By Lynn Venhaus

Anyone who has experienced grief knows that moving forward, life is measured by “Before” and “After.”

“The Whale” delves into the mental and physical health problems of a morbidly obese recluse, showing us the “After” and explaining the “Before” in an emotionally honest drama by Samuel D. Hunter.

In yet another well-cast, impeccably directed production, St. Louis Actors’ Studio imbues this gut-punch of a script with empathy and authenticity.

In his play, Hunter forces us to see the complexities in human nature, so impressions aren’t so easily defined, and judgment can wait. He has crafted flawed characters who have dealt with adversity and challenges in very different ways. Yet, they are stuck in time.

First presented in 2012, Hunter later wrote a bleak screenplay adaptation for the 2022 film that won two Oscars – one for Brendan Fraser’s performance and the other for makeup.

The film, while much dimmer inside the claustrophobic apartment, is very similar to the stage play, yet the characters are more severely portrayed, and redemption doesn’t seem plausible.

Set in a small town in northern Idaho, over the course of a week, four people interact with a nearly immobile Charlie (William Roth) in his dingy living room – nurse and friend Liz (Colleen Backer), estranged daughter Ellie (Nadja Kapetanovich), ex-wife Mary (Lizi Watt), and Mormon missionary Elder Thomas (Thomas Patrick Riley).

All affected by loss and loneliness, they are each wrapped in their own cocoons, and grace has eluded them. Director Annamaria Pileggi has drawn out nuances among this exemplary cast as they reveal truths about themselves. You feel their misery, but you also see signs of hope.

In a brave, towering performance, William Roth has never been better as Charlie, a sensitive soul whose heartache and regrets have led to self-destructive behavior. A writing instructor who now conducts classes online, he has ballooned to 600 lbs., suffers from congestive heart failure and is on a trajectory to imminent death.

Roth has delivered virtuoso performances before, notably as George in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” and as Charlie Aikin in “August: Osage County,” both at St. Louis Actors’ Studio, which he founded and is the artistic director.

William Roth as Charlie. Photo by Patrick Huber

But this realization is both heartfelt and haunting. Hunter enlists many ways to display Charlie’s self-loathing, visually masking his pain with an eating disorder, and describing memories from what had been an ordinary life. Roth disappears into the role, wistfully recounting happier times at the seashore with his wife and child, and then later being with his lover and former student Alan. Will he ever forgive himself for what he perceives are his failings?

Using a colloquial term, Charlie has “let himself go.” Eating his feelings since Alan’s death eight years ago, he has guilt in his psyche – but passion in his heart for literature. You feel his remorse – and his enormous capacity for love.

Through grading papers, talking to his class via computer, and reading aloud their essays, Charlie displays a fine mind, a keen grasp of literature, what authors meant, and encourages self-expression.

Conveying that love for the written word that once gave him great joy makes it much sadder that, sidelined by grief, he’s not the teacher he once was, and not entirely comfortable connecting with his students (yet, astute in his comments). The isolation, as reflected in that tiny room, is crushing.

He also has vast unconditional love for his daughter Ellie, a sullen teenager who feels abandoned and lashes out cruelly. After years of no contact, he has attempted to reconnect with her, and she is seemingly unreachable – tough, rebellious, impulsive.

Her mother, angry and filled with rage too, has kept her from establishing a relationship with her father. At 17, she hates everything and everybody, and is flunking out of school. She is repulsed by his appearance, but visits anyway — after all, he is writing her English papers, and there is a pledge of money.

Displaying hostility, confusion, forlornness, and defiance, Nadja Kapetanovich is a knockout in a finely textured performance as Ellie. It’s a sensational breakthrough performance in regional theatre.

Kapetanovich, Riley, Watt, Backer, Roth. Photo by Patrick Huber.

Thomas Patrick Riley also has a breakout opportunity as Elder Thomas, and he’s splendid. He has the most complicated backstory of them all, and represents the evangelical religion that Hunter focuses on as a root to issues expressed here, particularly religious homophobia, and pointedly The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

More dots in the plot are connected through Liz, the tough-love nurse played with heartbreaking compassion by Colleen Backer, whose ability to shift moods between comic and dramatic is one of her finest features.

Liz is Alan’s sister, so there is that. And she’s trying to keep Charlie healthy and alive, but also enabling him with high-fat, high-sodium foods (fried chicken, sub sandwiches, pizza, doughnuts and soda). She offers comfort while admonishing him with lectures. It’s an endearing performance by the always entertaining Backer.

In a brief but pivotal role, Lizi Watt blows in as the blustery ex-wife Mary, whose resentment is at a full rolling boil. She’s full of outrage, and vents to Charlie on how exasperated she is about their daughter. While she’s snarling, she’s also drinking copious amounts of vodka. It’s apparent that Ellie is a mirror image of her mother.

What is interesting about these hardened characters is you see them mentally and physically soften when confronted with Charlie’s predicament – if only fleeting. There is also more humor in the play than I recall from the film, which are moments of relief from the grim subject matter and the blame game volleys.

Wearing an impressively designed body suit by Angela B. Calin and engineered and constructed by Laurie Donati of the South Coast Repertory Theatre in Costa Mesa, Calif., Roth’s physicality is key to the character, portraying the very real struggles of someone so overweight as to be in pain from the slightest exertion.

Costume Designer Teresa Doggett also worked skillfully on Roth’s prosthetics to ready him for this appearance on stage, and her casual outfit choices for the five actors were on point.

Patrick Huber’s scenic and lighting design reflects the slovenly quarters but also Charlie’s thirst for knowledge, with crammed bookshelves and papers everywhere. Props designer Emma Glose did a fine job littering the apartment with discarded food boxes, beverage containers and academia.

Caleb D. Long supervised the crafts parts as technical director. Another standout is the sound design by Kristi Gunther, also production manager, which incorporated hearing seaside noises like seagulls and the waves on the beach to evoke pleasant memories.

Others responsible for shaping this tight production: Bryn McLaughlin was the assistant director, and stage manager Amy J. Paige, with Glose her assistant.

This show’s cast was able to let us into their world, tinged with melancholy, and indicate the possibility of mercy, which is a final grace note.

And we can debate the ending for a long time, but I choose triumph, even if it is just in the teeniest glimmers of change that may be ahead for all.

St. Louis Actors’ Studio presents “The Whale” Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. April 5 through April 21 at The Gaslight Theatre, 358 N. Boyle. For more information: stlas.org.

By Lynn Venhaus

Unrelentingly grim, the harrowing action film “Civil War” is a provocative look at a nightmarish “What If?” scenario — and claims to be science fiction as it’s set in the future.

Disturbing real-life events in recent years have stirred up thoughts of a domestic doomsday, a cataclysmic reckoning with armed militias if our country’s structures of power, authority and social norms are subverted.

Projecting a second Civil War without getting too deep into politics, British writer-director Alex Garland has escalated America’s current divisions to envision a ravaged war-torn landscape with refugee camps, resistance fighters, military checkpoints, and violent conflict zones. We don’t see how it starts, just that it did, and the nation is engulfed in violent conflicts.

He focuses on the press documenting the atrocities in besieged areas, and their struggles to work and survive in a dystopian dictatorship. Those ethics and their costs personally are a key part of the story.

As a professional journalist for 46 years, I found this very raw and realistic film triggering. It ramped up my anxiety from start to finish, so it’s hard for me to separate fact from fiction here. 

However, as a film the technical work is first-rate while Garland’s screenplay, meant to be an allegory, is a tad wobbly.

It’s no coincidence that the national release date, April 12, just happens to be the day in 1861 that the first — and so far, only — Civil War started. (Note: The film did have its premiere at SXSW on March 14).

This much is true: Actions have consequences. We can all agree on that.

And whether you’re alarmed by seeing a partisan extremist holding an assault rifle and asking what kind of an American are you while he stands next to a mass grave is going to determine how you feel about this hard-hitting but not entirely convincing film.

The primary character is Kirsten Dunst as Lee Smith from Colorado, a bold, taciturn war photographer patterned after the famous World War II chronicler Lee Miller, who embedded with the military in Europe, and was among the first in Dachau concentration camp after liberation.

Dunst plays Lee as a hardened risk-taker who eventually shows signs of being weary of all the horror she’s witnessed. Wagner Moura is her more gregarious but still jaded colleague Joel, a reporter for Reuters News Service.

Their dispatches are defining images for a homeland where some folks are pretending it’s not happening. Their next assignment is taking them from New York City 800 miles away to D.C. to interview the president. 

With no mention of a name or party affiliation, he is serving his third term and is played with gravitas by Nick Offerman. We do know he abolished the FBI, and a bit of dialogue refers to an ‘anti-fa massacre.’

The pair are trying to get to the White House before rebel factions do, and complications arise with the addition of two passengers. 

Their professional rival, a grizzled veteran named Sammy from the New York Times, tags along – and he’s played by first-class character actor Stephen McKinley Henderson.

The film’s strength lies in the performances, with Cailee Spaeny a standout as Jessie, a novice photographer whose encounter with her role model Lee leads to her inclusion in the car. Lee is reluctantly forced to take Jessie under her wing, and it’s on the job training in a hurry.

Garland prefers to keep a distance instead of emotionally engaging us, as the desensitized journalists are sketched in broad strokes. Fueled by adrenaline, they fearlessly rush into danger while others flee it – because that is what they do.

Garland uses snapshots of their work to demonstrate the impact of visual images in telling a story. Cinematographer Rob Hardy’s vivid work is exceptional as he contrasts the bucolic countryside with the bloody chaos of bombings. Hardy has collaborated with Garland before, on his acclaimed “Ex Machina” and “Annihilation.”

While journalists are notorious for gallows humor, these cynical correspondents go about their jobs with workmanlike precision. Yet, the trauma they witness has changed them – although we don’t get too many details.

