Florence Foster Jenkins Review

Florence_Foster_Jenkins_(film)It’s easy to see the trailer for Florence Foster Jenkins and think you have it all figured it out. It looks like the singing version of Eddie the Eagle. The person with no talent that somehow makes it to the highest stage in their dream career. Eddie it is ski jumping. Florence it is singing. However, as much as I loved Eddie the Eagle I think the comparison is selling Florence Foster Jenkins a little bit short.  There are some odd but intriguing elements to FFJ that really impressed me. It’s a special film I am honestly still processing.

nullFlorence Foster Jenkins stars Meryl Streep as the title character, a real life socialite who dreams of becoming an opera singer who performs at Carnegie Hall.  The subversive element is she is rich and so is constantly surrounded by yes men who patronize her and tell her how great she is at singing.  They even buy off critics and an entire audience to cheer for her singing.

The strange thing about this element is the movie is unclear whether these people are doing something kind or cruel. Plus, I was never quite sure how in on the scheme Florence is. She is a trained pianist but her health doesn’t allow her to play. Surely she must know she isn’t a good singer? Sometimes it seems like she does and other times it doesnt. I found that intriguing.

florence foster jenkinsHer husband played by Hugh Grant is another unusual character for this type of movie. They have chemistry and you can tell they love each other. And yet they also have an agreement with his dalliances from the marriage with Rebeca Ferguson.  At times he could be quite lovely and then others I kind of hated him. It’s very unusual for this type of movie. Is he doing a nice thing by enabling others or should he be honest with his wife?

florence foster jenkins3There’s also an interesting element with the recordings of her terrible singing being requested by soldiers on the radio. Why? What is it about her voice that people at that era want to hear? I find that fascinating and I like that the movie doesn’t give you the answer. It just left me wondering.

florence-foster-jenkins-poster-slice-600x200Simon Helberg is lovely as her pianist who is embarrassed to be playing Carnegie Hall and other venues for someone like Florence. In some ways he stands in for the viewer- both cheering Florence on and being horrified by the charade going on.

There is an uncomfortable element of class the movie doesn’t really dwell on. Florence was famous for a mantra “some may say that I couldn’t sing but no one can say that I didn’t sing”.  That is commendable but the only reason she sang in Carnegie Hall at least was because of her money- a poor person would have to be content badly singing in front of their friends. So in a weird way a message of the movie is ‘you can achieve the impossible if you are rich”.

But on the other hand this untidy messaging makes the film more intriguing. It’s one more example of a slightly subversive element to what should be a cut and dry inspirational story.

Get ready for your Oscar ballots because Meryl Streep will be nominated for this. She is completely lovely in the part. Without question the best female performance I have seen this year so far. All the rest of the performances are good and the production design, costumes, hair and makeup are all first rate.

florence-foster-jenkins1Like I said in the beginning, it might be easy to discount this film as a cheesy inspirational story but I encourage you to give it a chance.  There’s a lot more to it than meets the eye. The characters really made me think about their motives and the morality of their choices.

Overall Grade- A

Hit Me with Your Best Shot: Death Becomes Her

You guys might not know but black comedies and I don’t mix very well. No matter the skill involved they nearly always seem more mean-spirited and ugly than funny. The worst movie I’ve ever seen is a black comedy Drop Dead Gorgeous- one of 2 films I have walked out of in my life (on a date no less!). So it is perhaps this reason that kept me away from the 1992 cult classic Death Becomes Her. However, this week it was selected by Nathaniel over at Film Experience as the Hit Me With Your Best Shot pick, and I decided to give it a shot.

Directed by Robert Zemeckis, Death Becomes Her is a ghost story combined with a critique on Hollywood, celebrity and female body obsession. It stars Meryl Streep, Bruce Willis and Goldie Hawn with Isabella Rossellini adding revealing supporting work.

Meryl Streep is Madeline Ashton, an actress who is obsessed with her image and fading career. Goldie Hawn is Helen Sharp, her wantabe writer rival who is engaged to Bruce Willis’ Ernest Menviille, a plastic surgeon. All of these 3 actors are hamming it up big time from the beginning and there are a lot of good diva lines for Hawn and Streep.

Streep seems to be having a particularly good time playing someone so deliciously narcissistic and vapid. You almost have the feeling she’s known many such women that she is basing the character off of. Madeline ends up stealing Ernest from Helen and the two women play cat and mouse with each other until spoiler alert they both die but only after having drunk an elixir of youth given to them by Rossellini.

It is after the death where we get the body-bending special effects that won an Oscar for the film in 1992. These effects do look a little dated but honestly that is part of its charm- sort of like watching an old movie from the 30s with hokey special effects.

