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Arts and Culture (All)

One dog lives several lives in the year’s most emotionally manipulative movie

Bailey (Josh Gad: The Angry Birds Movie) is born a stray in a back alley. He’s caught, taken to the pound and euthanized. So begins the first of many lives of Bailey the dog.
    His second time around, Bailey is luckier. He finds a boy, Ethan, (Bryce Gheisar: Walk the Prank) and lives a happy and wholesome life as his boy’s best friend. But eventually, Ethan moves away and Bailey gets old. When it’s time for Bailey to yet again shuck this mortal coil, Ethan comes home to say goodbye, offering Bailey one last reason to wag his tail.
    Soon, Bailey is back again, this time as a police dog with a lonely handler.
    Throughout each of his five lives, ­Bailey wonders what the point of life is. Why was he put on this planet? Why does he keep coming back? Most importantly, will he ever see Ethan again?
    Expect your emotions to be manipulated in A Dog’s Purpose. Writing is poor and acting middling, but none of that matters because every scene is packed with cute puppies doing adorable things. You’ll see bright-eyed dogs panting; dogs grabbing stuff and running; dogs barking and wriggling. Every time the movie lulls, here comes a four-legged rescue. You’re even forced into weeping at seeing old dogs die.
    You will be watching dogs die, each equally manipulative. It’s like signing up to watch the last 20 minutes of Marley and Me four times. This is not a movie to view without a packet of tissues.
    Though you’ll cry, A Dog’s Purpose is oddly devoid of other emotional attachment. Director Lasse Hallström (The Hundred Foot Journey) beautifully captured the personality of the dog actors in the film. Humanity is often short-changed.
    Performances reflect this slipshod attitude to storytelling. An ensemble that ranges from unknowns to veteran actors Dennis Quaid (Fortitude) and John Ortiz (Togetherness) varies from robotic to perfunctory. If all of their dialog were cut, there would be no great loss to plot. Maybe the human actors lost interest when it was clear a dog would be stealing all their scenes.

Poor Drama • PG • 120 mins.

Can three smart teens outwit a madman with 23 personalities?

Three teens waiting for a ride home from a birthday party are abducted. The girls — Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy: Morgan), Claire (Haley Lu Richardson: The Edge of Seventeen) and Marcia (Jessica Sula: Lucifer) wake to an argument between their captor and a woman.
    The girls hope to reason with the female abductor. Then they learn she is just one of a myriad of personalities inhabiting the troubled mind of their male abductor.
    Two of the personalities, Dennis and Patricia (James McAvoy: X-Men: Apocalypse), are devotees of the beast, a harrowing creature that will remake the Earth by eating the innocent. The girls don’t really believe in the beast, but they’re fairly convinced that the man holding them captive — whose other personalities include a prepubescent boy, a fashion designer, a diabetic and a history nerd — is crazy.
    Can they outsmart and escape a man with 23 personalities?
    Can Director M. Night Shyamalan (The Visit) make a believable movie?
    These girls aren’t typical victims. They’re smart. They don’t wait passively for rescue. The villain, too, is atypical, in that he comes in at least four wildly different variations. Shyamalan also treats the idea of multiple personality disorder with respect, avoiding making his baddie a drooling psychopath.
    Actors are more than carrying their weight. McAvoy’s stupendous performance sells the outlandish concept. He alters the set of his face, his body language and his voice so distinctly that each personality is clearly identifiable.
    As Casey, Taylor-Joy holds her own against McAvoy, using her eyes to express both terror and determination. Watching her try to beguile and manipulate all of the personalities is fascinating.
    Split is entertaining, but it’s not perfect. Plot holes and overwrought dialogue abound, though the performances smooth that over.
    A great popcorn film that offers laughs, chills and thrills, Split is worth the ticket price. See it in a crowded theater, as it tends to evoke vociferous and often entertaining reactions from the audience.

Good Thriller • PG-13 • 117 mins.

