"(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 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+
Writer-director Mike Judge proves with his latest live-action feature that he's still an excellent observational humorist, but despite the laughs Extract provides, it's his weakest work to date. At first it looks to be a satirical view of minimum-wage work and the plight of the small business owner through Jason Bateman's flavor extract manufacturing plant, but once Mila Kunis' beautiful grifter and a chemically adventurous friend (Ben Affleck) enter the scene, the movie loses direction and a sense of purpose. Grade: C+
Once again, Rob Zombie's promise of a "visionary re-imagining" of a John Carpenter original is overblown, but the filmmaker does at least break away from totally disposable characters and those cheap gotcha scares that dissipate so quickly.
Though at times, the story Zombie concocts for his remake of the 1981 Halloween sequel seems little more than an excuse for wife Sheri Moon Zombie to roam around in goth makeup and white satin, it does give Scout Taylor-Compton's Laurie Strode the opportunity to do more than scream and bleed. And ultimately, this one's more effectively unsettling than the original Halloween follow-up. Grade: C+
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
In this combination of documentary and fiction, a skeptical Charlyne Yi (Knocked Up) travels the country to see if true love exists, a project that's soon challenged by her introduction to Superbad star Michael Cera and the romance that ensues.
Combining their narrative with real-life interviews and rudimentary animation, the movie plays like a meta, DIY variation on When Harry Met Sally. Though cynics might cringe, and even romantics may have complaints, the film and its star are often endearingly funny and sincere. 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+
The true story of how artist and hotel proprietor Elliot Tiber used his permit for an arts festival to help make Woodstock happen is a synchronous instance worthy of big-screen treatment, but in the hands of director Ang Lee and screenwriter James Schamus, it launches a hokey, checklist approach to the key experiences of the era.
Star Demetri Martin and other prominent performers aren't nearly as enjoyable as supporting players Jonathan Groff and a pistol-packing, cross-dressing Liev Schreiber. 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+