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Articles by DIana Beechener

A season’s worth of sitcom plots in two hours

The patriarch of the Altman family, an atheist, had one deathbed request: that his family sit Shiva for him. His four surprised children pack up their families and their issues to spend the seven days mourning as one big dysfunctional family.
    Matriarch Hillary (Jane Fonda: The Newsroom), a therapist who mined her children’s adolescent transgressions for book material, is thrilled to have her family united. The kids are less happy.
    Eldest son Paul (Corey Stoll: The Strain) has taken over the family business and is struggling to conceive a child with his baby-crazed wife. Middle child Judd (Jason Bateman: Bad Words) has just lost his job and his cheating wife. Wendy (Tina Fey: Muppets Most Wanted) is trapped in an unhappy marriage and consumed with motherhood. Youngest Phillip (Adam Driver: Girls), is a screw-up who dates his therapist and shirks every responsibility.
    In close quarters, the Altmans feud, laugh and heal — not because of any earned character development but because that’s what the protagonists do in movies of this sort.
    “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” Tolstoy wrote, and it may have been true in the age of Anna Karenina. Now This Is Where I Leave You proves that unhappiness has become a cliché.
    All these Altmans are stereotypes. Paul believes that he’s inherited his father’s authority. Phillip is the perpetual baby. Wendy is the sardonic sister. Judd is the everyman bewildered by crazy relatives. If these characters seem familiar, it’s because you’ve seen them in Modern Family, Parenthood, August: Osage County, The Royal Tenenbaums and many more.
    The experience is much like watching a condensed sitcom with a season’s worth of plots crammed into a two-hour package. Director Shawn Levy (The Internship) is content to film the script this style. He also misuses the brilliantly talented women he’s cast, relegating them to wisecracking side characters who help the men resolve their issues.
    Performances give this dull slog its only fun.
    Bateman works overtime to make Judd, the protagonist, a relatable character. Fey, an experienced comedian, finds the funny beat in each line. Who wouldn’t want to watch a sitcom starring Jane Fonda? Always game for wry readings, she makes her matriarch funny. Driver is the breakout star of the film, using his manic energy to wring laughs out of ridiculous situations and lines.
    Because of them, This Is Where I Leave You is an entertaining diversion.

Good Comedy • R • 103 mins.

Blood and booze flow through Brooklyn

To most of the people who haunt the tattered stools of Cousin Marv’s Bar, Bob Saginowski (Tom Hardy: Locke) is just a shy face behind the taps. He quietly tends bar, slips into daily mass and suffers his cousin and business partner, Marv (James Gandolfini: Enough Said).
    A former loan shark, Marv is brooding about the Chechen mob that muscled into the neighborhood and his bar. Now his dive is a drop, one of dozens of Brooklyn bars where the Chechens launder dirty money.
    When masked men rob the bar and make off with the mob’s money, Bob and Marv have another problem.
    The Drop is a departure for writer Dennis Lehane (Boardwalk Empire), who adapted his short story for the screen. Lehane turns The Drop into a poignant tale of misspent lives.
    Director Michaël Roskam (Bullhead) forgoes fancy camera work for simple, understated shots. The sparse shooting style emphasizes the cold world Bob and Marv navigate. The result is an actor’s film, where performances are the focus.
    In his final film role, Gandolfini plays to the type that made him a star: a tough-talking New Yorker who has deep connections to the city’s criminal underbelly. His Marv is a sneering ball of insecurities, a deeply dissatisfied man whose bitterness manifests in violent deeds and angry words. It’s an engaging performance, but after eight years playing Tony Soprano, it’s a performance Gandolfini could have done in his sleep.
    Hardy is the star, offering an elegant, nuanced performance as quiet, unassuming Bob. Though his accent is more generically American than Brooklynesque, Hardy works around this impairment, imbuing Bob with depth. He’s a man who can both cuddle a puppy and get rid of a body part left on his doorstep.
    A crime thriller with a soft side, The Drop exemplifies the power of subtle filmmaking. You’ll find no big car chases nor dramatic shootouts, just a brilliantly acted film about mob bagmen struggling to get by.