Three decades in the making, three (boring) hours in the watching

In the 17th century, Japanese governors forestalled the growth of Catholicism in their country by rounding up priests and converts. Those who recanted were released. The faithful were tortured.
    Word reaches the Jesuits of Portugal that Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson: A Monster Calls) has foresworn his faith and is living among the Japanese. Horrified, Fathers Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield: Hacksaw Ridge) and Garrpe (Andrew Driver: Patterson) volunteer to go learn the truth.
    After a harrowing journey, the priests reach Japan. Instead of Ferreira, they find desperate Catholics who see their arrival as a sign from God. Rodrigues and Garrpe realize their parishioners have a deep and powerful faith — that is getting them killed.
    Questions evolve.
    Is it moral to ask people to martyr themselves? What business did white Christians have going to Japan trying to alter centuries of religious beliefs? Will they ever find the truth of what happened to Father Ferreira?
    A ponderous movie on the strength of faith and the needs of people to believe, Silence is a passion project. Legendary director Martin Scorsese (The Wolf of Wall Street) has been trying to bring Japanese author Shusaku Endoto’s book to the screen for nearly 28 years. The long-awaited movie is beautifully shot, thought-provoking and far too long.
    Cinematically it’s breathtaking, with many nods to Japanese cinema and directors. But the story fails to make emotional connections. By trying to be fair to both sides, Scorsese leaves you ambivalent to both the Japanese who want to preserve their culture and the priests who believe salvation is possible only to Catholics.
    Performances are another weakness. Scorsese needs a strong lead to sell a nearly three-hour movie. At the heart of the film is Garfield, who is acceptable but not compelling, so Father Rodrigues’ struggles with faith are not keenly felt. It’s also odd that Scorsese forces both Garfield and Driver to speak in slightly stereotypical Portuguese accents, while Neeson speaks in his usual Irish brogue.
    Long, slow and inconsistently acted, Silence is not a film to win your heart. If you buy a ticket hoping for lively storytelling and engrossing action, enjoying this film will be a miracle.

Fair Drama • R • 161 mins.

Taking on the rise and fall of your political ideals

It’s always good to make an audience think. In The City of Conversation, Colonial Players makes us do just that with a story that is well told, emotional and often laugh-out-loud funny — as well as relevant, with its look at how politics can split families.
    Novelist and playwright Anthony Giardina’s script is set in the elegant Georgetown townhouse of Hester Ferris, a left-leaning socialite whose legendary dinner parties are modeled after those of real-life doyenne and former ambassador Perle Mesta. At her soirees, the upper crust from both political stripes discussed, debated and drank with passion but without rancor.
    We begin in 1979. Jimmy Carter is in the White House, but Ronald Reagan is rising. Next we come to the fight over Robert Bork’s Supreme Court nomination, finally to President Obama’s 2009 inauguration.
    Making his Colonial Players directing debut, Ruben Vellekoop, keeps the action moving through it all — and through Colonial’s theater in the round.
    As Ferris, Kathleen Ruttum anchors the production with authority yet vulnerability. She is a well-regarded woman who can feel her power and effectiveness, and the civility of debate, slipping. The liberal political world that once revolved around her dining room table is falling to neoconservatism. Finally partisanship supersedes civil conversation.
    As Ferris’s liberalism was once the sun around which political Washington revolved, Ruttum’s performance is the one around which the others revolve. Politics turns personal when her son Colin (Josh Mooney) introduces a fiancée (Rebecca Gift). The younger woman is ambitious, conservative and not afraid to challenge Hester’s status quo.
    Mooney is an excellent comic actor known for his superior performances in musical comedies at Annapolis Summer Garden Theater. It is good to see him acting with more depth. He does so successfully, in two roles. First he is Colin, whose politics aligns more closely with his fiancée’s than his mother’s. (When he said, “The President gets to choose his Supreme Court,” the audience laughed in recognition.) Later he plays Colin’s son Ethan, who returns with his boyfriend to visit his grandmother.
    Gift’s Anna, the fiancée, is suitably ambitious and cynical, belittling Hester’s once-lofty position as well as her ideas. Her repartee with Hester takes on the acidity that reflects the changing mores.
    A fine supporting cast is led by a droll Karen Kellner as Jean, Hester’s sister, who also runs the house. Paul Banville is Chandler, a liberal senator and Hester’s longtime partner. Jeff Sprague and Carlotta Capuano make the most of a brief appearance as a senator from Kentucky and his wife. David Foster plays Ethan’s friend Donald late in the play, and young Ian Brown nicely plays six-year-old Ethan (a role he splits with Henry MacDonald).
    Yes, it’s always good to make the audience think. But not so good to make us guess.
    Vellekoop uses empty picture frames to delineate Hester’s home. Nice and effective, until, during their exits throughout the production, the actors each remove a frame and take it offstage. The audience murmurs, wondering — guessing — what it all means and why Hester’s guests are stealing her paintings.
    A letter to reviewers — unseen by the audience and not explained in the program — explains something about the frames representing the masks that characters hide behind. The audience didn’t get it. One playgoer who asked an usher got a word with the stage ­manager. There is no need for this kind of device when a fine cast is telling a good story.
    The music, too, was off. Songs from the 1960s and ’70s seem out of place in a show that begins in 1979. If there is some meaning in the lyrics, it does not come across. The choice to interrupt, with an obscene rap song no less, the very tender final moment of the show, is again, questionable.
    Less is more. Let the moment speak for itself.
    Quibbles aside, The City of Conversation is an enjoyable experience. Funny, emotional and sparked with debate, it received a standing ovation the night I attended.


