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Sam Elliott shows what an old cowboy can do ­without his spurs and hat

Lee Hayden (Sam Elliott: The Ranch) has made a career of being That Guy. The actor with the smooth baritone is a commercial success, but he’s proud of only one of the many movies he’s made, The Hero, an old-school Western.
    Once the image of America’s cowboy, the ultimate specimen of masculinity, the 71-year-old actor is reduced to doing voiceovers in hokey commercials. Divorced and at odds with his daughter, he has only one friend, his drug dealer.
    It’s not a great life, but at least he’s got weed money.
    Two events throw Hayden’s life into turmoil. He wins a lifetime achievement award, and he is diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.
    Faced with the likely end of his life, he takes stock and makes amends. But his first steps — accepting the award and reconnecting with his daughter — trip him up.
    Well-acted but predictable, The Hero is a fair movie built on a great performance. From the cowboy image to voiceover work, actor Sam Elliott is a lot like the role he plays. But Elliott has something Hayden doesn’t: more than one great credit to his name. The long underrated actor shines in this film.
    Director Brett Haley (I’ll See You In My Dreams) allows Elliott’s performance to dominate, but his plot could be any movie of the week. Helping Elliott freshen clichés is Laura Prepon (Orange is the New Black), who infuses the role of younger love interest with charm and interest. Her Charlotte helps Lee mature, even though he’s the senior citizen in the relationship.
    At 72, Elliott is at the top of his game. It’s worth a ticket to see what this old cowboy can do without spurs and hat.

Good Drama • R • 93 mins.

Women fight a rabbi and their ­husbands’ prejudices

A close-knit Orthodox community in Jerusalem has gathered to celebrate a bar mitzvah. As the boy steps up to read the Torah, the congregation literally collapses around him. The women’s balcony falls.
    Among the injured is the rabbi’s wife.
    Faced with this tragedy, he suffers a psychotic breakdown and is incapable of visiting his wife in the hospital, let alone guiding his flock.
    Seeking a spiritual leader, the men find Rabbi David (Avraham Aviv Alush: The Shack) a charming young leader who is building a devout following.
    At first, all seems well. Rabbi David offers to take over reconstruction plans for the synagogue. But his ultra-Orthodox beliefs don’t sit well throughout a community that has found ways around their religion’s most stringent rules. Forbidden to touch electrical devices during Shabbat, they leave their lights and appliances on all weekend so they are not technically violating a rule while enjoying modern conveniences. If they need a switch turned, they enlist the gentile friend down the hall.
    When Rabbi David blames these accommodations for the congregation’s misfortune, a schism results.
    The women don’t appreciate the rabbi’s insistence on headscarves. They bristle at his denunciation of their immodesty as the cause of the collapse of the balcony. He re-opens their beloved synagogue without their balcony, telling the women that they need to learn their place, which is apparently a dingy back room with a barred window’s view of the service.
    Ettie (Evelin Hagoel: Yeled Tov Yerushalyim) organizes the women of the congregation for a fight.
    In this carefully constructed tale of religious and marital strife, director Emil Ben-Shimon (Wild Horses) has made a funny, winning movie about the power of communities. He takes us inside a usually closed culture and explores how a woman can be devout without being repressed.
    The plot is predictable; you’ll know exactly where the movie is going and how it will resolve. While that could create a boring film, strong performances from Hagoel, Alush and Igal Naor (False Flag) keep the audience invested.
    This delightful Israeli film about the importance of family, freedom and faith is a welcome change from the strife of the modern world. It’s worth a trip to Baltimore or D.C. to see it.

Good Dramedy • NR • 96 mins.

Be sure to see this lovely ­production of an American classic

Love is a flower that grows in any soil,

works its sweet miracles undaunted by autumn frost or winter snow,

blooming fair and fragrant all the year,

and blessing those who give and those who receive.

            —Louisa May Alcott

 

A coming of age story of four New England sisters at the time of the Civil War, Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women explores family, charity, duty and femininity from their perspective. But without question, what ties this family and this story together is love: fervent love for each other and love of their faith, community and country. Each sister, each character even, wrestles with who they are and the choices they make in terms of impacts on those around them. Their struggle for individuality while attempting to balance their responsibility to their family creates many thought-provoking situations.

            Set in 1861, Twin Beach Players’ production interprets Part One of the Alcott’s beloved novel. The story begins as sisters Jo (Olivia McClung), Meg (Brianna Boyer), Beth (Ashley Vernier) and Amy (Riley Nikolaus), plan for Christmas. The holiday is to be celebrated without their father, Mr. March (Andrew Brinegar), who has become a chaplain to be of service to his country in the Civil War. Though frustrated by their modest circumstances, the girls take what little money they have and buy gifts for their mother, Marmee (Taylor Baker), who spends her time caring for the family and volunteering in the community. Aunt March (Aaliyah Roach), a cantankerous relative and Jo’s employer, visits with gifts plus unwelcome opinions.

            Before long, two soon-to-be friends and suitors, Laurie (Cameron Walker) and his tutor John Brooke (EJ Roach) are introduced. The men live with a kindly but reclusive neighbor, Laurie’s uncle, Mr. Lawrence (Travis Lehnen). Rounding out the characters is the faithful family servant Hannah (Elizabeth Cullens).

            The story twists and turns as petty disagreements between the sisters are dwarfed by the threat of illness and loss. Then the sisters discover the lengths they will go for the family they love.

            Director Rachel Clites-Cruz has assembled a wonderful team of technical artists and actors to bring this story to life.

            Wendy Cranford has designed and Frank Antonio constructed a colorful and warm set excellently furnished with antiques. Cranford also designed make-up allowing the cast of teenagers to portray a wide range of ages, for the most part very well. Costumes by Dawn Denison are charming and well-tailored, as are sound and lighting design, always a challenge in Twin Beach Players’ multi-use space. The teens running the show do a great job.

            The young cast, including many faces familiar to Twin Beach audiences, is capable and engaging. Though a bit stiff in Act I, the four sisters and their mother soon settle into their characters. By Act II, real smiles and genuine emotions rise. The introduction of the two young men, Walker and Roach, bring the leading characters out of their shells with some of the best and most honest exchanges of the show. This is particularly true for Meg and John Brooke, who make the audience take a collective sigh when they gaze into each other’s eyes. Olivia McClung’s performance is very strong as the free-spirited Jo. Brianna Boyer is captivating as Meg. Ashley Vernier and Riley Nikolaus as the younger March sisters both find their stride later in the play as their characters become featured in the tale. Keep an eye out for touching storytelling by Travis Lehnen and some nice moments from Elizabeth Cullens. 

            If love is the flower that grows in any soil, as Alcott says, it has certainly found a home here at Twin Beach Players, where this dedicated group has shared their affection for her story. Be sure to head out to see this lovely production of an American classic.

 

Thru June 25: FSa 7pm, Su 3pm, Twin Beach Players, 9021 Dayton Ave., North Beach, $15 w/discounts, rsvp: www.twinbeachplayers.org.

 

Parking may be difficult on Friday nights due to the popular North Beach Farmers Market.

Fear is the monster in this clever ­psychological horror film

Disease is sweeping the country. How it started or can be prevented, these are mysteries. The only thing anyone knows for sure is that once you catch it, you’re dead.
    Paul (Joel Edgerton: Loving) is the patriarch of a family trying to survive this modern plague. He sequesters his wife Sarah (Carmen Ejogo: Alien: Covenant) and son in a cabin in the woods, banking on isolation to protect them from the disease that has nearly destroyed humanity. The family spends quiet days foraging for food, purifying water and keeping the house secure.
    When a man breaks in, Paul votes to kill him. Sarah offers another plan: sharing resources. Will (Christopher Abbott: Sweet Virginia) claims his family has livestock but no drinkable water.
    Relenting, Paul establishes rules for security protocols, social interaction and water purification. At first, Will and his family seem like godsends, breaking up the monotony of the days and contributing to the shared household.
    But soon, Paul grows suspicious. Is he imagining the little lies and provocations? Or is a sinister plan afoot?
    Director Trey Edward Shults (Krisha) continues his exploration of inner turmoil bubbling into chaos. Rather than monsters lurking in the woods or a slasher picking off teenagers, this terrifying movie deals with the poor decisions of people panicked by fear and paranoia.
    Like The Witch before it, this film trades on atmosphere. Something is slightly off about everyone and everything, and discomfort builds as oddities pile up. Foreboding cinematography ramps up the tension and performances contribute to the unease. Edgerton in particular gives a wonderful performance of quiet, weary-eyed Paul unsettled by suspicion and evolving to violence.
    People are the only hope and the biggest threat to the continuation of humanity in It Comes at Night.

