Good Night, and Good Luck.
dir. George Clooney

Multigazillionaire, Batman & Robin headliner, post-Tiger Beat dreamboat: just a short decade ago, it was more than a little tempting to hate George Clooney on general principle. Beginning with 1998's Out of Sight, however, the worm began to turn. A recurring partnership with Steven Soderbergh and the Coen Brothers established a budget-shunning, quality-minded cred, with performances that recalled an anachronistically old-school screen personality. (The notoriously cranky critic David Thomson, never exactly free with a compliment, has suggested that Clooney may be the most likely possibility to fill William Holden's metaphoric jock.) Off the set, his vocal clashes with the paparazzi, however pissy, revealed a willingness to go off the publicist-endorsed mandate. At the risk of this becoming a mash note, he may be the last, best hope of the classical Hollywood system.

He's also, however unfairly, become one hell of a director. Documenting the Red Scare clash between Edward R. Murrow and Joseph McCarthy, Clooney's second trip behind the lens is a largely terrific picture: a scathing (and, yeah, exceedingly timely) social document submerged within a deeply pleasurable entertainment. Historians may well find much to grouse about; Clooney, the son of a newscaster, clearly idolizes Murrow, to an arguably one-sided end. (In a performance assembled from devastatingly chosen film clips, McCarthy comes off as a bumbling cross between Shemp Howard and Archie Bunker.) Still, it's hard to dispute the film's retro buzz, whatever your leanings. Aside from the occasional moment of bald-faced lefty lecturing, it runs like gangbusters.

Working from a script cowritten by Clooney and fellow actor Grant Heslov, this is a biopic notable for the extreme narrowness of its scope: Only a few throwaway comments hint at Murrow's life away from the news desk, with locations confined to the office, board room, and the bar across the street. (There's nary an exterior shot to be found.) Combined with David Strathairn's poker-faced marvel of an impersonation, the impression is of a narrative that chucks everything extraneous over the side in order to remain on message.

Even if politics aren't your thing, Good Night, and Good Luck., (a title taken from Murrow's nightly sendoff) is hugely enjoyable to watch. The film sports quick but complete characterizations by the formidable likes of Robert Downey Jr. and Frank Langella. Along with cinematographer Robert Elswit, the director has fashioned a ravishing B&W endorsement of '50s living—you come out craving red meat, a highball, and a pallet-load of Lucky Strikes. (The engine of Murrow's eventual demise, while never explicitly stated, is suggested in virtually every filter-tipped frame.) Movies about people simply doing their jobs can be fascinating in ways that are hard to define, to the point where a guy laying bricks can trump a fleet of star fighters. Through the eyes of Clooney and Strathairn, the newsroom becomes, variously, a shrine, a confessional, a torture chamber, and the best place in the world to hang out. ANDREW WRIGHT

The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio
dir. Jane Anderson

"Contesting," Julianne Moore announces brightly, "if you haven't heard of it, was a way for overworked housewives to use their underworked wits." It's the 1950s and Moore's character, Evelyn Ryan, lives with her alcoholic husband and brood of 10 barely differentiated kids in Defiance, Ohio, a dismal town with a welcome sign proclaiming it "A Nice Place to Live." ("Defiance," Evelyn giggles to her tomboy daughter. "A nice place to leave!") Her husband fritters away the milk money on whiskey and beer, but Evelyn always manages to save the day with winnings from her ingenious odes to consumer goods.

Director Jane Anderson isn't interested in realism; she's far more eager to reproduce the era's sunny vision of its own progress. From the opening parade of contest bait (including a "producing oil well" on offer from Dial Soap) to the odd slide-carousel-style montage, the film is packed with pastels and good cheer. There are almost enough bells and whistles to distract you from the truly distasteful plot.

