view counter

Articles by Diana beechener

An animated lesson on the benefits of good pet ownership

It’s been five years since Hiccup (Jay Baruchel: Robocop) convinced the people of Berk that dragons were not the enemy. The Vikings have laid down their arms and picked up saddles, domesticating dragons and racing them for fun. Even Hiccup’s dragon-hating dad Stoick the Vast (Gerard Butler: Olympus has Fallen) has converted his dragon-killing armory into a custom dragon-saddle business.
    Peace has brought Stoick and Hiccup closer, but father and son still don’t understand one another. Stoick sees Hiccup’s skill with dragons as a sign that he’s ready to become the next chieftain of Berk. Hiccup is terrified of more responsibility, so he avoids his father for adventures with Toothless, his rare Night Fury dragon.
    While adventuring, Hiccup encounters a group of unscrupulous trappers who shoot dragons out of the sky and sell them to warlord Drago Bloodfist (Djimon Hounsou: Baggage Claim). Drago has found a way to bewilder dragons, gaining control of their minds as he builds an army to take over the world. Hiccup and mysterious dragon-rider Valka (Cate Blanchett: The Monuments Men) are the world’s only hope against Drago and his fire-breathing beasts.
    How to Train Your Dragon 2 is a story about the families we make and the families we earn. The sequel to the wildly popular How to Train Your Dragon, the film expands on the imaginative universe of the first movie but shrinks its heart. Second-time director Dean DeBlois offers great action sequences and soaring chases, but he does little with the characters we’ve come to know.
    Hiccup goes through the standard teen angst of movie characters between the ages of 10 and 25. His body has matured but not his character. He still spurns responsibility. That’s typical teen behavior, but odder is that a boy with raging hormones spends so much time away from his girlfriend. Hiccup’s true love seems to be Toothless, his constant adventuring companion.
    On its surface a film about familial ties, Dragon 2 is more deeply focused on the relationship between pet and person. Hiccup’s connections with his father and his extended family are barely explored, because he is never in the same room with them. There’s a great deal of talking about family and very little interaction.
    Late in the movie, Valka explains to Hiccup that there aren’t any bad dragons, just “good dragons forced to do bad things.” Hiccup learns this first-hand when Drago uses his dragon-controlling powers to force Toothless to betray his beloved master. It’s a crushing blow for fire-breathing beast and boy, and one of the more effectively poignant moments in the movie. Sadly, it’s quickly shoved to the side so that we can go through more dreck about family.
    Though the human dramatics often fall flat, DeBlois is a master of dragon emotion. He gives each dragon a distinct personality. The film works best when the dragons take center stage. They romp, soar, spit fire and act like dopey dogs when they’re with their humans. Who wouldn’t want a dragon for a pet? Seeing this movie will more likely inspire you to give your pet an extra cuddle than to call your parents.

Good Animation • PG • 102 mins.
The land of opportunity is a lie in this stirring drama
When Ewa (Marion Cotillard: Anchorman 2) emerges from the dank hull of an immigrant ship into the gray New York winter, the land of opportunity is cold and foreboding. Crammed into lines at Ellis Island, Ewa is nervous that her sister Magda (Angela Sarafyan: Paranoia), who fell ill on the boat, won’t pass inspection.
 
She’s right. 
 
Magda is ushered into a quarantine room while Ewa tries to figure out what’s going on. As a woman alone, Ewa too is an immigration risk, sent to a room with other unsuitables awaiting deportation. Afraid, alone and about to lose her American dream, Ewa glimpses possible salvation. 
 
Bruno Weiss (Joaquin Phoenix: Her) is scouting rejects for talent. A pimp and strip show producer, he promises to help Ewa and her sister. But she will work to earn the money he’ll need. Ewa reluctantly joins Bruno and the women he manages. 
 
Counting the seconds until her indentured servitude is over, Ewa continues to hope to free her sister from Ellis Island isolation. 

Bleak, pensive and beautifully shot, The Immigrant is a fascinating look at the dark side of the American dream. Writer/director James Gray (Two Lovers) explores how easy it was for predatory men to force desperate women into sex work. Gray’s Prohibition-era New York is dirty and grey, filled with filthy people and dark corners. This is an unwelcoming world to foreign people, who must learn the rules of this new corrupt society fast or be swallowed by exploiters. Gray pairs his strong script with carefully considered camera work. Frames filled with action and detail enhance the story. 
 
