Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Decency trumps the law in 'Le Havre'

Director Aki Kaurismaki's movie about a shoeshine man and an illegal immigrant is nothing less than a joy.

I’ve been aware of the work of Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki since 1989’s Leningrad Cowboys Go America. Kaurismaki specializes in movies that move deliberately through sparse environments often populated by marginalized members of the working class.

So what would happen if this Finnish director decided to make a film in France? Those who see Kaurismaki’s Le Havre will find out – and you'd do well to be among them.

First off, note that Kaurismaki's movie is named after a city, a port in northwestern France that has known its share of industrial decline. Not surprisingly, Kaurismaki confines his camera to parts of the city that are not likely to enhance its appeal among tourists: a modest home in a back alley, a bar that’s less than commodious and the city’s docks.

Moreover, the movie’s main character is a down-on-his-luck shoeshine man (Andre Wilms), who plies his trade at Le Havre’s railroad station.

Despite its sometimes dreary settings, Le Havre is anything but depressing. In a quiet and undemonstrative way that challenges all the slam-bang notions of commercial cinema, Kaurismaki celebrates the simple decency that brings Wilms’ Marcel into contact with a boy from Gabon (Blondin Miguel).

Miguels’ Idrissa escapes from the police when they open a shipping container that’s being used to smuggle illegal immigrants out of Gabon. Idrissa had been traveling with his grandfather, who was aiming for London, where he hoped to reunite the boy with his mother.

For Marcel, helping Idrissa involves little hesitation; he simply does what he deems necessary, hiding Idrissa and making efforts to help him reach London.

Idrissa becomes Marcel's responsibility, even though the shoeshine man's wife (Kati Outinen) is hospitalized amid dire forecasts about her prospects.

Marcel’s endeavors win the support of many of the neighborhood locals, including the woman who runs the bread store and the guy who sells produce, folks who normally fret over how much money Marcel owes them.

True to the movie’s unembellished spirit, Idrissa is neither unbearably cute nor strikingly handsome. He’s an ordinary kid who sometimes ignores Marcel’s pleas that he not leave the house.

Marcel, of course, knows that there are those who would turn Idrissa in. He also fears that a local detective -- a dour-looking Jean-Pierre Darroussin – won't rest until he finds the kid who eluded the authorities that took Idrissa's fellow travelers into custody.

Le Havre adopts a particularly interesting attitude about illegal immigration. Rather than stoking the fires of lower-class resentment, Kaurismaki shows us characters that favor a relaxed approach to the law, perhaps because they don’t always view it as an ally and perhaps because they simply want to do the right thing.

And, oh yes, Kaurismaki finds a way to include the work of aging French rocker Roberto Piazza -- also known as Little Bob – in the movie. Little Bob brings a strange but invigorating exuberance to the proceedings.

Kaurismaki seems to have decided to reward Marcel’s decency with a near-miraculous end-of-picture twist that would have capsized a more manipulative movie. Le Havre, on the other hand, stays afloat because Kaurismaki seems to think that if a thing is worth stating, it will survive understatement.

If Le Havre is a fantasy, so be it. What could be more pleasing (or quietly instructive) in these wretched times than a fantasy in which people behave decently, going the extra mile for someone in need of help? Without resorting to emotional blackmail, Kaurismaki warms the heart. His movie encourages us to respond to kindness.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Hoping the audience for 'Hugo' grows

I can't help but be a little depressed that in its second week, The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part I did more business than any other film. That, of course, includes Martin Scorsese's masterful Hugo, which couldn't outdo the Thanksgiving weekend performances of The Muppets, Happy Feet Two and Arthur Christmas. A Los Angeles Times blog item wondered whether Hugo, which played on only 1,277 screens, might prove more successful in the long run. (Twilight Saga, by comparison, was playing on 4,066 screens.) Speculating about a movie's long-haul box-office prospects seems a bit unusual in these days of opening-weekend mania, but I'm definitely hoping audiences for the artful Hugo grow.

Here's a safe bet for you, though. In a decade, I think more folks will watch Hugo than will see The Muppets, Happy Feet Two or Arthur Christmas combined. That's no knock on those very kid friendly movies, each of which has its supporters. But Hugo qualifies as a classic.


