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Movie Review

Photo from Sony Pictures Entertainment

By Jeffrey Sanzel

There is no greater American icon than Fred Rogers — the Mr. Rogers of “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.” Generations of children have grown up under the tutelage of the man whose sole quest was to let children be children. His soft-spoken and often simple wisdom has been explored, dissected and parodied for decades. But, ultimately, his pure and honest humanity has shown through.

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is inspired by Tom Junod’s 1998 Esquire article “Can You Say … Hero?” Director Marielle Heller and screenwriters Micah Fizterman-Blue and Noah Harpster have chosen the source as a jumping-off place to create the fictional story of an emotionally lost and damaged journalist whose life is altered by profiling the beloved television host.

The film is in no way a biopic of Rogers. If one is seeking an account of Fred Rogers, then the heartfelt 2018 Won’t You Be My Neighbor? documentary explores Rogers with a wealth of archival clips and interviews. It is as both straightforward and as complicated as the man himself and an indispensable contribution to his legacy.

Photo from Sony Pictures Entertainment

Instead, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood draws upon Rogers’ ethos and how it affected and continues to influence the world for good.

Matthew Rhys plays journalist Lloyd Vogel, whose closet full of demons has disconnected him from the world. The story focuses on the dysfunctional relationship with his estranged father (a dimensional Chris Cooper) who walked out on him and his sister when their mother was dying. 

Vogel struggles to communicate with his frustrated wife (the always terrific Susan Kelechi Watson), to face his life as a new father, and to deal with the world in general. At first, he is resistant to the ministrations of Rogers, but gradually, he realizes the power of embracing Rogers’ philosophies. The film is Vogel’s arc, with Rogers a catalyst for change.

Rhys manages the transition from depressed and detached to self-aware and almost reborn with a slow, methodical intensity. It is an unsurprising performance but one in which we can invest. While the resolution is inevitable, his pain is palpable and his growing awareness authentic. 

The surrounding actors are strong and Heller has brought out subtle and absorbing work from the entire company, including Christine Lahti (Ellen, Vogel’s Esquire editor), Enrico Colantoni (Bill Isler, the president of Family Communications), Maryann Plunkett (Joanne Rogers, Fred’s wife), Tammy Blanchard (Lorraine, Vogel’s sister), and Jessica Hecht (Lila Vogel, Vogel’s dying mother). The entire ensemble is fully present, bringing nuance to the action.

However, the heart of the film is Tom Hanks as Fred Rogers. There is no actor more suited to don the sweater than Hanks, and he does not disappoint. Eschewing imitation, Hanks evokes the soul of the man, making sure that his Rogers is not a hagiography. We see joy, pain, introspection and a man who struggles but never ceases to search for peace and understanding in a difficult world.  

And while his screen time does not rival Rhys’, Hanks dominates each moment with an open presence that makes him unique among even the greatest movie actors. Whether engaging with his public, watching a playback of a scene he has just shot or voicing the Neighborhood puppets, he is riveting. A scene that focuses on a moment of silence in a Chinese restaurant is as wondrous as a subway car breaking out into the show’s theme song. It is all reflected in Hanks’ understated yet overwhelming portrayal.  

The takeaway from A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is that we must face life’s trials and that we can grow from these challenges. It is a message — and a film — of which Fred Rogers would approve.

Image from Walt Disney Animation Studios

By Jeffrey Sanzel

In 2013, Disney released Frozen, a computer-animated musical fantasy. Loosely inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale The Snow Queen, it was the story of two sisters, Elsa and Anna, and a journey of deep discovery. Visually stunning, with a powerful message of “true love” not being connected to marrying a prince, the film was an international sensation. 

The voice talents of Idina Menzel as Elsa, the princess with the power, and Kristen Bell as Anna, the sibling on a quest, were perfectly supported by Santino Fontana as the seemingly ideal prince, Jonathan Groff as a self-deprecating ice harvester, and a hilarious Josh Gad as the slightly manic snowman obsessed with summer. The delightful score, by Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez, spawned the anthem “Let It Go.”

Joining the latter-day classics such as The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King, Frozen quickly became an international phenomena, grossing over $1.2 billion. The only surprise is that it took six years for a sequel. Frozen II reunites Menzel, Bell, Groff and Gad, along with a host of additional voice artists.  

Image from Walt Disney Animation Studios

The film opens hopefully with King Agnarr of Arendelle (Alfred Molina) relating the story of the Enchanted Forest to his young daughters, Elsa (voiced by Mattea Conforti) and Anna (an adorable Hadley Gannaway). It sets up the plot of Agnarr’s grandfather, King Runeard (Jeremy Sisto), and a treaty-gone-wrong with the tribe of Northuldra, a clan that posses a deep magic of which the Arendelle are suspicious. 

The film then goes forward to pick up three years after the previous film.  Elsa (Menzel) is queen and keeping her wintry powers in check. Anna (Bell) is a free-spirited princess, now courted by the smitten Kristoff (Groff) who spends most of his screen time attempting to propose, egged on by his reliable reindeer friend, Sven (also voiced by Groff).

What ensues is a complicated mythology involving the elemental spirits of earth, fire, water and air — and a fifth, unnamed element that becomes clear about half-way through. It is a convoluted folklore that is resolved a bit too simply. Ultimately, what is lacking in the plot is true conflict. 

