Monday, November 28, 2011

The Descendants (2011)

We all do it when someone dies. We talk nicely about them, we ignore or excuse their faults. In many cases, we rewrite history to make the person look better, which is another way of saying that we lie about them to simplify our own feelings. We create a plaster saint to which we can then pay homage and move on.

But the truth lingers, doesn't it? And the truth is that other people are a mystery. All that's really left when someone dies is the mystery. Alexander Payne's new film THE DESCENDANTS (based on the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings, with a screenplay by Payne, Nat Faxon, and Jim Rash) knows this brutal reality very well. This is a film about grieving. How do we confront the passing of someone we love but with whom we have unresolved issues? This, of course, is only more true the more you love someone. They pass on, but the issues remain.

In the film, George Clooney plays Matt King, a lawyer in Hawaii whose wife Elizabeth is lying in a coma dying after a boating accident. King has two daughters, a precocious 10-year old named Scottie and a surly teenaged daughter named Alexandra. The girls are dealing with their mother's accident in different ways. Scottie is morbidly obsessed with the idea of death and creates a photo album of her mother hooked to a ventilator while Alexandra is furious and getting drunk with a goofball boy named Sid.

Even before the accident, King had a lot to worry about. He and his wife were on the skids and he was thinking that maybe they should "have a talk." He's also managing the eminent sale of a large chunk of his family's land holdings in Hawaii, a sale worth hundreds of millions of dollars. That's all before Alexandra drops the bombshell that her mother was having an affair with a local real estate agent.

Alexander Payne is the logical director for this kind of material, and this film seems of a piece with his Jack Nicholson film ABOUT SCHMIDT. Both films are about men who lose their wives and then regain some sense of themselves in the process of grieving. (What this says about Payne's opinion of marriage is anyone's guess.) This is not to say that what Clooney is doing here is playing the same character. Poor Schmidt was a man who bought into a certain life only to find himself spat out on the other end of it with nothing to show. ABOUT SCHMIDT has a tender ending, but it's a tragedy, THE DEATH OF A SALESMAN with a comic streak.

THE DESCENDANTS, on the other hand, is a story about reconnection. Matt King has enough time to find a place for himself in the lives of his daughters. He is able to make Alexandra an ally in this process, and this film, more than anything else, is really about how father and daughter get to know each other.

The movie has its flaws (the land sale subplot never rises above the level of metaphor), but the film contains some scenes of startling emotional clarity, especially when the family gathers around Elizabeth. These are not the usual scenes of plaster saint homage. These are scenes of anger and frustration. The troubled marriage of the Kings, and its impact on their daughters, did not end when Elizabeth was injured, nor does it end as she lays dying.

This is an interesting role for George Clooney, not the first actor one would think of for this material. Of course, he long ago demonstrated that he was able and willing to complicate his leading man image either by playing against type (O BROTHER WHERE ART THOU?, THE AMERICAN) or by playing to type but revealing hidden weaknesses in the character (UP IN THE AIR, THE IDES OF MARCH). Still, this may well be his least heroic turn. Clooney is excellent at playing men in charge, men in the know. Here he is convincing as, of all things, a normal man thrown off course by life.

The rest of the cast is uniformly good, but especially Shailene Woodley as Alexandra. The film is largely a duet between Woodley and Clooney, daughter and father circling each other warily as they attempt to navigate the new terrain of their lives. It is up to these two actors to create the emotional core of the family, to create the space left by the absent wife and mother, to fill it with anger and recrimination. And, maybe, redemption.

On a side note here: Clooney may well win some awards for this role. Good for him. It's a fine performance. But sometimes movie stars have to play against what makes them great before some people are willing to give them awards. This is a bullshit process that once again reveals how utterly meaningless awards are. Such has always been the case (Bogart winning for THE AFRICAN QUEEN for "proving" he could act--as if a trained chimp could have starred in CASABLANCA).
The most obvious recent example is Denzel Washington winning an Oscar for playing a bad guy in TRAINING DAY when MALCOLM X and CRIMSON TIDE had already proved Washington was a great actor and screen presence. If Clooney wins awards for THE DESCENDANTS it will "prove" nothing. His work in OUT OF SIGHT and THREE KINGS wasn't simply the result of sprinkling movie star dust on a handsome face, it was great acting.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Revenge in the Noonday Sun

I have a couple of new essays on the theme of revenge up at Criminal Element.

