August 14, 2016
When my son, Christian, told me last July that Meryl Streep would play Florence Foster Jenkins in a movie, my first hope was that the filmmakers would not ridicule Mrs. Jenkins, who would be an easy mark.
I first learned about Florence Foster Jenkins when I reviewed a regional production of Steven Temperley’s play, Souvenir, which recounts the unorthodox singer’s career.
Mrs. Jenkins, who had had several disappointments in her life, inherited a fortune and used her wealth to break into New York society as a significant patron of the arts. She thought of herself as a talented classical singer—whereas in reality she had no sense of tone or pitch—and gave private recitals to controlled audiences that would not tell her the truth. Her ambition exceeded her grasp, however, when she decided to give a public performance at Carnegie Hall.
Some dismiss Mrs. Jenkins as a fool, but others see in her a certain heroism, and her belief in herself may rise to that level when it is viewed in the whole context of her life, including her seriously compromised health.
Anyway, Pat and I saw the Meryl Streep film and found that there was no need to worry. While the filmmakers depart from the facts in that compulsive way that they have, the movie is a fair representation of the woman’s life and, most important, it treats her kindly.
My earlier blog about Florence Foster Jenkins is at THIS LINK.
March 20, 2016
Bob Costas tells a story about having dinner with Mickey Mantle and thinking it odd that Mantle asked for a doggie bag when the meal was through. When they left the restaurant, Mantle asked Costas to take a walk with him. At a certain point, Mantle stopped and knocked on a big cardboard box where a homeless man was sleeping. The man emerged, appeared startled and afraid at first, but then recognized his visitor and said, “Oh, hi Mick.” Mantle gave the man the doggie bag, and Costas reasoned from the manner of the exchange that this was not the first time this had happened.
Since Bob Costas told this story, I assume it is true. And if it is, it means that whatever problems Mantle had—and he had more than his share—he had the grace to look at a homeless man rather than avert his gaze, rather than pretend not to see the evidence of neglect and indifference lying at his feet.
The neglect and indifference with which much of society regards the homeless is the underlying truth of Time Out of Mind, a 2014 film starring Richard Gere and Ben Vereen. Gere plays a man named George who, although he denies it—claiming to be in some transitional state of life—is homeless. He has no prospects and no identification, and at times he seems disoriented. When he is able to scrape together a few bucks, say by selling his coat, he uses it to buy a six pack of beer which he quickly consumes. His wife has died, and his daughter, who tends bar in a New York tavern, wants nothing to do with him. George finally resorts to a shelter where he meets Dixon (Ben Vereen), a self-described jazz pianist, who talks almost incessantly and acts like a conscience, a kind of Jiminy Cricket, to George.
The movie is almost without a plot, except for George’s effort to re-establish a relationship with his daughter. Time Out of Mind was written and directed by Oren Moverman and provocatively filmed in Manhattan. There are many scenes in which there is no dialogue, scenes that are mostly a study of how a man who has lost all ties to the world around him can be completely alone among millions of people. There are long, brooding shots, many of them from unconventional angles. There is no background music, only the sounds that sweep over and around George as a world busy with its own affairs goes on as though he were not there. “We don’t exist,” he tells Dixon.
It is a disconcerting film in the same way that the homeless men and women in New York and other cities are disconcerting reminders of the failures of our society, our institutions, and our economy. This film, which Gere’s production company developed, has made no money, and I read on the IMDb web site that twenty people walked out when the movie was screened at the Toronto International Film Festival. Maybe that says as much about them as it does about the film.
February 15, 2016
Lucy Mangan, writing in The Guardian, had this to say about the film Esio Trot: “Just watch it. Once a week, I’d recommend, for the rest of your life.”
