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THE GUARDIAN Isn't it too soon to be subjected to another showing of Flyboys all over again? At least that's the sense of deja vu that settled in after viewing the two films in consecutive weeks. Here we have the same running time (an overextended 135 minutes), the same degree of quality in the CGI work (impressive), and the same fortune-cookie-level pontificating about the need for sacrifice, bravery and personal responsibility. Even more than Flyboys, though, this resembles An Officer and a Gentleman, right down to the scene where our handsome hero bursts into his girlfriend's place of employment to declare his everlasting love (sign of the times: Instead of the Oscar-winning "Up Where We Belong," the soundtrack swells with a treacly Bryan Adams tune). Kevin Costner plays Louis Gossett Jr., the Coast Guard Rescue Swimmer instructor whose tough-love approach to training works wonders for the young recruits; Ashton Kutcher is Richard Gere, a narcissistic pretty-boy student more interested in making a name for himself and romancing the local cutie (Melissa Sagemiller) than in actually saving lives. For a long while, The Guardian wears its clichés pretty well, but because this is a Kevin Costner film -- and because Costner spends more time playing mythic, larger-than-life Christ figures instead of ordinary mortals -- we sense this can only end one way. Director Andrew Davis and scripter Ron L. Brinkerhoff tease us by hinting that the final act might actually stray from its preordained path, but no: When push comes to shove, the pair pummel us with the shameless ending we dreaded from the moment the opening credits appeared on the screen.

*1/2

HALF NELSON An examination of stunted idealism as well as a showcase for an actor who just gets better and better, Half Nelson wears its indie street cred in the most unassuming manner imaginable. Writer-director Ryan Fleck and cowriter Anna Boden make few compromises in telling this painful tale, yet they also avoid constructing a feel-bad bummer simply because it's the trendy thing to do in alternative cinema -- they make sure to keep a glimmer of hope in the distant horizon, a logical concession in a movie about people smart enough to hopefully find their way out of their dire predicaments. In a nicely understated performance, Ryan Gosling (The Notebook, The United States of Leland) plays Dan, a Brooklyn school teacher respected by his students because he's engaging, quick-witted and doesn't condescend. But block out all memories of Robin Williams and "Carpe Diem": Dan's also a crack addict, something his 13-year-old student Drey (Shareeka Epps) learns upon finding him laid out in a bathroom stall at school. Drey's used to such downtrodden sights -- her dad's split, her brother's in jail and her brother's acquaintance (Anthony Mackie) keeps trying to bring her into the drug business -- so she accepts Dan's imperfections and the pair strike up a friendship. The white teacher and the black student -- it's a perfect formula for formula filmmaking, yet Half Nelson continues to surprise through the manner in which it avoids any simple solutions or miraculous about-faces and instead remains true to its setting and its characters.

***

THE SCIENCE OF SLEEP I doubt any other movie of 2006 will inspire as many walkouts as The Science of Sleep, a declaration which in itself should function as a no-holds-barred recommendation for those seeking something unusual in their moviegoing diet. Michel Gondry previously helmed Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, yet his latest picture (which he both wrote and directed) is so out there that it makes that Charlie Kaufman-penned movie seem as streamlined as Bambi by comparison. With its dialogue alternately spoken in English, French and Spanish (those who whine about subtitles be warned), this oddity stars Y Tu Mama Tambien's Gael Garcia Bernal as Stephane, a young man who moves from Mexico to Paris and lands a dull job working at a calendar publishing firm. Stephane has a hard time keeping his waking life separate from his dream state, which causes all manner of complications both professionally and personally, the latter mainly built around trying to forge a relationship with across-the-hall neighbor Stephanie (Charlotte Gainsbourg). Before turning to film, Gondry established his rep as the creator of highly celebrated commercials and music videos, yet while this new film allows him to once more tap into those largely unregulated arenas, his real inspiration seems to come from Jan Svankmajer and the Brothers Quay -- those masters of offbeat (and unsettling) animated efforts -- to say nothing of Freud, Jung and Adler. The Science of Sleep employs deliberately rudimentary effects and slipshod animation to convey Stephane's REM visions, yet it also posits the character as a childlike individual whose inability to cope with adult emotions balances him precariously on the line between untainted innocence and troublesome obsession. It's a shame the movie pulls back from examining this angle -- a sense of danger would have completed the package -- but as it stands, it's still a marvel of wide-eyed whimsy.

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