Much of Frozen was driven by the friction and misunderstanding of characters in action — all trying desperately to get what they want — building up to several powerful revelations. They were human and flawed and that made them all the more wonderful. The underlying theme was threaded throughout, and the climax was the wholly satisfying result of overcoming challenges and solving problems. Frozen II substitutes genuine tension and depth for a string of incidents and “adventures” that just don’t build to any surprises.

Image from Walt Disney Animation Studios

The sequel is now without its entertaining moments, and the score (by Lopez and Lopez-Anderson), while not approaching the first’s innovation and delight, is more than serviceable. Gad shines as the chatterbox Olaf, and a highlight is the snowman’s recapping of the entire first movie. It’s a delightful bit of madcap in a film that is sorely lacking moments of humor. Unlike the first that found a wryness even in the darkest moments, Frozen II feel relentlessly serious.  

The additional voice artists are not as well-served as they should be, with some very talented performers given what amounts to glorified cameos: Molina, Sisto, Evan Rachel Wood,  Martha Plimpton and Jason Ritter barely register. It is not so much the length of their screen time but the quality. Sterling K. Brown’s lieutenant shows great promise but  is unfortunately not developed nearly enough.  

There are several pieces that are clearly envisioned toward promotional items. The fire element turns out to be a very cute froglike creature that will no doubt be making its debut in Happy Meals across the country. Rock monsters and water horses are ideal of stickers and folders and whatever else the marketing department can dream up. And what is cuter than a reindeer? Lots of reindeers.

Pictorially, it is breathtaking. The images are beautiful, and there is never a false or inconsistent moment in its landscape. The characters are animated with honesty and project genuine emotion. The fantastic elements are gloriously realized in a true rainbow of variety. But it is this triumph of style over substance that makes the movie fall short on its ability to engage. The film feels not just long but stretched. The scenes meander and then seem to be repeated again 10 minutes later. There is a great deal of padding in the 100+ minutes.

Conceptually, Frozen II probably seemed to be a great idea on paper and, certainly, in its artists’ eyes, it is. One could just wish for a little more fire under the snow.

Angelina Jolie returns as the horned antagonist in the Maleficent sequel.

By Heidi Sutton

It’s been five years since Disney brought us the fairy tale Maleficent, a twist on the story of Sleeping Beauty where the focus is not on Aurora who falls into a deep sleep after pricking her finger on a spindle but on the evil fairy who put a curse on the princess in the first place.

Now its darker sequel, Maleficent: Mistress of Evil hits local theaters and does not disappoint. King Stefan is dead and Aurora has been raised by her fairy godmother Maleficent in the Moors, a magical place filled with strange and mythical creatures. Humans and fairies live separate but in peace.

Aurora meets her future mother-in-law in a scene from Maleficent 2.

When Aurora becomes engaged to Prince Phillip, his parents, King John and Queen Ingrith of the Kingdom of Ulstead, invite Aurora and Maleficent to the castle for dinner. It is there that we discover the queen’s true intentions — to frame Maleficent for the murder of the king in order to have cause to declare war on the Moorfolk with devastating consequences.

Fans of the first film will be pleased to know that much of the original cast is back, with the exception of Brenton Thwaites who played Prince Phillip in the first film. Angelina Jolie is back as Maleficent complete with horns, wings and cheek prosthetics; Elle Fanning is the sweet Aurora; Sam Riley returns as Diaval, Maleficent’s loyal servant and pet raven; while Imelda Staunton, Juno Temple and Lesley Manville reprise their roles as pixies Knotgrass, Thistlewit and Flittle.

Newcomers include the handsome Harris Dickinson as Aurora’s prince, Robert Lindsay as King John, Chiwetel Ejiofor as Conall the Dark Fey and the incredible Michelle Pfeiffer as the villainous Queen Ingrith, aka Aurora’s future mother-in-law from hell.

A scene from Maleficent 2

It’s hard to figure out who director Joachim Ronning’s target audience is. On the one hand, the film is at times very violent, with an intense war scene between the humans and an army of dark fey, an attempted extermination of the Moorfolk in the palace’s church of all places and the sacrifice of one of the film’s most beloved characters. On the flip side, many of the Moors’ inhabitants are borderline silly with big eyes and cute voices and seemed geared toward children.

With a budget of $180 million, the film is visually stunning with special mention to the  scene where an injured Maleficent is rescued by her own kind and given a winged tour of a secret world where the dark fey eek out an existence away from humans. (I predict a new ride at Disney World.) 

In the end, the wedding of Aurora and Phillip serves as a union of the Kingdom of Ulstead and the Moors and a timely lesson against fear, bigotry, racism and intolerance and that makes it worth a view.

Rated PG, Maleficent: Mistress of Evil is now playing in local theaters

Photos courtesy of Disney Studios

 

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.

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

By Heidi Sutton

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

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

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

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

Renée Zellweger stars as Judy Garland in the new biopic.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photos courtesy LD Entertainment and Roadside Attractions

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

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

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

A scene from ‘Downton Abbey’

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

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

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

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

A scene from ‘Downtown Abbey

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photos by Jaap Buitendijk, Focus Features

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