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Movie of the Week: J. Edgar

Last night it was me and the old liberal Jewish brigade at the NY Times film club preview screening of J. Edgar, the new Clint Eastwood film starring Leonardo DiCaprio as the most powerful law enforcement figure in American History.   Despite my pleas for most movies to trim the fat, this movie chronicles a 48 year FBI career, spanning eight presidents in an even two hours.  And it feels too lean.  The movie is certainly not bad, which would be nearly impossible given DiCaprio and Eastwood’s credentials.  But it just isn’t the great movie I hoped it would be.

DiCaprio will certainly get an Oscar nomination for his performance, but unlike his Oscar performance in Blood Diamond, which I still think is his best, this is really an obvious Oscar grab.  His portrayal of Hoover spans five decades so there is makeup, and fat suits and an accent and odd speaking cadence.  In fact old Hoover looks like present day Jack Nicholson.  It all spells Oscar nomination.  Plus throw in the Brokeback Mountain element involving J Edgar’s long-standing relationship with his second in command, Clyde Tolson, played by Armie Hammer, known for playing the Winklevoss twins in The Social Network (I still think he deserved a nomination more than any actor in that film) and the odds of a DiCaprio nomination stand at 99%.

As much as I liked Hammer in The Social Network, something felt off with his performance in this movie.  First off, in the older scenes, it appears all the efforts in good makeup were directed to DiCaprio.  His older Hoover looks natural, but the old version of Tolson bears a resemblance to Dan Aykroyd in the 90s “comedy” Nothing But Trouble.  Secondly, Hammer channels the same affluent air that combines smugness and decency that he carried so well in The Social Network, but in more emotional scenes with DiCaprio he appeared a bit awkward.

Of course one of the most intriguing elements of a story of a man who spent his life collecting secrets to blackmail people in power is that he had lifestyle that clearly could have been problematic for him.  And yet it never seemed so much of an issue besides one emotional fight.  The cowboys in Brokeback Mountain had more problems than Hoover, according to this film.  That may have been the case, but it is hard to believe.  The film does its best to portray the relationship as a long standing, powerful bond, but without a lot of the details of the relationship it is hard to feel as invested in it as you are supposed to.

What the movie does really well from a historical perspective is show why Hoover was both a vital figure in law enforcement development (his early encouragement of using science in police work, getting the FBI significant power, etc.) and such a villainous figure as well  (his secret files that he used to blackmail political figures, his inflation of his own hands on legacy in apprehending criminals, and a particularly awful phone call to Bobby Kennedy).

And just one issue with Eastwood – why is the movie so fu*king dark?  I don’t know if that is for film critics who will say, “the dark tones of the film evoke the shadiness of Hoover,” or “the film’s dark style helps draw out the classic eras it evokes,” or some other stuff, but I would have preferred a few more lights on set.

I enjoy biographies and I like biopics.  And other than Lord of The Ring films, they are the only genre of film where I gladly watch long movies, as long as they provide a full picture of the subject’s life.  That is why Malcolm X may be my favorite biopic.  J Edgar hits on many of the significant pieces of Hoover’s professional life and gives the viewer a decent outline of his personal life.  But in the end I would have preferred a bigger and more detailed film that could have delivered a fuller look at both sides of Hoover.

Final Grade – B/B+

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Movie of the Week: The Thing

It was sort of a tough week for picking a movie so I settled on The Thing, a re-make of a movie I have never seen, which was a re-make of a movie I have never seen.  I have been told that the original re-make, from 1982, was actually pretty good, so instead of renting the good one for a couple of bucks I decided to see the new one for a c0uple of bucks (only $5 matinee in Indianapolis).  It was worth $2.75.

A movie about a thing.

The movie takes place in 1982 (why I have no idea – it is completely immaterial, unless it is merely a tribute or reference to the 1982, a/k/a the original re-make) and follows a group of scientists who have discovered alien life.  As it turns out the alien can mutate into people when it makes contact with them, which is the catch.  There are some genuinely tense moments in the movie and I actually jumped in my seat for the first time in years, but for the most part scenes that should have been tense and heart-pounding just seemed more like standard chase scenes, just with a giant fanged vagina chasing scientists.

