Florence Foster Jenkins

Before I begin the analysis, it’s time for a full disclosure. No, I don’t know anyone associated with the film, and I have no vested financial interest in it. But I look at films like this differently from most other folks. To begin with, I’m a musician. I sing, play the piano, work with other vocalists, direct a choir, accompany our local college choir, am part of a small musical theatre troupe, occasionally musically direct and often perform musically with my wife, who has a glorious soprano voice. I’ve also studied musicals most of my life, and am currently writing a book on some musicals, focusing in part on the vocals. So I can’t see this film from a distance. The reality of singing and accompanying is too much a part of my life.

That aside, this film is in part a traditional “well-made” film that just happens to successfully balance elements that could have sent the film careening in one direction or another. Florence Foster Jenkins was a rich, entitled, clueless society woman with a great interest in music and very little sense of pitch. People say she had a terrible voice. That’s not quite true. Her voice was OK, but it was buried under a near complete inability to hit more than two notes at a time on the correct pitch. The fact that she was some kind of coloratura soprano made this all the more painful to listen to, as she felt more comfortable “singing” in the upper reaches of her high soprano range, where the musical massacres were all the more dramatic.

To present this kind of personality in any realistic sense involves the derision and criticism her voice invited. But most filmmakers won’t construct a film on such a weak foundation. So we have a variety of viewpoints, at one moment hilariously appalled, then spitefully critical, then sympathetic and then, campily supportive. The film doesn’t quite synthesize these attitudes, but manages to present them all as legitimate, perhaps even legitimate at the same moment. There may not be a recent film that has its main characters (except Jenkins, of course) convey such a variety of thoughts and reactions at the same time as this one: joy, confusion, bewilderment, offensiveness, and self-service all flit across the faces of the other characters, depending on what Florence is doing.

The script contributes to the mixed yet basically respectful perspectives we have on the lead character. Early in the film, we track with the surprised and horror-struck pianist (Simon Helberg), who has a classic “can’t hold it in any longer” scene that we’ll likely see replayed many times over in the coming years. But just as we dismiss Florence as an addled old lady with too much money and too little self-awareness, we get more of her backstory, and our sympathies are engaged. The more we learn, the more we understand. Yet truthfully, the film doesn’t quite satisfactorily explain how her (spoiler alert) “husband” really feels about her. He is her ardent supporter, yet with his own set of conflicting thoughts and emotions about her talents, especially as he is hearing her “sing”. He seems to support her in her illusions, and works hard to protect her from the realities of her weaknesses. But other than cold-hearted greed and/or at least financial dependency, which seems to have been an integral part of their relationship, the film shies away from going anywhere near there, leading to something of a question mark in understanding their relationship dynamics.

The other question the film doesn’t seem to pin down to this viewer’s satisfaction is why and how she came to be such a phenomenon. There is a little “You go, girl” thrown in at the end from a minor character. But that attitude doesn’t seem to be part and parcel of her listening audience. We’re certain made aware of her wealth, but the apparent sycophancy of the members of her many music groups and circles is only vaguely suggested, leaving us wondering how intelligent (and in most cases, musically intelligent) people could let this charade continue for so long. The film’s tag line, “You don’t have to be good to be great” suggests something the film doesn’t quite deliver.

Director Stephen Frears (The Queen, Mrs. Henderson Presents, Philomena) may have been the perfect choice for combining hard reality with soft edges, and he does that again here. In other hands, this film could have been cruel, or an indictment of the upper classes of New York combined with a “Look, the emperor has no clothes” kind of attitude. But he makes sure that in spite of her lacks (and shunting aside what must have been a rather controlling and imperious attitude) and cluelessness, we care for her, and nearly adopt the protective attitude of her “husband.” (See the documentary on her from 2008 to understand the quotes.)

Working with that vision are three actors giving some of the best characterizations of the year. Hugh Grant as St Clair Bayfield gives a surprisingly shaded and deep performance (see https://film-prof.com/2013/04/15/actors-and-line-readers/), walking a tightrope between genuine loving care and complete indulgence. Helberg as Cosmé McMoon (yes, that’s a real name) may have the most difficult male role in that we are meant to relate to him and to track with his shock and his own developing desires for a career. His scene of accompanying his first voice lesson with Florence is full of complicated emotional reactions while being uproariously funny at the same time. He is the one person keeping the film grounded in some kind of relatable reality, and he does it well.

