Florence Foster Jenkins (2016)

screen-shot-2016-08-13-at-10-06-27-am_orig

Today’s Cinema Adventure originally appeared in

The Pride L.A.

Walking into the theater to see “Florence Foster Jenkins,” it’s a given that you are about to watch another tour-de-force by Meryl Streep.  I’ll waste no time in saying that she delivers on that expectation.  The story of a real-life society matron who realized her life-long dream of singing at Carnegie Hall despite a complete inability to carry a tune, this bio-pic is tailor-made for her talents; it can be no surprise that she gives arguably her most delightful performance in years.

What’s surprising is that nobody sharing the screen with her disappears behind her shadow.  On the contrary, her co-stars contribute just as much as she does to the movie’s overall charm, helping it to become much more than just a showcase for the talents of a beloved silver-screen diva.

To give full credit, it is necessary to recognize that this is not just a Meryl Streep vehicle, but the latest entry on the resumé of British filmmaker Stephen Frears, who first gained international recognition with his iconic 1985 gay romance, “My Beautiful Laundrette,” and who has helmed a number of prominent movies over the decades since- “Dangerous Liaisons,” “The Grifters,” “The Queen,” and “Philomena,” to name only a few.

No stranger to working with legendary talent, one of Frears’ great strengths as a director is his ability to enlist them in the service of his own sure-and-steady storytelling skills, allowing them to be actors instead of stars, and to enhance his work instead of dominating it.  It’s an approach geared towards the character-driven projects he prefers; his movies, though they often involve unorthodox situations or famous figures, are always ultimately about universally-shared human experience, and they benefit from the workmanlike performances though which he guides his players.
In this case, of course, the incomparable Meryl is front-and-center, as she should be.  Her Florence has all the hallmarks of a great Streep role.  She is a larger-than-life personality, almost cartoonish, but in Streep’s hands she is never anything less than completely, believably human.  She displays impeccable comedic abilities in one moment and slips seamlessly into heartbreaking pathos the next, without ever relying on clownish mugging or heavy-handed sentiment- and on top of it all, she does her own bad singing without sounding like she’s trying to sing badly.  In short, she gives the kind of performance that has put her in the echelon of such stars as Hepburn and Davis.

Even so, she is not the whole show.  The movie’s real surprise is certainly Hugh Grant.  Usually regarded more as a personality with a pretty face than as a high-caliber actor, he more than rises to the occasion here as Florence’s devoted (if not-quite-faithful) husband, who uses his connections in both the high and low strata of New York society to help her accomplish her improbable dream.  Carrying himself with the slightly-obsequious swagger of a ne’er-do-well cad, he undercuts that demeanor with a layered performance which never leaves you in doubt of his sincerity.  His aging-but-still-handsome features convey a depth of feeling which reveals “Florence Foster Jenkins” to be, at its core, a love story.

In the third key role, Simon Helberg (of “The Big Bang Theory”) portrays Florence’s reluctant accompanist, Cosmé McMoon, in a style which (in keeping with the film’s period setting) suggests the codified “sissy” characters of old Hollywood.  His homosexuality is never explicitly addressed, but the film derives some good-natured humor from his obvious orientation- which, rather than demeaning or marginalizing him, serves to place him, along with all such characters, in his rightful role as an integral part of society.  Queerness aside, Helberg gives us a marvelous serio-comic turn as a timid outsider who finds the strength of his own spirit through his dedication to his unlikely employer; he fully earns the right to share the screen with his two co-stars.

The rest of the cast, though their names and faces are less recognizable, are equally effective in portraying their roles.  In addition, the film benefits from breathtaking production design (by Alan MacDonald) and sumptuous costuming (by Consolata Boyle).  Finally, as is always the case for a strong film, the screenplay (by Nicholas Martin) is well-crafted, literate, and thoughtful, providing a strong foundation upon which the other artists can build their own great work.

“Florence Foster Jenkins” is not a deep or ground-breaking piece of cinema.  It’s a refined crowd-pleaser, a serio-comic slice of life designed to touch and delight its audiences.  That’s not a bad thing.  In a summer filled with noisy blockbusters, it’s refreshing to be treated to a movie with such quiet class- particularly when it has as much talent on display as this one.  After all, when a Meryl Streep performance is just the icing on top, you know that has to be one delicious cake.

