42 (PG-13) Sports biopics are largely interchangeable. The sports and the players may change, but the obstacles to overcome are nearly identical. Heck, the same could be said of any biopic, musical, sport, etc. Still, something about the challenges faced by Jackie Robinson (gracefully inhabited by unknown Chadwick Boseman) as he broke the color barrier in professional baseball feels so much more singular than your average true tale of successfully bucking the odds. When signed to the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, Robinson faced derision by his teammates, opposing players and coaches (embodied by Alan Tudyk as Phillies manager Ben Chapman) and the fans. The role of Robinson requires a special actor giving a special performance. Boseman’s is not a skilled mimicry like so many other portrayals of famous persons; he imbues Robinson with such strength of character and composure. Equally important to this tale is Dodgers exec Branch Rickey, so gruffly played by Harrison Ford, who may finally be making the transition into grand old actor. Writer-director Brian Helgeland does nothing unique as he recounts this cinematic biography, but his film reads quickly, entertainingly and informatively. What more could you ask of a biopic?
AT ANY PRICE (R) The trailer sports a lot of impressive critical quotes, including one from the sorely missed Roger Ebert, but its two-minute reduction of this tale of fathers and sons, farmers and race car drivers feels a bit too familiar. Dennis Quaid and Zac Efron star as a farmer and his rebellious, racing son. When a crisis threatens to take everything from this family, their bond is tested more than ever. Director Ramin Bahrani could use a high profile film to go with his critical hits Goodbye Solo, Chop Shop and Man Push Cart. (Ciné)
BEFORE MIDNIGHT (R) Jesse and Celine (Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy) have come a long way from 1995’s Before Sunrise. The twentysomethings have become fortysomethings. Still not married but with a pair of towheaded twin girls, the couple have given up some dreams in favor of love and reality. Our third glimpse into Jesse and Celine’s lives paints a realistic landscape of adult relationships founded upon love. Jesse knows Celine better than anyone else in the world, and vice versa. They care deeply for each other, yet their closeness belies a growing distance. For an hour and forty-eight minutes, the duo laugh and spar, negotiating a couple’s treaty without the benefit of an arbiter. The film is funny and discomforting. Many viewing pairs will see themselves, arguing and rearguing their own alternatingly petty and weighty complaints. Hawke and Delpy, both credited as co-writers, have grown into and as Jesse and Celine. Several threads from their first conversation are picked back up, with the benefit (and detriment) of years and experience. Filmmaker Richard Linklater has grown with them. Who would have thought the Dazed and Confused auteur’s greatest achievement would be one couple’s hopefully far from ending conversational journey?
THE BIG WEDDING (R) The Big Wedding should be celebrated as a strong candidate for worst film of the year. The Bucket List scripter Justin Zackham has delivered an Americanization of France’s Mon frère se marie where Brit Ben Barnes is acceptably ethnic enough to play one of the film’s central Hispanic characters and the opening gag combines an ex-wife stumbling upon her former spouse and his girlfriend in the midst of sex. Oh the guffaws! They can only be matched by a grown daughter throwing up on her dad. Hilarious! Seriously, The Big Wedding, in which a long-divorced couple (Diane Keaton and Robert De Niro) must act married for their adopted son’s wedding because the grown man will not tell his devoutly Catholic birth mother (Patricia Rae) that they are divorced, is populated by offensive, meanly unfunny characters (a role in which Katherine Heigl does excel) differentiated by their virginity or lack thereof. The entire family acts like a hormonal, randy teen. The sinking ship of a movie has nary one likable, nuanced character to grab onto like a life raft. And I haven’t even mentioned that Robin Williams appears as a sober, mean-spirited priest. Avoid these nuptials at all costs.
