“MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – ROGUE NATION” (2015) Review

“MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – ROGUE NATION” (2015) Review

When I first learned that a fifth movie for the “MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE” movie franchise would be shot, I must admit that I was not particularly thrilled. As far as I was concerned, three or four movies were enough. The last film, “MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – GHOST PROTOCOL”, struck me as the high note of the franchise. I had doubts that the next film could be an improvement of the last film.

Paramount Pictures and the film’s producers (which included star Tom Cruise and J.J. Abrams) went ahead to produce and release the franchise’s fifth entry, “MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – ROGUE NATION”. The movie begins with IMF (Impossible Mission Force) agents Ethan Hunt and Benji Dunn engaged in a mission to intercept nerve gas being sold to terrorists. But when Hunt is captured and escapes from the customer who wanted the nerve gas, he becomes aware of an international criminal consortium called the Syndicate. He also meets a disavowed MI6 agent and Syndicate operative named Ilsa Faust, who helped him escape. But C.I.A. Director Alan Hunley does not believe in the existence of the Syndicate. Hunley also goes before a Senate committee to disband the IMF, despite Agent William Brandt’s efforts to stop him. Declared a rogue agent by the C.I.A., Hunt enlists the aide of Ilsa Faust and his former IMF colleagues – Benji, Luther Stickell and Brandt – to provide evidence on the existence of the Syndicate and bring down the organization’s leader who had earlier captured him.

If anyone had been reading some of my past reviews of the Summer 2015 movies (which I doubt), that person would noticed a good number of complaints on my part regarding the pacing of these movies. I will say this about “MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – ROGUE NATION”, it possesses a strong finish. And screenwriters Christopher MacQuarrie and Drew Pearce also managed to create a very interesting and complex tale that involved deception, double-crosses and misconceptions. And thanks to MacQuarrie, who also served as the movie’s director, “ROGUE NATION” featured both some first-rate dramatic scenes and outstanding action sequences.

My favorite dramatic scenes included Brandt’s clash with Hunley over the future of IMF; Faust’s attempts to convince the Syndicate’s leader, former MI-6 agent Solomon Lane, that she is loyal to him; Faust’s encounter with her MI6 Director Atlee, the quarrel between Hunt and the always skeptical Brandt on how to handle Lane, a USB flash drive that everyone seems to want, and Dunn’s kidnapping; and the confrontation between Hunt, Brandt, Hunley, Atlee and the Britain’s Prime Minister. But my favorite episode proved to be one of the last. It featured Hunt’s efforts to convince Lane to let Dunn go in exchange for the information on the flash drive. Thanks to the performers in that scene, I thought it was a phenomenon scene filled with tension.

But “MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – ROGUE NATION” is also an action film. And it featured some very outstanding scenes. Trailers and television spots made a big deal of the movie’s opening action shot featuring Tom Cruise and a cargo plane. I would have been impressed if I had not seen it so many times. But I was impressed by the high tension sequence at an opera performance in Vienna. I thought both MacQuarrie and film editor Eddie Hamilton handled it very well. Another favorite sequence proved to be Hunt, Faust and Dunn’s attempt to steal information about the Syndicate from inside an underwater turbine tank in Morocco. In fact, I think I was even more impressed with MacQuarrie and Hamilton’s work in this sequence than I was with the one in Austria. And I thought the film’s last action sequence in the streets of London was well handled and suspenseful . . . especially the fight scene between Faust and Lane’s right-hand man, Janik Vinter.

There is a good deal to like about “MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – ROGUE NATION”. But I would never regard it as my favorite movie from the franchise. Heck, I would not even rank it as my second favorite. As much as I liked the movie . . . I had some problems. One, “MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – ROGUE NATION” featured the fourth movie in the franchise in which either Ethan Hunt finds himself on the run as a rogue agent or when the IMF is in danger of being permanently disbanded. In the case of this movie, both happened. A senate committee disbanded IMF and Hunt ended up on the run, hunted by the C.I.A. Four movies out of five . . . this strikes me as a bit too much after five movies. And unoriginal. And why would the C.I.A. director go before a senate committed to disband the IMF? I could have sworn that the latter was a division or section of the C.I.A. It certainly seemed that way in the 1996 movie, “MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE”. Following the death of Jim Phelps, Ethan’s Hunt immediate supervisor proved to be then Director Eugene Kittridge (portrayed by Henry Czerny). And the IMF was located at the C.I.A. Headquarters in Langley, Virginia. Hunt also answered to Director Theodore Brassel (Laurence Fishburne), who also worked out of Langley. See what I am getting here? Why is this movie portraying the C.I.A. and the IMF as two separate agencies? I also could not help but shake my head that Hunley wanted to disband the IMF for what happened in “MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – GHOST PROTOCOL”. I understand that Hunley was upset that Hunt allowed those nuclear weapon codes to get into the hands of the main villain. But that happened four years ago. And why bring down an entire agency or division over the actions of one agent? Hunley should have simply went after Hunt. Speaking of the latter, while he was making goo-goo eyes at Elsa Faust, did he remember his estranged wife, Jules? Are they still legally married? Does he still love her?

