soul of a company man: Damon in The Good Shepherd.
By Laura Leon
by Robert De Niro
The first seconds of Robert De Niro’s The Good Shepherd show
an out-of-focus couple making love. The audio, raspy as the
picture is grainy, catches the woman softly murmuring, “You
are safe now.” Throughout the rest of the movie, CIA types,
including spymaster Edward Wilson (Matt Damon), work to delineate
the who, what and wherefores of that tape, which they believe
directly relates to the failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion.
Throughout the film, we, the viewers, are beset with countless
examples of how nobody—especially those who make spying their
business—is really safe at any time.
The experts try to piece together the meaning of the tape,
which was deposited under Wilson’s door on the eve of the
invasion, in much the same way as Wilson himself has spent
a lifetime piecing together fragments of information, bits
of clues, into a cohesive picture of what the enemy—the Soviet
Union—is planning to do. Early on, we glimpse the young Wilson
as a thoughtful poetry student whose star cross- dressing
turn in a collegiate Gilbert & Sullivan musical is capped
off by an invitation to join the elite and highly secretive
society Skull and Bones, and later, the fledgling OSS. While
the pull toward a life in letters, shared with his deaf girlfriend
Laura (Tammy Blanchard), is strong, the draw of a life spent
behind the scenes, sorting out information, is stronger. Wilson
may be great at his job, but he’s hopelessly elusive and taciturn
as a friend or lover, something wife Margaret (Angelina Jolie)
finds out too late.
Eric Roth’s script encompasses three decades of American history
through the prism of the agency, and it’s interesting to see
how that entity’s focus evolved—not necessarily for the better—over
time. De Niro adeptly shifts between the past and present,
in an attempt to show us how Wilson came to be a top company
man, but also to emphasize the enigmatic nature of truth and
deception. Tension and paranoia are par for the course, with
CIA bureaucrats never quite knowing whether to trust their
colleague across the hall. Or not. In the case of Wilson,
his dedication to job and country leave no room for ruminating
on what’s right and wrong, not even when it directly relates
to his grown son Edward Jr. (Eddie Redmayne). It’s what he
does, and who he is, and even when it rears up to bite him
in the ass, he can’t forsake it.
Interestingly, the only human exchange that feels like a relationship
in the movie is that between Wilson, code name “Mother,” and
his Soviet counterpart, “Ulysses” (Oleg Stefan).
Like The Departed, The Good Shepherd is chock-full
of extraordinary performances, especially that of Damon (who
is in both movies), who shows us an Edward who increasingly
internalizes everything to the point of being mute in the
face of tragedy. Jolie is mesmerizing as she shows us the
struggle to retain vibrancy and light within the context of
a cloak-and-dagger domestic situation. For those who don’t
believe that the oft-photographed Jolie can act, just pay
attention to the way in which she uses her hands to evoke
Margaret’s fragility and exasperation. Alec Baldwin is an
earthy codger of an FBI agent; Billy Crudup epitomizes urbane
chill; William Hurt, Michael Gambon and John Turturro sparkle
in disparate CIA roles. The movie is sweeping, epic and long,
and yet somehow it’s crisp. Despite the cold nature of its
protagonists and, indeed, of its assassinations and assignations,
it crackles like exposed wires.
by Alfonso Cuarón
Alfonso Cuarón continues to be a fascinating director. His
dark and atmospheric adaptation of Harry Potter and the Prisoner
of Azkaban is the best (by far) in the series, and his latest
film, Children of Men, is, one suspects, another coup
of intuitive interpretation. Adapted from the P.D. James novel,
it’s set in the year 2027, in England, the last country standing
after decades of global terrorism and environmental degradation.
It’s a world without children; they’re hasn’t been a birth
anywhere on the planet in 18 years. International consortiums
of scientists haven’t found an explanation, or a cure, for
the mass infertility, although pollution, UV rays, and viruses
have all been implicated.
In this hopeless dystopia, bombings are common, and Theo (Clive
Owen), an apolitical bureaucrat, narrowly escapes being blown
to bits outside a coffee shop. A loner with a drinking problem,
Theo once had a son, but the child died in an epidemic. He
is unmoved by the desperate refugees straining against barricades
and being brutalized by police throughout London.
