March 12, 2014

Movie Dope

Short descriptions of movies playing in and around Athens...


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 they have 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.

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.


ABOUT LAST NIGHT (R) This remake of the 1986 movie starring Demi Moore and Rob Lowe—itself based on David Mamet's play, “Sexual Perversity in Chicago”—finally makes the best use of the ubiquitous funnyman, Kevin Hart. Hart’s horndog, Bernie, woos, dumps and rewoos the not quite innocent Joan (Regina Hall), while his best friend, Danny (Michael Ealy), romances Joan’s BFF and roomie, Debbie (Joy Bryant from NBC’s excellent, underwatched “Parenthood”). The dialogue, adapted by Bachelorette’s Leslye Headland, flies funny and fast, especially when Hart and Hall get going. Nobody really expects much from Hot Tub Time Machine director Steve Pink, but he gets the comic, dramatic rhythms mostly right, especially during the quick switchbacks that open the film. Sadly, the dramromcom feels longer when the pretty, likable duo of Ealy and Bryant are onscreen without Hart and Hall. Their constantly devolving courtship may be realistically portrayed, but that detail fails to make it fun to watch. Hollywood has thrown up some truly bad romcoms (chick flicks, if you must), and it’s pleasant to admit About Last Night is not one of them. The odds were in Hart’s favor that he’d finally find a movie that deserved him.

AMERICAN HUSTLE (R) This fictional account of the real life ABSCAM investigation that sent several members of federal, state and local government to prison was nominated for ten Academy Awards. Conman Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) and his not exactly British girlfriend, Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), are forced by an unstable FBI agent, Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), into conning the mayor of Camden, New Jersey (Jeremy Renner). Russell has proven an uncanny ability to take a great cast and make them greater. American Hustle is a film made for ensemble cast awards; picking one standout is nearly impossible. Go see it. (Ciné)

ANCHORMAN 2: THE LEGEND CONTINUES (PG-13) Much has changed since last we heard from San Diego’s top newsman, Ron Burgundy (Will Ferrell). He married co-anchor, Veronica Corningstone (Christina Applegate), and moved to New York City. But professional disappointment relegates Ron back to San Diego until he is offered the chance to front a 24-hour news network, the first of its kind. Ron returns to the Big Apple with his old news team behind him: features-stud Brian Fantana (Paul Rudd), sports-guy Champ Kind (David Koechner) and weatherman Brick Tamland (Steve Carell). But they face new challenges from rival anchor Jack Lime (James Marsden) and Veronica’s new lover Gary (Greg Kinnear). The jokes might not fly as fast or as quotable as those of the original, but the narrative and characters are better. Carell’s newfound stardom after the first movie means more Brick, and surprisingly, that’s a good thing. A late detour into staged melodrama falls a bit flat, adding unnecessary length, and the expected climactic battle gets too cameo-heavy with little comic payoff. Happily, the legend of Ron Burgundy is not tarnished by his return; only time will tell whether the sequel retains (or surpasses?) its predecessor’s rewatchability.

THE ART OF THE STEAL (R) Crunch Calhoun (Kurt Russell) is a former thief and motorcycle daredevil who decides to get back in the con game to steal an invaluable, historical book. For his final heist, Calhoun teams up with his brother Nicky, played by Matt Dillon. But when the brothers' personal incentives get in the way, their plan defects. (Ciné) 

ATHENS JEWISH FILM FESTIVAL The Athens Jewish Film Festival again brings quality Jewish films to Athens in its annual festival. Films scheduled for this year’s diverse lineup include something for everyone. Enjoy some docs (The Price of Kings: Shimon Peres and Numbered), lots of dramas (White Panther, The Consul of Bordeaux, Aftermath, The Ballad of the Weeping Spring, In the Shadow and Kaddish for a Friend), a TV biopic (The Jewish Cardinal) and something for the whole family (The ZigZag Kid), along with a short film competition. Each film will include discussion and noshing. (Ciné)

BAD WORDS (R) Jason Bateman makes his feature directing debut in a role seemingly written for him by first-time screenwriter Andrew Dodge. Spelling bee loser Guy Trilby (Bateman) uses a loophole—he never made it past the eighth grade—to exact revenge by winning the bee as an adult. Along the way, he befriends the friendless Chaitanya Chopra (Rohan Chand, Jack and Jill). With Kathryn Hahn, Phillip Baker Hall, Allison Janney, Mr. Melissa McCarthy, Ben Falcone, and Mrs. Jason Bateman, Amanda Anka.

