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By Michael Calleri

There's something about making a movie set in the 1930s and 1940s that compels some of today's directors to drain their efforts of color. I really wish I understood what they were thinking when the decision was made. Do they believe that there was no color palette in those decades? I understand the use of black and white in films, but why on earth make a color picture and then deliver something so washed-out that not even the greatest lighting technicians can rescue the work?

Do these directors think the sun didn't shine in the 1940s? Do they have some misguided notion that everyone walked around with a gray skin pallor? Did they forget that some of the greatest films of the era were in Technicolor?

In "J. Edgar," director Clint Eastwood has made such a movie. It's in color, but it might as well not be. Cinematographer Tom Stern, clearly following orders, delivers a feature stripped of visual energy. And that's only strike one against a film that seems to be telling us, thanks to Dustin Lance Black's talky screenplay, that FBI director J. Edgar Hoover was a nasty, mean-spirited man because he was unhappy in his personal life.

In the movie, Hoover and his longtime companion, and fellow FBI official, Clyde Tolson, are close enough to be homosexual lovers. Wouldn't that make Hoover a happy fellow? Tolson was a blindingly handsome male-model type, and as depicted by Armie Hammer, he's portrayed that way in the film. One would think that would make Hoover smile, at least once. Instead we get a belligerent curmudgeon.

Perhaps Hoover was a grouch because he had to hide his gay life from his equally belligerent mother, a thread that is also touched upon. But you don't want to believe that screenwriter Black is really tossing in that stereotype. If he means it, he'd better return his Oscar for writing "Milk."

What all of this tells us is that Eastwood and Black and star Leonardo DiCaprio, whose Hoover is an interesting, although a bit uneven creation, were not sure how to depict the life of one of the most powerful men in American history. Since nobody knows what went on behind closed doors when Hoover and Tolson went inside the deluxe house they shared for decades, everyone involved with the film dances around the relationship.

I understand that people are fascinated by the hypocrisy of the FBI director, a paranoid blackmailer and sometime racist, being gay, but frankly, who cares? Why can't a gay person be a blackmailer or a racist? Who cares what Hoover did in bed? The movie should have been about how a cruel, sadistic man destroyed people's lives, about the fear in Washington, D.C. over his unbridled power, and about how he manipulated the system.

"J. Edgar" has an elderly Hoover telling his life story in flashback. He saw communism as the Death Star and envisioned black power as the rise of an underclass that would link up with America's enemies in the Soviet Union. The Red Scare afforded the FBI chief an excuse to threaten anyone he perceived as soft on Moscow. And we're supposed to believe that he did this because he was gay. If this premise weren't so pathetic, it'd be hilarious.

DiCaprio does a passable Hoover. I watched some videos of Hoover speaking before I saw the movie, and frankly, the actor doesn't fully capture Hoover's staccato vocal cadence. At times, he looks like the FBI boss, but the actor doesn't fully hide his actual self. Frankly, there were moments when I thought Judi Dench, as his mother, resembled Hoover more than DiCaprio. There is a parade of historical figures. And, as noted above, the washed-out color beats you over the head with that alert that you're watching the past. You know, kids, old stuff.

At two hours and 17 minutes, "J. Edgar" is unnecessarily long because there's not much depth. It's a meandering effort about a bully who just wanted to be out of the closet, or at least that's how Eastwood and Black see it. There are so many dreary stretches of office chatter that you really wish J. Edgar and Clyde had gone to a secret gay club to dance the night away. It would have added some sorely needed energy to a bland exercise in revisionist history.

Spain's Pedro Almodovar is one of the world's great directors. His movies reveal a passion for cinema that few filmmakers possess. Maybe he should have directed "J. Edgar."

Antonio Banderas, who began his acting career in some of Almodovar's earliest movies, reunites with the wildly talented, Ocsar-winning director in "The Skin I Live In." Banderas plays Robert Ledgard, an accomplished doctor, a surgeon whose wife dies as the result of a horrible car crash. She was burned beyond salvation, but she lives for a while. Doctor and wife have a young daughter.

Ledgard becomes determined to create skin that will resist burning. This is a fascinating psychological thriller, but there's also a touch of horror movie in it. After his wife dies, you realize that Ledgard seems to be a little bit obsessed with something other than skin.

Almodovar wrote the lively screenplay, which is based on a novel by Thierry Jonquet. I cannot reveal too much of what goes on, but early on, you'll see a fascinating woman (played by the beautiful Elena Anaya) being watched on television monitors in a big old house that holds some secrets. There's also an obedient housekeeper and a guy in a tiger costume.

Just when you think Almodovar has nowhere to go with his story, the movie jumps back in time to tell you a few things that will rivet your attention. Kidnapping and body alteration are part of the package. When the film returns to the present, you should be ready for its surprising conclusion.

"The Skin I Live In" mixes in a little bit of Alfred Hitchcock and Georges Franju, but it's essentially an imaginative Almodovar going all the way. His movie is colorful, intense and a little bit creepy. He lets Dr. Ledgard play God, but it's this madcap director who's really the master at manipulating things.

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com Nov. 15, 2011