300: RISE OF AN EMPIRE. Apparently 300 (2006), Zack Snyder's misbegotten, highly stylized adaptation of Frank Miller's graphic novel, made enough money and fans to drive the studio back to the well. Even though there is ostensibly a bigger story being told here, clearly profit, rather than art or narrative, is the motivating factor.
More a companion piece than a sequel, 300: Rise of an Empire tells the story of the greater conflict surrounding the events of the first movie. We learn, in a legitimately exciting opening sequence, that Greek warrior-king Themistocles (Sullivan Stapleton) incurred the wrath of a young Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro, reprising his role) by mortally wounding Xerxes' father, Darius, at the Battle of Marathon. The Persian scion, motivated by grief, rage and the dubious advice of Greek-born Artemisia (Eva Green), commander of his father's naval forces, wanders the desert until he turns into the giant, gold "God-King" we know so well. He then, of course, proceeds to slaughter the titular Spartans at Thermopylae, while Artemisia turns her attentions to the forces of Themistocles.
Even in summary, the plot is hopelessly, needlessly convoluted. The excess of characters and elements threatens to pull the whole thing apart, and the wafer-thin writing doesn't do the story any favors. The voice-over, with its awkward purple prose, is occasionally laughably bad, failing altogether to do the work of advancing the story. As I mentioned, some of the action sequences are compelling and fun, but none of them rise to the level of the opening. And that bait and switch might be the worst insult of all. The first 10 minutes were exciting and stylish enough to sucker me into thinking I might enjoy the rest of the movie. But then in comes the actual storytelling and the air goes out of the room. R. 102m.
MR. PEABODY AND SHERMAN. Likely only the grandparents in the audience will remember the source material for this, or have any real connection to it (these characters were created what, 55 years ago?). But that, I'm happy to say, shouldn't matter much; the movie is charming and entertaining enough on its own merits. It may not belong in the pantheon of great animated features, but it is resoundingly better than most.
Mr. Peabody (voiced by Ty Burrell) is perhaps the most capable sentient being on the planet: a Nobel Prize winner, titan of industry, world-class athlete, chef and inventor who happens to be a dog in glasses. Having conquered the worlds of letters, finance and technology, Peabody decides to adopt a human boy. (As a pup, he was too wrapped up in his intellectual pursuits to make much of a case for himself as an attractive pet. The absence of a loving home life understandably left something of a void). After winning adoption rights in court, he throws himself into fatherhood, doing everything he can to provide for and enrich the life of his son, Sherman (Max Charles). This includes the construction and deployment of a time machine (the WABAC Machine) as tool for teaching history. When Sherman goes off to his first day of school, his uncanny, first-hand knowledge of George Washington lands him in a squabble with a classmate. Child Protective Services gets involved, threatening to remove Sherman from his home. Peabody arranges a dinner party with the classmates' parents, but Sherman messes with the WABAC, a time rift is created, etc.
The conclusion of the story feels a little rushed and predictable, but the stops we make along the way just about make up for it. The writing is clever, the characterizations lively and humorous, and any kids' movie that would actually take a shot at teaching some history — even if it's revisionist and chronologically questionable — stands out. PG. 92m.
— John J. Bennett
NEED FOR SPEED. The Fast and the Lucrative. Framed street racer Aaron Paul is out of jail and out for vengeance via stunts and chases. Cue explosion. PG13. 130m.
2014 OSCAR-NOMINATED LIVE-ACTION SHORT FILMS. Academy approved and 30 minutes or less. Films include: Do I Have to Take Care of Everything?, Helium, Just Before Losing Everything, That Wans't Me and The Voorman Problem. Not Rated. 111m.
3 DAYS TO KILL. A bored Kevin Costner as a CIA tough guy on one final assignment to save his own life and spend quality time with his daughter. Not the Luc Besson action movie you hoped for. PG13. 113m.
AMERICAN HUSTLE. David O. Russell takes a stellar cast, including Bradley Cooper and Amy Adams, back to the '70s for an ambitious and entertaining ABSCAM-inspired caper. R. 138m.
FROZEN. Kristen Bell in some standard Disney Princess fun with Josh Gad as a slapsticky snowman. PG. 108m
LEGO MOVIE. Underdog, villain, evil plan, destiny, heroism, jokes — the usual stuff, but with Legos! PG. 100m.
MONUMENTS MEN. Clooney's squad of artists and curators liberate art from the Nazis. A rousing and impressive detective story. PG13. 118m.
NON-STOP. Neeson on a plane! Fine performances from Julianne Moore and Liam Neeson take action/suspense to higher altitudes for a smart, entertaining movie. PG13. 106m.
PHILOMENA. Steve Coogan helps Judi Dench track down the son who was taken from her as a baby. PG13. 98m.
POMPEI. If there's a volcano in the first act, you shouldn't have to wait through so much clichéd romance and gladiator kitsch before it goes off in the third. PG13. 100m.
SON OF GOD. Cobbled-together, superficial greatest-hits medley of the New Testament. The book was better. PG13. 138m.
— Jennifer Fumiko Cahill