That is a frustrating aspect of this film – the lack of specifics, which is intentional, but confusing because it is so vague. I get Garland’s point that he’s trying to be sly, but whether he’s lensing the aftermath of apathy or anarchy — or both — is unclear.

Several states have alliances, and soldiers from the Western Forces are headed to the capital. Don’t waste time trying to figure out what California, Texas and Florida are up to because you’re not going to find out.

Garland has written some of the best sci-fi films of the new millennium, including “28 Days Later,” “Sunshine” and “Never Let Me Go.”

His films always pack a visceral punch, and for this one, the examples of torture and war crimes are grisly. Just as chilling, though, are glimpses of random weaponized citizens roaming in quaint small towns.

Editor Jake Roberts has done a fine job of plunging us into the darkness and despair of this depiction. The sound work is award-worthy, from the loud bursts of ricocheting bullets to the primal screams you don’t hear.

However, for all its bravura, the film’s needle-drops are puzzling, and are more jarring than appropriate. Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow’s odd choices in music don’t seem to fit the action that we’re witnessing.

In the controversy-courting “Civil War,” a Brit gives us an unsettling look at a fractured America without much rhetoric, which could be a clarion call if it wasn’t so detached in its details.

Yet, it’s impossible not to be affected in some way by it. We have been watching similar footage in other countries, and now, this hits close to home. Garland is fueling opinions, that is for sure. Given such an inflammatory subject matter, the post-release debates should be interesting. 

(As Harper Lee wrote in “To Kill a Mockingbird”: “People generally see what they look for and hear what they listen for.” — Judge Taylor)

“Civil War” is a 2024 action science fiction film written and directed by Alex Garland and starring Kirsten Dunst, Wagner Moura, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Cailee Spaeny, Sonoya Mizuno, and Nick Offerman. It is rated R for strong violent content, bloody/disturbing images, and language throughout, and runs 1 hour, 49 minutes. It opens in theatres April 12. Lynn’s Grade: somewhere between a B- and a C+.

By Lynn Venhaus

“Xanadu” is a silly bunch of nonsense – and that is its intention. A spoof of the ridiculous 1980 romantic musical fantasy movie must be playful, and Stray Dog Theatre leans into the stage musical comedy sendup with full-bodied camp.

The theater company’s affinity for broad comedy romps is well-known, and they’ve presented these types of crowd-pleasers for years, from “Evil Dead: The Musical” and “Triassic Parq” to Charles Busch’s oeuvre “Red Scare at Sunset,” “Vampire Lesbians of Sodom” and “Psycho Beach Party,” among them.

And they gleefully double-down on this show’s cheesiness. Director Justin Been takes great delight in skewering the movie’s premise as a turgid soap opera that’s part “Saturday Night Live” sketch (think of the deliberate exaggerated acting in “The Californians”) and part old-timey Hollywood studio system dream factory, sprinkled with fairy dust.

To fully understand the surprising transformation from movie to Broadway, here’s a little backstory. Somehow, after the film was totally trashed upon its release, it developed a cult audience, and then in 2007, a stage adaptation was Tony-nominated for Best Musical. Stranger things.

The comical book was written by Douglas Carter Beane, who won a Drama Desk Award for it and is known for his musical adaptations of “Cinderella” and “Sister Act.” He wrote the 1995 movie “To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar.” Stray Dog Theatre produced his Tony-nominated play, “The Little Dog Laughed,” in 2014.

Being familiar with the movie “Xanadu” is not a prerequisite to enjoy this farcical show, but it helps if you have some knowledge of ancient Greek mythology, for Beane incorporates the shlocky epic “Clash of the Titans” into his themes, including the Immortals.

Photo by John Lamb

The wackadoodle screenplay by Richard Danus and Marc Rubel was already inspired by the 1947 Rita Hayworth movie “Down to Earth,” which features muses showing up to teach Earthlings a lesson. Fun fact: Xanadu is the exotic name of Mongolian emperor Kublai Khan’s summer palace.

This far-fetched plot doesn’t take itself seriously – or shouldn’t. Set in Los Angeles, the 44-year-old movie focused on a beautiful muse (pop star Olivia Newton-John riding the ‘Grease’ wave) who inspires a young hunky artist (Michael Beck, fresh from “The Warriors”) and his older friend (Gene Kelly! Yes, the ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ icon) to convert a dilapidated auditorium into a hip roller-skating club, all set to the beat of Yacht Rock songs.

She is forbidden to fall in love with a mortal, but two mean-spirited sisters (Calliope and Melpomene) concoct a curse, and chaos ensues. Is it surprising that it was nominated for six Razzie Awards?

At the first Golden Raspberry Awards in 1981, the movie lost the worst picture award to another truly awful musical, “Can’t Stop the Music,” which was a pseudo-autobiography of the Village People and starred then-Bruce Jenner (now Kaitlyn), Oscar nominee Valerie Perrine and Steve Guttenberg (Gotta love the ‘80s!). But the “Xanadu” director Robert Greenwald did take a Razzie home.

See if this makes any kind of sense: Artist Sonny Malone – Phil Leveling having a blast doing ‘beach’ dressed like Malibu Ken and talking like a righteous dude – has completed a mural at Venice Beach that he’s not satisfied with, so he wants to end it all.

He has a chance encounter with Clio, a muse masquerading as a fetching Aussie named Kira who roller skates and wears leg warmers. She sprang eternally from the Mount Olympus artwork, and her effect has made him change his mind. She is played with a wink and a smile by Shannon Lampkin Campbell.

They pair well on their duets “Suddenly” and “Suspended in Time.”

Shannon Lampkin Campbell and Phil Leveling. Photo by John Lamb

However, she didn’t arrive alone. Because Sonny envisioned the Immortals, her six sisters (Zeus’ daughters) magically appear, cavorting in their goddess cosplay – two are guys in drag.

Eight are part of the ensemble in multiple roles: Mateo Bluemel, Sarah Gene Dowling, Lindsey Grojean, Chelsie Johnston, Madison Mesiti, Drew Mizell, Katie Orr, and Lauren Tenenbaum.

Dowling, as Calliope, and Johnston, as Melpomene, inject much humor in “Evil Woman” and “Strange Magic,” two of Electric Light Orchestra’s power-pop songs added to the stage musical.

Sonny’s new dream is to turn an old theater into a roller disco. He tries to convince a wealthy real estate magnet Danny McGuire, a former Big Band musician, to give him the property, and eventually they become partners. But the road to success is rocky.

Kira’s presence re-awakens part of Danny’s past where he had a memorable fling with a look-alike named Kitty. This is all played for laughs, as well it should. That leads to a snazzy ‘40s-style song-and-dance because Gene Kelly played the film role, so of course (“When You’re Away from Me”).

Scott Degitz-Fries, a lithe dancer whose smooth moves on local stages are always admirable, is effortless in these dancing sequences. He has mad roller-skating skills and is a former competitive figure skater (made it to the national finals in high school), so he also served as roller-skating consultant.

Everyone else is trying very hard, and skills vary, but you can’t knock people doing their best given such a demanding challenge.

Photo by John Lamb.

Choreographer Mike Hodges worked the moves out with Degitz-Fries, and he created the bouncy musical group numbers so that it accurately resembles late ‘70s, early ‘80s dance-floor action: “I’m Alive,” “Magic,” and “All Over the World,” with a grand “Xanadu” are bright spots.

A mash-up scene that attempts to duplicate the movie’s “Battle of the Bands” between The Tubes, which was a rock band then (you may recall their 1983 “She’s a Beauty”), and an Andrews Sisters type girl-group circa World War II. Called “Dancin’,” it is a tad messy, and the ill-fitting costumes hamper the girl duo in their movements because of the clingy fabric. Cute little hats, nevertheless.

Costume designer Colleen Michelson’s dresses are mostly distracting and unflattering. Overall, the muses’ cheap-looking chiffon outfits don’t seem suitable, with tacky designs and shoddy material – unless it’s done on purpose? Are they meant to be versions of flimsy Johnny Brock Halloween costumes for quirky ‘80s looks? Costumers must adhere to budgets, but to me, the styles are a disconnect for the female characters. Now the Mount Olympus white gowns are fine, and the guys’ attire is, too.

Music director Leah Schultz and her zesty band keep the beat peppy – Adam Rugo on guitar, Randon Lane on second keyboard, and Joe Winters on percussion. They have added some amusing riffs, too.

Leveling is strong leading the power ballad “Don’t Walk Away” that ends Act I on a good note, while the finale “Xanadu” gets the crowd on their feet.

Campbell set the right tone for Newton-John’s signature 1975 hit “Have You Never Been Mellow” that was added to the stage musical and winds up a memorable ensemble piece.

Photo by John Lamb.

ELO’s Jeff Lynne is credited with music numbers, as is John Farrar, Newton-John’s longtime producer. Their work propelled the soundtrack to skyrocketing sales that ended that year with twice-platinum numbers.

Director Been also simply constructed the set so that movement could flow on the small stage, and it was illuminated well by lighting designer Tyler Duenow.

Because of its lightweight goofy premise that can only be stretched so far, one’s relieved when the wrap-up comes around 2 hours (with an intermission). Pacing is uneven at times, and the show can get a little shaggy. The meaning of this falderal? “Xanadu” is “true love and the ability to create and share art.”

The film came out at a time when everyone had been trying to duplicate the magic of “Saturday Night Fever” and disco, so hot for a brief time, was waning. And the stage musical came out at a time that jukebox musicals were emerging as a trend, such as “Mamma Mia!” and the retro “Hairspray.” Ah, that elusive “Next Big Thing.”

