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.

By Lynn Venhaus
The “Me Too” and “Time’s Up” movements gain allies at an Oregon high school, where the girl students discover their voices and power in unity in the sharply observed “Moxie.”

What is Moxie? It means “force of character, determination or nature,” according to the Oxford dictionary. This coming-of-age cause, based on a 2017 young adult novel by Jennifer Mathieu, grows in influence and energy.

An introverted 16-year-old girl discovers how the female student body is objectified and dismissed, and how pervasive the toxic masculinity is at her school. Fortified by her mother’s rebellious spirit during her youthful Riot Grrrl days, she anonymously publishes a zine, “Moxie!” that inspires the girls to band together and work towards changing the status quo.

Directed by Amy Poehler with a keen sense of Generation Z and its conflicts, this movie gets a lot right, particularly its target message.

The screenplay by Dylan Meyer and Tamara Chestna astutely points out that people aren’t perfect, it’s OK to mess up, be unsure and confused, but at least come away with purpose. The examples of casual sexism and double standards are spot-on as the sisterhood discovers the importance of feminism.

This engaging ensemble – subtly inclusive — portray refreshingly authentic characters.  The mother-and-daughter dynamic between Amy Poehler and Hadley Robinson is the key relationship.  As Vivian’s working single mom, Lisa guides her daughter in raging against the patriarchy but also as a steady strong parental presence.

Among the appealing cast of rising stars, Robinson shines as the shy Vivian, who summons a righteous anger to lead a revolution. Her dorky character’s growth is fun to watch as she develops new friendships and falls in love with once-geeky classmate Seth, who is kind and considerate. She will stumble and figure out how to be a force for good.

Newcomer Robinson, a Juilliard grad, was both the Laurey dancer in “I’m Thinking of Ending Things,” as well as one of the Tulsey Town girls, and Sallie Gardiner Moffat, one of Meg March’s friends, in Greta Gerwig’s “Little Women.”

The dream boyfriend is in the mold of Edward Cullen and other post-Twilight gallant guys, who are attentive to the girl’s needs and feelings. Nico Hiraga is a winning presence as the skateboarding dude who gained confidence after a summer growth spurt.

Each teen character has interesting layers, except for the clear villain, Mitchell Wilson, the popular but insufferable sexist quarterback who has gotten away with bullying because of his Big Man on Campus status. He is played with cocky assurance by Patrick Schwarzenegger, son of Arnold and Maria Shriver. It is a one-note character that’s too obvious.

But the rest of the fired-up girl squad engages with charm and personality. As transfer student Lucy, who stands up for herself and reports harassment, Alycia Pascual-Pena excels, as does Lauren Tsai as mild-mannered Claudia, who carves her own path.

Sydney Park and Anjelica Washington are noteworthy as female athletes whose winning soccer team is largely ignored and in the shadow of the losing football team.

There are a few wobbly parts, and a climactic revelation adds darker drama in a too-neatly wrapped up final act.

And while it is more amiable than laugh-out-loud funny, “Moxie” distinguishes itself as cut-above the usual teen comedy. It is not your mom’s call to action, nor is it a fist-pump for only one generation — — and it brings up worthy elements to add to the current conversation.

“Moxie” is a teen comedy and romance directed by Amy Poehler, who also stars, along with Hadley Robinson, Patrick Schwarzenegger, Alycia Pascual-Pena, Marcia Gay Harden, Nico Hiraga, Ike Barinholtz and Lauren Tsai. The movie is rated PG-13 for thematic elements, strong language and sexual material, and some teen drinking and run time is 1 hour, 51 minutes. Lynn’s Grade: B. Available to stream on Netflix.

The Critics Choice Association (CCA) announced the winners of the 26th annual Critics Choice Awards LIVE on The CW during an in-person/virtual hybrid ceremony hosted for the third time by acclaimed film, television, and stage star Taye Diggs on Sunday, March 4.  The full list of winners can be found below. 

“Nomadland” led the winners in the film categories, taking home four awards including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay for Chloé Zhao, and Best Cinematography for Joshua James Richards.  Zhao is the first Chinese woman to win as either director or writer. 

“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” followed closely behind, winning three categories including Best Actor for the late Chadwick Boseman, Best Costume Design, and Best Hair and Makeup.  Best Actress was awarded to Carey Mulligan for “Promising Young Woman,” which also earned a Best Original Screenplay win for Emerald Fennell.  Best Supporting Actor went to Daniel Kaluuya for “Judas and the Black Messiah,” and Best Supporting Actress to Maria Bakalova for “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm.”   

In the series categories, “The Crown” took four categories, the most of the night, winning Best Drama Series, Best Actor in a Drama Series for Josh O’Connor, Best Actress in a Drama Series for Emma Corrin, and Best Supporting Actress in a Drama Series for Gillian Anderson.  In the comedy genre, “Ted Lasso” won all three categories for which it was nominated: Best Comedy Series, Best Actor in a Comedy Series for Jason Sudeikis, and Best Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series for Hannah Waddingham.  “The Queen’s Gambit” took the prize for Best Limited Series, and its leading lady Anya Taylor-Joy won Best Actress in a Limited Series or Movie Made for Television. 

The race for “Best Comedy Special,” which was dominated entirely by Netflix nominees, resulted in a tie between “Jerry Seinfeld: 23 Hours to Kill” and “Michelle Buteau: Welcome to Buteaupia.” 

