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Articles by Diana beechener

An absurdist retelling of a surreal moment in American history

A man shows up at the White House and asks to see the president. The request gives pause to the secret service, as the man is Elvis Presley (Michael Shannon: Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice).
    The whole situation is bizarre. One day in 1970, Elvis flew to Washington, D. C., to meet President Nixon and ask him for a badge making him an undercover federal officer at large. The King, apparently, had decided he was the best way to combat the threat of communism. His plan was to go to communist meetings and parties where drugs were sold, collect information on the key players and convince kids to forswear drugs while embracing patriotism.
    It sounds crazy, but friends are used to The King’s whims.
    The president, on the other hand, thinks this plan sounds as screwy as Elvis himself. Staunch conservative Richard Nixon (Kevin Spacey: House of Cards) sneers at popular culture. He has no interest in Elvis, despite his staff’s pleas that a meeting might win the youth vote. Only when his daughter demands an autograph does Nixon agree to the meeting.
    When The King meets The President, what happens?
    A funny fictionalization of the infamous meeting, Elvis & Nixon offers insight into both characters. Director Liza Johnson (Hateship Loveship) wisely chose to let the actors carry the movie. There’s little fancy camera work. Except for a few inspired montages of period-accurate footage, it’s all about Shannon and Spacey. Rather than mimic their famous counterparts with silly impressions, the actors offer genuine performances.
    As Richard Nixon, Spacey shines. He creates a grumbling president more interested in taking a nap than winning over American youth. Blustering through hackneyed dialog and ensemble scenes, Spacey continues his run of magnificent jerks.
    Shannon has the harder task of capturing the essence of Elvis. He succeeds by imbuing the King with the childlike simplicity of a man who can’t comprehend a world that does not bow to his whims.
    The two finally meet in a classic comedy of errors. Both believe they’re in charge, and both have a reason to assume so. Spacey and Shannon dance around each other in a delightful ballet of ticks and quirks as they goad each other to new and greater heights.
    It’s worth the ticket price to see this entertaining riff on an odd footnote in history on the big screen as two acting greats battle it out.

Good Comedy • R • 86 mins.

This comedy is a love letter and a plea to Chicago

Calvin (Ice Cube: Ride Along 2) is a second-generation barber on the south side of Chicago. The shop is now co-ed with a new business partner (Regina Hall: Black-ish).
    Calvin is proud of his neighborhood, but it’s changing. He barely recognizes the street where he’s spent his whole life. Robberies and shootings make the barbers fearful of working after dark. As son Jaylen (Michael Rainey Jr.: Power) considers joining a gang, Calvin makes the barbershop a safe space in hopes of encouraging his community to embrace non-violence.
    If the gambit fails, Calvin plans to move his family and business to Chicago’s safer north side.
    Barbershop: The Next Cut strikes a surprising balance between commentary and comedy. Past installments have been far broader comedies, featuring slapstick humor, silly jokes and good music.
    This film, the third in the series, seeks to provoke change as well as laughter.
    Director Malcolm D. Lee (The Best Man Holiday) balances humor with drama so that neither overwhelms. Best of all are the performances. Ice Cube is a charismatic performer skilled as both a dramatic actor and straight man to the shenanigans in the shop. Cedric the Entertainer (The Soul Man) remains the perfect clown, spouting ridiculous one-liners and riling up the rest of the cast.
    As for a solution to stop the violence in Chicago, you’ll find opinions on what shouldn’t be done but few realistic solutions beyond don’t give up.

Good Dramedy • PG-13 • 112 mins.

