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Articles by Diana Beechener

I ain’t afraid of no all-female reboot!

Dr. Erin Gilbert (Kristen Wiig: Zoolander 2) hopes to earn tenure at Columbia. The professor is smart, serious and laser focused; but her career is put in jeopardy when a book resurfaces on Amazon. Co-authored with her former best friend Dr. Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy: Central Intelligence), the book considers the science of ghosts.
    Erin co-authored the book on ghosts with her former best friend Dr. Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy: Central Intelligence). When no one believed them, Erin walked away from ghosts — and Abby.
    All that changes when MTA worker Patty Tolan (Leslie Jones: Saturday Night Live) finds a mysterious device attracting ghosts to the Big Apple.
    Erin, Patty, Abby and her new partner, the slightly unhinged engineer Jillian Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon: Finding Dory), the newly formed Ghostbusters set out to save New York.
    Smart and funny, Ghostbusters is a worthy reboot of a classic. It is, however, a very different beast. It pays tribute, with all six original cast members making appearances, but it’s astute enough not to copy. With humor that’s more modern and self-referential, the reboot focuses on what it’s like to navigate the world as a woman.
    When director Paul Feig (Spy) announced his all-woman take, internet comments ranged from mildly misogynistic to vile.
    Instead of dismissing the vitriol, Feig leaned in, making internet commenters part of the story. The women are constantly harassed online and dismissed because of their gender.
    Ghostbusters works so well because of this cast of women. Both Jones and McKinnon do comedic heavy lifting, earning laughs and kicking butt. McKinnon creates an unforgettable oddball.
    A surprisingly strong member of the ensemble is Chris Hemsworth (The Huntsman), with his brilliant take on the bimbo secretary.
    Though humor and cast are refreshing, there are flaws. Like most movies about the supernatural, it doesn’t stand up to close examination. And Feig spends too much time on Wiig and McCarthy when he has an ensemble of stronger characters to pull from.
    Still, as far as summer blockbusters go, you’ll laugh, reminisce and even see Slimer. I was heartened by young girls leaving the theater excited about careers in physics so they could create cool machines like Holtzmann. It’s about time the princess culture was bucked for careers in ghost busting.

Good Comedy • PG-13 • 116 mins.

Two dogs learn how to navigate the big city in this cute comedy

Max (voiced by Louis C.K.: Horace and Pete) is a terrier living an idyllic life in New York with his owner/soulmate Katie (Ellie Kemper: The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt). They go for bike rides, share dinner and snuggle up to sleep. Max couldn’t be happier.
    Except that every day Katie does the almost unforgivable: She leaves. Most pets in Max’s apartment building spend their time alone socializing and binge eating, Max waits doggedly for Katie’s return. He stares at the door. He whines. He consults the neighbor cat.
    Max’s loneliness ends when Katie brings home Duke (Eric Stonestreet: Modern Family). The new dog is loud, big and attention-getting. Max hates him on sight and plots to rid himself of the interloper.
    Duke thinks the same about Max.
    Trying to one-up each other, the feuding dogs get lost far from home. It’s a big city out there, filled with loud noises and scary creatures. With no idea where home is, they find themselves hunted by a demented band of human-hating ex-pets.
    If the story sounds familiar, it’s probably because you saw it in 1995 when it was called Toy Story. Similar in plot points and major themes, The Secret Life of Pets is a furry version of the Pixar classic. It doesn’t delve so deeply into themes like fear of being replaced, jealousy and learning to accept others. But it does provide some great jokes about dog and cat behavior.
    Chances are, if you’re a pet owner, you’ll find a character that reminds you of your own fuzzy friend, from loyal Max to indifferent, taunting Chloe (you guessed it, a cat). The world of pets is given interesting little touches, and it’s fun to watch dogs shout at squirrels to get off their turf.
    The brilliant voice cast is loaded with comedians, from C.K. to Kevin Hart to Jenny Slate, each knowing exactly when to push a line or pause for comic effect. Albert Brooks (Finding Dory) is particularly delightful as Tiberius, a hawk who wants friends but must fight his raptor urge to eat them.
    Filled with silly laughs, clever observations and just a bit of scatological humor, The Secret Life of Pets will appeal to little ones and keep adults entertained. Jokes are solid and performances strong.
    If you have children who don’t like creepy crawlies, be aware that the 3-D show features snakes and gators snapping directly at the audience. There’s no need to pay extra to traumatize your child.

