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Arts and Culture (Movie Reviews)

A young woman aspires to rhyme her way out of her dying town

      Patti Dombrowski (Danielle Macdonald: The Rachels) spends her waking hours serving drunks in a dim bar in the bowels of New Jersey. When she’s not being harassed by customers, Patti must wrangle her mother, a hopeless alcoholic who uses the karaoke nights at Patti’s bar to relive her dreams of singing professionally. In her free time, Patti is the primary caregiver for her grandmother, who has accrued enough medical bills to keep Patti and her mother in debt for life.
     Though things look bleak, Patti has a dream: She wants to be a rapper. She spends her free time writing rhymes and practicing her flow. She shows promise, but Patti struggles to find support from fellow rappers, who dismiss her as a pathetic, fat white girl. 
     The game changes when Patti meets a mysterious man who plays subversive Goth death metal. Patti forms a ragtag crew that includes her grandmother, and the group cobbles together a few tracks for a CD, hoping to find fame and fortune. 
     Director Geremy Jasper makes his feature debut with a film that doesn’t push many cinematic barriers. The plot is predictable, you’ll know exactly where it’s going almost the moment the film begins. Jasper does manage to make the small Jersey town its own character, its tagged edifices and grimy interiors offering insight into Patti’s desperate need to get out. 
     Jasper stretches a little bit during Patti’s fantasy sequences, toying with light and effects to display the vivid interior of Patti’s mind. It’s a great contrast to the drab exterior world that she’s stuck in. 
     Patti Cake$ surpasses a hackneyed story thanks to the strength of its leads. As Patti, Macdonald is a revelation. She manages to make Patti’s dogged quest for recognition both relatable and sweet. She spits rhymes well and offers enough quiet desperation that the audience really roots for her to find her dream.
     As Patti’s alcoholic mother Barb, Bridget Everett (Saving a Legend) is brilliant. She is a sad shell of a woman, who bounces from bad choice to bad choice. She’s content to let Patti take care of her and her mother, but viciously lashes out whenever Patti tries to curb her destructive behavior. Still, when she performs, there are glimpses of the woman she was. Her powerful voice and magnetic performing style help explain why Patti loves a woman who clearly wasn’t a nurturing force in her life. 
     Patti Cake$ has a ton of heart and a cast that offers wonderful performances. If you’ve ever felt stuck in your life, or have a love for quirky tales of underdogs, this movie will be well worth the trip. 
Good Dramedy • R • 108 mins.
 
New this Week
 
Tulip Fever
     In the 17th century, Eurpoe was enthralled by a flower. The tulip had taken the world by storm, and Amsterdam built a lucrative industry around the culturing of the bulbs and blooms. 
     Merchant Cornelis Sandvoort (Christoph Waltz) has made his fortune on the tulip trade and uses his prosperity to buy a pretty, young orphan bride. Sophia (Alicia Vikander) is little more than a bauble to her much older spouse and is prepared to live a life of opulent misery. That all changes when Cornelis hires a painter to capture his prized possessions — his wife and his tulips. 
      Sophia and the painter begin a torrid affair. He promises to steal her away, but Sophia knows her husband will spend all his money to track her down. Can the lovers come up with a plan to evade Cornelis?
     Based on the bestselling book, Tulip Fever is an historical romance with a pedigree. Legendary playwright Tom Stoppard penned the screenplay, which means the dialogue and character work should be beautifully detailed.
Prospects: Bright • R • 107 mins. 
 
Unlocked
      CIA interrogator Alice Racine (Noomi Rapace) is the only thing standing between the city of London and a biological terror attack. She can’t trust anyone as she attempts to neutralize the threat, including her own government. Her only hope is an unorthodox MI:6 agent (Orlando Bloom) who may be the key to stopping the attack. 
      Think of this film as a season of 24 condensed into two hours. Rapace is an excellent actress, but there’s only so much she can do to make such unoriginal plot points interesting. It is nice to see a woman fitted into the typical male savior role, but without anything new or interesting to say, this film feels like a rehash. 
Prospects: Dim • R • 98 mins. 

