At The Movies: The Great Wall

History books tell us that the Great Wall of China  was built to protect the public against the invading Mongol hordes. The alternative facts presented in “The Great Wall” tell us the structure was built to keep out monsters from the pits of hell (or rather a green meteorite).

At least that’s the plot of this visually interesting but otherwise flat and predictable movie.

William Garin (Matt Damon) and Pero Tovar (Pedro Pascal) are a pair of mercenaries who have come to China to bring back the explosive, mysterious “black powder.” Neither of them have seen the stuff, because no one who has gone in search of it has come back alive.

One night the group is attacked by a monster and all die except Will and Pero. William kills the beast and keeps one of its arms as a souvenir. The next day they’re being chased through the hills by some horde or other when they run smack dab into the Great Wall. William decides to take his chances with the people behind the wall and surrenders to them.

p_ho00004241On the other side of the wall are a large contingent of soldiers of various skills. They are shocked when they find the monstrous arm among William’s possessions and even more surprised when he claims to have killed the monster to whom it was formerly attached. In no time everyone is called to battle stations as a screeching, endless swarm of monsters begins an assault on the wall.

Although prisoners, William and Pero join the battle, killing several monsters and saving lives. This endears them to the soldiers, especially  Commander Lin Mae (Jing Tian), the only officer in the group that speaks English.

She learned the language from Sir Ballard (Willem Dafoe), a fellow European who came China 25 years ago in search of the black powder and has been a prisoner ever since. Ballard would love to help the duo escape — and with plenty of black powder — but William isn’t ready to leave just yet.

“The Great Wall” is directed by Zhang Yimou (“Hero,” “House of Flying Daggers”) so you can expect some lovely and exciting visuals. In that regard the film doesn’t disappoint. The highlight comes in the initial siege on the wall, as the Chinese soldiers pull out all the stops to fight the monsters — including bungee-jumping women fighters with long spears.

But alas, you can’t get by on just good special effects anymore — if ever. The story between the action sequences is as lifeless and pedestrian as movies get.

It’s a great wall alright. Just not a very great movie.

 

Ah, The Arts! Degas, Impressionism, and the Paris Millinery Trade

If someone had told me there was going to be an art exhibit about hats and paintings of women wearing hats, I would’ve said, “Now I see why Trump wants to end arts funding.”

But it sounded good to The Wife, and so it was that Saturday morning the Family RRoy made our way to Forest Park to catch the opening weekend of “Degas, Impressionism, and the Paris Millinery Trade” at the Saint Louis Art Museum.

Mother Nature, cruel mistress that she is, decided it wasn’t enough punishment that I had to go to the art museum, she also turned Saturday into a beautiful Spring day…in February. And you know what that means — every stinking idiot in the greater St. Louis metropolitan area is going to converge on Forest Park for the day. It didn’t matter that we weren’t going to the zoo. No, all that mattered was there wasn’t going to be any parking anywhere and driving it in would be a nightmare.

So, I let The Wife drive. She was the one wanting to go after all.

Traffic wasn’t too bad until we got to Art Hill. We foolishly pulled into the nearest free lot thinking maybe there would be one spot open. Of course we got trapped as people waited for other people to leave and blocked the way around. Eventually we escaped and said, “screw it,” and went to the art museum’s parking lot. It’s only $5 for members, and $5 for parking beats the 5 years it takes off my life every time I have to sit in traffic in Forest Park.

Our usual strategy for art exhibitions is Laurie goes in first and Andrew and I bum around until she’s finished (roughly 1 hour, depending on the size of the exhibit) and then I go in while she waits with Andrew (roughly 15 minutes, depending on how crowded it is and how quickly I can get around people). We arrived at 12:20 and there was a French class Laurie wanted to attend at 1 p.m. I doubted her ability to get through the exhibit in 40 minutes, but she seemed to think she could, so she went to the exhibit hall and Andrew and I walked in circles around the outdoor statue garden for a half-hour. It was a nice day for it.

We got back to the exhibit hall close to 1 and L was just leaving the exhibit. “Did you see all you wanted to see?” I asked incredulously. “Yes,” she replied. “Did you enjoy it?” I queried. “Yes,” she replied.

Laurie went to the French class and Andrew and I had a leisurely visit in the restroom. Andrew likes to take his time in the restroom. I usually rush him out when we’re in public but since we had nowhere else to go I indulged him. Fifteen minutes later we went and found some big, comfy chairs and waited for French class to be over.

