The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (PG-13) A distinct improvement on the first Hobbit movie though not enough to actually make it good. Martin Freeman returns as the plucky Bilbo as the hobbit and his band of dwarves make their way toward the final showdown. Peter Jackson engineers a couple of fantastic action set pieces, Richard Armitage continues to make an inspiring dwarf leader, and Evangeline Lilly is a nice addition as an elven warrior. Yet the plot goes off in several different directions in the last hour, and Jackson mishandles this pretty disastrously. This will be worth renting on DVD, where you can fast-forward to the good parts. Also with Ian McKellen, Orlando Bloom, Benedict Cumberbatch, Luke Evans, Lee Pace, Ken Stott, Aidan Turner, Mikael Persbrandt, Stephen Fry, and Cate Blanchett.
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (PG-13) Everything that was ragged about the first movie has been smoothed over in this sequel containing the future adventures of Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) as she has to fight to survive a special edition of the Hunger Games. Director Francis Lawrence (no relation to the lead actress) takes over the series and devotes time to the action before the Games and does a better job of integrating the special effects into the story, while the writers include more layers for the supporting characters and more material from Suzanne Collins’ novel. The movie is missing a spark of greatness from the filmmakers, but Jennifer Lawrence picks up the slack, playing the shell-shocked heroine like her life depended on it. If the series can gather strength the way she’s doing, it’ll be formidable indeed. Also with Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Lenny Kravitz, Stanley Tucci, Toby Jones, Donald Sutherland, Sam Claflin, Jena Malone, Jeffrey Wright, Lynn Cohen, Willow Shields, Paula Malcomson, and Philip Seymour Hoffman.
I, Frankenstein (PG-13) In this hyperventilating supernatural thriller, the wholesome, handsome Aaron Eckhart is grotesquely miscast as the monster who survives into the present day. The creature is thrust into a secret war between gargoyles defending the human race and demons trying to take over the world, which is all rendered through laughably crappy special effects. The only thing to latch onto is Yvonne Strahovski’s fetching British accent as a scientist who tips the balance. The film was adapted from a graphic novel by Kevin Grevioux, who has a small role here and also wrote the novels that inspired Underworld. This movie could have badly used Kate Beckinsale and her one-piece leather outfit. Also with Miranda Otto, Jai Courtney, Aden Young, Socratis Otto, and Bill Nighy.
Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (PG-13) Chris Pine may not be a Jack Ryan for the long term, but he’s perfectly good for right now in this film telling the origins of the Tom Clancy-created superspy. Kenneth Branagh is OK portraying the Russian baddie, but he’s much more impressive as the director here, filming the action sequences with a mostly sure hand. Pine’s transparency isn’t a desirable quality in a spy, but he fits the green Ryan who finds himself thrust into the role of operative, and Keira Knightley (with a spiffy American accent) partners him well as Jack’s fiancée, who finds out what he does for a living. It all makes for a nice bit of popcorn entertainment. Also with Kevin Costner, Gemma Chan, Lenn Kudrjawizki, Nonso Anozie, Alec Utgoff, Peter Andersson, Colm Feore, and David Paymer.
Labor Day (PG-13) How does such a sharp and funny director as Jason Reitman turn out a movie as limp and sodden as this one? Gattlin Griffith stars in this coming-of-age saga as a 13-year-old boy who watches his jilted, depressed, borderline agoraphobic mom (Kate Winslet) come back to life one September weekend when they’re taken hostage by an escaped convict (Josh Brolin) who becomes a surrogate dad. The movie is supposed to hinge on the romance that blossoms between the two adults, but the actors just look massively uncomfortable, and not just because their characters are unsettled. The thing is slow, and there’s a baking scene that never should have seen the light of day. The word “misfire” isn’t adequate for this film. Also with Clark Gregg, Brooke Smith, James Van Der Beek, and Tobey Maguire.
The Legend of Hercules (PG-13) This bombastic, crappy-looking 300 wannabe should have gone direct to DVD. The Twilight series’ Kellan Lutz stars as the mythical Greek strongman, who’s exiled from Athens by his warlike royal father (Scott Adkins) and a jealous brother (Liam Garrigan). The acting by all parties, especially Lutz, is downright wretched, and so are the special effects. Is it possible that director Renny Harlin was once taken seriously? If you want to stare at Lutz’ abs, a still photograph will last longer and display more emotion. Also with Gaia Weiss, Roxanne McKee, Liam McIntyre, Luke Newberry, Kenneth Cranham, Johnathon Schaech, and Rade Serbedzija.
