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Eva Hesse

Eva Hesse

“EVA HESSE”  My rating: B- (Opens Sept. 23 at the Tivoli)

108 minutes | No MPAA rating

“Eva Hesse” is a pedestrian documentary about a major artistic figure.

Go for the information, not for the telling.

A child of refugees from Naziism, Eva Hesse in her brief life more or less created the post minimal art movement by incorporating into her pieces mass-produced objects in plastic, latex, fiberglass and other nontraditional (for art, anyway) materials.

Her goal, according to one admirer, was “to make art on the borderline of uncontrollability.”

Eva’s private life was a mess (“There’s not been one normal thing in my life.  Not one.”) and she died of cancer in 1970, when she was only 33. Yet she opened up untold possibilities for her fellow artists.

Ironically, the unconventional materials she employed now pose big headaches for museums that display her work. Many of her pieces are literally decaying before our eyes — a conservatorial nightmare that she seems to have foreseen and approved of.

“She didn’t just manipulate materials, she was the material,” an admirer says. That philosophy extends to the temporary nature of her art. Here today, gone tomorrow. Continue Reading »

Caspar Christensen, Frank Hval

Caspar Christensen, Frank Hvam

“KLOWN FOREVER” My rating: C+ (Opens Sept. 23 a the Alamo Drafthouse)

99 minutes | MPAA rating: R

At about the 37-minute mark the wooly and borderline  reprehensible Danish comedy “Klown Forever” delivers the biggest laugh of any film of 2016.

I’m talking gasping-roaring-fall-out-of-your-chair-even-if-you’re-watching-it-alone-at-home funny.

It involves a naked man and a curious Great Dane.

‘Nuff said.

The rest of “Klown Forever,” a sequel to the 2010 “Klown,” is a bit of a hit-or-miss affair. Those who loved the first movie (or the original Danish TV series, which has been called a Scandinavian “Curb Your Enthusiasm”) will undoubtedly be primed for more rude, absurdist, man-centric humor.

Once again our heroes are Casper (Casper Christensen) and Frank (Frank Hvam), whose show-biz partnership reminds a bit of that of Rob Bryden and Steve Coogan in “The Trip” films. Apparently the two are partners in some sort of comedy undertaking, although we never see them at work.

Mostly they’re getting into trouble.

Casper  is a bachelor horn dog who cannot think past his pecker. Frank is a husband and father who is always being led astray by his priapic best bud.

The plot centers on Casper’s decision to go it alone, looking for new career opportunities in Los Angeles. Left behind, Frank is bereft…and of course ends up following his pal to LaLa Land where new opportunities for misbehavior are always presenting themselves.

They rub elbows with some celebrities (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Isla Fisher and Adam Levine, playing themselves), get picked up by some ladies of questionable repute, and have a falling out over Casper’s sexually active daughter (Simone Colling).  Meanwhile Frank’s long-suffering wife (Mia Lyhne), must decide whether to forgive her hubby’s trespasses or leave his stupid ass.

The moral of the “Klown” universe is that boys will be boys and men will be even worse. If you can get behind that world view, then this might be right up your alley.

| Robert W. Butler

John Krasinski, Margo Martindale

John Krasinski, Margo Martindale

“THE HOLLARS” My rating: C+ (Opens Sept. 23 at the Cinemark Palace, Glenwood Arts and AMC Town Center)

98 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

John Krasicki’s strengths as an actor — a sly sense of humor, emotional openess, a charitable view toward his own and other actors’ characters — are also on display in his feature film directing debut.

But despite a cast to die for and some heartfelt sentiment, “The Hollars” is a near miss, a movie in which everything seems just a degree or two out of whack.

Jim Strauss’s screenplay is yet another dysfunctional family dramedy.

Illness in the family brings NYC office drone John Hollar (Krasinksi) back to his middle American hometown. He leaves behind his pregnant girlfriend Rebecca (Anna Kendrick) and a dead-end job — what he really wants to do is write and illustrate graphic novels.

Ma Hollar (Margo Martindale) has been diagnosed with a brain tumor.  Even with that against her she shows more common sense than the menfolk of her clan, who are more or less eccentric idiots.

Dad Hollar (Richard Jenkins) lives in an emotional bubble of denial. Whenever he steps out of that bubble he collapses in tears. And he’s run the family’s plumbing business into the ground, forcing him to fire his oldest son Ron (Shallot Copley), who now lives in the basement.

