At The Movies: Baby Driver

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By Paul Kennedy, guest reviewer

Driver of the Baby was great, and very stylish.

On Stage: The Trial

Weird.

It’s not a word one usually associates with opera. “Pompous,” yes. “Overblown,” certainly. “Pretentious,” often. But – weird? Opera is usually anything but that.

But weird is probably the best one-word description one could give for “The Trial.” I mean, that’s exactly what The Wife said to me when she turned my way at intermission. And she’s the expert.

1478829066_pvmjf_1478548478_qoyzt_1471542607_vklhv_blogposttrialWhile one usually thinks of operas as musical theater written during the Renaissance, they are still being written in the 21st century. And every year Opera Theatre Saint Louis puts at least one modern show in their program. “The Trial,” a comic (their word, not mine) opera in two acts, was written by Christopher Hampton and Phillip Glass and opened on a London stage in 2014. These performances marked its American premiere.

“The Trial” is based on a story by Franz Kafka, which should’ve been a red flag right there. I haven’t read any Kafka, but I’m culturally aware enough to know what kafkaesque means. And “The Trial” is very kafkaesque.

We arrived early enough for me to wade through the two-page plot synopsis in the program.

“Uh, have you read this?” I says to The Wife.

“No. Should I?”

“I can’t tell.”

“The Trial” is the story of Josef K (Theo Hoffman) a nondescript fellow who wakes one morning to discover he’s being arrested. He’s allowed to go on with his life and the charges against him are never spelled out.  But the rest of his life pretty much revolves around his legal troubles. He goes to court and gets the run-around, he meets with a lawyer who is no help, he has sex with the lawyer’s maid, there’s an odd bit with the Court Usher’s wife, he gets legal advice from a painter, it all ends badly for K.

Now, when I say “The Trial” is weird, I’m not saying it’s bad. It was actually strangely compelling and it seemed to move much quicker than most operas. The music was not Mozart. It had a quirky, haunting quality that nicely fit the show. The staging was stark and relied heavily on shadows and lighting — very effective. The cast performed admirably.

It was just so freaking weird. But then, maybe opera needs more weird.

 

At The Movies: Transformers: The Last Knight

Why do I keep watching these stupid Transformers movies?

I don’t care for any of the characters, human or robot. I find them all cliché and varying degrees of annoying. The stories are a mix of repetitive and incoherent. The dialogue is painful to the ears, as is all the explosive noise. The frequent juvenile attempts at humor rarely hit the mark, if ever. They go on way, way too long. It’s not nostalgia — I never played with a Transformers toy or watched the cartoons.

And yet there I was, again, sitting through 2-and-a-half hours of “Transformers: The Last Knight.”

I go to these things for the special effects, I guess. Michael Bay is very good at spectacle. Nobody can blow stuff up and send people flying through the air in slow motion quite like him. The action pieces are always well done, and there are a lot of them. The sweeping vistas of the English countryside were pretty. Outer space and giant, fighting robots are always cool to look at.

Still, I think I may have reached maximum Bay with this, the fifth but probably not final Transformers movie.

traqnspostFor those who have forgotten, such as myself, the previous film ended with head robot Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen) leaving Earth for his home planet of Cyberton. He was miffed about something, I don’t remember what. When he gets there he’s imprisoned by Quintessa (Gemma Chan), who eventually brainwashes him as they fly the planet to Earth, which she plans to destroy once she gets some really important artifact that some Transformer gave to Merlin the Magician back in days of yore.

That’s right. The big conceit of “The Last Knight” is that Transformers have been hanging out on Earth for thousands of years, fighting with King Arthur’s knights and killing Nazis and in general helping out whenever they can. Now, you’d think there would be some kind of record of giant, transforming robots fighting with the Allies in WWII — but if you’re thinking, you really shouldn’t be watching a Transformers movie.

Meanwhile, back on the home world, the Transformers have once again fallen out of favor with the human race. As a result, they’re all hiding out in a giant junkyard with inventor/Sam Witwicky replacement Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg). They’re joined by a young girl (Isabela Moner) and her silly robot pal because, well, why not?

Anthony Hopkins decides to do some slumming and shows up here as a proper British gentleman who’s in charge of guarding the secret history of the Transformers. He has a really annoying robot butler. Laura Haddock stars as an arrogant Brit who turns out to be a descendant of Merlin, which is convenient because she’s the only person who can find the artifact that’s so important to the plot. There are also several interchangeable soldiers and robots.

Eventually there’s a big showdown when Cyberton shows up in Earth orbit. Now, you’d think another planet coming so close to ours would cause all kinds of havoc and pretty much destroy the Earth just by being there — but if you’re thinking, you really shouldn’t be watching a Transformers movie.

