David Ansen's Holiday Movie Guide

It will be hard to think of diamonds as a girl's best friend after seeing "Blood Diamond," Ed Zwick's slick, hard-hitting political thriller. The movie pitches us into the midst of a barbaric civil war in Sierra Leone in 1999, in which the profits from illegal, or "conflict," diamonds, sold on the black market to reputable European companies (a tiny splinter of the diamond trade), are used to fund arms on both sides of the war.

A rare pink diamond, coveted by all, is the "MacGuffin" that sets the plot in motion. It's found, and secretly buried, by Solomon Vandy (Djimon Hounsou), a Mende fisherman rounded up by marauding rebel forces and forced to work in their mines. They have also kidnapped his 14-year-old son to join their legions of brainwashed, doped-up child soldiers, and Solomon is counting on the money his diamond will bring to save his boy. The gem is equally coveted by diamond smuggler Danny Archer (Leonardo DiCaprio), a tough, amoral ex-mercenary from Zimbabwe, for whom the diamond represents his ticket out of war-torn Africa. He promises to help Solomon rescue his family for a cut of the profits, but he in turn needs the help of American journalist Maddy Brown (Jennifer Connelly). What she wants is Archer's help in exposing the complicity of the Western diamond trade in the exploitation of the Third World. Their quest to retrieve the prize fuels the movie's nonstop action.

Fast-moving and brutally entertaining, Zwick's movie, from a Charles Leavitt screenplay, is undeniably gripping, but the by-the-book Hollywood melodrama (Will the cynical Archer discover a conscience? Will the aggressive journalist fall for his bad-boy charm?) doesn't always sit comfortably with the hellish images of hacked-off limbs, machine-gun-toting child soldiers and teeming refugee camps. There's something disturbingly formulaic about the ferociously well-staged outbursts of violence, which arrive with a metronomic regularity that can seem more opportunistic than organic.

But there is much to admire here. Zwick ("Legends of the Fall," "The Last Samurai"), who can err on the stolid side, seems energized and engaged by the African milieu: he's in peak form. DiCaprio, transformed by his pitch-perfect South African accent, is utterly convincing as a tough, driven adventurer: he exudes the masculine charisma he hadn't grown into in "Gangs of New York." Hounsou, as always, cuts an imposing, sympathetic figure, but it would be nice if, for once, he didn't have to play a noble moral paragon. "Blood Diamond" only skims the surface of many important subjects—the script doesn't begin to explain what the civil war was about. But if it opens a few eyes, it will have done its job.

London, 2027. While the rest of the world has collapsed into chaos, the United Kingdom conjured up in Alfonso Cuarón's gripping but problematic dystopian thriller is hanging on by a militaristic thread. Terrorist bombs explode near Piccadilly. Immigrants and refugees are rounded up and held in pens, awaiting deportation. The world is plagued by infertility: it's been 19 years since a baby was born. How do you live with no hope of a future for the species?

The former activist Theo (Clive Owen) has succumbed to whisky-fueled numbness—until he's called upon by his ex-lover (Julianne Moore), now a radical leader fighting for refugee rights, to get transit papers for Kee (Clare-Hope Ashitey), a young African woman who desperately needs to flee the country. There's good reason for the urgency: Kee is pregnant.

Cuarón and his phenomenal cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki bring this bleak, terrifying near-future to life in astonishingly tactile images. Cuarón ("Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban," "Y Tu Mamá También") is one of the most exciting filmmakers around. He stages breathtaking action sequences: one in which marauding thugs attack a car in the countryside is unlike anything you've seen.

The filmmaking is so accomplished you wish it were matched by the script, which was adapted from a P. D. James novel by Cuarón and four other credited writers. (That many scribes is never a good sign.) "Children of Men" is clearly more than a thrilling chase movie: it's meant to hold a barely distorted mirror to the world we're living in now. But the characters are too sketchy for the political metaphors to resonate. (The exception is Theo's old hippie mentor and friend, beautifully played by Michael Caine, a pot-smoking cartoonist who's retreated to his hidden home in the woods.) The infertility theme isn't explored in any depth. What exactly will it accomplish to get Kee out of the country? Since the future of mankind rests on this pregnant girl, we want details. "Children of Men" leaves too many questions unanswered, yet it has a stunning visceral impact. You can forgive a lot in the face of filmmaking this dazzling.