Luminous even with minimal makeup, Cotillard is fantastic as a woman who sells herself piece by piece for hope. Her beauty and solemnity set her apart from the chaotic crowds swirling around her. Her Ewa is never helpless, even when victimized. She accepts what’s happening to her stoically, remaining focused on her goal. Her mix of vulnerability and steel makes her a compelling heroine. 
 
As Ewa’s mercurial pimp, Phoenix swings wildly between terrifying and pathetic. He gives Bruno a wild look, as if he’s clinging to sanity with his fingernails. Indeed, he has deluded himself into believing he’s a savior to the women he uses. Chalking his mood swings up to “artistic temperament,” Bruno becomes obsessed with Ewa, seemingly the only woman repulsed by his behavior. 
 
Troubling, brutal and sadly beautiful, The Immigrant won’t appeal to a mass audience. But it’s part of the truth of the Land of Opportunity.
Great Drama • R • 120 mins. 

Can you change the future with a few super powers?

The future isn’t very bright for Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart: American Dad) and his X-Men. Machine sentinels have been created by a fearful human population to exterminate mutants. Excellent hunters, the sentinels are able to adapt to any mutation, taking on their targets’ powers and finding a way to vanquish them. Only a handful of mutants remain, running for their lives.
    The most successful group of fugitives is a scavenging team led by Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page: The East). When the sentinels attack, Kitty uses her powers to transport the consciousness of a teammate back in time to warn the group.
    Impressed by Kitty’s success, Xavier believes he can use this trick to send himself back in time — to 1973, when the sentinel program began — and avoid the mutant war. The problem with the plan: Sending a mind that far back in time will rip it apart. Fortunately for the X-Men, a teammate with the power to heal rapidly might be able to withstand the journey. Unfortunately, this teammate is Wolverine (Hugh Jackman: Prisoners), whose volatile personality is unsuited for a delicate mission of diplomacy to change the political tide and the future.
    But beggars can’t be choosers. Wolverine’s mission is to reunite a despondent young Charles Xavier (James McAvoy: Filth) with his best friend and nemesis Magneto (Michael Fassbender: The Counselor). If he’s successful, X-Men will have a brighter future. If he fails, everyone will die. No pressure.
    Think of X-Men: Days of Future Past as a dark retelling of Back to the Future with Wolverine in the Michael J. Fox role. The film has lofty goals and metaphors. But its jumble of odd performances and logic gaps make you wonder how the X-Men survived so long in the mutant wars.
    The biggest mystery may be Wolverine, who is always the most entertaining character in these ensemble films but is consistently terrible when taking the lead in an X-Men origins movie. Here Jackman is in his element, snarling, flexing and quipping with aplomb. Jackman uses his natural charisma to make Wolverine a fun fish out of water, exasperatedly dealing with the younger versions of his friends and enemies.
    As the mercurial Magneto, Fassbender is a cunning villain. However Magneto’s inevitable turn to the dark side, now a third-act staple of the X-Men series, makes Fassbender’s character work moot. Magneto will always choose to kill humans, given the opportunity, so it’s mind-boggling that Xavier (supposed to possess the greatest mind in the world) and the rest of the good guys continue to trust him.
    Mutant motivation aside, director Brian Singer (Jack the Giant Slayer) packs the movie with some impressive action sequences. Who has time to wonder why Xavier and Wolverine would trust a mortal enemy who has betrayed them at every turn when we’re watching a mutant lift a stadium and zoom it around Washington, D.C.? Unfortunately, Singer is so busy with these tricks that he shortchanges the plot, which had some possibly interesting things to say about politics and weapons.
    Singer is now adept at superhero franchises that are light on logic and heavy on effects. So X-Men is a diverting film that offers great spectacle at the cost of a good story.

Good Action • PG-13 • 131 mins.

