"(500) Days of Summer"
If director Marc Webb's snapshot view of the tumultuous romance between greeting card writer Joseph Gordon-Levitt and co-worker Zooey Deschanel isn't high art, it's at least a perfectly crafted pop song that'll have you humming with the chorus the second time through.
It's warm without being cutesy, familiar without being formulaic and hilarious without being gag-driven. Grade: A-
A tween-friendly cousin to Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist, Bandslam might make a convincing indie if it didn't star two Disney alums - High School Musical's Vanessa Hudgens and Aly Michalka from Aly & AJ. Before the story becomes predictable - they plan to win a tri-state high school band competition! - it actually manages to be cute and clever. Grade: B
A few key differences set South African director Neill Blomkamp's feature debut apart from its blockbuster peers. Backed by executive producer Peter Jackson, Blomkamp works cheap and smart, giving the old story of Earthlings messing up their first encounter with aliens a thoughtful, contemporary spin.
Using an effectively intense documentary format, he serves up some ultra-violence, but also unique detail from creature design to satirical sound bites, and one of the most unlikely action heroes of the season. Grade: B+
Judd Apatow's latest delivers on its title, with central parts filled by Adam Sandler, Seth Rogen, Jonah Hill and Leslie Mann, along with a plethora of cameos ranging from Ray Romano to Sarah Silverman.
And though its tale of friendship, competition and near-death experiences within the stand-up comedy community makes room for some hilariously nasty riffs, there's just too much going on here. Grade: B
"The Hurt Locker"
Kathryn Bigelow's action film about an elite team that defuses roadside bombs in Iraq succeeds where other movies haven't, by putting you in the boots of the personnel on the streets of Baghdad.
Certain story elements are pretty standard, but they suck you into a masterful balance of tight pacing, genuine performances and remarkably intense atmosphere. Grade: A
Quentin Tarantino turns his keen eye to the pulpiest genre he hadn't yet explored - the war movie - and creates a WWII revenge epic that drips with tension, blood and humor.
It's both wonderful and messy, with five chapters, two intersecting story arcs and some Nazi scalping run through the wash with vintage QT dialogue. There's a less central role for Brad Pitt than trailers have led you to believe, and ultimately the movie may be too talky for action fans and too campy for the art-house crowd, but those who like a bit of both - namely, Tarantino's base - will find it just right. Grade: B+
"Julie and Julia"
Writer-director Nora Ephron both fails and succeeds with a movie divided between two true stories of women and food.
On one side is ever-reliable Amy Adams as a frustrated government worker who devotes a year to blogging her way through Julia Child's French cookbook. But her tale can be cutesy and contrived, and it can't hold a candle to a more interesting story: Child's. Meryl Streep is an absolute delight as the groundbreaking chef, and her scenes with co-star Stanley Tucci are just delicious. Grade: B
The latest from Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki, a sort of pre-K take on The Little Mermaid, is receiving a full-tilt release in the U.S. complete with an all-star voice cast. And they bring more than name recognition, particularly Liam Neeson, Tina Fey and Miley's little sister Noah, who gives the eponymous underwater dweller an unabashed enthusiasm.
But Miyazaki's storytelling method - working on the level of his very young protagonists - may be too elementary for kids with a few years of grade school behind them. Grade: B+
On paper, director Vicky Jenson's comedy about life after college for Alexis Bledel's frustrated grad seems to have a lot going for it, but resumes can be deceiving. In the watching, a promising start with some clever sight gags and a great cast including Jane Lynch and Carol Burnett eventually unravels into bad sitcom story development and one of the most ridiculously blatant examples of product placement ever written into a screenplay. Grade: C
"The Time Traveler's Wife"
There's something not quite right about the screen adaptation of Audrey Niffenegger's bestseller, and the feeling can only partly be explained by the fact that its romance between a man who uncontrollably travels through time (Eric Bana) and the woman he's fated to be with (Rachel McAdams) makes less sense the more you think about it.
There's also their initial meeting, when she's six and he's a naked, 38-year-old stranger (in true Terminator fashion, clothes don't travel with him). On a more basic level, the chemistry between the co-stars doesn't spark and their time together needs a stronger, livelier sense of urgency. Grade: C+
"The Ugly Truth"
The latest romantic comedy from Legally Blonde's Robert Luketic invites charges of misogyny, until you realize it has enough hate to go around.
The tale of an uptight TV producer (Katherine Heigl) who takes relationship advice from the Neanderthal man (Gerard Butler) brought in to boost her ratings offers little more than good-looking stars, stale cliches and just enough naughty sex talk to get juices flowing. Grade: C-