Florence Foster Jenkins (2016) may sound like a one-joke contrivance—a rich, generous, arts-loving heiress in 1940s New York City gives private recitals to a select group of high society insiders who never let on to the oblivious woman that she is quite possibly the worst singer to ever trod a stage—but it is both a true story and an unexpectedly tender, touching movie. And it’s quite funny to boot.
Meryl Streep, who is in fact a trained and talented vocalist, pulls off that most difficult of comic performances as Mrs. Jenkins. She glows with joy while her shrill tones are wretchedly off-key and at times off-the-charts while her husband St Clair (a warm and protective Hugh Grant) smiles in appreciation through her rehearsals. Her new practice pianist Cosmé (Simon Helberg, The Big Bang Theory) is dumbstruck during his inaugural session with Florence and Helberg’s performance is superb. He’s like a silent movie comic, looking on gobsmacked then contorting himself to keep from betraying his reaction when he sees that no one else is the least bit fazed. You can imagine everything running through his head as he plays away: are they putting him on? Are they putting her on? Can they even tell she’s wildly untalented? Just what has he gotten himself into, and is having a steady job worth it?
A big week, at least in terms of numbers, so let’s get started, shall we?
“Tamara Drewe” (Sony), directed by Stephen Frears, has a strange and wonderful pedigree: an adaptation of the graphic novel (by Posy Simmonds) inspired by Thomas Hardy’s “Far From the Madding Crowd” and whipped up with a light sex comedy froth by screenwriter Moira Buffini and the cast (headed by the Gemma Arterton as the gorgeous heroine with identity issues and Roger Allam as the philandering author who wants to bed her). Frears brings a light touch and a knowing compassion to this pastoral romantic farce, where true love wins out and false love is (quite literally) trampled out of sight. See my exclusive interview with director Stephen Frears here.
Gemma Arterton and Luke Evans, the terribly gorgeous young things destined for true love in the film, contribute a lively and entertaining (if not particularly insightful) commentary track. The quote of the week goes to Ms. Arterton and her observation: “It’s so hard acting with a chicken under your arm.” The disc (DVD and Blu-ray both) also includes a couple of featurettes: the general, and fairly generic, “The Making of Tamara Drewe” and the more interesting “Reconstructing Tamara Drewe,” which examines the adaptation of the graphic novel with comparisons between the film and the original pages. “It’s not a storyboard for the film,” explains Frears, “but you can see we captured the essence of it.”
“Hideaway” (Strand) – The films of François Ozon constantly offer alternative family and this elusive French drama (originally titled “Le Refuge”) offers yet another. Isabelle Carré is the drug addict who discovers she is pregnant after surviving an OD that kills her boyfriend and heads out to her hideaway to have her child. Louis-Ronan Choisy is the gay brother of her dead boyfriend who shows up at the beach house escape and, for a time, enters her life with an intimacy that no one else is able. She’s both childlike and terribly experienced, removed and yearning, unwilling to put her trust in anyone else but hoping she finds someone to change her mind as she allows the pregnancy to envelope her like a tide. This young gay man is not necessarily that person, but for a brief moment they find a connection and a reason to care for another. In French with English subtitles.
Also new this week: Middle Men, Life As We Know It, You Again, It’s Kind of a Funny Story, For Colored Girls and more.
The cover of the DVD and Blu-ray release of Tamara Drewe reads: “From the director of “The Queen” and “Dangerous Liaisons“,” which is true and certainly something to brag about—director Stephen Frears has a rich career and those are two of his most celebrated films—but doesn’t quite communicate the flavor of this mix of British pastoral and modern sex comedy. This is more like the Stephen Frears of “High Fidelity” and “Mrs. Henderson Presents” (the latter a lovely little piece which will live in infamy for offering a not-quite-so-lovely Bob Hoskins nude scene). The 69-year-old Mr. Frears, speaking by phone from his home in England, agreed. “It is a lighthearted film,” he says, but hasn’t much of an opinion either way on the advertising. “I just make them and let my personality come out in different ways.”
In fact, he doesn’t really seem to like talking about his films. A thoroughly pleasant and friendly gentleman, he is also modest and reticent to go into detail about the film. But he does have a sense of humor and a sense of pride in his co-stars. “They are very, very good actors,” he explains when I ask about the actors. “I mean, I don’t know. It wasn’t difficult to achieve an ensemble.” Perhaps not. There certainly is an ease that comes across in the little community that Tamara Drewe creates. I guess when you have the career that Stephen Frears has, you don’t feel the need to explain yourself. It’s all there on the screen.
What’s in your DVD player?
“Only Angels Have Wings.” I was asked to talk about Howard Hawks.
“Tamara Drewe” was based on a graphic novel, but understand it ran in the newspaper The Guardian before it was published in graphic novel form.
It ran in The Guardian as a strip, where I remember seeing it, and then it became a book, where I didn’t see it, and then it turned into a film script.
In an interview on the DVD, you said that you had read the strip and enjoyed it, but it was the script that excited you about the project.
I didn’t think you could make a film of it until I read the script.