Atomic Blonde

Charlize Theron beats her way through Berlin in this fantastic spy thriller

Ten days before the Berlin Wall falls, the KGB kills MI-6’s best agent. The list he acquired of all the operatives working on both sides of the Iron Curtain is in the wind. The list also identifies Satchel, a notorious double agent who plagues the British government.
    MI-6 sends their best agent, Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron: The Fate of the Furious), to straighten out the mess. Her contact is David Percival (James McAvoy: Split), an agent who’s found the sex, drugs and punk attitude of Berlin more appealing than conventional spy work.
    To save her fellow agents, Lorraine must fight her way back to London and expose Satchel. Along the way, she cuts a bloody swath across both sides of the Berlin Wall.
    A stylish spy thriller with marvelous action, Atomic Blonde is a blast from start to finish. Think of it as The Spy Who Came in from the Cold for the John Wick generation. Director David Leitch, a former stuntman making his feature directorial debut, creates a fast-paced thriller with visceral action. Leitch has a talent for capturing the flow of a fight, with sequences that are brutal but peppered with humor.
    Leitch embraces the pop-punk aesthetics of 1989 Berlin, using spray paint title cards and muted tones with bright pops of color. An 80s’ synth-pop soundtrack gives the plot and action a frenetic quality that intensifies as Lorraine becomes more frantic.
    Theron offers a brilliant performance as Lorraine, whose ferocious physicality paired with her cool, collected demeanor make her a formidable character. Adding authenticity, she does most of her own fighting and stunts.
    As a corrupt MI-6 agent who may or may not still be working for the crown, McAvoy is a delight. He is a snarling, posturing mess of a man, who is far shrewder than he lets on. His dynamic with the more restrained Theron is both hilarious and fascinating.
    Wildly entertaining, action-packed and utterly watchable, Atomic Blonde is the popcorn flick of the summer.

Great Action • R • 115 mins.

No scares, but plenty of philosophic pondering

Death comes calling on the ordinary life of M (Rooney Mara: The Discovery) and C (Casey Affleck: Manchester by the Sea). C dies in a car wreck, leaving M alone in the world.
    Only she isn’t alone.
    C has followed M home. Covered now in an autopsy sheet, C is witness to M’s mourning, grief and eventual acceptance. Clearly, he is seeking closure with his wife. Yet when M moves, C stays behind.
    Now alone in the house, C passes the time chatting with the ghost next door, who has been at it so long its human name is forgotten. As he waits, other people move into the house. C sometimes tries to interact with the families, other times ignores them. Decades sail by.
    Is C doomed to haunt a shell of a home until he can remember nothing of his own existence?
    Borrowing from director Terrence Malick, writer/director David Lowery (Pete’s Dragon) creates spectacular visuals and an obscure, metaphoric story in which concept dominates performance and plot. Centering a movie on a man under a sheet is a bold cinematic choice.
    C is basically a silent observer, a witness to the passage of time and the lives of others. In spite of the title, this is not a typical ghost story. The dread that builds here is existential, as C learns how inconsequential his life was. Expansive vistas demonstrate the miniscule place humanity holds in the vastness of the universe.
    Lowery is committed to languid pace and tone, and his Ghost Story takes a while to get going, with long stretches of silence and scenes that seemingly go on forever. For the first 20 minutes, you sit in a soundless theater, watching Mara gorge on a pie or Affleck stare sullenly. Expect awkward laughter from some audience members and perhaps a few glances at your watch.
    But the film eventually finds its feet, and if you’re willing to put in some mental effort, you’ll be rewarded. A Ghost Story reflects on our place in the universe, our need to be remembered and the billion joys and tragedies that unfold over the years in the same space. Don’t expect anything simple, including answers.

Good Drama • R • 92 mins.

Brilliant action in this new take on the storied retreat

In 1940, the outlook was bleak for the Allied Forces. The German army had driven British and French troops all the way to the beaches of France, trapping them against the sea. In Dunkirk, 400,000 soldiers waited for evacuation from France, scanning the seas for British destroyers as the Germans approached.
    German planes swoop over the massed troops, dropping bombs and spraying bullets. German U-boats sink vessels carrying troops from the slaughter on the beaches. England faces the reality that the war could be lost.
    To save at least a fraction of the army, England calls upon its people, conscripting small vessels to cross the English Channel to Dunkirk. Saving even 30,000 would arm the nation when the Germans inevitably invade.
    Amidst these calamitous circumstances, three men will meet their fates.
    Tommy (Fionn Whitehead: Him) is a private who will do anything to survive. When life or death are the choices, he understands that the drive for survival can make monsters of men.
    Farrier (Tom Hardy: Taboo) is one of three RAF pilots tasked with defending the ships and troops from German assault. In a skirmish with German fliers, his fuel gauge is damaged. He must decide whether his presence in the skies makes a difference in the face of overwhelming odds.
    Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance: The BFG) is determined to help the soldiers at Dunkirk. Setting out in his small boat with his son and another boy, he crosses waters littered with bodies and downed ships.
    Featuring nail-biting action and gorgeous cinematography, Dunkirk stuns with scope and beauty. A master of visual storytelling, writer/director Christopher Nolan (Interstellar) excels at staging and action. Dizzying camera work in the aerial battles captures the precariousness of the planes’ and crews’ existence.
    Nolan doesn’t depend on graphic violence to show the horrors of war. There’s plenty of violence, but he is more interested in psychological wounds. He shows the anonymity of war. Officers coolly calculate who, in essence, to spare and who to save. Soldiers swirl amid chaotic, random violence. Despondent men wade into the sea, swimming home to England their only chance at survival.
    In focusing on scope, Nolan sacrifices humanity. He spends little time mining for character moments in the middle of battle. As a result, we remain unconnected as these men go through hell.
    Heart aside, in both performance and production Dunkirk is one of the better war films of the past decade.

