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Articles by DIana Beechener

An impressionistic tale of a painter

J.M.W. Turner (Timothy Spall: Blandings) better expresses himself through paint than words. A famed member of the Royal Academy of Art, the Victorian artist travels Europe capturing vivid landscapes.
    Turner stands out from other academicians in more ways than one. They are refined; he is not. His manner is awkward and his speech accented with a thick brogue. His fame keeps him from humble circles, so he is often on his own. Closest to him is his father (Paul Jesson: Closer to the Moon), who has always supported his son’s art and works as Turner’s studio assistant.
    As his father’s health declines, Turner becomes more isolated. His only friend is Mrs. Booth, a landlady at a seaside town where he paints. He calls himself Mr. Mallord to maintain his anonymity, even as the friendship deepens to romance.
    Turner’s artistic obsession is capturing the spirit and the light of his subjects. He has a sailor lash him to the crow’s nest during a winter sea crossing to capture the light; he walks for hours in search of the perfect composition.
    Cinematography is stunning. Leigh fills his film with Turner’s paintings and its locales, treating us to sweeping seascapes, pastoral leas, surging trains and austere battleships.
    Spall’s performance is one of the best of the year. His Turner is an almost feral creature, driven by nature’s beauty. He grunts instead of speaking. He spits on his canvas in the middle of a show to loosen the oils and make changes. He watches human interaction with the interest of an alien observer.
    The artist is famous in his native England as an early experimenter in the style that would become known as Impressionist painting. But his international renown is not that of Picasso or Monet. Director Mike Leigh (Another Year) assumes a well-versed audience, so his film may be difficult to follow. Do yourself the favor of a bit of research before you go.

Good Biopic • R • 150 mins.

We’ve got a long way to go — but look how far we’ve come

By 1965, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (David Oyelowo: Interstellar) was a household name. His nonviolent protests had provoked the American government to strike down segregation laws. It would have been a victory for any other man, but even as King accepted the Nobel Peace Prize, he knew there was more to do.
    While whites could no longer keep blacks out of their establishments, they were doing their best to keep them from the polls and off the ballots. Black men and women who attempted to register were asked demanding questions, forced to recite the preamble of the Constitution and usually dismissed. When brave souls managed to register, their names and addresses were printed in the newspaper, making it easy for the Ku Klux Klan and other violent groups to find them.
    President Lyndon Johnson (Tom Wilkinson: The Grand Budapest Hotel) is sympathetic. But he is bombarded by Vietnam protests, and his attention is divided. He tells King that the Civil Rights Act is victory enough for now, and he’ll consider proposing new legislation about voter registration in the coming years.
    King isn’t satisfied. He needs a cause to gain publicity, win the sympathy and support of whites and put political pressure on lawmakers. With the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, he plans a march from Selma to Montgomery in protest of Alabama’s voter registration policies. Selma’s brute sheriff and the state’s racist governor will surely earn them headlines by violent opposition to the march.
    King is monitored by the FBI, scrutinized by his own movement and watched from every outside angle. His family is threatened. Can he endure the pressure?
    Unlike many biopics of great men, Selma isn’t a canonization rite. Instead, director Ava DuVernay (Scandal) wisely chooses to show the human behind the saint. Her King is having marital problems, is frustrated with the slow progress of his movement and, in his darkest hours, worries that his methods are not worth blood and death. He clings to his purpose and his faith because he has become the spokesperson for a group that desperately needs a voice. He relies on his SCLC family to help him keep his eyes on the prize.
    Selma is a beautiful, humane look at one of the greats of American history.
    Oyelowo captures the power and vulnerability that made King so compelling. He mimics the cadence and drama that made Dr. King’s speeches so memorable; don’t be surprised if you get goose bumps listening to these sermons. But the actor is most effective during quiet moments, when King leads not by fiery oratory but by refusing to break under pressure.
    Before you decry the movie’s inaccuracies, consider this: All biopics create inaccuracies for the sake of drama. If they ­didn’t, they’d be called documentaries. Fellow Oscar contenders The Imitation Game, Foxcatcher, The Theory of Everything and American Sniper all stray from history, some quite a bit. Yet Selma is the only film criticized for it. What does that say?
    Selma shows many grim scenes of beatings and ugly racist interactions, but it is not a movie about hate or blame. It’s about the hope and determination to overcome. Buy a ticket and join the march.

