Monthly Archives: September 2019

Over the Rainbow

Zellwegger channels Garland on her last stretch of Yellow Brick Road


Starring Renée Zellweger & Finn Wittrock
Directed by Rupert Goold

Before Cher, before Madonna, before Gaga, Rihanna or Beyoncé—before any of those other female superstars so famous they only needed one name, there was Judy.

That’s Judy Garland, the actress and singer who starred in more than two dozen movies—including an Oscar-nominated performance in a 1954 version of A Star Is Born—and became the first female to receive a Grammy (in 1961) for Album of the Year.

And of course, she appeared at age 17 in the role that would make her famous forever, as Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, performing the song that would become her signature, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”

An entertainment icon of Hollywood’s golden age, Garland (who died 50 years ago this year at the age of 47) was famous—and sometimes infamous—for weathering a stormy personal life and turbulent, chaotic career, marked by soaring highs and rock-bottom lows. She bore the scars of emotional and psychological abuse dating back to her childhood.

Judy starts, briefly, at the beginning—on the set of The Wizard of Oz—but zooms ahead quickly three decades later as Garland pulls into what will be the final stretch of her Yellow Brick Road.

JUDY-first-image-HR-3If you only know her from The Wizard of Oz, prepare to see Judy in a totally different light and from a completely different perspective. And if you only know Renée Zellweger from Jerry Maguire, Bridget Jones’s Diary, Chicago or Cold Mountain (for which she won an Oscar)—well, prepare to be wowed.

In a bravura performance that includes doing her own singing, Zellweger morphs into late-stage Garland in the twilight of her career, at a time when the glow of the Hollywood spotlight had long ago faded on the one-time MGM Studios starlet.

Broke, without a place to call home, her personal life in shambles after four failed marriages, Judy’s body is a rail-thin bundle of frayed nerves from a lifetime of showbiz stress, drugs and alcohol. She takes an extended gig at a posh nightclub in London, hoping it will give her enough quick cash that she can return stateside and wrest back her two young kids from the temporary custody of ex-husband No. 3, Sidney Luft (Rufus Sewell, from TV’s The Man in the High Castle).

The British fans are passionate and welcoming, but the critics are ready to pounce, and there’s another husband-to-be waiting in the wings—Mickey Deans (Finn Wittrock, from American Horror Story), a handsome schemer-dreamer who sweeps Judy off her feet, at least for a while.

Bella-Ramsey-and-Lewin-LloydHer grown daughter, Liza Minnelli (Gemma-Leah Devereux, who played Lady Fitzgerald in TV’s The Tudors), is wary of her Judy’s latest suitor, and her youngest, Lorna Luft (Bella Ramsey), has grown weary of her long absences—and erratic parenting.

You don’t have to know how it all ends to know it’s not all going to end well.

Judy is based on a Broadway and West End (London) stage play called End of the Rainbow, and British director Rupert Goold, whose background is mostly in theater, presses down hard on the play’s cautionary theme about the high price and the dark underside of fame, and specifically how it both created and destroyed one of the biggest, brightest stars of the 1940s and ’50s. Flashbacks show how young Judy (played by British newcomer Darci Shaw) was driven to exhaustion by her studio handlers, given diet pills, sleeping pills, uppers and downers, forbidden to eat when she was hungry, and constantly reminded of her shortcomings. We wince as we watch studio honcho Louis B. Mayer tell her she’s ugly and plain, that there are thousands of other young girls who could take her place, and that her mother doesn’t care anything about her—then he gropes her.

It’s no wonder Judy grew up to love the stage and the spotlight—applause from an audience was a sign that someone out there, at least, loved her. It’s no wonder she grew up with a gigantic, hollow emptiness inside that no amount of pills or booze—or husbands—could fill. And it’s no wonder, by the time we catch up with her in the winter of 1968, she’s a colossal train wreck headed off the tracks—again.

Zellweger owns the movie, top to bottom, start to finish, in a performance that’s already getting heavy—and deserved—Oscar buzz. Never campy or flashy or a caricature, it taps into the messy matrix of Garland’s spunk, sass, sadness, brokenness, desperation, defeat, pride, heartache, humor, hurt, hope, flair, fatigue and frailty at one of the lowest times of her life. It’s in the way she moves, the way she purses her lips into a twisted, forlorn smile, the way she squints her dark eyes—eyes that suggest they’ve already seen so much, too much.

It may be hard for younger audiences to understand, but Judy was a superstar whose fame spread around the world long before internet, before cable television. An “outcast” from Hollywood (who was eventually fired from MGM when she failed to report for work, almost ending her movie career), she found an unlikely, underground alliance with another group of outliers, the gay and queer community, to which the movie gives a nod in one of its warmest scenes. When Judy meets a pair of male superfans after one of her London shows, she ends up spending an evening with them at their home—and learns about their bittersweet story.

Later, at another show, those same two fans lead the audience in rising to their feet to join their voices in singing her most famous song, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” when Judy’s own voice falters.

