At The Movies: Sin City – A Dame To Kill For

Sometimes a sequel will rise to the occasion and build upon and improve upon its predecessor. Sometimes it doesn’t. “Sin City: A Dame to Kill For” doesn’t.

It’s been nearly 10 years since directors Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller brought Miller’s series of crime comics to gritty and visually stunning life. “Sin City” was an amazing work of film. The sequel is more of the same but the stories aren’t as compelling and neither are the characters. It looks as sharp as ever but the end result is a bit flat.

Like before, the movie revolves around three stories — one from Miller’s original comic series and two new ones written specifically for the film. Most of the characters appeared in the first film, a few of them even died in it, but since the stories aren’t told in chronological order it all probably works out if you take the time to figure it out.

sin-city-2-poster“The Long Bad Night” features a new character, Johnny ( Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who has come to Sin City to win some money. Johnny has a gift for gambling but his luck may run out when he joins a poker game led by the film’s main villain — Senator Roarke (Powers Boothe).

Midway through Johnny’s tale the action switches to the title track — “A Dame to Kill For.” Dwight McCarthy (previously played by Clive Owen, now played by Josh Brolin) still spends his nights in Katie’s bar while struggling with his inner rage.

He’s approached by an old flame — Ava Lord (Eva Green) — who wants to escape her abusive husband and his bodyguard Manute (previously played by the late Michael Clarke Duncan, now played by Dennis Haysbert). Will Dwight kill for Ava, and does Ava have ulterior motives?

The final chapter, “Nancy’s Last Dance,” is a continuation of the central story from the first film. Stripper Nancy Callahan (Jessica Alba) goes from grief to insanity over the death of her beloved John Hartigan (Bruce Willis). As ghost Hartigan helplessly watches from the background, Nancy and her buddy Marv (Mickey Rourke) set about to get revenge on Senator Roarke.

If you enjoyed the original “Sin City” you’ll probably enjoy this one — just not as much. While the visuals are still striking the characters feel tired and the situations they’re put in aren’t as interesting this time around. There’s nothing shocking about Ava Lord’s story aside from the amount of screen time Green is willing to appear naked. Gordon-Levitt brings some new energy to the proceedings with his fun character.

Rourke is always entertaining as the hard-drinking, indestructible Marv. But while in the first film he’s caught up in an interesting story, here he’s mostly just muscle for Dwight and  Nancy. At least he’s better off than Willis, who spends his brief time standing in the shadows moaning over Nancy’s sad situation.

Perhaps the movie’s biggest sin is how the final story diminishes the ending of the original. Hardigan selflessly committed suicide to protect Nancy from Roarke. That touching ending is rendered moot by having Nancy go on to become a crazed vigilante.

 

 

 

 

 

At The Movies: The Expendables III

For this week’s review I had to choose between “The Giver,” yet another Young Adult novel brought to life, or “The Expendables III,” yet another Sylvester Stallone and his All Star Action Heroes tale of adventure.

As you can tell by the header, I went with the latter. I’m getting a little tired of movies based on YA books; I never get tired of Sylvester Stallone and company blowing up stuff.

Even if you’ve never seen an Expendables movie you probably know the drill: Stallone calls up a bunch of ’80s action stars — and Jason Statham — and they go somewhere and blow stuff up and put it on film, edit it down to a couple hours and watch the money roll in. It’s the “Cannonball Run” of blowing stuff up.

In addition to his usual cohorts — Statham, Dolph Lundgren, Jet Li, Terry Crews, Randy Couture and Arnold Schwarzenegger — Stallone has brought in heavyweights like Wesley Snipes, Mel Gibson, Antonio Banderas and Harrison Ford (Ford is substituting for Bruce Willis, who is “no longer in the picture.”).

And in what one assumes is an attempt to draw in ticket sales that don’t involve the senior citizen discount, Stallone has brought in a quartet of fresh faces — Kellan Lutz, Victor Ortiz, Glen Powell and Ronda Rousey.

