Long before the turkey was thawed or the pies were slid into the oven, November bloggers and critics were giving movie lovers plenty to chew on and be grateful for:

Turner Classic Movies “morlock” David Kalat served up a multi-part essay on the king of the thunder-thighed rubbersaurs, Godzilla, including some entertaining examples of how the 1956 original has been chopped up and re-edited over the years. Part One emerges from the sea here, Part Two practices Tokyo urban development here, and Part Three sucks on the oxygen destroyer here.

Blogger Chris Edwards added to his fine archive of silent film writing with a look back on the 1927 Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

The AV Club’s Tasha Robinson offered a rumination on the need for sticking to the rules while telling even the goofiest “genre” stories.

On the internet, there’s even a Warren William tribute site, where blogger “The Mouthpiece” sang the praises of William’s 1940 series entry The Lone Wolf Strikes.

First-class film writer Jim Emerson posted a discursive but absorbing discussion of the usefulness for critics in understanding the technical achievements and compromises involved in making a movie – with more than a few exasperated headshakes at the late Pauline Kael.

Spinning off from Clint Eastwood’s recent drama J. Edgar, Sean Axmaker recalled the first Hoover bioflick, 1977’s The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover, on the Videodrone site.

Pull up to the table and chow down on these tasty links.

November 30, 2011 · Posted in Legends  

Sporting an intelligent and accessible screenplay, clean unmannered direction and an absolutely first-rate performance by its star, The Descendants is the kind of film that shows just how good commercial American movie making can be – no robots, no barf jokes, just a straightforward look at what Faulkner called “the human heart in conflict with itself.”

George Clooney stars as Matt King, a decent but self-absorbed guy who’s on the verge of losing everything that’s important to him. His wife lies in a coma, the victim of a boating accident. His two daughters are alienated and acting out. And he’s being forced to literally give up Paradise, thanks to a new government “rule against perpetuities” that’s compelling him to sell the beautiful Hawaiian acreage that his family has held in trust for generations.

Despite all the potential for heavy-handed soap opera, it’s a remarkably upbeat and entertaining film, full of well-written scenes peopled by believably human characters who retain our sympathy even when we wish they’d occasionally glance at the world beyond their own noses and simply behave themselves.

Director Alexander Payne, who co-wrote the screenplay, has imbued his location with as much importance as the cast and story. As much as anything else, The Descendants is a love letter to Hawaii, the gorgeously photographed landscapes in which the characters move against a lush and charming soundtrack of native songs not only adding beauty to virtually every scene but also contributing to our understanding of the characters and their actions. There’s quiet comedy in the way its laid-back atmosphere allows high-powered movers and shakers to go through their days unselfconsciously dressed in shorts and goofy shirts, looking (as noted in Clooney’s narration) “like bums and stunt men”; but for all the moments in which its characters deal with anger and loss while incongruously pattering around in flip-flops and sandals, there are also the breathtaking views that explain Matt King’s love for the land that he’s being pressured to relinquish.

Clooney has shown himself in the past to be a master at underplaying, and here he is effortlessly magnificent as his character labors to step up from a comfortable long-time role as the “back-up” parent and do the right thing for everybody, all the while struggling to contain his frustration as reality throws him one new curve after another. As he does, he learns some unpleasant truths about the marriage he’d ignored until it was too late…but in return, he just may have saved his foundering relationship with his own children…discovering that he is the vital link between the proud ancestors from which he is descended and the two emotionally needy descendants in his own home.

The supporting cast is filled with equally fine performances. Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller as the King daughters carry nearly as much of the film’s weight as Clooney himself. Veterans Robert Forster and Beau Bridges are quiet standouts, Forster (as Clooney’s father-in-law) simmering with anger at the impending loss of his beloved daughter and Bridges (as one of the many King cousins slavering over the proceeds of the land sale) tempering his greed with a large and authentic dose of amiable beach-bum charm.

It’s a beautifully crafted piece of work, deceptively simple, frequently comic and occasionally heartbreaking, a movie that’s likely to stay with you in unexpected ways far longer than many of the sturm und drang-fests that too often pass for adult drama coming from Hollywood. If only all of them were this satisfying.

November 26, 2011 · Posted in Now Playing  

Leonardo DiCaprio takes on an unlikely role and produces a strong and measured performance in Clint Eastwood’s historical drama J. Edgar.