Some may think that suggestion is excessive, but it certainly heightened my curiosity, which had already been aroused by the fact that this BBC television movie co-stars Judi Dench and Dustin Hoffman. This movie, based on a children’s novel by Roald Dahl, first appeared on British TV in 2014 and still hasn’t been released in the United States. Nor is it available in a DVD format that will play on most American devices. But I poked around on the Internet long enough to find that the movie is available at THIS LINK. You can click on “CC” at the lower right to turn off the Dutch subtitles.
Esio Trot concerns Mr. Hoppy (Hoffman), an introverted aging bachelor who has two passions in life—the lush garden he keeps on his apartment balcony and his lovely and charismatic neighbor, the widowed Mrs. Silver (Dench). Although he and Mrs. Silver often meet, particularly in the apartment building elevator, and although Mr. Hoppy often chats with her when they are on their respective balconies, Mrs. Silver seems to reserve all of her affection for her pet tortoise, Alfie. Mr. Hoppy doesn’t have the courage to tell Mrs. Silver how he feels about her—that, in fact, he would like to marry her—but he sees an opening when she expresses her concern that Alfie never grows any larger. She had dreamed of a more imposing tortoise to keep her company in her solitude. Mr. Hoppy determines to fulfill this dream for Mrs. Silver, and he devises an elaborate, somewhat devious, and ultimately hilarious means of accomplishing it.
The story line in the movie departs from that in the novel, and the differences include a character who appears only in the movie—the boorish Mr. Pringle, played by Richard Cordery—who is Mr. Hoppy’s rival for Mrs. Silver’s attention. The movie is also enlivened by the presence of James Corden, who narrates the story while rushing around London.
Judi Dench, Dustin Hoffman, Richard Cordery, and James Corden are perfect in their roles. (No one is better than Hoffman at playing woebegone figures, and Dench—well, she’s Judi Dench, for Pete’s sake.) But the texture of this movie is made richer by the fact that all the minor characters, from children to shopkeepers, are perfectly cast and utterly believable in an implausible situation.
I don’t know about once week, but I certainly recommend that you watch Esio Trot.
December 20, 2015
Nepotism may be problematic in terms of morality, but it sometimes works out for the best. We watched an example the other night: The 1951 film Cause for Alarm.
This movie didn’t do well at the box office, and it has been so neglected that it is in the public domain. But it’s a thriller that still holds up after more than sixty years, and its merit is due in large part to its simplicity.
Cause for Alarm stars Loretta Young as Ellen Jones, Barry Sullivan as George Jones, and Bruce Cowling as Dr. Ranney Graham. The score is by Andre Previn.
In this story, which Young narrates, Ellen meets George, an army pilot, during World War II. They are introduced by Dr. Graham, who is fond of Ellen but seemingly too busy for a relationship. George comes across as annoyingly self-assured and narcissistic, but Ellen falls for him and, after the war, they marry.
Fast forward their lives, and George has suffered a serious heart attack and is bed-ridden at home. He has become paranoid and imagines that Ellen and Dr. Graham are plotting to kill him by administering overdoses of his medications. He makes this accusation in a letter to the district attorney—addressing it to the DA only by name, not by title—and asks Ellen to mail it, telling her that it’s related to his insurance business. When Ellen has handed the letter to the postman, George accuses her directly and threatens to kill her with a pistol, telling her that he will argue that he did it in self defense. At this moment, George suffers a fatal heart attack, and the rest of the film concerns Ellen’s frantic effort to conceal George’s death long enough to recover the letter to the DA.
Most of the action in this film takes place in the Joneses’ home or outdoors in the neighborhood nearby. A significant portion of the setting for the story is George’s bedroom. In this mundane domestic atmosphere, the tension generated by Ellen’s growing anxiety is magnified. Although the situation is implausible, and the acting is of the arch variety that was typical of that time, the story is compelling as Ellen descends toward hysteria.
The producer of this film was Tim Lewis, who at the time was the second of Loretta Young’s three husbands. Lewis had considered Judy Garland for the role of Ellen, but decided to cast his wife instead. The film required an actress who could project simplicity, even naiveté, because what makes the story work is that it is such woman who, through no fault of her own, finds herself in this dangerous position. No doubt Garland, who was only 31 when this film was made, would have done Ellen justice, but I doubt that in this instance she could have outdone Loretta Young.
