Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

The Meek Shall Inherit What's Left of the Earth the Mean and Dumb Destroy

For this year's Blog Against Theocracy, I wanted to revisit some infamous remarks by Congressman John Shimkus (R-IL) during a set of March 2009 hearings held by the U.S. House Subcommittee on Energy and Environment:

The key remarks are:

The earth will end only when God declares its time to be over. Man will not destroy this earth. This earth will not be destroyed by a flood.

Shimkus has said plenty of other dumb things. However, these particular remarks were both dumb and theocratic, and therefore of greater concern. They're problematic – or dangerous – for at least three reasons.

One, environmental and energy policies for the United States should not be dictated by any religious text. The same goes for all public policy, but the problem is especially glaring for any policy involving science. (We'll deal with some caveats in a bit.) Shimkus was pushing a blatant violation of the separation of church and state. Passing a law that said, "You can't regulate pollution because the Bible says so" would not pass constitutional muster.

Two, Shimkus is on shaky religious grounds as well. The passage he cites only refers to what the God of the Bible will or will not do - human beings are quite capable of destroying the planet all on their own. (More specifically, human beings are quite capable of destroying humanity, but the planet would survive.) Additionally, Shimkus is picking and choosing what he wants from the Bible in his Appeal to Religious Authority. He's not asking the Food and Drug Administration to ban eating shellfish, or asking Congress to abolish a few amendments to bring back slavery, or trying to outlaw certain types of clothing, or otherwise trying to enforce many other precepts in the Bible.

Three, assuming Shimkus is sincere in his stated beliefs, his religion makes him a less reflective, less responsible human being. He has spouted beliefs that dictate that he, and other human beings, and the government of the United States of America, do not need to act responsibly when it comes to energy and the environment, because God will sweep in to save the day.

Shimkus' views are not uniform among religious conservatives, but they are far from rare. At least one conservative pundit considers the global financial collapse a divine mystery rather than the completely predictable result of human skullduggery. Meanwhile, Ann Coulter has attacked environmental responsibility:

The ethic of conservation is the explicit abnegation of man's dominion over the Earth. The lower species are here for our use. God said so: Go forth, be fruitful, multiply, and rape the planet — it's yours. That's our job: drilling, mining and stripping. Sweaters are the anti-Biblical view. Big gas-guzzling cars with phones and CD players and wet bars — that's the Biblical view.

Some biblical scholars argue that "dominion" is better translated as "stewardship," which better fits the spirit of many other Biblical passages (not to mention Adam's trade as a gardener or farmer). This is basically the stance of evangelical environmentalists, who oppose the views of Coulter and Shimkus. It's hard to imagine Jesus urging anyone to recklessly strip-mine, raze a forest or pollute the world. That fits better with the cult of Ayn Rand.

It can be useful to discuss religious beliefs, or atheism, less in terms of "What do you believe?" and "Why do you believe that?" and more in terms of "How do your beliefs shape your actions?" Some individuals approach religion in a way that makes them more reflective, more considerate of others, and more engaged in their communities. Many others approach religion in a way that makes them less reflective, less tolerant, and more reckless. I would argue that Shimkus, Coulter and their ilk on wrong on religious grounds, and it could be useful to challenge them in these terms. However, they're wrong for many other reasons, too. It's more important to note that, implicitly, they are preaching theocracy, religious rule – and even more importantly, to point out that they are preaching recklessness and irresponsibility. When some people say they believe "everything happens for a reason," what they really mean is, "you should try to make the best out of a bad situation." What others mean is, "you shouldn't question anything that happens, and you definitely shouldn't challenge the people choosing to screw you over"... or in this case, you shouldn't challenge the people despoiling the planet and polluting public air and water in the name of greed.

Public policy in the United States should not be dictated by any religious text. That doesn't mean that religious people can't participate in government, nor does it mean they can never cite religious passages in public, but the manner in which it's done is very important. Consider Stephen Colbert's remarks in September 2010 on behalf of migrant farm workers:

CONGRESSWOMAN JUDY CHU: Mr. Colbert, you could work on so many issues, why are you interested in this issue?

COLBERT: I like talking about people who don't have any power. And this seems like some of the least powerful people in the United States are migrant workers who come and do our work but don't have any rights as a result. And yet we still invite them to come here, and at the same time ask them to leave. And, you know, whatsoever you do for the least of my brothers, these seem like the least of our brothers, right now. And I know that a lot of people are the least of my brothers because the economy is so hard, and I don't want to take anyone's hardship away from them or diminish it or anything like that, but migrant workers suffer, and they have no rights.

(Notice we're back to tilling the land and taking care of the planet again.) Colbert references a famous passage from the Bible here, but look how he does it. He never mentions the Bible, nor Jesus. It wouldn't be utterly horrible if he did, but it's notable that he's trying not to proselytize. Instead, he's invoking a principle, one of compassion and the social contract, that a particular passage happens to express. Compassion is not a religious idea – while some religions emphasize it, compassion does not depend upon religion whatsoever. Colbert's biblical reference might carry additional weight for Christians, and it might also turn off some other listeners. That's a rhetorical choice. However, his argument is hardly dependant on his audience sharing his religious beliefs. He's outlining a grander principle.

That's in sharp contrast to what Shimkus says – an Appeal to Religious Authority. Shimkus' argument cannot hold unless the listener both shares a) Shimkus' religious beliefs, and b) his particular, idiotic interpretation of the Bible. While that makes it a poor argument due to its limited appeal, the main problem is that it's a theocratic argument. Shimkus is asking us to obey rather than question or debate. We shouldn't look at the scientific evidence, because God – according to Shimkus – says we shouldn't. (Shades of the Catholic Church and Galileo.) Even if America didn't have a separation of church and state, that'd be a horrible way to run a country. Put another way, Colbert is asking us to be more thoughtful, while Shimkus is asking us to be less so.

This fits into a common pattern, both with conservative arguments in general and environmental issues specifically: climate scientists are asking us to be more thoughtful about the planet, global warming, and empirical evidence, while climate change deniers are seeking to sow confusion and obfuscate careful study and decision-making.

There are many ways to challenge someone like Shimkus, and there are many reasons to do so. It can be entertaining and effective to refute fools and scoundrels who cite scripture with scripture. However, the more important battle is to fight back against theocracy and authoritarianism in general. As we've examined in previous years, theocrats are not fighting for religious freedom, which they already possess – they are fighting for privilege, and power over others. Shimkus is an authoritarian, and in addition to shilling unchecked corporate greed and pollution, he's preaching unquestioning obedience, ignorance, recklessness and irresponsibility. That's standard for movement conservatism. However, since this is Blog Against Theocracy weekend, let's remember that it's no accident that theocrats often shill horrible ideas; that's a feature, not a bug.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

National Poetry Month 2011

April is National Poetry Month. I'll once again promote the wonderful Favorite Poem Project, which I covered more extensively in this 2009 entry. Even people who might not think of themselves as poetry lovers often have a favorite poem that holds personal significance to them.

Here's one I enjoy. I first read it in the first of the three (to date) Favorite Poem Project collections, Americans' Favorite Poems. I'm fond of many of Neruda's poems, and this one speaks to me of the beauty of simple things and small gestures:

Ode to My Socks
by Pablo Neruda

Maru Mori brought me
a pair
of socks
which she knitted herself
with her sheep-herder's hands,
two socks as soft
as rabbits.
I slipped my feet
into them
as though into
with threads of
and goatskin.
Violent socks,
my feet were
two fish made
of wool,
two long sharks
seablue, shot
by one golden thread,
two immense blackbirds,
two cannons,
my feet
were honored
in this way
They were
so handsome
for the first time
my feet seemed to me
like two decrepit
firemen, firemen
of that woven
of those glowing

I resisted
the sharp temptation
to save them somewhere
as schoolboys
as learned men
sacred texts,
I resisted
the mad impulse
to put them
in a golden
and each day give them
and pieces of pink melon.
Like explorers
in the jungle who hand
over the very rare
green deer
to the spit
and eat it
with remorse,
I stretched out
my feet
and pulled on
the magnificent
and then my shoes.

The moral
of my ode is this:
beauty is twice
and what is good is doubly
when it is a matter of two socks
made of wool
in winter.

(Translated from the Spanish by Stephen Mitchell)

Thursday, April 14, 2011

2010 Film Roundup, Part 1: The Oscars and the Year in Review

(The post-Oscars film round-up is an annual tradition, ridiculously delayed this year by the caprices of fate.)

2010 had a decent crop of premium films, but also a glut of torpid franchise entries, aspiring franchise flicks, and remakes. Popcorn movies can be hit or miss, even taken on their own terms, but this still seemed like a weaker batch than usual. Interestingly enough, despite its complex plot and ambitious scope, Inception was both an original work and a legitimate summer blockbuster.

As for the Oscars, as always, I watch to see good work recognized, occasional wit, and the glorious excess and colossal bad taste that only Hollywood can provide. For the most part, the awards went to worthy recipients, and there were only a few travesties.

James Franco and Anne Hathaway hosted, and one of their opening jokes was about their supposed appeal to a younger demographic. Hathaway was energetic and charming, and looked gorgeous in her six gowns for the evening. James Franco increasingly looked like he was stoned and about to crack up as the night went on. Their opening filmed segment inserting themselves into movies was great, but the rest of the presentation was underwhelming. In her song to Hugh Jackman, Anne Hathaway showed off an impressive set of pipes, but was it really necessary? (I suppose it gave James Franco time to get into drag – but was that necessary? It's a pretty tired gag, although the Charlie Sheen joke wasn't bad.)

The show boasted two superb montages, one near the start of the show, and the other right before the end, featuring all the Best Picture nominees. The shout-out to Gone with the Wind seemed random. The extended tribute to Lena Horne at the end of the "In Memoriam" section also seemed strained, but maybe that's because I associate her more with music than the movies. Unfortunately, Celine Dion was picked to sing for the annual Montage of Death this year, but at least she restrained her worst diva instincts. Meanwhile, the auto-tuned clips turning movies into musicals provided a few laughs without overstaying their welcome.

