Florence Foster Jenkins

They say that the one percent live in a bubble, a fantasy world with problems that are different from yours and mine.  Consequently they become strange and somewhat out of touch with reality.  This was never any truer for anyone then for Florence Foster Jenkins, a real society matron in New York during the 30’s and 40’s, here played by Meryl Streep.

A classical music lover all her life, Jenkins generously gives to operas and orchestras in the city.  But she longs to be on the stage.  When she was younger, she taught piano and had ambitions of being a concert pianist but an accident damaged the nerves in her left hand.  Now she has turned her attention to singing.  The only problem is that she can’t sing.  Her voice is flat and piercing like a damaged air raid siren.

Because of her generosity, she knows all the great classical music figures of her time.  Arturo Toscanini, played by John Kavanaugh shows up at her doorstep to flatter her and ask for money.  She can hire the best professional voice coaches and they will tell her that she is a magnificent talent because she donates so much money.

The perimeter of this bubble is kept intact by Jenkins’ husband St Clair Bayfield, played by Hugh Grant.  In his own words Bayfield was a “good but not great” actor, who has given up the stage and devoted his life to keeping up his wife’s delusions.  When she wants to give a concert, he books a small salon, recruits an audience that he knows will be respectful and adoring, and bribes critics to give rave reviews.

The problem arises when she books Carnegie Hall and gives hundreds of tickets to returning servicemen who cannot be counted on to suppress their opinions on her performance or to even show up sober.  Nor can he keep out New York Post critic Earl Wilson, played by Christian McKay, who cannot be bribed.

In lesser hands the role of Florence Foster Jenkins could have been simply an object of ridicule.  But Streep is a master and she brings out not only the vulnerability of the character but also her great heart and strength.  She had not been rich all her life.  At one point her father disowned her because of her wish to devote herself to music.  She supported herself by teaching piano.  She’s known personal tragedy and suffers from a medical condition that I will not spoil here.  Streep shows us why all these people go to such great lengths to protect her.  The scenes where she tries to sing are hilarious but they are also heart-breaking.  She tries so hard.

Hugh Grant plays St Clair Bayfield as a slick man of the world, used to greasing palms and talking people around to his point of view.  He keeps a mistress.  But over the course of film you realize how devoted he is to his wife.  When faced with a choice, he chooses her.  Grant tones down but doesn’t entirely eliminate his usual mannerisms and delivers a terrific performance.

Simon Helberg, one of the geeks on The Big Bang Theory, plays Cosme’ McMoon, the pianist they hire to accompany Jenkins during her voice lessons and eventually her concerts.  He takes the gig for the money, which is quite good.  But once he discovers his new boss’s shortcomings, he begins to worry about his reputation.  His arc, which Helberg plays masterfully, is about coming around to St Clair’s position.  In the end Cosme’ wants to protect her just as much.

There are a couple of loose ends that keep the movie from perfection.  Jenkins carries a leather satchel with her at all times and McMoon is instructed to never ask what is in it.  When the secret is revealed it’s not that big a deal and doesn’t affect the plot.

But all in all this is a good entertaining film for adults.

Suicide Squad

I think a lot of people in the fan boy press were looking forward to The Suicide Squad, because of all the DC projects that Zach Snyder was shepherding to the screen, this one fit his dark vision for the DC universe the best.   I mean you got amoral spymaster Amanda Waller, here played by Violet Davis, coercing several badass DC villains into a team to go on a desperate dangerous mission.  It’s The Dirty Dozen remade as a superhero movie.  If there ever was a movie that should be made with attitude and underexposed footage this was it.

But then Batman vs. Superman bombed badly and was heavily criticized for its bleak tone.  Then suddenly there was talk of reshoots for The Suicide Squad and rumors about how the studio executives wanted to lighten it up.  There was probably some of that but it didn’t really stand out as much as you would think.  The problem was unengaging characterization and an unimaginative screenplay.  I suspect that Suicide Squad would have been a bad movie even without studio tinkering.