There were sneak previews this weekend of Cameron Crowe's We Bought A Zoo, an adaptation of a Benjamin Mee memoir about a family that purchases a rundown zoo in the South West of England. The movie, which stars Matt Damon as Mee and Scarlett Johansson as a zookeeper, moves Mee's story to the U.S. That's probably a wise decision as far as box-office prospects are concerned, but I wonder what will happen when American kids who are enamored by We Bought A Zoo ask their parents to take them for a visit.

I noticed a large display advertisement for Saturday night's sneaks of We Bought A Zoo in The New York Times. I then checked the movie listings in the Denver Post, and discovered that We Bought A Zoo was sneaking at a number of local theaters. If there were any display ads in the local paper, I missed them. Maybe it was a sneaky sneak preview.

Anyway, I went, and will review We Bought A Zoo when it opens next month.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Maybe a week with Marilyn wasn't enough

Michelle Williams does nice work in My Week With Marilyn, but the movie comes up short.

The main reason you might want to see My Week With Marilyn -- which is a bit of an anecdote passing as a feature-length movie -- centers on the work of Michelle Williams. Williams offers a mixture of fully realized performance and unrestrained glamor as Marilyn Monroe, capturing the Hollywood sex goddess during days in England when she was filming The Prince and the Showgirl under the direction of the esteemed Laurence Olivier (Kenneth Branagh).

Here's how we know what went on: An avid film enthusiast named Colin Clark (a real person) worked as a third assistant director (read lackey) on the production. Clark evidently developed a week-long relationship with Monroe in which she both relied on him and toyed with his affections. Clark, who went on to become a documentary filmmaker, wrote a couple of books about his experiences tagging after Monroe.

If Williams makes a convincing Monroe, the same can't be said for Branagh, who suggests Olivier (the cast of the mouth, the delivery of lines), but obviously can't manage to look like him. And, yes, it bothered me because the movie's make-up people went to great lengths to turn Williams into a Monroe look-alike.

Director Simon Curtis, working from a script by Adrian Hodges, brings too little interpretive savvy to the proceedings, and Eddie Redmayne (through no fault of his own) can't make a memorable character out of a star-struck young man who's in love with the movies. On screen, Clark comes off as a bit of a cliche, a wide-eyed kid who has run away to join the show-business circus.

Some of the supporting performances are good. The always impressive Judi Dench gives a nicely shaded performance as the kindly Dame Sybil Thorndike, and it's nice to see Emma Watson (of Harry Potter fame) given a chance to do something other than react to special effects. She has a small role as a young woman working in wardrobe. Watson's Lucy clearly would make a more suitable companion for Clark than Monroe, who at the time was married to playwright Arthur Miller, played here by Dougray Scott.

And I particularly enjoyed Zoe Wanamaker as Paula Strasberg, Monroe's Method-oriented acting coach who contributed mightily to Olivier's massive frustration. Olivier didn't want to Monroe to plumb the depths of her character; he simply wanted her to get on with it.

A film about Monroe -- a complicated and often troubled woman who may have been both oppressed and nourished by her status as a sex symbol -- would have been most welcome, and the gifted Williams clearly was up to the task.

But My Week With Marilyn sums up what's interesting about itself in one very incisive line of dialogue: Monroe was a star who wanted to be taken seriously as an actor; and Olivier (who also starred in Prince and the Showgirl) was a revered actor who wanted to be a star. They couldn't help but clash.

That's a revealing observation, but insufficient to sustain an entire movie. My Week With Marilyn simply isn't big enough to accommodate a star of Monroe's magnitude

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

'Hugo," a dreamy triumph for Scorsese

Director Martin Scorsese makes a kids' film (sort of) -- and in 3D no less.

If you don't believe life is strange, consider this: Martin Scorsese, master of Mean Streets, Goodfellas and Raging Bull, has made a kids' movie - and not just any kids' movie, but a beautiful helping of 3-D that might make Steven Spielberg jealous.

Sure that seems out of character for Scorsese, but as you dig deeper into Hugo, Scorsese's elegant adaptation of The Invention of Hugo Cabret - a 2007 children's book by Brian Selznik - it becomes increasingly apparent why Scorsese chose to become involved.

In addition to being a first-rate director, Scorsese is also one of the most knowledgeable film lovers in the world, and Hugo brings him back to the time when movies had naïve innocence, and no one was quite sure whether moving images were more than a passing fad.

We're talking about the time, say, of the Lumiere brothers, a wonderful moment when audiences could be startled and thrilled by the simple sight of a train arriving at a station.

