By Lynn Venhaus

I had the pleasure to guest on Friday’s McGraw Millhaven Show with Jay Kanzler subbing as host. We talked movies, of course!

(My segment is the last hour, starting at 3:10, or after the 9 a.m. news.)

Allow me to list local professionals who have enriched my life greatly in recent years. Because this life is a journey where people you meet matter in many interesting and surprising ways.

Five years ago in November 2017, Jay asked me to be a guest on his nighttime show, talking movies, and the rest is history.

I am grateful for Jay’s support, the opportunity and being on with Jay and Jennifer, then Jay and Ray, then when Jay left, a solo Ray Hartmann through 2022. Ray has decided to end his show, and I can’t speak highly enough of Ray as an individual, colleague, and as a supportive host for several years (2019-2022).

Wendy Wiese and Jennifer E Blome

I’ve been fortunate to join Jennifer E. Blome and Wendy Wiese on their KTRS weekday mid-morning show about theater (mostly Muny and Fox) and entertainment since they joined forces, and we’re going to continue that into 2023.

Now I’ll be a regular contributor on Friday mornings, and that will start on Jan. 6, so I’m very excited and happy to be joining the sisterhood to talk movies and what’s happening in entertainment.

I’m very grateful to Mark Mueller, for sponsoring “Mueller Furniture Presents Lynn Venhaus Goes to the Movies,” what a great guy and a great business, and to all the board ops/producers along the way – Howard Morton, CJ Nasello, Greg Harvey, Luis, Austin and others. And to station boss Mark Dorsey for allowing me to grace the airwaves.

And of course, the listeners. I really enjoy the feedback and the fellowship!

It’s been a wonderful five years at KTRS, and I look forward to continuing this partnership!

Paul Cook

(And I’d be remiss if I didn’t thank my pal Paul Cook for being the first to invite me on St Louis airwaves to review movies, back in February 2016 at Y98, when Paul hosted the drivetime, and he’d have me on Fridays. It was the start of a beautiful friendship, and the powers-at-be ended it after a year, but it was a year full of challenges for Paul — his triumphant but gut-wrenching cancer treatment, recovery — and I learned so much from him, such positive vibes, what strong people do in times of crises.

In January 2016, I also started reviewing for Webster-Kirkwood Times, which I am very grateful for, especially after McClatchy ended local reviews in BND in 2017, and I still had a print outlet.

The business is ever-changing, ever-evolving, multiple re-inventions, revisions, and I am just happy to be part of the conversation on current film, regional theater, and what’s happening in the world of entertainment and local events. I love being able to interview people for features, and I continue to meet the most fascinating people (will discuss this more in a column on my website, about the people of the year that was).

I’m still writing print (news, features in BND) and online at my website, www.PopLifeSTL.com, but as a mass communication major who has dabbled in radio (even worked in small market radio news), it’s nice to develop other skills. I am eager to improve. And I’m fortunate to still be working in the biz I love — and doing the things I yearned to do in my early years — now 47 years after college graduation.

Summer 1979 working in radio news at WILY-WRXX in Centralia IL

Now I’ve aged out of certain roles, it’s that time of life, and I am an independent contractor. This gives me more opportunities to write for other outlets, and since the electric bill won’t wait, yippee.

One of the biggest thrills this year was being added as a contributor to St Louis magazine by dining editor George Mahe, one of our town’s (and nation’s) finest. Talk about learning from someone so good at their craft! What a joy. I’m meeting the wonderful foodies and movers and shakers of this region through this outlet, and it’s been a terrific experience. More to come as I’m just getting my ‘feet wet,’ so to say. (Longer story about my December is coming). I am so very appreciative of George’s tutelage.

(Fun fact: Yes, I was the last food editor at the late, great St. Louis Globe-Democrat — where I got to interview Martha Stewart before she was a mega-brand and Wolfgang Puck at the height of his celebrated chef days at Spago’s — and I’ve written dining/chef articles for Belleville News-Democrat for many years, and recently, for Marketplace Magazine (Old Herald, Goshen Coffee, Soulcial Kitchen).

I think of where I’d be if the Globe hadn’t folded in ’86, a topic my colleague Chas Adams and I talk about regularly, as he and I have reconnected (so many times over the years, but now, he writes reviews for my website).

Of course, they would have separated us by now back in Living section because we were quite the pop culture enthusiasts back then, writing our column “DIshing It Out” and chatting about what we should include.

I digress…

I started the website so I’d have a home for my theater reviews, because I am in the St Louis Theater Circle, and it’s a great joy/responsibility to support the arts, and ‘keep it real.’ It’s a challenge to keep up a grueling production schedule, in light of sometimes real-life things happening at the same time, but it’s one that is an honor and a privilege to do. So many talented people and creatives in this region, and I am grateful to see their work. (More on that in another post). Special thanks to the patient PR people and artistic directors for their assistance and their understanding when there are scheduling conflicts.

In this up-and-down rollercoaster of a career, and a life, I do not take anything for granted — especially after the pandemic, now in our third winter. I know life holds no promises, and to be respected as a professional is an ongoing process, one I work hard at because it’s important to be relevant and trusted. Gaining people’s trust is never something one can take lightly.

We can’t slack on the skills we were taught so long ago “in j-school” about ethics, integrity and ‘getting it right.’ The leg work, the fact-checking — yes, it matters. (My pet peeves, for another time). I tried to instill this when I taught journalism/media at Kaskaskia College, St Louis Community College-Forest Park and Southern Illinois University Edwardsville).

Me at NYFF 2022

I guess the only way to sum it up any kind of work these days is to “keep on, keeping on.”

Thanks to you for reading and listening all these years. It’s truly a wonderful life being able to contribute in a meaningful way, and to be able to do what you love, learning and growing every day.

We get to carry each other, and no one does anything well alone — collaboration is always the key, and that’s how we’ll get better. Always. The ‘new normal’ has taught us that we aren’t islands (at least I hope so).

At this later stage in life, I’m afforded opportunities because of such great chances, like being vetted for Rotten Tomatoes, Critics Choice Association and Alliance of Women Film Journalists. It’s a responsibility to live up to, and I continually strive to be better at communicating critical knowledge.

Here’s to a productive 2023, full of new challenges and adventures. And hopefully, some good things to watch and see in the year ahead. And wonderful people to meet.

By Alex McPherson 

Vulgar, shocking, but irresistible, Damien Chazelle’s “Babylon” is a toxic love letter to cinema that’s impossible to look away from, even in its most extreme moments.

Chazelle’s three-hour extravaganza mostly takes place in Hollywood from the late 1920s to 1930s, following actors and below-the-line workers navigating a ruthless world of celebrity as the industry transitions from silent films to talkies.

