view counter

Articles by Diana beechener

An old-school hero flick, but not for nervous fliers

You know the story: Catastrophic engine failure gives Chesley ‘Sully’ Sullenberger only 208 seconds to recover U.S. Airways flight 1549 — and save or end the lives of 155 people.
    The question is how director Clint Eastwood (American Sniper) and Tom Hanks (A Hologram for the King) will tell the story.
    They don’t start at the beginning. You have to wait to see his daring water landing on the Hudson River, in the midst of densely populated New York City. Your eventual reward for the wait is seeing, in detail, both the harrowing recreation of the bird strike that killed the engines and the exacting decisions made by the pilots of the plunging plane.
    Eastwood gives you a second drama, as well: the National Transportation Safety Board inquiry, supported by data recovered from the plane, claiming that instead of a dangerous water landing, Sully could have safely returned and landed at LaGuardia.
    Though hailed as a hero by press and public, Sully begins to doubt himself. Is he the Hero of the Hudson? Or a reclkess pilot who risked the lives of his passengers?
    As a director, Eastwood is a classicist, focusing on tone, performance and character. At its best, these choices help the movie thrive.
    Hanks stays true to his role, portraying a seemingly steel-nerved man — a pilot for 42 years, including war experience — who would have gladly have lived out his days in anonymity. The scrutiny combines with post-traumatic stress to wear on Sully’s calm exterior. Hanks, who was born to play stalwart hero types, imbues Sully with quiet dignity — and emotional turmoil just behind his eyes.
    At worst, Eastwood overstates your point. Bits of dialog that overwork the theme are a bit hard to swallow even with Tom Hanks’ considerable charm. Flashbacks feel obligatory, and the family back home only confuses the issue.
    This old-school hero tale has lots to recommend it — unless you’re a nervous flier.

Good Drama • PG-13 • 96 mins.

Phenomenal performances sell a story stretched thin

Homecoming after the Great War is wrenching for Tom Sherbourne (Michael Fassbender: X-Men: Apocalypse). Seeking solitude, he signs on as keeper of the lighthouse on uninhabited Janus Island.
    On a tri-monthly visit to the mainland, he catches the eye of Isabel (Alicia Vikander: Jason Bourne). Their epistolary romance soon blossoms into marriage. On Janus, they are incandescently happy until Isabel becomes pregnant. Two miscarriages and two little wooden crosses leave her on the brink of a breakdown and Tom struggling to save the marriage.
    Salvation appears in a rowboat: a baby in the arms of a dead man. Tom wants to call the authorities, but Isabel convinces him to bury the dead man and pretend the baby is their child.
    Tom relents, and happiness returns to the island.
    But on the mainland, Tom learns that their daughter is the child of a woman who believes the baby and her husband were lost at sea.
    What is an honest man to do?
    Boasting great performances and gorgeous cinematography, The Light Between Oceans is a throwback to the Magnificent Obsession melodramas of Douglas Sirk in the 1950s. Scenery is lush, performances are heartfelt and the plot improbable. Director Derek Cianfrance (The Place Beyond the Pines) adapted the film from a bestselling novel, and cinematic time constraints may explain leaps in logic.
    Characters make life-altering decisions then recant minutes later; Coincidence strains credulity. This can be frustrating if you hope to understand the plot as it’s unfolding.
    Only Fassbender and Vikander save it from becoming dreck. Both give heart-wrenching performances within the limits of a form high on dramatic events but short on the emotional impact of these events on the characters.
    While the leads try their best, it’s hard to build characters in a film unspooling an increasingly ridiculous plot.

Fair Drama • PG-13 • 133 mins.

