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

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/

Heavenly Creatures

(New Zealand 1994)

“All the best people have bad chests and bone diseases. It’s all frightfully romantic!”

—Juliet Hulme

Forget Lord of the RingsHeavenly Creatures is Peter Jackson’s coolest film. Before big budget Hollywood blockbuster fantasy franchises, the New Zealand filmmaker wrote, produced, and directed offbeat small-scale gore and porn comedies like Bad Taste (1987), Meet the Feebles (1989), and Dead Alive (1993). I’d already seen that last one by the time Heavenly Creatures came out for a limited run (in the States, anyway) in the fall of 1994. I assumed it would be another messy splatterfest—described to me as a “lesbian murder flick,” what would you think? Turns out, that’s not quite what it is.

Far more than a “lesbian murder flick” or even a brilliant stepping stone to bigger and better things, Heavenly Creatures represents a turning point in Jackson’s career. It’s a rare example of flawless execution across the board. He brings together every element—narrative, character development, casting, visuals, special effects, dialogue, period costumes and sets—to create a real humdinger.

Christchurch, New Zealand, 1952: 14-year-old Yvonne Reiper (Melanie Lynskey), who goes by “Pauline,” is a messy-haired, brooding loner at an all-girl high school. In her first scene, she’s wearing a big scowl on her face at an assembly, not singing along with the rest of her classmates—not until the school’s headmaster (Darien Takle) catches her gaze and snaps her into line with a widening of her eyes. Pauline’s father (Simon O’Connor) manages a grocery market and her mother (Sarah Pierse) runs a room and board for college students out of their home.

WARNING: Potential spoilers ahead!

A new student is introduced during French class: Juliet Hulme (Kate Winslet), the privileged daughter of a reknown college professor (Clive Merrison) and a psychologist (Diana Kent). Juliet, who proclaims she’s “actually from England” and chooses the French name “Antoinette,” captures Pauline’s attention when she insults the teacher, Miss Waller (Elizabeth Moody), unleashing a hilarious hissy fit. The scene is, in a word, awesome to watch play out. Right after that, their art teacher, Mrs. Collins (Liz Mullane), pairs the girls for an assignment that Julia disregards; instead, she draws dragon-slaying St. George, depicting him in the likeness of Mario Lanza, “the world’s greatest tenor!” She doesn’t get around to drawing Pauline, her model. Mrs. Collins isn’t impressed, but Pauline is.

Thus begins the girls’ friendship. They bond over their similar pasts involving childhood disease and extended hospital stays, a penchant for drama, and a mutual distaste for their peers (and perhaps social issues that leave a void). Juliet is mischievous and romantic, which softens Pauline and gets her to open up. Sitting out gym, they giggle over sexy WWII pulp novels. They bike through the woods and strip to their underwear, dancing and singing. They hug a bum (played by Jackson himself) on the street. They hold weird rituals for celebrities they like. They make Plasticine models, write stories, and devise an elaborate royal family tree, building around themselves a fantasy medievalesque kingdom called Borovnia where all its inhabitants worship them. Their imaginary world blurs the bounds of reality as their friendship intensifies.

A string of troubles arises that threatens to separate Pauline and Juliet: tuberculosis, an extramarital affair, a divorce, South Africa, and a medical diagnosis of incurable homosexuality. The girls decide to run away to America, but they can’t secure a passport for Pauline. They devise another scheme to stay together, but it’s a risky one: kill Pauline’s mother.

Heavenly Creatures starts out sweet—it’s something of a typical teen movie at first—but it does a complete turnaround. Based on actual events, Jackson wrote the screenplay with Frances Walsh; the real story is sad but compelling, and the script is tight. The casting—married couple John and Ros Hubbard and the aforementioned Mullane—is genius: every single actor is terrific in his or her part, even the minor ones, and it makes Heavenly Creatures all the richer. Many of them turn up in Jackson’s later projects.

Lynskey and Winslet own their characters; I can’t imagine anyone else in their roles. They’re charming, silly, histrionic, desperate, deranged, and ultimately “stark raving mad”—and they portray all of it exceptionally well. They manage to keep the homosexual subtext from getting out of hand. You can tell from Winslet’s first scene—she walks in with that crazy look on her face—that she’s destined for more. She became a star after Heavenly Creatures in a way that Lynskey didn’t, but both are mesmerizing.

