By Lynn Venhaus

At the 27th Annual Sundance Film Festival, my two sons, Tim and Charlie, and I, were accepted as ushers for the fest. We had never been. They stayed for the duration, I was only there for a week. Tim called it the greatest time of his life — he saw 23 movies in 11 days, worked those screenings around his volunteer shifts. We look back on that time fondly. We were asked back – that doesn’t always happen, so we were grateful. But Charlie had moved to New York City two weeks after Sundance and began a career in advertising, and Tim returned to school to obtain a bachelor’s degree in cinema production. We’ve kept up with friends we made there, and are grateful we had that experience. I told Tim that I wanted to go back when he had a film accepted there — and that was a fun goal, but that dream died when he did, in 2018. I can go back as a film journalist. Just don’t know if I will. Here are my thoughts from that time — I wrote a blog for the Belleville News-Democrat website on that time, brought my laptop to the volunteer lounge to put my thoughts together every day. This is the first one. I hope I can find the others, but this is a good start that encapsulates the first few days.


Opening Night, Jan. 20, 2011

Italian director and fellow Sundance rookie Roberta Torre sat next to me on the shuttle as we looped around snow-covered but well-manicured Park City, Utah, late Thursday night. Her first submission for the World Cinema Dramatic Competition, “Lost Kisses,” would screen Friday.

Her previous work – a musical on the Mafia – had been at Venice and Cannes, but as Sundance is synonymous with risk-taking and exciting emerging filmmakers, this satire focusing on a 13-year-old girl’s vision and a statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary is one of 115 features that will be screened during the 10-day festival. (Update: Her film was a Grand Jury Prize nominee).

Every January, this old silver mining town in the shadow of the Rockies becomes a mecca for movie lovers from around the globe and the epicenter of the entertainment business. Lives change overnight – filmmakers fortunate to strike a chord with a Hollywood mogul in the audience can depart with a multi-million deal. Ever hear of “Little Miss Sunshine” and “Reservoir Dogs”? Household names and unknowns with a dream vie to be the toast of the town.

But the ideals on which the festival began hold true today. Robert Redford, president and founder of the Sundance Institute, summed it up this way in our program:

I’ve always believed that our best chance to understand the world around us comes in the form of stories and, in particular, stories that represent a unique perspective and are told with an authentic voice. So my first and continued hope for the Sundance Film Festival is the same: to provide a vital platform for these kinds of stories and a community for these kinds of artists. And because a film is not complete until it finds its audience, the film lovers who join our community each January are key to making this platform vital.”

Then he told us to be careful crossing the streets.

The local newspaper referred to the fest as “controlled chaos” and residents say it’s their shot to ski without any lines at the three nearby resorts.

Charlie, Tim and Lynn Venhaus

But it’s unlike anything I’ve experienced. This year, my two sons and I are working as ushers.

We’re among the 1,670 volunteers who help make this the premier fest in the U.S. celebrating independent cinema. Upon our arrive from Salt Lake City, we were handed hats, scarves, gloves, water bottles, transit maps, grub stubs (free food at designated restaurants), movie ticket vouchers, credentials, and thick film guides.

Since our selection the first week of December, we’ve been training online, and now have the hands-on details.

Everyone has been so incredibly helpful and friendly, from helping us navigate the free bus routes to advice on drinking lots of water. And those who are in charge are supremely organized.  It’s a marvel to observe how it all comes together.

Besides a full-time year-round staff, the festival relies on volunteers for a multitude of tasks. Every fall, 3,000 apply, they fill the slots with returning volunteers first, then pick newbies for remaining slots.

We met interesting folks from around the world at our volunteer kick-off party – an Australian bartender, a student from Brazil, a Spanish filmmaker who’s on our theatre team, an aspiring actress from L.A., a Kentucky housewife, a bus driver from Canada, a Cornell grad who runs an event-planning business, an Oregon artist, and a former St. Louis who never comes back.

Six of 10 volunteers are from Utah. They sure love their state. What’s not to love about the clean, crisp air and wide-open spaces with breathtakingly gorgeous views of the mountains? Park City is 800 feet higher elevation than Salt Lake City, so the weather pattern in the valley is totally separate.

We’re all here for various reasons but we have at least one thing in common: We love movies. To show their appreciation, the festival staff screened the comedy “Submarine” strictly for us volunteers Thursday night. We were jam-packed into the theater, and you could have heard a pin drop – everyone was enthralled. And most everyone stayed in their seats after applauding to read the credits.

The welcoming programmer spoke of the feeling of ‘community’ every year at the fest, and you sense a strong cool vibe too, but it is comparable to a summer camp or old home week – old friends connecting.

What a delightful movie to start the fest with (more on that later), but we will be hearing about this charming, clever coming-of-age tale. Remember the protagonist’s name: Craig Roberts.

The movies that create the biggest buzz her probably won’t arrive in St. Louis until the summer or fall – if past years are any indication.

Last year’s Sundance introduced St. Louisan Davis Guggenheim’s “Waiting for Superman,” which is now considered a leading contender in the Oscar category for best documentary.

And the dramatic jury prize winner “Winter’s Bone” has received numerous nominations and year-end critics’ awards.

The major (and minor) celebrities supposedly arrive on the weekend, and Main Street becomes this wall-to-wall place to be seen.

And if that’s not enough excitement, trying to spot James Franco or Demi Moore, the Westboro Church based in Topeka, Kansas, plans to protest Kevin Smith’s new horror film “Red State,” starring John Goodman, on Saturday afternoon.

A ruggedly handsome lad working at the lodge where volunteers got their groove on Wednesday night told me: “Get ready for an incredible journey.”

Toto, I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore.

By Lynn Venhaus

“What’s your favorite scary movie?” Uh-oh.

If hearing that menacing modified voice on the other end of a landline (!) sends shivers down your spine, you may be pleasantly surprised by this “Scream,” for it delivers on the franchise’s terror and laughs.

Especially the opening scene, which skillfully amplifies the suspense, only with a couple different twists. The new home-alone heroine Tara (Jenna Ortega, of “Yes Day”) says she likes “elevated horror,” such as the 21st century game-changers “The Babadook,” “It Follows” and “Hereditary.” Touche!

But the iconic “Scream” world is among the highest-rated and most popular B-movies, those dubbed “slasher” because of the high body count, and they do not wander out of that lane here.

