By Alex McPherson

With shallow characterization and underwhelming action sequences, George Gallo’s new film, “Vanquish,” winds up being decidedly average.

This generic thriller stars Ruby Rose as Vicky, a former courier for Russian drug dealers, who’s become a caretaker for Damon (Morgan Freeman), a retired police commissioner in cahoots with crooked cops. When the operation Damon’s team is working on is nearly jeopardized, he decides to take matters into his own hands. Vicky can’t afford to pay medical bills for her young daughter, so Damon offers funds in exchange for her embarking on a dangerous task — completing five money pickups from criminals around town. When Vicky refuses, Damon takes Lily hostage and won’t release her until the job is completed. Vicky must utilize her particular set of skills to survive the night and rescue her child.

With a style reminiscent of the “John Wick” franchise, Gallo’s film neglects to make the most of its lead actors and only provides sporadic moments of enjoyment throughout.

Even with low expectations going in, I hoped “Vanquish” would provide a campy, suspenseful experience that didn’t take itself too seriously. Unfortunately, for such a simple premise, the film seems unfocused. In too often switching attention from Vicky to the larger drug-smuggling operations behind the scenes, the pacing suffers, and the film abandons its strengths in favor of bland storytelling with predictable outcomes.

There are faint glimmers of intrigue here and there, however, particularly involving the visuals. Employing thick contrast and color grading in practically every shot, “Vanquish” aims for the appearance of a comic book and is often striking to behold, if sometimes overbearingly so. One scene early on, for example, is bathed in green hues and features a camera angle from the perspective of a scurrying rat — an oddball decision, to say the least. More often than not, though, this threatening atmosphere is undone by hyperactive editing that muddles the intensity. The camera rarely slows down, constantly cutting between shots without precision or purpose. I see what Gallo was attempting in trying to create a hazy, sensory feel at certain points, but “Vanquish” needed a more restrained approach overall. 

This surface-level quality extends to Vicky herself.  Her backstory is relegated to clunky exposition dumps and rushed flashbacks that lack emotional impact. Rose does a passable job with dialogue that chugs along without nuance. We’re not given many opportunities to spend time with her outside of her immediate objectives — rather, we spend a lot of time with Damon and the slimy cops he manages. Portrayed with uneven acting, the officers come across as infinitely less interesting than Vicky. 

The film’s video-game-esque skirmishes aren’t especially memorable, despite some impressive gore effects. Except for one moment of cocaine-induced gun fu and a slick motorcycle stunt, they fail to stand out — they’re sometimes downright difficult to follow due to the aforementioned editing. 

Side characters don’t fare much better. Damon has an engaging history, but “Vanquish” sends him down a familiar arc as events unfold. Confined to a wheelchair for the entire duration, Freeman doesn’t deliver Damon’s lines with much emotion. Admittedly, this creates some amusing moments of deadpan humor, but Gallo misses an opportunity to give Damon a soul beneath his shady actions — Freeman’s presence is where the primary entertainment comes from. Cynical, calculating, and emotionally distanced from the carnage happening around him, Damon is an over-the-top character that deserves a more over-the-top depiction. 

Failing to embrace its B-movie potential, “Vanquish” isn’t the worst option for an action film, but viewers could certainly do better elsewhere. 

“Vanquish” is a 2021 action crime thriller directed by George Gallo and starring Morgan Freeman and Ruby Rose. It is rated R for bloody violence, language, some sexual material and drug use, and run time is 1 hour, 36 minutes. It opens in theatres April 16. Alex’s Rating: C

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Prism seeks submissions from women playwrights for “Spotlight on… Women Writing: Prism’s Festival of New Works”

The mission of St. Louis’ newest professional performing arts organization, Prism Theatre Company, is to promote the work of women and emerging artists, on stage and off, through the lens of theatre for the new world.  We produce both new and classic works in an atmosphere of inclusivity, where artists from all walks of life can come together to explore our common humanity. Prism is creative collaboration, without the cliques. 

To that end, Prism is currently seeking submissions for new plays by women playwrights based in Missouri or Illinois for “Spotlight on… Women Writing: Prism’s Festival of New Works.” Prism is accepting non-musical plays of any length that feature 2 – 15 characters. All submissions must be received by 11:59 p.m. CST on Tuesday, June 1, 2021. Visit prismtheatrecompany.org for full submission guidelines.

Prism’s search for the most talented playwrights in our region will culminate with the inaugural season of a series of staged readings this summer (dates TBA), featuring some of St. Louis’ favorite actors and exciting, emerging artists. COVID safety guidelines will be strictly followed for in-person readings, and a virtual option will also be offered. Details on the festival are available on Prism’s website, Instagram, and Facebook page.

Prism Theatre Company is the brainchild of Trish Brown and Joy Addler, St. Louis-based theatre-makers and longtime collaborators.   

Trish Brown, a professional director, actress, and theatre educator, has directed regionally, as well as in Canada.  She is a proud associate member of SDC, the Stage Directors and Choreographers Society. 

