Lee Daniels’ The Butler (PG-13) Ragged and uneven, this historical epic still has enough to recommend it. Based loosely on the story of a real-life White House butler, this movie stars Forest Whitaker as a cotton farmer’s son who attends on seven consecutive U.S. presidents during turbulent racial times. Daniels’ talent is volatile as usual; he makes weird casting choices with the presidents, holds the viewer’s hand too much, and indulges into soapiness and melodrama concerning the butler’s family life. Yet the supporting characters (especially the main character’s fellow domestic workers) are funny and fully realized, and we see both why the butler refuses to make waves and why his son (David Oyelowo) regards him as a sellout. The complicated accommodation that the butler and his son eventually come to gives the movie its emotional heft. Also with Oprah Winfrey, Robin Williams, James Marsden, Liev Schreiber, John Cusack, Alan Rickman, Jane Fonda, Minka Kelly, Cuba Gooding Jr., Lenny Kravitz, Terrence Howard, Elijah Kelley, Yaya Alafia, Nelsan Ellis, Colman Domingo, Alex Pettyfer, and Vanessa Redgrave.
The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones (PG-13) It falls apart at the end, but this is a mostly adept if uninspiring adaptation of the first novel in Cassandra Clare’s best-selling fantasy-adventure series. Lily Collins stars as a 16-year-old Brooklynite who discovers that she can see demons and the people who hunt them because she herself is descended from the latter. Director Harald Zwart (The Karate Kid) and screenwriter Jessica Paquette fix the novel’s more unfortunate story developments and do a much better job of incorporating humor, aided greatly by the dry wit of pale-skinned Jamie Campbell Bower as the lead demon hunter. The narrative zips along until the clotted ending, where the filmmakers try to soft-pedal the stomach punch of a climactic revelation. Still, the lovely and lively Collins makes this watchable and gives the series hope for longevity. Also with Robert Sheehan, Kevin Zegers, Jemima West, Jared Harris, Aidan Turner, Kevin Durand, Godfrey Gao, CCH Pounder, Lena Headey, and Jonathan Rhys Meyers.
One Direction: This Is Us (PG) Too bad director Morgan Spurlock (Super Size Me) doesn’t just fill this documentary with enough of the British boy band’s songs to make his ears bleed. Instead, this is a teen-pop documentary that’s pretty much indistinguishable from all the others. Niall Horan, Zayn Malik, Liam Payne, Harry Styles, and Louis Tomlinson are depicted as a bunch of fun-loving lads who miss their mums when they’re on tour. There’s a funny interlude with a neuroscientist explaining why teenage girls go insane over the band, and some bits when the band members go undercover and mingle with their fans while wearing silly disguises. There are also neat little 3D effects during the concert footage, though they’re not enough to justify paying the 3D upcharge. No one mentions Taylor Swift here, if you’re wondering.
Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters (PG) With this sequel to the 2010 movie, the series (based on Rick Riordan’s novels) makes a run at the title of lamest fantasy-adventure movie franchise currently running. Logan Lerman returns as the son of Poseidon who must save the mythical creatures by finding the Golden Fleece. Thor Freudenthal (the Diary of a Wimpy Kid movies) takes over the direction from Chris Columbus, and he proves to have just as little flair for the supernatural. You’ll feel especially sorry for all the actors playing centaurs and fauns, though seriously, everyone on screen here deserves a measure of pity. Also with Alexandra Daddario, Douglas Smith, Leven Rambin, Brandon T. Jackson, Jake Abel, Anthony Head, Stanley Tucci, and Nathan Fillion.
Planes (PG) For Pixar lite, this isn’t half bad. Spinning off from Pixar’s Cars series, this Disney film is about a crop-dusting plane (voiced by Dane Cook) with a fear of heights who nevertheless dreams of competing in a race around the world against celebrity racers. Cook is a weak vocal presence in the lead role, and the animation doesn’t have the layering and detail that Pixar movies have. Still, the movie is free of pretension and doesn’t drag, and there’s a funny bit with a Mexican competitor (voiced by Carlos Alazraqui) singing a slow, mariachi version of “Love Machine.” Additional voices by Stacy Keach, Brad Garrett, Teri Hatcher, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Priyanka Chopra, John Cleese, Roger Craig Smith, Cedric the Entertainer, Anthony Edwards, Val Kilmer, Sinbad, and John Ratzenberger.
Riddick (R) Not as good as Pitch Black but better than The Chronicles of Riddick. Vin Diesel and writer-director David Twohy return for this third adventure of the escaped convict who can see in the dark, who’s marooned on a hostile world and calls down a bunch of bounty hunters to get him off the planet. Diesel does reasonably well with the first third of the movie, which is almost wholly without dialogue. I do wish the filmmakers hadn’t given Riddick a cute dog (albeit a giant striped, alien, man-eating dog) as a sidekick, but the unpretentious action and Riddick’s dealings with the two competing teams of bounty hunters make this an agreeable way to kill a couple of hours. Also with Katee Sackhoff, Jordi Mollà, Matt Nable, Dave Bautista, Bokeem Woodbine, Raoul Trujillo, Nolan Gerard Funk, Keri Hilson, and Karl Urban.
