Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Monday, March 05, 2012

2011 Film Roundup, Part 4: The Rest (The Good, the Bad and the Godawful)

Moneyball: Even if you're not a baseball fan, you should be able to get into this real-life underdog story, and you may remember the events – the 2001 playoffs, when the Oakland Athletics (the A's) with roughly 40 million in salary, faced off against the mighty New York Yankees, boasting a staggering 125 million. The A's played hard, but lost, and their three star players were raided by other teams in the off-season – including the Yankees, who signed Jason Giambi. We start the film by seeing these events, and meeting A's manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt), who's just suffered a gut blow and is trying to see some way forward. A former top prospect himself whose career didn't pan out, Billy knows that scouts are fallible, and has a sizable chip on his shoulder. He also knows that if he plays the general manager-salary game by the usual rules, he'll lose, but he can't quite figure out how to win. Then he meets Peter Brand (a composite character, played by Jonah Hill), who introduces him to a new statistical model for assessing baseball players (called sabermetrics, or moneyball) that is useful for finding undervalued players and potentially fielding a winning team on the cheap. Beane, always a maverick and a gambler, goes for it, but this rankles his scouts, the team manager Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and some of the players. Even the team owner, who's given him a long leash, asks him if he has faith in this method. Beane says yes, but his own job is on the line if this doesn't work out. His relationship with his ex-wife Sharon (Robin Wright) is cordial, although it's more strained with her new husband when it comes to Billy's daughter, Casey (Kerris Dorsey). Casey isn't on screen much, but the scenes between her and Billy are great: her furtive glance to see that no one is listening to her play in a guitar shop, Billy's adoring face, their banter back and forth… If baseball is Billy's obsession, Casey is his devotion. Director Bennett Miller (Capote) gets good performances from everyone, especially Pitt and Hill, who have great chemistry, with Beane acting as a tough-love mentor of sorts to Brand. The screenplay, based on the non-fiction book by Michael Lewis, had a pass from both Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin, and it's good, with some clever adaptation choices to make what could be a stat-heavy story comprehensible and relatable. Moneyball is well-crafted, and parts are quite funny, but this is not the romp it was initially sold as; it also drags in the middle (133 minutes) and it's rather downbeat. Perhaps it's just that real life intrudes on the Cinderella aspects of the tale. It's worth seeing, especially if you like the subject matter or Pitt and Hill, but I wouldn't rush out to see it a second time.

(Here's The Business on the Making of Moneyball, Brad Pitt on Fresh Air and Morning Edition, and a 2003 interview with Michael Lewis on Fresh Air.)

The Trip: Steve Coogan takes his TV series of the same name, compiles it as a feature, and trims it down. The plot, such as it is, is that Coogan agrees to tour Northern England to review various leading regional restaurants. However, his entire reason for doing this was to spend time with his girlfriend Mischa, who has backed out of the trip and flown back to America. Coogan is ambivalent about both the relationship and the prospect of landing an American TV gig, and tries to navigate both over his cell phone. After asking absolutely all of his other friends and colleagues, Coogan finally asks fellow comedian Rob Brydon to accompany him. Coogan and Brydon are playing fictionalized versions of themselves, just as they did in 2006's Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story for the same director, Michael Winterbottom (that film's opening and ending sequences, with the two of them just riffing, are hilarious). The plot is really just an excuse to throw these two together again and riff, most often through dueling, one-upmanship celebrity impressions. (The feature cuts out some of these, mostly of people less likely to be known outside of Britain.) The best of these segments flow naturally and build relentlessly until they've made you break down with laughter. Movie Coogan is funny, but also insecure. He enjoys abusing Brydon, who's normally only momentarily offended, preferring to approach life in a goofy, happy-go-lucky manner – which naturally only incenses Coogan more. They make a good comic couple. (In the film, Brydon is also happily married, with a young kid, while Coogan hooks up with some women on the road in-between struggling with his girlfriend over the phone.) The film is not without art or structure, and it's even poignant in places, but mainly, this is the Steve and Rob show, and we're just here to watch them riff. If you've seen them in action before, you know what you're getting, and if you're not sure if you'd like this type of British comedy, check out some of the clips online first. (This is my favorite bit in the film, by the way: "Gentlemen, to bed!")

(Here's Steve Coogan on Fresh Air.)

War Horse: This film is based on the children's novel of the same name by Michael Morpurgo, which has also spawned a successful stage play. I haven't read the book, and will probably see the play this summer, so I can't speak much about the film as an adaptation, besides screenwriter Richard Curtis' concerns about conveying the horse's point of view. In Devon, England, young Albert Narracott (Jeremy Irvine) is devoted to his young colt Joey. However, his family's facing hard times, and Albert's father Ted (Peter Mullan), overpaid for Joey and really should have bought a plough horse to begin with (as urged by his wife Rose, played by Emily Watson). Ted did it mainly because he hated the idea of his rich landlord, Lyons (David Thewlis) getting the colt, but now he's in a battle of pride which he and his family can't afford to lose. Ted is a war vet, injured and a frequent drinker. Rose explains to Albert that his father fought bravely, but doesn't like to talk about it – in fact, he threw away his medals, although Rose secretly saved them. When World War I breaks out, horses are in high demand, and Ted sells Joey to the army. Albert is heartbroken, but Captain Nicholls (Tom Hiddleston) promises he'll take good care of his horse, and Albert ties his father's old war pennant to Joey's bridle for luck. Joey makes a friend during cavalry training – Topthorn, the black horse ridden by Major Jamie Stewart (Benedict Cumberbatch). War is not kind to humans or animals, and Joey (and Topthorn) wind up changing hands multiple times, helped immensely by the affection of the Germans, French and English alike for horses. Meanwhile, Albert lies about his age and joins up to search for Joey (along with his friend, Andrew Easton, and commanded by David Lyons, the landlord's son). Besides the aforementioned, the fine supporting cast includes Eddie Marsan, Liam Cunningham and Niels Arestrup, and director Steven Spielberg is once again bolstered by the fine work of cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, editor Michael Kahn, and composer John Williams.

I really wanted to like this film, but just couldn't. Some of its individual parts are fine, and Spielberg's facility with the medium remains impressive, but the overall film just did not resonate with me as intended, for several reasons. One, the structure is episodic, with Joey changing hands often, making it harder to get emotionally invested. Two, this means that for much of the film, we're asked to identify with Joey the horse rather than a human character. While Spielberg and screenwriters Lee Hall and Richard Curtis do a decent job of telling things from Joey's point of view, sympathy for a horse is a far cry from identification. (I'm guessing the book is much more effective in this respect, and the successful play's more abstract set probably helps it. Devoted horse lovers may judge the film more favorably on this element.) Three, and this is the biggest one, this is essentially a children's film about a boy's love for his horse (and humanity's love of horses) set during one of the most horrific of all wars, and made by the sentimental Spielberg versus the Spielberg of say, Saving Private Ryan. This creates a major dissonance between the subject matter and the aesthetic. (Reviews of the book and play suggest that they are more successful on this central challenge.) For comparison, Hugo is a film aimed at children, but well-suited for adults; War Horse fulfills the first part, but not the second (definitely not to the same degree). Spielberg does have one great, chilling tracking shot reminiscent of All Quiet on the Western Front (which he watched prior to making Ryan) across No Man's Land. He also shows how effective a cavalry charge can be against a fleeing enemy, and how disastrous it is against machine guns (a key aspect of early WWI battles). He does convey suffering, death and loss, although often he places the actual incidents off-screen. Meanwhile, the film simply hammers the exuberant John Williams score at the start with horses cavorting in the fields (shades of E.T. excess), the domestic life of Albert's family and their battles with Lyons feel melodramatic, and it's hard to sympathize with Ted's reckless obstinacy. I buy the implicit premise, that love of horses can stir the better impulses in humans of opposing factions and help them recognize their shared humanity as well. However, while the butterfly scene in All Quiet on the Western Front (a scene only in the film, not the book) renders the entire affair more poignant, War Horse's heavy sentimentality, and thus strained realism, seems to trivialize the needless deaths of 35 million people. Instead, this is a movie about a boy and his horse. (Another analogy, in terms of children's books – it is Johnny Tremain versus My Brother Sam is Dead.) Your mileage definitely may vary, and some may find the vast contrasts in War Horse to be touching irony, but I found them alienating and dissonant; I was pushed out as a viewer rather than drawn in. I suspect that War Horse might serve quite well as My Very First War Film for younger viewers, but I regret that I can't recommend it without significant caveats for adults.