Ron is a near-moron who is stalking the ex-wife with whom he has two little girls. And he harbors some absurd notions about minorities (he assumes that his mother’s surgeon, an Asian American, must be a master of at least one martial art).

Continue Reading »

snowden-750x490“SNOWDEN”  My rating: B

134 minutes | MPAA rating: R

The story of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden was practically made for Oliver Stone.

Government overreach, conspiracy and corruption, plus a hero who acts alone in defiance of hopeless odds — they’re all the elements of a typical Stone film (“Wall Street,” “Platoon,” “Salvador,” “JFK,” “Born on the Fourth of July”).

And with age has come a certain mellowing of the Stone approach. It’s not like he’s any less radically left — it’s just that now he can make his case without the hysteria and hyperbole that often marred his earlier work.

And in Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Stone has a leading man seemingly at the peak of his powers.

Those whose minds are not already made up when it comes to l’affaire Snowden will find Stone’s new film “Snowden” largely convincing. Even if you’re inclined to brand Snowden as a traitor worthy of death, the film will remain troubling.

(OK, time out. Let me say up front that while “Snowden” is a good film, it pales in comparison with “Citizenfour,” the Oscar-winning documentary from 2015 in which the real Snowden, a newly-minted international fugitive hiding in a Hong Kong hotel room, is interrogated by the journalists who would leak his most inflammatory revelations to the awaiting world. Everyone should see “Citizenfour.” But most people dislike documentaries, and so the fictional Stone version will be the one most people will see and remember. Fact of life.)

Most of ”Snowden” is one long flashback. In the present we’re in that hotel room with filmmaker Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo) and reporters Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson).

Tell us about yourself, one of the journalists says, and the next thing we know we’re at an Army training camp where young Edward Snowden is preparing to take on the terrorists who leveled the World Trade Center. Continue Reading »

bosch-temptationstanthony“HIERONYMOUS BOSCH, TOUCHED BY THE DEVIL” My rating: B-

86 minutes | No MPAA rating

Under most circumstances the Tivoli Theater would play an art-themed documentary like “Heironymous Bosch, Touched by the Devil” for one night only. Maybe two at most.

But Pieter van Haste’s film has a Kansas City connection that makes it of more than routine interest to folks hereabouts. Which is why today it begins a week-long run at the Westport art house.

The movie follows a team of art historians and museum types as they prepare for a special exhibition of the paintings of the Dutch master Heironymous Bosch — famous for his hallucinogenic depictions of heaven and hell — in his hometown of Den Bosch in the Netherlands.

The show (it ran earlier this year) celebrated the 500th anniversary of the artist’s death, and featured as many of his paintings as the curators could lay hands on (only about two dozen authenticated Bosch works are recognized).

What makes this of local interest is that in researching Bosch’s output the experts determined that a painting held by the Nelson-Atkins Gallery of Art for the last 70 years (most of that time in storage), was indeed done by the hand of Bosch and not one of his imitators or pupils.

The “discovery” of the Nelson-Atkins’ “The Temptation of St. Anthony” occurs in the last 20 minutes of the documentary.

Up to that time the film focuses on preparations for the big show. We see how art historians use infrared technology to peer beneath the surface of works to reveal earlier images that subsequently were painted over.

An expert in wood — Bosch painted on wood panels — can count the tree rings in a particular piece and identify years of drought. Comparing those rings to the records of rainfall and drought 500 years ago, he can approximate the year the tree was cut down.  A wood panel that was harvested after Bosch’s death cannot have been painted by the master himself.

The film also devotes much time to the cautious dance of courtship and rejection as the Dutch scholars attempt to convince the staff at Madrid’s Prado Museum — the single largest repository of Bosch paintings — that they should lend their masterwork, the triptych “The Garden of Delights,” for the show.

In a quiet but emphatic display of curatorial territoriality, the Spaniards turn down the request.

All this is mildly interesting but a bit dry.  The film fares better when it zeroes in on the paintings themselves, lingering on Bosch’s scary/fascinating menagerie of demonic creatures, on the twisted naked forms of tortured souls, and on his eerie depictions of nighttime landscapes illuminated by mysterious fires (no doubt inspired by a devastating conflagration that destroyed Bosch’s hometown when he was a boy). Continue Reading »

Eddie Murphy

Eddie Murphy

“MR. CHURCH”  My rating: C+

104 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

An opening credit for “Mr. Church” claims that the film was “inspired by a true friendship.”

