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Column Fri Nov 11 2011

J. Edgar, Jack and Jill, Melancholia, Into the Abyss, The Women on the 6th Floor & Revenge of the Electric Car

J. Edgar

I don't tend to let things like bad old-man makeup change my opinion of a film, or even distract me, so I'm not going to harp on the absolutely terrible job done on aging Leonardo DiCaprio and Armie Hammer in Clint Eastwood's J. Edgar. A great performance — and both men give truly great ones here — tops waxy-looking skin and a healthy smattering of fake liver spots every time. And that's the last we'll speak of that. If you find J. Edgar difficult to engage with it will be because the script by Dustin Lance Black (Milk and several episodes of HBO's "Big Love") is spotty. You can spot the shortcuts and the moments where single sentences are meant to sum up a character's motivations or the movie's themes a little too just so.

But then there are other moments in the screenplay that are undeniably poignant. When Black is focusing on material having to do with Hoover changing the face and prominence of the Federal Bureau of Investigation during his nearly 50-year reign as its chief, the film is informative but not especially elevated. However, when the script puts a microscope on Hoover's relationship with other people — his domineering mother Annie (Judi Dench), faithful secretary Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts) or longtime companion and number-two man at the bureau Clyde Tolson (Hammer) — J. Edgar is close to extraordinary.

I find it wonderful that this tale of a closeted gay man becoming the most powerful and feared man in the nation is directed by the same person who played Dirty Harry. Although in a strange way, both Hoover and Harry were men seeking justice and looking to protect the United States. So much of Hoover's life has modern parallels, especially when you look at his early career when he sought to stop (and in some cases deport) radical communists, some of whom set off bombs in government offices in an early example of modern domestic terrorism. The threat was quite real, and in most cases Hoover was not playing off the fears of everyday Americans the way Joseph McCarthy did. (Hoover thought McCarthy was a fear monger of the worst kind.)

The movie underscores (and then highlights the underscore to make sure you don't miss it) the fact that it was Hoover's mother that put the fear of outsiders into her son's heart. She also put a healthy fear of letting any semblance of his sexuality be seen by anyone, ever. There's a speech she gives him about the danger of being a "dandelion" that sent an under chill through me. And Dame Judy simply eats through the scenery with a wicked fervor. And not that there was any doubt as to her talents, but having seen her in J. Edgar and the upcoming My Week with Marilyn (playing the great and very sweet British actress Dame Sybil Thorndike) in close proximity, her range and abilities continue to impress me.

Perhaps playing counter to Mother, Naomi Watts' portrayal of the perpetually unmarried (hint hint) Ms. Gandy is decidedly understated, but still makes its point. Gandy was the epitome of loyalty, and Hoover trusted her more than anyone else on earth. Early scenes of the two of them attempting to date are beautifully awkward, but nicely set the tone for their decades together.

The the real revelation for me was Hammer's work as Tolson, who bounces back and forth between being Hoover's valet, sounding board, taste consultant (clothes and home decor), punching bag, and the closest thing to a love interest he had. Hammer lights up the screen as the buttoned-down right hand almost from the minute he first comes on screen as an applicant for a position at the Bureau. An early job interview scene is quite revealing and funny as the normally confident Hoover stumbles his way through a conversation with the steely eyed applicant.

And then there's the ever-reliable DiCaprio, who I don't think has ever given a bad performance, even in some of his lesser works. I think he does a better job capturing the nuances here than he did in, for example, The Aviator, which seemed more like a massive-scale, standard-issue biopic. In J. Edgar, Eastwood allowed DiCaprio and Hammer the chance to really explore the dark and light corners of their characters, and better form more complete portraits of these men who, at times, felt powerless and powerful.

