J. Edgar * * *
Cert 15, 137 mins
Clint Eastwood directs his 32nd film since his auspicious debut with Play Misty For Me (1971), and it’s his most over-ambitious yet – certainly in terms of time frame and political relevance.
The story of J. Edgar Hoover (1895-1972), the first Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, spans some 50 years.
It details the life and times of a man who worked directly for eight US presidents (Coolidge, Hoover, Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon) probably because he knew things about them that they couldn’t even remember themselves.
As starring roles go, it’s a supreme challenge for even an actor of Leonardo DiCaprio’s capabilities to play a man through so many decades.
But, thanks to spending up to six hours in the make-up chair, he pulls off this utterly thankless task better than you would imagine and a third best actor Oscar nomination surely beckons.
Not only does DiCaprio often look far younger than his own 37 years when required, but he acquires the ‘‘solid weight in a man’’ of which his mother Anna Marie Hoover (Judi Dench) so approves.
She’s less happy, though, with his friendship with longtime aide Clyde Tolson (played by Armie Hammer, the Winklevoss twins in The Social Network).
Worried where it might lead (they are now buried side by side), Anna Marie gives her own verdict in one of the film’s memorable scenes when she says: “I’d rather have a dead son, than a daffodil for a son.”
The film’s end credits emphasise that J. Edgar is a dramatisation.
And so, rather like War Horse, it’s the essence of the film which is more important than its historical accuracy which is fogged by the film’s indistinct structure.
The overall truth about J. Edgar seems to be that he clearly held on to the power he so loved by not always playing by the rules.
He also knew he could bring others down in terms of what he knew about them, but was adept at protecting his own back at the same time thanks greatly to loyal secretary Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts). Shades here, then, of the 2004 Hitler film Downfall.
Writer Dustin Lance Black (Milk) portrays Hoover making his name by eliminating the threat of the Bolshevic bombers who had struck on American soil in 1919 in eight places at once.
As the sixth director of the Bureau of Investigation from 1924, he helped to pioneer the use of forensic science in protecting crime scenes for evidence and centralising the collection of fingerprints across state boundaries (for the story of DNA, see Hilary Swank’s 2010 film Conviction).
Sideshow stories here include Hoover’s search for the kidnapped infant son of pioneering aviator Charles Lindbergh (Josh Lucas), battles with Robert F Kennedy (Jeffrey Donovan) and coping with the loss of his mother.
With Clint composing an even more minimalist score than usual, J. Edgar feels longer than its 137 minutes and has a slowness rare in modern cinema.
As a drama, it doesn’t have anywhere exciting to go, and would perhaps have been more stimulating had it concentrated on one part of the crime-fighter’s life – for example in 1935 when Hoover became the first director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation when it was founded proper.
That way, DiCaprio could have been spared hours of latex-sealed boredom.
Or, if the story really had to run through the decades as is, perhaps the characters of Helen Gandy and Clyde Tolson could have been played more realistically by older actors like Christopher Plummer in the later years.
One imagines Clint, who’ll be 82 in May, preferred to create a whole-character study reminder of how power corrupts.
Like Changeling (2008), he’s again fashioned a beautifully-made period piece which, despite its narrative flaws, is cinematically more satisfying than The Good Shepherd (2006), Robert De Niro’s account of the Central Intelligence Agency.
It seems remarkable that Hoover could have led the FBI at the heart of what purports to be a free-flowing democracy for the best part of 40 years and, after watching this, it’s hard to imagine that we’ll ever see anyone of his ilk ever again.
Haywire * * *
Cert 15, 92 mins
There is much to like about Steven Soderbergh’s latest thriller. It’s stylishly directed and he has assembled an A-list cast – though not his favourite actor, George Clooney – plus newcomer Gina Carano.
The former mixed martial arts fighter and Gladiator (she was named Crush for a reason) proves to be a promising action star with real acting talent. Which is more than the likes of Jean-Claude Van Damme and Steven Seagal can say.
Just don’t expect a plot or dialogue to match last year’s excellent Contagion.