• THE BLING RING (R) Sofia Coppola’s fifth feature stylishly recounts the fascinating real-life story of a gang of privileged L.A. teens that used their Internet savvy to rob the vacant homes of celebrities such as Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan and Orlando Bloom. Rebecca (Katie Chang), Mark (Israel Broussard), Nicki (Emma Watson), Sam (Taissa Farmiga) and Chloe (Claire Julien) steal over $3 million in clothes, jewelry, watches and cash before being caught. The Bling Ring floats a bit in the middle; Coppola has always favored a dreamy bordering on soporific tone. Considering the film’s content, she could have made a stronger statement about our celebrity culture and the state of the modern teenager (and their parenting). Instead, Coppola seems content in merely portraying conspicuous consumption gone wild. Watson has firmly separated herself from her Harry Potter persona. As an actress, she’s come a long way from Sorcerer’s Stone, and unlike the similar turns by former child stars Vanessa Hudgens and Selena Gomez in Spring Breakers, Watson’s role in Bling Ring feels less like a stunt. She’s simply perfect in the role. This made-for-E!TV movie isn’t Coppola’s cinematic best, but the true life tale is crazy captivating.
THE CROODS (PG) Despite its underwhelming trailers, The Croods stands out as one of the best non-Pixar animated family films released in the last few years. A family of cavemen—dad Grug (v. Nicolas Cage), mom Ugga (v. Catherine Keener), teen daughter Eep (v. Emma Stone), dumb son Thunk (v. Clarke Duke), feral baby Sandy and grandma (v. Cloris Leachman)—are forced on a cross-country road trip after their cave is destroyed by the impending “end of the world.” Fortunately, Eep meets Guy (v. Ryan Reynolds), whose developed brain filled with “ideas” might just help them all survive. Most cute family fun pics feel rehashed and overdone; The Croods does not. Its characters successfully, though unbelievably, combine the Flintstones with the Simpsons, and the voice acting, particularly by Cage, Stone and Reynolds sparkles. Cage was an inspired choice, for a role one would think is practically written for Kevin James. Most animated features, with their paint-by-numbers plot and rote, child-pleasing gags lose an adult’s attention within minutes. The Croods kept me rapt for its entire entertaining run time and left me considering potential plots for its inevitable, disappointing sequel.
DESPICABLE ME 2 (PG) Now that Gru (v. Steve Carell) is no longer a villain, will this sequel to the surprising 2010 hit work? The former criminal mastermind has been contacted by the Anti-Villain League to assist in capturing the newest big bad. The girls—Margo, Edith and Alice—are still cute, but the Minions better not disappoint, as they have a 2014 spinoff in the works. Featuring the voices of Kristen Wiig, Miranda Cosgrove, Ken Jeong, Russell Brand, Benjamin Bratt and Steve Coogan.
THE EAST (PG-13) Private investigator Sarah Moss (Brit Marling) is assigned to infiltrate an eco-terrorist group who targets large organizations. After convincing them of her sincerity, she begins to find the group's leader (Alexander Skarsgard) and message appealing. With Ellen Page. (Ciné)
FAST & FURIOUS 6 (PG-13) The unlikeliest blockbuster franchise of all-time (especially considering it survived a first film directed by Rob Cohen) has enough gas left in the tank for several more entries. (The pre-credits stinger is a doozy of a game changer). Following the international hijinks of Fast 5, Furious 6 (according to the opening title) puts Dominic “Dom” Toretta (Vin Diesel), Brian O’Conner (Paul Walker) and the rest (Tyrese Gibson, Chris “Ludacris” Bridges, Sung Kang and Gal Gadot) on the heels of big bad Shaw (Luke Evans), as they seek to recover Letty (Michele Rodriguez) and attain pardons all around from Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson). These movies keep improving under the direction of Justin Lin and screenwriter Chris Morgan. It’s arguable that Furious 6 is the best of the high gloss bunch. If a muscle car mag filled with bikini-covered boobs and chrome was adapted into a movie, this flick would be it. This live action comic book sags a little in the talky, plot-driven sections, but gets back on crazy course whenever the gang gets behind the wheel for another ridiculous car chase. Dom even flies! Simply sit back and enjoy Mr. Dom’s Wild Ride.