Round 5 is excessively stabby – those squeamish about pools of blood are warned – and the deft editing by Michel Aller puts the thrill in thriller. Why Wes Craven’s innovative original stood out in 1996 is because it flipped the formula with a wink and a smile but didn’t skimp on the scares.

|Twenty-five years after the original killing spree in Woodsboro, a new killer begins a series of murders, and first-target and ‘final girl’ Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) returns to help find out why that creepy Ghostface mask is back.

So is the distinct malevolent voice of Roger L. Jackson. Fasten your seatbelts, and we’re off on a nostalgic wild ride, waiting to see if the new team has the right stuff. That’s the thing with series – fans are very invested and vocal, and these filmmakers know this – and run with it, mock it, and set up their own path with the serial-killer curse in the sleepy small-town of Woodsboro.

Hotshot co-directors Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett, who made the cheeky “Ready or Not” in 2020 and are part of a film collective called Radio Silence, are obviously fond of Craven, who died in 2015. Astute fans of scary movie tropes, they are inspired enough to craft a quick-witted reboot-sequel hybrid.

At once fresh and familiar, the ‘requel’ doesn’t reinvent the slasher horror genre in the way Craven did, but its playful poking fun at how self-aware it is helps smooth over its shortcomings.

Emulating the old tricks and jolts, this thriller has clever reveals, very gory and gruesome murders, snarky humor, and well-orchestrated tension.

Without a number, this fifth bold and brazen installment may be the most brutal, funniest, and is even more meta than “The Matrix: Resurrections.”

Its cynical commentary on internet fandom and social media outrage over major franchise missteps slyly riffs on David Gordon Green’s rekindled “Halloween” and Rian Johnson’s “The Last Jedi” chapter of the new “Star Wars” trilogy.

Bettinelli-Olpin and Gillett succeed in how self-aware this is, as do the screenwriters Guy Resick (also of “Ready or Not”) and James Vanderbilt, who wrote “Zodiac,” “White House Down” and the two Andrew Garfield “Spider-Man” movies.

However, getting the surviving original characters back together – Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell), Gale Weathers (Courtney Cox) and Dewey Riley (David Arquette) – seems to be an opportunity squandered.

They’ve been an enduring trio since 1996, including sequels in 1997, 2000 and 2011, so they lend a legitimacy to the new one.

Ex-sheriff Dewey is a bigger part of the story this time – and while a welcome sight, he’s a sad shell of his former self. The quirky Arquette plays the retired and reclusive lawman both for laughs and pathos. But the trio’s much-too-brief insertion as supporting players doesn’t do them, or their legacy, justice.

As in the previous four, the main roster is filled with screen-savvy young talent who engage as best they can, given the structure limitations. Nevertheless, we should care more about the two sisters at the center — Tara is the younger sister to Samantha, capably portrayed by Melissa Barrera (Vanessa in “In the Heights”) as somewhat of a mess.

She’s been carrying a big secret around with her, so she acted up in high school, tarnished her reputation, and skedaddled out of town. It must be an in-joke that she moved to Modesto, not exactly ‘bright lights, big city,” and works at a bowling alley.

When she gets a call that her estranged sister’s been attacked, Sam rushes home with her boyfriend Richie (Jack Quaid) in tow. He’s never seen a “Stab” movie – the faux franchise based on what happened in Woodsboro that was filming in the first sequel. For the record, “Stab” is up to seven movies referenced here.

Richie gets up to speed quickly. As Sam reconnects to her past, the screenwriters introduce us to the new characters that have links to the old gang. Twins Mindy ( Jasmin Savoy Brown) and Chad (Mason Gooding) are the niece and nephew of victim Randy Meeks (Jamie Kennedy) and Amber (Mikey Madison) lives in the former home of killer Billy Loomis’ accomplice Stu Macher (Matthew Lillard)

Kevin Williamson, who created the original characters that launched many a career, was back for the second and fourth films, and is a current executive producer. He had a knack for capturing youth behavior and culture – and that hallmark continues, even with more jaded kids. His stamp is evident. After all, he went on to create “Dawson’s Creek” in 1998, which ran for six seasons (Does anyone else think the offspring of Meg Ryan and Dennis Quaid looks like Pacey?) – and develop “The Vampire Diaries” in 2009, which ran for eight seasons.

The teen party scenes, a staple, propel the funhouse jumps. A character goes into the basement alone! A character says he’ll be right back! The kids generally pay for ridiculous decisions.

And we all know what happens when characters open doors, cabinets, and refrigerators. In one of the best scenes, Wes Hicks (Dylan Minnette), son of Sheriff Judy Hicks (Marley Shelton, another returnee), filmmakers ingeniously stretch it out as he prepares for dinner.

One of my hesitations about embracing these tales fully is that I never totally buy into the whodunit. I like how they get there, but I’m usually let down by the identity and motivations of the murderers. There are many dots to connect and sometimes they don’t.

Will this movie set sequels in motion? Time will tell, but we need to care about the new characters as much as we did the core group

One must remember what the horror movie landscape was like in the 1990s to appreciate how groundbreaking “Scream” was – a lackluster crop of stale Jason Voorhees, Michael Myers, and Freddy Krueger sequels. But after “Scream” rejuvenated the genre, M. Night Shamylan introduced “The Sixth Sense” in 1998 and “The Blair Witch Project” kicked off the found-footage subgenre in 1999.

Jack Quaid as Richie

Lessons will hopefully be learned about annoyance over cash-grab sequels that they make a point about so well.

“Scream” is a 2022 horror thriller that is fifth in the series. Directed by Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett, it stars Neve Campbell, Courtney Cox, David Arquette, Melissa Barrera, Jenna Ortega and Jack Quaid. Rated R for strong bloody violence, language throughout and some sexual references, its runtime is 1 hour, 54 minutes. It opens only in theaters on Jan. 14. Lynn’s Grade: B.

By Lynn Venhaus
In the international spy game, girls can take a licking and keep on ticking – that’s the calling card of “The 355,” a wildly uneven full-throttle action thriller.

Four women from different countries with spy agency experience join forces to save the world from cyber-catastrophe, the kind that would cause World War III. The action rockets from Columbia to Virginia to Paris to London to Shanghai on this deadly mission, as a mysterious woman tracks their moves.

