J. Edgar: New Film Review

Enjoyment of a film is often based on expectations. If you expect to see a brilliant documentary such as “Man on Wire” and, instead, the projectionist starts up the Marlon Wayans college basketball comedy “The Sixth Man,” you will be disappointed. But if you are in the mood to watch a ghost teach someone how to play basketball (and, frankly, who isn’t in that mood at least once an hour?), you might find “The Sixth Man” to be fun, Wayansian entertainment.

The advertisements for “J. Edgar” included explosions, yelling, criminal chases, and promises of an Oscar-caliber film, but at least half of the film focuses on the unrequited, almost asexual, homosexual relationship between J. Edgar and his male aide and a storyline that is too ambitious at times (it spans seven decades) and too chaotic at others. Many filmgoers expecting to see the historical narrative of the man who led to F.B.I. into one of the most prestigious crime-solving agencies in the world should be aware of his alleged homosexual tendencies (including cross-dressing), but will be surprised that “J. Edgar” is significantly more reminiscent of the better “Brokeback Mountain” than “The Good Shepherd” (which was about the emergence of the C.I.A.) and less engaging than either film. One wonders if this is how people felt when they went to “Brokeback Mountain” expecting a John Wayne western.

Writer Dustin Lance Black has made a career out of promoting gay rights, so his focus should not surprise. He won an Oscar for writing “Milk” (about California’s first openly gay official) and narrated a documentary about the Mormon Church’s opposition to gay marriage in California. What’s surprising is that Clint Eastwood chose to turn the story of J. Edgar Hoover into a salacious tale of a relationship that hasn’t been entirely proven in the public record rather that focus his attention on the script’s difficult non-linear storyline and its surface-level approach to important cultural and social issues such as J. Edgar Hoover’s manipulation of presidents, distrust of Martin Luther King, Jr., and the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby. These issues are covered, but each could fill its own riveting film, as would many other fascinating stories from Hoover’s almost 50 years as head of the FBI. The problem might be that J. Edgar Hoover’s personal life, like his secret files on numerous leaders, is a closed book. It requires some speculation to know how he ever really felt, which demands a strong storyteller. While Black and Eastwood hit some high notes, “J. Edgar” is not the compelling drama it could have been.

No blame should be placed on the tremendous cast. Leonardo DiCaprio continues to prove he is talented far beyond his years, here literally as he performs many of the film’s most dramatic scenes under layers of latex that make him almost unrecognizable. When he has an important moment, he grabs it and takes hold. DiCaprio certainly deserves an Oscar nomination and praise. Dame Judi Dench is also splendid as his mother, lending an air of class, though her role is often wrapped up in cliches including the “I’d rather you be dead than gay” scene that is written more for an episode of “Glee” than a potential Oscar winner. Still, she makes the material work even though Hoover’s American/Swiss mother has her trademark British accent. Naomi Watts brings strength to a narrowly written role despite very rarely ever looking like Naomi Watts. Then, there’s Armie Hammer.

As the aide, Hammer is given not only the film’s worst emotional scene, which falls into camp and would be ridiculed if the film weren’t taking itself so seriously, he also has the worst make-up. Hammer’s usual Sam the Eagle recitation of lines (seen as both twins in “The Social Network”) only adds to his Frankenstein monster-like appearance under tight facial prosthetics to make him look older. This is a pity, as Hammer does an admirable job, trying to give the film its heart. He has some witty lines, some funny ones, and truly rises above the material.

But it always comes back to the material. Black is a good writer; Eastwood is an excellent filmmaker, but neither gave the tremendous source material the movie it deserves. If they wanted a relationship drama, they needed to make the audience care more about the characters, even when Hoover didn’t care about the relationship. If they wanted to craft an intelligent crime drama, more attention to the real life crime details would have benefitted the film, as would less editing that flips in and out of the Lindbergh baby sub-plot at a frenetic pace. Instead, “J. Edgar” is a very well-acted, occasionally thrilling film by an A-list cast and crew that, unfortunately, will not exceed many people’s expectations.


November Movie Preview

Ready for some big Thanksgiving films? It’s time for our November film preview.
Looking back to our October film preview, fans might yell, “Why did you preview the Nic Cage/ Nicole Kidman movie “Trespass”? It didn’t even come out!” Well, I thought the same thing but, despite those stars, “Trespass” made $16,816 in its first weekend, starting October 14. That’s about what it cost per hour to be married to Kim Kardashian. This might be a bigger disaster for director Joel Schumacher than “Batman and Robin” though no word yet on if Nic Cage wears an anatomically correct nipple-showing breast plate. With that disaster behind us, let’s get started on some hits and misses for the month of November:

Jason: The first “Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle” was a cult sensation and, surprisingly, a hilarious film. It helped revitalize Neil Patrick Harris’ career and contained just enough smart laughs to go beyond the typical pot comedy. However, the second film “Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay” was a poorly written, unfunny letdown. What “The Naked Gun” did for the Queen of England, George Bush, and the Oscars, “Harold and Kumar 2” could have done for Guantanamo Bay. Instead, it chose to rely on easy drug and gross-out humor. However, as I noted HERE, the 3D trailer for the third film makes me think it uses 3D technology well and it could be a fun-filled Christmas movie parody, claymation and all.

Jake: I completely disagree. While it looks like the 3D usage is tongue-in-cheek, the actual jokes I have seen in the trailer are awful. I feel like this premise had enough steam for one movie, which was good, and now it is all the same thing over and over. There will be a few chuckles, a few good NPH moments, but enough to make the 3D ticket worth it? No.

Jason: What is worth the 3D ticket though? I’m OK with tongue-in-cheek if it actually uses 3D as 3D. Do you think “Immortals” (out November 11) will use it any better?

