view counter

Arts and Culture (All)

A boy learns the power of a good story in this exceptional animated film

If you must blink, do it now.     
     So begins the story of young Kubo (voiced by Art Parkinson: Game of Thrones), a troubadour in ancient Japan. Each day in the square he tells fantastical tales of the Moon King and the brave warrior Hanzo who fights him. As he weaves his tale, Kubo plays his shamisen as origami to come to life to act out his story. Villagers gather to watch and shower Kubo with coins.
    The most fantastical thing about Kubo’s stories is that they are true.
    Kubo is the son of Hanzo the samurai. Kubo’s mother, a daughter of the Moon King, betrayed her father for Hanzo’s sake. The Moon King vanquished Hanzo, ripped out one of Kubo’s eyes and exiled his daughter.
    Kubo’s distraught mother arms him with three pieces of advice: Never take off his father’s robe, never go anywhere without his monkey charm and never stay out after sunset, when the Moon King can see.
    When Kubo breaks the rules, the Moon King and his loyal daughters descend on the village to find him and take his other eye. Only his father’s legendary armor can save him.
    In Kubo and the Two Strings, LAIKA studios has made a beautiful film about the power of stories and the strength we draw from family. The combination of CGI and stop-motion animation creates a unique and highly stylized look. Paired with visual effect is an innovative story that examines the role storytelling has in our lives, from the stories we tell about our families to the stories that record our history.
    LAIKA has quietly become one of the best animation studios around, posing a credible challenge to Pixar and Disney in both technology and storytelling. Director Travis Knight, LAIKA’s lead animator for years, makes his debut behind the camera with this finely detailed and ­beautifully rendered story of a boy’s quest for his origin story.
    A talented voice cast enhances the powerful visuals and intricate story. Charlize Theron (The Huntsman: Winter’s War) vocalizes a scene-stealing monkey, growling and threatening to keep Kubo safe. Matthew McConaughey (Free State of Jones) offers comic relief as the cursed samurai Beetle, who is filled with warmth and kindness though a ­little rattled.
    Wonderful as it is, Kubo and the Two Strings may not enthrall little ones. The story is complicated and has scary bits. Ages nine and up should be enchanted.
    LAIKA Studios has yet to have a feature-film misfire, with Kubo and the Two Strings a masterwork proving that animation is a medium powerful for more than amusing children.

Great Animation • PG • 101 mins.

This stunning Disney remake features a ­charming dragon and a good moral

Forest Ranger Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard: Jurassic World) has found many strange things in the wood. The oddest of all might be Pete (Oakes Fegley: Person of Interest), a bedraggled 10-year-old who’s lived for five years in the forest after his parents’ death.
    Pete had help surviving the wolves and cold. He credits his friend Elliot, who he describes as a giant green dragon.
    Perhaps Pete’s story is the product of a traumatized imagination. But Grace has heard dragon tales from her father (Robert Redford: Truth). As she investigates, lumberjack Gavin (Karl Urban: Star Trek Beyond) discovers Elliot in all his emerald glory.
    Can Grace and Pete save Elliot before hunters find him?
    Pete’s Dragon is a charming family film, with lots of heart about conservation, family and the power of magic. A remake of the 1977 Disney flick of the same name, this version takes some of the silliness out by setting it as a story about land encroachment: Elliot is running out of forest, imperiled by humanity.
    Director David Lowery (Ain’t Them Bodies Saints) makes the human world dangerous. Back in civilization, Pete is overwhelmed by noise and smog. Little wonder he wants to return to the forest with Elliot, where landscapes are lush and life is simple. It’s an effective ploy, one that even smaller viewers will understand, and a clever way for Lowery to emphasize the beauty of nature and the danger of the unchecked development of natural resources.
    To promote his parable, Lowery has employed an exceptionally charming dragon. Elliot has the rectangular head of a Chinese dragon, the massive body of a dinosaur and a covering of thick green fur. He likes to romp, fly and make mischief in the woods. In essence, he’s a humongous dog, filled with guileless enthusiasm and curiosity that make him the clear star of the film.
    As Pete, Fegley acquits himself well. He looks more at home in the woods than in Grace’s home. He and fellow child actor Oona Laurence (Bad Moms) walk the line between innocence and wisdom, never pushing too far in either direction. It’s rare to find one qualified child actor in a film; to find two almost seems as magical as finding a dragon in the forests of the Pacific Northwest.
    Though visually stunning, Pete’s Dragon may not hold the attention of small viewers. The plot and many of the themes are meant for children a bit older, so don’t be surprised if your five-year-old seems bored whenever Elliot is not on screen. There’s also a very dramatic attempt to capture Elliot that may be upsetting to young viewers. Consider the sensitivity level of your child before buying tickets.
    An excellent option for ages seven and up as well as a wonderful reminder to adults that magic lives in the beauty of nature.

