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The playwrights did it.

The theater darkens. Ominous, deep, suspenseful music oozes around us. Shadows rise. A hooded figure attacks. Bowie Community Theater’s latest, Dark Passages, begins.
    A good whodunit requires tight writing, staging and pacing, all to keep the audience on the edge of their seats.
    In this modern take on the murder suspense mystery, the cast works hard to rise above a script that gives us little more than we’ve already seen in movies, plays and episodes of Castle.
    Playwrights Shannon Michael Dow, Jan Henson Dow and Robert Schroeder have put together a script that is sometimes funny, sometimes involving. But its constant and obvious efforts to keep us guessing about whodunit ironically sap the play of the suspense that ought to be at its core.
    Are we on the edge of our seats? No. Are we curious? Yes, about whodunit of course, but also about why a script set in the present day of voice mail and texts relies on an early-1990s’ era cassette tape telephone answering machine as a plot point. Or why the choice was made to hang a working clock on the wall to remind us of the real time — around 8:30pm, for example, when the program tells us the scene we’re watching is set on “a weekday afternoon.”
    Quibbles aside, Bowie Community Theater’s production provides us an entertaining evening, with some compelling characters and some clever, two-level staging that allows the action to flow effectively.
    Set in an upstate New York college town, the mystery begins when several young women go missing. We are introduced to Sandy (Chrisshall Daniel), a graduate assistant to professor Mark (Pat Reynolds). Sandy is first to be taken away, in the dark of her apartment by a black-hooded intruder. Mark’s girlfriend Bret (Amanda Magoffin) moves into the vacated apartment run by creepy landlord Harold (Scott Beadle). Across the hall is neighbor Eric (Matt Leyendecker), whose loud banging is explained away as him working on his art, though the box he moves it in is roughly the size of a coffin.
    We also meet oversexed Gillian (Lenora Spahn), a friend of Bret’s just back from Europe and looking at males like a dog in heat. Will she be next? Will Bret? Detective Russell (James McDaniel) is there to investigate. Or is he?
    Meanwhile, Bret and Mark are having their problems. It turns out the professor was having an affair with the missing Sandy. Eric rejects Gillian’s advances. More ominous music, another attack … another woman goes missing. The plot turns again. 
    Whodunit is revealed at the end, of course, after several more twists. The likeable cast has turned in a solid performance. We rise, not from the edge of our seats but from deep within, that ominous music serenading us as we exit, wondering how this talented group might have fared with a script that asks more of them and us.

Directed by John Nunemaker. Producer: Taylor Kidd. Stage manager: Bernadette Arvidson. Sound designer: Dan Caughran. Set designer: Gerard Williams. Lighting designer: Garrett Hyde.

Playing thru March 16. FSa 8pm, Su 2pm at White Marsh Playhouse, Bowie. $20 w/discounts; rsvp: 301-805-0219; www.bctheatre.com.

The couple that kills together may not stay together

Thérèse (Elizabeth Olsen: Very Good Girls) had a tough childhood. Abandoned at her aunt’s home by her father, Thérèse was raised with her sickly cousin Camille (Tom Felton: From the Rough). Trained by her Aunt Raquin (Jessica Lange: American Horror Story) to be a nursemaid to spoiled rotten Camille, Thérèse escapes to dreams of Paris.
    When Camille decides he’s of an age to move to Paris and make a living like a grownup, Madame Raquin forces Thérèse to marry him. Her ploy not only keeps the family together but also ensures Camille’s inheritance of Thérèse’s secret fortune. Thérèse isn’t thrilled, but she’s an illegitimate daughter with no education. Her options are marriage or the streets.
    Just as Thérèse has resigned herself to a loveless and sexless marriage, she meets Laurent (Oscar Isaac: Inside Llewyn Davis), Camille’s artist coworker. The two begin a torrid affair. Life would be perfect if they could openly be together.
    Camille has to go. They plot his demise between trysts, but when it comes to the deed, they are infirm of purpose.
    Based on Emile Zola’s classic novel Thérèse Raquin, In Secret shares the original’s fascination with sex, guilt and obsession. Unfortunately, director Charlie Stratton (Revenge) is not Zola. Unlike Zola’s novel, which maps out themes of repression, sexual awakening and guilt, Stratton jumps from sex scenes to overwrought dramatic monologues. We don’t have time to develop sympathies, so it’s a long march through the plot.
    As the tragic lovers, Olsen and Isaac are oddly cast. Though they have decent chemistry, their acting styles clash with the story. They’re too loud and expressive for repressive 1867 France, where a woman’s transgressions could ruin her. Olsen seems especially lost, vacillating from vacancy to histrionics. Isaac is a charming seducer, but he can’t mine much substance from this shallowly written character.
    Lange makes the most of her underwritten role by gracefully chewing the scenery as Thérèse’s controlling aunt. She has recently reinvented herself as a Bette Davis-style crone, reveling in the grotesque. Here, she dials back the performance, portraying Aunt Raquin as a well-meaning woman who is so blinded by her devotion to a sick child that she neglects the other child in her care.
    In Secret does have a few good moments, especially when Stratton plays with the guilty couple’s minds. He also invites us to watch very pretty people having sex in beautifully lit montages.

