From the Netflix Movie Vault

Shirley MacLaine, Meryl Streep, Postcards from the EdgeThese two interesting movies couldn’t be more different, though both are based on best-selling books and turn on the unlikely matter of insurance. The more fun was Postcards from the Edge (1990), which, through a horrible coincidence, arrived just after Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds died. Postcards is based very loosely on Fisher’s semi-autobiographical novel, and the obvious question is whether Reynolds was “really like that.”  Fisher said not and, suffice it to say, when Reynolds wanted to play the mother in the movie, director Mike Nichols told her she wasn’t right for it. (Nice Vanity Fair story here about the real mother-daughter relationship.)

I was apprehensive about sitting through another Hollywood druggie movie, even one billed as a comedy-drama (trailer), but in the first moments Meryl Streep walks into the frame, and I knew I’d be in good hands. Not only her performance as Suzanne Vale (Fisher), but Shirley MacLaine’s as Suzanne’s wine-drinking, self-absorbed, hyper-critical mother make the film worth seeing. Small roles for Annette Bening, Richard Dreyfuss, Gene Hackman, and Dennis Quaid are fun too. The strength of the performances means the movie holds up, nearly 30 years after it was made.

After a disastrous overdose, a stint in rehab helps Suzanne get her act together, but the only way anyone will give her another role is if she lives “supervised”—that is, with Mom. Otherwise, the studio will never be able get insurance for her. Returning to Mom ain’t easy. While you can see she totally adores her mother, she fears being “sucked into her massive orbit,” as Hunter Harris said in Vulture. Despite Suzanne’s shaky grip on herself, Streep plays it so you can’t help rooting for her, and you know she’ll come out all right.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 90%; audiences 66%. (Interesting split there.)

In-The-Heart-Of-The-SeaBy contrast, 2015’s In the Heart of the Sea (trailer) is pretty darn depressing, if less emotionally engaging. It’s a seafaring adventure film about the 1819, real-life voyage of the Essex, a whaler out of Nantucket. While hunting whales in the South Pacific, the hunters enrage an enormous white sperm whale—virtually as long as the Essex itself—that takes its revenge on the ship, its whaleboats, and the crew. The Essex sinks, and the three remaining whaleboats struggle toward the coast of South America. Eventually, only eight crewmen make it back to Nantucket. Sound familiar?

The framing device of the story is that young author Herman Melville has an all-night interview with Thomas Nickerson, the Essex’s cabin boy and last surviving crew member. For decades, he has been keeping the secret of what actually occurred on the voyage and the desperate return trip. The ship owners, rather than have the world think whaling is too dangerous to invest in or insure (!) maintain the ship was lost when it ran aground.

But Melville is following rumors there’s more to the story, and by the time he leaves Nickerson’s company is determined to write what becomes The Great American Novel, Moby Dick (1851). In real life, both Nickerson and the first mate, Owen Chase, published accounts of the ill-fated trip, and these did inspire Melville’s book.

The film has exciting special effects—storms at sea, overhead views of the ship and the whales. Whale-killing is an unsavory business, and viewers can only be glad smellovision has not been invented. Good performances from Ben Whishaw as Melville and Brendan Gleeson as the aging sailor. Unfortunately, I didn’t find the Essex’s captain (Benjamin Walker) and first mate (Chris Hemsworth) very compelling, and I don’t know whether that was because of wooden performances or a bad script. Director Ron Howard clearly aspired for more here. As a fan of seagoing adventures, I wish he’d achieved it.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 42%; audiences 53%.

Florence Foster Jenkins

Florence Foster Jenkins

Simon Helberg, Meryl Streep, & Hugh Grant in Florence Foster Jenkins

Based on the true story of socialite, arts patron, and would-be coloratura soprano Florence Foster Jenkins, this Stephen Frears movie (trailer, with a nice feature afterward) is a perfect summer entertainment. Even though practically everyone other than her doting, doddering age-peers recognizes how truly awful her singing is and how bizarre are her costumes, the movie nevertheless is persistently upbeat and goodhearted.

Florence is generous and kind and, while it’s clear she’ll never be the singer she thinks she is, in Meryl Streep’s wonderful characterization, you don’t hold her delusions against her. Streep is supported by Hugh Grant, in a wholly sympathetic portrayal of Florence’s unfailingly supportive husband, St. Clair Bayfield, a handsome actor seven years younger than Florence in real life.

I fell in love with her pianist, Cosmé McMoon, as played by Simon Helberg. McMoon starts his new gig as her accompanist with great enthusiasm and the promise of a much fatter wallet, and when he hears her sing, his growing shock and bewilderment is priceless.

The only mean-spirited skunk in the whole film is New York Post gossip columnist Earl Wilson. His headline after Florence’s 1944 Carnegie Hall appearance called her the world’s worst singer. Nice opening credits, great classic cars, love her beads!

As The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw says, “there are no wrong notes in this film,” and the audience loved her “so-bad-it’s-good” performances, and you will too!

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating 86%; audiences 77%.

Ricki and the Flash

Meryl Streep, Ricki and the FlashShe was Julia Child. She was Margaret Thatcher. She was Mamma Mia. And now Meryl Streep is Ricki Rendazzo, aging, nearly bankrupt rock singer living uneasily with a big consequential choice she made along the way—career over family (trailer). Her band, The Flash, plays the modest Salt Well bar in Tarzana, California, but they rock it. We already knew Streep could sing, and for this film she spent six months learning how to play guitar, coached by Neil Young (video). Ricki’s lead guitarist Greg is played by Rick Springfield, and you can feel his longing to be more to her, if she’d let him.

Back home in Indiana, her ex-husband Pete (Kevin Kline) is dealing with their daughter Julie, abandoned by her two-timing husband, now depressed, and suicidal. He calls Linda—Ricki is her stage name—to let her know, and she scrapes together enough money to fly back to see what she can do. Precious little, it appears—a classic case of too little, many years too late. Mother and daughter struggle to reconnect, and it isn’t easy or even certain. Julie is played beautifully by Streep’s real-life daughter, Mamie Gummer. (In profile, the two have exactly the same nose.)

Some excruciatingly wonderful scenes, including a fancy-restaurant “family dinner” with all three of Ricki’s kids, where accusations are the main course. Julie’s seething glare could burn holes in a flimsier construction than Ricki. The pain and even humor of the situation are so sharp, you know no matter who gets the check, they’ve already paid.

And, here’s something unexpected. The parents act like grown-ups. Pete, his second wife Maureen (Audra McDonald), even Ricki and Greg—show business types of whom not much is expected, perhaps—show what they’re made of when it really matters.

Director Jonathan Demme keeps the film moving with no unnecessary drag and made the great choice of putting lifelong musicians in the band, including Funkadelic keyboarder Bernie Worrell, bassist Rick Rosas, and drummer Joe Vitale. They performed all the movie’s songs live and with no overdubs—Springfield calls this brave of Streep, especially. Academy Award-winner Diablo Cody wrote the script.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating 62%, audiences 55%. I thought audiences would be kinder to it than the critics. The big complaint seems to be the script is predictable, but since there are only what, six plots . . .? it may in retrospect be predictable, but I didn’t especially feel that while I was watching, and it was never that corollary of predictable, boring! As Glenn Kenny says in his mostly positive review (didn’t like the ending) for RogerEbert.com, “One of the nicer things about the movie is how it avoids overt clichés while still partaking of convention.”