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Reviews of new and recent releases

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THE GREAT DEBATERS (PG-13) Denzel Washington stars and serves as director in this inspirational drama about the unexpected triumphs of a debate team from a small black college during the Depression. Based on a true story, as if you didn't know. Also stars Forest Whitaker, Nate Parker and Jurnee Smollett. (Not Reviewed)

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

JUNO (PG-13) Director Jason Reitman's second film is loopy in a more conventional way than his first, Thank You For Smoking, but it's equally clever and, even more crucially, just as much fun. The deliciously baroque plot twists of Smoking are almost entirely absent in Juno, but Reitman makes good use of this new-found, off-kilter minimalism, focusing his often static camera on characters whose endearing qualities rarely get in the way of their monumental oddness. Ellen Page is extremely appealing as the title character, a self-described "freaky girl" who gets pregnant, opts not to abort, and agrees to hand the infant over to a barren couple advertising in the local penny-saver flyer. Things start out impossibly light and bouncy, with everyone speaking in bursts of such glibly stylized strangeness (think Rory Gilmore meets Kevin Smith) that it's sometimes hard to take the characters seriously — but Juno eventually allows just enough cold reality to seep in to get our attention. Still, even when our heroine's water breaks and she's rushed to the delivery room, Juno has time for one last kitsch clarion cry, hollering "Thunderbirds are go!" It's that kind of a movie. Reitman and screenwriter Diablo Cody seem to be having a ball referencing all the hippest bands and grooviest horror movie directors, and they fill their movie with music by Cat Power, Belle and Sebastian, and whimsical pop tunes a la The Velvet Underground's "I'm Sticking With You," which are so simple and achingly sincere they seem to cross the line into pomo irony. Just like the movie. Also stars Michael Cera, Jennifer Garner, Jason Bateman, Allison Janney and J.K. Simmons. 3.5 stars

NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN (R) Much has been made of No Country for Old Men being some sort of contemporary Western, but when the filmmakers are Joel and Ethan Coen, you can bet the "Western" in question is going to scream for quotation marks. An expertly crafted nail-biter steeped in the beloved noir the filmmakers have repeatedly tinkered with, the Coen Brothers' new film takes place in a dusty Texas wasteland as redolent with alienation as a vintage Antonioni landscape. Enter Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), a certified piece of trailer trash who happens upon a drug deal gone south and winds up fleeing the scene of the crime with a briefcase filled with cash. This inevitably puts some very bad people on Llewelyn's trail — chief among them a soulless super-psycho named Anton Chigurh (an exquisitely chilling Javier Bardem) — and right behind is Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), a small-town lawman resigned to the nasty ways of the world. No Country is a beautifully modulated film, folding intense bursts of periodic violence into a carefully orchestrated atmosphere of mounting tension that is both eerily poetic and a bit melancholy. In its elegantly world-weary way, this is as iconic a chase film as The Night of the Hunter, as deeply mysterious as the Coens' masterpiece, Barton Fink, and not without perverse grace notes all its own. Also stars Kelly Macdonald, Tess Harper and Woody Harrelson. 4.5 stars

SWEENEY TODD: THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET (R) Unfolding in a perpetual moment just before the light gives out entirely, Tim Burton's new film is a velvety noir boasting more nuances of black than the Eskimos have names for snow. It's also a musical, based on Stephen Sondheim's popular 1979 stage production, although Burton eschews all but the faintest trace of Broadway glitz, giving the movie an exquisitely morbid look and an intimate, even claustrophobic feel. The director plays it close to the bone here, toning down personal ticks while letting his unmistakable style shine through the darkness, so that Sweeney Todd emerges as a blood-rare slice of Broadway for people who normally can't stand the stuff. Johnny Depp inhabits the title character with heartbreaking intensity and a hint of self-mockery, while the film layers on style in luxuriously decaying heaps, its cleverly devised color scheme — an essentially monochromatic palette with tasteful splashes of blood-red — a distillation of everything Burton's done to date. As elegant as it all is, be warned that Sweeney Todd doesn't spare the blood, and throats are slit with gleeful abandon, in abundant and graphic detail. Also stars Helena Bonham Carter, Alan Rickman, Timothy Spall and Sacha Baron Cohen. 4.5 stars

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