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Articles by Diana Beechener

Neither scary nor entertaining, it may be time to kill off this franchise
 

In a semi-near future, America has a novel way of coping with crime: The Purge. One evening a year, all crime — including murder — is legal. The New Founding Fathers tout the Purge as a ritual release that’s good for society. In practice, it’s opportunity for social engineering as rich whites kill poor minorities.
    Senator Charlie Roan (Elizabeth Mitchell: Crossing Lines), a Purge survivor, seeks to end the bloody tradition. It’s her campaign pledge as a presidential candidate. Lest she ruin their murderous fun, the New Founding Fathers make her the target of this year’s Purge.
    Roan’s ally is Leo Barnes (Frank Grillo: Captain America: Civil War), who couldn’t bring himself to purge his son’s killer.
    Will Leo change his mind about the benefits of the Purge? Can Roan survive the night? Will this franchise survive its simplistic philosophy?
    The problem with The Purge: Election Year is that its message comes before its story. Rather than sympathetic characters, you get preaching about bad old white men. Worse still in a film about the oppression of racism, most of the minority characters are underwritten, stereotypical and appear only to save whites or offer them emotional support.
    Leo, the star of the second film, has little to do in this one. Once his character had a full emotional arc; now he’s reduced to grimacing, running and shooting. Roan is a screaming damsel. She chides all the killers, while the movie makes it obvious that killing is the only way to survive the night. This paradox makes her look weak and foolish.
    Director James DeMonaco (The Purge Anarchy) makes the colossal mistake of abandoning the gritty B-movie feel that made the second Purge fun. On three he’s returned to his roots, ineffectually proselytizing to the popcorn-eating masses. This film sounds like a poorly researched philosophy paper. Without charm, pacing or creativity, it becomes a slog on par with surviving Purge night. Even the threats are laughable: Half the movie features a pack of teen girls in skimpy dresses menacing people in a car illuminated with twinkle lights. The other big bad is a pack of frail old men who may gum our heroine to death.
    Neither scary nor entertaining, The Purge: Election Year is the kind of mass-market thriller that will satisfy no one. There’s not enough blood to satisfy horror buffs, and political thriller junkies will find the simplistic story unbearably dull. Avoid this purge night.

Poor Thriller • R • 105 mins.

A little girl learns the importance of friendship and family in this charming tale

Orphan Sophie (Ruby Barnhill: The 4 O’clock Club) leads a lonely life in London. Already very grown up and smarter than her peers, she follows the matron to ensure that bills are filed and snipes at the drunks who wake the other orphans. Her only friend is an orange tabby cat. Sophie’s busy life also means she doesn’t have time for frivolities, like sleeping. She’d much rather stay up and read.
    Late one night, Sophie spies something peculiar out her window. Lurking in the alley is a very tall man — some 30 feet tall. Terrified, Sophie does what any child would do: She hides under the covers. Her strategy doesn’t work, for she is scooped out of her bed and taken to Giant Land.
    There, she learns her captor is the BFG, short for Big Friendly Giant (Mark Rylance: Bridge of Spies). He is the only non-cannibal giant in all the land. That’s good news for Sophie, but she’s still captive, and the BFG refuses to take her home now that she’s seen him.
    As Sophie and the BFG bond, the other giants catch a whiff of the child. Hulking brutes that dwarf the BFG and feast on the bones of children, the giants want Sophie.
    Can the BFG keep Sophie safe? Will she ever return to England?
    Based on the beloved children’s book by Roald Dahl, The BFG is a sweet, silly film that should appeal to older children and Dahl fans. Director Steven Spielberg (Bridge of Spies) makes a story that is both delightful and visually stunning. He carefully crafts a distinctive London and Giant Land with storybook appeal.
    As the Friendly Giant, Rylance is a wonderful fusion of technology and performance. Created through motion capture and technological rendering, Rylance’s giant is wonderfully detailed; you can even see his pores. But all the fancy computer graphics in the world can’t guarantee a good performance. Here Rylance delivers, filling the BFG with such warmth and kindness that you find yourself charmed.
    In her big-screen debut, Barnhill is also charming, equally at home bossing the BFG around and helping him catch dreams. She’s a good actress who doesn’t push her childlike enthusiasm too hard.
    Still, this is not a film to see if you have a low tolerance for whimsy and quirk. The BFG speaks in a language of Seussian terms and malapropisms.
    Dahl fans and families with children about six or over should delight in this tale of two lonely people creating their own dreams.

