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Film reviews: Florence Foster Jenkins and Robinson Crusoe

Damon Smith reviews the latest releases

Published 29/04/2016

Seth Rogen, Rose Byrne and Zac Efron return forl Bad Neighbours 2
Seth Rogen, Rose Byrne and Zac Efron return forl Bad Neighbours 2

This week: Meryl Streep plays a socialite with almost no musical ability who becomes an unlikely singing sensation in the uplifting comedy drama Florence Foster Jenkins , Ben Stassen and Vincent Kesteloot direct the computer-animated adventure Robinson Crusoe and Tom Hiddleston stars in Hank Williams biopic I Saw the Light.

Film of the week


Florence Foster Jenkins

(PG, 110 mins) Comedy/Drama/Musical/Romance. Released: May 6 (UK & Ireland)

Meryl Streep, Hugh Grant, Simon Helberg, Rebecca Ferguson, Nina Arianda, John Kavanagh, Christian McKay, David Haig. Director: Stephen Frears.

Auditions for televised talent shows throw up a limitless supply of deluded wannabes, who refuse to let a lack of musicality or rhythm hamper their quest for pop superstardom.

Occasionally, these lovable misfits strike a chord because of their unfettered enthusiasm - witness the inexorable rise of The Cheeky Girls and Jedward.

Amateur operatic soprano Florence Foster Jenkins was one such endearing eccentric, who became a cause celebre in 1930s and 1940s New York precisely because she was unable to hold a note during her infamous recitals of Verdi, Brahms and Mozart.

Recordings of her caterwauling became collector's items and her concerts were always sold out.

Jenkins brought joy to millions and remained convinced of her soaring abilities until her glorious end, aged 76.

This real-life story of triumph against sniggering cynicism provides rich inspiration for Stephen Frears' rollicking comedy drama.

Anchored by tour-de-force performances from Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant that perfectly harmonise humour and pathos, Florence Foster Jenkins is an unabashedly joyful period piece that stands resolutely behind the eponymous socialite as she massacres the Laughing Song from Die Fledermaus or the Queen Of The Night aria from The Magic Flute.

As the heroine remarks, "People may say I couldn't sing but no one can say I didn't sing."

Florence (Streep) is determined to further her musical ambitions with the help of her second husband and doting companion, St Clair (Grant).

"I shall need a pianist. Someone young, someone with passion!" declares Florence excitedly.

The couple audition several accompanists but they fail to meet Florence's exacting standards.

"He's raping my ears. Make him stop!" she pleads after one hopeful tinkles the ivories.

Cosme Moon (Simon Helberg) eventually lands the position of Florence's pianist and his first experience of Florence in full voice is played for tear-streaming belly laughs by Frears.

The grand dame pays Cosme well and he gradually falls under his wealthy employer's spell, acknowledging that she is just following her dream, like everyone else.

Vocal coach Carlo Edwards (David Haig) and venerated conductor Arturo Toscanini (John Kavanagh) prepare Florence for a big concert at the world-famous Carnegie Hall.

However, St Clair worries that the stress of the forthcoming engagement is playing havoc with her faltering health.

"What if it kills you?" he frets.

"Then I shall die happy," smiles Florence serenely.

Audiences will certainly die happy after watching Florence Foster Jenkins.

Streep is mesmerising, bringing tenderness and vulnerability to a role that could so easily have been played as a pitiful figure of mockery.

Grant is a wonderful comic foil and he demonstrates a light touch in moving scenes that remind us of his oft-ignored abilities as a dramatic actor.

Period design is impeccable and Frears builds to a rousing emotional crescendo worthy of one of Jenkins' standing ovations.




Robinson Crusoe

(PG, 90 mins) Animation/Drama/Comedy

Featuring the voices of Yuri Lowenthal, David Howard, Colin Metzger, Lindsay Torrance, Sandy Fox, Jeff Doucette, Laila Berzins, Joey Camen, Debi Tinsley, Doug Stone. Directors: Vincent Kesteloot, Ben Stassen.

Released: May 6 (UK & Ireland)

Published in 1719, Daniel Defoe's chronicle of a shipwreck survivor who lives alone on an island for 28 years, is a beautifully crafted study of solitude, resourcefulness and British imperialism.

The gnawed bones of the book are still visible in Vincent Kesteloot and Ben Stassen's computer-animated retelling, but this Robinson Crusoe is a resolutely child-friendly edition, told from the perspective of birds and animals which befriend the title character during his tropical isolation.

Cuteness and gentle humour trump sophisticated storytelling and harsh realism throughout.

