REVIEW: Florence Foster Jenkins

8 08 2016

Earlier in 2016, discerning art-house audiences might have seen a thinly repackaged French version of the Florence Foster Jenkins legend, Xavier Giannoli’s “Marguerite.” The concept of an aging socialite determined to become a well-renowned opera singer, despite having no natural vocal gifts, presents many fascinating angles of examination for art, class and power. Giannoli chose neither of these; as I wrote in April, “Apathy and ambivalence, more than ambiguity, drive the proceedings.”

The story makes much more sense, anyways, in its native United States. Here, our national mythology declares that if you can dream it, you can be it. Our social structures also tend to dictate that those with the money can exert an inordinate influence over what qualifies as “art” and tip the scales in their own favor wherever they choose. Florence Foster Jenkins’ ruse for aesthetic beauty and admiration feels like a true creation of her country – only in America, right?

Yet Stephen Frears’ film “Florence Foster Jenkins” suffers from the same affliction as “Marguerite.” With so many doors from which to choose, the filmmakers linger in the lobby. By placing Florence at the center of the narrative, she becomes a de facto object of our pity and sympathy. The extent of Frears’ challenges to her is cutaways to the aghast expressions on all those indulging Florence’s pipe dreams. It’s the equivalent of replying to a tweet with a witty reaction GIF, and these shots feel cheap compared to the committed physicality Meryl Streep puts behind Florence.

If any question of note is raised by the film, it’s that of the vitriol directed at Florence from a disapproving public. The crowds who gather to hear her screeches express their disgust in varying degrees of openness, ranging from murmured snickering to outright boos. Of course, everyone should expect a certain decorum and humanity when responding to art. But when the primary justification for her shrill attempts at opera is merely that she exerts an honorable effort, the crowd has a right to get a little irate. Yes, the banal can besmirch the extraordinary.

In many ways, “Florence Foster Jenkins” resembles another character in the film more than the one for which it is named. That personality would be Hugh Grant’s Sinclair, the jaded lover of Florence as well as her chief apologist and enabler. If anyone were to make a stand for great art and put an end to her stunt, it would be him. Yet Sinclair is in no position bring Florence down to earth because he himself has not relinquished the charade of becoming a great actor in his own right. He embodies the inherent contradiction of the film: what looks like the American Dream could merely be the American Sham. B-2stars

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REVIEW: The Man from U.N.C.L.E.

11 08 2015

Director Guy Ritchie got to where he is today – directing major studio action films – by never shying away from style.  At times, this tendency manifested itself in an almost enfant terrible fashion by flashing pizzaz when not necessarily required.  This was the Achilles’ heel of the “Sherlock Holmes” series, which suffered under the weight of his excessive flourishes.

Ritchie’s latest film, “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.,” finds the writer/director on his best behavior.  Along with a gaggle of other writers, he adapts 1960s television series for the screen in a manner completely fitting for a Cold War-era property.  It has subtle modernizing twists but always feels like a throwback to a bygone age of unimaginable suaveness.

Leading the charge, perhaps more than Ritchie himself, is leading man Henry Cavill as CIA operative Napoleon Solo. From the second he first struts across the frame, Cavill radiates an old-school electricity. He owns the screen, and he knows it. Cavill’s Solo feels cut from the cloth of debonair screen legends, and coupled with his completely self-assured booming vocal inflections, he excitingly recalls a Cary Grant or a Humphrey Bogart.

The film sees him paired with an equally formidable force, Armie Hammer as the sculpted stoic KGB agent Illya Kuryakin.  Trained to remain unmovable and unflappable, Kuryakin makes a worthy counterpoint to Solo.  The two are archrivals by nature of their countries’ ongoing diplomatic stalemate yet must become buddy cops by necessity to prevent the last holdouts of the Nazi regime from activating a nuclear weapon.

Read the rest of this entry »





F.I.L.M. of the Week (July 29, 2011)

29 07 2011

Was “Midnight in Paris” not enough Woody Allen for you this summer?  Was his latest film so dazzling that you are suddenly curious to delve deeper into his extensive filmography?  If you answered yes to either of these questions, perhaps you ought to check out “Small Time Crooks,” Allen’s 2000 annual that bubbles with humor and excitement in a way that only he can deliver.

