At The Movies: Dunkirk; Valerian

Two very different movies open this weekend and both are worth seeing in a theater with a really big screen and glorious, glorious air conditioning.

Dunkirk

Writer/Director Christopher Nolan delivers an unconventional yet impressive war movie  with “Dunkirk.” He avoids traditional storytelling techniques to present a film that puts the audience in the center of the action.

The year is 1940, and in the early stages of the Second World War, soldiers from Britain, France, Belgium and Canada find themselves trapped on the beaches at Dunkirk, France. The German army is closing in and their only hope of survival is to board a boat that will take them across the English Channel.

dunkirk-posterThe film takes place on three different fronts, each with its own time frame. The main story takes place on the beach and centers on a British army private named Tommy (Fionn Whitehead). Tommy goes through several grueling trials while attempting to get out of Dunkirk.

The second story takes place at sea, where Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) takes his private boat into the channel with plans to bring back as many soldiers as he and his son can fit on board. Along the way they rescue a soldier (Cillian Murphy) who has no intention of going back to Dunkirk.

The third tale takes place in the air, where a pair of Royal Air Force pilots (Tom Hardy and Jack Lowden) fight off German aircraft intent on bombing any ships at sea or soldiers on the beach.

The film veers back and fourth between the three stages. It is told with minimal dialogue and maximum attention to detail. Everything takes place in the now and on the front lines — there are no flashbacks to happier times, no scenes of loved ones back home, no moments with world leaders making plans. This is a “you are there” story in its most visceral and basic form.

Valieran and the City of a Thousand Planets

“Strong visuals, weak story.” I bet I’ve typed those words more than a thousand times over the years since I got in the movie reviewing biz. And nowhere is it more true than with Luc Besson’s science fiction epic, “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets.”

Based on a French comic book series by Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mezieres, the movie features a variety of weird, wonderful, colorful and surreal planets, places, and creatures. Then the plot comes along and gets in the way.

The film begins with a montage showing how a small Earth space station grows over the decades as new life forms show up to visit. Eventually Space Station Alpha becomes too big to be in the planet’s orbit, so it is sent off into deep space. As Alpha travels it continues to grow as other beings latch onto it and craft their own worlds on top of it. And so the space station becomes the City of a Thousand Planets.

Cool, huh?

From there we are whisked off to a beautiful blue planet with gorgeous beaches and tall, thin people who spend their days gathering colorful pearls. It’s all lovely, peaceful and surreal until alien spaceships come crashing down on it.

It’s very cool.

valerian_and_the_city_of_a_thousand_planets-241302562-largeBut then, alas, we have to kick into a story. Meet Major Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Sergeant Laureline (Cara Delevingne), two top cops working for whatever government there is that regulates outer space. In addition to being the best law enforcement agents in the universe, the duo are lovers. Valerian has a history as a ladies man, but he seriously wants to marry Laureline.

If it seems odd that characters we’re meeting for the first time (unless you read a lot of French comic books, and I’m assuming you haven’t. I’ve read a lot of comic books and even I don’t know who these people are.) are acting like we’ve been watching their movies for years, well, that’s far from the oddest thing about this movie. But it is on par with how odd this movie is.

Val and Lar get called to Alpha Station where a pocket of radioactivity has been discovered at the station’s core. Attempts to investigate have failed, so the galaxy’s top officers have been brought in on the case.

“Valerian” is a feast for the eyes, best observed on a very large screen. The story is nothing to write home about but the visuals make up for it. The first half of the film is a wonderful hodgepodge of scenes full of clever, creative bits. But by the end it gets bogged down in a bog-standard tale involving corrupt military leaders and accidental planetary genocide.

The leads appear way too young to play the worldly, experienced people they are supposed to be. It doesn’t help that DeHann sounds distractingly like Keanu Reeves.

“Valerian” will no doubt be compared to “The Fifth Element,” the director’s previous sci-fi fantasy film. It looks and feels a great deal like that earlier effort. “Valerian” has a grander scale and better special effects, but I think “The Fifth Element” was a stronger film overall.

 

 

 

At The Movies: Wish Upon

If you’re hoping that “Wish Upon” is a classic horror movie with chills, thrills, shocking twists and buckets of blood — wish again.

