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September 16, 2017

mother!

I had zero interest in this movie and figured its telegraphed pretentiousness would bore me to the point of somnolence; instead, its batshit bravado absolutely sang to me. Grade: B+

September 11, 2017

logan lucky

Soderbergh's amiable take on a Coen Brothers caper. Grade: B+

September 9, 2017

annabelle: creation

It's that time of year when I get dragged to these kinds of movies by friends. That said, this Annabelle prequel is at the very least a competently constructed film that doesn't thumb its nose at the rudiments of cinema. Grade: B-

September 7, 2017

it

Stephen King, eighties nostalgia and hard-R child endangerment aren't really my jam, separately or together, but as far as these things go, this is a serviceable adaptation. Grade: B-

July 30, 2017

girls trip

What it lacks in sophistication, it makes up for in exuberance. Grade: B+

July 29, 2017

atomic blonde

Too pulpy to be arthouse, too pretentious to be fun. Grade: C+

July 26, 2017

valerian

Comparable in its $200 million stillbirth to Jupiter Ascending, although the former at least had likable leads in Mila Kunis and Channing Tatum. Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne are uncharismatic duds, delivering their lines with a sullen after-school stiffness that rivals Hayden Christensen in the Star Wars prequels. And unlike Jupiter Ascending, Valerian had copious source material to draw from during its development, making the success of the similarly conceived Guardians of the Galaxy all the more noteworthy. Grade: C

July 23, 2017

dunkirk

Taut, disciplined, tense: the cinematic equivalent of a stiff upper lip. Grade: B

July 17, 2017

the beguiled

Sofia Coppola is a bit like Terrence Malick: I happen to enjoy her stuff, apologies and all. I like where her filmmaking eye comes to rest. I find her mistakes interesting. Grade: B+

July 14, 2017

baby driver

Simply put: fun as fuck. Grade: B+

July 9, 2017

homecoming

Nimble, clever, good-hearted, surprising and delightful. Makes you realize just how wrong-headed Sony's previous reboot was, and how much room the franchise still has to grow. Grade: A-

June 12, 2017

the mummy

Rare is the summer vehicle that strands Tom Cruise in the middle of itself. Eyes Wide Shut springs kinkily to mind, but that was Kubrick comma Stanley. Kurtzman comma Alex has no such license or aspirations. His main accomplishment here is retconning the amiably shambolic Stephen Sommers Mummy movies into "the good ones." Aside: While debates over connected cinematic universes at this point are borderline academic, it's worth pointing out that Marvel entered its own enterprise lightly, with a trail of bread crumbs and easter eggs. Universal is going full DCEU, front-loading and showboating its Dark Universe® without even the tenuous scaffolding of DC's back-catalog. I mean, Universal's claim to these monsters is at best public-domain, right? Jeepers. Grade: D

June 3, 2017

wonder woman

A little empathy and kindness go a long way. $150 million, on the other hand, evidently not as far as it used to. Grade: B

May 31, 2017

dead men tell no tales

In case anyone was wondering what $230 million worth of fumes looks like. Grade: C+

May 18, 2017

covenant

Ridley Scott's vision for the Alien franchise has become indistinguishable from Paul W.S. Anderson's vision for the Alien franchise. Grade: D

May 17, 2017

legend of the sword

I typically find Guy Ritchie's movies to be hectic and incoherent, but after however many decades of Trump's reich pressing down on my meninges, I came out of the theater reasonably entertained. Make no mistake: this is an atrocious adaptation of the Arthurian legend; but as two hours of air-conditioned summer thunder, it's perfectly serviceable. Grade: B-

May 4, 2017

guardians of the galaxy 2

The unexpected delight of the first Guardians was how nimbly it wore its enormous production values and world-building. The sequel instead offers very-special-episode sitcom stiffness and charisma that feels warmed over from the previous installment. Things still build to a likable enough climax but the spark is missing. Grade: B-

May 1, 2017

the circle

James Ponsoldt faithfully directs Dave Eggers' social-networking jeremiad like it's the most important episode of Black Mirror ever. The result is tasteful, likably cast and kind of superfluous. Grade: B-

April 2, 2017

ghost in the shell

Scarlett Johansson's sleek cyborg may possess a soul but Rupert Sanders' sleek cyberpunk adaptation, unfortunately, does not. Movies as varied as A.I. and even I, Robot have covered this ground more captivatingly. Grade: B-

March 27, 2017

beauty and the beast

By today's overproduced standards, 1992's Beauty and the Beast is a humble affair, its charms quaint and intimate. Straining to recognize them in Disney's latest and most literal live-action de-imagining is like searching for a whisper above the roar of several Boeing 747s. Director Bill Condon's heavy-handed approach to nostalgia is to truss it up in rouge, fuss and feathers. It's like someone took those old Golan-Globus Cannon Movie Tales from the 1980s and scaled them up with $160 million of unlaundered money. Grade: B-

March 13, 2017

get out

Solid and fun—but given the universal acclaim, I was expecting more. I think Django Unchained covers a lot of the same beats with more cinematic flair, although having the "sunken place" scenes reference "Under the Skin" is an impeccable decision. Grade: B

March 3, 2017

logan

Handily the best Wolverine movie and arguably the second-best X-Men movie altogether. Grade: B+

January 30, 2017

split

Exhibits a vigor and visual confidence that Shyamalan's joints have largely lacked since the mid-2000s. It's still exploitative trash, albeit in a polished Jeff Koons Mylar-balloon-animal way. Grade: B

January 16, 2017

hidden figures

The comparative unsentimentality of rocket science and the incomparable aspirationality of the space race propel this civil-rights crowd-pleaser beyond the more formulaic horizons of The Help or The Butler, although it never quite breaks free of the genre's conventions. All the same, I'm glad this movie exists. I'm glad this story got told. Grade: B

December 26, 2016

assassin's creed

One of those Dan Brown-ish affairs where the mythology is at once extremely cluttered but also vanishingly shallow. As far as video game adaptations go, it's comparatively easy to sit through, albeit instantly forgettable. Grade: C+

sing

Imagine Zootopia without all the world-building ingenuity but with a surplus of annoying visual tics contrived to upsell audiences on 3D. Grade: C

December 21, 2016

passengers

Passengers reminds me a lot of 1998's Lost in Space: robust production design, handsome visual effects, agreeable leads, completely goofy screenplay. This is lacquered, rather than layered, storytelling. Grade: B-

December 16, 2016

rogue one

The Force Awakens represents the Platonic ideal of crowd-pleasing holiday fare. Rogue One is flintier and narrower in its ambitions—generally satisfying and fitfully thrilling but only fleetingly dashing or delightful. Grade: B

December 11, 2016

la la land

I love Los Angeles with all my heart, but when filmmakers set out to write self-described "love letters" to the city, I get nervous. La La Land ultimately isn't especially mannered, douchey or annoying, but it is self-conscious, slight, and more technical than it is heartfelt. It's perfectly serviceable. Grade: B

December 6, 2016

moana

Clever, catchy, stirring, thrilling—and, like much of Disney's recent stuff, just a little bit video-gamey. Grade: B+

November 27, 2016

fantastic beasts

I've never watched The Road To Perdition, but I can safely say the similarly Prohibition-set Fantastic Beasts is The Road To Perdition plus magic—tasteful, serious, middlebrow, fitfully transporting. I guess millennials grew up and now they have to watch five of these? Grade: B

November 6, 2016

doctor strange

Doctor Strange has been billed as an endeavor to broaden the Marvel Cinematic Universe in the same manner that Guardians of the Galaxy did. But whereas Guardians was an unexpectedly felicitous alignment of unlikely talents, scattering the MCU DNA across a glittering cosmos, Strange is mostly great on paper: great cast, great promise, great ideas. The movie itself is never less than entertaining, but it's also, ahem, strangely paced, with algorithmically distributed jokes that feel like the combined effort of about thirty different writers. To me, this is the first Marvel Studios vehicle that really feels like it was driven by a bunch of execs, visual effects coordinators and a competent second unit, with the billed director air-lifted to Nepal or downtown Cleveland or wherever when the lead performers needed to feel like thespians. Grade: B

October 12, 2016

arrival

Arrival has some agreeably serious science-fiction aspirations, but it gets wonky and metaphysical during the third act in a way that, while never less than tasteful—and never as mawkish as, say, Contact's dead-dad denouement—dulls the hardness of the premise and trusses it up in superfluous gauze. Grade: B

October 9, 2016

miss peregrine's home

Serviceable late-period Tim Burton—that is, whatever combination of producing, financing, casting, visual effects, production design and second-unit direction constitutes a Tim Burton film in 2016. There's even an agreeably strange, candy-colored third-act set piece involving a showdown between Lovecraft tentacle monsters and Harryhausen skeleton soldiers, set incongruously to European techno, that nearly recalls some spark of the Tim Burton we used to know and love. Grade: B-

September 19, 2016

sully

At this point Clint Eastwood's movies are about as procedural and square in their whiteness as a Nancy Meyers rom-com, although the argument could be made that Meyers would never strand Laura Linney in an archetypal thankless wife role where the actress is only ever seen by herself in the kitchen, worrying into a telephone. Grade: B-

September 7, 2016

kubo and the two strings

Laika's animated features, with their technological ambition and multidisciplinary artistry, evoke the intimacy and immediacy of experimental video games like Journey in the best sense. They also tend to rely on mood and atmosphere at the expense of narrative clarity, but pack an emotional punch nevertheless. Grade: B+

sausage party

Goldberg-Rogen concepts (not to be confused with Bose-Einstein condensates) tend to be hemp-high and typically employ more inspiration than perspiration. Sausage Party's efforts to lampoon Pixar movies (when in all fairness it's really attempting to lampoon the less ambitious stuff studios like Sony Animation put out in their own endeavors to replicate that Emoryville magic) are somewhat erratic and uncommitted at first, but once the movie leans into its actual premise rather than its metatextual commentary, it becomes an agreeably unhinged trifle of sexual liberation and karmic retribution. Grade: B+

August 21, 2016

pete's dragon

If you've ever sat through the original Pete's Dragon, you know it's an awkwardly staged Disney-in-decline misfire—and of course that's what makes it ripe for reinvention. The photorealistic remake mostly accomplishes this feat by airing out all the seventies sodium-vapor fumes and inserting a healthy dose of Iron Giant DNA. The result is a square but stolid children's film that doesn't have a lot to say but is sincere in its limited ambitions. Grade: B

August 7, 2016

jason bourne

After two sequels and a spinoff, the Bourne movies have so little left to say that Matt Damon only has about forty-five lines of dialog in his latest outing as the international assassin. The series achieved its titular and narrative Supremacy in 2004 and has been in a protracted holding pattern ever since, motivated mainly by Universal's desire to maintain a franchise that doesn't involve Minions or Vin Diesel. Grade: B-

suicide squad

DC's extended universe or whatever continues its messy, mirthless buildout. If the rumors are to be believed, the final cut was delivered by the same firm that assembled the film's trailers—and a certain coming-attractions narrative arrhythmia bears this out. Nevertheless, David Ayer et al have jury-rigged a summer tentpole with a gratuitously video-gamey desire to entertain its audience, marginally improving on the funereal fetish dirge that was Zack Snyder's Dawn of Justice. Margot Robbie's Harley Quinn is the closest anyone has come to having fun in DC since Monica Lewinsky was allowed in the Oval Office. Grade: C+

July 21, 2016

star trek beyond

After J.J. Abrams' consummate, professional, workmanlike technicality (made all the more apparent compared to the heartfelt lyricism he brought to The Force Awakens), Justin Lin approaches the latest Trek with a welcome earnestness. He and cinematographer Stephen Windon also imbue the film's non-action scenes with a palpable sense of poetry and wonder—something that's generally been lacking in the franchise's cinematic outings. Unfortunately, the moody, meditative tone is disrupted by the somewhat more hectically staged set-pieces and yet another villain with an old, old, old axe to grind—not to mention a climax where the Enterprise is once again the only ship around when the shit hits the fan. A solid, enjoyable improvement over Into Darkness, but next time, more exploration and more ships, please. Grade: B

July 15, 2016

ghostbusters

The original Ghostbusters was a jazz riff on Ed Koch's New York—loose and idiosyncratic but also disciplined and structured. The New York of the reboot has more in common with the anonymous backlotty Big Apple of, say, the Tim Story Fantastic Fours—mostly just a depopulated setting for awkward set pieces and overblown visual effects. The movie isn't bad per se; it's sort of okay, and its leading ladies are likable; but the whole endeavor reeks of superfluity and corporate desperation. Grade: B-

July 9, 2016

the secret life of pets

Having now watched a handful of Illumination Entertainment's burgeoning oeuvre, I can safely say the studio's films are competently animated, enormously crowd-pleasing, and utterly devoid of storytelling ambition. Grade: B-

July 4, 2016

tickled

I went in thinking I was going to have to sit through a prurient documentary about a boring sexual fetish but came out having watched something else entirely. There's an almost David Lynchian quality to the rabbit hole filmmakers David Farrier and Dylan Reeve accompany viewers down. Grade: B+

July 1, 2016

the shallows

Serviceable genre thriller is serviceable. Grade: B-

June 26, 2016

resurgence

The success of Independence Day was a quintessentially mid-nineties phenomenon, and in the decades since, scarcely has a clamor arisen for a follow-up. (For context: Imagine audiences champing for a Twister encore.) But here we are, with Roland Emmerich delivering what may be his most lackluster blockbuster ever. The sequel busies itself with both retconning enough backstory to justify its dramatic slim pickings, and cynically setting up the next installment with the sort of naked optimism only Marvel movies can really get away with these days. Things feel off for much of the movie's runtime, with the cast listlessly pacing through act-one destruction porn that somehow feels both smaller in scale and less intimate than its predecessor's calamities, amidst production values that belie an estimated $200 million budget and feature the sort of obvious visual idiosyncrasies one associates with a Syfy movie-of-the-week. Grade: D+

June 23, 2016

the nice guys

Shane Black exhibits an adolescent boy's fondness for dick jokes and bare breasts, and a somewhat older man's troubling need to endanger young women; but queasy sexual politics aside, this is an ingratiating and period-appropriately seedy romp through seventies Los Angeles. Grade: B-

June 19, 2016

finding dory

With the notable exception of the various Toy Stories, Pixar's franchise extensions have thus far been inconsequential at best (Monsters University) or downright offensive (Cars 2; probably Cars 3). Finding Dory fortunately makes landfall closer to the Toy Story end of the spectrum, taking a beloved but comparatively slight early-2000s fable and building on it meaningfully: The ocean is deeper and more lustrous, the emotional stakes more trenchant, the comedy more effervescent. This is a cheerful children's movie with sincerely grown-up things to say about love's extraordinary capacity to inspire fellowship and bravery, and it revisits one of Pixar's greatest strengths by taking a self-contained world (in this case a public aquarium) and turning the microcosm inside out (pun unintended) until it feels like the world entire. Welcome back from director jail, Andrew Stanton. Grade: A-

June 13, 2016

now you see me 2

Every few summers there's some second-rate internationally financed ensemble thriller that slips through the blockbuster scheduling cracks and winds up arbitrarily making a hundred million dollars simply because it was there and audiences were bored. The Italian Job. Red. The original Now You See Me. These sorts of pics rarely demand sequels, but sequels sometimes algorithmically spring forth nevertheless. While its predecessor was an amiably forgettable airplane-movie glitter party, Now You See Me 2 labors douchily to establish an overarching franchise mythology in order to set up presumably even more sequels and probably take advantage of additional overseas tax credits. Grade: C

June 8, 2016

money monster

A purportedly topical satirical thriller that feels like it was written in 1995 and punched up in 2005. Grade: C+

May 30, 2016

through the looking glass

The movie opens, quite literally, on a dark and stormy night, in the midst of a pitched sea battle, and not for one moment do any of the actors seem viscerally invested in the digital environment that has been so fussily yet inauthentically rendered around them. Where Disney's recent Jungle Book suggested perhaps a new and improved way through the CGI weeds, Through the Looking Glass is an unabashed throwback to a very specific moment in 2010 when audiences were sold a 3D bill of goods in the form of a severely over-designed Tim Burton movie that felt as though it had been directed from the back of a limousine. The same community-college Maya demo-reel aesthetic is slavishly present in James Bobin's sequel, along with an oddly sincere belief in its own convoluted premise that recalls Disney's previous mega-budget Memorial Day misfire, Tomorrowland. Grade: C

