Dinner and a Movie
By Steve Herte
Florence Foster Jenkins (Paramount, 2016) – Director: Stephen Frears. Writer: Nicholas Martin. Stars: Meryl Streep, Hugh Grant, Aida Garifullina, David Haig, Simon Helberg, Rebecca Ferguson, Stanley Townsend, Nina Arlanda, Christian McKay, John Kavanagh, Allan Corduner, Mark Arnold, and Nat Luurtsema. Color, Rated PG-13, 111 minutes.
It’s 1944, World War II is in its fifth year and the Verdi Theater is providing music to the elite of New York City to keep their spirits up. With the monetary support of Florence Foster Jenkins (Meryl Streep), an heiress and wife of St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant), an out of work Shakespearean actor, musical vignettes and tableaux are performed along with monologues for the Vanderbilts, Garmunders and other society people.
When St. Clair takes Florence to Carnegie Hall to hear Lily Pons (Garifullina) sing, she’s not only enraptured but she decides to revive her own singing career, even though at 76 she hasn’t sung in 50 years. She enlists the vocal coaching of Carlo Edwards (Haig) of the Metropolitan Opera and has St. Clair interview potential piano accompanists. The first applicant pounds out a passionate Chopin work and Florence complains that he’s “raping my ears” and he’s summarily dismissed. But when Cosmé McMoon (Helberg) plays “The Dying Swan” by Tchaikovsky, she’s totally enthralled and tells St. Clair to send the other applicants home.
Florence warns Cosmé that “I work hard at my singing. One hour a day, sometimes two.” He agrees and arrives promptly for the first rehearsal the next day. But he is not prepared for what he will hear. As Florence joyously goes from gasping low notes to almost quacking the high ones, he has to control himself to keep from laughing. The audience, however cannot do the same. As Carlo enthuses over her, giving her encouragement and vocal tips along the way (which she basically misunderstands anyway) the scene is side-splitting. Later, in the elevator, Cosmé just cannot restrain his laughter, and the audience has a second helping of hilarity.
But every family has its ups and downs and Florence’s marriage is no exception. St. Clair and she do not have a physical relationship (for reasons we learn toward the end of the film) and he leaves her in Manhattan for his apartment in Brooklyn, which he shares with Kathleen (Ferguson).
Florence decides that she’s ready for a concert and St. Clair judiciously controls the ticket sales. Only “Music Lovers” are allowed to attend. This elite group of high society includes Phineas Stark (Townsend) and his new gold-digger type wife Agnes (Arlanda). The line of people is most impressed when Florence walks past them with Arturo Toscanini (Kavanagh). John Totten (Corduner), show critic for the New York Post tries to get a ticket but is put off when St. Clair offers him a bribe not to review it. At the concert, all are polite, but Agnes, not knowing how to react begins cackling and coughing and is removed from the venue as having had an attack of illness. Outside the theater, she’s still rolling on the floor laughing.
The concert goes so well that Florence makes a recording to give as a gift to her friends for Christmas. A new song, “Like a Bird” written by Cosmé is played on the radio and the fan mail pours into Florence’s apartment (mostly from servicemen). She surprises St. Clair by booking Carnegie Hall for a free concert to 1,000 servicemen to thank them for their sacrifices. Her usual coterie of friends is also invited along with Cole Porter (Arnold) who brings Tallulah Bankhead (Nat Luurtsema). Up until now, St. Clair has been able to control the outcome and feedback, but this time he sees the servicemen arriving drunk and among the audience is John Totten (who leaves early).
Whether or not it is intentionally funny, Florence Foster Jenkins is a sensitive recounting of a true story. Meryl Streep masterfully plays the eccentric lead character while channeling Julia Child (I could hear it) and Hyacinth Bucket (Keeping Up Appearances – BBC). Hugh Grant, though a little over-the-top in his monologues, is genuine in his love both for Florence and Kathleen. And, he does a mean swing dance with Agnes at a party. Simon Helberg is the perfect straight man. His mobile face tells what he’s feeling and the audience can sense it through him. After a near disaster, he’s still agog. “I played Carnegie Hall!”
