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Arts and Culture (All)

An impressionistic tale of a painter

J.M.W. Turner (Timothy Spall: Blandings) better expresses himself through paint than words. A famed member of the Royal Academy of Art, the Victorian artist travels Europe capturing vivid landscapes.
    Turner stands out from other academicians in more ways than one. They are refined; he is not. His manner is awkward and his speech accented with a thick brogue. His fame keeps him from humble circles, so he is often on his own. Closest to him is his father (Paul Jesson: Closer to the Moon), who has always supported his son’s art and works as Turner’s studio assistant.
    As his father’s health declines, Turner becomes more isolated. His only friend is Mrs. Booth, a landlady at a seaside town where he paints. He calls himself Mr. Mallord to maintain his anonymity, even as the friendship deepens to romance.
    Turner’s artistic obsession is capturing the spirit and the light of his subjects. He has a sailor lash him to the crow’s nest during a winter sea crossing to capture the light; he walks for hours in search of the perfect composition.
    Cinematography is stunning. Leigh fills his film with Turner’s paintings and its locales, treating us to sweeping seascapes, pastoral leas, surging trains and austere battleships.
    Spall’s performance is one of the best of the year. His Turner is an almost feral creature, driven by nature’s beauty. He grunts instead of speaking. He spits on his canvas in the middle of a show to loosen the oils and make changes. He watches human interaction with the interest of an alien observer.
    The artist is famous in his native England as an early experimenter in the style that would become known as Impressionist painting. But his international renown is not that of Picasso or Monet. Director Mike Leigh (Another Year) assumes a well-versed audience, so his film may be difficult to follow. Do yourself the favor of a bit of research before you go.

Good Biopic • R • 150 mins.

A farce to be reckoned with

The Liar adapted by David Ives
is a farce guaranteed to brighten lives.
Iambic pentameter is the way
This hilarity comes to modern day.

Written long ago by Pierre Corneille
Steve Tobin directs this quite funny play.
There’s a fine cast of players, they all shine.
And costumes and sets that all bring to mind
1600s’ France, where our play we find.

Fred Fletcher-Jackson’s the liar of note
The guy whose adventures are merely gloat.
Jackson’s Dorante is very uncouth
he just cannot seem to tell us the truth.
He meets two women, Lucrece and Clarice,
But the names get mixed, and the plot’s unleashed.
Meanwhile his father’s betrothed him away,
To one of the two? Well, I shall not say.

Geronte is the father, played by Marc Rehr
A doting dad, who thinks his son’s quite fair.
Rehr’s character shines, he takes us along
as Geronte wonders what’s right and what’s wrong.

Rebecca Ellis and Natasha Joyce
Give Lucrece and Clarice wonderful voice.
Their solid acting and stage presence make
Their way with a punchline easy to take.

Jeff Sprague as Cliton, servant of Dorante  
keeps the pace moving as fast as you want.
Sarah Wade’s twins, Isabelle and Sabine
Are two odd sisters, one flirty, one mean.

Seth Clute’s Alcippe, Ethan Goldberg’s Phileste,
Each get their own laughs with vivacious zest.

The silent Mike Winnick and Nicole Musho
Both play such intricate parts in this show.
They keep the set changes moving along
and get a few deserved laughs of their own.

As led by Tobin this cast is stellar
So good they can get laughs from a crueller.

Iambic pentameter’s not my thing
and it’s clear that my lines, they just don’t sing.
But if you want to laugh, let me just say
Colonial Players has the right play.

The Liar’s a romp, and it moves apace,
Tobin makes creative use of the space.
So hie yourself down to East Street, and fun.
For great entertainment, this is the one.


Director: Steve Tobin. Assistant director: Dave Carter. Stage manager: Ernie Morton. Costumer: Linda Swann. Set designer: Krisztina Vanyi. Lead carpenter: Dick Whaley. Lighting designer: Alex Brady.
About 2 hours and 30 minutes including intermission. Playing thru Feb. 7: ThFSa 8pm, Su 2pm (and 7:30pm Jan. 25) at Colonial Players Theatre in the Round, East St., Annapolis; $20 w/discounts; rsvp: 410-268-7373; www.thecolonialplayers.org.

