At The Movies: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 (Part 1)

OK, I know what you’re saying: “Where’s my ‘Hunger Games’ review? What’s this Stephen Hawking love story review doing here? Have you gone all art film reviewer on us?”

FIN09_Seashore_1Sht_Katniss_Payoff_900No, no. rest assured it’s nothing like that. You see, “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1″ screening was Tuesday night which conflicted with opening night for “Motown: The Musical” at the Fox and, well, I can get a nice date night with The Wife out of a show at the Fox. Taking her to a movie isn’t quite as impressive — unless it has Hobbits or Mr. Darcy.

So I haven’t had a chance to see the movie yet. I may see it Saturday morning if I can get out of bed in time for the first matinée. If I do, I’ll report back later that day. If I don’t, well, does it really matter?

If you’ve seen all the previous “Hunger Games” movies what are the chances you’re going to drop out now? And if you’ve never seen a “Hunger Games” movie, why would you start with the first half of the last chapter? This is pretty much the definition of “critic-proof.”

At The Movies: The Theory Of Everything

Who would have expected that one of the most touching and moving love stories committed to film would center on  theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking?

“The Theory of Everything” is a biography that doesn’t focus on the genius professor’s work examining black holes, quantum mechanics or the general theory of relativity — and thank God for that, I got enough of that from “Interstellar” — instead the spotlight is on his marriage to Jane Wilde Hawking and his struggles with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).

theory_of_everything_PosterDirected by James Marsh and inspired by the memoir “Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen” by Jane Wilde Hawking, the film opens in 1962 with Stephen (Eddie Redmayne) a graduate student at the University of Cambridge. One night at a party he meets Jane (Felicity Jones), who is studying languages. Both awkward and shy, they strike up a friendship that blossoms into romance.

But just as Stephen’s personal and professional life is taking off, his body begins to fall apart. After falling to the ground while walking on campus, Stephen is taken to a hospital for tests. The diagnosis: Lou Gehrig’s disease, a neurodegenerative disorder that would slowly cause his body — but not his brain — to waste away. The prognosis: Two years to live.

Stephen tries to push Jane away but she refuses. Instead the couple marry and raise a family, all the while dealing with the challenges of Stephen’s condition as well as the challenges that come from his success as a scientist and author.

I’m generally not a fan of romance movies but this one really worked for me, primarily due to two fantastic performances by Jones and Redmayne. While Redmayne certainly had the more challenging physical role — which he pulls off with impressive form — Jones is equally compelling as she struggles to keep it together while dealing with all the stresses pulling at her.

The film also boasts an impressive supporting cast and is lovely to look at. It’s a quality film that takes gives an intriguing look at a public figure that we know of due to his work but don’t really know that well.

 

 

On Stage: Motown: The Musical

One of the most ambitious and entertaining musicals of the modern era is now playing at the Fox Theatre.

“Motown: The Musical” is ambitious in that it covers a two-decade time span to tell the story of Motown record company, founder Berry Gordy, and snippets from the lives of musicians Diana Ross, Smokey Robinson and Marvin Gaye. All the while incorporating 60 classic tunes from the era.

It’s entertaining because, well, it features 60 classic Motown hits; a rocking orchestra; flashy lights, costumes and multimedia backdrop;  and a cast of incredibly talented singers/actors.

Reed L Shannon as Michael Jackson (center) with the Jackson 5 in a scene from MoTOWN THE MUSICAL First National Tour (c) Joan Marcus, 2014

Reed L Shannon as Michael Jackson (center) with the Jackson 5 in a scene from “Motown The Musical” First National Tour.
(c) Joan Marcus, 2014

The show begins in 1983 during rehearsals for Motown’s 25th anniversary celebration. Back in his Los Angeles home, label founder Berry Gordy (Clifton Oliver) isn’t sure he wants to take part in the festivities. His company is in a slump and may have to be sold because he can’t compete with the major labels who keep scooping up all his major talent.

The story then shifts briefly to 1938 for a childhood vignette then fast-forwards to 1957 as Berry leaves his job at a Detroit auto factory to pursue his dream to be a songwriter. While he has some early success, the unfair business practices of the record industry causes Berry to approach his family for a loan so he can start his own company.

Berry quickly hooks up with talent like Smokey Robinson (Jesse Nager) and Marvin Gaye (Jarran Muse) and the hits just keep on coming. Act I deals with the volatile years from 1962-’68 as the artists deal with racial inequality and threats as they tour the South and ends with the death of Martin Luther King and a powerful performance by Muse of “What’s Going On?”

Act II opens in the still unsettled sixties but then moves into the seventies and the addition of new talent like The Jackson Five (on opening night the role of young Michael Jackson was played to perfection by Leon Outlaw Jr. The role is also played by Reed L. Shannon). As Berry tries to keep his artists happy — Marvin wants to move from pop music to more socially relevant songs — he also has to deal with challenges from other, larger record companies.

Another key thread in this musical mosaic is Berry’s relationship with singer Diana Ross (Allison Semmes) and his push to move her from Supremes lead singer to solo star. You knew there had to be a love story somewhere in this epic tale.

