You might be a cop. You might be an undercover agent. You might be a crime kingpin. Or a sexy psychiatrist. No matter who you are, it's like the Bob Dylan song says: "You gotta serve somebody."

In The Departed, Martin Scorsese's hyper-violent remake of the Hong Kong crime classic Infernal Affairs, everybody has secrets, agendas, and a willingness to pull the trigger. And underneath their carefully composed disguises, all of them are devoted to the service of somebody—either a criminal, a cop, the cause of justice, their family's honor, or their own selfish hearts.

In the background, we see the gleaming dome of a church—and it remains distant, glowing, and neglected. It raises the question: Is anyone here serving God?

As Scorsese explores the mean streets of South Boston, he finds the cops at war with an organized crime operation run by ruthless Irish-American thugs. And the farther he takes us into this conflict, the more we realize that both sides are thoroughly corrupt. Undercover operative Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio) is trying to get close to crime kingpin Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson), but the closer he gets, the more he must involve himself in reprehensible deeds. Meanwhile, one of Costello's fellow conspirators, Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon) has crept up in the ranks of the Boston police to become a prominent investigator.

The Departed is a film of superior craftsmanship, with dialogue as jarring and relentless as the gunfire, cinematography that takes us on a tour of a shadowy underworld, editing that winds up the tension to almost unbearable levels, and some of the year's most compelling performances.

But the film falls short of greatness on several counts. First, Jack Nicholson's outrageous over-acting becomes a distraction. Second, the film's only prominent female character—a sophisticated psychiatrist named Madolyn (Vera Farmiga)—is implausibly reckless and unprofessional. And finally, Scorsese fails to give proper attention to the most admirable character of the bunch—Martin Sheen as Oliver Queenan, the chief of the Boston Police Department and a Catholic who is the film's most upright and principled man. And yet, Queenan is all but ignored, lost in the chaos of bullets and double-crossings.

It's a shame that Scorsese, in expanding on Infernal Affairs, is so much more interested in embellishing his characters' sordid behavior than he is in examining marks of virtue and principle. This may cause concern for anyone anticipating his next film—an adaptation of Shazuko Endo's Silence, that magnificent and harrowing novel about a Christian missionary whose faith is put to the test.

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My full review is at Looking Closer.

Russ Breimeier (Christianity Today Movies) says, "The Departed … is one of those rare exceptions of a film that generally improves on the source material, despite falling short of it in other ways." He calls the film "an intelligent, briskly paced crime drama that's almost never dull in its 149 minutes. … [A]side from the offensive material, The Departed fires on all cylinders as one of the best crime dramas ever made—smart, suspenseful, and technically well made from every angle. Of course, it's nice that there's an alternative for those unwilling to look past the excesses of The Departed. I cannot deny that it's an extremely well executed flick, but for a less epic and vulgar film experience, yet equally satisfying version of the same story, stick with Infernal Affairs."

Harry Forbes (Catholic News Service) says Scorsese is "back in his element, exhibiting the gritty flair he showed in films such as Mean Streets and Goodfellas. … For all its implausibilities, the film, buttressed by solid performances and Scorsese's cinematic bravado, keeps you absorbed."

Forbes also notes, "In this sort of film, a high quotient of violence is to be expected, and though Scorsese doesn't exactly wallow in it, there are some strong sequences that will be hard to take. Less dramatically sound is the nonstop barrage of expletives, excessive even for the underworld environment."

Christopher Lyon (Plugged In) says, "In some ways, The Departed delivers exactly what you would expect from a Scorsese crime movie. Well-crafted storytelling. Impressive tough-guy performances from a crackerjack cast. And several truckloads of brutal, graphic violence and harshly obscene language (especially and endlessly the f-word)."

Christian Hamaker (Crosswalk) says the movie is, "overly long, terribly profane, brutally violent and extremely dark. The cinematic technique, especially during the film's first hour, is dazzling—a fluid mix of camera movement, Classic Rock, and Mob machinations that sets a grim and gritty tone for what's to come. But the energy soon lags, and a sea of despair drowns most of the characters, while the law of diminishing returns takes hold of the film."

