view counter

Articles by DIana Beechener

Ben Affleck writes a love letter to pulp filmmaking in this epic drama

Joe Coughlin (Ben Affleck: Suicide Squad) is an outlaw. A veteran of The Great War, Coughlin returns home to Boston swearing to never follow orders again. He turns to armed robbery, vexes his police chief father and gets the interest of the city’s warring Italian and Irish mobs.
    Coughlin isn’t interested in joining a gang, but he is interested in the head Irish mobster’s girl, Emma (Sienna Miller: The Lost City of Z). Joe gets out with a smashed face and a few years in jail. Emma doesn’t fair so well.
    Bent on revenge, Coughlin signs up with the Italian mob.
    He sets up a comfortable life on the outskirts of Tampa, building a small empire as he outsmarts the law and rival criminal concerns.
    Just as he assembles the life he wants, it’s challenged. The Italians fret over an Irishman running such a large chunk of their business. The Ku Klux Klan chapter despises Joe for his Cuban girlfriend and association with minority groups. The holy rollers of Tampa want to cleanse the city.
    Based on an epic Prohibition novel by Dennis Lehane, Live by Night isn’t as beautifully detailed or steeped in history as the novel, but it’s a decent CliffsNotes. Affleck also directed and wrote the screenplay, paring down a story that spans decades and two very different cities and focusing almost solely on Coughlin.
    Though it keeps the running time down, this choice also knocks some of the nuance out of Joe, turning him from a morally ambiguous gangster into a tough-guy hero.
    Coughlin is interesting, and Affleck’s performance fine, but he gains primacy at the expense of other performers. Chris Messina (The Mindy Project), as Coughlin’s right-hand man, for one.
    Lavish sets, attractive people and enough action to keep your blood pumping, Live by Night is a tribute to the pulpy crime dramas of the 1930s and ’40s. If you like a plot-heavy tale with quippy dialogue, sexy dames and steel-jawed toughs, you’ll enjoy this film.

Good Drama • R • 128 mins.

The amazing story of three unknown stars of the space program

Katherine Goble (Taraji P. Henson: Empire) is a mathematical genius. But she is a woman, and she is black. In 1960s Virginia, Goble can’t even sit at the front of a bus, let alone gain independence as a mathematician.
    She works at NASA as a computer, a mathematician who performs calculations and checks the numbers generated by engineers.
    While fighting racial stereotyping, sexism and paranoia about Soviet spies, Goble is also helping to invent the math that will eventually guarantee safe orbits for America’s first astronauts. Her work is, of course, unacknowledged.
    Goble was not the only overlooked woman genius at NASA. Two more unrecognized black women on the job make a mark in history. Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe: Moonlight) contributes to the Mercury 7 project, helping perfect its cabin design. But as a black woman, she isn’t considered qualified to be an engineer, and her race is banned from the school offering classes that could help her advance. Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer: Bad Santa 2) is a mechanical prodigy who recognizes and surmounts the threat IBM computers pose to the computing women at NASA.
    Hidden Figures is their long-awaited recognition, and it’s a crowd-pleaser. Performances are great, the soundtrack is snappy and the script will make you want to learn more about these remarkable women. Director Theodore Melfi (St. Vincent) parallels the race to get an American into space alongside these women’s struggle for significant work and respect in a time when the outcome of neither effort was guaranteed.
    Dialogue can feel stilted as conversations become lessons in facts you need to know to get the point. Performance, however, is a rich counterbalance. As Goble, the star and heart of the film, Henson gives a powerful performance bearing rudeness and cruelty with kindness and dignity.
    Spencer and Monáe are lighter, even comic, though each has moments of drama. They make the three women’s bond of friendship a joy to watch.

Good Historical Drama • PG • 127 mins.

