originally published in the Raleigh News & Observer

A bold but flawed film from a great director, Terence Malick’s “The Tree of Life” is an enormously ambitious creative vision and the year’s first absolute must-see movie.

Malick is the reclusive American director known for his high-wire act of using experimental film techniques on stories of often epic scope – his most recent being “The Thin Red Line” (1998) and “The New World” (2005).

With “The Tree of Life,” Malick sets up his biggest canvas yet. The film is nothing less than an exploration of the human condition itself. Malick dares to the ask the big questions. Where did we come from? Why are we here? Where is God?

And how does an explosion of cosmic plasma a billion years ago result in a hurt and lost little boy in 1950s Texas?

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originally published in the Raleigh News & Observer

Actress Sally Hawkins, the rising star of British cinema, headlines the winning U.K. comedy-drama “Made in Dagenham,” the funniest, warmest, most inspiring drama about ’60s-era British labor disputes ever committed to film.

That’s the marketing challenge the makers of “Dagenham” have on their hands. How do you make a movie about British women and their struggle for equal pay in 1968 come across as appealing, moving and fun? Well, you cast Hawkins in the lead, for starters.

Those who have seen Hawkins’ breakout performance in director Mike Leigh’s 2008 comedy “Happy-Go-Lucky” will know where I’m coming from. Hawkins possesses a special variation on that elusive and precious quality known as That Movie Star Thing.

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originally published in the Raleigh News & Observer

Well, it’s official. Ed Helms is a movie star. And he can thank his director for that.

The former “Daily Show” correspondent and veteran ensemble player (“The Hangover,” “The Office”) headlines “Cedar Rapids,” the year’s first genuine sleeper comedy hit. As it turns out, “Cedar Rapids” was directed by Miguel Arteta, author of last year’s sleeper comedy hit, the Michael Cera freakout “Youth in Revolt.”

This is particularly relevant, because the success of “Cedar Rapids” comes as much from Arteta’s sure-handed direction as it does with Helms’ leading performance.

It goes like this: Small town insurance agent Tim Lippe (Helms) is recruited to attend the industry’s regional conference in the (relatively) big city of Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Tim, who has never left his hometown and is dating his grade school teacher (Sigourney Weaver), is overjoyed but ill-prepared. If naivete were potato chips, Tim would be Frito-Lay.

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