Judy: a character study of a Hollywood legend destroyed by an exploitative industry manipulating people’s dreams and hopes

Rupert Goold, “Judy” (2019)

Adapted from Peter Quilter’s musical stage drama “End of the Rainbow”, this bio-pic covers the last twelve months of Hollywood film legend Judy Garland’s life, during which she ( Renée Zellweger) attempts to reinvent herself as a contemporary popular music singer and performer. The film presents as a character study and a snapshot of Garland’s life while she embarked on a disastrous five-week concert engagement in London. From the moment the film starts, Garland’s life is in debt and disarray as she and her two youngest children Lorna and Joey Luft are turned away from their hotel, due to non-payment of their bill, after a concert (in which the children had to perform as well) and are forced to seek help from her ex-husband Sid Luft (Rufus Sewell), the children’s father. In dire straits, and unable to find work in the US because of her reputation for being difficult and unreliable, Garland is forced to accept a contract to perform in London, though this means being separated from her children. She is flown to the UK where she meets the impresario Bernard Delfont (Michael Gambon) who organised the contract, and Rosalyn Wilder (Jessie Buckley) who has been assigned to her as her personal assistant.

The concert engagement meets with numerous problems, most of which are Garland’s own making: she has substance abuse issues, is unable to sleep without taking sleeping tablets, she is late for her concerts because of anxiety attacks and low self-confidence, and most of the time on stage she appears drunk. During this period, a new friend and nightclub owner Mickey Deans (Finn Wittrock), whom she had previously met at a party thrown by her elder daughter Liza Minnelli (Gemma-Leah Devereux), turns up and keeps her company; he and Garland eventually become close and marry. In one scene, two gay men who are Garland fans ask her for autographs and the three end up going to the men’s apartment for a meal and drinks, followed by a knees-up at the piano and then the men’s emotional discussion with Judy about how her music and films have comforted them and helped sustain them and their relationship over the years before 1967 when homosexuality had been a crime under British law.

The film has no real plot as such and relies heavily on Renee Zellweger to pull off a bravura performance as Garland, which she does completely, disappearing entirely into her character with all her faults and the self-destructive behaviour that alienates the people who love and care for her, and which instead propels her to unscrupulous and powerful men who exploit her talent, determination and hard work. Flashbacks to Garland’s teenage years while working on the film “The Wizard of Oz” – here Garland is played by Darci Shaw – reveal Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studio’s control and manipulation of Garland, in particular control of her physical appearance and weight. Studio head Louis B Mayer (Richard Cordery) and his executives force Garland onto a diet of pills to delay puberty, suppress her appetite, keep her as petite and slim as possible, and to wake her up or put her to sleep. In these flashbacks, we see something of Garland’s rebelliousness (that led to her being difficult to deal with and her lack of punctuality and inability to stick to a schedule) as well as the source of her dependence on various prescription drugs, her inability to sleep and her eating problems. The character’s self-destructive behaviour, her low self-esteem, her vulnerability and reliance on other people (especially men) and her mercurial temper become understandable when her background becomes known. The other actors tend to be walking wallpaper around Zellweger, in large part because of the roles they have to play and often the limited time they are allocated to play them. Their overall performance is solid and consistent.

While the film obviously condemns Hollywood’s early exploitation of child actors such as Garland, it says nothing about the studio system in which actors, adult as well as child actors, were tied to particular studios in long-term contracts lasting several years in which they had to submit to being groomed and were required to perform in X number of films. “Judy” also has very little to say about how Hollywood exploited people’s hopes and dreams during the Great Depression (the period in which “The Wizard of Oz” takes place) and how Garland’s early girl-next-door reputation with its associations of wishing and hoping for a better life was forged in this context – and how the real Garland herself ended up sacrificed to this reputation.

Probably the closest the film comes to exploring Garland’s relationship with her fans, and the burden of expectations and hope that they place on her, as an extension of Hollywood’s exploitation of her, is in her relationship with Mickey Deans and her meeting with the starstruck gay couple, but these relationships are dealt with quite superficially: in particular, Mickey Deans disappears from the film when the couple have their first tiff. Garland’s encounter with the gay couple highlights the special relationship the singer / actress long had with the gay community but while the film emphasises how Garland had inspired the community to hope and dream for acceptance, it also insinuates (unintentionally, I suppose) that the gay community did little for Judy herself.

