Florence Foster Jenkins

Celebrate These Actors

An Illusion Review by Joan Ellis

Florence Foster Jenkins

If Florence Foster Jenkins had been made by a lesser cast it might well have made a bad joke of its central character. In the hands of Meryl Streep, Jenkins becomes a complex combination of an endearing passion for music and a dismal inability to sing. The fact that this story is true generates a protective feeling in the audience. How can we laugh at someone whose intentions are so fine? But laugh we do because Streep’s skillful off key singing is genuinely funny and accurate according to historical recordings. At the same time, Jenkins’ honorable intentions and her love of singing opera make us sad. We laugh but we care.

Jenkins was an enormously rich New York heiress whose passion for music led her to support all kinds of deserving musical enterprises. And when that wasn’t enough, she created new ones – her social musical group, her appearances as a comic extra in musicals – all raised money for her cause. Only when she sang her favorite opera solos herself did she become a joke. She was tone deaf. In a protective mode impossible in today’s instant communication, her husband shielded her from the press and public and made sure she performed only to audiences that appreciated her loyalty to New York’s musical world. In 1944 Jenkins achieved her dream of appearing at Carnegie Hall. As grim as that may sound, you will be surprised at what happened.

As we watch Hugh Grant play the protective husband, St. Clair Bayfield, we wonder all the while whether his loyalty is real or given in exchange for his keep. Grant’s performance is shot through with subtleties that keep us guessing. It’s a rich piece of acting from a man we often underestimate.

Because the whole thing was filmed in England and Scotland, a grand handful of British actors make sure we feel the sadness that underlies the comedy. Now add two more standout performances that generate genuine appreciation. One is by Simon Helberg as Cosme McMoon, the young, ambitious pianist Florence hires to accompany her. His behavior, coming straight from the heart, is never selfish, never mean. Another is a comic triumph with a twist by Nina Arianda who plays the up-from-the nightclubs wife of a businessman. As St. Clair’s mistress, Rebecca Ferguson makes St. Clair’s second life understandable.

This is a grand cast that manages to play with our emotions in the best of ways. It is quite a feat to bring an audience to tears of genuine sympathy and in the next moment have them howling with laughter without meanness. Credit director Stephen Frears with guiding these actors to work with great subtlety on a fine script by Nicholas Martin.

It’s hard to imagine anyone but Meryl Streep being able to create – with compassion – this woman who until 1944 wove a world of musical magic in her protected part of New York and then in her dreams became its star.

Film Critic JOAN ELLIS
Film Title : Florence Foster Jenkins
Word count 494
Running time : 1-50
Rating : PG-13
Date : August 21, 2016

 

Captain Fantastic

Good Questions

An Illusion Review by Joan Ellis

Captain Fantastic

Let’s get one thing out of the way. Captain Fantastic is the most inappropriate title of the year and chances are it has kept audiences away from a serious movie that deserves to be seen. If you are a person who loves to explore ideas as a path to growth, you may well be fascinated by this story. If you are a person who instinctively and always wants to defend your own beliefs, you might well be annoyed by some of the extremes it presents.

The story opens in a cavern of green wilderness in the mountains of the Pacific Northwest. A deer is eating leaves in his paradise and we tense immediately at the inevitable. The scene introduces us to Ben (Viggo Mortensen) who is teaching his many children how to feed themselves in the wilderness where they live without contact with people or towns. Writer/director Matt Ross takes just fifteen minutes to sketch their happy family life before getting into complications.

In their time off from their father’s training sessions, the family reads The Brothers Karamazov, Middlemarch, and other books that line their outpost. They are absorbing their education without the distractions that lure so many in the culture that is the nation’s common currency. Though Father Ben is a demanding academic, the family’s down time is full of fun and dancing to the music of two guitars played by Ben and an older son.

With their mother Leslie (Trin Miller) sick in a hospital in New Mexico near her parents and the older boy showing signs of wanting to know a wider world, we see the changes that are about to visit this family. When finally they travel on their bus to their mother’s funeral, we watch them trying to deal with the real world their parents rejected. Look for a characteristically fine performance by Frank Langella as Ben’s father-in-law and fine acting by George MacKay and Nicholas Hamilton as two of the boys who signal change.

If you bring an open mind to both their wilderness world and the culture they were shielded from, you will have a grand time sifting through your own preconceptions. Don’t be put off by Viggo Mortenson’s lapses into exaggeration. That’s his way of putting an exclamation point after his character’s beliefs.

The best part of this story is that there are no villains for us to dislike. That leaves us free to ask ourselves questions. Is it fair to shield our young from what we ourselves dislike most in the society around us? Should one man shape his children’s world in his own image? Is it fair to insist that our way is the right way? Or do we try to instill honesty and respect in the hope they will make wise choices on their own? Isn’t there arrogance in thinking we know what the right way is for all of them? These questions are the movie’s gift to its audiences.

Film Critic : JOAN ELLIS
Film Title : Captain Fantastic
Word count : 497
Running time : 1:58
Rating : R
Date : August 14, 2016