TO LESLIE (2022)

March 22, 2022

SXSW 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. We have all heard the stories of lottery winners who blow the entire pot and end up back where they started, or sometimes even worse off. There is also no shortage of stories where alcoholism ruins lives and relationships. Director Michael Morris’ first feature film combines the two elements in a script by Ryan Binaco, who based the lead character on his own mother. The two men have done their work well and, in a way, win their own lottery by having cast Andrea Riseborough in the lead. Ms. Riseborough has long been labeled underrated, but I believe the more accurate label is underappreciated.

Small town Texan Leslie (Riseborough) is seen celebrating her $190,000 lottery win by lifting the giant check for TV cameras. She admits to picking her son’s birthday as the winning number and says her plan is to buy a house and open a diner … right after she buys the first round at the local bar. We then flash forward six years to find Leslie homeless, having just been evicted from a fleabag motel. Toting her pink suitcase, she is forced to trace her steps back to the bridges still smoldering from her past actions. She tracks down her son James (Owen Teague, IT), whom she abandoned years ago.

Of course it doesn’t take long for Leslie to break James’ one house rule of ‘no drinking’, and soon he is shipping her back to their hometown to stay with the friends who raised James. Nancy (Oscar winner Allison Janney) and Dutch (Stephen Root) are a biker couple still upset with Leslie’s actions from years ago, but willing to give her a roof over her head. Leslie is a master of saying the right thing, but never doing the right thing. She can sweet talk anyone who might buy her next drink, but her history is one of burning bridges and leaving a wake of shattered emotions.

Leslie is an uncontrollable alcoholic and she’s self-destructive, but not in a LEAVING LAS VEGAS way. We sense that in her lucid moments … when she’s not screaming at someone or flirting for a drink … that she does want to be a better person and live a better life. It takes local motel manager Sweeney (Marc Maron) to give her a real shot at cleaning up. Literally cleaning up, as she’s hired to clean the motel rooms. Sweeney’s patience with Leslie stems from his past, and it’s as painful to watch his efforts as it is to watch Leslie’s swings. Andrea Riseborough delivers a raw and riveting performance – one worthy of awards consideration. She captivates us with an emotional and physical performance. Director Michael Morris has directed some terrific TV episodes for shows like “Better Call Saul”, “Bloodline”, “Animal Kingdom”, and “House of Cards”, and this film leaves us with hope that the support of one person can make a difference for someone in desperate need of help.


THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH (2021)

December 24, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. The confounding part about screen adaptions of great and familiar literary works is that we have each already formed our mental images of characters and setting. Adapting Shakespeare’s 400 year old play is Joel Coen (4 time Oscar winner, NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN), and it’s also his first time to fly solo as director without his brother Ethan. Filmed in black and white on a sound stage, this production may lack the frills we’ve come to expect in modern times, yet while its stark sets recall German Expressionism, the film still manage to deliver memorable visuals.

Denzel Washington (2 time Oscar winner, TRAINING DAY, GLORY) stars as Macbeth, while Mr. Coen’s wife, Frances McDormand (4 time Oscar winner, NOMADLAND) is a perfect fit as the scheming Lady Macbeth. The absolute best and creepiest sequences are thanks to terrific work from stage actor Kathryn Hunter, who plays not one witch, but rather the trio (plus, in true Shakespearian fashion, a fourth character later). Ms. Hunter’s work is a highlight as she contorts her body and rings out prophecy with an exceedingly disturbing voice. She is fantastic. It’s the witches’ prophecy that Macbeth will become King of Scotland that sets into action a chain of events familiar to most of us.

The reasons this didn’t work as well for me as it did for others include Denzel’s extremely low-key performance in the first half, and more crucially, the film lacks that unbridled lust for power that so attracts me to this particular story. It struck me more as a story of a disgruntled couple than the timeless themes of corruption and lust for power that Shakespeare so expertly crafted. Denzel’s performance does come alive in the second half and he’s quite something to watch. However, it’s Ms. McDormand who nails the Lady Macbeth role and ensures our attention doesn’t drift. Although obvious, it must be noted that these two renowned actors are a bit old for the roles, but interesting enough, this elements adds a different perspective to the characters’ ambitions.