What exactly was William Brandt’s current position at IMF? I never heard of a mere agent having enough authority to report before a Senate committee? I read somewhere that in this movie, IMF was currently without a director? Huh? This would never happen in the intelligence community. Even if there was no permanent director on hand, there would be an interim director before a permanent one could be found. Was MacQuarrie and Drew Pearce trying to hint that Brandt had risen up the IMF ladder? Why not Hunt? Why not allow Hunt to become the temporary director and allow Brandt to be the field agent? It would make more sense. What did not make any sense was that opening action sequence involving the retrieval of those nerve gas canisters. It would have been a lot easier for Hunt and Dunn to snatch the nerve gas before it could be loaded on that cargo plane. But the way the whole stunt was planned and carried out, I got the feeling it was nothing more than a glorified stunt planned to show audiences that Cruise still had what it took to be an action star. And it bored me. Also, I found myself slightly confused about the movie’s plot – namely the goals of Elsa Faust and Solomon Lane. At first, I thought Faust wanted the information that would expose the Syndicate. As it turned out, the information that she, Benji and Hunt had stolen was the same information that Syndicate leader wanted . . . MI6 funds that could finance his terrorist organization. So . . . was Faust playing Hunt and MI6 all along? Was Lane playing Hunt? Or did the screenwriters make a rather confusing switch in the plot in order to surprise the audiences? I have no idea.

I certainly had no problems with the movie’s performances. Tom Cruise gave a top-notched performance as Ethan Hunt . . . as always. But I got the feeling that there was nothing particular new or mind blowing about his performance. Many critics seemed to be more than impressed by Rebecca Ferguson’s performance as the allegedly disavowed MI6 agent, Elsa Faust. Yes, she did an excellent job in giving a very complex performance. But the “MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE” movie franchise has always been blessed with excellent and interesting women characters. She is not the first. Simon Pegg was very funny as IMF tech/agent Benji Dunn. More importantly, he did an excellent job in conveying Dunn’s growing confidence as a field agent. Although he did make a cameo appearance in the fourth “MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE”, it was nice to see Ving Rhames appear as a supporting player again, reprising his role as the talented hack/IMF computer technician, Luther Stickell. And it was nice to see Jeremy Renner reprise his role as IMF Agent William Brandt again. He gave first-rate performance, as always. But I was very disappointed that he was not feature in any major action sequences, other than the Morocco car chase.

The role of C.I.A. Director Alan Hunley must be the first bureaucrat I have ever seen Alec Baldwin portray. Being the consummate actor he has always been, Baldwin gave an excellent portrayal of a limited-minded man whose resentment and anger toward another man led him to disband an entire agency (or division). I was very impressed by Simon McBurney’s performance as the MI6 Director, Attlee. He did an excellent in conveying the character’s manipulative and slightly malevolent personality. Sean Williams’s character, Solomon Lane, definitely struck me as malevolent, thanks to the actor’s performance. There were times when his character came off as a one-dimensional James Bond villain. But fortunately, his scenes with Cruise later in the film allowed audiences to fleetingly see the emotional toll that Lane had endured as an MI6 agent. “ROGUE NATION” also featured a very funny cameo appearance by Tom Hollander as the Prime Minister. I find this ironic, considering the tense nature of the scene he had appeared in.

In a nutshell, “MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – ROGUE NATION” was an entertaining and exciting addition to the movie franchise. I thought Christopher MacQuarrie and Drew Pearce managed to create an interesting tale filled with intrigue, double-cross, first-rate action and excellent acting from a cast led by Tom Cruise. However . . . I thought the movie slightly suffered from some plot holes and a writing formula that is starting to seem a bit tired. I understand that Paramount has already green-lighted a sixth film for the franchise. I hope that it will prove to be a bit more original.

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Ranking of Movies Seen During Summer 2015

Usually I would list my ten favorite summer movies of any particular year. However, I only watched ten new releases during the summer of 2015. Due to the limited number, I decided to rank the films that I saw:

 

 

RANKING OF MOVIES SEEN DURING SUMMER 2015

1. “Jurassic World” – In the fourth movie for the JURASSIC PARK franchise, a new dinosaur created for the Jurassic World theme park goes amok and creates havoc. Directed by Colin Trevorrow, the movie starred Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard.