Oh, and Frasier’s in it. I don’t get the connection either.

expendables-3-uk-poster-official-uk-expendables-3-poster-and-quad-9ddf6eaf-ff2f-430d-b2e0-5ce33514c694The film opens with — you guessed it — an explosive scene in which Barnaby (Stallone), Christmas (Statham) and crew stage a prison-train break.  They rescue one of the original Expendables — Doctor Death (Snipes) — who’s gone a little batty after eight years in prison.

But a quick shave later and the doctor is ready to join the team as they fly off to thwart an arms deal. It all goes south (in explosive fashion, of course) when Barnaby discovers that the arms dealer is none other than his old partner and co-founder of The Expendables — Conrad Stonebanks (Gibson). Stonebanks had gone to the dark side years ago and Barnaby thought he was long dead — and that he had killed him.

Determined to capture Stonebanks but not at the cost of his friends’ lives, Barnaby disbands the team. He then hooks up with Frasier — I mean Bonaparte (Kelsey Grammer) — who sets him up with a new team of fresh faces (listed above).

Barnaby’s plan to capture Stonebanks falls apart (in explosive fashion) and soon the old guard is called in to rescue and then team up with the new kids in an all-out war with Stonebanks’ army.

I think I enjoyed “The Expendables III” more than the first two. I’m not saying the quality is any better, I just liked this mix of actors more and the way they played off each other. Snipes was a welcome addition although he doesn’t get much to do after his exciting introduction. Ford was the only newcomer who looked out of place, and it’s probably best they kept him in a helicopter instead of in the real action. Banderas was the unexpected comic relief as a motormouth mercenary who wants to fit in. I did miss Bruce Willis.

I also thought the action sequences were better, although the final shootout does go on too long. “Expendables III” is pretty much non-stop action, even more so than its predecessors. They’ve also downgraded the violence to PG-13 standards, which was probably a wise move. The graphic violence isn’t necessary for what is obviously a cartoon adventure.

 

 

 

On Stage: Hello, Dolly!

Before you say goodbye to summer nights at The Muny this year, take the time to say “Hello, Dolly!”

The outdoor theater ends its 96th season in similar fashion to how it began — with a rollicking, no-holds-barred song-and-dance extravaganza. But while season-opener “Billy Elliot” is a relative newcomer to the stage, “Hello, Dolly!” celebrates its 50 anniversary this year.

To honor the occasion, Artistic Director and Executive Producer Mike Isaacson has pulled together a production featuring an excellent cast of actors, singers and dancers; colorful (and in some cases extravagant) costumes; striking sets; a dynamic orchestra and even a high school marching band.

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Beth Leavel gives an outstanding performance in the title role of Dolly Gallagher Levi. Dolly is a woman of many trades but her primary gig is that of matchmaker. Her main objective at the moment is to match herself up with half-millionaire businessman Horace Vandergelder (John O’Hurley) of Yonkers, New York.

Dolly Levi is an overwhelming, charismatic character and Leavel is more than up to the task of playing her. She commands the audience’s attention every moment she’s on stage.

O’Hurley, best known for the role of J. Peterman on “Seinfeld,” returns to the Muny stage after playing King Arthur in last year’s production of “Spamalot.” With his distinctive voice and talent at playing stiff-and-oh-so-proper characters, he’s the perfect foil for Leavel’s Dolly.

Rounding out the main cast are the equally talented Rob McClure and Jay Armstrong Johnson as two of Vandergelder’s hapless employees who slip the boss’s chains to spend a night in the big city; and Mamie Parris and Eloise Kropp as the free-spirited women with whom they spend that night.

The show was directed by Rob Ruggiero with musical direction by James Moore and several memorable dance numbers choreographed by Ralph Perkins. A round of applause should also go to Michael Schweikardt for the show’s elaborate set designs and Amy Clark for the variety of costumes.

Written by Michael Stewart and Jerry Herman and based on the play “The Matchmaker” by Thornton Wilder, “Hello, Dolly!” has humor, heart and a lot of old-fashioned fun. The show features several stand-out moments, including “Before the Parade Passes By,” “Waiters’ Gallop” and the title song.

“Hello, Dolly!” runs through Aug. 17. http://muny.org/

On Stage: Grease

Word is if you’re looking for a rockin’ time on a summer night this week, The Muny is the one that you want.