CAPTAIN PHILLIPS (PG-13) Paul Greengrass is Hollywood’s most effective director of tense docudramas. (Apologies to Kathryn Bigelow, but it is true.) Recounting the real life story of Captain Richard Phillips, who was kidnapped by Somali pirates and held hostage in a claustrophobic lifeboat for several days, Greengrass crafts his best film since United 93. Tom Hanks stars as Captain Phillips, and he loses his typical Hanks-ness in the dramatized reality realized by Greengrass. The lack of almost any other recognizable supporting actors (that guy, Chris Mulkey, is as familiar as it gets) helps Hanks slide deeper into a role than he has since Road to Perdition. The taut effectiveness of Billy Ray’s script certainly should not be undervalued but will be due to the incredible work done by Greengrass, whose greatest films seem like reality unfolding before our eyes. As a word of advice, one may wish to watch Captain Phillips and Gravity on different weekends; otherwise, we are talking about the most intense double feature ever.

ENDLESS LOVE (PG-13)While no one was looking, the 1981 wild teenage romance starring Brooke Shields that introduced audiences to Tom Cruise and the Diana Ross-Lionel Richie duet was remade into a rather bland new tale of teenage love. The summer after Jade Butterfield (Gabriella Wilde) graduates from high school, she meets and falls in love with David Elliot (Alex Pettyfer, whose offscreen ugliness fails to mar his onscreen charisma). Her doctor father (Bruce Greenwood, in standout villainous daddy mode) foresees the derailment of Jade’s future over this boy, so he schemes to break them up. Any audience member, be they familiar or not with Franco Zeffirelli’s original film or novelist Scott Spencer’s source material, will keep waiting for the big dramatic turn to come. And they will keep waiting, as this Endless Love is way more neutered than either of its predecessors. The filmmakers fail to even hide the Ross-Richie prom theme as an Easter Egg. Endless Love misses out on some prime opportunities for camp. As usual, stick with the original. Or better yet, read the book. 

ENEMY (R) Prisoners director Denis Villeneuve follows up his English language debut with another twisty thriller starring Jake Gyllenhaal. In Enemy, Gyllenhaal plays Adam, a man who discovers his doppelganger while watching a movie. The trailer implies a tense unraveling of the mysterious story surrounding the lookalikes. Its source material, a novel by Blindness author Jose Saramago, offers up more hope for this intriguing film. With Melanie Laurent (Inglourious Basterds) and Isabella Rossellini as Adam’s mother.

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.

HER (R) Her stars a really nice, mildmannered Joaquin Phoenix as Theodore Twombly. Ted writes personal letters for strangers and is struggling through a divorce. Then he meets his new Operating System and falls in love…with the OS. Samantha is voiced by Scarlett Johannson, so the concept isn’t THAT outlandish. The film is mostly Phoenix interacting with Johannson’s voice. Sometimes an unmade Amy Adams pops by to again verify her brilliance. While Phoenix and ScarJo incredibly do their thing, Jonze and his behind the scenes folk drip visual magic into audience eyes with their retro-future design. This film is unreservedly wonderful. (Ciné)

THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG (PG-13) Peter Jackson’s first return to Middle-earth, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, did not disappoint, even if it failed to excite like The Lord of the Rings trilogy. The second Hobbit feature still feels hobbled by a feeling of déjà vu. Armies of orcs marching to war or battles against giant killer spiders are nothing new. But when Jackson takes us to new locales like Lake Town at the foot of the Lonely Mountain, where mammoth dragon Smaug (v. Benedict Cumberbatch) resides, the epic fantasy film reaches toward those heights of its predecessor. The return of Legolas (Orlando Bloom) does not hurt nor does the first appearance of the lovely elven warrior, Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly, best known as Kate from “Lost”). The river barrel ride that acts as the film’s highlight action set piece is spectacular, except for moments of poor FX so uncharacteristic of Jackson or the Weta digital effects house. Smaug, though, is a wonder, a massive work of CGI art. The climactic, fiery escape from the Lonely Mountain leaves the audience breathless, eager for the final installment, There and Back Again, due next December.

