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: The Program

7 05 2016

The ProgramThere are many stories surrounding cycling icon Lance Armstrong worthy of cinematic treatment. There’s the athlete himself, whose hubris and competitive nature led him to dupe, receive and betray. There’s the many authorities who turned a blind eye, including the media – save the one journalist, David Walsh, with the courage to take on Armstrong’s cabal. And of course, there’s America as a whole, who cheered on his triumphant narrative and marveled aghast when it was exposed as a sham.

Undoubtedly, the saga of Lance Armstrong’s historic rise and meteoric fall from grace has the proportions of Greek tragedy, should someone choose to apply such a framework. Yet none of these seem of interest to John Hodge, writer of”The Program.” His take on the events is one largely void of perspective, oscillating freely between Armstrong and Walsh without ever mooring the film in either one of their tales. The result is an experience that far underwhelms the proportions of the history it covers.

Perhaps the most impressive feat of Stephen Frears’ film is how easily it renders something so ordinary out of this extraordinary scandal. It appears that the main focus of the film is Armstrong (Ben Foster) and his insatiable need to win, a trait which powers him to the top of the sport while also sowing the seeds of his eventual demise. His teammates, as represented primarily through Jesse Plemons’ Floyd Landis, reaped the benefits of Armstrong’s victory thanks to the increased media attention his story gave the sport. This rising tide lifting their ships, however, came on the condition that they both stay out of the spotlight and remain complicit in the doping ring.

Armstrong might have made a better background character, to be honest. We know his face, his voice and his character from the aforementioned turn of the millennium media blitz. It’s pretty clear that Foster aims for a less imitative and more representational portrait of the man, akin to Michael Fassbender’s take on Steve Jobs. But as much as we thought we knew Jobs, his persona mostly amounts to tidbits from product launches. Lance Armstrong was everywhere for a solid decade, and Foster’s inability to overcome the hurdle of recognition hampers the rest of his performance.

“The Program” could have even been a wicked two-hander with Chris O’Dowd’s Walsh, working a “Frost/Nixon” style dynamic. A long-time skeptic who covered Armstrong even before his testicular cancer struck, Walsh might have developed into an interesting foil. But alas, Hodge mostly reduces him to a peripheral figure who is important only because of the role he plays in the events – not because the script treats him as such. He fares better than the average incredulous American media consumers, though, who get totally left out of “The Program.”

It’s ok, fellow common folk, we have the far better film about Lance Armstrong: Alex Gibney’s incisive documentary “The Armstrong Lie.” C2stars

REVIEW: Philomena

13 01 2014

PhilomenaLondon Film Festival

At first glance, the real-life story of Philomena Lee would seem like the stuff of depressing drama. After being impregnated as a teenager, she is thrown into a convent and forced to sign away her son. 50 years later, Philomena (Judi Dench) is still haunted by his loss and embarks on a journey to find him – only to uncover some unsettling truths.

In the hands of the average screenwriter, “Philomena” would have emphasized the tragedy and milked the story for every tear possible. Yet Philomena’s quest is filtered through the lens of Steve Coogan (yes, Damien Cockburn from “Tropic Thunder,” among many other roles) and Jeff Pope’s unique worldview, making it a rather different movie. It definitely has its heart in the very heartbreaking dramatic truth of her life; however, it’s a surprisingly and heartwarmingly hilarious.

Much of the humor comes from Coogan’s own presence as an actor in the film, portraying Martin Sixsmith, the journalist who takes an interest in investigating Philomena’s past. He’s quite the counterpoint to her seemingly incurable optimism: having just been fired from his government job, he’s rather merciless and defeatist. Coogan and Dench don’t just have a standard comic man-straight man routine going, though. They each express their worldviews wittily and distinctly, with both having moments of vindication and defeat.

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F.I.L.M. of the Week (May 28, 2010)

28 05 2010

I’m officially out for summer! Senior year, baby! It’s time to celebrate with the first “F.I.L.M. of the Week” of summer vacation! This calls for a comedy – something like “Mrs. Henderson Presents” ought to do the trick. Starring the always incredible Judi Dench in her third of four Oscar-nominated performances of the ’00s, the movie tells the story of a widow with nothing to do but create a stir. Set against the backdrop of British boys going to fight in World War II, director Stephen Frears provides some drama if you’re looking for a little of that as well.

The movie opens with the funeral of Mr. Henderson, where his widow (Dench) is dealing more with boredom than grief. She scoffs at the idea that she should stop her life to observe a period of mourning. After trying her hand at the conventional hobbies of older women, she discovers she needs to be entertained in more lively and energetic ways. Along with the help of Vivian Van Damm (Bob Hoskins), Mrs. Henderson opens a theater that revolutionizes the business in London first by presenting their shows non-stop.

But the second way is what the movie concerns itself with the most, and that was Mrs. Henderson’s bold decision to present nude girls in the show.  Using some skillful connections associated with her status, she gets permission to let the clothes come off as long as it remains art – which means that the girls had to be in tableaus when exposed.  It’s clear that Mrs. Henderson has a reason behind doing this other than making money or creating controversy, both of which she manages to do anyways.  The reason becomes more clear as the crowd that packs her theater becomes less of the musical theater group and more young men, most of whom are heading off to fight a war.

“Mrs. Henderson Presents” is one of those gems that does have something to offer pretty much everyone.  It’s well-made, well-acted, and very entertaining.  It has great vaudevillian music and some spectacularly choreographed sequences on the stage.  Dench is funny and poignant as the outrageous Mrs. Henderson, and she and Bob Hoskins mix very well.  As foes, foils, and friends, they play every scene with the right energy.  Not to mention, this movie isn’t sore on the eyes (if you get what I’m saying).