It’s a recipe for chaos when the blundering criminal Ray (Allen) asks his short-tempered manicurist wife Frenchy (Tracey Ullman) to be a front for his latest thieving operation.  She runs a cookie shop aboveground while he and his dim-witted partners from prison work underground to tunnel into the vault of the adjacent bank.  The success story, however, gets inverted when Frenchy’s cookies become a runaway sensation and Ray’s robbery totally fizzles.

All of a sudden, fast forward a year and Frenchy and Ray have incorporated their cookie company, coming into more money than they could ever dream of.  How they react, however, is totally different.  Ray wants to remain the same, humble to his low-brow roots, while Frenchy becomes obsessed with joining the elitist art crowd of New York City … which is less than happy to take in white trash with money like her.

Their divergent paths lead to inevitable humor as Ray becomes involved with Frenchy’s spacy cousin May (Elaine May) and Frenchy recruits a high-class aristocrat, David (Hugh Grant), to train her for entry into high society.  It’s not incredibly deep, but it’s a fun examination nonetheless of class in America and how money can affect some parts of our lives but leave other aspects totally unaffected.  And in that uniquely Woody Allen fashion, “Small Time Crooks” can make you laugh in spite of its mopiness and defeatism.





Know Your Nominees: “The King’s Speech”

10 02 2011

The Oscars are a great cultural conversation for all to participate in, but it’s all too easy to only have surface knowledge of the nominees.  It’s all too easy to know “Black Swan” as the ballet movie, “The Fighter” as the boxing movie, and “The Social Network” as the Facebook movie.  But don’t you want to know more and stun your friends with your knowledge of the movies in the weeks leading up to the awards and ultimately during the broadcast itself?

That’s what my KNOW YOUR NOMINEES series hopes to do.  Every three days, I’ll feature ten interesting facts about the ten Best Picture nominees of 2010 that would be fascinating to pepper into any conversation.  My hope is that you will come away with an enhanced appreciation of the movies but also enjoy learning strange and interesting things about them.

So, as we proceed in alphabetical order, our next stop on the tour is “The King’s Speech.”

“The King’s Speech” should feel like a very personal movie for a number of reasons, but probably chief among them is screenwriter David Seidler.  As a boy growing up in England in the 1930s and ’40s, Seidler was a stammerer and idolized King George VI for his ability to overcome his problem.  He had to wait many years to secure the rights to write a movie about his hero, mainly due to being asked personally by the Queen Mother (played by Helena Bonham Carter in the film) to pass away.  Seidler then wrote it as a play, which director Tom Hooper saw and decided to make into a movie.

The director then added his own personal touch to the movie as well.  Hooper stated in an interview that “The King’s Speech” is really a movie about his family.  For example, the opening scene of the movie showing the preparations for the radio broadcast is an homage to his sister, a presenter for Radio 4.  But mainly the connection comes from the relationship between the British Bertie and Australian Logue as Hooper has an Australian mother and an English father. He talked greatly in interviews about the interesting relationship between the two countries and how he conveyed it in the movie.

Lionel Logue, King George’s speech therapist played in the movie by Geoffrey Rush, kept a detailed set of diaries chronicling his work (although they don’t start until the coronation of the king).  However, the diaries were not made available to the filmmakers until nine weeks before the shoot.  Hooper has said that the only changes they made were for the sake of accuracy, and nothing was drastically altered.  He also stated in an interview that some of the best lines in the movie were taken directly from the diary.  For example, after the climactic speech, Logue jokingly says, “You still stammered on the w,” to which King George replies, “Well, I had to throw in a few so they knew that it was me.”

Colin Firth looks like a sure-fire winner for Best Actor, but this easily could have been someone else.  Firth was actually the third choice to play King George VI and only received the role after first Paul Bettany and then Hugh Grant passed.  Neither have Oscars at home on their mantle, so I’m pretty sure that both are regretting this decision.