Supporting performances include Brendan Gleeson (is he ever not a standout?) as the ill-fated King Duncan, and Harry Melling as Malcolm and Matt Helm as Donalbain, Duncan’s two sons. Corey Hawkins plays Macduff, Bertie Carvel is Banquo, and Stephen Root is the scene-stealing (and comic relief) Porter. Cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel treats us to some creative shots and angles … and plenty of birds. But of course, it’s Denzel and McDormand who will make or break this for you.

Director Coen does include the familiar lines: “Something wicked this way comes” inspired writer Ray Bradbury, Lady Macbeth’s “out, damned spot” still packs a punch, while Macbeth’s “a tale full of sound and fury, signifying nothing” remains my personal favorite. With the stark sets, Coen serves up a shadowy presentation – or is it a presentation of shadows? It’s a blend of stage and screen, yet never fully both. Despite some of my displeasures and the long-lasting curse, overall it’s a welcome version of “the Scottish play” … although I still prefer reading The Bard’s prose.

Opening in theaters on December 25, 2021 and streaming on AppleTV+ on January 14, 2022

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FOUR GOOD DAYS (2021)

April 29, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. Drug addiction provides bountiful harvesting for emotional message movies, though I’ll admit to some difficulty in relating to the subject matter. Writer-director Rodrigo Garcia (ALBERT NOBBS, 2011) has worked with co-writer Eli Saslow to adapt Saslow’s 2016 Washington Post article, “How’s Amanda: A story of truth, lies and American Addiction”. It’s an all-too-common tale of how addiction ruins lives and tears families apart. If not for two strong lead performances, Garcia’s latest movie would be just ‘another log on the fire’.

The filmmaker has re-teamed with his ALBERT NOBBS star, Glenn Close, who plays Deb, mother to Molly (Mila Kunis), a 10 year drug addict who shows up at mom’s house asking for help “getting clean”. Of course, mom has heard this too many times over the years. See, Molly has not only stolen from her mother and lied to her frequently, but she’s also been through detox/rehab 14 times over those 10 years. Deb initially refuses to let Molly in the house, but relents the next morning and drives her straight to the detox center. The doctor tells her she qualifies for a new magic shot that will block the drug cravings and effects if she can stay clean for four days (hence the film’s title). Any drugs in the system will cause complications, and likely prove fatal.

So Deb babysits Molly, who we learn has two kids by her ex-husband, Sean (Joshua Leonard). Turns out, he’s not such a great guy either. I’m certainly no expert, but it appears to me that Ms. Kunis goes all-in as an addict, replete with rotted teeth, damaged skin, and an attitude that warrants a swift kick. Ms. Kunis was excellent in BLACK SWAN (2010), but it seems she spends most of her time in comedies. She proves again that she has some dramatic chops, and hopefully will continue to pursue more serious roles. Ms. Close, who recently set the record for futility by becoming the first actor with 8 Oscar nominations and no wins, dons yet another terrible wig (ala HILLBILLY ELEGY, 2020) and works very hard to create a full-fledged mother from an underwritten character. The film briefly dabbles with the mother-daughter history of abandonment, but never digs deep enough for real meaning.

Stephen Root is given little to do as Deb’s second husband, and Sam Hemmings has one good scene as Molly’s dad who is confronted by Deb. Clichés abound in the story, yet the underlying message of a parent who refuses to give up on their kid, even when every time the result is disappointment, is grounded in reality. It’s certainly no TRAINSPOTTING (1996) as far as depressing drug addiction stories, but the two leads make it watchable.

In theaters April 30, 2021

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HAPPILY (2021)

March 19, 2021

 Greetings again from the darkness. Most frequent movie-goers have complained about the over-supply of sequels, remakes, and superhero movies. The battle cry is typically something like, “We want some creative new movie ideas!” Well, the feature film debut of writer-director BenDavid Grabinski (writer-producer of TV series “Are You Afraid of the Dark?”) serves up a unique and creative premise in which Act 1 really gets us excited for new experience.

