Mary Poppins Returns

For a nostalgia junkie like me, this premise was catnip, with a potential for disaster. The original “Mary Poppins” is one of the pivotal films of my childhood.  It was the one movie that I distinctly remember my grandmother taking me to. I also recall listening to the soundtrack with my friend Kathy Callen and singing the words from the songs, because in those days there was no home video, we relived the movie through the music. So I wanted to revisit the characters and the setting of the movie, but there is always trepidation when a sequel comes along, especially when it if fifty plus years later. As things worked out, we are all in good hands. Rob Marshall has made a career out of bringing musicals to the screen and this original story with new songs fills our expectations in a number of ways.

The first thing the movie gets right is the tone of the story. There is some melancholy over a Mother who has passed, a family on the brink of financial ruin, and some grown ups who have forgotten what it is to be imaginative. Jane and Michael Banks are all grown up and face some adult problems, and Mary Poppins is really there for them. Michael’s children are doing their best to be mature in the face of their family upheavals, but it is taking a massive toll on their childhood. When Mary Poppins drops out of the sky and into their lives, they are not being given a chance to grow up, but rather, to enjoy a childhood they might lose. OK, that’s the serious part and it fades into the background quickly to give the main focus of the film full range. This movie is a visual confection, designed to entertain us with old fashioned story telling and traditional film making. An occasional boost from computer technology is present, but you never get the idea that this is a series of ones and zeros being manipulated to show us something that can’t possibly be there. I know that the London Clock Tower was not used an actual location, but because so much of the film relies on studio backstreets and real sets, the magic sells much more readily. Kites and Umbrellas are real, so it’s OK that the Dance Hall is a digital fabrication.

There is a nice chunk of the story told in animation, and it was such a pleasure to see traditional two dimensional line drawings and cartoon characters. Shamus the Coachman and Clyde the Horse are refreshingly old fashioned characters that look like they could have been part of the original film. They also lack the irony that so many comic moments in a contemporary film comedy would require. If we had just had the animation section of the movie, this would be a delight. Mary and Jack, dance and cavort with penguins and a variety of other critters in a show piece dance number that is all flash and fun. The cotton candy the children are indulging in while watching is exactly what I felt like I was consuming. Something sweet, light and airy, and it was utterly delicious. If there are critics of this film ( and I know there will be), I suspect one of their complaints will be how this movie mines the beats of the first film, in much the way “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” copied the original. There is an extended animated sequence as noted, there is also a visit to an eccentric relative of Mary Poppins to try to address a problem and a light-hearted comic sequence ensues. We don’t have chimney sweeps, but we do get lamplighters who also wear dark vestments and dance on high with props, in ths case, bicycles rather than brooms. Instead of the suffragette that the original Mrs. Banks was, Jane is some kind of labor organizer. Thankfully, just as in the original, we are spared that as backstory and it is simply a characteristic to add color to the character.

Lin-Manuel Miranda is a suitable performer for this film, he has talent and charisma enough to hold the screen when it is his. I was very much surprised to notice that this talented, Tony Award winning, Academy Award Nominated songwriter, contributed only his voice to the songs featured in the film. If I have any reservations about the movie it is that the songs are serviceable and nice but not memorable. There is nothing equivalent to “Chim Chim Cher-ee” or “Feed the Birds” or”Supercalifragalisticexpealidocious”.  Maybe with subsequent viewings, “Trip a Little Light Fantastic” and “A Cover is not the Book” could in fact be hum-able and repeated, but it is a little too early to tell.

The not so secret weapon of this movie is Emily Blunt as Mary Poppins. Whatever vocal skills she has, and they are considerable, she could hardly match Julie Andrews, so she doesn’t really need to try. She adds a different characteristic to the film. Mary’s flintiness falls away on a regular basis and she enthusiastically engages in the nonsense songs as joyfully as the children or Jack, the character played by Miranda. She sings beautifully and she dances with vigor and she looks the part the whole time. Mary Poppins is not the emotional center of the film, she is the initiator and reflector of the emotions that are being felt by others and Blunt is quietly and forcefully in control, even when she acts out. I thought she was fantastic in “A Quiet Place” earlier this year, this is a completely different performance but it is just as noteworthy. She may end up competing with herself in the Awards season.