Good Children’s Film • PG • 117 mins.

 

A great comic team in search of a worthy project

Calvin Joyner (Kevin Hart: Ride Along 2) peaked in high school. A star athlete, top student and class president, Calvin had it all. He was the prom king and married the prom queen. Everyone knew he’d be the big success in his class.
    Too bad.
    Calvin grows up to be a boring accountant resentful of the rut his life has become. He balks at his wife’s suggestion they go to their high school reunion, fearing that his old friends will mock him.
    Bob Stone (Dwayne Johnson: Ballers) has the opposite trajectory. A friendless nerd in school, he was tossed naked into a school assembly by bullies. As Bob stood, the target of laughter, Calvin gave him his jacket to cover himself.
    After high school, Bob changed his name, dropped a ton of weight, picked up a ton of muscle and joined the CIA. At least that’s what he tells Calvin when the two reconnect via Facebook.
    Calvin is pleased to reconnect — until bullets start flying. Is Bob CIA or a rogue agent hunted by the agency?
    Silly and unimaginative but with a stellar cast, Central Intelligence is a rare film where flaws are overcome by the chemistry of the lead actors. Johnson’s natural charm allows him to sell even the most ridiculous lines, and it’s a treat to see him as the wacky one instead of the buff action guy.
    The usual source of buffoonery, Hart is also playing against type. As the straight man to Johnson’s loony Bob, he shows a great aptitude for reacting to chaos instead of creating it, proving himself a more nuanced actor.
    The chemistry of its leads is about this movie’s only virtue. Director Rawson Marshall Thurber (We’re The Millers) is so ham-fisted that every plot twist is easy to guess and tension is absent. Celebrity cameos are a distraction, but not a very good one.
    Johnson and Hart make a great comic team in search of a project worthy of their talents.

Fair Comedy • PG-13 • 114 mins.

The sequel to Pixar’s Finding Nemo is a less nuanced tale but no less enjoyable

A year after blue tang Dory (Ellen DeGeneres: Ellen) helped clownfish Marlin (Albert Brooks: Concussion) find his son Nemo (Hayden Rolence), Dory remains forgetful. She never remembers where she is or what she’s doing. Marlin finds her short-term memory loss annoying.
    When a trip to the migrating grounds of the Pacific triggers a memory, Dory becomes obsessed with finding her family. Now a vague idea of her parents’ whereabouts sets her off. Because Dory’s too forgetful to go alone, Nemo and an increasingly fed-up Marlin accompany her to a marine rehabilitation center in California.
    Of course the trio gets separated. Thus Dory must find both her parents and Marlin and Nemo. Helping is Hank (Ed O’Neill: Modern Family), a seven-tentacled rehabilitated octopus who is terrified of release.
    The sequel to Pixar’s Finding Nemo, Finding Dory is a less nuanced tale of aquatic families, but it is no less enjoyable. Directors Andrew Stanton (John Carter) and Angus MacLane (Toy Story of Terror) give us a story with no one too villainous. Marlin is a bit of a jerk, but then again Dory’s disability can be extremely frustrating and dangerous. It’s an interesting lesson about understanding and accepting differences.
    The film adds news characters in the ocean park excursion. Hank is a loveable curmudgeon of an octopus. His dream is to live in an aquarium in Cleveland, where little kids won’t poke him. With his camouflages, he keeps park staff on the constant hunt.
    Kaitlin Olson (It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia) stands out as a sweet but nearsighted whale shark who has trouble swimming. Wire fans will be delighted by daffy sea lions Fluke and Rudder, voiced by Idris Elba and Dominic West.
    Finding Dory sacrifices some of the emotional depth of Finding Nemo to make itself funny. Instead of delving into the hurt of cruel comments or the terror of Dory’s forgetfulness, the film focuses on jokes. It’s not a bad strategy for a kids’ movie, and the little ones with me in the theater were enraptured with Dory and her friends.
    Finding Dory is a great movie with a lot of heart. Adults and kids will find characters to root for, jokes to laugh at and understanding of how tolerance and patience help the world.