There’s a party at a very nice house. A woman makes inviting eye contact with a man across the room. Their spontaneous sex romp forces Arthur (Al Madrigal, “I’m Dying Up Here”) to find an alternative place for relief. Soon the hosts are explaining to Arthur that the bathroom is tied up by Tom (Joel McHale, “Community”) and Janet (Kerry Bishe, “Penny Dreadful: City of Angels”), a couple who has been married for 14 years, yet they can’t keep their hands off each other. Skeptical Arthur states it must be an act, and “they are as miserable as everyone else.”

We quickly discover that Tom and Janet are neither acting nor miserable. Dinner with the hosts of that ‘bathroom’ party, Karen (Natalie Zea, “Justified”) and Val (Paul Scheer, “The League”), brings a disinvite to a planned couples weekend getaway, along with the brusque enlightenment to Tom and Janet, “everybody hates you.” The next day, a stranger shows up at their front door. Goodman (Stephen Root, OFFICE SPACE, 1999) basically explains the couple is defective and missing the genetic DNA that creates the law of diminishing returns. Fortunately, he has the vaccine that will bring them normalcy. A dramatic turn of events leads to panic and a phone call from Karen re-inviting the couple to the weekend getaway.

That initial set-up is brilliant and played to perfection. Unfortunately, the rest of the movie doesn’t live up to that standard. Things begin to falter once the couples begin showing up at the luxurious Airbnb booked by Patricia (Natalie Morales, BATTLE OF THE SEXES, 2017) and her husband, Donald, (Jon Daly, MASTERMINDS, 2016). The other two couples include Carla (Shannon Woodward, ODE TO JOY, 2019) and Maude (Kirby Howell Baptiste, “Barry”), and Gretel (Charlene Yi, THIS IS 40, 2012) and Richard (Breckin Meyer, ROAD TRIP, 2000). Until this point, we kind of liked Tom and Janet, and got a kick out of the annoyance shown by Karen and Val. However, once everyone is under the same roof, we realize just how unlikable these people are and how screwed up each relationship actually is. The smart dark comedy of Act 1 devolves into a party that we wish we weren’t at, with a twist that makes little sense.

It’s fun to see the familiar faces, and McHale and Biche are fun, but the hope we felt for that creative beginning never pays off. There is a “Twilight Zone” vibe to the premise and the Stranger, but even that is a letdown. The message the movie leaves us with is that people aren’t all good. It’s a message we live every day, not one for a comedy.

In theaters, on digital, and On Demand March 19, 2021

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UNCLE FRANK (2020)

November 24, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. Alan Ball has been behind such high profile projects as Best Picture Oscar winner AMERICAN BEAUTY (1999), “Six Feet Under”, and “True Blood”. This time, he is writer-director-producer for a film that he partially based on his own father. Repressed homosexuality, alcoholism, death, and family dysfunction all play a role in a film that starts out beautifully insightful and then morphs into something totally different.

Paul Bettany stars as the titular Uncle Frank Bledsoe. When we first see Frank, he is the calm amidst the chaotic family gathering in their tiny hometown of Creekside, South Carolina. His 14 year old niece Beth (Sophia Lillis, IT) serves as our narrator, and she quickly discloses her admiration for her favorite uncle. He’s a college professor at NYU, and the only adult “who looked me in the eye”. He even wore after shave! The two are oddities in this family since they both love to read, have deep conversations, and can’t escape Creekside soon enough.

Beth is too sheltered to realize that Frank has kept his homosexuality a secret from the family. She’s shocked at how cross the family patriarch Daddy Mac (Stephen Root) acts to his son Frank, which contrasts to his affinity for his other son, and Beth’s father, Mike (Steve Zahn). A terrific ensemble cast fills out the family: Margot Martindale as Mammaw Bledsoe (Frank’s mother), Judy Greer as Kitty (Mike’s wife), Lois Smith as Aunt Butch (Frank’s stuck-in-the-past Aunt), and Jane McNeil as Neva (Frank’s sister).

We flash forward 4 years and Beth is now a freshman at NYU where her favorite uncle is a professor. Of course it doesn’t take long before Frank’s secret is revealed, and Beth meets his longtime partner Wally (Peter Macdisi, who is director Alan Ball’s real life partner) and their pet iguana named Barbara Stanwyck. When the call comes through that Daddy Mac has died, the film shifts to the road trip portion of the show, and the excellent tone set in the first half is shattered.