Based on August Wilson’s play of the same name, Fences is a stirring drama about the effects of systemic racism on the black family

From the outside, Troy Maxson (Denzel Washington: The Magnificent Seven) has a pretty good life. He has a steady job as a garbage collector, an adoring wife named Rose (Viola Davis: Suicide Squad) and a nice house in a Pittsburgh neighborhood. A born storyteller with a gift for hyperbole, Troy enjoys spinning colorful yarns as he drinks his weekly bottle of gin with his coworkers. In the late 1950s, it’s as close to living the American Dream as any black man could hope to get.
    Troy, however, is not content. A once-great baseball player, he resents the racist system that kept him from playing pro ball. He keenly feels the injustices that have kept him from greater success in work and at home.
    Some of his complaints are solidly founded. Black men must empty the garbage cans, not drive the trucks. The army refuses full compensation to Troy’s brother and veteran Gabe (Mykelti Williamson: Designated Survivor), who runs the streets disturbing the peace.
    Some complaints are less valid. Troy sees his son’s football skills as a curse and will hear no talk of football scholarships or college. He doesn’t trust sports, even after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier. He wants his son to learn a trade and work after school.
    As the years wear on, Troy obsesses over the idea that his life has been wasted.
    Based on August Wilson’s play of the same name, Fences is a stirring drama about the effects of systemic racism on the black family. Washington, who also directs, brought this adaptation from stage to screen, retaining most of the 2010 revival cast for the film. This was a brilliant choice.
    As the leads, both Washington and Davis are remarkable. Washington makes Troy a deeply flawed but fascinating character, full of contradictions. He’s a charming rogue, a born storyteller and selfishly obsessed with what he’s owed. He revels in pointing out his son’s flaws, building himself up as the only true man in the family, even as he’s riddled with insecurity.
    As his wife Rose, Davis plays Troy’s polar opposite. Quiet and kind, Rose is more than a devoted partner. She is in many ways the heart of the play, sacrificing her own strength and emotional wellbeing for her family. Davis makes Rose’s inner turmoil both poignant and relatable.
    The film’s weakness is cinematic production. Washington borrowed not only the play’s cast but also its staging conventions. You feel like you’re watching a play. In those confines, action seems stilted. There is also a play’s long running time, well over two hours. Viewers whose theatrical tastes were formed at the movies may grow bored.


Great Drama • PG-13 • 138 mins.

An inoffensive cartoon that will keep small children quiet for 90 minutes and that might give their parents a few laughs

Koala Buster Moon (Matthew McConaughey: Kubo and the Two Strings) loves theater. He has achieved half of his dream. He owns a theater, but he has no audience.
    Facing foreclosure, Buster makes a desperate decision to host a singing competition. To draw local talent, he plans to offer a $1,000 prize. But his secretary types $100,000 by mistake, and soon the whole town turns out to win a fortune.
    Surely he can raise the money later, Buster decides, so he holds auditions. A motley crew competes. Johnny (Taron Egerton: Eddie the Eagle) is a softhearted gorilla with a sweet voice who seeks to get away from his criminal father. Ash (Scarlett Johansson: Captain America: Civil War) is a prickly teen porcupine finding her voice as a songwriter. Rosita (Reese Witherspoon: Hot Pursuit) is a housepig worn out by caring for her husband and 25 piglets. Meena (Tori Kelly) is a shy elephant with the voice of an angel but crippling stage fright. Mike (Seth MacFarlane: Family Guy) is a mouse with the voice and attitude of Sinatra.
    As the contestants struggle to find their voices, Buster struggles to find funding for his musical spectacular. Will he get the ovation he’s always wanted? Or is this his curtain call?
    Sing is the latest in a long line of inoffensive animated films that will keep small children quiet for 90 minutes. There’s nothing special about writing, acting or story, but all are satisfactory. Illumination Studios has settled into making movies — like this and the Minions film — that entertain small viewers while offering adults passable fare. It’s not a bad formula. At my screening, children paid close attention to the singing animals while adults huffed a few laughs.
    If you pay attention, you’ll notice two big problems. First is the story. Writer/director Garth Jennings (Son of Rambow) makes Buster’s journey his theme. But we don’t connect with Buster, as he’s a bit of a jerk and McConaughey’s vocal performance is flat. Our hearts are with Johnny, caught in a fraught relationship with his robber father. Instead of his story, we get dozens of B storylines and flatulence jokes.
    There’s also too little music for a movie called Sing. What there is — mostly small snippets from popular songs — seems contrived to keep adults entertained.
    A DVD of Zootopia or The Secret Life of Pets will cost you less than movie tickets to Sing and give you and your children better stories and cuter animal characters.