This production of “Xanadu” is well-meaning fluff, with entertaining tongue-in-cheek performances, so don’t expect more – just go with the good vibes coming from kitschy pop culture.

“Xanadu” is going to hit people differently, depending on when and how this tale came into their lives – whether they were young listening to the soundtrack on their Walkman, or today, enjoying a sentimental walk down memory lane.

Photo by John Lamb.

Stray Dog Theatre presents “Xanadu” from April 4 to April 27, Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., with Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. April 14 and April 21 at the Tower Grove Abbey, 2348 Tennessee Ave, St. Louis, MO 63104/ For tickets or more information, visit www.straydogtheatre.org

By Lynn Venhaus

In the words of Roy Hobbs, “God, I love baseball.”

Now that the season has started and the Cardinals home opener is April 4, I’m ready to dig into the always and forever America’s pastime. And we’re returning to Movie List Monday (no fooling!). Through the years, I may have changed the rank of these favorites, but they embody everything I love about movies and my favorite sport. They are timeless. And I am unabashedly sentimental.

I grew up in a family of jocks, and the sounds of baseball are part of the soundtrack of my childhood. One of my uncles played in “The Show” for a few years. My first MLB game was at Comiskey Park in Chicago on May 15, 1962, when my dad’s brother, Marion “Bud” Zipfel, was on the Washington Senators. His parents, his brother (my dad) and his twin sister (my aunt), and I drove up in the wee hours of the morning. I was 7 years old, and even though the Senators lost to the White Sox 4-3, I was entranced by all the hoopla – the exploding scoreboard!

So those warm summer nights listening to Harry Caray and Jack Buck on the radio on our screened-in porch were as much a part of the ’60s as riding bikes. listening to Beatles records and reading Nancy Drew. My brothers Mike and Matt always had gloves and bats in their hands. We’d call for them to come home for dinner after spending their afternoons on our neighborhood sandlot — Brennan’s empty lot a street over.

Matt was a gifted athlete, and was a fierce catcher. He played for Belleville West High School, American Legion and went on to Western Illinois University, but later transferred to Southern Illinois University Edwardsville and played for the Cougars, then was a catcher in the Mon-Clair League, for the Belleville Buds.. He was a teacher and coach for 35 years until his untimely death from a terminal illness in 2019. We scattered some of his ashes on the home field of his youth.(Frame of reference: think Bill Murray in “Meatballs.” That was Matthew John Zipfel.)

Being part of Cardinal Nation means we have shared experiences, and we can talk about Pujols’ crushed clutch home run against Houston in the 2005 National League playoffs, Jack Clark’s walk-off three-run homer against the Dodgers in 1985, Ozzie’s flip every home opener, Gibby’s record-breaking 17 strikeouts against Detroit in 1968 (we watched the game in P.E. class!) and the two strikes away in 2011.

I have so many fond memories of watching the Cardinals in the World Series during the ’60s, ’80s, 2000s and beyond, with Game 6 in 2011 the all-time greatest victory in my lifetime. We are instantly bonded by talking about those experiences — even with strangers at the grocery store.

Visiting stadiums has been another favorite activity — there is nothing like a Cardinals vs. Cubs match in Wrigley Field, but I’ve been fortunate to see the Green Monster at Fenway, the fountains at the KC Royals, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Texas Rangers, and more. The rituals of baseball have been part of my family all our lives: “Here Comes the King!”

As a film buff, any baseball movie would be must-see viewing, but what makes it special? Is it the combination of drama and comedy in the challenges, the classic characters — underdogs, heroes and villains, and high-stakes triumph and misfortune that draw us all in? What makes the leap to a fan-favorite that you can watch again and again? I have lost count of how many times I’ve watched my favorites. And how many times friends and family quote these movies.

On a Saturday night in April 1989, I remember how seeing how transfixed the audience was by “Field of Dreams.” Nobody knew much about it, and here was Kevin Costner, becoming the “It” actor after “Bull Durham” a year earlier and “The Untouchables” in 1987, playing an Iowa farmer. Sportswriters I knew had talked about the book “Shoeless Joe” by W.P. Kinsella, and that was my only frame of reference. What a magical experience — we left the cinema with a spring in our step, knowing that we had seen something special. And now it’s part of our culture.

And leads to shedding tears — the father and son catch scene in “Field of Dreams’ gets me misty-eyed every time. (and well, when MLB played in Dyersville, Iowa, for real, emotions ran high). There may be no crying in baseball, but I certainly have reached for a tissue a time or two when watching baseball movies.

For every smart “Moneyball,” there are less than stellar attempts (“Mr. Baseball,” “Million Dollar Arm”), and for every heartwarming “The Sandlot,” there are pale imitations. I wish they were all winners, but it’s hard to achieve that special mix of relatable comedy/drama and action..

Two films on my list did not have a theatrical release, “61*” was an HBO original, and far superior than many traditional studio films — it is a masterpiece, and directed by Billy Crystal. “Long Gone Summer” was on ESPN in 2020, directed by Edwardsville, Ill.’s outstanding documentarian A J Schnack. He gets it, he lived it too.

I’ve whittled down a long list to 20 favorites, with streaming information. What are some of yours?

Kevin Costner, Gaby Hoffman, Burt Lancaster.


1. Field of Dreams (1989) – OK, John Delaney’s riff on nonsensical sequences in the movie at this year’s Oscars was very funny. Yet, I defy anyone to listen to Major League Baseball players recite James Earl Jones’ monologue about “people will come, Ray” as they did for the opening of the 2015 season and not be moved.

It’s tradition, it’s generational, it’s spiritual. “It reminds us of all that once was good…and it could be again.”
It was nominated for three Oscars, including Best Picture, Phil Alden Robinson’s screenplay and James Horner’s unforgettable music score.

It evokes so many different emotions and is very personal to many moviegoers, and let’s leave it at that. But what a great turn as Moonlight Graham by Frank Whaley and Burt Lancaster, and Ray Liotta is marvelously nuanced as maligned Shoeless Joe.

Currently streaming on Amazon Prime and Starz. Available to rent on various platforms.

Robert Redford

2. The Natural (1984) – Ah, the mythology. Cue up Randy Newman’s iconic Oscar-nominated score. Zero in on the bat named “Wonderboy” and be in awe of Caleb Deschanel’s cinematography.

The unforgettable story of Roy Hobbs, “the best there ever was,” a middle-age ballplayer whose mysterious past has blocked his clear career path to baseball greatness. Yet, he persists. Barry Levinson’s adaptation of Bernard Malamud’s bleaker novel has a terrific heavyweight cast led by Robert Redford , including Wilford Brimley as Pop Fisher, Robert Duvall as Max Mercy, Kim Basinger as Memo Paris, Richard Farnsworth as Red Blow, Barbara Hershey, as Harriet Bird, Robert Prosky as the Judge, Darren McGavin as Gus Sands,. Joe Don Baker as The Whammer, and Oscar-nominated Glenn Close as Iris Gaines, his childhood sweetheart.

When seeing a great baseball moment, I often feel like the giddy batboy, when the lights are sending sparks all over the field.
Currently streaming on Starz, but you can rent it on various video platforms.

Barry Pepper and Thomas Jaynes in “61*.

3. 61* (2001) – In 1927, Babe Ruth crushed 60 home runs. In the summer of 1961, two very different Yankees pursued the same record — Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle. This drama, directed by mega-fan Billy Crystal, gets everything right. And after Mark McGwire broke that record in 1998, this puts that achievement in perspective. We know what happens, but like “Air,” it is the disclosing all the personal tidbits that makes it so compelling. Barry Pepper’s never been better as Maris.

Currently streaming on Max and available to rent on various platforms.

Oscar nominees Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill.

4. Moneyball (2011) – Sabermetrics — literally a game-changer in Major League Baseball. Filmmakers took Michael Lewis’s book and made a funny, intelligent underdog story that was nominated for six Oscars, including Best Picture, Adapted Screenplay (Aaron Sorkin and Steve Zaillian, story by Stan Chervin), Actor (Brad Pitt), Supporting Actor (Jonah Hill), Editing and Sound Mixing. Stats are a big part of sports, but the engaging story of Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane’s attempt to put together a team with the lowest budget in the league is full of star charisma. Beane uses computer-generated analysis to draft players. Dare I say this film hits it out of the park? What a strong supporting cast too – Philip Seymour Hoffman as Art Howe and Chris Pratt as a young player are my favorites in a very colorful cast.

Currently streaming on Netflix and AMC+ and is available to rent on various platforms.


5. The Sandlot (1993) – Benny the Jet, Ham, Smalls, Yeah Yeah…you know them, you love them. “The Sandlot” rode to immortality on its word of month as a blast of nostalgia for anyone who played ball as a kid. This is the movie that gave us “You’re killing me, Smalls!” and continues to evoke universal warm feelings. When Smalls (Thomas Guiry) moves into a new neighborhood, he joins a group of kids to play ball with — and their antics are the stuff of summers long ago. There is a keepsake ball, a dog called “The Beast” and more in this delightful comedy that came out on April 1, 1993, and continues to elicit big grins to this day.

Currently streaming on Disney Plus

Gary Cooper as Lou Gehrig.

6. The Pride of the Yankees (1942) – Gary Cooper is the iconic Lou Gehrig in this classic that even has Babe Ruth playing Babe Ruth! Nominated for 11 Oscars, including Best Picture and actor, it won one – for editing. This tear-jerking film traces the private life and the public heroics of the “Iron Man” who played in 2,130 consecutive games before losing his battle with the nerve disease ALS. There isn’t a dry eye when Cooper gives the famous “Luckiest Man” speech at his farewell day in 1939.

Currently streaming on Amazon Prime and Peacock, and is available for rent on various platforms.