Good Drama • R • 106 mins.

Two comedians prove dining out is an art

Comedians Steve Coogan (Philomena) and Rob Brydon (Underdogs) aren’t really friends, but they converse well together. Following up on a successful series of restaurant reviews (covered in The Trip), they translate the series to Italy.
    From the moment they squeeze into their rented Mini Cooper, competition kicks in. Through six sumptuous meals, the comedians war over who does the best impressions, has the least satisfying home life and the better career.
    On paper, it doesn’t sound like a riveting film, but director Michael Winterbottom (The Look of Love) proves that good dinner conversation is an art.
    Like the first Trip film, The Trip to Italy is actually a summation of a British television show, editing six episodes into a nearly two-hour film.
    Playing exaggerated versions of themselves, Coogan and Brydon are brilliant at playing up their worst traits for comedy. Brydon makes himself desperate for attention and deeply insecure about his regional fame compared to Coogan’s wider stardom. He can’t turn off. Even alone in his room or on the phone with his wife, he whirls through impressions. He is exhausting to watch, but there’s tragedy in a man so afraid of being himself.
    Coogan uses smugness as a shield against his insecurities. He presents himself as an international celebrity, adored in America, partly to twist the blade in his pal Brydon and partly to disguise the fact that he’s lonely and dissatisfied with his career. When Brydon mentions a career triumph, Coogan becomes so despondent he loses interest in the competition.
    In spite of the two actors’ sometimes prickly interactions, there’s magic whenever they converse. Seeking to top each other, they speed through a flurry of impressions and improvisations. It’s hilarious. The moments when Coogan and Brydon manage to crack each other up are best of all.
    The Trip to Italy isn’t a movie for the popcorn crowd. But if you’re in the market for a fascinating look into the mind of a comedian and some inspired cuisine, you’ll adore the second helping of this series.

Good Dramedy • NR • 108 mins.

Neither scary nor inventive, this horror should have stayed buried

Deep below the streets of Paris is a city of bones. Most of the catacombs are well mapped out tourist spots, but a secret section of the tunnels obsesses alchemist professor Dr. Scarlett Marlowe (Perdita Weeks: The Invisible Woman). She believes these tombs house Nicolas Flamel’s famed philosopher’s stone, which holds the key to knowledge and immortality.
    Scarlett’s father spent his career searching for the stone before committing suicide when his theories were mocked. She has dedicated her life to proving his beliefs. To take her into the catacombs, she recruits language expert George (Ben Feldman: Mad Men), documentary filmmaker Benji (Edwin Hodge: The Purge: Anarchy) and three French spelunkers.
    In uncharted parts of the crypts, a cave-in forces the team into a cavern declared sinister by locals. As they crawl among the bones searching for a way out, Scarlett notices odd things. As team members die, she acknowledges that they may have descended into a realm of evil.
    Will they realize in time the Philosopher’s Stone is really at Hogwarts? Or are all destined to add new piles of bones to the crypts?
    Yet another mockumentary horror film, As Above, So Below deals with themes of hell, mysticism and guilt. Unfortunately, each is handled poorly. Director John Erick Dowdle (Devil) substitutes shaky cam action for tension. Whenever the team comes across a scare, he whips the camera back and forth so that we see blurred images. It’s an endurance challenge for viewers with weak stomachs.
    Dowdle squanders even the most inherently frightening part of his movie: the setting. Claustrophobic sequences are few; if Paris were built on such a spacious sewer system, the City of Love would be at the same elevation as Denver.
    The actors do what they can with weak material. As the fanatical leader, Weeks’ Scarlett is eerily calm in the face of disaster. She manipulates, cajoles and forces her group to bend to her will. Weeks also convincingly sells Scarlett’s haunted past and her determination to clear her father’s name.
    As a mildly claustrophobic nerd who has a crush on Scarlett, naturally charismatic Feldman has little to do.
    With no scares, poor cinematography and a weak script, the only thing frightening about this movie is paying to see it.