Weiner-Dog (2016)

1473523071_skrin3

Today’s Cinema Adventure originally appeared in

The Pride L.A.

Todd Solondz doesn’t make movies to offer you an escape from your problems; he makes movies to confront you with them.  Ever since his 1995 breakthrough, “Welcome to the Dollhouse,” he has repeatedly offered up grim, uncomfortable stories of the dysfunction lurking just beneath the banal surface of suburban American life.  His films are variations on the interconnected themes of failure, depression, and emotional isolation.  Not exactly the stuff blockbusters are made of.

Yet the quirky writer/director has developed a loyal cult following who continue to be mesmerized by his sardonic vision of the world and the broken, faltering lives of the people who live in it.  Indeed, there is an almost masochistic fascination to these sad little fables of modern life, not unlike that can’t-look-away feeling you get when passing a gruesome accident scene on the highway.  Coupled with this morbid appeal is his tendency to feature recurring characters in his films (usually portrayed by different actors) alongside the new ones.  The desire to see what has happened to some of these familiar figures (and the hope that they have somehow managed to improve their dismal lives) is undoubtedly key in keeping his fans coming back for more, and it provides a major hook for the filmmaker’s latest effort, “Weiner-Dog.”

Those familiar with “Dollhouse,” which remains Solondz’ most popular and successful work, will immediately recognize this title as the nickname bestowed on that film’s pathetic anti-heroine, middle-schooler Dawn Wiener.  Though clearly intended to invoke that connection, and though that much-beloved character does indeed make her long-anticipated return here, in this case the name refers to a new central figure- a dachshund who becomes the pet of four different, unconnected people through the course of her life.

First, she is gifted to a young cancer survivor, Remi (Keaton Nigel Cooke), providing the boy with a brief respite from the stark home environment created by the antagonistic and seemingly loveless marriage of his affluent parents (Julie Delpy and Tracy Letts).  Then, she is adopted by the now-adult Dawn Wiener (the gifted Greta Gerwig)- still awkward and desperate for affection- who takes her along for the ride as she accompanies an old schoolmate on a road trip.  Changing hands again, she becomes the pet of Dave Schmerz (Danny DeVito), a has-been screenwriter barely clinging to his job as an unappreciated teacher at a film academy.  Finally, she ends up as a companion animal for Nana (the always-stellar Ellen Burstyn), an elderly and misanthropic invalid who receives a surprise visit from her long-absent granddaughter, Zoe (Zosia Mamet).

That’s it.  The dog connects the segments by her presence, but otherwise these are stand-alone vignettes, composed around Solondz’ usual themes and exploring the various ways in which human beings treat each other- and themselves- very badly.  As anyone familiar with the director’s work would anticipate, there’s not much hope to be found in these stories, and where there are glimmers of it they are subverted by the surrounding circumstances; and yet, the film has a strange and terrible beauty.

This is the hallmark of Solondz’ work; he shows us life at its cruelest and most demeaning- almost always with the explicit qualifier that it is we ourselves who are responsible- and yet he makes it somehow lovely.  He also makes it darkly funny; he is, above all, a social satirist whose stunted, minimalist dialogue conveys both depth of insight and an arch sense of ironic humor that revels in making us laugh at the things which most disturb us.  It might be argued that the laughter is a defensive reflex, a release of uncomfortable tension; this may be true, but it’s an authentic response, nonetheless.

Cut from the same cloth as his earlier films, this is perhaps Solondz’ most elegantly-made work to date.  Cinematographer Ed Lachman delivers a low-key study in composition that subtly elevates the aesthetic and allows us just enough of a cool perspective to distance ourselves without being able to completely detach.  That’s important, because Solondz wants us to reconnect with the primal emotions- fear, shame, guilt, loneliness, resentment- within us all.  He warns us that if they are left in the darkness to be stoked by our failures and losses, they can make our lives like those he shows us on the screen; those lives might seem absurd, exaggerated, and extreme, but he never lets us believe they are anything other than truthful.  Brutally truthful.

