Authors Posts by Jeffrey Sanzel

Jeffrey Sanzel

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Author Sarah Beth Durst with a copy of her new book, 'Spy Ring.' Photo by Heidi Sutton

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

The prolific and talented writer Sarah Beth Durst has published over two dozen books, with several reviewed in this publication: The Stone Girl’s Story, The Bone Maker, The Deepest Blue, Even and Odd, and most recently, the thriller The Lake House. Durst has a particular gift for world-building, which is most prevalent in her fantasy works. With the Young Adult novel Spy Ring [HarperCollins/Clarion Books], she embarks on a different setting—Long Island and the very real Setauket and its environs. 

Rachel and Joon have been best friends since kindergarten, when they bonded over a pirate fantasy. Now, eleven years old, in July, between fifth and sixth grade, they have decided to be spies. Additionally, the inseparable pair are facing Joon’s imminent move out of the district, both fearing the toll the distance will take on their friendship.

Rachel’s mother is marrying Dave, her longtime boyfriend, of whom Rachel likes and approves. Rachel overhears Dave telling her mother that he wants to give Rachel a family heirloom, a ring that might have belonged to Anna “Nancy” Smith Strong. Strong was possibly the only known female member of the famed Culper Spy Ring that fed vital information to George Washington from 1778 to 1783. (Thus, the double meaning of the title.) Given an opportunity, Rachel sneaks a look at the ring. Engraved on the inside is “August 1 6, 17 13. Find me.” With this first clue, Rachel and Joon initiate a quest to solve the significance of this cryptic inscription. 

Rachel and Joon’s search takes Nancy off the page and makes her real to the two young detectives. The story briskly zig-zags throughout the Three Village area, with visits to the Setauket Presbyterian Church’s cemetery and Patriots Rock, Emma S. Clark Memorial Library, the Vance Locke murals at Setauket Elementary School, the Setauket Village Green, Frank Melville Memorial Park, the Setauket Grist Mill, and Caroline Episcopal Church. Durst describes each locale colorfully but succinctly as their hunt becomes an almost “history alive.” Central to the quest is time spent at the invaluable Three Village Historical Society, where they receive help, insight, and encouragement.

Durst has a terrific sense of humor, with the pair garnering one clue by remembering “the worst field trip ever.” She also gives insight into the complicated issue of historical accuracy.

“‘Sometimes historians make mistakes […] or more often, they don’t have all the information yet […] reconstructing history is like piecing together a puzzle where there’s no picture on the box, half the pieces have fallen on the floor, and the cat has eaten a quarter of them. You try to guess what the picture looks like as best you can with what you have.’”

Rachel and Joon learn that the Culper Spy Ring was the most effective espionage organization of the Revolutionary War. None of the spies ever admitted to being spies in their lifetime. Everything is theory, but much unearthed evidence supports these hypotheses. 

The author nimbly weaves historical facts and intriguing gems that paint a vivid picture of the time. She vibrantly imparts Rachel’s excitement:

The fizzing feeling was back. She had in her possession the ring of a spy who’d defied her enemies, aided George Washington, and helped found America. Even better, this spy had sent a message with her ring: Find me. This felt like the moment right before the sun poked over the horizon. Or right before a batch of dark clouds dumped buckets of rain. Or right before she bit into a fresh slice of pizza. 

The ability to communicate not just the narrative but the roiling feelings of the young—this aptly labeled “fizzing”—separates Durst from many less accomplished YA writers. The narrative is more than a mystery but a real novel of summer—of bike rides and bonds that run deep, about the fear of loss and the expectations of the future. 

One of the most evocative descriptions is that of a school during vacation:

It felt so strange to be in the school in July. The hallways looked as if they’d been abandoned. Half the bulletin boards were naked—only plain brown paper with a few leftover staples. Some staples had tufts of colorful construction paper stuck to them, like bits of party food caught in one’s teeth. 

Perfectly conjured is the combination of stillness and expectation. “It was strange to see a classroom without any students in it, in addition to the empty halls. It felt as if the whole school were holding its breath.”

A ring, a stone, a key, a powder horn, a codebook, a family Bible—even rudimentary invisible ink—are all part of this journey that is not so much historical fiction but history adjacent. 

In the end, one of the most powerful statements is the realization of why Strong left the clues. Rachel recognizes that “[Nancy] wanted someone to see her.” Sarah Beth Durst’s engaging Spy Ring offers two heroes. The first is a woman who may or may not have been the burgeoning nation’s Agent 355. The second is a spirited, insightful young person in a lively, magical adventure story.

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Meet the author at a book launch hosted by the Three Village Historical Society at the Setauket Neighborhood House, 95 Main St., Setauket on Monday, May 20 at 7 p.m. The event is free. To pre-register, visit www.tvhs.org. For more information, visit www.sarahbethdurst.com.

A scene from 'Unfrosted'. Photo courtesy of Netflix

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

Oh, for the comedic integrity of Sid and Marty Krofft’s 1971 Lidsville. The creators of H.R. Pufnstuf, The Bugaloos, and Sigmund and the Sea Monsters offered a world populated by talking hats. Compared with Netflix’s Unfrosted, the anthropomorphized Saturday morning toppers were comic gold along the lines of Chaplin, Keaton, and Larry David. 

Unfrosted tells the fictional tale of the creation of the Pop-Tart. The premise hinges on the 1963 toaster pastry battle between Kellogg and Post, in Battle Creek, Michigan. Jerry Seinfeld directed, co-wrote, co-produced, and stars as Bob Cabana, a Kellogg executive. So, guess who is responsible for this overbaked, leaden soufflé? 

