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Blu-Ray Pick of the Week: Florence Foster Jenkins

“Suicide Squad,” “Ben-Hur,” “Bridget Jones’s Baby” and more are new to Blu-Ray this week. 

One would be hard-pressed to find someone who legitimately thinks that the title character in “Florence Foster Jenkins,” played by Meryl Streep, is a good singer. I’m sure there are some members of the esoteric extreme of the avant garde who can make a good case for the appeal of her singing, but to most, it’s not good.

This is not for lack of trying. As she tells her newly hired pianist Cosmé McMoon (Simon Helberg) early on, she’s a very hard worker. She practices for an hour a day --sometimes two.



What else do we know about Florence Foster Jenkins, aside from the fact that she is a poor vocalist (insert cat comparison joke here)? She’s a somewhat eccentric personality who is fearful of sharp objects, always carries around a leather briefcase with mysterious contents, and has a particular fondness for sandwiches and potato salad. At one point a dinner party is thrown and Florence expresses concern to husband St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant) that they may be running out of potato salad. Much to his relief when he checks on the potato salad status, there is literally an entire bath tub full of it and it’s ready to go.

Another thing about Florence is that she’s very ill. She contracted syphilis when she was newly married at eighteen years old. The disease wore away at her physically but not emotionally—her spirit is very much intact. As a doctor (John Sessions) attending to her points out, he’s seen patients with syphilis last for twenty years, but never fifty. This is especially remarkable given that the movie takes place in 1944 and the treatments for her condition are mercury and arsenic.

Credit to her longevity can in large part be given to her love of music (and her wealth, no doubt). This is where “Florence Foster Jenkins” becomes revelatory, and more than just a superficial comedic biopic about a woman who attracted attention for all the wrong reasons. In spite of what a technically bad singer she is, her doting husband St. Clair and vocal coach Carlo Edwards (David Haig) praise her for her singing chops. Cosmé is befuddled, however, and at first it looks like this story draws a parallel to the classic story of the emperor who has no clothes.



The movie delves much deeper than that though. We see how much music truly means to Florence. It’s not just her passion, it’s her means for survival. St. Clair is not being disingenuous in his praise of her singing—and to be fair, he may actually like it—but rather gives her undue praise because he knows that to do otherwise would destroy her spirit and kill her. Sure, Florence has wealth and companionship and prominence in society. She even founded her own musical club. But none of it means anything unless she can be part of music itself. It means more to her than all of the fame, money, sandwiches, and potato salad in the world.

It’s this tragic underpinning that is at the heart of “Florence Foster Jenkins” and elevates the material into something beautiful and profound. St. Clair may be viewed as a bit sketchy given the fact that he keeps a mistress (Rebecca Ferguson) who lives with him in his apartment away from Florence. However, I never for once doubted the sincerity in his loving, tender mercy toward his ill wife, and Hugh Grant turns in his best performance in years—probably since 2002’s “About a Boy.”

This movie is another home run for Streep, who is absolute living proof that star power, acting ability, and singing chops can all go together in one. Especially the singing chops. It would actually be easier for a bad singer to sing badly. Streep happens to be a phenomenal vocalist as well as an incredibly talented actress. This poses a unique challenge because it’s very hard for an accomplished singer to ignore all of her training and instincts and do things wrong on purpose. When it comes to Streep’s performance in “Florence Foster Jenkins,” never has doing something wrong been so right. Buy it on Amazon: Florence Foster Jenkins [Blu-ray].

Also New This Week

Suicide Squad

It’s an interesting thought put forth in “Suicide Squad” by government agency head honcho Amanda Waller (Viola Davis): Superman happened to share the views and values of the United States of America. What if the next meta human does not?

Or, to put it another way, what would happen if Superman used his powers to do evil, anti-human things? I guess the answer is that he’d basically be like General Zod (Michael Shannon) in “Man of Steel.” The DC Comics universe has a rich history of exploring the thin line that separates hero from criminal in its stories. Most notably, countless fans and pundits have pointed out how Batman and Joker are on opposite sides of the same coin. One push in a different direction for either one and Joker could be a hero—and Batman a villain. DC even went so far as to explore this in one of their alternate universes in which the members of the Justice League (such as Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman) are bad and their opponents, like Joker and Lex Luthor, are good.

In “Suicide Squad,” this theme most prominently manifests with the main attraction of this group of anti-heroes: Deadshot (Will Smith). Early on we see Deadshot use his skills as a hitman for hire. But that’s not all there is to him. He has an ex-wife and a young daughter named Zoe (Shailyn Pierre-Dixon). Zoe knows what he does for a living. Deadshot justifies his actions by only hurting criminals who deserve it. Unfortunately for him, this is America and we believe in due process. What makes him interesting—particularly as the movie goes along and we see the incredible scope of his skills—is the thought that if this guy took those skills and used them for good, he could be one of the greatest heroes in the DC Universe. Alas, he chose to kill people for money. For this he gets captured by Batman (Ben Affleck) and sent to a black site prison in Louisiana.