May 27, 2016

apocalypse

A cursory glance at your review-aggregator of choice would have you believe that Apocalypse has calamitously displaced The Last Stand as the franchise's nadir. The reality is considerably more nuanced. While Apocalypse is by no means a disaster, it does happen to be, genre-wise, a disaster movie, filled with anonymous gale-force spectacle that often strands its underserved actors amidst torrents of CGI. After the character-driven heights of First Class and Days of Future Past, the result feels like a setback. The elegant retcon that restored a single continuity to the sixteen-year-old series appears to have subsequently sent it into a recursive loop of self-reference and self-hagiography: the eighties-set installment in 2016 arguably feels just as late-nineties as the original X-Men did back in 2000, the fresh sensibility of First Class having been overwhelmed by Bryan Singer's return. Also not helping matters: encumbering an actor of Oscar Isaac's grace and charisma with pounds and pounds of rigid prosthetics and stiff costuming. Grade: B-

May 22, 2016

sorority rising

Suffers from that odd combination of broad, manic slapstick and sincere, shambling slacker humor that Nicholas Stoller's (or maybe just Seth Rogen's) movies tend to, but it's actually an improvement over the original, with a surprisingly fleshed-out take on feminism and misogyny—that required five credited male screenwriters—and a relaxed willingness on Rogen's part to let his costars shine. I still find Zac Efron uncanny-valley-ish and difficult to look at but he is nothing if not committed to the comedy. Grade: B-

May 5, 2016

civil war

Is a Marvel-DC rivalry contrived, boring and zero-sum? Yes. Are comparisons difficult to avoid when Civil War nails so many things that Dawn of Justice lavishly fucked up? Also yes. The Russo brothers ably demonstrate that they can juggle the Bourne Supremacy-esque sleekness they brought to Winter Soldier with the more primary-colored tones that Joss Whedon brought to the first Avengers (and kind of got overwhelmed by in last summer's Age of Ultron). For a movie this packed with set pieces and major character introductions (Black Panther and Spider-Man put in promising appearances) to be this nimble is a noteworthy accomplishment. The franchise is in good hands. Grade: B+

April 25, 2016

the jungle book

The late-sixties animated Jungle Book was the last feature Walt Disney personally oversaw before his death. It's somewhat fitting that, almost half a century later, a state-of-the-art reimagining of Rudyard Kipling's source material is emblematic of the high-tech dream factory Disney always envisioned. Director Jon Favreau demonstrates the same facility for grounded world-building here that he brought to the first Iron Man. The result is a sturdy entertainment for children that strikes just enough adult chords (with particular emphasis by composer John Debney’s equally sturdy score) to exceed its Saturday-matinée underpinnings. The movie also owes what is arguably an unspoken debt to Ang Lee’s Life of Pi, which laid the technical and aesthetic groundwork for this sort of exercise some years back. Ironically, the production’s weakest link may be its sole live-action star, a little boy whose casting was, I’m sure, the result of one of those massive open calls that Hollywood has been self-mythologizing since the days of David O. Selznick—and whose onscreen presence, while by no means a disaster, comes across as flat and coached in a way that his computer-generated costars do not. Grade: B

April 9, 2016

the boss

For people who think Adam Sandler movies are too Nouvelle Vague, here comes Ben Falcone with another custom-built monster truck for his wife that poses more pointed questions about the offscreen dynamics of their marriage than it does well-constructed jokes. There's also what appears to be some sort of dictum that none of the other actors even remotely upstage McCarthy, to the extent that they chronically underreact to everything she does in a way that almost suggests she was digitally inserted during postproduction. Grade: C-

March 25, 2016

dawn of justice

Perhaps more than other superheroes, Batman tends to serve as a cinematic Rorschach test for filmmakers, bringing out either their best inclinations—Burton, Nolan; or the worst—Schumacher … and, unfortunately, Snyder. For a deadening 150 minutes, introductions are rushed, backstories are belabored, world-building is executed with the same combination of excess and carelessness one traditionally encounters in the instant desert metropolises of the oil-rich emirates, and Snyder once again demonstrates a disturbing fetish for serving up 9/11-style mayhem as popcorn fare. I've never understood the zero-sum mentality of the Marvel versus DC rivalry but at least as far as the rudiments of production and storytelling are concerned, the MCU is a masterclass in logistics and narrative while the DCU (or whatever they're calling it) feels like Trump University. Grade: C-

March 20, 2016

midnight special

Metaphor-heavy arthouse sci-fi tends to shine more often than it necessarily dazzles (cf. Under the Skin). Grade: B

london has fallen

Trash that knows it's trash, albeit in a depressing, mean-spirited Uwe Boll way rather than a fun, nasty Paul Verhoeven way. Grade: D-

10 cloverfield lane

As watchable as these Bad Robot genre exercises are, they always feel like they're hacked together from off-the-shelf parts of more memorable films. There are certainly worse things to be than an impeccably referenced mash-up or homage; I mean, that's kind of what the Marvel Cinematic Universe is about too; I just find myself appreciating more than loving whatever this emerging Cloverfield anthology series is supposed to be. Grade: B

March 16, 2016

knight of cups

The eternal tension between the cosmic and the intimate is Malick's poetry, and depending on your inclinations, you either hear it as a song or as a man mumbling to himself under his breath. I happen to hear music in his voice. Grade: B+

March 7, 2016

zootopia

A procedural, video-gamey midsection is buoyed by a gleaming, inventive first act and a surprisingly trenchant climax that has some decidedly grownup things to say about racial politics and national security. Grade: B

whiskey tango foxtrot

Plunking Tina Fey's typical Liz Lemon persona into a war zone isn't a bad premise but the awkward tension between the movie's sober geopolitical observations and its broad romantic comedy beats (with Margot Robbie getting particularly short shrift playing a Kate Hudson-esque foil) fails to generate anything beyond an Eat Pray Love retread with land mines. Grade: B-

February 29, 2016

gods of egypt

Alex Proyas' Anglo-Saxon ancient Egypt is so enthusiastically disinterested in verisimilitude on any level that singling out the lack of melanin among its leads seems to overlook the Monty Python-esque tone of the proceedings. (Gerard Butler's wildly misplaced Scottish snarl rivals Arnold Schwarzenegger's depiction of an Ottoman Turk—or whatever—in Around the World in Eighty Days.) I only wish the movie were as ingenious as it is ridiculous. Proyas has obvious affection for the metaphysical material but seems unwilling or unable to take the audience on a proper head-trip. Grade: B-

February 22, 2016

pride, prejudice, zombies

There's no organic reason why Jane Austen's drawing rooms should be overrun with the undead, other than the fetishistic devotion her public domain works and zombie movies both seem to inspire. A premise this algorithmic really ought to have been relegated to a fake trailer in Tropic Thunder or a fake high school musical in some belabored Sundance comedy like Hamlet 2 … or a tweet. A game cast and director do what they can with the premise until the money visibly runs out during the third act. Grade: C+

February 20, 2016

the witch

Painterly arthouse horror is having a good year. Grade: B

February 15, 2016

deadpool

The perfunctory fourth-wall-breaking conceit is amusing for approximately the duration of the opening titles, and then Deadpool is just a dreary low-budget superhero spoof featuring a walking parody of a leading man performing his relentless impression of Jim Carrey circa The Mask. Kick-Ass and even Ant-Man have covered this ground more ably and with less ugliness. Grade: C

hail, caesar!

The first act of The Hudsucker Proxy is probably the finest bit of Old-Hollywood alchemy the Coens have ever pulled off. Hail, Caesar! certainly seems to aspire to that level of period simulacrum, albeit with Burn After Reading's playful lack of storytelling ambition. The result is an engaging trifle that is less than the sum of its polished parts. Grade: B

January 8, 2016

the hateful eight

If Tarantino wants to stage what is essentially a play in glorious CinemaScope, the results will seldom be less than gripping. Grade: B+

December 28, 2015

the big short

Showbizzy and self-satisfied in a way that occupies a Lagrange point somewhere between a Michael Moore documentary and Thank You For Smoking. I still don't fully understand what the subprime mortgage crisis was about, besides accents and wigs. Grade: B

December 26, 2015

the revenant

Impressive and punishing. So much talent, technicality, ambition; so little joy. Grade: B

December 18, 2015

the force awakens

Remember when Alfonso Cuarón breathed atmosphere, life and credibility into The Prisoner of Azkaban and essentially reset the thitherto stilted Harry Potter franchise? That sort of in situ course correction is what J.J. Abrams has accomplished here, with tremendously appealing results. Grade: A-

December 6, 2015

krampus

A reasonably on-pitch homage to the seasonal mischief Chris Columbus used to write in the mid-eighties, with explicit nods to Young Sherlock Holmes and, especially, Gremlins. Grade: B

November 28, 2015

the good dinosaur

A Bug's Life, with its Aesop overtones, is commonly regarded as Pixar's most overtly kids-in-mind production, but it's practically an Aristophanes satire compared to The Good Dinosaur. (We never speak of Cars 2, a film whose only audience is John Lasseter's inner child.) The latter is so kid-minded, in fact, that it could arguably have been rendered without dialog. The widely remarked upon disconnect between its cartoonishly affable character designs and its solemn, photoreal Terence Malick tone-poem backdrops is initially jarring but ultimately unobjectionable. Perhaps the episodic slightness of the story, particularly following the tick-tock psychological genius of Inside Out, is a function of the movie's checkered production, but it seldom gets in the way of its enormous beating heart. Grade: B+

November 15, 2015

by the sea

Angelina Jolie burst onto the scene however many years ago with a kind of dangerous animal ferocity. Her onscreen pairing with Brad Pitt in Mr. & Mrs. Smith was the rare reflection of an offscreen coupling that actually generated palpable chemistry. Here Pitt is as game as ever but Jolie has hardened into a brittle and mannered performer, posing rigidly through scenes staged with all the vitality and crushing narcissism of a high-end fashion spread. Grade: C+

November 11, 2015

spotlight

A somewhat top-heavy cast winds up drawing attention to itself more frequently than it manages to disappear into the nondescript roles that populate an otherwise understated and cleanly written script. Grade: B

November 7, 2015

spectre

Sam Mendes isn't typically labeled as a director of camp, but with his burdensome mythologizing and penchant for oversaturated emotional palettes, his movies oscillate with camp vibrations, albeit artfully cryocooled to a more stately resonance. Moreso than the problematic Skyfall, Spectre is at times slyly aware of its own excess—but at other times seemingly in denial about it; and in a year where both Kingsman and Rogue Nation invigorated the genre by coming at it from completely opposite directions, Spectre doubles down on rote car chases, elaborate villain hidey-holes and helicopter showdowns. Everything is picturesque and executed with considerable care, but it feels professional and perfunctory rather than thrilling or fun. Grade: B

October 21, 2015

the walk

Zemeckis delivers the titular set piece with his typical aplomb but Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s relentless French-mime bullshit is almost catastrophically annoying and practically derails the film. Grade: B

truth

In the steadier, more clinical hands of a Michael Mann or a J.C. Chandor, Truth could have been a coolly detached examination of a fairly recent and very specific intersection of politics (corporate or otherwise) and media brinkmanship. Under James Vanderbilt's somewhat fervid direction, the story has all the hallmarks of a particularly hysterical episode of Aaron Sorkin's Newsroom. Grade: B-

October 17, 2015

room

A tricky subject matter is handled with considerable skill and delicacy. Grade: B+

crimson peak

Guillermo del Toro's gothic potboiler is easy enough on the eyes, but despite the director's evident enthusiasm for the material the final result is oddly disjointed, lackluster, and not even all that entertaining—exhibiting plenty of atmosphere but unexpectedly little flair. Grade: B-

October 10, 2015

steve jobs

Aaron Sorkin mashes the Steve Jobs mythos, with surprising fidelity to the technicalities if not the nuances, into his favorite genre: the backstage drama. Danny Boyle renders the affair with a surprising amount of restraint, his own crisp technicality, and some invaluable assists from cinematographer Alwin Küchler and composer Daniel Pemberton. An ungrateful part of me still wishes David Fincher had gotten to make his version. Grade: B+

October 5, 2015

the martian

There's a brief, brazen attempt to evoke Alien at the onset of Ridley Scott's perfunctory adaptation of Andy Weir's dramatic technical manual, but the real callback is to the impersonal for-hire jobs the auteur took during the mid-nineties. Grade: B-

September 2, 2015

the man from u.n.c.l.e.

Guy Ritchie's ostensible mid-century romp ought to be light on its feet, but barring a couple of smaller set pieces, it mostly stumbles—unfolding with the ungainliness of a high school play, and featuring Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer as its miscast quarterbacks. Meanwhile, Alicia Vikander, who walked off with all her scenes in Ex Machina, is given nothing to steal here. To the extent that any larceny does occur, it is perpetrated by Elizabeth Debicki, bringing the same Erté-painting sleekness to her supporting role as a villainess that she brought to the similarly slinky Jordan Baker in Baz Luhrmann's Great Gatsby. Grade: B-

August 2, 2015

rogue nation

1996's Mission: Impossible arrived in theaters with such vigor and polish (peak Cruise; peak De Palma; peak Koep; peak Zaillian) that it's taken the series a couple of decades to emerge from its shadow—stumbling badly during a difficult adolescence (peak Woo; peak Limp Bizkit; peak TomKat) before regaining some composure with 2011's Ghost Protocol, which captured the original's crisp technicality, if not its joie de vivre. What is unexpectedly delightful about Christopher McQuarrie's (hopefully inaugural) outing is that it knocks 1996 into second place, out-Hitchcocking De Palma set piece after set piece (particularly during an operatic nod to The Man Who Knew Too Much), and invests the franchise with some things it's frankly never had before: a truly sensible story, a unifying thesis, a real sense of camaraderie—and, in Rebecca Ferguson, finally, a first-rate femme fatale. PS. Bonus points for composer Joe Kraemer's rousing, Puccini-driven score. Grade: A-

July 18, 2015

trainwreck

Typical Apatow affair: clique-ish casting; characters portrayed by standup comedians spouting barely disguised standup material as dialog; a profoundly arrhythmic and padded plot; and a disinterest in the rudiments of visual storytelling that borders on not knowing how to operate a camera. Grade: C+

ant-man

Arguably the, ahem, smallest Marvel romp to date. Somewhere between Edgar Wright's exile and Peyton Reed's rather anonymous salvage operation, Adam McKay appears to have script-doctored the story into a fin-de-siècle Soderbergh-style caper. The stakes never seem that great, the hooks into the larger Cinematic Universe feel cursory, and the laughs come mostly as a relief that the Marvel train hasn't yet jumped its tracks. It does however bear repeating: even when the direction is perfunctory (and to Marvel's credit, they typically employ more interesting stewards than Reed), the postproduction apparatus the studio has assembled is first-rate. The inventive, scene-stealing visual effects are seldom less than wonderful. Grade: B-

terminator genisys

There's a lot of hand-wringing in the Terminator movies about the date Skynet becomes operational, but the real date hanging over everyone's head is January 1, 2019—whereupon the franchise rights revert to James Cameron and will likely remain in stasis for the remainder of his own existence in this spacetime continuum. After a laughable threequel and two moribund reboots, it's time to admit that Cameron only fashioned enough mythology to justify two great Reagan-Bush-era action movies. (PS. Alan Taylor is a visually adept director of spectacle who needs to stop helming sequels to other people's movies.) Grade: B-

minions

A movie so pre-verbal that it makes The Clan of the Cave Bear look like Glengarry Glen Ross. Grade: Whatever

magic mike xxl

If the first Magic Mike was more existentially ambivalent than it was gratuitous, the sequel is largely the opposite—offering the thinnest of conceits to justify its Pitch Perfect-like obsession with a microcosm of generally girl-positive competition and pageantry. The result is amiable and shambling and exceedingly slight. Grade: B-

June 20, 2015

inside out

After a couple of movies that felt like they were conceived from the outside in (and let's not even talk about Cars 2), Pixar returns to form with a gentle, shimmering fable about love, loss and forgiveness. In a happy bit of alchemy, it also happens to be uproariously funny. Grade: A

June 13, 2015

jurassic world

Other than the Spielberg-renaissance original, with its suspense, wonder and intrigue, the Jurassic Park franchise has been one long lucrative slog, loaded with perfunctory thrills and wan callbacks to the first film. The latest installment, helmed with palpable awkwardness by Colin Trevorrow, seems to know its characters are one-note dinosaur chum and leans heavily on nostalgia and laughs to paper over its deficiencies, including a distracting turn by Jake Johnson as some sort of meta-commenting control-room technician-slacker-bro. Sidebar: Why are the dinos so CG-shiny in 2015? Grade: C

