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Movie reviews: 'Dolphin Tale 2,' 'The Drop'

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"Dolphin Tale 2" (PG) *** (out of four)

In a welcome 180-degree turn away from the "Sharknado" craze, "Dolphin Tale 2" arrives with a big splash, much like it's hit predecessor did in 2011. A family movie through-and-through, the film is a solid follow-up to the original "Dolphin Tale" – an incredible true story about Winter (a dolphin who lost her tail in a crab trap), the humans who nursed her back to health, and the groundbreaking prosthetic tail they fitted the creature with.

"Dolphin Tale 2" advances the story in meaningful manner, as we find Winter acting strangely in the waters she calls home at Florida's Clearwater Marine Aquarium. Winter's instincts are telling her that there was something wrong, and before long, another creature dies at the facility.

With emotions akin to a human being, Winter sinks into a deep depression, which immediately puts her body into distress. Only another compatible female dolphin to share her habitat will bring Winter out of her life-threatening funk, but the clock is ticking fast, as the U.S. Department of Agriculture threatens to transfer the dolphin away from her home – and away from the youths, Sawyer (Nathan Gamble) and Hazel (Cozi Zuehlsdorff), she's bonded with.

While Morgan Freeman, Ashley Judd and Harry Connick Jr. receive top billing in "Dolphin Tale 2," the film somewhat pulls a bait-and-switch maneuver since Gamble and Zuehlsdorff are the real stars (apart from the completely engaging creature co-stars). It's not that the adolescents can't handle the roles – they do quite well, in fact – it's just that fans showing up to see a lot of Freeman, in particular, will be disappointed.

Judd and Connick are more principal to the story, although Connick's role as Dr. Clay Haskett – the marine doctor who established the rescue/rehabilitate/release program and facility – is much more crucial to the plot.

Despite its faults, "Dolphin Tale 2" is by no means a throwaway effort. Writer-director Charles Martin Smith, who directed the first film and also plays a by-the-books USDA inspector in the sequel, clearly is compassionate about telling the rest of Winter's true-life tale. As the story's youthful characters grow, so come the adult decisions they are faced with; not only with the aquarium and medical facility, but also one's that will affect their lives thereafter.

Even though the film gets a bit too melodramatic for its own good at times, "Dolphin Tale 2" is a smartly-scripted coming-of-age story that's only trumped by the engaging, real-life footage in the end credits that essentially recounts the events of the story that's preceded it. The emotional footage is the ultimate key to the success of "Dolphin Tale 2," not just because it validates its fictional representation, but for how it shows life can indeed have real, happy Hollywood endings.

"The Drop" (R) ***1/2 (out of four)

No matter how great the crime thriller "The Drop" is because of its stellar acting and tense storytelling, the film will be overshadowed by the fact that it's the last big-screen appearance of late actor James Gandolfini. A film that finds "The Soparanos" star embroiled in a deadly criminal underworld in New Jersey, it's probably fitting that "The Drop" is Gandolfini's silver screen swan song, even if it's in a role different than what most people know him for.

Gandolfini plays Marv, the former owner of a Brooklyn bar that serves as "a drop" place for the city's dirty money. Marv still runs the bar with his mild-mannered cousin, Bob (Tom Hardy), and when armed robbers hold up the joint for $5,000, the duo's lives are thrown into turmoil as police detectives, threatening Chechen mobsters and other seedy characters in the neighborhood lurk around every corner with clouded agendas.

Scripted by acclaimed author Dennis Lehane from his own short story, "The Drop" is novel, so to speak, because it's not your typical crime thriller of late. There are violent moments in "The Drop" to be sure, but it's far from a crash-boom-bang shoot-'em-up sort of picture. It's slow-burn narrative at its finest, as the tense atmosphere keeps you continually second-guessing characters' motivations and leaving you fretfully curious about what's going to happen next.

Gandolfini, naturally, fits the bill as Marv, whose character becomes a bit more complex as the film rolls along. "The Drop," however, truly belongs to Hardy, the British-born "Inception" and "Dark Knight Rises" star who not only nails his East coast accent and persona, but looks like a young Marlon Brando and carries himself in a subtle Brando-esque manner. He's easily one of the most under-recognized actors of his generation.

The best thing about "The Drop" is that it feels real. There's conversational, non-specific dialogue in the film that hearkens to real life yet is still engaging – particularly between Bob and Nadia (Noomi Rapace), a mysterious woman the quiet, unassuming bartender befriends after he finds an injured, discarded pit bull puppy in her trash. The dog actually plays a role in the film too, and is at the center of a tense showdown between Bob and a violent person from Nadia's past who has a deadly reputation around the neighborhood. All in all, "The Drop" is a fascinating character study where every character, human or otherwise, matters.

Tim Lammers is a veteran entertainment reporter and a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association. He annually votes on the Critics Choice Movie Awards. Locally, he reviews films for BringMeTheNews, “KARE 11 News at 11” and various Minnesota radio stations.

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