Good Animation • PG • 87 mins.

Neither scary nor entertaining, it may be time to kill off this franchise
 

In a semi-near future, America has a novel way of coping with crime: The Purge. One evening a year, all crime — including murder — is legal. The New Founding Fathers tout the Purge as a ritual release that’s good for society. In practice, it’s opportunity for social engineering as rich whites kill poor minorities.
    Senator Charlie Roan (Elizabeth Mitchell: Crossing Lines), a Purge survivor, seeks to end the bloody tradition. It’s her campaign pledge as a presidential candidate. Lest she ruin their murderous fun, the New Founding Fathers make her the target of this year’s Purge.
    Roan’s ally is Leo Barnes (Frank Grillo: Captain America: Civil War), who couldn’t bring himself to purge his son’s killer.
    Will Leo change his mind about the benefits of the Purge? Can Roan survive the night? Will this franchise survive its simplistic philosophy?
    The problem with The Purge: Election Year is that its message comes before its story. Rather than sympathetic characters, you get preaching about bad old white men. Worse still in a film about the oppression of racism, most of the minority characters are underwritten, stereotypical and appear only to save whites or offer them emotional support.
    Leo, the star of the second film, has little to do in this one. Once his character had a full emotional arc; now he’s reduced to grimacing, running and shooting. Roan is a screaming damsel. She chides all the killers, while the movie makes it obvious that killing is the only way to survive the night. This paradox makes her look weak and foolish.
    Director James DeMonaco (The Purge Anarchy) makes the colossal mistake of abandoning the gritty B-movie feel that made the second Purge fun. On three he’s returned to his roots, ineffectually proselytizing to the popcorn-eating masses. This film sounds like a poorly researched philosophy paper. Without charm, pacing or creativity, it becomes a slog on par with surviving Purge night. Even the threats are laughable: Half the movie features a pack of teen girls in skimpy dresses menacing people in a car illuminated with twinkle lights. The other big bad is a pack of frail old men who may gum our heroine to death.
    Neither scary nor entertaining, The Purge: Election Year is the kind of mass-market thriller that will satisfy no one. There’s not enough blood to satisfy horror buffs, and political thriller junkies will find the simplistic story unbearably dull. Avoid this purge night.

Poor Thriller • R • 105 mins.

A little girl learns the importance of friendship and family in this charming tale

Orphan Sophie (Ruby Barnhill: The 4 O’clock Club) leads a lonely life in London. Already very grown up and smarter than her peers, she follows the matron to ensure that bills are filed and snipes at the drunks who wake the other orphans. Her only friend is an orange tabby cat. Sophie’s busy life also means she doesn’t have time for frivolities, like sleeping. She’d much rather stay up and read.
    Late one night, Sophie spies something peculiar out her window. Lurking in the alley is a very tall man — some 30 feet tall. Terrified, Sophie does what any child would do: She hides under the covers. Her strategy doesn’t work, for she is scooped out of her bed and taken to Giant Land.
    There, she learns her captor is the BFG, short for Big Friendly Giant (Mark Rylance: Bridge of Spies). He is the only non-cannibal giant in all the land. That’s good news for Sophie, but she’s still captive, and the BFG refuses to take her home now that she’s seen him.
    As Sophie and the BFG bond, the other giants catch a whiff of the child. Hulking brutes that dwarf the BFG and feast on the bones of children, the giants want Sophie.
    Can the BFG keep Sophie safe? Will she ever return to England?
    Based on the beloved children’s book by Roald Dahl, The BFG is a sweet, silly film that should appeal to older children and Dahl fans. Director Steven Spielberg (Bridge of Spies) makes a story that is both delightful and visually stunning. He carefully crafts a distinctive London and Giant Land with storybook appeal.
    As the Friendly Giant, Rylance is a wonderful fusion of technology and performance. Created through motion capture and technological rendering, Rylance’s giant is wonderfully detailed; you can even see his pores. But all the fancy computer graphics in the world can’t guarantee a good performance. Here Rylance delivers, filling the BFG with such warmth and kindness that you find yourself charmed.
    In her big-screen debut, Barnhill is also charming, equally at home bossing the BFG around and helping him catch dreams. She’s a good actress who doesn’t push her childlike enthusiasm too hard.
    Still, this is not a film to see if you have a low tolerance for whimsy and quirk. The BFG speaks in a language of Seussian terms and malapropisms.
    Dahl fans and families with children about six or over should delight in this tale of two lonely people creating their own dreams.