The Smurfs 2 (PG) The sequel to the crappy, inexplicably popular kids’ movie from 2011 offers more of the same. This one turns the blue creatures loose in Paris, where Gargamel (Hank Azaria) tries to woo Smurfette (voiced by Katy Perry) over to the dark side. The Paris Opera House looks good, but the hijinks, bad puns on the word “Smurf,” and worse special effects are intercut with so much weepy family melodrama among the Smurfs and the humans. Perry can’t act, and Neil Patrick Harris is turned into a bland new father with daddy issues. Using Harris in this way is the surest of many signs that these filmmakers don’t know what they’re doing. Also with Jayma Mays and Brendan Gleeson. Additional voices by Christina Ricci, Jonathan Winters, Anton Yelchin, George Lopez, John Oliver, Fred Armisen, Kenan Thompson, Paul Reubens, Shaquille O’Neal, Jeff Foxworthy, B.J. Novak, Jimmy Kimmel, and Alan Cumming.
The Spectacular Now (R) Like many of the best teen movies, this one hurts real bad. Miles Teller plays a high-school senior and budding alcoholic who’s forced to ponder a course correction in his life after he falls for a scholastic achiever (Shailene Woodley). Director James Ponsoldt (Smashed) knows his drunks, but he’s even better at handling his actors. Thanks to Teller and Woodley, you believe that this mismatched pair of people would work as a couple, and Teller interacts terrifically with his other castmates. The scene where he locates his dad (Kyle Chandler) is a great, slow-rolling disaster. You could just watch these actors all day. Also with Brie Larson, Masam Holden, Dayo Okeniyi, Bob Odenkirk, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, and Jennifer Jason Leigh.
This Is the End (R) Uproarious. Seth Rogen, James Franco, Jonah Hill, Jay Baruchel, Craig Robinson, and Danny McBride all portray themselves as self-absorbed weenies who hole up in Franco’s Hollywood mansion when the apocalypse as described in the Book of Revelation starts to happen. While trying to survive, the boys rag on one another’s career missteps and film a no-budget sequel to Pineapple Express, but they’re all strongly characterized enough that you’ll laugh a lot even if you don’t know who the stars are. Co-directors Rogen and Evan Goldberg toggle nicely between the indoor hijinks and the effects-heavy depiction of the end of days. Also parodying themselves are Emma Watson as a crazed, ax-swinging survivalist and Michael Cera as a disgusting sexist cokehead who meets a satisfyingly hideous death. It’s a bracing return to form for Rogen and company. Also with Mindy Kaling, David Krumholtz, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Rihanna, Martin Starr, Paul Rudd, Aziz Ansari, Kevin Hart, Channing Tatum, and an uncredited Jason Segel.
Turbo (PG) The pieces of this animated comedy don’t fit together. Ryan Reynolds voices the character of a garden snail who dreams of becoming a race car driver and, through a series of random occurrences, develops the ability to move at 220 mph and gets a chance to compete in the Indy 500. Somewhere in the middle of that he gets looked after by a couple of taco stand-running brothers (Michael Peña and Luis Guzmán), and while they don’t belong in the movie, they’re still the most thoughtfully conceived characters here. Additional voices by Paul Giamatti, Bill Hader, Richard Jenkins, Ken Jeong, Michelle Rodriguez, Maya Rudolph, Kurtwood Smith, Ben Schwartz, Snoop Dogg, and Samuel L. Jackson.
2 Guns (R) The comic chemistry between Denzel Washington and Mark Wahlberg saves this cynical, nihilistic thriller about a DEA agent and a naval intelligence officer who go undercover with a Mexican drug cartel and wind up ensnared in a twisty plot involving crooked law enforcement and a sadistic CIA officer (Bill Paxton with a bolo tie and a Texas accent). The real reason to see this movie is to see Washington’s laid-back quipster and Wahlberg’s stupid-smart motormouth playing off each other. These guys make a neat comedy team, and director Baltasar Kormákur is smart enough to get out of their way. Also with Paula Patton, James Marsden, Fred Ward, Robert John Burke, and Edward James Olmos.
The Ultimate Life (PG) The sequel to the 2006 Christian film The Ultimate Gift stars Logan Bartholomew as a billionaire who re-examines his priorities in life after discovering his grandfather’s journal. Also with Peter Fonda, Bill Cobbs, Ali Hillis, Drew Waters, and Lee Meriwether.
