Movie Review

By Jeffrey Sanzel

Garth Stein’s beautiful 2008 novel The Art of Racing in the Rain tells the story of Enzo, a golden retriever, adopted by race car driver Denny Swift. It is told from Enzo’s point of view, in Enzo’s voice, beginning at the end of his life. Enzo believes what he has seen in a television documentary on Mongolia – that dogs will come back as humans. What seems like an amusing premise makes for a powerful, memorable tale. Stein’s absorbing, descriptive prose catapulted the novel to the New York Times best-seller list for 156 weeks – and rightly so.

Now the book has been turned into a slightly rushed but not entirely ineffective feature film. Following the book’s plot closely, screenwriter Mark Bomback and director Simon Curtis honor the spirit and the structure if never quite capturing the underlying pulse. As with the novel, the story begins with the elderly Enzo and then goes back to Denny bringing Enzo home; Denny’s courtship of and marriage to Eve; the birth of their daughter, Zoe; Eve’s illness; and all that follows.

Little happens that is not predictable and there is a distinct lack of character development. Scenes are quick and the viewer is rarely allowed to stay on one moment or incident for long, resulting in a lack of tension. The life-and-death scenarios are scrolled through like a flip-book, occasionally holding briefly, but, overall, just moving to the next situation.

This shortchanges the majority of the cast who often seem to be sharing the same dialogue: “Hello, Enzo,” “Denny, is there anything I can do for you?,” and “Goodbye, Enzo.” Friends, family and co-workers flit through the film without making much of an impression. Even Amanda Seyfried, as Denny’s wife, is given very little to play beyond winsome and happy then winsome and sick. The usually dynamic Kathy Baker (as Eve’s mother) is lost in the screenplays simplicity.

Milo Ventimiglia (from TV’s This Is Us) makes a sensitive and charming Denny. While not an actor of great range, what he does, he does well. He captures Denny’s warmth and earnestness as well as his passion for racing. He is wholly believable, finding joy and pain in Denny’s achievements and struggles.

Where the film falls flattest is in the latter part of the movie. The book’s devastating and acrimonious custody battle is declawed to the point of almost being meaningless. The dispute is clumsy and meanders without raising any genuine conflict so the resolution is toothless. The film does manage to recover for a touching denouement. 

With all its flaws, however, the film works on a visceral level. This is due to two related pieces. First, Bomback wisely mines Stein’s prose for the majority (if not all) of Enzo’s voice-overs. Enzo’s perspective is the narrative soul and they have wisely not stinted. At all times, we are aware of Enzo’s observations and his deep-felt attachment to Denny. The entire movie is infused with this near-human, thoughtful and sensitive point of view.

And, second, Kevin Costner’s flawless voicing of Enzo is what ultimately pulls tautest on the heartstrings. Costner’s soothing rumble is the true soundtrack and one that will resonate long after the movie is over.

Those who have read the book might be disappointed with the film’s condensed, hurried approach to the story, which occasionally becomes sentimental when it wants to be sincere. But no one can deny that, in the end, it is a story told with directness, with compassion and with heart.

Rated PG, The Art of Racing in the Rain is now playing in local theaters.

Photos courtesy of 20th Century Fox

2019 Stony Brook Film Festival Grand Prize winner Priya Ramasubban, director of Chuskit, with Stony Brook Film Festival and Staller Center for the Arts Director Alan Inkles. Photo by Nick Koridis

The 24th annual Stony Brook Film Festival wrapped up with a Closing Night Awards Reception held on July 27. The evening recognized the outstanding new independent films screened at the festival, which was held at SBU’s Staller Center for the Arts from July 18 to 27. 

Dozens of filmmakers, directors, cast and crew attended the event. With support from presenting sponsor Island Federal and other corporate and private donors, the Stony Brook Film Festival was able to welcome and host guests from all over the world including Spain, Austria, Israel, the United Kingdom, Canada and India. 

The opening night film, Balloon, from Germany, was sold out as were many of the other screenings in Staller Center’s 1,000-seat Main Stage theater.