Great Drama • R • 128 mins.

A biopic with a body count

Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper: Guardians of the Galaxy) was raised to believe there were three types of people in the world: Wolves, sheep and sheepdogs. Wolves preyed on the weak and took what they wanted. Sheep did as they were told and hoped to never meet a wolf. Sheepdogs took responsibility for the flock and beat back the wolves.
    A natural protector, Kyle spent his early life bumming around the rodeo circuits of Texas, looking for women, beer and brawls. The bombing of the U.S. embassy in Kenya awakened his sheep-dogging skills. An excellent marksman, he was recruited to the SEALS as a sniper charged with keeping Marines safe as they raid homes in Afghanistan.
    Kyle proves a superior sheepdog. ­Eerily calm and sure of himself, he picks off men, women and children who seek to harm his troops.
    Four tours later, Kyle has become The Legend, with more confirmed kills than any sniper in U.S. history. When the Taliban puts a price on his head, he is unfazed. It’s the home front that terrifies him.
    With his wife and children, Kyle is a tightly coiled spring. He obsessively watches bloody sniper footage and worries about the men he isn’t protecting. Normal social interactions make him squirm, and the slightest noise can provoke a violent reaction.
    Director Clint Eastwood (Jersey Boys) turns this true story into a war between duty and family. Based on Kyle’s bestselling autobiography, the film doesn’t debate the merits of the war or the morality of killing. Eastwood, who famously said “it’s a hell of a thing, killing a man” in his masterpiece Unforgiven, has abandoned this moral ambiguity. Kyle becomes a sort of John Wayne figure, single-handedly taking out the baddies and saving the day.
    This unquestioning approach makes a simplistic movie.
    Still, Eastwood knows how to construct a compelling narrative. The opening sequence, in which Kyle must decide whether to shoot a young boy, is heart-pounding. But Eastwood wisely saves the greatest pressure for the scenes at home. Using clever sound editing and tight close-ups, he traps Kyle in the frame, a prisoner in his home.
    Cooper’s excellent performance keeps the film grounded. Besides making an impressive physical transformation to play the hulking Kyle, Cooper delves deeply into his character’s mind, making his zeal impressive and frightening. But every time he drops his gun, Cooper looks like he wants to crawl out of his skin.
    Together, Eastwood and Cooper create a thrilling tribute to a real person.

Good Drama • R • 132 mins.

