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Articles by Diana Beechener

Grandma, what crazy eyes you have.

Becca (Olivia DeJonge: Hiding) and Tyler (Ed Oxenbould: Chevy) have never met their grandparents. The ­family has been estranged since their mother (Kathryn Hahn: Tomorrowland) ran off with her high school teacher.
    Fifteen years later, reconciliation is on the horizon. Mom schedules a weeklong visit for the kids, who are thrilled. Becca, an aspiring filmmaker, hopes documenting the trip will bring her family back together. Tyler, a rapper with ready sarcasm, wants to give his mom a weeklong break with her boyfriend.
    So over the river and through the woods to grandparents’ house they go. Nana (Deanna Dunagan: House of Cards) and Pop Pop (Peter McRobbie: Daredevil) live on a remote farm. There is no cell phone service, but there are fresh cookies and lots to explore.
    Nana seems like the dream grandmother. She bakes. She fondly tells stories. She skitters on all fours through the house wailing and naked. If that last one doesn’t quite remind you of your own grandmother, you’re not alone; Becca and Tyler have concerns, too. Pop Pop explains that she’s got a form of dementia. Every evening she sundowns, getting violent and disoriented. That’s why bedtime is 9:30pm.
    But Pop Pop isn’t exactly normal, either. He wanders the house in a daze and makes frequent trips to a mysterious locked shed.
    In turns hilarious, ridiculous and creepy, The Visit is a combination of brilliance and idiocy by writer-director M. Night Shyamalan (After Earth). He is a sucker for ludicrous twists and silly stories. On the other hand, Shyamalan is masterful at building tension and bringing in humor. A tense exploration of the crawl space under the house diffuses into humor instead of a jump scare. We ride an emotional rollercoaster, never knowing what will happen next.
    The Visit is not perfect, but it is the best Shyamalan movie in 15 years.

Good Comedy/Horror • PG-13 • 94 mins.

The refueling obviously failed because this sequel is running on empty

Frank Martin (Ed Skrein: Tiger House) is the man you call when you need a ride. Specializing in getaway driving and difficult car-related missions, Frank and his car can do anything — except obey the speed limit.
    A solitary sort, Frank now tries to reconnect with his pensioner father (Ray Stevenson: Insurgent), a former spy. He also takes on a new contract for Anna (Loan Chabanol: Third Person).
    When he discovers the job is helping three beautiful women bank robbers, Frank refuses to help — until they show him footage of his kidnapped father. But helping these thieves brings on the Ukrainian mob.
    A reboot of the Transporter series starring Jason Statham, The Transporter Refueled is an anemic action film with few thrills, ridiculous plot lines and no charm. Director Camille Delamarre (Brick Mansions) crafts slick action sequences with no substance. Characters fly through the air, dodge bullets and land punches with seemingly no effort.
    The lazy action is compounded by ridiculous storytelling. A subplot about the horrors of sex trafficking features countless shots of rhythmically gyrating panty-clad posteriors. The female bank robbers are, in essence, sexy Barbies used to reward our hero and his dad for acknowledging that forced prostitution is wrong. It would be insulting had the writers given these women character.
    Along with casual sexism and defiance of the laws of physics, the action formula demands a charismatic hero. Skrein looks good in a suit, but he lacks both the physicality and the charm to pull off the role made famous by Statham.
    Oddly, the only person in the film who shows flashes of charm is Frank’s father. Stevenson, who must need to make a mortgage payment to be working on such dreck, steals every scene. Watching, you wonder how such an engaging personality raised a son who is the cinematic equivalent of cold oatmeal.
    The Transporter Refueled is a rare film that fails on just about every conceivable level. From plot to acting to action to the cars, it’s a lemon.

Poor Action • PG-13 • 96 mins.

