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florence-foster-jenkins-posterA wealthy and connected socialite deludes herself that she is a talented soprano and aims for staging a concert at Carnegie Hall, topping all of her other dubious musical accomplishments. Her doting husband and compliant accompanist enable her, and no one else speaks out, until a reporter who attends the concert cries “the emperor has no clothes” and bursts her bubble.

Very funny stuff. And the funniest part? It all happened! Yes, truth is truly stranger than fiction.

Streep, left, as Lady Florece, as she liked to be called, and the real Florence at right.

St. Clair Bayfield was Florence’s longtime companion, though it seems they were not actually married.

Director Stephen Frears’ film Florence Foster Jenkins is engaging and fun to watch, and it’s one of those slices of little-known history that makes you want to learn more. I love these kinds of films, when they are executed as well as this one is. Of course there are the instances of Hollywood poetic license to add drama, but the story is just a hoot.

 

Playing the lead is Meryl Streep, whose performance is, as ever, marvelous. She dexterously emulates tone-deafness, and her character is affable as the afflicted yet undauntedly persevering Lady Florence. Hugh Grant falls smoothly into the role of her amiable and facilitating husband, with a mixture of saintly patience and all-too-human appetites.

 

Cosme McMoon was at the height of his piano-playing career with Lady Florence, and he ended up becoming interested in bodybuilding.

The toughest sell for me was the casting of Simon Helberg (Big Bang Theory) as Cosme McMoon, Florence’s piano accompanist. It’s a personal thing, I concede. Helberg is perfect for the role. He is geeky and puny and a talented piano player, like the real McMoon (which some purport was a pseudonym to protect the real performer’s reputation). But I could not get over seeing Howard Wolowitz on the screen, and I expected him to be living with his mother when Florence goes to see him, and yelling, “All right, Ma!” when she summons from offstage.

The supporting cast adds depth and flavor to the story, perfectly helping depict the grand deception that served Florence’s fantasy.  They used her, and she used them. Ah, the rich.

A

If you could go see Olivia Newton John, Donny and Marie, or Matt Goss, which show you pick? A couple of throwbacks and an unknown (at least to me) makes for a peculiar choice, but that was the selection during my visit to Las Vegas last month.

Based on the booking agent’s recommendation, we took in Matt Goss at the Caesar’s Palace Gossy Room (in reality, Cleopatra’s Barge and not much converted—just big curtains draped between it and the Appian Way walkway). I was looking forward to it because I Googled this Goss fellow and saw that he’s a crooning Brit. I was hoping for the likes of a young Sinatra or Michael Bublé’s little cousin.

2015-05-23 22.13.37And it could have been that way, if Goss just sang. When he does—sing, that is—he’s not bad. But it’s difficult to tell how or what he’s doing most of the time because of the cacophony around him.

The band consists of a horn section, guitars, and a full drum set, which is a LOT to fit into the tiny room set with squished seating for about 150 people, and the number of solos each band member performs is staggering. The sound is turned up to fill an auditorium ten times the size; my ears literally hurt by the end of the show. The backup singers were hardly needed for what they were supposed to do, but they constantly and distractingly wiggled behind Goss in barely-butt-length glittery dresses, and they spent more time talking to each other and giggling than they ever did singing. Do they not know people can see them?

The lighting, at least on the night I was there, was abysmal; so dark most of the time that one could not see the singer’s face, spotlights trained on torsos left headless by poor control, and effects ruined by the lights being pointed in the wrong places. In a town like Vegas, it’s hard to believe one of its premiere properties cannot find better a lighting crew than whatever yahoo was running things that night.

And then there are the dancing girls. Mind you, people are practically sitting in each other’s laps in the tiny room converted to a theater, with foot-wide little tables to balance their drinks on, and into this setting prance four Vegas showgirl-wannabes for no explicable reason. They came out three of four times, in various skimpy outfits, and gyrated to the music (most of which wasn’t suited to anything remotely resembling showgirls). They weren’t in sync or doing any kind of interesting routine; it was like watching four pole-dancers set up in different corners of a strip club. At one point, a couple of these chicks got up on the tiny tables, bent over, and stuck their behinds in patrons’ faces—repeatedly! I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.

