It's hard to believe that a lousy singer could have developed such a following, but they were laughing at her, not with her. Those close to Florence Foster Jenkins -- her husband, her accompanist, her club -- fanned the flames of her desire for a musical career. They protected her from critics' barbs.
I first learned about Florence Foster Jenkins in my high school music appreciation class back in the early Sixties. Our excellent teacher had taught us about the sonata-allegro form, opera, and 12 tones. Near the end of the semester, he put the needle down on a record and waited for us to respond to the voice rising from the sillions. We did not know whether to laugh or applaud -- until we looked up to see the impish grin on the teacher's face.
I've waited years for this story to be made into a film, and this year, there are two: Xavier Giannoli's excellent Marguerite was based loosely on Jenkins' life, whereas Stephen Frears' Florence Foster Jenkins adheres more closely to the heiress' biography. Marguerite is sharper, Florence struggles to be funnier. Simon Helberg (yes, Howard of Big Bang Theory) excels as the pianist with his quiet, broad, effeminate double-takes on Jenkins' sour notes. He supports Hugh Grant as St. Clair Bayfield, who exploits his mediocre acting skills to be Jenkins' adoring hubby. Those two actors support Meryl Streep, who, like Jack Benny, has to know a note or two about music in order to massacre it with such force. She inhabits the role, its wigs, tiaras, and corsetry.
Frears and writer Nicholas Martin spend too much time on certain aspects, not enough on Jenkins' background, but they have created a provocative film that asks, "Is life art or artifice?"
It starts as a comedy, a silly look at a group of improvisational comedians in their 30s. But Don't Think Twice, its title borrowed from a rule of improv and then doubled in meaning, becomes poignant before it's over. The film is not a grand exercise in maturation but in reality.
Don't Think Twice has the improvisors ask themselves, "Do you think you'll make it?" "Is it time to give up your dreams?" "What will be the tipping point?" It asks the audience members to see ourselves in the group called the Commune, to answer each time the comics ask each new audience, "Okay, who's had a bad day?" That's the question off which they riff each night, and it soon becomes pretty apparent that the comics could answer that straight without humor.
For one thing, their theater is being closed to make way for, oh, apartments or a mall or something. For another, one of them still lives in the top bunk; it's not hard to get girls, say, one of his improv students, to climb up there, but it is hard to get a real woman. For another thing, one of the troupe auditions his way into the big show on the big TV box, and that changes everything.
A lot is changing for these six. Don't Think Twice is not nearly so funny as one might expect, given the credentials of the cast: Mike Birbiglia, who wrote and directed; the brilliant Keegan-Michael Key; Gillian Jacobs from Community; Kate Micucci from "Another Period," Tami Sagher from Inside Amy Schumer; and Chris Gerhard, comic. But then, one of the rules of improv is "no showboating," and this team upholds that rule and Del Close's other two: Say "Yes" and Don't Think.
They do start to think -- twice and thrice -- and they make befitting changes. So if that's not funny, well, that's life, and Don't Think Twice presents that well and truly.
Telling stories matters, especially stories that have been kept hidden out of shame or protection of privacy. The right to a safe abortion may be the only law of the land that results in such secrecy, but to hear all these stories means that they are in the open.
Director Tracy Droz Tragos, from Missouri, concentrates on Missouri in her excellent documentary. These are women's stories. Abortion: Stories Women Tell is not balanced 50/50, pro/con. Just like the issue of abortion, the documentary and the women embrace a wide range.
Tragos begins with a brief history lesson of the January day in 1973 when the U.S. Supreme Court decided in Roe v. Wade that every woman in America had the right to choose. But since 2011, more than half the 50 states have restricted the means to abortion. In Missouri, only one clinic is open, and patients have to wait 72 hours between decision and procedure.
Women of all ages tell their stories: Amie in Boonville is a single mother of two. Debra is a clinic escort. Monique's baby's skull did not develop. Susan, who had three abortions, is now anti-abortion. Te'Aundra had a baby.
The film follows some women from home to clinic and allows others to remember long-ago decisions.
Tragos intersperses landscapes with interiors -- the rivers and bridges; small, white houses in the country; tawdry ghettos -- from Columbia, Mo., to St. Louis and over the river to Granite City. There are close-ups of women's faces, including a pregnant ob-gyn at Hope Clinic in Granite City, and there are close-ups of rosaries. Tragos ends with a montage of all the women's faces and this quote: "Telling stories is so important. Keeping it locked inside is killing us."
People who title films should think just a little harder before etching them in concrete. To wit: Anthropoid sounds like a work of science fiction. It is not. The title comes from Operation Anthropoid, the name of a Resistance movement in 1942 to assassinate a Nazi in Czechoslovakia.
This Nazi is not a run-of-the-mill schlub. He is SS General Reinhard Heydrich, the main architect behind the Final Solution. Heydrich stood behind Hitler and Himmler in order of command. He led the Nazi forces in Czechoslovakia, and he came to be known, for good reason, as the "Butcher of Prague." His murderous methods led two men, a Czech and a Slovak, to emerge from self-exile to join a plan by the Resistance to assassinate Heydrich.
The film begins and ends with quite a history lesson for viewers who have forgotten or never knew this aspect of world history. The narrative before the action lines up over black and white photographs, but, soon, the pictures have turned to color, so that the blood from a foot wound shows red as it flows.
Anthropoid, under the direction of Sean Ellis depends on terribly close-up shots, the kind that create claustrophobia but make the view feel inside small quarters and whispered instructions. Ellis also offers murky scenes of haze, smoke, and fog with sfumato effects.
The effects are not enough to make Anthropoid a great war movie, or a great filler of historical gaps. Of the cast, Cillian Murphy, the Irish actor from Inception; Jamie Dornan, also Irish, from Fifty Shades of Grey; and Toby Jones, the English actor from "The Hunger Games," have recognizable faces and mumbly voices.
Anthropoid does not re-write history. All does not end well. That's the best aspect of this tolerable film.
Frank Zappa needs no mouthpiece, no PR flak, no spinner. He was a man of words, his own, and this documentary presents the man in his own words. Usually documentary biographies offer up talking heads on silver platters, but Eat That Question needs no other heads but Zappa's big, hairy one.
That means that members of his band, the Mothers of Invention, are not even introduced. Zappa's wife Gail is alluded to, but unseen. Their four children are not even in the background, let alone photo-bombing in the spotlight of the foreground. His producers and supporters and fan clubs are mostly silent. Eat That Question is all Zappa, all the time.
Sometimes, it's Zappa playing his music with his merry music makers, in on the mystery and methods and madness. Sometimes, it's home movies of the Mothers, and sometimes, it's Zappa's being interviewed. Here he is with Steverino, the Great Steve Allen, playing music on a bike. And here he is with his Norse fans or his French following. And here he is on "What's My Line?," the old Sunday night quiz show. And here he is, often, half-naked.
Director Thorsten Schütte follows a strictly chronological order, with Zappa's referring to his first paid gig at age 15 back when he thought music looked nice on paper. Schütte follows him from a concert cancelled to protect the reputation of the concert hall, runs news reels of Zappa counterpointing those, like Tipper Gore, who would grade music's lyrics, dirty word by dirty word, and through interviews. In typical philippic, Zappa defines his fans as "just snotty little people who stopped listening in 1967." "Plastic people," he implores, "you've got to go!"
The hardest part of this good documentary is watching Zappa, who defined music like no one else, facing the prostate cancer that ultimately took his in life 1993.