So how did Firth nail down that stammer, which he executes so immaculately in “The King’s Speech?”  What might be surprising is that Firth did not work with a speech therapist.  He did, however, use a dialogue coach who helped him make the stammer come from a very personal place while also not affecting the pacing of the movie (imagine how dreadful the movie would be if it took him 20 minutes to utter each word).  A speech therapist did come to some of the rehearsals for the movie, and Firth’s sister is also a vocal therapist, which he claims was very helpful for consulting purposes.  He also talked a lot with screenwriter David Seidler, who compared stuttering to being “underwater.”

Does stammering come with side effects?  For Colin Firth, it did.  During the shoot, he claims to have suffered from some headaches and neck tension.  But the more debilitating toll was on his arm, which became numb, went to sleep and thus hard to use.  He went to the set doctor who had little to offer due to the lack of precedent.

Helena Bonham Carter received her second Academy Award nomination for her work in “The King’s Speech,” but just as the case was with many of this year’s nominees, she almost missed the chance.  Due to her commitment on the “Harry Potter” movies, Carter turned down the role numerous times despite director Tom Hooper’s insistence.  Yet she did star in “The King’s Speech” by making what she calls an “illegal” maneuver – shooting BOTH at the same time.  Carter would go off on the weekends and shoot her scenes for Tom Hooper while never being truly “released” from the “Harry Potter” sets.

How do you get a good actor – an Academy Award winning actor, for that matter – to play a convincing mediocre actor?  Tom Hooper got Geoffrey Rush to do some unconvincing Shakespeare by shooting the scene on the first day with English actors in the room who knew that Rush had some experience with Shakespeare. To quote Rush, “I was nervous and I was bad, and he just shot it.”

What of the royal reaction to the film? Queen Elizabeth II, George’s daughter portrayed in the movie as a young girl, gave “The King’s Speech” her seal of approval.  Cynics might ask how much Harvey Weinstein paid for it; others are probably just thrilled to see the royal family showing interest in popular culture.

Cynics might also say that “The King’s Speech” is a stuffy British royal family costume drama that’s totally designed to win over the Academy.  The last part seems to be somewhat true, but it’s hardly stuffy like most other movies about royal life.  Director Tom Hooper is largely responsible for that.  He stated in an interview that he purposefully set up the opening and closing shots of Bertie/George VI so that the movie would stand apart from others in the genre.  We first meet Bertie in normal clothes, not looking all snazzy in his royal get-up.  The movie closes reaffirming King George and Lionel Logue’s friendship, not with him cured of his stammer as if by magic or medicine.

Check back on February 13 as the KNOW YOUR NOMINEES series continues with “127 Hours.”





F.I.L.M. of the Week (November 26, 2010)

26 11 2010

It’s Black Friday!  While my shopping today was limited to Amazon.com, there’s something more to celebrate … IT’S CHRISTMAS TIME!  (Officially, at least!)

What better way to celebrate than by watching a Christmas movie?  May I propose “Love Actually,” my pick for this week’s “F.I.L.M.”  It gets you in the holiday spirit like no other with its abundant tales of all sorts of different loves in the Christmas season.  This isn’t a traditional Christmas movie in the tradition of “Elf” or “The Santa Clause,” but the holiday plays such an integral role in the storyline that it’s hard to call it anything else.  It reminds you of the joys of the Christmas season so well that it’s become a sort of traditional holiday kick-off for my family.

Platonic love, impossible love, irresponsible love, mourning love, familial love, interlingual love, desperate love – you name it, this movie offers it.  Some might call it overambitious or cluttered, but I think Richard Curtis’ script is an enormously satisfying blend of love that makes flawless connections between its characters.  He packs the movie full of humor and heart, tied with a bow of such irresistible charm that you’ll wish every gift under the Christmas tree could provide such joy.

All your favorite Brits (and Laura Linney) are feeling the bliss and pain of love in overdrive with all the madness surrounding the holidays catches them.  The perpetually single Prime Minister (Hugh Grant) is undeniably attracted to one of the women working for him (Martine McCutcheon), which makes for a difficult situation.  The clumsy writer Jamie (Colin Firth) finds himself falling for his Portuguese housekeeper while working France, despite the fact that neither can speak the same language.