I’m trying to put a finger on why this black comedy worked for me and films like Drop Dead Gorgeous don’t. It could just be Meryl Streep is that good and it could be some genuinely funny writing by Martin Donovan and David Koepp. I’m not sure. Humor is an odd thing in that regard. Sometimes you can’t explain why certain things make you laugh and others don’t.

It’s funny because of all the useless remakes we have gotten over the years (I’m talking to you Ghostbusters and Ben Hur…) Death Becomes Her is screaming for a remake. I kept thinking of all the stuff you could do with reality tv and our image conscious society now that you didn’t have back in 1992. There is so much more the script could poke fun at and of course the special effects could be improved upon.

I should mention that Bruce Willis is very funny in a non-John McClane role we rarely see. He’s been such a lazy actor of late that it was fun to see him trying.

With all the nonsense, the film does have something to say about life and what really makes someone last forever, and I thought that was nice. But when I am picking a best shot I went with the scene that made me laugh the hardest. Ernest has supposedly taken the eternal serum and Streep’s Madeline looks at him and says ‘My God he still looks like Hell…’ That made me laugh so that’s my shot.

death becomes her best shotThis film does have more nudity than I was expecting just to warn my more conservative readers.

Ricki and the Flash Review

ricky3Well today I was planning on seeing Fantastic 4 but then I heard a bunch of people I respect say it is the worst superhero movie since Batman and Robin and I thought ‘surely there is something else I could see…’ and fortunately there was.  I decided to go to Ricki and the Flash starring Meryl Streep and written by the great Diablo Cody.  In many ways this movie is kind of like the Age of Adeline.  It’s no masterpiece but a solid entertaining film.

Streep stars as Ricki who left her family when her 3 children were little to pursue her dream of being a rock star.  Even now as a more mature woman she dutifully plays at a nearly empty club every weekend and works at Whole Foods during the day.  This might seem like a sad lot but she is happy with the life she has chosen.  Rick Springfield plays her bassist in the band and quasi-boyfriend and he is very good in the part (as in Age of Adeline the acting across the board elevates this material).

ricky4Then out of the blue Ricki gets a call from her ex-husband played by Kevin Kline in Indianapolis (I like how every movie uses my poor Indianapolis as the go-to for boring Middle America).  Her daughter Julie, played by Streep’s real-life daughter Mamie Gummer, has been dumped by her husband and is in a deep state of depression.  Kline is at his wits end and calling his ex out of desperation because she has been so inactive in most of the children’s lives.

ricky8She agrees to come and Streep does such a good job showing the insecurity of a woman who both has regrets and has no regrets.  She’s confident but completely insecure at the same time.  It’s very good.  Because of the abandonment her children hate her and think she is a big joke.

I particularly liked a scene where they are at dinner and the way they are interacting reminded me of tense family dinners I’ve been at from time to time.

ricky6This is where Diablo Cody shines in writing complex characters that you both despise and root for at the same time.  Ricki wasn’t a good mother because she wasn’t there for her kids; however, she was pursuing her dream which does make her sympathetic.  Ricki is also not just the aging rocker but she is also a Republican with a brother who died in Vietnam.  There are layers to her just like actual human beings.

ricky5There’s a strong element of work and dreams which is a topic I always respond too.  How much is too great a sacrifice to be happy in your work?  What is it worth to go for your dreams?  Should Ricki have been miserable and stayed with her family or tried (and failed) to be a rock star?  It’s an interesting question to ponder.  The movie does also make the good point that if Ricky was a man our society would be far less quick to put the ‘bad father’ label on him for doing the same things.

ricky9Streep learned how to play the guitar for the movie in a matter of weeks and does all her own instrumentals and singing, which is pretty remarkable.  We of course know from many other films (Mama Mia, Into the Woods, Prairie Home Companion etc) she can sing but she proves it once again here.

ricky2There are some problems with the film which take it down from being a favorite.  The singing segments, while good, are all too long.  Especially being covers (except for 1 song) we don’t need to hear the entire song.  A verse or chorus is plenty to get the message.  If they were going to do full songs I wish it had been original songs because wouldn’t someone who sacrificed so much for music do more than just covers? At least at the end with her family you’d think so.

The ending is also pretty sappy but I didn’t mind it because every family has sappy moments.  Thank goodness we do because all the drama wouldn’t be worth it! But the ending does drag on a little too long as well (and it’s not that long of a movie).  They definitely put a bow on everything and make all the problems go away.  It is very sitcomy in that way.

rickyAll that said, the writing is good with complex characters.  The acting is across the board good.  The  music is good if a little bit too long.  Overall, I enjoyed watching Ricki and the Flash and being a part of this family for 100 minutes.  I think if you go you will enjoy it and be glad you went.

