Best of Streep in ‘Florence Foster Jenkins’; Best of Summer in ‘Hell or High Water’

By BILL GEIGER | Sep 07, 2016

It’s time to look back over the lives of 2016’s summer movies. This was a summer with nary a storm on the horizon – except politically speaking, of course – yet it looks as though we’re going to get bombarded by tropical storms from here on out.

As the heavens open up, it seems like the rain is falling for those who have passed, and this week in particular we mourn the passing of one of the funniest men in film, Gene Wilder. The image I keep getting of him is that plaintive look he had in the brown top hat and green bow tie he wore as Willy Wonka. Wilder wasn’t even the first choice to play Willy Wonka. The story goes that Fred Astaire was supposed to play the proprietor of the “Chocolate Factory” that made the candy and chocolates from that famous Roald Dahl story “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.”

But Wilder was chosen, and the soft-spoken actor with the big puffs of curly hair settled in and gave Willy Wonka a good ride. Wilder could sing and dance, and was an energetic foil to Zero Mostel’s over-the-top Max as Leo Bloom in “The Producers,” Mel Brooks’ hilarious 1968 film that eventually spawned a Broadway musical. Wilder’s heyday was the years from 1967 to 1974, where besides Leo Bloom he played Jim in “Blazing Saddles,” one of the funniest movies of all time, and Dr. Frederick Frankenstein (Frank-en-steen) in “Young Frankenstein.” I still laugh when I think of the scene where Dr. Frankenstein and the monster (Peter Boyle) do the song and dance act singing “Putting on the Ritz.”

When a performer dies, particularly one who resonates with a generation and whose gifts are loved by one and all, the feeling of loss is profound because that’s a part of our past we can’t get back. We kind of have two pasts – one that we can still feel part of, because there’s a connection still working there, and then the other past – the one that we’ve lost because of death or destruction, like what happens when a hurricane or other disaster destroys a home or takes away memories that are vitally important. To younger generations Gene Wilder might just be a face on film, but to older generations he represented not just the films but the times themselves that the films represented. It’s hard to lose that.

The great love of his life was his wife, Gilda Radner, a “Saturday Night Live” comedian from the show’s inception to her death from ovarian cancer in 1989. Wilder himself died of complications of Alzheimer’s disease, on Tuesday, Aug. 29. As a tribute, some theaters were re-releasing “Blazing Saddles” and “Young Frankenstein” over the Labor Day weekend. Au revoir, Gene. You had a wonderful existence at the intersection of very funny films and the comedic talent that rises to make them. We seem to be losing that art today.

My plan of discussing four films this week fell apart. I did not get to see “Ben-Hur,” although I did watch my copy of the 1959 version, one of the most revered of all Hollywood films. Rightfully so. Back in May, in the very first version of this column this summer, I wondered why we needed another Ben-Hur, since you really can’t get much better than the Charleton Heston version. Apparently lots of others felt the same way, since the film fairly tanked at the box office, not that money earned is any kind of measure of a film’s goodness. According to Box Office Mojo, the film, made under Viacom’s Paramount banner, cost somewhere in the area of $150 million, and has brought in, during its two-week run so far, about $41 million. So I didn’t see it, and I guess I didn’t miss much.

I did see three fairly engrossing films, and we’ll talk about them straightaway. I’m not sure I’ve seen Meryl Streep any better than in “Florence Foster Jenkins,” even going as far back as maybe “Sophie’s Choice.” Jenkins was a New York socialite during the1930s and ’40s, and she fancied she could sing, though not too many others did. In plain fact she could not, but that did not stop her from trying. Steven Frear’s film captures all the subtle nuances of her life, and the storyline of “FFJ” occurs toward the end of it. She suffered from syphilis, which she caught from her first husband, and consequently she had a really difficult time of it, so much so that her “husband” – and I use that term in quotes for a reason – works very hard keeping FFJ “balanced.”