Ultimately, as an examination, however superficial or deep, of the way in which Western capitalist society manipulates people’s escape into fantasy from oppression and their hopes and dreams by placing responsibility for them on the shoulders of vulnerable role models like Garland – who was expected to perform like a trained monkey but was shunned when she ended up acting like a normal human being put under the same oppressive system for far too long, either by rebelling and being “difficult” or breaking down physically and mentally – “Judy” is silent on this irony.

Out of Range: a study of character transformation through personal crisis and breakdown

Cécile Guillard, Lana Choukroune, Yijia Cao, “Out of Range” (2019)

In the Gobelins animated universe, the most mundane incidents can give rise to major transformations in a person’s life, so much so that we can almost say that person has experienced a kind of death and been born anew. So it is with the sole character in this 4-minute short: Sue, a busy and harassed lawyer, is on her way to meet with a client on a rainy day. The expected meeting forces her to drive on a highway through unfamiliar countryside. The car breaks down and Sue has to pound her way through a forest with only her mobile phone to light her way during the encroaching twilight darkness and a steady rain. Along the way she loses some important papers, the phone falls into a puddle and goes flat, and she is bothered and hampered by annoying insects and a low-lying branch. She falls over and sees her reflection in a puddle – a reflection of her harried workaholic self – and ends up collapsing into an ocean that engulfs and deposits her into a sunny open-meadow paradise of rippling long grass under pale blue skies, the whole scene bearing an uncanny resemblance to country backgrounds in Studio Ghibli movies.

The film’s use of colour emphasises the different worlds Sue crosses through in her mental collapse: reality is portrayed in various harsh textures of grey and dark colours; the post-breakdown world is made up of soft pastel colours. Before her collapse, Sue is ill at ease with the flora and fauna of the forest: she trips over tree roots and mosquitoes and dragonflies bother her to no end. Post-collapse, Sue begins to wonder and marvel at the natural world around her and attempts to hold butterflies in her hands. The most astonishing work in the film though is in the flood that engulfs Sue and sweeps her away into a new world with harsh use of black and white imagery while she fights the rising waters but is later forced to succumb.

While the story is quite simple and is open to many interpretations, it never feels stale due to the strong character creation and build-up with an excellent voice-acting performance from Isabelle Guiard as Sue. You can really feel Sue’s frustration and slight sense of panic as she goes deeper into the forest and gets lost. Sue’s character is well-defined enough and at the same time generic enough – we don’t know her history and background but we can guess at parts of it – for viewers to readily identify with her. This film certainly repays watching.

The Lost Breakfast: amusing animation on how chaos invades and disrupts order and control through daily rituals

Q-rais, “The Lost Breakfast” (2015)

Where some cartoonists treat the weekday early morning ritual of getting up and getting ready to go to work, including the full ritual of cooking and eating breakfast, as a dreary dull and robotic exercise that robs people of their will and humanity, Japanese cartoonist Q-rais sees in it an opportunity to have fun and explore what happens when that ritual and the autopilot mind it requires are disrupted. A man rises at 7 am when his alarm clock rings; throwing open the bed covers, he examines his foot and finds a mysterious puncture wound in the sole with blood on it. He looks outside his bedroom window and sees a black crow perched on a tree branch, looking as if it might know who made that wound but pretending innocence. The man goes off, shaves and deposits his shavings into a tissue which he then neatly folds, does his ablutions and takes his tissue into the kitchen. There, he cooks himself sausages and an egg omelette, makes his toast and tea, and deposits the tea-bag onto the folded tissue. He eats his breakfast while watching the morning weather forecast and news on TV. Having done all that, he gets dressed for work and leaves his home. So far, so good.

The next day, bang on 7 am, the alarm clock rings again, and our man prepares for the day. Again, he finds the mysterious puncture wound on the sole of his foot; again he looks outside his bedroom window but the crow is not waiting on the tree branch. No matter, the man goes about his routine as usual; but once he puts the tea bag on the tissue, suddenly the crow flies through the bedroom window and attacks him on the neck with its beak. The man drops his cup of tea, forcing him to get another cup with another tea bag; but on seeing the first tea bag sitting on the tissue, the man goes into a frenzy repeating parts of his morning ritual over and over, and out of order, until (in a surreal burst of animation) reality fragments and rearranges itself, and the man goes cataleptic.