About two hours with one intermission. Stage manager: Atticus Cooper Boidy. Lighting: Alex Brady. Costumes: Carrie Brady. Set: Mary Butcher.

Thru Jan. 28: FSa 8pm, Su 2pm, plus 8pm Jan. 26, 108 East St., Annapolis; $20 w/discounts; rsvp: 410-268-7373; www.thecolonialplayers.org.

Ben Affleck writes a love letter to pulp filmmaking in this epic drama

Joe Coughlin (Ben Affleck: Suicide Squad) is an outlaw. A veteran of The Great War, Coughlin returns home to Boston swearing to never follow orders again. He turns to armed robbery, vexes his police chief father and gets the interest of the city’s warring Italian and Irish mobs.
    Coughlin isn’t interested in joining a gang, but he is interested in the head Irish mobster’s girl, Emma (Sienna Miller: The Lost City of Z). Joe gets out with a smashed face and a few years in jail. Emma doesn’t fair so well.
    Bent on revenge, Coughlin signs up with the Italian mob.
    He sets up a comfortable life on the outskirts of Tampa, building a small empire as he outsmarts the law and rival criminal concerns.
    Just as he assembles the life he wants, it’s challenged. The Italians fret over an Irishman running such a large chunk of their business. The Ku Klux Klan chapter despises Joe for his Cuban girlfriend and association with minority groups. The holy rollers of Tampa want to cleanse the city.
    Based on an epic Prohibition novel by Dennis Lehane, Live by Night isn’t as beautifully detailed or steeped in history as the novel, but it’s a decent CliffsNotes. Affleck also directed and wrote the screenplay, paring down a story that spans decades and two very different cities and focusing almost solely on Coughlin.
    Though it keeps the running time down, this choice also knocks some of the nuance out of Joe, turning him from a morally ambiguous gangster into a tough-guy hero.
    Coughlin is interesting, and Affleck’s performance fine, but he gains primacy at the expense of other performers. Chris Messina (The Mindy Project), as Coughlin’s right-hand man, for one.
    Lavish sets, attractive people and enough action to keep your blood pumping, Live by Night is a tribute to the pulpy crime dramas of the 1930s and ’40s. If you like a plot-heavy tale with quippy dialogue, sexy dames and steel-jawed toughs, you’ll enjoy this film.

Good Drama • R • 128 mins.

