By Lynn Venhaus

This much I know is true: “The Sound of Music,” created during the golden age of musicals — (and the reason it’s referred to as a golden period is crystal clear), is such a crowd-pleaser that it will never fall out of favor.

The Muny’s latest creation of the evergreen 1959 Rodgers and Hammerstein classic drew 7,847 on opening night, and you could feel the joy in the air. With the arrival of Alpine weather in St. Louis, it was also a pleasurable experience outdoors.

By the time Bryonha Marie Parham, as Mother Abbess, finished her powerful and poignant rendition of “Climb Ev’ry Mountain,” which closed the first act, the crowd leapt to its feet with thunderous applause. At curtain call, a hearty standing ovation began early and when Kate Rockwell, radiant as the sunny Maria Rainer, took her bow, the cheers were deafening.

The tension-filled book by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse, based on the real-life story of widowed Captain von Trapp of the Austrian Navy, his budding romance with governess Maria, who cares for and tutors his seven children, and how they flee after the Third Reich takeover of their country in 1938, provides dramatic and emotional depth.

Through this last collaboration of influential composers Oscar Hammerstein II and Richard Rodgers, they’ve integrated some of their best songs — The Sound of Music boasts their most popular hits – to guarantee widespread appeal. Then, add the iconic Oscar-winning 1965 film, which cemented its place in pop culture history.

This is the 11th time in 57 years that the Muny favorite has been presented in Forest Park, and the first since 2010. The experienced creative team has honored the beloved musical by not varying from a traditional approach – why mess with a time-honored story or the lush score?  and the lush score but keeping it fresh with rising talent and new outlooks.

Freshened up with rising talent and new outlooks, Director Matt Kunkel has capably emphasized the show’s major arcs of love, faith and courage.

Music Director Ben Whiteley smoothly conducts the velvety string-laden score, reminding everyone why we know all the words and music to “Do-Re-Mi,” “My Favorite Things,” “Edelweiss” and the title song.

Elizabeth Teeter and Andrew Alstat. Photo by Phillip Hamer.

With many exceptional voices, the ensemble comfortably handles some of the most enduring standards in the American theater.

While some casts are more dynamic than others in Muny productions, striking a delicate balance in tone with nuns and Nazis, the women lead the way here.

And not just on stage, but behind-the-scenes. For the first time in Muny history, Shelby Loera is the lead lighting designer on a show. In 103 seasons. Bravo for breaking that ceiling!

Caite Hevner took charge of the video design and Beth Crandall choreographed the sophisticated party dances and the peppy kids’ numbers. Paige Hathaway was the scenic designer, using the new trees as a backdrop.

Costumes were designed by Tristan Raines, a familiar fashionista at the Muny, and the wedding scene finery was a standout.

As usual, the Von Trapp children steal the show. You expect the actors playing Leisl (Elizabeth Teeter), Frederick (Victor de Paula Rocha), Louisa (Amelie Lock), Kurt (Parker Dzuba), Brigitta (Jillian Depke), Marta (Abby Hogan) and Gretl (Kate Scarlett Kappel) to be endearing, but these kids are not only supremely talented but project professionalism on stage.

And they harmonize beautifully – especially their fun “The Lonely Goatherd” number during a frightening thunderstorm and the always special “So Long, Farewell.”

As the eldest girl, Teeter, daughter of local theater legend Lara Teeter, demonstrated that she is a poised and polished performer wise in years.

She has appeared on Broadway with Helen Mirren in “The Audience” and as Jane Banks in “Mary Poppins,” not to mention cute-friendly roles at the Muny, including Flounder in “The Little Mermaid” and Gretl in the 2010 “The Sound of Music.”

An accomplished dramatic actress, she can be seen as fragile Laura in “The Glass Menagerie” at the Tennessee Williams Festival in St. Louis Aug. 19-29.

With their clear confident voices, Teeter and Andrew Alstat, as Rolf, deliver a strong “Sixteen Going on Seventeen.” Unfortunately, she is saddled with an unrealistic-looking brown wig, an odd choice, which overwhelms her face.

Kate Rockwell, Von Trapp children, Michael Hayden. Photo by Phillip Hamer.

Another distraction is that Michael Hayden does not fit the Captain von Trapp role as we’ve become accustomed to over the years –typically imposing and dashing. A Tony nominee for “Judgment at Nuremberg,” who also has Shakespeare credits, Hayden obviously is a noteworthy performer, but something was “off,” and he certainly didn’t click with Rockwell like Georg and Maria should. (I wondered if he was ill? There is usually an underlying reason.). He seemed tentative in spots and wasn’t comfortable with the guitar on “Edelweiss.”

In addition, his suits appeared ill-fitting and the coat of his dress uniform he wore at the wedding was way too long. This is a rare misfire from the Muny costume shop, normally known for their crisp tailoring.

He’s not the worst Captain von Trapp I’ve seen. That distinction goes to the wooden and unprepared George Peppard, yeah the guy in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” in 1982. However, I have heard that “Dallas” star Ken Kercheval tops that list in a 1993 version, where he had to use the book.

Costumes were designed by Tristan Raines, a familiar fashionista at the Muny, and the wedding scene finery was a standout.

Two bright spots are fan favorites Jenny Powers and John Scherer. The elegant and statuesque Powers glides across the stage as Elsa Schraeder, also known as the Baroness, and has a lovely duet, “How Can Love Survive?” with Scherer as Max, the cynical impresario.

The pair are an effortless match. Powers has been one of the Muny’s most durable leading ladies – as “Mary Poppins,” Morticia in “The Addams Family,” Abigail Adams in “1776,” Tanya in “Mamma Mia!” and Guinevere in “Camelot,” to name a few.

Scherer, known for his impeccable comic timing, has been in “Kinky Boots,” “Young Frankenstein,” “Spamalot” and “The Addams Family.”

Fine supporting work is carried out by David Hess as the dutiful butler Franz and St. Louis actors Michael James Reed as the imperious and threatening SS officer Herr Zeller, Leah Berry as skeptical head of the postulants Sister Margaretta, April Strelinger as stern housekeeper Frau Schmidt, and versatile Jerry Vogel doing triple duty as the officiating priest at the wedding, Baron Elberfeld and Admiral von Schreiber.

But the show belongs to the delightful Rockwell, so memorable in “Tarzan” and “Beauty and the Beast” during the past decade. She’s a bona fide star, pitch perfect as the spunky and big-hearted Maria. It’s a graceful and winning performance that easily captured the audience’s heart.

Whether it’s a fond childhood memory or a family favorite past down through generations, “The Sound of Music” pleased the theatergoers ready to be enchanted.

Its inspiration was intact, too – go climb those mountains!

Photo by Phillip Hamer

“The Sound of Music” runs Aug. 3-9 at the Muny outdoor stage in Forest Park. Tickets can be purchased in person at the box office, online at muny.org or by calling 314-361-1900, ex. 1550.

The remaining shows of the 2021 season are Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (Aug. 12 – 18), On Your Feet! (Aug. 21 – 27) and Chicago (Aug. 30 – Sept. 5). Emerson is the season sponsor. For more information, visit muny.org. 