The Adventure of Tintin: Spielberg's other film of the year is also his first animated feature, a motion capture affair based on the popular series of comic books/graphic novels by Belgian artist-writer Hergé (a shout-out to him early on is a nice touch). I've read all the originals multiple times, but it's been a while, so I can't give a detailed critique of the adaptation (borrowing from three of the books, in this case). Jamie Bell and Andy Serkis seem well-cast as Tintin and Captain Haddock respectively, and Daniel Craig works well as the chief villain. Haddock's played as a Scot, which is a bit jarring if one remembers the Belgian origins of the series, but if you accept that Brits are playing all the characters, it works. Spielberg is well-suited for the material, which is action and mystery with bits of comedy thrown in. Some of the swashbuckling set pieces are visually impressive, and the international intrigue has a nice noir look and mood. A few complaints: Haddock and the detectives Thomson and Thompson (Nick Frost and Simon Pegg) have small beady eyes and bulbous noses, which makes them look far less realistic, and far less expressive. (This pulled me out somewhat, and I'm not completely sold on motion capture, either.) Additionally, the movie ends setting up a sequel rather than finishing the story. Given the origins of this first film, borrowing from three of the books, this isn't completely surprising, but it still feels like a bit of a cheat. My attitude is, almost everything decent is going to be adapted or remade, so rather than fight it, let's at least hope for a good team, and this one is pretty good, rounded out by producer Peter Jackson and the WETA folks, plus a screenplay by Steven Moffat, Edgar Wright and Joe Cornish. This is an okay start, and let's see how the next one turns out.

The Iron Lady: Meryl Streep delivers a good performance in a mediocre biopic on Margaret Thatcher. Such projects aren't unusual (it's harder to find great scripts than great actors), but in this case, the film's misbalanced focus and torpid pacing threaten to strangle the performance it should showcase. The film starts out showing the present-day Thatcher, who is struggling with dementia (and in the film, hallucinations). She often converses with her dead husband Denis (Jim Broadbent). This works fine as a framing device and a means of getting into Thatcher's head, as present-day incidents make her remember key events from her past which we then see in flashback. However, this framing is badly overused and the dementia scenes become extremely repetitive. The poignancy of Thatcher's diminished capacity only works if we see her past vitality, which is denied us for a long time in the beginning. Later on, after we've seen the young Maggie and the emerging "Iron Lady" Thatcher, and we're finally into the heart of the film, we're still yanked back to the present day for long and seemingly pointless stretches. (One exception is a good scene where Thatcher objects to a doctor asking her how she "feels," and she lectures him about the superiority of "thinking," which she contends has fallen out of favor.) These present-day scenes could have been an elegant device for compressing and jumping through time, but they sadly replay the same notes and drag on, bogging the film down. (I'd have to take a stopwatch to see, but it felt as if a good half of the film or more was in the present day.) Thatcher is most sympathetic as a woman fighting for respect in a male-dominated world, and the film overall gives a sympathetic but not entirely glowing portrait of Britain's first female Prime Minister. She inspires some, but can be extremely brusque with colleagues and subordinates. Alexandra Roach plays the young Thatcher well, as a slightly naïve but dedicated politician who believes people should pull themselves up by their own bootstraps, while Streep's mimicry of Thatcher's tics and cadences is uncanny and impressive. (All the more so since Streep hardly share's Thatcher's politics.) Large sections and key incidents in Thatcher's life and career are glossed over or absent, including some of her more famous and infamous remarks ('there is no such thing as society.'). Some of this is inevitable, but The Iron Lady plays as a highlight reel, and a truncated one at that. Policy only appears in snatches and shorthand, so unfamiliar viewers may be left in the dark on the short and long-term consequences of Thatcher's actions, particularly as seen by non-fans (whatever else she was, she was polarizing). Instead, Thatcher's struggles are portrayed mostly as a battle of wills and the triumph of personality, while the wisdom of her policies is either assumed or remains a mystery. That may fit the myth, but the film's overall approach denies us deeper insight into "the Iron Lady," Streep's undeniable virtues as a performer notwithstanding.

(Here's Meryl Streep on Fresh Air, Streep and director Phyllida Lloyd on All Things Considered, and an interview with Thatcher biographer John Campbell about the film's accuracy. The Guardian ran several pieces on the film. One reviewer recommends the BBC film Margaret Thatcher: The Long Walk to Finchley as a better overall portrait of the woman herself.)

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo: Director David Fincher and screenwriter Steven Zaillian adapt Stieg Larsson's international bestselling mystery-thriller. (I've read all the books, but haven't seen the Swedish adaptations yet.) Reporter Mikael Blomkvist works for civically-minded exposé magazine Millenium, but is the losing defendant in a high-profile libel case brought a powerful corporate CEO. Against the protests of his boss and sometime lover (Erika Berger, played by Robin Wright) Blomkvist leaves the magazine temporarily to spare it some heat. He's hired by reclusive, elderly rich man and former corporate magnate Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer), who wants to hire Blomkvist to take one more stab at solving the mystery of his beloved niece's disappearance decades ago. Eventually, Blomkvist is joined by the title character, Lisbeth Sander (Rooney Mara), an antisocial, odd but brilliant hacker and researcher, who has been badly used by men, but is determined never to be a victim. The film starts with a surprisingly poor sound mix (cacophonous crowd chatter) and some but not all of the actors attempting a Swedish accent, which is distracting. However, after Blomkvist heads north, it settles down. Fincher is a meticulous director, and while this isn't his best work, he makes good use of the locations to convey dark isolation and paranoia, and the performances are all solid. (The villain does get one great speech, and several of the other scenes are memorable.) Plummer's good, although I wish Max von Sydow had been available as intended. The original title of the book in Sweden is "Men Who Hate Women," and be warned that the story includes a disturbing sexual assault. Cover songs can be awfully bad, but the opening credit sequence is striking, all black, suffocating oil, flame, and a pounding cover of Led Zeppelin's "Immigrant Song." I still plan to see the Swedish TV versions (trimmed down for three feature films, although you can now buy the "extended," full-length versions), especially since Noomi Rapace's performance as Lisbeth has earned raves (she turned down the chance to reprise the role), but Fincher's version is a good adaptation.

(Here's Rooney Mara on All Things Considered.)

