Monday, March 5, 2012

J. Edgar

J. Edgar - Dir. Clint Eastwood (2011)


"When morals decline and good men do nothing, evil flourishes."

J. Edgar had the potential to be an important and powerful film. You had Clint Eastwood as director, Dustin Lance Black (who won the Academy Award for Milk) as screenwriter, a bankable movie star in Leonardo DiCaprio in the lead, and the intriguing true life story of J. Edgar Hoover. A controversial figure, Hoover served as director of the FBI for nearly fifty years. He had a career that was plagued by paranoia, petty jealousy, and racism and was long rumored to be a closeted homosexual as well as a cross-dresser. But, J. Edgar doesn't come close to the quality of recent Eastwood pictures like Invictus or Gran Torino.

Eastwood and Black get the film off to a poor start with an aged Hoover (DiCaprio) regaling a succession of young FBI agents with his life story in order to compose his memoirs. It's a rather lazy and clumsy device that feeds the narrative to the audience in a piecemeal fashion. Hoover began working with the Bureau of Investigation in its infancy by arresting and deporting anti-government radicals. Eventually promoted to the position of director, Hoover attempts to increase the FBI's power as he spearheads the investigation into the kidnapping of Charles Lindbergh's baby. It was this case that Hoover emphasized the importance of forensics and fingerprint analysis, which was dismissed by law enforcement as a speculative science. During Prohibition, he doggedly pursued infamous gangsters like Alvin Karpis, Pretty Boy Floyd, Machine Gun Kelly, and John Dillinger, who was killed by an operation run by Melvin Purvis as depicted in Michael Mann's Public Enemies. Hoover, angered that Purvis was receiving all the attention, derailed his career.

While Hoover made many enemies, he made fewer friends. One of them was Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts), who became his long-time secretary, and Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer), who became Hoover's closest confidant. The two would never miss a meal together and frequently went to the horse races in Del Mar together.

Hoover eventually grows more and more out of touch with society. He ignored organized crime and went after supposed communists, liberals, and journalists who criticized him. He tried to sabotage Martin Luther King's acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize, an action that even Gandy and Tolson disagreed with. Throughout it all, Hoover was under the thumb of a domineering mother (Judi Dench), who coldly told him that she would rather have a dead son than a "daffodil."

Hoover supposedly kept secret files containing dirty secrets on many of the country's political leaders. He had a contentious relationship with many presidents and used those secrets to solidify his power base. In the film, he is depicted as blackmailing Franklin Roosevelt as well as John and Bobby Kennedy (the latter of whom is played by Jeffrey Donovan). One of Hoover's few good acts was to entrust Gandy with the destruction of said files upon his death to prevent them from falling into the hands of Richard Nixon.

J. Edgar commits the cardinal sin of biopics by trying to tell far too much in a small amount of time. It doesn't help that Eastwood's explanation for all of Hoover's faults and accomplishments lie with the fact that he was a momma's boy. The film does touch upon the speculation that Hoover and Tolson were homosexuals. Their relationship remains mostly chaste with Hoover reticent to act due to societal morays and his mother's influence. There are forlorn looks and subtle clasping of hands, but no sex involved. The one time the pair does heat up is during a lover's quarrel that unfolds in the most melodramatic fashion with a lot of screaming and broken furniture. The dialogue and hammy acting are on par with a bad soap opera. The same goes for a brief scene where Hoover clutches his late-mother's dress in a reference to his transvestitism.

The narrative's penchant for traveling back and forth in time is made all the more jarring by the unconvincing make-up work to age the actors. While a lot of effort and man hours went into the effects, it never looks realistic, especially the make-up on Armie Hammer as the elderly Tolson. Leonardo DiCaprio doesn't look like a 70-year old Hoover; he just looks like Leonardo DiCaprio under heavy make-up. Speaking of which, DiCaprio's performance is somewhat lacking. Part of that has to do with his eternally cherubic looks. Much like his role as Howard Hughes in The Aviator, DiCaprio excels at playing the younger versions of his characters, but his youthful face and equally youthful voice work against him.