Goss does not help his own cause either, showing up an hour late (he had in fact canceled the previous night’s show and never mentioned why), trying awkward audience rapport that seems forced, flirting rather embarrassingly with one the backup singers, and promoting the little bar tucked into the barge’s side where non-show-going patrons can catch part of the show for “free” while buying drinks. The word free is a sham; a GLASS of wine was $16 at the show; I can only imagine what the bar charges to let you listen in.

All of these antics and poor production values made the show come off as very amateurish, like someone attempting to simulate a glitzy Vegas concert in his garage. I sincerely hope that someone in Goss’s confidence lets him know that, if he truly hopes to be a respected singer, he might want to tone down a few aspects of the show. Better yet, just SING!

Next time, I’ll go with my gut and see how Olivia Newton John is holding up.

Oh, goodness. It’s been WAY too long since I posted.

I blame it on TV! There are so many terrific shows on these days, that I have become as addicted to the boob-tube as I am to the silver screen. Maybe more about that in a later post …

MV5BODU4MjU4NjIwNl5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMDU2MjEyMDE@._V1_SX214_AL_For now, I want to revisit an old favorite which just turned 20 years old. Despite a daunting lineup of TV shows, I still insist on watching films either that I own or that are available on the premium channels. A recent choice was The Shawshank Redemption (1994).

Director Frank Darabont’s adaptation of Stephen King’s story “Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption” is epic, spanning a 20-year period and encompassing such motifs as stunning patience, preservation of humanity, deserved redemption, and ultimate justice. Stars Tim Robbins (as Andy Dufresne, a convicted murderer who professes innocence) and Morgan Freeman (as old-timer inmate Ellis Boyd “Red” Redding) are perfect in their roles, and the supporting cast is stellar.

There are many touching moments in the film, such as when various characters muse about things like the reasons for their life choices. There are also uncomfortable moments, usually involving major injustices and heartbreaking tragedies. shawshank-redemption-1And then there are the moments we cheer: when someone’s intelligence and patience are rewarded, when human kindness shines through bureaucracy, and when the “good guys” get the upper hand on the “bad guys.” And that’s another interesting twist—in this story, the goods guys are not who you’d expect.

The Shawshank Redemption has become a quiet classic in the 20 years since it was made. If you have not seen, check it out. It’s truly worth watching!

The Academy Awards air this evening, so I’ll try to be brief. Here is a quick look at the final three Oscar hopefuls for Best Picture. Yes, I managed to see them all!

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index12 Years a Slave

Sorry to be a dissenting voice in an otherwise admiring crowd. I was so ready to like this film, based on the true-account book written by kidnapped freeman Solomon Northup. It should have been riveting, but it turned out to be rather a snooze-fest.

images4Despite some excellent performances, some of the casting is actually a bit distracting. Examples include two likable and over-exposed Brits (Benedict Cumberbatch and Michael Fassbender) as southern plantation owners (really?), walk-ons with a few lines for Brad Pitt and Garret Dillahunt, and a waste of talent in a small role for Paul Giamatti. A stirringly brutal portrayal of an overseer is turned in by Paul Dano (Little Miss Sunshine, Looper), but soon we’re back to sleepwalking through the story. Perhaps the most genuine and heartbreaking performance comes from relative newcomer Lupita Nyong. By contrast, most of the other actors look like they are doing dinner theater in Poughkeepsie.

images2The main problem is similar to the issues of focus and emphasis that I mentioned with the movie Captain Phillips:  there is no sense of the actual time span of Northup’s captivity, and there is little rendition of the severe disorientation of becoming a slave after living as a respected member of society. These aspects, intricate to the story, would have made this movie far more fascinating. As it is, however, it becomes simply another in a long line of films documenting the tragedies and injustices visited on slaves in America.  Other films have already done that, and more eloquently.

imagesAn additional irritation was the use of oddly placed close-ups and scenes with no action or expression in them. I cannot believe this film is up for an editing award, much less Best Director for Steve McQueen (Hunger, Shame). These shots—like looking up the nose of a woman who is about to sing, or watching Chiwetel Ejiofor sit and stare for nearly a minute—add nothing and simply interrupt the flow. All in all, this was not one of my favorites.