Good Horror • R • 91 mins.

Women finally get their hero in this ­triumphant DC Comic adaptation

Amazons have thrived for centuries on the island of Themyscira, content to train for battle and broaden their minds with language and philosophy. This matriarchal society follows rules: no men and no leaving.
    But Diana (Gal Gadot: Keeping Up with the Joneses) chafes. Banned from combat training by her mother, Queen Hippolyta (Connie Neilsen: Stratton), Diana learns the art of war in secret from her aunt, the famous general Antiope (Robin Wright: House of Cards). With super strength and powers unmatched by her cohorts, she has the makings of a great warrior.
    Themyscira’s harmony is shattered when a plane crash-lands off the coast, bringing a man and the real world to their shores. Diana saves the man, Steve (Chris Pine: Star Trek Beyond), who she learns is a soldier in something called The Great War. She listens with horror to his stories of mass deaths, human cruelty and suffering. Diana decides that such calamity must have been caused by Ares, the god of war Amazons are sworn to destroy, and sets out with Steve to save the world.
    Based on the wildly popular comic book heroine, Wonder Woman is an astounding departure from the DC cinematic universe. A sincere story about a woman who saves the world, it’s the first quality movie DC has produced since Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight in 2008. With good character work, fun action and a surprising lot of humor, Wonder Woman is the opposite of the shallow, dour orgies of explosions of the studio’s recent past.
    Much of the credit is due to director Patty Jenkins (Exposed), the first woman to direct a film with a budget over $100 million. She develops Diana’s character, introducing a strong but naïve woman trying to understand the foibles of humanity. The focus is on Diana’s finding her place in the world.
    Jenkins also understands the value of a great battle scene. In one goose bump-raising sequence, men watch stunned as Diana charges a machine gun. The scene is socially as well as dramatically significant, as her fights and triumphs will be acted out by a generation of little girls who’ve seen on the big screen that women can do more than supply a love interest for the hero. My theater was filled with young girls clamoring to be the next Diana Prince.
    As the woman behind the Wonder, Gal Gadot turns in a star-making performance. Her Diana is brave, pure of heart and uncowed by social conventions. She stands up for truth and justice, maintaining her beliefs even in the face of horror and cruelty. Characters this earnest can become boring or pedantic, but Gadot makes Diana likeable by showing her inherent kindness. Kindness — not her superior strength or fighting skill — a leader and a hero.
    Wonder Woman isn’t perfect. There are pacing problems, and ancillary characters could be developed further. But overall, this is a heroic effort for both DC and Jenkins. They’ve given the world a great female hero, the first in a big-budget solo film, proving that saving the world is women’s work.

Great Action • PG-13 • 141 mins.

Practically Perfect in every way

It’s always dangerous to take on a classic; the chances of disappointment are so great. Who could ever compete with Dick Van Dyke and Julie Andrews as Bert the Chimney Sweep and Mary Poppins? Popular brother-and-sister team Nathan Bowen and Emily Mudd, that’s who.

            And what about this new script (2005) with its added plot twist and songs? Won’t the audience revolt? No. They gobble it up like a Spoonful of Sugar. This is a story that never grows old and hands down the most thrilling and professional amateur musicals I have ever had the privilege of reviewing.