Two brothers fight the law and the banks in this gorgeous Western

Toby (Chris Pine: Star Trek Beyond) and Tanner Howard (Ben Foster: Warcraft) are days away from losing their family home. They’re the latest in a long line of landowners in Texas who’ve taken unfair mortgages from banks that leave them on the brink of homelessness. Signs for debt relief and bank buyouts populate their small town, which is slowly decaying because of the economic collapse.
    Toby has spent his life trying to preserve the family land. It’s his legacy and one he’d like to pass down to his children. Tanner is a jailbird who likes bar fights and women. The land has never meant anything to Tanner, but he’s loyal to his brother and wants to help Toby create a legacy.
    To keep their land, Toby comes up with an idea: rob branches of the bank that’s foreclosing on the Howard homestead, taking only enough money to pay the mortgage and back taxes. Toby figures it will take five banks, and if they do it right, no one will die. Tanner figures it’s his chance to play outlaw again and immediately leaps into the role of desperado, unnecessarily beating bank employees and waving guns. They’re the modern-day James brothers, raising hell on the plains of Texas.
    The heists attract the attention of Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges: The Little Prince), who’s on the brink of retirement. He decides that the Texas Midlands bank robbers will be his last big case, a chance to go out in a blaze of glory.
    Will Hamilton track down the men before they finish their crime wave?
    Filled with great acting, a tight script and gorgeous cinematography, Hell or High Water is a fantastic twist on the classic Western genre. Director David Mackenzie (Starred Up) makes West Texas one of the stars of the film, utilizing the flat expanses of land to isolate Tanner and Toby, making them seem both adrift and trapped by their surroundings. Dilapidated towns and deserted streets set the scenes and make it clear that economic downturns have sucked the life from these communities, sparing Mackenzie from long boring rants about the evils of banks.
    Mackenzie also works hard to make every speaking part in the movie memorable. Notable southern character actors like Dale Dickey and Margaret Bowman show up for scene-stealing cameos that help populate the film with intriguing characters. The culture of Texas, the pride and hubris that comes with Lone Star citizenship, is key to understanding the choices characters make. Being from Texas is not just a geographical fact but a state of mind. The people in these towns are armed and annoyed, which means that local citizens have no compunctions about starting a shootout during a bank robbery.
    Pine, Foster and Bridges all carry their roles. Bridges’ southern drawl and bravado masks deep feelings of dread and inadequacy; he faces retirement the way a man faces a firing squad. As the bank robber brothers, Pine and Foster manage to forge a believable bond with a real tenderness. These are men who love each other deeply but are more comfortable expressing that devotion through a shared beer or a bout of roughhousing. Foster especially steals his scenes as the Howard Family screw-up. Brash, violent and terrifyingly charming, Tanner is a liability from the start, and one that seems to know his story won’t have a happy ending.
    A love letter to Texas and a lamentation of the dying culture of the sprawling western lowlands, Hell or High Water is one of the best films of the year. Topical and timeless, this tale of two outlaw brothers sounds like a story that could be told over a campfire. But a legend featuring a villainous bank plays well even if you’re not at home on the range. If you’re a fan of western lore or just great storytelling, Hell or High Water is the movie to see this summer.

Great Western • R • 102 mins.

A boy learns the power of a good story in this exceptional animated film

If you must blink, do it now.     
     So begins the story of young Kubo (voiced by Art Parkinson: Game of Thrones), a troubadour in ancient Japan. Each day in the square he tells fantastical tales of the Moon King and the brave warrior Hanzo who fights him. As he weaves his tale, Kubo plays his shamisen as origami to come to life to act out his story. Villagers gather to watch and shower Kubo with coins.
    The most fantastical thing about Kubo’s stories is that they are true.
    Kubo is the son of Hanzo the samurai. Kubo’s mother, a daughter of the Moon King, betrayed her father for Hanzo’s sake. The Moon King vanquished Hanzo, ripped out one of Kubo’s eyes and exiled his daughter.
    Kubo’s distraught mother arms him with three pieces of advice: Never take off his father’s robe, never go anywhere without his monkey charm and never stay out after sunset, when the Moon King can see.
    When Kubo breaks the rules, the Moon King and his loyal daughters descend on the village to find him and take his other eye. Only his father’s legendary armor can save him.
    In Kubo and the Two Strings, LAIKA studios has made a beautiful film about the power of stories and the strength we draw from family. The combination of CGI and stop-motion animation creates a unique and highly stylized look. Paired with visual effect is an innovative story that examines the role storytelling has in our lives, from the stories we tell about our families to the stories that record our history.
    LAIKA has quietly become one of the best animation studios around, posing a credible challenge to Pixar and Disney in both technology and storytelling. Director Travis Knight, LAIKA’s lead animator for years, makes his debut behind the camera with this finely detailed and ­beautifully rendered story of a boy’s quest for his origin story.
    A talented voice cast enhances the powerful visuals and intricate story. Charlize Theron (The Huntsman: Winter’s War) vocalizes a scene-stealing monkey, growling and threatening to keep Kubo safe. Matthew McConaughey (Free State of Jones) offers comic relief as the cursed samurai Beetle, who is filled with warmth and kindness though a ­little rattled.
    Wonderful as it is, Kubo and the Two Strings may not enthrall little ones. The story is complicated and has scary bits. Ages nine and up should be enchanted.
    LAIKA Studios has yet to have a feature-film misfire, with Kubo and the Two Strings a masterwork proving that animation is a medium powerful for more than amusing children.

