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Jeffrey Sanzel

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.

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

Christopher McKittrick’s Can’t Give It Away on Seventh Avenue, subtitled The Rolling Stones and New York City, is an engaging exploration of the connection between the iconic rock band and the city that embraced it like no other.

Author Christopher McKittrick

McKittrick wisely begins by putting into historical context the decaying New York City of the early 1960s to give a clear backdrop of the world into which the band entered. In the early part of the decade, English rock ‘n’ roll bands were rarely globe spanning. The Rolling Stones, the Beatles and a small handful of others would change this.

Any chronicle of the Rolling Stones touches upon a comparison with the Beatles both in style and popularity. McKittrick gives an insightful perspective of the more wholesome and instantly popular Beatles with the rawness of the Rolling Stones, whose first journey to America, while successful, was by no means the lighting bolt of the rival group.  

In a short time, the Rolling Stones would become synonymous with some of the most infamous stories of decadence. They would continue to reinvent themselves over the coming decades, become symbols of both extreme behavior and the power of marketing. The band will forever be connected to the “bad boy” image. “If your parents didn’t like the Beatles, they really wouldn’t like the Rolling Stones.”

The book describes raucous early performances, including borderline rioting at Carnegie Hall, heralding the insanity that would follow them. There is a detailed account of the Oct. 25, 1964, appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” The word “pandemonium” could easily have been invented to describe the wake that followed the Stones.

McKittrick wends his way through the band’s tours across the country, providing a wealth of details that chronicle its meteoric rise. The book has been meticulous researched: Concerts are dissected, comparing set lists even within the same tour; albums scrutinized; venues described and contrasted; recording sessions reported. Fans will be fascinated by the depth that the author provides in his look at “The World’s Greatest Rock ‘n’ Roll Band.”

The book picks up with the band when it is first establishing itself. We are treated to the intrigue, the late night clubs, the relationships and marriages, the celebrities (everyone from Andy Warhol to Bill Clinton), hotel destructions and, of course, the drugs. The Rolling Stones are almost a history of the changing drug use and drug culture in the 20th century. Wild parties, addictions, police raids and arrests, stints in rehab and recovery were a never-ending cycle.  

At the heart is the conflict between Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, a connection that constantly imploded and exploded for 50 years. These two megastars (with equally mega-egos) would battle and make up endlessly over five decades.  

Throughout the book, McKittrick continually returns to New York City. He mines the Rolling Stones’ lyrics, finding dozens of direct references to New York. There are thumbnail histories of Shea Stadium, Carnegie Hall and other stages where the band played as well as multiple appearances on “Saturday Night Live,” the most New York of New York television shows.  

As New York changes, so does the band. The dark and dangerous “Fun City” of the 1970s gives way to the superficial and capitalist ’80s, turning finally into the sanitized, Disney-fied 1990s and beyond. NYC’s fiscal struggles and strikes, its pop culture events, and its shining moments are all presented in the context of the Rolling Stones’ history.

Eventually, like New York City, the band transitioned to survive — they chose a “corporate face-lift.” The Steel Wheels Tour of 1989-90 represented the band as “a cultural product. The rock ‘n’ roll hell raisers had become an institution. Much like the Some Girls song anticipated, the Stones had become ‘Respectable.’”  

After half a century, the long-standing appeal of the Rolling Stones is summed up by Jim Farber in the Daily News: “However corporate the Stones’ sponsorship, domesticated their fans, and predictable their repertoire, the essence of the band still thrives whenever Keith Richard flicks his riffs, Charlie Watts slaps the snare drum, and Mick Jagger swaggers through the blues.”

McKittrick’s book is not so much a dual history but a striking investigation of a cultural phenomenon reflected in one of the greatest cities in the world.

Published through Post Hill Press, Can’t Give It Away is available at www.posthillpress.com, www.amazon.com and www.barnesandnoble.com.

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.

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

“I’m afraid that it’s cancer again, Richard, and this time it’s a bad one.”  

Author Ralph F. Brady

The opening line to Ralph F. Brady’s novel “Borrowed Time” pulls no punches. It establishes the protagonist’s dilemma and sets him on a journey that takes him back over 100 years.  

Forty-year-old Richard Carpenter has an eight-year history with various illnesses, all of which he has overcome. However, in this instance, the odds are against him; he is given a prognosis of one year. He begins to suspect that his difficulties can be traced to damage done by his paternal grandfather, whose alcoholism and work with dangerous chemicals altered the family’s DNA. It is this hypothesis that drives the action.