She holds an MFA in Directing from the Chicago College of Performing Arts at Roosevelt University and worked professionally in Chicago for a number of years before returning to the St. Louis area.  

A process-based, ensemble director, Trish is trained in and utilizes a number of acting methods in her work while specializing in the Michael Chekhov technique. 

She is a founding member of The Moving Dock Theatre Company, a Chicago-based company dedicated to the actor’s creative process through the use of the Chekhov technique.  Theatre education is also a passion of Trish’s and she has taught in regional arts programs such as COCA in St. Louis and Hinsdale Center for the Arts in Chicago.  She is now a Professor of Theatre at Principia College.  Her educational productions have won numerous recognitions, including two Best Production for the  State of Illinois awards from the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival.  Trish also loves directing film and coaching actors for stage and screen.  

Joy Addler

Joy Addler is a St. Louis area stage manager, company manager, and nonprofit professional. A proud graduate of The Conservatory of Theatre Arts at Webster University, Joy has a BFA in Stage Management and is currently pursuing her Master’s degree in Nonprofit Management. She is also a member of the Actor’s Equity Association. Currently, Joy works as the Performing Arts Manager for Variety the Children’s Charity, overseeing their inclusive chorus and dance programs throughout the year, as well as serving as the Company Manager and Production Stage Manager for their annual Variety Theatre production. In addition to her work at Variety, Joy works as a freelance AEA stage manager throughout the St. Louis area.  

Addler and Brown began work on Prism Theatre Company over 18 months ago in a pre-pandemic world.  The company was a long-time dream of these partners who wanted to provide a home for artists from all walks of life to shine, especially women.  “As members of the St. Louis theatre community, and in talking to our friends in the community, we noticed a gap in the opportunities for women to really be at the forefront,” says Joy Addler, Prism’s Managing Director. “We want to provide a safe space for the voices of women to really shine and take center stage.” Though the company’s mission puts women at the forefront, men are also an important part of Prism’s work.  “We love all artists and welcome men into Prism, as actors, technicians, directors, designers, and Board members.  Nothing at Prism is exclusionary,” says Trish Brown, Prism’s Artistic Director.      

Trish Brown

Prism is also designed as a home for new and emerging artists.  “Because I’m passionate about theatre education, fostering new and emerging artists was an important aspect of Prism,” says Brown.  “I remember graduating from college with my BA in Theatre and wondering, ‘OK, what now’?  It was difficult to break into the theatre scene in a meaningful way.  Few companies were open to mentoring young artists at that time.  We want Prism Theatre Company to be a place where emerging artists can work with kind, collaborative, seasoned professionals so they can learn, grow, build their resumes, and make connections.”    

Theatre artists who are interested in joining Prism’s Board of Directors or Company may contact Prism at [email protected]. Prism invites actors to like us on Facebook for access to audition details for the festival and for future productions.  Women playwrights interested in submitting their unproduced scripts for consideration to “Spotlight on… Women Writing: Prism’s Festival of New Works” can find full details on Prism’s website.  

ABOUT PRISM THEATRE COMPANY

Prism Theatre Company seeks to champion the voices and stories of women from all walks of life, giving emerging artists a platform to showcase their work with seasoned professionals. We produce both new and classic works in an atmosphere of inclusivity, where artists from all walks of life can come together to explore our common humanity. Prism is creative collaboration, without the cliques.
Learn more about Prism on our website, Instagram, and Facebook.

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The Black Rep continues its season of virtual programming with a mainstage production of Home, a moving love story by American playwright and screenwriter Samm-Art Williams, streaming on Vimeo beginning on April 15 and running through April 25. Nominated for a Tony Award and a Drama Desk Award, the play moved from the Negro Ensemble Company to the Cort Theatre on Broadway in 1980.

Directed by Producing Director Ron Himes, Home tells the story of farm boy Cephus Miles who has inherited the family farm. He is content working the land until the girl he loves leaves for college and marries someone else. After a stint in prison for his opposition to the Vietnam War, he moves to the big city where he enjoys the fast-paced city life. His return to North Carolina, the farm, and the girl, reveals the true meaning of Home.

Produced at the Edison Theatre on the campus of Washington University, the production features members of the Black Rep’s Acting Intern Company with Brian McKinley (Spell #7, Milk Like Sugar) portraying Cephus Miles, Christina Yancy (Spell #7) as Woman One/Pattie Mae Wells, and Tyler White (Spell #7, Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope) as Woman Two; with scenic and projection design by Peter and Margery Spack, lighting design by Joe Clapper, costume design by Ellen Minch, and Kasey Dunaski as stage manager.

Home is supported in part by The Nebraska Rep #realchange. Tickets for Home are available at The Black Rep website at theblackrep.org or by calling our Box Office at 314-534-3807. Streaming free on demand, a suggested donation of $25 will directly help support the theatre company and its artists.

