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Arts and Culture (All)

Humans prove to be the real animals in this dramatic war film

In 1939 Warsaw, the Zabinski family — Jan (Johan Heldenbergh: The Tunnel) and Antonina (Jessica Chastain: Miss Sloane) — run a popular zoo.
    Their world is destroyed by invading German tanks and planes. Carpet bombings of the city empty cages, loosing wild animals on the city to be shot down by the Nazis.
    Trying to salvage the remainders of their zoo, the Zabinskis recognize the greater atrocity around them. As Jews are ordered to move to the ghetto, Antonina and Jan put their empty zoo to good use, hiding Jews from the Nazis.
    It’s a dangerous gambit. The Nazis rule by day, transforming cages to storage. By night, the Zabinskis pack their basement and the animal tunnels with people, praying that they’ll be quiet enough to avoid detection.
    The plan works, and the zoo fills with endangered people.
    Still, stress tears the couple apart. Jan goes into the ghetto every day, pretending to collect trash to feed the pigs but instead smuggling out as many men, women and children as his truck will hold. He is haunted by the crimes he witnesses and the conditions people endure.
    Antonina, meanwhile, has caught the eye of Hitler’s head zoologist (Daniel Brühl: The Promise), who shows up at random in hopes of wooing the keeper’s wife. She endures his pawing, but Jan cannot.
    Can the Zabinskis keep their new charges safe?
    Based on the bestselling novel and true story, The Zookeeper’s Wife is a moving but flawed Holocaust drama. Performances are fantastic. But director Niki Caro (McFarland, USA) fails to knit a cohesive whole; time is especially jumbled.
    While Caro adapts Holocaust narrative clichés — children loaded onto trains, burning ghettos and violated women — he uses them effectively. With an extended sequence of Nazi killing of exotic animals, including a bald eagle, he breaks new ground in portraying Nazi evil.
    As the heart of the film, Chastain is a marvel. Strong, kind and willing to make dangerous decisions for the greater good, her Antonina is both an emotional support for traumatized people and their fierce protector. Antonina’s impossible position — beguiling a Nazi to protect her family and her charges — invokes a plot too charged for many movies to dare.
    See it for excellent performances and insight into the history of the resistance in Poland.

Good Drama • PG-13 • 124 mins.

With astronauts this dumb, it’s hard not to root for the alien

The astronauts aboard the International Space Station expect to make history. Hurtling toward them is a probe that has collected what may be proof of life on Mars.
    Station biologist Hugh Derry (Ariyon Bakare: Rogue One) finds a long-dormant single-cell organism among the dust samples. After cursory study, he tries to do the impossible: Resurrect a creature that has been dead for millennia. After a few tweaks to the shuttle’s environment and some nourishment, the cell, named Calvin, comes to life.
    Derry is thrilled, seeing Calvin as key to unlocking medical secrets. Earth is cheering the momentous discovery and lauding the astronauts as heroes. But as Calvin evolves day by day into a more complex organism, the other astronauts worry.
    Eventually, Calvin escapes the lab, as all horrific alien beings must. The critter then begins hunting down veteran astronaut David (Jake Gyllenhaal: Nocturnal Animals), safety specialist Miranda (Rebecca Ferguson: The Girl on the Train), mechanic Rory (Ryan Reynolds: Criminal), navigator Sho (Hiroyuki Sanada: The Last Ship) and captain Kat (Olga Dihovichnaya: House of Others).
    Can the crew stay alive? More importantly: Can they keep Calvin from finding a way to Earth?
    A movie so predictable you’ll swear you’ve already seen it, Life ruins the inherent tension of a horror movie set in a confined space with poor character development, hackneyed dialog and stale plot. Director Daniel Espinosa (Child 44) unsuccessfully tries to build tension using every horror cliché in movie history.
    Pursuit by an alien that disintegrates a body in minutes leaves little room for nuance. Characters reduced to stereotypes — from the serious doctor with a secret to the wise-cracking mechanic — might as well be picked off by an angry alien.
    Nor are any of them capable of doing a job in a rational way. Biologists stick their fingers within striking range of alien species, astronauts panic and no one thinks about escape pods until it’s far too late. Espinosa works so hard to keep the astronauts from escaping their predicament that the creature and its abilities become mythic.
    In fact, there’s an argument to be made that Calvin is the hero of this film. It is smarter, stronger and more interesting than any of the bipeds. Tumbling through space without needing much oxygen, it figures out every trap the astronauts plant and eventually learns how to navigate a space ship. Calvin is not only proof of life on other planets but also proof that human beings are the dullards of the universe.