With a shift to Frank’s perspective, we experience his flashbacks to childhood and what caused the rift with his father. The memories of his first encounter with another boy turn horrific, and explain much about why Frank and his closed-minded father don’t have a relationship, and why Frank has a nasty history with booze. The road trip itself is enlivened thanks to the enthusiastic presence of Wally, a man with a good heart who tries to always be there for Frank. This is a coming of age trip for Beth, but her role goes pretty quiet until the ending.

The story has elements of small southern town contrasted to New York City, and the pent up frustrations that accompany a life of closeted homosexuality and lack of honesty with one’s family. The bond of family outsiders could have been a full movie unto itself, but filmmaker Ball chose to explore numerous emotional points, rather than one. The unforgivable nature of Frank’s dad provides an emotional wallop that embraces the melodrama of the film’s second half. It’s sure to draw out tears from more than a few viewers, and a film that connects like that, surely has something to say.

Premieres on Amazon Prime on November 25, 2020

watch the trailer


THREE CHRISTS (2020)

January 9, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. Based on the actual events documented in the book “The Three Christs of Ypsilanti” by Social Psychologist Milton Rokeach, the film turns ground-breaking work from 60 years ago into a generic, somewhat bland big screen production … albeit with a talented cast. Director Jon Avnet (FRIED GREEN TOMATOES, 1991) co-wrote the script with Eric Nazarian, and they evidently believed the strong cast would be enough. Instead, we get what in days past would have been described as the TV movie of the week.

The actual story is quite interesting. Dr. Alan Stone (the dramatized version of Dr. Rokeach) is played here by a blond-haired Richard Gere. Dr. Stone comes to Michigan’s Ypsilanti State Hospital in 1959 to study delusions of schizophrenics. Up to that time, we are informed that only extreme treatments were utilized, with minimal psychoanalysis practiced. Dr, Stone’s approach is through therapeutic treatments. Specifically, he arranges for group therapy consisting of only three patients – each who claims to be God/Christ.

Leon (Walton Goggins) demands to be addressed as God. He is the most perceptive of the three, though it’s quite clear, he mostly wants a friend. Joseph (Peter Dinklage) says he is Jesus Christ of Nazareth, though he speaks with a British accent, listens to opera, and wants only to return to England (a place he’s never been). Clyde (Bradley Whitford) claims to be Christ “not from Nazareth”, and he spends much of each day in the shower attempting to scrub away a stench that only he can smell.

The film is at its best, and really only works, when the doctor and the three patients are in session. It allows the actors to play off each other, and explores the premise of how they go about working through the confusion of having each believe the same thing … while allowing Dr Stone’s approach to play out. Where things get murky and clog up the pacing are with the number of additional characters who bring nothing of substance to the story. Stone’s wife Ruth (Julianna Margulies in a throwaway role) pops up periodically with alcoholic tendencies or a pep talk for hubby. Stone’s young research assistant Becky (Charlotte Hope, “Game of Thrones”) seems to be present only as an object of desire for all the Gods, and to remind us of the era’s drug experimentation. And beyond those, Stone carries on a constant battle with hospital administrators played by Kevin Pollack, Stephen Root, and a rarely-seen-these-days Jane Alexander (we shouldn’t forget she’s a 4-time Oscar nominee).

Alec Baldwin’s “I am God” from MALICE is still the best, but it’s always fun to watch a God complex … and this film offers four. The story is bookended with Dr Stone dictating his preparatory notes for a hearing on his professional actions, and the film does serve as a reminder that electroshock therapy and severe drug therapy are likely not as effective as empathy for many patients. It’s rare that God, Freud and Lenny Bruce are all quoted in the same film, but mostly this one just never pushes far enough.

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HELLO, MY NAME IS DORIS (2016)

March 18, 2016

hello my name is doris Greetings again from the darkness. Hollywood has long ignored the pushback on its habit of casting younger women as the love interest of older men. In most of those movies, the relationships are treated as normal and expected. In the few movies that turn the tables, a relationship between an older woman and younger man is typically treated as either comedy or scandal … consider Harold and Maude (1971) and Notes on a Scandal (2006). In this latest film, writer/director Michael Showalter (The Baxter) and co-writer Laura Terruso strive to balance heartfelt emotions with situational laughs.