The concept here is that women can be lethal weapons and front action movies, just like Tom Cruise and Jason Statham. Their task is to outsmart mercenaries up to no good. Cue the propulsive music score by Tom Kolkenborg, aka “Junkie XL,” as we watch chases, shootouts, stick-fighting, and explosions just like a “John Wick” or “Jack Reacher.”

A quartet of top-shelf actresses unite for this rogue mission: two-time Oscar nominee Jessica Chastain, in full “Zero Dark Thirty” mode, as fiery CIA agent Mason “Mace” Browne; two Oscar winners, Lupita Nyong’o as crackerjack cyber-sleuth Khadijah, formerly M16, and Penelope Cruz as compassionate Graciela, a psychologist who works with DNI agents in Colombia; and Diane Kruger as cunning German operative Marie Schmidt of the Bundesnachrichtendienst, or BND, the foreign intelligence service.

They slip into their roles with ease, and genuinely develop a bond working together in a frantic race against the clock. Their action scenes are quite impressive – as is the editing of Oscar-winner John Gilbert.

The bold and brave mavericks show off sharp skills as they try to prevent a top-secret weapon — a computer drive with a master key —  from falling into nefarious hands. They can do everything 007 and other secret agent boys can do while globe-trotting. The movie gets far more interesting when Bingbing Fan, as the mysterious Lin Mi Sheng, is added to their girl power grid. However, Sebastian Stan, as Mace’s CIA partner, is unconvincing.

Like Beyonce sang, girls can run the world – and co-writer-director Simon Kinberg seized upon the idea pitched by Chastain when he directed her in the worst “X-Men” movie sequel ever, “Dark Phoenix.” She wanted to see women get the rock-star action-goddess treatment and is one of the producers here.

“The 355” refers to the codename of an unidentified female spy in the American Revolution. (They tell us this fact far into the film).

Huzzah! Any time girls are shown on equal footing with the guys, it’s a good thing – even if it’s a pedestrian project. Last year’s “Gunpowder Milkshake” comes to mind, and the ruthless aspects of the superior “Widows” in 2018.

The plot is convoluted and often implausible, but the fight scenes are well-choreographed and are entertaining when they have the upper hand and slip out of harm’s way. The movie could have ended at least three different times, so it feels long at 2 hours and 4 minutes.

Comparisons to “Charlie’s Angels” for the 21st century are fair. The women are having such a good time kicking butt and getting names that it’s a shame that the formulaic plot devices slow it down.

Major characters shockingly get killed early, there are betrayals you see coming a mile away, and then of course we have the tough bosses and the clueless co-workers who are making bad assumptions (do these creaky tropes work anymore?).

And the main villain is a weak one — a generic billionaire fueled by greed and power. We don’t ever know much about him, and he is as bland as those stock photos companies put in their frames to entice purchasers. I couldn’t find his name in the credits, that’s the impression he makes.

Kinberg has many producing and writing credits, but as a director, hasn’t exhibited much to get excited about – yet.

Two screenwriters, Theresa Rebeck – Emmy-nominated for TV work, with a long resume including “Law and Order” and “NYPD Blue,” and Bek Smith, joined Kinberg on the script. They pile on the cliches about the women not necessarily enjoying being lone wolves and trust issues. When protecting everyone from danger, it’s tough to have what people regard as a conventional lifestyle. Their pity parties are short-lived, though, because they like being Girl Bosses.

They leave the film open-ended for a sequel, just in case they want to get the band back together. The dream team would need a better script, but seeing them triumph in this long-delayed film is an OK escape during the dreary part of frosty winter.

“The 355” is an action thriller directed by Simon Kinberg. It stars Jessica Chastain, Lupita Nyong’o, Diane Kruger, Penelope Cruz, Sebastian Stan, Edgar Ramirez and Bingbing Fan. Rated: PG-13 for sequences of strong violence, brief strong language, and suggestive material, it opens only in theatres on Jan. 7. Lynn’s Grade: C.

By Lynn Venhaus

Devoid of the first two’s offbeat charm, an airless and choppy prequel loses its way and winds up a tedious mess, despite a feisty Ralph Fiennes (Duke of Oxford) and tony cast in “The King’s Man.”

Don’t expect more oomph in the same manner as the playful spy adventure energetically captured in “Kingsman: The Secret Service” in 2014 — and less so in “The Kingsman: Golden Circle” in 2017, because it only feebly imitates some of that style and cheeky fun.

Like the original one and its sequel four years ago, “The King’s Man” is based on the comic book “The Secret Service” by Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons, with a story by director Matthew Vaughn, who co-wrote the screenplay with Karl Gajdusek.

In the early years of the 20th century, the Kingsman agency, the first independent British intelligence agency, is formed after founders were part of a secret group that takes on a cabal plotting a war to wipe out millions. The group includes some of history’s worst tyrants and criminal masterminds, and one man will race against time to stop them.

Taking creative license with the events leading up to World War I, and exaggerating the leaders involved, “The King’s Man” uses the link between Kaiser Wilhelm, King George of England, and Tsar Nicholas II of Russia as cousins to frame its conflicts between might and right and the pursuit of political agendas.

It covers too much territory, too many people without a distinguishable identity and doesn’t rely on the truth behind “the war to end all wars.” England and Russia did team up as allies against Germany but other than a few references, it isn’t interested in being clear with the facts, bending the story to suit its alternate reality arc.

Though Fiennes is all-in and leads a solid British cast that features Matthew Goode, Tom Hollander, Gemma Arterton, and Charles Dance. Harris They can’t salvage a thin premise.

Standouts include Dickinson as Oxford’s son, Conrad (played as a youngster by Alexander Shaw) and Djimon Hounsou as the noble Shola, in loyal service to the Oxfords, who also has a secret identity and shows his deft combat skills.

Dickinson, who played Pete in another recent release, “The Souvenir, Part II,” shows much promise as the brave lad, and displays a strong relationship with Fiennes. He also portrayed J. Paul Getty III in the TV series “Trust” and was Prince Philip in “Maleficent: Mistress of Evil.”

Initially protecting Conrad, whose mother was killed in an ambush in South Africa in 1902, has been Oxford’s mission, but the stand-up son’s ambition to serve can no longer be ignored.

He is shown the secret room at the tailor shop, and soon becomes a courageous warrior in seeking out useful information to help the war effort.