Hanna: In the child-assassin genre, Hanna is one of the better entries, helped immensely by casting Cate Blanchett as the villain, but all hinging on the feral, curiosity-filled performance of the young, talented and unusual-looking Saoirse Ronan as the title character. The film starts with Hanna being trained in a winter wilderness by her father, Erik (Eric Bana). She does things no normal child should be able to do, in terms of physical feats and advanced language skills. Fitting in with normal human beings is quite another matter, though. The comic book plotline soon becomes apparent – Hanna was part of some government experiment run by Marissa (Blanchett), her mother was killed, and now Erik and Hanna seek revenge. Still, there are some wrinkles and reveals. Joe Wright, who directed Ronan earlier in Atonement, brings a level of craft to the proceedings (although he overdoes the pounding Chemical Brothers score, going to it too often and cranking it up to 11). The film's nicely shot, and the action scenes are pretty well-staged (although at least one storyline is never wrapped up). Saoirse Ronan is excellent, and her scenes with a normal family who takes her in on the road makes for some good comedy and character moments (they do so at the urging of the daughter, Sophie, played by Jessica Barden, who puts on a teenager's jaded, worldly airs). Hanna's intellectual abilities help her win points with some adults, but she simply isn't sure how to react to most people, from casual questions posed by adults to a romantic move from a teenage boy. Her overly frank answers, honest confusion and awkwardness, and occasional existential turmoil ground the whole affair (similar to Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Identity). Wright also throws in a visual joke or two at the end related to the dark fairy tale theme. This is a slickly-made, above average popcorn movie.

(Here's Joe Wright on All Things Considered.)

Win Win: Writer-Director Thomas McCarthy is back with another well-acted, decently-written character piece. While not as strong as The Station Agent and The Visitor, this one is still an above average indie/minor-major. Mike Flaherty (Paul Giamatti) is a small-time attorney trying to make ends meet who also coaches high school wrestling. He agrees to look after the aged Leo Poplar (Burt Young), who can no longer take care of himself but wants to remain in his own house rather than moving into an assisted living home. Mike makes a short-term, highly questionable move, and this strains our sympathy for him early on. Leo's grandson Kyle (Alex Shaffer) comes visiting, having left his own home and his flakey mother. Mike and his wife Jackie (Amy Ryan) take him in, and it turns out the soft-spoken, unassuming Kyle is a superb wrestler, instantly making the team competitive, and firing the ambitions of Mike and his co-coaches Terry (Bobby Cannavale) and Stephen (Jeffrey Tambor). But then Kyle's mother Cindy (the versatile Melanie Lynskey) comes around, with an attorney in tow (Eleanor, played by Margo Martindale). This is a well-acted affair, and worth a look. Shaffer, a non-actor, is especially refreshing a Kyle, because he acts like a real kid, and his scenes with the adults ring true, especially those with Amy Ryan. ("If I want to smoke should I go outside?" "You shouldn't be smoking." "I know. But if I do." Beat. "Yeah. You should go outside.") Kyle's troubled, but through little fault of his own; he's essentially a good kid, but he's been let down by adults, and doesn't have the tools to work through every situation. All the scenes with the Flaherty family, which includes younger kids who enjoy having Kyle around, also feel real. Jackie becomes fiercely and endearingly protective of Kyle. As usual, McCarthy takes some scenes in unexpected directions, but always revealing character as he does so rather than being gimmicky. I liked this film (and had serious high school wrestling flashbacks), but I was put off by Mike's early sleaziness. Giamatti does a fine job as always, though, and I think he and Amy Ryan sell the whole affair by the end.

(Here's Tom McCarthy on The Treatment, Fresh Air and All Things Considered.)

The Ides of March: Based on Beau Willimon's play Farragut North (an area in D.C. known for political consultants), The Ides of March follows young hotshot campaign man Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling), who's number two to veteran Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman). They're managing the primary campaign of presidential hopeful and white knight Governor Mike Morris (George Clooney, who also directed the film and shares a screenplay adaptation credit). Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti), managing the rival campaign of Senator Pullman, contacts Stephen to meet him secretly, and offers him a job. Meanwhile, in an age-old tradition of campaign sex, Stephen has a fling with a flirtatious staffer, Molly Stearns (Evan Rachel Wood). Both these two decisions wind up complicating Stephen's life tremendously, and not always in obvious or predictable ways. Meanwhile, the third-place contender, Senator Thompson (Jeffrey Wright), wants a cabinet position for his pivotal endorsement, testing Morris' values about running a clean, honorable campaign. The Ides of March is an above-average political flick aimed at adults. Willimon has some campaign experience, and some of the dialogue and scenes are especially good. The performances are also solid throughout, including Marisa Tomei as a reporter sniffing around for a scoop. However, I found some of the plot points hard to buy (more below in the spoiler section), and I felt the final tone was cynical and untrue.
Writing and acting-wise, I particularly liked Giamatti in the scene where Stephen comes to confront Tom; Tom laughs, and honestly says it's nothing personal. The complementary scene is a great one with Hoffman near the end, when Paul says to Stephen, "One day we'll grab a beer and you'll tell me what you had on the Governor that put me out." Again, nothing personal; these are veteran hands who know how the game is played. The scenes between Gosling and Wood are convincingly sexy, but I was less convinced that she would not use birth control (Catholicism notwithstanding) and that she would kill herself. I also didn't completely buy Paul feeling so betrayed by Stephen meeting with Tom, since Stephen could sell it as a fact-finding mission, and apologizes pretty abjectly in any case. To their credit, the writers try to sell all of these plot points, including Tom's Machiavellian plan, but they are the hardest sells in the script, and I wasn't entirely sold. I also wasn't crazy about the ending, with Stephen's own master maneuvering and Morris selling out (entailing Stephen selling out as well). The poker bluff scene between Stephen and Morris is great on its own terms as drama, but the overall film presents an easy, predictable cynicism as the height of political sophistication. It reinforces facile generalizations that "politicians are all equally corrupt," that the outcomes of elections don't matter, and the whole affair ain't likely to increase voter turnout. If we're talking about reality, it's overly simplistic and inaccurate. If we're talking about the film as drama, there's some good stuff in the film if taken on its own terms, but we've seen this story many, many times before: some idealist getting his purity corrupted. We've also seen the "promising politician in a sex scandal" story all too often. No one can accuse it of being unrealistic, and perhaps another scandal serving the precise needs of the story would be harder to craft (Morris is depicted as opposed to corporate influence), but it remains predictable. Cosmetically, the film's conclusion is an open ending, but there's little doubt that Stephen will play the game; we're just given a taste of his pain before he sell out once again, and more deeply. The Ides of March is worth a look for the caliber of the performances and some of the writing, but I cannot credit it with deep political insight (instead try A Very British Coup, or The West Wing, or even the darker sections of the fantasy Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, or a number of older stage plays such as The Lion in Winter, A Man for All Seasons and Shakespeare).

(Weekend Edition interviewed Beau Willimon solo, and also
Willimon with co-screenwriter Grant Heslov.)

