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Articles by Diana Beechener

The latest in the Rocky series is a knockout

Adonis Johnson (Michael B. Jordan: Fantastic Four) has been throwing punches all his life. Orphaned and alone, Adonis ricocheted between foster care and juvenile detention. When a well-dressed woman visits him in lockup, he’s shocked.
    Mary Anne Creed (Phylicia Rashad: For Justice) has sought Adonis ever since she discovered that he is the son of her late husband, heavyweight champ Apollo Creed.
    The grown up Adonis has had the benefits of money, an education and a loving stepmother. But he can’t shake the urge to fight. He works weeks in a finance company, but on weekends he boxes in illegal matches in Tijuana. Fearing that her surrogate son will meet the same end as his father, Mary Anne won’t help him start a fighting career.
    Adonis then travels to Philadelphia, where his father’s greatest opponent lives. Tracking down Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone: The Expendables 3), Adonis begs the Italian Stallion to train him to become a champion. A shell of the man he once was, Rocky isn’t sure he or the kid has what it takes.
    Creed is the first movie in the Rocky series not written by Sylvester Stallone. That could be why it is easily the best film since the original Rocky. Written and directed by Ray Coogler (Fruitvale Station), it honors the icons of the Rocky films while crafting a bold, independent vision. Coogler’s Philadelphia is gritty and punishing, full of life and promise. As Adonis runs through the streets, the neighborhoods seemingly come alive around him.
    Fight scenes are well choreographed and exhilarating. Coogler puts the camera behind Adonis, so the audience is directly in the path of the onslaught. It’s visceral and effective, making more than one viewer scream OH! when a particularly brutal blow lands.  
    Coogler’s biggest triumph, however, is reminding Stallone to act. Alone in the world and waiting to join his dead loved ones, Creed’s Rocky is a tragic figure. Stallone doesn’t push his big speeches, instead turning Rocky into a sad, shambling man who sees Adonis as his last hope for family. Stallone’s natural chemistry with Jordan helps to sell the relationship, which is the heart of the film.
    The heavyweight in this film, however, is Jordan, who breathes new life into the Rocky franchise. Jordan’s natural charisma evokes memories of Apollo for Rocky fans and charms franchise newcomers in equal measures. His impressive physical transformation into a powerful boxer is overshadowed only by the emotional depths he reveals. Adonis is a damaged boy yearning to prove he’s worthy of his father’s name.
    A knockout for anyone who’s ever dreamed of running up the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s stairs, Creed is both a great Rocky film and a great character study.

Great Sports Drama • PG-13• 132 mins.

In this historical biopic, women become warriors for the right to vote

A London laundry worker since she was seven, Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan: Far from the Madding Crowd) works long hours as harsh chemicals corrode her lungs. She’s paid less by the hour than male co-workers, who get to spend their days outside the factory making deliveries.
    It’s abominable. It’s unfair. It’s life in early 20th century England.
    A coworker who believes in the suffragette movement, which demands the vote for women as well as equal rights and pay, convinces Maud to join her at a parliamentary hearing on the working conditions. But their testimony falls on deaf ears.
    Thus Maud joins the suffragette fight as the women turn from marching and chanting to blowing up letterboxes.
    Shamed by neighbors and friends, Maud’s husband threatens her with homelessness and loss of her son. It’s a terrifying threat, as under the law women have no rights to their children.
    A fascinating look at the women behind the equality movement, Suffragette is a gripping but unfocused movie. Director Sarah Gavron (Brick Lane) knows her history and excels at detailing the injustices suffered by the suffragettes, from beatings to force feedings to stalking by the police. But her characters remain a mystery. It’s hard to care about the beating or death of a character whose name you can’t recall.
    One notable exception is the firebrand feminist played by Helena Bonham Carter (Cinderella). As Edith Ellyn, a highly educated pharmacist and dedicated suffragette, Bonham Carter easily steals every scene she’s in. Edith is a fierce proponent of the movement, who delights in blowing up symbols of the patriarchy and refuses to apologize for her behavior. Her husband is her partner in her causes, often acting as the getaway driver.
    As Maud, Mulligan offers a heartfelt performance, selling her transformation from suffering to suffragette.
    Doing better with facts than people’s stories, Suffragette rolls like a documentary, opening a window into a time that now seems almost unthinkable. Women have had the right to vote in England and America for less than a century; stay after the end for a list of when women around the world earned the right to vote.
    See Suffragette to understand how far the women’s movement has come — and how far it has to go.

