COUNTDOWN (2019) – Tepid Horror Movie Offers Few Scares, Some Laughs

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COUNTDOWN (2019), the new horror movie about an app that predicts people’s death dates with deadly accuracy, is all over the place.

As such, it has some good moments, and a lot of not so good moments.

First off, COUNTDOWN is not a good horror movie. In fact, as horror movies go, it’s pretty bad. Strangely, when it works best is when it turns to comic relief, but at the end of the day, COUNTDOWN is not a comedy. It’s a horror movie, and as such, it just doesn’t work.

COUNTDOWN opens  with a group of teens as they discover a new app called “Countdown” which will give them their death dates. When one of the girls sees her death date within a few hours, she panics. She flees her boyfriend’s car because he’s been drinking, but she ends up dying anyway.

Later, her boyfriend, in the hospital because of injuries sustained in a car crash, sees that he too only has hours to live. He relays his fears to his nurse, Quinn Harris (Elizabeth Lail), and when he too dies, Quinn decides to check out the app for herself. And when Quinn sees that she too has only days to live, she— well, you get the idea. Anyway, since Quinn is the main character here, she decides she has to fight back and get to the bottom of this mystery before it gets her.

And that’s the plot of COUNTDOWN.

The biggest strike against COUNTDOWN is that it doesn’t make a lot of sense. Now,  these apps do exist in real life, so that’s not the problem, but the film’s leap of making the app deadly isn’t believable at all.  The screenplay by director Justin Dec attempts to give answers, but they’re not always clear.

Quinn intimates that the app is targeting certain people, as other people who download the app have death dates years in the future, but this isn’t supported in the movie. The app seems to be making accurate predictions. It only becomes deadly when the person learning of their death date attempts to cheat death.

Later, the story introduces a supernatural element that is supposed to make sense of it all, but it never really explains what the evil demon or devil is really doing. Is this entity controlling the app? Is the app itself evil? The film never really nails this down. Plus, once the supernatural is introduced, it all becomes very far-fetched and rather ridiculous.

The first half of the movie is particularly bad and very muddled. It gets a bit better when Quinn meets another man Matt Monroe (Jordan Calloway) whose life has also been threatened by the app. As soon as Matt enters the movie, things get better. He and Quinn share a real chemistry and for a brief while the story becomes rather interesting.

Their quest for answers also takes them to the comedic characters in the film, who provide the movie with its livelier moments. They seek out help at their local phone store and there meet an electronics guru named Derek (Tom Segura) who promises them he can delete the app from their phones. Derek is a quirky character who in spite of the fact that he’s played for laughs is one of the more interesting characters in the movie.

Their search for answers also takes them to a priest Father John (P.J. Byrne), a self-proclaimed demon expert. Father John is about as unconventional a demon hunter as you will find in a movie. As such, while his scenes are all rather light and humorous, they are also completely unrealistic. The film definitely sacrifices realism for laughs.

So, COUNTDOWN gets better for a little while before ultimately crawling towards a conclusion that simply is standard fare and nothing memorable.

There’s also a ridiculous sub plot involving a doctor, Dr. Sullivan (Peter Facinelli) who attempts to sexually assault Quinn and turns out to be a genuine creep. Unfortunately, these scenes come off as superficial and phony, an insult to the subject matter.

On the other hand, Talitha Bateman, who we saw a couple of years ago in ANNABELLE: CREATION (2017), enjoys some fine scenes as Quinn’s younger sister Jordan who also runs afoul of the app.

And Elizabeth Lail is very good in the lead role as nurse Quinn Harris. She’s just stuck in a bad movie. Likewise, Jordan Calloway is equally as good as Matt Monroe, and their scenes together are the best in the movie. Their performances even make you forget the ridiculousness of the plot. Unfortunately, Calloway isn’t in the movie all that much, and so the best parts of this one are fleeting. Had Lail and Calloway been in the entire movie together, the movie would have been much better.

And there are other problems as well.

The scares are practically nonexistent. In fact, I can’t remember any scenes here that were particularly scary or suspenseful. And sometimes these sequences were downright laughable.

For example, one of the goofiest parts of the movie is when the victims see a strange apparition following them, and this apparation looks like the Grim Reaper. I’m sorry, but I couldn’t take this image seriously at all.