Fair Drama • R • 101 mins.

2nd Star Productions casts dynamite in this explosive production

2nd Star Productions grew up on musicals and comedy. Now 18 years old, the company has matured. You’ll see the change — and you’ll want to, I promise you — in 2nd Star’s first production in a new playhouse.
    A Soldier’s Play, at the Charis Center for the Arts, is serious drama arising from social discord. It’s the kind of significant show you’d expect from Dignity Players, the Annapolis social justice-focused company about to go dormant. Rated R for mature audiences, Charles Fuller’s 1982 Pulitzer Prize winner is historical fiction rooted in racial tension and mystery. 2nd Star brings a dynamite cast of fresh talent to its production.
    The time is 1944. The setting is a segregated army base in Louisiana, where 90 percent of the soldiers are black enlisted men warehoused away from combat. One of the black soldiers has been murdered. Circumstances are puzzling. The story follows the investigation of his death.
    Sgt. Waters (Cristopher M. Dinwiddie), was admired for his high standards and impeccable record — and resented for his inflexibility. When his body is found in the woods, his commanding officer, Capt. Taylor (Dan Kavanaugh), refuses to accept the obvious explanation of a Klan attack. He demands a full investigation. But when black lawyer Capt. Davenport (Kevin Sockwell) is assigned to the case, Taylor worries that Davenport’s color will stand in the way of his investigation. In fact, Davenport’s race and conviction make him just the man to navigate the ins and outs of the black enlisted men’s barracks and the white officer corps. What follows is a series of testimonies, related in flashbacks, illustrating the sergeant’s mercurial temperament, racial  self-loathing and self-important authority over a company of elite baseball players.
    Among Sgt. Waters’ soldiers are Pvt. Wilkie (Benny Pope), a former sergeant demoted for being drunk on duty; Pvt. Smalls (Antoine Bragg), a surly malcontent; Pvt. Henson (Daley Fitzgerald Gunter), a hunky ladies’ man and dispassionate observer of barracks’ politics; PFC Peterson (Reginald Grier), the quiet one; Pvt. C.J. Memphis (Ramone Williams), a gifted blues musician and gentle soul from the South; and Cpl. Cobb (David E. Johnson Jr.), C.J.’s best friend. Cpl. Ellis (Frederick Henderson) is the sergeant’s eager right-hand man. Two bigoted white officers, Lt. Byrd (Lawrence Griffin) and Capt. Wilcox (Ethan Goldberg), are dragged into the investigation as the last to see Sgt. Waters alive. Davenport considers the whole crew to have motives and means for the murder.
    In this vast and youthful cast, only the three white actors — Kavanaugh, Griffin and Goldberg — are familiar to Anne Arundel audiences. The rest, a remarkably talented and fit group justly cast as athletes, make the barracks hum with palpable camaraderie. All were recruited by the show’s producer, Cheramie Jackson. Dinwiddie stuns as Sgt. Waters, a role he played for Prince George’s Hard Bargain Players, and Johnson’s soulful melodies haunt long after curtain. 
    New faces and content aren’t the only surprises consequent on 2nd Star’s accommodation of the new three-show scheduling restriction imposed by its long-time home, Bowie Playhouse, to accommodate a fourth residential company.
    Long acclaimed for ornate sets, 2nd Star now offers a minimalist set of black platforms without special effects in the Charis Center’s primitive accommodations. It doesn’t matter, given the energy onstage.
    You’ll be on edge the full two hours.

Director and set designer: Jane B. Wingard. Producer: Cheramie J. Jackson. Lights: Rick Schultz. Sound: Ramone Williams. Costumes: Wingard and Jackson.
Playing thru March 9. FSa 8pm, Su 3pm at Charis Center for the Arts, 13010 8th St., between the post office and fire department in Bowie’s historic district. $15 w/discounts; rsvp: 410-757-5700; www.2ndstarproductions.com.