At the beginning of the movie for example, they give us a little precis of some of the prospective members of the team.  There are graphics on the screen and little flashbacks as Amanda Waller explains to various authority figures who each member is and what they can do.  The whole thing is jarring somehow, maybe because we’ve seen it so many times before.  It’s also repetitive and doesn’t really add to the tension.

I realize that Amanda Waller is supposed to straddle the line between good guy and bad guy, but the filmmakers have miscalculated and drawn her too far to the dark side.  The moral equations are hopelessly muddled here and there isn’t enough attitude in the film to make me overlook that.  Not everything she does is justified in my opinion.

As for the performances, they are fine.  It’s been a long time since Will Smith, who plays Deadshot, has relied solely on his own persona to carry a role, as he does here.  There’s really nothing wrong with that but it does make for some cognitive dissonance since Smith is playing a cold-blooded killer as a likeable and funny guy.  He doesn’t quite pull it off.

The only great performance is delivered by Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn.  If nothing else this movie should ignite the second stage of her ascent into superstardom.  She actually brings out some of the tragedy of Harley Quinn’s story.  She also does crazy very well.  And it doesn’t hurt that she’s insanely hot.

There are a lot of funny moments in this but if you’ve been keeping up with the previews, you’ve seen them all.  So Warner Brothers’ inability to make a good DC comic book movie continues.  I can’t imagine many people have much hope for the Justice League movie.  Wonder Woman looks intriguing but then again so did this.  I really hope that they pull out of this slump or change their approach.

Jason Bourne

It seemed like very good news that Matt Damon and director Paul Greengrass decided to return for another installment of the Jason Bourne saga.  The series has certainly had its ups and downs but every installment so far has been watchable and those two have been responsible for most of the ups.  In this one they turn their attention away from Jeremy Renner’s Aaron Cross and back to Matt Damon’s original super soldier.

What fascinates me the most about this series is that on the surface this is a comic book premise.  A government created super soldier is basically the same idea as Captain America.  The difference is that Greengrass and his screenwriters have written, shot and edited the films like they were LeCarre adaptations.    Not ever having been a secret government assassin, I have no idea how accurate these things really are but they certainly feel real.  The convoluted plotlines and cynical depictions of bureaucratic infighting provide a sophisticated setting to the exciting set pieces.  Also the grainy film stock and hand held cameras give the film a documentary like look and feel that adds to the illusion of realism.

When the story begins Bourne is at a low point.  He’s still on the run and still feels remorse for the things he did as a government created and controlled weapon.  But he’s gradually becoming aware that something is missing in his understanding of what was done to him in the Treadstone project.  They told him that his father was killed by terrorists, but fellow fugitive Nicky Parsons, played by Julia Stiles, contacts him during an austerity riot in Athens, Greece and informs him that that was not the case.  She also tells him that Robert Dewey, the new head of the CIA, played by Tommy Lee Jones, is starting up a new ominous surveillance program that has the capacity to watch everybody all the time.

Bourne springs into action with predicable mayhem.  As he looks for answers, he is chased around the globe by Dewey’s agent, Heather Lee, played by Alicia Vikvander and another super soldier known only as the asset, played by Vincent Cassel.  The asset was one of the super soldiers who was compromised when Bourne exposed the existence of Treadstone to the world in an earlier installment.  He was also the operative who killed Bourne’s father.

So this is personal for both of these men who by training and physiological tinkering are not supposed to have emotions.

Damon does a good job showing that Bourne is changing as the memories of his past return to him.  And he’s not happy about it.  He’s a weapon that has suddenly developed a conscience.  His quandary is that he can’t figure out what he wants to do about it.

Tommy Lee Jones is in this which means he was great.  Vincent Cassel manages to portray a man who has been grievously betrayed in only a few minutes of screen time.  And Alicia Vikvander turns in another of a growing list of great performances as an ambitious bureaucrat who occasionally has principles.