An overwhelmed Melissa Leo made Oscar history for accidentally dropping the F-bomb onstage, and apologized profusely backstage. Admit it, if you knew both Melissa Leo and Christian Bale were going to win, who would you have bet on to do that? (Supposedly, Bale even went drinking beforehand.) Some people thought Bale blanked on his wife's name, but I thought he was just getting choked up. Leo's unauthorized, personal campaign ads garnered her some criticism in town, but they didn't sink her. As for Leo's competitors, I adore Amy Adams, who was fantastic in The Fighter, and is surely due an Oscar at some point. I also would have been happy to see young Hailee Steinfeld win for her exceptional performance, which anchored True Grit. But Leo did a splendid job, and Hollywood can be cruel to women past a certain age (Leo's 50), so there's some added cause to celebrate.

Colin Firth had some pertinent remarks on profanity in the films themselves:

Colin Firth, who portrayed the king in the film, picked up an Oscar as Best Actor, joking, "I have a feeling my career has just peaked."

Backstage, Firth said he's not happy that the R-rated movie has a new PG-13 cut. The new version mutes out the F word uttered by the Duke of York in a key scene.

"In the context of this film, [the profanity] could not be more edifying, more appropriate," he said. "It's about a man trying to free himself through the use of forbidden words. And he's so coy about it. I still haven't met the person who would object to it."

Oh, Colin, you haven't met American social conservatives. I actually know someone who was dismayed by the prospect of swearing in the film, and asked "What's the point?" Given that the film centered on speech therapy, it wasn't hard to imagine, and Firth's description is spot-on. There's also the element of realism, since in some venues, adult human beings do in fact swear a great deal. Anyway, as Dame Helen Mirren has shown, Brits with a posh accent can get away with swearing better than most. (Linda Holmes also wrote a good piece on the bowdlerized version recently released.)

Charles Ferguson, who won Best Documentary Feature for Inside Job, won applause for pointing out what should be a huge scandal: "Forgive me, I must start by pointing out that three years after our horrific financial crisis caused by financial fraud, not a single financial executive has gone to jail, and that's wrong." There should be widespread, bipartisan agreement on that one.

Most of the other speeches this year were the "thank you" list, but David Seidler, Randy Newman, Tom Hooper and Colin Firth managed to memorable. (Seidler's got a good sense of humor, and the story behind his script for The King's Speech is pretty interesting.) Natalie Portman's thanks were heartfelt, and Aaron Sorkin, true to form, rattled off his many thanks so quickly, without pausing for breath, he couldn't be cut off. His other remarks were classy, and all the winners trended that way, with several saluting their fellow nominees by name.

This year, it seemed the group winners had designated a speaker (as they do at the Emmys), but the other folks still got in shout-outs to their spouses. I was glad to see that, because it kills me, especially for the tech awards, when someone doesn't get to speak, since it's often their one public moment of glory after doing great, unheralded work for years.

Tron: Legacy, for all its flaws, deserved a nomination for visual effects, and perhaps art direction and costumes as well. Christopher Nolan continues to get shafted, this time on Inception. He should have received a nomination for directing, and nothing against David Seidler's excellent work, but I would have given Nolan the award for Best Original Screenplay. Nolan's innovative script for Memento (2000) lost out to the respectable, well-crafted, but fairly unoriginal Gosford Park, so that's twice now that the British-American Nolan has lost to a Masterpiece Theater flick. As much as I love Jeff Bridges, I'd have given him the Oscar for other films than Crazy Heart, and I thought Colin Firth deserved to win for Best Actor slightly more last year. His work in A Single Man was very subtle, but his performance in The King's Speech was meatier. (Firth thanked A Single Man director Tom Ford as well as The King's Speech's Tom Hooper in his acceptance speech.) Both Firth and Bridges were up again this year, so it's all worked out well for both actors, since they're both very deserving.

The King's Speech was well done, and it was a respectable Best Picture winner, riding mostly on the tremendously sympathetic performance of Colin Firth. However, I would have given it to The Social Network, Black Swan or Inception, all of which were much more daring in both content and filmmaking style. I'd guess they'd be more influential and memorable in years to come. All three also boasted good or exceptional acting, and while The Social Network and Inception are a bit cold and cerebral, Black Swan is a very passionate film. The King's Speech was the safe pick, and Oscar voters are suckers for the Masterpiece Theater effect. Beneath its veneer of respectability, though, it was the most likable film of the major contenders, and hardly fluff. The Academy can show atrocious taste, but many moviegoers were genuinely moved by The King's Speech. and that's a harder feat to accomplish than some might realize.

NPR has a good piece on 3D and its increasing use. The rule of thumb for 2010 was not to see anything like Clash of the Titans that wasn't shot in 3D but later converted. However, that was apparently a rush job, too. The conversion technology is bound to get better, especially with George Lucas' announcement that he's converting the Star Wars series. Personally, I find some sequences (flight in How to Train Your Dragon) are probably cooler in 3D, but for the most part , it doesn't matter to me and sometimes feels forced and unnecessary. It's interesting to see the trend of the 50s repeat itself. Back then, studios thought television was threatening movie-going, so they cranked out 3D, widescreen formats, and less successful efforts like Smell-O-Vision. Now, with hundreds of TV channels, movies-on-demand and mobile devices, there's the same effort to make movie-going an event.

I didn't see as many films in 2010, but still saw a fair amount. On the crotchety curmudgeon front, the big annoyance these days, as all filmgoers know, is bright smart phone screens. For perspective, folks in the 50s were railing against casual dress and teenagers making out in the back row, so some things, like complaining about movie theater conduct, never change... However, neither of those things is necessarily disruptive, and some movies are better with a raucous crowd. Still, the prevalence of smart phone-checking, even at upscale venues like the Arclight here in L.A., has probably changed my cutoff point for going to see something in the theater versus waiting for rental. I don't mind as much when people turn them on briefly to check the time, and then turn them off. (I've actually seen a woman do that with the phone inside her purse, so the light didn't spill out everywhere, which was considerate.) However, extended use (e-mail checking or texting) is really pretty bad. The worst I've seen was a guy doing that repeatedly during 127 Hours – and that included during the amputation scene. Dude, if a man cutting off his own arm is not sufficiently interesting to hold your attention, we are in danger as a species. (/rant.)

2010 was a breakout year for young Chloe Moretz (Kick-Ass, the remake Let Me In). Jesse Eisenberg, who's done a great job in comedies and dramedies got a major boost in respectability with his biting, razor-sharp performance in The Social Network, which earned him a well-deserved Oscar nomination. His co-star Andrew Garfield had a banner year thanks to his work in the same film and his even better, more vulnerable performance in the less widely-seen Never Let Me Go. Garfield may have been a bit snubbed come awards time, but he got plenty of good reviews, and has the consolation prize of being the new Spider-Man. (Yes, a new Spider-Man flick with an entirely new team seems both unnecessary and way too soon, but if it's going to happen, it might as well be well-cast.)

On to the reviews. As usual, I've included some links to interviews. I've tried to put any spoilers near the end of reviews and label them as such, so folks can skip over those sections. (My general rule of thumb is, if you'd know it from watching the trailer, it's not a spoiler.)

2010 Film Roundup, Part 2: The Top Six

Black Swan: A talented, neurotic ballerina struggles for her big break and to achieve perfection on the stage, but may be losing her mind. Natalie Portman gives her best performance to date as Nina Sayers, a diligent but repressed member of a New York ballet company. Nina lives with her domineering mother, Erica (Barbara Hershey), who often treats her a girl, not a woman. Even Nina's bedroom is full of stuffed animals and juvenilia. The director of the company, Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel), is a prick towards his dancers and women in general, but he does have some talent. He's putting on a new production of Swan Lake - whose plotline director Darren Aronofsky draws on heavily for Black Swan. Nina's a good dancer, but she's very controlled, and not in touch with her sexuality. This poses a problem for her to play the dual role of the Swan Queen. As Thomas puts it, "The truth is when I look at you all I see is the white swan. Yes you're beautiful, fearful, and fragile. Ideal casting. But the black swan? It's a hard fucking job to dance both." She rebuffs most of Thomas' advances, but admires him just the same. The company's former prima ballerina and Thomas' lover, Beth (Winona Ryder), is bitter about being pushed to the side, and isn't shy about telling both Thomas and Nina all about it. Further misfortune befalls her, and Nina can't help but think if everything that happened to Beth will happen to her as well. The dynamics get more complicated when the company gets a new member, Lily (Mila Kunis), who isn't as precise a dancer as Nina, but suffers no problems being sensual, on the stage or off. She's made Nina's understudy, and is a rival – or is she also a friend? Nina's mother is occasionally supportive of Nina, but also jealous o her success, and rachets up her controlling tendencies. Meanwhile, Nina seems to be hallucinating, and her visions become both more frequent and more disturbing. Sometimes, the visions are brief, but at other points she's shocked to discover an entire vivid incident may not have been real. The audience is left unmoored, too. What's real, and what's fantasy? Black Swan owes a heavy debt to Polanski's Repulsion, but it is an original, bold and occasionally brilliant work. I'd rank it above Aronofsky's past best, The Wrestler. It becomes one of cinema's better looks at the high-wire act of daring artistic performance, and a certain brand of volatile and destructive creativity. The combination of a stellar performance by Portman, a fine job of keeping the audience off-balance, and a joy in the medium of cinema make Black Swan an admirable achievement and an engrossing view.

I'd say the best way to view the reality-fantasy issue is that everything we see represents Nina's emotional reality. In order to achieve the level of perfection she seeks, she has to be both willing to kill and willing to die. Closer to the end, she seems to become more fatalistic, and terrified of ending up like Beth. Given her deep love of the story of Swan Lake, and her particular stew of neuroses and aspirations, the ending makes sense. I'll be interested to see this one again, and pay attention to the reality-fantasy shifts. For a first viewing, though, it's best to just get swept up in it all.

(Here's Natalie Portman on Fresh Air and Darren Aronofsky on The Business. This video shows the creative visual effects work on the film, which nicely serve the story versus being mere spectacle.)