“Motown: The Musical” is one of the most energetic, exhilarating shows I’ve seen lately. There are too many musical highlights to focus on one or two. All of the lead actors, and many of the ensemble, have amazing voices. The band was loud and sharp. The colorful costumes ranged from the simple to the outrageous. The show makes good use of sets and video. And the music, of course, is timeless.

“Motown: The Musical” runs through Nov. 30. http://www.fabulousfox.com/

 

At The Movies: Rosewater

“Rosewater” is the kind of movie that’s easy to admire, hard to recommend.

The story is solid and uplifting. The cast delivers compelling performances. It’s an impressive debut from first-time director Jon Stewart. It’s a fine film.

But do you really want to spend date night watching a young man being psychologically — and sometimes physically — tortured for more than an hour? And pay for it?

220px-Rosewater_posterBased on the memoir “Then They Came for Me” by Maziar Bahari and Aimee Molloy, “Rosewater” stars Gael García Bernal as Bahari, an Iranian-born journalist living and working in London. In 2009 he returned to Iran to visit his mother (Shohreh Aghdashloo) and cover the country’s presidential election.

In the unrest that follows the election, Bahari shoots video that doesn’t please the government. Further complicating matters, he takes part in a segment for Stewart’s news-satire program “The Daily Show,” where he’s interviewed by Jason Jones, who is pretending to be a spy. It doesn’t help that Bahari’s father and sister both had run-ins with the government.

Sure enough, one day the authorities arrive and cart Bahari away. He spends the next 118 days either in solitary confinement or in a small room with his interrogator (Kim Bodnia). He spends most of the time blindfolded.

“Rosewater” shows that Jon Stewart has more talent than just being a fake-news anchorman. He takes a serious incident and presents it with humor and compassion.

The Polar Express, Union Station And Dessert Buffets

Like all rational people I do not acknowledge the existence of Christmas until after Thanksgiving. So I wasn’t too excited when I got the invitation to a press event promoting the new Polar Express Train Ride at Union Station.

And then somebody said “free food.”

And I said “it really is the most wonderful time of the year.”

And so it was that Thursday night I took the train down to Union Station, in part because it seemed appropriate, in part because I didn’t want to have to drive or park downtown and in part because I was meeting The Wife there so we already had one vehicle downtown.

Oh, Union Station. Once you were a major transportation hub of this great nation. Then you went into disrepair. Then you became a shopping mall/hotel. Now, well, you’re still a shopping mall/hotel but you’ve seen better days.

I remember when they reopened Union Station as a shopping mall/hotel. It was impressive. You would walk in and a big crowd would be gathered around the Fudgery where the workers would be slapping large slabs of fudge around on a marble table and singing songs. I bought my 30th anniversary Avengers poster at a shop in Union Station. We spent our wedding night in the Omni Hotel therein.

It was a big deal. It lasted, I dunno, five or six years? Now it’s a dimly-lit shell with a few shops and a half-empty food court. One lone person was slapping fudge around and he wasn’t singing. Why is it dimly lit? How many shopping malls do you walk in wondering if someone is hiding in the shadows about to grab you? I realize it’s big and hard to light but I don’t like the feeling that I’m the Wayne family walking home from the theater as I’m walking INSIDE the mall.

On the plus side, I will say I went into one store — Fat Sassy’s — that I thought was pretty cool. If you’re looking for an Elvis Presley Christmas ornament, check it out.

We quickly walked through the mall to the hotel area where we discovered you can no longer walk the length of Union Station anymore because the hotel area is off-limits to those without key-cards. What the hey? Our options were to wait for someone inside the hotel area to have mercy and open a door for us or go back outside and walk around the building to the hotel front door in downtown St. Louis in the dark. We waited. Someone let us in.

St. Louis Union Station Hotel (no longer the Omni) is very nice. Clean, well-lit, classy. We made our way upstairs to the Grand Hall where the event was taking place. The Grand Hall is very grand — barrel-vaulted ceiling; big, comfy chairs; nice bar.

poXwM7Ug0KrvNd1E_U6M1GvGA3dyWbiQZCCwIy9cstUAs a new event this holiday season — ’cause you can only sit through “The Nutcracker” so many times — Union Station is offering The Polar Express Train Ride. Excursions begin Nov. 22 and run through Dec. 30. Apparently they sold out their initials runs and recently added new dates — Dec. 15-17.

The event consists of a round-trip ride to the North Pole (use your imagination) with people dressed up to resemble characters from the beloved children’s story/movie.

We didn’t get to experience the train ride but we did enjoy the Panoramic Light Show that takes place in the Grand Hall. Images are projected into the ceiling that offer a history lesson on the station as well as images from the Polar Express film. It’s pretty cool.

The main event — at least for hungry people, I suppose the train ride would be the main event for everyone else — is the buffets. There is the children’s buffet, the adult buffet and the Grand Dessert Buffet. They served the children’s buffet at the media event which was fine by me because I’d rather eat chicken tenders and mini corndogs over chicken breast with autumn rice and chef’s vegetables any day. The buffet was delicious — I highly recommend the chicken tenders with honey mustard sauce.