 

 

2. “Ant-Man” – Convicted thief Scott Lang is recruited to become Ant-Man for a heist in this new entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Directed by Peyton Reed, Paul Rudd, Evangeline Lily and Michael Douglas starred.

 

 

3. “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” – Guy Ritchie directed this adaptation of the 1964-1968 television series about agents for the C.I.A. and KGB working together to fight neo-Nazis in the early 1960s. Armie Hammer, Henry Cavill and Alicia Vikander starred.

 

 

4. “Tomorrowland” – Brad Bird directed this imaginative tale about a a former boy-genius inventor and a scientifically inclined adolescent girl’s search for a special realm where ingenuity is encouraged. George Clooney, Britt Robertson and Hugh Laurie starred.

 

 

5. “The Avengers: Age of Ultron” – Earth’s Mightiest Heroes are forced to prevent an artificial intelligence created by Tony Stark and Bruce Banner from destroying mankind. Joss Whedon wrote and directed this second AVENGERS film.

 

 

6. “Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation” – Tom Cruise starred in this fifth entry in the MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE” film franchise about Ethan Hunt’s efforts to find and destroy a rogue intelligence organization engaged in terrorist activities.

 

 

7. “Mr. Holmes” – Ian McKellen starred in this adaptation of Mitch Cullin’s 2005 novel about the aging Sherlock Holmes’ efforts to recall his last case. Directed by Bill Condon, Laura Linney and Milo Parker co-starred.

 

 

8. “Fantastic Four” – Josh Trank directed this reboot of the Marvel comics series about four young people whose physical form is altered after they teleport to an alternate and dangerous universe. Miles Teller, Kate Mara, Michael B. Jordan and Jamie Bell starred.

 

 

9. “Entourage” – Doug Ellin wrote and directed this fluffy continuation of the 2004-2011 HBO series about a movie star and his group of friends dealing with a new project. Kevin Connolly, Adrian Grenier, Kevin Dillon, Jerry Ferrara and Jeremy Piven starred.

 

 

10. “Terminator: Genisys” – Alan Taylor directed this fifth movie in the TERMINATOR franchise, an unexpected turn of events creates a fractured timeline when Resistance fighter Kyle Reese goes back to 1984 in order to prevent the death of leader John Connor’s mother. Arnold Schwartzenegger, Emilia Clarke, Jai Courtney and Jason Clarke starred.

Ten Favorite SOUTHERN GOTHIC Movies

Southern-Gothic-image

Below is a list of my favorite movies with the theme of Southern Gothic:

 

TEN FAVORITE SOUTHERN GOTHIC MOVIES

1 - Written on the Wind

1. “Written on the Wind” (1956) – Douglas Sirk directed this lush adaptation of Robert Wilder’s 1945 novel about the damaging effects of a self-indulgent Texas family whose wealth stems from oil. The movie starred Rock Hudson, Lauren Bacall, Robert Stack and Oscar winner Dorothy Malone.

 

2 - The Beguiled

2. “The Beguiled” (1971) – Clint Eastwood starred in this surprisingly effective adaptation of Thomas P. Cullinan’s 1966 novel about a Union soldier’s stay at a girl’s school in 1863 Mississippi. Directed by Don Siegel, the movie co-starred Geraldine Page and Elizabeth Hartman.

 

3 - Eves Bayou

3. “Eve’s Bayou” (1997) – Samuel L. Jackson, Lynn Whitfield and Debbie Morgan starred in this excellent tale about the affects of a Louisiana doctor’s extramarital affairs upon his family. The movie was written and directed by Kasi Lemmons.

 

4 - The Long Hot Summer 1985

4. “The Long Hot Summer” (1985) – Don Johnson and Judith Ivey starred in this excellent television remake of the 1958 film about an ambitious drifter’s experiences with a wealthy Mississippi family. Stuart Cooper directed this two-part television movie.

 

5 - Interview With a Vampire

5. “Interview With the Vampire: The Vampire Chronicles” (1994) – Neil Jordan directed this excellent adaptation of Anne Rice’s 1976 novel about a former Louisiana planter-turned-vampire, who recalls his past history with a young reporter. Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt starred.

 

6 - Heavens Prisoners

6. “Heaven’s Prisoners” (1996) – Alec Baldwin starred in this interesting adaptation of James Lee Burke’s 1988 novel about a former New Orleans detective, who investigates the circumstances behind a mysterious plane crash. Directed by Phil Joanou, the movie co-starred Kelly Lynch, Eric Roberts, Teri Hatcher and Mary Stuart Masterson.

