Thursday, December 27, 2007

We've Moved!

This is no longer the site for the Oklahoma Film Critics Circle.

Please visit us at our new location at

Thursday, March 01, 2007

"Putting Pants on Philip" (Clyde Bruckman, 1927)

The first dialogue card in “Putting Pants on Philip” (1927) informs us that we are about to see “The story of a Scotch lad who came to America to hunt for a Columbian half-dollar -- his grandfather lost it in 1893,” but that’s not what the film is really about. Yes, Stan Laurel is Philip, fresh off the ship from Scotland, but the printed narration is a diversion. The real joke is Philip’s kilt. You’ll be relieved to know that he does sport underwear beneath. We know because at one point, he loses them.

This two-reel farce has frequently been billed as the first Laurel and Hardy picture, but that’s misleading, too. They’d appeared in over a dozen shorts together by the time this one was shot. If anything, PPOP is the first time they were beginning to develop the characters we know as The Boys. We see the famous nitwit duo here only in flashes. There are times when we can actually see them thinking. Stanley is much more aggressive in the film, and Ollie is more dapper and capable of living in the real world.

But is this the real world? The street scenes, of which there are plenty, look like a mid-sized, middle class area of Los Angeles or one of its near neighbors, but if Philip has just arrived by ocean liner from Scotland, he wouldn’t be docking on the west coast.

Of course, no subliminal message was intended by the filmmakers--it’s just the usual marriage of convenience and economics—but it presages the moments of mini-surrealism for which Laurel’s gags would become famous.

We open on the Hon. Piedmont Mumblethunder (Hardy), who is waiting on the docks to meet his sister’s son, Philip, arriving from Scotland. We see that sis has sent a letter by way of introduction and she warns her brother (hereafter called Hardy because if I have to type Mumblethunder too many times I may just forget the whole thing) that Philip (Laurel) has but one weakness—women.

Philip disembarks with another Scotsman, and the ship's doctor (an uncredited Sam Lufkin) insists on giving him a quick physical. As the doc probes and gropes him and tries to search his hair for lice or worms, the crowd on the pier begins giggling. This crowd includes Hardy who, despite the fact that he knows he’s meeting a Scot and Laurel is wearing a kilt, pities the poor sucker who's stuck with meeting his nitwit. Ollie's slow realization who the sucker is, is vintage Oliver Hardy.

Other than the kilt, there is no joke in their appearance. Hardy is in a natty sports coat and boater. Laurel is wearing a tam, but both of them have clothes that are clean and well-fitted, unlike the tight suits that Hardy will later adopt.

Pulling his nephew away from the chortling crowd, Hardy asks Laurel what he wants to do, when SHE (Dorothy Coburn, uncredited) walks by—and She is a leggy flapper with bobbed hair and a pert attitude. Laurel, instantly smitten, delivers the first of many scissor-jumps and Hardy has to grab him to keep him from pursuing her.

Walking down the street, Hardy insists that Laurel stays several steps behind him as he is an influential citizen and he doesn't want anyone to see him strolling along with a man in what looks like a dress. Every time Laurel catches up to him, he links arms with his uncle and the following crowd erupts in laughter. When Hardy asks a cop for help in keeping the crowd from ridiculing them, the cop laughs, too.

Then She passes by again, up jumps Laurel, and the chase is on. This time it ends with a slightly larger crowd gathered in the middle of the street.

Hardy drags Philip away again, and as Laurel walks over an air vent in the sidewalk, his kilt flies up (a la Monroe in “The Seven Year Itch”). This happens a couple of times before Hardy moves him away from the vent. Laurel then decides to take a sniff of snuff and when he sneezes, his drawers, unnoticed by anyone, fall down. Cut to the crowd. We can't see what happens to Laurel and his kilt, but several women pass out or move away in horror. Note that this action takes place in front of what I assume is a pub called "The Pink Pup." The boys could be risqué when it suited them. And it suited them more often than you may remember.

A passing stranger retrieves Laurel’s underwear—how times have changed—She returns, another scissor jump, more pursuit.

Hardy has had enough and he takes Laurel to a tailor to get him fitted for trousers. There is some foolery with measuring the inseam, with Laurel's reactions becoming more exaggerated each time. As the tailor (Harvey Clark, uncredited) becomes more and more frustrated, Hardy offers to help. Eventually, all three of them wind up rolling around on the floor.

Getting serious, Hardy removes his coat and follows Laurel through some curtains hanging in a doorway. He chases Laurel back and forth, the doorway being used as a frame for their action. Finally, Hardy emerges disheveled. His vest is pulled up and he has to straighten it.

Then Laurel emerges, also mussed up. His tie is loosened. Here Laurel indulges in some superb silent face acting. You can see his despair as his uncle has "undone" him. He has been seduced and betrayed. Laurel sits on a chair screen left, and Hardy stands beside him on his left. Their attitudes and expressions superbly parody melodrama of the she-is-more-to-be-pitied-than-censored variety.

The tailor brings them the pants, and Laurel goes into a dressing room to put them on. He sees HER legs pass by (he can see out a basement window at eye level), and he goes after her, still in kilt.

Once more, uncle, nephew and She end up together on the sidewalk. She has tried to slip unnoticed past the two men. She does get by them and when Laurel attempts pursuit once more, Hardy grabs him and, in an attempt to sooth his nephew's passion, asks him if he wants to meet the girl.


Hardy strolls over to her as only he can stroll, and in that overly polite manner with which we will become familiar, is chatting her up when she thumps his nose and walks away. She marches to the place where the sidewalk meets the street at an intersection. There is a large puddle in the street. Laurel rushes over to her, takes off his kilt and spreads it over the puddle. "An old Scottish custom," he tells her. She makes a quick leap over the kilt and puddle and we cut to her on the sidewalk on the opposite side of the street. She performs a scissor-jump, and walks away laughing.

Hardy comes up to Laurel, chortling. When Laurel bends to pick up his kilt, Hardy stops him with one of his grandiose gestures and indicates that he will go first. "An old American custom," he says. When he steps on the kilt, we see that it covered a waist-deep pit and Hardy goes completely under before re-emerging, soaked to the skin top to bottom. As he stands in the pit, chastened, a crowd comes running over, this time to laugh at him.

He has become what he least wanted to become.

The film’s pace is brisk and the jokes run the gamut from the expected to the oddball. Clyde Bruckman directs with a sure hand. Now remembered only by aficionados of early comedy, Bruckman was once at the forefront of screen farce. He worked again with Laurel and Hardy on “Battle of the Century,” and with W.C. Fields on “The Man on the Flying Trapeze” and “The Fatal Glass of Beer.” He’s the credited co-director with Buster Keaton of “The General,” and he made three talkies with Harold Lloyd. The end was not kind. In 1955, after eating a meal in a restaurant that he could not pay for, he shot himself with a gun he’d borrowed from Keaton.

