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Articles by DIana Beechener

Better than average for a series that should have ended with the first film

Henry Turner (Brendan Thwaites: Gods of Egypt) grew up knowing that his father, Will Turner (Orlando Bloom: Unlocked) was cursed to spend eternity as Davey Jones’ replacement at the bottom of the sea. Obsessed with freeing dad and reuniting his family, he scours the legends of the sea for a loophole to allow his father to surface.
    Now he’s recruited once-legendary pirate Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them). Sparrow is now a drunk with a half-built boat seeking treasure to sate his mutinous crew. But self-preservation allies him to Turner’s cause, for he has unwittingly broken the curse that doomed his sworn enemy Captain Salazar (Javier Bardem: The Last Face) to a watery grave.
    Completing the mission is Carina (Kaya Scodelario: The Maze Runner), an orphan whose personal obsession is finding Poseidon’s trident. With the rising dead on their heels and the sea threatening to swallow, are they goners?
    Dead Men Tell No Tales is unique in the Pirates franchise because its director and crew seem to be serious about movie-making. The action is exciting, special effects (especially the waterlogged zombie sailors on Salazar’s crew) are glorious and performances okay.
    Depp is back in fighting form, restoring the wiles to a man searching for redemption.
    He gets fantastic support from Geoffrey Rush (Gods of Egypt) as Captain Barbossa, his frenemy. Rush is an old hand at camping up the morally ambiguous character, making his violence and rotted teeth charming affectations. He hops through each scene on a bejeweled peg leg and holding a gun.
    Bardem gleefully snarls his way across the seven seas, making his Salazar seem a formidable foe. His quiet gravitas and striking eyes emphasize Salazar’s threat. By embracing the madness, Bardem steals nearly every scene, roaring death threats as he menaces all around him with a half-rotted face.
    Alas, the love story is no better than ever, with no chemistry between Thwaites’ Turner and Scodelario’s Carina.
    The plot is so ridiculous that it’s almost impressive with it mash-up of Da Vinci Code clues to a treasure, silly histrionics and about eight extraneous story lines.
    Think twice before taking small children, as there are some creepy zombie pirates and plenty of intense fights.

Good Action • PG-13 • 129 mins.

Ridley Scott is more interested in philosophy than chills in this latest sequel

Leaving Earth in search of a habitable planet, The Covenant carries a crew of married couples plus 2,000 colonists and a few trays of embryos. While the crew and passengers hypersleep, android Walter (Michael Fassbender: Assassin’s Creed) cares for the ship.
    A disaster ends the crew’s slumbers.
    The crippled Covenant’s luck improves when the crew finds a habitable planet nearby. Shall they take a look?
    The one voice of dissent is Daniels (Katherine Waterston: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them), a just-made widow who is second in command. Her objections overruled, Daniels reluctantly accepts a mission to see if this mystery planet is suitable for humans.
    The team finds the planet perfectly habitable yet deserted. The only being they encounter is David (also Fassbender), an android from the ship Prometheus, who has made this empty Earth a lab for his experiments. The crew’s curiosity about the missing Prometheus is tabled when xenomorphs show up to eat them.
    Where is the thrill? Director Ridley Scott, creator of Alien, seems to have forgotten the elements that made his 1979 film a triumph: tight plotting, interesting characters and a realistic threat that was not easily escapable. Today’s Scott is more interested in philosophic debates. It’s difficult to take his weighty subjects seriously as murderous xenomorphs pop up. Dialog is so silly that the audience giggled through talk on the meaning of life, the purpose of survival and the quest to discover our origins.
    Adding insult to injury, we must wait nearly an hour for the aliens, during which time, Scott fails to develop his characters so that later none of their deaths have impact. The one bright spot is Fassbender, who gives both androids distinct personalities and wants.

Poor Sci-Fi/Horror • R • 122 mins.