As was previously announced, John David Washington presented this year’s SeeHer Award to his “Malcolm & Marie” co-star, Zendaya.  The SeeHer Award recognizes a woman who embodies the values set forth by the SeeHer movement, to push boundaries, defy stereotypes and acknowledge the importance of authentic portrayals of women across the entertainment landscape. 

After leading the nominations, Netflix also won the most awards of any studio/network with a total of 14.  Amazon Studios and Searchlight Pictures each won four. 

Critics Choice Awards are bestowed annually to honor the finest in cinematic and television achievement.  Historically, they are the most accurate predictor of Academy Award nominations. 

The 26th annual Critics Choice Awards show was produced by Bob Bain Productions and Berlin Entertainment.  The CCA is represented by Dan Black of Greenberg Traurig. 

Follow the 26th annual Critics Choice Awards on Twitter and Instagram @CriticsChoice and on Facebook/CriticsChoiceAwards.  Join the conversation using #CriticsChoice and #CriticsChoiceAwards. 

FILM CATEGORIES 

BEST PICTURE 

Nomadland (Searchlight Pictures) 

BEST ACTOR 

Chadwick Boseman – Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (Netflix) 

BEST ACTRESS 

Carey Mulligan – Promising Young Woman (Focus Features) 

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR 

Daniel Kaluuya – Judas and the Black Messiah (Warner Bros.) 

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS 

Maria Bakalova – Borat Subsequent Moviefilm (Amazon Studios) 

BEST YOUNG ACTOR/ACTRESS 

Alan Kim – Minari (A24) 

BEST ACTING ENSEMBLE 

The Trial of the Chicago 7 (Netflix) 

BEST DIRECTOR 

Chloé Zhao – Nomadland (Searchlight Pictures) 

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY 

Emerald Fennell – Promising Young Woman (Focus Features) 

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY 

Chloé Zhao – Nomadland (Searchlight Pictures) 

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY 

Joshua James Richards – Nomadland (Searchlight Pictures) 

BEST PRODUCTION DESIGN 

Donald Graham Burt, Jan Pascale – Mank (Netflix) 

BEST EDITING – TIE  

Alan Baumgarten – The Trial of the Chicago 7 (Netflix) 

Mikkel E. G. Nielsen – Sound of Metal (Amazon Studios) 

BEST COSTUME DESIGN 

Ann Roth – Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (Netflix) 

BEST HAIR AND MAKEUP 

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (Netflix) 

BEST VISUAL EFFECTS 

Tenet (Warner Bros.) 

BEST COMEDY 

Palm Springs (Hulu and NEON) 

BEST FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM 

Minari (A24) 

BEST SONG  

Speak Now – One Night in Miami (Amazon Studios) 

BEST SCORE 

Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross, and Jon Batiste – Soul (Disney) 

SERIES CATEGORIES 

BEST DRAMA SERIES 

The Crown (Netflix) 

BEST ACTOR IN A DRAMA SERIES 

Josh O’Connor – The Crown (Netflix) 

BEST ACTRESS IN A DRAMA SERIES 

Emma Corrin – The Crown (Netflix) 

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR IN A DRAMA SERIES 

Michael K. Williams – Lovecraft Country (HBO)

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS IN A DRAMA SERIES 

Gillian Anderson – The Crown (Netflix) 

BEST COMEDY SERIES 

Ted Lasso (Apple TV+) 

BEST ACTOR IN A COMEDY SERIES 

Jason Sudeikis – Ted Lasso (Apple TV+) 

BEST ACTRESS IN A COMEDY SERIES 

Catherine O’Hara – Schitt’s Creek (Pop) 

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR IN A COMEDY SERIES  

Daniel Levy – Schitt’s Creek (Pop) 

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS IN A COMEDY SERIES 

Hannah Waddingham – Ted Lasso (Apple TV+) 

BEST LIMITED SERIES 

The Queen’s Gambit (Netflix) 

BEST MOVIE MADE FOR TELEVISION 

Hamilton (Disney+) 

BEST ACTOR IN A LIMITED SERIES OR MOVIE MADE FOR TELEVISION 

John Boyega – Small Axe (Amazon Studios) 

BEST ACTRESS IN A LIMITED SERIES OR MOVIE MADE FOR TELEVISION 

Anya Taylor-Joy – The Queen’s Gambit (Netflix) 

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR IN A LIMITED SERIES OR MOVIE MADE FOR TELEVISION 

Donald Sutherland – The Undoing (HBO) 

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS IN A LIMITED SERIES OR MOVIE MADE FOR TELEVISION   

Uzo Aduba – Mrs. America (FX) 

BEST TALK SHOW 

Late Night with Seth Meyers (NBC) 

BEST COMEDY SPECIAL – TIE  

Jerry Seinfeld: 23 Hours to Kill (Netflix) 

Michelle Buteau: Welcome to Buteaupia (Netflix) 

BEST SHORT FORM SERIES 

Better Call Saul: Ethics Training with Kim Wexler (AMC/Youtube) 

About the Critics Choice Association (CCA)  

The Critics Choice Association is the largest critics organization in the United States and Canada, representing more than 400 television, radio and online critics and entertainment reporters. It was established in 2019 with the formal merger of the Broadcast Film Critics Association and the Broadcast Television Journalists Association, recognizing the blurring of the distinctions between film, television, and streaming content. For more information, visit: www.CriticsChoice.com.  

