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Lucy in the Sky

Posted on October 3, 2019 at 12:34 pm

C
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language and some sexual content
Profanity: Strong language
Nudity/ Sex: Sexual references and situations
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and drunkenness
Violence/ Scariness: Some peril and threats of violence, gun
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: October 4, 2019

In 2007 a female astronaut furiously jealous because the male astronaut she was sleeping with was also sleeping with someone else, drove from Texas to Florida with the intention of attacking the other woman. “Lucy in the Sky” tells us it is inspired by a true story, and while it draws some of its details from what really happened, there is very little inspiration evident on screen.

Copyright Fox Searchlight 2019

Natalie Portman plays Lucy Cola, who has made up for the chaos and dysfunction of her family by being competitive and ultra-capable. Her mother drank, her father was a deadbeat, her brother is an irresponsible single dad who disappears now and then, leaving his teenage daughter with Lucy and her husband (Dan Stevens). Lucy is intensely competitive, always keeping her eye on triumphing over whatever challenge is next. “You’ll just have to work harder,” the grandmother who raised her (Ellen Burstyn) advises, and we can tell that is her standard advice. She has succeeded at everything because she refuses to stop until she does.

We first see her floating in space. Ordered to return to the ship, she insists on a little more time to absorb the vastness of the universe. (With “Ad Astra,” this is the second film in a month to show us a personal and existential crisis in outer space.)

On her return, Lucy is in that most mundane of ordinary tasks, waiting in the carpool lane to pick up her niece at school. She has a routine debriefing with a counselor (Nick Offerman) who gently asks her whether the experience was disturbing. He quotes Apollo 11’s Michael Collins, who wept as he piloted the rocket behind the moon while Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin made their historic landing. He was “consumed by darkness” and said he was profoundly alone. “It’s hard to put into words,” Lucy says. But she liked it and wants to go back.

He urges her to take a break. “Can you stop?” But she only knows how to achieve mission objectives. Without a fixed mission, her mind starts spinning.

And then, another astronaut invites her to go bowling with others in “the club” — those who have looked at Earth from outer space and have had their perspective permanently changed. He is Mark Goodwin (Jon Hamm), recently separated and a bit of a mess, unlike Lucy’s stable, sweet, hand-holding-grace-before-meals husband (Dan Stevens). They have an affair. And then things spin out of control. And so does the movie.

There might be an intriguing story here about how seeing things from a — literally — broader perspective could make someone rethink choices and priorities or how the pressure of being perfect can stem from deep insecurities which can cause distortion and collapse. This film touches on all of that but we keep being distracted by Portman’s efforts at a cornpone accent, some camera tricks with the aspect ratio of the frame, and shifts in tone. The actors do their considerable best, but at times they seem to be acting in different movies. The overly cutesy idea of naming the character Lucy so that The Beatles song can play on the soundtrack is jarring and out of place.

The story could have made a pretty good Lifetime television film, a soapy melodrama starring some third-tier actors. Instead, it is an awkward, wildly uneven film that shoots for the stars — quite literally — and falls far short.

Parents should know that this film include very strong language, some peril and threats of violence, sexual references and a brief explicit situation.

Family discussion: Why was Lucy so different from her parents and brother? How did being in space affect her? What did it mean to be “in the club?”

If you like this, try: “Ad Astra” and “The Martian”

MVP of the Week: Zazie Beetz

Posted on October 3, 2019 at 8:00 am

There are two major nationwide releases this week, “Lucy in the Sky” and “Joker.” Both are stories of people who go nuts after losing their jobs. And both feature the wonderfully-named and wonderfully-talented Zazie Beetz. She is a highlight of both otherwise very uneven films.

I was impressed with her performance as Domino in “Deadpool 2.” Her two appearances this week in small but vital roles show her range and powerful screen charisma. In “Joker,” she plays a single mom who lives in the same building as the title character. In “Lucy in the Sky” she plays the main character’s professional and romantic rival. In both films, the main characters obsess about her character, and we can see why. She will return to the Domino role for “X-Force” and I am especially intrigued by another of her upcoming projects, “Nine Days,” a fantasy about a soul waiting to be born, where she will appear opposite Bill Skarsgård, and Benedict Wong.

Middleburg Film Festival 2019

Posted on October 2, 2019 at 1:15 pm

The Middleburg Film Festival has surpassed itself again with a stunning line-up that includes some of the fall and winter season’s most anticipated and awards-likely films, including Tom Hanks as Mr. Rogers in “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” and Martin Scorsese’s epic crime drama “The Irishman” with Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, and Harvey Keitel. Also on the schedule: Noah Baumbach’s “Marriage Story” with Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver, Cynthia Erivo as Harriet Tubman in “Harriet,” Edward Norton’s “Motherless Brooklyn,” based on the acclaimed novel, and Adam Driver in “The Report,” based on the true and very timely story of the Congressional investigation into torture of US prisoners.

Batman’s Nemesis Joker — Who Played Him Best?

Posted on October 2, 2019 at 8:10 am

As Joaquin Phoenix’s “Joker” comes to the screen this week, we take a look at previous incarnations of Batman’s most popular villain:

Copyright DC Comics 1940

1. The Joker made his debut as a serial killer whose poison left victims with a gruesome rictus “grin” in the very first Batman comic, created by Bob Kane, Bill Finger, and Jerry Robinson. He was originally intended to be killed off, but the editor at DC liked him and he appeared in nine of the first twelve Batman issues.

2. Cesar Romero played Joker in the campy 1960’s television series.

3. My personal favorite — Jack Nicholson played Joker in the Tim Burton “Batman” movie opposite Michael Keaton.

4. Heath Ledger won a posthumous Oscar for his Joker, in the Christopher Nolan Dark Knight movie with Christian Bale.

5. I’m not a fan of Jared Leto’s Joker in “Suicide Squad,” but you have to admire his commitment.

6. The great Mark Hamill provides the creepy laugh and voice of the Joker in the animated series.

7. And now Joaquin Phoenix takes over in the first film to make Joker the lead character (we only glimpse future Batman Bruce Wayne as a young boy).

Judy

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”