June 7, 2015

spy

Paul Feig's movies have a tendency to feel longer than their actual running times, attributable in no small part to the director's inclination to double and even quadruple down on identical comedic beats. In Spy, for example, Melissa McCarthy's frumpy spook gets a vampy makeover (the audience is spared—or denied, depending on your outlook—the actual montage) and then a few scenes later her character receives another vampy offscreen makeover as if the first one never happened. There's a clubby, in-jokey insincerity to the entire film that is partly budgetary and partly congenital. Grade: C

san andreas

Movies in which Los Angeles gets destroyed invariably end up playing like comedies. In San Andreas everybody seems to be in on the joke. Grade: B-

May 27, 2015

tomorrowland

As a filmmaker, Brad Bird has made a career out of expertly juggling immaculate sincerity and polished detachment; however, despite its sky-high production values and even higher concept, Tomorrowland is the first Bird egg that refuses to hatch. The plot is a parade of expository scenes, culminating in an overwrought villainous soliloquy that borders on word salad. Bird has essentially created that rarest of would-be blockbusters—a Wachowski-esque family movie: a glittering Fabergé grenade of weird romantic subplots, universe-broad comedy and treacherously sharp action set pieces. The result is lavishly, fascinatingly, almost mesmerizingly unsatisfactory. Grade: B

May 21, 2015

fury road

Picture the Sorcerer's Apprentice and Rite of Spring sequences from Fantasia with George Miller in the Leopold Stokowski role. Grade: B

May 1, 2015

age of ultron

As the non-Avengers Marvel installments have become more ambitious and interdependent, the calculus of the flagship has become a bit murkier. That said, Ultron's charms are sturdy and dependable, with James Spader and Paul Bettany turning in particularly ingratiating performances. I almost wish the cameos had been a bit more inclusive of the Cinematic Universe's other realms (the marginalization of the various television offshoots is increasingly resembling a ghetto). Sidenote: The movie's sincere emphasis on evacuating civilians during its various burly-brawl set-pieces stands in stark contrast to the likes of Man of Steel, where the decimation of Metropolis was played for maximum pornographic penetration. Grade: B

April 14, 2015

ex machina

Alex Garland's directorial debut is charismatically cast, expertly shot and beautifully realized. It's perhaps more polished than it is profound, but for 108 moody, mesmerizing minutes it's utterly captivating—an immaculate paranoid fugue, oozing atmosphere and style. Grade: B+

April 12, 2015

furious 7

At this point there seem to have been twenty of these movies and I’ve seen maybe fifteen of them and I still have no idea what connects one scene to another, let alone what holds the franchise together, other than some vague, oft-repeated but ultimately admirable notion of "family." The CGI Paul Walker stuff is fairly transparent but employed sparingly and never ghoulish or upsetting. Grade: B

March 27, 2015

it follows

Moody, meticulous and mildly overrated the same way Under the Skin was moody, meticulous and mildly overrated. Grade: B

March 13, 2015

cinderella

The current corporate compulsion to lavishly cosplay animated fairytales has mostly been a miss creatively, if not always at the box office. Oversize hats off to Kenneth Branagh, then, for delivering this corny but affectionate interpretation of Cinderella that, while lacking the daffy grandeur of a Baz Luhrmann trifle or the delicate lyricism of an Alfonso Cuarón confection, is nevertheless a confident step in a better direction for this sort of endeavor. Grade: B

February 16, 2015

kingsman: the secret service

Matthew Vaughn excels at orchestrating a certain kind of cheerfully absurd, endorphin-splattered comic book movie. Grade: B+

February 15, 2015

fifty shades of grey

Right down to its laboriously really-hot-right-now BDSM bullshit, this is an oddly, even fascinatingly, formal exercise in filmmaking—like one of those stiff Doris Day vehicles from the sixties: essentially, That Touch of Kink. To be fair to director Sam Taylor-Johnson, not all of this is her fault. She does what she can to invest E.L. James' clunky, episodic machinations with fleeting dignity and purpose. Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan have a palpable lack of chemistry. Witnessing their simulated sexual congress is akin to watching two noble gases commingle. Grade: C

February 10, 2015

jupiter ascending

Basically the Wachowskis' gloss on The Fifth Element, if The Fifth Element had been about estate planning instead of love. A lavish, impeccable, watchable, forgettable debacle. Like Speed Racer before it, this is a weirdly broad movie that addresses no audience in particular. Grade: B-

January 31, 2015

american sniper

Clint Eastwood's The Passion of the Sniper. Grade: D

December 17, 2014

exodus: gods and kings

If you're gonna dress a bunch of white people up as ancient Egyptians, at least go full disco—staggering opulence, smeared guyliner, scenery-chewing hysteria, digital debauchery. A perfunctory Sunday-school sermon doesn't warrant this level of production. Ridley Scott's covered this ground before with invention (Gladiator) and conviction (Kingdom of Heaven). Exodus exhibits neither. Grade: C

November 23, 2014

mockingjay part 1

A mopey, meandering stopgap that delivers a few strikingly executed set pieces on the way to the franchise's gerrymandered conclusion. Grade: B

November 17, 2014

foxcatcher

Bennett Miller's putty-nosed true-crime character study seethes with all the dread and psychosexual tension of a Greek tragedy, albeit presented with the cool detachment of a Michael Mann thriller. Grade: B+

November 16, 2014

inherent vice

A fidgety, uneven exercise in the sort of neon noir the Coen Brothers excel at—and who, I may add, would wisely have kept the runtime under two hours. Grade: B-

November 8, 2014

big hero 6

Strong concept and animation, but way too much origin and not enough story. The villain feels like an act-three afterthought; the entire movie an extended trailer for its own sequel. Grade: B

interstellar

Christopher Nolan's dustbowl space opera goes to a pretty trippy, enjoyable place once it gets off the ground, literally and figuratively—although the love-transcends-space-and-time philosophizing belongs in a less ambitious film. The quasi-hard science and gorgeous black/worm-hole depictions are invigorating. Grade: B+

November 2, 2014

nightcrawler

Jake Gyllenhaal haunts cinematographer Robert Elswit's shimmering nightshade Los Angeles like a feral Hogwarts house-elf, a troublemaker in a restless movie about the routine dangers of life in a giant, glitchy circuit-board city. Grade: B+

October 19, 2014

birdman

Imagine Aaron Sorkin writing All About Eve while sitting atop a mountain of cocaine. Alejandro González Iñárritu orchestrates the proceedings with an Eternal Sunshine-level-Gondry spotless mind. Emmanuel Lubezki's cinematography is, as usual, immediately recognizable and peerless. Michael Keaton rises and rises and rises to the occasion. Grade: B+

October 5, 2014

gone girl

David Fincher reliably brings his sub-zero aesthetic to Gillian Flynn's high-minded Lifetime-movie source material. I will never think of the French expression, "la petite mort," in the same way again. Grade: B

August 1, 2014

guardians of the galaxy

At this point it's easy to be dismissive of the arc reactor-powered franchise machine Marvel has constructed, with its crack team of set designers and visual effects artists, its likable cast members—some of whom have won Oscars, many of whom look and sound like movie stars without technically being movie stars—and its increasing willingness to juggle genres from episode to episode; but that would be to overlook how consistently fun each installment is, how nimbly the adaptations carry their enormous production values. Guardians is readily and literally the most "out there" chapter yet (as the film's avalanche of galactic slug lines attests) but amidst the demands of late-summer space-opera and universe-building, it manages to have a big heart and an even bigger sense of humor about itself. If these were trivial accomplishments, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 and Man of Steel wouldn't have been total garbage, and The Chronicles of Riddick wouldn't be a decade-old punchline … but I digress. Grade: B+

July 27, 2014

lucy

Luc Besson reignites the hot-garbage adolescent-doodle existentialism he brought to The Fifth Element, with fitfully ingratiating results. ScarJo, to her credit, fully commits to a paper-thin role, while Morgan Freeman confirms that the only limit to the number of wise, grandfatherly scientists he can portray is human frailty itself. Grade: B-

June 12, 2014

edge of tomorrow

Once it establishes its video-game-junky Source Code-meets-Hanover Street premise, Doug Liman's typically second-unit-heavy production actually plays to the director's continuity-challenged strengths. (Aside: Every time I watch Emily Blunt over-deliver in one of these hardware bro-movies, it bums me out that she had to decline the Black Widow role in the Marvel Cinematic Universe because of some horrible Jack Black movie from 2010 that nobody even remembers.) Grade: B

May 24, 2014

days of future past

A twenty-four-karat adamantium-bonded apology for X-Men: The Last Stand (and X-Men Origins: Wolverine, while they're at it). An object lesson in retroactive continuity. Grade: B+

May 17, 2014

godzilla

The trailers for Godzilla's latest manifestation came off as sleek and innovative in a way that this stolid, conventional monster movie seldom is. (Sort of the inverse of last year's World War Z, whose perfunctory previews belied a polished postmodern thrill-ride.) In terms of kaiju mayhem, this is a far more workmanlike effort than the rambunctious Pacific Rim; its most memorable moments arise when it occasionally remembers to have fun. Grade: B-

May 11, 2014

neighbors

Occasionally I can watch an entire movie without a single thought or feeling perturbing my synapses. PS. Zac Efron is maturing into the world's creepiest pleasure-bot. Grade: C

May 3, 2014

the amazing spider-man 2

At this point Sony is basically holding Spider-Man hostage. Grade: D-

April 19, 2014

transcendence

Blockbuster cinematographers don't necessarily have the most illustrious directorial careers (e.g., Jan de Bont's brief mid-nineties renaissance and abrupt decline as a popcorn-movie hack; Janusz Kamiński's DOA Lost Souls), but Wally Pfister manages to excavate a new magnitude of nadir for himself. It's unclear after watching this joyless, ham-Pfisted dud whether Mr. Pfister himself has ever actually watched a movie. Grade: F

April 13, 2014

under the skin

Imagine if Lars von Trier had directed Species. Grade: B

April 7, 2014

the winter soldier

Easily, even effortlessly, the best of the inter-Avengers Marvel minisodes, and the first such entry to vibrate with the confidence of its own stakes and agenda. This is an event-level popcorn political thriller that just happens to be a damn fun comic book superhero movie. Grade: A-

March 30, 2014

noah

It's always a bummer when a director's lifelong passion project turns out to be a sodden, joyless, overproduced (but oddly chintzy) bucket of sermonizing slop. In this case, however, I'm inclined to lay some of the blame on the source material. The Bible just isn't that interesting, unless you're an extraterrestrial primatologist studying the social rituals of pre-warp civilizations. Grade: C-

March 15, 2014

veronica mars

Boldly going where Star Trek, The X-Files, something called Firefly, and even Sex and the City have gone before, Rob Thomas et al demonstrate that with a little ingenuity, a lot of affection and an agreeable cast, a cult series can graduate to the big screen (and same-day VOD) with satisfactorily heightened stakes, clever callbacks and some reinvigorated romantic chemistry, all the while staying true to its characters and premise. While I sorta hope they leave Veronica Mars in peace now that fans have gotten the send-off three seasons on UPN never afforded, I'm also hoping the WB's tragically abbreviated bildungsroman, Gilmore Girls, finally gets the codicil it deserves. Surely we can Kickstart or Indiegogo some simoleons into one of Amy Sherman-Palladino's signature hats. Grade: B+

March 12, 2014

the grand budapest hotel

With his interior-design-heavy productions, high-thread-count escapism and token minority characters, Wes Anderson is essentially a hipster Nancy Meyers, with just a soupçon of uncomfortable underage sexual tension to spice things up (whereby spice, I mean a little nutmeg in an otherwise beige eggnog). Grade: B

February 15, 2014

robocop

Whereas that Total Recall reboot from a couple of years ago perfunctorily traded Paul Verhoeven's high camp for higher production values, this RoboCop retread attempts to channel its source material's satire with some queasy social commentary that it ineptly juggles with earnest moral philosophizing and video-gamey action sequences. It ultimately feels more like a fancy network-television pilot than a remake of a landmark film. Grade: C+

February 14, 2014

the lego movie

The (mostly) immaculate CGI adherence to the physical constraints of Legos is technically impressive and emotionally oppressive in the same way that Pixar's Cars was. The sugar-rush cleverness, meanwhile, is simultaneously exhilarating and exhausting. Grade: B

January 25, 2014

august: osage county

The high-wattage cast generates plenty of sparks but not a lot of chemistry. Grade: B-

January 19, 2014

jack ryan: shadow recruit

Aspires to the sturdy stoicism of the Harrison Ford outings but ultimately succumbs to the bombast of the Ben Affleck one-off. That said, it's not catastrophically dumb, and even manages to be fun here and there. The perpetually game Keira Knightley does what she can to sparkle in a textbook thankless wife role. Grade: B

January 13, 2014

anchorman 2

The first Anchorman was a cheerfully batshit accident of shrewd editing and comedic gamesmanship. The decade-later sequel feels more like an archeological reconstruction of the original—which doesn't mean it isn't hilarious, merely that instead of spontaneity we have simulation. Grade: B

January 10, 2014

the secret life of walter mitty

Three things are true about any movie directed by Ben Stiller: it will be visually striking; it will be stacked with comedic actors whose broad performances will intermittently be at odds with the tone of the film; and the plot will be haphazard. Stiller's Gondry-light take on the Mitty mythos is at first refreshingly crisp and then almost relentlessly flat—the sort of handsome, weightless, lavishly overproduced bit of pop flotsam that the film critic Owen Gleiberman has on occasion been known to refer to as a "glittering trash pile." Grade: C+

January 9, 2014

the wolf of wall street

Scorsese is as energetic here as he's ever been, albeit not as poetic; nevertheless, it's fun watching him have fun. Grade: B

January 8, 2014

frozen

A generation after the hand-drawn high-water mark of the Ashman-Menken era, Disney finally cracks the CG fairytale wide open, delivering an adventure bursting with music, humor, bravery, sacrifice and—most movingly—sisterhood. Grade: A-

January 2, 2014

american hustle

David O. Russell's attempt at a Scorsese-esque period crime saga mostly serves to remind us how much better Scorsese's grasp of cinematography, editing and music is. Grade: B-

December 28, 2013

the desolation of smaug

The hinky kiddie claptrap that gummed up "An Unexpected Journey" has blessedly been toned down. It still feels as though a fairly straightforward story about a quest to steal a dragon's gold (ugh) or whatever has been filigreed within an inch of its margins—but at least the flourishes are gripping, if also sometimes befuddling. Given what an epic tantric cock-tease these first two Hobbit installments have been, the conclusion had better be wall-to-wall pay-off. Grade: B

December 27, 2013

saving mr. banks

Early into watching "Mr. Banks," with its modest winking and nudging, its boxily prestigious staging, its predictably ingratiating star turns from Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson, I began fantasizing about a riskier and smarmier depiction of the events with Jack Nicholson as the man behind the mouse and Tilda Swinton as the frigid, anhedonic author; but then John Lee Hancock's sensitive, workmanlike direction won me over with its sincerity. Strip away the period details and the arch self-referencing and this is an earnest story about injured girlhood and resilient womanhood. Honorable mention: Thomas Newman's typically elegant, evocative score elevates every scene it graces. Grade: B+

December 25, 2013

her

Spike Jonze's dreamy near-future tone poem occupies a similar shaft of sunlight as Duncan Jones' "Moon"—humane, thoughtful science fiction that packs an emotional wallop not through stunts or scares but gradually and indelibly by degrees and gradations. Grade: A

October 27, 2013

the counselor

An odd amalgam of Oliver Stone's Savages and those Chanel commercials everybody gave Brad Pitt a hard time for last year. The result is so polished it's completely frictionless. Grade: B-

October 6, 2013

gravity

The most riveting ninety minutes of 2013. Grade: A-

September 6, 2013

the grandmaster

Eventually I stopped paying any attention to the crudely translated subtitles and just let the visuals wash over me. Grade: B

August 26, 2013

blue jasmine

Blue Jasmine rests so squarely on Cate Blanchett's capable shoulders that its other merits are almost academic. Grade: B+

August 24, 2013

the world's end

Edgar Wright weds Joss Whedon's ear for dialog with Ben Stiller's eye for visuals. I look forward to watching him mature as a filmmaker. Grade: B