Fair Animation • PG • 108 mins.

A story for the original Star Wars generation

The campaign against the Empire is not going well for the rebel alliance. Momentum is building, slowly, but not consensus. Half the alliance wants war; the other thinks senate proceedings and trials better for the galaxy.
    Things get worse when scientist Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen: Doctor Strange) sends a secret message reporting that he’s helped build a weapon the Empire calls the Death Star.
    It has the power to destroy a planet with a single shot. Such a weapon gives the Empire the upper hand.
    Erso reveals that he’s built a hidden weakness into the Death Star to aid the rebels. Erso himself is missing.
    The plan is to contact Erso’s daughter Jyn (Felicity Jones: Inferno) to make inroads with her dad’s old friends, now rebel fanatics. Jyn has been searching for her father ever since the Empire kidnapped him, so she leaps at the chance.
    Jyn joins rebel spy Cassian Andor (Diego Luna: The Bad Batch) to find her father and steal the plans for the Death Star. Cassian, however, is under orders to shoot Galen on sight.
    If you’ve ever seen a Star Wars movie, you know how Rogue One ends. But it’s so well done that knowing the ending hardly matters.
    Director Gareth Edwards (Godzilla) gives us breathtaking action, including a harrowing battle on an island. The machinery and tech of the Star Wars universe blend with gritty sequences featuring soldiers and guns to convey the human cost of war.
    Another smart choice is staying far away from the Force. This is not a movie about Jedis. It’s about non-magical people who must make real sacrifices for their cause. Grounding this fantasy universe in reality adds consequences to action. A soldier who dies in Rogue One is not joining the Force, just rotting on the ground.
    Luna and Jones give charismatic performances that leave you rooting for the rebellion. The real star of the movie, however, is K-2SO (Alan Tudyk: Moana). A reprogrammed Empire droid now working with the rebels, K-2SO is a comedian who steals every scene. Imagine a slightly tougher and more sarcastic C-3PO.
    Think twice about bringing the kids to this Star Wars movie. Made for adults who grew up with the original trilogy, this addition to the universe is a darker take than the usually family-friendly fare. People die, war is hell and betrayal is seemingly inevitable.
    For fans, it’s a great sci-fi-war experience giving us plenty to talk about while we wait for Episode VIII.


Great Sci-Fi • PG-13 • 133 mins.

Deep, dramatic and depressing — just in time for Christmas

A janitor in Boston, Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck: Triple 9), sleepwalks through life. After work, he guzzles beer, preferring bar fights to women.
    Though Lee doesn’t seek change, it finds him. His older brother drops dead, leaving a commercial fishing boat, a big house in their hometown and a 16-year-old son. Named guardian of Patrick (Lucas Hedges: Anesthesia), Lee has no idea how to help the boy with his grief or how to parent a teen who’s juggling girlfriends and used to getting his way with caustic sarcasm.
    Making Lee’s task harder is his small hometown. Tragedy ruined his marriage and sent him scuttling to Boston. Home again where everyone knows the pain of his past, Lee encounters his own demons.
    This moving, funny drama about the power of family and the ways people cope with grief is one of the best films of the year. Writer/director Kenneth Lonergan (Margaret) picks apart the family dynamics, slowly revealing each member’s past and pain. Each flashback builds the narrative, developing a complex family history.
    Dialog is sharp and often quite funny. Lonergan’s knack for dysfunctional families shows in every word Lee or Patrick speak. These caustic men are terrified of their sadness. Their sarcasm and biting judgments are their desperate front.
    Affleck carries the movie with a nuanced and deeply personal performance that should make him a contender come awards season. By keeping Lee almost affectless, he shows just how damaged the character is. It’s a dramatic contrast to the Lee in flashbacks, who’s hapless but full of life.
    As Lee’s ex-wife, Michelle Williams (Certain Women) also offers a stellar performance. She is his opposite, an open wound of emotion and pain. As she feels so acutely, she can’t understand how Lee shuts himself down. The two work beautifully together in a fascinating, painful dynamic.
    Manchester by the Sea will stir you, but it offers no easy answers.


Great Drama • R • 137 mins.

