view counter

Articles by Diana Beechener

You’ll have to be as high as Mike to enjoy this stoner comedy

Mike Howell (Jesse Eisenberg: The End of the Tour) is a loser. Ambitionless, he works a dead-end job managing a convenience store and suffers from a plethora of phobias. The only bright spots in this life are Mike’s endlessly understanding girlfriend Phoebe (Kristen Stewart: Still Alice) and the mountains of marijuana he smokes each day.
    The action begins with words mumbled by a convenience store customer. Mike thinks the pot has addled his brain, but when two men attempt to kill him, he surprises himself by handily dispatching them with a spoon.
    Mike is in fact a newly activated and expertly trained CIA operative. As ruthless killers come to town town, he must remember his training, protect his girlfriend and save his skin. That’s a tall order for a man who can’t cook an omelet without a joint in his hand.
    Violent, poorly written and featuring unbelievable performances, American Ultra is so ridiculous it’s almost as funny as it wants to be. Obsessed with the slick and stylish, director Nima Nourizadeh (Project X) has made a movie as consequential as a car commercial. Action is frenetic, editing is choppy and stylized — and neither serves the story.
    Neither straightforward action film in Bourne style nor gonzo action comedy like Pineapple Express, American Ultra languishes in limbo. It is not innovative enough to be a gory action comedy and not restrained enough to be a classical shoot-’em-up. Like Mike, it has no ambition and nothing of interest to say.
    Characters are stereotypes, impersonal and uninteresting. As Mike, Eisenberg has the look and idiotic dialog of a stoner, and he acts the part. His attacks are slow, his strikes lack force and his hair hangs in his eyes.
    The relationship with Stewart’s Phoebe is only slightly less believable than this loser’s being able to find a spoon, let alone kill with it. Stewart and Eisenberg display no chemistry.
    The only person who escapes American Ultra unscathed is Walton Goggins (Justified), who plays Laugher, a psychotic soldier tasked with killing Mike. Goggins, who has decades of experience playing underwritten weirdoes, has learned how to make even the barest character interesting.

Poor Action Movie • R • 95 mins.

Two writers edit their own narratives in this excellent drama drawn from life

After publishing Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace (Jason Segel: Sex Tape) becomes the golden boy of the literary world. Glowing reviews claim the book is the greatest novel of its generation. Awards are showered on him. Instead of thriving, Wallace retreats from the limelight.
    Meanwhile, struggling novelist and Rolling Stone writer David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg: Rio 2) seethes in jealousy. Even worse, Lipsky must admit that the praise is earned. Fascinated by the mind behind the brainy book, Lipsky pitches a story to his editor: Unearth the man behind the mythos.
    To do so, Lipsky travels to Illinois for the last five days of Wallace’ book tour. Instead of a brilliant intellect, Lipsky finds a quiet man more interested in his dogs than talking about writing.
    A bond forms, and Lipsky gets a glimpse of who’s beneath Wallace’s regular guy armor.
    Based on the true story of Lipsky’s never-published interviews, The End of the Tour is on surface a bit boring. No sex, no violence. Somehow, two guys talking about American culture, women and the stress of writing turns exciting.
    Wallace, who battled depression for years, is a writhing mass of insecurities. He has such strict derogatory ideas about the meaning of success that praise has made him paranoid. He fears being viewed as a fraud.
    Eager to learn from a genius, Lipsky treats the assignment more as enlightenment than investigation. He’s interested in Wallace but too in awe to ask hard questions. When he finally gets the nerve to scrutinize Wallace’s motives, the dynamic shifts.
    To make such a film work, actors have to be on top of their game. Both men inhabit their roles beautifully. Segel pulls off a mesmerizing performance as the troubled, soft-spoken genius whose vital eyes belie the bumpkin he plays for Lipsky. You can see him creating responses that seem both unassuming and smart.
    Eisenberg gives Lipsky natural tenacity that must be tamped down to draw Wallace out. Jealous, in awe and curious, he wants Wallace’s approval. But once he senses a ruse, he digs in, hoping to provoke honesty.
    To film this battle of wits, director James Ponsoldt (The Spectacular Now) keeps his camera unobtrusive, so we feel we’re eavesdropping on the conversation. It’s an effective trick that creates immediacy and tension.
    If you’re interested in Wallace or enjoy heady conversation, The End of the Tour should engage you. Otherwise, watching will be almost as tortuous as slogging through Wallace’s 1,079-page opus.

