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Necessity is the mother of interstellar invention in this great film

Astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon: Interstellar) wakes up alone on Mars.
    In a raging sand storm, Watney’s Aries III team abandoned the Red Planet, leaving behind what they assume is his lifeless body.
    He comes to alone but with a wire jutting out of his abdomen and suit and through his bio-monitor. He struggles back to the expedition’s temporary housing unit, and, in bloody initial scenes, operates on himself.
    Resolve and quick action solve his immediate problem. Longer term, the shelter has oxygen and food, which he can ration to last for a few hundred sols.
    Yet he’s stranded on a planet where nothing grows, with dwindling water and oxygen. His line to NASA was demolished in the storm, and even if he could contact mission control, help is nearly four years away.
    To survive until then, Watney gets creative. As a botanist, he can science out out how to grow food on a barren planet. But can he figure out a way to get home? Or is he doomed to die a Martian?
    Thrilling and often funny, The Martian is science fiction at its best. It is, in essence, a Robinson Crusoe tale set in space.
    Director Ridley Scott (Exodus: Gods and Kings) weaves Watney’s story of survival with the story of the NASA engineers who realize he is alive and are desperately trying to save him. It’s a testament to Scott’s sense of timing and storytelling that he’s able to make jet propulsion nerds and NASA suits as interesting as a man trapped on Mars.
    Scott has assembled an impressive supporting cast, featuring Jeff Daniels, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Jessica Chastain and Michael Peña, but the film unquestionably belongs to Damon.
    Though Scott and Damon create a strong sci-fi adventure, The Martian isn’t perfect. Some supporting characters, especially the astronauts played by Kate Mara and Sebastian Stan, are thinly drawn and barely justify their share of two hours and 20 minutes of screen time.
    Long, layered and utterly engrossing, The Martian is a sci-fi film for people who don’t particularly like sci-fi.

Great Sci-Fi • PG-13 • 141 mins.

This light comedy closes the generation gap

Ben Whittaker (Robert De Niro: The Bag Man) isn’t adjusting to retirement. Widowed and 3,000 miles from his son and granddaughter, Ben feels imprisoned in his Brooklyn townhouse. Life is reduced to funerals, busywork and widows who want to pre-heat his lasagna.
    A flyer advertising senior internships at an Internet startup leads him back into the workforce, but his new career takes some adjustment. He’s a suit in a sea of hoodies. He uses a clock instead of consulting his cellphone. He listens when people talk. He’s doesn’t know how to turn on his computer.
    Ben’s ineptitude rankles company founder Jules Ostin (Anne Hathaway: Interstellar), who thought senior internships a dumb idea. Overcommitted and flighty, she is Ben’s polar opposite. She’s trying to have it all but seems to be losing everything one piece at a time. Investors want an experienced CEO in her place to manage the company’s massive growth. With her job and family threatened, Jules turns to wise old Ben when he proves a cool head in a crisis.
    Can Ben learn how to survive in a modern office? Will Jules figure out how to have it all? Why do only the men get to dress in hoodies and jeans?
    The Intern is a confection: Sweet, enjoyable and bad for you in large quantities. Director Nancy Meyers’ (It’s Complicated) newest is better at cultivating lifestyle envy than developing characters. Brooklyn brownstones are done in open layouts, airy colors out of Pottery Barn catalogs and enviable kitchens. Outfits are impeccable or comically bad.
    Meyers has never been particularly interested in her characters. Jules is a textbook neurotic. It’s supposed to be adorable that Jules and Ben bond, but it’s notable that she becomes sweet or caring only with someone who makes his living stroking her ego. Hathaway does her perky best to make Jules’ manic energy likeable, but the character is underwritten.
    Ben is a role De Niro could perform in his sleep. His old-school advice that transforms the office isn’t so much generational knowledge as common sense.
    Meyers’ reflections on feminism are equally light. Meyers falls back on clichés to show how hard it is to be a working mother.
    The Intern isn’t a terrible film. The locales are pretty, the humor light and the characters funny. Nothing of consequence happens, nor does anything offensive. If you’re overdue for an outing with your mother or grandmother, make a date for The Intern.

Fair Comedy • PG -13 • 121 mins.

