The DVD Report #653

Judy, newly released on Blu-ray and standard DVD, is a musical drama about the last days of the legendary Judy Garland, or to be precise, about her five-week run of concerts at London’s Talk of the Town (now the Hippodrome Casino) in early 1969, a few months before her death in June of that year.

Renée Zellweger, in her first important new film role since 2006’s Miss Potter, transforms herself into the emaciated, booze and drug-fueled superstar at the end of her tether, eerily capturing her look, walk, and demeanor. It’s a cliché to say that an actor is the real-life person they are playing, but that has never been truer than it is here with Zellweger uncannily impersonating a woman who died the year she born.

Zellweger is not the powerful singer Garland was for most of her career, but her interpretation is close enough to capture the still strong interpretations Garland gave her classic songs as she neared the end. Her last appearance on stage, when she is unable to perform her signature song and the audience rises to sing it to her instead, is the film’s most goose-pimply moment. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself singing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” for days after seeing the film.

Aside from Zellweger, there are good supporting performances from rising star Jessie Buckley (Wild Rose) as Garland’s unflappable London assistant and Finn Wittrock (If Beale Street Could Talk) as Mickey Deems, her fifth and final husband. The rest of the cast, however, is a mixed bag, with hulking 6’4 ½” Richard Cordery ludicrously cast as 5’6″ Louis B. Mayer in the film’s heavy-handed flashback sequences.

The success of Judy on the heels of the Freddie Mercury and Elton John musical biographies, Bohemian Rhapsody and Rocketman, respectively, bodes well for the genre with Jennifer Hudson as Aretha Franklin in the currently filming Respect with an announced biography of Janis Joplin also in the works. The same can’t be said for the future of adaptations of Broadway musicals with the disastrous reception accorded Cats, but if the forthcoming film version of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In the Heights and Steven Spielberg’s remake of West Side Story prove successful, there may be hope yet for the often promised, but never fulfilled, film versions of Broadway’s Sunset Boulevard and Follies to actually get made.

The screenplay is by Tom Edge (TV’s The Crown), expanded from the play by former actor Peter Quilter (TV’s A Touch of Frost). It was directed by Rupert Goold (TV’s True Story).

Ad Astra is a thought-provoking science-fiction film that takes its time in getting where it’s going, something that today’s legion of science-fiction fans find boring. Too bad for them. The film is structured like the peeling of an onion, with each new layer revealing something more as we get to the core.

Brad Pitt, in one of his best performances, plays a circumspect astronaut who is sent on a mission to find the astronaut father he thought died thirty years before when his space mission failed. Slowly he learns that his father did not die but may in fact be the force behind the anti-matter that is slowly destroying Earth.

Like all writer-director James Gray’s films (The Lost City of Z, The Immigrant), the film is rich in detail. My favorite is the discovery that near-future life is not the way it is depicted in most science-fiction films as either vastly better or worse, but pretty much the same as it is now with the moon’s space stations featuring the same overpriced convenience stands as today’s airports on Earth.

It may take a second viewing to fully understand everything that is going on, but it’s worth the time and effort.

Tommy Lee Jones and Donald Sutherland have the principal supporting roles.

Ad Astra is available on Blu-ray and standard DVD.

With the current theatrical release of Greta Gerwig’s version of Little Women, now may be a good time to look back at previous versions of Louisa May Alcott’s classic, all of which are somewhat different.

George Cukor’s 1933 version received Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Director, and Writing, Adaptation, winning for the latter. The cast includes Katharine Hepburn as Jo, Joan Bennett as Amy, Jean Parker as Beth, Frances Dee as Meg, Spring Byington as Marmee, Edna May Oliver as Aunt March, Henry Stephenson as Mr. Laurence, Douglas Montgomery as Laurie, John Lodge as John Brooke, and Paul Lukas as Prof. Bhaer. They are all superb with Hepburn and Oliver coming off best.

Mervyn LeRoy’s 1949 version, the first in color, received Oscar nominations for its color cinematography and art direction, winning for the latter. The cast includes June Allyson as Jo, Elizabeth Taylor as Amy, Margaret O’Brien as Beth, Janet Leigh as Meg, Mary Astor as Marmee, Lucile Watson as Aunt March, C. Aubrey Smith (in his last role) as Mr. Laurence, Peter Lawford as Laurie, Richard Wyler as John Brooke, and Rossano Brazzi as Prof. Bhaer. O’Brien steals it, as she did most of her 1940s films.

The 1978 TV miniseries, directed by David Lowell Rich and Gordon Hessler, received Emmy nominations for its cinematography and art direction, winning for the latter. The cast includes Susan Dey as Jo, Ann Dusenberry as Amy, Eve Plumb as Beth, Meredith Baxter as Meg, Dorothy McGuire as Marmee, Greer Garson as Aunt March, Robert Young as Mr. Laurence, Richard Gilliland as Laurie, Cliff Potts as John Brooke, and William Shatner as Prof. Bhaer. This was the only version in which the actress playing the oldest sister, Meg, was billed first due to the alphabetical listing of the actresses playing them. Plumb comes off best among the girls, but acting legends McGuire, Garson, and Young are the standouts.

Gillian Armstrong’s 1994 version received Oscar nominations for Best Actress (Winona Ryder), Costume Design, and Score with no wins. The cast includes Ryder as Jo, Kirsten Dunst as young Amy, Samantha Mathis as older Amy, Claire Danes as Beth, Trini Alvarado as Meg, Susan Sarandon as Marmee, Mary Wickes as Aunt March, Christian Bale as Laurie, Eric Stolz as John Brooke and Gabriel Byrne as Prof. Bhaer. In addition to Ryder, Dunst, Danes, Sarandon, and Bale were singled out for praise.

The 2018 TV miniseries, directed by Vanessa Caswill, received no major awards recognition in the U.S. although Annes Elway did receive a BAFTA nomination as Amy. The cast included Maya Hawke (daughter of Ethan Hawke and Uma Thurman) as Jo, Kathryn Newton as Amy, Willa Fitzgerald as Beth, Emily Watson as Marmee, Angela Lansbury as Aunt March, Michael Gambon as Mr. Laurence, Jonah Hauer-King as Laurie, Julian Morris as John Brooke, and Mark Stanley as Prof. Bhaer. Unfortunately, it is a rather bland version which even Lansbury is unable to enliven.

This week’s new releases include The Peanut Butter Solution and Trapped.

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