AFTER EARTH (PG-13) "Excruciatingly boring" sums up After Earth. Did you watch Castaway and think the film would be better with Jaden Smith substituting for Tom Hanks and Jaden’s papa, Will, for Wilson? Then enjoy this bland hunk of science fiction, which is, thankfully, under two hours. After their spaceship crash lands, a father and son (the Smiths) are stranded on Earth, abandoned by humanity years earlier. Young Kitai must traverse this dangerous Eden if he is to save his father, a legendary soldier named Cypher Raige (ugh). Some critics have blamed Smith’s rumored Scientologist beliefs for this sluggish piece of anti-entertainment. Tom Cruise is a known Scientologist, and he still delivered a fantastic, if derivative, sci-fi spectacle in Oblivion. Blame M. Night Shyamalan all you want; he directs a Robinson Crusoe-type adventure film like a humorless thriller. This flick should have been The Smith Family Robinson; instead, it’s another shovelful of dirt in M. Night’s cinematic grave. A lot of blame rests on Smith for being the least Will Smith he can be. Confined to a chair, barking orders at his son, the mega-charming superstar is drained of charisma.
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?
BLUE JASMINE (PG-13) Oh my god! Andrew Dice Clay in a Woody Allen movie? I’m so in. Not to mention Louis C.K., Bobby Cannavale, Sally Hawkins (so good in Happy-Go-Lucky), Cate Blanchett, Alec Baldwin and Peter Sarsgaard. I don’t even need to know what the film’s plot is. (A rich woman moves in with her down to earth sister after her cheating husband loses everything.) Apparently, Allen’s back from his European sojourn, though he hasn’t returned to New York yet; this drama is set in San Francisco.
BUGS BUNNY’S 75th BIRTHDAY BASH Come celebrate that wascally wabbit’s dodranscentennial as part of the Ciné Summer Classic Movie Series! It’s fun for the entire family. First appearing in 1938’s “Porky’s Hare Hunt,” Bugs made his starring debut in 1940’s “A Wild Hare.” Legendarily voiced by Mel Blanc, Bugs developed into Warner’s official mascot and rival to Disney’s Mickey Mouse. This special 16mm film collects many of Bugs’ classic cartoons, courtesy of famed animators such as Chuck Jones and Tex Avery. (Ciné)
• THE CONJURING (R) James Wan has directed several horror films since bursting on the scene with the original Saw. Insidious looked like it would be his masterpiece, but a mushy final act stole the goodwill generated by a wonderful setup. Not so with Wan’s The Conjuring. An excellent haunted house-cum-demonic possession movie, this film, much like Pacific Rim, excels in its genre because of its innocence and its lack of cynicism. Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) investigate the things that go bump in the night. Most times, a rational explanation solves the case; sometimes, it’s something paranormal. The occurrences in the Perron family’s new house are not just paranormal; they’re malevolent. Wan stages the Perron’s haunting with utmost care for mise-en-scene and framing. Don’t expect a lot of CGI ghosties. From the font in the opening credits, the film harkens back to the 70s and places itself not as a wannabe, but as a peer next to such modern classics as The Amityville Horror and (dare I type it) The Exorcist. Horror movies don’t get much better than this flick nowadays.
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) As far as animated sequels go, Despicable Me 2 has more creative life in it than might first be thought; it’s way better than Cars 2. Gru (v. Steve Carell) may no longer be a master criminal, utilizing his freeze rays and other diabolical inventions to raise his three adopted daughters—Margo (v. Miranda Cosgrove), Edith (v. Dana Geier) and Agnes (v. Elsie Fisher). When a new super villain steals a dangerous, experimental serum, the Anti Villain League – represented by sweet potential love interest Lucy (v. Kristen Wiig) – enlist Gru’s assistance. Watching this enjoyable kiddie flick with a kid definitely increases the appeal of the little yellow Minions, whose roles have been enlarged with their own spinoff in the works for 2014. Carell’s Boris Badunov accent still entertains and warms the heart, as does little Agnes. A little long, even at 98 minutes (remember when Disney cartoons clocked in under 80?), Despicable Me 2 has no shot at surpassing expectations like its underdog predecessor, and its appeal to anyone over ten probably depends on one’s tolerance for the Minions. Still, it’s a funny movie for kids and parents. On a hot or rainy summer day, that’s more than good enough.
