Thursday, August 11, 2016

Summer isn't a total loss. A look at a diverse week of movies: reviews of 'Florence-Foster Jenkins,' 'Hell or High Water' and 'Indignation

The movies always have been a kind of crazy quilt of ambition, accomplishment, disappointment and joy, a collection of individual offerings that have little in common other than a desire to encourage audiences to purchase tickets. As an example, consider this week, a movie moment in which offerings range from the bawdy humor of Sausage Party, an animated feature for adults, to the supposedly instructive bromides dispensed by Pete's Dragon, a movie with a dragon that looks like a cuddly stuffed animal. Said dragon saves the life of a boy who's left to his own devices in a forest after his parents die in an automobile accident, the abandoned child syndrome being a Disney common denominator dating back to Bambi.

It's also the week in which Meryl Streep plays the late Florence Foster Jenkins, a New York socialite whose passion for music and performance were indulged by those in the rarified social circles in which she circulated. The only problem: Jenkins had a hideously bad voice.

Jenkins' solicitous and morally frayed husband (Hugh Grant) protected his wife's delusions. Maintaining Jenkin's image of herself became his occupation.

Because Jenkins raised money for a variety of New York musical endeavors, no one had the courage to tell her that her private recitals were so painful, they could have induced the most saintly of innocents to confess to the most heinous of crimes.

Florence Foster Jenkins is the latest film from director Steven Frears, who began his cinematic journey with what now seem like films from some fading Pleistocene age: The Hit (1984), My Beautiful Launderette (1985); Prick Up Your Ears (1987) and Sammie and Rosie Get Laid (also 1987). Those movies -- practically a British New Wave in themselves -- seem like ancient eruptions from a director who hasn't exactly mellowed, but who, in this outing, focuses attention on a woman whose self-created grandeur is beautifully captured by Streep.

In Streep's hands, Jenkins pretensions are delivered with the piercing exactitude of a soprano's high C.

Jenkins' singing becomes both amusing and painful, particularly as she prepares for a 1944 concert at Carnegie Hall. Jenkins readies herself for the big evening with help from her tutor Cosme McMoon, a deliciously bemused Simon Helberg.

Because Jenkins had contracted syphilis from her first husband, her marriage to Grant's St. Clair Bayfield was chaste. To compensate, Bayfield carried on an affair with his mistress (Rebecca Ferguson).

Grant finally has found a perfect role as he ages out of the British prince charming phase that mostly has served him until now. He's playing an honorable cad.

There's little I can say to prepare you for Streep's attempts at operatic singing. Let's just say that she makes Susan Alexander Kane, the woeful opera singer in Citizen Kane, seem like Joan Sutherland. If screeching were an art form, Jenkins would have been its foremost practitioner.

Thankfully, Frears hasn't totally yielded to the temptation to make a feel-good comedy. He charts Jenkins's inevitable march toward disaster -- albeit not without making note of her pluck and fortitude in the face of a monstrous lack of talent.

I suppose one is obligated to say that Florence Foster Jenkins is a small movie enlarged by big talents.
But two other small movies (both enlarged by big concerns) also open this week.


Hell or High Water belongs in a genre that might be dubbed the neo-western. Set in West Texas, the movie spreads bank robbery, sibling loyalty and violence across a Texas landscape that grows its own form of justice, rolling it out like wind-blown tumbleweeds.

Director David Mackenzie, working from a screenplay by the gifted Taylor Sheridan (Sicario), introduces us to Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster), brothers who rob small banks in forgotten towns that seem to shriveling in the Texas heat.

At first, the brothers seem to be another pair of mismatched hoodlums. Toby has a steady hand; Tanner quickly establishes himself as the movie's wild one, an uncontrollable weed sprung from parched Texas soil.

Still most familiar as Captain Kirk in the reborn Star Trek series, Pine gives what might be his best performance yet. As Toby, he must hold things back. Divorced and crippled by a past in which much has gone wrong, Toby is trying to right a very specific wrong.

Looking at iMDB, I was surprised to see that Foster already has 51 movies and TV appearances to his credit. You may remember him from The Messenger, a mournful 2009 story about an Army sergeant assigned to deliver the ultimate bad news to spouses and parents of fallen soldiers.