Despite the despairing scenario—the government encourages
suicide—Children of Men is exhilarating and poignant,
and its grimmer aspects add to the momentum. Theo is forcibly
recruited by a ring of pro-immigration rebels led by his long-ago
lover (Julianne Moore). The rebels have in their keeping a
pregnant woman, Kee (Claire-Hope Ashitey), and need Theo to
assist them in getting Kee to a mysterious group of activists
called the Human Project. The mission is extremely dangerous,
with betrayals and counter-betrayals, as Kee’s propaganda
value to all of the country’s warring factions is incalculable.
Foregoing the shimmers of magic realism that distinguish his
previous work (The Little Princess, Azkaban),
Cuarón proves to be just as inventive with grimy realism.
The low-tech action work surrounding Theo’s desperate attempts
to protect Kee from treachery is stunning, and the effects-free
car chases are some of the most gripping in recent memory.
And even in the midst of an unnervingly gone-to-ruin country,
the cinematography finds fleeting glimpses of beauty: a deer
ambling through an abandoned farmhouse is a startling reminder
that nature still exists.
Though the fast-moving story is short on politics and biology
and a shade too reliant on iconography—visual suggestions
of Nazi Germany, war-torn Iraq, and Guantanamo Bay summon
a familiar dread rather than fear of the future—the plot creates
its own frissons of philosophy, largely through the highly
charged interactions between characters, which sizzle and
sputter like the burning wick of a powder keg. Theo’s longtime
friend Jasper (Michael Caine), an aged counterculturist, and
Miriam (Pam Ferris), Kee’s traveling companion, contribute
to the story’s emotional volatility as well as to its ratcheting
tension, as do a host of vivid minor characters, notably Danny
Huston as a billionaire who salvages art for generations not
to come, and Peter Mullen as a crackpot security specialist.
Children of Men is that unusual kind of thriller in
which people, not circumstances, create the suspense.
OK for Broadway
by Bill Condon
If you’ve heard anything about this lavish, big-budget musical
extravaganza, it’s probably that Jennifer Hudson, an American
Idol reject, and Eddie Murphy, more recently known for
his cartoon voiceover work, steal the picture. This is absolutely
true. It’s also a good thing for the filmmakers (and filmgoers)
that these two are so cinemagnetic, because Hudson pretty
much provides the only compelling drama in Dreamgirls,
and Murphy the only real excitement.
This slick, knowing gloss on the Motown saga was first staged
on Broadway in 1981. It shows its age, both with its smug
attitude towards its racial and musical subject matter, and
its musty score. (More about that later.)
presents the story of a Supremes-like girl group, and their
rise to the top via the shrewd, manipulative, Berry Gordy-esque
manager Curtis Taylor, Jr. (Jamie Foxx). The Dreamettes are
saucy lead singer Effie White (Hudson), who has a rich, soulful
voice; pretty Deena (Beyoncé Knowles); and sweet-but-ditzy
Lorrell (Anika Noni Rose). By the time Taylor’s known them
for five minutes, he’s renamed them the Dreams, and set them
up as backup singers for old-school R&B shouter James
“Thunder” Early (Murphy). By the time Curtis is really
done giving the Dreams a makeover, plus-sized Effie is no
longer singing lead. She’s passed over in favor of Deena,
because Deena’s characterless vocals and conventional hotness
will sell to white audiences.
You can see where this is going. Curtis is so focused on success,
he doesn’t care who gets hurt; and, in his lust to crossover
to the mainstream, he particularly hurts folks with “soul.”
He’s a complete villain: James “Thunder” Early gets shunted
off to the “chitlin” circuit; the Dreams’ music becomes ever-blander;
and Effie, Curtis’ lover, gets dumped. If this sounds like
a ridiculously reductive reworking of the Motown story, that’s
because it is.
At least Effie getting cast aside prompts the film’s great
moment, Hudson performing “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going.”
She wrings out every bit of drama, investing it with the hurt
of Effie’s accumulated emotional wounds. “And I Am Telling
You” may be a not-particularly-tuneful Broadway aria, but
Hudson makes you love it. (And, yes, audiences really are
cheering at the end of the number.)
Would that the cast could transcend the rest of the score.
While the R&B numbers for Murphy’s character are OK, most
of the songs are tuneless and forgettable. They don’t evoke
the pop glories of Motown; they don’t do much of anything
except make you wish they were over.
