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Arlo (voiced by Raymond Ochoa: Fallout 4) is afraid of everything. The Apatosaurus lives on a farm where his family grows corn. As the smallest, Arlo is assigned menial chores, like feeding the chickens. He’s terrified of chickens … and bugs … and bad weather … and leaves … and the critter that steals corn.
    To change his cowardly reputation, Arlo sets out to capture and kill the corn thief. The critter turns out to be a feral human boy (Jack Bright). In pursuit, Arlo enters a raging river.
    He survives, but wakes with no idea of where he is or how to get home. Terrified and incapable of caring for himself, he turns to the boy for protection. Together the small boy and the giant dino seek their way home.
    Gorgeously rendered but emotionally shallow, The Good Dinosaur lacks the storytelling mastery we expect in Pixar films. Lack of nuance shows in the characters, especially one-note Arlo. It’s also troubling that rage seems to be Arlo’s only motivation. Not exactly the lesson most parents would want for their little ones.
    Director Peter Sohn (Partly Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs) does build an impressive supporting voice cast including Sam Elliott (Grandma) as a cattle ranching T-Rex and Steve Zahn (Modern Family) as a psychotic pterodactyl. The movie also has a darker sense of humor than most Pixar fare, including jokes about the deaths of little creatures. This gallows humor drew laughs from the adults in the audience, but small viewers seemed upset.
    The star of The Good Dinosaur is Pixar’s photo-realistic nature animation. The film takes you from lush forests to deserts to snowy peaks, lovingly creating each environment. Some of the sets are worthy of National Geographic, and it is a marvel of technology and talent that we see such realistic vistas on the silver screen.
    Even a bad Pixar movie is pretty good. At plenty of moments, adults guffawed and children cheered. The Good Dinosaur is about fun instead of feelings.

Good Animation • PG • 100 mins.

A funny, heartwarming holiday present from a local theater company that has been making Annapolis grateful for 67 years

Morning’s at Seven could be dated or boring, this 1930s’ play written about a quartet of aging sisters in Middle America. Instead, Annapolis veteran Rick Wade’s deft direction combines with a timeless script by playwright Paul Osborn and some of this area’s most experienced actors to make us laugh while tugging at our heartstrings.
    The family is sure to remind you of your own, especially at this time of year. Cora and Thor (Lois Evans and Mike Dunlop) live next to her sister Ida (Carol Cohen) and Ida’s husband Carl (Duncan Hood). Aaronetta (Dianne Hood) the old maid, lives with Cora and Thor. Esther (Sharie Valerio) and her husband David (Greg Anderson) live nearby. Homer (Paul Valleau), Ida and Carl’s son, has been engaged to Myrtle (Sherri Millan) for seven years but hasn’t yet introduced her to the family.
    It’s a cast whose experience and commitment to their roles create interplay and chemistry that reminds us consistently of what it’s like to laugh with family members one minute and hate them the next. Love never fades, but it does go into hiding.
    The love among these sisters is palpable, and their frustrations are tangible. Evans’ Cora is the leader of the pack, her maturity and big sisterly attitude enduring even when her little sisters are in their late 60s and early 70s. Cohen’s Ida is a nerve-wracked wife trying to figure out why Carl keeps having “spells.” Duncan Hood gives us a Carl whose spells are manifested in his entire comedic body; yet his comedic mastery never gets in the way of the empathy we feel with a man of age who doubts where he’s been and where he ought to be going. Similarly, Dianne Hood gives us an Aaronetta who wonders what she’s missed by remaining single — while harboring a secret that might explain why she made the choice so many years ago.
    As the edgy 40-something who has been engaged for years but can’t seem to pull the trigger, Paul Valleau makes Homer a combination of Ida and Carl, physically funny without crossing into caricature. Valleau’s work here is splendid and matched by Millan’s nicely underplayed Myrtle.
    Anderson’s David, who hates it when his wife Esther visits her sisters, does a nice job as the rigid in-law who looks down on the rest of the family. We’ve all experienced those, right?
    The heart of this play is the four sisters; Valerio, Evans, Cohen and Hood work so well together that it’s easy to believe they’re related. These talented actresses convey the pathos and commitment needed to make us care as much as if we were sitting at Osborn’s premiere. I can’t get too much into the plot because it wraps up with a few nice surprises; suffice it to say that Morning’s at Seven is written and performed timelessly.
    One quibble: When a play set in 1930s middle America focuses on sisters in their late 60s and early to mid 70s, it’s a distraction to see three of the four with auburn-dyed hair. Fact is, in the 1930s getting one’s hair dyed was a long, painful and expensive process, typically undertaken by younger women who were often looked down upon for doing it … except for the platinum-haired movie stars who literally bleached their hair. At least a hint of gray would have been more real in a cast of older women playing older women.
    But as I say, that’s a quibble. It doesn’t take away from the acting, from the relationships we are privileged to witness and the overall feeling that Morning’s at Seven gives us, especially during this time of year when family is the focus.
    Top-notch acting and direction, a beautiful backyard set complete with tree limbs hanging from the ceiling, sharp lighting and a nice musical score all combine to make Morning’s at Seven a funny, heartwarming treat. It’s a nice holiday present from a local theater company that has been making Annapolis grateful for 67 years.