Great Animation • PG • 103 mins.

A girl learns that money and a sick boyfriend have advantages in this gross romance

Lou (Emilia Clarke: Game of Thrones) needs a job. So when the Traynor family advertises for a companion, she signs on — despite her lack of experience or training in healthcare. Her charge is Will (Sam Claflin: The Huntsman: Winter’s War), a former financial wiz and extreme sports enthusiast who’s now quadriplegic. Will is angry, depressed and in no mood to deal with bumbling Lou.
    Eventually, he warms to her — because what men want is a girl who smiles while taking a litany of abuse. Soon they fall in love, but there’s a hitch in Lou’s happily-ever-after: Will wants to die.
    Can Lou convince him to give life with her a chance? Or is this romance doomed?
    Me Before You isn’t a movie; it’s a manipulation. Director Thea Sharrock (Call the Midwife) makes do with close-ups of pretty people shedding tears. There’s no hint of the demanding work of caring for a quadriplegic, no mention of managing bodily functions, no inkling that Lou understands what she’s getting into. Her job is to make tea, wear outfits seemingly assembled by a demented toddler and smile relentlessly while looking vaguely confused. She’s shown helping in Will’s physical care only twice, lifting his head (don’t strain yourself, Lou).
    There is no substance to their relationship.
    Would the story be so sweepingly romantic if Lou worked at a government-run facility instead of a stately manor. Would she have fallen in love with Will if his family’s money couldn’t afford a private plane to Tahiti (complete with nursing care so Lou can continue to smile and work on her tan)?
    The only actor unscathed by performing in this film is Stephan Peacocke (Wanted), Will’s nurse.
    In the interest of disclosure, I will admit that my seatmate vehemently disagrees with my assessment. And people cried, but not me. I’m saving my tears for where this film is leading the romance genre.

Poor Romantic Drama • PG-13 • 110 mins.

Mutants rise up to face an ancient foe in this meandering superhero tale

In ancient Egypt, godlike pharaoh En Sabah Nur (Oscar Isaac: Star Wars The Force Awakens) enters his elaborate pyramid not for death but for resurrection in a new, eternal body. Lest his tyranny prove eternal, conspirators knock down the pyramid. En Sabah Nur is entombed.
    In the 1980s, his tomb is opened, and En Sabah Nur rises, taking the name Apocalypse, which should give you a hint as to his plans. To cleanse Earth of the vile humans who make society weak, he recruits four strong mutants.
    One is Magneto (Michael Fassbender: Steve Jobs), long-lost friend of Charles Xavier (James McAvoy: Victor Frankenstein). Magneto has good cause to hate humans; they’ve killed everyone he loved and have hunted him for decades.
    This time Charles is on the other side, and with Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence: Joy) gathers a warrior band.
    Who will win the battle of the mutants?
    X-Men Apocalypse could have been a great film. The cast is powerful, the director (Bryan Singer: X-Men: Days of Future Past) has done well with the franchise and the story introduces all the popular X-Men.
    Instead, it is overlong, smug and frustrating.
    Singer stalls the plot with long scenes of destruction. If all the slow-motion shots were excised, the film would run about 90 minutes instead of two and a half hours.
    Roles lack character and motivation. Apocalypse is a nebulous bad guy who soliloquizes on doom and death and can’t seem to make friends. Only Magneto seems to have a clear purpose for his actions. But the ever-expanding cast makes his scenes few and far between.
    The only spark of life comes from the younger generation. As heroes in training, Scott (Tye Sheridan: Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse), Jean (Sophie Turner: Game of Thrones) and Kurt (Kodi Smit-McPhee: Galipoli) are funny and offer interesting examples of what happens when mutations appear during puberty.
    If you’re a diehard fan of the X-Men comics, X-Men Apocalypse is worth the ticket.

