Movie Review

The Addams Family returns to the big screen in time for Halloween. Image courtesy of Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures

By Jeffrey Sanzel

Charles Addams’ delightfully macabre cartoons of the bizarre Addams band first appeared in The New Yorker in 1938. In the subsequent 50 years, this satirical inversion of the nuclear family was featured in dozens of single-panel drawings. In 1964, the live-action series premiered on ABC and was welcomed into American households for two seasons. This was followed by two animated series as well as several reunion specials. 

The franchise was successfully rebooted in 1991 with The Addams Family and the even better sequel Addams Family Values (1993). In 2008, the family got the full Broadway treatment with a musical that has lived on in regional and high school theaters across the country. The first family of Halloween has been seen in everything from board games to drink coasters.  

Nearly 10 years ago, there was news of a Tim Burton stop-motion Addams family to be produced by Universal Pictures and Illumination Entertainment. However, in 2013, MGM acquired the rights and it is this version that has now been produced as a 3-D animated comedy. Conrad Vernon directs a predictable screenplay by Matt Lieberman and Pamela Pettler.  

It is a shame that Burton was not able to realize his vision. Given his work — particularly The Nightmare Before Christmas — the result would most likely have been more satisfying.

The plot focuses on the threat of the family being pushed out of its haunted mansion by a devious T.V. home renovation host, Margaux Needler, who is building a model community, Assimilation. In addition, son Pugsley will be having his Mazurka celebration (think bar mitzvah with swords) and the entire clan is expected to descend upon the family. Daughter Wednesday becomes curious about the outside world and befriends Needler’s daughter, whom she leads into rebellion.  

While these elements could add up to a terrific satire, it never quite transcends its literalness. There is a pedestrian feel to the constantly repeated theme of all-people-just-want-to-be-accepted-for-who-they-are. Visually, it looks closer to the Saturday morning cartoons, and some of the more famous lines are wedged into the dialogue. In the end, there is something flat and uninspired in the result: The film is less Addams family than it is Hotel Transylvania. One has the sense that the creators were hedging their bets and played it safe with a child-centric film, leaving little for the adult audience. While there are nods to the Addams canon, it never feels like it enters that weird, wonderful world.  

There is a wealth of voice talent, with some utilized better than others. Charlize Theron captures Morticia Addams’ low notes with a fittingly languid affectation. Oscar Issac is a nice compliment as the excitable Gomez. The children are well-realized by an appropriately affectless Chloë Grace Moretz as Wednesday and Finn Wolfhard as the pugnacious Pugsley. Nick Kroll makes an amusing if one-note Uncle Fester. Sadly, Bette Midler is not given enough to do as Grandmama. Other voices include Snoop Dogg (Cousin Itt), Martin Short (Grandpa Frump), Catherine O’Hara (Grandma Frump), Tituss Burgess (Margaux’s agent) and Jenifer Lewis (Great Auntie Sloom). Allison Janney makes the most of the villainous Margaux Needler but there’s almost no opportunity for variety.

The highlight of the film comes at the end, when the television show’s opening sequence is recreated, Vic Mizzy theme song and all.

In its own way, the movie is child-friendly creepy and methodically kooky but with little mystery and certainly not spooky. Ultimately, what’s lacking is what makes the Addams family unique: One is left asking, “Where’s the ooky?”

Rated PG, The Addams Family is now playing in local theaters.

A sensory-friendly screening of Beetlejuice was held at the library in September. Photo courtesy of Warner Bros.

By Melissa Arnold

Enjoying a movie can be a great way for the entire family to spend some quality time together. But for people who are especially sensitive to light or sound, the experience can be difficult to handle, if not impossible.

At Comsewogue Public Library in Port Jefferson Station, the staff wants to ensure no one is excluded from its programs because of a lack of accessibility. Thanks to a suggestion from a visitor, the library now offers sensory-friendly movie opportunities once a month that are open to all. 

“We’ve always tried to really listen to the community about the needs that they have, and this was something we’d been looking to do for a while,” said Lori Holtz, head of adult services for the Comsewogue Public Library. “We see very regular attendance for this program, which shows us that people are really enjoying the experience.”

