view counter

Articles by Diana Beechener

These spies could use some sensitivity training

There aren’t many gentlemen in Eggsy’s world (Taron Egerton: The Smoke). His stepfather is an abusive criminal, his friends are petty thieves and his mother refuses to let him leave home. When a stolen car and a high-speed chase through London land Eggsy behind bars, the outlook is bleak, until Harry Hart (Colin Firth: Before I Go to Sleep) shows up.
    Hart has the pull to get Eggsy sprung and charges his dropped. Hart, it seems, has always felt the need to repay Eggsy’s father for saving his life. He also offers Eggsy the chance of a lifetime: training to join the secret Kingsman gentlemen spies.
    Kingsman enjoy the freedom of independence. The only mission is to do good throughout the world. Named for one of King Arthur’s knights, each spy is a highly trained killing machine with impeccable outfits and outlandish gadgets.
    Eggsy joins a group of elite teens hoping to earn spots at the Kingsman’s table. While he trains, a media mogul known as Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson: Kite) is planning a nefarious new world order with the help of his henchwoman Gazelle (Sofia Boutella: Monsters: Dark Continent).
    A throwback to the James Bond-era of drinks, sexism, ridiculous violence and punn-ish jokes, Kingsman: The Secret Service could have been a fabulous over-the-top action romp along the lines of John Wick. It has all the elements: silly accents (from Jackson and Mark Hamill), thrillingly gory fight scenes and a charming cast. Director Matthew Vaughn (X-Men: First Class) is a deft hand at action, crafting fast-paced battles that are bloody, brutal yet beautiful. A musical sequence featuring exploding heads manages to be a hilarious tribute to ­Michelangelo Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point.
    As the bespoke spy whose impeccable manners make James Bond look like a back room brawler, Colin Firth exudes unflappable charm. He also convincingly sheds his posh exterior for a couple of fight sequences that highlight his physicality. As the successor to Hart, Eggerton is a talented new discovery with plenty of charm. His crooked smile and bravado help ease awkward dialog and scenes.
    With a talented cast, great action and a fun concept, what could go wrong? As it turns out, not much. Kingsman was well on its way to earning a place in the pantheon of action greats. Until its final 10 minutes.
    A running gag in the final moments is so vile and sexist that it nearly spoils the movie. Too crude to repeat in a family-friendly paper, the joke would have been at home in a Seth MacFarlane movie. It’s made worse by Vaughn’s dedication of the film to his mother.
    Too bad this fun and fast-paced thriller about gentlemen spies ends on a decidedly ungentlemanly note.

Great Action/Gross Humor • R • 129 mins.

A cacophony of noise and colors for youngsters

The secret to the harmonious life of the ocean town of Bikini Bottom isn’t friendship, love or understanding. It’s the Krabby Patty. The fast food treat is so addictive that the residents of Bikini Bottom can’t live without it. So when Mr. Krab’s (Clancy Brown: The Flash) secret formula for the Krabby Patty goes missing, the town falls into chaos. To prevent a Krab-induced apocalypse, fry cook SpongeBob SquarePants (Tom Kenny: Adventure Time) teams up with his nemesis Plankton (Mr. Lawrence: SpongeBob SquarePants) to find the secret formula. The search leads to the surface world, where the nefarious pirate Burger Beard (Antonio Banderas: The Expendables 3) may know the fate of the formula. Can SpongeBob save Bikini Bottom from a Krabby Patty crisis? Will the evil Plankton finally learn how to work with his neighbors instead of against them? Can your reviewer make it through this film without a flask? In the interest of full disclosure: I don’t have a child. I was unfamiliar with the travails of SpongeBob, Patrick and the rest of the Bikini Bottom crew, airing for nearly two decades on Nickelodeon. I imagine that most people buying a ticket to see this mass of loud noise and color will have been conditioned by the television show. Alas, my folly was attempting to watch a feature length film without inoculating myself with a few 30-minute episodes first. SpongeBob SquarePants: Sponge Out of Water is best enjoyed by smaller viewers. There are cute moments, but this is a film written and animated for the youngsters. As on television: there is no growth of characters and no real danger. All is back to normal before the credits role. Adults without knowledge of SpongeBob’s antics will find themselves lost in a sea of poorly written puns, silly noises and posterior-based humor. I was not the target demographic, but the film did very well with its intended audience. Children laughed, shouted and clapped their way through my screening. If you are taking a group of children, don’t waste your money on the 3D upcharge. Because of the flat animation style, 3D effects do little besides lightening your wallet. My bright spot was Banderas’ grizzled pirate. As the only human in the film, Banderas must adjust his performance accordingly. He shouts, snarls and high steps around his animated co-stars, clearly having the time of his life. His performance is so full of fun that you can almost forget how inane the plot is. Almost. Good Animation for Kids/Bad for Your Reviewer • PG • 93 mins.