Good Children’s Film • PG • 117 mins.

 

A great comic team in search of a worthy project

Calvin Joyner (Kevin Hart: Ride Along 2) peaked in high school. A star athlete, top student and class president, Calvin had it all. He was the prom king and married the prom queen. Everyone knew he’d be the big success in his class.
    Too bad.
    Calvin grows up to be a boring accountant resentful of the rut his life has become. He balks at his wife’s suggestion they go to their high school reunion, fearing that his old friends will mock him.
    Bob Stone (Dwayne Johnson: Ballers) has the opposite trajectory. A friendless nerd in school, he was tossed naked into a school assembly by bullies. As Bob stood, the target of laughter, Calvin gave him his jacket to cover himself.
    After high school, Bob changed his name, dropped a ton of weight, picked up a ton of muscle and joined the CIA. At least that’s what he tells Calvin when the two reconnect via Facebook.
    Calvin is pleased to reconnect — until bullets start flying. Is Bob CIA or a rogue agent hunted by the agency?
    Silly and unimaginative but with a stellar cast, Central Intelligence is a rare film where flaws are overcome by the chemistry of the lead actors. Johnson’s natural charm allows him to sell even the most ridiculous lines, and it’s a treat to see him as the wacky one instead of the buff action guy.
    The usual source of buffoonery, Hart is also playing against type. As the straight man to Johnson’s loony Bob, he shows a great aptitude for reacting to chaos instead of creating it, proving himself a more nuanced actor.
    The chemistry of its leads is about this movie’s only virtue. Director Rawson Marshall Thurber (We’re The Millers) is so ham-fisted that every plot twist is easy to guess and tension is absent. Celebrity cameos are a distraction, but not a very good one.
    Johnson and Hart make a great comic team in search of a project worthy of their talents.

Fair Comedy • PG-13 • 114 mins.

The sequel to Pixar’s Finding Nemo is a less nuanced tale but no less enjoyable

A year after blue tang Dory (Ellen DeGeneres: Ellen) helped clownfish Marlin (Albert Brooks: Concussion) find his son Nemo (Hayden Rolence), Dory remains forgetful. She never remembers where she is or what she’s doing. Marlin finds her short-term memory loss annoying.
    When a trip to the migrating grounds of the Pacific triggers a memory, Dory becomes obsessed with finding her family. Now a vague idea of her parents’ whereabouts sets her off. Because Dory’s too forgetful to go alone, Nemo and an increasingly fed-up Marlin accompany her to a marine rehabilitation center in California.
    Of course the trio gets separated. Thus Dory must find both her parents and Marlin and Nemo. Helping is Hank (Ed O’Neill: Modern Family), a seven-tentacled rehabilitated octopus who is terrified of release.
    The sequel to Pixar’s Finding Nemo, Finding Dory is a less nuanced tale of aquatic families, but it is no less enjoyable. Directors Andrew Stanton (John Carter) and Angus MacLane (Toy Story of Terror) give us a story with no one too villainous. Marlin is a bit of a jerk, but then again Dory’s disability can be extremely frustrating and dangerous. It’s an interesting lesson about understanding and accepting differences.
    The film adds news characters in the ocean park excursion. Hank is a loveable curmudgeon of an octopus. His dream is to live in an aquarium in Cleveland, where little kids won’t poke him. With his camouflages, he keeps park staff on the constant hunt.
    Kaitlin Olson (It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia) stands out as a sweet but nearsighted whale shark who has trouble swimming. Wire fans will be delighted by daffy sea lions Fluke and Rudder, voiced by Idris Elba and Dominic West.
    Finding Dory sacrifices some of the emotional depth of Finding Nemo to make itself funny. Instead of delving into the hurt of cruel comments or the terror of Dory’s forgetfulness, the film focuses on jokes. It’s not a bad strategy for a kids’ movie, and the little ones with me in the theater were enraptured with Dory and her friends.
    Finding Dory is a great movie with a lot of heart. Adults and kids will find characters to root for, jokes to laugh at and understanding of how tolerance and patience help the world.