By Alex McPherson

Featuring an incredible lead performance from Rosamund Pike, “I Care A Lot” is a darkly comedic roller coaster ride from start to finish. 

Marla Grayson (Pike) bases her life around taking advantage of senior citizens through fraudulent guardianships. In an unforgiving world, she believes only the most cutthroat will succeed. Once she or her girlfriend, Fran (Eiza González), finds a well-off elder, Marla acquires court permission to install herself as their “legal guardian.” She then takes charge of their finances and imprisons them in a care facility where they’re cut off from the outside world — all the while draining the poor saps of their money and sense of self.   

Suffice it to say, Marla is a stone cold sociopath. She exerts a palpable influence on those around her and rarely loses control of any situation she’s in. When she targets Jennifer Peterson (Dianne Wiest), Marla garners the attention of Jennifer’s donut-loving son, Roman Lunyov (Peter Dinklage), who also happens to be a sadistic drug smuggler. Marla and Fran must reckon with the deadly consequences. 

With shades of “Sorry to Bother You” and “Uncut Gems” sprinkled throughout, director J Blakeson’s film makes up for its lack of substance with memorable characters and an unpredictable plot.

Indeed, there aren’t many sympathetic folks in this story of greed, opportunism, and the American Dream. Viewers looking for people to root for won’t find any here. On the other hand, much of the fun of “I Care A Lot” comes from watching them destroy each other in a bloody battle of wits. As the stakes escalate for Marla and Fran, the film only grows more entertaining — not holding up to much scrutiny, but clever enough to leave a lasting impression.

Marla is a cunning, calculating, and compulsive individual. She’s able to shift personas on a whim to match different situations, always aware of her manipulative power and unflinching in the face of threats to her personal safety. These threats are usually toothless, until now. Pike absolutely dominates the screen, capturing her character’s heartlessness in a way that dares viewers to question her strength. Marla will snatch any opportunity to increase her wealth, always planning two steps ahead of her competition. It’s undeniably satisfying watching her pull strings for her personal gain — her razor-sharp dialogue simultaneously humorous and disheartening. 

 A troubled past is alluded to, but Blakeson doesn’t give Marla an involved backstory. Rather, she is an enigma who nevertheless cares deeply for her lover, Fran. This bond, though underdeveloped, gives Marla a shred of humanity despite her vile behavior.

The film’s clean, glossy shot compositions early on reflect Marla’s mastery of an amoral system disguised by artificial warmth. Later on, however, we’re able to see Marla stripped of her safety and command of the proceedings. The film’s style changes accordingly, evocative of a graphic novel and the volatile figure at the heart of it.

Marla’s a compelling antihero, earning some hard-earned respect by the film’s conclusion, but always remaining emotionally distanced. The other characters aren’t nearly as interesting, but there’s still a few standouts. Dinklage gives a scene-stealing performance as Roman, an unstable crime boss who, in a neat twist, actually has more sympathetic motivations than Marla does. Wiest is also wonderful, keeping viewers on edge regarding who Jennifer actually is.

Propelled by an eerie, synth-heavy score by Marc Canham, “I Care A Lot” moves along at a swift pace, but falters a bit by its heavy-handed finale. Plot holes abound, and Blakeson misses an opportunity to explore Marla’s psychology in more depth. Similarly, the film doesn’t add anything particularly unique in terms of social commentary — spotlighting a real-world issue of corrupt conservatorships, but adding little else to the conversation, launching itself into the firmly unbelievable.

Regardless of its missed potential, “I Care A Lot” is still a dastardly enjoyable film that fans of pitch black comedy should lap up.

“I Care a Lot” is a dark comedy thriller written and directed by J Blakeson, starring Rosamund Pike, Peter Dinklage, Dianne Wiest and Eiza Gonzalez. It is Rated R for language throughout and some violence, and the run time is 1 hour, 58 minutes. Alex’s Rating: B+. Available on Netflix as of Feb. 19. 

By Lynn Venhaus
Who knew watching people digging in the dirt would be so fascinating? That’s one of the surprising things about “The Dig,” which is based in fact and never dull.

Another revelation is how compelling the characters are – and that’s a credit to the fine performances, but also the script by Moira Buffini, who adapted John Preston’s 2007 book.

Seen through the eyes of the property owner and the modest working-class excavator, this thoroughly engaging film gives us an authentic account of how a 6th century ship is discovered underground and the battles it provokes.

In1938, Edith Pretty (Carey Mulligan) hired local excavator Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes) to dig into those mysterious mounds of earth on her Sutton Hoo property, near Suffolk. What he discovers is remarkable in its historical significance – an Anglo-Saxon ship, with a burial chamber, from the 6th century. It would become the largest archeological find in England. Museum officials start fighting over it, as do university archeologists. At this same time, the country is on the verge of going to war with Germany after Hitler invades Poland.

Mulligan is terrific as Pretty, the fiercely loyal wealthy widow who won’t allow Brown’s contributions to be minimized, even though the snobby museum professionals demean his lack of training.

Brown is a bit unorthodox. An expert digger, Fiennes convincingly conveys this humble man — his eccentricities, prowess and gratitude over Mrs. Pretty’s kindness.

This much-lauded duo delivers nuanced portraits of the real people who gave the story its heart, and their friendship is one of the story’s best elements. Child actor Archie Barnes is an important component as young Robert Pretty, Edith’s son who forms a strong bond with Brown.