This has to be the worst prison in the world, not only for the inmates, but for the guards. The guards, led by the corrupt, sadistic yet funny Griggs (Ike Barinholtz), treat the prisoners terribly. In return, the prisoners--such as Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) and Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje)—wail on the guards and hurt them as much as they can. The fact that one of the movie’s credits is Missing Hand Guard (Christopher Dyson) says it all.



Back stories abound as Waller reads off dossiers of the group of meta-human prisoners she’s collected to fight against the next super human threat. In addition to Deadshot, Harley, and Croc, there is also Australian bank robber Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney), LA gang banger Diablo (Jay Hernandez), who can project fire, and last but not least an archaeologist named June Moone (Cara Delevingne), who has the ability to transform into a millennia-old witch named Enchantress. As bad luck would have it for Waller, Enchantress gets out of her control and causes devastation in Chicag—er, Midway City. It’s up to the assembled Suicide Squad team to go into Midway City, under the leadership of soldier Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman), rescue a VIP, and put an end to the supernatural menace plaguing the city.

The story is fairly straightforward, and “Suicide Squad” provides some exciting action scenes. The minions created by Enchantress look like they have black, pulsating blobs on their heads. The fact that these blobs crumble rather than splat when getting hit with bullets, baseball bats, or the sword wielded by Flag’s right hand woman Katana (Karen Fukuhara) help in earning the movie its PG-13 rating.

The rescue plans are subverted by the Joker (Jared Leto). Here and there we get snippets and flash backs to Harley’s past. We see her as Dr. Harleen Quinzel, psychiatrist at Arkham Asylum treating the Joker. She fell in love with her patient, helped him break free, and pledged her loyalty to him, thus becoming the psychotic, villainous Harley Quinn. While not necessary to the main story at hand in “Suicide Squad,” Leto’s snaky, purring, unhinged portrayal of the Joker is fairly mesmerizing. Plus it’s a great back story to tell, and much like Deadshot, this is the only place where we’re going to see back story--short of either of these two getting an origin story movie of their own. Could happen. “Wonder Woman” is getting her own origin story movie after appearing in “Batman v. Superman.”

Speaking of “Batman v. Superman,” this movie is better than that one, same as “Batman v. Superman” was better than “Man of Steel.” While DC may be struggling out of the gate to get their competitive franchise to Marvel’s off the ground, I have to give them credit for learning from their mistakes and making improvements with each new movie. “Suicide Squad” is the first movie in the new DC Universe that I think is worthwhile to Buy it on Amazon: Suicide Squad (Extended Cut Blu-ray + DVD + Digital HD UltraViolet Combo Pack).

Morgan

“Morgan” makes for a nice companion piece/double feature with last year’s “Ex Machina.” Both are tightly contained stories about humanoid scientific experiments in remote, isolated locations. Both also raise interesting moral and philosophical questions regarding life and what it means to be human.

In “Morgan,” after the humanoid experiment, played by Anya Taylor-Joy, goes awry and stabs out the left eye of one of her doctors/caretakers (Jennifer Jason Leigh), stone-faced consultant from corporate Lee Weathers (Kate Mara) arrives on the scene to assess and determine the best course of action to take. That is, does she recommend that Morgan be terminated, or does she agree to give her another chance?

It’s an interesting moral dilemma since Morgan herself was created in a lab. She’s five years old but looks and acts about sixteen. In the movie’s centerpiece—a fantastically suspenseful scene in which Morgan is grilled by a visiting psychiatrist (Paul Giamatti)—even she admits that she is not fully human; she is something not better or worse, just other. On the flip side, Morgan looks like a young woman and has thoughts, feelings, and a will to live like any regular human.

These heady questions are mostly abandoned during the second half of the movie in favor of violence and bloodshed. That’s fine, and director Luke Scott certainly has his father Ridley’s talent for filming swift violence in tight, dark corridors. I wish “Morgan” would have stayed on theme a bit longer before it decided to become just another action/chase movie, but taken for what it is, it’s a worthwhile enough thriller. Rent it.

Ben-Hur

This movie is called “Ben-Hur” but it would have been better off being called “Messala” and following the exploits of Judah Ben-Hur’s (Jack Huston) half brother Messala Severus (Toby Kebbell). After all, Messala is the adopted son who has to set out and prove himself worthy of being a Roman citizen. Judah has a comfortable life as a prince in Jerusalem in 33 A.D.

The main problem with the character of Judah is that he is so wishy-washy and milquetoast. As a community leader, he’s caught in the middle of constant skirmishing between Roman soldiers and Jewish zealots, yet takes no stand for or against one or the other. He remains blandly neutral.