Earlier this year, an employee from a local group home for adults approached the library suggesting they try offering sensory-friendly movie screenings, said adult services librarian Christine Parker-Morales, who added that the program has been well-received and is continuing to expand.

According to the STAR Institute for Sensory Processing Disorders (SPD), at least 1 in 20 adults in the general population may be affected by SPD. For people with these disorders, any kind of sensory stimuli — bright lights or darkness, loud sounds, intense smells, certain clothing textures — can be overwhelming, confusing or disturbing.

Setting up a sensory-friendly movie is a simple process, said Danielle Minard, the library’s outreach librarian. All that’s needed is a bit of extra planning by leaving the lights on, lowering the sound, adding captions and providing advance information about the movie’s storyline and elements. “We try to show films that are fairly current,” Minard added. 

“We began the program this past March with Inside Out and since then, we’ve shown Mary Poppins Returns, Guardians of the Galaxy, Singin’ in the Rain and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse,” she said. In anticipation of Halloween, Tim Burton’s classic Beetlejuice was screened in September.

There are no special requirements, fees or advance registration required to see the sensory- friendly movies — all are welcome to attend.

“Libraries exist for everyone and we’re here to serve people of every age, regardless of their needs,” said Comsewogue Library Director Debra Engelhardt. “Everyone deserves quality services, and we’re continuing to learn how we can deliver those services better. I’m very proud of everyone’s hard work. I would encourage any community member to bring their interests and needs to their local library. It may take a while to get something started, but it’s our job to make good things happen for everyone who lives in the area.”

Sensory-friendly film screenings are held monthly on Saturday mornings at 10:30 a.m. in the Community Room at the Comsewogue Public Library, 170 Terryville Road, Port Jefferson Station. Upcoming screenings will be held Oct. 25 and Nov. 29. The films are not chosen ahead of time, but are appropriate for all ages. For more information, including additional sensory-friendly library programs, call 631-928-1212.

Joaquin Phoenix stars as the Joker. Photo courtesy of Warner Bros.

By Jeffrey Sanzel

Batman’s most infamous nemesis, the Joker, first appeared in the Batman comic book in 1940. Created by Bob Kane, Bill Finger and Jerry Robinson, the psychopathic clown with a sadistic streak has endured for eight decades, being reinvented time and again.  

The Joker was first embodied on the small screen in the 1960s with Cesar Romero’s over-the-top but highly enjoyable take in the camp television series (and subsequent film) Batman. First-billed Jack Nicholson played the criminal with gangster shades in the more serious 1989 Batman film. Heath Ledger received a posthumous Oscar for his twitchy, psychotic anarchist that traded on the character’s insanity and ambiguity in The Dark Knight (2008). Jared Leto took a fairly modern approach with a tattooed and outlandish hoodlum in Suicide Squad (2016).

As for the Joker’s origin, it has been recreated throughout his existence, with no true commitment to who he is and how he came to be. Part of his mystique is this swirling mystery. The Joker is the ultimate unreliable narrator: “Sometimes I remember it one way, sometimes another … if I’m going to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice!” (The Killing Joke, 1988).

Which brings us to Joker, the new film from director Todd Phillips, who has co-written the screenplay with Scott Silver. This is not just a rethinking of the character and his world; this is another world entirely, and a brutally real one.  

The Gotham City of Joker is a bleak vision of 1980 New York City, a crime- and rat-infested hell; it is a world mired in corruption where the haves actively keep down the have-nots. There are strong political statements that touch on gun control, living conditions of the disenfranchised and the treatment of mental health. (It should be noted that there has been a great deal of controversy surrounding the film and its violence.)  

Phillips presents a back-storied Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), a clown whose work is limited to sign-tossing in front of stores and entertaining in children’s hospital wards. He suffers from a neurological disorder that causes him to laugh at inappropriate times. The marginalized Fleck cares for his mother (Frances Conroy, harboring family secrets) in a rundown apartment. Fleck’s great goal is to become a stand-up comic and an unsuccessful attempt contributes to his downward spiral.  

