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With actors this delightful, who needs a plot?

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is a success, thanks to the assistance of former housekeeper Muriel (Maggie Smith: Downton Abbey) to proprietor Sonny Kapur (Dev Patel: Chappie). With retired British ex-pat pensioners filling nearly all the rooms, Sonny seeks to expand his empire by buying a second hotel. To realize his dream, Sonny must court rich American investors.
    The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel must pass an undercover hotel inspection before the American company will put up the money. Meanwhile, Sonny is planning his wedding to Sunaina (Tina Desai: Sense8), who has had about enough of playing second fiddle to a hotel.
    Marigold’s residents are also considering some major changes. Widow Evelyn (Judi Dench: Philomena) is considering a relationship with her long-devoted admirer Douglas (Bill Nighy: Pride). Sexy Madge (Celia Imrie: What We Did on Our Holiday) must choose among her wealthy lovers. New couple Norman (Ronald Pickup: Call the Midwife) and Carol (Diana Hardcastle: Good People) must decide on — or against — fidelity.
    The arrival of two new guests — writer Guy Chambers (Richard Gere: Time Out of Mind) and Lavinia (Tamsin Greig: Episodes) — brings upheaval. Is one of them the inspector? Can Sonny love a hotel and a wife? Will the Marigold’s guests start a second life in a new home?
    The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is the cinematic equivalent of one too many candies: over indulgent, too sweet, but enjoyable.
    This time, director John Madden seems to have forgotten what drew crowds the first time. In Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, he spends entirely too much time on the younger generation. Sonny’s woes are of little interest compared to the pensioners finding a new spark in their lives.
    When Madden turns to the greying residents of the Marigold, the old magic returns. Dench and Smith, chums on and off the screen, light up the movie with their interactions. Dench is sweetly funny as a woman who finds success in business and love at 80. Her stumble toward independence is delightful and touching.
    Smith delivers the acerbic, wry performance she has become famous for in her golden years. She could arch an eyebrow and deliver a hilariously cutting insult in her sleep; no one can do it better. In the sequel, however, Madden chooses to expand her role, exploring her relationship with Sonny. Muriel has progressed from casually racist ex-pat to fiercely protective maternal figure to Indian Sonny. Their relationship is the backbone of the story and far more poignant and interesting than Sonny and his love.
    The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is not as much fun as the first, but it has charm enough to make you glad you checked in.

Good Dramedy • PG • 122 mins.