We’ve got a long way to go — but look how far we’ve come

By 1965, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (David Oyelowo: Interstellar) was a household name. His nonviolent protests had provoked the American government to strike down segregation laws. It would have been a victory for any other man, but even as King accepted the Nobel Peace Prize, he knew there was more to do.
    While whites could no longer keep blacks out of their establishments, they were doing their best to keep them from the polls and off the ballots. Black men and women who attempted to register were asked demanding questions, forced to recite the preamble of the Constitution and usually dismissed. When brave souls managed to register, their names and addresses were printed in the newspaper, making it easy for the Ku Klux Klan and other violent groups to find them.
    President Lyndon Johnson (Tom Wilkinson: The Grand Budapest Hotel) is sympathetic. But he is bombarded by Vietnam protests, and his attention is divided. He tells King that the Civil Rights Act is victory enough for now, and he’ll consider proposing new legislation about voter registration in the coming years.
    King isn’t satisfied. He needs a cause to gain publicity, win the sympathy and support of whites and put political pressure on lawmakers. With the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, he plans a march from Selma to Montgomery in protest of Alabama’s voter registration policies. Selma’s brute sheriff and the state’s racist governor will surely earn them headlines by violent opposition to the march.
    King is monitored by the FBI, scrutinized by his own movement and watched from every outside angle. His family is threatened. Can he endure the pressure?
    Unlike many biopics of great men, Selma isn’t a canonization rite. Instead, director Ava DuVernay (Scandal) wisely chooses to show the human behind the saint. Her King is having marital problems, is frustrated with the slow progress of his movement and, in his darkest hours, worries that his methods are not worth blood and death. He clings to his purpose and his faith because he has become the spokesperson for a group that desperately needs a voice. He relies on his SCLC family to help him keep his eyes on the prize.
    Selma is a beautiful, humane look at one of the greats of American history.
    Oyelowo captures the power and vulnerability that made King so compelling. He mimics the cadence and drama that made Dr. King’s speeches so memorable; don’t be surprised if you get goose bumps listening to these sermons. But the actor is most effective during quiet moments, when King leads not by fiery oratory but by refusing to break under pressure.
    Before you decry the movie’s inaccuracies, consider this: All biopics create inaccuracies for the sake of drama. If they ­didn’t, they’d be called documentaries. Fellow Oscar contenders The Imitation Game, Foxcatcher, The Theory of Everything and American Sniper all stray from history, some quite a bit. Yet Selma is the only film criticized for it. What does that say?
    Selma shows many grim scenes of beatings and ugly racist interactions, but it is not a movie about hate or blame. It’s about the hope and determination to overcome. Buy a ticket and join the march.

Great Drama • R • 128 mins.

A biopic with a body count

Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper: Guardians of the Galaxy) was raised to believe there were three types of people in the world: Wolves, sheep and sheepdogs. Wolves preyed on the weak and took what they wanted. Sheep did as they were told and hoped to never meet a wolf. Sheepdogs took responsibility for the flock and beat back the wolves.
    A natural protector, Kyle spent his early life bumming around the rodeo circuits of Texas, looking for women, beer and brawls. The bombing of the U.S. embassy in Kenya awakened his sheep-dogging skills. An excellent marksman, he was recruited to the SEALS as a sniper charged with keeping Marines safe as they raid homes in Afghanistan.
    Kyle proves a superior sheepdog. ­Eerily calm and sure of himself, he picks off men, women and children who seek to harm his troops.
    Four tours later, Kyle has become The Legend, with more confirmed kills than any sniper in U.S. history. When the Taliban puts a price on his head, he is unfazed. It’s the home front that terrifies him.
    With his wife and children, Kyle is a tightly coiled spring. He obsessively watches bloody sniper footage and worries about the men he isn’t protecting. Normal social interactions make him squirm, and the slightest noise can provoke a violent reaction.
    Director Clint Eastwood (Jersey Boys) turns this true story into a war between duty and family. Based on Kyle’s bestselling autobiography, the film doesn’t debate the merits of the war or the morality of killing. Eastwood, who famously said “it’s a hell of a thing, killing a man” in his masterpiece Unforgiven, has abandoned this moral ambiguity. Kyle becomes a sort of John Wayne figure, single-handedly taking out the baddies and saving the day.
    This unquestioning approach makes a simplistic movie.
    Still, Eastwood knows how to construct a compelling narrative. The opening sequence, in which Kyle must decide whether to shoot a young boy, is heart-pounding. But Eastwood wisely saves the greatest pressure for the scenes at home. Using clever sound editing and tight close-ups, he traps Kyle in the frame, a prisoner in his home.
    Cooper’s excellent performance keeps the film grounded. Besides making an impressive physical transformation to play the hulking Kyle, Cooper delves deeply into his character’s mind, making his zeal impressive and frightening. But every time he drops his gun, Cooper looks like he wants to crawl out of his skin.
    Together, Eastwood and Cooper create a thrilling tribute to a real person.

