FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS (2016)

August 12, 2016

Florence FJ Greetings again from the darkness. Stranger than fiction. No more fitting description can be provided for the true-to-life story of 1940’s New York socialite Florence Foster Jenkins. How else to describe this “opera singer” who performed at Carnegie Hall? Not so unusual you say? Well how about if I add the not-so-minor detail(s) that the lady, simply put, was an atrocious singer … couldn’t carry a note … was apparently tone deaf?

Meryl Streep gamely takes on the titular role, and despite her own finely honed singing voice, manages to spot-on mimic the off-key, yet enthusiastic wailing of FFJ. Beyond that, Ms. Streep captures the spirit and passion and ego that inspired her real life counterpart to pursue her lofty dreams. At her core, FFJ was a tortured soul who overcame syphilis (from her first husband) and the central nervous system challenges brought on by the mercury and arsenic treatments of the era. On the outside, she was a bubbly, eccentric personality who supported the arts and lived life to the fullest.

With inheritances from both her mother and father, Florence received full professional support (and emotional protection) from her common-law husband St Clair Bayfield – played superbly by the seldom seen these days Hugh Grant. Accompanying Florence on stage, and even composing music with her, was her piano player Cosme McMoon, in a scene-stealing performance from Simon Helberg (“The Big Bang Theory”). Also in the mix is Rebecca Ferguson as Bayfield’s mistress … did I mention how strange this story is? Other support work is provided by David Haig as FFJ’s singing coach, and Nina Arianda as … well … an interesting character.

Other than the cast, those responsible for this delightful cinematic experience are director Stephen Frears (Oscar nominated for The Queen and The Grifters), writer Nicholas Martin, and cinematographer Danny Cohen (Room, The King’s Speech). It’s a confounding movie … on the surface quite jovial and light-hearted, while also reaching emotional depths that touch on loyalty, greed, and self-delusion.

The recordings made by Florence are rare collectibles today, and the film does touch on her time as child prodigy who played piano at The White House during the Rutherford B Hayes administration. There are many life lessons here, including pursuing your dreams with a passion, and having the tenacity to overcome obstacles. There is an undeniable underlying sadness to the story, but rather than feel sorry for her, Florence provided the guiding light quote, “People may say I can’t sing, but no one can say I didn’t sing.”

watch the trailer:

 


THE DANISH GIRL (2015)

December 17, 2015

danish girl Greetings again from the darkness. There was a time when movies were cultural trendsetters in such areas as speech, style and behavior. Somewhere along the way, a transition occurred, and these days movies are more a reflection of the times – showing us who we are and focusing mostly on what society focuses on. Oscar winning director Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech) capitalizes on the current movement to mainstream the LGBT community by telling the story of Einar Wegener/Lili Elbe, a transgender from more than 40 years before Dr. Renee Richards, and 75 years before Bruce/Caitlyn Jenner.

Lucida Coxon has adapted the 2000 novel from David Ebershoff, which is a fictionalized version of the 1933 “Man Into Woman” … the personal letters and diaries of Einar/Lili (edited by Niels Hoyer). The film opens in 1926 Copenhagen as successful landscape artist Einar Wegener and his struggling-to-gain-respect portrait artist wife Gerda appear to be happily married and quite attracted to each other. During this segment, Hooper and cinematographer Danny Cohen utilize a somewhat distracting quasi-fisheye lens that distorts most every shot … presumably making the point that this couple’s life is itself distorted. There is no shortage of foreshadowing despite the bohemian artist lifestyle. Einar doesn’t miss a chance to caress the silks and frills as he visits his ballet dancing friend Ulla (Amber Heard), and things escalate quickly once he poses in stockings for one of Gerda’s portraits.

The best and most interesting segment of the film is the middle as Einar begins to explore his Lili persona, and Gerda is diligent in her support … going as far as to encourage her husband to attend a party as Lili (introduced as Einar’s visiting cousin). The public interactions with their friends and acquaintances are a little difficult to accept, though the scenes with her initial male suitor Henrik (Ben Whishaw) make it clear this is a point of no return. Despite this, the times are such that Einar willingly attempts to repress the Lili side, and even visits multiple medical and psychological specialists. It’s this segment that reminds us how quickly the medical profession of the era overreacted by prescribing radiation, electrotherapy, and even by institutionalizing those who were so inclined.

Gerda and Einar/Lili “escape” to Paris, where it becomes obvious that it’s Lily who has been masquerading as Einar, rather than the other way. The duality of Einar/Lily soon dissolves and daily life is filled with lessons … such as a Paris peep show where hand and body movements become part of the transition. Eddie Redmayne (last year’s Oscar winner for The Theory of Everything) gives an extraordinary performance, and is at his best when exploring the subtle nuances of Lili. It’s crucial to note that while Redmayne’s performance is a physical marvel, it’s Alicia Vikander (A Royal Affair, Ex Machina) as Gerda who provides the real heart and soul of the story. Though the film glosses over some traits of the real life Gerda, Ms. Vikander is stunning in more than a few scenes, which in the hands of a lesser actress, could have proved cringe-inducing.

Adding some depth in limited roles are Matthias Schoenaerts (Rust and Bone) as Hans, Einar’s childhood friend all grown up, and Sebastian Koch (The Lives of Others) as the pioneering doctor who performs the sex reassignment surgeries that physically transition Einar into Lili. Even with the strong supporting cast, there is no mistaking this as anything other than a film that belongs to Mr. Redmayne and Ms. Vikander.

Director Hooper takes a very conventional approach to an unconventional story, and this “safe” direction seems designed to make the uncomfortable story more palatable for mainstream audiences (similar to how Brokeback Mountain handled homosexuality). However, don’t mistake this for Tootsie or Mrs. Doubtfire. There are two serious stories here: the struggles of one person’s identity, and the corresponding challenges of a married couple. Hooper’s style is by no means cutting edge, but does feature one of the best lines of the year … “I’ve only liked a handful of people in my life, and you’ve been two of them.” This story has bounced around the movie world for awhile, and for many years was rumored to have Nicole Kidman in the Einar/Lili role. Your imagination can determine if that would have made for a better fit.

watch the trailer: