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Articles by Diana Beechener

The couple that kills together may not stay together

Thérèse (Elizabeth Olsen: Very Good Girls) had a tough childhood. Abandoned at her aunt’s home by her father, Thérèse was raised with her sickly cousin Camille (Tom Felton: From the Rough). Trained by her Aunt Raquin (Jessica Lange: American Horror Story) to be a nursemaid to spoiled rotten Camille, Thérèse escapes to dreams of Paris.
    When Camille decides he’s of an age to move to Paris and make a living like a grownup, Madame Raquin forces Thérèse to marry him. Her ploy not only keeps the family together but also ensures Camille’s inheritance of Thérèse’s secret fortune. Thérèse isn’t thrilled, but she’s an illegitimate daughter with no education. Her options are marriage or the streets.
    Just as Thérèse has resigned herself to a loveless and sexless marriage, she meets Laurent (Oscar Isaac: Inside Llewyn Davis), Camille’s artist coworker. The two begin a torrid affair. Life would be perfect if they could openly be together.
    Camille has to go. They plot his demise between trysts, but when it comes to the deed, they are infirm of purpose.
    Based on Emile Zola’s classic novel Thérèse Raquin, In Secret shares the original’s fascination with sex, guilt and obsession. Unfortunately, director Charlie Stratton (Revenge) is not Zola. Unlike Zola’s novel, which maps out themes of repression, sexual awakening and guilt, Stratton jumps from sex scenes to overwrought dramatic monologues. We don’t have time to develop sympathies, so it’s a long march through the plot.
    As the tragic lovers, Olsen and Isaac are oddly cast. Though they have decent chemistry, their acting styles clash with the story. They’re too loud and expressive for repressive 1867 France, where a woman’s transgressions could ruin her. Olsen seems especially lost, vacillating from vacancy to histrionics. Isaac is a charming seducer, but he can’t mine much substance from this shallowly written character.
    Lange makes the most of her underwritten role by gracefully chewing the scenery as Thérèse’s controlling aunt. She has recently reinvented herself as a Bette Davis-style crone, reveling in the grotesque. Here, she dials back the performance, portraying Aunt Raquin as a well-meaning woman who is so blinded by her devotion to a sick child that she neglects the other child in her care.
    In Secret does have a few good moments, especially when Stratton plays with the guilty couple’s minds. He also invites us to watch very pretty people having sex in beautifully lit montages.

Fair Drama • R • 101 mins.

A rare breed proves it’s still Best in Show

Whiskey was the first wire fox terrier to enter our home. He chased children and adults, pilfered food from the table and ripped the shingles off a hand-built doghouse — even after application of sour apple anti-chew spray. He could open coffee cans and drag leaded food dishes up flights of stairs. This miscreant pup was a terror on four legs.
    He barked, he dug and he obeyed only when convenient.
    After Whiskey, we couldn’t imagine owning another breed.
    Brilliant, insubordinate and hilarious, fox terriers were bred for fox hunting in 17th century England. Smooth and wire-haired terriers (considered the same breed until 1984) rode in pouches on the hunters’ horses until the prey was driven to ground. The terriers were then sent into the fox dens and yanked out by their tails, doomed fox clenched in their teeth.
    By the 1930s, wire fox terriers’ square heads, keen eyes and compact build earned them popularity with the glamorous set, in movies and on the arms of the rich and famous. Actors and heiresses weren’t the only ones smitten. Wire fox terriers have won 14 Best in Show titles at Westminster, more than any other breed. The breed got its latest win this year when five-year-old GCH Afterall Painting the Sky, aka Sky, took the Best in Show prize.
    Now that Sky has showed you that foxies are beautiful, loyal and full of personality, be warned that they aren’t the dog for the faint of heart. These usually bouncy and friendly terriers are too smart for lazy owners. Leave them alone for too long, they’ll empty your trash cans all over the floor. Yell at them, they’ll bark right back. Ignore them, and they’ll force your attention by leaping in your lap or snatching whatever you’re focused on. Mental stimulation and regular exercise are the barrier between you and a household of destroyed items.
    If, however, you can’t resist a dog that believes it’s intellectually superior to you, wire fox terriers are a great addition to your family. With a fox terrier in your house, you’ll have good bad dog stories enough for years.

What price do you put on art?