THE LEGO MOVIE (PG) The LEGO Movie is most certainly the young year’s best new, 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 led by Vitruvius (v. Morgan Freeman), a pretty mini-fig who goes by Wildstyle (v. Elizabeth Banks) and her BF, 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. A movie made from the toy that frees the childhood (and adult) imagination has to stay on its toes in order to not diminish the property. This film, which should battle for the year’s best animated film come the next awards cycle, reconstructs the greatest childhood movie memories from the building blocks that best defined the young and not-yet-so-old generation.

LONE SURVIVOR (R) The spoiler-ishly titled Lone Survivor does not hide from what it is, which amounts to injury porn in the second act (the characters’ two falls are brutal). While on Operation Red Wings, four Navy SEALs—team leader Mike Murphy (Taylor Kitsch), Axe (Ben Foster), Danny (Emile Hirsch, who more and more resembles a tiny version of Jack Black) and Marcus Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg), upon whose book this film is based—battle an army of Taliban fighters. The cinematic account of this true story is written and directed by Peter Berg, whose The Kingdom was severely underrated (and superior to his latest), like Friday Night Lights with soldiers. Even the incredible Explosions in the Sky provides the score. Nothing about Lone Survivor is particularly unsuccessful, though which member of the bearded quartet is which can be hard to distinguish during the hectic firefight. Berg shoots action with a visceral viciousness, taking some visual cues from first person shooters like Call of Duty (a videogame movie Berg will probably one day helm). Lone Survivor will please the action-heads out there, but it takes the home movies before the end credits to remind audiences these soldiers were actual husbands and fathers.

THE MONUMENTS MEN (PG-13) The Monuments Men is a rousing World War II yarn about an unlikely platoon assigned the mission of protecting humanity’s art from history’s greatest douchebags, the Nazis. Seriously, already history’s top seed in any Tournament of Big Bads, the Nazis were also giant d-bags who burned great works of art because they couldn’t have it. Fortunately, George Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, Bob Balaban and Hugh Bonneville scoured the war-torn continent and nabbed the best stuff from those firebug Nazis and art-thieving Soviets. The true story recounted by writer-director George Clooney is a fascinating historical footnote that makes for great cinema. It’s just that this level of filmmaker and cast promises grander, award-winning cinema. The Monuments Men is seeking that level of acclaim, and the entertaining war drama delivers a mature, art-filled reboot of “Hogan’s Heroes.” (Hollywood, take this cast, toss in Christoph Waltz, and let the Cloon jam on a big screen “Hogan’s.” I dare you.) The Monuments Men has too many appealing personalities; the audience never gets to adequately spend enough time with Murray/Balaban, Goodman/Dujardin, Damon/Cate Blanchett or Clooney. But the time we get is well-spent.

NEED FOR SPEED (PG-13) Aaron Paul truly begins the transition from television second fiddle to movie star in this adaptation of the popular racing video game franchise. Paul stars as Tobey Marshall, a race car driver recently released from prison after being framed by his wealthy partner, Dino Brewster (Dominic Cooper). Now Dino has placed a price on Tobey’s head as he takes part in a cross country race. Veteran stuntman turned director Scott Waugh helmed the technically superb Act of Valor. With Imogen Poots.

NON-STOP (PG-13) Maybe the Liam Neeson Action Star franchise isn’t dead yet. In his latest portrayal of the deadliest daddy ever, Neeson stars as Bill Marks, a U.S. Air Marshal receiving threatening texts “on a secure network” (oooh) demanding $150 million or someone will die every 20 minutes. Neeson is joined by a big name co-star, Julianne Moore, and several recognizable bit players like Academy Award winner Lupita Nyong’o, Michelle “Lady Mary” Dockery and Scoot McNairy; however, the real co-star is the claustrophobic, transparent setting. Besides the lavatories and the cockpit, everything takes place in the various cabins of the transatlantic flight. (None of that cargo hold crap resorted to by other plane-trapped protagonists.) A more than serviceable whodunit, Non-Stop should please the millions of mystery fans as well as those moviegoers feeling there are more asses Neeson needs to kick. As usual, the reveal is never as clever as the setup, but the tense first two acts are filling if not fulfilling. Marks could be a more pleasant protag with whom to spend two hours. Fortunately, the movie rarely slows down enough for Marks’ authoritarian abuses to outrage. I wonder if this flick will get shown on many future flights.

THE OSCAR NOMINATED SHORT FILMS 2014 The Oscar nominated Live Action and Animated Shorts Programs return to Ciné. This year’s animated nominees are Feral, Get a Horse!, Mr. Hublot, Possessions and Room on the Broom. The Live-Action Short Film nominees are That Wasn’t Me, Just Before Losing Everything, Helium, Do I Have to Take Care of Everything and The Voorman Problem. The Documentary Short Film nominees are Cavedigger, Facing Fear, The Lady in Number 6, Karama Has No Walls and Prison Terminal. Knowing who won is a whole lot more fun when you’ve seen the nominees. (Ciné)

PHILOMENA (PG-13)  Two of my favorite British Stephens—Coogan and Frears—team up for what sounds pretty unintriguing from its based on a true story logline. A shamed journalist, Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan), helps an old Irish woman, Philomena Lee (Academy Award nominee Judi Dench), find the child she lost to adoption 50 years earlier. Coogan, who co-wrote the Oscar-nominated script with Jeff Pope, hones his sharp wit and creates some moments of genuine emotion as his cynical journo interacts with sweet old Philomena, who is unsurprisingly embodied perfectly by Dench. The writers also sharpen their knives to carve up the Catholic Church, here represented by a few evil nuns. The script, acting and two-time Oscar nominee Stephen Frears (The Grifters and The Queen) take this TV movie scenario and turn it into a unexpectedly strong Best Picture nominee. (It wouldn’t make a shortlist of five, but it’s not the last of the nine.) Shades of Coogan’s wonderful road trip comedy The Trip color Martin and Philomena’s trek to Ireland and finally America as they unravel the film’s central mystery. Let the awards mystique, not the pedestrian synopsis, draw you into Philomena. Her film is as extraordinary as her story.

POMPEII (PG-13) Surprisingly, Paul W.S. Anderson’s romantic period disaster flick is a rather entertaining plebeian Gladiator rather than another comic stylish 300 wannabe. Milo (Kit Harington, Jon Snow from HBO’s excellent “Game of Thrones”), the survivor of a Celtic tribe slain by Roman General Corvus (Kiefer Sutherland, enjoying some campy villain screen time), is now a gladiator in Pompeii. Now a Senator, Corvus arrives in Pompeii to extend the reach of Emperor Titus and stalk pretty young Cassia (Emily Browning), daughter of the town chief (Jared Harris), who prefers the pretty, muscular slave. Then Mount Vesuvius erupts, and all cinematic hell breaks loose. The effects are estimable, though the picture gets a little obscure during the ashy, 3D finale. That tsunami’s pretty tough. The script is negligible but not detrimental. The acting serves its purpose. “Lost”’s Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje makes more of an impression as the local gladiatorial champion. A more dashing, old-fashioned sword and sandal pic than viewers are used to, Pompeii may please more if expectations are lowered, but with a dearth of new entertainment options at the multiplex, this flick isn’t a complete disaster.

RIDE ALONG (PG-13) Judging from the trailers, Kevin Hart and Ice Cube’s team up for an action comedy set in Atlanta could be worse. Hart stars as a security guard who goes on patrol with his girlfriend’s tough cop brother, played by Cube, in order to earn his blessing. Tika Sumpter (Tyler Perry’s A Madea Christmas) stars as the girlfriend/sister. It’s co-written by the super-funny Jason Mantzoukas ("The League"’s Rafi); granted, he’s one of four credited scripters. Tim Story (Barbershop, Fantastic Four) directs.

ROBOCOP (PG-13) So the new Robocop kind of misses the maliciously satirical point of the original. No one will be clamoring for a remake of this technically shiny action flick in 27 years. Outside of the interstitial moments with Samuel L. Jackson’s Bill O’Reilly-ish Pat Novak, the new movie, from Elite Squad director Jose Padilha and first-time feature writer Joshua Zetumer, misses out on some prime opportunities to deride modern America. Robocop, formerly Detective Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman from AMC’s “The Killing”), does not do much Robocopping. He does solve his own murder, which is a little self-involved. The new filmmakers bog the first act down in comic book origin BS (the boardroom shenanigans of the original are much more interesting), before blazing through the second act where Robo (barely) hits the streets, to get to the procedural third act. The best Robocop remake came out in 2012 and was called Dredd; that flick had loads more of the ultraviolent, futuristic misanthropy that made Paul Verhoeven’s Robocop stand out. The newest version of Robocop is watchable with some excellent FX and design ideas (many borrowed from the original); what it definitely is not is re-watchable.

THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY (PG) Director-star Ben Stiller’s adaptation of James Thurber’s classic short story is an odd duck. Take Thurber’s simple literary seed and fertilize it with writer Steve Conrad’s brand of The Weather Man/The Pursuit of Happyness pablum. The resulting film pleases on its own and disappoints as a version of Thurber. Daydreamer Walter Mitty (Stiller) works at “Life” Magazine, which is about to go completely digital, and he has lost the negative of the final cover photo, provided by a legendary photog (Sean Penn). Having never done anything, Walter goes on an impromptu adventure to Greenland, Iceland and Afghanistan, mostly to get the attention of a comely coworker (a cute, pleasantly normal Kristen Wiig). Stiller’s humor never quite gels with Conrad’s insipid sincerity. Stiller’s direction shines, though he seems to be channeling a sterile, mass market Wes Anderson. Still, it’s laudable and creative; everything that the script is not. Unnecessarily overplotted and overly coincidental, it glosses over the complexities of Walter’s adventure. It should never have been called The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, but I still felt overtly amiable towards the film when it was over. Though what’s the deal with Adam Scott’s beard?

SON OF GOD (PG-13) At least The Passion of the Christ was a feature film and Mel Gibson a decorated (if now crazed) filmmaker. Son of God is cobbled together from the Jesus sequences (plus more!) from the History Channel miniseries, “The Bible,” and its collection of slightly ethnic unknown actors do not benefit from the big screen treatment. The only debatably recognizable face is that of producer Roma Downey (“Touched by an Angel”), who plays Mary, Mother of Jesus. Portuguese-born Diogo Morgado is a photogenic savior with a nice smile; he recedes into Christly caricature during the climactic imprisonment and crucifixion. An obvious cash grab by “Survivor” producer Mark Burnett (Downey’s husband), Son of God merely takes advantage of an audience hungry for faith-based films (see the success of the releases from Albany’s Sherwood Pictures) by repackaging previously seen material with a few new scenes, none of them worth the price of admission. Minus a whit of believer’s passion, this film simply retells the greatest story ever told like a Greatest Hits of Jesus compilation. Most viewers will have heard this tale told before and better.

THOR: THE DARK WORLD (PG-13) Marvel’s sequel to the surprisingly entertaining 2011 hit should have built on its predecessor’s success. Instead, the movie’s generic plot—an evil villain seeks to destroy the universe—and its science fiction aesthetic resemble an even-numbered Star Trek movie (Malekith even looks like a Romulan) more than a Marvel superhero feature. With frequent “Game of Thrones” director Alan Taylor at the helm, the movie’s Asgard could have benefitted from a grittier, Westeros look; instead, Asgard could be any Naboo-like world from the Star Wars prequel. Chris Hemsworth’s Thor remains as easily charming, and one wonders if the series should have allowed him to be single for a bit. Imagine Thor as an unbound lothario. Oddly enough, what seemed like a weakness of the first film—Thor’s unpowered banishment to Earth—is exactly what’s missing from its sequel. How can you tell? When Thor finally arrives on Earth, the quips fly faster and the gags land more soundly. Thor: The Dark World simply becomes more entertaining when the action leaves Asgard. Apparently, nothing about Thor should ever be serious. After all, he’s a god with flowing blond locks and a giant hammer. Oh, and more Loki please.