In fact, none of the supernatural elements came off as believable. They were strictly played for laughs.

And that’s the biggest problem with COUNTDOWN. Its horror aspects are never taken seriously, and the film only succeeds when it’s aiming for your funny bone. So, it’s not a complete loss as some of the comedy works, but if you’re looking for a riveting horror movie this Halloween, COUNTDOWN isn’t it.

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THE CURRENT WAR (2017) – Fascinating Illumination of Edison and Westinghouse Race

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There are a lot of negative reviews out there about THE CURRENT WAR (2017).

Don’t believe them.

Not only does THE CURRENT WAR successfully tell the fascinating story of Thomas Edison’s and George Westinghouse’s bitter battle over the electric current and how best to illuminate the entire nation, but it also features an A-list cast that includes Benedict Cumberbatch, Michael Shannon, Tom Holland, and Nicholas Hoult.

Which sounds I know like a superhero movie reunion, as all four of these actors have starred in superhero films— then again, who hasn’t?—: Cumberbatch as Doctor Strange, Shannon as villain General Zod in MAN OF STEEL (2013), Holland as Spider-Man, and Hoult as Beast in the recent X-MEN movies.

None of these four disappoint. In fact, Benedict Cumberbatch who plays Thomas Edison, and Michael Shannon who plays George Westinghouse both dominate this movie, and these two together really turn this one into something special.

But back to those negative reviews for a moment. There’s a story behind them, and it pertains to the delayed theatrical release of this film, which was made in 2017. See, back in 2017, this film was set to be released by The Weinstein Company, just before Harvey Weinstein was accused of rape and sexual assault. The release was delayed, the film sold to other distributors, and two years later here it is.

Now as to those reviews, a lot of those regard the film as it was back in 2017. Upon this 2019 release, the film is being called THE CURRENT WAR: DIRECTOR’S CUT, because director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon re-edited it. I’m guessing a lot of those reviews pertain to the original version, which I didn’t see, but I have seen some of the reviews, and they don’t describe the movie I saw in theaters. The movie I saw is one of the best movies I’ve seen here in 2019.

The movie opens in 1880, where Thomas Edison (Benedict Cumberbatch) is not only an extremely successful inventor, but also a celebrity, with fans across the nation. It’s not uncommon for people to come up to him seeking his autograph. His latest invention, the electric light bulb, is poised to illuminate the country like never before.

But Edison’s system isn’t terribly efficient, and it’s expensive, and it’s not easy to light over great distances, meaning some sections of cities will be lit, while others will not be, at least not at first.

George Westinghouse (Michael Shannon) believes he has a better system. By using an alternating current, Westinghouse’s system is cheaper and more efficient than Edison’s, and it’s able to light great expanses of land. As such, Westinghouse promotes his system as the one that can give electric light to the entire nation.

Edison decries Westinghouse’s alternating current as being deadly, and predicts that it will result in the deaths of many innocent people. Edison demonstrates that his system is like water. You can touch it without harm, but Westinghouse’s, if you touch it you will die.

Of course, today if you’re doing electrical work around your house you know to turn off the power or else face a potentially lethal shock, so we know which system eventually won out, but that doesn’t take away from the potency of the story told here. It’s a captivating story that held my attention throughout. There are also fascinating subplots, like the origin of the electric chair, seen then as the “future to humane executions,” and the involvement of a brilliant young inventor Nikola Tesla (Nicholas Hoult), who was ignored by Edison and who later joined forces with Westinghouse and helped him utilize the alternating current to capture the strength of Niagra Falls to produce unprecedented amounts of electricity.

I really enjoyed THE CURRENT WAR. The story starts in 1880 and continues into the 1890s, and so as a period piece it looks fantastic. Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon captures the period, both with colorful photography and authentic costumes. There’s a lot going on in this story, and I thought Gomez-Rejon did an excellent job keeping it all together. It never felt muddled or confusing. It’s a strong narrative.

As such, the screenplay by Michael Minick is a good one. It delves deeply into the characters of both Edison and Westinghouse. Edison was the showman, forever interested in appearances, always working on the next best invention, and always demanding he be paid highly for it. One of the better lines in the movie is spoken by Edison’s personal secretary and right hand man Samuel Insull (Tom Holland), who warns Edison against his own personality, cautioning him that if he’s not careful he’ll  “be remembered more as P.T. Barnum than Sir Isaac Newton.”

