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

Advertisements




REVIEW: The Humbling

11 05 2015

The HumblingImagine the script for “Birdman” fell into the hands of Woody Allen and then got made by a lesser director, and you essentially have what plays out in “The Humbling.”  Al Pacino, seemingly on a preemptive farewell tour, stars as Simon Axler, a self-absorbed chatterbox of a thespian who starts seeing his craft and the world a little too honestly.  Naturally, he cracks up.

But don’t worry, in the most Allenesque twist, the neurotic protagonist gets a salvo in the form of a friend’s younger daughter, Greta Gerwig’s Pegeen Mike Stapleford.  She reenters Simon’s frazzled life post-breakdown as a self-identified lesbian, but that does not last long as she finds herself seduced and destroyed by the sexual prowess of an older man that can “educate” her.

No matter what you think about Woody Allen’s off-screen relations with women of a certain age, he’s often able to present it as fairly normal in his films. (Or at the very least, it seems like a non-issue.)  In “The Humbling,” writers Buck Henry and Michal Zebede make the Pegeen and Simon relationship feel condescending, cocky, and perhaps even a little insensitive.

The film boasts any number of colorful characters parading across the screen, including Pegeen’s mother Carol, played with justified scorn by Dianne Wiest.  But director Barry Levinson never seems to orchestrate this circus well, leaving the brunt of our attention directed towards Pegeen and Simon’s core story.  Normally, drawing attention towards the centerpiece of the film would be a good thing, but it only compounds the problems for “The Humbling.”  C2stars





REVIEW: The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby

29 12 2014

Eleanor RigbyThe basic premise of writer/director Ned Benson’s “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby,” to be clear, is nothing particularly special.  James McAvoy and Jessica Chastain star as Connor Ludlow and Eleanor Rigby, respectively, a married couple in New York City hitting a devastating rough patch after a miscarriage.  Each deals with the tragedy in their own way, and Benson gives each story a feature’s length to develop.

Meant for consumption as one, “Him” follows Connor as he attempts to shake off the funk by throwing himself into his work for external validation while “Her” takes Eleanor’s point of view as she searches for greater meaning through introspection and education.  By isolating rather than integrating Connor and Eleanor’s journey, Benson makes perspective and subjectivity the prime focus of “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby.”

(Note: I did not bother to watch the streamlined edit that intercuts their stories, subtitled “Them,” because it seemed to defeat the purpose of the unconventional style.)

Students of narrative will relish this schismatic storytelling, analyzing what can be gleaned from one section that cannot be discerned in another.  Scenes shared by the former couple lend themselves to entirely different interpretations depending on the amount of information at hand on approach.  Integral figures in one person’s life are entirely irrelevant or nonexistent in that of the other.  Benson inquisitively asks how much can anyone know about others when trapped to see the world only through their own eyes, a question with strongly felt reverberations.

By all accounts, “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby” serves as a reminder that everyone has their own narrative.  Even the entrance (or exit) of a spouse does not create a shared story.  As important as that person is, they are merely another character in a grander arc.  Benson’s shedding of illusions surrounding coupling allows for a rich, nuanced portrayal of individual identity reclaimed and reasserted.

As such, “Him” and “Her” are both successful features as independent entities, not merely as half of a whole or only as an object for juxtaposition.  McAvoy commands his section by seizing the day and rallying to action to keep himself afloat; he is also bolstered by a strong dramatic turn from Bill Hader as a coworker and companion.  Meanwhile, Jessica Chastain proves irresistibly compelling as she mines the deepest recesses of her psyche for any kind of redemptive discovery.  In their contrast, Benson finds a beautifully dissonant harmony.  B+3stars