Anyhow, if you’ve enjoyed all the earlier Transformers films — and if you have, we should probably talk about your taste in movies — then you might like this one. It’s more of the same. There’s really nothing more than meets the eye.

 

 

On Stage: Titus (La Clemenza Di Tito)

So I’m sitting on the couch watching “Parks and Recreation” when The Wife comes to me and she says,

“Guess where we’re going?”

“Uh…tell me.”

“The opera!”

“Oh, thank God. I thought you were going to say a Cardinals baseball game.”

“See. There are fates worse than opera.”

And so it was that we made yet another trek to the Loretto-Hilton Center on the campus of Webster University for the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis production of “Titus La clemenza di Tito,” the final opera written by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. I am familiar with the works of Mozart (I’m not totally culturally illiterate — I have seen “Amadeus.”) so I figured this would be decent. Even if I’d never heard of it.

Titus-image

The story is a complex one, evidenced by the six-paragraph synopsis in the program. Do you know why they provide you with the entire plot of the show before you watch an opera or Shakespeare play? It’s because you would never understand otherwise. I have learned that the key to understanding opera and Shakespeare is to commit the synopsis to memory as best you can, and then let the show just wash over you. Reread the synopsis during intermission. Maybe you’ll understand it, maybe you won’t – but at least you’ll be able to follow along. Somewhat.

“Titus” takes place in ancient Rome. Vitellla (Laura Wilde) is the daughter of the deposed emperor. She hopes to maintain her status by marrying the new emperor — the too-nice-to-truly-be-an-emperor Tito (Rene Barbera). Tito wants to marry someone else so Vitella figures the only logical thing to do is have him killed.

To do the dirty deed, she enlists the aid of her lover Sesto (Cecelia Hall), who is also best friend to Tito. The plot fails, Sesto is imprisoned, and Vitella has to decide if she should reveal her role in the incident and possibly save her cohort from a fate equal to death.

There’s more to it but you get the gist. “Titus” is one of Mozart’s lesser works but still entertaining. The music is lovely and the musicians are very good. The songs (do they call them songs in opera? Liberettos, then. Or whatever) were challenging but the cast was up to the challenge.

The costumes were lavish. The set design was sparse, in large part because they blew the whole budget on a giant Eagle statue. It hung over the stage, fell to earth at the appropriate time, then rose like a phoenix when required. It was pretty cool.

Remaining performances for “Titus” run June 18, 22 and 24.  https://www.opera-stl.org/

 

 

Baseball: Spawn of Satan

It’s been pretty well established by now that I will do practically anything for my loved ones. I’ll go to the opera, I’ll go to Shakespeare in the Park, I’ll watch movies based on Jane Austen novels, I’ll skip Free Comic Book Day for a wedding, I’ll go on a float trip, I’ll go on a cruise, I’ll get in an airplane.

I’ll do pretty much anything that isn’t an obvious risk to my life, like riding a bobsled or climbing a mountain to look at a lake. I didn’t know floating was dangerous or I would’ve marked that off the list.

Yes, I’ll do anything for family and friends. Even go to a damn St. Louis Cardinals baseball game.

This comes up every couple of years. The Cardinals do some kind of special day and someone gets cheap tickets and there’s usually a free hot dog and soda involved. This year it was SMS Day, and since Sister2 and her husband work there, they got tickets for all the siblings, their spouses, Andrew, and Nephew1’s family.

(Yes, I’m aware SMS is now MSU, but I still call Riverport Amphitheater Riverport Amphitheater and always will, so don’t bother correcting me.)

Friday afternoon 6 family members showed up at my house. We fed them, watched a movie and went to bed. I did not give up my bed for a change because, you know, I can’t move my all-important CPAP machine. At least, that’s the excuse I gave.

The game was to start around 1 p.m. The gang wanted to go down early, but as my luck would have it, there was some charity run going on downtown that morning. You may recall the last time I drove downtown I got stuck in traffic due to a charity run. Dear Charities: Please find somewhere else to run.

19146144_10103031499637564_1619088713922500371_nLaurie mapped out an alternative route and we made it to her parking garage without incident. Everyone was decked out in red — even my poor son was forced to conform. I wore my Hawkeye shirt.

Chuck wanted to see Ballpark Village, which is nothing more than a giant sports bar, but you gotta appease the tourists, so we walked through it on the way to the stadium. They were giving out god-awful ugly Cardinal shirts at the door. They were so ugly I would’ve worn one — if it didn’t have Cardinals crap all over it. We then used our vouchers for a free hot dog and soda and that was lunch. I was surprised to learn the Cardinals let you bring in your own snacks and drinks, so we came loaded down with food. That didn’t stop people from throwing down $5 for frozen lemonade when the man came around.