Westinghouse, by contrast, believed more in principles, did not want to fight dirty when engaged in the war with Edison, but also was shrewd and smart, and knew when to hit back hard. He also understood the bottom line, that his system was cheaper and more efficient, and so he knew that unlike Edison with all his bells and whistles, all Westinghouse had to do was to keep repeating that simple message, because it was true.

The story remains interesting throughout. I was hooked right way and remain riveted until the end credits rolled.

My favorite part of THE CURRENT WAR though were the performances of the two leads, Benedict Cumberbatch as Thomas Edison, and Michael Shannon as George Westinghouse. Cumberbatch is perfect as the intense Edison, turning off as many people in his inner circle with his egocentric approach as the lights he turned on, all the while never losing his grip on his celebrity status. Likewise, Shannon is masterful as the more down to earth and lesser known Westinghouse, a man who keeps to his principles until cornered, and at that point, does what it takes to survive.

Nicholas Hoult is also memorable as Nikola Tesla, the genius and dreamer whose ideas rivaled Edison’s. Tesla’s downfall was that, unlike Edison, he didn’t understand business and money. He died having made little or no money off his inventions.

I also enjoyed Matthew Mcfadyen in a supporting role as financer J.P. Morgan, a staunch Edison supporter who eventually jumps ship and puts his money behind Westinghouse.

Of the four big names in the cast, Tom Holland probably has the least impact. His role as Edison’s personal secretary Samuel Insull is a small one, and he doesn’t really do a whole lot.

And while THE CURRENT WAR reunites Tom Holland with his AVENGERS co-star Benedict Cumberbatch, since this film was shot in 2017, technically this is the first movie in which these two starred together.

One drawback I had with THE CURRENT WAR was the absence of key female roles. While there are women characters, like Mary Edison and Marguerite Westinghouse, neither of them figure all that prominently in the proceedings, and their absence is notable.

Other than this, THE CURRENT WAR is a superb movie which tells a riveting story from history that covers a time when the world was changing, when the nation went from darkness to light. The story of the two men involved in the race to give the nation that light is one that is definitely worth learning about.

As such, THE CURRENT WAR is must see viewing.

Even though it was filmed n 2017 and is just getting its theatrical release now, THE CURRENT WAR is one of the best movies I’ve seen this year.

Don’t miss it.

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PICTURE OF THE DAY: ZOMBIELAND (2009) & ZOMBIELAND: DOUBLE TAP (2019)

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Jesse Eisenberg, Emma Stone, Abigail Breslin, and Woody Harrelson in ZOMBIELAND (2009).

It’s not every day that the same cast returns ten years later to star in a sequel, but that’s exactly what happened here with ZOMBIELAND: DOUBLE TAP (2019).

Pictured above, the cast as they appeared in the original ZOMBIELAND (2009): Jesse Eisenberg, Emma Stone, Abigail Breslin, and Woody Harrelson.

And below, the same four as they appear ten years later in the ZOMBIELAND sequel, ZOMBIELAND: DOUBLE TAP:

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Back for more zombie hunting action, it’s Abigail Breslin, Emma Stone, Woody Harrelson, and Jesse Eisenberg in ZOMBIELAND: DOUBLE TAP (2019).

None of these folks are looking worse for wear. In fact, you could make the argument that the ten years have been kind to them, as they all look better! Either way, you’re not seeing double. Well, actually you are. Double tap, that is!

Enjoy the photos!

And thanks for reading!

—Michael

 

 

 

 

ZOMBIELAND: DOUBLE TAP (2019) – Fun Sequel Provides Another Gory Good Time

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It’s been ten years since ZOMBIELAND (2009), the high-octane zombie horror/comedy which starred Jessie Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Emma Stone, and Abigail Breslin, which makes its sequel, ZOMBIELAND: DOUBLE TAP (2019) a long time coming.

I really liked ZOMBIELAND when I first saw it at the theaters. The humor was snarky, the screenplay creative, and the laughs frequent. But upon subsequent viewings over the last decade I’ve enjoyed it less as the humor hasn’t held up all that well. So, I can’t say I was chomping at the bit to see the sequel.