Coinciding with this news is the closing of the boatyard where he works as a skilled and gifted mechanic, welder and “jack-of-all-trades.” He quickly gets a position working on a secret project at Brookhaven National Lab. This turns out to be a government-sponsored time travel venture that is about to be shut down. Convinced that he can change his health by altering his history, Richard volunteers to be the first human to be sent back in time.

The majority of the novel is taken up with Richard’s experience in the past, spanning the end of 1899 through the beginning of 1900. It is a personal story and not about the science of time. Instead, it is about Richard’s need for answers. He knows that his situation might be unsolvable but he hopes to at least understand how his fate came about.

Brady has meticulously researched turn-of-the-century Long Island and paints both a community and global picture of the time. There is great fun in many local references, both past and present. For example, the train from Brooklyn to Greenport is always on time as there are only four stops.

Richard meets and befriends his paternal grandfather, Francis, and attempts to guide him toward a sober life. He does this in full knowledge that there are any number of repercussions. Richard even visits with Francis’ wife – his grandmother – whom he would meet in his own childhood.

Francis invites Richard to work alongside him in the research and construction of submarines, being built and tested in New Suffolk. Brady brings to life this world, including inventor J.P. Holland, who took this craft to the next step. (There is a particularly harrowing description of a submersion that nearly goes wrong.) 

Of course, with his modern know-how, Richard quickly becomes invaluable. Politics and personalities intersect as Richard guides Francis to better choices. 

Romantic entanglements with his boardinghouse landlady make Richard question his 21st-century commitments. Initially, there are sweet scenes of a pastoral nature. However, Brady is smart enough to know that nothing is simple and the complications mount as Richard weighs his past and present lives, considering the choices he has and the uncertain future he faces. 

The fact is, he becomes not just comfortable with this brave old world but connects with it in ways he didn’t expect.  

Brady has a natural and engaging prose. While it is told third person, it feels as if Richard is speaking, giving the narrative a personal and unaffected voice. Richard raises eyebrows with latter-day idioms (“fifteen minutes of fame,” “go to my head”) and must continually create a detailed, false history. 

In addition, he has skills and insights that he must introduce without arousing too much suspicion. With shades of Mark Twain’s “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court,” he is a man living out of his time.

Any work that focuses on time travel and the changing of a time line demands a logical and satisfying resolution. The final twist in “Borrowed Time” provides a smart and powerful final stroke in Brady’s debut novel.

Author Ralph Brady is a retired executive from the transportation industry. His latest novel,“Borrowed Time,” is available online from Amazon and Barnes & Noble, and through local bookstores. The Mount Sinai resident is also the author of “Landmarks & Historic Sites of Long Island,” “Images of America: Glendale” and “A Maritime History of Long Island.”

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.

By Heidi Sutton

Who doesn’t love a good fairy tale, especially one like “Cinderella,” which is reputed to be one of the most adapted and re-interpreted children’s stories of all time?

To the delight of all the little princesses out there, Theatre Three in Port Jefferson kicks off its 2019-20 children’s theater season with an original musical retelling of the “rags to riches” tale through Aug. 9. With book, music and lyrics by Douglas J. Quattrock, this version of “Cinderella” combines Charles Perrault’s classic tale with Mark Twain’s “The Prince & the Pauper” to produce a lovely afternoon at the theater.

Perrault (Steven Uihlein) serves as narrator as well as “squire to the sire” and transports audiences to the kingdom of King Charming (Andrew Lenahan) who wishes to retire to Boca Raton and pass the crown to his son, Prince Charming (Matt Hoffman). However, the king feels that his son should get married first and invites all eligible maidens to a royal ball.

The squire delivers the invitations to the home of Cinderella (Meg Bush) who after 300 years is still being treated badly by her stepmother Lady Jaclyn (Nicole Bianco) and stepsisters Gwendolyn (Michelle LaBozzetta) and Madeline (Krystal Lawless). When Cinderella asks if she can go to the ball, her stepmother tells her she has to do all her chores first, including washing the cat, but we all know how that ends. 

Left behind while the step meanies go to the ball, the poor girl is visited by her fairy godmother, Angelica (Emily Gates) who cooks up a beautiful gown and sends her on her way.