EPIC (PG) Epic, from Ice Age and Robots director Chris Wedge, is like Star Wars in a forest; wait, that would just be Return of the Jedi. Still, another monomyth should be less exciting than this animated family film based on the William Joyce book, The Leafmen. Unbeknownst to humanity, the forests are protected by the Leafmen, who constantly do battle with the Boggans, led by Mandrake (v. Christoph Waltz). When M.K. (v. Amanda Seyfried) is magically transported to the world of the Leafmen, she must team up with wizened soldier Ronin (v. Colin Farrell) and young turk Nod (v. Josh Hutcherson) to ensure the survival of the forest. Stunningly animated, Epic could be an American attempt at Miyazaki—bigger, blunter, more action, less subtlety, more Pitbull (whose voicework is better than expected). Nevertheless, the movie does far too little to avoid Star Wars comparisons; it practically invites them. See bird racing (pod racing) and the two slugs (humorously voiced by Chris O’Dowd and Aziz Ansari) who give off a distinct R2D2/C3PO sidekick vibe. When Star Wars isn’t being referenced, it’s The Lord of the Rings. I’d still rather sit through Epic than most kids’ movies.
GRAND ILLUSION 1937. The Ciné Summer Classic Movie Series continues with a classic from one of my all-time favorite foreign filmmakers, Jean Renoir. Jean Gabin and Pierre Fresnay star as two French soldiers plotting to escape a German prison camp under the control of Captain von Rauffenstein (played by Greed director Erich von Stroheim). Come see this classic anti-war film, newly restored for its 75th anniversary, as it was meant to be seen. It was even nominated for Best Picture! (Ciné)
THE GREAT GATSBY (PG-13) Baz Luhrmann (his Moulin Rouge! was nominated for Best Picture) tackles F. Scott Fitzgerald’s best known novel and brings his Romeo, Leonardo DiCaprio, with him. If you’ve never read The Great Gatsby, you should, especially before you see Luhrmann’s adaptation. Tobey Maguire stars as Nick Carraway, the Midwesterner drawn into Gatsby’s circle, which includes the married Buchanans, Tom and Daisy (Joel Edgerton and Carey Mulligan). For related Gatsby fun, check out the 8-bit video game at www.greatgatsbygame.com.
GROWN UPS 2 (PG-13) With nary a grown-up in it, this sequel to Adam Sandler’s second biggest box office hit of all time is worse than its sub-par predecessor. Former Hollywood bigshot Lenny Feder (Sandler) moves his family back to his tiny hometown, but rather than spend time with them, he mostly hangs out with his childhood besties—Eric (Kevin James), Kurt (Chris Rock) and Higgins (David Spade)—and some meathead hangers-on (including Nick Swardson and Shaquille O’Neal). Grown Ups 2’s biggest accomplishment is how worthless it is. “Jokes” fail to land. I lost track of the “guys like boobs” moments; they were simply too many. Likability and funny are not one and the same. Argue all you want about what a great guy Sandler is, because at this point in his career you’ll find it impossible to convince someone he’s still funny, or better yet, relevant; The Internship was more of both. On a gags to chuckles ratio, Sandler ranked behind James, Rock, Spade (yikes), Colin Quinn and maybe, just maybe, Jon Lovitz. That being said, it’s already a box office smash, the monster from the depths that’s destroying the much more entertaining Pacific Rim. Good job, America.
THE HANGOVER PART III (R) If one’s main complaint about the second Hangover was that it was a mere narrative retread of the original with a geographical transplant, then The Hangover Part III has addressed your concern. Gone are the weddings, the hangovers and the amnesia. The Wolfpack—Phil (Bradley Cooper), Stu (Ed Helms) and Alan (Zach Galifianakis)—now find themselves thrust directly into a Charlie Huston crime novel. Leslie Chow (Ken Jeong) has escaped a Thai prison, and the Wolfpack are charged with finding him by crime lord Marshall (John Goodman). Laughs are not as plentiful as in either of the first two movies, but the biggest problem with Part III is its lack of character. The script feels as if it were revamped for the Wolfpack, not written for them. Phil is far too laidback; did Cooper film the entire film while on Xanax? Writer-director Todd Phillips and collaborator Craig Mazin smartly allow Galifianakis to carry the largest load. However, the film could have used less Jeong and more Goodman. Give Phillips and crew credit for the old college try, but recapturing the comic freshness of the first Hangover once, much less twice, has proven too Herculean a humorous task.