Chuskit, directed by Priya Ramasubban, won the Grand Prize. “When the jury and the audience rank the same film the highest, then it receives a Grand Prize,” said Alan Inkles, festival director. This is the second year in a row and the ninth time in the festival’s 24-year run that a film has received a Grand Prize. “This festival was one of the most competitive yet,” he said. “Nearly 3,000 films were submitted, and only 36 were selected for the festival, so Chuskit was really a very special film – it’s a must-see.”

And the winners are:

 2019 Jury Award for Best Feature

In God I Trust

East Coast Premiere (Canada)

Directed by Maja Zdanowski; written by Paul St. Amand and Maja Zdanowski; starring Marc Senior, John Cassini (Se7en), Steven Roberts, Bilal Oliver and Melissa Roxburgh (Star Trek Beyond).

  2019 Audience Choice for Best Feature

The Silent Revolution

East Coast Premiere (Germany)

Written and directed by Lars Kraume; from the book by Dietrich Garstka; starring Leonard Scheicher, Tom Gramenz, Ronald Zehrfeld (Sweethearts) and Florian Lukas (The Invisibles)

 2019 Jury Award Best Short

Toke Is Cheap

(Canada)

A film by Kerry van der Griend

 2019 Audience Award Best Short

The Portraitist

New York Premiere (Luxembourg)

A film by Cyrus Neshvad

 Entries will be accepted for the 25th Annual Stony Brook Film Festival starting on Dec. 1. For more information, visit www.stonybrookfilmfestival.com.

The marathon kicks off with ‘Killer Clowns from Outer Space.’

The Cinema Arts Centre, 423 Park Ave., Huntington will host Retro Picture Show’s “Pay to Get Out” Horror Movie Marathon on Saturday, Aug. 3. Doors open at 8 p.m. and the marathon begins at at 8:20 p.m. Enjoy a night of 35mm horror screenings featuring eight terror-ific and sci-fi classics. The Sky Room Cafe will be open all night serving beer, wine, snacks and food. Pillows and blankets are welcome (no backpacks please) and dressing up is encouraged. 

Lineup:

‘Killer Klowns from Outer Space’

1988, Director Stephen Chiodo 

‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ 

1974, Director Tobe Hooper |

‘They Live’

1988, Director John Carpenter

‘The Devil’s Rejects’

2005, Director Rob Zombie

‘XTRO’

1982, Director Harry Bromley Davenport

‘Deranged’ 

1974, Directors Jeff Gillen and Alan Ormsby

‘The Incredible Melting Man’

1977, Director William Sachs

PLUS A BONUS MYSTERY MOVIE!

Tickets are $45 in advance at www.retropictureshow.com and $50 at the box office on the day of the event. If you last from beginning to end, you get $10 back and a free breakfast!

For more information, call 631-423-7610.

Brad Pitt, Leonardo DiCaprio and Al Pacino in a scene from the film Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures

By Jeffrey Sanzel

When approaching the films of cinematic auteurs, the tendency is to evaluate based on their entire body of work. While there is a logic to this, it is ultimately of limited value to someone actually experiencing the movie. Often, this is the road taken when the film is disappointing or less than the artist’s previous work. Fortunately, in the case of Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood, Quentin Tarantino has written and directed a strange but truly original love letter to the films of the late ’60s, creating a tapestry of real-life events and fictional characters. The upshot is an epic, enthralling, sometimes chaotic, often messy, but (mostly) satisfying journey.

Brad Pitt as stuntman Cliff Booth and Mike Moh as Bruce Lee in a scene from the film

Once Upon a Time interweaves a trio of threads: the fictional story of Rick Dalton (an amazing Leonardo DiCaprio), a TV western star on his way down, and his stuntman-gopher Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt, iconically charming); neighbor Sharon Tate (a luminous Margot Robbie); and the infamous Manson Family. Throughout, the narratives overlap, diverge and finally come together. The film is long but never boring, painting a vivid portrait of the seedier world of Hollywood.  

The performances are universally strong. Brad Pitt is warm and easy as the good-guy lackey with a past. His easy façade belies the darker shades beneath. Ultimately, he is the true hero in this world of faux cowboys. 