To stay connected virtually and to receive the latest updates, please follow The Muny on their social media channels, including Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.  

Jenny Powers and John Scherer. Photo by Phillip Hamer
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STAGES St. Louis is thrilled to announce a new partnership with Emerson, STAGES 2021 Season Education Sponsor, titled Emerson Educates. The new program, exclusively for students, will offer special priced tickets to all 2021 Season STAGES’ productions in an effort to promote arts education and access throughout the region.

“With Emerson’s generous support, we will offer the most affordable student rush ticket price in STAGES history at just $10 per ticket” Mosbacher Family Executive Producer Jack Lane said. “Thanks to Emerson, this offer has the potential to benefit and provide arts access to more than 700 students each year.”

The special $10 tickets will be available throughout the 2021 Season to all students with valid student ID. Up to two tickets can be sold per transaction with ten tickets available at every performance. In addition to special priced tickets, Emerson Educates will offer a one-of-a-kind educational experience in conjunction with the upcoming STAGES Premiere of JERSEY BOYS. Underserved schools will be offered specially designed programming and lessons plans tied directly to the themes featured in the production as well as complimentary tickets and talk backs with members of the JERSEY BOYS creative team and cast.

“Arts education and access are vitally important to students of all ages,” said Crissy Nordin, Director of Education & Outreach at STAGES. “Emerson Educates will not only help in providing teachers with the proper tools to bring this to the classroom, but it will also directly connect that to the stage with unique in person opportunities for learning.”

Emerson Educates tickets are available throughout the 2021 Season for productions of ALWAYS… PATSY CLINE (August 6-September 5) and JERSEY BOYS (September 24-October 24). Tickets can be purchased on the day of performance by calling the STAGES Box Office at 314.821.2407 or visiting their locations in both Chesterfield and Kirkwood.

For more information, please follow STAGES on Facebook and Instagram or visit the organization’s website. STAGES St. Louis is the region’s foremost not-for-profit company committed to preserving and advancing the art form of Musical Theatre through excellence in performance and education.

In 2021, STAGES celebrates its 35th year of producing Broadway-quality theatre, as well as the grand opening of their new home, the $25 Million Ross Family Theatre at The Kirkwood Performing Arts Center.


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Bringing the magic and artistry of Shakespeare in the Park to communities throughout the bi-state region

On Tuesday, Aug. 3, the St. Louis Shakespeare Festival (Tom Ridgely, Producing Artistic Director) kicks off a brand new regional touring production, “TourCo” bringing the magic of Shakespeare in the Park to public spaces across the bi-state area.

As the first public tour production from this initiative, Othello will travel to 24 public parks. Adam Flores (St. Louis Shakespeare
Festival’s Manager of Community Engagement & Education) directs the 90-minute adaptation starring a company of six actors. The free performances will take place nightly at 6:30 p.m., Tuesday through Sundays from August 3-29.

“Shakespeare’s plays should be as free and available to all as our region’s great libraries and stunning public parks,” said producing artistic director Tom Ridgely in a statement. “This summer especially, we knew we had to do everything we could to share the magic of the Glen with as many communities as possible. And Othello in particular strikes straight at the heart of so many of the challenges facing our region. Experiencing it this way will be a revelation for all of us. We can’t wait to hit the road.”

The Festival will begin the tour in East St. Louis at Malcolm W. Memorial Park on August 3, with sweeping views of the riverfront and downtown skyline. It continues on to Tower Grove Park, one of the more well-known parks on the list, for night two. The Tour will visit each of the past nine neighborhoods featured in it’s Shakespeare in the Streets program as well as many smaller parks in North St. Louis. Farther stops in Illinois include Bellville, Collinsville and Edwardsville. Also included are trips to rural parts of Missouri
with a stop in Hermann (Hermann Farms) and in Sullivan, MO (Harney Mansion Grounds). The production was developed to be performed on lawns, in amphitheaters, and pavilions making it adaptable to the location.

TourCo Schedule
● TUE AUG 3 – Malcolm W. Memorial Park (185 W Trendley Ave, East St. Louis IL 62201)
● WED AUG 4 – Tower Grove Park (4257 Northeast Drive, St. Louis MO 63110) [Audio Description
Night]
● THU AUG 5 – St. Louis Place Park (2008 St. Louis Ave, St. Louis MO 63106)
● FRI AUG 6 – Love Bank Park (2851 Cherokee St, St Louis MO 63118)
● SAT AUG 7 – The Harney Mansion Grounds (332 S Mansion St, Sullivan, MO 63080)
● SUN AUG 8 – Fairground Park (3715 Natural Bridge Ave, St Louis MO 63107)
● TUE AUG 10 – Woodland Park (Pine Lake Rd, Collinsville IL 62234)
● WED AUG 11- January-Wabash Park (501 N Florissant Rd, Ferguson MO 63135)
● THU AUG 12 – O’Day Park Amphitheater (1000 O’Day Park Dr, O’Fallon MO 63368) [ASL
Interpretation]
● FRI AUG 13 – Bella Fontaine Park (9565 Bellefontaine Rd, St. Louis MO 63137)
● SAT AUG 14 – City Park (101 S Buchanan, Edwardsville IL 62025)
● SUN AUG 15 – Bellevue Park (401 Bellevue Park Dr, Belleville IL 62226)
● TUE AUG 17 – Carondelet Park (3900 Holly Hills Blvd, St. Louis MO 63116)
● WED AUG 18 – Chesterfield Amphitheater (631 Veterans Pl Dr, Chesterfield MO 63017)
● THU AUG 19 – Shaw Park (27 S Brentwood Blvd, Clayton MO 63105)
● FRI AUG 20 – Chouteau Park (Choteau Ave & S. Newstead Ave, St. Louis MO 63110)
● SAT AUG 21 – Hermann Farm (526 E 1st St Hermann MO 65041)
● SUN AUG 22 – Jefferson Barracks Park (345 North Rd, W St. Louis MO 63125)
● TUE AUG 24 – Trojan Park (6154 Etzel Ave, St. Louis MO 63133)
● WED AUG 25- Hyde Park (Salisbury St & N. 20th St, St. Louis MO 63107)
● THU AUG 26 – Heritage Park (Brussels, IL 62013)
● FRI AUG 27 – Wehner Park (7600 Hazel Ave, St. Louis, MO 63119)
● SAT AUG 28 – O’Fallon Park (799 E Taylor Ave, St. Louis MO 63147)
● SUN AUG 29 – Ladue Racquet Club (Private Event)

Othello is considered by many to be one of Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies. An epic tale of political and personal intrigue, it depicts a great leader exploited by his own lieutenant, to disastrous effect. The best villains can always find the chink in a hero’s armor, and when they do, it leads to some of the best scenes in any drama. By turns shocking and profound, Othello depicts the pitfalls of jealousy and self-doubt, and how these faults can tear apart the best of us from within.