The scenes in Borovnia and the Fourth World are nothing short of spectacular. Actually, many of the visuals here are burned into my memory. Alun Bollinger’s camerawork and bleached palette lends a lovely dreamlike quality. Once things start to unravel for these “nice” girls, the whole thing shifts to a darker, more sinister tone. It’s an emotional downward spiral to the end—those splatter films serve Jackson well.

Heavenly Creatures hasn’t lost its luster after nearly 25 years. I lost track of how many times I’ve seen it, yet it continues to suck me in every single time. It’s one of my favorites.

With Gilbert Goldie, Jed Brophy, Peter Elliott, Kirsti Ferry, Ben Skjellerup, Jean Guérin, Stephen Reilly, Jessica Bradley, Alex Shirtcliffe-Scott

Production: WingNut Films, New Zealand Film Commission

Distribution: Miramax Films (USA)

109 minutes (director’s cut)
Rated R

(iTunes purchase) A

https://www.miramax.com/movie/heavenly-creatures/

https://www.facebook.com/heavenlycreaturesmovie

Hacksaw Ridge

(USA/Australia 2016)

“Thou shalt not kill.”

—The Ten Commandments

 

“I don’t know how I’m gonna live with myself if I don’t stay true to what I believe.”

—Desmond Doss

Like him or not, Mel Gibson has what it takes to direct a massive Hollywood picture. Hacksaw Ridge, his first directorial job in a decade, demonstrates that much—just in case earlier films like Braveheart, The Passion of the Christ, and Apocalypto didn’t.

Hacksaw Ridge depicts the remarkable and true story of Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield), the Lynchburg, Virginia, Seventh-day Adventist who served as a medic in the U.S. Army during World War II. His story is unique: he enlisted, but as a conscientous objector for religious reasons. Refusing to kill or carry a gun, he rescued 75 or so wounded soldiers from the field during the Battle of Okinawa (http://www.collegedale-americanlegion.org/Pages/DesmondTDoss.aspx). President Harry S. Truman awarded Doss the Congressional Medal of Honor in 1945, the first time such a high accolade was bestowed upon someone who never even discharged a weapon (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Desmond_Doss).

From a technical standpoint, Hacksaw Ridge is pretty awesome. The story is a good one. The battle scenes are clearly the centerpiece: they’re loud and extremely graphic. The prosthetics are spot on realistic. Cinematographer Simon Duggan starts out with warm, almost sepia tones in the early civilian scenes, but as the setting moves onto the battlefield he ditches color in favor of a washed out black, green, and white palette. Shaky closeups, slow motion shots, blurry pans, and quick cuts create a sense of confusion as gunfire and explosions and human carnage take over the screen. Hacksaw Ridge is no Son of Saul (https://moviebloke.com/2016/02/11/son-of-saul-saul-fia/), but it still overwhelms the senses albeit in a distanced, staged blockbuster way.

Otherwise, Hacksaw Ridge didn’t impress me all that much. At its core, it’s a standard-issue war movie complete with a sugary subplot about the girl, Dorothy Schutte (Teresa Palmer), waiting for Doss to hurry up and get back home so they can get married, and lots of humorous if mawkish male bonding through nicknames, insults, physical attacks, and simply having each other’s back. There’s a military court scene, trite “war is hell, boys” lines, soldiers who freak out once they get on the battlefield, likable characters who perish, and of course the superhuman heroic deeds of Doss.

Most character background is given hurried and superficial treatment: Doss’s alcoholic veteran father (Hugo Weaving) and his bad experience in World War I, Doss and Dorothy’s quick courtship, even the failed attempts of Sgt. Howell (Vince Vaughn) and Cpt. Glover (Sam Worthington) to persuade Doss to leave the Army. Too bad, because a little more insight could have made the film stronger. A particularly glaring example is brother Hal (Nathaniel Buzolic), who simply vanishes once he shows up at the dinner table in uniform. What happens to him? Did I miss it?

I’m conflcited on the message here, but I guess that’s okay because frankly Hacksaw Ridge is a conflicted film. Gibson maintains that it’s an anti-war statement (http://www.christianpost.com/news/mel-gibson-hacksaw-ridge-is-an-anti-war-movie-170318/). Fine, but that’s hard to believe considering the disproportionate amount of time and resources given to overblown battle scenes. I’m not sure the film honors Doss or his pacifist convictions. Moreover, what sure seems like a blatant parallel to the so-called religious liberty movement is, in my view, misguided and hollow, especially when Doss’s faith is treated more or less as incidental. Hacksaw Ridge sustained my interest, but I would have appreciated a little more depth.

