Film Critic

Chuck Koplinski is The News-Gazette's film critic. His email is chuckkoplinski@gmail.com and you can follow him on Twitter (@ckoplinski).

SR Judy

Renee Zellweger stars as Judy Garland in 'Judy' (2019).

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I would contend that biopics are the most foolhardy endeavors where filmmaking is concerned.

While the intention to honor a famous person with a movie about their lives may sound like a noble undertaking, the best of intentions are often compromised by the medium’s limitations. Whether it be an attempt to chronicle an individual’s entire life or focus on a key period that’s indicative of their subject, compromises must be made. Key events may be omitted, people or confidantes are combined to make composite characters and one brand of fiction or another might be employed to bridge narrative gaps, all of which end up infuriating the historians in the audience.

So, instead of concentrating on the things that are wrong with Rupert Goold’s “Judy,” let’s concentrate on what’s right. The swinging London of the late 1960s is brought to vivid life, the script by Tom Edge is sharp and concise, and most of all, Renee Zellweger’s comeback role as Judy Garland is one for the ages, a well-rounded, heartbreaking turn that serves as a powerful reminder of what a multi-faceted performer the actor is.

Taking place in 1968, the film finds Garland at the end of her rope. Broke and homeless, she’s been reduced to appearing in bars and rundown nightclubs for a couple hundred bucks a night. On the verge of losing custody of her two youngest children, Garland reluctantly agrees to a residency engagement at London’s “The Talk of the Town” cabaret.

Adored in England, the singer sees this is as an opportunity to earn a steady income, pull herself out of debt and secure a home so that she might keep her kids. However, it becomes a nightmare as Garland’s insecurities make her unreliable and erratic, with the club’s owner (Michael Gambon) never sure whether she will show up sober or stoned on any given night.

Edge’s screenplay is well-constructed as he employs flashbacks to Garland’s younger days, where we see her being psychologically abused by MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer and given myriad drugs to help control her weight. These moments are sobering and without artifice, showing us how the seeds of insecurity that were sown in her as a young woman blossomed into weeds of psychosis that would strangle her talent in later years and ultimately contribute to her death.

You can tell that Zellweger wants to do Garland’s memory justice. Emaciated and haggard throughout, she gives a heartbreaking performance, showing us a woman who’s nothing but a bundle of frayed nerves, capable of flying apart at any moment. Her rare instances of elation are mirrored by moments of complete despair leading to paralysis. Zellweger doesn’t shy away from the emotional requirements of the role, and coupled with her recreations of Garland’s gestures and physicality, her efforts lead to an uncanny and at times eerie resurrection of the singer.

That the actress does her own singing is not only a gutsy decision but the right one as well. No, her vocal range and the power of her voice can’t match Garland’s, but in stepping behind the microphone, Zellweger is able to pour all her character’s pain and passion into the music. There’s never a false note, and while “Judy” may be guilty of the usual biopic sins, Zellweger’s powerful performance negates them all, making for a worthy tribute to its troubled subject.

Also new in theaters

New-age visuals clash with old-school script in “Gemini Man” (★★ out of four). While watching a movie, viewers should never be conscious of the process that goes into its making. Nary a thought should be given as to how an effect has been achieved or a stunt has been performed. Once that happens, the illusion is broken, the narrative flow is disrupted and the viewer finds themselves struggling to get reengaged in all that’s going on.

Ang Lee’s visually ambitious but narratively flawed film suffers mightily to keep the viewer engaged. Blame the thin script and the incredible sights on display.

After the script languished for years, technology finally caught up to its high-end concept, which finds a veteran hitman forced to face off with a younger cloned version of himself. To give you some idea of how long this idea has been knocking around, Clint Eastwood, Harrison Ford and Kevin Costner were all considered for this role during their younger days, and for good or ill, the final, much-revised script landed in Will Smith’s lap.

The veteran actor is more than capable of making a movie work through the sheer force of his personality, and that quality certainly helps keep us engaged during the more lax sections of the final mission of his character, Henry Brogan, an assassin who’s finally had enough of government-sanctioned killing after offing over 70 targets. Problem is, the folks at the Defense Intelligence Agency are a bit concerned about his hanging up his rifle and scope, as he knows a bit too much.

How to solve this problem, you might ask? Obviously, you send a younger, cloned version of Brogan (a digitally altered Smith) out to kill his older self.

There’s a simplicity to the story that runs counter to the cutting-edge technology on display. Clive Owen is obviously having great fun here as the nefarious Clay Varris, a visionary who has set out to create a genetically perfect set of soldiers, having raised the younger Brogan as his own to become the 23-year-old killer of today. Not only is the film’s villain from central casting, but Brogan’s sidekick (Benedict Wong) and potential love interest (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) are as well.

As action films go, there’s nothing to write home about where the plot is concerned. However, the visual effects are a marvel, as the de-aging process used on Smith — soon to be on display in Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman” as well — is astounding. For the most part, it seems natural and doesn’t call attention to itself. Equally impressive is the digital choreography at play in the scenes in which Smith faces off against his younger self.

Add to this Lee’s continued experimentation with high frame rates — photographing his films at a rate of 60 frames per second as opposed to the traditional 24, producing an image so clear it proves distracting at times — and you have a parade of visual wonders. This technique coupled with modern 3D effects makes for some truly spectacular, in-your-face moments.

Unfortunately, the script is so thin that my mind kept wandering, hoping that extensive “Making-of” features would be available on the movie’s upcoming home-video release. Lee and his digital effects crew spark the imagination as, for good or ill, the long-spoken-of promise of human replication through digital wizardry comes to fruition here. Too bad “Gemini Man’s” script is as old school as its visual process is cutting edge, making for a two-steps-forward, one-step-back experience.

For DVR alerts, film recommendations and movie news, follow Koplinski on Twitter (@ckoplinski). He can be reached via email at chuckkoplinski@gmail.com.