Hell or High Water; Indignation; Florence Foster Jenkins
Director David McKenzie’s Hell or High Water is an engrossing blend of modern-day western, crime drama, social commentary—and one of several current options for those desiring intelligent entertainment from their multiplexes. Chris Pine and Ben Foster are brothers in West Texas who embark on a series of bank robberies and are doggedly pursued by Jeff Bridges as the aging Texas Ranger approaching retirement. However what seems like a clichéd situation is actually presented with a fair amount of both humor and insight. The brothers are targeting branches of a specific bank in order to raise money to save the family farm–which has been threatened with foreclosure by the very same bank. While resorting to crime to save the family home isn’t a new device, it’s disturbingly current at a time when banks have been called to task for routinely abusing lending practices, resulting in mass foreclosures and a bleak housing landscape.
A major strength of Hell or High Water is the spare, incisive script by Taylor Sheridan. The opening bank robberies, where it’s made clear that the brothers have little idea of what they’re doing, are both exciting and charged with humor. There are also some cutting verbal exchanges between Bridges’ wry Ranger and Gil Birmingham as Bridges’ patient partner who is part-Mexican, part-Indian, and gives as good as he gets in response to Bridges’ occasionally acerbic comments. Yet the script (and the playing) makes it clear these men have more than a grudging loyalty to each other. We see the same kind of dynamic at work with the two brothers; Pine and Foster couldn’t be more different (Pine is the “law-abiding” brother while Foster is the hot tempered ex-con), but their devotion to each other keeps them sympathetic (for a time)—at least until they hit the “wrong” branch (which in a state with lax gun laws, might be any branch). In the end, very little peace exists for the characters, since it’s also evident that everything has its cost. Hell or High Water may not tell a new story, but the high level of craftsmanship from all concerned make the film both absorbing and relevant.
James Schamus’ adaptation of Philip Roth’s Indignation is a haunting meditation on alienation, loss of innocence, choices and consequences. Indignation is set in the 1950s, a time where the Korean War was a “refuge” for those not university-bound. Logan Lerman plays Marcus, an intense Jewish student who leaves his over-protective, increasingly anxious father (Danny Burstein) and long-suffering mother (Linda Emond) to attend a small Ohio college. Marcus has a difficult time of it; as an ambitious scholar, Marcus largely avoids socializing with any of his classmates—and as an avowed atheist, he sees little point in joining the Jewish fraternity—or in attending mandatory Christian services. His self-imposed isolation is alleviated somewhat by his tentative relationship with Olivia (Sarah Gadon) an attractive fellow student with some serious issues of her own.
The centerpiece of the film is the lengthy “interview” between Marcus and the Dean (Tracy Letts), in which Marcus’ various choices, including his alienation from his classmates and his downplaying of his Jewish identity, come under intensive scrutiny from an administrator who is anything but objective (Tracy Letts is excellent here, imbuing what might have been a stock character with a degree of depth). It is a powerful scene, impeccably played and perfectly pitched, with sharp and thought-provoking dialogue touching on issues of identity, conformity and religion. Much has been made of this scene, especially since it stands in sharp relief in a summer season rife with action-filled presumed blockbusters, but it’s an exceptional dialogue-driven scene–in any season.
It’s a huge help that this dialogue is delivered in the context of the flawless portrayals from Lerman, Gadon, and the aforementioned Letts. In certain ways Indignation, with its subdued camera work, intelligent dialogue, and well-made screenplay, is good old-fashioned filmmaking. It does stay with you however, with scenes like the Marcus/Dean confrontations, Olivia “coming clean” with Marcus, the father’s slow breakdown, and a late bargain between Marcus and his mother lingering with the viewer, along with the devastating conclusion which, because of Marcus’ choices, seems all too inevitable.
In terms of pure movie-going pleasure Florence Foster Jenkins, directed by Stephen Frears, is probably the most enjoyable film I’ve seen this summer. Based on a true story, this beautifully photographed, amusing, and finally touching film is about the wealthy musical patron Florence Foster Jenkins (Meryl Streep), a mainstay of the Manhattan elite from the 1920s through the 1940s who made a name for himself in her unflagging support for the New York classical music scene. Possessed of seemingly unlimited funds (she’s an heiress), influential musical friends (like the conductor Toscanini), an adoring “husband” St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant), and an insatiable love for music, primarily opera, all she really lacks is…a singing voice. That fact (which the film presents Ms. Jenkins as being unaware of) doesn’t prevent her from engaging a top vocal instructor (who hides his criticisms behind the veil of equivocation). Bayfield and Jenkins also hire McCoon, a budding pianist (Simon Helberg) to accompany her for a series of solo concerts aimed at specially invited “music lovers.” As long as the concerts are done under controlled conditions (invited audiences—no critics) under Bayfield’s watchful eye, all is well—until Mrs. Jenkins decides she need a larger venue…
The delights of Florence Foster Jenkins are plentiful. The glamour and vitality of New York in the 1940s has been recreated and captured (in London, no less) by the cinematographer Danny Cohen. The script by Nicholas Martin does a nice job of presenting the various layers of the Jenkins/Bayfield relationship, from Bayfield’s unwavering support of her musical pursuits (including his unflagging efforts to shield her from criticisms. As he says to McCoon: “We lead a happy life here.”), to the fact that Bayfield also lived a separate life (complete with girlfriend). The script doesn’t judge the characters (although it might leave the viewer with some questions). Streep is superb as Jenkins; first of all, her singing voice (as Jenkins) is flawless. Having listened to some of the real Mrs. Jenkins’ recordings, it is safe to say Streep is spot-on, with the notes going (hilariously) wrong in all the right places. She also captures the bravura, the imperiousness, and finally the innocence and vulnerability of Jenkins. Helberg is delightful as McCoon—his incredulousness at her “ability” evolving into a genuine affection. Nina Arianda also generates a number of laughs (in several ways) as a blonde bombshell who becomes an unlikely Jenkins advocate. What holds the movie together though is Grant’s performance (best in years), effortlessly balancing the character’s pragmatism with his unwavering devotion to Jenkins—and even making his “extracurricular” activity understandable. In addition, Grant and Streep have a wonderful onscreen chemistry, resulting in scenes of genuine tenderness and feeling. If you haven’t seen the movie yet (and have not been swayed by some critical nay-sayers), Florence Foster Jenkins is worth making the trip to your local bijou.