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Articles by Diana Beechener

Hero-worship deflects Jon Stewart’s aim for a great movie

Iranian-born journalist Maziar Bahari (Gael García Bernal: El Ardor) has great hopes for his homeland. Living in Canada and working for Newsweek, Bahari specializes in reporting on Iranian politics. In the week leading up to the country’s 2009 elections, he returns to Tehran optimistic that Mir-Hossein Mousavi will be elected president and usher in a more moderate era. The younger generation shares his hope.
    Their hopes are dashed. Fanatically conservative leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is re-elected in a seeming landslide. Iranians take to the streets decrying the election as a fraud and demanding a recount. The government responds with violence, slaughtering protestors.
    Bahari sees it all from behind the camera. Knowing the risk, he gives his footage of the deadly protests to the BBC. The night after the footage leaves the country, Bahari is dragged from his mother’s home and imprisoned.
    Accused of being a spy for the West, he is thrown in solitary confinement where his only human contact is with an interrogator who identifies himself as Rosewater.
    Can Bahari keep his integrity? Or will the government break him as violently as they did the protestors?
    A compelling true tale of one man’s struggle to maintain his sanity under torture, Rosewater scratches at greatness but ultimately settles for mediocrity.
    If you’ve watched a news program in the last 10 years, you won’t be surprised to learn that the repressive Iranian government isn’t a fan of protests or a free press. First-time director Jon Stewart’s choice of graphics adds to the sense that he’s creating an extended news report.
    Stewart also fails to give his subject — hence his lead — much character. Bahari is so unrelentingly saint-like in his persecution that it’s hard to relate to his humanity. Like most saints, Bahari is most interesting when he’s suffering. When he’s free, he’s simply a good guy: He doesn’t judge the political climate, he makes friends wherever he goes, he looks on the bright side, he loves his wife, he chats with friendly ghosts. Add some singing animals, and he’s starring in a Disney movie. His motives are unexamined and his naiveté is improbable. How could Bahari be so shocked by his false imprisonment when his father and sister were held captive for years on trumped up charges?
    Stewart has sacrificed his great movie to hero-worship.

Fair Drama • R • 103 mins.

Who needs superpowers when you have a robot?

Hiro Hamada (voiced by Ryan Potter: Supah Ninjas) is not a nerd. Sure, he graduated high school at 13, but he bypasses higher education for a more lucrative career in robot battles, where his apparently innocuous bot dismantles the fiercest opponent with ease. When Hiro’s hustle runs afoul of both bot-fighting thugs and the police, his older brother Tadashi (Daniel Henney: Revolution) decides enough is enough.
    Tadashi forces his little brother to visit his college, which Hiro reviles as Nerd School. He is surprised, however, when he meets Tadashi’s fellow nerds. Students are working on amazing projects utilizing lasers, chemicals and robots. Hiro’s hero, robotics innovator Robert Callaghan (James Cromwell: Murder in the First) is the head of the school.
    Inspired, Hiro ditches the bot battles. But just as he wins a slot in the exclusive school, Tadashi dies in a freak accident.
    Overwhelmed with grief, Hiro resumes his old lifestyle. But his pain activates Tadashi’s passion project, a health bot named Baymax (Scott Adsit: St. Vincent) who cannot be deactivated until his patient is satisfied with his care. Hiro wants nothing to do with the bot, but Baymax is unyielding.
    As Hiro bonds with Baymax, he discovers that Tadashi’s death might not have been accidental. Hiro plans to catch the killers by reprogramming Baymax and recruiting Tadashi’s classmates. Using science, they become superheroes.
    A story about love, grief and revenge, Big Hero 6 is a superhero movie for worshipers of brain over brawn. Directors Don Hall (Winnie the Pooh) and Chris Williams (Bolt) give their movie substance as well as spectacle. They spend time cultivating the Hiro/Tadashi relationship, ensuring we feel Hiro’s loss, crushing grief, need for revenge and moral quandaries.
    The brothers’ relationship gives the story its emotional context. Star power comes from the inflatable health bot. Uncomplicated, slow-moving and rotund, Baymax is a robotic Pooh Bear. As voiced by Adsit, he is both childlike and wise, the perfect companion for a grieving boy. When Hiro attempts to change the bot’s basic programming, Baymax reveals that he might be more complex than he seems.
    Big Hero 6 is a kids’ film with big ideas. But it doesn’t always give time to developing them. The plot can feel rushed, and the main mystery is easily solved by anyone over the age of 10. Tadashi’s friends rarely rise above stereotypes (the tough girl, the neat freak, the idiot and the girly-girl), but top-notch voice work gives them personality.
    The story for this animated Disney film is adapted from a Marvel comic book.

