Kedi

(Turkey / USA 2016)

Warm, lively, and thorough, Ceyda Torun’s oddly intriguing documentary Kedi is a sort of love letter to Istanbul (not Constantinople) and its thousands of roaming street cats that have shared space with people since the days of the Ottoman Empire. As one resident puts it early on, “Without the cat, Istanbul would lose a part of its soul.”

Yes, the cats are cute. Alp Korfali and Charlie Wuppermann follow a number of them as they move through their day: one gathers scraps to feed her kittens stashed safely in a retail building, another is pulled into a turf war with an orange tabby drifter, and yet another assumes the responsibility of taking care of vermin that dare to enter a popular seaside gathering spot for humans.

Each cat has a story, and each attracts — and impacts — different people: a shopkeeper, an artisan, a restaurant owner, a bona fide crazy cat lady. These cats are therapeutic, bringing happiness and purpose to residents. They serve as companions and wards. Most of them have a tough life — or nine of them. Torun does a nice job showing that the cats in Istanbul face the exact same threats that people do: overpopulation, urban development, and local politics.

I laughed, I cried, it was much better than…well, Cats.

With Sari, Duman, Bengü, Aslan Parçasi, Gamsiz, Psikopat, and Deniz

Production: Termite Films

Distribution: Oscilloscope Laboratories

79 minutes
Not rated

(Gene Siskel Film Center at Chicago Athletic Association) B-

https://www.kedifilm.com

Madonna: Innocence Lost

(USA / Canada 1994)

“I take what I need and I move on. And if people can’t move with me, well then I’m sorry.”

— Madonna

Wow, I completely forgot about this tawdry exposé made for TV — American TV, which is even worse — chronicling Madonna’s early years in New York City. It aired on Fox in the mid-nineties, and it’s actually amazing only for how awful it is. All the stops are pulled out, and it’s a trainwreck: the overriding theme is that Madonna is an ambitious whore. OK, National Enquirer.

Based on Christopher Andersen’s 1991 biography — totally unauthorized, I add — Michael J. Murray’s script is just plain sad. Some of it is remarkably accurate, but some of it…not so much. I recognize every single interview where he culled material to tell the Material Girl’s story — in Time, Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair, Interview, and a few other magazines. He doesn’t just lift background, he lifts dialogue. Verbatim. That opening monologue is straight from a letter to Stephen Jon Lewicki in which she begs to appear in his softcore film A Certain Sacrifice. The characters are all real people even if their names are changed: her donut shop manager (Kenner Ames), Dan Gilroy (Jeff Yagher), Camille Barbone (Wendie Malick), Mark Kamins (Mitch Roth), Seymour Stein (Don Francks), frequent collaborator Steve Bray (Ephraim Hylton), and last but not least her father, Silvio Ciccone (Dean Stockwell).

I’m mildly impressed that her mother (Jenny Parsons), shown entirely in black and white flashbacks, even comes up. And the many guys she slept with, some of them with a purpose. And that gumcracking? Brilliant!

Terumi Matthews plays a young Madonna, and to her credit she nails the megastar’s ideosynchrocies perfectly! I’ll give her that. However, the vignettes and Catholic imagery stolen straight from the video for “Oh Father” are so lame that I feel like I should say a rosary after seeing this. So should you. Don’t even get me started on where this story starts — the first MTV Video Music Awards? Really? She was already on her second album by then.

Anyway…Madonna: Innocence Lost is not flattering, but it’s still a hoot. It plays on Madonna’s bad side, like “Blond Ambition” is a bad thing. The problem is, this approach fails when you’re dealing with someone who used that very name for one of her biggest tours. Shocking? Fuck no.

With Diana Leblanc, Nigel Bennett, Dominique Briand, Tom Melissis , Christian Vidosa, Dino Bellisario, Kelly Fiddick, Gil Filar, Maia Filar, Diego Fuentes, Matthew Godfrey, Evon Murphy, Stephane Scalia, Chandra West

Production: Fox Television Studios, Jaffe/Braunstein Films

Distribution: Fox Network, RTL Entertainment (Netherlands), True Entertainment (UK)

90 minutes
Rated TV-14

(YouTube) D+

Whitney: Can I Be Me?