Rather than the tale of a larger-than-life villain — the insane master criminal and homicidal clown — Joker is about society’s rejection of those who need the support the most. The film opens with him being beaten by a group of teenage thugs. Later, Fleck learns that the social services he relies on for his seven medications have been cut. It is this continuous “bad day” scenario that plagues him.  

The already delicate Fleck is driven to his choices by external circumstances. His murder of three Wall Street brokers who are abusing him on the subway becomes freeing. His actions make him a hero to a city that takes up the cry of “Kill the Rich.” Mobs of clown-masked protesters turn the metropolis into a literal hell.

If one separates the history of the character, it is easier to embrace Joaquin Phoenix’s performance. It is a monument of introspection, of ticks, of pain. His Fleck is a man on the brink and then beyond. The camera rarely leaves him for the two-hour running time. Phoenix is the film.

If anything, the character is based less on the Joker and hearkens more to Travis Bickle, the anti-hero of Taxi Driver (1976), with shades of Rupert Pupkin in The King of Comedy (1982). This is no surprise as the common denominator is Robert DeNiro, the creator of Bickle in the former and the down-on-his luck comedian Pupkin in the latter. In Joker, DeNiro comfortably assays a callous late-night host who brings Fleck onto his show, after using a clip of Fleck’s disastrous stand-up. So much of this adds up to Joker as a homage to these films and those performances.

Special note should be made of Lawrence Sher’s cinematography. Its evocative harshness contributes to the uncompromising tension. The final moments resonate long after the film is over, a true portrait of senseless, bloody violence. 

Joker certainly feels the least like a comic adaptation of any film, and, as an addition to that cinematic universe, it is a strange one. However, it is apparent that this was a choice by the creators. They have opted for a realm that is a gritty, recognizable world, where the day-to-day angers cause horrors that enflame chaos and mayhem. Ultimately, if one separates the film from its source, Joker is a dark, unique and current reflection of our own times.

Rated R, Joker is now playing in local theaters.

Christian Taylor

In honor of the 75th anniversary of D-Day, June 6, 1944, the Stony Brook School, 1 Chapman Parkway, Stony Brook will host a screening of ​“The Girl Who Wore Freedom” ​on Sunday, Oct. 6 at 1:30 p.m. The documentary, written and directed by Stony Brook School alumna Christian Taylor, showcases the unconventional love story between the people of France and the American GIs who freed them from German occupation.

“[The film] features Danielle Patrix, who was just 1 year old when German tanks rolled into the village of Sainte Marie du Mont, France. Through her eyes, we experience the hardships and trauma of the four-year occupation, as well as the overwhelming joy felt when American GIs freed her city. Seventy years later, the people of Normandy still hold an annual celebration to remember and honor the sacrifices that American soldiers made to free them. This documentary keeps Dany’s story, as well as stories of her fellow French citizens, alive,” explained Taylor.

Admission is free but reservations are requested and can be made at www.normandystories.com/screenings​. For further information, please call 631-751-1800.

Renee Zellweger stars as Judy Garland in a new biopic. Photo courtesy LD Entertainment and Roadside Attractions

By Heidi Sutton

“A heart is not judged by how much you love; but by how much you are loved by others.”

― L. Frank Baum, “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz”

Most people remember the legendary Judy Garland for her role as Dorothy Gale from Kansas in “The Wizard of Oz.” For die-hard fans, the actress, dancer and singer with the beautiful voice is also remembered for “Meet Me in St. Louis,” “Easter Parade” “Summer Stock,” “A Star Is Born,” the Andy Hardy films with Mickey Rooney and much more.

Fifty years after Garland’s death, director Rupert Goold brings us “Judy,” an adaptation of Peter Quilter’s musical “End of the Rainbow,” which explores the star’s final months on earth.

Renée Zellweger stars as Judy Garland in the new biopic.