Made our way to our seats, where we were given free SMS Bears/Cardinals caps. I normally wouldn’t wear such a thing, but it fit nicely on my fat head, and it’s hard to find caps that fit well on my fat head, so I’m keeping it. I still kept my Thule cap on throughout the day.

We were early, so we had plenty of time to sweat it out before game time. Our seats were decent but in the direct sun, which was beating down heartily. I believe the temperature was 205 degrees. It certainly felt like it. I wound up with sunburned knees.

And then, the game began. Ah, Baseball. America’s sport. The same America that gave us President Donald Trump. When God decided to punish man for all his sins he did two things: 1) He kicked us out of the Garden of Eden, and 2) He gave us baseball.

Is there anything more boring and godawful slow as baseball? No, there isn’t. And I should know, I’ve watched Sofia Coppola movies. For those of you lucky enough to have never sat through a professional baseball game, let me paint you a picture:

There are two teams. One team goes into the field while the other goes into the dugout. One by one players leave the dugout to bat. The pitcher throws balls at the batter until the required number of balls or strikes or a hit is achieved. If you hit the ball, you get to run around in a diamond. Whoever makes it around the diamond the most wins.

Sounds exciting, right? And maybe it would be, if that’s what they actually did. But instead, one team goes out into the field and they toss the ball around. The pitcher throws it to the second baseman, he throws it to the first baseman, who throws it to the shortstop, and on and on for about 5 minutes until someone finally comes up to the batter’s box.

The pitcher stares at the batter for a while, throws a ball, waits another 5 minutes, throws a ball. If you’re lucky, they strike them out quickly. But nothing is ever done quickly in baseball. There will usually be 2 strikes and 3 balls and then an ungodly number of foul balls hit before that first out. And God help you if someone gets a hit, because then the pitcher has to decide whether to throw the ball at the batter, or at the guy at the base. This drags things out even longer.

Repeat. 18. Times.

Now, I can understand standing around playing catch when it’s your first time out there. Gotta warm up and all. But after the first inning — STOP SCREWING AROUND. Get On With It. I have places to be. Places with air conditioning. Places with shade. Places with comfortable seating.

19105519_10103031500296244_4945518494026833096_n

Somewhere around the 5th inning I turned to The Wife and I said, “As God as my witness, I’d rather be at Shakespeare in the Park.”

Or “Madame Butterfly.”

Or watching “Poldark.”

Or “Anne of Green Gables.”

Or sitting by the pool all afternoon.

Or having root canal surgery.

I took a few walks to get out of the heat. You know something is bad when I’d rather be exercising.

Eventually it ended. I don’t remember who won or who the other team was. We made it home without incident and that night we ordered pizzas from Stefanina’s. I wanted one of their delicious Buffalo Chicken pizzas, but Sister2 didn’t. Guess who “compromised” and wound up eating barbecue chicken pizza.

That night I got some small revenge for the day’s events by making them all watch “Logan.”

 

At The Movies: The Mummy

It’s hard to believe that a summer action movie starring Tom Cruise and Russell Crowe would pale in comparison to a similar film starring Brendan Fraser, but that’s “The Mummy” for you.

This latest take on the ancient Egyptian creature feature has decent special effects but lacks everything else that made Fraser’s 1999 version memorable — like humor, fun, likable characters and an interesting story.

Cruise stars as soldier/tomb raider Nick Morton. With his partner Chris (Jake Johnson), Nick is on a tour of duty in war-torn Iraq, making time to make off with whatever antiquities he can steal. One day they accidentally uncover the buried tomb of Princess Ahmanet (Sofia Boutella).

the-mummy-poster-2-988842Thousands of years earlier, the princess was in line to be Pharoah of Egypt. When her mother gives birth to a baby boy, a jealous Ahmanet makes a deal with the death god Set. She murders dad and brother and is about to give Set life by murdering her lover when the authorities arrive. They haul the princess off to Mesopotamia, wrap her up and bury her alive, where she stays safely imprisoned until Nick sets her loose.

Chris is killed in the process but comes back as a zombie to give Nick advice. This bit was lifted from “An American Werewolf in London” and probably many other horror movies I can’t remember or haven’t seen.

Archaeologist and potential love interest Jenny Halsey (Annabelle Wallis) takes Nick and the mummy to London to be examined by her boss, Dr. Henry Jelkyll (Russell Crowe), head of a secret organization that hunts monsters and evil. Yes, that Dr. Jelkyll.

If being entombed for centuries isn’t going to keep Ahmanet down, neither are Jelkyll’s chains. Since he set her free, Nick is now the mummy’s “chosen one,” which means she can get in his head and make him do things for her. But what she really wants is to reclaim her magic dagger so she can kill Nick and let Set free.

