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Arts and Culture (All)

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

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

Fair Fantasy • PG-13 • 144 mins.

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

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

Dismal Thriller • R • 98 mins.

A comedy of calamity and carnage set off by a kitten

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

Good Comedy • R • 100 mins.

Who watches the watchmen?

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

Great Action • PG-13 • 146 mins.

An absurdist retelling of a surreal moment in American history

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

Good Comedy • R • 86 mins.

This comedy is a love letter and a plea to Chicago

Calvin (Ice Cube: Ride Along 2) is a second-generation barber on the south side of Chicago. The shop is now co-ed with a new business partner (Regina Hall: Black-ish).
    Calvin is proud of his neighborhood, but it’s changing. He barely recognizes the street where he’s spent his whole life. Robberies and shootings make the barbers fearful of working after dark. As son Jaylen (Michael Rainey Jr.: Power) considers joining a gang, Calvin makes the barbershop a safe space in hopes of encouraging his community to embrace non-violence.
    If the gambit fails, Calvin plans to move his family and business to Chicago’s safer north side.
    Barbershop: The Next Cut strikes a surprising balance between commentary and comedy. Past installments have been far broader comedies, featuring slapstick humor, silly jokes and good music.
    This film, the third in the series, seeks to provoke change as well as laughter.
    Director Malcolm D. Lee (The Best Man Holiday) balances humor with drama so that neither overwhelms. Best of all are the performances. Ice Cube is a charismatic performer skilled as both a dramatic actor and straight man to the shenanigans in the shop. Cedric the Entertainer (The Soul Man) remains the perfect clown, spouting ridiculous one-liners and riling up the rest of the cast.
    As for a solution to stop the violence in Chicago, you’ll find opinions on what shouldn’t be done but few realistic solutions beyond don’t give up.

Good Dramedy • PG-13 • 112 mins.

A man cub learns the laws of the jungle in this winning family film

Fierce tiger Shere Khan (voiced by Idris Elba: Zootopia), slaughters a man who sought shelter in a jungle cave. But escaping Khan’s deadly eye, a toddler survives. The panther Bagheera (Ben Kingsley: The Walk) takes pity on the pathetic man cub.
    Seven years later, Mowgli (Neel Sethi in his feature debut) lives among a wolf pack while training with Bagheera in the ways of the jungle. He loves his family, but he is a failure as a wolf. He can’t run as fast or bite as hard. He can compete only when he uses “tricks,” such as fashioning crude tools. The pack insists he abandon his tricks for life as a wolf.
    Mowgli may need all the tricks in his bag when Shere Khan finds a man cub on his return to the wolf grounds. Shere Khan is determined to kill the boy and anyone who stands in his way.
    Hunted by the most powerful beast in the jungle, Mowgli returns to the human world. Can people protect him? Will he reintegrate into human society?
    The Jungle Book is a colorful, beautiful retelling of the classic tale for all ages. This adaptation owes less to Rudyard Kipling than to the 1967 Disney cartoon, for it features all the Disney songs, characters and plot. But director Jon Favreau (Chef) adds fresh visual styling.
    Best of all is the exemplary work by the all-star voice cast. As the film’s villain, Elba growls his way through a menacing performance. Scarlett Johansson (Hail, Caesar!) fills out the baddie side with her creepy characterization of a humongous boa constrictor that may or may not want to swallow Mowgli.
    To balance the menacing animals, Favreau has stacked the deck with some outstanding comedic voice acting. Kingsley plays straight man (make that panther) to the characters, while offering deadpan zingers that should keep parents entertained. As lazy bear Baloo, Bill Murray (Rock the Kasbah) is beguiling and cuddly. Murray’s voice does a lot to bring warmth and charm to this laid-back take on a favorite Disney character.
    The standout in this talented field is Christopher Walken (Eddie the Eagle), who uses his unique voice and cadence to make King Louie both silly and intimidating.
    The only weak link is Sethi, who can sound a bit forced. It’s not a big problem, as no one in the audience pays much attention to Mowgli with all the talking animals abounding.
    A bigger problem may be the more realistic nature of its animals and sets. Favreau has created a painstakingly accurate environment, so tiger attacks, lunging snakes and rampaging apes are a little more frightening than their cartoon counterparts. My young seatmate was terrified of Shere Khan, and having the tiger leap at the audience in glorious 3D did nothing to quell her fears. If you have a child under the age of seven, consider whether this film will ruin future trips to the zoo.
    All in all, The Jungle Book is family entertainment that should please several generations of viewers.

Good Family Film • PG • 105 mins.