Of course the film belongs to Meryl Streep, who proves once again the vast scope of her acting talents. I’ve never been a big fan of her singing voice, but here her musicality is used to its fullest extent. Only a real singer, or at least an actor with a good understanding of singing, could pull off the vocal challenges of playing Florence Foster Jenkins. It takes someone good to sing this badly. That in itself is one of the greatest technical challenges of her career, right up there with her various languages in Sophie’s Choice. Yet more than that, this role calls for Streep to turn her most common artistic criticism on its head. She has been rightly described as being a bit too technically oriented, and not warm and relatable enough in her characterizations. She can be a bit too cool and distant at times. Here, though, she is the opposite, and gives Florence a warmth and sympathy she may not have had in real life. Streep is the warmest presence in the film (words I thought I’d never write), and helps us care greatly for her character even as we scratch our heads in amazement and confusion about the reactions and motivations of those around her. She’ll of course receive another record Oscar nomination, and deservedly so. Conquering the vocal challenges is difficult enough (and I’m not sure how many other actresses could do it); helping us see why people laugh at her, and then getting us to care so much for her is as difficult as the off-key singing.

Finally, however, this is a very funny film, the funniest I’ve seen in ages. Being a singer and an accompanist puts me in the position of enjoying some of the humor more deeply than others, perhaps. But the film itself is light and deft enough to be enjoyed by everyone. Balancing its many strands of appreciation, horror, humor and sympathy is some kind of triumph. Happily for most viewers, however, the sheer enjoyment of the experience makes us forget all the hard work and artistic success behind the scenes, and presents the wonder that was FFJ.

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Jason Bourne

In terms of a summer action film, this is an enjoyable repeat. It’s got director Paul Greengrass’s patented non-stop camera technique, and it features America’s most likeable heroes, the cinematic Bourne and the real-life Matt Damon. It’s a pleasurable and gratifying recipe, one that’s both fun and ultimately forgettable.

With director Greengrass back at the help with Damon after the regrettable Tony Gilroy/Jeremy Renner attempt at a reboot in 2012 (they could have asked me about that and saved millions….), this one coulda/shoulda been the one to wrap things up. Instead, it pretty much treads water, awaiting the next entry, even if the splashing around is satisfying.

(Spoilers ahead.) Damon is solid as ever, and while a little heavier and older, has clearly spent enough hours in the gym to convince us of his abilities to fight and live. Unfortunately, the storyline is the same as ever; he’s being pursued, and his life in on the line approximately every 17 minutes. If the story had ended in some revelation that ultimately made a difference, or if things had come to a conclusion, the meandering might have taken on a deeper meaning. Instead, the whole thing ends up feeling like the “next installment” in the series that will go on until the character dies, ages out, or finds a way to disappear and be happy at the same time.

Julie Stiles as Nicky reappears, and we hope for some information that brings real light and/or romance. She brings some information, but it’s not the breakthrough we as viewers have been looking for, and then she dies. We are sorry to see her go, but since the relationship between Nicky and Bourne has never gotten that deep or interesting, the regret at her passing is minimal.

More interesting is the ever-changing presence of Vincent Cassel, that French embodiment of intensity and anger, as someone who appears to be a hireling but we discover has a close and personal vested interest in destroying Bourne. It adds the kind of twist that makes the old Western The Searchers so fascinating. In that film, the question goes from “Will they find her?” to “What is going to happen to her if they do?” Cassel, playing “The Asset,” adds that extra layer that helps bring the film to life.

Probably hired for international appeal is recent Oscar winner Alicia Vikander (The Danish Girl, Ex Machina). A talented actress with a long and successful career ahead of her, she is miscast here. She is a soft-spoken talent who plays her characters internally and deeply. Her Heather Lee is strong, forthright and direct, even edgy. Vikander is anything but as an actress; even her soft voice is difficult to understand at times. Her talent allows her to make the character her own, but it’s not a good match.