Return of the King of the Monsters

Fifteen years after a catastrophic nuclear power plant collapse in Japan, engineer Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston: Breaking Bad) is convinced that the government is covering up the real cause of the failure that killed his wife and countless others. He breaks into the ruins of the nuclear facility to prove that this disaster wasn’t a malfunction or a typhoon, but a vast government cover-up.
    Joe’s son Ford (Aaron Taylor Johnson: Kick Ass 2) just wants his dad to stop getting arrested. Ford has moved on, starting a family and joining the Navy. Father and son rarely see each other — unless Ford is bailing his father out of a Japanese prison. To get his father to stop his conspiracy theorizing, Ford agrees to visit the nuclear plant ruins on one last mission.
    Imagine Ford’s surprise when he discovers his father was right: The government was hiding something — something big and angry. A drilling company in the Philippines crashed into a cavern in the earth, awakening an alpha predator that feeds on radiation.
    Ford joins the military in a global effort to stop the monster from destroying the world.
    A classic monster movie worthy of the 1954 original, Godzilla is a fun, light take on the Gojira series. Credit goes to the brilliance of director Gareth Edwards (Monsters). Following classic monster movie style, Edwards is slow to reveal Godzilla to the audience, teasing us with glimpses of a tail or a massive footprint.
    Clever camera work emphasizes Godzilla’s immense size compared to the human world. Edwards forces you into the action. Shots framed with panicked onlookers in the foreground put you in the midst of the pandemonium. When he treats us to a wide shot of the action, he mindfully keeps a person in the frame as a reminder of just how massive and terrifying Godzilla would be stomping down your street.
    Still, the nature vs. man storyline is secondary to the cataclysmic battles. As a result of Edwards’ innovative and interesting camera work, Godzilla is one of the best arguments for 3D graphics and IMAX visuals to appear in theaters this decade.
    You’ll see all the types you expect in a disaster/monster movie: a crackpot who’s been right all along, a square-jawed soldier, his attractive but personality-free family, a scientist and thousands of faceless military men to act as cannon fodder. It’s hard to care about the fate of Ford, his pretty wife and his adorable moppet son because they’re cyphers instead of developed characters. But most people buying a ticket to a Godzilla movie aren’t expecting a stirring family drama.
    Still, appropriately melodramatic performances by veteran actors like Cranston and Ken Watanabe (Unforgiven) keep us invested in the fate of humanity.
    Godzilla is the perfect summer blockbuster: a fun story, amazing visuals and a monster worthy of the big screen. So buy a bucket of popcorn, adjust your 3D glasses and get ready for a modern monster classic.

Great Monster Movie • PG-13 • 123 mins.

This raucous comedy proves good fences make good neighbors

On paper, Mac (Seth Rogen: This is the End) and Kelly Radner (Rose Byrne: Insidious: Chapter 2) are adults. They’re married. They have a baby. And they just sunk all of their money into a house in a perfect suburban neighborhood. In reality, both Mac and Kelly are a little bored with their new responsible life and jealous of friends who still party all night.
    The couple hopes for a change in routine and maybe some interesting neighbors. Dreaming for a progressive couple with children — or at least a Taco Bell — to take over the vacant house next door, the Radners are horrified when fraternity Delta Psi moves in. Known for loud, outrageous parties, Delta Psi’s last frat house burned down after an unfortunate fireworks incident.
    Priding themselves on being cool, the Radners visit the fraternity, introduce themselves and tell the boys to keep it down, offering marijuana from Mac’s personal stash. Fraternity leaders Teddy (Zac Efron: That Awkward Moment) and Pete (Dave Franco: The LEGO Movie) befriend the Radners, inviting them to a wild party and asking for a promise to call the boys rather than the cops.
    After a night of drugs, loud music and youthful hijinks, Kelly and Mac are hung over and exhausted. They vow to grow up. Their neighbors are still ready to party. After a week of nonstop loud music, wild parties and drunken antics, the Radners have had it with Delta Psi. Their baby is up all night, they get little sleep and worst of all, Delta Psi isn’t even inviting them back.
    Fed up, the Radners call the cops.
    This act of vengeance sparks a war between Delta Psi and the Radners. The brothers want to make the old couple suffer. Kelly and Mac want the college to revoke the fraternity’s charter. As the war escalates, pranks become more dangerous until mutual destruction seems the most likely outcome.
    Filled with nudity, cursing and brutal physical comedy, Neighbors is hilariously inappropriate. Director Nicholas Stoller (The Five Year Engagement) makes sure the movie earns its R rating with plenty of off-color humor and outrageous scenes, including a fight that features Rogen and Efron using adult toys in lieu of swords.
    While it’s certainly not sophisticated humor, it’s effective thanks to a great cast. As the couple desperate to prove they’re still cool, Rogen and Byrne are a dynamic duo. Both commit so fully to the Radners’ outrageous plans that you can’t help but laugh at their shared insanity. Rogen plays the same character he does in every movie: an affable stoner dealing with adult responsibilities against his will. It’s not too hard to see how Mac could get drawn into a battle with boys who represent everything he loved in college.
    Byrne is refreshing as a straight woman who becomes more unhinged and diabolical as the Delta Psi boys threaten. It’s also nice to have a female lead openly question why she must always be the level-headed partner in a relationship. Kelly bristles at the thought that being a mother automatically means she needs to be responsible for the household. Perhaps she ­shouldn’t be, as her strategies against the Delta Psi boys would make Patton quake in his boots.
    Efron is still a dismal actor, but he was born to play the role of a dim-bulb frat boy with well-toned abs and a vindictive streak. Stoller keeps his emotional beats to a bare minimum, using Efron’s flat performance to his advantage. Teddy has nothing to do but obsess over “getting even with the old people”; he certainly wouldn’t be studying or looking for a post-collegiate job.
    I admit to laughing along with the audience at this incredibly crude comedy, but I can’t in good conscience recommend Neighbors to a wide audience. If you loved The Heat, Bridesmaids and Forgetting Sarah Marshall, then Neighbors will delight you. But don’t go unprepared; several aghast parents rushed their children out of as I watched.