We’re the Millers (R) The actors are better than the material in this agreeable B-level comedy. Jason Sudeikis plays a small-time drug dealer who recruits a stripper (Jennifer Aniston) and two teenagers (Will Poulter and Emma Roberts) to portray his wife and kids as he smuggles several thousand pounds of marijuana from Mexico. The farce is little more than by-the-numbers, but Sudeikis proves he can carry a movie, Aniston matches him in the ad-libs department, Poulter gets a glorious freestyle rap number, and Nick Offerman and Kathryn Hahn are killer as a vacationing married couple with a wild side. If only more substandard comedies could be redeemed like this. Also with Ed Helms, Matthew Willig, Tomer Sisley, Molly Quinn, Luis Guzmán, Ken Marino, and Thomas Lennon.
Winnie Mandela (PG-13) This dully conventional biopic is much les compelling than the history that inspires it. Jennifer Hudson plays the title character (with a shaky South African accent), who carries on her husband’s struggle against apartheid during his long imprisonment. Covering five decades of history, the movie suffers from yawning gaps in the story and only gains traction when director Darrell Roodt (Sarafina!) is forced to slow down during Winnie’s own imprisonment. The filmmakers fumble the attempt to deal with the subject’s darker aspects, perhaps because the real Winnie Mandela is still alive. The story of Winnie Mandela could make for a great historical tragedy, but it’ll have to be some other movie. Also with Terrence Howard, Wendy Crewson, and Elias Koteas.
The World’s End (R) The summer’s best comedy, addiction drama, action thriller, and movie about the apocalypse, all rolled into one. Edgar Wright (Hot Fuzz) returns with this story about a middle-aged alcoholic (Simon Pegg) who guilt-trips his former pals (including a magnificent Nick Frost) into completing a never-finished pub crawl through their rural English hometown. When they discover that the townsfolk have been replaced by murderous lookalike alien robots, it sets up some truly epic, tightly choreographed bar fights performed largely by the actors. The movie reveals some breathtaking ideas as the lads face down the alien intelligence (voiced by Bill Nighy) responsible for the invasion, but you should go for the sparkling dialogue and beautifully set up gags. This is the crowning comic masterpiece in Wright’s “Cornetto Trilogy.” Also with Rosamund Pike, Paddy Considine, Martin Freeman, Eddie Marsan, David Bradley, Michael Smiley, Darren Boyd, Rafe Spall, Alice Lowe, Thomas Law, and an uncredited Pierce Brosnan.
You’re Next (R) A dysfunctional family comedy wrapped inside a slasher flick, and a pretty funny one. A couple celebrating their 35th wedding anniversary (Rob Moran and Barbara Crompton) invite their four grown children and significant others to their mansion, only to be hunted down by three killers wearing combat gear and animal masks. Director Adam Wingard fails to make this thing scary and loses control of the tone of this piece, but he and writer Simon Barrett (who also plays one of the killers) find some good comedy in the way the family members continue to bicker and pick at each other’s insecurities amid the carnage. Sharni Vinson makes a great unlikely heroine, who’s suspiciously calm under fire and knowledgeable about ways to kill people. Also with AJ Bowen, Nicholas Tucci, Wendy Glenn, Joe Swanberg, Margaret Laney, Amy Seimetz, Ti West, and uncredited cameos by Kate Lyn Sheil and Larry Fessenden.
Bounty Killer (R) Henry Saine’s science-fiction thriller takes place in a dystopian future when bounty hunters compete for cash and prizes over who can kill the most white-collar criminals. Starring Matthew Marsden, Kristanna Loken, Christian Pitre, Barak Hardley, Abraham Benrubi, Alexa Vega, Eve, Beverly D’Angelo, and Gary Busey.
Drinking Buddies (R) Jake Johnson and Olivia Wilde star in Joe Swanberg’s comedy as co-workers whose friendship becomes entangled after a round of drinking. Also with Anna Kendrick, Ron Livingston, Ti West, Jason Sudeikis, and Kristin Davis.
The Hunt (R) This drama by Thomas Vinterberg (The Celebration) stars Mads Mikkelsen as a Danish schoolteacher who’s falsely accused of child abuse. Also with Thomas Bo Larsen, Annika Wedderkopp, Lasse Fogelstrøm, Susse Wold, Anne Louise Hassing, Lars Ranthe, and Alexandra Rapaport.
Money for Nothing: Inside the Federal Reserve (NR) Jim Bruce’s documentary is based on interviews of several current and former members of the board that governs America’s monetary policy.
Short Term 12 (R) Brie Larson (The Spectacular Now, 21 Jump Street) stars in this drama as a counselor at a foster care facility who’s forced to confront her own issues while handling one child’s case. Also with John Gallagher Jr., Kaitlyn Dever, Stephanie Beatriz, Rami Malek, Diana Maria Riva, and Melora Walters.