Florence Foster Jenkins


Singing is less a delight and more of an ordeal where Florence Foster Jenkins is concerned.

Singing is less a delight and more of an ordeal where Florence Foster Jenkins is concerned.

(2016) Biographical Drama (Paramount) Meryl Streep, Hugh Grant, Simon Helberg, Rebecca Ferguson, Nina Arianda, Stanley Townsend, Allan Corduner, Christian McKay, David Haig, John Sessions, Brid Brennan, John Kavanagh, Pat Starr, Maggie Steed, Thelma Barlow, Liza Ross, Paola Dionisotti, Rhoda Lewis, Aida Ganfullina. Directed by Stephen Frears

 

We are trained as a society to admire the talented. Those who try and fail fall much further down on our list of those to admire; that’s just the way we’re wired. We worship success; noble failures, not so much.

And then there are the ignoble failures. Florence Foster Jenkins (Streep) is a matron of the arts in the New York City in the 1940s. She loves music with a passion that is unmatched. She even (modestly bows her head) sings a little, for which perhaps those around her should be grateful. Her voice is, shall we say, unmatched as well. It sounds a little bit of a combination of a cat whose tail has been stomped on, and Margaret Dumont with a bad head cold, neither of whom are on key or in tempo.

Mostly however she only inflicts her singing on her friends who are either too polite to point out that she really has a horrible singing voice, or on those who are depending on her largesse so they won’t risk offending her and that’s all right with her husband St. Clair Bayfield (Grant), a failed actor who nonetheless has a very strong love for his wife, despite the fact that they never have sex  due to her contracting syphilis on her wedding night with her first husband, the philandering Dr. Jenkins.

Bayfield satisfies his carnal needs with a mistress (Ferguson) who is beginning to get dissatisfied with the arrangement. In the meantime, Florence has got a yen to perform at Carnegie Hall with her pianist the opportunistic Cosmé McMoon (Helberg) which Bayfield realizes could be an utter catastrophe. He takes great care to exclude legitimate music critics who are suspicious of the whole event. McMoon who at first is exploiting Florence with an eye for a regular salary begins to realize that she is a lonely woman who just wants to make music, even though she is thoroughly incapable of it. And there’s no denying her generosity of spirit as well as of the heart, but despite Bayfield’s efforts the carefully constructed bubble around Florence is certain to burst.

I wasn’t sure about this movie; it got almost no push from Paramount whatsoever despite having heavyweights like Streep in the cast and Frears behind the camera. Somehow, it just simply escaped notice and not because it’s an inferior film either; it’s actually, surprisingly, a terrific movie. Not all of us are blessed with talent in the arts; some of us have talents that have to do with making things, or repairing things, or cooking food, or raising children. Not all of us can be artists, as much as we may yearn to be. Some may remember William Hung from American Idol a few years ago; I’ll bet you’ll look at him a lot differently after seeing this.

Streep does her own singing and Helberg his own piano playing which is amazing in and of itself; both are talented musicians as well as actors. Streep is simply put the most honored and acclaimed actress of her generation, and that didn’t happen accidentally. This is another example of why she is so good at her craft; she captures the essence of the character and makes her relatable even to people who shouldn’t be able to relate to her. So instead of making her a figure of ridicule or pathos, she instead makes Mrs. Jenkins a figure of respect which I never in a million years thought it would be possible to do, but reading contemporary accounts of the would-be diva and her generosity, I believe that is exactly what the real Florence Foster Jenkins was.

Hugh Grant has never been better than he is here. He’s essentially retired from acting after a stellar career, but the stammering romantic lead is pretty much behind him now. He has matured as an actor and as a love interest. It’s certainly a different kind of role for him and he handles it with the kind of aplomb you’d expect from Britain’s handsomest man.

Frears isn’t too slavish about recreating the post-war Manhattan; there’s almost a Gilded Age feel to the piece which is about 50 years too early. Needless, he captures the essence of the story. We have a tendency to be a bit snobbish about music but the truth is that it should be for everybody. I don’t think I’d want to have a record collection full of Florence Foster Jenkins (the truth was that she made only one recording, which was more than enough – you can hear her actual voice during the closing credits) but I don’t think I’d want to laugh at her quite the way I did throughout the movie.

