10 new episodes of Between Two Ferns in only two weeks. Succeed and he’ll get a his own lifetime late-night talk show. “I’m a white man and I’m straight,” he deadpans. “I deserve this.” That’s pretty funny. So off they go, our lead dope and his three-person production crew — they’re equally dim-witted, with one saying, in response to a waiter asking if she’s ever seen a chicken strip, “I’ve never even seen a chicken wear clothes” — with the flimsiest excuse to string together a bunch of cameos for interviews that you could’ve seen one at a time over the course of weeks on FunnyOrDie. Somehow, though, each successive desperate, squirmy interview session compounds the amusing interest from the last. It’s an uneven delivery system, but it contains Galifianakis’ concept at or near the top of its game for the most part. Throughout it’s often laugh-out-loud surprising as he’s asking questions that toe the line between jokey insults and actual sharp commentary, sometimes riffing on unfair media reputations (simply repeats dated digs without much spin), other times cutting close to the bone (asking, say, a Marvel Superhero Actor what it feels like to sell out, or a British thespian if his accent hides his lack of talent.) Other times he spins off into fumbling malapropisms or loopy tangents. It’s all amusing enough. There’s a nothing plot line strung up between the pieces, yet, since the thing has been confined to a straight-to-streaming release, there’s no good reason not to skip ahead to the good parts once you tire of the rote story elements. I’m sure Netflix won’t mind.

Gentler and more coherent is Downton Abbey, a big-screen continuation of the handsome British soap that ran for six seasons on PBS here in the states. It concerns the lives and loves, the scheming and dreaming, of an upstairs/downstairs situation on a Yorkshire estate. The Crawleys lives upstairs in their palatial rooms as they deal with upper-crust society problems, while their devoted servants deal with grubbier working-class problems and feel great loyalty to their employers. I’ve never seen an episode of the series, but the movie is sure cozy, welcoming in a host of little dramas with characters who hit the ground running. It mercifully wastes no time with a roll call and just gets on with it, assuming its audience either remembers them all fondly or can get up to speed fast enough. (It does, though, sweep lovingly in slow establishing shots of the big house. Downton Abbey is to this movie what the Starship Enterprise is to Star Trek: The Motion Picture.) It’s 1927 and the King and Queen send word they’ll spend the night at Downton during a tour of the region. This sends both upstairs and downstairs into a tizzy, prompting little bits of business and drama for pretty much the entire cast of the series. There are romances and jealousies, negotiations and preparations. It’s stately and fussy, and warmly cliched. I have the feeling screenwriter Julian Fellowes, who wrote all the seasons of the show and also did this sort of big house tizzy in Altman's far superior Gosford Park, is much like Mark Twain’s description of James Fenimore Cooper. He has a small bag of narrative tricks and loves to methodically take out each one every time, "never so happy as when...working these innocent things and seeing them go." At least it’s high-gloss pseudo-sophisticated.

Series’ veteran director Michael Engler makes it look like high-gloss television with blandly digital flatness in a scope frame. The cast is marvelous to a person, and the sets are clearly well-loved. The whole thing clips along like a leisurely Very Special three-parter. With so many characters to juggle and conflicts to serve, there’s never too much time to mind the simple framing or dawdling low-stakes plot mechanics. It’s so charming and light — the audience warmly chuckling with recognition or sending waves of affection in the direction of their favorite performers. The clear standout is Maggie Smith, a delight as the wickedly clever Countess who rules over the proceedings, snipping and sniping from the sidelines and stealing every scene. Even this Downton novice entered aware of her beloved status in the role. My, how that’s deserved. It’s all a pleasant mood. Still, there’s a general irritation I felt at the film’s politics, which are so cozily depicted a byproduct of the conceit’s warm bath of nostalgia over a rigid class system. It’s a movie about servants who just want the honor of helping the rich folk, and the progressives among both classes reluctantly admitting that, gee, the aristocracy sure is genteel and well-meaning and, gosh darn it, might as well go on forever. By the end, I almost found myself wishing the same for Downton. I’m sure fans will be delighted.

Friday, September 13, 2019

Heist Life: HUSTLERS

Hustlers is a crowd-pleaser with the old-fashioned charm of a good story well-told. What a pleasure to sink into a narrative for the sheer enjoyment of the one-thing-after-another pile-up of Based On a True Story incident, carried along by the compelling characters and the story’s energy and suspense, bolstered by a game ensemble of winning performers. It tells the story of a stripper (Constance Wu) who is taken under the wing of the club’s stunning, confident pro (Jennifer Lopez). They’re living the high life, raking in the big bucks at a New York City strip club frequented by Wall Street types. It’s 2007 and the market can only go up. Alas, as the recession hits and the finance money dries up, the club hits difficult times. What are these enterprising women to do? Why not scam? Lopez swaggers into the ringleader position all high-heels, tight dresses, and fur coats. She glows. With one strut onto the stage, one shrug of her coat, one spin on the pole, you can tell why her character is the one who draws the most attention, who all the other strippers are drawn to and look up to. This is a remarkable performance, poised and sexy, sly and self-aware, off-the-charts charismatic in a low-key but megawatt way. This is star power. Wu is quickly taken in with the plan. We can see why.