# # #

Founded in 1976 by Producing Director Ron Himes, The Black Rep is one of the largest, professional African-American theatre companies in the nation and the largest African-American professional performing arts organization in Missouri. Quality professional dramas, comedies and musicals by primarily African-American and African Diaspora playwrights are produced. Mainstage productions and education programs combine to reach more than 80,000 people annually.

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By Lynn Venhaus
In yet another exploration on how humans are wired and the inevitable devil inside, “Voyagers” is ultimately a stale old story, yet spruced up with fancy technology and a diverse crop of young actors.

Thinking ahead, because Earth has climate issues, scientists raise a group of children, bred for intelligence and obedience, to embark on an expedition in 2063 to colonize a distant planet and save the human race. Cut to 10 years later. Now young adults, they rebel against the mission’s constraints. As their primitive natures, fears and hunger for power come out in the group dynamic, they descend into chaos.  
Written and directed by Neil Burger, who uses some slick techniques from his cautionary designer drug science fiction thriller “Limitless” and borrows from the youth friction examples in his first “Divergent” movie. However, the narrative tropes and trappings are too generic and sterile for a different kind of space odyssey.

Sadly, as much as I liked this premise, think about it — scientific experiments rarely seem to work out well in using the allure of the final frontier. We should know by now from previous far-flung film forays and “Voyagers” fails to set itself apart.

Thus, this coed hormones-gone-crazy outer space version of “The Lord of the Flies” winds up dour and depressing.

Colin Farrell is Richard, the benevolent caretaker of these test-tube kids raised in isolation. On the ship, he is a dutiful mentor, but some of the boys discover that the blue liquid they drink daily is toxic. Richard knows it keeps them docile robot-like minions for a reason. But oh, they want none of that – so they stop taking it in the name of freedom. Bad idea. ‘Let’s do whatever we want!’ doesn’t turn out so well and behavior goes downhill from there.

Now that they think Richard has betrayed them, Zac (Fionn Whitehead) becomes a monster. Angry that he is passed over as the leader after a horrible accident – or is it? – he gaslights the impressionable youth and targets the chosen leader Christopher (Tye Sheridan) as the one to distrust.

The pragmatic Sela (Lily-Rose Depp) sees through Zac and is loyal to Christopher, forming an alliance with a small group. It gets downright ugly and bloody – and tedious. Zac has also convinced his allies that there is an alien on board. So, there is that. Their dialogue goes from bad to worse, and there is no way to rescue these kids from this lackluster script.

Now, the stark setting of white corridors gets as monotonous as the characters, clad in uniform black t-shirts and pants, as they run around the ship. The monochromatic scheme is dull, even with all the bells and whistles of a spaceship prepped for an 86-year journey.

As the action descends into chaos, tension does build, but you know what the climactic battle will be. After all that, we see a montage of the next 76 years, which seems to be an easy way out (but no escape from all the cliches).

Cinematographer Enrique Chediak is fond of racing shots as the kids run through the halls either in flight or fight mode.

The ominous score by Trevor Gureckis does add to the creepiness of the claustrophobic setting.

Because the characters are destined to be conformists, the ensemble is rather bland – lacking spark and something to make them memorable. Only a handful distinguish themselves, including the principal triangle of Christopher, Zac and Sela.

Sheridan, who played Cyclops in the X-Men prequels and the lead in “Ready Player One,” is capable as a natural leader aboard the ship while Whitehead’s intensity deepens his sinister vibe as the boy –surprise! – who goes rogue. He was Tommy in “Dunkirk,” but as in that film you couldn’t tell the young soldiers apart either. He does stand out here.

Johnny Depp’s daughter Lily-Rose is just starting out, but this is not really a breakthrough role, although she is sympathetic and the link to Richard’s past life on earth.

“Voyagers” was an opportunity for a fresh look at a futuristic solution to our planet’s plight of drought and disease, but came up short.
“Voyagers” is a science-fiction thriller written and directed by Neil Burger. It stars Tye Sheridan, Lily-Rose Depp and Fionn Whitehead. Run time is 1 hour, 48 minutes and it is rated PG-13 for violence, some strong sexuality, bloody images, a sexual assault and brief strong language. In theaters on April 9. Lynn’s Grade: C.

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By Alex McPherson

Acclaimed French director François Ozon’s newest work, “Summer of 85,” is a nostalgic coming-of-age story that lacks focus and subtlety.

Based on the novel “Dance on My Grave” by Aidan Chambers, the film takes place off the sun-drenched coast of Normandy and follows a reserved, working-class teenager named Alex (Félix Lefebvre), who happens to be fascinated with death. After his boat capsizes, Alex is rescued by the thrill-seeking David (Benjamin Voisin), and the two boys become infatuated with one another. Like most queer love stories in cinema, though, tragedy strikes. Switching back and forth between two separate timelines — one in which Alex is under investigation for a crime; the other presented as a flashback — viewers experience the exhilaration of Alex’s first love, as he recounts the events of those formative weeks.

