Sigh. Prometheus is, at first blush, a fairly standard sci-fi thriller (with superior visual effects) that only seems to disappoint perhaps because of the outsized expectations attached to it. But then the more you think about it, the less it disappoints for not being very scary, and the more it disappoints because it’s filled with a lot of nonsense. Alien and Aliens were gripping, thrilling, scary, and engrossing in large part because they were so simple and focused. They were about escaping with your life. Everyone in the movie wanted to do it, and everyone in the audience was on board. We would do (or at least we hope we would) everything that Ellen Ripley and her shipmates did to kill the monsters and get back home. This makes us emotionally invested in the characters and makes all the camera tricks, scary music, and terrifying alien beasties really, really – well – scary. One thing I learned from Prometheus is that when the heroes in a scary movie do really dumb things I don’t care as much when they get eviscerated. If I had a nickel for every time one scientist told another scientist (quite sensibly) “don’t touch that” in this movie and the guy went ahead and touched it anyway I’d have close to a quarter. Guess what happens when they touch the thing they oh-so-obviously shouldn’t be touching. Sigh.

Okay, so what is really going on in this movie? Well first the stuff that doesn’t require a spoiler alert. A giant bald albino disintegrates himself into a waterfall somewhere, releasing his DNA into a river. Then two young archaeologists in love discover a cave painting of a giant pointing at six dots in the sky and a trillionaire finances a deep-space mission with the young archaeologists on board to go see what’s up on one of those six dots. Their theory, as well as that of the trillionaire who paid for the Prometheus expedition, is that this race of ancient astronauts are the genetic engineers of humans. One character, at least, is as astonished by this claim as I was. He asks Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (the archaeologists) if they have any evidence to support throwing out “two hundred years of Darwinism”. Let’s put aside for the moment that it’s not 200 years of “Darwinism” (which makes the theory of evolution sound like a cult) but rather 3.8 billion years of accumulated detailed forensic evidence showing that all life on Earth is related to each other and is 3.8 billion years old, not 40, 000 years old (the posited time that the alien “Engineers” created humans). Putting that aside, Shaw’s answer to this question is even more disturbing. She has no evidence. “It is what I choose to believe, ” she says. The last time I checked the only place where belief trumps reality is Fox News.

How does this all fit in with killer aliens? It doesn’t, really. The screenplay by Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof (who cut his nonsense-writing chops on Lost and wrote the upcoming Star Trek sequel, sigh) makes a connection, but it is forced. In one brief bit of exposition the captain of Prometheus (who, along with almost everyone else on the ship apparently signed up to go on a deep-space mission for many years without having any idea what the mission was) explains why they are being attacked by aliens instead of having deep philosophical discussions with our genetic engineers. It’s an alien movie that has been shoe-horned into a sappy story about human origins that cloaks hokey pseudo-science (Erich Von Däniken, anyone?) with the trappings of science. It’s a poor fit. While there are some nasty-looking aliens and one excellent sequence in which Shaw has to operate on herself, most of the time we’re distracted from being scared by wondering why there are killer aliens on the planet of our creators, why everyone keeps touching the oozing black goo, and why anyone thought it would be a good idea to turn a space monster thriller into whatever it is this is.

Average Rating: 4.9 out of 5 based on 208 user reviews.

Part documentary, part drama, and part comedy, Bernie is entertaining in a faintly disturbing way. One might find this movie more enjoyable if seeing it without knowing anything about it, so I’ll give a spoiler alert now. I don’t reveal anything that is not revealed in the movie’s trailer, nevertheless it would be a surprise to those who see it un-forewarned.

While we laugh at the reactions of the people in a small Texas town to the murder of one of their neighbors, a faint voice in the dark recesses tries to remind us that we are laughing about an actual death and, perhaps more troubling, a certain casual acceptance of murder. It reminds me of another Texas story in which a judge explains to a man why one can get away with killing another human, but if you kill another man’s cow you will not escape punishment. “The reason, ” the judge says, “is that there is no such thing as a cow that needs killing.” Not so with people. The person who needs killing in Bernie is Marjorie Nugent, a mean widow played by Shirley Maclaine.

