Florence Foster Jenkins is the most unlikely film I can think of. The subject of the film is a rich woman who used her money to benefit the music community in New York -- but what made her memorable was that she decided to resume singing for audiences when she was quite old.
Born soon after the Civil War, Florence was well into her 70s when in 1944 she booked Carnegie Hall, gave free tickets to a thousand soldiers, and offered the remaining tickets for sale.
The soldiers came, because a record Florence recorded for private use -- she gave copies as Christmas gifts to her friends -- had gone out to the public and, through radio airplay, became a novelty hit.
It became a hit because her singing was so astonishingly bad. It wasn't bad the way people without any sense of pitch are bad. She did have an understanding of music; she knew where the notes were, and mostly she reached them, with a voice that had the tone quality of creaking doors.
But sometimes she threw her voice toward a high note, fell a few steps short, and held it anyway, at top volume, forever. Breath support? Oh, she had it!
Meryl Streep plays Florence, and I don't think anyone has ever done a more technically perfect job of singing. Streep exactly duplicates Florence Foster Jenkins's near-adequacy and her grating horribleness. We know how perfectly Streep accomplished this because, after repeated examples of Streep's version of Florence's singing, we are given a bit of that original recording by the real Florence.
Thus we have the evidence: Streep nailed it.
The soldiers who came to that concert were there, drunk and happy, in order to ridicule her when she sang. But the theater audience watching the movie has long since moved past the shock of her bad singing. By the time the film gets to that concert, we have fallen in love with Florence Foster Jenkins, and with her husband, St Clair Bayfield, played by Hugh Grant.
St Clair is a perfectly devoted husband. Because Florence had contracted syphilis from her first husband, St Clair and she had a completely platonic marriage. St Clair found his sexual pleasures elsewhere, but carefully kept all knowledge of it from Florence, because he didn't want to hurt her.
It was that effort not to cause Florence any pain (beyond the crippling damage done to her by syphilis) that shaped St Clair's entire life. Florence's devotion to the New York music community surrounded her with friends -- women of about her age who joined with St Clair in pretending to enjoy Florence's singing.
One might think they were all enablers, that somebody owed Florence the respect of telling her the truth about her awful singing.
But in the process of the movie, we in the audience see how vulnerable Florence is, how hopeful, how kind. We begin to agree with St Clair that nothing should happen that might cause her pain.
This is not a case like Lady Catherine De Bourgh, whose famous line about music in Pride and Prejudice was, more or less, "If I had ever taken up the study of music, I would have been an adept," thus wanting to take credit for achievements she didn't bother to attempt to earn.
Florence Foster Jenkins does study. She applies herself and tries to do everything her voice teacher suggests.
And since her voice teacher is the finest vocal coach in New York City, and he never tells her that she's doing anything very wrong, it is understandable that she makes little improvement. But it's not for lack of trying.
Hugh Grant does a wonderful job of playing the sheltering husband, who feels no qualms about having a longterm mistress in his separate apartment, yet who would say goodbye to her in a heartbeat if forced to choose between her needs and Florence's.
Streep's greatest achievement in this role is not the technical perfection of her production of all the flaws and strengths of Florence's singing. Rather, Streep's real achievement is making this rich, oblivious woman completely endearing. There's an innocence to her vanity; she does not think she's the finest singer, she merely aspires to be.
Because of Streep's delicacy of performance, we find ourselves resenting anyone who does not suppress their laughter when she performs. We want to say: Nobody forced you to come to her performance; if you can't treat her with courtesy, then leave the room.
Thus Streep, Grant, and some of the scoffers set us up for some powerful emotional moments, when unexpected people show loyalty and kindness to Florence.
Good as Streep and Grant are -- and it's not wrong to think of them as top Oscar contenders because of their performances -- the movie is stolen by Simon Helberg as Florence's practice and performance accompanist, a young pianist and composer named Cosmé McMoon.
Nobody warns him about Florence's singing until he's trapped in the room with her and her vocal coach during the first practice session. Guided by St Clair's example, he says and does nothing that would reveal to Florence how appalling her voice is, and on the way out of the building, St Clair -- without ever saying a negative word about his beloved Florence -- makes it clear that Cosmé is being paid, not just to play the piano, but to protect Florence's fragile feelings.