August 16, 2013

the butler

The Butler wears its prestige and pageantry like a pocket square, and like The Help before it, it's hard to judge Lee Daniels' drama solely on its technical merits, so well-intentioned is its survey of the bright shining shame that runs down the center of the American Dream; but whereas The Help was essentially a revenge fantasy, a sort of Lifetime-movie Inglorious Basterds, The Butler is at least inspired by, and somewhat grounded in, the experience of an actual individual, a civil-rights Mr. Holland whose opus is the lesson that dignity and even pride can thrive in servitude's shadow. Grade: B

August 9, 2013

elysium

The rich people living aboard the eponymous space station have access to these tricked-out tanning beds that can cure cancer, perform massive reconstructive facial surgery, and treat anything in between, within seconds. Every McMansion has one of these gizmos. The poor people on earth (Los Angeles is depicted as an enormous overrun favela) risk everything to travel illegally to the station in order to sneak onto these tanning beds, just a single one of which could revolutionize healthcare for thousands of people back in some dingy Earth hospital. It's never clear why that isn't the case. A lot of things aren't clear in Elysium, which trades the revelatory economy and immediacy of Neill Blomkamp's District 9 for weirdly clunky Reagan-era action set pieces and a depiction of information technology that belongs in an old Jeff Goldblum movie. Grade: C

July 28, 2013

the wolverine

Wolverine's second standalone outing is pulpy and workmanlike where his first was shoddy and overblown. While that's an improvement, the movie feels small and unnecessary, relegating one of Marvel's signature superheroes to the franchise's margins. Grade: B-

July 13, 2013

pacific rim

Let's all agree that, as a civilization, we've taken this kind of movie as far as it can theoretically go for now. Grade: B

July 5, 2013

white house down

Roland Emmerich's latest cinematic assault on the White House is also his most intimate and multiply-penetrating. The movie is a big realpolitik hotdog wrapped in globalist bacon. Grade: B

June 30, 2013

the heat

The summer-lovin’ audience I watched The Heat with was so tickled by its relentless, if sometimes perfunctorily disguised, fat jokes and lack of continuity that I felt like I was trapped in an insane asylum. Sandra Bullock revisits her pantsuited Miss Congeniality persona while Melissa McCarthy plays yet another manful harridan who speaks in bullet points and gets kicked repeatedly in the vagina. Grade: C

June 23, 2013

world war z

World War Z isn't a zombie-horror movie. It's a Roland Emmerich–style disaster epic where the disaster happens to be zombies. As such, it's a serviceable and even vigorous set-piece–delivery mechanism, executed with a roller-coaster steeliness by Marc Forster that belies the bad press and mediocre trailers that plagued the film's marketing. It's big, fun, forgettable summer escapism, so committed to its thrill-ride directive that it brazenly jettisons its first act within minutes of the opening titles, seldom slowing down long enough for its more preposterous conceits to even register. Grade: B+

June 22, 2013

monsters university

Pixar prequel piggybacks, rather than builds, on its inventive predecessor, but it does so with enormous affection and skill—and not without a little inspiration from Harry Potter and his Hogwarts ilk. Grade: B+

June 17, 2013

the bling ring

Typically, the subjects of Sofia Coppola's studies in airless white privilege are already choking by the time we meet them. In The Bling Ring, we get to watch their giddiness descend—or rather, abruptly pratfall—into hypoxia. (Never has a Facebook de-friending been depicted with such quiet devastation.) Grade: B

June 15, 2013

man of steel

Although Bryan Singer's 2006 Superman was hamstrung by its slavish devotion to the franchise's Richard Donner underpinnings, at least it erred affectionately. Zack Snyder's joyless, mercenary reboot merely eliminates much of what's distinctive about the Man of Steel and substitutes off-the-shelf lens flares and generic alien-invasion spectacle. Every time the DC Universe cranks out one of these clunkers, Marvel's ability to turn even Captain America and Thor into loose-limbed air-conditioned fun seems more and more like pop-cultural alchemy and less like a happy accident. Grade: C-

June 11, 2013

this is the end

Essentially an elaborate inside-Hollywood exercise in narcissism—entertainingly if indulgently staged as populist flyover schadenfreude. Grade: B-

May 19, 2013

the great gatsby

Some weird casting choices aside, Baz Luhrmann's great American telenovela is surprisingly faithful to the Cliff Notes of its source material, coming across like a deeply earnest gazillion-dollar high school musical. It ain't Shakespeare but it ain't Showgirls either. Grade: B-

May 16, 2013

star trek into darkness

Star Trek's cinematic potential has always resided in its capacity for exploration and wonder, but the movies have frequently lacked the production values and manpower to sustain those goals. It's an emerging pity, then, that while the franchise has finally been invested with a generous budget it's also been entrusted to a man with a vocal and oft-repeated disinterest in its core values. Instead of exploration and wonder we have exposition and hormones, and a series of token references to various pre-reboot milestones that are as perfunctory as they are unearned. Grade: B-

May 5, 2013

iron man 3

Shane Black cynically sidesteps that whole Avengers thing with a stripped-down standalone Tony Stark episode that builds to a pretty vigorous climax. Grade: B

April 28, 2013

oblivion

I have to hand it to director Joseph Kosinski: the science fiction forbears he cribs from are impeccable, and his synthesis thereof, while not unfamiliar, is executed with tremendous visual flair and an unblinking storytelling clarity that's increasingly rare for alien-invasion movies. This is sturdy, handsome, gratifying event filmmaking. Grade: B+

April 13, 2013

spring breakers

In terms of drug-inflected depictions of Florida as a mystical trash-hole, Magic Mike spoke to me more than Spring Breakers did, but I will say this for the latter: There's probably very little disconnect between the movie Harmony Korine thought he was making and the movie he actually made. That, too, is a skill. (Uh, so does this mean I have to watch Michael Bay's Pain & Gain in order to complete the Sunshine State trifecta?) Grade: B

March 10, 2013

oz the great and powerful

While Sam Raimi brings marginally more conviction to Disney's latest force-majeure retelling of a fantasy classic than Tim Burton brought to Alice in Wonderland, the net result is still an overstuffed production that frequently strands its actors, dazed and dispirited, in an Oz that's more green-screen than emerald. Grade: C

February 10, 2013

side effects

A bracingly nasty, vintage-Verhoeven–nasty, Basic Instinct–nasty little thriller. Grade: B+

December 29, 2012

life of pi

In its gentle, lyrical first act, Ang Lee's adaptation of Yann Martel's magic-realist fable recalls one of Alfonso Cuarón's family movies: generous, full of invention, keenly aware of the impact visual stimulation can have on young minds. Once the Castaway-esque second act kicks in, the visuals continue to boast some of the finest, most carefully composed 3D I've ever seen, but the rigors of survival slowly sap the vitality of the fantasy. Grade: B+

December 27, 2012

django unchained

When Quentin Tarantino is dead set on entertaining the fuck out of you, it's hard not to be entertained the fuck out of. Grade: B+

December 18, 2012

an unexpected journey

Affable, eventful and cynical in that polarizing, You Know, For Kids!™ Stars Wars–prequel way, albeit executed with considerably more affection for the underlying material. I didn't mind it. Grade: B

December 14, 2012

zero dark thirty

Kathryn Bigelow delivers a steely, self-assured technothriller that oozes prestige but never quite achieves the brutal visual poetry of a Black Hawk Down, the sweeping social consciousness of a Syriana or even the buttered-popcorn pleasures of a Clear and Present Danger. Grade: B+

December 5, 2012

les misérables

I'm not familiar with the eponymous musical; however, I am familiar with Tom Hooper's films. I'm inclined to attribute this film's shortcomings to the musical and its strengths to the filmmaker. Grade: B-

November 25, 2012

anna karenina

Ravishing and a bit exhausting, just like Tolstoy's heroine. Grade: B

November 24, 2012

flight

Robert Zemeckis emerges from the misty, mo-capped wilderness of his lost decade with evident vigor, front-loading this frequently mordant, occasionally jet-black dramedy with bare boobs, butts and truckloads of drugs. The titular flight, executed with the director's trademark harrowing realism, is a welcome return to form. Grade: B+

November 23, 2012

lincoln

So tasteful and restrained it's like Disney's Hall of Presidents sprung barely to life. Grade: B

November 20, 2012

silver linings playbook

A satisfyingly escapist romantic comedy about two attractive people with raging mood disorders who find wish-fulfillment and a happy ending in each other. Grade: B+

November 15, 2012

this is 40

There's a continuum of fuzzy white privilege in romantic comedy. At the far end, the snow-blind end, you've got Nancy Meyers. In the middle hovers the well-intentioned but increasingly out-of-touch James L. Brooks. Judd Apatow occupies the so-called relatable bandwidth of the spectrum, but even his oeuvre has jackknifed sharply in recent years, wallowing in wiseacre acting-coached children and showbiz cameos masquerading as supporting characters. The result in this case is self-indulgent but not necessarily off-putting; frankly observed but about as deep as the Neiman Marcus Christmas catalog. The movie is called This Is 40 but it could easily have been subtitled This Isn't the 47 Percent. Grade: B

November 10, 2012

skyfall

Props for doing something stripped down and unexpected with the franchise, even if the result is a bit of a downer. Grade: B

November 3, 2012

wreck-it-ralph

What begins as a Roger Rabbit-footed deconstruction of classic video games quickly devolves into a cynically compartmentalized candy-coated shoot-em-up designed to appeal to little girls and little boys separately but equally. Grade: B-

October 28, 2012

argo

Ben Affleck is maturing into a sturdy hyphenate of the Peter Berg persuasion. Grade: B+

October 25, 2012

the perks of being a wallflower

The kind of indigo indie that I may find unwatchable in a few years but was utterly captivated by this afternoon. Grade: B+

pitch perfect

Reclaims a phenomenon rendered noxious by shows like Glee and restores its joyful noise. The breezy pace, confident direction and appealing cast reduce the myriad plot holes to a faint background hiss. Grade: B+

October 15, 2012

cloud atlas

I wanted to like it more than I actually did. The cast is appealing and the production is handsome but the individual stories, impressionistic as they are, never snap into pointillist focus when viewed as a whole. Grade: B

October 14, 2012

taken 2

National Lampoonʼs “Father-Daughter Crime Spree Terrorizes Istanbul.” Grade: D+

October 2, 2012

looper

Baz Luhrmann presents Blade Runner. Ultimately more Stephen King than Steven Spielberg. Grade: On a scale of one to Twelve Monkeys, I give it a seven.

September 15, 2012

the master

Paul Thomas Anderson exerts an extraordinary amount of control as a filmmaker. One could even call it mastery. And sometimes that control feels like thrall. But the movie is detached in a way that never ignites into ecstasy, never blossoms into rapture. It's well-made, deliberate, purposeful and momentous. In the end I was absorbed but not entirely moved, transported but never transformed. Grade: B

September 3, 2012

robot & frank

Cut from the same unassuming cloth as Duncan Jones' Moon—gentle, near-future science fiction about broken hearts and helpful bots. Grade: B

August 18, 2012

the bourne legacy

Crisp and diverting, although the franchise is obviously holding its breath until Matt Damon's next appearance. Grade: B

August 4, 2012

total recall

Starts out somber and murky and gets progressively sillier, culminating in a mindless, joyless climax that takes us through the center of the earth without ever achieving the clear-eyed off-world camp of the Verhoeven original. Grade: C+

July 21, 2012

the dark knight rises

Trades the Gotham-is-burning immediacy of The Dark Knight for the cumbersome flashbacks and self-important mythopoeia of Batman Begins. Grade: B-

July 4, 2012

ted

Remember in The Brady Bunch Movie how all of Mike Brady's architectural proposals resemble the Brady home? Everything Seth MacFarlane produces looks and sounds like Family Guy. Grade: D

July 1, 2012

magic mike

Steven Soderbergh is always at his best when he trains his experimental eye on the mainstream, imbuing even the most predictable character beats and inevitable reaction shots with a visual purity that's simultaneously dreamlike and immediate—and often palpably, sometimes painfully, beautiful. Grade: B+

June 28, 2012

brave

For all its sound and fury—not to mention furry—this is a small tale told with claustrophobic fussiness and comparatively little of Pixar's usual sweep and delicacy. Grade: B

June 8, 2012

prometheus

Where Alien was brutal Darwinian economy, Prometheus is sloppy franchise discontinuity. Grade: C

May 29, 2012

the dictator

As an unblinking, if unintentional, caricature of an Adam Sandler farce, The Dictator is fearless. As pretty much anything else, it is merely -less. Grade: C-

May 20, 2012

dark shadows

Amiably shambolic until the third act, when all the loose plot threads and kindling characters literally burst into flames. Grade: C

May 5, 2012

the avengers

Joss Whedon's sitcom patter doesn't always scale up to visual poetry but as far as mash-ups go, this is an agreeable gangbang. Grade: B

April 8, 2012

damsels in distress

Whit Stillman's incredible shrinking universe of frost-bitten white privilege may have found its somnambulant snow queen in Greta Gerwig. Grade: B

March 31, 2012

wrath of the titans

Like watching your friend play God of War on the PS3 while you fiddle with your iPhone. Sam Worthington's amiable inadequacy is beginning to feel passive aggressive. Grade: C

March 29, 2012

21 jump street

This is the movie "The Other Guys" should have been. Channing Tatum's good humor and self-awareness steal the show. Grade: B

March 24, 2012

the hunger games

The basic-cable futurism of the first act is redeemed by the fever-dream immediacy of the titular Games. Grade: B

March 4, 2012

the artist

Fifteen minutes of insufferable material dragged out to a hundred interminable minutes. Grade: F

March 2, 2012

project x

An unexpectedly entertaining missing link between Rebecca Black's "Friday" and The Battle of Algiers. Grade: B

December 16, 2011

ghost protocol

Brad Bird's live-action inauguration is every bit as polished as his animated films—and considerably more cartoonish. The franchise stakes may be higher than ever but they've never carried less weight. Grade: B

November 27, 2011

the muppets

With their lifeless eyes and voodoo limbs, the Muppets have always terrified me—so it's a testament to the ingratiating cheer of this musical outing that I was able to set aside my faux-bia long enough to enjoy them for a hundred minutes, even as I was left with the impression that this would-be Muppet revival is in fact a Muppet jazz funeral. Grade: B

November 16, 2011

jack and jill

Pacino to Sandler: "You, madame, are at your worst." Sandler to Pacino: "You, sir, are also at your worst." (I'm paraphrasing.) Grade: F

October 16, 2011

50/50

Charming, albeit never fully disarming. Anna Kendrick is becoming deviously adept at elevating improbable characters with ingratiating performances. Grade: B

October 9, 2011

the ides of march

A box of Cracker Jacks. Grade: B+

September 23, 2011

moneyball

I don't know a whit about baseball. I enjoyed it anyway. Grade: B

September 16, 2011

drive

Although it stands to reason that Ryan Gosling's current ubiquity will eventually backfire, he certainly doesn't wear out his welcome here. Grade: B+

September 11, 2011

contagion

If The Aviator was the Citizen Kane of movies about obsessive-compulsive disorder, Contagion is the, oh, I don't know … The Clockwork Orange of so on and so forth. Grade: OCD

August 28, 2011

the help

It's difficult, and possibly heartless, not to feel the emotional tug of this tale of women helping women overcome the inequities and indignities of the Jim Crow South. It's equally difficult, however, not to find fault with the Lifetime-movie tropes of this particular telling, with its cartoonish belles and telegraphed highs and lows, where every magnolia is stainless steel and no green tomato goes un-fried. Grade: B-

August 7, 2011

rise of the planet of the apes

Who knew there was a missing link between Spider-Man and I, Robot? Grade: B

August 5, 2011

the change-up

Look up "the narcissism of small differences" on Wikipedia. I just saved two hours of your life. Pay it forward. Grade: D-

July 31, 2011

cowboys & aliens

Well-made, doesn't make a lick of sense. Grade: B-

July 30, 2011

attack the block

Director Joe Cornish has a keen eye that makes me interested in what he'd bring to a superhero flick, but for all its B-movie immediacy, Attack the Block feels more like a technical exercise than a populist fable. It's better than Super 8 but it's no District 9. Grade: B

July 29, 2011

crazy, stupid, love.