This film’s supervising director was Leo McCarey, who would win two directing Oscars. It was photographed by George Stevens, who would also go on to claim two Oscars for directing, and the intertitles were written by H.M. (Harley M. “Beany”) Walker, who wrote stories, titles and dialogue for 309 pictures.

Film historian William K. Everson once listed what each of the great movie clowns was best at, and he wrote that what The Boys did best was deliver more laughs per reel than anyone else. No sentimentalizing, no intellectualizing—just funny. This is where it started, folks. This one’ll kilt ya.

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

"Ab-normal Beauty" (Oxide Pang, 2004) from

“Ab-normal Beauty” (Sei mong se jun), written by Oxide Pang and his twin brother Pak Sing Pang, and directed by Oxide alone, explores ground already investigated by Alfred Hitchcock, Michael Powell and, almost concurrently with “Ab-normal Beauty,” Takashi Shimizu (whose “Marebito” was released a few weeks before Pang’s film). “Rear Window” and “Peeping Tom” both present metaphors for our fascination with seeing on film things too awful to see in person. The camera, like a murder weapon, is neutral until a use is found for it.
Jiney is an art student living with her mother. Her best friend—and we come to suspect more than best friend—is Jas. They are both photographers and the roam about the city of Hong Kong snapping pix of whatever catches their attention. A young man named Anson (Anson Leung) has a crush on Jin. She rebuffs him gently; Jas tells him to bugger off.

Jin’s mother leaves town on a business trip, planning to be gone about a month, and left alone at home Jin allows her boredom with life to show. One day she happens upon a fatal car crash. The appearance of corpses on the street overwhelms her and she begins to take pictures furiously. Jas helps her develop them and is repulsed by the images of blood and injury. “Death,” Jin says, “is the ideal photo—scary and exciting.”

She starts to unravle. She makes a skin-tight mask—when worn, it is death’s face. She begins to see blood where these isn’t any blood. Visiting an outdoor market, Jin pays a butcher to kill chicken after chicken so she can photograph them as they die. Her darkroom becomes cluttered with shots of dead birds, dogs and fish. Her excuse to Jas is that she just wants to add a new element to her work.

She buys a collection of death photos gathered together in a book. She thinks the pictures are beautiful. “Pressing the shutter is like death in that it stops the subject.” Her greatest thrill comes from seeing a potential suicide atop a tall building. When the girl jumps, Jin follows her descent, snapping pictures all the way to the sidewalk.

Why, suddenly, has this passion for death seeped to the surface of Jin’s psyche? She tells Jas about the time when, as a young girl, she was molested by three boys and her own mother’s failure to believe her story. But is that enough to make the change we see in her believable? Is it just the sight of bloody death by traffic accident that sets this terrible change in motion?

When we hear, and see in flashback, the story of her youthful rape, we expect the film will move along with that new plot element to explain what is happening with this lovely and talented young woman, but suddenly the picture takes a sharp turn into more standard thriller country. Jin finds on her doorstep a video tape. “Take a look” is scratched on the box, and when she does she sees a moment right out of “feardotcom”—a young woman is chained to a chair, begging for release, when a masked man (we assume) beats her to death with a length of lead pipe.

We’ve been jolted as severly as Jin has. What has this movie become? Are we to think, as the girls do, that Anson is responsible for some kind of sick joke? Is Jas secretly a sadistic killer? Is Jin, or is the masked man on the tape a reflection of her own madness? Jin has already expressed the fear that she might lose control and really kill someone for the sake of taking pictures of the body.

The sudden shift in plot emphasis is jolting, but perhaps the Pangs are telling us that it takes a change from art to reality to shake us out of our routine existence.

The Pang Brothers insinuate themselves into the film by casting sisters in the roles of best friends/possible lesbian lovers. Race Wong, as Jiney, and Rosanne Wong, as Jas, are the two halves of the Cantopop music duo “2R.” As their characters become involved in reproducing life in photography and painting instead of living it, so have the Pangs made a similar choice.

Strictly on the level of thriller, the film has nice moments during the first story line as we watch Jin’s descent to madness and wonder what will happen to her, and others during the last third or so as the gore level increases considerably and the intellectual pondering of the first part give way to a more visceral reaction.

And the Wong sisters are superb as Jin and Jas. Apparently, Jin (the younger of the two) is having a more successful film career, although they have made films as co-stars. One made a year before “Ab-normal Beauty” is a parody of the international hit cop thriller “Infernal Affairs,” recently remade by Martin Scorsese as “The Departed.” The Hong Kong comedy is entitled, sublimely, “Love is a Many Stupid Thing.”

But here in “Ab-normal Beauty” the sisters are terrific. They are both quite lovely, but neither of them relies on looks to win our affection. More often than not, they just like students, attractive but not made-up or dressed to kill. They sell the friendship and, on another level of unease, the more-than-friendship convincingly. Jas is not just the disposable friend of the protagonist about whom we really don’t care too much. She works her way into our affection as completely as does the character with the interesting problem.

So many American horror films are concerned almost exclusively with dying and dying badly. “Ab-normal Beauty” is about preferring a bad death to an even worse life.

Monday, January 22, 2007

"The Red Shoes" (Kim Yong-Gyun, 2005) from

“The Red Shoes” (Bundongsin) is one of the more difficult horror films from South Korea. It’s helped a little by being based on a fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen, but only if you know the original story.

(A young girl named Karen, who is vain and shallow, ignores the people who love her so that she may go dancing in her new red shoes. But once she begins to dance, she can’t stop. Finally, arriving at the home of a wood cutter, she begs the man to cut off her feet, which he does. The shoes, feet still in them, continue to dance. The man carves a pair of wooden feet for Karen, who then becomes so ecstatic in her new-found Christian faith, she dies of a joyfully broken heart and goes to Heaven, where no one questions her about her bewitched red shoes. In Denmark, this is a story for children. You know, like “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” is in America.)

In the film, written by Ma Sang-Ryeol and director Kim Yong-Gyun, a young, married optometrist named Sun-jae (Kim Hye-soo) finds a pair of red shoes abandoned on a subway platform. We’ve seen that the shoes cast a spell of possessiveness on any woman who finds them so we’re already mentally urging this pretty young wife and mother to leave them alone. She doesn’t.

When she takes them home, the shoes cast their spell on Sun-jae’s daughter (who appears to be eight-ish) Tae-soo (Park Yeon-ah). The child takes the shoes, insisting that they are now hers. The father thinks the resulting argument is over-blown and the next time Tae-soo goes to her ballet class, he insists that Sun-jae take the shoes to her. On her return home, Sun-jae finds her husband canoodling with another woman, and she and Tae-soo move into an apartment of their own.