 

7 - The Story of Temple Drake

7. “The Story of Temple Drake” (1933) – Miriam Hopkins starred in this controversial adaptation of William Faulkner’s 1931 novel, “Sanctuary”; which told the story of a young Southern socialite who falls into the hands of a brutal gangster. Stephen Roberts directed.

 

8 - The Skeleton Key

8. “The Skeleton Key” (2005) – Kate Hudson starred in this atmospheric thriller about a New Orleans hospice, who becomes entangled in a mystery surrounding an old Louisiana plantation manor and Hoodoo rituals. Directed by Iain Sofley, the movie co-starred Gena Rowland, Peter Sarsgaard and John Hurt.

 

9 - One False Move

9. “One False Move” (1992) – Bill Paxton and Billy Bob Thornton starred in this fascinating crime thriller about a Arkansas sheriff anticipating the arrival of three violent drug dealers. Directed by Carl Franklin, the movie co-starred Cynda Williams and Michael Beach.

 

10 - The Long Hot Summer 1958

10. “The Long Hot Summer” (1958) – Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward starred in this original adaptation of three William Faulkner novellas about the experiences of an ambitious drifter with a wealthy Mississippi family. The movie was directed by Martin Ritt.

“THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER” (1990) Review

red-october

 

“THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER” (1990) Review

I will be the first to admit that I have never been an ardent reader of Tom Clancy’s novels. Many who know me would find this strange, considering my penchant for the movie adaptations of his stories. The first I ever saw was “THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER”, the 1990 adaptation of Clancy’s 1984 novel of the same title.

The last remnants of the Cold War – at least the one between the United States and the Soviet Union – were being played out when “THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER” hit the screen. Realizing this, director John McTiernan, screenwriter Larry Ferguson (who also had a role in the film) and producer Mace Neufeld decided to treat Clancy’s story as a flashback by setting the movie in the year Clancy’s novel was published. The movie begins with the departure of the new Soviet submarine, the Red October, which possesses a new caterpillar drive that renders it silent. In command of the Red October is Captain Marko Ramius. Somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean, the U.S. Navy submarine called the U.S.S. Dallas has a brief encounter with the Red October before it loses contact due to the Soviet sub’s caterpillar drive. This encounter catches the attention of C.I.A. analyst Jack Ryan, who embarks upon studying the Red October’s schematics.

Unbeknownst to the C.I.A., Captain Ramius has put in motion a plan for the defection of his senior officers and himself. They also intend to commit treason by handing over the Red October to the Americans. Unfortunately, Ramius has left a letter stating his intentions to his brother-in-law, a Soviet government official. This leads the Soviet ambassador in Washington D.C. to inform the Secretary of Defense that the Red October has been lost at sea and requires the U.S. Navy’s help for a “rescue mission”. However, Ryan manages to ascertain that Ramius plans to defect. When the Soviets change tactics and claim that Captain Ramius has become a renegade with plans to fire a missile at the U.S. coast, Ryan realizes that he needs to figure out “how” Ramius plans to defect before the Soviet or U.S. Navies can sink the Red October.

I might as well put my cards on the table. After twenty-three years, “THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER” holds up very well as a Cold War thriller. What prevented it from becoming a dated film were the filmmakers’ decision to treat Clancy’s tale as a flashback to the last decade of the Cold War. I have never read Clancy’s novel. In fact, I have only read two of his novels – “Patriot Games” and “Clear and Present Danger”. Because of this, I could not judge the movie’s adaptation of the 1984 novel. But there is no doubt that “THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER” is a first-rate – probably superb thriller. Screenwriters Larry Ferguson and Donald E. Stewart made another first-rate contribution to the script by not rushing the narrative aspect of the story. The movie is not some fast-paced tale stuffed with over-the-top action. Yes, there is action in the film – mainly combat encounters, a murder, hazardous flying in a rain storm and a shoot-out inside the Red October’s engine room. And it is all exciting stuff. However, Ferguson and Stewart wisely detailed the conversations held between Ramius and his fellow defectors, Ryan’s attempts to figure out Ramius’ defection plans and his efforts to convince various high-ranking U.S. Naval officers not to accept the Soviets’ lies about the Red October’s captain.

“THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER” also features some excellent performances. Sean Connery gave one of his best performances as the Red October’s enigmatic and wily captain, Markus Ramius. Alec Baldwin was equally impressive as the slightly bookish, yet very intelligent C.I.A. analyst, Jack Ryan. A part of me believes it is a pity that he never portrayed the role again. The movie also boasted fine performances from James Earl Jones as Ryan’s boss, C.I.A. Deputy Director James Greer; Scott Glenn as the intimidating captain of the U.S.S. Dallas, Bart Mancuso; Sam Neill as Ramius’ very loyal First Officer, Vasily Borodin; Fred Dalton Thompson as Rear Admiral Joshua Painter; Courtney B. Vance as the Dallas’ talented Sonar Technician, Ronald “Jonesy” Jones; Tim Curry as the Red October’s somewhat anxious Chief Medical Officer (and the only one not part of the defection) Dr. Yevgeniy Petrov; and Joss Ackland as Ambassador Andrei Lysenko. Stellan Skarsgård made a dynamic first impression for me as Viktor Tupolev, the Soviet sub commander ordered to hunt and kill Ramius. And Richard Jordan was downright entertaining as the intelligent and somewhat manipulative National Security Advisor Dr. Jeffrey Pelt. The movie also featured brief appearances from the likes of Tomas Arana, Gates McFadden (of “STAR TREK: NEXT GENERATION”) and Peter Firth (of “SPOOKS”).

Before one starts believing that I view “THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER” as perfect, I must admit there were a few aspects of it that I found a bit troublesome for me. The movie has a running time of 134 minutes. Mind you, I do not consider this as a problem. However, the pacing seemed in danger of slowing down to a crawl two-thirds into the movie. It took the Dallas’ encounter with the Red October to put some spark back into the movie again. And could someone explain why Gates McFadden portrayed Ryan’s wife, Dr. Cathy Ryan, with a slight British accent? Especially since she was an American-born character?

Despite these minor quibbles, “THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER” is a first-rate spy thriller that has withstood the test of time for the past 23 years. And I believe the movie’s sterling qualities own a lot to John McTiernan’s excellent direction, a well-written script by Larry Ferguson and Donald E. Stewart, and superb performances from a cast led by Sean Connery and Alec Baldwin.

“THE AVIATOR” (2004) Review

 

“THE AVIATOR” (2004) Review

There have been many films, television episodes and documentaries that either featured or were about aviation pioneer and movie producer Howard Hughes. But Martin Scorsese’s 2004 biopic, “THE AVIATOR”, was the first that featured a large-scale production about his life.

Set twenty years between 1927 and 1947, “THE AVIATOR” centered on Hughes’ life from the late 1920s to 1947 during the time he became a successful film producer and an aviation magnate, while simultaneously growing more unstable due to severe obsessive-compulsive disorder. The movie opened with the Houston-born millionaire living in California and producing his World War I opus, “HELL’S ANGELS”. He hires Noah Dietrich to run his Texas operation, the Hughes Tool Company, while he becomes increasingly obsessed with finishing the movie.

“THE AVIATOR” not only covered Hughes’ production of “HELL’S ANGELS” in the 1920s; it also covered his life during the next fifteen to twenty years. The 1930s featured his romance with actress Katherine Hepburn and his aviation achievements in the 1930s, including his purchase of Transcontinental and Western Air (TWA). However, the second half of the movie covers the years 1941-47, which featured his relationships with Ava Gardner and Faith Domergue, his obsession with construction his military flying ship the Hercules (Spruce Goose), his near-fatal crash in the XF-11 reconnaissance plane, his legal and financial problems that led to conflicts with both Pan Am chairman Juan Trippe and Maine Senator Owen Brewster, and most importantly his increasingly inability to deal with his obsessive-compulsive disorder.

I have never maintained a strong interest in Howard Hughes before I saw “THE AVIATOR”. One, his politics have always repelled me. And two, most productions tend to portray Hughes from an extreme point-of-view, with the exception of Jason Robards’ portrayal of him in the 1980 movie, “MELVIN AND HOWARD”, and Terry O’Quinn’s more rational portrayal in 1991’s “THE ROCKETEER”“THE AVIATOR” seemed to be another exception to the rule. With Hughes as the main character, director Martin Scorsese and screenwriter Josh Logan managed to delve into the millionaire to create a portrait of a admittedly fascinating and complex man. Foreknowledge of Hughes’ obsessive-compulsive disorder allowed Scorcese, Logan and DiCaprio to approach the subject, instead of dismissing it as a sign of the millionaire’s growing insanity. Both Scorsese and Logan seemed willing to explore nearly all aspects of Hughes’ personality – both good and bad – with the exception of one area. I noticed that both director and screenwriter had failed to touch upon the man’s racism. With the exception of one brief scene in which Hughes briefly pondered on any alleged sins of a fictional columnist named Roland Sweet, the movie never really hinted, let alone explored this darker aspect of Hughes’ personality. I have to applaud both Scorsese and Logan for the manner in which they ended the film. “THE AVIATOR” could have easily ended on a triumphant note, following Hughes’ defeat of both Juan Trippe and Senator Owen Brewster. Instead, the movie ended with Hughes’ obsessive-compulsive disorder slipping out of control, hinting the descent that he would experience over the next three decades.