Good Drama • R • 106 mins.

This silly send-up of 1960s’ spy films is F.U.N.

Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill: Man of Steel) is a CIA spy with style. Dressed to the nines and armed with charm, he can seduce women with a wink and talk his way into or out of any situation. His unflappable confidence is second only to his intelligence.
    So when he’s assigned to extract Gaby (Alicia Vikander: Ex Machina) from East Germany, Solo assumes the mission will be simple. But only after a harrowing chase from a hulking tail do Gaby and Solo make it safely across The Wall. Then they find their mission has just begun.
    Gaby’s father, a former Nazi scientist who has discovered an easy way to enrich uranium, is kidnapped by terrorists planning to make and sell atomic bombs. Neither the U.S.S.R. nor the U.S. wants atomic bombs on the open market, so they team up (temporarily) to foil the bomb makers. Thus, Solo and Gaby are partnered with a Russian agent who turns out to be Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer: Entourage), the brute who chased them through East Berlin.
    Based on the popular TV show, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is a swinging tribute to the 1960s spy genre, with plenty of suave guys, stunning women and sexual innuendos. Director Guy Ritchie creates a light romp with plenty of style plus frenetic editing and framing.
    Ritchie also has a wicked sense of humor, with many violent acts played for laughs in the background of scenes. Solo watches as Illya engages in an aquatic gun battle. He could help, but he’s not quite finished with his drink. This mix of brutality and jocularity works well in the spy spoof tone.
    As the duo who must learn to work together, Cavill and Hammer have excellent chemistry. Cavill, an almost surreally handsome leading man, is perfect as the slightly empty seducer. His Solo is all style and detachment, ala vintage James Bond. Hammer uses his considerable height and a comically ridiculous accent to make Illya a brute with a soul and surprising humor. As the glue holding the men together, Vikander isn’t required to do much. Her beauty and natural charm carry her through a slightly underwritten role.
    Ritchie crafts a breezy film, but he isn’t quite as slick as the spies he puts on screen. By rehashing scenes we’ve just watched, he over-explains his fairly straightforward plot and makes the film seem overlong. Fifteen minutes could be razed without damage to plot or pace.

Good Action • PG-13 • 116 mins.

