LEGENDS OF OZ: DOROTHY’S RETURN (PG) An unimpressively animated sequel to The Wizard of Oz, based on a children’s book written by L. Frank Baum’s grandson, Legends of Oz is so outdated it features Dan Aykroyd, Kelsey Grammer and Jim Belushi as the voices of the Scarecrow, Tin Man and Cowardly Lion, with Martin Short pulling double duty as the villain in Oz and back in Kansas. “Glee”’s Lea Michele provides Dorothy with her Frozen pipes. With that voice cast, one knows they’re not in Pixar or DreamWorks anymore. The imagery is oddly inconsistent. Candy County’s denizens are cutely childish, while the population of Dainty China Country borders on Return to Oz freakishness. If in need of an Oz-quel, stick with Walter Murch’s darkly fascinating 1985 update. Or better yet, just go with the classic.
NEIGHBORS (R) The smartest move made by the year’s funniest comedy (to date) was to spread the guilt and the sympathy between the family (Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne) and the frat bros (led by Zac Efron and Dave Franco). When a fraternity moves in next door to new parents, Mac and Kelly Radner, a war breaks out after Mac calls the cops on one of the frat’s first parties. Though both sides trade early victories, no one really wins when these neighbors attempt a game of real estate chicken. Who will move first? My fear going into the movie was that Efron’s frat president, Teddy, would be so brah-ish he’d lack any sympathy, but the High School Musical alumnus imbues the pretty boy with unexpected likability. He’s simply a nice guy, as is his VP, Pete (Franco, proving he’s more than James’ little bro). The movie spends equal time with both families, dividing the laughs and the commiseration. Director Nicholas Stoller finally figures out the whole comedy runtime, delivering a swift hour and a half of good, hard R gags. Plus the babies playing Stella Radner might be the cutest screen kid in forever; her bit in the credits is gold.
THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2 (PG-13) Despite abundant reasons for applause, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 sabotages itself with the most dreadfully deadening second act unleashed in a major superhero movie. Andrew Garfield returns as Peter Parker/Spider-Man and has much more control of the role in his second appearance. He channels the comic’s wisecracking webslinger, especially in the smart, campy opening fight with a very Russian criminal inexplicably played by Paul Giamatti. In his second attempt, director Marc Webb supplies the franchise’s best action setpieces; both of Spidey’s fights with Jamie Foxx’s blue-headed Electro are kinetically exciting, if a bit too computer animated. But the fightless sequence after Spider-Man first defeats Electro, during which Peter reunites with old pal Harry Osborn (Dane DeHaan) and searches for the answer to his OsCorp scientist father’s (Campbell Scott) disappearance, absolutely kills the movie’s silly momentum, despite Martin Csokas’ German mad Dr. Kafka. Bookending the boring are two great acts. The first could be the most charmingly innocent cinematic superhero action since Superman ’78, even if it is more Lester than Donner; the action-packed finale jams three supervillains into what can’t be more than 20 minutes. Make sure you wake up for it.
BLUE RUIN (R) A wandering vagrant Dwight lives an undisturbed and unsettled life out of his car on the beach. However, Dwight returns home to Virginia when he discovers Wade Cleland, Jr. is to be released from prison. Dwight's once simple life turns upside down when the Cleland's family seeks revenge on Dwight and his family.
BREASTMILK: THE MOVIE Director Dana Ben-Ari examines society’s mixed messages about breast milk. We are told it is better for the babies and the mothers, yet society frowns upon its public practice, making it difficult for most women to solely feed their baby in this manner for the recommended six months. I certainly hope the doc references “Little Britain”’s Bitty sketch. This special benefit screening is sponsored by the Athens Community Breastfeeding Coalition. A reception and discussion will accompany the screening.
BRICK MANSIONS (PG-13) This remake of District B13 will always be Paul Walker’s penultimate movie. It’s also a rather silly, thoroughly entertaining action flick featuring (not nearly enough) Parkour. David Belle, one of the eight founders of Parkour, reprises his role as the ex-con, here called Lino, who runs, jumps and kicks his way through a walled-off ghetto to rescue his girlfriend and help an undercover cop recover a neutron bomb. Walker provides a solid presence a la the Fast and Furious franchise; the action world is going to miss him. Brick Mansions, like its predecessor is Belle’s movie, and he’s a blast to watch. First-time feature director Camille Delamarre (an editor who fell from Luc Besson’s rather fruitful filmmaking tree) captures the Parkour-dominated action with kinetic stylishness. But it’s the verging on camp script by Besson and Bibi Naceri that provides the movie with its distinctive voice. A character named Tom Berringer in a movie where RZA’s gangster quotes Wu-Tang (C.R.E.A.M.) that ends (almost) on a freeze frame? It’s as if Brick Mansions was made for future Bad Movie Nights, except it’s not a completely inept piece of movie garbage. Movies like this remind audiences why Besson is an international action hero.
CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER (PG-13) Cap (Chris Evans) returns in his second solo outing, and it’s a slight improvement over the first, a definitively middle-of-the-pack Marvel movie. As an agent of SHIELD, Captain America, aka Steve Rogers, must adjust to his new reality and save the world, regularly. When seeds of distrust are sewn amongst members of SHIELD, Cap has to figure out if he can trust anyone, including Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) or new pal Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie). Cap’s transition to the modern world gets even more complicated once a new enemy, the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan), turns out to be an old acquaintance. Captain America: The Winter Soldier redefines the Marvel Universe more than any of the previous features. Its effects will be felt from Avengers: Age of Ultron to ABC’s “Agents of Shield.” Credit new directors Anthony and Joe Russo (“Community”) with a lighter, more action-oriented Cap, but this series will always lack the vivacious spark Robert Downey Jr. brings to Iron Man. Kicking off the summer season earlier than ever, a big, more-fun-than-not comic book movie is what we’ve been waiting all winter for, right?
ELAINE STRITCH: SHOOT ME (NR) This documentary follows the Tony and Emmy Award winner on and off stage. Known for her work on Broadway, Stritch has also appeared in numerous feature films and television programs. In Shoot Me, Stritch hilariously and humbly reflects on her life, discussing her battles with aging, diabetes and alcoholism.
FADING GIGOLO (R) John Turturro wrote, directed and stars in this comedy about a guy, Fiorovante, who decides to become a professional Don Juan (is that the same thing as a professional Casanova?). Fiorovante hopes to help out his buddy, Murray (Woody Allen), who is in need of some cash. The cast is good (Liev Schreiber, Sharon Stone and Sofia Vergara), but Allen’s pretty toxic right now. Winner of the Audience Award for Best Feature at the Miami Film Festival. (Ciné)
FROZEN (PG) Disney returns with a newfangled computer animated feature that feels very old school. A young princess, Anna (v. Kristen Bell), must venture into the frozen wilds to save her sister, recently crowned Queen Elsa (v. Idina Menzel), who has lost control over her icy powers. Anna is assisted in her search by ice salesman Kristoff (v. Jonathan Groff, “Glee”), his reindeer, Sven, and a goofy, talking snowman named Olaf (v. Josh Gad). The narrative, adapted from Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Snow Queen” by Wreck-It Ralph scripter Jennifer Lee (who co-directed), is as Disney formulaic as they come, and the animation shines without standing out. Nonetheless, the characters, especially Gad’s silly snowman, are winning. The songs are catchy, as is their diegetic musical inclusion. Little kids will love Frozen, and parents who grew up on Disney classics will not feel left out in the cold.
GOD’S NOT DEAD (PG) In this Christian feature, a college student, Josh Wheaton (Shane Harper, “Good Luck Charlie”), has his faith challenged by a philosophy professor (Kevin Sorbo, best known as TV’s Hercules) who does not believe in the existence of God. TV’s Superman, Dean Cain, costars, while Christian popsters Newsboys and two of “Duck Dynasty”’s Robertsons, Willie and Korie, provide cameos. Director Harold Cronk’s three previous features (Ever heard of The Adventures of Mickey Matson and the Copperhead Treasure? Me neither.) sound pretty small screen.
GODZILLA (PG-13) The biggest, baddest monster is back and ranks number one on my personal list of most anticipated 2014 summer movies. Trading in Matthew Broderick and Hank Azaria for Bryan Cranston, Kick-Ass’ Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen, the latest Hollywood attempt at a Godzilla-based franchise looks much more beholden to the original character than Roland Emmerich’s 1998 version. Hopefully, Monsters director Gareth Edwards can pull off his move to the blockbuster leagues. As good as Monsters was, the G-man requires a bit more explicit monster mayhem.
THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL (R) Wes Anderson’s latest stars Ralph Fiennes as Gustave H., legendary concierge at the famous hotel, who memorably mentors lobby boy, Zero Moustafa (Tony Revolori, The Perfect Game). The cast is huge—F. Murray Abraham, Mathieu Amalic, Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Jude Law, Harvey Keitel, Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Saoirse Ronan, Jason Schwartzman, Tilda Swinton, Tom Wilkinson and Owen Wilson. (Ciné)
GRAVITY (PG-13) 2013. Alfonse Cuaron’s latest film is as great as you have heard. An astronaut (George Clooney) and a doctor (Sandra Bullock) must work together to survive an accident in the cold, silent confines of space. Gravity is an acting tour de force by Bullock (this movie is essentially her Cast Away) and the most incredible special effects driven film I have ever seen. You feel like you are in space, which is simultaneously awe-inspiringly beautiful and coldly dangerous. Though a science fiction film, this Best Picture nominee is the most harrowing cinematic experience I can remember. It’s often more terrifying than any recent horror film. Gravity is heavyweight genre filmmaking that never lets up.