Great Animation • PG • 101 mins.

This stunning Disney remake features a ­charming dragon and a good moral

Forest Ranger Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard: Jurassic World) has found many strange things in the wood. The oddest of all might be Pete (Oakes Fegley: Person of Interest), a bedraggled 10-year-old who’s lived for five years in the forest after his parents’ death.
    Pete had help surviving the wolves and cold. He credits his friend Elliot, who he describes as a giant green dragon.
    Perhaps Pete’s story is the product of a traumatized imagination. But Grace has heard dragon tales from her father (Robert Redford: Truth). As she investigates, lumberjack Gavin (Karl Urban: Star Trek Beyond) discovers Elliot in all his emerald glory.
    Can Grace and Pete save Elliot before hunters find him?
    Pete’s Dragon is a charming family film, with lots of heart about conservation, family and the power of magic. A remake of the 1977 Disney flick of the same name, this version takes some of the silliness out by setting it as a story about land encroachment: Elliot is running out of forest, imperiled by humanity.
    Director David Lowery (Ain’t Them Bodies Saints) makes the human world dangerous. Back in civilization, Pete is overwhelmed by noise and smog. Little wonder he wants to return to the forest with Elliot, where landscapes are lush and life is simple. It’s an effective ploy, one that even smaller viewers will understand, and a clever way for Lowery to emphasize the beauty of nature and the danger of the unchecked development of natural resources.
    To promote his parable, Lowery has employed an exceptionally charming dragon. Elliot has the rectangular head of a Chinese dragon, the massive body of a dinosaur and a covering of thick green fur. He likes to romp, fly and make mischief in the woods. In essence, he’s a humongous dog, filled with guileless enthusiasm and curiosity that make him the clear star of the film.
    As Pete, Fegley acquits himself well. He looks more at home in the woods than in Grace’s home. He and fellow child actor Oona Laurence (Bad Moms) walk the line between innocence and wisdom, never pushing too far in either direction. It’s rare to find one qualified child actor in a film; to find two almost seems as magical as finding a dragon in the forests of the Pacific Northwest.
    Though visually stunning, Pete’s Dragon may not hold the attention of small viewers. The plot and many of the themes are meant for children a bit older, so don’t be surprised if your five-year-old seems bored whenever Elliot is not on screen. There’s also a very dramatic attempt to capture Elliot that may be upsetting to young viewers. Consider the sensitivity level of your child before buying tickets.
    An excellent option for ages seven and up as well as a wonderful reminder to adults that magic lives in the beauty of nature.

Good kid’s fantasy • PG • 103 mins.

The bad guys get a bad script

What do you do when a superman breaks bad?
    That’s the worry of intelligence officer Amanda Waller (Viola Davis: Custody). Her solution is a squad of the worst villains America has ever known.
    Her villainous team includes:
    • Enchantress (Cara Delevingne: Pan), a millennia-old deity possessing the body of an archeologist;
    • Deadshot (Will Smith: Concussion), a mercenary named for his aim;
    • Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie: The Legend of Tarzan), a violent psychotic and girlfriend of …
    • The Joker (Jared Leto: Dallas Buyers Club);
    • Boomerang (Jai Courtney: Man Down), a violent thief;
    • Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje: Concussion) an amphibious mutant;
    • Diablo (Jay Hernandez: Bad Moms) a flame-shooting gangster.
    Waller believes she can keep them under her control with the help of military man Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman: House of Cards) — who is a bit compromised as he’s secretly in love with the woman inhabited by Enchantress.
    The plan does not go well. Waller loses control of Enchantress, who creates a super weapon to destroy the earth.
    An incoherent blend of weak performances, an awful story and poor editing, Suicide Squad is almost impressive in its total failure. The script is challenged by logical fallacies. Production was plagued by studio meddling, meaning that director David Ayer (Fury) might bear the whole blame. Tone is off balance between dark drama and goofy comedy. Repetitive flashbacks have nothing to do with the story and offer no new information.
    Smith and Robbie work hard to charm their way out of the mire, creating characters that might hope to return in interesting solo films. On the other hand, Leto’s Joker is a bizarre mishmash of villainy, and Delevingne’s Enchantress is distinguished only by jerky belly dancing and intense staring.
    It could have been great. Instead, it’s a disaster.