With its moments of Alexander Payne-like authenticity punctuated by antic summer-comedy shenanigans and jaded movie children, Crazy, Stupid, Love shouldn't work—and it almost doesn't—but hopelessly charismatic performances and sharp direction carry the day. Grade: B

July 25, 2011

the first avenger

Super 8 may have received the Spielberg imprimatur but Spielberg protégé Joe Johnston delivers an actual successor to the director's early works in the form of this latter-day Rocketeer riff—that earlier movie itself a successful Joe Johnston exercise in WWII derring-do. While the results this time around feel somewhat more machine-assembled, nothing beats beating Nazis in an air-conditioned theater on a hot summer day. Grade: B+

July 23, 2011

friends with benefits

Richard Jenkins was fucking hilarious in Step Brothers. He's wasted here in an Alzheimer's subplot that almost derails the second act, but that damper not withstanding, this fast-talking, fleet-footed rom-com nimbly juggles the old-timey demands of the genre with millennial expectations of topicality and fizzy set-pieces. Grade: B+

July 17, 2011

the deathly hallows: part 2

All's well that ends well. Grade: B+

July 9, 2011

horrible bosses

Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unlikeable Events. Grade: C

July 3, 2011

bad teacher

More of a trompe l'oeil than a dark comedy but Jake Kasdan knows how to keep things moving as he puts the game and likable cast through its paces. Grade: B+

June 29, 2011

dark of the moon

You know what? I give up. I didn't hate this one. It was okay. Please don't make any more. Grade: PTSD

June 17, 2011

green lantern

Ryan Reynolds manages to be cheerless, charmless and wooden in a feckless, aimless and cardboard superhero movie. Halle Berry's Catwoman was the Dark Knight compared to this glorified screensaver. (Gawd, even its IMDb trivia page is dull.) Grade: F

June 11, 2011

super 8

A very slight movie executed with a lot of lens flare—I mean flair. Grade: B

June 4, 2011

x-men: first class

These mid-century modern mutants are a wee bit Austin Powers—until the movie jettisons its expository rocket boosters and scales the soaring heights we expect from our superheroes. Grade: B

May 30, 2011

kung fu panda 2

I just read there are going to be six of these. Grade: B-

the tree of life

An epic of intimacy. Grade: B+

cave of forgotten dreams

Droning, lecturing—about as much fun as study hall. There isn't enough material here to sustain ninety minutes of interest. Grade: B-

May 15, 2011

fast five

Can't a bro in a spotless wife-beater throw a bitchin' block party without the fuzz blowing up his tailpipe? (I have no idea what this movie is about.) Grade: Z

bridesmaids

The usual Apatow-produced cross-section of pointed comedy and sluggish character development. Grade: B-

May 8, 2011

thor

A big amiable galoot of a summer popcorn movie, although the Nordic darkness along its margins offers glimpses of an edgier and more daring enterprise. Grade: B+

April 30, 2011

hanna

If Roald Dahl's Matilda were a precocious assassin, she would be Hanna. Grade: B+

April 1, 2011

source code

Duncan Jones' sophomore sci-fi outing is more conventional in its thriller machinations than 2009's moody Moon but it shares that film's humane outlook and redemptive spirit. There are worse directorial trademarks to have. Grade: B

March 20, 2011

battle: los angeles

Like its invading alien horde, Battle: Los Angeles is competent, efficient and relentless…ly pedestrian. Picture Starship Troopers without a trace of Verhoeven's self-awareness or irony. Grade: C+

March 5, 2011

the adjustment bureau

George Nolfi's elegant metaphysical mind-bender doesn't just convince us the universe is rational—it makes us believe that love is its highest supernatural calling. And what Matt Damon and Emily Blunt sustain isn't merely chemistry—it's alchemy. Grade: B+

January 17, 2011

the king's speech

So fucking British, so bloody fucking British, but excellent. Grade: A-

the tourist

Wherein Angelina Jolie transitions from Elizabeth Taylor to Joan Collins. Grade: D

December 25, 2010

true grit

Sneaks up on you—to borrow Hemingway's phrase, gradually and then suddenly. Grade: B+

December 19, 2010

tron: legacy

Dumb as shit, shiny as fuck. Grade: C+

December 12, 2010

black swan

Imagine if David Cronenberg had written, and Brian De Palma had directed, Jacob's Ladder. Grade: A-

burlesque

Ain't no backlight pink enough. Grade: Z

November 19, 2010

the deathly hallows: part 1

An exquisite cash-grab, but a cash-grab nevertheless. Looking amply forward to the remainder of this drawn-out conclusion. Grade: B+

October 31, 2010

red

A gently over-the-hill cast shambles amiably through a nominally post-Cold War caper designed to appeal squarely to sophisticated adult audiences that frequent Midwestern multiplexes and less-frequent their neighboring big-box bookstores. Director Robert Schwentke aims for Ocean's Eleven, achieves Lucky Number Slevin, and everyone goes home expecting the sort of moderately budgeted Toronto-fest sequel that fans of The Italian Job or Space Cowboys have never explicitly demanded but would nevertheless watch on a rainy Sunday afternoon in 2012. Grade: B-

October 1, 2010

the social network

Fincher's fizziest movie. Sorkin's dialog pops. The performances are spot-on. Grade: B+

August 22, 2010

eat pray love

As well-intentioned as an Activia commercial. Grade: B-

August 12, 2010

life during wartime

Todd Solondz's twenty-first century oeuvre has tended to be experimental and workshoppy. In that regard, Life During Wartime is more of a reckoning with 1998's Happiness than a conventional sequel. It's thoughtfully presented and ably performed but it lacks the original's spark of cinematic vitality. Grade: B

August 6, 2010

the other guys

About a half hour of really funny material stretched excruciatingly thin. Marky Mark, don't quit your day abs. I almost would rather have watched the Dwayne Johnson-Sam Jackson fake-out. Grade: C

July 31, 2010

salt

Preposterously entertaining Cold School thriller, directed with Early Nineties expertise by a Clear and Present Phillip Noyce. Grade: B

July 16, 2010

inception

Tom Hardy is the second coming of Oliver Reed. Grade: B

June 19, 2010

toy story 3

Pretty good for a threequel and then just pretty fucking great. Grade: A-

June 14, 2010

the a-team

Notoriously difficult directors make the most uncompromisingly awful movies. Grade: F

May 30, 2010

sex and the city 2

Director Michael Patrick King has an uncanny ability to make any shooting location resemble a backlot in Burbank. That said, if you know what you're getting into, this live-action Chipmunk Adventure is watchable the way reruns of The King of Queens are watchable when you're stuck in a hotel room or on a long flight. Grade: B-

May 29, 2010

prince of persia

It's Jerry Bruckheimer's world—Mike Newell's just flailing in it. Grade: C-

May 23, 2010

please give

Where Nicole Holofcener's previous ensemble piece Friends With Money was sunny, humane and keenly observed, Please Give is dreary, humane and mostly observed from Catherine Keener's point of view. The lower light levels and narrower focus exact a toll. Grade: B

May 17, 2010

robin hood

Messy, meandering pageantry from Ridley Scott, who ought to know better. Grade: B-

May 8, 2010

iron man 2

Colorful, eventful, playful—Tony Stark is the new old James Bond. Too bad neither Mickey Rourke nor Sam Rockwell is Blofeld. In this case more is a little bit less. Grade: B

April 16, 2010

kick-ass

Basically an R-rated comic-book movie for tweens. Color-grade: B

April 4, 2010

greenberg

Here's Noah Baumbach with another dirge about privileged youth and stalled adulthood. Fortunately, unlike Margot at the Wedding, this one's actually—even eminently—watchable. Grade: B+

March 13, 2010

green zone

Paul Greengrass has taken the Green Zone from Rajiv Chandrasekaran's thoughtfully observed Imperial Life in the Emerald City and fashioned it into his own heart-pounding Greengrass Zone; and while it's a skillful transformation, it's debatable how much of the source material's subtlety and insight remain. It may be time for the filmmaker to move outside his own comfort zone and venture beyond political thrillers. PS. Nice Henry Czerny impression, Greg Kinnear. Grade: B-

March 12, 2010

alice in wonderland

Tim Burton is an Ambien overdose away from becoming an Adobe After Effects plug-in. Grade: F

December 28, 2009

the princess and the frog

You'd think Disney would be willing to take more risks with traditional animation now that the Pixar brain trust is firmly in place. You'd be wrong. The Princess and the Frog is so tasteful that it barely leaves an aftertaste. It's chaste, pretty, colorful—and almost completely lacking in immediacy or dramatic tension. There's no heroic journey to speak of because no one actually goes anywhere or does anything interesting. Even the villain—that mainstay of classic Disney storytelling—is more of a nuisance than he is a threat. This is a nice story about well-behaved people who end up in a sunny place, respectfully told. There is nothing primal or vital here—and that's a disappointment. Grade: B-

December 26, 2009

imaginarium of dr. parnassus

Sags considerably in the midsection like most of Gilliam's movies; but unlike his more recent work, the vital parts are electric—poised along that knife's edge where threadbare invention yields to lush fantasy, and where the director's more memorable efforts reside. Grade: B

December 25, 2009

sherlock holmes

Starring Sherlock Holmes as Harry Potter. Visually eventful, technically proficient, generally playful; convolutedly plotted. Grade: B-

December 19, 2009

crazy heart

A by-the-numbers tale of romance, rehab and redemption that's elevated by ingratiatingly naturalistic performances and, some clunky second-act machinery notwithstanding, a refreshingly un-exploitative plot. Here's another number: one hundred minutes. More movies should be so concise. Grade: B+

December 18, 2009

avatar

The fecundity of James Cameron's world-building is not in dispute—nor his sincerity, ambition or virtuosity. His ponderous worldview, however, makes Avatar the kind of lush, exhilaratingly arduous journey you'll embark upon once out of completism and possibly never revisit. The auteur may be able to convince us that the heavens can uproot mountains but his sermons are earthbound. Grade: B+

December 7, 2009

up in the air

Where Thank You For Smoking was gimmicky and Juno irritatingly mannered, Up in the Air marks Jason Reitman's maturation as a filmmaker—one in command of both the medium and the message. There isn't much to dislike here; the performances are pitch-perfect and Eric Steelberg's cinematography gets Lost in Translation at just the right moments. Grade: B+

December 5, 2009

the blind side

As square, stolid and ultimately gratifying as the proverbial “well-balanced breakfast” from a children's cereal commercial. Just remember that that meal comes with a massive carbon footprint. Grade: B

December 3, 2009

brothers

Lifetime melodrama with indie pretensions. Grade: C+

November 29, 2009

new moon

Speaks to the shiftless, ordinary girl in all of us whose thighs quiver in the presence of 'roid rage and the unbathed—I mean undead. Grade: C-

November 23, 2009

2012

Harald Kloser composed the score for The Day After Tomorrow. He co-wrote the screenplay for 2012. Draw your own conclusions. Grade: C-

November 22, 2009

fantastic mr. fox

For all its Aspergerian twee-ness, far more ingratiating and less of a hipster horror show than the trailers and marketing have suggested. In the end it's still hermetically sealed in its own whimsy but at least it isn't pickled in formaldehyde. Grade: B

November 7, 2009

the men who stare at goats

This is one of those movies where Clooney has a mustache. Grade: B-

October 25, 2009

a serious man

The Coen Brothers train their cinematic astrolabe on the moral firmament of 1967, with beautiful and morbid results. Grade: B+

October 15, 2009

where the wild things are

Director Spike Jonze knows how to work the sides but not the middle: What starts out being a movie I would have very much liked to see—a series of crisp episodes illustrating the immediate and ordinary dangers of being a little boy, rendered with the utmost warmth and delicacy—quickly detours to a visually monotonous desert island, where the production becomes mired in boogers and birth imagery. The titular wild things are, unfortunately, not so much manifestations of a child's id as they are feral mental cases who shuffle around in a lithium torpor, neither bathed nor bidden, occasionally erupting into bum fights before retreating to their private torments. The bulk of the film is a bipolar mess of tedious silence and manic violence, until the boy finally returns home and polishes off a giant hunk of cake in front of his mother, who falls asleep from boredom. Roll credits, audible sigh from studio. Grade: C-

October 4, 2009

bright star

I really identified with the tuxedo cat and the little red-haired girl. Grade: B

October 3, 2009

zombieland

If somebody wants to reboot the Scooby-Doo franchise with Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Emma Stone and Abigail Breslin, I'll get behind that. Grade: B+

the invention of lying

Imagine a dot-com commercial from Super Bowl XXXIV stretched to fit the dimensions (barely) of a feature film. More product placement than laughs. Grade: C+

September 27, 2009

surrogates

On a scale of Peter Hyams to Paul Verhoeven, director Jonathan Mostow is Roger Spottiswoode. Grade: C+

September 20, 2009

the informant!

When it's good, The Informant! is the kind of sunny, unblinking satire Alexander Payne used to make. When it lags, you become acutely aware of the pointless cameos by stand-up comics; production design that's mired in the Seventies despite being set in the Nineties; the fact that no real effort is made to examine the main character beyond his numbskull-cipher charades; and that there's no way said numbskull could have watched the 1993 thriller The Firm at a suburban multiplex circa 1995 (well, it bugged me, at any rate). Grade: B

September 19, 2009

extract

Mike Judge once again trains his keen observational sense and crude cinematic technique on suburbia, and the result is yet another amiable shambles of a comedy—interestingly peopled and frequently funny but mostly meandering before it abruptly peters out. Grade: B-

September 13, 2009

art & copy

It's easy to get a contact high from Doug Pray's survey of great advertising. Unfortunately, the elevation is brief, as Pray's sample is neither wide nor deep—frequently no more comprehensive than the advertorial puff pieces local news broadcasts trot out every Superbowl, replete with an over-reliance on obvious brands (Apple, Volkswagen), clips that appear to have been culled from YouTube, and broad, gaping lapses in chronology. Next time more art, less copy. Grade: C+

September 1, 2009

julie & julia

In recent years Nora Ephron has veered disastrously into big-B broad comedy. What she's always excelled at is a specific kind of comedy of manners—populated with fussy, privileged white people in scenes and states of intimate anxiety. This return to smaller-b "broad" comedy is therefore a qualified success—a double-fisted biopic that's breezy and generic in many of its details but undeniably crowd-pleasing and ultimately ingratiating. The cast itself is a stacked deck, in the best sense. Grade: B

August 19, 2009

the rise of cobra

I suspect Joe's last name may be Eszterhas: Scene for PG-13 scene, the movie contains more penetrative imagery and deaths by stabbing than one of the self-proclaimed Hollywood Animal's vintage scripts. Otherwise Stephen Sommers' de-imagining of the Hasbro franchise mostly captures (and then freeze-pans around) the more gee-whiz aspects of playing with your toys in front of a green screen—before burdening each of those toys with unnecessary backstories involving all sorts of expressionless betrayal and chaste mannequin romance. Spoiler: Joseph Gordon-Levitt's performance dampens fanboy suggestion that he should take up Heath Ledger's makeup in the next Batman. Grade: Z

August 16, 2009

district 9

The most unexpectedly gratifying interspecies-buddy/self-actualization fable of the year. Brutal, alien and ultimately human. Grade: A-

July 16, 2009

the half-blood prince

Print is black and white, movies are light and shadow. The luscious, just-believable marvel of the Harry Potter franchise is that it started out as one thing (the stilted, literal Chris Columbus entries) and has blossomed into the other—thriving with incident, vivid with detail, musical with grace notes, intimate with feeling. This is what it looks like when the state-of-the-art comes together in an old-fashioned way: seamless entertainment. I exited the theater not just giddy, but greedy—grateful that there are still two more installments left to enjoy. Grade: A

June 27, 2009

the hurt locker

The critical plaudits have been somewhat overstated—more of a commentary on the state of movies set "over there" than on the particular merits of Kathryn Bigelow's contribution to the genre, although there are merits to be considered—authenticity, immediacy and restraint among them. It's just that we've seen these characters in this setting before, and not fucking the whole thing up isn't as exciting as bringing something new to the table. Nevertheless…. Grade: B

June 25, 2009

revenge of the fallen

Second verse same as the first. It's hard to find fault with a movie that knows exactly what it is. The fault here lies with the audience. The grade I'm giving myself for watching this: D+

June 13, 2009

moon

Duncan Jones' modest sci-fi head trip draws inspiration for its solid production design from the usual sources, although the director presents his lunar backdrops with a distinctive tilt-shift charm. What the film lacks in a sturdy premise—suggesting a world that's a few shades too engineered to be plausible—it makes up for with a refreshing lack of the genre's tendency toward horror, despite a freeze-dried evil-corporation subplot. Moon is a sad, dreamy little diorama about the cost of life amidst lifelessness and the residue of humanity in unexpected places. Grade: B