At least it feels fresh to have a kick-ass, intelligent woman in the leading role, who can take on and beat men at their own game.
As Ewan McGregor’s character says: “You shouldn’t think of her as being a woman. That would be a mistake.”
Carano barely breaks a sweat as she grapples with assassins, trades punches, runs across rooftops and fires any number of weapons.
She plays Mallory, a former Marine now working for private contractor Kenneth (McGregor). They are sent on black ops missions by US government executive Coblenz (Michael Douglas), one of which involves her rescuing a Chinese journalist held hostage by terrorists in Barcelona, along with colleagues Antonio Banderas and Channing Tatum. With that task complete – and a team member bedded – she declares she’s leaving the firm and her old flame Kenneth. Not surprising, considering his dodgy haircut.
But he talks her into doing one last job, in Dublin, insisting “it’s like a paid holiday”.
Having to pose as the girlfriend of MI6 agent Michael Fassbender – in his second film is as many weeks, and naturally appearing without many clothes – and kiss him is hardly a hardship now, is it?
Except he might be trying to kill her, and soon she doesn’t know who she can trust. Fortunately she’s rather resourceful.
It’s pretty violent and I found it rather uncomfortable to watch Mallory being repeatedly hit. All the double-crossings get a little confusing, but then the storyline is as meaningless as the film’s title.
Haywire is an easy-on-the-eye popcorn movie you can watch it for the action scenes and the pretty locations – cities, a beach, snowy landscapes – rather than smart banter and clever twists.
Coriolanus * * *
Cert 15, 123 mins
Just like J. Edgar, here’s a film about a determined man with a strong mother being directed by an actor turned director.
Ralph Fiennes takes the lead role in his directorial debut adaptation of one of Shakespeare’s least performed plays.
Watching this BBC Films’ version, it’s impossible not to conclude just how relevant this brutal story is to the modern world.
Working to a script by John Logan (Gladiator/Hugo), Fiennes plays Caius Martius ‘‘Coriolanus’’, the product of a ruthless mother (Vanessa Redgrave) who wants him to become consul.
He despises his people, ignites riots, then joins forces with sworn enemy Tullus Aufidius (Gerard Butler) to try to destroy what might today be called the ‘big Roman society’’.
The script shows how real power not only lies in the hands of the people but, as with our media-led society today, how public opinion can also be dangerously manipulated.
And that leaderships can be corrupted by the power they wield, too.
Even newsreader Jon Snow and his studio guests speak in verse, but Fiennes’ visual style is an uneven cinematic hotchpotch.
One minute the action resembles a piece of theatre or TV drama, the next it’s a full-blooded movie respecting many other films from Bourne to Apocalypse Now and Manchester-born cinematographer Barry Ackroyd’s very own war movie The Hurt Locker.
Another scene seems to pick up on the capture of Bin Laden for a presidential audience.
Brian Cox proves that he’s still a class act as Menenius who tries to calm the rioters; the loud-mouthed James Nesbitt (Tribune Sicinius) truly agitating in a film with this degree of shaky hand-held camerawork.
Coriolanus is a bold stab at capturing the heart of a power struggle and the deaths are impressively realistic, but it’s only screening at AMC Broadway Plaza.
That Girl With Yellow Boots
Cert 18, 109 mins
This Indian film stars co-writer Kalki Koechlin in an adult-rated melodrama directed by her husband Anurag Kashyap.
Quite what was in it for him watching Koechlin working in a massage parlour one can only guess, but I’ve never seen any character wash her hands so often in a movie.
The story is about Ruth (Koechlin), a young girl from Brighton who has travelled to Mumbai in search of the father she barely knew.
Being entangled in the sex trade and having a junkie boyfriend aren’t recipes for happiness and the film’s arc is predictable – not least because Kashyap doesn’t show us much of the local city to help us escape from her lurid life.
With so many of the film’s interiors feeling like they could have been shot in England, this is no match for Slumdog Millionaire.
It’s showing at the MAC from Friday to Sunday.