Cosmé's problem is that he is ambitious, and he's afraid that appearing onstage in any venue as Florence's accompanist will taint him forever. That's the trigger for Hugh Grant to deliver a powerful soliloquy about his own decision to abandon his personal ambition as an actor and monologuist in order to devote his life to Florence.
Cosmé isn't quite ready to agree to such a sacrifice -- after all, he's not married to Florence -- but as we watch him suffer the agony of the damned, Simon Helberg does not play for laughs. Instead, he plays Cosmé's dignity and eventual loyalty and tenderness. More than any other actor in the film, Simon Helberg has a transformative character arc, and Helberg brings it off perfectly.
In fact, even though I immediately recognized him as the lustful nebbish Howard Wolowitz from Big Bang Theory, I wasn't sure it was him for a long time -- because he was giving such a real and honest performance. The performers in Big Bang Theory are at about the reality level of Benny Hill or Mr. Bean -- which means they're quite likeable but nobody ever thinks that they represent reality in any way.
But Helberg steps out of the clown show and does a brilliant turn as Cosmé McMoon. The result is that we care about Cosmé almost as much as we do about Florence; perhaps more.
So what could have been a cruel satire on a talentless old woman becomes a beautiful portrait of people who are trying to make the world a better place: Florence, by bringing music to as many people as will receive it, and St Clair and Cosmé by protecting Florence from any more pain and suffering than she has already endured.
Nicholas Martin, the screenwriter, has created a brilliant work of art. All the good performances arise from the fact that the actors are given wonderful things to say, in a story that unfolds with gentle perfection from beginning to end.
This is not a movie for children. Nor can I imagine many teenagers who have the maturity to appreciate it, in large part because few teenagers have experienced parenthood.
Because, in a metaphorical way, Florence Foster Jenkins is a parenting movie: It's about characters who treat Florence with the tender protectiveness that good people normally reserve for children.
So don't watch Florence Foster Jenkins because it'll be a laff riot when she sings so horribly. Watch it because it's a story of love and kindness. A story about decent people behaving decently, being kind to the degree that it is within their power.
And if you go to the movie with such expectations, you will find this film to be beautiful and occasionally quite thrilling. It means nothing that I cried -- these days, I cry at a sensitive reading of the phone book. (If we still had phone books.)
Here's the test this movie passes: The audience -- surprisingly numerous on a Monday night -- did not laugh at Florence's singing. We had all been won over; we wanted everything to go right for her, and it is not funny when other people on the screen laugh at her. It's actually painful. That's how completely our sympathy was captured.
I promise you -- if there is a soundtrack album, you will not want to listen to it twice. But if you watch the movie, you will want to treasure it in your memory.
After the kindness of Florence Foster Jenkins, I shudder at my audacity in reviewing one of the most unkind movies I've ever seen: Street Kings, starring Keanu Reeves in a bleak, depressing, yet excellent police movie.
Keanu Reeves does dark, violent movies very well, mostly by being even more outwardly calm than Clint Eastwood in a spaghetti western. Keanu's John Wick (2014) was a brilliant, nearly perfect revenge story. So I was prepared to watch bad things happen to Keanu as he plays a cop whose former partner is killed in circumstances that could very easily result in Keanu being framed for his murder.
However, Street Kings -- with a script by James Ellroy, Kurt Wimmer, and Jamie Moss -- keeps finding plot twists that make things even worse than you imagined.
Forest Whitaker as Keanu's mentor, captain, and friend; Chris Evans as his nonce partner, the only person he finds that he can trust; and Hugh Laurie as the Internal Affairs detective who seems bent on wrecking Keanu's life and career -- they all give powerful, believable performances that end up on the right side of the line between tragedy and melodrama.
Along the way, we also get first-rate performances from Jay Mohr, Cedric "The Entertainer" Kyles, and Terry Crews. Naomie Harris wins our hearts as the widow of Keanu's ex-partner, and let's face it -- this story is thick with memorable, dangerous characters.
This movie came out in 2008, and I never heard about it at the time. Maybe I saw some promos for it, but they must have blown right past me as "just another cop movie."