June 11, 2009

the hangover

More like The Warmed Over. The usual cocktail of dick jokes, misogyny, homophobia, lazy setups and lazier acting. Lick it up, baby. Lick. It. Up. Grade: D

June 4, 2009

up

Pixar finally devotes an entire feature to its animators' longstanding fetish for cantankerous codgers. As such, Up is an efficiently calculated, if somewhat trite, meditation on aging, loss and—aw fuck, it's a bunch of pet jokes wrapped around an animated short's worth of plot, drizzled with Michael Giacchino's almost diabetically treacly score. As much as I enjoyed its surfaces, the movie left me somewhat unsettled. It's basically the sentimentalized story of a friendless shut-in who becomes violent once his wife's no longer around to share his codependence. When his increasingly erratic behavior prompts the state to institutionalize him, he flees the country—accidentally kidnapping an ADHD-addled Boy Scout along the way. The two journey to Donkey Kong Country—I mean Paradise Falls, South America—where they proceed to murder an elderly explorer (voiced by Christopher Plummer since Peter O'Toole already did Ratatouille) and steal his zeppelin—returning Stateside just in time for the boy to receive some merit badges and the old man to face no consequences whatsoever for his crime spree. At least the 3-D wasn't super-obtrusive. Grade: B

June 1, 2009

angels & demons

The butler did it. Grade: B-

May 22, 2009

terminator salvation

The latest reframing of the ad-lib Terminator mythos brings both schlock and awe to the franchise, with Sam Worthington's young-dumb-and-full-of-come cyborg making up for Christian Bale's nuked-over messiah. Director McG's workmanlike craftsmanship references better, more austere science-fiction when it isn't laboring under a summer blockbuster-mandated Bed Bath & Beyond Thunderdome yolk. This installment doesn't so much move the story forward as it doesn't set it back (in time or otherwise). Grade: B

May 10, 2009

star trek

A rollicking, resounding franchise resuscitation—busy with charismatic casting, youthful exuberance, shiny production design and general space-sexiness. The likable leads turn in surprisingly subtle performances, restoring primal emotion to the Prime Directive. My main beef, almost grief, with the architects of the new beginning is this: As fearless as their reinvention of the Star Trek universe is, the genocidal violence they inflict to do so is also, at its molten core, pretty heartless. Grade: B+

May 2, 2009

wolverine

Legends of the Fall meets Airwolf … meets Thunder From Down Under. Grade: D

April 28, 2009

the soloist

Joe Wright's direction is as tasteful as his white man's burden. Susannah Grant's screenplay is spun from the finest recycled gossamer. The onscreen talent and production values are hopelessly carbon neutral. Grade: B

adventureland

Unexpectedly sweet, authentic, romantic—with nary a fart joke to be heard. Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart's chemical romance is damaged, incendiary and pleasurable. Grade: B+

April 22, 2009

knowing

Director Alex Proyas mounts this apocalyptic New Age garbage with almost defiant handsomeness. The disaster-porn sequences are particularly striking, managing not only to seem fresh despite the preponderance of such scenes in blockbusters but also disturbingly visceral without veering into flamboyant gore. The same cannot be said of Nicolas Cage, who continues his transformation into an animatronic version of himself—a stuttering barrage of theatricality and tortured decibels. Grade: C+

April 21, 2009

observe and report

Turns out uninspired sitcom gags are shitty no matter how "naturalistically" you shoot and edit them. Anna Faris is criminally underutilized. Grade: D

duplicity

Tony Gilroy's corporate espionage caper has the infectious energy of Julia Roberts and Clive Owen on a romp—and unfortunately the tedium of being trapped with the stars on the transatlantic flight that's taking them there. Grade: B-

March 8, 2009

watchmen

Apparently the War and Peace of graphic novels is also the Valley of the Dolls of graphic novels. Grade: B-

February 28, 2009

taken

What's presumably intended as a populist red-state revenge fantasy about the dangers of sexy foreigners instead unfolds as an aggro-trash video game where the player is a middle-aged man who fetishizes sexual paranoia and doesn't feel completely alive unless his daughter is staring down the barrel of a loaded cock. The bodies pile up and the villains only get swarthier as the porno-conspiracy snakes its way up Euro society. Fortunately it's over quickly and you hardly feel a thing. (That's what she said.) Grade: C-

February 23, 2009

he's just not that into you

Director Ken Kwapis is really into staging scenes where two actors basically run lines in front of the exposed brick wall from a generic early-Nineties comedy club. Grade: D+

February 20, 2009

the international

This German-engineered thriller somehow manages to be deliberate and detailed without once making a lick of sense. Clive Owen shoulders the burden of a plodding plot while an underutilized Naomi Watts executes a flawless impression of a saucer of milk. Oh, but there's a gunfight in the Guggenheim that's notable primarily because it makes you wonder who at the venerable museum thought it would be a good idea to let the filmmakers stage a massacre in that iconic space. Grade: C

push

Angsty and inert when it should be exploitative and busy, this dull gloss on hyperkinesis is almost avant-garde in its refusal to be entertaining. Grade: F

coraline

The intrinsic claustrophobia of stop-motion animation lends itself to this tale of a little girl who flees entrapment in an ordinary life only to risk imprisonment in a far more fantastic one. The movie is essentially one hundred minutes of great texture and atmosphere—which, while compelling enough, ultimately aren't a substitute for good storytelling. Grade: B

December 22, 2008

yes man

Stop me if you've heard this one: It's a Jim Carrey movie where the star lives in a world comprised entirely of counterfeit coincidences and cardboard friends with whom he shares no evident affinity and who stampede through scenes only to bark-reiterate the premise before vanishing in a rampage of bad editing. Grade: C-

December 20, 2008

benjamin button

David Fincher's fantasia on F. Scott Fitzgerald's fantasia on love and death is by turns music box and snow globe—expensive, elaborate, tranfixingly cool to the touch. The homilies are folksy but spun from the finest nanofiber. A consummate prestige production: middlebrow, lyrical, finally moving. Grade: B

December 16, 2008

the day the earth stood still

The kind of posturing high-tone sci-fi message movie where a tastefully muted color palette is no substitute for listless storytelling and autopilot performances from the dead-eyed leads. Grade: C+

December 2, 2008

australia

Baz Luhrmann tempers his more pop-operatic impulses to present some simulacrum of an Old Hollywood historical epic; only, denuded of the director's typical flourishes, the safety-scissors tearjerker exhibits more pastiche than sweep. There are lyrical bits and pieces but they mostly resonate because they suggest better films. On its own, Australia is eventful but seldom impactful—the picturesque portrait of middlebrow entertainment. And maybe it's just me—and as pretty as they individually are—but Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman have about as much chemistry as an ostrich and a giraffe. Grade: B

November 30, 2008

slumdog millionaire

Magic realism wrapped in gritty vérité. Brutal and big-hearted. A bouquet of fresh faces. Grade: B+

November 15, 2008

quantum of solace

Marc Forster, some of whose previous movies I've seen but am presently at a loss to recall the contents of, is clearly uncomfortable with the demands of kitchen-sink action overdrive—executing early set pieces with a visual robo-stutter that squanders every expensive shot and renders the lavish devastation skullfuckingly painful to watch. He seems to calm down somewhat in the later going, or the second unit becomes more assertive, and the movie settles into a crashsploitative rhythm while sporadically attempting to recover the plot—but unfortunately not before a sequence wherein … erm, "operatic" violence is … staged around and intercut with scenes from … an actual opera. Daniel Craig glares, Judi Dench glowers, Mathieu Amalric goggles, Jeffrey Wright grimaces, Olga Kurylenko and Gemma Arterton ARE REALLY HOT RIGHT NOW and … roll credits (no fatties). Grade: C+

November 8, 2008

changeling

Director Clint Eastwood brings his trademark "spare" (gloomy) style to a period melodrama that, superficial similarities to the likes of L.A. Confidential aside, actually has more in common in its execution with supernatural horror than deco noir. The almost unspeakably gruesome crime spree that haunts the film also threatens, at times, to derail it—but a strong supporting cast keeps the proceedings rooted in the human dimension. In the lead role Angelina Jolie certainly looks the part: a doe-eyed, cloche-hatted Edward Hopper subject sprung lusciously to life; and the actress does what she emotionally can with the material; but it's a curiously subdued embodiment, dramatized along the periphery of major events—the character floating diffusely through the admittedly convoluted, if gripping, story—reacting here or there but never quite seeming fully motivated, realized or alive. The apparition at the center of Changeling may be a missing child, or his doppelgänger, but it's the heroine who's the ghost. And maybe that's the idea. Grade: B

October 26, 2008

w.

Insofar as Oliver Stone's W. is as disappointing a film as its namesake is a president, the exercise may be said to sustain some sort of meta exegetic verisimilitude. On its own terms, however, the movie simply doesn't rise to the level of its constituent talents. The screenplay frequently feels like a series of familiar leftist-blog snarking points, and Stone's movie-of-the-week direction and the chintzy production values don't do much to enrich or inform that impression. The supporting cast is an embarrassment of riches: clearly numerous purported "liberal media elite" wanted to take part in this barn-burning; but in the absence of either historical sweep or topical immediacy, the film feels strangely becalmed, stranded in some basic-cable Bermuda Triangle. What little Stone does to enliven the proceedings—portraying Texans through a haze of gluttony that recalls the final line of George Orwell's Animal Farm—just feels lazy and passive aggressive. Only Thandie Newton's monster-in-the-closet creepshow portrayal of Condoleezza Rice—suggesting she wandered in from a Michael Jackson video directed by Tim Burton, and rendering Jennifer Jason Leigh's Kate Hepburn riff in The Hudsucker Proxy a lithium stupor by comparison—aspires to a level of oddball hatchetry that, failing authenticity, sustains amusement. You almost wish she and Dubya could have starred in their own hyper-hypo office-stalker rom-com, away from the dour demands of pseudo-factual rectitude. Grade: C-

October 12, 2008

body of lies

Body of Lies is distinguished not so much by what's onscreen as who's behind the scenes: Ridley Scott—no stranger to this terrain, having covered it both exceptionally (Black Hawk Down) and with qualifications (the sumptuous but narratively challenged Kingdom of Heaven). Lies doesn't straddle those efforts; it's more interested in bridging Syriana and the later Bourne movies. Its ultimate failure to do so, given its pedigree, is a sticking point. While Scott's participation ensures that the performers and locales are more specific and vivid than Hollywood's usual "over there" fare, the episodic and occasionally preachy screenplay could really just as easily have been rendered by the more bombastic Scott-eur, Tony, in generic "prestige" mode. The result is a serviceable but forgettable political thriller—although Mark Strong deserves notice for his sleek, imperious supporting turn as a Jordanian superspook whose charismatic scene-stealing presence only serves to underscore that the film is bent on following the wrong leads. Grade: B-

September 27, 2008

the duchess

Keira Knightley is ingratiatingly courtly-coltish in this period potboiler that hits all its drawing-room marks without spilling its watercolors anywhere you wouldn't expect. Grade: B

burn after reading

More masturbation than Oscar bait, this nevertheless cheerful Coen brothers wank (until it reliably segues toward their trademark violence and paranoia) is so arch, and the various and multitalented performers so on the wavelength of that weirdness with their every odd line reading and subtle one-point-five-take reactions that unless one can also subscribe to that frequency, the whole po-mo throwback clever-serviceable trifle may bounce right off one's perceptual atmosphere, so shallow is the angle of entry. But I enjoyed it: in one eyeball and out the other. Laughs were plentiful. Grade: B

August 31, 2008

traitor

Moribund mishmash of the usual us-versus-them(-but-we're-more-alike-than-we-realize) political thriller tropes sidelines its capable headliners in favor of leaning too heavily on the same four or five swarthy day players who tend to portray the Tom, Dick and Harari in every example of this demi-genre. The story is well-meaning but insipid, hedging its stereotypes with politically correct sermons while the plot trudges toward the only surprise in the entire movie—an almost Flannery O'Connor-ish turnabout that feels airlifted in from one of the Saw movies. The twist is presumably meant to register as poetically just and profound; instead it wrings some much-needed laughs from an otherwise glum, dumb current-events lecture. Grade: C-

August 16, 2008

tropic thunder

The trouble with lavishly overproduced satires about how expensive and not that good most Hollywood blockbusters are is that the takeoffs frequently end up being expensive and not that good themselves. And so it is with Ben Stiller's latest sendup. To his ongoing credit, he helms the comedy with visual wit and an eye for detail that few of his peers aspire to. To his discredit, he's essentially mounted a series of steroidal MTV Movie Awards sketches, episodic and discrete. The sense of compartmentalization extends to the performances, where every headliner is given his own carefully tended plot of scenery to chew over and over-chew. Even Tom Cruise's vaunted "loose, funny" prosthetics-reliant cameo as a studio honcho is essentially a meta prank banking on the audience's awareness that the star is in on the joke for a change, and not really that amusing on its own grating one-note terms. Ultimately Tropic Thunder ends up feeling as phony and self-indulgent as the industry it parodies. Its bark may be Dolby Digital Surround EX, but the bite is all veneers. Grade: C

August 9, 2008

pineapple express

At this point reefer-movie madness is suitably pandemic that it may be time to reconsider the meaning of the term potboiler. Pineapple Express nevertheless manages to feel fresh and funny for the majority of its running time. The story's coked-up weedy rhythms cross-pollinate the verisimilitude of Out of Sight with the manic intensity of the first Kill Bill, with Seth Rogen and James Franco sustaining a believable, dewy dude-on-dude chemistry that mostly sidesteps the more predictable gay-panic tropes (with one gratuitous exception). If anything belies the loose anything-goes sensibility, it's that some of the exchanges, while still uproarious, have a slightly worked-over sketch-comedy feel. Still, a laugh's a laugh, especially in the heat of August. Grade: B+

July 19, 2008

the dark knight

Much as Bruce Wayne knows what he must become by the time The Dark Knight has fully visited its devastation, so does director Christopher Nolan know what this summer blockbuster must be—bearing not just the usual comic book tent pole considerations, but also the burden of a talented actor's abbreviated legacy and the high standard set by Nolan's own Batman Begins: a riveting spectacle for the multiplexes, and an object lesson in morality for the masses. Does the movie occasionally gloss over contrivance and coincidence? Sure. Does any of that end up mattering in the face of a franchise behemoth executed with this much precision and skill, juggling shattering set pieces and intimate character arcs with complete assurance? Not even a little bit. The themes are operatic, the rising sense of panic and dread tidal in their force; and Heath Ledger unleashes his own tsunami as a Joker who's basically as stone-evil as a misbegotten creature can be and still have both feet rooted firmly, grimly to the ground. Grade: A

July 16, 2008

the golden army

At this point the breadth and depth of Guillermo del Toro's raw talent are undeniable. He's been reliably elevating pulp to pop art since he left his mark on 2002's shoulda-been-forgettable Blade II. His ability to elicit wonder and joy via the sorts of set pieces that many of his peers increasingly execute on autopilot, and to continually present visual effects in ways that feel fresh and tactile in an era of impersonal, overblown spectacle (where "wonders tend never to cease," to borrow a phrase Owen Gleiberman once used to describe feature animation), are rare gifts. Hellboy II is packed with enough technical flourishes to nourish several summer blockbusters; indeed, the eye-popping density of some shots occasionally borders on the exhausting; however, it speaks to some achievement that the imagery frequently registers as gorgeous despite the director's proclivity for poop-creatures, vagina-dentata face-huggers, tumor babies and orifice anxiety. The inventiveness almost makes up for what is otherwise a routine story, affectionately if predictably plotted. Also predictable: del Toro's upcoming Hobbit adaptation is going to set a new standard for mainstream fantasy entertainment. Grade: B+

June 28, 2008

wall·e

Arguably the truest example of "pure cinema" I've seen in my adult life. That it manages to be completely accessible, completely engaging, never boring, never cold, is as much a testament to the sophistication of its technical and artistic underpinnings as it is to the timeless virtues of this simplest of love stories. It's a miracle that events set against environmental apocalypse, the vacuum of space and the pristine surfaces of an automated post-consumer hyperstructure can support an adventure with this much character and, yes, heart. It's almost beside the point that the film is typically Pixar-packed with clever details and encyclopedic references: when its corroded-metal hero and and sleek polymer heroine come together, cooing each other's names in simple, adoring electronic tones, the whole knowing universe falls away. Grade: A

wanted

The director may be Russian, the star may be British, but there's something completely American about everyone's favorite Ayn Rand-reading tattoo aficionado Angelina Jolie firing a gat. Fight Club's dark humor collides with the Wachowski Brothers school of cartoon physics in an agreeably frenetic (but never out of control) shoot-em-up about self-improvement through panic attacks and exploding rats. Just watch out for those moral boomerangs. Grade: B