What would you do if you lost yourself?

Forget The Conjuring and Paranormal Activity. The most bloodcurdling movie of the last five years is a quiet drama about a brilliant woman slowly losing everything that matters to her.
    Dr. Alice Howland (Julianne Moore: Mockingjay Part I) is a linguist, professor and sought-after speaker. The fiercely ambitious woman raised three children while climbing to the top of her field. She wrote the seminal textbook in linguistics, teaches a popular course at Columbia University and still finds time for date night with her doctor husband (Alec Baldwin: Blue Jasmine).
    On her 50th birthday, Alice is going strong, noticing only a few signs of aging. Sometimes she forgets a word when speaking to a class, as well as names. But when she gets lost jogging a well-known campus trail, she worries. Her diagnosis is much worse than the brain tumor she fears. She has early-onset Alzheimer’s disease.
    Refusing to be defeated, Alice throws herself into finding ways to keep her mind. But occasional lapses turn into frequent confusion. She can’t hold a conversation. Words slip from her mind just as she needs them. Her own home betrays her, and she finds herself lost.
    To her family, Alice’s descent is torture. Their strong, vibrant matriarch is reduced to childlike behavior. Husband John tries to be strong, but he misses his partner and escapes into work so that he can afford his wife’s expensive care and forget that the woman living with him now barely resembles his love. Her children help when they can, but watching her deteriorate means glimpsing their own possible futures.
    Poignant, beautiful and utterly terrifying, Still Alice shows us the horror that is Alzheimer’s disease. Directors Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland (The Last of Robin Hood) wisely choose to underplay the drama, slowly building on Alice’s deteriorating state. There is no tension to the story, no miracle to save the day. The film peaks in the middle, when Alice breaks down. Thereafter it slowly fades away, mimicking Alice’s journey.
    As Alice, Moore proves that she remains one of the best actresses of her generation. Her performance is a slow descent into hell. Everything that makes up a person, her ability to express herself and her memories, is stripped away until Alice is a shell, capable of only the most basic vocalizations. It’s a brutal performance, one that will likely earn Moore the Oscar and one that will leave you weepy and uncomfortable.

Good Drama • PG-13 • 101 mins.

An impressionistic tale of a painter

J.M.W. Turner (Timothy Spall: Blandings) better expresses himself through paint than words. A famed member of the Royal Academy of Art, the Victorian artist travels Europe capturing vivid landscapes.
    Turner stands out from other academicians in more ways than one. They are refined; he is not. His manner is awkward and his speech accented with a thick brogue. His fame keeps him from humble circles, so he is often on his own. Closest to him is his father (Paul Jesson: Closer to the Moon), who has always supported his son’s art and works as Turner’s studio assistant.
    As his father’s health declines, Turner becomes more isolated. His only friend is Mrs. Booth, a landlady at a seaside town where he paints. He calls himself Mr. Mallord to maintain his anonymity, even as the friendship deepens to romance.
    Turner’s artistic obsession is capturing the spirit and the light of his subjects. He has a sailor lash him to the crow’s nest during a winter sea crossing to capture the light; he walks for hours in search of the perfect composition.
    Cinematography is stunning. Leigh fills his film with Turner’s paintings and its locales, treating us to sweeping seascapes, pastoral leas, surging trains and austere battleships.
    Spall’s performance is one of the best of the year. His Turner is an almost feral creature, driven by nature’s beauty. He grunts instead of speaking. He spits on his canvas in the middle of a show to loosen the oils and make changes. He watches human interaction with the interest of an alien observer.
    The artist is famous in his native England as an early experimenter in the style that would become known as Impressionist painting. But his international renown is not that of Picasso or Monet. Director Mike Leigh (Another Year) assumes a well-versed audience, so his film may be difficult to follow. Do yourself the favor of a bit of research before you go.

Good Biopic • R • 150 mins.