Can you enjoy a mystery when the mystery makes no sense? It turns out you can

Larry ‘Doc’ Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix: Her) fancies himself the Phillip Marlowe of the Free Love generation. With long hair, lots of drugs and a general distrust of the establishment, Doc runs a small private detective agency — when he’s not bumming around on the beach, high as a kite.
    When Doc’s ex-girlfriend Shasta (Katherine Waterston: Boardwalk Empire) shows up asking for a favor, Doc knows it’s bad news. Shasta’s latest flame is real estate developer Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts: Jake’s Road), who owns half the county. But Mickey’s wife and her new boyfriend disapprove of Mickey’s New Age philosophy. Afraid he’ll give away his millions and leave them destitute, the Mrs. and her boy toy want Shasta’s help to have Mickey committed.
    Shasta wants Doc to figure out what’s really going on and to foil the plot against Mickey. Still in love with Shasta, Doc agrees. On his first day of snooping, Mickey goes missing, and Doc wakes up next to a dead body.
    Now Doc must solve a murder, find a mogul and remember where he hid his stash, all while avoiding the oppressive attentions of his police officer nemesis Bigfoot Bjornsen (Josh Brolin: Sin City: A Dame to Kill For).
    Daffy, fun and fairly nonsensical, Inherent Vice will make you feel as high as Doc. Director Paul Thomas Anderson (The Master) adapted Thomas Pynchon’s California pulp into a woozy cluster of character and comedic set pieces. Think of it as Chinatown on a bender.
    Pynchon’s novel has been called unfilmable, and Anderson may prove the point. Inherent Vice is a visually rich, deep character piece, but the central mystery and surrounding plots are nearly incomprehensible. Characters wander in and out of scenes, plotlines are dropped or randomly introduced. You’ll need a flowchart to keep up with everything.
    Can you enjoy a mystery when the mystery makes no sense? It turns out you can. Anderson has always been able to coax fantastic, nuanced performances from his actors, and in Inherent Vice it’s Phoenix. He gives a wonderful, lived-in performance that makes Doc a loveable loser instead of an annoying cliché.
    As Doc’s police foil, Brolin offers surprising depth in what could have been silly. Brolin grounds Bigfoot’s establishment persona in a mix of repression and depression that make the character almost tragic instead of a brute.
    For all the great performances, the real star of any Anderson film is the camera work. He carefully crafts each scene, with framing, art design and tracking shots that add depth. A wealth of sunny vistas, urban grime and 1960s’ sensibilities, Inherent Vice is a beautiful sight, even if you can’t follow the plot.
    Much like Doc’s journey through money and free love, Inherent Vice isn’t an easy path. It will challenge and confound you.

Fair Mystery • R • 148 mins.

Loneliness and tragedy fuel the genius that saves the world

Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch: The Hobbit) is an odd duck. Brilliant at arithmetic but horrible at social interactions, Turing is mercilessly mocked at boarding school. His only friend introduces him to cryptography, where he discovers a world he can understand.
    The grown-up Professor Turing would have been another in a long line of oddball academics but for World War II. Instead he joins an elite circle of cryptographers tasked with cracking the German Enigma. A coding machine hitherto impossible to beat, Enigma allows the Axis powers free lines of communication to coordinate attacks that left the Allies reeling.
    The British captured one machine, but without the code key, which the Germans change every 24 hours, the machine is useless. While the other cryptographers work 18 hours a day on a Sisyphean task, Turing plans to create a machine that can run codes faster than any human.
    Loud, massive and expensive, Turing’s machine seems like the creation of a mad scientist. The socially challenged Turing — whose homosexuality, then illegal, is a complicating factor — must figure out how to convince the establishment that his machine is the only way to win the war.
    Most of us now have versions of Turing’s machine in our homes and in our pockets. We call them computers.
    Director Morten Tyldum (Headhunters) creates a competent portrait of a complex man. But intercutting scenes from Turing’s school days and future downfall into the race to beat Enigma, he struggles to make the whole gel.
    Screenwriter Graham Moore (The Waiting Room) also skimps on character development — but not on platitudes. You’ll hear the film’s mantra — “Sometimes it is the people no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one can imagine” — many times. Turing is the only character who gets the semblance of a real personality. The people surrounding him fill out stereotypes.
    Cumberbatch turns in a stunning performance. Now an old hand at playing geniuses on the Autism spectrum, he makes Turing a frustrating, funny and pitiable man. His Turing is much like the machine he creates, a whirring, seemingly emotionless being capable of amazing feats.
    Another actor rising above the writing is Keira Knightley (Laggies), who turns a Girl Friday role into an interesting, nuanced look at a woman who sees more to life than the conventions of her time.
    With Cumberbatch and Knightley’s insight into the loneliness of genius, The Imitation Game is a good movie — though one that could have been great.

Good Drama • PG-13 • 114 mins.