The director, Tay Garnett, shot this film in fourteen days by throughly prepping the cast and the crew in advance. An interesting sidelight is that the postman is played by Irving Bacon, who appeared in well over five hundred films and television shows between 1915 and 1965, including twenty-eight films based on the comic strip Blondie in which he played a postman.
July 24, 2015
Sammy Cahn and Julie Stein wrote six songs for the 1947 movie It Happened in Brooklyn,including “The Song’s Gotta Come from the Heart,” which was performed as a duet by Frank Sinatra and Jimmy Durante. Durante later recorded the song on the RCA Red Seal label with the dramatic soprano Helen Traubel as his partner.
It doesn’t have to be classic or rock / Just as long as it comes from the heart / Just put more heart into you voice / And you’ll become the people’s choice
I thought of that song the other day when my son, Christian, pointed out that Meryl Streep is to star in a movie about Florence Foster Jenkins (1868-1944). Chris wasn’t aware of this, but in 2007 I reviewed a play, Souvenir, by Stephen Temperley, in which Liz McCartney played Mrs. Jenkins and Jim Walton played her accompanist, Cosmé McMoon. There are at least three other plays about her.
Before I saw Souvenir, I had never heard of Mrs. Jenkins, who was born to a wealthy family in Wilkes-Barre and became an accomplished pianist while still a child, even playing at the White House during the administration of Rutherford B. Hayes. When her father refused to finance a European musical education, she eloped and moved to Philadelphia where she taught piano until she injured her arm and, her marriage having ended, was reduced to poverty until her mother came to her assistance.
Around 1900 she and her mother moved to New York City together, and there Mrs. Jenkins entered into another marriage that would last until she died. When her father died in 1908, she inherited enough money to become a prominent Manhattan socialite and to undertake voice lessons. She became even wealthier when her mother died in 1912.
Mrs. Jenkins was under the impression that she was a talented soprano, but the fact was that she couldn’t sing at all. She had no command of tone, pitch, rhythm, or diction. But she continued to study voice, and she gave periodic invitation-only recitals attended by friends who would not have told her the truth. She dressed in elaborate costumes that she had designed herself and engaged in such melodramatic gestures as throwing flower petals to the audience. Because these recitals were private, there were usually no professional critics present. Mrs. Jenkins, who was widely ridiculed, would at times detect laughter during her performance, but she attributed that to the agents of rivals who wanted to discredit her.
When she was 76 years old, Florence Foster Jenkins finally gave a public concert at Carnegie Hall, and tickets sold out weeks in advance. Because it was a public event, critics attended, and they were merciless in their accounts of the performance. Mrs. Jenkins was badly shaken by what was written and said about her; she died of a heart attack two days later, appropriately while shopping for sheet music at G. Schirmer’s music store.
One of the consequences of Mrs. Jenkins’ first marriage was that she contracted syphilis from her husband, a disease for which there was no effective treatment before the discovery of penicillin. The disease itself and the treatments, which commonly employed mercury and arsenic, gradually ravaged her brain and her auditory and central nervous systems.
Temperley’s play, which does not broach the subject of venereal disease, is, on balance, gentle with Mrs. Jenkins. I suspect a movie treatment will more deeply explore the woman’s background. Still, I find myself hoping that the filmmaker will find something sympathetic, if not admirable, about a woman who so doggedly pursued her ambition and didn’t have to die with the regret that comes with never having tried.
Mrs. Jenkins herself summed up what I’m feeling: “People can say I can’t sing, but no one can say I didn’t sing.”