This review will self-destruct in 10 seconds

Whether he’s hanging off the door of an ascending plane or casually participating in the demolition of the Kremlin, Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise: Edge of Tomorrow) has quite the reputation in the spy game. The top spy in the IMF, a super-secret government agency, Hunt is assigned impossible missions with his only guarantee complete government disavowal if he fails.
    Though he always comes through, the government is tiring of his methods.
    CIA director Hunley (Alec Baldwin: Aloha) leads the charge to shut down Ethan and his team. When the government sides with Hunley, Hunt doesn’t take it well. Instead of contritely accounting for every instance of vehicular mayhem, property damage and personal injury he’s inflicted on the world, Hunt goes rogue.
    He hasn’t joined the dark side; Hunt has a greater mission. A secret organization, The Syndicate, is behind most recent disasters and acts of terrorism, and he has sworn to track down and destroy The Syndicate before returning home.
    The problem: No one at the CIA believes him.
    Can Hunt and his faithful tech friends — Benji (Simon Pegg: The Boxtrolls) and Luther (Ving Rhames: James Boy) as well as operative Brandt (Jeremy Renner: Avengers: Age of Ultron) — stop The Syndicate? Or will they be taken out by their own government?
    Filled with action, technobabble and engaging acting, Mission: Impossible Rogue Nation is a summer blockbuster that doesn’t have to re-invent the wheel. The plot is formulaic, the faces familiar, the jokes well-worn. Viewers know what to expect, and Mission: Impossible delivers.
    Director Christopher McQuarrie, who also wrote the script, does a remarkable job of making a predictable film exciting. We know Hunt isn’t going to die. In fact, most viewers know within the first 30 minutes how the film will end. Still, action sequences feel visceral and alive. A breathtaking car and motorcycle chase through the streets of Casablanca is particularly thrilling. McQuarrie also peppers his action with plenty of comedy, with Pegg and Renner landing most of the punchlines.
    One of action’s most committed actors, Cruise keeps the film from slipping too far into parody. While other stars of his caliber shuffle through their action films and collect their paycheck along with their copy of AARP Magazine, Cruise always gives 100 percent. His natural intensity will allow for nothing less. He runs full force, attacks each fight scene and pratfall with gusto.
    In spite of some great action and acting, Mission: Impossible Rogue Nation is far from perfect. McQuarrie drags out the final act about 15 minutes too long. The plot is also filled with ridiculous contrivances, including a morally compromised character named Faust.
    Your mission, if you choose to accept it, is to buy a ticket and a bucket of popcorn and watch Ethan Hunt save the world for a fifth time.

Good Action • PG-13 • 131 mins.
 

This isn’t your mother’s romantic comedy

Amy (Amy Schumer: Inside Amy Schumer) is living the dream. She has a spacious New York apartment, writes for a men’s magazine and goes home with a different guy every night.
    Amy learned from her father at an early age that monogamy doesn’t work. Her father, now in a nursing home, eggs Amy on in her rejection of relationships, domesticity and kids. He encourages her to make herself happy even at the expense of others. Amy mercilessly mocks her sister Kim (Brie Larson: The Gambler), for her focus on her family.
    Until a new writing assignment causes Amy to reevaluate her life. Her subject is Dr. Aaron Conners (Bill Hader: Inside Out) a sports surgeon with a long list of celebrity clients. After their night of sex, Aaron wants another date. Amy overrides her impulse to say no.
    Does love mean having to change who you are? Is monogamy possible for a free-thinking modern woman? Or is domesticity the trap Amy has always believed it to be?
    Filled with lewd jokes, uncomfortable situations and genuine laughs, Trainwreck is a romantic comedy for the cynical voice in the back of your mind. Schumer, who also wrote the film, has made a name for herself as a comedian unafraid to tackle sex, drugs and feminism. In her first starring role, Schumer crafts a comedy that examines modern feminism.
    With Trainwreck, Schumer isn’t proposing women necessarily settle down. She’s asking them to be sure they’re pursuing what they really want, be it children, a career or anonymous sex. It’s a heavy task for a romantic comedy, but Schumer manages.
    Helping her set the tone is veteran director Judd Apatow (This is 40). A master of wildly vulgar humor with a heart of gold, Apatow combines sexual innuendo and sincerity to craft a modern romantic comedy. Some of the sequences run too long, with Apatow pushing the joke further than it needs to go, but it’s fun to watch Schumer riff. Though Schumer is often the butt of the jokes, Apatow makes sure we don’t see her as stupid. She’s a flawed but funny woman trying to navigate uncharted waters.
    In essence playing the same character she affects for her standup show, Schumer shows real promise. It’s no surprise that she can nail the comic beats, but Trainwreck also requires some hard emotional work. Schumer attacks each moment with aplomb, creating a nuanced character we root for — even as we cringe at some of her decisions.
    Backing up Schumer is Saturday Night Live alumni Hader, who serves as the perfect foil. Aaron is sincere, while Amy is cynical. Both have been damaged by life, but each has reacted differently. Hader’s natural sweetness and hilarious reactions to Amy make his Aaron endearing.
    The biggest surprise in Trainwreck, however, is a breakout performance from basketball great LeBron James. Parodying himself, James acts as Aaron’s pal, a little overly invested in Aaron’s love life. As a Downton Abbey-obsessed, penny-pinching romantic who wants to make sure his buddy Aaron doesn’t get hurt, James gleefully skewers his own image.
    Trainwreck isn’t a typical romantic comedy. You may be turned off by its lewd humor, drug use and active sexuality. Still, Schumer and Apatow have created a sincere comedy about finding the courage to fall in love.