The donuts are all that’s missing in this theatrical treat

Welcome to Superior Donuts in Uptown Chicago, established by the Przybyszewski family c. 1950 and static ever since. You know the place: checkerboard floor, lettered window, illuminated menu board, vintage register. All that’s missing in Colonial Players’ set is the sweet aroma and some napkins for the dispensers.
    Arthur (Terry Averill), the aged hippie who owns the place, hasn’t had his heart in it lately. What with his ex’s death, his daughter’s estrangement and the new Starbucks across the street, he’s more in touch with past failures than present possibilities.
    Still, he has his regulars: namely officers James Bailey (Chris Haley) and Randy Osteen (Shirley Panek), who has a crush on Arthur; and Lady Boyle (Mary McLeod), his homeless friend and confidante. When vandalism pushes Arthur to the brink, Max Tarasov (Rick Estberg), the Russian immigrant who owns the DVD store next door, offers to buy the place.
    Then Franco Wicks (Darius McCall) hires on and lobbies for healthier menu options, poetry readings and profit sharing. Arthur isn’t so sure about Franco’s ideas, but he feels kinship with the gifted writer who’s put school on hold to pay off debts — gambling debts, as it turns out. Enter Luther Flynn (Mike Fox), a loan shark and exploiter, and his enforcer Kevin Magee (Gerald Inglesby).
    While Superior Donuts is funnier and lighter than Tracy Letts’ typical work (August: Osage County), it nevertheless contains mature themes, language and violence. A story for modern times, about community as a substitute for family, it teeters between chill and chilling. Arthur’s story lulls us with introspective calm through snippets of conversation in his foggy present and lucid soliloquies about his past — until reality breaks the hush, demanding he take a stand against the thugs who strong-arm his new friend.
    This is a smart show, well staged and well acted. Every actor surpasses the character sketch. Averill is every inch the 1960s’ holdout, deceptively sly and capable under his rumpled appearance.  McCall delights with his youthful enthusiasm and mastery of a role he learned in only three weeks. Estberg is flashy and hilarious with his authentic Russian accent and butchered English, bringing a depth of conviction to the comical immigrant who nevertheless commands respect. McLeod wears her duct-taped tiara with dignity. Haley and Panek eclipse their cop personas with genuine personalities. The Mafiosi radiate menace, and Ben Carr captivates in the tiny cameo of the monosyllabic Russian giant Kiril Ivakin.
    The show is technically strong as well, with a soundtrack of ambient street noises timed to swell each time the door opens and lighting details that evoke a commercial failure. The costumes speak volumes about their characters, from Lady’s plastic-bag boots to Arthur’s tie-died T-shirt.
    My only reservation is the credibility of casting Terry Averill as the main character. Averill is an outstanding actor, but his frail build belies the Pillsbury doughboy image of the aged baker. Add to that his climactic fight scene with hulking Fox (Luther) and the play touches on theater of the absurd. It’s like watching Tony Soprano and Woody Allen in a knock-down drag-out.
    Suspend your disbelief in that incongruity, and you’ll see a winner at every level, including insight into urban development, racial tension and the fragmentation of the family.

Director and set designer: Kristofer Kauff. Sound: Ben Cornwell. Lights: Brittany Rankin. Costumes: Jean Berard and Beth Terranova. Running time: two and a half hours plus intermission.

Playing thru March 8 ThFSa 8pm, Su 2pm (also 7:30pm Feb. 23) at Colonial Players Theater, Annapolis. $20w/discounts; rsvp: 410-268-7373; www.thecolonialplayers.org.

What price do you put on art?