One man proves the human spirit is immeasurable in this war drama

Louis Zamperini (Jack O’Connell: 300: Rise of an Empire) lived enough for three men in his first 30 years. As a teen, the son of Italian immigrants was a petty thief. His brother suggests that instead of running from the police, Louis should put his speed to work. Throwing his energy into training, he earns a slot on the Olympic track team.
    After an impressive performance at the games, World War II interrupts his plans, and Louis becomes a bombardier in the Pacific theater. On a rescue mission, the plane fails, and Louis and two other crewmen wind up on a small raft in the middle of the ocean.
    The castaways endure more than a month at sea before rescue by a ­Japanese ship. Starving, sunburned and half mad, the Americans are cast into a prison camp.
    This true story has lots of epic plotlines, but, alas, it has little character development. Olympics, lost at sea, prisoner of war — each would make a good movie. Combining all three stories into one movie is overwhelming.
    Director Angelina Jolie (In the Land of Blood and Honey) has the difficult task of weaving these three themes into a seamless film. Despite a script by the Coen Brothers (Inside Llewyn Davis), she doesn’t hit the mark.
    Jolie, who became a friend of Zamperini and his family, may be too close to her subject to do it justice. Louis is saintly even as a juvenile delinquent. He always knows the right thing to do, he’s always brave and he never waivers in his beliefs.
    Though Jolie failed to give Zamperini the depth and coherence he deserves, she found a worthy actor to portray the hero. O’Connell pours raw emotion into the role, showing Louis as an iron-willed man who can endure every punch life throws. But by the time Zamperini becomes a POW, Jolie is set on canonizing him.
    Still, Unbroken is a compelling drama. The scenes of Louis’ struggle to survive at sea are the best in the film, offering humor, drama, horror, action and a compelling narrative.
    If you long for the Old Hollywood war films that feature square-jawed do-gooders who never waver from their commitment to God and country, Unbroken is well worth the ticket. If you’re looking for a more nuanced portrayal of Zamperini’s life, pick up Laura Hillenbrand’s biography instead.

Fair Drama • PG-13 • 137 mins.

Great performances marred by poor focus

A story based on real events, Foxcatcher focuses on Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum: The Book of Life), a gold-winning Olympic wrestler who believes he deserves better. His life is cramped and overshadowed by older brother David (Mark Ruffalo: Begin Again). Himself a gold medalist, David has achieved the standing Mark longs for.
    Mark finds his way out in John du Pont (Steve Carell: Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day), the eccentric heir to the du Pont fortune. A lifelong wrestling fan, du Pont seeks to create a competitive wrestling team around Mark.
    Mark accepts what seems like a dream job and moves to the du Pont estate in Pennsylvania. But John du Pont has a tenuous hold on reality. He buys army tanks to drive around his grounds and practices shooting with the police. When du Pont carries a loaded gun into the gym to motivate the Foxcatcher wrestlers, Mark realizes he’s made a grave mistake.
    Concerned for his brother, David takes a position on team Foxcatcher, putting the three men on a collision course.
    Foxcatcher should be a gripping drama about a mentally ill man with enough money and influence to do as he pleases. Instead, director Bennett Miller (Moneyball) offers an unfocused mess of a film that doesn’t know whose story it’s telling, Mark or David’s.
    Du Pont wanders in and out of scenes like an old-money Bertha Mason, remaining largely a threatening but undeveloped presence. He’s the most dynamic and interesting character in the piece, but Miller is uninterested in him. In 134 minutes, he certainly had time to examine the heir.
    Despite confusion, Foxcatcher features three excellent performances. Always a reliable performer, Ruffalo works hard in an underwritten role to give his character emotional depth. A smart family man and excelling athlete who loves his brother, David is so saintly you assume his receding hairline is caused by his halo abrading his forehead.
    As Mark, Tatum uses his impressive physicality to create a brutish character who prefers to avoid thinking. While hulking through the scenes with mouth agape, Tatum displays sparks of deep hurt and fear. His Mark is a tragic figure who understands that he’s trapped but doesn’t know how to extricate himself.
    With the showiest role in the piece, Carell builds du Pont’s mania slowly, making it easy to dismiss him, at first, as a rich eccentric. As his behavior becomes more disturbing, we share Mark’s dawning realization.

Fair Drama • R • 134 mins.

