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Sunday, October 13, 2019

Cindy Prascik's Reviews of Judy & Joker

This weekend it was off to the pictures for a pair of acting powerhouses: Renee Zellweger's Judy and Joaquin Phoenix' Joker.

Spoiler level here will be moderate, nothing plot-specific, though I will make some general observations that may be considered spoilery.

First on the docket: Judy. In desperate financial straits, a failing Judy Garland agrees to a series of shows in London.

Judy focuses on a few weeks towards the end of Judy Garland's life, when she accepted a London residency in an attempt at career and financial salvation. It's a very obvious film in every way, a clear awards-grab by Zellweger in a not-so-deftly-told "perils of fame" story. It is elevated by the icon whose name it bears, and by Zellweger's extraordinary performance, but beyond that its emotional wallop turns out to be the worst sort of Hollywood fakery. Zellweger is physically transformed into the aging Garland, her slightly-slouched posture barely diminishing the diva of younger days. Though Zellweger is a capable singer, and it's all her voice in the film, most of the numbers are lip-synched rather badly on camera. The story moves steadily, but feels a bit slow. It is expectedly difficult to watch the worst of Judy's struggles, and quick flashbacks to the abuses visited on the young star by MGM shed a painful light on her later dependency on drugs and alcohol. A moving scene with a pair of fans at the stage door is, to me, the film's shining moment, and finding out afterwards that it--as well as the climactic final scene--was fabricated was a great letdown. While both were meant to "represent" real, pivotal parts of Ms. Garland's life, learning they were entirely made up very much diminished the movie's emotional impact for me. Comparing with Rocketman for a moment, if your story is billed as a musical fantasy, you may do pretty much as you please. If your movie is sold as a straight-up biopic (see also: Bohemian Rhapsody), making stuff up just pulls the rug out from under it.

Judy runs 118 minutes and is rated PG13 for "substance abuse, thematic content, some strong language, and smoking." (She is literally NEVER without a cigarette!)

Judy is worth seeing for Renee Zellweger's exceptional work, but it is otherwise a by-the-numbers biopic you'll soon forget.

Of a possible nine Weasleys, Judy gets six. Fangirl points: Rufus Sewell!

Next on my agenda (finally!), Todd Phillips' Joker. A troubled loner hits his breaking point.

Much had already been made of this dark origins tale before the film was even released, and, as I'm a week late seeing it, I doubt I have much to add that hasn't been said already, BUT...when has that ever stopped me?

Though the Joker is, arguably, DC's most iconic villain, there is no obvious DC branding to be found in this film. It's clear from the outset that Joker isn't intended as a comic book movie, or as part of a super-hero universe.

It's a miserable story about the effect hard times can have on anyone, particularly those less mentally-capable of facing what the world throws at them.

Joaquin Phoenix is considered a shoo-in awards contender for his work in the lead, and his performance is truly mesmerizing. He can't have Taron Egerton's Oscar, though, and that's that. Sorry, Joaquin. Phoenix' body appears ravaged for the role; he's painfully thin, with his ribs and shoulder blades protruding so much it almost hurts to watch. Heath Ledger's Joker had a fluidity of movement that was one of my favorite things about his performance in the Dark Knight. Here Phoenix adds a harsh edge that makes his every move look like a painful sort-of dance, elegant in its ugliness. His portrayal of Arthur Fleck's condition--a coarse laugh that is often entirely at odds with both his mood and the situation--is absolutely chilling. Grim production design and a somber score accentuate the film's sense of hopelessness and foreboding. Who wouldn't be driven to extreme measures by such circumstances? Certainly the movie borrows heavily from some that have come before, but it's mostly effective despite being derivative.

That being said, Joker has its problems. It plods through one depressing scene after another at a snail's pace. I understand it's meant to be dark, but there is literally NO light here, no hope. The film plays hell with the canonical timeline, with a very young Bruce Wayne making a brief appearance opposite Phoenix' decidedly middle-aged Joker. (There's not so much as a hint of a Bat.) A cold, self-centered Thomas Wayne (played by the always wonderful Brett Cullen) doesn't resemble any other Thomas Wayne I know. While the picture carries an important message about the way we, as a society, sometimes dismiss mental-health issues, it is very heavy-handed with its delivery. A weird scene backed by Gary Glitter's Rock n' Roll Pt. 2 is almost bizarre enough to absolve the movie of all its other sins, but not quite.