This mother-daughter comedy is good for a few laughs

Emily Middleton (Amy Schumer: Inside Amy Schumer) is a train wreck. Fired from her retail job and dumped by her boyfriend, she’s reduced to posting selfies on Instagram. Her digital success has not earned her friends, so her only willing companion on a non-refundable trip to Ecuador is her mother, Linda (Goldie Hawn: The Banger Sisters), the one person who has never told her no.
    A bit of a shut-in who still takes care of Emily’s agoraphobic man-child of a brother, Linda reluctantly agrees.
    Emily’s delight gives way to annoyance at her mother’s overprotectiveness and prudish travel rules. Convinced an adventure will chill her mother out, Emily forces her to experience “the real Ecuador.”
    They are promptly kidnapped.
    Alone and terrified, mother and daughter team up to overcome their captors, the unforgiving jungle and their own strife. Are they doomed to be a cautionary tale for other tourists?
    Crude, funny and shallow, Snatched is much like Emily’s character. Director Jonathan Levine (The Night Before) pushes for laughs that are increasingly outlandish. A slapstick sequence involving a tapeworm would be more at home in an Adam Sandler film.
    Schumer has made a career of playing drunken messes, and her role here is no exception. It’s a funny character, but one that becomes successively frustrating the more outrageous her antics become. In her previous film, Schumer had something to say about the pressure women feel to fulfil a “cool girl” archetype. In Snatched, she has nothing to say.
    Hawn is a bright spot as Schumer’s uptight mom. She gamely throws herself into even the most ridiculous gag, wringing laughs out of some truly lame material. It’s good to see the comic legend back on the screen, even if she deserves better material.
    The movie’s real problem is its portrayal of Latin populations. The native people Emily and her mother encounter are either maniacal criminals or simple folk. It’s an insulting portrayal and one that reeks of racism.
    Cultural ignorance and appropriation aside, Snatched lands many of its jokes. When Schumer rambles like the world’s most awkward fish out of water, it’s downright fun.

Fair Comedy • R • 91 mins.

An arms deal goes hilariously wrong in this spirited spoof

In the 1970s, the IRA needs weapons to fight the English. Chris (Cillian Murphy: Anthropoid) and Frank (Michael Smiley: Rogue One) are charged with procuring machine guns. Gun broker Justine (Brie Larson: Kong: Skull Island) makes arrangements with fellow broker Ord (Armie Hammer: Nocturnal Animals) to meet with notoriously odd gun dealer Vernon (Sharlto Copley: Powers).
    The Irish are willing to overlook Vernon’s quirks until one of his henchmen starts a fight. First fists and then bullets fly. Trapped in a warehouse where everyone is armed and hoping to be the last one standing, each criminal decides how to survive.
    As the hours tick by, loyalties change, wounds increase and ways out diminish.
    Free Fire is a gore-filled, funny shoot ’em up reminiscent of early Tarantino. It combines gleeful, violent slapstick, snappy performances and clever writing with substance. In this old-fashioned gunfight, you care who lives to tell the tale.
    Director/co-writer Ben Wheatley (High Rise) makes the best of his small budget. Confining the action to one open space raises the tension while inviting you to explore. Each wide shot has several things going on, so you’ll have to choose where to focus your attention.
    The best part of the film, however, is Wheatley’s peculiar sense of humor. It’s rare to laugh so much in a film that features so many gunshot wounds. The zany incompetence of criminals is mined for all it’s worth by Wheatley, who shows that owning a gun doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a good shot. As these excitable yahoos shoot at each other, winging some and missing others, fans will be reminded of over-the-top comedy in Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs. Wheatley also has a great sense of timing. The film clocks in at a swift 90 minutes, meaning that plot and character are developed quickly and sparingly.
    Wheatley also made the excellent decision to pack his film with excellent character actors. Copley is the clear standout as a boisterous, moronic and arrogant gun dealer hilariously incompetent at just about everything. Hammer is also impressive, delivering deadpan lines as bullets zing by him with so much charm you almost forget he’s trying to kill people.
    In spite of its charms, Free Fire isn’t a bullseye. Some characters could have been cut or refined to streamline the storytelling a bit. Wheatley is also a little too pleased with his quick cut style, which can sometimes confuse the action. But in spite of a few dramatic snags, this film kept the audience at my screening in stitches as the bullets flew.