Her “husband” is St. Clair Bayfield, played with wonderful abandon by Hugh Grant, who supports FFJ in all her musical endeavors. St. Clair organizes all her “concerts,” handpicks the attendees, takes care of FFJ, and puts her to bed at night. It’s a platonic relationship, sexless throughout, though, as he says often, St. Clair just adores FFJ. But he’s something of an enigma, lest you think he’s the second coming of St. Clair. For the other important part of a marriage, the sex part, Bayfield keeps Kathleen (Rebecca Ferguson) in an apartment nearby, where he goes after putting FFJ to bed.

The other man in her life is Cosmo McMoon (Simon Helberg), her new accompanist, who almost, but not quite, steals all the scenes he’s in. When he first hears her sing, he creates a look of surprise that’s worth the entire film. Despite his misgivings at first, McMoon maintains a stalwart presence throughout the film and becomes a crutch that Florence is able to rely on, particularly when she needs it most.

When Kathleen feels she’s lacking attention, particular from St. Clair, she demands he stay with her for a time longer than he usually does, and emphatically not with Florence. Florence, remember, does not even know Kathleen exists. So St. Clair takes Kathleen for a golfing holiday, and in the meantime Florence books a concert for herself at Carnegie Hall. This is totally without the knowledge or control of St. Clair, and she intends to invite members of the armed forces, for she wants to give back to the soldiers who have, in her words, given so much.

So Florence will be singing in a concert at Carnegie Hall, to an audience of rowdy soldiers who have not been “approved” or vetted by St. Clair or anyone else, and McMoon is worried about his reputation since this will be the first time he’s playing Carnegie Hall. An influential music critic whom St. Clair has purposely kept away from Florence’s singing will likewise be there, and all this spells disaster for everyone involved with FFJ.

The film shows the power of music, how it can be an important component in both a single life, and in a community’s life. This film goes for the ring and gets it every time. Streep is stupendous, Grant is great, and Helberg hands in a performance as good as the others. “Florence Foster Jenkins” goes into my list of films from this summer that I want to watch again, and there’s no higher praise for a film than that – that it can be watched a second time with no diminishing value.

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In “War Dogs,” the jokey Todd Phillips film about a pair of young 20-somethings who begin “working” for the U. S. government selling weapons and ammo to the military, or to military contractors, or to native forces working with the military, an excess of ammo sends the pair to Albania, where on a tip from one of several shady characters they meet, they learn that AK-47 ammo can be purchased for about .03 cents a round. That’s a price too good to pass up.

And neither of them knows where Albania is.

The pair, Dave Packouz (Miles Teller) and Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill), have been friends since high school, yet there’s something slightly sinister about Diveroli, something not quite right. Perhaps it’s his laugh, a pathetic little sound that reproduces the last bit of air escaping a tire before it goes flat. Or his reputation, which is in question and has been since the two left middle school. Dave is warned again by a cousin who has a good bit of info from a friend about something that goes down between Efraim and an uncle that ends badly, and which he has already explained to Dave, but in an account that is completely different from what the cousin heard. So Dave fails to take heed. Bad move.

“War Dogs,” based on a true story, is narrated by Dave, with quotes from lines that are uttered in the film, giving the whole a rather episodic effect. But Phillips makes it work. Perhaps it’s from his experience directing the three “Hangover” films, and the narrative threads he needed to sew into the films to move forward or backward in time seamlessly because he already placed the trail needed for the viewer to follow in the scene, whether forward or backward. It’s easy in “War Dogs” because of the narration.

Dave Packouz is a masseur, giving rubdowns on a portable table he carries from customer to customer, building up a clientele of older men but not much of a future for himself. He decides on a venture whereby he purchases the entire inventory of high-end linens he intends to sell to retirement communities and geriatric homes. Now he’s really moved into a dead-end job. Then he runs into his old “friend” Efraim at a funeral, and Efraim fills him with ideas about the loopholes of government contracts, and soon they’re off buying weapons to sell to Uncle Sam.