The worst part of the movie is also a result of its best part.  Not many characters are killed in the first half of the movie because the film actually develops nicely and with some patience, but it was as if the director found out he only had forty minutes left in the movie instead of two hours and was forced to just start slaughtering characters en masse, which also felt like a violation of the rule that made the film tense (it was established that the thing usually waited until someone was isolated before it attacked).

So in a weak week for movies you should read my previous reviews for a better choice.

Final Grade – C

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Movie of the Week: The Ides of March

There was a lot riding on the movie of the week this week.  First it represented a critical tiebreaker in the 2011 Ryan Gosling competition.  I loved Crazy Stupid Love and he was funny and charming in it, despite the presence of his nasaly, quasi-Brooklyn, Marlon-Brando-in-The-Godfather-despite-being-only-30-years-old-voice.  Then came Drive, the critically-acclaimed, artistic piece of sh*t.  It had a great opening sequence and then was as if someone took the movie Faster starring The Rock, reduced the muscles, kept the minimal dialogue and plot and added a European director with a love of himself.  So The Ides of March would be the final vote in a split decision loss or victory for Ryan Gosling’s 2011.

No less important was the movie for George Clooney.  For me George Clooney, as I have said many times before, is the high school quarterback that does math club and a capella.  Girls love him, guys can’t hate him because he is good at football, but the losers really love him because he is the rare cool kid who uses some of his cool capital to do activities with them, rather than bully them.  Hollywood is largely the math club and a capella group.  They love that Clooney has not squandered his Ocean’s 11 mass appeal on starring in only big blockbusters, but he has passion projects and intellectual works and other giant bags of over-indulgent boring films.  Loved Clooney in Out of Sight, loved him in Oceans 11 and really enjoyed, more recently, Up In The Air.  These were football films for Clooney.  Sleek, cool and fun to watch (and Up In The Air had a dose of math club in it too).  But in between those movies were a heavy load of self-important crap.

Good Night and Good Luck – overrated and boring, but the fact that the cool kid was doing them required the geeks to support it, or risk losing Clooney to football entirely.

Syriana – not bad, never should have won an Oscar (he grew a beard – what is this a comedy festival or the Oscars) and the film was adequate.

And then there was Michael Clayton, his biggest critical success, which was the most average of corporate thrillers (it cannot hold the jock of Michael Mann’s The Insider, for example, but garnered the equivalent nominations and praise 11 years apart).

And this is without mentioning one of the worst film’s of 2010 The American which was all Clooney all the time and terrible, but somehow escaped with mediocre reviews instead of Bucky Larson reviews.

Together Clooney and Gosling seemed very poised to enter the “J-L Debonair Overrated Hall of Fame” joining current inductees Colin Firth and the television show Mad Men.

So Gosling Brando and Clooney Christ had a lot to deliver with The Ides of March.  And in my opinion, they did.

I think it is an Oscar contender, but what do I know.

This movie is a brisk and tight 100 minute experience (its sharpness is probably due to the fact that it is based on a play, Farragut North).  Unlike Moneyball, for example, I could not complain of any fat needing to be trimmed.  The cast is strong, with the four main characters played by Gosling, Clooney, Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Paul Giamatti.  Jeffrey Wright, Marisa Tomei and Evan Rachel Wood handle the remainder and between those seven actors you have some serious chops carrying the film.

It follows an Obama-esque candidate (Clooney – all white, not half-white) on the campaign trail, specifically their fight to win the critical Ohio delegates for the Democratic nomination.  Gosling is the whiz kid, who probably has an Ivy League pedigree, based on his position and yet still sounds like a mush-mouthed Brooklynite.  Don Corleone-ing aside, Gosling is quite strong as the character that undergoes the most development throughout the film, from idealistic whiz kid to hardened, cynical political operative.  The whole cast is great  and I could not ask for much more from a movie.  It is lean, well cast, well acted with a story and themes that are very current.

Final Grade – A

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Movie of the Week: Take Shelter

I remember seeing a preview for the psychological (or supernatural) thriller that is this week’s movie of the week and thinking two things:

1) That looks cool and interesting and

2) Hey that was Kenny Powers’ girlfriend in the preview!