On the road to world domination, the Third Reich developed quite the taste for art. Looting the churches, museums and private collections of Europe, the Nazis amassed millions of paintings, sculptures and precious pieces of jewelry. Hitler intended to create a Fuhrer Museum and fill it with art pilfered from conquered lands.
    Monuments Men to the rescue!
    To combat the rape of Europe’s culture, art historian Frank Stokes (George Clooney: Gravity) appeals to President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Tasked with rescuing and returning the great works of Europe, the Monuments Men are a motley crew of old, fat and/or physically impaired art experts. After white-knuckling through basic training, they head to France post-D-Day, hot on the heels of the retreating Nazis.
    The stakes rise when they learn that if Germany falls or Hitler dies, the surviving Nazis will destroy every piece of art in their possession.
    This true story has amazing potential, but Monuments Men the movie has little follow through. Director Clooney fails to develop a cogent storyline. Eschewing the great historic drama of the true tale, he fabricates deaths and romances for the sake of comedy.
    For the real story, track down the superior documentary The Rape of Europa.
    Because Clooney gives little time to his characters, we don’t invest in their stories. Characters build friendships, fall in love and die in jump-cut scenes, and we don’t much care. To drive home important points, Clooney cues the soundtrack, pulling out the bombastic stop.
    Saving the film from utter disaster is an all-star cast. Matt Damon, Cate Blanchett, John Goodman and Bob Balaban work overtime to wring every bit of drama and comedy from a weak script. The standout is Bill Murray, who creates the film’s one genuine emotional moment and steals every lighthearted scene he graces.
    If Clooney had trusted his cast to flesh out their characters, Monuments Men could have been a great film instead of an entertaining but shallow historic comedy.

Fair historic dramedy • PG-13 • 118 mins.

See this film and you’ll waste not only your money but 94 minutes of your life.

Once upon a time, two little pigs lived in New York City. Graphic designer Jason (Zac Efron: Parkland) creates outlandishly sexist covers for women’s books. Jason cultivates a roster of women and gels his hair straight up. Whenever a woman asks more from him than a few disappointing minutes, he cries Wee, Wee, Wee all the way home.
    His graphic partner is college buddy Daniel (Miles Teller: 21 & Over), who also enjoys chauvinist jokes and casual sex. Instead of hair gel, Daniel uses sarcasm to make him more attractive to women at bars.
    The two porcine pals are shocked when their buddy, doctor Mikey (Michael B. Jordan: Fruitvale Station) is dumped by a cheating wife. They drag their devastated friend to a bar.
    Unaware that he has the most disgusting friends in the world, Mikey pours his heart out to Daniel and Jason. The brain trust makes a bet: All will remain single. This of course means that all three men will meet irresistible girls in a matter of hours.
    Jason hooks up with a successful author who is creative and vivacious. We know that because she mixes thrift store coats with pricey designer dresses and doesn’t own a hairbrush. They roam the city together, reveling in how vapid and attractive they are. Daniel falls for his gal pal, who has apparently spent a large chunk of her 20s following him to bars and helping him trick women into sleeping with him. Mikey meets a girl with glasses, which is all we learn about her.
    Can these men make the leap to commitment? Can you stomach this movie without becoming violently ill?
    It’s rare to find a romantic comedy starring three people so vile that you hope they never find love, not out of any vindictive impulse but out of an altruistic desire to protect humanity’s gene pool from further contamination. Judd Apatow has proven that gross-out humor can be smart and hilarious. Here writer/director Tom Gormican made sure That Awkward Moment lived up to its name with his incompetent direction and insulting view of male friendship. You cringe for everyone listed in the credits.
    See this film and you’ll waste not only your money but 94 minutes of your life. Both Teller and Jordan have offered fantastic performances in the past year and have careers to watch. Jordan is barely in the movie, but his natural charisma makes a nothing part slightly more interesting. Teller does his best with Gormican’s ham-fisted dialog, but even he can’t land these dud punch lines.
    Efron, who’s in the spotlight, doesn’t have the skill to carry a good movie, let alone this abysmal flick.

Horrible romantic comedy • R • 94 mins.

Two hours of anarchic cacophony and classic pop guaranteed to prolong the craziness of your week