3 DAYS TO KILL (PG-13) Gallic super-producer Luc Besson again attempts to breathe action life into an aging Hollywood actor; this time, the reclamation project is Kevin Costner. While 3 Days to Kill doesn’t try to be a new Taken. Think of Costner’s weary spy as an extension of his weary athlete persona. Gruff but charming, Costner more than makes up for the nearly disastrous direction of McG (talk about a career that’s fallen off a cliff). Costner’s Ethan Renner is dying and wishes to spend his remaining time with his estranged wife (Connie Nielsen) and teenage daughter (True Grit Oscar nominee Hailee Steinfeld). But when mysterious beauty, Vivi (Amber Heard), offers an experimental cure in exchange for one last job (is there any other kind?), Ethan must juggle parenting with his dangerous professional obligations. The movie is a lot more fun than its generic plot or trailer let on, thanks mainly to Costner, who shines with Besson and Adi Hasak’s script, which favors a comedic tone over a grim Taken one. Everyone would have been better off had Besson directed this rather than last year’s The Family and kept McG far, far away.

12 YEARS A SLAVE (R) The very real, very powerful 12 Years a Slave recounts the devastatingly true account of Solomon Northup (Academy Award nominee Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free man kidnapped and sold into slavery. Solomon’s woeful tale occurred to many other free blacks. Shame director Steve McQueen certainly earned his Academy Award win for gracefully bringing this true life horror story to cinematic life. Despite its massively discomfiting subject, 12 Years a Slave is never anything less than compellingly watchable. The Oscar-nominated turns from Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, and Lupita Nyong’o certainly stand out, though the star is, ultimately, this supremely well-constructed film, a work that stands above nearly all its competitors. (Ciné)

TYLER PERRY’S A MADEA CHRISTMAS (PG-13) The biggest Madea misfire since Meet the Browns, A Madea Christmas gives off the whiff of expired made-for-TV eggnog. Perry’s merrily mischievous matron travels to Alabama with the worst character Perry has yet created, Eileen (Anna Maria Horsford of “Amen”). Eileen’s daughter, Lacey (Tika Sumpter), is hiding her new marriage to Conner (Eric Lively), who is white, and her mother’s interactions with his likable redneck parents, Buddy and Kim (Larry the Cable Guy and Kathy Najimy), are offensively rude. A Madea Christmas is simply an ugly movie that would look weak even against The Hallmark Channel original holiday fare. Perry’s second worst character also resides in this small town, Chad Michael Murray’s Tanner. Unprofessional acting (check out the horrendous accents) and weak writing marked by outdated jokes about the small town South offend and disappoint. Perry has shown to be better than this gag gift of a holiday movie. So few Madea moments land that Larry the Cable Guy is the funniest fellow in the picture. Boy, that’s not a good thing. Have you ever seen a bad, local church’s Christmas play or that awful War on Christmas movie, Last Ounce of Courage? Then you’ve seen A Madea Christmas.

VERONICA MARS (PG-13) I never thought this long-rumored project would get off the ground, but thanks to Kickstarter, Rob Thomas (not that Rob Thomas) is bringing his once teenage private eye to the big screen. Now all grown up, Veronica (Kristen Bell) returns to Neptune just in time for her high school reunion and to save Logan Echolls (Jason Dohring) from legal troubles. All the important players—from Dick to Weevil to dear old daddy Mars—are slated to return. I cannot wait. (Ciné)

THE WIND RISES (PG) Hayao Miyazaki has threatened that this will be his final film. We will see. Fortunately, we will also see The Wind Rises, a fictionalized biopic of Jiro Hirokoshi, who designed the aircraft flown by the Empire of Japan in World War II. The English voice cast is as good as usual. Joseph Gordon-Levitt voices Jiro and is joined by Emily Blunt, John Krasinski, Martin Short, Werner Herzog, William H. Macy, Mandy Patinkin and Stanley Tucci.