65 Years of Broadway! deserves its !

Long synonymous with musical theater excellence, 2nd Star Productions had a brilliant 2013-14 season with Children of Eden nominated for a WATCH Award as Outstanding Musical and Hello Dolly winning a Helen Hayes Award for All-Around Production Excellence.
    Now the company is celebrating with a star-studded musical revue.
    65 Years of Broadway! The Best Musicals, Abridged is a lively retrospective featuring all the Best Musical Tony Award-winning shows since 1949. The first — Kiss Me, Kate  — happens to be 2nd Star’s next show.
    The cabaret is compiled by Nathan Bowen, a WATCH nominee for Outstanding Featured Actor in a Musical for his role in Hello Dolly. In it he conveys both his passion for this genre and his comic appreciation of its excesses.
    Many tastes will find satisfaction here with 12 actors on a very small stage, performing under Bowen’s whimsical direction. You will thrill one minute to Phantom of the Opera and chuckle the next at the sight of the men’s chorus pirouetting and groveling on bended knee in All I Ask of You. The zealous young missionaries in Hello from The Book of Mormon will have you praying for breath from all the laughter. Then you get to sing along in the perennial favorites The Sound of Music, Cabaret, and Seasons of Love from Rent.
    With 65 songs in total, the entire cast gets to shine. E. Lee Nicol, star of Children of Eden, will break your heart in Not My Father’s Son (Kinky Boots) and I Am What I Am (La Cage aux Folles), then take you to Shangri La in Stranger in Paradise (Kismet).
    Pam Shilling — nominated for a WATCH award for Outstanding Feature Actress in Hello Dolly! — is exquisite in Send in the Clowns (A Little Night Music), Memory (Cats) and Bye Bye Blackbird (Fosse).
    Bowen, ever the comedian, gets to Put On a Happy Face (Bye Bye Birdie) and reunite with Dolly costar Daniel Starnes in Muddy Water (Big River) and in trio with Nicol for The Egg (1776). Starnes also shines in soli written for a young man of his age: Miracle of Miracles (Fiddler On the Roof) and All That’s Known (Spring Awakening).
    Cheryl Campo is empowering in Nothing (A Chorus Line), Shadowland (The Lion King) and As If We Never Said Goodbye (Sunset Boulevard).
    Emily Mudd shows off her vocal and acting range in Think of Me (Phantom of the Opera) and Buenos Aires (Evita).
    Michael Mathes, with his falsetto channeling of Frankie Valley, is so spot-on that when the male chorus spins into Sherry (Jersey Boys), you will swear it’s the recording.
    Young Sophia Riazi-Sekowski will touch you in Maybe (Annie). Geneva Croteau gets you dancing in I Can Hear the Bells (Hairspray). Cheramie Jackson gets into the groove in They Can’t Take That Away From Me (Crazy for You), Josh Hampton in What Do You Do (Avenue Q) and Alexandra Baca in Breathe (In the Heights). There’s even a stirring ensemble acappella rendition of Gold from Once.
    All the big composers you remember are represented here: Porter, Gershwin, Rodgers and Hart, Hammerstein, Bernstein, Hamlisch, Herman, Webber, Sondheim, and 35 others you may have forgotten or never knew about. There are also pop names that might surprise you such as Roger Miller, Elton John and Cyndi Lauper.
    This collection will not only get your toes tapping and your heart thumping but also pique your desire to check out Broadway’s more recent hits.
    Two hours (plus intermission) of pleasure for all ages.

Sixty-Five Years of Broadway! The Best Musicals, Abridged: Directed and Produced by Nathan Bowen. Musical director and accompanist: Laura Brady.

Playing March 13 & 14: The Shop, Cape St. Claire, Annapolis. $20: 410-757-5700; ­

Look and listen before they leave

Trumpeter swans returned to Chesapeake Country after many years.
    “I have lived at this location on the Chesapeake Bay for 19 years and have never observed trumpeter swans before,” said life-long bird watcher Randy Kiser of Shady Side. “Their sound was unmistakable, so different from the tundras.
    “They stayed for about an hour and then moved on,” Kiser said.
    He wasn’t alone in his trumpeter sighting.
    A D.C. Ornithological Society birdwatcher confirmed that Kiser’s five “was the largest group identified in a long time.”
    Five were also reported in St. Michaels that same February afternoon.
    How to tell them apart from the more common migratory tundra or invasive mute swan?
    Trumpeters have all-black bills, while tundra swans have black bills with a tear­drop of yellow near their eyes and mute swans have bright orange bills with a black knob on top.
    Trumpeters have their necks kinked back at the bottom in a hard C-shape.
    The biggest difference is sound.
    Trumpeters have a very loud, trumpet-like call; hence their name. It’s mainly a gentle honk, like a single short toot on a horn, repeated, often in series of two to three notes, do-do-doo.
    Hurry to catch a glimpse of these Chesapeake visitors. The spring thaw in mid-March to early-April signals their departure. So Chesapeake County is vacated by swans just about the time osprey return.