There is a good movie buried somewhere within the confines of the tedious J. Edgar, just as Leonardo DiCaprio is buried somewhere within the confines of his fake jowls and bloated make-up. J. Edgar is a representation of blatant Oscar grabbing cinema, a rare disappointment from Clint Eastwood.

Rating: * ½ (*****)

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Recoil

Recoil - Dir. Terry Miles (2012)


The most recognizable name in profession wrestling is arguably Hulk Hogan. He was the largest attraction of the 1980's during the height of the rock 'n' wrestling era when Vince McMahon's WWF enjoyed unheralded mainstream attention. No one ever came close to capturing that same popularity until the late-90's with Steve Austin. Once known as "Stunning" Steve Austin, the blonde haired pretty boy remade himself into "Stone Cold" Steve Austin, a beer-guzzling, foul mouthed redneck with a hair trigger temper. After retiring from wrestling, Austin transitioned to the equally colorful world of action movies. Aside from supporting roles in The Longest Yard and The Expendables, his only starring vehicle released theatrically was the WWE-produced The Condemned. Austin has mostly stuck with direct-to-video films like The Stranger, Hunt to Kill, and Tactical Force. His latest picture is Recoil, which co-stars another renowned tough guy in Danny Trejo.

Trejo spent over a decade in prison where he became a boxing champion before meeting another reformed convict in Eddie Bunker, who is probably best known for his bit role as Mr. Blue in Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs. Bunker co-wrote and acted in 1985's Runaway Train where Trejo made his acting debut while training Eric Roberts to box. Since then, Trejo has had a prolific career thanks to his gruff voice, craggy face, and tattooed body.

Austin stars as Ryan Varrett, a former cop, who has become a vigilante since the brutal murder of his family. He travels across the country in a 1968 Plymouth GTX exacting his own brand of justice on killers who have escaped the long arm of the law. While hunting down a serial rapist nicknamed the Highwayman, he arrives in the tiny town of Hope. This seemingly sleepy burg is controlled by the Circle, a ruthless biker gang run by Drayke (Trejo). The few citizens still living in Hope have none as they live in fear of Drayke, who uses the town as the hub of his drug trafficking ring. Varrett decides to clean the place up with the help of a sympathetic sheriff's deputy (Adam Greydon Reid) and the lovely Darcy (Serinda Swan), a widower running a generally empty motel.

Recoil follows the basic formula of a classic Western with Austin as the taciturn stranger, who rides into a frontier town to make it safe once again for law-abiding citizens. The screenplay by John Sullivan isn't Shakespeare or even Shane Black. It's riddled with corny dialogue and tough guy clich├ęs (the hero walks away from an explosion in slow motion). The plot is incredibly thin with Austin mainly kicking someone's ass, waiting around, and then kicking someone else's ass again before we finally get the one-on-one confrontation between Austin and Trejo.

The fight scenes aren't anything to crow about, but they are competently staged. Austin isn't a martial arts expert nor does he move around with a lot of grace. That works for him as Austin is portrayed as a force of nature. He's a human wrecking machine tearing through a legion of bad guys that appear to have wandered off the set of Sons of Anarchy. Is he a subtle and nuanced actor? No, but he can do the stoic badass with an icy stare with ease. As for Trejo, he appears to have a lot of fun playing the lead villain rather than the henchman for a change. There's even a sly Machete reference where Trejo contemplates using his signature weapon before derisively tossing it aside.

Recoil is your standard low-budget action fare that's elevated solely by the presence of Steve Austin and Danny Trejo. It can be a fun time if you check your brain at the door and lower your expectations.

Rating: ** (*****)

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Justice League: Doom

Justice League: Doom - Dir. Lauren Montgomery (2012)


Warner Brothers' line of animated films based on DC Universe has seen some highs and lows. Green Lantern: First Flight and Wonder Woman were great origin stories, despite their short running times, while Superman: Doomsday and Superman/Batman: Public Enemies were instantly forgettable. While most of their releases revolve around Batman and Superman, on rare occasions Warner will bankroll a Justice League movie. This should especially please the diehard fans saddened by the loss of Cartoon Network's Justice League Unlimited.

