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Saturday, December 30, 2006

The Good Shepard (2006)

There's a lot to like in Robert DeNiro's ambitious sophomore directorial effort.

The film features solid acting, strong, confident direction, and impressive production design.

But in the end, the story in The Good Shepard, perhaps feels too distant, and too cold for an audience to fully embrace.

What we are left with is a piece of impressive looking art, but unfortunately nothing emotionally involving or moving to make it remarkable.

The film attempts to tell the story of the birth of the Central Intelligence Agency through the eyes of Edward Wilson. Who according to IMDB is probably based on the life of James Jesus Angleton, the head of counterintelligence at the C.I.A.

The film traces his journey from his humble beginnings as a poetry student at Yale, through his initiation into the Skull and Bones secret society. Which then puts him on the path towards foreign intelligence gathering during World War II.

The story then shifts to the rise of the Agency during the cold war, and all the way through the failed Bay of Pigs invasion in Cuba.

If that's not enough, in between all that, the film also attempts to show the strain, and devastating effects that this lifestyle has on Edward's personal, and family life.


It's a lot on DeNiro's plate, and he almost pulls it off.


But it's just too much.

Even for a 2 and a half hour movie.

Any one of the multiple issues, and events tackled in the film can be a whole movie in itself.

The story to me feels like it wants to be a twelve episode H.B.O. television series.

It's just too much, too quickly,for me the film ends up feeling like a cliff notes history lesson.

But at times Eric Roth's script really hits the right notes, and DeNiro's direction almost pulls it all off. He directs with a confidence, and artistry which is admirable.

Specifically.....the spy stuff is really cool.

The code names, the secrecy, the training, the intelligence gathering, the back door deals, and the torture methods employed by the agency, that's all cool to watch.

What's great about the film is that DeNiro doesn't bother telling the movie in a conventional manner. He uses flashbacks, a huge cast of characters, and time jumps throughout the film to assemble parts of Edward's life much like a fascinating jigsaw puzzle.

What's also interesting is that there doesn't seem to be a political agenda for the film. Which is unusual considering the material.

DeNiro seems content with just telling a story.

Actually there seems to be no conventional antagonist in the film. Just situations that characters respond to differently, sometimes in negative or what some would consider evil ways.

Perhaps the strongest political statement in the film is how ridiculous the Skull and Bones society is. It's obvious that the filmmakers have a disdain for the initiation rituals and unusual camaraderie of the group. Several jokes by Angelina Jolie's character really drive that point in.

But overall, the film makes no judgements.

I guess one can look at that as a negative for the film. It's not a text book conventional well-made film. But I found it refreshing that he treated the audience in this manner.

It's mature and demanding material that is treated with thought, and consideration rather than conventions.

In a way, this way of storytelling justifies how a simple person can get swept up and caught in this sort of living.

My problems with the film arise with the examination of Edward's family life.

If one is looking for a marker, for me the film takes a down turn with the arrival of Angelina Jolie's character.

Not that she's bad in the film.

She's actually pretty good. But for me the character's storyline is not really effective.

To begin with, the character of Edward is cold, and distant.

He's not affable, or even very sympathetic, and the audience seems to accept him that way.

But when the characters of Edward's wife, and family are thrown into the story. We are expected to sympathize with his struggles, and the plight of the family.

It just doesn't happen.

The truth is it's hard to sympathize with someone who chooses this life path. I mean what do they think they are signing up for when they choose this profession? Fun and parties?

The title of the film in itself implies that the lifestyle of a C.I.A. agent is one of self sacrifice.

So it feels forced and melodramatic to the story to try, and build sympathy for the characters in this way.

It almost feels like Eric Roth and DeNiro were well aware that the story is not emotionally involving. So they attempted to compensate by showing us Edward's family life.

To try and reel us in.

It's obvious that the story needed an emotional hook. But for me, I would've liked to see them try, and find a different way.

A family neglected, and destroyed by a man's extraordinary profession is not exactly original stuff.

It's material that we've seen before, and done better in movies like Donnie Brasco, the Godfather, Goodfellas, and countless other films.

As far as performances, everyone involved is on their "A" game.

Damon is effective in a restrained performance. William Hurt, Alec Baldwin, Billy Crudup, and Michael Gambon turn in their usual complex and multi-dimensional performances.

But for my money the most memorable character, and performance is John Turturro's Ray Brocco who is Damon's hard nosed and loyal assistant. He's strong willed, effective and willing to do the dirty work in order to help Damon's character achieve his goals.

It seems in order to become a successful and powerful person, there is always a pit bull like this in one's corner to do the dirty work.

