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Articles by Diana Beechener

Just what a Star Wars film should be: silly, exciting fun

Long ago in a galaxy far, far away millions of Star Wars fans were despondent when George Lucas offered them three prequels that ruined the mythology of the beloved originals.
    Fans can rejoice, for now there is another.
    Taking over the franchise under Disney after its purchase from Lucas, director J.J. Abrams (Star Trek) proves the force is strong with him. He has produced a miracle: an entertaining new Star Wars film.
    Set decades after Han Solo (Harrison Ford), Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), and Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) helped the rebels crush the empire, The Force Awakens reveals that this trio has not lived happily ever after. The Empire fell, and in its place rose the fascist military First Order, determined to quash free thought and the remainder of the Republic. Leia, now a general in the rebel army, still fights to save her galaxy from oppression.
    Luke, now the last of the Jedi, has ­disappeared. But his powers are essential to victory.
    Filled with nostalgia, action and comedy, The Force Awakens is exactly what a Star Wars film should be: silly, exciting fun. Abrams carefully sets the stage for his new cast of characters while letting the audience catch up with old favorites. He also embraces practical effects, making alien interaction more fun to watch.
    There are a few problems. Big dramatic moments are telegraphed early; You’ll probably be able to guess how the film ends by the 30-minute mark. But plotting missteps are outweighed by the joy of watching favorites fight for the Light Side. Han and Chewie dash onto the bridge of the Millennium Falcon in one such joyful moment. New characters are fun and engaging, so it’s not a chore as the stage is set for the next two films.
    The Force Awakens has already broken pre-sale records around the globe. If you’ve bought your tickets, I’m happy to reassure you that your money is well spent.

Good Sci-Fi • PG-13 • 135 mins.

This whale of a tale doesn’t live up to the book

When The Essex leaves port in 1820, first mate Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth: Vacation) tells his pregnant wife he’ll be back soon. The whaler leaves port in search of whale oil to fill 2,000 barrels and keep the lights on in American homes.
    Over-fishing is beginning to take a toll on the theretofore hugely profitable industry of whaling. Over a year out to sea, the Essex is far from reaching its quota. Tensions become near mutinous between Chase, an experienced seaman, and Captain Pollard (Benjamin Walker: Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight), a wealthy seafaring scion captaining his first voyage.
    In Ecuador, a one-armed captain tells them of rich whaling grounds in the middle of the Pacific. He warns them, however, of a demon white whale that killed most of his crew and relieved him of his arm. Pollard and Chase laugh off the mangled captain’s warning.
    As the men of the Essex prepare to lay waste to pod after pod of sperm whales, a white behemoth surges from the sea. This whale is basically a waterlogged Smokey the Bear on steroids. Instead of proclaiming only you can prevent over-fishing, he thrusts through the hull of the Essex, ripping its mast down onto the crew. Forced to abandon ship, the men throw what they can into three small rowboats.
    Adrift in the Pacific, the Essex whalers are hundreds of miles from land. Their fate worsens when Smokey the Whale pops up again.
    Can the crew survive a conservation-minded whale and the unforgiving sea?
    If this story of a demonic white whale reminds you of high school, it’s because the true story of the Essex inspired Herman Melville’s classic novel Moby Dick.
    In the Heart of the Sea offers cracking action, but it lacks the poetry and introspection of Melville’s masterpiece.
    Director Ron Howard (Rush) knows how to create dramatic action. It’s awe-inspiring and terrifying when the whale emerges from the depths of the ocean. The whale stalks the deep, waiting for his moment to strike. The magnitude of the threat — this whale can bash men to bits with a flick of its tail — is beautifully emphasized by overhead shots.
    The crew of the Essex, however, are not as nuanced or interesting as this computer-generated whale. Only Hemsworth, who subjected himself to a startling physical transformation, gets any character development. His Chase is a natural leader with a chip on his shoulder, a cliché, perhaps, but Hemsworth’s commanding presence sells the underwritten role. Walker is relegated to a thankless antagonist, while the crew remains largely nameless.
    Howard also bookends his film with superfluous scenes showing Melville tracking down the last survivor of the Essex for the true story. He’d have done better developing the crew so that we’re on Team Whale for the voyage.
    Beautiful to look at but unsatisfying as a story, In the Heart of the Sea is an epic tale of wasted potential.