C+

 

11176448_oriNebraska

I was warned that this film is a downer and boring. Nothing could be farther from the experience I had!

index3A marvelous slice of Americana, this little gem is shot in black and white and viscerally evokes the feel of struggling farms and small towns, their salt-of-the-earth residents, and road trips through the heartland. It’s true that for most of the film, discomfort floats near the top of the emotional brew: discomfort with aging, with unrealized dreams, with the dysfunctionality of families and the large-scale struggles of Middle America. It’s true stuff, this. We sit and watch people be patient, or impatient, with one another, we listen to old men chat as they watch a football game, and most of us can say, “I’ve been here. I’ve heard this conversation.” The discomfort makes the film’s payoff all the sweeter.

images10Veteran actor Bruce Dern is marvelous as Woody Grant, a tired, alcoholic, mildly demented old man who holds on to a delusion because, well, that’s all there is left. Will Forte (of Saturday Night Live comedic fame) lovingly plays the ultimate good son, who learns more about his father in a few days driving from Billings, Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska than he ever knew before, and then provides the aging man with a perfect gesture of love and respect.

 

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Many of the portrayals seems stiff at first, bringing to mind home movies and low-budget filmmaking.  But the style really works to create a “realistic” portrait of characters that are rather readable at first glance, until it becomes apparent that there is more to all of them than meets the eye. We hear about their dreams and disappointments, we see them deal with what life hands them, and we finally see them as real and individual rather than mere types. Terrific performances are turned in by June Squibb as Woody’s wife, Bob Odenkirk as Woody’s other son, Stacy Keach as Woody’s former business partner, and many other supporting actors.

Granted, Nebraska may not be a movie for everyone. The plight of aging average-Joe and his family may not be of movie-watching interest to many—heck, it isn’t always my cup of tea either—but the story this movie tells is both heartbreaking and heartwarming in the best of ways.

A-

 

Philomena

index2Philomena is a tale of profound misery—well told, amusing at times, fascinating to watch and learn from—but still misery. In this story based on reality, the superb Dame Judi Dench plays an aging Irish woman who as a girl was relegated to an abbey for unwed mothers to give birth, work to pay both debt and penance, and agonizingly watch her son carted away by adoptive parents, never to be seen again. Now, fifty years later, she is still determined to discover where he ended up. Steve Coogan (typically a comic actor known for the likes of Hamlet 2) co-wrote the screenplay and stars as Martin Sixsmith, the dislodged journalist who helps “Phil”—as he comes to call her—to find out what happened to her son.

images7 Like 12 Years a Slave, this movie tells of a shameful past about which not much can be done now, except to remember and honor those who went through it and vow to never let anything like it happen again. And like Nebraska, it tells of family relationships that might be difficult for some to understand; also like Nebraska, it features a comedic actor-turned-serious (both do a splendid job of it). Unlike either of those films, Philomena is truly tragic.

The story and performances are excellent (including Sophie Kennedy Clark as young Philomena), and the movie is well worth watching. Coogan marvelously plays his character as jaded by years of political journalism and then awoken to indignant rage by what he learns through following Phil in her journey.

images6However, I found the Pollyanna-like acceptance of Phil a bit beneath the acting chops of Dench. Perhaps if someone not as well-known had played Phil, this might not have been an issue; but then again, maybe this movie would not be a Best Picture candidate either. It also was a bit bothersome, on a relational level, that Phil’s daughter (Anna Maxwell Martin) is involved and helping her in the search for the brother she never even knew about. It’s not addressed how she felt about this; what was the real daughter’s reaction to hearing that her mother thought about the lost son daily, though her daughter is there in front of her all along?