Good Historical Drama • PG-13 • 106 mins.

Chilean miners fight for survival in this stirring drama based on a true story

Before descending into the bowels of the earth, workers at the San Jose gold and copper mine pause before a shrine to pray for protection. They need help from a higher power as the mining companies place profit above safety.
    Each time the miners enter the gaping maw, they know there is a chance they’ll never return.
    When the mountain collapses after 100 years of mining, it’s no surprise. Thirty-three miners are trapped. A rock twice the size of the Empire State Building stands between the men and fresh air. In their small refuge, they have a dozen cans of tuna, some stale cookies and milk. It’s barely enough to feed 33 men for a day, let alone the days it will take for help to reach them.
    The company response is to follow protocol: Ignore the collapse, try to contain news of the trapped miners and avoid terrified family members seeking answers. Infuriated that their husbands, brothers and sons are being left to die, the families riot, making the news.
    The president of Chile (Bob Gunton: Daredevil) sends his minister of mining (Rodrigo Santoro: Focus) to deal with the crisis. As the government races to drill to the miners, morale and food run low for the trapped men.
    Frustrating and gripping, The 33 is best underground, excelling at capturing the dynamics of the miners who spent 69 days trapped in a gold-and copper-laden tomb. Director Patricia Riggen (Girl in Progress) masterfully crafts the cave-in scene, escalating the tension as the miners scramble toward safety. Watching the group come together and fracture as starvation, exhaustion and depression infiltrate is riveting.
    As Mario, the leader of the miners, Antonio Banderas (The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water) carries the film well, even managing to sell some of the more heavy-handed dialogue. The other miners are all tertiary, but Riggen gives them all character action so that we care for the men.
    Above ground, Riggen has mixed success. She devotes a good deal of time to the miners’ families, but the characters are underdeveloped and boring compared to the miners. The notable exception is Juliette Binoche (7 Letters), who plays Maria, the fierce sister of a trapped miner. Binoche becomes the leader of the families, forcing the government to take accountability and refusing to give up hope.
    The greatest problem with The 33 is its scope. Riggen brings in so many plot threads and themes that they obscure the main story of survival while buried in the earth. Because the film is overcrowded, no character is fully developed. It’s also slightly uncomfortable to watch white actors, like Gunton who plays the president, pretend to be Chilean with ridiculous accents.
    Though flawed, The 33 is compelling whenever Riggen focuses on the subterranean drama. Buy your ticket to watch Banderas and his band of brothers fight for survival. When the film cuts to topside drama, take a bathroom break or get a popcorn refill.

Fair Drama • PG-13 • 120 mins.

The script is deader than the zombies

In a deserted strip club, teen Scouts Ben (Tye Sheridan: Dark Places) and Carter (Logan Miller: Take Me to the River) are slow to realize that the pole dancers are dead — make that undead.
    With zombies invading their hamlet, the boys make it their mission to save the hot senior girls. Along the way, they grope naked dead people, fight zombie housecats, stop for a few selfies and never much worry about the likelihood that everyone they know is dead and seeking their brains.
    Has Scout training prepared them to fight zombies? Can you watch this movie without severe mental anguish?
    Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse is neither funny nor scary. Distilling every annoying piece of millennial culture, from electric dance music to selfies to painfully self-aware references, it is sure to make all viewers over 30 long for the good old days of Adam Sandler’s lazy yet coherent humor.
    With characters so vapid and unlikeable that we root for the zombies, it makes a good case for the extermination of the human race. Director Christopher Landon (Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones) aims for the lowest common denominator. His jokes are dirty and overdone. Body humor is grotesque and uncomfortable. The one promising part — using Scouts training to fight zombies — is glossed over in 10 minutes.
    Lazy character work makes the leads not only predictable but also unenjoyable. We know Ben is the good guy because he gets shy around pretty girls. Carter is a horn dog, ogling and groping naked zombie women. It’s supposed to be the behavior of an irrepressible scamp, but sexual assault, even with zombies, is never funny.
    Even zombies will skip this movie.

Dismal Horror • R • 93 mins.

