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





REVIEW: Suffragette

9 11 2015

SuffragetteSuffragette” feels somewhat like the cinema’s equivalent of getting a flu shot. It’s a necessary boost of social consciousness that is good for the way it keeps the world honest. But is it fun or enjoyable, something worth looking forward to? Ehh.

Sarah Gavron’s direction gives some urgency to the century-old tale of British women gaining the right to vote that might otherwise reek of mothballs. The film does not need its scrolling list of dates for women’s suffrage worldwide before the credits to convey this. Good filmmaking renders fact recitation dull at worst, unnecessary at best.

Though Gavron’s frequent use of shaky-camera as a shorthand for intense moment is rather uninspired, “Suffragette” feels appropriately militaristic and angry given its subject. She conveys this most effectively when Abi Morgan’s script focuses on the women’s suffrage movement and the splintering divisions within its ranks. Some prefer a more aggressive, confrontational approach; others, however, support playing the politics of respectability to eventually curry enough favor for their right to vote.

Thankfully, the world seems in agreement that women should have the right to determine their own destiny by casting a vote at the ballot box. Yet these sections that specifically examine the challenges of organizing social action prove so compelling because they are applicable to plenty of modern movements, be it LGBTQ rights, Occupy Wall Street, or Black Lives Matter. At times, “Suffragette” even recalls “Selma” in the way it presents a fascinatingly nuanced but generalizable portrayal of organizing collective civil disobedience.

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REVIEW: Ricki and the Flash

8 08 2015

The knives come out in “Ricki and the Flash,” the latest big screen outing written by “Juno” scripter Diablo Cody.  The film stars Meryl Streep as the titular character, a rock musician who ditched parenting her three children to entertain a half-full dive bar.  When her daughter Julie (Streep’s own daughter, Mamie Gummer) suffers a breakdown after getting unceremoniously dumped by her husband, Ricki is called off the bench and get in the family game once more.

Not unlike Cody’s 2011 effort “Young Adult,” articulate characters relish in shanking each other with particularly cutting remarks.  Decades of resentment get dredged out in the wake of Ricki’s reappearance with each of her estranged children as well as her ex-husband Pete (Kevin Kline) and his new wife Maureen (Audra McDonald) seeking to land the final blow.  “Ricki and the Flash” plays out much like a theatrical family melodrama that packs an especially potent load of venom.

Director Jonathan Demme’s last fictional feature, “Rachel Getting Married,” featured a similar set of conflicts hashed out between relatives.  He could have settled for directing “Ricki and the Flash” on autopilot, repeating the same techniques to produce a similarly effective result.  Yet rather than replicating his verité-style camera, heavy on observational close-ups to glean emotional breakthroughs, Demme opts for something a little more standard here.

Normally, that might make for a sticking point.  But it feels like the right choice to convey Cody’s story.  Though no subgenre of “deadbeat dad” dramas exists, she seems to make a sort of gender-swapped revision to the stock character.  Presenting Ricki within a more traditional framework, ironically, draws attention to how she bristles with the established conventions of storytelling.

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REVIEW: Into the Woods

17 12 2014

The last time a Stephen Sondheim musical received a screen adaptation, Tim Burton and company decided to completely obliterate what made the stage show of “Sweeney Todd” special in order to make the story cinematic.  So when Disney announced they would be making a filmic version of Sondheim’s “Into the Woods,” all signs pointed to them turning the revisionist fairy-tale musical into something akin to their hit TV show “Once Upon a Time.”  In other words, it could be a Marvel-style converging universe for Grimm’s Brothers tales.

Somehow, against the odds, “Into the Woods” maintains its integrity.  Disney does not force a pop-friendly ditty into the fabric of Sondheim’s notoriously tricky melodies and tough rhythms.  The soundtrack, likely to the pleasure of parents everywhere, boasts no “Frozen“-style tunes that demand playing on repeat.  These songs are better, or at least more purposeful – they tell a powerful story.

Sondheim’s music explores not just the wishes, dreams, and desires that come with the fairy tales.  The lyrics also deliberate the often neglected flip side of these: decisions, responsibility, and consequences.  “Into the Woods” head-fakes its first happily ever after in order deliver an extended post-script, daring to ask whether characters like Cinderella actually made the best decision for themselves.

Rob Marshall, thankfully channeling more of his masterful work on “Chicago” than his dreadful job on “Nine,” orchestrates this massive ensemble reevaluating their respective outcomes with a remarkable economy.  Everyone gets their moment, both in song and dialogue, to express their introspection.  Even with a few numbers truncated or cut altogether, “Into the Woods” still gets its message across with a great balance of obvious telling for the children and subtle hinting for the adults.

