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Jeffrey Sanzel

Above, the St. James author with her latest book. Photo by Heidi Sutton
Family through the prism of stained glass

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

Claire Nicolas White shares her family’s journey in the art of stained glass in her very engaging Five Generations Painting With Light.  

The book opens with a crisply written introduction followed by a succinct and informative history of stained glass. White’s eloquent prose defines her connection in a sharp parallel to the compositions that are to be explored: “Mine is a strange inheritance, transparent, ablaze with light in all colors, breakable, but precious.”

Above, the St. James author with her latest book. Photo by Heidi Sutton

The history details the materials, construction and sites of the pieces as well as the fact that the creation of stained glass today is much the same as it was over a thousand years ago. The nobility as well as the dangers of the trade are also touched upon. The intersection of necessity, art, folklore and fantasy are at its heart. It should be remembered that the windows often served as a method of ecclesiastical communication, telling biblical stories and imparting scriptural themes.

From there, White traces her family history, beginning with her Dutch great-grandfather, artist François Nicolas. His son Charles Nicolas then focused on the business aspects and managing the Nicolas glass studio. White’s father, Joep Nicolas, first rebelled from the family business, but, after studying philosophy and art history, he found that “painting with light remained irresistible.” Joep married Suzanne, an artist with similar if complementary tastes. Joep was highly successful and his work could be seen not just in churches but in assorted businesses and educational institutions, — “square miles of glass.”  

White and her sister, Sylvia, were born in northern Holland but, with the advent of Hitler, Joep moved his family to the United States. It was here that White and Sylvia learned their father’s skill: “I won’t leave you a fortune, but I will have taught you a profession.” Sylvia continued in the work while White found a career as a writer and art critic, publishing everything from poetry to fiction to biography. After leaving the world of graphic design, Sylvia’s son, Diego Semprun Nicolas, took up the family mantle, completing the five generations.  

Throughout, White paints a clear picture of her family, plentiful in detail and event. She manages to evoke their personalities in quick, vivid strokes. The descriptions are colorful and entertaining, revealing the highs and lows, the conflicts and the triumphs.

In addition, White has wonderful insight into the history of art and the artistic temperament. She discusses her father’s seeing his work in musical terms, a strong and vivid metaphor. She quotes her sister’s approach to art as a whole: “Glass is great … but I need to tell tales, religious tales, but also legends, myths. The iconography is inspiring. Life is like a tapestry. You’re influenced by what you’re exposed to and use what you need.”

The book is beautifully enhanced by the many photos of stained glass. It is a delight to see the evolution of the artists through their works and from generation to generation. As Joep stated: “Whoever has been given the spirit, the will, the talent, let him tackle this art form; glass is a willing substance that God had not for nothing allowed us to discover.” Claire Nicolas White has given us an absorbing glimpse into this world of unusual masterpieces.

Claire Nicolas White is an acclaimed American poet, novelist and translator of Dutch literature. She is the granddaughter-in-law of architect Stanford White. Her sister, Sylvia Nicolas, designed and installed all the stained glass in Sts. Philip and James R.C. Church in St. James.

Meet the author at a Master Class at the Ward Melville Heritage Organization’s Educational & Cultural Center, 97P Main St., Stony Brook as she discusses her latest book, ‘Five Generations Painting with Light’ on Oct. 23 from 1 to 2:30 p.m. The event is free and refreshments will be served. Call 631-689-5888 to reserve a spot.

 

 

 

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.

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.

By Heidi Sutton

As one of the country’s most beloved holidays draws near, Theatre Three gets into the act with Halloween treats of its own. While the theater thrills and chills on the Mainstage with “Jekyll & Hyde,” its Children’s Theatre offers “A Kooky Spooky Halloween,” the adorable tale of a ghost who is afraid of the dark. Written by Jeffrey Sanzel and Steve McCoy, the musical, which runs through Oct. 26, is the perfect way to kick off the spookiest of seasons.

A friendly ghost named Abner Perkins (played by Steven Uihlein) has just graduated from Haunting High School. With a diploma and a medallion of invisibility in hand, his first assignment is to become the spooksperson for Ma Aberdeen’s Boarding House, famously known the world over for being the most haunted house in Harrison County U.S.A. and for serving the best toast. There are only two rules he has to follow — he can only haunt at night and he can’t lose the medallion or he’ll be seen by the living.

Abner confides to his best friend Lavinda the witch (Michelle LaBozzetta) that he has an uncontrollable fear of the dark and, after a bit of teasing (“That’s like a vampire who’s afraid of necks!”), she gifts him a night-light and promises to assist him with his haunting duties for the first few weeks. When they arrive at the boarding house, they find Ma Aberdeen (Ginger Dalton), the finest toast maker in the land, and her guests in the kitchen stuffing treat bags for Halloween.

We meet Kit Garret (Nicole Bianco) who “just came from a small town to a big city with a suitcase in my hand and hope in my heart” and can’t wait to try Ma Aberdeen’s famous toast. We also meet the Petersons — Paul the periodontist (Andrew Lenahan), his wife Penelope (Krystal Lawless) and their son Pip (Eric J. Hughes) — who have the most curious habit of using words that start with the letter P in every sentence.