10675715_10205075677761673_4055689643975285298_nWhich brings us to the Grand Dessert Buffet. Holy Christmas miracle, was that a lot of sweets. I tried my best to try as much as I could but alas, too many chicken tenders. I highly recommend the gingerbread mousse — it was light and not too filling. Everything was good and the display was impressive. Oh, the apple tart thing was really good too.

So if you’re looking for something to do this holiday season that doesn’t involve watching The Grinch for the 1,345th time, catch the train to Union Station. And if you’re in charge of the mall there — invest in some light bulbs.

For more information on The Polar Express Train Ride visit http://www.stlpolarexpressride.com/

 

At The Movies: Big Hero Six

“Big Hero Six” is the first animated feature made by Disney based on a Marvel Entertainment property since the Mouse bought the comic book company back in 2009.

If you’ve never heard of a “Big Hero Six” comic you are not alone. It’s an even more obscure property than “Guardians of the Galaxy.” And look at how that turned out.

But while BHS is unlikely to generate the box office success or audience love that GotG did, it’s an equally entertaining super team movie. It has engaging characters, a lot of heart, thrilling action and nifty special effects. And while it doesn’t have a talking raccoon or a dancing tree, it does have an adorable inflatable robot.

big-hero-6-movie-poster-disneyThe story takes place in San Fransokyo and centers on young Hiro Hamada (Ryan Potter) — gifted at robotics but a bit of a slacker. His older brother Tadashi (Daniel Henney) also has a talent for building mechanical men and has created Baymax (Scott Adsit), an inflatable robot specializing in healthcare.

Tadashi wants Hiro to use his skills for a higher purpose than robot fighting, so he takes him to his special school to introduce him to his mentor, Professor Robert Callaghan (James Cromwell). While there he meets Tadashi’s equally gifted and eccentric classmates — GoGo Tomago (Jamie Chung), Wasabi (Damon Wayans, Jr.), Honey Lemon (Genesis Rodriguez) and Fred (T.J. Miller). OK, so Fred’s not all that gifted.

Hiro is inspired and comes up with a special project for the school’s science fair. His miniature, Lego-like robots are the hit of the show until an accident occurs that appears to render all his work moot.

Hiro begins working with Baymax and together they discover that his microbots have been repurposed by a mystery man with seemingly evil intent. Hiro rounds up his fellow teen geniuses to try to set things right.

“Big Hero Six” is animated superhero fun for all ages. It probably won’t do as well as “Frozen” since it doesn’t have songs for people to create endless YouTube videos about but it’s every bit as entertaining.

At The Movies: Interstellar

You don’t have to be Stephen Hawking to enjoy “Interstellar,” but it would probably make it easier to understand it.

Director Christopher Nolan’s latest effort is a wildly ambitious science fiction epic that makes his previous film “Inception” look like it has all the depth of “Sharknado.”

Matthew McConaughey stars as Cooper, a former pilot and engineer living on a dying, dust-bowl of an Earth where exploration and scientific inquiry have become a thing of the past. All that matters now is farming and the struggle to stay alive.

interstellar3Cooper lives with his father (John Lithgow), son Tom (Timothée Chalamet) and daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy). Tom’s future as a farmer has already been decided for him but Murph is an eccentric genius. She’s convinced ghosts are talking to her.

After a dust storm leaves marks on the floor, Cooper concludes it’s not ghosts but gravity that is trying to contact them. He translates the dust marks as coordinates which lead him and Murph to a secret NASA installation run by Professor Brand (Michael Caine).

It turns out that while the world has been going to hell in a handbasket, NASA has been looking for a replacement. While there are no usable planets in our own solar system, a wormhole has conveniently appeared outside Saturn that holds the promise of habitable planets on the other side.

Three teams have already been sent to explore potential new-Earths. Now the professor wants Cooper to fly a mission with his daughter Amelia (Anne Hathaway), a box-like robot and a few expendable scientists to check in on their progress.

 

“Interstellar” is as densely plotted, complex and compelling as — well — any other Christopher Nolan film. It’s overlong (almost three hours) but never boring. It’s beautiful to look at — not just the space scenes but also the massive corn fields and dust storms back on Earth.  The cast — which includes Jessica Chastain and Casey Affleck as older versions of Murph and Tom — deliver emotionally charged performances. There is a lot to think about, talk about and digest afterwards.

It’s not without its flaws. Sci-fi movies often fail to nail the landing and that’s also true here. I won’t go into what happens but it bent my suspension of disbelief well beyond three dimensions.

The other problem I had concerned Hans Zimmer’s score, which played way too loud and oppressive at times during the IMAX screening I attended. It was so bad it occasionally drowned out the dialogue. Maybe that was a problem of the theater or IMAX or just my old ears, but it really got tiresome.

Overall, though, Nolan should be applauded for another ambitious effort. With “Intersellar” the good far outweighs the bad.