Here on earth and in the skies, the seasons are changing fast

While our bodies are getting used to the hour shift brought about by Daylight Saving Time, Mother Nature is working fast to counter our dark mornings, and within a month day break will come at the same time it did before we switched our clocks.
    At no other point in the year do the days grow longer at a faster pace, as we gain more than three minutes of sunlight each day here in the Northern Hemisphere. Since solstice, December 21, we have gained more than an hour of sunlight in both the morning and at day’s end.
    These days of fast-growing light were called The Quickening by the ancient Celts. To them, all objects of earth — not just creatures, but trees, stones and the ground itself — were alive, all sharing the same sap of life. Now, deep within the still-bare trees, the sap of life flows, birds build new nests; shoots of the earliest spring flowers pierce the once-frozen soil. All around us, the earth’s pulse is picking up its pace.
    Overhead, too, the changing constellations foretell the coming of spring. The familiar shape of Leo the lion crouches over the eastern horizon, its blazing heart, Regulus, piercing the darkness.
    Following the great lion is Virgo, the goddess of crops and harvest, holding in her hand an ear of wheat in the form of the brilliant star Spica. Six months of the year the constellation is absent and the land falls into stasis as the goddess mourns her daughter Persephone’s confinement in the underworld with husband Hades. Now, with Persephone’s return, the mother’s grief ends and the land again begins to bloom.
    Next to rise is Boötes, the herdsman of the two bears, Ursa Major and Ursa Minor. In Greek legend, Boötes is Arcas, son of the nymph Callisto and Zeus and the first to harness a team of oxen to the plow, revolutionizing farming and ushering in the era of agriculture. Each year, Boötes returns to our evening skies to usher in the spring planting season.
    The scorpion Scorpius crawls over the eastern horizon as winter’s great hunter Orion sets in the west. In Greek myth, Orion had both jilted the goddess Artemis and boasted that he was the superior hunter. Enraged, she sent the scorpion to kill him. Look for the two stinger stars, Shaula and Lesath, less than one-half degree apart. Called the Swimming Ducks, this pair returns to morning skies to signal the coming of spring. From the Arabic Al Shaulah, the sting, Shaula is the 24th-brightest star in the sky, although it often goes unnoticed, as neither duck climbs high above the horizon at our latitude.
    Before dawn of Friday the 13th, the last-quarter moon shines near the head of Scorpius with ringed Saturn close by. The heart of the scorpion, the red-giant Antares, shines less than 10 degrees to the lower left of Saturn.
    Venus rules the early evening, perched above the western horizon and blazing at magnitude –4. A few weeks ago Mars appeared within a few degrees of Venus, but now the red planet well below and pulling farther away night by night.
    With sunset, Jupiter appears high in the east, perhaps the first “star” you see in the gathering night. as the stars come out. By 11pm it is nearly overhead, finally setting an hour before sunrise.

Snow, too, if I had my way

I’d love to tax the rain.     
    Heavy, trouble-causing rains I’d hit with draining fees. Rains that pour and seep into our lower levels, taxing us with sucking it up with the Shop Vac or a multi-thousand dollar remediation job? I’d punish them the same way storm­water-remediation-fee-averse Marylanders say our state’s most hated tax is punishing them. Bad rains would pay at least as much as the $15, $29, $85 or $170 a year some Chesapeake Country homeowners (in the nine taxed counties and Baltimore) and assorted politicians claim are draining our bank accounts.
    Sharing the taxing privileges of government would enable me to exercise their dispensations, too. I’d exempt good rains from taxation, just as churches and assorted not-for-profits are exempt. Light, nourishing do-good rains would pay only a cent — Frederick County’s fee for stormwater remediation.
    Even more, I’d love to tax snow.
    Though with reservations. From late November into early January, white-Christmas dustings would be exempted as welcome visitors — Providing they arrive in amounts of one inch or less. Also tax-free would be go-out-and-play snows falling on Saturdays and Sundays. I’m no Grinch wanting to tax the fun out of sledding and building snow forts and families. As long as they melt before Monday’s rush hour.
    Even as the snow piles of February and March retreat, they make the case for snow and, less visibly, rain taxes.
    Falling and new-fallen snow brings transient beauty. Examine those white flakes and you can imagine purity as well as infinity. If there’s acid rain in those crystals, it’s invisible.
    Old snow is not very pretty, is it? Its sooty crust is visible proof that what falls out of our environment may not be pure as the driven snow.
    When I look at my own personal snow piles, I see more than meets my eye in better weather. My beloved little car’s noxious tailpipe emissions of some 19 pounds of gases per gallon of fuel are usually invisible, being, after all, gases, including carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxides. But with snow I can see their traces in the dirty little particulate company they keep.
    Along with the soot are goopy mud, salt, de-icing chemicals and dog, cat, fox, possum, raccoon, deer and bird poo.
    Come the melt, and what happens? Where earth and grass and rain gardens suck it up, it percolates into groundwater. Without filtration, it goes downhill straight to the Chesapeake, traveling fast on the paved expressway.
    On the open road, my mess combines with your mess to make a really big mess.
    As you say good riddance to the snow, it might be a good time to think in terms of what stormwater remediation fees are remediating.
    Twenty-first century messes, I’m sorry to say, are made by you and me right here in Chesapeake Country.