We begin with Manuel “Manny” Torres (Diego Calva), a Mexican immigrant and aspiring filmmaker working odd jobs for studio bigwigs in the hopes of breaking into the industry himself, transporting an elephant to a party at a Kinescope executive’s mansion. While Manny and helpers try to push their oversized truck up a hill, the elephant proceeds to defecate all over them (the camera gives us an up-close look at the animal’s anus as it’s smeared in feces). Indeed, this outrageous moment accurately reflects the sort of gross-out humor prevalent throughout the entirety of “Babylon” — every type of fluid comes into play during the runtime.

The party Manny’s en route to is, unsurprisingly, completely insane, filmed in unflinching long takes by cinematographer Linus Sandgren. Drugs are plentiful, lewd sex acts take place wherever you look, and enthusiastic partygoers dance as a jazzy band (led by the established musician Sidney Palmer, earnestly played by Jovan Adepo) blares Justin Hurwitz’s jaw-droppingly amazing score. Plus, there’s that elephant. 

Amid the chaos, though, Manny meets the love of his life, a brazen, New Jersey-born starlet named Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie) who crashes the gathering , and who — in between snorting a seemingly never-ending supply of cocaine — draws enough attention to herself that she scores her first film role (the original actor overdosed that night).

Brad Pitt and Diego Calva

Despite any and all red flags, it’s love at first sight for Manny — they’re both outsiders in search of something greater than themselves. In attendance as well is Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt), an alcoholic, womanizing actor who’s made his career in silent films. Manny is tasked with driving him home the next day, and Jack helps him score some assistant jobs on sets. 

As the years tick by and these passionate souls experience soaring highs and cacophonous lows amid the changing tides of entertainment and mental health, “Babylon” refuses to slow down or give viewers time to process the crazy narrative on display.

By juggling so many characters — each encountering different facets of Hollywood’s less-than-glamorous side — the film can’t quite give each of them time to fully sink in, but the tonal whiplash ultimately works to its benefit. By the end, I felt beat up. But just like the ravenous cravings that drive the characters back to the silver screen, I wanted more.

As you can tell, “Babylon” isn’t for everyone. The full-throttle nature of Chazelle’s film will undoubtedly turn off many viewers — but lack of restraint is the point. With hectic editing jumping between characters and years, camerawork full of whip pans, zooms, and dolly shots (calling to mind the early work of Paul Thomas Anderson), and Hurwitz’s aforementioned dynamic music, the film is a near-overwhelming sensory overload.

Scenes of depravity and carnage are accompanied by those showcasing the movie-making process. We see Jack and Nellie shine in their element, all while film crews suffer in the background (some with injuries, or worse) — illustrating the blood, sweat, and tears going into the art we might take for granted. One extended scene featuring Nellie acting on a set that’s trying (and often failing) to record sound smoothly, is sweaty, intense, and darkly hilarious. 

Jean Smart as Elinor St John

The screenplay, by Chazelle, opts for broad satire most of the time, with humor that only sporadically lands. The skewering of studio bigwigs and working conditions is a bit much, to say the least. But again, the brutality serves to underline the idea of cinema being an art we’re drawn to through thick and thin — the power of images being an all-encompassing force of escape and transformation, visualized in the brilliantly trippy ending.  

These characters, with varying degrees of privilege, are swept up into a system that chews them up and spits them out as very different people. They’re shells of who they once were, having sacrificed their well-being for the purpose of entertainment. Manny ascends the corporate ladder, but loses part of his cultural heritage in the process, having to adapt to increasingly repressive policies.

Jack, crestfallen, struggles to accept his dimming star power, and Nellie (with Robbie fully in command of her craft), is chasing the next high (even if that means “fighting” a snake). She’s undeniably talented, yet deeply insecure stemming from a vague yet turbulent childhood and grappling with a misogynistic public sphere.

Li Jun Li plays Lady Fay Zhu and Jovan Adepo (back right) plays Sidney Palmer in Babylon from Paramount Pictures.

Palmer and Lady Fay Zhu (Li Jun Li) contend with racist attitudes, forcing them to “change” to find success. It’s all rather depressing in the end, and it’s true that a more focused approach would have given “Babylon” additional emotional weight, but it effectively shows lives in flux, spiraling toward harsh reckonings.

Also worth noting are smaller turns from Jean Smart as an intelligent yet unhinged gossip columnist named Elinor St. John, a stressed-out Flea as a studio fixer, and Tobey Maguire as a skin-crawling mob boss James McKay. The whole ensemble — some heavily exaggerated, others more down-to-earth — perfectly fits this wild-and-woolly tale.

This is a maximalist, boundary-pushing, and meaty film to digest. Overstuffed though it is, “Babylon” is a thrill to watch, with assured direction and style out the wazoo. Fair warning, though: if you have a weak stomach, avoid at all costs.

“Babylon” is a 2022 drama written and directed by Damien Chazelle and starring Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Diego Calva and Jean Smart. It is rated R for strong and crude sexual content, graphic nudity, bloody violence, drug use, and pervasive language and the runtime is 3 hours, 9 minutes. It opened in theaters Dec. 23. Alex’s Grade: A-

By Lynn Venhaus

The promising new direction of the Westport Playhouse as a live entertainment venue bodes well for the future, and the one-woman holiday show, “The Twelve Dates of Christmas,” appeals to merry revelers.

Actor/playwright Ginna Hoben wrote this personal comedy that was first performed in 2010, and it’s a heartfelt and humorous chronicle of her dating hits and misses during a calendar year.

After starting out the mega-holiday season with Thanksgiving at her family’s home in Ohio, the lead character Mary must endure the humiliation of seeing her fiancé kiss his co-worker on national television during the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. This is after he bailed on the trip, saying he was ill.

Oh, the horror of the life you expected vs. the real world is the gift that keeps on giving during the Christmas holiday and beyond. And those pesky female relatives that offer advice or judgment or know better.

Mary is an actress, and obviously a drama queen, sharing her rocky journey. The versatile Jennifer Theby Quinn dials it up to 11 sometimes to depict the jilted, bitter, and frustrated single woman. She does find the funny in the pathos – I mean, you kinda sorta must for survival.

She conveys a gamut of emotions, as she allows herself to jump back into the dating world. Some of the romances are weird, creepy, absurd, and comical, which leads to cynicism, but there are glimmers of hope – and more heartbreak.

The material lends itself to broad interpretations, and in its format, is not as polished as the Hallmark Channel rom-coms, yet there are nuggets of recognition in the hook-ups.

When fate intervenes in a good way, Theby-Quinn is at her best in the quieter, more touching moments — those heart-on-sleeve confessions, and revelations where she is at her most natural.

The genuine encounters with a charming little boy playing Tiny Tim in a production Mary is in are designed to tug at the heartstrings. And Theby-Quinn is effective in depicting the sweetness she experiences dealing with such an innocent 5-year-old. You can feel your heart melt as hers does (and she differentiates the characters well).