But the film doesn't take it easy on its subject just because he was struggling. J. Edgar paints the man as an opportunist who cared as much (if not more) about his public image as a crime fighter. His life story is told through a series of flashbacks as he tells sometimes fictionalized accounts of his deeds to a succession of young, handsome bureau note takers. The film spends a great deal of screen time detailing Hoover's role (according to him) in the search for the kidnapper of the infant son of Charles Lindbergh (Josh Lucas), then spends more time in the third act tearing down many of his claims. The ugly side of Hoover's pettiness is particularly apparent in his exchanges with Robert Kennedy (Jeffrey Donovan) regarding setting up task forces to weed out communists. Hoover's phone call to RFK to inform him his president brother was shot dead in Dallas is especially cruel.

All I ask from most biographies is to walk away from them having learned something about what made their subjects tick. I don't care if its accurate or a work of complete fiction; as long as I feel that I've been served up a complete character, I'm usually satisfied. And based on that criteria and with a few issues with pacing and story flow, J. Edgar is a qualified success.

Jack and Jill

I have such mixed feelings on the latest masterpiece from Adam Sandler, but I think I can sum it up thusly: every time Al Pacino is on the screen, Jack and Jill is kind of great; when he's not, it's a fucking mess. Completely self-aware of his own image and public perception, Pacino riffs on his work in Scarface, The Godfather movies, Scent of a Woman and even Richard III to great comedic effect. If you're a fan of his work, there are few greater tributes/parodies to his career than this movie.

The teeny-tiny problem is you have to wade through about 90 minutes of crap to get to these gem moments. You see, Jack and Jill is regretfully not about Pacino playing himself. It's about a set of twins, male and female, both played by Sandler. Jack Sadelstein is a successful Los Angeles ad exec, who pals around with celebrities who have appeared in his commercials. One of his clients, Dunkin Donuts, wants Pacino to be the spokesperson for their latest coffee offering, and threaten to leave Jack's agency if he can't deliver. At the same time, sister Jill comes for her annual visit from New York for Thanksgiving, but the plot concocts ridiculous reasons for her to stay for much longer and annoy Jack and everyone around her.

The basic flaw of the film is that the character of Jill isn't in the least bit funny. Sandler plays her as woefully out of touch with the ways of the modern world, sadly lacking in male companionship, and unflatteringly manly (go figure). She's grating and loud and pathetic, but the kids and Jack's wife Erin (Katie Holmes) love her, so it's really Jack with the problem, according to them. But when Pacino sets eyes on Jill in an admittedly funny sequence set at a Lakers game, he instantly falls in love because he feels like he knows her since they're from the same part of New York. Naturally, Jill barely knows who he is and couldn't be less interested in his advances. Oh, the hilarity.

The film hits its own personal low when Jack must impersonate Jill to get Pacino to sign on for the commercial, which is funny only because Pacino knows exactly how to play it. The biggest problem with Jack and Jill — and it's an issue I have with many of Sandler's goofier movies — is that Sandler doesn't bother to even create full-blooded characters. If Jill had a spark of recognizable humanity, rather than simply making her a walking, farting, sweating mess of a creature, there might actually be something to this movie. I know, you're probably thinking, "It's an Adam Sandler movie, dude. You're looking for three-dimensional characters?" Frankly, yes. I'm always looking for fully realized characters in every film, and Sandler has done it before, even in his broader works. But the way this film exists, I honestly thought when I first saw the trailer that it was a fake trailer for one of the terrible movies his character in Funny People made.

As tempting as it might be, it's tough to flat out dismiss Jack and Jill. Sandler's films make enough money that he can occasionally pull in a heavyweight like Jack Nicholson (Anger Management) or Pacino to appear in his movies. Hell, even Pacino's seat-mate at the Lakers game is pretty impressive — I won't ruin that surprise for you. And the offshoot of this phenomenon is that some really funny moments make it into his movie, despite his seeming attempts to ruin such moments. I can't with a clear conscience recommend the movie, but I would be remiss if I didn't make an appeal to die-hard Al Pacino fans to give it a look if they're so inclined. It's a toss up, but you may find yourself laughing considerably more than you might expect.


