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Articles by Diana Beechener

Violence and horror make a surprisingly beautiful war story

Working in a tank is a special kind of hell. For five men the cramped chamber of a motorized cannon is their home, their battlefield and, often, their coffin. With limited visibility, thin armor and light firepower, Sherman tanks were often easy targets, especially against the superior German Tigers.
    The crew of the Fury has so far beaten the odds. Led by Don ‘Wardaddy’ Collier (Brad Pitt: The Counselor), the team has survived combat in Africa, France and Germany. As they roll toward Berlin, they lose their trusted gunner in gruesome fashion. The replacement is a typist named Norman (Logan Lerman: Noah), who’s never been in a tank and is terrified by the prospect of battle.
    As Fury rolls toward combat in the heart of Nazi territory, the seasoned four must make Norman a soldier if they are to survive.
    A brutal, beautiful film about the monsters war makes, Fury offers truths rarely shown in movies about the Greatest Generation. Director/writer David Ayer (Sabotage) looks at these men with respect and sadness, examining the complicated mix of violence and family they depended on to survive.
    As men who have seen it all and wish they hadn’t, Pitt, Shia LaBeouf (Nymphomaniac), Jon Bernthal (Mob City) and Michael Peña (Gracepoint) are realistic versions of stock characters. Pitt is the tough-as-nails leader whose sadistic streak covers the heavy toll of combat. The religious man, LaBeouf quotes scripture to comfort himself in the face of death. Bernthal is the wild man whose chosen analgesic against the horrors is outrageous behavior. Peña is the drunk scrounging ruined towns for his solace.
    Ayer makes Norm our stand-in. With him, we’re thrown amid the Fury crew, no training, no get-to-know-you talks. He must kill or risk his crewmates through inaction.
    Fury doesn’t shy away from the unsavory. Grady gleefully instructs Norman that women will sleep with him for as little as a candy bar. These are desperate women, terrified of the men with guns who could invade their homes, demand their meager possessions or worse. Faced with the choice of rape or rewarded submission, they take the candy bar.
    While Ayer revels in the ugliness of war, he and cinematographer Roman Vasyanov (Charlie Countryman) find ways of making even the claustrophobic tank scenes beautiful. Gripping battles unfold in painterly shots that embody the immense scale of war as well as its personal tolls.
    Fury is easily the best combat film in a decade.

Great Drama • R • 134 mins.

Sometimes being right isn’t enough

Investigative journalist Gary Webb (Jeremy Renner: The Immigrant) believed that if people weren’t upset, he wasn’t doing his job. He spent his career exposing injustices and telling what he believed to be fundamental truths.
    Webb’s subjects aren’t typically sympathetic. He reported on ways the government infringes on the rights of drug dealers, confiscating property and money even when charges are dismissed or dropped.
    When a drug trafficker’s girlfriend tells Webb that her boyfriend has been selling drugs brought into the country with the government’s help, he finds the story he believes will make his career.
    This movie is a story based on the real reporter’s quest for that story.
    Traveling from Nicaragua to Washington, D.C., and back to L.A., Webb pieces together a conspiracy that implicates the CIA in a massive drug trafficking ring to earn money to fund the Contra War.
    Warned that his story will earn him powerful enemies, Webb refuses to back down. But his principled stand may be a mistake.
    With the story out, the CIA began a campaign to discredit Webb, using other journalists, propaganda and intimidation. Webb’s career went into a tailspin. People followed his family and lurked outside his house. Still, he remained convinced if he kept pushing, he’d prove the truth and win back his life.
    Kill the Messenger is a good movie that fails to be great. Director Michael Cuesta (Homeland) is skilled at building tension, but he neglects story for cheap thrills. Unlike Webb, Cuesta isn’t interested in meticulously documenting what happened. He offers only the broad strokes accompanied by some thrilling scenes of governmental interference. Characters are undeveloped, making the movie seem shallow and sensationalistic.
    Cuesta floats a few conspiracy theories of his own, including implicating the Los Angeles Times and Washington Post in discrediting Webb. The plot line is interesting, but ultimately infuriating because it’s given so little screen time.
    As Webb, Renner saves the movie from mediocrity. He plays a tenacious crusader who can’t bear to back down. Renner’s natural humor and charm make Webb a relatable, interesting hero even when he’s making questionable choices. As Webb watches his life, career and family crumble around him, Renner shines as a man who realizes too late just how far down a dangerous path he’s gone. Still he holds fast.
    Imperfect though it is, Kill the Messenger will make you view power sources — from the government to newspapers — with skepticism, which was the goal of Gary Webb’s brave and brash reporting.

