At The Movies

J. Edgar

Directed by Clint Eastwood • Review by Tony Sheppard
A year ago, “The King’s Speech” garnered a Best Picture Academy Award by telling the story of King George VI and the speech impediment he had to overcome in order to gain public respect and popularity. The movie worked largely because it focused on this one struggle, with relatively little time spent on politics, the world around him, and other concerns. They’re there, but they aren’t what the movie is about.

By comparison, “J. Edgar” (which, coincidentally, also references a speech impediment) seems somewhat unfocused, and it’s not clear what we’re supposed to take away from the film. That may not be completely surprising, given that even director Clint Eastwood seems uncertain what to think of J. Edgar Hoover, having said “He’s a mystery guy as far as I’m concerned” during a recent interview on “The Daily Show.”

The film shows Hoover’s meteoric rise within the Justice Department and the Bureau of Investigation (the precursor to the FBI). It makes a point of referencing his analytic mind and accomplishments, including the creation of an indexed card system for the Library of Congress. He later used this same approach to maintain an index of ‘radicals’ and to establish the first national database of fingerprints.

But the film seems to go from this interpretation of Hoover as a highly rational and observant organizer to depicting him as a capricious agency director and employer and then, in later years, as a man driven more by emotional outbursts, whims, and jealousy directed towards anybody who might be held in higher esteem. All of which might be true but the combination of which leave the audience wondering if we’re supposed to form a solid opinion of Hoover or if we’re supposed to walk away as confused as Eastwood.

Leonardo DiCaprio turns in a performance that’s probably better than the film itself, aided by effective makeup and a fat suit that adds 50 years and as many pounds. The film bounces around between eras and DiCaprio seems, sounds, and moves as if he is at different ages. But it’s a little difficult at first to get into the swing of the more subtle period shifts as both the younger and older periods each seem to cover a range of years without such a significant change of appearance. It’s easy to tell the difference between young Hoover and old Hoover, but not between 25-year-old Hoover and 35-year-old Hoover.

Aside from his domineering mother (Judi Dench), Hoover’s two closest companions through five decades of agency service were his personal secretary Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts) and his deputy Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer), with whom he vacationed, ate lunch and dinner every day, and to whom he left his entire estate. Watts and Hammer each ably play their parts, although it seems as though less emphasis was placed on their makeup and age progressions with, at times, Hammer seeming to move more like a young man in elderly makeup rather than an elderly man.

Written by Dustin Lance Black (“Milk”), the story takes a middle ground between stories of Hoover and Tolson as lovers and other accounts that question the existence of any evidence regarding their relationship. We get a tragic depiction of two virtually inseparable men who were too repressed to ever fully express themselves, but even in private. We’re left wondering whether Hoover’s emotional outbursts and apparent instability at times are an outcome of his inability to ever be emotionally honest, resulting in those bottled up feelings simply overflowing their bounds. Black also gives us a very modern reference to the issue of the bullying and suicides of gay youth.

However, for all of the uncertainty regarding the depiction of his character, the film is clearer about his legacy in the creation of the modern day Federal Bureau of Investigation. Hoover forced the adoption of forensic techniques, fought for federal jurisdiction and arrest powers, and watched the status of the agency grow, as depicted in the movie by the transition from James Cagney as a Hollywood leading man playing gangsters to later films where he and others played FBI agents.  

It may have been more effective if it had tried to cover less ground – certainly 50+ years and a career of that magnitude is tough to compress into 2+ hours. If Eastwood wasn’t such an efficient director, I’d look forward to a four-hour director’s cut and hope that it expanded on the multiple themes: the man, the methods (including warrantless wiretaps and secret files), the agency, the personal life, and the legacy.

It’s a good film and a powerful depiction of a complicated and dedicated man but it doesn’t feel as great as it might have been had the filmmakers perhaps had a stronger concept of what message they were trying to convey. Or, alternatively, perhaps it perfectly hit the mark in leaving us unsure as to what to think of this clearly conflicted figure. Either way, it didn’t quite live up to the high expectations I had of the Eastwood/Black/DiCaprio combo. That said, I’d recommend it to drama and history junkies – and it’s likely to make you seek out more about the man and his story.

A Very Harold & Kumar 3-D Christmas

Directed by Todd Strauss-Schulson • Review by Malcolm Maclachlan
The Harold & Kumar movies are sort of the mirror-image of The Hangover movies. Rather than seeing the aftermath the next day, you see the one, crazy night as it’s happening. And, pot not being booze, they don’t ever actually have hangovers, just the munchies.

But the sophomore efforts of each bromance franchise suffered from the same problem: getting too mean-spirited. The first H&K (“Go to White Castle,” 2004) was so idiotically good-natured you couldn’t help but love it. The second (“Escape from Guantanamo Bay,” 2008) was too heavy on prison rape gags and nasty racists, such as Homeland Security agent Rob Coddry trying to bribe a black guy with a grape soda. Kumar (Kal Penn), the id half of the team, was too much of a stoner screw-up, while Harold/super-ego (John Cho) came off as a whiny jerk.

But the H&K vs. Hangover comparison breaks down there; the second “Hangover” failed because it tried to follow the formula exactly. The second H&K failed by abandoning the formula altogether.

The third flick sees the franchise returning to form: one insane night packed into 90 minutes, with one slapstick gag relentlessly piled on top of another. Pacing is key here. If they ever come out with a strain of pot called “Harold & Kumar,” it should be pure sativa, no indica (sorry, Kumar). H&K gags don’t always sound that funny if you describe them. It’s the sum total of the weirdness, plus continuous recycling and cross-referencing, that makes it work.

Likeability is key. The Hangover’s Phil, Stu and Alan are such extreme types, and such jerks a lot of the time, that it’s hard to identify with them. Besides being nicer guys you could actually see yourself hanging out with, Harold and Kumar are less extreme and more real – both are smart, talented and educated, and both like to party and have fun.

They just fall on different sides of the equation. The third film starts with the pair having not seen each other in two years. Harold’s a success on Wall Street, but stressed out and uptight. Kumar got kicked out of med school for failing a drug test, lives in a train wreck apartment and turns down party invites with lines like, “I have to stay here and smoke this pot. Otherwise I won’t get high.”

When circumstances bring them
back together, they get jealous of each other’s new “besties” in a scene that works because it sounds like they are exes critiquing each other’s new significant others (“He seems really young, don’t you think?”). The joke is partly that there’s actually nothing homo-erotic going on – and that men talking about their emotions can make people more uncomfortable than if there was (not that either should).  

Needless to say, Kumar needs to get more serious and Harold needs to lighten up (by lighting up again). The beauty here is that it’s easy to identify with – and like, if sometimes grudgingly – both of them.

Martha Marcy May Marlene

Directed by Sean Durkin • Review by Tony Sheppard
Yet another movie succeeds at creepiness by managing to seem uncomfortably believable. Martha, a young woman who has had a difficult childhood, is reuniting with her estranged older sister. That, in and of itself, might be difficult enough without the fact that she has just escaped from a small, cult-like communal living environment that reprogrammed her social boundaries and her attitudes towards privacy and intimacy. As a result, she no longer knows how to behave around other people – as exemplified by casually skinny dipping in broad daylight in a residential lake, much to her sister’s disgust.  

The flashback scenes within the cult, including the drugging and sexual initiation of new girls, are especially timely in light of recent stories about child brides and forced polygamy, with the girls being taught that the actions are good and beautiful. This is a very simple indie movie that delivers its disturbing story with few bells or whistles. But none are really needed.

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