Sally Field returns to leading lady status as Doris, a never-married frumpy accountant in her late 60’s who has been living in her childhood home whilst caring for her ailing mother … hoarding everything from magazines to packaged food seasoning to a single water ski. The film begins with the open casket funeral of Doris’ mom, and we see her brother (Stephen Root) and his obnoxious and rude wife (Wendi McLendon) immediately pounce on Doris to clear out the clutter and sell the house. They even set her up with a hoarder specialist/therapist (Elizabeth Reaser) who finds the case quite challenging.

The real fun in the movie begins with a close encounter in the office elevator, when Doris and her cat-eye glasses come face to face with a handsome and charming young man who offers up a compliment – something Doris rarely experiences. Of course, a few minutes later, we learn the young man is John (Max Greenfield, “New Girl”), the new artistic director in Doris’ office. For years, Doris has depended upon cheesy romance novels to supply the fantasy in her life, and now the lessons from that reading kick into full gear.

It’s a night out with her best friend Roz (Tyne Daly) that results in a chance interaction with a cocky motivational speaker (Peter Gallagher) whose catchphrase is “Every week has seven days. None of them are named Someday”. He leaves Doris with this thought: “Impossible means I’m possible”. When combined with those romance novels, Doris now sees a realistic chance for love if she pursues the man of her dreams … the aforementioned (and half her age) John.

With the help of Roz’ teenage granddaughter (Isabella Acres), Doris learns how to Facebook stalk, and soon enough ends up at a concert with John’s favorite techno band, Baby Goya and Nuclear Winters (led by Jack Antonoff of Fun.). John and his group of hipster friends are enamored with Doris’ vintage clothes and quirky sense of style and speech. She soon finds herself posing in spandex for Baby Goya’s album cover, going to dinner parties, and joining a rooftop knitting group of millennials.

Judging by the boisterous laughing by women in the theatre, this is a prime GNO flick for women of all ages. Most of the comedic situations seemed pretty obvious and predictable, and I found some traits of Doris to be less than appealing. However, as a statement on what happens when the outside world passes by, and generational gaps become almost impossible to bridge, the film makes a bold statement on real friendship between mature women. It poses the question, what determines whether a personal awakening is real or imagined?

Sally Field (turning 70 in 2016) gives a terrific performance, and it goes much deeper than someone who puts her reading glasses on top of her regular glasses and wears giant bows in her giant hairpiece. Ms. Field has excelled in such previous work as “Sybil” (1975), Norma Rae (1978), Places in the Heart (1983), and Lincoln (2011). She understands comedy and human drama, and as Doris … you’ll kind of like her. You’ll really kind of like her!

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TRUMBO (2015)

November 19, 2015

trumbo Greetings again from the darkness. For an industry that thrives on ego and self-promotion, it could be considered surprising that more movies haven’t focused on its most shameful (and drama-filled) period. The two Hollywood blacklist films that come to mind are both from 1976: Martin Ritt’s The Front (starring Woody Allen) and the documentary Hollywood on Trial. There are others that have touched on the era, but director Jay Roach and writer John McNamara (adapting Bruce Cook’s book) focus on blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo in a film that informs a little and entertains a lot.

Director Roach combines his comedic roots from the “Austin Powers” and “Meet the Parents” franchises with his more recent politically-centered HBO projects Recount and Game Change. His subject here is the immensely talented writer Dalton Trumbo, whom Louis B Mayer signed to the most lucrative screenwriting contract of the 1940’s. It was soon after that Trumbo’s (and other’s) affiliation with the American Communist Party came under fire by the House Un-American Activities Committee headed by J Parnell Thomas. The divide in Hollywood was clear. On one side were the staunch Patriots like John Wayne (David James Elliott) and the Queen Muckracker, gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren); on the other were “The Hollywood Ten” … those accused of being traitors simply because they stood up for freedom.

