(Video on Demand, December 2016) Comedy from drama is tough, but drama from comedy is even tougher. Someone deluded about the fact that she’s singing badly is prime comic material when it’s about a fictional character, but it can feel like punching down if the subject is a real person. Hence Florence Foster Jenkins’ modest success in discussing its titular character, a 1920s New York socialite who convinced herself of her singing abilities (up to an album and a concert at Carnegie Hall) despite, well, not being very good at it. How do you approach a subject like that? By going past the jokes and taking a look at the character. Our viewpoint character here isn’t Jenkins as much as her husband in an unusual marriage, seeing her delusions in a more objective frame of mind. Florence Foster Jenkins manages to be funny without being cruel to its lead character, and while Meryl Streep brings her usual gravitas to the role, the script deftly finds a balance between the comedy in her actions and the drama of understanding what moves her. Hugh Grant is suitably sympathetic as her husband, and nicely shows how well he’s aging into more interesting roles beyond the foppish goof persona he maintained for most of his career. In other smaller roles, Simon Helberg is surprisingly good as a pianist thrown into the madness, while Nina Arianda steals two scenes as a socialite who can’t help but say what’s on her mind. The depiction of a slice of 1920s New York society also has its appeal. While the result isn’t much more than the usual Oscar-baiting biopic, Florence Foster Jenkins has the advantage of being funnier, quirkier and even perhaps more resonant because of it.
(Video on-Demand, September 2015) At a time when it seems as if we’ve seen every mob movie concept imaginable, here’s a slightly different twist on the genre, and what’s more it’s based on a true story. Here, against the backdrop of the 1991-92 Gotti trial in New York City, we get a sympathetic but dim-witted couple that decides to make ends meet by robbing mob social clubs. The idea is smarter than it sounds when the protagonist realizes that there are no weapons allowed in mafia clubs. Still, the protagonist makes plenty of mistakes along the way, and Rob the Mob is never stronger than when it can indulge in the inherently comic aspect of two small-time crooks taking on the powerful NYC mob and holding their own for a while. Michael Pitt is fine as the lead Tommy, but Nina Arianda is a bit of a revelation as Rosie his charismatic wife, while Andy Garcia plays a fine fictional mob boss and Ray Romano is unexpectedly interesting as a journalist covering criminal developments. The film moves well, doesn’t dwell on gore, makes heroes out of its unlikely protagonists and delivers the expected entertainment. As an adaptation of real events, Rob the Mob sticks to the main points of the original story –still, it’s tempting to say that a far funnier film could have been made had the screenwriter taken a few more liberties with the source.