Good Animation • PG • 108 mins.

Michael Keaton wows in this darkly funny drama

Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton: Need for Speed) was in style about the same time as acid-wash jeans. The superstar lead of the popular Birdman film series did not fare well as a real actor. His fall was fast from blockbuster action star to bad bit parts.
    Now nearly forgotten, soft in the middle and desperate to prove his relevance, Riggan has mortgaged his home and sunk his assets into bringing his favorite book to Broadway. He plans to adapt, direct and star in the production, reclaiming his legendary standing.
    The only problem? Birdman.
    As Riggan navigates a thousand little crises prepping for opening night, he hears the voice of Birdman. Forget the artsy-fartsy façade, Birdman advises. Go back to the big-budget action flicks that made you a star. With a vicious critic eager to eviscerate the play, a method actor (Edward Norton: The Grand Budapest Hotel) more interested in truth than finishing a performance and an acerbic daughter (Emma Stone: Magic in the Moonlight) fresh out of rehab, Riggan thinks better of Birdman’s suggestions.
    When he develops the ability to move things with his mind, his destiny seems to be his for the making. Is he really Birdman?
    A fascinating mishmash of fact and fiction, Birdman feels like the cinematic equivalent of improvisational jazz. Director Alejandro González Iñárritu (Biutiful) uses crafty camerawork to make the film look like one continuous shot. We feel like we’re inhabiting the same space as the characters rather than observing them. We drop in, follow them around and occasionally leave them behind in search of more interesting people. The practice gives the film a breathless quality, as if Iñárritu has us jogging behind the action.
    As the titular Birdman, Keaton is a revelation. He was Tim Burton’s Batman (1989), so his own story partially mirrors Riggan’s. Since the 1990s, Keaton has wasted his talents on thankless roles and bit parts. Birdman illustrates just what we’ve lost. In it Keaton gives two performances, one as Riggan, one as Birdman, who Keaton carves out as a distinct secondary antagonist, the devil tempting him back to easy cash and artistic drudgery.
    Keaton surges through the movie with a manic energy that is endearing as well as unsettling.
    Birdman is not a film for the popcorn crowd. It is not an unofficial Batman sequel. Iñárritu forces us to work out metaphors and contend with complex characters. If you’re up for an unconventional challenge, this movie will reward you with excellent acting, interesting scripting and breathless cinematography.
    Birdman proves that Keaton ranks with the best actors who ever protected Gotham City.

Great Drama • R • 119 mins.
 

You can do a lot of terrible things, but don’t kill a man’s dog

John Wick (Keanu Reeves: 47 Ronin) is hanging on by a thread. Numbed by the death of his wife, he goes through his daily routine on autopilot. Anticipating her husband’s reaction to her demise, Wick’s wife planned a companion for his recovery: a beagle puppy named Daisy.
    As Wick warms to the pup, a trio of Russian gangsters warms to his tricked-out Mustang. They break into his house, beat him senseless, kill poor Daisy and abscond with the car.
    They picked on the wrong man.
    Before Wick was a hapless widower, he was a hit man for the Russian mob. Criminals called him the Boogeyman. John gave up his kill-crazy ways for marriage. With wife and dog gone, Wick has nothing holding him back. So what if his target is Iosef Tarasov (Alfie Allen: Game of Thrones), son of Viggo (Michael Nyqvist: My So-Called Father), the head of the Russian mob.
    Brutal, fasted-paced and funny, John Wick is an action film with brains and brawn. The directorial debut of two former stuntmen, David Leitch and Chad Stahelski, the film specializes in a fluid action style that’s exciting and beautiful. There are no garbled clashes of steel and bullets; each fight, car chase and shootout is carefully choreographed.
    Stahelski and Leitch also take great pains to make their movie light. Sure, plenty of blood flies through the air as John slices his way through New York and New Jersey, but the film has a wry sense of humor. Everyone knows the legend of John Wick, from cops to hotel clerks to mobsters, and everyone acknowledges that John’s vengeance will be brutal and most likely unstoppable. Most stay out of his way. Those that don’t grimly acknowledge they’re cannon fodder before engaging him.
    As the eponymous Wick, Reeves embodies an eerie quiet rage. At 50, he still has the physicality and fighting skills of a much younger actor, making him a credible threat when he takes on a room full of baddies. His balance of cool detachment and cold calculation makes Wick likeable yet frightening. When his cool exterior cracks, it reveals an all-encompassing wrath.
    It’s never a question that he will get his revenge. The question is how many necks he’ll have to snap along the way. John Wick is a campy action flick that uses style to make up for substance. It isn’t going to revolutionize cinematic storytelling, but you won’t mind as you watch Reeves barrel through the mob crews of New York.