Silly humor and puns abound in this animated fowl comedy

Penguins who came to prominence as the wisecracking sidekicks in the Madagascar movies are now headlining their first feature film. Bored by the laws of nature, the four set out to find adventure. Voicing the birds are Tom McGrath as Skipper; Chris Miller as Kowalski; Conrad Vernon as Rico and Christopher Knights as Private.
    The quartet fancy themselves secret agents of sorts, and after escaping the confines of the New York City Zoo, the feathered friends set out on their greatest mission yet: breaking into Fort Knox. Instead of gold, the penguins want their favorite discontinued junk food, stored in an ancient vending machine in the depository break room.
    The mission for cheesy treats succeeds, but it catches the attention of Dave (John Malkovich: Crossbones) a zoo octopus resentful at being ignored. Kids and their parents are infinitely interested in the antics of penguins, but cephalopods just aren’t cute enough to hold an audience’s attention.
    Dave escapes the zoo, recruits an eight-legged army and develops a serum that will mutate the world’s penguin population into monsters. How does an octopus become an expert in genetic mutation and engineering? It’s a kids’ movie; don’t think about it too much.
    Narrowly escaping Dave, the penguins move to stop him before he ruins zoos everywhere. The obstacle is The North Wind, a professional animal spy organization led by Agent Classified (Benedict Cumberbatch: The Imitation Game). Classified and his team of highly trained, well-equipped agents dismiss the penguins as bumbling amateurs.
    So the race is on to see which team of do-gooders can stop Dave.
    Filled with puns, slapstick and patently silly situations, kids will delight at the humor while adults are more likely to roll their eyes. If the phrase "Nicholas, cage them" doesn’t tickle your funny bone, Penguins of Madagascar will be a long slog. I love a good pun, but my seatmate was driven to distraction.
    Directors Eric Darnell (Madagascar 3) and Simon J. Smith (Bee Movie) slip in some adult humor so surprisingly clever it might be too obscure for its audience. A cameo by director Werner Herzog is only hilarious if you are familiar with Herzog’s musings on penguins in the documentary Encounters at the End of the World. If you’ve never heard of Herzog, the entire opening joke, which lasts for nearly five minutes, is lost.
    If, like your reviewer, you are a cinephile with a juvenile love of puns — or if you’re under the age of 12 — Penguins of Madagascar is a lighthearted romp. If tough-talking penguins, evil word-playing octopuses and convoluted plots give you a headache, this film is for the birds.

Fair Animation • PG • 92 mins.