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.
THE INTERNSHIP (PG-13) After losing their jobs, two middle-aged salesmen played by Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson snag a coveted Google internship. Prepare for hilarious (doubtful) culture clashes as these two old dogs attempt to learn some new tricks, while teaching the young whippersnappers a thing or two in the process. The trailer, with its glimpses at the comedy’s old dudes v. youngsters gags, sets up a less than epic showdown between The Internship and Grown Ups 2 for least funny live action comedy of the summer.
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) Is the Lone Ranger that hard to get right? This second failed attempt to bring the masked man back to the big screen (do you recall 1981’s Legend of the Lone Ranger?) reunites Johnny Depp with his Pirates of the Caribbean director Gore Verbinski for another bloated blockbuster that misses the mark. Depp’s Indian savant Tonto is one of the oater’s strengths; the star swaggers and mugs like a silent film star. Otherwise, this over-plotted, overlong origin story establishes the wrong tone for its masked hero. With Tonto providing the comic relief, John Reid should have been a one-track-minded vigilante of justice—the Lone Ranger as a cowboy Batman. As John Reid, Armie Hammer stammers and stumbles along like Clark Kent or Jack Burton. He’s not a natural Wild West lawman; he leaves a lot of the heavy lifting to Tonto. Verbinski and his team of scripters play everything for slapstick laughs, despite slaughtering hundreds, including an entire Native American tribe. The final action spectacle aboard two moving trains, scored to the "William Tell Overture," ends the movie properly, but it’s not enough to right the wrongs done to this classic character.
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.)
MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING (PG-13) Joss Whedon’s pretty much a genius. Naturally, the guy can do Shakespeare too. Of course, it helps that he’s collected such a variety of acting talents in the Whedonverse. Alexis Denisof and Amy Acker wittily bicker as Benedick and Beatrice, the pair of lovers who cannot stand one another. Decide for yourself which is more lush, the gorgeous black and white cinematography or the Elizabethan language. Denisof and Acker both should be more widely known; However, everyone is upstaged by Nathan Fillion, whose dimwitted Dogberry will leave audiences in tears (of laughter, of course). Whedon plus Shakespeare is a match made in heaven. Prithee, do thine own self a favor and get thy butt to Ciné before the party’s over. (Ciné)
ONLY GOD FORGIVES (R) Ryan Gosling loves reteaming with directors. Following his second film with Blue Valentine’s Derek Cianfrance, Gosling’s back working with Drive’s Nicholas Winding Refn, who received a Palme d’Or nomination for this ultraviolent crime thriller. A cooler than cool drug dealer (does Gosling play a character any other way?) is bated into seeking vengeance on his brother’s killer by his domineering mother (Kristin Scott Thomas). I don’t think I have seen a trailer promising a film this badass since, well, Drive. With Vithaya Pansringarm.
PACIFIC RIM (PG-13) Yes, Pacific Rim’s giant monsters versus giant robots concept is unbelievably dumb, but the level of unironic fun is bigger than Knifehead and Gipsy Danger combined! (Granted, that comparison won’t mean much to you until you see the movie, but trust me, it’s big.) A portal to another dimension opens in the Pacific, unleashing giant monsters called Kaiju on humanity, who builds giant robots called Jaegers to counter them. Controlled by two mind-linked (the film calls it drifting) pilots, Jaegers give us the edge over the Kaiju, until they don’t. Years into a losing war, the Jaeger program leader, Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba), takes one last chance, sending the last surviving robots and pilots (including Charlie Hunnam, “Sons of Anarchy”) to close the portal for good. I could gush about this film for pages. The most well-realized blockbuster of its kind, Pacific Rim delivers the childlike robot action missing from all three misguided Transformers flicks. Writer-director Guillermo del Toro’s smartest move was leaving the snark and the cynicism to lesser movies (Sharknado, anyone?), and Pacific Rim delivers on the geek promise of his previous features. Summer 2013 thanks you, Mr. del Toro!