Good Action • R • 101 mins.

Violence and horror make a surprisingly beautiful war story

Working in a tank is a special kind of hell. For five men the cramped chamber of a motorized cannon is their home, their battlefield and, often, their coffin. With limited visibility, thin armor and light firepower, Sherman tanks were often easy targets, especially against the superior German Tigers.
    The crew of the Fury has so far beaten the odds. Led by Don ‘Wardaddy’ Collier (Brad Pitt: The Counselor), the team has survived combat in Africa, France and Germany. As they roll toward Berlin, they lose their trusted gunner in gruesome fashion. The replacement is a typist named Norman (Logan Lerman: Noah), who’s never been in a tank and is terrified by the prospect of battle.
    As Fury rolls toward combat in the heart of Nazi territory, the seasoned four must make Norman a soldier if they are to survive.
    A brutal, beautiful film about the monsters war makes, Fury offers truths rarely shown in movies about the Greatest Generation. Director/writer David Ayer (Sabotage) looks at these men with respect and sadness, examining the complicated mix of violence and family they depended on to survive.
    As men who have seen it all and wish they hadn’t, Pitt, Shia LaBeouf (Nymphomaniac), Jon Bernthal (Mob City) and Michael Peña (Gracepoint) are realistic versions of stock characters. Pitt is the tough-as-nails leader whose sadistic streak covers the heavy toll of combat. The religious man, LaBeouf quotes scripture to comfort himself in the face of death. Bernthal is the wild man whose chosen analgesic against the horrors is outrageous behavior. Peña is the drunk scrounging ruined towns for his solace.
    Ayer makes Norm our stand-in. With him, we’re thrown amid the Fury crew, no training, no get-to-know-you talks. He must kill or risk his crewmates through inaction.
    Fury doesn’t shy away from the unsavory. Grady gleefully instructs Norman that women will sleep with him for as little as a candy bar. These are desperate women, terrified of the men with guns who could invade their homes, demand their meager possessions or worse. Faced with the choice of rape or rewarded submission, they take the candy bar.
    While Ayer revels in the ugliness of war, he and cinematographer Roman Vasyanov (Charlie Countryman) find ways of making even the claustrophobic tank scenes beautiful. Gripping battles unfold in painterly shots that embody the immense scale of war as well as its personal tolls.
    Fury is easily the best combat film in a decade.

Great Drama • R • 134 mins.

Sometimes being right isn’t enough

Investigative journalist Gary Webb (Jeremy Renner: The Immigrant) believed that if people weren’t upset, he wasn’t doing his job. He spent his career exposing injustices and telling what he believed to be fundamental truths.
    Webb’s subjects aren’t typically sympathetic. He reported on ways the government infringes on the rights of drug dealers, confiscating property and money even when charges are dismissed or dropped.
    When a drug trafficker’s girlfriend tells Webb that her boyfriend has been selling drugs brought into the country with the government’s help, he finds the story he believes will make his career.
    This movie is a story based on the real reporter’s quest for that story.
    Traveling from Nicaragua to Washington, D.C., and back to L.A., Webb pieces together a conspiracy that implicates the CIA in a massive drug trafficking ring to earn money to fund the Contra War.
    Warned that his story will earn him powerful enemies, Webb refuses to back down. But his principled stand may be a mistake.
    With the story out, the CIA began a campaign to discredit Webb, using other journalists, propaganda and intimidation. Webb’s career went into a tailspin. People followed his family and lurked outside his house. Still, he remained convinced if he kept pushing, he’d prove the truth and win back his life.
    Kill the Messenger is a good movie that fails to be great. Director Michael Cuesta (Homeland) is skilled at building tension, but he neglects story for cheap thrills. Unlike Webb, Cuesta isn’t interested in meticulously documenting what happened. He offers only the broad strokes accompanied by some thrilling scenes of governmental interference. Characters are undeveloped, making the movie seem shallow and sensationalistic.
    Cuesta floats a few conspiracy theories of his own, including implicating the Los Angeles Times and Washington Post in discrediting Webb. The plot line is interesting, but ultimately infuriating because it’s given so little screen time.
    As Webb, Renner saves the movie from mediocrity. He plays a tenacious crusader who can’t bear to back down. Renner’s natural humor and charm make Webb a relatable, interesting hero even when he’s making questionable choices. As Webb watches his life, career and family crumble around him, Renner shines as a man who realizes too late just how far down a dangerous path he’s gone. Still he holds fast.
    Imperfect though it is, Kill the Messenger will make you view power sources — from the government to newspapers — with skepticism, which was the goal of Gary Webb’s brave and brash reporting.