To illustrate what I’m getting at, take a look at the scene in which Messala, now a prominent Roman soldier, asks Judah for help in convincing the people of Jerusalem to allow Pontius Pilate (Pilou Asbaek) safe passage into the city. Judah tells him that he was able to convince most of the people, but a few zealots wouldn’t budge. He refuses to name names, much to Messala’s dismay, but also wants Messala to know that he’s not against the Roman Empire and is doing what he can to keep the peace. Judah doesn’t make a clear declaration of allegiance one way or the other, he just tries to get along with everyone as best as possible. Contrast this with the similar scene in the Best Picture winning 1959 version of “Ben-Hur” in which Charlton Heston’s Judah tells Stephen Boyd’s Messala, “The day Rome falls there will be a shout of freedom such as the world has never heard before.” It’s pretty clear where Heston’s Judah stands on the issue of Roman occupation. This way of writing Judah—as a man with beliefs and principles who stands for something—is better. Much better.

The two huge scenes that must be paid close attention to for any movie calling itself “Ben-Hur” are the battle at sea when Judah is a galley slave and the climactic chariot race. To give credit where it’s due, these scenes are very well executed. Director Timur Bekmambetov clearly spent a lot of time and attention in making sure that both of these scenes provide the utmost action, suspense, and excitement. If only he would have done the same thing for the rest of the movie, who knows what he could have accomplished. Skip it.

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children

Tim Burton is the perfect director for “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children.” I read the book by Ransom Riggs a couple of years ago. I thought it was quirky and different, which is my opinion on a fair number of the movies of Tim Burton, and what I imagined while reading must have had a Tim Burton influence because a lot of the imagery I came up with is exactly like it is in the movie. In particular, when young protagonist Jake (Asa Butterfield) first discovers the remains of the house his grandfather (Terence Stamp) told him about, it’s like it was straight out of my mind.

The movie does veer from the book somewhat, and that’s fine. I’m not one of those uptight bores who says that a movie has to follow a book or it’s bad. A movie is its own entity that has the right to go off in its own direction and find its own meaning. As long as the movie is good on its own terms, that is all that counts. Given all of the imagination and creativity put forth on screen in this movie, I’d say it is good. The only real sticking point is the logic of the loops—periods frozen in time that are re-lived over and over again—and how they work. But a movie this simultaneously dazzling and spooky can be forgiven for coming up short on the details when it has such a fantastical story to tell. Rent it.

Bridget Jones’s Baby

The “Bridget Jones” movies have always impressed me with their will to be very bold and straightforward, especially when it comes to work, sex, and relationships—otherwise known as life. Bridget’s (Renée Zellweger) inner monologue of what she’s really thinking is the highlight that gets me roaring with laughter. The awkward and embarrassing situations she gets into, like having her news anchor Miranda (Sarah Solemani) interview a Korean general’s chauffeur rather than the general himself, are classic Bridget Jones.

Yes, Bridget is a news show producer now. She is also single, not in a relationship, overworked, and not having enough fun. She celebrates her forty-third birthday alone, in her apartment, with a single candle in a single cupcake. Yes, the “single” theme is very strong in the opening moments of “Bridget Jones’s Baby.”

Bridget reconnects with Mark Darcy (Colin Firth) at a funeral for someone who was very important in the previous two movies. Then at a music festival, after inadvertently insulting Ed Sheeran (as himself), she has a one night stand with a man named Jack (Patrick Dempsey), who also happens to be a billionaire who specializes in match making. Back home, in a moment of heated passion, she sleeps with Mark again. Then she finds out she’s pregnant. Problem is, she isn’t sure which of the two men is the father.

This is where “Bridget Jones’s Baby” stops being edgy and funny and delves more into sitcom territory. The movie goes through the motions of her wanting to tell each of them what is going on, then not, then she finally does. After she does, things get more mundane as each man tries to out-compete the other to prove he is the more suitable father. Then the ultimate seen it a thousand times “frantic people rush woman in labor to the hospital” scene happens. After she makes it, the usual tropes about breathing and dealing with the pain ensue. It’s a paint by numbers approach in which the numbers have already been painted many, many times before.

The second half of “Bridget Jones’s Baby” is not all bad, but I expected more from a movie that started off so sharp and witty. Still, there are some funny moments, and by the end I have to say that it warmed my heart to see the world’s favorite singleton finally settle down with the spouse and the child she’s been yearning after for so long—even if the route to get there was more than a bit cliche. Rent it.

More New Releases: “Equity” a movie I reviewed here; “Southside with You,” about the first date between future POTUS Barack Obama (Parker Sawyers) and future FLOTUS Michelle (Tika Sumpter) on Chicago’s South Side; and “End of a Gun,” decent Steven Seagal actioner in which he saves a woman from an abusive boyfriend then concocts a plan with her to steal money from a car being guarded by Parisian police.

Andrew Hudak is a lifelong film lover. His column on Blu-Ray new releases appears every Tuesday. He lives in Connecticut.

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