Don Clinchy's blog

Review: J. Edgar


J Edgar Hoover

Justice is incidental to law and order. -- J. Edgar Hoover

There are few more controversial figures in American history than J. Edgar Hoover. The longtime FBI director (he served from 1924 to 1972) was credited with building the bureau into a modern and successful crime-fighting agency. But he is probably better remembered for abusing his power by harassing political dissenters, collecting evidence using illegal methods, and amassing secret files on politicians and activists. Hoover's private life was no less intriguing; thanks to widespread rumors of his closeted homosexuality and penchant for cross-dressing, he remains a larger-than-life figure decades after his death.

It's little surprise, then, that the enigmatic Hoover has been portrayed in many movies. But few if any cinematic depictions of Hoover can match Leonardo DiCaprio's stellar performance in J. Edgar, Clint Eastwood's equally stellar new biopic of America's most famous G-man. The film is everything you would expect in an Eastwood-DiCaprio collaboration, an artful study of Hoover's public and private lives.

Lone Star Cinema: Dear Pillow


Dear Pillow

Society has long had a love-hate relationship with pornography. We often condemn it for reasons both moral and aesthetic -- but the porn industry has been thriving for decades, so somebody (not us or anyone we know, of course) must be buying all those dirty magazines and movies.

This often hypocritical relationship is the subject of Dear Pillow, one of my favorite Austin-made films of the last decade. Writer and director Bryan Poyser's engaging story about a friendship between an awkward teenager and a middle-aged writer of erotica is a frank, unflinching look at how adult entertainment reflects human sexuality.

Released in 2004, Dear Pillow is the story of pudgy, mop-haired teen Wes (Rusty Kelley), whose love life (okay, his sex life) isn't exactly on fire. He's your basic flop with chicks; the closest he gets to any real action is eavesdropping on the wireless conversations of a woman selling phone sex somewhere in his apartment complex. Wes's home life isn't much better; he shares a tiny apartment with his divorced father (billed only as Dad and wonderfully played by Cory Criswell), a loving but boozy and mostly inept parent whose idea of a suitable birthday present for his son is an evening at a local strip joint.

TAMI Flashback: Blaine Dunlap Does Dallas


Sometimes I Run

This article is the tenth in a Slackerwood series about the Texas Archive of the Moving Image (TAMI) video library.

This installment of the TAMI Flashback series ventures north to Dallas and back to the 1970s. It's a place and time I know all too well, having moved to Big D in 1971. (Dallas wouldn't have been my first -- or even tenth -- choice of places to live. But as a 7-year-old, I had no say in the matter.)

Ah yes, Dallas -- a city that is the anti-Austin in almost every conceivable way. But even über-Austinites like me feel a certain grudging nostalgia for our soullessly suburban Dallas childhoods. So I was intrigued to find two superb documentary shorts about Dallas in the TAMI video library, East Dallas, Summer, 1974 and Sometimes I Run. Both films are by Blaine Dunlap, a relatively obscure Dallas indie filmmaker of the era.

Review: The Ides of March


The Ides of March

Looking for a feel-good film that will restore your faith in American politics? By all means, skip The Ides of March.

George Clooney's latest directorial effort is cynical to the core, a powerfully bitter statement about the sorry state of our political system. Based on the play Farragut North by Beau Willimon (which, in turn, is loosely based on Howard Dean's 2004 Democratic primary campaign), the movie The Ides of March is less the story of one campaign than an indictment of campaigns in general.

Set during the final days of a hotly contested Ohio Democratic presidential primary, The Ides of March centers on Stephen Myers (the currently ubiquitous Ryan Gosling), a young and idealistic press secretary for Democratic presidential candidate Gov. Mike Morris (Clooney). The race is far closer than it should be, and Morris's victory hinges on an endorsement from Ohio Sen. Thompson (Jeffrey Wright), who, of course, would like something in return. It's up to Morris, Myers and campaign manager Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman) to secure the endorsement without making a deal they find too unpalatable.

Lone Star Cinema: Bottle Rocket


Bottle Rocket

[Editor's Note: Lone Star Cinema is a new series in which we look at Austin and Texas-shot/set movies that are available on DVD, Blu-ray or online.]

While some filmmakers need a few films to their credit before developing their styles, Wes Anderson's joyously skewed cinematic vision has been evident from the start of his career. Anderson's first feature, Bottle Rocket, has all the hallmarks of his later movies -- quirky characters, the presence of one or more Wilson brothers (in this case, three of them), an unlikely but somehow believable story (at least within Anderson's cinematic world) and a cheerful pop-music soundtrack, to name but a few.

Released in 1996 and based on an earlier short film with the same title, Bottle Rocket is the story of three Texas friends with grandiose plans to go on a crime spree, a goal for which they are wholly and hilariously unqualified. The plot revolves around Anthony Adams (Luke Wilson), who -- upon his release from a mental hospital -- joins his friend Dignan (Owen Wilson, who also co-wrote the script) in a vaguely defined and ill-advised scheme to commit various crimes with Dignan's former boss, Mr. Henry (James Caan).

Joining Anthony and Dignan is their oily, ne'er-do-well neighbor, Bob Mapplethorpe (Robert Musgrave). Knowing nothing about the criminal arts and needing some cash, the three get in a little practice by robbing a bookstore. The heist goes awry, of course, and they go on the lam, ending up at a remote motel.

Review: 50/50



The title of 50/50 refers to the survival odds of the film's protagonist, who is fighting a rare form of cancer. But 50/50 also could refer to the odds that with a great cast and some genuinely poignant and funny moments, the movie can survive its entirely formulaic storyline.