First is a dangerous trip to Russia, meeting with the unstable Rasputin, zestfully played by Rhys Ifans as a cartoonish madman. His over-the-top portrayal seems thrown together as a comic interlude, more in line with a Mel Brooks movie, while the rest of the movie is dead serious (and mostly dull).

Although it doesn’t have the panache and zing of that first film, the swordplay and fight choreography are as impressive as before. So is the cinematography by Ben Davis, a Marvel veteran who has been director of photography on “Doctor Strange,” “Captain Marvel,” “Eternals,” and “Guardians of the Galaxy,” among others.

Apparently, the pandemic isn’t the only reason behind this prequel’s long delay – it’s just not a well-constructed film, so why a Christmastime slot? It had been slated for release on Nov. 15, 2019, then pushed back to a couple dates in 2020 and this year, then finally now.

Rhys Ifans as Rasputin in 20th Century Studios’ THE KING’S MAN. Photo credit: Peter Mountain. © 2020 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved.

“The King’s Man” is a 2021 crime thriller, action-adventure directed by Matthew Vaughn. Starring Ralph Fiennes, Gemma Arterton, Rhys Ifans, Matthew Goode, Harris Dickinson, Daniel Bruehl, Djimon Hounsou, and Charles Dance.. Rated: R for sequences of strong/bloody violence, language, and some sexual material, its runtime is 2 hours, 11 minutes.. In theatres on Dec. 22 and on Hulu Feb. 18. Lynn’s Grade: C-

By Lynn Venhaus

One of the best films of the year, “Being the Ricardos” defies expectations, and it’s exhilarating.

During one critical production week of their groundbreaking sitcom “I Love Lucy,” Lucille Ball (Nicole Kidman) and Desi Arnaz (Javier Bardem) are threatened by shocking personal accusations, a political smear, and cultural taboos in Aaron Sorkin’s behind-the-scenes drama “Being the Ricardos.”

Because this biographical drama focuses on richly textured storytelling, an extraordinary ensemble goes beyond impersonations of the “I Love Lucy” cast to seamlessly weave potential personal and professional crises within one week’s time.

Writer-director Aaron Sorkin has brilliantly constructed how household names Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz coped with damaging headlines while filming their groundbreaking television series that was seen by 60 million viewers each week.

The sitcom, which ran for six seasons from 1951 to 1957, was the first scripted television program shot on 35mm film in front of a studio audience and the first to feature an ensemble cast.

It was a big deal. One of the most influential shows in history, it was voted Best TV Show of All Time in a 2012 survey conducted by ABC News and People magazine. Fans remember certain episodes fondly – the unforgettable candy factory, Vitameatavegamin and grape stomping to name a few. (Don’t worry – fans get a taste).

Sorkin incorporates the Red Scare, courtesy of the hysteria caused by the House Committee on Un-American Activities by now disgraced Sen. Joseph McCarthy, as tabloid headlines screamed Lucy was a Communist – and powerful gossip columnist Walter Winchell announced it on his weekly radio show.

Sorkin also depicts how cavalierly women were treated in Hollywood in a sharp script that can resonate with modern audiences.

After five Emmy Awards for “The West Wing” and multiple Oscar nominations – and one win for “The Social Network,” his style is familiar – “Sorkin speak” – and it remains riveting.

Above all, the film concentrates on the relationships. The actors nimbly deliver the material to make it sing – and zing.

Lucille Ball is portrayed as a talented creative force who struggled to be taken seriously in a male-dominated business in the early days of a young industry. She was tough, but she had to be, and fought for what she wanted.

The time is 1952, and the creative team gets everything right about the period – including attitudes and social mores.

And so do the actors — three Academy Award winners and one Tony Award winner deliver a master class on portraying four real people from the inside out.

Proving the naysayers wrong, Nicole Kidman may make believers out of her harshest critics with her multi-layered portrayal. She shows us different facets of Lucy’s life – the wife, mother, performer, and producer.

Kidman works fluidly with equally magnetic Javier Bardem as her mate and business partner, and he’s an indelible Desi Arnaz – he captures the savvy producer, protective husband, charismatic singer, vivacious musician, and a Cuban immigrant torn from his former life.

A pioneering power couple, both were driven, intelligent people who blazed trails and envisioned the big picture. They had a tempestuous hot-cold relationship that affected their careers and didn’t last in their personal lives. Sorkin honors them as visionaries while not sugar-coating their issues.

As the show’s sidekicks Fred and Ethel Mertz — the Ricardos’ landlords – William Frawley and Vivian Vance were further from their character’s reality than the public knew.

As hard-drinking, sarcastic veteran Bill Frawley, ace character actor J.K. Simmons is a terrific grumpy old guy with little tolerance for fools – yet a softer, wiser man when letting his guard down. He’s a certain supporting actor nominee, and awards nominations should be forthcoming for all.

A spirited Nina Arianda, 2011 Tony Award winner for “Venus in Fur” in her first Broadway role, knows exactly who Vivian was and honors the second-fiddle actress while announcing her arrival in a major way.

TV was just beginning to be a force for societal change, and “I Love Lucy” was the biggest show on television at that time, the gem in CBS’s crown.

Back then, the sitcom’s premise was different – As the wife of Cuban bandleader Ricky Ricardo, Lucy tries to help him succeed in show business but usually gets in a pickle, driving her husband crazy. She usually enlisted best gal pal Ethel Mertz – her neighbor – in the shenanigans.

When the Ricardos welcomed little Ricky back in 1953, it was a major TV event. This film shows how the sausage was made, so to speak – the network brass dealing with Lucy’s real-life pregnancy in a typical tone-deaf way indicative of the times.

The supporting cast excels at revealing the period restrictions, and the dilemmas involved in running a successful TV show. Tony Hale, Alia Shawkat and Jake Lacy play crucial staffers Jess Oppenheimer, Madelyn Pugh, and Bob Carroll Jr. as their young selves while John Rubinstein, Linda Lavin and Ronny Cox play them as older retirees looking back.

As director, Sorkin shows us the writers’ room and the soundstage, then opens the doors on their personal life – and their Hollywood back stories. It’s a revealing glimpse into the personalities as well as Lucy’s comedic genius and Desi’s practicality focused on moving the show forward.

This is only his third film directing, and most accomplished work to date (“Molly’s Game” and “The Trial of the Chicago 7” preceded it.)