Poor Horror • R • 93 mins.

See this flick and you might wish you were dead

In the bowels of Basin City, there are no happy endings. So don’t look for any in these four stories of sex, death and violence.
    Barfly thug Marv (Mickey Rourke: Java Heat) hasn’t made a man bleed in days. It’s starting to get to him. As his impulse toward violence grows, he seeks an outlet to vent his rage.
    Gambler Johnny (Joseph Gordon-Levitt: Don Jon) is looking to make a score. Never having lost a game of chance, he buys into the richest card game in the city, playing police chiefs, senators and high rollers to take home millions.
    Private Eye Dwight (Josh Brolin: Guardians of the Galaxy) meets his long-lost love Ava (Eva Green: Penny Dreadful) at a bar. She promises love and fidelity if Dwight helps extract her from her marriage to the rich sadist for whom she left him.
    Stripper Nancy (Jessica Alba: The Spoils of Babylon) lost the love of her life because of the threats of a powerful senator (Powers Boothe: Nashville). Now an alcoholic with a tenuous grip on sanity, she vows revenge.
    Director Robert Rodriguez made the first Sin City film — adapted from Frank Miller’s popular graphic novels — in black and white so it looked ripped from the pages of a comic book. In this sequel, he seems to have forgotten what made the original a success. This sequel is so bad that it taints the memory of its predecessor.
    Despite graphic violence, near constant nudity and plenty of pulpy dramatic dialog, this movie is so dull that it could be used in a sleep study.
    The four story lines are smashed together rather than interwoven. The painterly quality so visually arresting in the first is replaced with shots of naked women framed as high art.
    Actors could save this one — were not most of them woefully inept or miscast. Jessica Alba continues to prove she’s one of the worst actresses working today. Gordon-Levitt’s slight frame is dwarfed in Miller’s world of hulking men.
    Only Rourke understands how to work with the pulpy dialog and plot. His Marv — who impressed in the first Sin City — is a sweet lunk who happens to be a dangerous psychotic. Rourke generates both sympathy and fear.
    With nothing but Mickey Rourke’s 20 minutes of screen time to recommend it, Sin City: A Dame to Kill For fails on three counts: film, action and cheap pornographic thrills.

Awful Action • R • 102 mins.

An Indian family spices up French haute cuisine

     Kadam family life is built around food. In India, young Hassan learns how to taste and create unique flavors from his mother, an intuitive cook. When a riot leads to her death and the destruction of their restaurant, the family decides to try their luck in Europe.
    When the family car breaks down in a remote French village, Fearless Patriarch (Om Puri: Welcome Back) sees not tragedy but fate. He spends the family’s savings on a broken-down building that he deems perfect for an Indian restaurant. The family is confident that their gifted Hassan (Manish Dayal: California Scheming) can convert French villagers to Indian cuisine.
    Their enterprise stands only a hundred feet from a famed restaurant with a coveted Michelin star. Its proprietor, Madame Mallory (Helen Mirren: Red 2), doesn’t like competition.
    She bristles at the Kadam family’s music, gripes at their colorful decorations and sneers at what she deems “ethnic food.” Soon the Kadams and Mme. Mallory are locked in culinary war.
    The Hundred-Foot Journey is a cinematic meringue: Light, sweet and without much substance. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but this serving doesn’t make for a very memorable cinema experience. Director Lasse Hallstrom (Safe Haven) has made a name directing fluffy romances and family dramas. This sweetly predictable fish-out-of-water tale stays close to what he knows. You know immediately how the story will end and which characters will be paired up before the credits roll. Issues like racism, death and classism are touched only briefly. This is a movie about pretty people making attractive food and finding equally comely life partners.
    On the plus side, Hallstrom’s cinematography is beyond compare. He lovingly captures the creamy peaks of a perfect hollandaise sauce and the bright colors of a chicken tikka, making food a sumptuous, nearly sensual, experience. A bag of popcorn and a soda will be a disappointment during this two hours of exotic, delectable cooking.
    Though there’s not much flavor to the story, actors work hard to imbue their characters with charm and charisma. Mirren does an excellent Maggie Smith impression as a stuffy patrician who learns to open her heart. Veteran Bollywood actor Puri gives dignity and kindness to what could be a horribly stereotypical role.
    The real find is Manish Dayal. His Hassan is naïve yet confident in his own abilities, a sympathetic character you hope succeeds.
Fair Drama/Great Cooking • PG • 122 mins.