You have to reach the end of Tanner's trail to realize what's driving this irredeemable bad boy, but Foster is one of those rare actors who can scare you just by showing up. He can put a look in his eyes that turns them into bullets just waiting for something to trigger their release.

Jeff Bridges, whose voice has taken on the roughness of weathered leather, plays Marcus, a Texas Ranger who's on the verge of retirement. Marcus hunts the brothers with his Comanche partner, Alberto (Gil Birmingham), a Native American who has learned to live with Marcus' racist taunts.

It's not easy to tell whether Marcus is a racist or just a guy who tries to needle his way under the skin of anyone with whom he feels close.

The story takes us in unexpected directions and gradually builds to a confrontation that's as much about character as it is about violence.

The Scottish-born Mackenzie, who directed the searing prison drama Starred Up, proves that he can handle drama with drawl and something on its mind.

Birmingham's Alberto sounds the chord that plays behind the solos that the rest of the characters deliver. The whites came and took the land from the Indians, and now, in what can be interpreted as a form of karmic retribution, the banks are taking the land from whites.

Mackenzie leads us to a conclusion that feels wise in a way that's far more complex than a movie like this has any right to be.

Like the juice from a wad of sour chewing tobacco, you may to savor the movie's bitterness before you think about spitting it out.

The violence in Hell or High Water doesn't happen without motivation, but there's another kind of violence, the violence of cruelty that's embedded in observation of characters who are pinned to a writer's unforgiving wall. No matter how much they struggle, they'll never be free.

That brings me to Indignation, an adaptation of a small (and some would say "minor") 2008 novel by Philip Roth.

Indignation marks the directorial debut of James Schamus, who has written screenplays for director Ang Lee (Ice Storm, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and Brokeback Mountain) and who, as an executive, helped create movies such as Lost in Translation and Milk.

Though presented in straightforward style, Indignation requires contemporary audiences to take an imaginative leap back to 1951, a time when a young woman who'd perform oral sex on a man might be labeled a slut by young men who still kicked around questions about whether they'd marry a woman who wasn't a virgin.

In adopting Roth, Schamus pits the Newark, N.J., of Roth's imagination against life in at small Ohio school called Winesburg College. If you're familiar with Roth, you'll immediately know that part of the story's tension centers on moving from a mostly Jewish world into a less-welcoming WASP society.

Logan Lerman plays Marcus, a young man who wants to break from the stultifications of Newark life, which means living at home and occasionally working in his father's kosher butcher shop.

Marcus is the '50s definition of a good Jewish boy; i.e., he's a straight A student. Academic achievement might be the only thing Marcus fully understands. Once grades no longer serve as a standard, he'll likely be lost.

At the college, Marcus meets Olivia (Sarah Gadon), a troubled young woman who introduces him to hand jobs and fellatio, neither of which Marcus is fully prepared to accept.

The movie's best scene involves an extended confrontation between Marcus and Dean Caudwell. During the course of 18 minutes Lerman and Tracy Letts (as Caudwell) play verbal tennis. In essence, Caudwell attempts to persuade Marcus to aspire to WASPishness. Marcus isn't strong enough to resist for the right reasons; he's indignant, but unformed.

As Marcus' complicated but demanding mother Linda Edmond makes the most of her time on screen. During a visit to Winesburg, she warns Marcus off his emotionally distressed shiksa, who once tried to commit suicide. She's certain no good can come of such a relationship.

To raise the stakes, Marcus' coming-of-age drama plays out against a contrivance, a backdrop in which a false move might expose him to the draft and land him in Korea, an unsafe place for young men in the '50s.

The question with all Roth adaptations involve Roth himself. How do directors compensate for Roth's missing voice? Indignation has finely wrought moments, good performances and demonstrable intelligence, and yet, it doesn't always spring fully to life. It's Roth under glass with Marcus ripe for being quashed like a bug.

There is no transition that can take me from Philip Roth to Pete's Dragon, where I began all of this.

That movie seems aimed at young children, so I'll say only this. When a movie wants to make room for magic, it should feel more magical than Pete's Dragon. Kids probably will respond to this good-natured story about a wild child's circuitous route back to civilization, but it also could appeal to adults who want to compare it to the 1977 original or who've been hankering to see Robert Redford play a character who tells stories to kids, presuming there any adults in either of those two categories.

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