2nd Star Productions does a lot right in staging Funny Money by Britain’s master of farce Ray Cooney. The pace of the frenetic comedy never drags. Actors are superb and spot-on in accents. Director Fred Nelson uses the stage for maximum clarity in this Gordian knot of accidents and lies. Jane B. Wingard’s set and Linda Swann’s costumes feel right. The problem is, it’s a farce. Or maybe that’s just me.
    If your thirst for confusion borders on the masochistic, if you relish sexual innuendo, if you appreciate blubbering drunks and screaming matches, if you’re either hearing impaired or wish to be, then this is the show for you. Just don’t expect the Americanized Chevy Chase film version.
    How many one-dimensional characters and compromising situations does it take to make a British farce? The more the merrier.
    Decorous accountant Henry Perkins (Gene Valendo) accidentally swaps briefcases with a criminal. Finding himself a trillionaire, he plans to abscond with the money — only to be thwarted at every turn. Darling but boring wife, Jean (Mary Wakefield) crashes from teetotaler to drunk the moment he tells her to pack. Crooked Inspector Davenport (Michael N. Dunlop) observes Henry’s giddy trips to the pub loo where he counts the money, follows him home on suspicion of solicitation and is shuttled off to the dining room to ponder a lie while he awaits his bribe. Bill the Taxi Driver (Zak Zeeks) arrives early with the airport shuttle only to be repeatedly sent to the curb to ponder more lies while he awaits his fare.
    Plainspoken Detective Sgt. Slater (Robert Eversberg) reports from the morgue that Mr. Perkins was found murdered, clutching a briefcase containing papers and a cheese and chutney sandwich. Thus, a family member must identify the body, but not until Sgt. Slater is shuttled off to the kitchen to ponder more lies while he makes tea for the grieving widow. Dinner guests Vic and Betty (John Wakefield and Samantha Feikema) take sides in the Perkins’ domestic dispute, culminating in a wife-swapping plan; Betty longs to travel and Jean refuses to leave, but Vic is a good sport and even gets himself embroiled in the deception. And then there is Mr. Big (Ronald Araújo), a drug lord who keeps calling for his burfcrse until Bill the Taxi Driver blithely gives him the address.
    Where’s Sherlock Holmes when you need him? How could two detectives in adjoining rooms hear hysterics without suspecting something? How does every compromising situation involve a cabal under the covers on the couch, convincing detectives it’s all one big bedroom romp?
    Despite the script, performances are commendable. Valendo displays priceless calm and trance-like incredulity in the midst of chaos. Zeeks is audacious and sexy. Dunlop is believable as the cop-on-the-take. And Feikema sizzles in her quest for adventure.
    Funny Money is two hours of anarchic cacophony and classic pop that is guaranteed to prolong the craziness of your week and generate a few belly laughs to cheer the winter blues.

Playing thru Feb. 16. ThFSa 8pm & Su 3pm at Bowie Playhouse, Whitemarsh Park: $22 w/discounts; rsvp: 410-757-5700; www.2ndstarproductions.com.

Four fishing flicks to see you through February

When you can’t go fishing, you might as well watch a good fishing movie. Here are four sure to hook you.
    Captains Courageous was filmed in 1927 and plays as well today as it did almost 90 years ago. Based on the 1897 novel by Rudyard Kipling, Captains details the adventures of Harvey Cheyne (Freddie Batholomew), a privileged and spoiled young man recently expelled from his exclusive boarding school.
    Taken by his father on an overseas business trip as a form of counseling, Cheyne is swept overboard off the coast of Newfoundland. Rescued by a passing Grand Banks fishing schooner, the youngster is unable to convince his rescuers to interrupt their journey to return him to port. Instead, he must accept a low-wage job to cover his keep until the boat’s scheduled return three months hence.
    Cheyne soon finds that bragging, cheating and complaining do him no good among rugged fishermen. Under the guidance of Manuel, a Portuguese-American seaman played by a brilliant Spencer Tracy, Cheyne learns the way of life at sea and the skills of a fisherman.
    Blossoming under the harsh conditions, the lad changes before our eyes into an admirable young man. He is eventually reunited with his father, who is overwhelmed that the son he believed lost at sea is still alive but even more so at the maturing changes his son has undergone.
    Fast forward to 1944 for To Have and Have Not, a multi-layered World War II film set in Fort de France, Martinique. On the first level it is a conflict story. Humphrey Bogart plays an American sport fishing captain (Henry Morgan) who, plying his trade on the island, gets involved smuggling for the French resistance.
    Cover girl model Lauren Bacall, in her first movie role at age 19, was brought in to spice up the movie’s romantic interest, thus a love story is the second level of the film. Off-screen she and Bogart actually fell in love, the third level. And at that point in the film the celluloid begins to smolder.
    Add in some great character acting by Walter Brennan and Hoagy Carmichael, and you’ve got a hooker of cinematic art — You know how to whistle, don’t you Steve?
    1958 gave us another fishing classic, The Old Man and the Sea, again starring Spencer Tracy. Taken from a 1952 novella that won Ernest Hemingway the Pulitzer that year and led to a Nobel Prize, the film retains many of the book’s internal (and classic Hemingway) monologues.
    A Cuban fisherman in his waning years hooks a giant blue marlin far offshore and battles him for three exhausting days. See the film to find out what happens next. If you already know, view it to renew your experience with both Hemingway and Tracy, two masters at the peak of their craft.
    The best recently released fishing movie is 2011’s odd Salmon Fishing in the Yemen. A wealthy Yemeni sheik falls in love with fly fishing for salmon while living in England and decides to bring that experience to the desert-living people of his native land.
    He and his attractive British financial consultant manage to finagle the cooperation of Britain’s leading expert on salmon, icily played by Ewan McGregor, who reluctantly signs on to the seemingly impossible challenge.
    From there the film becomes a love story, a political satire and a charming work of art. If you’ve ever suspected the sanity of fly anglers, this film will confirm your suspicions.
    Enjoy this quartet these cold winter nights and replay them any time the fishing is slow.