The first picture, Justice League: The New Frontier, was an adaptation of a mini-series by Darwyn Cooke while the second, Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths, was based on a script originally written by Dwayne McDuffie for the television series. McDuffie would also pen All-Star Superman, which was released, Feb. 22 in 2011, just a day after his untimely death due to complications from heart surgery. McDuffie had worked at Marvel and DC and was best known as one of the founders of Milestone, an imprint at the latter publisher that spotlighted minority heroes from minority creators. McDuffie was also a mainstay in animation having worked on JLU, Static Shock, and Ben 10 Warner's latest release, Justice League: Doom was the last script written by McDuffie and while it's not as good as Crisis, it is one of their finest efforts.

Doom is loosely based on the "Tower of Babel" storyline, which ran in JLA #43-46 back in 2000. In that series, Batman's nemesis Ra's al Ghul systematically assaults the Justice League using diabolical schemes that were stolen from the Dark Knight himself. It seems Batman has devised various methods to take out his teammates should they ever turn bad. Even if you have read the original comics, Doom still has plenty of surprises since it only borrows the basic concept and spins it in a different manner.

Instead of Ra's al Ghul, we get another immortal conqueror in Vandal Savage, a caveman who was imbued with great intelligence and longevity by a mysterious meteorite. Savage has assembled the arch-enemies of each Justice Leaguer in a new version of the Super Friends staple, the Legion of Doom. Savage's first recruit, the Mirror Master, manages to sneak into the Bat-Cave and hack the Bat-Computer to steal the Caped Crusader's files. Next, they gather Star Sapphire, Bane, Metallo, Cheetah, and Ma'alef'ak to attack the League one by one in nefarious and unexpected ways.

The Justice League line-up here consists of Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, the Flash, and the Martian Manhunter. Neither Aquaman nor Hawkgirl are present here. In their place is Cyborg, a former Teen Titan, who has graduated to the big time. It only makes sense for DC to push Cyborg into the forefront with technology becoming more and more integral in our everyday lives.

Justice League: Doom has no connection to any previous movie or series, but long-time devotees will be overjoyed that it assembles an all-star cast of familiar voices. Tim Daly and Kevin Conroy return to voice the Superman and Batman along with fellow stalwarts Susan Eisenberg as Wonder Woman, Carl Lumbly as Martian Manhunter, and Michael Rosenbaum as the Flash. Interestingly enough, this Flash is Barry Allen rather than his successor Wally West, who Rosenbaum played on Justice League. Nathan Fillion returns for a third time to voice Hal Jordan, the most popular wielder of the emerald power ring. Fillion brings his usual charm and snappy patter to the role and it's easy to see why he was the fans' choice over Ryan Reynolds to star in the live-action Green Lantern film. Phil Morris, Olivia d'Abo, and Alexis Denisof reprise their Justice League roles of Vandal Savage, Star Sapphire, and Mirror Master.

Doom starts right off with a big action sequence as the Justice League battles the Royal Flush Gang, a band of playing card themed supervillains. The brisk pace continues as the Legion of Doom attacks the heroes individually before everyone comes together for the big brawl at the end. It's not all punching and explosions. The unique character dynamics between the Leaguers are still here though they aren't as fully explored because of the short runtime. Doom mainly centers on how each team member relates to Batman, who is a bit of a jerk, but a jerk with a point. He's the only one in the League without powers. Thus, he sees the need for contingency plans should someone like Superman ever go insane or is mind controlled. When the League state they would never do the same to Batman, he responds quite curtly, "Then, you're damn fools."

Be forewarned that Justice League: Doom isn't aimed at the casual fan and presupposes you are already familiar with the characters and their relationships. Despite being a big DC fan, I admit I had to check Wikipedia because I had no idea who Ma'alef'ak was. Turns out, he's the Martian Manhunter's evil brother. In any event, Doom is an enjoyable, action-packed romp.

Rating: *** (*****)

Friday, March 2, 2012

Chronicle

Chronicle - Dir. Josh Trank (2012)


With great power comes great responsibility. That was the lesson taught to Peter Parker and generations of comic book fans. Peter has a lot in common with Andrew Detmer, the lead character of Chronicle, as played by Dane DeHaan, an actor who closely resembles a young Leonardo DiCaprio. Both Andrew and Peter are lanky, socially awkward teens and suffered torment at the hands of high school bullies. Peter, at least, had a strong upbringing thanks to his Uncle Ben and Aunt May, who instilled in him a strong moral code. Sadly for Andrew, he did not have the same support system.