Good kid’s fantasy • PG • 103 mins.

The bad guys get a bad script

What do you do when a superman breaks bad?
    That’s the worry of intelligence officer Amanda Waller (Viola Davis: Custody). Her solution is a squad of the worst villains America has ever known.
    Her villainous team includes:
    • Enchantress (Cara Delevingne: Pan), a millennia-old deity possessing the body of an archeologist;
    • Deadshot (Will Smith: Concussion), a mercenary named for his aim;
    • Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie: The Legend of Tarzan), a violent psychotic and girlfriend of …
    • The Joker (Jared Leto: Dallas Buyers Club);
    • Boomerang (Jai Courtney: Man Down), a violent thief;
    • Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje: Concussion) an amphibious mutant;
    • Diablo (Jay Hernandez: Bad Moms) a flame-shooting gangster.
    Waller believes she can keep them under her control with the help of military man Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman: House of Cards) — who is a bit compromised as he’s secretly in love with the woman inhabited by Enchantress.
    The plan does not go well. Waller loses control of Enchantress, who creates a super weapon to destroy the earth.
    An incoherent blend of weak performances, an awful story and poor editing, Suicide Squad is almost impressive in its total failure. The script is challenged by logical fallacies. Production was plagued by studio meddling, meaning that director David Ayer (Fury) might bear the whole blame. Tone is off balance between dark drama and goofy comedy. Repetitive flashbacks have nothing to do with the story and offer no new information.
    Smith and Robbie work hard to charm their way out of the mire, creating characters that might hope to return in interesting solo films. On the other hand, Leto’s Joker is a bizarre mishmash of villainy, and Delevingne’s Enchantress is distinguished only by jerky belly dancing and intense staring.
    It could have been great. Instead, it’s a disaster.

Terrible Action • PG-13 • 123 mins.