Good Drama • R • 132 mins.

Can you enjoy a mystery when the mystery makes no sense? It turns out you can

Larry ‘Doc’ Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix: Her) fancies himself the Phillip Marlowe of the Free Love generation. With long hair, lots of drugs and a general distrust of the establishment, Doc runs a small private detective agency — when he’s not bumming around on the beach, high as a kite.
    When Doc’s ex-girlfriend Shasta (Katherine Waterston: Boardwalk Empire) shows up asking for a favor, Doc knows it’s bad news. Shasta’s latest flame is real estate developer Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts: Jake’s Road), who owns half the county. But Mickey’s wife and her new boyfriend disapprove of Mickey’s New Age philosophy. Afraid he’ll give away his millions and leave them destitute, the Mrs. and her boy toy want Shasta’s help to have Mickey committed.
    Shasta wants Doc to figure out what’s really going on and to foil the plot against Mickey. Still in love with Shasta, Doc agrees. On his first day of snooping, Mickey goes missing, and Doc wakes up next to a dead body.
    Now Doc must solve a murder, find a mogul and remember where he hid his stash, all while avoiding the oppressive attentions of his police officer nemesis Bigfoot Bjornsen (Josh Brolin: Sin City: A Dame to Kill For).
    Daffy, fun and fairly nonsensical, Inherent Vice will make you feel as high as Doc. Director Paul Thomas Anderson (The Master) adapted Thomas Pynchon’s California pulp into a woozy cluster of character and comedic set pieces. Think of it as Chinatown on a bender.
    Pynchon’s novel has been called unfilmable, and Anderson may prove the point. Inherent Vice is a visually rich, deep character piece, but the central mystery and surrounding plots are nearly incomprehensible. Characters wander in and out of scenes, plotlines are dropped or randomly introduced. You’ll need a flowchart to keep up with everything.
    Can you enjoy a mystery when the mystery makes no sense? It turns out you can. Anderson has always been able to coax fantastic, nuanced performances from his actors, and in Inherent Vice it’s Phoenix. He gives a wonderful, lived-in performance that makes Doc a loveable loser instead of an annoying cliché.
    As Doc’s police foil, Brolin offers surprising depth in what could have been silly. Brolin grounds Bigfoot’s establishment persona in a mix of repression and depression that make the character almost tragic instead of a brute.
    For all the great performances, the real star of any Anderson film is the camera work. He carefully crafts each scene, with framing, art design and tracking shots that add depth. A wealth of sunny vistas, urban grime and 1960s’ sensibilities, Inherent Vice is a beautiful sight, even if you can’t follow the plot.
    Much like Doc’s journey through money and free love, Inherent Vice isn’t an easy path. It will challenge and confound you.

Fair Mystery • R • 148 mins.