The film attempts to be “ZANY!!!” (Yes: all caps, bold, italics, underlined, and three exclamation marks. Perhaps “zzz-any” would have been a better summation.) Rarely has so much energy and celebrity power been squandered on forced, unfunny material as artificial as Pop-Tarts themselves. Strawberry Pop-Tarts contain less than two percent dried strawberries. Unfrosted contains less than two percent real comedy. (Maybe the film needed an injection of soybean and palm oil with tBHQ for freshness.)

The film’s humor is low-hanging fruit (there are those dried strawberries again). Unfrosted spoofs corporate espionage, the moon landing, awards shows (the Bowl and Spoon Awards), genetic engineering (a ravioli stuffed with Sea Monkeys escapes the lab), the Cuban Missile Crisis, and a dangerous milk syndicate. A benign throughline about disgruntled product mascots, led by Frosted Flakes’ Tony the Tiger, becomes a tasteless and horrifying send-up of January 6. 

With witty dialogue including “What are you, some kind of ding dong?” and “Uh-Oh! Spaghetti O’s!” along with punchlines relying on dumpster diving, former Nazi scientists, and high fructose corn syrup, how could they go right? (And just when you think it is over, there is a full-cast song with bloopers and outtakes.)

Seinfeld recruited and sadly misused a first-rate roster. Melissa McCarthy is Donna Stankowski, Cabana’s former cohort who went to NASA. Here, she turns in her standard comedy-for-paycheck performance. Jim Gaffigan blusters as Edsel Kellogg III, playing opposite Amy Schumer’s uncomfortable Marjorie Post. Hugh Grant appears as a version of Hugh Grant as Thurl Ravenscroft, the Shakespearean actor who is the rebellious Tony the Tiger. 

For no apparent reason, the research team is composed of Jack LaLanne (James Marsden), Steve Schwinn (Jack McBrayer), Harold von Brauhnut (Thomas Lennon), Chef Boyardee (Bobby Moynihan), and Tom Carvel (Adrian Martinez). Cumulatively, they do not manage more than one-and-a-half dimensions and two-and-a-half laughs. 

Most of the starry company feature in a handful of brief scenes. Christian Slater as a smilingly sinister milkman. Bill Burr’s sexed-up John F. Kennedy (with the gratuitous Marilyn Monroe references) is matched by Dean Norris’s Nikita Krushchev, a mumbling version of Bullwinkle and Rocky’s arch-enemy, Boris Badenov. Peter Dinklage is amusing as Harry Friendly, leader of the milk syndicate, and John Slattery and Jon Hamm’s Mad Men ad men are a welcome surprise (until they start pitching, and then it’s back to business as usual). Kyle Dunnigan’s Walter Cronkite presents a decent impersonation, but jokes about Cronkite’s bad marriage (huh?) fall flat. Dozens more fill out the cast in supporting roles and cameos. One hopes everyone was well paid or at least given a good lunch. 

Visually, Unfrosted appears in a Barbie style that seems like a brighter version of Asteroid City or Don’t Worry, Darling—that late 1950s/early 1960s hyper vibrance. Cinematographer William Pope, editor Evan Henke, production designer Clayton Hartley, and costume designer Susan Matheson provide what little style the film achieves. 

On April 29, Netflix released a promo explaining that Unfrosted referenced two hundred and twenty-one trademarked breakfast cereals without permission or legal clearance. The promo runs two minutes and thirteen seconds. The film lasts ninety-six minutes. Do yourself a favor: Skip both. 

Mike Faist and Zendaya in a scene from the film. Photo courtesy of MGM Studios

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

The plethora of sports films would take up pages, if not volumes. From comedies (Bull Durham, A League of Their Own) to dramas (Rocky, The Boys in the Boat) to the better left undefined (Space Jam?), cinema has often trained its eye on everything from football (Friday Night Lights) to curling (Men with Brooms). While not as popular as baseball or football, tennis is featured in films such as King Richard, Borg vs. McEnroe, 7 Days in Hell, Wimbledon, and even the thriller Match Point. 

Zendaya plays tennis star Tashi Duncan in ‘Challengers’. Photo courtesy of MGM Studios

Challengers presents doubles partners and best friends Patrick Zweig (Josh O’Connor) and Art Donaldson (Mike Faist). After a bold win, they meet superstar Tashi Duncan (Zendaya). All are high school seniors on the cusp of entering college, though Tashi has the skills and ferocity to skip the university level for a professional career. The boys are immediately smitten with the independent Tashi and vie for her affection. Tashi and Art attend Stanford and play college tennis. Patrick turns professional, carrying on a fractious long-distance relationship with Tashi. Early on, Tashi suffers a knee injury, ending her career. She shifts her focus and becomes Art’s coach and then wife.

Challengers is a lust triangle that zig-zags through thirteen years. Beginning in the present of 2019, the film flashes backward and forward through time. Sometimes, the narrative returns to the beginning and sometimes to just a few days prior. Unobtrusive but necessary title cards clarify the time frame, removing the guesswork. Given the short time span and the aging of late teens to early thirties, it would have been almost impossible to follow without them. Notwithstanding changes in hairstyle and facial hair, the outward changes to the characters are minor.