Lone Survivor (R) This movie tries to celebrate the heroism of Navy SEALs but winds up as a glorified recruitment commercial instead. This film is based on the real-life story of Marcus Luttrell (played by Mark Wahlberg), who was on a reconaissance mission in Afghanistan in 2005 with a small team of other SEALs when it went bad. Writer-director Peter Berg (Friday Night Lights, but then again, Battleship) does well by the sweaty dread as the SEALs wait to engage the Taliban and by the bone-crunching impact when the soldiers hurl themselves down the mountainside to escape death. Yet Berg doesn’t apply much critical thinking to the material, and we get little sense of the soldiers as people. The patriotic sentiments in his movies have gotten so woolly that Berg has turned into a more respectable version of Michael Bay. Also with Ben Foster, Emile Hirsch, Taylor Kitsch, Ali Suliman, Rohan Chand, Yousuf Azmi, Alexander Ludwig, Jerry Ferrara, and Eric Bana.
The Nut Job (PG) For an animated movie released in January, I guess it isn’t too bad. Will Arnett provides the voice of a selfish New York-accented squirrel who plots to steal nuts from a nut store, planning to stuff himself while the other animals in his city park are in danger of starving to death. The way he gradually comes to an accommodation with the other animals should have been story enough, but the movie throws in a useless plotline about the people in the nut store who are planning to rob a bank. Not much memorable here, but the thing is short and fast-moving enough to keep the little kids entertained for a bit. Additional voices by Katherine Heigl, Brendan Fraser, Maya Rudolph, Stephen Lang, Jeff Dunham, James Rankin, Scott Yaphe, Sarah Gadon, and Liam Neeson.
Philomena (PG-13) Based on a real-life story, this dramedy stars Judi Dench with an unsteady Irish accent as a woman who teams up with a down-on-his-luck English journalist (Steve Coogan) to travel to America to find the son she was forced to give up for adoption decades ago. Coogan’s a well-known comedian in the U.K. who does well acting in a more serious piece. He also wrote the script, and while he and director Stephen Frears make an effort to balance the humor with the more serious parts, it doesn’t always come off. Still, the thing opens a window onto an ugly part of Irish history, and does it with skill and a minimum amount of weepiness. Also with Sophie Kennedy Clark, Mare Winningham, Barbara Jefford, Anna Maxwell Martin, and Michelle Fairley.
Ride Along (PG-13) Kevin Hart is the only sign of life in this listless comic thriller as an Atlanta police academy trainee who tries to impress his fiancée’s cop brother (Ice Cube) by spending a day on the job with him. The comic chemistry between the two leads is nonexistent, and the detective story that they get plunged into is uninteresting in the extreme. Hart always works hard to squeeze laughs out of his material no matter how bad it is, but here he’s fighting a losing battle. Also with Tika Sumpter, John Leguizamo, Bryan Callen, Bruce McGill, Dragos Bucur, Jay Pharoah, and Laurence Fishburne.
Saving Mr. Banks (PG-13) Oh, go fly a kite! Disney’s latest movie is an aggressive attempt to whitewash its own history, telling the story of how Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) convinced Mary Poppins author P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) to reluctantly sign over the rights to her novel in 1961. The real-life Travers detested the finished film, and instead the movie shows her being moved to tears of joy at it. Moreover, it depicts the author as an old grump who needs to stop fighting for her book’s integrity and listen to the wise advice given by the guy with all the money. Even if this dull movie were far more entertaining, it would still be sunk by the straight-up propaganda it’s serving up. Also with Colin Farrell, Bradley Whitford, B.J. Novak, Jason Schwartzman, Paul Giamatti, Annie Rose Buckley, Ruth Wilson, Kathy Baker, and Rachel Griffiths.