The movie is also filled with other performers who manage to get a little extra into the movie. Meryl Streep doesn’t really need to be here but she worked with Marshall before and she is in this just long enough and not any more. Angela Lansbury and Julie Walters also add a bit of English charm to the story. Walters is amusing and Lansbury is just the right light touch at the end of the movie. Colin Firth has only a couple of scenes where he twirls his mustache and tries to look like Walt Disney himself.  The most amazing element in the supporting cast however is Dick Van Dyke, playing the older version of a different character from the first film. He has one scene and the ninety three year old, dances and sings like it was still 1964. He has a thousand watt smile that is the perfect cherry on the top of this dessert.

If you are a cynic, a hipster, or someone who thinks films need to promote a social justice agenda, there is not really anything here for you. However, if you are a child at heart, or the parent of children, or you want to feel like a child again, then this is right where you want to be. This is a holiday entertainment that will please families and leave you with a song in your heart, although the lyrics might not be there as well.

Mama Mia! Here We Go Again

Maybe it’s because I am a child of the Seventies, or that I have always loved movies with singing, or just that it is Summer-time, but I thoroughly enjoyed “Mama Mia !”, and now I will repeat that experience with the totally unnecessary but still fun sequel. “Mama Mia! Here We Go Again” has no depth, it is frequently campy beyond description and there are some songs that just don’t do much for you. So What? It is also visually inventive and gorgeous to look at, it has a two to one ratio of good ABBA songs to mediocre ABBA songs, and it is full of pretty people who all look like they are having a blast making fools of themselves.

The  marketing department that choose to release this in the middle of the summer, probably will re responsible for half the take at the box office. This is a movie that works because it is so light and insubstantial that your head will not hurt from trying to think about plot lines or what dialogue you should be paying attention to. Like a revue show on the Vegas stage, or an RKO or MGM musical from the golden age, this film story makes little sense and doesn’t matter. What you really want is to hear the songs and see the choreography. There are a few repeats from the first film of musical selections but the staging is all new and there were plenty of ABBA songs to fill out a second film, although some of them are justifiably obscure.

Once again the setting is primarily in the seas off of Croatia, and the landscape is spectacular. Anyone who has every taken a vacation somewhere and asked themselves when they were leaving the location, “How could I live here, what can I do to make that happen?, knows how the beauty of a place can transfix you. On film, you can also control the lighting and angles to make it even more attractive, and so this production does. Now to insure that people will really like what they are seeing, you fill the movie with lovely young women, who have romantic crushes and flings with handsome young men. When you race forward to present day, the young women and men are now old but they are vibrant and handsome in their advanced states.  Lily James and Amanda Seyfried are glowing, longhaired blonde pixie dream girls. They may lack the requisite mania to make the characters the stock issue in other films, but their smiles and enthusiastic singing are the stuff of summer romances. The young men who are cast as the youthful counterparts to Pierce Brosnon, Stellan Starsgard and Colin Firth, are effectively familiar and they carry most of the load when it comes to singing, so we only get snatches from their less tuneful older versions.

Director Ol Parker makes the film flow smoothly with inventive staging that frequently suggests his theatrical roots. As we bounce back and forth from 1979 to today, there are transitions using back to back walls, images appearing in mirrors and actions that begin with one set of characters but finish with the other set. Maybe they are not completely new inventions but they work well at moving things along and keeping the energy of the story from lagging too much. Anthony Van Laast put the dance sequences together in a vigorous manner that may lack the grace of a Busby Berkley extravaganza, but is compensated for by the diverse chorus of dancers who are not all 20 something models. Even the geezers in the cast look like they can dance a little, and if not, they look like they are having fun trying.

Meryl Streep who crooned her way through the starring role in the original film, appears in only one number near the end and then in the end credits. Lily James does the heavy lifting as the young version of the slightly promiscuous Donna. It is a bit of a leap when Meryl does come in because her Donna is definitely a different version of the character she and Lily are playing. Andy Garcia has become a go to older romantic lead, following his earlier turn this year in “Book Club“, another film to appeal to the geriatric set. Finally, Cher shows up and makes a movie star sort of impression with a minimal amount of screen time. She has one song that she chers [shares, ha ha] with Garcia and then sings in the ensemble closing credits.