A man cub learns the laws of the jungle in this winning family film

Fierce tiger Shere Khan (voiced by Idris Elba: Zootopia), slaughters a man who sought shelter in a jungle cave. But escaping Khan’s deadly eye, a toddler survives. The panther Bagheera (Ben Kingsley: The Walk) takes pity on the pathetic man cub.
    Seven years later, Mowgli (Neel Sethi in his feature debut) lives among a wolf pack while training with Bagheera in the ways of the jungle. He loves his family, but he is a failure as a wolf. He can’t run as fast or bite as hard. He can compete only when he uses “tricks,” such as fashioning crude tools. The pack insists he abandon his tricks for life as a wolf.
    Mowgli may need all the tricks in his bag when Shere Khan finds a man cub on his return to the wolf grounds. Shere Khan is determined to kill the boy and anyone who stands in his way.
    Hunted by the most powerful beast in the jungle, Mowgli returns to the human world. Can people protect him? Will he reintegrate into human society?
    The Jungle Book is a colorful, beautiful retelling of the classic tale for all ages. This adaptation owes less to Rudyard Kipling than to the 1967 Disney cartoon, for it features all the Disney songs, characters and plot. But director Jon Favreau (Chef) adds fresh visual styling.
    Best of all is the exemplary work by the all-star voice cast. As the film’s villain, Elba growls his way through a menacing performance. Scarlett Johansson (Hail, Caesar!) fills out the baddie side with her creepy characterization of a humongous boa constrictor that may or may not want to swallow Mowgli.
    To balance the menacing animals, Favreau has stacked the deck with some outstanding comedic voice acting. Kingsley plays straight man (make that panther) to the characters, while offering deadpan zingers that should keep parents entertained. As lazy bear Baloo, Bill Murray (Rock the Kasbah) is beguiling and cuddly. Murray’s voice does a lot to bring warmth and charm to this laid-back take on a favorite Disney character.
    The standout in this talented field is Christopher Walken (Eddie the Eagle), who uses his unique voice and cadence to make King Louie both silly and intimidating.
    The only weak link is Sethi, who can sound a bit forced. It’s not a big problem, as no one in the audience pays much attention to Mowgli with all the talking animals abounding.
    A bigger problem may be the more realistic nature of its animals and sets. Favreau has created a painstakingly accurate environment, so tiger attacks, lunging snakes and rampaging apes are a little more frightening than their cartoon counterparts. My young seatmate was terrified of Shere Khan, and having the tiger leap at the audience in glorious 3D did nothing to quell her fears. If you have a child under the age of seven, consider whether this film will ruin future trips to the zoo.
    All in all, The Jungle Book is family entertainment that should please several generations of viewers.

Good Family Film • PG • 105 mins.

What is the acceptable human cost for our security?

If you could kill a terrorist by drone strike, would you? If a child was in the kill zone, could you still launch the missile?
    Colonel Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren: Woman in Gold) has been obsessively tracking a terrorist. With his location finally pinpointed, she plans an elaborate capture, coordinating her British action with Kenyan and American forces.
    Complications force the capture mission to be abandoned. Powell wants to go for the kill with a drone strike. But it’s not her call.
    First, she must check with her general (Alan Rickman: A Little Chaos). He, in turn, must check with British ministers. They must check with the Americans. No one wants to be responsible for the strike, especially when a small girl enters the target area.
    As Powell argues for the strike, the British ministers, American drone pilots and Kenyan forces debate its morality.
    Is the possibility of saving many lives worth taking the life of an innocent? Can this group come to a consensus before the terrorists escape?
    An interesting morality puzzle holds together this suspenseful but hackneyed thriller. Director Gavin Hood (X-Men Origins: Wolverine) builds tension as politicians bandy about responsibility for the strike. You feel how infuriating the authorizing process can be. Every time an answer is seemingly arrived upon, someone else brings up another issue — and the debate resumes.
    For Powell and her cohorts, the frustration is agonizing. For the politicians, escaping responsibility is agonizing.
    Hood makes a powerful statement on the priorities of government, seemingly more concerned with appearance than reality. It is not a unique statement. Weathered military officers are cold, American politicians are cavalier and young officers are emotional. None of these types breaks a mold, though they work fairly well here to move the story along.
    With a plot offering nothing new, the acting raises the movie above hackneyed territory. Mirren is masterful as Powell, a dogged soldier who’s bitterly frustrated. In one of the last roles before his death, Rickman is entertaining as a world-weary general who must hold the hands of dithering politicians.
    Credit for the most suspenseful performance belongs to Barkhad Abdi (Captain Phillips), who plays a Kenyan operative sneaking into the terrorist compound. Far behind enemy lines, he’s operating a tiny drone in the midst of men with machine guns who would cut him down if they knew. Abdi’s struggle to survive an assignment tantamount to suicide is nerve-wracking.
    A fairly predictable film with some well-constructed tension, Eye in the Sky poses some interesting questions to viewers. What is the acceptable loss of life for a drone strike? Who has the right to choose who lives and who dies? If you’re looking for a film that challenges you to think and discuss, this movie is well worth the ticket.