Two and a half hours with intermission. Thru Dec. 13. ThFSa 8pm, Su Nov. 29 2pm & 7:30pm, Su Dec. 13 2pm, Colonial Players Theater, Annapolis, $20 w/ discounts, rsvp: 410-268-7373.
 
Producer:  Tom Stuckey. Stage manager: Andy McLendon. Set design: David Pindell. Floor design: Carol Youmans; Lighting design: Frank Florentine. Sound design: Theresa Riffle. Costume design: Dianne Smith.

 

The latest in the Rocky series is a knockout

Adonis Johnson (Michael B. Jordan: Fantastic Four) has been throwing punches all his life. Orphaned and alone, Adonis ricocheted between foster care and juvenile detention. When a well-dressed woman visits him in lockup, he’s shocked.
    Mary Anne Creed (Phylicia Rashad: For Justice) has sought Adonis ever since she discovered that he is the son of her late husband, heavyweight champ Apollo Creed.
    The grown up Adonis has had the benefits of money, an education and a loving stepmother. But he can’t shake the urge to fight. He works weeks in a finance company, but on weekends he boxes in illegal matches in Tijuana. Fearing that her surrogate son will meet the same end as his father, Mary Anne won’t help him start a fighting career.
    Adonis then travels to Philadelphia, where his father’s greatest opponent lives. Tracking down Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone: The Expendables 3), Adonis begs the Italian Stallion to train him to become a champion. A shell of the man he once was, Rocky isn’t sure he or the kid has what it takes.
    Creed is the first movie in the Rocky series not written by Sylvester Stallone. That could be why it is easily the best film since the original Rocky. Written and directed by Ray Coogler (Fruitvale Station), it honors the icons of the Rocky films while crafting a bold, independent vision. Coogler’s Philadelphia is gritty and punishing, full of life and promise. As Adonis runs through the streets, the neighborhoods seemingly come alive around him.
    Fight scenes are well choreographed and exhilarating. Coogler puts the camera behind Adonis, so the audience is directly in the path of the onslaught. It’s visceral and effective, making more than one viewer scream OH! when a particularly brutal blow lands.  
    Coogler’s biggest triumph, however, is reminding Stallone to act. Alone in the world and waiting to join his dead loved ones, Creed’s Rocky is a tragic figure. Stallone doesn’t push his big speeches, instead turning Rocky into a sad, shambling man who sees Adonis as his last hope for family. Stallone’s natural chemistry with Jordan helps to sell the relationship, which is the heart of the film.
    The heavyweight in this film, however, is Jordan, who breathes new life into the Rocky franchise. Jordan’s natural charisma evokes memories of Apollo for Rocky fans and charms franchise newcomers in equal measures. His impressive physical transformation into a powerful boxer is overshadowed only by the emotional depths he reveals. Adonis is a damaged boy yearning to prove he’s worthy of his father’s name.
    A knockout for anyone who’s ever dreamed of running up the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s stairs, Creed is both a great Rocky film and a great character study.

