Friday, August 15, 2014

Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

Forgettable fun. 

I’ve said before that I don’t really care for action movies. I should probably rephrase. I don’t care for movies that feature big action scenes unless backed by a good story, compelling characters, and believable dialogue. I’ve seen some great action movies this summer (X-Men: Days of Future Past; Dawn of the Planet of the Apes) and I’ve seen some bad ones (Godzilla; Transformers: Age of Extinction). Guardians of the Galaxy falls somewhere in between.

It’s 1988 and young Peter Quill’s mother has just died. Filled with grief, he races out of the hospital and, for reasons unknown, is suddenly abducted and taken to space. Now, twenty-six years later, Quill is a space-roving bounty hunter of sorts, finding artifacts and selling them to the highest bidder. On one such quest, Quill comes across a mysterious orb that is highly sought after by the villainous Ronan, who is determined to use the orb’s power to destroy the universe. After a haphazard series of events, Quill ends up in prison and forms a bond with four other prisoners. There’s the assassin Gamora, seeking to avenge her parent’s death, the anthropomorphic raccoon Rocket and his talking, tree-creature sidekick Groot, and the violent and volatile Drax, determined to make the killer of his wife and daughter pay. These characters each have their own motivations but they all share the same goals: find Ronan, get the orb, save the galaxy.

When setting up a science fiction movie, it is necessary to set up rules: the way the universe runs, the creatures that inhabit it, the sci-fi “laws” of what is possible and what isn’t. But Guardians doesn’t bother with the details, instead thrusting the audience into a new world with no explanation, no rules, and the feeling that anything is possible. That might sound fun, but it presents a huge problem cinematically. In a world without boundaries, it’s near-impossible to portray any real danger or conflict. Sure, the villainous Ronan is powerful, but that’s okay! Our not-so-super-heroes can actually do anything! This problem is most apparent in the action scenes. Because anything can happen in this universe, it’s hard to feel that the characters are ever truly in peril. As a result, giant action scenes feel boring and arbitrary, necessary only to propel a fairly weak plot.

The visuals, however, are pretty fantastic. Alien character design is unique, space technology is impressive, and the special effects are awesome. An arrow-like weapon that dispatched an entire horde of enemies in seconds induced “wow's.” The fleet of Nova Corps airships that bond together to create an impenetrable wall is extremely impressive.

In addition to its stunning visuals, the film makes you fall in love with its characters. Chris Pratt, known for his comedic character-acting easily slips into his first leading-man role, giving a truly star-making performance as the kind-hearted, wisecracking Quill. Bradley Cooper’s personality is on full display in the voice of the hilariously irreverent Rocket Raccoon. WWE wrestler Dave Batista plays the straight man incredibly well, his character incapable of understanding metaphors. “Nothing goes over my head,” he growls. “My reflexes are too fast.”

But while you care about the characters, their development lacks severely. One moment the bunch is at odds, the next, they are partners. Another moment they all hate each other, the next, they are an unstoppable team of super friends. Getting from here to there is clearly of no concern to the filmmakers, who figure you’ll be so caught up in the pure comedic joy and fun, you won’t stop to notice that everything is very rushed. They’re mostly right.

Perhaps the film’s main highlight is its soundtrack. It features several classic hits from the 70’s and 80’s, superbly setting the film’s overall tone. It’s light, it’s fun, and it never takes itself too seriously. From “Hooked on a Feeling” to “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” I was tapping my toes throughout the film.

I was surprised by the amount of ribald content in this “family-friendly” Disney movie. Characters parade around in skimpy outfits, make obscene gestures towards one another, and use a fair amount of profanity, including lots of sexual slang and euphemisms. It’s definitely the edgiest of the Marvel superhero films to date.

At one point, Drax asks Quill what happens next. Quill's response is an unintentional summary of the film: "Something bad. Something good. A little bit of both." Guardians doesn’t raise any important life questions or beg any contemplation or thought. But you won’t care: it’s ridiculously entertaining to watch. Although you’ll probably forget about it moments after leaving the theater.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

The Fault in Our Stars (2014)

"That’s the thing about pain. It demands to be felt."

*Spoilers Ahead*

This, one of the opening lines of The Fault in Our Stars, foreshadows what's in store. It pains—immensely. But amidst the pain there is also purpose.