Gah, I always feel dirty after writing a lead like that.

“Grease,” the popular ’70s musical about teens growing up in the ’50s, is currently hand-jiving its way across The Muny stage in Forest Park. It’s high-energy fun for all ages.

What new can be said about “Grease?” Even if you haven’t seen it performed live you’ve probably seen the 1978 film version with John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John. And if by chance you haven’t seen any version, you’ve probably heard songs from the show, like “Hopelessly Devoted to You,” “You’re The One That I Want,” “Greased Lightnin'” or the title track. It’s certainly one of the most successful musicals of the last 40 years.

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But whether your experience with “Grease” is at the Sandra Dee level or the Rizzo, there’s a lot to recommend about the current production playing in St. Louis.

Set at Rydell High in 1959, “Grease” looks at the lives of two groups of teen misfits — the T-Birds and their female counterparts, the Pink Ladies. Danny (Brandon Espinoza) spent the summer at the beach where he encounters lovely but chaste Sandy (Taylor Louderman). Sandy has transferred to Rydell where her innocent nature puts her at odds with the Pink Ladies and threatens her relationship with Danny.

But you probably already knew all that.

Director/choreographer Denis Jones keeps the show moving at a brisk pace and has put together some terrific dance numbers, highlighted by “Born to Hand Jive” at the high school hop. Andrea Lauer’s costumes take us back in time while set designer Tim Mackabee makes creative use of the large stage to handle a variety of scene changes.

The cast was quite accomplished, particularly Louderman. St. Louis native Phyllis Smith (Phyllis from NBC’s “The Office”) returns to the Muny stage (she appeared last year in “Nunsense”) for the role of Miss Lynch.

The show-stopper award goes to Teressa Kindle as Teen Angel for her fiery performance of “Beauty School Dropout.” I’ve always found that song to be one of the duller parts of the show but the number as performed in this production really brings the house down.

“Grease” runs through Aug. 8. http//muny.org/

 

 

 

At The Movies: Guardians Of The Galaxy

Since the release of “Iron Man” in 2008, Marvel Studios has had an impressive string of superhero hits. Its least successful film — “The Incredible Hulk” — still managed to bring in $134 million. That’s a fair amount of green, even if it looks puny when compared to the studio’s biggest hit, “The Avengers,” which brought in more than $623 million.

But hot streaks must end sometime, and when Marvel announced it was following up heavyweights Thor, Captain America, Iron Man, Hulk and The Avengers with a team of obscure outer space misfits called The Guardians of the Galaxy, well, I’m sure I wasn’t alone in predicting this would be the studio’s first big bomb.

Not even comic book fans care about The Guardians of the Galaxy. Certainly not enough to deliver blockbuster box office. The comic has a talking raccoon and a talking tree, for crying out loud.

And yet, while it’s too early to predict its success financially, I can say that “Guardians of the Galaxy” is of the same high-caliber popcorn fun as all other Marvel movies. It’s certainly the funniest and most irreverent.

guardiansChris Pratt stars as Peter Quill, who also goes by the name Star-Lord, although it’s not clear why he deserves such a grandiose title.  Quill is a thief with attitude and a ’70s-rock mix-tape. He’s Han Solo without Luke and Leia to keep him in line. Quill’s latest theft involves a mysterious orb.

The villain of the piece is Ronan (Lee Pace), who is after that exact same orb under orders from his boss Thanos (Josh Brolin) — the mystery man seen briefly at the end of “The Avengers.” Thanos gets a little more screen time here but not much. All you need to know at this point is that he’s Really Evil.

Quill manages to snatch the orb but winds up in prison shortly afterwards. There he meets up with Rocket (Bradley Cooper), a genetically engineered raccoon who’s a science whiz; Rocket’s sidekick Groot (Vin Diesel), a walking tree with three-word vocabulary; Gamora (Zoe Saldana), a former aide to Ronan who now works against him ; and Drax (Dave Bautista), a muscle-bound warrior seeking revenge on Ronan for the death of his family.