Good Drama • R • 112 mins.

Exploring marriage and other horrors

Can you ever really know the person you’re married to? You can know their usual Chinese food order, maybe anticipate their tastes in art and music. But do you ever know what’s going on in your spouse’s head?
    Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck: Runner, Runner) meets his soul mate at a party in New York. Amy (Rosamund Pike: Hector and the Search for Happiness) is a catch: beautiful, brilliant and wealthy. After marriage, they remain the ideal couple. Even when the economy tanks, forcing them back to Nick’s Missouri home, they appear blissfully in love.
    Until Nick comes home to a house littered with broken glass and overturned tables — and Amy gone. Police find Nick very calm and the scene suspicious.
    Was Amy kidnapped? Or were there cracks in this perfect marriage?
    Obsessing over the missing wife, the media seek a story for their viewers. Amy emerges as an angel and Nick as Suspect Number One. He’s too polite, too smarmy, not worried enough. When Amy’s diary appears, it offers a damning portrayal of the man at the center of the mystery. Soon, the 24/7 news coverage has convinced Nick’s neighbors, the American viewing audience and the police that there’s something wrong with the way Nick Dunne searches for his wife.
    Is an innocent man a media scapegoat? Or is something sinister lurking beneath the shiny veneer of the Dunne union?
    Gone Girl is a domestic drama turned horror movie. Director David Fincher (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) explores just how scary marriage can be in this adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s bestselling novel.
    A master of dark and mysterious visuals and horror movie tropes, Fincher creates a fascinating thriller from the twisting novel. He is at his best exploring media scrutiny. In a beautiful sequence that makes Nick look like the Frankenstein Monster running for the hills, Fincher turns a candlelight vigil into a torch-wielding mob scene.
    As the couple whose marriage curdles in its fifth year, Affleck and Pike are superb. Affleck, who endured heavy and often cruel media scrutiny over his relationships 10 years ago, seems born for the part of media-beleaguered Nick. His face is too perfect, his smile too bright and his reactions seem off. He’s exactly the kind of man who invites mistrust.
    Pike is the real find in this marital horror show. Fierce, beautiful and whip smart, she is a pillar of domestic bliss one moment and a tragic victim the next. Her large eyes remaining unreadable, Pike makes her Amy a woman obsessed with keeping up appearances. When the shell cracks, Pike revels in revealing the creature beneath.
    This movie will make you take a long hard look at your beloved.

Great Thriller • R • 149 mins.

Denzel Washington puts power tools to bloody good use in this action thriller

To the employees of HomeMart, Robert McCall (Denzel Washington: Two Guns) is a teddy bear. He shows off dance moves on breaks, helps an overweight employee train to become a security guard and has a kind word for all. His coworkers speculate on Bob’s former occupation: teacher or Wall Street tycoon gone broke?
    A widower, he lives like a monk in a sterile apartment with books and few modern conveniences. When the solitude gets to him, he visits the local diner to sip tea and read in the neon glare. Here he befriends Teri, a young prostitute for the Russian mob (Chloë Grace Moretz: If I Stay). They talk books, dreams and fate, while Bob proposes Teri consider a less fraught career path.
    When Teri’s pimp beats her into the ICU, Bob returns to his past as a CIA wetworker. The mob, in turn, must figure out who is massacring foot soldiers before losing the entire East Coast operation.
    This blood-soaked vengeance yarn based on a popular 1980s’ television show has more in common with Death Wish than with primetime television. Director Antoine Fuqua (Olympus Has Fallen) takes his time unleashing Bob into stunning, tense and gory action sequences that have audiences cheering and gasping.
    Fuqua doesn’t waste time on script or subtle characterization. His love is action clichés. In his hands, you see how effective a rain-soaked, slow-motion showdown can be. He also mines all the violent potential of the HomeMart store. I’ll never look at yard clippers the same way again.
    Women do better than usual in this action film. Yes, Teri is brutalized. But she remains a daughter figure rather than becoming Bob’s girlfriend. For a feminist twist on the CIA handler, ­Melissa Leo is cast as a powerful ally.
    Washington’s range from charming to terrifying is a wonder. This is his movie. He fires a gun and wields a corkscrew believably, but it’s his acting that makes Bob compelling. When Bob lets loose his murderous talents, Washington transforms him up to his eyes, which go from lively to dead.
    The Equalizer is a classic action movie. Watching it, you’ll shovel popcorn into your mouth, cheer, scream and hope that if you’re ever in trouble, Denzel Washington has your back.

Great Action • R • 131 mins.

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.