Following the death of her husband, Bernie (Jack Black, excellent in this role) befriends Marjorie who, being generally mean, has no friends. Bernie, on the other hand, being nice, is able to put up with Marjorie and eventually becomes her ambiguously gay male girlfriend. They go on first class vacations around the world together and even get couples’ massages and pedicures. Bernie, though, is unphased by her wealth and continues to live in a dumpy little house and drive a dumpy big car. But Marjorie’s all-consuming selfishness and bad temper eventually snaps even Bernie’s mild manners.

Matthew McConnaughey plays the district attorney who prosecutes Bernie for murder. But the trial is the denouement, not the center of the story. Director Richard Linklater, who co-wrote the screenplay with journalist Skip Hollandsworth who covered the original true story of Bernie, mixes traditional dramatic filmmaking with documentary interviews with the actual residents of the town of Carthage Texas who knew Bernie and Marjorie. These interviews provide many of the film’s laughs. They are not just colorful renderings, but genuine insights into the true nature of two singular individuals and the nature of right and wrong.

Average Rating: 4.4 out of 5 based on 190 user reviews.

Charlize Theron and Kristen Stewart square off as the wicked queen Ravenna and Snow White in this uneven adaptation of the German fairy tale. The idea of the movie is engaging and fun: take a 19th-century fairy-tale and update it for modern sensibilities and tell it with the cinematic tools of the 21st century. In other words, make Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs cool. It partially succeeds.

Chris Hemsworth (Thor) plays the huntsman sent into the dark forest to capture Snow White who escapes Ravenna’s castle just before having her heart ripped out. He’s a bit too Thorish to be a believable leading man for Stewart’s slender and pensive Snow White. More on that later. Ravenna gets a bit of a tragic touch-up in this telling. She is driven to kill Snow White (Yes, that really is her name in the movie; should I call her “Snow” for short? I didn’t think so.) not by jealousy but by self-preservation. The nasty magic that keeps her going is threatened by Snow White’s beauty and purity. Get S.W.’s beating heart in your hands, the magic mirror tells Ravenna, and you’ll have immortality and as a bonus won’t need to suck the life and beauty out of every young woman unlucky enough to cross your path. Ravenna sucks the life out of the land as well, but flashes of her backstory portray her as locked into a life of evil-doing by a spell as a child. It’s a significant improvement on vanity as a motive for all this bloodshed.

Snow White also gets an update, though at times the screenwriters leave her oddly mute. She musters a call to arms to lead the last ragtag army to attack Ravenna’s stronghold, but her interactions both with the huntsman and with Prince William (Sam Claflin) are mostly one-sided. More interesting is her portrayal as a Christ figure. As Ravenna is bestowed with deadly magic, Snow White exudes healing magic. Those in her midst are cured of their ailments. Old wounds heal. The animals in the enchanted forest delight in her presence. She is referred to as “the one” and is “blessed” or annointed by a magical figure in the woods. And of course she rises from the dead, wearing a white dress that practically glows. With all this magic flitting around, one can hear the conversation among the producers during pre-production stressing about an anticipated backlash from Christian conservatives denouncing the movie just as they did the Harry Potter franchise. That, at least, is the only plausible explanation I can conceive of for Snow White reciting a prayer from the Bible early in the movie while locked in her cell: it inoculates the movie against charges of Satanism.

There are, indeed, seven dwarfs and a poison apple, and there’s a PG-13 amount of fantasy blood and violence. But there is also a running time that could have lost 10-15 minutes during Snow White’s long trek from the bad forest through the good forest to the good castle before leading the attack on the bad castle. And then there is the odd bit about Prince William (Snow White’s childhood friend, now a dashing archer and protector of those who resist Ravenna) and the huntsman (who is not given any other name in the movie). Spoiler Alert: yes, I actually have to give a spoiler alert in a review about Snow White.