In a clever move, Sorkin displays Lucy’s thought process on making scenes work – and often better. Alan Baumgarten’s editing and Jeff Cronenweth’s cinematography are exceptional in this regard, but every element – Jon Hutman’s production design, Susan Lyall’s costume design and Daniel Pemberton’s music score come together in a top-tier polished way. Most have worked with Sorkin before.

As is well-documented, the Arnaz’ marriage didn’t survive – and we see why here. In this case, Desi has more explaining to do than Lucy.

And Sorkin took creative liberties with the storyline – the events happened, but not in seven days. But it’s fascinating nonetheless and a well-crafted showbiz drama. Comedy is not pretty, Steve Martin titled his third comedy album in 1979, and this film certifies that to be true.

Above all, the film serves up a fresh appreciation for the talented pair. Engaging and entertaining, “Being the Ricardos” is a lush look at legends Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz and the way they were at a crossroads time in America.

“Being the Ricardos” is a 2021 drama directed and written by Aaron Sorkin. Starring Nicole Kidman, Javier Bardem, JK Simmons, Nina Arianda, Tony Hale, Alia Shawkat, its run time is 2 hours, 11 minutes and is Rated R for Language. In theaters on Dec. 10 and on Amazon Prime on Dec. 21. Lynn’s Grade: A.

By Lynn Venhaus

Sometime in the future, Cameron (Mahershala Ali), diagnosed with a terminal illness, contemplates an alternative solution by his doctor (Glenn Close) – a clone will take his place, sparing his wife Poppy (Naomie Harris) and his young son Cory (Dax Rey at 8) the grief of his loss. They must not discover the deception. In this heavy — and heavy-handed “Swan Song,” altering their fate has consequences. Can he let go, and how much can we sacrifice in such cases?

With its daring premise and showing the technology to back up messing with fate, “Swan Song” takes us on an unusual journey. However, without two-time Oscar winner Mahershala Ali delivering a heart-wrenching performance – and this time in a dual role, this film would be a slow-moving ‘what if?’ storyline without much to recommend.

Writer-director Benjamin Cleary, who won an Oscar for his short “Stutterer” in 2015, raises ethical questions but fumbles by not fully develop any answers, or explain certain aspects about the likelihood of technology overreach and those inherent implications. Playing God has its costs. (And shouldn’t we know this?)

The tone is all over the place. It’s cold and clinical with a lot of fancy high-tech, slick 3-D graphics (Cam is a graphic designer) and sterile surroundings, but then it’s warm and fuzzy when depicting happy family scenes.

Dax Rey, as 8-year-old cute-as-a-button Cory, melts your heart during the time he spends with his father. As his wife Poppy, Naomie Harris has terrific chemistry with Ali – they were both Oscar-nominated for their performances in “Moonlight,” with Ali winning Best Supporting Actor in 2017. He won two years later for “Green Book.”

That trio’s emotional earnestness goes a long way in softening such disconcerting material. But it’s not enough to overcome what is, for the most part, a dull slog.

Mahershala Ali and Awkwafina

The small ensemble includes Awkwafina as a glum participant in the experiment who becomes friends with Cam.

The replica, who has been programmed with all of Cam’s memories, emotions, and experiences, is groomed to take over and will assume his place in the family. Two weeks after that, everything will seem normal – like there was no replacement and the clone won’t think he is a clone.

Some of the movie’s puzzling elements include not explaining his illness, and it’s just weird that the doctors have a compound where the dying live out their final days without their loved ones, who will never know about the secret experiments.

With any loss, not being able to say goodbye is always a regret. Therefore, this seems cruel, not helpful. Are we saying loss is too painful so let’s live a lie so that others, oblivious, will live longer happily ever after (up to a point).

Isn’t death an inevitable part of life? How we cope is key to the human experience.

Here, Ali’s Cam is jealous of the clone – and suspicious, and it’s all gone too smooth, except for him getting testy about the clone’s ease in assimilating into his former life. One of the reasons he wants to shield his wife is that her twin brother had died a year earlier, and she fell into a deep depression over his death.

These kinds of scientific fiction films are always trippy mind-benders, only this one happens to be just ‘meh.” We need more of a satisfying story to understand and accept it.

“Swan Song” appears incomplete, leaving out crucial details and then ending abruptly. Nevertheless, Ali has become one of our most reliable and exciting actors, so his performance is a standout in an otherwise tepid film.

“Swan Song” is a 2021 sci-fi drama written and directed by Benjamin Cleary. It stars Mahershala Ali, Naomie Harris, Glenn Close, Awkwafina and Dax Rey and is rated R for heated language. In select theaters and streaming on Apple TV+ starting Dec. 17. Lynn’s Grade: C

By Lynn Venhaus

:Believe. In your dreams, in where your heart leads, in your talents and in what you can do as a teammate. That’s the satisfying take-away from “American Underdog: The Kurt Warner Story,” which takes us on a remarkable journey from homespun Iowa to a glorious shining moment in Super Bowl XXXIV in 2000.

Obviously, there is more to his life, but for a tidy 1 hour, 52-minute film, this is a worthy timeline. With a real Hollywood ending and a movie-script-like life, the major beats of  Kurt and Brenda Warner’s pinch-me-I-must-be-dreaming story has been turned into an inspirational drama that’s more about overcoming adversity and less about football action – but all of it equally compelling.

The NFL two-time MVP and Hall of Fame quarterback went from stocking shelves at a supermarket to becoming an American football star, but that’s not the only thing covered — so is his courtship and marriage to his wife Brenda.

The movie kicks into high gear when an undrafted Kurt is signed by the then-St. Louis Rams, and hometown fans will remember with pride and revisit with glee what happened that miraculous season, when the second-string quarterback lead the Greatest Show on Turf to a 13-3 record, a thrilling playoff run and stunning 23-16 Super Bowl championship victory.

Because we lived through it, that story is unforgettable, and the filmmakers do the St. Louis team’s first title justice.

Both directors Jon Erwin and his brother Andrew Erwin, started out as camera operators, filming the Crimson Tide’s games in Alabama for ESPN, so they have well-honed skills in that regard.

The feel-good aspect of the Warners’ tale about their struggles and how their faith and close-knit family helped them get through the tough times is bona fide, largely due to the skills of Zachary Levi and Anna Paquin. And like the Warners themselves, they are easy to admire.