Catch the second weekend of fun and frivolity

Time-travel nearly 350 years from the court of King Louis XIV of France to Twin Beach Players’ version of Molière’s 1668 comedy of manners, L’Avare. The Miser, as English has it, completes performer/director Jeff Larson’s production of a Moliere trilogy, including Tartuffe and the Imaginary Invalid, spanning 14 years of theatrical performances by Twin Beach Players. Through all, he’s teamed with company president Sid Curl.
    Colorful and convincing characters embroiled in a twisting plot make up The Miser’s world. In two acts, we witness what happens when Harpagon, the miser, obsessed with adding to his sizeable fortune, secrets away his wealth. To add to these riches, he plans marriages for his two children. Those around him, however, are equally determined to carry out their own plans.
    These are familiar characters. Comedic archetypes we recognize had their roots in Moliere, including the bumbling Inspector Clouseau character of Pink Panther fame, first imagined as the Miser’s Inspector ­Sansclou. The characters use slapstick, physical humor and clever banter to keep us entertained.
    As in Moliere’s time, some characters break through the imaginary fourth wall that separates the audience from the performers onstage to engage with us directly. The technique is visually interesting and involving as well as revelatory of a character’s private thoughts.
    Larson’s blocking uses stage space wisely, helping to focus our attention toward or away from imposing character action or dialogue, especially when multiple characters share the stage simultaneously.
    Overall, acting is solid with some outstanding performances, including Luke Woods’ commendable physical and verbal character choices as Harpagon.
    Annie Gorenflo’s Elise balances youth and experience. Aidan Davis adds strength to Valere with a pleasing and resonant vocal tone. Tom Weaver’s Cleante is sincere and believably love-struck, while Jenny Liese’s Marianne is bright and affable. Jim Weeks shows commanding physical agility and range as La Fleche.
    Jeanne Louise as Mâitress Jacqueline Ze Chef is animated and excitable; her French accent is believable and her movements charmingly gazelle-like. Stage veteran Helenmary Ball is delightful as marriage broker Madame Frosine, offering impeccable comic timing, hilarious facial expressions and rich vocal variety. Kevin McAndrews masterfully performs his roles of Maitre Simon and Inspector Sansclou, shaping subtle nuances between them. Curl entertains in his cameo as Senor Anselme, drawing comparisons to the chameleon-like talent of actor Tim Conway in physical appearance, comic ability and vocal diversity.
    The production staff skillfully executes their technical responsibilities, giving legitimacy to time and place. Music designer Robert Snider’s selection of pre-show, intermission and post-show music is consistent with the Baroque era. An able stage crew professionally and discreetly transforms the sparse set in Act I to a more fully furnished set in Act II. Costume design and makeup include period wigs, curls and costumes accented with bolder hues to enhance characterizations.


Two and a half hours with a 15-minute intermission; light refreshments available for purchase.

Th-Sa 8pm, Su 3pm thru April 17 at the North Beach Boys and Girls Club, 9021 Dayton Ave. $15 w/discounts: 410-286-1890; www.twinbeachplayers.com.

Spread the word about this haunted place of miraculous possibilities where the crippled are made whole, body and soul

“I’m sure there is magic in everything,” says the invalid child Colin in The Secret Garden, “only we have not sense to get hold of it.”
    If you want to believe in magic again, see Colonial Players’ production of the children’s classic that has been delighting musical theater audiences for 25 years. With award-winning songs, clever staging and an animated cast, it delivers all the haunting magic of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s Edwardian original and then some. Like a dream in black and white, this show blurs the line between this world and the next in spinning the tale of headstrong Mary Lennox (Madi Heinemann), orphaned in India and shipped home to her miserable Uncle Archibald’s (Justin T. Ritchie) English estate. It’s a haunted place of miraculous possibilities where the crippled are made whole, body and soul.
    Colonial’s tiny theater-in-the-round is perfect for the show’s musical narratives enhanced by sharp choreography and an imaginative set. Dance takes center stage as a plot device in the seamless prologue when a scarlet silk handkerchief passed among dancers illustrates the cholera epidemic that orphans Mary. One by one the victims fall, starting with her parents, Captain and Mrs. Lennox (Heather McMunigal and Kory Twit).
    Accompanying the dance is a sterling chorus of neighbors who provide back story and commentary on life at Misselthwaite Manor: Major Holmes (Cory Jones), Alice (Kaelynn Miller), Betsy/Mrs. Winthrop (Erin Branigan), Lt. Shaw (Kyle Gonzalez), Claire Holmes (Kaitlin Fish) and Lt. Wright (Greg Anderson).
    The manor is crawling with ghosts, primary among them Archibald’s wife, Lily (Lindsay Espinosa), who worries over him and their invalid son Colin (Reid Murphy), despite the ministrations of Archie’s jealous physician-brother Neville (Kevin Cleaver). But Mary has the company of a sympathetic maid, Martha (Ella Green), her young brother Dickon (Samuel Edward Ellis) and the gardener, Ben (Danny Brooks). With their help, she discovers Lily’s secret garden and brings its healing power to all the sick and restless.
    With just one piece of furniture, some tissue clouds and myriad special effects, this show conveys a better sense of time, place and action than more opulent productions I have seen. Innovative lighting evokes a full moon, thunderstorms, a skyline of minarets suggesting Mary’s homeland and a robin flitting overhead, symbolized by migrating red chaser lights. Three projectors broadcast films around the theater to simulate actions from the mundane act of opening the curtains to a bucolic train ride and the inner sanctum of the garden beyond its imposing walls.
    The costumes range from drab English earth tones to the tropical whites and lacy gowns of India’s ruling class, where only the turbaned Fakir (Aubrey Baden) and sari-clad Ayah (Fish) dazzle in color. Attention to detail is evident from the housekeeper’s (Cristina Shunk) magnificent key belt to the red trim incorporated into Mary’ dress as she warms to her surroundings.
    Among a cast of talented singers, Ritchie and Espinosa thrill in A Bit of Earth and How Could I Ever Know, and Green delights with her fine Yorkshire accent in A Fine White Horse. Cleaver’s duet with Ritchie (Lily’s Eyes) is unforgettable, and Ellis delights in Wick with a presence that feels metaphysical. Heinemann’s signature song, The Girl I Mean to Be, is charming but difficult to hear over the taped accompaniment — a dilemma common to the other children’s soli and the sole technical problem of this production.
    See this chestnut with someone you love, young or old, and bring a hanky.


