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Capsule reviews of 'J. Edgar,' 'Melancholia' and other new releases
"Into the Abyss" ' Werner Herzog does something great reporters know how to do: He listens. He pays attention during conversation. He's so in-the-moment, he instinctively asks the natural follow-up question, and that's what often elicits the greatest honesty and the most unexpected emotion. Perhaps it's his very presence that makes people feel so safe; approaching 70, the veteran director quietly probes his subjects' histories in that mesmerizing, instantly recognizable and often-imitated German accent of his. But he also seems genuinely engrossed in the subjects he tackles, and that purity of interest shines through. In taking on a divisive topic like the death penalty ' especially in a place like Texas, where the punishment is more prevalent than in other states ' Herzog never seems to be judging the people on the other side of his camera. He states at the outset that he's opposed to capital punishment, but then goes on to interview the various people associated with a bloody triple murder without injecting that opinion. It's hard not to be moved by the gruesome and horrifically needless crime he's exploring. In 2001, three people were shot to death over a red Chevrolet Camaro near Conroe, Texas, just north of Houston. Herzog interviews the two men convicted in the killings: one who is eight days away from execution, the other who is serving a life sentence. PG-13 for mature thematic material and some disturbing images. 106 minutes. Three and a half stars out of four.
' Christy Lemire, AP Movie Critic
"J. Edgar" ' A riveting, noble attempt by director Clint Eastwood, now 81, to wrestle with big American questions, many of which have obvious relevance to today's politics. It's another largely fascinating, if disappointingly flawed chapter in Eastwood's fantastic late period. "J. Edgar" is a biopic framed around longtime FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover (a thoroughly committed, engaging but ultimately still removed Leonardo DiCaprio) dictating his life's tale to various typists. This is Hoover's story, mainly told through his perspective ' and therefore a somewhat claustrophobic view of history. The film, from an ambitious script by Dustin Lance Black (who wrote the Harvey Milk biopic, "Milk"), opens with a lot of switches in time as the narrative rushes to pack in the rise of Hoover as a Justice Department upstart and eager riser at the nascent Bureau of Investigation. It's a grimly propulsive first hour, pushed forward by the relentless, paranoid patter of the fast-talking Hoover. Still, the most affecting parts focus on Hoover's two most important personal relationships: with his mother (Judi Dench) and with his No. 2 and close friend Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer). Hoover was an emphatic mama's boy, and Dench plays her as a kind of Lady Macbeth, fostering her son's repression. The exact nature of Hoover's relationship with Tolson isn't known, but DiCaprio and Hammer have an excellent chemistry, full of slight, homoerotic gestures. R for brief strong language. 137 minutes. Three stars out of four.
' Jake Coyle, AP Entertainment Writer
"Melancholia" ' Depression finally seems to have brought out the best in Lars von Trier: This is his strongest work in a while, a devastatingly beautiful, operatic mixture of all his signature themes and visual schemes. Doom is certain from the start. This is, after all, a von Trier film. But the director portends his characters' fate with a lengthy, wordless prelude: a series of sumptuously photographed, super-slow-motion images of sadness and frustration accompanied by the swelling overture from Wagner's "Tristan und Isolde." We see Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg struggle against the elements, against themselves. We know this cannot end well. Bombastic? But of course. Still, we're hooked. Yet melancholia isn't just a state of mind but also the name of a planet that's hurtling toward Earth. Yes, an actual planet ' or a metaphor, you decide. It doesn't matter; what resonates is the resulting mood, and it's inescapable. Von Trier himself has battled depression over the past several years; he last worked through it cinematically, and far less effectively, with the gratuitous "Antichrist" from 2009. This time, he seems more interested in exploring the depths of his characters' despair and fear, in understanding the humanity within their darker recesses, rather than shocking us for shock's sake. In the antisocial, apprehensive bride Justine, Dunst delivers the most complex performance of her life. R for some graphic nudity, sexual content and language. 130 minutes. Three and a half stars out of four.
' Christy Lemire, AP Movie Critic