Poor Sci-Fi Horror • R • 103 mins

This remake is doomed by its very concept; transforming the characters from cartoons into actual people kills the magic


The original it isn’t

Belle (Emma Watson: Regression) is stifled in her provincial French town. She’s smart, progressive and inventive. The village is repressive, and the villagers mock her. Only the town meathead Gaston (Luke Evans: The Girl on the Train) seems to appreciate Belle, though she repeatedly rejects his offers of marriage.
    Belle tries to lose herself in books. But when her father Maurice (Kevin Kline: Bob’s Burgers) is kidnapped by a horrible Beast (Dan Stevens: Legion), Belle volunteers to take his place.
    Instead of life in captivity in a drafty dungeon, Belle is received into a lavish castle and treated as a cherished guest. The Beast and castle staff are former humans cursed by an enchantress angered at the Beast’s cruelty. To break the spell, he must earn the love of a woman. Belle is their hope, but she isn’t enamored with the loud and angry Beast who holds her prisoner.
    Can the Beast learn to look past his ego? Can Belle learn to look beneath the surface? Why would Disney remake its best film?
    The answer to the last question is profit. Disney will make a bundle of money on this remake of the 1991 classic, the first animated movie to earn a Best Picture nomination at the Academy Awards. In adapting the film to live action, director Bill Condon (Mr. Holmes) loses much of the charm that made the original wonderful.
    The remake is doomed by its very concept. Transforming the characters from cartoons into actual people removes the fantasy, and some of the silliness, so that the brutal fight between Beast and Gaston takes a much darker, scarier tone. The cartoon didn’t reference death by plague (or show its welts), and it certainly didn’t hint that villainous Gaston was suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder due to his time in the war.
    Belle adds another problem. Watson is certainly a beauty, and looks lovely spinning in her outfits, but as Belle she’s woefully miscast. She’s a poor singer whose voice is clearly autotuned to the right notes. Her performance, too, is surprisingly one-note. Belle is full of bluster rather than wonder and curiosity. Nor does she make a convincing connection with the Beast.
    The hero who saves every scene he’s in is Gaston. As the villain jock who hounds Belle for a date, Evans seems to be the only actor who understands the tone of the tale. His Gaston is hilariously vain and frighteningly violent, making him the most compelling and complex character in the movie. He can also sing.
    Many small viewers cried several times, so make sure your child is prepared for scary creatures, loud fights and violence before you buy a ticket.

Poor Musical • PG • 129 mins.

If only the people were as interesting as the monsters

Bill Randa (John Goodman: Patriots Day) believes in monsters. Now he’s got the funding to prove it. Joining the Vietnam War-era exploration of an uncharted island in the Pacific are geologists, biologists and former S.A.S. officer James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston: The Night Manager). Anti-war photographer (Brie Larson: Room) manages to crash the top-secret mission, for no apparent reason. Completing the company is a helicopter platoon led by Col. Packard (Samuel L. Jackson: xXx: Return of Xander Cage), slightly deranged from fighting a long, bloody and unpopular war.
    Supporting the expedition are high-tech equipment, impressive firepower and equipment to maintain an island camp for several days. They’re prepared to take samples, acquire data and bring anything valuable back for the government.
    What they’re not prepared for is a 30-plus-foot gorilla that knocks helicopters out of the air like they’re mosquitos and a host of otherworldly wildlife.
    Nor are the survivors prepared for Hank Marlow (John C. Reilly: Sing), a WWII fighter pilot who’s been living on the island since crashing there in the 1940s. Marlow explains that Kong isn’t a monster but a protector keeping the people of the island and the earth safe from real monsters.
    With its amazing creatures and fun action sequences Kong: Skull Island is a beautiful example of the power of special effects. Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts (You’re the Worst) supplies all the necessities for a monster movie: Impressive creature, plenty of cannon fodder, one handsome male lead to tell everyone what to do and a blonde woman for whom both ape and men fall.
    The humans have less to offer.
    As cannon fodder the soldiers provide more chemistry and interest than the leads. Hiddleston must have been the only square-jawed personage walking past the studio during casting. He spends most of his screen time posing majestically while action happens around him. As his leading lady, Oscar-winner Larson has even less to do. Reilly’s castaway Marlow is the exception, with a performance that’s both entertaining and emotionally resonant.
    All is not lost, however. The creatures of Skull Island are wonderful. Kong (performed by Toby Kebbell) is an impressive, stoic warrior with a face far more expressive than anything these humans show us. He is joined by frightening toothy lizards and many more bizarre critters, including a giant spider that has the audience squirming.