The supporting cast is also strong. Lily James is a bright spot as a capable academic, Peggy Piggott, whose unhappiness with her inattentive husband (Ben Chaplin) grows.

Johnny Flynn, so good in “Emma” and “Beast,” shows his versatility as Rory Lomax, Edith’s relative who preserves the scene with his camera but joins the RAF during the big activity on the grounds. Monica Dolan plays sweet May Brown, Basil’s supportive wife.

Australian director Simon Stone respects both the history and the human nature in telling the story, and lets the atmosphere speak for itself.

The creative work is important in keeping us riveted. Maria Djurkovic’s earthy production design is one of awe and wonder, with cinematographer Michael Eley capturing the stunning landscapes. Costume designer Alice Babidge’s period work is impressive, and Stefan Gregory’s music score punctuates the action well.

In not-so-subtle ways, “The Dig” emphasizes life, death and time in a smart, richly textured and endearing work. Dig in!

THE DIG (L-R): CAREY MULLIGAN as EDITH PRETTY, RALPH FIENNES as BASIL BROWN. Cr. LARRY HORRICKS/NETFLIX © 2021 

“The Dig” is an historical drama directed by Simon Stone and starring Carey Mulligan, Ralph Fiennes, Lily James, Johnny Flynn, Ben Chaplin and Monica Dolan. Rated: PG-13 for brief sensuality and partial nudity, the film runs 1 hour, 52 minutes. Lynn’s Grade: A. In select theaters and on Netflix Jan. 29.

By Lynn Venhaus
Regret and redemption are threads running through this bleak post-apocalyptic tale that wants to have both a human touch and a big picture narrative with its duel storylines.

The year is 2049. On Earth, some mysterious catastrophe has wreaked havoc. Instead of bailing like his fellow scientists, Augustine (George Clooney) stays at the research station in the Arctic Circle. Dying of cancer, he assumes he is alone. But finds that a young girl was left behind.

When he realizes the U.S. spaceship Aether, whose work on Jupiter is over, is heading home, he tries to message them not to return or they will be in danger. It is a race against the clock.

The trouble with “The Midnight Sky” is that both journeys – in space and on land – have gaping plot holes. I tend to overthink when I’m watching science fiction, but this is hard to connect the dots at times because information – and backstory – is dispensed so stingily or not at all.

For instance, the ship’s captain, Adewole (David Oyelowo) and assistant Sully (Felicity Jones) are having a baby together but they don’t show any evidence of themselves as a couple.

In flashback, George Clooney’s character Augustine is played by Ethan Peck, the grandson of legendary actor Gregory Peck. A clip of the elder Peck’s 1959 post-nuclear bomb film, “On the Beach,” is watched by pilot Mitchell (Kyle Chandler).

Based on Lily Brooks-Dalton’s novel, “Good Morning, Midnight,” this was meant to be a cautionary tale on climate change, but then a global pandemic hit, so the theme of regret at a time of great peril – and reflecting over life’s choices – struck a timely chord.

Screenwriter Mark L. Smith, who co-wrote “The Revenant,” adapted the 2016 book, and some characters have been altered. You do get a “Gravity Meets the Revenant” vibe, but it is also reminiscent of elements in “Ad Astra,” “Interstellar” and “The Martian.”

Clooney, a magnetic actor, hasn’t been in a film since 2016 “Money Monster,” and when you first see him on screen, as this dying, haggard 70-year-old loner, you may gasp. He goes all in as a guy driven by science that had little time for a personal life. He brings an emotional depth to the taciturn character.

His poignant scenes with newcomer Caoilinn Springall as the young girl left behind have an unexpected tenderness. 

As a director, Clooney’s efforts have been hit and miss, but he’s a sharp observer and takes on dramas that have something to say (“Good Night, Good Luck”). This film, with its grand space vistas and its harsh Arctic conditions, is more technically challenging, and Clooney is overwhelmed by its scope.

The visual effects are outstanding and cinematographer Martin Ruhe has done fine work here under grueling conditions. Alexander DeSplat’s score excels in both heavenly and earthly depictions.

However, Clooney is at his best with other good actors, and this is an ace ensemble.

For all its noble intentions, after a long slog, the film leaves us wanting more. Nevertheless, we are left with a glimmer of hope, and I’ll take it.

“The Midnight Sky” is a science fiction-fantasy drama directed by George Clooney. Starring Clooney, Felicity Jones, David Oyelowo, Kyle Chandler, Damian Bechir, Tiffany Boone and Caoilinn Springall, the film runs 1 hour, 58 minutes and is rated PG-13 for some bloody images and brief strong language. Lynn’s Grade: C+. It is available on Netflix beginning Dec. 23.

By Lynn Venhaus
Adapted from the 2018 splashy big-hearted Broadway musical, “The Prom” pops with color and pizzazz (or, in the show’s parlance, “Zazz.”).

Vain Broadway stars Dee Dee Allen (Meryl Streep) and Barry Glickman (James Corden) are slammed for their flop, “Eleanor!: The Eleanor Roosevelt Story.” With their careers suddenly flatlined, their chorus dancer pal Angie (Nicole Kidman) finds a cause they can get behind – in small-town Indiana, high school student Emma Nolan (Jo Ellen Pellman) wanted to go with her girlfriend Alyssa (Ariana DeBose) to the prom, so the PTA cancelled it. The insufferable divas race to the rescue in conservative Edgewater, along with Trent (Andrew Rannells) and Angie. Their involvement isn’t that helpful but gets people to see Emma for who she is and that’s OK.