Set in 1968, the biopic is somber, sad, touching. Garland’s career, by this point, has already spanned more than four decades. At 46, the aging actress (played by Renée Zellweger)lives in and out of hotels with her children, Lorna (Bella Ramsey) and Joey (Lewin Lloyd), while grappling with the demons of her troubled showbiz life.

Down on her luck and out of money, she jumps at the chance to star in a London cabaret show, and leaving the children with their father and third husband, Sid Luft (Rufus Sewell), Garland heads to the Talk of the Town nightclub for a five-week run.

While there, she begins a whirlwind romance with musician Mickey Deans (Finn Wittrock), her soon-to-be fifth husband, reconnects with fans, and in a nod to “Oz,” all the while looks forward to getting back home to see her children. “Having children is like having your heart outside your body,” she explains. We meet Judy’s oldest daughter Liza Minnelli (Gemma-Leah Devereux) only briefly at a Hollywood party.

Garland suffers from insomnia, hepatitis, alcoholism, depression, anxiety, an eating disorder and is addicted to pills. Years of abuse, suicide attempts and nervous breakdowns have left her broken.

Occasional flashbacks to the MGM set and scenes with Mickey Rooney (Gus Barry) as a 16-year-old (played by Darci Shaw) attempts to shed light on how Garland ended up this way. MGM founder Louis B. Mayer (Richard Cordery) is portrayed as a monster, threatening Judy and making her take amphetamines and barbiturates to keep up with the frantic pace of making one film after another. “I make movies, Judy, but it’s your job to give those people dreams,” he tells her as they walk along the yellow brick road.

Renée Zellweger and Finn Wittrock in a scene from the film. 

Zellweger is incredible in her portrayal of Garland as a lonely and frail victim of stardom. Her mannerisms and expressions are spot on while the tragic story she is telling is sometimes too hard to watch. The songs that made Garland famous — “Over the Rainbow,” “The Trolley Song,” “Get Happy,”  are performed by Zellweger in the film — but only in snippets.

The film also highlights Garland’s faithful following in the LGBTQ community as she spends time with two gay male fans (Andy Nyman and Daniel Cerqueira) in their apartment in one of the most poignant moments in the film.

In the final scene, Garland peers out into the audience and asks, “You won’t forget me, will you? Promise you won’t.” Six months later, she is dead from an accidental barbiturate overdose. At her funeral, Garland’s “Wizard of Oz” co-star Ray Bolger said, “She just plain wore out.”

Rated PG-13, “Judy” is now playing in local theaters

Photos courtesy LD Entertainment and Roadside Attractions

Jim Carter returns as the Crawley’s retired butler. Photo by Jaap Buitendijk, Focus Features

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

Downton Abbey was a television phenomenon. This upstairs-downstairs drama captured the attention and the hearts of millions of viewers. In its 52 episodes (2010 to 2015), it followed the aristocratic Crawley family, the heirs of Grantham. From opulent drawing rooms to the sparse maids’ quarters, we came to know the estate and its inhabitants. The series opened with the 1912 sinking of the Titanic and spanned through World War I and its aftermath, closing New Year’s Eve, 1925.

A scene from ‘Downton Abbey’

We watched everything from births to deaths; we witnessed engagements broken and fulfilled. Investments were made and newspapers ironed. Throughout, the Crawleys and their staff grew in depth and understanding, reflecting a changing world. Downton Abbey was television at its very best.

And now, we are treated to a feature film. It is 1927 and the Crawleys are preparing for the impending visit of King George V (Simon Jones) and Queen Mary (Geraldine James).

Creator and screenwriter Julian Fellowes has wisely chosen to celebrate the series rather than reinvent it. There is the usual intrigue, romance and drama, but it never tips the scales into some of the episodes’ darker corners. Instead, we see the house and village preparing for this momentous event. Threading through much of the film is the friction between the snobbish royal entourage who are sent ahead and the Downton staff. The result tips slightly toward sitcom but is forgivable in the overall jubilant spirit of the movie.