Fair Action • PG-13 • 120 mins.

Meeting the parents is a real nightmare

Chris (Daniel Kaluuya: Sicario) is a successful photographer with a promising future and a beautiful girlfriend. Rose (Allison Williams: Girls) is hip, culturally aware and unafraid to call out other people’s racial biases. Still, Chris is nervous when Rose wants to take him home to meet her folks.
    Rose promises her parents are as liberal as they come. They voted for Obama! They protested in the 1960s! They’re supporters of the ACLU! Hoping that Rose is right, Chris agrees to spend the weekend at their country home.
    Parents Missy (Catherine Keener: Unless) and Dean (Bradley Whitford: Brooklyn Nine-Nine) seem okay, though they throw around hip slang so Chris will know they’re cool, and they tell him they couldn’t be happier with his courtship.
    But the weekend wears on strangely. Chris can’t connect to the black servants, who speak as if scripted. To cure Chris of smoking, Missy, a hypnotherapist, hypnotizes him without his consent. At a family party, conversations with him don’t feel right. He is uneasy.
    Is he being paranoid? Or is something insidious lurking beneath the Armitage veneer of tolerance?
    This brilliant horror take with cutting commentary on racism in America, is one of the smartest films of the year. Writer/director Jordan Peele (Keanu) shows the subtle racism of, for example, the offhanded compliment about a black person’s natural talents for athleticism.
    Breaking down the cultural stereotype that black men are aggressors, Peele makes us feel menace in benign situations, like walking down a suburban street. By embedding his commentary in a traditional horror setting, Peele invites us to appreciate the message without feeling lectured or attacked.
    The cast supports the vision with outstanding work. As Chris, Kaluuya is masterful as a man who’s dealt with well-meaning racism his whole life but struggles to determine whether Rose’s family is benignly clueless or subtly sinister.
    A masterwork of both satire and horror, Get Out is an ingenious summation of the forms of modern racism as well as a suspenseful, funny horror flick.

Great Horror • R • 103 mins.

Wolverine finally finds his purpose in this excellent action drama

In the year 2029, mutants are dying out. None have been born in decades, and survivors hide from the world. They live on in comic books that fictionalize their powers and exploits.
    Logan (Hugh Jackman: Eddie the Eagle) used to be a comic hero. He was called Wolverine when he worked with the X-Men, before he abandoned the fight for truth and justice. Logan now works menial jobs, saving money to buy a boat and escape to sea with his mentor, powerful psychic Professor X, Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart: Blunt Talk). This is not a pleasure cruise. Xavier has seizures that radiate a mile of painful deaths.
    Desperate for money, Logan is hired by a terrified woman who begs him to take her daughter Laura (Dafne Keen: The Refugees) to a safe haven. Laura, she claims, is a mutant hunted by the government. Logan is skeptical until he sees Laura’s frightening powers.
    Xavier persuades him to help, and soon, Logan’s taking a kid he doesn’t want to a place he doesn’t believe in, lugging along a sick and dangerous old man.
    A bloody drama masquerading as an X-Men movie, Logan is by far the best offering of the mutant film series. Dark, pensive and violent, it explains why Logan is angry and withdrawn. Director James Mangold (The Wolverine) has slowly been building the Logan character into the grizzled anti-hero so beloved in comic books. Now Mangold abandons the family-friendly Marvel veneer for a character piece that offers surprising depth and excellent performances. You’ll see just how bloody those cool Marvel battles would be if set in a realistic environment. The story has substance as well, weaving in commentary about migrant populations, unregulated corporations and a militarized government.
    Over nine films, Jackman has perfected Logan’s gruff look and nature. It is shocking, however, to see what that actor can do with a fully realized character to play. Instead of spouting catch phrases and chomping on a cigar, Jackman puts in real emotional work, showing just how badly the world has beaten him.
    As his nearly silent sidekick, Keen is a real find. With an expressive face, impressive combat skills and impeccable comic timing, she holds her own in scenes with Jackman and Stewart. Keen’s Laura is more than a precocious kid. Near feral, she is a danger to herself and others.
    Logan is not word-accurate to the Wolverine comics, but it is what every comic-book movie should aspire to be: A relatable human story writ large. This film proves it’s possible to make a good drama out of a superhero film.