Its potent message on tolerance and inclusivity is still intact, but the framing has lost some of its sincerity as director Ryan Murphy has stretched it into a bigger and flashier cinematic canvas.

The musical is based on concept by Jack Viertel, who had read about a teen lesbian denied attending her prom in Mississippi in 2010, which involved the ACLU and a decision on violating the First Amendment. It also was a magnet for celebrity activism, which gets a lot of dings in “The Prom.”

Murphy, who created and helmed six seasons of “Glee,” has ramped up the glitz and gone over-the-top at every opportunity. He knows his way around a show tune and aims for the heart. However, he pulls focus on his big-name stars so that the same-sex couple gets less attention.

Nevertheless, newcomer Jo Ellen Pellman is wonderful as Emma, who grows in confidence. Ariana DeBose, a veteran of “Hamilton” who will star as Anita in the upcoming remake of “West Side Story,” is a sensational talent and plays the closeted cheerleader.

Streep, at age 71, pulls off a self-centered star in the manner of Patti LuPone, and looks like she’s having a blast with Nicole Kidman, James Corden and Andrew Rannells. While they are fine, their lesser marquee counterparts were superior in the Broadway roles – Tony-nominated Beth Leavel as Dee Dee and Brooks Ashmanskas as Barry especially. Kidman shows off her abilities in a Fosse number, “Zazz,” only Murphy has chosen not to highlight the iconic total body moves. Hmmm….

Some of the characters are exaggerated in such a way to render them superficial on film while on Broadway they were played by seasoned pros who sustained the campy fun the whole two acts. And maybe it’s because some of the original Broadway cast were Muny veterans, so their familiarity sold the warmth and joy.

I dearly loved the Broadway musical, nominated for seven Tony Awards and winner of the 2019 Drama Desk Award for Best Musical, which was produced by Stages St. Louis’ Jack Lane and other local theater people. Zippy and full of fizzy fun, “The Prom” had us laughing at the big-city elites, inside-showbiz jokes and mocking hicks in the sticks, but not in a mean way.

Only here the small town doesn’t look like a podunk village, but rather a larger city because it has a mall and a motel in the manner of a Hampton Inn.

For the original musical, Chad Beguelin of Centralia, Ill., nominated for six Tonys, wrote the lyrics and co-wrote the book with Bob Martin. Matthew Sklar wrote the music. Beguelin and Sklar, who did fun musical adaptations of “The Wedding Singer” and “Elf,” have a flair for writing hummable tunes with clever turns of phrase. “It’s Time to Dance” is a delightful number and “Unruly Heart” has the endearing sweetness for Emma to gain acceptance with a wider audience.

Andrew Rannells gets to shine – and dance through a shopping mall – in “Love Thy Neighbor,” a teachable moment to the town’s judgy teens.

Casey Nicholaw, who directed the stage show, did the choreography, and it’s as peppy and fun for the big movie ensemble as it was for the intimate cast at the Longacre Theatre. St. Louis native Jack Sippel, a Muny and Broadway veteran, was the film assistant choreographer/dance captain.

Costume designer Lou Eyrich never met a sequin he didn’t like and the flamboyant production design by Jamie Walker McCall has combined mid-century modern with bright lights.

The movie is padded, at 2 hours and 10 minutes, which doesn’t help the momentum. However, the exuberance of the work is the takeaway, and fortunately, the show will be on a national tour next year, spreading its cheerful message about acceptance.

It’s at local theatres but debuts on Netflix Dec. 11.  To find out more about how you can support the Actors’ Fund and Broadway Cares, please visit BroadwayCares.org/TheProm.

“The Prom” is a musical comedy that runs 2 hours, 11 minutes. Directed by Ryan Murphy, it stars Meryl Streep, James Corden, Nicole Kidman, Andrew Rannells, Jo Ellen Pellman, Ariana DeBose, Kevin Chamberlin, Keegan Michael-Key, Sherry Washington and Mary Kay Place. It is rated PG-13 for thematic elements, some suggestive/sexual references and language. On Netflix.

By Lynn Venhaus

 Haunting and hypnotic, “His House” is one of the most original horror films in years.

Writer-director Remi Weekes, whose first feature debuted at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, demonstrates assured, smart storytelling, slowly doling out bits of information that add psychological complexities to the couple’s journey.

After making a harrowing escape from war-torn South Sudan, a young refugee couple struggle to adjust to their new life in a small English town, complicated by something evil tormenting their lives.

As they fled, during their boat ride, a tragedy takes place.

Consumed by loss, Rial (Wunmi Mosaku) has a hard time adjusting to a new life, in dingy public housing, But, it’s their home, and she tries to make the best of it. The government has strict rules for refugees, so they must be careful.

Bol (Sope Dirisu) has an easier time adapting, but hears strange noises and begins to see weird things happening in their small place – lights flicker, gaping holes appear in the walls but then close, and then sinister images materialize.

She is spooked, he is trying to come to terms with what’s happening, and their lives are turned upside-down by this hellish existence.

Because of what they have been through leaving their homeland, their struggles have a sadness underneath. The psychological aspect is an intriguing part of the story, which was developed by  Felicity Evans and Toby Venables.

With the characters as asylum-seekers, that gives the haunted house story more weight. They must adhere to the strict guidelines, which has consequences and fleeing again isn’t possible. They struggle to hold it together, but things unravel in a disturbing and unusual way.