Hazel Grace Lancaster (Shailene Woodley) is a cancer patient. She's not in any immediate risk of death, but the stage IV cancer that ravaged her lungs left her severely weakened, her ability to breathe made difficult without the help of a nasal cannula. Augustus Waters (Ansel Elgort) is a cancer survivor. Aside from the fact that he hobbles about on a prosthetic metal leg, his bout with the disease left him mostly unscathed. Hazel and Gus meet at a cancer support group and quickly begin a friendship, bonding over their mutual love for Hazel's favorite book, "An Imperial Affliction." Their friendship quickly deepens and their mutual attraction is apparent. But Hazel, understanding that the experimental drug that is keeping her lungs working will likely fail one day, is hesitant to form any deep relationships in her life. Gus, on the other hand, wants nothing more than to love and be loved.

Unlike most young adult adaptations that have been recently rushed into theaters, The Fault in Our Stars features no zombies, vampires, werewolves, or dystopian government regimes. Instead, it focuses on the struggles of the hero and heroine who battle with perhaps an even greater foe—the ever-present shadow of death. While experiencing the illness may be unfamiliar to the audience, the struggles wrestled with are widely relatable. Gus grapples with his fear of oblivion, worrying that he will become meaningless in the grand scheme of existence. Hazel fears opening up to others, afraid of committing to love, worried that when the grenade of her life finally explodes all she will leave behind is devastation.

As the characters grow in affection for each other, they help each other to process their fears. Gus illustrates to Hazel that her emotional isolation deprives her of genuine affection without protecting anybody. In turn, she helps him to come to grips with the fact that his life may never reach Mozart-level proportions of fame.

Although The Fault in Our Stars stays quite faithful to John Green's novel of the same name, some subplots were omitted—the swing-set sold on Craigslist was the most disappointing—and some of the less tidy elements of the book were trimmed. Gone is the back-story of Gus's previous romance, the tension between Gus and his parents over the trip to Amsterdam, and some of Hazel's darker emotional moments. These omissions make the movie neater, less complicated, but also less realistic, weakening its impact.

Similar to the novel, the characters are wise beyond their years, precocious in their dialogue. As a result, they sometimes sound too clever for their own good. These portrayals seemed rather unrealistic to me, the dialogue coming off at times as too smart or downright cheesy. Gus places an unlit cigarette between his lips and declares, "It's a metaphor, see: you put the killing thing right between your teeth, but you don't give it the power to do its killing." His lines demonstrate an idealized view of the intellect of youth, the way young people see themselves and truly want to be. But it works for their characters, and as the movie progresses, their clever expressiveness becomes less and less distracting and more endearing.

Morality is a murky subject in The Fault in Our Stars. Drawing a diagram in the sand, Gus bemoans his virginity. The big circle, he says, represents 18-year-old virgins; inside it is an even tinier one—representing 18-year-old virgins missing a leg. Gus and Hazel's attraction grows and so does their physical intimacy. Hand-holding and hugging soon turn into kissing. And before you know it, both are awkwardly consummating their relationship, a tangle of oxygen tubes and prosthetics. Their encounter begs applause: a cheer for these two imperfect beings finding true love. But beneath the manipulation lies the subtext that sex is fine as long as you're in love.

The film will make your eyes water, both during its tragic moments and its sweet ones. Hazel eulogizes Gus at his “pre-funeral” with heartbreaking imagery. As she describes their relationship as just a "tiny infinity," she attacks Gus's fears of oblivion head-on. She teaches him that life is not defined by great notoriety or broad public impact. Hazel tells Gus that even the most famous will be forgotten and reminds him that life is defined by those you love and who love you. That is all that will ever last. The message here isn't groundbreaking, but it's told with incredible poignancy. And though there is tragedy, it’s bittersweet.

The Fault in Our Stars draws you in, forcing you to care about these characters, willing them to find a "happily ever after"—while foreshadowing that this is not meant to be. The pain portrayed on screen is brutally felt by its audience and the film captures this emotion with devastating beauty. You may not feel happy when the credits roll, but you will not feel hopeless.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Boyhood (2014)

A maddening masterpiece. 

I have seen everything that is done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind. (Ecclesiastes 1:14, ESV)

Boyhood is the vivid portrayal of the boy Mason’s (Ellar Coltrane) life over twelve years, from five to seventeen. Living with his mother (Patricia Arquette) and unbearable sister, but spending the weekends with his absentee father (Ethan Hawke), Mason watches as his mom falls in and out of love with several new father figures, struggles with the people and places fading in and out of his life, grapples with his own complacency and lack of purpose, and seeks to find meaning in his life.