Actually it seems to have been inspired by every other racially-tinged tearjerker ever made.

Which isn’t to say it doesn’t work, at least part of the time.

Director Bruce Beresford (“Breaker Morant,” “Tender Mercies” and especially “Driving Miss Daisy”) is a skilled enough director to finesse many of the emotional and narrative landmines that litter Susan McMartin’s screenplay, and the performances of Britt Robertson, Natascha McElhone and Eddie Murphy in the title role are good enough that we’re moved…even if we resent it.

The film’s first five minutes unload enough revelations to fill an entire movie.  The time is the mid-’70s, the location Los Angles.

The beautiful Marie Brooks (McElhone) is the single mother to young Charlotte/Charlie (played as a child by Natalie Coughlan).  Charlie awakens one morning to find a rather elegant black man (Murphy) cooking a gourmet breakfast in the kitchen.

Charlotte is informed that the cook, Mr. Church, was bequeathed to Marie by her former lover, a wealthy  married man who before dying specified that Mr. Church work as a cook and caregiver until Marie’s death, and that thereafter he will continue to receive his salary for the rest of his life.

What Charlotte doesn’t know is that her mother is dying of cancer. Thus this unusual gift from her one-time paramour.

Except that Marie hangs in there. Expected to last only six months, she lives for another six years. And Mr. Church faithfully sticks around.

By this time Charlie is a teenager (Britt Robertson, who has the unusual ability to convincing play any age between 16 and 30). She heads to college on the East Coast, but after a year or two turns up on Mr. Church’s doorstep, pretty and pregnant. They resume the unofficial father/daughter relationship that has sustained them for most of Charlie’s life.

Continue Reading »

beatles_592x299“THE BEATLES: EIGHT DAYS A WEEK — THE TOURING YEARS”  My rating: B+ (Opens Sept. 15 at the Tivoli)

106 minutes | No MPAA rating

There have been plenty of Beatles documentaries and no doubt there will be plenty more.

But if I had to explain to one of today’s teens what Beatlemania  was all about, I’d sit them down to watch Ron Howard’s “The Beatles: Eight Days a Week — The Touring Years.”

The doc focuses on the first five years of the Beatles’ timeline, ending with the 1966 concert at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park that ended their live performances.

Employing endless archival footage (some of it shot by fans and never before disseminated) and cleaned-up audio tracks that prove just how terrific a live band the Fab Four were (even if concertgoers couldn’t hear much because of all the screaming), the movie is more than just a factual document.

It is an emotional one.  Want to know what it was like to be young in 1964? Watch this movie.

What’s really amazing is how well the four Beatles — John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Ringo Starr — kept their shit together in the madhouse of Beatlemania.  They were bemused and not a little awed by it all, but tried to keep their heads on straight with cheeky humor and a what-the-hell attitude.

Asked if they saw themselves as pioneers of a cultural revolution, the Beatles said they were having a good “larf.” Who knew when it might end?

Ringo reveals how they had an entire floor of New York’s Plaza Hotel and still couldn’t get any privacy.  The four lads ended up hiding in a bathroom, laughing over the insanity of it all.

Continue Reading »

Aaron Eckhart, Tom Hanks

Aaron Eckhart, Tom Hanks

“SULLY”  My rating: B  

96 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

Clint Eastwood is not a film stylist. No fancy camera angles. No innovative editing. No signature flourishes.
What he is is a terrific and seemingly effortless storyteller, one of the best now making movies.
Exhibit A is “Sully,” Eastwood’s recreation of 2009’s “Miracle on the Hudson,”  in which a crippled jetliner landed on the Hudson River without the loss of one of the 155 souls aboard.
Tom Hanks stars as Capt. Chesley Sullenberger, the 40-year aviation veteran who within seconds of losing both engines to a flock of Canada geese realized a return to La Guardia Airport was impossible…that the only chance of salvation was a water landing.
Todd Komarnicki’s screenplay (based on the memoir by the real Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger) devotes half of the film’s 96-minute running time to the brief flight and the crash itself.  
The near-disaster is experienced from several vantage points (pilots and crew, passengers, first responders, witnesses), with each iteration providing new insights and not a few thrills.
This is absorbing, shocking, logic-defying stuff.
Now we all know that nobody died on US Airways Flight 1549. Still, the film generates tension by revealing that  NTSB investigators were all but prepared to pin the blame on Sully and first mate Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart). (The film takes dramatic license by launching the hearings immediately after the incident; in reality, they came 18 months later.)
Computer simulations suggested that the damaged aircraft could have returned to the airport. Did Sully make a bad call that put everyone on board at risk?