A sunny presence, Theby-Quinn is energized by the audience and works hard to engage them. To keep the show lively, director Lee Anne Mathews has kept her moving all over the stage so it’s not as boxed in as other solo shows.

That’s a lot of stamina for 90 minutes, and it’s a demanding run as well (nearly a month). She’s a tenacious trouper, familiar with the space, after playing Kate Monster in “Avenue Q” in 2019 and Fiona in “Flanagan’s Wake” in early 2020, then forced to shut down during the coronavirus lockdown.

Theby-Quinn is one of the most skilled performers in St. Louis, impressive in dramas, comedies, and musicals, earning two St. Louis Theater Circle Awards and multiple nominations.

She can plum more emotional depths, given tougher material, as these lightweight vignettes are designed to mostly elicit laughs and resonate. (But does an actress in the big city? Of course – because she’s as exhausted as other single women — “One hundred and twenty-five jackasses it takes to meet one decent man!” is my favorite line. We can all empathize).

Single women who have been unlucky at love and those who have had good relationships that didn’t work out, can understand Mary’s quest for Mr. Right. Perhaps the material would be more endearing if there was a guy to tango with, but Mary ‘s tasked with performing other characters (about a dozen) vocally, and that helps.

The snazzy production values – a large LED screen adds perky images and clever animated artwork from master video designers Margery and Peter Spack – help to open it and add to the storytelling, instead of having a boxed-in feeling that can typically happen in solo shows.

It was late in the run when I saw it, and the sound was distorted at times, but according to colleagues who had seen it on different nights, it was just fine, no problems.

Jacob Baxley incorporates a fine mix of songs to enhance the holidays throughout the year, and Dan MacLaughlin’s lighting design adds warmth. Liz Henning is listed as a wardrobe consultant, and that’s always a good sign. Lenny Mink’s and Kurtis Gibbs’ video editing and photography enhances the show, as does Joel Wilper’s work as an audio/video technician.

One can understand the desire for a crowd-pleaser at this crazy-busy time of year when everyone’s trying to have a joyous holiday season, and that this is a tad overzealous in trying to ramp up the jolly.

But the sincerity and goodwill evident both on and off stage works in its favor.


“The 12 Dates of Christmas” runs from Nov. 25 to Dec. 23 at the Westport Plaza, in the Westport Plaza Business and Entertainment District. Because of COVID-cancellation at the run’s end, a special 2 p.m. performance on Dec. 30 has been scheduled and tickets available at the box office. For more information, visit www.thewestportplayhouse.com


By Lynn Venhaus
Brendan Fraser is heartbreaking and haunting as a morbidly obese recluse with mental and physical health problems in the difficult-to-watch “The Whale.”

He’s a reclusive English teacher who has an opportunity to reconnect with his estranged teenage daughter (Sadie Sink).

As Charlie, he is attracting year-end awards attention, and deservedly so. It’s a stunning, brave performance from Fraser, possibly his best. He depicts this bruised man as a gentle soul whose tragic flaw was caring too much in a disingenuous environment.

Now 54, he has been acting for three decades. Deemed a heartthrob in his 20s after such films as “George of the Jungle” and “The Mummy,” his varied career has included comedies (“Airheads,” “Encino Man”), dramas (“Gods and Monsters,” “Crash”), TV (“The Affair” and “Trust”), and voice-over animation work (King of the Hill,” “The Simpsons”). Most recently, he’s been playing Cliff Steele on the HBOMax series “Doom Patrol.”

While wearing prosthetics to make him look like a 600-lb. man, Fraser allows us to see the hurting human being inside. Charlie is dying and can’t stop eating himself to death – it’s a choice.

Shots of his girth, his inability to move without assistance, and a trapped, confined, lethargic existence where he shuns easier mobility are painful and sad.

The remarkable transformation was crafted by makeup artist Adrien Morot, who was Oscar nominated for “Barney’s Version,” and has worked on the 2019 “Pet Sematary” reboot and “X-Men: Days of Future Past,” among his credits.

“The Whale” is a bleak adaptation of a play by Samuel D. Hunter on how a character gets into his current predicament because of loss, guilt, and love. The amount of self-loathing makes it painful to witness, but Fraser is never not authentic.

Confined to a run-down two-bedroom home that reflects how frozen in time the lead character is, Charlie has not been able to get past his lover’s suicide years earlier. He has shut himself off from society, hidden away in a grief cocoon of his own making.

A learned man, as reflected by crammed bookshelves, with an academic career – he teaches online English classes, he offers to write his estranged daughter’s high school assignments. He is desperate to reconnect with her, and it becomes a shot at redemption.  

Sadie Sink

As played by Sadie Sink, Ellie is a sullen, snarling, and angry teen who lashes out at everyone, especially her father, whom she blames for many of his failings, and hers. Her dad left when she was 8 years old, because he had fallen in love with one of his students.

The plot connects more dots, because nurse Liz, in a tough-love performance from Hong Chau, has a history with Charlie.

She does not indulge in his solitary imprisonment, but at the same time, tries to be realistic about his death march.

The playwright obviously has an axe to grind about evangelicals and their quest for salvation. The religious ties are revealed slowly, but Thomas, a missionary from “New Life Ministries,” looking very similar to a Mormon, attempts a conversion. He’s adroitly played by Ty Simpkins, now grown-up, most known for being the older brother in “Jurassic World” and a kid in “Iron Man 3.”

He is not as innocent as he seems, but seems unfairly targeted by Ellie, who can’t hide her disdain — but the mocking is cruel.

The backstories get sorted out, but no encounter is a random one. Samantha Morton has another outstanding cameo (she is brilliant as an informant in “She Said”) as Charlie’s bitter ex-wife. The resentment is no longer simmering, it’s a full-on rolling boil.

A lot of yelling is directed at Charlie, and between mother and daughter, so the confrontations are blunt and in-your-face. You begin to understand why Charlie wants to be left alone. Why deal with the messiness of humanity?

The playwright, who wrote the film adaptation, set the play in Mormon country in Idaho, and belabors the point repeatedly. 

The theme doesn’t vary that much from director Darren Aronofsky’s familiar darker and often nihilistic films (“Requiem for a Dream,” “Black Swan,” “Mother!”).

Brendan Fraser

You can see its stage roots showing, and the author clumsily connects Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick” obsession to the situation facing Charlie, while the evangelical ties are also heavy-handed.

Even though glimmers of hope emerge, when Charlie says: “Who would want me to be part of their life?,” it’s a gut-punch.

There are two gasp-worthy scenes – an eat-your-feelings binge that’s horrifying and a devastating reveal to students, that one must summon empathy and compassion or check out.

So much of the distressing story has a “too little, too late” tinge to it, adding to the feelings of regret and recrimination that permeate the space.

Because of the script’s complexities, you know that the ending won’t be a sweet, sappy resolution. Yet, the way it concludes is still unexpected.

Overall, “The Whale” is an unsettling and uneven work, marked by good performances that deserved better material.

