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Arts and Culture (Movie Reviews)

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.

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.

An arms deal goes hilariously wrong in this spirited spoof

In the 1970s, the IRA needs weapons to fight the English. Chris (Cillian Murphy: Anthropoid) and Frank (Michael Smiley: Rogue One) are charged with procuring machine guns. Gun broker Justine (Brie Larson: Kong: Skull Island) makes arrangements with fellow broker Ord (Armie Hammer: Nocturnal Animals) to meet with notoriously odd gun dealer Vernon (Sharlto Copley: Powers).
    The Irish are willing to overlook Vernon’s quirks until one of his henchmen starts a fight. First fists and then bullets fly. Trapped in a warehouse where everyone is armed and hoping to be the last one standing, each criminal decides how to survive.
    As the hours tick by, loyalties change, wounds increase and ways out diminish.
    Free Fire is a gore-filled, funny shoot ’em up reminiscent of early Tarantino. It combines gleeful, violent slapstick, snappy performances and clever writing with substance. In this old-fashioned gunfight, you care who lives to tell the tale.
    Director/co-writer Ben Wheatley (High Rise) makes the best of his small budget. Confining the action to one open space raises the tension while inviting you to explore. Each wide shot has several things going on, so you’ll have to choose where to focus your attention.
    The best part of the film, however, is Wheatley’s peculiar sense of humor. It’s rare to laugh so much in a film that features so many gunshot wounds. The zany incompetence of criminals is mined for all it’s worth by Wheatley, who shows that owning a gun doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a good shot. As these excitable yahoos shoot at each other, winging some and missing others, fans will be reminded of over-the-top comedy in Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs. Wheatley also has a great sense of timing. The film clocks in at a swift 90 minutes, meaning that plot and character are developed quickly and sparingly.
    Wheatley also made the excellent decision to pack his film with excellent character actors. Copley is the clear standout as a boisterous, moronic and arrogant gun dealer hilariously incompetent at just about everything. Hammer is also impressive, delivering deadpan lines as bullets zing by him with so much charm you almost forget he’s trying to kill people.
    In spite of its charms, Free Fire isn’t a bullseye. Some characters could have been cut or refined to streamline the storytelling a bit. Wheatley is also a little too pleased with his quick cut style, which can sometimes confuse the action. But in spite of a few dramatic snags, this film kept the audience at my screening in stitches as the bullets flew.

Good Action • R • 90 mins.