Levi is best known as the star of TV series “Chuck,” the leading role in “Shazam!” and a Tony nominee for the musical “She Loves Me.” Paquin won an Oscar for best supporting actress at age 11 for 1993’s “The Piano,” and originated the role of Sookie in HBO’s “True Blood” (2008-2014).

This film adaptation could have been cheesy and sappy, but it’s rooted in reality. And you cheer for the couple – especially if you regarded Kurt and Brenda during their exciting years in St. Louis. Traded away, they left in 2004, Kurt eventually played for the Arizona Cardinals, and was part of their first-time Super Bowl appearance in 2009. Now living in Phoenix, they remain involved in local charity work here.

Based on Kurt’s book, “All Things Possible: My Story of Faith, Football and the First Miracle Season,” written along with Michael Silver and published in 2009, the screenplay co-written by Jon Erwin, Jon Gunn, and David Aaron Cohen, who wrote the 2004 film adaptation of “Friday Night Lights,” is as much Brenda’s story as it is Kurt’s.

The former Brenda Meoni served in the Marines and was a divorced mother of two when she met Kurt at a country music bar. Her son Zach, well-played by newcomer Hayden Zaller, had been injured as a baby and was partially blind with some brain damage, and Kurt developed a special relationship with him.

Their sweet love story chronicles how they supported each other through difficult patches and how strong they became together.

Their relatable circumstances tug on the heartstrings as it must, but the film isn’t preachy. It’s better than most people – worried about that approach – will find. The Erwin brothers have made Christian faith-based feature films since 2010, so stories about redemption and the human spirit triumphing are in their wheelhouse. I just wanted it to be believable and not mawkish, and I think it strikes the right balance..

The football storyline brings in Dennis Quaid as Dick Vermeil, and while he’s fine, his make-up and prosthetics are horrible, and Chance Kelly plays Assistant Coach Mike Martz as a villain, which is eye-opening.

Cynics may stay away, but for the most part, St. Louisans who are Warner fans, will embrace it. The Warners’ impact on St. Louis is undeniable, and the movie is a good example of how perseverance sometimes makes things happen.

Zachary Levi as Kurt Warner and Dennis Quaid as Dick Vermeil in American Underdog. Photo Credit: Michael Kubeisy/Lionsgate

And in this case, a movie was made about their lives – which is a testament to the kind of people they are and what they achieved, and the movie makes sure we know they didn’t do it alone.

“American Underdog” is a sports biopic directed by Jon and Andrew Erwin, starring Zachary Levi, Anna Paquin, Dennis Quaid, Chance Kelly and Bruce McGill. Rated PG for some language and thematic elements, it runs 1 hour, 52 minutes. It opened in theatres Dec. 25. Lynn’s Grade: B+.

By Lynn Venhaus

The intoxicating mystique of Los Angeles, with its star-making machinery and as the Dream Factory capital in Hollywood, has enticed starry-eyed people to flock there for at least a century.

Inevitably, some become disillusioned and compare the unnatural and phony atmosphere to the shiny synthetic Christmas tree decoration, thus the derogatory L.A. nickname. — “Tinsel Town.”

This is also the title of local playwright Joe Hanrahan’s witty collection of three short one-acts that are an insightful and humorous view of the deals, players, sights and sounds of La-La Land. They say write what you know, and Hanrahan has cleverly captured the rhythms of the industry as a ‘company town’ in the land of swimming pools and movie stars.

Hanrahan, artistic director of The Midnight Company, is producing these original works Dec. 2-18, with performances Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., including two Sunday matinee performances Dec. 5 and 12 at 2 p.m., at the .ZACK Theatre.

The show presents three relatable scenarios that take place in a 24-hour period: “Late Lunch on Melrose,” “Just Off Sunset” and “Shoot in Santa Monica.”

This amusing glimpse is directed by Rachel Tibbetts, and she brightly capitalizes on the obvious chemistry between Hanrahan and the multi-faceted Ellie Schwetye. The duet work in sync, playing off each other seamlessly, which takes trust and displays their comfort with each other on stage.

The trio are true collaborators and have worked together in different capacities over the years. It’s fun to watch people who mutually respect each other have fun telling stories in tandem.

Aided by Michael B. Musgrave-Perkins’ stellar videography capturing the glitz, glamour, and gorgeous weather – and palm trees! — we have a keen sense of time (present) and recognizable places on a small, economical set.

An outdoor café is the setting for a “Late Lunch on Melrose” between a talent agent (Hanrahan) and his most famous client, a narcissistic actress (Schwetye) who is unhappy about the lack of work – and is no longer the flavor of the month. It’s 1:30 p.m., and the drama queen is impatient. The pair adjust their temperaments, between air kisses, depending on who has the edge as they sip martinis.

That’s the start of a tiny plot thread that will smartly unify all three parts, with the second, “Just Off Sunset,” taking place at 12:15 a.m. in an alley behind a nightclub where a once-hot rock singer (Schwetye) is trying to rejuvenate her career but is frustrated. She bonds with a grizzled session musician who’s seen it all, who has some tips for her, and she’s grateful for the feedback and advice.

The first act mimics L.A.’s notorious wheeling and dealing for laughs, no matter how disingenuous, and the characters are exaggerated to suit standard images we have in our minds – and is more caricature than sincere, but that’s the point.

The second one really percolates with the speech patterns of experienced, world-weary musicians, and the two performers seem authentic as they discussed their working lives.

Ellie Schwetye and Joe Hanrahan in “Shoot in Santa Monica.” Photo by Joey Rumpell.

The final act, “Shoot in Santa Monica,” is broader comedy and hits the nail on the head about selling out for commercial blockbusters just so you can do the smaller projects for love of the craft. Sound familiar? A stage actor from England (Hanrahan) is making his first movie and is anxious and overwhelmed. But at the urging of the director (Schwetye), he will muster his courage to deliver a speech about vanquishing their nemesis – space vampires. Not saying the lines exactly as written, it may sound like one of Winston Churchill’s addresses during World War II, but who’s gonna figure it out, right?

The time is 12:40 p.m. the next day. With a simple outfit change, Hanrahan conveys an actor in military garb acting in front of a ‘green screen,’ and his character must inspire the crowd. In a world where evil lurks in the fictional form of ridiculous monsters – and CGI-heavy movies that could be written by chimps – they know it’s sci-fi crap, but hey, that’s entertainment!