It's a wonderful character, one could almost do a whole movie just on this character.

But a lot of the movie feels that way. It's a fascinating and intriguing world we're watching in the film.

I just wish that they could have found that one emotional hook to tie it all together.

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Saturday, December 23, 2006

Rocky Balboa

Perhaps the greatest underdog in cinematic history returns to the screen for one glorious last time.

The results are impressively entertaining.

Dare I say one of my favorite movies of the year.

Sylvester Stallone has fittingly delivered his greatest directorial achievement, and at the same time has provided a well deserved end for one of the most beloved movie characters of all time.

Perhaps I was overcome by the stirring Bill Conti score, or I got caught up in the inspiring themes of the film, or maybe I just got caught in a huge wave of nostalgia but.... I loved this film.

Loved it.

At one point I even caught myself getting a little misty-eyed.

I know that's not very manly for me to admit, but this film moved me.

I found myself being touched by the memories of the first film, and how I still cared about these characters many years later.

At the start of the film we find Rocky at...pardon the pun....rock bottom. His beloved Adrian has passed away, his friends are all gone, and his son is embarrassed by the huge shadow of having Rocky Balboa as a father.

Life has knocked Rocky down to the point that he is barely able to muster up enough energy everyday to recount his past life with Adrian, and to share old ring stories with customers at his restaurant.

He is a shell of a man trying to pick up the pieces of a broken life.

When a computer simulated fight declares him the winner over the current champion, his competitive wheels start turning, and he realizes that it's time to start fighting life back.

Cue Bill Conti score.

The movie works on a lot of different levels.

Boxing makes a great metaphor for fighting the trials of life, and Stallone really taps into that here.

Rocky is dealing with his place in life, and with the passing of time, and his relevance in it.

He's no longer the young man carving out a path for himself. He's a man that life has brutally swept aside.

He's the old man left to live out his life in obscurity.

In terms of creating an underdog it's a great place to begin.

Unlike the first film, which is a story of an underdog given a chance of a lifetime, and making the most of it.

This film is about an underdog reclaiming one's own life, and legacy against all odds.

It's even more effective when one considers that the character's arc in a way mirrors the actor playing it.

There's a lot of parallels between Rocky and Stallone, and he taps into that here.

His script also points out the inherent problems with the modern athlete.

How talent has gotten them to a point of mediocrity, and how they let success and hype define them, rather than building character through taking the treacherous journey of hard work and adversity .

The movie is also about making a difference in life. It's about taking up, and accepting the challenges that life brings. About being relevant in life, and not being content with being an observer of life.

It's really stirring, emotional stuff.

The movie feels like a call to arms for masculinity. He's calling on a more simple time, when the battles we endure defined the person we are.

It's the stuff of warriors.....and god help me I fell for it.

In terms of story, it's really a good film.

I guess a more cynical person can pick away at the logic of the situations, and the simplistic script. But I found the movie to be engaging, touching, and enjoyable.

I also have to admit that I have a soft spot for the character.

I remember reading the Rocky picture book when I was a kid. I remember that Rocky II was the first movie that I saw without my mother. I loved the song Eye of the Tiger and thought Mr. T was the coolest thing ever in Rocky 3. When I think about the 80's and the Cold war, I remember Ivan Drago and the audience in my Rocky 4 screening chanting U-S-A during the movie.

During this particular Rocky movie I was surprised to feel myself associate with the character in new ways. I found myself associating with Rocky's passage of time, I sympathized with him as a working class father, and lastly as a sports fan who finds it difficult to relate with the modern athlete. I also found myself rooting for Stallone as a performer. I admit, personally it's nice to see him do good work again.

But putting personal feelings aside, the movie really works. It's fun seeing Rocky in his element. The stuff like visiting Adrian's grave, seeing Rocky interact with Paulie (Burt Young), and reliving past moments from the first film was sympathetic, nostalgic and unexpectedly moving.

Honestly there's not a better way to close the book on this character's journey.

It's a perfect ending.

The film is directed well too. I've never been impressed by Stallone's direction, to be honest his track record isn't that impressive. But he hits all the right notes here.


The pacing was good, the use of flashbacks effective. I liked seeing the character in turmoil, and in emotional pain, then fighting back. I enjoyed the slow build towards the big fight. I found the training montage stirring, and I liked the action of the big fight. Surprisingly, the choreography in the film is the most realistic, and impressive of all the Rocky movies.

The film also benefits from solid performances. Stallone does his best work since....well the first Rocky. Real life boxer Antonio Tarver does a good job of making Mason Dixon arrogant, yet strangely affable and sympathetic, while also being a formidable opponent for Rocky. Burt Young returns with his always touching, and humorous performance as Paulie, and Milo Ventimiglia does a good job of playing Rocky's conflicted son.