The majority of the residents are here. At the center is Hugh Bonneville’s charming Earl of Grantham and his American wife, Cora, played with great warmth by Elizabeth McGovern. Michelle Dockery, as Lady Mary, and Laura Carmichael, as Lady Edith (now Marchioness of Hexham), are true to their sibling bickering but there is an underlying respect – or at least acceptance – that grew throughout the series’ run. At Lady Mary’s request, retired butler Carson (the up-tightly lovable Jim Carter) is engaged to temporarily take over from an off-put Barrow (Robert James-Collier), who always manages to balance good and bad intentions. If Brendan Coyle’s Mr. Bates is less brooding, it is nice to see his happy marriage with lady’s maid Anna (lovely Joanne Froggatt). Perhaps this best describes the film: It rarely frets but embraces an inner brightness.

A scene from ‘Downtown Abbey

The entire cast is as wonderful as ever. Allen Leech’s Tom Branson maintains his moral compass and is given a good bit to do in the film, highlighting his transition from Irish rebel to staunch family supporter. Phyllis Logan’s housekeeper Mrs. Hughes still functions as the below-stairs mother hen. Her camaraderie with the put-upon cook, Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nicol), remains strong.

But, it is Maggie Smith as the wry-witted, never-wrong Violet Crawley, dowager countess of Grantham, who steals every moment she is on screen with her golden quips and sly asides. Smith’s perfect sparring with the reliable Penelope Wilton’s Isobel (now Lady Merton) make for some of the most delightful moments. Smith shows a beautiful contrast in a deeply moving scene with Lady Mary toward the end of the story.

There is the introduction of a Crawley cousin hereto not mentioned. Imelda Staunton is Lady Maud Bagshaw, and the issue of who shall inherit her fortune becomes a subplot.  There is also a romantic element connected to this legacy which will probably come to play in the much hoped-for sequel.

Yes, there some notably absent characters:  Cousin Lady Rose (Lily James) and Lord Grantham’s sister, Lady Rosamond (Samantha Bond), with the former not even mentioned. Sadly missing is David Robb’s stalwart Clarkson, the family doctor who bridged the world of castle and village.

It is an opulent film and the production values are dazzling. Never have the locations and the clothing looked so rich nor has the music been this lush. It is both a Christmas present and a Valentine.

Downton Abbey is a gift for the followers of the series. For newcomers, it would be a costume drama without the drama. For fans, it is a joyous and welcomed “Welcome home.”

Photos by Jaap Buitendijk, Focus Features

From left, Morgan Freeman and Tim Robbins in a scene from the film. Photo courtesy of Fathom Events

“You can get busy living … or get busy dying.”

It’s been 25 years since “The Shawshank Redemption” was first released. To celebrate the momentous anniversary, the classic film will return to more than 600 select theaters nationwide on Sept. 22, 24 and 25, courtesy of Warner Bros., Turner Classic Movies and Fathom Events.

Written and directed by Frank Darabont, with a wonderful score by Thomas Newman, the film, based on the 1982 Stephen King short story, “Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption” from his 1982 collection “Different Seasons,” was not a blockbuster when it was released on Sept. 24, 1994. It grossed $28.3 million on a $25 million budget. However, it received seven Oscar nominations and went on to become one of the most-celebrated films in history when released on video.

In 2015 the United States Library of Congress selected the film for preservation in the National Film Registry, calling it “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant,” and it has been the number 1 film on IMDb’s user-generated Top 250 since 2008, when it surpassed “The Godfather.”

The film tells a story of human kindness in the most unkind place: prison, specifically Shawshank State Penitentiary. Both serving a life sentence, inmates, Ellis “Red” Redding (Morgan Freeman) and Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins), a mild-mannered banker wrongly convicted of murdering his wife and her lover, forge an unlikely bond that will span more than 20 years. Together they discover hope as the ultimate means of survival.

The film also stars Bob Gunton (Warden Norton), William Sadler (Heywood), Clancy Brown (Captain Hadley), Gil Bellows (Tommy) and James Whitmore as Brooks.

In a recent interview with Chris Lindahl of IndieWire, Darabont said, “I think people want to believe that there is goodness and a moral compass in the world. And I think that’s why ‘Shawshank’ has [such an] effect on people.”