There’s a great spy story in the middle of this bloated epic

James Donovan (Saving Mr. Banks) knows how to strike a deal. The insurance lawyer is used to haggling for his clients. Though his expertise is litigation and payouts, Donovan is asked to defend Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance: Wolf Hall), an accused spy.
    The Cold War colors the case, and soon Donovan is the second most hated man in America, right after Abel. People threaten him in public, shoot at his home and terrify his family. The CIA tails him, pressuring him to break attorney-client privilege. On the other hand, Donovan’s dogged defense of his client grants him some cache with the Soviet Union.
    The USSR reaches out with a deal: trading a captured U.S. pilot for Abel. The CIA thinks it’s a great deal but can’t be involved in brokering it. They ask Donovan to travel to Berlin, where the U.S.S.R. has just finished constructing its wall, and engineer the trade.
    In Berlin, Donovan is on his own once he crosses the wall. He navigates international politics uncertainly, never sure whom he’s speaking with or what he has the authority to bargain with. He is unnerved by the violence around as he tries to stick to the deal: One spy for one pilot.
    Simple, right?
    Not quite. It seems the German Democratic Republic, eager to impress the Soviets and gain status as a world power, captured an American student who had the misfortune of being on the wrong side of the city the day the Berlin Wall was constructed. He’s not a spy, but the East Germans are holding him and demanding an audience with the CIA. Donovan wants to save the kid, but the CIA is interested only in the soldier.
    There is a fantastic thriller somewhere in the middle of Bridge of Spies, but you’ll have to slog through 50 minutes of a boring, heavy-handed setup to get to it. Director Steven Spielberg (Lincoln) is an icon, but his latest effort is a bloated, rambling mess.
    The American action is a Frank Capra-esque tale of a lone man fighting the just fight. Hanks sleepwalks through his Jimmy Stewart knockoff, while around him everyone snarls about communists and the A-bomb. The bright point is Rylance, who gives Abel interesting pathos.
    In Berlin, the movie wakes up. Scenes are tighter, with higher energy; the cinematography plays off of long shadows and harsh lines; Hanks comes alive as he negotiates with dangerous men. It’s Spielberg at his best, meticulously weaving tension and theme into each scene. It’s a shame, then, when the film returns to America for an unnecessary, lifeless coda.
    If you’re interested in a moody spy thriller with gorgeous cinematography, Bridge of Spies should have you enthralled. Arrive about 30 minutes late and dawdle at the concession stand.

Fair Thriller • PG-13 • 141 mins.

Guillermo del Toro’s moody gem is a love letter to Gothic literature

Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska: Madame Bovary) isn’t some silly girl with dreams of romance. The only daughter of a rich businessman, Edith wants to be a writer.
    Then European aristocrat Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston: High-Rise), reduces her to one of her heroines. She swoons over his romantic speeches. She sighs gazing into his eyes. She trembles at his touch. Sure, his sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain: The Martian) is a little odd. Yes, Thomas is broke, with only a title and a manor to his name. But Edith is too busy falling to look down.
    When her father is killed, Edith marries Thomas and abandons her life in America. Decrepit Allerdale Hall, Sharpe’s manor house, is hard to fit into her rosy picture.
    Black-boned skeletons with wisps of flesh lurk in the bathroom, seep through the floors and give chase. Edith isn’t afraid. The ghosts, like those in her stories, must be trying to communicate with her. She worries more about the Sharpe siblings, who seem to attract ghoulish behavior.
    A tribute to Gothic literature and films, Crimson Peak is bloody, overwrought and absolutely perfect. Writer/director Guillermo del Toro (Pacific Rim) noted that he made the movie with “bookish teenage girls” in mind. As a former bookish teenage girl, I can tell you that he’s hit the mark. An astounding tribute to the Gothic genre, Crimson Peak pulls threads and themes from famous works such as Jane Eyre and Rebecca.
    As always in del Toro films, the real star is the cinematography. Here, he creates a house that seems to be seething.
    Playing second fiddle to the house is an impressive cast. Chastain brings manic energy to the role that makes Lucille utterly horrifying even when she’s doing something benign. As Edith, Wasikowska is a plucky heroine who relies on her smarts and bravery for salvation. Hiddleston is more an object of desire than actual character, but when called upon to deliver a romantic speech ala Mr. Rochester, he sells it admirably.
    More romantic ghost story than horror movie, Crimson Peak combines the melodrama of Bronte with the gorgeously rendered gore of classic Italian movie stylist Mario Bava. It is the perfect piece of genre filmmaking.

