Film Openings

Week of December 21, 2006

Dreamgirls. (PG-13) Reviewed in this issue. CGX, DP, J14, KEN, MOO, OF, RON, STCH, STCL

The Good Shepherd. (R) It took Norman Mailer seven years and 1,282 pages to write 1991's Harlot's Ghost: A Novel of the CIA, so director Robert De Niro and screenwriter Eric Roth can be forgiven for taking two hours and 40 minutes to tell The Good Shepherd (aka A Movie of the CIA) — but then why does it feel so empty? As long as it is, Shepherd speeds through its leading man's life, cramming in 30 years without elaborating on any of them. The fictional story here is about Edward Wilson (Matt Damon), a CIA agent tied to the failed Bay of Pigs invasion and suspected of being a mole. Shepherd is supposed to be about the breaking of the heart and the gutting of the soul — the hollow nothing left when you're constantly told to trust no one. Yet to care about how secrets eradicate our humanity, you must first have humans, and Edward is barely that as he finds himself involved in a whole mess of intrigue. Certainly, the plight of the average man caught up in extraordinary circumstances can work. But Shepherd wants so badly to impart the entire history of the OSS and CIA that it trades extraordinary for meticulous and mundane. What a feat. (Robert Wilonsky) ARN, CPP, CGX, DP, J14, MR, OF, RON, SP, STCH, STCL, TS12

The History Boys. (R) On Broadway, where The History Boys won six Tonys and became a modest hit despite the absence of a Disney cartoon character in the cast, Alan Bennett's dog-eared paean to grammar-school life carried a nearly mythic resonance. No matter the 1980s Sheffield setting; it was instantly familiar to anyone who has ever been young, questioned the purpose of a slide rule, and felt that the world was his for the taking. Made by the same creative principals — Bennett, director Nicholas Hytner, and a superb cast who have now been with their roles for far longer than a term — the film version is a lesser thing, more fixed in space and time, and rendered almost unbearably "cinematic" in patches by Hytner's gymnastic camerawork. Yet the ideas and feelings of the piece remain so rich that it almost doesn't matter. The "history" under discussion here is that of history itself, as a classroom becomes a crucible for the debate over learning for its own sake versus "teaching to the test." But if The History Boys arrives at a perilous moment for culture and learning, it nevertheless instills in you hope for the youth of tomorrow and a newfound appreciation for the lyrical value of compound adjectives. (Foundas) HP

Night at the Museum. (PG) Ben Stiller — as usual, frazzled with a touch of hipster frump — is a divorced dad in need of a gig, lest his cutie-pie kid (Jake Cherry) wind up spending all of his time with uptight bond-trading New Dad (Paul Rudd, wasted in a straight-laced cameo). So Stiller's Larry takes a job as night watchman at the Museum of Natural History in Manhattan, where things go bump in the night thanks to an Egyptian trinket that animates stuffed mannequins and waxworks, whatever. The first half-hour's too slow; the last half-hour's too manic, as if to compensate. But it's the first outing from director Shawn Levy (he of Cheaper by the Dozen and Pink Panther infamy) that actually entertains, thanks in large measure to its being essentially a buddy pic, with Owen Wilson as a miniature cowpoke and Steve Coogan as his Roman counterpart. Stiller's almost irrelevant to the proceedings; his best scene involves a smart-ass monkey slapping him stupid, which is as dumb as it sounds. But he's boring because he has to be, lest Teddy Roosevelt (Robin Williams) run off with Sacajawea (Mizuo Peck) while Dick Van Dyke and Mickey Rooney (not wax figures, really) get away with the goods. Yeah, it's that kind of a holiday movie. (Wilonsky) ARN, CPP, CGX, DP, EG, GL, J14, MR, OF, RON, SP, STCH, STCL, TS12

Rocky Balboa. (PG) Reviewed in this issue. ARN, CGX, DP, EG, GL, J14, MR, OF, RON, SP, STCH, STCL, TS12

Sweet Land. (PG) A plot-driven Days of Heaven set mostly in rural Minnesota circa 1920, this gorgeously realized romance by first-time feature maker Ali Selim follows a German mail-order bride (Elizabeth Reaser) and her intended, a Norwegian-immigrant farmer (Tim Guinee); the two slowly fall for one another while working on the land and against their insular Lutheran community's ample prejudices in the wake of World War I. But Sweet Land is equally the story of a filmmaker in love with his actors and his material. Directing with a light comic touch and a palpable affection for the characters, Selim draws pitch-perfect acting from a large cast (John Heard, Ned Beatty, Alan Cumming, Alex Kingston, and Lois Smith) and achieves breathtaking levels of color and clarity from old-fashioned 35mm, whether focusing on his spirited heroine's alabaster skin or framing the couple's tiny farmhouse against an expanse of blue sky and gently swaying grain. The film's penny-pinching period re-creation convinces so fully that Selim seems to turn back the clock on the regional American indie too. Yet the tale of economic stratification and postwar intolerance is nothing if not timely. (J. Hoberman) PF

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