Director Luca Guadagnino is known for his bold style and surprising choices. His most popular film, Call Me by Your Name, garnered numerous accolades, with substantial nominations and awards. His other films have included the violent remake of the horror film Suspiria and the “cannibal love story” Bones and All. He does not shy away from crossing lines or making an impact. 

Josh O’Connor and Zendaya in a scene from the film. Photo courtesy of MGM Studios

Strangely, with Challengers, he seems to pull his punches. Justin Kuritzkes’ functional screenplay is at its best when it draws on the similarities between sex and tennis. Perhaps intentionally, it makes the latter far more exciting and passionate. Challengers takes a benign stab at privilege with Art and Patrick as boarding school boys who have been roommates since they were twelve. Later, Patrick tries to put himself forward as the starving athlete living in his car. Tashi calls him out on the façade. This provides one of the few references to the nature of their indulgence and her place as an outsider. Much has been made of the trailer’s indication of another layer to the menage, but the film skirts around this, with nods towards the homoerotic but never fully embracing it. 

Where the film succeeds is in the three central performances (no one else gets much of a look in). Faist makes the sweeter, more conservative Art as likable as possible, showing an easy but often brittle charm. O’Connor gives Patrick a certain amount of doubt and introspection, even when his behavior is terrible. The sense that he is always on the edge softens an otherwise narcissistic individual. 

But Zendaya owns the film, bringing raw energy to the femme fatale struggling with her constantly shifting and mixed feelings about these two man-children. She balances an electric presence with unspoken frustrations and even simmering rage. She makes every moment, every beat count. She is both queen and pawn. Is she a homewrecker or a victim? 

As a tight ensemble, the trio owns the shifting dynamics, which are interesting and intense as they try but fail to define themselves. The repetitions and changing of partners create a sort of interpersonal hell where, ultimately, none are winners. Rages lead to broken rackets; disappointments lead to double-crossing. 

The tennis is filmed with energy and style, bringing as much excitement and edge to the game. Even the peripatetic timeline enhances the somewhat predictable plot. But where the film frustrates is its overuse of slow motion and a heavy-handed, pulsing soundtrack, adding minutes that become endless. Dwelling on predictable cuts, sweaty faces, hard stares, and triumphant grimaces eventually feels like a parody. 

Judicious editing, trimming to a lean ninety minutes, would have made the film a winner. However, Challengers at two hours and eleven minutes is just challenging.

Rated R, Challengers is now playing in local theaters.

'Food, Inc. 2'. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

In 2008, Robert Kenner co-wrote and directed the documentary Food, Inc., a searing indictment of the food industry that exposed many of the darkest elements of corporate America’s stranglehold. The film laid bare the unhealthy practices and abuse of animals and industry employees. Additionally, it exposed the handful of companies that ruthlessly controlled the entire market. The film mixed interviews with graphic imagery and segue animations. The brutal but eye-opening film received an Academy Award nomination for Best Documentary Feature. 

Bren Smith, a fisherman turned kelp farmer, is featured in the documentary.
Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

Now Kenner and producer Melissa Robledo have co-directed the sequel: Food, Inc. 2. The film opens with the impact of the pandemic: The consolidated food system revealed itself as too brittle to weather unpredictability. Further, a lack of protocols failed to protect workers from COVID-19 and the spread of contamination. This transitions into an exploration of immigrant workers manipulated by the system and treated as disposable.

Just as in Food, Inc., the film targets the largest companies. In particular, the Tyson Waterloo meatpacking plant in Iowa comes under fire for refusal to contact trace, leading to 1,300 out of 2,500 employees contracting COVID. The illness seeped into the community, causing exponential deaths. Tyson used fear tactics to pressure Washington to enact the Defense Production Act to keep their slaughterhouses open. And perhaps it is this ongoing corruption that is the heart of the sequel—the blood money that keeps monopolies in power. The four largest meat companies control 85% of the market. 

The film is a portrait of David and Goliath, with small farmers and small businesses crushed by the mega-conglomerates. In addition to dominating the markets, these companies drain water sources, destroy land, and raise animals in tortuous conditions. It is a story of nature vs. capitalism and profits vs. sustainability. Commodity crops—notably corn and soybean—are subsidized by the government. These two items are the pillars of the industrialized food system. 

Food, Inc. 2 focuses a great deal on “ultra-processed food” that relies on chemical flavoring and novelty to create synthetic, ingestible products that lead to addiction, obesity, and other systemic health strains. This destructive food environment offers larger portions, obsession with constant eating, and the cry of “Eat more! Eat more! Eat more!” 

The film touches on a workforce crushed by horrific working conditions, wage theft, and even forced labor. Kenner and Robledo address climate change and global warming. However, the film shows changes in the laws, citing the Fair Food Agreement. It offers the alternatives explored in the food sciences: meat without animals, milk without cows, honey without bees, kelp farming, etc. It highlights the closed loop of a sustainable system with a more natural approach to land and sea stewardship. 

In all this is the haunting question of whether there has been any real change over the last sixteen years—or only the appearance of change. 

Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

Eric Schlosser (Fast Food Nation) and Michael Pollan (The Omnivores Dilemma) host the second film. Their incisive and eloquent presences area welcome support to the narrative. There are interviews with farmers, fishermen, doctors, and scientists. An interesting thread deals with a scientist hired by PepsiCo to explore the relationship between sweetness and calories. When she reported her findings to the giant corporation, it cut off her funding.

