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LUST, CAUTION (NC-17) Set in Japanese-occupied Shanghai toward the end of World War II, Ang Lee's film follows a group of politically engaged Chinese college students as they make the leap from staging nationalistic theater productions to some real-life play-acting aimed at assassinating a high-ranking traitor (Tony Leung) who's collaborating with the Japanese. The student's mission hinges on placing a beautiful female (Wei Tang) within Leung's inner circle in order to seduce him, but things get muddy when the Chinese Mata Hari becomes a little too close to her target and finds herself converted by the power of rough sex. Lust, Caution is as carefully modulated and meticulously constructed as anything Lee's done, but when the violence erupts, as it does from time to time, the film can be genuinely jarring. Ditto for the occasional bursts of sex, which flash upon the screen with an unmediated intensity not normally associated with this director. Also stars Joan Chen, Lee-Horn Wang and Chung Hua Tou. 3.5 stars

MICHAEL CLAYTON (R) George Clooney stars as a former prosecutor gone to seed and long reduced to working as a fixer for a big law firm. It's a no-brainer Clayton's in trouble from the first moment we see him, but half the pleasure of Michael Clayton is watching its title character's slow-mo meltdown lead up to that revelatory moment of painful self-knowledge. The other half of the movie's pleasure takes the form of a curiously gripping conspiracy thriller that percolates on such an ominously low frequency it almost catches us off guard when it finally officially announces itself. What lies at the heart of Michael Clayton isn't ultimately that far removed from conventional socially-conscious melodrama, but where the movie excels is in how it puts all this together, coming at the story from unexpected angles and neatly folding its sweeping political agenda into the personal struggles of its individual players. 3.5 stars

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