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"The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug" 3stars

"The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug," the middle film of Peter Jackson's journey through Middle-earth, is a rousing fantasy adventure without a conclusion. That's coming in the 2014 finale, "There and Back Again."

Here, the sweet-natured title character, Bilbo, is recruited by the wizard Gandalf and a company of Dwarves to help reclaim their homeland and treasure, stolen by the fire-breathing dragon Smaug. In the first film, Martin Freeman captures the initial innocence of Bilbo before he rises to the occasion and earns the Dwarves' trust. Now, he secretly possesses The One Ring that can deliver the world into evil, and it's changing him. Gandalf sees it but can't put his finger on the reason, but we know Bilbo is being seduced toward the dark side.

Thorin Oakenshield, the Dwarves' leader, also is under a spell -- of revenge and desire -- as he lusts to return to Erebor and retrieve the Arkenstone that will bestow his rightful place as king. The dragon is just one of the obstacles thrown in his path by an evil that is mounting in the world and is further addressed in "The Lord of the Rings."

Along the way, we are introduced to the fierce Wood Elf Tauriel, played by the spunky, athletic Evangeline Lilly. Purists will balk at the change from the book, but she's a welcome addition, as is the return of Orlando Bloom as Legalos.

Aidan Turner, a beguiling vampire on BBC's "Being Human," plays Kili, Thorin's nephew and the easiest one of the Dwarves to spot. Richard Armitage is the regal Thorin and Luke Ryan, the compassionate Bard.

Mr. Jackson and his Oscar-winning special effects team, led by Aliquippa's Joe Letteri, spend some of the film's 156 minutes just plain showing off, the better to stretch J.R.R. Tolkien's beloved but slim novel into a trilogy. Fans of the book and the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy will find many reasons to applaud the director's vision.

Rated PG-13, for extended sequences of intense fantasy action violence and frightening images. Extras include two behind-the-scenes featurettes, production videos, and Ed Sheeran "I See Fire" music video.

-- Post-Gazette

"August: Osage County" 3stars

Welcome to Pawhuska, Okla., home of the Westons -- the Sooner state's most flamboyantly dysfunctional family. We are about to enter their twilight zone of strong-willed women: Matriarch Violet (Meryl Streep) takes massive quantities of drugs for her painful mouth cancer, cursing and staggering around the house in a fog while her writer-husband, Beverly (Sam Shepard), dulls his own pain with booze.

Suddenly, Bev vanishes. Where'd he go? Who's going to take care of Violet in his absence?

This crisis requires the reluctant return of their three daughters, played by Julia Roberts, Julianne Nicholson and Juliette Lewis.

With her hideous red eyes, dark circles, chemo-thinned hair, this is a breathtakingly different role for 17-time Oscar nominee Streep. Director John Wells ("The Company Men") lets her go, uncontrolled, with some of the most venomous verbiage in the history of histrionics. Ms. Roberts is no less impressive in an equally shrill, dislikable role against her romantic type.

This rendering showcases acting over narrative, with only a superficial sense of Oklahoma. In the end, it's more exhausting than cathartic.

Rated R for language, sexual references and drug material. Extras include commentary, a making-of featurette and deleted scenes.

-- Post-Gazette

"Grudge Match" 2stars

"Grudge Match" coulda been a contender. Instead, it's a so-so movie that looks far funnier in the previews.

Set in Pittsburgh but filmed by director Peter Segal in New Orleans, which looks almost nothing like the Steel City, the comedy stars Sylvester Stallone and Robert De Niro as boxers who were in their prime in the early 1980s when they first faced off and each won a bout.

They were set for a highly anticipated rubber match when Henry "Razor" Sharp (Mr. Stallone) suddenly retired without explanation. He now works in a factory that's on the ropes and lives alone in a house that could use some updating while womanizer Billy "The Kid" McDonnen (Mr. De Niro) parlayed his short-lived fame into becoming a pitchman and opening a bar and car dealership.

They still hate each other's guts and an unscheduled meeting during the making of a video game turns into a melee, which leads to an arrest and then an offer of a rematch by a promoter (Kevin Hart). Old wounds are reopened, a woman (Kim Basinger) who has a tangled history with both men resurfaces, and longtime or new allies join the rivals as they try to get back into fighting trim for what's being billed as "Grudgement Day."

Allowing the actors who played Rocky Balboa and Jake LaMotta to meet in the ring is inspired. The script, by Tim Kelleher and Rodney Rothman, not so much, with Mr. Hart and Alan Arkin, as Razor's trainer attempting to lend some snap, crackle and pop with lines that sound ad-libbed.

"Grudge Match" seems sluggish and padded to reach its nearly two hour running time.

Rated PG-13 for sports action violence, sexual content and language.

DVD extras include deleted scenes. Blu-ray adds "The Bull & The Stallion," "In the Ring With Kevin Hart" and "Ringside With Tyson & Holyfield," plus alternate opening and endings.

-- Post-Gazette

ALSO THIS WEEK: 

• "Holy Ghost People": Southern Gothic thriller about a teen searching for her sister in the Appalachian Mountains.

• "Earthflight": David Tennant narrates the six-part series that takes viewers over the planet's most incredible landscapes.

• "Justin Bieber's Believe": The popular young singer answers questions about his life and music.

"Extreme Bears": Natural history special that reveals the many sides of this often misunderstood creature.

"Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones": Spinoff of the "Paranormal" films.

"Snake and Mongoose": True story of the rivalry between Don "The Snake" Prudhomme and Tom "The Mongoose" McEwen.

"Winged Family": Brings a new view of the lives and travels of birds across the globe.

"The Dog Who Saved Easter": Canine must find a way to stop a gang of crooks.

"Black Coffee": A man meets his soul mate at the wrong time.

"I Am Divine": Documentary on the plus-sized icon of bad taste.

"Best Night Ever": One-night bachelorette party turns wild.

"Guardian of the Highlands": Sean Connery lends his voice to the animated tale.

"Lalaloopsy Ponies: The Big Show": Includes a "Meet the Ponies" featurette.

"Nurse": Horror film about a nurse with a secret double life as a murderous vixen.

"Lizzie Borden Took an Ax": Christina Ricci plays the ax-happy killer.

"Sheriff of Contention": Dangerous killer stalks the Wild West.

-- Rick Bentley, McClatchy Newspapers


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