Great Sports Drama • PG-13• 132 mins.

Captivating, with fine singing, ­excellent choreography, ballet-­quality dancing and a pianist who never misses a beat

With Brigadoon, Compass Rose Theatre brings a fantastical Scottish paradise to life in the highlands of Annapolis. It’s right here amongst the braes. I don’t know what a brae is, but I can tell you this:
    Bagpipes set the mood, so we’re in Scotland. Two young Americans, Tommy (Mike McLean) and Jeff (Lansing O’Leary), appear on the minimalist set, looking down on what we take to be a valley. They’re lost in the highlands. They hear faint music, and through the mist they spot a village. They decide to pay a visit, hoping to get directions to their inn.
    Entering the village, the men find themselves in Brigadoon, a place with a lot of young, pretty women and a few Tartan-clad men of the McClaren clan. A festive atmosphere prevails as the village prepares for a wedding.
    The Yankee newcomers join in the village revelry, dancing and cavorting with the lasses in the freest of manner. Natural human chemistry comes into play, and (as often happens) our two worthies are caught up in what may become budding romances. Meg (Megan Tatum), a lissome maid, is attracted to Jeff and persuades him to come away with her for a wee chat. Tommy and Fiona (Katherine Riddle) stroll off for serious conversations. Their relationship deepens, though Tommy has a fiancée back in New York.
    With fine singing voices, excellent choreography and ballet-quality dancing, backed up by a pianist who never once misses a beat, this play is captivating. We soon lay aside the simple romantic storyline and are caught up in the spirit.
    In a wee discussion, town schoolmaster Mr. Lundie (Greg Jones Ellis) allows the visitors a peek at an old Bible in which certain entries have been inscribed. Coincidences come to light. We learn why the denizens are so worry-free. There are, however, complications. Tommy and Jeff learn that the village appears for only one day every hundred years. This circumstance is the result of an old spell. The downside is that if anyone leaves the village, the spell (the denizens call it The Miracle) will be broken.
    “Why do people have to lose things in order to find them?” Jeff and Tommy lament as they debate the merits of staying in Brigadoon and living happily ever after, versus returning to the real world and its tribulations. It comes down to a crunch: our two Yanks have to make major ­decisions.
    However, the play speaks to the power of pure love, making anything possible.
    They return to America.
    Tommy ends his relationship with his erstwhile NY fiancée and, pining for Fiona, returns to the place where Brigadoon used to be. As expected, there’s nothing there, but lo! … You’ll have to see the play.
    My nominations for standout performances, I lay at the feet (literally) of the lasses who do most of the dancing: Katherine Riddle, Megan Tatum, Megan Schwartz, Ryann Lillis and Elizabeth Spilsbury. The willowy Megan Tatum does an especially good turn on the dance floor. She also shines in her two acting roles.
    In the singing category, kudos go to all and especially the fine tenor Max McLean in the role of Tommy the bridegroom.
    All of the actors made their roles live, but occasionally the dialogue was overridden by the music. However, it’s a small stage, and the piano work was superb.
    This play is well acted, well sung and well danced. You can’t beat that combination.


Brigadoon: Book and lyrics by Alan J. Lerner; music by Frederick Loewe. Director: Lucinda Merry-Browne. Choreographer: Emily Frank. Stage manager: Mary Ruth Cowell. Pianist: Eric Clark. Costumes: Renee Vergauen. Thru Dec. 20. Th 7pm, F 8pm, Sa 2pm & 8pm, Su 2pm, Compass Rose Theater, 49 Spa Rd., Annapolis, $38 w/discounts, rsvp: Compassrosetheater.org; 410-980-5857.