One of the most effective testimonies is a fast-food worker who shares the plight of many Americans struggling to survive. She lived out of her car for several years, trying to feed her two children. She has worked for McDonald’s, Popeye’s, and Taco Bell. She reminds us that the average fast-food worker is not a teenager looking to break into the job market, but a thirty-year-old woman with no health care or sick leave. “I’m tired, and nobody knows how tired I am except for the people who go through it like me.” Her story is one of the most powerful in the entire film. 

Among the talking heads is New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, a member of the Agricultural Committee, who vocalizes his desire to fix the broken food system. Montana Senator Jon Tester, a farmer with a firsthand knowledge of the death of family agriculture and mass exodus off the land, complements him. 

Food, Inc. 2 is an important film but not a great one. While it covers a certain amount of new ground and ends on a more hopeful note, its impact is “less than,” and its effect strangely tacit. The immediacy is not as present, giving the sequel a meandering feel. It is not that it lacks edge, but the blade is the same and slightly duller. Cinematically, it approaches the material in an almost identical fashion. A sense of visual repetition makes the film less surprising and ultimately less engaging. Repetitive footage of farms, labs, and grocery aisles becomes predictable. 

But the final message is significant: Individuals can make a difference. “Use your fork, your vote, your voice.”

Food, Inc. 2 is now streaming on Apple TV, Amazon Prime and Vudu. 

Anthony Hopkins stars as Sir Nicholas Winton in 'One Life'. Photo courtesy of See-Saw Films

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

Early in One Life, twenty-nine-year-old London stockbroker Nicholas Winton (Johnny Flynn) visits a makeshift camp in the center of Prague in 1938. Here, the mostly Jewish displaced families from Germany and Austria who fled the Nazi regime live in homeless squalor and starvation. 

Encountering child after child, he produces a half-eaten chocolate bar, which he proceeds to divvy among the starving children. Of course, there is not enough. In this moment, director James Hawes brilliantly shows Winton’s tacit epiphany: he must rescue these young victims. 

Above, Johnny Flynn as the young Nicholas Winton. Photo courtesy of See-Saw Films

Over the next ninety minutes, the brisk, brutal, and beautiful film alternates between young Winton and the seventy-nine-year-old Winton (Anthony Hopkins) struggling with divesting remnants of his mammoth undertaking, symbolized by the briefcase given to him when he committed to helping the refugees’ plight. The briefcase is home to a scrapbook chronicling the entire undertaking.

While the film shifts in time, each section proceeds in a simple, linear fashion. The narrative is clear, with the story focusing on the action played out under the shadow of the encroaching Nazi invasion. Winton takes on the British government, negotiating immigration. Additionally, he finds hundreds of foster families. One Life makes paperwork and red tape a visceral issue of life and death. The scenes in Prague are vivid and harsh and truly haunting, calling to mind equally difficult images of current events. 

Winton becomes an active member of the Prague office of the British Committee for Refugees from Czechoslovakia (BCRC), headed by the formidable Doreen Warriner (Romola Garai). Devastating scenes of parents sending their children away and of sibling separation contrast with the cold British offices. 

Winton managed to get eight trains, with six hundred and sixty-nine children, from Czechoslovakia to London. The Nazi invasion of Poland stopped the ninth train, which contained three hundred and fifty children. Their fate, like so many, would be the Nazi death camps.

Anthony Hopkins plays the older Winton.
Photo courtesy of See-Saw Films

One Life is about faith in regular people, a tribute—as Winton declares of their coterie—to “an army of the ordinary.” Quiet but adamantly dogged in his pursuit of humanitarian aid, Winton is joined by his mother, Babi (Helena Bonham Carter). Babi is a Jewish-German immigrant who converted to the Church of England. Both sensitive and a voice of reason, she reminds Winton, “You cannot save them all. You must forgive yourself that.”

The 1988 section of the film shows Winton trying to decide what to do with the final remnants of these historical records. His internal struggle leads to his appearance on the crass but popular television show That’s Life. The recreation of his two appearances highlights the contemporary portion, allowing Winton to reconnect to the lives he saved. (The actual footage of the real Winton is available online and featured in the documentary The Power of Good: Nicholas Winton.)

Lucinda Coxon and Nick Drake thoughtfully crafted a tight, taut screenplay from daughter Barbara Winton’s account of her father, If It’s Not Impossible … The Life of Nicholas Winton. James Hawes’ powerful direction is matched by Zac Nicholson’s stark, desaturated cinematography and perfectly complemented by Lucia Zucchetti’s sharp editing.  

The ensemble cast is uniformly strong. Hopkins, one of the greatest actors of our time, offers nuance, introspection, and pain, presented with subtlety and sensitivity. He is the rare actor that you can watch think. Flynn is his equal as his contemplative, anxious, younger self.

As Babi, the terrific Bonham Carter is a matriarchal force of nature, balancing raw honesty and wry humor. Garai brings depth and pain to the no-nonsense Warriner. As Winton’s wife, Grete, Lena Olin provides a luminous grounding, showing her deep love for the conflicted Winton. Jonathan Pryce is warm and knowing as Martin Blake, the older version of one of the BCRC members. Samuel Finzi’s scene as the Prague Rabbi Hertz presents a poignant meditation on complicated fears in the Czech Jewish community. 

But the performances that resonate above all are the children who play the refugees: they transcend the screen to create a heartbreaking reality.