For non-Solondz-fans, it should be noted that “Weiner-Dog” (like all of his work) is likely to put off many viewers.  It’s bleak and unrelenting, with a pall of despair that hangs over it from beginning to end.  Animal lovers, especially, should be warned to consider carefully before seeing it; for the sake of avoiding spoilers, I’ll just leave it at that.

 

The Jungle Book (2016)

junglebook1

Today’s Cinema Adventure originally appeared in
The Pride L.A.

Rudyard Kipling was a product of his era.  An Englishman born in Colonial India, he grew into a prolific author and poet whose canon was informed by his childhood experiences there.  Though his literary gifts were undeniable, and much of his work is still widely read more than a century later, he has come to be seen as a champion of British Imperialism.  The world view of white-privileged conquerors, with their assumption of racial superiority over the indigenous populations they subjugated, is deeply embedded in the fabric of all his stories- including the much-beloved children’s tales for which he is most remembered today.

Needless to say, in a modern world keenly aware of the issues surrounding race, this makes him a controversial figure.  He is regarded by many as an unapologetic racist whose writing, even at its finest, was little more than propaganda for the cause of white supremacy.  Others vehemently insist that he was a humanist working from within the system to illuminate both the noble and ignoble traits of all people and thus promote a more egalitarian mindset.  Arguments and evidence are plentiful in support of either side, as well as of the myriad viewpoints which lie somewhere between those two poles.

Of course, the majority of modern moviegoers are unaware of this literary debate, which is undoubtedly why two major studios have both developed family-friendly blockbusters based on the most well-known of Kipling’s stories: “The Jungle Book.”  The first of these, directed by Jon Favreau from a screenplay by Justin Marks, is the Disney studio’s latest effort to remount one of their animated classics as a live-action film for the 21st Century generation.

Their previous version- the final film personally overseen by Walt Disney himself- was released in 1967, and though it has become a cherished favorite to those who grew up with it, at the time it was heavily criticized for taking Kipling’s rather solemn original and turning it into a rollicking, jazz-infused comedic showcase for a star-studded cast of voice talent.

This time around, Marks and Favreau have doubled down on that same approach, while also expanding the basic story framework to include elements from the Kipling tale (or rather, tales- what we have come to know as “The Jungle Book” is actually derived from several short stories concerning the man-cub, Mowgli, and his adventures in the jungle with his animal mentors).  The result feels like a satisfactory blend, a best-of-both-worlds crowd-pleaser which captures the serious tone and allegorical flavor of Kipling while still delivering the good-natured hi-jinks expected from a studio known for its fun-for-all-ages romps.

It’s also a technical masterpiece.  The use of CGI and performance-capture technology has yielded a breathtaking visual experience, giving us a lush and majestic experience of the Indian wilderness as well as remarkably believable depictions of the animals which comprise most of the cast of characters.  This latter element also benefits from superb vocal portrayals by the likes of Ben Kingsley, Scarlett Johansson, Idris Elba, Christopher Walken, Lupita Nyong’o, and the always-welcome Bill Murray.  Perhaps most importantly, newcomer Neel Sethi gives an on-point performance as Mowgli, a remarkable accomplishment for a young actor whose work took place on a soundstage far removed from the world on display in the finished product.

Yet for all its excellence, this new “Jungle Book” feels somehow overdone.  There’s a “bigger-is-better” philosophy at play which detracts from its meticulously-constructed authenticity; a larger-than-life quality may be appropriate to the material, but is it really necessary, for instance, for King Louie to be the size of King Kong?  Although Marks’ screenplay does a good job of underlining the humanistic parallels with the animal kingdom, the sincerity of his intentions is steamrolled by heavy-handed execution, perhaps most tangibly in the manipulative orchestral swellings of John Debney’s score.  And on the subject of music, the inclusion of the best-known songs from the 1967 film not only seems perfunctory, but also jarringly incongruous within the realistic environment created to evoke the period and setting of the story.   .