This is possibly the most pedestrian horror movie I’ve ever seen. The PG-13 rating ensures there won’t be lots of gore or shocking, horrific deaths, but who wants to watch an antiseptic horror film? And sure, you can make up for the lack of gruesomeness with a creepy, compelling story — but “Wish Upon” doesn’t have that either.

Joey King stars as Clare Shannon, who sits at the bottom of the high school social order with her two friends. Her mother is dead, her father is an embarrassment.

wish-upon-nuovo-trailer-e-poster-del-thriller-horror-con-joey-king-2One day while dumpster diving, dad (Ryan Phillippe) finds an antique Chinese music box, which he brings home to Clare. She can’t open it, and the only thing she can make out are the words “Seven Wishes.” Her first wish, since she’s a sweetheart of a girl, is that the most popular girl in school “go rot.”

The next day Miss Popular winds up in the hospital with a flesh-eating virus. At the same time Clare’s beloved dog dies. Coincidences? Maybe. But after a second wish comes true, Clare begins to believe.

Now a sympathetic character, upon realizing what’s going on, would’ve used her next wish to reverse the first wish, and maybe wish for world peace or a new president. Instead, Clare wishes for popularity, a boyfriend, and that her dad not be such a loser. Concurrently, bad things — like dying horribly — are happening to people around her.

With help from a potential love interest, Clare learns the rules: Every wish must be paid off with a blood debt; everything will go back to normal if you get rid of the box; if you complete seven wishes you will die.

Now the audience has figured this out long before Clare has. And the audience would not proceed to do any of the stupid things that Clare does. The movie plods its way to its inevitable ending and you’re left thinking “I wish I had gone to ‘War for the Planet of the Apes.”

In addition to being totally predictable and toothless, the film suffers for not having any characters you can root for. Clare makes so many bad choices you can’t feel sorry for her and her best friend is so obnoxious you can’t wait for her to get what’s coming to her.

Now that I think about it, teenagers may really like this.

 

At The Movies: Spider-Man: Homecoming

“Amazing” and “Spectacular” are the two adjectives most often used in conjunction with Spider-Man. But in recent years they haven’t really applied to his movie career.

The first two films by Sam Raimi and Toby Maguire fit the bill, but then the third one was a mess. The franchise was rebooted with Andrew Garfield, but that series was so misguided they didn’t even complete the trilogy.

As a result, in true comic book fashion, Sony Pictures (which has the rights to make Spider-Man movies) did a team-up with Marvel Studios (the movie arm of Marvel Entertainment, birthplace and comic book home of Spider-Man) for a third reboot of the wall-crawler.

Spidey would go back to his teenage roots and would become a member of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. He made his MCU debut in “Captain America: Civil War” and is now fronting his first (for this incarnation) solo movie.

The result is amazing. And spectacular.

MV5BNTk4ODQ1MzgzNl5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMTMyMzM4MTI@._V1_UY1200_CR80,0,630,1200_AL_Tom Holland stars as young Peter Parker, and we first encounter our hero through a home video made by Peter that gives us a humorous inside look at his role in “Civil War.” But now that mission is over and he’s itching for the next one.

His mentor, Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) doesn’t feel Spider-Man is ready for the A-team, and he’s too busy to coach him, so he leaves Peter in the hands of his trusted friend Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau).  Happy isn’t too happy with the situation and ignores Peter’s frequent phone calls.

Elsewhere in New York, Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton) has been building a good business by hoarding alien technology left over from the Chitauri invasion and using it to create new weapons that he can sell on the black market. One weapon he’s kept for himself is a flying suit that earns him the name Vulture.

Needless to say, Spider-Man and the Vulture are going to come to blows. In dizzying, dazzling, summer movie fashion.

“Spider-Man: Homecoming” proves that you really can take a movie franchise that has been beaten down and seen better days and revive it into something fresh, funny and exciting. Director Jon Watts has put together a perfect blend of action, comedy, special effects, surprises and characters that you care about.