Fair Fantasy • PG-13 • 144 mins.

A decent idea may lurk in the depths of this murky disaster

As host of the wildly popular television investment show Money Monster, Lee Gates (George Clooney: Hail, Caesar!) enjoys a celebrity lifestyle. Rather than sound investment advice, he touts stocks recommended by his rich friends. Viewers trust him, but his producer Patty (Julia Roberts: Mother’s Day) is fed up.
    When a favorite recommendation, trading company IBIS, takes a dive, his audience loses lots of money. Outraged victim Kyle (Jack O’Connell: Unbroken) decides to make Lee and his fat-cat friends answer for their corruption. Kyle enters the studio, pulls a gun and straps a bomb on Lee, threatening to blow him and the studio sky-high if answers aren’t immediately forthcoming.
    Suddenly, Lee cares about the little guy. As he placates his captor and investigates the IBIS stock incident, he sees that Kyle might be right. The system might be rigged.
    Can Kyle prove that finance companies steal for profit? Will Lee finally understand that his actions have consequences? Can Patty keep it all on the air?
    Long, tone-deaf and utterly misguided, Money Monster is awe-inspiring in its poor choices. Director Jodie Foster (Elysium) seems to have released a terrible first draft that, might, with time, have been elevated. Performances are perfunctory, dialog uninspiring and camera angles rote.
    Foster prefers close-ups and medium shots that frame single actors. As a result, the dialogue sounds like a string of soliloquies edited together. The characters don’t seem to be reacting to each other, which in turn distances the audience.
    Clooney, a natural ham, seems annoyed with all of it, even when he’s dancing with money-honeys. It may be his reaction to O’Connell — who offered one of 2015’s best performances in ’71 — but here is relegated to screaming and flailing. O’Connell’s Kyle shrieks that he’s intelligent, yet he’s pathologically terrible at making decisions and expressing himself. He’s a frustrating character because he’s so poorly written. Roberts spends most of the film locked in a box.
    With Foster’s ham-fisted directing, this movie ranges from loud to louder to loudest. Do not pay to see this film — in the theater or on Netflix.

Dismal Thriller • R • 98 mins.

A comedy of calamity and carnage set off by a kitten

Rell (Jordan Peele: Bob’s Burgers) is spiraling down: no girlfriend left, no job, lots of marijuana.
    Cousin Clarence (Keegan-Michael Key: Bob’s Burgers) isn’t faring much better. His wife walks all over him. His daughter disrespects him. Everyone makes fun of his obsession with George Michael.
    Their luck seemingly changes when a kitten arrives at Rell’s door. Adorable, playful and heartbreakingly affectionate, Keanu gives Rell reason for living. Until burglars strike. Thus Rell enlists Clarence to bring Keanu home.
    As Keanu has won the favor of a local gangland boss (Method Man: Trainwreck), Clarence and Rell go undercover as gang members. It’s a terrible plan.
    Funny, absurd and wholly entertaining, this madcap comedy comes from the creators of the brilliant sketch comedy show Key & Peele. Like the show, the movie isn’t afraid to go big with rapid-fire jokes and physical humor to ensnare you. Beneath the humor, co-writer Peele puts some light social commentary on race, morality and sex.
    To capture their easy-going dynamic and lickety-split delivery, Key and Peele chose Peter Atencio, the long-time director of their sketch show. He allows the performances to guide the film, giving the movie a sense of fun and improvisation.
    The genius animating Keanu is the familiar camaraderie between Key and Peele. Each excels: Peele as a bewildered stoner with flashes of courage, Key as the uptight straight man who goes wild once unleashed.
    The film has its faults. Plot is secondary to reactions and lines. Character is developed only on the silly side. But laziness is not among them. Key and Peele work hard to deliver their smart concepts and outlandish humor, including an inspired George Michael send-up.
    Send Key and Peele chasing a kitten, and you’ve got comedy gold.

Good Comedy • R • 100 mins.

Who watches the watchmen?