Continue Reading »

Brian De Palma...with "little friend"

Brian De Palma…with “little friend”

“DE PALMA” My rating: B (Now on DVD)

107 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Is Brian DePalma a giant of American filmmaking?  Or just a moderately successful journeyman?

It’s pretty clear from their documentary “DePalma” that filmmakers Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow believe in the first analysis.

In this  two-hour journey through the director’s mind and career we mostly get the 75-year-old DePalma seated in front of a camera and in more or less chronological order discussing the films he has made over more than a half century.

These range from the off-the-cuff craziness of “Greetings” to boxoffice champs like the first “Mission: Impossible” and “The Untouchables” to genuinely provocative works like “Scarface,” “Carrie,”  “Casualties of War” and “Carlito’s Way.”

Of course there are flops, too: “Bonfire of the Vanities” (he maintains that if no one had read the book they’d like the film), “Mission to Mars” (he was a last-minute replacement who joined a production that already had left the station) and the politically-drenched war-on-terror spasm “Redacted.”

The film makes extensive use of film clips, not only from DePalma’s resume but from other filmmakers who have influenced him (Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” is a major touchstone).

Continue Reading »

Alicia Vikander, Michael Fassbender

Alicia Vikander, Michael Fassbender

“THE LIGHT BETWEEN OCEANS”  My rating: C+ 

  132 minutes | MPAA rating:  PG-13

There’s a world of weeping on display in “The Light Between Oceans.”

The good news is that most of the sobbing is done by Alicia Vikander.  If you’ve got to stare for two hours at a tear-stained face, it might as well be that of this Oscar-winning actress. She makes suffering almost transcendent.

The not-so-good news is that in making its transition from best seller to big screen, M.L. Stedman’s story has lost a good deal of its power.

For all the lacerating emotions displayed by Vikander and co-stars Michael Fassbender and Rachel Weisz, relatively little of it is experienced by the viewer.

What was deeply moving on the printed page seems mechanically melodramatic when dramatized.  You want to be moved, but can’t shake the feeling that mostly you’re being manipulated.

After four years in the trenches of World War I, Tom Sherbourne (Fassbender) returns to his native Australia a hollow man. Seeking solitude and time to rediscover himself, he signs up as the lighthouse keeper on Janus Island, a windswept hunk of rock 100 miles from the nearest coast.

But he won’t be alone for long. In one of the most satisfying passages in Derek Cianfrance’s film, he meets, woos and weds Isabel (Vikander), a local girl who seems to relish life on the island. Their’s is a civilization of two…the only thing that could make it better would be a baby to share the experience.

Fate has other plans.  Isabel suffers a miscarriage (during a hurricane, no less) and later gives birth to a stillborn child.  Things are looking pretty glum.

And then a rowboat floats in on the tide. Inside is a dead man and a baby girl. Continue Reading »

 ** as Roberto Duran

Edgar Ramirez as Roberto Duran

“HANDS OF STONE” My rating: C+

105 minutes | MPAA rating: R

“Hands of Stone” is  “Raging Bull” lite — a boxing biopic minus the genius of Martin Scorsese.

But it does have Robert DeNiro.

Written and directed by Venezuelan Jonathan Jacubowicz, the film takes on the troubled life and career of Roberto Duran, the Panamanian pugilist whose ring experiences were as much a product of his dysfunctional childhood and Third World resentments as they were of hard sweat and tremendous innate talent.

In a decade of championship fighting, Duran held the lightweight belt, engaged in a long-running war of words (and blows) with American champ Sugar Ray Leonard, and sometimes  behaved in private and in the ring like a spoiled child.

“Hands of Stone” feels like an attempt not to excuse that behavior but to put it in perspective.

Early scenes establish Roberto as the son of an American soldier who impregnated his mother and then vanished, setting  up in the future boxer a lifelong antipathy toward the United States.  That fury was only stoked by political upheaval in Panama over efforts to take back the Canal Zone from the gringos (the American-run canal, guarded by U.S. soldiers, effectively divided the country in half).

We see the young and charming (also unschooled and illiterate) Roberto (played as an adult by Edgar Ramirez) wooing a wealthy blonde schoolgirl, Felicidad (Ana de Armas), and starting a family even as his career is taking off.