The truly odd thing is that yes, when we hear her sing initially about 30 minutes in, the immediate response is to break into howls of laughter but the more you hear her sing and the more of her story that is revealed, the less the audience laughs at her. Perhaps it’s because that you’ve become used to her tone-deaf phrasing, but I think in part is because you end up respecting her more than you do when you believe she’s a goofy dilettante who can’t sing a lick. Strangely enough, you begin to hear the love shining forth through her terrible technique and perhaps, you understand in that moment that music isn’t about perfect phrasing or even talent, although it is generally more pleasing to hear a musician that is talented than one that is not. What music is about is passion and love and if you have those things, well, you have something.

I won’t get flowery and say that Florence Foster Jenkins is a muse for the mediocre, which one might be tempted to say but she absolutely is not; the titular character is more correctly viewed as a muse for those who have the passion but lack the talent. She tries her best and just because she doesn’t have the tools to work with that a Lily Pons might have doesn’t make her music any less meaningful. It is beautiful in its own way and maybe that’s what we need to understand about people in general and how often does a movie give us insights like that?

REASONS TO GO: Streep is absolutely charming and Grant has never been better. Champions the underdog in an unusual way.
REASONS TO STAY: Unabashedly sentimental.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some brief sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Grant was semi-retired from acting but was convinced to return in front of the cameras for the opportunity to act opposite Streep.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/416: Rotten Tomatoes: 87% positive reviews. Metacritic: 71/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Marguerite
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Anthropoid

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New Releases for the Week of August 12, 2016


Pete's DragonPETE’S DRAGON

(Disney) Bryce Dallas Howard, Robert Redford, Oakes Fegley, Oona Laurence, Wes Bentley, Karl Urban, Isiah Whitlock Jr, Marcus Henderson. Directed by David Lowery

Some of Disney’s films are better known than others. This 1977 film was from a period when their films weren’t as popular as they once were and, quite frankly, weren’t as good. This live action reimagining starts with the discovery of a young boy alone in a deep and dangerous forest. It turns out that the boy has been in there for years and experts are confounded as to how he possibly could have survived all alone. Then it turns out that he wasn’t all alone…

See the trailer and an interview here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Family
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG (for action, peril and brief language)

Anthropoid

(Bleecker Street) Jamie Dornan, Cillian Murphy, Toby Jones, Charlotte Le Bon. This is the true story of two Czech army-in-exile soldiers who are secretly parachuted into their occupied homeland near the end of World War II. Their mission: assassinate Reinhard Heydrich, one of the top officers in the SS. In a city under brutal lockdown, with limited information and a deadline approaching, the two know that if they succeed it will change the war in Europe dramatically.

See the trailer and clips here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Historical Drama
Now Playing: AMC Altamonte Mall, AMC Disney Springs, Regal Oviedo Mall, Regal Pointe Orlando, Regal Waterford Lakes, Regal Winter Park Village

Rating: R (for violence and disturbing images)

Blood Father

(Lionsgate) Mel Gibson, Erin Moriarty, Diego Luna, William H. Macy. An ex-con trying to re-establish a connection with his daughter and to ease into the straight life is sucked back into his past when his daughter runs afoul of a drug cartel and is being hunted by them. Using his criminal skills and connections from the past, he’ll have to stay one step ahead of some of the most brutal human beings on Earth to keep his daughter safe.

See the trailer and a clip here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Action
Now Playing: AMC Loew’s Universal Cineplex

Rating: R (for strong violence, language throughout and brief drug use)

Eat That Question: Frank Zappa in His Own Words

(Sony Classics) Frank Zappa, Gail Zappa, Keith Moon, Ringo Starr. One of the most influential figures in popular music of our time was taken from us far too soon. However, his 30-year career is chronicled exclusively through archival interview footage so we get to hear, in the maestro’s own words, what he did, how he felt and get a sense of his lasting contributions to music that reverberate through popular culture even today.

