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Articles by Diana Beechener

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.

Four Coast Guardsmen attempt an impossible rescue in this stirring drama

In an intense Nor’easter, The Pendleton cracks in half off the coast of Cape Cod. The men on the stern watch in horror as massive swells swallow half of their oil tanker. As they’re taking on water fast, engineer Ray Sybert (Casey Affleck: Interstellar) knows that they have only hours afloat.
    But all the Coast Guard’s large boats are working to save another oil tanker.
    A small Massachusetts town sends out the only boat left, a 35-footer captained by Bernie Webber (Chris Pine: Z for Zachariah). Webber and his team of three volunteers know the mission may mean death. Even if they can pass the treacherous breaking waves at the mouth of the harbor, their tiny boat will be tossed like a bath toy by the 40-foot swells.
    With thrilling cinematography, stirring performances and lots of over-emphasized Massachusetts’ accents, The Finest Hours is a crowd-pleasing drama. Director Craig Gillespie (Million Dollar Arm) contrasts the human drama with the vast sea, its relentless power gorgeously shown in the initial breakup. Like the crew, we watch helplessly as water surges into the ship.
    Gillespie relies on archetypes to expedite the plot. Bernie is a quiet, almost timid man seeking to prove his mettle on this mission. Sybert is a stalwart engineer who refuses to give up. The performances of Pine and Affleck go a long way to humanizing these familiar types. Affleck in particular infuses Sybert with a crushing sense of reality. He holds little hope, but he also knows that panic will worsen their last hours.
    As Bernie, Pine plays surprisingly well against type. In a Jimmy Stewart-type role, he drops his usual confidence to offer a good take on an aww-shucks hero.
    Not high art or metaphor, The Finest Hours is a modern rarity: a good movie with mass appeal. Thrilling sea rescues, rolling waves and heroic performances offer a two-hour excuse to gobble popcorn and root for the good guys.

Good Drama • PG-13 • 117 mins.

Take the bus instead of riding with this comedy

Rookie cop Ben (Kevin Hart: Get Hard) is still hoping to prove himself to his future brother-in-law James (Ice Cube: The Book of Life), one of Atlanta’s toughest cops. Ben’s urgency to insert himself in James’ cases typically ends in gunfire.
    When a mission ends in disaster, James has one chance to salvage his drug case: travel to Miami to apprehend a hacker who knows who’s supplying Atlanta’s dealers. James prefers to work alone, but he acquiesces to his sister’s pleas and takes Ben along.
    Will he kill Ben on the way?
    Bland, unoriginal and offering barely a laugh, Ride Along 2 is so perfunctory that it’s a wonder the actors don’t have scripts in their hands. The film rehashes the plot of the first film, losing the chemistry Ice Cube and Hart built.
    Director Tim Story (Think Like a Man Too) doesn’t bother with pace, plot or scene, though he does lovingly pan over wet bikini bodies every few minutes to make sure people are paying attention.
    Hart, who has made a career of being the shortest, loudest person in the room, continues his shtick. He screams, flails, bugs his eyes out and falls over. Though the physical gesticulations are eye-catching, Hart seems oddly flat. As he mumbles his way through the dialog, you can almost see him calculating the residual checks he’ll earn from this heartless sequel.
    Story seems to have an odd effect on funny men, sapping their timing. Hart isn’t the only struggling comedian. Neither can Ken Jeong (Dr. Ken) find a consistent tone. Sometimes sleazy, sometimes hysterical, his hacker is unfunny and perplexing.
    Oddly, straight man Ice Cube is the best comedian, as he growls at Jeong and snarls insults with just enough venom to get laughs.
    Ride Along 2 is typical of the mid-January junk studios dump on unsuspecting viewers.

Poor Comedy • PG-13 • 102 mins.