A half-hour later Laurie emerged from class. She suggested I go through the art show while she and Andrew went to the garage and got our picnic lunch and set it up out on the lawn. That seemed about right. In the time it would take them to do that I should easily walk through the Hats and Paintings of People Wearing Hats exhibit.

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“D, I & the PMT” features 60 paintings and a number of elaborate hats dating back to the Impressionist era of artist Edgar Degas. Apparently Degas was fascinated by high-fashion hats and the women who made them — my guess is he was more interested in the women who made them, but I could be wrong. I don’t know anything about Degas.

There were some pretty funky-looking hats, I will say. Hats with birds on them, hats with giant flowers and etc. The paintings were predominantly portraits of women in hats by Degas and other masters of the era like Manet, Renoir and Toulouse-Lautrec. There was also a small section of men’s hats — basic black bowlers and top hats — and some paintings of men in hats.

I have to say this was not one of my favorite art shows. Nothing really stood out to me. But it was OK and I made it through in record time and got to the picnic spot before they had eaten all the food.
“Degas, Impressionism, and the Paris Millinery Trade” runs through May 7 at the Saint Louis Art Museum. http://www.slam.org/

At The Movies: John Wick Chapter 2

I did not see “John Wick” when it first came out. The plot — retired assassin goes on revenge spree after his dog is killed — just sounded too stupid. But it kept getting rave reviews so I eventually checked it out on video.

Wow. What a great film. Sure, it’s a heaping pile of revenge movie clichés, but it’s so well done.  Naturally, success breeds sequels, so here we are with “John Wick: Chapter 2.” Again, I had my doubts. The first film told a complete story — was there really anywhere else to go with this character?

Once again I had made the same mistake common to many of his enemies — I had underestimated John Wick. Fortunately, I am not John Wick’s enemy, so I am alive to tell the tale.

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The movie opens by cleaning up some leftover business from the first film, as John (Keanu Reeves) goes tearing through New York City to retrieve his stolen car. The car is in the possession of a thug (Peter Stormare) who calmly explains to his aide — and anyone in the audience who hadn’t seen the first movie — just how dangerous John Wick is. In the first of many dizzying, brutal, and expertly choreographed action sequences, John goes through a dozen or so of the chop shop owner’s employees before driving away in his now totaled (damaged in the fight, of course) Mustang.

John goes home, intending to continue with his retirement, when a visitor from the past shows up on his doorstep. Italian crime lord Santino D’Antonio ( Riccardo Scamarcio) is calling in a marker — a blood debt that John owes him. Insisting he’s still retired, John refuses Santino’s request. Santino responds by blowing up John’s house.

Now, in the world of John Wick there are many rules and regulations overseeing the assassination trade. John goes to Winston (Ian McShane) for advice. Winston runs the Continental Hotel, a safe haven for assassins, and he pretty much oversees the rules of the business.

Winston tells John he has no choice but to pay off his debt. John meets with Santino and is told his job is to kill Santino’s rival-and-sister, Gianna (Claudia Gerini). She’s well protected, of course, and killing her could lead to even more trouble for our retired assassin.

Directed once again by Chad Stahelski, this sequel features the usual excesses that sequels often have, but in this case that works to the film’s favor. The fight scenes, the chases and the gun battles are all bigger and more explosive than last time around. But unlike bad sequels, this one doesn’t lose the heart or imaginative style that set the first film apart. Keanu’s portrayal of John Wick continues to evoke our sympathy and support, even as he’s shooting people in the head again and again and again.

“John Wick: Chapter 2” is a clever and fitting continuation of the John Wick saga. And it sets things up nicely for the next installment, which I will not be so quick to prejudge.

At The Movies: The Lego Batman Movie

Oh Batman, is there anything you can’t do?

Star of countless comic books, movies, TV shows (mainly cartoons), lunch boxes, T-shirts, coloring books, video games and so much more.  Now, he’s been shrunk down and turned to plastic for “The Lego Batman Movie.” But he’s still just as bad-ass as ever.

As voiced by Will Arnett, Batman was the break-out character of surprise hit “The Lego Movie.” So naturally Lego and DC wasted no time in putting the Dark Knight at the forefront of a film based on little plastic blocks you use to build stuff.

Lego Batman loves to narrate. In fact, he can’t wait for the movie to start before he has something to say. Arnett’s gravelly tone perfectly brings the character to life. This Batman is a bit more egotistical than other Batmen, with a sarcastic bent and sense of humor. Ah, humor — the newly forming DC movie universe could learn a lot from Lego Batman.