Don't be put off. Hugo is not an arcane helping of cinema history designed to impress buffs. It's a film in which a jaw-dropping mastery of craft is matched by a celebratory spirit about what movies can do.

The story revolves around Hugo (Asa Butterfield), an orphaned boy who lives in the walls of a train station in Paris where he has taken it upon himself to wind the station's clocks. Hugo also has a talent for fixing things, and he sustains himself by stealing bits of food and outwitting the station's police inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen).

Hugo has one remaining link to the father (Jude Law) he lost in a fire at the museum where Dad worked: an automaton, a wind-up creation with a passive face, clockwork innards and a skeletal frame.

Hugo hopes to activate the automaton, an aspiration that brings him into contact with a variety of characters: Georges (Ben Kingsley), the sour-faced owner of the station's toy booth; Georges' wife Jeanne (Helen McCrory); and their adopted daughter Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz).

The performances range from good to excellent, but the real star of Scorsese's movie may be the movie itself.

I don't think I've seen a film that has made much better use of 3-D than Hugo. Every shot seems to have been composed to maximize the capabilities of 3-D cameras. Scorsese and cinematographer Robert Richardson move those cameras through the station's labyrinth of cogs, gears and wheels, through its bustling waiting room and through the streets of Paris in the 1930s.

The station itself is a triumph of production design, an urban hub that flirts with nostalgia without entirely succumbing to it.

All of this (and more) make Hugo a bona fide technical triumph. And that may be part of the point Scorsese and screenwriter John Logan are making. They're not interested in gadgetry for its own sake; they're interested in the equipment that helps make dreams real.

That brings us back to where I started: The love of cinema.

It turns out that Kingsley's Georges is none other than Georges Milies, a famous early filmmaker whose 1902 film, A Trip to the Moon, featured an iconic shot of a rocket landing directly in the eye of the Man in the Moon. By the time, Hugo begins, Milies has grown old, and his work mostly has been forgotten. Thanks to a late-picture development, a film historian (Michael Stuhlbarg) helps reconnect Milies with a part of himself he thought he'd lost.

It's possible that Hugo, which makes skillful use of film footage from Milies, Harold Lloyd and others, will prove more of a delight to adults than to children. But I'd take kids to see it because they'll be watching a story that has been beautifully assembled, because the kids at its center are smart, brave and sincere, because Hugo might teach them something about a cultural inheritance they didn't know they had, and because the movie doesn't debase itself by pandering to what it thinks kids might want to see.

Those familiar with Scorsese's passions will understand and appreciate the fact that Hugo also becomes a bit of a commercial for film preservation, one of Scorsese's prime concerns. He does this not by shortchanging the story of a lonely boy who's captivated by movies, but by enhancing it.

To his credit, Scorsese makes it clear that restoring old films is about more than finding bits and pieces of bygone footage in unlikely places; it's about the restoration of lost dreams.

Von Trier hears the sweet call of doom

The provocative Danish director outdoes himself with a gloom-shrouded epic of annihilation.
Anyone familiar with the work of Danish director Lars von Trier knows he specializes in movies so bleak they hardly allow for even the slightest expression of faith in humanity.

After 1996's Breaking the Waves , von Trier became a regular on the festival circuit, sometimes connecting (Dogville) and sometimes missing the mark (Antichrist). Those, of course, are my assessments. Von Trier enthusiasts will have their own favorites, and nothing he does ever will please his many detractors.

Last May, von Trier may have bitten the festival hand that feeds him. He was barred from the Cannes Film Festival after making ridiculous comments about Hitler, Naziism and Albert Speer. He was attempting, I think, to position himself in the land of outrageous opinion. He also seemed to be making a joke, the humor of which eluded just about everyone who heard him. Von Trier clearly would be better off letting his movies speak for him.

And in his latest movie -- Melancholia -- the director speaks loudly and with no small amount of pomp, delivering a message steeped in romanticized doom. No slouch when it comes to pessimism, von Trier imagines not only the destruction of individual characters, but of the entire planet. He seems to think that this might not be such a bad thing. After all, life -- with its pointless rituals and stupid striving -- doesn't amount to much anyway.

Melancholia uses a kind of sci-fi backdrop to enlarge the scale of its inquiries. A planet 12 times the size of Earth is heading directly for our tiny planet. If this approaching planet -- bearing the metaphoric name Melancholia -- doesn't change course, it's a total wipeout for Earth and its creatures.

