March 19, 2014

Movie Dope

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


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.  


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.

THE ART OF THE STEAL (R) Kurt Russell stars as Crunch Calhoun in writer-director Jonathan Sobol’s comedic heist flick. Crunch is a third-rate motorcycle daredevil and art thief, who, naturally, plans one last theft because of his unreliable brother (Matt Dillon). The highly reliable cast includes Terence Stamp, Jay Baruchel, Katheryn Winnick (The History Channel’s “Vikings”) and Chris Diamantopoulos (excellent in the current season of “Episodes”). It’s always a pleasure to see Kurt on the big screen. No matter the overall quality of the movie, he typically brings something worth watching. (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)

AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY (R) 2013. Matriarch Violet Weston (Academy Award nominee Meryl Streep, chewing up scenes and spitting them out in illustrious award bait fashion) has cancer and is cancerous. Her husband, Beverly (Sam Shepard), disappears, bringing her three unhappy daughters—Barb (Academy Award nominee Julia Roberts), Ivy (Julianne Nicholson) and Karen (Juliette Lewis)—back home. Playwright Tracy Letts (Bug, Killer Joe) adapts his play for the screen, but it’s still mostly a series of shouted monologues so stagy, one expects an intermission. This movie is old-fashioned award porn, fashioned from three Oscar winners (Streep, Roberts and Chris Cooper) and three more nominees (Lewis, Shepard and Abigail Breslin). Streep’s diehard fanbase of middle aged to older women will devour this exhausting film; others beware.

BLACK BELT ANGELS 1994. Bad Movie Night returns to Ciné to celebrate the worst films Hollywood has to offer. The latest entry is 1994’s Black Belt Angels, a family-action movie starring real live Tae Kwon Do trained teenagers. It being the early '90s, the action involves Super Soakers, rollerblading and a yacht as the teenage martial artists battle an evil developer who desperately desires Master Kim’s dojo. It shouldn’t matter, but this flick is the only one credited to writer and director Chi Kim. (Ciné)

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.

DIVERGENT (PG-13) It used to be that every studio was looking for the next Harry Potter franchise. Now studios are seeking the next Hunger Games. Veronica Roth’s dystopian trilogy prepares to give it a shot with its debut entry, Divergent. Tris Prior (Shailene Woodley) lives in a future where everyone must choose one of five Factions when they turn sixteen. Spurning her parents’ Faction for Dauntless, Tris meets future boyfriend Four (Theo James) and learns it’s dangerous to be Divergent. Fortunately, Limitless director Neil Burger is in charge.

ECOFOCUS FILM FESTIVAL The sixth annual EcoFocus Film Festival, featuring over 20 films, kicks off on Wednesday, Mar. 19 and runs until Saturday, Mar. 29. Shorts include Abita, Badru’s Story, AMPAS Student Academy Award winner Dying Green, Hidden Rivers of Southern Appalachia, SXSW Film Festival winner Slomo, SP#4 and The Great Vacation Squeeze. Full-length features include Damnation, GMO OMG, Growing Cities, Into the Gyre, More Than Honey, Population Boom, Shored Up, The Ghosts in Our Machine, The Human Experiment, Thin Ice: The Inside Story of Climate Science, This Space Available, Tiny: A Story About Living Small and Wild Things. EcoKids Films include Espero?, My First Fish, “Rock Wall Climbing, The Clean Bin Project and The Scared Is Scared. (Ciné)

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. 

THE ESCORT 1993. The Italian section of the University of Georgia Department of Romance Languages presents “Cinecitta 6: Right or Left, Right or Wrong? Politics and Violence in Post-War Italy.” The series concludes with the award-winning La scorta or The Escort. A group of bodyguards are assigned to an honest judge investigating corruption in Sicily. Director Ricky Tognazzi was nominated for a Palme d’Or; the film won five Davids, including Best Director. Legendary composer Ennio Morricone contributed the score. (Miller Learning Center, Room 248)

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) 2013. 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. Scarlett Johannson voices Samantha 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 HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE (PG-13) The Hunger Games returns, and its sequel, while more a formality setting up the series’ final, revolutionary entry, improves upon an original that was more of a visual book report than an exciting cinematic adaptation. (Original director Gary Ross’ absence was addition by subtraction.) After surviving the 74th Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) are the Capitol’s newest celebrities. But all is not well in the Districts, and creepy President Snow (Donald Sutherland, who I’ve only just noticed resembles Sid Haig) lets Katniss know it by putting her back in the next year’s Games. New director Francis Lawrence (I Am Legend) paces the film better once we escape District 12 (every scene in it is so drab and boring), and the Quarter Quell is excitingly envisioned with deadly fog, killer monkeys and fun new faces like Finnick (a key new role well played by Sam Claflin) and Johanna (Jena Malone). Largely dismissed as repetitive upon the novel’s release, the underrated Catching Fire successfully adds more wrinkles to the Suzanne Collins’ formula than its more straightforward predecessor. However, it’s about time Katniss take more charge of her situation, a flaw hopefully remedied by the franchise finale, Mockingjay.

KADDISH FOR A FRIEND 2012. Having escaped the war in Palestine, 14-year-old Ali (Neil Belakhdar) and his family live in Germany. After a dare gone wrong, Ali must befriend an elderly neighbor, Russian Jew Alexander Zamskoy (Ryszard Ronczewski), to avoid punishment. Director Leo Khasin’s film won the Baden-Baden TV Film Festival’s MFG Star, the German Film Awards Film Award in Gold and the Nuremberg Film Festival Audience Award. This international award winner screens as part of the Athens Jewish Film Festival’s final night festivities. (Ciné)

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.

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.

MUPPETS MOST WANTED (PG) The Muppets return with lots of celebrity friends (Ricky Gervais, Tina Fey and Ty Burrell have top billing)! When Kermit the Frog is mistaken for lookalike master criminal Constantine and imprisoned, the remainder of the troupe has to figure out how to stop a jewel heist. Interestingly, this Muppet sequel shares some narrative DNA with original Muppet Movie follow-up, The Great Muppet Caper. The Muppets (2011) director James Bobin returns; writer-producer-star Jason Segel does not.

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.

NOTORIOUS 1946. The Georgia Museum of Art accompanies their “Art Interrupted: Advancing American Art and the Politics of Cultural Diplomacy” exhibit with Alfred Hitchcock’s classic about love, deceit and Nazis. A young woman (Ingrid Bergman) must decide how far she will go, when asked to spy on her father’s Nazi associates by a hunky government agent (Cary Grant). The charms of Grant and the beauty of Bergman are matched by the wiliness of Claude Rains as the German spy. Notorious remains one of Hitchcock’s best and should not be missed. (Georgia Museum of Art)

THE NUT JOB (PG) The latest animated feature (it seems as if there are so many nowadays) pits a curmudgeonly squirrel named (a bit on the nose) Surly (v. Will Arnett) against the city. When he finds Maury’s Nut Store, he may just have found the way to alleviate his and the rest of his park community’s winter worries. Brendan Fraser, Liam Neeson and Katherine Heigl are the next three biggest names in the voice cast. Will this movie capture its family audience without a big name like Disney or DreamWorks behind it?

NYMPHOMANIAC: VOL. I  You’ve read all of the controversy, more thanks to Shia LaBeouf than usual firebrand filmmaker Lars von Trier; now see the film. Charlotte Gainsbourg (von Trier’s last controversially sexual film, Antichrist) stars as Joe, the titular nymphomaniac, who recounts her erotic life from birth to age 50 to old Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard). Newcomer Stacy Martin plays the young Joe. Two volumes are planned. With Christian Slater, Jamie Bell, Uma Thurman, Willem Dafoe, Connie Nielsen and Udo Kier.

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.

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.

SISTERS OF ‘77 2005. As part of Women’s History Month, the University of Georgia Institute for Women’s Studies presents a screening of the documentary, Sisters of ’77. Part of PBS’ “Independent Lens” series, Sisters of ’77 recounts the first federally funded National Women’s Conference, attended by former and current first ladies Betty Ford, Lady Bird Johnson and Rosalyn Carter. Filmmakers Cynthia Salzman Mondell and Allen Mondell combine conference footage and interviews with Barbara Jordan, Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem and Coretta Scott King to tell the story of this historic weekend. (Miller Learning Center, Room 214)

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.

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.

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.

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.