7. Eight Men Out (1988) – Writer-director John Sayles smartly delves into the worst scandal in baseball history, when seven players on the Chicago White Sox, distressed by their owner Charles Comiskey’s cheap wages, agree to throw the 1919 World Series for a group of professional gamblers. Forever known as “The Black Sox Scandal,” the backstory is complicated, and adapted from Eliot Asinof’s 1963 book.

A strong cast gives these ruined real-life characters emotional heft, including D. B. Sweeney as Shoeless Joe Jackson, John Cusack as Buck Weaver, David Strathairn as Eddie Cicotte, James Read as Lefty Williams, Charlie Sheen as Hap Flesch, Gordon Clapp as Ray Schalk, Michael Rooker as Chick Gandil, John Mahoney as Kid Gleason, Bill Irwin as Eddie Collins, and Don Harvey as Swede Risberg.

Currently streaming on MGM Plus and Roku channel and available for rent on various platforms.

Kevin Costner, center, with Robert Wuhl at left and Tim Robbins at right.

8. Bull Durham (1988) – In retrospect, a darn fine script by Ron Shelton nails the idiosyncrasies and nomadic lives of players. Shelton, who also directed, was nominated for an Oscar for his screenplay.

It’s a love triangle set against the backdrop of a minor league town. Poetry-loving Annie Savoy (Susan Sarandon) chooses one player from the Durham Bulls to take under her ‘wings’ each season, Her choices are narrowed down to Ebby LaLoush, an eccentric pitcher that she nicknames “Nuke,” and 12-year-veteran Crash Davis, a catcher — with Tim Robbins and Kevin Costner in those parts that cemented their place in baseball lore.

Currently streaming on Amazon Prime and available to rent on various platforms.

Yogi Berra

9. It Ain’t Over (2023) – Friends, family, broadcasters, and former players tell the story of Lawrence Peter “Yogi” Berra (1925-2015), the beloved St. Louis-born baseball legend who became famous for his funny proverbs and all-star career. This lovingly crafted documentary about one of our hometown heroes gives Yogi his due as not only a baseball great but colorful personality and family man who served our country valiantly in World War II.

Best known today for his sayings, like “It ain’t over till it’s over” and “It’s like déjà vu all over again,” now dubbed “Yogi-isms,” the movie showcases his popularity for philosophical nuggets as well as his easy-going demeanor. But his catching days are often overshadowed by those proverbs that became national catch phrases. He had a Hall of Fame career during the golden era of baseball in New York, playing for the Yankees from 1946 to 1963. The film’s meticulous details illustrate what a remarkable life he led.

Currently streaming on Netflix and available for rental on various platforms.

Tom Hanks and Geena Davis.

10. A League of their Own (1992) – A little known story, at the time of release, expertly transformed into a warm and wonderful comedy by director Penny Marshall. Before he won two Oscars, Tom Hanks was hilarious as a washed-up manager Jimmy Dugan who must mold the Rockford Peaches into contenders in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, which played during World War II. The rest of the cast is stellar: Geena Davis and Lori Petty are the dueling sisters, Madonna’s in center field and Rosie O’Donnell is on third. All together now: “There’s no crying in baseball!”

Currently streaming on Peacock and AMC+ and available to rent on various platforms.

Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire summer of 1998.

11. Long Gone Summer (2020) – A fine documentary on the Big Mac- Slammin’ Sammy mania takes you right back to the moments 26 years ago, a time-capsule of one of the most memorable seasons in the history of baseball, when St. Louis Cardinals’ Mark McGwire and the Cubs’ Sammy Sosa chased Roger Maris’ single-season home-run record of 61. The timing was right — it was four years after the 1994 strike, bringing fans back to the game with a lot of excitement and drama.

And then 15 years later, those feelings would be tarnished with the steroid-use revelations, and the film addresses the aftermath. The Congressional hearings took place in 2005, when the House Government Reform Committee looked into the allegations of steroid use in Major League Baseball and the adequacy of the league’s response. McGwire would admit to steroid use in 2010, claiming it was for injuries and he would have still hit the home runs. It was around the time he was hired as a hitting coach with the Cards. Sosa has always denied it.

Edwardsville’s own A.J. Schnack skillfully directed, and the noteworthy music score is by Belleville native Jeff Tweedy, of “Wilco” fame. It’s a gem, and was originally on ESPN’s “30 for 30.”

Currently streaming on Disney +.

Kansas City Monarchs pitching great Leroy Satchel Paige warms up at New York’s Yankee Stadium August 2, 1942 for a Negro League game between the Monarchs and the New York Cuban Stars. Paige was considered a top prospect for the major leagues after baseball’s commissioner ruled that there were no provisions barring players of color from the majors. (AP Photo/Matty Zimmerman)

12. The League (2023) – Not to be confused with the long-running TV show, “The League,” this is a documentary on the triumphs and challenges of the Negro League and how it not only changed baseball but America, too. Some of the greatest players — Jackie Robinson, Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Satchel Paige and Cool Papa Bell got their start in the league before MLB integrated.

Directed by Sam Pollard, who was nominated for an Oscar along with Spike Lee for “Four Little Girls,” and made the compelling docs “Mr. Soul!” and “MLK/FBI.” He has thoughtfully crafted together archival footage and interviews with legendary players as well as scholars who put perspective on this part of baseball history.

Currently streaming on Hulu and available for rent on various platforms.

Tom Berenger and Charlie Sheen

13. Major League (1989) – Writer-Director David S. Ward, who won an Oscar for “The Sting” screenplay, crafted an entertaining — OK predictable, script. But the humor lands — my two sons quoted it all the time — and you betcha it’s silly. The plot is that the new owner of the Cleveland Indians wants to field a bad team so she can move them to Miami but three washed-up players help an astounding turn-around against all odds.

The tagline was: “When these three oddballs try to play hardball, the result is totally screwball” and this cast delivers — especially Wesley Snipes as Willie Mays Hayes, Tom Berenger, as Jake Taylor, Dennis Haysbert as Pedro Cerrano, Corbin Bernsen as Roger Dorn, Charlie Sheen as Ricky Vaughn , James Gammon as manager Lou Brown and Bob Uecker as Harry Doyle bring a lot of oomph to their roles.

Currently streaming on Max and available for rental on other platforms.

14. 42 (2013) – Chadwick Boseman made a strong impression as courageous Jackie Robinson in this inspiring biopic that chronicles the legend’s battle to break the racial barrier in baseball. In 1946. Brooklyn Dodgers owner Branch Rickey recruited Robinson to be the first black Major Leaguer, which became a challenge because of racism from hostile players and fans, but he finds support as well. Writer-director Brian Helgeland, who won an Oscar for the screenplay of “L.A. Confidential” and was nominated for “Mystic River,” blends dramatic tension, romance and tight baseball action in a traditional style. Robinson, who died of a heart attack at age 53 in 1972, was a private person, so the movie doesn’t jazz up things to make it more flamboyant. The strong cast standouts include Harrison Ford as Rickey, and Lucas Black as teammate Pee Wee Reese.

In 1997, baseball commissioner Bud Selig retired Jackie’s number 42, and allowed those who already had it to still use it, but as of 2014, no player will ever have it again.

15. Bad News Bears (1976) – The 2005 remake can’t hold a candle to the original — even though through a modern lens, it’s wrong on so many levels. Yet, 97% approval on Rotten Tomatoes because a team of misfits prevails.. In its day, it was laugh-out-loud funny. I mean, Walter Matthau as Morris Buttermaker, a failed minor league hopeful as a grumpy Little League coach and Tatum O’Neal as pitching phenom Amanda Whurlitzer, her follow-up to her Oscar-winning performance in “Paper Moon.” A classic rag-tag team of scrappy underdogs will always be a fun watch.

Currently streaming on Showtime and available to rent on various platforms.

Billy Dee Williams, James Earl Jones, Richard Pryor.

16. The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings (1976) – A sports comedy about a star of the Negro Baseball League Bingo Long who leaves his team and convinces other stars to join him as free agent players touring the towns of the Midwest. Directed by John Badham, who would direct “Saturday Night Fever” the next year. What a fabulous cast! Headed by Billy Dee Williams as the pitcher BIngo Long, James Earl Jones as catcher Leon Carter, and Richard Pryor as right-fielder Charlie Snow.

Currently streaming on Starz and available for rental on various platforms.

Dennis Quaid and Angus T. Jones.

17. The Rookie (2002) – Dennis Quaid plays Jimmy Morris, the real-life Texas chemistry teacher and baseball coach who makes the major leagues at 35 and plays two years for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. He agreed to try out if his high school team made the playoffs. It’s a crowd-pleaser directed by John Lee Hancock, who directed “The Blind Side,” and knows how to craft appealing family-friendly stories.

Playing his family are Rachel Griffiths as his wife, Angus T. Jones as his son and Brian Cox as his dad. A great example of not letting your dreams die.

Currently streaming on Disney + and available to rent on various platforms.

Rory Culkin and Trevor Morgan.

18. Chasing 3000 (2010) – Ray Liotta liked the script and joined the cast as the adult Mickey, so he narrates and also bookends the movie. It’s a sincere, heart-tugging tale of two brothers who idolized their childhood hero Roberto Clemente. After moving away from their beloved Pittsburgh, they embark on a road trip to see Clemente try to get his 3,000 hit the summer of 1972, and that turns into quite an adventure.

Writers Bill Mikita (his story), Cris D’Annunzio and director Gregory J. Lanesey capture that love of baseball, community and family ties, and yes, hits all those familiar beats, but there’s just something about its earnestness that draws us in to this true story. Those of us geezers who like to talk about the great players we’ve seen ion the field know how special Clemente was — and there is a reason MLB gives an annual award honoring the life of “The Great One.” Trevor Morgan is the elder brother, Mickey, a ballplayer, and Rory Culkin plays his brother Roger, who has muscular dystrophy. Their mom is played by Lauren Holly and Seymour Cassel is in the role of Poppy, their grandpa.