According to the film, twenty-six thousand Jewish Czechoslovakian children were interred in concentration camps. Fewer than two hundred and fifty survived. Sir Nicholas Winton died at age one hundred and six, a man who never wanted the work to be about him. His legacy is some six thousand descendants because of the rescue mission. One Life is a genuine, gut-wrenching, but ultimately uplifting account of the ability of one person to make a difference.

Rated PG, the film is now playing in local theaters.

Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach’s Barbie is most deserving for Best Adapted Screenplay.

By Tim Haggerty and Jeffrey Sanzel

The 96th Academy Awards will be held on March 10 at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood. Oppenheimer leads with thirteen nominations, followed by Poor Things with eleven and Killers of the Flower Moon with ten. Even the most basic speculation is subjective, but here are some thoughts on the contenders.

The primary artist is the writer. If the writing is poor, nothing follows. So, to begin: 

Best Original Screenplay. For pure storytelling, Anatomy of a Fall dealt powerfully with a woman accused of pushing her husband off a balcony. Played out almost entirely at the trial, the script succeeds on the level of Twelve Angry Men. Possible spoilers could be The Holdovers or Past Lives, with screenplays providing poignant performance opportunities. An honorary mention goes to May December, which offered a brutal look at Hollywood’s nearly perverse obsession with biopics.

Best Adapted Screenplay. While a reflection of another’s work, these screenplays allow one to envision a story through a fresh prism. This year, the category is highly competitive. Zone of Interest is intense and visceral, but its success derives more from the visuals and not necessarily the script. Poor Things takes the book’s absurdity to eleven, elevating the original novel. American Fiction is strong when representation turns character into characterization. 

The frontrunner—Oppenheimer—is an extraordinary achievement of making the technical both accessible and thrilling. However, Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach’s Barbie is most deserving. After decades of failed attempts to bring Barbie to the screen, they triumphed far beyond expectations: “We mothers stand still so our daughters can see how far they’ve come.” 

Best Actress in a Supporting Role. Da’Vine Joy Randolph’s stellar performance in The Holdovers has swept this category in every major award. Her performance is the heart of an amazing film.

Best Actress in a Leading Role. Perhaps the hardest pick of the year, with frontrunners Emma Stone (Poor Things) and Lily Gladstone (Killers of the Flower Moon) running head-to-head (much like last season’s Michelle Yeoh and Cate Blanchett). While both are deserving, it will come down to maximalist versus minimalist: Poor Thing’s exclamation points or Flower Moon’s full stops. Regardless, the winner will lead to months of debate and discussion. Two major snubs in this category are Margot Robbie’s brilliant Barbie and Greta Lee for Past Lives.

Best Actor in a Supporting Role. Yes, Ryan Gosling was fun as Barbie’s Ken, but it is unlikely to garner him his first Oscar. Plain and simple, Robert Downey Jr. will take home the trophy for Oppenheimer. 

Best Actor in a Leading Role. While not as close as Leading Actress, the two major considerations are Cillian Murphy (Oppenheimer) and Paul Giamatti (The Holdovers). Giamatti would be victorious in another year, but Murphy’s monumental Oppenheimer carried a film that required a flawless performance at its helm. Not nominating Zac Efron’s moving portrayal in The Iron Claw, which highlighted the dangers of toxic masculinity, was an egregious slight.

Best Director. As seen in other categories, all the nominees would win years when they were not competing against each other. This is especially true of Yorgos Lanthimos’s work on Poor Things. But there is no question that Christopher Nolan will take home the trophy for Oppenheimer. A master of the craft, Paul Thomas Anderson’s praise for Nolan’s Dunkirk applies here: “It’s great to still be able to see someone’s film and think ‘How the —- did he do that?” And that statement is the same for Oppenheimer. The most brutal snub of the year is unquestionably Greta Gerwig’s absence from a directorial nomination for Barbie. Her exceptional vision deserves accolades and highlights the industry’s systemic problems.

Best Picture. This year in film has been the best since before the COVID-19 pandemic. Once again, every film deserves an award for its own elements. But ultimately, Oppenheimer was the biggest artistic (if not financial) success. A work unlike any other, the film checks every box.

So, on Sunday night, settle in with your popcorn and see how the drama unfolds!

Bonus Quick Picks:

Documentary Short Film. While ABC’s of Book Burning will win, Nai Nai & Wai Po is a beautiful, gentle story.

Documentary Feature. 20 Days in Mariupol 

International Film. The Zone of Interest. (Honorable Mention: Perfect Days)

Live Action Short Film. Wes Anderson will get his first Oscar for his adaptation of Roald Dahl’s The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar.

Animated Feature Film. The Boy and the Heron

Original Song. A no-brainer: Billie Eilish’s Barbie tune: “What Was I Made for?”

Score. Oppenheimer will win over Poor Things, more avant-garde sound.

Visual Effects. Godzilla Minus One burns the competition. 

Sound. Oppenheimer will win, but Zone of Interest is most deserving.

Production Design. A tight race between Barbie and Poor Things—bringing back the forgotten artform of sound stage sets, both “authentically artificial.” The latter probably has the edge.

Makeup and Hairstyling. Poor Things

Costume. Barbie or Poor Things

Film Editing. Oppenheimer, but Killers of the Flower Moon could steal it.

Cinematography. Oppenheimer

 

Timothée Chalamet stars as chocolatier Willy Wonka. Photo courtesy of Warner Bros.