That being said, ZOMBIELAND: DOUBLE TAP is actually pretty entertaining, and after a slow opening, it picks up speed and continues to get better all the way up to its strong conclusion. If you’re a fan of the original, you’ll definitely enjoy this one, and even if you haven’t seen the first ZOMBIELAND, you still might like this movie, as its comedy and story aren’t really contingent on having seen the first film.

It’s been ten years since we last saw Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg), Tallahasse (Woody Harrelson), Wichita (Emma Stone), and Little Rock (Abigail Breslin), and they’re still navigating their way through the zombie apocalypse. When the movie opens, they arrive at a place where they feel safe, the White House.

I’m just going to interject here for a moment. One of the reasons this sequel gets off to a slow start is that like lots of other movies, it gets done in by its trailers. There are a lot of gags thrown our way early on, but nearly all of them were already revealed in the film’s trailers. And while this is no fault of the movie, it’s still a thing. There were a lot of gags throughout this movie that would have been funnier had I not seen them already. The good news is there were still plenty of other gags that I hadn’t seen.

Now, back to our story.

Columbus and Wichita have been involved in a relationship over the last ten years, and it’s gotten serious, so much so that Columbus proposes to her, which catches her off guard and freaks her out, and so she declines. Meanwhile, Little Rock is pining for someone her own age. When she meets that someone, a former student from Berkeley, (Avan Jogia), she up and runs off with him.

Worried for her sister, Wichita sets out to find Little Rock, and of course Columbus and Tallahassee join her, and the rest of the film, which all works very well and gets better and better as it goes along, is the story of their search for Little Rock, and their interactions with the people they meet along the way.

One of the reasons ZOMBIELAND: DOUBLE TAP works as well as it does is the same team who worked on the first movie is back for this one. The four main actors all returned, as well as director Ruben Fleischer, and screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, along with newcomer Dave Callaham.

Fleischer, who also directed VENOM (2018), gives this one the same visual flair as the first movie, including the creative and often humorous zombie kills. Reese amd Wernick also wrote the DEADPOOL movies, and like those movies and the first ZOMBIELAND, the humor is often— biting. Actually, less so in ZOMBIELAND: DOUBLE TAP, as more often than not the jokes are just plain zany.

As I said, the film gets off to a slow start, and that’s largely because even though I like the four main characters, seeing them interact again in pretty much the same way as the original movie wasn’t anything new, but as soon as Little Rock hits the road, and the story becomes a new one, things get better. And the film is definitely helped by the addition of some new characters.

Zoey Deutch nearly steals the show as Madison, a ditzy blonde who Columbus saves in a mall, and who for a while becomes his new girlfriend. She’s hilarious in all her scenes, and one of the reasons is she transcends the dumb blonde cliché, and really comes off as a genuine person. Plus she’s very funny.

And Rosario Dawson, as she always is, is excellent as Nevada, and she shares some fun scenes with Tallahassee.

The four principals are all back. Jesse Eisenberg as the snarky Columbus, and his “rules” and ongoing commentary and narration while not as refreshing as they were the first time around, are still generally entertaining.

Speaking of which, Woody Harrelson remains fun to watch as Tallahassee, and of the four, he has some of the best moments in the movie, although I wondered what happened to his love of Twinkies, a running gag from the first movie that is absent here.

I wanted more Emma Stone. As Wichita, she’s on-screen as much as her co-stars, but Stone has simply done so much in the last decade, I wanted this story to revolve more around her character. Sadly, it does not.

And while the story does revolve around Little Rock, Abigail Breslin probably has the least impact here of the original four stars.

One of the “surprises” in the first ZOMBIELAND was the secret cameo by Bill Murray, in a sequence where Columbus actually kills the comedian, mistaking him for a zombie. That gag does come up here in the sequel, and this time the “surprise” happens during the end credits, so don’t leave once the credits roll. Stick around for the extra scene.

I had a lot of fun watching ZOMBIELAND: DOUBLE TAP. Its gags are lively and frequent, and its story is one that gets better as it goes along, building to a conclusion that actually gets a bit suspenseful.

In the mood for a bloody good time at the movies? If you don’t mind nonstop messy zombie kills, you’ll enjoy ZOMBIELAND: DOUBLE TAP.

It may not have been the most necessary sequel, but it takes what worked best in the first movie and lays it all out there again, telling a new story, that while not as refreshing as the first film, is still a gory good time.