Joker clocks in at 122 minutes and is rated R for "strong bloody violence, disturbing behavior, language, and brief sexual images." (They’re serious, folks. This isn’t one for the kids.)

Joker may be a character from the pages of a comic book, but there's nothing cartoonish about the ugly world portrayed in this film. Of a possible nine Weasleys, Joker gets seven. And, for the record, I haven't seen a double-bill this depressing since I watched Dallas Buyers' Club and Twelve Years a Slave back-to-back.

Fangirl points: Hey you guys, it must be Awards Season because heeeeeeere's Shea Whigham!

Until next time...

Sunday, October 6, 2019


Forever alone in a crowd, failed comedian Arthur Fleck seeks connection as he walks the streets of Gotham City. Arthur wears two masks -- the one he paints for his day job as a clown, and the guise he projects in a futile attempt to feel like he's part of the world around him. Isolated, bullied and disregarded by society, Fleck begins a slow descent into madness as he transforms into the criminal mastermind known as the Joker.
Director: Todd Phillips

Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz, Frances Conroy, Brett Cullen, Glenn Fleshler, Bill Camp, Shea Whigham, Marc Maron

Release Date: October 4, 2019

Genre: Crime, Drama, Thriller

Rated R for strong bloody violence, disturbing behavior, language and brief sexual images

Runtime: 2 h 2 min


After watching a bit of Todd Phillip’s Joker you get the strong feeling that Phillip’s really hopes that you’ve never seen Taxi Driver.  To say that he mines that particular film seems like a understatement since there are multiple direct references to it through out.  Needless to say, Phillip’s film isn’t as groundbreaking as it thinks it is.  The story of a disaffected loner pushed to the edge is story that’s been told multiple times particularly in Taxi Driver or the underappreciated Henry Portrait of a Serial Killer.  The film can stand on its own merit with some wonderfully composed shots that really leave you feeling grimy and dirty.  Ultimately though, the gas in this particular vehicle is Joaquin Phoenix who throws himself into the roles with such intensity that it’s hard to look away.  His performance elevates the material and makes the whole thing much more prestigious and watchable than it deserves to be.  As for the story, it’s an interesting take on this character but it’s hard to tell if Phillip’s wants us to root for character or despise him.  Nearing the finale you get a sense that Phillip’s is propping him up as a sort of hero of madness and chaos which is a strange message to send in a film like this even as some of the more ham fisted attempts at modern day relevancy fall flat.  It’s certainly a film that will draw plenty of discussion even though it’s really a shadow of better films.  


Sunday, September 29, 2019


Thirty years after starring in "The Wizard of Oz," beloved actress and singer Judy Garland arrives in London to perform sold-out shows at the Talk of the Town nightclub. While there, she reminisces with friends and fans and begins a whirlwind romance with musician Mickey Deans, her soon-to-be fifth husband.

Director: Rupert Goold

Cast: Renée Zellweger, Jessie Buckley, Finn Wittrock, Rufus Sewell, Michael Gambon

Release Date: September 27, 2019

Genre: Biography, Drama, History

Rated PG-13 for substance abuse, thematic content, some strong language, and smoking

Runtime: 1 h 58 min


You walk into some movies knowing full well its awards fodder.  Biopics in the fall are generally the biggest culprits and whether those films sink or swim is usually up to the central star of the piece.  Renée Zellweger in Rupert Goold’s film delivers a transformative performance that overcomes some of the story’s shortcomings.  Goold’s direction is steady and loving but he’s clearly more comfortable during the musical sequences.  Those musical sequences are the kind of award moments that are moving and sort of magical.  Whether you like Renée Zellweger’s voice is a matter of personal taste but she pours everything into those moments and you’d be hard pressed not to be moved by pain and sadness of Garland’s final days.  The film itself is a bit clunky in spots particularly with expositional flashbacks that are used to flesh out Garland’s early days.  Those sequences are ok but they feel shoehorned in and sort of unnecessary since Zellweger is more than capable of convening her tragic life and pain. Judy is one of those types of film’s that is better than it deserves to be because of a singular start delivering an Oscar worthy performance.


Sunday, September 22, 2019

Cindy Prascik's Reviews of Downton Abbey / Rambo: Last Blood

Yesterday it was off to the pictures for the peculiar pairing of Downton Abbey and Rambo: Last Blood.

Spoiler level here will be mild, nothing you wouldn't know from the trailers.

First up: The big-screen version of ITV/PBS' breakout TV hit Downton Abbey.

The Crawleys prepare for a visit from King George V and Queen Mary.

For fans of the TV series, the Downton Abbey movie is like a visit with a much-missed old friend. From the opening notes of the show's iconic theme, the whole thing just feels...comfortable. Having said that, this film is very much a stand-alone piece that explains itself well enough that anyone should be able to keep up.

The Downton Abbey movie is mostly light in tone, with the chaos of preparing for a royal visit providing its own comedy. In addition to the expected witticisms from Violet and Isobel (Maggie Smith and Penelope Wilton), Mr. Molesley (Kevin Doyle) is used almost exclusively for comic relief (to great effect, I might add). Sub-plots involving Tom Branson (Allen Leech) and Thomas Barrow (Robert James-Collier) take a more serious turn and add a genuinely tense undercurrent. Magnificent costumes and sets make the film a thing of lush beauty. The final scene does go on just a bit longer than it needs to, but that's a very petty quibble with a pretty perfect movie.

The Downton Abbey TV series ended on a mostly-satisfying note, leading to some concern in my household that an addendum might upset that applecart. ("Like Sex & the City!" my sister kept saying, whereupon I kept my secret: I don't remember enough about Sex & the City--series or movies--to commiserate!) Happily, the big-screen Downton Abbey only adds another satisfying chapter to its story, leaving enough loose ends to continue the tale if demand is there, but not the kind that leave viewers frustrated for lack of resolution.

Downton Abbey clocks in at 122 minutes and is rated PG13 for "thematic elements, some suggestive material, and language."

The Downton Abbey movie adds a worthy new chapter to the adored television series. Of a possible nine Weasleys, Downton Abbey gets nine.

Fangirl points: You. Guys. A LOT of these people have been on Midsomer Murders!

Next on the docket: Rambo: Last Blood.

John Rambo is out for vengeance.

One last time. Having a mere two minutes to spare between the end of Downton Abbey and the beginning of Rambo, I sprinted (I. SPRINTED.) across the cinema expressly for the pleasure of seeing Oscar Jaenada on the big screen, which doesn't happen nearly often enough. Per my usual M.O., I didn't care enough to revisit previous Rambo installments before checking out his 2019 adventure, but Last Blood is not smart or deep enough to require any background to follow along.

Sylvester Stallone is a favorite of mine. He's making bank these days playing tired, old versions of his classic characters, and generally I have no problem with that; however, Last Blood is so wholly constructed of over-used movie tropes, painful dialogue, and wooden acting that it's beyond saving. Laughable levels of carnage are elevated to beyond ridiculous by some of the most gruesome sound effects ever, and an over-abundance of weird extreme close-ups make the movie feel like a cheap soap opera. If there's one good thing to be said about Rambo: Last Blood (besides the fact Jaenada gets a fair bit of screen time), it's that the movie is mercifully short.

Rambo: Last Blood runs 89 minutes and is rated R for "strong graphic violence, grisly images, drug use, and language."

If you are totally invested in the Rambo series, or if you are totally invested in opportunities to see Oscar Jaenada on the big screen, Last Blood may be worth a trip to the cinema. If not, spend your ticket money on something that works harder to earn it. Of a possible nine Weasleys, Rambo: Last Blood gets three.

Fangirl points: Uh...did I mention Oscar Jaenada? Until next time...

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