The shy and sensitive Andrew lives with a bed-ridden mother (Bo Petersen), who is slowly dying of cancer, and an alcoholic and abusive father (Michael Kelly), a former firefighter collecting disability. Andrew makes a new habit of carrying a camera everywhere he goes, recording his life at home and at school. His only friend is his cousin, Matt (Alex Russell). He's everything Andrew isn't. Confident and outgoing, Matt enjoys discussing Plato, Schopenhauer, and Jung. He invites a reluctant Andrew to a party where they meet up with Steve (Michael B. Jordan), the star quarterback who's running for class president. Together, they explore a pit in the woods where they discover a strange, glowing object.

Next thing you know, the three lads have been gifted with telekinetic powers. Do they fight for truth, justice, and the American way? No, they do what any teenagers would do if they were given extraordinary abilities. They pull pranks on each other and unsuspecting citizens at the shopping mall. They spook a little girl at the toy store with floating stuffed animals and knock one poor guy into a rack of groceries. There's even a Scott Baio in Zapped! moment when they lift the skirts of a group of pretty girls. Just when you think Chronicle is just Jackass with superpowers, things turn down a darker path as Andrew's mom gets sicker and his father gets angrier.

Chronicle marks the feature directorial debut of Josh Trank, who co-wrote the screenplay with Max Landis, son of John Landis, the director behind comedy classics like The Blues Brothers and Animal House. It's a fresh take on both the superhero film and found footage genre. The 1980 cult classic, Cannibal Holocaust, pioneered found footage, but it was The Blair Witch Project that really brought it to the forefront. The genre has exploded in recent years due to the immediacy of information in the YouTube era. It makes sense for Andrew to carry a camera everywhere he goes. The camera itself acts as a barrier between Andrew and the world around him, a point needlessly spelled out by one of the characters. At its best moments, the concept allows Trank to place the audience directly in Andrew's point of view as we witness the highs and lows of his life, from the heartbreaking cruelties at the hands of bullies to the invigorating freedom when the boys learn how to fly. Indeed, the flight sequences in Chronicle are some of the most captivating since Christopher Reeve first made you believe a man could fly. Even better, Trank isn't beholden to the conceit that the character must always be holding the camera at eye level no matter what ala Cloverfield. Thus, Chronicle isn't rife with queasy, shaky cam shots because the characters can simply float the camera at a convenient angle with their powers.

The question remains did Chronicle need to be done as a found footage movie? Not really. Trank mixes in black and white surveillance footage and news camera footage when he can to maintain the concept. Matt romances a pretty blonde (Ashley Hinshaw), who is a video blogger, allowing Trank to cut back and forth during their conversations. These scenes tend to draw too much attention to the genre's conventions and don't help the story. There are still places where it makes no sense for the camera to be recording. Andrew's dad berates his son for wasting money on an expensive camera, but still keeps it running? Although, you could argue Andrew switched it back on either consciously or unconsciously.

Luckily, the film is so well made and compelling that these minor quibbles do not diminish the overall experience. It's remarkable that Chronicle was made on a budget of only $12 million as the special effects are more convincing and the action more visceral than films made with tens times as much. Chronicle builds and builds towards a climactic confrontation at the top of the Space Needle before turning downtown Seattle into a war zone. The chaos and destruction harkens back to the drive-in sci-fi classics of yesteryear.

Chronicle turns out to be an origin story, but you'll walk out of the theater satisfied and craving more, instead of feeling ripped off at having only watched an extended first act. This is the debut of a filmmaker with great potential. Rumors instantly popped up that Trank would direct Fox's reboot of Fantastic Four, but they were quickly shot down. A shame since Trank can clearly bring a unique voice to the staid formula. There's a sly deconstruction of the superhero at work here evidenced by a scene where Andrew tortures a spider and plucks its legs off with a mere look.

Chronicle is the best non-comic book, comic book movie since Unbreakable.

Rating: *** (*****)