Meanwhile, the prince concocts a plan to switch places with the squire in hopes of meeting a girl who will like him “for who he is, not what he is.” Things go horribly wrong at the ball, thanks to the ill-mannered stepsisters, and it ends before Cinderella can get there. When she finally arrives, Cinderella is greeted by a squire (the prince) who asks her to dance because “the band is paid till 1.” Will she take him up on his offer? Will they waltz the night away?

Directed by Jeffrey Sanzel, the eight-member cast does an excellent job in portraying this adorable story. One of the funniest scenes is when the prince and squire show up at Cinderella’s house with the glass slipper and the stepsisters and even stepmother try it on with the same result: “I think it’s on. All hail the queen! Ouch, take it off!”

Accompanied on piano by Douglas J. Quattrock, all of the sweet musical numbers are wonderfully choreographed by Nicole Bianco, with a special nod to “Please, Mother, Please!” and “A Girl Like Me (and a Boy Like You).” 

The costumes, designed by Teresa Matteson and Toni St. John, are flawless, from the royal garbs worn by the king and prince to the fancy gowns worn at the ball. The wings on the fairy godmother even light up — a nice touch. Lighting design by Steve Uihlein along with some special effects pull it all magically together.

If you’re looking for something to do with the kids for the summer, Theatre Three’s “Cinderella” fits the bill perfectly. Souvenir wands are sold before the show and during intermission. Meet the cast in the lobby after the show.

Theatre Three, 412 Main St. in Port Jefferson presents “Cinderella” through Aug. 9. Children’s theater continues with “Pinocchio” from Aug. 2 to 10; and “A Kooky Spooky Halloween” from Oct. 5 to 26. All seats are $10. For more information or to order, call 631-928-9100 or visit www.theatrethree.com. See more photos online at www.tbrnewsmedia.com.

Photos by Peter Lanscombe, Theatre Three Productions Inc.

A sensory-friendly performance of 'Cinderella' will be held on July 7. Photo from Theatre Three

By Melissa Arnold

Jason Furnari was 11 years old when he appeared onstage for the first time as part of a school production. Acting immediately became his passion, and he was eager to be in as many shows as possible.

Jason Furnari

One day, Furnari’s school took a field trip to Theatre Three in Port Jefferson. His life would never be the same. “As soon as I saw the stage I knew I had to be up there,” recalled Furnari, now 34. He auditioned for his first Theatre Three show in 2002, and soon became one of the theater’s full-time actors, appearing in local shows and becoming a part of their professional touring troupe. His credits include “The Laramie Project,” “A Christmas Carol,” “The Adventures of Peter Rabbit” and “Barnaby Saves Christmas,” to name a few.

In a gesture of gratitude to the theater, Furnari has announced that his Port Jefferson Station based real estate company, EXIT Realty Island Elite, will sponsor Theatre Three’s Children’s Theatre and offer complimentary tickets to its sensory-friendly performances. 

“I love acting so much because you get to go onstage for a few hours and tell a story. If people are having a bad day, you can bring a smile to their face,” Furnari said. “Every day when we go onstage, we get to see how much the kids really enjoy live theater. They get a glimmer in their eye, and I wanted as many people as possible to experience that joy.” 

That desire to do good has run through the entirety of Furnari’s career journey. He studied nursing, worked in restaurants, and ultimately launched a successful real estate career, helping families find their dream homes. All the while, he continued to do occasional shows with Theatre Three, hoping for the day he could give back to them, too.

Furnari’s moment finally came during rehearsals for “Barnaby Saves Christmas” this past December. Jeffrey Sanzel, executive artistic director of the theater, was preparing the cast for their upcoming sensory-friendly performance. 

Each Children’s Theatre production has one performance that is specifically tailored to those with sensory processing disorders or other special needs. The shows provide lower volume levels, remove sudden noises, leave the house lights on and are accepting of audience noise and movement. Sensory-friendly shows also offer complimentary social stories, booklets which explain the parts of the theater, its employees, what to expect at a show and more, all accompanied with helpful pictures.

“I was talking to them about the sensory-friendly shows, and I said that I would love for someone to come along and underwrite those performances, so we could just give the tickets away for free and we wouldn’t have to charge,” Sanzel recalled. “Jason pulled me aside and said, ‘I’ll do it.’ He committed in that moment and [the free tickets] began immediately with the next show. “I was stunned but not surprised because Jason is such a profoundly generous person. It was an amazing moment for us.”