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The film opens with Batman taking down pretty much his entire rogues gallery in one dizzying action sequence. After basking in the cheers of the crowd, Bats heads home to a life of solitude. Trusted butler Alfred (Ralph Fiennes) wishes his surrogate son would take a break from crime fighting and maybe settle down, but Batman will have none of that.

That night Bruce Wayne (you know who he is) attends a retirement party for Police Commissioner James Gordon (Hector Elizondo). Gordon is being replaced as top cop by his daughter Barbara (Rosario Dawson). Bruce becomes tongue-tied and googly-eyed at the sight of Barbara. In fact, he gets so distracted that he absent-mindedly agrees to adopt an earnest orphan named Richard Grayson (Michael Cera). Dick, of course, goes on to become Batman’s unwanted (at least initially) sidekick, Robin.

Meanwhile, the Joker (Zach Galifianakis) has concocted a scheme to bring together the greatest villains of all time to help him take over Gotham City. Maybe that will make Batman admit who is his true arch-enemy.

“The Lego Batman Movie” is silly fun for Batfans of all ages. The movie pays homage (or rather takes shots) to every Batman movie and bat-related character out there.  There are even guest appearances by Superman and the Justice League.

The action pieces are frenetic and colorful and sometimes go on too long. The jokes come at a rapid clip as well and are for the most part successful. The most tiring aspect of “The Lego Batman Movie” is the theme that Batman Needs A Family — which is really beaten to death. But then that’s fairly common in kids’ movies. And to be fair, subtlety isn’t really one of Batman’s traits. Especially not Lego Batman.

Movie Batmen have been in grim-and-gritty mode for quite some time so it’s refreshing to see the lighter side of Batman take the stage for a change.

 

On Stage: Something Rotten!

Whether you love or hate William Shakespeare (there’s one of each in my family) and whether you love or hate musical theater, you’ll find something to applaud in “Something Rotten!” The Renaissance-era comedy is playing through Feb. 19 at the Fox Theatre.

Written by John O’Farrel and Karey Kirkpatrick  with music and lyrics by Karey and Wayne Kirkpatrick,  “Something Rotten” opened on Broadway in 2015. This high-energy spoof of musicals and The Bard is the funniest show I’ve seen in a long time.

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Adam Pascal and the cast of the Something Rotten! National Tour. Photo © Jeremy Daniel

The story takes place in 1595 London with the opening number “Welcome to the Renaissance” setting the stage. Everything’s new and exciting at this time in world history and at the center of attention is famed playwright William Shakespeare (Adam Pascal). The Bard is pretty much the Elvis of the era.

Not everyone loves Shakespeare – particularly struggling playwright Nick Bottom (Rob McClure). Nick had kicked Will out of his acting troupe years ago and advised him to take up writing. Now, the excitable Nick and his timid brother/writing partner Nigel (Josh Grisetti) aren’t having any luck coming up with a successful show. In fact, their patron has given them one day to come up with a winning idea or they’re going to be booted from the theater.

In desperation, Nick goes looking for a soothsayer. He finds Thomas Nostradamus (Blake Hammond), nephew of the famous seer. Nick pays for one good idea and Thomas has a doozy: musical comedy.

At first Nick scoffs at the idea that audiences would watch a show in which people spontaneously burst into song and dance in the course of telling a story. But Thomas and the chorus win him over in the show-stopping number “A Musical.”

Nick takes this idea to Nigel and their theater troupe. They decide to make a go of it but there’s another problem — what is this musical going to be about?  Eventually Nick returns to Thomas for help, asking him to look into the future and find Shakespeare’s greatest work so that he can steal it. Thomas’ vision gets scrambled in translation and Nick eventually ends up with egg on his face.

There’s a lot more going on, including an obligatory love story (the weakest link in the show), but the rest it’s best you discover on your own. “Something Rotten” features a number of hilarious, often exhilarating, musical numbers, such as “God, I Hate Shakespeare,” “Will Power,” “Bottom’s Gonna Be On Top,” and “Hard to Be the Bard.” There’s even a lovely inspiration number, “To Thine Own Self.”

“Something Rotten” references dozens of musicals and Shakespeare plays in wicked, rapid-fire succession — good luck trying to catch them all.

The cast is terrific, especially McClure as the manic Nick Bottom, Hammond as the not-so-all-seeing Nostradamus and Pascal as the charming, conceited Bard. The show also boasts colorful costumes and a fine set design.

But what makes “Something Rotten!” something deliciously entertaining are its smart songs, clever story and talented cast.