With Luke Bracey, Darcy Bryce, Rachel Griffiths, Firass Dirani, Michael Sheasby, Luke Pegler, Nico Cortez, Goran D. Kleut, Harry Greenwood, Damien Thomlinson, Ben O’Toole

Production: Pandemonium Films, Permut Productions, Vendian Entertainment, Kylin Pictures

Distribution: Summit Entertainment (USA)

139 minutes
Rated R

(ArcLight) C+

http://www.hacksawridge.movie

Gold

(USA 2016)

“The taste of it on your tongue, the feel of it on your fingers—it’s like a drug.”

—Mike Acosta

Not everything gold glitters; such is the case with Stephen Gaghan’s Gold, his first film since the acclaimed Syriana over a decade ago. Matthew McConaughey is Kenny Wells, a redneck businessman running his collapsing mining company from a smoke-filled tavern in Reno, Nevada, in 1988. Acting on little more than gut and some pawn shop cash from hocking gifts he gave his girlfriend (Bryce Dallas Howard) in better days shown as the movie opens, he abruptly heads to Indonesia to track down geologist Mike Acosta (Édgar Ramírez) to find a gold mine.

Their first meeting doesn’t go well at all. Looking like he stepped out of Banana Republic when it was a safari store in the ’80s, Acosta is shrewd, rugged, and quite experienced. Balding and sweaty Wells, with his jagged teeth and paunch, is sloppy and desperate. He reads as broke. Unimpressed, Acosta passes when Wells suggests they partner up—until the latter raises $200,000 for the proposed venture. After a series of miscalculations and mishaps (including a bout with malaria), they hit the jackpot in the middle of a jungle. Suddenly, the same banks and big investors that turned up their nose at Wells before want in on the action.

Gold isn’t a bad movie, but it’s not the impressive work it wants to be. The pace is fine, but the plot twists are unsurprising if not downright predictable. The problem is that I’ve seen this story before, and recently: mainstream films like The Big Short (https://moviebloke.wordpress.com/2016/01/03/the-big-short/), The Wolf of Wall Street, and American Hustle deal with the same themes in a similar manner. I’ve seen McConaughey be the same character, too. The curious statement “inspired by a true story” after the opening credits is the cue to something I found disappointing: Gold is a fictionalized account of a true story, changed enough that I guess it can’t claim to be “based on” reality. I’m not sure where that line is drawn, but it turns out much of the story is made up (http://www.financialpost.com/m/search/blog.html?b=business.financialpost.com/news/mining/gold-the-movie-about-the-bre-x-mining-scandal-that-isnt-about-bre-x&q=Bre). Plus, it’s never a good sign when the music in a film—here, artists ranging from Orange Juice to New Order and Joy Division to the Pixies and a new song by Iggy Pop and Danger Mouse—elicits the most enthusiastic response from me. Overall, meh.

Also starring Corey Stoll, Toby Kebbell, Craig T. Nelson, Stacy Keach, Rachael Taylor, Joshua Harto, and Timothy Simons

Produced by Boies/Schiller Films, Black Bear Pictures, and Highway 61 Films

Distributed by TWC-Dimension

121 minutes
Rated R

(AMC River East) C

http://gold-film.com

 

The Founder

(USA 2016)

Ray Kroc’s name is synonymous with McDonald’s, the ubiquitous fast food institution that hasn’t needed an introduction for the entire time I’ve been alive. It seems strange that I’ve never known much about him even after living in Chicago for almost 20 years—at least, not until The Founder. Then again, maybe I still don’t.

Kroc (Michael Keaton) is a middle aged traveling salesman who hocks milkshake mixers to restaurants, mainly drive-ins and diners, in the 1950s. Based in Chicago, he has a nice enough home in suburban Arlington Heights, a supportive if not ambitious wife, Ethel (Laura Dern), and the means to afford a country club membership. Nonetheless, Kroc is neither wildly successful nor affluent. He isn’t setting the world on fire selling milkshake mixers, and his business ideas never seem to pan out. He doesn’t fit in with the WASPy professionals Ethel gravitates toward. Being the entrepreneur he is, he yearns for more.

While making cold calls in Missouri, Kroc gets a big order for mixers from San Bernardino, California. He drives out there and finds McDonald’s, an idyllic burger joint owned and operated by two brothers, affable Mac (John Carroll Lynch) and crusty Dick (Nick Offerman). Shiny and clean, the place is a welcoming sight. Mac shows Kroc the kitchen: it’s an intricate and super-efficient assembly line that delivers consistenly appetizing product in minutes. Disposable packaging means customers can take their food with them and eat it wherever they want, keeping the line moving while eliminating the need for clean up (not to mention dishes). Employees work together as a team. The customer service is flawlessly friendly. Dick explains that high-quality food and fast service are the hallmarks of McDonald’s. The brothers have hit something with their formula: the place is slammed with a customer base that overwhelmingly consists of middle class families. Kroc wants to franchise McDonald’s, something the brothers tried before but it didn’t work.

