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Movies: ‘The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug’ reviewed with other new, recent films

Ugly is as ugly does: An Orc blocks the path in “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.”
Back for more: Josh Hutcherson and Jennifer Lawrence in “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.”
Jason Statham, James Franco and Winona Ryder star in "Homefront."
Josh Brolin stars in Spike Lee’s remake of the 2003 violent cult-fave “Oldboy.”
Disney's lastest animated movie, 'Frozen," follows two royal sisters, one with magical powers.

OPENING FRIDAY

AMERICAN HUSTLE

★★★ 1/2

Rated R for pervasive language, some sexual content and brief violence

Stars: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence

A New York con man and his partner (Bale and Adams) are forced by a loose-cannon FBI agent (Cooper) into a sting intended to bust federal politicians for taking bribes. David O. Russell (“Silver Linings Playbook”) directed the drama, based on the 1970s ABSCAM scandal.

ANCHORMAN 2: THE LEGEND CONTINUES

Rated PG-13 for crude and sexual content, drug use, language and comic violence

Stars: Will Ferrell, Steve Carell, Paul Rudd, Christina Applegate

San Diego’s top TV newsman (Ferrell) moves to New York in the ’80s join the first 24-hour news channel. Adam McKay (“Talledega Nights”) returns to direct the sequel to his 2004 hit.

WALKING WITH DINOSAURS 3D

Rated PG for creature action and peril, and mild rude humor

Stars: Charlie Rowe, Karl Urban, Justin Long, Angourie Rice

A young dinosaur named Patchi (Long) uses his wits to make up for his small size during a dangerous prehistoric journey. Barry Cook (“Mulan”) and Neil Nightingale (“Enchanted Kingdom 3D”) directed the animated family adventure.

STILL PLAYING

THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG

★★★

Rated PG-13 for extended sequences of fantasy action violence, and frightening images

Stars: Martin Freeman, Benedict Cumberbatch, Ian McKellen, Cate Blanchett

Though it’s moderately bad news that the padding is more obvious in the second installment of director Peter Jackson’s nine-hour adaptation of Tolkien’s 300-page book, there’s good news as well. The best is that “Desolation of Smaug” is every bit as spectacular as the high points of part one — and even the peak moments of Jackson’s purely wonderful “Lord of the Rings.” Some might question whether it was necessary for Jackson and company to invent a tormented love triangle between a dwarf heartthrob (Turner), an female elf warrior (Lilly) and the elf archer Legolas (Bloom, who’s been recruited from “LOTR”), but never mind. Things heat up nicely when the titular fire-breathing dragon finally gets into the act.

SAVING MR. BANKS

Rated PG-13 for thematic elements including some unsettling images

Stars: Emma Thompson, Tom Hanks, Colin Farrell, Paul Giamatti

Walt Disney (Hanks) attempts to convince the extremely reluctant author P.L. Travers (Thompson) to let him make a movie adaptation of “Mary Poppins.” John Lee Hancock (“The Blind Side”) directed the drama.

TYLER PERRY’S A MADEA CHRISTMAS

Rated PG-13 for sexual references, crude humor and language

Stars: Tyler Perry, Chad Michael Murray, Tika Sumpter, Larry the Cable Guy

Tough-talking Madea (Perry) has a shocking effect on a small town when she travels there to help a friend reunite with her daughter at Christmas. Perry (“Madea’s Witness Protection”) wrote and directed the holiday comedy.

HOMEFRONT

★★

Rated R for strong violence, pervasive language, drug content and brief sexuality

Stars: Jason Statham, James Franco, Winona Ryder

It’s almost worth the price of admission just to see Jason Statham in a shoulder-length wig that makes him look like the lead singer in an ’80s hair-metal band. Aside from that bit of coiffure craziness, “Homefront” is remarkably lackluster. Especially considering that screenwriter Sylvester Stallone originally considered turning the basic story into “Rambo 5.” Statham plays a single dad who retires from the DEA after a drug bust gone way wrong and moves to a small town with his young daughter. It takes a long, painfully slow time for the confusingly frenetic adrenaline-pumping finale (involving local meth manufacturer Franco and a vengeful biker gang) to kick into gear.

OUT OF THE FURNACE

Rated R for strong violence, language and drug content

Stars: Christian Bale, Casey Affleck, Woody Harrelson, Zoe Saldana

An unapologetically downbeat, yet reassuringly righteous tale of brotherly love in grim circumstances from writer/director Scott Cooper — who also made the Oscar-winning “Crazy Heart.” When troubled Iraq vet Affleck disappears after becoming involved in the bare-knuckle fight scene run by psycho hillbilly Harrelson, it’s up to his decent, law-abiding brother Bale to even the score. Plot elements verge on over-familiar, but the mood, the bone-deep, brooding melancholy, and some excellent performances, generate considerable dramatic heat.

THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE

Rated: PG-13 for intense sequences of violent action, some frightening images, thematic elements, a suggestive situation and language

Stars:Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson

It takes a long, long time to work up its appetite for excitement, but “Catching Fire” ultimately does hit the spot with a big second helping of teenage, dystopian-future, gladiatorial combat. A heartless spectacle we get to enjoy while tsk-tsking at the terrible cruelty of it, too. After surviving in the original “Hunger Games” with her love-struck friend Peeta (Hutcherson), the feisty archer Katniss (the Oscar-validated Lawrence) is forced to participate in another fight to the death when she becomes a symbol of revolution.

OLDBOY

★★★ 1/2

Stars:Josh Brolin, Elizabeth Olsen, Samuel L. Jackson, Sharlto Copley

Spike Lee’s remake falls a bit short of the final note of twisted perversity in Korean director Chan-wook Park’s 2003 cult-fave paean to payback, but it’s still plenty twisted and every bit as visually stylish as the original. Brolin stars as a thoroughly reprehensible sleazoid who’s abducted and imprisoned for 20 years without knowing why. Suddenly released just as mysteriously, he’s determined to become a better man and a father to the daughter he abandoned long ago. But first there’s a little matter of psychotically violent revenge to take care of.

BLACK NATIVITY

★★ 1/2

Rated PG for thematic material, language and a menacing situation

Stars: Forest Whitaker, Angela Bassett, Jennifer Hudson, Jacob Latimore

There’s plenty of soul-wrenching singing in writer/director Kasi “Eve’s Bayou” Lemmons’ musical-theater re-imagining of Langston Hughes’ 1961 Christmas oratorio, and no shortage of tormented melodrama in between, yet it mostly feels artificial and unmoving. Despite how hard everyone’s working to put some sentiment on the scoreboard. Hudson makes a welcome return to belting after a post-“Dreamgirls” hiatus as a single mom facing eviction who sends her teenage son (Latimore) spend the holidays with her estranged parents (Whitaker and Bassett) in Harlem.

FROZEN

★★★

Rated PG for some action and mild rude humor

Stars: Kristen Bell, Josh Gad, Idina Menzel

“Frozen” certainly has the traditional fairy-tale spirit, as defined by Walt Disney, that is: princesses, magic and even true love’s kiss. It’s all bound up with an agreeably up-to-date attitude about female empowerment that doesn’t sacrifice girly-girl fantasy. Unfortunately, Disney’s 53rd animated feature also comes with mostly vapid Broadway-ready show tunes. Comic actress Bell plays the feisty princess Anna, who adventures into the wilderness to bring back her sister Queen Elsa (Menzel of “Glee”), who has accidentally winterized their kingdom with her icy magical powers.

PHILOMENA

★★★ 1/2

Rated PG-13 for some language

Stars: Steve Coogan, Judi Dench

It’s hard to think of an odder couple than the aloof, atheistic journalist and the chattily devout, grandmotherly, long-suffering lady who gradually warm to each other in the marvelous “Philomena.” Directed by Stephen Frears (“The Queen”),“Philomena” tells the story of Philomena Lee (Judi Dench in another brilliant performance), searching for the child taken from her in the 1950s by nuns in a home for unwed mothers and essentially sold to rich American adoptive parents. But its true subject is the relationship between Philomena and unemployed BBC newsman Martin Sixsmith (Coogan, also very good) who reluctantly helps her, with their surprising, rewarding and often very funny discussions about love, sex, religion and life in general.

NEBRASKA

★★★ 1/2

Rated: R for some language

Stars: Bruce Dern, Will Forte, Bob Odenkirk, Stacy Keach

Somber, poignant “Nebraska” has a lot to say about misspent lives, disconnected fathers and sons — and love in spite of everything. After receiving a magazine-subscription come-on declaring he has won a million dollars, infirm, near-senile old boozehound Woody (Dern, who won the Best Actor prize at Cannes) is determined to dodder all the way to Lincoln, Neb., to pick up his prize. So his sad-faced, soft-hearted younger son (Forte) decides to drive him, hoping to get a little closer in the time he has left. If you’re expecting this to be a setup for old wounds to be healed, forget it. The script is far too prickly for that, and director Alexander Payne (“The Descendants”) understands that Woody wouldn’t care about that sort of thing anyway.

DELIVERY MAN

★★1/2

Rated:PG-13 for thematic elements, sexual content, some drug material, brief violence and language

Stars: Vince Vaughn, Chris Pratt, Cobie Smulders

Think twice if you find yourself getting really diligent about something. Especially if it’s artificial insemination for profit. You could discover late in life that you’ve sired 533 children and that 142 are suing to learn your identity, like middle-aged man-child David (Vaughn), who was just getting used to the idea of having one kid with his pregnant police-officer girlfriend (Smulders). Co-writer/director Ken Scott (who also directed the better French Canadian original, a.k.a. “Starbuck” six months ago) pretty much copies himself scene for scene, tugging on the heartstrings whenever possible as David secretly becomes involved in the lives of his many, many offspring. That strategy was nicely offset in “Starbuck” by a certain sort of edgy comic feistiness from Canadian star Patrick Huard. Not so much from Vaughn, though. With him, it’s perplexed puppy-dog eyes all the way.