“The Whale” is a 2022 drama directed by Darren Aronofsky and starring Brenda Fraser, Sadie Sink, Hong Chau and Ty Simpkins. It’s rated R for some language, some drug use and sexual content and has a 1 hour, 57 minutes runtime. It opened in select theaters Dec. 21. Lynn’s Grade: C.

Hong Chau in “The Whale”

By Lynn Venhaus

Loud, vulgar, and hollow, “Babylon” is an excessive look at nascent Hollywood without much to say and even less to feel despite its 189-minutes run time.

The drama traces the rise and fall of multiple characters during the silent-to-talking pictures era in early Hollywood, focusing on uninhibited decadence and depravity.

Meant to both celebrate Tinsel Town as a dream factory and to pull back the curtain on a morally bankrupt culture, “Babylon” is a cumbersome mess from writer-director Damien Chazelle, who has crafted pretty images – and some disgusting things that you can’t unsee — in a story without heart or soul.

Chazelle, the youngest Best Director in Oscar history for “La la Land,” when he was 32, has tackled a behind-the-scenes look at aspiring hopefuls in the industry before. But while that opus had characters you cared about and was sprinkled with pixie dust, the five storylines in this frenzied panorama are callous caricatures of ambition and downward spirals.

Brad Pitt appears to be on automatic pilot as hard-drinking matinee idol Jack Conrad, a suave player with a trail of ex-wives. Margot Robbie is dialed up to 11 as coarse New Jersey-born Nellie La Roy, a combative, self-destructive starlet. Newcomer Diego Calva stands out as dreamer Manny Torres, who becomes useful as a studio ‘fixer’ but is unfinished as a character. Jovan Adepo is gut-wrenching as Sidney Powell, a black bandleader facing demeaning requests – in a too-brief storyline. And Jean Smart has one showy scene as Elinor St. John, a powerful gossip columnist modeled after Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons, but otherwise her performance is perfunctory.

Tobey Maguire

That results in a very busy scenario, with a sprawling cast. Tobey Maguire has an unsettling cameo as a degenerate who thrives on sleaze. And blink and you’ll miss Olivia Wilde as one of Jack’s wives, Katherine Waterston as one of his soon-to-be ex’s, Max Minghella as Irving Thalberg and Chloe Fineman as Marion Davies.

The opening 30-minutes are a shocking display of debauchery – those squeamish about bodily fluids, you are warned — and it gets worse from there, but is there anything new to say in concentrating on bizarre grotesqueness and cocaine-fueled party guests?

If you are familiar with Kenneth Anger’s tawdry tattletale, “Hollywood Babylon,” published in 1959 but so controversial that it was unavailable 1965-1975, and its follow-up in 1984, then you’ve read about the headline-grabbing bad behavior of fame-seekers in that era.

The film begins in 1926, then depicts how the change to talkies affected the business. In perhaps the best scene, the problems in the transition wreak havoc on a set with La Roy the ingenue. Frustration leads to more belligerent actions and escalating tirades, and a casualty happens that’s treated so cavalierly, it’s just hard to wrap your head around the attitudes.

The film’s assorted narcissists, posers, and hangers-on — people who may have sold their souls and are drawn, like moths to a flame, to the star-making machinery – eventually burn out or fade away. But Chazelle cheats us with an unsatisfactory wrap-up of their fates in a puzzling finale.

A stunning presence on screen, Robbie demands attention as someone who craves the spotlight but loses her luster when she has too many walks on the wild side. She has played complicated women before – Tonya Harding in “I, Tonya” and Harley Quinn in “Suicide Squad” and “Birds of Prey,” but it’s hard to muster sympathy for such an unlikable character as vainglorious Nellie.

Take away the outrageous examples of living out loud and the gross-outs (projectile vomit, bone-crunching rat-eating, kinky sex acts and funhouse freaks), “Babylon” is hard to figure out the endgame. Why should we care?

Technically, the artisan work is first-rate. Justin Hurwitz’s jazzy propulsive score captures the hedonistic time while cinematographer Linus Sandgren goes big on a grandiose scale, as does production designer Florencia Martin. The man-made opulence contrasts with the undeveloped Southern California hillsides that the cinema pioneers used for their sandboxes and playgrounds.

Above all, disappointment rests with Chazelle, who needed to get out of his own way – and pick a lane. You can’t have it both ways. He demonstrated such a flair for imaginative storytelling in “Whiplash,” “La la Land,” and “First Man,” that “Babylon” made me angry. He took the joy out of make-believe, which is his point, I suppose, but made it repulsive.

We need the magic of movies as an escape from cruel everyday realities, to engage us with flights of fancy. “Babylon” collapses from the weight of its ambition, a nihilistic abyss. It’s a colossal waste of time, talent, and money.

“Babylon” is a 2022 drama written and directed by Damien Chazelle and starring Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Diego Calva and Jean Smart. It is rated R for strong and crude sexual content, graphic nudity, bloody violence, drug use, and pervasive language and the runtime is 3 hours, 9 minutes. It opened in theaters Dec. 23. Lynn’s Grade: D.

Margot Robbie plays Nellie LaRoy and Diego Calva plays Manny Torres in Babylon from Paramount Pictures.

By Lynn Venhaus

One of the most entertaining films of the year, “Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery” is a spellbinding and stylish whodunit that satisfies from start to finish.

Southern detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) travels to Greece to peel back the layers of a mystery involving a new cast of colorful suspects.

Names will be dropped, drinks will be spilt, airs will be deflated, and secrets divulged in a saucy blend of clever comedy and a tough-to-crack mystery from the fertile mind of writer-director Rian Johnson.

Johnson, who helmed the first “Knives Out” in 2019, has kicked this one up a notch. The original’s time-honored chamber formula of a rich old patriarch’s demise that revealed his family’s fissures set in an old-timey mansion was one of the most critically acclaimed and popular hits that year.

Johnson goes bigger in this sequel, and it’s better than the first. He weaves an impressive yarn that’s thoroughly plausible, aided by a tight ensemble that’s at the top of their game.

The location is luxe, a private island in Greece that’s the home of tech billionaire Miles Bron, deftly played by Edward Norton. He has invited his college friends who knew him when – and each of them owes their careers, and their well-heeled lives, to him. They get together every year, and this time, it’s for an elaborate murder mystery game where he will be the victim.

Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery (2022). (L-R) Kate Hudson as Birdie, Leslie Odom Jr. as Lionel, Kathryn Hahn as Claire, Edward Norton as Myles, Jessica Henwick as Peg, Madelyn Cline as Whiskey and Dave Bautista as Duke. Cr. Courtesy of Netflix © 2022.

Come to find out, these folks do have reasons to be on the enemy list – and for them to each have a motive to dispense him, too. There to throw a wrench into the proceedings is Benoit Blanc – “the world’s greatest detective” – who has inexplicably landed an invitation.

