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On Stage: Church Basement Ladies

 

“Church Basement Ladies,” a musical comedy about ladies who work in a church basement, opened Friday in The Playhouse @ Westport Plaza. It’s a humorous little show that’s part “Fargo (except for the murder part),” part “Lake Wobegon Days” and part “Nunsense (if you replace Catholic with Lutheran).”

Created by Janet Letnes Martin, Suzann Nelson and Curt Wollan, the show centers around four women – and their pastor – at a Lutheran church in rural Minnesota. The action takes place in the kitchen in the church basement. The year is 1965.

CBLInvite1 1Vivian Snustad (Janet Paone) is the matriarch of the quartet. She hates big cities and hates change. And she’s not very fond of lasagna. Mavis Gilmerson (Robbie Mancina) spends most of the show working on the church furnace and dealing with her “women’s issues.” Karin Engelson (Lee Anne Mathews) is in line to take over the kitchen if Mrs. Snustad ever moves aside, and her daughter Beverly (Tara Borman) is home from college and represents youth and change (Yes, Beverly and Vivian are bound to butt heads). They are occasionally joined on stage by Pastor E.L. Gunderson (Greg Eiden).

The show covers four major events in the life of a church kitchen: a Christmas dinner, a funeral, a fundraiser and a wedding. The ladies – and the pastor – sing and dance and laugh and cry as they deal with life and death and marriage and lutefisk and the evolving nature of the church.

“Church Basement Ladies” is a funny and charming show. The set design and costumes are spot on (I was having flashbacks to my grandmother’s kitchen). The songs are clever and the actors have strong voices and appear to be enjoying their roles.

I found myself relating to Mrs. Snustad probably more than I should admit.

“Church Basement Ladies” runs through October 1.  http://www.playhouseatwestport.com/

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: 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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

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.”

 

In Concert: Ann Wilson

So I’m sitting on the couch watching “One-Punch Man” when The Wife comes to me and she says,

“Let’s go to the Ann Wilson concert.”

“Who? The name sounds familiar.”

“She’s the lead singer for Heart.”

“Oh. OK.”

Now you have probably figured out by now that when The Wife wants to do something — We Do It. I’m the kinda guy who likes doing stuff, and I don’t really care what, as long as it doesn’t involve running or risking my life (No dear, I won’t climb that mountain to see that lake; or ride that bobsled of death).

Plus, Laurie married me, and all that goes with that, so anything that can make her life a little brighter for a couple of hours, sign me up. Do you ever watch “The Big Bang Theory” and wonder “Why on earth did Penny marry Leonard?” So do I, but then I’m living proof that women sometimes do strange, inexplicable things.

Besides, I’m probably going to enjoy an Ann Wilson concert more than Shakespeare in the Park or the opera.

The concert was at River City Casino in Lemay, which is downtown St. Louis but off to the side. We had never been there before but it was near where Laurie goes to play bingo so I made her drive. Turned out it wasn’t a bad drive and we didn’t have to deal with downtown crap and the casino had a nice. large, free parking lot and we were able to get a spot at the front entrance.

Conveniently for the casino people, the Event Center was at the other end of the building, so you had to walk through the casino and restaurant row to get to it. I always feel dirty when I walk through a casino, I don’t know why. There was a Wonder Woman slot machine that I considered stopping at, but didn’t. I told Laurie that if we saw a Batman one or an Avengers one we were stopping, but there were none.

We found the venue but it was 40 minutes before showtime (we got there early since we didn’t know how long it would take to get there), so we made a stop at an Italian pastry kiosk for a tiramisu and a cafe mocha. Tasty.

The Event Center at River City Casino is a small-medium size joint where there’s really not a bad seat in the house. The rows go to Z, and the last 7 or 8 rows are on risers. I got us a couple of seats in row X and it worked out nicely. I was on the aisle for extra leg room and immediate extraction once it’s over; we were elevated so we didn’t have to stare at the back of someone’s head like the people on the floor; the venue was small enough that being in the back wasn’t a big issue; I don’t need to see Ann Wilson up close anyway; the seats were much cheaper; nobody in the risers is going to be standing up all night dancing and annoying the hell out of me.