Greengrass’s style, so fresh and new with the earlier Bourne films, United 93 and Captain Phillips, needs a rest–literally. I found myself hoping for a moment of respite, a time to catch a breath, a moment to ponder. Even Jason Bourne gets the occasional moment to think and sleep. It’s a relentless style of filmmaking, and one that needs shaking up.

The fight scenes are not quite the set pieces we’ve come to expect. They seem shorter and less exciting. Oscar-winning editor Christopher Rouse either seems to have either less to work with, or is deliberately leaning down the fight scenes. In the earlier Bourne films, they were moments that helped break the intensity of the camera style with their rhythms and energy (if we didn’t get quiet moments, at least we got some relief in the form of artful and powerful fighting). The film misses those explosions of energy.

On the other hand, Tommy Lee Jones plays an intense, anger-under-the-collar, overly focused character. And…?

The series is branching out by going into side stories. This one contains government-business relationships, technology issues, privacy concerns and more inter-departmental intrigue within the government. That’s one way of enriching a franchise entry. Another perhaps more satisfying one would be to dig deeper into the human issues of identity, family betrayal and even of growing up and continued self-discovery.

With the talents at work that we find in front of and behind the camera, Jason Bourne can’t help but be a fun ride. Any future entry, however, needs to deal with the repercussions of what is brought to light in this film, and would do well to grant us some reflection and yes, some meaningful resolution.

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My Big Fat Greek Wedding II

The original My Big Fat Greek Wedding was a monstrous hit in 2002. It had a fresh take on an everyday story, and was funny, a little edgy and safe. It was lovingly infused with the experiences and perspectives of Greek comic Nia Vardalos, who wrote the screenplay and starred in it.

What made that film enjoyable, if not groundbreaking in any way, was its consistent loving and slightly horrified viewpoint on her Greek family, which was too tightknit, completely inappropriate at times, very supportive, and occasionally silly (e.g., Windex). But it was all of a piece, as viewers experienced her life one real-life experience at a time in a narrative arc that was comfortable and nonthreatening. As a classic comedy, it ended in a marriage, and like Moonstruck, the film brought all the fun ethnic craziness to a peak at the end.

The sequel takes place a couple of decades later, and is an unfunny mess. (Spoilers follow.) The necessary “wedding” is based on an absurdity, and the repercussions of the action that leads to that wedding are predictable and unbelievable at the same time. The film ends up as a series of gags around the various personalities; we discover nothing new or deeper, a series of unfunny jokes skimming off the surfaces of familiar people and scenarios rather than a fresh take on those folks and the circumstances around them.

The one triumph of the film is a producing one. They seemed to have managed to get the entire cast together for the sequel. Unfortunately, none of those involved can be happy about the final result. The screenplay is a missed opportunity, and the direction is hackneyed. Vardalos is still a warm and welcome screen presence, but even her character has been pushed into a helicopter parent mode that doesn’t make sense and isn’t properly supported.

There is a nod to today in the introduction of a character as gay. Nothing in the first film indicated that to be true, but both the character’s current situation and way that the film handles it should provide great study how to shoehorn an unwarranted sociological issue into a script while still essentially avoiding its ramifications. In fact, how the film addresses the issue is the funniest part of the film. To be truthful, there is one funny gag that works, and it involves what some of the women do when a photo is being taken. Otherwise, the gags fall flat.

If you enjoyed the first film, keep your recollections of it. If you want to revisit the characters, see the first film again and keep your precious memories safe.

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The Legend of Tarzan

Nearly 100 years ago, the first (silent) Tarzan film opened—Tarzan of the Apes, starring Elmo Lincoln. Since then, the grand story has been reworked for several generations, the most famous series of films coming in the early-to-mid ‘30s, with the definitive Tarzan, Johnny Weissmuller.