Two friends battle aging and the elements in this fun hike

It’s been years since acclaimed author Bill Bryson (Robert Redford: Captain America: The Winter Soldier) has written anything more substantial than the foreword to another writer’s book. Getting older hasn’t agreed with him, and he bristles at his social schedule, which is filled with funerals and staid gatherings.
    To shake things up, he decides to do something amazing: Hike the Appalachian Trail. He’s convinced he can amble over 2,000 miles of American wilderness on his own, with just his pup tent and a canteen. His wife (Emma Thompson: Effie Gray) is less sure of his skills, begging him not to go and printing out horror stories of people who have died on the trail.
    Finally, a compromise is reached. Bryson can go if he finds a hiking partner. He picks up the phone, but all his friends are too busy, too old or totally uninterested. The dream is starting to die when Stephen Katz (Nick Nolte: Run All Night) calls him. An estranged pal from his youth, Katz asks to tag along the trail. Desperate, Bryson agrees.
    When Katz arrives, Bryson is surprised to find his old hell-raising friend has grown old, fat and lame. Katz wheezes, turns purple at the slightest exertion, and is a general mess. He’s the last person who should walk the trail, but he’s the only person who volunteered.
    Together, Bryson and Katz take on one of the most challenging hikes in North America. As the miles roll on, the two old friends talk, gripe and laugh their way through the wilderness. Can two men past their prime trek from Georgia to Maine? Or will they kill each other before they can make camp?
    Based on Bryson’s novel, A Walk in the Woods is a journey film about two men who need to find themselves in the wilderness. Fans of the book will note that the characters are significantly older than those in the book, and the plot is a fast and loose adaptation. Still, the film manages to address the subjects of aging, finding yourself and friendship with humor and some insights.
    Director Ken Kwapis (Happyish) keeps the story simple. It’s essentially a two-man show, with Bryson and Katz trundling through the wilderness as the main attraction. Kwapis focuses on the comedy of the pairing and the majesty of the mountains and forests they traverse. John Bailey’s cinematography will convince you to visit the trail yourself to see the gorgeous vistas captured in the film.
    The core of the film is the relationship between Bryson and Katz. Redford is charming, infusing Bryson with intelligence and determination. He is a man missing something, and he convinces himself a few months of walking and eating camp rations will help him find it.
    The real star, however, is Nolte. It helps that his life has somewhat mirrored Katz’s life, as the years of hard living play plainly across the actor’s face. Nolte crashes into every scene, growling in his smoke-cracked baritone and saying the exact wrong thing 90 percent of the time. Katz’s oblivious crass nature hides a wounded man desperate to find some meaning in his life. Nolte manages to be both an exemplary buffoon and a tragic lost soul.
    A Walk in the Woods isn’t a perfect film. The production is a little too slick, and the film would rather go for shallow laughs than delve into what frayed Bryson and Katz’ relationship. In spite of its flaws, it is a funny, sweet story about finding yourself and an old friend in the woods.

Good Dramedy • R • 104 mins.

You’ll have to be as high as Mike to enjoy this stoner comedy

Mike Howell (Jesse Eisenberg: The End of the Tour) is a loser. Ambitionless, he works a dead-end job managing a convenience store and suffers from a plethora of phobias. The only bright spots in this life are Mike’s endlessly understanding girlfriend Phoebe (Kristen Stewart: Still Alice) and the mountains of marijuana he smokes each day.
    The action begins with words mumbled by a convenience store customer. Mike thinks the pot has addled his brain, but when two men attempt to kill him, he surprises himself by handily dispatching them with a spoon.
    Mike is in fact a newly activated and expertly trained CIA operative. As ruthless killers come to town town, he must remember his training, protect his girlfriend and save his skin. That’s a tall order for a man who can’t cook an omelet without a joint in his hand.
    Violent, poorly written and featuring unbelievable performances, American Ultra is so ridiculous it’s almost as funny as it wants to be. Obsessed with the slick and stylish, director Nima Nourizadeh (Project X) has made a movie as consequential as a car commercial. Action is frenetic, editing is choppy and stylized — and neither serves the story.
    Neither straightforward action film in Bourne style nor gonzo action comedy like Pineapple Express, American Ultra languishes in limbo. It is not innovative enough to be a gory action comedy and not restrained enough to be a classical shoot-’em-up. Like Mike, it has no ambition and nothing of interest to say.
    Characters are stereotypes, impersonal and uninteresting. As Mike, Eisenberg has the look and idiotic dialog of a stoner, and he acts the part. His attacks are slow, his strikes lack force and his hair hangs in his eyes.
    The relationship with Stewart’s Phoebe is only slightly less believable than this loser’s being able to find a spoon, let alone kill with it. Stewart and Eisenberg display no chemistry.
    The only person who escapes American Ultra unscathed is Walton Goggins (Justified), who plays Laugher, a psychotic soldier tasked with killing Mike. Goggins, who has decades of experience playing underwritten weirdoes, has learned how to make even the barest character interesting.

Poor Action Movie • R • 95 mins.