On the road to world domination, the Third Reich developed quite the taste for art. Looting the churches, museums and private collections of Europe, the Nazis amassed millions of paintings, sculptures and precious pieces of jewelry. Hitler intended to create a Fuhrer Museum and fill it with art pilfered from conquered lands.
    Monuments Men to the rescue!
    To combat the rape of Europe’s culture, art historian Frank Stokes (George Clooney: Gravity) appeals to President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Tasked with rescuing and returning the great works of Europe, the Monuments Men are a motley crew of old, fat and/or physically impaired art experts. After white-knuckling through basic training, they head to France post-D-Day, hot on the heels of the retreating Nazis.
    The stakes rise when they learn that if Germany falls or Hitler dies, the surviving Nazis will destroy every piece of art in their possession.
    This true story has amazing potential, but Monuments Men the movie has little follow through. Director Clooney fails to develop a cogent storyline. Eschewing the great historic drama of the true tale, he fabricates deaths and romances for the sake of comedy.
    For the real story, track down the superior documentary The Rape of Europa.
    Because Clooney gives little time to his characters, we don’t invest in their stories. Characters build friendships, fall in love and die in jump-cut scenes, and we don’t much care. To drive home important points, Clooney cues the soundtrack, pulling out the bombastic stop.
    Saving the film from utter disaster is an all-star cast. Matt Damon, Cate Blanchett, John Goodman and Bob Balaban work overtime to wring every bit of drama and comedy from a weak script. The standout is Bill Murray, who creates the film’s one genuine emotional moment and steals every lighthearted scene he graces.
    If Clooney had trusted his cast to flesh out their characters, Monuments Men could have been a great film instead of an entertaining but shallow historic comedy.

Fair historic dramedy • PG-13 • 118 mins.

See this film and you’ll waste not only your money but 94 minutes of your life.

Once upon a time, two little pigs lived in New York City. Graphic designer Jason (Zac Efron: Parkland) creates outlandishly sexist covers for women’s books. Jason cultivates a roster of women and gels his hair straight up. Whenever a woman asks more from him than a few disappointing minutes, he cries Wee, Wee, Wee all the way home.
    His graphic partner is college buddy Daniel (Miles Teller: 21 & Over), who also enjoys chauvinist jokes and casual sex. Instead of hair gel, Daniel uses sarcasm to make him more attractive to women at bars.
    The two porcine pals are shocked when their buddy, doctor Mikey (Michael B. Jordan: Fruitvale Station) is dumped by a cheating wife. They drag their devastated friend to a bar.
    Unaware that he has the most disgusting friends in the world, Mikey pours his heart out to Daniel and Jason. The brain trust makes a bet: All will remain single. This of course means that all three men will meet irresistible girls in a matter of hours.
    Jason hooks up with a successful author who is creative and vivacious. We know that because she mixes thrift store coats with pricey designer dresses and doesn’t own a hairbrush. They roam the city together, reveling in how vapid and attractive they are. Daniel falls for his gal pal, who has apparently spent a large chunk of her 20s following him to bars and helping him trick women into sleeping with him. Mikey meets a girl with glasses, which is all we learn about her.
    Can these men make the leap to commitment? Can you stomach this movie without becoming violently ill?
    It’s rare to find a romantic comedy starring three people so vile that you hope they never find love, not out of any vindictive impulse but out of an altruistic desire to protect humanity’s gene pool from further contamination. Judd Apatow has proven that gross-out humor can be smart and hilarious. Here writer/director Tom Gormican made sure That Awkward Moment lived up to its name with his incompetent direction and insulting view of male friendship. You cringe for everyone listed in the credits.
    See this film and you’ll waste not only your money but 94 minutes of your life. Both Teller and Jordan have offered fantastic performances in the past year and have careers to watch. Jordan is barely in the movie, but his natural charisma makes a nothing part slightly more interesting. Teller does his best with Gormican’s ham-fisted dialog, but even he can’t land these dud punch lines.
    Efron, who’s in the spotlight, doesn’t have the skill to carry a good movie, let alone this abysmal flick.

Horrible romantic comedy • R • 94 mins.