The ownership of the shoes remains a sticking point between mother and daughter, and their relationship becomes even more incendiary when Sun-jae begins dating the interior designer, In-cheol (Kim Seong-soo), she’s hired to give her clinic a do-over. Tae-soo naturally enough sees him as a weak makeshift father figure.

None of this is hard to understand, but the contemporary story is frequently interrupted by moments of passion, violence, and ballet from the past, flashes that seem to have no connection to the central story. We’ve become accustomed to non-linear narratives, but we can usually see pretty quickly what’s going on and can connect the inserted material to the main story.

In “Bundongsin,” it takes about an hour for Sun-jae and In-cheol to figure out that something terribly wrong is going on here. The film begins to look like “Ringu” as we follow their investigation. We’ve known all along that the shoes are cursed, and when they find it out, and learn why, we’re able to put all the storylines together and form one cohesive plot. Characters and viewers arrive at the film’s moral together: “no emotion is more fatal than an obsessed love.”

The great pleasure of the Asian horror films imported to America by Tartan Films USA “Asia Extreme” line and other video distributors is that they were made for adults. The protagonists are aged beyond the first bloom of youth and are faced with personal problems more mature than where to spend Spring Break so you won’t run the risk of being ripped apart by some psycho hitchhiker. Yes, the pacing of these films is slower than is the norm in western horror movies, but even that indicates a more mature approach to the material. We expect psycho violence to happen in the blink of an eye, but curses and spectral vengeance take longer to develop.

“Bundongsin” contains a couple of unfortunately derivative elements—the single mom and her boyfriend rushing to understand the nature of the danger before a child is harmed comes from “Ringu,” just as a scene wherein mother and daughter go hunting for an apartment looks too much as if it were lifted from “Dark Water”—but the picture does slip in a few surprises and is weighted by the same moral seriousness that keeps the original fairy tale from being for children only.

“The Red Shoes” requires more patience than do most contemporary horror movies, but waiting for the payoff is made tolerable by two good performances from the lead actresses. Little Park Yeon-ah delivers the best performance from a child in one of these pictures since Eun Seo-woo in “Phone.”

Try on “The Red Shoes.” You won’t stop dancing.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Jim Chastain's Best Films of 2006

Best Films of 2006

In any given year, there are always more films to see. Some never make it to Oklahoma. Some are screened at a time when you cannot go. Some appear briefly in a “metro area” theater, which may be forty miles away, then head off to some other limited release venue.

And sometimes your life is just too crazy busy.

So with that brief disclaimer, I give you my personal list of the year’s best films, in order. The list will change as I see the ten or so films I would have seen if the world was perfect and I had all the time in the world.

1. The Queen – It’s a quiet drama, the story of a dysfunctional family in crisis. Helen Mirren will likely win an Oscar for her portrayal of the ever stoic Queen Elizabeth II in the days following Princess Di’s untimely death. And the film is, as they say overseas, bloody brilliant.

2. An Inconvenient Truth – Horror films are all the rage these days, and there is no scarier film than this Al Gore documentary about the dangers we are facing due to global warming.

3. Wordplay – Okay, as a writer, I’m a sucker for books and films that focus on words. And I dearly loved this documentary about those word freaks who can knock out the New York Times crossword in less than five minutes.

4. The Departed – This was the best acted film of the year and it would have been in competition for the tops of my list had it not been for a few minor flaws in logic that kept nagging at me.

5. Little Miss Sunshine – It’s a great little road trip film with great characters who are as imperfect and flawed as, well, you and me.

6. Half Nelson – What a great film! An addict school teacher and one of his culturally-challenged students become fast friends, in spite of life.

7. Notes on a Scandal – Remember those strange knock-out high school female teachers who appear on the morning talk shows after being arrested for molesting their teenage male students? Have you ever wondered how things like that happen? Yeah, me too.

8. Dixie Chicks: Shut Up and Sing – The third documentary on my list is a fascinating look at the economic crisis facing the popular country trio after they denounced President Bush and were then shunned by their fans.

9. Cars – I’m not a race car fan, which is why I’m still in shock over how good this Disney/Pixar film is. A great nostalgic look at life as it probably never existed in the 20th Century.

10. Stranger Than Fiction – While it is the first film that will be bumped off when I see one of the must-see films I missed, this film will always have a special place in my sometimes sentimental heart.

Monday, January 01, 2007

Michael Smith's Favorite Films of 2006 / The Tulsa World

Before we get to the 10 best films of 2006, consider these five as alternates. Excellent films all, they deserve more than honorable mention.

Flags of Our Fathers
An intelligent look at the meaning of heroism, Clint Eastwood's film is a handsome, heartfelt story of a battle that changed World War II. The director's companion piece, "Letters From Iwo Jima" -- the battle told from the Japanese perspective -- that was originally scheduled for 2007 release has been bumped up due to the flagging box office for "Fathers," and it's already won a couple of critics' groups Best Picture awards. That film hasn't been released in Tulsa, but "Flags of our Fathers" stands on its own.

For Your Consideration
There's hardly a ritual more deserving of bashing than that of Academy Awards hype in a world of rampant Internet prognosticators and publicity machines run amok. Christopher Guest ("Best in Show") and his band of merry men and women (Catherine O'Hara and Fred Willard are sensational) hilariously skewer everything from out-of-touch producers to vacuous infotainment shows.

Thank You For Smoking
Drawn from a best-selling novel by Christopher Buckley and written and directed for the screen by precocious freshman filmmaker Jason Reitman, "Smoking" is that rare satire that dares to be politically incorrect, piercingly insightful and caustically funny throughout. In a media-saturated Age of Spin, hustling lobbyists are the reigning princes of darkness, and Nick Naylor (Aaron Eckhart) is a star, the glib national spokesman for the tobacco industry and a man who takes great pride in the fact that his job "requires a moral flexibility that goes beyond most people."

Pixar animators hit the highway -- historic Route 66, to be specific -- in this antic cartoon comedy about a hot-shot racing car marooned in sleepy little Radiator Springs and forced to slow down, reconsider his fast-track life and stop to smell the gas fumes. Tulsa writer and Route 66 guru Michael Wallis provides the voice of the sheriff and served as Pixar's guide along the Mother Road.

Stranger Than Fiction
This wonderfully high-concept head trip about changing one's life path is the kind of film that keeps percolating in your own noggin, conjuring up all manner of possibilities. Will Ferrell shows a new depth and humanity as an IRS auditor sleepwalking through life until a voice in his head wakes him up to a world of possibilities.

At times comic, touching and full of Big Questions with unusual answers, director Marc Forster and debut film scripter Zach Helm have fun toying with one man's existence. This meta-mad conundrum asks audiences to take a leap of faith for its clever love story -- Maggie Gyllenhaal is perfect as a sexy baker -- and you shouldn't think twice.