Mel Brooks’ mocking masterpiece

To end its 50th season, Annapolis Summer Garden Theater has challenged itself with one of the biggest and most popular musicals ever to hit Broadway: Mel Brooks’ The Producers. Winner of a record 12 Tony Awards in 2001 and running for more than 2,500 performances, the show sought to hilariously offend everyone — Jews, producers, actors, homosexuals, Nazis … the list goes on. Brooks’ blockbuster set the stage for the kind of hard-to-get ticket that is being matched only by the current hit, Hamilton.
    It’s a big musical, with choreography, music and acting that have to be over the top to work; have you ever seen subtlety in any Mel Brooks movie? Annapolis Summer Garden Theater smartly turned the reins over to local directing veteran Jerry Vess, who strikes a nice balance between the bigness of Broadway and the limits of community theater. A tight, seven-piece band led by Ken Kimble sounds bigger, the original choreography is nicely adapted by Emily Frank, and Anita O’Connor’s music direction helps a talented cast confidently deliver on such songs as It’s Bad Luck to Say Good Luck on Opening Night.
    Costumer Jocelyn Odell brings Brooks’ wacky German vision — think pretzel heads and beer-stein jewelry — brilliantly to the stage. The costumes emulate those that helped make the original so memorable.
    The plot is simple: Down and out Broadway producer Max Bialystock (B. Thomas Rinaldi) ropes in straitlaced and timid accountant Leo Bloom (Nathan Bowen) to stage a purposely horrible musical, Springtime for Hitler, and abscond to Rio with the money they raised when it closes after one night. The wrinkle, of course, is that it becomes a smash hit.
    Rinaldi hits all the right notes as Max, and his body type, voice and attitude are perfect for the role — though opening weekend tentativeness zapped some of the zing from Brooks’ zingers. Late in the second act, when he reviews all that’s happened while sitting in a jail cell, he makes Betrayed masterful: funny, even a touch emotional. 
    Rinaldi and Bowen work well together, evoking a Laurel and Hardy dynamic. Bowen’s baritone lends itself well to I Want to Be a Producer. As actor, he allows Leo’s uptightness to be comical but not unbounded — for that would mean competing with so many unbound characters that Brooks has in store for us. Characters including —
    • Franz Leibkind, the Springtime for Hitler playwright who, on his rooftop with his Nazi pigeons, reminisces about his past (In Old Bavaria), forces Max and Leo to sing along to Adolf’s favorite song (Der Gutten Tag Hop-Clop) and has them swear to never dishonor Adolf Elizabeth Hitler. Josh Mooney, complete with liederhosen and Nazi helmet, is hilarious as Franz, his bright smile and energy surpassed only by his sidesplitting seriousness when tending to the fuhrer’s honor.
    • Roger DeBris, the flamboyant “worst director in New York,” whom Max attempts to sign to ensure the show flops, and his “common-law assistant” Carmen Ghia. Pete Thompson as Roger and Kevin James Logan as Carmen are brilliant together and apart, and bring one of the most popular numbers of the show, Keep it Gay, to hilarious life. Logan’s flaccid fluidity is so beautifully comical that the audience has no choice but to laugh. Playing Hitler during the show-within-a-show, Thompson’s Roger romps mischievously and riotously as he sings Heil myself!
    • Ulla Inga Hansen etc. etc. (a long long name, pure Brooks), the tall, beautiful Swedish blonde who auditions for Max’s next show and becomes his “Secretary-slash-receptionist.”
    Max lusts, Leo longs and Ulla titillates in a complete 180 from Max’s older women benefactors. As the always smiling statuesque Ulla, Erica Miller gives us a syllable-chewing faux Swedish accent that works to perfection in When You’ve Got It, Flaunt It, which gives her body, Max’s libido and Leo’s heart quite the workout.
    • The Usherettes, Ashley Gladden and Amanda Cimaglia, musically narrate, and a fine ensemble provides wonderful voices, dancing and characters, none more uproariously than almost the entire cast in Along Came Bialy, better known in theater circles as the little old lady walker song.
    While there was that tentativeness on the second night, accompanied by some screechy microphone levels, little details like that always work out as a run progresses. Here’s the important thing:
    Annapolis Summer Garden Theater has gone all out for its 50th birthday. With Jerry Vess’ perfectly paced adaptation and a cast that’s having a blast, the company fits Mel Brooks’ comic genius and this big Broadway show onto a local stage. It’s the audience that gets to celebrate.
    Act quickly … several dates are already sold out.


About two hours 50 minutes with one intermission.

Thru Sept. 4: Th-Su 8pm, $22, rsvp: ­www.summergarden.com.

Old-school effects and good storytelling make a cool chiller

Something is scratching at Martin’s (Gabriel Bateman: American Gothic) bedroom door. While he shivers in terror, his mother chats with an invisible friend, Diana.
    There is something lurking in the dark, ready to attack when the bedside lamp goes out. Martin watches in vigil night after night as the thing in the dark tries to come closer.
    When it gets Martin’s father, he turns to his estranged stepsister, Rebecca (Teresa Palmer: Triple 9), who has had her own troubles with a creature that lived in bedroom nooks.
    Can Rebecca save her brother from a menace no one can see? What is the hold Diana has over their mother? Why hasn’t everyone in this movie run to Eddie Bauer to buy camping lanterns?
    This movie about primal fears both thrills and entertains. For his feature directorial debut, David F. Sandberg expanded a short by the same name (available on YouTube) into a thoughtful, interesting, old-fashioned horror movie that focuses on creating a sense of dread. He plays smartly on the idea that Diana can come from any dark space, be it an empty room or an archway in an old house. He then fills the frame with shadows, making us unsure of where the threat will come from. This sense of uncertainty builds tension and keeps visual interest.
    Sandberg also chose to use mostly practical effects. This means that when someone is thrown across a room or a shadow disappears behind a door, it’s not a trick of a computer but an actual event captured on film. This gives the events weight and realism often lost in a world of CGI.
    The other strength of Lights Out is its cast. Bateman is the rare child actor who isn’t cloying and who can carry a scene. Palmer is also a rarity for a horror lead as she neither gets unnecessarily naked nor acts like an idiot when problems arise. The bond between the two is believable and sweet.
    Lights Out gives us storytelling rather than quick jump scares. If you want bloody monsters popping out from every corner, you may be disappointed. Check out the short version on YouTube to get a sense of the movie’s tone before you plunk down your cash. But if you’re looking for a thrilling reason to run up your light bill, Lights Out is worth the ticket.