The opening of Melancholia boasts some of the most astonishing images of the year, sights on a par with the great work that Terrence Malick did in the cosmic segments of Tree of Life. Most of the von Trier's best imagery occurs in this prologue, a series of images that summarize the entire movie in graceful slow-motion, all to the strains of Wagner's prelude to Tristan and Isolde.

In the first half of Melancholia, von Trier takes us to the wedding of Justine (Kristen Dunst) and Michael (Alexander Skarsgard). The couple becomes late for their very elegant reception when their limo gets stuck in the forest. Watching a massive white limo trying to negotiate a tiny wooded road clues us to von Trier's comic sense of absurdity. What could be sillier than celebrating a new beginning as the cosmic wrecking ball approaches? Like the limo on that impossible road, it's a bad fit.

As is often the case, the director offers some stiff competition for the all-too-familiar irritations of his hand-held camera. The bride's mother (Charlotte Rampling) makes sneering comments about the futility of marriage. She's divorced from Justine's father (John Hurt), who drinks too much and seems to wallow in warm sentimentality. The bride's boss (Stellan Skarsgard) proves to be an obnoxious ad man who insists that Justine invent an advertising slogan before the reception concludes.

Justine's sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) bravely tries to keep things going while her husband (Kiefer Sutherland), the sap who's paying for the nuptials, complains about the bride's irresponsibility. In conventional terms, he's absolutely right: At one point, the bride abandons the groom to make love to a stranger on the golf course surrounding the lavish estate where the wedding reception is being held.

That’s pretty much the pattern. The reception – punctuated by all manner of small social hostilities – takes place under the shadow of the irresistible doom to which Justine finds herself drawn. Justine has fallen under the spell of melancholia (with a small "m"). Try as she may, she can't make herself conform to what she probably sees as the frivolous demands of the wedding. (I guess she didn't trust her doomy instincts enough to forgo the whole thing in the first place.)

Dunst keeps the audience off guard as a deeply disturbed woman who's obviously suffering from powerful inner turmoil. Dunst gives one of those courageous, all-out performances that looks as if it probably left her spent.

Part II -- named for Claire -- involves the opposing ways in which the two sisters -- Justine and Claire -- cope with what they think will be the end of the world. Having had her erotic flirtation with death, Justine seems increasingly ready to consummate the affair. Beset by fear, anxiety and concern for her young son, Claire resists.

For his part, Sutherland's John attempts to reassure his wife and young son (Cameron Spurr) that the approach of the planet should be regarded as a scientific adventure, not a portend of doom. In a von Trier movie, he's a walking demonstration of the failure of rationality.

Unfortunately, the movie's second half slows down considerably. By the time von Trier's apocalyptic denouement arrives -- and I found myself rooting for it -- you'll either have yielded to Melancholia or you'll have headed for the exits. I was alternately entranced, bored and dubious.

It falls to Justine to sound what could be von Trier's motto: "All I know is life on earth is evil." I don't think even the obnoxious behavior of the wedding guests justifies such a sweeping conclusion, but von Trier never has been one for cinematic restraint, and his final images are as compelling as those that opened the movie.

I can't give this one a clear yes or no. If nothing about Melancholia sounds alluring, stay home. I wouldn't think of arguing you out of your easy chair. Otherwise, cue the Wagner, try to keep from smirking at the movie's more ridiculous parts, and, by all means, let the apocalypse rip.