Preston Jones' Best Films of 2006 / Oklahoma Gazette

1. "United 93," dir. Paul Greengrass
Riveting and raw, "United 93" accomplished what seemed nearly impossible to many: humanizing and dramatizing one of our country's most wrenching tragedies without once slipping into sentimentality or insincerity. An expertly mounted fusion of documentary technique and fictional conjecture, it's a disquieting experience that holds you in a vice grip until its breathless, inevitable climax. This doesn't unfold like a film, it plays like a searing collective memory.

2. "Borat: Cultural Learnings of American for Make Benefit Glorious
Nation of Kazakhstan," dir. Larry Charles
No mainstream comedy was funnier — or more satirically devastating — than Sacha Baron Cohen's full-bore assault on the American way of life. While Borat Sagdiyev became horribly over-exposed in no time flat, his endless parade of PR whoring couldn't diminish the side-splitting prowess of this fakeumentary which peeled back the colors that don't run to reveal some of the less savory traits of those living in the U.S. and A. Very nice!

3. "Pan’s Labyrinth," dir. Guillermo del Toro
A masterful synthesis of gruesome reality and limitless imagination, "Pan's Labyrinth" is a bedtime story for grown-ups; forget the smug pomposity of M. Night Shyamalan's farragoes — Guillermo del Toro is Hollywood's dreamweaver par excellence. Deftly mixing eerily tangible set pieces with a genuinely unnerving performance from Sergio Lopez, del Toro surveys the war-torn lands of post-Franco Spain with heart and humanity.

4. "Shut Up & Sing," dir. Barbara Kopple & Cecilia Peck
Ravaged by red-staters for speaking their minds, the Dixie Chicks found themselves adrift with an eroding fanbase and an uncertain future. Instead of calling it a day, Natalie Maines, Emily Robison and Martie Maguire dug deep and re-connected with their passion. Far more than a portrait of a band in crisis, "Shut Up & Sing" is a penetrating, poignant examination of the fall-out from free speech.

5. "The Departed," dir. Martin Scorsese
Bullet-hard and drenched in sanguine kinetics, Martin Scorsese's Westernization of the HK cult classic "Infernal Affairs" feels like an overdue homecoming; with period pics and Dylan docs out of his system, Scorsese fires on all cylinders to plumb the lives and lies of these sons of Boston — Jack Nicholson's live-wire portrayal of evil incarnate elevates everyone's game and the sly final shot feels like floating on air.

6. "Little Miss Sunshine," dir. Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris
7. "Casino Royale," dir. Martin Campbell
8. "Notes on a Scandal," dir. Richard Eyre
9. "The Proposition," dir. John Hillcoat
10. "The Queen," dir. Stephen Frears

Phil Bacharach's Best Films of 2006 / Oklahoma Gazette

1. “United 93,” dir. Paul Greengrass

Brilliant, searing and gutsy, “United 93” is also that rarest of films: An amazing experience. To helm the first theatrical film to fictionalize aspects of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, director-writer Paul Greengrass set out on a daunting mission. He would handle the most sensitive of material while resisting the temptation to sentimentalize or whitewash. The movie that resulted is nothing short of electrifying. Greengrass employs a cast of unknowns and a no-frills, documentary-like visual style to offer a possible account of the hijacked United Airlines flight that crashed in rural Pennsylvania, killing everyone on board. Filmgoers stayed away from “United 93,” understandably hesitant to revisit the horrors of 9-11, but this is an extraordinary work that vividly captures a monumental time in our nation’s history. If “United 93” does not shake you to your core, check your pulse.

2. “Little Miss Sunshine,” dir. Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris

Independent cinema needs another comedy about a dysfunctional family the way Mel Gibson needs another swig of bourbon. Even so, “Little Miss Sunshine” is eons above standard indie fare. The feature-length directorial debut of husband-wife team Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, the film was the belle of this year’s Sundance Film Festival, and for good reason. Screenwriter Michael Arndt taps the time-tested on-the-road genre, but nothing is rote about this cliché-free blending of drama, comedy and sharp-toothed satire. It helps to have a stellar cast, of course, and the movie has one, with Greg Kinnear, Steve Carrell, Toni Collette and young Abigail Breslin as particular standouts. Alternately poignant and hilarious, “Little Miss Sunshine” is a wry and wise examination of our societal obsession with winning -- and all the ways in which families inadvertently screw us up.

3. “The Departed,” dir. Martin Scorsese

It took a remake of the 2002 Hong Kong flick “Infernal Affairs” for Martin Scorsese to make his best film since 1990’s “Goodfellas,” but “The Departed” is quintessential Scorsese – a gritty action-thriller spilling over with so much ferocious urgency, it practically induces vertigo. Leonardo DiCaprio shines as a Boston cop who infiltrates the crew of mob boss Frank Costello, played by a scenery-chewing Jack Nicholson. Matt Damon is every bit DiCaprio’s equal as a slick Massachusetts state detective with a secret allegiance to Costello. Against this maze of doppelgangers and doublecrosses, “The Departed” crackles with overcaffeinated energy and violence. Stylistically, the movie is as sharp and unnerving as the edge of a stiletto, but Scorsese never sacrifices a labyrinthine plotline for the sake of cheap thrills. It’s a thrill-fest, alright, but each and every one is earned.

4. “Pan’s Labyrinth,” dir. Guillermo del Toro

It’s tempting to summarize “Pan’s Labyrinth” as a Grimm fairytale for adults, but that doesn’t begin to do justice to this unique fantasy. Set in Spain after the end of Franco’s civil war, the story follows the travails of young Ofelia (Ivana Baquero). Life is hard for the girl. Her mother is in the midst of a complicated pregnancy and her stepfather, a sadistic military captain, is intent on starving out the few rebels who remain hidden in nearby mountains. Then magic intrudes in the form of a faun-like creature that tells Ofelia she is actually the princess of the underworld; he assigns her a series of mythological tasks to return to her rightful kingdom. Luring moviegoers into the purely fantastical, writer-director Guillermo del Toro unfurls a haunting masterpiece in which dreamscapes and heartbreaks are inexorably bound.

5. “Borat: Cultural Learnings of American for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan,” dir. Larry Charles

Not only did this monstrously outrageous prank of a movie produce more laughs than anything I’ve seen since “There’s Something About Mary” in 1998, but Sacha Baron Cohen, the twisted genius behind it, has almost certainly set an industry record for most lawsuits stemming from a comedy. As the titular character, Cohen portrays a blithely bigoted Kazakh journalist traveling across America. It’s a paper-thin premise for a movie, but Cohen -- who introduced the shtick on his HBO series, “Da Ali G Show” -- possesses a mesmerizing fearlessness. He is also riotously funny. In his encounters with unsuspecting folks who range from a bloodthirsty rodeo organizer to drunken frat dudes, Cohen exposes some eye-popping ugliness just below the surface of Everyday America. But this is no sociological experiment; Cohen is out to draw laughs, not blood.