After all, not every movie has to be a masterpiece to be worth a hardy recommendation.

As far as content there is some profanity and vulgar language, characters smoke pot and unmarried characters have sex mostly off screen.  I’d say it is fine for teens and up.

Overall Grade- C+

Content Grade- B-

I’m thinking I made the right choice over Fantastic 4! 🙂

My youtube review

The Giver: A Review

giverI guess this is just the weekend for me to watch drab sad movies based on popular books.  Any person would have to admit that Fault in Our Stars is a better movie than the Giver but it angered me more where The Giver was just uniformly bland.  It’s a shame too because I love the novel and have been to a Lois Lowry lecture and heard her talk about the characters and world so lovingly.  It pains me to say it but The Giver is not a very good movie.

In truth it should never have been made in the first place.  It’s basically a book about a boy who sits in an office, receives memories and then decides to leave.  That works in the book but in the movie it feels like a dystopian therapist session that’s not very interesting.

giver 6They actually get the world pretty good except they invite color way too early and the appearance of color isn’t nearly shocking enough for Jonas.  He doesn’t seem to be really effected by what he see’s until the war when in the book every session is jaw dropping for him.  It is also way more of an emotional journey for The Giver where here it seems like he decides last minute to go along with Jonas’ plan.  In the book he tells him about his daughter earlier and they seem like son and father deeply connected.

I thought they handled the baby ‘release’ about as chillingly yet not grotesque way as they could and the father never seemed trustworthy where in the book he totally does.  Katie Holmes is terrible and I am all the more convinced she  cannot act to save her life.

I guess I’m jumping ahead of myself.  If you are unfamiliar with The Giver it is a dystopian novel (written long before the recent trend yet the last one to make it to the big screen…) about a society which has removed all choices, memory and emotion from human experience.  Each day the residents are given injections to dull their senses and all abnormalities, even pleasant one’s like twins or babies who cry too much, are removed so all conformity is ensured.

giver3The residents have lost the ability to see colors and are living in black and white, happy with the choices they are given.  They are also taught to use ‘precise language’ such as talking about why they love someone not just saying ‘I love you’.  They also are taught to never lie and to always apologize for everything.

giver2At the beginning the graduating seniors are given their assigned roles and careers and young Jonas (Brenton Thwaites) is  given the rare responsibility as ‘The Receiver of Memories’.  He is assigned to the current receiver or The Giver played by Jeff Bridges.  He is told he will live by different rules than everyone else and he stops taking the pills and injections.

The Giver then gives Jonas all the memories of society- the wars, joys, and colors, and this naturally causes him to feel conflicted.  Everything is heightened when he finds out more about his father and they have a new baby assigned them named Gabe.   There is also a girl he wrestles with feelings for named Fiona played by Odeya Rush.

giver 5Meryl Streep is a convincing villain as The Chief Elder who is the only one besides The Giver who knows what is really going on.  However, she like any despot convinces herself that the suffering is for the best.  “When people choose, they choose wrong” she says.

giver5Evidently this was a passion project for Jeff Bridges and he is good as The Giver but the structure of the story just doesn’t work as a movie.  It’s too much people sitting talking and sharing random events and that works in the book but not in the movie. I don’t think there is anything they could have done to have made it work. Once Jonas breaks free and is out of the Giver sessions I felt it gets some momentum and I started to care more.  That last segment and the last scene with the sled was very good.

Maybe a really artistic director like Terry Gilliam or the way Ridley Scott directed Blade Runner it could have worked but I think you’d have to work a little more action into the story or find a way to narrate the memory giving so you get the emotion shared in the book into the movie.

I actually think it could work very well as a TV series where each week he confronts a new memory and things build bit-by-bit. You could really get to know the characters and the memories a little bit more than you can in a movie.  Thoughts?

I really love the book so it’s a shame.  It’s the kind of book 100 people could read and get 100 different messages out of it.  Some see it as very religious. Others as agnostic and according to Lowry both are right.  That’s what makes it a great book but a challenging movie.

The movie also does embrace the Biblical allegories more than the book. We see apples and the idea of original sin is discussed more than memories on their own. I didnt mind that but I also like the subtlety of the book a little better

Everyone tries and it isn’t terrible, but like The Book Thief movie it has all of the pieces but none of the magic. Read the book instead.  In my opinion it is a much better book than The Hunger Games (and much less cynical).

