Posted on September 26, 2019 at 5:52 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for substance abuse, thematic content, some strong language, and smoking
Profanity: Some strong language, one f-word
Alcohol/ Drugs: Substance abuse including pills and alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Medical/addiction issues
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: September 27, 2019
Copyright 2019 Roadside Attractions

On YouTube you can find a clip from Judy Garland’s 1963 variety television series where she sings “The Christmas Song” (the one that begins with the chestnuts roasting on an open fire) with its co-writer, Mel Torme. It is a very festive scene, and you can glimpse Garland’s three children, Liza Minnelli and Lorna and Joey Luft. It has an intimate, natural feeling and we can see that Garland is genuinely fond of Torme, who was creating all of the specialty musical material for her show. You can also see Garland’s impressive musicianship as she joins the duet, every note, beat, impeccable. And then comes a small mistake. We all know the lyrics by heart: “And every mother’s child is gonna spy /To see if reindeer really know how to fly.” But instead of “reindeer,” Judy Garland cannot help singing a word she has been singing since she was a teenager. She sings, “if rainbows really know how to fly.”

Everything covered in “Judy,” about the last months of Garland’s life, is evident in that brief clip, her mesmerizing, once-to-a-planet talent, even after the years of drinking and drug use, her fierce love for her children and dedication to keeping them near her, and the haunting memories of her early years of stardom and abuse. And there is one more thing, which is what takes Renee Zellweger from an impersonation to a performance and is the film’s most significant insight. We see how Garland, who tells us she first sang in public at age 2, is always, always, always treating the people around her as an audience. She is always wooing, pleasing, flirting, even pleading. In one charming scene, as she entertains Joey and Lorna to cheer them up that she has to leave them with their father while she takes a job in London, singing at a club called Talk of the Town.

Her appearance there is still legendary. Some nights she was everything her fans adored her for — the ultimate in talent, showmanship, and pure star power. Some nights were catastrophic, the portrait of total decompensating collapse. Some nights she never made it on stage.

In this retelling, the story is simplified to this: Garland was exploited, isolated, and abused as a child performer, constantly nagged about her weight, fed pills to keep her from eating and then, when those kept her awake, given more pills to put her to sleep. The money disappeared, so she had to keep working when all she wanted to do was stay with her children. As it begins, with a flashback, we see Louis B. Mayer present the teenaged Garland with the eternal choice faced by Achilles. Does she want a happy but quiet life or does she want to be important and known by millions? Standing on the yellow brick road in the set for “The Wizard of Oz,” she chooses the only option she has ever known: stardom. And, this movie suggests, the chaos that resulted was inevitable.

There are too many flashbacks, perhaps included for the current generation, who may not know the details of Garland’s story. Certainly, though, they are familiar with the idea that celebrities often have traumatic and unstable lives, and the flashbacks add very little. The present day (in the world of the film) scenes of Garland’s last romance and last performances are not especially dramatic or insightful, though there are some clever lines (a doctor asks if she takes anything for depression and Garland answers: “Four husbands”) and some touching scenes, including one where she impulsively spends the evening with a pair of fans, eating eggs and singing at their piano. That scene suggests the conflict between the unquenchable need for an audience and the hope of home and peace and family.

What there is here is Zellweger’s total immersion in the performance, as with Garland too often herself, so vital and impossible to look away from that it transcends the limits of the material she outshines.

Parents should know that this film includes substance abuse — liquor and pills — and pills being given to a teenager, child custody issues, and some strong language.

Family discussion: How did Judy Garland’s childhood experiences determine her adult choices? Could anyone have helped her?

If you like this, try: the films of Judy Garland, especially “The Wizard of Oz,” “Easter Parade,” and “A Star is Born” and a story similar to this one, “Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool”

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Posted on September 26, 2019 at 5:03 pm

Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for some action and mild rude humor
Profanity: Schoolyard language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: September 27, 2019
Date Released to DVD: December 16, 2019

Copyright 2019 Dreamworks/Pearl
I’m not sure what the fascination is with animated films for kids about mythical big furry primates, but “Abominable” is the third animated film in a year about the animal we call the Yeti or Sasquatch or Bigfoot. If you’re only going to see one, I’d suggest “Smallfoot” or “Missing Link,” but “Abominable” is good, too. It is not as imaginative visually or narratively as the others, but it is a nice family film with some lovely visuals and appealing characters.