The animation may be rather crude and simple, and figures and objects are more fluid than they perhaps ought to be, but a playful energy is at work and the very nature of the morning ritual down to its details seems to invite questioning of what it’s all for and why. It appears to be an attack on complacency and on society’s insistence on shutting down people’s individuality and creativity, and on controlling people through their daily rituals. The crow may represent an intrusion of Nature, of the chaos and the freedom (and maybe the fear of the unknown that freedom brings) within that chaos that threaten orderly but mechanised lives. Q-rais obviously had a lot of fun creating this short cartoon and while it might not stand repeated viewings, it certainly is fun to watch the first time round.

Birds of Passage: a generic fable of easy wealth and crime leading to doom given fresh life by an indigenous Colombian setting

Cristina Gallego, Ciro Guerra, “Birds of Passage / Pájaros de Verano” (2018)

In many ways, this film tells a classic tale of individuals from poor backgrounds becoming rich and their families and communities benefiting from the wealth they bring from engaging in crime – in this case, trafficking in marijuana. The unexpected angle in this film is that the individuals and families involved are indigenous Wayuu in northern Colombia, incidentally not far from where the famous author Gabriel Garcia Marquez grew up and set many of his novels. Aspects of the film do parallel those of the novel and the novel may have been one of many inspirations for the film.

The film is framed as a parable told by a blind shepherd, with all the limitations such a framework has: characters tend to fall into stereotypes and there is always the sense that no matter what they do, their lives will end disastrously. Fate will always have its way. The parable begins with the ritual coming-of-age ceremony of teenager Zaida (Natalia Reyes) who is now available for marriage and is promptly claimed through a ritual dance by Rapayet (Jose Acosta) who is from a socially inferior family: the film does not say how his family fell on hard times. Prospective mother-in-law Ursula Pushaina (Carmina Martinez) does not trust him, believing he is cursed in some way, and sets him an impossibly high dowry to meet to deter him. With the help of his friend and business partner Moises (Jhon Narvaez), Rapayet turns from operating a coffee and whiskey stall to supplying marijuana, obtained from his relative Anibal’s plantation, to the United States through contacts with hippie Americans working in Colombia as Peace Corps members, so he can raise the money to obtain the goats, donkeys and necklaces to make up the dowry.

From then on, the plot unfolds in a number of chapters spanning nearly fifteen years, in which the Pushaina family, Rapayet and his cousins the Uliana family grow wealthy from trafficking marijuana and are able to afford mansions, cars, planes and even their own landing strips. At the same time, individual greed and ambition, and desire for material comforts and the products of Western civilisation combine with Wayuu traditions, customs and beliefs in ways that end in conflict, violence and tragic deaths. Torn between his family and tribal obligations and his friendship with Moises, Rapayet makes a choice that ends up destroying his soul. Ursula’s worldview, in which spirits are constantly communing with humans through dreams, leads her to make selfish decisions that have long-lasting consequences. Her headstrong son Leonidas is drawn to alcohol and material desires, and his impulsive behaviour leads to all-out war between the Pushainas and Rapayet’s cousins that ends in everyone’s ruin. At the end of the film, both the Pushainas and Ulianas are gone and one survivor finds herself in the same position Rapayet was in at the beginning of the film.

In addition to being a fable about greed, ambition, corruption and family feuding, the film showcases Wayuu culture and traditions, especially in its coming-of-age rituals, the veneration of the dead and beliefs about the spirit world and how ancestral spirits guide the living. Something of the way the Wayuu view life can be seen. The way in which Wayuu traditions, customs and beliefs are gradually subverted by Wayuu contact with the outside world, in particular by American capitalist ideology which emphasises self-interest, material greed and desire, and constant change and reinvention, is apparent in the plot and in characters’ actions.

The acting is minimal, even flat at times, and the plot is pushed along by the dialogue and its story-book structure. Minor characters like Peregrino Pushaina (Jose Vicente Cote) are very significant in advancing the plot and illustrating aspects of Wayuu culture. The cinematography is well done with a huge emphasis on the desert and tropical forest landscapes that the Wayuu call home. The mansion that Rapayet builds becomes a significant character in its own right, mirroring the spiritual emptiness of his family even though they clearly enjoy the luxury it provides.

