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Film Clips

Lars and the Real Girl, Across the Universe, The Assassination of Jesse James, others

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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 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. 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 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 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

INTO THE WILD 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. Into the Wild finds him 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 idealist, others will see an obnoxious brat; where some will see a martyr, others will merely see a moron. Emile Hirsch delivers a strong performance as Chris McCandless, a well-to-do college graduate who donates 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, meeting a wide range of interesting individuals along the way. 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 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. ***

LUST, CAUTION How necessary are sex scenes to a film's identity? In some instances, such as Last Tango In Paris and Shortbus, they're integral to our understanding of the characters' psyches. In most cases, they're merely movie decorations, there to entertain us and arouse us and not do much more. The carnal encounters in Ang Lee's Lust, Caution, couplings that earned the film an NC-17, are open to debate. Certainly, part of Lee's intent is to employ the sex as a means of charting the complex relationship between the two central characters. At the same time, there's a nagging sense that, having stirred up controversy with Brokeback Mountain, he's hoping to keep the fires burning by going even further in his exploration of sexuality. The trouble is, Brokeback Mountain truly gave us something unique (at least in American cinema), while the softcore romps here can be caught on late-night cable any given weekend. Expanding a story by Eileen Chang, this moves back and forth between the war years 1938-1942, with drama student Wong Chia Chi (Tang Wei) becoming a spy in order to get close to – and help assassinate – Mr. Yee (Tony Leung), a Chinese official collaborating with the Japanese. Unlike The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford, which wears its identical 160-minute running time with greater ease, Lust, Caution is overlong, with much of the inherent tension drained through protracted setups and select sequences that extend rather than deepen the storyline. Still, the spy-game maneuverings provide dramatic heft, and Tang Wei is a luminous actress who could end up being the next Gong Li – or at least Zhang Ziyi. **1/2

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