In addition to underwriting the sensory-friendly shows, EXIT Realty Island Elite will be the official sponsor for Theatre Three’s children’s performances for the 2019-20 season. 

Jason Furnari, center, in a scene from last year’s ‘Barnaby Saves Christmas’

Vivian Koutrakos, managing director at Theatre Three, noted that, while the theater is a not-for-profit, they still have expenses and need support. “At the theater, we want to treat everyone equally and provide an experience that anyone can enjoy, regardless of their needs,” Koutrakos said. “I’ve known Jason for a long time, and he’s done so well for himself. He always wanted to give back to the theater and make sure it was cared for, even when he didn’t have the means to do so himself.”

Sensory-friendly performances at Theatre Three began in 2016 when the parent of an actor with special needs encouraged Sanzel to pursue it. Since then, he said the feedback from audiences has been overwhelmingly positive.

“The families and organizations that come to the sensory-friendly shows are so appreciative and grateful,” Sanzel said. “And now that we’ve eliminated the costs, it’s an opportunity they’ll always be able to enjoy.”

Theatre Three is located at 412 Main St., Port Jefferson. Upcoming sensory-friendly children’s performances include “Cinderella” on July 7; “A Kooky Spooky Halloween” on Oct. 6; “Barnably Saves Christmas” on Nov. 24; “Little Red Riding Hood” on Jan. 19, 2020; “Hansel and Gretel” on March 8, 2020; “The Adventures of Peter Rabbit” on April 19, 2020; and “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” on May 31, 2020. All shows begin at 11 a.m. and tickets are free. 

For more information or to make a reservation, please call 631-928-9100 or visit www.theatrethree.com.

Author Erika Swyler
Time, space and the heart of family

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

Long Island author Erika Swyler’s debut novel, “The Book of Speculation,” was an international bestseller, can be found on many of the Best Book lists of 2015, and was subsequently translated into multiple languages. It is an intimate and touching book, both sweet and eccentric.

Author Erika Swyler

In her sophomore outing, “Light From Other Stars,” she has created a powerful work that is no less affecting but now she has turned outward — delving into themes of time, space and responsibility. It is both science and speculative fiction of the best kind. The novel follows two threads: The first centers on Jan. 28, 1986, the day of the tragic explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger; the second is over 50 years into the future. The two are woven together by the story of Nedda Papas.

In 1986, 11-year-old Nedda lives with her scientist father, whom she idolizes, and scientist-turned-baker mother, with whom she has a dysfunctional relationship. They reside in the fictional Easter, Florida, just on the edge of the launch. She is a young girl obsessed with space exploration. Unbeknownst to Nedda, her father has invented a machine (the Crucible) that alters the fabric of time.  

The father’s motivation is one of the mysteries that is slowly unraveled throughout the course of the narrative. It is a wholly personal impetus that makes the repercussions all the more heart-breaking. The impact of the time alteration is varied, intriguing and truly chilling. It is a world that has been rent. One Easter resident laments, “My pools half froze and the half that’s not is boiling.”

Told alongside this story is adult Nedda on the spacecraft Chawla, journeying into another solar system. The crew has been sent from a dying Earth to colonize a new planet. Nedda and her three shipmates face untold challenges without and within as they journey millions of miles into the universe. 

Small details of the day-to-day struggle, both physical and emotional, are juxtaposed with larger themes and the crisis that they are immediately facing. From the first moments of the book, the stakes are genuinely high.

While epic in scope, Swyler creates characters of depth and dimension. Their pain and hope are painted with the most telling of details. She understands the complicated relationship of parents and children: “[Nedda] forgave him, but added it to the tally of things her parents needed to make up to her.” And conversely: “Part of parenting entailed learning the exact expression your child made when you broke her heart, and knowingly breaking it again and again.”

Swlyer writes with equal authority the details of time and entropy as she does the deep ache of burgeoning childhood romance. Whether clearly explaining complex theories (both in space and baking) or describing a brutal and fatal car accident, she writes with vivid and visceral accuracy. 

The plotting is sharp and her alternating between the two strands is smooth and logical. Her language has grown even more lyrical since her premiere novel. It is elevated prose but never loses its grounding and understanding of humanity:

Sometimes rightness was a feeling. Sometimes you didn’t know something worked until you touched or smelled it and saw where it fit. Denny was oranges, Ivory soap, and moss. Her dad was a hinge creaking, unbent paper clips, and boiling salt water. A launch was rain, ash, and eggs.  Those things weren’t supposed to fit together, but they did.