While perhaps the stereotyped characters are not as deep as they could be, given that most of the cast were not professional actors, and the film provides no larger social and political context in which its fable plays out – the Americans drop out early in the film, when the reality would have been that they, through the CIA and other, perhaps government and private agencies, would have been active in the drug trafficking – “Birds of Passage” is a highly immersive work that holds viewers spellbound with its often stunning and surreal visuals as its tale proceeds inexorably to doom.

Pour la France: emphasising the common humanity of two opposed sides in their potential for mutual understanding and violence

Vincent Chansard, “Pour la France” (2019)

Set in Paris during the so-called La Semaine Sanglante (The Bloody Week) in May 1871, during which time the French Army put down the Paris Commune government and ended two months of experimental socialist government, this film exudes energy and passion for its subject matter, posits a difficult dilemma in which personal ethics clash with one’s loyalties, and emphasises the common humanity of the socialist revolutionaries and the soldiers alike, both in their potential for understanding one another and learning the truth about each other, and in reacting in blind rage and resorting to violence and murder over mutual understanding. The film centres around an army sergeant, Mercier, who treasures a book (Victor Hugo’s “Confessions of a Condemned Man”) given him by a teacher back in 1848, and a revolutionary, Lorraine Mazin, who happens to be that teacher. After the French Army storms the barricades set up by the Paris Commune, Mercier and Mazin are reunited unexpectedly by less than ideal circumstances in which Mazin is one of a number of revolutionaries arrested and condemned to death – and Mercier happens to be part of the shooting squad. Needless to say, teacher and former student recognise each other.

Does Mercier go ahead and obey his general’s orders? If he does, he’ll be a hypocrite and he knows it; if he doesn’t, his own life will be in danger. By reading the Victor Hugo book, Mercier reveals himself to be a thoughtful man already dissatisfied with aspects of mainstream French society of his day, dominated by small, politically and socially conservative, even repressive elites and the powerful Roman Catholic Church. His teacher Mazin may be a revolutionary but she tempers her zeal with reason, telling her fellow revolutionaries not to kill the monks and priests (which they do anyway). When the two meet again, both soundlessly realise the unexpected ethical dilemma and crisis facing Mercier.

The film’s animation is forceful and energetic. Backgrounds featuring scenes of realistic-looking fires are unforgettable. Human characters are roughly and minimally drawn with somewhat exaggerated features, enough to distinguish one person from the next. Characters who lack self-awareness are portrayed with shaded eyes or shut eyes; only significant characters or characters with self-knowledge are portrayed with open eyes. This seems to say something about human nature generally, that in most societies (especially Western societies), most people seem to go about their business on autopilot and are lacking in self-knowledge.

Compared to some other Gobelins short films I have seen, this film does look very good and has a distinct style but the story it tells is not quite as powerful as those of the other films, perhaps because it runs like an excerpt of a much longer imaginary film and the characters are not well developed enough for viewers to care about them.

Hors Saison: a powerful character study of consequences arising from rash actions and interpersonal tensions

Nicolas Capitaine, Celine Desoutter, Lucas Durkheim, Leni Marotte, “Hors Saison / Out of Season” (2017)

Few films can portray character and tell a story complete in itself in the space of six minutes as does this impressive short effort from a group of 2017-vintage graduate students at the Gobelins school of animation in Paris. The story is set in a national park in the northern United States and revolves around park ranger Jude, aged about 50 years and perhaps suffering from career burnout as she tries to keep up with younger and chirpier work partner Karen. The sun is setting low in the west and Karen decides to hop back to HQ while Jude still needs to clean up a few branches cluttering up the road. With Karen gone, Jude gets a call from HQ to hurry up and something said to her over the radio rattles her enough for her to throw her radio into the thicket. On retrieving it, she discovers a poacher with suspicious booty in the back of his pick-up. While trying to arrest the fellow, he starts shooting at her and she fires back in self-defence. Having disabled the shooter, Jude calls HQ for an ambulance and reinforcement. While waiting for help, she peeks into the shooter’s shed – a decision that nearly costs her her life. Jude just manages to defend herself against the shooter’s partner – and then a third person appears in the doorway of the shed …

