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Robert Penn Warren’s classic tale of political corruption has long been considered a staple of American literature. And when you talk to political consultant-turned executive producer James Carville, you can feel his passion for a story he’s always wanted to faithfully transfer to the screen. Robert Rossen’s somewhat free-wheeling stab at adapting the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel in 1949 was a triumphant experience for the times, but registers flatly in hindsight.

Writer/director Steven Zaillian’s version (premiering tomorrow night in Toronto) is much closer to the text than Rossen’s incarnation, yet it still leaves a number of elements to be desired. Performances stand out immediately as aspects half-realized, most especially Jude Law’s turn in the pivotal role of Jack Burden. Sean Penn’s wild mannerisms supposedly mirror former Louisiana governor Huey Long (on whom Willie Stark was based), but they seem to do him a disservice on the screen.

On the whole, in fact, the film seems to reflect Penn’s histrionics, conveying it’s themes with a sledgehammer, from striking (if beautiful) shots full of subtext to James Horner’s unforgiving (yet sure to be Oscar nominated) original score. However, fleeting moments of true visual artistry, combined with an insatiable respect for the written word present in Zaillian’s meticulous work on the page, offer the opportunity to forgive the film it’s otherwise self-stalling flaws.

“Fast Food Nation” (*½)

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Eric Schlosser’s penetrating journalistic effort does not seem to work as drama. Adapted to the screen and directed by busy bee Richard Linklater, the film does a fine job of carrying across a number of the atrocities revealed in Schlosser’s account of the fast food industry, but the means are at times quite pedestrian coming from such an acclimated screenwriter.

Performances in the film range from reaching (Greg Kinnear) to self-aware (Ethan Hawke). However, Oscar nominee Catalina Sandino Moreno follows through on the promise of “Maria Full of Grace” with a subtle, powerhouse turn that will likely be overshadowed by the film’s various failures. If only she’d make more movies.

Schlosser’s novel may have been a New York Times best seller, but there are still plenty of people this information needs to reach. If the lacking film adaptation has anything going for it, it is that the medium offers so much more exposure than literature. If more and more people become aware to the sickening and typically criminal goings-on within an industry that deserves to die, then it really is all for the best.

“Half Nelson” (***)

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Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s feature filmmaking debut is a slightly pretentious piece of work, but it at the very least retains a unique quality in both stylistic approach and thematic narrative that keep it highly interesting. For many it will be the indie experience of the year, but the film spirals into repetition and aimlessness far too often to be considered a stellar initial outing.

HOWEVER, Ryan Gosling’s performance as a flawed and directionless teacher is pitch-perfect – one of the year’s most exciting stories. Hiding on the periphery of major acclaim since a stirring turn opposite fellow budding star Rachel McAdams in “The Notebook,” Gosling really seems poised to be a commodity following what should be considered one of the finest performances of the year.

Holding her own opposite Gosling’s acclaimed portrayal is Shareeka Epps, a valuable find this year in the young actors’ crowd (along with “Akeelah and the Bee”’s Keke Palmer). Epps’s mixture of tenacity and world-weariness is nearly as explosive as her co-star’s recipe for brilliance, making for, ultimately, one of the most vibrant on-screen relationships of the year.

“Shortbus” (****)

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I’d love to dedicate a full review to John Cameron Mitchell’s fascinating masterpiece, but I believe I’d do a disservice to it after spending 1,200 words qualifying the effort. There are few words to describe something so audacious, yet so artistically sound, and if anything is announced with authority by this film it is Mitchell’s undeterred understanding of a medium to which he is still quite new.

“Hedwig and the Angry Inch” was a colorful transition from the stage to the screen for Mitchell. His latest effort takes broad leads from his theater experience, actually, but it is inherently cinematic from the get-go. Ultimately a beautiful representation of love for love’s sake, the film works far below the surface. Once critical eyes make it past the graphic sexuality of the film, that desensitization becomes a specific point of intent for the filmmaker.

The story was sculpted by the actors as much as by Mitchell’s screenplay and the encouraged improvisations where characters are concerned really make the film an organic experience. Performances across the board are pretty much flawless, but Paul Dawson and Sook-Yin Lee truly steal the show. One of the best films of the year.

“Volver” (***)

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Pedro Almodóvar lives in a world of his own design, and truly, thank God for that. In his latest, “Volver,” the auteur takes a dash of intrigue and a sizeable helping of feminine perspective (which he seems capable of tapping into at will) to create a colorful, entertaining, delectably scattered piece of work.

The film is ultimately about understanding the necessities of our lives and those ever-present holes that can only be filled by those we love and miss. But breaking it down further would be dishonest, as “Volver” works less in the mind than it does in the heart. Almodóvar paints a portrait of women dependant, yes. But strikingly, he does so in a manner that represents them less as weak than as heroines as a result.

Penélope Cruz offers a sexy and riveting portrayal, her finest outing to date (it seems a number of thespians are putting their best foot forward this year). Her sultry vixen sizzles on the screen, and yet she still conveys an everywoman for us to care for throughout. Filling out the up-front trinity, Lola Dueñas (as Cruz’s awkward sister) and Carmen Maura (as a mother eerily re-entering the lives of her daughters) make for a delicious ensemble in this, one of the more unique and unclassifiable film-going experiences of the year.

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