—END—

 

EL CAMINO: A BREAKING BAD MOVIE (2019) – Follow-up to “Breaking Bad” TV Series Doesn’t Stand on its Own

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Aaron Paul returns as Jesse Pinkman in EL CAMINO: A BREAKING BAD MOVIE (2019)

Like nearly everyone else on the planet, I loved the TV show BREAKING BAD (2008-2013). It’s one of my favorite TV series of all time.

But unlike most everyone else, I was not a fan of the show’s final season. I know. For most fans, the final season was the best season. For me, it just got too dark, and when Walter White went full-blown Dr. Evil bonkers, I lost interest. Another reason I wasn’t nuts about the final season was the fate of Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul). Pinkman goes through hell during the final few episodes, and while he lives to tell about it, what he ultimately goes through was so painful and so horrific, it left a bad taste in my mouth.

So, I was delighted when I heard there was going to be a BREAKING BAD movie which would focus on Jesse’s fate after the events of the show.

And that movie is EL CAMINO: A BREAKING BAD MOVIE (2019), produced by Netflix, and enjoying a joint release, both on the big screen at the cinema, and also at home on Netflix. Since I’m not made of money, I chose the Netflix option.

Now, EL CAMINO: A BREAKING BAD MOVIE is getting high-octane reviews. The critics love it! So, why was I— disappointed?

Well, since you asked:

First of all, I’m just not a big fan of prequels or stories that spend as much time looking back as looking forward, and that’s what this new BREAKING BAD movie does. Sure, it’s a sequel to the show, but it’s also a prequel, of sorts.

At the end of BREAKING BAD, we see Jesse escape the fiery and bloody events of the show’s finale, and he’s one of the few characters who does survive. He and Walter White (Bryan Cranston) went from small time meth cookers to major drug dealers, and as I said, White eventually goes batsh*t crazy trying to become the Godfather of the meth business.

When EL CAMINO: A BREAKING BAD MOVIE opens, we find a dazed and scarred Jesse hiding from police who view him as a “person of interest” in the bloodbath which ended the series. He makes his way to his old friends Badger (Matt Jones) and Skinny Pete (Charles Baker), and they help Jesse with his initial escape from the authorities.

But after that, where does Jesse go? What are his options? To figure this out, he spends a lot of time thinking of past events which help shape where he will take his future, and hence the bulk of this film is “flashbacks” to prior events in Jesse’s life which give him insight into his future. Now, these aren’t flashbacks to scenes from the show, but rather, scenes which took place in the past which audiences haven’t seen yet.

As such, lots of characters from the show return here, and for many, that’s one of the best things about this movie, seeing a “who’s who” list of BREAKING BAD characters back in action. But for me, this only goes so far. While I enjoyed seeing these folks again, and I’ll remain mum about who shows up so as to avoid spoilers, it didn’t really make for captivating viewing.

Jesse digests this information and then uses it to formulate his plan for moving forward in the future. That pretty much is the story told in EL CAMINO: A BREAKING BAD MOVIE.

I was unimpressed. I would have much preferred a story about Jesse several years after the events from the final season. I get the point of this movie, however. It’s to show how Jesse survives and deals with the horrors of what he went through during the show’s final season. It just didn’t work all that well for me.

It plays out like an extended episode of the series rather than a feature-length movie, and like most extended episodes of a TV series, it feels longer than it should be.

As I said, I’m not a fan of stories that have to look back to go forward.  The bulk of the action in EL CAMINO: A BREAKING BAD MOVIE features plot points I already knew the answers to.

That being said, writer/director Vince Gilligan’s other prequel to BREAKING BAD, the TV series BETTER CALL SAUL (2015-present) does work, and that’s because SAUL is a TV series that has the benefit of more time. BETTER CALL SAUL does such a thorough job with Jimmy McGill’s (Bob Odenkirk) back story that even though it is tied into events which will later happen on BREAKING BAD, the show stands on its own. It’s best moments don’t even have me thinking of BREAKING BAD.

Of course, it also helps that BETTER CALL SAUL, like BREAKING BAD before it, has superior writing. These series’ scripts are some of the best in the business.

I didn’t find Vince Gilligan’s script here for EL CAMINO on par with his work on BREAKING BAD or SAUL. It had its moments, but none of them stood out for me like some of the classic ones from the series.