If you were seeing this as a revue on stage, you would clap along and sing the chorus and when the finale shows up you’d stand up and boogie in place. The demographics on this film will definitely skew over thirty and female. At an 11am screening on a Friday, the theater was packed…with walkers, wheel chairs and canes. Forget your age, and your dignity. Don’t pay any attention to the usual standards that you might apply to a movie. This is a little like the song lyric from the 1990s, “Disco lemonade”. Have a cool drink on a warm summer day and dream of “sex and candy”.

AMC Best Picture Showcase Day 2

So just a few random thoughts on the Best Picture Selections this year. Last week we watched two films with Lucas Hedges back to back. He was in “Lady Bird” and “Three Billboards”. Timothée Chalamet was in “Lady Bird” and today’s “Call Me By Your Name”.  Nick Searcy was in “Three Billboards” and “The Shape of Water”. Today we had Bradley Whitford in back to back “The Post” and “Get Out”. Finally Michael Stuhlbarg was in “The Shape of Water, “Call Me By Your Name” and “The Post”. These actors have got to have great agents to get into the top pictures of the year not just once, but two and three times.

“Phantom Thread” and “The Post” were the two films I needed to catch up on, and while I admired them both, I don’t see either of them as a likely winner in the big category. “Phantom Thread” lacks anybody likable in the cast of characters, and “The Post” is so traditional that it won this award two years ago when it was called “Spotlight”.

Speaking of actors who appeared back to back in some of the films on the program, we had a historical event do exactly the same thing. “Dunkirk” was followed by “Darkest Hour” and it was almost as if Joe Wright’s film was just another segment of the Christopher Nolan film. It’s Title Card would read Parliament: Two Weeks.

I feel confident in my choice of “Dunkirk” as the best film of last year but I am not at all confident that the Academy will go along with me. 

Dunkirk   Christopher Nolan’s film was the most visually impressive, forward moving, and meaningful film of the lot. Listening to the score and watching how he masterfully integrated three separate time lines into a single narrative with clever overlaps and great timing, I know that this was the best directing job this year. Nothing against Guillermo Del Toro, but this complex story, logistical nightmare and historical memorial is simple better constructed than the odd fish love story. This is a film that tells a real historical story that will last long after the fashion of the fairy tale set in a mythological era in U.S. history, is a charming oddity. 

Some people complain that the characters here are not well developed, that is true. This however is not a character piece but a prism on the events that were taking place during a military disaster that became a turning point in a manner that was most unexpected. 

Darkest Hour  This film was even stronger the second time I saw it. The first viewing I was overpowered by Gary Oldman’s performance. He will surely be the winner in the acting category. I admired the film before but I have come to really respect it on this second encounter. Joe Wright manages to make a tale of political intrigue into a fascinating study of a character and the country who’s character he came to represent for the duration of the war. The one clumsy moment is a scene set in an underground train car. The only reason it is clumsy is that it feels so distinct from everything else, like a deliberate movie moment. That shows that the rest of the movie does exist as something more than the typical fare.  But even that scene works emotionally because it bespeaks of a real sense of what the British people felt at the time. 

Call Me By Your Name  I am being a little facetious when I say this film is a pain in the neck. That’s because in the first half I went to sleep and got a crick that is staining my muscles still. My least favorite of the nominees, this film is slow moving, meandering and confounding. I felt like I was listening to a play frequently, with dialogue written eloquently but sounding artificial. A couple of podcasters that I listen to love this film and especially the sequence with Michael Stuhlbarg as the father of Elio, consoling his son on the “special” friendship he had with Oliver. It ends on s deliberately false note when the Dad tells his son that he doesn’t think that Mom knows about the nature of their friendship. The mom had just picked up a near weeping Elio at the train station and she dropped hints for the previous hour that she knew how special Elio thought Oliver was. When Mr. Perlman says he never had a relationship with anyone like Elio had with Oliver, we can believe him because he so obtusely ignores how insightful his wife is. This will probably win the Screenplay Award, and it shouldn’t, if it takes the big prize I might yell loud enough to ruin my voice for a month.  

