Holiday Wishes go out to my friends and fellow bloggers- Chris and Ojo, Moviezzz, Sam, Dennis, Adam, Evan, Brad and Craig.
Robert DeNiro's "The Good Shepherd" is a taut, complex, and relentlessly intriguing film that uses its main character to bear mute witness on the formation of America's Central Intelligence Agency. Following a disjointed timeline that shuttles back and forth between the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion (and the potential fallout of the government's participation) and Edward Wilson's (Matt Damon) involvement of the agency when it was a foreign intelligence group during World War 2, "The Good Shepherd" reigns in classical style and quiet, intense ensemble acting. As the double and triple crosses mount, this is a film that forces the viewer to pay attention to dialogue, inference and to catalog his or her own sense of documented history. Among the faces that crop up amidst the 30 year timeline are Alec Baldwin as an FBI informant who gives Damon his first break, Keir Dullea splendidly embodying a morally (and politically) conflicted Russian agent, Michael Gambon as a poetry teacher, William Hurt, Joe Pesci (in a scene stealing few minutes) and John Turturro as Wilson's partner. The tendency with a film like this- i.e. one that clocks in at just under 3 hours- is to either bore the viewer to tears or fastidiously churn through time and events with little regard for the implications these events initiate. Fortunately, neither happens here. While there's little chemistry between Wilson and his wife (Angelina Jolie), its established fairly early on that theirs is a marriage of convenience for a woman desperate to settle down with one of the Skull and Bones classmates of her brother- certainly not out of love. And Wilson is not a monk, of course. A majority of his guarded sensibilities that form later in the film seem to stem directly from an impotent early romance with a deaf woman (played with affection by Tammy Blanchard). The script, credited to Eric Roth, resembles the political and moral acuity of his previously penned flick, "Munich". Both films present a main character charged with the job of upholding political justice. What each character gets in return is a slowly eroding sense of self. While Eric Bana violently sheds some pent up frustration and emotion towards the end of "Munich", Damon's Edward Wilson is a hapless observer as the agency's methods become more and more violent and each accomplice becomes more and more shaded in ambiguity. We get the sense he's a time bomb waiting to go off. Both character arches are radical in their own way, and director DeNiro never forces any of the script's big moments. Roth and DeNiro also clearly understand the importance of suspense cloaked not in gunfire, but in whispers and furtive glances. "The Good Shepherd" feels right at home in the 70's, not in 2006 when everything is bigger and louder.
Pedro Almodovar's "Volver" is yet another charming but ultimately middling portrait of strong women. Perched somewhere between a sub-par Hitchockian drama and a televison weepie, "Volver" is less affecting than the previous 2 Almodovars ("Bad Education" and "All About My Mother"). Penelope Cruz is good, and the scene where she stops traffic with a song inside a restaurant should probably earn her an Oscar nomination, but I can't help but feel a little jilted in the story's mild mannered approach to five distinct women in Madrid, all desperately trying to escape one life altering event in the past that comes to reap in the present (and present generation). Almodovar has treaded on this territory before, often with much more intimacy and emotion.