Good Action • R • 90 mins.

Silly romance mars an important subject

In the mountain villages of Turkey, Mikael Boghosian (Oscar Isaac: X-Men: Apocalypse) is an apothecary with dreams of earning a medical degree. Financing his studies with the dowry from an arranged marriage, he promises to return to his fiancée in two years as a doctor.
    In Constantinople, he lives with his uncle, a wealthy merchant. The life of luxury and the family nanny, Ana (Charlotte Le Bon: Realive) distract him from his classes. Beautiful, free spirited and worldly, Ana is everything Mikael’s fiancée is not. He falls in love but keeps silent because he is honor-bound to marry another.
    Ana, meanwhile, is enjoying an affair with brash American A.P. reporter Chris Meyers (Christian Bale: The Big Short), who anticipates Turkish government will seek to rid the country of its Armenian population.
    As the nationalist movement takes root, Mikael is forced into a work camp where he is starved, beaten and stripped of hope.
    A movie about a genocide still unacknowledged by the Turkish government, The Promise had promise. Instead of exposing the consequences of xenophobia, Director Terry George (Standoff) settled for an Armenian retelling of Doctor Zhivago.
    Miscalculating the appeal of this tiresome romance, he treats us to shot after shot of pretty people pining for other pretty people.
    The male leads, both proven actors, are wasted. The movie soars when their characters discover what the Turks are doing. Devastated by what’s been done to his people, Isaac’s Boghosian plays for heart. Bale’s Meyers is the righteous crusader, fighting to find proof of the war crimes and alert the world.
    Unfortunately, the important story plays background to one of the more tedious romantic triangles in cinema history.

Fair Drama • PG-13 • 132 mins.

Bright colors and silly humor will entertain children but test adults' fortitude

The Smurfs are pretty bored. Seeking adventure are best friends Brainy (voiced by Danny Pudi: Powerless), Clumsy (Jack McBrayer: The Middle), Hefty (Joe Maganiello: Drunk Parents) and Smurfette (Demi Lovato: From Dusk Til Dawn: The Series). Papa Smurf (Mandy Patinkin: Homeland) tries to keep them from getting into too much trouble. It’s a simple life, until an accident shows the young Smurfs a world outside.
    While smurfboarding in the forbidden forest, Smurfette sees a figure that looks like her. The figure drops a hat that is identical to Smurfette’s, and for the first time ever, Smurfette wonders whether she and her blue brethren are really alone. Before she can investigate, Monty, the pet vulture of Gargamel (Rainn Wilson: Adventure Time), kidnaps Smurfette and flies her to the evil wizard’s lair.
    Gargamel has spent years trying to capture the Smurfs so he can turn their magic to his own use. When he learns there might be more Smurfs, he becomes obsessed with finding them. Fearing that Gargamel might find these new Smurfs before they do, Smurfette, Clumsy, Hefty and Brainy set off for the forbidden forest.
    Animation is a tricky genre no longer dismissible as children’s entertainment. Many studios are producing nuanced movies with complex characters, inventive stories and gorgeous visuals. Smurfs: The Lost Village is not one of them. Made solely for its young audience, it features whacky visuals, lots of physical humor and characters defined by their names. At my showing, younger viewers were enthralled with the funny voices, silly antics and pretty colors.
    However, if you’ve ever voted, ordered an alcoholic drink or driven, this film was not made for you.

Poor Animation • PG • 89 mins.