Many recent biopics tend to portray the lives and experiences of its subjects via flashbacks. Why? I do not know. This method is no longer revolutionary or even original. Yet, many filmmakers still utilize flashbacks in biopics as if it is something new. Thankfully, Scorsese and Logan tossed the use of flashbacks in the wind and decided to tell Hughes’ story in a linear narrative. And I say, thank God, because flashbacks are becoming a bore. However, Scorsese and cinematographer Robert Richardson, with the help of Legend Films, did something unique for the film’s look. Since “THE AVIATOR” was set during Hughes’ first twenty years in Hollywood, the pair decided to utilize the Multicolor process (in which a film appeared in shades of red and cyan blue) for the film’s first 50 minutes, set between 1927 and 1935. This color process was available during this period. Hollywood began using Three-strip Technicolor after 1935. And to emulate this, Scorsese, Richardson and Legend Films tried to re-create this look for the scenes set after 1935. And I must say that I really enjoyed what they did. Apparently, so did the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Richardson won a Best Cinematography Oscar for his work.

“THE AVIATOR” earned ten (10) more Academy Award nominations; including including Best Picture, Best Director for Scorsese, Best Original Screenplay for Logan, Best Actor for Leonardo DiCaprio, Best Supporting Actor for Alan Alda, Best Supporting Actress for Cate Blanchett, Best Film Editing for Thelma Schoonmaker, Best Costume Design for Sandy Powell, and Best Art Direction for Robert Guerra, Claude Paré and Luca Tranchino. Along with Richardson, Blanchett, Schoonmaker, Guerra, Paré and Luca all won. I would have been even more happy if Scorsese, DiCaprio and Logan had also won. But we cannot always get what we want. I realize that “THE AVIATOR” is not the most original biopic ever made. But there is so much about the film’s style, content and the acting that I enjoyed that it has become one of my favorite biopics, anyway. I was especially impressed by Schoonmaker’s editing in the sequence featuring Hughes’ crash of the experimental XF-11 in a Beverly Hills neighborhood, Sandy Powell’s beautiful costumes that covered three decades in Hughes’ life and the rich and gorgeous art designs from the team of Guerra, Paré and Tranchino; who did a superb job of re-creating Southern California between 1927 and 1947.

But no matter how beautiful a movie looked, it is nothing without a first-rate script and an excellent cast. I have already commented on Josh Logan’s screenplay. I might as well do the same about the cast of “THE AVIATOR”. The movie featured solid performances from the likes of John C. Reilly as Noah Dietrich, Hughes’ right-hand man; Ian Holm as Hughes’ minion Professor Fitz; Matt Ross as another one of Hughes’ right-hand men, Glen “Odie” Odekirk; and Kelli Garner as future RKO starlet Faith Domergue. Danny Huston was stalwart, but not particularly memorable as TWA executive, Jack Frye. Jude Law gave an entertaining, yet slightly over-the-top cameo as Hollywood legend Errol Flynn. Adam Scott also tickled my funny bone, thanks to his amusing performance as Hughes’ publicist Johnny Meyer. And Gwen Stefani gave a surprisingly good performance as another film legend, Jean Harlow.

As I had stated before, Cate Blanchett won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her portrayal of Hollywood icon, Katherine Hepburn. At first, I had feared that Blanchett’s performance would turn out to be nothing more than mimicry of Hepburn’s well-known traits. But Blanchett did a superb job of portraying Hepburn as a full-blooded character and stopped short of portraying the other actress as a cliche. I could also say the same for Kate Beckinsale, who gave a more subtle performance as another Hollywood legend, Ava Gardner. At first, Beckinsale’s portrayal of Gardner’s sexuality threatened to seem like a cliche. But the actress managed to portray Gardner as a human being . . . especially in two scenes that featured the latter’s anger at Hughes’ possessive behavior and her successful attempt at drawing the aviator out of his shell, following Congress’ harassment. Alan Alda was superb as the manipulative Maine senator, Owen Brewster, who harassed and prosecuted Hughes on behalf of Pan Am and Juan Trippe. He truly deserved an Oscar nomination for portraying one of the most subtle villains I have ever seen on film. And Alec Baldwin gave a wonderfully sly and subtle performance as the Pan Am founder and Hughes’ business rival.