“The Mummy” is a perfectly average horror/action movie but perfectly average really doesn’t cut it in this day and age. There’s nothing original here, the story is thin and just plods along — it’s a very lackluster affair. The special effects are OK but nothing memorable.

This is the second week in a row where a summer movie opens with a woman in the title role, but “The Mummy” is no “Wonder Woman.” If Universal is hoping to kick off a big monster movie franchise with this film, they need to do a lot better next time.

On Stage: The Winter’s Tale

Shakespeare Festival St. Louis opened this summer’s Shakespeare in the Park production Friday. In the spirit of let’s-get-this-out-of-the-way-as-soon-as-possible, I mean, let’s-go-enjoy-Shakespeare-as-soon-as-we-can, we made the trip to Forest Park on opening night.

I told The Wife to be ready to go when I got home from work, and boy, was she. The cooler was packed, the snacks were packed, I barely had enough time to change into my “God, I Hate Shakespeare” t-shirt — but I made the time. I wish I had taken the time to change into a pair of shorts. It was unseasonably warm that day.

I was tired from work, so I made Laurie drive. This quickly paid off as we soon wound up stalled in rush-hour traffic. But I did not curse, because I was not driving. Eventually things cleared out and we had an uneventful drive until we got on Skinker and Laurie missed the turn into Forest Park. I kept expecting her to turn into the nearest lot and turn around, but instead she kept driving until she saw her moment and MADE A U-TURN IN THE MIDDLE OF THE STREET. Andrew’s having a good laugh.

“I’m not allowed to curse in front of our son but it’s OK for you to make an illegal traffic move in downtown St. Louis on a busy street?”

“Yes, it is.”

I blame Wonder Woman.

We find a spot in the free lot and haul our chairs and gear down the sidewalk past the art museum to Shakespeare Glen. We’re early so we find a good spot to set up camp at stage left. It’s 5:30 so we have 2.5 hours before showtime. The plan is to wear Andrew out before the show so that he will sit in a stupor throughout the show. Laurie takes him on his first walk while I sit in the hot sun and guard our possessions. They eventually come back and Laurie and I split a sandwich while Andrew eats grapes. Then I take him for a second walk and get him a jumbo hot dog at the concession stand and we find a picnic table where he quickly devours the dog. We go back and sit a spell then around 7 p.m. we take one final walk and visit the porta-potties. At one point a lady asks if she can take my picture.

“It’s because you were wearing that ‘God, I Hate Shakespeare’ t-shirt,” Laurie says.

“Are you sure it’s not because she was taken by my rugged good looks,” I says.

“Of course. What was I thinking?”

poster-winter-tale-2017This year’s production was “The Winter’s Tale,” a Shakespeare play so obscure that even my wife had never read it or seen it performed. Needless to say, I had no idea what it was about. Luckily, I had plenty of time to read the plot synopsis in the program before the show started.

“Winter’s Tale” was one of the Bard’s latter and lesser plays — it’s part tragedy, part comedy and filled with your usual Shakespearean cliches.

King Leontes of Sicilia (Charles Pasternak) becomes convinced his pregnant wife Hermione (Cherie Corinne Rice) has had an affair with his best friend, King Polixenes of Bohemia (Chauncy Thomas). The queen is put on trial for treason while Polix gets the hell outta Dodge.

Hermione gives birth to a girl but the king wants nothing to do with her. The child is secreted away but her caretaker is eaten by a bear. The infant is found by a shepherd (Whit Reichert) who raises her as his own. Hermione dies and the king realizes his mistake and is very sorry for it.

The Son has held up pretty well by this point. The only real distraction in our area is a couple of people behind us who won’t stop talking. They’re speaking a foreign language so I can’t understand a word they say, but that’s OK because I can’t understand a word that’s being said on stage and they’re speaking English.

When we get back from intermission, 16 years have passed. The young castaway, Perdita (Cassia Thompson), is now a young woman who is in love with Florizel (Pete Winfrey), son of King Polixenes. Everyone is eventually reconciled and Hermione is revealed as never having died in the first place. Hooray.

I know all this in large part thanks to the synopsis, but also because we are told what happens by second-party characters in lieu of actually showing us what’s happening on stage. This is a fairly common failing of Shakespeare. After sitting for 2 hours in an uncomfortable lawn chair, I would like to see these characters interact, not be told about it from some court jester or other.

“The Winter’s Tale” is a decent show but there’s a reason it’s not one of The Bard’s better known plays. I don’t recall hearing any notable quotables in the show, and isn’t that how we all judge Shakespeare’s works? The cast is fine, the set and costumes are fine, the musicians are good. It’s a solid production.

The Son made it through without incident and that’s what I’m most concerned about. The Wife enjoyed it and that’s all that matters.