We’ve got a long way to go — but look how far we’ve come

By 1965, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (David Oyelowo: Interstellar) was a household name. His nonviolent protests had provoked the American government to strike down segregation laws. It would have been a victory for any other man, but even as King accepted the Nobel Peace Prize, he knew there was more to do.
    While whites could no longer keep blacks out of their establishments, they were doing their best to keep them from the polls and off the ballots. Black men and women who attempted to register were asked demanding questions, forced to recite the preamble of the Constitution and usually dismissed. When brave souls managed to register, their names and addresses were printed in the newspaper, making it easy for the Ku Klux Klan and other violent groups to find them.
    President Lyndon Johnson (Tom Wilkinson: The Grand Budapest Hotel) is sympathetic. But he is bombarded by Vietnam protests, and his attention is divided. He tells King that the Civil Rights Act is victory enough for now, and he’ll consider proposing new legislation about voter registration in the coming years.
    King isn’t satisfied. He needs a cause to gain publicity, win the sympathy and support of whites and put political pressure on lawmakers. With the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, he plans a march from Selma to Montgomery in protest of Alabama’s voter registration policies. Selma’s brute sheriff and the state’s racist governor will surely earn them headlines by violent opposition to the march.
    King is monitored by the FBI, scrutinized by his own movement and watched from every outside angle. His family is threatened. Can he endure the pressure?
    Unlike many biopics of great men, Selma isn’t a canonization rite. Instead, director Ava DuVernay (Scandal) wisely chooses to show the human behind the saint. Her King is having marital problems, is frustrated with the slow progress of his movement and, in his darkest hours, worries that his methods are not worth blood and death. He clings to his purpose and his faith because he has become the spokesperson for a group that desperately needs a voice. He relies on his SCLC family to help him keep his eyes on the prize.
    Selma is a beautiful, humane look at one of the greats of American history.
    Oyelowo captures the power and vulnerability that made King so compelling. He mimics the cadence and drama that made Dr. King’s speeches so memorable; don’t be surprised if you get goose bumps listening to these sermons. But the actor is most effective during quiet moments, when King leads not by fiery oratory but by refusing to break under pressure.
    Before you decry the movie’s inaccuracies, consider this: All biopics create inaccuracies for the sake of drama. If they ­didn’t, they’d be called documentaries. Fellow Oscar contenders The Imitation Game, Foxcatcher, The Theory of Everything and American Sniper all stray from history, some quite a bit. Yet Selma is the only film criticized for it. What does that say?
    Selma shows many grim scenes of beatings and ugly racist interactions, but it is not a movie about hate or blame. It’s about the hope and determination to overcome. Buy a ticket and join the march.

Great Drama • R • 128 mins.

A biopic with a body count

Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper: Guardians of the Galaxy) was raised to believe there were three types of people in the world: Wolves, sheep and sheepdogs. Wolves preyed on the weak and took what they wanted. Sheep did as they were told and hoped to never meet a wolf. Sheepdogs took responsibility for the flock and beat back the wolves.
    A natural protector, Kyle spent his early life bumming around the rodeo circuits of Texas, looking for women, beer and brawls. The bombing of the U.S. embassy in Kenya awakened his sheep-dogging skills. An excellent marksman, he was recruited to the SEALS as a sniper charged with keeping Marines safe as they raid homes in Afghanistan.
    Kyle proves a superior sheepdog. ­Eerily calm and sure of himself, he picks off men, women and children who seek to harm his troops.
    Four tours later, Kyle has become The Legend, with more confirmed kills than any sniper in U.S. history. When the Taliban puts a price on his head, he is unfazed. It’s the home front that terrifies him.
    With his wife and children, Kyle is a tightly coiled spring. He obsessively watches bloody sniper footage and worries about the men he isn’t protecting. Normal social interactions make him squirm, and the slightest noise can provoke a violent reaction.
    Director Clint Eastwood (Jersey Boys) turns this true story into a war between duty and family. Based on Kyle’s bestselling autobiography, the film doesn’t debate the merits of the war or the morality of killing. Eastwood, who famously said “it’s a hell of a thing, killing a man” in his masterpiece Unforgiven, has abandoned this moral ambiguity. Kyle becomes a sort of John Wayne figure, single-handedly taking out the baddies and saving the day.
    This unquestioning approach makes a simplistic movie.
    Still, Eastwood knows how to construct a compelling narrative. The opening sequence, in which Kyle must decide whether to shoot a young boy, is heart-pounding. But Eastwood wisely saves the greatest pressure for the scenes at home. Using clever sound editing and tight close-ups, he traps Kyle in the frame, a prisoner in his home.
    Cooper’s excellent performance keeps the film grounded. Besides making an impressive physical transformation to play the hulking Kyle, Cooper delves deeply into his character’s mind, making his zeal impressive and frightening. But every time he drops his gun, Cooper looks like he wants to crawl out of his skin.
    Together, Eastwood and Cooper create a thrilling tribute to a real person.

Good Drama • R • 132 mins.