These observations are, of course, likely to be immaterial to most of Disney’s target audience- perhaps rightly so.  After all, whatever his socio-political philosophies may have been, Kipling wrote his Mowgli stories to entertain, and “The Jungle Book” certainly succeeds in doing justice to that purpose.  Still, one can’t help but wonder how much richer it could have been made by a subtler hand, one that might have allowed for a bit of reflection on how to reconcile our modern sensibility with the more troubling issues contained in an iconic tale that, like it or not, is deeply ingrained into our cultural consciousness.  Perhaps we will find out in two years, when Warner Brothers releases their take on it.

Until then, this one will do well enough.

Viva (2015)

29viva-facebookjumbo

Today’s Cinema Adventure originally appeared in

The Pride L.A.

There’s a comparatively high level of visibility for drag performers on the entertainment scene today.  Not long ago, they were known only to the LGBT community and a few savvy “straights;” now, thanks to widening acceptance, you would be hard-pressed to find anyone not at least marginally aware of “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” or of movies like “Kinky Boots.”  While still not exactly mainstream, drag has emerged from the gay bar and planted its cha-cha heels firmly on the stage of popular culture.

Most of the time, we are treated largely to the finished product of an artist’s long struggle towards triumphant self-expression.  This is as it should be; drag deserves to be celebrated for its own merit.  Still, it’s been decades since “Torch Song Trilogy,” and the time seems ripe for a new story about the offstage life of a queen.  Thanks to film director Paddy Breathnach and screenwriter Mark O’Halloran, we need wait no longer.

Set in the slums of Havana, “Viva” follows Jesus, a gay eighteen-year-old who supports himself by styling hair for his female relatives- and the wigs of the queens at a local drag club.  Given a chance to perform himself, he is just beginning to blossom when his father Angel- a “local hero” boxer who abandoned him at the age of three- suddenly returns to his life.  Angel- a homophobic macho man- insists on moving in with his son and refuses to allow him to continue working at the club.  Torn between his longing for a father he never knew and his new-found self-expression, Jesus must forge a relationship with this stranger and attempt to build a bridge between their seemingly incompatible worlds.

From its very first scenes, “Viva” promises to be the story of an awkward gay boy’s evolution into a fabulous queen.  It delivers on that promise, but not by taking the expected route.  Though it starts us through familiar territory- the trying on of wigs and outfits, the catty dressing-room banter, the obligatory jokes about tucking- it suddenly (and literally) stops us in our tracks with a punch to the face.  From that point forward, Jesus’ story is less about the outer trappings of drag and more about the inner journey that will eventually bring power and passion to his stage persona- and give him the strength and integrity necessary to live truly as himself.

We’ve seen the hard-knock, emotionally dysfunctional background of such a character before, of course, but in the past it has usually been portrayed as something to rise above, with drag as both protective armor and triumphal raiment.  Here, though, Breathnach and O’Halloran give us a new take, in which their protagonist embraces his hardships instead of enduring them.  It’s a subtle change of focus, underscoring a shift into a new era in which there’s a chance for those who don’t conform to societal “norms” to be true to themselves without having to live a life apart.

The key reason that “Viva” has resonance at a societal level is that O’Halloran’s script avoids politicizing or pontificating and instead focuses on an intimate relationship between father and son.  In their negotiations, Jesus and Angel serve as stand-ins for their respective generations- and if these two men can gain acceptance from each other, there is hope for us all to do the same.  Director Breathnach understands where the strength of his movie lies; other than making sure that the Havana location (described by Angel as “the most beautiful slum in the world”) is magnificently captured, he wisely keeps his cinematic styling simple and direct, allowing his cast to dominate the screen.

It helps that the actors- especially the movie’s two handsome co-stars- are up to the challenge.  The movie naturally belongs to Héctor Medina; the young actor combines sensitivity and strength, his expressive face allowing us to experience Jesus’ journey with him, and caps it with a climactic performance in which he brings the film’s title character into a full, electric life of her own.  As Angel, Jorge Perugorría embodies the hubris of culturally-bestowed entitlement, yet infuses his character with the humanity necessary to invite love and compassion.  Providing an important third perspective to their dynamic is Luis Alberto García, who elegantly avoids stereotype as “Mama,” the drag club owner who takes Jesus under his wing.

