Sunday, August 14, 2016

Meryl Streep Is Typically Delightful As FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS

Now playing at a multiplex or an art house near you:


(Dir. Stephen Frears, 2016)

Because of the success of previous vehicles such as JULIA & JULIA, HOPE SPRINGS, and last summer’s RICKI & THE FLASH, it appears that August is a good month to release a Meryl Streep movie. And her latest is quite a doozy – it’s a biopic of Florence Foster Jenkins, a wealthy socialite who was branded “the world’s worst singer” by critics in the 1940s.

Jenkins was unaware that her singing was being laughed at because her husband, St. Clair Bayfield, played by Hugh Grant with his trademark suave grace, spent over two decades protecting his wife from who he called the “mockers and scoffers” by only allowing private recitals, and bribing reviewers.

Set in 1944, the film follows the legendary heiress as she prepares for a solo concert by hiring Simon Helberg (The Big Bang Theory’s Howard Wolowitz) as pianist Cosmé McMoon to accompany her. The faces that the new hire makes upon first hearing Streep’s Jenkins’ off-key wailing are priceless. Grant’s Bayfield and David Haig as Metropolitan Opera conductor Carlo Edwards are used to keeping a straight face, but Helberg’s McMoon almost losing it repeatedly upon every foul note is the movie’s hilarious highlight.

Bayfield dutifully takes care of Jenkins but their marriage is sexless, so after he puts her to bed, he scoots off to a separate apartment where he lives with his longtime mistress Kathleen (Rebecca Ferguson).

Despite his best efforts, which include forbidding gossip columnist Earl Wilson (Christian McKay) from seeing his wife perform, the cat gets out of the bag when Jenkins makes a record of her performance of the “Bell Song,” the aria from the opera Lakmé that is treated like a classic novelty song – the kind people put on to laugh at, not with.

Then the grand lady wants to perform a free public concert for US Army servicemen at Carnegie Hall. This is the expected climax, but it plays with the predictable laughter turns into applause trope appealingly. Nina Arianda has a small but sweetly crucial part as a gold-digging trophy wife of one of Jenkins’ fat, rich patrons who morphs from a mocker into a fan.

Streep, who nails the horrible singing – just stay during the end credits to hear an original recording of Jenkins to hear for yourself – puts in another typically delightful performance. Despite her character’s historic lack of talent, Streep beautifully captures how Jenkins lights up when attempting to make music.

It’s a winning work, but it doubtfully will result in Streep winning another Oscar. However, I wouldn’t be surprised if it got her another nomination as it’s exactly the type of film those old Academy voters go gaga for.

Grant shines in his perfectly cast role, particularly when it comes to the film’s farcical last third that largely involves Bayfield trying to buy up every newspaper so that his wife won’t see Wilson’s New York Post review that panned her Carnegie Hall performance.

Working from a screenplay by first-time screenwriter Nicholas Martin, Stephen Frears’ (HIGH FIDELITY, THE QUEEN, PHILOMENA) serves up a polished period piece which breezes along from scene to scene, even if it feels a bit too tidy and formulaic at times.

That familiar biopic formula frames FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS right down to the concluding pictures of the real people, and text about all the players’ fates, but it doesn’t drag down the experience.

It’s a fluffy human interest story, but it’s a good, witty one with top notch acting, and considering this fairly lousy summer at the movies, I’ll take it.

See you next August, Miss Streep!

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Friday, August 12, 2016

Seth Rogen & Co. Throw An Animated SAUSAGE PARTY That Couldn’t Be Cruder

Now playing at a multiplex near you:


(Dirs. Greg Tiernan & Conrad Vernon, 2016)

If you’ve ever gone to a Disney, Pixar, or DreamWorks animated production and wished that it had lots of profanity, dirty jokes, and graphic sex, then Seth Rogen and a bunch of his comedy colleagues have the movie for you!

It’s the R-rated crude comic adventure romp SAUSAGE PARTY, which takes place largely in a supermarket (the fictitious grocery store Shopwell’s to be exact), and stars SUPERBAD team of Rogen, Michael Cera, and Jonah Hill as hot dog sausages, who dream of getting picked by customers, who they call gods, and taken to their new home which they call “The Great Beyond.”