The show was to start at 8 p.m. with no opening act. Good on you, Ann Wilson. “We’ll see how much of a diva Ann Wilson is by when she shows up,” I says. The show started a few minutes after 8. Good on you, Ann Wilson. She opened the show with a blistering version of “The Real Me,” track 2 from the classic Who album “Quadrophenia.”

Ohmigod, I love Ann Wilson.

annwilsonofhearttour2017poster (2)From there she ripped through a trio of Heart tunes (Barracuda, Crazy on You, What About Love) and that was pretty much it for the Heart catalogue, aside from a couple she slipped into Act II (but let’s be honest, “A Million Miles” is just an amped up reworking of the old folk standard, “500 Miles”).

It turns out that if you’re going to an Ann Wilson concert to hear Heart songs, you may leave disappointed. But if you’re going to hear an eclectic greatest hits show, Ann delivers. They’re just not Heart hits. In addition to a couple of her own songs, she and the band performed tunes made famous by Ray Charles, Elvis Presley, Jimi Hendrix, Yes, Peter Gabriel, The Animals, The Black Crowes, Buffalo Springfield, Aretha Franklin and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins.

Since I’m not a Heart fanatic, I had no problem with the song selection. Ann has an incredible voice and her 4-piece backing band was solid. I’d rather hear Ann sing “She Talks to Angels” than “Dog and Butterfly” anyway.

There was a large video screen behind them that showed odd images. Sometimes they were cool, some sometimes they made no sense, and some I could’ve done without.

She wrapped up the show (pre-encores) with an amazing 3-song punch of “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” “Alone” and “Love, Reign O’er Me.” Imagine the audacity of someone thinking. I’m going to end my show with not 1, but 2, Who showstoppers — and I’m not Roger Daltrey. And yet she pulled it off flawlessly.

Ohmigod, I love Ann Wilson.

 

 

 

At The Movies: Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales

Well, that was better than I was expecting. Although, to be honest, I wasn’t expecting much. And I’m not saying it’s a great film, but it’s better than the last one, which admittedly isn’t saying much. I can’t imagine it being any worse than “Baywatch,” which is your alternative holiday weekend movie release.

I guess what I’m trying to say is “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales” is kinda fun, pretty silly, too long, and nicely brings the story back around to its original characters and ties things up in a nice bow. It even gives an origin story of sorts for its lead character. If it were the end of the series, it would be a nice way to go out. So lets all hope it bombs at the box office so they don’t ruin things by making another one.

potc_dmtnt_poster_by_jackiemonster12-db3wuivHenry Turner (Brenton Thwaites), young son of Will (Orlando Bloom) and Elizabeth (Keira Knightley) — the star-crossed lovers of the original trilogy — is looking for a way to break the curse that keeps his father trapped aboard the Flying Dutchman. According to legend, the answer is the trident of Poseidon, mythical god of the sea.

The key to finding the trident lies, of course, with that rum-loving pirate, Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp).

Now this can’t be a simple team-up and find the trident story, that’s not enough plot for a PotC movie. So enter Armando Salazar (Javier Bardem), an undead sea captain who steers a massive ghost ship and has a grudge against Sparrow. He wants revenge for past wrongs and will destroy every vessel in the ocean to get at Jack.

Then there’s Carina Smyth (Kaya Scodelario), an astronomer (often mistaken for a witch) with a secret past who is also looking for the trident. And you can’t have a PotC movie without Jack’s rival, Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), who gets dragged into the story because Salazar is crippling his ships looking for Sparrow. And, of course, he wouldn’t mind having the trident for his own purposes.

“Dead Men Tell No Tales” shares all the pluses and minuses familiar to all the movies in the franchise. On the plus side, the special effects are impressive, the cast in engaging, and the action sequences are thrilling. On the minus side, the movie goes on too long, the action sequences go on way too long, the story is convoluted, and Jack just isn’t as charming as he used to be.

Still, it was good of them to bring back Will and  Elizabeth, even if only briefly, and resolve their story and wrap up others — at least until things get all upended for the next one.