Great Animation • PG • 103 mins.

A girl learns that money and a sick boyfriend have advantages in this gross romance

Lou (Emilia Clarke: Game of Thrones) needs a job. So when the Traynor family advertises for a companion, she signs on — despite her lack of experience or training in healthcare. Her charge is Will (Sam Claflin: The Huntsman: Winter’s War), a former financial wiz and extreme sports enthusiast who’s now quadriplegic. Will is angry, depressed and in no mood to deal with bumbling Lou.
    Eventually, he warms to her — because what men want is a girl who smiles while taking a litany of abuse. Soon they fall in love, but there’s a hitch in Lou’s happily-ever-after: Will wants to die.
    Can Lou convince him to give life with her a chance? Or is this romance doomed?
    Me Before You isn’t a movie; it’s a manipulation. Director Thea Sharrock (Call the Midwife) makes do with close-ups of pretty people shedding tears. There’s no hint of the demanding work of caring for a quadriplegic, no mention of managing bodily functions, no inkling that Lou understands what she’s getting into. Her job is to make tea, wear outfits seemingly assembled by a demented toddler and smile relentlessly while looking vaguely confused. She’s shown helping in Will’s physical care only twice, lifting his head (don’t strain yourself, Lou).
    There is no substance to their relationship.
    Would the story be so sweepingly romantic if Lou worked at a government-run facility instead of a stately manor. Would she have fallen in love with Will if his family’s money couldn’t afford a private plane to Tahiti (complete with nursing care so Lou can continue to smile and work on her tan)?
    The only actor unscathed by performing in this film is Stephan Peacocke (Wanted), Will’s nurse.
    In the interest of disclosure, I will admit that my seatmate vehemently disagrees with my assessment. And people cried, but not me. I’m saving my tears for where this film is leading the romance genre.

Poor Romantic Drama • PG-13 • 110 mins.

Mutants rise up to face an ancient foe in this meandering superhero tale

In ancient Egypt, godlike pharaoh En Sabah Nur (Oscar Isaac: Star Wars The Force Awakens) enters his elaborate pyramid not for death but for resurrection in a new, eternal body. Lest his tyranny prove eternal, conspirators knock down the pyramid. En Sabah Nur is entombed.
    In the 1980s, his tomb is opened, and En Sabah Nur rises, taking the name Apocalypse, which should give you a hint as to his plans. To cleanse Earth of the vile humans who make society weak, he recruits four strong mutants.
    One is Magneto (Michael Fassbender: Steve Jobs), long-lost friend of Charles Xavier (James McAvoy: Victor Frankenstein). Magneto has good cause to hate humans; they’ve killed everyone he loved and have hunted him for decades.
    This time Charles is on the other side, and with Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence: Joy) gathers a warrior band.
    Who will win the battle of the mutants?
    X-Men Apocalypse could have been a great film. The cast is powerful, the director (Bryan Singer: X-Men: Days of Future Past) has done well with the franchise and the story introduces all the popular X-Men.
    Instead, it is overlong, smug and frustrating.
    Singer stalls the plot with long scenes of destruction. If all the slow-motion shots were excised, the film would run about 90 minutes instead of two and a half hours.
    Roles lack character and motivation. Apocalypse is a nebulous bad guy who soliloquizes on doom and death and can’t seem to make friends. Only Magneto seems to have a clear purpose for his actions. But the ever-expanding cast makes his scenes few and far between.
    The only spark of life comes from the younger generation. As heroes in training, Scott (Tye Sheridan: Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse), Jean (Sophie Turner: Game of Thrones) and Kurt (Kodi Smit-McPhee: Galipoli) are funny and offer interesting examples of what happens when mutations appear during puberty.
    If you’re a diehard fan of the X-Men comics, X-Men Apocalypse is worth the ticket.