The  movie actually boasts several people from HBO shows – most notably its star Michael Shannon, who plays a hard charging federal agent on Boardwalk Empire.  He is one of the most unique looking people on screens today because his face is a mash-up of strong-jawed handsome and cousin-marrying creepy.   He looks like the James Bond villain Jaws had a kid with a handsome person.  He is married in the film to Jessica Chastain’s character, who based on how many movies she has been in this year she may actually have as much quality time with me as my girlfriend. Seriously, here are the tallies right now for most overused things in Hollywood in 2011:

“How You Like Me Now” by The Heavy – 377 movies, previews and commercials

“Raise your Glass” by Pink – 362 movies, previews and commercials

Jessica Chastain – 1,988 movies

Possibly setting a record for most movies in a single year.

The movie is about Curtis, who is having increasingly frightening dreams of a storm of near apocalyptic dimensions.  He has a wife (played by Chastain) of incredible patience and a deaf daughter who requires a costly surgery.  The movie moves along at a slow, but steady pace as the dreams get more drastic and the Curtis’ actions begin to appear less and less rational.  The dilemmas for Curtis are two-fold. One is that he is a working stiff in America and throughout the film health insurance, bank loans and his employment all become issues that put his family into crisis mode.  The second is that he is increasingly convinced of his dreams as prophecy, despite his knowledge that mental illness runs in his family.

Jaw of a movie star, eyes of a molester - Michael Shannon everyone!

Almost all of the film is centered on the family unit and the acting is excellent.  At times Curtis’ wife seems to have too much patience, but when you realize she knew that she was marrying a semi- scary looking man with mental illness in his family she probably expected things to get bumpy.  Shannon is especially good as Curtis becomes increasingly erratic and volatile because his brain is telling him he is mentally ill, but his soul is telling him something catastrophic is coming.

The end of the film is excellent.  And I will leave it at that.  The movie builds something very interesting as it progresses, but it does build a little too slowly for my taste.  Like my complaint with Moneyball and ESPECIALLY Drive, there was a little bit too much director self-pleasure with lingering shots and other indulgent, artistic superfluities, mostly in the first 2/3 of the film.  Other than that, no complaints.

Final Grade – A-/B+

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Movie of the Week: Everything Must Go

So yesterday I saw Will Ferrel’s new film Everything Must Go.  In case you do not have the patience to read the entire blog here is a quick summary.  Imagine if Will Ferrel’s character from Old School, Frank The Tank, were the same person, but with real world consequences.  It is occasionally funny, but mostly sort of sad.  And it is a pretty good movie, which was a relief because I half saw this as a protest against the sure-fire success of the fourth Pirates of the Caribbean film.  I just couldn’t bring myself to see a 4th Pirates of the Caribbean film.  The franchise started great and then films two and three were abominations.  With film series my motto is “Fool me once, ok if you had a good first film.  Fool me twice, now I will no longer support your films.”  This applies well to the Shrek franchise as well, and may apply to Transformers and Iron Man franchises in the future.

Life would be a lot less fun for a real llife Frank The Tank

Everything Must Go, which is a step back from the norm for Will Ferrel, is about a relatively successful businessman whose entire life falls apart in a short amount of time because of a relapse in his battle with alcohol.  The amount of Pabst Blue Ribbon consumed by Ferrel’s character, Nick Halsey, represents the most alcohol consumed by any one film character not played by Nicholas Cage.

Everything Must Go

So when locked out of his house by his wife, with all his belongings strewn about his front lawn, Ferrel enlists the help of a neighborhood kid named Kenny, played by the son of the late Notorious B.I.G., to sell his belongings.  There is of course some mentoring that happens here, but fortunately it never has the feel of a “white guy helping poor black kid,” primarily because the kid seems to have his sh*t together better than the adult.  But vice versa, there is also never that one cheesy moment of Nick saying “NO kid, you taught ME” to Kenny.

