“JUDY” Biopic Film Review

A truly gripping motion picture that will bring you to tears during this somewhere over the rainbow redemption story. Bring tissues. Renee Zellweger is captivating as Judy Garland, and you’ll swear that you’re watching Garland on the big screen. Although we may be familiar with the broad strokes career of the legendary entertainer, this film goes beyond the headlines and tabloids to deliver a true life story that could ironically be titled A Star is Born, or perhaps reborn. Ironic in that this film shows the life of a movie star after the lights have faded and the offers stop coming in, much like the movie she starred in. It’s a rise and fall story, of sorts, but is more precisely a fall and rise story as the movie focusses in on the last year of Judy Garland’s life. If you are worried that the film ends on her death, you can be relived that the film chooses to stop the story prior to the end of the iconic star’s life. And it works so incredibly well! While there are many movies (not unlike A Star is Born) that focus on the rise and fall of a talent in showbusiness, this movie skips all the glitz and glamor to paint a realistic portrait of what it is like for those whom grow up in front of the camera, controlled by those around them, just to wind up in front of booing crowds, empty bank accounts, homelessness, and a tumultuous custody battle. Not to mention her addiction to pills that was caused by abusive treatment at the hands of the old studio system because of being force fed pills from an early age. Whether you are a fan of the iconic diva or not, if you love command performances, then you do not want to miss the uncanny performance of Zellweger as Judy. All the way down to the mannerisms, vocal inflections, and over all behavior, she IS Judy. Although we all know of the tragic ending, no mistaking it, this film is an inspirational story of redemption.

The money is gone, career on the rocks, and risking the loss of custody of her two youngest children, that is the last year’s of Judy Garland’s life. Unfortunately the other side of the rainbow for Judy was anything but magical. Three decades after starring in one of the greatest film musicals of all time The Wizard of Oz, the beloved actress and singer is in dire straights. She is left with virtually nothing except her name and what remains of her timeless voice that charmed millions throughout her early illustrious career. In order to prove that she can provide for her two youngest children, she accepts a gig in London playing to sold-out shows at the Talk of the Town night club. While there, she reminisces with friends and fans, fights her depression and anxiety over performing, and begins a whirlwind romance with her soon-to-be fifth husband.

“For one hour, I am Judy Garland, and the rest of the time I am just like everyone else” is a paraphrased quote from the movie, but it illustrates how the actress and singer felt about her relationship with the world. The movie chronicles her inability to stay afloat financially in Los Angeles and must accept a gig in London where her personal troubles continue to follow and haunt her. Her character is so incredibly relatable because many of us have found ourselves in traps that we have stepped in and are at a loss as to how to get out. If you thought this was going to be another cliche musical biopic, then you would be mistaken. No pretense about it, this is an unapologetic look at the dark side of Hollywood in perhaps one of the greatest stories that is right up there with Norma Desmond. Now, I am not equating Judy with what is, in my opinion, the greatest film of all time Sunset Boulevard, but her story is not unlike the one experienced by Norma. The movie also comments on the far reaching effects of childhood trauma on the adult psyche. No one understood the extent that she was abused by the studio system except for Judy herself. If her present-day handlers knew what she went through during the years that American fell in love with The Wizard of OzMeet Me in St. Louis, and more, then they would not-so-casually write her off as a wrecked hasbeen who mismanaged her money and relationships. The film deals with perception versus reality. Strategically placed in the film are flashbacks to her childhood at MGM that provide context for moving the present story forward as each moment reveals a new layer to the legendary entertainer.

Zellweger delivers a performance for the ages in this film. More than a spot-on impression, she transforms into Judy Garland to the extent that you will almost believe that you are watching the iconic actress and singer on the big screen. It is clear that Zellweger studied Judy Garland for months in order to get into character. Her movement, speech pattern, posture, and other behaviors completely sell the audience on this audacious portrayal of such an icon. Never once does she break character and allow the actor to shine through, she remains committed to this phenomenally genuine portrayal of Judy Garland. We all know Zellweger can sing, after all, she wow’d us in Chicago (a rare example of when the movie adaptation IS better than the live show); but nothing will prepare you for the power of her singing in this movie. Other than Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, you will hear Zellweger sing other famous songs by Garland such as Get HappyThe Trolly SongCome Rain or Come Shine, and of course the encore of Over the Rainbow. during the movie’s climactic, emotionally charged, showdown. Even when singing, Zellweger is determined to deliver the songs just as a late-40s Garland did, complete with all the stubbornness, anxiety, and even anger. I truly hope that Zellweger is nominated for this role.