Come for the brother bonding and hero worship, stay for the late great character actor M. Emmet Walsh’s turn as a guy who helps them out — he has a Stan “the Man” story, too. Sometimes, a feel-good throwback to the ’70s hits the sweet spot. And don’t forget to have tissues close by.

Currently streaming on Peacock and available for rent on various platforms.

Blake Jenner plays Jake, Glen Powell plays Finnegan, Temple Baker plays Plummer and Forrest Vickery plays Coma.

19. Everybody Wants Some!! (2016) – Writer-Director Richard Linklater’s free-wheeling blast-from-the-past comedy gives us a slice-of-life look at college baseball players in 1980. It’s very specific to a time and a place, and it reminded me so much of my youngest brother, who played college baseball, and youngest sister, who played college volleyball (see reference above to growing up in family of jocks), who were of that era. It may meander, but Linklater’s a master at creating vivid characters and believable dialogue. Tyler Hoechlin, Blake Jenner and Ryan Guzman lead a young cast that also includes up-and-comers Glen Powell, Wyatt Russell and Zoey Deutch.

It is only available to rent on various platforms.

20. It Happens Every Spring (1949) – Admittingly, I haven’t seen this since my youth, but I recall how much my family loved this movie. Having St. Louis as the team doesn’t hurt! A college chemistry professor (Ray Milland) discovers a formula that makes a baseball repelled by wood. He tries out for the St. Louis Cardinals, and his screwball becomes his big-league ticket. Jean Peters plays his girlfriend and Paul Douglas is fun to watch as a teammate.

It is available to rent on various platforms.

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By Lynn Venhaus

Heartwarming and heartbreaking, “Molly Sweeney” lingers.

Albion Theatre’s intriguing first foray into producing an Irish play is a poignant mix of comedy and drama that prompts further reflection.

Three engaging performers, all delivering memory monologues without interaction, warmly relay their perspectives in an intimate setting that becomes quite special.

A master storyteller, playwright Brian Friel (1929-2015) followed in the grand Irish tradition of entertaining people through emotional connection. Considered one of the best modern dramatists, he published 24 plays, including “Philadelphia, Here I Come,” “Translations” and “Dancing at Lughnasa.”

In this thoughtful 1994 work, he intertwined hope and despair, fantasy and reality, and fate and destiny. He based his title character on a true story brought to light by famous neurologist Oliver Sacks, in an essay “To See and Not See,” later published in “An Anthropologist on Mars.”

The nearly unsinkable Molly is inspired by an Oklahoma man who had been functionally blind his whole life and underwent a rare operation to partially restore his sight, at the urging of his fiancé, in 1991. While initially the surgery was a success, the consequences were something else entirely.

In splendid lyrical prose, Friel weaves the frames of mind of three distinctive characters, whose meditations on their life choices are at once universal and specific – the highs and lows, the ups and downs, the triumphs, and the losses. This cast grabs our attention by pulling our heartstrings hard.

Molly (Maggie Wininger), 41, has been blind since she was 10 months old. An optimist despite her affliction, she takes delight in the simple pleasures of her life in Ballybeg, a fictional Irish town. She talks about her friends and neighbors with great affection, and is married to spirited Frank (CJ Langdon), who finds joy and wonder in nearly everything.

He persuades Molly, along with an eye surgeon, Mr. Rice (Paul Gutting), to go through an operation that may restore her sight. He thinks she’ll be complete. After all, what does she have to lose? (oh, in hindsight…).

Langdon, Wininger and Gutting. Photo by John Lamb

A radiant Wininger imbues Molly with cheer and charm. She’s realistic about the condition she lives with, daring not to dream of happiness ever after.

As their travails unfold, the trio spurs thoughts about how we perceive our place in the world, how we affect people and how we are affected by others during our lifetime learning processes.

C.J. Langdon, a newcomer to St. Louis, is impressive in his regional professional debut. As Frank, a tad off the wall, he’s enthusiastic in his outlook on life and dearly loves his wife, although he’s not as accomplished as others. His heart is pure, like Molly’s, and he is very funny.

Mr. Rice, the surgeon, has had more hard knocks than he wants people to know about, but his telltale sign of trouble is the copious amounts of whiskey he consumes. A once promising doctor, a tough betrayal sent him reeling, and he’s a shadow of his former self. But somehow, he pulled it together to give Molly back her sight. Will it restore his career?

Returning to the stage after 15 years’ absence, Gutting is a strong force, conveying his character’s success and failures in measured tones, and the regret is palpable.

The beauty of a black-box stage is how we can witness these deeply felt performances up close, and the attentive actors put their personal stamp on them.

Robert Ashton has superbly cast and directed this show, welcoming a shining Wininger back on stage after a real-life break to become a mother of two while introducing a fresh young talent in Langdon and heralding an admirable comeback by Gutting.

All three are marvelously in sync as they subtly shift tones, veering from elation and exuberance to deflated and melancholy.

Sadly, this trajectory reveals how Molly’s inherent gaiety about her independent life that Wininger beautifully embodies at first will seep away as she wrestles with all the expectations that sight has done to her psyche  – and how she was influenced by these two well-meaning men (they have their own dreams about being heroes).

Wininger bends her whole body to show us how Molly has used touch, smells, sounds and her own adaptations to live productively. It’s a noteworthy expressive performance physically besides nailing an appealing regional accent and captivating us with her tales.

In Friel’s examination of their lives, he raises questions about our quests for improvement at others’ expense if we’re comfortable with our life — perhaps we should be content with the cards we’re dealt. We should think about what we want, and not base decisions to please others, and maybe those urging us to change should step back.

The observations are sharply in focus in Albion’s finely put together work. An expert team behind the scenes – Gwynneth Rausch as assistant director and stage manager, Erik Kuhn’s effective minimalist set design, Eric Wennlund’s astute lighting design and Ashton’s precise sound design – keep attention on the characters.

Costume designer Tracey Newcomb dressed them in comfy attire appropriate to their social place – an attractive print dress for Molly, casual sweater for Frank, and then jacket and corduroys for the doctor.

Albion always spotlights music reflecting their shows’ culture, and their pre-show and intermission pieces are written by Turlough O’Carolan, an 18th century blind harpist, composer, and singer that some consider Ireland’s national composer.

It suits the presentation well, just like everything assembled for this stirring piece.

First performed in Dublin, “Molly Sweeney” arrived in America in 1996 for an off-Broadway production by Roundabout Theatre starring Catherine Byrne as Molly, Alfred Molina as Frank, and Jason Robards as Mr. Rice. That show won the Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Play. A revival happened in 2013 in west London, then the Irish Repertory Theatre performed it on screen in 2020.

Albion’s smart choice allows us to delve into Friel’s discerning sensibilities and vivid characters passionately refreshed by Wininger, Langdon and Gutting. The narrative is as indelible as the actors.

I appreciated their eloquent interpretations very much, introducing me to a play I was unfamiliar with, and now will not forget.  

Albion Theatre presents “Molly Sweeney” March 15 through March 31 at the Kranzberg Black Box Theatre, 501 N. Grand Blvd, St. Louis, MO 63103. For more details on tickets and times, go to Albion Theatre: https://albiontheatrestl.org/tickets/

Photo by John Lamb

By Lynn Venhaus

Inspiring and empowering, “Cabrini” is a remarkable portrait of the saintly frail and fearless nun who lived the virtues of faith, hope and charity every day, and made a huge difference in the world.

Francesca Cabrini believed that “one gesture of love can change everything,” and was driven to make life better for others. She arrived in New York City in 1889, accompanied by five nuns from the order she founded, Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, in 1880, in Lombardy, Italy.

Surrounded by disease, crime, squalor, and impoverished orphaned children, she set off on a daring mission to convince the hostile mayor (John Lithgow) to secure housing and healthcare for fellow immigrants. By using her entrepreneurial skills, she built a lasting empire of hope, despite obstacles and chronic ill health.

Frances Xavier Cabrini was canonized as the first U.S. citizen to become a saint in 1946 and is the patron saint of immigrants. She wouldn’t take no for an answer, helping to transform the squalid Five Points neighborhood in lower Manhattan into a safe refuge for abandoned children among the ‘huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” (Emma Lazarus, Statue of Liberty 1883).

The touching film, produced by the faith-based Angel Studios, is directed by Alejandro Monteverde, who was responsible for last summer’s “Sound of Freedom,” which is now among the highest grossing independent movies of all time.

Monteverde has illuminated Cabrini’s good deeds while overcoming adversity, clashing with the powers-at-be, and achieving goals against all odds. Some of the conflicts are very melodramatic, such as a violent pimp’s rage against helping the nuns and his vicious assaults on one of his prostitutes,. Vittoria (Romana Maggiora Vergano). She becomes a valuable part of the sisterhood. (Sadly, though, the other nuns are not given much time to showcase their development.)

While the local priest, Father Morelli (Giampiero Judica), was unsympathetic, Cabrini gained allies in an altruistic Dr. Murphy (Patch Darragh) and compassionate journalist Theodore Calloway (Jeremy Bobb) at the New York Times, whose hard-hitting expose that ‘rats live better than children’ opened others’ eyes. A fierce advocate, he continued to document her efforts to build an empire of hope.

As the entrepreneurial-minded Cabrini, a captivating Cristiana Dell’Anna conveys her strength. conviction and unwavering devotion, and is a considerable presence on screen. 

Tiny but mighty, she cuts an imposing figure in her black cape and veil – almost as if she was a superhero, not unlike Gotham City’s caped crusader, The Dark Knight.