A home on the range ain’t all it’s cracked up to be

Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank: Mary and Martha) is a better man than most. Tending a homestead by herself in the harsh Nebraska territory, she’s made her plot a success. But it’s a hard, solitary life. She longs for a family, but the men of the territory revile her self-sufficiency.
    Cuddy’s world is unforgiving. Wind whips the dead earth across the flat expanses of dry brown, treeless land. It’s an easy place to die, especially for a woman. Harsh winters freeze crops and starve livestock, disease claims the young and the weak, roving bands of displaced Native Americans pick off lone settlers, and unscrupulous men believe any unclaimed woman is theirs to abuse.
    Though Cuddy barrels through her solitary existence, the ugly realities of life in the territory outpost are too much for three other women, who develop prairie fever. Theoline (Miranda Otto: Rake) kills her baby after a psychotic break. Arabella (Grace Gummer: American Horror Story) is catatonic with grief after the loss of her three children to a diphtheria outbreak. Gro (Sonja Richter: The Miracle) has become feral after the death of her mother left her alone with her abusive spouse. The three husbands decide the best thing to do is send them East to their families. Each woman is treated like chattel, a defective cow that won’t produce and is unceremoniously sent back to the seller. Though the men want to be rid of their “fevered” wives, none wants to make the long, dangerous journey East.
    Cuddy, the only unattached landowner, volunteers to shepherd the women across the dangerous Nebraska territory to the safety and civilization of Iowa. Because she’s a woman, the town decides that Cuddy must have a homesman, a male guide. Cuddy finds her own help in George Briggs (Tommy Lee Jones: The Family), who is about to be hanged for claim jumping.
    George is glad to trade the noose for a job. He chafes at being bossed by a woman, but he needs the money and the whiskey that Cuddy promises at journey’s end.
    An old-fashioned western with a desolate view of life on the frontier, The Homesman is heart-wrenching and beautiful. As well as acting, Jones co-wrote the script and directed, creating a powerful narrative about the ugliness of humanity and nature.
    Working with cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, Jones makes the planes of the territory a character. Each shot emphasizes the isolation and cruel beauty of the surroundings. The sky is a vast kaleidoscope, but the ground is a dull flat expanse in all directions. Houses sit on the horizon line, looking like they’re about to fall off the edge of the earth.
    In his performance and his shooting techniques, Jones pays homage to classic western tropes. Western fans will recognize images from True Grit, Sergio Leone and John Ford films. Jones’ George is an amoral hybrid of Walter Brennan and Rooster Cogburn. It’s one of the brightest and most nuanced performances he has offered in years. It’s a treat to watch Jones leave his usually austere style to whoop it up as a scallywag who isn’t above a fireside song and dance when the mood — or the whiskey — strikes him.
    In the quieter role of Cuddy, Swank is astounding. She sets her jaw and squints into the wind like a true pioneer, her determination to make a life for herself impressive and fearsome. Her Cuddy is a complicated woman whose steel will belies a sad, sensitive soul. When the loneliness becomes too great, she unfurls a felt keyboard and pretends to play piano. It’s an effective character note and arresting visual metaphor for her life on the prairie: Cuddy has the skill but no instrument, so she must be satisfied with the pantomime.
    A fatalist western that places the human condition somewhere between despair and misanthropy, The Homesman isn’t a film for the popcorn crowds. Filled with wonderful acting — there’s even a Meryl Streep cameo — breathtaking cinematography and philosophical questions, it was made for cinephiles. Buy a ticket and be thankful that you don’t have a home on the range.

Great Western • R • 122 mins.

You say you want a revolution. Well you know, we all want to change the world.

Saved from the Hunger Games quarter quell by rebels in District 13, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence: X-Men: Days of Future Past) is haunted by violence and death. Plagued by nightmares and guilt that she left her pseudo boyfriend Peeta (Josh Hutcherson: Catching Fire), she wakes every night screaming.
    The rebels don’t have time for Katniss’ mental troubles. They need her to join their revolution as The Mockingjay, a symbol of truth and justice fighting the corrupt Capital.
    Can this Katniss inspire the nation?
    A movie about rebellion and sacrifice but mostly teen angst, Mockingjay is a placeholder with some great performances. The problem with any Part 1 is that we know Part 2 is coming. We know the stakes aren’t very high. It’s not likely Katniss will die or any decisive battle be fought when the studio has another movie to release in a year. You’re paying $15 for a prologue.
    Lawrence does a great job encapsulating Katniss’ pain and mental angst — within the confines of the material and her costars. Like a typical teen, Katniss is obnoxiously focused on her love life. Her obsession with Peeta is understandable — or would be were she not surrounded by suffering. When thousands are slaughtered in the name of the rebellion, it’s hard not to get frustrated at Katniss’ kneejerk worry about her boyfriend’s pain.
    It doesn’t help that Katniss is paired with two of the biggest drips ever to slump their way through a love triangle. As Peeta, Hutcherson is wooden, diminutive and blond. As Gale, Liam Hemsworth (Catching Fire) is wooden, tall and brunette. Both mope over Katniss, both do the right thing when called upon and both pout prettily in every shot. Watching Katniss waffle between these two ninnies in the face of the serious circumstances makes her seem silly.
    Fortunately, the boys are on the periphery. Director Francis Lawrence (Catching Fire) wisely fills the film with more capable actors to help star Jennifer Lawrence sell a setup plot. Philip Seymour Hoffman, Woody Harrelson, Julianne Moore, Jeffery Wright and Elizabeth Banks all show up for five-minute cameos. Each is excellent, but the movie becomes a bit of a clip show, reminding you of characters you liked in previous films.
    Still, Mockingjay is probably essential viewing if you’re planning on watching Part 2.

Fair Action • PG-13 • 123 mins.