            “Sometimes families are upside down for a time,” Mary Poppins says, and that’s when she comes in to help right them with her magical ways. Poor Jane and Michael Banks (Sophia Riazi-Sekowski and Nathaniel Burkhead) have a nanny problem. Or more precisely, nannies have a problem with them.

            Their mother Winifred (Mary Schmidt Wakefield) would just as soon have no nanny at all. A former actress, she would rather play with her children than host society teas. But husband George (John Dickson Wakefield) is nothing if not proper. All the best families have nannies; they ensure precision and order and quiet in a way that the housekeeper, Mrs. Brill (Penni Barnett), and the butler, Roberts Ay (Davis Wooten Klebanoff), cannot.

            Mary Poppins answers a want ad the children wrote but never posted for The Perfect Nanny. After beginning her mission, though, Mary Poppins — in a major digression from the film — goes AWOL for a time, replaced by the horrid Miss Andrew (Alexa Haines), the holy terror of George’s childhood and a woman so evil her medicine bottle billows noxious fumes.

            A half dozen new numbers like Miss Andrew’s Brimstone and Treacle enhance the hallmark standards, which on this stage are as much about dancing as singing. Choreographer and Broadway veteran Andrew Gordon can’t help being a center of attention with his stylized prancing, leaps and high kicks. He leads a fine-tuned ensemble of 30 additional cast members in such spectacular group numbers as Step in Time; Let’s Go Fly a Kite with Alan Barnett as the park keeper; and Jolly Holiday, spotlighting the phenomenal Tyler White as the dancing statue Neleus.

            Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, featuring Lydia West as the venerable storekeeper Mrs. Corry, is — well, you know — complete with a Cancan chorus line and pictograms. Carole Long as the Bird Woman delivers a sweet Feed the Birds under a laser-light flight of white doves and accompanied by a church choir worthy of St. James of Piccadilly. The bankers’ theme, Precision and Order, led by the Chairman (Thom Eric Sinn), is seriously funny. This show has more energy than BGE, and at a fraction of the price.

            Visionary imagination and meticulous attention to detail help make this production enchanting. Watch for magical touches like Mary Poppins’ bottomless bag of furnishings and a kitchen disaster that cleans itself. A cadre of hooded Druid-looking figures lends a mildly sinister tone as stagehands moving props and occasionally people — perhaps even to death in one case. There are six opulent sets and over a hundred stunning Edwardian costumes.

            And what splendid casting! Mudd is indeed Practically Perfect, and Bowen’s sweet gentility is crystal clear. The husband and wife team of Wakefields exudes domesticity and testiness as only true marrieds can. All of the leads, even the children, are poised and possessed of charmed voices. In fact, young Riazi-Sekowski performs like a pro rather than a budding scientist entering Greenbelt’s Eleanor Roosevelt High School. Burkhead, an Alexandria sixth grader, has the pure voice of a choirboy. Their presence on an Anne Arundel stage is testament to the drawing power of 2nd Star’s excellent reputation for musical theatre, which will no doubt be recognized again for this production come awards season.

            The show’s only weakness is an under-rehearsed and over-enthusiastic orchestra that sometimes drowns out the actors, a problem that should abate as the Pygmalion effect kicks in.

            If you enjoy musical theater, you can’t afford to miss this tour de force.


            Mary Poppins: a musical based on the stories of P.L. Travers and the Walt Disney Film by Richard M. and Robert B. Sherman, Julian Fellowes, George Stiles, Anthony Drewe and Cameron Mackintosh. Runs two hours and 45 minutes.

            Director: Fred Nelson. Music director: Sandy Melson Griese. Choreographer: Andrew Gordon. Producer: Gene Valendo. Stage manager: Joanne D. Wilson. Set: Jane B. Wingard. Costumes: Linda Swann. Makeup, hair and hats: Sascha Nelson. Lights and Sound: Garrett R. Hyde.