1984’s awkwardly titled Tarzan: The Legend of Greystoke, Lord of the Apes, brought a lean and mean Tarzan in the person of French actor Christopher Lambert, more time spent at the family mansion of Greystoke, and a fascinating first film performance from model Andie MacDowell (Groundhog Day), whose Southern accent was so troublesome that her dialogue was stripped and replaced by an (then) unknown New York actress named Glenn Close.

The combination of political correctness and genuine sensitivity has conspired to challenge the newer Tarzan films to be relevant while being exciting. So now we have the newest Tarzan offering, The Legend of Tarzan. As a rollicking adventure film, it can be enjoyed on that level. But with the casting of brooding actor Alexander Skarsgard, I had high hopes that this would be a smarter, deeper film. Then the first few minutes give us two quick clichés—fine actor Christophe Waltz (Django Unchained, Inglourious Basterds) as the too cool, sharp villain, and the fine actor Djimon Hounsou (Gladiator, Blood Diamond, In America) as an important tribal African chief—and my eyes glazed over just a bit.

The film works hard to place the legend into something of an edgy historical context involved the king of Belgium, the colonial raping of the Congo, and the larger issue of slavery. It never quite gels, and never quite informs the central plot with anything but an awkward push into the narrative. It was exciting at first to find John Clayton (Tarzan/Skarsgard) at home in England in his grand manor with beautiful wife Jane (Margot Robbie, who appears to be able to do anything in terms of acting). But we find him restless, eager to escape the jungle of English society and get back to his African home.

He’s obviously got to get to Africa, which the film manages to do rather quickly after that bumpy beginning. Once there, however, the film is all over the place. There is a plot, of course, but the film ends up (spoiler alert) as another damsel-in-distress film, even while paying some lip service to secondary, minor issues such as national bankruptcy, colonial pillaging, inter-tribal warfare, and the slave market. To be sure, Robbie is hardly the typical weak damsel, but she still has to be rescued by the big guy.

And then there’s Samuel L. Jackson, who simultaneously injects the film with a shoe-horned black presence that is supposed to be meaningful in some way, gives the film its biggest kick, and is wildly, wildly anachronistic in dialogue and tone. I lost track of how many modern quips he made that were, say, 120 years out of their time. While Skarsgard can capture the timeframe of 1890 with ease, and Robbie and Waltz are generic enough in their performances not to stick out, Jackson and his modern presence turn this film into something else–funny and wonderful on some level, but strange at the same time. It’s akin to having Bill Murray show up in a Jane Austen film.

Warning: If you’re as sick of CGI as many others are at the moment, skip this one. Phony ships on phony water, phony jungles, phony apes (so many phony apes!) and phony ostriches in phony races. There are some stunning real vistas, but far too much of the action is captured in that vague, dusky look that is modern CGI.

Skarsgard is a longer, leaner Tarzan than we normally expect, and his moodiness brings a fresh touch. But there’s too much introspection, too much moodiness. His passions are more hidden than they need to be. His connection with Jane, too, is underplayed, and a few of their scenes look cut down from another, more romantic film.

Lastly, there is a daring use of flashback that is praiseworthy in its lack of explanation; we just have to realize, that, oh, here is a flashback that explains…something. It’s a bold move, but doesn’t quite come off as the film keeps going back to his past in the jungle. Perhaps they are trying to cover too much territory and all the jumps back in time don’t quite come together as a whole. Or perhaps, the flashbacks simply pose another rhythm problem for a film already struggling in that department.

Being the newest iteration of the Tarzan myth, the film can be dumb fun. All the boxes are ticked—romance, comeuppance, some significant historical drama (but not too much), and some anachronistic comedy. Set your expectometer down, and you may well have a good time.

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Finding Dory

Finding Dory is…fine. It’s cute. It’s just not Finding Nemo, and that’s its greatest hurdle and biggest lack. It’s impossible to see this film on its own terms, as it, in title, in plot, and in character, depends on the earlier film for its backstory and springboard. It generally wouldn’t be fair to compare the two, except that the film’s raison d’ être is the financial and emotional success of the 2003 film.

The filmmakers are clearly trying to fill the piece with the little pieces of magic that Pixar knows how to do—that little last word in a scene, that final gesture that separates the good from the great in animated films of this kind. And the gags are cute and funny. They’re just not connected well to the rest of the film, and add little to it.