Kevin Hart steals the show in this cop comedy

Ben Barber (Kevin Hart: Grudge Match) is a tough, well-respected soldier nicknamed the Black Hammer — in virtual reality. In real life, Ben is a school security officer with a loud mouth and a big heart. He spends his day breaking up petty teenage fights, mentoring kids and dreaming of becoming a real cop.
    But Ben is a man with a plan: He’s been accepted to the police academy and plans to propose to his girlfriend Angela (Tika Sumpter: A Madea Christmas). Blocking the way is Angela’s domineering older brother James (Ice Cube: 21 Jump Street), already a real cop.
    Ride along with me for a day, says James, to prove yourself as a man and a cop. Ben leaps in like a puppy, but James is setting him up for failure, sending him to confront a biker gang, a violent drunk and a mouthy kid.
    But a real case gets in the way, forcing a real team effort.
    Filled with silly gags and dubious plotting, Ride Along isn’t a great work of filmmaking. It is, however, a fantastically funny piece of cinematic fluff, thanks in large part to a great leading performance by comedian Hart. Director Tim Story (Think Like a Man) sets up a few interesting action pieces, but he’s smart enough to know that this film is Hart’s show.
    Hart’s fish-out-of-water routine works well as he fumbles through dangerous scenarios and bizarre situations. In a performance worthy of Lou Costello, Hart makes Ben a man in flux. He’s capable of bravery and cowardice, easily transitioning from hysterics to calm competence.
    As the Abbott to Hart’s Costello, Cube has an easier job. He snarls through the movie, playing the straight man with a tough veneer. Ice Cube has never been noted for his acting skills, but he is a decent foil to Hart.
    Ride Along is a rare modern comedy, deriving its humor from traditional slapstick rather than the gross-out humor that’s put Sandler and Apatow on the map. While it’s still not droll drawing room humor, it’s a nice change in tone.

Good Comedy • PG-13 • 99 mins.

How do I love thee? Siri, count the ways.

People walk the streets talking aloud to their phones, wrapped up in their own electrical worlds. Digital interfaces have nullified human interaction.
    Living a quiet life of digital obscurity is Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix: The Master). A ghostwriter of handwritten correspondence for a faceless corporation, he pours over the personal lives of people who would rather play with their phones than write love letters and thank you notes.
    On the tail end of a divorce, Theodore is testing the dating game. But people are difficult; videogames and technology are easy. To streamline his life, he buys a new artificial intelligence operating system. Thus Theodore meets Samantha (Scarlett Johansson: Don Jon), who is his new operating system.
    Think of her as Siri with a sexier voice.
    She begins as an assistant, sorting Theodore’s email, suggesting music, keeping him on time for appointments. But her helpful nature and apparent curiosity about Theodore put her on more intimate terms with the shy, wounded man.
    Are we only a few iPhone updates away from romancing a programmed intelligence?
    Director Spike Jonze (Where the Wild Things Are) constructs a strange but plausible future that seems no further than 10 years ahead.
    His cinematography and style enhance the world of Her, which looks like an updated Apple store. Lines are sleek, clothes are cute and everything has a touch of whimsy. Her is a beautifully realized film filled with visual interest, not one frame wasted.
    As Theodore, Phoenix is a jumble of isolation and adulation. He gives a believable and impressive performance as he falls in love with a phone, crooning, dancing, whispering the sweet nothings you expect from a man in love. As he’s often the only physical presence, his hold on our attention is remarkable.
    Johansson does masterful voice work as Samantha, imbuing a four-inch metal box with warmth and soul as she challenges Theodore to go out in the world and celebrate the beauty of life.
    But is it love?
    No matter how charming and unique Samantha seems, she is a program generated to please Theodore. His choices are the basis of her personality, meaning that there’s an even darker layer to the story: Is it Samantha’s choice to love Theodore? Jonze doesn’t answer that.
    A brilliant look at our deep and often dysfunctional relationship with technology, Her is a film that all you smartphone users should see.

Good Dramedy • R • 126 mins.