6. “Little Children,” dir. Todd Field
7. “Water,” dir. Deepa Mehta
8. “Shut Up & Sing,” dir. Barbara Kopple & Cecilia Peck
9. “Stranger Than Fiction,” dir. Marc Forster
10. “The Prestige,” dir. Christopher Nolan

Doug Bentin's Best Films of the Year / Oklahoma Gazette

The summer blockbusters may have left most of our blocks unbusted, but the end of the year has sent some pretty damn good movies our way. Looking over 2006’s offerings, here are the best films I saw.

“The Departed,” dir. Martin Scorsese

Scorsese, having crept away from the crime film ghetto for a few years, returned in a big way this year with a movie that showcases everything, except Robert DeNiro, that has made his name a pair of cineaste’s household words. Nobody removes the operatic romanticism of street crime to show us the worms under the rocks like Scorsese, and the fact that he can make these characters appealing without making them likable is remarkable. Matt Damon, Leonardo DiCaprio, Jack Nicholson, Mark Wahlberg, Alec Baldwin, Ray Winstone—if the Dallas Cowboys had this much testosterone, they’d end the season 16-0. Violent, funny, terrifying, “The Departed” is bewitching. It’s the snake and we’re the birds. Thankfully, Scorsese provides the pane of glass that separates us.

“Notes on a Scandal,” dir. Richard Eyre

You know you’re watching a pack of rabid sociopaths while you watch “The Departed,” and they can scare the hell out of you, but the icky derangement of the English school teacher played by the brilliant Judi Dench in “Notes on a Scandal” creeps in on little cat feet—make that “little bitch feet”—and you find yourself slyly checking out the women in the audience just to make sure that none of them are smiling too broadly. Not to say that the film isn’t supposed to be funny—it’s wildly funny in that patented Brit way of finding humor in the most tragic situations. Cate Blanchett costars as the new art teacher on whom Dench’s spinster develops a crush. You won’t find two better performances in any film this year. Seek this one out.

“The Queen,” dir. Stephen Frears

Bette Davis once said that the Brits produced the best actors, but American gave the best actresses to the world. Maybe then—not now. Helen Mirren stars as the present Queen Elizabeth facing a royal crisis on the death of Princess Diana. She thinks the royal family should grieve, or not grieve, as they always have—in private—while the new Prime Minister Tony Blair believes that the country wants a show of grief. Cue the news cameras and tabloid reporters. Like “Notes on a Scandal,” this film finds dark humor in a happening that is mostly melodramatic, if not a little tragic. Mirren is just so good doing what the greatest Brit actors have done repeatedly—holding it all in until it has to gush out. Think of Peter O’Toole in “Lawrence of Arabia” or Paul Scofield in “A Man For All Seasons.” It’s just a shame that Mirren had to deliver this performance the same year Judi Dench gave us “Notes on a Scandal.” Tie, anyone?

“Lady Vengeance,” dir. Park Chan-wook

Here’s my ringer. Every reviewer gets to praise one film at the end of the year that very few people have seen, and “Lady Vengeance” is mine. Directed by Park Chan-wook, this is the third part of his Vengeance Trilogy. “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance” and “Oldboy” came first, and this is the story of a woman who willingly goes to jail for a murder she didn’t commit in order to protect someone dear to her. On her release, she uses the services of the women she was kind to behind bars to go after the real killer. Beautifully photographed and artfully edited, this Korean thriller is funny and dangerous. It’s an art film and a white-knuckler both at once. Available now on DVD, this is one fans of real movies need to see.

“Pan’s Labyrinth,” dir. Guillermo del Toro

American fans of genre films know Mexican director Guillermo del Toro for thrillers like “Mimic,” “Blade II,” and “Hellboy,” but those willing to dig a little deeper—i.e., read subtitles—may know his superb Spanish-language ghost story “The Devil’s Backbone.” Know it or not, you should see this new one. Set during the Spanish Civil War, it’s about a young girl who may have found a way to slip into a darker version of Alice’s Wonderland. Or who may just need fantasy as a way of escaping from the horrors of her life. It’s beautiful and grim at the same time, hopeful and tragic. If you despair of ever seeing a film fantasy that was made with adults in mind, give this one a shot.

“Blood Diamond,” dir. Edward Zwick
“Flags of Our Fathers,” dir. Clint Eastwood
“Thank You For Smoking,” dir. Jason Reitman
“Hollywoodland,” dir. Allen Coulter
“Casino Royale,” dir. Martin Campbell

And let me give a special nod to a picture I liked a lot although very few of my colleagues have had much nice to say about it. It’s Terry Zwigoff’s “Art School Confidential.” Give it a try.

Kathryn Jenson White's Best Films of 2006 / Oklahoma Gazette

1. “Pan’s Labyrinth,” dir. Guillermo del Toro
My 3-D theory of the qualities of really good films — dark, disturbing and difficult — finds full realization in del Toro’s magical mystery tour of the human heart in both its most inspiring creative purity and its most dispiriting destructive corruption. The story is of a young girl seeking escape from the horrors of her personal life under the control of a stepfather who is a sadistic captain in Franco’s army. Her reality is mirrored in that of 1940s Spain and a guerrilla movement attempting to defeat Franco’s fascist forces. Ofelia seeks refuge from life’s horrors in the rich world of a child’s imagination as defined and fueled by fairy and folk tales. The film stuns with its vicious violence and recognition of the evil of which men are capable. It uplifts with its visual beauty and its equal recognition of the redemptive and restorative powers of love, art and the imagination.

2. “United 93,” dir. Paul Greengrass
To all those who have said this film came too soon after the horrific, based-on-reality story it depicts and that they could not/would not see it, I say, ‘You are wrong.’ Everyone should see this film. Greengrass takes a beautifully spare, almost documentary approach to exploring what happened on the 9/11 plane on which passengers nobly struggled to overcome their terror and stop the madmen in the cockpit from carrying out their hateful plan of destruction. The film pays heart-wrenching tribute to the human spirit. As the passengers rush the cockpit, no one watching can escape the piercing pain of the inevitable or the aching empathy of watching ordinary people respond with complete humanness in all its complexity to an extraordinary situation.

3. “The Departed,” dir. Martin Scorsese
With amazing performances from Matt Damon, Leonardo DiCaprio and Jack Nicholson as well as a rich, complex supporting cast, Scorsese’s film shows a master at work. This compellingly complicated, convoluted story of betrayal looks at love both noble and selfish and loyalty both admirable and misplaced. Based on the 2002 “Infernal Affairs,” a Hong Kong film directed by Andrew Lau and Alan Mak, Scorsese’s re-visioning is as American as they come. Scorsese has moved from New York to Boston and expanded his cinematic world to include the family of law enforcement as well as the family of organized crime. The mob boy undercover as cop and the cop undercover as mob boy mirror each other in always surprising but never unbelievable ways. Nicholson is no cartoon joker as the baddest of the bad mob bosses; he’s flat-out scary.