Hanrahan has a flair for writing about the behind-the-scenes drama — and comedy — of showbiz, and the two-person exchanges are sharp. He acknowledges a ‘new normal’ because of the pandemic and adds those challenges to the script.

The performers capably navigate these characters in a natural, appealing way, and it’s a pleasant experience escaping a tumultuous winter as an armchair traveler whisk away to Southern California. From Melrose to the Sunset Strip to Santa Monica, we see three facets of a process that’s fertile grounds for comic human exploration.

In these post-vaccinated pandemic times, Hanrahan, a brilliant storyteller, has used his talents to keep active on stage, earlier presenting two interesting one-man shows – his original crowd-pleasing nostalgic account of his childhood in the mid-60s, “Now Playing Third Base for the St. Louis Cardinals…Bond, James Bond,” which he developed from a one-act first presented at the St. Louis Fringe Festival, in July, and then “Here Lies Henry,” with a book by Daniel Brooks and Daniel MacIvor and directed by Schwetye, about an odd personality telling us his life story – which may or may not be true because of his penchant for alternative facts.

He has kept very busy — also performing in the five-person ensemble “It Is Magic,” by one of his favorite playwrights, Mickle Maher, that comically mashes up “Macbeth” and “The Three Little Pigs” by a community theater with some very colorful characters and was directed by Suki Peters in the fall.

For this year’s St. Louis Theatre Showcase (instead of the Grand Center Theatre Crawl), he presented an earlier penned one-act, “Tonight’s Special.”

The Midnight Company will celebrate its 25th anniversary next year – and it’s quite an achievement because he has skillfully used available resources to present humorous and thought-provoking works.

For this latest production, he has brought the two accomplished professional actresses and directors along for the journey. Tibbetts, the current artistic director of the Prison Performing Arts group, and Schwetye, are leaders of SATE (Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble), a highly regarded creative troupe.

Hanrahan first worked with Tibbetts when he recruited her to direct “Sex, Drugs and Rock ‘n Roll,” and their association has since included his acting in SATE’s “One Flea Spare,” “Of Mice and Men,” “Doctor Faustus,” and last year’s Aphra Behn Festival.

And she has acted in Midnight’s “Judgment at Nuremberg” and “A Model for Matisse,” which Schwetye directed, who also helmed Midnight’s Irish thriller “Little Thing Big Thing,” featuring Tibbetts and Hanrahan. He directed both of them in SATE’s vampire drama, “Cuddles,” during the 2016-2017 season

Schwety also directs for other groups – next up in 2022 is “Every Brilliant Thing” for New Jewish Theatre.

This fruitful collaboration in “Tinsel Town” is an example of a dream team hitting all the beats well.

ffEllie Schwetye and Joe Hanrahan in “Just Off Sunset.” Photo by Joey Rumpell.

The Midnight Company presents “Tinsel Town” Dec. 2-18, with performances Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., including two Sunday matinee performances Dec. 5 and 12 at 2 p.m., at the .ZACK Theatre, 3224 Locust, St. Louis. For tickets, visit For more information, visit

Photos by Joey Rumpell

By Lynn Venhaus

If you are seeking a sugar-coated Hallmark Christmas movie, “Who’s Holiday” is not that kind of warm-and-fuzzy. Nevertheless, the amusing one-woman show is an engaging cup o’ cheer – unless your heart is two sizes too small.

If you are familiar with past holiday season productions at Stray Dog Theatre, then you are aware of their penchant for a non-traditional offering, and this suits that M.O.

The R-rated merriment runs Dec. 2 – 18, Thursday through Sunday, with a Sunday matinee Dec. 12, at the Tower Grove Abbey – only all performances are sold out, but one can get on their in-person waiting list before each show. –

An irreverent, bawdy post-childhood spin on Dr. Suess’ “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” is a festive communal experience, which could get you in the mood for the holidays – especially when you sing along to an evergreen sentimental song.

Laced with adult humor, this sweet and salty 2017 work by Matthew Lombardo is a natural vehicle for spirited comic actress Sarah Polizzi, who portrays the grown-up Cindy Lou Who. The character is both naughty and nice, and the effervescent performer revels in that aspect.  

Cindy Lou was the adorable 2-year-old Who caught the famous green ogre stealing all the Christmas presents, the Christmas tree and the feast because he did not want anyone to enjoy the holiday. To carry out his nefarious deed, he was dressed as Santa Claus and his dog Max accompanied him. That did not deter the Whos from celebrating, however.

The grouchy Grinch became Dr. Seuss’ legendary storybook villain in 1957, and then immortalized in an animated TV special in 1966, narrated by Boris Karloff. In the years since, it has been adapted several times, including a live-action film starring Jim Carrey that came out in 2000, then a musical followed in 2007, and then a computer-animated feature with Benedict Cumberbatch in 2018 and a live television musical adaptation starring Matthew Morrison last year.

So, it helps to have some sort of working knowledge of the Dr. Seuss book and his first villain.

No longer an innocent, Cindy has returned to living on Mount Crumpit, north of Whoville, and ostracized by her people. Her fall from grace included an illicit romance with the big green beast, teen pregnancy, drug addiction and a prison term. Does not sound very jolly, does it?

So, she engages the audience in cocktails and conversation while sharing her shocking tale of woe.

Despite her hard times, the irrepressible Cindy Lou shows an indomitable spirit – with a beaming smile and a cheery demeanor, although she can get as sour as that grumpy guy – and get a little testy with the neighborhood hooligans. She is ready to put the sordid past behind her and start anew. In a convivial mood, she has invited guests over. But no one shows, much to her dismay. What’s a Party Girl to do? She just wants to have fun.

Polizzi also has the difficult task of speaking in rhyme, the kind that Dr. Seuss was known for in his 60 books, without it sounding sing-song-y, and she accomplishes that.

In a one-person play, the solo character always has a heavy weight to carry an entire show, but it’s only an hour – and she feeds off the audience’s energy with ad libs and being as sparkly as the festive vintage set.

Scenic designer Josh Smith festooned Cindy Lou’s tiny trailer with enough colored lights and kitschy seasonal decorations to make the yuletide bright – and it is delicious eye candy, with lighting designer Tyler Duenow’s effective touches.