Margot Robbie captures Tate’s innocence. There is an enchanting scene where she attends her most recent film – Dean Martin’s The Wrecking Crew; her face is a wonder as she marvels, childlike, at her own image. With the least dialogue of any of the principals, Robbie manages to capture both Tate’s hopes and fragility. The actors playing members of the Manson Family are appropriately wide-eyed and menacingly mercurial, most notably Margaret Qualley as Pussycat and Damon Herriman, seen only briefly but to great effect, as Charles Manson.

But it is DiCaprio, as the self-destructive Dalton, who is a revelation. The portrait of an actor being pushed from hero to heavy, struggling with the twin demons of inadequacy and alcohol, is spot-on. Whether seen in clips from his ’50s network show Bounty Law, beating himself into a performance, or engaging with an 8-year-old costar (a delightful Julia Butters), he is funny, honest and completely human.  

There are assorted cameos and supporting roles from a who’s who of Hollywood, including Al Pacino (sounding surprisingly like Mel Brooks) as a stereotypical Hollywood player; Dakota Fanning, a chilling “Squeaky” Fromme; Bruce Dern as George Spahn, who rented his ranch to the Mason Family; Mike Moh as a hilariously arrogant Bruce Lee; Kurt Russell, low-key as a stunt coordinator and the film’s narrator; Rebecca Gayheart as Booth’s shrewish wife (whom he may or may not have murdered); and the late Luke Perry as TV actor Wayne Maunder, among others.

In its homage to the 1960s, Once Upon a Time is gritty and peripatetic, resulting in a picture that seems to have actually been shot in 1969. Sparing no detail, this is an immersion in a rough, bygone Los Angeles. The film alternates between satire and drama, reality and fiction, often jarringly so. A comedic moment juxtaposed with the tense shadow of the coming murders is clearly and, we assume intentionally, disturbing.  

But this is part of the greater whole that Tarantino has shaped in his semifictional Hollywood. There are moments and gimmicks that step out of this world but, fortunately, they are few and Tarantino lets the narrative carry the context. The final 10 minutes (and the only true graphic ones) can be best explained by the title. To say more is to detract from Tarantino’s bold and certainly controversial twist.

Rated R, Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood is an audacious, occasionally maddening film, but one that Tarantino fans – and others – will certainly embrace.

A scene from 'The Lion King.' Photo courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures

By Jeffrey Sanzel

Disney has reached into its vault to create live-action versions of 101 Dalmatians, Beauty and the Beast, Cinderella, The Jungle Book and, most recently, the disappointing Dumbo and the mediocre Aladdin. Its newest release is the The Lion King, a remake of the 1994 animated classic, presented as a photorealistic computer-animated feature. The end result is stunning but unsettling.  

The original Lion King was a revelation. It dealt with difficult subjects and never pandered; it was wholly entertaining, truly sincere, and played to all ages. With loose shades of Hamlet, there was humor and humanity. It spawned the highly theatrical Tony Award-winning musical that has run for over two decades.

A scene from ‘The Lion King.’ Photo courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures

With few script embellishments from the original, the latest offering is just a new approach to animation. It is visually glorious, with every shot and every frame a breathtaking work of art. It is as realistic as if they were filming wildlife in its natural habitat. 

And therein is heart of the problem. In creating creatures that truly appear real — and they do — there is little to no expression. As animals do not communicate with their faces, it often feels static and detached in the dialogue sections. Much of the film seems like a nature documentary with voice-overs. The flip side is that the violence is brutally convincing with moments that are genuinely frightening. The hyenas are particularly alarming — and when they attempt to alleviate this with comic lines, they come across as psychotic.  

Directed by Jon Favreau, the film follows the original very closely (though clocks in a full 20 minutes longer). The opening is as beautiful and powerful as the original with the assemblage of animals coming to the presentation of young Simba, crown prince of the lions. The death of the patriarch is every bit as heart-wrenching if not more. The lion cubs could not be cuter. There are one or two very funny surprises; an amusing nod to Beauty and the Beast is welcome in one of the darker stretches.

In addition to the brilliant cinematography, the vocal artistry is first rate. J.D. McCrary and Donald Glover as the young and grown Simbas, respectively, bring honesty to their shared role. 

Billy Eichner is hilarious as the meerkat Timon, with a nice assist from an underplaying Seth Rogen as the warthog Pumbaa. 