The Help: Good performances from a strong female cast rise above the more sentimentalized elements in The Help, a film based on the popular book. It's the 1960s in the Jim Crow South, and Eugenia "Skeeter" Phelan (Emma Stone) has just graduated from Ole Miss. She heads home, eager to get a reporting job, but is upset to learn from her mother Charlotte (Alison Janney) that their long-time, beloved maid Constantine (Cicely Tyson) is gone. Spending time with her socialite friends, most notably queen bee Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard), she becomes increasingly aware of the casual, unreflective racism endemic in her town. When she's set up on dates, she also butts up against the sexist attitudes of her would-be suitors. ("Isn't that what all you girls from Ole Miss major in – professional husband hunting?" Janney also delivers a wonderfully appalling line: "Eugenia! Your eggs are dying! Would it kill you to go on a date?") Skeeter, who's consulting with the local maids for cleaning advice for the column she's ghost-writing, lands upon the idea of writing a book from the point of the view of "the help." She first approaches the wary Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis) and outspoken Minny Jackson (Olivia Spencer). It takes a while for Skeeter to earn their trust, but while she is well-intended, Aibileen points out to her that this is not a game to the maids. (This is, after all, an era of race-based discrimination and violence.) Spencer has the funnier role, and it's tailor-made for her, while Davis brings her characteristic depth and dignity to hers. (Oh, what she does with those eyes, that tell us that Aibileen has seen so much. Aibileen is still mourning the death of her son, and it's a long time before she can bear to tell the whole story.) Emma Stone turns in another good performance, and is credible as an earnest young crusader with a bit of tunnel vision. Jessica Chastain shows her range by playing a seemingly airheaded but gregarious rich wife, who's so innocent she's very slow to recognize social snubs or racial and class divisions. It's also nice to see superb veterans Sissy Spacek and Janney. I liked all the performances, but I also felt sections were over-sentimentalized, including the first flashback with Tyson as the kindly Constantine. The film doesn't ignore the perils Minny and the others would face, but it does paint an overly rosy picture. This is designed to be a crowd-pleaser, after all, although it does have some depth and touches on issues of class and race. It would be a mistake to treat it as a documentary, but its accuracies (and more importantly, its inaccuracies) could be the basis of a good discussion on history. (More below). It won the NAACP Image Award for Best Picture.

(Here's book author Kathryn Stockett and director Tate Taylor (her childhood friend) on The Business, and Viola Davis on Fresh Air. NPR also ran stories on backlash over maids' roles and the film being hailed for drawing attention to conditions of domestic workers. Melissa Harris-Perry liked the performances, but thought the film gave a sanitized view of the period, and offers a helpful reading list.)

The Adjustment Bureau: Writer-director George Nolfi adapts a Philip K. Dick short story for this sci-fi love story. David Norris (Matt Damon) is a promising young politician who just lost an election, but makes the reckless but ultimately wise decision to be honest in his concession speech, earning him new fans because of his frankness. That same night, he also meets Elise, a woman who's quite the candid free spirit, in… the men's bathroom. They hit it off instantly, and he quickly becomes smitten, not surprising since she's played by Emily Blunt (besides their tendency to laugh together, she does the compassionate, loving listener look really well). However, David gets a look behind a curtain of the universe when he runs into the Adjustment Bureau, bureaucrats and policemen of the Almighty garbed like Hoover FBI men in suits and hats who ensure that humans follow the path of fate ordained for them. David is meant for great things, you see, and while small blips will inevitably occur, a major deviation will upset the plan and cause chaos. David is warned not to keep pursuing Elise; if he persists, they may do a full mind wipe on him or hurt Elise. One of the Adjustment Bureau agents is sympathetic (Harry, played by Anthony Mackie), and explains the rules to David a bit on the sly. In contrast, the lead agent Richardson (John Slattery, who has a great face and manner for all the 1940s–60s roles he gets) is an all-business company man who will have none of David's selfish protestations about love and free will when fate is calling. Doesn't he understand there's a plan? Then there's the sinister special agent Thompson, played with ease by Terence Stamp, who excels at the casual threat. The basic premise of The Adjustment Bureau is a fairly standard sci-fi one (Fritz Leiber's done it memorably as well), and love stories are common in sci-fi tales, but this one puts romance front and center as the driving force. If you're going to go with the forbidden love storyline, it does raise the stakes to have the forbidding agents be supernatural or deific. The Adjustment Bureau may not prove to be a classic, but I enjoyed it because its premise was well worked out, the throwback crisp aesthetic of the adjustment bureau and its agents was well-done, and Damon and Blunt have great chemistry, selling the love story at the film's core.

(Here's George Nolfi and Anthony Mackie on All Things Considered, and Mackie on Talk of the Nation.)

The Debt: A remake of an Israeli film of the same name, The Debt opens with Rachel Singer (Helen Mirren) attending a dinner celebrating the release of her daughter Sarah's book, which tells the story of a key mission Rachel performed while a young Mossad agent. However, one of the mission's other agents, David Peretz (Ciarán Hinds) kills himself rather than attend, which is, um, our first clue that something might not be right. Rachel is no longer married to Sarah's father Stephan Gold (Tom Wilkinson), the third member of the Mossad team. The film splits its time between the present and the past, where we see young Rachel (Jessica Chastain), dedicated purist David (Sam Worthington), and the more worldly mission leader, Stephan (Marton Csokas). They sneak into East Germany during the 60s in search of the Nazi war criminal Vogel (Jesper Christensen, in a memorable, creepy performance), with the intent of kidnapping him and bringing him to trial. It's a dangerous, daring mission, the agents are smart, but not all goes according to plan. Moreover, someone in the present day is claiming that the heroic account Sarah's book portrays is not true, and as the film progresses and cross-cuts between time periods, we start to see what really happened. Several scenes are quite suspenseful, and this is a well-acted affair, particularly the flashback scenes with the young love triangle and the mind games of Vogel. However, I had difficulty buying a few key plot points (more below).
I could understand the initial big lie (without condoning it) and especially its effect on David. However, I had a harder time buying Rachel participating with her daughter's book. Why publish the lie? There's the practical danger of Vogel possibly still being alive (don't they know that movie Nazis always live a long time?), and then there's the personal conscience issue. Lying to Mossad agents is one thing; it's wrong, but the story could have turned out that way, and it's all in the family and all that. It's a lie that can be rationalized as harmless and for self-preservation. Doesn't repeating that lie in a public forum cross a brighter line? Or at that point, is it all moot? After all, they've profited from the lie professionally, and reaped its attendant benefits; is profiting commercially from book sales really that different? Relatedly, I bought David's guilt completely, and loved the scene where he speaks to Rachel at the dinner party and both the affection and the gulf between them is apparent, but I didn't fully buy his initial agreement to the conspiracy. Was it solely out of love for Rachel, or a fatalistic "to-hell-with-it" move given his disappointments in espionage and romance? The film is well-acted, but I couldn't really view it as a tragedy given the choices of the character. The somewhat open ending does effectively underscore the basic theme of karma.

(Here's director John Madden on All Things Considered. He notes that, in Israel, the title "the debt" also refers to feelings of obligation toward victims of the Holocaust.)

Bridesmaids: Bridesmaids is a notable summer comedy because the script is a cut above, its boasts a predominantly female cast, and it's actually funny. The life of Annie Walker (Kristen Wiig, also one of the co-writers) is a mess; her pastry business failed, and her roommates are insane and have no respect for her boundaries. ("You read my diary?" "At first I did not know it was your diary, I thought it was a very sad handwritten book.") She's also occasionally hooking up with men like Ted (Jon Hamm), who's attractive but a dick. Her childhood best friend Lillian (Maya Rudolph) is getting married, and asks Annie to be her maid of honor – but she's also asked her fiancé's boss' wife Helen (Rose Byrne) to help out. Helen is rich, gorgeous, impeccably coiffed, and all-around perfect, and Annie's jealously instantly flares up. The one-upmanship between Annie and Helen is at times painful to watch, but often really funny, too. The other bridesmaids have a few moments but are largely lost in the shuffle as the film progresses, with the exception of the crude and frank Megan (Melissa McCarthy, who's hilarious, and nabbed an Oscar nomination). Annie also tangles with a fairly nice but exasperated cop, Nathan (Chris O'Dowd), and they wind up in a relationship, but experience awkward entanglements. As usual, the crudest scenes get the biggest laughs, and Bridesmaids has a showstopper involving food poisoning. Female jealousy and competition provide most of the plot, but female friendship is the heart of the film, and real-life friends and former castmates Wiig and Rudolph sell that nicely (especially in a late apartment scene). It helps emotionally ground the film, which sometimes chooses comedy over plausibility. For the most part, that mix works very well, but I didn't fully buy Annie's humiliating (and seemingly obligatory) big public meltdown. (However, Lillian's great line helped: "Why can't you be happy for me and then go home and talk about me behind my back like a normal person?") Annie's relationship with Nathan doesn't hit all the stock romantic comedy notes, and many other off-beat choices and truthful lines add to the whole affair: "This is the first time I've seen you look ugly, and that makes me happy!" This was a big hit, especially with women. Nicely done by Wiig and co-writer Annie Mumolo (who've refused to do a sequel), director Paul Feig, and producer Judd Apatow.