But having caught it by chance this past week on a cable channel, rather than deliberately going to a theater to see it, I have to say that Street Kings is the best corrupt-cop movie I've seen. And I'm including the memorable Bad Lieutenant in that, because Street Kings does not get all metaphorical and arty on us the way Bad Lieutenant does.
I think it's a powerful movie, maybe even a great one. Keanu Reeves gives one of his strongest performances, though of course he underplays the part just as he did with John Wick.
Don't watch Street Kings if you're already depressed. Seriously. Don't do it. Or at least watch it with a friend who can cheer you up afterward.
Because this is a film about futility, assuring us that in the great struggle between good and evil, good doesn't have a friggin' chance.
Why do I call him Keanu instead of Reeves? Believe me, I've never met him and we're not on a first-name basis. But when I compose a sentence that refers to him as "Reeves," I find myself thinking of the late Christopher Reeve. I know, the last names differ by that final "s," but I prefer to use Keanu's unique first name in order to avoid my own mental confusion.
When you have both insomnia and cable, you can go through a lot of movies that you wouldn't ordinarily have watched. In fact, you can find yourself flipping back and forth between Law & Order, Law & Order: Criminal Intent, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, CSI: NY, NCIS: Los Angeles -- and still getting hooked on some strange, kind of awful, yet also entertaining movie on HBO.
Here's a case in point: Mr Magorium's Wonder Emporium (2007). Written and directed by Zach Helm, this is the kind of movie that makes you wonder, "How did this guy get hired to write and direct a feature film with a $65 million budget?"
I have no answer. But let me tell you about this strange movie. First of all, it has a kind of amazing cast: Dustin Hoffman as "Mr. Magorium, Avid Shoe-Wearer" and Natalie Portman as "Molly Mahoney, the Composer."
The movie centers around a magical toy store. Mr. Magorium has decided to retire and leave the store to Molly. She doesn't want it; she doesn't think she can keep the magic going.
Meanwhile, connected to all this in some inexplicable way is a young boy named "Eric Applebaum, the Hat Collector" who, as you might guess, wears a lot of different hats. He is played charmingly by Zach Mills, so that you don't actually mind that he seems fairly unconnected to the action, though he might easily be something metaphorical and very important.
What makes this movie so astonishing is that Dustin Hoffman is truly awful. I don't mean awful like Al Pacino in practically everything these days, a parody of his own excesses as an actor. I mean that Dustin Hoffman is trying to be simultaneously cute, fey, and avuncular, a combination required by the script, yet which can only be portrayed if you made the movie twenty years ago and put Gene Wilder in it.
Dustin Hoffman can do many things and has given many fine performances. But he is at his best when he's a little frantic, not when he's "wise" and "cute." You start looking around for an insulin shot or at least an epi-pen whenever he's on the screen. It's a nauseating performance. It's a performance so bad that Hoffman makes Florence Foster Jenkins look like a good singer by comparison.
Now, I really don't get any pleasure from watching an accomplished actor give a trainwreck performance. But this is so bad that it's fascinating -- especially because there is constant contrast with Zach Mills, who really is cute, and with Natalie Portman, who plays her part with complete realism.
They're in three different movies.
Mr. Magorium wanted to be an instant children's classic. Instead, it's just another proof that even great actors can do an abysmal job when they try to perform "for children." Dustin Hoffman's whole performance consists of talking down to the children in the movie and, by extension, the presumed children in the audience.
And yet ... I found myself recording it so I could see the ending after I'd finished watching a couple of episodes of TV reruns. I saw it through to the tragically predictable ending, because whenever Dustin Hoffman wasn't on the screen, the movie was kind of watchable.
And it was late at night and I couldn't sleep anyway.
Another fascinatingly bad big budget movie was Jupiter Ascending (2015). Now, I should have heard of a sci-fi movie that came out only last year, starred Mila Kunis, and had a budget of $176 million. But I didn't. And I can tell you why.
Jupiter Ascending wanted to be as clever and exciting as Guardians of the Galaxy. Instead, it is dumb with a deep and abiding dumbness, with a script that became a black hole into which you can throw an infinite amount of money without ever getting anything back.
Sci-fi movies can be good. Not just popular, but actually good. The trouble is that a lot of filmmakers think that once you have a sci-fi idea, it needs to be made into a movie.