The special screening includes exclusive insight from TCM Primetime host Ben Mankiewicz.

Participating theaters in our neck of the woods include AMC Loews Stony Brook 17, 2196 Nesconset Highway, Stony Brook on Sept. 22 at 4 and 7 p.m. and Sept. 24 and 25 at 7 p.m.; Farmingdale Multiplex Cinemas, 1001 Broadhollow Road, Farmingdale on Sept. 25 at 7 p.m.; and Island 16 Cinema de Lux, 185 Morris Ave., Holtsville on Sept. 25 at 7 p.m. To purchase your ticket in advance, visit www.fathomevents.com.

This past July, the Port Jefferson Documentary Series held a special screening of Woodstock: Three Days That Defined a Generation at Theatre Three. The community came out in droves to reminisce and celebrate the 50th anniversary of Woodstock. As wonderful as it was, the sold-out event was just a prelude of what was to come.

From Sept. 9 to Oct. 28, the series will kick off its 25th season of presenting the latest award-winning documentaries to the community. Sponsored by the Greater Port Jefferson-Northern Brookhaven Arts Council and the Suffolk County Office of Film and Cultural Affairs, the first film will be screened at the Long Island Museum in Stony Brook, the next five at Theatre Three in Port Jefferson and the final film at Stony Brook University’s Charles B. Wang Center.

Each screening will be followed by a Q&A session with guest speakers including directors, producers, the movies’ subjects and outside experts.

It is a labor of love for film board members Lyn Boland, Barbara Sverd, Wendy Feinberg, Honey Katz, Phyllis Ross, Lorie Rothstein andBarbara Sverd, Wendy Feinberg, Honey Katz, Phyllis Ross, Lorie Rothstein, who each choose one film out of hundreds to present to the audience. This fall’s picks were selected after the “film ladies” attended the Tribeca Film Festival, DOC NYC and the Hamptons Film Festival.

This season’s exciting lineup includes, in order of appearance, Halston, which examines the life and career of fashion designer Roy Halston Frowick; Clean Hands, the heart-breaking and eye-opening story of a Central American family living in extreme poverty; The Raft, a 1973 scientific experiment on the high seas that went horribly wrong; Cold Case Hammarskjöld, a journalistic inquiry into the 1961 plane-crash death of Dag Hammarskjöld, the secretary-general of the United Nations; Kifaru, the emotional story of Sudan, the world’s only remaining male northern white rhino; Gay Chorus, Deep South, which follows the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus’s bus tour through the deep South to confront a resurgence of faith-based anti-LGBTQ laws; and Mike Wallace Is Here, which examines the 50-year career of “60 Minutes’” fearsome newsman Mike Wallace.

In terms of which films will tug at your heart strings the most, Lyn Boland says it’s a tie between Kifaru and Gay Mens Chorus, Deep South, “depending on where your sympathies lie, but they are on opposite sides of the spectrum.”

According to Boland, who serves as co-director with Sverd and Feinberg, this season’s program has been drawing rave reviews. “I have had people say ‘this is an amazing lineup.’ I think one of the reasons is that this season covers a really broad spectrum: we have fashion, we have a diplomatic mystery, the environment, a gay position, journalism (and the importance of journalism), and The Raft which is just so unusual. What’s so remarkable about this lineup is the breadth of subject matter – there is something for everyone.”

As always, the film ladies invite the community to “come for the film, stay for the talk” as the Q&As can get quite lively.

The Port Jefferson Documentary Series will be held at 7 p.m. on select Monday nights from Sept. 9 to Oct. 28. Tickets, which are sold at the door, are $8 per person. (No credit cards please.) If you would like to volunteer, please call 631-473-5200. For more information, visit www.portjeffdocumentaryseries.com.

Film Lineup

Halston

Monday, Sept. 9

The Long Island Museum

1200 Route 25A, Stony Brook

Guest speaker will be Frédéric Tcheng, director

Moderator will be Tom Needham, host of “The Sounds of Film” on Stony Brook University’s WUSB

*Ticket includes admission to LIM’s exhibit Gracefully Chic: The Fashions of Philip Hulitar from 6 to 6:45 p.m.