The FBI makes a smalltime hood a kingpin in this engrossing drama

When James ‘Whitey’ Bulger (Johnny Depp: Mortdecai) looks you in the eyes, it’s too late. Cold, calculating and amoral, Bulger leads the Winter Hill Gang.
    Though he’s fierce and feared, Bulger is fairly smalltime. His reputation extends only to the edges of the South Boston neighborhood he rules. The Italian mafia uses superior numbers and muscle to keep Winter Hill in check.
    To make his move, Bulger finds help in the form of John Connolly (Joel Edgerton: The Gift), an FBI agent who grew up in the neighborhood idolizing Bulger and now sees him as opportunity. If he can turn Bulger, he’ll be able to take down the Italians.
    Bulger at first sneers at turning snitch. But as the Italians press, he acquiesces. Now, everything Bulger does is protected under his status as an FBI informant. The feds, in turn, fight his mob war.
    Clear to take over Boston, Bulger sweeps a bloody path through the city. Still enamored with Bulger and thrilled with the Bureau attention his mob case has gained, Connolly decides he can’t afford to bring Whitey down. So he hides evidence that Bulger is killing and mentions the names of snitches to Bulger.
    As bodies pile up, the Feds can’t ignore Bulger. Can they bring down the new crime prince of Boston?
    Based on the true story of the FBI’s deal with the devil, Black Mass is an uneven film anchored by Depp’s great performance. Director Scott Cooper (Out of the Furnace) tries to make the movie about the relationship between Bulger and Connolly. But Connolly and his FBI counterparts are underwritten and uninteresting drags.
    Depp, on the other hand, is electric. His performance is free of the quirks and ticks that have made him a caricature of himself. Bulger is a viper, still and calm until he strikes. Black Mass is Johnny Depp’s revival.

Good Drama • R • 122 mins.

Grandma, what crazy eyes you have.

Becca (Olivia DeJonge: Hiding) and Tyler (Ed Oxenbould: Chevy) have never met their grandparents. The ­family has been estranged since their mother (Kathryn Hahn: Tomorrowland) ran off with her high school teacher.
    Fifteen years later, reconciliation is on the horizon. Mom schedules a weeklong visit for the kids, who are thrilled. Becca, an aspiring filmmaker, hopes documenting the trip will bring her family back together. Tyler, a rapper with ready sarcasm, wants to give his mom a weeklong break with her boyfriend.
    So over the river and through the woods to grandparents’ house they go. Nana (Deanna Dunagan: House of Cards) and Pop Pop (Peter McRobbie: Daredevil) live on a remote farm. There is no cell phone service, but there are fresh cookies and lots to explore.
    Nana seems like the dream grandmother. She bakes. She fondly tells stories. She skitters on all fours through the house wailing and naked. If that last one doesn’t quite remind you of your own grandmother, you’re not alone; Becca and Tyler have concerns, too. Pop Pop explains that she’s got a form of dementia. Every evening she sundowns, getting violent and disoriented. That’s why bedtime is 9:30pm.
    But Pop Pop isn’t exactly normal, either. He wanders the house in a daze and makes frequent trips to a mysterious locked shed.
    In turns hilarious, ridiculous and creepy, The Visit is a combination of brilliance and idiocy by writer-director M. Night Shyamalan (After Earth). He is a sucker for ludicrous twists and silly stories. On the other hand, Shyamalan is masterful at building tension and bringing in humor. A tense exploration of the crawl space under the house diffuses into humor instead of a jump scare. We ride an emotional rollercoaster, never knowing what will happen next.
    The Visit is not perfect, but it is the best Shyamalan movie in 15 years.

Good Comedy/Horror • PG-13 • 94 mins.

The refueling obviously failed because this sequel is running on empty

Frank Martin (Ed Skrein: Tiger House) is the man you call when you need a ride. Specializing in getaway driving and difficult car-related missions, Frank and his car can do anything — except obey the speed limit.
    A solitary sort, Frank now tries to reconnect with his pensioner father (Ray Stevenson: Insurgent), a former spy. He also takes on a new contract for Anna (Loan Chabanol: Third Person).
    When he discovers the job is helping three beautiful women bank robbers, Frank refuses to help — until they show him footage of his kidnapped father. But helping these thieves brings on the Ukrainian mob.
    A reboot of the Transporter series starring Jason Statham, The Transporter Refueled is an anemic action film with few thrills, ridiculous plot lines and no charm. Director Camille Delamarre (Brick Mansions) crafts slick action sequences with no substance. Characters fly through the air, dodge bullets and land punches with seemingly no effort.
    The lazy action is compounded by ridiculous storytelling. A subplot about the horrors of sex trafficking features countless shots of rhythmically gyrating panty-clad posteriors. The female bank robbers are, in essence, sexy Barbies used to reward our hero and his dad for acknowledging that forced prostitution is wrong. It would be insulting had the writers given these women character.
    Along with casual sexism and defiance of the laws of physics, the action formula demands a charismatic hero. Skrein looks good in a suit, but he lacks both the physicality and the charm to pull off the role made famous by Statham.
    Oddly, the only person in the film who shows flashes of charm is Frank’s father. Stevenson, who must need to make a mortgage payment to be working on such dreck, steals every scene. Watching, you wonder how such an engaging personality raised a son who is the cinematic equivalent of cold oatmeal.
    The Transporter Refueled is a rare film that fails on just about every conceivable level. From plot to acting to action to the cars, it’s a lemon.