Fair Adventure • PG-13 • 121 mins.

Arlo (voiced by Raymond Ochoa: Fallout 4) is afraid of everything. The Apatosaurus lives on a farm where his family grows corn. As the smallest, Arlo is assigned menial chores, like feeding the chickens. He’s terrified of chickens … and bugs … and bad weather … and leaves … and the critter that steals corn.
    To change his cowardly reputation, Arlo sets out to capture and kill the corn thief. The critter turns out to be a feral human boy (Jack Bright). In pursuit, Arlo enters a raging river.
    He survives, but wakes with no idea of where he is or how to get home. Terrified and incapable of caring for himself, he turns to the boy for protection. Together the small boy and the giant dino seek their way home.
    Gorgeously rendered but emotionally shallow, The Good Dinosaur lacks the storytelling mastery we expect in Pixar films. Lack of nuance shows in the characters, especially one-note Arlo. It’s also troubling that rage seems to be Arlo’s only motivation. Not exactly the lesson most parents would want for their little ones.
    Director Peter Sohn (Partly Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs) does build an impressive supporting voice cast including Sam Elliott (Grandma) as a cattle ranching T-Rex and Steve Zahn (Modern Family) as a psychotic pterodactyl. The movie also has a darker sense of humor than most Pixar fare, including jokes about the deaths of little creatures. This gallows humor drew laughs from the adults in the audience, but small viewers seemed upset.
    The star of The Good Dinosaur is Pixar’s photo-realistic nature animation. The film takes you from lush forests to deserts to snowy peaks, lovingly creating each environment. Some of the sets are worthy of National Geographic, and it is a marvel of technology and talent that we see such realistic vistas on the silver screen.
    Even a bad Pixar movie is pretty good. At plenty of moments, adults guffawed and children cheered. The Good Dinosaur is about fun instead of feelings.

Good Animation • PG • 100 mins.

The latest in the Rocky series is a knockout

Adonis Johnson (Michael B. Jordan: Fantastic Four) has been throwing punches all his life. Orphaned and alone, Adonis ricocheted between foster care and juvenile detention. When a well-dressed woman visits him in lockup, he’s shocked.
    Mary Anne Creed (Phylicia Rashad: For Justice) has sought Adonis ever since she discovered that he is the son of her late husband, heavyweight champ Apollo Creed.
    The grown up Adonis has had the benefits of money, an education and a loving stepmother. But he can’t shake the urge to fight. He works weeks in a finance company, but on weekends he boxes in illegal matches in Tijuana. Fearing that her surrogate son will meet the same end as his father, Mary Anne won’t help him start a fighting career.
    Adonis then travels to Philadelphia, where his father’s greatest opponent lives. Tracking down Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone: The Expendables 3), Adonis begs the Italian Stallion to train him to become a champion. A shell of the man he once was, Rocky isn’t sure he or the kid has what it takes.
    Creed is the first movie in the Rocky series not written by Sylvester Stallone. That could be why it is easily the best film since the original Rocky. Written and directed by Ray Coogler (Fruitvale Station), it honors the icons of the Rocky films while crafting a bold, independent vision. Coogler’s Philadelphia is gritty and punishing, full of life and promise. As Adonis runs through the streets, the neighborhoods seemingly come alive around him.
    Fight scenes are well choreographed and exhilarating. Coogler puts the camera behind Adonis, so the audience is directly in the path of the onslaught. It’s visceral and effective, making more than one viewer scream OH! when a particularly brutal blow lands.  
    Coogler’s biggest triumph, however, is reminding Stallone to act. Alone in the world and waiting to join his dead loved ones, Creed’s Rocky is a tragic figure. Stallone doesn’t push his big speeches, instead turning Rocky into a sad, shambling man who sees Adonis as his last hope for family. Stallone’s natural chemistry with Jordan helps to sell the relationship, which is the heart of the film.
    The heavyweight in this film, however, is Jordan, who breathes new life into the Rocky franchise. Jordan’s natural charisma evokes memories of Apollo for Rocky fans and charms franchise newcomers in equal measures. His impressive physical transformation into a powerful boxer is overshadowed only by the emotional depths he reveals. Adonis is a damaged boy yearning to prove he’s worthy of his father’s name.
    A knockout for anyone who’s ever dreamed of running up the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s stairs, Creed is both a great Rocky film and a great character study.