Though it’s an Irish-made movie, “Viva” is spoken in the Spanish appropriate to its Cuban setting.  This might be a challenge if you are subtitle-averse, but to skip seeing it would be a mistake for anyone who longs for world-class LGBT-themed cinema.  By eschewing heavy-handed tactics, it takes a story which, in the not-too-distant past, might have been a tale of despair and tells it instead as parable of hope.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Midnight Special (2016)

Today’s Cinema Adventure originally appeared in

The Pride L.A.

MIDNIGHT SPECIALadamdriverAndjaedenlieberher

Movie “mash-ups” are a hallmark of our Postmodern era.  It is as if everything that has come before in cinema has been collectively smashed into pieces, and filmmakers freely pick up whatever shards they like and combine them to make something new.  It doesn’t matter if the pieces are recognizable, nor is it necessary to justify the appropriation by calling it an “homage.” This is, arguably, how it should be.  Each generation redefines the culture on their own terms, and it has always been standard practice for artists to “borrow” from those who have exerted a strong influence over their own work.  However, when they are not driven by a cohesive vision that makes the whole greater than the sum of its parts, far too many films fall short, no matter how sincere their creator’s intentions may be.  Unfortunately, “Midnight Special,” the newest feature from writer/director Jeff Nichols, is one of them.

Drawing heavily on the work of Steven Spielberg in his heyday, it combines several genres- chiefly science fiction and family drama- to tell the story of Alton (Jaeden Lieberher), a boy with mysterious powers who has been kidnapped by his father, Roy (Michael Shannon), from the compound of a religious cult that believes he is their only hope to survive the imminent apocalypse.  With the help of an accomplice, Lucas (Joel Edgerton), the fugitives flee across the country in an attempt to reunite with the boy’s mother (Kirsten Dunst) and journey towards a mysterious destination to which Alton’s visions seem to be leading them- all the while trying to stay ahead of the cult’s operatives as well as a government task force, spearheaded by Paul Sevier (Adam Driver), that wants to find Alton for reasons of their own.

There are a lot of threads to follow in “Midnight Special.”  Nichols takes his time unraveling them for us, and doles out information sparingly as he goes.  In the first few minutes, he effectively introduces us to the main elements of his premise; from this point on, however, his film develops into a continuing series of complications, each one serving only to lead to the next, while offering only the merest scraps of information about the deeper mystery at the heart of the proceedings.  By the time we get to the big revelation- which is simply announced to us, somewhat anti-climactically- we have already been led through so many confusing turns that it’s difficult to still be invested in the outcome.

Of course, anyone familiar with Spielberg’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” will sense from early on where the story is going.  “Midnight Special” has so many echoes of that classic (among others) that it is hard not to compare the two works.  To go into detail about the connections would spoil the current film, but it is worth noting that the things that make Spielberg’s movie so memorable are painfully absent here.  The sense of adventure is replaced by a feeling of impending doom; and although both movies center on families threatened and pulled apart by momentous events, “Close Encounters” nevertheless manages to be joyous and fun while “Midnight Special” struggles to stay just this side of despair.  It’s fair to say that they are different movies from different eras, but one still cannot help but think that Nichols movie takes itself far more seriously than needed.

It’s not the fault of the cast, who mostly deliver heartfelt performances.  Young Lieberher is engaging and likable while still managing to be suitably grave.  As his adult protectors, Shannon, Dunst, and Edgerton all play admirably against sentimentality, and if they come off as unrelentingly dour it seems more a function of the script and direction than the integrity of their work.  As the cult leader, the venerable Sam Shepard (whose presence underscores strong parallels with another vintage film, Daniel Petrie’s “Resurrection”) provides understated sorrow instead of predictable menace.  The standout performance, though, comes from Driver, whose turn as the government expert trying to unlock Alton’s secrets evokes the wonder and excitement so sorely missing from the rest of the film.  His screen time is all too brief.