Megan Bates’ playful costume design is simple but fetching – retro housewife turned into a livelier vixen.

The twisted tale benefits from Artistic Director Gary F. Bell’s light-hearted direction and it is a very smooth, well-rehearsed production. And Justin Been’s sound design always elevates a show – and his music choices are very smart.

Playwright Lombardo isn’t mean-spirited, just having fun with a parody that’s not unlike a Hollywood child actor’s downfall that makes tabloid fodder – only he exaggerates it to cartoonish proportions.

This isn’t his first production in St. Louis – he wrote the intense heavy drama “High,” which ran as a world premiere-pre-Broadway tryout at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis in 2010 and starred Kathleen Turner as a nun who was an addiction counselor.

“Who’s Holiday” has both a peppery girls-gone-wild vibe and an affectionate nostalgia for Christmases past. It is certain to leave you feeling merry and bright.

Photos by John Lamb

“Who’s Holiday” is a solo show that runs slightly more than an hour and is presented Dec. 2, 3, 9, 10, 11, 16, 17, 18 at 8 p.m., with a 2 p.m. matinee on Sunday, Dec. 12. The show is sold out, but you may get on a waitlist at the door each performance and must be there in person. Call 314-865-1995 for more information. Visit the website

Those with tickets should be aware that seats will only be held until 10 minutes prior to curtain.

Masks are required to be worn by all guests, regardless of vaccination status, at all times while inside the theater and while in the lobby unless actively drinking. They still maintain social distancing throughout the theater. Stray Dog Theatre recommends, but does not require, that all guests be vaccinated.

By Lynn Venhaus

Jacqueline Kennedy once famously said: “If you bungle raising your children, I don’t think whatever else you do well matters very much.”

The cold-hearted Iris Banks (Kari Ely) apparently did not agree. She made a choice, to pursue a literary career first, leaving her husband and child. Now grown, her bitter and resentful son Cal (Spencer Sickmann) unexpectedly returns home, but he is not exactly welcomed like the Prodigal Son. And she is closer to “Mommy Dearest” than Mother Earth.

In an intense psychologically complex drama, “Comfort,” a fierce new work by renowned playwright Neil LaBute that is premiering at St. Louis Actors’ Studio (Dec. 3-19), two of our finest stage artists fearlessly tango.

There is much baggage to unpack as mother, now a literary titan – three Pulitzers! — and child, who is still finding his way, reveal their past and present relationship.

These fully dimensional roles are demanding and exhaustive, but brave Ely and Sickmann exhibit their stamina and superior skills at delivering such emotionally layered performances.

Awkward exchanges and pleasantries give way to an uneasy détente (short-lived), stunning disclosures (the hits just keep on coming) and blistering confrontations. They are two people on opposite sides of a great divide, a rift that has grown over time and still an open wound, for no healing was attempted.

At times, the icy Mom, who admitted she had no maternal instinct but attempted the wife-and-motherhood roles set forth in society, seems to thaw.  And son appears to soften his hostility, but those are brief respites from some harsh exchanges as Iris declares she is all about the “truth,” but son reveals he has evidence to the contrary.

The two performers wear their characters’ bravado like a badge of honor – until they don’t. Mom is unapologetic about her distain for literary rivals or for ‘normal’ trappings of family life – but occasionally, her steely demeanor will crack, showing us an inkling of regret.

It’s such a masterful portrayal by Ely, who has tackled her share of uncommon, tough females – including Martha in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”, Violet in “August Osage County” and Regina in “The Little Foxes,” all on the Gaslight stage.

And a never-better Sickmann plays Cal like a wounded animal, cornered but ready to pounce. Since bursting on the local theater scene about five years ago, he has capably delved into guys with an edge but also showing vulnerability – Mitch in “A Streetcar Named Desire,” Hal in “Picnic,” press secretary Stephen in “Farragut North” and artist Matt in “The Feast,” among them.

LaBute’s rhythmic dialogue has bite, and the pair show their verbal dexterity in meaty exchanges. Do not underestimate their ruthlessness.

LaBute, a prolific playwright and screenwriter who has made waves since the early 1990s, often writes characters that are schemers or callous, calculating ones who use people for their own advantage. They may not be likable, but they are survivors – and they are fascinating

One of LaBute’s hallmarks is that he will divulge character flaws in such a chilling way as to take a jarring and dramatic turn that changes the temperature in the room. He’s all about the gray area, never specifically black-and-white – and that’s what makes his plays so compelling.

Director Annamaria Pileggi keeps the unsettling narrative moving at a brisk clip, and Patrick Huber’s impressive set design efficiently uses the space to move the action forward. Fine work by Huber as lighting designer, sound designer Robin Weatherall, costume designer Teresa Doggett and fight choreographer Shaun Sheley.

Even with a lengthy run time, you still want to hear what Iris and Cal have to say to each other – and you’ll still be caught off-guard.

STLAS has collaborated with LaBute since 2012, mainly as part of the LaBute New Theater Festival, in which international one-act entries are selected to be part of two line-ups. He is a co-producer and often an active participant.

The previously unproduced plays must be 45 minutes or less, and not have more than four characters. They must be able to be presented in The Gaslight Theatre’s intimate space.The selected works are usually marked by sharp writing and smart acting.

And LaBute writes an original work to premiere every summer, which is included in both slates. A few of them have been dark and disturbing or acerbic, or both.

One of the festival’s components that LaBute is most proud of is the High School Play Competition, encouraging teenage writers to pursue playwrighting. The winning plays are presented as readings.

But this is the first time that LaBute is premiering a new two-act play separate from the annual summer fest.

The fest will return the summer of 2022. In the meantime, theatergoers can marvel at the riveting work by Ely and Sickmann, who bob and weave like pro athletes.

The ironically titled play, “Comfort,” may still be a work in progress, but it provides a bracing vehicle in which to show a delicate balance in a mother-son dynamic.

Spencer Sickmann and Kari Ely

“Comfort” is presented by the St. Louis Actors’ Studio at The Gaslight Theatre, 358 N. Boyle Avenue, St. Louis, Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m. Dec. 3-19. Tickets are available through Ticketmaster. For more information, call 314-458-2978 or visit

Proof of Vaccination Must Be Presented and a Mask Must Be Worn While in the Theater.