Loneliness and tragedy fuel the genius that saves the world

Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch: The Hobbit) is an odd duck. Brilliant at arithmetic but horrible at social interactions, Turing is mercilessly mocked at boarding school. His only friend introduces him to cryptography, where he discovers a world he can understand.
    The grown-up Professor Turing would have been another in a long line of oddball academics but for World War II. Instead he joins an elite circle of cryptographers tasked with cracking the German Enigma. A coding machine hitherto impossible to beat, Enigma allows the Axis powers free lines of communication to coordinate attacks that left the Allies reeling.
    The British captured one machine, but without the code key, which the Germans change every 24 hours, the machine is useless. While the other cryptographers work 18 hours a day on a Sisyphean task, Turing plans to create a machine that can run codes faster than any human.
    Loud, massive and expensive, Turing’s machine seems like the creation of a mad scientist. The socially challenged Turing — whose homosexuality, then illegal, is a complicating factor — must figure out how to convince the establishment that his machine is the only way to win the war.
    Most of us now have versions of Turing’s machine in our homes and in our pockets. We call them computers.
    Director Morten Tyldum (Headhunters) creates a competent portrait of a complex man. But intercutting scenes from Turing’s school days and future downfall into the race to beat Enigma, he struggles to make the whole gel.
    Screenwriter Graham Moore (The Waiting Room) also skimps on character development — but not on platitudes. You’ll hear the film’s mantra — “Sometimes it is the people no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one can imagine” — many times. Turing is the only character who gets the semblance of a real personality. The people surrounding him fill out stereotypes.
    Cumberbatch turns in a stunning performance. Now an old hand at playing geniuses on the Autism spectrum, he makes Turing a frustrating, funny and pitiable man. His Turing is much like the machine he creates, a whirring, seemingly emotionless being capable of amazing feats.
    Another actor rising above the writing is Keira Knightley (Laggies), who turns a Girl Friday role into an interesting, nuanced look at a woman who sees more to life than the conventions of her time.
    With Cumberbatch and Knightley’s insight into the loneliness of genius, The Imitation Game is a good movie — though one that could have been great.

Good Drama • PG-13 • 114 mins.

One man proves the human spirit is immeasurable in this war drama

Louis Zamperini (Jack O’Connell: 300: Rise of an Empire) lived enough for three men in his first 30 years. As a teen, the son of Italian immigrants was a petty thief. His brother suggests that instead of running from the police, Louis should put his speed to work. Throwing his energy into training, he earns a slot on the Olympic track team.
    After an impressive performance at the games, World War II interrupts his plans, and Louis becomes a bombardier in the Pacific theater. On a rescue mission, the plane fails, and Louis and two other crewmen wind up on a small raft in the middle of the ocean.
    The castaways endure more than a month at sea before rescue by a ­Japanese ship. Starving, sunburned and half mad, the Americans are cast into a prison camp.
    This true story has lots of epic plotlines, but, alas, it has little character development. Olympics, lost at sea, prisoner of war — each would make a good movie. Combining all three stories into one movie is overwhelming.
    Director Angelina Jolie (In the Land of Blood and Honey) has the difficult task of weaving these three themes into a seamless film. Despite a script by the Coen Brothers (Inside Llewyn Davis), she doesn’t hit the mark.
    Jolie, who became a friend of Zamperini and his family, may be too close to her subject to do it justice. Louis is saintly even as a juvenile delinquent. He always knows the right thing to do, he’s always brave and he never waivers in his beliefs.
    Though Jolie failed to give Zamperini the depth and coherence he deserves, she found a worthy actor to portray the hero. O’Connell pours raw emotion into the role, showing Louis as an iron-willed man who can endure every punch life throws. But by the time Zamperini becomes a POW, Jolie is set on canonizing him.
    Still, Unbroken is a compelling drama. The scenes of Louis’ struggle to survive at sea are the best in the film, offering humor, drama, horror, action and a compelling narrative.
    If you long for the Old Hollywood war films that feature square-jawed do-gooders who never waver from their commitment to God and country, Unbroken is well worth the ticket. If you’re looking for a more nuanced portrayal of Zamperini’s life, pick up Laura Hillenbrand’s biography instead.

Fair Drama • PG-13 • 137 mins.