Clean Hands

Monday, Sept. 16

Theatre Three

412 Main St., Port Jefferson

Guest speaker will be Michael Dominic, director

The Raft

Monday, Sept. 23

Theatre Three

412 Main St., Port Jefferson

Guest speaker will be Mary Gidley, subject in film (via Skype)

Cold Case Hammarskjöld

Monday, Oct. 7

Theatre Three

412 Main St., Port Jefferson

Guest speaker will be Göran Björkdahl, researcher/cinematographer and subject in film (via Skype)

Kifaru

Monday, Oct. 14

Theatre Three

412 Main St., Port Jefferson

Guest speaker will be David Hambridge, director (via Skype)

Gay Chorus Deep South

Monday, Oct. 21

Theatre Three

Guest speaker will be Bradley Meek, president of the board of the Long Island Gay Men’s Chorus

Special performance by the LI Gay Men’s Chorus

Mike Wallace Is Here

Monday, Oct. 28

Charles B. Wang Center, SBU

100 Nicolls Road, Stony Brook

Guest speaker will be Peggy Drexler, producer

Moderator will be Charles Haddad, School of Journalism

Photo courtesy of Lionsgate

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

“Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” is comprised of three collections of short horror stories written for children by Alvin Schwartz; the first book was published in 1981. Schwartz wrote original or curated well-known tales that ranged from traditional ghost stories and folklore to urban legends. Many a young reader came across these books at their school libraries and would remember them best for Stephen Gammell’s truly disturbing but incredibly powerful illustrations. 

Photo courtesy of Lionsgate

In 2011, HarperCollins featured tame new art by Brett Helquist (Lemony Snicket), resulting in a good deal of discussion as the original pictures were very much part of the iconography. It should also be noted that the American Library Association listed the works as the most challenged series of books from the 1990s and has continued to stir controversy for its violence and macabre topics. 

Now these stories have been brought to the big screen in an intriguing film. This is not a horror anthology, a form that became popular in the 1960s and continued through the 1990s.  Instead, the stories are interwoven into a high-stakes plot that deals with a haunted tome where, “You don’t read the book; the book reads you.” 

It is Halloween 1968 and a trio of high school students along with a mysterious young man end up in a supposedly haunted house. Here, they unleash the spirit of  Sarah Bellows, a girl who was suspected of murdering children before the turn of the century. At the heart of the legend is her book of “Scary Stories.” In a traditional trope (think Candyman, Bloody Mary), it was rumored that she could be summoned by asking her to tell you a story — the last story you will ever read. This setup puts the group on a path whereby six of the tales from the book come to life, placing them in the midst of the stories.

The film is well-paced and well-acted.  There are a few jump-out scares and just a handful of mildly gross moments; the latter are handled stylishly and never cross the line. 

For the most part, “Scary Stories” centers on the characters in action and their search for the truth about Sarah and her family. Her past and the family’s history are gradually revealed and, ultimately, it is a morality tale where the monster is perhaps more sinned against than sinning. It is no coincidence that the film is played out during the height of the Vietnam War and, specifically, the final days of the 1968 election where the country would eventually experience a different kind of evil in the figure of Richard Nixon.

The cast is uniformly strong, with Zoe Colletti’s Stella being the driving force. She is a cross between the traditional scream queen and the self-actualized teenager we have come to expect in horror films.

Colletti is well-supported by Michael Garza as Ramón, the stranger with an important and surprising secret. The sidekicks, Auggie and Chuck, played by Gabriel Rush and August Zajur, respectively, are funny but grounded. It is this quartet that is central to the film. Unlike most latter-day horror and slasher films, this one centers on real friendship and, therefore, we are able to invest in their fates. In a supporting role, Dean Norris is particularly sensitive as Stella’s single father. 

The monsters, as would be expected given the source, are one-dimensional. This is intentional and appropriate as they are rooted childhood scares and fears — those terrors associated with the campfire and what lies underneath the bed. There are only occasional nods to the Gammell visuals, and the film would have perhaps been more frightening if these had been more prevalent.