Still, the balance of views about events (Philomena’s acceptance, at least in the film, and Sixsmith’s disgust and anger) make for thought-provoking cinema.

B+

My Winners and Runners-Up

I can’t call these my predictions—one just never knows, especially with the changing face of the Academy. But here is how I would vote for a few of this year’s awards to be distributed:

 

Best Picture: Dallas Buyer’s Club

Runner-Up:  American Hustle

 

Best Actor in a Leading Role: Matthew McConaughey

Runner-Up: Leonardo DiCaprio

Best Actress in a Leading Role: Meryl Streep

Best Actor in a Supporting Role: Jared Leto

Runners-Up: close race between Bradley Cooper and Jonah Hill

Best Actress in a Supporting Role: Jennifer Lawrence

Runner-Up: Julia Roberts

Best Cinematography: Nebraska

Continuing with the viewing of the Oscar Best Picture hopefuls, I took in The Wolf of Wall Street last week. Plus, as promised, here are the long-overdue reviews for films I had seen previously: Dallas Buyers Club (my pick so far for Best Picture) and Gravity.

The Wolf of Wall Street

 
imagesLike an updated Goodfellas (1990) saga, The Wolf of Wall Street is filled with the greed-rabid, ego-deluded, sociopathic, drug-addled, megalomaniacal, and just plain sick antics that defined the rise and fall of penny-stock crook Jordan Belfort, based on Belfort’s own autobiographical account. Though some interpretations of people and events are exaggerated, it’s overwhelming to know that much of the depravity, corruption, and destruction depicted actually did happen.

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If you’re a fan of director Martin Scorsese’s style of aggressive confrontation and abandoned debauchery, or a fan of Leonardo DiCaprio’s amazing acting, you’ll most likely enjoy this film. It’s almost as though Scorsese, who also directed Goodfellas, wanted to replicate the phenomenal cultish appeal of that effort, for and with his protégé and collaborator, DiCaprio—as though he’d remake it, if he could, with DiCaprio as Henry Hill (played in Goodfellas by Ray Liotta). But even in his most corrupt moments, Hill had a kind of likeability that allowed audiences to identify with him and cring at the downward spiral his life had taken. On the other hand, DiCaprio, a consummate actor who brings Belfort to squirming life on screen, cannot make likeable even for a moment the despicable character of the Wolf (a moniker that Belfort egotistically gave himself, while others usually referred to him as a cockroach).

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While I count myself a fan of both Scorsese and DiCaprio (his acting, at least), lamentably this movie gets added to the list of aggrandizing films that document the deeds of sleazebags and criminals who have no redeeming qualities. There are those who claim that Belfort’s contribution to society is his amazing power to persuade and to teach others how to do the same. My jaw dropped when I saw that DiCaprio even shot a short “infomercial” for the slimeball, calling him “a true motivator.” Really?! I’m so disappointed. That reprobate Belfort is out there today, after serving just 22 months in federal prison, making a nauseatingly profitable living as a motivational speaker (shame on those who hire him) and having yet to make mandated restitution for the millions out of which he defrauded hard-working schmucks who were dumb enough to believe him and his hard-sell boiler room crew. And now he’s receiving money from this film. Really?! I think we can find more deserving people and events to make movies about. Sure, the depraved escapades of the characters resemble a real-life-inspired Hangover sequel, but wouldn’t we all prefer the worst behavior to stay fictional and not get rewarded in real life?e at the downward spiral his life had taken. On the other hand, DiCaprio, a consummate actor who brings Belfort to squirming life on screen, cannot make likeable even for a moment the despicable character of the Wolf (a moniker that Belfort egotistically gave himself, while others usually referred to him as a cockroach).