Good Comedy • R • 96 mins.

Declaring peace doesn’t stop the horrors of war

Eric Lomax (Colin Firth: Gambit) returns from World War II as a shell of a man. Avoiding people, he rides the rails and collects train memorabilia. On a train years later, he encounters former nurse Patti (Nicole Kidman: Stoker). Smitten, they quickly marry.
    Patti’s illusion of wedded bliss soon shatters. Eric stares off into space. Small things provoke violent reactions. A bit of radio static causes a meltdown. Eric is hostile about his odd behavior.
    Can Patti help her husband find his way back?
    In desperation, Patti reaches out to Eric’s only friend, fellow combat survivor Finlay (Stellan Skarsgård: Nymphomaniac), to learn what broke her husband nearly 40 years ago.
    Eric and Finlay were captured by the Japanese in 1942. Desperate to hear any news of the outside world, they used pilfered parts to build a radio. When the makeshift radio was discovered, the captors made an example of the men. What they did to Eric leaves lifelong scars.
    Finding his tormentor late in life, Eric has a choice: Try to forget or leave Patti to seek vengeance.
    The Railway Man is a moving drama about the lasting effects of battle on soldiers in a time before Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder was known, let alone treated. Horrifying, touching and inspiring, it’s based on the real experiences of Eric Lomax.
    While director Jonathan Teplitzky (Burning Man) bombards you with horrors, faith in humanity gives The Railway Man its power. Veterans and their loved ones band together in unobtrusive support that enables these men to cope.
    As a man reliving torture every day of his life, Firth is remarkable. His performance isn’t showy, but it’s real, and one of the better portrayals of the lasting effects of PTSD ever captured on film. His face and body carry constant tension. In the midst of a violent episode, Firth is able to make his eyes go vacant and wild, showing the feral creature beneath the calm.
    For all their brief courtship, Kidman sells Patti’s deep connection to Eric. Firth and Kidman have an easy chemistry that make it seem possible that she is not afraid of her husband but afraid for him.
    A historic story about finding solace after life-shattering events, The Railway Man is a powerful message of hope. Just one tip: Pick up some extra napkins at the concession stand, lest you have to take your eyes from the screen to ask your seatmate for a tissue.

Great Drama • R • 116 mins.