A large part of making the franchise fresh was the decision to take Peter back to his teen years and jettison or render unrecognizable a great deal of his supporting cast. Marisa Tomei is not your grandmother’s Aunt May. Uncle Ben is nowhere to be seen. J. Jonah Jameson and the Daily Bugle have not yet entered the picture. Peter now has a best friend (Jacob Batalon) and a multi-cultural lineup of high school comrades. One thing hasn’t changed — the Parker luck when it comes to women, in this case Liz (Laura Harrier).

“Homecoming” solidly brings Spider-Man into the Marvel movie world. If you haven’t been following the Marvel Studios films then you may feel a little lost, but then what are the odds you’re going to a Spider-Man movie and aren’t already well versed in the MCU?

This isn’t an origin story, a brief mention of being bitten by a spider is all you get. And that’s a good thing, because everyone knows Spidey’s origin by now, so best to just get down to business. Funny, amazing, spectacular business.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Can’t Touch This (or Reflections on Joelfest 2017)

All my life I’ve wanted to be a hashtag. Aside from all those years when such a thing didn’t exist. Even now that it exists I don’t really know what it is. It’s a millennial thing, so I stay away from it.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Two Saturdays past was Joelfest 2017. If you don’t know what that is, read the F.A.Q. The Joelfest Selection Committee plans this thing well in advance, and the invitation is sent out January 1, so the people who don’t show up don’t show up because they hate me and not because they have a previous engagement — because no one plans out their June activities in January.

Granted, had I known in December how busy I was going to be the week of June 24, I would have suggested another date. But despite how much crap I had to deal with that week, I still made time for the quinquennial festival of William Joel. Because I care.

I used to care that people didn’t show up for Joelfest, but not anymore. I’m old now and I understand that everyone really hates me, so the mere fact that anyone shows up says something — I’m not sure what. And I can’t hold a grudge if someone decides a last-minute trip to Iceland with the kids is more important than seeing an old friend of 38 years. Right? I can’t hold a grudge about that. Can I?

The week’s festivities began Wednesday with a short trip to Columbia so The Wife could attend a work thing. The Son and I spent most of the time in the hotel pool and hot tub (which were wondrously empty for the most part). We tried to walk the campus but it was hot and muggy and Andrew almost immediately had a meltdown, so we wound up at the mall instead.

I did get to visit a new comic book shop (screw you, Rock Bottom — any comic shop that bags its books before putting them out no longer gets my business) and had pizza at Shakespeare’s and a gyro at G&D, so it was a successful trip overall. We returned home Friday in time for a little cleaning followed by opera. The next morning there was more cleaning, grocery shopping, and general preparations. In some respects it was probably good that we didn’t spend the whole week at home as that would’ve given Laurie too much time to obsess over the cleaning.

First to arrive were longtime Joelfesters Ron and Laura Leigh, all the way in from Florida (which makes everyone who claims “Oh, St. Charles is too far away” look like the sissies they are). They were followed by longtime Joelfester Scott and his wife Kim, the latter of whom was the big winner in this year’s hotly contested 50 Days of Joelfest trivia challenge. Laurie went out to get pizza and when she came back, she had Jay with her.

Now, when Jay Chism dies I will write a long and heartfelt obituary about him, but since I’m likely to go first, I’d better just go ahead and say a few nice things now. I’ve known Jay since, I believe, kindergarten, and he’s one of my oldest and dearest friends. Jay doesn’t say he’s coming to Joelfest and not show up. Jay makes no pretense that he’s coming to Joelfest. He just shows up. Once he showed up in Kansas City (where I was living at the time) instead of Columbia (where the party was actually held). We laugh about it now — it probably wasn’t so funny for him at the time.

So we sat in the back yard and had a nice chat while all the other guests showed up and Laurie played hostess while also dealing with Andrew’s inevitable meltdowns (Joelfest is one of those rare occasions where I’m not the one dealing with the meltdowns). There was Liz and Ann and Gena and Christine & family and Tina & family and Melfy & family and Stevie and Coffin Joe and Paul and Julie and the Leahs.

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A pretty good crowd for a Saturday.

Now, I’m not a big rules guy. When you come into my house, I don’t make you take off your shoes. You’re welcome to put your feet up on my coffee table. You can have anything in the fridge or the pantry. Want to take a nap on the couch? Fine. Leave the seat up when you’re done in the bathroom? I don’t give a damn.