Stephen Frears directs and Christopher Hampton scripts Cheri (Miramax), a deft adaptation of two Colette novels of love and life in La Belle Epoque Paris (when high society prostitutes were veritable celebrities), but it’s Michael Pfeiffer who brings the film alive as the aging courtesan Lea who makes a business of romance. “This was my only place of business and the customers have all gone,” she sighs while sitting on her bed, a mix of regret and relief and acknowledgment of her fragile power in a culture that reveres youth and beauty. So she reaches out for her own taste of youth through Cheri (Rupert Friend), the callow, decadent, 19-year-old son of a fellow courtesan she takes as a lover in brief affair that lasts six years, until social convention intervenes. It’s a flip on the usual May-December romance and the chemistry of these performers makes it not just believable but almost inevitable: emotionally guarded beauties who inadvertently allow affection into their relationship. Includes “The Making of Cheri” and deleted scenes.
In the opening scene of JCVD, Jean-Claude Van Damme takes out one heavily-armed, vaguely military bad guy after another with his bare hands (and whatever blunt instruments and discarded weapons he grabs along the way) in an elaborately choreographed long take. He comes out the other end huffing and winded as the set falls down around and ruins the take. “It’s hard for me to do it all in one take,” he begs the arrogant, snotty young director. “I’m 47 years old.” And we can see the toll that age, exertion and high-living have taken.
JCVD is an action film where the flamboyant heroics occur only in fantasy. Van Damme’s most daring stunt is a monologue dropped into the middle of the movie, a self-pitying apologia, where he spins his story of a simple Belgian martial arts champ seduced by Hollywood, the naive innocent destroyed by the liars and corrupted by the sudden fame and decadence. It plays like Van Damme’s version of Bela Lugosi’s “Home? I have no home!” speech in Ed Wood’s Bride of the Beast, with Van Damme showing his thespian skills by letting a single tear roll down his cheek up as he rakes over the coals of his screwed-up life. His dramatic muscles are awfully creaky and it’s hard to tell if it’s achingly pretentious, deadpan self-parody or merely Van Damme’s idea of screen test.
But that ambiguity makes the scene so much more interesting and Van Damme is surprisingly engaging as a version of himself who is more vulnerable human being action hero as he tries to survive an armed gang of unraveling personalities. In the real world, he’s more apt to talk than take on a trio of thugs with guns. It’s his first feature in French, his native language. And he manages to maintain self-effacing dignity in the face of director/co-writer Mabrouk El Mechri’s take on his troubled private life. It’s an impressive stunt that pays off in an action film for art movie aficionados and a foreign film for the popcorn crowd. As long as they don’t mind reading subtitles.
I wrote about JCVD for my blog here and for for MSN here.
Deadly Sweet (Cult Epics)
Shot in England by an Italian director with a French leading man and a Swedish sex-doll leading lady (both dubbed into Italian), Deadly Sweet is advertised as a giallo (an Italian horror with cruel and flamboyant murders) but is really a vague murder mystery romp directed as a pop-art object. Jean-Louis Trintignant stars as an out-of-work actor who spots sex-kitten Ewa Aulin at a disco and rushes her out of a murder scene where she’s the prime suspect. As they flee down the steps of the fire escape, the screen shifts into grainy black and white and fragments into split screens and repeated images while the percussion of the metallic march fills the soundtrack. That’s just a taste of the stylistic playroom to come. Tinto Brass went on to a career in soft-core erotic movies (most notably the grotesque Caligula), but here he’s embracing the creative energy and anything-goes culture of sixties cinema and tossing every impulse into the film.
My feature review of the DVD debut of Stephen Frears’ Gumshoe is now up at athe Turner Classic movies website.
Gumshoe (1971), the first feature by Stephen Frears, is an unheralded gem of a film. Part parody, part tribute and all unabashed appreciation of old Hollywood private eye movies and hard-boiled detective fiction, it drops the tough-guy attitude and romantic ideals into the dreary world of 1970s Liverpool. Along these mean streets walks a small-time bingo caller and wannabe stand-up comic who plays private detective for a lark and winds up hired to kill a girl for real.
“I want to write The Maltese Falcon, record ‘Blue Suede Shoes’ and play Las Vegas,” proclaims Eddie Ginley (Albert Finney) to his therapist in the opening scene. He settles for running an ad in the local paper offering his services as a private detective (under the name Sam Spade), a present to himself for his 31st birthday. When he gets a call, he just assumes his buddies are playing along for a laugh, but the package he gets from the mystery client (whom he dubs “The Fat Man” in his best Bogart impression) includes ₤1,000, a picture of a girl and a gun. Eddie’s no tough-guy and he has no illusions otherwise, but he can’t seem to help following the clues and putting the pieces together. Especially after his big brother William (a sneering snob played by Frank Finlay) first warns him off the case and then has him fired from his job at the club. William has clout. All Eddie has is a quick wit and a stubborn streak.
Eddie’s the kind of guy who can’t help but slip into hard-boiled patter (delivered with a touch of Bogie) when the opportunity arises, even if he’s wearing nothing but BVDs and a ratty bathrobe and devouring a bowl of cold cereal between his tough-guy cracks. It’s the kind of touch that makes Eddie Ginley so genuine. Finney plays him as a regular bloke with a non-stop sense of whimsy, a smart retort for occasion and a penchant for narrating his story in the vernacular of an American wise guy.