The Ryan family is Catholic and poor as dirt. But their home is always scrubbed clean—thanks to Evelyn's superlative homemaking skills and no thanks to her rat of a husband, who tends to do messy things like hurl bottles of milk to the floor and watch as his wife tips headlong into the bed of glass. When a priest from the local parish stops by after her husband throws a particularly violent tantrum, he reminds Evelyn that "it's up to you to make him a good home." Though the irony runs thick as sludge, it is powerless against the film's impulse toward hagiography. (This is a true story, the screenplay based on a worshipful memoir by one of the Ryan kids.) Especially offensive is the syrupy final scene, in which the real-life offspring awkwardly gather to celebrate their mother. In their eyes, Evelyn is a martyr to their own successful rearing, and the film doesn't permit us any other view. ANNIE WAGNER

dir. Cameron Crowe

As befits a man with an incurable case of rock-n-roll fever, Cameron Crowe's cinematic career has followed a distinctly musical success model: lean, fiercely hooky debut (Say Anything) begets the smartly accessible slice-of-grunge-life Singles, which in turn begets Jerry Maguire's stadium-filling fist-pumper. By the time of Almost Famous's warm, shaggy nostalgia trip, however, a number of worryingly indulgent skips had surfaced. Most recently, the hopelessly muddled prog-rock of Vanilla Sky revealed a voice badly out of sync with the instincts that endeared him to the public in the first place.

To continue the tortured metaphor, Crowe's latest, Elizabethtown, is a quad-sided concept album of a film—shapeless, overstuffed, and frequently maddening. The director, as always, clearly loves his characters, but what was once endearing now suggests a filmmaker so enamored by his creations that he refuses to sacrifice a single frame for the greater good. Beginning with a corporate snafu that recalls the first act of Jerry Maguire, Crowe sets up a serviceable meet-cute scenario: While traveling to Kentucky to retrieve his father's corpse, Orlando Bloom's disgraced shoe designer discovers an adorable stewardess (Kirsten Dunst). This basic love story occasionally recalls some of Crowe's old magic, particularly an impromptu all-night cell-phone conversation (complete with recharge), but the film's insistence on giving full attention to even the smallest quirk or emotional beat soon knocks things completely off-kilter. When a supporting character mentions his love of "Freebird," you just know you're eventually going to hear the whole damned thing.

Speaking as a once and hopefully future fan of the filmmaker, it's tough to describe how much of a misfire this film is: The performances are overly mannered, the scenes drag on and on without reprieve, and what was once a brilliantly naturalistic dialogue style has become an insufferably quasi-hip patois. (Pity poor Dunst, who consistently has to deliver emo whoppers that would make even the most hardcore blogger blush.) Even his once vaunted soundtrack prowess now seems like a man helplessly enthralled by the shuffle feature. (That the same man who once indelibly associated "In Your Eyes" with an outstretched boombox can now place U2's "Pride" over a shot of Martin Luther King's hotel room boggles the mind.) Mainstream cred is all well and good, but Crowe needs to get back to the garage, pronto. ANDREW WRIGHT

Separate Lies
dir. Julian Fellowes

The directorial debut from screenwriter Julian Fellowes (who won an Oscar for writing Robert Altman's Gosford Park and assembled a lean adaptation of Vanity Fair for Mira Nair), Separate Lies is an intriguing meeting of genres. There's a canny whodunit and a helping of gloomy romance, and Fellowes imports unmistakable tropes of Los Angeles noir to disturb his groomed English countryside.

The film opens with an ugly bicycle-car collision (later revealed to be fatal), and then dumps us in the smartly appointed but emotionally fraught country retreat of James and Anne Manning. Tom Wilkinson plays the London barrister husband, and Emily Watson the isolated housewife—two fantastic performances rounded out by Rupert Everett as William Bule, Anne's comically exaggerated bastard of a lover. Fellowes's direction is elegantly removed from the turmoil roiling behind every performance (save Everett's—William is a truly implacable ass). The approach works well for brilliantly manipulative scenes in which Fellowes wrenches your sympathies from one character to another, leaving you deliciously queasy and uncertain of your instincts.

The first two-thirds of the movie are largely satisfying. But late in the game, when the mystery is over and the screenplay sputters into a (literally) cancerous coda, there's nobody left to identify with. Even after the plot twists that had necessitated murky motives have all been resolved, it's still impossible to see where the characters are coming from. When you can understand neither the agent nor the object of unrequited love, passion turns pathetic and largely uninteresting. ANNIE WAGNER

dir. Tony Scott

The visual style of Tony Scott, who's never had the lightest of touches, has completely jumped the rails as of late. The usual annoyances he provides—an overreliance on filters and fog, lightning-quick editing, close-up after close-up after close-up—remain intact, but in his recent films he's augmented those annoyances with outright visual incoherence. Consider Man on Fire, which took a lean, pulp-heavy script and saddled it with bizarro subtitles, a disdain for master shots, and an ungodly amount of oversaturation. Consider also Domino, a project blessed with an inspired script from Donnie Darko mastermind Richard Kelly, which finds Scott squandering any and all goodwill by chopping the film into oblivion. Last I checked movies were a medium meant to be watched; why then is Scott so determined to send our eyes rolling to the back of our heads?

