Tag: Renée Zellweger

Judy (2019)

Judy (2019)

A star turn is the only thing of note in this empty, uninsightful biopic

Director: Rupert Goold

Cast: Renée Zellweger (Judy Garland), Jessie Buckley (Rosalyn Wilder), Finn Wittrock (Mickey Deans), Rufus Sewell (Sid Luft), Michael Gambon (Bernard Delfont), Richard Cordery (Louis B Mayer), Darci Shaw (Young Judy Garland), Bella Ramsey (Lorna Luft), Royce Pierreson (Burt Rhodes), Andy Nyman (Dan), Daniel Cerqueira (Stan), Gemma-Leah Devereux (Liza Minnelli)

By 1969 Judy Garland (Renée Zellweger) was homeless, broke and stuck in a pill-and-alcohol fuelled depression. Desperate to provide a home for her children, she flew to London for a five-week booking at the Talk of the Town nightclub. Judy sees her, pushed beyond her physical and emotional limits, as she struggles to complete the run – or even get on stage – marrying the feckless young Mickey Deans (Finn Wittrock) and flashbacks to her memories as a Hollywood child star (Darci Shaw), under the punishing “mentorship” of studio head Louis B Mayer (Richard Cordery).

All this gets mixed together in Goold’s uninspired, sentimental and rather empty biopic that never really gets to grips with Garland’s personality, so desperate is it to shoe-horn her into a bog-standard narrative of redemption mixed with personal tragedy. Garland, I’m sure, would have hated it: she always pushed back against the idea that her life had been tragic (which this film whole-heartedly embraces) and the portrayal of her as a constantly misunderstood victim, generously one-sided as it is, boils her down into someone with no agency or control at all in her life.

As such, the most effective parts of this film are the flashbacks to her childhood, filming Wizard of Oz, living off diet pills so she can’t put on weight and working 18-hour days. All under the direction of a monstrously calm Louis B Mayer – a terrific performance of amiable, grandfatherly menace from Richard Cordery – who pleasantly tells her she is a dumpy child who must work like a dog to get ahead and owes everything to him. If the film gets anywhere to understanding Garland’s psychology, it’s in these scenes – I’d rather they’d made it about this than her swan song in England.

In the 1969 sections, the film continues to try and communicate that a life of constant work and pressure left Garland an emotional, physical (and possibly mental) wreck. It puts us on her side, stressing her vulnerability and desperation which she covers with brittle, demanding behaviour. But it’s too squeamish to show too much of her popping pills and downing more than the odd glass of vodka – despite the fact she’s clearly intoxicated for large parts of the film. It only briefly looks at how crippling anxiety affected her unwillingness to rehearse and implies her time in London was a lengthy period of unending servitude rather than a five-week booking singing her greatest hits (the film is hugely vague about timelines to increase the feeling of Garland’s powerlessness).

The film isn’t even smart enough to give us moments where other characters get a glimpse of the fragility under Garland’s prima donnai-sh petulance. Despite her treating both of them as a mix of underlings and informers, Jessie Buckley’s minder and Royce Pierreson’s pianist inexplicably become friends to the star part-way through the film. There is no scene to transition this, no moment of fragile tenderness they witness that makes them understand there is more to this demanding person than they initially thought. Instead, it feels like the narrative requires them to like her just as the audience is supposed to, so whoosh they like her.

The one affecting sequence sees a lonely Garland bumping into two gay fans (Andy Nyman and Daniel Cerqueira) and rather sweetly asking if they would have dinner with her (they are of course thrilled). Back at their apartment, they cook a disgusting looking omelette, play the piano and she listens as they are tearfully talk about their life of persecution in homophobic Britain. It’s gentle, sweet and the only time we (or she) get a real sense of what Garland means to people – these fans idolise her as a symbol of hope. Even this scene is undermined by (a) it not having any lasting impact on Garland as soon as it finishes and (b) these characters being shoe-horned into a blatantly emotionally manipulative ending almost unwatchable in its cloying feel-good-ish-ness.

The one thing the film has going for it is a committed, pitch-perfect performance by Renée Zellweger who captures the vocal and physical mannerisms perfectly. She won every award going including the Oscar. It’s an impressive study and she plays the moments of pain as committedly and rawly as the gentle, tender moments. She does everything the film asks of her, and it’s not her fault that it asks so little of her. There is no dive into Garland’s personality, no questioning that any of her ills were self-inflicted, no criticism for her not turning up for gigs where customers have paid a fortune to see her, no attempt to explore other perspectives on the impact of her actions or how she has become the woman she is.