Poor Action • PG-13 • 96 mins.

If it’s entertainment you’re after, seeing this one is elementary

Fancy a spot of mystery to sharpen the old mind after summer’s idyll? Then you must check out Sherlock’s Last Case by Charles Marowitz, showing at Colonial Players through September 26. While I am forbidden by Colonial and Scotland Yard to divulge the particulars of this brilliant whodunit, trust me when I say Annapolis’ grand dame of amateur theater has produced another winner with this escapist spoof, rich in one-liners and plot twists.
    Here we have Sherlock Holmes (Jim Gallagher), sleuth extraordinaire, at his best: an aficionado of violin, fencing, handwriting analysis, history, chemistry, psychology, yoga and Jiu Jitsu, with a peerless intellect and ego to match. So what if Marowitz’s Sherlock is a touch more pompous than we remember? He has earned that privilege, especially since he dispatched his evil nemesis, Dr. Moriarty.
    Enjoying retirement at his cozy Baker Street home, Holmes is ensconced in silk settees and smoking jackets, listening to chamber music and bantering with his loyal associate Dr. Watson (Nick Beschen), that jolly good fellow. Blessed is the man who can count on such an indulgent friend. There’s also efficient housekeeper Mrs. Hudson (Lisa KB Rath), upon whom they both rely for sustenance and the civilizing touch of a woman. She also comes in handy for amusement, as Holmes loves to joke about her parsimonious Scottish nature. Other than such entertainment and the newspaper, however, life is so boring that Holmes has taken to the opium pipe with renewed gusto.
    Then a letter arrives from Moriarty’s outraged son, Damion, followed by a visit from his daughter, Liza (Erin Leigh Hill). A delicate auburn-haired beauty who catches Holmes’ attention with her fair looks and temperament, Liza understands her late father’s faults all too well and has come to arrange a truce between Holmes and her brother, who resides in (shudder) America. No sooner has she left, however, than a mysterious assailant hogties Watson in the closet and threatens Holmes with death. Enter the venerable Inspector Lestrade (Morey Norkin), and by scene three the thriller is off and running.
    Marowitz’s script, winner of the Louis B. Mayer Award, challenges the audience to solve the perfect crime by thinking beyond the evidence and taking nothing for granted. It also entertains with such a rich repertoire of parodies and puns that you will find yourself stifling laughter so as not to miss the next zinger.
    This production, directed by Beth Terranova, is brilliantly cast with Gallagher delivering a spot-on Sherlock. Beschen, though a touch soft-spoken, brings lovable new dimension to the typically circumscribed Watson. The Victorian costumes — by Carrie Brady with Regina Todd — are stunning, and the accents — coached by BettyAnn Leesberg-Lane — melodious. The only hole in this show is the lighting: so dark during the two key suspense scenes as to be soporific, and so bright with black light effect at curtain as to be blinding.
    This is a don’t-miss, even for those who, like yours truly, don’t ordinarily go in for mysteries. If it’s entertainment you’re after, it’s elementary.
    Two and a half hours with intermission. Includes simulated smoke, gunfire and blood.

Th-Sa 8pm, Su 2pm, plus 7:30pm Sept. 13 (Sept. 13 only, students free with available seats at curtain time); thru Sept. 26. 108 East St, Annapolis, $20 w/discounts, rsvp: 410­-268-­7373.