When Pip puts on a pumpkin pullover and proceeds to tell pumpkin jokes (see what I did there?), Abner casts a speed spell on the group, making them spin like a top, do jumping jacks and walk like a duck in double time, and then, straight out of a scene from “The Golden Goose,” has them stick to each other “like birds of a feather.”

Just as he is about to undo the spell, fellow graduate and ghost with a grudge Dora Pike (Beth Ladd) shows up and steals Abner’s night-light and medallion of invisibility and hides them in Black Ridge Gulch, the deepest, darkest gorge in the entire world. Now visible, Abner has to convince the boarders, who are still stuck to each other in “an unprecedented predicament,” to help him and Lavinda get his property back. What follows is a hilarious adventure that highlights the power of honesty, determination and friendship.

Directed by Jeffrey Sanzel, the eight-member adult cast embraces the brilliant script and presents a hauntingly fun afternoon both children and parents will love. Accompanied on piano by Douglas Quattrock with choreography by Nicole Bianco, the song and dance numbers are fun and catchy with special mention to the rap “A Need for Speed” by Abner and Lavinda and the group number, “It’s Ma Who Makes the Toast.” Costumes by Teresa Matteson and Toni St. John are spot on, from the Peterson’s black and orange outfits to the spooky white garbs for the ghosts. And wait until you see the special effects!

Souvenir cat, pumpkin, vampire and ghost dolls will be available for purchase before the show and during intermission for $5. Meet the cast in the lobby for photos on your way out.

Theatre Three, 412 Main St., Port Jefferson will present “A Kooky Spooky Halloween” on Oct. 12, 19 and 26 at 11 a.m. and Oct. 20 at 3 p.m. Running time is 1 hour and 15 minutes with one intermission, and Halloween costumes are encouraged. Children’s theater continues with “Barnaby Saves Christmas,” from Nov. 23 to Dec. 28. All seats are $10. To order, call 631-928-9100 or visit www.theatrethree.com.

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

By Heidi Sutton

tale of redemption, an epic battle of good and evil, teen romance, the bonds of friendship — these topics and more will be explored as Theatre Three celebrates 50 years of “Broadway on Main Street” with a revival of the six most popular shows in the theater’s history.

The season opens with a thrilling and chilling adaption of “Jekyll & Hyde: The Musical” by Paul Hadobas with book and lyrics by Leslie Bricusse and music by Frank Wildhorn featuring additional songs like “I Need to Know” and additional material which were cut from the original Broadway show.

Jeffrey Sanzel, who directed the theater’s 2005 production, returns to the helm to create a beautifully haunting show that is not to be missed.

Based on Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1886 gothic novella, “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” the classic story follows Dr. Henry Jekyll’s ill-fated quest to find a cure for his father’s mental illness. Years of experiments have produced a chemical formula that Jekyll is convinced can “separate the good and evil” from the human soul … “to help the tortured mind of man.” All he needs is a human test subject.

When his request to inject the formula into a patient at a mental hospital is turned down by the Board of Governors, a decision they will later regret, Jekyll feels he has no choice but to experiment on himself. The noble attempt to help those that cannot help themselves backfires and gives life to an evil alter ego, Edward Hyde, who terrorizes the citizens of London after dark.

From the moment Hyde makes an appearance, he seeks revenge for Jekyll and methodically hunts down the members of the Board of Governors and with a crack of the neck or a stab in the side they fall one by one. Jekyll remembers little of the murders, praying “they are merely nightmares,” but eventually Hyde “comes out of the shadows” and becomes an addiction, causing Jekyll to lose self-control in an emotional climactic ending.

In his Theatre Three debut, Alan Stentiford is simply incredible in the dual role of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The actor’s transition from respected doctor to psychotic madman will make the tiny hairs on the back of your neck stand up. After each injection, the actor morphs into a rabid creature who slinks and lurks about in the dark, peering out through his unkempt hair with wild eyes. And wait until you hear him sing! Stentiford’s split-personality faceoff in “Confrontation” is mesmorizing and his opening night performance of “This Is the Moment” brought the house down.

Tamralynn Dorsa plays Jekyll’s loving and always supportive fiancée Emma Carew. Dorsa shines in this angelic role and her rendition of “Once Upon a Dream” is magical.

TracyLynn Conner is equally impressive as prostitute Lucy Harris who Jekyll befriends during a visit to the seedy drinking establishment, The Red Rat. It is her that Hyde visits the most often until his jealousy consumes him. Her emotional performance of “No One Knows You I Am” is wonderful.

Another standout in the show is Steven Uihlein in the role of Simon Stride, a former boyfriend of Carew, who has made it his personal mission to see Jekyll fail at every turn. Andrew Lenahan is also one to watch. As John Utterson, Jekyll’s friend and attorney, Lenahan gives a brilliant performance in “His Work and Nothing More.”