"Revenge In Black And White" takes a look at revenge-fueled classic noirs including Zinnemann's ACT OF VIOLENCE, LANG'S THE BIG HEAT, and Thompson's CAPE FEAR.

"He Had It Comin'" deals with vengeance western style. It looks at Eastwood's UNFORGIVEN, Ford's THE SEARCHERS, and Mann's THE FURIES.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

J. Edgar (2011)

The most gripping portrait of J. Edgar Hoover that I know of unfolds over the three volumes of James Ellroy's Underworld USA trilogy. Ellroy's Hoover is a bureaucratic Iago, an all-seeing all-knowing master manipulator. Like Satan--at least the Protestant idea of Satan to which Ellroy likely owes some debt--his gift is that he knows every man's weakness, every man's secret, every man's breaking point.

The irony, of course, is that Ellroy is a novelist and his J. Edgar Hoover is a work of fiction. Perhaps it is fitting, though. After all, who really knew Hoover? He was a colossal figure in American life for four decades, but this man who knew the darkest secrets of Presidents, judges, legislators, and civic leaders was himself largely a fictional creation of his own design. Hoover the crusading crime buster was in actuality an effete, squat little man who sat behind a desk. This icon of American virtue disdained the company of regular people and spent much of his time locked in a private office in the heart of Washington DC assembling blackmail recordings of politicians and civil rights leaders.

Of course, these days Hoover's reputation has been sullied by revelations about his attempts to bring down the Civil Rights movement--and in particular Martin Luther King Jr. Hoover thought that by taping King's extramarital liaisons he'd uncovered a fatal flaw. History has rendered a different judgment. King was a great man, but he was a man, unfaithful to his wife but instrumental in leading the most successful social revolution in our nation's history. His greatness only seems enhanced by the knowledge of his all too human limitations. Meanwhile, Hoover, the petty government official who tried to destroy a people's march for equality is remembered as a fossil of an earlier time. When he died, he passed on the mantle of reactionary paranoia to Richard Nixon, ensuring that the history of America during this time would continue to be written on scratchy reel-to-reel.

What drove Hoover? What combination of influences made the man? Director Clint Eastwood, screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, and star Leonardo DiCaprio have taken up the task of answering these questions. For years, rumors floated through Washington about Hoover's 'unusual' relationship with his handsome second-in-command Clyde Tolson (played winningly in the film by Armie Hammer). The two men, both lifelong bachelors, were inseparable, ate every meal together, vacationed together at lavish hotels in the summers, and dressed in matching suits. When Hoover died, he left his estate to Tolson, and Tolson received the flag off Hoover's casket and moved into his home. These facts, naturally, gave rise to speculation. Could J. Edgar Hoover, the master of secrets, the tormentor of any number of homosexual left-wingers (indeed, it might well have been Hoover more than anyone else who helped to foster the idea that homosexuality and Communism went had in hand)--could this man have lived a double life?

Naturally, this mystery has led to some outlandish treatments (most notoriously in 1977's THE PRIVATE FILES OF J. EDGAR HOOVER). Happily, Eastwood and company are uninterested in the sordid details of unsubstantiated rumors. Instead, J. EDGAR tells two stories. One story is of Hoover's lifelong consolidation of power. This is a story well worth telling. After all, Hoover was an unelected official who probably exerted more power in Washington DC than any one person over the course of forty tumultuous years. His private obsessions--with Communism, with Civil Rights, with the Kennedy brothers--unquestionably shaped American life. In Eastwood's film, Hoover is a man always peering suspiciously out on a dangerous world. DiCaprio plays Hoover as a man who runs all incoming data--be it political or personal, monumental or insignificant--through his own private ethical equation. His one real passion is for power, a passion that springs from a deep need for control.