The reasons the shoes of Nemo don’t quite fit Dory are many. First, Pixar has taken the main characters (Nemo and Marlin) and made them supporting characters, and have made the main supporting character the lead. Because Dory was such a part of the success of the first film, it might have made sense to make her the star this time. The greatest success of this decision is what is getting the most press—the issue of disability and how it can be either overcome or seen as a strength. That’s a theme that is at least secondary or tertiary here, and keeps running under the main plot point of an adult trying to find her parents. It’s a delightful color to add under the story; pulling it out as a lesson wrenches the film in a direction that is more mind than heart, a weight this film doesn’t need to begin with.

The emotional center of Finding Nemo was almost too strong—parents in search of their child. If handled indelicately, Nemo might have been gut wrenching. The humor and energy of the forward-moving action kept that “parents’ worst nightmare” aspect of the film in check. But that ache informed the film from beginning to end, and the film resonated with unspoken angst throughout, enriching the whole film. Dory’s switch to the (grown and successful) child finding her parents just doesn’t have the same elemental anguish underneath it. We care—just not as much.

The best decision of the filmmakers was to keep Marlin (Albert Brooks) and Nemo (Alexander Gould then, Hayden Rolence here) front and center here. Marlin’s dark but realist perspectives helped ground the first film, and do the same thing here, providing the contrast not to a young Nemo, but to a “disabled” Dory. Ellen DeGeneres’s Dory is not the supporting, humorous accent set against a cartoon version of a crisis, but is now the lead, and hence must be less the comic relief than the dramatic center. DeGeneres does well, but the reshaping of the character isn’t quite as successful as it might have seemed on paper.

The film is also darker than its predecessor—not quite The Empire Strikes Back or Godfather II darker, but almost. It’s certainly darker in tone, though less engaging emotionally. It’s also darker visually, with a surprising number of scenes on the grey side. The gorgeous, delightful, colorful ocean surprises that were part of Nemo’s charm aren’t here in the same degree.

We revisit a few of the earlier characters, but the impact of discovery is necessarily missing from Dory, and some of the meet-ups seem perfunctory. The new ones are…fine. There is also the change in set from the wide-open ocean—a source of all kinds of dangers and wonders—to a marine conservatory, which is far more limited in scope, and far less primordial in its dangers. The stakes seem smaller, along with the setting.

Of course the marketing machine that is Disney will make sure this is a huge hit, and most children will love it. For those interested in how to do a sequel, and how not to, this is a great study. Sometimes certain films just fall out of my head once they are over; I must confess that this one occasionally put me to sleep.

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Two Days, One Night (Deux jours, une nuit)

Watching Two Days, One Night was a great antidote to having just seen X-Men: Apocalypse, a dreadful, action-packed, CGI extravaganza (see https://film-prof.com/tag/x-men-apocalypse/). To slip into my teacher mode, Two Days, One Night is a realist film. In a nutshell, that means no fancy camera moves, no background music, no quick editing, no big emotional close-ups or breathtaking epic long shots. It also means long uninterrupted takes, a great sense of space, a heavy dependence on the actors and a sense of power that tends to build slowly rather than in bursts.

I wanted to see the film because of the lead performance by Marion Cotillard, best known on this side of the Atlantic for either winning the Best Actress Award for La Vie en Rose (also known as La Môme)—only one a small handful of foreign-language winners in that category—or for playing Mal in Inception. Her performance in Two Days, One Night was again nominated for Best Actress, and won a slew of other international awards for it.

What I’d forgotten since putting it in my Netflix list was that the film was directed by Belgian brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, the modern masters of realist film (L’Enfant, The Kid with the Bike, and producers of Rust and Bone, another film that brought Cotillard great acclaim). In an age of rapid editing (even in good films like the Bourne series) and loud superhero movies, the work of the Dardenne brothers is what we point to to remind ourselves that neorealism didn’t die with Vittoria DeSica, and that when we speak of realism, we don’t just have to point to Bicycle Thief for a great example.