Ṣọpẹ́ Dìrísù, as the troubled husband, and Wunmi Mosaku, as the tormented wife, are mesmerizing in their roles. They bring out layers of emotion essential to understanding what they are going through.

British actor Matt Smith, known for “Doctor Who” and a varied resume, plays their government contact, who starts being suspicious about what’s going on in their home.

This gritty and gripping film has unpredictable scares and surprising developments that deepen the mystery and the trauma.

It’s a haunted house film unlike any you’ve seen, and that’s what makes it special, an instant classic.

“His House,” a horror-thriller, is directed by Remi Weekes and stars Sope Dirisu,Wunmi Mosaku and Matt Smith. Not MPAA, its run time is 1 hr. 33 minutes. Lynn’s Grade: A. Available on Netflix beginning Oct. 30.

By Lynn Venhaus
Ancient warriors look contemporary, but their secret is that they are immortal – well, sort of (you’ll see). This covert group of mercenaries has fought to save the world for centuries.

Action-packed, “The Old Guard” has a premise that propels you through caves, deserts, contemporary offices and centuries-old flashbacks. It’s quite the road less traveled.

The gang of four who make up this human shield of protection are: Charlize Theron as the leader Andy, who might be about 6,000 years old, give or take a few; Matthias Schoenaerts as her right-hand man Booker ; and Marwan Kenzari and Luca Marinelli as Joe and Nicky, a gay couple with fierce loyalty.

When they are recruited for an emergency mission, it’s a set-up and their extraordinary abilities are suddenly exposed. Big Pharma wants to monetize their power but can they avoid detection? The tight-knit four are joined by a new soldier (KiKi Layne). This story is based on the graphic novel by Greg Rucka, who wrote the screenplay, and illustrated by Leandro Fernandez.

Director Gina Prince-Bythewood displays her versatility, helming a massive blockbuster after more contemplative pieces “Love and Basketball” and “The Secret Life of Bees.”

Charlize has proven she is a formidable action star, in “Mad Max: Fury Road” and the highly underrated “Atomic Blonde.” And again, she is mesmerizing – long and lean, and a world of hurt and trouble etched on her face.

The quartet’s bond is special, and that sets this supernatural action movie apart – there is depth to the characters. After all, they have lived extraordinary lives.

They are joined by a reluctant Nile, a Marine stationed in Afghanistan. Kiki Layne, a rising star who was so good in “If Beale Street Could Talk,” holds her own here.

While the concept is intriguing, the dialogue is a letdown. It’s basic, even trite. The graphic novel author, Greg Rucka, adapted the screenplay, so it’s very by-the-book.

The film is also brutally violent, and the implement of choice is often assorted swords, so there is a great deal of slicing and dicing.

Blood-soaked and too long (2 hours, 5 minutes), “The Old Guard” isn’t perfect, but its selling points are good ones. And it sets itself up for a sequel. You know it’s coming.

Charlize Theron as fearless leader Andy in “The Old Guard”

“The Old Guard” is an action movie with supernatural elements — it is not a superhero movie. Directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood, it stars Charlize Theron, Kiki Layne, Marwan Kenzari, Luca Marinelli, Harry Melling, Matthias Schoenaerts and Chiwetel Ejiofor. It is rated R for sequences of graphic violence and language, and has a run-time of 2 hr. 5 min. Available on Netflix as of July 10. Lynn’s Grade: B. A version of this review is in the Times newspapers online.

By Lynn Venhaus
Managing Editor
You go, girls! Local singer-actors get national attention, and the St. Louis-produced Broadway musical “The Prom” made Thanksgiving Parade television history.
BREAKING OUT: We have a talented trio of local ladies who are living their dreams right now.
Lexi Krekorian, 27, of Waterloo, Ill., is one of the nine struggling musicians featured on the Netflix reality series, “Westside,” now available. She goes by the stage name, Alexandra Kay, and has released her first single, “You Think You Know Someone,” and several music videos of songs on the “Westside” soundtrack. She started out in school and community theater, and is chasing her dream in L.A. Here is the feature I wrote for the Belleville News-Democrat about her rising star.
https://www.bnd.com/living/magazine/article221600685.html
Kennedy Holmes of Florissant, the John Burroughs student and Muny Kid who is wowing the nation as a contestant on “The Voice,” made it through to the Top 11 Live Playoffs on Nov. 20. She sang “Wind Beneath My Wings” and is on Jennifer Hudson’s team, headed for the Top 10 showdown Nov. 26. Here is her Top 11 performance:
https://www.nbc.com/the-voice/video/kennedy-holmes-wind-beneath-my-wings/3832852
Thirteen proved to be lucky for Kennedy, as she was not among the 12 eliminated from the Top 24 Live Playoffs in Episode 13. She sang Beyonce’s “Halo.” “The Voice” is on Mondays and Tuesdays on NBC, with live voting the first night and results the second night. She is 13.
Meadow Nguy, providedMeadow Nguy, 23, of O’Fallon, Ill., performed in two musicals at Stray Dog Theatre (Marta in “Spring Awakening” in 2012 and the female lead in the original musical “Spellbound” in 2015), and in community and school theater. She guest-starred on the Nov. 18 episode of “Madam Secretary” called “Baby Steps,” as a Southeast Asia surrogate caught up in a human trafficking imbroglio . She made her crime-drama debut in ‘The Blacklist” earlier this year. Both shows available on demand. Here is the news article I wrote for the Belleville News-Democrat:
https://www.bnd.com/news/local/article221829910.html