The beautiful costumes and wigs by Chakira Doherty meld perfectly with the evocative choreography by Nicole Bianco and the Victorian set, designed by Randall Parsons features Dr. Jekyll’s laboratory. Kudos also to musical director Jeffrey Hoffman, whose seven-piece orchestra keeps perfect pace and tune.

Jeffrey Sanzel has assembled an incredible cast and crew to kick off the theater’s golden anniversary and they all deserve a big round of applause. Happy anniversary Theatre Three! It’s time to relish the well-deserved spotlight.

The cast of ‘Jekyll & Hyde’: Melanie Acampora, Bryan Bowie, TracyLynn Conner, Dennis Creighton, Anthony D’Amore, Lindsay DeFranco, Tamralynn Dorsa, Emily Gates, Eric J. Hughes, Heather Kuhn, Michelle LaBozzetta, Krystal Lawless, Andrew Lenahan, George Liberman, Linda May, Stephanie Moreau, Douglas Quattrock, Jim Sluder, Alan Stentiford, James Taffurelli, Briana Ude, Steven Uihlein, and Ryan Worrell

Theatre Three, 412 Main St., Port Jefferson presents “Jeykll & Hyde: The Musical” through Oct. 26. Contains adult themes and situations. The 2019-20 Mainstage season continues with Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” from Nov. 16 to Dec. 28, “Driving Miss Daisy” from Jan. 11 to Feb. 1, “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” from Feb. 15 to March 21, “Steel Magnolias” from April 4 to May 2 and “Grease” from May 16 to June 21. Tickets are $35 adults, $28 seniors and students, $20 children ages 5 to 12. For more information or to order, call 631-928-9100 or visit www.theatrethree.com.

 

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.

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

By Heidi Sutton

For too short a time, the classic tale of “Pinocchio” comes to life on Theatre Three’s stage in a most magical way. While most are familiar with Walt Disney’s 1940 animated feature, Theatre Three’s original retelling, written by Jeffrey Sanzel and Douglas J. Quattrock, is suggested from the 1883 children’s novel, “The Adventures of Pinocchio,” by Carlo Collodi.

Annabelle the Fairy (Krystal Lawless) has spent two centuries trying to earn her magic wand so that she can fly. Summoned before Ondine, the good and righteous Queen of the Fairies (Ginger Dalton), she is given one last chance to prove her worth or she has to leave the land of the fairies forever. 

Matt Hoffman and Steven Uihlein in a scene from ‘Pinocchio’

Teaming up with Cassandra the Magic Cricket (Michelle LaBozzetta), she is tasked with getting Geppetto (Steven Uihlein), a miserable and lonely woodcarver (think Scrooge), to care about people the same way he cares about wood.

Annabelle decides to cast a spell on the wood, making it talk, and Geppetto is inspired to carve it into a wooden boy he names Pinocchio (Matt Hoffman). Things go sour quickly as Pinocchio constantly misbehaves; so Annabelle casts another spell on him where his nose grows every time he tells a lie.

However, when Pinocchio gets mixed up with con artists Ferdinand Fox (Emily Gates), Carpacious Cat (Nicole Bianco) and Ranklin Rat (C.J. Russo) and is tricked into giving them all of Geppetto’s money, things go from bad to worse. Will Annabelle ever get her wings? Will Ferdinand, Carpacious and Ranklin get their comeuppance? Will Pinocchio ever become a real boy? 

Jeff Sanzel skillfully directs a cast of eight adult actors who take this delightful tale and run with it. There’s a lot to cover in an hour and a half, but the story flows nicely and keeps the audience at the edge of their seats.

The three troublemakers!

The musical numbers, accompanied on piano by Doug Quattrock, are lighthearted and entertaining, from “Lovely Thoughts” by Annabelle to “Bad Harmony” by the trio of con artists, to the wonderful “The Festival El Grande.” Choreography by Nicole Bianco fits the story perfectly and the costumes by Teresa Matteson and Toni St. John are sweet and fun.

There are so many special moments in this show, made even grander thanks to the addition of 40 children from the theater’s summer acting camp who play various extras including fairies and townspeople. 

Much to the delight of the young audience, the actors utilize the aisles often and special effects are around every corner. Annabelle and Cassandra hide under a magic umbrella that deems them invisible, Pinocchio’s nose really grows and wait until you see what falls from the ceiling at the end! Theatre Three has taken a story that is over 130 years old and given it new life. Grab the kids and catch a performance of “Pinocchio.” They will love you for it.

Souvenir fairy wands are sold for $10. Meet the cast in the lobby after the show.

Theatre Three, located at 412 Main St. in Port Jefferson, presents “Pinocchio” through Aug. 10. Children’s Theatre continues with “A Kooky Spooky Halloween” from Oct. 5 to 26 and “Barnaby Saves Christmas” from Nov. 23 to Dec. 28. All seats are $10. For more information or to order, call 631-928-9100 or visit www.theatrethree.com.

See more photos from the show online at www.tbrnewsmedia.com.