22 JUMP STREET (R) 22 Jump Street steps right into the criticisms of other high profile R-rated comedy sequels like The Hangover Part II. Hot off the success of The LEGO Movie (still 2014’s best wide release), writing and directing duo Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, constantly and self-referentially acknowledge that Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Jenko (Channing Tatum) just need to do the exact same thing again. Moving from high school to college, the undercover team must find the supplier of a dangerous new drug called WHYPHY. It’s not as easy the second time around, as Jenko finds fame on the football field and Schmidt feels left out. Lord and Miller lucratively tap into a major vein of cop satire for their buddy cop-medy. Tatum again shows he’s an underrated comedic actor, and though Hill gets his laughs, he has the sense of self to know when to play it straight. Though Ice Cube is used to much better effect as Captain Dickson becomes an integral part of the plot, supporting fun is harder to find in this sequel; “Workaholics” Jillian Bell and the Lucas Brothers are the only standouts. Stick around; the end credits contain the movie’s funniest gag.
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.
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) With Shane Black taking over last year’s Iron Man 3, Jon Favreau hasn’t helmed a feature since 2011’s Cowboys & Aliens. He also stars in his latest, a comedy about a chef, Carl Casper, who loses his restaurant job and starts a food truck. Plus, he’s got to reunite his separated family. Favreau wrote and directed this feature that also stars Sofia Vergara, John Leguizamo, Scarlett Johansson, Oliver Platt, Bobby Cannavale, Dustin Hoffman and Robert Downey Jr. (Ciné)
DIVERGENT (PG-13) Hunger Games comparisons are inevitable. While Veronica Roth’s book loses the head-to-head against Suzanne Collins’ bestseller, Neil Burger’s filmed adaptation might best Gary Ross’ original Games. In a dystopian future Chicago, humanity is divided into five factions. Right before Beatrice Prior (Shailene Woodley) is to choose the faction in which she’ll spend the rest of her life, the teenager learns she is Divergent, whatever that means. Tris, as she chooses to be called, selects Dauntless, the faction most appealing to teens as they spend most of their time yelling and jumping from trains. Oh yeah, they’re civilization’s soldiers too. After a grueling initiation during which she makes a love connection with the studly instructor, Four (Theo James), Tris learns her perfect society and all Divergents are under attack. The movie distills 500 pages of plot into a pretty decent two-plus-hour flick as scripters Evan Daugherty and Vanessa Taylor smartly eschew Tris’ inner monologues, save for her opening and closing thoughts. Burger excels at sci-fi (see Limitless) and the casting is spot on. Woodley’s the most believably unsure YA heroine seen on the big screen, and James increases Four’s appeal from the page. Bring on Insurgent.
EDGE OF TOMORROW (PG-13) Sadly, Edge of Tomorrow may be the worst advertised movie of the year; its less than evocative, unimaginative title does not help (the Japanese light novel on which it is based has the superior title, All You Need Is Kill). The trailer portrays a joyless action movie where an exo-suited Tom Cruise continuously kills the same generic aliens over and over. In reality, Cruise’s newest actioner is a charmingly funny, engagingly smart, sci-fi take on Groundhog Day. Cruise’s character, Major William Cage, is the Army’s PR guy, who winds up stripped of his rank when he balks at hyping humanity’s invasion of alien-held France. In the invasion, the untrained Cage dies but somehow wakes up to repeat the day. Fortunately, war hero Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt) knows what’s going on and gives Cage some pointers on effective soldiering. Cage’s repeated forays into battle and subsequent improvements calls to mind the process of playing a videogame; Cage learns the enemy patterns and makes it a little farther each time. Fortunately, director Doug Liman and writers Christopher McQuarrie, Jez Butterworth and John-Henry Butterworth briskly pace the repetitive scenes, giving Cruise ample material with which to charm.
THE FAULT IN OUR STARS (PG-13) Finally, it took long enough for another wide release feature to compete with The LEGO Movie; 2014’s "best of" list so far is dominated by VOD and indies. The adaptation of John Green’s story of cancer teens in love succeeds on numerous fronts. The script by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber (they had similar success with the slightly superior The Spectacular Now) ably and completely translates Green from page to screen. Nothing of the book, neither its pain nor humor, is lost (even though a few things could have been). Ultimately, the source material is YA, meaning proclamations of endless love are de rigueur, but at least these kids might be right when they say they will never love anyone else as much. Hazel and Gus are dying, after all. Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort are matchingly resigned and hopeful. In her string of roles portraying YA protagonists, Woodley might have given her best performance. But the adults should not be forgotten. Laura Dern chisels Hazel’s mom out of some tough china, and Willem Dafoe entertains as expected (these two are a long way from David Lynch’s Wild at Heart). Come prepared to cry.
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.
HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON 2 (PG) How to Train Your Dragon 2 aspires to make a wonderful family film and turn it into an epic. Hiccup (v. Jay Baruchel) and his dragon, Toothless, spend their days flying across the world, discovering new locations and hopefully new dragons. On one of these flights, the duo runs into a dragon trapper, Eret (v. Kit Harington, “Game of Thrones”), working for the vile dragon hunter, Drago Bloodfist (v. Djimon Hounsou). Drago’s a newly monstrous villain looking to conquer fear, dragons and humanity. Fortunately, Hiccup’s mother, Valka (v. Cate Blanchett), returns from her 20-year absence rescuing dragons. Will the dragon riders of Berk be able to stop Drago or will he take their dragons as well? Writer-director Dean DeBlois fantastically ups the ante from the first film. Still, this cartoon is kid-friendly. The antics of the other young dragon riders, voiced by Jonah Hill, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, T.J. Miller and Kristen Wiig, will entertain the youngest, while the high-flying action will wow the oldest. Without a Pixar release to challenge it, How to Train Your Dragon 2 should be the family champion at the cinema. Good thing it deserves the title better than most.