As noted before, Murphy is excellent. His character’s smooth
charm and ebullient cockiness bring to mind a few of Murphy’s
own early, iconic screen characters, and his fall is portrayed
with poignant restraint.
The biggest disappointment about the whole project, aside
from the diffuse characters, obvious plot and lackluster score,
is the work of director Bill Condon. He keeps the show moving,
but can’t get around the fact that it’s all downhill after
Hudson’s big number—or that Hudson’s and Murphy’s characters
are only ones worth audience interest.
risk: (l-r) Winslet,
Wilson and kids in Little Children
by Todd Field
Children is a damned funny movie.
This is the salient fact about Little Children, and
yet, the humor was totally unexpected. Why? The film’s trailer
suggested a deeply serious drama, and director Todd Field’s
last film, In the Bedroom, was a wrenching, mirthless
tale of revenge. This is also no mean feat for a dark comedy
about suburban angst, in which there is adultery, social snobbery,
selfishness, and, oh, a sex offender on the loose making everyone
(Kate Winslet, at her acid-tongued, neurotic best) is unhappily
married to advertising slickster Richard (Gregg Edelman),
and bored with 4-year-old daughter Lucy (Sadie Goldstein).
Brad (Patrick Wilson) is sort of happily married to documentary
filmmaker Kathy (Jennifer Connelly), and troubled with the
thought that his 3-year-old son Aaron (Ty Simpkins) doesn’t
respect him. As a matter of course, the unhappy people try
to improve their lot through sex. (There are worse avenues.)
Presented differently, this is soap opera. The unhappiness
of the upper middle class, a world of petty jealousies and
too much money, is leavened by a couple of characters whose
actions have alienated them from their surroundings. Ronnie
(Jackie Earle Haley, cunning and childlike) is a paroled sex
offender; Larry (Noah Emmerich) is an ex-cop with post-traumatic
stress disorder. Both are pariahs for incidents involving
children. Their struggle is different only in degree from
the “normal” people, who end up being just as much of a menace—to
their own kids.
One way Field keeps the audience from being sucked too far
into the melodrama is using a narrator. Not just any narrator,
either, but Will Lyman, the Voice of God of PBS shows, including
Frontline. Every time he speaks, it is to puncture
a mood of arch seriousness.
Another of Field’s bold moves is to repeatedly riff on scenes
and characters from other movies, each time to satirical effect.
All kinds of movies: One character is hilariously lifted
from Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story; an actress plays
a role recognizable from Todd Solondz’ Happiness; and
a key sex scene duplicates—and playfully subverts—a similar
encounter in Fatal Attraction. As with his use of a
narrator, these in-jokes help Field lampoon the overly literary
nature of the story as a way of getting the audience to focus
on the characters.
As is the case in these kinds of stories, everything comes
to a climax on one fateful night. While there aren’t any surprises—except
for a little overdone melodrama—most of the characters stay
true to form in comically exquisite ways. Not bad for a story
about people with too much of everything.
by Nicholas Hytner
It’s fun to imagine the placement of The History Boys
in some video store’s “If you liked this” shelving scheme.
You’d have to add an element to the overall organization,
I think: If you liked Dead Poets Society, and aren’t
rabidly homophobic; or, if you liked Trainspotting but
hated all the druggy bits; or, if you liked Brideshead
Revisited though you thought it could have used a laugh
track. While the movie certainly has potent charms for the
anglophile, outside that demographic, its appeal is a little
tougher to characterize.
Set in England in 1983, the movie is the story of a small
group of English public-school—in Yankee vernacular, that’s
private-school—students who have done well enough on their
A-level examinations to suggest they may be candidates for
entrance to Oxford University. The headmaster of their school,
a sniveling and shallow twit (well played by Clive Merrison),
is beside himself at the prospect and hires a new tutor to
help the boys prepare. Mr. Irwin (Stephen Campbell Moore)
has been brought on, in part, in hopes that his own Oxonian
polish will offset the ramshackle and seemingly directionless
tutelage of Mr. Hector (Richard Griffiths), a knowledge-for-knowledge’s-sake
eccentric with a distinctly fey Romantic charm. The differing
approaches between the two instructors—the much younger Irwin
is a practical, distanced scholar who advises the boys to
gamely fake what they don’t know, where Hector is staunchly
in favor of passion and honest self-expression—provides the
movie’s most ostensible tension. Fortunately—as that tension
is a screeching hackneyed cliché—there are more interesting
interpersonal issues: Everyone in the movie is, you see, trying
to figure out just exactly how gay they are.