Sandra Olivetti Martin
Editor and publisher;

Watermen sentenced to year-plus

Four commercial fishermen from Maryland’s Eastern Shore have been sentenced in federal court for illegally netting and selling more than 90 tons of rockfish and pocketing almost a half-million dollars in profits over four years.
    The watermen used gill nets, particularly effective gear used in the Chesapeake since 1873. Gill nets snare fish by the gills in a mesh that allows the fish’s head to enter while preventing its body from following. Some 300 commercial gill-netters operate on the Chesapeake.
    Almost impossible to detect once anchored in place, three technological developments have made these nets so deadly that they may be a threat to our rockfish population.
    First was the development of translucent, nylon monofilament. Gill nets constructed of this material are virtually invisible to the fish and much more effective in catching them.
    The second development was the electronic fish finder. With fish finders, watermen can easily locate populations of rockfish, especially in winter when schools tend to linger in an area.
    The final development was the GPS. While greatly assisting commercial watermen in navigation, GPS also enabled poachers to set anchored nets with geographic precision and to return under cover of darkness or bad weather and quickly locate them for retrieval.
    Because of proven by-catch mortality, anchored gill nets have been outlawed in Maryland waters since 1992. Only legal are attended, free-floating drift nets with a five- to seven-inch mesh size that limits most rockfish catches to legal-sized fish. Gill nets can legally be up to 3,500 yards long, though in practice most are less.

Crime and Punishment
    The watermen in question broke the law in several ways: by using unattended, anchored gill nets; by fishing outside of the commercial season; and by falsifying catch records and evading Maryland regulations. The fish were sold to wholesale markets in surrounding states.
    Federal law under the Lacey Act prohibits crossing state lines to sell fish caught illegally. Thus the sentences came in U.S. District Court.
    “The scale of this conspiracy was massive,” said federal prosecutor Todd Gleason. “It coincides with a steady decline of striped bass. We are heading back to the levels near the moratorium.”
    The two Tilghman Island watermen running the operation were each sentenced to more than a year. Michael Hayden Jr., who also was found guilty of witness intimidation, will serve 18 months plus three years home detention. William Lednum, who expressed remorse, was sentenced to a year and a day. One helper was sentenced to 30 days to be served on weekends; another escaped with probation and a fine.
    Three of the four were each fined $40,000. The two main operators were also made liable for restitution of rockfish valued at nearly $500,000. The penalties are among the most severe ever handed down for Natural Resource violations.
    These are also the first major instances of illegal netters brought to justice in Maryland despite years of rumors about illegal wintertime netting. According to one of the principle defendants, William Lednum, these illicit activities have been a common practice among many watermen, but he was the only one caught. The witness operating the station where the fish were checked in, and who testified to falsifying documents with the watermen to cover the illegal catches, also explained that his actions were merely a routine industry practice.
    Understaffing at Natural Resources Police is one key reason for these problems. The number of water-patrolling officers has been reduced by half over the last decade, while Department of Natural Resources personnel dedicated to verifying and double-checking reported catch data and seafood wholesaler records continue to be low. Cheating and under-reporting commercial catch information thus remain unchecked.
    No further discoveries of illegal gill netting of this scope have been made since these arrests. However, considering the extreme difficulty of detecting the activity, the vastness of the Chesapeake and the significant financial rewards to be gained it would be foolish to assume that it is not still occurring.

