Florence Foster Jenkins

I randomly came across this movie when it was on free to air TV a couple of weeks ago, and it was amazing. Based on the life of a real person – and I actually looked up the real woman and was happy to see how historically accurate the movie is – Florence Foster Jenkins tells the story of a Gilded Age New York socialite who, near the end of her life, decides she has what it takes to become a famous opera singer.

The problem? She can’t sing to save herself. She becomes infamous rather than famous.

This is one of the funniest movies I’ve ever seen. You laugh and laugh … and then suddenly you’re crying because it really is a tragic story.

Meryl Streep actually trained as an opera singer (something I just learnt), and – much like the character of Carlotta in The Phantom of the Opera – in order to sing badly, you first have to learn to sing properly.

The real woman really was an appalling singer, and because she paid to have records of her voice made, you can listen to her even now. She’s even worse than in the movie.

The costumes in this movie are worth your time alone.

Streep was ROBBED of the Oscar for this performance (it went to La La Land that year), and both Hugh Grant and Simon Helberg (who is most famous as a sitcom actor, but who is actually a trained concert pianist) were nominated for Golden Globes for their parts. They’re both brilliant, too.

I’m so glad I stumbled across this.

Danger Close

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I had the opportunity to attend a special screening of Danger Close – The Battle of Long Tan last night with some Vietnam veterans (including my father) and other members of the Australian Defence Force. They actually had a counsellor there just in case, and now I understand why – it was quite the experience.

Long Tan is the best-known battle Australia (and New Zealand) fought in the Vietnam War, but I was still amazed both by the quality of the movie, and the actors in it. The “face” of the movie is Major Harry Smith, played by Travis Fimmel, of Vikings fame.

In the 1960s my father was an armoured personnel carrier driver stationed in Nui Dat, which is the base under attack in the movie. He later fought another major battle only a few kilometres from the base: Binh Ba, which had its fiftieth anniversary this year.

It was amazing to see people my father knows portrayed on the big screen, and to know people who consulted on the film.

I would strongly recommend this movie, as long as you’re prepared for it. It’s very confronting, and that much sadder because none of it is fiction.

Out this month: Mr Jones

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Historical film Mr Jones – about a Welsh journalist who risked his life to tell the truth about Stalin’s 1930s genocide in Ukraine – is out this month, beginning with a premiere at the Berlin Film Festival.

Unlike the Holocaust, the Kremlin’s forced famine genocide – known as the Holodomor – escaped the world’s notice mostly because Western journalists, many of them advocates of communism, spent decades denying it.

Conservative estimates of the death toll put it on par with the Holocaust, while others place the numbers much higher; up to ten-million Ukrainians killed between 1932 and 1933. The numbers vary so much because, unlike the Germans who documented every aspect of the Holocaust, the Russian authorities have done everything in their power to hide their crimes.

(It should be noted that the Kremlin committed another genocide, in Kazakhstan, at the same time, killing 42% of their population.)

Gareth Jones, played in the movie by English actor James Norton, saw the Holodomor firsthand, and went against the lead of Stalin-friendly journalists like The New York Times’ Walter Duranty to try and get the truth out beyond the Iron Curtain.

Jones was only twenty-nine when he was murdered, one day shy of his thirtieth birthday.

This film seems incredibly important in this day and age, with people once again reacting to rising fascism by identifying as communists and sympathising with Russia. As this Variety article points out, we live in a similar age to the 1930s, with propaganda and “fake news” dominating much of the press, and most of the world turning a blind eye to atrocities being committed by the Kremlin, and by the regimes in countries like Syria.

On this day: the birth of a theatre star

Fred & Adele Astaire. circa 1906. The photograph is a publicity photograph illustrating Fred Astaire and Adele Astaire in a vaudeville act entitled A Rainy Saturday.

Fred and Adele Astaire, circa 1906.

Adele Astaire, stage star and sister of her movie star brother, Fred, was born in Omaha, Nebraska on the 10th of September, 1896. Her birth name was Adele Marie Austerlitz, but the surname was changed to make her sound more “American”. As a child, she and her brother moved to New York to attend the Alviene Master School of the Theatre and Academy of Cultural Arts.

Publicity photograph of Fred Astaire and Adele Astaire in 1921.

In 1921

Three years Fred’s senior, Adele was actually the more successful stage performer of the two siblings. However her brother went on to find Hollywood fame, and while Adele considered moving into film, she abandoned the plan, admitting to being intimidated by her brother.

Astaire married twice (her first husband died in this thirties), and had three children. She was considered the more personable of the two siblings.

She died in January of 1981, at the age of eighty-four.

Victoria the Great – for fans of anything Victorian

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I commented on the new television series, Victoria, and how horrified I was by the deliberate changes to history (such as making a teenage girl’s ageing mentor her love interest!).

Recently a different version of Queen Victoria’s life was on television: Victoria the Great, released in 1937 on the centenary of the real queen’s ascension to the throne.

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Victoria being woken early to be informed she is now queen.

The movie version and a 19th century depiction of the moment.

Now, I don’t usually expect much of films from the 1930s (though Gone with the Wind has some spectacular crowd scenes that hold up today).

So how surprised I was to realise this old movie was the best interpretation of Queen Victoria’s life I’ve seen!

Actual, recorded historical moments are recreated beautifully, and accurately. I even learnt a few things – yes, I checked that they were true.

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The queen’s (played by Anna Neagle), and Prince Albert’s (played by Anton Walbrook, all the way down to his dorky hair) costumes and hairstyles are spot-on. In an era where historical licence was practically expected, the people working on this film have all but recreated the costumes from official portraits.

The sets and filming locations are spectacular, even in black and white. Unlike so many “historical” movies today, the dances are accurate for the period (Anna Karenina, I’m looking at you!), and the women have their hair pinned up! The forms of transport they use (such as the early train they depart London on) look accurate to me.

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I usually sit and nit-pick when watching historical dramas, but I couldn’t find much to complain about here.

I never liked The Young Victoria. For all the praise heaped on it, neither Emily Blunt or Rupert Friend suited their roles, and the less said about the horrific rewriting of history in the more recent Victoria, the better.

So far, this eighty-year-old film is my favourite version of the life of Britain’s most famous queen. I’m not sure how easy it is to track down these days, but it’s worth a watch.

In its time, Victoria the Great was so successful a second film was immediately made.