There is so much to say about this film, and yet words don't quite do it justice, since director Lars von Trier's end-of-the-world epic Melancholia seems to be made from pure emotion. There's so much at work here that the work is actually two movies. The first will likely feel more familiar to Von Trier disciples since if focuses on a grossly dysfunctional family getting together for a wedding between Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Michael ("True Blood's" Alexander Skarsgard), an event that self-destructs in a spectacular explosion of accusation, long-term resentment, and just all-around bad behavior. This is Von Trier's comfort zone, and with a fantastic cast that includes Antichrist's Charlotte Gainsbourg (as Justine's sister Claire), Kiefer Sutherland (as Claire's husband), and John Hurt as the girls' father, you can't help but observe the train wreck and soak it all in.

The second part of the film is unfamiliar territory for the director, and it elevates the plot into something so staggeringly depressive and bleak that some of you may not be able to crawl out for quite some time. Apparently, a planet labeled Melancholia (I'd like to slap the scientist that gave it that name) is fast approaching Earth, apparently on a collision course, and not surprisingly this (combined with her botched wedding) sends Justine into a psychological tailspin that her sister and brother-in-law attempt to pull her out of, and the exercise is impossible to take your eyes from. Dunst has never been more impressive as an actor; you can almost feel the black hole in her soul attempting to pull you in as well.

In the past, Von Trier (Breaking the Waves, Dancer in the Dark) has seemed fit to simply document bad behavior, but Melancholia transcends his previous works by digging deep into the psyche of these characters. It may not seem like it when it's described, but watching these characters crumble and then begin to rebuild is a wondrous thing. Most movies I can talk about with people who haven't seen them yet, but Melancholia is a tough one to converse on with the uninitiated. So here's what you need to do: leave the house and check out this incredible film (it's been On Demand for some time, but I can't imagine it working as well at home even on a big TV), and then we'll talk. It opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Into the Abyss

German-born filmmaker Werner Herzog is a gifted feature director, as works such as Rescue Dawn and The Bad Lieutenant have shown, but where he has truly excelled in recent years is in the documentary realm, with such recent examples as Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Grizzly Man and Encounters at the End of the World. While his docs have detailed phenomena that take place in remote, almost fantastical locations around the world, his latest work, Into the Abyss, is very much an exploration of an American institution: the death penalty. No, we aren't the only nation to execute criminals, but we've turned it into something of an art form and tried to pass it off as being done by humane means. And nowhere in America do we execute like we do in Texas, which is where this film is set.

Herzog's film is a detailed look into the events that led to three brutal killings in Conroe, Texas, and how the swift sentences of two men (one scheduled to die within days of his interview) may or may not be the justice those three deserve. Without editorializing on the death penalty per se, Herzog speaks with both convicts, as well as the family and close friends of the three people killed (including a mother and teen son). Herzog is a gifted enough interviewer to treat everyone equally, and show a level of compassion to the man about to die. It's clear from the interviews of the two inmates that one of the is lying through his teeth, but Herzog doesn't challenge the validity of their stories as much as he lets these plain-spoken, polite young men speak their peace for the record. If they choose to lie to him, that's their decision.

What emerges from the interviews is a real sense of the victims' lives, potential, and how much they are missed by those who were closest to them. This is by far Herzog's most emotionally wrenching work as well as his most intimate; you can almost see the hardened filmmaker's heart break over and over again as he's talking to his subjects on both side of the bars. Even more incredible are his interviews with the pastor who will attempt to bring comfort in the one man's last minutes before execution and the state executioner who walks us through the deathhouse rituals that are meant to be both comforting and eerily regimented.

I've seen the subject of executions dealt with in documentaries before, but never to this degree, and certainly not with this much brutal honesty. And when the film is complete, you have lived each of these lives with a harrowing sense of being there. What ultimately separates the way Herzog handles his docs and all other filmmakers is his voice as narrator, philosopher and interviewer. His questions are hardly softball, but he has a keen sense of when to probe deep and when to withdraw just enough to show compassion. Someone should give him a talk show. From a man who once asked if a penguin can go insane (and I'm pretty sure proved it can), there's something really vital about Into the Abyss, and the material is handled in a way that doesn't seem to attack the practice of executions, Texas or the United States. Herzog is too smart for that, and this film proves that without a doubt. Into the Abyss is one of the best documentaries you'll see this year, and it opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

The Women on the 6th Floor

Consider this the French version of The Help; the time period is even about the same — in this case, Paris in 1960 when a group of Spanish maids living in the upper floor of the French equivalent of a condo building change the perception of their lives in the eyes of their employers by living life to the fullest, as only the passionate Spanish people do. OK, yes, the film is a little trite, bordering on stereotypical, but the humor, playful sex appeal and acting is so dead on, it's mostly forgivable.