As far as content a baby is killed but it is mostly off screen.  Jonas is chased with a baby and war and other pain is depicted in the memories.  Other than that it is pretty tame. No language that I can recall.

Overall Grade- C    Content Grade- A

I wrote this post and then looked at an old comment I made when it first came out.  Looks like I thought it could be a good TV series then and still do now!  Some things never change! Funny.  (And I was right on about Lowry focusing more on characters than setting which is unusual for dystopian novels)

the giver 6 months

Into the Woods: A Review

into_the_woodsHollywood’s latest stab at the Broadway musical adaptation, Disney’s Into the Woods, is mostly great, even brilliant, except when it isn’t.  I’ve rarely left a movie feeling more befuddled and mixed in my responses.  One side of me loved it and another was very frustrated.

In fact, if you had asked me at the 1 1/2 hour mark what I thought it would have been an enthusiastic A+ when it seemed like everything was ending and happy and then it took a turn.  In the movie’s defense the play takes that same turn but it felt like one ending too many and honestly it was a part of the play I was hoping would be omitted or glossed over.

Well, let’s talk about the good things because there are a lot.  Most importantly the singing.  It is uniformly great.  There is no Russell Crowe or Pierce Brosnan to suffer through.  They all sound Broadway level quality. Some we knew could sing like Meryl Streep (Mamma Mia, Prairie Home Companion), Anna Kendrick (Pitch Perfect), and Johnny Depp (Sweeney Todd).  Others were not familiar to me as singers but do very well like Emily Blunt and Chris Pine.

I have no complaints about the singing and that is saying something because Stephen Sondheim’s music is no easy task to perform.  He is extremely challenging to sing because his musicals aren’t all that melodic and he loves minor keys and strange chords and key signatures.  On the Steps of the Palace changes keys like 4 times in 1 song.  It’s extremely difficult but they all did a great job.

The cast was also uniformly strong in their acting of these fairytale roles.  Meryl Streep is great, and Oscar Winner Colleen Atwood deserves another for the amazing costume and makeup.

witch and rapunzelJohnny Depp was actually very good as the Wolf.  It is the best I’ve seen him in since Finding Neverland.  It is another fairytale like creature but in small doses I didn’t mind it (I’m so sick of Johnny Depp/Tim Burton pairing).  He’s only in the movie for 2 or 3 brief scenes but he does them very well.

wolf and red ridingAnna Kendrick is also good as a very modern version of Cinderella. She can’t decide whether she wants to be a princess or not which is a clever take on the story.

cinderellaChris Pine and Billy Magnusson are also hilarious as the two princes’ singing the play’s best song Agony.princes

Like I said if the movie had ended at 1 and half hour in I would have been thrilled with it.  It’s a tacked on 2nd act in the final 30-45 minutes that begins to lose me.

I don’t want to spoil anything but basically Into the Woods is a combination in one movie of Cinderella, Snow White, Rapunzel, Little Red Riding Hood and Jack and the Beanstalk.

Into The Woods 2014 Cast1The new characters are The Baker and The Baker’s Wife (Emily Blunt and James Drenton) who get told by The Witch there is a curse on their family and they must bring her back 4 items from the Woods to break the curse.  Naturally each of these 4 items are a part of the 4 fairytales.

But the last third of the story that narrative is kind of abandoned and we get a bit of a disaster/fight the giant sequence where people die, are unfaithful and everything gets very serious.  It just bummed me out because we were on such a high and then ended on a semi-high.  Still good but not as excited as I was at 90 minute mark.

Oh well.  What I did like I really liked.  The look of the film is dark but with a certain cheerful spooky feel to it.  Tracy Ulman is fun as Jack’s Mother and it’s fun to see her back on screen again.

The CGI looks fine because most of it is in the dark at night and I find darkness a bit more forgiving with CGI.

Basically I really enjoyed it until that last third.  It’s a joke it got a PG rating when you have multiple characters dying, 2 being eaten, feet getting severed, characters blinded, and a woman who is unfaithful to her husband.  Stupid MPAA. If I had kids those would all be points of concern.  I mean I don’t want to be explaining to my little child why the Bakers Wife is kissing another man.  I wish they had toned that part down from the original play. I haven’t seen the play in probably 10 years so I couldn’t remember.  I just hate it when you feel like everyone in the movie is a jerk. Need someone to root for.

Well, I can’t really give much else away without spoiling it.  Just keep in mind- I liked it, except that last 1/3rd when the personalities and tone shift.

Still a definite recommendation based on the great singing, costumes, and an overall entertaining movie

Overall Grade- B

Jeremy Jahns and I are on totally the same page on this one