But the man of the hour who carried a 169 minutes film on his back turned out to be the movie’s leading man, Leonardo DiCaprio. The actor, who was twenty-nine to thirty years old at the time, did a superb job of re-capturing nearly every aspect of Howard Hughes’ personality. More importantly, his acting skills enabled him to convey Hughes’ age over a period of twenty years – from 22 to 42. What I really admired about DiCaprio was his ability to maintain control of a performance about a man who was gradual losing control, thanks to his medical condition. I suspect that portraying a man with an obsessive-compulsive disorder, over a period of two decades must have been quite a task for DiCaprio. But he stepped up to the batter’s plate and in the end, gave one of the best performances of his career.

For me, it seemed a pity that “THE AVIATOR” had failed to cap the Best Picture prize for 2004. Mind you, it is not one of the most original biographical dramas I have ever seen. Then again, I cannot recall a biographical movie that struck me as unusual. Or it could be that the Academy has associated Martin Scorsese with crime dramas about the Mob. In the end, it does not matter. Even after nearly eight years, “THE AVIATOR”, still continues to dazzle me. Martin Scorsese did a superb job in creating one of the best biographical films I have seen in the past two to three decades.

“THE GOOD SHEPHERD” (2006) Review

 

“THE GOOD SHEPHERD” (2006) Review

As far as I know, Academy Award winning actor Robert De Niro has directed at least two movies during his long career. One of them was the 1992 movie, “A BRONX’S TALE”, which I have yet to see. The other was the 2006 espionage epic called “THE GOOD SHEPHERD”

Starring Matt Damon and Angelina Jolie, “THE GOOD SHEPHERD” told the fictionalized story about the birth of the Central Intelligence Agency (C.I.A.) and counter-intelligence through the eyes of one man named Edward Wilson. Edward, the product of an East Coast aristocratic family and a C.I.A. official, has received an anonymous package during the spring of 1961. The famous C.I.A operation, the Bay of Pigs Invasion of Cuba had just failed. Inside the package is a reel-to-reel tape that reveals two unidentifiable people engaged in sex. Suspecting that the tape might reveal leads to the failure behind the Cuban operation, Edward has the tape investigated. The results lead to a possibility that the operation’s failure may have originated very close to home. During Edward’s investigation of the reel tape and the failure behind the Bay of Pigs, the movie reveals the history of his personal life and his career in both the C.I.A. and the Office of Strategic Services (O.S.S.) during World War II.

Many film critics and historians believe that the Edward Wilson character in “THE GOOD SHEPHERD” is loosely based upon the lives and careers of American intelligence officers, James Jesus Angelton and Richard M. Bissell, Jr.. And there might be some truth in this observation. But if I must be frank, I was never really concerned if the movie was a loose biography of anyone associated with the C.I.A. My concerns mainly focused on whether “THE GOOD SHEPHERD” is a good movie. Mind you, I had a few quibbles with it, but in the end I thought it was an above-average movie that gave moviegoers a peek into the operations of the C.I.A. and this country’s history between 1939 and 1961.

It is a pity that “THE GOOD SHEPHERD” was marred by a handful of prominent flaws. It really had the potential to be a well-made and memorable film. One of the problems I had were most of the characters’ emotional repression. Are we really supposed to believe that nearly every member of the upper-class in the country’s Northeast region are incapable of expressing overt emotion? I am not claiming that the performances were bad. Frankly, I was very impress by the performances featured in the movie. But the idea of nearly every major character – especially those born with a silver spoon – barely speaking above an audible whisper, due to his or her priviledged background, strikes me as more of a cliché than interesting and/or original characterization. I never understood what led Edward to finally realize that the man he believed was the genuine KGB defector Valentin Mironov, was actually a double agent. He should have realized this when the real Mironov had arrived several years earlier. The circumstances that led Edward to seek evidence inside one of the fake defector’s struck me as rather vague and far-reaching on screenwriter Eric Roth’s part. My main problem with “THE GOOD SHEPHERD” was its pacing. It was simply TOO DAMN SLOW. The movie has an interesting story, but De Niro’s snail-like pacing made it difficult for me to maintain my interest in one sitting. Thank goodness for DVDs. I feel that the only way to truly appreciate “THE GOOD SHEPHERD” without falling asleep is to watch a DVD copy in installments.

