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.

The Hunger Games

In theaters.

Successfully adapting a book about two dozen teenagers forced to fight to the death into a PG-13 movie is, perhaps, a dubious achievement: can it really be accomplished without sanitizing material that has no business being sanitized? I still have my doubts. Director Gary Ross conjures up stomach-churning tension as the deadly Games approach, but some of that tension goes slack once the event arrives because the suddenly hyperactive camera seems virtually unable to confront the violence at the heart of the story—not just the violent deaths of children but the fact that other children are doing the killing.

That criticism feels a bit bloodthirsty, but one of author Suzanne Collins's greatest accomplishments in her Hunger Games trilogy is creating true horror, not merely an entertainingly dark fantasy world but rather an ever deepening, unsettling, provocative dystopia. I can't help but feel that the transition from page to screen has defanged her vision to some extent.

That said, despite my suspicion that something here has fallen quite short of its mark, I enjoyed the Hunger Games movie a great deal. How could I not? It's a sleekly made film with a stunningly deep cast and an admirably adept, spare screenplay. It allows the actors' performances and the little details of the production to convey subtext, and even better, it trusts the audience to pick up on those nuances. It's a smart, sharp thriller featuring an already iconic heroine—and, yes, a weirdly antiseptic approach to the darkest of her trials. You can't have everything, I guess.


On DVD and streaming on Amazon Instant Video.

At the Academy Awards, Moneyball was described more than once as a baseball movie. This drives me crazy. First, and most obviously, virtually all the action in the movie happens behind the scenes, so we see almost no gameplay whatsoever. But beyond that, most baseball movies are deeply romantic about the game; in fact, it's not just a game. Hell, in Bull Durham, it's a religion. Baseball movies are built around the idea that there is something exceptional and magical and unquantifiable about baseball.

Moneyball is a blunt repudiation of that idea. The whole point is that people's love of narratives and image, the whole mythology of baseball as America's pastime, has blinded them to the realities of how the game actually works and how it can be won. Moneyball is about boiling down all the would-be magic into cold, hard statistics. The fact that the team using those statistics is an underdog makes the coldness more palatable, but there's still something oddly unromantic in the fabric of the film, something that makes it an obvious outlier from the arena of baseball movies. And that, of course, is a big reason why I like it.


In theaters.

No one slums with so much style as director Steven Soderbergh. The Ocean's movies, for example, are far more aesthetically polished than any star-studded trifle really needs to be, but that, of course, is part of what makes them so charming. In fact, I secretly prefer frivolous Soderbergh to serious Soderbergh. His sleek manner can come across as cold when he's dealing with some substance, but it's just cool everywhere else.

Haywire, his latest, isn't comedic like Ocean's or sexy like Out of Sight (my personal favorite)—and it's not on their level—but it's fun all the same and just as impeccably put together as the man's films always are. Plus, the conceit is great: Soderbergh and screenwriter Lem Dobbs set out to make a vehicle for mixed martial arts fighter Gina Carano by catering to her strengths (looking tough, kicking the snot out of people) and underplaying her weaknesses (emoting, delivering extensive dialogue, maybe acting in general). Transcendent it's not, but as tight, hard-boiled B-movies go, it's terrific.

A Separation

In theaters.

The most intractable disagreements are those in which each party believes himself to be the true victim, the one most deserving of an apology. A Separation dramatizes that essential truth as well as any film I've ever seen, and it does so by playing fair. The four adults at odds in Asghar Farhadi's moving domestic drama all have legitimate grievances, even as they also have all contributed to the destructive mire in which they find themselves.

It's a lose-lose mess, but although A Separation is poignant and sad, it's not depressing. Farhadi's careful unspooling of his tale keeps the movie from wallowing. In fact, the movie is outright suspenseful, perfectly paced, both tense and thoughtful, and the actors are so talented and quietly expressive that watching them is a joy, even in an unhappy context.