Yi (Chloe Bennet) lives with her mother and grandmother, who worry about her because she has become distant and uncommunicative since the death of her father. She leaves the apartment most of the day, won’t eat dinner with her family, and refuses to play the violin for her mother. They do not know that she spends time in a makeshift tent she has set up on the roof of her building and plays her father’s violin.

At the same time a yeti has escaped from a facility owned by the very wealthy Mr. Burnish (Eddie Izzard), an elderly rare animal collector who has been looking for a yeti since he glimpsed them as a young man. No one believed him then and he has never gotten over the humiliation of being laughed at. He wants to be able to prove that he was telling the truth. He has a small army of SWAT-team-like security guards and he has hired an animal specialist named Dr. Zara (Sarah Paulson) to assist him.

When the Yeti lands on Yi’s rooftop retreat, she realizes quickly that he (apparently a he) is not scary; he just wants to go home, which he identifies by pointing to a billboard image of Mount Everest. So, Yi dubs him Everest, and soon she is on her way to take him there, accompanied by her neighbors, the selfie-taking, keep-my-kicks-immaculate Jin (Tenzing Norgay Trainor) and his neglected young basketball-loving cousin Peng (Albert Tsai). On the way to Everest with Everest, as they try to evade Burnish and Zara and overcome the obstacles of the terrain, they will learn a lot about themselves and each other, and appreciate what they left behind.

The Chinese settings, both urban and rural, add a lot of visual interest and it is satisfying to watch Yi find something outside herself to care for, and see how that helps her process her grief and start to reach out to others. Jin’s realization of his superficiality and selfishness is more formulaic and Peng, Everest, and Burnish are one-dimensional, well, maybe one and a half. The action scenes are dynamic, especially the use of drones, and nicely balance the tension with the humor, as the group is chased by giant blueberries and wafting on a giant dandelion. But the storyline, soundtrack songs, and lessons learned are predictable — Yi watches koi fish swimming upstream and is inspired to be persistent, and, like Dorothy, Yi learns that there’s no place like home. These are unquestionably good lessons, but they have been and will be taught with more imagination and less formula in the future.

Parents should know that this film includes cartoon-style action and peril, grief over death of a parent, and brief potty/bodily function humor.

Family discussion: Why didn’t Yi want to be home with her family? Why did Burnish change his mind? What does the word “abominable” mean? What would you do if you met Everest?

If you like this, try: the “Madagascar” movies and “Smallfoot”

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Action/Adventure Animation DVD/Blu-Ray Family Issues Fantasy movie review Movies -- format

Franklin Leonard is Disrupting Hollywood Gatekeepers with The Blacklist

Posted on September 26, 2019 at 10:07 am

Franklin Leonard had a job in Hollywood reading scripts to find suitable projects to move forward. Fifteen years ago, he sent around an anonymous email to other people with the same job asking them for the best scripts they had, promising to send anyone who contributed the consolidated list. He got some good scripts, he sent what he called “The Black List” around to the participants, and went back to work.

Copyright 2016 The Black List

It went viral. It is now an established annual list, and scripts on the list have now gone on to not just be produced but to receive over 200 Oscar nominations and make over $25 billion at the box office. The last eight best picture Oscars went to scripts featured on a previous Black List, as well as ten of the last 20 screenwriting Oscars. Scripts on the list have included “Slumdog Millionaire,” “Arrival,” “Argo,” “Spotlight,” and “Hell or High Water.” A Harvard Business School study found that scripts on the list were two times more likely to be produced and made 90% more in box office than scripts not on the list.

The Black List is now a website where aspiring screenwriters can upload their scripts, get feedback, and maybe even be discovered by a production company.

