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While we were away: Holiday movie review edition

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NUVO may have taken a nice long break between Christmas and New Year's, but film reviewer Ed Johnson-Ott still found the time to take in a few flicks. Here are five capsule reviews that we would've published in our Dec. 31 edition had there been one.

The Gambler
★★1/2 (out of five)
No, it's not nearly as good as the 1974 original starring James Caan. But this version, with Mark Wahlberg in the starring role, has some good moments. Jim Bennett (Wahlberg) is a university English lit professor with a sorta relationship with a student (Brie Lawson) who is into the class for more than students like basketball player Lamar (Anthony Kelly). Jim spends most of his free time gambling big money. His mom bails him out when things get wildly out of hand, but matters get even worse. Wahlberg is okay, but John Goodman is terrific as a gangster.
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The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies
★★★
It's over. Praise be, it's over. J.R.R. Tolkien's beloved little story became a bloated three film prequel to “Lord of the Rings,” with new characters and as well as veterans of LotR cluttering the landscape of Peter Jackson's strained epic. The good news is that this one is just two and a half hours long, and the shortened (grading on a curve) running time is appreciated. Oh, and Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) is still around. Remember Bilbo? The bad news is that he's marginalized here, as mega battles take center stage and go on for ages. There are moments of magic, but the cost is too much.
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Into the Woods
★★★1/2
Disney adaptation of the popular Stephen Sondheim-James Lapine musical. The story is a twist on the tales of Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford), Jack and the Beanstalk (Daniel Huttlestone) and Rapunzel (MacKenzie Mauzy) tied together by a baker and his wife (James Corden and Emily Blunt) and their interactions with a witch (Meryl Streep). Lots of fine performances, but Streep is a standout. When she comes onscreen the movie crackles with energy. Beware, the vitality of the first half fades notably during the second half.
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Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb
★★1/2
Ben Stiller, Owen Wilson and Robin Williams take a bow in what is said to be the final installment in the children's action-comedy series about museum figures that magically come to life after hours. Director of Nighttime Operations Larry Daley (Stiller) heads for London when the magic tablet of Ahkmenrah (Rami Malek) acts up. In addition to the series veterans, Ben Kingsley, Rebel Wilson, Hugh Jackman and Andrea Martin join the cast. Despite the change of scenery, it's mostly more of the same old business. For fans only.
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Unbroken
★★★
Angelina Jolie directs the fact-based story of Olympian and WWII hero Louis “Louie” Zamperini (Jack O'Connell, who survived a plane crash and spent 47 days in a raft with two fellow crewman (Domhnall Gleeson and Finn Wittrock), only to be captured by the Japanese and sent to a prison camp. The hellish tale of survival is well staged. The survival at sea portion works best – the prison camp experience, as horrible as it is, lacks the immediacy needed to make the goings on visceral. The film is good, but it doesn't quite move above that.

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