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

Among British author Roald Dahl’s best-known children’s novels are James and the Giant Peach, The Witches, Matilda, and Fantastic Mr. Fox. The hilarious but macabre tales garnered controversy for their darkness and violence, as well as racist and sexist bents. However, his work remains popular, with many stage and screen adaptations. Published in 1964, his ninth and most popular book, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, followed a poor London boy, Charlie Bucket, and his venture in Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. To date, over twenty million copies have been sold in fifty-five different languages. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory takes its place with classics such as Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, The Wind in the Willows, and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. 

While Dahl vocally disliked the 1971 Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, it remains a visually clever, entertaining, and original film. Gene Wilder’s enigmatic, eccentric, and underplayed Wonka contrasts smartly with Jack Albertson’s likably gruff Grandpa Joe and a group of excellent child actors supported by equally strong adults. The film does not ignore Dahl’s vision that children can be selfish and often reprehensible. Tim Burton’s divisive and polarizing 2005 Charlie and the Chocolate Factory claimed to return to the Dahl’s original. But the unpleasant film was hampered by John August’s shrill script and Johnny Depp’s disturbing Michael Jackson-like Wonka.

Sam Mendes directed the stage musical Charlie and the Chocolate Factory in London’s West End, which ran for over three and a half years. However, the Broadway transfer barely eked out nine months. 

The prequel Wonka offers a technicolor glimpse into the early life of the inventor. Director Paul King (best known for the popular Paddington and Paddington 2 films) co-wrote the screenplay with Simon Farnaby. With a potential for a rich and exciting story, King and Farnaby deliver a pedestrian, often tedious, and surprisingly bland prequel.

Timothée Chalamet as Willy Wonka and Hugh Grant as Lofty the Oompa Loompa in a scene from ‘Wonka.’ Photo courtesy of Warner Bros.

Opening with the strains of Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley’s “Pure Imagination,” Willy Wonka (Timothée Chalamet) boisterously arrives in an unnamed European city. The magician-inventor-chocolatier aims to open a candy shop at the Galeries Gourmet. Quickly, the city bilks the eager youth of his pocketful of sovereigns. Additionally, he comes up against the city’s Chocolate Cartel: Arthur Slugworth (Paterson Joseph), Gerald Prodnose (Matt Lucas), and Felix Ficklegruber (Mathew Baynton).

Broke, with no place to sleep, the brutish Bleacher (Tom Davis) guides Wonka to a boarding house run by the sly Mrs. Scrubitt (Olivia Coleman). Ignoring the fine print, Wonka signs a one-night contract that sentences the boy to work in Scrubitt’s prison-like laundry. There he meets other victims of the Scrubitt and Bleacher plot: orphan Noodle (Calah Lane), Abacus Crunch (Downton Abbey’s Jim Carter), plumber Piper Benz (Natasha Rothwell), switchboard operator Lottie Bell (Rakhee Thakrar), and failed standup comedian Larry Chucklesworth (Rich Fulcher). 

With Noodle’s support, Wonka hatches a scheme to sell illicit chocolate around the city, using the sewers as a means and mode. Eventually, the Cartel destroys Wonka’s legally established store on its opening day.

King and Farnaby have gathered the components of an entertaining, if by-the-numbers plot. However, rather than seeking novel inspirations, the story rehashes successful and more effective predecessors. Elements of Oliver!, Annie, Matilda, and Newsies are “borrowed.” Coleman wickedly chews the scenery, but the character is a clumsy hybrid of Miss Hannigan, Widow Corney, and even Les Misérables’ Madame Thenardier. Her cohort, Davis, is a Disney thug come to life. (Their relationship is not for the younger audience.) 

Wonka’s underground team means well but is given so little development the resolutions to their stories hardly register. The Cartel is an amusing trio, but their predictable bits wear thin. Keegan-Michael Key’s chocolate-addicted chief of police becomes a running fat joke, and Rowan Atkinson’s corrupt Father Julius is just another one of his clerical buffoons. (However, the singing monks make for a clever aside.) The CGI-ed Oompa-Loompa, Lofty, allows Hugh Grant to display his wonderfully wry style. Still, the Oompa-Loompa subplot barely registers and contradicts most of the known Dahl mythology of the diminutive tribe. 

And it is perhaps here where Wonka fails strongly: it lacks the flavor of Dahl’s brilliant, distinctly edgy, and wildly unpredictable world. Nothing separates the film from dozens of children’s movies that build to a caper ending (here, replete with a giraffe and flamingos). Neil Hannon’s original songs offer ersatz melodies and dull lyrics. (Clearly, King and Farnaby were not unaware of this: they use “Pure Imagination” as a finale and have even brought back the Oompa-Loompa song with new lyrics.) Even the visuals seem strangely muted.

As for Wonka’s center, Chalamet is not without charm, but his performance is nothing mercurial or unexpected. The spark that will catch fire to the later Wonka is absent. Whether he is miscast or it is a failure of the material itself (most likely a combination), Wonka must be more than just likable. He must be “more than.” And Chalamet, for all his warmth, is not Wonka.

The creators had an opportunity to give insight into one of the most intriguing icons of twentieth-century children’s literature and produce a bright, thrilling odyssey. While Wonka could have soared as Mary Poppins, it instead lands with the thud of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

Rated PG, Wonka is now playing in local theaters.