Good Suspense • R • 102 mins.

A sequel without a lot to say

Paris Portokalos (Elena Kampouris: American Odyssey) longs to escape her family. Her mother, Toula (Nia Vardalos: Star vs. The Forces of Evil), is clingy and desperate, her grandfather pressures her to get married and make babies at 17 and the rest of them are loud and obnoxious. Paris hopes to flee to college far, far away. Her mother counters by pressuring her daughter to stay close to home.
    Toula smothers her daughter because that’s how she’s learned to act by the family she never escaped. Though she married an outsider, Ian (John Corbett: Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll), Toula is deeply ensconced in Portokalos life. She is a caregiver for her aging father, a stalker of her daughter and the family fixer of problems. It’s a great arrangement for the family, but Toula is exhausted and neglectful of her husband.
    When grandparents Gus and Maria (Michael Constantine and Lainie Kazan) discover that, due to a technicality, they were never married, the family assumes the duo will head down the aisle to rectify the error. Gus is willing, but after 50 years of subservience to the domineering Portokalos patriarch, Maria isn’t so sure.
    The family tells Toula to fix it.
    A sequel to the family-friendly original, My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2 is a meander with sparse laughs and a thin plot. Vardalos, who wrote the original and the sequel, draws on her family experiences. For this installment, she brings back all the old jokes, from the patriarch’s obsession with Windex to the white neighbors who think the Greeks are creepy and weird.
    Disaster is averted by winning performances. Andrea Martin (Difficult People) and Kazan both know how to sell hokey humor. They make a running gag about neck pulling workable and manage to make their overbearing personalities endearing.
    Vardalos doesn’t fare so well. The point of the first film was Toula’s finding her voice and asserting herself. She hasn’t.
    And this sequel isn’t My Big Fat Greek Wedding.

Fair Comedy • PG-13 • 94 mins.

John Goodman proves a horror movie lives on the power of its monster

“I’m going to keep you alive.”    
    These words chill Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead: Mercy Street) when she wakes up chained to the wall of an underground bunker. Her savior is Howard (John Goodman: Love the Coopers), an ex-Navy man who tells his captive that he saved her as a disaster ended most life on Earth.
    Michelle is skeptical, as one might be on awakening in underwear, injured and chained. But Howard swears his intentions are altruistic while the air outside is toxic. Eventually, he releases her from the chains.
    She meets Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.: The Newsroom), who fought to get inside this bunker. He offers Michelle vague reassurances of a light in the sky and bad things happening. She begins to believe.
    The problem is, the bunker isn’t safe either. Though it’s well stocked and comfortable enough, Howard is a malevolent benefactor. He watches Michelle constantly, creeps up behind her and flies into a violent rage when she doesn’t behave the way he wants.
    Should she brave the world? Or find a way to live with Howard?
    A claustrophobic thriller about three people hoping to survive each other’s company, 10 Cloverfield Lane is a sequel in name only to the frenetic monster movie Cloverfield. This restrained, tense thriller focuses most of its horror inward, creating dark and disturbing feelings without special effects.
    Goodman excels. His Howard ranks with the most deeply unsettling characters ever created on the silver screen. Goodman obliterates his loveable-dad stereotype with Howard, a monster who is so frightening because he’s so believable. Everything about him is eerie, from his mood swings to his calm, nonsensical monologues. Goodman never pushes the character too far, and as a result Howard becomes more menacing. His every move is insidious, whether he’s pounding a fist into the wall or dancing to music on an ancient jukebox.
    As Michelle, Winstead lets her expressive face to do most of the work. She makes it clear that Howard makes her skin crawl. But Michelle is not a victim; she is a survivor, and Winstead gives a determined set to her jaw that tells us she will fight to make it.
    Making his impressive debut, director Dan Trachtenberg wisely allows the actors to do most of the heavy lifting, keeping camera work minimal. He shoots most scenes in uncomfortable close-ups, emphasizing the forced proximity of the bunker. Though it’s a great debut, the film flags at the end, which feels tacked on from a different script. Still, it’s a small flaw.
    A tight thriller with brilliant performances, this movie will give you goose bumps for years to come.

