Thursday, August 18, 2016


Rated: PG-13

STARS: Meryl Streep, Hugh Grant, Simon Helberg
DIRECTOR: Stephen Frears
GENRE: Comedy/Drama

Florence Foster Jenkins was an heiress and New York socialite whose life-long love of music spurred her to become an opera singer. Only trouble was, her "singing" would make alley cats plug their ears.

In Florence Foster Jenkins, Meryl Streep takes on an enormous challenge to come off as tone deaf as the real deal. (Check out the clip of the real Ms. Jenkins at the end of this review!) I'll give Streep a B+ on that score. It's DIFFICULT to sing, it's difficult to sing badly and sincerely--with a straight face. Streep, who is actually a good singer,  gives a yeoman's effort.

Hugh Grant plays her mate, the opportunistic St. Clair Bayfield, a failed Shakespearean actor who must have seen her as his meal ticket initially--they live in a posh New York hotel--but nonetheless possesses a sincere platonic devotion to the lady. So much so that he orchestrates her singing engagements and packs the house with friends and acquaintances he knows will lend a sympathetic ear. Everyone is expected to play along with the colossal delusion, as Florence is in ill health, and he wants her to spend her remaining days pursuing her dream.(What she's suffering from I will not reveal, because it's an audience "ooh" moment, and most reviewers today GIVE TOO MUCH AWAY--one of my recurring pet peeves.)

As good as Streep and Grant are in their roles--and they are superb--Simon Helberg, as Florence's fidgety and high-strung piano accompanist, Cosme McMoon, steals the show with his comically expressive mug and mannerisms. McMoon--reluctantly at first--backs Jenkins from her initial appearances before The Verdi Club (an organization she herself founded), to her crowning achievement--a 1944 engagement to a packed house at Carnegie Hall.

Florence Foster Jenkins is also a (probably unintentional) commentary on the ability of the rich to buy their way to the immortality of lasting fame, while the masses of  mere "mortals"--many with astounding  talents and abilities--quietly labor through lives of anonymity, their brilliance ultimately recognized by no more than family and friends. But that comes as an afterthought for me, as during the movie I was rooting for Florence all the way.

And while the film is a hoot on many levels, there are moments of unexpected poignancy that may leave you misty-eyed here and there. Because what glimmers through every pore of Florence Foster Jenkins is one person's lifelong love affair with music...and as we all know, love is blind.

Not to be missed!

Grade:  A


Damn! You stole my thunder, Tim. About the brilliance of Simon Helberg's Oscar-worthy performance? To set the record straight regarding how we write these reviews, Tim writes his impressions first and then I add my two cents afterwards. (Usually five!) I'm not in Tucson right now so we see these reviewable flicks separately. This time, my west coast film companion was quick to whisper in my ear that Simon Helberg has been wowing TV audiences for 10 Seasons in "The Big Bang Theory." What an expressive face!

Knowing the premise of Florence Foster Jenkins beforehand, I didn't think I'd enjoy being treated to an afternoon of off-pitch singing. How wrong I was! Meryl was magnificent as the barrel-sized would-be opera singer. I found myself feeling guilty for belly laughing at Ms. Jenkins' painful vocals, knowing how badly she wanted to be another Lily Pons. And I wasn't the only one in the audience laughing, either.

It reminded me of another film,The Producers – where Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder wanted to produce a bad musical, hoping it would be a flop so they could rake in the investors' money. Instead, it turned into a Broadway blockbuster. Same basic idea applies to Florence Foster Jenkins. For me, though, her popularity (albeit camp rather than coloratura) seemed to seriously stretch credibility. As did many of the other moments in this distinctly delightful film.

Kudos go out to British director Stephen Arthur Frears whose film credits include some of my all-time favorites: My Beautiful Launderette and Philomena. He was able to make an incredibly hard-to-believe situation mostly believable.

Grade: B+

Wednesday, August 3, 2016


STARS: Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Steve Carell, Blake Lively
DIRECTOR: Woody Allen
GENRE: Drama

When we buy a ticket to a Woody Allen film we know that he will be dispensing his philosophy on life, love, sex and mortality through his characters. As I've mentioned in previous reviews, we can often close our eyes when a character is speaking and see him standing right there--the voice of the master coming through loud and clear. (Allen narrates the story as we go along as well.) 

It's an acquired taste. But for true aficionados, Cafe Society will provide some very pleasant rewards--offering up a sumptuous feast of fine acting performances, gorgeous milieu, and a nostalgic soundtrack of classics from the 1930s.

Young New Yorker Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg) heads to Hollywood seeking gainful employment, hitting on his big shot talent agent uncle Phil (Steve Carell), who eventually takes him under his wing. Phil's assistant, Vonnie, (Kristen Stewart) gives Bobby the nickel tour of the Hollywood scene, and before you know it he's smitten by her. After some initial coyness, she takes a shine to him as well. But Vonnie has divided loyalties, and I won't spoil what that is all about for you. 

The scene will shift to New York, where Bobby's gangster brother, Ben, runs a posh nightclub. Bobby hires on there, and matures into a suave and debonair thirties kinda guy. He marries the alluring Veronica (Blake Lively), and all seems well until his past shows up one day at the club, and divided loyalties once again becomes the watchword of Cafe Society.

Jessie Eisenberg is the Peter Pan of Hollywood. Now 33 years old, he continues to play characters in their early twenties and gets away with it.  He is totally believable here as the callow kid who heads out west, and again as the smooth talking nightclub denizen--looking more like his chronological years. (I wonder if they had to "age" him cosmetically to make him look like what he really is. Bizarre.) 

Kristen Stewart imbues her character with a sweetness and a vulnerability I haven't seen from her before ( recalling her sizzling turn in On The Road from 2012.)  

And it's Steve Carell in another understated role, proving himself an actor with depth, as I'm sure he must still feel the urge sometimes to break out into the comic persona that established his greatness for a long while, but he seems more fond of the straight face nowadays.

Cafe Society drew me into its world of elegance and style, and a pre-war kind of innocence that, if you're like me, you may never want to leave. 



Phooey! Tim made all the points I was going to make. I absolutely loved this film and I'm not necessarily a Woody Allen fan. (ZeligThe Purple Rose of Cairo and Deconstructing Harry, to name a few of my thumbs downers.) But this film was romantic to the max with what I like to call 'Jewish realism.' Yes, the actors were brilliant. And yes, the sets and the costumes--especially the jazz singer wearing a huge peacock-feathered beret were spot on! But in my view the best character of all was -- the score.

Allen chose wisely, using sentimental tunes like "Tea For Two" while showing a freshly murdered corpse being dumped into a cement-mixing grave. If ever there was a film where the music manipulated the audience's emotions, Café Society takes the cake. Of course, as an excellent clarinet player himself, Allen's musical knowledge knows no bounds.

Although this has nothing to do with the movie, I want to make a point. When I told a friend I was looking forward to seeing Woody Allen's latest, he bristled. "Not me, I refuse to see any of that creep's movies, considering how he's conducted his personal life!" I said nothing. But I think it's worth mentioning. For me, talent trumps dysfunction. I know other movie-goers who won't see a movie if the actor's political views don't jibe with their own. How sad. They often don't know what they're missing.

Anyhoo, back to Café Society. I'd like to give it an "A" grade but, to be honest, I'd probably give any well-written dramedy an "A" right now due to the dearth of any decent summer films....

(sorry to be such a copycat, Tim)