Great Action • R • 137 mins.

An actor playing Willy Loman descends into madness as he fixates on revenge

Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti: Shahrzad) and Emad (Shahab Hosseini: Shahrzad) wake in the middle of the night as their house crumbles. In the midst of producing Arthur Miller’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Death of a Salesman, they must make time to find a new home.
    A costar seemingly solves their problem by offering an apartment in a building he manages.
    There the last tenant, and her profession, come back to haunt Rana and Emad. A former client looking for the prostitute finds Rana alone and assaults her in the shower.
    She refuses to talk about the assault or call the police, but Emad can’t let the violation go. By night he plays Willy Loman; by day he searches for the rapist. In his obsession, Emad fails to notice Rana’s deterioration.
    Is he doomed to the misery of the character he portrays on stage?
    This gripping drama about how people deal with trauma is beautifully shot and acted. Director Asghar Farhadi (The Past) is a master at mining seemingly mundane situations and stories for emotional drama. With a more dramatic catalyst than in his usual subject matter, he dissects Emad’s reaction to the assault and chronicles his slow descent into madness as he fixates on revenge.
    Hosseini gives a powerful performance. His Emad is a progressive who’d never identify himself as a domineering husband. But the assault changes him. From self-effacing and sweet, he becomes brutish and loud, demanding his wife agree that finding the rapist will fix their problems.
    As Rana, Alidoosti makes the most of a secondary role. Devastated but attempting to move on, she becomes brittle, seconds from a breakdown, with a husband who cannot see her pain.
    Farhadi offers no easy solutions. He’s interested in how people react and how situations unfold. This can be frustrating, but it gives you plenty to talk about on the way home.

Great Drama • PG-13 • 125 mins.

Wick’s one-man killing spree goes international in this fantastic action flick

Former mob enforcer John Wick (Keanu Reeves: The Neon Demon) declared war on the New York branch of the Russian mob after a mobster’s punk son killed his dog and stole his car. After wiping out a large percentage of the population of New York, John Wick returned home to retire from the blood and guts business for good.
    That didn’t work out.
    He’s no sooner home than another shadowy underworld figure comes calling. Santino ­D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio: Dalida) holds Wick’s marker, a blood promise to perform a task. If Wick refuses, a price will be put on his head. If he accepts and kills the head of the Italian mob, a price will be put on his head.
    Stuck in an impossible situation, Wick does what he does best: kill every person he comes across. His blood-soaked journey takes him from the catacombs of Rome to the subways of New York.
    This sequel has as much action-packed swagger as the original and twice as many headshots. It’s pure chest-heaving, popcorn-eating adrenaline. Second-time Wick director Chad Stahelski is a former stuntman who understands how to stage and shoot gonzo sequences. The film opens on a brutal fight involving guns, cars and knives. Pacing is frenetic, but the fight is shot in a way that builds tension while showing what’s going on. Often, action movies throw explosions and clashing metal together in a murky blend of sound and fury. When you watch Wick, you’ll know precisely where every punch lands and probably be as breathless as Wick when the fight is over.
    In his second outing, Stahelski stretches a bit as a storyteller with some tremendous results. Cinematography is a little more artistic. Dramatic sequences between fights are a little smoother, and the shadowy underworld that revolves around Wick is expanded. The crime world and rules that govern its mayhem are fascinating. Stahelski leaves plenty of room and interesting stories for a sequel.
    The film also offers Keanu Reeves his best outlet yet for his talents. Wick’s wry aloofness covers Reeves’ occasionally wooden delivery. He seems to have found his niche snarling at baddies before kicking them in the gut and shooting them in the head.
    John Wick: Chapter 2 isn’t layered; it’s a cacophony of bullets and blows made for buckets of popcorn, cheering audiences and a big screen. If you’re a fan of great action with a clever but uncomplicated premise, John Wick: Chapter 2 is the bull’s eye.

Great Action • R • 122 mins.