(Here's director Paul Feig on The Treatment, and co-writers Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo on The Business and All Things Considered.)

The Princess of Montpensier: (Released in France in 2010, limited U.S. release in 2011.) Veteran director Bertrand Tavenier brings us this nicely shot period romance set during the Catholic-versus-Protestant holy wars of 16th century France (it's based on a 17th century novella). A young and pretty noblewoman, Marie (Mélanie Thierry) is in love with her cousin, the dashing rogue Henri de Guise, but her ambitious father forces her to marry Prince Philippe de Montpensier (Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet). Her new husband goes off to war, leaving his old mentor, the displaced Comte de Chabannes (Lambert Wilson) to educate his bride. Chabannes is a learned man and exceedingly war-weary, having seen (and caused) too much death. The suffering he witnessed also lead to him change sides during the wars, which has not endeared him to certain powerful nobles. Marie is a bit flighty but sympathetic overall, chafes at the role that she has been assigned, but tries to make the best of it and uphold her duty… most of the time. She attracts the love (and other impulses) of no fewer than four men, complicating her life significantly through no fault of her own. This is an era when, especially for ambitious families of minor nobility, daughters – and their chastity – are commodities. (One of the most striking sequences involves the wedding night and the surrounding scenes. I shall not divulge more.) The film is generally well-made, but I was startled by how weak, flat and reedy Leprince-Ringuet's voice was as Prince Philip, especially given the demands of this period work. Similarly, while the few mass battles seemed decently staged, the fights involving major characters (including duels, which should be showcase affairs) were surprisingly subpar; one or more of the actors seemed to lack training. This isn't a great period film, but it's decent, especially if you've got a hunger for such movies. (I found the Comte de Chabannes to be the most interesting character, and I always enjoy listening to the French.)

(Here's Bertrand Tavenier on All Things Considered.)

X-Men: First Class: Probably the best of the five X-Men related films to date, First Class takes liberties with the established (and admittedly convoluted) history of the comic books but honors their spirit. At the film's core is the deep but occasionally strained friendship between the young Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and Erik Lehnsherr/Magneto (Michael Fassbinder). Two of the most powerful super-powered mutants, they see the world very differently – Charles believes that peaceful coexistence with humans can be achieved and is essential, while Erik is convinced that humans will always fear them and seek their destruction. (Having survived the Holocaust as a child, he is painfully aware of the dynamics of bigotry and hatred.) The two recruit the "first class" of X-Men, and try to save the planet from the evil plot of Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon), head of a group of evil mutants (the Hellfire Club, although they're never named). In the film, the Cuban Missile Crisis is the result of Shaw's machinations; he seeks to have humanity kill itself off so he ascend in power. Most of the rest of the cast is pretty good, notably Rose Byrne as Moira McTaggert and Nicholas Hoult as Hank McCoy/the Beast (the ever-entertaining Oliver Platt also has a small role, and there are two funny cameos). However, January Jones is quite flat as villainess Emma Frost. I also felt Jennifer Lawrence, while a good young actress, was miscast and/or misdirected as Raven/Mystique. She was simply too timid, lacking the character's boldness and precocity (sexual and otherwise). I could not see much of the woman in the girl. In the comics, being a mutant was a neat metaphor for the turmoil of adolescent readers: feeling like an outsider, wish-fulfillment fantasies of superpowers, and finding or creating a sort of family or subculture community to give a sense of belonging. (A much better outlet than Ayn Rand.) In the first two films, Bryan Singer arguably pushed this metaphorical framework to explore LGBT issues, while First Class makes racial issues front and center. There's a scene when Shaw tries to recruit the young X-Men, and makes a pitch about discrimination, at one point directing all his focus on black team member Armando/Darwin (Edi Gathegi). It's so blatant in terms of editing and Shaw's motivations that it drew an unintentional laugh from the audience when I saw the film. However, the same themes come up over and over again (more successfully), especially with Magneto, Mystique, and the Beast. As with the acting, the dialogue varies in quality. Some of it's fairly good, even subtle and nuanced, but some is painfully on-the-nose – most of all when the filmmakers want to be "significant." Basically, whenever McAvoy or Fassbender are on screen, the film's at its best, because they can ground the whole affair in realistic human impulses. And, as several commentators have noted, given the events of the film, Magneto is probably right. (Director Matthew Vaughn's previous efforts include Layer Cake and Kick-Ass.) I've always had a fondness for origin stories, but even without that element, I'd rate this the best comic book film of the year.

(Ta_Nehisi Coates has much more on race and the racial exclusions in the film. Here's The Business on producer Simon Kinberg (who started as a screenwriter, and co-wrote X-Men: The Last Stand. Michael Fassbinder discussed playing Magneto on Weekend Edition. His longer Fresh Air interview, focusing more on Shame, is linked with that review in Part 3.)

Thor: Kenneth Branagh proves to be an inspired choice to direct this tale of the Norse God of Thunder (Marvel Comics version). The production design nicely borrows heavily from Jack Kirby's artwork. Thor (Chris Hemsworth), armed with the magic hammer Mjolnir, is the mightiest warrior of the Norse Gods, and their fierce defender against their ancestral foes, the frost giants. He is also a prince, and thus in line to inherit rule of Asgard, the Norse God city. But his half-brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) is both a friend and rival. When Thor acts arrogantly and recklessly, his father Odin (Anthony Hopkins) casts him out of Asgard down to Migard (Earth) and strips him of his power until he learns humility. Meanwhile, Odin falls into one of his periodic slumbers (the "Odin-sleep"), allowing Loki free rein to work his mischief. Thor encounters a group of government-funded scientists, led by the dedicated Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), sassy Darcy Lewis (Kat Dennings) and avunculur Erik Selvig (Swedish actor Stellan Skarsgård). He must also contend with Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) and the agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., the government's agency for dealing with superheroes and unusual situations. Thor has a number of funny moments, most of all from Hemsworth being incongruously lordly, as when he bursts into a pet shop and demands a horse. (Female lust for the hunky Thor also is a frequent source of humor.) The filmmakers wisely make Erik (the one Scandinavian in the main cast) someone who's aware of all the Norse myths from his childhood, and consequently more skeptical of the tales of this guy claiming to be Thor. Hemsworth sells Thor's bravado, but also his humility, despair, and heroism, especially in three key scenes – one where Loki comes to Earth to speak with him, one with his embedded hammer, and the last during a key fight. It's this convincing character arc that makes Thor satisfying. Most of the actors Branagh casts as the gods can handle the heightened, arch language: Hiddleston's quite good as the cerebral, insecure and devious Loki, and Hopkins is suitably commanding as the imperious, paternal but conflicted Odin. I did feel, however, that Branagh lingered too long on some of Loki's "Daddy didn't love me" jealousy moments. I also could have done without almost all of the CG spectacle sequences, when the narrative pauses for the big explosions or light show. Still, this is an above average summer flick, and since I'm a big mythology buff (and the Norse myths are underrated), and know the comics as well, I enjoyed this one. Some right-wingers got upset over the prospect of a black actor, Idris Elba, playing Heimdall (occasionally called "the White God"), and when I first heard about it, it did strike me as pretty silly to have multicultural Norse Gods. (Japanese actor Tadanobu Asano plays Hogun, one of the Warriors Three, although it's easy to miss their names in the film.) However, Elba's quite good, and given that these are deities who can change their appearance somewhat – and the suspension of disbelief requires belief in gods, frost giants and magic to begin with – I didn't much care. Performance trumps cosmetics. Supposedly, a second Thor movie is in the works, and in the meantime, he'll appear in this year's The Avengers.

