Following are Susan Granger's reviews of the latest movies playing in area theaters:
"MUPPETS MOST WANTED"
The prophetic opening musical number -- "We're Doing a Sequel ... It's what we do in Hollywood, though it's never quite as good" -- heralds Jim Henson's fuzzy fellows' new, globe-trotting crime caper.
Beginning where their previous film ended, the Muppets are on Hollywood Boulevard celebrating their reunion. Meanwhile, across the globe, nefarious forces are at work. An evil Kermit look-alike named Constantine (voiced by Matt Vogel) has escaped from Gulag 38B and concocted a diabolical scheme with Dominic Badguy (Ricky Gervais), a talent manager whose name is pronounced "Bad-jee." Dominic convinces the Muppets to go on an international tour, telling them, "I want you to conquer the world."
Not coincidentally, every grand European theater they're booked into just happens to be near a bank or museum that can be robbed during their performance. Their first gig is in Germany, where they're a bit disconcerted by billboards heralding "Die Muppets." But when they arrive in Berlin, Kermit (voiced by Steve Whitmire) is kidnapped and shipped to Siberia, where his Gulag is commanded by Nadya (Tina Fey), a musical comedy-obsessed prison guard. Disguised as Kermit, Constantine ardently woos Miss Piggy, fostering her fantasy of a lavish European wedding at the Tower of London, where the Crown Jewels are kept. On their trail are bumbling Interpol agent Jean Pierre Napoleon (Ty Burrell) and Sam the Eagle, while courageous Kermit concocts a Von Trapp-like escape during a talent show, arriving at the nuptial altar just in time to allow Miss Piggy to discern which frog is the real croaker.
Co-scripted by Nicholas Stollar and director James Bobin with songwriter Bret McKenzie, it's reminiscent of "The Great Muppet Caper" (1981), as the felt-covered friends once again frolic with a host of celebrities, including Lady Gaga, Celine Dion, Sean Combs, Zach Galifianakis, Salma Hayek, Saoirse Ronan and Frank Langella. Most memorably, Ray Liotta, Danny Trejo and Jermaine Clement sing and Christoph Waltz waltzes.
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, "Muppets Most Wanted" is a swift-paced, smartly spoofy 7. Family-friendly, it's mistaken identity fun.
"300: RISE OF AN EMPIRE"
Told in the same distinctive visual style as Zack Snyder's "300," this contiguous saga pits Greek general Themistocles (Sullivan Stapleton) against attacking Persian forces, ruled by glistening God-King Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro), son/heir to King Darius, and led by his naval commander, cunning and vengeful Artemisia (Eva Green). The timeline is confusing since this occurs during and after the fall of Spartan King Leonidas at Thermopylae.
As the Athenian politician who earnestly believes in democracy, Themistocles attempts to unite the disparate Greek city-states to fight together against the Persian invaders, but he runs into major opposition from Spartan Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey), who serves as storyteller.
Scripted by Snyder and Kurt Johnstad, based on the graphic novel "Xerxes" by Frank Miller, it's vividly directed by Noam Murro and photographed by Simon Duggan with excessive amounts of blood splattering in slow motion. According to Hellenistic historian Herodotus, Xerxes and Artemesia existed but his origin story and the details of their relationship have been fictionalized, along with Artemesia's sex-and-violence interlude with Themistocles aboard her barge.
While Australian actor Stapleton ("Animal Kingdom") propels the plot, Green ("Casino Royale") steals the show with her sensuous, ferociously villainous portrayal. Credit goes to stunt coordinator/second-unit director Damon Caro for the intricate sword play and epic, bare-chested, hand-to-hand combat sequences, and nods to VFX supervisor Richard Hollander and Bryan Hirota at Scanline for the roiling, hyper-stylized Aegean Sea.
FYI: The physical sets -- including segments of Greek wooden triremes and the black-clad Persian warships -- were constructed on soundstages at Nu Boyana Studio, just outside of Sofia, Bulgaria. Scenes where the actors had to go into the water were filmed in tanks in London at Warner Bros. Studios, Leavesden. And every set, both interior and exterior, was surrounded by blue or green screens, which would later be transformed into views of ancient Greece or Persia.
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, "300: Rise of an Empire" is a stylized 6, an action fantasy filled with brutal naval battles and brimming with excessive grisly gore.
"NEED FOR SPEED"
Based on the most successful racing video-game franchise, the gimmick of this new adrenaline-propelled action adventure is that there's no CGI.
Tobey Marshall (Aaron Paul from "Breaking Bad") is a mechanic who races muscle cars on the unsanctioned street-racing circuit. Desperate to keep his family-owned garage afloat, he reluctantly partners with arrogant, wealthy ex-NASCAR driver Dino Brewster (Dominic Cooper). Just after he's made a sale through car broker Julia Maddon (Imogen Poots), a disastrous race, in which Tobey's protege Pete (Harrison Gilbertson) is killed, allows sleazy Dino to frame Tobey for manslaughter. Dino then steals his high school sweetheart, Pete's sister Anita (Dakota Johnson), and expands the business.
Out of prison two years later, Tobey is determined to wreak revenge by defeating Dino in a secret, high-stakes, no-rules race known as the De Leon, run by online shock jock Monarch (Michael Keaton). Problem is: Tobey's in Mount Kisco, N.Y., and the race starts 2,800 miles away in San Francisco in 45 hours. Driving a $2.7 million custom Ford Mustang -- "the one Carroll Shelby was building when he died" -- Tobey and Julia careen across America, dodging cops and determined mercenaries who want the massive bounty that Dino's put on his head. Helping along the way are Rami Malek, as a bug-eyed mechanic, and hip-hop star Scott Mescudi (a.k.a. Kid Cudi), as an Army Reserve pilot.
Incoherently scripted by George Gatins with numerous plot holes and cliched dialogue, it's choppily directed by Scott Waugh, whose father, legendary stuntman Fred Waugh, coordinated movie sequences for 40 years. Scott's own resume includes "Act of Valor," "Spider-Man," "Speed" and "Batman Forever." He was determined to keep the rubber-burning action real without resorting to CGI, so when you see that gravity-defying, 160-foot leap across multiple lanes in downtown Detroit traffic, "hot-fueling," aerial flips, helicopter lifts and other joyriding feats -- they're genuine.
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, "Need for Speed" stalls out with a stilted, finish-line 4. The exhilarating, high-octane speed is authentic but the acting is abysmal.