Likewise, while it was good to see Aaron Paul play Jesse Pinkman again, nothing he does here in this movie is as good as what we saw him do on the series.

If you’re a fan of BREAKING BAD you’ll definitely want to check this movie out to learn what happens next to Jesse Pinkman. But don’t expect to be blown away by new revelations or situations. Nothing that happens in this film is as good as what happened in the series.

And if you haven’t seen the show, I don’t think you’d enjoy this one at all. It really doesn’t stand on its own, which is another notch against it.

I was ultimately disappointed with EL CAMINO: A BREAKING BAD MOVIE. While I was certainly happy to follow Jesse on his escape following the harrowing events of the series’ finale, where that escape takes him isn’t all that exciting.

If you’re content with watching what amounts to be an extended follow-up episode to the BREAKING BAD series, you might like EL CAMINO, but if you’re expecting something more, something extra special, you’ll be in for a disappointment.

For me, it wasn’t so much  BREAKING BAD as it was BREAKING BORED.

—END—

Books by Michael Arruda:

New in 2019! DARK CORNERS, Michael Arruda’s second short story collection, contains ten tales of horror, six reprints and four stories original to this collection.

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Waiting for you in Dark Corners are tales of vampires, monsters, werewolves, demonic circus animals, and eternal darkness. Be prepared to be both frightened and entertained. You never know what you will find lurking in dark corners.

Ebook: $3.99. Available at http://www.crossroadspress.com and at Amazon.com.  Print on demand version available at https://www.amazon.com/dp/1949914437.

TIME FRAME,  science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.  

How far would you go to save your family? Would you change the course of time? That’s the decision facing Adam Cabral in this mind-bending science fiction adventure by Michael Arruda.

Ebook version:  $2.99. Available at http://www.crossroadpress.com. Print version:  $18.00. Includes postage! Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.

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Michael Arruda reviews horror movies throughout history, from the silent classics of the 1920s, Universal horror from the 1930s-40s, Hammer Films of the 1950s-70s, all the way through the instant classics of today. If you like to read about horror movies, this is the book for you!

 Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.crossroadpress.com.  Print version:  $18.00.  Includes postage. Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR, first short story collection by Michael Arruda.  

For_the_love_of_Horror- original cover

Print cover

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Ebook cover

 

Michael Arruda’s first short story collection, featuring a wraparound story which links all the tales together, asks the question: can you have a relationship when your partner is surrounded by the supernatural? If you thought normal relationships were difficult, wait to you read about what the folks in these stories have to deal with. For the love of horror!

 Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.crossroadpress.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Includes postage. Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

—END—

 

Movie Lists: The Joker

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The joke’s on you, Joker!

So says Adam West’s Batman to Cesar Romero’s Joker in the 1960s campy TV series BATMAN.

The release of JOKER (2019), a superior standalone film about the origin of the infamous Batman villain the Joker that features an Oscar-worthy performance by Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur Fleck aka the Joker, no doubt will re-open the conversation as to who made the best onscreen Joker.

So, with that in mind, welcome back to Movie Lists, that column that looks at lists of odds and ends in the movies. Up today, you got it: the Joker.

 

BATMAN (1966)

The Joker: Cesar Romero

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This movie was based on the ultra successful campy TV series from the 1960s starring Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward as Robin. It featured four supervillains: the Penguin, Catwoman, the Riddler, and the Joker. It was originally intended to be released before the TV show aired, but the series was rushed into production and premiered ahead of time. As a result, the movie premiered in theaters the summer after the end of Season 1 of the series.

Like he did in the TV series, Cesar Romero, like his fellow actors in their fellow supervillain roles, played the Joker strictly for laughs. There was no rhyme or reason or any attempt to make the character real or threatening. And since it was in the 1960s, and since Adam West was hysterically funny as Batman, who unlike his counterparts the villains, played it straight, which made it all the more comical, the fact that Batman didn’t realize he was funny, it all worked. Remarkably well. And the humor still holds up today.

For more than twenty years, Cesar Romero, in all his campy hilarity, defined the role.

Until 1989 with the release of Tim Burton’s BATMAN.