Ambiguity in the romantic future of the characters might work in some movies (though I am never a fan of it), but in Snow White it’s downright peculiar. The apparently-dead Snow White gets a kiss on the lips from not one but two would-be true-loves in this movie. Only one works. At her triumphant coronation after slaying Ravenna, both are present. We get no closure, just a lingering shot of meaningful but indecipherable looks from Kristen Stewart.

Allow me to rant a bit. I’m a big fan of storytellers actually finishing their stories. The end of Inception, for example, was not deep but dumb in my opinion. Okay, so he’s dreaming. In a couple of hours he’ll wake up. Where and in what condition? In the plane? In prison? Insane? Finish the damn story, I say. Snow White’s ending isn’t as bad as that, but it’s oddly anticlimactic and unsatisfying.

Average Rating: 4.5 out of 5 based on 178 user reviews.

Edgar Allen Poe’s tales of murder and the macabre inspire a 19th-century serial killer in The Raven. Although it is dressed up in literary garb, the movie shares many of the standard traits of a serial killer thriller. The killer is diabolically (and implausibly) clever. John Cusack, as Poe, has a few choice one-liners (“I detest people who detest me, ” he offers by way of explanation for an acrid relationship). In fact, almost everyone in the movie seems to at least dislike Poe and not without reason. The notable exception is Emily (Alice Eve), his would-be fiancee (would-be, were it not for the objections of Emily’s father), a beautiful young woman whose attraction to the grumpy, broke, and much older Poe is never satisfatorily explained. Especially since the normally appealing Cusack appears to be channeling Nicolas Cage in this picture. Not just his goatee and high-domed forehead recall Cage, but Cusack also affects a sometimes sullen slack-jawed snarl that made me wonder if I had accidentally wandered into a screening of Face/Off with Cusack taking on Travolta’s role, or perhaps Con Air (where they really did team up).

The Raven has a difficult start: we know from the beginning that it ends with Poe’s death. What we don’t know is whether the serial killer will be caught and how many victims will succumb to him. In addition there is the academic puzzle of what game the serial killer is playing. Fortunately we are not required to believe that Poe could solve these murders on his own and he is provided with a helpful detective (played by Luke Evans) who, in a refreshing break from stereotype for this kind of role, actually is helpful. The chase for the bad guy is filled with a fair amount of grotesquerie, though not close to the level of horror movies that wallow in blood and guts. Director James McTeigue keeps it tense without being exploitative or manipulative.

Average Rating: 4.9 out of 5 based on 284 user reviews.

I now understand my craving for chocolate milkshakes, chocolate ice cream, and hot chocolate: according to the Men in Black, “chocolatized dairy products” help alleviate the symptoms of temporal headaches. Those are the headaches caused by disruptions to the space-time continuum from time travel. Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones reprise their roles as Agents J and K from the Men in Black bureau that deals with the colorful and vibrant underground civilization of aliens living among us and makes sure we remain blissfully ignorant of them. This installment’s extra gimmick is that brutal alien assassin Boris the Animal travels back to July 1969 to prevent his arrest by a young Agent K and clear the way for the later conquest of Earth by his home planet. Nice plan. For reasons not entirely clear, J is immune from Boris (the Animal’s) time meddling and proceeds to chase him back to prevent him from preventing K from preventing him from conquering Earth.

I’ve never understood why time travelers with a mission such as J’s don’t give themselves more time to catch the bad guy. J goes back to the exact day where he knows Boris (the Animal) will kill someone. Speaking for myself I’d go back, oh, a week or two early so I could case the joint and set up a good plan to catch the bad guy. But that’s just me. Josh Brolin does a pitch-perfect job of channeling a younger Tommy Lee Jones as K in 1969. We also get a cameo by SNL regular Bill Hader (sporting, oddly, a prosthetic upper lip) as Andy Warhol and Emma Thompson as Agent O.