The Post  So this was the one new film we saw on day two. This has the phrase “Oscar Bait” pasted all over it. It features Tom Hanks, Meryl Streep, a ton of high end supporting players and it was directed by Steven Spielberg. The subject matter concerns the fight of the press against preemptive shut down of news publication. It is a first amendment issue that was understandably important, yet at the same time it ignores some pretty egregious behavior. We can always applaud someone after the fact when their actions seem just and there was no blow-back,  but there were issues regarding the acquisition of the Pentagon Papers that probably still need to be discussed.  Spielberg and co-screenwriters Josh Singer and Liz Hannah, manage to make a bureaucratic legal process look and sound like a courtroom drama with some mystery tied in.  Singer in particular is working on familiar ground since he won an Academy Award two years ago for a very similarly structured newspaper story “Spotlight”.

This is supposed to be a resistance film, about the Media vs. the President in a time when everyone wants to be standing up to the current administration. The parallels are not really there to give this much resonance. This is a two hour commercial for the Washington Post and the heavy handed feminist slant in some of the visuals makes it feel too much like a lecture at times. That said, it is well made and the John Williams score is excellent as usual. Because “Bridge of Spies” and “Spotlight” are just a couple of years old however, this feels like it is old territory and not quite as distinctive as it needs to be. 

Get Out  This one is the outlier. You rarely get a horror film nominated for Best Picture, but if you do, it is usually more of a big budget film. This Jordan Peele written and directed film seemed to come in under the radar, it made a huge splash, and it is getting some end of the year accolades. The intersectionality of this film is in keeping with all the film buffs who are much more woke than I am. I just enjoyed the twist and the characters in the film. Rod from TSA is a saving grace that adds more straightforward humor to the mix. Instead of a haunted house we get a upscale suburban plantation. The need for subtlety on the race subject is probably eliminated by the DNA of the movie. Being an outsider in an nearly all white environment makes Chris, our lead character played by nominated actor Daniel Kaluuya, mildly uncomfortable but also keenly aware of how different the culture he is visiting is. 

While most people will consider the “Sunken Place” to be the most horrifying image in the film, to me it is the silent auction with bingo cards. We still don’t know what is going on, but the suggestion is truly awful. Seeing it for a second time, I could pay more attention to some of the interesting choices that were made. Grandma and  Grandpa are certainly clever twists, although it seems strange that for the duration of Chris being a guest, the force required to hold those characters would be counter-intuitive to the actual plan. The creepy factor also takes Chris a little too long to respond to. His buddy is right, and he should be listening to him sooner. There is an outside chance this could take the award, the voting system gives weight to the number of ballots a film appears on, and this would be a popular ad to the list but not necessarily high on the list. Should it when I expect to see some “Get Out” Memes that mine the fertile teen speak use of the terminology. 

As an aside, let me rant about the misquotes being used to decorate the entry way to the theater. Both “Cool Hand Luke” and “Jaws” are misquoted in the floor below. 

TCM Film Festival Day 4

Sunday mornings in Hollywood are a quiet time most weeks, but when the TCM Film Festival is in town, the pace gets quicker on the last day and it starts early.

Cock of the Air (1931)

This was a Howard Hughes production and it was pre-code so it is definitely a little racy for the time. Although mild by today’s standards, this film must have had tongues wagging with it’s story of a flirtatious aviator and a French Opera singer. The fact that the Opera singer is given a medal for moving away from Paris, where she is a distraction to too many officers, let’s you know that this is not a chaste figure making a sacrifice for her country.

The dialogue is full of innuendo and then there are the stars costumes. They leave little of her decolletage to the imagination. The Hayes office forced 12 minutes of cuts in the film and it was thought that they were gone for good but a decade ago, the Motion Picture Academy discovered an uncensored print that lacked a soundtrack. Using the existing material and a copy of the script, four actors dub in the lines from the scenes that were previously cut. In the screening we saw, the sections that had been cut were identifiable by an icon on the screen that came and went as the story played out.

It was a fascinating experience to see the restored film in excellent shape, but even more so with the “lost” material reinserted and the censors cuts clearly indicated.

The film has a contentious romance at it’s heart but there is also a lot of humor built into the story. There is not really much in the way of battle action but there are a few flying scenes and the bedroom farce sections will keep you in stitches.

Lured (1947)

It’s completely normal to think of Lucille Ball as a television star. That is where she ultimately made her biggest mark, but she also starred in over 70 features and she was sometimes thought of as the Queen of the Bs of her era. This film is a noir inspired melodrama featuring a serial killer, dance hall girls, the personal columns and George Sanders. It is directed by 50s favorite Douglas Sirk, but features the glorious black and white of the late 40s noir films rather than the technicolor of “Magnificent Obsession” or “All that Heaven Allows”.