Instead, Judy meanders towards its semi-feelgood ending without ever really letting us feel we’ve understood much about either this woman or her difficult life, other than framing her as a victim from a life of exhausting show-biz exploitation. Told within a story that is low on drama, pathos or humour, you end up wondering what point it was trying to make in the first place.

Chicago (2002)

Catherine Zeta-Jones struts her stuff in Rob Marshall’s fabulous Oscar winner Chicago

Director: Rob Marshall

Cast: Renée Zellweger (Roxie Hart), Catherine Zeta-Jones (Velma Kelly), Richard Gere (Billy Flynn), Queen Latifah (“Mama” Morton), John C. Reilly (Amos Hart), Christine Baranski (Mary Sunshine), Taye Diggs (The Bandleader), Colm Feore (Martin Harrison), Lucy Liu (Kitty Baxter), Dominic West (Fred Casely), Mya (Mona), Susan Misner (Liz), Denise Faye (Annie), Deidre Goodwin (June)

It’s become quite the fashion to knock Chicago. Heck I’ve done it myself. How did this mere musical win Best Picture? It’s not even as if the original production was much more than an entertainment. It’s another of those films diminished by whispers that it doesn’t deserve the title of Best Picture. But, look at the film with an unprejudiced eye, and you’ll see that this is the best stage-to-screen musical theatre adaptation since Cabaret. Chicago is such dynamic, high octane entertainment, you would have to a really cold heart not to enjoy it.

A heart as cold, perhaps, as most of the characters. Its set in a 1920s Chicago where it doesn’t matter what you are famous for, so long as you are famous. Who are the bigger stars? The people on stage of the infamous on death row? Roxie Hart (Renée Zellweger) is a wannabe who guns down her conman lover Fred Casely (Dominic West) when his promises of the stage career she’s dreaming of turns out to be all hot air. Roxie works out that she can turn her infamy into just plain fame – following the inspiration of vaudeville-star-turned-accused-murderer Velma Kelly (Catherine Zeta-Jones), who is now more famous than ever. With amoral lawyer Billy Flynn (Richard Gere) in their corner, can they play all sides against the middle and find freedom and fame?

Chicago’s debt to Bob Fosse is in almost every single frame. Rob Marshall’s brilliant choreography is inspired by Fosse’s own work for the original production. It means the entire film drips with the passionate sexiness of Fosse’s best work. It’s also inspired by Fosse’s Cabaret in its use of the musical numbers. There all the musical numbers were kept within the nightclub, acting as a subtle commentary on the events of the film. Here they occur in Roxie’s imagination, staged in a shadowy empty theatre with a mysterious band leader (a charismatic Taye Diggs) introducing each song. It’s a brilliant concept, that allows them to be staged with the sort of exuberance and theatricality that would look plain odd in a ‘real’ setting.

And what musical numbers they are! These are toe-tappingly, finger-clickingly fun, that will make you want to jump up and join in. Marshall’s choreography and direction is not only faultless, but also covers a range of styles. From the sultry opening of All That Jazz performed by Catherine Zeta-Jones, we get burlesque (When You’re Good to Mama), sensual sexiness (Cell Block Tango), knock-about farce (We Both Reached for the Gun), classic 1930s Astaire and Rogers (Roxie) and surreal madness (Razzle Dazzle). The one thing they all have in common is the high-octane energy they are performed with (no wonder all those dancers are so slim!), with no one leaving anything in the dressing room.

Chicago is possibly one of the best edited musicals ever made. Marshall gets a superb balance between camera movements, cutting and the dance numbers. We can appreciate – and see – every step of the intricate choreography, with clear camera movements and angles. But the film is also edited practically on the beat. Cuts accentuate changes in the tempo and even marry up with the exact movements of the dancers. Not only that, the numbers frequently cut from reality to fantasy and back again – and this parallel montage is superbly done, with perfectly timed transitions. The cutting complements each number so well, it actually makes them more exciting and dynamic. It’s a masterclass in using the language of cinema to accentuate the impact of dancing.