A spy thriller without the thrills

The chances that World War II soldier Max Vatan (Brad Pitt: The Big Short) will survive his next mission are slim. He’ll be assassinating the German ambassador in Casablanca in a very public attack. Working with him is Marianne Beauséjour (Marion Cotillard: It’s Only the End of the World), a French resis­tance fighter.
    The heat, the adrenaline and their own attractiveness bring Max and Marianne together. After a steamy affair and a successful mission, Max proposes, bringing Marianne to England.
    By 1942, Max, Marianne and their small daughter seem to be living happily ever after in London, despite the German blitz. Until Marianne is flagged as a possible German spy.
    Now Max must prove her innocent — or execute her — all in 48 hours.
    Allied is a spy thriller without the thrills. The main problem is the relationship between Max and Marianne. How can two talented and attractive actors have so little chemistry? Their lack of sexual tension leaves you wondering why Max would marry Marianne, let alone risk treason to prove her innocence.
    Pitt’s bizarre acting has him looking stiff and uncomfortable. When he’s not speaking, he strikes a pose and holds it until it’s his turn to talk.
    Direction by legendary Robert Zemeckis (The Walk) guarantees that the film will look good. With lush costumes, sweeping camera work and expensive sets, he doesn’t disappoint. But by vacillating between dramatic scenes, harrowing action and broad comedy, he loses control of tone and tension. You watch not knowing if you’re supposed to laugh or be horrified.
    Beautiful, it is, but weak on story and acting.

Fair Spy Thriller • R • 124 mins.

See this charming film about a girl who dares

Moana (voiced by Auli’i Cravalho in her screen debut) was born to greatness. Beloved by all, she will be her people’s next chief. She returns their affection and promised to become an excellent leader.
    Still, she has a secret love: the ocean.
    More than anything, she wants to take a boat and explore the vast expanses of water that surround her island.
    But the ocean is forbidden. Not even fishermen are allowed beyond the protective coral reef that surrounds the island. Moana’s father dismisses wanderlust as the musings of a child.
    However Gramma Tala (Rachel House: Soul Mates) knows that Moana’s destiny lies in the sea. She tells Moana about the gods and the history of her people, who were great wayfinders, traveling across the ocean to discover new islands. Seeing the spirit of adventure reborn in her granddaughter, Gramma Tala believes her chosen by the water to restore the Heart of the Ocean, a sacred stone stolen by trickster demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson: Ballers).
    When the fish dry up and the island suffers, Moana sees it as a sign her Gramma was right. To return the sacred stone before her people die, she takes a small boat and her favorite pet chickento cross the reef in search of Maui and the true Heart of the Ocean.
    Spellbindingly beautiful and a lot of fun, Moana is the latest Disney princess movie to break the mold, offering little girls a get-it-done role model. Funny, smart and a hard worker, Moana is determined to save her people. You’ll find no love interest here; this film is all about a girl embracing her role as a leader.
    The film also features music from Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda, who has a knack for clever lyrics and tailors each song to fit its singer. So you’ll be tapping your toes while watching this adventure.
    As Moana, Cravalho is a great discovery. She infuses the character with spunk, humor and kindness. The vocal star of the movie, however, is Johnson, who fills Maui with such charm and bombast that moviegoers in my screening cheered each time he arrived on screen. Johnson has long been able to command the screen, and this power transfers into animation. He is the closest Disney has come since Aladdin’s Genie to marry the public image of an actor with the character he voices.
    Gorgeous songs, great voice acting and a good story all contribute, but none so much as the film’s images. With beautifully rendered scenes on islands and the ocean, several animation styles and the reference point of Polynesian culture, the animators create a fascinating world.
    If you’ve got kids, Moana is probably on your calendar. But you don’t need kids to see this movie; it’s a fantastic step for Disney animation in both storytelling and visuals. Stay through the credits for a stinger hilarious to older viewers.

Great Animation • PG • 113 mins.

What do these aliens want from us?

