J. Edgar

November 26, 2011 by  
Filed under Movies

Clint Eastwood has quite the challenge here: take one of the most unlikable persons of 20th century American history, and make a movie about him that paints him in a kind of sympathetic light. Now, we all know that J. Edgar Hoover should be credited with inventing the FBI. Mulder and Scully wouldn’t exist without him. But beyond that, in some cases Hoover used the same kind of subservice tactics to apprehend criminals that they used to be criminals in the first place. Not to mention that Hoover never seemed to ever recognize organized crime, which was rampant during his tenure as the big guy behind the desk. He also invented a lot of stories about his adventurous exploits that were total fiction. In essence, we have a very careful, paranoid, and highly insecure man at the center of this biopic.

Now, Eastwood enlists a good cast of actors to take care of things. Leonard DiCaprio, who has had an up and down career since “Titanic”; but he has still had some powerful performances (“Shutter Island” comes instantly to mind), and after acclimating yourself to the somewhat off-putting accent in the beginning moments of the film as DiCaprio narrates as an aging J. Edgar, he does wind up sewing together a very solid portrait of who J. Edgar Hoover was as a person. He really does eventually become him, in a way I haven’t seen DiCaprio do with a biographical character. He tried it in “The Aviator”, but that performance was somewhat stilted by a banal screenplay and a director who was going through the motions. He was better at it in “Catch Me If You Can”, but I still felt that as a boyish looking actor, he was miscast for someone who was consistently mistaken for being older than he was.

Here, once you get past the awkward accent and the extremely bad make-up, you really lose consciousness of DiCaprio as an actor, and see him as simply J. Edgar Hoover.

Unfortunately for the film, it doesn’t go much beyond that. Dustin Lance Black pens the screenplay, but his talents were much better suited for the superior “Milk”, a film about an overt homosexual man who was a prominent figure in civil rights for gays during his time, and made it even better by not just making it about Milk, but about adversity and insecurity of homophobic straight men. But here, Black unfortunately doesn’t have a lot of evidence to work with while building the narrative arc for J. Edgar Hoover because, unfortunately, his personal file was shredded at the time of his death. So Black does what he can, and while he does paint a very interesting story about a man conflicted, it just doesn’t transcend the bigger question: Why did J. Edgar become what he was, and why did he do the things he did? And I’m not just talking about wearing a dress. That actually is somewhat answered (and is actually one of the better scenes in the film). The men in Hoover’s life prove to be more influential to him, except for his mother (played by Judi Dench) who shapes some of his personal issues, at the same time giving him confidence about his professional endeavors. The other woman, Helen Gandy, his assistant (played by Naomi Watts), has less influence on him but is never too far from him.

Professionally, Hoover was a very questionable person. He seemed to contradict himself, and go after Communism at a Joe McCarthy level of enthusiasm–but considered McCarthy as less than his equal. He stood by the presidents he served, but he challenged the political powers that be to gain more power for himself and become his own boss. Really, by the time Nixon was president, he was his own shadow.

Except, personally–he did have a shadow, in Clyde Tolson (played wonderfully by Armie Hammer). Tolson’s older self also suffers from bad make-up–probably the worst make-up I’ve ever seen applied to someone outside of a cheap Haunted Corn Maze ride. But credit Hammer with bringing as much credibility to someone in badly applied makeup as I’ve ever seen. Tolson is someone that J. Edgar Hoover admired and trusted in; but more than that, allegedly, he may have even loved deeper than a platonic friendship. Now, there’s never been any real evidence that this was true. But Dustin Lance Black’s screenplay doesn’t necessarily try to make something out of nothing. Tolson and Hoover have a very strong professional relationship as well. And some of the ways they spend time with each other, you can’t help but wonder. There’s a climactic scene between the two of them (calm down, it’s not what you think) that really shows what both of those men really are. Tolson is more brave, more resolute, more honest. Hoover is a coward.

