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Judy (2019)

The real reason to watch Judy is the triumphant, blazing return of Renee Zellweger as the talent we’ve known her to be as an actress. She’s faded from the spotlight over the last decade, gotten a controversial face lift, and spent over a year prepping to play the role of the legendary Judy Garland during a 1969 British tour, what would prove to be the last months of her life. Zellweger disappears into the character, astonishingly recreating the mannerisms, posture, and vocal cadences of the famous Old Hollywood Wizard of Oz star. She’s tremendous and while clearly troubled and weathered, the film takes a remarkably sympathetic approach to its subject. Garland’s present-day alcoholism, pill popping, and narcissism can trace their roots to her young days as a teenage studio star where the powers that be, namely studio honcho Louis B. Mayer, would bully her, harass her, and molest her. The exploitation mechanisms of Old Hollywood made me wish that Judy was a more unconventional biopic, blending the past and present into a daring, metaphorical journey over the rainbow of a woman in the spotlight her entire life. Instead, we’re watching Garland stumble onto the stage, struggle to sleep and perform, and live a sad existence where she can be reminded, just every so often, the impact she can have, like a sweet impromptu home visit with a gay couple that is a miracle of tiny kindnesses. There’s not much plot here as the film, too, stumbles and shambles to its finale, with very little attention given to the supporting characters. Her whirlwind romance with a younger man (Finn Wittrock) fails to ignite much insight, and he’s named Mickey, so I was confusing him as an adult Mickey Rooney, who appears onscreen in flashbacks and was Judy’s first love (she asked if they were dating and Rooney said he would have to check with Mayer — every woman’s dream). Watching the movie made me feel like there was a stronger version of this story begging to be told. Regardless, Judy is a well made if conventional biopic with a real razzle-dazzle performance from Zelwegger, who stunned me with her final singing number and the longing, remorseful, melancholy emotions she was able to dredge. Judy will be best remembered for her performance alone and that’s perfectly right.

Nate’s Grade: B

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Bridget Jones’ Baby (2016)

bjb-adv1sheet-rgb-1-57ab705f117b2-1Coming 12 years after the last Bridget Jones outing, I was pleasantly surprised to discover how warm my feelings still were for this plucky, feisty heroine. Now in her mid/late 40s, Bridget is contemplating a life never becoming a mother when, surprise, she gets very pregnant and has two possible fathers: billionaire love guru Jack (Patrick Dempsey) or her newly available on-again off-again beau, Mark Darcy (Colin Firth). It’s a frothy plot contrivance but the screenwriters (including author Helen Fielding and co-star Emma Thompson) are able to produce fun comic scenarios that fully embrace the premise and its soapy conflicts. Bridget has two pretty appealing options, and when both men finally discover the possibility of the other, it becomes an entertaining game of one-upsmanship. The requisite romantic comedy elements don’t forget to be funny too, including an ending rush to the hospital that achieves some inspired slapstick. The film is swiftly paced and filled with zingers, and I just sat back for the two-plus hours and enjoyed the company of these silly yet realistic human beings. I enjoyed the adult humor and conversations that rarely get as much development in this genre. With all her self-sabotaging ways, you come to realize how much of a prize Miss Bridget is, and Zellweger slips right back into the role like no time has passed. However, plenty will grumble about Zellweger’s much-publicized plastic surgery, or the fact that she didn’t pack on the pounds for this picture, but I don’t see why any of that greatly matters in the interpretation of this character. The personality of Bridget is more than the alignment of her facial features. For fans of the series, Bridget Jones’ Baby is a welcomed return to form from 2004’s Edge of Reason and an extra dose of enjoyable fan service, tying up its tidy happy ending with a bow. Here’s something to chew over: my father had no prior knowledge of the Bridget Jones series, decided to see this movie, and enjoyed it thusly. Give Bridget Jones and her baby daddy drama a chance and you too may be surprised.

Nate’s Grade: B

New in Town (2009)

Uninspired, slack, overly sentimental, deeply formulaic, the romantic comedy New in Town is so lazy it could have been written by a committee of trained chimps. This tired fish-out-of-water story takes a big city businesswoman (Renee Zellweger) and drops her in frigid small town Minnesota. Get ready for funny Fargo accents and dated stereotypes, doncha know. First the locals are ridiculed and then our big city gal discovers that these small town folk are to be envied. Just once, I’d like to see a Hollywood movie where a big city professional takes an extended jaunt in some Podunk town and discovers at the end… that small towns are overrated and they’ll take the big city any day. Sorry Sarah Palin, small towns do not have a monopoly on values and are not any more truly American than we city dwellers. Anyway, Zellweger looks like she’s in pain the whole time, then again that could be that natural contortion of her scrunched-up face. There’s a romance between her and the local union rep (Harry Connick Jr.), some lessons to be learned, and a late savior in the form of tapioca pudding. New in Town is moronic at most every step, and given the current wintry economic climate, a romantic comedy about downsizing feels like a bad joke in itself.

