Lucy in the Sky – Movie Review

By Leslie C. Halpern

This sci-fi drama is loosely based on the bizarre true story of Lisa Nowak, (aka “The Diaper Astronaut,”) a married naval flight officer and NASA mission specialist, who in 2007 drove from Houston, Texas (reportedly wearing a diaper to avoid stopping) to Orlando, Florida where she attacked and attempted to kidnap her former lover’s new girlfriend at the Orlando International Airport.

Natalie Portman stars in Lucy in the Sky. Photo copyright 2019 Fox Searchlight Pictures.

The strangeness of a highly respected astronaut who flew on Space Shuttle Discovery suddenly losing her mind over an extra-marital fling gone wrong made international news and inspired enormous interest in the all-astronaut love triangle.

Also dubbed, “The Astro-Nut,” Nowak also inspired the new film Lucy in the Sky, starring Natalie Portman as Lucy Cola (the Nowak character) and Jon Hamm as womanizer Mark Goodwin (her illicit love interest). Zazie Beetz plays Erin, the target of Lucy’s jealousy, and Dan Stevens portrays Lucy’s self-righteous and completely oblivious husband.

The Diaper Astronaut

In addition to names being changed, this fictionalized version of reality makes other curiously random alterations, such as conjuring hallucinations of Lucy’s dead grandmother (Ellen Burstyn), adding a niece to her cross-county ride, changing the location from Orlando to San Diego, having Lucy attack Mark instead of Erin, and eliminating any mention of adult diapers. If the filmmakers wanted to make Lucy a more likable character with these changes, they weren’t particularly successful as she come across as self-centered, obsessive, and cold-blooded (and that’s before she completely goes off the rails following a tragedy).

Liberties taken with the story, however, pale in comparison to liberties taken with the cinematography. Apparently used as a metaphor, the edges of the screen are blurry after Lucy returns from her mission, as if her experience in space has figuratively altered her view of reality. This technique also literally changes the way the audience views her reality.

As she drifts further into mental illness, the blurriness expands beyond the outer edges of the screen. While this artful idea may have sounded great in pre-production, it’s a headache-inducing mess onscreen. Likewise, the inexplicable aspect ratio shifting back and forth from widescreen to full-screen throughout the movie is jarring, confusing, distracting, and unnecessary.        

Exciting Scenes of NASA

Inspired by true events (but not based on true events) and subjected to the aforementioned ill-conceived cinematic metaphors for mental illness, this film also suffers from uneven pacing (long, dull scenes of home life and exciting scenes of NASA) and stereotypical characters (eccentric, foul-mouthed grandma) that blatantly show Lucy’s mental breakdown was a combination of internal and external factors.

Despite two beautiful co-stars, intriguing behind-the-scenes glimpses of the space program, and good intentions, this filmed fiction is surprisingly less interesting than the reality on which it’s based.

Lucy in the Sky

Inspired by true events, this fictionalized story describes astronaut Lucy Cola, who loses touch with reality after returning from a mission in space.

  • Stars: Natalie Portman, Jon Hamm, Zazie Beetz, Dan Stevens, Pearl Amanda Dickson, Ellen Burstyn
  • Director: Noah Hawley
  • Genre: Science Fiction Drama
  • Run Time: 124 minutes
  • MPAA Rating: R (for language and sexual content)

Leslie C. Halpern is the author of Scantily Clad Truths: Essays on Life with Clothes (and without) and 200 Love Lessons from the Movies.

Dolemite Is My Name – Movie Review

By Leslie C. Halpern

In this comedic biopic, Eddie Murphy recreates real-life 1970s Blaxploitation star Rudy Ray Moore whose desire to sing, act, and do standup comedy far exceeds his actual talent.

Eddie Murphy stars in Dolemite Is My Name. Photo copyright 2019 Netflix.