June 21, 2008

get smart

Remember that episode of The Office where Michael Scott wrote a screenplay for a thriller entitled Threat Level: Midnight, envisioning himself as the star? Get Smart is basically that movie, only with Anne Hathaway instead of Catherine Zeta-Jones. Grade: B-

June 15, 2008

the incredible hulk

Hiring lettered Hollywood superego Ed Norton to portray the quintessential Marvel Comics id is what's known as interesting casting—and it basically works, although the role doesn't necessarily demand much from the polyvariously skilled thespian. In a sense, director Louis Leterrier and screenwriter Zak Penn have fashioned a leaner, meaner take on the growly green giant that is itself all id. Whereas Ang Lee's 2003 reimagining was well-meaning but misbegotten—pensive and painterly in its approach to a genre that thrives on quick cuts and broad strokes—the now-Incredible Hulk is almost entirely delivered via second-act set pieces and minimal fussy character development or internal conflict. And while Lee practically oozed disdain for his source material with his highfalutin Shakespearian flourishes and Freudian obsessions, Leterrier dispenses his bumps and jolts with workmanlike efficiency—pausing occasionally to pay sly respect to the franchise's forbears. There isn't much in the way of depth or nuance to this do-over, but it also manages not to be boring or overtly preposterous for nearly two hours—which is a qualified success in its own right. (PS. Bruce Banner? The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants called. They want their Mom Jeans back.) Grade: B

June 9, 2008

prince caspian

I think a more truthful subtitle might have been, Jesus Fuck, Will Aslan Just Show Up Already? The absence of the lion king from much of the plot's machinations (spoiler: he spends most of the tale hiding offscreen in the forest like a ... well, like a huge pussy) is a buzzkill, and establishes this second entry in the wannabe-epic Narnia franchise as the "war movie" of the bunch—deliberately devoid of the earlier film's sporadic enchantments, offering day-for-night palace intrigue in their stead. It's worth noting that the sequel retains its predecessor's general ABC Family hokiness, so that aforesaid sequences of faux-dark plotting and scheming frequently register as a Golan-Globus gloss on Shekhar Kapur's Elizabethan England. That's the other thing about Caspian: it inexplicably looks cheaper than The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. The computer-generated flora and fauna are blurrier, the battlements rubberier, the acting more wooden. Well, that last quibble isn't really a technical shortcoming, although it's difficult to apply the word "artistic" to Ben Barnes' performance as the titular liege, even when describing its utter failure thereof. The actor's limited emotional range and hammy pan-European accent make it unclear whether he's dueling to reclaim his throne or merely auditioning to be Paris Hilton's next fiancé. Even a tantalizing non-canonical appearance by Tilda Swinton's White Witch fails to enliven the proceedings. The plain fact of this installment is that the marginal source material has been so overburdened by the demands of summer blockbuster warfare that the story's human elements, and indeed the likable young quartet at its center, become completely lost amidst the listless, relentless and interchangeable scenes of pixelated battle. Next time, less action, more acting please. Grade: C+

June 7, 2008

you don't mess with the zohan

Sunny absurdism, replete with an assist from the peerless Robert Smigel, elevates this Adam Sandler vehicle beyond the usual bland ambitions of his oeuvre, although the star's typical perfunctory storytelling rhythms ultimately bring the production back down to earth. A cheerful, if overlong, exercise in Borat lite. Grade: B-

May 31, 2008

sex and the city

Professional film critics have understandably exhibited a jaundiced attitude toward this feature-length continuation of the HBO serial. On standalone terms, and to the uninitiated, the movie version of Sex and the City often registers as arrhythmic—awkwardly edited, with intermittent interruptions by seemingly inscrutable minor characters. But of course the production, despite its rough edges, is intended as a glossy valentine to the show's fans, and bearing that baggage in mind, it's a reasonably crowd-pleasing, or at least crowd-respecting, exercise that manages, for the most part, not to fix what wasn't necessarily broken to begin with in the eyes of its core audience. The transition to a larger format doesn't always work, with some of the series' themes and attitudes attaining a new stridency in the upscaling, but for the most part it's an uneven but satisfying confection. Ironically, this steroidal drag-ball of a chick flick may end up being the ultimate critic-proof summer blockbuster—or as Kim Cattrall's Samantha Jones might pun: cockbuster. Grade: B

May 26, 2008

kingdom of the crystal skull

Watching post-millennial Spielberg riff on fin-de-siècle Spielberg is good fun, and revisiting Indiana Jones and company, however belatedly, is a welcome nostalgia trip; but something has definitely been lost along the way. Gone is the earlier films' undercurrent of mortality—the invigorating tension between popcorn inspiration and weightier philosophical considerations that elevated the Saturday-matinée adventures to full-fledged pop culture mythology. Instead, we now have a protagonist who can withstand ground-zero atomic blasts and successive spills over multiple deadly waterfalls with the resilience and nonchalance of a video game character. Frustratingly, the ingredients for a more satisfying story are all present: the Cold War, weapons of mass destruction, the archeological imperative to preserve the past versus the threat of political expediency to destroy the future—literally tied together with a ribbon of species-consciousness-raising alien intervention; only no one seems to have bothered to assemble the pieces. The resulting absence of any real stakes reaches its apotheosis during an anticlimax where the vaguely menacing bad guys are essentially nonplussed into oblivion by the irritatingly obtuse extra-terrestrials in a sequence that's the visual-effects equivalent of word salad. Cheerful and inconsequential, this latest franchise outing is ultimately, for better and for worse, a pleasant letdown. Grade: B-

May 11, 2008

speed racer

With apologies to Dolly Parton: It takes a lot of money to look this cheap. For all of Speed Racer's visual ambition, and what I'm sure was the the Wachowski Brothers' deeply internalized and groundbreaking conceptual approach to rendering live action according to anime aesthetics, the plain fact of its execution is that when you sacrifice depth of field and and saturate every color to the point of chromatic bloodshed, the resulting clutter is invariably chintzy. That said, and despite its problematic pacing, the movie does intermittently achieve the kind of brute-force pop potency that its filmmakers surely intended—even managing to induce an almost synesthetic trance during its climax that borders on physical exhilaration. Grade: C+

May 3, 2008

iron man

A crowd-pleasing kickoff to the summer blockbuster season and a solid franchise starter. Reliably hits all the origin-story moral-courage-awakening notes, enlivened by playful star turns and director Jon Favreau's palpable presentation of the physics and pitfalls of iron manhood. Grade: B+

April 13, 2008

smart people

Dumb movie. Grade: D+

April 5, 2008

the bank job

Efficient, unpretentious filmmaking with some surprisingly graphic twists and an unexpectedly poignant finish. Cool and fun. Jason Statham is an elegant thug. Grade: B

March 28, 2008

21

This would-be caper about gaming the system is so predictable, and its story so by-the-numbers, that its numeric title itself serves as a sort of weak meta commentary. Here's another number for ya: 1985. That's the approximate vintage of most of the character arcs and plot points. I mean, fuck, there's even a robot. A goddamn robot! And it wins a prize! Director Robert Luketic's helmsmanship is slick the way dog shit is slick. Grade: C-

March 16, 2008

miss pettigrew lives for a day

All surfaces, but what surfaces. A tremendous display of technical facility in front of and behind the camera. If you can tolerate frenetic, meticulously choreographed period farce, and a story that glides like it's on rails, there are simple pleasures to be derived from this jazz-age fantasy set in London on the eve of the Second World War. Grade: B

February 24, 2008

vantage point

The audience I saw this purported political thriller with was in nonstop stitches once the extent of the movie's inept narrative gimmick became fully apparent. (Without giving too much away, let's just say it borrows liberally from the conceits of both Groundhog Day and Dave. It's worth pointing out that those films were intentionally and successfully comedic; Vantage Point falls into a different, campier category.) In the hands of a more skilled technician—say Ridley Scott, Paul Greengrass, Phillip Noyce; Brian De Palma on a good day—this series of preposterous shenanigans and ill-used A-list acting talent just might have been credibly executed despite its facile and ultimately nonsensical interpretation of geopolitics; but in television director Pete Travis' hands it's literally the celluloidal equivalent of the multi-car pileup that serves as a hastily knotted conclusion to the story's rat's nest of loose ends. Grade: D+

February 23, 2008

be kind rewind

I didn't want to like this Frank Capra fable for the YouTube set; this populist cannonade across the ramparts of the filmmaking establishment; this hipster subversion of intellectual property mores and celebration of every denomination of mass culture; this preciously analog take on what is largely a digital phenomenon; but like the imperative at the very center of its title—BE KIND—it eventually won me over with its glad heart and irresistible fondness for the very medium it lovingly deconstructs. At one point a character even suggests that we, as an audience, become "stockholders" in our own happiness through the act of participating in, and creating, the art that we adore. And any movie that evokes The Purple Rose of Cairo by giving us the gift of Mia Farrow's rapt expression as she watches a film within a film already has too many odds in its favor for me to maintain much cynicism in its presence. As for its technical merits, Gondry is up to his usual perception-warping tricks, to comic and moving effect. If the schmaltz gets thick at all, it's only near the very end, by which time the preceding hundred minutes have made a lasting impression. Grade: B+

February 16, 2008

jumper

Imagine if Renny Harlin had directed Time Bandits. Basically a ninety-minute continuity error. Grade: C-

February 3, 2008

le scaphandre et le papillon

Deeply moving story, intriguingly shot by Janusz Kaminski. Given the Julian Schnabel imprimatur, I was expecting un peu plus surrealism and un peu moins literal emotional telegraphy, but accomplished filmmaking nevertheless. Max von Sydow in particular delivers a heartbreaking turn in a minor supporting role. Grade: B+

January 19, 2008

cloverfield

Ne plus ultra presentation, fin de siècle characters and story. Grade: B

January 6, 2008

there will be blood

I wasn't gobsmacked. I came away wondering what someone like Terrence Malick would have done with the same material. Treason, I know. Grade: B

December 22, 2007

charlie wilson's war

Your usual Mike Nichols affair—high-wattage cast, quality dialog, vaguely stagy mise en scène and slightly quaint politics cut with a reliable sardonicism. It's a pleasant, if slight, portrait of an interesting juncture in American diplomacy with obvious repercussions to this day. Minor quibble: did Julia Roberts acquire her steel magnolia schtick by studying Melanie Griffith in The Bonfire of the Vanities? I mean, it's not a performance that detracts from the movie by any means ... it's just a little ... regional-theater Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Know what I'm sayin'? I'll shut up now. Grade: B

December 21, 2007

i am legend

Like I, Robot before it, this 28 Days Later-Castaway hybrid is a Will Smith vehicle with a little bit more on its mind than the average blockbuster. That said, and as able, if unexceptional, as Francis Lawrence's direction is, there simply isn't that much story here. Much like its abandoned environments, the movie is expensively empty. It's a lavish vignette, a Twilight Zone episode pumped up just enough to justify a theatrical presentation. Nevertheless, a very decent outing for all concerned, although I did find the flashbacks to be somewhat awkwardly integrated. Nice Emma Thompson cameo, by the way. Grade: B

December 9, 2007

the golden compass

Ambitious, lavish, uneven, frustrating. The first act is pure tedious exposition; the second act more confusing mythology punctuated by awesome bear fights; and the third act thrilling but curiously abridged, suggesting sequels that will now surely never materialize. Grade: B

November 16, 2007

southland tales

A tedious orgy of bong-hit philosophizing and warmed-over eighth-derivative cyberpunk. Practically unwatchable. Grade: F

October 16, 2007

the heartbreak kid

Grade: D

October 14, 2007

the golden age

Grade: B-

October 4, 2007

michael clayton

Grade: A-

October 2, 2007

blade runner: the final cut

Grade: A

September 19, 2007

king of california

Grade: B

September 14, 2007

across the universe

Grade: C

September 12, 2007

in the shadow of the moon

Grade: A-

August 3, 2007

the bourne ultimatum

Essentially an extended, and excellent, action sequence—except for the unnecessarily expository third act. Nevertheless, a satisfying pseudo-conclusion to the Bourne series. Grade: B+

July 30, 2007

sunshine

Typical Danny Boyle genre exercise, by turns beautiful and ponderous. Alex Garland's script somehow manages to come across as overthought without making a lick of sense. I think I would have preferred it if the sci-fi had remained hard and the metaphysics had remained in the margins. As it stands, the movie's velvet goldmine vision of space travel gets muddled amidst the unwelcome trappings of psychological horror. Grade: B-

July 29, 2007

the simpsons movie

Essentially a supersized episode of the television show with lightly upgraded South Korean animation ($75 million sure doesn't go as far as it used to), The Simpsons Movie, while often chuckle-worthy, never achieves the scaled-up grandeur of, say, South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut. Where there should be gonzo joy at the liberation of the big screen, there is instead clever calculation. The canvas may be a little broader but its colors don't run particularly deep. Grade: B-

July 14, 2007

the order of the phoenix

Director David Yates brings an unexpectedly deft touch to the fourth Harry Potter sequel, delivering an entry that ranks second only the inimitable Alfonso Cuarón-driven Prisoner of Azkaban as the franchise's best chapter. Grade: B+

July 8, 2007

transformers

Michael Bay's first kid pic. Rest assured, there are still fake breasts in them thar hills (albeit clothed), curse words aplenty (albeit only one fleeting f-bomb), wooden, unlikable characters and a screenplay that was apparently written in crayon. Nevertheless, the nostalgia factor is sky high, and the movie's liberal theft of conceits from far better films (Terminator 2 and The Iron Giant to name only a couple) elevates it above the usual Bayhem. Grade: B-

July 3, 2007

ratatouille

Episodic, uneven. Good, not great. Liked it, didn't love it. Grade: B

May 26, 2007

waitress

Sweet indie romcom lays the simple sugars on a bit thick for my palate but it leaves a pleasant enough aftertaste. Grade: B

March 25, 2007

300

Light as a feather, stiff as a board. Grade: C-

March 3, 2007

zodiac

Expensively, meticulously, painstakingly unengaging. Grade: B-

January 6, 2007

el laberinto del fauno

A simple story well presented, although I didn't completely buy the psychic connection between a traumatized girl's fantasies and the brutalities of fascist Spain. Grade: B

December 27, 2006

children of men

Grade: A-

December 26, 2006

the queen

Grade: B+

dreamgirls

Grade: B

November 28, 2006

the fountain

I can't say The Fountain is enough of a misfire to elicit hatred or scorn. It didn't inspire much feeling in me one way or the other. It's competently mounted and mercifully brief, albeit twee and incoherent. I don't see eye-to-eye with a lot of Aronofsky's cinematographic decisions. The visual effects, including the pretentiously hand-tooled cloud-tank depictions of outer space, overreach and often look flat. This is a small, personal film, almost a triptych of one-act plays. If it aspires to depict love as an epic odyssey, interior or otherwise, it falters—suggesting instead claustrophobic monomania. Grade: B-

November 20, 2006

casino royale

Grade: B-

November 8, 2006

borat

It's frequently incredulously funny, albeit one-note and repetitive—and I don't know how much of its vaunted cultural incisiveness is just literal dumb luck. The cinematic framework is perfunctory and unnecessary. Grade: B-

November 5, 2006

volver

Grade: B-

October 29, 2006

marie antoinette

Grade: B

the prestige

Grade: B-

October 8, 2006

the departed

Subdued cat-and-mouse thriller doesn't live up to the hype generated by its principal talents, although it suffices as a solid, if languidly paced, genre exercise. Grade: B-

September 9, 2006

crank

Trashy, hyper-violent action pic wears out its welcome a little too quickly for an eighty minute thrill ride, but the unapologetic silliness, executed with reasonable flair by directors Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor, offers its own repetitive pleasures. The ending is literally a corker. Grade: B-

September 6, 2006

idiocracy

Mike Judge's amiable future-schlock satire is smarter than it looks—bursting with ideas, and plenty funny if you can get past the auteur's basic discomfort with storytelling and mise en scène. An immediately underrated movie. Grade: B

the illusionist

Antique potboiler generates steam until its supernatural pretense gives way to pedestrian narrative gimmickry and an over-reliance on CG. The strapping Jessica Biel is woefully miscast as an Austrian duchess. (Yes, you read that correctly.) I'm looking all the more forward to Christopher Nolan's Prestige. Grade: B-