Humans prove to be the real animals in this dramatic war film

In 1939 Warsaw, the Zabinski family — Jan (Johan Heldenbergh: The Tunnel) and Antonina (Jessica Chastain: Miss Sloane) — run a popular zoo.
    Their world is destroyed by invading German tanks and planes. Carpet bombings of the city empty cages, loosing wild animals on the city to be shot down by the Nazis.
    Trying to salvage the remainders of their zoo, the Zabinskis recognize the greater atrocity around them. As Jews are ordered to move to the ghetto, Antonina and Jan put their empty zoo to good use, hiding Jews from the Nazis.
    It’s a dangerous gambit. The Nazis rule by day, transforming cages to storage. By night, the Zabinskis pack their basement and the animal tunnels with people, praying that they’ll be quiet enough to avoid detection.
    The plan works, and the zoo fills with endangered people.
    Still, stress tears the couple apart. Jan goes into the ghetto every day, pretending to collect trash to feed the pigs but instead smuggling out as many men, women and children as his truck will hold. He is haunted by the crimes he witnesses and the conditions people endure.
    Antonina, meanwhile, has caught the eye of Hitler’s head zoologist (Daniel Brühl: The Promise), who shows up at random in hopes of wooing the keeper’s wife. She endures his pawing, but Jan cannot.
    Can the Zabinskis keep their new charges safe?
    Based on the bestselling novel and true story, The Zookeeper’s Wife is a moving but flawed Holocaust drama. Performances are fantastic. But director Niki Caro (McFarland, USA) fails to knit a cohesive whole; time is especially jumbled.
    While Caro adapts Holocaust narrative clichés — children loaded onto trains, burning ghettos and violated women — he uses them effectively. With an extended sequence of Nazi killing of exotic animals, including a bald eagle, he breaks new ground in portraying Nazi evil.
    As the heart of the film, Chastain is a marvel. Strong, kind and willing to make dangerous decisions for the greater good, her Antonina is both an emotional support for traumatized people and their fierce protector. Antonina’s impossible position — beguiling a Nazi to protect her family and her charges — invokes a plot too charged for many movies to dare.
    See it for excellent performances and insight into the history of the resistance in Poland.

Good Drama • PG-13 • 124 mins.

With astronauts this dumb, it’s hard not to root for the alien

The astronauts aboard the International Space Station expect to make history. Hurtling toward them is a probe that has collected what may be proof of life on Mars.
    Station biologist Hugh Derry (Ariyon Bakare: Rogue One) finds a long-dormant single-cell organism among the dust samples. After cursory study, he tries to do the impossible: Resurrect a creature that has been dead for millennia. After a few tweaks to the shuttle’s environment and some nourishment, the cell, named Calvin, comes to life.
    Derry is thrilled, seeing Calvin as key to unlocking medical secrets. Earth is cheering the momentous discovery and lauding the astronauts as heroes. But as Calvin evolves day by day into a more complex organism, the other astronauts worry.
    Eventually, Calvin escapes the lab, as all horrific alien beings must. The critter then begins hunting down veteran astronaut David (Jake Gyllenhaal: Nocturnal Animals), safety specialist Miranda (Rebecca Ferguson: The Girl on the Train), mechanic Rory (Ryan Reynolds: Criminal), navigator Sho (Hiroyuki Sanada: The Last Ship) and captain Kat (Olga Dihovichnaya: House of Others).
    Can the crew stay alive? More importantly: Can they keep Calvin from finding a way to Earth?
    A movie so predictable you’ll swear you’ve already seen it, Life ruins the inherent tension of a horror movie set in a confined space with poor character development, hackneyed dialog and stale plot. Director Daniel Espinosa (Child 44) unsuccessfully tries to build tension using every horror cliché in movie history.
    Pursuit by an alien that disintegrates a body in minutes leaves little room for nuance. Characters reduced to stereotypes — from the serious doctor with a secret to the wise-cracking mechanic — might as well be picked off by an angry alien.
    Nor are any of them capable of doing a job in a rational way. Biologists stick their fingers within striking range of alien species, astronauts panic and no one thinks about escape pods until it’s far too late. Espinosa works so hard to keep the astronauts from escaping their predicament that the creature and its abilities become mythic.
    In fact, there’s an argument to be made that Calvin is the hero of this film. It is smarter, stronger and more interesting than any of the bipeds. Tumbling through space without needing much oxygen, it figures out every trap the astronauts plant and eventually learns how to navigate a space ship. Calvin is not only proof of life on other planets but also proof that human beings are the dullards of the universe.