“Midnight Special” is not a complete failure; it offers an intriguing exploration of the way that belief- whether in religion, science, or worldly concerns- can keep us blinded to truths that lay outside our understanding, and it avoids pandering to its audience with easy answers or familiar clichés.  In the end, though, there is little payoff for these ruminations, and the movie leaves us wondering far more about the details of its plot than the implications of its ideas.  It disappoints us more than it challenges us- and considering the sources from which it draws its inspiration, it is a strong disappointment, indeed.

Sing Street (2016)

SingStreet

Today’s Cinema Adventure originally appeared in

The Pride L.A.

 

Movie musicals are a rarity these days.  Every so often a Broadway blockbuster will find its way to the big screen, but an original musical, with a new script and songs, comes along about as often as a light traffic day on the 405.  The last one of any significance came nearly a decade ago in the form of Once, a bittersweet, tuneful romance from Irish writer-director John Carney that went on to be adapted into a Broadway show in its own right.  Now Carney has returned to the genre with a new effort, the semi-autobiographical Sing Street.

Set in Dublin of the mid-eighties, it focuses on Connor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo), a teenager whose middle-class family has fallen on hard times.  No longer able to afford his private education, they send him to a public boys’ school where discipline is strict, teachers are indifferent, and bullies rule the schoolyard.  It’s a bleak environment, but he finds a ray of light in the form of  Ruphina (Lucy Boynton), an aloof girl who frequently stands on a stoop across the street.  To impress her, he tells her he is in a rock band; her interest is piqued, and Connor starts recruiting schoolmates to make the lie a reality.  What starts as an attempt to get a girlfriend soon develops into a journey of self-discovery- and, just maybe, a way out of the dead-end life for which he seems destined.

Sing Street, on the surface, seems like an implausible mix.  Carney, evoking the gritty social realism that British cinema has been mastering since the “kitchen sink” dramas of the early sixties, places his story in an economically depressed urban landscape and populates it with characters who have more or less given up hope of anything better, yet he uses this grim setting as the backdrop for an escapist flight of rock-and-roll fancy which seems straight out of the Hollywood dream factory.  It shouldn’t work- but it does.

It’s just this odd juxtaposition of moods, in fact, that gives his film its magic.  Carney tempers the desperation with humor and grounds the giddiness with melancholy.  He treats his characters with compassion- even when they serve as antagonists to our hero- and never allows the fantasy to lose its connection to the underlying reality.  As for the romance (deftly played by the two young co-stars), instead of adolescent wish-fulfillment we are reminded, to paraphrase a line from the film, that to be in love is to be happy and sad at the same time.  It’s this delicate balance of “happy/sad” that permeates Sing Street, and serves as the lynch pin that helps it maintain its own delicate balance, right up to the sublimely satisfying ending.

The cast -mostly comprised of unknowns- brings an infectious energy to the mix, performing with the kind of authenticity that makes you forget they are acting.  Although the charismatic Walsh-Peelo definitely deserves singular praise for largely carrying the movie, he is equally matched by the lovely Boyle, and all of their young co-stars perform at the same level.  Special mention should also go to Jack Reynor as Brendan, Connor’s older brother and unlikely mentor; he gives a heartbreakingly endearing performance which, in many ways, provides the emotional center of the movie.

Finally, there’s the music.  Composed by Carney (with Gary Clarke and Adam Levine), a series of period-flavored songs brilliantly charts each new development in the fictional band’s style (as they progress though various phases of eighties pop), as well as Connor’s growing maturity.  They work as integral parts of the story, but they also stand on their own merits- catchy, heartfelt, and imaginative, they make the band’s onscreen success all the more believable.  These original tunes are the heart and soul of Sing Street, but a number of familiar eighties hits are sprinkled throughout as well, just for good measure.

It’s worth noting that the generation which lived through the era depicted will find that Carney’s film strikes a particularly resonant chord.  The clothes, the hairstyles, the videos- all are skillfully and lovingly recreated here, and it gives the movie a decidedly nostalgic flavor.  That doesn’t mean it won’t also feel fresh enough for younger audiences.  Ultimately, what makes Sing Street so appealing is that, at its core, it’s about the promise of the future- no matter how hopeless the present may seem.  That’s certainly a message that has a place in the world today, and it might just make even the most cynical of movie-goers walk out of the theater with a little more lightness in their step.