Friday, September 27, 2019

Renee elevates 'Judy'; Miles Davis soars and water roars in separate documentaries

Show business and the environment make some noise in a trio of movie openings today, including a pair of documentaries.

Zellweger dazzles as entertainer Judy Garland in the very late stages of a career.
If you're interested in awards season, though, the one to see right now is "Judy," with a little lady turning in one gigantic performance as a superstar from another time and place. The latter would be the one-and-only Judy Garland, the diminutive dual-threat actress/singer for four decades, now brought back to troubled life by a knockout performance from Renee Zellweger (already a supporting actress Oscar-winner for 2003's "Cold Mountain").

Zellweger, herself making a kind of screen comeback, absolutely embodies a forty something Garland, even singing up a storm with a fabulous turn that often dwarfs the movie, especially when it features glimpses of her character's very early career. The way a script based on a stage play ("End of the Rainbow") tells it and director Rupert Goold shows it, MGM studio kingpin Louis B. Mayer (Richard Cordery) and constant co-star Mickey Rooney (Gus Barry) were making the teen-age Judy (Darci Shaw) miserable in very different ways during those late-'30s days.

The teen-age Garland apparently had a serious crush on Rooney that was never reciprocated, while a tyrannical Mayer forced his "Wizard of Oz" star to take pep pills, diet constantly and celebrate her 16th birthday two months early for publicity scheduling purposes.

Such early turmoil certainly contributed to Garland's grown-up woes of possible addiction, heavy drinking, cancelled appearances, bad press and five marriages (and oh, by the way, Rooney had eight). Regardless, Zellweger plays them all to the hilt, albeit having to deal with only one new husband (Finn Witttrock) here, as well as a more famous ex, Sid Luft (Rufus Sewell), and all the while showing Garland as a loving mom to boot.

Much of it is sad, poignant stuff to be sure but, as centered around a six-week London nightclub engagement, "Judy" and Renee show off an array of emotional flourishes that climax with a legitimate show-stopper. Everyone will recognize the Garland standard that always manages to touch the heart, and here might reach right into the soul, too.

Rated "PG-13": substance abuse, thematic content, some strong language, and smoking; 1:57; $ $ $ and 1/2 out of $5

Davis fashioned cool jazz out of torment.
As for those aforementioned docs, "Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool" is the one that follows a similar path of entertainment excesses while showing off the legitimate genius and elegant music of the title musician.

Director Stanley Nelson tells Davis' warts and all story with plenty of room for remarkable bits of information, scholarly comments from an assortment of names and faces, and historical rhythms of Bebop that simply might drive jazz devotees to the brink in a good way.

Sound-alike narration from actor Carl Lumbly, using often angry and ever-passionate words from Davis' autobiography, adds a kind of you-are-there feel to the life of a complex man whose horn became his internationally famous canvas.

Not rated; 1:55; $ $ $ $ out of $5

Meanwhile, the art featured in director Viktor Kossakovsky's occasionally scary "Aquarela" comes with the force of a hurricane in Miami, an ice-covered river that swallows up automobiles in Siberia, and monstrous glaciers tossing out giant frozen remnants as if they were tiny pieces of spittle.

Such is the massive power of water in all its mighty forms and personas across several continents, thus making for some brilliant cinematography. Surely there's an environmental warning or two that need no narration, either, to send its eagerly severe message.

Nature's sound and fury, though, become the lone reasons to see and maybe embrace it and, even at less than 90 minutes, such relentless imagery feels like a lot of watching. Listening to a metal-heavy score from a cellist, believe it or not, named Eicca Toppinen helps move the big pictures along.

Rated "PG": disturbing thematic elements; 1:29; $ $ $ out of $5

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