John Oliver is comically uptight as the bird Zazu while John Kani brings genuine gravitas to the shaman-like Rafiki. Alfre Woodard is appropriately warm and strong as matriarch Sarabi and the great James Earl Jones, the only hold-over from 1994, returns as Mufasa and delivers a performance equal to his original. 

Especially strong, finding both danger and dimension, is Chiwetel Ejiofor as the treasonous Scar; what is interesting is that of all the characters, his face somehow manages to communicate the most expression.

The delightful music of the first film is here: It once again features the Oscar-winning work of Hans Zimmer, Tim Rice and Sir Elton John.

Because of the realistic and often savage violence, it seems that it might be too frightening for young audiences. So while engaging and inventive, ultimately, Disney’s The Lion King leaves the viewer with a certain disconnect and questioning not so much as why it was made but for whom.

Rated PG, The Lion King is now playing in local theaters.

1969, orbiting Earth, three astronauts Michael Collins, Neil Armstrong, and Buzz Aldrin set out on a likely death mission that could only end in one of three ways: land, abort, or crash.

In celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, The Long Island Museum, 1200 Route 25A, Stony Brook invites the community to join them on Saturday,  July 20 for a free screening of @SmithsonianChannel’s “The Day We Walked on the Moon” in the Carriage Museum’s Gillespie Room at 5 p.m. Admission is free.

For further information, call 631-751-0066 or visit www.longislandmuseum.org.

 

A scene from ‘Toy Story 4’. Photo courtesy of Disney/Pixar

By Jeffrey Sanzel

A film that aims to explore the pains of growing up, that endeavors to touch on love and loss, on sense of self and self-worth, takes on a huge challenge. That the movie aspires to a balance of humor and honesty makes it even more challenging. That an animated feature is told through the eyes and voices of toys seems impossible. However, as seen through the first three Toy Story movies, it is more than attainable. In a franchise that grew in both depth and art with each film, finding more laughter and more tears, it is the exception to every rule. The newest addition, Toy Story 4, is certainly one of the best films of the year.

Woody introduces Forky to the other toys. Photo courtesy of Disney/Pixar

Here are 100 minutes of pure entertainment, alternating between laugh-out-loud funny and poignantly touching, in a film that never feels like a sequel. It plays on multiple levels, providing jokes and slapstick, clever asides and deep insights, so that audiences of any age will be completely engaged from start to finish.

Woody (the always marvelous Tom Hanks) now belongs to Bonnie (Madeleine McGraw) but has been put aside for cowboy Jessie (Joan Cusack). This does not change Woody’s mission to make sure Bonnie is taken care of at all times. When Bonnie reluctantly goes to kindergarten, she finds solace in creating Forky, crafting him from a spork, googly eyes and a pipe cleaner — an opportunity that Woody engineers. Forky becomes Bonnie’s obsession and solace. What she doesn’t realize is that Forky (a scene-stealing Tony Hale) does not want to be a toy. Eventually, guided by Woody, Forky learns his value.  

Toy Story 4 is what we have come to expect in the series without ever feeling like it is a repeat of its earlier chapters. The movie includes a wild road trip, a dazzling carnival and a range of hijinks and colorful characters that make for a nonstop adventure. 

Eventually, the crew is reunited with the now self-actualized Bo Peep (a sly and knowing Annie Potts) who has found freedom in being a “lost toy,” living a full life in what can only be labeled renegade and off the grid with a posse of like-minded toys. Much of the latter half of the film also centers around an antique shop, ruled by Gabby Gabby (a flawlessly wicked Christina Hendricks) and her minion of ventriloquist dummies. Gabby Gabby is, at first, the villain of the story; but there is much more to her and her journey.

The film features many returning voices including Tim Allen as Buzz Lightyear (comically learning to listen to his inner voice), Wallace Shawn as the neurotic Rex, John Ratzenberger as Hamm, Blake Clark as Slinky Dog, Estelle Harris as Mrs. Potato Head, Don Rickles as Mr. Potato Head (from archival recordings), Timothy Dalton as Mr. Pricklepants, Bonnie Hunt as Dolly and Carl Weathers in a terrific running joke as three different Combat Carls. All of them deliver incredibly enjoyable performances, mining the most of their individual and team moments.