Terrible Action • PG-13 • 123 mins.

Old-school effects and good storytelling make a cool chiller

Something is scratching at Martin’s (Gabriel Bateman: American Gothic) bedroom door. While he shivers in terror, his mother chats with an invisible friend, Diana.
    There is something lurking in the dark, ready to attack when the bedside lamp goes out. Martin watches in vigil night after night as the thing in the dark tries to come closer.
    When it gets Martin’s father, he turns to his estranged stepsister, Rebecca (Teresa Palmer: Triple 9), who has had her own troubles with a creature that lived in bedroom nooks.
    Can Rebecca save her brother from a menace no one can see? What is the hold Diana has over their mother? Why hasn’t everyone in this movie run to Eddie Bauer to buy camping lanterns?
    This movie about primal fears both thrills and entertains. For his feature directorial debut, David F. Sandberg expanded a short by the same name (available on YouTube) into a thoughtful, interesting, old-fashioned horror movie that focuses on creating a sense of dread. He plays smartly on the idea that Diana can come from any dark space, be it an empty room or an archway in an old house. He then fills the frame with shadows, making us unsure of where the threat will come from. This sense of uncertainty builds tension and keeps visual interest.
    Sandberg also chose to use mostly practical effects. This means that when someone is thrown across a room or a shadow disappears behind a door, it’s not a trick of a computer but an actual event captured on film. This gives the events weight and realism often lost in a world of CGI.
    The other strength of Lights Out is its cast. Bateman is the rare child actor who isn’t cloying and who can carry a scene. Palmer is also a rarity for a horror lead as she neither gets unnecessarily naked nor acts like an idiot when problems arise. The bond between the two is believable and sweet.
    Lights Out gives us storytelling rather than quick jump scares. If you want bloody monsters popping out from every corner, you may be disappointed. Check out the short version on YouTube to get a sense of the movie’s tone before you plunk down your cash. But if you’re looking for a thrilling reason to run up your light bill, Lights Out is worth the ticket.

Good Horror • PG-13 • 81 mins.

Boldly focusing on character development makes this the best of the new Trek films

For Captain Kirk (Chris Pine: The Finest Hours), boldly going where no man has gone before is surprisingly boring. As his five-year mission to explore the universe as a diplomat for Star Fleet continues, he’s looking for a way to break the routine of space travel.
    Kirk seeks a position on a space station. Meanwhile, his second in command, Spock (Zachary Quinto: Tallulah), plans to leave the Enterprise to ensure Vulcan survival. Before they abandon their crew and seek out new futures, they are sent on one final rescue mission to an uncharted planet.
    Things go wrong, as they often do when on one final mission. The Enterprise is ambushed and destroyed by Krall (Idris Elba: Finding Dory). Most of the crew is captured.
    That leaves big jobs for the few who escaped. Spock and Bones (Karl Urban: The Loft) seek to uncover Krall’s origins. Kirk and Chekov (Anton Yelchin: Green Room) search for their captured comrades. Scotty (Simon Pegg: Ice Age: Collision Course) searches for signs of life.
    With interesting characters and an exciting plot, Star Trek Beyond is the best of the newest set of Star Trek movies. While past sequels have rehashed classic plots, director Justin Lin (True Detective) moves beyond the Kirk/Spock dynamic to give the characters room to grow.
    It’s a refreshing take on familiar characters, based on a clever script from Simon Pegg and Doug Jung.
    The Bones/Spock pairing is especially successful, with Urban doing some fine comedy as the curmudgeonly doctor. We also meet an interesting new character. Jaylah (Sofia Boutella: Kingsmen) is neither a love interest nor a damsel in distress. Kirk remains a smug jerk, perhaps as a send up of William Shatner.
    It’s not perfect. Despite the fearsome Krall, nothing much is at stake. You know from the beginning that no one important will die. Hints are so obvious that you know how it will end. Some action sequences are too dark to see.
    Star Trek Beyond has no deep message, but it does have an excellent rescue sequence that features transporters, phasers and motorcycles. All together, it’s the perfect film to help you beat the heat.

Good Sci-Fi • PG-13 • 122 mins.

I ain’t afraid of no all-female reboot!