FRANCES HA (R) Could this be Greta Gerwig’s big, Lena Dunham-ish break? She co-wrote this comedy with director Noah Baumbach (The Squid & the Whale), and judging from the trailer, it could be an indie smash. Think “Girls” on the big screen (but no Dunham). Frances (Gerwig) works for a dance troupe, though she’s not a dancer, and goes all in for her dreams. With Mickey Sumner, Adam Driver (“Girls”) and another daughter of Meryl Streep, Grace Gummer. (Ciné)
• THE HEAT (R) After taking far too long to warm up, this buddy cop comedy starring Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy hits its stride when it counts. Uptight FBI agent Sarah Ashburn (Bullock) needs the help of foulmouthed, unpopular Boston cop Shannon Mullins (McCarthy) to take down a dangerous drug lord. Bullock and McCarthy don’t have Fey/Pohler chemistry. The just under two hour comedy needs about 45 minutes for its actors/characters to lose enough of their flaws for the jokes to stick. McCarthy flails too wildly early, while Bullock’s too tightly wound for comedy. Nevertheless, enough cannot be said about how refreshing it is to watch a buddy cop comedy starring two women; “Cagney & Lacey” has been off the damn air since 1988, for crying out loud, and still no campy remake? Unlike a sillier, lesser comedy, writer Katie Dippold and Bridesmaids director Paul Feig never explain away Ashburn and Mullins’ tough, brash exteriors as shields needed to survive their male dominated profession. Ashburn’s just weird and Mullins grew up with four brothers (Michael Rapaport, Bill Burr, Nate Corddry and, yes, that is Joey McIntyre). The Heat may not be smoking, but after a barren first act, it’s pretty darn funny.
KEVIN HART: LET ME EXPLAIN (R) Kevin Hart is one of the more entertaining and, more importantly, least disappointing stand-up comics turned actor. If you missed his return to the stage for the 2012 “Let Me Explain” world tour (and I did), you can now catch his sold-out show at Madison Square Garden in this concert film which may or may not have been directed by the Tim Story of Fantastic Four and Barbershop fame. For a warm up to Let Me Explain, you can always check out 2010’s Laugh at My Pain.
THE LONE RANGER (PG-13) Most of my Lone Ranger memories were formed by the underwhelming The Legend of the Lone Ranger in 1981 (kid-me loved it, especially its accompanying action figures) and reruns of the classic series starring Clayton Moore. That fondness has me excited for the big budget revival of the beloved radio serial starring Armie Hammer (The Social Network) as the masked man and Johnny Depp as his partner, Tonto. Gore Verbinski, Depp’s Pirates of the Caribbean director, is behind the camera. The trailers show promise.
MAN OF STEEL (PG-13) Superman returns (again) with Christopher Nolan tasked to give Supes his Dark(ened) Knight treatment. Then Nolan, writer David S. Goyer and director Zack Snyder realized Superman is an alien and nearly impossible to ground in the real world. Their solution: Treat the material like serious science fiction. The extended time spent with Superman's birth parents (Russell Crowe rules as father Jor-El) on dying Krypton is the film's strongest, most original segment. The middle chunk, retelling Kal-El's transformation from a hunky Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) into Superman, intriguingly tweaks a well-known origin with the benefit of fatherly wisdom from Kevin Costner's Jonathan Kent. Despite some well-executed set pieces pitting Superman against fellow Kryptonian General Zod (cast standout Michael Shannon) and his alien army, the final act never fully takes flight. Instead, the blockbuster soars in fits and starts, seeming most confident in its final frames than the previous hour and a half of repetitive conflict. The entertaining if (mostly) humorless and heartless Man of Steel proves it’s harder to make a great Superman movie than a bad one. However, if one hero stands for hope, it's Superman. Here's hoping Man of Steel's sequel will be this generation's Superman II.
MONSTERS UNIVERSITY (G) So let’s call it a slump. Cars 2 was a clunker; Brave was good verging on really good but not close to great; and Monsters University lacks the Pixar pop of their undeniably great features (Up, Wall-E, Toy Story 3). In this prequel to Monsters, Inc., we learn how Mike (v. Billy Crystal) and Sully (v. John Goodman) met. Apparently, the two scarers didn’t start as best buds. First, they were scaring rivals at Monsters University. This Revenge of the Monster Nerds doesn’t creatively bend college life for monsters as one would expect from Pixar. The life lesson is trite—don’t let others define your limits or some similar sentiment—and is taught as cleverly as an inferior animation studio’s Monsters, Inc. knockoff. Fortunately, the animation, especially the creature design, is as lush and lifelike as ever, and the voicework from Pixar newcomers like Nathan Fillion and Charlie Day saves the comic day. Kids will love the silly, low scare fun, and parents will be happy it’s not Cars 3. (Just wait, that’s coming in August in the form of Planes.)