Friday, November 18, 2011

'Twilight' series nears the end

If you care about the nuptials of Bella and Edward, Breaking Dawn has something for you. If not, you may be overwhelmed by the preposterousness of it all. .
I'm not going to rattle on about The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn -- Part I. My strongest impression of the movie came from watching the security people -- on hand to guard against piracy -- walk across the aisle separating the upper and lower seats in the large auditorium where a preview screening took place. From where I was sitting, it was both distracting and weird. The silhouettes of security guards, along with a steady stream of viewers scurrying to find seats, made it seem as if a parade of ghostly intruders were passing in front of the screen. The flow eventually stopped, allowing me to put my full attention on a movie with so much built-in fan appeal that it hardly needs reviewing. The latest edition -- directed by Bill Condon (Dreamgirls) -- qualifies as the creepiest of all the Twilight movies, and I don't necessarily mean that in a good way. By now, you either don't care or already know that a still-human Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart) and vampire Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson) marry. You also know that Bella also becomes pregnant in this installment, the penultimate movie. After the nuptials, Breaking Dawn resolves into a waiting game in which the vampires try to talk Bella out of having a baby that's growing so fast, it's destroying her body. Jacob, the werewolf and Bella admirer played by Taylor Lautner, tries to figure out which side he's on, while a group of his irate cohorts threatens to devour what they believe will be Bella's evil spawn. If you stop to think about it -- and I suggest you don't -- you may find a strange bias against sexual activity in Breaking Dawn, which does offer some boldly vivid imagery (blood coursing through Bella's veins) to go along with scenes of pure ridiculousness (wolves talking to one another in throaty, growling English). The blood becomes a little more repulsive in this edition, which may seem exceptionally preposterous to anyone outside the Twilight cult. But, then, no one outside that group is likely to venture into the movie anyway.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Clooney loses his cool in Hawaii

Early in The Descendants - the latest movie from director Alexander Payne - we're warned against being seduced by Hawaii's abundant charms. The movie's narrator - an increasingly troubled father played by George Clooney - cautions us not to be deceived by the scenery: People in Hawaii suffer as much as everyone else.

Clooney's character speaks from experience:

During the course of this deceptively relaxed and engaging movie, Clooney's Matt King grapples with death, betrayal, parental angst and personal responsibility. In other words, "The Descendants" is a full-blooded movie, not a travelogue.

But before you reach for your handkerchief or begin wringing your hands in grief, know that the tone of The Descendants is far from lugubrious. Payne manages the kind of neat trick that defines some of Hollywood's best work: The Descendants can be generously entertaining without scraping all the emotional meat of its bones.

Let's get the movie's bona fides out of the way: Yes, The Descendants likely will show up on Oscar's short list for best picture. Yes, Clooney probably will find himself among the nominees for best actor. Payne probably will win a best director nomination, as well as a nomination (along with his co-writers) for best-adapted screenplay. (Kaui Hart Hemmings wrote the novel on which the movie is based.)

There could be more Oscar nominations on tap for The Descendants, but you get the idea: The Descendants has been positioned to make a major splash as one of the year's best big-screen endeavors, and - before we proceed - let me assure you that I'm not going to pull a 180 and tell you to forget all the hype and pre-opening accolades. Some of them are well deserved.

Clooney plays Matt King, a successful real-estate lawyer who hasn't paid a great deal of attention to his wife or to his 17- and 10-year-old daughters. Of course, life is about to teach Matt a major lesson.

The trigger: Matt's wife is involved in a boating accident that puts her into a coma from which she has no chance of recovering. Not surprisingly, Matt's world turns upside down - both as a parent and as a husband. Matt also begins to discover that he may have had an entirely mistaken notion about the kind of life he'd been living.

The movie's trailer reveals way too much, but I won't say more about a screenplay in which Matt accumulates disasters large and small, even as we ignore his early-picture warning and are lulled into something like a state of Hawaiian ease.

Matt's woes extend beyond worry about his wife's medical condition. He's also the trustee for a magnificent parcel of his family's land in Kauai, unspoiled acreage that most of the relatives want to sell to a developer. They think they're doing the right thing because they favor a local developer over an outsider.

Thankfully, the heart of the story belongs to Clooney and to the actresses who play his daughters (Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller). Woodley, from TV's The Secret Life of the American Teenager, portrays a spiky, 17-year-old student. She's difficult, and, perhaps as part of that difficulty, insists that her boyfriend (Nick Krause) accompany her everywhere. Krause's Sid seems like a major dope - until he doesn't.

Despite the problems she presents, Matt increasingly relies on his older daughter. Woodely gives a complex, layered performance. She's playing a character who's not fully mature, but she's not a child, either. She's in that most awkward of categories: an almost adult.

Matthew Lillard and Judy Greer find themselves in major supporting roles, with Greer perhaps having the better showcase, particularly in a scene near the movie's end. Robert Forster makes a strong impression as Matt's embittered father-in-law.

A word or two about Clooney: Clooney is a first-rank star, and he can't check his stardom at the door when the cameras roll. But Clooney deserves major credit for putting aside some of his trademark cool. He's playing an emotionally rumpled guy who can be clueless, a man defined by what he doesn't know.