Great Horror • PG-13 • 103 mins.

Disney gives kids a talk on racism that parents also need to hear

In the metropolis of Zootopia, predators and prey have evolved past biological impulses. Lions and lambs live together in harmony and work for the future of all mammal kind.
    Everyone lives in peace, but not all things are equal. Predators tend to jobs that require forceful personalities, such as police officers or poli­ticians. Prey cluster in service fields. So Judy Hopps (voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin: Once Upon a Time) is laughed at for dreaming of joining the Zootopia police force.
    A tiny bunny with a quick mind and bold spirit, Judy isn’t an obvious choice for a force full of powerful wolves, elephants and lions. But she doesn’t let her size or status stop her. Judy finds ways to outwit and outmaneuver other classmates until she’s tops at the Police Academy.
    But prejudice endures, and her police captain (voiced by Idris Elba: Beasts of No Nation) refuses to give her cases. To prove herself by cracking a case that’s stumped fellow officers, she teams up with Nick (voiced by Jason Bateman: The Gift), a con artist fox.
    Can a fox and a bunny work together? Or are they doomed by biology?
    In the era of Black Lives Matter protests, Zootopia is a timely story about the insidious nature of bigotry. The film explores the hurt wrought by harmless assumptions and teaches kids the dangers of judging on preconceptions.
    The most interesting part of the message is that everyone is guilty of stereotyping. Good people aren’t good because they’re without prejudice but because they can acknowledge poor behavior, apologize to those they’ve hurt and change. It’s a message that should help parents start a very tricky talk about discrimination.
    Zootopia also offers small viewers a great female role model. Judy is tiny and weak, and she fails a lot. But she doesn’t stop trying to achieve her dream. A fiercely independent bunny with a great work ethic, Judy remains kind and caring to all. It is wonderful for children to see that she can be both kind and tough without compromising who she is or what she believes.
    Bateman’s Nick is the sly foil to Goodwin’s perky bunny. Because he’s a fox, he’s assumed to be a liar and a thief. And that’s what he’s become, in a direct lesson on the consequences of stereotyping.
    Even little ones who are too small to understand Zootopia’s range of social commentary will enjoy the animal puns, silly humor and gorgeous animation. Zootopia doesn’t carry the same emotional impact as a Pixar film, but it more than makes up with meticulous animation, family-friendly humor and its timely, believable message. 
    If you’re looking for a way to open a conversation with your kids about racism and the harm it causes, Zootopia will help you get the ball rolling.

Great Animation • PG • 108 mins.

One man soars toward his dream in this winning underdog tale

Eddie Edwards (Taron Egerton: Legend) isn’t a winner. With braces on his legs and thick glasses covering most of his face, Eddie doesn’t look the Olympian. Yet that’s his dream, and when the braces come off, training begins.
    But for what? He starts chucking javelins, attempting high jumps and lifting weights. Eddie breaks plenty of pairs of glasses — but no records — as he fumbles toward Olympic glory.
    Eddie’s mother is endlessly supportive. His father wishes Eddie would stop with this nonsense and become something respectable, like a plasterer. Eddie perseveres, deciding to go for gold as an Olympic ski jumper.
    Three problems get in the way: First, Eddie has never ski jumped. Second, no ski jumper has represented England in the Olympics for decades. Third, ski jumping is one of the most dangerous winter Olympic sports; an inch off on a landing can shatter a jumper’s legs or spine.
    His first few runs are disastrous. He’s the laughing stock of the slopes. Practiced at ignoring ridicule, he continues his dangerous pursuit. Eventually he catches the eye of ski jumping burnout Bronson Peary (Hugh Jackman: Pan). Eddie and the former Olympian team up for an unconventional story of Olympic glory.
    A multitude of sports movie clichés should make Eddie the Eagle unwatchable. Yet Jackman and Egerton’s winning chemistry make the film charming. Director Dexter Fletcher (Sunshine on Leith) lets his actors do most of the work. His big burst of originality is the montage of young Eddie seeking his sport.
    Taron Egerton brings a marvelous oddity to the role of Eddie. He is a twitchy, nerdy little man, but his many quirks belie his steely nerve. You can’t help rooting for him and might well break into applause during his death-defying jumps.
    Jackman gives one of his best performances in years. Instead of shouting and gesticulating, he pulls back, making Bronson’s a sardonic figure instead of a clown.
    A sweet story of one man’s journey to Olympic greatness, the film will leave you cheering.