Despite expert performances, vivid cinematography, and a dreamlike flow, “Summer of 85” remains disappointingly sappy, especially during its latter half. There’s much to appreciate about Ozon’s film, however, and there are specific powerful scenes peppered throughout. This is largely thanks to the chemistry of the two leads, as well as the ways their characters reflect and contrast each other.

16-year-old Alex is unsure whether to remain in school or join the workforce. He’s soft-spoken and, in 18-year-old David’s eyes, failing to capitalize on the exuberance of his youth. Lefebvre convincingly portrays his obsession, childishness, and turbulent emotions in a manner that feels understandable for a boy his age — including a climactic dance sequence that’s fittingly over-the-top.

David, on the other hand, is constantly seeking excitement in his life and grieves the death of his recently passed father. Voisin gives David a flamboyant swagger that’s simultaneously alluring and insecure, conveying a character with additional layers beneath his outgoing demeanor.

“Summer of 85” showcases their bond while bluntly illuminating larger themes, such as the perils of fantasization. The beginning of their relationship, for example, is depicted in a jubilant fashion — the scenery is breathtaking, and the sense of adventure is palpable. These breezy sequences evoke the sense that David and Alex have been literally swept off their feet by each other, throwing their frets to the wayside. There’s a distinctive energy pulsing through these moments, particularly when Rod Stewart’s “Sailing” blares on the soundtrack as David and Alex chart a new course in their lives.

When extreme melodrama comes to the forefront around the halfway point, the previously brisk pacing sags, and “Summer of 85” proves too forceful for its own good. Combined with distracting comedic elements, side characters that are well-acted but underdeveloped, excessive narration, and a conclusion that feels thoroughly Hollywoodized — “Summer of 85” doesn’t quite know what to do with itself. 

Indeed, the film’s disjointed narrative structure ultimately detracts from the suspense Ozon tries to create, breaking from the story’s interiority regarding Alex. If “Summer of 85” insists on portraying the highs and lows of Alex’s passion, then why shouldn’t we experience those feelings along with him without knowledge of the future?

A flawed but consistently watchable effort, “Summer of 85” plays to convention when it could have become unforgettable.

“Summer of 85” is a 2020 French film directed by Francois Ozon and starring Felix Lefebvre and Benjamin Voison. Its runtime is 1 hour, 30 minutes, and not rated. This film is a selection in Cinema St. Louis’ annual QFest from April 16 to 25. Alex’s Rating: B-.

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By Alex McPherson

Director Caleb Michael Johnson’s new film, “The Carnivores,” is a lurid and disturbing psychological thriller that actually prompted nausea at one point, which is no small feat.

This bizarre story follows Alice (Tallie Medel) and Bret (Lindsay Burdge), an amiable yet stressed couple contending with several unaddressed issues. They each work dead-end jobs and can hardly afford to pay vet expenses for their dog, Harvie, who suffers from a terminal illness.

Alice is particularly jealous of Harvie, who receives more attention from Bret than she does. Hungry for intimacy and sleepwalking on a regular basis, Alice barely maintains her sanity. She develops a newfound fascination with meat, having been a vegan previously. When Harvie disappears, Bret becomes increasingly paranoid, and their relationship encounters a veritable smorgasbord of challenges. What follows is a deadpan, sometimes shocking film about the all-consuming pull of passion and the lengths that some will go to satiate it.

With hints of David Lynch and the off-kilter humor of Lorgos Lanthimos sprinkled throughout, “The Carnivores” definitely won’t be for all tastes. Like it or not, Johnson’s vision is undeniably striking — providing richly conceived visuals, devoted performances, and a genre mashup that’s difficult to look away from, even if you want to.

Indeed, “The Carnivores” is a refreshingly unpredictable experience, with slow-burn pacing and a tone that swerves noticeably from one moment to the next. I’m kept in nervous discomfort, never quite sure how to feel about the craziness unfurling before my eyes.

Alice is a perfect vessel for the film’s absurdist leanings. Although “The Carnivores” begins with her already in a state of mental anguish, Johnson’s film does an exceptional job at establishing her malaise with her day-to-day life. Despite her character’s potential for violence, Medel’s performance and the script’s blackly comic dialogue generate empathy and occasional amusement from her situation.

“The Carnivores” excels at a particular kind of droll comedy that befits this twisted tale perfectly, creating an uneasy atmosphere that simultaneously prompts laughter and grimaces. It’s a tricky balancing act, and Johnson more or less pulls it off effectively, especially in scenes involving Alice’s chatterbox boss and her obsessive preoccupation with slabs of meat.

Bret’s character doesn’t receive nearly as much development, but Burdge still gives her a raw edge beneath her compassionate personality. Watching her take matters into her own hands, as Alice’s life seemingly slips away from her, is upsetting but grimly compelling — not always making much sense, but building towards a suitably ravenous climax.