Leonard appeared this week at the beautiful new Washington DC screening room of the Motion Picture Association of America to talk about the Black List. He told one story about a script uploaded to the site that prompted a call inquiring about Arabic language rights. The film was first made in Arabic, which led to support for making it in English. And, Leonard pointed out, the screenwriter still lives, as he did when he was writing the script, in Georgia. He did not need to go to Los Angeles to get his movie made. Leonard calls it “a system that allows the industry as a whole to capture its good taste.” He described the “conventional wisdom” approach in Hollywood as “all convention and no wisdom.” This means perpetuation of the same stories and characters, generally ones that look and act like the studio executives themselves. Leonard also talked about disrupting the agents and agencies. “They overestimate the way in which they are indispensable.” The Black List is doing to the Hollywood gatekeepers what companies like eBay, Uber, and Airbnb have done to their industries.

Most important, though, Leonard made it clear that the way to get a script made into a movie is to write an excellent script. Don’t say, “Well, that terrible movie got made and my script is better than that.” Write the best script you can, understand that your first script is probably not movie-ready, get a lot of feedback, make revisions, and then upload it to The Black List and maybe you’ll get a call.

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Behind the Scenes Writers

Bilge Ebiri Gets “Ad Astra” Director James Gray to Explain Some Stuff

Posted on September 25, 2019 at 6:40 pm

“Ad Astra” director James Gray’s conversation with New York Magazine critic Bilge Ebiri about filmmaking as as (maybe more) fascinating as the film itself. Ebiri writes:

Gray himself is among the sincerest of interview subjects, a man who will openly discuss what he was trying to accomplish with certain scenes in his pictures, as well as whether he thinks he achieved it or not. He’s also kind of like the world’s most entertaining film professor, a constant fount of movie references who will happily break down some of the classics to explain how they work. Over the course of our conversation, he did both, opening up about his career, his mistakes, his favorite movies, and the challenges of making Ad Astra.

Copyright 20th Century Fox
An excerpt from one of his answers:

You kind of make the same movie over and over again, but in a different guise, because you change. I’m a different person than I was when I made my first film. And so that takes care of the films feeling different. You just try to focus on what it is you care about. I was very interested in fathers and sons. I’m not estranged from my father, thank heavens. But all relationships between father and son are very complicated relationships. Of course, with mother and son, and mother and daughter, and father and daughter … it’s all fraught, no matter how good we think it is. That makes drama. And it’s a shorthand. If I say to you, “Tommy and his friend, Bob …,” well, I have to go through hoops to explain to you that relationship. Why are they friends? When did they meet? What’s the nature? Does one look up to the other? But in a movie, if I say “fathers and sons,” you know exactly what I’m saying. There is a baggage.

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Interview: Downton Abbey Producer Gareth Neame

Posted on September 23, 2019 at 12:37 pm

Copyright Focus 2019

Producer Gareth Neame explains how he came up with the original idea for the “Downton Abbey” series, what went into adapting it for a feature film, why Americans and British fans see it differently, and why it is that fans respond to it so strongly, and confesses, at last, which is his favorite character.

What does it take to be a good producer?

I suppose you have to be quite tenacious, ideally you’re pretty passionate about what you do. I think you have to have attention to detail and you have to make the right judgment. Of course in every creative endeavor let’s say there are 100 key decisions that have to be made. The more of those 100 decisions you get right, the more likely it is you’re going to have a success. You can get a bunch of them wrong — you could put the wrong hair dresser on the show and you can have one of the writer’s not be quite right and the location you chose wasn’t the best place. Or you can get a number of these things right. Every show does but the more of them you get right the bigger difference it makes. So your judgment calls are quite important. And you have to find things you’re passionate about. It is really hard to produce something that you’re not enthusiastic about.

Running a production business is difficult because you can’t really love every show you make equally. Like Julian Fellowes would say, “Characters don’t love all their children equally; they have favorites.” Unless you’re going to make one thing at a time, it’s really hard to love everything. As a busy production company we make multiple shows but somehow you need to love all of those things as much as you can and you need to be tenacious and patient.

I suppose that’s what happened with the Downton movie. It’s taken me three years from the end of the television show to get it to the screen and that was an awful lot of persuading. We had to have 20 actors all be available at the same time and to make deals with us. We could probably have made it if a few of them didn’t show up a for the movie but we really wanted everyone there. We had to make the film at an affordable price so they had to make reasonable deals with us and fortunately all of them wanted to do it but they were waiting to see was it really going to happen. “If I commit are the others going to commit as well?” There was a little bit of everyone having to hold hands and go in together.