Good Drama • R • 112 mins.

Exploring marriage and other horrors

Can you ever really know the person you’re married to? You can know their usual Chinese food order, maybe anticipate their tastes in art and music. But do you ever know what’s going on in your spouse’s head?
    Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck: Runner, Runner) meets his soul mate at a party in New York. Amy (Rosamund Pike: Hector and the Search for Happiness) is a catch: beautiful, brilliant and wealthy. After marriage, they remain the ideal couple. Even when the economy tanks, forcing them back to Nick’s Missouri home, they appear blissfully in love.
    Until Nick comes home to a house littered with broken glass and overturned tables — and Amy gone. Police find Nick very calm and the scene suspicious.
    Was Amy kidnapped? Or were there cracks in this perfect marriage?
    Obsessing over the missing wife, the media seek a story for their viewers. Amy emerges as an angel and Nick as Suspect Number One. He’s too polite, too smarmy, not worried enough. When Amy’s diary appears, it offers a damning portrayal of the man at the center of the mystery. Soon, the 24/7 news coverage has convinced Nick’s neighbors, the American viewing audience and the police that there’s something wrong with the way Nick Dunne searches for his wife.
    Is an innocent man a media scapegoat? Or is something sinister lurking beneath the shiny veneer of the Dunne union?
    Gone Girl is a domestic drama turned horror movie. Director David Fincher (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) explores just how scary marriage can be in this adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s bestselling novel.
    A master of dark and mysterious visuals and horror movie tropes, Fincher creates a fascinating thriller from the twisting novel. He is at his best exploring media scrutiny. In a beautiful sequence that makes Nick look like the Frankenstein Monster running for the hills, Fincher turns a candlelight vigil into a torch-wielding mob scene.
    As the couple whose marriage curdles in its fifth year, Affleck and Pike are superb. Affleck, who endured heavy and often cruel media scrutiny over his relationships 10 years ago, seems born for the part of media-beleaguered Nick. His face is too perfect, his smile too bright and his reactions seem off. He’s exactly the kind of man who invites mistrust.
    Pike is the real find in this marital horror show. Fierce, beautiful and whip smart, she is a pillar of domestic bliss one moment and a tragic victim the next. Her large eyes remaining unreadable, Pike makes her Amy a woman obsessed with keeping up appearances. When the shell cracks, Pike revels in revealing the creature beneath.
    This movie will make you take a long hard look at your beloved.

Great Thriller • R • 149 mins.

Denzel Washington puts power tools to bloody good use in this action thriller

To the employees of HomeMart, Robert McCall (Denzel Washington: Two Guns) is a teddy bear. He shows off dance moves on breaks, helps an overweight employee train to become a security guard and has a kind word for all. His coworkers speculate on Bob’s former occupation: teacher or Wall Street tycoon gone broke?
    A widower, he lives like a monk in a sterile apartment with books and few modern conveniences. When the solitude gets to him, he visits the local diner to sip tea and read in the neon glare. Here he befriends Teri, a young prostitute for the Russian mob (Chloë Grace Moretz: If I Stay). They talk books, dreams and fate, while Bob proposes Teri consider a less fraught career path.
    When Teri’s pimp beats her into the ICU, Bob returns to his past as a CIA wetworker. The mob, in turn, must figure out who is massacring foot soldiers before losing the entire East Coast operation.
    This blood-soaked vengeance yarn based on a popular 1980s’ television show has more in common with Death Wish than with primetime television. Director Antoine Fuqua (Olympus Has Fallen) takes his time unleashing Bob into stunning, tense and gory action sequences that have audiences cheering and gasping.
    Fuqua doesn’t waste time on script or subtle characterization. His love is action clichés. In his hands, you see how effective a rain-soaked, slow-motion showdown can be. He also mines all the violent potential of the HomeMart store. I’ll never look at yard clippers the same way again.
    Women do better than usual in this action film. Yes, Teri is brutalized. But she remains a daughter figure rather than becoming Bob’s girlfriend. For a feminist twist on the CIA handler, ­Melissa Leo is cast as a powerful ally.
    Washington’s range from charming to terrifying is a wonder. This is his movie. He fires a gun and wields a corkscrew believably, but it’s his acting that makes Bob compelling. When Bob lets loose his murderous talents, Washington transforms him up to his eyes, which go from lively to dead.
    The Equalizer is a classic action movie. Watching it, you’ll shovel popcorn into your mouth, cheer, scream and hope that if you’re ever in trouble, Denzel Washington has your back.