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The cast of the Something Rotten! National Tour. Photo © Jeremy Daniel

“Something Rotten!” runs through Feb. 19 at the Fox Theatre. http://www.fabulousfox.com/

At The Movies: The Space Between Us

“The Space Between Us” has an interesting germ of an idea — astronaut unaware she’s pregnant when she and her crew blast off for Mars — and then crash-lands it with a sappy, predictable teen romance on Earth.

To be fair, the warning signs were there in the opening scene, with some truly cringe-worthy dialogue. Gary Oldman stars as Nathaniel Shepherd, the mastermind behind plans to begin a colony on Mars. The first six astronauts to live in the oddly-named East Texas compound are led by Sarah Elliott (Janet Montgomery).

Apparently Sarah had a little too much pre-flight entertainment and as the months-long trek to the red planet progresses, it turns out her space sickness is really morning sickness.

the_space_between_us_posterThey can’t turn the ship around and so Sarah gives birth on Mars, and promptly dies  from the stress of Martian childbirth. Back home, Shepherd and his staff are debating how to deal with the new development. Shepherd concludes the public would not approve and funding for the project would dry up. So the boy’s existence is kept a secret.

Now, this could’ve been interesting — especially the thought of a half-dozen men (Sarah was the only woman on the team) trying to raise an infant in a hostile environment without diapers or milk or pacifiers. But we’ll never know how they pulled it off because the next thing you know the baby is 16 years old.

Gardner (Asa Butterfield) seems to be living a pretty well-adjusted life, considering the circumstances. Astronaut Kendra Wyndham (Carla Gugino) has taken over as surrogate mother, and Gardner has a pen pal on Earth named Tulsa (Britt Robertson). Mars has an impressive internet connection.

While going through his mother’s belonging, Gardner finds a video of Sarah and a man he assumes is his father. Gardner becomes determined to visit Earth and meet dad. Shepherd rejects the idea, fearing that Gardner’s body could not adjust to life on the home planet. Shepherd is overruled, and Kendra and Gardner catch the first rocket to the third rock from the sun.

Gardner is put in quarantine until they can determine if it’s safe for him. As is the way in these kinds of movies, Gardner grows impatient and escapes. Not only does a teen who’s never been to this planet, not to mention has trouble adjusting to the gravity and atmosphere, manage to escape NASA and stay one step ahead of his keepers — he also manages to travel cross-country to find Tulsa.

Gardner is earnest, optimistic and lacks social skills. Tulsa is cynical, streetwise but has a heart of gold under that tough exterior. They crash an airplane, steal multiple cars, fall in love, all while making their way to dad’s place. Shepherd and Kendra are always two steps behind.

“The Space Between Us” has its enlarged heart in the right place, but it’s just too sappy, silly and predictable to recommend. There is some nice scenery, I’ll give it that.

The End Of The World As I Know It

The first comic book shop I ever set foot in was probably the one in downtown Springfield, Missouri. It wasn’t really a comic book shop, it was an old, used bookstore, but in the window it had a sign: ‘Marvel Comics On Sale Here.’

I don’t remember how I got there — downtown was not a spot we ever visited in Springfield — but get there I did. It was old and musty with books stacked unevenly and all over. Classic old, used bookstore. But in one area were a couple of shelves with all new comics. Not the spinner-racks I was used to at Wood’s supermarket. Next to the shelves were stacks of old comics.

A store that specialized in selling comic books. What a wonderful idea. I wonder if it will catch on.

imagesSurprisingly, It did. The first comic book shop I was  frequent customer of was Rock Bottom Books and Comics in Columbia, Missouri. It was within walking distance of the dorm so I would trek there often to peruse the new comics. I still had a subscription to ‘Avengers’ and ‘X-Men’ back home so I didn’t need to actually buy any comics, but that didn’t stop me from walking up the long stairway to Rock Bottom and while away the hours looking through the spinner racks. I was young back then and didn’t see any problem with going into a store and reading their books and not buying anything. Eventually my subscriptions ran out and I did turn my business over to Rock Bottom.

There have been many other shops over the years, and even more locations (comic book shops tend to move around a lot). While living in Springfield I sometimes visited Duckburg Comics. Years later it would turn out the owners of that shop would be our frequent companions at LawyerCon.

When The Wife had a job interview in St. Charles I went along for the ride. While she was interviewing I went for a walk on Main Street and discovered the St. Charles Journal, where I would soon go to work, and FBN: The Fantasy Shop, a comic book shop just down the street. (FBN, I eventually learned, stood for “Fly By Night,” the Rush song) The Fantasy Shop went on to become the McDonald’s of comic book shops in St. Louis, with locations all over. They dropped the FBN moniker.