Fair Fantasy • PG-13 • 144 mins.

A decent idea may lurk in the depths of this murky disaster

As host of the wildly popular television investment show Money Monster, Lee Gates (George Clooney: Hail, Caesar!) enjoys a celebrity lifestyle. Rather than sound investment advice, he touts stocks recommended by his rich friends. Viewers trust him, but his producer Patty (Julia Roberts: Mother’s Day) is fed up.
    When a favorite recommendation, trading company IBIS, takes a dive, his audience loses lots of money. Outraged victim Kyle (Jack O’Connell: Unbroken) decides to make Lee and his fat-cat friends answer for their corruption. Kyle enters the studio, pulls a gun and straps a bomb on Lee, threatening to blow him and the studio sky-high if answers aren’t immediately forthcoming.
    Suddenly, Lee cares about the little guy. As he placates his captor and investigates the IBIS stock incident, he sees that Kyle might be right. The system might be rigged.
    Can Kyle prove that finance companies steal for profit? Will Lee finally understand that his actions have consequences? Can Patty keep it all on the air?
    Long, tone-deaf and utterly misguided, Money Monster is awe-inspiring in its poor choices. Director Jodie Foster (Elysium) seems to have released a terrible first draft that, might, with time, have been elevated. Performances are perfunctory, dialog uninspiring and camera angles rote.
    Foster prefers close-ups and medium shots that frame single actors. As a result, the dialogue sounds like a string of soliloquies edited together. The characters don’t seem to be reacting to each other, which in turn distances the audience.
    Clooney, a natural ham, seems annoyed with all of it, even when he’s dancing with money-honeys. It may be his reaction to O’Connell — who offered one of 2015’s best performances in ’71 — but here is relegated to screaming and flailing. O’Connell’s Kyle shrieks that he’s intelligent, yet he’s pathologically terrible at making decisions and expressing himself. He’s a frustrating character because he’s so poorly written. Roberts spends most of the film locked in a box.
    With Foster’s ham-fisted directing, this movie ranges from loud to louder to loudest. Do not pay to see this film — in the theater or on Netflix.

Dismal Thriller • R • 98 mins.

A comedy of calamity and carnage set off by a kitten

Rell (Jordan Peele: Bob’s Burgers) is spiraling down: no girlfriend left, no job, lots of marijuana.
    Cousin Clarence (Keegan-Michael Key: Bob’s Burgers) isn’t faring much better. His wife walks all over him. His daughter disrespects him. Everyone makes fun of his obsession with George Michael.
    Their luck seemingly changes when a kitten arrives at Rell’s door. Adorable, playful and heartbreakingly affectionate, Keanu gives Rell reason for living. Until burglars strike. Thus Rell enlists Clarence to bring Keanu home.
    As Keanu has won the favor of a local gangland boss (Method Man: Trainwreck), Clarence and Rell go undercover as gang members. It’s a terrible plan.
    Funny, absurd and wholly entertaining, this madcap comedy comes from the creators of the brilliant sketch comedy show Key & Peele. Like the show, the movie isn’t afraid to go big with rapid-fire jokes and physical humor to ensnare you. Beneath the humor, co-writer Peele puts some light social commentary on race, morality and sex.
    To capture their easy-going dynamic and lickety-split delivery, Key and Peele chose Peter Atencio, the long-time director of their sketch show. He allows the performances to guide the film, giving the movie a sense of fun and improvisation.
    The genius animating Keanu is the familiar camaraderie between Key and Peele. Each excels: Peele as a bewildered stoner with flashes of courage, Key as the uptight straight man who goes wild once unleashed.
    The film has its faults. Plot is secondary to reactions and lines. Character is developed only on the silly side. But laziness is not among them. Key and Peele work hard to deliver their smart concepts and outlandish humor, including an inspired George Michael send-up.
    Send Key and Peele chasing a kitten, and you’ve got comedy gold.

Good Comedy • R • 100 mins.