The feathered and furred critters speak to each other and trade one-liners - although Robinson can't understand their grunts, growls, purrs and squawks.

The wildlife is extremely tame.

Robinson (voiced by Yuri Lowenthal) heads to sea with his shaggy dog Aynsley (Doug Stone) and quickly falls foul of the ship's gnarly cats, May (Debi Tinsley) and Mal (Doucette again).

A violent storm shipwrecks Robinson on an island, which is home to a macaw called Mak (David Howard) and his friends: a chameleon called Carmello (Colin Metzger), a feisty kingfisher called Kiki (Lindsay Torrance), an echidna called Epi (Sandy Fox), a pangolin called Pango (Jeff Doucette), a tapir called Rosie (Laila Berzins) and a doddering old goat called Scrubby (Joey Camen).

Mak has always been a dreamer and believes the glittering treasures, which sometimes wash up on the sun-kissed idyll, indicate a brighter future over the horizon.

The other denizens of the island reject the bird's fantasies.

"My dear macaw, you must wake up and smell the papaya," wearily intones Carmello.

Robinson's unexpected arrival adds fuel to Mak's suspicions that the world doesn't begin and end on the island.

The animals are initially wary of the human interloper, but eventually live in harmony with the gangly shipwreck survivor in a makeshift tree house.

Unfortunately, Machiavellian moggies May and Mal also avoid a watery grave and they plot revenge from nearby Curse Island, flanked by their army of hungry kittens.

Robinson Crusoe is a simplistic and sporadically entertaining journey of self-discovery.

The colourful animation pops, but vocal performances are flat and some of the gags misfire, although early scenes are a rich source of humour as the island's denizens study a human for the first time.

"He's stripped off his skin!" shrieks Kiki as Robinson removes a jacket.

Co-directors Kesteloot and Stassen choreograph energetic action sequences to take advantage of the 3D format.

This eye-popping extra dimension is used smartly in one breathless chase along a network of irrigation pipes that carries precious water to the tree house and other parts of the island.

The camera careens along the precariously constructed flumes, occasionally swooping along vertiginous rock faces that support the pipes.

It's a long way down.



Forthcoming releases

Bad Neighbours 2

(15, 92 mins)

Released: May 6 (UK & Ireland)

Terrible neighbours become good friends in Nicholas Stoller's sequel to his 2014 comedy, which pitted an exhausted couple with a newborn baby against the scheming members of a boozy fraternity.

The gender tables are turned in Bad Neighbours 2 when Mac (Seth Rogen) and Kelly Radner (Rose Byrne) buy a new home to raise their two-year-old daughter Stella (Elise Vargas) and must wait 30 days for the buyers of their current home to sign the contract.

In the interim, a sorority led by wild child Shelby (Chloe Grace Moretz) and best friend Madison (Selena Gomez) moves into the house next door and sends shockwaves along the street with raucous and boozy behaviour. Mac and Kelly are horrified - the buyers could pull out of the house sale when they discover they are going to live next door to drunken teenagers - so the couple resolves to drive out the sorority.

The Radners join forces with old adversary Teddy Sanders (Zac Efron) to outwit the girls, but Shelby, Madison and their scantily clad posse are also prepared to play dirty to retain their headquarters for Kappa Nu.


I Saw the Light

(15, 124 mins)

Released: May 6 (UK & Ireland, selected cinemas)

Taking its title from a song written and performed by Hank Williams, Marc Abraham's musical biopic charts the rise of the country music legend until his premature death at the age of 29. In a gas station, Hank (Tom Hiddleston) marries his first wife Audrey (Elizabeth Olsen), who hopes to be his musical partner as well as his soulmate.

Unfortunately, she doesn't possess the same lyrical voice and when Hank's song Love Sick Blues reaches the top of the country chart, he seems destined for greatness.

He dazzles during an audition for the legendary venue, the Grand Ole Opry, and celebrates by boozing and womanizing. His publisher and manager Fred Rose (Bradley Whitford) and his mother Lillie (Cherry Jones) cannot curb his excesses and Hank careens towards the brink of self-destruction.


Knight of Cups

(15, 118 mins)

Released: May 6 (UK & Ireland, selected cinemas)

Drawing inspiration from tarot cards, writer-director Terrence Malick explores the hollowness and solitude of modern life through the odyssey of a Los Angeles screenwriter who is luckless in his pursuit of a companion. Rick (Christian Bale) is haunted by the death of one of his brothers and the poor run of luck suffered by his father Joseph (Brian Dennehy) and youngest sibling Barry (Wes Bentley).