In a sense “Hands of Stone” is a dual biography, its second subject being boxing trainer Ray Arcel (DeNiro).

When in 1971 he first saw Duran fight, Arcel had been out of boxing for nearly 20 years. In the early ’50s he had incurred the wrath of the mobsters (represented here by John Turturro) who ran the boxing business. He barely survived an assassination attempt and was allowed to live only if he steered clear of the fight game.

But he’s so moved by Duran’s potential that he gets the Mafia’s permission to train the kid with no pay.

Roberto is cocky and tough and at first resents the discipline Arcel demands. But slowly he begins to see his trainer’s genius, especially when it comes to mapping out the strategies that can win or lose a fight.

 

Continue Reading »

** and

Tika Sumpter and Parker Sawyer

“SOUTHSIDE WITH YOU”  My rating: B+ 

83 minutes  | MPAA rating: PG-13

Sight unseen, “Southside with You” sounds like a really bad idea…or at least one with a booby trap around every corner.

The subject of writer/director Richard Tanne’s feature debut is the early relationship of Barack and Michelle Obama.

This is the sort of project one might expect 20 years after the Obamas leave the White House. By that time history will have had a chance to sort things out.

It’s certainly not what one anticipates while the man is still sitting in the Oval Office.

But put those misgivings aside. “Southside with You” is a terrific film — funny, romantic, respectful without being stuffy and, yes, inspiring.

Every time it looks like things will bog down in discourse, politics or hagiography, this well-acted effort gracefully sidesteps the crisis.

Set in 1989, the film begins with Michelle Robinson (Tika Sumpter) in her parents’ Chicago home getting gussied up for an appointment. Meanwhile young Barack Obama (Parker Sawyer) is doing the same thing in a haze of cigarette smoke.

A Harvard law student, Barack is a summer intern at a big Chicago law firm where second-year associate Michelle is his adviser. He’s asked her to accompany him to a community meeting on the city’s South Side. (Her mama teases her about spending time with “another smooth-talking brother.”)

Michelle is less than impressed when Barack picks her up in a rattletrap sedan filled with cigarette butts. She must straddle a rusty hole in the passenger-side floorboards.

And she’s indignant when she discovers that their meeting is several hours away, that Barack hopes to fill the time with date-like activities like a museum visit and lunch.

“We work together,” she protests. “A date would be inappropriate.”

Michelle explains that it’s hard for a young black woman in a big law firm to be taken seriously.  Dating the summer help is out of the question.

“It’s not a date until you say it is,” Barack concedes. But we all know that before the day is over it’s going to be something bigger than that. Continue Reading »

Chris Pine, Ben Foster

Chris Pine, Ben Foster

“HELL OR HIGH WATER” My rating: A- 

102 minutes | MPAA rating: R

“Hell or High Water” is about two brothers on a crime spree. But David Mackenzie’s film has a lot more on its mind than mere suspense and thrills.

Imagine the Coen Brothers’ “No Country for Old Men” filtered through the sensibilities of a Bruce Springsteen ballad about sibling tensions and economic alienation, enacted by players who in some instances are giving their best perfs ever, and set against a bleak West Texas landscape so carefully rendered you may find yourself trying to spit out the dust.

And although it was filmed a year ago, it  damn near serves as an ethnological study of Trump voters.

The film begins with a bank heist.  Brothers Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster) pull on ski masks and barge into a branch of the Texas Midlands Bank in an oil spot of a rundown town. Brother Tanner is clearly enjoying his power over the employees and customers — a bit too much, actually. He has to be admonished by his sibling after pistol whipping a slow-moving bank employee.

Because Ben Foster has so often played eye-rolling loonies, we assume that his ex-con Tanner is the criminal mastermind behind the unfolding series of bank robberies. Actually it’s the low-keyed Toby who came up with the plan to steal  money from the same bank threatening to foreclose on the family’s run-down ranch.

Estranged from his wife and two teenage sons and way behind on his alimony, Toby hopes to pay off the mortgage with the bank’s own money. At least he’ll be able to leave the family spread to his boys. Heck, there may even be black gold under it.

The brothers have a system, hitting different branches at off hours, then burying the getaway cars out on the back 40. They launder the stolen cash by gambling at an Indian casino up in Oklahoma.

But it’s a given that at some point the hair-trigger Tanner will deviate from the plan and throw the entire enterprise into jeopardy.