The problem with Jason Bourne is the same one as with most of the recent installments of long running series.  It’s the same plot.  Bourne surfaces, escapes a few traps, exposes a nefarious government plot and the current leadership of the CIA is eliminated.  The filmmakers stubbornly refuse to explore any other aspect of their premise.  In that respect Captain America is a better series.

Sure this is an exciting film and I was on the edge of my seat during the action sequences.  But I’m starting to realize that this is more because of the cinematography and the editing than it is from any concern for the characters.  I really do want to see something new in these series.

So Jason Bourne is not the best film in the series, nor is it the worst.  What makes this disappointing is the talent involved in this project is capable of so much more.

Star Trek Beyond

I often complain about a movie if it doesn’t take any chances.  Especially in these series movies, like Star Trek or Star Wars, the filmmakers are particularly risk adverse.  They have whole story generating universes to explore but are unwilling to do it, particularly in the summer.  TV is where all the creative action is right now and I’m really looking forward to this new Star Trek series.  That’s where Gene Roddenberry’s vision will ultimately be carried on.

Now, of course it’s possible to make a good movie that doesn’t challenge formulas.  After all pushing the envelope all the time can be just as tiring as seeing the same old thing time and time again.  Thus when the movie is a summer blockbuster that costs millions, us fans are dependent on the filmmakers’ ability to make a good movie within the formula.

So Star Trek Beyond gives us a Big Bad, Idris Elba playing Krall, a new fearsome enemy with seemingly invincible weaponry, an angsty Kirk and a plucky crew.  Yeah, they destroy the Enterprise but we’ve seen that before too.  Believe me there’s nothing new in this stew.

The plot is immaterial.  You know it; you’ve seen it a million times.  What you don’t see is a lot of the action because the screen is so dark at times.  I saw the 2D version so I can’t even blame the 3D glasses.  Plus the action scenes are cut too tightly and the camera is too close.  It’s really hard to follow especially in the beginning.  But of course it’s impossible to get lost in this linear hackneyed plot.

And yet I enjoyed it.  That’s partly because I’m a lifelong Star Trek fan and the franchise always gets a pass.  Into Darkness had many more flaws than this one but I still bought the DVD.  But also because the new crew of the Enterprise is exceptionally well cast, or rather re-cast.  Chris Pine’s Captain Kirk is consistently interesting.  He’s evolving.  The beginning of this film shows him worn down by the responsibility of his position and the drudgery of routine to the point where he applies for a desk job.  He’s on the verge of totally suppressing the wild child we saw in the first film.  It’s interesting to see him resolve this internal conflict.

Zachery Quinto is probably the only person other than Leonard Nimoy who could play Spock.  He has the mannerisms and the character almost perfectly.  I think they are making him too emotional, but that’s just something the geek in me is going to grumble about while I enjoy the movie.

And finally, finally they have given Karl Urban’s Dr. McCoy something to do.  His performance is exemplary in this and he has all the funny lines.  His banter with Spock is reminiscent of the show.

Simon Pegg, who plays Scotty and wrote the screenplay along with Doug Jung, also has a lot of good moments.  And he is even beginning to resemble James Doohan.  Scotty was always good for some comic relief in the series and Pegg has continued that.

Idris Elba is incapable of giving a bad performance, even when playing a stock bad guy with comic book motivations.  I liked newcomer Jaylah, played by Sophie Boutella, a black and white striped alien and a tough survivor.  At the end it looked like they were setting her up to replace Chekov, since J.J. Abrams has already said they probably won’t replace Anton Yelchin, who died in a tragic accident.  I don’t think that’s a bad move.

Star Trek Beyond is a summer action film.  It’s a good one but it really doesn’t aspire to anything more than that.  But I hope that one day they return to more thoughtful and daring stories.