Perhaps the reason why Liza Minelli was quite objectionably vocal about her mother’s portrayal in this movie is because there are creative liberties taken by the writers in order to further dramatize Judy’s story. As I’ve told my screenwriting class, dramatize don’t tell. If a “based on a true story” or biographical film was simply concerned with the timeline of events, the cold hard facts, and cause and effect, then it might feel more like a police procedural or college lecture. Hence why it is imperative that writers DO get a little creative in the dramatization of events for cinematic purposes. For instance, the facts are largely correct in this story as I have compared them to Wikipedia and other newspaper articles, but where I can see the difference is Judy’s reaction to the timeline of events. Articles and tabloids may be able to show what happened, but it is up to the screenwriters to dramatize the reaction to the conflict. So perhaps that is what Liza is upset with, she doesn’t agree with the story details between what we know from Hollywood history. One of the tangential components in the movie is Judy meeting up with “Friends of Judy” at the end of one of her shows. Judy joins them, rather than be by herself for a night of poorly made omelets and casual singing around a piano. It’s an emotionally moving tribute to all the gays who’ve loved her over the years. In all likelihood, this was written for the movie as there is no way of verifying if this night ever happened. This is the scene where I feel that she should’ve sang Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas because tonally it was similar to that scene in Meet Me in St. Louis. Instead, she sings Get Happy.

Maybe this is an unconventional redemption story, but that quality is clearly communicated through the film. Rising up against the internal and external monsters in your life that have dragged you down so far that there is no end in sight. Whereas Judy may not have changed as dramatically as Scrooge did in  A Christmas Carol, she does change during the climax of the movie. If you want to know just how, then you need to go out and watch it!

Ryan teaches screenwriting at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter or email him at RLTerry1@gmail.com!

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“La La Land” movie review

lalalandSimply dazzling! A beautifully produced motion picture musical that is sure to delight audiences around the world. Ryan Gosling (Sebastian) and Emma Stone (Mia) shine brightly in this self-reflexive modern romantic film set on the backdrop of a classically composed movie musical echoing the song and dance numbers that Busby Berkeley brought to the silver screen through Hollywood studio system powerhouse Warner Bros. Summit Entertainment’s La La Land will have you laughing one moment and crying the next in this roller coaster of emotions. Every aspiring professional who has the dream of a substantive career as an artist in the visual and performing arts–or just an artist in general–needs to watch this film. If you have ever been discouraged on your career path, or lack thereof, this film will aid in reigniting the flame that fuels your dreams of writing, acting, playing, or whatever your passion happens to be. Whereas many films similar to this one would have shot it as a period OR modern piece, this film is nothing short of a masterpiece that harnesses the nostalgic appeal of the classic musical with the power of modern cinematic storytelling.

Stories of struggling to reach your dreams are nothing new, but there is so much more to the story of Mia (Stone) and Sebastian’s (Gosling) respective goals of successful careers in the city of angels. Following a chance meeting at a night club in LA where Sebastian was playing a set list of traditional Christmas carols, Mia and Sebastian continue to bump into each other at parties and in the work place. The focus of this musical is on the everyday life of two struggling artists trying to make it in a city notorious for shattering dreams and breaking hearts. Mia and Sebastian must learn what is more important: chasing dreams of being in the spotlight or a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for a beautiful love unmatched by any other.