Captain America: The First Avenger: "Much better than I expected" seems to be the general consensus. Captain America has always been a bit of a tricky character because he can come off as such a damn goody two-shoes boy scout. However, Chris Evans brings a quiet dignity to Steve Rogers, who is desperate to join the military during WWII but keeps getting rejected (the CG technique to make Evans scrawny in the first part of the film is really impressive). Rogers isn't sanctimonious; he's exceedingly (but not gratuitously) humble, and just inherently decent. We get to see his character in an early scene when he challenges a bully harassing a woman. Steve is grossly overmatched when they square off in the alley, but he steps up because he feels compelled to do the right thing – and he doggedly refuses to give up when knocked down. He's also quite smart, as he shows during training, when he is an unlikely participant in a competition to select a candidate for a "super serum" to make the ultimate soldier. Rogers has been hand-picked for the program by its lead scientist, Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci, who plays the mentor role with subtlety and poignancy). A German scientist who had been forced to work for the Nazis, he knows the dynamics of strength and bullying all too well, and keenly discerns Steve Rogers' best traits. Erskine is aided by Peggy Carter, who's smart and of course gorgeous (Hayley Atwell). She grows to admire Steve's character and… other qualities. Tommy Lee Jones could play the part of the tough-as-nails trainer Colonel Philips in his sleep, and he's solid as always. Hugo Weaving is obviously perfectly cast as the Red Skull, Captain America's chief nemesis. Given the prosthesis work entailed later in the film, the part demands strong vocal work, and Weaving has particular fun with the low growls and barely restrained menace of the character. There is one scene that unintentionally made me laugh, though – toady scientist sidekick Dr. Zola (Toby Jones, suitably groveling) comes to see the Red Skull/Dr. Schmidt, who's silhouetted on a plinth and listening to classical music. And it's not just any music – it's Wagner – and not only is it Wagner, it's Siegfried's Funeral March, which comes crashing in to serve as source score. This is a comic book movie after all, and evil genius clichés can be part of the fun if deftly handled, but director Joe Johnston feels compelled to deliver an evil genius Nazi cliché that also calls attention to itself. In any case, after Rogers' transformation, he's initially relegated to acting in stage shows to raise bonds for the war effort, and he chafes at this, but being a good soldier, he plays his part. (This section cleverly showcases the evolution of his costume and features a tongue-in-cheek patriotic song, "Star Spangled Man" by Alan Mencken.) Rogers also struggles to adjust to his new fame, including attention from random adoring women, all of which strains his relationship with Peggy. Cap's S.H.I.E.L.D. allies the "Howling Commandos" appear in WWII incarnations, although they're never really named. The main flaw with Captain America is that it's over too fast. Apart from a few highlighted missions, we only get a brief montage of his exploits. Alas, the studios wanted to set up The Avengers (where apparently Cap will be the main character), so that forces the story to end in a certain way at a certain time. The ending credits, incorporating old war posters, are pretty cool, and there's an Avengers set-up at the very end (as with the other Marvel movies), but while most of the others were funny or enticing, this one is actually poignant.

(Alan Menken discusses composing "Star Spangled Man.")

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2: The eighth and final film in the series provides a strong finish. At its center is a huge magical battle at Hogwarts, and the final face-offs between Harry Potter and the evil Lord Voldemort. As always, the friendship between Harry, Ron and Hermione is key, but they've got a large and strong supporting cast behind them. Alan Rickman is a particular standout as Snape, delivering his most nuanced and poignant moments in the series, and adding a great deal of complexity and depth to the story. Even when split across two films, a great deal of the book was cut, most of all involving Dumbledore's past (Michael Gambon appears briefly, but his scenes are crucial). Some of the violence is Disneyfied, although this film is not for young kids. I thought the toned-down violence hurt a key moment, and I could have done without the extended Nagini fight scene (as in Part 1, but not as bad). But the filmmakers are aiming at a mass audience and want their crowd-pleasing moments, and give them credit – most do play pretty well (written in the original book, earned on screen, etc.). There are also some nice little touches, including a "Mount Doom" moment that's brilliant in its understatement and what it says about our hero. After the disappointment of Part 1 (The 13th film reviewed here), it was great to see the franchise finish in style. The films are uneven in quality, but generally get progressively better, and the casting of the supporting cast characters has been consistently impeccable. (Supposedly, the series is getting a major repackaging with added extras for new box sets.)

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides: The fourth film in the series keeps Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio as screenwriters, but picks up a new director in Rob Marshall. This time out, we ditch the young lovers played by Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley, and pick up Penélope Cruz as Angelica (with whom Jack Sparrow has a past) and Ian McShane as her father Blackbeard, who has supernatural powers. Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) forms an uneasy alliance with Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), and the two of them, and Blackbeard's contingent, and a British contingent, all race to find the fabled Fountain of Youth. They have to contend with perils aplenty, from each other to angry natives to gorgeous but cannibalistic sirens, especially Syrena (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey). There's some good swashbuckling scenes, especially an early acrobatic one in a palace chamber. However, at least one key ruse is rather transparent and predictable. This film is decent, not horrible, not overwhelming. If you like Depp as Jack Sparrow, it's worth a rental, but the first film in the series, while bloated, remains the best.

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows: The same team is back, with a few wrinkles. Robert Downey Jr. reprises his role as Sherlock Holmes, in this series an unkempt, roguish, self-absorbed genius, who thrills for puzzles and the chase, but also shows occasional spurts of heroism. Jude Law is back as the exasperated but loyal Dr. Watson. This time, the chief foe is Holmes' great nemesis, Professor James Moriarty (Jared Harris, son of Richard, who plays the part with suitably cold calculation and selective, subdued glee). Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams) appears briefly (her voice still weak, alas), with Swedish actress Noomi Rapace as the gypsy Simza Heron taking over the Girl Friday role. Stephen Fry plays Sherlock's brother Mycroft. The plot involves searching for Simza's brother, who has become entrapped in Moriarty's master scheme. This sequel is slightly better than the first film. The best part of the first was the chemistry between Downey and Law, but the get less time together here. Some of the fights aren't quite as good either, because this time, director Guy Ritchie runs through Holmes' pugilist-as-chess-player-and-surgeon shtick in slow-mo, then runs through the fights again in hyperspeed. The second time around is just a blur, and has no suspense. However, some of the other action scenes are staged decently enough, especially the final faceoff between Holmes and Moriarty, which has some genuine suspense and emotional weight. (Alas, Guy Ritchie almost immediately undercuts this.) Basically, all the scenes between Downey and Harris are good, and the rest are fairly meh. There's other distracting silliness: apparently, no upper middle class British men own a razor, since Holmes and Watson are perennially running around with manly, roguish stubble. Downey's fun, but just as with Depp in the Pirates movies, we've left wishing the rest of the film was worthy of his talents. Most of all, I was left yearning for the BBC's modern-day Sherlock with Holmes as a "high-functioning sociopath" (a little House-influence), starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Martin Freeman, and created by Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat. Unlike this flick, the BBC series is a must-see.