Jason J. Little, most recently seen onstage with the Festival in King Lear, leads the all local cast as Othello. Courtney Bailey (2021 Confluence Regional Playwright) appears as Desdemona, Charlie Barron as Iago, Ricki Franklin as Emilia, and previous educational touring casting members Hannah Geisz (featured in 2020 production of Cymbeline) as Roderigo, and Jesse Muñoz (2018 Romeo & Juliet) as Cassio round out the company of six.

The creative team for Othello includes designers Laura Skroska (Production Designer), Vanessa Tabourne (Costume Design), Rusty Wandall (Sound Design), Erik Kuhn (Fight Choreography) and the Festival’s tour manager since 2011, Emily Clinger.

Performances are free and open to the public and begin at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday from August 3-29. Performances are 90 minutes long. All ages are welcome. Guests are encouraged to bring their own chairs and blankets. Visit www.stlshakes.org for more information.

Othello is funded by Bayer Fund, Arts Midwest, and the Saigh Foundation. Specific stops on the Tour were supported by Commerce Bank, Dr. Debbie A. Depew, Michael & JiaMin Dierberg, Eric and Mary Koestner, LinkStL, Ed & Tedi Macias, Mary Nigh at RedKey Realty Leaders, Straub’s, Thompson Coburn LLP and UMB Bank.


ABOUT
The St. Louis Shakespeare Festival strives to foster community and joy across the St. Louis region through the Shakespearean tradition of art for all. Since 2001, the Festival has grown from producing a single production of Shakespeare in the Park to a year-round season of impactful programming in exciting and accessible venues throughout the bi-state area. Artistic and education programs reach over
50,000 patrons and students each season and have served over one million since 2001. In 2020, the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and Bloomberg News featured the Festival’s stand-out virtual and in-person programs.

Adam Flores is an actor, director, producer and educator based in St. Louis for over a decade. He holds an MFA in directing from Baylor University, and a BFA and teaching certification from Fontbonne University. As an actor, he has performed with over a dozen local professional companies including the Shakespeare Festival St. Louis as part of the Shakespeare in the Streets program in both New World and Blow, Winds. As a founding resident artist of Mustard Seed Theatre he worked in many capacities including helping produce and direct “Bosnian American: The Dance for Life,” a community-engaged project with the Bosnian community of St. Louis. In 2015, Flores acted as a local line producer for the “Every 28 Hour Plays” a collaboration with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, the One-Minute Play Festival, and the St. Louis community in response to the Ferguson movement. He began as a theatre educator teaching in the Parkway School district. Later he was Assistant Professor of Theatre at Fontbonne University. He recently also was lead Teaching Artist for the Festival’s Shake 101 teaching residency for the past two years

TourCo’s inaugural production of Othello will visit 24 parks and gathering spaces across Missouri and Illinois in August.

OTHELLO 

AUG 3 – 29 • 6:30p • TUE – SUN

Directed by Adam Flores
Starring Jason J. Little, Courtney Bailey, Charlie Barron, Ricki Franklin, Hannah Geisz & Jesse Muñoz.

The 90-minute adaptation will feature Courtney Bailey (Desdemona), Charlie Barron (Iago), Ricki Franklin (Emilia), Hannah Geisz (Roderigo), Jason J. Little (Othello) and Jesse Muñoz (Cassio).

All performances begin at 6:30 p.m. unless otherwise noted. These shows are free, no reservations or tickets are required. Bring your own chairs, blankets and pack a picnic to meet your friends and neighbors around the corner or find a park in a new spot on the tour to explore. Join us for more free Shakespeare in the Park! Learn more at stlshakes.org/othello

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By Lynn Venhaus

Heart-tugging and hopeful, “Tiny Beautiful Things” strikes universal chords as it reverberates through a darkened theater.

Now playing at The Grandel, the deeply personal journeys of people who cared enough to reach out to another human, to make that connection in cyberspace, even when they were confused or desperate or sad or angry, will smack you upside your head, resonate emotionally, and may elicit a few tears and some smiles – if you let it pull you in (and why resist?).

Perhaps listening to four people be vulnerable will prompt the proverbial light bulb to come on, illuminating what’s going on in your life. Or by hearing about others’ experiences, you will be comforted too.

The well-worn themes of love and loss provide perspective in this adaptation of Cheryl Strayed’s best-selling self-help book, served up by Nia Vardalos with sprinklings of humor and heaping amounts of compassion. This is not your mom’s yellowed Ann Landers’ clippings.

“Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar” was published in 2012, a collection of essays from Strayed’s “Dear Sugar” advice column, which she wrote anonymously on The Rumpus, an online literary magazine. She took it over from her friend, Steve Almond, in 2010. The book also includes essays not previously published.

With a nudge from director Thomas Kail, who was given the book by journalist Marshall Heyman, Vardalos conceived it as a play, mixing in the author’s memoir along with the dating advice and grieving support.

It premiered at The Public Theater in December 2016, starring Vardalos as Sugar and three actors playing various e-mail letter writers, directed by Tony Award-winner and Emmy nominee Kail (“Hamilton,” “In the Heights,” “Fosse/Verdon”), and a revised version returned the next year.

The story’s framework is simple: The writer dispenses words of wisdom, an understanding achieved after many battles of her own, and because she is willing to expose herself to strangers, they in turn disclose their inner-most thoughts and feelings.

With such candid material to work with, producing artistic director Stellie Siteman and managing director De Kaplan knew it was the right choice for their company, Max and Louie Productions, to return with after a harsh 16 months that has changed us all.

Because we endured a pandemic period filled with isolation and self-reflection about our own lives, being with others post-coronavirus quarantine reinforces what we all know but need to be reminded about: We are not alone.

Even with the best of intentions, this could come across very Hallmark cards-like, reducing sentiments to those home décor signs urging us to “Forgive and Forget” or “Live Laugh Love,” but Vardalos and Strayed are too smart to settle for repeating platitudes, as are the women involved in this production.

Vardalos struck gold writing and starring in “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” two decades ago, earning an Oscar nomination in 2003, and Strayed, who was a troubled soul trying to come to terms with her past and present through a 1,100-mile hike in 1995, published that life-changing trek in the 2012 bestseller “Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail.” Both are grounded women who have achieved success representing their own lives so authentically, which is the foundation here.

Director Sydnie Grosberg Ronga understood the challenges of this piece and did not embellish it with any unnecessary frills. She approached the play in a straightforward and sincere manner, which is affecting and skillfully presented by this veteran cast, anchored with authority by Michelle Hand.

Greg Johnson and Michelle Hand. Photo by Patrick Huber

The creative team’s collaboration is subtle. The minimal scenic design by master of detail Dunsi Dai suits the intent. Ronga moved, with purpose, the actors around furniture that represents their characters’ homes – including a couch, a bed, a desk and a table. Everything appears lived in, with key items placed by props designer Katie Orr, and exudes a comfortable atmosphere, accented by lighting designer extraordinaire Patrick Huber. Costume designer Eileen Engel selected casual outfits appropriate to the roles.

Two large panels rise above – are those windows to the soul? Hmmm…This isn’t supposed to resemble a psychiatrist’s office, and the set intriguingly widens the reach while narrowing the focus.