Great Sports Drama • PG-13• 132 mins.

In this historical biopic, women become warriors for the right to vote

A London laundry worker since she was seven, Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan: Far from the Madding Crowd) works long hours as harsh chemicals corrode her lungs. She’s paid less by the hour than male co-workers, who get to spend their days outside the factory making deliveries.
    It’s abominable. It’s unfair. It’s life in early 20th century England.
    A coworker who believes in the suffragette movement, which demands the vote for women as well as equal rights and pay, convinces Maud to join her at a parliamentary hearing on the working conditions. But their testimony falls on deaf ears.
    Thus Maud joins the suffragette fight as the women turn from marching and chanting to blowing up letterboxes.
    Shamed by neighbors and friends, Maud’s husband threatens her with homelessness and loss of her son. It’s a terrifying threat, as under the law women have no rights to their children.
    A fascinating look at the women behind the equality movement, Suffragette is a gripping but unfocused movie. Director Sarah Gavron (Brick Lane) knows her history and excels at detailing the injustices suffered by the suffragettes, from beatings to force feedings to stalking by the police. But her characters remain a mystery. It’s hard to care about the beating or death of a character whose name you can’t recall.
    One notable exception is the firebrand feminist played by Helena Bonham Carter (Cinderella). As Edith Ellyn, a highly educated pharmacist and dedicated suffragette, Bonham Carter easily steals every scene she’s in. Edith is a fierce proponent of the movement, who delights in blowing up symbols of the patriarchy and refuses to apologize for her behavior. Her husband is her partner in her causes, often acting as the getaway driver.
    As Maud, Mulligan offers a heartfelt performance, selling her transformation from suffering to suffragette.
    Doing better with facts than people’s stories, Suffragette rolls like a documentary, opening a window into a time that now seems almost unthinkable. Women have had the right to vote in England and America for less than a century; stay after the end for a list of when women around the world earned the right to vote.
    See Suffragette to understand how far the women’s movement has come — and how far it has to go.

Good Historical Drama • PG-13 • 106 mins.

Chilean miners fight for survival in this stirring drama based on a true story

Before descending into the bowels of the earth, workers at the San Jose gold and copper mine pause before a shrine to pray for protection. They need help from a higher power as the mining companies place profit above safety.
    Each time the miners enter the gaping maw, they know there is a chance they’ll never return.
    When the mountain collapses after 100 years of mining, it’s no surprise. Thirty-three miners are trapped. A rock twice the size of the Empire State Building stands between the men and fresh air. In their small refuge, they have a dozen cans of tuna, some stale cookies and milk. It’s barely enough to feed 33 men for a day, let alone the days it will take for help to reach them.
    The company response is to follow protocol: Ignore the collapse, try to contain news of the trapped miners and avoid terrified family members seeking answers. Infuriated that their husbands, brothers and sons are being left to die, the families riot, making the news.
    The president of Chile (Bob Gunton: Daredevil) sends his minister of mining (Rodrigo Santoro: Focus) to deal with the crisis. As the government races to drill to the miners, morale and food run low for the trapped men.
    Frustrating and gripping, The 33 is best underground, excelling at capturing the dynamics of the miners who spent 69 days trapped in a gold-and copper-laden tomb. Director Patricia Riggen (Girl in Progress) masterfully crafts the cave-in scene, escalating the tension as the miners scramble toward safety. Watching the group come together and fracture as starvation, exhaustion and depression infiltrate is riveting.
    As Mario, the leader of the miners, Antonio Banderas (The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water) carries the film well, even managing to sell some of the more heavy-handed dialogue. The other miners are all tertiary, but Riggen gives them all character action so that we care for the men.
    Above ground, Riggen has mixed success. She devotes a good deal of time to the miners’ families, but the characters are underdeveloped and boring compared to the miners. The notable exception is Juliette Binoche (7 Letters), who plays Maria, the fierce sister of a trapped miner. Binoche becomes the leader of the families, forcing the government to take accountability and refusing to give up hope.
    The greatest problem with The 33 is its scope. Riggen brings in so many plot threads and themes that they obscure the main story of survival while buried in the earth. Because the film is overcrowded, no character is fully developed. It’s also slightly uncomfortable to watch white actors, like Gunton who plays the president, pretend to be Chilean with ridiculous accents.
    Though flawed, The 33 is compelling whenever Riggen focuses on the subterranean drama. Buy your ticket to watch Banderas and his band of brothers fight for survival. When the film cuts to topside drama, take a bathroom break or get a popcorn refill.