One day, they arrive. Twelve giant pods hover over major countries throughout the world. No one knows where they came from. No one saw them coming. No one knows what they want.
    Every few hours, a door opens, allowing humans to enter the spaceships. Then what? The humans are stumped on how to communicate. Figuring it out falls to Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams: Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice), a trusted linguist who has helped the military translate enemy radio chatter. Her mission: learn the aliens’ language — and develop a system of communication, ASAP.
    Banks has a deadline: China and Russia promise military action if the aliens don’t state their purpose or move on. Intergalactic war will end diplomacy.
    Complicated and painstakingly filmed, Arrival continues the sci-fi tradition of examining the foibles of human nature in a broader context. These aliens are a fully developed metaphor for humanity’s fears of the unknown and how fear shapes geo­politics. If that sounds a little too heavy for a movie featuring creatures that look like a blend of squids and spiders, I promise that director Denis Villeneuve (Sicario) rewards you for expending brainpower at the cinema.
    Villeneuve and cinematographer Bradford Young (Selma) create an enthralling film. From the shape of the ships to the vast and isolating Montana backdrop, every shot is beautifully composed and styled. This world feels both familiar yet just alien enough to be unsettling. Expansive open areas contrast with cramped claustrophobic shots to ramp up tension.
    The script by Eric Heisserer (Lights Out), based on a story by Ted Chiang, picks at the ideas of destiny, time, communication and our drive to create connections. Lots of deep concepts are suggested. Still, the two-hour running time constrains their development, and Heisserer must rely on contrivance to wrap up the story. Like the classic Twilight Zone episodes written by Ray Bradbury, Arrival is both liberated and constrained by its medium.
    At the emotional core, Amy Adams is masterful. Her Louise is frightened but determined to make a connection. As she learns the alien language, she becomes more forceful. Banks discovers herself as she understands the aliens.
    An emotionally provocative sci-fi film that stimulates and rewards, Arrival is worth the price you’ll pay to see it on the big screen, where Young’s cinematography will have the most impact.

Great Sci-Fi • PG-13 • 116 mins.

Marvel gets metaphysical with this superhero romp

Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch: Zoolander 2), the world’s most sought-after neurosurgeon, has an ego as big as his brain. He is smug and calculating, cold and talented.
    But his talent means nothing after an accident cripples his hands.
    Scorning the physical therapy recommended by intellectual inferiors, Strange spends all his money on experimental surgeries that leave him broke, alone and hopeless. He spends his last pound to fly to Nepal, chasing a miracle cure in a temple.
    Strange finds a community following the mystical teachings of the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton: Hail, Caesar!). He mocks their mysticism and the idea of channel energy from the universe — until the Ancient One literally knocks the soul from his body. Convinced, Strange applies his brilliant mind and dogged drive to learning every facet of the teachings, gobbling up ancient books and practicing at all hours.
    Just as Strange is harnessing the powers of the universe, the attack comes. Former pupil Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen: Hannibal) wants to remake the world to suit his new beliefs.
    Kaecilius’ attack leaves only Strange and his trainer Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor: Triple 9) to defend the universe from a madman and his team of zealots.
    A mind-bending romp, Doctor Strange is, well, strange. That’s not to say the movie is without charm. Director Scott Derrickson (Deliver Us from Evil) eases us through confusing magical elements with slapstick comedy. Strange’s cape becomes a character, yanking the doctor around and doing silly things to distract the bad guys. Even baddie Kaecilius gets a few good punchlines. Mikkelsen, who’s strong bone structure and piercing eyes earn him parts as terrifying baddies in English-language films, has a bit of fun hamming up this villainous role.
    Derrickson also wisely skews the film toward younger audiences.
    This approach could devolve into puerile nonsense without a strong cast to keep it on the right side of ridiculous. Cumberbatch gives a charming performance, turning his prickly doctor into an endearing hero.
    There are problems, as well. Like most superhero movies, the plot doesn’t bear deep thinking. More troublingly, the film borrows heavily from Chinese and Nepalese imagery but features only one Asian actor with a speaking part (Benedict Wong, who offers some of the film’s best comedic moments)
    Though guilty of cultural appropriation, Doctor Strange should keep older viewers smiling and encourage younger viewers to attempt channeling the energy of the universe. If you’re looking for a popcorn flick for your whole clan, this film is strangely perfect.

Good Action • PG-13 • 115 mins.