Great performances marred by poor focus

A story based on real events, Foxcatcher focuses on Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum: The Book of Life), a gold-winning Olympic wrestler who believes he deserves better. His life is cramped and overshadowed by older brother David (Mark Ruffalo: Begin Again). Himself a gold medalist, David has achieved the standing Mark longs for.
    Mark finds his way out in John du Pont (Steve Carell: Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day), the eccentric heir to the du Pont fortune. A lifelong wrestling fan, du Pont seeks to create a competitive wrestling team around Mark.
    Mark accepts what seems like a dream job and moves to the du Pont estate in Pennsylvania. But John du Pont has a tenuous hold on reality. He buys army tanks to drive around his grounds and practices shooting with the police. When du Pont carries a loaded gun into the gym to motivate the Foxcatcher wrestlers, Mark realizes he’s made a grave mistake.
    Concerned for his brother, David takes a position on team Foxcatcher, putting the three men on a collision course.
    Foxcatcher should be a gripping drama about a mentally ill man with enough money and influence to do as he pleases. Instead, director Bennett Miller (Moneyball) offers an unfocused mess of a film that doesn’t know whose story it’s telling, Mark or David’s.
    Du Pont wanders in and out of scenes like an old-money Bertha Mason, remaining largely a threatening but undeveloped presence. He’s the most dynamic and interesting character in the piece, but Miller is uninterested in him. In 134 minutes, he certainly had time to examine the heir.
    Despite confusion, Foxcatcher features three excellent performances. Always a reliable performer, Ruffalo works hard in an underwritten role to give his character emotional depth. A smart family man and excelling athlete who loves his brother, David is so saintly you assume his receding hairline is caused by his halo abrading his forehead.
    As Mark, Tatum uses his impressive physicality to create a brutish character who prefers to avoid thinking. While hulking through the scenes with mouth agape, Tatum displays sparks of deep hurt and fear. His Mark is a tragic figure who understands that he’s trapped but doesn’t know how to extricate himself.
    With the showiest role in the piece, Carell builds du Pont’s mania slowly, making it easy to dismiss him, at first, as a rich eccentric. As his behavior becomes more disturbing, we share Mark’s dawning realization.

Fair Drama • R • 134 mins.

Feel the tension of holding fate in your hands

Twelve Angry Men was first produced in the mid-1950s as a play for television, then reworked for the stage and, of course, the famed movie with an all-star cast led by Henry Fonda. Having sat through the trial of an inner-city young man accused of murder, the all-male jury must come up with a unanimous decision of guilty or not guilty. On first vote, it’s 11-1 in favor of guilty. The lone holdout — a meticulous middle-aged man sticking to his convictions among 11 of his peers who want to convict and go home — has enough questions about the seemingly obvious case that reasonable doubt, racism and the fragility of justice permeate the play — sometimes slowly and sometimes with an explosion of passion.
    2nd Star Productions is known for staging big musicals at the 150-seat Bowie Playhouse, with the occasional straight play tossed in. For Twelve Angry Men, 2nd Star has teamed up to present the drama in the Odenton space used by a new arts group, West Arundel Creative Arts, to provide visual and performing arts classes to local children.
    The large, open first floor of an office building is upon entry a little off-putting, what with the fluorescent lights and low ceilings that are the antithesis of most real theater spaces. The stage space is simply a long table for 12 in the middle of the floor, with one wall separating backstage from stage and providing for entrances and exits. With the actors on the same floor as the audience — who surround them on three sides — and with the entire room lit, audience members often see as much of each other as of the cast.
    But director Jane Wingard and a very capable cast soon turn our attention from each other to center stage, where sincere and very carefully crafted characters make us feel the tension of holding the fate of a life in one’s hands.
    2nd Star sets the play in the present day. The addition of several African-American cast members to the deliberating dozen creates some interesting counterpoint to the script, which, while written in a far different era, now, especially in the context of recent events, reminds us that the more things change, the more they stay the same.
    The protagonist in this case is juror No. 8, played by Gene Valendo, a 2nd Star veteran who brings a polite yet passionate determination that despite the overwhelming odds, the road to reasonable doubt must be followed through to its conclusion. Valendo does a fine job here, balancing his character’s solid belief that a youngster shouldn’t be put to death unless the case against him is irreproachable, with the points made by others who insist guilt has been proved.
    Juror No. 1, the foreman, is deftly played by Brad Eaton, whose interest in wrapping up a guilty verdict quickly is soon surpassed by his responsibility to keep things under control. The de facto foreman, in fact, ends up being juror No. 4, played by Ben Harris with an initially cool detachment and insistence that everyone be heard. His detachment simmers until, later in the play, it erupts into an angry nearly physical confrontation with juror No. 10, a racist whose rant about how they are not good for anything and are guilty by skin color takes the breath away from the entire room — including audience. As embodied by Tom Hartzell, this juror’s racism of the 1950s reminds us that, 60 years later, we still have a long way to go.
    As juror No. 3, Ken Kienas is effective as the angry man whose frustration votes changed to not guilty spills over into near violence. That effectiveness could be even more real with a bit more modulation in his voice, which at first is always set to 10 on the volume knob. Jerry Khatcheressian, another local community theater veteran, gives us the sincerity of one who has come to this country from far worse conditions than he meets in the U.S.A. as juror No. 11. The rest of the jurors — Richard Blank, Larry Griffin, Daley Gunter, Nick Thompson, Anders Tighe and Andre Foster — all prove that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
    A few misplaced ad-libs and a touch of slowness in cue pickup during the first act gave way in the second act to the all-in dive into these characters.
    This is a true ensemble effort that takes playgoers out of the fluorescence and drop ceilings of an Odenton business space into a dirty, cramped big-city jury room whose air is heavy with the weight of determining justice.