Best part about Damien Chazelle’s La La Land? The old-school movie musical feel from the moment the film opens. From set pieces to matte paintings to the manner in which the cameras capture the story as the drama unfolds, this is both a modern story of romance and conflict and classic Hollywood musical. While some may find the cinematography, lighting, and editing to be nothing remarkable, the fact of the matter is that it required great skill and hundreds of hours of effort to capture the essence of an old Hollywood musical. To recreate a nearly extinct film genre, is an outstanding achievement in cinematic storytelling and deserves all the 9s and 10s this film is receiving from critics and fans alike. La La Land takes pages right out of the books of Busby Berkeley (Footlight Parade) and Gene Kelly (Singin’ in the Rain). Such a gorgeous combination of a classically structured and choreographed musical within a modern Hollywood. And the film could have easily rested its laurels on the technical and artistic achievements alone, but the film also possesses an incredibly beautiful love story between two aspiring artists.

In a modern studio system who appears all too often to be more concerned with franchise building, merchandising, theme park integration, and rebooting, this film is fresh, real, gritty, and endearing. In a climate so predisposed to the Star WarsesHarry PottersJurassic Parks, and Avengerses, this film brings with is a breath of fresh air that is nearly unmatched by any other film this year. While many are concerned with the lack of original stories coming out of Hollywood, may this film be a testament that masterpieces can still make their way into cinemas nationwide and not simply the art house theatre of the US’ largest metro areas. Although film is a visual medium and should not rely upon the score or songs to carry the bulk of the film (i.e. Frozen), this film is very much about the music. However, unlike films that integrate music in order to cover up poorly structured and developed writing, La La Land embraces the music as much a part of the story as the writing itself. In many ways, the film plays out like music and flows like a musical score. The way the cameras moves, the editor cut, and the blocking of the characters is very much like a musical staff, like the way music is composed and performed. But at the same time, the movie is not simply about the music but about the relationship between Mia and Sebastian; and furthermore, about their aspirations for the spotlight. Solid writing and a solid score.

The casting of La La Land could not have been more brilliant! Both Stone and Gosling successfully bring about that 1940s feel in a modern story. That could be due to the successes of both in 1940s era films prior. Stone in Magic in the Moonlight and Gosling in The Notebook. While both can successfully carry a period piece on their own respectively, together they are a powerhouse couple like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Their performances in this film were so incredibly natural, so real, and believable. At the same time, the actors are also very much contemporary–just like the film: classic yet contemporary. Even though the audience is well aware that Stone and Gosling are anything but struggling artists, they play their respective parts so convincingly that you’d swear that we were actually watching a pair of struggling artists who do desperately want a substantive piece of that Hollywood pie. A great screenplay possesses protagonists that the audience will love or love to hate, and the characters in La La Land connect so incredibly well with classic and contemporary audiences.

Inspirational. This film will help to inspire those who have a talent for storytelling, music, or writing to continue to work hard and remain dedicated to one’s craft because that is the only way that a career can pay off. The moment you stop trying is the moment that the dream dies along with settling for less. Not that day-jobs aren’t important. Certainly the importance of a day job is shown in the film, but it’s imperative that the day job never cause an artist to sell out or give up on the dream. Day jobs should fund imaginative dreams not eclipse them. There is much to love about this film; so much so that you will likely find yourself with a desire to watch it again. This IS definitely my pick for Best Picture as we head into award season with the holidays coming to a close.

DCA’s Hollywood Tower Hotel Under New Management

TOT_DCA_GGThe recent news of the Guardians of the Galaxy makeover of the iconic Tower of Terror (TOT) ride at Disney’s California Adventure has many, if not most, fans of the attraction up in arms. Apparently, it was not being guarded too well. Suffice it to say, those of us who spend a great deal of time in the parks (for me, it’s the Florida parks mostly), we are accustomed to seeing iconic attractions go by way of Jaws: the Ride. That does not mean that one ever gets used to or accepts it; but the fact is that the theme parks have to evolve in order to keep up with those who bring in the most revenue (kids and teenagers, because of their parents or grandparents). Of course, some evolutions are better left in AutoCad. With the Walt Disney Company unable to integrate the Marvel IP into the Florida parks to any significant extent (in terms of attractions), it seems the only choice is to overhaul the Disneyland Resort (DLR) near Los Angeles…

