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Florence Foster Jenkins

Pete's Dragon • Café Society

August 11, 2016

Florence Foster Jenkins (***) PG-13

Should one take into consideration the size of their talents when deciding to flex their artistic muscles? If the person in question is someone you care about is it best to point out the obvious truth that they have no talent, ugly as that fact may be, or allow the person to go on doing what their heart tells them they must do? These are some of the more philosophical points that the filmmakers attempt to get across during the film, Florence Foster Jenkins, the latest undertaking to headline actress extraordinaire, Meryl Streep.

Florence Foster Jenkins belongs solely in that category known as the biopic, a genre of film that is hotter now that at any time in recent memory. If one wants to see a film that doesn’t feature animated characters or super heroes in its cast of characters then biopics are about the only hope that one has and as such, Florence Foster Jenkins delivers the goods. Its tale is a story whose details are largely forgotten and, for my money, these are the ripest subjects for the biopic genre. I like a film that not only manages to entertain but also manages to enlighten at the same time. This is one of those films that scores on both fronts.

The film’s title character, unsurprisingly, is capably portrayed by the aforementioned Meryl Streep in the type of role she’s made a career out of during the last four decades.

Meryl Streep as Florence Foster Jenkins

Jenkins was a New York heiress and socialite who, as portrayed in the film, lost most of the joy in her life a long time before we are introduced to the character. Suffering from the debilitating effects of syphilis, Jenkins seemed to come alive when belting out songs in front of an audience. Of course, the fact that she had no musical talent was lost on her and certainly wouldn’t have stopped her had she known.

As previously mentioned, it’s no surprise how good Streep is in the film but what is a surprise is how effective Hugh Grant is in the role of Jenkins’ protective husband. This is the kind of plum role which Grant used to sink his teeth into but rarely gets the opportunity to these days. He’s imperfect, carrying on affairs behind his wife’s back, but he also tenderly protects his wife from the harsh truth that she has no talent and makes it his life’s mission to foster his wife’s musical aspirations no matter what the cost.

Florence Foster Jenkins is best described as a slight affair at best but I’m sure audiences of a certain kind will warm to it. It’s the kind of film that studio heads aren’t greenlighting in droves these days. It would be nice to see it score financially if for no other reason than that it might inspire other films of its ilk to get made. I guess only time and box office receipts will tell.

Florence Foster Jenkins is playing in Hickory and all around the area including Winston-Salem, at a/perture, and Charlotte.

Pete’s Dragon (** ½) PG

I think it’s best to go on the record and start things off by mentioning that I have a curious relationship with the 1977 film Pete’s Dragon. That film was, supposedly, an idea that sprang from the brain of Walt Disney himself but was never brought to fruition until roughly a decade after the movie mogul’s death. I was a wee lad of seven when I took in the original film on a Saturday afternoon in the company of my mother and sister. My sister and I thought the film was pure cinematic bliss and after seeing the film we took to reenacting scenes from the film in the kitchen of our home later that evening which should tell you how enamored we were of the film.     

As a parent, some two and half decades later, I decided to pass the film down to my own daughter and that’s when the flaws of the film really began to stand out.

Howard & Oakes Fegley in Pete's Dragon

Turns out that it wasn’t the film that I originally imagined but rather an interesting, though not earth shattering, Disney affair that was atypical of the type of product being turned out by the studio at what would later be acknowledged as a low point in the studio’s history. The film was littered with clunky musical numbers that did nothing to move the narrative forward and the story was thin at best. The special effects that served to put the title character on screen were, I suppose, impressive for a film that was made during those days before CGI technology and the film included a notable cast but that was about it.

So here we are thirty-nine years later as Disney has decided to dust off the old Pete’s Dragon property and give it a retrofitting for the 21st century. Incidentally, the setting of the film is the early 1970s but the special effects are definitely of the contemporary variety. Also gone are the awkward musical numbers found in the original film and that’s a good thing. Instead the film focuses on its story about an orphan named Pete (Oakes Fegley) and his beloved dragon, Elliot, who shelters the boy and serves as a surrogate parent after the death of Pete’s biological Ma and Pa.

The central narrative of Pete being taken in by a real family while the locals pursue and attempt to capture his beloved Elliot remains intact. In this version a park ranger (Bryce Dallas Howard) and her husband (Wes Bentley) take Pete into their family fold after their daughter (Oona Lawrence) discovers the orphan in the woods. They, along with the young girl’s grandfather (Robert Redford), attempt to stop the local yahoos from harming the dragon in the film’s climax.

The effects are quite convincing in the film and the end manages to effectively tear at the heartstrings. There are certainly worse ways to update a 39 year old film than what has been achieved here, so if you’re looking to revisit the Pete’s Dragon story anytime soon this is one is perfectly acceptable.

Pete's Dragon is playing in Hickory and all around the area.

Café Society (**) PG-13

There’s one, and I mean just one, reason to take in writer-director Woody Allen’s latest film and it’s not something for which the Woodman can actually receive credit. That is unless you want to give him credit for his choices in cinematic collaborators. What I’m referring to are the stunning technical contributions by the legendary cinematographer Vitorio Storaro. What Storaro brings to the film makes it almost (but not quite) worth recommending the film. He has gorgeously lensed the period pic digitally (the first time that Allen has opted not shoot on film) and bathed the film in gorgeous blues and oranges that really bring the film into a whole other realm. Unfortunately, the story that Storaro has lent his sizeable talents to is so paper thin that you come away feeling a sense of sorrow that the semi retired cameraman didn’t have a better project with which to make his contributions.

On the whole, there’s no bigger fan of Woody Allen’s talents as a filmmaker than I am. It’s hard to find a body of work that is so richly textured and varied as Allen’s. As such, it’s easy to get excited each summer when the release announcement of the latest Woody Allen film is made.

Eisenberg & Stewart in Café Society

After the last several projects, however, that excitement is beginning to dull a bit. The last picture of merit that came from the mind of the celebrated director was Blue Jasmine and that was three years ago. With his last three pictures, each film seems to be lesser in terms of its ability to have lasting impact with the viewer. For me, Café Society is the cinematic equivalent to left overs from a meal that was heartily enjoyed the preceding night. The basic core ideas and philosophies of Allen’s films are there but they’re just so watered down that they hardly register.

In the latest film even the narration, voiced by the director, seems awkward and stilted. Jesse Eisenberg plays the part that once would have been played by Allen but even his attempts at mimicking Allen’s onscreen camera tics seem to fall flat. The story, which takes place in a 1930s setting that is overly bathed in nostalgia, involves Eisenberg’s character hightailing it to Hollywood to work for his movie mogul uncle (Steve Carrell) and falling for his uncle’s assistant (Kristen Stewart) only to later find out that his uncle is also in love with the girl and plans on leaving his long time wife for her. Eisenberg’s character carries on with his life, marrying a character played by Blake Lively, but you just know at some point that his uncle’s assistant will reenter the picture and you hold your breath until it happens.

The whole cast gives it their all and can’t be faulted but you can’t expect them to work miracles. Café Society is a film running on the fumes left over from better pictures of days gone by and there’s nothing that can disguise that fact.

Café Society is playing in Charlotte at the Regal Manor Twin and in Winston-Salem at a/perture.

Questions or comments? Write Adam at filmfan1970@hotmail.com.

 

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