The Descendants might be a shade too easy, considering some of the issues it raises, and like many good movies, it may be receiving more praise than it deserves. If so, it's because Payne's movie soars above most mainstream entertainment, offering us something welcome and rare: movie characters behaving in ways that are touching, funny and sometimes even smart.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Herzog's death-row documentary hits hard

Sadness sometimes grows in the murky shadows of American life, a bone-deep sorrow in which the smallest (and perhaps meanest) of impulses builds toward catastrophe. When these impulses find their fullest expression, the results often feel random and senseless. We're talking about crimes born of stupidity, recklessness, envy and guns, and you feel the bleak tug of all these things in almost every frame of Werner Herzog's troubling new documentary, Into the Abyss.

When I first read about Into the Abyss, I was put off. Herzog had interviewed a death row inmate for what easily could have become an anti-capital punishment diatribe. I'll register my vote against capital punishment, but I had little desire to sit through what promised to be a dreary exercise of preaching to the already converted.

Boy, was I wrong.

Into the Abyss is one of the year's most disturbing films, a documentary that peels the lid off a Texas community where trouble seems to grow like weeds. I'm usually put off by documentaries in which we hear the interviewer asking questions, but in this case, Herzog's questions (and comments) become an essential part of the movie's fabric. He can be sensitive or insistent, and he treats everyone with respect.

To make the film, Herzog conducted interviews with prisoners, family members of victims, a prison guard who presided at executions and a chaplain who still plies his trade in the bland but nonetheless grisly confines of Texas' execution chambers.

These disparate characters find themselves in the same movie because of a 2001 crime in which Sandra Stotler, her son Adam and Adam's friend Jeremy Richardson were murdered. Michael Perry and Jason Burkett were convicted of the crime: Perry received a death sentence; Burkett is serving a life term. All of this took place in Texas, where not much needs to be said about the commitment to execution.

The murders evidently were motivated by Perry and Burkett's desire to drive a red Camero that belonged to Stotler, and which now sits in a police impound yard. At one point, a tree grew through the abandoned car's floorboards. You look at that car, and you can't help but ask yourself, "So much pain, and for this?"

In Into the Abyss death feels inescapable, perhaps because Herzog interviewed Perry eight days before his scheduled execution. Like many inmates, Perry says he has found comfort in religion, but the inexorable approach of his execution infuses the film with tension.

Moments of pure heartbreak punctuate Herzog's film: We listen to the self-accusatory testimony of Burkett's father, a man who has spent most of his life behind bars. He talks about the ways in which he failed his son. Stotler's daughter discusses the torments she has endured since the murder of her mother and brother; and a Texas prison guard talks about finally reaching a point at which he no longer could participate in executions, even if it meant sacrificing his pension.

Herzog makes his position on capital punishment clear, but beats no drums of outrage. And he's certainly not trying to get either Perry or Burkett of the hook. He's just following the story where it takes him, working his way through a pain-laden narrative that springs from deeds that can't be undone.

Into the Abyss isn't just a film about a terrible crime and its dreadful punishment: It's a film about the awful and aching complexities of lives that may have been shattered beyond repair. Is there anything hopeful to be found in all of this? Not much. In the world of this film, killing and its impact can't be shaken.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

'J. Edgar' lacks a compelling point of view

There's much to admire about Clint Eastwood's look at J. Edgar Hoover, but the movie eventually becomes far too laborious.
He loathed Communism, saw himself as a staunch patriot and kept secret files on anyone he thought might threaten his ascendance. J. Edgar Hoover was a world-class intimidator, who used his manipulative skills and power to build the FBI into a national crime-fighting force.

It has been widely speculated that Hoover had yet another side to him, that he was a closeted homosexual who shared a marriage-like intimacy - if not carnal pleasures - with Clyde Tolson, his second in command.

This man of stunning contradiction is the subject of J. Edgar, a new and carefully assembled biopic from director Clint Eastwood and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black. Eastwood needs no introduction: Black, you may recall, won an Oscar for his screenplay for Milk, the story of slain San Francisco board supervisor* Harvey Milk.

Eastwood and Black seem to have genuine sympathy for the torment of those who are unable to acknowledge important parts of themselves - in this case, gayness. Eastwood treats Hoover's death in 1972 with a tenderness that's almost mournful.

And then there's the performance of Leonardo DiCaprio, who creates a stark and convincing portrait of Hoover as a troubled man who seldom lost his composure. Heralded in a recent New York Times piece as an actor who welcomes risk, DiCaprio hardly seems a natural fit for the role Hoover, but he meets the challenge.