Poor Sci-Fi Horror • R • 103 mins

If only the people were as interesting as the monsters

Bill Randa (John Goodman: Patriots Day) believes in monsters. Now he’s got the funding to prove it. Joining the Vietnam War-era exploration of an uncharted island in the Pacific are geologists, biologists and former S.A.S. officer James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston: The Night Manager). Anti-war photographer (Brie Larson: Room) manages to crash the top-secret mission, for no apparent reason. Completing the company is a helicopter platoon led by Col. Packard (Samuel L. Jackson: xXx: Return of Xander Cage), slightly deranged from fighting a long, bloody and unpopular war.
    Supporting the expedition are high-tech equipment, impressive firepower and equipment to maintain an island camp for several days. They’re prepared to take samples, acquire data and bring anything valuable back for the government.
    What they’re not prepared for is a 30-plus-foot gorilla that knocks helicopters out of the air like they’re mosquitos and a host of otherworldly wildlife.
    Nor are the survivors prepared for Hank Marlow (John C. Reilly: Sing), a WWII fighter pilot who’s been living on the island since crashing there in the 1940s. Marlow explains that Kong isn’t a monster but a protector keeping the people of the island and the earth safe from real monsters.
    With its amazing creatures and fun action sequences Kong: Skull Island is a beautiful example of the power of special effects. Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts (You’re the Worst) supplies all the necessities for a monster movie: Impressive creature, plenty of cannon fodder, one handsome male lead to tell everyone what to do and a blonde woman for whom both ape and men fall.
    The humans have less to offer.
    As cannon fodder the soldiers provide more chemistry and interest than the leads. Hiddleston must have been the only square-jawed personage walking past the studio during casting. He spends most of his screen time posing majestically while action happens around him. As his leading lady, Oscar-winner Larson has even less to do. Reilly’s castaway Marlow is the exception, with a performance that’s both entertaining and emotionally resonant.
    All is not lost, however. The creatures of Skull Island are wonderful. Kong (performed by Toby Kebbell) is an impressive, stoic warrior with a face far more expressive than anything these humans show us. He is joined by frightening toothy lizards and many more bizarre critters, including a giant spider that has the audience squirming.

Fair Action • PG-13 • 120 mins.

Meeting the parents is a real nightmare

Chris (Daniel Kaluuya: Sicario) is a successful photographer with a promising future and a beautiful girlfriend. Rose (Allison Williams: Girls) is hip, culturally aware and unafraid to call out other people’s racial biases. Still, Chris is nervous when Rose wants to take him home to meet her folks.
    Rose promises her parents are as liberal as they come. They voted for Obama! They protested in the 1960s! They’re supporters of the ACLU! Hoping that Rose is right, Chris agrees to spend the weekend at their country home.
    Parents Missy (Catherine Keener: Unless) and Dean (Bradley Whitford: Brooklyn Nine-Nine) seem okay, though they throw around hip slang so Chris will know they’re cool, and they tell him they couldn’t be happier with his courtship.
    But the weekend wears on strangely. Chris can’t connect to the black servants, who speak as if scripted. To cure Chris of smoking, Missy, a hypnotherapist, hypnotizes him without his consent. At a family party, conversations with him don’t feel right. He is uneasy.
    Is he being paranoid? Or is something insidious lurking beneath the Armitage veneer of tolerance?
    This brilliant horror take with cutting commentary on racism in America, is one of the smartest films of the year. Writer/director Jordan Peele (Keanu) shows the subtle racism of, for example, the offhanded compliment about a black person’s natural talents for athleticism.
    Breaking down the cultural stereotype that black men are aggressors, Peele makes us feel menace in benign situations, like walking down a suburban street. By embedding his commentary in a traditional horror setting, Peele invites us to appreciate the message without feeling lectured or attacked.
    The cast supports the vision with outstanding work. As Chris, Kaluuya is masterful as a man who’s dealt with well-meaning racism his whole life but struggles to determine whether Rose’s family is benignly clueless or subtly sinister.
    A masterwork of both satire and horror, Get Out is an ingenious summation of the forms of modern racism as well as a suspenseful, funny horror flick.

Great Horror • R • 103 mins.