Mainstream critics are celebrating Scorsese's return to crime sagas, and praising the cast with a flood of superlatives.

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49 Up: The extraordinary adventure continues

If you haven't yet discovered Michael Apted's "Up" series, you've missed out on one of the most extraordinary moviegoing experiences we've ever been offered.

In 1964, Apted began his series of landmark documentaries by interviewing a group of several seven-year-olds from different areas in London, and promising us that this glimpse would give us strong indications of what these individuals would become later in life. In a sense, he set out to envision the future of Britain.

And so, he began making follow-up films every seven years, checking in on what was happening in each individual's life. What began as a project for television moved to the big screen. Now, all of them are now available on DVD in a convenient boxed set: 7 Up, Seven Plus Seven, 21 Up, 28 Up, 35 Up, and 42 Up.

Thus, for those who have followed this "reality big-screen" drama, which has been full of delightful surprises and devastating turns, the arrival of 49 Up is a reason to rejoice.

Ron Reed (Christianity Today Movies) raves about the series, saying, "Apted's ongoing documentary project is one of the most singular and transcendent expressions to emerge during the first century of this newest art form, and it is our privilege to be able to watch it as it unfolds—every seven years, to be given so intimate and respectful a window on the journeys of these dozen souls. And to be led in turn, inevitably, to examine our own lives, and to look at the lives of those around us with a longer view, a perspective that's something close to Divine."

He says the film is "utterly essential viewing, particularly for those of us scanning these crowds for some sign of God's face (to paraphrase Bruce Cockburn). The 'Up' films rarely delve into matters that are specifically religious, yet they are suffused with something deeply spiritual. … [I]n this most recent installment in the cycle, God's grace is all the more explicitly and abundantly evident in one particular life—and, remarkably, director Apted gives this divine 'plot twist' pride of place in his documentary."

Almost unanimous in their rapturous praise, mainstream critics are celebrating this as another brilliant chapter in a monumental achievement.

Mean, mean Idi Amin

Director Kevin Macdonald, who brought us the survival story Touching the Void, dramatizes the murderous malevolence of the Ugandan dictator Idi Amin in his adaptation of Giles Foden's novel The Last King of Scotland.

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James McAvoy—the actor who played Mr. Tumnus in The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe—stars as a misguided Scotsman who becomes Amin's personal physician. But the film's strongest virtue is the performance by Forest Whitaker as the dictator.

While Scotland gives us a behind-the-scenes look at Amin's turbulent reign, critics aren't exactly sure if anything profound is revealed in the process.

Peter T. Chattaway (Christianity Today Movies) says, "The Last King of Scotland is reminiscent of All the King's Men, at least insofar as both films concern a son of privilege who forsakes his upbringing and hooks up with a charismatic leader from the lower classes—only to find that the new boss is at least as bad as the old bosses. The difference is, Garrigan is a much shallower figure; instead of an idealist who witnesses the corruption of everything he held dear, he is a hedonist who is confronted by the depths of his own self-centered naiveté ."

But he concludes, that film "does little to challenge the idea that the stories that matter are the ones in which the white man takes center stage."

David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) says the film "serves as an indictment of inhumanity and hatred wrapped in a fairly compelling parable that asks: What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world—let alone a palace in Uganda—and loses his soul?" He praises Whitaker, saying that he "captures both Amin's magnetism and megalomania, manically flipping between charm and rage and investing even a subtle eye flutter with deadly meaning. The result is a fascinating, if terrifying, portrait of monstrous cruelty that demands attention come Oscar time."

Mainstream critics are impressed by the performances, but not so enthusiastic about the film itself.

Stay away from this nasty Employee

Employee of the Month takes place inside a massive superstore, where a sexy cashier is being pursued by a determined box boy. No, it's not a terribly compelling premise. But the fact that the film stars Dane Cook (Waiting) and cover girl/pop superstar Jessica Simpson guarantees the film box office success … in spite of its bad reviews.

