In theaters.

Note: This review discusses the end of the movie because (A) it's based on a documented historical event, so fussing too much over "spoilers" seems silly and (B) this is what I want to write about, and it's my blog, so I can do what I want.

Argo definitely succeeds as a movie. The extraordinary premise—the escape from revolutionary Iran of American embassy workers disguised as Canadian filmmakers—captures the imagination immediately. The cast is almost completely composed of great character actors delivering spirited performances. The tonal shifts between tension and humor are odd, but somehow they work. The period touches—from the hilariously unattractive late-'70s fashions to the charmingly retro film work—are spot-on and compellingly immersive. It's a fun, exciting, inspiring movie.

Toward the end, though—when the Americans are almost made at the airport, and then the revolutionaries realize they've been tricked, and they shoot open the doors and race onto the runway to try to prevent the plane from taking off—I kind of wondered, wait, did this really happen too? And it turns out, no, it didn't. Numerous details have been fudged, both to simplify the escape (mainly by playing up the CIA's efforts and downplaying those of their Canadian counterparts, which is problematic in itself) and to make it more dramatic (all that running and shouting in the airport). Like many based-on-true-events stories, Argo has been moviefied.

Normally, I can't get too excited about this issue unless a film truly distorts a person's character or the import of an event—which I don't believe is the case here—but for some reason, with Argo, the distortions are what I keep coming back to when I try to write about the movie. Paradoxically, I'm more frustrated than I usually am with such cinematic misreporting and more inclined to forgive the elisions and narrative ruses. I am of two minds, and that's ultimately what I had to examine.


In theaters.

Time travel never makes much sense—ever—but Looper handles it much better than most. The trick, it turns out, is simply to acknowledge that it's crazy, that you'd need to diagram out the forking timelines if you truly wanted to keep track of it all, and even then the paradoxes would overwhelm you if you insisted on thinking about it too hard. Better not to, we're told a few times. Accept the rules that you're given, and go with it. So we do.

And it's worth it because Looper also nails the really crucial element of time-travel storytelling: the emotional logic. The actual mechanics might be nonsense, but the emotional connections between past and present and future ring true and resonate powerfully through all the explosions and gunshots of what is, besides, an exceptionally well made action movie—all the more exceptional for being able to finesse all that goofy time travel stuff.

Robot & Frank

In theaters.

Despite the whole robot-home-healthcare-worker premise, nothing about Robot & Frank feels particularly far-fetched or sci-fi. It's quite easy to imagine a sophisticated but narrowly focused robot like the unnamed one here. In fact, I'm quite certain that that kind of thing is already in development, in one form or another. Christopher Ford's gentle, domestic screenplay barely qualifies as speculative fiction.

And that, I think, is why it works. Robot & Frank isn't sci-fi (nothing against sci-fi, for the record). It's a thoughtful, playful look at how we relate to technology—and to one another—right now, not in the future. The human performances are delightfully expressive, and the robot honestly isn't, though that doesn't prevent us from growing fond of it, which is sort of the point. As an examination of how people map our own emotions onto other entities, Robot finds one of the shrewdest, most subtle takes I've ever seen.

The Imposter

In theaters.

The story at the heart of The Imposter is one of those true stories that would never fly as fiction. It's too open-ended, too outrageous, too unbelievable. Watching the documentary, you have to keep reminding yourself that this really happened, that scoffing about how none of it makes any sense doesn't actually make sense under the circumstances. Director Bart Layton presents everything coolly and clearly, but human irrationally simply can't be rationalized in any satisfying way, making The Imposter an impressive but frustrating, bewildering experience.

The Dark Knight Rises

In theaters.

It's difficult to think sensibly about director Christopher Nolan's Batman movies. Despite the sometime jumbled action sequences, they get under your skin in a truly unsettling way. The villains are charismatic, the setting is often unbearably bleak, the plots play on powerful contemporary fears, and the hero's vigilantism is genuinely disconcerting (and, indeed, acknowledged to be, even within the movies themselves). Furthermore, Batman BeginsThe Dark Knight, and now, closing out the trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises all feature just enough intellectual provocation to capture the imagination and more than enough visceral triggers to send that imagination into overdrive. I certainly don't love the movies, but I'm sort of in awe of them. Rarely do you see a summer popcorn flick that delves quite so deeply and persistently into the unconscious.


In theaters.

In some ways, Brave is a disappointingly conventional addition to Pixar Animation's acclaimed oeuvre. The protagonist is a princess, the story follows a traditional fairy tale path, and the humor indulges in some uninspired stereotyping and a few dumb, shoehorned pop culture gags that I consider beneath the beloved studio.