Fair Drama • PG-13 • 120 mins.

The script is deader than the zombies

In a deserted strip club, teen Scouts Ben (Tye Sheridan: Dark Places) and Carter (Logan Miller: Take Me to the River) are slow to realize that the pole dancers are dead — make that undead.
    With zombies invading their hamlet, the boys make it their mission to save the hot senior girls. Along the way, they grope naked dead people, fight zombie housecats, stop for a few selfies and never much worry about the likelihood that everyone they know is dead and seeking their brains.
    Has Scout training prepared them to fight zombies? Can you watch this movie without severe mental anguish?
    Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse is neither funny nor scary. Distilling every annoying piece of millennial culture, from electric dance music to selfies to painfully self-aware references, it is sure to make all viewers over 30 long for the good old days of Adam Sandler’s lazy yet coherent humor.
    With characters so vapid and unlikeable that we root for the zombies, it makes a good case for the extermination of the human race. Director Christopher Landon (Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones) aims for the lowest common denominator. His jokes are dirty and overdone. Body humor is grotesque and uncomfortable. The one promising part — using Scouts training to fight zombies — is glossed over in 10 minutes.
    Lazy character work makes the leads not only predictable but also unenjoyable. We know Ben is the good guy because he gets shy around pretty girls. Carter is a horn dog, ogling and groping naked zombie women. It’s supposed to be the behavior of an irrepressible scamp, but sexual assault, even with zombies, is never funny.
    Even zombies will skip this movie.

Dismal Horror • R • 93 mins.

There’s a great spy story in the middle of this bloated epic

James Donovan (Saving Mr. Banks) knows how to strike a deal. The insurance lawyer is used to haggling for his clients. Though his expertise is litigation and payouts, Donovan is asked to defend Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance: Wolf Hall), an accused spy.
    The Cold War colors the case, and soon Donovan is the second most hated man in America, right after Abel. People threaten him in public, shoot at his home and terrify his family. The CIA tails him, pressuring him to break attorney-client privilege. On the other hand, Donovan’s dogged defense of his client grants him some cache with the Soviet Union.
    The USSR reaches out with a deal: trading a captured U.S. pilot for Abel. The CIA thinks it’s a great deal but can’t be involved in brokering it. They ask Donovan to travel to Berlin, where the U.S.S.R. has just finished constructing its wall, and engineer the trade.
    In Berlin, Donovan is on his own once he crosses the wall. He navigates international politics uncertainly, never sure whom he’s speaking with or what he has the authority to bargain with. He is unnerved by the violence around as he tries to stick to the deal: One spy for one pilot.
    Simple, right?
    Not quite. It seems the German Democratic Republic, eager to impress the Soviets and gain status as a world power, captured an American student who had the misfortune of being on the wrong side of the city the day the Berlin Wall was constructed. He’s not a spy, but the East Germans are holding him and demanding an audience with the CIA. Donovan wants to save the kid, but the CIA is interested only in the soldier.
    There is a fantastic thriller somewhere in the middle of Bridge of Spies, but you’ll have to slog through 50 minutes of a boring, heavy-handed setup to get to it. Director Steven Spielberg (Lincoln) is an icon, but his latest effort is a bloated, rambling mess.
    The American action is a Frank Capra-esque tale of a lone man fighting the just fight. Hanks sleepwalks through his Jimmy Stewart knockoff, while around him everyone snarls about communists and the A-bomb. The bright point is Rylance, who gives Abel interesting pathos.
    In Berlin, the movie wakes up. Scenes are tighter, with higher energy; the cinematography plays off of long shadows and harsh lines; Hanks comes alive as he negotiates with dangerous men. It’s Spielberg at his best, meticulously weaving tension and theme into each scene. It’s a shame, then, when the film returns to America for an unnecessary, lifeless coda.
    If you’re interested in a moody spy thriller with gorgeous cinematography, Bridge of Spies should have you enthralled. Arrive about 30 minutes late and dawdle at the concession stand.

Fair Thriller • PG-13 • 141 mins.