Of course, much of the film’s strengths lie in its cinematography and score, which constantly keep viewers on edge as to whether or not scenes are taking place in reality, or merely within Alice’s mind. Sensual, vivid imagery of her yearnings and obsessions — including a particularly memorable shot of Alice and Bret making out from either side of a shower door — have a mesmerizing quality that, while sometimes too overt for their own good, are admirable in their confidence.

Unfortunately, however, this tonal mishmash ultimately lessens the film’s emotional impact. “The Carnivores” held my interest throughout, but there are some plot beats that don’t ring as poignantly as they could have, especially near an ending that feels oddly cut and dry.

The premise is also inherently difficult to buy into, and I couldn’t become much involved in the proceedings due to its blunt, in-your-face imagery, especially in the latter half. Perhaps I will grow to appreciate “The Carnivores” more upon repeat viewings, but I couldn’t help but feel slightly distanced from the characters and the peculiar journey we’re taken on.

An acquired taste, “The Carnivores” bites off slightly more than it can chew, but remains satisfyingly well done nevertheless.

“The Carnivores” is a 2020 comedy-drama-thriller directed by Caleb Michael Johnson and part of the 2021 Cinema St Louis Q Fest April 16-25. Starring Tallie Medel and Lindsay Burdge, it is not rated and runs 1 hour, 17 minutes. Alex’s Rating: B.

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By Alex McPherson

Olivia Peace’s directorial debut, “Tahara,” provides an incisive look at identity, grief, and societal pressures.

Unfolding during a single day within a Jewish synagogue, the film centers on best friends Carrie Lowstein (Madeline Grey DeFreece) and Hannah Rosen (Rachel Sennott) as they attend the funeral services for their Hebrew school classmate, Samantha Goldstein, who was shunned by her community for her queerness. Carrie, a soft-spoken Black woman, quickly realizes the hypocrisy on display from her peers and instructors, especially during the “Teen Talk-back” session in which she and her classmates are forced to discuss faith in relation to Samantha’s death. They are enacting a performative ritual that contradicts how many of them treated Samantha while she was alive. 

Everyone besides Carrie is seemingly driven by selfish interests, especially Hannah — an impulsive, reckless individual. Hannah is solely focused on attracting the attention of pretty boy Tristan Leibowitz (Daniel Taveras), rather than on grieving the loss of her classmate. After she coerces Carrie into “practicing” her kissing skills, Carrie’s true feelings for her come to the forefront. Hannah is forced to confront her own insecurities, and Carrie must navigate the troubled waters of their friendship.

Although the topics broached don’t break the mold for the coming-of-age genre, “Tahara” makes a positive impression from its opening frames and remains compelling throughout. 

The film’s distinctive style is apparent from the get-go — utilizing a 1:1 aspect ratio that creates a confined atmosphere, enhanced through frequent long takes. Additionally, when the characters experience a euphoric moment, the picture widens to fill the entire screen. During the aforementioned kiss, for example, colors whirl from all directions while Carrie and Hannah become smooching claymation figures — briefly existing on a different plane of existence, only to return to the restrictive norm immediately after.

Indeed, the whole film revolves around Carrie and Hannah’s relationship, as their bond is put to the test. Carrie’s mild-mannered personality sharply contrasts with Hannah’s, but “Tahara” effectively conveys their years of friendship through dialogue that, while often sardonic, feels authentic. DeFreece gives a particularly noteworthy performance as an individual facing challenges from multiple angles who eventually recognizes the importance of asserting herself. 

While Carrie remains sympathetic, Hannah is practically unbearable. Her self-absorption makes her difficult to watch at times, and her stubborn resistance to change proves incredibly frustrating. Sennott’s masterful performance, though, renders Hannah more complicated than she initially seems — an individual deeply unsure of her future and grappling with the person she wants to become. Although the film’s condensed time-frame limits how much we can learn about Carrie and Hannah individually, “Tahara” does a commendable job at illustrating their tensions, rendering each deeply human. 

Overlooking a few exaggerated side characters, Peace’s film successfully peels back the layers of its subjects’ cynicism to reveal a tragic, at times heartbreaking situation with young adults weighed down by external expectations. Religion, mourning, regret, self discovery, social status, and toxic friendships are all explored to various extents in this microcosm of teenage uncertainty. 

Despite some jokes that fail to land and occasionally heavy-handed symbolism, “Tahara” remains engaging from beginning to end. I wish Peace’s film wasn’t limited to showing a single day in the life of these characters, however, as the conclusion remains frustratingly open-ended and fails to give one specific character the resolution they deserve. The film’s initially comedic bent gives way to straight-up drama by the end credits, not shying away from ambiguity and leaving the future unpredictable.

Multifaceted and surprisingly ambitious, “Tahara” is a coming-of-age film worth experiencing, as well as an impressive calling card for director Peace.

“Tahara” is a 2020 movie directed by Olivia Peace that runs 78 minutes. It is a narrative feature selected for Cinema St Louis’ annual QFest, which will take place virtually April 16-25. For ticket information and festival offerings, visit www.cinemastlouis.com/qfest. Alex’s rating: B+

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FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Clayton Community Theatre’s production of the classic romantic comedy “The Philadelphia Story” swept the 2021 Theatre Mask Awards, winning seven out of its eight nominations.