Now playing the sharp Southern sleuth for the second time, Daniel Craig is as smooth as a craft cocktail at a swanky soiree. He oozes smarts and charm, carrying the film with much authority. It’s a terrific performance, much more lived-in than the first time we met him.

Miles’ estate is as ostentatious as possible, and the guests live large. The pre-fame buddies are an assorted box of chocolates with surprises inside. Kate Hudson hasn’t been this good in a while as flaky conniver Birdie Jay, a former supermodel now lifestyle influencer whose assistant Peg, well-played by Jessica Henwick, prevents her cancellation multiple times.

Beefy Dave Bautista, Drax the Destroyer in “The Guardians of the Galaxy” franchise, is a lunkhead wild card here. He’s a social media star, a men’s rights advocate who is always packing heat. He also has a sassy hot girlfriend, “Whiskey,” played by Madelyn Cline.

Mixing business with politics is steely Kathryn Hahn as a Connecticut governor now running for the Senate, Claire Debella.

Closest to Miles’ inner circle is sharp-dressed scientist Lionel Toussaint, Leslie Odom Jr. as more of a silent observer here. He’s responsible for making Miles’ tech ideas work.

GLASS ONION: A KNIVES OUT MYSTERY (2022) Janelle Monáe as Andi. Cr: John Wilson/NETFLIX

Along comes Andi Brand, a never-better Janelle Monae, whom everyone is shocked to see there. She was Miles’ former business partner who was shut out in a messy corporate break-up. She is moving in mysterious ways, raising more questions than answers.

The plot thickens in such a beguiling way, with interesting twists, and a parade of fun cameos keeps the film breezy.

Johnson, Oscar nominated for original screenplay for the first one, is a frontrunner in this year’s awards season, only this time, it’s for adapted screenplay. He demonstrates a flair for piecing intricate puzzles together and a firm grasp of building vivid characters.

The film is meticulously crafted in other ways. Jenny Eagan’s costume designs pop and are playful – especially Birdie’s dazzling rainbow gown and Benoit’s seersucker swim set. Rick Heinrichs’ production design is a marvel of glass, artsy-fartsy nouveau riche bric-a-brac, and luxury resort accoutrements. And Nathan Johnson’s music score captures the shifting moods perfectly.

The whodunit may be set in a remote location, but it’s not cut off from the world, and Johnson’s jabs at the 1% and vapid celebrity culture land with fine precision.

A nice touch is Johnson’s homage to Angela Lansbury, who played widowed mystery writer and amateur detective Jessica Fletcher on “Murder, She Wrote” for 12 seasons, and legendary composer Stephen Sondheim, who penned the 1973 mystery film “The Last of Sheila” with Anthony Perkins, and was known for his obsession with games and puzzles. They show up in cameos, and the film is dedicated to the two. Touche.

“Glass Onion” is a fun romp, surely setting up another sequel. In the meantime, Johnson has given us something to savor, a bright spot in an already dreary winter.

“Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery” is a 2022 mystery comedy-drama written and directed by Rian Johnson. It stars Daniel Craig, Edward Norton, Janelle Monae, Kate Hudson, Dave Bautista, Kathryn Hahn, Leslie Odom Jr., Jessica Henwick and Madelyn Cline. Rated PG-13 for strong language, some violence, sexual material and drug content, it runs 2 hours, 19 minutes. It began streaming on Netflix Dec. 23. Lynn’s Grade: A.

By Lynn Venhaus

Looks 10, story 3. Regardless of its visual splendor from state-of-the-art effects, “Avatar: The Way of Water” is a bloated, confusing mess of a story.

Cinematographer extraordinaire Russell Christopher, who did “Titanic” and “Ant-Man,” and a team of hundreds of animators. motion-capture artists and graphics wizards make this sci-fi world fantastical, but a pedestrian plot can’t muster enough excitement to sit through 192 minutes of a curiously uninvolving scenario.

In a fierce battle to protect their home, the Na’vi must face a familiar threat on the extrasolar moon Pandora. Big bad military = evil territorial bullies, noble blue people = at one with nature.

With some nods to his previous mega-hits “Titanic,” “Aliens” and “The Terminator” franchise, director James Cameron has built a stunning panorama of flora, fauna, and water, lots of water. He’s also showing off in 3D and high-definition rate.

For all his excess, the man knows how to corral a team to create magic. However, his self-indulgences hamper smooth sailing in storytelling. He could have trimmed the film by half, and it would be far more engrossing with less repetition. (Four editors!).

A tribal plot involving family and loss offers nothing new – and five people came up with this unremarkable story that seems to have recycled some familiar “Lion King” beats (Come on! “Circle of Life”? Really?).

The monotonous video-game like screenplay, by Cameron and the husband-and-wife team of Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, whose work includes “Jurassic World” and the “Planet of the Apes” reboots, has this smug self-important air, and lacks even a smidgeon of wit.

Even superhero movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe have some chuckles, and I’ve seen cartoons that are far more entertaining. Why so serious?

While we weren’t exactly waiting for a sequel to the highest grossing film of all time, it’s been a long time in coming – 11 years. Since 2009, technology has created even more worlds of wonder, and real-world problems of climate change and political colonialism have been added for relevance.

“King of the World” Cameron has planned three more sequels, with principal photography already completed for “Avatar 3,” which may happen in 2024, and others expected in 2026 and 2028. Whether it will be a global phenomenon like the first remains to be seen, but if they are as insipid and interminable as this one, don’t bother.

With the wow factor, this sequel seems headed to only earn Academy Awards nominations in the technical fields. The original won Oscars for art direction, cinematography, and visual effects out of nine nominations. The intricate makeup and hair work is also award worthy.

If you can’t remember much of the first one, here’s the condensed version: It’s the 22nd century and humans are colonizing Pandora, a moon in the Alpha Centauri star system, because they want to mine unobtanium, a valuable mineral. That threatens a local tribe’s existence – the Na’vi is a humanoid species.

Here, an avatar is a genetically engineered Na’vi body operated from a human brain in a remote location, which interacts with the natives.  

Is this making your head hurt? Second one recaps how protagonist Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) fell in love with a Na’vi woman Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), and converted to that culture. They went on to live a blissful sparkly life and have four children – two boys and two girls.

Because he crossed the line, from being one of the military ‘sky people’ to a sympathetic outsider, his former Marine commander, Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), seeks revenge, but the motivation is murky. With a target on his back, Sully has endangered the Na’vi, and the Metkayina clan leader, Tonowari (Cliff Curtis), is not too happy about this turn of events. And neither is his snarling pregnant wife, Ronal (Kate Winslet). (Before you think, Kate Winslet is in this? It’s merely a voice-over).

Yet, an army of mighty warriors are ready to double-down, riding on some primordial-looking sea creatures. Only Quaritch has brought a force that look like the Na’vi. Good luck figuring out who are the good and bad guys, for it’s not always clear.