At first, many theme park enthusiast must be wondering why??? However, exploring this recent news from a critical perspective reveals that it is a business decision, plain and simple. As I have written many times, theme parks are glorified arms of revenue–a business line item–that are designed to be cash cows, instant revenue. Most likely, the DLR company conducted surveys and focus groups concerning a proposed idea to refit the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror with Guardians of the Galaxy. Although it is expected that some attractions have to be removed or retrofitted, there are certain attractions–especially in the Disney Parks–that should not be touched. The Disney Parks more so than the Universal Parks rely upon nostalgia. In many ways, this modification of the TOT at DCA is sacrilegious to the original theme of the parks and will upset many people. With the massive refurbishment of TOT, this leaves park regulars and future tourists wondering what iconic attraction is next. If TOT is not safe, then is any attraction safe from elimination??? But, is retheming an attraction always met with disdain? Certainly not. When the 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea attraction at Disneyland Park received its Finding Nemo refurbishment, it was generally met with excitement and praise. That is probably because the soul of the attraction was left in tact. By extension, it could be said that retheming Mission: Space at EPCOT with a Guardians of the Galaxy makeover would actually be welcomed and appreciated as that attraction is getting dated and simply does not see even half the guest numbers that it once did. But should Spaceship Earth get rethemed to a Marvel IP? Definitely not. There are attractions that need to be rethemed or reimagined every couple of decades or so, and then there are those which are best left alone for all to appreciate over the years. But how to know the difference? That’s the question.

Many theme park researchers and fans alike never thought that ToT would become extinct; that is until the rumors began floating around in the last year or so. Much like Universal Studios Florida, Disneyland Resort suffers from lack of room for expansion. Yes, I am aware the Universal has acquired more land recently; but for argument sake, it is important to be able to compare the two. One reason why Universal needed to retheme and replace entire attractions is because it did not have the luxury of expansion until recently. So, the only way to integrate new offerings into the parks was to replace existing ones. Much in the same vein, DLR is also landlocked; and in order to integrate new offerings, it too has little choice but to replace or retheme existing attractions or lands. Accepting the fact that DLR has limited room for geographic expansion, leaves only one alternative: continue to modify the park every 15-20 years or so. The largest source of revenue for theme parks are kids and teenagers. Not that young and older adults do not add large numbers; but the families with kids and teens are the ones who bring in the most revenue due to multiple family members needing multi-day tickets and potentially several nights in a hotel. For every one or two people going to the park alone or together, there is likely one or two families or groups of 4-6 or even more who are also going. Think of it as a 1:4 ratio (and that is probably conservative). Much like Disney’s Hollywood Studios is almost losing its identity with and connection to the magic of filmmaking, with the massive addition of Star Wars and Toy Story Lands, DCA looks like it is also shedding its story of California and Hollywood and dawning the dominant theme of Marvel and Cars. Yes, the parks are integrating movies but not in the same way that the parks were originally designed.

Why is losing its original identity an important part of the equation on whether something is considered a legacy attraction or not? Because once the identity of old Hollywood or the magic of filmmaking is stripped away, then what was once seen as iconic or legacy no longer has that image or appeal. If DCA no longer represents Old Hollywood, gold rush California, or beachside amusements, then the Hollywood Tower Hotel no longer seems relevant. Although many people recognize the Twilight Zone music, it is safe to say that most kids and teens do not know what the Twilight Zone is or was. They don’t know that it was a groundbreaking anthology series in TV’s earlier days. So, if those who are not driving the most revenue into the parks do not understand the significance or nostalgia of the Twilight Zone, if they do not see the park as representing Old Hollywood or filmmaking, and if they have never seen the Tower of Terror movie, then that attraction becomes a prime target for a complete overhaul or massive refurbishment. Essentially, it is like a member of a royal family getting striped of his or her title under a new monarchy. Simply stated, it is apparent that the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror no longer qualifies as a legacy attraction at DLR.

We can analyze this decision all day long and arrive at a litany of conclusions or rationale for why this was or was not a good decision; but the fact of the matter is, unless things change, the ToT at DCA is going to become a Guardians of the Galaxy attraction. In my personal opinion as a theme park enthusiast and long-time fan, I am saddened to see this attraction get replaced by a newly acquired IP; but, the analyst in me can understand why the company is making that decision. Looks as if the Tower of Terror left it “guard” down. Perhaps the new theme will be a success! However, that success comes at the cost of an opening day attraction that many will miss.