Lucy is an American actress, stranded in London trying to make ends meet as a hostess in a dancehall. Her friend disappears and Scotland yard uses her to try and bait a serial killer who has been sending poetry inspired by a disturbed bard. It is interesting to see that the procedural of using a profile of a killer has been around a lot longer than “The Silence of the Lambs”.  Working as a police undercover agent, Ball encounters suspects and falls in love with the stylish and snobby George Sanders. Sanders turns out to be a suspect as well. complicating the romance. The use of the personal ads and the cop falling for a suspect reminds me of the Al Pacino movie, “Sea of Love”.

For a film that ultimately relies on suspense, there is a lot of humor and fluff. Balancing a romance with a serial killer story is awkward. Boris Karloff is another suspect, and at first he is played as a bit of a comic character but it does turn dark pretty quickly. I know that I have seen Cedric Hardwicke in movies before, but it is only days later that I realized he played the Pharo in “The Ten Commandments”, I should have made that connection sooner. Charles Couburn as the head of Scotland Yard’s team investigating the murders, makes no attempt to do an English accent, he gets by on his general charm and old man wisdom. Alan Napier was in “The Court Jester” yesterday and interestingly enough is Detective Gordon in this movie. I say interesting because that’s one step away from a part that he did not have in his most famous role. He was Alfred in the 1960s Batman, and there he just answered the”bat phone” when Commissioner Gordon called.

Boris Karloff’s daughter Sara was in attendee and she told a few stories about her father who was featured in this film.

Postcards From the Edge (1990)

Just as Robert Osborne’s death hung over the Festival which was dedicated to him, the double whammy of Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds was also heavy on many film lovers minds. There were two films being screened to honor the Mother/Daughter tandem that we lost in December. “Singin’ in the Rain” was in the big house at Grauman’s but we had been to a screening in January so chose instead to see the Roman à clef  “Postcards from the Edge”, screenplay by Carrie Fisher. Although Fisher denied that it was based on her relationship with her own mother, the parallels are to obvious to ignore.

Meryl Streep first sang on screen not in “Mama Mia” or “Into the Woods” or “Ricki and the Flash”, but rather in this film, where she plays the drug abusing actress daughter of a famous old time Hollywood singer Actress, played by Shirley MacLaine. There are a lot of Hollywood inside jokes, including a running story line concern the casual mating behaviors of people in the film business. The movie is littered with a variety of well known actors in brief parts including Rob Reiner, Gene Hackman, Richard Dreyfess, Dennis Quaid, and in one last minor role before she broke out into stardom later in this year Annette Bening.

I can’t say that there is a strong narrative but I can say that the two leads were great in their parts. You can see under the brash enthusiasm of MacLaine’s character to her more vulnerable parts. As usual, Streep is excellent and she is called on to do several district moods. She plays it straight when acting in a not very good film, she is angry as the casual lover betrayed by her own casualness, and she is frightened by the stupidity of her own choices when it comes to drug use. I thought her best moments were with Director Hackman as he tries to be honest with her and rescue her career at the same time.

This was the second Mike Nichols film we saw at the festival. It is not a work as assured and ground breaking as “The Graduate” but it was typical of the kinds of comedic dramas he would specialize in most of his later career.

What’s Up Doc? (1972)

We left the screening of “Postcards” before the guests, Todd Fisher and Richard Dreyfess came out, because scheduling was tight and we wanted to get in to see this second Peter Bogdanovich film. Amanda had seen the bleak but moving “Last Picture Show” the day before, and this was an opportunity to cut loose and see what else he can do. From one year to the next it is hard to imagine a bigger shift in tone that this revival of the screwball comedy, featuring Barbara Streisand and Ryan O’Neal.

Streisand has the role that in the 1930s would have been played by Katherine Hepburn or in the 1940s by Barbara Stanwyk. She is a slightly nutty misfit with a huge pool of knowledge on the tip of her tongue because she has been thrown out of so many colleges and so many majors. She latches onto O’Neal as a cute professor of Musicology with an interesting theory of music and rocks. His fiance introduces us to Madeline Kahn, in her first film role where she steals the whole picture. Kahn is the dowdy and dominating woman that runs the life of the absent minded O’Neal and Streisand is jsut the ticket to relieve him of that burden.