***ATTABOY: Congratulations to Cory Finley, who scored a Film Independent Spirit Award nomination for Best First Screenplay for his “Thoroughbreds.” The annual awards, held since 1984, honor independent filmmakers working with small budgets. The awards are always announced the day before the Oscars, and this year, it will be Saturday, Feb. 23.
Focus Features photoIn fall 2017, the St. Louis Actors’ Studio presented Finley’s play, “The Feast.” A John Burroughs School grad, Finley’s movie opened nationwide in March after premiering at the Sundance Film Festival in January. It played the St. Louis International Film Festival in 2017.
Olivia Cooke (“Ready Player One,” “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl”) and Anya Taylor-Joy (“Split,” “The Witch”) play upper-class Connecticut teenagers who rekindle their unlikely friendship and hatch a plan to solve both of their problems — no matter what the cost. It’s the last film of Anton Yelchin.                                                                    Finley, who grew up in Clayton, is based in New York City. He is a member of the Obie-winning Youngblood playwrights group at Ensemble Studio Theater, has received a commission from the Alfred P. Sloan foundation for playwrighting, and was the inaugural recipient of the Gurney Playwrights Fund for his play, “The Feast,” at The Flea Theater. Check out www.thoroughbredsmovie.com
***STANDING O’s: Standing ovation for stand-up guy, Kwofe Coleman, who started as an usher at the Muny the summer of 1998, and now has been named managing director! He has served as Director of Marketing and Communications since 2013.
Kudos to the Cinema St. Louis team on their record-setting attendance of 28,723 at this year’s St. Louis International Film Festival Nov. 1 – 11. SLIFF screened 413 films, including 88 narrative features, 77 documentary features, and 248 shorts. Local actors are often seen in the regionally produced short films.

Cast members from “Disney’s Aladdin” presented “Sultan’s Soiree,” an exclusive cocktail reception, Nov 18 to benefit Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. Guests mingled while enjoying cocktails, hors d’oeuvres, photo opportunities, live entertainment and karaoke. To learn more, visit www.broadwaycares.org. Michael James Scott, a Webster University Conservatory graduate, is playing the Genie while Jonathan Weir, formerly of Belleville, is Jafar. “Aladdin” is at the Fox through Nov. 25.
***BIG SPLASH: The reviews are in, and it’s all raves for the new original musical comedy “The Prom,” which opened on Broadway Nov. 15 at the Longacre Theatre, following previews that began Oct. 23.
The New York Times said: “Makes you believe in musical comedy again.”
Variety said: “This original musical has laughs, tears and joy — not to mention jaw-dropping star-turns — in a clash-of-cultures hoot that earns a big Broadway corsage.”
Vanity Fair photoThe show has multiple local connections – Centralia, Ill., native Chad Beguelin is the co-book writer, with Bob Martin (co-creator of “The Drowsy Chaperone”) and lyricist, with music by Matthew Sklar. Beguelin wrote lyrics to Disney’s “Aladdin” and both he and Sklar were Tony-nominated for “The Wedding Singer.”
Some local producers include Jack Lane, executive director of Stages St. Louis; Ken and Nancy Kranzberg, Patty Gregory of Belleville, Terry Schnuck, Andrew S. Kuhlman of St. Louis and Fairview Heights native Joe Grandy. St. Louis performers Jack Sippel and Drew Reddington are part of the ensemble, and stars Beth Leavel and Christopher Sieber have appeared several times at The Muny. The Broadway cast also includes Brooks Ashmanskas (Tony nominee for ‘Something Rotten!”),
Casey Nicholaw, Tony winner for “The Book of Mormon,” directed and choreographed the show.
“The Prom” is about a canceled high school dance – a student is barred from bringing her girlfriend to the prom — and four fading Broadway stars who seize the opportunity to fight for justice — and a piece of the spotlight. Its tagline is “There’s no business like getting in other people’s business.”
***
NOBODY RAINED ON THEIR PARADE: “The Prom,” one of four musical acts in the 92nd annual Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade Nov. 22, made parade history with the first same-sex kiss televised live. As the number, “It’s Time to Dance,” closed, cast mates Isabelle McCalla and Caitlin Kinnunen embraced and kissed. The LGBTQ community cheered.
Here is that performance: https://youtu.be/VDZDLJjzJBI
Tony nominee Taylor Louderman of Bourbon, Mo., performed with the cast of “Mean Girls.” She plays Regina, the snotty leader of the cool girls’ pack. Taylor was last seen locally on the Muny stage in 2016’s “Aida” as Amneris.
Fun Fact: The dance company, Radio City Rockettes, was founded in St. Louis in 1925 by Russell Markert. First known as the “Missouri Rockets,” the precision chorus line has performed in Radio City Music Hall since 1932.
***HANNUKAH HULLABALOO: The eighth annual Brothers Lazaroff show to benefit Metro Theater Company will take place on Saturday, Dec. 8, at 7 p.m. at The Grandel Theatre, and all ages welcome.
The show will feature Rabbi James Stone Goodman and the Eight Nights Orchestra, DJ Boogieman, tributes to Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen and more! As always, free latkes will be fried on-stage! Food vendors will include Taco Buddha, The Dark Room and STL-Style will be selling their St. Louis-inspired apparel.
***AROUND TOWN: Legendary Wilco founder and Belleville native Jeff Tweedy took to The Pageant stage with Jon Hamm Nov. 17 to discuss his storied career. The book tour stop was sold-out.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch photoThe Grammy-winning singer-songwriter’s memoir “Let’s Go (So We Can Get Back”): Memoir of Recording and Discording with Wilco, Etc.,” features stories about his childhood, putting Uncle Tupelo together, and recollections about St. Louis record store, rock clubs and live-music scene during his formative years.
Now based in Chicago, Tweedy can be spotted in the indie movie “Hearts Beat Loud” as a customer, in what else, a record store.
Playwright Vladimir Zelevinsky was in town for the opening weekend of West End Players Guild “The Great Seduction,” and graciously spoke to Tina Farmer of KDHX and I about his interesting life and writing process.
 