As a reenactment of history, it’s a beautifully realized job; settings, costumes, props and atmosphere have been meticulously rendered, thanks to the scrupulous job by Eastwood and his team of realizing Dustin Lance Black’s subtle and intelligent script down to what seems the tiniest grace note. And as a portrait of a man who shaped, and was shaped by, some of the more notorious events in 20th century American history, it’s as smart and nuanced as any piece of commercial film making you’re likely to see coming out of Hollywood these days.

DiCaprio looks and sounds nothing like the real-life J. Edgar Hoover, but he does a powerful job of capturing the version of Hoover suggested by Black’s script. It’s a characterization often marked by an almost sinister stillness, a quiet and steely control that allows him to remain the focal point of every scene even when surrounded by charismatic and frequently far more active performances.

Flashing back and forth from the early ‘70s to points throughout Hoover’s 50-plus-year career in federal law enforcement, the film allows us to piece together the way in which a repressed and, to quote one of its characters, “fussy little man” slowly transformed himself into a monster intoxicated by power and a rigidly unwavering belief in his own convictions.

In this telling, Hoover’s progressive innovations at the FBI – such as his creation of a centralized fingerprint bank and increasing reliance on forensic science – were born of the same obsession with order and control that informed a dictatorial leadership style and aggressive micromanagement of his and the Bureau’s public image. And his drive to amass the power required to maintain that control led to illegal spying on American citizens and blackmailing politicians, public figures and even presidents.

Hoover’s rumored homosexuality is a given here, though it’s depicted as deeply closeted and self-denying. His longtime relationship with Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer) is played with subtlety and occasional hints of sadness. Hoover basks in the handsome Tolson’s reflected glamour, takes tips on how to dress like a member of the social class he aspires to, and otherwise insists on pretending that Tolson is nothing more than a very good friend. It’s difficult to see what Tolson gets out of it other than the opportunity to love Hoover without expectation of much in return. (Hammer is allowed one scene in which he vents his frustration, a scene as remarkable for his depiction of a sensitive man in pain as for DiCaprio’s portrayal of Hoover’s inability to lower his wall and make an essential human connection.)

The flashiest moments are those that recount the FBI’s war on Depression-era gangsters and, most tellingly, the painful search for the Lindbergh baby and the subsequent hunt for his kidnapper. Period detail in these scenes is vivid and recreated with loving care, so much so that those familiar with the historical record may be jarred by the cinematic Hoover’s hands-on participation in some famous arrests. Trust Dustin Lance Black, who’s too careful a writer to commit make such a simple mistake.

Naomi Watts is convincing but mostly unremarkable in the thankless role of Helen Gandy, the woman who served as Hoover’s secretary for 54 years and to whom he entrusted his secret blackmail files. More striking is the performance of Judi Dench as Hoover’s domineering mother, a frighteningly judgmental control freak whose influence shaped the rest of his life; in fact, the film suggests that in many ways, Hoover became her after her death.

So much of the film works so well, it’s a little painful to consider those parts that don’t. Not all the actors called upon to play recognizable historical figures are convincing; Jeffrey Donovan is borderline ludicrous as Robert Kennedy, and Christopher Shyer’s Richard Nixon is simply disappointing.

The single most disappointing element, however, is the makeup applied to the principal actors as Hoover, Tolson and Gandy age into their 60s and 70s. The effect varies from scene to scene, sometimes from shot to shot. DiCaprio’s eternal babyface has frequently been a hurdle for his strong acting to overcome, and in the scenes with Hoover in old age the sense of watching the actor play dress-up is back again. Sometimes his makeup is convincing, sometimes he looks like Mr. Potato Head. Hammer’s makeup is even worse, looking less like old age makeup than the result of a slapstick accident with a vat of white powder.

It’s an unfortunate misstep, but Eastwood’s film is too intelligent and solid to be taken down by an excess of latex. He’s given us a beautifully rendered history lesson and a sobering character study, shot with quiet skill underlaid by an effective score written by the director himself. Listen closely, and within that score you’ll hear a sampling of Duke Ellington’s “In My Solitude” – a theme that perfectly describes this film’s portrait of a man so obsessed with ruling his world that he spent his life cutting himself off from it.

November 14, 2011 · Posted in Now Playing