The amazing story of three unknown stars of the space program

Katherine Goble (Taraji P. Henson: Empire) is a mathematical genius. But she is a woman, and she is black. In 1960s Virginia, Goble can’t even sit at the front of a bus, let alone gain independence as a mathematician.
    She works at NASA as a computer, a mathematician who performs calculations and checks the numbers generated by engineers.
    While fighting racial stereotyping, sexism and paranoia about Soviet spies, Goble is also helping to invent the math that will eventually guarantee safe orbits for America’s first astronauts. Her work is, of course, unacknowledged.
    Goble was not the only overlooked woman genius at NASA. Two more unrecognized black women on the job make a mark in history. Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe: Moonlight) contributes to the Mercury 7 project, helping perfect its cabin design. But as a black woman, she isn’t considered qualified to be an engineer, and her race is banned from the school offering classes that could help her advance. Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer: Bad Santa 2) is a mechanical prodigy who recognizes and surmounts the threat IBM computers pose to the computing women at NASA.
    Hidden Figures is their long-awaited recognition, and it’s a crowd-pleaser. Performances are great, the soundtrack is snappy and the script will make you want to learn more about these remarkable women. Director Theodore Melfi (St. Vincent) parallels the race to get an American into space alongside these women’s struggle for significant work and respect in a time when the outcome of neither effort was guaranteed.
    Dialogue can feel stilted as conversations become lessons in facts you need to know to get the point. Performance, however, is a rich counterbalance. As Goble, the star and heart of the film, Henson gives a powerful performance bearing rudeness and cruelty with kindness and dignity.
    Spencer and Monáe are lighter, even comic, though each has moments of drama. They make the three women’s bond of friendship a joy to watch.

Good Historical Drama • PG • 127 mins.

Based on August Wilson’s play of the same name, Fences is a stirring drama about the effects of systemic racism on the black family

From the outside, Troy Maxson (Denzel Washington: The Magnificent Seven) has a pretty good life. He has a steady job as a garbage collector, an adoring wife named Rose (Viola Davis: Suicide Squad) and a nice house in a Pittsburgh neighborhood. A born storyteller with a gift for hyperbole, Troy enjoys spinning colorful yarns as he drinks his weekly bottle of gin with his coworkers. In the late 1950s, it’s as close to living the American Dream as any black man could hope to get.
    Troy, however, is not content. A once-great baseball player, he resents the racist system that kept him from playing pro ball. He keenly feels the injustices that have kept him from greater success in work and at home.
    Some of his complaints are solidly founded. Black men must empty the garbage cans, not drive the trucks. The army refuses full compensation to Troy’s brother and veteran Gabe (Mykelti Williamson: Designated Survivor), who runs the streets disturbing the peace.
    Some complaints are less valid. Troy sees his son’s football skills as a curse and will hear no talk of football scholarships or college. He doesn’t trust sports, even after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier. He wants his son to learn a trade and work after school.
    As the years wear on, Troy obsesses over the idea that his life has been wasted.
    Based on August Wilson’s play of the same name, Fences is a stirring drama about the effects of systemic racism on the black family. Washington, who also directs, brought this adaptation from stage to screen, retaining most of the 2010 revival cast for the film. This was a brilliant choice.
    As the leads, both Washington and Davis are remarkable. Washington makes Troy a deeply flawed but fascinating character, full of contradictions. He’s a charming rogue, a born storyteller and selfishly obsessed with what he’s owed. He revels in pointing out his son’s flaws, building himself up as the only true man in the family, even as he’s riddled with insecurity.
    As his wife Rose, Davis plays Troy’s polar opposite. Quiet and kind, Rose is more than a devoted partner. She is in many ways the heart of the play, sacrificing her own strength and emotional wellbeing for her family. Davis makes Rose’s inner turmoil both poignant and relatable.
    The film’s weakness is cinematic production. Washington borrowed not only the play’s cast but also its staging conventions. You feel like you’re watching a play. In those confines, action seems stilted. There is also a play’s long running time, well over two hours. Viewers whose theatrical tastes were formed at the movies may grow bored.


Great Drama • PG-13 • 138 mins.