Is it true that the series was originally your idea?

I’m a British producer based in London so I like to find stories that are expressly British subjects. The great thing about the English country house genre, a genre I really like, is it’s pretty unique and it has all these wonderful iterations, comedy, romance, mystery, drama. There are so many different iterations of that genre giving us a slightly fictional world that never quite existed.

But certainly visually it exists and as you can see from Downton and other shows, there are lavish, beautiful historic properties. There was a very clear system of deference and protocol and everyone having their place which lends itself very well to drama. So I think it’s a good genre and it’s unique to Britain and so I’ve always thought it was a great environment. The idea was in my mind for several years. About 12 years ago now probably I was going through channels on the TV and I alighted upon an excerpt of Upstairs Downstairs and I knew what it was straightaway. I thought, “This is really interesting. I’m 40 and I’m too young ever to have watched that show, which means there are two generations who never saw it.” So I thought the time was right to invent this.

There’s a house I went to once near where my parents lived that had very well preserved servants’ quarters and kept exactly as it was in the Edwardian time and then it had all these gadgets in the kitchen like hundred-year-old toasters and ways that you kept things fresh. They actually had all kinds of gadgets and technology, just things that we have forgotten about now. That ended up in the show with Mrs. Patmore and the fridge and her aversion to technology because it was going to put her out of a job.

Roundabout the same time I got to know Fellowes and I was so impressed with his film Gosford Park and then I read his novel Snobs and I thought this man really has an outstanding of British culture and history and the way that we all speak. I can’t think of anyone really writing on screen who captures that strange way that we Brits have with speaking when we never really say what we mean, we say the opposite of what we mean. He captures that voice so well. I thought, “There’s something incredibly salable about Julian Fellowes and what he’s doing and he’s unique,” so I then said to him “Look, I’ve got this idea for this episodic show and in a lot of ways it’s returning to what you did with Gosford Park; it’s going back to that world but doing it as an episodic weekly show.” He’d never written/created a drama series so I didn’t know for certain if he was going to be able to do that to the degree that he did.

Do Americans and British audiences see it differently?

I just think there is an American fascination with the monarchy and the aristocracy and the places they live in and the clothes they wear, their behavior and the codes of behavior and so on and perhaps the servants life is a little bit more closely aligned to the lives that we’re all leading in a way anyway.

I think it is more egalitarian to the British audience because actually there’s a huge number of modern Brits who are descended from people who were in service and there were millions of people doing that so lots and lots of people can look back three generations ago when their grandmother was a maid. It’s quite normal.

The success in America is built on the mystique of the whole thing; it’s different and it’s quite glamorous. To Brits many of us live within a few minutes’ drive of some castle or ancient place. We live very comfortably alongside our history. Lots of people live in old houses. Some would say we look back a little bit too much. Perhaps we look back bit too much and America look forward a bit too much and aren’t knowledgeable enough about their history. There’s so much historical drama made in Britain that it’s not radical to us in a way.

Sophie McShera stars as Daisy Mason and Lesley Nicol as Mrs. Patmore in DOWNTON ABBEY, a Focus Features release.
Credit: Jaap Buitendijk / © 2019 Focus Features, LLC

My favorite scene in the film is the one with the Dowager Duchess and Lady Mary just quietly talking about some very important issues.

I think the passing over of the baton is always been a theme of the great houses. These characters are really tenants on a temporary basis and they have to look after it during their time but they may hand it on. That’s why they have survived because they do always hang on to the next generation and I think many families recognize the fact that these things can skip a generation. Violet, as she says in that scene, she loves her son but she sees Mary as the true descendent and I think that can be very true in families that sometimes there’s a very strong bond between grandparent and grandchild.

Mary’s probably was the heart of the show. When people say, “Who was your favorite character?” which they often do, I’d do a runaround and say I love all of them. But I always come back to her because she’s the heart of it.

We wanted to make the Downton movie. We didn’t say we were going to make a franchise but who knows, maybe we do go back if it does really well and Mary is the person who is running the whole thing and has the baton that Violet has passed her.

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