Photo by Angel Studios

In taking on the political patriarchy and the Catholic Church male-dominated hierarchy, she called them out for their ethnic and gender discrimination. Most of those actors come across as cardboard villains, in the mold of dastardly cartoonish Snidely Whiplash. 

However, the filmmakers cast John Lithgow as the xenophobic mob-boss type mayor who favored the elite over the downtrodden “wretched refuse,” so he is a credible character, if over the top.

Veteran actor David Morse plays Corrigan, an Irish archbishop who doesn’t want to rock the boat, kowtowing to the influential mayor, and Oscar-nominated Giancarlo Giannini plays Pope Leo XIII, who was entranced by Cabrini’s gumption, but fretted that her ambitions were too grand.

Her mantra was always “we are bold — or we die,” and the dialogue reflects her zeal.

With a clear-cut confrontational agenda, screenwriter Rod Barr crafted exchanges such as this:
Mayor Gould: “It’s a shame that you’re a woman, Mother. You would have made an excellent man.”
Cabrini: “Oh no, Mr. Mayor, men could never do what we do.”

Illustrating how tenacious she was in her dedication, helping others who were dismissed, disregarded, disrespected and dehumanized to have their dignity restored, is an uplifting and timely message for today.

Two months premature at birth, she was in poor health for most of her life. After a dire diagnosis in her 30s that she likely only had three years to live, she managed to defy death until age 67 in Chicago in 1917. During her lifetime, she helped build 67 orphanages, schools and hospitals, and her order has gone on to build hundreds more across the world.

It’s an incredible legacy brought vibrantly to life. The studio’s production values seem to get stronger with every film: Carlos Lagunas’ sweeping scenic design contrasts the opulent :gilded age with the immigrants’ slums, and costume designer Alisha Silverstein modestly created the class divisions in the outfits as well.

Cinematographer Gorka Gómez Andreu framed scenes in mostly dark and light contrasts, using sepia tones for large group scenes. Notable was that he presented the19th century hallowed halls of civic buildings, churches, the Vatican, and stately mansions in such a towering way to make them dramatic cinematically as a small figure enters them, clad all in black, determined to turn ‘no’s’ into ‘yesses.’

The music score by Gene Back is grandiose, and over the credits, Andrea Bocelli sings “Dare to Be” with his young daughter Virginia, which Back co-wrote. As a character, Mexican opera tenor Rolando Villazon shows up as Enrico DiSalvo.

Monteverde could have been tighter — the film runs 2 hours, 22 minutes, and more judicious with the repeated scenes of her near-drowning as a child, but mostly, he zeroed in on Mother Cabrini’s courage and character for maximum effect

We are left with her words ringing in our ears: “What kind of world do we want, and what will we do to achieve it?”

“Cabrini” is a 2024 biographical drama directed by Alejandro Monteverde and starring Cristiana Dell’Anna, John Lithgow, David Morse, Giancarlo Giannini, Jeremy Bobb and Romana Maggiora Vergano. It is rated PG-13 for thematic material, some violence, language and smoking .and runs 2 hours, 22 minutes. It opened in local theatres in March. Lynn’s Grade: B.

By Lynn Venhaus

Why does contemplating personal accountability and public responsibility remain a potent topic these days?

Questions to ask ourselves, and the debate is put under a microscope in an outstanding example — New Jewish Theatre’s piercing, emotionally devastating production of “All My Sons.”

The illusions we live with – about families, neighbors, and success – results in an acting master class and impeccable direction.

A fascinating drama that showcases one of playwright Arthur Miller’s most explosive commentaries on the American Dream, director Gary Wayne Barker carefully calibrates the intensity while slowly peeling back the layers of gripping moral dilemmas.

In an ensemble full of revelatory performances, each actor brings fresh interpretations to a family – and their friends – unraveling because of secrets and lies. As we have discovered throughout history, it’s the cover-up that is so damaging – and with ripple effects because of an egregious swindle.

Seventy-seven years ago, “All My Sons” debuted on Broadway, and in many ways, is still relevant today. It was Miller’s first commercial hit and paved the way for his other epic commentaries on capitalism, American ‘exceptionalism,’ tangled loyalties, and the price for self-delusion, appearances, and power: “Death of a Salesman” in 1949, “A View from the Bridge” in 1955 and “The Price” in 1961, among them.

Miller based this on a true story, after reading a newspaper article about a similar incident.

Lintvedt, Johnston, Heil and Loui. Photo by Jon Gitchoff.

He has created vivid characters that live in an all-American neighborhood in an Ohio town in the late 1940s, where the locals would like you to believe that they’re living the high life in a setting not unlike a Norman Rockwell illustration.

And scenic designer C. Otis Sweezey was inspired by those popular Saturday Evening Post depictions of post-war prosperity.

The Kellers have been affected by World War II in several ways – their two sons, Chris and Larry served, but Chris (Jayson Heil) came home and works in the family-run munitions factory while Larry did not – he’s been missing in action for more than three years, and everyone but his mother Kate (Amy Loui) has given up on the likelihood that he is alive.

But more than that, military contracts were part of the family business, and selling defective parts has had serious repercussions.

Joe Keller (Greg Johnston) made a careless decision that came to light after faulty aircraft equipment was shipped overseas, resulting in 21 pilots’ deaths.

This misdeed, which he has rationalized and created an alternate reality about, sent his neighbor and partner Steve Deever to prison, while Joe was falsely exonerated, and his sentence commuted.

Still suppressing the secret that has upended their lives and torn apart the people around them, the Kellers are forced to deal with consequences. And a storm is coming, in that carefully cultivated backyard of theirs.

Rarely has a World War II story focused so harshly on disenchantment amidst the winning rah-rah attitude afterwards as incisive as Miller’s play.

Confronting their greed and delving into those expectations that wreak havoc in ordinary lives, supplies the actors with richly textured material.

Johnston, outstanding in last year’s “Uncle Vanya” at St. Louis Actors’ Studio and “The Nerd” at Moonstone Theatre Company (also directed by Barker), has never been better as the patriarch who rules with an iron fist.

In his big booming voice, Johnston, as Joe, boasts about reclaiming his life, thinking that nothing has changed, but everything has, and denial is his tragic flaw.

His son Chris is racked with guilt, and has invited his brother’s girlfriend, Ann Deever (Kristen Joy Lintvedt), to stay at their house. They’ve reconnected and fallen in love, keeping it hidden from his parents. Now, he’s ready to pop the question.

But it’s complicated. Not only was she Larry’s sweetheart, but Ann is the daughter of Joe’s business partner whom he blamed for shipping defective cylinder heads. Ann has not visited her father since he began his prison sentence and believes in his guilt.

Photo by Jon Gitchoff

While Joe was focused on making money and providing for his family, he basically put “America’s sons” in harm’s way through his dishonesty. What is that price worth and what communal responsibility do we have for the greater good?

Joe clings to his power, not believing he put freedom in jeopardy, but the fissures become significant. And this downfall, classic tragedy-style, is meticulously measured by a cast at the top of their game, directed with exceptional precision by Barker.

With a sure hand, Barker brings out the deceptions that everyone in this neighborhood lives with, flush with economic success. It is thoroughly compelling and thought-provoking as he shapes the momentum.

In his perceptive way, Miller delves into moral questions about protecting your family – even though others will be negatively affected, and the nature of being complicit in someone else’s crimes.

Kate, the grief-stricken mother, deludes herself that Larry will return, and finds solace in any reason to continue the fantasy – even astrology that a kind neighbor, Riley Capp as Frank Lubey, works on for her.

A razor-sharp Loui smoothly alternates a quick-silver range of emotions as she won’t admit the obvious and demonstrates how trauma has affected her – nervous and tormented by insomnia, headaches, nightmares. Loui goes beyond the dutiful wife and mother depiction to earn our sympathy – and pity.

Heil conveys Chris’ duty, honor and loyalty in a stunning, powerful performance that builds into an unavoidable catastrophe. Confused and uncertain, he shows both the internal and external struggles in a deeply felt, moving portrait that is a breakthrough role for him.

As the girl next door, Lintvedt is a standout as well. In a smaller but pivotal role, Joel Moses commands attention as Ann’s fuming brother George, a son desperately trying to exonerate his father as the fall guy.

He shows up, seething and full of rage, and stirs up a dark cloud, escalating Miller’s tightly constructed tension. The collateral damage will soon be extensive, and these performers deliver in gut-wrenching fashion.

Zahria Moore and Joshua Mayfield as the Baylisses. Photo by Jon Gitchoff.

The local doctor Jim Bayliss (Joshua Mayfield) is pleasant but growing more cynical in acclimating to social post-war life while his straight-shooting wife Sue (Zahria Moore), a nurse, has claws that come out in more contentious ways.

The cast also includes sunny Summer Baer as cheerful neighbor Lydia Lubey, who stayed there and has three kids, and 10-year-old Shane Rose in his debut as a local youngster, Bert.

 Michele Friedman Siler’s stellar vintage costume design captures the era in comfy casual attire, with George traveling more formally in suit, tie, and hat. Dennis Milam Bensie provided the wig design. Katie Orr’s props match the period as well. Amanda Werre’s sound design is exemplary, and Denisse Chavez’ lighting design provides interesting contrasts.

“All My Sons” grapples with split-second ethical decisions that are life-changing, and this latest New Jewish Theatre production is dramatically impactful and hard-hitting. It should not be missed.

New Jewish Theatre presents “All My Sons” from March 21 to April 7, with performances Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Saturdays at 4 and 8 p.m., and Sundays at 2 p.m. at the J’s Wool Studio Theatre, 2 Millstone Campus Drive, St. Louis, MO 63146. Individual tickets are $27- $58 and are available by phone at 314.442.3283 or online at newjewishtheatre.org.

