Aliens, Debaters, Jack Nicholson

This week's new releases

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I'M NOT THERE (PG-13) A Bob Dylan biopic in which the name "Bob Dylan" is never once uttered, Todd Haynes' I'm Not There is essentially five or six biopics crammed together and fighting it out to see what rises to the surface. Much like Dylan himself, Haynes' enormously unconventional movie revels in contradictions and disguises, offering up no less than half a dozen Dylans played by multiple actors — a concept that's a near-perfect fit with an escape artist who's successfully re-invented himself more often than anyone this side of Bowie. The mini-army of quasi/crypto/ersatz Bobs weave around and through each other's lives, as images from Dylan's extensive mythology, both real and fabricated, pile up and smash into each other. The movie barrages us with densely layered, competing accounts, until the true lies reach critical mass, and separating the truth from legend eventually begins to seem completely beside the point. I'm Not There is as faithless to the particulars of Dylan's life as it is faithful, but the film's elegantly fractured narrative absolutely nails the essence of its subject. Stars Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Cate Blanchett, Richard Gere, Ben Whishaw, Marcus Carl Franklin, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Bruce Greenwood and Julianne Moore. 4 stars

INTO THE WILD (R) This is Sean Penn's meandering but strangely compelling take on the true story of Christopher McCandless (Emile Hirsch), a child of privilege who burned his IDs, gave away his money and, reborn as Alexander Supertramp, hit the open road. Into the Wild unfolds on a certain level as a road movie, with Chris/Alex hooking up with fellow travelers as he makes his way across the country, but the film also offers frequent flashbacks providing a parallel story obsessing on the familial tensions supposedly being left behind. The flashback structure and ominous, anguished tone of the voice-overs leave little doubt that we're witnessing a tragedy, however, and the movie's pervasive fatalism provides a bottom note even to Into the Wild's brighter moments. To his credit, and despite a soundtrack studded with painfully sincere Eddie Vedder songs, Penn doesn't turn Alex into a hero — his quest ultimately seems as foolish as it is noble. The film is too long by at least a half hour, and its frequent attempts to provide Alex with metaphorical surrogate families are a bit transparent, but there's something important being communicated here about the beauty and folly of attempting a personal spiritual revolution, the closest corollary being Herzog's Grizzly Man. Also stars Marcia Gay Harden, William Hurt, Jena Malone, Catherine Keener, Vince Vaughn, Brian Dierker, Kristen Stewart and Hal Holbrook. 3.5 stars

THE KITE RUNNER (PG-13) The breathlessly anticipated big screen version of The Kite Runner turns out to be as handsome as it is curiously bloodless — unless, of course, you're counting the picturesque spattering of crimson dotting the ground after a noble character's off-screen rape. Director Marc Foster's adaptation of Khaled Hosseini's much-admired book spans several decades and no less than two far-flung worlds while laying out a scrupulously symmetrical tale of friendship, loss and jumbo-sized redemption. The story begins in Afghanistan in the late '70s, where privileged 12-year-old Amir (Zekeria Ebrahimi) and household servant Hassan (Ahmad Khan Mahmidzada) are the best of friends despite obvious differences in class and ethnicity. The young actors are extremely engaging, but Foster doesn't dig too deep beneath the surface of Hosseini's novel, often reducing political and cultural nuances to glossy ethnic exotica, and eschewing shades of grey for big, black and white emotions. Too many huge upheavals are crammed into too tight a space, with Afghanistan summarily gobbled up by the Soviets and then by the Taliban, followed by a barrage of coming-to-America soap-operatics culminating in an Act of Personal Courage redeeming the hero from the Very Bad Thing that occurred earlier in the film. Also stars Kalid Abdalla, Homayon Ershadi, Shaun Toub and Nabi Tanha. 3 stars

LIONS FOR LAMBS (PG-13) Relentlessly wordy and almost painfully static, Lions for Lambs is essentially a series of dialogues — or, more plainly put, a collection of scenes in which pairs of people sit in various rooms, talking. There are three loosely linked scenarios here, including an up-and-coming Republican Senator (Tom Cruise) being interviewed by a somewhat suspicious journalist (Meryl Streep); two American soldiers (Michael Pena and Derek Luke) stranded on a snowy mountaintop in Afghanistan; and a college professor (Robert Redford) trying to get a bright but terminally cynical student (Todd Hayes) to become engaged with the world. The segments ramble on and eventually intersect, characters get to periodically exclaim Oscar-ready lines like, "Rome is burning!" and the implication is that we — every last man, woman and child in the audience — are all to some extent fiddling while the professional dickheads in Washington thrive on our collective apathy. Ultimately, the movie says nothing more controversial than "Bush screwed up" and "Get involved" — two all-purpose slogans for any party in this election year — and even these innocuously noble assessments are funneled into something as safe as any politician's prepared statement, a lifeless My Dinner with Andre reduced to sound bites from the evening news. Also stars Todd Hayes, Peter Berg and Kevin Dunn. 2 stars

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