There’s wistful Posner, who is admittedly in love with Daken,
the dark and cocky ladies’ man who nevertheless falls for
Irwin, who only hesitantly returns the younger boy’s attentions,
in part, because he has been cautioned by the poorly closeted
Hector, who opportunistically fondles his students, including
Scripps, who expresses intellectual curiosity about the same-sex
relationships but refuses to act due to his own fervent religiosity,
and so on.
It’s fun and refreshing to see the typical teen rut-lust presented
through this almost exclusively male lens. And funny, too—in
a fond, gentle kind of way. Unfortunately, this fondness undercuts
some of the appropriate tension. The boys’ angst has little
real force; they seem preternaturally composed (I don’t know,
maybe it’s just that they’re British). Plus, there’s that
issue of a teacher’s molestation of his students, which is
also dealt with marked sangfroid (I don’t know, maybe it’s
just that I’m American). It’s likely the stage version of
The History Boys, which won a half-dozen Tonys, benefited
from the intimacy and immediacy of theater; the cinematic
one (also written by playwright Alan Bennett) is witty, but
somehow flat. Scenes engage but they never explode, and the
moments of tragedy and revelation seemed tacked-on. It’s adolescence
presented purely in retrospect. The greatest moment of tension,
in fact, is a guitar part of an Echo and the Bunnymen song
in the soundtrack. The History Boys is cute, but never
at the Museum
by Shawn Levy
Viewed as a children’s film, Night at the Museum has a lot
to offer, even if it is too long for the younger kids who
might enjoy it most. But anyone going on the premise of it
being a Ben Stiller comedy probably will be disappointed.
Then again, guessing by the box-office receipts, a lot of
Ben Stiller fans have kids—there’s little other explanation
for the film’s broad-based appeal.
Stiller plays Larry, a doofus, wanna-be inventor in New York
City who is continually between jobs. And because he’s constantly
moving from apartment to apartment—his latest relocation is
to Queens, far from his ex-wife’s Central Park locale—she’s
considering revoking his overnight visitation rights with
their young son, Nick (Jake Cherry). In desperation, Larry
takes a job as a night watchman at the Museum of Natural History.
Nick thinks it’s a very cool job to have, while Larry does
not. He’s replacing three retiring watchmen (Dick Van Dyke,
Mickey Rooney and Bill Cobb) whose on-the-job training course
is a little peculiar: Along with a tattered manuscript of
nonsensical instructions, Larry’s only other practical bit
of advice is this: “Don’t let anything in—or out.”
The exposition is blandly unfunny, including Paul Rudd as
Nick’s wonky stepfather-to-be, while Carla Gugino, as a museum
docent working on her Ph.D. thesis, is clumsily inserted as
a token love interest. The museum, though, has its moments.
Responding to an ancient energy source emanating from the
Room of the Pharaohs, all of its contents—the dioramas, miniatures,
fossilized skeletons, wax figures, taxidermic prehistoric
mammals, even an Easter Island monolith—come to life every
night, turning the museum into a funhouse of cleverly constructed
mischief. Since they’ve been doing it every night since the
1950s, the museum dwellers have gotten rather wily at wreaking
havoc—the border skirmishes between miniature frontiersmen
and Roman Centurions are especially delightful. And since
Larry is too immature to require any suspension of disbelief,
his gullibility is sweetly effective. It’s when Stiller tries
to upstage the amusing special effects that the film grinds
to an annoying halt, as when he uses Gestalty therapy-speak
on a tribe of ferocious Neanderthals.
The museum’s leading luminary, however, is Robin Williams
as Teddy Roosevelt. Dispensing historically paraphrased advice
to the beleaguered Larry, Williams’ cagily sagacious Rough
Rider is thoroughly human to the very tips of his wax mustache.
Though the irrepressible exhibits in Night at the Museum undoubtedly
will generate a brief fad for museumgoing, it’s just as likely
that William’s performance will inspire fifth-grade Teddy
Roosevelt book reports for months to come.