It’s hard to believe the ridiculous premise for this film is actually true: that a mediocre comedian named Rudy Ray Moore (Eddie Murphy), who serves as a five-minute warm-up act for a singer in a small night club, adopts the persona of a foul-mouthed, flamboyant pimp based on tall tales from a group of homeless men. From this humble beginning, he successfully launches a film career as a martial arts action hero named Dolemite.

Blaxploitation Movie

The impetus for all this is Moore’s relentless drive to succeed in show business despite limitations physically (a paunchy belly and no martial arts training) and financially (borrowed from various friends, family, and associates). He asks: “How did my life get so small?” Then he proceeds to enlarge it by finding creative inspiration in unlikely places, such as the ramblings of a loud-mouth wino, in a club where he witnesses a woman punch her cheating husband, and a movie auditorium where he doesn’t understand the film.    

Not only does Moore raise the funds himself for the film production, but finds the cast, writer, and director, and manages to arrange a screening of his schlocky Blaxploitation movie in which he stars. Despite extremely low production qualities produced by an amateur cast and film-student crew, his movie becomes a hit and spawns a series of equally dismal sequels that somehow manage to entertain the masses.

Captures the 1970’s Zeitgeist

Although providing his usual over-the-top comedic performance, Eddie Murphy reveals the more sensitive side of his character when sharing moments with former back-up singer Lady Reed (Da’Vine Joy Randolph) and conscientiously repaying money he owes to others. Murphy and Randolph play well off each other; she and her cleavage even manage to steal a few scenes.

The outrageousness of Dolemite is almost subtle in comparison to the outlandish pretentiousness of D’Urville Martin (Wesley Snipes), a self-absorbed actor who agrees to direct Moore’s movie. As the only professional among amateurs, he’s insufferably pompous and consumed with his so-called star status to the point of ridiculousness.

Funny at times and always interesting, this film has characters, costumes, music, cars, and attitudes that capture the 1970’s zeitgeist and Blaxploitation with gusto and humor in a true story that feels more like fiction with its larger-than-life players.

Dolemite Is My Name

A struggling comedian adopts a pimp-like persona to advance his career in this comedy based on real-life legend Rudy Ray Moore.

  • Stars: Eddie Murphy, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Wesley Snipes, Craig Robinson, Keegan-Michael Key, Chris Rock, Snoop Dogg, Da’Vine Joy Randolph
  • Director: Craig Brewer
  • Writers: Scott Alexander, Larry Karaszewski
  • Genre: Biopic/Comedy
  • Run Time: 118 minutes
  • MPAA Rating: R (for pervasive language, crude sexual content, and graphic nudity)

Leslie C. Halpern is the author of Scantily Clad Truths: Essays on Life with Clothes (and without) and 200 Love Lessons from the Movies.

Judy – Movie Review

By Leslie C. Halpern

It’s no easy task taking on the role of the iconic Judy Garland. Star Renee Zellweger will likely receive criticism for being too much like Garland (merely an impersonation), too much like Zellweger (transferred her own quirks to the role) or too much of a blend of the two women (neither this nor that). In short, despite a knock-out performance in which she physically, emotionally, and vocally transforms into the barbiturate-addicted singer, Zellweger is constricted by the limitations of the script and direction, and by the notoriety of the character she portrays.

Renee Zellweger stars in Judy. Photo copyright 2019. Roadside Attractions.

This film focuses on the final year of Garland’s life when she struggles to retain custody of her two children while dealing with depleted funds because of alcohol and drug addictions. This instability leads to disastrous performances, unpaid bills, and gig cancellations. Desperate for a chance to make enough money to regain her footing and reclaim her children from her ex-husband, Sidney Luft (Rufus Sewell), Garland takes a job in London playing a series of sold-out performances at a popular night spot.

Garland Promises a Beautiful Show

Drunk, doped-up, depressed, and acting like a diva, Garland refuses to rehearse, shows up late for shows, suffers from stage fright, and breaks down repeatedly on stage. Some nights the audience (which includes two die-hard gay fans who come to every performance) loves her, and some nights they throw things at her in anger. Although she promises her fan to always deliver a “beautiful show,” she’s a hot mess both onstage and off.