David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) writes, "Director Greg Coolidge blends slapstick, broad comedy and satire to uneven effect, and while the gamesmanship is intermittently amusing, the general vulgarity undermines the story's sweet center."

Marcus Yoars (Plugged In) compares Dane Cook's style of comedy with Jerry Seinfeld's. "Whereas Seinfeld relied heavily on innuendo rather than explicit material, Cook has no problem dousing his routines with foul language and raunchy content." He points to "a barrage of sexual gags, potty humor and raw language," and concludes that this film is "additionally bogged down with a viewpoint that forces us to root for the lesser of two evils."

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Mainstream critics aren't buying what this Employee sells.

Love's Abiding Joy should've stayed on TV

Love's Abiding Joy, the fourth in a series of made-for-TV movies based on the work of author Janette Oke, is now playing on some big screens thanks to the division of Fox Entertainment—FoxFaith.

The movie, directed by Michael Landon Jr., follows Missie and Willie Lahaye, a family of Christian settlers, as they travel through the Wild West. When their young daughter is suddenly and tragically killed, their family is put to a severe test.

Steven Isaac and Adam Holz (Plugged In) say the film is "a nice story, nothing more, nothing less. It's wholesome. It's full of healthy spiritual expressions. It's anachronistic. In all honesty, it's as good a Hallmark Channel movie as we've seen in a while." But then they note that "a Hallmark TV Classic" may not be enough to satisfy theatergoers.

The film isn't satisfying mainstream film critics at all. Bill Mueller (Arizona Republic) says, "Love's Abiding Joy is so bland, it makes Little House on the Prairie seem racy. … Manipulative and neutered, [it] will offend only those who resent patronizing condescension," while Ed Blank (Pittsburgh Tribune-Review) says it's "like watching Touched by an Angel without the ads."

Critics carve up Texas Chainsaw prequel

Violence is a painful daily reality in this messed up world. Sometimes, movies portray violence in a meaningful way. Some of this season's most important films—Martin Scorsese's The Departed, Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu's Babel, and Clint Eastwood's Flags of Our Fathers—examine violent subjects, consider the damage violence can do, and ask what the righteous man should do in the midst of a violent world.

Other films exploit and celebrate the evils that men do, and they make money by appealing to those with unhealthy appetites for bloodshed. They might even inspire violence.

According to those critics who have suffered through it, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning is one of those obscene and destructive films—and yet it finished No. 2 at the box office over the weekend.

David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) writes, "Director Jonathan Liebesman forgoes plot to pile on the bloody sadism. Such gratuitous brutality isn't amusement, but something closer to pornography."

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Bob Hoose (Plugged In) agrees that the film "celebrates bloody mayhem," and he warns viewers that "a movie like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning, with its overloud skull crunching and its meat-rending, blood-sodden visuals can sear and stick in your brain and in your heart like bubbling summer tar on bare feet."

You won't find many fans of this filth in the mainstream press either.

More reviews of recent releases

Jackass: Number Two: David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) writes that this second exhibition of cruel and crass practical jokes "plays pain and humiliation for laughs through a series of 'Candid Camera'-style pranks and outrageous stunts that range from the harmlessly sophomoric … to the outright sadistic … and vile. … Despite a perfunctory 'don't try this at home' disclaimer, packaging such recklessness as entertainment seems irresponsible considering its copycat potential."

Jesus Camp: Brett McCracken (Relevant) writes, "[T]he argument of Jesus Camp is pretty familiar: Evangelical Christians are radically conservative, gleefully anti-intellectual, flag-waving Dubya lovers who brainwash their WASP spawn in hopes of raising up an army to usher in a theocracy or the apocalypse, whichever comes first."

Chariots of Fire: Celebrating the 25th anniversary of the release of Chariots of Fire—that classic film about the principled Christian Olympian Eric Liddell and his fellow competitor Harold Abrahams—William Baer (Crisis Magazine) offers thoughts on why the Oscar-winning drama remains a beloved classic.