Great Action • R • 131 mins.

A season’s worth of sitcom plots in two hours

The patriarch of the Altman family, an atheist, had one deathbed request: that his family sit Shiva for him. His four surprised children pack up their families and their issues to spend the seven days mourning as one big dysfunctional family.
    Matriarch Hillary (Jane Fonda: The Newsroom), a therapist who mined her children’s adolescent transgressions for book material, is thrilled to have her family united. The kids are less happy.
    Eldest son Paul (Corey Stoll: The Strain) has taken over the family business and is struggling to conceive a child with his baby-crazed wife. Middle child Judd (Jason Bateman: Bad Words) has just lost his job and his cheating wife. Wendy (Tina Fey: Muppets Most Wanted) is trapped in an unhappy marriage and consumed with motherhood. Youngest Phillip (Adam Driver: Girls), is a screw-up who dates his therapist and shirks every responsibility.
    In close quarters, the Altmans feud, laugh and heal — not because of any earned character development but because that’s what the protagonists do in movies of this sort.
    “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” Tolstoy wrote, and it may have been true in the age of Anna Karenina. Now This Is Where I Leave You proves that unhappiness has become a cliché.
    All these Altmans are stereotypes. Paul believes that he’s inherited his father’s authority. Phillip is the perpetual baby. Wendy is the sardonic sister. Judd is the everyman bewildered by crazy relatives. If these characters seem familiar, it’s because you’ve seen them in Modern Family, Parenthood, August: Osage County, The Royal Tenenbaums and many more.
    The experience is much like watching a condensed sitcom with a season’s worth of plots crammed into a two-hour package. Director Shawn Levy (The Internship) is content to film the script this style. He also misuses the brilliantly talented women he’s cast, relegating them to wisecracking side characters who help the men resolve their issues.
    Performances give this dull slog its only fun.
    Bateman works overtime to make Judd, the protagonist, a relatable character. Fey, an experienced comedian, finds the funny beat in each line. Who wouldn’t want to watch a sitcom starring Jane Fonda? Always game for wry readings, she makes her matriarch funny. Driver is the breakout star of the film, using his manic energy to wring laughs out of ridiculous situations and lines.
    Because of them, This Is Where I Leave You is an entertaining diversion.

Good Comedy • R • 103 mins.

Blood and booze flow through Brooklyn

To most of the people who haunt the tattered stools of Cousin Marv’s Bar, Bob Saginowski (Tom Hardy: Locke) is just a shy face behind the taps. He quietly tends bar, slips into daily mass and suffers his cousin and business partner, Marv (James Gandolfini: Enough Said).
    A former loan shark, Marv is brooding about the Chechen mob that muscled into the neighborhood and his bar. Now his dive is a drop, one of dozens of Brooklyn bars where the Chechens launder dirty money.
    When masked men rob the bar and make off with the mob’s money, Bob and Marv have another problem.
    The Drop is a departure for writer Dennis Lehane (Boardwalk Empire), who adapted his short story for the screen. Lehane turns The Drop into a poignant tale of misspent lives.
    Director Michaël Roskam (Bullhead) forgoes fancy camera work for simple, understated shots. The sparse shooting style emphasizes the cold world Bob and Marv navigate. The result is an actor’s film, where performances are the focus.
    In his final film role, Gandolfini plays to the type that made him a star: a tough-talking New Yorker who has deep connections to the city’s criminal underbelly. His Marv is a sneering ball of insecurities, a deeply dissatisfied man whose bitterness manifests in violent deeds and angry words. It’s an engaging performance, but after eight years playing Tony Soprano, it’s a performance Gandolfini could have done in his sleep.
    Hardy is the star, offering an elegant, nuanced performance as quiet, unassuming Bob. Though his accent is more generically American than Brooklynesque, Hardy works around this impairment, imbuing Bob with depth. He’s a man who can both cuddle a puppy and get rid of a body part left on his doorstep.
    A crime thriller with a soft side, The Drop exemplifies the power of subtle filmmaking. You’ll find no big car chases nor dramatic shootouts, just a brilliantly acted film about mob bagmen struggling to get by.