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (PG) A highly likable movie that falls short of its aims, this adaptation of James Thurber’s short story stars Ben Stiller as a compulsive daydreamer whose fear for his job as a photo editor impels him to chase an itinerant photographer (Sean Penn) across the globe. Stiller also directs this film, and he stages heroic fantasy sequences that don’t go with the rest of the movie. The story’s grand philosophical aims don’t fit with the director’s small-scale approach, but you can still appreciate the breathtaking visuals (scenes were filmed in Iceland and Central Asia) and the delicate, understated comedy in Stiller’s interactions with the various people he encounters. It’s the movie’s smaller pleasures that you remember. Also with Kristen Wiig, Adam Scott, Kathryn Hahn, Adrian Martinez, Ólafur Darri Ólafsson, Patton Oswalt, and Shirley MacLaine.
That Awkward Moment (R) That awful movie. Zac Efron, Michael B. Jordan, and Miles Teller star in this fatally sensitive and unfunny romantic comedy as three pals who find themselves at a crossroads with their relationships with women. The cast is stellar. I thought Efron would be outclassed by the other two actors, but he’s actually rather good. Their efforts, though, are all for naught. The filmmaker throws in a few sequences built around nudity and penises to convince us that this is a raunchy comedy. That doesn’t work either. Also with Imogen Poots, Mackenzie Davis, Jessica Lucas, Addison Timlin, and Josh Pais.
12 Years a Slave (R) Even more significant than Schindler’s List. Steve McQueen’s epic tells the story of Solomon Northup, a real-life free black New Yorker who was abducted in 1841 and forced to work as a slave on a Louisiana plantation. McQueen directs this with his typical austerity and rigor and pulls off an extraordinarily powerful long take in which Solomon (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is strung up from a tree branch and suspended on his tiptoes while the other slaves go about their work, afraid to offer help. Screenwriter John Ridley draws a vivid, panoramic view of all the twisted human specimens that the slave economy produces, and McQueen and his actors flesh them out beautifully, with a terrifying Michael Fassbender as a sadistic slavemaster and Ejiofor giving the performance of his career. This wrenching film is crucial to understanding America’s heritage. Also with Sarah Paulson, Lupita Nyong’o, Paul Dano, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Giamatti, Michael K. Williams, Scoot McNairy, Taran Killam, Adepero Oduye, Garret Dillahunt, Alfre Woodard, Brad Pitt, and Quvenzhané Wallis.
The Wolf of Wall Street (R) Not Martin Scorsese’s best film, but definitely his funniest. Leonardo DiCaprio stars as Jordan Belfort, the real-life fraudster whose firm made more than $1 billion in the 1990s manipulating penny stocks. The movie is structured too much like Goodfellas, with its high-living band of outlaws wielding phones instead of guns. Still, after playing a string of intense, tormented heroes, DiCaprio is revelatory in his first out-and-out comic performance, blending well with a cast full of experienced comedians (including Jonah Hill as his nebbishy right-hand man) and executing a great piece of slapstick involving Quaaludes and a car. Scorsese may be repeating himself, but his story hasn’t lost much in the re-telling. Also with Margot Robbie, Kyle Chandler, Rob Reiner, Jon Bernthal, Jon Favreau, Joanna Lumley, Cristin Milioti, Shea Whigham, Katarina Cas, P.J. Byrne, Kenneth Choi, Brian Sacca, Henry Zebrowski, Ethan Suplee, Jean Dujardin, Matthew McConaughey, and an uncredited Spike Jonze.
At Middleton (R) Andy Garcia and Vera Farmiga star in this romance as two parents who fall in love while taking their kids on a college admissions tour. Also with Taissa Farmiga, Spencer Lofranco, Nicholas Braun, Peter Riegert, and Tom Skerritt.
The Great Beauty (NR) This comedy by Paolo Sorrentino (Il Divo) stars Toni Servillo as a Roman writer and social butterfly who’s forced to re-evaluate his life and his city when he turns 65. Also with Carlo Verdone, Sabrina Ferilli, Carlo Buccirosso, Iaia Forte, Serena Grandi, and Fanny Ardant.
The Invisible Woman (R) Ralph Fiennes directs and stars in this biopic based on the love affair between Charles Dickens and Ellen Ternan (Felicity Jones). Also with Kristin Scott Thomas, Michelle Fairley, Joanna Scanlan, John Kavanagh, Perdita Weeks, Mark Dexter, and Tom Hollander.