When they meet the famous arms dealer Henry Girard (Bradley Cooper), they settle on a price for a cache of arms and ammo that they use to bid for a $300 million military contract to supply weapons and ammo to the Afghan army. This is that cache that’s in Albania, and things begin to get edgy between Dave and Ephraim, especially when it appears that the bullets are not Russian, as the boys originally thought, but Chinese. Dave feels Girard is screwing them over, and then Efraim does begin to screw him over, so the best thing for Dave to do is get out of the deal – but not before they’re turned in to the FBI. Apparently the boys never listened to their mother and they did not do the right thing.

“War Dogs” is a good film – edgy, funny – and it’s amazing how much money can be made smuggling weapons and selling arms. The old line about war being good business is certainly true. Some of the interesting things along the way, like driving from Jordan to Iraq to deliver a line of Italian Berettas, or trying to find one interesting thing to do in Albania, add a spark of verisimilitude to the overall story. But it’s also a cautionary tale, warning about how much trust to give a person, or was I really that good a friend of that guy from the past. Because in that line of work, one small mistake could ruin the whole deal.

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Now here’s what I’m talking about. The best film of the summer. Many others may think they might be close, but they’re not even. This would be the neo-Western “Hell or High Water,” with Jeff Bridges, Chris Pine and Ben Foster taking you across the badlands of West Texas, circa 2008, when the economy went into a serious meltdown and banks were foreclosing on mortgages, especially when the bank held the note on the property.

Such a scenario exists for the Howard brothers, Tanner and Toby, played with much grace and style by Foster and Pine, respectively. Tanner Howard is an ex-con, just out of jail, and Toby Howard is a divorced father who had to care for his mother who recently faced a long, lingering death from cancer. Then he somehow wants to save the farm, and give it to his children.

Death pervades the landscape. There are signs of foreclosure all around, just as there are signs offering money to borrow, oil rigs springing up in the unlikeliest places, and rusted hulks of cars all around, courtesy of the recession. So the wild-eyed Tanner and the more cautious Toby have taken to robbing the teller windows of the Texas Midlands banks, not looking for big scores, but a couple of thousand dollars in a take.

Soon the Texas Rangers are on the case, and the pair sent, Marcus Hamilton (Bridges) and Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham), have been partners for a long time – so long, in fact, that the Rangers are forcing Marcus to retire. But the repartee between the men is mostly made up of insults from Hamilton to Parker, with Marcus mocking Alberto for everything from his Mexican heritage to his Indian heritage. It’s all done in fun, and Parker gets to dish it back to Hamilton as often as he gets it.

But he can size up situations, too. As easily as Marcus tries to figure out which bank the boys will rob next, so they can beat them to it and case it, Alberto can give the history of how the land was taken from his Comanche forebears by the whites moving in, and now how the land is being taken away from the whites by the banks – “like that bank over there,” Alberto says, pointing to the Texas Midlands across the street. Soon Marcus is looking at a map, and figures the boys will rob the bank over in Post. So Marcus and Alberto head over toward Post when they hear the bank is being robbed, and they know the boys are doing it.

“Hell or High Water” is a quiet film, with characterizations as the centerpiece. There is action, sometimes very violent action, but for the most part, the film is quiet and you learn a lot about the people. Bridges looks like he’s in full Rooster Cogburn mode, having come right over to this film from the set of “True Grit,” but I can’t say the same for Pine, coming over from the bridge of the U.S.S. Enterprise, as Capt. Kirk in “Star Trek Beyond.” The director, David Mackenzie, a Brit, really seems to understand both the American psyche and, more importantly, the West Texas psyche, when all the avenues for success have dried up because of the banks.

Screenwriter Taylor Sheridan, who also wrote “Sicario,” squares this one up in a fine, tight script. When you’ve got people in your film like Bridges, Pine and Foster, I suppose you need to put the words down, but these guys can pick them up and do wonderful things with them. Mackenzie and Sheridan have collaborated on a solid, almost mystical film, which is better by far than anything coming out of blockbuster central. “Hell or High Water” is the best thing to come out of the summer of 2016.