It's just a good old fashioned well made movie.

No crazy special effects, fancy camera tricks, or complex story.

Just good refreshing fun.

I wasn't the only one enjoying myself either. The audience I was in were clapping, laughing, and cheering throughout the whole film as well.

When the movie ended I heard someone yell encore.


They wanted more Rocky.

It's really an excellent accomplishment for Sly Stallone. I'm sure that not many people were calling for another Rocky movie. But he fought to tell this story, and he pulled it off really nicely, and he provided us with an entertaining, touching story that in retrospect needed to be told.

The character deserved a good ending, and perhaps the audience needed to be reminded of how a character like Rocky can inspire, and move us in our own lives.

It's especially impressive considering that I found this film many times more moving, enjoyable, and artistically superior than other so called important boxing movies like Michael Mann's Ali, Best picture winner Million Dollar Baby, and Ron Howard's soulless and sappy Cinderella Man.

It's an accomplishment for Stallone that shouldn't be overlooked. Hopefully the film's success will open more doors for him to do good work.

Because after making this movie he deserves it.

Make sure to check out this fun, inspiring, and touching film.

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Tuesday, December 12, 2006


Ever cheer for a serial killer?

I guess that's a pretty odd question. But make no mistake viewers will find themselves doing so.

Airing on the Showtime network is the excellent television show Dexter, which features a serial killer as the protagonist of the show.

In all fairness he's more of a vigilante than a serial killer, but I guess that's all relative.

I really am surprised that I like this show. It's not really stuff that I usually respond to. I'm not a horror fan, and certainly not a fan of the serial killer genre, but this show has me hooked.

I think that it's really innovative stuff. Maybe even the best show on television.

The series revolves around Dexter Morgan, excellently played by Michael C. Hall. Dexter Morgan is a police forensics expert specializing in blood analysis of murder scenes in the Miami police department. He has a sister who is an ambitious police detective, and he was raised by an adopted father who was a police chief, but has since passed away.

What we learn through the course of the show is that a childhood event has traumatized Dexter to the point where he now has a lust for blood that can only be satisfied by killing people.

In flashbacks, we see his adopted father recognizing his son's mental illness, and rather than committing him to mental hospital, he teaches his son, using the many years of his own police training, to act out against murders and serial killers. To satisfy his son's blood lust.

In effect doing some good, by committing murder.

He's basically like The Punisher. But his tools of choice are a drug filled syringe to disable his victims, and a drill and hand saw to finish the job.

What's great about the show is that Dexter is a extraordinarily flawed character. He's a misfit with very little social skills. The character is obviously insane, but he's learned to create a charming mask that society seems to accept as normal. Even though he's far from it.

The show doesn't back away from the fact that this man is a monster in his own right. But we still find ourselves cheering for him.

Perhaps it's because we recognize his struggle to fit in, his awkwardness in certain situations, or that we simply admire his brand of justice against individuals who deserve to die at the hands of a sadistic killer.

Whatever the case, it's fascinating television.

The major storyline right now is Dexter's relationship with a fellow serial killer known as the Ice Truck killer.

The Ice Truck killer chops up the body parts of his victims, usually prostitutes , drains their blood completely, freezes the parts, then displays them in unique fashion in a public place for all to see.

Taunting the police.


Dexter finds himself simultaneously admiring, and being repulsed by the man's work.

Things get complicated when the killer reciprocates his affection by showing his admiration for Dexter's own killing work.

Dexter is torn between feeling a kinship with the killer as a fellow artist, and bringing the man to justice.

Things are even more complicated when we learn that there is some kind of connection between the two of them that only the Ice Truck killer knows....and will reveal in his own time.

Besides the excellent work of Michael C. Hall. The show features an excellent ensemble of actors including Julie Benz as Dexter's previously abused, and slightly disturbed girlfriend. Jennifer Carpenter as Dexter's oblivious and ambitious sister, James Remar as Dexter's complicated, deceased adopted father, and the creepy Christian Camargo as the Ice Truck killer.

It's definitely one of the best shows on television right now, and it might even signify the end of HBO's dominance of subscription television. Combined with Weeds and the L-Word, Showtime may now have bragging rights as the best network on television. Especially after the incredible disappointment of the 3rd season of Deadwood, and HBO's original programming misfires of Lucky Louie, and Dane Cook's Tourgasm.

Make sure to check out the series on Sunday nights at 10.

The season finale airs this Sunday.

I can't wait.

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