MALEFICENT (PG) Maleficent is clearly birthed from the Alice in Wonderland strain of family fantasy, and despite being more successful than either of 2012’s dueling Snow White retellings, overdoses on style while lacking the original cartoon’s charm. Actually, Maleficent (Angelina Jolie) was a super nice overgrown fairy until an evil human broke her heart and stole her wings. When that evil human grows up to be King Stefan (Sharlto Copley, as weird as ever), Maleficent curses his infant daughter, Aurora, to the sleep of death on her 16th birthday. But being truly nice, Maleficent moons over Aurora (Elle Fanning) as she grows into a beatific imbecile. No one benefits from this ultimately unrewarding retconning of Disney’s classic Sleeping Beauty, least of all the titular evil fairy. Here, the powerfully wicked Maleficent is relegated to a petty trickster in snakeskin head wraps. Sometimes a villain’s just a villain, a baddie just a baddie. (But Disney being Disney, prepare for a whole new line of Disney villain movies. I can’t wait until Cruella, where we find Ms. de Vil was attacked by a rabid dog as a youngster, thereby justifying her plan to make a coat out of 101 Dalmatian pups.)
A MILLION WAYS TO DIE IN THE WEST (R) Seth MacFarlane heads out west for his sophomore feature comedy, and the results are predictable. MacFarlane is nothing if not unsurprising. Here’s a musical number. There’s a reference to another movie you’ll recognize. Next up, drugs! For about the length of two “Family Guy” episodes, AMWTDITW entertains. Cowardly sheep farmer, Albert, loses his pretty fiancée, Louise (Amanda Seyfriend), only to befriend and court mysterious newcomer, Anna (Charlize Theron, who is starting to resemble a better-looking Nicole Kidman). Anna is unhappily married to the most dangerous gunman in the West, Clinch (Liam Neeson, who will do anything for a paycheck now), and despite being a sharpshooter herself, needs a man to save her. As the prostitute girlfriend of Albert’s pal, Edward (Giovanni Ribisi), Sarah Silverman might get the most laughs per line delivered. Sadly, Neil Patrick Harris is wasted as a Wild West Barney Stinson. AMWTDITW is far from laughless, but the anachronistic non sequiturs consistently score more than the comic setpieces. Blown up on the big screen, MacFarlane’s weirdly smooth face (he appears to be wearing more makeup than any of his female costars) also distracts. At two hours, the percentage of laughs to groans dwindles to sub-Mendoza Line territory.
X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST (PG-13) Director Bryan Singer returns after a two-film hiatus for a successful X-venture combining the best of the first two X-Men (a heavy dose of Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine) with Matthew Vaughn’s valedictory First Class. Wolverine takes center stage as his psyche is sent back to the 1970s (cue the fashion, the automobiles, the Nixon) to convince a young, feuding Professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and Magneto (Michael Fassbender) to work together to stop the end of the human and mutantkind. If you’re a fan of any X-Men outside of Wolvie, Prof X, Magneto, Beast (Marcus Hoult) and Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), you’re out of luck. Quicksilver does get introduced (he’s also slated to appear in Avengers 2) with the film’s piece de resistance, a slow motion sequence set to Jim Croce’s “Time in a Bottle.” Quirky “American Horror Story” alum Evan Peters provides the perfect jittery teen version of the speedy mutant. Like previous Singer X-Men, the film gets a little logy in the middle, but somehow the wonky time-traveling narrative keeps traveling forward with little confusion. It only took five movies, but I am ready to give in to the Mystique agenda being pushed since the first X-movie in 2000.
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.
BELLE (PG) In this historical drama, Dido Elizabeth Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) the illegitimate multiracial daughter of a Royal Navy officer, is raised by her great-uncle, William Murray (Tom Wilkinson), first Earl of Masfield and Lord Chief Justice. Director Amma Asante, who previously helmed A Way of Life, won the SIGNIS Award from the Miami Film Festival and the Directors to Watch Award from the Palm Springs International Film Festival. With Miranda Richardson, Matthew Goode and Emily Watson. (Ciné)
BLENDED (PG-13) Ten years after 50 First Dates, Adam Sandler and Drew Barrymore reunite as single parents who, after meeting on a bad blind date, fall for each other on an African safari with their kids. Sandler invited his Wedding Singer, Waterboy, and Click pal and director Frank Coraci for the sure-to-be critically reviled, financially successful family flick. The supporting cast is fairly expected (Kevin Nealon, Allen Covert, Shaq, Dan Patrick, etc.), but Terry Crews, Wendi McClendon-Covey and Joel McHale are reliably funny.
CHEF (R) When a prominant chef (John Favreau) leaves his job at a prestigious L.A. restaurant, he returns to his hometown of Miami. With the help of his son, ex-wife (Sophia Vergara) and a friend, he sets out to start a Cuban sandwich food truck. (Ciné)
EDGE OF TOMORROW (PG-13) Tom Cruise’s new sci-fi action tentpole would be better titled Live. Die. Repeat. (That phrase serves as the oft-repeated tagline.) That title’s way more evocative than the generic Edge of Tomorrow. Cruise stars as a future soldier who keeps dying and waking up with more skills. Emily Blunt is somehow, prettily connected. Doug Liman is trying to remind audiences he directed The Bourne Identity and Mr. & Mrs. Smith, not Jumper, the flick that seemed to stall his upward trajectory.