Two friends battle aging and the elements in this fun hike

It’s been years since acclaimed author Bill Bryson (Robert Redford: Captain America: The Winter Soldier) has written anything more substantial than the foreword to another writer’s book. Getting older hasn’t agreed with him, and he bristles at his social schedule, which is filled with funerals and staid gatherings.
    To shake things up, he decides to do something amazing: Hike the Appalachian Trail. He’s convinced he can amble over 2,000 miles of American wilderness on his own, with just his pup tent and a canteen. His wife (Emma Thompson: Effie Gray) is less sure of his skills, begging him not to go and printing out horror stories of people who have died on the trail.
    Finally, a compromise is reached. Bryson can go if he finds a hiking partner. He picks up the phone, but all his friends are too busy, too old or totally uninterested. The dream is starting to die when Stephen Katz (Nick Nolte: Run All Night) calls him. An estranged pal from his youth, Katz asks to tag along the trail. Desperate, Bryson agrees.
    When Katz arrives, Bryson is surprised to find his old hell-raising friend has grown old, fat and lame. Katz wheezes, turns purple at the slightest exertion, and is a general mess. He’s the last person who should walk the trail, but he’s the only person who volunteered.
    Together, Bryson and Katz take on one of the most challenging hikes in North America. As the miles roll on, the two old friends talk, gripe and laugh their way through the wilderness. Can two men past their prime trek from Georgia to Maine? Or will they kill each other before they can make camp?
    Based on Bryson’s novel, A Walk in the Woods is a journey film about two men who need to find themselves in the wilderness. Fans of the book will note that the characters are significantly older than those in the book, and the plot is a fast and loose adaptation. Still, the film manages to address the subjects of aging, finding yourself and friendship with humor and some insights.
    Director Ken Kwapis (Happyish) keeps the story simple. It’s essentially a two-man show, with Bryson and Katz trundling through the wilderness as the main attraction. Kwapis focuses on the comedy of the pairing and the majesty of the mountains and forests they traverse. John Bailey’s cinematography will convince you to visit the trail yourself to see the gorgeous vistas captured in the film.
    The core of the film is the relationship between Bryson and Katz. Redford is charming, infusing Bryson with intelligence and determination. He is a man missing something, and he convinces himself a few months of walking and eating camp rations will help him find it.
    The real star, however, is Nolte. It helps that his life has somewhat mirrored Katz’s life, as the years of hard living play plainly across the actor’s face. Nolte crashes into every scene, growling in his smoke-cracked baritone and saying the exact wrong thing 90 percent of the time. Katz’s oblivious crass nature hides a wounded man desperate to find some meaning in his life. Nolte manages to be both an exemplary buffoon and a tragic lost soul.
    A Walk in the Woods isn’t a perfect film. The production is a little too slick, and the film would rather go for shallow laughs than delve into what frayed Bryson and Katz’ relationship. In spite of its flaws, it is a funny, sweet story about finding yourself and an old friend in the woods.

Good Dramedy • R • 104 mins.

You’ll have to be as high as Mike to enjoy this stoner comedy

Mike Howell (Jesse Eisenberg: The End of the Tour) is a loser. Ambitionless, he works a dead-end job managing a convenience store and suffers from a plethora of phobias. The only bright spots in this life are Mike’s endlessly understanding girlfriend Phoebe (Kristen Stewart: Still Alice) and the mountains of marijuana he smokes each day.
    The action begins with words mumbled by a convenience store customer. Mike thinks the pot has addled his brain, but when two men attempt to kill him, he surprises himself by handily dispatching them with a spoon.
    Mike is in fact a newly activated and expertly trained CIA operative. As ruthless killers come to town town, he must remember his training, protect his girlfriend and save his skin. That’s a tall order for a man who can’t cook an omelet without a joint in his hand.
    Violent, poorly written and featuring unbelievable performances, American Ultra is so ridiculous it’s almost as funny as it wants to be. Obsessed with the slick and stylish, director Nima Nourizadeh (Project X) has made a movie as consequential as a car commercial. Action is frenetic, editing is choppy and stylized — and neither serves the story.
    Neither straightforward action film in Bourne style nor gonzo action comedy like Pineapple Express, American Ultra languishes in limbo. It is not innovative enough to be a gory action comedy and not restrained enough to be a classical shoot-’em-up. Like Mike, it has no ambition and nothing of interest to say.
    Characters are stereotypes, impersonal and uninteresting. As Mike, Eisenberg has the look and idiotic dialog of a stoner, and he acts the part. His attacks are slow, his strikes lack force and his hair hangs in his eyes.
    The relationship with Stewart’s Phoebe is only slightly less believable than this loser’s being able to find a spoon, let alone kill with it. Stewart and Eisenberg display no chemistry.
    The only person who escapes American Ultra unscathed is Walton Goggins (Justified), who plays Laugher, a psychotic soldier tasked with killing Mike. Goggins, who has decades of experience playing underwritten weirdoes, has learned how to make even the barest character interesting.

Poor Action Movie • R • 95 mins.