Nate’s Grade: C

Cinderella Man (2005)

Let’s talk a little about screenwriter Akiva Goldsman. This is the man responsible for travesties like Lost in Space and the franchise killing, pun-crazy Batman and Robin. There’s plenty of junk writers in Hollywood and plenty of good writers just saddled by junk to make a living, and either might apply to Goldsman.  How in the world did he become a Hollywood go-to guy?It probably has something to do with Ron Howard. Goldsman adapted the screenplay for Howard’s film A Beautiful Mind and both walked away with Oscars. Suddenly the man who wrote Mr. Freeze saying, “You’re not sending MEEE to the COOLER,” had an Oscar on his mantle. Goldsman and Howard, in retrospect, seem like a match made in heaven. They both enjoy big Hollywood event movies that spoon-feed an audience and shave off the gray areas. Cinderella Man serves as the duo’s second collaboration and it’s exactly what you would expect a big Hollywood event movie to be from them.

Jim Braddock (Russell Crowe) is an up-and-coming New Jersey boxer who’s on a warpath to the heavyweight title. His wife Mae (Renee Zellweger) loves him dearly and he dotes on his three kids. Life seems so perfect in 1929 America. And then the Depression hits. Braddock breaks his hand in a fight and his skills slip tremendously. The boxing commission revokes his license and Braddock is forced to take a dock job to provide for his family. Times are tough and there doesn’t appear to be a way out, until Braddock’s old boxing manager (Paul Giamatti) offers him a one time only bout in the ring. Braddock is seen as a has-been but he knocks his opponent flat out. More fights come and so do more victories, and Jim Braddock seems destined for a remarkable storybook comeback. But then there’s the reigning champ Max Baer (Craig Bierko), an arrogant playboy. Baer also is a ferocious fighter and has actually killed two men in the ring. The championship leads through him and Braddock is unafraid. Mae is terrified she’ll become a widow and pleads with her husband not to fight. But now that he’s been through the gutter, Braddock knows what he?s fighting for: the survival of his family. To do that, he?s headed for a title match with Baer.

What elevates Cinderella Man from an “okay” film into a “mostly good” film is the singular brilliance of Russell Crowe. This man is simply one of the most amazing actors we’ve ever seen, and he’s been on an incredible hot streak since 1999’s The Insider (forget 2000’s Proof of Life, please). Yet again mastering another accent, Crowe excels at playing a noble man with guarded emotions and honest intentions. He’s an actor that can display such an intense wealth of emotions in the same moment. When he visits his old boxing bosses, hat in hand, begging for enough money to turn the electricity back on, Crowe has laid a sucker punch to your emotions. It’s getting to the point where I will go out and see any movie Russell Crowe stars in just to soak up his brilliant performance. He can throw a phone at my head anytime. Crowe’s stellar and resonant acting will hopefully be noticed come Oscar time; however, I doubt much else of Cinderella Man will be remembered.

Crowe’s sparring partner doesn’t fare as well. I’ve liked Zellweger in a lot of her roles (even the sappy One True Thing), but she’s entirely miscast as Braddock’s underwritten stand-by-your-man wife. She scrunches her face too much and squints for most of the movie.

Two great actors make the most of their meager roles. Giamatti serves as Braddock’s growling pit dog of a corner man and works up a good froth. Bierko almost transcends the film’s one-note villain caste and becomes a figure of showboating sensuality. He struts in the ring with a gallant pride that’s fun to watch, even though you know Howard?s whispering in your ear, “Booooo. Don’t like him. He’s the mean man. Booooo.”

The production design on Cinderella Man is great and really recreates the look and feel of the 1930s in all walks of life. The cinematography, on the other hand, seems washed out and overly dark in spots, though it may have just been my theater?s projection. I miss Roger Deakins, DP on A Beautiful Mind. Deakins knew how to beautifully light a scene and capture the audience with a precise, eye-pleasing angle. In contrast, Cinderella Man seems to think that sepia tones defined the time period of the 1930s.

