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Review: Ben Kingsley makes ‘Spider’ special; John Travolta in ‘The Fanatic,’ and more

Ben Kingsley, ‘Spider in the Web’
Ben Kingsley in the movie “Spider in the Web.”
(Vertical Entertainment)

‘Spider in the Web’

Ben Kingsley won an Oscar for playing pacifist revolutionary Mohandas K. Gandhi in the 1982 movie “Gandhi,” and yet some of his best screen roles have been more villainous: like the single-minded mobster in “Sexy Beast,” and the grifter pastor on TV’s “Perpetual Grace, LTD.” Though small in stature, Kingsley has an intensity that makes him seem dangerous, elusive … someone to watch closely.

The spy thriller “Spider in the Web” is a well-made albeit overly reserved drama, directed by Eran Riklis (best known for “Lemon Tree”) from a screenplay by Gidon Maron and Emmanuel Naccache. It’s a high-minded action film, about the grueling demands of espionage work, featuring the kind of story that’s been told many times in literary spy novels.

But Kingsley makes it special. The actor plays Adereth, a jaded Mossad agent traveling across Europe with Daniel (Itay Tiran), a younger colleague secretly assigned to monitor his mentor to see if Aderath’s been lying to his own government.

As they meet with other veteran operatives — including the seductive Angela, played by Monica Bellucci — the older man makes the case that secrets are what keeps the world turning. Whether he’s a hero or scoundrel remains ambiguous through most of the story, in part because the character himself may not be sure.

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“Spider in the Web” is slow and talky; and though it delivers a few good twists, it’s not really made for adventure-seekers. Mostly, the movie’s a magnificent showcase for Kingsley, who’s always at his best when his characters look like they know something we don’t.

'Spider in the Web'
Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 53 minutes

Playing: Starts Aug. 30, Laemmle Music Hall, Beverly Hills; also on VOD

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‘Itsy Bitsy’

Elizabeth Roberts, ‘Itsy Bitsy’
Elizabeth Roberts in the movie “Itsy Bitsy.”
(Shout Studios)

As is often the case with smart, fun horror pictures, in the giant spider movie “Itsy Bitsy” the monster is a metaphor. But first-time feature director Micah Gallo — who also co-wrote the screenplay with J. Bryan Dick and Jason Alvino — doesn’t let symbolism get in the way of shocks. Fans of oversized creepy-crawlies will find what they’re looking for here.

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Elizabeth Roberts stars as Kara, a divorced nurse who drags her mopey teenage son Jesse (Arman Darbo) and ditzy 8-year-old daughter Cambria (Chloe Perrin) from their home in the city to a crumbling estate in the country, where Kara will be looking after Walter (Bruce Davison), a sickly antiques collector.

After a prologue that establishes a connection between Walter’s dusty old sculpture and some kind of spider cult, “Itsy Bitsy” quickly introduces its main players — and then throws a big arachnid into the mix. Within the first 20 minutes, the demon dormant inside the sculpture is skittering around Walter’s mansion, biting humans and laying eggs.

Those opening minutes also clarify something about Kara: She’s an opioid addict, with a tragic past. Kara may have taken this new job in hopes of making a fresh start, but on day one she’s already greedily eyeing Walter’s meds. Her addiction — like the spider-beast — is relentless.

There’s no need to invest in the heroine’s problems — or their parallels to a killer creature — to be gripped by “Itsy Bitsy.” The gothic atmosphere and the disgustingly gooey special effects are the main attraction. The existential dread is just an extra.

'Itsy Bitsy'
Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes

Playing: Starts Aug. 30, Laemmle Glendale, Glendale; also on VOD

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‘Angel of Mine’

Annika Whiteley, Noomi Rapace, ‘Angel of Mine’
Annika Whiteley, left, and Noomi Rapace in the movie “Angel of Mine.”
(Lionsgate)

A terrific cast and a rich sense of atmosphere do a lot to keep the Australian drama “Angel of Mine” suspenseful, even when the plot’s barely developing. Director Kim Farrant and screenwriters Luke Davies and David Regal adapt a 2008 French film, written by Safy Nebbou and Cyril Gomez-Mathieu. They don’t bring much new to one of the more clichéd thriller premises: a woman driven mad by the loss of a child. But from moment to moment, the filmmakers do generate some effective tension.

Noomi Rapace plays Lizzie, a divorced mother who’s had trouble rebuilding her life since losing her infant daughter in a freak accident, about seven years ago. Yvonne Strahovski plays Claire, an upper-middle-class Melbourne suburbanite whose grade-school-aged daughter Lola (Annika Whiteley) reminds Lizzie of who her baby could’ve been. Before long, the grief-stricken mom is coming up with excuses to stalk Lola, risking her job and the custody of her son.

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As accomplished as Farrant and company are, there’s only so much they can do with such a hoary idea, rooted in sexist conceptions of parental connection. (Notably, Lizzie’s ex-husband, played by Luke Evans, didn’t become unhinged after the incident.) Once the story’s fully set up, it doesn’t go anywhere unexpected.

But “Angel of Mine” is polished; and Rapace and Strahovski don’t play their parts as stereotypes. In their scenes together — especially with Whiteley as Lola in between them — they dig deep into the fierce protectiveness of their characters. Their maternal tussle is exciting, no matter how problematic.

'Angel of Mine'
Rated: R, for language, some sexuality and brief nudity

Running time: 1 hour, 37 minutes

Playing: Starts Aug. 30, Laemmle Monica Film Center, Santa Monica; also on VOD.

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‘The Fanatic’

John Travolta, ‘The Fanatic’
John Travolta in the movie “The Fanatic.”
(Brian Douglas / Quiver Distribution)

John Travolta has made some questionable choices and crummy films during his nearly 50-year career, but he’s rarely starred in a movie as misbegotten as “The Fanatic.” Apparently intended as a sobering look at the celebrity/fan dynamic — and reportedly based on the real experiences of director and co-writer Fred Durst, frontman of the ’90s rap-rock hitmaker Limp Bizkit — “The Fanatic” is so weirdly exaggerated that it almost feels like Durst and Travolta were just goofing around one weekend, and happened to have a camera handy.

Travolta plays Moose, a Hollywood Boulevard street performer and obsessive horror buff who — at least as portrayed here— is either mentally impaired or has an autism spectrum disorder. Devon Sawa plays Hunter Dunbar, a movie star who makes the mistake of giving Moose a brusque brush-off when his biggest fan wants an autograph.

Most of “The Fanatic” follows Moose around, from his day job — where the other costumed characters and panhandlers bully him — to his stealthy invasions of the Dunbar estate. Inevitably, the two men have a violent confrontation, which reveals nothing about either character, since neither seems in any way like a real person.

With his inexplicably choppy hairstyle and boyish speaking voice, Travolta in particular comes across like a grown man trying to imitate a first-grader. It’s kind of a tin-eared spoof of fandom — or worse, of the disabled.

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It’s probably for the best that “The Fanatic” is so terrible. If it were made with any actual care, it’d be offensive instead of just dumb.

'The Fanatic'
Rated: R, for some strong violence, and language throughout.

Running time: 1 hour, 29 minutes

Playing: Starts Aug. 30, Arena Cinelounge, Hollywood; also on VOD


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