Behind the scenes, she terrorizes the young assistant (Jessie Buckley) assigned to watch after the singer, carries on a rocky romance with her much-younger, soon-to-be husband number five (Finn Wittrock), and heaps abuse and accusations at Sidney, who seems to be devoted to providing a stable life for their children.

The Wizard of Oz

Zellweger’s brash, twitchy, angst-ridden performance is painful to watch at times, not because of any acting flaw, but because it depicts such intense emotional suffering. Flashbacks throughout the movie reveal the reasons for this suffering; Garland was starved of food, stuffed with pills, and deprived of a childhood during the filming of The Wizard of Oz, and we’re to assume this ill treatment was followed by more of the same, which led to a lifetime of dysfunction.

Tragic, but riveting, this biopic delivers the music (Zellweger does her own signing) and the story of Garland’s final disintegration. The flashbacks provide some context, but the years between her childhood and the London concerts at age 47 remain something of a mystery. Did she ever seek help for her addictions? Did any of her five husbands try to get her clean and sober? Or was her life a continual downward spiral from childhood to adulthood? These answers are available elsewhere, but represent decades of a successful career barely referenced in this film—a film decidedly myopic on the abusive beginning and tragic end.         

Judy

This troubling biopic looks at Judy Garland’s sold-out London concerts in the final months of her life.

  • Stars: Renee Zellweger, Jessie Buckley, Rufus Sewell, Finn Wittrock, Michael Gambon
  • Director: Rupert Goold
  • Writers: Tom Edge (screenplay), Peter Quilter (based on the stage play “End of the Rainbow”)
  • Genre: Biopic/Drama
  • Run Time: 118 minutes
  • MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for substance abuse, thematic content, some strong language, and smoking)

Leslie C. Halpern is the author of Scantily Clad Truths: Essays on Life with Clothes (and without) and 200 Love Lessons from the Movies.

Downton Abbey – Movie Review

By Leslie C. Halpern

After watching nearly 30 minutes of the Downton Abbey staff go into a cleaning, polishing, and food-planning frenzy in anticipation of a royal visit, this period piece pulls the metaphorical imported rug out from under us.

Maggie Smith and Michelle Dockery star in the movie version of Downton Abbey. Photo copyright 2019 Focus Features.

What begins as a rather stuffy beginning that introduces the inner-workings of the estate and the central and supporting characters shifts into an entertaining combination of interconnected stories about the devoted servants and high-falutin residents of Downton Abbey (based on the famous Crawley family from the PBS television series of the same name.)

Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How

So once the first quarter of the film establishes who (the Crawley family and their extensive staff), what (dinner, dance, and parade for the royal family), when (1927), where (Downton Abbey, of course), and why (why not?), the final three quarters of the film tells us how (with considerable planning, preparation, work, and subterfuge). And how the Crawleys and their staff navigate the visit from Queen Mary (Geraldine James) and King George V (Simon Jones) proves to be enormous fun—even for those unfamiliar with the television series.

Under the sarcastic command of Violet Crawley, Dowager Countess of Grantham, (Maggie Smith) and her tough granddaughter, Lady Mary Crawley (Michelle Dockery), servants scurry and family members (for the most part) tow the line to keep the two women happy. The problem is with so many people living, working, and visiting one enormous estate, something will always go wrong—a comical state of affairs that rattles the characters, but should delight most audience members.

Stellar Production Values

The chuckles keep coming throughout the film, as do the unexpected plot developments. The costumes (by Anna Mary Scott Robbins) are exquisite, the acting terrific, and the cinematography (by Ben Smithard) an artistic blend of establishing longshots, tight close-ups, and everything in between. Downton Abbey is an immersive film that sweeps viewers back to the past and into the opulent estate where titles, positions, and roles must always be maintained—except when they aren’t.