Maybe that’s what Eastwood wanted to show, and I guess that’s the point. But can we really sympathize with Hoover, knowing what we know professionally about him? That really isn’t exploited in the film; it deals too much with his personal inner conflicts. I think that’s a misstep. Hoover became a power monger himself, and the film spends too much time giving him credit for the Lindbergh baby incident–not enough time exposing some of the fraudulent things he did. In fact, in the scene showing his file being shredded, there’s a sort of comical tone to it as if we’re supposed to laugh it off.

Well, that really shouldn’t be shrugged off. It’s because of that that we really don’t get the whole story with Hoover. Ultimately, while all the dressing and sides are good, the meat of the meal is very thin and stringy. And even with the strong performances, the film fails at its core.

To me, Clint Eastwood is losing a little bit of his grip on some of his later films. He used to really execute with a quiet brilliance. “A Perfect World” and of course “Mystic River” come to mind. But now, he seems to be just collecting a paycheck instead of having a vision. I hope he reverts to his old self, because he’s one of the finest directors out there now. But he should be aptly criticized when he doesn’t live up to his potential.

My rating: :?

Shutter Island

March 6, 2010 by  
Filed under Featured Content, Movies

Mystery films with a twist. This concept has been done so many times in the last 10 years, badly, that I think as an audience we spend more time just trying to figure out the twist at the end than pay attention to the narrative of the story. M. Night Shyamalan has almost single-handedly ruined the sub-genre in itself by making hokey, cheap “twists” to his already weak and thin narratives in movies such as “The Village” and “Signs” that when you see a film advertising  “The ending will BLOW YOU AWAY!” the eyerolling is almost a reflex.

Now comes “Shutter Island”, based upon a novel by Dennis Lehane. The film revolves around an escaped prisoner (or “patient”) at a maximum security mental institution called Ashecliff Hospital on Shutter Island, off the Boston Harbor. US Marshall Teddy Daniels (Di Caprio) and his new partner, Chuck (Mark Ruffalo), are assigned to the case and after a shaky boat trip–Daniels tries to “get a grip” of himself while having sea sickness–the two embark on the case, involving dealings with mad people, and an enigmatic doctor named Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley).

Like any mystery film, there are red herrings and booby traps, and while you’re trying to figure out just what is going on at this asylum, you’re also unravelling the backstory of Daniels’ life. He was a WWII hero, who took down a death camp in Dachau; he also experienced trauma when his wife burned in a fire that was caused by an arsonist that Daniels’ reveals to his partner–may be on this island as a prisoner. As the two investigate the place further, there are more inconsistencies in Dr. Cawley’s approach and philosophy versus how the asylum is actually run, that the two of them believe they’re in danger of being kept there.

The paranoia, along with Daniels’ past sufferings coming back to haunt him, make the film more and more brooding as it goes along. And while you are trying to figure out the “twist”, it becomes more clear as the film progresses–and you can take the journey with Daniels as he starts to battle his own madness, that it makes for a perfect payoff in the end.

The film’s theme of being your own prisoner and how we torture ourselves works well, and the answer in the end to all the questions is not only well done–it’s the only way the film could work. The directing is masterful, once again, by Scorsese. The atmosphere is dark, and at times claustrophobic. It has a touch of film noir that makes the film sexy and lethal. It wants to terrify you, entice you, and tease you. And all three are pulled off perfectly.

This also features some brilliant performances by its lead actors: Ben Kingsley is wonderful as the off-putting and seemingly villainous doctor; Max von Sydow plays another mysterious character, another psychiatrist that Daniels doesn’t trust; Di Caprio is aggressive and powerful as the tormented Daniels in probably his best role since “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?”; and even Michelle Williams is impressive as Daniels’ wife who appears to him in his dreams and visions throughout the film, haunting him and plaguing him with self-doubt.

This film is extremely well executed and worth more than one viewing. While it’s a bit long (clocks in at about 138 minutes), it never feels though it’s too long and I never felt uncomfortable watching it. It’s a great movie experience. One that should have been recognized by the Academy. But how often does the Academy get it right?

My rating: :D