Sarah (Linney) is madly in love with her co-worker Karl (Rodrigo Santoro) but can never work up the courage to say anything.  Daniel (Liam Neeson) is mourning the death of his long-suffering wife while trying to help his young stepson get noticed by his crush.  Karen (Emma Thompson) is trying to put on a happy face for her family while her husband (Alan Rickman) isn’t being entirely honest about his affairs.

And playing behind it all, there’s washed-up and rehabbed rock star Billy Mack (Bill Nighy) trying to reclaim his former glory by shamelessly converting an old song into Christmas jam, “Christmas Is All Around.”  He’s a hilariously self-depracating mess, making ill-advised remarks like, “Kids, don’t buy drugs; become a celebrity and they’ll give them to you for FREE!”  Nighy delivers one of those divine, once-in-a-decade comedic performances, and he absolutely steals the movie.

I didn’t even touch on about half of the storylines in the story, not to mention the subplots.  There’s just so much there for everyone in “Love Actually” that it’s practically irresistible.  While you might not click with one storyline, there are a dozen others that you are bound to love!  Like the poster says, it’s the “ultimate romantic comedy,” and you’ll be amazed at how entertaining and fun Richard Curtis and his army of British actors can make the dying genre.





Random Factoid #239

24 03 2010

Sandra Bullock follows me into the shower.

If you read that and thought dirty thoughts, shame on you.  But I’m glad that drew you in.  What I actually meant is about 1/3 of the time I get in the shower, I am reminded of a Sandra Bullock monologue.

Here’s her speech; it’s from “Two Weeks Notice,” her 2002 comedy with Hugh Grant.  To put it in context, she is telling her boss (Hugh Grant) why she can’t keep working for him.

I think about you in the shower .. .not in a good way, but in an I’m-so-distracted-I-can’t-remember-if-I-washed-my-hair kinda way – so I’ll wash my hair twice! So I have a hole in my stomach, I’m running out of shampoo and today is the first day in my life that I did not give a thousand percent on the job. And I hate that feeling.

Often times, thinking of neurotic Sandra helps me remember how many times I have washed my own hair.  I guess I should thank her for that – hope this will suffice.





REVIEW: Did You Hear About the Morgans?

13 01 2010

Hey, Hugh Grant, over the holidays, I watched you in “Love Actually.” Really good performance in a really good movie. So tell me, Hugh, why on earth would you choose “Did You Hear About the Morgans?” You usually have good taste, but couldn’t you just hear the crickets chirping as you read the script?

Hey, Sarah Jessica Parker, I got a chance to feel the warmth of “The Family Stone” this holidays, a movie that earned you a Golden Globe nomination. We all know you have acting chops, so tell us, why did you choose to star in “Did You Hear About the Morgans?” You don’t do many movies, but you have a lot of respect from winning award after award for “Sex and the City.”

Oh, the questions I would love to ask the stars. I can’t, of course, nor would I to their faces. But I couldn’t help but wonder why two very capable actors would waste their time on a movie like this? Honestly, this movie deserves the talents of Pauly Shore and Jenny McCarthy.

The movie hasn’t the slightest desire to be original or at least interesting. After seeing the trailer and the leading actors, we know that this New York power couple is going to get over their rough spots and get back together. It’s the classic formula, and everyone knows it. Grant and Parker play separated New York moguls who witness a murder and are forced to enter the Witness Protection Program together in Ray, Wyoming. It’s a fish-out-of-water comedy where the fish is dead when you take it out of the water.

Hugh Grant is fairly bearable in this unbearable movie. However, Sarah Jessica Parker is endlessly awkward, and her every movement just made me cringe. I haven’t the slightest idea why she reverted to these mannerisms. I never watched “Sex and the City,” but if people thought she was sexy on that show, she surely had to carry herself with more poise than this. And it’s not like her character is some graceless buffoon; she is a real estate tycoon who is on the cover of magazines!

When I made the decision to see “Did You Hear About the Morgans?,” I was in a very interesting mood. I didn’t really have the desire to see anything good; I just wanted to see something kind of trashy and dumb. Upon reflection, there is much better bad entertainment out there than this. It isn’t egregiously awful, but it is so unimaginative that I found it hard to even laugh at the movie as a whole. In fact, you don’t even have to see a movie to be more entertained than this at your theater. I’d recommend watching the ICEEs mix. D /