Dr. Erin Gilbert (Kristen Wiig: Zoolander 2) hopes to earn tenure at Columbia. The professor is smart, serious and laser focused; but her career is put in jeopardy when a book resurfaces on Amazon. Co-authored with her former best friend Dr. Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy: Central Intelligence), the book considers the science of ghosts.
    Erin co-authored the book on ghosts with her former best friend Dr. Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy: Central Intelligence). When no one believed them, Erin walked away from ghosts — and Abby.
    All that changes when MTA worker Patty Tolan (Leslie Jones: Saturday Night Live) finds a mysterious device attracting ghosts to the Big Apple.
    Erin, Patty, Abby and her new partner, the slightly unhinged engineer Jillian Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon: Finding Dory), the newly formed Ghostbusters set out to save New York.
    Smart and funny, Ghostbusters is a worthy reboot of a classic. It is, however, a very different beast. It pays tribute, with all six original cast members making appearances, but it’s astute enough not to copy. With humor that’s more modern and self-referential, the reboot focuses on what it’s like to navigate the world as a woman.
    When director Paul Feig (Spy) announced his all-woman take, internet comments ranged from mildly misogynistic to vile.
    Instead of dismissing the vitriol, Feig leaned in, making internet commenters part of the story. The women are constantly harassed online and dismissed because of their gender.
    Ghostbusters works so well because of this cast of women. Both Jones and McKinnon do comedic heavy lifting, earning laughs and kicking butt. McKinnon creates an unforgettable oddball.
    A surprisingly strong member of the ensemble is Chris Hemsworth (The Huntsman), with his brilliant take on the bimbo secretary.
    Though humor and cast are refreshing, there are flaws. Like most movies about the supernatural, it doesn’t stand up to close examination. And Feig spends too much time on Wiig and McCarthy when he has an ensemble of stronger characters to pull from.
    Still, as far as summer blockbusters go, you’ll laugh, reminisce and even see Slimer. I was heartened by young girls leaving the theater excited about careers in physics so they could create cool machines like Holtzmann. It’s about time the princess culture was bucked for careers in ghost busting.

Good Comedy • PG-13 • 116 mins.

Two dogs learn how to navigate the big city in this cute comedy

Max (voiced by Louis C.K.: Horace and Pete) is a terrier living an idyllic life in New York with his owner/soulmate Katie (Ellie Kemper: The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt). They go for bike rides, share dinner and snuggle up to sleep. Max couldn’t be happier.
    Except that every day Katie does the almost unforgivable: She leaves. Most pets in Max’s apartment building spend their time alone socializing and binge eating, Max waits doggedly for Katie’s return. He stares at the door. He whines. He consults the neighbor cat.
    Max’s loneliness ends when Katie brings home Duke (Eric Stonestreet: Modern Family). The new dog is loud, big and attention-getting. Max hates him on sight and plots to rid himself of the interloper.
    Duke thinks the same about Max.
    Trying to one-up each other, the feuding dogs get lost far from home. It’s a big city out there, filled with loud noises and scary creatures. With no idea where home is, they find themselves hunted by a demented band of human-hating ex-pets.
    If the story sounds familiar, it’s probably because you saw it in 1995 when it was called Toy Story. Similar in plot points and major themes, The Secret Life of Pets is a furry version of the Pixar classic. It doesn’t delve so deeply into themes like fear of being replaced, jealousy and learning to accept others. But it does provide some great jokes about dog and cat behavior.
    Chances are, if you’re a pet owner, you’ll find a character that reminds you of your own fuzzy friend, from loyal Max to indifferent, taunting Chloe (you guessed it, a cat). The world of pets is given interesting little touches, and it’s fun to watch dogs shout at squirrels to get off their turf.
    The brilliant voice cast is loaded with comedians, from C.K. to Kevin Hart to Jenny Slate, each knowing exactly when to push a line or pause for comic effect. Albert Brooks (Finding Dory) is particularly delightful as Tiberius, a hawk who wants friends but must fight his raptor urge to eat them.
    Filled with silly laughs, clever observations and just a bit of scatological humor, The Secret Life of Pets will appeal to little ones and keep adults entertained. Jokes are solid and performances strong.
    If you have children who don’t like creepy crawlies, be aware that the 3-D show features snakes and gators snapping directly at the audience. There’s no need to pay extra to traumatize your child.

Good Animation • PG • 87 mins.