An inoffensive cartoon that will keep small children quiet for 90 minutes and that might give their parents a few laughs

Koala Buster Moon (Matthew McConaughey: Kubo and the Two Strings) loves theater. He has achieved half of his dream. He owns a theater, but he has no audience.
    Facing foreclosure, Buster makes a desperate decision to host a singing competition. To draw local talent, he plans to offer a $1,000 prize. But his secretary types $100,000 by mistake, and soon the whole town turns out to win a fortune.
    Surely he can raise the money later, Buster decides, so he holds auditions. A motley crew competes. Johnny (Taron Egerton: Eddie the Eagle) is a softhearted gorilla with a sweet voice who seeks to get away from his criminal father. Ash (Scarlett Johansson: Captain America: Civil War) is a prickly teen porcupine finding her voice as a songwriter. Rosita (Reese Witherspoon: Hot Pursuit) is a housepig worn out by caring for her husband and 25 piglets. Meena (Tori Kelly) is a shy elephant with the voice of an angel but crippling stage fright. Mike (Seth MacFarlane: Family Guy) is a mouse with the voice and attitude of Sinatra.
    As the contestants struggle to find their voices, Buster struggles to find funding for his musical spectacular. Will he get the ovation he’s always wanted? Or is this his curtain call?
    Sing is the latest in a long line of inoffensive animated films that will keep small children quiet for 90 minutes. There’s nothing special about writing, acting or story, but all are satisfactory. Illumination Studios has settled into making movies — like this and the Minions film — that entertain small viewers while offering adults passable fare. It’s not a bad formula. At my screening, children paid close attention to the singing animals while adults huffed a few laughs.
    If you pay attention, you’ll notice two big problems. First is the story. Writer/director Garth Jennings (Son of Rambow) makes Buster’s journey his theme. But we don’t connect with Buster, as he’s a bit of a jerk and McConaughey’s vocal performance is flat. Our hearts are with Johnny, caught in a fraught relationship with his robber father. Instead of his story, we get dozens of B storylines and flatulence jokes.
    There’s also too little music for a movie called Sing. What there is — mostly small snippets from popular songs — seems contrived to keep adults entertained.
    A DVD of Zootopia or The Secret Life of Pets will cost you less than movie tickets to Sing and give you and your children better stories and cuter animal characters.


Fair Animation • PG • 108 mins.

Timeless ideals well told and beautifully sung

“Camelot, located nowhere in particular, can be anywhere,” wrote a scholar on Arthurian times. Fortunately for us it resides until January 22 in Annapolis at Compass Rose Theater.
    Director Lucinda Merry-Browne’s rousing revival takes a scaled-down approach to this Broadway blockbuster, proving that less is more. A cast of 10, a seven-foot grand piano grandly played and a spare set bring this passionate and humorous classic to life.
     The final collaboration of Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe, Camelot is a timeless story. Its message of optimism and hope, despite betrayal, is as clear and needed in 2016 as it was on opening night in 1960. Personifying that message is the boyish King Arthur, determined to create a kingdom where “violence is not strength and compassion is not weakness.”
    This is a “musical” in every sense of the word, with Lerner’s beautiful lyrics carried by Loewe’s memorable melodies. Compass Rose focuses on those songs, with a cast of wonderful voices accompanied by that lone piano so expertly played by Sangah Purinton. The piano is on stage but hidden from the audience behind the set, giving us the perfect mix of music and voices in Compass Rose’s intimate space.
    Carl Pariso is a boyish but effective King Arthur whose initial banter with Merlyn (Tim Garner) is humorous but meaningful. Pariso’s take on “I Wonder What the King Is Doing Tonight” is a very funny assumption —that he is all his subjects think about. It makes quite the juxtaposition to his “Finale Ultimo,” the title song, when Arthur tells Tom (a small yet animated role made quite compelling by Sarah Grace Clifton), a young knight, to share the story “that once there was a spot, for one brief shining moment that was known as Camelot.”
    As Guenevere, Anna DeBlasio charms her way into Arthur’s heart with a coquettish love that gives way to a deeper passion for Lancelot and the betrayal that crumbles Camelot’s ideals. Deblasio’s beautiful soprano toys joyfully with “The Simple Joys of Maidenhood,” and soars with the lovely “I Loved You Once in Silence.” She and Pariso are endearing as a couple, but her performance is so honest and compelling that her betrayal of Arthur seems understandable rather than disappointing. As Lancelot, Joe Ventricelli equals Arthur’s early humor with the boastful “C’est Moi.” But his baritone pierces the hearts of all when he delivers one of the most lasting songs of this score, “If Ever I Would Leave You.”
    The supporting cast is impressive as well, with most playing several roles, including the aforementioned Garner as the diabolical Mordred, Joe Rossi playing Pellinore and an in-drag Morgan Le Fey. Special mention must be made of Jaecob Lynn, whose clear tenor reaches to the skies during “Guenevere,” when, quite operatically, the trial and rescue of the queen are narrated.
    Costumes are beautiful and appropriate, the lighting is subtle yet effective and the movement across the two-story stage is clever. But the highlights of this production are its simplicity: A good story, well told and very well sung that transcends time and space and fits beautifully on the Compass Rose stage.