Sadly, it doesn't. Despite the best efforts of Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seth Rogen, Anna Kendrick and Anjelica Huston to rise above the predictable material, 50/50 amounts to little more than a mildly funny and entertaining but unoriginal take on a life-or-death struggle with disease.

50/50 is the story of 27-year-old Adam (Gordon-Levitt), a public radio producer whose chronic back pain leads to a diagnosis of a rare spinal tumor. Facing months of chemotherapy followed by a risky operation, Adam relies on his struggling artist girlfriend Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard) and oversexed friend Kyle (Rogen) for everything from emotional support to transportation. When she learns of the diagnosis, Adam's mother, Diane (Huston), shifts into full maternal mode immediately, not trusting Rachael to tend to Adam's needs.

Review: Incendiary: The Willingham Case



A potential pitfall of reviewing Incendiary: The Willingham Case is that rather than passing judgment on this engaging and enraging documentary, any critic with a desire for justice will instead pass judgment on the film's subject matter -- the infamous death penalty case of Cameron Todd Willingham.

The case began with the death of Willingham's three young daughters in a house fire in Corsicana, Texas in 1991. Willingham was home at the time of the fire. Despite his claims that he tried to save his daughters, he was charged with their murder by arson based on evidence suggesting someone had started the fire using a liquid accelerant.

Willingham was convicted of murder and sentenced to death in 1992, largely on the fire investigation evidence and the testimony of a jailhouse informant who said Willingham confessed to starting the fire. (The informant later recanted his testimony.) A psychiatrist also testified that Willingham, who had a minor criminal record, was an "extremely severe sociopath;" the psychiatrist later was expelled from the American Psychiatric Association for his questionable record.

Review: Drive



I'm generally not a fan of action films, but I bear no grudge against them in the conceptual sense. I appreciate a good car chase, gun fight or calamitous explosion, as long as these elements aren't the entire point of a movie. My beef with most action films is that violence and mayhem usually are the point; a typical mainstream action movie is mindless eye candy, lacking the plot surprises, sharp dialogue, character development and real-world relevance found in my usual arthouse fare.

And so I had high hopes for Drive, a film billed as a thinking person's action film, a smart crime thriller with indie sensibilities. But while Drive is better than most movies of its ilk, its cardboard-cutout characters, gratuitous gore and clichéd ending render it little more than a stylish and only occasionally fresh take on a tired genre.

Drive starts promisingly enough, with a simple but intriguing premise. A Hollywood stunt driver billed simply as Driver (Ryan Gosling) earns a little extra cash as a getaway car driver, with help from his boss, custom car builder and small-time hoodlum Shannon (Bryan Cranston). When not engaged in on-camera or off-camera high-speed chases, Driver spends his time in a not quite romantic relationship with his neighbor, Irene (Carey Mulligan), whose husband, Standard (Oscar Isaac), is in prison.

aGLIFF 2011, Dispatch #6: Homelessness, Craigslist and the Comedy Stylings of Tom Lenk



The final day of aGLIFF was much like the days before it: moderate crowds, the usual broad mix of films and the continued comforting presence of Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann welcoming us to the festival before each screening.

I started the day with the My Queer Movie Competition shorts, a just slightly eclectic collection of 13 films in every conceivable style. Kudos to the aGLIFF programmers for presenting a shorts program with something for every taste, from David Goldstein and Jeff Keith's beautifully romantic Now & Forever to Eliane Lima's dark and striking (if somewhat impenetrable) Leonora to one of my favorites, Austinite Zach Green's hilarious The Green Family Elbow, about a family enduring anti-gay bullying although no one in the family is gay.

Another favorite short is Christopher Peak's Looking, a poignant documentary about men who use Craigslist to meet other men for secret sexual encounters. The five men interviewed in Looking are amazingly candid about their activities, telling us that such liaisons are very common, and many of the participants are married or have girlfriends. I also enjoyed Kate Lefoe's Under Pressure, an Australian import about two high-school girls who reveal their secret sexual desires while hiding from a shooter at their school.

aGLIFF 2011, Dispatch #4: I Am Holding Hands With a Longhorn



aGLIFF was surprisingly uncrowded on Saturday. Not that this is a bad thing at all -- there were no long lines for most films, and I had no trouble finding a good seat in any of the five (yes -- five!) screenings I attended. And the crowds were as enthusiastic as ever. (I attribute much of the enthusiasm to the cheerful pre-show greetings from two well-known supporters of the LGBT community, Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann.)

My first screening of the day was I Am, a moving and intensely personal documentary that chronicles the LGBT community's struggles for acceptance in India. After an 11-year absence, director Sonali Gulati returns to Delhi to re-open her family home, which has been empty since her mother's death. Gulati regrets never coming out as a lesbian to her mother. While in India, she interviews other gay and lesbian Indians and their families about their experiences, and the resulting film is a painful reminder that homosexuality still is strongly condemned in many cultures.  I Am is a very well made and powerful movie that captures a rarely seen side of Indian society.

Next up was Buffering, a film that could not be more different from I Am. A farcical sex romp about a young gay British couple deeply in debt, Buffering reminds us how money -- specifically, lack thereof -- can inspire many people to do just about anything to pay their bills. Seb (Alex Anthony) and Aaron (Conner Mckenzy) lead a quiet life in English suburbia until monetary woes lead Aaron to film the couple's sexual encounters and launch a website featuring the films, all without telling Seb. When Seb discovers the ploy, he's horrified -- that is, until he sees the profit potential, and soon enough the two begin producing ever wilder (and more lucrative) videos.

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