Loaded with two charming leads, this movie doesn’t quite pull off its con

Nicky Spurgeon (Will Smith: After Earth) has a charming smile and a light touch. He’s adept at cons from lifting wallets to convincing investors that an empty warehouse is the Federal Reserve. A third-generation conman, Nicky has managed to stay successful in the game by staying isolated.
    When he meets Jess (Margot Robbie: The Wolf of Wall Street), a beautiful con clumsily targeting horny men, he sees potential. Jess becomes his student in the true art of the hustle.
    Soon his able pupil can emerge from crowded streets laden with wallets, watches and jewels. When their professional relationship turns romantic, Nicky panics. Explaining that love is dangerous in their business, he tosses Jess a pile of cash and takes off.
    Three years later, Nicky is working a scam on a billionaire racing magnate when he spots Jess. His deft touch fails. Distracted and lovesick, Nicky tries for both Jess and the money. His dangerous play could cost him his life and the girl.
    If Focus were a conman, it wouldn’t be a very good one. In a movie about misdirection and distraction, plot is convoluted and the numerous twists are telegraphed obviously by writer/directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (Crazy, Stupid, Love). Experienced moviegoers will pick out twists long before they’re revealed. Watch for shots that last longer than they should.
    Nor does the film offer tension or propose stakes. The pair never seems in real danger, even when a gun is pointed at their heads. Nicky seemingly never makes a misstep, which creates a sense of invulnerability. Since Nicky is infallible, there’s no need to worry about him; everything must be part of his plan.
    Though the plot fizzles, the herculean efforts of the stars keep Focus watchable. Up and coming Robbie sparkles as Jess, who she makes an eager student who thrills at every watch she slips off her marks. Her enthusiasm and charm are beguiling, and she is susceptible to panic, which makes her interesting.
    As the man who has a plan, Smith’s Nicky is smooth to a fault. Smith fails to give Nicky vulnerability, but he succeeds in reclaiming his shine as a movie star. He’s slick, cool and exceptionally likeable as he hustles through the movie. Focus is an effective reminder of why Smith became one of the biggest stars of the screen, standing he lost in the wake of After Earth and Men in Black III.
    The stars work well together, too, and we fall for the way they play off each other.
    Focus isn’t a good crime film, but it’s an enjoyable romantic comedy. Buy a ticket for Smith and Robbie’s sexy banter. But don’t let them near your wallets.

Fair Romantic Comedy • R • 105 mins.