MUD (PG-13) Boasting a star-studded cast including Matthew McConaughey, Reese Witherspoon and Michael Shannon, Jeff Nichols’ third feature offers this promising rising filmmaker with his best chance of widespread success. A coming of age tale set in the disappearing wilds of the small town south, Mud aims high, as Nichols attempts to channel Mark Twain, and hits the target square in the bull’s eye. Two teens—Ellis (Tye Sheridan, Tree of Life) and Neckbone (newcomer Jacob Lofland)—discover a boat in a tree. They also discover McConaughey’s Mud, a fugitive living in the boat in the tree, while he waits to escape with the love of his life, Juniper (Witherspoon). Mud watches like a work of modern literature, capturing the last gasps of a dying culture as one boy becomes a man. (Ciné)
NOW YOU SEE ME (PG-13) A magical heist flick, you say? I’m skeptical, I say. Four street magicians (Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Isla Fisher and Dave Franco) are enlisted in a mysterious, magical plan to do something, but nobody is really sure what until the last reel. Hot on their heels is a dogged FBI Agent, Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo), and a debunker of magicians (Morgan Freeman). Now You See Me is as entertaining as it is eye-rollingly contrived. However, this smug band of protagonists is hard to pull for despite game attempts by Harrelson and Fisher; Darth Eisenberg finally crossed over to the Smug Side. Fortunately, Ruffalo, the lovely Melanie Laurent and underused sidekick Michael Kelly (check out Netflix’s “House of Cards” for his best work) are present to pick up the slack. Clash of the Titans’ Louis Leterrier (to be fair, he should probably be remembered for the first two Transporters and Unleashed) keeps the illusions moving along too fast for anyone to see through the script’s tricks until the woeful reveal. Now You See Me has the slick, breezy air of a ‘70s TV show, an okay trait for forgettable summer fun.
OBLIVION (PG-13) The new Tom Cruise action, sci-fi spectacle is a doozy of a looker. Everything from the set design to the vehicle design to the music (scored by M83) is stylishly crafted and a visual/aural knockout. After fighting off an alien invasion via nuclear destruction, humanity has moved off-planet to Titan, a moon of Saturn. Two people, tech Jack Harper (Tom Cruise, who is arguably the best preserved man on the planet) and his communications liaison Victoria (Andrea Riseborough), have been left behind, tasked to protect the giant hydroreactors that power Titan using remnants of the alien invaders. But Jack's world is turned upside down by the arrival of a NASA scientist (Olga Kurylenko) of whom Jack has been dreaming, and by the discovery of human survivors, led by Malcolm Beech (Morgan Freeman). Tron: Legacy director Joseph Kosinski co-scripted Oblivion from his own graphic novel, and despite its derivative pieces, the whole narrative coheres rather well. It's the rare video game-inspired movie that I enjoyed watching alone; I never once thought I'd rather be playing Oblivion.
OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN (R) Olympus Has Fallen feels like a relic from the bygone era of the 1980s, where audiences were satisfied by old-fashioned, bloody action movies wherein stone-faced heroes faced off against despicable bad guys without obfuscating their violent exploits with frenetic camerawork. Too bad director Antoine Fuqua’s latest flick isn’t the new Die Hard, as this Gerard Butler-saves-the-president actioner easily bests John McClane’s latest misfire. Disgraced Secret Service Agent Mike Banning (Butler, who needs to stick to action movies) is the only person in America who can save the President (Aaron Eckhart) after North Korean terrorists take over the White House. The movie relies quite heavily on Butler’s manliness. Luckily, no one is more badass than the Scot best known as 300’s King Leonidas (when he’s not wooing Katherine Heigl or Jessica Biel). The supporting cast keeps up better than usual, which should not surprise considering the presence of Morgan Freeman (as the Speaker of the House), Melissa Leo, Angela Bassett, Robert Forster, Dylan McDermott, Radha Mitchell and Cole Hauser. With a franchise-worthy new hero and a well-choreographed, well-shot focus on physical conflict, Olympus Has Fallen kicks butt better than the muscular bulk of recent action movies.
OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL (PG) First and foremost, Sam Raimi’s The Wizard of Oz prequel is no Wizard; it’s not even Return to Oz, the very dark, very underrated 1985 sequel. Disney’s latest family blockbuster reveals the wizard’s own cyclonic entry to Oz. Carnival magician and con man Oscar Diggs (James Franco, whose performance is nothing if not inconsistent) meets three witches—Theodora (Mila Kunis), Evanora (Rachel Weisz) and Glinda (Michelle Williams)—who believe him to be the great wizard whose appearance in Oz was prophesied. In the void left by the recently deceased king, Oscar must determine which witches are wicked and which are good. Raimi trots out his usual visual wizardry, and Oz is as successful as his first Spider-Man entry once it gets going. The middle act gets a bit logy as the good people of Oz prepare for battle via sewing montages. The climax is filled with whiz-band special effects, used effectively, and ties in well with the classic film being emulated. I just wish Raimi had chosen to make his Wicked Witch via makeup, like the original’s Margaret Hamilton, as opposed to CGI. Oz won’t make anyone forget the original, but it doesn’t shame its memory either.
THE PURGE (R) In the future, America is a paradise of low unemployment and low crime, all thanks to the Purge instituted by the New Founding Fathers. One night every year, all laws are suspended for twelve hours. During this Purge, any citizen may empty themselves of all the pent-up rage and frustration by doing whatever violence they want. Mostly, the Purge affects the poor. Wealthy families like the Sandins (Ethan Hawke, Lena Headey, Max Buckholder and Adelaide Kane) lock themselves behind fancy security systems. But this Purge is different, as the Sandins’ young son lets in a bloody stranger, who is being hunted by a creepy pack of rich kids that want their prey returned to them. What looks like another version of Bryan Bertino’s excellent The Strangers is really more like another movie written by The Purge’s writer-director James DeMonaco, the remake of Assault on Precinct 13. It also feels a little bit like the last act of Straw Dogs. Despite the slight bait-and-switch, this flick is a fine example of how to do an exploitation-thriller right—emphasis on tension, intimidation and bloody violence. Audiences expecting more thrills and fewer scares should enjoy this summer changeup.
SCARY MOVIE V (PG-13) So, Scary Movie is back. What do you really need to know? A Paranormal Activity/Mama mashup provides the frame that is rattily covered by an hour and thirty minutes of puerile, scattershot jokes. A Black Swan B-plot? Real timely, David Zucker and Pat Proft, who’ve done this parody thing so much more successfully in their shared Naked Gun past. Airplane! worked as a spoof of disaster movies that developed its own witty gags. The Scary Movies simply tosses pop culture references and cameos by celebrities who have passed their sell-by date with no real interest in spoofing the genre they allegedly came to spoof; if Mike Tyson meets Fifty Shades of Grey jokes make you giggle, be my guest. How did they get that Evil Dead sequence (the movie’s strongest, at that) into theaters within a week of its release? At least A Haunted House had Marlon Wayans. Simon Rex is some weak comic sauce. The absolutely frightening aspect of this movie is the thought that enough people might venture to see it to warrant a sixth entry.
STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS (PG-13) Star Trek Into Darkness, the second film in J.J. Abrams’ revamped Trek-verse, is the best Star Wars movie since 1983. Don’t think I typed that wrong. The second new Star Trek is the giant, sci-fi, matinee serial that the Star Wars prequels never were. My only concern with J.J. Abrams’ revitalization of George Lucas’ neck of the galaxy is the negative effects it will have on the burgeoning new Star Trek. The new Trek improves upon its already superb predecessor in every way. Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) leads the crew of the Starship Enterprise—Spock (Zachary Quinto), Bones (Karl Urban), Uhura (Zoe Saldana), Sulu (John Cho), Chekhov (Anton Yelchin) and Scotty (Simon Pegg)—after a rogue Federation operative (Benedict Cumberbatch) turns terrorist. Knock Abrams all you want for his love of lens flare, but the bridge of the Enterprise looks fantastic. The space battles trump anything outside of the Star Wars universe. Trek has never looked better, been more thrilling or more humanly humorous, and those praises come from a lifelong Trek fan (I eschew the Trekkie/Trekker nomenclature). Star Trek 2 seems like the luckiest of numbers; this sequel achieves Khan-like greatness. Knowledgeable fans will enjoy the abundant surprises.