In line with the difficult themes of war and readjustment to civilian life, the New Jewish Theatre has decided to partner with the Veteran’s Community Project for an exclusive post-show discussion following the March 31 matinee show. After the curtain closes, audience members will have the chance to learn about the work they are doing to provides high quality and well-developed strategic services that enable Veterans to meet the challenges of day-to-day living, resolve immediate crises, and move towards permanent stability.

Photo by Jon Gitchoff.

By Lynn Venhaus

Tracy Letts’ “August: Osage County” retains all its dark edges, biting wit and unflinching truths in a brilliantly acted and thoroughly engrossing interpretation by The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis that enhances its stature as one of the great American plays.

Produced 17 years after its blistering and probing landmark premiere at the Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago in 2007, the Pulitzer Prize and Tony-winning play taps into the raw emotions of a family scorched by addiction and dysfunction.

A brittle mosaic of family dynamics exposes how nearly all have been burned by their white-hot proximity to drug abuse, emotional abuse, alcoholism, unhealthy relationships, and mental health issues.

(I think more people can relate than may admit, but also the play can be triggering for some, so warning, and understandable; there are resources to call listed at the Rep.)

To play these distinctive, damaged characters, this seamless large cast (13!) has developed an admirable rhythm with each other that shows facets of their personalities while revealing their vulnerabilities and coping mechanisms. They are fooling only themselves (and are they that unaware?)

Ellen McLaughlin is Violet Weston. Photo by Jon Gitchoff

Because of Letts’ extraordinary insight into the human condition and his exceptionally nimble dialogue, these are some of the meatiest roles of the new millennium.

“They” always say write what you know, and Letts based this play on his maternal grandparents. Charlie Chaplin once said, “Life is a tragedy when seen in close-up, but a comedy in long shot,” and Letts knows that all too well. He is also a gifted humorist, seeing life from both sides.

A window into his family’s soul, Letts skillfully outlined characters that these well-cast current actors have shaded into fully dimensional people that make us think, feel, and connect – and recoil, disengage from, and are horrified by, too.

The ensemble does not strive for black-and-white definitions, but rather leans towards the more fascinating gray areas, which make their thoughtful, layered performances convincing.

Front and center is the ferocious, drug-addled matriarch Violet, who reminds everyone ‘nothing gets by’ her but is often in such a stupor from popping prescription painkillers that she is most unpleasant to deal with in any meaningful way. Suffering from mouth cancer, she is also a heavy drinker and smoker. Her paranoia and mood swings are alarming, and she often cruelly targets anyone in her radar.

The Westons and Aikens. Photo by Jon Gitchoff

Sometimes, she waits until she can unleash the hurt for maximum effect. Ravaged by her demons, visible are the metaphorical open wounds from an impoverished, abusive childhood that will never heal.

Ellen McLaughlin’s virtuoso performance as this complicated wife, mother, sister, and vicious addict left me in awe. She flawlessly bristles with various degrees of impairment, then rambles or snipes, all in a rural Southwest accent. She’s haunting and unforgettable, among the pantheon of astounding actresses who have graced The Rep’s thrust stage.

The role, in many ways, can be compared to Mary Tyrone in Eugene O’Neill’s magnum opus “Long Day’s Journey into Night,” published posthumously in 1956, which dared to address a matriarch’s addiction and its ripple effect on a family.

The main story is that Violet’s husband, Beverly (Joneal Joplin), an alcoholic poet and former college professor, has gone missing. Their 30-year toxic relationship has resulted in two of their three daughters escaping to live elsewhere –Barbara (Henny Russell) in Colorado and Karen (Yvonne Woods) in Florida. Ivy (Claire Karpen) stayed in their small town but lives on her own.

After several days go by, family members return to the fold, with fireworks ensuing in a large country home outside Pawhuska, Okla., 60 miles northwest of Tulsa. The time period is a hot dusty August 2007.

Henny Russell and Michael James Reed. Photo by Jon Gitchoff

The adult daughters are played by three equally strong actresses, and even if you didn’t know what order they were in, you’d figure it out quickly – Barbara, the controlling eldest can’t keep her own life from falling apart (fight); Ivy, the unfulfilled middle child (froze); and self-absorbed Karen (flight). They are all keeping secrets about their relationships. Their family hierarchy roars here.

Barbara is separated from Bill (Michael James Reed), a college professor whose infidelity has caused a riff, but they are going through the motions in front of the family. They have brought their 14-year-old daughter Jean (Isa Venere) along, and she’s ready to burst out of a cocoon like most teenage girls.

In a mother-daughter chat, Barbara wisely tells Jean: “Thank God we can’t tell the future, or we’d never get out of bed.” It’s just one of Letts’ lines of astute dialogue that the audience responds to, recognizing themselves.

Bill is an ingrained family member, clearly respected by Violet, and considered a rock by others, and Reed straddles that turmoil without losing Bill’s humanity. Tightly wound Russell immediately indicates Barbara’s lifelong pattern of confrontations with her overbearing mother.

Breezing in from Miami, flighty Karen has a new fiancé in tow, thrice-married Steve (Brian Slaten), giving off a vibe as a player — yet Slaten takes his time bringing out his inner creep. Woods, as Karen, appears to not grasp the seriousness of the family’s despair (or is unwilling to do so).

Sean Wiberg and Claire Karpen. Photo by Jon Gitchoff

Introverted Ivy shields her personal life, and Karpen heartbreakingly expresses how disconnected she is from her sisters. Violet is always finding fault with her actions and appearance.

The Aikens arrive, and they are the Westons’ extended family. Hardened Mattie Fae (Astrid Van Wieren) is Violet’s blustery sister, and she’s nagged Charlie (Alan Knoll) over the years. He’s a decent guy who puts up with a lot, valued Beverly’s friendship. Their downtrodden son, Little Charles (Sean Wiberg), incurs Mattie Fae’s ire at every opportunity while Charlie sticks up for his sensitive boy.

Van Wieren and Knoll are remarkably sturdy in their roles, bringing out qualities I hadn’t noticed in three prior productions. Knoll is the lynchpin here, and it’s such a deftly delivered performance, crisp in its comic timing, and gut-wrenching in its ruefulness. Long a veteran actor, this just may be Knoll’s finest hour (or three).

Van Wieren may look familiar if you have seen “Come from Away” on Broadway (or the Apple TV+ filmed production) – she played Beulah starting in 2017. She shows how loudly Mattie Fae’s buttons are pushed, but also why she’s like she is.

The observer here is quiet but smart Johnna (Shyla Lefner), a kind and considerate Native American woman from the Cheyenne tribe, who Beverly hired as a live-in housekeeper. She becomes a steadfast, reliable presence, witness to the never-ending dramas, and intervening only when necessary. Nonjudgmental, she endures Violet’s haughty diatribes and harsh commentary.

Henny Russell and Isa Venere. Photo by Jon Gitchoff.

In the brief role of Sheriff Deon Gilbeau, Barbara’s old high school boyfriend, David Wassilak, makes it his own with clear-eyed compassion.

This cast is so riveting that you do not feel the play’s 3-hour and 20-minute runtime. When the second intermission happened, I thought “already?” That’s how enthralling this show is.

Directed by Amelia Acosta Powell, she understands the agitations and anguish of this family, and brings out the many levels of pain. There is a specific ebb and flow she achieves, and what culminates in the disruptive family dinner post-memorial service is one of the all-time jaw-dropping segments in live theater.

I do have a few quibbles about blocking, particularly building intensity between Barbara and Violet – I prefer a closer proximity to be more effective, but it shows how a family that ignores the elephant in the room will always have it blow up in their faces at some point.

The Americana musical interludes composed by Avi Amon help establish the setting, while Amanda Werre’s smooth and perceptible sound design is her customary top-notch work. At first, lighting designer Xavier Pierce’s work was too dark, but gradually evened out according to the action, and the shadows are an extension of the house’s buried secrets.

Venere, Russell, Reed and Brian Slaten. Photo by Jon Gitchoff.

Scenic Designer Regina Garcia fashioned a large interior, with some exterior nooks, using classic American furniture, but the shingles on a portion of the rooms inside were puzzling (I know, imagery, not literal)..

Sonia Alvarez’s contemporary costume design for casual attire suits the characters and the period, and the mourning outfits are spot-on, especially Violet’s black dress – reflecting what she used to look like before hard living took its toll. Noteworthy is Alison Hora’s wig design too.

Also notable is Michael Pierce’s fight choreography and Rachel Tibbetts’ and Will Bonfiglio’s intimacy coordinator work.

Shakespearean in tone and temperament, but truly an American masterpiece for the 21st century, Letts’ ruminations on life’s passages, aging, blood ties, and identity above all reflect on humanism.

While families can pour their own gasoline on deep-rooted issues without any assistance in real-life (and there are those who don’t see the need to pick at the scabs of their past), this retelling has an energy and an electricity that only the most genuine experiences can achieve, catharsis optional.

Letts has superbly blended the sharp wit of an observational humorous sitcom/stand-up special with the emotional turbulence of lively soap operas to expertly craft a relatable family in crisis.

Gloria Steinem said, “the healing is in the telling,” and it is my hope “August: Osage County” reaches people who may be in a painful place, who may leave with a modicum of hope, because if anything, we are not alone.

And no matter how regretful or defeated others are by their actions, the play says they are not us, and that trajectory can change. The Weston-Aiken clan holds a mirror up that is sharply in focus.

Shyla Lefner, McLaughlin and Russell in front. Photo by Jon Gitchoff.

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis presents “August: Osage County” from March 19 to April 7 at the Loretto-Hilton Center, 130 Edgar Road, St. Louis.