In this historical biopic, women become warriors for the right to vote

A London laundry worker since she was seven, Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan: Far from the Madding Crowd) works long hours as harsh chemicals corrode her lungs. She’s paid less by the hour than male co-workers, who get to spend their days outside the factory making deliveries.
    It’s abominable. It’s unfair. It’s life in early 20th century England.
    A coworker who believes in the suffragette movement, which demands the vote for women as well as equal rights and pay, convinces Maud to join her at a parliamentary hearing on the working conditions. But their testimony falls on deaf ears.
    Thus Maud joins the suffragette fight as the women turn from marching and chanting to blowing up letterboxes.
    Shamed by neighbors and friends, Maud’s husband threatens her with homelessness and loss of her son. It’s a terrifying threat, as under the law women have no rights to their children.
    A fascinating look at the women behind the equality movement, Suffragette is a gripping but unfocused movie. Director Sarah Gavron (Brick Lane) knows her history and excels at detailing the injustices suffered by the suffragettes, from beatings to force feedings to stalking by the police. But her characters remain a mystery. It’s hard to care about the beating or death of a character whose name you can’t recall.
    One notable exception is the firebrand feminist played by Helena Bonham Carter (Cinderella). As Edith Ellyn, a highly educated pharmacist and dedicated suffragette, Bonham Carter easily steals every scene she’s in. Edith is a fierce proponent of the movement, who delights in blowing up symbols of the patriarchy and refuses to apologize for her behavior. Her husband is her partner in her causes, often acting as the getaway driver.
    As Maud, Mulligan offers a heartfelt performance, selling her transformation from suffering to suffragette.
    Doing better with facts than people’s stories, Suffragette rolls like a documentary, opening a window into a time that now seems almost unthinkable. Women have had the right to vote in England and America for less than a century; stay after the end for a list of when women around the world earned the right to vote.
    See Suffragette to understand how far the women’s movement has come — and how far it has to go.

Good Historical Drama • PG-13 • 106 mins.

Scientific suppositions clash with religious superstitions at the United States Naval Academy

Bertolt Brecht’s key question in his play Galileo — whether society can stand on doubt and not on faith — refers to the astronomer’s trial by the Inquisition for his heretical theory of heliocentricity. The question had parallel relevance on Galileo’s opening night at the Naval Academy, just hours after terrorist attacks in Paris. Billed as an exploration of the scientist’s responsibility to the world, this show is an apt undertaking for the Masqueraders, a troupe of our nation’s future scientists and leaders in an age of technological progress and pandemic regress. The script sparkles with timely aphorisms, such as This is the millennium of doubt, and Truth is the daughter of time, not authority.
    Longtime director Christy Stanlake picked a supernova for her final Masqueraders production. Rich in spectacle and drama, with live musical interludes and supertitles summarizing each scene, this historical drama is engaging and understandable — despite a platoon of multicast actors in Mahan Hall’s grievous acoustics.
    From Padua to Venice, Florence and Rome, the play follows Galileo (Jett Watson) in his visionary orbit of honor and derision. Rather than presenting a straight-up hero, this post-World War II revision of the play shows a protagonist of nuanced ­character.
    There’s Galileo the brilliant astronomer and teacher to Ludovico (Tim Burnett), Sagredo (Leith Daghistani), Andrea (Megan Rausch) and Fulgonzio (Chris Hudson), a little monk of humble origin …
    Galileo the debater opposite University Curator Priuli (Orion Rollins), the Cardinal Inquisitor (Daghistani) and Pope Urban VIII (John Mendez), an enlightened scholar turned traitor to reason …
    Galileo the sycophant appealing to nine-year-old Prince Cosimo de Medici (Josh Ryan) …
    Galileo the egotist, glutton and opportunist, profiting from the telescope as if it were his own invention …
    Galileo the manipulator (the shortest distance between two points may be a crooked line) …
     Galileo the victim, who recants his revolutionary theory and is nevertheless sentenced to house-arrest for the final nine years of his life …
    Galileo, father to Virginia (Clara Navarro), a simple girl of simple aspirations whose engagement to Ludovico is broken on account of her father’s notoriety.
    The costumes are spectacular, most notably in the April Fool’s revelry, a fantastic parade of eye candy and garbled mayhem staged to illustrate public derision of Galileo for his outlandish theory. The sparse but majestic set is period save for a massive globe whose modern depiction of the world somehow slipped by a roomful of future navigators. As for the acting, this is a solid student production in which Watson impresses in the title role and Daghistani finesses opposing roles as his best friend and worst foe. There is even a delightful clique of children.
    In a clash of scientific suppositions and religious superstitions — a debate that continues to this day — it is good to be reminded that there’s no such thing as a book of science that only one man can write. We are not, as it turns out, the center the universe. Yet to see Brecht’s depiction of Galileo, one might almost think that he believed he was.