As letter writers, versatile stage actors Greg Johnston, Wendy Renee Greenwood and Abraham Shaw strike different tones as they reveal what their assorted characters are looking for or what has defined each of their lives.

As the human faces of email exchanges, they present their questions and responses in a natural way, becoming a de facto support system and sounding board. One of Johnston’s characters blurts out WTF several times, amusing the audience with such a declaration. (The play contains some strong language and adult content).

As Sugar, Hand wrestles with confidence and her conscience, showing the growth of Cheryl and depicting the raw honesty for which the writer is known. That draws the other characters in, and us, too.

Writers are often hard to portray, especially typing at a computer, for the work is such an internal process — unless there are major conflicts. With this format, we don’t follow the 80-minute show like regular storytelling — nor does it reach a dramatic conclusion – but is moving nonetheless.

What makes this so touching then? Could it be as plain as seeking meaning while we find our way, holding on to ideals and keeping faith that things will turn out all right? Or it’s OK to say we aren’t OK? Because having lived through the uncertainty and anxiety of a public health crises, something we are still processing, this performance on Friday night seemed as warm as your grandma’s chunky hand-knit afghan and as familiar as a hug from a cherished loved one.

Strayed doesn’t profess to have all the answers, nor does she say she can fix everybody and everything. But by offering examples of her struggles, exposing herself so openly, somehow, we come out of the dark and into the light. It’s that simple, but that profound.

Hand approaches each role so genuinely that you believe whatever situation she is going through, whether she is Tami, the exasperated mother of an autistic son in “Falling” at Mustard Seed Theatre; Toril Grandal, a cook serving her family’s special pancakes with strawberries and whipped cream to world leaders, in “Oslo” at The Rep; or the broken-hearted lesbian artist Pickles in “Life Sucks” at New Jewish Theatre.

She is best at bringing the humanity out in her characters, real people portraits — (cases in point, Maggie Dalton in St. Louis Shakespeare Festival’s “Into the Breeches!”, who discovers her mettle while her husband is fighting in World War II, St. Louis Theater Circle Best Actress in a Comedy Award 2019; and innocent Rose Mundy, the intellectually challenged sister in “Dancing at Lughnasa” at Mustard Seed).

Anyone with a heart – lonely, heavy, hungry, normal – can relate to the personal stories shared. In a world where empathy seems to be in short supply, this work restores the belief that we get to carry each other, and through that, the broken can be healed.

If you crave the intimacy and insight that live theater can supply, “Tiny Beautiful Things” will reward you.

Wendy Renee Greenwood, Michelle Hand and Abraham Shaw. Photo by Patrick Huber

“Tiny Beautiful Things” is presented without intermission at the Grandel Theatre, 3610 Grandel Square in St. Louis, from July 29 to Aug. 8. Performances are at 2 p.m. on Aug. 1 and 8; at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday and Thursday, Aug. 4 and 5, and at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Aug. 6 and 7.

Tickets are on sale at www.metrotix.com or by phone at 314-534-1111 or at the box office an hour before curtain. Socially distanced reserved seating is restricted to groups of 2 and 4 consecutive seats, and booth seating is available for groups of 4 and 6. Masks are required.

Max & Louie Productions has received its Missouri ArtSafe certification. To ensure that they may create safely, present safely, and attend safely, they pledge to Covid-19 safe protocols which patrons are encouraged to view at Max & Louie Productions’ website at www.maxandlouie.com.

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By Alex McPherson
Based on the 14th-century Arthurian tale “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” director David Lowery’s film, aptly titled “The Green Knight,” is an impeccably constructed fantasy epic with bizarre imagery and dense themes begging to be mulled over for years to come. 

The story begins in Camelot, with Gawain (Dev Patel), an aimless young warrior and nephew to King Arthur himself (Sean Harris), getting the chance to finally give his life purpose beyond drinking and cavorting his days away. During a Christmas gathering, the aging King and his wife, Queen Guinnevere (Kate Dickie), draw attention to the fact that Gawain doesn’t have any stories to tell — not yet, at least — and a mysterious, bark-covered giant shows up, calling himself the Green Knight (voiced by Ralph Ineson with imposing gusto).

The gritty medieval Groot offers a challenge to the Round Table — he will allow anyone brave enough to strike a blow against him, so long as they agree to receive the same treatment in one year. Gawain, careless as ever and wanting to impress his company and his suspicious mother, Morgan Le Fay (Sarita Choudhury), agrees to the challenge when nobody else will, promptly decapitating the Knight. He immediately regrets his decision, as the Knight, holding his severed head, gallops away on his horse laughing maniacally. In one year, Gawain must complete his end of the agreement. Oops. 

The clock begins ticking, and once the year passes, Gawain sets out on his journey across a fantastical land to reach the Green Chapel and fulfill his pact. Unsurprisingly, the quest is grueling, and the self-doubting Gawain encounters a variety of strange entities — mischievous themes, a mournful spirit, and a fox companion, among others — that require him to confront his supposedly heroic ideals and his own mortality in the pursuit of becoming a legend. 

Absolutely brimming with cinematic artistry and featuring a magnificent performance from Dev Patel, “The Green Knight” won’t appeal to viewers seeking a more traditional, action-packed epic that spoon-feeds them what to think or how to feel. Rather, Lowery’s masterpiece embraces all the sensory qualities of the film medium to fully transport viewers into Gawain’s journey, which winds up being far more existential than some viewers may be prepared for. There are certainly physical threats to be found along the way, but “The Green Knight” renders most of Gawain’s conflicts internal, as he grapples with his self-imposed burden and slowly but surely grows not only as a warrior, but as a human being, with imperfection to match his courage.

From its opening frames, “The Green Knight” is devoted to walking its own path and being undeniably weird while doing so. There’s tons to feast on stylistically — evocative, period-accurate costuming, lighting that evolves from decorated interiors to fog-drenched forests and blood red lakes, deliciously tactile sound design, and mystical yet lived-in environments, with a score by Daniel Hart fitting for a horror film in its off-kilter, slightly crazed rhythms. All of this is complemented by sweeping, at-times mind-boggling cinematography that flows through the royal interiors and vast landscapes that Gawain traverses, becoming ever-stupefying as Gawain treks onwards, further into his own soul. This is a film that demands to be watched on the biggest screen possible and with limited distractions. 

Of course, Lowery’s film isn’t pure style over substance, and there’s plenty to contemplate in terms of storytelling and characters here. Gawain is a naive and reckless individual who isn’t initially easy to care about but develops in a significant fashion by the end. He’s forced to consider the sacrifices necessary for greatness, the notion of honor itself, and the fallibility of human nature despite illusions of superiority. Like Lowery’s other films, especially “A Ghost Story,” “The Green Knight” is focused on the concept of death, mortality, and Nature’s grip over us all. Indeed, the proceedings are depicted so ambiguously that some viewers may become frustrated with the film’s opaqueness. For this critic, however, the events — especially a nightmarish, darkly poetic sequence late in the film — haven’t left my mind, and keep revealing additional thematic layers the more I ponder them.

