Eric D. Snider

 

FILM REVIEW: “Florence Foster Jenkins,” Unlike Its Subject, Hits Few Sour Notes

Meryl Streep stars in the charming, fact-based story of perhaps the world's worst opera singer

Florence Foster Jenkins (the person) was a 1940s Manhattan socialite and arts patron whose desire to be a professional singer, shall we say, outpaced her abilities. “Florence Foster Jenkins” (the movie), on the other hand, is quite competent, a cheerful ode to the values of loyalty and determination that hopes you’ll overlook (or agree with?) the dubious “everyone gets a trophy” philosophy that it tacitly endorses.

It was directed by Stephen Frears, an old hand with stories about matronly patricians based on real people; see “The Queen” and “Philomena,” for example. Here he has Meryl Streep in the warm, daffy title role, with the action set in 1944. Madame Florence and her doting, platonic husband/manager, St Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant), are regular sponsors of artistic programs appealing to New York’s upper crust. Like many such patrons, they fancy themselves amateur performers (St Clair was once a small-time actor) and yearn to be more directly involved. Florence muses that she’d like to sing again, maybe give a recital.

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FILM REVIEW: Woody Allen’s “Cafe Society”

The director's 45th feature film revisits familiar themes through a story set in glamorous 1930s Hollywood.

For his 45th movie, Woody Allen has once again retreated to the safety of yesteryear, a simpler time when a man could have a girlfriend 20 years his junior without anyone noticing. “Cafe Society,” set mostly in Hollywood in the late 1930s, is typical 21st-century Woody: pleasant, though not particularly funny; a bit melancholic, though not emotionally affecting; likable though not memorable. Woody Allen is now our most prolific producer of cinematic shrugs.

Allen serves as narrator this time, using Jesse Eisenberg as his onscreen avatar, at least at first. Eisenberg plays Bobby Dorfman, a Bronx kid who comes to L.A. hoping to get a job with his uncle Phil Stern (Steve Carell), a self-important, high-powered Hollywood agent. Uncle Phil has his secretary, Vonnie (Kristen Stewart), show Bobby around town, and the two become friendly. But Vonnie says she has a boyfriend, a journalist who travels frequently, leaving Bobby to pine for her.

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FILM REVIEW: “Genius” doesn’t show any

A talented cast can't managed to bring this blandly written story of the literary collaboration between editor Max Perkins (Colin Firth) and novelist Thomas Wolfe (Jude Law) to life.

The biography from which “Genius” is adapted is called “Max Perkins: Editor of Genius” (by A. Scott Berg), and it’s about the literary publisher who worked with such legends as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and Thomas Wolfe. How fascinating his life must have been — a non-artist intimately involved in fine-tuning works of art. Or maybe it’s fair to call him an artist, too. As the title suggests, he edited geniuses, but to do so effectively, he must have been a man of some genius himself.

That’s the book, though. The movie, adapted by John Logan (“Gladiator”) and helmed by acclaimed theater director Michael Grandage (his movie debut), reduces the title to one word, focuses almost exclusively on Perkins’ work with Wolfe, and is indeed more a biopic of Wolfe than of Perkins. Unsurprisingly, it falls short on both fronts, offering no insight into (or even evidence of) Wolfe’s brilliance, much less his editor’s. Whose story is it, Wolfe’s or Perkins’? Neither. And both. That’s the problem.

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FILM REVIEW: Juliette Binoche beautifully waits in “L’Attesa”

The iconic French star plays a bereaved mother who hosts a visit from her dead son's girlfriend in this melancholy drama.

True to its title, “The Wait” (“L’attesa”) is about people waiting for others to arrive or return, and it begins with an image of one of history’s most eagerly anticipated figures: Jesus Christ, in the form of a large crucifix displayed in a Sicilian church where a funeral is being held. Easter is just days away, so death and resurrection are already on the minds of the mourners in this very Catholic country.

Slowly, dreamily, first-time director Piero Messina moves the camera to reveal not who’s in the casket but who’s standing off to the side, dazed, clearly the mourner who has suffered the greatest loss. She is Anna (Juliette Binoche), a Frenchwoman who married (and eventually divorced) a Sicilian man and has an adult son named Giuseppe. Not long after the funeral, the mirrors still covered in black cloth and Anna still near-catatonic with grief, she receives a guest: Jeanne (Lou de Laâge), Giuseppe’s girlfriend, arriving for a pre-arranged visit. But where, Jeanne wants to know, is Giuseppe?

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FILM REVIEW: “The Ones Below” is pregnant with menace

This chilling indie thriller about expectant neighbors conjures Polanski-style dread

For all its miraculous beauty, there’s also something eerie and alien about pregnancy, even when you know how the baby got there and how it’s going to get out. Films have exploited the fears of expectant parents for as long as movies have been allowed to say the word “pregnant” (so, like, the ’50s), so there isn’t much new ground to be explored. But “The Ones Below,” a taut thriller from first-time British filmmaker David Farr, covers some of the familiar fears with a cold, unsettling efficiency.

This is a roundabout way of saying that there should a Surgeon General’s warning on this film: Do not watch this movie if you are pregnant or expecting to become pregnant, ever.

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Film Review: “A Bigger Splash” makes waves

A stellar cast, including Tilda Swinton and Ralph Fiennes, headline this decadent drama from the director of "I Am Love."

Once you get past the initial disappointment of “A Bigger Splash” not being the long-awaited sequel to “Splash,” it’s a well-crafted piece of understated adult drama. Directed by Luca Guadagnino (“I Am Love”) as a loose remake of the 1969 French film “La Piscine,” it’s built around a steamy mixture of jealousy and miscommunication among lovers and former lovers, all set on a picturesque Italian island that is a playground for attractive, wealthy people. As is often the case with movies about the upper crust, we grow increasingly less envious of them as the story progresses.

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Film Review: “The Man Who Knew Infinity” is a formulaic biopic of a math genius

A solid cast including Dev Patel, Jeremy Irons, and Toby Jones can't elevate this by-the-numbers biography.

Biopics in general can fall into ruts of rote storytelling and textbook-like recitations of facts, but the direst subsection has got to be biopics about scientists and mathematicians. Movies about athletes, actors, musicians, and statesmen at least have their public performances, political victories, or personal sordidness with which to entertain us. But scientists, unless they were totally bonkers or otherwise fascinating (“A Beautiful Mind”), tend to have precious little in their biographies to inspire anything more than admiration.

Case in point: “The Man Who Knew Infinity,” a serviceable but unremarkable movie about a mathematician who undoubtedly deserves to be honored–especially since racism and colonialism prevented him from being acknowledged in his lifetime.) His career, though, simply doesn’t make for stimulating cinema–at least not in this telling of it, by writer-director Matthew Brown, adapting Robert Kanigel’s 1991 book. It has the feel of a term paper submitted by a student who’s a smart writer but only covered the topic because it was assigned to him.

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