CHILDREN OF MEN (2006). No matter how closely I scoured each scene in Children of Men, I couldn't find Charlton Heston lurking anywhere in the background. Yet a Heston cameo would have been apropos, given that this adaptation of P.D. James' book harkens back to the cinema of the early 1970s, when Hollywood was hell-bent on churning out nightmarish visions of the future in such works as The Omega Man and Soylent Green (both starring Heston). Aided by spectacular cinematography and set design, director Alfonso Cuaron (Y Tu Mama Tambien, A Little Princess) creates a future world (the film is set in 2027) that is utterly believable and quite frightening, not least because it looks so much like our present-day world. The premise here is that women haven't been able to get pregnant in nearly 20 years, meaning that humankind is on its way out. As a result, chaos is the order of the day, and only in London does there exist a pretense of a (barely) functional society. But when it's revealed that an immigrant (Clare-Hope Ashitey) somehow finds herself carrying a child, it's up to a working drone (Clive Owen in a forceful performance) and his friends (Julianne Moore and a delightful Michael Caine) to protect her from the various political factions that would exploit her for their own cynical means. The multi-tentacled storyline begs for a miniseries length, but armed with only a feature-film running time, Cuaron still manages to pack a lot of incident into this exciting tale of our world as one gargantuan war zone. This earned deserved Oscar nominations for Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography and Best Film Editing. DVD extras include deleted scenes, Cuaron's half-hour documentary on how the film's themes relate to today, comments on the movie by philosopher and cultural critic Slavoj Zizek, and a look at the futuristic design.
CURSE OF THE GOLDEN FLOWER (2006). Will the real Zhang Yimou please stand up? This extraordinary talent was once responsible for such towering features as Ju Dou, To Live and Raise the Red Lantern, opulent epics that nevertheless managed to display the heartbeat of personal drama. But as of late, Yimou has become fascinated with movie technology, shifting from people to props, from storylines to stunts. Yet even staunch defenders of his recent opuses Hero and House of Flying Daggers might throw their hands up when confronted with this excessive extravaganza. It's based on a play by Yu Cao but seems to have been adapted by Yimou after he sat through a marathon viewing of soap operas. For all its attention to duplicity, incest and murder most foul, it's less William Shakespeare and more Susan Lucci. Set in 928 A.D., it concerns the power plays that exist between Emperor Ping (Chow Yun-Fat), Empress Phoenix (Gong Li) and their sons (Jay Chou, Ye Liu and Qin Junjie). The art direction and Oscar-nominated costume designs are staggering, but the story unfolding amidst all the pageantry is strained and even silly. Still, the dialogue-heavy sequences prove to be more compelling than the action scenes, which generally rely on repetitive battle footage and wholly unconvincing CGI work. After enduring countless sequences filled with complex wirework and trick photography, I found myself yearning for the relative simplicity of a Bruce Lee kick to the chest. DVD extras include a making-of featurette and footage from the film's Los Angeles premiere.
THE GOOD SHEPHERD (2006). A fictionalized look at the creation of the Central Intelligence Agency, The Good Shepherd is methodical in its style and intelligent in its execution, which in some circles will translate as dull, slow-moving and impenetrable. Yet patient viewers will find much to appreciate in this chilly yet absorbing drama, which takes the cherished ideal of patriotism and turns it on its head. On the heels of The Departed, Matt Damon delivers another bold performance that seeks no audience empathy -- here, he's cast as Edward Wilson, whose role as one of the founders of the CIA finds him over the course of several decades having to contend with all manner of Cold War shenanigans, including the presence of a mole within his own agency. Directed with a fine attention to detail by Robert De Niro (who also appears in a key supporting role), The Good Shepherd repeatedly runs the risk of losing viewers with its flashback-laden structure drafted by scripter Eric Roth. But the strength of the film rests in its clear-eyed vision of Edward Wilson, whose fierce devotion to his country in turn strips him of his humanity and reduces him to a suspicious and paranoid cipher, an American too busy fighting unseen enemies to enjoy the freedoms and privileges that his nation provides for him. DVD extras include 16 minutes of deleted scenes.