Lending “The Green Knight” an emotionally grounded core despite its vagueness, though, is Patel. A subversive casting choice for a story typically dominated by white men, he portrays the warrior’s growing insecurities in a subtle fashion that endears us to him from his first appearance onwards. Alicia Vikander also does excellent work playing dual roles, as Gawain’s lower-class girlfriend, Essel, and as a seductive temptress later on. Ineson, as the Green Knight, is intimidating, but has an aura of warmth and amusing self-awareness nevertheless. Barry Keoghan and Joel Edgerton give memorable turns as a creepy brigand and an uneasily jovial lad that Gawain encounters near the finale. 

There’s a lot to digest once the credits roll — make sure to stay through them —  that I’m eager to dive back into this wondrous, often frightening world to decipher all the symbolism and peculiar characters to unearth more meaning. I haven’t felt this way about many other films released in 2021 so far, but “The Green Knight” stands head and shoulders above most of them in terms of pure intellectual engagement and eye-popping creativity. Cinephiles shouldn’t expect anything less from A24, and viewers should go in knowing that “The Green Knight” engages the mind just as much as the senses, even if multiple viewings are all but required to fully appreciate it.

“The Green Knight” is a 2021 historical drama directed by David Lowery and starring Dev Patel, Joel Edgerton and Alicia Vikander. Rated R for violence, some sexuality and graphic nudity, it has a runtime of 2 hours, 10 minutes. The movie opened in theaters on July 30. Alex’s Grade: A+ 

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By Lynn Venhaus
“Jungle Cruise” is junk, as plastic as those animatronic animals and plants that are part of theme park rides.

This big-budget movie, based on Disneyland’s theme park ride where a small riverboat takes a group of travelers through a jungle filled with dangerous animals and reptiles, adding a supernatural element, has been in development and turn-around for years, so what audiences are getting is a movie patched together and written by a committee.

A hodgepodge of other – and better – movies, this Disney action-adventure really wants to be “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” Throw in nods to “Pirates of the Caribbean,” another movie based on a Disney ride, “Lost City of Z” and “The Mummy,” and the experience is derivative, not special.

The film’s saving grace is its two leads, Dwayne Johnson, aka “The Rock,” as Frank Wolff, a con artist riverboat captain with a penchant for puns and a hardened heart, and Emily Blunt as headstrong botanist Dr. Lily Houghton, whose altruistic nature leads her on a search through the Amazon to find “Tears of the Moon,” a plant cure-all so that she can heal the sick.

The story is part of a larger mythology that involves Spanish conquistadors and a whole lot of snakes, with cartoonish melodramatic villains eager to wreak havoc as they lust for world domination.

Likeable and charming on their own, Johnson and Blunt have an easy chemistry paired together, although it appears more platonic than romantic. As ordained in this opposites-attract framework, they tussle and the snappy banter is comical – he calls her “Pants” and she calls him “Skippy.”

Their feisty-but-familiar relationship is reminiscent of Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner in “Romancing the Stone” (1984 — really fun, check it out) and the Oscar-winning classic “The African Queen” featuring Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn (1951 – magical).

The plucky Lily has brought along her dandy brother, MacGregor, well-played by Jack Whitehall. In a stunning development, although played for laughs, this gay character comes out to the cynical Frank.

In a bit of odd casting, Jesse Plemons plays the obnoxious and lethal Prince Joachim (refer back to the Nazis in “Raiders.” Connected to Kaiser Wilhelm, for it is set at the start of World War I, the evil German progeny is maniacal and hell-bent on power.

Another head-scratcher is barely-in-it Paul Giamatti as a greedy boss, using a thick Italian stereotype accent that’s rather offensive.

The characters are broadly written. Three screenwriters, Michael Green, Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, cobbled together this throwback caper, with the stars injecting some heart and humor, along with the requisite derring-do and danger.

Other than briefly pointing out the obvious misogyny and homophobia of that early 20th century era in King George V England, the film shies away from anything deeper. It does, after all, have roots in a Disneyland tourist excursion. But at least it shows the haughtiness of the male-dominated scientific establishment at that time.

There is a supernatural element that might not be suitable for young children, hence the PG-13 rating. Dark and frightening sequences involve reptiles, ghosts, poison darts and grotesque deaths.

The movie’s focus is on action, and while it zips along once you get past the ancient set-up, 2 hours, 7 minutes seems far too long for this excursion.

Director Jaume Collet-Serra, who made the generic Liam Neeson action movies “The Commuter,” “Non-Stop” and “Run All Night,” knows how to blow things up. He favors quick cuts, which can be traced to his music video-TV commercials background.

Like most summer blockbuster escapism, the film’s main purpose is to string together explosions and other big stunt pieces on land and water.

And the caves. waterfalls and lush landscapes are gorgeously shot by cinematographer Flavio Martínez Labiano. He has imbued an old-fashioned look, not unlike early “Tarzan” movies and Saturday morning serials.

The production design carries that through as well. Designer Jean-Vincent Puzos, who did “The Lost City of Z,” knows his way around dusty museums and mysterious civilizations. Most impressive is a massive stone structure rising out of the water.

But the CGI is so obvious. I can’t get past the fake-looking bees and not-real pet leopard.

Composer James Newton Howard has ramped up the dramatic swells of music in the manner of the Indiana Jones franchise.

(L-R): Dwayne Johnson as Frank Wolff, Emily Blunt as Lily Houghton and Jack Whitehall as MacGregor Houghton in Disney’s JUNGLE CRUISE. Photo courtesy of Disney. © 2021 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Without the jolly fun of watching Blunt and Johnson wriggle out of tough situations and give some spark to their green-screen acting, the slick “Jungle Cruise” would be just another visual effects-heavy escapade that we have seen many times before.

“Jungle Cruise” is a 2021 action adventure fantasy romantic comedy directed by Jaume Collet-Serra and starring Dwayne Johnson, Emily Blunt, Édgar Ramírez, Jack Whitehall, Jesse Plemons, Paul Giamatti and Veronica Falcón. It has a 2 hour, 7 minute runtime and is rated PG-13 for sequences of adventure violence. It opened in theaters and streaming on Disney Plus (premium access) on July 30. Lynn’s Grade: C+

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By Lynn Venhaus
A blatant rip-off of the sensational Amanda Knox student exchange murder case, the morally ambiguous “Stillwater” wants us to care about people not worth the investment.

That’s the biggest problem that this film can’t recover from – and a lack of redemption will leave an audience dissatisfied.  Because of a misleading trailer, this 2-hour and 20-minute film is not what one expects and when it falls apart in the third act, a huge letdown.

A father, unemployed oil rig worker Bill Baker (Matt Damon), travels from Oklahoma to France to help his estranged daughter, Allison (Abigail Breslin), a student who is in prison for a murder she claims she didn’t commit. This is intense, but not action-driven like “Taken,” and while the romance is reminiscent of Robert Duvall’s Oscar winner, “Tender Mercies,” it begins to overshadow the central storyline.

“Life is brutal” is the disingenuous daughter’s deep thought about going through tough times. Well, duh. Doesn’t take Jean-Paul Sartre to figure that out.