Howard still has little to no trust in his audience. He can’t rely on the performances of his actors to express their motivation. We know why Braddock is fighting during the Depression, Howard. We don’t need split-second cuts of his family for reminders. It’s almost like Howard wants to point to the screen and tell the audience what to feel. It should be obvious by now but ambiguity doesn’t work here. That’s why Braddock is seen as almost saintly (never mind the connections to organized crime). That’s why Baer is seen as dastardly (never mind that in 1933 Baer heroically wore a Jewish star and knocked out Hitler’s favorite prize fighter, Max Schmeling). It seems that the details just get in the way when Howard wants to turn true-life stories into calculating crowd-pleasers.

At the docks, just in case we don’t get how tragic the Great Depression is (you know, in case you forgot what either the words “great” or “depression” meant), Howard has to bend over backwards to show someone stepping over a newspaper declaring how high unemployment is. When Braddock finds a friend in Hoovertown (Central Park turned into a neighborhood of shanties) we see him run over by a horse and buggy as another man crushed by the system or a runaway metaphor. When Baer fights in the ring Howard makes sure to get that sneering close-up of our villain. And surely anyone who’s a womanizing playboy must go down for the good of the nation. Howard is aggressive in his pandering.

Thanks to Goldsman and Hollingsworth’s mawkish script, Cinderella Man has the myth of complexity to it when it’s really content to go the easy route. It plays this story too close to the rules: embittered hero with humanity intact, stalwart wife, cocky villain, the grumbling manager. Cinderella Man is stripped of complexity and Goldsman and Hollingsworth want to lead the audience by the nose. When Braddock promises his son in a heart-to-heart that he’ll never split up the family, we know it’s only a matter of time before it happens. Their script is also full of workmanlike dialogue that does enough to just push the story forward but give little shading to its people (Zellweger’s, “You are the champion of my heart, Jim Braddock” is particularly not great.

Cinderella Man really is a film more about the Depression than boxing, except for its pummeling and gritty final act of non-stop boxing. The script paints an almost insulting idea that the Depression was good for people to learn important life lessons, like family comes first, hard work will be rewarded, and one man can heal a nation. Seabiscuit fell into this same trap with its depiction of the Depression but at least Gary Ross’ film dealt with characters that weren’t tired genre archetypes. Cinderella Man could be described as “Seabiscuit in a boxing ring,” as yet again the triumph of an underdog pulls the country back together and gives the common man something to believe in. What I’d like to see is Braddock vs. Seabiscuit in a ring or even on the horse’s turf. Then we can finally decide once and for all who is responsible for getting America out of the Depression (somewhere FDR is spinning in his wheelchair-accessible grave).

The film does come alive when Braddock steps into the ring. The boxing matches are finely choreographed and pack a real wallop. You can practically feel the bruises and taste the sweat during the 15-round bout between Braddock and Baer. These scenes give you a good understanding of the progression of a boxing match and the real strategy that can turn a loser into a winner. Howard also has a smart visual cue during these lively moments. Whenever a bone gets broken, like Braddock’s hand, we cut to an X-ray shot of that scene and see the bone snap. It might seem old in a CSI-drenched landscape of entertainment but it’s effective and neat.

Cinderella Man is a rousing, heartstring-tugging crowd-pleaser that will inspire hope and redemption. Until you look at it more objectively. It?s easy to get sucked into Howard’s underdog tale and that’s because it’s been tailored to satisfy your emotions. Crowe rises above this heavy-handed yesteryear yarn with a riveting performance. I’m positive most people will walk away from Cinderella Man feeling uplifted and touched and would view me as being overly cynical. But with a maudlin story by Goldsman that simplifies the details, Cinderella Man feels like a feel-good-movie that’s been rigged. These people have no trust in their audience, so why should you put your trust in them?

Nate’s Grade: C+

Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason (2004)

You don’t see too many sequels to romantic comedies, and that?s practically by design. Most romantic comedies consist of keeping the leads apart as long as possible, and then in that final climactic moment they connect, embrace, kiss, usually while a camera pans around them and some up-tempo Top 40 songs swells on the soundtrack. Then we end, our story finished. You see, romantic comedies are essentially modern fairy tales, and they end on the “happily ever after” moment, the most joyous moment. We don?t think about what their lives could be afterwards. I doubt few in the audience are biting their nails to know who does the dishes or if their sex life diminishes.

So for all of these stated reasons, sequels to romantic comedies are rare, unless, of course, they’re based on a book series that’s a cash cow of chick lit. Thus, America, we are given Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason, the sequel to the smash 2001 film Bridget Jones’s Diary.