The sausages are on a shelf as part of the store’s 4th of July weekend sale next to a bag of hot dog buns (in this world, sausages are male and buns are female). Rogen’s character, named Frank of course, is in love with a bun named Brenda, voiced by Kristen Wiig.

We learn through laughter that in the store full of talking food items the different aisles represent different nationalities and cultures. So there’s a Jewish bagel (voiced by Edward Norton doing his best Woody Allen impression) named Sammy Bagel Jr., who feuds with an Arabic flatbread (David Krumholtz) named Vash; a jar of honey mustard (named Honey Mustard, and voiced by Danny McBride); a lesbian taco named Teresa (Salma Hayek) who lusts after Brenda; an old Native American bottle of liquor named Firewater (Bill Hader, who also voices a guacamole gangster named El Guaco); and the villain of the piece: a feminine hygiene product, that’s right a douche named Douche, voiced by Nick Kroll amping up his best angry New Yorker accent.

The film’s story involves Rogen and his sausage pals getting picked along with the buns by a shopper named Camille (Lauren Miller-Rogen), but things quickly go awry when Honey Mustard, who’s been returned and has seen what really happens to food on the outside, tries to warn everyone in the cart that “The Great Beyond” is bullshit and they are being taken to their deaths. Not being able to convince anyone, Honey Mustard goes to leap off of the cart and Frank gets out of his bag to try to save him. A collision with another cart causes a massive mess of food destruction that is shot like a war scene a la SAVING PRIVATE RYAN.

The chaos leaves Frank and Brenda stranded away from their friends still in the cart and far from their home aisle. They hook up with Sammy Bagel Jr. and Vash and go on a journey to find out if what Honey Mustard (R.I.P.) was saying was true. The foursome find Firewater, who Honey Mustard told Frank to seek out, in the liquor section, and Frank gets the lowdown in a peace pipe of pot smoking session that includes joined by a couple of Non-Perishables: Mr. Grits (a box of slang talking grits voiced by Craig Robinson) and Twink (a twinkie voiced by Scott Underwood).

Meanwhile, the food that didn’t get killed in the crash finds out for themselves their fate when they reach the home kitchen of Camille and she proceeds to prepare dinner, which to them means their violent slaughter. Frank’s best friend Barry (Hill) is able to escape and encounters a human druggie, named Druggie (voiced by James Franco appropriately) with a Shopwell’s bag so he tags along with him in hopes of getting back to the store. Back at Druggie’s messy apartment, which, of course, resembles Franco’s pad in PINEAPPLE EXPRESS, Druggie shoots up bath salts and tweaks so hard that he can hear and understand the food, and agrees to help Barry get back.

The film’s last third involves Frank trying to convince the others that the so-called gods are going to kill them, but he finds resistance until he realizes that he must respect the beliefs of his fellow food items (an actual moral!). A war between the food and the humans ensues, and then the climax everyone’s been waiting for: an epic 8-miunte orgy that you can never unsee.

This is where the animators went all outrageously out. The film's directors, Greg Tiernan and Conrad Vernon, are veterans of tons of animated children's features (Tiernan has made many Thomas the Tank Engine shorts; Vernon directed SHREK 2, MONSTERS vs. ALIENS, and MADAGASCAR 3), so every raunchy idea they've been holding back all these years got to break free.

Although the novelty of f-bomb dropping cartoon food characters wears thin at times, there are consistent laughs throughout SAUSAGE PARTY. That is, is you’re a fan of Rogen and company’s brand of scatological stoner humor. I don’t know how much longer Rogen, who wrote the movie with his frequent collaborators Evan Goldberg, Kyle Hunter, and Ariel Shaffir, can put out these crude zany bromances, but I like that they’re placing their man-child themes inside a different genre, or at least, a different-looking genre.

So I commend Rogen and his buddies on making the first ever R-rated CG-animated comedy, which goes a long way in showing that these guys have no plans to grow up anytime soon.

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EAT THAT QUESTION Gives Us The Gift Of Frank Zappa’s Gab


(Dir. Thorsten Schütte, 2016)

Back in the ‘90s, I was a big Frank Zappa fan. Read his book, had stacks of his albums on CD and vinyl, taped his television appearances, etc.