Clan leader Tonowari

The kids get in all sorts of scrapes, but telling them apart is tough, too, especially the two sons—Neteyam (Jamie Flatters) and Lo’ak (Britain Dalton). Kiri is the offspring of Sigourney Weaver, and they are her guardian. The youngest daughter named Tuk is designed to be the cute little charmer (Trinity Jo-Li Bliss). And then there is Miles, aka Spider (Jack Champion), a human who was left behind, and is like an adopted son.

Lots o’ macho posturing, women fretting, outsiders vs. natural-born, and kids being scolded for putting themselves in harm’s way. For three hours and 12 minutes, no intermission.

It is only epic is scope, not in any captivating way, for the imagination seems to have stopped at the art direction. Pretty pictures of ethereal thingamajigs floating in the water, and creatures plugging into energy sources that light them up for some reason are dazzling, so are the skies full of stars, and wavy tendrils that wrap themselves around various shapes, with different results.

Things blow up in spectacular fashion and gigantic whale-shark-looking hybrids, feared for their viciousness and sheer magnitude, wreak major havoc. The battle scenes, with Down Under-accented enemies, are well-executed – wait, did I just see New Zealand comic treasure Jemaine Clement?

With the avatars and Na’vi appearing so similar in looks and expressions, performances fail to register. The characters are one-note without much depth. Outstanding actress Edie Falco is wasted as a general and I’m not sure who ace character actress CCH Pounder plays.

New age-y dialogue is cringe-worthy, sounds like something from blacklight posters in the ‘70s. “The way of water connects all things. Before your birth, and after your death,” one son says. Whatever that means.

For all its posturing as an event film, “Avatar: The Way of Water” is unnecessary. It’s a gussied-up mash-up of ahead-of-his-time genius Jules Verne’s “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea” and “Journey to the Center of the Earth.” And I would like four hours of my life back.

Kiri, under water

“Avatar: The Way of Water” is a 2022 action fantasy film directed by James Cameron and starring Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Stephen Lang, Sigourney Weaver, Cliff Curtis, Kate Winslet, CCH Pounder, Jack Champion, Britain Dalton, and Jamie Flatters. It is rated PG-13 for sequences of strong violence and intense action, partial nudity and some strong language and runtime is 192 minutes. It opens in theaters Dec. 16. Lynn’s Grade: C-.

‘The Banshees of Inisherin’ leads with 11 nominations, followed by ‘Everything Everywhere All at Once’ with 10; ‘Women Talking’ and ‘The Fabelmans’ earn 8 each

Special Merit recognition to Jafar Panahi, Ashley Judd and David Bowie

The St. Louis Film Critics Association have announced nominations for its annual awards, to be presented on Dec. 18.

In addition to determining nominations in 23 categories, the regional critics’ group recognized three people for special merit: imprisoned Iranian director Jafar Panahi, whistleblower actress Ashley Judd and posthumously, influential musician-actor David Bowie.

“The Banshees of Inisherin,” Martin McDonagh’s dark comedy about two lifelong friends at an impasse, was nominated for film, director, actor, supporting actor and actress, ensemble cast, original screenplay, cinematography, editing, music score and production design.

The multiverse mind-bender, “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” garnered nominations for film, directors, actress, supporting actor, ensemble, original screenplay, editing, visual effects, comedy, and action film.

Two dramas, “Women Talking” and “The Fabelmans,” were recognized with eight nominations apiece, while the “Elvis” biopic had seven, and sequels “Top Gun: Maverick” and “Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery” earned six.

See below for a complete list of nominations.

Regarding the Special Merit nods, SLFCA President Jim Tudor said the group wanted to recognize filmmaker Jafar Panahi, who was sentenced to six years in prison by the Iranian government for inquiring about the arrests of his fellow filmmakers Mohammad Rasoulof and Mostafa Al-Ahmad.

The international film community has denounced his imprisonment as unjust. His latest work, “No Bears,” was shown at the Venice Film Festival and New York Film Festival this fall.

The SLFCA statements on the three Special Merits:

Jafar Panahi

“In recognition of the courage of imprisoned Iranian director Jafar Panahi and all those film professionals confronting political oppression in the pursuit of free speech, human rights, and artistic expression.”

Ashley Judd

“We recognize Ashley Judd for the bravery and courage she demonstrated in portraying herself in ‘She Said.’”

David Bowie

“After nominating the experimental documentary “Moonage Daydream,” we want to also honor the expansive and continuing cinematic presence of singer-songwriter and actor David Bowie, whose life and music continues to permeate and enrich the cinema landscape.”

Founded in 2004, the St. Louis Film Critics Association is a nonprofit organization of professional film reviewers who regularly publish current and timely film criticism, support local productions and festivals, and enhance public education, awareness, and appreciation of films. Vetted members are affiliated with qualifying media outlets in the St. Louis metropolitan region.

For the awards, eligible films are those that opened in the greater St. Louis area or had an online premiere during the 2022 calendar year – including those film that were given awards-qualifying runs in 2021 but were not available to all SLFCA members until 2022. Films slated for release in early in 2023 are also eligible if a press screening, DVD screener, or screening link was provided to all SLFCA members.

For more information, visit the site: www.stlfilmcritics.com

The complete list of nominations are as follows:

She Said

BEST FILM

The Banshees of Inisherin
Elvis
Everything Everywhere All at Once
She Said
Women Talking

BEST DIRECTOR

The Daniels (Daniel Kwan & Daniel Scheinert) – Everything Everywhere All at Once
Baz Luhrmann – Elvis
Martin McDonagh – The Banshees of Inisherin
Sarah Polley – Women Talking
Steven Spielberg – The Fabelmans

BEST ACTOR

Austin Butler – Elvis
Daniel Craig – Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery
Colin Farrell – The Banshees of Inisherin
Brendan Fraser – The Whale
Paul Mescal – Aftersun

BEST ACTRESS

Cate Blanchett – Tár
Danielle Deadwyler – Till
Mia Goth – Pearl
Emma Thompson – Good Luck to You, Leo Grande
Michelle Williams – The Fabelmans
Michelle Yeoh – Everything Everywhere All at Once

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR

Andre Braugher – She Said
Brendan Gleeson – The Banshees of Inisherin
Judd Hirsch – The Fabelmans
Ke Huy Quan – Everything Everywhere All at Once
Ben Whishaw – Women Talking

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS

Angela Bassett – Black Panther: Wakanda Forever
Kerry Condon – The Banshees of Inisherin
Claire Foy – Women Talking

Janelle Monae – Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery
Carey Mulligan – She Said

Glass Onion

BEST ENSEMBLE CAST

The Banshees of Inisherin
Everything Everywhere All at Once
The Fabelmans
Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery
Women Talking

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY

Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery – Rian Johnson; based on characters created by him

Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio – Guillermo del Toro and Patrick McHale; Guillermo del Toro and Matthew Robbins (story); based on the novel by Carlo Collodi

She Said – Rebecca Lenkiewicz; based on the book She Said by Jodi Cantor and Megan Twohey, and on the New York Times investigation by Jodi Kantor, Megan Twohey, and Rebecca Corbett

White Noise – Noah Baumbach; based on the novel by Don DeLillo

Women Talking – Sarah Polley and Miriam Toews; based on the novel by Miriam Toews

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY

The Banshees of Inisherin – Martin McDonagh
Decision to Leave – Park Chan-wook and Gong Seo-kyeong
Everything Everywhere All at Once – The Daniels (Daniel Kwan & Daniel Scheinert)
The Fabelmans – Steven Spielberg & Tony Kushner
The Menu – Seth Reiss & Will Tracy
Tár – Todd Field

The Menu


BEST EDITING

The Banshees of Inisherin – Mikkel E.G. Nielsen
Elvis – Jonathan Redmond and Matt Villa
Everywhere Everywhere All at Once – Paul Rogers
Tár – Monika Willi
Top Gun: Maverick – Eddie Hamilton

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY

The Banshees of Inisherin – Ben Davis
The Batman – Greig Fraser
Nope – Hoyte Van Hoytema
Top Gun: Maverick – Claudio Miranda
Women Talking – Luck Montpellier

BEST PRODUCTION DESIGN

Avatar: The Way of Water – Dylan Cole and Ben Procter
The Banshees of Inisherin – Mark Tinldesley
Black Panther: Wakanda Forever – Hannah Beachler
Elvis – Catherine Martin and Karen Murphy
Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery – Rick Heinrichs

BEST COSTUME DESIGN

Black Panther: Wakanda Forever – Ruth E. Carter
Elvis – Catherine Martin
The Fabelmans – Mark Bridges
Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris – Jenny Beavan
The Woman King – Gersha Phillips

BEST VISUAL EFFECTS

Avatar: The Way of Water – Joe Letteri, Richard Baneham, Eric Saindon, and Daniel Barrett

Everything Everywhere All at Once – Zak Stoltz (Visual Effects Supervisor); Ethan Feldbau and Benjamin Brewer (Visual Effects Lead Artists); Jeff Desom (Visual Effects Artist)

Nope – Guillaume Rocheron (Visual Effects Supervisor); Jeremy Robert (Visual Effets Supervisor); Sreejith Venugopalan (DFX Supervisor); Scott R. Risher (Special Effects Coordinator)

RRR – V. Srinivas Mohan (VFX Supervisor)

Top Gun: Maverick – Ryan Tudhope (Visual Effects Supevisor); Scott R. Fisher (Special Effects Coordinator); Seth Hill (Visual Effects Supervisor) Bryan Litton (Visual Effects Supervisor)

Babylon

BEST MUSIC SCORE

Babylon – Justin Hurwitz
The Banshees of Inisherin – Carter Burwell
The Batman – Michael Giacchino
The Fabelmans – John Williams
Women Talking – Hildur Guðnadóttir

BEST SOUNDTRACK

Black Panther: Wakanda Forever
Elvis
Moonage Daydream
Top Gun: Maverick
Weird: The Al Yankovic Story

BEST ACTION FILM

Avatar: The Way of Water
Everything Everywhere All at Once
RRR
Top Gun: Maverick
The Woman King

BEST COMEDY FILM

Everything Everywhere All at Once
Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery
Jackass Forever
The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent
Weird: The Al Yankovic Story

BEST HORROR FILM

Men
Nope
Pearl
Scream
X

Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio

BEST ANIMATED FILM

Apollo 10 ½: A Space Age Childhood
Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio
Marcel the Shell with Shoes On
Turning Red
Wendell and Wild

BEST DOCUMENTARY FILM

All the Beauty and the Bloodshed
Fire of Love
Good Night Oppy
Moonage Daydream
Sr.

BEST INTERNATIONAL FILM

All Quiet on the Western Front
Close
Decision to Leave
Happening
RRR

BEST SCENE

The Fabelmans – Sam meets one of his idols on the studio lot.
Marcel the Shell with Shoes On – Marcel on 60 Minutes.
Nope – A tragic day on the set of Gordy’s Home.
RRR – Piggyback prison escape.
Tár – Lydia bullies a Julliard student.
Top Gun: Maverick – Iceman visits with Maverick.

RRR

The Critics Choice Association (CCA) Women’s Committee is pleased to announce “Women Talking” (United Artists Releasing) and “The Sex Lives of College Girls” (HBO Max) will receive the Seal of Female Empowerment in Entertainment. Called the “SOFEE,” the Seal recognizes outstanding new films and television series that illuminate the female experience and perspective through authentically told female-driven stories.

“Women Talking” focuses on a group of Mennonite women who gather to determine what action to take after rampant sexual abuse is condoned by the male leaders of the community. Written, directed, and produced by Sarah Polley from the novel by Miriam Toews, the drama explores the themes of sisterhood, autonomy, and justice through the eyes of women who have lived their entire lives inside a closed, conservative, rural community.

“I am so thrilled our film has been included amongst the incredible films receiving this honor, and so grateful for this initiative to encourage more films that tell women’s stories,” wrote Polley in a letter to the CCA membership. “Sometimes, when embarking on a project like this one, it’s easy to feel lost and unsure. Especially when you are telling a story about a community that has never been told. You must break and remake yourself in the process of finding your true voice. Thank you for creating this seal which helps a lot of us who have been lost to feel seen.”

The Sex Lives of College Girls

“The Sex Lives of College Girls” is a female-led scripted comedy series following four very different freshman girls at a prestigious college in Vermont. Led by a diverse cast that stars Pauline Chalamet, Amrit Kaur, Alyah Chanelle Scott, and Reneé Rapp, these young women juggle their educational aspirations with their newfound freedom and burgeoning sex lives. Created and written by Mindy Kaling and Justin Noble, and with a majority of female writers and directors, the series showcases young women  navigating the beginning of adulthood through diverse, relatable and witty stories. 

“With diverse female representation behind and in front of the camera, ‘The Sex Lives of College Girls’ is the perfect example of what we are looking for when awarding the SOFEE,” said Tara McNamara, Chair of the CCA Women’s Committee. “Women write and produce the series, and their point of view shines through in the sometimes relatable, always hilarious stories that may bring back cringey memories for many women. The show’s sex positive message is reflected differently for each of the four main characters, allowing women from all walks of life to see elements of their own journeys represented on-screen.”

Both “Women Talking” and “The Sex Lives of College Girls” received perfect scores in the numerical formula that is used to determine if new titles, nominated by CCA Women’s Committee members, are eligible for a SOFEE. Qualifying projects will have a prominent female character arc, give female characters at least equal screen time to male characters, have female leaders behind the scenes, and pass elements highlighted in the Bechdel test. To be considered, new film and television releases must possess an artistic and storytelling value and exceptionality, and score at least 7 out of a possible 10 points in the SOFEE rubric, which can be found at CriticsChoice.com. There are no limits or quotas governing the number of SOFEE seals the CCA may grant.

