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We recommend: Eastern Promises, The Hunting Party, In the Valley of Elah

EASTERN PROMISES
Directed with considerable formal intelligence and brooding power by David Cronenberg, Eastern Promises is very much a companion to A History of Violence. Both are crime thrillers that allow Viggo Mortensen to play a morally ambiguous and severely divided, if not schizoid, action-hero savior; both are commissioned works that permit hired-gun Cronenberg to make a genre film that is actually something else. Graphic but never gratuitous in its violence, Eastern Promises unfolds mainly in a demimonde of Russian émigré thugs and whore-masters. Anna (Naomi Watts), a midwife in a London hospital, delivers a baby as the mother, a 14-year-old prostitute, dies in childbirth. Anna filches the girl's diary, hoping to discover who she is, and asks her irascibly inebriated uncle to translate. "Do you always rob the bodies of the dead?" he asks in a question that will hang over the rest of the movie. A business card found in the diary leads Anna to the London branch of the Gulag-spawned criminal fraternity vory v zakone (thieves in law). "This isn't our world—we are ordinary people," her anxious mother (Sinead Cusack) warns her. As usual in Cronenberg, the ordinary is severely contested terrain, especially when it comes to the crime family's chauffeur, Nikolai (Mortensen), a superbly complicated character—dark, diffident, cynical, hyper-alert, and tough enough to humorously stub out a cigarette on his tongue. Is our Nikolai an angel or the devil? And suppose that amounts to the same thing? (J. Hoberman) (Countywide)

THE HUNTING PARTY
Simon (Richard Gere) and Duck (Terrence Howard) are hot-shit reporters in the hot zone, drinking and carousing their way through the graveyards of countless war-torn countries. Like all war correspondents inhabiting satirical, cynical movies about their flak-jacketed ilk, they're having a blast, till Simon cracks up on camera during a live report from Bosnia. They go their separate ways: Duck to a cushy New York gig as cameraman, Simon to God knows where. They're reunited in Bosnia on the fifth anniversary of reunification, and as the small talk turns to discussions of war crimes, Simon convinces his old pal Duck to join him on one last adventure: to find a Serbian war criminal hiding deep in the woods, where he now hunts animals instead of men. Also along for the ride is sweet, innocent tag-along Benjamin (Jesse Eisenberg), a network VP's kid out to prove he's more than just the sum of his pop's paycheck. Like many of the best movies about war and its lingering echo, The Hunting Party is full of dark humor. Writer-director Richard Shepard, maker of 2005's The Matador, is becoming a master at finding the right tone, balancing the seriousness of his characters' purpose with the madness of their intentions. He's also found his style—and it's noisy and sentimental and crude and a total goddamned blast. (Robert Wilonsky) (Regal Foothill Town Center, Foothill Ranch; Edwards Westpark, Irvine)

IN THE VALLEY OF ELAH
See "Walk Through the Valley." (Countywide)

ALSO SHOWING

ACROSS THE UNIVERSE
After Hair and the mass marketing of tie-dye, can the '60s be shrunk to fit any further? Yes, indeed, here comes that nervous popularizer Julie Taymor, incongruously partnered with the happily vulgarian British writing duo of Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, to run this transgressively utopian moment through the PG-13 musical sieve. Filtering the transatlantic cultural revolt through a love affair between a Liverpool shipyard worker (Jim Sturgess) and a wealthy American co-ed (Evan Rachel Wood), Across the Universe reads the times via a blizzard of early Beatles songs. You say you want a sexual revolution? Well, I wanna hold your lesbian hand. Student revolt, anyone? They get by with a little help from their friends. Vietnam? Uncle Sam leaps out of his recruitment poster to spit out a few bars of "I Want You." Times of trouble? Let it be—and so on and on, as Jude and Lucy, guided by expository Taymor-ish spectacles, climb dutifully up the peak of infinite possibility, only to march grimly down the hill of disillusion and despair. The movie briefly comes alive in duets between a Janis Joplin clone (the excellent Dana Fuchs) and a Jimi Hendrix type played by musician Martin Luther McCoy, before collapsing into a bushy-tailed finale. Hey Jude, all you need is love. Not. (Ella Taylor) (Countywide)

DECEMBER BOYS
If Daniel Radcliffe is hoping for an acting life after Harry Potter, he might want to be choosier than this cloying little Australian number about four outback orphan pals with horrid names like Maps and Misty, whose anxieties about outgrowing their chances for adoption bubble over during a summer vacation on the picturesque coast. There, a more colorful life awaits the lads (one of whom, now grown old, supplies the jovial voice-over along with a score made of pure syrup) in the form of a photogenic circus: a blonde teenage siren, a big fish called Henry, and a fortuitously childless couple who can adopt only one of the boys. Dilemma! Hampered by a silly gait that recalls Steve Carell's daft lope in Little Miss Sunshine and an emotional range that runs from abject to abject, Radcliffe gives by far the movie's weakest performance as the depressive Maps. But what's most alienating about this alternately mawkish and ingratiating dramedy, directed by Rod Hardy from a script by Marc Rosenberg, is the cheap shots it casually fires at institutional Catholicism while throwing its weight behind wacky visions of the Virgin Mary. It's enough to make anyone run for the priesthood, and somebody does. (Ella Taylor) (Edwards Westpark, Irvine)

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