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Articles by Diana Beechener

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.

Necessity is the mother of interstellar invention in this great film

Astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon: Interstellar) wakes up alone on Mars.
    In a raging sand storm, Watney’s Aries III team abandoned the Red Planet, leaving behind what they assume is his lifeless body.
    He comes to alone but with a wire jutting out of his abdomen and suit and through his bio-monitor. He struggles back to the expedition’s temporary housing unit, and, in bloody initial scenes, operates on himself.
    Resolve and quick action solve his immediate problem. Longer term, the shelter has oxygen and food, which he can ration to last for a few hundred sols.
    Yet he’s stranded on a planet where nothing grows, with dwindling water and oxygen. His line to NASA was demolished in the storm, and even if he could contact mission control, help is nearly four years away.
    To survive until then, Watney gets creative. As a botanist, he can science out out how to grow food on a barren planet. But can he figure out a way to get home? Or is he doomed to die a Martian?
    Thrilling and often funny, The Martian is science fiction at its best. It is, in essence, a Robinson Crusoe tale set in space.
    Director Ridley Scott (Exodus: Gods and Kings) weaves Watney’s story of survival with the story of the NASA engineers who realize he is alive and are desperately trying to save him. It’s a testament to Scott’s sense of timing and storytelling that he’s able to make jet propulsion nerds and NASA suits as interesting as a man trapped on Mars.
    Scott has assembled an impressive supporting cast, featuring Jeff Daniels, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Jessica Chastain and Michael Peña, but the film unquestionably belongs to Damon.
    Though Scott and Damon create a strong sci-fi adventure, The Martian isn’t perfect. Some supporting characters, especially the astronauts played by Kate Mara and Sebastian Stan, are thinly drawn and barely justify their share of two hours and 20 minutes of screen time.
    Long, layered and utterly engrossing, The Martian is a sci-fi film for people who don’t particularly like sci-fi.

Great Sci-Fi • PG-13 • 141 mins.

This light comedy closes the generation gap

Ben Whittaker (Robert De Niro: The Bag Man) isn’t adjusting to retirement. Widowed and 3,000 miles from his son and granddaughter, Ben feels imprisoned in his Brooklyn townhouse. Life is reduced to funerals, busywork and widows who want to pre-heat his lasagna.
    A flyer advertising senior internships at an Internet startup leads him back into the workforce, but his new career takes some adjustment. He’s a suit in a sea of hoodies. He uses a clock instead of consulting his cellphone. He listens when people talk. He’s doesn’t know how to turn on his computer.
    Ben’s ineptitude rankles company founder Jules Ostin (Anne Hathaway: Interstellar), who thought senior internships a dumb idea. Overcommitted and flighty, she is Ben’s polar opposite. She’s trying to have it all but seems to be losing everything one piece at a time. Investors want an experienced CEO in her place to manage the company’s massive growth. With her job and family threatened, Jules turns to wise old Ben when he proves a cool head in a crisis.
    Can Ben learn how to survive in a modern office? Will Jules figure out how to have it all? Why do only the men get to dress in hoodies and jeans?
    The Intern is a confection: Sweet, enjoyable and bad for you in large quantities. Director Nancy Meyers’ (It’s Complicated) newest is better at cultivating lifestyle envy than developing characters. Brooklyn brownstones are done in open layouts, airy colors out of Pottery Barn catalogs and enviable kitchens. Outfits are impeccable or comically bad.
    Meyers has never been particularly interested in her characters. Jules is a textbook neurotic. It’s supposed to be adorable that Jules and Ben bond, but it’s notable that she becomes sweet or caring only with someone who makes his living stroking her ego. Hathaway does her perky best to make Jules’ manic energy likeable, but the character is underwritten.
    Ben is a role De Niro could perform in his sleep. His old-school advice that transforms the office isn’t so much generational knowledge as common sense.
    Meyers’ reflections on feminism are equally light. Meyers falls back on clichés to show how hard it is to be a working mother.
    The Intern isn’t a terrible film. The locales are pretty, the humor light and the characters funny. Nothing of consequence happens, nor does anything offensive. If you’re overdue for an outing with your mother or grandmother, make a date for The Intern.

Fair Comedy • PG -13 • 121 mins.

The FBI makes a smalltime hood a kingpin in this engrossing drama

When James ‘Whitey’ Bulger (Johnny Depp: Mortdecai) looks you in the eyes, it’s too late. Cold, calculating and amoral, Bulger leads the Winter Hill Gang.
    Though he’s fierce and feared, Bulger is fairly smalltime. His reputation extends only to the edges of the South Boston neighborhood he rules. The Italian mafia uses superior numbers and muscle to keep Winter Hill in check.
    To make his move, Bulger finds help in the form of John Connolly (Joel Edgerton: The Gift), an FBI agent who grew up in the neighborhood idolizing Bulger and now sees him as opportunity. If he can turn Bulger, he’ll be able to take down the Italians.
    Bulger at first sneers at turning snitch. But as the Italians press, he acquiesces. Now, everything Bulger does is protected under his status as an FBI informant. The feds, in turn, fight his mob war.
    Clear to take over Boston, Bulger sweeps a bloody path through the city. Still enamored with Bulger and thrilled with the Bureau attention his mob case has gained, Connolly decides he can’t afford to bring Whitey down. So he hides evidence that Bulger is killing and mentions the names of snitches to Bulger.
    As bodies pile up, the Feds can’t ignore Bulger. Can they bring down the new crime prince of Boston?
    Based on the true story of the FBI’s deal with the devil, Black Mass is an uneven film anchored by Depp’s great performance. Director Scott Cooper (Out of the Furnace) tries to make the movie about the relationship between Bulger and Connolly. But Connolly and his FBI counterparts are underwritten and uninteresting drags.
    Depp, on the other hand, is electric. His performance is free of the quirks and ticks that have made him a caricature of himself. Bulger is a viper, still and calm until he strikes. Black Mass is Johnny Depp’s revival.

Good Drama • R • 122 mins.

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.