July 19, 2015
We recently watched The Great Dictator, Charles Chaplin’s slap at Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini, a movie that evoked the question of whether that subject matter could be treated appropriately in a humorous setting. Although the film was well received, Chaplin himself later said that if he had been aware in 1939 of the full scope of fascist atrocities in Europe, he would not have made it. The question of depicting Nazi atrocities in a comic milieu without minimizing the crimes themselves also arose with respect to Life is Beautiful (La vita é bella), the 1997 quadruple Oscar winner in which a Jewish book-shop owner and his young son are caught up in the Holocaust in Italy and sent to a death camp, and the father sacrifices his life in order to shield his boy.
The unlikely mix of comedy and Nazi brutality also was the basis for The Secret of Santa Vittoria, a 1969 film based on Robert Crichton’s novel by the same name. The film, which was directed by Stanley Kramer, starred Anthony Quinn, Anna Magnani, Virna Lisi, Hardy Kruger, and Sergio Franchi.
This story takes place in the summer of 1943. The government of Benito Mussolini has collapsed and the German army is in the process of occupying most of Italy. The people of Santa Vittoria learn that their town is soon to fall under German rule and one result will be that the Germans will confiscate more than a million bottles of wine that have been produced by the local co-operative. In the power vacuum that ensues because the local fascist government has been discredited and some officials arrested, the town fool, Italo Bombolini (Quinn), is declared mayor by acclamation. Under the guidance of a more sober character named Tufa, played by the tenor, Sergio Franchi, Bombolini devises a scheme to hide all but 300,000 bottles of the wine in tunnels that date from the age of the Roman Empire.
When a small contingent of German army personnel, under the command of Capt. Sepp Von Prum (Kruger), take charge of the town, a cat-and-mouse game begins in which Bombolini patronizes the Germans but insists that the wine in the storage cavern is all there is. Kruger is under pressure from the SS to find the wine the Germans are sure is hidden nearby, but he eventually convinces the SS commander that the townspeople are telling the truth. In his heart of hearts, however, Kruger knows better, and as he and his men are about to vacate the town, there is a tense episode in which, in the presence of the whole village, he puts a handgun to Bombolini’s head and threatens to fire if someone doesn’t tell him what he wants to know. He is met with grim silence and, because he really doesn’t have the steel will expected of Hitler’s cohorts, leaves without further incident.
Magnani plays Bombolini’s wife, Rosa, the stereotypical Italian firebrand who badgers her husband about his indolence and drunkenness. Virna Lisi appears as a peripheral character, Caterina Malatesta, who is a love interest of Tufa and the object of Kruger’s rather courtly advances.
The Secret of Santa Vittoria was nominated for Academy Awards for film editing and best musical score (Ernest Gold); it won the Golden Globe Award as best motion picture comedy and was nominated for best director, best actor in a comedy (Quinn), best actress in a comedy (Magnani), best original score and best original song (“Stay,” which was written by Gold and Norman Gimbel).
This movie wasn’t nearly as popular as Crichton’s novel, and it was a loser at the box office. It is in many ways superficial, implausible, and obvious. And yet, for the price of an Amazon rental fee, it is worth watching for its entertainment value, including the arch but earthy performances by Quinn and Magnani and the charm of blue-eyed Hardy Kruger. The movie, entirely an American production, was shot in Anticoli Corrado in the province of Rome, with hundreds of local residents acting as extras.
June 25, 2015
The title of this movie originates in a conversation between a junior high school teacher, Mr. Simon, and a student, Andy Nichols, who is long on caution and short on self-confidence. Mr. Simon (Ed Harris) thinks the observant and analytical Andy has potential as a writer, and Andy (Chase Ellison), who has no grasp of spelling or grammar, thinks otherwise. Mr. Simon makes him promise to tell himself every day, “I am a writer. That’s what I am.”