Hell hath no fury like the trio of women scorned in this crass comedy

What would you do if you found out you were an accidental mistress?
    When Carly (Cameron Diaz: The Counselor) makes a surprise visit to her boyfriend Mark (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau: Game of Thrones), she meets his wife. Horrified, Carly tries to lose herself in work to forget that she was conned by a philanderer.
    Carly’s plan fails when Mark’s wife, Kate (Leslie Mann: Rio 2) appears at her office. But not for vengeance. After marrying Mark, Kate quit her job to become a housewife, blithely redecorating their mansion while Mark slept around. Carly’s appearance snapped Kate out of denial. But with no career, money of her own or friends, Kate has nowhere else to go. Carly is her default.
    Their awkward connection blossoms into friendship when Carly and Kate switch from whining about Mark’s behavior to getting even. Another of Mark’s myriad mistresses makes three scorned women out to ruin one man.
    Equal parts girl power and gross-out comedy, The Other Woman is a wildly uneven entry into the revenge genre. Director Nick Cassavetes (Yellow) arrives at no consistent tone. A farcical comedy of manners devolves into crass physical jokes that are both obvious and, worse still, not funny. As Kate and Carly bond over Mark, the dating scene and how hard it can be for a woman in the world, Kate’s great Dane relieves himself on Carly’s floor. When a movie spends more time on dog poop than on crafting believable characters, it’s a bad sign.
    Writer Melissa Stack (Tependris Rising) offers a slightly feminist twist on girls’ comedy by having wronged women team up instead of fighting. But her characters remain broad stereotypes of, well, broads. As the youngest of Mark’s mistresses, model-turned-actress Kate Upton is cast as the dumb blonde. Her Marilyn Monroe impersonation is adequate, but the character is a stereotype. Diaz’s Carly is a cold career woman. A man helps humanize her because where would women be without the love of a good man?
    Mann elevates Kate above the stereotype through sheer will. She makes Kate a sad, silly woman whose plucky attitude avoids pathos. Mann and Diaz have good chemistry, and although the movie is a vehicle for Diaz, Mann steals every scene she’s in and wrings laughs out of the dated material.
    If Cassavetes had trusted the three leads, he wouldn’t need crude, silly sight gags.

Fair Comedy • PG-13 • 109 mins.

If you can survive the language, you might enjoy this brash character study

It’s rare to know within the first five minutes whether you’ll enjoy a movie. With Dom Hemingway, you do. Dom’s (Jude Law: The Grand Budapest Hotel) opening five-minute monologue on the legendary status of his genitalia is a crude, rambling moment of bravado for the character and the film, literally letting it all hang out.
    For some, it’s the cue to run. For others, it’s an indicator that Dom Hemingway is a character study bold enough to make its characters unlikeable or ridiculous.
    Now that I’ve warned you what lies ahead, let’s examine the plot.
    Dom is a safe cracker, paroled after 12 years of hard time. He could have made a deal for less time by testifying against his co-conspirators, but he is a criminal of principles. To reward his silence, Dom’s former boss, Mr. Fontaine (Demian Bichir: The Bridge) has agreed to pay a hefty sum.
    Dom’s first act as a free man is to beat the snot out of the man who married his ex-wife. Why? Because he’s Dom expletive Hemingway, that’s why!
    Dom and best pal Dickie (Richard E. Grant: Girls) head to Mr. Fontaine’s French villa for a big pay day and a weekend of debauchery. A punishing night of sex, drugs and poor decision-making, leaves Dom penniless.
    He sobers up to three choices: Return to London in hopes of joining another criminal syndicate; repair his fragmented relationship with his daughter; track down the dirty thief who took his money.
    Can Dom get out of his own way to make a sound decision? No, but it’s fun to watch him try.
    Dom Hemingway is stronger on nudity, imaginative cursing and drugs than on plotting. The plot is the bare sketch of a story, and your involvement with the character minimal. Writer/director Richard Shepard (Girls) is interested in Dom, and he builds his film around absurd situations that invite Dom’s reactive bombast. Stylish editing tricks keep the movie rushing along.
    Law turns in a dazzling performance as an unlikeable crook at the end of his rope. His Dom is a verbose, ferocious loser sustained only by his delusions of grandeur. His unearned confidence would be hilarious if it wasn’t so pathetic. From his chest-puffed swagger to his frantic eyes, Dom is a man desperate to believe the lies he tells about himself. It’s a performance that will likely be overlooked for awards — hard to find a clip of curse-free dialog for the ceremonies — but should be seen.
    Dom Hemingway isn’t a movie for the casual filmgoer; don’t make your hapless critic’s mistake of taking your mother.