Newcomers include Keegan-Michael Key as Ducky; Jordan Peele as Bunny, an outrageous plush pair; and Keanu Reeves as Duke Caboom, a second-rate Evel Knievel toy. There are wonderful cameos from Mel Brooks (Melephant Brooks), Carol Burnett (Chairol Burnett), Betty White (Bitey White) and Carl Reiner (Carl Reineroceros).

Josh Cooley, whose directorial credits include The Incredibles, Cars and Up, has beautifully guided the entire film. The excellent screenplay is by Stephany Folsom and Andrew Stanton (with a total of eight people credited with “story by”). The literally hundreds of artists who worked on the picture have contributed to an emotionally seamless and visually stunning whole.

If the ending doesn’t pack quite the emotional punch of Toy Story 3, it is still wholly satisfying, bringing to a close a classic and heartfelt odyssey. While perhaps not perfect, Toy Story 4 comes pretty close.

Rated G, Toy Story 4 is now playing in local theaters.

Image from PJDS

The Port Jefferson Documentary Series will host a special summer screening of “Woodstock: Three Days That Defined a Generation” at Theatre Three, 412 Main St., Port Jefferson on Monday, July 29 at 7 p.m. 

With never-before-seen footage, the documentary tells the story of the political and social upheaval leading up to those three historic days, as well as the extraordinary events of the concert itself, when near disaster put the ideals of the counterculture to the test. 

The screening will be followed by an interview with co-screenwriter/editor Don Kleszy. $8 advance sale tickets are now available at www.portjeffdocumentaryseries. Tickets will also be sold at the door (cash only). For further info, call 631-473-5220.

The German film ‘Sweethearts’ starring Karoline Herfurth and Hannah Herzsprung makes its U.S. premiere at the festival on July 20. Photo from Staller Center

The Staller Center turns into a movie lover’s mecca when new independent films from nearly 20 countries screen at the Stony Brook Film Festival on evenings and weekends from Thursday, July 18 to Saturday, July 27. The popular festival, now in its 24th year, brings a highly selective roster of diverse films, making it a favorite of moviegoers and filmmakers alike.

Produced by the Staller Center for the Arts at Stony Brook University, the festival pairs memorable short films with an array of features you won’t see anywhere else. This year’s event, presented by Island Federal, brings in filmmakers, cast and crew who field questions after the screenings, adding a unique dimension to the experience.

The idea of family forms the foundation for many of the features and shorts at the festival this year. Whether they are by birth or by choice, flexible or dysfunctional, generational or newly formed, you will see families of all stripes in films that take place in nearly 20 countries, from Australia to Austria, India to Israel and Spain to South Africa.

The families in this year’s films are found in Cold War era East Germany and the political upheaval of 1980s Jerusalem. They brave the isolation of North Dakotan farmlands, experience drug-fueled head trips in the California desert and solve idiosyncratic murders on a small Turkish island. They live in Paris’ Chinatown as well as remote Himalayan villages; they travel the dusty roads of Senegal and the long highway from the south of England to the Isle of Skye; and they revel in the lush rain forest of Queensland and the wilds of Appalachia.

PREMIERES

There are many world, U.S., East Coast and New York premieres in this year’s festival including the opening film, Balloon, a German film based on the true story of two families who escaped East Germany on their homemade hot air balloon, which is making its New York premiere on July 18.

The festival closes with another New York premiere of the French film Lola & Her Brothers, a charming comedy about three adult siblings who are still trying to look after one other after losing their parents.

Several American indie films will have their world premiere at the festival, and many foreign films, including Yao, Sweethearts, Miamor perdido, Lady Winsley and Made in China will have their U.S. premieres. 

American features include Them That Follow, a tense drama featuring Academy Award winner Olivia Colman; the raucous comedy Babysplitters, featuring Long Island native Eddie Alfano; and Guest Artist, a stunning and humorous film written by and starring Jeff Daniels and directed by Timothy Busfield. 

“The quality and diversity in our dramas, comedies, and documentaries are extremely high and I expect our audience to be thoroughly entertained this summer,” said Alan Inkles, Stony Brook Film Festival founder and director. 

