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Gone Baby Gone, Into the Wild, Rendition, others



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ELIZABETH: THE GOLDEN AGE Sequels to movies like Saw and Daddy Day Care are givens, but a follow-up to an art-house endeavor set in a century far, far away? Indeed, that's the case with this sequel to the 1998 Elizabeth. But E:TGA proves to be markedly inferior to its predecessor, which was more original in that it examined the life of the Queen of England (played by Cate Blanchett) as she came into her own as both a woman and a ruler. With interesting characters flitting about in the shadows (most notably Geoffrey Rush's loyal but lethal advisor, Sir Francis Walsingham) and an unsettling sense of menace lurking around every corner, the first film deserved much of its lavish praise. By comparison, Elizabeth's second coming feels less like a royal offering than a common period biopic which mistakes stuffiness for stateliness. Here, Elizabeth must cope with an assassination plot approved by the jailed Mary Stuart (an effective Samantha Morton) and the King of Spain (ridiculous Jordi Molla). At the same time, she grows fond of explorer Sir Walter Raleigh (a coasting Clive Owen), leading to a romantic subplot nearly identical to the one already presented more zestfully by Bette Davis and Errol Flynn in 1939's The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex. Rush returns as Walsingham, but his role has been neutered. And while Blanchett delivers another first-rate performance as The Virgin Queen, she's ultimately defeated by a languorous script that makes court intrigue about as exciting as jury duty. **

THE GAME PLAN After his film career began floundering, action star Vin Diesel turned to the family audience with The Pacifier and ended up with a $113 million hit. Along the same lines, Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson now throws himself on the mercy of the small fry and their easy-to-please parental units with this innocuous mediocrity. Rocky stars as a narcissistic quarterback who's blindsided when an 8-year-old girl (Madison Pettis) shows up on his doorstep claiming to be his daughter. Livin' la vida loca with a lavishly designed bachelor pad, a European model for a girlfriend, and a flashy sports car to complement his lifestyle of the rich and famous, he learns that in order to become an effective parent, he has to accept a pink tutu being placed on his bulldog, his football trophies getting BeDazzled, and his mode of transport getting downsized to a station wagon. Considering that this holds next to no surprises for anyone who's ever seen a movie before, a 90-minute length would have been plenty; instead, this gets mercilessly stretched out to 110 minutes. Pettis mostly relies on calculated precociousness, but Johnson actually proves to be Rock-solid as Kingman, displaying modest but sufficient amounts of charm and comic timing. **

GONE BABY GONE Ben Affleck makes his directorial debut with Gone Baby Gone, and by playing it close to the vest, he turns out a drama that's deeply absorbing and constantly surprising. A better movie than Clint Eastwood's marginally overrated Mystic River, this sports a connection to that film since both were adapted from novels by Dennis Lehane. Here, a little girl is snatched from her home in a working-class Boston neighborhood, and the family hires two private investigators (Casey Affleck and Michelle Monaghan) to track down the missing moppet. Working in uneasy unison with a couple of detectives (Ed Harris and John Ashton), sometimes without the knowledge of the cops' superior officer (Morgan Freeman), the pair follow the trail of clues wherever it leads, which is 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 a moral ambivalence that's extremely rare 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. ***1/2

GOOD LUCK CHUCK Upchuck would have been a more accurate title for this nauseating effort – not only does its mere existence instantly elevate the already high standing of such accomplished "raunchy comedies" as The 40-Year-Old Virgin and There's Something About Mary, it also makes them seem as refined as an Ernst Lubitsch farce from the 1930s by comparison. Dane Cook plays Chuck, who was long ago placed under a hex which states that whenever he sleeps with a woman, she will then marry the next man who woos her. This allows Chuck to have sex with all sorts of women without worrying about commitment issues. But he grows tired of such a shallow lifestyle, especially after meeting a klutzy penguin specialist (the eternally vapid Jessica Alba). The central premise is no more farfetched than those exhibited in such frothy comedies as 13 Going on 30 and Big, yet Good Luck Chuck forgoes quirky charm and endearing characters in order to focus on bottom-of-the-barrel gross-out gags involving sex with grapefruits, stuffed penguins and a woman with three breasts. Cook and Alba generate about as much chemistry as a mongoose paired with a rattlesnake, while Dan Fogler, as Chuck's foul-mouthed best friend, will likely endure as the movie year's most obnoxious sidekick. *

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