Two and a half hours with intermission. With Oliver Abraira, Will Ashby, Kennedy Bingham, Colin Bower, Shenandoah Daigle, Moises Diaz, Nick Hajek, Shannon Hill, John ‘JPK’ Kroon, Miguel LaPorte, Cody Oliphant, Matty Ryan, High and Alec Michalski-Cooper and Evan Wray. Technical director: Jason Henry. Set and costume design: Richard Montgomery. Lights and sound: Dave Johnson and Jacob Pittman.
 
Playing thru Nov. 21 FSa 8pm, at Mahan Hall, U.S. Naval Academy, Annapolis, $12, rsvp: 410-293-8497; http://navyperforms.showare.com.

Chilean miners fight for survival in this stirring drama based on a true story

Before descending into the bowels of the earth, workers at the San Jose gold and copper mine pause before a shrine to pray for protection. They need help from a higher power as the mining companies place profit above safety.
    Each time the miners enter the gaping maw, they know there is a chance they’ll never return.
    When the mountain collapses after 100 years of mining, it’s no surprise. Thirty-three miners are trapped. A rock twice the size of the Empire State Building stands between the men and fresh air. In their small refuge, they have a dozen cans of tuna, some stale cookies and milk. It’s barely enough to feed 33 men for a day, let alone the days it will take for help to reach them.
    The company response is to follow protocol: Ignore the collapse, try to contain news of the trapped miners and avoid terrified family members seeking answers. Infuriated that their husbands, brothers and sons are being left to die, the families riot, making the news.
    The president of Chile (Bob Gunton: Daredevil) sends his minister of mining (Rodrigo Santoro: Focus) to deal with the crisis. As the government races to drill to the miners, morale and food run low for the trapped men.
    Frustrating and gripping, The 33 is best underground, excelling at capturing the dynamics of the miners who spent 69 days trapped in a gold-and copper-laden tomb. Director Patricia Riggen (Girl in Progress) masterfully crafts the cave-in scene, escalating the tension as the miners scramble toward safety. Watching the group come together and fracture as starvation, exhaustion and depression infiltrate is riveting.
    As Mario, the leader of the miners, Antonio Banderas (The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water) carries the film well, even managing to sell some of the more heavy-handed dialogue. The other miners are all tertiary, but Riggen gives them all character action so that we care for the men.
    Above ground, Riggen has mixed success. She devotes a good deal of time to the miners’ families, but the characters are underdeveloped and boring compared to the miners. The notable exception is Juliette Binoche (7 Letters), who plays Maria, the fierce sister of a trapped miner. Binoche becomes the leader of the families, forcing the government to take accountability and refusing to give up hope.
    The greatest problem with The 33 is its scope. Riggen brings in so many plot threads and themes that they obscure the main story of survival while buried in the earth. Because the film is overcrowded, no character is fully developed. It’s also slightly uncomfortable to watch white actors, like Gunton who plays the president, pretend to be Chilean with ridiculous accents.
    Though flawed, The 33 is compelling whenever Riggen focuses on the subterranean drama. Buy your ticket to watch Banderas and his band of brothers fight for survival. When the film cuts to topside drama, take a bathroom break or get a popcorn refill.

Fair Drama • PG-13 • 120 mins.