Good Dramedy • R • 93 mins.

You won’t want to go through this looking glass

Software developer Alan Russell (Rory Cochrane: Parkland) moves wife and children to a country house after hitting it big. Decorating it becomes his downfall.
    An antique mirror known as the Lasser Glass speaks to him. Alas, this is no ordinary reflective surface. A host to evil souls and supernatural forces, the mirror drives Allan and his wife, Marie (Katee Sackhoff: Longmire) insane.
    Reader, this is why you should shop at IKEA.
    Police find Alan and Marie dead and their two children, Kaylie and Tim, raving about an evil mirror. Tim is sent to a ward for the criminally insane. Kaylie goes to foster care.
    At 21, Tim (Brenton Thwaites: Blue Lagoon: The Awakening) is declared sane. He goes into the world hoping to leave his troubled past behind.
    Kaylie (Karen Gillan: Doctor Who) is not so committed to her brother’s mental health.
    Consumed with rage, she has made it her mission to track down and destroy the Lasser Glass. She has an elaborate plan to steal the mirror, record its supernatural properties and smash it so that the evil can’t spread. Tim reluctantly follows Kaylie to their childhood home. Hanging the mirror to taunt the evil is not a good idea.
    The plot is thin, the lead performances strong and the gore thick.
    If you are at all squeamish, you will writhe in your seat. Though the gore certainly earns the film its R rating, director and native Marylander Mike Flanagan (Absentia) uses it for maximum tension. See Oculus in a theater, where you’re part of a screaming audience.

Good Horror • R • 104 mins.

A mouse and a bear prove families come in all sizes

Do you fear the big bad bear?    
    Since babyhood, mouse Celestine (Mackenzie Foy: The Conjuring) has been warned by her elderly guardian (90-year-old Lauren Bacall: The Forger) to avoid bears. Mouse society lives in intricate cities in the sewers, just below a bear metropolis. Mice venture topside only at night, sending their young ones to search bear dwellings for useful items.
    One of the procurers, Celestine is too curious to accept the tales of evil bears on faith. She’s enamored with the large bears and interested in their world. She dreams of meeting a bear, maybe making a friend.
    Celestine gets her wish when happenstance traps the little mouse like a rat in a trash can. Her savior is Ernest (Forest Whitaker: The Butler), a down-on-his-luck bear in search of a quick meal. At first, he proves the Big Bad Bear stories true, trying to snap up Celestine in his massive jaws.
    But Celestine isn’t as easy to eat as Ernest hopes. She offers her ursine attacker a deal: She’ll help him find delicious treats if he stops trying to digest her. Celestine shows Ernest how to break into a candy store, where he feasts on marshmallows, honey and taffy.
    Soon, Ernest and Celestine team up for another heist, this one on her behalf. As the interspecies Bonnie and Clyde become a wanted duo in both their worlds, Ernest retreats to his hibernation cabin until the heat dies down. Alone in the world, Celestine decides that a gruff and grumbly bear is better company than the police.
    At first, neither is happy with this living arrangement, but the odd couple eventually forms a family dynamic. Celestine brings out nurturing and selfless qualities in Ernest. In turn, Ernest admires Celestine’s artistic ability and encourages her to paint.
    But will an interspecies police force ruin their happy home?
    Based on the popular Belgian children’s books, Ernest and Celestine is a delightful animated film about avoiding society’s labels and finding a family that fits you. Filled with visual gags and sly humor, it’s a film to charm all ages.
    The movie takes a painterly approach to animation, eschewing slick 3D graphics for a watercolor palate. The animation, which is often minimalist, lets you focus on the characters and makes the movie seem like a literary illustration sprung from the page.
    Originally released in Europe with French dialog, this version is by directors Stéphane Aubier, Vincent Patar and Benjamin Renner, who carefully cast American actors to dub the story. Whitaker’s low growling voice makes him an inspired choice for Ernest. Film fans will also appreciate the voice of the 90-year-old Bacall, who is commanding and funny as a slightly deranged mouse matriarch.
    You’ll have to go Baltimore or D.C. to catch this one, but it’s worth the trip. C’est Merveilleux!

Great Animation • PG • 80 mins.