Good Sports Comedy • PG-13 • 106 mins.

A flawed but funny romantic comedy

Four New York women explore the complexities of love.
    Alice (Dakota Johnson: 50 Shades of Grey) moves to the city to find herself. But single life in the big city is rough, and she can’t get her boyfriend back. Alone and hoping for a grand romance, she restarts her search for Mr. Right.
    Alice’s sister Met (Leslie Mann: Vacation) is at the other extreme. This independent Ob/Gyn looks for happiness in work rather than love. When she decides to have a baby, she visits a sperm bank and prepares for single-motherhood. Pregnant and content, she meets a younger man who makes her rethink singlehood.
    Coworker Robin (Rebel Wilson: Pitch Perfect 2) lives for hookup. Drinking and sleeping her way through the city, Robin offers to be Alice’s guide to single life.
    Lucy (Alison Brie: Doctor Thorne) lives over Alice’s favorite bar. So determined is she to find the right man that she designs algorithms to help her navigate dating sites. Then a promiscuous bartender tempts her to follow her heart rather than her chart.
    Will any of these women find love? Or is life in the city heart-crushing?
    A surprisingly progressive romantic comedy, How to be Single suffers from a single problem: Alice. The lead of this ensemble piece is such a boring, spineless mope that it’s amazing she’s capable of making friends, let alone attracting love. It isn’t Johnson’s fault; she does what she can with terrible material. It’s insipid characterization by director Christian Ditter (Love, Rosie)
    The other actresses are more entertaining, and the film works best when Ditter lets them riff. Mann is the most likeable, while Wilson takes a page from John Belushi’s playbook, acting the buffoon. Brie is an odd case. She is charming but separate from the other women, popping up now and again like a Jack-in-the-box.
    Though uneven and underwritten, How To Be Single offers some interesting options. Each woman gets a happy ending, though perhaps not the one she imagined. Some find that romance isn’t the only route to love and satisfaction. Love can flourish with a good friend, or within yourself. It’s a powerful message that subverts the notion that marriage is the narrow road to happiness ever after.

Fair Romantic Comedy • R • 110 mins.

This old west melodrama could do with more bullets and less monologues

When Jane Hammond’s (Natalie Portman: A Tale of Love and Darkness) husband returns to their remote homestead full of bullet holes, she knows that the Bishop Boys have found them at last. These outlaws have searched for years for the couple, vowing bloody vengeance. With her husband wounded and bleeding in their bed, Jane must leave to seek help.
    Taking her daughter to a friend’s home for safekeeping, she tracks down former fiancé Dan Frost (Joel Edgerton: Black Mass), a gunslinger whose talents earned him fame in the Civil War. Bitter that Jane married another man, Dan  tells her she’s on her own.
    Wasting its potential, this Western drama needs more grit and fewer flashbacks. Director Gavin O’Connor (Warrior) fails to offer a strong point of view. He’s made a love story, a revenge story, a survival story and a Western. He overreaches. By including everything, there’s little to care about in a plot so thin.
    Jane’s character is especially undefined. She veers from delicate, traumatized flower to grim-jawed gunslinger. There’s no justification for her moods, and her reactions are often out of sync with her previous behavior. She has no problem shooting a man in one scene, then argues the sin of killing. Portman does what she can to keep Jane consistent, but it’s a losing battle.
    Most unforgivable is the grand showdown between Jane and the Bishops. O’Connor builds up to the gunfight admirably, but the confrontation gets perhaps 10 minutes of screen time.
    Neither effective melodrama nor thrilling Western, Jane is the type of film one might watch on a lazy Sunday when the remote is too far out of reach to bother flipping channels.

Fair Western • R • 98 mins.