By Marsha Norman and Lucy Simon, based on the novel by Frances ­Hodgson Burnett. Director: Lois Evans. Musical Director: Wendy Baird. Choreographer: Carol Cohen. Stage Manager: Andy McLendon. Set: Laurie Nolan. Sound/Effects: Julien C. Jacques. Lights: Eric Lund. Costumes: Jean Carroll Christie. Dialect/Vocal Coach: Nancy Krebs. Musical Accompaniment by Right on Cue Services.

Runs two and a half hours: Thru May 8, Th-Sa at 8pm, Su at 2, Colonial Players, 108 East St. Annapolis. $20 with discounts, rsvp: 410-268-7373; www.thecolonialplayers.org.
 

What is the acceptable human cost for our security?

If you could kill a terrorist by drone strike, would you? If a child was in the kill zone, could you still launch the missile?
    Colonel Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren: Woman in Gold) has been obsessively tracking a terrorist. With his location finally pinpointed, she plans an elaborate capture, coordinating her British action with Kenyan and American forces.
    Complications force the capture mission to be abandoned. Powell wants to go for the kill with a drone strike. But it’s not her call.
    First, she must check with her general (Alan Rickman: A Little Chaos). He, in turn, must check with British ministers. They must check with the Americans. No one wants to be responsible for the strike, especially when a small girl enters the target area.
    As Powell argues for the strike, the British ministers, American drone pilots and Kenyan forces debate its morality.
    Is the possibility of saving many lives worth taking the life of an innocent? Can this group come to a consensus before the terrorists escape?
    An interesting morality puzzle holds together this suspenseful but hackneyed thriller. Director Gavin Hood (X-Men Origins: Wolverine) builds tension as politicians bandy about responsibility for the strike. You feel how infuriating the authorizing process can be. Every time an answer is seemingly arrived upon, someone else brings up another issue — and the debate resumes.
    For Powell and her cohorts, the frustration is agonizing. For the politicians, escaping responsibility is agonizing.
    Hood makes a powerful statement on the priorities of government, seemingly more concerned with appearance than reality. It is not a unique statement. Weathered military officers are cold, American politicians are cavalier and young officers are emotional. None of these types breaks a mold, though they work fairly well here to move the story along.
    With a plot offering nothing new, the acting raises the movie above hackneyed territory. Mirren is masterful as Powell, a dogged soldier who’s bitterly frustrated. In one of the last roles before his death, Rickman is entertaining as a world-weary general who must hold the hands of dithering politicians.
    Credit for the most suspenseful performance belongs to Barkhad Abdi (Captain Phillips), who plays a Kenyan operative sneaking into the terrorist compound. Far behind enemy lines, he’s operating a tiny drone in the midst of men with machine guns who would cut him down if they knew. Abdi’s struggle to survive an assignment tantamount to suicide is nerve-wracking.
    A fairly predictable film with some well-constructed tension, Eye in the Sky poses some interesting questions to viewers. What is the acceptable loss of life for a drone strike? Who has the right to choose who lives and who dies? If you’re looking for a film that challenges you to think and discuss, this movie is well worth the ticket.

Good Suspense • R • 102 mins.