Ghostbusters 2016

I liked the original Ghostbusters.  It was funny, generally well written and well-paced.  I think it is a rare example of an actually funny modern American comedy.  There are great lines in it that I still quote today.  But for some reason it never obtained the status of sacred text for me that it has for other geeks.  And when I saw it again last year, I was bothered by the Libertarian anti-regulation themes in it, and I’m sorry but the older I get the more I dislike Venkman’s Junior High School taunts.

Consequently, I was not offended by rebooting it with female characters.  There are some very funny women out there and they rarely get a chance to shine.  Putting them in a high profile tent pole production like this is an extraordinary opportunity to possibly change attitudes about casting them in comedies.  Paul Feig is the perfect pick as director.  He did Bridesmaids, which also had Kristen Wiig and Melissa McCarthy in it, and several other female centered comedies.  He doesn’t quite hit this one out of the park but it is a solid triple.

First of all is the casting.  I knew that Kristen Wiig and Melissa McCarthy were talented comic actors but I didn’t know about Kate McKinnon, since I don’t watch SNL.  She absolutely steals the show with her off-the-wall gonzo antics and impenetrable weirdness.  Her performance made me think of John Belushi in Animal House, a totally loose cannon.  If nothing else this performance should make her a star.

Leslie Jones is funny as Patty, although the character borders on stereotype.  They do give her a vital role in the plot.  I just wish she’d had a little moment to show that she was more than a sassy black woman.

It was a smart decision to not try and recreate the chemistry of the original cast.  You can’t point to any one of these woman and say, “Okay, she’s supposed to Venkman and she’s Egon.”  The filmmakers let them develop their own chemistry and they do a good job.  You feel the connection between Wiig’s Erin Gilbert and McCarthy’s Abby Yates, which goes back to high school where they were two nerdy girls who loved science and the supernatural.  And they’re not really scared by the ghosts either.  Abby thinks they’re beautiful and wants to study them.  Erin has an unquenchable curiosity about them as well as a strong psychological need to prove to the world that they exist.  Their dialog also has a way of digressing into pop culture references like when they get into Patrick Swayze movies while talking to the police.  I love that kind of humor.

They bring in Chris Hemsworth as their incompetent but highly ornamental receptionist.  He has a role in the plot as well, but his main purpose is to extract revenge for every dumb blonde joke ever told.  Hemsworth demonstrates that he’s a pretty good comic actor.  We need to see more of that in the next Thor movie.

The effects are great of course.  They kept the look of the original but thirty years of technological improvements means that they look even better and are more seamlessly integrated into the live action.

There are a few things that keep Ghostbusters from perfection.  One is that the filmmakers are a little too reverent towards the original film.  There are a lot of cameos with the original cast, and while all of them are fun and welcome, they often mess with the film’s pace.

The film’s editing is also problematic.  There were a few cases where the transition between scenes was not clear.  It pulled me out of the story.

But Ghostbusters 2016 is generally an amusing summer diversion, just as the original was.  How does it fare in the inevitable comparison?  I’d say the original is probably a little ahead.  It has a clearer plot, and doesn’t have the pressure of living up to an earlier classic.

But the new one is well worth seeing.

The BFG

As I was looking back over Steven Spielberg’s films in IMDB, desperately searching for a first sentence for this review, I realized that The BFG is actually only his fourth film made specifically for children.  The others are ET of course, Hook and The Adventures of Tintin.  Now many of his films have children as protagonists, like AI or Jurassic Park, but those are made mostly for an older audience.  This was surprising to me; I would have expected him to have made more children’s films and frankly better ones.  If you look at that small list, it’s definitely a mixed bag.  Hook was a notorious flop.  I enjoyed Tintin but it failed to leave an impression on most people.  ET, of course, is a classic.  He’s never taken on anything like a Roald Dahl book and it doesn’t seem like a very good fit.

