Final shovelful: Curse of the Golden Flower, more than just the best movie to reach our town for the holidays, is in some sense the only movie to do so. Zhang Yimou, in the first place, is a true moviemaker, and his dynamic visual style demonstrates exceptional weight, balance, timing, and agility. In short, exceptional command of the screen. Watching his shots fall into place is a little like watching the piece-by-piece construction of a palace. Or temple. Nothing humbler would quite do justice to a tale of courtly and amatory intrigue (Tang Dynasty, 10th Century) that aspires to Shakespearean, even Sophoclean, tragedy. Then, too, the director's reunion with his one-time muse and leading lady, Gong Li, over ten years after their personal falling-out, post-Shanghai Triad, makes the movie into a real "event," and the actress brings to it an inner fire to outglow even the molten-lava color scheme. I would not bother to dispute that the movie is somewhat talky and slow, but if I prefer it nevertheless to Zhang's Hero and House of Flying Daggers, my reasons in large part would be precisely the long postponement of the gravity-defying martial arts. Defying, that is, of not only Newton's sort of gravity but that of Shakespeare and Sophocles as well. Once the battles break out, they severely damage the sense of seriousness, although never the sense of style.

The Good Shepherd could be called, as one blurbist already has done, The Godfather of CIA movies, but only if you are satisfied to retain all the pretentiousness of The Godfather, right down to the oppressive underillumination, and do without any of the enlivening pyrotechnics. (Despite those subtractions, the movie still comes to within ten minutes or so of The Godfather's nearly three-hour duration.) Tremendously unentertaining, it slogs back and forth in time, beginning with, and regularly returning to, the Bay of Pigs fiasco and fallout, but retreating back as far as the protagonist's college days as a Yalie and an inductee into the Skull and Bones secret society in 1939 (and even, in a psychoanalytical flashback-within-a-flashback, as far as his boyhood and his father's suicide in 1925), and then working its way forward toward 1961 in incremental jumps. Second-time director Robert De Niro, who also has a small sedentary role as the protagonist's espionage mentor, may have convinced himself that the back-and-forth time shuttle (not to mention the Cuban connection) would transform this also into The Godfather II of CIA movies. But this, unlike that, is a single-generation narrative, and the continual interruptions in the storytelling serve little other purpose than to thwart any suspense. And since the block-of-wood Matt Damon hardly ages a day in twenty-plus years (nor does Angelina Jolie in the unaccustomed role of a neglected wife), our best hope to avoid confusion as to where we are on the timeline is to differentiate between his many eyeglass frames.

Rocky Balboa, the sixth installment in the Rocky series despite the absence of a Roman numeral to remind us, comes thirty years after the first one and sixteen after the fifth. It will stand as a serviceable definition of "retarded." Written and directed by its now sixty-year-old star, Sylvester Stallone, it wants nothing but to turn back the hands of time. Oh, Stallone may, in observance of auld lang syne, put his sanctified screen wife into the cold hard ground ("woman cancer"), and thus restrict Talia Shire, still listed in the credits, to youthful flashbacks. But what man, after all, with washboard abs and with veins bulging in his shoulders and biceps, could abide to be saddled with an old bag his own age? He can always get an eyelift, dip into the hair dye, put on the same hat, run up the same steps to the same music, replace the old Ugly Duckling with a younger Ugly Duckling (Geraldine Hughes, no spring chicken, but nonetheless a quarter-century his junior), and if the script says so, if wishful thinking wishes it, he can still give as good as he gets in a risible "exhibition match" against the current undefeated, but unrespected, heavyweight champ (former light-heavyweight champ, Antonio Tarver). Skill vs. Will, it's billed as, and no chance to mistake which is which. By rights, of course, Stallone ought to have taken over the Burgess Meredith role and left the fighting to, say, Hilary Swank. The glaring irony of it is that, while the on-screen Stallone is supposed to be the personification of heart and desire, the off-screen Stallone can only have been motivated by the thing that motivates his on-screen opponent and supposed opposite: lust for a big payday.

Night at the Museum, a hard-pressing kiddie fantasy that finds room to accommodate references to Brokeback Mountain and The Squid and the Whale, is a Jumanji-esque jumble of special effects, in which all the exhibits at the Natural History Museum in New York City come to life after dark. This allows for a lot of, frankly an excess of, variety: Lilliputian cowboys and Roman soldiers who tie down the new night watchman like Gulliver; a mischievous monkey who pees on him, pickpockets his keys, and engages in a Three Stooges-style slapfest with him; a T-rex skeleton who wants to play fetch; a talking, bubblegum-chewing Easter Island head; Attila and some Huns; some lions, an elephant, a zebra, a rhino, and so on. It also allows for logical mix-ups whereby, for example, the wax figure of Teddy Roosevelt knows full well he's a wax figure of our twenty-sixth President, while the wax figure of Sakajawea is regarded as the actual, taxidermized Indian maid, a boon to the tour guide who is writing a dissertation on her. Director Shawn Levy oversees one decent cinematic moment, the contrasting views of the Lilliputians letting the air out of the tires of a van at the loading dock, an action which at close range looks as if they're trying to plug a hole in the fuselage of a jetliner at 30,000 feet, while from a distance it looks as if all is calm. Mickey Rooney has a nice little role as a truculent security guard forced into retirement (addressing his replacement variously as "Hotshot," "Hopscotch," "Butterscotch," etc.), and Ricky Gervais, of the British The Office, shows off his narrow range to good effect as another embarrassing boss, the high-handed museum director ("Control your young, please"). Ben Stiller, on the other hand, shows off his own narrow range at great length in the lead role, and Robin Williams (the wax Teddy) and Owen Wilson (toy cowboy) are instantaneously tiresome.


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