            Playing thru July 1: FSa (except July 1) 8pm, Su and Sa July 1 3pm, 2nd Star Productions, Bowie Playhouse, 16500 White Marsh Park Dr., $22 w/discounts, rsvp: www.2ndstarproductions.com.

Infidelity might be the best way to mend a marriage

Mary (Debra Winger: The Ranch) and Michael (Tracy Letts: Divorce) are roommates who happen to be married. They barely speak, never eat together and sleep at far corners of the bed. Both seem utterly inconvenienced when they must occupy the same room.
    They have one thing in common: Both are having affairs. Temperamental ballet instructor Lucy (Melora Walters: Beneath the Leaves) throws fits and demands Michael leave his wife. Washed-up writer Robert (Aidan Gillen: Game of Thrones) wants Mary to leave Michael for a new life with him.
    Michael and Mary decide separately to announce the end of their marriage after their son visits from college.
    They’ve made promises to their partners when the unexpected happens. Succumbing to impulse, Mary and Michael discover that their sexual chemistry isn’t dead. Now, they’re sneaking around together.
    The Lovers is a funny, touching and beautifully acted movie about deeply flawed people making terrible decisions. Though the subject seems to be pulled directly from an overwrought drama, writer/director Azazel Jacobs (Mozart in the Jungle) plays it for laughs. He finds humor in the ordinariness of their problems. There are no grand moments or love declarations in the rain. It’s just two middle-aged people looking for a bit more happiness and failing impressively.
    Pacing occasionally falters, dampening the awkward humor. Paramours Lucy and Robert are broadly drawn, so it’s hard to care when Michael and Mary act in ways that could hurt them. Lucy’s tantrums and Robert’s whining make you wonder why anyone would put up with them.
    Nonetheless, The Lovers is saved by its leads. Letts and Winger are wonderful together, offering funny, frank performances. Winger gives Mary depth in her quiet moments, so you can see how trapped she feels in both her life and relationships. This is a woman who wanted more and is realizing she’ll never get it. Letts’ Michael is a man who has lost his dreams and now settles for fantasy. He’s desperate to pretend that his problems are solvable and terrified of making the wrong move.
    With a fantastic cast, deftly witty writing and a concept straight out of a French farce, The Lovers makes ­comedy and drama good bedfellows.

Good Dramedy • R • 94 mins.

Better than average for a series that should have ended with the first film

Henry Turner (Brendan Thwaites: Gods of Egypt) grew up knowing that his father, Will Turner (Orlando Bloom: Unlocked) was cursed to spend eternity as Davey Jones’ replacement at the bottom of the sea. Obsessed with freeing dad and reuniting his family, he scours the legends of the sea for a loophole to allow his father to surface.
    Now he’s recruited once-legendary pirate Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them). Sparrow is now a drunk with a half-built boat seeking treasure to sate his mutinous crew. But self-preservation allies him to Turner’s cause, for he has unwittingly broken the curse that doomed his sworn enemy Captain Salazar (Javier Bardem: The Last Face) to a watery grave.
    Completing the mission is Carina (Kaya Scodelario: The Maze Runner), an orphan whose personal obsession is finding Poseidon’s trident. With the rising dead on their heels and the sea threatening to swallow, are they goners?
    Dead Men Tell No Tales is unique in the Pirates franchise because its director and crew seem to be serious about movie-making. The action is exciting, special effects (especially the waterlogged zombie sailors on Salazar’s crew) are glorious and performances okay.
    Depp is back in fighting form, restoring the wiles to a man searching for redemption.
    He gets fantastic support from Geoffrey Rush (Gods of Egypt) as Captain Barbossa, his frenemy. Rush is an old hand at camping up the morally ambiguous character, making his violence and rotted teeth charming affectations. He hops through each scene on a bejeweled peg leg and holding a gun.
    Bardem gleefully snarls his way across the seven seas, making his Salazar seem a formidable foe. His quiet gravitas and striking eyes emphasize Salazar’s threat. By embracing the madness, Bardem steals nearly every scene, roaring death threats as he menaces all around him with a half-rotted face.
    Alas, the love story is no better than ever, with no chemistry between Thwaites’ Turner and Scodelario’s Carina.
    The plot is so ridiculous that it’s almost impressive with it mash-up of Da Vinci Code clues to a treasure, silly histrionics and about eight extraneous story lines.
    Think twice before taking small children, as there are some creepy zombie pirates and plenty of intense fights.

