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You can get a rough reading, if not an exact measure, of the unhappiness across the land simply by the upswing in axe-grinding documentaries (Sicko, No End in Sight, The 11th Hour, et al.) and by the influx of topical piety into screen dramas (A Mighty Heart, Trade, The Kingdom, In the Valley of Elah, Into the Wild, et al.). Documentaries, as I've often observed and sometimes gotten tired of remarking, tend to be judged as films on the basis of the imagined importance of their message, or more fundamentally, on the basis of their politics (and those of the reviewers and viewers). Dramas tend to be put to a sterner test, still forced to run the gauntlet of plot-character-performance even when their politics give them a head start. The piety, while bestowing no virtue, surely does no damage when, as in In the Valley of Elah, it doesn't get in the way of a good story. Whether it gets in the way or stays out of the way, however, it can't rescue a bad story, like The Kingdom, or a not very good story, like the new Rendition.

The title of the last-named alludes to the U.S. policy of "extraordinary rendition" (hatched under the Clinton administration, we're informed, just to dirty the hands on both sides of the aisle, but not abused until the Bush administration), which allows for terror suspects to be whisked away in secrecy, without due process, to foreign prisons for intensive interrogation. Translation: torture. The suspect so whisked away in this particular drama is an Egyptian-American chemical engineer, a respected academic of long standing, who is unfortunate to be travelling back to Chicago from Cape Town (homeland of the director, Tsotsi's Gavin Hood) in the aftermath of a suicide bombing in an unnamed North African country (very credibly staged, this bombing, not overly prolonged nor gruesomely detailed), and unfortunate again to have received cellphone calls from a phone number once linked to one of the known terrorists. Hence, a hood is thrown over his head at O'Hare and only comes off, along with all his clothes, in a dungeon in North Africa.

The receipt of all those cellphone calls is never adequately explained, and is not even nurtured as an area of ambiguity. That might have inhibited the piety. Certainly there is no shadow of ambiguity in the characterization of the aghast suspect, Omar Metwally, nor in the characterization of his truth-seeking, boat-rocking wife back in the states, Reese Witherspoon, an all-American soccer mom with a soccer ball tucked under her shirts and sweaters, ready to pop. Peter Sarsgaard, whose voice seems stuck in perpetual pubescent change, is her old college chum, and current congressional aide, who can vouch personally for the detainee, but only so far; and Alan Arkin is his boss, a U.S. Senator unwilling to take a stand if there's a chance he would be standing on the wrong side. Jake Gyllenhaal -- really the pivotal figure, a junior CIA analyst ("Jesus, he looks like he's twelve years old") obliged to step in for the field agent slain in the bombing, and to observe mutely the marathon interrogation -- represents the awakening conscience, the rising consciousness, a guide and model for the sheltered spectator: "This is my first torture." And Meryl Streep, employing a soft Southern accent, just because some accent is expected of her, if not because she would also want to distance herself from the villainy of her character, is the CIA ice queen who approves the torture from the safety of Washington, D.C. And behind a big, meaty, unfamiliar face, Igal Naor is very imposing as the case-hardened torturer, the escaped target of the bomb, and, in addition, the tyrannical father of a runaway daughter in love unknowingly with a young Islamic jihadist.

The tangle of plot threads conceals a trick of time whereby we go through most of the movie, and well into the furiously cross-cutting climax, without realizing we have all along been straddling two distinct time zones. I don't mind giving away the trick to that extent because frankly it's a cheap trick. The movie ostensibly wants you to think deeply and yet it also wants to blow your mind, fake you out, wow you, in the way of the trendy one-upmanship potboiler. These two mind states do not sit comfortably together. The going-through-the-motions surprise twist adds nothing in substance and adds a lot in frivolity.

* * *

My Kid Could Paint That, wrapping up its single week at Landmark's La Jolla Village this Thursday, is a fence-sitting documentary by Amir Bar-Lev, investigating the art-world mystery of whether or not four-year-old Marla Olmstead was the sole creator of the abstract paintings that have sold for tens of thousands of dollars. The fuzzily blown-up, sometimes horizontally striated image ought to debar the film from any position of authority in matters of art. But even if it does not solve the mystery, or perhaps because it does not solve the mystery, it can function as a useful reminder that a work of art (in any art form) is what you have in front of you, and that the behind-the-scenes story is not the work of art.

* * *

Lars and the Real Girl, directed by Craig Gillespie of the recent Mr. Woodcock (the title alone was enough to keep me away, even without the poster art of Billy Bob Thornton holding two basketballs at pelvis-level), indulges the monkeyshines of Ryan Gosling in the part of an antisocial Minnesota Lutheran who seeks happiness in a chaste relationship with an anatomically correct life-size sex doll. Everyone in town loves him too much, for some unapparent reason, to burst his literal balloon. Pretty much one-note, and sour.

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