For most modern moviegoers, realist cinema takes some getting used to. Scenes seem to go on much longer than necessary to get a plot point across. Story isn’t the only thing that matters. Big loud events and powerful emotional scenes are scarce. But the accumulating emotional heft these films carry can often go much deeper into the mind and heart than more formalist films. Looking back to 2007, my two favorite films of that year were Ratatouille and 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, a devastating Romanian film that might have been the most powerful film of that year. (Yes, I agree that’s a strange combination of favorite films.) Realist films are a whole different experience for those used to our energetic, story-driven films, but the good ones are well worth the investment.

Once I settled in for a realist experience, I sat back to enjoy Cotillard. Her stellar performance here is light years away from her intense, flashy and technically brilliant Oscar-winning turn as Edith Piaf in La Vie en Rose. Here she plays Sandra, a just-out-of-depression factory worker who is presented with a devilish work situation: her co-workers can vote for either a much-needed bonus for each of them, or they can vote to bring Sandra back to work. She and her husband are dependent upon her salary, so she spends her weekend trying to convince her co-workers to vote in her favor. That’s it—that’s the plot. But as in most realist films, the plot really isn’t the main point, though the film builds in intensity as the characters get down to the wire. Sandra is not always likable, though always sympathetic. Cotillard inhabits the character deeply and internally. There are no star turns, and the furniture remains unchewed. Though there are significant actions, there are no “big moments.” But her underplaying and soft grace notes make the ending that much more impacting.

The many visits to co-workers give a lot of actors a moment to either make or break the film. Most visits are logical, and the reactions—both positive and negative—are played believably. There is one emotional moment that earns its feelings, but there is another one (spoiler alert) that becomes a subplot that is played too hard and results in too dramatic a life change. But they are woven together well at the end in a way that is satisfying on several levels.

Cotillard is simply one of the greats working today, and her American films simply don’t reflect her talent. Try this one, then try La Vie en Rose, and realize once more what excellent acting can look like.

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X-Men Apocalypse

The newest X-men offering is pretty terrible. Its estimated $178 million dollar budget is a tragic waste, as is the 2.5 hours of time anyone gives to it. I’m sure there are lessons to be learned at some point, but the only lesson for viewers now is to stay away—you’ve been warned.

Where do I start? The script is a mess. The story is essentially the Mummy meets the Mutants. Right off the start, it feels old and derivative—move on, nothing to see here. Though there is a through line to the story, you’d hardly know it, with so many subplots (if they are worthy of the name) and enough climaxes to fill an entire franchise of films. If this is a reboot, it only works on paper.

The only actor we could care about is Nicholas Hoult’s Hank/Beast. If he’d been at the center of the story throughout, the film might have had a heart and a chance. But then they turn him blue and put him on the sidelines. The loss is palpable if you’re still paying attention. A talented actor (Warm Bodies, Jack the Giant Slayer, Mad Max: Fury Road), his presence proves that he can carry a film by himself if given the right material.

Many of the other actors are first-rate, and sorely underserved by script and direction. Michael Fassbender and James McAvoy, two of England’s best young artists, try their best in each individual scene, but there is no context created that places that effort into a whole that makes sense out of their hard work. It seems more of a challenge to create a believable world for the Avengers than for the X-men, yet the new Captain America film did it well. Here, everyone and every plotline is so scattered that these fine actors are doing their best in a vacuum. Even Hollywood- and Oscar-favorite Jennifer Lawrence, while not exactly phoning it in, is, shall we say, capable of higher heights. Oscar Isaac—well, we will just concentrate on Star Wars and politely forget about this.

And some of the lines these poor folks have to say! Corny and platitudinous doesn’t even come close. And why, (spoiler alert), oh why, did the producers bother shoehorning Wolverine in for a meaningless and distracting cameo?

I’m not particularly an X-men fan, and only see films like this because I teach film and feel I have to keep up on some of the more popular franchises. The Avengers films are generally stronger, funnier, and far more touching and meaningful than the X-Men series. This one, though, is a reboot on a par with the most recent Fantastic Four attempt. Not worth either your time or reading another word about it.

 

 

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