Zelevinsky also wrote “Manifest Destiny,” performed at WEPG in 2016, which was nominated for Best Ensemble by the St. Louis Theater Circle.
***SANTA’S COMING! I KNOW HIM: With the holiday essential film “Elf” as its next movies-for-foodies event, Tenacious Eats returns to the St. Louis Banquet Center in Holly Hills, at 5700 Leona Street, on Saturday, Dec. 15.
Guests will feast on five courses and have cocktails themed to the movie, and the event also includes contests and live music. Chef Liz Schuster has left West End Grill and Pub to devote more time to her cinema-and-theme-dining experience – and Tenacious Eats is known for its “full-contact dining experiences.” Tickets are on sale now at BrownPaperTickets.com.
***GO SEE A PLAY POLL: Ah, Church Ladies and Christmas Pageants are customary fixtures during the holiday season, so the folks behind the Lutheran laugh-apalooza, “Church Basement Ladies: Away in a Basement” have returned with a warm, sentimental and uproarious show.
Now playing at The Playhouse @ Westport through Jan. 6, this is a perfect show to take your mom or grandma to – and you can win two free tickets to the show if you enter our drawing.
Select a show from the list below to answer our question: “What is your favorite holiday-themed play or musical?”
 
The Best Christmas Pageant Ever
A Christmas Carol
A Christmas Story
Elf
Inspecting Carol
It’s a Wonderful Life
White Christmas
And send it via email, along with your name, cell phone and email address by 5 p.m. on Sunday, Nov. 25, to [email protected] and you will be entered in a drawing. Winner will receive 2 tickets to an upcoming show.
In our last “Go See a Play” poll, Graham Emmons of St. Louis won two tickets to Rebel and Misfits’ “Macbeth: Come Like Shadows.” The survey’s response to best mystery play landed the 1952 classic “Dial M for Murder” by Frederick Knott op top, with “Wait Until Dark” – another Frederick Knott play from 1966 — a close second.
***FOSSE, VERDON AND ALL THAT JAZZ: The next show-biz limited series for FX will be “Fosse/Verdon” in 2019, about the legendary Broadway choreographer Bob Fosse and his professional and personal relationship with dancer Gwen Verdon.
Oscar winner Sam Rockwell is cast as Fosse while Oscar nominee Michelle Williams will be Verdon, returning to the network 20 years after “Dawson’s Creek.”
The cast features St. Louis native Norbert Leo Butz as writer Paddy Chayefsky, Margaret Quall as Ann Reinking and Nate Corddry as Neil Simon.
Lin-Manuel Miranda is executive-producing the eight episodes and “Hamilton” choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler is creating the dance.
***WHISTLING A HAPPY TUNE: The lavish acclaimed Tony-winning revival, “The King and I,” will be shown two nights at the Plaza Frontenac Cinema, on Nov 29 and Dec. 4 at 7 p.m. The Rodgers and Hammerstein musical filmed during its run at the London Palladium, June 21 to Sept. 29 and features more than 50 performers.
Kelli O’Hara reprised her Tony Award-winning performance and Tony and Oscar nominee Ken Watanabe played The King again. Tony winner Ruthie Ann Miles returned as Lady Thiang and West End “Aladdin” star Dean John Wilson and Na-Young Jeon played Lun Tha and Tuptim. Director Bartlett Sher reunited the original creative team.
***TRIVIA TIME-OUT: With St. Louis performers making a name for themselves on the national stage, here’s a little flashback to the halcyon days of “American Idol,” the big-bang of reality competition singing shows.
1. Who is the only St. Louisan to make “American Idol” Top Ten Finalists?
2. What “American Idol” winner tried out in St. Louis one of the two times auditions were held here?
Answers (both Season 4):
Nikko Smith, born Osborne Earl Jr., son of Cardinal Hall of Famer Ozzie Smith, who wound up ninth overall in 2005. He had been voted off in the third round of the semi-finals, but the producers asked him back to take the place of Mario Vazquez, who left for “family reasons.”
Carrie Underwood, who drove up with her mom from the family farm in Checotah, Okla., in 2004, sang “I Can’t Make You Love Me” by Bonnie Raitt.
Here’s that audition: https://youtu.be/P0j9NGV-Jm4
She just won CMA Female Vocalist of the Year, killed with a live awards show performance of “Love Wins” at six months’ pregnant, and has to date seven Grammy Awards, including Best New Artist in 2007, the only second country artist to win it.
St. Louis has hosted auditions for Seasons 4 and 11.
***WORD: “Music gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination and life to everything.” – Plato