Film » Film Clips

Capsule reviews of films playing the week of Jan. 11

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J. EDGAR As J. Edgar Hoover, the controversial Federal Bureau of Investigation director and one of the most powerful figures of the 20th century, Leonardo DiCaprio's performance is interesting, respectable, measured, unfussy and just a touch dry, qualities he shares with the ambitious picture surrounding him. It's always hard to encapsulate an entire life in one running time, but director Clint Eastwood and scripter Dustin Lance Black (who won an Oscar for penning the excellent Milk) give it a shot — make that scattershot. Saddled with a worthless framing device in which an elderly Hoover recounts his career for the biographers, the film moves back and forth through different eras to show Hoover's start at the Bureau of Investigation in 1919 (the "Federal" was added in 1935) right up through his death in 1972. Many of the watermarks surrounding Hoover and his G-Men are included, albeit accorded different measures of importance: The kidnapping of Charles Lindbergh's baby is given ample screen time, but his persecution of radicals and civil rights groups — his real legacy, as far as many people are concerned — never truly takes center stage (Martin Luther King is mentioned, but hardly a whisper is uttered about the Black Panthers), and several career blunders are sidestepped in order to present a fair and balanced portrait. But the same problem affects J. Edgar that affected Oliver Stone's Nixon and W.: We aren't dealing with fair and balanced individuals, and the bending over backwards in an attempt to muster tears — even crocodile tears — is an unfortunate decision. As for the personal aspects of Hoover's life, the rumors that he was a closeted homosexual who entered into a lifelong companionship with fellow FBI suit Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer, less dynamic here than as The Social Network's Winklevii) were never substantiated, so Black is forced to make up his own history; the focus, for better or worse, renders this less a comprehensive biopic, more a Brokeback Bureau. **1/2

LIKE CRAZY Three-quarters twee and one-quarter Glee, Like Crazy won the Grand Jury Prize at this year's Sundance shindig, beating out a slate of 15 other titles that included Take Shelter and Martha Marcy May Marlene. If nothing else, this stands as proof positive that even the film festivals can be as misguided in their selections as the notorious Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences. The film won a second Sundance honor for the lead performance by Felicity Jones, an acceptable selection given that she's the best thing about this film in which LA college kid Jacob (Anton Yelchin) and British exchange student Anna (Jones) hook up, only to be separated by the ocean after she willfully extends her visa stay illegally and is booted back to the UK (that these adults would be so stupid in this post-9/11 age of stringent airport laws is a daft narrative concept, but we'll let it slide). The whole thrust of the film is that these two people should be together no matter what — think Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, Titanic's Jack and Rose, Brokeback Mountain's Ennis and Jack — but director Drake Doremus (scripting with Ben York Jones) doesn't make a very compelling case for his lovebirds. While it's easy to see Anna's adoration, Jacob won't even consider moving to England to be with his presumed soulmate, preferring instead to remain stateside and periodically take up with a co-worker (a wasted Jennifer Lawrence) who deserves better than the treatment he doles out to her. Ultimately, Like Crazy is a love story about two often annoying people who don't have much discernible chemistry and are mostly bonded by their mutual love for Paul Simon. The singer's Graceland is referenced, but as these two prattled on, I only desired to hear the sound of silence. *1/2

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE — GHOST PROTOCOL There's a scene in Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol in which Tom Cruise's agent extraordinaire Ethan Hunt must climb up the outside of a tall building with only the aid of a pair of electronic gloves that fasten themselves to any given surface. It isn't enough that it's a towering edifice — it has to be Dubai's Burj Khalifa, merely the tallest building in the world. And it isn't enough that a pair of gloves seem like scarce supplies for a climbing expedition — one of the blasted things must malfunction during the ascent, meaning a single hand is all that prevents Ethan from falling to his doom a hundred-plus stories below. And did I mention that, during the descent, he's a few stories shy of reaching safety, meaning he has to swing around wildly like a pinata that's been whacked a few times in the hopes of propelling himself into an open window? It's utterly ridiculous — and also utterly exciting. The fourth M:I film based on the classic TV series — and the third to be worth a damn (only the second one was a letdown) — this wisely continues the tradition of assigning a different director to each chapter, going from Brian De Palma to John Woo to J.J. Abrams and now to Brad Bird. In making his live-action debut, Bird demonstrates that he's not going to allow a real-world setting to hamper an imagination that had been instrumental in making toon tales like Ratatouille and The Incredibles. The plotline is so hoary that it might as well have come from a 1960s-era Bond flick: A Russian madman (Michael Nyqvist) plans to cleanse the earth via a nuclear war, and it's up to the only active members of the Impossible Missions Force (Cruise, Paula Patton and Simon Pegg), plus a government analyst harboring a secret (Jeremy Renner), to take him down. At 135 minutes, the film admittedly overstays its welcome — the coda is particularly draggy, even if it does offer a pair of pleasing cameos — and Cruise's Ethan Hunt is more inscrutable than ever. But for action buffs desperate for a hit to jump-start their hearts, here's a Mission impossible to refuse. ***