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Now how about the also-rans. I’ve already mentioned that I liked “War Dogs,” and I did, and I liked “Florence Foster Jenkins” because Hugh Grant and Meryl Streep were excellent. I liked “Star Trek Beyond” – there’s Chris Pine again – and I really enjoyed three small independent films, one with Greta Gerwig (“Maggie’s Plan”), one with Viggo Mortensen (“Captain Fantastic”) and one with Ralph Finnes and a not too androgynous Tilda Swinton (“A Bigger Splash”) from earlier in the summer.

From the animation division of Summer Flicks Inc., “The Secret Life of Pets” was dynamite, and Alexander Skarsgård made a very appealing Lord of the Jungle in “The Legend of Tarzan.” Margo Robbie was very appealing as well, I must admit, and Christoph Waltz, though not as physically appealing (sorry, Christoph), was an attractive bad guy. Yes, “Tarzan” was very good. Two films from earlier in the summer round out our 10 most favorite films of the summer of 2016.

Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling made two very likable leads in “The Nice Guys.” It was those two who were “nice.” George Clooney, who is always nice as well and very rarely makes a bad film, starred in “Money Monster” with Julia Roberts, and because it was directed by Jodie Foster, it certainly went for the highest prize possible, and it succeeded. So those films, along with my favorite of all, “Hell or High Water,” are high on the list of Geiger’s Greats for summer 2016.

For the “average” or “typical” summer film, we certainly had our share. “Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping” fits in this category, as do “Jason Bourne,” “Ghostbusters,” “Captain America: Civil War,” “X-Men: Apocalypse” and “Suicide Squad.” Some of these flicks were fun, some were interesting to watch, but all were lacking something that would have put them into that top group. There were some funny moments in “Popstar,” and Margo Robbie was certainly appealing in “Suicide Squad,” but Marvel’s “Captain America” and the “X-Men” universe seemed a little tired. The things that make these films appealing sort of had the opposite effect this summer. Maybe we need a break from Marvel’s universe for a few summers. Let’s bring back “The Transformers” and let’s have Michael Bay direct.

No, wait. Let’s not, emphatically not, do that.

The stinkers? Yeah, there were a few, and here’s probably where the majority of the filmgoers will disagree with me. I thought “Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising” was stinky, “Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates” putrid, an interesting combo because Zac Efron is in both. No comment there, except to say the “humor” is certainly sex-oriented. I thought there was too much missing from “Warcraft,” Seth Rogen’s “Sausage Party” a teenager’s wet dream, and “Absolutely Fabulous” incomprehensible, even for those who understand the more mature British humor. Finally, I wondered why “The Neon Demon” was even made, and even more so, why I was the only person in the theater on the day I screened it. I hope it wasn’t one of those horror films that because I saw it I’m doomed. Maybe it just feels like that.

So that’s a wrap for the summer of 2016. Remember, I saw only three every two weeks, and did not see every film that came out during the summer. So I missed “Finding Dory,” and risked being on Ellen DeGeneres’ list of “people who did not see that ‘Finding Dory.’” I hear there is such a list, and in a few more years, when she makes several hundred million more, everyone on that list will be terminated. So it goes. I did manage to watch an indie or two on the slower weeks, more to refresh my soul than to find the best film, although in some summers it did work that way. But there were a great many that I passed by – mostly of my own choice.

Be on the lookout in the fall for some new films, but mostly for “The Magnificent Seven” remake, which I would probably have had similar thoughts to “Ben-Hur” except for the fact that it’s a western, so that gives it a bye for questioning the wisdom of remakes. And also because Denzel is in it, along with Chris Pratt and Ethan Hawke, so in late September that’s something to catch. And if Tom Hanks is your man, you’re in luck. You can see him in September in “Sully,” Clint Eastwood’s story of the pilot who set that plane down in the Hudson River, and in October in “Inferno,” Ron Howard’s film of Dan Brown’s novel, starring as Robert Langdon, Hanks’ character from “The Da Vinci Code” and “Angels and Demons.”

So there are good films on the horizon, and I hope for all of you a good off-season, with mild weather and a chance to go see some good flicks. If all goes well, we’ll chat again next summer. Till then.

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