For the second year in a row, a virtual ceremony took place. On April 3, the 17-minute pre-recorded announcement honored excellence in community theater productions of comedies and dramas, as the TMAs have done since 2015.

Only for 2020, Arts For Life scaled back the format to reflect the number of eligible plays performed before the coronavirus pandemic shutdown. Awards were presented in 10 non-musical play categories instead of the usual 18.

TMA Steering Committee co-directors Melissa Boyer and Tim Naegelin announced the winners. The presentation is available on Arts For Life’s YouTube channel:

https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCnCSL5RPbHTrhbc0mbHcWnA

Clayton Community Theatre, last year’s big winner in both comedy and drama with “Biloxi Blues” and “A Soldier’s Play,” added to their overall total of 28 awards and 113 nominations. They won for Play, Director Heather Sartin, Leading Actress Kelsey McCroskey, Supporting Actress Caitlin Souers, Costume Designer Julie Smailys, Lighting Designer Nathan Schroeder and Set Designers Andrew Cary, Zac Cary and Heather Sartin.

They staged “The Philadelphia Story” in March 2020. The 1939 play by Philip Barry deals with family dynamics and class prejudice at the affluent Lord estate, where everyone has gathered for socialite Tracy Lord’s second wedding, but romantic entanglements ensue and she must choose between three men – her fiancé, ex-husband and reporter covering the society event.

The winning actresses, McCroskey and Souers played Tracy Lord and her younger sister Dinah respectively. This is Schroeder’s third award for lighting design, winning for CCT’s “Macbeth” in 2015 and “A Soldier’s Play” last year.

Act Two Theatre’s production of the comedy “Who’s in Bed with the Butler?” won two – for Best Supporting Actor Todd Micali and Best Ensemble. The St. Peters-based group had led this year’s awards with nine nominations.

They staged the 2004 farce by Michael Parker in February 2020. It is about a California billionaire who has bequeathed all of his assets to his only daughter, Constance – except the $22 million yacht he wanted Josephine to have, a $25 million art collection left to Renee, and some priceless antique automobiles willed to Marjorie. She arrives at her father’s mansion with her lawyer to find out who these women are and discovers the butler seems to hold the key.

Micali, playing the bumbling detective Davis, has won in the supporting actor category before –as Felix Ungar, in “The Odd Couple” in 2016, and a Best Performance Award for Comedic Actor in multiple roles in “Spamalot” in 2014.

Alton Little Theater won one for Leading Actor, Shea Maples, in “Inherit the Wind.” He played the character Matthew Harrison Brady, which is based on attorney William Jennings Bryan, in the drama that is a fictional account of the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trail.

Arts For Life announced the TMA nominations on March 12, during the nonprofit organization’s first-ever virtual trivia night.

“The TMAs were able to do eight shows last year and so the show must go on. Several categories were combined to allow for more nominees,” said AFL President Mary McCreight.

Naegelin explained the reasoning behind 2021’s awards ceremony.

“2020 was a difficult year. Most theatre was cancelled after March, but the TMA Steering Committee and the AFL Board of Directors believed the Theatre Recognition Guild had reviewed enough shows to make a successful TMA event. With only eight shows eligible, some categories were combined so that we did not lose the integrity of our awards and nominations.  To that end, there was not a division of drama and comedy categories for this year,” Naegelin said.

During 2020, beginning in mid-March, because of the public health emergency in Illinois and Missouri. performance venues were closed, gatherings limited to a percentage of capacity and safety protocols in place, including social distancing and face coverings to lessen community spread.

Because of the coronavirus crisis, AFL adopted measures to foster the protection of those who work and play in metropolitan St. Louis-southwest Illinois community theater.

“We will continue our charitable mission of service and recognition once it is safe to do so,” McCreight said.

The Philadelphia Story

The 2020 TMA winners are:

BEST PRODUCTION
“The Philadelphia Story,” Clayton Community Theatre

BEST DIRECTOR
Heather Sartin, “The Philadelphia Story,” Clayton Community Theatre

BEST LEADING ACTOR
Shea Maples, “Inherit the Wind,” Alton Little Theater

BEST LEADING ACTRESS
Kelsey McCroskey, “The Philadelphia Story,” Clayton Community Theater

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Todd Micali, “Who’s in Bed with the Butler?” Act Two Theater

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Caitlin Souers, “The Philadelphia Story,” Clayton Community Theater

BEST COSTUME DESIGN
Julie Smailys, “The Philadelphia Story,” Clayton Community Theatre

BEST LIGHTING DESIGN
Nathan Schroeder, “The Philadelphia Story,” Clayton Community Theatre

BEST SET DESIGN
Andrew Cary, Zac Cary and Heather Sartin, “The Philadelphia Story,” Clayton Community Theatre

BEST ENSEMBLE
Act Two Theatre, “Who’s in Bed with the Butler?”