Can you enjoy a mystery when the mystery makes no sense? It turns out you can

Larry ‘Doc’ Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix: Her) fancies himself the Phillip Marlowe of the Free Love generation. With long hair, lots of drugs and a general distrust of the establishment, Doc runs a small private detective agency — when he’s not bumming around on the beach, high as a kite.
    When Doc’s ex-girlfriend Shasta (Katherine Waterston: Boardwalk Empire) shows up asking for a favor, Doc knows it’s bad news. Shasta’s latest flame is real estate developer Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts: Jake’s Road), who owns half the county. But Mickey’s wife and her new boyfriend disapprove of Mickey’s New Age philosophy. Afraid he’ll give away his millions and leave them destitute, the Mrs. and her boy toy want Shasta’s help to have Mickey committed.
    Shasta wants Doc to figure out what’s really going on and to foil the plot against Mickey. Still in love with Shasta, Doc agrees. On his first day of snooping, Mickey goes missing, and Doc wakes up next to a dead body.
    Now Doc must solve a murder, find a mogul and remember where he hid his stash, all while avoiding the oppressive attentions of his police officer nemesis Bigfoot Bjornsen (Josh Brolin: Sin City: A Dame to Kill For).
    Daffy, fun and fairly nonsensical, Inherent Vice will make you feel as high as Doc. Director Paul Thomas Anderson (The Master) adapted Thomas Pynchon’s California pulp into a woozy cluster of character and comedic set pieces. Think of it as Chinatown on a bender.
    Pynchon’s novel has been called unfilmable, and Anderson may prove the point. Inherent Vice is a visually rich, deep character piece, but the central mystery and surrounding plots are nearly incomprehensible. Characters wander in and out of scenes, plotlines are dropped or randomly introduced. You’ll need a flowchart to keep up with everything.
    Can you enjoy a mystery when the mystery makes no sense? It turns out you can. Anderson has always been able to coax fantastic, nuanced performances from his actors, and in Inherent Vice it’s Phoenix. He gives a wonderful, lived-in performance that makes Doc a loveable loser instead of an annoying cliché.
    As Doc’s police foil, Brolin offers surprising depth in what could have been silly. Brolin grounds Bigfoot’s establishment persona in a mix of repression and depression that make the character almost tragic instead of a brute.
    For all the great performances, the real star of any Anderson film is the camera work. He carefully crafts each scene, with framing, art design and tracking shots that add depth. A wealth of sunny vistas, urban grime and 1960s’ sensibilities, Inherent Vice is a beautiful sight, even if you can’t follow the plot.
    Much like Doc’s journey through money and free love, Inherent Vice isn’t an easy path. It will challenge and confound you.

Fair Mystery • R • 148 mins.

Loneliness and tragedy fuel the genius that saves the world

Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch: The Hobbit) is an odd duck. Brilliant at arithmetic but horrible at social interactions, Turing is mercilessly mocked at boarding school. His only friend introduces him to cryptography, where he discovers a world he can understand.
    The grown-up Professor Turing would have been another in a long line of oddball academics but for World War II. Instead he joins an elite circle of cryptographers tasked with cracking the German Enigma. A coding machine hitherto impossible to beat, Enigma allows the Axis powers free lines of communication to coordinate attacks that left the Allies reeling.
    The British captured one machine, but without the code key, which the Germans change every 24 hours, the machine is useless. While the other cryptographers work 18 hours a day on a Sisyphean task, Turing plans to create a machine that can run codes faster than any human.
    Loud, massive and expensive, Turing’s machine seems like the creation of a mad scientist. The socially challenged Turing — whose homosexuality, then illegal, is a complicating factor — must figure out how to convince the establishment that his machine is the only way to win the war.
    Most of us now have versions of Turing’s machine in our homes and in our pockets. We call them computers.
    Director Morten Tyldum (Headhunters) creates a competent portrait of a complex man. But intercutting scenes from Turing’s school days and future downfall into the race to beat Enigma, he struggles to make the whole gel.
    Screenwriter Graham Moore (The Waiting Room) also skimps on character development — but not on platitudes. You’ll hear the film’s mantra — “Sometimes it is the people no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one can imagine” — many times. Turing is the only character who gets the semblance of a real personality. The people surrounding him fill out stereotypes.
    Cumberbatch turns in a stunning performance. Now an old hand at playing geniuses on the Autism spectrum, he makes Turing a frustrating, funny and pitiable man. His Turing is much like the machine he creates, a whirring, seemingly emotionless being capable of amazing feats.
    Another actor rising above the writing is Keira Knightley (Laggies), who turns a Girl Friday role into an interesting, nuanced look at a woman who sees more to life than the conventions of her time.
    With Cumberbatch and Knightley’s insight into the loneliness of genius, The Imitation Game is a good movie — though one that could have been great.