DiCaprio provides the movie with a solid center, and he receives able support from Armie Hammer, who plays Tolson. Depicted as cultured and witty, Tolson became the second most powerful figure in Hoover's FBI. He also inherited Hoover's estate after the FBI director passed away.

Overall, Eastwood and Black seem to be trying for a tempered approach to Hoover's story, telling us that if he had them, Hoover never acted on any homosexual urges, that he was an early champion of forensic evidence, that he sometimes abused his power and that, on at least one occasion, he put on his mother's clothes.

But what do we take from a movie that's beautifully crafted and earnest to a fault? Not enough, I think. I kept waiting for J. Edgar to catch fire, but it moves somewhat laboriously over its two-hour and 16-minute length, never really finding a compelling point of view.

Moreover, J. Edgar suffers from a depressingly conventional structure: An aged and embattled Hoover tells what he bills as his side of his story to various young FBI agents, dictating chapter after chapter of a self-serving autobiography. Eastwood uses flash backs to develop the story from Hoover's perspective.

This gives the movie a kind "Hoover's Greatest Hits'' quality; "J. Edgar" lacks the organic punch of a great biopic. Hoover tells the story of the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby and of his stormy relationship with Bobby Kennedy and more. But the movie has a near reportorial tone at times when outrage over Hoover's excesses (his campaign against Martin Luther King, for example) might have been more appropriate. Two women influence the story - albeit in small doses. Judi Dench portrays Hoover's strikingly imperious mother. She bossed him around; he didn't seem to mind. Naomi Watts fares equally well as Helen Gandy, Hoover's long-time secretary.

Any review of J. Edgar must also deal with the make-up issue.

I couldn't entirely shake my awareness of the make-up under which DiCaprio and Hammer (especially Hammer) are buried and which tends to give them eerie wax-works countenances, the look of the embalmed. If a character is aged for a final scene or two of a movie, it's easier to accept, but we see DiCaprio in full make-up throughout the movie.

Look, I respect Eastwood as a filmmaker, and he deserves credit for tackling a difficult subject, but he doesn't seem to have wrested his subject to the ground. J. Edgar moves from one incident to another, sampling an awful lot of history without ever quite knowing what to make of the man who gives the picture its name.

*In an earlier copy of this review, I incorrectly referred to Milk as having held the post of mayor.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Neglected history brought to light

During the height of the Black Power movement in the U.S., a variety of Swedish journalists and filmmakers made it their business to interview many of the movement's major figures. This previously unseen footage -- at least in the U.S. -- has been assembled by Swedish director Goran Hugo Olsson into a documentary aptly titled Black Power Mixtape, 1967-1975. And, yes, there's plenty of interest here. An example: Watching Stokley Carmichael take over for a reporter to conduct a concise and pointed interview with his mother. Also on hand are Angela Davis, Eldrige Cleaver Bobby Seale and Huey Newton. Olsson tries (with mixed results) to provide context with voice-over interviews from contemporary figures such as rapper Questlove, singer Erykah Badu and others, but the footage that Olsson has unearthed makes Black Power Mixtape an invaluable addition to the cinematic canon about a volatile and perhaps neglected period in recent American history.

This 'Tower' doesn't topple

If you were looking for a biting social critique about the kind of well-heeled miscreants who commit investor fraud, you'd do well to skip Tower Heist, a new comedy starring Ben Stiller. But if you're ready for an easygoing caper comedy that doesn't spend a minute worrying about how preposterous it can get, Tower Heist fills the bill.

Director Brett Ratner, best known for the Rush Hour movies, doesn't always seem to know whether to emphasize his movie's caper elements or flex its comic muscles, but he offers just enough of both to keep Tower from toppling.

The movie centers on the employees of The Tower, an upscale Manhattan high rise. Stiller portrays Josh Kovacs, manager of the building. Kovacs plies his trade with dedicated precision until the major plot twist arrives: One the building's tenants - Alan Alda's Arthur Shaw -- has defrauded investors out of billions, a sum that also happens to include the pension fund of the Tower's employees.

Before you can say Madoff, Josh tries to convince his co-workers to take revenge by robbing Shaw of $20 million he supposedly has stashed in his penthouse apartment, the one with the roof-top swimming pool that has a giant picture of a $100 bill painted on its bottom.