About two-and-a-half hours with one intermission.

Music director: Anita O’Connor. Costume design: Renee Vergauwen, Katie Boothroyd, Beth Terranova, Elizabeth Holt and Mary Ruth Cowgill. Light design: Jason Lynch. Choreographer: Tim Garner.

Thru Jan. 22 FSa 8pm; SaSu 2pm; Th Jan. 19 7pm, Compass Rose Theater, Westgate Circle, Annapolis, $38 w/discounts, rsvp: www.compassrosetheater.org.

A story for the original Star Wars generation

The campaign against the Empire is not going well for the rebel alliance. Momentum is building, slowly, but not consensus. Half the alliance wants war; the other thinks senate proceedings and trials better for the galaxy.
    Things get worse when scientist Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen: Doctor Strange) sends a secret message reporting that he’s helped build a weapon the Empire calls the Death Star.
    It has the power to destroy a planet with a single shot. Such a weapon gives the Empire the upper hand.
    Erso reveals that he’s built a hidden weakness into the Death Star to aid the rebels. Erso himself is missing.
    The plan is to contact Erso’s daughter Jyn (Felicity Jones: Inferno) to make inroads with her dad’s old friends, now rebel fanatics. Jyn has been searching for her father ever since the Empire kidnapped him, so she leaps at the chance.
    Jyn joins rebel spy Cassian Andor (Diego Luna: The Bad Batch) to find her father and steal the plans for the Death Star. Cassian, however, is under orders to shoot Galen on sight.
    If you’ve ever seen a Star Wars movie, you know how Rogue One ends. But it’s so well done that knowing the ending hardly matters.
    Director Gareth Edwards (Godzilla) gives us breathtaking action, including a harrowing battle on an island. The machinery and tech of the Star Wars universe blend with gritty sequences featuring soldiers and guns to convey the human cost of war.
    Another smart choice is staying far away from the Force. This is not a movie about Jedis. It’s about non-magical people who must make real sacrifices for their cause. Grounding this fantasy universe in reality adds consequences to action. A soldier who dies in Rogue One is not joining the Force, just rotting on the ground.
    Luna and Jones give charismatic performances that leave you rooting for the rebellion. The real star of the movie, however, is K-2SO (Alan Tudyk: Moana). A reprogrammed Empire droid now working with the rebels, K-2SO is a comedian who steals every scene. Imagine a slightly tougher and more sarcastic C-3PO.
    Think twice about bringing the kids to this Star Wars movie. Made for adults who grew up with the original trilogy, this addition to the universe is a darker take than the usually family-friendly fare. People die, war is hell and betrayal is seemingly inevitable.
    For fans, it’s a great sci-fi-war experience giving us plenty to talk about while we wait for Episode VIII.


Great Sci-Fi • PG-13 • 133 mins.