    Judge: Kim Ethridge. Assistant director: Steve Andrews. Lighting and sound technician: Matt Andrews. Stage manager (and guard): Joanne Wilson. Two hours with intermission.

    ThFSa 8pm; Su 3pm: West Arundel Creative Arts, Odenton. $22 w/discounts; rsvp: 410-757-5700; www.2ndstarproductions.com.

This community collaboration ­delivers a sleigh full of holiday cheer

What do you get when you introduce a variety of memorable Christmas characters and nursery rhyme originals to a romantic hero and two scheming evildoers plus their naughty toy followers?
    A recipe for holiday cheer, Babes in Toyland, adapted for the stage by Twin Beach Players’ president Sid Curl, with additional dialogue by Matthew Konerth and Valerie Heckart.
    The play has undergone adjustment since it was first performed by Twin Beach Players in 2009, Curl reports. As well as reworked dialogue, a Master Toymaker antagonist was added. Two casts of children plus a few adults form this 70-member community ensemble.
    Directed by Rob and Valerie Heckart, this colorful holiday spectacle overflows with cuteness. From the moment our memorable fairy tale and nursery rhyme favorites take the stage, the audience, both adults and children, is rewarded with a spirited and playful performance.
    We meet Mother Goose, Mother Hubbard and their fabled family of youngsters: Jack and Jill, Little Miss Muffet, Bo Peep and her wandering sheep, Mary Contrary, Simple Simon, Curly Locks and Boy Blue. Polly Flinders, Georgy Porgy, the rascally-yet-playful Rodrigo and Gonzorgo brothers, and Tom Tom are also part of the family. In concert with Santa’s busy elves and toys, all merrily stroll about the stage and sing their opening song to an accompanied, taped rendition of “Here Comes Santa Claus.”
    As the plot unfolds, we meet the ruthless Barnaby, owner of much of the town neighboring the North Pole, who is intent on transforming the village into an amusement park and on wedding Mary Contrary in exchange for pardoning Mother Hubbard’s rent debt. Partnering with him is the Master Toymaker who has plans to replace the vacationing Santa Claus and rule the North Pole.
    All is not lost when Delancy Marmaduke, a puppeteer by trade, comes to town and is smitten with Mary Contrary. Nursery rhyme children provide support for Santa’s elves, while marching soldiers square off, horrid toys clash and Santa returns in a force of polar opposites.
    Sight gags, strobe lights, diabolical laughing, conga lines and interactive engagement draw laughter from the audience. Bright and imaginative costumes and expressive portrayals set off simple stage lighting and set design, taped songs and timed holiday background music. Despite publicly acknowledged technical issues, actors and crew embrace the challenges to perform admirably together. That is the spirit of community.
    Does it take a village? You bet it does. Santa’s village.


Fri., Sat. 7pm; Sun. 3pm: North Beach Boys and Girls Club. $12 w/discounts: 410-286-1890; www.twinbeachplayers.com.