HEAVEN IS FOR REAL (PG) Good for you, Hollywood. You’re as capable of pandering to faith-based audiences as to any other. Money’s money, am I right? Based on the bestselling account written by Reverend Todd Burpo about his four-year-old son’s trip to heaven, the movie feels as real as any paranormal movie purported to be based on a true story. Todd (Greg Kinnear) works several jobs to keep his family afloat but almost loses everything, including his faith, after news of his son’s experience gets out. Sweet little Colton (cute Connor Corum) tells his dad about singing angels, Jesus and his technicolor horse, and the sister that was never born. The movie gets by as far and as long as it can on its talented cast, including Kinnear, Kelly Reilly (Flight), Thomas Haden Church and Margo Martindale; the acting is far above any of Sherwood Pictures’ releases. Writer-director Randall Wallace (an Oscar nominee for Braveheart) can’t help the treacly material, almost entirely dependent upon a very young child actor, with which he’s saddled. It’s hard to imagine Heaven will resonate with crossover audiences, even with its actual Hollywood stars (if that’s what Kinnear can be called).
THE LEGO MOVIE (PG) The LEGO Movie remains the year’s best wide release. The intricate, interconnected universes built by writing-directing duo Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs and 21 Jump Street) has an age-defying Muppets-like appeal. When generic construction mini-figure Emmet (v. Chris Pratt, who is so devilishly appealing) gets up in the morning, he follows the day’s instructions as handed down by president/overlord Business (v. Will Ferrell). Soon, Emmet gets involved with a Matrix-ian rebel group that includes Batman (v. Will Arnett). The LEGO Movie uses its licenses (D.C., Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings) smartly as it argues for the salvation of creativity. This film reconstructs the best childhood movie memories from the building blocks that defined young and not-yet-so-old generations. (Ciné)
MILLION DOLLAR ARM (PG) Jon Hamm trades in '60s advertising for Disney inspiration in this true life sports pic. A sports agent takes a long shot on finding a professional baseball player from a group of young Indian cricket players. The movie should definitely benefit from the presence of director Craig Gillespie (Mr. Woodcock, Lars and the Real Girl and Fright Night) and writer Tom McCarthy (he directed the excellent The Station Agent, The Visitor and Win Win and contributed to the story for Up). With Lake Bell and Alan Arkin.
MOMS’ NIGHT OUT (PG) Allyson (Sarah Drew, “Grey’s Anatomy”) and her girlfriends (including Patricia Heaton from “Everybody Loves Raymond”) want a night out without the kids. Can their husbands (including Sean Astin) handle the kids for one measly evening? According to the trailer for this family friendly, kind of faith-based movie, the men cannot. Country star Trace Adkins shows up as a bike-riding tattoo artist. Birmingham, AL, natives Jon and Andrew Erwin direct their highest profile picture yet.
MR. PEABODY & SHERMAN (PG) Mr. Peabody and Sherman get much better feature film treatment than their cartoon pals Rocky and Bullwinkle. The super smart canine, Mr. Peabody (v. Ty Burrell, "Modern Family"), and his adopted son, Sherman (v. Max Charles, young Peter Parker in The Amazing Spider-Man), travel back in time via Peabody's WABAC machine. The duo meet Marie Antoinette, King Tut, Leonardo da Vinci (v. Stanley Tucci), Mona Lisa (v. Lake Bell) and other historical luminaries as they try to right the wrongs perpetrated against the space-time continuum. Burrell keeps Peabody as punny as ever, and kids will relate to Sherman's childish, lesson-teaching mistakes. The historical gags are a hit, though the dramatic narrative is structured too familiarly. And who is the target demo, kids who have never heard of these classic cartoons or the adults bound to be at least a little disappointed by the newfangled incarnations of their childhood faves? Trying to please both might not fully please either. Nonetheless, 2014 will see worse kids movies than Mr. Peabody & Sherman.