(All Things Considered did a story on "The Enduring Popularity Of Sherlock Holmes.")

Super 8: Writer-director J.J. Abrams does his salute to Spielberg (who executive produced), delivering a film that's E.T. meets Cloverfield. It's small-town America in the summer of '79. Young Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) is the sheriff's kid (Kyle Chandler), and his mom has just died in a factory accident. His social life ain't great. His buddy Charles (Riley Griffiths), an aspiring film director, recruits Joe and the rest of their gang to make a super 8 film to enter a state contest for young filmmakers. The most notable is Alice Dainard (Elle Fanning) who's ahead of them in school, is cool, and can drive (although she's not supposed to). When filming the local train racing by at night for "production value," an accident happens, something big on the train gets loose, and the kids accidentally get it on film. Pets and people start disappearing, and the military swoops in. To make it all worse, Joe's budding romance with Alice is thwarted because his father absolutely hates Alice's dad Louis Dainard (Ron Eldard). This is decent summer fare. There are some inconsistencies, as with the relative power of magnetism, and you'll either forgive these or they'll be one more annoyance. I found the tone to be uneven and a bit jarring, because on the one hand we're watching innocent kids running about and it's all sold as a romp, but on the other, there's a monster who's far more sinister than E.T. ever was. The best part of the film is that the kids are really, really good, especially in the funny, earnest-but-fledgling filmmaking scenes and the vulnerable moments between Joe and Alice. (Fanning is especially impressive, with one heartbreaking scene.) The ending credits show the kids' completed film, and was my favorite part.

(Here's J.J. Abrams on All Things Considered.)

Cowboys & Aliens: Indiana Jones and James Bond team up to fight aliens! It should have been a natural, but alas, it's a disappointment. The opening sequences with Daniel Craig as a taciturn, amnesiac drifter with deadly alien hardware strapped to his wrist are great. In fact, they're so good, we're left wishing that director Jon Favreau (Iron Man) and Craig (who does strong, silent badass really well) had teamed up for a straight western instead. Cowboys & Aliens delivers what the title says, but the power dynamics are wildly out of whack, with flying alien craft with energy weapons kidnapping townsfolk who can fight back with… guns and lassos (apart from the weapon Craig's character Jake has). Jake is interesting, as is his past life, which comes trickling back. So is Sam Rockwell as Doc, the local medic and reluctant posse member. But the rest of the characters are underwhelming. Olivia Wilde plays the mysterious and obligatorily gorgeous Ella Swenson, but there's a huge backstory there we only get snippets of. Meanwhile, Harrison Ford as tough, racist ranch owner Woodrow Dolarhyde mainly just scowls, and it's hard to care much about the storyline with his obnoxious, entitled son Percy (Paul Dano) and loyal Native American ranchhand Nat Colorado (Adam Beach). Characters "learn" things about themselves, and make sacrifices, but it feels by-the-book and falls flat. This should have been a fun summer film, but after a strong beginning it descends into CG spectacle where we just don't care much about the characters and the stakes.

(Here's Jon Favreau on Morning Edition. I like his ideas, and appreciate his knowledge of film history, but I don't think the end result works.)

Puss in Boots: Antonio Banderas, with his marvelous voice, is perfectly cast as that swashbuckling lover and fighter, Puss in Boots (one of the best parts of the Shrek movies). The sections with Puss swashbuckling, and squaring off with his rival and love interest Kitty Softpaws (Selma Hayek), are great. If the film had stuck to that, and the little gags on the genre (Puss orders a milk at the bar, and laps it up before fighting some toughs, or spends an amorous night with his mark's housecat) it would have been fantastic. However, the plot instead introduces Humpty Dumpty (Zach Galifianakis), Puss' childhood friend who later betrayed him. Humpty begs forgiveness, and asks Puss to help him and Kitty steal the goose who lays the golden eggs from the giant's castle (the giant is dead), which will require stealing the magic beans from the thuggish Jack (Billy Bob Thorton) and Jill (Amy Sedaris). Can Humpty be trusted? Will redemption be achieved in the end? Will any audience member older than 12 not see the plot twists coming? I love Banderas as Puss, but I hated whiny, transparently duplicitous Humpty and everything he did to the plot. Most of all, I hated the that sadly common Hollywood convention, the sentimental, third-rate psychoanalytical backstory that bludgeons the viewer with a simplistic, reductive character "motivation" for our hero(ine), setting up a trite and supposedly heartwarming character "arc." Your mileage may vary. It's a fun enough diversion for kids, and I'm glad I saw it because of Banderas (and his early scenes with Hayek), but I wish the rest of the film was as good.

Sanctum: "Daddy issues 20,000 leagues under the sea," or rather, in an underwater cave. Partially based on a real incident (very loosely), this is not a film for claustrophobics. James Cameron executive produced, with Alister Grierson directing a script by John Garvin and Andrew Wight. The result is second or third-rate Cameron: decent action, ludicrous character moments, and textbook examples of on-the-nose dialogue. Tough-as-nails Frank McGuire (Richard Roxburgh) is the world's best underwater cave diver, but his son Josh (Rhys Wakefield) views him as a complete bastard, with considerable justification. ("Josh is his own man. He doesn't take after his dad much." "What, you mean I'm not an emotionally shutdown Nazi asshole?" Nuanced, subtextual dialogue throughout this one!) A ferocious and unexpected storm surface-side starts flooding their underground base camp, forcing the team to look for another way out – in the hope that the vast, unexplored cave structure actually leads out to the ocean – and that their limited air will not run out before they can find an escape route, should it exist. If those physical challenges weren't enough, they also need to contend with the bends, the cold, panic, the aforementioned daddy issues, and human stupidity. Ioan Gruffudd is a good actor when he has a good director, but even he can't make his role as the increasingly craven millionaire playboy Carl Hurley work (and the character is both an adrenaline freak, but a coward?). Roxburgh is a convincing tough guy, but sometimes his character is cartoonishly gruff and callous, as when he essentially says someone who just died had it coming. Most of the dialogue is distractingly painful, and I'm thoroughly sick of "daddy issues" standing in for a hero's character arc (see also 2010's Robin Hood). All that said, some of the shots of the underwater caves in 3-D were stunning (it's an impressive technical achievement) and the film does provide some genuinely suspenseful sequences. It's too bad they didn't just let it be a straight action-suspense movie. Given the inherently perilous situation, there's little need to spend some much time on hackneyed "character conflict."