The quartet agree to stage a prison break and split the proceeds of the sale of the orb (Drax isn’t interested in money but he wants to stay close to Gamora in the hopes she will lead him to Ronan.)

Quill brings the orb to The Collector (Benicio del Toro) who reveals that within the orb is an object of enormous power. The object is related to the Tesseract (from “The Avengers”) and the Aether (from “Thor: The Dark World”).

Ronan shows up, steals the orb, and decides to use its power to take over the universe. Can the Star-Lord lead this ragtag collection of eccentrics against him and save the galaxy?

Directed by James Gunn, “Guardians of the Galaxy” is exactly what this summer has been needing — a space epic with dizzying special effects, dazzling set pieces, a cast you can cheer for, a rocking soundtrack, and most of all — an irreverent sense of joy and fun.

There’s been a lot of doom and apocalyptic gloom to this season’s blockbusters and it’s refreshing to see an action movie with the emphasis on delivering a laugh and a good time. “Transformers” tries to be a funny action movie, “Guardians” is a funny action movie.

The film’s weakest link is Ronan, whose motives are unclear and whose personality barely covers one dimension. And despite the film’s many original flourishes, the ending still follows modern action-movie formula — with a half-dozen fights going on all at once amid explosions and crashing spaceships. Overkill has become commonplace.

David Letterman has been bragging about the 3D all week on his show and I don’t know why. It’s not that special. There’s supposed to be the standard end-credits scene but it wasn’t shown at the advance screening. The good news if you wait for it is Gunn actually put the opening credits at the opening of the film for a change, so the end credits don’t run as long.

I’m glad to be proven wrong about “Guardians of the Galaxy,” and that’s why I never make public my predictions about a  film’s potential success. I guess it’s up to “Ant-Man” to be the studio’s first bomb.

 

 

 

 

Before You Go: Guardians Of The Galaxy

Welcome to “Before You Go,” the sometimes column where I unveil the secret origins behind whatever big-budget nerd movie is opening tomorrow.

When you first heard the next Marvel Studios movie was going to be “Guardians of the Galaxy,” your reaction was probably: “Who of the What?”

You are not alone. I’ve been reading Marvel Comics for around 40 years and like most comic fans I’ve had little interest in the Guardians of the Galaxy before the movie announcement. I first encountered them in the ’70s in an issue of “The Defenders.” These Guardians, created in 1969 by Arnold Drake and Gene Colan, bear no resemblance to the characters coming tomorrow to a theater near you.

Moonage Daydream

The original Guardians were from the 31st Century caught up in an interstellar war with lizard-like aliens called The Badoon. The team initially consisted of Vance Astro of Earth, Martinex of Pluto, Charlie 27 of Jupiter and Yondu of Centauri-IV.

DefendersGuardians26CoverYondu is the only original Guardian to appear in the film and the only thing the movie version has in common with the comic version is blue skin and a preference for the arrow as a weapon. It’s comforting to know that even in the 31st Century people are still fighting evil with bow and arrow.

The Guardians made several visits to the past –our present — to have adventures with the modern Marvel superheroes. They play a key role in one of the great Avengers stories of the ’70s. The Guardians were given their own series in the ’90s which ran for 62 issues.

Cherry Bomb

In the 2000s, Marvel published a number of comics set in the “cosmic” sector of the Marvel Universe — in other words, way outside New York City.

Guardians-of-the-Galaxy-Comic-Book-CoverOne of those comics was a complete revamping of Guardians of the Galaxy. Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning put together this new team from some of Marvel’s more oddball space characters — Star-Lord,  Adam Warlock, Quasar, Gamora, Rocket Raccoon, Drax the Destroyer and Groot. Warlock and Quasar did not make the cut when Hollywood came calling.

Now I know what you’re thinking: This is like X-Men, yes? The original book wasn’t that popular and was eventually canceled, then they rebooted it with an “all new, all different” team and it went on to become Marvel’s most popular comic. That’s what happened with Guardians, right?

No. Not at all.

Guardians 2.0 lasted a whopping 25 issues before being canceled. The moral of the story, however, is that you don’t need thousands of fans to get a movie deal, you only need one. Provided that one is Kevin Feige, president of Marvel Studios.

