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Behind The Camera

Two actors score with their directorial efforts

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The days of laughing at Ben Affleck appear to be over.

To be honest, the chiseled leading man never really deserved the derision tossed his way as an actor, since the fault rested less in his thespian abilities and more in his frequent choice of rancid material (Gigli, Pearl Harbor, Surviving Christmas) as well as in the disastrous PR surrounding his not-so-private life with media hog Jennifer Lopez. As anyone who's seen his accomplished work in Chasing Amy, Good Will Hunting and Hollywoodland can attest, the man has talent, even if it's of a limited nature.

That talent apparently exists on the other side of the camera as well. Affleck will never possess the chops to give Steven Spielberg or Martin Scorsese a run for their money (or their Oscars), but with his directorial debut, Gone Baby Gone, he ably demonstrates that by playing it close to the vest, he can turn out a compelling drama that's deeply absorbing and constantly surprising.

A better movie than Clint Eastwood's marginally overrated Mystic River, Gone Baby Gone sports a connection to that film since both were adapted from novels by Dennis Lehane. And as with Mystic, the mystery in Gone Baby Gone unfolds in a working-class Boston neighborhood in which a child proves to be the victim of tragic circumstances. In this new film, a little girl is snatched from her home, and the family, not content with the investigation being conducted by the police, hires private investigators Patrick Kenzie (Casey Affleck) and Angie Gennaro (Michelle Monaghan) to track down the missing moppet. Working in uneasy unison with detectives Bressant (Ed Harris) and Poole (John Ashton), sometimes without the knowledge of the cops' superior officer (Morgan Freeman), Patrick and Angie follow the trail of clues wherever it leads, which is usually straight into an underworld populated by thuggish crime lords and coke-addled pedophiles.

Aided by a stellar cast that showcases superlative turns by Ben's brother Casey, Harris and Amy Ryan as the child's trashy mom, Affleck (who also co-scripted with Aaron Stockard) has crafted a forceful crime flick that's made even more irresistible by way of moral dilemmas that are rarely contemplated in modern dramas. It's this stance that propels the film through its knockout finale, since a sequence about two-thirds through the picture erroneously leads us to believe that the film is winding down with a disappointingly conventional ending. But it's a mere ruse, since it clears the way for more surprises that in turn build toward a devastating conclusion guaranteed to remain in the mind for days, weeks, maybe even months.

DESPITE (OR, IN some cases, because of) his meticulous Method madness, Sean Penn's performances -- even the fine ones -- can best be described as overwrought. But place the actor behind the camera, and the opposite holds true: As a director, his preference has been for subtlety rather than showboating. And with each passing film (The Indian Runner, The Crossing Guard, The Pledge), it's clear that his confidence and comfort level have both grown at a startling rate.

Given this maturation, it's no surprise that Into the Wild finds Penn turning in his best directorial effort to date. Adapting Jon Krakauer's based-on-fact novel, he has fashioned a somber, reflective film about a young man whose actions are so open to interpretation that where some will see an idealistic dreamer, others will see an obnoxious brat; where some will see a martyr, others will see a moron.

In a role that might have gone to Leonardo DiCaprio were he not so busy bonding with Martin Scorsese, Emile Hirsch delivers a strong performance as Chris McCandless, a well-to-do college graduate who, instead of following the distinguished career path laid out for him by his parents (William Hurt and Marcia Gay Harden), elects to donate all his savings to charity and head for the wilderness. Determined to leave society and all its hypocrisies behind, he treks all over North America's untamed terrain, finding himself as far south as Mexico and as far north as Alaska. But while Chris (who has since renamed himself Alexander Supertramp) may think he has little use for humankind in general, he finds he still can benefit from the kindness and occasional company of particular people. He meets a wide range of interesting individuals during his travels, among them an elderly man (Hal Holbrook) who engages in philosophical debates with the lad, a Midwestern farmer (Vince Vaughn) who offers him practical advice, and a hippie couple (Catherine Keener and Brian Dierker, a real-life river guide making the year's best acting debut) who view him as a surrogate son.

Into the Wild is especially memorable in the manner in which it offers no absolutes. Functioning as a bookend piece to Werner Herzog's excellent documentary Grizzly Man, it demonstrates that nature is as beastly as it is beautiful, and even noble aspirations run the risk of getting trampled under its imposing weight. All of the characters have their say, yet even when people's opinions run counter to each other's, everyone is making sense and no one is being disingenuous. Penn obviously feels enormous sympathy (and perhaps a kinship?) for his protagonist, yet he doesn't present him as a saint, only a charismatic if troubled kid whose defining feature is that he managed to live a life less ordinary.

IT'S ENTIRELY appropriate that Great World of Sound was both filmed and set in Charlotte, since that ties it back to one of the landmark documentaries: 1968's Salesman, which focused on door-to-door Bible peddlers whose main office was right here in the Queen City. Great World of Sound is a fictional piece, but writer-director Craig Zobel (scripting with George Smith) is clearly working with a budget so small, that this thematically similar film has the look and feel of fly-on-the-wall cinema.

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