Boyhood was long in the making, scenes being shot once a year as Coltrane aged. This fact is, by far, the film’s most impressive offering: it is truly a wonder to watch as Mason grows up on screen, the camera never shying away from his awkward teenage years or his raging acne.

But because of its twelve years, the film is better described by its process than its plot. It offers little in the way of a cohesive story, following no three-act structure, bouncing around from year to year and happenstance to happenstance, without any real purpose or overall story. Characters are introduced, questions are raised, and scenarios are started. Few of these fragments ever find closure; the one story that does reach an ending becomes one of the movie’s cheesiest scenes, grasping—too late—for the audience’s empathy. While the creativity of Boyhood’s concept offers an outrageous amount of potential, the film never capitalizes on it. By the end, I felt like I'd been watching a documentary, not a movie.

Boyhood has its good points. Coltrane shines as Mason in every scene, disappearing into his role. Hawke is phenomenal, and his character’s progression is believable and fascinating. The dialogue is good, always genuine and heartfelt, although unfortunately riddled with strong profanity. There are many story fragments and arcs, some falling flat but others intriguing. The storyline revolving around Mason’s mother’s second husband is the most fascinating; watching Bill transform from occasional drinker to abusive alcoholic is painful, even terrifying, in its realism. The film’s soundtrack is also a highlight. The progression of years is emphasized by the familiar sounds of that year’s hit; from Coldplay’s “Yellow” to Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used to Know” to Arcade Fire’s recent “Deep Blue,” the songs not only encapsulate the mood of the film, but the tenor of the passage of time.

But for all the good, there was even more bad. Two scenes towards the film’s end illustrated its ultimate hopelessness. In one, Mason, recently heartbroken, asks his father, "What is the point of all this?" His impassioned plea for answers only elicits an "I don't know, son." In the other, Mason’s mother bemoans her son’s departure for college. She wails, "I just thought there would be more!" These scenes illustrate the film’s fatal flaw. While the characters continue to age, they never actually grow. They mature, but never become better. They leave the audience without hope.

Mason started the movie as a precocious five-year-old who hates school and has no drive or motivation. Despite the many attempts of those around him, Mason ends the movie as an aimless, complacent 17-year-old, still falling trap to the same patterns that plagued him from his childhood. This is probably what the director intended, to demonstrate that sometimes people are duds, their lives never transcending their own mediocrity.

Watching Boyhood unfold gave me a clear picture of writer and director Richard Linklater’s worldview. In his perception, life doesn’t operate like the movies. Rather, it’s a combination of tiny events—lacking a true conflict or villain—that form a complete life. Hidden behind this premise lies a true hopelessness. Linklater denies any eternal meaning or greater purpose, mocking any contrary position. The various teachers, employers, and relatives who try to encourage Mason, urging him to do more with his life, are shrugged off as foolish or played for laughs—portrayed as redneck hicks pounding Bibles and shooting guns. Boyhood rejects any promise of hope or the thought that there might be something more to life.

While Linklater’s temporal outlook may have been shared by most of the audience, it presents a problem cinematically. Movies have meaning. Movies have a purpose. Movies give hope. And the reactions of the audience around me demonstrated that they were expecting more. We would gasp when foolish boys engaged in dangerous dares, when Mason recklessly picked up a saw. We would tense when Mason looked at his cell phone—or took a swig from a flask—while driving. We all expected something to happen, but nothing ever did—or at least nothing that left a meaningful impact in the overall scope of the film.

Boyhood is an undeniable masterpiece—but a messy, maddening one. As the credits rolled, I felt totally empty—frustrated that I had spent almost three hours watching what amounted to total nothingness. The lack of any growth or redemption left me feeling grieved, saddened instead of hopeful. But that was its point: life is empty and meaningless, offering no catharsis to its audience. The film is stuck on its rejection of purpose and meaning, wallowing in its own hopelessness.

As I tried pinpointing my frustration with the film, Solomon came to mind. He also wrestled with life’s purpose and meaning. But instead of a resigned complacency to hopelessness, Solomon concluded differently: The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil. (Ecclesiastes 12:13-14, ESV)

Boyhood rejects this perspective, missing out on the ultimate point of life. Life does have meaning. Life does have purpose. By rejecting this premise, it frustrates and grieves, falling short as both a social commentary and as a film.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Edge of Tomorrow (2014)

“Through readiness and discipline we are masters of our fate.”