JERSEY BOYS (R) A musical directed by Clint Eastwood has Oscar push written all over it. So why is Jersey Boys getting a summer release? This musical biopic has few stars (Christopher Walken is the trailer’s most familiar face) but lots of hit songs ["Sherry," "Big Girls Don't Cry," "Walk Like a Man,” "Rag Doll," “December 1963 (Oh, What A Night)" and lots more] as it recounts the rise and fall of the '60s rock and rollers, The Four Seasons. Tony Award winner John Lloyd Young reprises his role as Frankie Valli.
JOE (R) After his last film, Prince Avalanche, David Gordon Green seems to be sticking with independent cinema again after the run of drugged out comedies, Pineapple Express, Your Highness and The Sitter. Nicolas Cage stars as ex-con Joe Ransom, who befriends a teenage boy played by Tye Sheridan of Mud. A quick glance at this movie would lead one to make more than a few comparisons to Mud. Winner of two awards at the Venice Film Festival. (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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
THE NANCE Based upon a play of the same name, Nathan Lane plays Chauncey Miles, the star in a poor burlesque club in New York City and a "nance," or an effeminate homosexual. Though Miles' stage persona is boisterous, he must keep his personal life secret from society.
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.
OBVIOUS CHILD (R) Jenny Slate plays Donna Stern, a 20-something stand-up comedienne in this romantic comedy. After a one-night stand results in pregnancy, Donna is forced to make a decision that does and does not define the rest of her life. (Ciné)
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 PAST IS A GROTESQUE ANIMAL Closing out this year’s AthFest FilmFest Rock Docs Series, Ciné is screening former Athenian Jason Miller’s documentary about of Montreal frontman Kevin Barnes. In his pursuit to produce transcendent music, Barnes struggles to relate to the people around him, including family and bandmates. Solange Knowles, Janelle Monae, Jon Brion and more appear to discuss the versatile indie pop band and its primary songwriter. Director Miller and producer Andrew Napier will attend Friday’s premiere screening. (Ciné)
PING PONG SUMMER Starring writer-director Michael Tulley, Ping Pong Summer follows 13-year-old Rad on his summer vacation. Set in 1985, Rad is obsessed with two things: hip-hop and ping pong. Rad's summer changes his life when he finds a ping pong mentor. (Ciné)
THE ROVER (R) The Rover is a futuristic, dystopian crime-drama starring Guy Pearce and Robert Pattinson. Ten years after a global economic collapse, the majority of the population is living in Australia. Pearce and Pattinson team up to pursue the thieves that stole Pearce's only possession, his car.
SNOWPIERCER (R) Bong Joon-ho’s English language debut looks exciting. The world’s surviving humans now live on the globetrotting train, Snowpiercer, after a global warming experiment begins a new ice age that kills off nearly all life on the planet. The survivors include Chris “Captain America” Evans, Jamie Bell (the new Thing), John Hurt, Tilda Swinton, Octavia Spencer and Ed Harris. Despite rumors of Harvey Weinstein mucking with Bong’s vision, I am way more excited for this film than I am the new Transformers.
THINK LIKE A MAN TOO (PG-13) Everyone returns to mine more gold from the sequel to the hit romantic comedy based on Steve Harvey’s bestseller, Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man. The gang reconvenes in Las Vegas for the wedding of Candace and Michael (Regina Hall and Terence Jenkins). What happens in Vegas shakes up everyone’s lives. With director Tim Story, original writers David A. Newman and Keith Merryman, and original cast members Michael Ealy, Jerry Ferrara, Meagan Good, Taraji P. Henson, Romany Malco, Gary Owen, Gabrielle Union and Kevin Hart all back, can this second marriage be as successful?
TRANSFORMERS: AGE OF EXTINCTION (PG-13) This series practically defines diminishing returns. Director Michael Bay and writer Ehren Kruger both return, but Mark Wahlberg replaces Shia LeBeouf as the Transformers’ human liaison. So long as Peter Cullen still voices Optimus Prime, I won’t completely lose faith in the possibility of an acceptable live action clash between Autobots and Decepticons. Plus, the trailers promise Dinobots! But another two-and-a-half hour movie? Come on, Bay. With Nicola Peltz (“Bates Motel”), Stanley Tucci and Kelsey Grammer.
WHITEY: UNITED STATES OF AMERICA V. JAMES J. BULGER (R) Infamous gangster James “Whitey” Bulger was number two on America’s Most Wanted List, right behind Osama Bin Laden, as his criminal empire terrorized Boston for decades. Acclaimed documentarian Joe Berlinger (best known for the Paradise Lost trilogy recounting the agonizing true account of the West Memphis Three) was embedded for months with federal prosecutors, the FBI, victims, lawyers, gangsters and journalists to examine the FBI and the Department of Justice’s questionable relationship with Bulger. Will this be summer’s hot doc?
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.
YVES SAINT LAURENT (R) One of two competing biopics about famed fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent (Saint Laurent will be released in October), this version stars Pierre Niney as the titular subject, who was thrust into the spotlight after Christian Dior’s surprising death in 1957. Just three years later, he was drafted into the French Army. In between, he met his lover and business partner, Pierre Berge (Guillaume Gallienne). Directed by Cesar Award-winning actor Jalil Lespert (Human Resources).