The owners of one particular unit are Jean-Louis (the great Fabrice Luchini, last seen in Potiche) and his uptight wife Suzanne (Sandrine Kiberlain from the great adulterous tale Mademoiselle Chambon), who ship their young kids off the school for most of the year and live pretty secluded lives — he's an investment banker and she is a full-time socialite. After losing the maid they've had for decades, they hire an attractive younger Spanish woman named Maria (Natalia Verbeke), whose aunt (the magnificent Carmen Maura) is a maid in one of the other units. The two of them along with four other maids all live in small apartments on the sixth floor and access their employers' units through hidden doors in the kitchen, and for the most part they are treated like second-class citizens by their bosses but find a great deal of comfort and occasional fun with each other.

But Jean-Louis starts to develop feelings for Maria as his wife's distant behavior pushes them apart. And by spending more time with the maids, he starts to understand and appreciate their day-to-day plights and struggles. I especially like the discussion he has with them about their surviving the Franco regime (why most of them left Spain in the first place). There's singing, dancing, good eating, and eventually Jean-Louis become an honorary member of their circle of friends, all the while his affection for Maria continues to grow.

At times, The Women on the 6th Floor is barely a step above Pretty Women in its story of a rich older man sweeping away a younger working girl, but the film never comes across as creepy, mainly because Maria is a stronger person than Jean-Louis could ever hope to be. The film is a bit too cutesy at times, but never enough to ruin its indelible spirit and its determination to let passion rule the day. Sometimes the pure joy of the characters is enough to give the clich├ęs a pass. If you find yourself every so often in need of a little French film to cleanse the palate, this might be exactly what you need. The film opens today at the Music Box Theater.

Revenge of the Electric Car

What a difference five years makes. In 2006, director Chris Paine did the investigative documentary Who Killed the Electric Car?, which sometimes felt like Paine was digging up state secrets from the leading car manufacturers and oil companies, who apparently conspired to first build then recall and destroy every single electric car in America. But with the economy in the tank and car companies desperate for new revenue streams, the tone of Paine's follow-up film, Revenge of the Electric Car, is 180 degrees different. The big auto companies have thrown open their doors to film crews, admitted their past mistakes, and apparently have nothing to hide as they develop and take to market a new generation of electric (or combo electric/gas) cars like the Volt and the Leaf.

Narrated by Tim Robbins, the film follows the CEOs of Nissan, GM and start-up electric sports car maker Tesla Motors, as well as customizing guru Greg "Gadget" Abbott, a guy who rips out the guts of your favorite sports car and makes it electric... for a price. The film avoids being a slick puff piece thanks to the slumping economic climate, during which car companies needed bailing out, and the future of the electric car for many manufacturers again looked in doubt.

Unlike the first film, Paine is actually able to get close to his subject and as a result their distinct personalities rise to the surface. I particularly liked GM Vice Chairman Bob Lutz, who used to love his gas-guzzling cars and may have been personally responsible for the end of the first round of electric vehicles. It's fun watching guys like this have to eat crow and start championing technology they once actively worked against. I also found Tesla's leader Elon Musk a fascinating guy, who for the first time in his professional life stares the possibility of failure right in the eyes.

There's a playfulness to Revenge of the Electric Car, and that makes the experience of watching it feel less like homework and more like actual entertainment — a rarity in the documentary field. And for once, there are no villains in the scenario. In a way, we're rooting for them all to win, which is actually a nice feeling to walk out with. The film opens for a weeklong run at the Gene Siskel Film Center.

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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »


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