A staccato of television news clips and grainy video shows that central Europe has been overrun by a sudden and fast-spreading alien invasion of “Mimics.” When comfort-loving media relations officer for the United Defense Forces Major William Cage (Tom Cruise) reports to western command, he is assigned without reason and despite a lack of specific combat training to take part in the front wave attacks on the French coast. The optimistically-named Operation Downfall is a total failure: the highly adaptable Mimics, several millions of brute many-tentacled creatures with the speed of striking snakes, engulf the legions of soldiers, decimating them. Major Cage’s unit is hit while still in the air and before the troops have drop-landed; the falling hovercraft crushes a war-hungry fellow GI; the soldiers stumble disorientedly through the surf and dunes; and Cage himself is immediately confronted by the Mimics. Scrabbling to the ground, he clumsily manages to set off a personnel mine, surviving only scant seconds on the battlefield before blasting the nearest Mimic into a gory explosion of blood that snuffs out his own life as well.

Then he wakes up, to a nightmarish repeat of the catastrophic day. Every insignificant event unfolds exactly as before—the master sergeant’s monologue on the power and beauty of war, the interrupted poker game of the J Squad, his introduction to the soldiers, the deployment and drop—until the bewildered major lands again on the beachhead to helplessly witness the slaughter of his comrades and lock in mortal combat with the inescapable Mimics.

Again, again, and again the day repeats, until Cage knows the rhythm of every movement and moment like a macabre choreography, can predict with precision each Mimic as it mechanistically appears and is mechanically mowed down by his weapons, each time surviving a few seconds longer before inexorably falling in the unmitigated massacre. In this hellish cycle of life and quickened death, he comes across the war heroine and mascot of the unified resistance, Sergeant Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt), and endeavors to extend her life with his short-lived omniscience. But when the shocked Vrataski sees his abilities, she stops fighting and throws her weapon to her feet; above the chop of the hovercraft and the scream of artillery, she shouts out to Cage—“Find me when you wake up”—and is consumed in an explosion.

Edge of Tomorrow’s premise invites comparison to other time loop films, like Bill Murray’s Groundhog Day (1993), but beyond the motif of the repeated day (and a supporting heroine named Rita), similarities are scarce. Groundhog Day suggested a cosmic concern with the protagonist’s self-centeredness and ends redemptively as he finally saves lives and shows genuine concern for others. Conversely, Edge of Tomorrow portrays a naturalistic, uncaring, and almost rigidly deterministic world devoid of any butterfly effect and where every step and misstep can be precisely learned and eventually predicted. Cage’s selection as unwilling hero is pointedly random, and the army’s portrayal as supersoldiers suggests both futuristic power and transcendent impersonality. While Cage does overcome his initial cowardice (“there is no courage without fear,” claims his master sergeant) and dutifully devotes his repeated lifetimes to the salvation of his race, his character only barely evolves rather than experiencing some single moment of metanoia.

The film is careful not to repeat sequences unnecessarily, avoiding irritating predictabilities and constantly upending the pace and direction to keep action and plot at a run. The warzone scenes are rapid but not erratic, raining destruction on man, machine, and Mimic alike in a blaze of explosions and rifle fire, but largely avoiding gratuity in the carnage. Cruise is characteristically delightful in both the high-action sequences and in his conversational quips, while also capable of showing a more humane side as Major Cage learns abouts and attempts to save his quirky (and sometimes unlikeable) squad mates, or cares for a wounded Vrataski before sorrowfully failing to shield her, yet again, from a death only he will remember.

In a reversal of tradition, it is Vrataski, the female soldier, who fills many of the typically masculine roles in the film: as armored war hero, leader, mentor, protector, and (late in the movie) romantic initiator to the combat-shy media relations officer. When Cage is wounded, Vrataski emotionlessly (and repeatedly) “resets” her acolyte’s day with a bullet—in a manner harshly dissonant to Cage’s later tenderness in her final moments. But the contrast is often subtle in the overall desperation of the film’s war; Vrataski is not the only woman in the predominantly-male military forces, and her relentless warrior ethos perhaps reflects only the dehumanizing potential of war.

In any case, the film does not mire in questions of the human condition and our response. In true Cruise fashion, it is fast-paced, exciting, and gloriously (some might say mindlessly) entertaining. While the picture and score engage, it is the plot and characters that drive the story. Only the echoes of its running theme—of a random Joe plucked from the humdrum and suddenly required to weigh questions of age-defying importance—might yet ring in our ears and bid us look beyond a rapturous two hours, past the edge of tomorrow.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Chef (2014) / Begin Again (2014)

Are these indie films just buying into a formula?