The script is deader than the zombies

In a deserted strip club, teen Scouts Ben (Tye Sheridan: Dark Places) and Carter (Logan Miller: Take Me to the River) are slow to realize that the pole dancers are dead — make that undead.
    With zombies invading their hamlet, the boys make it their mission to save the hot senior girls. Along the way, they grope naked dead people, fight zombie housecats, stop for a few selfies and never much worry about the likelihood that everyone they know is dead and seeking their brains.
    Has Scout training prepared them to fight zombies? Can you watch this movie without severe mental anguish?
    Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse is neither funny nor scary. Distilling every annoying piece of millennial culture, from electric dance music to selfies to painfully self-aware references, it is sure to make all viewers over 30 long for the good old days of Adam Sandler’s lazy yet coherent humor.
    With characters so vapid and unlikeable that we root for the zombies, it makes a good case for the extermination of the human race. Director Christopher Landon (Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones) aims for the lowest common denominator. His jokes are dirty and overdone. Body humor is grotesque and uncomfortable. The one promising part — using Scouts training to fight zombies — is glossed over in 10 minutes.
    Lazy character work makes the leads not only predictable but also unenjoyable. We know Ben is the good guy because he gets shy around pretty girls. Carter is a horn dog, ogling and groping naked zombie women. It’s supposed to be the behavior of an irrepressible scamp, but sexual assault, even with zombies, is never funny.
    Even zombies will skip this movie.

Dismal Horror • R • 93 mins.

If you don’t love this show, I will personally refund your money

What do you expect from an iconic musical winner of five Tonys, a Grammy and an Oscar? A show so revered it cemented the careers of Shirley Jones and Robert Preston, and launched little Ron Howard to stardom?
    At 2nd Star Productions, expect the perfect delight of screen and vinyl.
    The Music Man tells a story as old as human nature about opportunism and naiveté, exceptionalism and jealousy — with humor. It’s nostalgic and sweet without being sappy, it’s upbeat and colorful, and it’s delivered in spectacular song and dance. If you don’t love this show, I will personally refund your money.
    E. Lee Nicol strikes just the right chord as Professor Harold Hill, the Gilded Age flimflammer who revolutionizes a parochial town with his bogus vision for a boys’ band he knows he can’t deliver. Yes, Ya Got Trouble right here in River City. Even prim and lovely Marian the Librarian (Emily Mudd) can’t resist this dynamic, quick-witted huckster, especially when Hill helps her little brother, Winthrop (Andrew Sharpe), overcome debilitating shyness.
    Hill transforms the quarrelsome school board through rich barbershop harmony with, in order of height, Nathan Bowen’s anchoring bass and David Merrill’s soaring tenor bookending Brian Binney and Kevin Cleaver’s mid-range voices, parrying each of their inquiries into his qualifications with the suggestion of a song: Lida Rose or Goodnight Ladies, the last performed in duet with the gossiping Pickalittle Ladies (Allison Baudoin, Victoria Rose Brown, Rosalie Daelemans, Kirsti Dixon, Diane Schwartz) as they justify their unwavering scorn for Marian.
    This provincial town is full of unforgettable characters. You meet the self-important Mayor and Mrs. Shinn (Martin Hayes and Jeanne Louise) and their ditzy daughter Zaneeta (Abigail Wallen), who is secretly dating that wild kid Tommy Djilas (Daniel Starnes). There’s Marcellus Washburn (Brian Mellen), Hill’s former accomplice turned upright citizen; Marian’s plain-spoken mother, Mrs. Paroo (Carole Long) with the brogue; and teasing Amaryllis (Vanessa Daelemans) who is enamored of Winthrop. There’s even a salacious traveling salesman, whom Marian waylays in order to save Hill — Nicholas Mudd (Charlie Cowell) — played by Marian’s (Emily’s Mudd’s) real husband. As the credits attest, this is a family show both on and off-stage.
    Beautifully cast with winning leads, this production also features townsfolk of all ages and shapes. The ensemble is tight, from the percussive patter of peddlers on a train (Rock Island) to show-stoppers such as the Wells Fargo Wagon and Seventy-Six Trombones, complete with stunning dances featuring Andrew Gordon and Tabitha Thornhill. Even the pit orchestra outshines any that 2nd Star has assembled in years. There’s love (Till There Was You), patriotism (Columbia, Gem of the Ocean) and zaniness (Shipoopi). There are five, count ‘em, five meticulous sets and gorgeous period costumes in a bouquet of eye-popping colors. With clever staging, a train car appears to actually scroll past the town. Only the lighting seems off at times with low lights obscuring rather than showcasing the dancers.
    Harold Hill is a wise man. “Pile up enough tomorrows and you’ll have a pile of empty yesterdays,” he warns. Don’t let many tomorrows pass without catching this great show.


