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December 23, 2006

The Good German Shepherd

I just got back from seeing DeNiro's The Good Shepherd, which would have been great had it had been twice as long and not featured such an egregiously miscast Angelina Jolie. I was really interested in the story of the CIA, but the film is so compressed and withdrawn that sustaining that interest was about all it could do. It's curious, though, how perfectly it dovetails with Soderbergh's The Good German, and not just in the coincidentally titular sense. That film is about the postwar effort to snatch up Nazi rocket scientists before the Soviets could get their hands on them; this one has an extended sequence dealing with exactly the same situation, and even though I don't necessarily recommend Soderbergh's film, it does have the benefit of adding a touch of illumination to DeNiro's. Nothing that a good history book couldn't do better, of course, which is a fault of The Good Shepherd as well. Still, although DeNiro's direction lifts more than a few pages from Coppola, it's a much better bit of mimicry than Soderbergh's take on Curtiz.

* * *

I can't think of the last time a monologue in a film managed to floor me the way Sarah Polley's does in Isabel Coixet's The Secret Life Of Words, which is the antithesis to the macho politicizing of Soderbergh and DeNiro's pictures. It's a quiet film, lulling even in its most devastating moments, and it contains the best line of dialogue I've heard all year. It's part of a very written exchange between Polley and Tim Robbins, near the end of the film; the same lines, delivered badly, could have been the stuff of high melodrama, but they're laid on the line so plainly and sincerely that, when Robbins says, "I'll learn to swim," I recognized something, some secret between his words that was so pure and rare that I just about lost it.

The film's soundtrack features David Byrne, Tom Waits and Antony And The Johnsons, among others; an outstanding lineup, but one that I found curiously unnecessary. Coixet's narrative is so succinct that the songs mostly function as emotional exposition, telling us what we already feel. And boy, do we feel it.

Posted by David Lowery at December 23, 2006 11:50 PM


Um...it's "The Good Shepherd."

Posted by: mutinyco at December 24, 2006 10:51 AM

It was supposed to be a play on titles (hence the lack of italics). Can't you imagine the logline? "The true story of one brave dog in the treacherous world of postwar Berlin..."

Posted by: Ghostboy at December 24, 2006 11:53 AM

Oh, I got that. Your speling is off though. You keep spelling it "Shepard."

Posted by: mutinyco at December 24, 2006 11:55 AM

Oooohhhh. I've been owned. Color me embarassed. And uneducated.

Posted by: Ghostboy at December 24, 2006 11:58 AM

Um...you're still misspelling it. It's SHEPHERD. A Shepherd tends a HERD, right?

Posted by: mutinyco at December 24, 2006 12:05 PM

i really want to see THE SECRET LIFE OF WORDS...
is it already out in dallas?...that's good to hear...i love both actors and am very excited...

Posted by: frank at December 24, 2006 12:08 PM

Ummmm....I have trouble with obstinacy...or something like that. Or maybe I'm just preoccupied...? Ah, no excuses. Thank you for looking out for me, and let this comments section stand as a record of the importance of spell checking. A record I'm sure I will quickly forget about, as is my unfortunate wont.

Frank, it's not open in Dallas yet, and I'm not sure when exactly it will be, but Yen told me he picked up the Region 2 DVD at Premiere video the other week.

Posted by: Ghostboy at December 24, 2006 12:21 PM

I actually just got back from The Good Shepherd. I still have a few more movies to watch, but so far, I'd argue it was the best major studio picture I've seen this year. It's the Barry Lyndon of spy movies -- not just for its precision and deliberateness, but because it presents a popular subject as it was, not how we imagine it, and also, by doing so, much as Lyndon was to say Tom Jones, it exists as the antithesis of its genre peers.

I don't think it'll make too much money. And reviews are polarized. But time will do well by it.

Posted by: mutinyco at December 24, 2006 6:49 PM

Hmmm. I'm trying to think of studio films I really liked this year, and am coming up short. I agree that it's a good film. I imagine that the genre peers you're thinking of might be stuff like Spy Game, and it certainly did present a nice alternative to the thrilling spy picture that years of 007 have predisposed us towards. Damon's character served as a fine window to the construction of an infrastructure, but it was in that development - the need for and growth of the CIA - that I felt the film loped along too quickly. Here's the response I wrote to the film at Andy Horbal's blog:

"I walked away from it unsure as to whether I actually gained any insight from it, historically or otherwise. Damon's character is a cipher (except for that one lovely moment in which he smiles), which isn't a problem - he should indeed have been the resolute obilisk around which the intrigue swings. But the CIA itself remained a curiously opaque entity throughout the film; the ending offers a certain thrill as Damon enters the under-construction Pentagon and the connective membrane between then and now becomes clear (like seeing the Blockade Runner in the last Star Wars movie!) but it's too fleeting. My stopgag criticism is that it should have been longer, and indeed, I'm sure there was a lot left on the cutting room floor; this project seems ripe for the mini-series treatment."

And of course by Blockade Runner, I meant Death Star. I wasn't thinking clearly. As I've evidenced quite a bit today.

Posted by: Ghostboy at December 24, 2006 10:49 PM

You should create a thread about this video and debate whether cinema is officially dead: http://one.revver.com/watch/95332

Posted by: mutinyco at December 25, 2006 12:28 AM

Wow. Yen, I hope you read this and click that link. It'll make your day.

Posted by: Ghostboy at December 25, 2006 1:35 AM

What do mean cinema is dead!? That was hilarious. Plus, I'm pretty sure it's fake. I've had plenty of bitches shit in my hottub and the brown doesn't spread quite that fast.

Posted by: jmj at December 25, 2006 9:51 PM

for my money, UNITED 93, INSIDE MAN, and CHILDREN OF MEN are all examples of studio filmmaking at its finest. THE GOOD SHEPHERD, while impressively executed, left me feeling as empty as THE GOOD GERMAN and a whole lot of other big budget presentations. i will now step down from my flimsy podium...

Posted by: tully at December 26, 2006 2:16 PM

Mike, I'm right there with you with those studio pics. For some reason, I forgot about both United 93 and The Inside Man, but they're definitely two of the best mainstream films of the year. It took me about a month to get around to seeing Inside Man after it opened, and when I did I couldn't believe no one had told me to go see it sooner. And I absolutley adored that remix of the musical number from the Bollywood film Dil Se that opened the film.

I just saw Children Of Men last night and that's right up there with them. A good year for Clive Owen films.

Posted by: Ghostboy at December 26, 2006 2:37 PM

United 93 is junk.

Posted by: mutinyco at December 26, 2006 4:32 PM

I don't think the airplane sequences of United 93 are particularly special (they are effective, but it's not hard for a talented filmmaker to screw something like that up). Where it excels are in the scenes on the ground, in the flight control center. Those are some of the best verite sequences I've seen in a long, long time, and the fact that it's most of the actual people from 9/11 acting in these scenes adds a really eerie sense of...accuracy...that I found hard to shake.

Posted by: Ghostboy at December 27, 2006 3:27 PM

There's something amusing to me about trying to capture verite in Super-35.

Posted by: mutinyco at December 28, 2006 12:30 PM