 

How many losers does it take to save the universe?

The night Peter Quill’s mother died, he was abducted by aliens. Twenty years later, Peter (Chris Pratt: The LEGO Movie) remembers Earth by a troll doll and his mother’s Walkman. He travels the galaxy scavenging rare treasures from abandoned planets, listening to a mix tape of his mother’s favorite tunes.
    On a treasure run, he steals an orb from an abandoned building. Suddenly, he’s the target of a galaxy-wide manhunt. Turns out the orb will help the evil Ronan (Lee Pace: The Hobbit) exact revenge on the galaxy he blames for killing his warlord father.
    Quill is soon accosted by Gamora (Zoe Saldana: Rosemary’s Baby), an assassin working for Ronan. Gamora is in turn thwarted by two bounty hunters, a genetically modified raccoon named Rocket (Bradley Cooper: American Hustle) and a sentient tree creature Groot (Vin Diesel: Riddick), both also after the price on Quill’s head. This team of sworn enemies, petty thieves, disinterested third parties and psychotics are all that stand between Ronan and the galaxy’s destruction.
    Guardians of the Galaxy is a silly action movie with ridiculous characters, big budget explosions and a machine gun-shooting raccoon. It’s also the best time I’ve had at a movie all summer. Director James Gunn (Super), who co-wrote the script, creates a universe filled with witty heroes, slapstick humor, thrilling action and awe-inspiring visuals. In other words, he understands how to make a film based on a comic book.
    In his big-budget debut, Gunn isn’t overwhelmed. He manages to orchestrate high-paced action that packs emotional punch. But Gunn’s real accomplishment is the script, which imbues a jumble of clichés — like the bad-boy thief with a heart of gold — with credible personalities.
    Script and direction make a good framework for the actors to vitalize. Pratt has long supplied comic relief in film and television; Guardians of the Galaxy is the star turn he deserves. With granite-jawed good looks and a devilish smile, Pratt turns Quill into a Han Solo for the modern era. He’ll shoot first and betray comrades for a quick buck. But when the fate of the universe is on the line, Quill will do the right thing.
    As a tortured assassin looking for vengeance, Saldana is a tough, smart heroine with a tremendous sense of right and wrong. Think of her as the Black Widow — if Marvel gave her an independent storyline.
    Supporting the two leads are a crew of oddballs. It’s not surprising that a tree with eyes, a tattooed and stupid tough and a smart-mouthed raccoon provide comic relief. It is surprising that Gunn allows each character a moment of dignity that makes them emotionally powerful.
    Unlike The Avengers — a movie about special people learning to set their egos aside and work together to be even more fantastic as a unit — Guardians of the Galaxy is a film about what losers can do if given half a chance. Quill’s crew isn’t the brightest, the strongest or the fastest; in fact, we watch each of the members fail spectacularly a few times. But they figure it out in the end. It’s a powerful message for those of us who haven’t discovered how to craft an Iron Man suit.

Great Comic Movie • PG-13 • 121 mins.