The Founder focuses less on Kroc’s personal life and more on the many problems he overcomes in executing his ambitious plan to make McDonald’s and its Golden Arches a symbol of America that seemlessly fits, as he puts it at one point, right in with the Stars and Stripes and crosses on churches. There’s a lot of dry stuff dealing with the nuts and bolts of business here—business models, contract negotiations, marketing, quality control, real estate, financing, trademarks, cutting costs, and of course double crossing. It’s a timely film—I can’t think of a more fitting movie to see on this particular Inauguration Day: one of the promotional posters for The Founder calls Kroc a rule breaker, a risk taker, and a game changer, and for better or worse that’s what he turned out to be. Michael Keaton is perfect for this role, playing Kroc as a ruthlessly driven goofball who has no good ideas of his own but certainly knows how to capitalize on those of others. American history is rich in such characters.

That said, I must admit that I have no idea how much of this story is accurate—not that I was compelled to find out on my own. The Founder doesn’t make me care. Pieces of the story seem to be missing. Robert Siegel’s script isn’t exactly objective—it borders on propaganda, especially when he overemphasizes the simplicity of the McDonald brothers. John Lee Hancock is a capable director, but he’s so ambiguous about his subject that he doesn’t say what he makes of him. I’m not sure he knows. His treatment lacks a certain nuance the material demands that could’ve made The Founder a lot more than it is. It’s not a terrible film, but I had higher expectations.

Also starring B.J. Novak, Linda Cardellini, Patrick Wilson, Justin Randell Brooke

Produced by FilmNation Entertainment, The Combine, Faliro House Productions S.A.

Distributed by The Weinstein Company

115 minutes
Rated PG-13

(ArcLight) C

http://thefounderfilm.com

20th Century Women

(USA 2016)

“We are at a turning point in our history.”

—President Jimmy Carter

I was a little kid in the Seventies, but I have many indelibly vivid memories of the decade: huge cars, gas lines, expensive meat, hijacked planes, Sanka and Sweet’N Low, smoking everywhere, hard rock, punk rock, disco, macrame, spider plants, the Bicentennial, Sky Lab, Victoriana (we had Mucha posters in our mustard-colored kitchen), that strange Holly Hobby aesthetic. It seems like it all changed immediately when Reagan took office in 1981.

20th Century Women captures a slice of American life on that unique, unremembered and largely disowned cusp. Set as a flashback to 1979 with voiceovers that repeatedly remind us that we’re looking backward, the film is a rather remarkable time capsule. The story is simple: Dorothea (Annette Bening) is my grandparents’ age (born in 1924). She had her only son, Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), late in life—i.e., over age 40. She’s been divorecd for a few years, which was fine until Jamie hit puberty. Now, she needs help understanding him. She enlists his two closest allies—Julie (Elle Fanning), whose pants he wants to get into, and Abbie (Greta Gerwig), a postpunk fuckup—to help her figure him out.

Loosely based on actual events from director and writer Mike Mills’s childhood, 20th Century Women is fun to watch. Growing up in a house of females myself, I relate to a lot of his experiences. I loved all the Talking Heads, too. Oh!—and Siouxsie and the Banshees! That said, this film borders on overbearing with its nostalgia. It could’ve been so much better—the material and the talent are both there, but Mills goes for easy returns that don’t pay off. The story falls flat. Perhaps a quote from Bening in an earlier film, the superior and far more interesting Running with Scissors, succinctly sums up my problem here: “It’s shit, Fern. It’s sentimental. It’s emotionally dishonest. It implodes into nothingness.”

I wasn’t bored, and I didn’t hate 20th Century Women. But I’m never going to see this movie again. Too bad, because the acting is great. It’s a misfire due to its execution. It seemed like a good idea at the time.

Also starring Billy Crudup, Vitaly Andrew LeBeau, Curran Walters, Toni Christopher, Jimmy Carter (public domain footage)

Produced by Annapurna Pictures, Archer Gray, and Modern People

Distributed by A24

119 minutes
Rated R

(Landmark Century) C

http://20thcenturywomen-movie.com

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