However, thanks to Eric Roth’s screenplay and Robert De Niro’s direction, “THE GOOD SHEPHERD” offered plenty of scenes and moments to enjoy. The moment of seduction at a Skull and Bones gathering that led Edward into a loveless marriage with Margaret ‘Clover’ Russell struck me as fascinating. It was a moment filled with passion and sex. Yet, the circumstances – namely Margaret’s pregnancy – forced Edward to give up a college love and marry a woman he did not truly love. I also enjoyed how De Niro and Roth used flashbacks to reveal the incidents in Edward’s post-college life and C.I.A. career, while he persisted into his investigation of the mysterious tape in the movie’s present day (1961). I was especially impressed by De Niro’s smooth ability to handle the transition from the present, to the past and back without missing a beat.

There were two scenes really stood out for me. One involved the Agency’s interrogation of the real Soviet defector, Valentin Mironov. I found it brutal, somewhat bloody and rather tragic in a perverse way. The other scene featured a loud and emotional quarrel between Edward and Margaret over the latter’s demand that Edward should convince his son not to join the C.I.A. What made this quarrel interesting is that after twenty years of a quiet and repressive marriage, the two finally revealed their true feelings for each other. But the best aspect of “THE GOOD SHEPHERD” was its depiction of how a decent, yet flawed allowed his work in intelligence and his position of power within the intelligence community warp his character. The higher Edward rose within the ranks of the C.I.A., the more he distanced himself from his family with his lies and secrets, and the more he was willing to corrupt himself in the name of national security . . . even to the extent of disrupting his son’s chance for happiness.

“THE GOOD SHEPHERD” must be one of the few large-scale movie productions, whose photography and production designs failed to give the impression of an epic. I found Robert Richardson’s photography rather limited, despite the numerous settings featured in the plot. So much of the movie’s scenes featured an interior setting. Yet, even most of the exterior scenes seemed to reflect a limited view. In the end, it was up to the movie’s 167 minute running time and 22 years time span that gave “THE GOOD SHEPHERD” an epic feel to it.

Robert De Niro and the casting team did a pretty good job in their selection of the cast. The only one I had a problem with was actor Lee Pace, who portrayed a fictionalized version of C.I.A. director Richard Helms named . . . Richard Hayes. I have always viewed Pace as an outstanding actor, but he spent most of his scenes smirking on the sidelines or making slightly insidious comments to the Edward Wilson character. I believe Roth’s screenplay had failed to give substance to his role. But there were plenty of other good supporting performances. I was especially impressed by Oleg Shtefanko’s subtle, yet insidious portryal of Edward’s KGB counterpart, Stas Siyanko aka Ulysses. Director Robert De Niro, John Sessions, Alec Baldwin, William Hurt, Billy Crudup, Joe Pesci and Tammy Blanchard all gave solid performances. Eddie Redmayne held his own with both Matt Damon and Angelina Jolie as the Wilsons’ intimidated and resentful son, Edward Wilson, Jr. Michael Gambon was his usual competent self as an MI-6 spymaster named Dr. Fredricks. Gambon was also lucky to give one of the best lines in the movie.

At least three performances impressed me. John Tuturro was very memorable as Edward’s tough and ruthless deputy, Ray Brocco. For once, De Niro’s insistence upon minimilist acting worked very well in Tuturro’s favor. The actor did an excellent job in portraying Brocco’s aggression with a very subtle performance, producing an interesting contrast in the character’s personality. I realize that Angelina Jolie had won her Oscar for “GIRL, INTERRUPTED”, a movie that had been released at least seven years before “THE GOOD SHEPHERD”. But I sincerely believe that her portryal of Edward’s long suffering wife, Margaret, was the first role in which she truly impressed me. She tossed away her usual habits and little tricks in order to give a very mature and subtle performance as a woman slowly sinking under the weight of a loveless and repressive marriage. And I believe that Jolie has not looked back, since. The task of carrying the 167-minute film fell upon the shoulders of Matt Damon and as usual, he was more than up to the job. And while there were times when his performance seemed a bit too subtle, I cannot deny that he did a superb job of developing the Edward Wilson character from a priviledge, yet inexperienced college student to a mature and emotionally repressed man who was willing to live with the negative aspects of his profession.

I do not believe that “THE GOOD SHEPHERD” will ever be considered as a great film. It has a small number of flaws, but those flaws were not as minor as they should have been – especially the slow pacing that threatened to put me to sleep. But I cannot deny it is damn good movie, thanks to Robert De Niro’s direction, Eric Roth’s screenplay and a talented cast led by Matt Damon. Five years have passed since its release. It seems a pity that De Niro has not directed a movie since.