Throw in four identical suitcases with stolen jewellery, secret government information, rock specimens and clothes and underwear and you are all set for the kind of slapstick and mistaken identity that made those films of an earlier era so fun. There is literally a gag with people going in and out of hotel room doors that looks like it could have been cribbed from a Marx Brothers film.  Like most of those older films, this movie has scene stealing character actors and wild shifts in momentum. The last section of the movie features an astounding chase through the streets of San Francisco, on foot, bike and in cars. “Bullit” looks simple by comparison.

 Bogdanovich appeared before the film to talk about the actors and the process of getting the movie made. He seemed to have clearly understood that if he wanted to have the ability to wok in different genres, he need to get to direct this film. This was also a film written in part by Buck Henry, who had been the guest the night before for “The Graduate”.

Speedy (1928)

We finished the festival with a silent film from Harold Lloyd. Along with Keaton and Chaplin, Lloyd is one of the cornerstones of not just silent films but comedy films specifically. This version of the film is apparently widely available but this screening had something extra special to recommend it. It was to be accompanied by a live orchestra playing original music for the film.

The Alloy Orchestra is really a four piece ensemble and they follow the action closely throughout the film. Sprinkled in the score are familiar motifs relating to baseball and carnivals, which are both featured in the story. A feckless young man with great confidence, goes from job to job, trying to impress the parents of the girl he is in love with. His failure as a soda jerk or cab driver is incidental to the wild moments he encounters on the streets of New York and Coney Island.

The film narrative is slight but there are dozens of visual gags and the actors do a nice job playing sweethearts who are unaffected by the upheaval that surrounds them. In the end, the young man saves the day for his future father-in-law, but he ruins a suit and Babe Ruth’s day along the way.  Suzanne Lloyd, Harold’s Granddaughter and keeper of his legacy was present to reminisce with film historian and critic Leonard Maltin.

If you want to see what NYC looked like nearly a century ago, this movie will give you an extensive tour and make you long for the days when Coney Island served cotton candy in paper sacks.

Florence Foster Jenkins

A few months ago on a podcast that I listen to, one of the guests had a rant about some of the crappy films she saw on the horizon. Chief among them was this Meryl Streep starring vehicle. Based only on the trailer the podcast guest dismissed it as Oscar bait not worthy of even thinking about. Now I have never been put off by the fact that someone has an opinion, but it seemed a bit harsh at the time, even though the film did not strike me as something I felt I must see. I understand the sentiment, after all it does look like it is this years entry in the Streep slot for an Academy Award. The movie does come from director Steven Frears who has often been associated with some highbrow films that look like they are seeking attention, the thing is though, they usually deserve the attention. This film is no exception.

Had I listened to the advise of this blogger/critic I might have skipped over this film, as it is, that would have been a mistake. This movie has a lot going for it, especially the heart of the story which is very well told and entertaining as heck. Let’s start with the elephant in the room, the star. We know that Meryl Streep can sing. “Ricki and the Flash“, “Into the Woods” and “Mama Mia” have established that. So in a sense this film is the real acting challenge because Florence Foster Jenkins apparently could not sing. Streep is very convincing as the music lover with flat pitch and sight blinded by desire. It appears that much of the story here is true although substantially adapted to make a comedic-drama work on film. Maybe some of you will be familiar with the story of Mrs. Miller, an amateur singer who had success as a novelty recording artist in the 1960s. “Florence Foster Jenkins was her progenitor.

The real strength of the film however in in the performance of Hugh Grant, who reportedly came out of semi-retirement to work with Streep. As Jenkins husband St Clair Bayfield, he is his usual foppish English type but with a great deal of heart and wherewithal . At one point in the story it appears he is a cad, but as the film unwinds we learn that love is not always the thing that we define it as. Notorious for mugging on camera, Grant is more realistic in his facial expressions and more tender in his vocalizations than you have probably seen before. I have always been a fan of his but not necessarily because his acting was excellent but because he was well cast and charming. Today he impressed me as a thespian and I’m sorry to say that a film like this will generate more critical attention for the leading lady than for the gentleman.