Good Horror • PG-13 • 81 mins.

Find out as six young playwrights speak out in Twin Beach Players’ 11th Annual Playwright Festival

Twin Beach Players has unusual success in getting kids to say what’s on their minds. Over 11 years, youngsters from elementary to high school have taken to the Kids Playwright Festival stage, writing plays that describe the world as they know it.
    The Player and the Festival are “safe spaces for kids of all backgrounds to express themselves,” says company president Sid Curl. “Kids feel they can be themselves and have fun doing it.”
    At the same time, the annual competition and festival introduce young people to the camaraderie and teamwork needed to get live theater productions to work.
    From Kids Playwright Festival, alums have even made it big, with internationally published plays, small roles on popular shows like House of Cards and original plays on the Charm City scene.
    Six-dozen aspiring thespians are creating this year’s festival, as authors, actors and stage hands. Two dozen submitted plays. Half a dozen — all girls — earned the honor of seeing their words come to life in the words and gestures of actors in front of families and friends. That talented cadre also earns cash prizes of $100.
    After three years of acting, recent homeschooled high school grad Taylor Baker tried her hand at playwriting this year. Objection! won, she says, because it not only “breaks the fourth wall — drawing the audience in — but also is funny.”
    Sisterly competition brought younger sister Sidney Baker to this year’s stage with her Shoes, Pizzas and Spirits. “It’s a twist on A Christmas Carol,” she says, created to please theatergoers who, like herself, tire of the same old play every December.
    Rising Northern High School ninth grader Leah Hartley is a two-time winner. Last year she wrote about art and friendship. This year’s Science Mistakes was a challenging new subject for her. And, she thought, for the competition because, she says, “nobody writes about science.”
    Wrong.
    Cousin Elizabeth Kieckhefer, a home-schooled sixth grader, tracked her with Amber’s Science Lesson.
    Science would have been a natural subject for aspiring meteorologist Lucie Boyd, a seventh grader at Northern Middle School, and second-time Festival winner. A couple of years back, her play about meteorologist Doug Hill won a countywide school competition. Instead, for this year’s festival she wrote a sequel to her last year’s winner. “I love reading mysteries and learning about history in school,” she says. The Mystery of the Hum of Nachitti combines both ­interests.
    Sadie Storm, a seventh grader at Plum Point Middle School, is the most experienced Twin Beach Player, with the company since second grade. As an actress, Sadie poured her heart into her roles. One of her proudest moments was her director’s praise for her work in a very small part. “Passionate about social change,” her debut as a playwright is Changes, a play about bullying that, she hopes, is “better than the boring ones she sees at school.”


Playing thru August 14. FSa 7pm, Su 3pm, North Beach Boys and Girls Club, 9021 Dayton Ave., $7, rsvp: www.twinbeachplayers.com.

Boldly focusing on character development makes this the best of the new Trek films