Two writers edit their own narratives in this excellent drama drawn from life

After publishing Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace (Jason Segel: Sex Tape) becomes the golden boy of the literary world. Glowing reviews claim the book is the greatest novel of its generation. Awards are showered on him. Instead of thriving, Wallace retreats from the limelight.
    Meanwhile, struggling novelist and Rolling Stone writer David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg: Rio 2) seethes in jealousy. Even worse, Lipsky must admit that the praise is earned. Fascinated by the mind behind the brainy book, Lipsky pitches a story to his editor: Unearth the man behind the mythos.
    To do so, Lipsky travels to Illinois for the last five days of Wallace’ book tour. Instead of a brilliant intellect, Lipsky finds a quiet man more interested in his dogs than talking about writing.
    A bond forms, and Lipsky gets a glimpse of who’s beneath Wallace’s regular guy armor.
    Based on the true story of Lipsky’s never-published interviews, The End of the Tour is on surface a bit boring. No sex, no violence. Somehow, two guys talking about American culture, women and the stress of writing turns exciting.
    Wallace, who battled depression for years, is a writhing mass of insecurities. He has such strict derogatory ideas about the meaning of success that praise has made him paranoid. He fears being viewed as a fraud.
    Eager to learn from a genius, Lipsky treats the assignment more as enlightenment than investigation. He’s interested in Wallace but too in awe to ask hard questions. When he finally gets the nerve to scrutinize Wallace’s motives, the dynamic shifts.
    To make such a film work, actors have to be on top of their game. Both men inhabit their roles beautifully. Segel pulls off a mesmerizing performance as the troubled, soft-spoken genius whose vital eyes belie the bumpkin he plays for Lipsky. You can see him creating responses that seem both unassuming and smart.
    Eisenberg gives Lipsky natural tenacity that must be tamped down to draw Wallace out. Jealous, in awe and curious, he wants Wallace’s approval. But once he senses a ruse, he digs in, hoping to provoke honesty.
    To film this battle of wits, director James Ponsoldt (The Spectacular Now) keeps his camera unobtrusive, so we feel we’re eavesdropping on the conversation. It’s an effective trick that creates immediacy and tension.
    If you’re interested in Wallace or enjoy heady conversation, The End of the Tour should engage you. Otherwise, watching will be almost as tortuous as slogging through Wallace’s 1,079-page opus.

Good Drama • R • 106 mins.

This silly send-up of 1960s’ spy films is F.U.N.

Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill: Man of Steel) is a CIA spy with style. Dressed to the nines and armed with charm, he can seduce women with a wink and talk his way into or out of any situation. His unflappable confidence is second only to his intelligence.
    So when he’s assigned to extract Gaby (Alicia Vikander: Ex Machina) from East Germany, Solo assumes the mission will be simple. But only after a harrowing chase from a hulking tail do Gaby and Solo make it safely across The Wall. Then they find their mission has just begun.
    Gaby’s father, a former Nazi scientist who has discovered an easy way to enrich uranium, is kidnapped by terrorists planning to make and sell atomic bombs. Neither the U.S.S.R. nor the U.S. wants atomic bombs on the open market, so they team up (temporarily) to foil the bomb makers. Thus, Solo and Gaby are partnered with a Russian agent who turns out to be Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer: Entourage), the brute who chased them through East Berlin.
    Based on the popular TV show, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is a swinging tribute to the 1960s spy genre, with plenty of suave guys, stunning women and sexual innuendos. Director Guy Ritchie creates a light romp with plenty of style plus frenetic editing and framing.
    Ritchie also has a wicked sense of humor, with many violent acts played for laughs in the background of scenes. Solo watches as Illya engages in an aquatic gun battle. He could help, but he’s not quite finished with his drink. This mix of brutality and jocularity works well in the spy spoof tone.
    As the duo who must learn to work together, Cavill and Hammer have excellent chemistry. Cavill, an almost surreally handsome leading man, is perfect as the slightly empty seducer. His Solo is all style and detachment, ala vintage James Bond. Hammer uses his considerable height and a comically ridiculous accent to make Illya a brute with a soul and surprising humor. As the glue holding the men together, Vikander isn’t required to do much. Her beauty and natural charm carry her through a slightly underwritten role.
    Ritchie crafts a breezy film, but he isn’t quite as slick as the spies he puts on screen. By rehashing scenes we’ve just watched, he over-explains his fairly straightforward plot and makes the film seem overlong. Fifteen minutes could be razed without damage to plot or pace.

Good Action • PG-13 • 116 mins.