From left, Eddie Murphy, Jillian Bell and Madison Thomas in a scene from the film. Photo courtesy of Amazon Prime

By Jeffrey Sanzel

The Faust story continually appears on stage and screen. Whether complicit or duped, someone—almost always a man—makes a deal with a satanic figure in exchange for a particular gratification. All That Money Can Buy (also known as The Devil and Daniel Webster) and Angel Heart exemplify the darker side. Damn Yankees!, Bedazzled (the original 1967 and its 2000 remake), and Oh, God! You Devil skew lighter. Now on Amazon Prime, Candy Cane Lane is a guileless, uninspired take on the legend.

Just days before Christmas, Chris Carver (Eddie Murphy) is part of a callous layoff by California’s Sydel Twain Industrial Plastics. Simultaneously, the already cut-throat neighborhood decorating competition receives a boost from local Prism Cable, offering $100,000 for the most festive house. Year after year, Chris has decked his home and yard with beautifully carved and hand-crafted pieces but has consistently lost to his shrill neighbors, Bruce and Suz (Ken Marino and Riki Lindhome), who populate their dwelling with crass inflatables. 

Determined to win the prize, Chris happens upon the mysterious Kringle’s, a Christmas shop located beneath an underpass, looking much like the toy store in Jingle Jangle. The proprietor, an elf named Pepper (Jillian Bell), coaxes Chris into a trove of large purchases. Chris signs the receipt without reading the fine print, a sinister contract that will turn him into one of her animated glass ornaments. The centerpiece of the decorations is a massive “Twelve Days of Christmas” Tree, which comes to life. Most of the film is taken up with the chase to acquire the “Golden Rings” that will break the spell. 

The premise is simple, and the action is predictable. Murphy is pleasantly understated and once again proves his easy, likable charm. Tracee Ellis Ross plays his wife, Carol, an executive on the cusp of a big promotion. She demonstrates the same wry command she showed in the series Blackish (basically the same character). They have three children: college-bound Joy (Genneya Walton), a struggling student but gifted musician Nick (Thaddeus J. Mixson), and the sweet, innocent youngest Holly (Madison Thomas). The older two children harbor secrets, which, when revealed, help solve the challenges the family faces. (Please note the lack of subtlety: Chris, Carol, Joy, Nick, Holly.)

Chris is aided and advised by three of Pepper’s previous victims, now glass figurines: Pip, Lamplighter Gary, and Cordelia (voiced by Nick Offerman, Chris Redd, and Robin Thede, respectively). The vocal group Pentatonix is a nice touch, as out-of-control carolers who are also under the enchantment.

The major problems with Candy Cane Lane are Kelly Younger’s meandering script and Reginald Hudlin’s pedestrian direction. Neither committed to a tone or style, with constant shifts from traditional holiday fare to fantasy to topical satire to family drama to slapstick to sitcom to … occasional flashes of genuine wit nod toward the premise’s possibility. 

Prism hosts Emerson (Timothy Simons) and Kit (Danielle Pinnock) are genuinely funny, especially in the revelation of the prize status. A chaotic glimpse of Walmart followed by Target is smartly perceptive. A Hannukah house tops a Matrix-themed home in outrageousness. But these sparks get lost in the boomerang of treacly messages.

The film relies mostly on Murphy and Ross’s chemistry, along with some nice effects. The children play as many shades as possible within the limitations of the writing. Bell seems lost as Pepper, not finding the fun in her villain. “What’s Christmas without a little terror?” stated as the true meaning of the holiday seems unsure. Her joke about “human-splaining Christmas” falls flat. One wishes she was allowed to let loose rather than play Pepper like a Saturday morning children’s show baddy. Redd is hilarious as Lamplighter Gary, landing some of the biggest laughs. David Alan Grier smartly assays his contemporary Santa with just the right amount of wink.

A track meet dealing with “The Ten Lords a Leaping” and a quick debate about Die Hard as a Christmas movie furnish nice moments. (Though the “Maids a Milking” has an uncomfortable horror movie edge.) And the payoff of the “Five Golden Rings” contains genuine heart. 

Ultimately, the biggest problem is the sluggish pacing. Additionally, the film would have benefited from a shorter running time. Eighty minutes of break-neck whimsy would have played better than the nearly two hours of fits and starts. A mathematical loophole in Pepper’s contract adds twenty-plus minutes for a labored farcical finale. 

While benign if slightly saccharine, Candy Cane Lane is destined to be a lesser seasonal offering, an empty stocking to be packed away and forgotten.

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Joaquin Phoenix as Napoleon Bonaparte in one of the expansive battle scenes of Ridley Scott’s 'Napoleon.' Photo courtesy of Apple Original Films/Columbia Pictures

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

Director Ridley Scott’s career spans over four decades. His earliest films include Alien (1979), Blade Runner (1982), Legend (1985), and Thelma and Louise (1991). Gladiator (2000) garnered twelve Oscar nominations, winning five, including Best Picture. Scott received three nominations for Best Director: Thelma and Louise, Gladiator, and Black Hawk Down (2001). Additional nominations include three British Academy Film Awards (BAFTA), four Golden Globe Awards for Best Director, and two Primetime Emmy Awards. So … shame on you, Mr. Scott.

His latest contribution to the world of overstuffed, overlong, and overdone cinema is the one-hundred-and-fifty-seven-minute Napoleon, a biopic of staggering boredom. Passionless and plodding, the film’s sole strengths are in its excellent visuals, with brutal (albeit seemingly repetitive) battles. 

A scene from Ridley Scott’s ‘Napoleon.’ Photo courtesy of Apple Original Films/Columbia Pictures

A great deal has already surfaced about the film’s historical inaccuracies: Napoleon was not present at the execution of Marie Antoinette; he did not order his troupes to fire on the Pyramids of Giza; he never charged into battle; he never came face-to-face with the Duke of Wellington; there was no giant frozen lake at Austerlitz. But a film does not have to be a history lesson. 