Great Gothic Romance • R • 119 mins.

A character study of a despot who knew more about marketing than writing code

Some men are born great. Some men achieve greatness. Some have to reboot several times before they get there. That was the case with Steve Jobs (Michael Fassbender: Slow West), the sometimes CEO of Apple Computer. Covering Jobs’ life at three crucial product launches, this biopic focuses on the obsession, cruelty and fanaticism that drove him from CEO to outcast — and back again.
    In 1984, Jobs is debuting Macintosh. The computer has been his baby from the start, and he is demanding and demeaning to the team scrambling to ensure it works at the launch. He snarls at marketing executive Joanna (Kate Winslet: Insurgent), threatens harried engineer Andy (Michael Stuhlbarg: Pawn Sacrifice) and ignores co-founder Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen: The Interview).
    In 1988, Jobs has been ousted from Apple and is about to launch his new venture, NeXT.
    In 1998, Jobs is back at Apple, earning credit for saving the company from insolvency. As he prepares to launch the iMac, he is once again visited by Sculley, Wozniak and Andy.
    In each launch, Jobs encounters his daughter Lisa, who he refuses to acknowledge as his child. The girl longs to make a connection, but Jobs keeps her at arm’s length with comments as casually cruel as those he casts on his subordinates.
    Engrossing, funny and heartbreaking, this film crafts a character study of a despot who knew more about marketing than writing code. Jobs isn’t likeable, but he does seem realistic. It’s refreshing to see a film treat its subject as a human being instead of a saint.
    Director Danny Boyle (Trance) plays subtly with his medium to enhance the film, with each of the three sequences shot on a different film stock: 16mm film, 35mm film and digital film. It’s a brilliant choice that gives an almost subconscious cue that the story and time are shifting.
    Fassbender sinks his teeth into the role of genius jerk. His Jobs is just funny enough and just smart enough to get away with his behavior. He shows visceral distaste for human interaction he can’t control. When Lisa throws her arms around him, Jobs goes rigid, hands poised to reciprocate, but steadfastly refusing.
    Still, much like the computers Jobs loves, the film has flaws. The script by Aaron Sorkin (The Newsroom) is crisp and full of great dialog, but the redemptive ending feels unearned and disconnected.
    Whether you wait with bated breath for the latest Apple product or roll your eyes every time you pass a crowded Apple store, Steve Jobs is a fascinating character study of the man who changed the way we interact with computers.

Good Drama • R • 122 mins.

Necessity is the mother of interstellar invention in this great film

Astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon: Interstellar) wakes up alone on Mars.
    In a raging sand storm, Watney’s Aries III team abandoned the Red Planet, leaving behind what they assume is his lifeless body.
    He comes to alone but with a wire jutting out of his abdomen and suit and through his bio-monitor. He struggles back to the expedition’s temporary housing unit, and, in bloody initial scenes, operates on himself.
    Resolve and quick action solve his immediate problem. Longer term, the shelter has oxygen and food, which he can ration to last for a few hundred sols.
    Yet he’s stranded on a planet where nothing grows, with dwindling water and oxygen. His line to NASA was demolished in the storm, and even if he could contact mission control, help is nearly four years away.
    To survive until then, Watney gets creative. As a botanist, he can science out out how to grow food on a barren planet. But can he figure out a way to get home? Or is he doomed to die a Martian?
    Thrilling and often funny, The Martian is science fiction at its best. It is, in essence, a Robinson Crusoe tale set in space.
    Director Ridley Scott (Exodus: Gods and Kings) weaves Watney’s story of survival with the story of the NASA engineers who realize he is alive and are desperately trying to save him. It’s a testament to Scott’s sense of timing and storytelling that he’s able to make jet propulsion nerds and NASA suits as interesting as a man trapped on Mars.
    Scott has assembled an impressive supporting cast, featuring Jeff Daniels, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Jessica Chastain and Michael Peña, but the film unquestionably belongs to Damon.
    Though Scott and Damon create a strong sci-fi adventure, The Martian isn’t perfect. Some supporting characters, especially the astronauts played by Kate Mara and Sebastian Stan, are thinly drawn and barely justify their share of two hours and 20 minutes of screen time.
    Long, layered and utterly engrossing, The Martian is a sci-fi film for people who don’t particularly like sci-fi.