Listen up to tease plot from prattle

Colonial Players bills the World War II drama Watch On the Rhine as the first in their American Standard series, “presented for the nostalgia of older audiences or introduction to younger patrons.” As winner of the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Best Play in 1941, this play would seem a good choice. It has star appeal: The hit film featured Bette Davis and Paul Lukas, who won an Oscar for Best Actor. It is historically compelling: A call to arms for a pre-war America grown complacent in the face of global discord. It smacks of scandal: Dramatist Lillian Hellman was blacklisted by the House Un-American Activities Committee because of her membership in the Communist Party.
    Yet for all its relevance and fine execution, this two-and-a-half-hour golden oldie feels moldy.
    Commenting on social conventions among the Roosevelt era’s upper middle-class, the play revels in trite gossip and quotidian trivia. It opens with irascible Fanny Farrelly (CeCe McGee-Newbrough), the widowed matriarch of a suburban D.C. mansion, preparing for the arrival of her daughter Sara (Theresa Riffle), whom she hasn’t seen in 20 years, along with Sara’s German husband, Kurt Muller (John Coe), and their children Joshua (Eli Pendry), Babette (Katie McMorrow) and Bodo (Andrew Sharpe).
    By way of preparation, Fanny barks orders to her butler, Joseph (Daniel M. Lopez II) and her live-in housekeeper, Anise (Mary MacLeod). She badgers her bachelor son David (Benjamin Wolff) about every aspect of his life that falls short of the standard set by his late father. She discusses with her houseguests, Count Teck de Brancovis of Romania (Timothy Sayles) and his young wife Marthe (Shannon Benil) such pressing issues as the weather, menus, jewelry and the social aspects of ambassadorial life. When she finally meets her son-in-law and grandchildren for the first time, it is with left-handed compliments and outright insults veiled as teasing. One understands why Sara stayed away for two decades.
    For one mind-numbing hour, we learn little more than the fact that the Mullers are impoverished and itinerant because of Kurt’s anti-Fascist work … that the Count and Countess are equally but secretly penniless … that Marthe is unhappy in her marriage … and that David is perhaps interested in her.
    The goldplate on their civility ­tarnishes when Teck rifles Kurt’s luggage for clues to his mysterious background. Teck, as it turns out, is an opportunistic aristocratic who know that Kurt is wanted for political crimes against the Nazi party. Being a gentleman, however, he offers to forget he ever saw Kurt in exchange for $10,000 hush money. Feeling that he must return home to save the lives of three colleagues, Kurt takes the blackmail into his own lawless hands and bids a tearful goodbye to his family. Fanny is left to cope with the realization that her world is no longer the safe cocoon she supposed it to be.
    Despite the play’s slow start, when the action finally comes, it explodes like a grenade. Meanwhile, the cast works hard to push their characters beyond their stodgy trappings. McGee-Newbrough brings a mix of condescension and compassion to her dowager widow. Sayles makes a suave and ominous villain. Wolff is the perfect put-upon eldest child, and Benil evokes our compassion as the embittered child bride. MacLeod is so comfortable as the long-time maid that she feels like ­family. As for the more sympathetic Mullers, Coe and Riffle blend a feeling of genuine affection with an air of mystery, while the children are models of comportment and cosmopolitan ­sophistication.
    The exquisite set features period antiques and a console radio that croons big-band swing. The costumes are sumptuous with gowns in moiré, chiffon and lace, and the men wear silk smoking jackets as they puff on their fruity pipes. The nostalgic trappings are so nice that they almost make one yearn for that simpler, more elegant time. Almost.
    In an era of sound bites where life is cheap both at home and abroad, this show may try your patience rather than keep you engaged. There are, however, exceptions: History buffs, amateur sociologists and enthusiasts of black-and-white cinematic classics will find this morality tale interesting.

Director: Terry Averill. Set designer: David Pindell. Sound: Sarah Wade. Lights: Matthew Shogren. Costumes: Bonnie Persinger. Fight choreographer: Mark Allen.

Playing thru Mar. 21: ThFSa 8pm, Su 2pm (and 7:30pm Mar. 8): Colonial Players Theatre in the Round, 108 East St., Annapolis; $20 w/discounts; rsvp: 410-268-7373;