Good Action • PG-13 • 129 mins.

Ridley Scott is more interested in philosophy than chills in this latest sequel

Leaving Earth in search of a habitable planet, The Covenant carries a crew of married couples plus 2,000 colonists and a few trays of embryos. While the crew and passengers hypersleep, android Walter (Michael Fassbender: Assassin’s Creed) cares for the ship.
    A disaster ends the crew’s slumbers.
    The crippled Covenant’s luck improves when the crew finds a habitable planet nearby. Shall they take a look?
    The one voice of dissent is Daniels (Katherine Waterston: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them), a just-made widow who is second in command. Her objections overruled, Daniels reluctantly accepts a mission to see if this mystery planet is suitable for humans.
    The team finds the planet perfectly habitable yet deserted. The only being they encounter is David (also Fassbender), an android from the ship Prometheus, who has made this empty Earth a lab for his experiments. The crew’s curiosity about the missing Prometheus is tabled when xenomorphs show up to eat them.
    Where is the thrill? Director Ridley Scott, creator of Alien, seems to have forgotten the elements that made his 1979 film a triumph: tight plotting, interesting characters and a realistic threat that was not easily escapable. Today’s Scott is more interested in philosophic debates. It’s difficult to take his weighty subjects seriously as murderous xenomorphs pop up. Dialog is so silly that the audience giggled through talk on the meaning of life, the purpose of survival and the quest to discover our origins.
    Adding insult to injury, we must wait nearly an hour for the aliens, during which time, Scott fails to develop his characters so that later none of their deaths have impact. The one bright spot is Fassbender, who gives both androids distinct personalities and wants.

Poor Sci-Fi/Horror • R • 122 mins.

This mother-daughter comedy is good for a few laughs

Emily Middleton (Amy Schumer: Inside Amy Schumer) is a train wreck. Fired from her retail job and dumped by her boyfriend, she’s reduced to posting selfies on Instagram. Her digital success has not earned her friends, so her only willing companion on a non-refundable trip to Ecuador is her mother, Linda (Goldie Hawn: The Banger Sisters), the one person who has never told her no.
    A bit of a shut-in who still takes care of Emily’s agoraphobic man-child of a brother, Linda reluctantly agrees.
    Emily’s delight gives way to annoyance at her mother’s overprotectiveness and prudish travel rules. Convinced an adventure will chill her mother out, Emily forces her to experience “the real Ecuador.”
    They are promptly kidnapped.
    Alone and terrified, mother and daughter team up to overcome their captors, the unforgiving jungle and their own strife. Are they doomed to be a cautionary tale for other tourists?
    Crude, funny and shallow, Snatched is much like Emily’s character. Director Jonathan Levine (The Night Before) pushes for laughs that are increasingly outlandish. A slapstick sequence involving a tapeworm would be more at home in an Adam Sandler film.
    Schumer has made a career of playing drunken messes, and her role here is no exception. It’s a funny character, but one that becomes successively frustrating the more outrageous her antics become. In her previous film, Schumer had something to say about the pressure women feel to fulfil a “cool girl” archetype. In Snatched, she has nothing to say.
    Hawn is a bright spot as Schumer’s uptight mom. She gamely throws herself into even the most ridiculous gag, wringing laughs out of some truly lame material. It’s good to see the comic legend back on the screen, even if she deserves better material.
    The movie’s real problem is its portrayal of Latin populations. The native people Emily and her mother encounter are either maniacal criminals or simple folk. It’s an insulting portrayal and one that reeks of racism.
    Cultural ignorance and appropriation aside, Snatched lands many of its jokes. When Schumer rambles like the world’s most awkward fish out of water, it’s downright fun.

Fair Comedy • R • 91 mins.