At odds are the two main storylines – writer-director Tom McCarthy can’t decide on the focus, so it winds up feeling unfinished and lacks cohesiveness. Pick a lane – is this a vigilante hunt for the real killer thriller or is it a late-in-life romance and daddy do-over for a good old boy?

Three other screenwriters – Marcus Hinchey, Thomas Bidegain, who wrote the gripping French prison drama “A Prophet,” and Noe Debre – are credited, so no wonder it’s uneven.

Is the resemblance to the Knox case intentional? To refresh, the murder of her roommate took place in Italy in 2007 and the Italian Supreme Court overturned her conviction in 2015.

The French setting adds other layers besides the language barrier, which are interesting points to include. McCarthy, responsible for two exceptional fish-out-of-water films, “The Visitor” in 2008 and “The Station Agent” in 2003, knows how to craft an endearing character study featuring disparate individuals that fate has brought together.

This doesn’t measure up, which is so disappointing because McCarthy won an Oscar for writing “Spotlight,” which deservedly won Best Picture in 2016, one of the most important films of the decade.

Absent the sheen of a noble cause, “Stillwater” is a frustrating effort without a point.

Abigail Breslin, Oscar nominee for “Little Miss Sunshine,” is not convincing as the smart American lesbian who wanted to get far away from her troubled life in Stillwater, Okla., and wound up in a student exchange program in Marseille, a port city is southern France. She fell in love with Lina, a French-Arab student, and they moved in together.

However, Lina cheated on Allison with other people, and one night, she is found stabbed to death. Neither the press nor the courts had any sympathy for Allison, now serving her fourth year of a nine-year sentence.

Her estranged father, Bill, Damon in a redneck aw-shucks mode, arrives from France to help.  At first, he is bankrolled by Allison’s maternal grandmother Sharon (Tony Award winner Deanna Dunagan of “The Visit”), whose health won’t allow her to travel, but later, he gets construction work.

Sharon raised Allison after Bill’s wife, her daughter, committed suicide. This is glossed over, and the screenplay suffers from a lack of key information.

Apparently, Bill’s been messing up his whole life. He has served time too, for an undisclosed felony. No longer drinking, he is trying to be the dad he wasn’t while Allison was growing up. He takes it upon himself to investigate the case, arranging to meet locals who may know something.

His daughter has asked her lawyers to re-open the case because someone overheard a guy at a party claiming he did it, and in her letter to attorney Leparq, indicates she doesn’t trust her father. She has a deep resentment – but again, it’s not explored.

Because the main characters are extremely dysfunctional, it would have been nice to have some context.

Which leads us into the story’s secondary plot (or is it?) – Bill bonds with a single mother, Virginie (Camille Cottin), and her 9-year-old daughter, Maya (a wondrous Lilou Siauvand).

The kind, helpful woman, a French stage actress and activist, becomes his interpreter, then savior as a roommate and eventually, lover. Cottin is appealing and Siauvand, as her sweet daughter, is the scene-stealer.

Not unlike Amy Adams in the woefully misguided “Hillbilly Elegy,” Damon tries his mightiest to breathe humanity into a deeply flawed ordinary Joe trying to make up for past mistakes.

Despite Damon’s efforts immersing himself into the role with vigor, Breslin’s limited emotional depth and a wobbly defense propel this film off the rails. The slow pace doesn’t help it either.

Missed opportunities and miscasting make “Stillwater” a disheartening watch. It’s comparable to an extended “Law & Order” episode or a true-crime Lifetime movie, and I expected much more.

“Stillwater” is a 2021 drama directed by Tom McCarthy and starring Matt Damon, Abigail Breslin, Camille Cottin and Lilou Siauvand. Rated R for language, the film’s run time is 2 hours, 20 minutes. It opened in theatres on July 30. Lynn’s Grade: C-.

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By Lynn Venhaus
With the nostalgic glow of scrapbook memories, the toe-tapping and hummable “Smokey Joe’s Café” opened The Muny’s eagerly anticipated 103rd season.

In this spirited localized production of the longest-running musical revue in Broadway history, the creative team imagined a soulful stroll down memory lane, intersecting a generation’s familiar soundtrack with Gaslight Square, one of the city’s most iconic neighborhoods.

And just like that, the U.S.’s oldest and largest outdoor theater demonstrated why it’s an essential part of St. Louis summers.

It had been over 700 days since we were last gathered under the stars in Forest Park – at “Matilda,” to be exact, which ran Aug. 5-11, 2019.

Nobody does what the Muny does, and did we miss it! On Monday, warm-and-fuzzy feelings energized the crowd of 5,956, who collectively exhaled and shared a glorious moment, sprinkled with pixie dust, during a pleasant July evening.

“You’re here. You made it through!” exclaimed Mike Isaacson, executive producer and artistic director, with palpable joy.

One glance at that expansive stage and we were home.

Photo by Phillip Hamer

The impressive scenic design by Edward E. Haynes Jr., who was responsible for the bright and playful fantasy world of “The Wiz” in 2019, included realistic facades of Crystal Palace, Jack Carl’s 2¢ Plain (a New York-style deli), Annadel’s Olde-Fashioned Ice Cream Parlor, Smokey Joe’s Grecian Terrace and a Sinclair service station built into the streetscape.

That bygone-era theme continued in Kevan Loney’s video design and Rob Denton’s lighting design, which bathed the nightclub scenes in neon and stardust.

In its heyday, Gaslight Square was the entertainment district in St. Louis – located between Olive and Boyle in the eastern portion of the Central West End. Attracting bohemians, hipsters and the well-heeled, it was known for comedy, dining and dancing. Such rising stars as Barbra Streisand, Lenny Bruce, Woody Allen and The Smothers Brothers appeared in venues there. By the late ‘60s, urban decay took over and people were flocking to the suburbs.

Astute observers will be able to pick out “Easter eggs,” those clever nuggets from the past that mean something to fans — and a major find is shopping bags with the Stix, Baer and Fuller logo. There’s a Sealtest Dairy ad on a back cover – and more blasts from the past.

Never underestimate the emotional connection shared by a live audience, listening to a talented mix of performers sing their hearts out.

As we are all aware of how a global coronavirus pandemic disrupted our lives during the past 16 months, The Muny had been forced to cancel its 102nd season in 2020 – for the first-time ever – and moved five shows to this year, which received the green light when it was deemed safe to do so. Isaacson noted that the performers hadn’t been able to “do what they do” either.

Enter an eclectic cast of nine (five guys, four women), who could be classified as “acting singers” – and their strong interpretations created easily identifiable vignettes during musical numbers. All but three were making their Muny debut.

Photo by Phillip Hamer

Robust ovations began early, even before they harmonized in the first number “Neighborhood,” and continued through the enduring catalogue of prolific lyricist Jerry Leiber and composer Mike Stoller, for a total of 39 songs, mostly hits from the 1950s and 1960s.

Mutual fans of rhythm-and-blues, Leiber and Stoller collaborated on a pop-rock sound known as “crossover” music back in the day. Their catchy melodies and tender ballads are thread together without a storyline or a chronological order.