NEED FOR SPEED (PG-13) Whether the moviegoing world wanted one or not, Fast & Furious now has a competitor in outlandish car chase franchises. Need for Speed, based on the Electronic Arts series of racing videogames, stars Aaron Paul in his first major headlining gig post-“Breaking Bad,” and it’s fast enough to win the box office race, if nothing else. The way too generously plotted movie takes a while to reach its top speed as small town race car driver Tobey Marshall (Paul) establishes his bonafides. Once released from prison for a crime for which he was only tangentially responsible, Tobey drives his way into an exclusive underground race called the Deleon, mostly to seek revenge against real bad guy, professional race car driver Dino Brewster (Dominic Cooper). But who am I kidding, wasting so much space on a plot synopsis? What potential viewers of Need for Speed need to know is the cars are fast, exotic and well-shot by director Scott Waugh (Act of Valor). Paul also proves capable as a leading man, and Michael Keaton continues his fun 2014 renaissance. Sure, the movie’s too long, but it’s a solid racing adventure that happens to be adapted from a videogame.
THE OTHER WOMAN (PG-13) It takes way too long for Kate Upton to pop up in this intermittently funny and shrill female buddy comedy. Powerful professional woman, Carly Whitten (Cameron Diaz), finds out her wonderful new boyfriend, Mark (Nicolaj Coster-Waldau, “Game of Thrones”), is married. Carly and the wronged wife, Kate (Leslie Mann), team up for revenge with Mark’s other other woman, Amber (Upton). Diaz and Mann are showcased, and the results are mixed. As many laughs as Mann generates, she spends equally as much time crying and whining. Diaz continues to age gracefully, though one of the movie’s best gags might be the comedienne’s reaction to being upstaged by Upton, whose initial bikini-clad appearance doesn’t occur until an hour into the movie. The Other Woman is neither a total disaster nor a riotous female comedy. We’re not achieving Bridesmaids heights here. The comedy does begin to answer the question, how much is too much Leslie Mann? I’m sad and a little disappointed by The Other Woman’s response.
THE QUIET ONES (PG-13) The return of Hammer Films continues on a positive trajectory with this nicely restrained chiller. In glorious 1974 fashion, an Oxford professor, Joseph Coupland (the severely underappreciated Jared Harris), and his band of pretty little Brits (The Hunger Games’ Sam Claflin, Erin Richards and Rory Fleck-Byrne) attempt an unorthodox cure of troubled young Jane Harper (Olivia Cooke, “Bates Motel”). After the requisite spooky paranormal phenomena, things get dangerous, and the young assistants begin to doubt Joseph’s diagnosis. Maybe Jane really is possessed by a demonic spirit. The movie, directed by John Pogue (his flawed Quarantine sequel could have been much worse), turns into an Exorcist with science rather than religion attempting the cleansing. Pogue rather skillfully blends found 16mm footage and traditional filmmaking. Still, the movie doesn’t capture any Blair Witch tension in what should be its found footage highlight, the pre-climactic attic sequence. The cast, especially Harris and Cooke, being quite convincing, increase the movie’s effectiveness, and Pogue shoots everything in the old country house with a horrifying pall. The Quiet Ones mixes newfangled horror gimmicks with a more old-fashioned aesthetic. The above average result is enough to spook anyone (un)lucky enough to watch it in an empty theater (i.e. me).
RIO 2 (G) Blu (v. Jesse Eisenberg), Jewel (v. Anne Hathaway) and the three kids leave the wilds of Rio de Janeiro for the real wilds of the Amazon, where Blu must battle his father-in-law (v. Andy Garcia). I don’t recall caring that much for the first trip to Rio, though it could have been worse. The voices of Will.i.am, Jamie Foxx, George Lopez, Tracy Morgan, Jemaine Clement, Leslie Mann, Rodrigo Santoro and Jake T. Austin return, while Garcia and Bruno Mars headline the newcomers.
300: RISE OF AN EMPIRE (R) More of a companion film than a sequel or prequel, 300: Rise of an Empire is better than the rest of the post-300 wannabes (The Immortals, Clash/Wrath of the Titans). Happening concurrently with the beautiful death of the abs of Sparta's King Leonidas, 300:RoaE finds a new, Athenian hero in Themistocles (Sullivan Stapleton). He must battle with god-king Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) and his gorgeous naval commander, Artemesia (Eva Green, Casino Royale), if Greek society is to survive. Though Zack Snyder isn't around to direct, the script he cowrote allows new helmer Noam Murro (Smart People) to craft a stylistically similar movie. In other words, the entire movie looks like an extended video game cutscene. Outside of its gorgeous, violent visuals, 300 Again makes less of an impression, and its predecessor hasn't exactly mirrored Greece for cultural legacy. Stapleton is no Gerard Butler, and none of the supporters are going to be the next Michael Fassbender. No one will remember the events of More 300 hundreds of minutes later, but it's digital bloody fun for two hours.