What’s interesting here is that despite the dark subject matter, the film has an enormous amount of humor … including multiple laugh out loud moments. This happens because most of the focus is on Trumbo the family man and Trumbo the justice fighter. Of course, as a writer, Trumbo does his best fighting with words … words whose message is “they have no right” to question the thoughts and beliefs of individual citizens. The committee’s mission was to prove treason by linking to the Russian agenda, but in reality these folks were mostly supportive of labor rights … most assuredly not a crime. The investigations, such as they were, seemed to prove the gentlemen were more Socialist than Russian – which makes an interesting contrast to modern day where we have an admitted Socialist running for President. The Hollywood Ten stood their ground, served jail time, and were either forced out of the industry or forced to go “underground” using pseudonyms. Trumbo, while unceremoniously writing under other names, won two Best Writing Oscars – one for Roman Holiday and one for The Brave One.

Bryan Cranston delivers a “big” performance as Dalton Trumbo. Everything is big – the glasses, the cigarette holders, the mustache, and definitely the personality. He does his best writing in the bathtub, and is never without a quick-witted comeback … whether sparring with The Duke or the committee. Unfortunately, Hedda Hopper does her most effective work in undermining the rights of Trumbo and his cohorts, including Arlen Hird (Louis CK) and Ian McClellan Hunter (Alan Tudyk). We also see how Edward G Robinson (Michael Stuhlbarg) quietly supports the cause, while also trying to salvage his fading career.

Trumbo is by no means presented as a saintly rebel with a cause. Instead, we see him as a loving yet flawed father, husband and friend. Once released from prison, he is so focused on writing and clawing his way back, that his relationships suffer – especially with his eldest daughter Nikola (Elle Fanning) and loyal wife (Diane Lane). It’s the King Brothers Production Company led by Frank (John Goodman) and Hymie (Stephen Root) who give Trumbo an outlet for writing and earning a living. Most were schlock movies, but there were also a few gems mixed in (Gun Crazy). However, it’s Kirk Douglas’ (Dean O’Gorman with an uncanny resemblance) courageous stand for his (and Stanley Kubrick’s) movie Spartacus, and director Otto Preminger (Christian Berkel) and his film Exodus, that put Trumbo’s name back on the screen, effectively ending Ms. Hopper’s crusade.

The ending credits feature clips of the real Dalton Trumbo being interviewed, and it brings clarity to Cranston’s performance, while more importantly relaying some incredibly poignant and personal words directly from the man … maybe they really should be “carved into a rock”. It’s an era of which Hollywood should not be proud, and it’s finally time it was faced head-on … and it’s quite OK that they bring along a few good laughs.

watch the trailer:

 


J. EDGAR

November 14, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. The best place to start with this one is by saying what it isn’t. It is not a documentary. It is not a very detailed history lesson. It is not the best biography of the man. It is not a behind-the-scenes of the FBI. What it is … another piece of quality filmmaking from Clint Eastwood. It’s an overview of J. Edgar Hoover and his nearly 50 years of civil service under 8 U.S. Presidents.

The screenplay is from Dustin Lance Black, who also wrote the script for Milk, based on the story of Harvey Milk (played by Sean Penn). Clearly, Eastwood and Black had no interest in setting forth an historical drama that couldn’t possibly be told within a two hour film structure. No, this is more of a fat-free character study that hits only a few of the highlights from an enigmatic man’s fascinating career. With so few available details about Hoover’s personal life, some speculation is required … but Eastwood walks a tightrope so as to make neither a statement nor mockery.

 Therein lies the only problem with the film. While hypnotic to watch, we are left with an empty feeling when it’s over. How can that be? This man built the foundation of the FBI. He instigated the fingerprint system. He armed the secret police. His agency tracked down notorious gangsters. He led an anti-communist movement. He was in the middle of the investigation for the Charles Lindbergh baby kidnapping. He supposedly kept secret files on most politicians and celebrities. He viewed the security of Americans as his responsibility. He was smack dab in the middle of almost 50 years of American history … all while being a power-hungry, paranoid mama’s boy who may have been, in her words, a daffodil.