Keira Knightley stars as Domino Harvey, a real-life fashion model turned Los Angeles bounty hunter who found herself, along with her two partners Ed (Mickey Rourke) and Choco (Edgar Ramirez), embroiled in a scheme involving $10 million of stolen mob money, an FBI investigation, and a needlessly hacked-off arm. At least, that's her claim—one of the charms of Kelly's script is that Domino's version of events, as told to us via both voice-over and testimony to an FBI agent, routinely proves unreliable. It's a neat trick, allowing Domino (and Kelly) to mangle events into a confusing but considered timeline. Unfortunately, Scott seemed not to have gotten the memo, as he senselessly piles on more confusion, firing at us with every visual gimmick in his arsenal. Domino's story should have made for fireworks—the end result, unfortunately, is a film so buried under tomfoolery that it bludgeons you into not caring. A little Ritalin can go a long way. BRADLEY STEINBACHER

Innocent Voices
dir. Luis Mandoki

El Salvador in the 1980s was the site of one of those civil wars about which Americans tend to have only a vague understanding—even if our government did happen to have a hand in the war, preferentially supplying money and training to one side. In Innocent Voices, "our" side can be seen kidnapping children when they reach the age of 12 and taking them out of towns like the one in which this film's grim coming-of-age tale takes place.

Played with striking emotional maturity by Carlos Padilla, Chava is a dark-haired young man who loves trucks and is about to turn 12. He is a young man forced to grow up early, first by the departure of his father, who leaves the family for America at the start of the civil war, and then by the shooting, child conscription, rape, and intermittent bedlam that encroaches on his small town as the civil war spreads.

This, as you may have guessed, is not a date movie. (Unless, perhaps, you and your date are both refugees from the war in El Salvador.) It is, however, one of those movies that shouldn't be ignored just because it's unpleasant to watch. As Chava searches for a way to embark on his own version of the classic young man's journey away from family and toward heroic risk, he finds that he is living in a land with no heroes to join up with—not our side, and not the Salvadorian Marxist guerillas either. This problem, which recurs throughout the picture, makes up Innocent Voices' most powerful statement. Through Chava's disappointed eyes we see the tragedy of war and the death of the truly heroic. ELI SANDERS

The War Within
dir. Joseph Castelo

The first movie since 9/11 to deal explicitly with the subject of Islamic terrorism on American soil, The War Within is a potent thriller, an imperfect analysis of the motivations behind terrorist activity, and an intriguing but overwritten family drama. It alternates curiously between smart ideas marred by simplistic execution and boilerplate plot twists enlivened by perfect pacing. There isn't a scene in The War Within that couldn't be improved in some way, but it's a fascinating cultural document and one that shouldn't be missed.

Hassan (played by Ayad Akhtar, also a cowriter) is a Pakistani engineering student at a Paris university when he's snatched off the street by an anonymous intelligence force. He's turned over to the authorities in Pakistan, where he's interrogated and tortured—and where, conveniently, he hooks up with a member of a terrorist cell planning an attack on New York City's public transportation system. The chain of causality isn't clear, but the obvious inference—that Hassan turned to terrorism because he was abused—is intensified by crosscutting between the two scenes. Cowriter Tom Glynn tells me that the screenplay purposefully leaves the question open: "I think you don't give people the connections or the answers that they need. Even as much as the torture is suggested as the thing that specifically turns him to terrorism—maybe he was already involved before he got there."

In any case, the film doesn't hit its stride until Hassan smuggles himself to New Jersey, taking refuge in the home of Sayeed (the excellent Firdous Bamji), a hospitable childhood friend who has no idea about Hassan's activities. Somewhere between tutoring the family's son about his Islamic heritage (when Hassan tells the kid to follow the Qur'an, the boy chirps annoyingly, "But my dad always told me to listen to my heart!") and taking interest in Sayeed's attractive sister (Nandana Sen, who is distractingly bad), Hassan thinks twice about what he's doing. And then you're in for one hell of a thrilling ride. ANNIE WAGNER

Read a transcript of Annie Wagner's interview with Ayad Akhtar and Tom Glynn.