Winners can record an acceptance speech, no more than two minutes in length, and send it by April 9 to [email protected]

AFL will upload the recording to its YouTube channel.

Who’s in Bed with the Butler? cast

AFL Adjusts Events in 2020-2021/Mission Remains the Same

Last year, AFL transitioned to streamed formats for both their TMA and Best Performance Awards (musical theater and youth productions) shows honoring productions in 2019.

The BPAs have been cancelled in 2021, and the few musicals that were performed in early 2020 will be considered for the 2022 awards. In April 2020, the AFL president suspended all public activities of the AFL organization, and then the board extended suspension of the Theatre Recognition Guild judging activities, for the BPA branch (musicals), through July 1, 2021.

“All is well with AFL. We will survive and look forward to meeting again in July.  Where there’s a will, there’s a way, and I thank all theater groups who are working to create a safe and pleasing future,” McCreight said.

McCreight emphasized that the AFL board will continue to base their decisions upon the best information currently available and will continue to share information promptly and transparently.

Naegelin is hopeful that more productions will be able to be mounted in 2021.

“I love the work that AFL/TMA does in supporting and promoting community theatre.  From helping provide a sense of community, to providing scholarships, and mentoring at risk students in local theatre programs, AFL/TMA provides a full range of support to the St. Louis metro area.  I’m excited that we can continue that, even in our limited way, in 2021, he said.

AFL was founded in 1994 by Lucinda Guyrci as a local non-profit organization dedicated to the healing power of the arts through its work with youth, the under-served and the community. The BPAs have honored musical theater since 1999 and the TMAs have honored plays since 2015.

To see a complete list of the nominees and awards history, visit the website: www.artsforlife.org

For more information, contact AFL TRG Secretary Kim Klick at [email protected]

Be sure to subscribe/like to our social media: https://www.facebook.com/artsforlifestlouis, https://twitter.com/arts_for_life and YouTube channel https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCnCSL5RPbHTrhbc0mbHcWnA

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By Lynn Venhaus
These two hulking movie icons return for an epic showdown in “Godzilla vs. Kong” — only the second time the atomic sea monster has been pitted against the gigantic ape – and they do not disappoint.

When ginormous forces of natures, Godzilla and King Kong, collide again, they might just have to ultimately team up to save mankind. But before a climactic battle, there is a mission into Hollow Earth. We will find out more origin information on the Titans as the good guys fight evil corporate conspiracies.

While the size and scope of these cinematic legends has changed over the years, the basic tenets remain the same. While an incredible hulk, Kong really does have a heart, and the Toho Company’s most famous creation, Godzilla, serves as a cautionary tale about messing with Mother Nature.

This modern match-up is the fourth movie in Legendary Pictures’ MonsterVerse, which began with a remake, “Godzilla,” in 2014, then “Kong: Skull Island” in 2017 and “Godzilla: King of the Monsters” in 2019. But overall, there have been 36 Godzilla and 12 King Kong movies.

A nifty touch is a clever opening credits sequence that gives the backstory of the past films, so you are all caught up by the time we see Kong asleep in his Skull Island habitat.

Intended to be pure monster movie escapism, don’t expect answers to your questions that may arise as you watch a well-executed blockbuster deliver the promised clash of the titans.

Director Adam Wingard, entrusted with this long-running franchise after a career making cheesy horror films, sticks the landing by providing the chills and thrills one anticipates. He keeps the story on track and moving at a nice clip – all under two hours.

While the screenplay by Eric Pearson and Max Borenstein is mainly a template of broad strokes, the stellar ensemble is convincing in their standard roles, with Rebecca Hall as the “Kong Whisperer” Dr. Ilene Andrews and Alexander Skarskard as the mission chief Dr. Nathan Lind leading the main plot.

Brian Tyree Henry, an Apex Cybernetics employee who records the Titan Truth podcasts, teams up with fan Millie Bobby Brown as Madison, daughter of Mark Russell of Monarch (and Kyle Chandler has maybe three scenes at most, compared to being a lead in “Godzilla: King of the Monsters.”) The inquisitive duo are too curious for their own good, winding up in Hong Kong, smack dab in a crisis of monster proportions.

The bad guys, are of course, with Apex – and that would be Demian Bichir as the head honcho and Iiza Gonzalez as his daughter.

Stealing the film is hearing-impaired Kaylee Hottle, who plays young orphan Jia, who forms a sweet bond with Kong and teaches him sign language. That emotional connection is one that boosts the likability of the film.

The attention to detail that production designer Thomas S. Hammock and his crew put into this film is impressive. Cinematographer Ben Seresin handles the faraway locations with flair, and the music score by Junkie XL (Tom Holkenborg) helps elevate the high concept.

This is the kind of movie that works best on the big screen, but in these pandemic times, HBO has provided a quality audio and visual experience.