(UK / USA 2017)

Whitney Houston certainly needs no introduction, and I don’t need to remind anyone about her drug-fueled decline or her sad death five years ago. I saw her perform once when she toured for her first album, but I was never a fan. Still, I observed her career from the sidelines and know all her hits (and misses). To borrow from one of her songs, she almost had it all. Almost.

Co-director Nick Broomfield said that with Whitney: Can I Be Me?, he wanted to show another side of the story: “There was very little attempt to really understand where this was coming from or what it was about. I would like a lot of people to feel that there was a whole other way of looking at this.” (http://www.rollingstone.com/movies/features/whitney-houston-documentary-director-speaks-out-she-was-so-judged-w497676 ). It’s a good idea: fair and balanced, OK.

For better or for worse, Broomfield, who shares a directing credit with Rudi Dolezal for his footage from Houston’s 1999 My Love Is Your Love World Tour, takes a decidedly conventional and low key approach here. He eschews TMZ-like sensationalism, which is refreshing, even admirable. However, the finished product rings incomplete.

Broomfield shows Houston’s dirty laundry. We learn that she used drugs from adolescence. She wasn’t particularly polished. Her mother pushed her, hard. Her label, Arista, had a grand plan for her, and it specifically excluded drawing a black audience. Her BFF Robyn Crawford, who stayed involved with Houston’s career until the aforementioned 1999 tour, was (and still is) a lesbian, which led to rumors. Houston and Bobby Brown were in love, but it didn’t stop him from cheating on her — apparently, he preyed on Houston’s entourage. Crawford and Brown didn’t get along, which created tension. There was also that thing with Houston’s father that happened at the end of his life.

We gets hints and glimpses of what led to Houston’s downfall, but in the end the whole thing is shallow. Like her image throughout her career, Whitney: Can I Be Me? presents a sanitized or at least downplayed picture. Broomfield could’ve dug deeper. He was getting there with Houston’s former bodyguard, David Roberts, who claims that he was repeatedly ignored when he warned everyone around her that Houston was on a fatal trajectory. This documentary falls short; it’s flat and has nothing, shall we say, so emotional. It doesn’t reveal all that much. As a result, it isn’t all that moving.

Another biographical documentary about Houston is in the works (https://www.theguardian.com/film/2016/apr/28/kevin-macdonald-official-whitney-houston-documentary ) ( http://www.whitneyhouston.com/news/director-kevin-macdonald-whitney-houston-documentary/ ). So, there’s more to come. Let’s hope Kevin MacDonald’s version is more compelling.

With David Roberts, Cissy Houston, John Russell Houston Jr., Bobbi Kristina Brown, Bobby Brown, Robyn Crawford

Production: Lafayette Films, Passion Pictures, Showtime Networks

Distribution: Showtime (USA), British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) (UK), Arsenal Filmverleih (Germany), Eagle Pictures (Italy), Periscoop Film (Netherlands)

105 minutes
Not rated

(Gene Siskel Film Center) C

http://www.sho.com/titles/3433528/whitney-can-i-be-me

The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson

(USA 2017)

Marsha, Marsha, MARSHA! I’ll say this: David France’s new documentary has a lot going on in it. The center of the film, obviously, is legendary Greenwich Village “street queen” Marsha P. Johnson, a trans LGBT activist who hit the streets and stood at the front line when the fight was just about the “gay rights” movement. In the ’60s. Marsha, a figure at the Stonewall riots, founded Street Transvestites Action Revolutionaries, or S.T.A.R., with Sylvia Rivera in the early ’70s — 1970 to be exact. Her fight continued onto AIDS and transgender issues. She clearly was ahead of her time.

Sadly, Marsha ended up in the Hudson River in 1992, an apparent murder victim. It was almost 25 years to the date that I saw this film. The New York City Police Department called it a “suicide” — then called it a day. It remains an unsolved case.