Good Drama • R • 106 mins.

Two comedians prove dining out is an art

Comedians Steve Coogan (Philomena) and Rob Brydon (Underdogs) aren’t really friends, but they converse well together. Following up on a successful series of restaurant reviews (covered in The Trip), they translate the series to Italy.
    From the moment they squeeze into their rented Mini Cooper, competition kicks in. Through six sumptuous meals, the comedians war over who does the best impressions, has the least satisfying home life and the better career.
    On paper, it doesn’t sound like a riveting film, but director Michael Winterbottom (The Look of Love) proves that good dinner conversation is an art.
    Like the first Trip film, The Trip to Italy is actually a summation of a British television show, editing six episodes into a nearly two-hour film.
    Playing exaggerated versions of themselves, Coogan and Brydon are brilliant at playing up their worst traits for comedy. Brydon makes himself desperate for attention and deeply insecure about his regional fame compared to Coogan’s wider stardom. He can’t turn off. Even alone in his room or on the phone with his wife, he whirls through impressions. He is exhausting to watch, but there’s tragedy in a man so afraid of being himself.
    Coogan uses smugness as a shield against his insecurities. He presents himself as an international celebrity, adored in America, partly to twist the blade in his pal Brydon and partly to disguise the fact that he’s lonely and dissatisfied with his career. When Brydon mentions a career triumph, Coogan becomes so despondent he loses interest in the competition.
    In spite of the two actors’ sometimes prickly interactions, there’s magic whenever they converse. Seeking to top each other, they speed through a flurry of impressions and improvisations. It’s hilarious. The moments when Coogan and Brydon manage to crack each other up are best of all.
    The Trip to Italy isn’t a movie for the popcorn crowd. But if you’re in the market for a fascinating look into the mind of a comedian and some inspired cuisine, you’ll adore the second helping of this series.

Good Dramedy • NR • 108 mins.

Neither scary nor inventive, this horror should have stayed buried

Deep below the streets of Paris is a city of bones. Most of the catacombs are well mapped out tourist spots, but a secret section of the tunnels obsesses alchemist professor Dr. Scarlett Marlowe (Perdita Weeks: The Invisible Woman). She believes these tombs house Nicolas Flamel’s famed philosopher’s stone, which holds the key to knowledge and immortality.
    Scarlett’s father spent his career searching for the stone before committing suicide when his theories were mocked. She has dedicated her life to proving his beliefs. To take her into the catacombs, she recruits language expert George (Ben Feldman: Mad Men), documentary filmmaker Benji (Edwin Hodge: The Purge: Anarchy) and three French spelunkers.
    In uncharted parts of the crypts, a cave-in forces the team into a cavern declared sinister by locals. As they crawl among the bones searching for a way out, Scarlett notices odd things. As team members die, she acknowledges that they may have descended into a realm of evil.
    Will they realize in time the Philosopher’s Stone is really at Hogwarts? Or are all destined to add new piles of bones to the crypts?
    Yet another mockumentary horror film, As Above, So Below deals with themes of hell, mysticism and guilt. Unfortunately, each is handled poorly. Director John Erick Dowdle (Devil) substitutes shaky cam action for tension. Whenever the team comes across a scare, he whips the camera back and forth so that we see blurred images. It’s an endurance challenge for viewers with weak stomachs.
    Dowdle squanders even the most inherently frightening part of his movie: the setting. Claustrophobic sequences are few; if Paris were built on such a spacious sewer system, the City of Love would be at the same elevation as Denver.
    The actors do what they can with weak material. As the fanatical leader, Weeks’ Scarlett is eerily calm in the face of disaster. She manipulates, cajoles and forces her group to bend to her will. Weeks also convincingly sells Scarlett’s haunted past and her determination to clear her father’s name.
    As a mildly claustrophobic nerd who has a crush on Scarlett, naturally charismatic Feldman has little to do.
    With no scares, poor cinematography and a weak script, the only thing frightening about this movie is paying to see it.

Poor Horror • R • 93 mins.