No. It needs to be a good idea.
Here's the idea behind Jupiter Ascending: A young woman named Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis) finds out that because her genes happen to be exactly identical to the genes of the recently slain Queen of the Universe (or some such title), by the law of some alien world, Jupiter Jones is considered to be the rebirth of said dead queen, and she therefore is now queen and owns everything that used to belong to her genetically identical but deceased royal person.
One of the things the queen owned was Earth. That's right, Jupiter Jones finds out that she owns Earth.
Now, the dead queen had two sons, played by Eddie Redmayne and Douglas Booth, and both of them aspire to kidnap Jupiter Jones and either marry her (thus getting control of her possessions, including Earth) or kill her (thus getting control of her possessions, including Earth).
The only thing standing in their way is hero-dude Channing Tatum.
All the actors do their level best to play these characters to the hilt. The script begs for everybody to chew the scenery, and the scenery gets chewed. But to their credit, Channing Tatum and Mila Kunis do a pretty good job of making their characters believable as human beings. They're islands of watchability in an unwatchable wasteland.
But the movie is not. I mean, not for long. You start wishing that something would stop the movie at least for a few minutes. Maybe a commercial with Flo in it. Or the GEICO gecko. Or a long shot of Jon Stewart looking smug. Anything.
It isn't just a matter of the script being based on a stupid idea. Stupid ideas form the basis of movies all the time, and not just in the sci-fi genre.
No, what makes Jupiter Ascending stupid is the same thing that made Cloud Atlas stupid -- the writing-directing team of Lilly and Lana Wachowski. After watching much of Cloud Atlas with horrified fascination, I reached the conclusion that these women (who wrote and directed the Matrix movies as "The Wachowski Brothers") have nobody who can say to them, "Cute, but now go back and think of an actual scene."
They seem to think, in Jupiter Ascending, that they have a kind of Edward Albeeish-family tragicomedy-in-space going on, but they are wrong. Deeply, horribly wrong.
Not only that, but half the movie consists of two long sequences of cutting back and forth between Mila Kunis being manipulated and threatened by the dead queen's boys, while Channing Tatum muscles his way through an obstacle course that barely delays his arrival.
Yeah, that's right. A team of women wrote a script that consists entirely of a really studly guy repeatedly rescuing the same woman. Over and over. Poor helpless Mila Kunis.
But are the Wachowskis a team of women? They started out as guys, and then they both transgendered; from their photos, they chose to become caricatures of women, but hey, they can go to whatever restroom they want, as long as they occasionally touch bases with real human life in the movies they make.
Good actors often get trapped in movies like this because very few actors actually know how to read a script. They scan the script to find out how many scenes they're in and what they get to say and do.
And then, when you have the ultimate self-indulgent writer-director team, it's quite possible that many of the worst aspects of this movie were added to the script after the actors were already trapped.
Every actor in this movie is better than the movie. They give their parts all they've got. The result should have been that Kunis, Tatum, Redmayne, and Booth all got Actor Purple Hearts for giving courageous, credible performances of a humiliatingly bad script. But nobody gives out that award yet, except me.
Yet there is so much money in this movie, and the Wachowskis do a good enough job of directing that, moment by moment, the action is watchable. Absolutely predictable, utterly unbelievable, but watchable, in a slow-motion-replay-of-Joe-Theismann's-leg-break kind of way.
The Matrix was an innovative movie, but the sequels revealed that the writers had no idea what the story was about, and tried to hide their incompetence behind extravagantly, deliberately bad writing.
Cloud Atlas was so bad that it got considered for an Oscar precisely because the nominators couldn't believe anybody could make a movie that appallingly incoherent by accident; therefore it must be art so deep and smart that they couldn't understand it but didn't dare say so.
Between Cloud Atlas and Jupiter Ascending, the Wachowskis have made themselves into an indelible brand name, somewhere between the Ford Edsel and the Ford Pinto.
And yet I can imagine this being a great party movie, where you get together with friends to jeer at the dialogue and throw things at the screen.
on the art and business of science fiction writing.
Over five hours of insight and advice.
Recorded live at Uncle Orson's Writing Class in Greensboro, NC.
Available exclusively at OSCStorycraft.com