The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson wants to honor Marsha, and it kind of does. At the very least, it sings her praises and puts her in a positive light. Ultimately, though, it fails. Told through the eyes of friend and surrogate Victoria Cruz, it unfortunately lets other things — mainly other people’s egos — get in the way. Part history and part true crime, Marsha’s story is watered down because French crams in more than what’s necessary to tell it, and he loses her in the process.

The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson succeeds in showing Marsha’s determination and influence. Perhaps unintentionally, it also shows a wonderfully colorful version of New York City in its cultural — or countercultural — prime, a place that simply doesn’t exist anymore. The hardest part of watching this film, though, is the attitude against trans people — even from gay men. It’s something you might not expect, but there it is.

From a historical or social standpoint, this is a winner. As far as Marsha is concerned, it could have been better. Still, it’s worth the time it takes to see it.

With Michael Baden, Frances Baugh, Pat Bumgardner, Jimmy Camicia, Eddie DeGrand, Matt Foreman, Jacques Garon, Chelsea Goodwin, Xena Grandichelli, Jennifer Louise Lopez, Agosto Machado, Marcus Maier, Ted Mcguire, Jean Michaels, Robert Michaels, Rusty Mae Moore, Candida Scott Piel, Coco Rodriguez, Kitty Rotolo, Vito Russo, Mark Segal, Beverly Tillery, Randy Wicker, Brian R. Wills, Sue Yacka

Production: Public Square Films, Faliro House Productions, Ninety Thousand Words, Race Point Films, Terasem Media & Films

Distribution: The Film Collaborative, Netflix

Screening introduced by David France and followed by a live Q and A with France, Mark Blane, and someone whose name I didn’t catch moderated by Alonso Duralde

105 minutes
Not rated

(Directors Guild of America) B-

Outfest Los Angeles LGBT Film Festival

https://www.netflix.com/title/80189623

Kevyn Aucoin Beauty & the Beast in Me

(USA 2017)

“He was way ahead of his time. Just the way we do now with selfies and Snapchat and Facebook — he would have put the little Instagram kids to shame!”

— Amber Valletta

 

“Kevyn’s biggest motivation to succeed was his abandonment issues. He had this thought that, if I work with you and you become my friend, and I make you pretty, then you won’t abandon me. I absolutely think he was looking for a mother figure in the people that he worked with.”

— Eric Sakas

Superstar makeup artist Kevyn Aucoin lived an enviable life. He was successful doing what he loved — his work was on runways, in music videos, on award shows, and on magazine covers, at one point nine consecutive issues of Vogue. He wrote books and started a line of cosmetics.

On top of that, he hung out with models, legends, and his own idols: Kate Moss, Cindy Crawford, Naomi Campbell, Linda Evangelista, Christy Turlington, Paulina Porizkova, Susan Sarandon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Winona Ryder, Liza Minnelli, Tina Turner, Whitney Houston, Janet Jackson, Madonna, Cher, and Jennifer Lopez to name a few. Some of them were actual friends (I can only imagine Liza leaving voicemail for me).

Judging from the fact that they all let Aucoin record him with them backstage — on videotape, and not always made up — they must have felt something for him. An affinity? Safety? A debt? Whatever it was, it endeared him. Even in his home videos, he made them look good.

So it’s odd and downright tragic that someone who brought so much beauty to the world, never felt beautiful himself. Perhaps it had to do with his birth mother, Nelda Mae Williams, giving him up for adoption, or all the bullying he got as a teenager. He didn’t like his physical features, which were exaggerated by a condition that went undiagnosed for most of his life: acromegaly, a tumour on the pituitary gland that keeps the brain secreting growth hormones. It’s a painful condition that causes headaches and joint pain, and it got Aucoin addicted to prescription drugs.

A trove of home videos found after his death in 2002 forms the basis for Lori Kaye’s documentary, Kevyn Aucoin Beauty & the Beast in Me. He recorded everything — the aforementioned videos with celebrities, with family members and boyfriends, and even when he was alone. Kaye interviews different people from Aucoin’s life to tell his story, and the interviews range from funny (Andie MacDowell) to sad (ex boyfriend Eric Sakas discusses Aucoin’s downward spiral) to eyeroll-inducing (Williams claims Aucoin would not have been gay had she raised him).