If you've never seen a movie by the ghoulishly inventive Mexican director Guillermo del Toro, you are in for a unique treat. Del Toro alternates between personal Spanish-language films such as "Cronos" and "The Devil's Backbone" and American horror movies such as "Mimic" and "Hellboy." He also likes to mix high and low genres, fantasy and reality, in unexpected ways. They've never merged as hauntingly as they do in "Pan's Labyrinth," which blends a fantastical fairy tale into the harsh reality of Franco's Spain just after the civil war.

The tale is told through the eyes of young Ofelia (played by 13-year-old Ivana Baquero), who is uprooted to a rural military compound when her sickly, pregnant mother (Ariadna Gil) marries a Fascist captain (Sergi López), a harsh authoritarian cleansing the countryside of the last remnants of the Republican opposition. Her only friend is the housekeeper (Maribel Verdú from "Y Tu Mamá También"), who is secretly aiding the rebels. Lonely and frightened, Ofelia retreats into a world of fantasy. In a maze in the woods she meets the ancient satyr Pan (Doug Jones) himself, who challenges her to assume her true regal identity by undergoing a series of tests. Ofelia enters an underground kingdom of ogres, monsters and spells; we see how this magical universe echoes her real life, and how, in this fable of innocence, courage and evil, the lessons of her fairy tale have to be applied in the real, savage world.

Suspended between the brutally graphic and flights of lyrical fancy, "Pan's Labyrinth" unfolds with the confidence of a classical fable, one that paradoxically feels both timeless and startlingly new.

"The Third man." "Casablanca." "Notorious." These great 1940s movies, and many more, will come to mind while you're watching "The Good German," and for good reason. Steven Soderbergh's black-and-white melodrama may be brand new, but it is a '40s movie, right down to the typography used in the credits and the big Thomas Newman score. Set in partitioned Berlin just after the end of World War II, it has an urbane war-correspondent hero (George Clooney) sent to Germany to cover the Potsdam conference, a femme fatale who reeks of Dietrich-like doomed glamour (Cate Blanchett as Clooney's old flame, now reduced to prosti-tution), a callow young American corporal (Tobey Maguire) milking the ruined city for black-market profits and international skullduggery involving Nazi scientists coveted by both the Soviets and the Americans.

It sounds delicious: what movie lover doesn't want to take this nourishing trip down memory lane? But the siren call of Old Hollywood can be as treacherous as this woman of mystery. Attempting a frame-by-frame duplication of Warner Bros. '40s filmmaking—even the extroverted acting style apes the period—Soderbergh has produced a movie so self-conscious that it's drained of all life. "The Good German," written by Paul Attanasio from a Joseph Kanon novel, promises a seduction, but it plays like an academic exercise. Soderbergh's skill, intelligence and love for the genre are never in doubt. But, as it turns out, you can't play it again, Sam.

Clint Eastwood tells the story of the Battle of Iwo Jima from the Japanese side in "Letters From Iwo Jima." You can view it as a bookend to his recent "Flags of Our Fathers," or on its own. Either way, it's unprecedented, a sorrowful and savagely beautiful elegy that can stand in the company of the greatest antiwar movies.

Written in English, which was then translated into Japanese by the young Japanese-American Iris Yamashita (who shares story credit with Paul Haggis), the screenplay brings to life four indelible characters, all of whom know there is little chance they'll leave the island alive. General Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe) is the untraditional officer in charge, who devised the 18 miles of tunnels that enabled the Japanese to withstand the American invasion for almost 40 days. He fights with the irony that, having spent time in the United States before the war, he reveres Americans. Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya) is an irreverent young baker who just wants to stay alive to see his newborn daughter. The aristocratic Baron Nishi (Tsuyoshi Ihara) is a famous equestrian who competed in the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics. Private Shimizu (Ryo Kase) was trained in the elite military police but shipped off to Iwo Jima for disobeying orders to kill a dog. We see, as well, the old-guard officers who would shoot any soldier who tries to surrender, and who, when defeat seems inevitable, order their men to die with honor by blowing themselves up with grenades. Eastwood's depiction of the horrors of war—and the atrocities committed on both sides—has a shocking intimacy.