The story, which is narrated in retrospect by Andy ala The Wonder Years, takes place in California in 1965. Andy, despite his linguistic challenges, is a solid student who likes to keep a low profile so as not to attract scorn, or worse, from kids who think more of themselves than the facts warrant. Mr. Simon, who keeps a close eye on the dynamics among his students, is creating teams to work on a term project, and he matches Andy with a tall, awkward kid named Stanley (Alexander Walters)–“Big G” for short–who is an outcast, the butt of ridicule and abuse from those in the main stream.
Andy is keenly aware of the potential consequences for him if he spends time in Stanley’s company, but he develops a kind of frustrated fascination with Stanley’s passive demeanor in the face of the treatment he receives from his peers. But when Stanley faces up to a habitual bully–on behalf of someone else, not himself–and volunteers for a school talent show (“I am a singer. That’s what I am”) regardless of the hilarity this will inspire in some quarters, Andy learns a few things about self-awareness and dignity.
Meanwhile, a perennial rumor among students about the sexuality of Mr. Simon–a widower–migrates to a group of parents and spins out of control, compromising Simon’s position at the school and that of his principal and mentor, played by Amy Madigan.
This movie, a product of WWE Studios, was released to only about ten theaters in 2011 and made a little over $6,000 in three days. The film offers nothing new in the way of themes, so it depends on the writing and the acting, both of which make it worth watching, especially for the cost an Amazon rental rather than box office prices. The subject matter is also relevant to the current preoccupation with bullying among teenagers. Although it tends toward the sentimental, the story is realistic in the sense that it does not suggest that there was a satisfactory outcome either to Mr. Simon’s predicament or to Stanley’s isolation.
June 3, 2015
It may not have been the worst movie we ever saw, but Rally ‘Round the Flag Boys was no bargain at the three dollars and change we paid to watch it on Amazon.
In retrospect, I might have known better from the plot summary and from the presence in the cast of Tuesday Weld, Dwayne “Dobie Gillis” Hickman, Gale Gordon, and Jack Carson. But the top of the bill consisted of Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, the director was Leo McCarey, and the film was based on a novel by the same title written by Max Shulman.
Newman plays Harry Bannerman, the owner of a Manhattan PR firm. He commutes by train from an upstate suburb. He and his wife, Grace (Woodward) have two little boys. Harry feels neglected, because Grace is over-committed to civic life in the town. The Bannermans’ glamorous neighbor, Angela Hoffa (Joan Collins) also feels neglected by her husband, who is a network television executive, and she thinks Harry might be the remedy for her loneliness. Harry is close to convincing Grace to leave her committees behind long enough for the two of them to spend a romantic night or two at the St. Regis.
This plan is disrupted by the revelation that the U.S. Army has bought property just outside the town and plans to put a top-secret installation there. Grace is chosen to lead the public opposition to this plan, and she volunteers Harry to handle the public-relations aspects. Meanwhile, Angela makes a play for Harry and, although Harry has no intention of having an affair with her, she manipulates him into a compromising situation that leads to a breakup of the Bannerman household. At the same time, Harry is co-opted by the Army general (Gale Gordon) in charge of the secret project, and forced into taking the government’s side of the argument.
McCarey, a writer-director whose projects included An Affair to Remember, The Bells of St. Mary’s, Going My Way, and the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup, was at the end of his career when he made this film in 1958. He made only one more movie—Satan Never Sleeps in 1962.
The movie begins on a crowded northbound commuter train, and there is a fleeting hint that this is going to be a satire on suburban life. In fact, however, it is one, long, heavy-handed slapstick gag. Virtually none of it is funny, and much of it is painful. A drunk scene in which Newman and Collins pretend to laugh uncontrollably goes on much too long to be effective. The nuance of Newman swinging from a chandelier adds nothing. Weld is simply annoying as a girl who has just discovered that she has hormones, and Hickman is ludicrous—not amusing, ludicrous—as a crude leather-jacketed greaser who has his sights on her. Gordon is remarkably restrained, for him, in the role of the general, but Carson, as a boorish and inept Army captain is repulsive.