The Social Network: "You don't get to 500 million friends without making a few enemies" was probably the best tag line of 2010. Honestly, the idea of a movie about the creation of Facebook sounded unappealing until I learned the team – meticulous, perfectionist director David Fincher, and brilliant scribe Aaron Sorkin. They don't disappoint, and this is a quick-paced, well crafted, occasionally thrilling flick. How accurate it is will continue to be a source of debate, but taken on its own terms, it's splendid. Young Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) is an extremely smart Harvard student, but he doesn't have the right pedigree to get into the most prestigious clubs, which he envies for being a road to success, but even more so for the status. It doesn't help that Mark, when agitated, isn't shy about telling other people they're dumber than he is. He just doesn't deal that well with people, including his soon-to-be-ex-girlfriend. It's that simultaneous awkwardness and hunger that drives him to create the early progenitors of Facebook, and then Facebook itself. Jesse Eisenberg is sensational as Zuckerberg, and excels at Sorkin's rapid-fire dialogue. Mark can be cruel, but sometimes his withering attacks seem justified, and a few times when he tries to reach out, he's rebuffed. When Zuckerberg's fighting back against the old money and entitled privilege of the Winklevoss twins and others, he's a bit more sympathetic, or at least understandable. His darker sides – ambition, jealously, envy, revenge – may not be so admirable, but they are recognizable. Fincher and Sorkin make a point of telling the story from a few different angles to make it clear there are conflicting accounts of what really happened, and because it makes the story all more interesting (Sorkin cited Rashomon in an interview). It also makes the film much more than a hatchet job of Zuckerberg, because the audience is asked to question some of the damning tales. As one character says, “Creation myths need a devil.”

The two fair criticisms I've heard of The Social Network is that it's rather cold, and that occasionally, Sorkin's extremely clever dialogue calls attention to itself. On the first point, some of this is a matter of taste. Typically, Hollywood demands "likable" characters for their leads, who can easily wind up being bland and flat. Personally, I want interesting characters, and the Mark Zuckerberg of The Social Network is that. (Likewise, Hugh Laurie as Gregory House isn't exactly "likable," but he is entertaining.) There may be a middle ground of "relatable but not likable," but there was enough humanity to Zuckerberg I thought he qualified there, too. As Sorkin remarked, Zuckerberg's “an anti-hero for the first hour and 55 minutes of the movie and a tragic hero for the last five.” On the second point, Sorkin may violate the "too clever" bar a few times ("I'm 6'5", 220 pounds, and there are two of me") but it's a minor sin given how fun even these transgressions are, and how fantastic the dialogue is overall. Plus, as William Goldman has pointed out, writing is more than dialogue – it's structure and story. It's also pacing, and writing appropriate dialogue for individual characters. The snappy patter works wonderfully for Zuckerberg. Meanwhile, I don't think there was a better written scene in all of 2010 than the opening bar scene in The Social Network. It's an entire film in itself.

The rest of the cast is strong. Justin Timberlake is surprisingly good as anarchic web entrepreneur Sean Parker, Rooney Mara feels real as Mark's ex, Erica, Armie Hammer juggles playing both of the Winklevoss twins with ease ("gentlemen of Hahrvard"), Douglas Urbanksi is funny as the arrogant and imperious Larry Summers, Rashida Jones is great in a small but pivotal role, and Andrew Garfield is probably the most affable of the bunch as Eduardo Saverin, who starts out as Mark Zuckerberg's best friend. I understand why some people don't love this film, because it ain't a warm feelings kind of movie, but its craftsmanship is occasionally breathtaking. It does have soul beneath the surface, and it lets it out in small, well-chosen bursts, even though that soul is sometimes twisted. As with Charlie Wilson's War, I want to dissect Sorkin's script – he really is one of the best working today.

(Here's The Business on The Social Network, and a great background piece from New York. One of my favorite lines:

“Aaron is used to thinking fast and making bold decisions,” says Fincher. “He comes from TV, where you don’t have time to pick gnat-shit out of pepper. But in the movies, my whole thing is, everything we put on the screen, even a prop, is going to be debated and scrutinized, so we need to make sure it’s not saying something we don’t want it to say.”

The King's Speech: At first glance, The King Speech may look like just another Masterpiece Theater, Oscar-bait film, one with a fairly predictable plot and conventional direction. However, its fine performances help elevate it above solid respectability into a genuinely affecting movie. It all hinges on Colin Firth's vulnerable performance as "Bertie," the Prince of York, second in line to the throne of England. In the very first scene, we see him obligated to give a speech at a stadium, the microphone looming huge in the frame, and we see his sheer terror. Right then, we're hooked. As everyday phobias go, an overwhelming majority of people rank public speaking as more frightening than death, and it's impossible not to feel for Bertie. Our sympathy grows as he starts to speak - he has a bad stutter, and as he struggles through his speech, some of crowd look away in embarrassment. It's an utterly humiliating experience – and more are on the way. Bertie's been raised in incredible privilege, and while he occasionally plays the upper class card, for the most part he seems like a decent fellow who just wants to live a quiet life. Unfortunately, he's a prince, required to make public appearances and speeches, and events develop that mean he might have to assume the crown. His faithful wife Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter) tries to support and protect him, but his father the king (Michael Gambon) and older brother the heir apparent (Guy Pearce) are rather abusive.

Geoffrey Rush is Lionel Logue, an unconventional speech therapist with a love of Shakespeare and a puckish sense of play. Rush has great fun with the role, and we see some of his own triumphs and disappointments, but the core of the film hinges on Bertie and Lionel, and their shifting relationship. There's some added amusement in casting Derek Jacobi, who's played two stutterers himself, including a royal one, as Archbishop Cosmo Lang. The climax of the film is a big speech Bertie has to give. In one sense, it's a mundane action, but for Bertie, the challenge is steep and the stakes are tremendous. And we're with him every step of the way, living and dying with every halt, stammer, curse word and exhalation. The King Speech is one of the best films of 2010 because it makes us care deeply about its main character and the outcome. That may seem simple, but it can be hard to do well – much like giving a good speech. (Also, since my eternal pet peeves include crappy diction and poor inflection work from actors, I've got a soft spot for this movie.)

(Here's Tom Hooper on Fresh Air and The Business. Christopher Hitchens wrote a piece on the film's historical inaccuracies.)

The Fighter: Based on a true story, The Fighter is pretty conventional in its style and plot, and its Irish working class angst and family dysfunction can be a bit draining. It is, however, extremely realistic and the acting is exceptional, justifiably racking up many nominations and rewards. Mark Wahlberg plays Mickey Ward, a small-time boxer looking for a real shot. However, his biggest obstacle is his loving, smothering, controlling family. His manager is his mother, Alice (Melissa Leo), who has a black belt in guilt-tripping. The apple of her eye is Mickey's older brother, Dickey Eklund (Christian Bale), a once promising boxer ("the pride of Lowell") who's become an addict. Dickey and Alice book Mickey into some bad fights, including one above his weight class, and he gets badly torn up. All this complicates his wooing of barmaid Charlene (Amy Adams), who takes absolutely no crap from anyone, not Mickey, not Dickey, not Alice, and not Mickey's seven catty, possessive sisters. The plot may be pretty standard, but the dialogue is sharp and realistic, and these performances are engrossing – we really care about Mickey, Charlene and Dickey. Wahlberg gives a solid, un-flashy performance, all the more admirable because he could have played Dickey (Wahlberg wanted to do the fight scenes, though) and did a tremendous amount behind the scenes to get the film made. Alice is often unlikable, but Melissa Leo makes her real and nuanced, and sympathetic in her own way (or at least pitiable). Bale is fantastic as the flamboyant, reckless but occasionally reflective Dickey. He can be a complete idiot, but can also show surprising insight. Bale's particularly good in a scene in prison, as Dickey watches a documentary about himself, at the end of the film with Mickey, and in an extended scene with Charlene (more on that in a second).

It's nice to see the always excellent Amy Adams in a meatier role again, and the foul-mouthed, scrappy Charlene is a major break from her ingénue roles. The best scene in the movie may be a porch side one between Charlene and Dickey, who are often adversaries. As much as Charlene initially dislikes Dickey, he's got her number even more than she has his, and her nastiness toward him owes a great deal to self-recognition and fear. Dickey's struggles are really just an amplified version of the dynamics all the characters are facing: an addict, who once had promise and screwed up, is trying really hard to make something better, hoping for a break, and fighting not to get dragged down by all bad influences around. The Fighter definitely has its uplifting moments, but its intimacy with those struggles is what gives it its poignancy and soul.

(Here's David O. Russell on The Treatment and an interesting piece on The Fighter on The Business. Plus, there's Russell and Wahlberg, and Melissa Leo, on Fresh Air.)

The Ghost Writer: A ghost writer with a talent for penning tabloid best sellers (Ewan MacGregor) is hired to rewrite the memoirs of the recently retired British Prime Minister after the original writer dies in mysterious circumstances. The film's based on the novel The Ghost by Robert Harris, and PM Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan) is partially based on Tony Blair. MacGregor is always good when he's given good material and a good director, and he's engaging as the smart, somewhat cocky "Ghost." (He's actually never named in the film.) Brosnan nicely handles both the charisma of former golden boy Adam Lang, and his private rages, mostly stemming from being accused of war crimes, with possible legal charges impending. Olivia Williams is fantastic as Adam's wife Ruth, a very sharp, worldly woman playing a prescribed public role in the political theater of Adam Lang's career. The most refreshing part of The Ghost Writer may be Ruth and her many facets, because adult women who act like intelligent, adult women can sadly be a rarity in more mainstream fare. Kim Catrall, as key Lang assistant and handler Amelia Bly, comes off a bit fake to me, but I think it works for the role. She's selling Lang to the public, after all.

While Bly and the others in the Lang retinue are often occupied with damage control, the Ghost is left with several puzzles, including re-writing a massive book. It seems to include clues to a hidden story, and Adam Lang's own accounts of his life (he's a charming storyteller) don't always match up to the facts the Ghost pieces together. Did the original writer (a longtime Lang family friend) kill himself, or was he murdered? If so, who killed him, and why? What precise role did the United States and their "special relationship" with the U.K. play in Lang's actions as PM and his current predicament? And should the Ghost respond to the romantic advances of the neglected and enigmatic Ruth?

The Ghost is confident in his abilities as a writer and a sleuth, and with good reason – he follows an odd clue or two and progressively uncovers an intriguing and possibly nefarious plot. A visit to an American think tank "intellectual" on foreign policy is particularly interesting for the scene's polite menace. But the Ghost's a bit too sure of himself, and eventually exposes himself to danger as well. He started as an outsider, but he's getting sucked in. Competing parties tell him to trust them and not the other guy. Is he next on some sort of hit list? Who's really on his side, and is he confiding in the right people?

The ending stretch provides a few revelations and twists, and some viewers might guess at one or two of them. I did, but I found the ending and the film to be very satisfying overall. This is filmmaking for adults. The classic hallmark of a bad "twist" is that it trades a brief shock at the cost of the overall story, which it makes less interesting. In The Ghost Writer, the twists aren't departures or gimmicks – they're additional daggers.