If "Flags" is more complex in its ambitions and structure, the leaner, simpler "Letters" is even more emotionally devastating. Superbly acted, unblinking and unhysterical, it looks beyond politics into the hearts and minds of the men we needed to call "the enemy," and lets us see ourselves.

Movie trailers, as we all know, can be deceptive, as anyone who went to "Man of the Year" expecting a knee-slapping Robin Williams satire can attest. The early glimpses of "The Pursuit of Happyness," starring Will Smith and his 7-year-old son, Jaden, had me fearing a tear-jerking blast of Hallmark card "uplift." The actual movie, written by Steve Conrad and directed by the Italian Gabriele Muccino ("The Last Kiss"), is something quite different: there's an inspirational, hang-on-to-your-dreams message, but it comes only at the very end of a long, grim, painful journey. Holiday cheer is not what this movie is offering.

The movie is a fictionalized version of a true story about Chris Gardner (Smith), a smart, struggling medical-supplies salesman in San Francisco in 1981 who dreams of becoming a stockbroker. In the film, he takes an unpaid internship at Dean Witter—a huge, and some might think irresponsible, risk because only one intern will be chosen for a position at the firm. In debt, with a fed-up wife (Thandie Newton) who walks out on him, he ultimately loses his apartment and is thrown onto the streets with his son. They sleep in subway bathrooms and homeless shelters while, during the day, Gardner dons suit and tie and charms customers into investing with Dean Witter.

Chris can be a fast-talking charmer, but Smith is not coasting on his usual bouncy bravado here. He digs deep, tapping into a ragged desperation, and an urgent paternal protectiveness, that's a far cry from "Men in Black." Newton doesn't stick around long, but she makes a powerful impression as a woman knotted up with anger. And young Jaden Christopher Syre Smith is a natural. Muccino, to his credit, resists milking his million-dollar eyes for undue pathos.

I respect the movie's tact, its honest exploration of homelessness, its surprising refusal to exult in the rags-to-riches aspects of Gardner's story, but I can't say I was transported. There's a repetitious, one-note quality to the storytelling—the bone-density machine Chris sells gets stolen one too many times—that adds to the sense of oppression. I didn't see the "20/20" show about the real Chris Gardner that inspired the movie. But I suspect I would have come away more amazed and moved than I was by this honorable but dogged effort.

Director Robert De Niro and screenwriter Eric Roth's "The Good Shepherd" is nothing if not ambitious. In two hours and 40 minutes of grave, hushed, shadowy images, it attempts to tell the story of the formation and transformation of the CIA. It begins with the agency's failed Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961, loops back to the late 1930s, when the Office of Strategic Services (the CIA's predecessor) was created, and then takes us on a globe-hopping trip through the cold war.

All this is filtered through the fictional story of Edward Wilson (Matt Damon), a young Yale student plucked from the secret Skull and Bones society in 1939 to serve his country by spying on a suspected Nazi-sympathizing professor (Michael Gambon). The bright, well-bred Wilson is an idealist, but even as a young man there's something shut off about him: he says little, hides his emotions and is strangely passive in the presence of women, even one as seductive as Clover (Angelina Jolie), whom he dutifully marries when she gets pregnant. Soon after, he joins the OSS and whisks off to London and later Berlin, not to return until his son is nearly 7. "The Good Shepherd" charts Wilson's devolution—and the agency's—from patriotic idealism to paranoid, isolated ruthlessness. The cost of secrecy is his soul, and his family.