Smartly directed by André Øvredal, the screenplay was adapted by Dan and Kevin Hageman, from a screen story by producer Guillermo del Toro, as well as by Patrick Melton and Marcus Dunstan. They have done their work well, finding a nice balance between humor and horror. Rated PG-13, “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” is a clever outing, making a welcome addition to the genre.

From left, Nell Williams, Aaron Phagura and Viveik Kalra in a scene from the film

By Jeffrey Sanzel

It is an unlikely premise. In 1987, 16-year-old Pakistani Javed Kahn (Viveik Kalra) finds solace and encouragement in the words and music of Bruce Springsteen. Javed rejects the music of his own generation for the earlier work of the New Jersey native. And yet, it is “inspired by a true story.” “Blinded the Light” is based on Sarfraz Manzoor’s memoir, “Greetings from Bury Park.” Manzoor co-wrote the screen play with director Gurinder Chadha and Paul Maydea Berges. The result is a mix of comedy, drama, fantasy and an unusual approach to the musical.

Growing up in Luton, England, Javed lives in a world plagued by racism, both small and large. Incidents involving the neo-Nazi National Front as well as the damage of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s economic polices are very much present in his day-to-day life. Javed, who began keeping a diary at age 10, writes poetry as well as lyrics. His dreams are kept at bay by his very traditional father, Malik (Kulvinder Ghir). Early in the film, Malik loses his factory job, sending the family into a financial tailspin. His hope is that Javed will go into a real profession — doctor, lawyer, accountant — and is appalled and angered by Javed’s more esoteric hopes.

Introduced to the work of “The Boss” by a Sikh “dude,” Roops (an easygoing Aaron Phagura), Javed finds that Springsteen’s ideas speak directly to him. The songs are integrated throughout the film — sometimes as background, other times as actual numbers sung by the characters and occasionally shown through the lyrics circling in and out of Javed’s head. The result is mixed but makes its point. In addition to the title song, the film includes various versions of “I’ll Stand by You,” “Dancing in the Dark,” “Badlands,” “Hungry Heart,” “Born to Run,” “Thunder Road” and “The River,” among others.

At heart, “Blinded by the Light” is the story of a young man trying to find his identity. There is nothing complicated or deep about his struggle. Teenage angst has long been explored, and there is a distinctly John Hughes quality to much of the film. However, it is the darker and very real shades of prejudice that separate this from classic teen fare. The result is a two-hour diversion that is both honest and charming if short on surprises. In the end, it manages to make some real statements about intolerance and the power of the written word.

Much of this is due to Kalra’s endearing performance. Whether trying to navigate school, fighting with his traditional father, mooning over his crush — a rebellious Eliza (feisty Nell Williams) or trying to write lyrics for his friend’s, Matt (goofy-cool Dean-Charles Chapman) band, Kalra brings a wide-eyed reality, with every moment a discovery. Ghir shows a father in real pain, a man caught between two worlds. As Javed’s mother, Noor, Meera Ganatra, displays quiet strength and compassion. In a few short scenes, David Hayman brings a deeply touching arc as the stand-offish neighbor Mr. Evans, a World War II veteran who is moved by Javed’s poetry.

Sometimes the material sways toward the obvious. His teacher, Ms. Clay (Hayley Atwell) is the standard trope of supportive educator. A scene with Eliza’s conservative parents has an almost sitcom feel to it. There is a slightly forced takeover of the school’s radio station. There is a strange scene where Javed and Roops sing to some racist hooligans. 

On the other hand, there are surprising glimpses into worlds unknown, most notably a secret daytime dance hall for British Pakistani students. And sister Yasmeen’s (Tara Divina) wedding day is both vivid and jarring. And, always, Kalra’s sincere Javed is at the center. Ultimately, the film presents an earnest hero in a sensitive and worthwhile coming-of-age story. Rated PG-13, “Blinded by the Light” is now playing in local theaters.

Photos courtesy of Warner Bros.