Joining Stiller are Casey Affleck (as the building's concierge); Matthew Broderick (as an apartment owner who has been foreclosed); Michael Pena (as an elevator operator); and Stephen McKinley Henderson (as the building's lovable doorman).

Of course, there's an obstacle: None of the aggrieved employees know the first thing about theft. Josh decides to address this flaw by enlisting the services of a low-grade felon (Eddie Murphy) from his Queens neighborhood.

Although he doesn't arrive until the picture's well under way, Murphy proves a welcome presence, as do Gabourey Sidibe, as a maid with safe-cracking skills, and Tea Leoni, as the FBI agent who's working Shaw's case.

The script tends to over-complicate things with twist upon twist, but a toned-down Stiller plays well against an amped-up Murphy, and there's one great set piece involving a red Ferrari, which Shaw - most improbably - keeps in his living room.

I won't say more, except to note if you don't like heights (that would be me), you'll find this sequence both excruciating and funny.

Will you believe any of this? I doubt it, but credibility doesn't matter as much as Ratner's inability to find consistent laughs.

Still - and it's a big still - Tower Heist goes down easily, passing muster as a mainstream comedy with a little socially oriented frosting, a generous helping of the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade and a couple of totally unlikely -- but nonetheless inspired -- moments.

She escapes a cult -- or does she?

Martha Marcy May Marlene is a study in tension, dread and carefully built anxiety.
Ever since I heard it, I've had trouble remembering the title of Martha Marcy May Marlene. The movie? That's another story. Director Sean Durkin's debut feature brims with enough quiet tension to make it one of the year's most memorable movies.

Durkin, who also wrote the screenplay, tells the story of a young woman (Elizabeth Olsen) who escapes from a rural cult in upstate New York, but can't entirely shake off the experience.

On a deeper level, Martha Marcy May Marlene is a creepy mediation on the darker corners of identity. Just as Martha seems to juggle many identities -- some of her own choosing, some not -- the film, too, comes across as a kind of mixed tape, finding its roots in both horror and psychological drama, genres that often are at their best when merged.

Olsen plays Martha, a young woman who, having fled a cult, shows up at the home of her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson). It's immediately clear that Martha's presence will elevate tensions between Lucy and her architect husband (Hugh Dancy). Lucy feels responsible for her younger sister, even though she hasn't seen her in a couple of years.

This kind of movie -- ambiguous and haunting -- puts tremendous pressure on its lead actress, and Olsen handles it well. On one hand, we believe that she's had her fill of cult life; on the other, it's clear that Martha's life on the farm has toppled her ideas about personal boundaries and social convention. At one point, Martha pops into bed with her sister and her husband while they're making love. We eventually learn that in the cult, women are initiated by being drugged and raped by the cult's charismatic leader (John Hawkes).

Martha's constantly flashing back to her experiences in the cult. We know enough about other cults -- the Manson family, for example -- to fear that terrible violence lurks among cult members who are committed to defending their isolated way of life, which offers an indigestible mix of puritanical rigor (the man and women eat separately) and perversion (the women are offered to the cult leader as if they were sacrifices to an earthly god).

Durkin leaves plenty of blanks for us to fill in. We speculate that Martha joined this cult because she felt displaced, and that, for a time, the cult provided her with a safe heaven, as well as with a sense of power.

We also wonder whether Martha is strong enough to escape the influences of Hawkes' Patrick, who knows how to cast a wicked spell. He keeps telling Martha that she's "a teacher and a leader," someone special.

Durkin builds additional tension by forcing us to wonder when the cult members will follow Martha -- who they call Marcy May -- into her sister's suburban home, which represents a lifestyle Martha seems to find as off-putting as that of the cult.

Durkin purposefully keeps us off balance: At times, we're not sure whether we're in the present or re-living a piece of Martha's past. This approach makes sense because Martha may not be sure, either, and the movie benefits from its unhinged sense of creepiness.

Martha never tells Lucy where she's been, and it strains credibility to think that Lucy waits until the picture nearly has concluded to suggest that Martha seek professional help.

But Durkin's ability to sustain a sense of dread more than compensates for a few plot holes, and Martha Marcy May Marlene stands as one of the year's more intriguing pictures, a portrait of a self-contained world that's suffocating the spirit of a young woman who doesn't know (and maybe never will) how she fits into the general scheme of things.