Because there’s a relentless lawman on their trail. Jeff Bridges is Marcus, a crusty old Texas Ranger facing an uneasy retirement. Marcus has been catching crooks for so long that he thinks like them; he’s just waiting for one little screwup.

In the meantime he passes the time making politically incorrect observations about the heritage of his long-suffering half-Commanche partner (Gil Birmingham).

That’s the plot.  But the screenplay by Taylor Sheridan (who most recently gave us the first-rate drug war saga “Sicario”) is noteworthy for all the other stuff going on just below the surface. Continue Reading »

Mike Bersaglia, Keenan

Mike Berbiglia, Keenan-Michael Key

“DON’T THINK TWICE”  My rating: B+

92 minutes |MPAA rating: PG-13

Fledgling authors are advised to write about what they know.

Filmmaker Mike Berbiglia has taken that message to heart. While other new directors are bent on referencing other movies and duplicating long-established genres (horror, crime, raunchy comedy), Berbiglia makes movies about what he knows.

And he’s getting really good at it.

A standup comic, Berbiglia made his directing debut in 2012 with “Sleepwalk With Me,” a semi-autobiographical comedy based on his own career, relationship issues and especially a life-threatening sleep disorder.

His followup feature, “Don’t Think Twice,” is also set in the world of professional comedy. It feels so awesomely authentic you just know almost everything in it has actually happened to Berbiglia.

Loosely plotted — to leave room for tons of character development — “Don’t Think Twice” observes the six members of The Commune, a struggling improv group in New York City.

These  comics work menial jobs so that they can devote the weekend to putting on shows in a falling-down theater before small but generally appreciative audiences. They’re improv purists who rely on the ticket buyers to pitch ideas which they instantaneously turn into comedy gold.

They live for their hour a week in the spotlight. And for vindication on a larger stage.  Maybe, just maybe, they can land a gig on “Weekend Live,” the “SNL”-ish network powerhouse capable of turning unknowns into household names.

They’re a motley bunch.  Allison (Kate Micucci) is a big-eyed waif.  Lindsay (Tami Sagher) is mostly big — with a hefty trust fund that allows her to live in her own nice apartment while everybody else shares a ratty flat.

Bill (Chris Gerhard) is so timid-looking you wonder he has the guts for improv.  Samantha and Jack (Gillian Jacobs, Keenan-Michael Key) are an item; she’s a team player, while he’s perfectly willing to grandstand.

In charge (if that’s the right word) is Miles (Berbiglia), who’s been doing improv the longest and whose chances of stardom peaked years earlier. Now he teaches comedy classes and halfheartedly sleeps with his female students.

Continue Reading »

Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant

Simon Helberg, Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant

“FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS”   My rating: B+ (Opening wide on Aug. 12)

 110 minutes  | MPAA rating: PG-13

The human capacity for self-delusion has long been fodder for dramatists. Usually it’s the stuff of satire or tragedy.

“Florence Foster Jenkins,” though, has it both ways.

Written by Nicholas Martin (his first feature after a long career in Brit TV), directed by Stephen Frears (“Dangerous Liaisons,” “Philomena,” “The Queen” ) and starring Meryl Streep in a prime slice of Oscar bait, this real-life yarn encourages us to laugh uproariously at the human foibles on display but sends us away in a somber mood.

It’s the rare film that discovers dignity in foolishness.

The title character was a real person, a New York heiress (1868-1944) who became famous — or infamous — for her out-of-tune renditions of operatic arias.

Frears’ film unfolds in the last year of Jenkins’ life. Our guide to Florence’s oddball world is Cosme McMoon (Simon Helberg), a scrawny, struggling pianist who as the film begins is hired as Florence’s accompanist and discovers to his horror that he’s backing one of the century’s worst voices.

What’s more, he’s now immersed in Florence’s bizarre household.

Streep’s Florence has more money than good sense. A lover of classical music, she has devoted much of her fortune to private recitals at which she is the main attraction.

A zaftig dowager (Streep wears a convincing fat suit) with alarming taste in fashion and the stage presence of an eager child, Florence honestly believes that she has a great voice.

This delusion is encouraged by the blue-haired biddies who are her devoted fans and by her common-law husband and manager, St. Clair Bayfield (an excellent Hugh Grant).

Bayfield is a failed Shakespearean actor — one of those hammy thesps whose delivery is all about the words but rarely about their meaning — who for three decades has been sponging off the Jenkins fortune.

Continue Reading »