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This Week at the Movies

Clint Eastwood's 'J. Edgar' is a fascinating portrayal of a controversial figure's public image and Lars von Trier's 'Melancholia' is a gorgeous, apocalyptic vision.

I’ll admit to being a little worn out on biopics, which have in recent years been reduced to this formula: introduction of historical character at a later stage in life or pivotal moment, flashback to humble beginnings, rise to fame, bumps in the road and then triumph or tragic death.

So, it’s refreshing to see that Clint Eastwood’s “J. Edgar” is anything but formulaic, which could possibly account for its being misunderstood by a swath of the nation’s critics.

It didn’t appear to me that Eastwood was aiming for a tell-all about the controversial G-man, nor attempting to draw sympathy for him.

Much like Oliver Assayas’s epic 2010 film on Carlos the Jackal, Eastwood seems interested in portraying the public image projected by his subject.

And Leonardo DiCaprio crafts this image with a terrific performance that is equally as complex as his portrayal of Howard Hughes in Martin Scorsese’s “The Aviator.”

The film, which uses shadows and desaturated colors to set the story’s moody tone, begins in the 1960s as Hoover obsesses as to whether he can sully the name of Martin Luther King, Jr.

The story is told through flashbacks, though not always sequentially and without any titles announcing the dates or even years.

Along the way, we meet Emma Goldman, Charles Lindbergh, Bobby Kennedy and Richard Nixon, but they are all minor characters.

Hoover, who lives at home with his overbearing mother (Judi Dench), nabs a job in the Federal Bureau of Investigation and impresses the agency’s bigwigs with his obsessive attention to detail and anti-Communism fervor.

As he rises through the ranks, two important characters are introduced – secretary Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts), who will later hold the key to Hoover’s private files, and Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer), a younger agent with whom the crime fighter was believed to have carried on an affair of some sort for decades.

The relationship between the two men is the film’s central thread, but Dustin Lance Black’s script leaves just enough ambiguity as to its true nature.

The picture has the look and style of an historical drama. But instead, Eastwood has chosen to focus on Hoover as a man trapped between the need to put into action the ideals instilled in him by his smothering mother and his unrequited love for Tolson.

The picture, which should score DiCaprio an Oscar nomination, marks another unpredictable turn in Eastwood’s celebrated career.

Danish provocateur Lars von Trier may have a knack for publically putting his foot in his mouth, but he is also one of the world’s most unique filmmakers.

His latest film, “Melancholia,” could be “The Tree of Life’s” gloomy twin.

In Terrence Malick’s film, a man viewed the creation of the universe through the prism of his childhood and fall from innocence. In “Melancholia,” von Trier envisions the end of the world as seen through the eyes of a woman suffering a crippling depression.

The picture’s first five minutes alone are worth the price of admission. The film opens on Kirsten Dunst’s face as she stares gloomily into the camera and birds fall from the sky in the background.

Slow motion shots of her wandering through a dark forest in a wedding dress to the tune of Wagner’s “Tristan and Isolde” are interspersed with views of the Earth as it nears a collision with the film’s titular “flyby” planet.

The rest of the movie is split up into two sections. During its first half, “Justine,” Dunst attempts to navigate her wedding reception by avoiding her doting husband (Alexander Skarsgard), creepy boss (Stellan Skarsgard), foppish father (John Hurt), acerbically bitter mother (Charlotte Rampling) and concerned sister, Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), who acts as Justine’s caretaker.

Alas, the reception devolves into uncomfortable speeches, a betrayal and the dissolution of the newly wedded couple’s marriage.

During the second section, “Claire,” Justine has succumbed to an emotional breakdown. She arrives on the doorstep of the mansion owned by Claire and her arrogant husband, John (Kiefer Sutherland), where the wedding took place.

Adding to the overall malaise is the discovery of a planet known as Melancholia that has been hiding behind the sun and is expected to pass closely by Earth.

John, who dabbles in astronomy, assures everyone that the planets will not collide. Claire, on the other hand, appears nervous and attempts to deflect her anxiety by tending to her young son and depressive sister.

But as Melancholia approaches the Earth, Justine begins to slip out of her mournful state and Claire sinks into her own funk.

Von Trier has openly admitted to suffering from depression, which led to the creation of his previous film, the brooding and often shocking “Antichrist.”

In “Melancholia,” Claire appears to represent the anxious, panic attack-ridden side of a depressive personality, while Justine embodies a descent into the abyss.

Dunst and Gainsbourg’s committed performances make for a cinematic experience that is fraught with tension.

Von Trier’s oeuvre has been frequently marked by experimentation and playful flirtations with genre, including espionage (“Zentropa”), melodrama (“Breaking the Waves”), musicals (“Dancer in the Dark”), and horror (“Antichrist”).

“Melancholia,” a combination of a tense character piece and a science fiction tale, ranks high among his best work. It is one of the year’s most challenging and ambitious films.

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