THE FAULT IN OUR STARS (PG-13) John Green’s teen tearjerker about love in the time of cancer gets adapted for the big screen by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, whose work on (500) Days of Summer and The Spectacular Now buy them a pass for The Pink Panther 2. Current YA It Girl Shailene Woodley hopes to continue her winning streak as Hazel Grace, the witty cancer survivor who falls in love with Gus, who sports a prosthetic leg due to his bout with the deadly disease.
GODZILLA 1954. With Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla destroying box office records, Ishirô Honda’s original kaiju flick returns. The initial incarnation of Toho Studios’ monstrous nuclear allegory may just be a guy in a rubber suit, but the film is still arguably the best of the series (a strong argument can be made for the new one), taking its anti-nuke message quite seriously. The Japanese version, Gojira, is superior to the recut American version, Godzilla: King of Monsters, starring Raymond “Perry Mason” Burr, in so many ways. (Ciné)
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.
LOCKE (R) Tom Hardy stars as Ivan Locke, a construction foreman whose life is complicated by a series of phone calls he receives while driving from Birmingham to London. Hardy is joined by a voice cast that includes Tom Holland (The Impossible), Olivia Colman (The Iron Lady’s Carol Thatcher), Andrew Scott (“Sherlock”’s Moriarty), Ruth Wilson (“Luther”’s Alice Morgan) and Ben Daniels (“House of Cards”’ Adam Galloway). Oscar-nominated writer Steven Knight (Dirty Pretty Things) is still trying to make his mark as a director. (Ciné)
MILLION DOLLAR ARM (PG) Kudos to director Craig Gillespie (Lars and the Real Girl) and excellent screenwriter Thomas McCarthy (The Station Agent, The Visitor and Win Win) for taking what could have been another sappy, inspirational Disney sports movie and turning out a mostly satisfying retelling of the true recruitment of Major League Baseball’s first Indian players. Struggling sports agent J.B. Bernstein (Jon Hamm) needs a big hit to stay in the game. His unconventional idea leads him to India looking for a baseball pitcher amongst cricket bowlers. But bringing young Rinku (Life of Pi’s Suraj Sharma) and Dinesh (Madhur Mittal, Slumdog Millionaire) back to the States is only the first half of the game. Now confirmed bachelor J.B. must father his alternative family to victory. Luckily, a pretty young doctor, Brenda (Lake Bell), lives out back to provide advice and romance. Despite its major flaw, predictability, Million Dollar Arm succeeds. Hamm could not be more roguishly charming, and Bell is an underrated comedienne and actress. Sharma, Mittal and Pitobash, who plays the most comic of the Indian characters, never resort to mere stereotype. It does drag in its Murphy’s Law-sponsored middle innings, but credit the cast and crew with a win.
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.
MUPPETS MOST WANTED (PG) Somewhere between the plots of The Great Muppet Caper and The Muppets Take Manhattan lies Muppets Most Wanted. After the success of their reunion, the Muppets embark on a world tour on the advice of their new manager, Dominic Badguy (Ricky Gervais, as impish as ever). But when the World’s Most Dangerous Frog, Constantine, replaces Kermit, the world tour becomes a globe-hopping heist to steal the crown jewels. It being a Muppets movie, expect oddball movie callbacks and celebrities to pop up in the most random of cameos. The three human leads—Gervais, Tina Fey and Ty Burrell—are great foils for the Muppets; Burrell’s Inspector Clouseau impersonation is funnier than Steve Martin’s, were anyone planning on rebooting The Pink Panther again. Bret McKenzie, one half of Flight of the Conchords, supplies a couple of show-stopping numbers (particularly, Fey’s showcase, “The Big House”), but just a few years later, I cannot remember anything he wrote for 2011’s The Muppets. Come to think of it, as immediately engaging as the family friendly movie is, it mostly pointed out just how unmemorable its 2011 predecessor ultimately was. The Muppets always entertain, but this adventure isn’t timeless.
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.
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 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 RAILWAY MAN (R) Colin Firth, Nicole Kidman and Stellan Skarsgard star in a true story of World War II from The Weinstein Company, and it didn’t receive an awards-eligible release. That’s worrying. During WWII, Eric Lomax (Jeremy Irvine) was a tortured Japanese POW on the “Death Railway.” Years later, Lomax (now played by Firth) attempts to exorcise his demons by confronting a Japanese officer (Hiroyuki Sanada). Director Jonathan Teplitzky’s film is based on the autobiography written by Lomax. (Ciné)
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.
TRANSCENDENCE (PG-13) A mature science fiction film about the dangers of technology from Dark Knight filmmaker Christopher Nolan’s personal cinematographer with a cast that includes Johnny Depp and Morgan Freeman isn’t a surefire blockbuster. Depp stars as Dr. Will Caster, an expert in artificial intelligence, whose mind is uploaded into cyberspace after his death at the hands of anti-technology terrorists. Unfettered by the shackles of humanity, Caster is able to solve pretty much all of mankind’s problems in a couple of days/weeks/months/years; Transcendence has the same problems with time that plagued The Dark Knight Rises. In his directorial debut, Wally Pfister has shot a film every bit as beautiful as those he shot for Nolan. However, his film is hampered by a terminally slow first act that builds into a tremendously intriguing second act before climaxing in rather generic explosiveness. To be fair, were Transcendence a heady sci-fi novel, it would have read exactly the same: slow, sort of intellectually satisfying and useful for separating the cool geeks from the chaff. Mainstream audiences will find the film distant and coldly uncommunicative, exactly what will make it a future fave of neo-cyberpunks.
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