The movie takes place four weeks after Bridget (Renee Zellweger) and Mark Darcy (Colin Firth) cuddling in the falling snow. Their relationship is all lovey-dovey, until Bridget starts reconsidering if she made the right choice of men. Her former boss, Daniel (Hugh Grant) has gone on to fame as a travel correspondent for TV news. He’s a bad boy, for sure, but sparks flew with him. Bridget also suspects Mark of cheating on her with a leggy colleague (whose final plot revelation is quite dumb). Bridget tries her best to fit in with Mark’s upper crust society, but is starting to feel unaccepted. Then she becomes a partner to Daniel on his travel reports, and the two visit exotic locales and sparks begin once more.

Edge of Reason feels like a poor slapdash grab at money. The film lifts entire scenes from the first Bridget Jones movie and tries reworking them for similar effect. Watching Firth and Grant sissy fight each other is amusing … the first time I saw it in 2001. For the most part, it seems like the filmmakers behind Edge of Reason were straining to come up with things after that “happily ever after” moment. What other reason can there be for some of the disastrous plot turns in Edge of Reason? The revolving door of writers (including author Helen Fielding herself) manufacture petty and foolish nitpicks for Bridget that she treats as life or death. It’s hard to feel concern for her. When you strand your main character -in a romantic comedy, no less- in a Thailand prison because she was caught smuggling drugs -in a romantic comedy, remember- then you have some giant plot issues.

The wit and biting commentary from Bridget seem to be stripped away. She only makes two journal entries, which open and close the film, and they were responsible for some of the greatest comedy bits in the original movie. She no longer comes across as a snappy, ordinary girl with a big heart and some big neuroses (did I mention the Thailand prison?). The Bridget of Edge of Reason seems a bit obnoxious at times. The comedy of Edge of Reason doesn’t generally rise above slapstick. Watch Bridget parachute into a dung field (Ha!), watch Bridget ski backwards down a slalom (Hilarious!), watch Bridget get stoned from magic mushrooms (You’re killing me!), and don?t forget to watch her fall down, like, a lot (R.I.P. Nate; cause of death: laughing too hard). The makers of Edge of Reason are just trying too damn hard.

It’s a wonder that Edge of Reason does work at times, and that reason is because of the acting of our romantic trio. Zellweger is still incredibly charming despite some of the things she’s forced to do. She’s never looked better than when she has her Bridget Jones physique; she’s practically glowing. Grant is at his best when he’s a cad, and once again he gets the best lines, especially when he’s undressing Bridget during a work trip. The movie comes alive when he and Zellweger start their flirtatious battle. Firth adds shades of humanity and adoration to his fuddy-duddy role. He’s got a great everyman appeal even when he’s being a twit.

Edge of Reason also seems to flog whatever it feels is funny. If Bridget saying something inappropriate in front of a group of dignitaries and ambassadors is funny, then expect it to happen again five or six times. And it does, sadly. Edge of Reason is almost a wall-to-wall torture chamber of public embarrassment for Bridget, and if the filmmakers thought that would endear her to audiences they were wrong. We were endeared already by her wit and charm, but I guess the people behind Edge of Reason thought we didn’t want more of that. I miss you old Bridget Jones, wherever you are.

The first Bridget Jones movie was directed by Sharon Maguire, a personal friend of Fielding. Maguire was close enough to know how to adapt the story and retain the elements that made Bridget Jones entertaining. Edge of Reason‘s director Beeban Kidron seems to be assembling a Bridget Jones movie for a focus group. We lose the personality of Bridget and get an accident-prone buffoon. All that’s missing are the banana peels.

Everything about Edge of Reason screams laziness. A great example of this is the film’s choice for music. The songs are so obvious, from “All By Myself” to “I’m Not in Love” to songs that simply have “love” in their title, like “I Believe in a Thing Called Love” to Beyonce’s “Crazy in Love.” Chances are, if your band ever released a song with “love” in the title, the music director of Edge of Reason considered using it.

Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason will likely entertain its core audience (there were very few men unaccompanied by women in my theater). The cast makes this stilted sequel worth watching. If you really liked Bridget Jones’s Diary, you’ll probably be intermittently amused with Edge of Reason, because it’s the same meal, only reheated with a bit of a chill. Let this be an example of why Hollywood doesn’t make sequels to romantic comedies. We’re happy enough with “happily ever after.”

Nate’s Grade: C+

Cold Mountain (2003)

Cold Mountain (2003)

Premise: At the end of the Civil War, Inman (Jude Law, scruffy) deserts the Confederate lines to journey back home to Ada (Nicole Kidman), the love of his life he’’s spent a combined 10 minutes with.