Ultimately, the complicated themes of family and scientific creation are joined:  

Your children were all your flaws shown to you in a way that made you love them: your worst made good. Inventions were your best attempt at beautiful thought. They were objective; they worked or they did not. They had purpose, whether they achieved it or not. They were yours always, in that they did not leave you, or turn away.

“Light From Other Stars” is a rich and rewarding read, told with tremendous insight and profound resonance. It is a book that will stay with you long after you’ve closed its cover

“Light From Other Stars” is available at Book Revue in Huntington and online through Bloomsbury Publishing (www.bloomsbury.com), Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Target. For more information on the author, visit her website at www.erikaswyler.com.

 

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.

Taron Egerton as Elton John in a scene from the film. Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures

By Jeffrey Sanzel

Elton John: So how does a fat boy from nowhere get to be a soul man?

Wilson: You got to kill the person you were born to be in order to become the person you want to be.

The first moments of “Rocketman” easily establish the world in which this film will take place. In full demonic costume, Elton John descends on a rehab group therapy session. This serves as the framework throughout this unusual musical.

Promoted as “based on a true fantasy,” this is less a biopic of Elton John (who produced) but a fantastical rumination on the power and price of superstardom. Chronology and accuracy of time line are flexible at best but this by no means is a complaint. The result is a flashy, frenetic and wholly engaging two hours where we are treated to John’s rise and ultimate self-destruction. 

The movie is both a traditional and a unique musical, most often using the songs to further the story rather than focusing on his concert career. The unusual gambit pays off in Dexter Fletcher’s imaginative direction of Lee Hall’s scattered but satisfying screenplay.

Taron Egerton as Elton John in a scene from the film Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures

The film shifts quickly from the rehab group therapy as John literally steps into his past. A cold and distant father (an appropriately uncomfortable Steven Mackintosh) paired with an indifferent and narcissistic mother (Bryce Dallas Howard, in an ugly but believable performance) fuel his need to find himself.

“I wish I was someone else,” laments his boyhood self, Reginald Dwight. With the encouragement of a benevolent grandmother (the always wonderful Gemma Jones), he begins to take piano lessons, graduating to a scholarship at the Royal Academy of Music.

The film hopscotches through the next years as he begins playing with the pub band, Bluesology. The story then hits the highlights. These include connecting with music publisher Dick James (a cigar-and-scenery-chewing Stephen Graham), meeting and working with his longtime lyricist Bernie Taupin (a saintly Jamie Bell) and his debut at the Troubadour, a Los Angeles club. It is here he meets John Reid (Richard Madden, a little too full-on villain) who becomes his manager and his lover.

Much of the film follows this destructive relationship. John then begins the transition to the flamboyant persona that would carry him through much of his career. With success comes a life of excess as he becomes embroiled in alcohol, drugs and sex.

The film’s center needs to be its heartbeat.  In the starring role Taron Egerton creates a mesmerizing, three-dimensional performance and even provides his own vocals. Egerton smoothly arcs from the inhibited Reggie to the outrageous but equally self-doubting
Elton John. He manifests a complete rainbow of humanity, with shades of loneliness showing through even the grandest moments. Egerton is a marvel and drives the entire film.

As for the music, nearly two dozen songs are used, including “The Bitch Is Back” (a fascinating opening), “I Want Love” (highlighting the family’s dysfunction), “Saturday Night’s All Right for Fighting” (chronicling his early years), “Honky Cat” (embracing his life of indulgence), “Rocketman” (an attempted suicide and recovery), “Bennie and the Jets” (spiraling down), “Goodbye, Yellow Brick Road” (emphasizing his break with Taupin), as well as various concert moments.

Special note should be made of Adam Murray’s interesting, sometimes dreamlike and often athletic choreography. Costume designer Julian Day’s reimaging of Elton John’s spectacular wardrobe is a whirlwind of sequins, feathers and glitter.

The creators chose not to present the last three decades of his life, instead opting for a quick summation, including sobriety, marriage and fatherhood. While it would have been nice to follow his recovery and the second act of his career (“The Lion King,” “Candle in the Wind,” etc.), it finds an appropriate ending to an epic journey. “Rocketman” is thoroughly entertaining with all of the glitz and razzle-dazzle one would expect to celebrate this legendary icon.

Rated R, “Rocketman” is now playing in local theaters.