At the movies: Florence Foster Jenkins is sweet and often witty biopic about the grande dame of deluded bad singing who somehow charmed audiences with mere enthusiasm back in the 1940s. An eccentric not unlike Ed Wood, her story plays as tragi-comedy, infused with humanity by some excellent performances by, yes okay, Meryl Streep, but perhaps more memorably by Hugh Grant (and ambiguous character who managed to break my heart) and Simon Helberg (who may just steal the show). Very funny supporting work from Nina Arianda as well, as a non-fan who may just find what it is that makes Florence Foster Jenkins something special. But at its heart, this is more a story about mental illness than vanity, so one should temper one's laughs. We get to hear the real Foster Jenkins at the end and guess what, Streep still can't (or won't) sing as badly.
Netflix: Wanted, the Mark Millar comic, was just okay. I still hadn't sworn off Millar's nasty brand of cynicism, and despite some élans of bad taste, the story and premise still held interest. But I was never in any hurry to watch the film adaptation that traded superhero tropes with high-octane Hong Kong action tricks and assassins. Now that I have, I thought it was a pretty good action flick, with lots of clever moments, and only the most cursory of similarities with the original work. Well, at least there's no shit monster in this version! The amended premise is an excuse not only for cool stunts and gun play, but to make those action scenes completely bonkers without breaking the world of the film, as it were. Subversive fun that doesn't quite become as over-obvious about it as the source material did.
Premium Rush... It's a car chase movie à la Fast & Furious (if not as silly), except the heroes are bike messengers pedaling their way through New York. It's a fresh new take on the vehicle-action genre that makes the need for speed a little more of an achievement. As usual, Joseph Gordon-Levitt can do no wrong, and neither can Michael Shannon, even as a scenery-chewing villain. The movie has some clever ideas to show what it means to do this kind of work, both visual and philosophical, and the action plot is revealed through achronological sequences that heighten the mystery and provide satisfying revelations at various points in the movie. One element of the ending may be needlessly harsh, not sure it fits the overall tone of the film, you be the judge, but I thought PR was fun regardless.
Deceptive Practice, The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay, is less a documentary than a chat with the always fascinating to listen to magician and con expert Ricky Jay. A great raconteur, he recalls how from a young age he met some of the greatest stage magicians of the Vaudevillian age, and thanks to his own research into the subject, tales from the dawn of stagecraft. The film also serves as a portrait of his life and career, and his personal musings on what it means to choose this profession. There is lots of footage from his magic shows going back to childhood, and of the prestidigitators he talks about, most of the tricks focusing on card magic. It can be enjoyed for the illusions, of course, and for the stories, but I wouldn't call this a very enlightening documentary. It's entertaining enough, but for casual watching.
Where to Invade Next is Michael Moore's most recent opinionated documentary, so let's get the politics of it out of the way up front. Moore makes films to make a specific point, and he uses the information that makes that point, along with humorous staged skits that wouldn't be caught dead in a so-called serious documentary. He does not present a complete and balanced picture, so don't use this as your only source for a school paper, but what you do find in his films, I think, is an emotional truth. In this one, he travels to various countries, mostly in Europe, to "invade" them and steal their best ideas for the United States. For example, since Sweden is #1 in education world-wide, he visits one of their schools, and contrasts it with what's happening in the States (and to some degree Canada, I'm afraid we're not as far as we'd like to pretend from Americanized policy in most areas). That isn't to say the selected countries don't have strife of any sort, but in the one selected aspect, they're doing better than us (which again isn't to say those systems don't have their own challenges). The reason a lot of people on the Right will feel the need to take every little thing in this film to task is because it really is about the triumph of Leftist ideas. Let that go. Good ideas that WORK should have no implied ideology, and the film plays on the consistent irony that hard stances on certain issues actually makes them more problematic. But regardless of the merits of any given solution put forward by another country (and how it might be implanted in a wholly different culture, population, economy), each country's example acts as a contrast to what the U.S. (and in some measure, the English-speaking countries I'm most familiar with, which is to say my own and the U.K.) can't seem to (want to?) solve. In the first act, I found myself teary-eyed at the differences between other parts of the First World and ourselves, as if it made our hardships more bitter still for them having been solved across the Pond. Where to Invade Next sometimes has the levity of a Michael Palin travelogue, but it's Moore' best and perhaps most subtly affecting film since Fahrenheit 9/11. And in the end, more patriotic than Moore's detractors are ever likely to admit.
The American Side shines for having been filmed in Buffalo and including the strikingly shot Niagara Falls in the plot - it's a place we don't often see, but I think should - but ultimately falls down, not so much because it has a convoluted plot, but because that plot takes a strange pseudo-scientific bent that makes it seem like it's playing from J.J. Abrams' old Alias playbook. Co-writer Greg Sturh plays a private dick right out of a 70s cop show, car and all, and it actually takes about 20 minutes before you realize the action occurs in contemporary America. Shot in a desaturated look to give it that 70s noir feeling, the film also has every interaction with its P.I. sound like something out of a Philip Marlowe mystery. A lot of great lines, but many that just sound strange as well. Sturh is a relative no-name, but he's surrounded by recognizable actors who create some intriguing characters. It's just that all these tonal and historical elements aren't always a healthy part of the mix.
In While We're Young, Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts plays a somewhat aimless fourtysomething couple that attaches itself to a couple of twentysomethings (played by Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried) who give them new energy and focus. It's a midlife crisis played together instead of starting with a break-up. As such, it has something to say about youth (and not-so-youth) culture, and how it both entrances and disabuses other generations, but the movie soon becomes about dueling documentarists (Stiller and Driver) and two attitudes towards "truth" and the medium they work in. Don't get me wrong, this is more interesting than the comedy of manners writer-director Noah Baumbach was initially occupied with, but it almost turns into a thriller for an instant, which I don't think is where we want to go with these characters. The film nevertheless ends on a grace note, and then ends again on a sugary and extraneous piece of Hollywood pap. Feels like Baumbach compromised his vision there.
The Paramount Vault (wanted to see what was in there, and while I'm attributing WHERE these films are available): Margot at the Wedding is an earlier Noah Baumbach film, very much a slice of life, that sees its eponymous character, played by Nicole Kidman, go to her estranged sister's wedding (Jennifer Jason Leigh to wed Jack Black), not a big affair at all, a situation that makes all sorts of family trauma bubble up to the surface. This is a film where everything is said, shot or staged in such a way as to have a double meaning, sometimes in reach, sometimes not, a drama where the characters are revealed layer by layer as it proceeds ahead, a bit like life itself, haphazardly. I found it quietly interesting, and above all, audaciously true to life, even the weird bits. All the principals are good, and you're unlikely to find a more understated dramatic performance by Jack Black.