Feige saw something in GotG that few others did, and put the team in Marvel’s movie lineup, which brings us to where we are now. Was it a good call? We’ll know shortly.

Meanwhile, in the time leading up to getting the film off the ground, Marvel has gone all out to promote the new Guardians — putting them in the “Ultimate Spider-Man” and “Avengers Assemble” cartoons, video games and toys. A third volume of the Guardians comic book was released last year and seems to be doing pretty good — for now.

And that’s all you need to know — before you go.

A RROY REPORT Special Report: LawyerCon 2014 V

Part Five: Take The Long Way Home

 (Note: I forgot to take any pictures on the last couple days, so I’ll be inserting photos from the trip that have nothing to do with what your reading about.)

We left Richmond around 10 a.m. Friday morning. The plan was to drive to Lexington, Kentucky, and spend the night at a Comfort Inn and spend Saturday visiting with relatives and generally hanging out in Lexington. That was the plan until Cousin Debi found out and nixed our hotel arrangements and had us spend the night at her place. Regardless of where we slept, we were bound for Lexington.

100_2259We had still not finished the Hiatt mix but decided it was time for something new so we switched to The Beatles, as that would make Andrew happy and he was starting out the day slightly stressed. The plan was to stop in Lexington, Virginia, and refuel the Captiva and ourselves.

Some hours later with the gas gauge running nervously low, we saw signs for Lexington, VA. The first sign showed two or three gas stations. There was no sign showing eating establishments. Odd. We pulled over anyway, turned right and in short order found a gas station. No fast food or other food joints in sight. Odd. Lar went inside to inquire about lunch while I ran the pump.

The nice lady behind the counter informed Lar that if we turned left out of the gas station we’d find many eateries. We turned left. We drove. We saw no eateries. We continued to drive further and further away from the Interstate.

“I’m not seeing any restaurants. Was that woman crazy? We should turn around.”

“Well then do it. You don’t need to talk about it.”

Remember how I hate the Family Road Trip because at some point we both snap at each other and things get uncomfortable for the next several miles? It took much longer than expected, but we had finally reached that point. I guess part of me was relieved.

We turned around and got back to the interstate. The next exit offered a few food options but the person next to me was being quiet so I said nothing. Eventually we found a McDonald’s/Burger King sign and I took the initiative and pulled off the highway.

“McDonald’s or Burger King?”

“No Burger King.”

The Burger King, of course, was to our right. The McDonald’s was nowhere to be seen. It looked like we were about to drive into the heart of town.

“Just get back on the interstate and find a rest stop. I need to use the bathroom.”

We eventually found a rest stop and I turned over driving duties to Lar. If we don’t eat, we don’t eat but it’s her decision from now on. By 4 p.m. we found a Cracker Barrel. Things were much better after that. At some point the iPod stopped working for no good reason so, thankfully, I had the CD case.

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We made our way to Lexington, KY, a few hours later. Found cousin Debi’s place without problem. Debi was making brownies, which upset me because she had promised me pie, but she claimed we would be having pie for breakfast, so I settled down.

Had a nice visit then went to bed. Decided not to spend the night in Don’s attic, which is decorated with so much wildlife and wildlife-related objects as to make Bass Pro and Cabela’s both green with jealousy. I was afraid something might wake up in the night and eat me.

The next morning I drank many cups of coffee with Don, Debi and Lar and we enjoyed a delicious breakfast pie and coffee cake. Aunt Peggy and Russ came over around 11 and we did more olde tyme visiting without twitter or text messaging. Andrew finally got out of bed around 11? noon? I forget, but he had some breakfast pie and then about 10 minutes later take-out Chinese.

That afternoon we went to some candy store so Lar could buy multiple boxes of bourbon cherries. They both enjoyed the free samples. About 4 p.m. we loaded up the SUV and began the final leg of our journey. Figured out how to get the iPod to work and let Billy Joel take us the last hundred-plus miles. It was an easy drive through the flat, relatively straight roads of Indiana and Illinois. We arrived home around 8 p.m. Saturday.

“Wasn’t that fun? What a nice Family Road Trip.”

Who am I to argue?

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