THIS IS THE END (R) This pot-fueled “apoc-comedic” nightmare from Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg is far funnier than most meta-comedies starring comic actors as themselves. The “real” personas concocted by Rogen, James Franco, Jonah Hill, Jay Baruchel (you remember him from “Undeclared,” right?), Craig Robinson and Danny McBride fuel this raunchy end of the world get-together. On the night of James Franco’s housewarming party, the seeming Rapture occurs, leaving behind this band of famous faces to survive on a Milky Way and little more. Turning to and on one another, Judgment Day brings out the best, worst and funniest in writers Rogen/Goldberg and their cast. The party allows additional famous faces (including Mindy Kaling, Jason Segel, Kevin Hart, Aziz Ansari, Emma Watson and Michael Cera) to tweak their images. The only questionable characterization is Hill’s super nice, effeminate guise; everyone else, especially Michael Cera’s douchebag, are hilarious “Curb Your Enthusiasm” versions of their screen selves. In their directorial debut, Rogen/Goldberg might have kept in a few gags that would have been better saved for the unrated DVD; the comedy does push two hours. Still, it rarely lets up, not even when it enters pseudo-religious territory. These guys make the day of reckoning a fun one.
THE WAY, WAY BACK (PG-13) After winning an Oscar for writing The Descendants, Jim Rash (Dean Pelton on “Community”) and Nat Faxon (the sadly cancelled “Ben and Kate”) reteamed for their directorial debut. This coming of age comedy stars Liam James as Duncan, who negotiates a summer with his mom (Toni Collette) and her boyfriend (Steve Carell) by getting a job at a local water park, where he is befriended by its odd owner (Sam Rockwell). This Sundance favorite looks appealing enough to be summer’s indie breakout hit. With Allison Janney, AnnaSophia Robb, Maya Rudolph, Rob Corddry and Amanda Peet.
• WHITE HOUSE DOWN (PG-13) Much like the summer of 1998 when discussions of July’s Armageddon required mentioned of May’s Deep Impact, a critique of White House Down cannot take place without comparisons to March’s Olympus Has Fallen. Unlike Armageddon and Deep Impact, two distinctly different movies about an asteroid on its way to Earth, White House and Olympus are nearly interchangeable. In White House, Channing Tatum stars as D.C. cop John Cale, who must protect the President (Jamie Foxx) and rescue his precocious daughter (Joey King) after terrorists take over the White House. Disaster master Roland Emmerich stages the destruction with his usual crowd-pleasing clarity (how many times can he blow up the White House?), and the movie, written by The Amazing Spider-Man’s James Vanderbilt, has a sense of humor about it (though nothing as entertaining as Melissa Leo’s “Star-Spangled Banner” in Olympus occurs). At 131 minutes, WHD drags a bit in its final act, but C-Tates and Foxx are the appealing duo I prefer to be thrust into the most Die Hard of Die Hard rip-offs. It is kind of hard to hate a summer blockbuster concerned with a constitutional crisis, even if its POTUS fires a rocket launcher.
WORLD WAR Z (PG-13) The biggest zombie (and arguably horror) movie EVER MADE is better than expected, judging from its PG-13 rating and tortured production history. Former U.N. employee Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt) is sent around the globe to discover the source of the zombie pandemic threatening to wipe out humanity. Also, if he doesn’t go, the U.S. military is going to kick his wife (Mirielle Enos of “The Killing,” another TV show you should be watching) and two daughters off their aircraft carrier. One-time Bond director Marc Forster (he of the uber-versatile filmography) and his stable of writers (the screenplay’s credited to three writers including The Cabin in the Woods’ Drew Goddard and “Lost”’s Damon Lindelof) turn Max “Son of Mel” Brooks’ oral history of the zombie conflict into a more focused, traditional “one hero must race time to save the world,” and it works. Minor quibbles range from a lack of blood (blame the need for a PG-13 rating to recoup the massive budget) and way too fast, superstrong zombies; still, it’s way more exciting than the second season of “The Walking Dead.” With its focus on action over scares, WWZ is the Resident Evil 5 of zombie movies.