Kevin Hart steals the show in this cop comedy

Ben Barber (Kevin Hart: Grudge Match) is a tough, well-respected soldier nicknamed the Black Hammer — in virtual reality. In real life, Ben is a school security officer with a loud mouth and a big heart. He spends his day breaking up petty teenage fights, mentoring kids and dreaming of becoming a real cop.
    But Ben is a man with a plan: He’s been accepted to the police academy and plans to propose to his girlfriend Angela (Tika Sumpter: A Madea Christmas). Blocking the way is Angela’s domineering older brother James (Ice Cube: 21 Jump Street), already a real cop.
    Ride along with me for a day, says James, to prove yourself as a man and a cop. Ben leaps in like a puppy, but James is setting him up for failure, sending him to confront a biker gang, a violent drunk and a mouthy kid.
    But a real case gets in the way, forcing a real team effort.
    Filled with silly gags and dubious plotting, Ride Along isn’t a great work of filmmaking. It is, however, a fantastically funny piece of cinematic fluff, thanks in large part to a great leading performance by comedian Hart. Director Tim Story (Think Like a Man) sets up a few interesting action pieces, but he’s smart enough to know that this film is Hart’s show.
    Hart’s fish-out-of-water routine works well as he fumbles through dangerous scenarios and bizarre situations. In a performance worthy of Lou Costello, Hart makes Ben a man in flux. He’s capable of bravery and cowardice, easily transitioning from hysterics to calm competence.
    As the Abbott to Hart’s Costello, Cube has an easier job. He snarls through the movie, playing the straight man with a tough veneer. Ice Cube has never been noted for his acting skills, but he is a decent foil to Hart.
    Ride Along is a rare modern comedy, deriving its humor from traditional slapstick rather than the gross-out humor that’s put Sandler and Apatow on the map. While it’s still not droll drawing room humor, it’s a nice change in tone.

Good Comedy • PG-13 • 99 mins.

How do I love thee? Siri, count the ways.

People walk the streets talking aloud to their phones, wrapped up in their own electrical worlds. Digital interfaces have nullified human interaction.
    Living a quiet life of digital obscurity is Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix: The Master). A ghostwriter of handwritten correspondence for a faceless corporation, he pours over the personal lives of people who would rather play with their phones than write love letters and thank you notes.
    On the tail end of a divorce, Theodore is testing the dating game. But people are difficult; videogames and technology are easy. To streamline his life, he buys a new artificial intelligence operating system. Thus Theodore meets Samantha (Scarlett Johansson: Don Jon), who is his new operating system.
    Think of her as Siri with a sexier voice.
    She begins as an assistant, sorting Theodore’s email, suggesting music, keeping him on time for appointments. But her helpful nature and apparent curiosity about Theodore put her on more intimate terms with the shy, wounded man.
    Are we only a few iPhone updates away from romancing a programmed intelligence?
    Director Spike Jonze (Where the Wild Things Are) constructs a strange but plausible future that seems no further than 10 years ahead.
    His cinematography and style enhance the world of Her, which looks like an updated Apple store. Lines are sleek, clothes are cute and everything has a touch of whimsy. Her is a beautifully realized film filled with visual interest, not one frame wasted.
    As Theodore, Phoenix is a jumble of isolation and adulation. He gives a believable and impressive performance as he falls in love with a phone, crooning, dancing, whispering the sweet nothings you expect from a man in love. As he’s often the only physical presence, his hold on our attention is remarkable.
    Johansson does masterful voice work as Samantha, imbuing a four-inch metal box with warmth and soul as she challenges Theodore to go out in the world and celebrate the beauty of life.
    But is it love?
    No matter how charming and unique Samantha seems, she is a program generated to please Theodore. His choices are the basis of her personality, meaning that there’s an even darker layer to the story: Is it Samantha’s choice to love Theodore? Jonze doesn’t answer that.
    A brilliant look at our deep and often dysfunctional relationship with technology, Her is a film that all you smartphone users should see.

Good Dramedy • R • 126 mins.