MONEYBALL Like a businessman settling into his recliner after a hard day's work, Brad Pitt has slid into middle age with an ease that's both pleasurable and enviable to watch. Pitt's always been a fine actor, of course, but around the turn of the century, he's really upped his game, from his quirky turns in Snatch and Burn After Reading to his scene-stealing subterfuge in those Ocean's films to his thoughtful interpretations in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and The Tree of Life. (Go figure that my least favorite Pitt performance of late, as Benjamin Button, is the one that nabbed him an Oscar nomination.) Moneyball, directed by Capote's Bennett Miller and adapted from a true story by the powerhouse team of Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network) and Steven Zaillian (Schindler's List), finds Pitt as his most dynamic; he's cast as Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane, who in 2001-2002 is tired of losing both games and star players to better funded baseball teams like the Yankees and the Red Sox. Refusing to continue adhering to the old-school philosophies preached by his assemblage of geriatric scouts, he instead discovers a newer religion being espoused by Peter (Johan Hill), an economics major from Yale who possesses a love for the game and a head for numbers-crunching. Employing a math-based system (sabermetrics, created by Bill James) that finds the value in underappreciated players deemed as too old/awkward/iffy by other organizations, Beane starts collecting these diamond castoffs as if they were baseball cards in the hopes that they'll coalesce into a winning team. Whether or not one subscribes to the "moneyball" philosophy — it's worked well for some teams, not so great for others — is irrelevant when it comes to enjoying a motion picture that takes a potentially arid subject and makes it sing on screen. Its success has less to do with Bennett, whose mise en scenes show little variance (a similar staidness also dogged Capote), than with the scripters and the actors, all of whom exhibit a quicksilver strategy in keeping this thing popping. Put this one in the W column. ***

THE MUPPETS Yes, it may be true that The Muppets is a film for the whole family, but here's a cruel suggestion: Hire a babysitter and leave the kids at home. After all, what grownup weaned on a steady diet of Muppet episodes and movies wants to interrupt their jaunt down memory lane by having to escort weak bladders to the bathroom or hungry mouths to the concession stand? Jason Segel, a self-proclaimed Muppet devotee who co-wrote the screenplay with Nicholas Stoller, plays Gary, who takes his girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams) and his equally Muppet-obsessed brother Walter — who, incidentally, happens to be a puppet himself — to Los Angeles for vacation. When they stop at the old Muppet studio, they're shocked to see it dilapidated and abandoned; they're even more upset when they discover that ruthless businessman Tex Richman (Chris Cooper) plans to buy the property, tear down the studio and drill for oil. In an effort to save the hallowed ground, the trio head off to find Kermit, Miss Piggy, Fozzie and the rest of the gang. On the down time, Walter's pretty much a drip, both as a character and a Muppet, and instead of even creating him in the first place (when you think about it, he's not really necessary to the overall arc), I would rather Segel and Stoller had spent more time on the already established puppet personalities. And the cameos, by and large, are a disappointing lot. 1979's The Muppet Movie gave us comedy titans like Richard Pryor, Mel Brooks, Bob Hope and Madeline Kahn; this film can only counter with Ken Jeong, Zach Galifianakis, John Krasinski and Selena Gomez. Running the risk of sounding like Statler and Waldorf, though, I had best stop with the naysaying. At any rate, the majority of the film is pure pleasure, full of knowing winks to the franchise's time and place in history: the bouncy "Mahna Mahna"; Kermit's celebrity Rolodex, long outdated ("May I speak to President Carter?"); the lovely "The Rainbow Connection" (just try and not tear up during that moment); and the creation of '80s Robot, whose computer-related gag provided me with the biggest laugh I've enjoyed in a theater this year. ***1/2


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