Quite a few themes establish themselves very quickly in the course of the film: there’s the obvious one of age, experience and perhaps world-weariness versus youth, energy and naivete in Jude and Karen’s interaction early on in the short which establishes a tension between the two. Jude’s conversation with HQ further reinforces the sense of isolation, psychological as well as physical, that the park ranger feels in the remote environment: an isolation that becomes more troubling and intense as Jude, alone, investigates a possible poaching ring involving at least two men who will stop at nothing to get their way. The consequences of Jude’s alone-ness, her determination to prove that she’s still fit and able, are messy indeed to say the least, and viewers can’t help but feel for her, knowing that she will have to explain her actions that will not only cost her her job but also warrant charges of manslaughter. The open-ended nature of the film’s closing, with Jude confronted by the awfulness of her actions arising in part from her fatigue and her stubbornness, made a powerful impression on this viewer and will certainly do the same for other viewers.

The animation, especially the background animation (with one breathtaking scene of a snow-capped mountain in the background behind a forest of fir trees), is well done: the backgrounds look three-dimensional though the characters are clearly two-dimensional and a little cartoony and exaggerated in some of their features. The villains especially appear rather stereotyped as surly sociopathic types. The most noteworthy feature is the voice acting with the actor playing Jude conveying the character’s tiredness, work fatigue and feelings of inadequacy when speaking to Karen.

This animated short deserves repeated viewings (in spite of scenes of violence and implied past violence) for its powerful story-telling and deep character study of a woman who makes one mistake after another.

In Orbit: a distinctive visual style in telling a rough story about survivor guilt

Soham Chakraborty, Hanxu Chen, M Joffily, Justin Polley, Julie Trouve, “In Orbit” (2019)

Similar to Gobelins’ 2018 release “Quand j’ai remplacé Camille” in its theme of survivor guilt, “In Orbit” uses impressive visual imagery to explore an astronaut’s feelings of guilt at not having been able to save her colleague and lover from a space accident that has left her comatose, and the astronaut being forced by memory, visual associations in her work environment, and the mere fact that she is transferring to another work unit that will involve working outside a spaceship to relive the incident and gradually accept it. The film appears to owe a debt to past Alfred Hitchcock films (in particular, “Vertigo”) and Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” in its ideas and images.

The colour palette of the film is dominated by blues, purples and dark colours which mirror the astronaut Sonia’s depressed moods (though red for danger and yellow also appear). In a number of scenes there is an emphasis on the huge scale and empty rooms of the space station where Sonia is currently resident, making her and her fellow travellers look very small and at times as much isolated from one another physically as well as psychologically from the guilt-ridden Sonia. Changes in viewpoint reinforce a sense of paranoia and claustrophobia as Sonia is pursued by her demons: in one memorable scene, the audience viewpoint does a somersault up to the top of the vault-like corridors Sonia runs through, following the lines of the walls, and then focuses (almost vulture-like) on the tiny figure running across the screen.

Even though all the action takes place on a space station, and the horror exists mainly in Sonia’s mind, this film has most of the necessary elements of a haunted-house horror film: the changes in viewpoint, the dark colours and shades, the suspense and anxiety, irrational fears and memories playing tricks on the mind. While the plot is rough around the edges and has no real resolution – we do not even know if Sonia is still on the material plane of existence when she finally meets with her lover – the film has succeeded as a science-fiction horror film in its visual style.

Blind Eye: a satirical poke in the eye at religious fanaticism, blind faith and priestly control

Bruno Cohen, Germaine Colajanni, Rohan Deshchougule, Ronit Kelkar, Isabella Littger de Pinho, Diego Porral, Yujia Wang, “Blind Eye” (2019)

After seeing Muhammad Houhou’s 2018-released short”Ostrich Politic”, I wasn’t expecting to see another animated short illustrating the famous Plato’s Cave allegory from students of the renowned Gobelins School of animation in Paris but a group of animators has done just that in the second year running in the school’s new 2019-released batch of shorts. “Blind Eye” tells the story of a community of worshippers sacrificing to their god The Almighty Eye in a complex ritual conducted by their priests. A small toddler starts munching on one of the sacrificial offerings and the offended community and priests yield him up to the giant birds to take him to the god. Just as one of the birds snatches up the child, the little boy’s sister races to the altar and tries to save him but both children are borne away by the bird … to an upper paradise world where the birds turn out to be part of the local wildlife and previous sacrificial victims, one of whom was known to the children in the past, lounge about on the grass and worship the sun.