The movie is basically about moving on with your life when you are the one who has messed things up and I think it does a nice job.  Ferrel’s character is wronged and you root for him, but it is still he who is most responsible for his own wronging.  Nothing feels forced in the movie, not the friendship between Nick and Kenny, not the fight with alcoholism (and since he drinks PBR he rarely has to go through big dramatic withdrawal because of how cheap it is) and not the humor, which is very organic.

My favorite thing about the movie was that it was an indie film, but because of the format of it it lacked some of the more odious cliches of indie films (no shots of characters on airport walkways or on escalators looking off brainless into the distance, not too much indie film music, no Parker Posey or Zooey Deschanel).  So thanks to a strong performance from Will Ferrel and a simple approach to showing someone’s life crumbling and re-building I give it a B+ – it is the indie film for people who don’t particularly like indie films.

Next week – Kung Fu Panda 2 and/or The Hangover 2

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Movie of the Week – Bridesmaids (Plus Two Awful…

Yesterday I went to see Bridesmaids.  Before reading reviews of the film I was convinced that given its all-female cast (including Kristen Wiig, who has managed to be in a record-setting 117% of all Saturday Night Live sketches) and Judd Apatow association, the movie would be unfunny and extremely long.  Allow me to say I was wrong on the first part.  It was solidly funny.  Not great, or classic or even in the class of The Hangover or Old School (for my money the absolute best of the frat-ensemble style comedies of the last decade), but there were plenty of funny moments.  Sadly, many of the funny moments seemed Apatow-ish in the inability to leave the audience wanting more.  Several scenes, including one in which two friends compete in outdoing each other’s engagement party toasts, exhibit an inability to stop at three funny jokes and instead go for nine.  Like microcosms of Apatow movies which always seem to go on about twenty-five minutes too long, the scenes demonstrate that there can be too much of a good thing.  I won’t spoil the film, but I will say that it is a funnier movie than it is a quality movie which, for a summertime comedy, is probably more important.

Not bad. I'd give it a B

But rest assured, just because I was not given enough from Bridesmaids to be angry about doesn’t mean that my movie going experience was a total wash.  I saw two previews at Bridesmaids that represented a new low for Hollywood.  The first was for a new film called Warrior.  Here is the trailer:

Every sport was around for decades before inspirational movies came out about it.  Rocky was 100 years in the making, Hoosiers was 40 years, but MMA gets its Rocky approximately 7 weeks later (rough estimate).  But given its rich tradition of 3 pay-per-view events and some backyard brawls on YouTube they are ready for their close up.  Granted, the movie is a genius marketing strategy (why wait for the sport to earn the movie, we’ll make the movie and bring movie people to the sport), but it is also obvious that the movie has to be a piece of sh*t.  Here’s why:

1) It tells you the entire story. Any movie that tells you the entire plot in the preview is a bad movie.  This is an ironclad rule that has been 100% accurate ever since the preview for Macaulay Culkin’s “Ritchie Rich.”

2) MMA is not inspiring.  Sports that take about ten minutes time to end do not have the requisite time build up for inspiration, no matter how heavy-handed the soaring violin music is in the preview.  Yo Yo Ma and Itzhak Perlman doing the soundtrack for Bloodsport would not have made it The Natural.

3) Lights Out Syndrome – The movie looks exactly like someone copied the plot of the FX series Lights Out.  Although I liked Lights Out, copying a series that got cancelled after one season does not seem like a blue print for success.

The other notable movie preview was just flat out insulting.  It was for the new Mila Kunis and Justin Timberlake tour de force – “Friends With Benefits.”  Here is the preview:

You may recongize this as a remake of a movie that came out 4 months ago:

Which was inspired by part of a movie that came out two months before that one:

Most geeks thought it absurd when The Hulk was re-made/re-booted a mere five years after the Ang Lee disaster.  Well, apparently the romantic comedy audience appears much more tolerant.  These movies pretend to flip the romantic comedy on its head and make it more modern, but it is the same story over and over again with the same happy ending (the modern exception being 500 Days of Summer, the best romantic comedy I’ve ever seen and the only known antidote for the poison that is the three above films).  I guess my weekly movie advice would be two things I did not expect to write: go see Bridesmaids, but skip the trailers.