Good Comedy • R • 125 mins.

A superhero a fraction the usual size delivers big laughs

Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) is an ex-con who wants to go straight. A burglar with a master’s degree in electrical engineering, he can’t even keep a job at Baskin-Robbins. Desperate to earn child support money so he can see his daughter, he reverts to crime one more time.
    But mysterious millionaire Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) isn’t the doddering old man he pretends to be. Pym is a genius who has invented a suit that allows its wearer to shrink to the size of an ant while becoming 50 times stronger and faster than a human. Hank offers Scott a job as Ant-Man to keep a protégé from weaponizing the Ant-Man suit.
    In the world of the Incredible Hulk, Spiderman and Iron Man, a shrinking suit isn’t very impressive. So instead of awe-inspiring, Ant-Man’s powers are laugh-inspiring.
    Rudd and director Peyton Reed find the laugh in each scene and quirk of the genre. Scott must learn to communicate with ants. A dramatic battle to the death takes place on a Thomas the Tank Engine train set. A ridiculous number of animals and people are vaporized into goo.
    Combining great writing, a charismatic performance from Rudd and some spectacularly funny action sequences, this is the best Marvel release since the fantastic Guardians of the Galaxy.

Great Action • PG-13 • 117 mins.

Little creatures look for a fearless leader in this fun comedy

Since the dawn of time, Minions have been looking for a master to serve. The yellow cylindrical beings are attracted to the baddies of the world and biologically compelled to assist them.
    But they’re terrible at the job.
    These yellow dunderheads have managed to cause catastrophes from the extinction of the dinosaurs to Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo. For their constant failures, they are expelled from society.
    In their icy cave, the Minions long for a new evil mastermind. In 1968, three leave the cave to realize their hope. They find Scarlett Overkill (voiced by Sandra Bullock: ­Gravity), the world’s first female supervillain. She’s ruthless, she’s stylish and she’s beautiful. The Minions are enthralled.
    To earn a spot on Scarlett’s payroll for the banana-like brethren, the Minions must complete a trial mission: Steal the queen of England’s crown.
    Clever and relentlessly silly, Minions is a family film that entertains all generations.
    The stars are the creatures who chatter gibberish and take in the world through wide Buster Keaton eyes, sweet of nature even as they try to be bad. These are not cruel or stupid creatures, and the film seems to cherish the innocent exuberance that often leads the Minions astray.
    Pierre Coffin (who also co-directs) has the unenviable job of providing a voice to the Minions, and though he doesn’t speak in comprehensible sentences, he manages to create three distinct personalities as well as a whole host of emotions.
    Bullock has a grand time as Scarlett, a brassy villain whose princess complex exacerbates her mood swings.
    Though their concept is fairly straight forward, directors Kyle Balda and Coffin find innovative ways to tell the story. The setting inspires a fantastic classic rock soundtrack that drives the action and will have adults tapping their toes. Minions also uses 3D technology in an interesting way. Coffin and Balda play with perception, having objects enter or leave frame in unexpected places. Scenes seem alive, and the 3D effect catches the audience off guard.
    Minions doesn’t have the depth or beauty of Pixar’s Inside Out, but profundity isn’t its thing. This is a movie for a bucket of popcorn and an escape from the summer heat. As children aren’t the only people in the seats, there are a few jokes to keep adults laughing as these little yellow henchmen bumble their way through London.