One man battles nature and the human ­condition in his quest for revenge

In the 1820s, the part of the Louisiana Purchase that became the Dakota territories was a dangerous place. White men seeking furs risked running afoul of native tribes, vicious animals and inhospitable weather. Scout Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio: The Wolf of Wall Street) knows the perils, for he and his half-Pawnee son have spent their lives leading white men in and out of the wilderness to find fortune.
    When a trapping party runs afoul of the Arikara tribe, the men scramble into the mountains. Glass is mauled by a bear. Ribs exposed, bones broken and bleeding profusely, he is unlikely to survive the night.
    Daunted at the prospect of hauling the injured man over the mountains, the trappers appoint two men as a burial party to wait with Glass and his son.
    The funeral doesn’t go as planned, when the remaining trappers kill Glass’s son and toss them both into a shallow grave. Overcome with rage and grief, Glass drags himself from the frigid ground and begins a 200-mile journey toward vengeance.
    Filled with gore, cruelty and lots of ratty facial hair, The Revenant is a revenge Western for the modern age. Director Alejandro González Iñárritu (Birdman) contrasts the cruelty of man with the cruelty of nature in this epic tale. We also see the plight of native peoples in 1800s America, robbed of their lands, animals and basic rights, resorting to violence against white invaders. Iñárritu carefully contrasts the plight of the Arikara with Glass, both on quests to reclaim stolen dignity.
    Essentially the story of one man’s revenge against nature and man, The Revenant is a showcase for DiCaprio. He carries the story well, but his acting style of shouting his way through emotional scenes gets distracting. In his rare quiet moments, he is more effective. These glimpses do more to make him human and relatable than his unending parade of broken bones and oozing wounds. As the principal antagonist, Tom Hardy (Legend) does what he can with a role so evil he should have horns sprouting from his scalp.
    The real star of The Revenant, however, is the staggering cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki (Birdman). His sweeping landscapes and gorgeously composed frames make all 156 minutes a treat. The cold gray land that envelops Glass becomes a character unto itself, harsh and unforgiving as he struggles to overcome it.
    Filled with stunning images and interesting plotlines, The Revenant is a must-see for those with a strong stomach.

Good Drama • R • 156 mins.

Two women run from society in this stirring drama

Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara: Pan) has the life she’s supposed to want. A sales clerk at a fancy department store, she has a devoted boyfriend with marriage and kids on the horizon. She wants none of it.
    When Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett: Cinderella) wanders into Therese’s store, the clerk’s world shifts. The beautiful and mysterious Carol flirts with Therese, and the young shop worker longs for a different life. Carol is everything Therese desires: beautiful, composed and a member of the New York elite.
    But Carol’s veneer of cool confidence and glamour hide a tumultuous life. After years of repression, she is ready to divorce her wealthy husband and embrace life as a lesbian. In the 1950s, lesbians were viewed as deranged deviants. She must choose between years of misery with a man she doesn’t love or social exile.
    Desperate to escape Harge and the prying eyes of New York society, Carol flees across the country while her daughter enjoys Christmas vacation with her in-laws. She asks Therese to come along.
    Can the potential lovers find a place that accepts them? Or are they doomed to travel the highway forever?
    An atmospheric character study, Carol is a slow-burn drama that rewards audiences with meticulous sets, in-depth character development and excellent acting. That is a nice way of warning you that not much happens in Carol. Billed as a thriller, this film by director Todd Haynes (Mildred Pierce) is more a period piece than a whodunit. He is more concerned with creating a tone and a specific look than refining pacing.
    His detailed recreations of the people and places of the 1950s are fascinating, and his relaxed style allows the performances to shine. But he’s a bit too languid with the story, allowing it to drag.
    As the title character, Blanchett holds the screen. Carol projects a veneer of breezy style and wit. But just below the surface is a woman fighting her confines.
    Mara is excellent as the repressed Therese, who never knew there was a life outside of heterosexual marriage. Her awakening is more joyful than Carol’s. Mara makes the most of Therese’s innocence and wonder.
    Gorgeous, well-acted and slow-moving, Carol isn’t for everyone. But if you’re an aficionado of nuanced acting, elaborate costume design and emotional depth, this film won’t disappoint.

Good Drama • R • 118 mins.

Quentin Tarantino’s Western has the good, the bad and the bloody

A blizzard traps eight strangers in Minnie’s Haberdashery just outside Red Rock, Wyoming. A cowpuncher, an English hangman, a Mexican cook and a Confederate general huddle in the drafty lodge, waiting for the storm to break.
    Last to arrive are bounty hunter John Ruth (Kurt Russell: Furious 7), his prisoner Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh: Anomalisa). The price on Domergue’s head is high, and allies have sworn to free her.
    Ruth analyzes the threat each stranger poses. Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson: Chi-Raq), a Buffalo Soldier turned bounty hunter, seems unlikely to aid vitriolic racist Domergue. Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins: Justified) is a different story. The son of a Confederate raider who hates blacks and northerners alike, he’s likely to be dangeously sympathetic to Domergue.
    As the blizzard builds, so does the tension, and as bodies drop, Domergue is confident her escape is eminent.
    Violent, crass and oddly beguiling, The Hateful Eight invites extreme reactions. Writer/director Quentin Tarantino (Django Unchained) — who has a penchant for brutal, unlikeable characters — has stacked the deck with some of the vilest characters he’s yet conjured. Racists, women beaters, rapists, murderers are all here. Hateful Eight beguiles the audience with America’s worst.
    Sergio Leone’s great spaghetti westerns inspire this film. Longtime Leone collaborator Ennio Morricone provides the soundtrack. Leone can also be felt in the sweeping landscape cinematography that makes the film look desolate but beautiful. Tarantino shot the film in 70 millimeter, an extreme wide angle that offers sweeping scale and excellent picture quality. Choose a 70mm screen, and set aside a large chunk of time, as this epic is three hours long, including overture and intermission.
    The weakest part of The Hateful Eight is the script. Tarantino revels in the grotesque, and his grindhouse sensibilities are beloved by fans. But Hateful Eight is too much of a good thing. Tarantino tries so hard to shock that disgust becomes annoying after the second hour. Always a fan of racial epithets, his script uses his favorite pejorative so often that, instead of marking his characters as racists, it makes Tarantino seem a snotty adolescent getting away with saying taboo words. Violence and sexual assault are so common that the horror of the acts is largely lost.
    Saving The Hateful Eight from parody are some excellent performances. As Domergue, Leigh manages to be funny, intimidating and sympathetic. Leigh’s feral performance relies on physical traits, but she never lets you forget that this murderess is fierce and smart. You can see her plotting at every moment. Goggins, who has made quite a career playing evil southerners, shines as a racist dolt who learns some harsh lessons about the ways of the world. He makes even the most ridiculous lines work through sheer force of will. Jackson is also in fine form, offering his usual brand of brash pontificating.
    Too bloody for general audiences, too crass for highbrows, Hateful Eight is pure Tarantino. But if you’re a fan, this movie is pretty bloody good.