4. “The Queen,” dir. Stephen Frears
Helen Mirren’s astonishing performance as Queen Elizabeth II elevates a fairly simple little character study of a film to something much more significant. As a grace note, it also makes human the seemingly cardboard figure who occupies the British throne. The queen of England owes Mirren big time; her husband, Prince Phillip, not so much. Using the death of Princess Diana in September 1977 as its fixed point, the film wanders around big political issues like governing as opposed to ruling and big personal ones like responding as a human rather than as an office or position or type. The stupidities of traditional behavior that no longer has relevance and the way slavish adherence to ideas can limit our abilities to be fully human are major concerns here. Frears takes them on boldly but not brashly.

4. “Little Miss Sunshine,” dir. Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris
Who could not love Olive, the embodiment of the hopes and dreams we all have as children, the unspoiled innocent who believes, sincerely, the adult line about hard work leading to inevitable success, dreaming all that you can be and the rest of the hogwash generated by the American Dream-inspirational/motivational industry complex? Who could not equally love her dysfunctional family representing all the oddities of human behavior and absurdity of human interaction? A stellar ensemble of actors led by Abigail Breslin as Olive and including Greg Kinnear, Toni Collette, Alan Arkin, Paul Dano and Steve Carell delivers unto us a family with flaws and follies with which we can all identify. One part theater of the absurd, one part slapstick comedy and two parts sincerely touching human story, “Little Miss Sunshine” is truly illuminating.

5. “Shut Up and Sing,” dir. Barbara Kopple
6. “Little Children,” dir. Todd Field
7. “Half Nelson,” dir. Ryan Fleck
8. “Volver,” dir. Pedro Almodóvar
9. “Notes on a Scandal,” dir. Richard Eyre
10. “Casino Royale,” dir. Martin Campbell

Gene Triplett's Best Movies of 2006 / The Oklahoman

Four-star quality movies seemed few and far between in 2006, but there were enough gifted filmmakers getting the green light to make a foray to the multiplex worth the effort on a fairly frequent basis. Some of their works have yet to arrive in Oklahoma City, but patience will be rewarded. Ten of the best reasons for spending precious hours in the dark this year eating expensive stale popcorn soaked in fake butter were as follows:

1. "The Departed” — Martin Scorsese directs a high-caliber cast in this gripping, gritty crime drama of a good cop (Leonardo DiCaprio) working undercover within Boston's Irish-American mafia and a bad cop (Matt Damon) serving as the mob's mole in the upper ranks of the Massachusetts State Police, each seeking to discover the other's identity. Jack Nicholson's over-the-edge performance as the criminal mastermind who runs both their lives will make him a wanted man in the Oscar race, while Scorsese may be up for a long overdue payoff as well.

2. "Little Miss Sunshine” — A hopelessly dysfunctional family of oddballs discover the true definitions of winning and losing when their little girl is tapped as a pageant contestant, and they all rally behind her in a hilariously disastrous cross-country rush to get her to the contest on time. Uniformly excellent and engaging performances from an incredible ensemble cast (Greg Kinnear, Toni Collette, Steve Carrell, Alan Arkin) make this heart-grabbing comedy-drama from first-time feature directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris the most pleasant sleeper surprise of the year.

3. "Little Children” — Director Todd Field goes "In the Bedroom” again, this time for an intimate examination of desperate housewives and husbands and one pathetically doomed sex offender who lives uneasily among them in this complex and absorbing psychological study of illicit sex, dirty secrets and silent suffering in suburbia. Deftly adapted by Field and Tom Perrotta from Perrotta's novel, it is seamlessly acted by a choice ensemble cast including Kate Winslett, Patrick Wilson, Jennifer Connelly and Jackie Earle Haley.

4. "The Queen” — Helen Mirren is majestic as Queen Elizabeth II, bravely weathering the storm of negative opinion that erupts when the proudly private royal family refuses to put on a public display of mourning over the death of Diana. Michael Sheen is also stalwart as Prime Minister Tony Blair, conjuring all his diplomatic skills to persuade Her Majesty that compromise is essential to the future of Buckingham Palace's residents. Stephen Frears' solid direction from Peter Morgan's smart script puts this film and its regal leading lady in line for some Oscar crowns.

5. "The Last King of Scotland” — As Ugandan dictator Idi Amin, Forest Whitaker is a raging, sweaty force of nature amid a harrowing historical thriller that's as blistering as the African heat. Under the direction of Kevin MacDonald, working from yet another royal writing exercise from "The Queen's” Peter Morgan (and Jeremy Brock), Whitaker plumbs the frightening depths of this playfully eccentric, murderous monster with fiery brilliance and courage. Another best-acting crown is due here, and the "King,” no doubt, will rule.

6. "World Trade Center” — Instead of the politically loaded, epic conspiracy tale many expected from Oliver Stone, the director's dramatization of 9/11 is an intimate, inspirational and deeply moving true story of courage, survival and heroism, told from the perspectives of two Port Authority Police officers (Nicolas Cage, Michael Pena) who were trapped beneath the rubble, the rescuers who risked everything to save them, and the families who waited in agony at home. Eschewing his usual operatic camera work and over-the-top storytelling, Stone points his lens where there was light on one of America's darkest days.

7. "The Prestige” — Writer-director Christopher Nolan ("Memento,” "Batman Begins”) pulls some awe-inspiring narrative and visual sleight-of-hand in this tale of two magicians (Hugh Jackman, Christian Bale) locked in a bitter war for supremacy on the stages of Victorian-era London. Steeped in the shadowy atmospherics of the gaslight period, Nolan and co-writing brother Jonathan's story of obsession, deceit and jealousy thoroughly mesmerizes and doesn't miss a suspenseful trick. And watch out for David Bowie, who makes one of the most electrifying entrances of the year as real-life mad scientist Nikola Tesla.

8. "Miss Potter” — Renee Zellweger sparkles in this biopic of Beatrix Potter, the early 20th century author and painter who created "The Tale of Peter Rabbit” and some of the best-selling children's books of all time in an era when young women of the British upper class were expected to "marry well” and make a home. As told by director Chris Noonan and screenwriter Richard Maltby Jr., Potter's story is as enchanting as her animal tales, from her family-defying romance with a young publisher (Ewan McGregor) to her preservation efforts in England's Lake District, which fill the screen in breathtaking, painterly fashion. Potter's drawings frequently come to animated life, enhancing this irresistible charmer even more.