Seeking temporary solace in the addictions and excesses of the filmmaking industry, Rick ricochets between six different women including his ex-wife Nancy (Cate Blanchett), a young rebel called Della (Imogen Poots), sexy stripper Karen (Teresa Palmer), beautiful model Helen (Freida Pinto), emotionally scarred old flame Elizabeth (Natalie Portman) and a free spirit called Isabel (Isabel Lucas). Through these interactions, Rick slowly shakes himself out of a rut.



(15, 82 mins)

Released: May 6 (UK, selected cinemas)

French writer-director Lucile Hadzihalilovic conjures a nightmarish vision of the future in her haunting sci-fi drama Evolution, which upends everything we accept as fact about human biology. Nicolas (Max Brebant) lives on a paradise island with his mother (Julie-Marie Parmentier) as part of a community of young boys, each of whom is tended by a curiously offhand matriarch.

There are no adult males on the island and Nicolas' mother skillfully deflects the boy's questions about his odd living arrangements. During a swim, Nicolas glimpses what he believes is a corpse. When his mother fails to offer a satisfactory explanation, Nicolas and some of the other lads defy orders to investigate.

Consequently, the youngsters uncover the truth about their island and their relationship with their mothers, and Nicolas befriends a nurse called Stella (Roxane Duran), who is at the blackened heart of the conspiracy.


These Final Hours

(15, 87 mins)

Released: May 6 (UK, selected cinemas)

Australian writer-director Zak Hilditch's apocalyptic thriller premiered at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival to critical acclaim. A large meteor impacts Earth, creating a firestorm that slowly sweeps across the surface of the planet, incinerating everything in its path.

In Perth, citizens know they have around 12 hours until the inferno reaches them. James (Nathan Phillips) and his lover Zoe (Jessica De Gouw) make love for the final time before he leaves to attend a farewell party hosted by Freddy (Daniel Henshall).

En route, he encounters two men, who have kidnapped a girl, whom they intend to rape. James rescues the captive, Rose (Angourie Rice), and agrees to leave her in the company of his sister and her husband. Fate conspires against James and he must spend his final hours in the company of Rose, witnessing the immorality of fellow Australians who realise they can indulge every wild and grotesque fantasy because none of them will live to face the consequences.



(15, 106 mins)

Released: May 6 (UK, selected cinemas)

Schoolteacher Tomas (Javier Camara) bids farewell to his family and travels to Madrid to reunite with his best friend, Julian (Ricardo Darin), a theatre actor who has been diagnosed with inoperable cancer and must plan for his final curtain call.

The two men make awkward preparations such as choosing a coffin for Julian and agonising over who should adopt the teacher's ageing dog, Truman. Julian must also brace himself for an uncomfortable conversation with his son Luis (Oriol Pla) about his impending death.

Adding spice to the bittersweet mix, Julian's fiery-tempered cousin Paula (Dolores Fonzi) isn't shy about sticking her nose in. As Tomas helps Julian to navigate these choppy emotional waters, he's powerless to prevent a few obstacles getting in the way, like an angry encounter with a fellow actor (Eduard Fernandez), whose wife recently slept with Julian.


Globe On Screen: Measure For Measure

Released: May 6 (UK & Ireland, selected cinemas)

Filmed live at the historic Shakespeare's Globe theatre in London in 2015, Dominic Dromgoole's critically acclaimed production of Shakespeare's dark and troubling drama of messy sexual politics and social justice remains faithful to the text.

Duke Vincentio (Dominic Rowan) is appalled by the immorality in Vienna and he withdraws from public life, leaving the day-to-day running of his domain in the hands of puritanical deputy Angelo (Kurt Egyiawan). In the process of zealously following the letter of the law, Angelo condemns nobleman Claudio (Joel MacCormack) to death.

When Claudio's virginal sister Isabella (Mariah Gale), who is a nun in training, learns of her sibling's fate, she travels to the court to plead for leniency. In the process, Isabella kindles sparks of lust in Angelo and threatens to enslave the deputy to the same uncontrollable desires that he is attempting to stamp out.

Coming next week ...

Feathered friends do battle with porcine adversaries in the computer-animated comedy ANGRY BIRDS - THE MOVIE... a journalist (Tina Fey) discovers herself during dangerous assignments in Pakistan and Afghanistan in the comedy drama WHISKEY TANGO FOXTROT... Ewan McGregor and Naomie Harris become embroiled in a web of deceit in the serpentine thriller OUR KIND OF TRAITOR... and director Richard Linklater steps back in time to the 1980s for the nostalgic coming of age story EVERYBODY WANTS SOME!!

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