The everyday banalities of saving the world

     Günter Bachmann (Philip Seymour Hoffman: Catching Fire) isn’t a man who stands out in a crowd. His shoulders hunch, pulling awkwardly at his ill-fitting jacket. His softening middle hangs over his pants, the product of poor diet and long days at a desk. His weary, weathered face reveals bright blue eyes often peering over the rim of a whiskey glass.
    Bachmann looks like hundreds of dissatisfied office workers who flood the bars of Hamburg. But he’s not. He’s the head of a small intelligence agency tasked with rooting out terror cells. Bachmann’s unremarkable appearance is exactly what makes him so good at his job.
    Bachmann’s current obsession is Dr. Faisal Abdullah (Homayoun Ershadi: Inja Iran), a wealthy Islamic philanthropist who may be funneling money to terrorists.
    When illegal Chechen immigrant Issa (Grigoriy Dobrygin: 4 Days in May), washes up on the shores of Hamburg, Bachmann sees his opportunity to break open a terror cell. Issa claims to be the heir to a Russian warlord’s massive fortune and a refugee from a Russian torture camp. He was also part of an extremist Islamic group. Bachmann is eager to see if Issa will use his new inheritance to help Abdullah fund a terror cell.
    Can Bachmann prove Abdullah is a dubious character? Is Issa a threat to Germany? What is the human cost of keeping a country safe?
    Based on a novel by John le Carré, A Most Wanted Man is much like the character of Bachmann: unremarkable, unless you’re paying attention. Director Anton Corbijn (The American) takes time to build the Hamburg environment. The offices are dingy, filled with papers and outdated technology. Dirty streets spill over from a heavily industrialized waterfront. Corbijn takes his time making the life of Hamburg teem in the streets.
    Because Corbijn spends so much time setting the scenes and developing his characters, he tears through plot at a breakneck speed. Like 2011’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, the movie is more rewarding to viewers familiar with the novel. If you don’t know the broad strokes of the plot and characters before buying a ticket, you’ll need to focus intently.
    As Bachmann, Hoffman is the quintessential le Carré hero. He’s cynical, drab and fiercely devoted to a country that allows him to do terrible things to save it.
    Hoffman is the center of a powerful cast that includes Willem Dafoe, Robin Wright and Daniel Brühl. The one weak spot in this impressive spy thriller is Rachel McAdams’ Annabel, whose German accent quakes when she has more than a few lines of dialog and who isn’t quite believable as a tough human rights attorney.
    If you’re looking for a classic spy drama with a feeling of realism, A Most Wanted Man won’t disappoint. See it to say goodbye to one of America’s finest actors in a performance that is worthy of his legacy.

Great Drama • R • 121 mins.

Is privacy possible in the Facebook Age?

     Jay (Jason Segel: How I Met Your Mother) and Annie (Cameron Diaz: The Other Woman) were insatiable. Their voracious sex life led to an unplanned pregnancy and marriage. Over a decade later, Jay and Annie still love each other, and they are flourishing professionally and personally, but their sex life has gone belly-up. Though both miss the intimacy, they can’t seem to find time for each other.
    Jay, who works at a radio station, has a complicated musical filing system that requires two iPads. For some reason, it also requires him to purchase new iPads every few months. He distributes his old ones to friends, family and occasionally business associates.
    Writer Annie’s popular blog on ­motherhood has attracted the attention of a huge corporation. They’d like her to be the face of their mommy blog, as long as she promises to keep the material wholesome. Thrilled at a chance to advance her career, which has stalled since the kids arrived, she plans to celebrate with a wild night of passion.
    Alas, Jay and Annie are no longer in synch. Things get awkward until Annie has a brilliant idea: Use Jay’s iPad to make a sex tape and spice up their DOA sex lives.
    Apparently, a camera lens is all you need to fix your marital ennui; the sex tape works like a charm. Happy to have reignited the spark, Annie tells Jay to delete the recording from the iPad. In post-coital bliss, Jay forgets and synchs his iPad to his computer. Now, thanks to the cloud and carelessness, Jay and Annie’s X-rated romp has been loaded onto all the iPads that Jay has given away.
    Can the couple retrieve them before their reputations are ruined? Or should they film a sequel?
    Rude, raunchy and ridiculous, Sex Tape is funny in spite of its plot. The misplaced sex tape has been done in sitcoms over the years, so the concept of a suburban couple terrified that their friends and family will find out that they have sex isn’t a new one. Still, the ease with which information is shared in the digital age could offer up some interesting problems for Annie and Jay.
    Director Jake Kasdan (Bad Teacher) isn’t interested in the implications of our media-obsessed culture. His interest is having Diaz flail and make funny faces while Segel flops from pratfall to pratfall. Nor is the crisis believable given what we know about the characters. It seems improbable that a guy who has cycled through at least six iPads in a year knows almost nothing about the cloud, which Segel’s Jay seems to think is a magical entity. There’s also a way to erase data remotely from synched iPads, but Segel and Diaz are too busy panicking to call tech support.
    Lazy plotting and lazier character development make Sex Tape a substandard film. That doesn’t mean it isn’t funny. Kasdan has stacked the deck with so many weird situations and outrageous lines that you’ll find something funny. Diaz and Segel are veteran comedians who can land a punch line out of sheer will. They are aided by supporting players who wring laughs out of the meager script. Rob Lowe, in particular, does some weird and wonderful work as Diaz’s seemingly conservative boss.
    Watching the movie is a bit like coming across your neighbor’s sex tape: You know you shouldn’t watch it and it probably won’t be that well-made, but that won’t necessarily stop you.