Good Animation • PG • 91 mins.

If this is the best humanity has, it’s time to welcome our machine overlords

Skynet, an artificial intelligence software system, was created to make life easier. Instead of improving streaming speed, Skynet became self-aware and a powerful enemy of the human race. Hacking into every computer system in the world, Skynet built an army of infiltration androids (called Terminators), launched missiles and wiped out three billion people.
    By 2029, humanity has a savior. John Connor (Jason Clarke: Child 44) is a fierce warrior who seems to know exactly what Skynet will do before the machine does it. On the eve of losing the war to the humans, Skynet takes desperate action: It sends one of its Terminators (Arnold Schwarzenegger: Maggie) back in time to 1984, the year John’s mother, Sarah Connor (Emilia Clarke: Game of Thrones), gives birth to him.
    To stop the prenatal assassination, John sends back his most trusted soldier, Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney: The Water Diviner). Kyle imagines Sarah to be a helpless woman terrorized by a killer machine. What he finds is a warrior who takes out Terminators in the blink of an eye and has more weapons training than a Navy SEAL.
    It turns out Kyle and the Terminator aren’t the only time travelers. After the 1984 attempt fails, Skynet sends a Terminator back to the 1970s to kill Sarah as a child. The attempt, which kills Sarah’s parents, is thwarted by a friendly Terminator (also Schwarzenegger) who then raises Sarah in preparation for her 1984 meeting with Kyle. Those two crazy kids share a night that creates John Connor.
    Now, the timeline has splintered. Kyle and Sarah must attempt to change the future using time travel, explosives and their rapidly aging Terminator.
    Sound confusing and convoluted? It is.
    Try not to think too hard about the multiple timelines; the writers clearly haven’t. From its misspelled title to its horrible plot, Terminator Genisys is an exercise in audience patience.
    Director Alan Taylor (Thor: The Dark World) hammers what should be the final nail into the coffin of the Terminator franchise with this stupid, messy film. He apes the style of James Cameron’s first film, but the callbacks to the original underscore just how awful this movie is. Action sequences are bloodless, loud and confusing cacophonies of sound and CGI animation. Explosions are big, but without any connection to plot they’re little more than an expensive distraction.
    Writers Late Kalogridis and Patrick Lussier do the bare minimum, relying on the audience’s memory of the previous films and lazy exposition on the nature of time travel to move the plot along. With never a reason for what happens, characters look as confused as the audience is.
    With a terrible script and a director with no vision, it’s easy to understand why the performances are so uniformly bad. Clarke and Courtney are set up to for an antagonistic romance, but they fail to find the right chemistry. Instead of sexual tension, we have two people who don’t seem to like each other very much. Clarke also has trouble being tough. She flinches when she fires guns, screams in a baby voice and pouts at both man and machine when things don’t go her way. Only Arnold, who was born to play the robotic character that made him famous, is having any fun. He still delivers one-liners with aplomb and manages to look deadly at an age that qualifies him for Social Security.
    Poorly written, badly acted and ­utterly confusing, Terminator Genisys is the reason sequels get such a bad rap.

Dismal Action • PG-13 • 126 mins.

