by Jeff Boam


Opening this weekend


300: Rise of an Empire
Sullivan Stapleton, Rodrigo Santoro
In this R-rated actioner, Greek general Themistokles (Stapleton) leads the charge against invading Persian forces led by mortal-turned-god Xerxes (Santoro) and Artemisia (Eva Green), vengeful commander of the Persian navy. The Plus: The original. Based on a comic book series by Frank Miller (Sin City) and directed by Zack Snyder (Man of Steel), bloody swords and sandals saga 300 broke box office records, made a star out of Gerald Butler (Olympus Has Fallen), and trailblazed some groundbreaking special effects, which replicated the imagery of the original comic book panels. Here, for the prequel/sequel, Noam Murro (Smart People) directs a cast that includes Stapleton (Animal Kingdom), Santoro (The Last Stand), Green (Dark Shadows), and Lena Headey (HBO’s Game of Thrones). The Minus: The odds. Except for Snyder, who produced and co-wrote the screenplay, none of the original players returned save for Headey (Dredd). In the hands of a relatively inexperienced director, this big budget follow-up just might hit the skids.


Now Playing

Liam Neeson, Julianne Moore
*** — Taken to the Bank
Flying just high enough to give moviegoers a business class amount of frills and thrills, Non-Stop finds Liam Neeson in top form even when the story takes a familiar flight pattern. In this PG-13-rated actioner, an air marshal (Neeson) springs into action during a transatlantic flight after receiving a series of text messages that put his fellow passengers at risk unless the airline transfers $150 million into an off-shore account. Even when the action recipe gets followed to the ounce, however, the script offers up a few first-class twists that keep the action from becoming grounded (the ransomer’s bank account is in our hero’s name and a cleared suspect later reveals himself to be the villain). Not only does Non-Stop apart keep audiences guessing, but it’s better than the blockbuster Taken twofer put together. Not that this is a high mantle, mind you, but it doesn’t put viewers in the economy class with a shoot-‘em-up that should’ve gone direct to video either. Like Fred Astaire hoofing it in top hat and tails and Jackie Chan prat falling his way through chop socky fisticuffs, H’Wood plays to certain actor’s strengths time and time and time again, regardless of the looming threat of redundancy. Regardless of how unoriginal Taken and its sequel prove to be, Liam Neeson deserves his well-earned tenure as latter-day action star. He gets the job done brilliantly, looking every bit of his 61 years but convincingly doling out ass-whoopings at 10,000 feet. Non-Stop doesn’t reach sky high levels of entertainment but definitely stands head and shoulders above his last collaboration with Jaume Collet-Serra, the horrid excuse for entertainment called The Unknown.

Kit Harrington, Emily Browning
** — Pomp and Circumvent
Ashing in the face of famed ‘70s producer Irwin Allen, Pompeii takes Gladiator and pits it somewhere in between the Shake ‘n’ Bake twofer of classic H’Wood disaster movies Earthquake and Towering Inferno. In this PG-13-rated disaster flick from Paul W.S. Anderson (the Resident Evil franchise), a slave turned gladiator (Harrington) races against time to save his true love (Browning), who has been betrothed to a corrupt Roman Senator (Kiefer Sutherland) as Mount Vesuvius erupts around them. That description alone should make your brain swell with hot anticipation, but the actual experience inspires less adventure and more displeasure as you pretty much watch a B-Movie with a nine-figure budget unfold before your eyes. When it comes down to it, why does Asylum, producers of such direct-to-video mockbusters as Transmorphers and Titanic II, catch such flak when such a supposedly A-List production house like Filmdistrict is pretty much providing the same blockbuster-aping product at a much higher ticket price?

Son of God
Diogo Morgado, Amber Rose Revah
** — Least Temptation of Christ
Drawing masses to the cinemas for a Greatest Hits package of Bible stories featuring the Son of God, this patchwork re-edit of a History Channel mini-series offering filmgoers a faith-affirming saga from the cradle to the grave of Jesus Christ sadly turns potential wine into water. In this PG-13-rated drama, the life story of Jesus (Morgado) gets re-told from his humble birth through his teachings, crucifixion and ultimate resurrection. If you’ve seen illustrated picture books of the New Testament for children, you’ve already seen and realized the breadth of this literal interpretation of a family friendly Bible story. Honestly, Monty Python’s Life of Brian provides Christians with more Sunday School discussion points. Aside from a few tears and some blood stains, there’s very little exploration of the human side of God’s flesh form. What Mel Gibson did with the gritty but reverential The Passion of the Christ was awe-inspiring. What the abridged Jesus of Nazareth clone The Son of God does is simply duh-inspiring. Imagine the creator of earth revealing himself in human form to experience his creation’s tragic failings. It would and should result in more than a big-budget Little Golden Book. Looking like Barry Gibb after a teeth whitening, Diogo Morgado tries to inspire humbleness but often comes off looking smug. Of course, there’s very little bread and fishes dredged up from the script, which presents a straight-ahead re-reading of Anglicized scripture rather than a truthful dramatization of some earth-shattering events.

3 Days to Kill
Kevin Costner, Hailee Steinfeld
** — Jack Ryan: Shadow Rebuke
There are worse ways to kill time than watching Kevin Costner’s predictable latest, but this bland bang bang flirts so much with boredom that the viewing feels like it’s taken you 3 Days to watch. In PG-13-rated actioner, Costner plays a dying Secret Service Agent trying to reconnect with his estranged daughter (Steinfeld) who gets offered an experimental drug that could save his life in exchange for one last assignment. It seems like it was just weeks ago that this column raved that Kevin Costner was the best part of Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit and lobbied for him to be given another shot at being an action hero. Well, be careful what you wish for. Oh, there are some clever tweaks to the recycled story but it’s not enough to save moviegoers from a mission called tedium. Thanks to a winning lead, you almost want to throw 3 Days to Kill a bone … but it’s 10 days shy of being a Costner Days flick we actually care about: Thirteen Days.


Small Screens

12 Years a Slave
Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender
****1/2  — Roots Down
New to DVD following its Best Picture win at the Academy Awards, it’s 12 Years a Slave. In this R-rated drama based on an incredible pre-Civil War true story, Solomon Northup, a free black man from upstate New York (Chiwetel Ejiofor) gets abducted and sold into slavery in the Antebellum South. A Slave to no film before it, this amazingly rich but brutal true story earns a vaulted place as one of the best historical dramas of the last 12 Years, let alone one. It’s a blistering gut punch of authenticity that hits hard and stays with you. The performances sear (Ejiofor and Fassbender are assured Oscar nods), the writing crackles with truth, and director Steve McQueen captures this entire house on fire in long uninterrupted takes.