(As for Polanski the person, he remains a conundrum. His best films are superb, and he's suffered through the Holocaust and his pregnant wife Sharon Tate being murdered by the Manson family. However, his sexual assault of a minor back in the 70s was despicable (I only read the victim's detailed account from the time last year). She's forgiven him, and perhaps there's been some grandstanding by prosecutors and judges, but that doesn't change the crime. Shouldn't the law take its course, regardless of Polanski's fame? Some people refuse to watch any Polanski film because of all this.)

(Here's Ewan MacGregor on Fresh Air.)

Inception: Christopher Nolan's latest is a heist film set in dreams. Structurally, it gets dizzyingly complex, and that's part of the point, to disorient us as viewers (one poster was reminiscent of a famous Escher picture). The surface plot is that Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his team are hired by rich businessman Saito (Ken Watanable) to plant an idea in the sleeping mind of his more powerful rival, Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy). In return, Saito will help clear up Cobb's legal problems, since he's on the run (unjustly) for the supposed murder of his wife, Mal (Marion Cotillard). But Mal keeps turning up in the dreams, too, and causing trouble. It's a good cast, with Ellen Page a particular standout as the most conscientious team member, Cotillard perfect as a troubled femme fatale, and Murphy affecting in a key scene near the end. My one criticism of Nolan is that, while he's meticulous, he's an awfully cerebral director, and in his construction of intricate latticework he can lose the emotional core of his story, which doesn't seem to interest him as much. I think Inception suffers from some of that. That said, it's still excellent, and well worth a look. It's an extremely ambitious film, and it pulls off much of what it's going for, so that excuses many failings.

The bulk of what I'll write on Inception is taken from my July 2010 post on it:

Inception isn't just the title of Christopher Nolan's new film; it's a description of what the film attempts to do to its audience. The film is extremely intricate and ambitious in its plot and structure, but also its meta-narrative games. It's commenting on and dissecting storytelling as it goes along, most of all in terms of audience members' reactions. Nolan throws so much at us that it can be confusing, dizzying. At times, the film may seem too complicated, trying to be too clever for its own good and thus losing the story. (I was debating that occasionally while I watched the film, even though I enjoyed it.) But for good or ill, that complexity isn't just artistic vanity or ambition – it's both very intentional and, I believe, integral.

For an audience that's not consciously trying to predict the ending, the complex rules of the dream world and the discombulation of the elaborate, multilayered heist set up the finale: an open ending created by the final shot in a final mindfuck move. (Whoa, dude.) However, with narrative-savvy audiences, Nolan's playing an even more diabolical game – and just like the cons to the marks in the film, he tells us exactly what he's going to do first, all to psyche us out. We think we know what's going on, but he lets us think that so he can screw with us on a deeper level and plant an idea in our heads. A movie is in some sense a shared dream of audience members in a theater. At least twice, Cobb (DiCaprio) says that once an idea is planted in someone's head, it can be very hard to shake and it keep growing. The film handles most of the exposition pretty elegantly. Within the first 10-20 minutes, Nolan gives us shots of limbo and one of the final scenes in the "future" (presumably this is the case, looking back at them), shows us the idea of pulling a heist in someone else's dream, and also gives us the concept of a dream within a dream. This all might seem unnecessarily complex – but Nolan's setting up the idea that we can't trust what we see, and specifically the idea of a dream within a dream. If you're a narrative-savvy audience member, at this point, and at several points throughout the movie, you'll be wondering how the film will end, and what any twist will be. At some point, you will likely consider whether the entire damn film is a dream – or whether at least the ending will be. (Inception bears some striking similarities with another movie released this year starring DiCaprio, Scorsese's Shutter Island, most of all the unreliable narrator/what-is-real aspect, and a crazy wife.) Some of the elements in Cobb's seeming "reality" are intentionally odd – he's chased as he is the dream world, he encounters an improbably small alley, he has flashes of memories and a dream world, we never see the children's faces or Mal's mother, etc. Saito starts as an enemy or mark and then becomes an ally and employer.

Nolan is performing an act of inception on narrative-savvy audiences. He's planting the idea, early on, that the whole film may be a dream, or that some scenes of "reality" may be, making us wonder, like the suicidal Mal (Marion Coitillard, a great femme fatale), what is reality. In one sense, the last shot, the open ending, the mindfuck, is fairly predictable. In another sense, Nolan's anticipated that we would anticipate that ending, and the mindfuck is more subtle or devious, because we're now doubting something that we shouldn't. Again, as with the mark in the heist, he's used our own defenses against us. (Intelligence jujitsu, as with hypnosis.)

Now, maybe Nolan just constructed a good ride with an open ending and some ambiguous elements to set up the finale. I think that's all true, apart from the "just." Nolan is a smart guy and says it took him 10 years to write the script. He's also very ambitious. Given that and the subject matter, the themes, I don't see how he could avoid the meta-narrative angle. Put another way, I think at the very least Inception is very deliberately crafted, and the ending isn't just a tag – it's the entire point.

On one level, the whole heist is a MacGuffin in the vein of Hitchcock, who's still probably the master of playing with audience expectations. On another level, it's pretty important. Although Robert Fischer, Jr. (Cillian Murphy) is fooled in that vault, he does actually experience catharsis, and he's still rich as hell, so breaking up his father's empire may really have been worth it, in addition to being a benefit to Saito and the world. If we accept what we see in the film's seeming reality world as reality, then Cobb similarly experiences a catharsis and a fairly happy ending by the film's end. He's finally let go of Mal. Is this a real release, or does this release, as with Fischer, make him vulnerable to a bigger con, whether pulled by someone else or his own mind (which has fucked with him throughout the entire film)? Has Cobb finally found some peace, both internally/subconsciously and in the real world, or has his subconscious finally outwitted him? The grief/guilt was his compass for reality, and now it is gone. For some audience members, briefly buying the happy ending and then being left uncertain by the ending is the mindfuck. For other audience members, anticipating that mindfuck and rejecting the happy ending because of that is the real, bigger mindfuck. (Both types of audience members do feel some brief relief before the ending regardless, though, because of the change in energy and pacing after the heist finally concludes. Nolan wisely gives a moment to catch our breath.)

Narratively, Inception reminds me the most of Philip K .Dick's short story "I Hope I Will Arrive Soon." Complete spoiler here – a man is in suspended animation on a long spaceship voyage. There's a malfunction and he stays conscious, and will stay conscious for many years as the ship makes its voyage. This might drive him insane. Trying to help, the ship's computer puts him in a series of virtual realities so he can pass the time. But the man rejects each of them as unsatisfying. The computer asks him what he really wants, and he responds that it's to be done with the voyage, to be home. So the computer (unwisely) creates a virtual reality where the man has completed the voyage and is home. However, the computer leaves out some details, and the man, still skeptical, will, for instance, take off the back of the virtual TV set and see that it's empty, proving that he's not in reality. The computer adjusts and improves its virtual world, and keeps trying. The man stays skeptical, and if anything grows more paranoid. By the ending, the man does arrive home in the real world, but now questions reality, and does not accept it. He'll take off the back of the TV set, and say, see, it's empty, and not notice that it's not. He sees the painting he and his ex-wife bought together, and not accept that it's real because they sold it. In the real world, she re-bought it, but he views it a tell, a mistake the computer's made in designing its virtual reality He won't accept the affection and reconciliation of his ex-wife (I think they're divorced or estranged, I need to re-read it) because it's a trick. Happiness itself is a con, not to be trusted. He was always a bit paranoid, but in trying to outwit a (well-intentioned but misguided) deceiver, he's broken himself. Inception is quite similar in its layers upon layers of reality, unreality and mindfuckery. Spin us around like a top until we get dizzy, and we won't know which was is up anymore. (Mal says something very similar.)

There are some odd things about the last scene, such as the absence of Mal's mother, who we've heard before, and because we've seen the same setting and lighting before in dreams. However, the top teeters, as it did not in limbo (as I recall). Nolan cleverly ends when the top teeters but is still spinning fairly strong, leaving us guessing. (Rife with symbolism, Cobb lets the top go and doesn't check it himself.) We finally see the children's faces, which have been (in a brilliant move) denied to us throughout the film. This device sets up serious anticipation and dread in the late limbo scene with Mal and Ariadne (yeah, there's a mythologically-symbolically named character for ya) and in the final scene. If Cobb is in someone else's dream, whose is it? We're not really given many options there (possibly Ariadne). He could just be dreaming normally, if elaborately, with his dream his way of finally expunging his guilt and finding some happiness. He could be stuck in limbo. Maybe he never got out. Or he could (as with Ambrose Bierce's "Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" and its countless descendants) be dead or dying.

Nolan intentionally makes the finale open-ended and ambiguous, and I'll have to see it again. I think a few elements point toward it being reality (the teeter), and that the slickest mindfuck of the film is on terribly clever film viewers who reject the happy ending outright, who are convinced that's it's all a trick or illusion. There's not enough proof of that, either; it's not certain. The ending can simply be seen as a litmus test, more revealing about an individual viewer than anything else. Of course, since Nolan screws with really everyone in the audience, he's undermining a straightforward happy ending for everyone. Whether or not we anticipated the ending - we really want to see whether that top falls or not. We want confirmation. He's planted that idea, that questioning of reality, in everyone's heads, regardless of whether they anticipated it or not. And, of course, we can find that denial of certainty very satisfying as an audience. (Most audiences have, and I enjoyed the film a great deal.) Nolan has played with our expectations, frustrated them and satisfied them and around and around again, slyly grinning as he spins the top that is Inception and we watch, rapt.

(My earlier post also a look at the key music cue of the film. And is it a coincidence that the song is "Non, je ne regretted rien," by Edith Piaf, and Marion Cotillard won an Oscar playing her in a biopic? I think not!)

(Here's Christopher Nolan on The Treatment.)

2010 Film Roundup, Part 3: Noteworthy Films

Scott Pilgrim Versus the World: This one might not be for everybody, but a certain crowd will really love it, and find it one of the most entertaining and creative films of the year. Director Edgar Wright was the perfect fit to adapt Brian Lee O'Malley's alternative comic book about young, slacker love, struggling bands and gaming culture. Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera) falls for cool indie chick Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), but to stay with her, he must defeat – in single combat – her seven evil exes. Along the way, he starts to question both whether it's worth it, and his past romantic choices.