Results: Terribly uneven, Cold Mountain‘s drama is shackled by a love story that doesn’t register the faintest of heartbeats. Kidman is wildly miscast, as she was in The Human Stain, and her beauty betrays her character. She also can’’t really do a Southern accent top save her life (I’’m starting to believe the only accent she can do is faux British). Law’s ever-changing beard is even more interesting than her prissy character. Renee Zellweger, as a no-nonsense Ma Clampett get-your-hands-dirty type, is a breath of fresh air in an overly stuff film; however, her acting is quite transparent in an, “”Aw sucks, give me one ‘dem Oscars, ya’’ll” way.”

Nate’’s Grade: C

Chicago (2002)

January at the theaters is a tale of two kinds of films. One type are the studio bombs (take Just Married and Darkness Falls, please take them far away). The other type are the prestige pictures expanding their releases in hopes of garnering some of that Oscar magic. A lot of prestige films were released around the holidays and though not every one could be a winner, they were all better than Kangaroo Jack. Well, except for The Hours.

Chicago (2002)

Premise: Roxie Hart (Renee Zellweger), hungry for fame, finally grasps it when she kills her lover and is put on trial. Silver-tongue lawyer Billy Flynn (Richard Gere) stirs up the media in her defense, as well as for another starlet killer, Velma Kelly (Catherine Zeta-Jones).

Results: A song-and-dance picture that’s quite toe-tappin’ with imaginative numbers, even if I can only remember like two songs. A surprisingly steady Zeta-Jones really shines and Gere can cut a rug. Chicago is just lively fun. Blink and you’ll miss Lucy Liu in it.

Nate’s Grade: B

Nurse Betty (2000)

Can a fairy tale have a dark undertone below all the bubbly whimsy? Hell, the Grimm tales were barbaric before they became homogenized, sanitized, and finally Disneytized. Nurse Betty presents a modern day fairy tale with the strike of reality always below it — the strike of darkness and disappointment. Fairy tales are an escape from this, but what if one creates her own fairy tale and chooses to believe in it over the drab reality she presides in?

Neil LaBute, the director of the incessantly dark In the Company of Men and Your Friends and Neighbors, collects together a whimsical modern day fable with a top-notch cast. Yes, to those fans of earlier LaBute offeriengs his name doesn’t seem synonymous with whimsical comedy – but in this flick LaBute cuts his teeth in the mainstream and earns his stripes if ever.

Baby-voiced and rosy-cheeked Renee Zellweger plays our heroine in diner worker and soap opera fanatic Betty. Betty finds solace from her life featuring a sleazy spouse, played with marvelous flair by Aaron Eckhart, in her favorite soap opera. When her louche of a hubby isn’t wiping his hands on the kitchen curtains or banging his secretary he tries proposing drug deals for shady characters. A recent drug peddling snafu sets him up to an ominous encounter with hitmen team Morgan Freeman and Chris Rock. Through a jarring scene of violence Betty’s husband is left brutally murdered and the only witness is Betty herself. The event causes Betty to slip into a fractured psychological state where she believes the world of her soap opera is alive and real with herself a vital character. She hops in one of her dead hubby’s used cars and drives off toward California to meet the doctor/soap star of her dreams in Greg Kinnear.

Morgan Freeman and Chris Rock mistake Betty for a criminal mastermind and believe her to have taken the drugs and run. They embark on their own mad dash to capture her and finish the job they were paid to complete. Along the way Betty encounters many people that are at first confused but ultimately charmed by this delusional dame. Through a series of events she meets up with the eternally smarmy Kinnear and begins to learn what happens when a fantasy is corrupted by the disappointment of reality. Allison Janey has a small part as a network executive that shines strong, and Crispin “McFly” Glovin is just nice to see in a film again. He doesn’t seem to age though. Maybe he has that Dick Clark disease.

The flow of Betty is well paced and a smart mix between drama, whimsy, and dark humor. Overlooking some sudden bursts of violence bookend the film it comes across as a sweet yet intelligent satire and fable. Betty is looking for her Prince Charming but will later learn that she doesn’t need one, that she is the fairy tale happy ending inside her.

The acting of Nurse Betty is never in danger of flat-lining. Zelwegger is a lovable and good-natured heroine. Freeman is a strong and deceptively hilarious actor along side a caustic yet down-to-earth Rock. And I make an outgoing question if there is an actor alive out there that can do smarm better than Kinnear — I think not.

Nurse Betty is a wonderful surprise. Check into your local theater, take one showing, and call me in the morning. You’ll be glad you did.

Nate’s Grade: A-

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