With Kaitlin Fish, Paula Farina, Maureen Mitchell, Erica Miller, Julian Ball, Madison Pyles, Aubrey Baden III, Eric Meadows, Genevieve Ethridge, Isabelle Gholl, Michael Mathes, Tyler White, Erin Culfogienis, Nicole Hoyt, Creedence H. Jackson, Snowdenn A. Jackson, Bay Moore and Aaliyah Schultz.

 

By Meredith Willson. Director and set designer: Jane B. Wingard. Costumes: Elizabeth Starnes and Jeane Binney. Musical director: Joe Biddle. Choreography: Andrew Gordon. Lights and sound: Garrett R. Hyde.
 
Playing thru Nov. 14. FrSa 8pm, Su 3pm, Sa Nov 14 at 3pm, Bowie Playhouse, White Marsh Park Dr., $22 w/discounts, rsvp: 410-757-5700.

There’s a great spy story in the middle of this bloated epic

James Donovan (Saving Mr. Banks) knows how to strike a deal. The insurance lawyer is used to haggling for his clients. Though his expertise is litigation and payouts, Donovan is asked to defend Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance: Wolf Hall), an accused spy.
    The Cold War colors the case, and soon Donovan is the second most hated man in America, right after Abel. People threaten him in public, shoot at his home and terrify his family. The CIA tails him, pressuring him to break attorney-client privilege. On the other hand, Donovan’s dogged defense of his client grants him some cache with the Soviet Union.
    The USSR reaches out with a deal: trading a captured U.S. pilot for Abel. The CIA thinks it’s a great deal but can’t be involved in brokering it. They ask Donovan to travel to Berlin, where the U.S.S.R. has just finished constructing its wall, and engineer the trade.
    In Berlin, Donovan is on his own once he crosses the wall. He navigates international politics uncertainly, never sure whom he’s speaking with or what he has the authority to bargain with. He is unnerved by the violence around as he tries to stick to the deal: One spy for one pilot.
    Simple, right?
    Not quite. It seems the German Democratic Republic, eager to impress the Soviets and gain status as a world power, captured an American student who had the misfortune of being on the wrong side of the city the day the Berlin Wall was constructed. He’s not a spy, but the East Germans are holding him and demanding an audience with the CIA. Donovan wants to save the kid, but the CIA is interested only in the soldier.
    There is a fantastic thriller somewhere in the middle of Bridge of Spies, but you’ll have to slog through 50 minutes of a boring, heavy-handed setup to get to it. Director Steven Spielberg (Lincoln) is an icon, but his latest effort is a bloated, rambling mess.
    The American action is a Frank Capra-esque tale of a lone man fighting the just fight. Hanks sleepwalks through his Jimmy Stewart knockoff, while around him everyone snarls about communists and the A-bomb. The bright point is Rylance, who gives Abel interesting pathos.
    In Berlin, the movie wakes up. Scenes are tighter, with higher energy; the cinematography plays off of long shadows and harsh lines; Hanks comes alive as he negotiates with dangerous men. It’s Spielberg at his best, meticulously weaving tension and theme into each scene. It’s a shame, then, when the film returns to America for an unnecessary, lifeless coda.
    If you’re interested in a moody spy thriller with gorgeous cinematography, Bridge of Spies should have you enthralled. Arrive about 30 minutes late and dawdle at the concession stand.

Fair Thriller • PG-13 • 141 mins.