Guillermo del Toro’s moody gem is a love letter to Gothic literature

Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska: Madame Bovary) isn’t some silly girl with dreams of romance. The only daughter of a rich businessman, Edith wants to be a writer.
    Then European aristocrat Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston: High-Rise), reduces her to one of her heroines. She swoons over his romantic speeches. She sighs gazing into his eyes. She trembles at his touch. Sure, his sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain: The Martian) is a little odd. Yes, Thomas is broke, with only a title and a manor to his name. But Edith is too busy falling to look down.
    When her father is killed, Edith marries Thomas and abandons her life in America. Decrepit Allerdale Hall, Sharpe’s manor house, is hard to fit into her rosy picture.
    Black-boned skeletons with wisps of flesh lurk in the bathroom, seep through the floors and give chase. Edith isn’t afraid. The ghosts, like those in her stories, must be trying to communicate with her. She worries more about the Sharpe siblings, who seem to attract ghoulish behavior.
    A tribute to Gothic literature and films, Crimson Peak is bloody, overwrought and absolutely perfect. Writer/director Guillermo del Toro (Pacific Rim) noted that he made the movie with “bookish teenage girls” in mind. As a former bookish teenage girl, I can tell you that he’s hit the mark. An astounding tribute to the Gothic genre, Crimson Peak pulls threads and themes from famous works such as Jane Eyre and Rebecca.
    As always in del Toro films, the real star is the cinematography. Here, he creates a house that seems to be seething.
    Playing second fiddle to the house is an impressive cast. Chastain brings manic energy to the role that makes Lucille utterly horrifying even when she’s doing something benign. As Edith, Wasikowska is a plucky heroine who relies on her smarts and bravery for salvation. Hiddleston is more an object of desire than actual character, but when called upon to deliver a romantic speech ala Mr. Rochester, he sells it admirably.
    More romantic ghost story than horror movie, Crimson Peak combines the melodrama of Bronte with the gorgeously rendered gore of classic Italian movie stylist Mario Bava. It is the perfect piece of genre filmmaking.

Great Gothic Romance • R • 119 mins.

A character study of a despot who knew more about marketing than writing code

Some men are born great. Some men achieve greatness. Some have to reboot several times before they get there. That was the case with Steve Jobs (Michael Fassbender: Slow West), the sometimes CEO of Apple Computer. Covering Jobs’ life at three crucial product launches, this biopic focuses on the obsession, cruelty and fanaticism that drove him from CEO to outcast — and back again.
    In 1984, Jobs is debuting Macintosh. The computer has been his baby from the start, and he is demanding and demeaning to the team scrambling to ensure it works at the launch. He snarls at marketing executive Joanna (Kate Winslet: Insurgent), threatens harried engineer Andy (Michael Stuhlbarg: Pawn Sacrifice) and ignores co-founder Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen: The Interview).
    In 1988, Jobs has been ousted from Apple and is about to launch his new venture, NeXT.
    In 1998, Jobs is back at Apple, earning credit for saving the company from insolvency. As he prepares to launch the iMac, he is once again visited by Sculley, Wozniak and Andy.
    In each launch, Jobs encounters his daughter Lisa, who he refuses to acknowledge as his child. The girl longs to make a connection, but Jobs keeps her at arm’s length with comments as casually cruel as those he casts on his subordinates.
    Engrossing, funny and heartbreaking, this film crafts a character study of a despot who knew more about marketing than writing code. Jobs isn’t likeable, but he does seem realistic. It’s refreshing to see a film treat its subject as a human being instead of a saint.
    Director Danny Boyle (Trance) plays subtly with his medium to enhance the film, with each of the three sequences shot on a different film stock: 16mm film, 35mm film and digital film. It’s a brilliant choice that gives an almost subconscious cue that the story and time are shifting.
    Fassbender sinks his teeth into the role of genius jerk. His Jobs is just funny enough and just smart enough to get away with his behavior. He shows visceral distaste for human interaction he can’t control. When Lisa throws her arms around him, Jobs goes rigid, hands poised to reciprocate, but steadfastly refusing.
    Still, much like the computers Jobs loves, the film has flaws. The script by Aaron Sorkin (The Newsroom) is crisp and full of great dialog, but the redemptive ending feels unearned and disconnected.
    Whether you wait with bated breath for the latest Apple product or roll your eyes every time you pass a crowded Apple store, Steve Jobs is a fascinating character study of the man who changed the way we interact with computers.

Good Drama • R • 122 mins.