Cera's a bit miscast as Scott Pilgrim, who's supposed to be something of a player with the ladies, albeit the thoughtless versus malicious kind. He's also supposed to be, in the comic books, "The best fighter in the province!" (This is set in Canada, after all.) Still, Cera grew on me throughout the film, and he can handle Scott's befuddled neurotic side with ease. The rest of the actors are well cast, and the entire film is just great fun. Mary Elizabeth Winstead strikes the right mix of studied disaffection and fleeting sincerity as Ramona, Alison Pill is memorable as cynical drummer Kim Pine, Jason Schwartzman oozes sleaze as mogul Gideon Graves, and Ellen Wong as young Knives Chau is both lovesick puppy and furious woman scorned. Kieran Culkin, Anna Kendrick, Brie Larson and Aubrey Plaza have a blast trying to see who can be the most bitchy (some charmingly, some not). Chris Evans and Brandon Routh poke fun at their own superhero images (Routh and his special Vegan Powers is particularly funny). The action sequences are played for both comedy and kineticism, and they're very well staged. But Wright never loses sight of the characters and the heart of his story. Unfortunately, the film didn't do well at the box office, because it had the misfortune of opening opposite The Expendables, which was a surprise hit across multiple demographics.

The film's fun, but it does have a deeper core. Normally, I wouldn't quote an interview at length, but Edgar Wright's discussion with Elvis Mitchell about Scott Pilgrim being "The hero as daydreamer" is superb:

Edgar Wright: I like the idea – and this was a little bit in Spaced, but it's very much in Scott Pilgrim, I like the idea, you could really, you know, use the metaphor that Scott Pilgrim as a gamer, has kind of become like a solipsist, in a way, in terms of that, he's not a bad person, but there are several times in the film where he's thoughtless. And so there's a feeling that life to him is a game in a sense.

Elvis Mitchell: Yeah, and there's kind of a slacker narcissism.

Edgar Wright: Absolutely...

Scott Pilgrim is conducting his emotional business in a way, that, mistakes that he's made that he hasn't thought twice about, and peoples' feelings that he hasn't thought twice about, eventually come to haunt him. And one of the things Brian Lee O'Malley said about Scott Pilgrim as a character, which was kind of the perfect note for Michael Cera, was that Scott Pilgrim is the hero of the movie playing inside his own head. And in a way, the film – and this takes the Spaced thing a bit further, because Spaced had a lot of dream sequences in it, and fantasy sequences, but they would always wake up or come out of the dream sequence, and Scott Pilgrim is like the dream sequence that never ends. Someone said this, I'm not going to claim this myself, but somebody else said it and I was very pleased they made this reference, 'Oh, it's kinda like a slacker Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie at the start!' (Laughter) And I'm thinking, well, that is very high praise indeed, and I'm sure some people would disagree, but I appreciate that. But you could if you wanted look at a dream sequence about twenty minutes into the film and say, the dream sequence never ends. That what we're watching is Scott Pilgrim as a character, is like, he's very charming if not very naïve, and it's almost, I see the film as him starting out of the train window (laughs) thinking up this crazy sort of, like, his crazy version of events.

We may all be the heroes of the movie playing inside our own heads, but few films have taken that concept and run with it as well as Scott Pilgrim Versus the World.

(Here's Edgar Wright on The Treatment and Fresh Air. There's a bonus piece at the Fresh Air link.)

Never Let Me Go: Director Mark Romanek does a good job of adapting Kazuo Ishiguro's elegiac and very internal novel. Kathy, Ruth and Tommy are schoolchildren at a British boarding school, with something unusual about it. The secret is revealed soon enough – the children are clones, being raised to serve as spare parts for other humans. What may be most disconcerting to American audiences is how accepting the clones are of their fate. Instead of a thriller (like The Island), this is a film about relationships, reflection, and mortality, as we follow our trio as children into young adulthood. It's a love story in an alternative world. Kathy falls in love with Tommy, who treats her warmly, but Ruth has snagged him for her own, and occasionally taunts Kathy over this. The novel dealt a great deal with their young selves, and the ways girls indirectly slight and apologize to each other. That's hard to film, and Romanek wisely focus more on the young adult portion. Carey Mulligan plays Kathy, the narrator who grounds the film. As good as Mulligan was in An Education, she's even better here, an old soul in a young body who can convey tremendous emotion just under the surface with a few subtle expressions. She's definitely an actress to watch. Andrew Garfield was good in The Social Network, but he's better here, too, capturing Tommy's slightly goofy, carefree spirit, especially in his bouncing run to a boat. Keira Knightley channels her inner mean girl as Ruth, but also sells Ruth's more gracious moments. Sally Hawkins is great as an idealistic, caring teacher, and Charlotte Rampling makes for an imposing headmistress.

Like Kazuo Ishiguro's other great novel, The Remains of the Day, Never Let Me Go is moving, sad and wistful, and centers on a second-class citizen (or three) who rarely question their station or consider rebelling. Instead, the focus is on the choices they make, their internal lives, and what they make of the lives they have. Ishiguro has said he doesn't much care about the sci-fi elements and didn't want a thriller or anything like that; for him, it's how people face their own mortality that was most compelling. Romanek does a fine job overall, typically favoring understatement, which is the right approach for this type of material. He violates this a few times, though, especially near the ending. Once is with an obtrusive crash of sweeping music at a key point. The second is with an amendment to Kathy's last speech – Kathy says something more explicit, and perhaps safer and more comforting, than what she says in the book. I'd like to see the film again to see how that choice in particular strikes me on a second viewing. That said, Romanek and Garfield absolutely nail a wrenching scene with Tommy in the road, and the cast and crew do a splendid job at delivering many intimate moments. True to the book's aesthetic, this is a lovely and moving film, but a sad one.

(Here's Mark Romanek on The Treatment and Fresh Air, plus a bonus piece from All Things Considered.)

127 Hours: It's basically James Franco and director Danny Boyle with a camera in a canyon. Most viewers will probably know the true story of Aron Ralston before going in, but if you're squeamish, you'd best know what's in store. Young Aron is a wild man, a free spirit and extreme outdoorsman. He takes off to go canyon climbing for the weekend, as he often does, but doesn't leave any information about where he's gone. He runs into two young women in the canyon, and shows them a cool hidden pond, but after that, he's on his own. Climbing down a canyon, he puts his hand on a small boulder, which slips, and so does he, and the boulder lands on his hand, pinning him. The bulk of the film is Ralston facing his predicament, trying to work his way out, remembering his life, talking to his video camera, and occasionally hallucinating. He's a smart guy, and he tries several promising approaches to freeing himself, but he doesn't seem to have the right tools for the job. He also faces his own personal shortcomings, and confesses them on camera, as his confronts his likely mortal end. The climatic scene could have been shot much more gruesomely, and Boyle shows some restraint, but it's still grisly stuff. However, despite this central event, 127 Hours is pretty uplifting overall. Knowing the outcome means we focus more on how Aron faces his fate versus the fate itself, and this is how it should be. Franco is charismatic and gives an engaging, moving performance. Boyle delights in all the tricks of cinema as usual, using water bag zoom shots and flashbacks and dreams to break us out of the canyon – and also to push us further in and feel Ralston's entrapment. If you can stand the climatic scene, this is worth checking out.

(Here's James Franco on Fresh Air.)

True Grit: The Coen brothers team up with Jeff Bridges again, this time in a western. Based more on Charles Portis' book than a remake of the 1969 John Wayne flick, True Grit centers on a young girl hiring a federal marshal to hunt down the man who killed her father. But while the marshal, Rooster Cogburn, does have "true grit," he's also a drunkard, and a very tarnished knight. Bridges overdoes the mumbling, but otherwise makes a good Cogburn, nailing his crusty, cynical, darkly comic nature. ("Ground's too hard. Them men wanted a decent burial, they should have got themselves killed in summer.") He also handles the lighter comic moments with ease, as well as those few instances when his better side shines through all the tarnish. Young Hailee Steinfeld is fantastic as the plucky, unswayable Mattie Ross, who insists on accompanying Cogburn after the killer, Tom Cheney (Josh Brolin). Stanfield handles the mannered period prose with deftness and relish, and her horse-trading bouts with a local merchant are a particular joy. Matt Damon does a nice job as LeBoeuf, an initially standoffish Texas Ranger who teams up with Cogburn to catch Cheney for a reward on his head. The banter's sharp, and the Coens have a great feel for the western aesthetic, helped immensely by the impeccable cinematography of Roger Deakins (long overdue for an Oscar). This True Grit has its humor, but it's much less sentimental than the John Wayne flick. That's most welcome, but unfortunately, the ending scenes feel emotionally disconnected from what's preceded. The murder of Mattie's father is also barely shown at the start, which is odd considering it's the inciting incident. Despite a few misfires, though, this is a solid film, well worth checking out for Hailee Steinfeld if nothing else.

(Here's the Coens on Fresh Air. I particularly like this line about Steinfeld: "To a large extent, 99.99 percent of the girls who auditioned for this role just washed out at the level of the vocal qualities, and not being able to get their mouths around the language." Damn, do I love good vocal work.)

Toy Story 3: Andy is going off to college, and struggles with saying goodbye to his beloved troupe of toys, who are anxious not to be abandoned. A series of accidents leads our crew to Sunnyside Daycare, where they're greeted by the grandfatherly Lots-o'-Huggin' Bear (voiced by Ned Beatty). At first, they're encouraged by what they see, and Barbie is especially excited to meet Ken (Michael Keaton), and tour his dream house. But all is not as it appears. Our heroes are stuck with the youngest kids, who treat the toys savagely. Lotso is not as kindly as he first seems, and something odd has happened to Buzz. Toy Story 3 becomes a prison break film (as were the other two, to some degree), and an awfully entertaining, inventive one at that. This film is definitely the last of the series, and the very end was too protracted for my tastes. However, the opening sequence is a sheer delight, and many of the other bits, like Spanish Buzz Lightyear, are great fun. It's a solid entry in the Pixar canon.

(Here's the filmmakers on Fresh Air.)