At the same time, the voice acting is delightful, the animation is breathtakingly lovely, and the two central characters, a girl and her mother, are drawn with heartfelt nuance. Princess or not, a female protagonist struggling with a nonromantic relationship is unusual in American cinema, and Brave movingly handles its strained mother-daughter bond. Perhaps only the astronomically high expectations that Pixar's name engenders make Brave disappointing. I still laughed, I still gasped, and even minor Pixar makes me cry.


In theaters.

Alien is a classic horror movie in large part because of its simplicity. Stark and raw, it plays on primal fears with no subplots or distractions from the conflict at its center. That is its brilliance, the understanding that elemental needn't mean shallow. Alien, in its simplicity, is intelligent and incisive and ridiculously terrifying—and Prometheus, director Ridley Scott's new film in the Alien universe, is none of those things because it is a convoluted, overblown, pretentious mess.

Maybe—maybe—Scott and his collaborators deserve credit for their ambition, for trying to make something grand and profound. But I'm reluctant to give that credit because they've gone about it in all the wrong ways. There's absolutely no evident discipline on screen, no rigorous thought, no narrative insight, not even a shred of storytelling capability, just self-indulgent, would-be philosophical ramblings reminiscent of a college freshman getting high in his dorm room on a Friday night. Despite the pretensions of grandeur of PrometheusAlien is not only scarier but also much smarter and more deeply provocative. Prometheus might as well be called Icarus—it's failure would be tragic if weren't so incredibly annoying.

Moonrise Kingdom

In theaters.

Director Wes Anderson consistently uses an immediately recognizable, easily parodied style—something that's earned him a great deal of ridicule along with his success—so it's rather sweet, honestly, that he's sticking by it, haters be damned. No one's going to kill his love of slow-motion tracking shots, rapid character-to-character pans, relentlessly symmetrical framing, and intricately idiosyncratic, dollhouse-like sets.

And although I've giggled over the sheer obviousness of Anderson's signature aesthetic, I have to admit that I think it works in context, even if many of the shots look absurd in isolation. Anderson's style serves his pet themes well. His movies dwell on loneliness and sadness, a nostalgia for a time that never truly existed and a yearning for what can never be, and the preciousness of the visuals provides an added poignance, a sort of Charlie Brown–style melancholy. It's no coincidence that The Royal Tenenbaums (Anderson's greatest film) goes so far as to include Vince Guaraldi's iconic Charlie Brown Christmas theme on the soundtrack.

Moonrise Kingdom doesn't reach the heights of Tenenbaums (which I consider a genuine masterpiece), but it does represent a return to form after the unevenness (to put it charitably) of The Life Aquatic and The Darjeeling Limited. Wistful and idealistic and perversely funny, Moonrise is classic Anderson. If you could never stand the guy's movies, there's no way you'll make it through his latest, but if you consider "she's my Rushmore" a beautiful tribute and start crying at the first few bars of Elliott Smith's "Needle in the Hay," Moonrise is a lovely confection, less bittersweet than its predecessors but just as piquant and delicate.

Men in Black III

In theaters.

Expecting a time travel story to make sense is asking to be disappointed. The paradoxes are virtually impossible to resolve, so if you think too hard about the plot, you're almost certain to run up against nonsense. Better to just go with it, let the story take you where (and when) it will, and enjoy the ride.

That's my philosophy, anyway, so believe me when I say that my nagging dissatisfaction with the time travel in Men in Black III has nothing to do with anything so banal as logic. I don't expect the time travel to make much narrative sense; I do, however, expect emotional sense, some insight into how people think about the arcs of their lives, their regrets, their hopes, the paths taken or not. That's the underlying point of time travel storytelling. If you can't get that right, you just have a lot of cutesy riffs on history, real and alternate.

Men in Black III just has riffs, and those riffs aren't all that cute, at least not consistently so. Worse, the feints at an emotional payoff to the time travel go nowhere, deflating the whole enterprise. I wasn't expecting profundity, but a few solid emotional beats aren't too much to ask. Yet aside from the brilliant decision to cast Josh Brolin as a young Tommy Lee Jones, nothing about Men in Black III feels particularly inspired or sharp.

The Avengers

In theaters.

The Marvel universe is so damn weird. I don't understand how mythical gods and aliens and ordinary assassin types are supposed to exist in the same universe on a reasonably level playing field. I don't understand what S.H.I.E.L.D. is or who, exactly, it's supposed to have jurisdiction over. I don't understand the logic of the interdimensional portals—if there is any logic. But whatever. Writer-director Joss Whedon finds exactly the right tone for this nonsense, neither acting above it nor trying to puff it into something more serious than it is but simply embracing it in all its goofiness.

He meanders a bit, perhaps inevitable in a story about how disparate individuals come to unite around a common cause, but the journey is colorful and clever and fun. Classic cinema it's not, but with its endearing sketches and witty banter, The Avengers is better than it has any right to be.