The Seal of Female Empowerment in Entertainment is issued by the CCA Women’s Committee. Members include Tara McNamara (Chair), Hillary Atkin, Semira Ben-Amor, Christina Birro, Lauren Bradshaw, Jamie Broadnax, TJ Callahan, Natasha Gargiulo, Toni Gonzales, Teri Hart, Laura Hurley, Susan Kamyab, Louisa Moore, Gayl Murphy, Mary Murphy, Patricia Puentes, Christina Radish, Amanda Salas, Rachel Smith, Sammi Turano, and Lynn Venhaus, as well as CCA board member Paulette Cohn.

WOMEN TALKING (2022) Rooney Mara, Claire Foy, and Jessie Buckley CR: Michael Gibson/United Artists Releasing

About the Critics Choice Association (CCA)

The Critics Choice Association is the largest critics organization in the United States and Canada, representing more than 600 media critics and entertainment journalists. It was established in 2019 with the formal merger of the Broadcast Film Critics Association and the Broadcast Television Journalists Association, recognizing the intersection between film, television, and streaming content. For more information, visit: www.CriticsChoice.com.

By Lynn Venhaus

A little bit of horror and a lot of hilarity ensues in the madcap cult musical “Ride the Cyclone: The Musical,” now playing in a festive amusement park-like atmosphere at the Tower Grove Abbey.

For those unfamiliar with this musical comedy by Jacob Richmond and Brooke Maxwell, six peppy performers portray teenagers from a Canadian parochial school chamber choir whose lives are cut short in a freak accident aboard a roller coaster.

And that’s not the only thing freaky in this zany production that has a distinct viewpoint about the universal mysteries of life, death, and the afterlife – mostly funny, but sometimes sad, and surprisingly touching.

After they wind up in Limbo, a mechanical fortune teller, The Amazing Karnak, offers the dead kids a chance to return to life – but only one will be selected in this strange game of survivor. So, each tells their stories of living in Uranium City, Saskatchewan, and of their experiences at St. Cassian High School.

Five are kooky variations of John Hughes-like characters while the sixth, Jane Doe, was decapitated in the calamity and her body wasn’t claimed. Dawn Schmid plays the mysterious and ethereal outlier, showcasing her elegant voice in the opening number “Dream of Life” and later, “The Ballad of Jane Doe,” in which she talks about not knowing her identity.

The other five try to set themselves apart, and they accomplish that. This is a merry band of accomplished performers who make each character their own.

Photo by John Lamb

Eileen Engel, channeling Reese Witherspoon’s Tracy Flick character in “Election,” is the classic annoying over-achiever who is so certain she should be spared – and is snide in her comments to others, her entitlement front and center. Her name Ocean O’Connell Rosenberg. Seriously. Her catch phrase is “Democracy rocks!”

Her number, “What the World Needs,” brings out her personality traits and she leads the ensemble on “Every Story’s Got a Lesson.”

Riley Dunn may be having the most fun on stage as a very angry adopted young man, Mischa Bachinski, from the Ukraine. He’s an aspiring rapper, so of course, he must show off in “This Song is Awesome” and then display his softer side when recalling his internet girlfriend “Talia.”

In death, Stephen Henley’s earnest Ricky Potts, mute with a degenerative disease — catch phrase “Level Up!” — apparently has a new lease on life, as he is no longer disabled, and thrives with his discovered abilities. Part mensch, and pure team player with an overactive imagination, he sure has fun in his fantasies with “Space Age Bachelor Man.”

Grace Langford is eager-to-please Constance Blackwood, who is upset that she’s always labeled “nice,” has a love-hate relationship with her hometown and has a secret to later share. (And it’s a doozy). She belts out “Jawbreaker” and then after she changes her mind, “Sugarcloud.”

Mike Hodges has done double-duty as choreography and performer, and he gets to be outrageous as a gay kid in a small town who has never encountered anyone in his tribe. His saucy “Noel’s Lament” is the bawdiest number.

 “The Other Side” is a spirited introduction.

The choreography is a delightful mix of “High School Musical,” “Cabaret,” “La Cage aux Folles,” even shades of “Cats,” and contemporary music videos.

The kids take a break from their “Look at Me!”attitudes to sing the tender “The New Birthday Song” to Jane Doe.

Engel also does double duty, as costume designer, with looks that run the gamut from the drab Catholic school jumpers to Hodges’ more risqué outfits

A well-known local actor voices Karnak, and his narration is superb. The program doesn’t reveal who he is, so I’ll keep that quiet until we’re allowed to share, no spoiler from me.

The musical was first performed in 2008, but did not have its American premiere, in Chicago, until 2015, and then mounted off-Broadway the next year.

It has developed a cult following, somewhat like “The Rocky Horror Show,” and audience members came from several different states, whooping it up, their enthusiasm contagious.

This is a fast-paced show – 90 minutes without an intermission. While it flows smoothly, a tremendous amount of difficulty is apparent because of the level of stage craft, but it’s all handled with aplomb.

Photo by John Lamb

Director Justin Been has cleverly staged the intricate movements, with timing a crucial element, and skillfully coordinated the moving parts – as there are many cues for sound, lights, and special effects. Many video projections are used, too, snapshots from their lives.

Longtime tech creative Tyler Duenow has masterfully taken the lighting design to new heights — a terrific mix of spooky, strange and status quo, while sound designer Jacob Baxley’s crisp work is noteworthy too.

Scenic designer Josh Smith has appointed the small space well, with the Karnak a creepy standout (not confined to a glass case like in “Big.”)

The witty script leans towards the sarcastic, with some laugh-out-loud observations, Been, along with his cast, has enlivened the show with up-to-date references (script allows it)

The band is onstage and appears to be having fun. Led by music director Leah Schultz, who also plays piano and recorder, musicians include Michaela Kuba on bass and cello, Adam Rugo on guitar and Joe Winters on percussion.

A macabre and mirthful show might not evoke the spirit of Christmas, but it sure spread joy to the world in Tower Grove Abbey – a cheering audience, exuberant cast and top-of-their game creative team made it a pleasant holiday-time diversion.

Stray Dog Theatre presents “Ride the Cyclone: The Musical” Thursdays through Saturdays December 1-17, with additional performances on Sunday, Dec. 11, and Wednesday, Dec. 14, both at 8 p.m., at the Tower Grove Abbey, 2336 Tennessee, in Tower Grove East. This show contains mature language, smoke effects, strobing lights, and sudden loud noises. Masks are not required but encouraged. For more information or for tickets, visit www.straydogtheatre.org.

Photo by John Lamb