How to Train Your Dragon: How can you say no to dragons and Vikings with Scottish accents? How to Train Your Dragon is the tale of misfit Viking Hiccup Horrendous Haddock III (voiced by Jay Baruchel), a scrawny kid with a talent for tinkering, who has the misfortune of being the son of Stoick the Vast (Gerard Butler), the most studly of all the stubborn town's dragon-slayers. Stoick tries, but he just doesn't understand his son Hiccup, and Hiccup's erstwhile mentor, Gobber the Belch (Craig Ferguson) doesn't fare much better. There are many varieties of dragons, and learning about them is one of the fun things about the movie. But no one has ever seen the rare and deadly Night Fury. During a nighttime dragon attack, Hiccup hits one with his homemade net gun, but no one believes him. He goes in search of it, but when he finds the sleek, cat-like creature, he can't bear to kill it – and thus begins an unusual, slowly growing friendship. As Hiccup shouts out later, "Everything we know about them is wrong!" How to Train Your Dragon winds up being immensely fun. We've seen coming-of-age stories countless times before, but it's well-handled here, as are the elements of friendship, budding romance, the special bond between a boy and his dragon, and most of all the sheer joy of flying. Jay Baruchel makes a good reluctant hero, and the supporting cast of buffoons, warriors and wannabes have plenty of fine moments. I actually enjoyed this more than Toy Story 3, and it's hard to believe how many directors this film went through and how last-minute changes it saw, since the final result seemed pretty smooth.

Fair Game: Chronicling the real-life trials of Valerie Plame Wilson, Fair Game walks us through a sordid scandal that should have claimed more heads. Valerie was a CIA agent, deep undercover, and her outspoken husband Joe was a diplomat who served in Iraq and several African nations, including Niger. The CIA sent Joe Wilson to Niger to investigate Bush administration claims about Iraq obtaining uranium from there. He concluded they were bogus. After the war started, he wrote an op-ed in The New York Times, "What I Didn't Find in Africa," which exposed one of the central lies the Bush administration used to justify invading Iraq. As a result, the Bush White House launched a campaign to discredit and destroy him, which included outing his wife's cover – Karl Rove reportedly said she was "fair game." Naomi Watts and Sean Penn are very good as Valerie and Joe Wilson. Joe is well-intentioned and loves his wife, but he's also got a big ego and is a bit of a blowhard. In contrast, Valerie enjoys doing a great job with no recognition outside the CIA, and positively hates the limelight, and the attention Joe brings on their family. Joe only knows that a great wrong has been done, and he's crusading for justice, but the resulting fallout threatens both their jobs, and their marriage. There's a scene near the end which felt a bit forced and treacly to me, but apart from that, Fair Game is filmmaking for adults. Director Doug Liman manages to capture a fairly complicated story and make it digestible and understandable in a narrative film. It also shows the Wilsons, warts and all, which is a nice dose of realism. Fair Game might not be everyone's cup of tea, but seeing the Wilsons' relationship, and the human cost of political perfidy by extremely powerful men, is what makes it compelling.

(Here's The Business on the film, and a 2007 Fresh Air interview with Valerie Plame Wilson.)

Kick-Ass: Kick-Ass is a dark, violent comedy, definitely not for kids, despite the age of some of its heroes. Young Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson) decides he wants to be a real-life super-hero, sets out to fight crime, and promptly gets severely injured. The treatment he receives leaves him resilient to pain, and he returns to fighting crime, still awfully naïve and earnest, but a little wiser and more skilled than before. Along the way, he meets the super-hero father-daughter team of Big Daddy (Nicholas Cage) and Hit Girl (Chloe Moretz). They want to take down the local crime boss, Frank D'Amico (Mark Strong), whose son Chris (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) desperately wants to impress his father. Cage has great fun playing a Batman clone, clipping his speech and generally acting like a well-intentioned but obsessive loon. Moretz is amazing in a breakout performance. The film fully exploits the shock value of a young girl swearing profusely, and going full ninja with extremely gymnastic, intricate and violent moves. It's all terribly wrong, but awfully entertaining. Johnson is good as Dave/Kick-Ass, and what gives the film its core is his basic decency, including his sweetness with the girl he pines for, Katie (Lyndsy Fonseca). Director Matthew Vaughn, who also directed Layer Cake, has a good feel for outsiders, teens, action and black comedy. Kick-Ass is a nice tonic to the more overblown super-hero flicks, but it is a solid R, and certainly not for all audiences.

(Here's Matthew Vaughn on The Treatment.)

Inside Job: It's a film about the biggest heist in history – and the bad news is that it's real – and the villains have gotten big paydays versus going to jail. Inside Job looks into the 2008 global economic collapse, and what – and who - caused it. You might have to watch this documentary (winner of Best Documentary Feature) in small chunks if you value your blood pressure. If you've followed these matters closely, some of what Inside Job shows won't be new. However, it still supplies some revealing moments, especially in the steady stream of on-camera denials (and self-denial) from men (they're nearly all men) who claim to see no conflict of interest in issuing "expert" opinions without disclosing how they financially benefit from them. The style is mostly talking heads, but it's well done, and one of the best single primers on the whole affair. The disc has plenty of extended interviews that couldn’t be included in the final cut. (Director Charles Ferguson also made the excellent Iraq War doc No End in Sight.)

(Here's Ferguson on Charlie Rose and the film's website.)

Marwencol: This documentary focuses on Mark Hogancamp, who was beaten nearly to death by several men outside a bar, and suffered significant brain injuries. He simply can't remember key portions of his own life. When the money for therapy dries up, he decides to focus his energies into building Marwencol, a fictional town in Belgium in WWII. Using G.I. Joes, Barbies and other dolls, he populates the town with a version of himself and other people he knows in real life (and also some fictional ones). His avatar/counterpart is an American soldier, lost behind enemy lines. He connects with the Belgian resistance, and opens a bar in a the town where everyone can have a good time. His attackers, naturally, are portrayed as Nazis, who abuse the citizens of the town, and capture and torture him. His Marwencol tales center on violence, sex and camaraderie. Marwencol is an odd but memorable film, and it's one of the best portraits of art as therapy, as Mark tries to express and exorcise his demons through his increasingly elaborate town. Director Jeff Malmberg, normally an editor by trade, worked on Marwencol between other projects over the course of several years. In the film, he slowly unveils more and more about Mark himself, changing our views of him somewhat. This film was very hard to catch in theaters, often playing at an art house venue for only a single weekend, but it's worth a look. Some of the proceeds from the film go to help Mark Hogancamp.

(Here's filmmaker Jeff Malmberg on The Treatment, a segment on The Business about marketing it, and the film's website.)

2010 Film Roundup, Part 4: The Rest (The Good, the Bad and the Godawful)

Shutter Island: Shutter Island, based on a novel by Dennis Lehane, is a minor entry in the Martin Scorsese canon, but it's skillfully put together for all that. In 1954, U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his partner Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) visit an island hospital for the criminally insane to investigate the mysterious disappearance of one of its patients. However, the place is seriously creepy, and keeps on getting weirder. Ben Kingsley and Max von Sydow, playing doctors, and Ted Levine, playing the Warden, excel at racheting up the unease – there's something they're hiding. Teddy isn't in great shape himself, and seems to be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder or something else. He has nightmares about WWII and his wife Dolores (Michelle Williams), and as he begins to see odd things starts to wonder if he's being drugged, or going crazy himself. Did the missing woman ever exist? Are the doctors conducting cruel experiments on the patients? Who, if anyone, can he trust? And is he in danger himself? I'll be interested in seeing how Shutter Island plays on a second viewing. It's a "twist" movie, and many viewers might guess at it, but I think the performances and relationships keep it interesting for all that. Some of the sequences, notably a creepy one with a power blackout in the violent ward, are very effectively put together. Scorsese's always worth a look.

The Town: It's Heat in Boston, directed by, and starring, Ben Affleck, based on the novel Prince of Thieves by Chuck Hogan. Doug MacRay (Affleck) and his buddies are experienced bank robbers, and on one job, they take a hostage, bank employee Claire Keesey (Rebecca Hall). They're concerned she might be able to identify them. James Coughlin (Jeremy Renner), the hot dog, wants to just kill her, but Doug volunteers to feel her out and contrives to bump into her. As they spend more time together, he starts to fall for her. He wants to leave his life of crime behind, but he's pressured to do one last job by the gang, who also threaten Claire. Meanwhile, FBI agent Adam Frawley (Jon Hamm) and his team are hot on the gang's trail, and risk exposing Doug's crime activities to Claire. The Town isn't as good as either Heat or Affleck's excellent, first directorial effort, Gone Baby Gone. Still, it's a solid entry in the bank heist-crime film genre, with above-average performances and a Boston-Irish flavor. This was Pete Postlewaithe's last film.

The Karate Kid: This remake of the surprise 80s hit is longer and more serious, and transplants the action to a new continent. Young, skinny Dre Parker (Jaden Smith) moves with his single mom, Sherry (Taraji P. Henson) for a new job in China. Early on, he meets a cute Chinese girl, Meiying (Wenwen Han), but promptly gets his ass kicked by the local bully, Cheng (Zhenwei Wang), who knows kung fu. Dre is saved from a later beating by his apartment building's maintenance man, Mr. Han (Jackie Chan), who's an expert in kung fu. Dre begs to be taught, and Mr. Han reluctantly agrees, but Dre's less eager to learn the core lessons Mr. Han's stressing: discipline, humility, patience and respect. Young Jaden Smith has the charisma and attitude to carry most of the film, and Henson is good as his mom. Jackie Chan gets to do some of his signature inventive fights, but also handles the drama well (it's one of his more serious roles). At 140 minutes, the film feels a bit bloated, but it handles the mentor-apprentice stuff, budding romance and the final competition well.

Robin Hood: The idea of a more adult Robin Hood that shows his origins is a neat one, and the casting is superb overall – Russell Crowe as Robin, Cate Blanchett as Maid Marion, plus Max von Sydow, Mark Addy, Scott Grimes and several other character stalwarts. Working in the Magna Carta, an episode for which the historical Prince John is best known, is also an interesting choice, as is showing Richard the Lionhearted as an imperialist dolt. Having Ridley Scott direct generally guarantees a certain level of quality. The acting, particularly between Crowe, Blanchett and von Sydow is strong. However, the film's middle section, with Robin trying out domestic life, is bloated and drags. The final big battle is underwhelming. Meanwhile, the daddy issues that are supposed to comprise Robin's internal journey feel tacked on and unnecessary. (Enough with badly-done daddy issues, please, Hollywood!) For fans of Robin Hood, it's worth a look at this take, but considering the team put together for this effort, the end result is a bit disappointing – this version is decent, but not excellent.