Four SEALs fight for their lives in this gripping action film

Navy SEALs Marcus Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg: 2 Guns), Michael Murphy (Taylor Kitsch: Savages), Danny Dietz (Emile Hirsch: Bonnie and Clyde) and Matt Axelson (Ben Foster: Ain’t Them Bodies Saints) are proud frogmen. They run long distances at great speeds, push their bodies to their limit for fun and take deadly assignments as part of the job.
    The latest mission should be an easy one. Their task is to scout a village in the woods of Afghanistan, positively identify a terrorist cell leader (code named Rick James) and report back to headquarters. Next, they’ll either get permission to eliminate the target, or fade into the shadows.
    The mission goes haywire because of three men and their goats. Herding their flock up a mountain, two boys and their father literally stumble on the frogmen. The SEALs have a choice: Kill the goatherds, or let them go possibly to return with an army of angry terrorists.
    Can the four team make it out of Afghanistan alive?
    Lone Survivor isn’t coy about what happens; it’s spelled out in the title. Though you know early that only one SEAL leaves the mountain, the film is a thrilling, gut-wrenching portrayal of a real incident. Stay through the credits to see a tribute to the brave men who lost their lives. 
    Director Peter Berg (Battleship) doesn’t bother with artistic shots or subtle imagery. His straightforward storytelling style doesn’t leave much room for nuance or character development. What he does well is convey the actuality of life for men stationed overseas. The opening credits show footage of actual SEAL training and how extreme it can be. Other effective sequences invoke the shadows of the people back home, whether the men are chatting with wives or wondering what to buy their fiancée.
    Berg also delivers on action, making the SEALs’ fight for survival brutal and terrifying. Gunfights in real life probably don’t come with visual metaphors and a soaring soundtrack, so Berg’s pared-down approach seems realistic. Berg views these SEALs as nearly superhuman, and his admiration shows in every shot.
    Keeping the SEALs from becoming action heroes are the actors entrusted with their story. Wahlberg, Foster, Kitsch and Hirsch keep their characters grounded in reality, showing their flaws as well as their dedication and drive. Together, the cast creates a tangible sense of brother­hood.

Good Action • R • 121 mins.

Sometimes, you shouldn’t go home again

The only thing that could bring together the Weston women is tragedy. When the family patriarch — poet ­Beverly (Sam Shepard: Out of the Furnace) — goes missing, the three sisters converge at their ancestral home, steeling themselves to deal with old hurts, family secrets and, worst of all, their mother.
    Violet Weston (Meryl Streep: Hope Springs) has been terrorizing her family since anyone can remember. Rude, cruel and high most of the time, Violet loves only her pills and her booze, both stashed around the house in case of emergencies. Two daughters have fled the state, but one has stayed in hopes of earning a kind word.
    Did Violet drive her husband away? Or has he, too, gone on a bender?
    The family emergency comes at the perfect time for all three of the Weston daughters, who are going through tumultuous changes. Ivy, the youngest (Julianne Nicholson: Masters of Sex), lives down the road and resents the sisters who left her to deal with mommy dearest. Ivy has a secret: She’s planning a big escape.
    Middle child Karen (Juliette Lewis: Open Road) devotes her life to finding a replacement for her mother’s love. She’s found a string of terrible men and awful relationships. She’s brought along her latest fiancé — no less a disaster — in hopes of impressing mother.
    Eldest Barbara (Julia Roberts: Mirror Mirror) is also in crisis. Her husband has left and her teenager hates her. Still, she guilts both husband and daughter into joining her, hoping Violet won’t notice the rift.
    Will the Weston women find healing? Or will they join together to kill Violet?
    Based on the play by Tracy Letts, August: Osage County is the film to see if you’ve spent the holidays arguing with family. The comedic drama examines how Violet’s poisonous relationships have infected every aspect of their lives.
    Director John Wells (Shameless) makes Violet’s home cramped and dark if theatrical. The film doesn’t flow easily. Each scene seems more a set piece than a natural progression of storytelling. The only thing missing is a curtain drop.
    Excellent performances save August: Osage County the movie. As the matriarch, Streep is a collection of vices and vicious words overlying a deep sadness that adds pathos to her villainy.
    In a performance that’s both confident and commanding, Roberts stands out. Struggling to suppress her inherited cruelty, her Barbara is a wonder to watch, whether trying to show her daughter love or wrestling her mother to the ground.
    August: Osage County isn’t a film for everyone. There’s enough blue language and abusive behavior to send most holiday audiences running for the exits. But it’s a fantastic showcase for a troupe of powerful actresses.

Good Drama • R • 121 mins.