Last weekend I saw two movies. Both were critically acclaimed independent films. Both celebrated the awakening of the senses. Both were undeniably enjoyable and worth repeat viewings. But I noticed something else:

Both were exactly the same. 

(Mild spoilers follow.)

A cinematic celebration of food, Chef tells the story of Carl Casper (played by Jon Favreau—who also wrote and directed the film), a once-brilliant chef who falls out of grace with his admirers, has an emotional breakdown, and tanks his career in a social media debacle. With the help of his ex-wife (Sofia Vergara) and a generous benefactor (Robert Downey Jr., in a hilarious supporting role), Carl opens a food truck and rekindles his love for good food. And as he drives cross-country, he reconnects with his estranged son.

An ode to good music, Begin Again (directed by John Carney of Once fame) tells the story of Dan (Mark Ruffalo), a once-brilliant music producer who falls out of grace with his business partner, has an emotional meltdown, and tanks his career and future prospects. Through the help of his ex-wife (Catherine Keener) and a generous benefactor (Cee Lo Green), Dan is able to rekindle his love of music by helping recently heartbroken Gretta (Keira Knightley) record an album in the midst of New York City. Oh, yeah...and he repairs his relationship with his estranged daughter.

As I watched these films back to back, I couldn’t help but become frustrated at how truly identical the stories were, even down to the most minute subplots. But while the cinematic tropes rehashed by both these films are common and formulaic, these stories transcend their own predictability to become something truly special. Each of these films feature moments that excite and awaken the senses. An early scene in Chef features Carl making a grilled-cheese sandwich for his son. I was tantalized with the precision by which he buttered the bread, placed the cheese, heated the griddle, and watched attentively as the cheesy delight slowly melted and the bread browned on both sides. It’s a scene that enlivens the tastebuds and demonstrates the true love that the director has for its cinematic plat du jour.

In Begin Again, Gretta sits on a stage in a crowded bar, strumming a guitar and singing one of her new compositions. The patrons in the bar are unimpressed, and, sensing this, Gretta lapses into an ever more soulless performance. But then the scene shifts, replaying from the perspective of a clearly inebriated Dan. He doesn’t hear the solitary guitar or melancholy voice; rather, in his ears, the guitar is joined by invisible musicians in the arrangement: the piano riffing, the high-hats clanging, and the stringed instruments crooning—a mediocre song becoming great in the mind of the rapt listener.

Music is the focus of Begin Again and the soundtrack does not disappoint. Adam Levine (lead singer of Maroon 5) does a reasonable job in his first acting role and his chart-topping vocal ability is a major addition to the song set—“Lost Stars” and “Step You Can’t Take Back” being the standout hits. Similarly, Chef does its job in making its audience ravenous. Dish after dish was filmed with such beauty that my mouth watered the entire time. While the good outweighs the bad, both films aren’t without their demerits. Of biggest issue is the lack of originality: there were no plot twists or character developments that couldn’t be called from a mile away. Apart from that, the only things keeping these films from being friendly to all audiences were the frequent profanities and occasional innuendos. However, these detractions only slightly sour an otherwise perfect movie-going experience.

I remember when an “indie” movie guaranteed originality, unknown names, quirky characters, original plotlines, and a general departure from Hollywood formula. But as independent films become more mainstream, so do the plotlines, actors, characters, and formula. These two movies, watched back to back, painfully illustrate this paradigm shift. Upon close reflection, you may realize that the food is occasionally too salty and processed and that the song is a little too overproduced and familiar. But the predictability (and foul language) aside, both these films will leave you with a sweet taste in your mouth and a song in your heart.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

The Hunger Games (2012)

A better-than-average action film thanks to a strong lead, suspenseful pacing, and unsettling themes.

I disliked Suzanne Collins’s novel, “The Hunger Games.” I found the plot predictable, the characters paper-thin and the writing style simply terrible. I was ambivalent towards the protagonists and could care less about the outcome. But the film was a different story. The plot, while still predictable, translated incredibly well to screen. The characters were rich, giving me heroes I could root for and a conclusion I cared about.

The Hunger Games tells the story of a totalitarian government that, in order to keep its subjects in line, forces each of its districts to send a boy and a girl tribute to compete in a gladiatorial event where all will fight to the death. In District 12, Katniss Everdeen volunteers as tribute, taking the place of her sister. Katniss is thrust into the competition and must not only contend for her life but wrestle with feelings for her male counterpart, Peeta, and her hometown boyfriend, Gale. The film generally stays close to the original plotline but makes a few minor changes which significantly improve on the novel.

What I immediately appreciated about the film was its raw emotion. The early moments that Katniss shares with her little sister, Prim, are beautiful. My favorite scene, where Katniss volunteers to take her sister’s place in the games, is heartbreaking. Katniss also shares some short, yet heartfelt, moments with Hunger Games ally Rue. Jennifer Lawrence brings life to the character of Katniss, her eyes conveying depth and maturity. This is not the shallow and annoying character from the book. But other than Katniss, the characters had little development—most evidently, Josh Hutcherson’s Peeta. The scene stealers were Stanley Tucci as Hunger Games emcee and Woody Harrelson as drunken mentor Haymitch.

The film raises some interesting questions involving situational ethics, murder, self defense, and rebellion against government. If Katniss is to win the games, she must kill, but should she? The film causes the audience to identify with Katniss and forces them to agonize along with the heroine as she’s forced to make these difficult decisions. Ultimately, the film gives no answers.

The shaky, handheld camerawork severely detracted from the film. Shaky cam is a cheap way to [try to] generate excitement. The constant motion was headache-inducing and made it difficult to follow the action at times. This was most evident in the climactic scene with the rabid dogs. The camera shook and jumped about so much it was difficult to follow the action on screen, causing annoyance. Instead of bolstering suspense, it diminished it.

James Newton Howard’s score stood out as painfully generic. The cues are lifeless and there’s nothing new or creative. It’s a disappointing offering from one of cinema’s greatest composers.

The violence is this film’s only cautionary element; there’s very little in the way of bad language and no sexual content. But, unlike most films, the violence is never glorified or even cathartic. Many violent films produce catharsis, for example, at the death of a villain, at the moment of perfectly executed vengeance or when a character gets what’s coming to them. This is not the case here. The participants in the Hunger Games are forced to kill, and only a small minority of participants relish this fact. The characters never revel in the killing, nor does the audience. There is no glee in these deaths, only sadness. Tribute after tribute falls to the violence, and while the fatalities are not graphic, they are haunting. The brutality of the film stuck with me for hours after the end credits.

This is the rare film that drastically improves upon its source material (although that’s not saying much). The story works much better on film, due mostly to its solid pacing and strong acting by its lead. The film has some flaws, mostly its shaky camera, a few weak performances, occasionally weak dialogue and generic score but provides two and a half hours of escapist entertainment. Happy Hunger Games, everyone.

Monday, February 13, 2012

2011 Best Pictures in Few Words

For six years, an R-rated film has won the Best Picture award, and since 2005 at least 60% of nominees were rated R (100% in 2006 and 2008). But this year only one of the nine nominees is rated R. The R-rated hopefuls of the year were almost entirely overlooked in favor of mostly-“clean” PG-13 and PG films.

We now review, in short, the Best Picture nominees that we’ve seen (so far).

Midnight in Paris

A struggling writer is transported back into artistically-inspiring 1920s Paris, where he meets a pretty girl and must choose between past and present. Owen Wilson’s constantly whiny delivery makes an otherwise excellent film unbearable.

The Tree of Life

A mother seeks answers from God about her son’s death and a brother seeks to connect with his Creator. Half-hour interludes filled with nothing but music and scenery will either bore or enrapture in this incredible film.

The Help

A spunky young Southerner seeks to stop segregation and racism by writing a book from the perspective of the servants. Spot-on scripting, award-worthy performances and some delicious comedy make this a must-see.

A losing Oakland Athletics team decides to revolutionize baseball by playing the odds instead of good looks, and pulls out shocking wins. A lack of heart and interesting characters keeps this true story from hitting a home run.

The Descendants

A father seeks to reconnect with his daughters after finding out that his now-comatose wife had been cheating on him. Outstanding performances, redemptive story, and stellar, albeit profane, scripting make this a favorite.


A young boy lives in a Paris train station where he encounters film legends, cute girls and angry constables. A truly gorgeous film with brilliant direction but weak where it really counts with story and character.

The Artist

An egotistical silent-movie star copes with the loss of fame and fortune as “talking pictures” captivate Hollywood. This daring silent film overflows with nostalgia and boasts a dramatic but heartwarming story and gorgeous soundtrack. It’s this year’s Oscar front-runner.