For the film's mesmerizing first 50 minutes I thought De Niro might pull off the "Godfather" of spy movies. The tradecraft fascinates, the sociology is astute, the tense chess match between Wilson and his KGB counterpart "Ulysses" (Oleg Stefan) has an intricacy worthy of le Carré. But the unvaryingly solemn tone begins to wear, and the elaborate flashback structure becomes confusing in the last act. Roth's script is great on the cat-and-mouse games, weak on the destruction of Wilson's marriage. Jolie's character is barely coherent. And Roth's choice to build an epic around a character as hooded as Wilson is risky: it's a testament to Damon's skill and charisma that we care at all about this clenched careerist.

Still, even if the movie's vast reach exceeds its grasp, it's a spellbinding history lesson. "The Good Shepherd" demands you watch it like a spy: alert, paranoid, never knowing whom you can trust, or who will stab you in the back.

She's vile beyond belief!" moans Ian (84-year-old Leslie Phillips), complaining to his friend and fellow veteran actor Maurice (74-year-old Peter O'Toole) about the young, mulish working-class girl (Jodie Whittaker) belligerently ensconced in his flat as his "nurse." Maurice, however, who's always had an eye for the ladies, takes one look at the sulky Jessie in her pink track suit and is enchanted.

So begins the unlikeliest of May-December romances—his interest in her is sexual, though he can no longer perform; her interest in him is strictly platonic—and so begins "Venus," a heartbreaking comedy that is simultaneously funny and sad, raunchy and sweet, funky and elegiac. These fresh, unexpected juxtapositions are a specialty of the writer Hanif Kureishi ("My Beautiful Laundrette"), a sworn enemy of cliché.

The once beautiful Maurice, an elegant but blasphemous old thespian who still gets work playing deathbed cases on TV, is a dream part for O'Toole. The lyricism and grace he had as Lawrence of Arabia have never left him—nor have the superb comic instincts of "My Favorite Year." He's not playing himself here, but his performance is haunted by our memory of the younger O'Toole. When his ex-wife, played by Vanessa Redgrave, spots Maurice in an old movie on TV and says, "Oh God, how handsome you were," we know exactly how she feels.

Phillips is a delight as the prissy, self-dramatizing Ian, and Whittaker is a real find: she makes Jessie's "Pygmalion"-like blossoming utterly convincing. Under Roger ("Persuasion") Michell's brisk, tender direction, "Venus" works on every level. It's a bittersweet meditation on mortality, a lovely valentine to the acting profession and a fine romance, with no kisses.

The aptly named Barbara Covett, a stern, resentful and lonely teacher at a shabby London secondary school, is a master of both deception and self-deception, which makes her a very dangerous woman, and a pathetic one. Played with acid-tongued relish by Judi Dench in a radical departure from her roles as royalty, she's a deliciously nasty piece of work.

Barbara, whose closest companion is her cat, has fallen in love, though she would never put it that way. The focus of her obsession is Sheba Hart (Cate Blanchett), the new art teacher. Attractive, young, happily married with two children and a "bourgeois bohemian" sense of privilege, Sheba is everything Barbara isn't—and everything Barbara wants to be.

Imagine her shock when she discovers Sheba in the arms of her ardent 15-year-old student Steven (Andrew Simpson). But Barbara quickly gets over her horror when she realizes the glorious opportunity this presents. Now their fates will be forever interlocked. It will be our little secret, she tells the shaken Sheba, as long as you give up the affair.

"Notes on a Scandal" is a wicked delight. Adapted by playwright Patrick Marber from Zoe Heller's acclaimed novel, it's at once a comedy of cluelessness and class, a melodrama of two women in the grips of wildly inappropriate obsessions, and a "Fatal Attraction"-style thriller. It's not easy to pull off the tale's delicate mix of tones, but Richard ("Iris") Eyre's zesty direction gets it just right. (Philip Glass's throbbing score, however, gets it wrong.) Blanchett, who's played her share of queens, has never been more intriguingly life-size. The restless, willful Sheba is a wonderfully complex role: a devoted mother married to a loving, much older husband (Bill Nighy), she falls into her passionate affair with the cocky schoolboy having no real idea what she's doing, or why. He's just a callow, average kid with raging hormones, which makes the folly of her misplaced emotions all the more poignant—and funny. What happens when the scandal gets out I'll leave for you to discover. Even if you know the novel, you'll hang on every twist and turn.

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