The Other Guys: There are the over-the-top hero cops of action flicks – and then there are the other guys. Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg are the latter. They're oddball cop partners looking to crack a big case to get out of the department doghouse. Most of the comedy comes from high-strung tough guy Terry Holtz (Wahlberg) being incredibly abusive to accountant-at-heart Allen Gamble (Ferrell), who occasionally strikes back in his own dorky way. Holtz also openly hits on Allen's incredibly hot wife, Sheila (Eva Mendes), who Allen seems barely to notice. This isn't a nice comedy, or a realistic comedy, but some of it is pretty damn funny. The raunchy, grandma go-between scene is great, as is one of the early verbal duels between our heroes. (You can read it here if you like - dialogue spoiler!) One of the few elements of realism is the film's choice of bad guys. Make sure to stay through the ending credits, which list some shocking stats about real-life Wall Street villainy. (The filmmakers did the credit thing as a bit of a lark, and were surprised by the strong reaction.)

(Here's Will Ferrell and director Adam McKay on Fresh Air.)

Alice in Wonderland: As with all Tim Burton flicks, we get great production design, an interesting aesthetic, and a good Danny Elfman score. And as with most Burton flicks, he's less interested in story and character. The film takes the premise that Alice visited Wonderland as a child, was convinced by adults it was a dream, and now, on the verge of a loveless marriage, she flees the ceremony and falls down the rabbit hole once again. It does look neat, but Alice (Mia Wasikowska) is a rather passive heroine, showing some cleverness, but mostly along for the ride. From the ads prominently featuring Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter, you may have guessed a minor character would be inflated to a prominent role, and you'd have been correct. It doesn't really work. Fans of Lewis Carroll's work will probably enjoy seeing the characters (the Cheshire Cat, voiced by Stephen Fry, is cool), and there are scattered bits of wonder and whimsy, but Burton, while playful, has a more Gothic sensibility. Meanwhile, as with many Burton flicks, it's a series of quips and bits and scenes that may be amusing or briefly entertaining, but don't build up to something greater, aren't that engaging, and certainly not moving. I just grew weary of elements like the deliberate zaniness of the Red Queen (a morphed Helena Bonham-Carter) screaming for another pig for her feet, and the sniveling fiancé, so obviously a horrible match for Alice. Your mileage may vary; devoted Burton fans will rank this higher.

The Book of Eli: It's Fahrenheit 451 meets The Road, or any of a number of other post-apocalyptic tales. It's the future after a nuclear war, and people live in survivalist mode, holing out in barricaded houses, resorting to cannibalism, traveling in gangs, or gathering in wild west-style small towns. Eli (Denzel Washington) does the Kung Fu/Yojimbo thing, traveling across the country on foot, trying to deliver one of the world's remaining books (a Bible) to a sanctuary, and occasionally kicking ass along the way. He's pretty self-sufficient, but he does need water and food, and stops at a small town run by Carnegie (Gary Oldman), who collects books himself and wants Eli to stay after his sees his fighting skills. To this end, he asks Solara (Mila Kunis) to seduce Eli. She's reluctant, but Carnegie dangles the fate of her and her blind mother Claudia (Jennifer Beals). Denzel Washington's a great leading man, and Gary Oldman hasn't chewed up the scenery a villain in a while. Michael Gambon's got a brief role, and he's good as always, but rather wasted by the film. I didn't find The Book of Eli that compelling. The aesthetic is dusty and gritty, but Eli isn't just a badass, he's a comic book badass, possessing preternatural abilities and zen awareness. To me, those felt like conflicting elements, with one not fully set up. More importantly, it changes the power dynamics. Some of the plot holes (sudden miraculous technical expertise) become distracting. Most prominently, this is a world where Bibles are unknown and only remembered by the older folks, because supposedly, when the nuclear war hit, the angry survivors rejected religion. The notion that in hyper-religious America, the entire populace would completely reject religion versus at least a few pockets going full zealot may be the most far-fetched thing about the movie. The plot also gives the flick a slightly preachy tone, that what the world needs is more religion. The Book of Eli has its fans as a popcorn apocalyptic flick, but I found it below average for its genre.

Predators: A group of human killers – soldiers, mercenaries, mobsters and murderers – are kidnapped and wake up on an alien planet to be hunted by their alien captors, the predators. At this point, most viewers should know the drill. It's yet another variation on The Most Dangerous Game, but the challenge for this group is not only to survive, but to somehow get off the planet. Adrien Brody is convincing as a skilled, cold-hearted mercenary, Royce, who's challenged by the more compassionate Isabella (Alice Braga). There's a handful of memorably funny lines (mostly from Topher Grace or Walton Goggins). There's a major twist in the middle that's very promising at first, but peters out, as if the writers didn't know where to go with it. The action scenes vary in quality from good to all right to that-could-have-been-so-much-cooler. Fans of the series will probably want to check it out. Oddly enough, the first, occasionally cheeseball, action/horror B-movie that was Predator remains the best of the lot.

The Sorcerer's Apprentice: Young Dave Stutler (Jay Baruchel) is recruited by the good-but-slightly-insane sorcerer Balthazar (Nicholas Cage) to fight the evil wizard Horvath (Alfred Molina), who seeks to resurrect the evil Morgana - who now possesses the body of their former flame, Veronica (Monica Belucci). The centuries-old magic war thing is a big adjustment for Dave, who is also trying to woo his long-time crush, Becky (Teresa Palmer). The Sorcerer's Apprentice works well enough as summer fare (one sequence is based on the Fantasia segment of the same name). There are many underwhelming magic battles throughout the history of cinema, but the ones here are often pretty clever, and Baruschel makes for a likeable, dorky hero. Director Jon Turtltaub teamed up with Cage for the National Treasure movies, so that should give you a decent idea of what's in store.

Despicable Me: Evil super-genius Gru (Steve Carrell) has been upstaged by the new kid on the villain block, Vector, so he schemes a daring new plot to steal the moon to re-establish his evil cred. Too bad the Bank of Evil doesn't want to back his venture, and when Gru steals a shrink ray for his plot, Vector steals it again from Gru. Vector's lair is near impenetrable (Gru has some funny failed attempts), but he notices that Vector opens up the gates for three orphan girls selling cookies. Gru decides to "adopt" them to further his plans – but even brief, insincere fatherhood is a challenge for him, and his plans are further complicated by the girls. Despicable Me gets a bit treacly at times, but mostly avoids pure saccharine with some dark humor. It's not as good as Toy Story 3 or How to Train Your Dragon, but it's a cute, fun flick. Gru's little yellow minions are entertaining, and make sure to watch them through the closing credits. (I didn't get a chance to see the similar-themed Megamind, which I heard was better.)

Iron Man 2: Not quite as good or fun as the first one, Iron Man 2 still rates as enjoyable summer fare with an upscale cast. Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark and Gwenyth Paltrow as Pepper Potts are joined this time by Mickey Rourke, Scarlet Johansson and Sam Rockwell. Don Cheadle replaces Terrence Howard as Tony Stark's long-time buddy, sometime conscience and occasional adversary, Rhodey. This time around, the device in Tony's chest keeping him alive is also slowly poisoning him, and it's a race against time for him to discover a cure. Even worse, each time he uses the suit, it accelerates the poison. That's problematic, especially since super-villain Whiplash/ Ivan Vanko (Rourke, suitably menacing) is trying to kill him out of some revenge grudge, with help from Stark's business rival, Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell, entertainingly sleazy). Stark's also got a congressional investigation to fend off, as the insufferable Senator Stern (Garry Shandling) wants him to turn over the Iron Man suit, which Stark points out is impossible, since he and the suit are one. Further complicating things, Rhodey steals one of his spare suits and gives it to the military, he's hiding both his illness and love from Pepper, he's got daddy issues to work out, and he's handling it all poorly by drinking heavily. Scarlet Johansson is good as Tony's latest lust interest, Natasha Romanoff, and she's convincing in her well-shot fight scenes. Likewise, director Jon Favreau is funny playing Stark's occasional sidekick, Happy Hogan. Downey and Paltrow have fantastic chemistry, worthy of a screwball comedy, and Rockwell is a standout, with some wonderful lines, as when he describes his company's smart missile: "If this baby were any smarter, it would write a book. And that book would make Ulysses look like it was written in crayon. And it would read it to you." Still, something's lacking in the final stretch and the climatic fight. Maybe it's Whiplash obligingly making a dumb move, or a lack of chemistry between Downey and Cheadle, but it's not quite satisfying. That said, Iron Man 2 is a respectable entry in the super-hero genre, and looks better when compared to other 2010 summer flicks.

Tron: Legacy: Most viewers either never saw the original Tron, or only dimly remember it, further complicated by Disney pulling copies of it. (Supposedly they thought it aged poorly, and would reflect badly on the new film, but now you can buy both films bundled.) That creates some obstacles for Tron: Legacy. It succeeds extremely well as spectacle, but the plot is problematic and confused, making it disappointing - much like the original. Jeff Bridges instantly classes it up, Garett Hedlund is decent as a leading man, and Olivia Wilde, in addition to looking both gorgeous and otherworldly, delivers some great lines. The Daft Punk score adds to the aesthetic. It's hard to buy the stakes, though, and at times the rules of the world are confusing. If a disc is essentially one's identity, is it really wise to go throwing it around? (Granted, it makes for cool fights, but it seems to make our heroes ridiculously vulnerable.) If the bad guy is supposed to be all cold computer and ruthless efficiency, why does he demonstrate such rage? And what about the whole flesh-to-digital thing, and more importantly, the prospects of going the other way, with an entity that has been completely digital and virtual? If the bad guy succeeds in his evil plan, what would really happen? And how would it happen? (And in the actual ending, how was that thing that happened achieved, y'know?) It seems like the makers of Tron: Legacy never stopped to figure out any of the core mechanics and their own, well, mythological framework, and that really does hurt the film. The original Tron was never as innovative as Disney thought it was, since sci-fi lit had gone there decades before, but it was fun enough, and perhaps even a tantalizing effort. Tron: Legacy looks great, its aesthetic is worth checking out, and the early action sequences are splendid - but likewise, it falls short of its promise in the end.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1: More than any other film in the series, this one feels like it's just marking time until the next one. In this case, the next film is the big finale. But while Part 1 picks a good spot to stop, it still feels like a by-the-numbers entry, without much forward momentum, probably due to the atrocious pacing and low energy of the middle section. Some of the sequences are quite good; the early escape, a raid on the Ministry of Magic and a late sequence at Malfoy Manor work well as self-contained chapters, with builds, twists, reverses, ingenuity by our heroes and climaxes. Others fall flat. The foray to Godric's Hollow is actually more cinematic in the book, but the filmmakers chose to substitute a fight for suspense. Meanwhile, the middle section, with Harry, Ron and Hermione on the run, becomes interminable. This was a flaw of the book as well, but why repeat it? The scenery is gorgeous, but all our heroes look and feel weary. The kids, who have all become better actors, are forced to carry most of the film on their own, without the help of the stellar supporting cast. That may be a factor. But the bigger issue seems to be the story and the directing. Plot-wise, the schism between the trio rings false, and the energy level craters. Given all this, this section could have been massively condensed, rather than lingering at such great length on the implausible and uninteresting. It only accentuates the rip-off, studios-lining-their-pockets aspect of Part 1. (You made me sit through that?) Meanwhile, some other subplots that could have been addressed with a simple line or two are dumped. With a bloated running time of 146, that's poor clock management. Part 2 will feature massive spectacle, and many showdowns, but I hope the filmmakers manage to focus on the human, character elements that make such conflicts effective.