Peter Pan’s fantastical origins — with crackling one-liners, slapstick staging, flatulence and actors in drag

“If you like your Peter Pan with crackling one-liners, slapstick staging, actors in drag and flatulence, then Peter and the Starcatcher is for you. The one-liners are no surprise, since the children’s book on which this 2012 Broadway Tony-winner was based was co-written by humor columnist Dave Barry. What is a surprise is that the broad humor of this production works well, even though the story is a prequel to the angst-filled Peter Pan we all know and grew up with. That’s a testament to the fine cast that 2nd Star Productions and director Mary Wakefield have assembled.
    The Broadway production featured adults playing the kids’ roles. 2nd Star has a dozen age-appropriate actors, with most playing many roles in this nicely paced and cleverly staged version. It’s all convolution and fun, providing a clever telling of how Peter Pan came to be, from the dark — quite literally — first act at sea to the bright second act on an island where the characters’ ties to Peter Pan unfold.
    As Molly, the intelligent and courageous 13-year-old girl set adrift in 1885 on the rickety ship Neverland, Kelsey Meiklejohn anchors the production with an authority that belies her age. She commands the stage with a physicality and vocal power that keep things moving apace. The well-traveled, precocious Molly is aboard with her nanny (a witty yet nicely underplayed Zach Roth). When she spots one of three nameless orphan boys sold to a seaman, we begin to see the future story take hold.
    As the boy soon to be named Peter, Michael Bannigan is also compelling, bringing us the angst of a young Peter whose mistreatment by grownups leads him to never want to … well, you know. Molly’s mother, Lady Aster, is a very effective Jeanne Louise. Steven Kirkpatrick gives us the wildly clumsy yet funny pirate Black Stache, the precursor to you-know-who in the future Pan story.
    The real stars here are the ensemble, who do everything the less-is-more script calls for, from holding up rope as a door to carrying two model boats that illustrate the pirate ships in the story, to wearing yellow dishwashing gloves to indicate birds. At one point we watch Molly fly, and while we can see the two cast members acting as a lever, we don’t care because it works. It’s all highly synchronized with nary a glitch to be seen, which in turn keeps the humor coming and the story moving.
    This is not a musical in the traditional sense of the word, but there are songs, and they are very nicely delivered. At one point the cast gives us just a glimpse of a beautiful choral number that leaves us wanting more. That’s where the intelligence of this show lies: It keeps moving.
    So, bring the kids? Sure, if they’re, say eight or nine or older. What kid doesn’t like Peter Pan — or a fart joke?


Costumes: Mary Wakefield. Set design: Jane Wingard. Music design: Patrick Hughes.
 
About 2 hours 15 minutes with one intermission. Thru Feb. 24: FSa 8pm, Su 3pm, plus Feb. 25 3pm, Bowie Playhouse, Whitemarsh Park, $22 w/discounts, rsvp: www.2ndstarproductions.com.

A stirring drama about how little we know the ones we love

Julieta (Emma Suárez: Hazing) is preparing to move to Portugal with her boyfriend when a blast from her past detonates her plans. Julieta runs into Bea (Michelle Jenner: We Need to Talk), her daughter Antía’s (Blanca Parés: Pasión Criminal) former best friend. Bea mentions running into Antía and her children while on vacation.
    The news is devastating to Julieta, who reported Antía missing 12 years ago.
    Julieta falls into obsession trying to work out why her daughter would abandon her with no explanation. As Julieta gets closer to madness, she chronicles the story of her relationship with Antía, searching for clues as to what went wrong. She begins a letter, detailing her past, hoping one day it will heal their rift.
    Based on a collection of short stories by Alice Munro, Julieta is a moody, fascinating drama from Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar (I’m So Excited!). Almodóvar specializes in telling women’s stories in movies about women, with predominantly female casts. Julieta is no exception, and Almodóvar takes pains to explore the ways that women relate and care for each other. He spends a lot of the movie exploring themes like grief, shock and love.
    Almodóvar also brings his signature style to the film. Color palates are vivid and camera work elegant. An Almodóvar film is an exploration of artistic film as a medium, each shot composed like a painting.
    Jumping through time allows multiple actresses to play each role. Performances blend seamlessly, creating a story chronicling the evolution of four relationships. As middle-aged Julieta, Suárez is stunning. Her Julieta is a broken woman who pieced her life together after Antía’s disappearance, only to have it disassembled. As young Julieta, Adriana Ugarte (Palm Trees in the Snow) offers a beautiful performance of a woman who can’t quite cope with life after a trauma. The two actresses work together to create a single fluid portrait of a woman battered by life.
    You’ll find a few flaws. The overlying mystery raises more questions than it answers, and Almodóvar never fully delves into the mother-daughter relationship at the center of the film. It’s one of the rare films that may have benefited from an extra half hour. Still, Julieta is well worth the trip to D.C. or Baltimore for a screening.
    A mystery film about how well you know the ones you love, Julieta is a beautiful study on the natures of female relationships.

Good Drama • R • 96 mins. • with subtitles