Having seen Meryl Streep in Into the Woods, I know she really can sing (it’s proven toward the end of the film). Learning deliberately how to sing badly must have been a chore. I definitely recommend this film to families with children who will understand what’s going on on-screen. Small children will not. I also see a few Oscar nominations and hopefully a win for Florence Foster Jenkins.
Rating: 4½ out of 5 Martini glasses.
8 W. 36th St., New York
Those who think that Kristalbelli is an Italian restaurant would be wrong. It’s a high-end, chic, Korean restaurant. From the street, all that can be seen is a red cedar paneled door with “8W” above it and the name in raised bronze letters across it. The door is subtly recessed into a wall of gray cedar shingling and is easy to miss if you’re not aware of the address.
Inside, all is sleek cream colors and black trim. I was taken to a room consisting of five tables, a wall of mirrors and rainwater-clear glass swags. Asked ahead of time if I was going to do their barbecue or order off the menu, I chose the latter and a table had to be readied for me, for all tables in this restaurant are cooking stations for barbecue. A pedestal houses a stove whose heating element cooks through a crystal bowl in the table top. This circular bowl forms the center of a brass Buddha’s belly, which rests on the marble tabletop, hence “crystal belly.” or Kristalbelli. A pun.
To start, I ordered the Cucumber Sojutini, a refreshing mix of Soju (a distilled rice liquor whose name means “burned alcohol drink”), lime juice, muddled cucumber and a splash of soda garnished with a cucumber slice. The steel martini glass was the most attractive part of this deceptively mild drink.
As I was finishing my cocktail, my first course, the Shrimp Salad, arrived – warm, plump, spicy seriously spicy Tiger Shrimp liberally placed on fresh mesclun greens, frisé and baby spinach with a sweet mayo sauce dressing. I loved it.
The second course, the Full Moon Dumplings, arrived before I was two-thirds finished with the first. The dumplings look just like Japanese or Chinese fried dumplings, only these are lined up on the plate and are partially covered by a thin crispy crust, which gives the overall impression of a horseshoe crab on the plate. Given the choice of pork or vegetable stuffing, I chose pork. The server instructed me on how to separate the dumplings with the serving tongs and how to crack the crust and get the most enjoyment out of the dish.
While enjoying my two appetizers, my wine arrived, a 2013 Syrah “Ex Umbris” from Columbia Valley in Washington State: a deep, dark red, full-bodied and with a blackberry tone to the taste, perfect for the meal.
A woman rolled a cart in with a platter of typical Korean side dishes including; spiced dried squid, sweetened beets, string beans, red cabbage and a savory tofu. On a separate plate, she placed a single oblong piece of the national dish, Kimchi (a Korean red pepper spiced cabbage).
I was enjoying tasting all of the side dishes between sips of my wine when the main course, Galbijjim, arrived. Served in a bubbling hot iron crock was the juiciest, tender braised beef short ribs (I could cut the pieces with my chopsticks) mixed with jujube (a fruit much like a date), rice cake and mushrooms in the most outrageous sauce I could imagine. Utterly delicious with an earthy overtone.
Would there be room for dessert? Actually, I was satisfied but not full. My waiter recommended two desserts, one as being the most popular and the other as his favorite. I chose the most popular one, again, because of the name, Nunedine, a dollop of caramel ice cream drizzled with caramel on one side of the plate and three crisp puff pastries at the other joined by a smear of chocolate sauce and a smear of caramel on the plate.
When I finished this meal, my opinion of Korean restaurants improved greatly. This was my 10th experience and a very pleasant one. Everyone on the staff was smiling genuinely and were happy to answer my questions. The big surprise was the demonstration on how to eat the dumplings. I’m not used to that. Kristalbelli, silly name or not, is number one in my Korean book.
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