The other story is his unconsummated love affair with Tolson. Here the film treads lightly, as perhaps it should. In the end, we really don't know what relationship these two men had. (The problem here is believing that J. Edgar Hoover would have ever felt safe enough to think of himself as gay, much less to actually have sex. This is a guy who had all of America under surveillance.) Eastwood's handling of Black's script on this point is, of all things, surprisingly moving. Hoover in this film is a man who cannot begin to approach the center of himself. He's helplessly in love with Tolson, but he's also devoid of any means of expressing it. The most passionate moment between the two men comes on one of their holidays together when a conversation turns to an argument and then leads to a fight which then leads to a kiss. The kiss itself--more full of fear and frustration than love--is the only one they share. Later in the film there's a tender scene where an aging Hoover gently kisses an ailing Tolson on the forehead. Only in anger or in old age, the film implies, could Hoover bring himself to admit his feelings for Tolson, however obliquely. He was a true closet case, a man unknown to himself.

Eastwood is an interesting director. He is, in many ways, wildly uneven.
He's made movies that are excellent (THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY, A PERFECT WORLD), including one film (UNFORGIVEN) that is a masterpiece. He's made films that have been vastly overrated (such as MILLION-DOLLAR BABY which, despite Hilary Swank's genuinely wonderful performance is a shallow treatment of serious issues). And he's made films of thudding banality (INVICTUS, MIDNIGHT IN THE GARDEN OF GOOD AND EVIL) which resemble nothing more than tired hackwork. His tendency toward oversimplifying conflicts means that if ambiguity does not exist in his antagonists at the script level, he rarely sees fit to inject it into the film.

One admirable aspect of J. EDGAR, however, is that it doesn't have any villains, not even the man himself. This will likely incense audience members who want to see Hoover burned in effigy. The sound of a gently tinkling piano beneath the moment of tenderness between the elderly Hoover and Tolson will perhaps strike some folks as sentimental. But the strength of Eastwood's film, and one assumes of the script by Black, is that it makes an honest attempt to conceive of Hoover as a human being. A deeply flawed human being, one who might have done evil things, but a man nevertheless. Hoover doubtless would have hated this movie and tried to crush the lives of everyone involved in its making, but it nevertheless turns the rough facts and central mystery of his life into a engrossing two hours at the movies.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Lew Archer Back On The Big Screen

Laura K. Curtis has a piece up over at Criminal Element about the recent news that Warner Bothers has bought the rights to Ross Macdonald's classic PI Lew Archer. There's no word yet on director or stars, but Joel Silver is producing--which means this project could go either way. Let's hope Archer stays Archer and doesn't morph into Martin Riggs. That's not to crack on Riggs, you understand, just to say that the Archer novels are about psychology rather than pyrotechnics.

This news, of course, makes one think of the two Archer movies--HARPER and THE DROWNING POOL--that Paul Newman made in 1966 and 1975, respectively. Both films are neo-noir well worth seeing, and HARPER in particular is one of Newman's best films. He takes the classic PI and updated him, situating him in the roiling California of counterculture kooks and old fashioned greed and lies. I've never been a fan of Altman's deconstruction of the private eye movie, his adaptation of the Marlowe novel THE LONG GOODBYE, in part because I always thought HARPER was a more interesting way of dealing with the PI in a modern context.

Speaking of Philip Marlowe, this Lew Archer news also brought to mind the rumors a year or so ago that Clive Owen was gearing up to play Marlowe in a film to be directed by Frank Miller. Nothing ever came of that, but it is interesting to note that classic characters like Marlowe and Archer still have some social capital in Hollywood. Here's hoping something productive comes of this new Archer project.

For more on the history of the private dick flick, check out my post Gumshoe In Abeyance.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Quick Trips Through Hell

I have a new essay up over at Criminal Element. Quick Trips Through Hell is an introduction to super-short noir, those tiny gems of B-movie nastiness that barely crack an hour. DETOUR, THE DEVIL THUMBS A RIDE, and more!