Downton Abbey

Based on the popular PBS television series of the same name, this film looks at before, during, and after a royal visit to the family estate in the English countryside in the early 20th century.

  • Stars: Matthew Goode, Maggie Smith, Michelle Dockery, Tuppence Middleton, Elizabeth McGovern, Allen Leech, Joanne Froggatt, Laura Carmichael, Imelda Staunton
  • Director: Michael Engler
  • Writer: Julian Fellowes
  • Genre: Drama
  • Run Time: 122 minutes
  • MPAA Rating: PG (for thematic elements, some suggestive material, and language)
  • Click here to watch the trailer.

Leslie C. Halpern is the author of Scantily Clad Truths: Essays on Life with Clothes (and without) and 200 Love Lessons from the Movies.

Ready or Not – Movie Review

By Leslie C. Halpern

The extremely wealthy Le Domas family, whose ancestors made their fortune in creating games, must keep alive a wedding night tradition whenever someone new enters the family. It’s just a little game playing at midnight. What’s so frightening about that?

Plenty, if the game card the new spouse selects happens to be “Hide and Seek.” Grace (Samara Weaving) is a lovely young bride deeply in love with her new husband, Alex (Mark O’Brien). Having grown up poor in a variety of foster homes, she longs for the large family and wealth that Alex can provide. His father (Henry Czerny) hates her, his aunt (Nicky Guadagni) gives her the stink-eye, and his older brother (Adam Brody) hits on her. Even so, they’re the family she’s never had.   

Samara Weaving stars in Ready or Not. Photo copyright 2019 Fox Searchlight Pictures.

Family’s Gaming Tradition

When Alex finally tells her about the gaming tradition, Grace good-naturedly goes along with it. When she selects the “Hide and Seek” card, however, the tone gets decidedly darker. She scampers over to hide in the mansion’s dumbwaiter only to find a shivering servant already in there.

They’re having a little chat until the servant gives away Grace’s location, and then suddenly the servant receives a fatal wound that’s meant for Grace. Although the audience watches as the relatives are assigned various deadly weapons in an earlier scene, it isn’t until that moment at the dumbwaiter that Grace realizes this is a true hunting game, and she is the prey.

Dark Humor

Despite the horrific premise, gallons of blood and guts, and truly suspenseful moments, Ready or Not proves plenty of dark humor sprinkled throughout that helps break the tension. The Le Domas mansion and its grounds play a formidable role in this sure-to-be-a-cult-classic film. Darkly foreboding with tight security and intricate secret passages, the house works against Grace as much as any of the characters. As Grace in her blood-soaked, ripped-to-shreds wedding gown, Weaving is as likable as the Le Domas family is unlikable.      

Plot twists, sarcasm, and some silliness keep things interesting (in a Zombieland [2009] kind of way), and this is not a predictable thriller. Even if you figure out one or two of the surprises in advance, you won’t expect all the craziness the script provides for these characters. Other than a miscast Andie MacDowell (who can’t seem to capture enough bitchiness to be the Le Domas matriarch), the actors (especially Weaving) take their parts and run with them…and then hide…and then seek.

Ready or Not

An innocent young bride marries into a bizarre family that has dangerous wedding night rituals.

  • Stars: Samara Weaving, Adam Brody, Mark O’Brien, Henry Czerny, Andie MacDowell, Melanie Scofano, Kristian Bruun, Nicky Guadagni, Elyse Levesque
  • Directors: Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, Tyler Gillett
  • Writers: Guy Busick, Ryan Murphy
  • Genre: Horror/Thriller/Comedy
  • Run Time: 95 minutes
  • MPAA Rating: R (for violence, bloody images, language throughout, and some drug use)

Leslie C. Halpern is the author of Scantily Clad Truths: Essays on Life with Clothes (and without) and 200 Love Lessons from the Movies.