The Avengers have united twice to save the world. Collateral damage has been considerable. Cities have been razed, which makes the team controversial.
    Some still think of the Avengers as heroes. But fear of the omnipotents is growing. After another mission goes wrong, killing civilians, the governments of the world decide that the time of freelance superheroes has come to an end. The Avengers must submit to a multi-government regulatory committee or be classified as hostile mercenaries.
    Wracked with guilt over the deaths he’s caused both as a weapons manufacturer and as Ironman, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.: Avengers: Age of Ultron) supports the regulatory commission. Ant Man Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) believes the team should be trusted to do what’s right. Sides are chosen.
    When a bombing kills the king of Wakanda, implicating one of the Avengers, they are soon at war with each other.
    Who will win when the greatest powers on earth collide? Worse, who will lose?
    Fast, loud and extremely entertaining, Captain America: Civil War demonstrates yet again that Marvel (and parent company Disney) are leagues ahead of rival DC at the movies. The film masterfully incorporates a complex plot, introduces two new franchises and offers enough charm to forgive the plot holes.
    You get ample time with beloved characters, including Cap, Ironman and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson: The Jungle Book). And you get new members of the expanding Marvel Universe: ­Spider-Man (Tom Holland: In the Heart of the Sea) and Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman: Gods of Egypt). As Spider-Man, Holland accomplishes the heretofore impossible task of making Peter Parker both charming and a believable teenager. His interactions with Tony, who recruits him to the new Avengers, are some of the film’s brightest, lightest spots.
    As the vengeful prince of Wakanda, Boseman succeeds in his slightly heavier role with Black Panther, balancing anger with cocky charm. A slick costume, interesting motivation and the promise of a new country to explore help make him a likeable new ally for the Avengers.
    Tone is the film’s weak spot. It can be jarring to see these character quip and laugh one minute, then brutally beat each other. Because the film is a blockbuster-friendly PG-13, none of this violence has real consequences, and there’s barely any blood.
    Captain America: Civil War is the perfect popcorn movie, filled with action, funny lines and charismatic characters who will win over audiences and sell merchandise.

Great Action • PG-13 • 146 mins.

An absurdist retelling of a surreal moment in American history

A man shows up at the White House and asks to see the president. The request gives pause to the secret service, as the man is Elvis Presley (Michael Shannon: Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice).
    The whole situation is bizarre. One day in 1970, Elvis flew to Washington, D. C., to meet President Nixon and ask him for a badge making him an undercover federal officer at large. The King, apparently, had decided he was the best way to combat the threat of communism. His plan was to go to communist meetings and parties where drugs were sold, collect information on the key players and convince kids to forswear drugs while embracing patriotism.
    It sounds crazy, but friends are used to The King’s whims.
    The president, on the other hand, thinks this plan sounds as screwy as Elvis himself. Staunch conservative Richard Nixon (Kevin Spacey: House of Cards) sneers at popular culture. He has no interest in Elvis, despite his staff’s pleas that a meeting might win the youth vote. Only when his daughter demands an autograph does Nixon agree to the meeting.
    When The King meets The President, what happens?
    A funny fictionalization of the infamous meeting, Elvis & Nixon offers insight into both characters. Director Liza Johnson (Hateship Loveship) wisely chose to let the actors carry the movie. There’s little fancy camera work. Except for a few inspired montages of period-accurate footage, it’s all about Shannon and Spacey. Rather than mimic their famous counterparts with silly impressions, the actors offer genuine performances.
    As Richard Nixon, Spacey shines. He creates a grumbling president more interested in taking a nap than winning over American youth. Blustering through hackneyed dialog and ensemble scenes, Spacey continues his run of magnificent jerks.
    Shannon has the harder task of capturing the essence of Elvis. He succeeds by imbuing the King with the childlike simplicity of a man who can’t comprehend a world that does not bow to his whims.
    The two finally meet in a classic comedy of errors. Both believe they’re in charge, and both have a reason to assume so. Spacey and Shannon dance around each other in a delightful ballet of ticks and quirks as they goad each other to new and greater heights.
    It’s worth the ticket price to see this entertaining riff on an odd footnote in history on the big screen as two acting greats battle it out.

Good Comedy • R • 86 mins.