From the dance party that is “Baby, that is Rock and Roll” to the classic Drifters’ chart-climber “On Broadway,” the songs vary in mood and tempo.

For the most part, they reflect a more innocent time, especially the amusing novelty songs heard on transistor radios — golden oldies “Charlie Brown,” “Yakety Yak,” “Poison Ivy” and “Love Potion No. 9.”

The assembled artists are a balanced group of pros with Broadway and national tour credits. By the time they united for a moving finale of “Stand by Me,” each performer had a knockout rendition.

First-timer Charl Brown. who was nominated for a Tony for his portrayal of Smokey Robinson in “Motown: The Musical,” showcased his smooth style and wide register with “There Goes My Baby” and “Young Blood.”

Immediately, the audience reacted to Christopher Sam’s rich, deep baritone, and his silky delivery wowed on “Spanish Harlem,” “Loving You” and “Dance with Me.” It’s easy to picture him as Mufasa in “The Lion King” on Broadway.

Photo by Phillip Hamer

Belter Tiffany Mann was sensational with “Fools Fall in Love” and “Hound Dog,” soaring with the gospel tinged “Saved,” which closed the first act with a flourish. Mann, quickly a favorite, was in “Be More Chill” and “Waitress” on Broadway.

The charismatic Mykal Kilgore brought the house down with a passionate “I (Who Have Nothing).” He was Annas in the Muny’s 2018 “Jesus Christ Superstar” and part of the NBC live television concert version earlier that Easter, and also in the network’s live “The Wiz.”  

Excellent dancers Hayley Podschun and Michael Campayno stood out with “Teach Me How to Shimmy.” Podschun, the dance captain, starred as Dainty June in the Muny’s 2018 “Gypsy,” and touched with her sweet solo “Falling.”

Campayno, who played opposite Tony winner Stephanie J. Block in “The Cher Show,” channeled his inner Elvis Presley to lead a peppy “Jailhouse Rock,” and charmed with “Ruby Baby.”

Podschun teamed with Nasia Thomas on a sassy “Trouble.” Thomas, who was in the 2015 “Hairspray” Muny ensemble and played Little Eva in “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical” on Broadway, sang “Don Juan” solo.

In a take-note debut, Dee Roscioli, a long-running Elphaba in “Wicked,” showed versatility in “I Keep Forgettin’” and “Pearl’s a Singer.”. The females all have frisky fun in “I’m a Woman.”

A Smokey Joe’s veteran, expressive Jason Veasey paired with Thomas on “You’re the Boss,” and lead the men in the burlesque homage, “Little Egypt.”

Mykal Gilmore sings “I (Who Have Nothing)” — Photo by Phillip Hamer



Many of the lyrics, being from a different time decades ago, feature sexual innuendo and set society roles. That means it is preferable for more mature audiences, not the wee ones.

Music Director Abdul Hamid Royal, a Tony Award nominee and NAACP Image Award winner for “Five Guys Named Moe,” nimbly conducted the skilled musicians placed on stage, initially behind a storefront and then in plain view during the second act.

Choreographer Josh Walden designed the movements based on original choreography by director Marcia Milgrom Dodge, with whom he has worked before. He wove in the buoyant Muny Teen youth ensemble with aplomb.

Dodge, a frequent Muny collaborator, had helmed “Smokey Joe’s Café” in Chicago, winning a Jefferson Award. Her vision here added oomph to the characters’ stories, and the ensemble seamlessly slipped into specific archetypes.

Costume designer Sully Ratke created characters’ backstories with a keen eye for vintage wardrobes, and the retro apparel captured their personas, especially snazzy hats. Their looks were accented with spot-on wig design by Kelley Jordan.

The sound design by John Shivers and David Patridge was crisp and did not have any noticeable issues.

At an estimated run time of two hours, 11 minutes, the Tony-nominated musical from 1995 zipped along in swift fashion.

Those who like a beefier story with their musical interludes will not be satisfied by the structure, but if you expect a concert-type experience, then you know what is in store.

What is surprising is how the elements all came together to elevate a conventional revue into a more layered theatrical experience. By expanding on what’s considered routine entertainment, the show — directed and performed with verve — is a cut above the ordinary.

Projecting genuine affection for the material and each other, this cheerful cast and splendid creative team achieved its shining moment. And voila! A community was reborn and welcomed back.

I will never take this tradition for granted ever again.

A Muny premiere, “Smokey Joe’s Café” opened July 26 and runs through Sunday, Aug. 1 at 8:15 p.m. on the outdoor stage in Forest Park. Emerson is the 2021 season sponsor.

For more information, visit www.muny.org. For tickets, visit muny.org or call (314) 361-1900 ext. 1550.

To stay connected virtually and to receive the latest updates, please follow The Muny on their social media channels, including Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

Jack Carl’s vintage postcard of Gaslight Square.

Muny Photos by Phillip Hamer.

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Aug. 20-22 and 27-29: Webster University’s Winifred Moore Auditorium in Webster Hall, 470 E. Lockwood Ave.

Tickets/Passes: Tickets are $14 for general admission; $11 for students and Cinema St. Louis members. Two types of passes are available: Five-Film Passes are $60, $45 for CSL members; All-Access Passes are $100, $80 for CSL members. Passes and advance tickets can be purchased through the Cinema St. Louis website. More Info: 314-289-4150, cinemastlouis.org

The 13th Annual Robert Classic French Film Festival — presented by TV5MONDE, sponsored by the Jane M. & Bruce P. Robert Charitable Foundation, and produced by Cinema St. Louis (CSL) — celebrates St. Louis’ Gallic heritage and France’s extraordinary cinematic legacy, offering a revealing overview of French cinema.

The Robert Classic French Film Festival is the first CSL in-person event since the Covid-19 pandemic. The host venues — Washington University on Aug. 13-15 and Webster University on Aug. 20-22 and 27-29 — have not yet determined whether capacity limits or masks will be required. Details will be announced on the CSL website when available.

The fest annually includes significant restorations, and this year features a quintet of such works: Melvin Van Peebles’ “The Story of a Three-Day Pass,” Diane Kurys’ “Entre Nous,” Joseph Losey’s “Mr. Klein,” Jacques Deray’s “La piscine,” and the extended director’s cut of Jean-Jacques Beineix’s “Betty Blue.”

The fest also provides one of the few opportunities available in St. Louis to see films projected the old-school, time-honored way, with Agnes Varda’s “Vagabond” screening from a 35mm print.

As part of CSL’s year-long Golden Anniversaries programming, which features films celebrating their 50th anniversaries, the fest includes a pair of films from 1971: François Truffaut’s “Two English Girls” and Claude Jutra’s French-Canadian “Mon oncle Antoine.”

Completing the fest is a pandemic-delayed tribute to the late Anna Karina, who died in December 2019: Jean-Luc Godard’s essential “Vivre sa vie.”

Every program features introductions and discussions by film or French scholars and critics.

All films are in French with English subtitles (“The Story of a Three-Day Pass” is in both English & French).

TV5MONDE serves as the fest’s presenting sponsor, and the Jane M. & Bruce P. Robert Charitable Foundation is the event’s title sponsor.