Farce works only when the audience can accept the premises on which it is built, and that isn’t possible with this film. For example, we are expected to believe that the Army could construct a missile-launching site—complete with a missile and a chimpanzee passenger—without the knowledge of the people who live nearby.
I don’t know what else three dollars and change will buy, but spend it almost anything but this movie and you’re bound to come out ahead.
April 21, 2015
I am not oblivious to the expressions of disdain that come over my friends’ faces when I mention that I like to watch Dancing with the Stars. But I am undeterred, because I am still fascinated watching men and women with little or no dance experience take on the rigors of learning and performing demanding routines. Even those who last only a few weeks before being eliminated usually remark that they have achieved things they never would have thought possible. And as interesting as this is with respect to able-bodied people, it rises to the level of inspiring when the dancer has a physical disability. There is no better example of that than Noah Galloway, a contestant in the current season, who lost his left arm and leg while serving in Iraq with the U.S. Army. Sgt. Galloway, who is still in the mix as the season heads into its final weeks, has turned in some thrilling performances with his partner, professional choreographer Sharna Burgess.
This potential we human beings have for resiliency despite even catastrophic illness and injury was the theme of The Best of Men, a 2012 BBC television movie about Dr. Ludwig Guttmann who fled the Nazi persecution of Jews in Germany and settled in England where he was given charge of servicemen who were hospitalized with spinal injuries. Dr. Guttmann found that care of these men consisted of making them as comfortable as possible until they died. This approach exacerbated the pessimism, depression, and anger that naturally accompanied such injuries. Dr. Guttmann proposed that physical activity, not maintenance care, was what these men needed, and that it would help them to take their places in the mainstream of society. Over the objections of some of his colleagues and staff, he got the men involved in vigorous activity such as basketball and javelin throwing and even took them on jaunts to a local pub. When World War II was over, Dr. Guttmann organized national wheelchair sports competitions which eventually evolved into the Paralympic Games. The closing credits note that Dr. Guttmann, who became a British citizen, was knighted for his achievements.
This film has an excellent cast, led by the veteran actor Eddie Marsan as Dr. Guttman; Rob Brydon as Corporal Wynne Bowen, whose dark humor masks his insecurity about his ability to relate sexually to his wife; and David Proud as Jeremy, whose circumstances are complicated by a disappointed father who would consign him to a nursing home.
January 18, 2015
Having seen the ravages of Alzheimer’s Disease up close — having lived with them actually, we don’t go out of our way to see the subject dramatized. The other night, however, we were glad we stumbled on Iris, a 2001 movie starring Judi Dench, Jim Broadbent, Kate Winslet, and Hugh Bonneville. This film is based on the life of Iris Murdoch, a prominent British novelist and philosopher in the second half of the twentieth century. While she was a young woman teaching at Oxford, Murdoch fell in love with another Oxford academic, John Bayley, and eventually married him. It was what Puccini’s librettists might have called “a strange harmony of contrasts. Winslet was confident, high-spirited, articulate, and promiscuous, and Bayley was awkward, stuttering, shy, and virgin.
Their story, based on Bayley’s written accounts, is told in turns by flashbacks to the tumult of their early life together and a portrayal of the gradual deterioration of the elderly Iris’s mind. At the center of the story is John Bayley’s enduring love for this woman, even when her dementia frightens him and strains his patience. Dench and Winslet play the elder and younger Iris, and Broadbent and Bonneville play the elder and younger Bayley. This casting was inspired, because in both cases the premise that we are watching the same people at different stages of their lives is convincing. The quality of the performances is reflected by the fact that, among many accolades, Jim Broadbent won an Oscar and Judi Dench and Kate Winslet were nominated. Why Hugh Bonneville wasn’t nominated I can’t imagine. Those who are familiar with him in vehicles such as Belle and Downton Abbey will learn something about his range by watching him in this film. Incidentally, fans of Downton Abbey and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel might be pleased to see Penelope Wilton’s performance in a significant supporting role in Iris.