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Dawn Treader: This third entry in the series sees Edmund and Lucy, the two youngest of the four Pevensie kids, returning to Narnia, this time with their annoying, prissy cousin Eustace in tow. They hook up with Prince Caspian and Reepicheep the swashbuckling mouse, who tell them of Narnians disappearing into a mysterious green mist. The seven lords who set out to find out what happened have disappeared, too. Can Edmund, Lucy and Caspian succeed where others have failed? Dawn Treader is episodic, but most of those episodes are fun, featuring dragons, sea monsters, invisible beasties, wizards and various tempting perils. The one problem is that some of those temptations are awfully repetitive – Edmund is tempted by the White Witch no less than three times. The series' strong Christian underpinnings also represent a slight challenge for the filmmakers, but they seem to strike a decent balance – it's hard to miss this element during the ending, but it's not completely in your face, either. Will Poulter (from Son of Rambow) makes the character growth of Eustace convincing, and veteran director Michael Apted makes Dawn Treader a respectable entry.

Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief: Young Percy Jackson, diagnosed as dyslexic and ADHD, has always felt out of place – and then discovers, after being attacked by mythical creatures, that he's the son of the Greek god Poseidon, gifted with special powers. His guardians take him to train at Camp Half-Blood with other demigod kids. However, when his mother is kidnapped by Hades, Percy (Logan Lerman) sets out to rescue her with his new friends, Annabeth (daughter of Athena, played by Alexandra Daddario) and Grover, a satyr (Brandon Jackson). The mythological aspect is fun, and the way myths crop in the current day is often clever, particularly the lotus eaters sequence. (Maybe the books explain how Athena, one of the three virgin goddesses in the actual myths, came to have a daughter.) The demigod kids have some issues with their absentee parents, some more than others. Percy's training at the Camp is one of the weaker parts of the story – apparently, as the child of one of the big three (Zeus-Poseidon-Hades), he just needs to let go and allow his godly powers take over, at which point his sword-fighting becomes exceptional, he commands water and all the rest. That's pretty uninteresting, but luckily, throughout the rest of the movie Percy and his companions show more ingenuity. The dialogue quality really varies – some is clever, but some is pretty bad. Catherine Keener feels tamed and ill-used as Percy's mother Sally, and Kevin McKidd is bland as Poseidon. Otherwise, though, the supporting cast is pretty stellar – Pierce Brosnan as the teacher Chiron, Uma Thurman as a diva Medusa, Sean Bean as Zeus, Steve Coogan as a jealous and scheming Hades, and Rosario Dawson as a bored, lustful Persephone. I enjoyed parts of this, but some of the "big" moments fall flat (Percy and Annabeth, Percy and his dad Poseidon), so it felt like a near miss to me. The next movie is slotted for a 2013 release; maybe I'll see how the books are.

Clash of the Titans: I was a fan of the original film as a kid, despite some misgivings. I didn't like all of the liberties it took with the mythology, but Harryhausen was pretty cool. In later years, when it happened to be on TV (the Turner stations loved it), I'd sometimes switch over just to catch the Medusa sequence, which is masterful and still holds up. The remake does let Liam Neeson thunder as Zeus, "Release the Kraken!" and Ralph Fiennes as Hades always makes a good villain, but there's just not much spirit to this loose remake. Sam Worthington plays Perseus, demigod son of Zeus, and while he's decent actor who's credible doing the action sequences, I'm not convinced he's a strong leading man. Gemma Arterton does good vocal work as Io, in this version a demigoddess tasked with looking over Perseus. Perseus seeks a way to defeat the Kraken, a monster scheduled to destroy the city of Argos because of the citizens' insufficient groveling to the gods. The rest of Perseus' team are pretty forgettable. Similar to Percy Jackson, Perseus' demigod status and celestial weaponry means he can defeat people through superior power versus skill, making some fights rather uninteresting. Perseus rebels against this aspect of his heritage, though, and does show some brains. The scorpion fight is genuinely good, but most of the scenes, including the Medusa sequence, aren't that compelling. There's one prominent shout-out to the Harryhausen film, and while not being slavish to the original film (or the original mythology) is probably a good idea, the end results just don't add up to much, and it's hard to care about these characters. The premise that the Greek gods are bastards is a promising angle (and certainly supported by the mythology), but the man-versus-god theme gets muddled as the movie goes along – or maybe the aim was that human, demigod and god all learn a valuable lesson by the end.

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time: Based on a video game, Prince of Persia features a few actors giving it their all, but it's an uphill battle. The biggest problem is that, if the hero can briefly turn back time (if only briefly, and only so many times), it makes for cool slow-mo sequences but radically diminishes the stakes. If he's losing, just break out the time-dagger! Jake Gyllenhaal's a good young actor, and got in excellent shape to play the heroic Dastan, but his American look and long face feel jarring in the role of a Persian prince of antiquity. As princess Tamina, Gemma Arterton looks great, but her feisty antics throughout the bulk of the movie feel pretty one-note – indignant outrage, often in a high pitch. It's an odd choice by experienced director Mike Newell, because Arterton has a good vocal quality and a great low register. Given the plot, she could have easily thrown in purring deception to mix things up a bit. That may seem trivial, but the peril of all effects-laden flicks is that they can lose the actors and the human element; we get spectacle, but often don't care about the characters. Especially near the end of the film, that becomes the case here. Ben Kingsley, playing Dastan's uncle Nizam, is always a welcome addition, and Alfred Molina has some fun playing a shady trader. (Arterton has a funny story about being asked to do "posh" by Newell, and some interesting thoughts on the whole Hollywood image factory.)

The Wolfman: A good old-fashioned monster movie, well-done, would be most welcome. Unfortunately, this ain't quite it. Lawrence Talbot, estranged from his family, returns from America to his family's dreary English country mansion when his brother is found mauled to death by some beast. The film's well-cast, with Benicio del Toro, Anthony Hopkins, Emily Blunt and Hugo Weaving. There's even some memorable dialogue, and a werewolf on werewolf fight. The early hunting scenes – searching for the werewolf in the woods – may be stock horror, but they're pretty well done. So why doesn't it all work? I'm guessing Benicio del Toro is supposed to be brooding, but he's low energy, almost somnambulant at points. He's a superb character actor, but perhaps he's not a leading man, or just miscast. Meanwhile, the motivations of Hopkins' character seem increasingly bizarre. The key hook of many a werewolf tale is the anguish of the main character, and the tension between the guilt of murder and the thrill of power and freedom that comes with the transformation. It's present here, but not that well done – and the human element in general is lacking. The dynamics in the family Talbot are seriously odd, and make it hard to relate. Meanwhile, there's not a strong love connection between Lawrence Talbot (del Toro) and Gwen Conliffe (Emily Blunt). That gives us little to keep us engaged, and the plot twist(s) are predictable and make the film less interesting than it was before. It's a shame.

The Twilight Saga: Eclipse: Admittedly, I am not the target audience for this series. I missed the first two films, and went into this one as a kind of sociological study of its fan base. The main plot is that Bella (Kristen Stewart) wants her true love, brooding, sensitive vampire Edward (Robert Pattinson), to "turn" her (into a vampire), and join his (mostly good) vampire family. The complications are that hunky werewolf Jacob (Taylor Lautner) is in love with her, too, and is desperate to stop her from doing this. Oh, and the evil vampire Victoria (Bryce Dallas Howard), wants revenge on Edward, and is forming an army of "newborn" vampires – less skilled, but stronger and hungry – to come and kill them all. In the shadows are the Volturi, the ruling vampire clan from Italy, watching the proceedings, and musing about how and whether to intervene. Anyway, at least this entry in the series features some vampire versus werewolf fights, and vampire versus vampire fights. There was one decent scene between Edward and Jacob as they watch over Bella in the tent, where both actors seemed natural – but many other scenes feel stilted and stiff, or just uninteresting. We're also given brief flashbacks of two other Cullen vampires' lives, and how they came to become vampires. The problem is, these brief segments are far more compelling than anything in the present, and these side characters are more interesting than the love triangle at the story's center. The bulk of the movie is a sappy, high-school soap opera. There's certainly a place for teen fiction, including wish-fulfillment teen girl fiction, but there's still good and bad within that. Bella is wan and whiny, and things are oh so tough for her as she bemoans her not-at-all-dreadful life and the two guys fighting over her. She's also quite a passive heroine, with one exception near the end of the film. Keep in mind, this is a series where vampires walk in the day, and they "sparkle" in the sunlight. The book's author, Stephenie Meyer, is also a strong proponent of chastity before marriage, which comes up ham-handedly and unconvincingly, at least in the movie. The sparkling and no sex are major departures from vampire lore of the past few centuries, leaving us with, well, bloodless, defanged, perfectly safe vampires suitable for brooding sullenly and pining over a naïve teen girl still in her unicorn phase. This isn't much of a spoiler, more of a warning: In one scene, Bella and Edward, who are engaged at this point, are finally going to have sex, and she wants to - but Edward refuses, because they're not married, and this would sully her purity or something. This got audible guffaws even from the Twilight-friendly audience. As Rob Vaux puts it:

Edward has a line about not ravishing Bella until they get married that stands as the single most pussified thing any vampire has ever said. Ever, ever, ever. Vampires are supposed to ravish unmarried virgins. It’s what they freaking do!

Pick another term if you like, but Edward is pathetic, not even a bad boy. Hey, to each their own. Apparently, the final book has a weird and problematic plot, and will be split across two movies (shudder). Maybe they'll be a step up from this, maybe not. The Twilight series will continue to be mocked, but to its fans, no amount of mockery will matter. Tween love may be unwise, but it can be loyal.