Film reviews: W.E. | J Edgar | Haywire | The Darkest Hour

Madonna has constantly reinvented herself. Picture: Getty
Madonna has constantly reinvented herself. Picture: Getty
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The Scotsman’s film critic reviews the latest films making it to the cinema

W.E. (15)

Leonardo DiCaprio as J. Edgar Hoover in the Clint Eastwood-directed J. Edgar. Picture: Warner Brothers/Getty

Leonardo DiCaprio as J. Edgar Hoover in the Clint Eastwood-directed J. Edgar. Picture: Warner Brothers/Getty

Directed by: Madonna

Starring: Abbie Cornish, Andrea Riseborough, James D’Arcy

Rating: **

HAVING taken a crack at directing with her barely seen 2008 debut Filth and Wisdom, Madonna makes a curious bid for artistic credibility with this biopic of Wallis Simpson, the woman for whom King Edward VIII gave up the throne. Presenting the social-climbing Simpson (played by Andrea Riseborough) as a tragic figure whose own sacrifices have, according to the film, been forgotten about in the desperation to celebrate the fairytale aspects of the abdication story, Madonna (who also co-wrote the script) fails to convincingly outline what those sacrifices even are, let alone why we should care. Indeed, groaning platitudes about the damaging nature of fame and the despicable way rumours take hold as fact say more about the director’s view of the world than Simpson’s – even as she makes a bizarre attempt to liken Simpson to Princess Diana by egregiously shoehorning Mohammed Al Fayed into the fictional story she uses as a framing device.

That fictional story, set in the 1998, is actually the film’s biggest liability, with Madonna choosing to parallel Simpson’s life with that of a young New York society wife, also called Wally (Abbie Cornish), who is so obsessed with her namesake – and so unhappy in her perfect-from-the-outside marriage to an evil Welsh doctor (her own Prince of Wales – geddit?) – that she’s plagued by hallucinatory encounters with Simpson that should, by rights, have her sectioned. If there’s a method in this oddball approach, clues aren’t exactly forthcoming from the anachronistic soundtrack, which at one point has Wally Simpson proto-Voguing to the Sex Pistols’ Pretty Vacant. To be fair to Madonna, such flourishes are perhaps understandable given her long association with music videos, and while W.E. is, at times compellingly bad, it is at least easy on the eye – if not always the ear (she’s certainly not much of a writer).

In fact, it’s something of a shame that her sumptuous visual style isn’t deployed in the service of a more coherent story, though that’s a charge that could be laid at the door of any number of flashy, style-over-substance directors (Guy Ritchie for one). In the end, risible though it often is, W.E. is really little more than an indulgent folly, one that will doubtless generate a disproportionate amount of coverage given its relative insignificance as a film.

J. Edgar (15)

Directed by: Clint Eastwood

Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Armie Hammer, JudyI Dench

Rating: **

IF EVER there was a case for hiring veteran actors to play characters in old age, J. Edgar is it. Although there are numerous problems with Clint Eastwood’s tediously constructed biopic of closeted, cross-dressing FBI director J Edgar Hoover, none is quite as glaring or as damaging as the ghoulish prosthetics used to respectively transform Leonardo DiCaprio, Armie Hammer and Naomi Watts into the older versions of Hoover, his second-in-command Clyde Tolson, and his loyal secretary Helen Gandy. Shuffling through scenes depicting the later stages of Hoover’s life, their collective liver-spotted, bobble-headed presence makes J. Edgar seem like the world’s most boring zombie film. Not that the flashbacks showing his rise to notoriety are especially dynamic.

Deploying the dullest framing device imaginable – Hoover dictating his memoirs – huge swaths of screen time depicting the Lindbergh kidnapping, the fight against communism and the battle against tommy-gun carrying gangsters are rendered soporific by momentum-killing voice-over; at times it’s like watching a dull slideshow for an audiobook. Even the film’s contention that Hoover’s ruthless ambition and salacious need to compile private files of America’s citizenry was a byproduct of his repressed desire for Clyde and his Oedipal relationship with his domineering mother (Judi Dench) is suffocated by Eastwood’s overly tasteful approach.

Haywire (15)

Directed by: Steven Soderbergh

Starring: Gina Carano, Michael Fassbender, Ewan McGregor, Channing Tatum

Rating: ****

RETEAMING with The Limey screenwriter Lemm Dobbs, Steven Soderbergh brings an enjoyably artful approach to ass-kicking mayhem with this stripped down, tightly wound riff on the rogue agent revenge flick. Mixed martial arts star Gina Carano – picking up the gauntlet laid down by Steven Seagal and Jason Statham before her – makes her action movie debut as a betrayed black ops assassin on the run from shady government spooks. Deploying a similar fractured narrative style to The Limey (if not quite as flashy), Soderbergh succeeds in making the propulsive run-kick-punch trajectory of Carano’s character more compelling, filling out her backstory in ways that make her considerable fighting skills more dazzling when unleashed.

Soderbergh aids Carano in this respect by shooting the flight scenes in a fluid style that really shows off what she can do, while also surrounding her with great actors (and Ewan McGregor) who do most of the dramatic heavy lifting and cultivate the necessary air of paranoia. Particularly good is man-of-the-moment Michael Fassbender, whose hotel beat-down at the hands of Carano is more eye-opening – and eye-watering – than anything in Shame.

The Darkest Hour (12A)

Directed by: Chris Gorak

Starring: Emile Hirsch, Max Minghella, Olivia Thirlby, Rachael Taylor

Rating: *

THE title for this latest apocalyptic sci-fi thriller provides a fairly accurate description of its needless 3D component: it’s practically impossible to see what’s going on whenever night falls, which, alas, is roughly two-thirds of its 90-minute running time. On the plus side, the acting, dialogue and direction are so lame that a lack of visibility is probably a good thing.

Set in Moscow as the world comes under attack from yet another race of resource-stripping aliens, the action homes in on best friends Sean (Emile Hirsch) and Ben (Max Minghella) whose already scuppered plans to get rich from an internet venture take a bigger turn for the worse when invisible, electricity-generating aliens wipe out most of the city. Their only hope is to band together with what few survivors they can find in order to reach a nuclear submarine that might take them home.

Derivative to the point where the first thing that springs to mind are all the bad films it resembles rather than the good ones (there are shades of Skyline, Battle Los Angeles and Tomorrow When the War Began), this doesn’t bode too well for screenwriter Jon Spaihts’ next film: he’s written Ridley Scott’s Alien prequel Prometheus.