For Captain Kirk (Chris Pine: The Finest Hours), boldly going where no man has gone before is surprisingly boring. As his five-year mission to explore the universe as a diplomat for Star Fleet continues, he’s looking for a way to break the routine of space travel.
    Kirk seeks a position on a space station. Meanwhile, his second in command, Spock (Zachary Quinto: Tallulah), plans to leave the Enterprise to ensure Vulcan survival. Before they abandon their crew and seek out new futures, they are sent on one final rescue mission to an uncharted planet.
    Things go wrong, as they often do when on one final mission. The Enterprise is ambushed and destroyed by Krall (Idris Elba: Finding Dory). Most of the crew is captured.
    That leaves big jobs for the few who escaped. Spock and Bones (Karl Urban: The Loft) seek to uncover Krall’s origins. Kirk and Chekov (Anton Yelchin: Green Room) search for their captured comrades. Scotty (Simon Pegg: Ice Age: Collision Course) searches for signs of life.
    With interesting characters and an exciting plot, Star Trek Beyond is the best of the newest set of Star Trek movies. While past sequels have rehashed classic plots, director Justin Lin (True Detective) moves beyond the Kirk/Spock dynamic to give the characters room to grow.
    It’s a refreshing take on familiar characters, based on a clever script from Simon Pegg and Doug Jung.
    The Bones/Spock pairing is especially successful, with Urban doing some fine comedy as the curmudgeonly doctor. We also meet an interesting new character. Jaylah (Sofia Boutella: Kingsmen) is neither a love interest nor a damsel in distress. Kirk remains a smug jerk, perhaps as a send up of William Shatner.
    It’s not perfect. Despite the fearsome Krall, nothing much is at stake. You know from the beginning that no one important will die. Hints are so obvious that you know how it will end. Some action sequences are too dark to see.
    Star Trek Beyond has no deep message, but it does have an excellent rescue sequence that features transporters, phasers and motorcycles. All together, it’s the perfect film to help you beat the heat.

Good Sci-Fi • PG-13 • 122 mins.

I ain’t afraid of no all-female reboot!

Dr. Erin Gilbert (Kristen Wiig: Zoolander 2) hopes to earn tenure at Columbia. The professor is smart, serious and laser focused; but her career is put in jeopardy when a book resurfaces on Amazon. Co-authored with her former best friend Dr. Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy: Central Intelligence), the book considers the science of ghosts.
    Erin co-authored the book on ghosts with her former best friend Dr. Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy: Central Intelligence). When no one believed them, Erin walked away from ghosts — and Abby.
    All that changes when MTA worker Patty Tolan (Leslie Jones: Saturday Night Live) finds a mysterious device attracting ghosts to the Big Apple.
    Erin, Patty, Abby and her new partner, the slightly unhinged engineer Jillian Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon: Finding Dory), the newly formed Ghostbusters set out to save New York.
    Smart and funny, Ghostbusters is a worthy reboot of a classic. It is, however, a very different beast. It pays tribute, with all six original cast members making appearances, but it’s astute enough not to copy. With humor that’s more modern and self-referential, the reboot focuses on what it’s like to navigate the world as a woman.
    When director Paul Feig (Spy) announced his all-woman take, internet comments ranged from mildly misogynistic to vile.
    Instead of dismissing the vitriol, Feig leaned in, making internet commenters part of the story. The women are constantly harassed online and dismissed because of their gender.
    Ghostbusters works so well because of this cast of women. Both Jones and McKinnon do comedic heavy lifting, earning laughs and kicking butt. McKinnon creates an unforgettable oddball.
    A surprisingly strong member of the ensemble is Chris Hemsworth (The Huntsman), with his brilliant take on the bimbo secretary.
    Though humor and cast are refreshing, there are flaws. Like most movies about the supernatural, it doesn’t stand up to close examination. And Feig spends too much time on Wiig and McCarthy when he has an ensemble of stronger characters to pull from.
    Still, as far as summer blockbusters go, you’ll laugh, reminisce and even see Slimer. I was heartened by young girls leaving the theater excited about careers in physics so they could create cool machines like Holtzmann. It’s about time the princess culture was bucked for careers in ghost busting.

Good Comedy • PG-13 • 116 mins.