His adoptive parents, Isidore and Thelma Aucoin, accepted him and even dropped out of their church because of its stance on homosexuality. He moved to New York City, and the rest is history.

The celebrity interviews are fun, and some are gushy. Some of the interviewees even cry. They all provide insight into the kind of guy Aucoin was. What Kaye has that makes her documentary special, though, is Aucoin’s tapes, and she incorporates footage from them into the project in a way that lets him tell his own story. It’s an often amusing one with a sad undertone. It also serves, as Cindy Crawford points out, as a time capsule — a really good one. I confess, a few scenes gave me chills.

With Andie MacDowell, Cindy Crawford, Naomi Campbell, Paulina Porizkova, Gwyneth Paltrow, Amber Valletta, Isidore Aucoin, Nelda Mae Williams, Jed Root, Eric Sakas, Tina Turner, Cher, Liza Minnelli, Whitney Houston, Jennifer Lopez, Janet Jackson

Production: Putti Media

Distribution: Logo Documentary Films (USA), Dogwoof (International)

World Premiere

Screening introduced by director Lori Kaye

90 minutes
Not rated

(Directors Guild of America) B-

Outfest Los Angeles LGBT Film Festival

https://www.kevynaucoindocumentary.com

Marie Antoinette

(USA/France 2006)

“This, Madame, is Versailles.”

—Comtesse de Noailles

If her take on Marie Antoinette is any clue, Sofia Coppola loves postpunk ’80s British bands like Siouxsie and the Banshees, the Cure, New Order, and New Romantic frontrunners Adam and the Ants and Bow Wow Wow. So do I. This in all likelihood is what drew me to Marie Antoinette: with three Bow Wow Wow songs (two remixed by My Bloody Valentine’s Kevin Shields), big hair, and a real MTV sensibility, its appeal to me is, well, a piece of cake.

All that is only part of the story. What really makes me love Marie Antionette is the sympathetic angle Coppola takes with this infamous character. Based on Antonia Fraser’s biography Marie Antoinette: The Journey, the first half of the movie is about the difficulties Marie (Kirsten Dunst) faces adapting to her new French surroundings and getting her new husband, Louis XVI (Jason Schwartzman, Coppola’s cousin), to consummate their marriage. She fails, and of course everyone blames her—even her mother (Marianne Faithfull). When she’s had enough, she says “fuck it” and becomes a full on rock star. This is where things get interesting.

Colorful and elaborate, Marie Antionette is not profound. So what? Lance Acord’s music video cinematography is perfect for what Coppola is going for; bordering on sensory overload, this film is busy, clever, and fun to watch. I know better than to take it as a history lesson.

With Judy Davis, Rip Torn, Rose Byrne, Asia Argento, Molly Shannon, Shirley Henderson, Danny Huston, Mary Nighy, Jamie Dornan, Steve Coogan, Tom Hardy

Production: Pricel, Tohokushinsha Film Corporation (TFC), American Zoetrope, Pathé, Commission du Film France, Commission du Film Île-de-France

Distribution: Columbia Pictures, Sony Pictures

123 minutes
Rated PG-13

(iTunes rental) B-

http://www.sonypictures.com/movies/marieantoinette2006feature/

Letters from Baghdad

(USA/UK/France 2016)

“We rushed into the business with our usual disregard for a comprehensive political scheme.”

—Gertrude Bell

According to the promotional poster for Sabine Krayenbühl and Zeva Oelbaum’s Letters from Baghdad, the so-called “Queen of the Desert” and “female Lawrence of Arabia” Gertrude Bell “was as controversial as the history she made.” Well, that certainly sounds promising!

Born into a wealthy family, Bell immersed herself in the Middle East in the early 20th Century and used her talents as a writer and a schmoozer to intimately acquaint herself with the area, its people, and their culture (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gertrude_Bell). Her contacts with influential expats and various Arab leaders combined with her knowledge of the culture led to an appointment as a British officer during World War I and a direct hand in drawing up the borders of modern Iraq.