9. "Pan's Labyrinth” — Writer-director Guillermo del Toro fashions a grim yet wondrous fairy tale of young Ofelia (a hypnotic Ivana Baquero), who endures the brutal realities of post-war Spain's fascist regime and the unspeakable cruelties of her stepfather (Sergi Lopez) by escaping into a dark dreamworld of her own. The violence is often shocking, but the grotesque creatures and surreal effects conjured in Ofelia's private fable are visually arresting, and the devastating denouement in this war between innocence and evil leaves a lastingly haunting impression.

10. "Superman Returns” — Director Bryan Singer's towering take on the Man of Steel purposely plays just like a sequel to Richard Donner's 1978 original, from the swooping opening credits and high-gloss production to Brandon Routh's uncanny resemblance to the late Christopher Reeve, nailing the voice, mild mannerisms and heroic demeanor with super-human accuracy. And all of that is fine, since the Donner-Reeve collaboration was the only entry in the series to get it right. Once again, you'll believe a man can fly.

George Lang's Best Movies of 2006 / The Oklahoman

In 2006, cinematic triumphs were less obvious than they were the previous year. The best films were ones that succeeded against odds and expectations. The chorus of "are we ready?” hand-wringing by political and social pundits over "United 93” gave way to a film that defied preconceptions. Similarly, the online movement to defame Daniel Craig on the eve of his first appearance as James Bond was proved to be premature and painfully inaccurate. This was also a year when, more than ever, finding great films often meant treading far from the multiplex and hoping against all odds that great but unheralded films would even have a one-week stand in town.

The following list of great 2006 films splits neatly down the middle between easy-to-find, undeniably great mainstream releases and films that almost required a spelunking excursion to see.

1. "United 93” — Paul Greengrass' towering achievement in cinema verite not only respected the memories of those who died Sept. 11, 2001, but captured the confusion and horror of that day in an uncompromising and harrowing real-time account. Greengrass ("Bloody Sunday,” "The Bourne Supremacy”) made "United 93” with New York stage actors and an impressive cast of airline, military and air traffic control personnel who contribute to the film's stark realism. It is "the impossible documentary,” a flawlessly executed story that could pass for nonfiction if not for the horrible knowledge that such a film could never have been made.

2. "Casino Royale” — By jettisoning the techno frippery of the franchise's past several entries, boiling the character down to his original essence, actually bothering to tell a compelling spy story and following through with the inspired casting of Daniel Craig as James Bond, "Casino Royale” became the first 007 film in more than three decades that truly mattered. Craig is phenomenal, infusing the role with raw wit and energy, and Eva Green as Vesper Lynd was the anti-"Bond girl,” an intellectual match for the spy who loved her.

3. "Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan” — It made sense that Sacha Baron Cohen chose "Curb Your Enthusiasm” director Larry Charles to helm this brutally funny, taboo-incinerating "mockumentary” about a deeply racist and disarmingly genial Kazakhstani TV reporter's disastrous American odyssey. Like "Curb,” "Borat” is so painful to watch because it cuts so close to people's most unseemly attitudes. Even the most jaded viewer will watch through splayed fingers — a sociological horror film.

4. "Superman Returns” — An epic reclamation project that thoroughly restored luster to the Man of Steel, Bryan Singer's "Superman Returns” succeeded as an homage to Richard Donner's "Superman: the Movie” and as a throwback to a time when summer blockbusters had to tell good stories, not just inundate audiences with visual spectacle. Looking as if he were engineered in a lab from Christopher Reeve's DNA, Brandon Routh captured the mythical burden of Superman and the light humor of his terrestrial alter-ego, and Singer directed with an honest affection for the hero and with genuine belief that the world needs Superman.

5. "The Last King of Scotland” — No other 2006 performance was as searingly believable as Forest Whitaker's portrayal of Ugandan dictator Idi Amin in "The Last King of Scotland.” In this historical fiction told through the eyes of an idealistic young Scottish doctor (James McAvoy) who becomes Amin's most trusted confidant, Whitaker exudes the charisma that brought Amin to power and the psychotic bloodlust that sustained him. In "The Last King of Scotland,” he is the best friend who will give you everything, then turn on a dime and kill you to get it all back.

6. "Pan's Labyrinth” — Guillermo del Toro's unsettling fantasy "Pan's Labyrinth (El Laberinto del Fauno)” returns the fairy tale to the adult realm in the story about a young Spanish girl who, after her widowed mother marries a fascist military officer, disappears into a frightening but mesmerizing netherworld. Del Toro's visuals are the essence of the most baroque nightmares, and "Pan's Labyrinth” is impossible to shake.

7. "Thank You for Smoking” — Writer-director Jason Reitman's debut improves on Christopher Buckley's comic novel about Nick Naylor, an unapologetically ruthless and rhetorically gifted spokesman for Big Tobacco. Aaron Eckhart's career-defining performance as Naylor could carry the film even if he weren't so ably abetted by fine performances from Maria Bello, David Koech-ner and a surprisingly great cameo from Rob Lowe as an egocentric, Asia-obsessed film producer.

8. "Little Children” — For his follow-up to "In the Bedroom,” director Todd Field delved into black-comic suburban malaise for "Little Children,” a film that makes "Desperate Housewives” look like "Spongebob Squarepants.” At turns darkly funny and just plain disturbing, the melodrama of infidelity and dark urges showcases the luminous talent of Kate Winslet as frustrated and straying housewife Sarah Pierce. But it also features a star turn by former child actor Jackie Earle Haley as convicted sex offender Ronald James McGorvey, a character whose inner repugnance surfaces to topple every furtive attempt at normalcy.

9. "Venus” — Peter O'Toole delivers his best performance in years as Maurice, an elderly actor who would still be a playboy if his corporeal self wasn't failing him. It is a brave, beautiful role in which a man at the end of his life invests the last of his taste and libido in a young woman (Jodie Whittaker) who scarcely deserves his ministrations yet benefits greatly from his attention and experience.

10. "Notes on a Scandal” — Screenwriter/playwright Patrick Marber ("Closer”) is a master at feel-bad morality tales, and "Notes on a Scandal” takes Lifetime TV movie material — a spinster blackmails a young teacher caught having sex with one of her students — and transforms it into a story worthy of Greek tragedy. Cate Blanchett and Judi Dench offer intense performances in a film that hurdles toward human disaster and then becomes ever bleaker.

Matthew Price's Best Movies of 2006 / The Oklahoman

New faces on familiar heroes headlined 2006's top movies. Others of the year's top films found themselves in Mexico, in Uganda and even in the head of a mystery writer.

1. "Superman Returns” — Bryan Singer's respectful tribute to the Man of Steel was 2006's best endeavor. With a perfectly cast Brandon Routh, "Superman” soared with an exciting, engaging storyline that worked on a number of levels. Superman takes on new poignance in today's unsafe world, as he returns from space after seeking his home planet. Mixing spiritual allegory, cultural context and thrilling action, "Superman Returns” is a modern blockbuster that isn't afraid to respect the past.

