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Notes from the back row

Clooney stares at Goats

George Clooney is a throwback to the Hollywood leading men of a previous era - that winning mix of personality, intelligence, class and talent reminiscent of the days of Cagney, Cooper, Grant and Bogart. But Clooney adds compassion and social activism to the formula, making him the hottest star going these days. His work in Darfur alone elevates him into the Jolie-Pitt echelon of awesomeness.

Humanitarian stuff aside, Clooney always delivers on the big screen. From politically charged dramas like Syriana or Good Night and Good Luck (which he also wrote and directed) to good-time comedies Oceans 11 or Burn After Reading, to genre classics like From Dusk to Dawn, to heavy drama like Michael Clayton, Clooney's versatility sells tickets and fills theatres and he's got a new one out this week as Men Who Stare at Goats opens Friday at the Village 8.

First-time director Grant Heslov's The Men Who Stare at Goats also stars Ewan McGregor as a journalist who ends up following special forces 'Warrior-Monk' Clooney out into 2003's Kuwait to unearth the New Earth Army, a military experiment of Jedi-knights with the apparent psychic powers of mind-reading, wall-passing-through, and, of course, the ability to subdue goats with their thoughts.

Jeff Bridges co-stars as the lost leader and Kevin Spacey plays the villain harnessing the dark side of the force. McGregor(Anakin Skywalker in the Star Wars Prequels) knows a thing or two about Jedis but he plays this one pretty straight, despite the madness Clooney and the others bring around him. While the acting is strong throughout, the flick is a bit jumbled. It's supposed to be a comedy but there are just as many mind-farts as mind-boggles and in the end Goats watches like a weird mash-up of Three Kings and the Three Stooges. Amusing but not great, through no fault of Clooney.

Also opening Friday is The Fourth Kind, another pseudo-reality thriller, this time about alien abductions in Alaska. Milla Jovovich stars and the film can be commended for trying new things, like running supposedly real (it's not) archival footage alongside actors re-living the terror, but unless you're a believer going in you might consider it a bit dumb and the ending literally comes out of nowhere. Fire in the Sky is a better alien abduction movie, but The Fourth Kind has a few tense moments as well. Jovovich doesn't shoot a gun which is too bad, but otherwise she is great.

Next up is more sci-fi horror. The Box, the third feature from Richard Kelly (Donnie Darko) also opens this weekend and stars Cameron Diaz as a '70s housewife/teacher presented with a mysterious box and an even more mysterious proposition - push the button and you get a million bucks, but somewhere, someone will die as a direct result. She pushes it and the film dives into the realms of morality and consequences as Diaz and her husband attempt to discover what the box is and where it came from.

Kelly brings lots of his trademark brooding and quiet suspense, and as a Christmas parable about our lack of conscience the film succeeds. But the payoff is a bit muddled by moralizing games and Sartre-influenced pyschobabble. Decent, but not epic, although it is good to see Cameron Diaz take on a meatier role than usual.

Speaking of meaty roles, George Clooney has another flick out next month that is already building Oscar hype. Up in the Air is directed by Jason Reitman (Juno, Thank You for Smoking) who apparently wrote the role specifically for Clooney. It got a lot of good press at the Toronto Film Fest and also stars Vera Farmiga and Jason Bateman. Stay tuned for more Clooney, and of course, more chicks with guns.