This review will self-destruct in 10 seconds

Whether he’s hanging off the door of an ascending plane or casually participating in the demolition of the Kremlin, Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise: Edge of Tomorrow) has quite the reputation in the spy game. The top spy in the IMF, a super-secret government agency, Hunt is assigned impossible missions with his only guarantee complete government disavowal if he fails.
    Though he always comes through, the government is tiring of his methods.
    CIA director Hunley (Alec Baldwin: Aloha) leads the charge to shut down Ethan and his team. When the government sides with Hunley, Hunt doesn’t take it well. Instead of contritely accounting for every instance of vehicular mayhem, property damage and personal injury he’s inflicted on the world, Hunt goes rogue.
    He hasn’t joined the dark side; Hunt has a greater mission. A secret organization, The Syndicate, is behind most recent disasters and acts of terrorism, and he has sworn to track down and destroy The Syndicate before returning home.
    The problem: No one at the CIA believes him.
    Can Hunt and his faithful tech friends — Benji (Simon Pegg: The Boxtrolls) and Luther (Ving Rhames: James Boy) as well as operative Brandt (Jeremy Renner: Avengers: Age of Ultron) — stop The Syndicate? Or will they be taken out by their own government?
    Filled with action, technobabble and engaging acting, Mission: Impossible Rogue Nation is a summer blockbuster that doesn’t have to re-invent the wheel. The plot is formulaic, the faces familiar, the jokes well-worn. Viewers know what to expect, and Mission: Impossible delivers.
    Director Christopher McQuarrie, who also wrote the script, does a remarkable job of making a predictable film exciting. We know Hunt isn’t going to die. In fact, most viewers know within the first 30 minutes how the film will end. Still, action sequences feel visceral and alive. A breathtaking car and motorcycle chase through the streets of Casablanca is particularly thrilling. McQuarrie also peppers his action with plenty of comedy, with Pegg and Renner landing most of the punchlines.
    One of action’s most committed actors, Cruise keeps the film from slipping too far into parody. While other stars of his caliber shuffle through their action films and collect their paycheck along with their copy of AARP Magazine, Cruise always gives 100 percent. His natural intensity will allow for nothing less. He runs full force, attacks each fight scene and pratfall with gusto.
    In spite of some great action and acting, Mission: Impossible Rogue Nation is far from perfect. McQuarrie drags out the final act about 15 minutes too long. The plot is also filled with ridiculous contrivances, including a morally compromised character named Faust.
    Your mission, if you choose to accept it, is to buy a ticket and a bucket of popcorn and watch Ethan Hunt save the world for a fifth time.

Good Action • PG-13 • 131 mins.

This isn’t your mother’s romantic comedy

Amy (Amy Schumer: Inside Amy Schumer) is living the dream. She has a spacious New York apartment, writes for a men’s magazine and goes home with a different guy every night.
    Amy learned from her father at an early age that monogamy doesn’t work. Her father, now in a nursing home, eggs Amy on in her rejection of relationships, domesticity and kids. He encourages her to make herself happy even at the expense of others. Amy mercilessly mocks her sister Kim (Brie Larson: The Gambler), for her focus on her family.
    Until a new writing assignment causes Amy to reevaluate her life. Her subject is Dr. Aaron Conners (Bill Hader: Inside Out) a sports surgeon with a long list of celebrity clients. After their night of sex, Aaron wants another date. Amy overrides her impulse to say no.
    Does love mean having to change who you are? Is monogamy possible for a free-thinking modern woman? Or is domesticity the trap Amy has always believed it to be?
    Filled with lewd jokes, uncomfortable situations and genuine laughs, Trainwreck is a romantic comedy for the cynical voice in the back of your mind. Schumer, who also wrote the film, has made a name for herself as a comedian unafraid to tackle sex, drugs and feminism. In her first starring role, Schumer crafts a comedy that examines modern feminism.
    With Trainwreck, Schumer isn’t proposing women necessarily settle down. She’s asking them to be sure they’re pursuing what they really want, be it children, a career or anonymous sex. It’s a heavy task for a romantic comedy, but Schumer manages.
    Helping her set the tone is veteran director Judd Apatow (This is 40). A master of wildly vulgar humor with a heart of gold, Apatow combines sexual innuendo and sincerity to craft a modern romantic comedy. Some of the sequences run too long, with Apatow pushing the joke further than it needs to go, but it’s fun to watch Schumer riff. Though Schumer is often the butt of the jokes, Apatow makes sure we don’t see her as stupid. She’s a flawed but funny woman trying to navigate uncharted waters.
    In essence playing the same character she affects for her standup show, Schumer shows real promise. It’s no surprise that she can nail the comic beats, but Trainwreck also requires some hard emotional work. Schumer attacks each moment with aplomb, creating a nuanced character we root for — even as we cringe at some of her decisions.
    Backing up Schumer is Saturday Night Live alumni Hader, who serves as the perfect foil. Aaron is sincere, while Amy is cynical. Both have been damaged by life, but each has reacted differently. Hader’s natural sweetness and hilarious reactions to Amy make his Aaron endearing.
    The biggest surprise in Trainwreck, however, is a breakout performance from basketball great LeBron James. Parodying himself, James acts as Aaron’s pal, a little overly invested in Aaron’s love life. As a Downton Abbey-obsessed, penny-pinching romantic who wants to make sure his buddy Aaron doesn’t get hurt, James gleefully skewers his own image.
    Trainwreck isn’t a typical romantic comedy. You may be turned off by its lewd humor, drug use and active sexuality. Still, Schumer and Apatow have created a sincere comedy about finding the courage to fall in love.