On Cinema and Theme Parks (part 2)

My Book

(Continued from Part 1)

Understanding the synergy or convergence that exists between the cinema and theme parks requires looking to the history of the relationship between the two entertainment giants. Before Disney’s Hollywood Studios (formerly Disney-MGM Studios), Universal Studios Florida, and more than 40 years before Disneyland was opened, the founder of Universal Studios (studio) German immigrant Carl Laemmle, opened his 250-acre-movie-making ranch, just north of Los Angeles, to the public for a mere $0.25 (Murdy, 2002). More than side income for the trailblazing studio, most well-known for its pioneering of the horror film, the original studio tour began on the outdoor backlot in March 1915. Laemmle desired to immerse the “people out there in the dark,” as famously referred to by Norma Desmond in the timeless classic Sunset Boulevard, into the magic behind the screen (Sunset Blvd, 1950).

Interestingly, according to famed psychiatrist Sigmund Freud, horror is often concerned with revealing “other” scenes to the audience (Freud, 1919). And, keeping with this theoretical approach to horror cinema, Laemmle opened this “other” scene to the guests of Universal Studios Hollywood.  But more than horror, Laemmle also brought the studio guests face-to-face with western action/drama (Murdy, 2002). From early in the 20th century, the concept of cinema and theme park convergence was born. The happy marriage, however, was not to last very long. Upon the introduction of cinema sound, Laemmle was forced to close the studio “park” to the not-so-quiet guests in order to facilitate appropriate recording sound for the motion pictures (Murdy, 2002). The Universal Studios tour would remain closed to the general public for over 30 years. But, in 1961, the studio would once again open its gates to a new generation of movie lovers (Murdy, 2002). Between 1961 and 1964, Universal outsourced the famed tram tour to the Gray Line bus company.  Following a feasibility study, conducted by researcher Buzz Price, the same man who helped determine the locations for Disneyland and Walt Disney World, Universal decided to start its own tram tour of its facilities, and Universal Studios Hollywood opened in July 1964 (Murdy, 2002).

Following the ending of the Studio System, the now bankrupt motion picture studios had been purchased by various conglomerates looking for new sources of income (Riley, 1998). One of the sources of income that studios began investing into was the concept of movie-based theme parks. With the opening of Walter Elias Disney’s Disneyland in 1955, Universal Studios made the decision to incorporate stand-alone attractions into its newly reopened studio tour (Davis, 1996). Both Disneyland and the future Universal Studios used their intellectual property (IP) as the basis for creating theme park rides, shows, and attractions. Although movie studios as a “park” began with Laemmle, in its current incarnation, the convergence of cinema and theme park began with Disneyland, and later was perfected by Walt Disney World and Universal Studios Florida. Since the movie studios already had dedicated movie-going audiences, it made sense to capitalize on the idea of incorporating the concepts from the movies into attractions that the general public could enjoy and be immersed in (Davis, 1996). This action both acts as advertising for the respective studios and generates income for the movies and park improvements.

In today’s entertainment marketplace, media conglomerates are restructuring themselves to be as large a player in entertainment and media as possible with the ability to integrate various products and services into multiple areas of exhibition (Taubman, 1970).  This is easily witnessed in how the Walt Disney Company, Sony, and Comcast companies are setup. Walt Disney Company has significant investments in: motion pictures (i.e. Disney, Buena Vista, Touchstone), theme parks, TV (i.e. ABC, Disney Channel), leisure/tourism, radio, video games, stores, and record labels). Sony has investments in consumer/commercial electronics, computers, video game systems, motion pictures (i.e. Sony, Columbia, Tristar), television (CBS), record label, recording studios, radio, and stores. And, much in the same way, Comcast has investments in motion pictures (i.e. Universal Pictures, DreamWorks-SKG), theme parks, resorts, television (i.e. NBC, Golf, SyFy), video games, radio, record labels, and recording studios.