Fair Comedy • R • 94 mins.

Extinction is the right ending

After the altruistic Autobots defeated the evil Decepticons in the Battle of Chicago, the American government had enough of alien warfare. The military ended its alliance with the Autobots, and both Autobots and Decepticons were declared illegal immigrants.
    So you can bet that the junked semi-truck found by broke robotics inventor Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg: Lone Survivor) is more than it seems. In repair, he discovers that the wrecker is actually Optimus Prime, leader of the Autobots. Yeager plans to fix up the Transformer to sell to the government.
    The CIA, led by the nefarious Harold Attinger (Kelsey Grammer: Think Like a Man Too), is running a black op, hunting down Autobots and Decepticons. Military units rend the Transformers into scrap sold to tech company KIS. Led by CEO Joshua Joyce (Stanley Tucci: Muppets Most Wanted), KIS is attempting to reverse-engineer the Transformers into a fully automated American army.
    Key to the plan is the recovery of Optimus Prime. So Yeager’s discovery brings in blazing guns. As death threatens, Yeager realizes the government might not be on the right side of the law and helps Prime escape. Now fugitives, Yeager and his family help Prime rebuild the Autobots and fight a new alien threat.
    Can Yeager and his family survive? Will Americans ever learn that robots that look like cars are our friends? How many IQ points are you willing to waste on this flick?
    Tortuously long and completely incomprehensible, Transformers: Age of Extinction is an exercise in endurance. Director Michael Bay (Pain and Gain) has set the cinematic bar so low you’ll need a deep-sea probe to find it.
    Avoiding plot at every turn, Bay fills the film with explosions; confusing action sequences; low-angle shots; esteemed actors belittling their craft and career for a paycheck; and female characters with no agency and even fewer clothes. Impressively, Bay has managed to include a half-naked woman, product placement or an American flag in just about every sequence of this two-and-a-half-hour car commercial.
    To make bad worse, Bay has taken time out of the movie’s busy explosions schedule for the dullest family drama ever committed to film. Yeager doesn’t want his sexy daughter Tessa (Nicola Peltz: Bates Motel) to date because he feels he owns her body. When Tessa reveals a secret boyfriend, Yeager and the boy fight bitterly about who gets to tell her what to do.
    Mark Wahlberg has made a lucrative career vacillating between terrible and inoffensive performances. He seems at the mercy of his costars, who either elevate or expose him. When his costars are CGI hunks of metal and equally vapid humans, Wahlberg is lost. His skill extends to flexing his biceps and grimacing while shooting a gun.
    Veteran actors Tucci and Grammer add little. In campy performances that prove once and for all that acting is a job first, art form second, these actors debase themelves for paychecks.
    Transformers: Age of Extinction is the cinematic equivalent of a concussion: It’s difficult to stay awake, painful and you’ll feel slightly duller for a few hours if you survive the brain trauma.

Painful Action • PG-13 • 165 mins.