 

BATMAN (1989)

The Joker: Jack Nicholson

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The most controversial thing about Tim Burton’s BATMAN was his casting of Michael Keaton, who up until that point was only known for his comedic roles, as Batman. Yet Keaton silenced critics with a very effective performance.

Jack Nicholson did not share this problem. After all, he was Jack Nicholson, one of the most respected actors at the time. For many, the fact that he was playing the Joker was the main reason to see this one.

I’ve always liked Tim Burton’s BATMAN, although truth be told, it hasn’t held up that well to the test of time. When it came out, since the movie world had only known Adam West’s campy Batman, it was considered an extremely dark and serious take on the character. Yet, watched today, it comes off as much campier than it did back in 1989.

The same can be said for Jack Nicholson’s performance as the Joker. Nicholson blew away any notion that Cesar Romero would remain the definitive Joker. Nicholson’s Joker was a much darker take on the character, although once more, watched today, he seems much more cartoonish and campy.

That being said, I really enjoyed Nicholson as the Joker, and I enjoyed the way director Tim Burton framed the character, adding a lot of references to the Phantom of the Opera, especially the 1925 Lon Chaney silent version. The scenes near the end with the Joker leading Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger) up the tower are clearly reminiscent of similar scenes where Lon Chaney’s Phantom led Christine into the depths of his underground lair.

Again, for nearly twenty years, Jack Nicholson was the gold standard for the Joker.

Until Christopher Nolan’s THE DARK KNIGHT (2008)

 

THE DARK KNIGHT (2008)

The Joker: Heath Ledger

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The big news with THE DARK KNIGHT was that Heath Ledger died just before the release of the movie, and as a result, because of his amazing performance, he won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor posthumously. Ledger’s performance as the Joker truly is phenomenal. THE DARK KNIGHT remains my favorite superhero movie of all time, and Ledger’s performance as the Joker is a major reason why

The film really is about chaos and anarchy, and we see it personified by the Joker who will stop at nothing just to create chaos, and he’s so good at it. The only reason he ultimately fails isn’t because of Batman, but because he misjudges the dark side of human nature. People aren’t as bad as he thought they were.

Hands down, Heath Ledger was and remains the best onscreen Joker. However, here in 2019, he just received his biggest competition.

 

SUICIDE SQUAD (2016)

The Joker: Jared Leto

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Jared Leto’s performance in the flawed DC movie SUICIDE SQUAD (2016) didn’t really work for me. It’s not entirely Leto’s fault, as SUICIDE SQUAD, a DC tale about villains rather than heroes, isn’t all that good. The reason to see it is Margot Robbie’s performance as Harley Quinn. She steals the show. Leto as the Joker does not.

 

JOKER (2019)

The Joker: Joaquin Phoenix

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The best part about JOKER is it’s not really a comic book movie. It plays more like a Martin Scorsese film as it tells its story about Arthur Fleck, a man suffering from mental illness, who regardless of the fact that he only wants to make people laugh, is continually beat upon until he can’t take it anymore. And when he rises up he’s less a supervillain than the face of a movement, and since he’s spent his whole life wanting to be noticed, he finds that he likes this new self.

Joaquin Phoenix is superb as Arthur Fleck here, and he gives the most sympathetic onscreen portrayal of the Joker yet. He will make you understand and believe how someone could become the Joker, and how the Joker could in fact be a real person. We’ve come a long way since the days of Cesar Romero.

By a hair, I still prefer Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker in THE DARK KNIGHT, since that film was insanely riveting, thanks mostly to Ledger. Joaquin Phoenix’s work in JOKER is entirely different from Ledger’s. JOKER is not a superhero movie. It’s a tragic violent drama, and as such works on an entirely different level. One day I may find myself preferring Phoenix over Ledger. That day is not today, but that doesn’t take away from Phoenix’s masterful performance.

It’s interesting to note that Cesar Romero almost wasn’t the first Joker. J. Carrol Naish almost played him in the serial BATMAN from 1943, which  was the first time Batman appeared on the big screen. The villain was originally going to be the Joker, but since it was 1943, he was changed to a Japanese villain, Dr. Daka, and was played by J. Carroll Naish. Some traces of the Joker still remain, as Daka’s hideout is located inside a carnival.

That’s it for now. Hope you enjoyed this list of actors who have played the Joker in the movies.

As always, thanks for reading!

—Michael