A less draconian solution to the large soda ban proposed by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg would be a requirement that establishments at least make it possible to buy a small soda for less money. At Regal Cinemas a small soda is 32 ounces of sugary goo, nearly three times the size of a standard canned soda. And it costs nearly $5. A better way to encourage people to drink less high calorie soft drinks is to require vendors to at least offer for sale a “small” that at least is not gigantic. If the movie theater sold a 12-ounce soda for, oh, $2, then I believe a lot of people would opt for the more reasonable serving size. But if I’ve got that 32-ounce bucket of sugar water sitting in my armrest, I’m going to drink past the point of what I really need or want. And since the wholesale cost of 12 ounces of soda is about a quarter, the theater is still making a killing.

Average Rating: 4.6 out of 5 based on 214 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: 4.5 out of 5 based on 205 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 187 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: 4.6 out of 5 based on 226 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: 4.9 out of 5 based on 190 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 250 user reviews.

Posts here have become an increasingly rare item. Here, in a nutshell, is what is going on. In January 2011 I became Associate Chair of the Department of Physics at UCF. In September 2011 I became Assistant Director of the Florida Space Institute. Meanwhile I’m directing the Center for Microgravity Research and Education at UCF as well as carrying on my regular research and teaching duties. Things have been going very well on all fronts, but posting here has fallen through the cracks a bit. On my “pending posts” list are reviews (now unlikely to ever be written) of movies seen several months ago, such as “The Descendants”, “Unknown”, and “Drive”.

In March our Microgravity Center got three important wins from NASA’s Flight Opportunities Program providing us with a week-long parabolic airplane flight campaign for one experiment and two suborbital rocket flights for each of two other experiments. Florida Space Institute’s new digs at the UCF Research Park are well into construction with an anticipated move from Kennedy Space Center in June. The Physics Department continues to modernize its teaching program with the development of a new modern “studio-mode” classroom to be built this summer, and I completed my first year of teaching the Algebra-based Physics 1 and Physics 2 cycle (physics for life sciences majors) just this week. Cassini, meanwhile, is getting ready to leave Saturn’s equatorial plane for more inclined climes this summer, providing us once again with dazzling views of the rings and me with a new flood of data to analyze.

And, finally, the astonished amusement phase of the presidential campaign now gives way to the obsessive panicky phase at the prospect that election-law tinkering, super-PAC spending, and propaganda will result in the dismantling of the American government.

Average Rating: 4.8 out of 5 based on 234 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: 4.9 out of 5 based on 255 user reviews.

I have to give a plug to Aylia Colwell’s hilarious videos. Check out her most recent one here.

Average Rating: 4.7 out of 5 based on 157 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: 5 out of 5 based on 155 user reviews.