Jake: 3D can be used well to heighten a visual experience. “Avatar” was a terrible movie, but visually stunning. In theory, I just do not expect the 3D-based jokes in “Harold and Kumar” to be any good based on what I have seen. One or two might work, but you know there will be at least one per minute and that is going to get old. Now “Immortals” could use 3D well given the visual style it is going for. These “sons of Sin City” type films usually work well visually even if the plot sucks. And frankly that is what I expect here. Greek Superman and The Wrestler might surprise me and deliver a solid film, or at least a “300”-level entertaining film, but I doubt it.

Jason: I jumped on the “300” band wagon and thought the visual style was striking and the film kept me engaged in 2D, but I predict “Immortals” will be more like “Clash of the Titans”, which suffered from basic film problems in addition to a rushed 3D treatment that put a temporary stop to the “Let’s throw it to 3D!” movement. You also made me remember that there’s a “Sin City 2” being worked on, though it will have quite a delay between the 2005 release of the original and the 2013 release of the sequel. I guess we’ll see how rapidly 3D and visual technology has changed in eight years. Either way, neither “Harold and Kumar” nor “Immortals” is likely to be named in the Oscars next year, and the Adam Sandler / Al Pacino abomination “Jack and Jill” certainly won’t be, but what about “J. Edgar”? Do we have our first worthy Best Picture nominee?

Jake:  I think so, because if nothing else this movie is everything the Oscars love; a big star in a period piece. But I also think this movie has a legitimate shot at actually deserving the nomination. The trailers have peaked my interest and this Leo guy has some talent. Who knows, this might be his big break. The only real worry is if this ends up another dull Oscar-bait biographical sketch a la “The Aviator”.
Jason: Funny you bring up “The Aviator”, as it was expected to win Best Picture in 2004, but lost Best Film and Best Director to “Million Dollar Baby”, directed by Clint Eastwood (who also directs “J.Edgar”). Leonardo DiCaprio is currently stuck in a high but stagnant place in his acting and “J. Edgar” just might be the movie to take him back to his early 2000s peak. Clint Eastwood could also use a return to his early 2000s greatness, as “Million Dollar Baby” and “Letters from Iwo Jima” are far superior to his recent “Invictus” and “Hereafter.” As you said, adding an Oscar-winning director and actor team to a fascinating nonfiction tale of crime and possible cross-dressing is pure Oscar bait. My only surprise is why you didn’t mention co-star Oscar-winner Dame Judi Dench, your favorite actress.
Jake: Why would you say that? I mean she is OK, but its not like I have a signed picture of her hanging on my wall. I do generally like Clint as a director, despite his more recent fare, so I think this movie will sparkle at the Oscars. Speaking of awkward transitions, a new “Twilight” movie is out and obviously our audience is dying to know if its going to be, like, “tots aws” (or whatever the kids are saying these days). Excited?

Jason: Having never seen any of the “Twilight” movies, let me make some bold predictions: It is going to make at least $200 million, partially from long lines of lonely girls dressed in black surrounding movie theaters like they’re Apple stores about to release the iPhone 5. The movie itself is going to be poorly written, poorly acted, contain questionable special effects, and spend more time on shirtless men than character development. But boy will it sparkle! Again, totally baseless guesses. I’d also like to send out an offer to our readers that I will do a “Twilight” trilogy marathon in D.C. with any of you, provided you bring the quintessential third person to the movie party: Mr. Johnnie Walker Green.

Jake:  All of those things are true. I actually watched the first one while drinking with a few friends in a misguided attempt to give it a MST3K treatment. Lets just say by the end we were all hammered and still bored out of our minds. Just awful. I will say this though, things go off the rails in “Breaking Dawn”. There is messed up sex, freaky births, and a dude finding out his soulmate is a baby (hat tip to my buddy Andrew for reading all of that on Wikipedia). Perhaps that level of crazy will make it entertaining enough to see, but it might take the whole bottle of scotch.

Jason: Either way, it’s certainly a different world kids live in nowadays with glittery, eye shadowed vampires and shirtless werewolves on the screen and Justin Bieber (who may have a baby on the way?) on the radio. I long for my childhood days of The Muppets, who either were busy taking Manhattan, going on great capers, or stuck in a nursery as imaginative babies. I’ve been eager for a new Muppets movie ever since the very disappointing “Muppets in Space”, but I’m nervous it’s not going to be good. Jason Segal, who wrote and stars in “The Muppets”, is a self-proclaimed Muppets fan and the early trailers were witty parodies of other films, so I’m cautiously optimistic. Hopefully it’s as good as the Dracula musical Jason Segal wrote into “Forgetting Sarah Marshall.”


Jake: The advertising campaign for this movie has been really good. I liked the Muppets as a child but it has been a long time since I have wanted to go see them in anything (omitting my idols Statler and Waldorf of course), but watching the trailers have sparked my interest. Throw in Amy Adams and you have yourself the makings of a really enjoyable film. It’s good to take a nostalgic trip with some childhood friends once in a while.
Jason: A great start to the holiday season. Enjoy the films of November. We’ll be back in December to preview such expected blockbusters and Oscar nominees as “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”, “Young Adult” (see HERE), Steven Spielberg’s “War Horse” and “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.”

– “Melancholia” on November 11 for an end-of-world tale that might earn Kirsten Dunst an Oscar nomination.
– “The Descendants” on November 16 for Alexander Payne’s (“Sideways”) comedy with George Clooney, expected to get a rare comedy Best Picture nomination
– “Hugo” on November 23 for Martin Scorsese’s first animated film, an adventure with an all-star British voice cast of Ben Kingsley, Richard Griffiths, Jude Law, Christopher Lee, and Sacha Baron Cohen.