Whereas the fall of the original studio system set the precedent for media companies not to own or operate all the elements of media creation from conception to employment to production to the distribution, also known as vertical integration, companies are now embracing the idea of horizontal integration. Horizontal integration allows a media company to push or market its products or services through various media channels. And, this is a perfect example of why media conglomerates own and operate theme parks. This is a common practice by Disney and Universal in their respective parks and resorts. Disney can release a movie, base an attraction off that movie, use that movie as the basis for a video game, and even include costume characters in the parks and on the cruise ships. In the same vein, Universal can take one of its movie properties and integrate the characters and story into a theme park experience, use the concept for a video game, and maybe even develop a TV series as a spinoff of the movie. This type of integration allows the companies to effectively customize glorified marketing campaigns for their brand. Having a given branding on various commercial outlets allows a company to maximize its exposure to general audiences/customers (Taubman, 1970). As companies acquire more intellectual properties, media outlets, and commercial infrastructure, they are able to actively change entertainment offerings over the years; and this is definitely the case with the theme parks owned by media conglomerates that also have movie studio interests.

Continue to Part 3

“San Andreas” review

San_Andreas_posterA thrilling non-stop adventure! If you’re looking for a disaster movie that will have you on the edge of your seat the entire time, then check out Warner Bros., Village Roadshow, and New Line Cinema’s San Andreas starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. Despite having a one-dimensional plot and completely unbelievable scenarios, this movie will keep you entertained for the entire runtime. Spend your time with a ripped helicopter pilot who’s the poster child for a ‘Jack of all trades’ and his beautiful daughter who could out Eagle Scout an Eagle Scout. No dynamic love story here–just extremely high energy, larger than life, visceral complete and utter disaster around every corner. This movie definitely doesn’t do anything to help the realtors and architects in L.A. and San Fran. If you liked the original EarthquakeVolcano, The Day After Tomorrow, and The Core, then you will most likely enjoy this film. Or, if you were the kind of kid who would build cities out of Legos then have enormous fun destroying them, then this is definitely for you.

San Andreas is about a magnitude 9.7 earthquake affecting the famed San Andreas fault line in California. Form the Hoover Dam to China Town, the extremely destructive earthquake reeks havoc in its very wake. Follow Ray (Johnson) as he and his soon-to-be-ex wife Emma (Carla Gugino) unexpectedly team up to save their daughter Blake (Alexandra Deddario) from becoming the next victim to the record-breaking earthquake. Witness the utter destruction and peril that Ray and Emma have to overcome on their way from Los Angeles to San Francisco. Banning together to survive the earthquake, Blake and brothers Ben (Hugo Johnstone-Burt) and Ollie (Art Parkinson) must get to higher ground in order to be rescued by Ray and Emma.

Like with many over-the-top disaster movies, this one really doesn’t offer that much to critique. Of course the plot could be completely picked apart–very easily–but the thing about these movies is that they are produced for pure entertainment value. The writers and director are hoping that you don’t spend too much time thinking about the sheer impossibility or unlikelihood of Ray and Emma finding the aircrafts and watercraft they do. Or, why the city of L.A. would allow one helicopter pilot to use municipal gas and a helicopter to rescue his immediate family, meanwhile, basically abandoning all other citizens to peril. You see, it doesn’t take a film critic or scholar to notice the absurd plot devices and failed logic.

That being said, this film was very entertaining to watch and follows good visual storytelling structure. You have order (very briefly), followed by disorder (most of the movie), and the circle back to order once again. Oh yeah, there is a brilliant seismologist professor and media team at Cal-Tech (California Institute of Technology) who are basically there when the director needs something else to cut to. Otherwise, that whole sub-plot could have essentially been written out. Too bad, though. That subplot of the professor and his media team could have actually been fleshed out to be an intricate part of the plot.

That’s pretty well it. This is a movie that is unapologetic in that it is fully aware of what it is: a “Michael Bay”-ish disaster sci-fi movie. I am pretty sure that the cities of L.A. and San Fran should pretty well be completely leveled after the earthquakes. The movie is released during an appropriate time because it falls after Tomorrowland and before Jurassic World. It also typifies the summer movie season because it is a great popcorn movie that most anyone will enjoy.

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