Two dogs learn how to navigate the big city in this cute comedy

Max (voiced by Louis C.K.: Horace and Pete) is a terrier living an idyllic life in New York with his owner/soulmate Katie (Ellie Kemper: The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt). They go for bike rides, share dinner and snuggle up to sleep. Max couldn’t be happier.
    Except that every day Katie does the almost unforgivable: She leaves. Most pets in Max’s apartment building spend their time alone socializing and binge eating, Max waits doggedly for Katie’s return. He stares at the door. He whines. He consults the neighbor cat.
    Max’s loneliness ends when Katie brings home Duke (Eric Stonestreet: Modern Family). The new dog is loud, big and attention-getting. Max hates him on sight and plots to rid himself of the interloper.
    Duke thinks the same about Max.
    Trying to one-up each other, the feuding dogs get lost far from home. It’s a big city out there, filled with loud noises and scary creatures. With no idea where home is, they find themselves hunted by a demented band of human-hating ex-pets.
    If the story sounds familiar, it’s probably because you saw it in 1995 when it was called Toy Story. Similar in plot points and major themes, The Secret Life of Pets is a furry version of the Pixar classic. It doesn’t delve so deeply into themes like fear of being replaced, jealousy and learning to accept others. But it does provide some great jokes about dog and cat behavior.
    Chances are, if you’re a pet owner, you’ll find a character that reminds you of your own fuzzy friend, from loyal Max to indifferent, taunting Chloe (you guessed it, a cat). The world of pets is given interesting little touches, and it’s fun to watch dogs shout at squirrels to get off their turf.
    The brilliant voice cast is loaded with comedians, from C.K. to Kevin Hart to Jenny Slate, each knowing exactly when to push a line or pause for comic effect. Albert Brooks (Finding Dory) is particularly delightful as Tiberius, a hawk who wants friends but must fight his raptor urge to eat them.
    Filled with silly laughs, clever observations and just a bit of scatological humor, The Secret Life of Pets will appeal to little ones and keep adults entertained. Jokes are solid and performances strong.
    If you have children who don’t like creepy crawlies, be aware that the 3-D show features snakes and gators snapping directly at the audience. There’s no need to pay extra to traumatize your child.

Good Animation • PG • 87 mins.

These talented kids will get your laughs

Annie Get Your Gun is a classic musical based on real people in the days of America’s western expansion. Buffalo Bill’s traveling performance entertained people from all walks of life with the best shot around, Frank Butler. That is, the best shot around other than Annie Oakley.
    The story of the girl who could shoot better is brought to life by Talent Machine, a local theater company that has been getting kids on stage since 1987.
    Talent Machine’s president Lea Capps believes in her young troupe, so there’s no “dumbing down” anything — as youth theater companies may do, performing junior versions of famous plays and musicals.
    Capps’ dedication to performing the authentic plays and musicals pushes her pupils further, allowing their talent to grow. Talent Machine’s Annie Get Your Gun delivers belly-busting laughter, foot-tapping music and talented actors to boot.
    “There’s no business like show business,” proclaims the fame-hungry Wild West ensemble. The message resonates with the budding thespians, children from ages seven to 15.
    “It’s my favorite song in the musical,” says eighth-grader Thomas Crabtree, who plays Mr. Adams.
    Talent Machine cultivates kids’ interest in theater into real talent with the help of dedicated volunteers who for this show created costumes and sets that seemed to step right out of the sharpshooting days of Annie Oakley.
    Michelle Nellum, who trained the spotlight on the young stars, had never planned to get involved. When she and her family moved locally a decade ago, a cousin invited her to one of Talent Machine’s extremely popular Easter breakfasts hosted by Buddy’s Crabs and Ribs. When daughter Maya, then around three, saw what kids not much older than her were doing, she wanted to join them. Maya wouldn’t be satisfied with dancing in the aisle. Now Maya and her mother encourage other friends to join.
    “As it’s 100 percent volunteer, Talent Machine keeps costs low for everyone,” Nellum says.
    On stage, actors and actresses lose themselves in their characters. From Annie’s rustic accent to the mesmerizingly perfect tap dancing and the children’s ability to push through sound equipment malfunctions, Talent Machine knows how to prepare its actors for their big night. Off stage, the actors were more than happy to meet new fans.
    Nine-year-old Lucy Dennis, answered my questions about the musical as though she was regularly hounded by the paparazzo. Lucy, who has been in seven Talent Machine productions, was also inspired to join after watching a breakfast show. Much as she loves acting and dancing, she aspires to be a vet.
    If you have a free night this weekend and want to change up the usual Netflix routine, see Annie Get Your Gun before Talent Machine moves onto its second summer performance.
    Remember, there’s no business like show business!


Thru July 17: ThFSa 7:30pm, Su 2pm, Key Auditorium, St. John’s College, Annapolis, $15, rsvp: ­www.talentmachine.com.