Good War Movie • PG-13 • 106 mins.

A love story so funny it has to be true

Kumail (Kumail Nanjiani: Silicon Valley) is trying to live both American and Pakistani dreams. His parents want him to be a devout Muslim, choose an honorable profession like the law and agree to an arranged marriage with a nice Pakistani woman. Kumail pretends to buy into these goals, but his dream is making a living as a comedian.
    When Kumail meets Emily (Zoe Kazan: The Monster) at a club, he is smitten. They date, though Kumail knows that if his parents learn his secret, he’ll be disowned. Then Emily’s illness forces Kumail to reevaluate his double life.
    Heartfelt, hilarious and beautifully performed, The Big Sick is a near-perfect romantic comedy. Kazan and Nanjiani are both likeable performers, so even when they make terrible decisions, we want them to succeed. Director Michael Showalter (Grace and Frankie) blends the romantic storyline seamlessly with Kumail’s comic review of the conflicting messages of his upbringing. Standup darlings Bo Burnham and Aidy Bryant pop up with great supporting performances.
    It helps that the story is true.
    Najiani wrote the script with his wife, Emily V. Gordon, who really did fall into a coma while they were dating. Yes, this news gives away this story’s ending. But starry-eyed endings are not what this movie is about. See it to learn how a man comes to balance familial and romantic love as Kumail falls in love not only with Emily but also with her parents.
    Conflicts are handled deftly and without villains. Kumail’s parents want what they believe is best for him. Kumail loves them, even when he disappoints them.
    The Big Sick is both full of heart and uproariously funny.

Great Romantic Comedy • R • 120 mins.

After three tries, Marvel gets it right

Peter Parker (Tom Holland: The Lost City of Z) hoped his internship with Stark Industries would lead to more excitement than neighborhood watch duty. The high-schooler is recruited by Ironman Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.: Captain America: Civil War), to fight against Captain America, then sent back to school and allowed to use his new powers, and his neat Stark-industry suit, only to stop small crimes.
    After fighting superheroes, Parker gets no thrill from AP Chemistry.
    Strong enough to stop a car with his bare hands, smart enough to create a tensile web that can hold his weight or immobilize a bad guy, the teen chafes. He ditches class to hunt for big criminals.
    His mistake is choosing a weapons dealer who is combining alien technology with human artillery. The firepower is deadly, and so is the dealer,
Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton: The Founder).
    Should Parker have gotten his learner’s permit before taking on a supervillain?
    The latest addition to the Marvel comic pantheon features a likeable lead who plays a believable teen — plus action, humor and heart.
    At this point, you probably know that Parker was bitten by a spider. If you’ve read the comics or watched the movies, you’ve seen it happen. In a smart decision, director Jon Watts (Cop Car) spares you seeing it again.
    Casting is excellent. As Parker, Holland is the first Spider-Man in two decades who is both physically right for the role of a teenage boy with superpowers and actor enough to make the teen likeable. Holland communicates Peter’s decency and childish over-eagerness in ways that make his poor choices understandable, even endearing.
    As the foe Peter must face to become a real hero, Keaton turns in a great performance. Marvel villains tend to be one-dimensional, with only vague motivation for their misdeeds. Watts and Keaton craft a more complex adversary. Toomes begins as a decent man who out of desperation turns to crime. He is both charming and menacing as he spars with Holland.
    Spider-Man: Homecoming is the rare origin story that pleases both comic book novices and persnickety fans. It took Marvel three tries to hit on the perfect tone for Peter Parker.

Great Superhero Movie • PG-13 • 133 mins.

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.

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.