All right, allow me to climb down from my soap box. Let’s stick to the movie itself.

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This film is WAY too long. Some movies need their expansive length to tell their story properly. This one is repetitive, goes in circles, and spends lots of time making the same points. After all, how many times do we need to see examples of how degenerate Belfort and his cohorts were? We get it. With skillful editing, there’s no reason it could not have been an hour shorter.

Still, Dicaprio performs remarkably throughout and makes it worthwhile to watch the entire film. Jonah Hill turns in perhaps his best portrayal ever. The entire supporting cast is excellent, with P.J. Byrne, Brian Sacca, Henry Zebrowski, Kenneth Choi, and Jon Bernthal, as Belfort’s cohorts. 

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Other memorable characters are Matthew McConaughey as early mentor Mark Hanna, Rob Reiner as Belfort’s father, Jean Dujardin as the Swiss banker who helps Belfort hide his money, and Joanna Lumley as Aunt Emma. And I think we’ll be seeing a lot more of Aussie actress Margot Robbie, who plays Belfort’s second wife.

To be honest, I enjoyed writer/director Ben Younger’s 2000 film Boiler Room about pump-and-dump brokers more. It showed the human side of those pulled into and immoral business, and it too boasted an amazing cast, led by Giovanni Ribisi, Vin Diesel, Ben Affleck, and Ron Rifkin.

Scorsese is one of my favorite directors, but for me, his last truly phenomenal achievement was The Departed (2006). Nonetheless, this master director could rest on his laurels if he so wished, with credits like Taxi Driver (1976), Raging Bull (1980), The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), Casino (1995), and The Aviator (2004). While I’m glad I saw Wolf for its masterful performances, it doesn’t make my list of great Scorsese films.

B-

And now, FINALLY, a look back at two candidates for Best Pictures that I saw some time ago.

Dallas Buyers Club

dbcThanks to a friend who works at the Southwest Center for HIV/AIDS, I was privileged to see a special preview of Dallas Buyers Club that the studio did for the organization before the film opened in theaters. Unfortunately, life was a bit hectic and I never had the opportunity to write a review. But if I had, it would say the same thing this one does …

See this movie!

Well-paced, skilfully written by Craig Borten (The 33) and Malisa Wallack (Mirror Mirror, Meet Bill), and straightforwardly directed (by Jean-Marc Vallée, a Canadian director and screenwriter acclaimed for several French-language films), the film stars Matthew McConaughey as Ron Woodroof, whose genuine claim to fame is the shake-up of the US healthcare system about attention to and treatment of HIV and AIDS. McConaughey, who shed some 40 pounds to play the role, presents a captivating picture of a brash, self-destructive, cocky SOB whose circumstances blow his whole world apart, but instead of lying down, he takes the bull by the horns. It transforms him, those around him, and all they come in contact with.

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Woodroof (who was a boisterous Texan electrician in real life) is portrayed as a reckless, sex-and-drug-addicted, confrontational homophobe. Controversy has erupted about this portrayal, mainly about whether Woodroof really was straight (at least before this ordeal), since many who knew him testify otherwise. Perhaps the writers (especially Borten, who interviewed Woodroof before his death in 1992 and believes he was as straight and bigoted as they come) chose to ignore truth for the dramatic value of presenting a cathartic human drama. Whether or not this aspect is rooted in reality, though, does not detract from the main point, which is one man’s irreverent and inventive contribution to how a devastating epidemic and its victims are perceived and treated.

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What is true by all accounts is that Woodroof was diagnosed with AIDS in or around 1986 and given the prognosis that he’d be dead in a month. He was told he was too sick to participate in drug trials. He met others who were in the trials but were just not getting any better. Woodroof took matters into his own hands, smuggling drugs in from other parts of the world (mainly Mexico), and—since he couldn’t sell them legally—setting up the Dallas Buyers Club: membership meant one received those drugs for free. Self-medicating with a concoction of his own researched innovation, Woodroof lived for six more years and arguably helped countless others who were not being helped by the healthcare system.

