In Mira Nair's Amelia Earhart biopic, Hilary Swank depicts the pioneering aviatrix as a free spirit who lived, loved and died as she wanted to. At least that's what the script keeps pounding into the viewer's brain, but overall the film is too weighed down by worn-out genre conventions and hokey dialogue to capture the passionate, flight-obsessed essence of its subject.
While Oscar winner Swank is scrappy, as always, every performance seems guided less by actual human emotion and more by classic film's interpretation of the way people behaved back in the day, with stiff upper lips and accents that you've never heard in the real world. This, however, is no classic. Grade: C-
More chaste yet almost as erotically minded as previous films like The Piano, writer-director Jane Campion's gorgeous new work presents the three-year relationship between ill-fated poet John Keats (Ben Whishaw) and Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish) as a love of consuming intensity and mutual concessions.
The common period theme of romance thwarted by finance is handled here with welcome restraint. As the picture of a girl in the throes of first love, Cornish, conversely, provides a necessary source of warmth. Unfortunately, it's not a sensation you'll get from Whishaw's internalized Keats, or from Campion, whose work always feels vaguely clinical. Grade: B
Co-stars and co-writers Vince Vaughn and Jon Favreau complete their devolution from money hipsters to sitcom-level caricatures with this lazy comedy about four couples who take advantage of a group rate at a tropical island retreat for marrieds on the rocks.
The script keeps all relationships shallow and generic, and in his directorial debut, Peter Billingsley doesn't add anything visual to raise the bar. Only Vaughn actually inspires laughter, but with the same basic character he's been making a nice living from for years. Grade: C-
After increasingly painful attempts at comedy features, Chris Rock may have finally found his big-screen calling as a documentary frontman in the style of Michael Moore, minus the divisive politics.
Leading an organic, agenda-free tour through the multi-billion dollar African-American hair care industry - from the pain of relaxers to the sexual etiquette of weaves, from a flashy hair show in Atlanta to the Indian temple that supplies the world with human hair extensions - the comic provides consistently funny commentary, and projects without judgment a sense that the vanity and peer pressure driving the business are colorblind. Grade: B+
"The Invention of Lying"
With co-writer-director Matthew Robinson, British import Ricky Gervais has created an alternate reality in which only truth exists, until his character Mark Bellison - a short, pudgy, generally unsuccessful screenwriter - discovers how to make things up. They consider some fascinating things within the setup, from the advertising that would result to the effects of a world without flattery, and give Jennifer Garner a delightful showcase as Mark's love interest.
The filmmakers also go deeper and darker with their idea than expected, into the varying nature of lies and liars. But the fascination with the central conceit starts to wane before the story's humor picks back up, and the dead spot that results can be hard to plow through. Grade: B-
"More Than a Game"
Through never-before-seen archival footage and present-day interviews, Kris Belman's doc chronicles how LeBron James and a core of teammates were brought together in the fifth grade by a father-figure coach and led through junior high championships and a high school run in the national spotlight.
The beauty of the film is that it really isn't about James. It's about team, and deep friendships that last for years. Though its lack of a singular focus can be frustrating, if you're any kind of sports fan, you shouldn't miss it. Grade: B
With a smart, Blair Witch-style marketing campaign, this ultra-low budget, handheld camera shocker from newcomer Oren Peli has drawn horror-loving audiences to theaters in droves. Fortunately the film, which recounts three weeks in the life of a young couple troubled by strange occurrences in their apartment, recorded on their home video camera, has enough scares to warrant the attention.
Working against it are some pacing issues, as well as a male protagonist (Micah Sloat) who can be really annoying, but co-star Katie Featherston is totally believable and sympathetic. And the scenes that make up the heart of the movie - long night-vision shots of the couple sleeping while something else is awake in their presence - maximize the punch of some very basic effects. Grade: B-
"A Serious Man"
Centered on a Minnesota physics professor and his family circa 1967, the Coen brothers' latest is a distinctive illustration of the head-ramming frustration that can come from looking for absolute knowledge or meaning - you know, that sensation you might've felt at the end of No Country for Old Men.
The new film's tone is Barton Fink-fatalistic and it keeps its distance from standard crowd-pleasing moves like star casting. But it's visually precise, absurdly funny and, from a certain perspective, more deeply reassuring than any made-up happy ending. Grade: A
"This is It"
If Michael Jackson's unexpected death is a "where were you when?" cultural moment, then Kenny Ortega's documentary is that moment's oddly upbeat Zapruder film. For non-fans, it's fascinating but by no means enthralling. The finished product might have been more suitable as an HBO special, but that would've denied fans a warm and communal experience. Grade: B-
"Where the Wild Things Are"
Spike Jonze's live-action film adaptation of Maurice Sendak's beloved 1963 picture book evokes the childhood state of being that still fascinates the source author, a time of creative and destructive feelings undiluted and sometimes unchecked.
Like the original, Jonze's version will be considered by some too dark, strange and scary for kids, with its raging title creatures (James Gandolfini and Catherine O'Hara lead a fine voice cast) and melancholic sense that happy moments don't ensure a happy ending. Also, the transition between the two versions isn't without bumps, but the film eventually develops its own complex, moving form of enchantment. Grade: B+
"Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg"
Gertrude Berg and her series, The Goldbergs, are pulled out of the depths of obscurity in director Aviva Kempner's informative documentary about a television pioneer. A precursor to everyone from Lucy to Maude (that show's creator, Norman Lear, makes an appearance as a fan), Berg wrote and starred in TV's first successful sitcom, until her tight-knit ensemble cast was broken up by the Communist witch hunts of the 1950s.
That's only part of Berg's story, which is undoubtedly fascinating, but time isn't on Kempner's side. With the people closest to Berg all gone, the filmmaker has to rely heavily on an old documentary standby - stock footage set to old-timey music. It's a poor fit for a groundbreaking subject. Grade: C+