I only ask one thing: Don’t Touch My Stuff.

This really shouldn’t even be a rule. It’s really just common sense, common decency, common courtesy. I don’t come into your house and touch your stuff. I am not an animal or a 2-year-old. I had parents who raised me right. But I realize now that I’m living in Trump’s America, so I have to spell things out. But when I say “don’t touch my stuff,” all I’m really saying is “be a decent human being.”

By midnight things had wound down and Stevie ran off because a young person can only stand so many minutes of 50-somethings talking about dealing with their aging parents. The next morning I hopped onto Facebook to get caught up on yesterday’s events only to discover that not I, but my stuff, had become a hashtag.

#nottouchingroysstuff

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There’s more. So much more. But this is a family blog and some of the things that were done to my stuff is not appropriate for all ages.

This is the world we live in, where “friends” can touch your stuff with abandon and then post photographs of it. Smiling. And while I’ll never be a trending topic on the Internet, at least my stuff will be.

You know who didn’t touch my stuff? Jay. And Jay had every reason to get back at me. And not because of that whole Kansas City/Columbia mix-up. No, many years ago, when we were like, 10, I pushed him off a wagon into the mud and cow manure at Warren Argall’s dairy farm. Why did I do it? I don’t know! I was 10! Kids do stupid things! And yet Jay loves to bring up that story every chance he gets — including Joelfest 2017.

So, thanks Jay, for not touching my stuff.

Or at least being smart enough not to leave behind photographic evidence.

See you in 2022.

 

Wherever They’s A Guy Trying To Get Out Of The Opera, I’ll Be There

Our final show for the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis’ 2017 season was a new version of John Steinbeck’s classic “The Grapes of Wrath.” I was initially looking forward to the performance. I had actually read the book, either in a college or high school literature class. I was familiar with the story.

But then I saw that it had a run-time of roughly 3 hours. Normally, I could handle that. But this was not a normal week.

1478828905_5efvy_1478541922_u3sfj_grapesblogpictureWednesday night we left St. Charles for Columbia so The Wife could attend a conference. Thursday I spend most of the day poolside with The Son, breaking only for food. Friday we returned home, did some pre-party prep, and headed out to the opera (The Trial — see above). Saturday: Joelfest. Sunday, hang out with the friends who spent the night, post-party cleanup, 3-hour opera. We don’t normally schedule 2 operas in 3 days, but we had to move one of our operas for a Cardinals game (see Baseball – Spawn of Satan) and Sunday night was the only option. I was not looking forward to capping off a long, busy week with 3 hours sitting in the frankly uncomfortable seating at the  Loretto-Hilton Center (Leg room — invest in it).

Oh, and did I mention Sunday is also our wedding anniversary? I agreed to moving the opera to Sunday night in part to get out of having to come up with something to do for our anniversary.

So it’s now Saturday night and Joelfest is going swimmingly and The Wife’s best friend Christine is sitting across the room and I figure it’s time we began our dance.

“Christine, what are you doing tomorrow night?”

“Hmm, I don’t know Ron. No plans.”

“How would you like to go to the opera with Laurie?”

Now, here’s what you need to understand: Christine and I have this conversation 4 times a year, every year. It always ends with “Gee Ron, I’d love to go, but I think you should go. It would be good for you and you should spend the time with Laurie.”

So I’m all ready for that line and instead I hear,

“Sure. I’d like to go.”

Wait. What just happened? Did I just get out of going to the opera? Have I been drinking? Has Christine? I have a room full of witnesses that heard her say she’d take my place at the opera.

And so it was that Sunday, after the last of the Joelfest revelers had left for parts unknown, I took The Son to the pool (because Lord knows he deserved some pool time after the past two days) while The Wife went to visit her mother. That night Laurie and Christine went to some fru-fru place for dinner then enjoyed an evening at the opera (I’m told it was an excellent show). I spend the night on the couch, eating Little Smokies and chips and dip while binge-watching Parks and Recreation until I passed out.

Best. Anniversary. Ever.

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.