But somewhere along the line, I lost my taste for his music.

Despite a lot of excellent musicianship, a lot of Zappa’s material I decided then was smarmy, crass, and had no heart. I sold most of his records (I kept Hot Rats), and pledged my allegiance to the Velvet Underground, when it came to weird ‘60s bands.

So it has been a couple of decades since I’ve heard some of the songs that are sampled in the new documentary, EAT THAT QUESTION: FRANK ZAPPA IN HIS OWN WORDS, which opens in my area today at Silverspot Cinema in Chapel Hill.

As the title indicates, the film is largely made up of Zappa interviews, from his first appearance as a mustache-less musician making music using two bicycles on The Steve Allen Show in 1963 to his bearded, frail looking last appearance on The Today Show in late 1993, but there are a lot of excerpts from his songs, instrumentals, concertos, and chamber works linking Frank’s frank chats together.

The opening credits use of the twangy blues rock of “Trouble Every Day” took me back to the many times I listened to Zappa’s 1965 debut “Freak Out” with The Mothers of Invention, and I recognized a lot of the ‘70s and ‘80s concert footage throughout that I had seen, and probably had on VHS, back in the day. So the film acted as a refresher course for me, as it reminded me both why I liked and later rejected Zappa’s work.

I never stopped enjoying hearing Zappa talk though, as he was always a sharp and funny interviewee and that’s what this doc, the first feature film by German director Thorsten Schütte, shows in spades.

Zappa’s early interviews resemble Bob Dylan’s as seen in D.A. Pennebaker’s classic 1967 doc DON’T LOOK BACK and Martin Scorsese’s NO DIRECTION HOME as they were both artists that wanted nothing to do with the so called revolution of the times, and they both sneered at reporters over stupid questions.

Within the film’s loose structure, which is chronological but lacks denotations of what year footage is from, or what show Zappa is appearing on (I mean, I know who TV talk show hosts like Steve Allen and Mike Douglas are, but won’t somebody please think about the children!), the man discusses his background, his distaste for the drug culture (“I have fired people for using drugs”), his freaky image (“I was always a freak, never a hippy”), the making of his insane 1971 movie 200 MOTELS and how his first classical compositions came about (“I heard some of what the stuff sounded like that I’d been writing and it was so ugly, I decided to go backwards and get into the melodic area again, then people started telling me my melodies were ugly”).

I think I laughed the biggest during this doc when a concertgoer says to a reporter that what Zappa does “is anti-music.”

Speaking about criticism for the profanity on many on many of his recordings, Zappa tells an interviewer, “There is no such thing as a dirty word. Here’s my stock line about that: there is no word, nor any sound, that you can make with your mouth that is so powerful that it will condemn you to the lake of fire the time when you hear it.” 

One of the highlights of the doc is one of the highlights of Zappa’s career: his fight with The Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC) over the proposal to put warning stickers, later known as Parental Advisory labels on albums whose content is deemed to have violent, drug-related or sexual themes. A hilarious segment of Zappa’s 1985 Senate testimony against Tipper Gore and Florida Senator Paula Hawkins is shown, one that the man himself sampled on his The Mothers of Prevention” album released that same year.

Another late period highlight is Zappa’s trip to Czechoslovakia to meet with President Václav Havel, who was a huge Zappa fan and asked the musician to serve as a trade representative.

EAT THAT QUESTION was made in collaboration with the Zappa Family Trust, with Zappa’s wife Gail, who the film is dedicated to because of her 2014 death, and his youngest son Ahmet listed as Executive Producers. You may have heard about the family feud over the Zappa estate that has oldest son Dweezil and oldest daughter Moon fighting over their inheritances (however, both are thanked in the end credits). It’s funny to note that Zappa only speaks of his wife Gail once in the film calling her “a mean little sucker; a boss’s wife.”

Whatever one thinks of his music, Frank was a fascinating fellow whose outspoken views and abrasive talent could certainly hold an audience’s attention. Whether today’s audience will be interested is another matter. I would guess that this film is more for people who are fans or have some knowledge of Zappa going in than a newcomer experiencing his work and words for the first time.

But then again, maybe just what the kids today need is a good old fashioned freak out - albeit mostly in spoken word form.

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