Two writers edit their own narratives in this excellent drama drawn from life

After publishing Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace (Jason Segel: Sex Tape) becomes the golden boy of the literary world. Glowing reviews claim the book is the greatest novel of its generation. Awards are showered on him. Instead of thriving, Wallace retreats from the limelight.
    Meanwhile, struggling novelist and Rolling Stone writer David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg: Rio 2) seethes in jealousy. Even worse, Lipsky must admit that the praise is earned. Fascinated by the mind behind the brainy book, Lipsky pitches a story to his editor: Unearth the man behind the mythos.
    To do so, Lipsky travels to Illinois for the last five days of Wallace’ book tour. Instead of a brilliant intellect, Lipsky finds a quiet man more interested in his dogs than talking about writing.
    A bond forms, and Lipsky gets a glimpse of who’s beneath Wallace’s regular guy armor.
    Based on the true story of Lipsky’s never-published interviews, The End of the Tour is on surface a bit boring. No sex, no violence. Somehow, two guys talking about American culture, women and the stress of writing turns exciting.
    Wallace, who battled depression for years, is a writhing mass of insecurities. He has such strict derogatory ideas about the meaning of success that praise has made him paranoid. He fears being viewed as a fraud.
    Eager to learn from a genius, Lipsky treats the assignment more as enlightenment than investigation. He’s interested in Wallace but too in awe to ask hard questions. When he finally gets the nerve to scrutinize Wallace’s motives, the dynamic shifts.
    To make such a film work, actors have to be on top of their game. Both men inhabit their roles beautifully. Segel pulls off a mesmerizing performance as the troubled, soft-spoken genius whose vital eyes belie the bumpkin he plays for Lipsky. You can see him creating responses that seem both unassuming and smart.
    Eisenberg gives Lipsky natural tenacity that must be tamped down to draw Wallace out. Jealous, in awe and curious, he wants Wallace’s approval. But once he senses a ruse, he digs in, hoping to provoke honesty.
    To film this battle of wits, director James Ponsoldt (The Spectacular Now) keeps his camera unobtrusive, so we feel we’re eavesdropping on the conversation. It’s an effective trick that creates immediacy and tension.
    If you’re interested in Wallace or enjoy heady conversation, The End of the Tour should engage you. Otherwise, watching will be almost as tortuous as slogging through Wallace’s 1,079-page opus.

Good Drama • R • 106 mins.

This silly send-up of 1960s’ spy films is F.U.N.

Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill: Man of Steel) is a CIA spy with style. Dressed to the nines and armed with charm, he can seduce women with a wink and talk his way into or out of any situation. His unflappable confidence is second only to his intelligence.
    So when he’s assigned to extract Gaby (Alicia Vikander: Ex Machina) from East Germany, Solo assumes the mission will be simple. But only after a harrowing chase from a hulking tail do Gaby and Solo make it safely across The Wall. Then they find their mission has just begun.
    Gaby’s father, a former Nazi scientist who has discovered an easy way to enrich uranium, is kidnapped by terrorists planning to make and sell atomic bombs. Neither the U.S.S.R. nor the U.S. wants atomic bombs on the open market, so they team up (temporarily) to foil the bomb makers. Thus, Solo and Gaby are partnered with a Russian agent who turns out to be Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer: Entourage), the brute who chased them through East Berlin.
    Based on the popular TV show, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is a swinging tribute to the 1960s spy genre, with plenty of suave guys, stunning women and sexual innuendos. Director Guy Ritchie creates a light romp with plenty of style plus frenetic editing and framing.
    Ritchie also has a wicked sense of humor, with many violent acts played for laughs in the background of scenes. Solo watches as Illya engages in an aquatic gun battle. He could help, but he’s not quite finished with his drink. This mix of brutality and jocularity works well in the spy spoof tone.
    As the duo who must learn to work together, Cavill and Hammer have excellent chemistry. Cavill, an almost surreally handsome leading man, is perfect as the slightly empty seducer. His Solo is all style and detachment, ala vintage James Bond. Hammer uses his considerable height and a comically ridiculous accent to make Illya a brute with a soul and surprising humor. As the glue holding the men together, Vikander isn’t required to do much. Her beauty and natural charm carry her through a slightly underwritten role.
    Ritchie crafts a breezy film, but he isn’t quite as slick as the spies he puts on screen. By rehashing scenes we’ve just watched, he over-explains his fairly straightforward plot and makes the film seem overlong. Fifteen minutes could be razed without damage to plot or pace.

Good Action • PG-13 • 116 mins.