The Eagle: This film makes an interesting contrast with the similarly themed Centurion (2010; it's better, but not fantastic either). Beauhunk flavor of the month Channing Tatum plays Marcus Aquila, who actually requests an unattractive post in northern Britain, in part because of – you guessed it – daddy issues. His father commanded the Ninth Legion, which was largely wiped out; its golden eagle, the symbol of Roman power and pride was lost, shaming the Aquila family, so Marcus wants to restore the family name. Most of the film centers on the uneasy alliance between Marcus and his Celt slave Esca (Jamie Bell). Both have a sense of honor, and while Esca despises Marcus and the Romans, he owes him his life and swears to serve him. He knows the Calendonian territory beyond Hadrian's Wall better than any of the Romans, none of whom speak the local language, either. Tatum is a decent actor and convincing as an action hero. However, Marcus is sometimes ludicrously naïve about both what his mission to recover the eagle entails and Esca's ruses. There are times he plays the high-handed Roman when simple subterfuge would be far more effective, and this sorta works as a character difference between him and Esca, but it also makes him appear rather dumb and less sympathetic. For all that, Marcus' motivations are clear, while Esca's are sometimes less explicable, especially near the end, when they seem to be a function of screenplay requirement and strain plausibility to the breaking point. The powdered Seal people, supposedly the most vicious northern tribe, look suitably creepy, and some of the chase and fight scenes are decent. Unfortunately, the final battle is poorly staged, starting out well as a small group holding out against many, and shifting to the obligatory one-on-one fight with the chief bad guy Seal Person, but the continuity and plausibility are noticeably bad, with bodies and fighters essentially just disappearing. Donald Sutherland classes up the proceedings a bit in a small role as Marcus' "Uncle Aquila." I didn't expect this to be great, but it doesn't fully succeed even on its own terms.

Ironclad: Loosely based on real events, Ironclad depicts what happened after King John signed the Magna Carta – he sought revenge with a mercenary army of Danes on the lords who made him sign it. Some of them hold up at Rochester Castle, a small but formidable hold that controls crucial access to southern England and the River Medwey. King John lays siege. One thing Ironclad does well is capture the grime and cruelty of the times. Life is cheap when it comes to those not of noble birth, and King John (Paul Giamatti), indignant that anyone would oppose him, is fond of maiming his foes. The rebels are lead most notably by Templar knight Thomas Marshall (James Purefoy), Lord William d'Aubigny (Brian Cox), and ace archer Marks (Mackenzie Crook). Kate Mara plays Lady Isabel (her accent's pretty good, as is Giamatti's), who's married to the baron of Rochester Castle, but is attracted to Thomas, as is he to her, but he has sworn an oath of chastity. Our heroes face dire odds without much hope of success, but they strive to buy time for allied English and French forces to arrive. Charles Dance and Derek Jacobi are good in small roles. This isn't a fantastic flick, but I like period films, and it's okay as a historical action-drama, with some decent action and a depiction of a castle siege.

Horrible Bosses: Three friends have horrible bosses. Dedicated Nick Hendricks (Jason Bateman) has sadistic corporate martinet Dave Harken (Kevin Spacey), who makes him grovel for the smallest fault. Dale Arbus (Charlie Day) is engaged to be married, but is being sexually harassed by his dentist boss Julia Harris (Jennifer Aniston). Finally, Kurt Buckman (Jason Sudeikis) is stuck with the boss' irresponsible drug addict Bobby Pellitt (Colin Farrell) after his kindly boss dies. They go out drinking, joke that they'd all be better off if their bosses were dead – and then start thinking about a Strangers on a Train swap-off, killing each other's bosses. They go to a seedy bar looking to recruit a hit man, and wind up paying Dean "MF" Jones (Jamie Foxx) for arrangements and advice. This still being a fairly mainstream comedy, it can only get so dark, but the film does a good job of making us hate the three bosses and has some funny moments. The early reconnaissance scenes go predictably but humorously awry, and the plot does veer in some unexpected directions. Bateman's especially funny and Spacey clearly has fun playing an increasingly twisted villain. This isn't a must-see, but it's a decent comedy with a premise that taps into the zeitgeist (although it would interesting to see a few films that push that further).

(Here's director Seth Gordon on The Treatment.)

Tabloid: Errol Morris' latest feature documentary may not be his best, but he's set the bar high, and the apparent ease of his craftsmanship make it fun to watch. Joyce McKinney, a flirtatious former Southern beauty queen, wound up in the British tabloids after she rescued – or did she kidnap? – her former boyfriend, a straight-laced Mormon serving his missionary stint in England. McKinney is a charming, interesting interview subject, and at first it seems Morris is setting up a Rashomon structure about what really happened at that cottage, but toying with that a bit, he takes the film in different directions. Our views of McKinney shift with new information, and some of the events in her life are decidedly bizarre, extraordinary and… perfect tabloid fodder. As one tabloid editor says, "I think it was ropes, but chains sounds better." You may not be certain of the truth by the end of this one, but you'll never be bored.

(Here's Errol Morris with David Ansen in a very good interview on The Treatment.)

Sucker Punch: Director and co-writer Zack Snyder has a visual flair, and his best sequences are fun eye candy, but this is one oddball, somewhat disturbing and not entirely successful film, which plays at several layers of reality. The dialogue-less music-video-style opening involves heavily stylized shots and a pounding score as Babydoll (Emily Browning), rescues her younger sister from their incestuous stepfather, but something goes wrong; she is then committed to an asylum, where she is being threatened with the prospect of a lobotomy. She retreats into a fantasy where she has been brought to a brothel. There, she tries to escape with the other girls – Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish), Rocket (Jena Malone), Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens) and Amber (Jamie Chung). They also "escape" into another layer of fantasy – a malleable, action-filled dream world whenever Babydoll transfixes an audience with one of her sexualized dances (never seen on screen except for snippets). In the dream world, they are all badass, and aided by a mentor figure played by Scott Glenn; he names the next item they are to acquire for their escape kit, but doing so is never without risk and often not without cost. Carla Gugino is Dr./Madam Vera Gorski, who can be alternatively cruel or supportive, but all of the women are in thrall to the slimy Blue Jones (Oscar Isaac), the brothel owner in that reality and a corrupt orderly in the asylum one. In the brothel world, Babydoll is to be presented to "the high roller," (Jon Hamm), which will supposedly win them all some new favors or perks. Sucker Punch wants to have it both ways; it's a pseudo-feminist exploitation flick with a music video/video game aesthetic that pretends to critique sexual exploitation (if Snyder's statements are to be believed). In some scenes, Emily Browning (who's rather tiny) is heavily made-up as a sexualized school girl, and the camera obsessively lingers on her and the other young female cast members. I like Gugino and Malone as actresses, and some of the action fantasy sequences do indeed make cool eye candy. Still, I felt like I was watching a sleazy, creepy fetish film. I don't think the multiple layers of reality fully work, either. There's a late "twist" that doesn't seem completely thought-out, set up or coherent, so it feels like a gimmick for shock value versus an earned emotional landing to the frenetic and uneven proceedings. I do know some people who enjoyed this one as spectacle, but just be aware of what you're in for.

Trollhunter: (Released in Norway in 2010, limited U.S. release in 2011.) Trollhunter plays with the "found footage documentary" genre, as three students track a mysterious man who they suspect may be involved somehow with a spate of recent bear killings. It turns out he's a trollhunter, working for a surreptitious government agency. Initially standoffish, he's war-weary after years on the job with almost no one to talk to, so he lets them follow him and help him hunt trolls, explaining the habits and physiognomy of different troll types along the way. I know some folks who were turned off by this film because they thought the initial trolls looked too goofy, but they do resemble some of the classic trolls from children's books. The tone is a bit tongue-in-cheek, and what really sells it is Otto Jespersen as Hans the trollhunter. He plays it all straight, casually recounting troll facts and occasionally sighing with the weight of the world on his shoulders, since he's one of the few people aware that trolls actually exist and has been tasked for years with both protecting that secret and protecting humanity from troll incursions. (Something has recently riled them up.) He imbues his performance with that war vet thousand-year stare, and it's slyly hilarious and even a bit affecting. This one isn't for everybody, but especially given the Scandinavian humor and folklore angles, I thoroughly enjoyed it as an off-beat pick.

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