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As is typical in film, other facts are stretched or altered. For example, the doctor who empathizes with Woodroof’s perspective and winds up helping him was in reality a man—Texas physician Steven M. Pounders. In the film, it is a woman (maybe to add a feminine perspective, maybe to inject the movie’s romantic twist?) played by Jennifer Garner (probably the weakest character in the film). The other doctors, as well as federal agents and additional authority figures, are not much more than caricatures that represent greed, indifference, big government, and red tape. This is one detail of the film I thought could have been richer, but I guess it gets the point across more quickly that Woodroof’s efforts were uphill all the way.

But the best performance, besides McConaughey’s, is turned in by Jared Leto (Requiem for a Dream, Panic Room, Lord of War) as Rayon, a gay transvestite drug addict who is a composite of many who helped with and were helped by the Dallas Buyers Club. Leto, an incredibly versatile actor who can put this role at the top of his resume, also underwent a transformation with significant weight loss. He presents a painfully candid depiction of the suffering involved not only in having AIDS but also going through it without the support of a judgmental parent. In one of the most agonizing scenes of the film, Rayon takes off the dress and makeup and puts a suit on his withering frame to grudgingly approach his father for funds that the Buyers Club needs.

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Another terrific performance is provided by Griffin Dunne (An American Werewolf in London) as the expatriate Dr. Vass, who provides Woodroof with ideas and contacts in Mexico. He brilliantly embodies a world-weary and disenfranchised healer who is compelled to provide whatever succor he can in his manifestly limited way. In the few lines he has, his character’s entire likely backstory comes to life. He thought he’d change the world, or at least become rich, and now he’s doling out pills to indigent patients in a Mexican border town.

Yes, there are some distressing and unpleasant scenes. Most of these have more to do with the bad behavior of Woodruff and his old “friends” than any of the effects of AIDS. Yet this is not a film even the squeamish need avoid. It is, more than anything, a film of resourcefulness, salvation, and hope.

A

Gravity-Movie-Poster

Gravity

 
The movie Gravity could have been called No Gravity, since it depicts the tribulations of two astronauts (Sandra Bullock and George Clooney) stranded in space after a disabled satellite hurtles debris toward their shuttle, kills other crew, and leaves them floating—and running out of oxygen—many miles above Earth.

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Then again, the term gravity carries other definitions besides that of a force which attracts anything with mass toward the center of the Earth. It also means enormity (like of the space in which the astronauts float), solemnity (of a situation that often seems truly hopeless), and seriousness (which the circumstances epitomize). The big issues and questions, which go far beyond the illustration of a space mission as the setting, are handled with all the “gravity” they justly deserve, yet the film still allows for some comic relief and, above all, courage and hope.

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Basically, Sandra Bullock is the star of this film, though Clooney’s presence and contribution are indispensable. There is one ingeniously inserted scene in which his character provides a break to the intensity of Bullock’s one-woman plight and provides both relief and a climactic turning point.

Bullock does a marvelous job of portraying a capable, smart person who is nevertheless as flawed and scarred as the rest of us and wrestling with a genuine defining moment in her life. The setting is delicious icing on this satisfying cake.

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Necessarily, most of the action is weightlessly slow, and it is all the tenser and more excruciatingly inevitable for it. You know how people say that they see things in slow motion when they have a car accident? They can see what’s coming at them, but they are powerless to stop it? Yeah, it’s like that.

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Directed by Alfonso Cuaron (Y Tu Mamá También, Children of Men), this is the kind of film that IMAX was invented for. In its atmosphere and space-exploration motif, it evokes the fearsome vastness and isolation and of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Silent Running, or Solaris. In its themes of loss and despondency versus courage and choosing to live, it conjures It’s a Wonderful Life, Harold and Maude, and Shawshank Redemption. And it’s all packaged in one heck of an exciting roller coaster ride.


A

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