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The Descendants & J. Edgar...Two new movie reviews by Robwrite
THE DESCENDANTS (4 stars out of 5)
Now that we've gotten passed the fall malaise which comes between the summer blockbusters and the late-year oscar-calibre films (which are released at the end of the year to be eligible to win an oscar next spring), we've got the first likely oscar nominee for the next academy awards. The Descendants is a great beginning to the oscar season, with a great lead performance by George Clooney.
Director Alexander Payne, who made About Schmidt and Sideways (both of which were excellent) gives us another thoughtful film about a lost man with a crushed spirit who goes on a journey after reaching an emotional crisis. George Clooney gives his best performance since the superb Up In the Air, as a man struggling through a personal upheaval.
The story follows successful Hawaiian lawyer Matt King, whose great-grandmother was the last surviving female descendant of King Kamayamayha, and so, Matt's family has long owned a huge chunk of ancestral property. However, new laws will strip the King clan of their lands in the next few years, so Matt--the executor of the land--has the responsibilty of negotiating a sale which will make not only himself but also some of his struggling relatives filthy rich. The clan (Including Beau Bridges in a small role) keeps pestering him about the deal.
However, Matt's mind is not on the deal since his wife Elisabeth (Patricia Hasie) has recently been hurt in a boating accident and is an irreversible coma from which she will never recover. Matt is informed that her living will demands that they must pull the plug on her. On top of all that drama, Matt now finds himself a single father of two troubled daughters, 17 year-old Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) and 10 year-old Scottie (Amara Miller). Alexandra is a recovering drug addict and Scottie is constantly getting into trouble in school.
Just when you think Matt has all he can handle on his plate, Alexandra drops another bomb on him...His wife was having an affair and was planning to leave him for another man. Matt doesn't know how to deal with the anger of this infidelity since his wife is on her deathbed. Can he forgive her before she dies? In order to sort out his feelings, he and the kids take a trip to find the 'other man', hoping that a confrontation will give Matt some closure.
Clooney brings a sad vulnerability to the character of Matt, who only starts to realize how uninspired and tepid his life has been when it starts to fall apart. He doesn't know how to relate to his daughters and starts to realize at the 11th hour how much the traditional family land he is selling means to him. He gives a nicely nuanced performance, mixing comedy and angst.
Woodley gives a nice supporting performance as Alexandra, the spoiled bratty teen daughter who can't forgive her mother for cheating on her father. Her character slowly changes during the film. Matthew Lillard plays the 'other man' Brian Speer, and actually resists the temptation to go over-the-top for a change. He doesn't have the screen charisma to match Clooney but he is perfectly adequate in his limited screen time.
Director Payne manages to keep the serious subject matter from being dragged into melodrama, by injecting many light-hearted moments. There are some scenes of rather broad, sitcomish comedy which sometimes seems a bit misplaced (such as when Elisibeth's elderly father punches Alexandra's young boyfriend in the face) but they don't spoil the film. Nick Kraouse, as Alexandra's stoner boyfriend Sid, doesn't really have much purpose here except to be comedy relief, although he gets less cliched as the film progresses.
The film moves at a very casual pace. The whole story could probably be told in a one-hour TV show, including commercials, but the plot meanders along unhurriedly for nearly two hours, allowing us time to get to know our characters and see what makes them tick. There is a lot of heart and warmth in the Descendants, and don't be surprised if Clooney gets a best actor nod.
J. EDGAR (3 stars out of 5)
Clint Eastwood is one of our best living filmmakers. He's given us such magnificent modern movies as Unforgiven, Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby, Letters from Iwo Jima and Gran Torino. He has a superb way of getting to the heart of American tragedy and delivering intense and engrossing dramas. His latest film, J. Edgar, is far from his best work, which is a bit disappointing since his subject is one of the most infamous and controversial men of the 20th century. There are high expectations for this one that are not fully met. Still, there is a lot here which is worth seeing, even if it isn't on par with Eastwood's usual high standards.
Leonardo DiCaprio--a consistently fine actor--portrays the notorious John Edgar Hoover, who rose up from being a low-level member of the justice Department in World War One, to become the head of the FBI, where he would lurk behind the scenes as the most feared man in the U.S. government for 50 years.