Tilda Swinton gives Bell her voice, reading off camera Bell’s actual writings about events that occurred on her many trips and the people she met. In Bell’s own words, Swinton offers history, observations, and even some Victorian Era dish. Bell had at least as much influence as T. E. Lawrence a.k.a. Lawrence of Arabia (played here by Eric Loscheider in a staged “talking head” interview made to look like old footage).

Bell’s life and the impact of her deeds a century later make for an interesting story. Painstakingly researched, Krayenbühl and Oelbaum pull from diverse source material—letters, diaries, photos—to show what cities like Baghdad and Damascus were like a hundred years ago. They do a great job humaninzing Bell, getting into personality flaws and personal disappointments. In both respects, Letters to Baghdad works really well.

Not everything works as well as it could, though. Some important items are treated superfically. For example, they mention the tension between the Sunni, Shia, and Kurds even back then, but Krayenbühl and Oelbaum don’t delve into it. They touch on Bell’s reasoning for the borders she devised, but they don’t give much critical assessment to it. I left with the distinct feeling that I didn’t get the whole story. Another problem: the staged interviews give a lot of information, but they’re cheesy.

I found myself glancing at my watch about halfway through Letters from Baghdad. It’s a well made documentary, but it’s not as enthralling as it promises to be.

With Ammar Haj Ahmad, Helen Ryan, Rachael Stirling, Robert Ian Mackenzie, Christopher Villiers, Lucy Robinson, Elizabeth Rider, Michael Higgs, Joanna David, Michelle Eugene, Paul McGann, Pip Torrens

Production: Between the Rivers Productions, Letters From Baghdad, Missing in Action Films

Distribution: Vitagraph Films (USA)

95 minutes
Not rated

(Landmark Century) C

http://lettersfrombaghdadthemovie.com/about/

Finding Joseph I: The HR from Bad Brains Documentary

(USA/Jamaica 2016)

How low can a punk get? Director James Lathos gives a pretty good idea with Finding Joseph I: The HR from Bad Brains Documentary, a sympathetic if sensationalistic picture of the ups and downs of punk/reggae frontman Paul “H.R.” Hudson, also known by his Jamaican name Joseph I. The film is a companion of sorts to Finding Joseph I: An Oral History of H.R. from Bad Brains by Lathos and Howie Abrams.

Lathos lays out essential information about Hudson’s unconventional and rather nomadic upbringing, his path to the limelight via the ’80s D.C. punk scene, and his spiritual journey. That last part sounds wretchedly dull, but it’s not: Hudson became a Rastafarian, and his music reflected it. The problem is, he also started to unravel around the same time, frequently leaving and rejoining Bad Brains like a dreadlocked Ross Perot.

Sure, there are early live performances that are obligatory in a documentary like Finding Joseph I; fortunately, they’re also pretty damned cool. Many of Hudson’s contemporaries offer insightful, astute, and often entertaining commentary. If he doesn’t avoid nostalgia, Lathos at least doesn’t get sappy. Smart.

All that said, I found the whole thing disconcertingly exploitative. I appreciate that somewhere in here is a point about mental health. Frankly, though, it could have been advanced without making Hudson look like such a hopeless freak. I doubt it was intentional, as this really does come off as a labor of love and not mean-spirited. Nonetheless, Finding Joseph I has an insidious ring to it.

With Earl Hudson, Ras Michael, Guy Oseary, Vernon Reid, Corey Glover, Duff McKagan, Ahmir-Khalib Thompson, Sonny Sandoval, Cro-Mags, Chino Moreno, Deftones, Fishbone, Sublime, The Wailers, Englishman, Chuck Treece, Rakaa Iriscience, Alec MacKaye, Ian MacKaye, Saul Williams, Opie Ortiz

Production: Giraffe Productions, Small Axe Films

Distribution: Small Axe Films

Screening followed by a live Q and A with Jay Mohr

92 minutes
Not rated

(The Chop Shop/1st Ward) C+

CIMMfest

http://hrdocumentary.com

Ed Wood

(USA 1994)

“You’re wasting your lives making shit. Nobody cares. These movies are terrible!”