2. "Casino Royale” — Despite complaints about the "blond Bond,” Daniel Craig proved a bulldog of a special agent in "Casino Royale,” an adaptation of the first 007 novel by Ian Fleming. "Casino Royale” takes a look at James Bond's first mission as a 00 agent and gives insight into how he becomes the cool, calculating superspy. Eschewing high-tech gadgetry for the most part, Craig's Bond brings the series closer in line with Fleming's original character, yet updates it for a post-Cold War society.

3. "The Last King of Scotland” — "The Last King of Scotland” follows the rule of Uganda's Idi Amin, through the eyes of a (fictional) Scottish doctor who becomes a close confidant of the dictator. Both brutal and charming, Amin manages to excite and terrorize his subjects. "King of Scotland” is recommended viewing for those interested in a portrayal of political power gone awry. Forest Whitaker, as Amin, delivers an Oscar-worthy performance.

4. "Volver” — Pedro Almodovar's "Volver” features a strong performance from Penelope Cruz as Raimunda. With echoes of "Vertigo,” Raimunda returns to her home village to find her aged aunt Paula speaking of Raimunda's deceased mother, Irene, as if she is still alive. When Paula dies shortly after, Irene begins appearing to other members of the family. The earthy, vibrant film showcases mothers and daughters and their relationships throughout their lives. The film does have some telenovela-style melodrama, but excellent performances throughout keep the movie entirely engaging. The title "Volver,” meaning "to return,” works on a number of levels.

5. "Pan's Labyrinth” — Directed by Guillermo del Toro ("Hellboy”), "Pan's Labrynth” is a visually sumptuous fantasy with the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War. Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) has gone with her pregnant mother to live on a rural military outpost commanded by her cruel stepfather (Sergi Lopez). She escapes her surroundings by delving into a fantasy world, where she must face monsters to claim her true heritage.

6. "Babel” — The latest from director Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu demands a lot from its audience but pays off in great performances, particularly from newcomer Rinko Kikuchi. Unfolding like a puzzle, the intertwined tales feature a young woman shot in Morocco, her children in Mexico, and a young Chinese girl dealing with her mother's death.

7. "Stranger Than Fiction” — Will Ferrell is IRS agent Harold Crick, who begins hearing the voice of a narrator describing his daily events. Harold discovers he's a character in someone else's story — and he must move quickly to avoid his own death.

8. "Hollywoodland” — Adrien Brody plays a private investigator looking into the death of TV's Superman, George Reeves (Ben Affleck), in this period piece. Affleck provides a nuanced performance as an actor who finds himself unable to escape his circumstances. Diane Lane is excellent as Toni Mannix, Reeves' older girlfriend who is married to a high-ranking movie executive.

9. "Little Miss Sunshine” — A quirky look into a dysfunctional family, whose youngest is set to compete in California's "Little Miss Sunshine” pageant. Greg Kinnear is true to form as a slightly slimy self-help guru, who could use some self-help himself. Steve Carrell turns in an understated performance as a near-suicidal professor who is "the nation's foremost authority on Proust.” It builds slowly but inescapably toward an embarrassing but hilarious climax.

10. "Little Children” — An outstanding performance by Kate Winslet highlights this adaptation of the Tom Perotta novel. As a sleepy neighborhood sparks with anger at a sex offender moving in, the quiet desperation of a suburban mother, played by Winslet, pushes her into an affair with an attractive stay-at-home dad (Patrick Wilson). Director Todd Field reveals uncomfortable truths about each character in this social drama; many viewers may also find uncomfortable reflections of themselves.

Sunday, December 31, 2006

"The Good Shepherd," dir. Robert DeNiro (Oklahoma Gazette)

In fictionalizing the early days of the Central Intelligence Agency, “The Good Shepherd” dares comparison to a slew of great espionage flicks from past decades. To me, however, the movie it most aspires to be isn’t about spies at all, “The Godfather.” That isn’t to say that “The Good Shepherd” is a masterpiece, but its epic tale of secrets, deception and divided loyalties bears the sweep and depth of Francis Ford Coppola’s 1972 classic.

No wonder, then, that “The Good Shepherd” is co-produced by Coppola and directed by Robert DeNiro, who earned an Oscar for 1974’s “Godfather, Part II” in 1974. Hey, if you’ve got to model yourself after something, it might as well be the best.

The provocateur protagonist of “Good Shepherd,” Edward Wilson (Matt Damon), is the quintessential CIA spook. A buttoned-up Yale man and member of its elite Skull and Bones secret society, he is recruited in 1940 to help build a secret foreign intelligence operation in anticipation of the United States’ entry into World War II. Edward’s laconic, guarded nature makes him ideal for the job. He accepts the government’s offer, especially after he is forced into a shotgun marriage with a society girl (Angelina Jolie) he barely knows.

Edward goes to work, first in London, where he learns the spy trade from a scholarly British agent (Michael Gambon), and later in post-war Berlin. Spanning from the dawn of the Cold War to the 1961 Bay of Pigs fiasco, Edward’s experiences provide a tableau for “The Good Shepherd’s” sharp and involving history of American espionage. DeNiro captures a pitch-perfect tone, from Robert Richardson’s solemn cinematography to a languorous pace that allows this universe of secrets and lies to percolate with intrigue.

Light and shadow are revealed through small details. A character’s seemingly innocuous comment or action can later take on critical meanings; alert moviegoers are likely to find themselves sizing up character right along with Edward. Despite the film’s lengthy running time (167 minutes), the screenplay by Eric Roth (“Munich”) has precious little flab.

Perhaps DeNiro’s considerable acting chops helped spur great performances. Whatever the reason, “The Good Shepherd” uses its star-studded cast to great effect. Jolie, Gambon, DeNiro and John Turturro are memorable in supporting roles, and Tammy Blanchard is heartbreaking as Edward’s college sweetheart.

But this is Matt Damon’s movie all the way. Quiet but with eyes flashing intelligence, he is devastating as a man who sacrifices a personal life for one without trust or intimacy. In fact, the picture’s success at breathing life into Edward Wilson proves to be a double-edged sword. It is difficult for a story to follow a reserved, emotionally remote protagonist without becoming reserved and emotionally remote in the process.

That’s the thing with ambitious projects: Sometimes you stumble. “The Good Shepherd,” whatever its missteps, has ambition to spare. Epic in scope and provocative in execution, the movie is a compelling examination of Cold War-era espionage. The Cold War is over, but the saga of Edward Wilson feels curiously relevant today, in the wake of faulty CIA intelligence on WMDs and questions about where interrogation ends and torture begins.