Men in Black 3 is a romp of a movie with a fun screenplay by Etan Cohen (no, not Ethan) and efficient directing by Barry Sonnenfeld, who helmed the first two installments. It plays with the paradoxes of time travel with an amusing alien named Griffin (Michael Stuhlbarg) who sees all the possible futures of all possible actions all of the time. “It’s exhausting” he tells J and K, and we believe him. It’s borderline exhausting just listening to him describe the various possible futures just of the next few minutes. There are fewer explosions and fights than in The Avengers but an equally upbeat tongue-in-cheek attitude toward saving the world from complete destruction by aliens. The upcoming Prometheus promises a different mood entirely for the same extraterrestrial threat.

Average Rating: 4.6 out of 5 based on 300 user reviews.

Has there ever been a movie that was set up with a set of prequels that also each spawned their own sequels? The Avengers is like a great fanboy comic-movie convergence orgasm of silliness. The Marvel Comics movie universe is now so crowded, or perhaps fractured, that the Hulk who appears in The Avengers is not even really the same Hulk who appeared in not one but two distinct Hulk origin movies in the last decade. Somehow or other, though, writer-director Joss Whedon mostly makes this amalgam of superheroes work. The best bits are those that rely on Whedon’s dialogue; the action-adventure effects scenes are wont to ramble on a bit long. The screenplay wrings a lot of comedic effect from the inherent silliness of the setup. Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr., one of the best and least-likely action movie superstars I can think of), one of the Avengers and also the star of the best of the stand-alone Avengers movies, is delightfully aware of how silly it all is. His wise-cracks are reminiscent of Bill Murray’s in the original Ghostbusters. With a wink and a nod to the audience, he lets us know not to worry too much about the destruction of the world and enjoy the adventure for its own sake.

The story has something or other to do with some kind of aliens led by some other pompous alien named Loki coming to destroy the world. Standard fare by now for the genre, and the details are of course completely unimportant. Fortunately the movie wastes little time trying to get us to understand or care about those details. There are a bunch of superhero good guys, and I confess I’m not an expert on all the Avengers lore. We have Captain America (see: Captain America: The First Avenger (product placement, get it?)), transported forward in time from the forties, Iron Man, the Hulk (see this or this, even though neither is really this Hulk), a hot chick (Scarlett Johansson; see: Iron Man 2), a guy who can shoot arrows really well (Jeremy Renner; see: Thor), and Thor (who has some sort of relationship to Loki; see: Thor). Also, Samuel L. Jackson wanders around with an eyepatch telling people what to do. Sometimes they listen to him. It could be confusing if we felt we really needed to follow each individual’s motivation.

But we do have to care about something for it to rise above the level of a run-of-the-mill special-effects-fest, and that’s where Whedon’s writing comes to the rescue. He manages to give most, if not all, of the Avengers enough depth of character and enough interesting and sometimes witty things to say that we really do root for them to beat the living crap out of Loki. Loki, as the villain, also gets an extra dose of character as someone who is loathsome not simply because he wants to kill a lot of people but because he’s so insufferably pleased with himself all the time. Then he lets the least eloquent Avenger (Hulk) satisfy our desires in the movie’s funniest and most satisfying moment.

I know that an Iron Man 3 is in the works (as well as probably a Captain America 2 and maybe even a Nick Fury (Jackson’s character) movie, and we are shortly to be treated to a brand new incarnation of Spiderman that is different than the one I thought we just went through. I don’t know whether to consider Iron Man 3 a sequel or a prequel to The Avengers, but anyway, just like Loki’s and Thor’s motivations, it doesn’t really matter as long as its fun.

Average Rating: 4.8 out of 5 based on 210 user reviews.

I went to see John Carter with some trepidation, having heard bad press and not having gotten a very good vibe from the previews. I went nonetheless in part because when I was 12 or 13 I went through a very serious Edgar Rice Burroughs phase. I read all 25 Tarzan books, all 10 Mars (John Carter) books, the Pellucidar series and a handful of others. These books were red meat for a 12-year-old boy, especially when adorned with cover art by fantasy artist Frank Frazetta. At any rate, I have a nostalgic fondness for those books and was excited to see the first installment brought to the big screen. My attitude toward the movie may be colored by those boyhood memories. While there is a healthy dose of silliness, John Carter is quite entertaining popcorn fare. Given its hefty budget (rumored to be north of $200 million) a sequel may not be forthcoming, but I hope I’m wrong.