The film jumps around in time Citizen Kane style, (Or Pulp Fiction style, for you young fans) as Eastwood parallels events at different points in Hoover's life for dramatic irony. The screenplay covers Hoover's whole life, from childhood till his death in 1972, which is a daunting task for any film, even a two-hour and twenty minute flick like this one.
We follow Hoover's quick rise to the top, as he uses anti-communist fear to propel himself into the limelight. We then see some of the highlights of his career, such as the Lindbergh baby kidnapping case, about which Hoover later exaggerates his participation in the case; something he would do for most of his life. He loved to take credit, even if he didn't deserve it. For instance, when Hoover becomes jealous of his subordinate agent Purvis, who captured gangster John Dillenger, Hoover has Purvis shipped off to a quiet desk somewhere so Hoover can take all the credit. Hoover's jingoistic zeal, combined with his natural paranoia and need to be seen as a hero, all combine into his ill-concieved decision that he needs to keep detailed records of everyone--in the government and out--so he can destroy anyone if necessary. For the good of the country, of course. HIs secret dossiers would be the bane of many people, from Elenor Roosevelt, to Martin Luther King. (Amusingly, Hoover becomes indimidated by Richard Nixon because Nixon is ruthless enough to beat him at his own game.)
Much of the script focuses on the three main relationships in Hoover's life. His religious, dominating mother (Judy Dench), his long-time secretary/gal Friday Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts) and Hoover's secret love Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer).
Mother Hoover is seen as the guiding force in his life; the motivation and inspiration for everything he was to become. She is his personal wise-women, who advices him every step of the way up the ladder, with political savvy, yet the holy fanaticism of the mother in Carrie.
Naomi Watts as Gandy starts off as a possible love interest for a socially inept Hoover, who tries to impress her by showing off his new card filing system, but she has no interest in him that way, nor does he actually think of her sexually. She quickly sees through his sham of looking for a wife who would be there for appearance sake, because Hoover's claim that he "doesn't like to dance with girls" means a lot more than dancing. Hammer plays Tolson, a handsome young agent recruited by Hoover to be part of his staff, despite a lack of qualifications. Their in-the-closet relationship would remain covert for their entire lives. (There is one cross-dressing scene as well, since Hoover was rumored to wear women's clothing sometimes, although this isn't a proven fact.)
There is a bit of a claustrophobic feel to the movie, since much of it takes place in shadowy back-rooms where Hoover plots and plans. The framing device of Hoover dictating his life story to a young agent is a bit of a cliche, but it works well enough here, given Hoover's massive ego.
DiCaprio does a fine job as Hoover, despite being handicapped by some of the worst old-age make-up since Little Big Man (although Hammer's make-up is far worse.) This isn't DiCaprio's first bio-pic, because he already played Howard Hughs in the Aviator, which was a superior film to this one. DiCaprio is one of the most reliable actors working today, and seldom gives a bad performance.
A number of simulacrums of famous celebrities and political figures of the 20th century appear throughout the film, (Shirley Temple, Ginger Rogers and several Presidents)most notably Jeffery Donovan (Burn Notice) as Bobby Kennedy, who engages in a psychological chess game with Hoover.
The biggest flaw of the film is that it has no real center. It tries to tell us the whole life story of J. Edgar Hoover but there is too much to tell regarding Hoovers' 50 year career to be told well in such a short time, so the movie just seems like a Cliff-Notes version of his life. The film would have been better if it had focused on one aspect of Hoover or one period of his life. Eastwood seems to point to Hoover's Oedipal complex for his mother as the reason for him becoming the man he became, but that seems too simplistic, and it makes Hoover seem less interesting.
J. Edgar isn't a bad film but given the pedigree of Eastwood and DiCaprio, and what a great subject they had to work with, you can't help but expect more than this You'll be hoping for an insightful look at the fascinating mind of a notorious individual, but instead you'll get an overly simplified explanation for 50 years worth of machinations. This could have been much better. J. Edgar is well-made but it just misses the mark.