See this flick and you might wish you were dead

In the bowels of Basin City, there are no happy endings. So don’t look for any in these four stories of sex, death and violence.
    Barfly thug Marv (Mickey Rourke: Java Heat) hasn’t made a man bleed in days. It’s starting to get to him. As his impulse toward violence grows, he seeks an outlet to vent his rage.
    Gambler Johnny (Joseph Gordon-Levitt: Don Jon) is looking to make a score. Never having lost a game of chance, he buys into the richest card game in the city, playing police chiefs, senators and high rollers to take home millions.
    Private Eye Dwight (Josh Brolin: Guardians of the Galaxy) meets his long-lost love Ava (Eva Green: Penny Dreadful) at a bar. She promises love and fidelity if Dwight helps extract her from her marriage to the rich sadist for whom she left him.
    Stripper Nancy (Jessica Alba: The Spoils of Babylon) lost the love of her life because of the threats of a powerful senator (Powers Boothe: Nashville). Now an alcoholic with a tenuous grip on sanity, she vows revenge.
    Director Robert Rodriguez made the first Sin City film — adapted from Frank Miller’s popular graphic novels — in black and white so it looked ripped from the pages of a comic book. In this sequel, he seems to have forgotten what made the original a success. This sequel is so bad that it taints the memory of its predecessor.
    Despite graphic violence, near constant nudity and plenty of pulpy dramatic dialog, this movie is so dull that it could be used in a sleep study.
    The four story lines are smashed together rather than interwoven. The painterly quality so visually arresting in the first is replaced with shots of naked women framed as high art.
    Actors could save this one — were not most of them woefully inept or miscast. Jessica Alba continues to prove she’s one of the worst actresses working today. Gordon-Levitt’s slight frame is dwarfed in Miller’s world of hulking men.
    Only Rourke understands how to work with the pulpy dialog and plot. His Marv — who impressed in the first Sin City — is a sweet lunk who happens to be a dangerous psychotic. Rourke generates both sympathy and fear.
    With nothing but Mickey Rourke’s 20 minutes of screen time to recommend it, Sin City: A Dame to Kill For fails on three counts: film, action and cheap pornographic thrills.

Awful Action • R • 102 mins.

An Indian family spices up French haute cuisine

     Kadam family life is built around food. In India, young Hassan learns how to taste and create unique flavors from his mother, an intuitive cook. When a riot leads to her death and the destruction of their restaurant, the family decides to try their luck in Europe.
    When the family car breaks down in a remote French village, Fearless Patriarch (Om Puri: Welcome Back) sees not tragedy but fate. He spends the family’s savings on a broken-down building that he deems perfect for an Indian restaurant. The family is confident that their gifted Hassan (Manish Dayal: California Scheming) can convert French villagers to Indian cuisine.
    Their enterprise stands only a hundred feet from a famed restaurant with a coveted Michelin star. Its proprietor, Madame Mallory (Helen Mirren: Red 2), doesn’t like competition.
    She bristles at the Kadam family’s music, gripes at their colorful decorations and sneers at what she deems “ethnic food.” Soon the Kadams and Mme. Mallory are locked in culinary war.
    The Hundred-Foot Journey is a cinematic meringue: Light, sweet and without much substance. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but this serving doesn’t make for a very memorable cinema experience. Director Lasse Hallstrom (Safe Haven) has made a name directing fluffy romances and family dramas. This sweetly predictable fish-out-of-water tale stays close to what he knows. You know immediately how the story will end and which characters will be paired up before the credits roll. Issues like racism, death and classism are touched only briefly. This is a movie about pretty people making attractive food and finding equally comely life partners.
    On the plus side, Hallstrom’s cinematography is beyond compare. He lovingly captures the creamy peaks of a perfect hollandaise sauce and the bright colors of a chicken tikka, making food a sumptuous, nearly sensual, experience. A bag of popcorn and a soda will be a disappointment during this two hours of exotic, delectable cooking.
    Though there’s not much flavor to the story, actors work hard to imbue their characters with charm and charisma. Mirren does an excellent Maggie Smith impression as a stuffy patrician who learns to open her heart. Veteran Bollywood actor Puri gives dignity and kindness to what could be a horribly stereotypical role.
    The real find is Manish Dayal. His Hassan is naïve yet confident in his own abilities, a sympathetic character you hope succeeds.
Fair Drama/Great Cooking • PG • 122 mins.