See the trailer and clips here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Documentary
Now Playing: Regal Winter Park Village

Rating: R (for language, some sexual references and brief nudity)

Florence Foster Jenkins

(Paramount) Meryl Streep, Hugh Grant, Simon Helberg, Rebecca Ferguson. Some of you may have seen the French film Marguerite. You may or may not have known this, but she was based on a real person, the American heiress Florence Foster Jenkins. This is the true tail of a New York socialite who fancied herself an opera singer, but was perhaps the worst singer in history. She was apparently such a sweet soul that nobody had the heart to tell her, but when she determined to perform a concert at Carnegie Hall, it became obvious that the truth was going to come out one way or another.

See the trailer, clips, interviews and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Biographical Dramedy
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG-13 (for brief suggestive material)

Gleason

(Open Road/Amazon) Steve Gleason, Michel Varisco-Gleason, Drew Brees, Mike McCready. Most football fans known Gleason as the all-pro defense back for the New Orleans Saints whose block of a punt remains one of the biggest plays in franchise history, getting them into a Super Bowl. But at 34 years of age, he was diagnosed with ALS – also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease – which gave him a life expectancy of only three to four years. With the same determination that made him an NFL star, he set upon living his remaining years as fully as possible and to leave a record for his newborn son that would give him the fatherly advice he wouldn’t be able to give him growing up.

See the trailer, clips and interviews here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Documentary
Now Playing: AMC Disney Springs, Regal Winter Park Village

Rating: R (for language)

Indignation

(Roadside Attractions/Summit) Logan Lerman, Sarah Gadon, Tracy Letts, Linda Emond. In 1951 a brilliant working class Jewish boy from New Jersey accepts a scholarship to a small, conservative college in Ohio, exempting him from service in the Korean War. However, he increasingly clashes with the school’s unprincipled dean and simultaneously falls for a beautiful WASP which puts his family’s plans in jeopardy. This is based on the novel by the late, great Philip Roth.

See the trailer and clips here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Drama
Now Playing: AMC Disney Springs, Regal Winter Park Village

Rating: R (for sexual content and some language)

Mohenjo Daro

(UTV) Hrithik Roshan, Pooja Hegde, Arunoday Singh, Kabir Bedi. An adventure set during India’s Indus Valley civilization (although the graphics in the trailer place it before that era).

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Action
Now Playing: AMC Loew’s Universal Cineplex, AMC West Oaks, Touchstar Southchase

Rating: NR

Operation Chromite

(CJ Entertainment) Liam Neeson, Jung-jae Lee, Beom-Su Lee, Dean Dawson. A squadron gets set to fight in the Battle of Inchon during the Korean War. In the meantime, General Douglas MacArthur’s strategies are being developed that will have a critical effect on those going into battle – and irrevocably alter his career.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: War
Now Playing: AMC Disney Springs

Rating: NR

Sausage Party

(Columbia) Starring the voices of Seth Rogen, Edward Norton, Salma Hayek, James Franco. In the supermarket aisle, all the various foods we bring home long to be selected. What they don’t know is that selection means they are eaten…alive. One brave sausage means to escape that fate and return to the market to warn his compatriots of their doom. Yes, this is animated. Do. Not. Bring. Your. Kids!

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Animated Feature
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: R (for strong crude sexual content, pervasive language and drug use)

Marguerite


Not quite the voice of an angel.

Not quite the voice of an angel.

(2015) Biographical Drama (Cohen Media Group) Catherine Frot, André Marcon, Michel Fau, Christa Théret, Denis Mpunga, Sylvain Dieuaide, Aubert Fenoy, Sophia Leboutte, Théo Cholbi, Astrid Whettnall, Vincent Schmitt, Christian Pereira, Martine Pascal, Grégoire Stecker, Jean-Yves Tual, Boris Hybner, Pierre Peyrichout, Joel Bros, Lucie Strourackova. Directed by Xavier Giannoli

Dreams are all well and good, but one must have the basic equipment to pursue them, else they become instruments of self-torture. That’s where delusion can be a blessing.