Simon Helberg, from “The Big Bang Theory” is much more the traditional comic relief. As Cosmé McMoon, her pianist accompanist, he gets several chances to visualize the absurdity of what is passing for music. His performance is much quieter than you will see in the television series and there is more substance to it. One of the things that this movie does is imbue it’s characters with real heart and Helberg has several scenes where his performance adds immeasurably to our acceptance of what is happening. Actress Nina Arianda is not a person I was familiar with, but she puts a lot of gusto in her role as Agnes Stark. She is a character that you might quickly dislike, but in the end she becomes a interesting champion for the music lovers that turn a deaf ear to our tone deaf heroine.

Maybe one of the reasons the film works for me is the setting. NYC in the period of WWII is maybe the most romantic time I can think of in American History. The modern aesthetic of clothes, architecture, music and culture are seemingly so perfectly balanced at this point. Any time perion that we ourselves have not lived through can be made to seem romantic, and the taxicabs, concert halls and dining rooms of hotels all look great in the set design of this movie. I know that Liverpool stood in for the streets of New York in several scenes, and that might seem odd except that Liverpool has sustained the look of that time period whereas NY has moved on, so in the end it works quite well.

Another reason I find the story compelling may be an addition made by screenwriter Nicholas Martin. In the film, one of the things that motivates Florence Foster Jenkins is her sympathy for American Servicemen during the war. As the character quotes Beethoven at one point  “Wrong notes are of little consequence, but to play without passion is inexcusable”, Florence Foster Jenkins represents the kind of passion, for music and in the one case in the film, the military, that makes Beethoven’s reported words real.

I am surprised as anyone at how much I enjoyed this film. I know I never had any hipster cred to lose anyway, but I suppose now my application for official hipster status will be automatically rejected in the future. I thought this was a sentimental and warm story, told with a great deal of humor and excellent performances from the leads. The movie looks grand and the director moves it along quite well without necessarily showing off. I’m glad to say that I “passionately” endorse this film, regardless of what my expectations might have been.

Ricki and the Flash

This will be brief because there is not much to say about the film. It is not particularly deep, the story goes exactly where you expect it to, and there was not anything outstanding in the way the film is put together. As I said to my companions afterwards, “There is a reason this is playing in August and not November”. Normally, Meryl Streep would be a magnet to draw some attention for a film, but she gives one of the least effective performances I’ve seen her do. She is not bad, but there is nothing special about her work except that she looks like she managed to learn to play some guitar.

The elements of the film that I thought were worthy include Ricki’s confrontation with the step-mother of her now adult children. Both Meryl and Audra MacDonald sold this scene with understated fury and resentment. That’s about as far as any fireworks there are in the movie. Rick Springfield not only holds his own with Marvelous Meryl, but seems to be more of a real character than her weary and frayed Rock wannabe. There was also some effective lampooning of “Whole Foods” market and weddings planned by environmental citizens. Both subject provided a couple of chuckles in the film.

Kevin Kline is largely wasted as Ricki’s ex husband. His character comes across as ineffectual and mostly there to make the phone call that brings Ricki back to the family she is estranged from. Mamie Gummer looks like she could be Meryl’s daughter (oh wait, she is, good casting), she should have had a lot more to do in the story since her character is the principle engine that drives the premise of family reunion. She has one scene where she is a complete bitch, and then two scenes where she is silently a needy child again. Because the story is so conventional, she has nowhere to go.

The music in the film is fine. It largely plays to the older audience that the movie seems to be targeted at. There are a lot of stage performance sequences and they sound competent. Rick Springfield and the other guys are professional musicians so that makes sense. Ricki never made the big time, but you can see that she loves the music. I’m not sure why it was necessary to have everyone at the weddding climax of the film act as if she had a social disease. The awkwardness that some of the scenes create is artificial because the extras and the rest of the cast are directed to be dumbfounded by her presence and actions, and we can’t tell why they would feel that way.

You can tell that there was just not as much here as there ought to be by looking at the lazy poster. Photoshopped Meryl and a tagline that tells you almost nothing.This is a very average movie that is not embarrassing but not something you would ever want to see a second time. I did not dislike it as much as I remained mostly indifferent to it. The screenwriter Diablo Cody did give us a couple of good lines. I liked the philosophy that it’s not your kids job to love you, it’s your job to love your kids. Had there been a little bit more of the family dynamic and a little bit less concert footage, the film would be better, but still not a great movie, just one that would be more worthy.