Seizing life’s moments while dreaming of summer days at camp

This week’s paper, featuring our annual Summer Camp Guide, is not 100 percent wishful thinking.
    But enough of it is to take your mind off present ­circumstances.
    I left behind the gelid remains of winter mix — and the prospect of more to come — in the hours I spent considering the camps of summer. Why do kids get to have all the fun? Michelle Steel, who prepares the Guide, shared that wishful sentiment. Together we yearned to sail small boats, swim, dance, skate, invent, act, imagine, build, explore, hang out with animals and discover nature’s ways.
    Many fun-loving, far-sighted people must have stayed up into the wee hours to come up with such odd, wonderful and various things to do. Swordsmanship at one; rock climbing at another; waterskiing at a third; wilderness survival at a fourth; horsewomanship at a fifth; hearth-cooking at a sixth; comedy at a seventh; wizarding at an eighth; water polo at a ninth; dirt digging at a tenth.
    Camp is all about fun, but that’s not all it’s about.
    Camp is a turning point in a kid’s life.
    As a camper, you leave your parents behind, for days at a time if you’re an overnighter. You climb over prison’s walls into freedom. The rule of rules collapses; camp rules manage freedom rather than enforce captivity. The mold of routine shatters; fun, novelty and adventure fill camp days. Instead of sitting, you’re playing. Instead of indoors, you’re out. Instead of the kid you’ve always been, you get to try out who you might be.
    In camp you get to do the daring adventures we all dream of — with a safety net. So if you fall, you’ll most likely bounce. And your parents’ fretting won’t spoil your fun.
    Those are dreams to dream of in these cold days of late winter.
    As for doing in the here and now, we bring you a winter adventure of a lifetime.
    Mike Strandquist, an Annapolitan outdoorsman who owns Breezy Point Marina in Calvert County, wasn’t ­content to wait until summer to seize life’s moments. Or to remember the old days of what used to be.
    When his creek passed the ice test on February 23, he called the neighborhood out to play. But first they had to clear snow off iced-over open water to make their hockey ring.
    “I guarantee you it was an experience these kids will remember for the rest of their lives,” Strandquist said of the adventure.
    To his surprise, everybody came.
    “As I was not sure how parents of the other kids would feel, I was surprised that everyone we invited was allowed to come,” Strandquist said. “I guess the parents felt I have safety in mind first and foremost.”
    Exhilaration over a safety net. That’s what Bay Weekly is about this week.

Sandra Olivetti Martin
Editor and publisher;

Beauty is in a guy’s eye

High school is a lot like the Occupy Wall Street movement: Only one percent of the student body is satisfied with their looks and lives. For the other 99 percent, it’s a four-year slog toward graduation.
    Bianca (Mae Whitman: Parenthood) is a senior who thinks she’s part of the one percent. Best friends since childhood with beautiful, smart and kind Jess (Skyler Samuels: American Horror Story) and Casey (Bianca A. Santos: Happy Land), Bianca takes it for granted that she’s as cool and popular as her friends. Her jock neighbor, Wesley (Robbie Amell: The Tomorrow People), shatters her delusion that she’s a worthwhile human being by informing her that she is a DUFF — Designated Ugly Fat Friend. As a DUFF, Bianca is the gatekeeper to her hot friends. Her existence is acknowledged only because of Jess and Casey.
    Bianca is confusingly beautiful and slender. Only her style of T-shirts and minimal makeup makes her a DUFF.
    Yet Bianca accepts this idiot’s opinion. She turns on her friends as traitors who befriended her so they would look better by comparison. She dumps them for Wesley, who helps transform her into a babe.
    With his advice on dressing, chatting up boys and making out, Bianca ascends the social ranks. She gives up schoolwork in favor of professionally styled hair and makeup. Who needs academic achievements when you’ve perfected the art of a good blowout?
    Director Ari Sandel (Aim High) fills the screen with emoticons and text-speak. Each frame looks like it’s pulled from a SnapChat.
    His characters are all horrible. Granted, teens aren’t always warm and likeable, but Bianca and Wes are such brats that it’s hard to conjure up much sympathy for either.
    The DUFF is the latest bad advice offered to kids in the guise of entertainment. As in most teen movies, this one has a message about being yourself and finding your inner beauty. But it’s hard not to notice that Bianca’s “true self” greatly resembles the dream girl Wes molded her into.
    Only teens could love this movie, though they shouldn’t.

Poor Comedy • PG-13 • 101 mins.