Life certainly wasn’t “happy little bluebirds,” as the song goes, for Garland, who died six months after her London concerts. But Judy shows us a falling star going down in one final blaze of semi-glory, far from home, surrounded by fans, warmed by the glow of the comforting words of a familiar song about a faraway fantasy place where “dreams that you dare to dream really do come true.”

All of her dreams, alas, didn’t come true. But Judy and Renée take us over the rainbow in a compassionate, compelling 50th anniversary tribute to the final chapter of one of Hollywood’s most tragic figures of yesteryear, rekindling the nearly myth-sized memory of an entertainer whose life’s work will live forever.

In theaters Sept. 27, 2019

Dangerous Curves

J-Lo & Constance Wu Reign Supreme in Scrappy True-Crime Stripper Saga


Starring Jennifer Lopez & Constance Wu
Directed by Lorene Scafaria

Jenny from the block is J-Lo on the pole in Hustlers, the true-crime scrapper of a tale about strippers who turn the tables on their upscale clients.

Jennifer Lopez stars as Ramona, the queen showgirl in a group of dancers at a notorious New York strip club where Wall Street fat cats come to pop their corks. As the story begins in 2007, we watch as she shows the “new girl,” Destiny (Constance Wu), the ropes—and the pole.

The Carousel, Peter Pan, the Fairy, the Stag, the Tabletop, the Martini, the Fireman Down. If you didn’t know all those “moves” before, well, now you can thank J-Lo for the tutorial.

Adapting a story that originally appeared in New York magazine, director Lorene Scafaria (whose previous feature film was Susan Sarandon’s The Meddler) doesn’t shy from the realities about what it’s like for women who work in the degrading shadows of the sex industry. She likes long tracking shots that follow her actors as they move, through the club or down a street, taking us along, making us feel a part of them, aside them, along with them, giving us their perspectives. And as the words of Janet Jackson’s song remind us in the very opening scene, “This is a story about control,” and it certainly is.

Ramona, Destiny and their coworkers want to take control of their lives, their finances and their futures.

The women, feeling exploited by the men who come to their club—and who run their club—come upon a plan: They’ll drug their clients with memory-blotting cocktails, drain their credit cards and skim a little off the top to keep the club happy.


When the stock market crashes in 2009 and the bottom falls out of Wall Street, it presents a temporary setback for everyone. But survivors survive, and Ramona and Destiny are survivors, and soon they’re back, kicking things up a notch or two.

It’s fun, it’s feisty, it’s gaudy and glitzy and gritty and it feels good, even when you know it has to be wrong.

These are some dangerous curves, but Ramona is confident. “They would do this anyway,” she says about the guys who come in for private dances in the so-called “champagne” room. “We’re just helping them do it.” And the fact that they’re maxing out the bank accounts of drooling Wall Street wolves is even better, she says. “They stole from everybody. When they come into the clubs, [they’re spending] stolen money. Is that fair?”

Lopez, who got her start as a “Fly Girl” dancer on TV’s In Living Color back in the early 1990s, is galvanizing as take-charge Ramona; it’s easy to see why she’s already getting early Oscar buzz for playing this tough cookie with a big heart and all the right moves. Now her resume includes dozens of films, four No. 1 hit singles and sales of more than 80 million records, a stint as a judge on American Idol, producing and hosting her own TV competition (World of Dance) and starring in her own TV drama (Shades of Blue). She also has her own production company, clothing lines and fragrances. Hollywood’s most successful Latino actress by far, if she gets a Best Actress Academy Award for this role, she’d become the first Latina to do so.

But it’s Wu, the star of TV’s Fresh Off the Boat, and who made such a movie splash in Crazy Rich Asians, who provides the story’s true heartbeat as Destiny. A single mom trying to care for her young daughter and her immigrant grandmother, she’s eventually troubled by the ethics of the plan she and Ramona have masterminded.


Lilli Reinhart, Lopez, Keke Palmer & Wu celebrate in ‘Hustlers’

The rest of the cast is particularly solid as well, with Riverdale’s Lili Reinhart, Madeline Brewer from The Handmaid’s Tale, Scream QueensKeke Palmer and rappers Cardi B and Lizzo in colorful supporting roles that shore up—and stir up—this story about sisterhood, family, ferocious femininity and how the line between right and wrong can sometimes get pretty blurry.

Julia Stiles plays a journalist through which everything unfolds in back-and-forth flashbacks.

So there’s a lot of “representation” in Hustlers, both onscreen and offscreen—women taking charge, minority actors moving to the fore, men who commodify women getting taken down, and taken to the cleaners. As a lot of people have been saying for some time, it’s about time.

“Everybody’s hustlin’,” says Ramona, who notes that we’re all either doing our dance, or throwing down our money. Let’s all do the Hustle. And all hail queen J-Lo.

In theaters Sept. 13, 2019

Down to Clown

It’s the end of the line for Stephen King’s supremely creepy clown


It Chapter Two
Starring Bill Hader, Jessica Chastain, James McAvoy, Sophia Lillis & Finn Wolfhard
Directed by Andy Muschietti

Cinema’s creepiest clown is back—and it only took him two years. Or was it 27?