“Godzilla vs. Kong” may not break new ground, but satisfyingly entertains its audience with a familiarity that’s expected and outstanding technical elements.

“Godzilla vs. Kong” is a science-fiction action adventure film directed by Adam Wingard and starring Alexander Skarsgard, Rebecca Hall, Brian Tyree Henry, Kyle Chandler, Millie Bobby Brown, Eiza Gonzalez, Demian Bichir and Kaylee Hottle. Rated: PG-13 for intense sequences of creature violence/destruction and brief language, it runs 1 hour, 53 minutes. It opened in theatres March 31 and is on HBOMax until April 30. Lynn’s Grade: B

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By Lynn Venhaus
A sentimental journey for anyone who spent any part of the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s renting movies at video stores, “The Last Blockbuster” will put a smile on your face, just like the talking heads who react over a clamshell case by breaking into big grins. It is like a muscle memory, sharing that pop culture experience — and it’s fun and sad at the same time.

This documentary, directed by Taylor Morden and written by Zeke Kamm, is focused on the last remaining Blockbuster Video, located in Bend, Oregon. But then it turns into a blast from the past.

The world has moved on, but this movie reminds us of everything we associated with the home entertainment boom after Video Cassette Recorders, aka VCRs, became a mainstay in American households around 1982. The ritual of selecting movies with your children or date or friends, and then returning them in the dropbox, is chronicled here.

The first Blockbuster Video opened in Dallas in 1985, and video rentals had largely been small mom-and-pop operations until then. Now, there is just one place in the whole world where you can go to recall the past — a functioning Blockbuster in Bend, Oregon. It is all there, in the blue and yellow corporate color scheme. People are coming from around the globe, all giddy, to walk down memory lane.

The genial manager, Sandi Harding, is known as the “Blockbuster Mom.” Her family works there, so do friends, and she is responsible for many a teenager in town’s first job. She provides quality customer service as she carries on the torch. Filmmakers capture “a day in the life” as she goes about her routine. She has received international fame by being the subject of global media coverage, and estimates she has done 500 interviews.

Famous folks talk about their part-time jobs when they were in school – including actors Adam Brody and Paul Scheer – while other comedians and actors share anecdotes, including Brian Posehn, Doug Benson, Ione Skye, Eric Close and Jamie Kennedy.

Director Kevin Smith, who broke through with his 1994 indie movie “Clerks”– about guys who worked in a video store, waxes nostalgic about the video phenomenon. He wonders if video stores may return as a niche market like record stores have.

In its heyday, Blockbuster had 9,000 stores and 60,000 employees, but technology moved on, and today, there is just one, after one nearby in Oregon shuttered, two in Alaska shut down in 2018 and a location in Perth, Australia, closed two years ago.

Bend is about 170 miles east of Portland. The store used to be Pacific Video, and the owners, Ken and Debbie Tisher, are interviewed. Because it is a franchise, and they have customers, they keep the doors open.

After a series of corporate missteps – did you know Blockbuster could have purchased Netflix when it was a mail-order DVD operation? – that are detailed by the business guys, and changes in habits and the evolving marketplace, its days were numbered.

Remember “No late fees”? What were they thinking? They lost a lot of money. Blockbuster filed for bankruptcy in 2010 and all the corporate-owned stores shut down in 2014.

Morden, who lives in Bend, began covering the store in 2017, wanting to preserve its history, as did writer Kamm.

Even in 86 minutes, the filmmakers are repetitive, and outside of people’s reminiscences and Harding’s story, there isn’t much substance.

But allow the wave of nostalgia to give you a warm glow, as the filmmakers have captured a bygone era that we now realize we miss.

Of course, Blockbuster isn’t the only corporate outfit that closed its video rental business – Family Video, the last bastion, is headed that way after the pandemic forced closing all its remaining stores (even in St. Louis, where Kevin Smith – yes, that Kevin Smith – donated money to help keep the Gravois Road one in south city afloat).

It’s certainly ironic that the company that is blamed for Blockbuster’s demise, the streaming service Netflix, added the 2020 documentary, which was on the festival circuit, to its roster March 15, and its popularity has exploded.

Recent news accounts report that the store is getting mail orders for T-shirts, stickers and face masks (all made by Bend businesses), and renewed interest.

It’s nice to see a well-intentioned film strike a chord about the community-building of neighborhood stores. And recalling how you’d discover a hidden gem because of the clerk’s recommendation – and us film critics alerting you to must-see movies.

Pop culture won’t forget our shared involvement, and like the store in Oregon, this movie conveys our collective memories, which is priceless.

Kevin Smith

“The Last Blockbuster” is a 2020 documentary directed by Taylor Morden. It stars Sandi Harding, her family, Kevin Smith, Eric Close, Doug Benson, Ione Skye, Adam Brody, Jamie Kennedy, Briah Posehn, and more. It is not rated and runs 1 hour, 26 minutes long. Lynn’s Grade: B+. It began streaming on Netflix March 15.

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