Tickets: Purchase tickets online at Repstl.org, by phone at 314-968-4925, or The Rep Box Office will also be available for in-person support at the Loretto-Hilton Center Tuesdays and Wednesdays from 10:30 a.m. – 5 p.m. and 2 hours before curtain.
Rush Tickets: Available for students, seniors, educators, and theatre professionals by calling the Box Office at 314-968-4925, 1 – 2 hours prior to curtain time.

Audio-Described Performance: Thursday, April 4 at 7 pm – the show will be described for patrons who are blind or have low vision.

ASL Performance: Saturday, March 30 at 4 pm – the show will be signed for the deaf or hard of hearing.

Open-Captioned Performance: Sunday, April 7 at 2 pm – an electronic text ticker displays words being spoken or sung onstage.

Post Show Discussions follow Saturday, March 30 at 4 pm and Wednesday, April 3 at 2 pm performances.

By Lynn Venhaus

I was bored silly by Amazon’s unnecessary, ultraviolent streaming remake of “Road House,” a pale imitation of the original 1989 cheese-fest that starred the chiseled Patrick Swayze rocking a mullet as James Dalton, a black belt in karate and a Ph.D. in philosophy.

Granted, I am not the demo. This re-imagining is a macho man’s movie.

In “Southpaw” (2015) fighting mode, Oscar-nominated Jake Gyllenhaal is a campy, corny Dalton for the 21st century, a troubled soul who speaks with his fast fists. With the first name of Elwood, he’s jacked as an ex-UFC mixed martial arts fighter who pummels many a tough guy.

But sadly, Gyllenhaal is flat, nowhere near as magnetic as the late great Swayze, who knew how to elevate his roaming cooler in that rowdy ‘80s B-movie with his off-the-charts charisma, a world-class side-eye, and a Zen approach.

Devoid of any charm – where is Sam Elliott when you desperately need him? – this new version is mostly wall-to-wall vicious blood-spurting fighting where people are intent on maiming and breaking bones. It’s a whole lot of ugly. (Not that Swayze didn’t crack some liquored-up redneck skulls and rack up a high-body count).

The filmmakers have switched the location from a roughneck Jasper, Missouri honkytonk, the Double Deuce, to a coastal paradise in the Florida Keys, a fictional place called Glass Key Island. The open-air beach spot, owned by Jessica Williams (of “Shrinking”), is generically called “Road House,” and its claim to fame is that Hemingway drank there. OK…

In his new role as a highly paid bar bouncer, Elwood’s lean mean fighting machine takes on a lot of low-life high-wattage testosterone, and we watch big sweaty guys covered in tattoos mess with each other.

They unwisely pick fights with Dalton, who tries to control a deep well of rage. But like Swayze, he’s incorruptible and far smarter than the goons he’s tasked with keeping in line.

Co-screenwriters Anthony Bagarozzi and Chuck Mondry plus R. Lance Hill, whose name appeared on the first one as David Lee Henry, responsible for the story and screenplay with Hilary Henkin, have collaborated on a thin, uneven story with extremely ridiculous dialogue. Maybe they used AI because that script is soulless.

Like the original, it takes itself far too seriously – and should just have some fun with the over-the-top melodrama. Most surprisingly, it is directed by Doug Liman, who has helmed several crowd-pleasing films, like “Swingers,” “The Bourne Identity” and “Edge of Tomorrow.” Where is the verve?

The unremarkable cast brings very little personality to this tale and play mostly unlikable characters. In an off-putting opening, Post Malone, the singer, plays a hulking guy who isn’t the sharpest tool in the shed, and later, as a major big deal, Irish professional boxer Conor McGregor has a protracted fight, but his acting skills are severely limited.

The supporting cast providing the story’s conflicts are no match for the original – love interest Kelly Lynch had electric chemistry with Swayze while Melchior isn’t given much to do in this second go-round. Ben Gazzara’s slimy crime lord was a far superior villain than Billy Magnussen’s hard-to-believe slick corporate manipulator.

Furniture and glass break, bodies break, and the whole metaphysical dilemma about people’s purpose on earth is given a once-over. Eyes glare, fists fly, and highly choreographed fights ensue – although pointlessly heavily CGI’d in the remake.

Whatever floats your boat, but this floundering “Road House” doesn’t bring anything new to the genre. It seems to be just a whole lotta empty noise.

“Road House” is a 2024 action-thriller directed by Doug Liman and starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Daniela Melchior, Billy Magnussen, Jessica Williams, Conor McGregor, Lukas Cage, Hannah Lanier, and Post Malone. It is rated R for violence throughout, pervasive language and some nudity and has a run time of 2 hours, 1 minute. It began streaming on Amazon Prime on March 21. Lynn’s Grade: D-.

The original “Road House” is now streaming on MAX, FYI.

The 1989 “Road House” original cast of Patrick Swayze, Kelly Lynch and Sam Elliott.

By Lynn Venhaus
A silly and confusing nostalgia-infused stew that suffers from ingredients well past their sell-by dates, “Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire” is an erratic mess of plot and pacing, with too many layers and too many characters.

Whatever goodwill people have for the original cast Bill Murray, as Dr. Peter Venkman, Dan Aykroyd as Ray Stantz and Ernie Hudson as Winston Zeddemore, quickly evaporates when co-screenwriters Gil Kenan and Jason Reitman poorly integrate their beloved characters into a storyline weighted down by paranormal mumbo-jumbo.

It’s unnecessarily more complicated than any thread in “Oppenheimer,” and all the levity is sucked out of it, which is sad for tarnishing the late Harold Ramis’ legacy as the nerdy Egon Spengler, the big-brain of the original outfit.

This latest installment takes up after “Ghostbusters: Afterlife“ in 2021 resurrected the franchise that began with a bang in 1984, which was followed up with a 1989 sequel, and then dormant until a 2016 all-female reboot, which has largely been ignored but had a terrific cast.

In “Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire,” the Spengler family returns to the iconic New York City firehouse to team up with the surviving Ghostbusters, who’ve developed a top-secret research lab to take busting ghosts to the next level.

But when an ancient artifact unleashes an army of ghosts that casts a death chill upon the city, the new and old team join forces to save the world from a second Ice Age. The gizmos are more high-tech — drones! — but that doesn’t improve lucidity.

Sure, Slimer is back, and William Atherton shows up as the despicably oily Walter Peck, only he’s now the mayor of New York City instead of an EPA inspector — but still would like to rid his town of the ghostbusting heroes. A tiny army of mischievous mini-Stay-Puft Marshmallow Men cause more mayhem than when first introduced in 2021.

But even those welcome sentimental sightings don’t add much to an inexplicably leaden Kenan-Reitman script that is directed with a heavy-hand by Kenan, following “Afterlife” director Jason Reitman, the son of original “Ghostbusters” director Ivan Reitman.

As charming as Paul Rudd is as Gary Grooberson, the beau of Callie Spengler (Carrie Coon, one of the great modern actresses, just going through ‘mom’ motions), he can’t carry this cash-grab on his own. Grown-up make-believe needs a reason to watch.

Callie is Egon’s daughter, and her two teenage children Trevor (Finn Wolfhard) and Phoebe (McKenna Grace) are back, this time as fierce ghostbusters now enthusiastically embracing the family business.

There is a strange subplot where Phoebe is attracted to a ghost named Melody (Emily Alyn Lind) that is just a bizarre detour in an already complex template.

The Spenglers have taken over the Firehouse as a home, which is fun to explore, but then the ghosts they capture in the Ecto-Containment Unit start acting up (go figure) because of an apocalyptic diety hellbent on igniting a deep freeze (but why?). Layers and layers of confusing backstory prevent the film from ever taking off, and engaging in a way audiences might expect.

The set-up is unusually long and meandering, and is weighted down by the ancient lore explanations that seems to be as thick as mud. You can only watch so many electronic sparks before it becomes mind-numbing.

There is little to connect the “Afterlife” dirt farmer in Summerville, Oklahoma storyline, but two of the characters return with a passing reference — a podcaster played by Logan Kim and Lucky played by Celeste O’Connor.

The very funny comic actor and stand-up comedian Patton Oswalt is wasted in one solo scene as a librarian with vast knowledge of the spirits underworld, and ever-reliable Kumail Nanjiani offers goofy support as the slacker grandson of a deceased woman who held a lot of ancient (and kinky) secrets in their modest apartment.

While Aykroyd and Hudson are game as the more prominent returning heroes, Murray shows up rather late, with little to do, and coasts, devoid of the goofy charm that made Venkman so appealing. While Annie Potts is another welcome sight as former receptionist Janine Melznitz, it’s just a drive-by appearance, the role without any pizzazz of her past self.

This film is disappointing on multiple levels, but the by-the-numbers visual effects take over as a big chill plot point that is just deadening.

If you’ve seen Disney’s “Frozen” and its sequels, you’ve already seen everything a fast-moving widespread ice storm can do — and this plethora of GCI icicles is eye-catching for a few minutes, but in a repetitive loop, it quickly becomes tiresome. There was more heart in “Godzilla Minus One.”

While much of the “Ghostbusters” lore involves the childhood toys Millennials grew up with, that fondness is frittered away with this soulless, lifeless plot — although it might sell a few proton packs and jumpsuits.

And Ray Parker Jr.’s kicky “Ghostbusters” theme song can only do so much when it’s overused.

There is no reason to call these synthetically engineered characters ever again. Let it go.

“Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire” is a 2024 comedy sequel directed by Gil Kenan and starring Paul Rudd, Carrie Coon, McKenna Grace, Finn Wolfhard, Kumail Nanjiani, Patton Oswalt, Annie Potts, Dan Ackroyd, Ernie Hudson, Bill Murray. Logan Kim, Celeste O’Connor and William Atherton. It is rated PG-13 for supernatural action/violence, language, and suggestive references, and runtime is 1 hour, 55 minutes. It opens in theaters March 22. Lynn’s Grade: D