Good Western • R • 168 mins.

One doctor tackles the NFL head-on

Dr. Bennet Omalu (Will Smith: Focus) speaks for the dead. A medical examiner in Pittsburgh, Omalu is obsessed with learning what led to each death.
    When Pittsburgh Steeler great Mike Webster (David Morse: True Detective) dies, Omalu is puzzled about how Webster went from local hero to homeless madman.
    He discovers that Webster’s brain was suffocating. Repeated concussions had caused it to choke from the inside out, causing violent rages, addictive behavior and rapid mental degeneration. Omalu publishes his results and names the disease: Chronic traumatic encephalopathy. Realizing that Webster’s death was not a fluke, he concludes that more players must be suffering from CTE. But there is no confirmation possible until after death.
    Meanwhile, the NFL works overtime to disgrace the doctor and his findings.
    A movie to make football fans reconsider how they spend Monday and Sunday nights, Concussion is a thriller with great potential and poor execution. Director Peter Landesman (Parkland) only touches on the many outrages in the NFL concussion cover-up. He hints at the depth and breadth of the conspiracy but stops short of full examination of the league’s commitment to stopping Omalu. Hints that the government is involved are not pursued.
    There is also a thin subplot involving Omalu’s family life that could have increased the sense of danger — had it been developed. Smith and Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Jupiter Ascending) are both gorgeous, capable actors, but their awkward chemistry makes their relationship seem forced.
    It’s a shame Landesman wastes so much time with Omalu’s personal life, because Smith is at his best fighting the NFL.
    Morse delivers the most effective performance, portraying Mike Webster’s spiral into madness.
    Concussion is an imperfect movie, but it’s a good way to start talking about how America treats its sports heroes and about the corporations that profit carelessly from their skills.

Good Thriller • PG-13 • 123 mins.

You don’t have to be a financial whiz kid to understand incompetence

Michael Burry (Christian Bale: ­Exodus: Gods and Kings) is always on the lookout for a new investment.
    Investigating the housing loan market, Burry discovers that its bottom is about to fall out. Predicting a collapse, he uses his fund’s money to short the housing values. In essence, he bets against the lending system that has been the bedrock of American banking.
    Burry’s theory gets the attention of investor Mark Baum (Steve Carell: Freeheld). Anticipating the coming global storm, Baum must decide whether to join Burry in profiteering or sound the alarm.
    Glib, informative and fast-paced, The Big Short won’t put you to sleep. Director Adam McKay (Anchorman 2) achieves quite a feat in making an exciting movie about stocks, loans and mortgages — without high-speed chases, guns or a cool heist subplot. McKay goes to great pains to explain even the most confusing financial concepts entertainingly. Want to know about sub-prime mortgages? Margot Robbie (Focus) explains them while sipping Champagne in a bubble bath. Interested in how banks create AAA-rated mortgages using small mortgages that are rated B or below? Chef Anthony Bourdain talks you through it while whipping up a fish stew.
    These quirky bits of humor are McKay’s strong suit, tricking you into caring about the financial market and simplifying long boring concepts.
    Less sound is the film’s emotional beat. Each character gets a single distinguishing trait but very little in the way of development. Bale is the oddball genius. Carell is a loudmouth with a heart of gold. Brad Pitt is into organic foods. Characters exist only to move the storyline, so it’s hard to care about Carell’s home life or the tragedy that haunts him.
    McKay’s visual style is frenetic. Whenever the pace lags, he bombards us with footage of news events, publicity photos — anything and everything he can think of — to keep our focus while explaining mortgages. After the eighth montage, the style gets annoying.
    The movie is a good investment if you’re in the market for an entertaining look at banking and how it almost ruined our country.

Good Drama • R • 130 mins.

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.