August 27, 2006

trust the man

Yet another cinematic hand-job about a bunch of over-privileged/under-developed characters whose jerk-off problems nobody cares about. Bart Freundlich, you are no Nicole Holofcener. Also: Billy Crudup has the approximate charisma of a cold sore. Grade: F

July 30, 2006

little miss sunshine

Sloppy, sentimental indie-sitcom pap; Happy, Texas for neurasthenics. Abigail Breslin's one overrated trick is that she can apparently sob convincingly on command; she has a bright future as a trained seal. The script is late-period Douglas Coupland bad. Grade: D

July 29, 2006

lady in the water

A soporific college thesis masquerading as summer entertainment. Shyamalan's idiosyncrasies have degenerated into a sort of creative torpor overrun with wooden characters and, in this instance, topiary monsters. The entire movie is a spoiler. Grade: F

July 12, 2006

a scanner darkly

Richard Linklater's wannabe techno mind-fuck is more of a mind-numb-er, unfolding in a series of the director's typically meandering, talky scenes with little regard for storytelling or logic. If you're in the mood for wanky pseudo-fi, you're far better off renting Vanilla Sky. Grade: C

July 9, 2006

dead man's chest

So long as the swashes buckle and Johnny Depp swishes, this Pirates sequel keeps its head well above water. Unfortunately a second act steeped in murky metaphysics and festooned with hideous, if impressively rendered, Cronenbergian villains strands our main characters along divergent arcs—to be reunited, and the film salvaged, only in the final rundown. That great sagging middle is a waterlogged slog. More Monkey Island whimsy next time, less benthic boogaloo. Grade: B-

July 6, 2006

the devil wears prada

Bitingly funny comedy of manners is buoyed by ingratiating performances and confident direction. The story gallops at such an agreeable clip that you almost don't notice the general absence of character development. Almost. Grade: B

July 1, 2006

superman returns

If The Incredibles, Batman Begins, Spider-Man and X2 have proved that dated superhero concepts can receive thrilling generational makeovers, Bryan Singer's Superman retread proves that no matter how sincere your nostalgia, serving up a self-indulgently paced state-of-the-art facsimile of late-Seventies kitsch is a one-way ticket to camp. (Not that Supes, that most schizoid-gay-stalkerish of superheroes, from his mile-high red platform boots to his all-rubber-external-undergarment aesthetic, needs much help in that area.) Throw in an unsettling absence of internal conflict and a not-ready-for-vaudeville super-villain subplot and you've got Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow minus the kickin' deco production design—i.e., not much to write home about. Grade: C+

June 9, 2006

cars

If Cars had been made by any other studio it would probably have registered marginally higher on my scale, but given that Pixar's films have earned the right to be judged only against one another, Cars must be received as a sincere but miscalculated bore. Even setting aside my complete ignorance of and bewilderment at so-called NASCAR culture, the movie's a clunker—from its sagging midsection to the filmmakers' problematic decision to place their characters in a world that, lacking the necessary context of human habitation, comes across as profoundly lifeless. Throw in a musical interlude that would challenge the harshest Trey Parker parody in its corniness and you've got a proper misfire. Worst of all, a preponderance of fart jokes and immediately dated pop cultural flotsam suggests the unwelcome influence of DreamWorks' bottom-line mentality. Shouldn't it be the other way around? Grade: C+

June 5, 2006

the da vinci code

I'm not that familiar with Dan Brown's novel, although what little I've read of and about it has suggested it's execrable. By that measure, the movie is a distinct improvement, merely plodding, relentlessly expository and episodic. Cinema sometimes completely transcends its literary source material, but this is an Akiva Goldsman-Ron Howard collaboration, so that isn't the case here. Goldsman's screenplay is lazy and literal (it's rare to find footnotes so poorly disguised as dialog outside the realm of Star Trek), Howard's direction square and uninspired. The excellent cast is mostly on autopilot—Ian McKellen does his Ian McKellen impression while Tom Hanks does his Michael Douglas/Harrison Ford impression, while Alfred Molina does his best totem pole impression. Only Paul Bettany and Audrey Tautou seem really alive here, and their commitment to thankless roles energizes what could have been an interesting reworking of the novel's core premise, which is somewhat intriguing if overblown. Grade: B-

June 3, 2006

banlieue 13

There's some top-notch French chop-sockey in the opening scenes of this cheapie actioner—until the Luc Besson-scribed story, such as it is, gets mired in preachy civics and a tortured plot that plays out like a partially rendered video game. The rest, mercifully eighty minutes or so in toto, is an exercise in diminished returns and indifferent direction. But that opening sequence would make a great PS3 cut-scene. Grade: C+

May 31, 2006

the last stand

It took a lot of people to make a movie as multitiered in its awfulness as this one, although the lion's share of the blame goes to "director" B-Rat and "screenwriters" S-Kin and Z-Pen. X3 is a continuity-disabled blight on what has otherwise been a reasonably sharp franchise. It's dumbed-down, bloated and shoddy in a tacky-pricey Stealth way, as though no one could actually be bothered to look at the dailies or hold the entire screenplay in their head or even rent X1 and X2 before birthing this abomination. X3 is so tone-deaf and botched on every level that going into specific details would merely be punishing, besides already having been written up ad nauseam and more eloquently elsewhere. Simply put, shame on everyone for giving this sloppy mess a great opening weekend. You've validated a campaign of ugly marketing and poor creative decisions that will resonate for years to come. (Okay, one specific gripe: Why did so much of this movie remind me of the early-Eighties Disney misfire Condorman in its cheesiness? Was it the oblivious camp surging beneath the wings of the why'd-they-bother character Angel? Hmm. And that's a snowflake on the tip of the iceberg.) Grade: F

May 14, 2006

poseidon

It's difficult to fault an unpretentious disaster flick for unpretentiously delivering destructo-porn sans pesky story or character development. Poseidon is a serviceable mid-Nineties movie of the week, cementing Wolfgang Petersen's status as an expensive hack. It's coherent. It's disposable. It floats. Grade: B-

May 11, 2006

art school confidential

Begins pretty much the way you'd expect a Clowes-Zwigoff collabo to—loose, funny, offbeat. Then the story falls off a cliff, stumbling through a tedious murder-as-commentary-on-art subplot for what feels like several hours—in some ways recalling Cindy Sherman's ill-advised 1997 cinematic foray Office Killer (maybe that's the joke/how's that for a reference); suffice it to say, the movie never recovers. Grade: C-

May 6, 2006

mission: impossible iii

While lacking the grace and economy of Brian De Palma's 1996 franchise outing, J.J. Abrams' contribution to the Impossible Mission canon is sturdy and competent enough not to beg comparison with John Woo's sloppy, florid 2000 entry. M:I:3 is essentially Alias on steroids, replete with an episodic rhythm that suggests commercial breaks but minus Jennifer Garner's unifying charisma. The set pieces are budgetarily spectacular; the emotional connective tissue, however tenuous, is nevertheless tedious. And incidentally, in case it isn't abundantly queer by now, Tom Cruise really cares about the ladies in his life, with whom he constantly has totally spontaneous, unchoreographed sex and who consistently get mixed up in his covert existence … as a spy. Got it? Good. The movie's biggest misfire is Philip Seymour Hoffman. As written, his heralded villainy is so vague and constricted by the demands of Cruise's star turn that he registers with scarcely an iota of the evil reputation that precedes him. He comes across as a churlish petty-psycopath, easily dispatched just in time for the penultimate sponsor identification. Grade: B

April 13, 2006

the science of sleep

If Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind was essentially a seamless movie, story and artistic vision cut from whole cloth, The Science of Sleep is a major step back for Michel Gondry—not an outright debacle along the lines of the director's earlier Human Nature, but nowhere near the accomplishment of his last film. Working from his own screenplay, which is perhaps the entire problem, Gondry presents a love story without any actual love or story—merely characters behaving absurdly against a dissonant, intermittently striking collage of his music video tropes—time slicing, stop-motion animation, oversized hands. It's a vision of cotton-cloud sunsets and yarn unicorns that never snaps into focus, despite the sincere and likable efforts of Gael García Bernal and Charlotte Gainsbourg as the would-be romantic leads. There's just enough to admire here to really regret the absence of a better film. Grade: C+

April 8, 2006

friends with money

Nicole Holofcener's graciously unforced ensemble piece about bourgeois Los Angelinos is loose, funny and surprisingly satisfying for a movie that doesn't really adhere to a conventional cinematic structure. And Jennifer Aniston is fortunately more money than Friends in an uncharacteristically palatable turn as a depressed recent dumpee (heh). The rest of the cast is as good and relatable as expected. Grade: B+

lucky number slevin

Hard-candy noir isn't half as smart and twisty as its numerous and unnecessary voiceovers would suggest, but there's some sweet scenery chewing by Morgan Freeman and an ingratiatingly vivacious turn by Lucy Liu to spice up an otherwise cold dish. (Why is Josh Hartnett starting to remind me of Ashton Kutcher?) Grade: B-

April 1, 2006

basic instinct 2

14 years and a $14 million payday after Sharon Stone moneyshot to stardom in the original Basic Instinct, the actress returns to obliterate her signature character in this comatose sequel. Sure, there's some mild camp to savor—namely Stone barking bitter double entendres in a series of increasingly Muppety drag-ball ensembles, her boobs badly 'jobbed, her trademark smirk reduced to a lopsided Botoxed sneer—but mostly this is a dull, surprisingly sexless movie about a lousy shrink (a doughy David Morrissey) with a great office and a curiously unmotivated fixation on Stone, the latter reduced to a supporting role in her own vehicle. Michael Caton-Jones' dour direction doesn't help, comparing unfavorably with Paul Verhoeven's lurid, seamless stewardship of the first film. If Basic Instinct 2 presents us with anything remotely redolent of graceful aging, it's in the person of Charlotte Rampling, who, despite an even more thankless role, could teach Stone a thing or two about sex and death. Grade: Z

March 28, 2006

16 blocks

Essentially one long set piece, this solid genre pic is the perfect antidote to a rainy afternoon—Mos Def's grating man-child routine notwithstanding. (In terms of serviceable vehicles for aging action idols, this is the kind of movie Firewall should have been.) It's easily director Richard Donner's most competent work since 1994's Maverick. Grade: B

March 24, 2006

inside man

If you can get past Spike Lee's rote racial commentary and a penchant for putting his actors on dollies that's hardened into a visual tic, Inside Man stands as one of the director's more accessible movies. The plot is admittedly transparent and the story overstays its welcome by about forty minutes, but the cast is outstanding—particularly Jodie Foster in a confident, ingratiating turn as a high-class fixit woman. The only full-on miss here is Terence Blanchard's bleating score. It compromises every scene it intrudes upon. Grade: B

March 17, 2006

v for vendetta

Schlocky, stilted and didactic until it finds its Baz Luhrmann-meets-1984 doesn't-know-it's-a-musical musicality, and then it's a guilty pleasure. The usual Wachowski caveats apply: terrible college-dissertation dialog, particularly in scenes where characters debate each other dryly rather than have actual conversations, and a certain unrelenting fetish for gender-dissociative violence. V is basically Evita with a bang—a baroque, dated, contradictory, problematically compelling extended pop-operatic video. It's not exactly good, but it has some sweeping movements. Grade: B-

February 27, 2006

firewall

The only thing Hitchcockian about this alleged thriller is its omnipresently bad blue-screening, recalling rear-projection distractions of yore. Harrison Ford slaps a piece of bologna into a greasy envelope and mails it in fourth class past a series of lazy setups and bloated, disinterested villains that makes 1994's Disclosure look like The Matrix. Speaking of the mid-Nineties, there are times when Firewall feels like some sort of time shifting experiment wherein Irwin Winkler directs the script for Panic Room in the style of The Net, replete with listlessly unconvincing techno-speak and borderline-Socratic expository dialog. If these comparisons don't make much sense, it's because the movie is muddled and doesn't seem all that interested in its premise—or any premise beyond Ford's backend, really. The venerable action figure officially enters his late period here. If Indy 4 ever alights, it may be (or, perhaps, may it be) his swan song. Grade: F

February 11, 2006

tristram shandy

Michael Winterbottom's po-mo meta-adaptation of the titular novel is good for a few laughs thanks to an ingratiating cast and a pace that's simultaneously leisurely and spare. That said, this is at best an upgraded variant of the Jarmusch school of wankery or, more generously, a glorified episode of Extras. It's not cinema. Grade: B-

January 7, 2006

match point

Rumors of Woody Allen's Hitchcockian triumph have been somewhat exaggerated—almost as exaggerated as ScoJo's grating, mommy's-high-heels sexpot routine—but with its ingratiatingly shtick-free observations about class and a genuine corker of a twist ending, Match Point is easily the most entertaining Woody Allen movie in years. Grade: B

December 26, 2005

brokeback mountain

Overlong and somewhat unfocused, Brokeback Mountain works best as a searing character study, as well as a sweeping portrait of the way longing and denial transcend societal boundaries. Heath and Jake are, of course, fine, but the unexpected standouts are Michelle Williams, Anne Hathaway and Linda Cardellini in flinty supporting roles that, underwritten as they are, simmer with heartbreak and anger. Prudes/prurients dreading/anticipating hot cowboy-on-boy action will likely be disappointed with Ang Lee's customarily square, self-important direction. Aside from a few brief grunts and some light petting, the film's central coupling is handled with a retrograde chasteness that will arouse, at best, an MTV Movie Awards parody featuring Johnny Knoxville and Seann William Scott. Grade: B

December 19, 2005

pride & prejudice

Keira Knightley is expectedly luverly but I may have to recuse myself from commenting on the movie as a whole. Truth is, I find Jane Austen's drawing-room sensibility to be so overstuffed with innumerable sighs and a general, unrelenting "chaise-longueur" that I am frequently rendered narcoleptic in the presence of her work. And it's not like I'm some dude's-dude, "Movies For Guys Who Like Movies"-TiVoing adrenaline addict. Epistolary handwringing just strikes me as an un-cinematic motivation for romantic intrigue. Okay, I'm a boor. Grade: B-

king kong

You know how in Barbra Streisand movies there's always that scene where the male lead pulls Babs aside and literally forces her to acknowledge her alleged beauty? (PS. I don't watch Barbra Streisand movies.) I got the feeling watching King Kong that Peter Jackson was working out similar childhood self-image issues. For starters, in this version, Ann Darrow doesn't just feel reluctant pity for the great ape; she unequivocally wants to jump his monkey bones. I'm not exaggerating. Either Ann rolled some E on the way to Skull Island or she has the inter-species hots something fierce. (This despite the fact that Kong keeps biting the heads off her friends. What an asshole.) Her interaction with Kong is punctuated with the kinds of orgasmic moans and sighs one usually encounters in the clip reels of George Clooney's ex-girlfriends. And earlier in the film, a major point is made of Adrien Brody's physical unattractiveness as Darrow's potential (and subsequently sidelined) human love interest. If Jackson inexplicably deviates from the cherished Kong of his youth in some ways (do we really need an extra ninety minutes of repetitive digital lizard/bug brawls and fetishistic immersion in CG effluvia?), he pays misguided "homage" to the film in other ways—e.g., directing his cast to hammy acting suicide (excepting Jack Black, whose inability to deliver dialog without air quotes is merely a congenital defect) and larding the visual effects with smug, expensive winks to the limitations of the original film. (Personal beef: is the green-screening jarringly atrocious on purpose or the result of rushed postproduction?) I could go on, but basically King Kong is so belabored, so tone-deaf and so unrelentingly botched that I'm absolutely mystified by the raves it's been receiving from critics. Maybe they rolled some E on the way to Skull Island too. Grade: C

syriana

Stephen Gaghan's clearly an intelligent guy, but the sophistication he exhibits here elevates him to Steven Zaillian-status in my mind. And just like Zaillian's classy, underrated A Civil Action, Syriana isn't getting nearly the kudos it deserves. Merging the informed immediacy of a documentary with the fit and finish of big-budget cinema is a rare achievement. Syriana is a study in cool, compassionate filmmaking. (Also: will someone please nominate Jeffrey Wright for an Oscar already?) Grade: A-

the chronicles of narnia

Grade: B-

aeon flux

Grade: F

kiss kiss bang bang

Grade: D

the dying gaul

Grade: B