• RED 2 (PG-13) Red 2 is a lot of fun. What more did you expect? Retired Extremely Dangerous CIA operative Frank Moses (Bruce Willis) is trying to live a quiet life with his girlfriend, Sarah (Mary-Louise Parker). But then his paranoid pal, Martin (John Malkovich), shows up, and another caper begins. This time, the boys (and girl) are being hunted by everyone, including an old pal, Victoria Winters (Helen Mirren), and an old enemy, Han Cho Bai (Byung-hun Lee). The quips fly as fast as the bullets, and the script by Jon and Erich Hoeber isn’t as lousy a shot as one might expect from the Whiteout writers. Director Dean Parisot corrals his lead cats, especially the typically bored Willis, efficiently. Red 2 won’t set the world on fire, but if your old 80s action VHS tapes have worn thin, this new movie will fit the bill quite nicely.
R.I.P.D. (PG-13) This flick looks like Men in Black with the undead. Based on the comic book by Peter M. Lenkov, R.I.P.D. partners Jeff Bridges, as a dead lawman named Roy Pulsipher, and Ryan Reynolds, as a recently deceased police detective named Nick Walker. Together, this dead duo tries to capture the evil spirits that mean humanity harm. The first time I saw the trailer I was intrigued; the gags have been quickly worn thin by subsequent viewings. Robert Schwentke directed the predecessor to competitor Red 2.
THE ROOM (R) The Room, from baffling “auteur” Tommy Wiseau, might be the Mona Lisa of bad movies; its greatness lies in its mysterious smile, which a laughing Wiseau trots out at the oddest moments. Johnny (writer-producer-director-star-charlatan Wiseau) is engaged to “beautiful” blonde Lisa (Juliette Danielle), who embarks on an affair with Johnny’s “best friend,” Mark (Greg Sestero), for no apparent reason, which may be why she constantly reminds him (and us) that she loves him. The Room will leave you with so many questions that don’t need answering. Did Johnny and Lisa get married? (The infamous tuxedo scene says yes but is contradicted by later dialogue.) What about Claudette’s cancer? Who uses a fake pregnancy bomb to spice up an uninteresting relationship? Why do they want to throw the football so much? Why must everyone keep repeating Mark’s status as Johnny’s “best friend?” Why am I in a theater at one in the morning watching this strange, hysterical man vomit drama on the big screen?
THE TO DO LIST (R) I really want this teen comedy to be good, mostly so that Aubrey Plaza can become a bigger star, a la Emma Stone in Easy A. Before heading off to college, a sexually inexperienced, straight A student (Plaza) makes a to do list of experiences she needs to have before setting foot on campus. Maggie Carey, a “Funny or Die Presents…” alum, directs from her own screenplay. With Bill Hader (writer-director Carey’s hubby), Alia Shawkat, Rachel Bilson, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Andy Samberg and Donald Glover.
• TURBO (PG) Why, in a cinematic world so accepting of superheroes, is the idea of a racing snail so absurd? I don’t know, but it is. After a first act highlighted by endearing animation and stellar voice work from Ryan Reynolds and Paul Giamatti, Turbo gets stupid, as the main mollusk is imbued with the abilities of a car (not just speed but alarm, radio and headlights) after a freak accident involving a street racer and some nitrous. After buddying up with a taco-making fellow named Tito (Michael Pena), Turbo and his other racing snail pals—including Whiplash (v. Samuel L. Jackson) and Smoove Move (v. Snoop Dogg)—head to the Indy 500, where they will face off against defending champion and world’s greatest racecar driver, Guy Gagne (v. Bill Hader). While a much better cartoon than its trailer portrays, Turbo will mostly appeal to those kiddies for whom Cars has run out of gas. I never imagined animated snails could be so appealing. Turbo definitely benefits from one of the best voice casts (I have yet to mention Richard Jenkins, Ken Jeong, Michelle Rodriguez, Maya Rudolph and Luis Guzman) of the summer.
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.
THE WOLVERINE (PG-13) With Walk the Line’s James Mangold (just imagine if the film’s first director, Darren Aronofsky, had stuck around) in the director’s chair, The Wolverine can’t be worse than its predecessor, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, right? The movie also uses Frank Miller’s classic mini-series as a framework, as Wolverine ventures to Japan. This fanboy is pretty stoked, even if they are trotting out my one of my top two least favorite superhero tropes—the loss of powers.
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.