Great Sci-Fi • PG-13 • 141 mins.

This light comedy closes the generation gap

Ben Whittaker (Robert De Niro: The Bag Man) isn’t adjusting to retirement. Widowed and 3,000 miles from his son and granddaughter, Ben feels imprisoned in his Brooklyn townhouse. Life is reduced to funerals, busywork and widows who want to pre-heat his lasagna.
    A flyer advertising senior internships at an Internet startup leads him back into the workforce, but his new career takes some adjustment. He’s a suit in a sea of hoodies. He uses a clock instead of consulting his cellphone. He listens when people talk. He’s doesn’t know how to turn on his computer.
    Ben’s ineptitude rankles company founder Jules Ostin (Anne Hathaway: Interstellar), who thought senior internships a dumb idea. Overcommitted and flighty, she is Ben’s polar opposite. She’s trying to have it all but seems to be losing everything one piece at a time. Investors want an experienced CEO in her place to manage the company’s massive growth. With her job and family threatened, Jules turns to wise old Ben when he proves a cool head in a crisis.
    Can Ben learn how to survive in a modern office? Will Jules figure out how to have it all? Why do only the men get to dress in hoodies and jeans?
    The Intern is a confection: Sweet, enjoyable and bad for you in large quantities. Director Nancy Meyers’ (It’s Complicated) newest is better at cultivating lifestyle envy than developing characters. Brooklyn brownstones are done in open layouts, airy colors out of Pottery Barn catalogs and enviable kitchens. Outfits are impeccable or comically bad.
    Meyers has never been particularly interested in her characters. Jules is a textbook neurotic. It’s supposed to be adorable that Jules and Ben bond, but it’s notable that she becomes sweet or caring only with someone who makes his living stroking her ego. Hathaway does her perky best to make Jules’ manic energy likeable, but the character is underwritten.
    Ben is a role De Niro could perform in his sleep. His old-school advice that transforms the office isn’t so much generational knowledge as common sense.
    Meyers’ reflections on feminism are equally light. Meyers falls back on clichés to show how hard it is to be a working mother.
    The Intern isn’t a terrible film. The locales are pretty, the humor light and the characters funny. Nothing of consequence happens, nor does anything offensive. If you’re overdue for an outing with your mother or grandmother, make a date for The Intern.

Fair Comedy • PG -13 • 121 mins.

The FBI makes a smalltime hood a kingpin in this engrossing drama

When James ‘Whitey’ Bulger (Johnny Depp: Mortdecai) looks you in the eyes, it’s too late. Cold, calculating and amoral, Bulger leads the Winter Hill Gang.
    Though he’s fierce and feared, Bulger is fairly smalltime. His reputation extends only to the edges of the South Boston neighborhood he rules. The Italian mafia uses superior numbers and muscle to keep Winter Hill in check.
    To make his move, Bulger finds help in the form of John Connolly (Joel Edgerton: The Gift), an FBI agent who grew up in the neighborhood idolizing Bulger and now sees him as opportunity. If he can turn Bulger, he’ll be able to take down the Italians.
    Bulger at first sneers at turning snitch. But as the Italians press, he acquiesces. Now, everything Bulger does is protected under his status as an FBI informant. The feds, in turn, fight his mob war.
    Clear to take over Boston, Bulger sweeps a bloody path through the city. Still enamored with Bulger and thrilled with the Bureau attention his mob case has gained, Connolly decides he can’t afford to bring Whitey down. So he hides evidence that Bulger is killing and mentions the names of snitches to Bulger.
    As bodies pile up, the Feds can’t ignore Bulger. Can they bring down the new crime prince of Boston?
    Based on the true story of the FBI’s deal with the devil, Black Mass is an uneven film anchored by Depp’s great performance. Director Scott Cooper (Out of the Furnace) tries to make the movie about the relationship between Bulger and Connolly. But Connolly and his FBI counterparts are underwritten and uninteresting drags.
    Depp, on the other hand, is electric. His performance is free of the quirks and ticks that have made him a caricature of himself. Bulger is a viper, still and calm until he strikes. Black Mass is Johnny Depp’s revival.

Good Drama • R • 122 mins.