Marguerite Dumont (Frot) is a wealthy matron of the arts in Paris in the 1920s. Her husband Georges (Marcon) is a baron who depends on her wealth to keep his estates running. Marguerite is kind and sweet-natured and everyone loves her, particularly her chauffeur Madelbos (Mpunga), who also acts as her unofficial photographer.
Marguerite also loves to sing, opera in particular. She often holds recitals at her home for her circle of family and friends, or for the musical society she helped found. The problem is – she can’t sing a note. She has trouble holding the high notes and often sounds like a cat being smacked against a brick wall. It’s so unbelievably bad that when she practices, Madelbos often hands out earplugs to the servants around the estate.

Nobody is willing to break her heart by telling her since everyone adores her. At a private recital for war orphans, which she has been giving annually since the Great War ended, an opening act is invited – a beautiful soprano named Hazel (Théret) who is actually talented. Sneaking in are music critic Lucien Beaumont (Dieuaide) and anarchist and Dadaist Kyrill (Fenoy) to find out what goes on at these soirees for themselves.

When Marguerite, the main event comes on, the assemblage has to work hard to restrain their titters. Both Lucien and Kyrill have differing reactions; Lucien writes a review which is deliberately vague as to her talent; when Marguerite reads it, she interprets it as a vindication of her abilities and she determines to put on a public concert. Kyrill, on the other hand, sees Marguerite as a living refutation of art and offers to have her perform at Dadaist events, which she does – and it gets her thrown out of her own musical society.

She decides to enlist some help and Madelbos blackmails down-on-his-luck opera singer Atos Pezzini (Fau) to tutor her. He puts her into a rigorous training schedule, some of which is a little bit – unusual, to say the least. As the date approaches, Georges is encouraged to tell his wife the truth and spare her the humiliation, but can’t bring himself to do it. Nobody is willing or able to tell Marguerite with most of the people around her having an agenda of their own. What happens to a dream when you discover that you can never possibly achieve it?

Giannoli loosely based his latest work on the life of a real person, American diva Florence Foster Jenkins; you can hear her singing on her Wikipedia page and the Mozart aria “Der Hölle Rache” from The Magic Flute which is the first song Marguerite sings in the film. It is nearly a note-perfect rendition and has to be heard to be believed.

The production design is absolutely flawless, bringing back the Jazz Age in Paris to a T. We get the sense of wealth and luxury that is destined to come crashing down in just a few short years Still, it is an epoch regarded with some affection today and we are given a good taste of it thanks to the filmmakers’ eye for detail.

Frot is also amazing; she exudes charm and sweetness and never lets the ridiculousness of her character’s delusions devolve into ludicrousness. In fact, Marguerite is a sympathetic character but her delusions don’t make her ridiculous; rather they make her identifiable for most of us. I mean, I’d love to be a rock star but a portly balding 50 plus year old with a lousy voice isn’t exactly going to fill up concert halls. I still dream of rock stardom however, and watching Marguerite I find a certain wistfulness that makes my dreams seem less ridiculous by comparison.

The movie is a bit on the long side with a few unnecessary plotlines that could have easily have been eliminated for the sake of brevity. There’s also a drawing room stage-like quality that sometimes gets a little claustrophobic; Giannoli could have expanded his canvas a little bit and made the movie more palatable. Still, I liked the layers of the film; there’s a lot to think about here and a lot worth looking into.

Don’t be off put by the singing; it’s truly awful but it isn’t the focus here. What is that sometimes it’s better to tell a woman who asks you “Do I look fat in this dress” the truth; in the long run, it might be best for everyone concerned if those delusions get punctured as early as possible. However, this film has no delusions; this is a strong and worthwhile effort that any decent film buff will want to go see without delay.

REASONS TO GO: Frot gives a dynamic performance. Sumptuous production values.
REASONS TO STAY: A little bit on the stage-y side. A little too much going on.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexual content and a scene of brief graphic nudity, as well as a scene of brief drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The lead character’s name is taken from the opera-singing foil for the Marx Brothers in their films.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/1/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 96% positive reviews. Metacritic: 76/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Harvey
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice