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The Avengers

Fanboys and girls, after years of anticipation, you can finally breathe
I'll confess that I had reservations about The Avengers: the Marvel superhero movies have been a mixed bag for me so far, and the notion of a big-budget action spectacle centered on not just one but six protagonists, all of whom should theoretically get an equal amount of attention, sounded like a formula for disaster. At best, I assumed that it would be a fun slice of escapism that critics would treat with a mix of condescension and grudging acceptance. At worst, it would be the most ambitious fiasco since… well, John Carter, though that had the benefit of low expectations. If The Avengers was anything but the cinematic equivalent of a walk-off grand slam in Game 7 of the World Series, blood would surely be spilt.

To my – and no doubt tons of other people's – relief, neither of those predictions turned out to be right. Not only is The Avengers a blast to watch, an explosive mix of humor, angst and awesome fight scenes, but it's also maybe one of the best superhero movies of all-time. Take notes, Hollywood: this is how you make a summer blockbuster. Despite clocking in at approximately two-and-a-half hours, The Avengers never fails to mesmerize, barreling headlong into the chaos like an enraged Hulk loose in Manhattan yet also giving its numerous heroes sufficient room to breathe and flex their ridiculously chiseled muscles. This is a ticking time bomb of a movie. Each scene brims with energy, an exhilarating, carefree vivacity that would probably be overwhelming if not for those little moments of unexpected pathos strewn here and there that leave you breathless. Joss Whedon, the geek idol whose previous credits include beloved cult TV shows Firefly and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, displays astonishing dexterity as he juggles over-the-top action set pieces with incisive, often self-deprecating banter and emotional turmoil. He treats the material at once with ironic self-awareness and the utmost respect, indulging the so-called fanboys without pandering to them, winking at the absurdity while making his passion for the characters and their stories palpable. There lies the key to first-rate superhero movies, something few directors seem to have realized: they may have godlike powers, but deep down, superheroes are still human (well, Thor is technically an actual god, but you get my point). Whedon refuses to glorify his characters, showing them in all their messy imperfections and weaknesses so that they feel less like the flat archetypes that often dominate superhero movies than like real people.

Nonetheless, the star of The Avengers is its phenomenal cast. If there's one thing that has remained consistent throughout the Marvel movies, it's the acting; The Incredible Hulk was saved single-handedly from utter mediocrity by Edward Norton's compelling performance, and even Iron Man 2 had Scarlett Johansson kicking ass and Sam Rockwell devouring scenery. You might think that stuffing so much (good-looking) talent into one 143-minute movie would be overkill, like forcing a pack of wolves to share one rabbit. On the contrary, the acting is what truly elevates The Avengers above "just another superhero movie", what makes it so compulsively watchable. Watching the actors – Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johannson, Jeremy Renner, Mark Ruffalo, Samuel L. Jackson and Tom Hiddleston – together on screen is a positively mind-blowing experience. As a group, their chemistry is fiery enough to light a small city, and as individuals, they alternately ooze charisma and vulnerability. I was particularly impressed by Johannson, who manages to exude feminist empowerment while fighting in a body-hugging leather suit, and Hiddleston, he of the startlingly expressive eyes and deliciously smug smirk, though it seems unfair to pick and choose when you have a cast as uniformly wonderful as this one. This is ensemble acting at its finest.

That said, I did have a few relatively minor problems. Given the fact that the majority of the movie does such a great job of balancing the action, comedy and drama, I found the climax a tad underwhelming. As pretentious as it sounds, I wish Whedon had supplemented the epic, CGI-heavy, property damage-laden battle sequence (which was thrilling, don't get me wrong) with something more emotionally resonant. It seems like a letdown to spend over two hours building these relationships, only to set them aside at the end. Judging from the audience reaction at my screening, though, most people didn't have an issue with this. Also, a familiarity with or a fondness for the previous Marvel films is preferable since The Avengers assumes that viewers already have some sort of relationship with the characters.

In two months, the Internet will inevitably be filled with debates over whether The Avengers is better than The Dark Knight Rises (The Amazing Spider-Man might join them, but to be honest, that one doesn't have the same level of anticipation as the others). And, if you'll allow me to be cynical for a second, those debates will inevitably boil down to this: The Dark Knight Rises is the serious, gritty one about timely political issues, whereas The Avengers is the fun, lighthearted one about s--- blowing up. Although both of those descriptions are accurate to some extent, they do a disservice to both movies. Counter to popular opinion, it's entirely possible to like Christopher Nolan's Batman films as pure entertainment rather than profound social commentaries, and although it may not have the thematic depth of The Dark Knight, The Avengers deserves to be taken more seriously than run-of-the-mill escapist fluff. Not only does it show (once again) that there is room in action blockbusters for actual acting, but it also makes an ardent case for the importance of superheroes: especially in our post-9/11 world of constant anxiety, they provide a comforting dose of old-fashioned values, hope for salvation from the anarchy. It's unashamed optimism, as opposed to The Dark Knight's secret idealism. Superheroes aren't here to save us from monsters, it says. They're here to save us from ourselves.

The Hunger Games

Jennifer Lawrence, Gary Ross and the audience emerge from The Hunger Games victorious
In recent years, the young adult sphere of pop culture has been dominated by a certain boy wizard and, more irritatingly for those of us who aren't tween girls or their middle-aged mothers, vampires and werewolves named Edward and Jacob. Now, at last, another is breaking into their ranks, a sixteen year old girl with a braid, a bow and enough spirited determination to conquer the world: meet Katniss Everdeen, the girl on fire.

As Harry Potter's legacy officially ends with the eighth and final movie of the franchise having bowed last year, cementing J.K. Rowling's landmark series as the cornerstone of the childhood of a generation, and the world eagerly anticipates – or dreads – the release of the last Twilight movie, Gary Ross offers us his fine cinematic adaptation of The Hunger Games, the first chapter in Suzanne Collins' bestselling trilogy about a dystopian future where teens are forced to fight to the death by a government that controls its citizens with an iron fist. The director of Seabiscuit brings Collins' story to life with a serious-minded verve and intelligence that distinguishes it from other young adult-oriented fare, assembling an almost pitch-perfect cast and treating the source material – and its fans – with a respect that feels increasingly rare in an industry that often seems to value easy money and marketability over true quality, especially when it comes to potential franchises.

The temptation to churn out a cheap, lazy cash-grab a la the Twilight movies must've been there, given that audiences would've flocked to the theaters regardless, but the filmmakers evidently cared about the movie beyond its obvious box-office potential. They take the pulse-pounding intensity of the books and successfully translate it to the big screen, staying true in spirit but displaying a great willingness to tweak and embellish the story when necessary. Among other changes, by expanding the point of view beyond Katniss, the movie offers a wider perspective, something new that could not be found in the book. It feels like a genuine, standalone movie rather than a paint-by-the-numbers adaptation, a distinction that the Harry Potter movies, for all their artistic merits, never quite mastered. Aside from some memorable performances, those films never provided anything that the books didn't. Furthermore, though as someone who has read the books, I could be wrong about this, The Hunger Games does a good enough job of establishing its characters, story and tone internally that it should work for those coming in cold as well as long-time fans.

Instead of going for sweeping and epic, Ross smartly focuses on the intimate, human aspects of the story, using a sometimes shaky camera and concise editing to create an almost documentary-like feel. He pays as much attention to the quiet scenes, such as a moment near the very beginning where Katniss comforts and sings to her younger sister Prim before leaving to hunt, as he does to the action scenes, which are sporadic and avoid self-indulgence, neither glorifying nor glossing over the violence. The music, composed by T. Bone Burnett, eschews the bombastic punk rock one might have expected in favor of a sparse, folksy vibe that reflects both the rustic simplicity of Katniss's District 12 roots and her inner desperation as she fights for survival; a few techno beats are thrown in as well whenever the action moves to the more advanced, futuristic Capitol. The costumes and sets also help realize the world of Panem in vivid detail while toning down the more outrageous elements of Collins's descriptions, particularly when it comes to the over-the-top fashion tastes of the Capitol residents.

At the center of it all is Katniss Everdeen, played by a forceful but artfully restrained and nuanced Jennifer Lawrence, who appears in nearly every scene and, coupled with her Oscar-nominated performance as the similarly strong-willed and independent Ree in Winter's Bone, is establishing herself as a consistently compelling actress and a screen presence to be reckoned with. Passionate, complex and quick-witted, Katniss is willing to do whatever it takes to protect the people she loves, even if it involves violence or means putting herself in danger, but she doesn't descend into the emotionless, sexless (or sexed-up) killing machine cliché that seems to pass for a strong female character in action films nowadays. She's a heroine worth rooting for.

Though Jennifer Lawrence is undoubtedly the star of the movie, she's joined by a host of talented, well-chosen supporting actors. As Peeta Mellark, Katniss's fellow District 12 tribute and sort-of love interest, Josh Hutcherson displays the appropriate amounts of charisma, sensitivity and conviction; he's come a long way since he first appeared in movies like the mostly forgettable Will Ferrell vehicle Kicking and Screaming and Zathura and continues to prove himself to be one of the most promising actors of his generation. Elizabeth Banks is almost unrecognizable under heavy, purposefully crude makeup as the shrill, peppy Effie, and Woody Harrelson and Stanley Tucci are both as magnetic as always as, respectively, Katniss's and Peeta's perpetually drunk mentor Haymitch and Caesar Flickerman, host of the Hunger Games telecast.

Movies geared toward young adults or teens tend to be dismissed as escapist, mindless fluff not worthy of more serious consideration. Though it's hard to tell whether The Hunger Games will break this mold and be embraced as fully as the Harry Potter series, which found admirers among the young and old, critics and general audiences, was, it has an edge and intelligence that make it hard to resist. Sure, there are more pointed, hard-hitting social critiques out there, and it isn't as bleak or gritty as some might have liked, but as engaging entertainment that doesn't just ask viewers to turn their brains off, it more than delivers.

The Artist

The stuff dreams are made of
Like so many movies released in 2011, from Hugo and Midnight in Paris to Like Crazy and even Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, The Artist is about someone who clings to the past, who insists on lingering in some idealized Golden Age even though the rest of the world has moved on. When the movie's protagonist, the once-celebrated silent film star George Valentin first encounters the burgeoning phenomenon later known as "talkies", he laughs in scornful defiance, believing with every fiber of his being that this is just a transient fad, nothing more; even when his studio ceases production on all silent films, essentially putting him out of a job, he refuses to accept the fact that he has become passé, that the audience that used to adore him has lost all interest, and starts to produce and direct his own movies. This fall-from-power storyline, made popular by such ancient Greek dramas as Oedipus Rex and Agamemnon, is hardly original, yet Michel Hazanavicious's The Artist lends it a new poignancy, for in our modern-day world of constant motion, Valentin's fate seems all too real.

From the second it debuted at the Cannes Film Festival last May to apparently resounding applause, The Artist burst onto the scene as a prime Oscar contender. Critics lauded Hazanavicious for his clever ode to the era of silent film, and audiences fell in love with the charming characters (especially the beloved dog Uggie) and winning, feel-good story, which never loses its endearing vivacity, even when it strays down a surprisingly dark road. In short, the movie is almost impossible to dislike. From the moment the opening credits flicker on screen in delightful, old-fashioned black-and-white (a touch sure to induce nostalgia in anyone who has seen a movie made before the advent of Technicolor), it sweeps the audience back to a time when sincerity was admired, and the public still swooned unashamedly over the pure ingenuity of "moving pictures". The whole thing would feel gimmicky if it didn't feel so real, so heartfelt. For the first ten minutes or so, the mere novelty of it all is its own kind of magic, but then, it wears off, and you're no longer watching a 21st century silent, black-and-white film – you're simply watching a film, one filled with boundless energy and passion and emotion, one that's enchanting not because of its old-fashioned visual aesthetic but because it genuinely wants to tell a story, which sadly seems to be quite rare these days, when many filmmakers are content to clobber together a random series of set pieces and call that a "plot", and even dramas are increasingly described as "character studies" and "explorations". Needless to say, Hazanavicious pulls it off with seemingly effortless grace. With the help of an animated cast and a vibrant, suitably dramatic score courtesy of Ludovic Bource, he weaves a tale that is simple yet beguiling and, ultimately, heartbreaking, full of humor, drama, pathos, romance and suspense, along with an extra helping of panache.

Speaking of the cast, it's no wonder Jean Dujardin, a French actor formerly known for the OSS 117 James Bond spoofs, has become a favorite to win the Oscar for Best Actor, a category that will probably include such Hollywood superstars as George Clooney, Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio. Blessed with a naturally expressive face and old-timey movie star looks, Dujardin is perfectly cast as Valentin, oozing charisma as he smiles and dances and intermittently raises his eyebrows, and even when Valentin plummets down a death spiral of depression and arrogant self-pity, he remains almost brutally likable; to say that it's easy to see why he was adored by movie audiences would be a glaring understatement. He also shares some nice chemistry with Bérénice Bejo, who plays up-and-coming actress Peppy Miller with infectious vigor, and despite never saying an audible word to each other, they make an exquisite couple, simultaneously sweet and believable. The rest of the main cast is rounded out by Penelope Ann Miller (Valentin's wife, Doris), James Cromwell (the butler, Clifton) and John Goodman (the director, Al Zimmer).

But lest anyone get the wrong impression, The Artist is neither stuffy "Oscar-bait" nor a cutesy indie; in fact, with its lighthearted, effervescent tone, it could not be more accessible or crowd-pleasing (though this will inevitably lead some critics and more hardcore film buffs to dismiss it as sentimental fluff). Also, although the marketing campaign has focused largely on the movie's attempt to replicate/pay tribute to classic Hollywood, its story and themes could not be more timeless or universal: while I can't say it's the overall best movie of 2011 (my personal favorite is J.J. Abrams's Super 8), The Artist does the best job of all the nostalgia-themed films released last year – and there were many – of depicting that intense sense of longing for a bygone era. For unlike most of the other movies, as good as some of them are, The Artist doesn't simply portray nostalgia as a wistful fantasy but also acknowledges that it is essentially rooted in stubbornness, a refusal to accept change that may not be idealistic so much as willful and irrational. And maybe that is ultimately what makes the movie special, what elevates it above sentimental fluff. For the very existence of The Artist, a 21st century silent film, as well as this recent trend of movies that romanticize the past, is proof that nostalgia is always relevant. It's a little sad to think that, even after all these years, we are still like George Valentin, struggling to revive silent films. Perhaps the real tragedy is not that the Golden Age is gone but that even today, we still miss it.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Tinker, Tailor spins tangled web of intrigue, betrayal and frosty brilliance
In a way, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is one of those movies that's easier to admire than to love. From a technical standpoint, it's pitch-perfect with a top-notch cast of actors who effortlessly burrow into their parts without any of the usual "look at me!" theatrics, sets and costumes that meticulously recreate Cold War Europe and subtly elegant cinematography, all blended together with precision by a promising, up-and-coming director. Yet, it's not the type of film that will inspire feelings of warmth or ecstasy from many moviegoers, more likely to leave them wandering out of the theater deep in thought than giddy or excited. In most movies, the stern aloofness that pervades Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy would be a drawback, preventing the audience from connecting with or caring about the characters, but in this case, it works, effectively creating an atmosphere of suspicion and distrust where the viewer is as wary of the characters as they are of each other.

Based on the well-respected novel of the same name by former spy John le Carre, Tomas Alfredson's adapation manages to strip down le Carre's book to its bare bones – every scene, line of dialogue and gesture feels absolutely essential to furthering either plot or character, often both – without sacrificing its complexity or nuance. The story is elaborate, though its basic premise can be boiled down to "there's a mole at the Circus", code for British intelligence agency MI6, and as condescending as it sounds, it requires the audience to not only pay attention, but to think. At the center of it all is the famed George Smiley, played by Gary Oldman in what is probably the most low-key performance of his career, a stark contrast from the deliciously over-the-top grandiosity he has developed a reputation for over the past three decades. With his large, plastic-framed glasses, nondescript suits and soft-spoken manner, Smiley is reminiscent of an owl: outwardly, he's passive and remarkably still, virtually blending into the background, but there's also an aura of wisdom, the kind that comes with age and world experience, surrounding him; you can sense that he's constantly thinking, observing. Oldman conveys all this perfectly, easily inhabiting a role that should, but likely won't, earn him a long-awaited Oscar nomination. He's accompanied by a stellar supporting cast of some of the best British actors working today, including veterans John Hurt and Colin Firth, rising stars Benedict Cumberbatch and Tom Hardy, the always reliable character actor Toby Jones and Mark Strong, whose role here is the best he's gotten since first appearing on most people's radars in Ridley Scott's decent but otherwise unremarkable Body of Lies.

The movie as a whole is a lot like the character of Smiley. On the surface, it's positively serene, but underneath, there's so much going on that it can be hard to keep track of it all as tension quietly builds toward the gripping climax, which features not a shootout or frenetic car chase, but a waiting game. It's a labyrinthine mind puzzle as tightly constructed and methodical as the clocks ticking in the background of several scenes. Making his English-language debut after receiving much acclaim for the vampire coming-of-age movie Let the Right One In, Swedish filmmaker Tomas Alfredson proves himself to be a master of silence, of revealing everything using virtually nothing. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is the definition of a slow-burner, but for those willing to be patient and attentive, it offers ample rewards.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Welcome to the land of ice and snow
Three years ago, nobody took David Fincher seriously. People admired his visual artistry – he made even preposterous duds like Panic Room interesting with his imaginative camera-work – and his willingness to push the envelope, but even his most celebrated film, the cult favorite Fight Club, bombed at the box office and received disparaging, almost downright hostile, reviews upon its initial release in 1999. Then, in December 2008, the ambitious, long-gestating romance The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, a movie unlike anything Fincher had previously attempted, debuted to critical acclaim and eventually garnered a stunning thirteen Oscar nominations, including one for its director. In 2010, his next project, The Social Network, became the virtually undisputed Best Movie of the Year, sweeping the critics' awards and appearing on countless Top Ten lists, and suddenly, David Fincher was one of the most sought-after directors in Hollywood. Considering his previous filmography and his newfound popularity, it's little surprise that when Fincher was chosen to helm the American adaptation of Steig Larsson's wildly popular crime novel, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the decision was met with much excitement and surprisingly little outrage. It was the perfect opportunity for Fincher to both prove his worth as a mainstream filmmaker and return to the darker, more audacious movies that jumpstarted his career.

By all rights, the movie should be considered an undeniable success. Opening with a typically innovative, gorgeously nightmarish credits sequence set to the distorted, rollicking strains of a cover of Led Zeppelin masterwork "Immigrant Song" by Karen O, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a fascinating tight-wire act of a movie, weaving a story of murder, rape, intrigue and vengeance that feels adequately gruesome and macabre but never abusive, once again demonstrating David Fincher's ability to handle graphic material with finesse. The director fuses together an ice-cold atmosphere (both literal and metaphorical, as the audience can practically feel the frigid Swedish weather through the screen), spine-tingling imagery and a taut score (courtesy of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, who won an Oscar for their work on The Social Network) to create almost relentless tension; even those who know every inch of the plot will find themselves on the edge of their seats for much of the running time. It goes without saying that this movie is not for the faint-hearted. Even so, Fincher surprisingly manages to devise moments of poignancy and even humor amid all the gloom, making this film slightly more enjoyable – if such a word can be used in this context – than the generally bleak source material and Swedish version. Devotees of Larsson's novel will be pleased that this adaptation is remarkably faithful, keeping the majority of the plot intact and making only a few minor tweaks.

As far as the actors go, not a single misstep can be found. Despite his limited screen time, Christopher Plummer imbues the jaded Henrik Vanger with a nice mix of pathos and dry wit, and Stellan Skarsgard thankfully plays the cordial yet enigmatic Martin Vanger, brother of presumed murder victim, Harriet, with a chillingly understated menace, lending realism to a character that could easily have been overly manic or cartoonish. Daniel Craig takes a break from his usual macho-guy persona to embody the determined, albeit somewhat bland journalist Mikael Blomkvist, his hulking, age-worn physique lending credibility to the character's lofty ideals. Nonetheless, as in the novel, the undeniable star of the show is the tortured, antisocial computer hacker Lisbeth Salander, and, in the titular role, Rooney Mara is simply sensational. Previously known by most for playing Mark Zuckerberg's exasperated girlfriend in The Social Network, Mara became all but a household name when David Fincher chose her to play Salander, one of the most coveted roles of the century, as evidenced by the frenzied media coverage that accompanied the seemingly endless search process, during which such A-list actresses as Natalie Portman and Scarlett Johannson were allegedly considered. Viewing the final product, it's obvious Fincher made the right choice. Mara, ordinarily a rather unassuming brunette, is unrecognizable with her dyed-black hair, heavy make-up, multiple body piercings, tattered Goth clothing and near-anorexic frame, yet more impressive than her physical transformation is the way she nails Lisbeth's volatile psychological state, her fragile yet explosive personality. Through her haunted eyes and guarded posture, she conveys myriad emotions at once, alternating between passion and vulnerability, belligerence and anguish, tenacity and insecurity to create a complex, mesmerizing character that dominates the screen simply by being there.

And yet, something doesn't feel quite right. For all its perfectly calibrated suspense, the movie left me, if not disappointed, then slightly empty, as though something vital was missing; even now, I can't quite figure out why. Maybe it's the story itself, which I find overly convoluted and rather unfocused (I was never a huge fan of the book). Maybe it's the fact that, despite having both read the novel and seen the Swedish adaptation, I let the feverishly edited teaser trailer trick me into believing that the movie would be a kinetic, fast-paced thriller rather than the slow-burning mystery that it actually is. Or maybe – and this seems the most likely explanation – I'm just tired of the detached, methodical air that has saturated Fincher's recent work, even the ostensibly warm Benjamin Button. Don't get me wrong: I adore The Social Network as much as the next person, and I was captivated by 2007's Zodiac. But what happened to the dynamic brio of Fight Club? Technically, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is flawless – almost too flawless, if that's possible. The whole affair is so measured, so painstaking, that it's honestly not that fun to watch; I suppose this could be more to do with my own expectations than the movie itself, but I somehow wish it was more stylish, more liberated and adventurous, more like the old David Fincher. I liked it, but I wanted to love it.

Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol

Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol is blockbuster escapism at its best
It's been fifteen years since Tom Cruise first exploded into movie theaters as superspy Ethan Hunt, a role that catapulted him to the upper echelons of modern-day action heroes, and now, with the release of the fourth and arguably the strongest installment of the Mission: Impossible franchise, he shows little sign of slowing down. Directed with aplomb by Pixar's Brad Bird, Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol is smart, stylish and, most importantly, as entertaining a film as one could ever hope for.

Like its predecessors, Ghost Protocol boasts only the skeleton of a plot, which this time around, centers on a bombing at the Kremlin and rogue Russians attempting to incite a nuclear holocaust for reasons that are never fully explained. Still, for the most part, it's easy to follow, with the team's step-by-step goals clearly laid out, a definite improvement over the nonsensicality of the third movie, and considering that the franchise has always put story secondary to spectacle and extravagant action set pieces (which, frankly, isn't such a bad thing, at least not this time), it's hard to imagine many people coming into the theater expecting a fully fleshed-out, intricate or particularly creative plot. The only genuinely problematic moment occurs at the end with a last-minute twist that feels forced, more like a cop-out than the satisfying resolution it's no doubt supposed to be.

Propelled along by a pulse-pounding score from the always reliable Michael Giacchino, Ghost Protocol features almost wall-to-wall action, punctuated only occasionally by some perfunctory exposition and character development. Fortunately, Brad Bird, who is making his live-action debut here and, with animated films The Iron Giant, The Incredibles and Ratatouille already under his belt, is now four-for-four, is at the helm, and boy, does he know how to stage action. Elaborate and ambitious but grounded enough to never become laughably over-the-top or ridiculous, each sequence is executed with such pizazz and creativity, filled with such tension that the nonstop action never feels tedious or repetitive; it is relentlessly enjoyable to watch. In a refreshing change of pace, Bird opts to not rely on techniques like the shaky camera or slow motion that film-makers seem to employ all too often these days, knowing that such stylizations are more often suffocating than beneficial. Taking advantage of exotic locales like Russia, Dubai and Mumbai, as well as the IMAX format, he lets each stunt and set piece speak for itself, capturing it all with the steady hand and keen eye of someone who knows precisely what he's doing. Each M:I film has had a different director, but if there is another sequel, and there almost certainly will be, Brad Bird is more than welcome to be the first to return for seconds.

Brad Bird has also been gifted with a cast that is more than up for the challenges he throws at them. Tom Cruise and Simon Pegg are the only returning major cast members, though both Ving Rhames and Michelle Monaghan pop up briefly. They are joined by the white-hot Jeremy Renner as the mild-mannered but enigmatic analyst Brandt, Paula Patton, who is surprisingly convincing in the obligatory female role, and Mikael Nyqvist, who is best known for the Swedish version of The Millennium trilogy and doesn't get a whole lot to do here as the villain but is more than adequate with what he has; Tom Wilkinson and Lost's Josh Holloway also make cameo appearances. What the characters lack in depth, the actors make up for in pure charisma. It's a blast watching them do their thing.

Though this movie focuses more on the team as a whole instead of the usual lone-wolf approach, it's still undeniably Cruise's showcase. Despite the crow's feet and bags emerging under his eyes revealing that he is not, in fact, immune to aging, he is remarkably fit and never seems to strain even slightly while performing the high-risk stunts he has developed a reputation for, including the much-buzzed-about Burj Khalifa sequence. It's hard to believe that he's approaching fifty years old. However, age is not the only challenge the actor has faced recently. In the years since the first Mission: Impossible, the star of Tom Cruise has faded somewhat, tarnished by personal controversies and general audience indifference to traditional movie stars, and of late, his public persona has more often than not overshadowed his work. It doesn't help that, with the exception of the underrated Nazi thriller Valkyrie and a memorable turn in the otherwise unremarkable Tropic Thunder, the vast majority of his recent projects have been mediocre. It seems fitting that Ghost Protocol would be the movie where he finally regains some of his old mojo, serving as a welcome, charming reminder of why he's one of the last true superstars left in the business.

Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol is no cinematic game-changer, but it doesn't need to be one. In turning out a film that is simply engaging, exhilarating, carefree, unadulterated fun, Brad Bird, Tom Cruise and co. can consider their mission accomplished.

War Horse

The human side of war
Steven Spielberg has been called many things: "boy wonder", "visionary", "hack". But even Spielberg's detractors – and there are many – have to admit that, regardless of whether the film-maker caters to the masses or indulges in sentimentality, he is a master of the medium. If recent offerings like Minority Report and Munich proved that he is willing to explore darker, more adult fare, then War Horse reminds us that the director has not lost the uncanny ability to charm and shock audiences that catapulted him to stardom in the 1970s. Indeed, this sprawling, old-fashioned tale of a farm boy and his beloved horse feels much like a fusion of E.T. and Saving Private Ryan, two movies that, while seemingly polar opposites, exemplify the childlike sincerity that has defined much of Spielberg's career. Heartrending, triumphant and visually magnificent, War Horse provides a glimpse of a cinematic wunderkind at his best.

The movie follows a horse named Joey as he develops a close friendship with a naïve teenage boy, only to be sold off to the British army for usage in World War I (the last major war to use cavalry) and subsequently passed between numerous different owners. It sounds straightforward and, for the most part, it is; Anna Sewell first wrote from the point of view of an animal over a century ago in Black Beauty, a novel to which War Horse bears a striking resemblance. In fact, the first half hour or so isn't much different from typical animal movies like Old Yeller and My Dog Skip: the boy, Albert, acquires Joey, his pet, despite the reservations of his parents; they slowly yet surely form a bond as strong as that between any two humans; the animal helps its human friend confront a major dilemma – in this case, the impending seizure of the family's farm; due to unexpected circumstances, the human is tragically forced to part with his pet. However, while most movies end there, this is only the beginning of War Horse, and, although the first act is compelling enough, not until Joey and Albert separate does the movie really kick into high gear. Sweeping from peaceful, rustic farms to grimy, death-ridden trenches, the film drifts along, leisurely yet never sluggish, inviting viewers to absorb the scenery, a rich tapestry of landscapes so relentlessly, overwhelmingly gorgeous that they feel dream-like, though thankfully, it never succumbs to the idle self-indulgence that plagued such visual extravaganzas as Terrence Malick's poetic-yet-inscrutable The Tree of Life. It's the kind of majestic, ambitious epic that hasn't graced movie theaters since, well, Saving Private Ryan.

Of course, even the most far-reaching sagas have intimate moments mixed in with the larger-than-life heroics, and War Horse is no exception. As Joey navigates the numerous perils of World War I, we are introduced to a vast assortment of characters, including the goodhearted Captain Nicholls and the carefree girl, Emilie, not to mention Albert himself and his troubled parents. On paper, the human characters seem unremarkable, not particularly vivid or memorable, but thanks in large part to the uniformly strong cast, they feel alive, people with whom anyone can sympathize. Although the actors are secondary to the story and visuals, a couple of them still manage to shine: the only person with a substantial amount of screen time, Jeremy Irvine displays a wealth of promise (War Horse is his first feature film role), and he shares easy chemistry with his animal counterpart; Emily Watson instills Rose Narracott, Albert's mother, with a riveting mixture of fiery pragmatism and melancholic weariness; after his charismatic, coolly menacing turn as Loki in the gaudy Thor, Tom Hiddleston takes on the radically different role of Captain Nicholls, yet, despite the more easygoing nature of his character, he has no trouble commanding the audience's attention with his bizarrely expressive eyes and effortless poise; and lastly and most unexpectedly, first-time actress Celine Buckens practically leaps off the screen in her feisty, self-assured performance as the young Emilie. Nonetheless, as indicated by its title, the star of the film is the horse, and the way in which the film-makers coaxed various emotions – fear, desperation, anger, sorrow, pain – out of its animal performers is simply awe-inspiring. Despite not saying a word, Joey is as nuanced and captivating as any human.

It may sound like hyperbole, but War Horse is truly unique in its portrayal of war, unlike any other movie in recent memory. Although lacking the gritty, devastating immediacy of Saving Private Ryan, Spielberg's latest has a power of its own, arising primarily from its brilliant imagery. Acclaimed cinematographer and long-time Spielberg collaborator Janusz Kaminski paints this strange, contradictory world as only a true master can, with each shot deftly crafting an atmosphere of stark beauty: soldiers mount their horses amid a sea of tall, yellow grass; casualties lie strewn across a ravaged battlefield (in a shot reminiscent of Gone With the Wind); gas envelops the silhouette of a single figure; flares explode above the head of a galloping horse; snow swirls around a cluster of battered men. Whereas most modern-day war movies rely on violence and gore to create a "realistic" portrait of war, the effectiveness of War Horse lies in images like those, and it could be argued that the absence of lurid details makes the film all the more potent. Whereas Saving Private Ryan explored the cruelty of war, War Horse searches for the hope that can be found amid the cruelty. As always, Spielberg treads the fine line between poignancy and melodrama, yet although it's hard not to wonder whether he could have delved a little deeper (the ending, while not unsatisfying, feels somewhat rushed), he shows much more restraint than his critics would be willing to admit. Free of pretension and cynicism, War Horse is a lyrical, compassionate story about the struggle to remain innocent amid senseless brutality that feels old-fashioned but never outdated. To the most influential director of his generation, welcome back.

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows

Tedious, my dear Watson
The world's favorite detective has gotten a makeover. Gone is Arthur Conan Doyle's intelligent, resourceful, eccentric creation, and in his place, we have gotten a swashbuckling, wisecracking, (still) eccentric action hero in the vein of Jack Sparrow. This is Sherlock Holmes for a 21st century audience, complete with all the explosions, gunfights and hand-to-hand combat you've always wanted from the 19th century British investigator but have never before gotten. At least that seems to be the train of thought taken by Guy Ritchie, who first introduced audiences to this updated Sherlock in 2009 in a film that was fairly successful, particularly considering it went head-to-head with James Cameron's Avatar juggernaut. Certainly, Ritchie's take is a breath of fresh air after so many decades of deerskin caps and frock coats, and in fact, many consider it to be more faithful in spirit to Doyle's original intentions, yet there is something missing from this sequel , which follows Sherlock and the ever-faithful Dr. John Watson as they tackles one of their most famed nemeses, Dr. Moriarty, played with devilish charm by Jared Harris. Hijinks, naturally, ensue.

Ritchie sets their adventures, which takes them from London to Paris, Germany and, ultimately, Switzerland, against a perpetually but appropriately grimy, dour backdrop that reeks of the industrialism of the mid-to-late 1800s. Though this tale takes place in an entirely different era from his usual works, it is still distinctly a Guy Ritchie movie, bloated with his regular stylizations and love of slow-motion. These flourishes sometimes work, as in segments that show Sherlock utilizing his almost superhuman powers of observation; other times, like in a massive action set piece in a forest, it feels like something lifted out of a Zack Snyder movie, which is not a compliment. Still, most of the action scenes strive for some level of originality, boosted significantly by a gleefully ominous and dissonant score from Hans Zimmer. However, beneath all the visual bravura, the movie feels oddly soulless, treating its characters like pieces in a game of chess. Despite a clever ending that features a couple of nice throwbacks to earlier moments in the film, the plot is cluttered, and it often seems as though the writers were making things up as they went along.

The cast features several impressive names, but with the exception of Jared Harris, who, interestingly enough, is the least well-known of all the major performers, none of them are particularly engaging. Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law reprise their roles as Sherlock and Watson, respectively. They have a pleasant, natural chemistry with each other, but the script never really allows their dynamic to progress beyond the exasperated but reluctantly loyal sidekick babysitting a mad, erratic genius. Downey Jr. has plenty of charisma, as he displayed so gloriously in his "comeback" role as Tony Stark in Iron Man three years ago, but one wonders when he might explore roles that stretch his range and acting chops more, as Stark and Sherlock both feel like two sides of the same sarcastic narcissist coin. However, most disappointing is Noomi Rapace, who is wasted in the role of Madam Simza Heron, a gypsy who is supposed to help the main duo in their quest to foil Moriarty's dastardly plan and who possesses all the personality and depth of a plot device. Deservedly rocketing to fame after her excellent performance as Lisbeth Salander in the Swedish adaptation of Stieg Larsson's bestselling Millennium trilogy, she is much too talented to spend an entire movie (her first Hollywood blockbuster, no less) essentially standing around and taking orders while everyone else gets to actually partake in the action.

One of the main attractions of Sherlock Holmes has always been his relationship with Watson, which is often depicted with some degree of a homoerotic subtext, and Guy Ritchie's version is no different. In fact, the movie seems to care so much about this relationship, to the detriment of all others, including the one between Watson and his wife, that at some point during the film, I began to abstractly wonder what it might be like if the film-makers just defied convention, took a risk and let them go beyond bromance and into romance, even a closeted one, given the time period. Roll your eyes and scoff if you will, but I would've accepted anything that might have livened up this humdrum affair.

The Muppets

For the lovers and dreamers
As any film critic and movie-goer will tell you, 2011 is the Year of Nostalgia. It's impossible to explain this phenomenon – maybe it's the result of the public's collective need to escape from the grimness of reality or maybe it's the upshot of aging film-makers struck by the urge to reflect upon their lives and careers or maybe it's simply a coincidence – yet in the end, it hardly matters. The fact is, several movies this year express a yearning for the past, either directly (Super 8, Hugo, The Artist) or obliquely (Crazy, Stupid, Love, Moneyball, We Bought a Zoo). Of those in the latter category, The Muppets is most successful at transporting viewers to a bygone era, a supposedly happier time, more rational in which dreams came true if you believed in yourself, and good inevitably triumphed over evil. It's Singin' in the Rain meets Toy Story 3: a delightful ode to the power of friendship, the strength of the human spirit and the joy of childhood that's bound to charm the most steadfast cynic.

The movie opens with a montage showing the two main characters, Gerry and his brother Walter, growing up, a five-minute scene that sets the tone for the rest of the movie. Like Toy Story 3, which featured a similar sequence during its opening credits, The Muppets is a "kids'" movie that appeals just as much, if not more, to adults and, despite being an ostensible comedy, aims more for the heart than the funny bone. It has its share of gags and jokes, yet what ultimately makes the film special is its ability to blend off-the-walls elation with wistful melancholy, to advocate traditional values in a fresh, inspired way and to evoke memories of the past without coming off as resentful or condescending. Although each scene bursts with manic energy, beneath all that can-do spirit and gleeful fluff, the movie is bittersweet; it's not simply an attempt to introduce a beloved host of characters to a media-savvy generation but a tender elegy to the lost innocence of youth. In its own uplifting way, The Muppets insists that the past is still relevant and always will be, no matter how far away it seems.

Of course, The Muppets also works as pure spectacle. The cast is huge, thanks to numerous cameos, including Neil Patrick Harris and Emily Blunt (in a clever wink at her work in 2005's The Devil Wears Prada). It is a credit to the tact of the film-makers that none of the cameos distracts from the storyline or the central actors, who fulfill their parts with aplomb. As the lead, Jason Segel radiates verve and sincerity, his well-documented fondness for Jim Henson's felt creations palpable. He makes an endearing couple with Amy Adams, who, after The Fighter, returns to the cheery persona that made her famous, though here, it's more effective than in movies like Doubt and Enchanted. Also impressive is Chris Cooper, who makes the villainous Tex Richman both legitimately menacing and appropriately cartoonish. However, the real stars are the Muppets themselves. The whole gang is back, engaging in their usual lovable antics, and there is something heartwarming about the sight of old-fashioned, tangible puppets in an era of digital animation. At the forefront is Kermit the Frog, as earnest as ever, and feminist diva Miss Piggy, and their romance is so surprisingly heartfelt that it's easy to forget that they're not human. The whole thing brims with infectious energy, complete with musical numbers that represent some of the catchiest tunes since Disney's 1990s heyday (standouts include the joyous "Life's a Happy Song" and a triumphant rendition of the classic "The Rainbow Connection"). It hardly matters that the plot itself is as frothy and predictable as that of a traditional TV sitcom.

The day after seeing The Muppets, I came across an article on The A.V. Club that I found uncannily resonant, even though it was actually a review of the latest episode of NBC's wry, pop culture-obsessed show Community. In it, author Todd VanDerWerff asserted that the episode, a Christmas special that parodied Fox's hot-button musical-comedy Glee, reminded him of one thing: that, to quote directly, "liking things is vital". In a way, that could be the message of this film year. As reflected in the Best Picture wins of such films as No Country for Old Men and The Hurt Locker, recent cinema is dominated by cynicism, a sense that the best movies are ones that reveal some fundamental truth behind the chaos of reality. In contrast, this year's most popular movies and prime Oscar contenders, including silent-film homage The Artist and Steven Spielberg's weepie War Horse, are saturated with optimism. Predictably, this trend has drawn complaints from critics who bemoan the attention given to the aforementioned films instead of darker offerings like Martha Marcy May Marlene and Melancholia, essentially equating lighthearted romanticism with escapist fluff. This is where I finally arrive at my point: while I understand the need for grittier, more somber fare, it's a mistake to assume that pessimism is the same as seriousness or that optimism is the same as naiveté. Maybe I'm just a sentimental person, but to me, this shift in attitude is a breath of fresh air. This year has given me some of the most eye-opening and downright magical film experiences I've had in a while in Super 8, Moneyball and Hugo, all of which favor emotional catharsis over "realism". The Muppets may not be on the same level as those, but it exemplifies an idea extremely relevant to our perpetually ironic, postmodern climate: it is okay to feel good. It is okay to indulge in nostalgia or yield to emotion. Sometimes, you have to stop analyzing everything and learn to let go. Cynics had their turn, and chances are, this is nothing more than a fleeting anomaly. For now, though, let us dreamers have our moment in the sun, just for one year.


Hugo: A Waking Dream
Ask any film buff walking down the street who Martin Scorsese is, and they're likely to respond with something along the lines of "living legend" or to mention Taxi Driver, Raging Bull or Goodfellas, perhaps the occasional After Hours or The Departed. With roughly half a century of filmmaking under his belt, the director has become revered for his dark, uncompromising looks into the human psyche, often focusing on seedy or morally ambiguous protagonists. Therefore, the news that his next project after the twisty, B-movie homage Shutter Island would be a kid-friendly fantasy, in 3D no less, was greeted with understandable skepticism by the film world. Despite its enormous departure from his usual tone and material, the result, however, feels like arguably the most personal of Scorsese's many works. Joining a host of other films from this year suffused with nostalgia, Hugo is a giddy, mischievous romp through 1930s Paris steadied by the confident hand of a master who not only knows his craft inside and out but is also madly, hopelessly, infectiously in love with it.

That adoration permeates through every aspect of the movie, from the breezy performances and tone to the absolutely stunning visuals and the love letter to Georges Melies and silent films, an ode that might have come off as ham-handed had its intentions not been so blatantly earnest and pure. Indeed, there is an innocence to Hugo that is all the more surprising when compared to the gritty realism of the rest of Scorsese's oeuvre. It celebrates the magic and joys of cinema with childlike wonder, allowing the audience to get swept up in much the same way that the story's two young protagonists, Hugo and Isabel, are when they sneak into a theater to watch an old Harold Lloyd comedy, the way audiences were when the first moving picture came out and viewers ducked and screamed because they thought the train in the film was going to hit them. In spite of the decidedly 21st-century technology used to make the movie (though it must be noted that Hugo boasts the best use of modern 3D in a chiefly live-action film so far, as even Avatar used as much CGI and animation as live-action), Hugo feels cheerfully old-fashioned, featuring long sequences without dialogue, including the remarkable opening sequence, and a wonderful score by Howard Shore that not only evokes the proper setting, but the entire feel of that era; you can easily imagine hearing it over a Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton film. Also refreshing is the strictly platonic but heartfelt relationship between Hugo, an orphan who has lived in the Paris Nord train station since his father died in a fire and has a natural instinct to fix things, and Isabel, the god-daughter of a crotchety, old man who runs a toy shop in the station. They exude naiveté but are not dumb or overly cute, treated by the filmmakers with the same respect accorded the adults in the story.

Another running trend through this year in film, in addition to the strong currents of nostalgia, has been the unusually strong performances from kids or teens, from the gang in Super 8 to Hunter McCracken in The Tree of Life and Kerris Dorsey in Moneyball. Though the youngsters here aren't necessarily the most impressive entries into that list, they both hold their own against their more seasoned costars. Asa Butterfield is passable as Hugo, able to convincingly play the character as both a lonely misfit and a smart kid who has learned quickly how to take care of himself, though there are moments when his emotions feel more forced and artificial than truly organic. However, it is Chloe Grace Moretz as Isabel who shines, radiating warmth, sincerity and a charming sweetness, a performance that is a far cry from her breakout role as the foul-mouthed Hit Girl in Kick-Ass; in the year since that movie came out, she has shown incredible range and, in Hugo, only further establishes that she is one of the most talented young actresses working today. Among the supporting players, a solid if eclectic group, Ben Kingsley, who portrays Georges Melies, seems likely to attract the most accolades, but perhaps the most surprising performance comes from Sasha Baron Cohen, who suggests here that he's capable of more than you'd think judging from Borat.

However, despite some notable performances and a lovely script, it is the visuals that bring Hugo to life. Normally when someone says the visuals are the most impressive aspect of a film, they're referring to CGI-and-F/X bonanzas, and it's usually a criticism, suggesting that such technical proficiency only serves to distract from uninteresting characters or a weak plot, but Hugo shows that this doesn't always have to be the case and that it's not always a bad thing when set design or special effects steal the show. The period sets and costumes are flawless, feeling authentic with a slight touch of whimsy that adds to the film's fantastical, dreamlike atmosphere, and the many shots overlooking Paris are simply breathtaking. Scorsese creates a world that feels completely real, even when it clearly isn't, so much so that there's a dream sequence that audiences likely won't recognize as a dream until it is nearly over. It is a world where magic is real and dreams come to life, and it is this sensibility that makes Hugo such a stirring tribute to not just old, silent movies, but cinema as a whole, and to the power of the imagination.

We Bought a Zoo

Sunshine. People. Joy.
Why should I like We Bought a Zoo? On paper, Cameron Crowe's latest self-discovery romance is a mess: it's sentimental, manipulative and self-conscious – no different from countless other inspirational family movies, from 2008's Marley and Me to 2011's inexplicably successful Dolphin Tale. And yet, against all logic, We Bought a Zoo doesn't fall into that trap. The difference between this and, say, The Blind Side, is that in the former, at least for the most part, the romanticism feels genuine, not a cheap method of pandering to parents in search of a family-friendly movie (for the record, I don't imagine that many children will find We Bought a Zoo all that interesting, despite numerous shots of animals). Thanks to a capable cast, Crowe's spirited direction and, of course, the pitch-perfect soundtrack, We Bought a Zoo is far better than it has any right to be.

Whether you enjoy We Bought a Zoo most likely depends on how you feel about director/co-writer Cameron Crowe. After the dark, bizarre Vanilla Sky and the meditative Elizabethtown, this represents Crowe's return to the energetic, lighthearted fare that made him popular and features many of his usual tropes, including the memorable, somewhat cheesy dialogue; the aimless male protagonist; the quirky sense of humor; the precocious child. Having fallen in love with Jerry Maguire and Almost Famous, I was both excited and anxious for We Bought a Zoo, hoping for a career comeback for Crowe but also accepting that the chances of it being a widespread success were slim. The result is similar to what I anticipated: a heartwarming, if occasionally schmaltzy ode to the power of love. Although lacking the vivacious wit of Jerry Maguire and the nostalgic ease of Almost Famous, We Bought a Zoo has a charm of its own in its belief in happy endings and the strength of the human spirit. Thus, while those who dislike Crowe's brand of all-American naiveté will probably find the movie intolerably sentimental and disingenuous, those like me, who are less opposed to starry-eyed optimism, will discover moments of surprising emotional honesty.

Much kudos must be given to the cast, particularly the five main actors. Matt Damon is a perfect fit for Cameron Crowe, imbuing his character with just the right blend of cheerful vitality and quiet sorrow to prevent him from becoming cartoonish and delivering even the most questionable lines with tireless aplomb. Once again, he proves his ability to seamlessly inhabit virtually any role, as, with his graying hair and pudgy physique, he is one of the few A-list actors that can convincingly play a completely ordinary father of two. Taking over the prerequisite "friend" role, Thomas Haden Church puts his dry pragmatism to good use, evening out the bubbly dynamism that saturates the rest of the movie, and, although not as impressive as in J.J. Abram's Super 8, Elle Fanning displays admirable maturity for an actress her age, proving that she is undeniably one to watch out for. Nonetheless, the biggest surprises are Scarlett Johansson and Colin Ford. The matter-of-fact foil to Damon's idealist, Johansson goes against type, shedding her usual sylphlike sensuality in favor of something more down-to-earth and restrained, displaying a subtle composure evocative of her work in such films as The Horse Whisperer and Ghost World. As the bitter, volatile Dylan, arguably the juiciest part in the movie, newcomer Colin Ford (whose most notable credit so far is a recurring guest spot on the TV show Supernatural) displays considerable self-control, turning what could have easily been a stereotypical, angst-ridden teen into a complex person. Like Alex Schaffer, who had a similar turn in Win Win, he joins an astonishingly long list of promising young performers this year.

We Bought a Zoo is not perfect. Unlike the aforementioned actors, young Maggie Elizabeth Jones does not fare so well as Mee's innocent, outspoken daughter. She is undoubtedly adorable, yet she is never quite believable and fails to transcend the angelic child cliché the way Jonathan Lipnicki did in Jerry Maguire, and some of her scenes are almost cringe-worthy in their excessive cuteness. The first thirty minutes are uneven, relying too heavily on ham-fisted idiosyncrasies and rather clumsy attempts at humor, which is a shame since it is precisely those moments that Crowe handled with perfection in romantic comedies like Jerry Maguire and Say Anything. The scenes involving the amateur real estate agent are especially unpleasant; luckily, there are only a few. Only after the family moves into the new house and begins to interact with the zoo workers does the movie find its groove.

The 2011 movie year has brought a surprising trend: a return to optimism. From the wide-eyed wonder of Super 8 to the whimsical nostalgia of The Artist, numerous films have displayed a willingness to break from the dark cynicism that has suffused recent cinema and embrace a newfound sanguinity. Maybe, then, We Bought a Zoo could not have been released at a better time. With its boundless energy and can-do attitude, not to mention radiant cinematography and sweeping score (composed by none other than Jónsi of Sigur Ros fame), this is the epitome of exuberance, a bright declaration of faith in humanity rarely seen in modern film. At first, I was hesitant to accept We Bought a Zoo (something about its brazen cheer felt outdated, contrived), yet around the halfway mark, I realized that I was tearing up. Then, during an unexpectedly raw argument scene, I outright cried. Maybe the movie is nothing but a cheap ploy for emotion, a series of scenes designed to manipulate viewers into experiencing feelings inorganic to the story and characters, an inauthentic, condescending portrait of false ideals. In the end, though, I couldn't help but succumb to the film's bold sensitivity, its simple tale of triumph over adversity and redemption through love. To answer the question posed at the beginning of this review, I will say what Benjamin Mee would probably say: Why not?

J. Edgar

J. Edgar: The Man Behind the Legacy
If there is one key to any great performance, it's in the eyes. A person's eyes provide a window into his inner thoughts, into the emotions and conflicts he might otherwise obscure from view, into his very soul, and the best actors, from Humphrey Bogart and Marlon Brando to George Clooney, Meryl Streep and, to use last year's Oscar winner, Colin Firth, are those that are able to harness this incredible tool and control it to best expose the subtleties and nuances of a character that cannot be expressed otherwise. Few contemporary performers have the talent to do this as well as Leonardo DiCaprio. As the title character in Clint Eastwood's latest, he commands the screen, honing that brooding intensity he's been developing throughout his career, though particularly since he became Martin Scorsese's new protégé in Gangs of New York and The Aviator, to a quiet, deadly perfection. He doesn't rely on over-the-top mannerisms, and while he does attempt, with adequate success, to capture J. Edgar Hoover's distinctive voice and spends roughly half the movie in unglamorous, aging make-up, he doesn't hide behind either of these devices. He goes beyond the standard biopic impersonation and instead, burrows deep into his character's psyche, bringing all of Hoover's personality and contradictions – the paranoia, ambition and loneliness, the egotistical drive for power and glory matched only by his deep-seated, suffocating insecurities – to a potent simmer always lurking just beneath the surface. When DiCaprio does let all of this loose, the result is explosive, as in one especially powerful argument scene with Armie Hammer, who portrays Clyde Tolson, Hoover's number two man and possible lover. One thing is for certain, he sure has come a long way since the star-crossed teen heartthrob he played in Titanic thirteen (!) years ago.

Though J. Edgar is worth watching simply to see DiCaprio's tour-de-force performance, it has its other virtues. The aforementioned Armie Hammer shines as the demure but relentlessly honest and devoted Tolson, a complete removal from his breakout role as the self-entitled Winkelvoss twins in last year's The Social Network. His chemistry with DiCaprio is restrained yet undeniable, conveyed largely by minute gestures and exchanged looks. Most historians have dismissed the idea that Hoover was gay, but regardless of its validity or historical accuracy, the two actors make it feel utterly believable and real in context. The movie is never more compelling than when they share the screen.

As Hoover's secretary and one-time girlfriend Helen Grady, Naomi Watts does an admirable job of conveying her character's constant struggle to remain loyal despite the increasingly morally questionable tasks her boss assigns her, even if we never quite understand why. She makes the most of limited screen time and a part that, on paper, is rather flat. The rest of the supporting cast, which also includes Judi Dench as Hoover's mother, is solid but uninteresting, with the exception of Jeffery Donovan, whose cringe-worthy portrayal of Robert Kennedy sticks out like a sore thumb.

Aside from the acting, perhaps the most interesting element of J. Edgar is the narrative structure. Instead of following a conventional, chronological timeline, Eastwood uses the present, which, in this case, is actually the 1960s and involves Hoover dictating his personal thoughts and memories to an FBI agent who will apparently compile them into a book, as a framing device for flashbacks to various moments throughout Hoover's career and life. Though this constant jumping between different time periods makes the initial fifteen minutes or so feel disjointed, a confusion heightened by the lack of the usual subtitles to indicate time and/or place, it also makes the film feel less like a traditional, note-by-note account of Hoover's life and more like they are getting glimpses of his memories, as though they are remembering along with him. It becomes less like a biopic and more like a character study along the lines of Citizen Kane, concerned not with the particular events themselves so much as the man behind them and how he was affected by them. This provides the audience with an intimate and detailed portrait of Hoover, but it has the downfall of shortchanging some of the other individuals in the story; because everything is told through Hoover's eyes, our entire perception of these characters is based on what he knows about them and what he thinks of them. Though, as previously mentioned, Armie Hammer and Naomi Watts bring some much-needed depth to their respective roles, their characters, and several others, are not nearly as well-developed as Hoover, and their motivations are not always completely clear. One also wonders why Eastwood included flashback scenes that do not involve the central protagonist; not only do these moments, which mostly relate to the Lindbergh baby kidnapping, violate the movie's general narrative approach, but they feel simply unnecessary, failing to add anything important to the plot or characters that could not have been revealed in a different way.

Still, despite these and other flaws, including an ending that could have used some minor trimming, Clint Eastwood's J. Edgar is a capable, engrossing portrayal of one of the most intriguing figures of the 20th century. The period sets and costumes are noteworthy, bringing to life five decades of American history, but like the sparsely albeit effectively used score, never draw unnecessary attention to themselves. There is much to admire here, but it is Leonardo DiCaprio's riveting performance, along with the support of an equally talented, bright-eyed Armie Hammer, that truly pulls you in.

Like Crazy

The smudgeness of love
Like Crazy is one of those movies that at first seems too small, trivial even, to leave much of an impact, but when you let the experience wash over you, the beauty, the simplicity, of it leaves you breathless. In an era of superficial rom-coms and sentimental weepies, it's hard to think of a movie that truly captures the feeling of love – the wonder, the pain, the confusion, the disillusionment, the awkwardness, the unfathomable complexity. That's not to say there have not been any good romances in the past few years because there have been plenty, but even those have a Hollywood-y quality: they're romances we wish we had, not the ones we've actually had. Then, Like Crazy comes along. An under-the-radar indie movie with an up-and-coming director and a cast of mostly unknowns, it captured hearts – not to mention accolades – at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, becoming the first film from that event to find a distributor and generating a fair amount of buzz for lead actress Felicity Jones. However, even with that extra boost, it's hard to see Like Crazy receiving a ton of Oscar attention or making a dent at the box office, which is unfortunate because I have rarely seen such an honest, unaffected portrayal of love, one that simultaneously rejects Hollywood histrionics and manages to avoid the self-consciousness that plagues most indies.

The movie opens with a blank screen and a voice, enriched by a soothing British accent, belonging to Anna, Felicity Jones's smart, sophisticated college student. What follows is a series of scenes, images, moments, rendered with tender exquisiteness, each so raw, so quietly expressive, that at times, it feels as though the audience is not watching a carefully choreographed storyline but something real. At the beginning, we get the impression that we're witnessing two youths, full of hopes and dreams, fall in love right before our eyes. It hardly matters that we can rarely hear what they're saying (a great deal of the scenes are edited as montages with music playing overhead, a telltale sign of director Drake Doremus's music video past); we believe it anyway. Strangely enough, this stylistic choice is both the movie's forte and, possibly, its main drawback. Everything is so subtle and understated that many viewers might completely miss the emotionality of it, which is revealed not through heartfelt monologues or extravagant gestures but through the actors' facial expressions and line delivery. It's hard not to imagine that for every person who leaves the theater brokenhearted, just as many, if not more, will leave cold and disappointed. Arguably more than any other genre, romance is subjective, and what one person adores another will inevitably despise. Even so, Doremus appears to understand something many film-makers ignore: love is expressed better through actions, not words. One simple kiss conveys more meaning, more passion, than a dozen lines of dialogue.

Attractive yet down-to-earth, Anton Yelchin and Felicity Jones make one of the most believable romantic couples in recent cinema, playing off each other with almost uncanny ease (most, if not all of their dialogue was improvised) and lending sincerity to a story that could easily have come off as maudlin and contrived. Jacob and Anna are likable, but more importantly, they are relatable. They act recklessly, sometimes selfishly, and it is fascinating and devastating to watch as they deal with the frustrations, disappointments and agonies of growing up and realize that nothing is ever as it seems, that perfection does not last forever and that love, as uplifting as it can be, is never as pure as we imagine. Here, both actors display a knack for conveying emotion through their body language. In a movie more dependent on visuals than dialogue, they do a brilliant job of articulating their inner thoughts, lending nuance to characters that on paper might have seemed bland and indistinct. The best showcase of their talent is the end, which I won't describe for fear of spoilers; suffice it to say that Yelchin's and Jones's eyes alone, so full of sorrow, repressed anger and bitterness, are enough to bring tears to the eyes. Even so, what makes them all the more admirable is their lack of pretension, as even the most intense scenes are void of the usual look-at-me theatrics and artificial flourishes, and, despite the fact that Jones has received most of the Oscar buzz, neither of them is really superior to the other. In the best performance of his still-budding career, Yelchin provides a nice contrast to his more lightweight turn in Fright Night earlier this year, revealing surprising depth beneath his youthful, innocent façade, and Jones, a newcomer, displays considerable maturity and grace in what should be a star-making role, though in terms of awards potential, she is liable to be outshone by Elizabeth Olsen, whose flashier part in Martha Marcy May Marlene also garnered substantial praise from critics at Sundance.

With its kinetic, ethereal cinematography and alternately soaring and heartbreaking soundtrack, Like Crazy has a surreal, almost transitory quality, making the experience of watching it feel akin to wading through a series of memories. When this dreamlike atmosphere gives way to sudden bursts of emotional intensity, as during a particularly vicious argument, those moments are all the more shocking and powerful. To be sure, the premise is rather flimsy, and there is quite a bit of back and forth, but perhaps, this is deliberate. This is not a love story, at least not in the traditional sense of the term; it is not about people falling in love or love triumphing over insurmountable odds. It is about two people desperately trying to hold onto an idea of each other, the memory of one blissful year in which their romance seemed perfect, invincible, only to discover too late that it is already gone.


Brad Pitt and co. get the job done
For a movie where the most memorable line is "How can you not be romantic about baseball?", Moneyball is surprisingly unsentimental. Granted, it features its fair share of rousing montages, some glossy cinematography courtesy of Inception's Wally Pfister and a quietly wistful score, but – and this should be made very clear to prospective viewers – it's not your typical, inspirational sports flick.

Then again, Billy Beane and the 2002 Oakland Athletics didn't exactly conform to the typical underdog narrative. After suffering a tough loss to the New York Yankees that eliminated them from the playoffs and losing their three star players, the A's began to drastically rebuild their team by putting numbers and stats over perceived star power, hoping to compete with their better-budgeted rivals by taking players that, for various reasons, were undervalued by others. They went on to win their division in a year highlighted by a record-making, 20 game win streak, only to be defeated, once again, in the early postseason. Not quite a storybook ending. Director Bennett Miller and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, who reworked a script by Steve Zaillain, are bold enough to not sugarcoat or ignore this anticlimactic finish (in one scene, Beane contends that a failure to win the World Series would mean all of their hard work has been wasted); fortunately, they're also savvy enough to pull it off. This risk represents one of many elements of Moneyball, from Brad Pitt's comically short and to-the-point take on the traditional locker room motivational speech to emotional moments that are understated rather than melodramatic and grand, that transcend or avoid the clichés that usually plague the genre. The film-makers care about telling the story they've been given instead of tweaking it to make it more crowd-pleasing. The result is an effervescent and keenly observed portrait, imbued with nostalgia and optimism in equal measure, of America's Favorite Pastime.

In another daring move, Moneyball takes viewers off the field and focuses the majority of the action behind-the-scenes, largely confining the actual games to effective and well-edited montages that intercut real footage, both visual and audio, with recreations. The business side of baseball has rarely been portrayed on film in great detail, and such subject material could easily have led to a dull, textbook-dry movie. Enter Aaron Sorkin. Though his dialogue here isn't as knock-you-down, 99 mph-fastball quick as in The Social Network, it still zips along effortlessly, drawing both humor and drama out of situations where you'd expect to see neither. He avoids sentimentality and leaves room for audiences to judge the events and the characters for themselves.

Still, the indisputable MVP is Brad Pitt. Over the years, he's proved himself to be much more than a pretty face, tackling challenging, complex and (usually) supporting roles when he could have simply coasted on his heartthrob status, and 2011's combined one-two punch of The Tree of Life and, now, Moneyball can only further cement his reputation as one of those rare actors with star power and talent in equal measure. In arguably the best lead performance of his career, Pitt portrays Billy Beane as flawed and decidedly human, a pleasant contrast to the bigger-than-life, almost saintly geniuses that frequently dominate sports movies. Outwardly, he's competitive, shrewd and stubborn almost to the point of arrogance, a forceful and assertive presence in the A's organization, but on the inside, he's plagued by doubts (what if this gamble doesn't work the way he'd imagined?) and regrets (he passed on Stanford to sign with the New York Mets only to crash and burn as a player at the major league level). He's a caring father to his 12 year old daughter, Casey, played with surprising aplomb and believability by Kerris Dorsey, but a divorce from her mother (Robin Wright, in a role that could've been filled by an extra) suggests that his personal life has seen its share of bumps along the way. Pitt sinks into this character with verve, and there isn't a moment when his performance feels unnatural or actor-ly. It's a work of subtlety, perhaps too quiet to earn him the Oscar attention many have started talking him up for, but worthy of notice nonetheless.

Also deserving of a shout-out is Jonah Hill who plays it straight to admirable results, while also garnering some deadpan laughs. As Peter Brand, a fill-in for the real-life Paul DePodesta, who gives Beane the idea to run his team using sabermetrics and subsequently becomes an assistant to the general manager for the A's, Hill provides an ideal nerdy but not socially-inept (thank God) foil to Pitt's more boisterous jock.

As a huge baseball fan (Nats and/or Rangers, anyone?), I went into Moneyball with mixed expectations. What I wanted was a tribute to baseball, an homage, if you will, that captures the complexity of the game, the constantly simmering tension, the exhilaration and feeling of unity and camaraderie that has me and other die-hards hooked. However, the possibility that it would actually accomplish this seemed dim. It seems fair to say that baseball's glory has faded a bit. America no longer seems as infatuated with the sport as in decades past, and Hollywood has been no different. The last well-received baseball movie was The Rookie in 2002. Since then, any offerings, let alone good ones, have been few and far in between. Also mixed in with that hope and skepticism was the fear that I'd get too caught up in noticing minor inaccuracies and technicalities to truly appreciate the movie, though had it been genuinely not good, that would've been a different story. It's a testament to the quality of Bennett Miller's film that, at some point pretty early on, my critical eye relaxed and I allowed myself to get caught up in the tale of Billy Beane and the Oakland A's. The fussing and nitpicking can be left to the real experts. It wasn't perfect, but I had a blast nonetheless.


A "Contagion" worth catching
In an interview, Steven Soderbergh once described Contagion as a horror movie. Truthfully, though, like the lethal disease around which it revolves, Soderbergh's latest film is hard to classify. Not quite a drama yet too talky to be considered an outright thriller, it teeters on that uncomfortable brink between Oscar bait and fall blockbuster, and ultimately, I wonder if it would entirely please either crowd; viewers expecting a fast-paced, high-octane action movie a la 28 Days Later will most likely be disappointed, and critics may decry the lack of character nuance. Nonetheless, that is not necessarily a bad thing. In a world in which every film is catered to a specific demographic, it's refreshing to find one that doesn't fit into a niche, one that cares more about telling a good, smart story than shattering box-office records and isn't afraid to divide audiences in the process. Although it doesn't transcend the prolific disaster genre, Contagion's brutal, ultra-realistic approach certainly gives it an edge.

The movie's premise is familiar: a group of scientists races against the clock to stop a viral epidemic. In an increasingly cynical, post-9/11 world, the once-simple zombie/apocalypse/monster plot device has taken on new depth, permeating such diverse works as the freaky, science-gone-haywire neo-noir Fringe and Cormac McCarthy's bleak, introspective religious parable, The Road, and a genre once synonymous with gore and escapism turned into a plethora of allegory and satire; even the screwball British comedy Shawn of the Dead had a not-too-subtle message about consumerism. After a decade of zombies-as-metaphors, Contagion is pleasantly straightforward. Sure, there are some conspiracy theories and anti-government accusations thrown around here and there, voiced mostly by Jude Law's greedy, paranoid blogger, Alan Krumwiede, but for the most part, the movie is more concerned with scientific facts than political statements. This lack of self-aggrandizement is what primarily separates Contagion from its less remarkable contemporaries, and Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns should be applauded for their bold decision to keep their film grounded, even subdued, rather than exploiting the premise for maximum spectacle. It is grim, almost unrelentingly so, yet levelheaded, void of the usual end-of-day histrionics and action set pieces. The movie proceeds with such unsmiling, unbiased realism, in fact, that some parts feel as though they've been taken from a documentary or news program, merely telling you the details instead of trying to pull you into the story.

Although it's a stretch to call Soderbergh's claim accurate, Contagion has an ample dose of horror elements. Like Hitchcock and Kubrick before him, Soderbergh knows that the key to suspense is not excessive gore or relentless action but atmosphere, an intricate, deliberate fusion of visuals and sound (not to mention a willingness to kill off seemingly essential characters). The Out of Sight and Ocean's Eleven director's renowned flair for technical ingenuity is on full display here, as he uses startling imagery and a dynamic, heart-pounding score by Cliff Martinez to overcome the believable yet mostly unremarkable script. Note in particular the haunting sequence in which the camera flashes to several worldwide locations, all totally void of human life; those shots, no more than two seconds each, are more powerful than any of the lengthy, methodical dialogue exchanges. The lighting, a wan yellow that anyone who's seen a Soderbergh project should recognize, gives the movie a dirty, claustrophobic quality, perfect for a flick about germs in crowded cities. Even throughout the lackluster middle section, the visual artistry should keep viewers engaged until the surprising, unforgettable last minutes. Also, unlike most actual horror movies, Contagion is just plain disturbing. Germaphobes beware: after seeing this, even the healthiest will think twice about touching a doorknob or shaking someone's hand.

Much has been made about the movie's sprawling ensemble cast, which collectively holds four Oscar wins and about eleven nominations. However, despite his proved success in the critically lauded Traffic, Soderbergh doesn't quite pull off the multiple-storyline technique. Matt Damon, in the most interesting and emotionally demanding arc, is the standout; it's no wonder the clip featured most prominently in the marketing campaign is one of his. As a determined, quietly mourning father, he once again demonstrates what has made him one of the most reliable actors in Hollywood: his unusual ability to appear simultaneously commanding and understated, poised and down-to-earth. The rest of the actors are solid, and of them, Jude Law gives perhaps the most memorable performance, but they aren't helped by the inconsistency in their story lines. Marion Cotillard's subplot feels especially superfluous. In addition, the focus on plot and ambiance pushes the characters into the background, rendering them more like figures on a chess board than fully fleshed-out people with complex lives and personalities. They're defined almost exclusively by their actions, and their motivations are largely ambiguous. You could argue that this is intentional, an attempt to mirror the coldness and disconnection of the real world, but even so, the film's detachment makes the horror it depicts numbing when it should be tragic.

Nonetheless, all the grimness makes the ending that much more resonant. There is one scene – I won't describe it for fear of spoilers, but those who have seen the movie will doubtless know to what I'm referring – that is simply breathtaking, both because it is crafted so exquisitely and because it is so unexpected. Poignant in its unabashed innocence, this scene is among the movie's best, if not the absolute best, a pitch-perfect juxtaposition of joy and sorrow, love and loss, future and past. In a movie so full of gloom, this moment lights up the screen like a candle in a dark room, a reminder that even in the face of such overwhelming despair, there is always hope.

Fright Night

In Fright Night, finally a vampire with real bite
Vampires have acquired a rather unenviable reputation in recent years as the laughing-stock of the monster world. Once viewed as mysterious, exotic and fearsome, they have now been reduced to lovelorn, brooding sex objects in the fantasies of tween girls, thanks to such pop culture entries as the Twilight franchise, The Vampire Diaries and True Blood. In short, they have become wimps. There's nothing wrong with allowing the creatures a little humanity or portraying vampires that feel and are motivated by more than an insatiable bloodlust, but when they start becoming vegan and not only walking in sunlight, thus violating one of the most basic fundamentals of vampire lore, but sparkling, one can be forgiven for bemoaning the current state of a genre that has existed and thrived for thousands of years.

Before you accuse me of using this review as an excuse to rant and rave, it has a point. I never imagined that I'd ever voice this sentiment, but thank God for Hollywood remakes. By all rights, Fright Night should've been a disaster on the scale of The Wicker Man waiting to happen, and the decision to bring a new version of the 1985 cult classic to the big screen seems questionable at best. Did I mention that it's also in 3D? And yet, by some (un)holy miracle, it worked. Propelled by an inexplicably appealing cast, Fright Night manages to be both enjoyably campy and legitimately good, never taking itself too seriously while also deftly avoiding the trap of self-parody. After all, if the film-makers see no genuine merit in their own creation, why should anyone else? Perhaps it's not surprising that it took a reach into the past to remind us that vampires can – and, many would argue, should – be creepy, even terrifying. In Fright Night, our main vamp, Jerry, played in the original by Chris Sarandon and in the remake, by a perfectly cast Colin Farrell, skimps on the soul-searching melodrama and instead serves up a dish of primal, unapologetic nastiness; despite the vanilla name, he's pure evil. With his gently seductive voice and, let's face it, deliciously good looks, Farrell exudes a calm, quiet charisma, his mere presence rendering both the audience and the other characters helpless and mesmerized, but he never lets us forget the sinister instincts that motivate Jerry's every action. Jerry is cocky, assured of his own invincibility, and it's that confidence, the way his voice never rises above a steady purr (?), the sly, knowing smile that always seems to be on his face or flitting just below the surface, that makes him such a riveting, menacing villain.

As Charlie Brewster, the insecure and semi-neurotic but undeniably likable teen hero of the story, Anton Yelchin makes a good foil to Colin Farrell's swaggering vampire, and David Tennant steals scenes as the heavily eye-lined, leather pants-wearing Vincent Price, often adding some much-appreciated, dry humor to the darker, more insane moments. Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Imogen Poots and Toni Collette round out the supporting cast, not to mention a cameo that will surely please fans of the original Fright Night. Collette is the only weak link, though that's, at least partly, due to a thankless, minimally developed role. What makes the cast effective as a whole is their collective decision to play everything straight, where others might've been tempted to go over-the-top or cornball thanks to the material, which is really the stuff of B-grade horror films.

To be clear, I don't necessarily mean that as an insult. Fright Night is corny and knows it, as evidenced by the cheesy special effects, the blatantly made-for-3D camera shots and dialogue exchanges like, "I thought you needed an invitation" "Don't need an invitation if there's no house". In fact, at its core, Fright Night is basically an old-fashioned monster movie, and on that level, it's a pure, fun blast. Less successful is the film-maker's attempts to make the affair more meaningful by adding on vague metaphors about being different and suburban ennui. Still, the half-hearted allegory subtracts little from the film's overall entertainment value, and while it may not be an artistic masterpiece, it doesn't aspire to that level either. Thanks to a delightful cast and a general willingness to embrace its fun and freaky nature, Fright Night is way better than it has any right to be, a breath of fresh air after years of stories filled with nothing but bland, mopey vampires.

I do have one small confession to make: as of the writing of this review, I have yet to see the original movie upon which this one is based. Fear not, though. If the quality of a remake is measured by its ability to kindle within a viewer the crazed desire to get hold of the source material ASAP, then consider this film a bloody, brilliant success.

One Day

A pleasant yet unmemorable love story
Whenever I hear that one of my favorite books is being adapted into a movie, I feel a mixture of excitement and trepidation; lately, trepidation has generally come out on top. After several years of disappointing results, from the Notebook-esque sapfest that was The Time Traveler's Wife to London Boulevard, which didn't even received a U.S. release date, it was difficult to muster much optimism for Lone Scherfig's interpretation of One Day. Playing like a British mash-up of When Harry Met Sally… and (500) Days of Summer, David Nicholls's 2009 bestseller is far from a traditional Hollywood romance, with its quirky structure and emphasis on authenticity and melodrama. I entered the theater prepared for a letdown, refusing to let the promising cast and shrewd directorial choice get my hopes up. Yet at the halfway mark, I came to a surprising realization: I actually kind of liked it. Naturally, it doesn't come close to the excellent source material, but I can say as much: at no point did I wish it had never been made. Although that may sound like faint praise, considering my recent track record for book adaptations, it's more than adequate.

My greatest fear concerning One Day was that it would be more of an adaptation than a real movie, a carbon copy of the book that never finds a life of its own. Luckily, the film-makers mostly dodged this bullet; in fact, I think the movie might work better for those unfamiliar with the source material, who can watch without preconceived expectations. The majority of the credit must be given to the two young leads. Despite the shallow script, which never quite reaches the emotional depth of the novel, Anne Hathaway and Jim Sturgess share a subtle, effortless chemistry that lends the film an unexpected sincerity, making it easy for the audience to root for them. They are not likely to top any lists for "Best Cinematic Couple", but through fleeting glances and offhand kisses, they effectively convey the quiet yearning that defines their characters' relationship, which, even in the book, is more playful than romantic. They are also admirable by themselves. Sturgess is perfect as the spontaneous, arrogant Dexter, injecting just the right amount of angst and self-loathing beneath his character's haughty exterior. Dubious accent aside, Anne Hathaway fits nicely into the role of Emma Morley, the ego to Dexter's id. She finds a comfortable balance between compassion and pragmatism, and her rational demeanor and down-to-earth attractiveness make her a relatable heroine. The supporting cast is solid, albeit unremarkable; Sturgess and Hathaway are undeniably the stars.

Theoretically, director Lone Scherfig should be right in her comfort zone here. Her breakout hit, An Education, which jumpstarted the career of Carey Mulligan and snagged an Oscar nomination for Best Picture, displayed the flawless combination of wit and heart required by One Day, and her smart handling of the romance between Mulligan's naïve 16 year old schoolgirl and Peter Sarsgaard's slick thirty-something con artist suggested a knack for unconventional relationships. For the most part, One Day does nothing to mar her budding reputation, but it lacks the polished finesse of An Education. The pacing is uneven, as she appears to be more concerned with keeping the running time under two hours than letting viewers soak in her world and its inhabitants, and the shift between years feels rather arbitrary and indistinct. If it weren't for the white letters appearing at the beginning of each scene, it would be impossible to gauge the passage of time. The framing device, which worked brilliantly in the book, feels more gimmicky than innovative.

That is, ultimately, the movie's biggest flaw. Sure, it's a sweet romance, but what made the novel so special, what elevated it above the typical will-they-won't-they formula, was its honesty. Through the voices of Emma and Dexter, Nicholls captured the mood of a generation struggling to meet the expectations of a society that insists on fueling dreams of fame, fortune and happiness, only to shatter them. One Day is more than a simple love story; it's a study of two individuals and their attempts to deal with setbacks, disappointments and hardships, to find meaning in their seemingly haphazard lives. Sharp yet never cynical, nostalgic yet never sentimental, it is remarkable not for its witty dialogue or its unconventional narrative but for its keen eye for the rhythms of conversation, the fragile barrier between thought and spoken word and the tendency of people to act without logic. It is astoundingly, heartbreakingly human. From the outset, it's evident that the movie will not replicate this feat. The scene in which Dexter and Emma first meet feels too rushed and matter-of-fact for the audience to sense the bond that develops between them, a shortcoming magnified by the fact that Scherfig all but eliminates the the first chapter of the book, constricting several pages of prose into approximately five minutes. While the actors show enough personality to win sympathy for the protagonists, the movie never lets you really get to know them. They're only a shade of the vivid, nuanced people described in the book. To be fair, part of the blame lies with Nicholls himself since he wrote the screenplay, though the truth is, a story as complex and understated as One Day simply doesn't translate onto the big screen, where the visuals are everything and subtlety can easily be lost. Even the shock ending feels more bewildering than tragic. It's a shame really, but sometimes, good enough has to be, well, good enough.

Crazy, Stupid, Love.

Crazy, Stupid, Love is a real crowd-pleaser
It was roughly two-thirds of the way into Crazy, Stupid, Love when I realized how invested the audience in my theater had become. The key scene involved a mom cleaning her daughter's room, a seemingly mundane moment that produced gasps and cries of "Oh no!" even before the character makes a very revealing discovery. It's a scene that, much like the rest of Crazy, Stupid, Love, a heartwarming and, at times, painfully honest depiction of three couples at various stages in each of their relationships, unfolds not with predictability so much as inevitability. Unlike your average, generic romantic-comedy, this movie focuses less on the end, on who will end up with whom, than on the special and often surprising connections that are made along the way. What's more, it achieves the remarkable and all-too-rare feat of actually moving the audience to care about the central characters, to cheer when they come out on top and sympathize when they don't.

Using a witty, compassionate and ever-so-slightly subversive script from Dan Fogelman, directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, who are best known for writing the pitch-black comedy/satire Bad Santa and only have one other directorial effort under their belts (last year's I Love You, Philip Morris), guide the production along with subtle ease. They strike an ideal balance between humor and drama, allowing the overall tone to develop organically. Laughs come mostly in chuckles at the cleverness of a line or its delivery and are never awkwardly forced in to lighten up a scene, while the emotions feel genuine without becoming manipulative. Most of all, their restrained approach allows the actors to breathe and to fully embody the characters they've been given.

Speaking of which, has there ever been a more likable group of people assembled for a film, much less a romantic comedy? The cast gels remarkably well, and at no point is anyone singled out as a villain; even when a character threatens to become unlikable, the actor portrays him or her with such keen understanding that it ultimately becomes hard, if not impossible, to not root for each and every one of them. Whenever the film tiptoes the line toward schmaltzy, they pull it back, making every line and emotion feel utterly real. As the unquestionable lead of the film, Steve Carell displays a tenderness and dramatic depth he'd only hinted at in previous works like the unexpectedly moving The 40-Year-Old Virgin and occasional episodes of The Office, while Ryan Gosling, all immaculate grooming, sly grins and twinkling eyes, is perfectly cast as his foil, Jacob, a suave ladies' man who's really using all that money and swagger to disguise the emptiness he feels inside. Julianne Moore and Emma Stone are both lovely as Emily and Hannah, respectively, radiating a down-to-earth presence and relatability that many other Hollywood actresses seem to lack. Also worth noting are Analeigh Tipton and Jonah Bobo, who form Crazy, Stupid, Love's youngest romantic pairing and have been all but ignored by the movie's publicity campaigns despite their obvious talents.

What truly sets Crazy, Stupid, Love apart from other modern-day romantic comedies, aside from the perceptive writing and direction and a dream cast, is that it strives to be meaningful, rather than just mindless, predictable fluff. Though the movie employs its share of clichés (precocious kid, guy falls for the one girl who initially rejected his advances, etc.) , it's often done with a knowing wink, most obviously when, after an altercation with Emily, his ex, and rain begins to pour down on him, Carell's despondent Cal mutters, "What a cliché." It shows that love is messy, irrational, sweet and universal, filled with regrets and tears as well as hope and joy. It celebrates movies like Say Anything… or Jerry Maguire where sentimental wasn't a bad word and love meant more than sex, diamond earrings and expensive, candlelit dinners, where those small, precious moments of quiet intimacy – a shared look, a simple but honest conversation, a laugh, a smile, buying a mint chocolate chip ice cream cone, a spontaneous phone call – speak as loudly as the grandest, most dramatic, craziest gestures.

In short, Crazy, Stupid, Love does what the best romantic comedies do: it gives us a glimpse into the raw, human moments that collectively build to bring two people together – or, at times, tear them apart; we fall in love with them just as they fall in – or, out of – love with each other. It's the perfect date movie, and so much more. To all the other ones, the mediocre, cornball, lazy, offensive rom-coms and chick-flicks out there, Ryan Gosling has a message for you: be better than The Gap. Be better than The Gap.

Cowboys & Aliens

Pure escapism that could have been more
Depending on whom you asked, the premise of Jon Favreau's latest summer tentpole movie sounded either brilliant or ridiculous: cowboys band together to fight invading aliens. The title pretty much said it all. Regardless, it was a nifty idea to capitalize on the latest out-of-nowhere geek fascination with cowboys and aliens (which is topped only by the ongoing pirates-v.-ninjas debate), and, especially coming from the director of Iron Man, it seemed all but guaranteed to work, at least in terms of box office. If nothing else, it was going to be fun, a high-budget Syfy original. The real question was whether it would transcend its gimmick and prove that high-concept genre mash-ups could be legitimately thoughtful and fresh or become just another example of the disposable escapism that currently dominates the summer movie season.

It starts out promising. Like the ubiquitous trailer, the movie opens with our unidentified hero waking up in the middle of a desert, a mysterious device strapped to his wrist. He is confronted by a band of suspicious cowboys, all of whom he takes out with Jason Bourne-like ease, and he silently rides away on a horse taken from one of his unconscious foes. This exchange, set to a beautifully atmospheric score by Harry Gregson-Williams, demonstrates the taut simplicity that embodies Cowboys and Aliens at its most engrossing because, as pretentious as it may sound, the movie is best when nothing much is going on. On the surface, Favreau and his screenwriters, a group that includes Alex Kurtzman and Robert Orci, who somehow managed to pen both the 2009 Star Trek reboot and Michael Bay's Transformers movies, seem to understand the key elements of a Western. The locale is suitably barren and dusty, the dialogue is blunt and to-the-point, and the pacing is brisk. The characters never quite rise above traditional archetypes (the man-of-few-words, the mysterious dame, the determined lawman), but they're likable and interesting enough that we feel invested in their fates. Some viewers may be surprised by the lack of humor, but for me, this was the right approach. How could we take the movie seriously if it didn't take itself seriously?

Unfortunately, that is the high point. Once the aliens arrive, kicking off the main plot, the movie forgets what made it charming in the first place. Sure, it's entertaining, and the action sequences, while still on the unremarkable side, are infinitely superior to those in the Iron Man movies, but when the credits roll and the adrenaline wears off, it's obvious that something is missing. It took a while for me to determine what exactly that something was, yet writing this review, it's becoming more and more apparent: in the end, why should the audience care? Although some may argue that Favreau accomplished what he set out to do, which was to provide a fun way to consume a couple hours, Cowboys and Aliens had the potential to be so much more than that, and something tells me that the film-makers had more in mind than diverting fluff.

In interviews, Favreau has insisted that one reason, if not the reason, for making Cowboys and Aliens is a desire to revive the western, a once-beloved genre that now struggles to stay relevant. It's certainly an admirable goal, but I can't say their efforts pay off. While all the tropes are there, from the prostitute with a heart of gold to the minor plot line involving settler-Indian relations, the movie ignores one crucial fact: westerns aren't about gunfights or gold; they're about people searching for meaning and order in a chaotic, unforgiving landscape. At first, Cowboys and Aliens seems to acknowledge this, but after the science-fiction aspect takes over, the characters and the conflicts presented at the beginning are pushed aside in favor of a mediocre monster story, and the tension dissipates. The instant the cowboys unite to fight the aliens, apparently ignoring their personal rivalries and grudges, all signs of internal struggle and moral ambiguity vanish. The best westerns are defined by engaging, often unpredictable characters and their interactions as well as the sizzling chemistry between the actors who portray them. If Cowboys and Aliens possessed either, it's not evident by the end of the first hour. The casting of both Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford, James Bond and Indiana Jones, respectively, promised hostile confrontations and scenery-chewing, but they share so little screen-time that you don't even remember that they're supposed to be bonding with each other until the very last scene.

For what it's worth, Daniel Craig is the only member of the cast that stands out. I'll admit that I'm not a fan of his James Bond – or any James Bond, for that matter – but he is enthralling as the brooding Jake Lonergan, lending his rather dispassionate character a discreet yet touching vulnerability, and his screen presence is formidable. Otherwise, the actors are merely solid. Harrison Ford doesn't have much to do besides scowl and grumble, and Sam Rockwell (who was, by the way, easily the best thing about Iron Man 2) is woefully underused (again) as the mild-mannered doctor. The main rough spot is Olivia Wilde. Despite, or perhaps because of, her exotic beauty, she is never credible as a tough, enigmatic rebel out for revenge; even though the movie takes place in the wild west, it's hard to believe she could hold her own against her more rugged male counterparts.

From the beginning, it's obvious who's going to win, and maybe that's part of the problem. Without any compelling character-based conflicts, the stakes feel almost nonexistent. The lives of loved ones hang in the balance, yet for some reason, the aliens come off more as nuisances than legitimate threats; not once can I recall wondering whether our protagonists will survive. Ultimately, as the anticlimactic finale dwindles into an unrewarding conclusion, you're left wondering what the point was. Yeah, the ride was pretty fun, but really, so what?

Captain America: The First Avenger

Captain America: First Avenger fights superhero fatigue - and wins
In many ways, Captain America: The First Avenger resembles its title character, that iconic symbol of good, ol'-fashioned, American patriotism. Like the Cap, this movie has been embellished with all the bells-and-whistles of modern-day technology, supported by state-of-the-art special effects and blatantly high production values, but just as Captain America is, deep down, still the scrawny, scrappy Steve Rogers, at the heart of the film lies the simple, noble intention of telling a good story and, hopefully, entertaining the audience while it's at it. It's this modesty that helps Captain America succeed where others have failed, or at least fallen short.

Much has been made of the recent glut of superhero and comic book-based movies. There are only so many origin stories, prequels, sequels, spin-offs and reboots most people can take before they all begin to look the same. While I would argue that this genre is as valid as any other (romantic comedies have seen little internal change even though they've been around for decades, but do you ever hear someone demand they no longer be made?), the truth is that, though they may now be high in quantity, the quality of the majority of these superhero films has been sub-par. Perhaps this stems from the difficulty of balancing the needs of the comics' vicious, passionate fan bases with those of the average movie-goer. Regardless of the reasons, not since 2008's formidable duo of Iron Man and The Dark Knight has any superhero movie made a real impact; even box-office returns have largely been nothing special.

Just when it looked like we'd have to wait yet another year, along comes Captain America. Though it is nowhere near as weighty or transcendent as Chris Nolan's Batman movies, it follows closer in the footsteps of Jon Favreau's surprise hit, which similarly took a B-list comic book character and turned him into the star of a wildly enjoyable blockbuster. Like Iron Man, Captain America works because, despite some flashy visuals, cartoonish action sequences and mythic gobbledy-gook, the film-makers and writers never lose sight of the characters or their motivations, keeping the story grounded even in its most fantastical moments. Recent Marvel films, like Iron Man 2, have felt like nothing more than superfluous and lazy marketing gimmicks whose soul purpose was to set up next year's The Avengers, which will unite all of Marvel's heroes in one film, but while studio execs probably had similar intentions for Captain America, Joe Johnston and his colleagues do not approach it as such. They treat it as a stand-alone film and, for the most part, the story arcs feel self-contained; the viewer's enjoyment is not dependent on prior knowledge or attachment based in separate movies or in the comics, though there are plenty of Easter eggs that will no doubt please those fans.

The writing is unfussy, never overreaching in unnecessary attempts at grandeur, and the plot is easy to digest: basically, kill Nazis, or, more specifically, H.Y.D.R.A. soldiers, who are like super-Nazis with guns that shoot blue lasers instead of ordinary bullets. Though there are a few recognizable names and faces in the cast, Captain America benefits from a relative lack of true A-listers who might've made the production feel too crowded or chewed too much scenery. As our central hero, the very Aryan- (and buff)-looking Chris Evans does a fine job. Whether he is portraying Steve Rogers or his more muscular alter-ego, Evans never lets go of the heart and stubborn determination that drives his character from beginning to end. Among others, Tommy Lee Jones, Stanley Tucci and Toby Jones provide solid support, and Hugo Weaving still makes a mean villain, even if his German accent often sounds more like a British one. However, the real surprise here is unknown actress Hayley Atwell as Peggy Carter, who, in a breath of fresh air, is the first superhero heroine I can remember who is never forced into the role of victim or damsel-in-distress. Bearing a striking resemblance to Scarlett Johanssen, albeit with brown hair and a light British accent, Atwell plays Peggy Carter with grace and poise, more than holding her own against her more seasoned male counterparts.

The film's only significant misstep comes at the end with an epilogue that is tacked on after the story's surprisingly emotional climax. Though comic book fans will be familiar with the twist, the conclusion lacks the closure needed to be truly satisfying. Fortunately, like Marvel's other movies, Captain America features a post-credits tag, and for the fanboys (and girls) out there, boy, oh, boy is it worth the wait.

The Tree of Life

A lyrical ode to life, nature and family
The Tree of Life elicits many emotions from its audience - wonder, shock, horror, joy - but, at least for me, the overwhelming feeling was one of confusion. For an entire minute after the credits started to roll, my theater was completely silent. No one moved or spoke, I could tell that everyone was attempting to digest what they'd just witnessed; even now, I'm not sure whether this is good or bad. Such ambiguity surprised me. Given the rumors of fervent booing and mass walk-outs that provided the majority of the movie's publicity as well as the hasty decision by many a film aficionado to label it a "masterpiece", it was clear that Terrence Malick's latest visual poem was a love-or-hate-it affair.

From the film's first shot – a still of a flame surrounded by darkness – Malick's influence is unmistakable. Alternating between a grand, mostly wordless montage of the creation of the universe and an intimate portrait of family life in suburban 1950's Texas, The Tree of Life displays a liberal use of imagery and parallelism to tell its story, which is less a fully formed narrative than a tapestry of ideas and metaphors. A significant portion of the dialogue is done in voice-over narration as the characters reflect on their lives, and in the end, it seems almost irrelevant, little more than a series of melodious asides, as the images alone are enough to convey the movie's central message. Here, pictures are really worth a thousand words. Captured and arranged with exquisite, painstaking deliberation, each scene is practically its own individual story, a rich medley of symbolism and meaning, seething with understated emotion, begging for a scholarly analysis. While it is theoretically possible to enjoy the movie on a more superficial level, to simply let the beauty wash over you, I'll confess that there is a strange delight in peeling back the myriad layers and searching for the various labyrinthine implications hidden behind them. Like all the best directors, Malick understands the power of images – he knows that one perfectly positioned shot can affect the viewer more deeply than the most elaborate monologue – and never has that been more evident than in The Tree of Life.

That said, the movie is most engaging at its quietest. The shots of outer space are undeniably breathtaking – if The Tree of Life does not score Oscar nominations, if not wins, for its visual effects and cinematography, it will be shocking, to say the least – yet not until the half-hour mark, when the central narrative takes hold, did I become truly absorbed. This section plays out as a seemingly arbitrary compilation of memories (birth, learning to walk, playing with friends, first love, etc.), and, despite the meandering pace, it eventually develops a rhythm of its own that suggests a running train of thought; it's stream-of-consciousness expressed through images rather than sentences. Naturally, much of the story's power comes from the visuals as Malick transforms even the most mundane scenes, such as a woman strolling casually through a sprinkler or a group of boys frolicking on a suburban street on a calm summer night, into works of fine art. In addition to the purposeful camera-work, the spot-on period detail, gorgeous yet never garish or distracting, further immerses the audience in Malick's depiction of the 1950s suburbs, where the sun apparently always shines and nature coexists peacefully with man. The occasional bursts of brutality and ugliness amidst the unrelenting beauty and surrealism make the movie all the more potent.

And that is really the biggest surprise of The Tree of Life. I, presumably like many people, went in hoping for little more than extravagant visuals and, perhaps, an eye-opening message about the meaning of life itself, but what I got was something different; indeed, it's spectacularly photographed, but what raises it above the pretentious superficiality that dogs many art films is its emphasis on contrasts: man v. nature, peace v. violence, life v. death, love v. hate. If anything, the film is about the gray areas in life, the way in which opposites can intertwine and blend with each other, not the big, all-encompassing Truth hinted at by the advertising campaign. Nowhere is this ambiguity more evident than in Malick's portrayal of family life, which is among the most honest and realistic I have seen in recent cinema. Neither dysfunctional nor enviable, the O'Brien clan consists of several relationships, from father-mother to brother-brother, each given equal thought and complexity, and for anyone who either belongs to such a family or knows one (which, I assume, is almost everyone), their love-hate dynamic is painfully familiar. This is a family in which most thoughts go unspoken and sincerity is a rare occurrence. In addition to the director and screenwriter, the actors deserve credit for their preference for subtlety over scenery-chewing and their remarkable ability to convey emotions as assorted as rage, resentment, jealousy, fear and affection through the blink of an eye or turn of the head.

Of course, The Tree of Life isn't for everyone. I consider myself a patient viewer, but the first half-hour is almost unbearably slow, and at a certain point, endless shots of volcanoes and cosmological happenings, no matter how dazzling, become more self-indulgent than profound. Although some may insist that each second was somehow significant to Malick's overall intent, the movie still clocks in at a whopping two hours and twenty minutes, and I'm sure that a few montages of swirling planets could have been sacrificed in favor of a reasonable running time. In the end, The Tree of Life is like a classic novel: you admire its craft and you're glad you read it, but you don't feel the uncontrollable urge to experience it again. So, while I wouldn't recommend this movie lightly, if you're in the mood to contemplate themes about love, existence and time and analyze surreal visuals, these two-and-a-half hours are well worth the effort.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2

The Boy Who Lived casts his final spell
How do you review a movie that, for many in a certain generation - my generation - marks the end of an era, that represents the last chapter in a story that defined their childhood and youth? From the moment Harry Potter first stepped on the now-iconic Platform 9 3/4, his adventures became theirs; they laughed, cried and cheered with him, delighting in his world of magic, wonder and danger.

A personal, emotional connection to the world and franchise of Harry Potter seems to have such an integral correlation to one's enjoyment of this movie that I feel obligated to lay out where I stand before diving head-first into my review. My love affair with Harry Potter, which lasted from book one to five, deteriorated with the sixth installment, one I still find to be self-indulgent and, frankly, rather unnecessary. The movies, while mostly enjoyable, have often felt more like rote adaptations than fully fleshed-out, living, breathing works in their own right.

That said, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2 is the best of the series. It doesn't approach the greatness of The Lord of the Rings, that fantasy saga to which all others are inevitably compared, but it's still a well-executed, satisfying conclusion.

Credit must first be given to the producers and director David Yates. The Harry Potter series has become the most successful franchise in movie history, surpassing such legends as Bond and Star Wars, and the film-makers could have easily taken the lazy route, phoned it in without regard to quality (see: Twilight, or rather, don't). The money would've flooded in either way. Instead, Yates and his coworkers put genuine effort into producing films the series' fans deserved. They injected the Deathly Hallows, both Part 1 and 2, with artistry and passion that were often absent from previous movies. You can sense they'd finally, fully realized that "bringing the books to life" means more than just following the words on the page; it means merging the author's vision with your own, being unafraid to add creative flourishes and, when necessary, changes.

The movie begins on a rather rocky slope. Because this is a continuation of the previous film, we're immediately thrown into the thick of things, and there's no real opening to help the audience adjust. In fact, Deathly Hallows might work best if you watch the two parts back-to-back. However, once our heroes return to Hogwarts for the epic battle that fills the majority of run-time, the movie picks up and settles into a comfortable rhythm. To enrich the story's inherent action, suspense and drama, Yates utilizes all tools at his disposal: state-of-the-art special effects, painstakingly manufactured sets, smart usage of color and style in his cinematography. Though Alexandre Desplat's score sometimes veers into melodrama (John Williams is sorely missed, though his classic theme does pop up) and the aging process used for a 19-years-later epilogue is dubious, the technical elements largely come together with ease.

However, what truly makes this movie work, the secret charm behind the franchise's success, is the cast. The love every actor, young or old, has for his or her character shines through. It's been a running joke that every veteran British actor worth his salt has appeared in at least one Harry Potter movie. While that isn't necessarily true, it's hard not to marvel at how many greats the series has attracted: Emma Thompson, Brendan Gleeson, Gary Oldman, Kenneth Branaugh, etc. Even more impressively, where many A-listers might've just sleepwalked their way to an easy paycheck, these actors treat their roles with the same care and devotion they would've given any Oscar-bait drama or Shakespearean play. Maggie Grace embodies Professor McGonagall's stately dignity, while Ralph Fiennes and Helena Bonham Carter bite into their parts with sadistic, scenery-chewing glee. Yet, no one stands out more than Alan Rickman, who has played Professor Severus Snape, always one of Rowling's most interesting and complex characters, for the past decade to oily perfection; occasionally, Rickman relishes the former potions professor's signature line delivery almost too much. Still, the tragic scene when Snape's motivations are finally explained is, for me at least, the best in the movie.

But the films' stars have always been those portraying its three central protagonists: Rupert Grint, Emma Watson and Daniel Radcliffe. All I can say is, wow. What a joy it has been to watch them grow up and mature from baby-faced, bright-eyed kids who, according to original director Chris Columbus, could barely get through two lines of dialogue to intelligent, nuanced adults more than capable of holding their own beside their more experienced costars. That they did it all without encountering the woes that befall many of their peers is all the more remarkable. In this outing, Grint and Watson are significantly and unfortunately sidelined in favor of characters like Neville and Luna, neither of whom I ever cared for, but they make the most of what they have. Naturally, the spotlight falls most on Daniel Radcliffe. Of the three, he has had the most detractors, criticized as bland and wooden. That may, at one point, have been true, but here, he acquits himself admirably. Faced with the most challenging scenes he's ever been given as Harry Potter, Radcliffe dives in fearlessly and successfully brings out Harry's virtues, foibles and internal struggles.

This movie has its flaws, most of which were also issues in the book and, if listed out, probably seem nitpicky on my part, but overall, it is a triumph. It may never receive the respect and accolades of awards giants, who still seem to regard the films as silly, kids' blockbuster trifles not worthy of their attention beyond a couple of tech nominations, but its cultural impact, not to mention the box office returns, is an, arguably, more valuable reward. To our three main stars, I wish all the luck, success and happiness in the world. They've earned it.

Cars 2

An enjoyable, if uneven, ride
It seems cliché nowadays to critique Pixar's work by comparing it to their previous resume, but at a certain point, it is unavoidable. After two decades of churning out successful, critically acclaimed films, Pixar's name has become synonymous with quality animation, making them almost indisputably the most trustworthy studio in Hollywood. However, such a lofty reputation elicits even loftier standards. Considering the fact that general consensus has established that Cars is Pixar's worst film (meaning it is only very good instead of spectacular), it is no surprise that the release of that movie's sequel was met with comparatively low expectations. I'll be the first to admit that I thoroughly enjoyed the first Cars and find its status undeserved (both Monsters, Inc. and A Bug's Life are mediocre, in my humble opinion), so I prayed that Cars 2 would surprise everyone by continuing Pixar's streak – and besides, at least at the time, a spy movie with cars seemed kind of genius. Did they deliver on this promise? Not quite. What I got was a jumbled yet consistently entertaining combination between a winking homage to old-timey espionage thrillers and a kid-friendly tale about animated cars. And hey: if nothing else, it looked stunning.

I'll start with what worked. Of course, the visuals were absolutely gorgeous, even for Pixar. The various landscapes (our protagonists jumped all across the globe, stopping by Tokyo, Paris, Italy and London, among other exotic locales) leapt off the screen, alive with color and detail, making the action scenes especially vivid, and I'll never cease to be amazed by Pixar's ability to give inanimate objects such as cars and toys seemingly genuine emotion. I might even venture to say that Cars 2 is Pixar's most aesthetically impressive project to date, except for, perhaps, Wall-E. Also as expected, the voice talent is impeccable. The entire main cast from the first Cars is present, excluding, of course, the late Paul Newman, and as before they all blend nicely into their characters, but of the newcomers, Michael Caine (appropriately suave as the British spy car, Finn McMissile) is the standout. While not quite as noteworthy, Emily Mortimer, Eddie Izzard and John Turturro provide adequate support. Both of these elements combined with frequently sharp dialogue to lend unexpected verve to the proceedings. There is not a dull moment throughout, and as a fan of genre movies, I particularly appreciated the homage to classic spy films, which was not only clever and audacious but also, for the most part, well-executed.

The part that didn't work so well, however, was the sequel. After the Toy Story sequels, Pixar proved that they are fully capable of successfully giving new depth to old plot lines and characters, but the lighthearted story about friendship established by Cars does not mesh well with the more sleek, high-octane concept of Cars 2, resulting in a movie that feels erratic and confused. The leap from Radiator Springs to Europe and Asia is jarring, and the genre-blending at which Pixar usually excels instead comes off as clumsy, much as it did in Wall-E (which many critics adored but I found well-intentioned and visually breathtaking yet ultimately flawed). Much of the problem lies with the ill-advised decision to take Owen Wilson's Lightning McQueen out of the spotlight and replace him with Larry the Cable Guy's Mater. In the first Cars, Mater provided a likable, energetic counterpart to the more self-serious Lightning McQueen, but as the central character, he is uninteresting and even, at times, irritating; the audience sympathizes with him but doesn't really root for him. As a result, despite some attempts at a rather muddled and erroneous message about staying true to yourself (apparently regardless of standard rules of courtesy), Cars 2 lacks what makes most Pixar movies stand out: heart. You never get the sense that Mater – or any of the characters, for that matter – is going to change by the end, so, really, what's the point?

Super 8

Take note, aspiring directors: this is passion
I admit it: I am a huge fan of J.J. Abrams. Lost is my favorite TV show, I'm currently hooked on Fringe, and the 2009 reboot is pretty much my only knowledge of Star Trek. I adore the perfect blend of action and emotion and unabashed optimism he brings to his work, a style reminiscent of the great Steven Spielberg - he who popularized escapist summer blockbusters with such classics as Jaws and E.T. So when I heard that his new movie, Super 8, was not only a mysterious science-fiction thriller but also a tribute to Spielberg's early films, my expectations skyrocketed.

Boy did Abrams deliver. Considering the vast amount of hype surrounding the movie since the enigmatic teaser debuted in theaters, anything less than THE feel-good summer movie of 2011 would have suggested failure. Yet somehow, not only was Super 8 everything I wanted it to be, it was more. Suspenseful, humorous and poignant, occasionally all at once, this is the kind of film that's impossible to describe to someone who hasn't experienced it, not because of any shocking plot twist but because its pleasures are rooted so deeply in the pure, irresistible emotions it inspires: delight, sadness, longing, fear, awe. It's like wandering through an exquisite dream – strange yet familiar, surreal yet authentic – and when the credits roll and you jolt back to reality, you feel as though you've left home. This is what the best movies do: sweep you off your feet and immerse you in a world you never want to leave.

Something about prior experience always seems to bring out the best in directors. The majority of the media coverage that greeted the release of Super 8 focused on its cryptic marketing campaign and J.J. Abrams's past making amateur 8mm films and admiring the work of producer Steven Spielberg, and for the latter, it's not hard to see why. Each shot of Super 8, from its quietly moving opening scene to the breathtaking resolution, is infused with such palpable enthusiasm and soulful sincerity that viewers feel as though they're witnessing the director reach some personal catharsis. Part of what makes Super 8 so special is Abrams's obvious personal connection to its story, as his ardor and sympathy breathe life into a plot that could easily have been hackneyed and forgettable. Nonetheless, the movie never becomes self-indulgent or maudlin and displays a striking lack of pretension. Along with the drama and nostalgia comes a healthy dose of humor that assures the audience Abrams isn't taking himself too seriously; one senses that in essence, he is still that same eager cinema-obsessed kid. Also, Super 8 is in no way a rip-off of E.T. or Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Although maintaining some tropes from those films (i.e. benevolent alien, wistful view of childhood,) Super 8 is a distinctly J.J. Abrams creation. In fact, references are something of an Abrams trademark, as they feature prominently in both Lost and Fringe, and the rapport between Joe and his father mirrors the multifaceted parent-child relationships common throughout his work. Most of all, Super 8 showcases Abrams's characteristic hopefulness, a refreshing break from post-9/11 cynicism.

Here, Abrams also continues a trend of pitch-perfect casting. None of the actors can be considered A-list, yet they provide such equally subtle, convincing performances that it is impossible to single out one person – the mark of a truly great ensemble. As Joe's father and the only adult with a significant amount of screen time, Kyle Chandler reveals why Friday Night Lights fans have championed him so fiercely: alternately self-assured and vulnerable, he has a remarkable ability to convey myriad emotions in a split second, often simultaneously. Even in his darker moments, he shows, through a flick of the eyes or inflection of the voice, that beneath the anger and grief, he is thoroughly, undeniably human. In less generous roles, Noah Emmerich (sinister yet never cartoonish) and Ron Eldard (heartbreaking) demonstrate similar tact. Still, it is the newcomers who form the movie's heart and soul. In his acting debut as shy protagonist Joe Lamb, 15 year old Joel Courtney is astounding, inhabiting his role with the poise of an actor twice his age. Amid an industry dominated by spoiled, too-clean child stars, he feels refreshingly down-to-earth, coming off as praiseworthy yet relatable, innocent yet flawed. Elle Fanning lends rebel Alice Dainard a nice balance of feminist resolve and quiet sensitivity, and Riley Griffiths has an endearing vivacity as Joe's best friend Charles, while Ryan Lee, Zach Mills and Gabriel Basso (Cary, Preston and Martin, respectively) provide ample support. Watching this group of up-and-coming actors, I can't help but feel a bit more hopeful for Hollywood's future.

And this brings me to what should resonate most with audiences: the movie's spot-on portrait of childhood. Neither patronizing nor quixotic, Abrams's ode to the wonders of youth is among the most faithful I've ever seen, and his empathy for his juvenile protagonists is evident from the way he treats them not as precocious saints (one of cinema's most infuriating clichés) but as complex, well-rounded people who are capable of love, bitterness, despair, excitement and everything in between. Even when dealing with serious themes such as death, their dialogue is never less than credible. Look at their crude banter in the café scene or their panicked reactions to the train crash or Joe and Alice's casual exchange of complaints about Charles's domineering behavior. Abrams deftly avoids the typical (pre)teen angst formula, giving his characters depth rarely seen among on screen children, who tend to obsess over superficial issues like popularity and dating (there is a minor love triangle, but it stays true to the awkward naiveté of real child romances). Plus, bonus points for making nerds cool!

Ultimately, Super 8 is like its director: smart, nostalgic and lighthearted, a comforting reminder of humanity's potential for goodness. This is why I fell in love with movies in the first place.

Kung Fu Panda 2

Kung Fu Panda 2: Sequel packs less punch than original
When the first Kung Fu Panda movie came out in May 2008, no one expected much. All anyone really knew was that the plot centered around a fat, martial-arts-oriented panda voiced by Jack Black, a pitch that doesn't quite scream gold of either the box-office or awards kind, and the trailer wasn't exactly the most innovative thing out there. Besides, this was Dreamworks, the studio whose trademark in films is a heavy reliance on pop culture references and broad satire to the point of overkill and whose greatest hit, arguably still the first Shrek at that point, had been diluted by a series of mediocre, unstoppable sequels; they weren't Pixar, after all. But then, something surprising happened: it premiered at Cannes to shockingly positive reviews, and when the audience also responded with fervor, gone were the Pixar comparisons. Instead, people began to buzz about the rich, colorful animation, Black's pitch-perfect voice casting as Po, the way it managed to be light and fun (not to mention funny) while still having a sweet, heartfelt message without the *wink wink* pretensions of films like Ice Age or Shark Tale, which always seemed to be trying too hard – and failing – to engage adults as well as younger folks. Kung Fu Panda wasn't just "good for Dreamworks"; it was genuinely great.

Given its status as a clear financial success, a sequel was probably inevitable. Though the surprise factor that helped the original stand out was now gone, it seemed to be a more promising venture than most. The main vocal talents were all returning, for one, and with box-office and critical hits like How to Train Your Dragon and Megamind under their belts, the guys at Dreamworks were steadily moving out of the shadow of their rival in the animation business.

For the most part, Kung Fu Panda 2 is not a major disappointment. The plot is weightier with a villain who not only aims to bring all of China to its knees but also played a dark role in our hero's past, though the earnest intensity saps the movie of some of the optimistic energy that characterized the first one. Newcomer Gary Oldman makes for a lively and delightfully hateful, if fairly obvious, choice as the voice behind the evil peacock Lord Shen. However, the real strength of this movie lies in its visuals. Vivid colors and sweeping shots through mist-shrouded landscapes and old-fashioned villages make good use of 3-D, and the creatures that populate this world are expressive and detailed. The decision to render the dream and flashback sequences in a more traditional, hand-drawn style of animation proves effective and, at times, even poignant.

If only this same joy and creativity could've gone beyond the aesthetics! Though, as previously stated, the plot is indeed more serious than the simple "finding his destiny and overcoming expectations" setup of the first movie, it feels oddly stretched, particularly in the half-hour or so around the climax, which mostly consists of Shen trying over and over again to eliminate Po and Po miraculously escaping each time. What's more, a lot of the time seems to be spent on action sequences, which are mostly staged in too much of a swift blur to be truly impressive, and aside from a touching subplot about Po and his goose "dad", character development is minimal; a greater focus on the interactions between Po and the individuals that make up the Furious Five would have been welcome. Despite their recognizable names, many of the voice actors are either indistinctive or underused, with the notable exceptions of Oldman, Black and Dustin Hoffman, though the last was MIA for the majority of the film's running time. In particular, Angelina Jolie should be tough and icily demanding as Tigress, but instead, comes off as merely bland. Though she was passable in the original, an expanded screen time provides too much exposure to the lack of personality in her voice.

Still, discounting a plot that becomes fairly repetitive and casting complaints, Kung Fu Panda 2 is a more effective sequel than most. Those looking for some good family-friendly entertainment will no doubt be satisfied, and the spectacular visuals are a reward all on their own. Just don't bring your kid if he can't stay still throughout the whole movie. I got a couple of criers, in addition to a few that ran through the aisles during the last twenty minutes, and trust me, it's not fun for anyone involved.

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