An elderly Hoover’s own words tell his story as he dictates his memoirs. We are told that his memories of these stories are blurred and he takes a few liberties to say the least. He longed to be the comic book hero like his own G-Men. He longed to be recognized for his contributions, even to the point of desiring a level of celebrity. In his mind, he was the face of national security and the hero cuffing many outlaws. In reality, he was also the black-mailing schemer who so frightened Presidents with his secret files, that all 8 of them backed off firing him. He could be viewed as the ultimate survivor in a town where few careers last so long and cross party lines.

 The film picks up in 1919 when Hoover is a youngster making a name for himself as an all-work, no play type. That reputation stuck with him until the end. When he was first promoted, he hired Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts)to be his secretary. In one of the most remarkable hires of all time, she sticks with him until his death in 1972. Staunchly loyal to Hoover and totally dedicated to her job, Ms. Gandy helped Hoover with decisions and processes throughout. The other member of his inner circle was Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer). Tolson was Hoover’s right-hand man at the bureau, his trusted adviser, his daily lunch partner, and speculation never ceased on their personal ties.

 Judi Dench plays Annie Hoover, J Edgar’s controlling mother, whom he lived with until her death. She was also his adviser, supporter and probably a factor in his stunted social skills. We also get glimpses of how he dealt with Robert Kennedy (Jeffrey Donovan) and his overall lack of respect for John Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Richard Nixon. The Lindbergh case plays a key role because Hoover used it to gain more power for his bureau and increase funding for weapons, forensic labs and resources.

 As for Leonardo DiCaprio, it’s difficult to explain just how outstanding his lead performance is. It could have been a caricature, but instead he affords Hoover the respect his place in history demands. The 50 years of aging through make-up can be startling, especially since the time lines are mixed up throughout. His speech pattern mimics Hoover’s, as does the growing waist line. There are some Citizen Kane elements at work in how the story is told and how it’s filmed, but Eastwood wouldn’t shy away from such comparisons.

If you want real details on Hoover, there are some very in-depth biographies out there. The number of documentaries and history books for this era are limitless. What Eastwood delivers here is an introduction to J Edgar Hoover. It is interesting enough to watch, and Leonardo’s performance is a must-see, but the film lacks the depth warranted by the full story.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you want a primer to the life and career of Hoover OR you want to see DiCaprio’s performance, which will almost certainly receive an Oscar nom.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are looking for a detailed history on the FBI or the life of Hoover

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EVERYTHING MUST GO

May 18, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. Seeing this film back-to-back with Mel Gibson‘s The Beaver was a mistake. Following up manic depression with severe alcoholism and mild depression is just a bit too much weight in such a short time. But I guess that’s the point of this one. Will Ferrell stars as Nick.  He loses his job, punctures his boss’ tire, and finds out his wife not only left him, but also locked him out of the house with all his belongings in the front yard. That’s in the first 8 minutes of the film.

Ferrell proceeds to get drunk … while sitting in his La-Z-Boy in the front yard. He clearly has hit bottom and shows no signs of recovering. At least not until he partners with a lonely, young, bike riding boy named Kenny (Christopher Jordan Wallace, son of Notorious B.I.G.). This partnership consists of Kenny doing most of the work for the yard sale while Ferrell sleeps and drinks.

 Rebecca Hall plays a pregnant woman who is moving in across the street. “What kind of man makes his wife move across country alone?“. That’s the question Ferrell asks Hall … and along with the viewer, these two characters understand the answer would be a man just like Ferrell.

What I like about the film is that there are numerous signs of real human emotion throughout, yet none of the main characters overplay their part. If you are unaccustomed to seeing Mr. Ferrell in anything but slapstick comedies, I encourage you to see Stranger Than Fiction. He really does have dramatic acting skills on top of his amazing comedic talent.

The film comes from first time director Dan Rush and short story writer-extraordinaire Raymond Carver. The script does capture much of the emotion that goes with feeling rejected and searching for numbness in a bottle … or in this case, a Pabst beer can. Supporting work from Stephen Root, Laura Dern and Michael Pena are solid, but the best scenes are between Ferrell, Wallace and Hall. Don’t show up expecting to laugh much. This is a serio-drama that makes you think … there but for the grace of God …

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you want to see Will Ferrell bring humanity to a gut-wrenching situation OR you are just looking for some ideas on how to live in your front yard

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are expecting Step Brothers or Anchorman