The film is open-ended so it can be the subject of various interpretations: the children are stunned to learn the true nature of The Almighty Eye; the people in the upper world might be preparing the siblings for another sacrifice, one they won’t so easily escape; or they really have died after all and their spirits have gone to a completely different dimension. The film is also a satirical commentary on how blind faith and religious dogma jealously controlled by a priestly elite combine to keep a community ignorant of the truth.

The animation style is cartoony but zippy enough to keep a surprisingly complex plot going at a brisk pace and packing in enough story and one surprise after another in the space of just over six minutes. We actually don’t learn all that much about the siblings’ original community and yet there seems to be a lot of depth in it – certainly we get some sense of the priests’ hypocrisy and panic when the fanatical community threatens to get out of hand and tear the toddler from limb to limb for desecrating a sacrificial offering.

Viewers will either laugh along with the jokey poke in the eye at religious fanaticism and blind faith or be just as stunned as the children when the scales literally fall from their eyes at where they are delivered.

Oasis: eco-SF fantasy on societies’ responses to new ideas and ideologies

Florencia Atra, Leonard Hicks, Man Luo, Claire Matz, Luana Nguyen, Marine Petri, “Oasis” (2019)

Compared to other Gobelins animated shorts I have seen so far, the symbolism behind “Oasis” is a little more complicated to follow. The film revolves around two characters, the child Edwin and his agronomist mother Amaranthe, who live in a desert oasis paradise growing plants for scientific study. Edwin recovers a tiny plant from the sand which, when doused with special liquid nutrient that Amaranthe has developed, disrupts the precious ecosystem that Amaranthe has so carefully nurtured over the years. The plants die off, Amaranthe is devastated that her life’s work now lies in ruins, and a looming desert storm threatens to bury the entire oasis. Amaranthe allows Edwin to put his troublemaker plant into the central reliquary where her precious plant once stood, and Edwin’s plant promptly revives the entire ecosystem and wards off the dust storm.

The message of this little eco-SF fantasy seems to be that Edwin and his little plant represent a new paradigm of ideas that threaten societies long accustomed to a particular order and way of viewing the world that may no longer have any relevance or basis in a changed reality. Such societies will reject and suppress these ideas until an existential crisis threatens the survival of these societies; only then are the new ideas and new models accepted as the new mainstream paradigm.

The animation in “Oasis” is well done though not very remarkable. Background animation can be very lush and gorgeous as would be expected of a sudden explosion of green exotic flora. The characters communicate by looks and facial expressions. The music soundtrack is forgettable. “Oasis” is noteworthy mainly for its plot and the parable-like message behind it.

The Tree: a deeply moving film on hope and the importance of memory

Han Yang, Basil Malek, “The Tree” (2018)

Almost completely silent save for ambient background sound effects, this deeply moving animated short about an elderly man living an isolated life in a drought-stricken desert world, spending his days trying to obtain enough water from a well to water a tiny tree sapling that seemingly fails to thrive, is sure to have many viewers in tears. The narrative demonstrates the importance of the tree to the man: it is a memorial to his long-dead daughter who, in her dying days, drew a picture of herself and her father in the shade of a flourishing tree on the wall of their hut. After her death, the father planted a tree sapling on her grave and has cared for it ever since.

The animation is very minimal and concentrates on the main characters: the father and the tree itself. Despite all his efforts, the tree always appears fragile and on the verge of dying. The well gives up very little water. The father spends all his days trying to fetch more water to feed the tree until one day a huge dust storm gathers and threatens the tree’s survival. The father throws himself upon the girl’s grave to try to save the tree. What happens next may well shock many viewers and surprise and gladden others.

Self-sacrifice, hope, the importance of memory and remembering lost loved ones, and the deceptiveness of appearance – things that seem the most frail turn out to be the strongest – are the major themes of this poignant film.