Schedule

For film synopses,  see the CSL website

7:30 PM FRIDAY, AUG. 13, WASHINGTON U.

Mon oncle Antoine

Claude Jutra, Canada, 1971, 104 min., color, DCP

With an introduction and post-film discussion by Lionel Cuillé, teaching professor in French and director of the cultural center French ConneXions at Washington University.

7:30 PM SATURDAY, AUG. 14, WASHINGTON U.

Entre Nous/Coup de foudre

Diane Kurys, France, 1983, 110 min., color, new restoration, DCP

Entre Nous

With an introduction and post-film discussion by Colin Burnett, associate professor of Film & Media Studies at Washington U. and author of “The Invention of Robert Bresson: The Auteur and His Market.”

7 PM SUNDAY, AUG. 15, WASHINGTON U.

Mr. Klein

Joseph Losey, France, 1976, 123 min., color, new restoration, DCP

With an introduction and post-film discussion by Pier Marton, video artist, self-described “Unlearning Specialist at the School of No Media,” and former instructor at several leading U.S. universities.

7:30 PM FRIDAY, AUG. 20, WEBSTER U.

The Story of a Three-Day Pass/La permission

Melvin van Peebles, France/U.S., 1967, B&W, 86 min., English & French, new restoration, MP4 file

With an introduction and post-film discussion by Diane Carson, professor emerita of film at St. Louis Community College at Meramec and film critic for KDHX (88.1 FM).

7:30 PM SATURDAY, AUG. 21, WEBSTER U.

Vagabond/Sans toit ni loi

Agnès Varda, France, 1985, 105 min., color, 35mm print

With an introduction and post-film discussion by Kathy Corley, documentary filmmaker and professor emerita of film at Webster University.

6:30 PM SUNDAY, AUG. 22, WEBSTER U.

Betty Blue

Jean-Jacques Beineix, France, 1986, 185 min., color, new restoration of extended director’s cut, Blu-ray

With an introduction and post-film discussion by Andrew Wyatt, editor of and film critic for Cinema St. Louis’ The Lens and the Gateway Cinephile film blog.

7:30 PM FRIDAY, AUG. 27, WEBSTER U.

Vivre sa vie/Vivre sa vie: Film en douze tableaux

Jean-Luc Godard, 1962, 83 min., B&W, Blu-ray

With an introduction and post-film discussion by Pete Timmermann, director of the Webster U. Film Series and adjunct professor of film studies at Webster U.

7:30 PM SATURDAY, AUG. 28, WEBSTER U.

La piscine

Jacques Deray, 1969, France, 122 min., color, new restoration, Blu-ray

With an introduction and post-film discussion by Calvin Wilson, theater critic for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, who also writes on film, dance, and music.

7 PM SUNDAY, AUG. 29, WEBSTER U.

Two English Girls/Les deux Anglaises et le continent

François Truffaut, 1971, France, 130 min., color, Blu-ray

With an introduction and post-film discussion by Robert Garrick, attorney, board member of the French-preservation nonprofit Les Amis, and former contributor to the davekehr.com film blog.

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By Alex McPherson

Directors Ting Poo and Leo Scott’s new documentary, “Val,” provides a zoomed-in look at actor Val Kilmer’s life that, while somewhat hagiographic, forms an affecting story of perseverance, reinvention, and reaching for the stars. Cutting between personal video recordings narrated by his son, Jack, along with current footage of him contemplating the meaning of life, “Val” spotlights a complicated figure through a career of soaring highs and crippling lows. 

Growing up in Los Angeles to wealthy parents, Kilmer developed an intense passion for filmmaking and acting — creating home movies on Roy Rogers’ Ranch with his brothers, Wesley and Mark, that parodied such classics as “Jaws.” At age 17, Kilmer was the youngest student accepted at Juilliard at the time, but Wesley died in a tragic accident soon before, leaving Kilmer reeling with grief.

Determined to make a name for himself, the talented, handsome Kilmer excelled in his studies and, after graduating, eventually acted in a Broadway production of “Slab Boys.” His acclaim landed him film gigs in the 1980s and ‘90s, including in “Top Gun,” “The Doors,” “Tombstone,” “Heat” and as the Caped Crusader in “Batman Returns.” 

Despite his fame, Kilmer remained largely unsatisfied with his career, feeling as though his personal brand of acting was held back by the roles he was assigned. His arrogance, disguised as devotion to the craft, sparked conflicts with collaborators, including on the set of “The Island of Dr. Moreau,” which garnered Kilmer a troubled reputation.

Flash forward to today and the charismatic soul, having survived throat cancer and undergone a tracheostomy distorting his speech, is a much humbler individual than before — seeking to help viewers understand the human being behind the persona, and willing to share the wisdom he’s learned through his experiences.  

Although not immune from indulgent flourishes, “Val” winds up being a cathartic look at a celebrity looking back on a turbulent career and embracing the beauty of love, family, and creativity in the present. The film allows the world to see a frank, though nevertheless curated, look behind the tabloids.

Eschewing the talking-heads format common to documentaries, “Val” features copious footage recorded by Kilmer himself over the last 40 years. Viewers see behind-the-scenes shenanigans with fellow actors, footage from his childhood projects, audition tapes for “Full Metal Jacket,” and much more, in addition to darker moments of Kilmer’s self-destructive tendencies.

In modern times, we see Kilmer spend time with his son and daughter, Mercedes, attend draining autograph signings at Comic Con, mourn what he’s lost, and ponder what the future holds. 

As “Val’” juxtaposes the rowdy, perfectionistic younger man with his significantly wiser self years later, it’s often moving, as viewers grow attached to the aging figure at the center of it all. Indeed, the film is organized in a bittersweet fashion — chock full of impactful moments both happy and sad, with thought-provoking reflections sprinkled throughout that tie most everything together. Through the lens of viewers unfamiliar with Kilmer’s previous work, however, “Val” might not hit as hard as intended when nostalgia is lessened. 

Although Kilmer’s story is inspiring, “Val” feels more like a melancholic tribute than a comprehensive exploration, for better and worse. For instance, the film treats his Christian Science background and on-set controversies with a light touch. “Val” also follows a traditional narrative trajectory that’s, in a sense, at odds with Kilmer’s own goals of shaking things up with his projects.

Suffice to say, when Kilmer begins comparing himself to Mark Twain, “Val” feels a bit too full of itself, and loses some of its emotional power as a result.

(Twain, one of his influences, inspired his one-man show turned film presentation, “Cinema Twain,”  and his charity, TwainMania, is about teaching the authors to students.)

Easy to admire but ham-strung by its limited perspective, “Val” still delivers a revealing look at a frequently underrated actor who has finally achieved a sense of inner peace. What we’re left with is a film that’s not as profound as it thinks it is, but leaves us with a greater understanding of a flawed, resilient artist who hasn’t abandoned his dreams.

Val Kilmer

“Val” is a 2021 documentary co-directed by Ting Poo and Leo Scott. It is rated R for some language and runs 1 hour, 49 minutes. It is available in theaters on July 23 and on Amazon Prime on Aug. 6. Alex’s grade: B.

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