THE BOOK THIEF

★★1/2

Rated: PG-13 for some violence and intense depiction of thematic material

Stars: Geoffrey Rush, Emily Watson, Sophie Nélisse, Roger Allam

A Child’s Garden of the Holocaust? Not quite. Yet, this low-impact adaptation of the mega-selling young-adult novel “The Book Thief” takes such a kid-safe approach to the terrible events it dramatizes seem strangely rosy and cozy. Newcomer Nélisse is quite good as young Liesel, embraced by adoptive parents (Rush and Watson, supplying much-needed emotional ballast) in World War II Germany, and soon involved in hiding a young Jewish refugee (Ben Schnetzer). As soft-spoken, philosophical Death (Allam), doing double duty as narrator, looks on with approval. Awful events are featured, but it’s hard to get worked up about them because, even in the worst extreme, everything is managed in a way that’s perfectly peaceful and pleasant.

THE BEST MAN HOLIDAY

★★ 1/2

Rated R for language, sexual content and brief nudity

Stars: Terrence Howard, Sanaa Lathan, Morris Chestnut, Taye Diggs, Nia Long

It might not quite be able to settle on whether it wants to scandalize you or sanctify you, or make you laugh or make you sob, but “The Best Man Holiday” does a lively job of bouncing back and forth from one to the other. The over-achieving gang from Malcolm D. Lee’s 1999 hit “The Best Man” (everyone’s a novelist, a network exec, a TV star or some such) returns for more raunchy sex, old-time religion and full-on melodrama, assembling at the mansion of NFL superstar Chestnut — a proponent of “God, family and football” in that order. At least you’re not likely to be bored. There’s way too much going on here for that.

DALLAS BUYERS CLUB

★★★ 1/2

Rated R for pervasive language, some strong sexual content, nudity and drug use

Stars: Matthew McConaughey, Jared Leto, Jennifer Garner

A fascinating story of survival through pure orneriness, “Dallas Buyers Club” is also well worth seeing for the performances of two almost sure-fire Oscar nominees. McConaughey (definitively proving there’s more to him than looking good shirtless) is borderline repellent at times in the role of lowlife redneck homophobic hell-raiser Ron Woodroof, who was quite dismayed to learn in 1985 that he had the AIDS virus and was expected to die in 30 days. And Leto, who like McConaughey lost 40 pounds for the role, is simply great as the tragic yet tough and feisty transsexual Rayon — Woodroof’s customer liaison, with whom he develops an uneasy, increasingly personal relationship.

ENDER’S GAME

★★★1/2

Rated PG-13 for some violence, sci-fi action and thematic material

Stars: Harrison Ford, Asa Butterfield, Hailee Steinfeld

There’s a lot to admire about this surprisingly substantial sci-fi spectacular, but the best thing is its radical assumption that kids might respond to a story driven by weighty moral issues. After barely surviving an attack by the ant-like Formic race, the Earth has decided its brightest children, including a soulful-eyed prodigy named Ender (Butterfield, almost as good here as he was in “Hugo”), are best suited for the high-tech, computer-driven war of the future. But after proving himself in training, the new commander of Earth’s armies is conflicted by the order to extinguish the enemy with a massive preemptive strike.

BAD GRANDPA

★★★

Rated R for strong crude and sexual content throughout, language, some graphic nudity and brief drug use

Stars: Johnny Knoxville, Jackson Nicoll, Spike Jonze, Georgina Cates

If you have any tolerance at all for the sort of outrageous, epic-scale, vulgar bad behavior on display in “Bad Grandpa,” you’re likely to laugh out loud at least once while watching it. Maybe even several times. Out of shock if nothing else. That is, unless copulation with a soda machine, entering an 8-year-old drag queen in a junior beauty pageant, and explosive diarrhea are automatic disqualifiers. In which case, stay far away. A sexually obsessed 86-year-old (“Jackass” star Knoxville) is forced to drop his young grandson (Nicoll, great) off to live with his sleazy dad. And the resultant road trip turns into a long series of wildly crude hidden-camera pranks and stunts performed for unsuspecting citizens.

12 YEARS A SLAVE

★★★★

Rated R for violence/cruelty, some nudity and brief sexuality

Stars: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch

An almost unimaginably harrowing depiction of slavery in the United States, “12 Years a Slave” is also an inspiring story of a man who refused to give in to despair despite extreme physical, emotional and spiritual suffering. In a profoundly affecting performance, a certain Best Actor contender, Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Solomon Northup, a free black man who was kidnapped from Saratoga, N.Y. in 1841 and sold into slavery. “12 Years” is a showcase for a parade of white actors behaving abominably (especially Fassbender as a religious maniac plantation owner), but it’s the genuineness of Ejiofor’s performance, with its innumerable shadings of acute anguish, that gives the film its devastating emotional impact. That and the terrible realism with which director Steve McQueen (“Shame”) presents the story’s nonstop cruelties.

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