—Dolores Fuller

 

“How do you do it? How do you get all your friends to get baptized just so you can make a monster movie?”

—Bunny Breckinridge

 

“Can your heart stand the shocking facts of the true story of Edward D. Wood, Jr?”

—Criswell

 

“Confidentially, I even paratrooped wearing a brassier and panties. I wasn’t afraid of being killed, but I was terrified of being wounded and having the medics discover my secret.”

—Ed Wood

Edward D. Wood, Jr., or simply Ed Wood, is widely regarded as the worst director of all time. In fact, he received posthumous recognition—the Golden Turkey Award—designating him as such (http://www.legacy.com/news/celebrity-deaths/article/ed-wood-the-best-of-the-worst). His silly low-budget DIY pulp/science fiction/horror flicks from the 1950s—low on plot, technique, and talent—are beloved by many because they’re so bad. Monumentally bad. Okay, maybe ridiculous is a better word. You decide from this trailer:

Based on Rudolph Grey’s book Nightmare of Ecstasy and adapted for the screen by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, Tim Burton’s labor of love, Ed Wood, is a period-piece biopic about the eccentric angora-loving filmmaker responsible for such gems as Jail Bait, Glen or Glenda, Bride of the Monster, and of course Plan 9 from Outer Space—Wood’s Citizen Kane (as Burton likens it here). This film rocks; I never get sick of it. Not ever. And for a few reasons.

The characters and performances are fantastic. Leading man Ed Wood is one of Johnny Depp’s most endearing roles; he plays Wood with an affectionate and demonstrative earnestness he’s never quite duplicated. Burton has always held sympathetic misfits in high regard—Edward Scissorhands, also played by Depp, immediately comes to mind. Here, he has a field day, bringing in an entire cast of warm and colorful weirdos that flock to Wood. Consider: best bud Bunny Breckinridge (Bill Murray), a boozy grand queen with a penchant for drama and glitter. “The Amazing Criswell” (Jeffrey Jones), an androgynous self-proclaimed psychic/horse shit artist. Max (Max Casella), the president of Wood’s fan club—and his errand boy. Overzealous, chatty crew member Conrad (Brent Hinkley). Later, Vampira (Lisa Marie), a gothic midnight movie hostess with lots of bosom, and TV wrestler Tor Johnson (George “The Animal” Steele) become regulars in Wood’s films.

The most important relationship, though, is the one between Wood and has-been Dracula star Bela Lugosi (Martin Landau), whom he meets in a coffin store. Lugosi’s life is far from glamorous: he lives alone in obscurity in a tiny tract house in a nondescript suburban neighborhood. He’s also a junkie. Wood moves from starstruck fan to employer to custodian and confidant. Landau gives a flawless performance; he earned an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for it. Every scene is inspired, but one of my favorites is his dramatic reading of that hackneyed “home” speech; it is, to use Wood’s word, “perfect.” Their friendship gives Ed Wood much of its warmth and humanity.

Despite the laughably amateur quality of Wood’s films—and his unorthodox way of shooting them—he gets them made. And no matter how poorly received they are, he doesn’t give up. In this sense, Ed Wood is uplifting and inspiring. He embraces his flaws, sticks to his guns, and believes in himself. Orson Welles himself (Vincent D’Onofrio) backs him up in one great scene at a bar.

Some might find the pace a bit slow. I don’t—the whole film is fun and jammed with quotable material that keeps it moving. Line after line is memorable—I could string together a bunch of quotes I know by heart and leave it at that (I’ve seen this film quite a few times). From a technical standpoint, Ed Wood is exceedingly well done. Filmed in shimmering black and white, Stefan Czapsky’s camerawork is beautiful. The cleverly composed, shadowy shots of Lugosi “fixing” in the bathroom and later tied to a bed in rehab, and Wood and future wife Kathy (Patricia Arquette) inside the carnival ride are especially remarkable. Howard Shore’s score—a rich mix of jazz, Cuban orchestration that wouldn’t sound out of place on I Love Lucy, and monster madness—is awesome.