The boys are back; their clothes are not

Magic Mike (Channing Tatum: Jupiter Ascending) retired his thong with his bump-and-grind act three years ago. Now a furniture builder, the former stripper is dedicated to growing his burgeoning business. Business is good but burdensome. His workers want health care, he wants retail space and he’s tired of hauling showpieces on and off a truck as he sells his work to Tampa stores.
    When former co-workers call him as they pass through town, Mike reminisces about the great old times. While he has been struggling for growth, Big [redacted] Richie (Joe Manganiello: True Blood), Ken (Matt Bomer: The Normal Heart), Tito (Adam Rodriguez: The Night Shift) and Tarzan (Kevin Nash: John Wick) have been partying. They persuade Mike to join them for one final hoorah: the Stripper Convention in Myrtle Beach.
    He throws caution and clothes to the wind, joining his buddies for a week of drugs, bonding and semi-nude dancing.
    How many shirts can one man tear off in a single movie?
    The original Magic Mike, a character study of men in the adult entertainment industry, featured nuanced looks at the problems of the business, including drugs. With the sequel, Magic Mike XXL, filmmaker Gregory Jacobs (Wind Chill) gives the audience what they’re clamoring for: lots of nearly naked men grinding to R&B hits.
    Story and characters take a back seat to oiled chests and teeny strips of fabric. Dance sequences are long and impressive, as Jacobs shows off the special talent of each performer. Tatum and his pals also have camaraderie that translates onto camera. It’s believable that these goofy guys would spend time together perfecting hip rolls, talking about women and drinking.
    The biggest disappointment in Magic Mike XXL is the women. Though marketed to females, the movie is uninterested in them. As Mike’s love interest Zoe, (Amber Heard: 3 Days to Kill) pouts prettily while Tatum dances circles around her. The only woman who displays personality is Rome (Jada Pinkett Smith: Gotham), a sexy MC who has a secret past with Mike. Pinkett Smith commands every scene she’s in, impressively drawing focus from a horde of handsome, gyrating men.
    Go with friends. Half the fun of this silly movie is listening to people hoot and holler as if Magic Mike could twerk right off the screen.

Revealing Dramedy • R • 115 mins.

The best actor in the film is a dog, who is saved the trial of lines.

Max is the perfect Marine. The Belgian Malinois is a search dog whose job in Afghanistan is sniffing out weapons, explosives and possible trouble for his platoon. His partner Kyle (Robbie Amell: The DUFF), is more than a trainer; he’s Max’s whole world. So when an ambush leads to Kyle’s death, Max is a broken dog. Afraid of gunfire, aggressive and unwilling to be touched, Max has PTSD and is useless to the Marine Corps.
    Kyle’s family is having a similar reaction. Father Ray (Thomas Haden Church: Heaven is for Real) is stoic. Mother Pam (Lauren Graham: Parenthood) cries as she cooks. The only person who seems unaffected is Justin (Josh Wiggins: Hellion), Kyle’s little brother. A videogame-obsessed teenage terror, Justin is too busy committing petty crimes, BMX biking and sassing his parents to care. After Kyle’s death, Justin’s surliness worsens.
    Brought by Marines to Kyle’s funeral, Max refuses to leave the casket. The dog’s fidelity convinces Pam and Ray to take him home. But the traumatized dog refuses any attentions except Justin’s. Deciding responsibility could help the surviving son, his parents put him in charge of Max’s rehabilitation.
    Max has the best intentions and the worst execution. The movie eschews character development and reasonable plot for plodding moral messages. At fault is the script by Boaz Yakin (who also directed) and Sheldon Lettich. Neither writer trusts the audience to understand the themes, instead belaboring their points with cringe-worthy dialog. The duo also has a limited view of Mexican families, trotting out every possible stereotype from gang association to Chihuahuas.
    The best actor in the film is Max, who is saved the trial of lines. Even veteran actors like Church and Graham can’t make much of this script. Portrayed as the dog’s saviors, the family chains him outside, without shelter or water, in Texas. That’s animal abuse. Ray lectures Justin on the importance of the dog one moment, and the next is willing to shoot him. Graham has the thankless job of being the subservient mother unyieldingly supportive of her men.
    The dog is this movie’s saving grace. Malinois are expressive by nature, and Yakin capitalizes on every ear twitch and head tilt. Max’s antics are amusing, his ability to search grids and leap over obstacles is inspiring and the story of the dogs who have served alongside U.S. troops since World War I is fascinating. Young viewers will be captivated by the pretty dog, but a few violent scenes of war and shootouts may scare them.

Fair Family Film • PG • 111 mins.