The movie is, beyond its surface pleasures, a fine-tuned look at the women’s friendship, an early scene of reconnection swelling with booming cornball late-aughts dance pop as their eyes meet and the plan hatches. Every step of the process is told with engaging verve through these compelling characters and the crackling screenplay’s tick-tock tightness and loose, funny chatter. The duo plan to rope in dopey high-rollers and invite them back to the club where they’ve negotiated to take a percentage of whatever they can get the guy to spend there. It’s better than stripping. All they need to do is keep the pretty ladies distracting the guy so the beer is flowing and his credit card is swiping. “He needs to be able to sign the check,” Lopez smirks as she lays out the strategy, which eventually includes secretly slipping some MDMA into the mix to keep the guy happy, and giving him a consoling pep talk if he calls back later. “You were having so much fun,” she’ll coo. Wu wonders what’ll happen if they get caught and a guy calls the cops. Lopez laughs. “And say what? I spent $5,000 at a strip club! Send help!”

Written and directed by Lorene Scafaria, whose Seeking a Friend for the End of the World has sweetly swooning bitter comic apocalyptic mood and The Meddler so astutely charts the relationship between a grown daughter and her lovely overbearing mother, Hustlers has a sparkle of fun over the despair at its core. It loves hanging out with its lead women, and with the crew they gather — Keke Palmer, Lili Reinhart, and sometimes Madeline Brewer — to keep the scam rollling. They skim just enough to keep going, but never enough to get in trouble. They hope. Scafaria balances among the sheer hangout caper joy of their successes, their bubbly genuine care for each other, and the omnipresent financial despair that drives their work. Side-hustles and part-time jobs are around every corner. Apartments shift radically in size. Some days are a warm holiday of presents and dancing. Some days are spent with nasty men urging ugly awfulness into their ears. What a thrill they feel in the control over their lives, their finances, their futures.

Booming with constant well-curated pop music and sleek camera moves, floating along with propulsive editing and a melancholy past-tense structure — Wu gives an interview years later to a sympathetic reporter (Julia Stiles) to narrate some events — the movie is an excited recounting of their scheme. It grooves on the populist rage underpinning the con. Lopez chews into exposition about a taxonomy of Wall Street types, and how unfair it is that so many of them conspired to make themselves richer at everyone else’s expense, then got off without so much as a sniff of a jail sentence. The movie pushes its points forcefully — the final scene even comes right out and says the thesis the movie otherwise does a good job of embodying without doing so. But it’s just as interested in the bonds between its characters, the strain struggle puts on them, and the lengths they’ll go to stay afloat. It’s hugely entertaining, but with this undeniable sharp-edged sadness underneath.

Saturday, September 7, 2019

Send in the Clown: IT CHAPTER 2

It Chapter 2 has all the defects of its predecessor, but adds a considerable number of benefits, as well. The first half of Andy Muschietti’s handsome mixed-bag Stephen King adaptation took a story about adults reencountering a trauma from their past — the book slides back and forth between the origin of their fears and a present day confrontation with them — and told just the kids’ stuff. It was a grindingly mechanical and, for me, joyless experience. You could’ve set your watch by the predictable jump scares, while the surface-level discomfort and vaguely defined supernatural threats never gained any complexity or momentum. It was a procession of grotesque jolts delivered at a regular pace. Now, though, the sequel production shifts attention to the adult versions of those kids and finds itself immediately richer and more evocative in the process. It can’t help but add to its similarly-shaped funhouse collection of loud shocks and obvious shivers a layer of complexity and character the earlier lacked. It 2 becomes a melancholic creepy tale about returning to your cursed hometown long after you’ve forgotten whatever meaning it once held for you, about reconnecting with people you once knew to find you’ve grown apart. In both cases, it's a sad story about finding that, though you have something foundational binding you to places and people of your past, once you’ve moved on, you’ve moved on. Still, they find power in remembering, and in forging new connections with old friends, despite, and maybe because, of their overlapping formative damage. In fact, reconciling past traumas with current selves just might save them all.

So here we have Jessica Chastain and James McAvoy and James Ransone and Jay Ryan and Bill Hader entering the frame instantly carrying the baggage of an encounter with evil and fear personified, but distantly, as a vague memory. (Key flashes back to the kid cast create a fine Proust-lite echoing.) The one friend who stayed (Isaiah Mustafa) calls them back to creepy little Derry, Maine — still weirdly underpopulated. It’s been nearly 30 years, and now once more there’s a killing spree from demonic Pennywise the Clown (Bill Skarsgard, still really going for it, if given less to do this time around, more mascot than believable menace). They’re the only ones who discovered this truth. They thought they stopped it then. They better do it better now. It’s all fetch-quest, ancient-exposition nonsense dolled out just to get the plot going, a similar effects-heavy, mood-light factory dark ride of pneumatic jolts. But the production is sprawling and goofy, maybe not digging into the darkest of King’s implications, but certainly attuned to the terror — a hate crime kicks things off, and, later, a boy gets his head brutally squashed by a chomping monster mouth — as it eyes its ensemble with sympathy. It takes a roller coaster shape paced out so each disconnected episode in the middle — a fine apportionment of scares with each actor getting one set piece to call their own — gives everyone a nice loop-de-loop in center stage. Meanwhile Hader gets to run comic relief circles around every scene without shortchanging his big crying-jag moment at the end. It’s more relentless popcorn fun than a deep unease, a horror movie that deals with horrific moments without getting truly scary. But, a rambling, nearly-3-hour movie balanced between past and present, it gains a heft and a satisfaction the first half of this cinematic version deliberately withheld.