Burton easily could have made this a snarkfest. Instead, he shows his idol in a respectful and positive light. His spirited take makes Ed Wood exceptional.

With Sarah Jessica Parker, Mike Starr, Juliet Landau, Stanley Desantis, Ned Bellamy, Norman Alden, G.D. Spradlin

Produced by Touchstone Pictures

Distributed by Buena Vista Pictures Distribution

127 minutes
Rated R

(iTunes purchase) A

Florence Foster Jenkins

(UK 2016)

“People can say I can’t sing, but they can’t say I didn’t sing.”

—Florence Foster Jenkins

A lot of hype surrounded Florence Foster Jenkins before it arrived at a theater near us last fall. We wanted to catch it during its original run, but it came and went before we got around to seeing it. So, inspired by a post earlier in the day, I rented it on a Friday when we had no plans other than dinner at home. The night we watched it just happened to be Friday the 13th, which somehow seems appropriate.

Based on actual events and set during WWII, Florence (Meryl Streep) is a rich Manhattan society lady of a certain age who runs in an arty circle and knows a lot of people, some with money and others who follow it. She operates a private venue dedicated to opera, the Verdi Club, where she stars in a show and has a non-speaking role. Dying of either syphillis or the treatment for it—mercury and arsenic!—her one wish is to perform for an audience at Carnegie Hall. The problem is, she can’t sing; she’s downright awful. Her entrance here, lowered onstage from a rope and pulley while dressed as an angel with a harp, reminds me of Sarah Jessica Parker’s entrance (“I offer you mortals the bird of peace so that you may change your ways and end this destruction”) in Ed Wood, Tim Burton’s 1994 biopic about a similarly talentless film director who came along a decade or so later. The comparison is so apt that I wonder if it was intentional. Here, Florence’s husband, St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant), doesn’t help matters by exaggerating her talent.

Determined to make her dream come true, Florence hires a vocal trainer, Carlo Edwards (David Haig), and a pianist, Cosmé McMoon (Simon Helberg), to put together a show. Established and well-known Carlo is content to take Florence’s money, build her ego, and let her dream on. Budding Cosmé, however, struggles with lying to her about her obvious ineptitude, not to mention her negative impact on his professional reputation. He soon sees that those around Florence stretch the truth about a lot of things when dealing with her.

Nicholas Martin’s script is kind to its characters, going for laughs in a way that doesn’t demean any of them. I never heard of her until this film, but the actual Florence Foster Jenkins was an interesting person. Her singing truly was awful:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hcs9yJjVecs. As always, Streep is spot on with her portrayal. She seems to have fun in this role, and it shows. Grant, who usually bores me but doesn’t here, is well suited for St. Clair: he’s stuffy and straight, but he nicely coveys an underlying deceitfulness that doesn’t come off as sinister. I like the way director Stephen Frears plays with deceit here, ultimately using it to depict a very touching side of St. Clair—who lives with his mistress (Rebecca Ferguson) in Brooklyn in apartment that Florence pays for. Much to my surprise, though, Big Bang Theory‘s Helberg steals practically every scene he’s in: keeping it subtle with Cosmé’s homosexuality (as Cosmé himself no doubt would have done during his day), he plays his character as a spineless, perennially uncomfortable, asexual bundle of nerves. He peppers his performance with grimaces and nervous giggles. Later, he delivers a line to explain his tardiness to Florence (of course, it involves sailors) with perfect and priceless dryness. He outshines everyone here.

Florence Foster Jenkins has some funny moments and some very touching ones. I found it enjoyable enough, but certainly not a knockout. It could have benefitted from a little more quirk and edge, especially considering its title character who showed no shortage of either.

Also starring Nina Arianda, Stanley Townsend, Allan Corduner, John Sessions, John Kavanagh, David Menkin, and Sid Phoenix

Produced by Qwerty Films, Pathé Pictures International, and BBC Films

Distributed by Paramount Pictures (USA)

111 minutes
Rated PG-13

(iTunes rental) C

http://www.florencefosterjenkinsmovie.com