Good Comedy • R • 125 mins.

A superhero a fraction the usual size delivers big laughs

Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) is an ex-con who wants to go straight. A burglar with a master’s degree in electrical engineering, he can’t even keep a job at Baskin-Robbins. Desperate to earn child support money so he can see his daughter, he reverts to crime one more time.
    But mysterious millionaire Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) isn’t the doddering old man he pretends to be. Pym is a genius who has invented a suit that allows its wearer to shrink to the size of an ant while becoming 50 times stronger and faster than a human. Hank offers Scott a job as Ant-Man to keep a protégé from weaponizing the Ant-Man suit.
    In the world of the Incredible Hulk, Spiderman and Iron Man, a shrinking suit isn’t very impressive. So instead of awe-inspiring, Ant-Man’s powers are laugh-inspiring.
    Rudd and director Peyton Reed find the laugh in each scene and quirk of the genre. Scott must learn to communicate with ants. A dramatic battle to the death takes place on a Thomas the Tank Engine train set. A ridiculous number of animals and people are vaporized into goo.
    Combining great writing, a charismatic performance from Rudd and some spectacularly funny action sequences, this is the best Marvel release since the fantastic Guardians of the Galaxy.

Great Action • PG-13 • 117 mins.

Little creatures look for a fearless leader in this fun comedy

Since the dawn of time, Minions have been looking for a master to serve. The yellow cylindrical beings are attracted to the baddies of the world and biologically compelled to assist them.
    But they’re terrible at the job.
    These yellow dunderheads have managed to cause catastrophes from the extinction of the dinosaurs to Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo. For their constant failures, they are expelled from society.
    In their icy cave, the Minions long for a new evil mastermind. In 1968, three leave the cave to realize their hope. They find Scarlett Overkill (voiced by Sandra Bullock: ­Gravity), the world’s first female supervillain. She’s ruthless, she’s stylish and she’s beautiful. The Minions are enthralled.
    To earn a spot on Scarlett’s payroll for the banana-like brethren, the Minions must complete a trial mission: Steal the queen of England’s crown.
    Clever and relentlessly silly, Minions is a family film that entertains all generations.
    The stars are the creatures who chatter gibberish and take in the world through wide Buster Keaton eyes, sweet of nature even as they try to be bad. These are not cruel or stupid creatures, and the film seems to cherish the innocent exuberance that often leads the Minions astray.
    Pierre Coffin (who also co-directs) has the unenviable job of providing a voice to the Minions, and though he doesn’t speak in comprehensible sentences, he manages to create three distinct personalities as well as a whole host of emotions.
    Bullock has a grand time as Scarlett, a brassy villain whose princess complex exacerbates her mood swings.
    Though their concept is fairly straight forward, directors Kyle Balda and Coffin find innovative ways to tell the story. The setting inspires a fantastic classic rock soundtrack that drives the action and will have adults tapping their toes. Minions also uses 3D technology in an interesting way. Coffin and Balda play with perception, having objects enter or leave frame in unexpected places. Scenes seem alive, and the 3D effect catches the audience off guard.
    Minions doesn’t have the depth or beauty of Pixar’s Inside Out, but profundity isn’t its thing. This is a movie for a bucket of popcorn and an escape from the summer heat. As children aren’t the only people in the seats, there are a few jokes to keep adults laughing as these little yellow henchmen bumble their way through London.

Good Animation • PG • 91 mins.