A princess movie for people sick of princess movies

Princess Elsa (Idina Menzel: Glee) was born with a silver spoon in her mouth and a chill in her will. Creating ice and snow is a great power for a young girl, and she gleefully turns the palace into a winter wonderland for her little sister Anna (Kristen Bell: The Lifeguard). They skate in the grand ballroom, build snowmen by the suits of armor and frolic in snowdrifts under priceless paintings.
    But a careless slip of hand has a painful consequence for Anna. Worried for their youngest daughter and terrified by their eldest, the king and queen isolate them from the world. The gates are closed, staff reduced to a skeleton crew and Elsa locked in her room. Anna roams empty halls alone.
    Someone call child protective services for these poor kids.
    Sailing on a diplomatic voyage, king, queen and ship are sunk by a storm. Promoted from frost demon to queen, Elsa is nervous while Anna is delighted that her sister’s coronation will mean a party and a party means people.
    The sisters prepare for their big day with different goals. Elsa hopes to conceal her frost-curse long enough to take the crown and seal up the palace. Anna is praying to find a husband at the ball, before the palace doors again close her in.
    In a state of nerves, Elsa causes an icy surprise at the coronation ball. As she flees to the mountains, her distress sends the kingdom into a blustery winter. Can Anna find her sister and love in a thawed kingdom? Will Elsa ever learn to control her powers?
    For years, Disney has been at the forefront of Princess-Culture, an insidious movement that’s convinced young girls that finding a true love and a matching ball gown are the most important things in life. While princes and pretty dresses are both lovely in theory, the marketing team that promotes them is creating increasingly vapid entertainment to steal the minds of impressionable little girls.
    Frozen is a great remedy for Princess Culture. Yes, there are princesses, and even a love story, but the focus is the sisters’ relationship. One learns to embrace her power instead of fear it; the other learns that she can be the hero of her own story. It’s a heartening message from the company that taught legions of women that one day their prince will come.
    As the sisters, Menzel and Bell prove that they have a knack for voice work. Menzel’s Tony-winning voice soars in the soundtrack, which features several great tracks.
    Bell infuses her Anna with enough pluck to make her endearing even when she’s making poor decisions. Anna isn’t a fool, just an optimist, and she has no problem trying to fix her mistakes or right wrongs. Bell also has a delightful singing voice that complements Menzel’s belt.
    This cartoon about women has plenty of entertainment for both sexes of all ages, with hilarious moments of slapstick sure to enthrall even non-princesses. If you have a young one, get to the theater this weekend; if you don’t — go anyway. Elsa’s journey from fearful child to powerful woman is a great story for all ages.

Great Animation • PG • 108 mins.

The scariest part is knowing you paid to see this ludicrous sequel

Picking up where the last film ended, Insidious: Chapter 2 begins with the return of the Lamberts’ son Dalton (Ty Simpkins: Insidious) from The Further, a spirit realm filled with evil ghosts and demons. It’s great that Dalton is back in this Earthly realm, but a price was exacted for his return: A malevolent spirit has possessed Dalton’s dad, Josh (Patrick Wilson: The Conjuring), causing him to strangle the family’s psychic aide Elise (Lin Shaye: Crazy Kind of Love). The demon abandons Josh, leaving the Lambert
family ghost-free, but with a dead body in their living room.
    Don’t you hate when that happens?
    Luckily for the Lamberts, the police called to get rid of the body don’t seem to care about finding the murderer or locking up Josh. With no sign of those pesky spirits, no criminal charges and no need to visit The Further again, the Lamberts seek a fresh start. They leave yet another haunted house and move in with Josh’s mother.
    The only problem? The house wasn’t drawing the evil spirits. The Lamberts were.
    Not-so-friendly ghosts return. They harass harried mom Renai (Rose Byrne: The Turning), who squeals helplessly. They spook Dalton and threaten to take the youngest Lambert, baby Kali.
    The family tries to ignore the ghosts, hoping the evil otherworldly entities will get bored with haunting and perhaps take up Sudoku. Unfortunately for the Lamberts, these haunts are committed to making their lives hell.
    To make matters worse, Josh is apparently no longer possession-free. He spits out bloody teeth, has heated arguments with no one in particular and looms in doorways like a suburban version of Jason Vorhees. To stop the haunting, the family must delve into Josh’s past and find the source of their ghostly troubles.
    This sequel to the mildly chilling Insidious is a nonsensical film that offers poor writing and ridiculous plotting in place of genuine scares. Sure, there are jump scenes (loud noises and suddenly appearing entities), but they play on the reflexes and not the psyche. Insidious: Chapter 2 isn’t the type of film to make you lock the doors and check under the bed; it’s the type of film you forget about as soon as the credits role.
    The problem with the sequels to successful horror movies is logic. How many bad things could possibly happen to the same characters? Much like the Paranormal Activity films, the Insidious franchise started off with a decent idea that gets progressively more ludicrous with each installment. This weekend’s box office success ensures that you’ll be seeing more hauntings from The Further.
    Don’t feed the beast. Instead, see Wan’s much more sophisticated haunted-house yarn, The Conjuring.

Poor Horror • PG-13 • 105 mins.