Good Drama • PG-13 • 114 mins.

One man proves the human spirit is immeasurable in this war drama

Louis Zamperini (Jack O’Connell: 300: Rise of an Empire) lived enough for three men in his first 30 years. As a teen, the son of Italian immigrants was a petty thief. His brother suggests that instead of running from the police, Louis should put his speed to work. Throwing his energy into training, he earns a slot on the Olympic track team.
    After an impressive performance at the games, World War II interrupts his plans, and Louis becomes a bombardier in the Pacific theater. On a rescue mission, the plane fails, and Louis and two other crewmen wind up on a small raft in the middle of the ocean.
    The castaways endure more than a month at sea before rescue by a ­Japanese ship. Starving, sunburned and half mad, the Americans are cast into a prison camp.
    This true story has lots of epic plotlines, but, alas, it has little character development. Olympics, lost at sea, prisoner of war — each would make a good movie. Combining all three stories into one movie is overwhelming.
    Director Angelina Jolie (In the Land of Blood and Honey) has the difficult task of weaving these three themes into a seamless film. Despite a script by the Coen Brothers (Inside Llewyn Davis), she doesn’t hit the mark.
    Jolie, who became a friend of Zamperini and his family, may be too close to her subject to do it justice. Louis is saintly even as a juvenile delinquent. He always knows the right thing to do, he’s always brave and he never waivers in his beliefs.
    Though Jolie failed to give Zamperini the depth and coherence he deserves, she found a worthy actor to portray the hero. O’Connell pours raw emotion into the role, showing Louis as an iron-willed man who can endure every punch life throws. But by the time Zamperini becomes a POW, Jolie is set on canonizing him.
    Still, Unbroken is a compelling drama. The scenes of Louis’ struggle to survive at sea are the best in the film, offering humor, drama, horror, action and a compelling narrative.
    If you long for the Old Hollywood war films that feature square-jawed do-gooders who never waver from their commitment to God and country, Unbroken is well worth the ticket. If you’re looking for a more nuanced portrayal of Zamperini’s life, pick up Laura Hillenbrand’s biography instead.

Fair Drama • PG-13 • 137 mins.

Great performances marred by poor focus

A story based on real events, Foxcatcher focuses on Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum: The Book of Life), a gold-winning Olympic wrestler who believes he deserves better. His life is cramped and overshadowed by older brother David (Mark Ruffalo: Begin Again). Himself a gold medalist, David has achieved the standing Mark longs for.
    Mark finds his way out in John du Pont (Steve Carell: Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day), the eccentric heir to the du Pont fortune. A lifelong wrestling fan, du Pont seeks to create a competitive wrestling team around Mark.
    Mark accepts what seems like a dream job and moves to the du Pont estate in Pennsylvania. But John du Pont has a tenuous hold on reality. He buys army tanks to drive around his grounds and practices shooting with the police. When du Pont carries a loaded gun into the gym to motivate the Foxcatcher wrestlers, Mark realizes he’s made a grave mistake.
    Concerned for his brother, David takes a position on team Foxcatcher, putting the three men on a collision course.
    Foxcatcher should be a gripping drama about a mentally ill man with enough money and influence to do as he pleases. Instead, director Bennett Miller (Moneyball) offers an unfocused mess of a film that doesn’t know whose story it’s telling, Mark or David’s.
    Du Pont wanders in and out of scenes like an old-money Bertha Mason, remaining largely a threatening but undeveloped presence. He’s the most dynamic and interesting character in the piece, but Miller is uninterested in him. In 134 minutes, he certainly had time to examine the heir.
    Despite confusion, Foxcatcher features three excellent performances. Always a reliable performer, Ruffalo works hard in an underwritten role to give his character emotional depth. A smart family man and excelling athlete who loves his brother, David is so saintly you assume his receding hairline is caused by his halo abrading his forehead.
    As Mark, Tatum uses his impressive physicality to create a brutish character who prefers to avoid thinking. While hulking through the scenes with mouth agape, Tatum displays sparks of deep hurt and fear. His Mark is a tragic figure who understands that he’s trapped but doesn’t know how to extricate himself.
    With the showiest role in the piece, Carell builds du Pont’s mania slowly, making it easy to dismiss him, at first, as a rich eccentric. As his behavior becomes more disturbing, we share Mark’s dawning realization.

Fair Drama • R • 134 mins.