It’s an inspired idea indeed to have celebrated actress Meryl Streep perform in a most meta Emperor’s New Clothes style homage as an infamous no-talent. But as the titular character, a songstress oblivious of her pronounced vocal limitations, in Stephen Frears’s 1944-set biopic Florence Foster Jenkins (B), Streep’s seriocomic riffs are often on the mark even while the notes are all over the map. It is clear Frears finds his mercurial Manhattanite subject endlessly fascinating; and like Ed Wood, Bullets Over Broadway, Grey Gardens or The Producers, he finds fits of dry wit amidst the Schadenfreude. Hugh Grant as Florence’s conflicted husband is serviceable and occasionally sentimental, despite the actor’s limited range. Simon Helberg is a bit of a misfire as the songbird’s pianist, registering on the nebbish scale somewhere between Alan Cumming and Jason Schwartzman but with little of the charm. Nina Arianda is funny as a gangster moll type but is given strange motivations during a critical sequence. At the film’s heart is Streep herself, demonstrating with droll doses of heart and high-note heinousness that throwing yourself into an artistic passion with gusto, even when all the pieces aren’t altogether effective, can still be somewhat satisfying.
Gavin Hood’s Eye in the Sky (A-) is a spectacular meditation on the costs of wars waged with drone spies and unmanned planes that can drop missiles with perfect precision and why the human element is still so powerful in waging a fair battle. There is a lot of waiting game and bureaucratic bickering that weighs down some of the film’s most cinematic possibilities, but the moral dilemma at the movie’s heart as an international coalition determines how to capture or destroy suicide bombers in Kenya without significant collateral damage will prompt some fascinating discussion. Helen Mirren is magnificent as a war room commander, and Aaron Paul is solid as the U.S. soldier with his hand on the trigger. While underused in much of the film as a British commander and negotiator, the late Alan Rickman gets some brilliant parting words. Barkhad Abdi is also effective a heroic accomplice on the ground, deeply humanizing the depths of the danger to friends and neighbors when terrorism strikes cities. The sheer voyeurism of the drone plots makes for some suspenseful sequences, but it’s the human cat and mouse game at the movie’s center that makes the narrative gripping. It’s an intellectual thriller that condenses one of the great debates of our time into a satisfying story.
It’s always a thrill to watch a starmaking performance, to witness an actor inhabit a role with singular ferocity. All the more astonishing is when this revelation happens to be an actor who has been in the spotlight for two decades and hasn’t really given a flicker of this genius before. And so it is with the formerly fey Jude Law who becomes the husky, hulky, wily and menacing ex-con safecracker central character of writer/director Richard Shepard’s Dom Hemingway (B). This rowdy British import has more bark than bite as Law’s character spews his witty cock-of-the-walk braggadocio and occasionally reveals he has a tender side too. The strongest plot line transports Law and sidekick (Richard E. Grant) to France where a debonair Demián Bichir and mysterious Mădălina Diana Ghenea treat them to 007-style intrigue. Later subplots fare a little less successfully, and there could be better character development in a couple of critical story points, but it wraps up well. The bawdy and imaginative script – including funny title cards – keeps things brisk and surprising. And you simply won’t be able to watch Law the same way again after watching him portray this corker of a criminal in reform.