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The soul of a company man: Damon in The Good Shepherd.

Dangerous Men

By Laura Leon

The Good Shepherd

Directed 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.

World Gone Wrong

Children of Men

Directed 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.

—Ann Morrow

OK for Broadway

Dreamgirls

Directed 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.)

Dreamgirls 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.

—Shawn Stone


At risk: (l-r) Winslet,
Wilson and kids in Little Children

Wicked Games

Little Children

Directed by Todd Field

Little 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 uncomfortable.

Sarah (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.

—Shawn Stone

A Cute Anglo

The History Boys

Directed 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 cutting.

—John Rodat

Exhibits Gone Wild

Night at the Museum

Directed 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.

—Ann Morrow


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