The movie throws in some extra plot elements to help explain how John Carter, a former member of the Confederate Cavalry, ends up on Mars, but the screenplay by Andrew Stanton (who directed), Mark Andrews, and Michael Chabon cleverly handles what was essentially a mystical transport in Burroughs’ book, particularly at the end of the movie. (Stanton and Chabon, by the way, are my age. I cannot help but suspect they had a similar experience with the books as I did thanks to their re-release (Frazetta-ized) in the mid-seventies.) The movie is less clever in explaining what interest the apparently malevolent (but professedly indifferent) Therns (immortals meddling in the affairs of Mars and men) have in John Carter and his involvement in a Martian civil war.

The situation on Mars is not made entirely clear by the movie either. The planet is populated by “red men” who inhabit (apparently) only two cities: Helium and Zodanga. There is also a civilization of Tharks: 10-foot-tall green people with four arms and large tusks whose young hatch from eggs. (In the books, so do the children of the buxom, naked, and beautiful women of Helium, but the movie spares us this oddity of Martian reproduction.) Aside from this handful of densely populated cities, Mars (or “Barsoom” in Barsoomian) looks remarkably like the real Mars, which is to say a barren wasteland. One wonders what the Martians eat, where they get their power, how they build their elaborate and fragile airships, and why there aren’t any living things smaller than a lion. But, for the most part, one doesn’t wonder these things until after one has left the movie theater. That is, while both Burroughs’ original story and Stanton’s adaptation have lots of nonsense, it’s harmless nonsense and the fast-paced fantasy action keeps us happily distracted for the duration of the movie.

Carter is able to be a successful fighter on Mars due to muscles and bones grown in Earth’s stronger gravitational field. Here as throughout the movie, things are a tad exaggerated. While Mars’s gravitational acceleration is about 1/3 that of the Earth, Carter is able to leap hundreds of feet. Had I been a science consultant I would not have complained about that particular liberty (this is, after all, a fantasy movie, not a science fiction movie), but I would have given them a nifty idea to get another dramatic element out of Mars’s two moons and add a bit of orbital realism as a bonus.

Taylor Kitsch gives Carter a rather sullen demeanor, but the movie has fun with his stubbornness. Stanton manages to infuse some much-needed humor here and there, including a self-deprecating nod at the ironic similarities of the story to so many Disney animated movies about princesses. Lynn Collins plays the Princess of Helium, Dejah Thoris, though, in an update from the book for 21st century norms, she is first introduced to us in the movie as a scientist who is on the verge of a major breakthrough in magical Martian technology. Collins gives what Burroughs described as “the incomparable Dejah Thoris” reasonable heft: she is not merely a damsel in distress. She is a smart, strong and brave damsel in distress.

Most reviews I’ve read cannot resist mentioning its rumored price tag. But I paid a normal ticket price and got my money’s worth.

Average Rating: 4.5 out of 5 based on 261 user reviews.

The Guard puts an Irish twist on the fish-out-of-water trope of a sophisticate adrift in the surprisingly complex boonies. Think of the many movies in which a big-city doctor (lawyer or policeman) finds himself in some backwards backwater where all his clever techniques are useless and he must learn the down-home local way of doing things to save the patient (exonerate the accused or catch the bad guy) with a heavy Irish accent and an occasional dose of Gaelic.

In this case, Don Cheadle plays the sophisticated FBI investigator Wendell Everett, dispatched to a small town in Ireland on the trail of international drug dealers who may be making a delivery on the coast there. He is forced by circumstance to partner with the town’s policeman or “guard” Sergeant Gerry Boyle (Brendan Gleason). Boyle is unimpressed with Everett’s work ethic and proceeds with his weekend getaway with two lovely prostitutes from the city, leaving Everett to canvas the town on his own with predictably unproductive results. The two stars provide enough charm and chemistry to carry the relatively lightweight movie on their shoulders.