For a complete film schedule and descriptions of all of the films, visit www.stonybrookfilmfestival.com.

TICKET INFORMATION

All screenings are held at Stony Brook University’s Staller Center for the Arts, 100 Nicolls Road, Stony Brook in the 1,000-seat Main Stage theater. Film passes are on sale for $90, which includes admission to all 20 features and 16 shorts over 10 days. 

Passholder perks include VIP gifts, discounts to over a dozen area restaurants throughout the summer, guaranteed admission 15 minutes before each film, and the opportunity to purchase tickets for the Closing Night Awards reception. 

For $250 you can purchase a Gold Pass and receive all the Regular Pass perks plus reserved seating with filmmakers and guests, as well as entry to the exclusive Opening Night party and the Closing Night Awards reception. 

Single tickets for individual films are also available for $12 adults, $10 seniors, $5 students. For more information or to order, call the Staller Center Box Office at 631-632-2787.

Mindy Kaling and Emma Thompson in a scene from the movie. Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios

By Jeffrey Sanzel

Fans of Mindy Kaling, best known for “The Office” and “The Mindy Project,” have been flocking to theaters to see her debut as feature writer for “Late Night,” a by-the-numbers comedy that takes on the issue of diversity in the workplace and makes its statement with a connect-the-dots expectation. Directed by Nisha Ganatra, there are no surprises but it still makes for an enjoyable hour and 45 minutes.

Emma Thompson in a scene from ‘Late Night’

Emma Thompson plays legendary late-night talk show host Katherine Newbury whose ratings have been slipping. She has surrounded herself with an all-male, all-white staff and is described as a “woman who hates women.” In response to this, she gives her long-suffering producer Brad (a wonderful Denis O’Hare) the task of hiring a woman. Through slightly unbelievable machinations, he brings on chemical plant worker Molly (Mindy Kaling) to the writing staff.  

Instead of a true examination of hiring practices, what ensues is humorous but contrived as Molly is first ostracized and then embraced by the team. There are occasional edgy moments – including Molly writing a topical and controversial monologue joke – but these risks are few. For the most part, it adheres to traditional comedy tropes, including an ill-fated and unnecessary romantic entanglement that feels incomplete. (There is a sense throughout the film that a good deal ended up on the cutting room floor as certain ideas and conflicts are introduced but not seen to conclusion.)

The first turning point is when Katherine discovers she is going to be replaced by a mainstream and extremely coarse comedian Daniel Tennant (Ike Barinholtz, a subtle performance that avoids caricature). With this impetus, she goes to war with the head of the network Caroline Morton (Amy Ryan, saddled with a two-dimensional character). With Molly’s wide-eyed, aw-shucks guidance, Katherine begins to reinvent herself.

Minday Kaling in a scene from ‘Late Night’

Emma Thompson, one of the greatest and most versatile actors, creates a delightful monster of a boss. She never talks to her writers and doesn’t even bother to learn their names. When forced into a room with them, she gives them numbers. This is not done with cruelty but rather by someone who cannot be bothered with the people beneath her. Of course, in a comedy of this nature, she gradually learns to appreciate them.

Thompson’s depth is best shown when interacting with her ill husband Walter (a touching John Lithgow) and in an impromptu performance at a hole-in-the-wall benefit downtown. In the latter scene, the audience can see her pondering the mortality of her career.

Kaling is Thompson’s co-star and conscience. She is also “Late Night’s” writer and producer, which perhaps explains some of the weaknesses. As an actor, Kaling is a personality performer. There is no genuine complexity in her work but she is comfortable in her persona. She is watchable but, unlike with Thompson, as a presence, she is not transformative.  

The film is bolstered by a cast of strong actors in convincing performances, including Hugh Dancy, Reid Scott, Max Casella, Paul Hauser and John Early. It is interesting to note that with the exception of Thompson and Kaling, there are no other fully developed female characters.

The second act crisis is clumsily manipulated but, once again, the actors are able to make it work. “Late Night” builds to an expected resolution but, given the nature of the film, it is the one that the audience hopes for and expects.

Rated R, “Late Night” is now playing at local theaters.

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