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REVIEW: The Homesman

29 11 2014

The HomesmanHistorically speaking, the Western has not been the most hospitable type of movie to the female gender. This philosophical statement from the genre’s patron saint, John Wayne, pretty much says it all: “I stick to simple themes. Love. Hate. No nuances. I stay away from psychoanalyst’s couch scenes. Couches are good for one thing.”

Writer/director Tommy Lee Jones’ “The Homesman” provides an interesting rejoinder to that legacy of rugged masculinity through its protagonist, Hilary Swank’s Mary Bee Cuddy.  She is a gritty, hard-working single farmer in the Nebraska Territory who still maintains a sense of empathy and caring.  So, in other words, she balances traits that are socially gendered for both sexes.

She also initiates her own destiny rather than waiting around for someone else to save her, boldly proposing marriage to other landowners in order to consolidate property.  Unsurprisingly, in the 19th century just as today, men greet such a woman with suspicion.  And their favorite word to describe Cuddy?  Bossy, the very word for girls that outspoken feminist Sheryl Sandberg wants to ban.

Cuddy’s resolve certainly stands out not only for the film’s phylum but also within the movie itself, as women are otherwise made victims of rape or cruelly objectified by men.  This message is undeniably worthwhile, yet little else about “The Homesman” is.   The film is a meandering mess that no amount of advocacy can fully redeem.

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REVIEW: The Giver

15 08 2014

The GiverIf there was any doubt that we’re reaching the point of supersaturation with dystopian YA adaptations, “The Giver” confirms that the tipping point has arrived.  I get that life in post-recessional America doesn’t exactly inspire hope, be you a teenager or an adult.  But I doubt real life could be any worse than escaping into this derivative and, often times, outright laughable film.

I first read the film’s source material, Lois Lowry’s Newberry-winning novel that is now a staple of middle school English curricula, as an impressionable 12-year-old in 2005.  At the time, the post-“Harry Potter” adolescent fiction boom had not begun to tarnish the newly bolstered reputation of writing aimed for emerging readers (not even the “Twilight” series had been published).  YA was neither a dirty word nor a marketing buzzword then; it was just my demographic.

Lowry’s book might have been relatively short, but it sure packed a punch.  “The Giver” can serve a crucial function in the escalation of material for language arts, providing a key stepping stone towards more weighty adult literature.  If you can place yourself in the position of a teenager, the dialectical push and pull between order and chaos as well as pain and pleasure are actually quite thought-provoking.

Yet no matter how deeply one might have regarded the thematic content of the novel, it’s entirely possible to discredit “The Giver” as little more than a compilation of shallow marketing hooks for a cookie-cutter dystopian YA film.  The very premise of the story loses sophistication and nuance as it’s forced to fit the mold made popular by “The Hunger Games.”  What made Lowry’s story special is largely discarded in favor the conventional, leaving behind a film that’s a shadow of its literary incarnation.

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REVIEW: August: Osage County

22 01 2014

August OsageI’m a firm believer that there are some source texts that are absolutely impossible to botch, provided they keep the main narrative intact.  Tracy Letts’ play “August: Osage County” belongs in such a category.

Many in the theatrical community already assert that it will be in the American dramatic canon along with works by Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, and Tony Kushner.  Letts provides some of the most gripping familial tensions I’ve ever read, and it’s chock full of meaty characters in an ensemble for the ages.

John Wells’ film adaptation of “August: Osage County” brings that story to a larger audience than likely could ever be reached on one stage.  Moreover, the cast he assembles is like the kind of “one night only” extravaganza that fans can only dream about.  I’ve never seen the show live, so I can’t really speak to its theatrical power.

Letts’ words did, however, jump off the page and paint such a vivid picture in my mind that I feel as if I did.  While the film does a decent job translating the action to the realm of cinema, there still feels like a bit of raw intensity evaporated in the transfer.

That’s not to say, though, that Wells doesn’t effectively harness the power of the screen to bring a different dimension to Letts’ opus of intergenerational discord.  On a stage, you can’t key off the subtleties in an actor’s facial movements, which is one of his most clever editing tricks in “August: Osage County.”  Some theorists have labeled film a fascist form because it has the power to direct your attention towards only what it considers relevant, but the way Wells chooses to organize these massive scenes is actually quite freeing.  It ensures we do not miss crucial reactions that serve to define the arcs of the characters.

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