Average Rating: 4.5 out of 5 based on 248 user reviews.

Based on the story of screenwriter Will Reiser‘s own struggle with cancer, 50/50 combines humor and pathos without being overly sentimental or maudlin. Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Adam, a 27-year-old reporter for a public radio station in Seattle, whose back pains turn out to be due to a rare form of cancer.

The movie’s title gives his odds of recovery as well as reflects the uncertainties of life in general. Adam’s illness becomes a catalyst for change in his relationships and his approach to life. It does not take long, for example, for him to realize that his girlfriend is a fair-weather friend. His best friend Kyle, played by Seth Rogan, on the other hand, is a true friend, even if sometimes his efforts to help miss the mark. Kyle determines that some casual sex would be excellent medicine for Adam, and it’s a sweetly perverse (a phrase that characterizes most Rogan roles) outing that ends up with the two of them heading home with two women to try some of Adam’s medicinal marijuana. But the reality of a painful back tumor did not factor into Kyle’s planning. The movie has just the right amount of Kyle: in leading man doses I’ve found Rogan to become grating. Here he provides good comic moments without dominating the story of Adam’s journey from a well-ordered life into one characterized by uncertainty.

Anna Kendrick plays Adam’s hospital-assigned therapist Katherine, a student in training who tries the techniques she learned in class out on Adam, her first patient. As she tries to help him deal with the misery of chemotherapy and his mortality, Adam helps her learn her future trade. Adam’s parents, a protective mother (Anjelica Huston, compelling, but not an obvious choice to play Levitt’s mom) whom he has kept at a distance, and a father with the first stages of dementia, provide the third leg of support, with Kyle and Katherine, for Adam. His journey is, in large part, learning to recognize and accept this support. Even without a diagnosis of cancer, it is an uncertain world. Adam discovers the joy in that uncertainty. What comes next may be wonderful. And when it isn’t, he has people to lean on.

Average Rating: 5 out of 5 based on 283 user reviews.

Who would have thought in the post-Avatar era, where movies are sold based on the enormity of their effects and explosions, that a true silent black-and-white movie could be made? The Artist is a playful throwback to the silent era about a silent film star’s struggles at the dawn of the talking picture age. Jean Dujardin plays George Valentin, a classic screen hero openly modeled on Rudolph Valentino. When the talkie era begins, Valentin, with his winsome grin, pencil moustache and loyal sidekick (a Jack Russell terrier), refuses to accept the end of the era he dominated. At the same time, the plucky Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo) whom Valentin inadvertently discovered, is a rising star in the new talking pictures. Valentin has an understandably difficult time accepting this change in fortunes. But it’s only understandable to a point. Valentin still has the adoration of not only his dog, but a faithful driver and servant (James Cromwell) and Peppy herself, who admires Valentin’s work and apparently the man himself.

The style of the movie, the brainchild of writer and director Michel Hazanavicius, is true to the golden age of silent movies. He filmed it at 22 frames per second while movies are projected at 24 frames per second now, resulting in all the action running roughly 10% faster than normal. This replicates the jerky feel of the older movies which were shot at the stuttering rate of 16 frames per second. He keeps the old 4 to 3 aspect ratio and even grays out the corners of the image to replicate the imperfect projectors of the time. The actors also ham it up a bit, conveying meaning without words but instead with big grins and exaggerated gestures. John Goodman is particularly fun as the movie producer, initially of Valentin’s hits and later of Peppy Miller’s talkies. It has a nostalgic charm and is fun to watch. However, spoken dialogue is able to convey far more nuance of emotion as well as more information about plot as well as the inner life of characters. Absent this, the characters’ motivations remain only superficially portrayed. Valentin’s insistence on spiraling down the drain of despair ultimately becomes frustrating and, for me at least, unbelievable. It is my only complaint and thanks to the film’s accelerated pace, short-lived, as the action (and style) ultimately saves the day and the movie.

Average Rating: 4.5 out of 5 based on 174 user reviews.