There are a surprising number of comic book shops in St. Louis. I admit I haven’t even been to all of them. For the most part I split my money between The Fantasy Shop, now in its third location since I moved here, and Comic Book Relief, which is next door to Beer, Bait & Bullets.

If you watch “The Big Bang Theory” you know that new comics arrive at the shop once a week. The day has changed over the years but for some time now New Comic Book Day is Wednesday. It makes for a nice break in the work week. Every Wednesday I pick up my son after work and we drive to FS or CBR, I rifle through the new books, check out any new merchandise, pick up a book or two along with the Comic Shop News (it’s free, as it should be because it’s not really worth paying for), pay the man at the cash register (it’s usually a  man) and be on my way.

It’s been part of my routine for almost 40 years.

The Internet, as we all know, has ruined everything. A few years back publishers started making comic books available in a digital format. Rather than buying a physical, paper comic book as God intended, you could download one off a website and read it on your computer.

What a stupid idea. Who wants to read a comic book on a computer? How inconvenient is that? Then tablets came along and suddenly it was maybe more convenient but still, why would you give up your comic book for a digital file on a computer?

marvel-digital-code-350x217Once digital comics took off, Marvel started offering free codes in its comics. Type the 10-digit code into your computer and you’d get a free digital copy of that comic. I still wasn’t sold. I continued buying my comics and ignoring the codes. Then one day Marvel had a special deal where you could download like 300 comics for free. Suddenly, digital comics didn’t seem so stupid.

I went through the various hoops and downloaded several books. I then proceeded to read them on my son’s Ipad. HOLY CRAP. This is awesome! The art is crisper. The colors are more vibrant. And best of all, you can zoom in on individual panels and blow up images as large as you like — making it significantly easier for old, cataracted, eyes to read the captions.

Digital comics, where have you been all my life?

I quickly began downloading every code in every comic I had that had not already expired. I now had a new weekly routine. Go to the comic book shop, buy a comic, bring it home and read it, download the digital copy, put the comic on the shelf, and hereafter re-read it in digital. It was the best of both worlds. So naturally it couldn’t last.

Last month Marvel announced that it would no longer include a free digital copy of the comic you just bought. I feared this day would come. Nothing good lasts forever.

Here now my dilemma: Do I continue as before, going to the comic shop every week and picking up a book or two and taking them home and reading them and eventually sticking them on a shelf or in a box…or do I come home, fire up the computer, go to Marvel.com and purchase a digital copy? I’m not going to do both.

000_0368Think about this people. This is no minor thing. Since childhood I have collected comics.I never stopped. Some sissies quit around high school and go back around college. Not me. I have them (not bagged and boarded, what a stupid thing) in two tall bookshelves, two short bookshelves, eight boxes in the unfinished part of the basement, two boxes in the bedroom closet, two dresser drawers in the bedroom, several stacked on my nightstand near the bed, and a few stacked on the living room end table. That’s not counting my graphic novels. I have comics from England and Ireland and Scotland and probably half the states in the union.

If I go digital, that all stops. No more “Where’s my comic book?” and “Why did you draw on my comic book?” and “Who tore the cover off my comic book?” The poor soul who inherits my comic book collection will find unexpected stops in the current runs of “Black Widow,” “Occupy Avengers” and “All New X-Men.” My wife will be the happiest person alive.

But it’s not just the loss of the physical item. What about my routine? Going to the comic book shop wasn’t just going shopping. It was like going to church, but without the preaching and that horrible contemporary Christian music that has ruined church. It was a hump-day break from the unending depression of work. And the social aspect — “How’z it goin’?” says the man behind the counter. “OK,” says I. “That’ll be $4.23.” “Hold on, I think I have some change.” “Thanks for coming in!”

No, I don’t know the names of any of the clerks or shop owners that I have dealt with weekly for the past 25 years. I’m not my wife. And no, I don’t talk to the fellow customers. Have you been in a comic book shop? Nerds. All nerds.

But they’re my nerds. And while I won’t miss them, I will miss the experience. I mean, I’m not a college freshman anymore, I can’t just show up every week, rifle through the new books, and walk out.

And so I must face the future. The advantages of digital are too great to ignore. I can store hundreds of comics in the space that one would take up today. They’re easier to read and so much nicer to look at. I can read digital comics on my phone, which means I can read them anywhere — sitting in a waiting room, waiting for the movie to start, in the bathroom at work — the possibilities are endless. My only fear now is a power outage. Or the Internet explodes.

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(I told you you wouldn’t care about it, assuming you made it this far)