Depends on how you’re counting.

It Chapter Two, the sequel to the 2017 horror-hit blockbuster, is based again on Stephen King’s novel from 1986. The new movie is set 27 years after the events depicted in the first film, when a group of small-town Pennsylvania kids first confronted Pennywise, the deadly, dancing, drooling clown.

Chapter two, 27, 1986, 2017… Keeping up? The only numbers that matter are at the box office, which is likely going to be huge for this mega-budget scare-fest that pulls out all the stops with special effects, star power and a combo cast of kids from the first film, plus new actors now playing them as adults. Fans are going to flock to it, just as they did to the first one, a $700 million box-office behemoth that’s become the highest-grossing horror movie of all time, and the most successful King movie adaptation by far.

Bill Hader, Jessica Chastain, James McAvoy, Andy Bean, Isaiah Mustafa and Jay Ryan play the “grown-up” Losers.

The movie reunites the kids (Sophia Lillis, Finn Wolfhard, Jaeden Martell, Chosen Jacobs, Jack Dylan Grazer, Jeremy Ray Taylor and Wyatt Oleff), a group of misfits and outcasts who called themselves the Losers when they banded together to confront Pennywise the first time. Now, as adults spread out across the country, they regroup—as they vowed to do all those years ago—when they hear that an evil tide is once more on the rise in their hometown of Derry.

The movie flips in flashbacks between the younger Losers and the grownups they’ve become (Jessica Chastain, James McAvoy, Jay Ryan, Bill Hader, Isaiah Mustafa, James Ransone and Andy Bean), and sometimes even pairs them together in the same scenes.

Bill Skarsgård returns as Pennywise, the super-nasty sewer dweller who definitely throws the nightmare needle into the red. He can shape-shift into just about anything, and his mouth is a maw of teeth just waiting to pounce—especially on cherubic children. Wanting to hire entertainment for your kid’s birthday party? Pennywise has ruined that gig for clowns. Get a bounce house and fill it with snakes, or hire a drunken knife thrower instead. You’ll feel so much safer.

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Jessica Chastain

King’s book was a cumbersome 1,400 pages, and it’s already been one movie. Now get ready for Chapter Two, which clocks in at nearly three hours long. Just threading all the younger and older characters (and actors) into the tapestry of the plot requires a lot of stitching. Director Andy Muschietti, also returning from the first It, fleshes out everyone’s backstory as we learn about their initial encounters with Pennywise—and the individual childhood insecurities, weaknesses, tragedies, secrets, failures and fears that the clown comes to represent, exploit and feed upon.

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Bill Hader

Even though Chastain, as grown-up Beverly Marsh, is a two-time Oscar nominee, it’s Hader, as the bespectacled, trash-mouthed Richie Tozier, who becomes the movie’s clear standout and audience favorite. McAvoy has some major moments as older Bill Denbrough, still haunted by how his little brother was taken and killed by Pennywise at the beginning of the first film. (Now a writer whose books are made into big Hollywood movies, Denbrough is perhaps the movie’s “projection” of King himself.)

There are also a couple of big-name cameos and a nod to another iconic King movie adaptation, The Shining.

The movie earns its R rating with some truly gruesome, gory incidents, including a brutal bashing of a gay character (but to give credit where it’s due, it was taken straight from the book, and in turn inspired by a real-life 1984 hate crime in Bangor, Maine) and a couple of particularly unpleasant attacks by Pennywise. But it mixes its phantasmagoric horror with dark humor, as the Losers quip and quibble.

All the Losers, past and present, are winners—the younger actors slip right back into their roles, and the “oldsters” pick up the character nuances and personality tics of their younger counterparts. The movie blends traditional horror with the psychological terrors of adults confronting the demons of traumas long ago forgotten, suppressed, or buried by time.

Not everything works. The movie’s too long, it feels a bit overstuffed, and sometimes the bombastic effects (especially in the finale) swallow up the story and the characters. A few too many details just seem to hang loose. Somehow, no one else in the whole town of Derry, other than the Losers, realizes that the World’s Deadliest Clown is living underneath them, preying on their children—and he’s been doing it for centuries.

IC2_4And speaking of everyone else in Derry, where are they? The streets are always deserted. Maybe Pennywise ate everyone. I think the movie must not have had much budget for hiring extras after spending so much for CGI, including “de-aging” the young actors, shaving off a few crucial growth years to get them back to looking like the fresh-faced early teens they were when making the first movie in 2016.

But this is it, supposedly, for It. At least that’s what the poster and the movie promos say. And It goes out with a bang—full of strangeness and suspense, a jack-in-the-box of jolts and jumps, oozing and clattering and shrieking with freak-show, gross-out, goose-bump weirdness, giving the ol’ heartstrings a sentimental tug while it cranks out hair-raising, FX terrors.

And all in all, two hours and 49 minutes, 27 years and a bunch of scares later, it’s a good ending for a bad—a very, very, very bad—clown.

In theaters Sept. 6, 2019