I’m afraid that The BFG is going to land somewhere in the middle of that range.  It’s not a horrible misfire like Hook but at the same time it can’t touch ET.  It’s a very pretty film with all kinds of beautiful floating lights and fantastical sets, which is part of the problem when Spielberg brings the momentum to a screeching halt to linger over the pretty pictures.  The computer generated elements are seamlessly integrated with the live actors.

Using motion capture technology, Mark Rylance gives a great performance as the BFG.  He’s friendly, sure but also a little sad and somewhat rough around the edges, speaking in an earthy cockney accent.  Ruby Barnhill joins a long list of child actors who have given great performances for Spielberg.  She is cute and spunky, encouraging the BFG to stand up to the other giants in Giant Land when they tease him.  He’s small for a giant.

There are some loose ends that bother me.  The BFG mixes up words coming up with unlikely concoctions like “buckswashling,” or “delumtious.”  When Sophie tries to correct him, he says very sadly that he doesn’t know why he mixes up his words and she immediately feels bad about criticizing him.  I was expecting this to become a plot point later but they never did anything with it.

Likewise when he is throwing his bullying brethren out of his cave he admonishes them that giants were at one time more courtly.  And yet when he goes to Buckingham Palace to meet the Queen, played by Penelope Wilton, he has no idea how to act.  It’s not an important point but it does present an incongruity.

Nonetheless I think children will like it.  They will be charmed by the BFG, and identify with Sophie.  There are a few fart jokes thrown in.  As I said it is a good looking film that really should be seen in theaters.

As for Spielberg, he’s made enough masterpieces that I am always willing to give any film of his a chance.

The Shallows

When you make a shark movie, the bar is pretty high.  Comparisons with Jaws are inevitable and frankly they’re never going to be in your favor.  Fortunately, the creative team behind The Shallows realized that and didn’t try to top the Spielberg masterpiece.  They just made a taut, suspenseful thriller without pretension or much artifice.

Nancy, played by Blake Lively, is a young medical student who is considering dropping out.  Her mother recently died of cancer and she needs to take some time to think about things.  She decides to go to the same secluded beach in Mexico that her mother visited when she was a young girl for a few days of surfing.  Unfortunately the beach turns out to be a feeding ground for an angry great white shark.  Nancy gets stranded on a rock 200 meters from the shore with a nasty shark bite in her leg.

What follows, of course, is a survival story where this plucky resourceful woman battles nature and her own demons.  The plot is as old as the art of storytelling but we never tire of a new iteration, especially if it’s well done and suspenseful.  And The Shallows is.

The director, Jaume Collet-Serra, employs a lot of Spielberg’s techniques.  For most of the movie you never get to see much of the shark other than blurry shots of a toothy maw coming towards you.  And for much the same reasons.  Spielberg couldn’t get his mechanical shark to work consistently.  I think the filmmakers here didn’t have the budget to do more than a couple computer generated shark attacks.  And from the effects that were shown it’s obvious that they couldn’t afford the best effects company.  The filmmakers knew enough though not to hold those shots for too long and the cheesiness of the effects doesn’t detract much.

There are also a lot of underwater, shark’s point of view shots.  Close ups of hands and feet below the surface are plentiful and nerve-wracking.  Get that hand out of the water before you lose it!

They build tension in other ways, too.  In the first scene, Nancy is being driven out to the beach by Carlos, played by Oscar Jaenada, who is a scruffy looking native she’s obviously just met.  Looking at him, you wonder if he is trustworthy.  Actually he turns out to be a nice guy, who encourages her to look at the scenery and won’t take any money for driving her out.  He has a family and lives near the beach.

There are also two surfers already there.  She keeps her distance from them when she’s out on the water.  Near the end of the day, they’re going home and she’s out looking for one last wave.  She watches them suspiciously as they pass by her backpack on the sand.  They don’t take it.  They’re nice guys too.  Nancy’s only enemy is the shark.

I like the constricted ambitions of this film.  They aren’t trying to push any boundaries here.  Their goal is to make as good a thriller as they can.

And they succeed.


August 2016
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