But Marshall manages to make Chicago not just a collection of amazing dances and fabulous tunes. In our celebrity worship age, Chicago feels increasingly more relevant – you can imagine Roxie would love to be on reality TV and would never be off Twitter. It doesn’t matter that she’s got no real talent (in fact it makes the fact that all the musical numbers are fantasies even more witty), she’s just desperate to be known. Shooting her lover is the best thing that’s ever happened to her and she’ll do anything to stay in the newspapers, from a fake pregnancy to playing the timid ingenue.

Everyone in Chicago is just playing the game. Velma is just as desperate to cling to fame – and her growing desperation at losing the limelight to Roxie is almost touching. Mama Morton, the quietly corrupt prison warden, lives vicariously through her inmates (she even dyes her hair to match Roxie’s). The media lap up the details of every killing, turning the trials into huge soap operas. And at the heart you have Billy Flynn, as much a showman as he is a lawyer, playing every angle and knowing its all about telling a good story rather than truth or justice.

Chicago is played with absolute commitment. Renée Zellweger is excellent as the fiercely ambitious, amoral Roxie, her fragile softness perfect for the image Roxie likes to project, just as she is able to twist her face into selfish meanness. Zeta-Jones clearly hadn’t forgotten her years of musical theatre, demonstrating she is a superb singer and dancer, her vampish glamour perfect for Velma’s dark ambition. Richard Gere (in a role turned down by Travolta, as he ‘didn’t get’ the framing device) channels his natural charisma and good natured smirk into a role that could have been made for him. Reilly is surprisingly sweet and effective as Roxie’s put-upon husband and Latifah hugely entertaining as the knowingly manipulative Mama.

Chicago may be “just a musical” – but you’d be hard pressed to find a better entertainment. The song and dance numbers are superb and the film still manages to land some blows on celebrity culture. Hollywood has always loved musicals – can you imagine how the viewers of Broadway Melody would have responded if they had seen this? – and with Chicago we get something we’ve not seen since the golden days of Bob Fosse. There are few Oscar winners as straight forwardly entertaining as this.

Cold Mountain (2003)

Nicole Kidman and Jude Law are souls in love separated by war in Cold Mountain

Director: Anthony Minghella

Cast: Jude Law (WP Inman), Nicole Kidman (Ada Monroe), Renée Zellweger (Ruby Thewes), Eileen Atkins (Maddy), Kathy Baker (Sally Swanger), James Gammon (Esco Swanger), Brendan Gleeson (Stobrod Thewes), Philip Seymour Hoffman (Reverend Veasey), Natalie Portman (Sara), Giovanni Ribisi (Junior), Lucas Black (Oakley), Donald Sutherland (Reverend Monroe), Cillian Murphy (Bardolph), Jack White (Georgia), Ray Winstone (Teague), Melora Walters (Lila), Charlie Hunnam (Bosie)

There was no difficult novel Anthony Minghella couldn’t adapt for the big screen. Cold Mountain is as beautiful and handsome a film as any he made, and his masterful scripting of a complex story is testament to his skill. So why is Cold Mountain not more loved? Is it because it’s almost too well made, too handsomely mounted, too literary and intelligent? Is it, actually, trying a little too hard? Is it a Cold Mountain itself, a giant structure of beauty but with an icy heart?

Based on Charles Frazier’s novel, set in the final days of the American Civil War, confederate soldier Inman (Jude Law), knowing the war is lost, deserts to return to the woman he loves, Ada Monroe (Nicole Kidman). The two of them have only spoken a few times but they feel a deep personal bond. During the years of war, poverty has hit preacher’s daughter Ada, although she has crafted a life-changing friendship with 18th century trailer trash Ruby Thewes (Renée Zellweger) which has helped her survive. As Inman’s odyssey home leads to him encountering a number of different vignettes that show the despair Civil War has brought to America, Ada struggles to survive and avoid the sinister attentions of home guard enforcer Teague (Ray Winstone).

There is so much to admire in Cold Mountain I want to start there. The photography is beautiful, and the film is assembled with a striking grace and skill. Walter Murch’s editing and sound design is perfect, with each shot of the film being fabulously composed and each carrying a specific message and purpose that contributes to the overall impact. The use of music – a collaboration between T Bone Burnett and Gabriel Yared – is perfect, a series of wonderful period compositions and impactful orchestral pieces. 

Everything about how Minghella captures the feel of the time, the mood of the South heading into war, and the disintegration of social conventions as the war takes hold and lays waste to the land, rings completely true. From the celebrations of the young men at the film’s start, to the increasingly haunted, tragic look of Jude Law’s Inman as he discovers new horrors at every point in his journey, you know war is hell. Minghella ironically opens the film with a catastrophic defeat for the North – but the slaughter disgusts Inman, and his burial under mounds of rubble during an explosion leads to a spiritual rebirths with Inman deciding senseless killing isn’t worth the candle any more. In a war of willing volunteers, how do we respond when these volunteers don’t want to keep fighting?

And why should they, as each of the various vignettes Inman walks through is a wasteland of moral collapse? From a sex-obsessed preacher (an amusing performance by Philip Seymour Hoffman) who has lost his morals to a tragic widow desperately trying to feed her baby (Natalie Portman, effectively stealing the whole show with an intense performance of utter desolation), everything Inman sees shows that nothing is worth all this. The film gets a very good sense of the drive that pushes Inman forward: constantly moving, he’s rarely seen sitting or resting. Each of the Odyssey-inspired stories gives him something to reflect on, or another opportunity for moral and emotional torment , from dragging bodies in a chain gang to avoiding the lustful advances of a group of hillbilly sirens who trap deserters for money.

Meanwhile, things ain’t much better on the homefront, where corrupt bullies like Teague (a slightly too obvious Ray Winstone) are enforcing their own law at the expense of justice. Poverty is also the impact of war, and poor Ada suffers hugely from this, as supplies run low and eventually out. Minghella’s swift and skilful establishment of character shows from the start how Ada is a stranger in a strange land, a middle-class town girl who is completely unsuited for country life and utterly unready to fend for herself when the chips are down without support. 

Is it any wonder in this world, that Inman and Ada cling to memories? Part of the film’s effect depends on how you respond to the romantic bond between these two clinging to a few brief moments (a few exchanges and one immensely passionate kiss on the day of Inman’s departure). It’s an old-fashioned, sweeping, love story and it depends on you relating to that old-fashioned mythic love story. I’m not sure that the film quite sells this as effectively as it could do. Somehow, perhaps because Inman is so insular and Ada a little too difficult to relate to, the passion between them can’t quite carry the sweep that the film demands, even as Minghella skilfully intercuts between them.

Nicole Kidman in particular feels miscast as Ada. Kidman is too intelligent, too determined and strong a performer to convince as a woman who is unable to look after herself and nearly succumbs to fear – she’s just not an actress I can picture cowering in fear in front of an angry rooster. Kidman does her best, but the character never really wins the sympathy that we need for the performance to work. Jude Law has much more to work with as Inman, brilliantly communication a whole world of feeling with very little dialogue. 

What works less well with Law is that his plotline just doesn’t quite grip enough. The vignettes are often entertaining, but feel like episodic sketches, and the sense of a building picture of the despair of the South doesn’t quite come into shape as much in practice as it does in theory. Frankly, after a while, you are ready for Inman’s journey to come to an end and for him to intersect with Ada’s plotline back at Cold Mountain (which is built around a consistent group of characters who engage our interest).

In the home front storyline you’ll be relieved with the entrance (almost an hour into the film) of Renée Zellweger’s blowsy Ruby, a loud-mouthed, trailer-trash woman with a heart of gold and a mastery of farming who effectively saves Ada’s life. It’s a loud, big, Oscar-winning performance from Zellweger that plays with being a little broad, but is skilfully balanced by the slow reveal that this personality is a cover that Ruby uses to hide her own pain. Added to this depth, her heart-warming presence carries such simple pleasure and colour compared to the more muted performances from the leads that you welcome it. 

Because Inman and Ada don’t quite work as a romantic couple. There is something slightly cold about them, slightly hard to relate to. And for all the intense and brilliant construction and filming of the film – and the mastery of Minghella’s writing and direction – it never makes them into the sort of classic romantic couple you care for. You want to connect with it more than you ever really do, and whether that is down to miscasting or the lack of intense chemistry between them I’m not sure, but it means Cold Mountain never becomes the great romantic tragedy it should be. You want a film this good to be as good as it feels – and it never quite is.