Apocrypha—and even invention—can be forgivable in the name of art, insight, or entertainment. The latter cavils are two of the better moments in Napoleon. The Austerlitz confrontation is powerful but has also been seen in the film’s trailers, spoiling the most dramatic sequence. Napoleon’s meeting with Wellington aboard the HMS Bellerophon contains one of the few moments of dramatic subtext. But a handful of moments do not rescue this Waterloo.

Napoleon opens in 1793, at the height of the Reign of Terror during France’s French Revolution, and ends in 1821, with Napoleon exiled on the island of Saint Helena. Absent of pacing, the story’s twenty-eight years feel like they are playing in real-time. Scott announced he has a four-and-a-half hour cut. (Enough said.)

A scene from Ridley Scott’s ‘Napoleon.’ Photo courtesy of Apple Original Films/Columbia Pictures

Joaquin Phoenix plays Napoleon like a ventriloquist, his lips barely moving, his eyes vacant (somehow reminiscent of Jennifer Jason Leigh in Single White Female.) Occasionally, he throws an ineffectual temper tantrum to show the emperor’s immaturity—more man-child Stanley Kowalski than a legendary conqueror. When he discovers Joséphine’s infidelity, he whines like a frustrated teenager.

If this choice is to show his humanity, it is odd: Phoenix is distinctly modern, surrounded by a company playing some semblance of period style. Ultimately, Phoenix never loses himself in the character, and the audience remains aware of the actor making methodical choices for the sake of effect rather than motivation. (He also seems to live in his bicorne hat.) Vanessa Kirby’s Joséphine de Beauharnais is not without interest. She conveys thought and depth but feels distinctly unfinished. Her mercurial shifts seemed manufactured rather than rooted in emotional struggle. The fault lies in the script and direction, not the actors’ work.

The rest of the cast barely registers. The many cabinet members and historical denizens are interchangeable figures in costumes and wigs—albeit exceptional. Even the great Rupert Everett’s Wellington struggles to find individuality. The French street rabble wave and pump their fists like an overly eager community theatre production of Les Misérables. Oddly, the horrific deaths of the horses in battle convey stronger horror than the murder of the thousands of soldiers. 

A scene from Ridley Scott’s ‘Napoleon.’ Photo courtesy of Apple Original Films/Columbia Pictures

The battles are impressive, epically staged with hundreds of extras. But they seem almost generic. The military conflicts alternate with scenes of pomp and pageantry—balls and meals and a remarkable coronation, all gloriously and beautifully designed and executed. These contrast with scenes of domestic stagnation with Napoleon and Josephine sitting next to each other, staring blankly as if locked into a period spoof of Scenes from a Marriage. Whether it is the actors or the characters, the relationship lacks spark. The sexual encounters are painfully, unintentionally comic. (Or one would hope unintentionally.) Scott’s refusal to find a tonal center results in stretches that seem like a violent episode of Blackadder. 

In the end, Napoleon is mostly style and little substance. Oppenheimer made science and math riveting. Napoleon makes extraordinary political intrigue banal. With a story of power struggles, revolution, betrayals, and world-shattering choices—including the death of millions, the result is strangely hollow. With clunky dialogue and lacking a true core, Napoleon tries—and fails—to clothe this emperor. 

Rated R, the film is now playing in local theaters.

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Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel 

“I had a couple of script pages in my hands (my palms were also good and sweaty): I had six lines to read. The show, titled Happy Days, was to revolve around a group of wholesome high school kids in 1950s Milwaukee. The character I was reading was the group’s one renegade. His name was Arthur Fonzarelli, aka the Fonz.”

Henry Winkler fittingly opens his extraordinary autobiography Being Henry (Celadon Books) with his audition for the television sitcom that would make him one of the most memorable cultural icons of the 70s. Happy Days would run for eleven seasons: Winkler (along with Tom Bosley) would appear in all 255 episodes.

But Winkler is not solely defined by this. In a nearly sixty-year career, in addition to a wide range of acting, he has been a producer, a director, a philanthropist, and a children’s book author. With Being Henry, Winkler offers an honest, engaging, and thoroughly entertaining memoir. At that heart is a man who “can’t remember not feeling an intense need to perform.”

Born in New York City to German Jewish immigrants who fled Berlin in 1939, Winkler shares his difficult childhood with emotionally distant parents and dyslexia—undiagnosed until he was thirty-four. He “was the kid who couldn’t read, couldn’t spell, couldn’t even begin to do algebra, or geometry, or even basic arithmetic.” His failing grades led to humiliation; his parents referred to him as dummer Hund—dumb dog. With these challenges, he marvels at graduating from high school and college (a BA in drama from Emerson College, with a minor in psychology) and a Masters in acting (Yale School of Drama). 

From there, he paints a portrait of a struggling New York actor working in commercials to support low and non-paying theatre. His film break came with The Lords of Flatbush. Soon after, he moved to Hollywood, making a memorable guest appearance on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Continuing through rounds of auditions and disappointments, he landed the role of Fonzie when he was twenty-eight.

The career-defining rebel eventually became a bit of a trap, but Winkler shows enormous gratitude for Happy Days. He is particularly generous in praise of his colleagues on both sides of the camera. He is forthcoming about his relationship with the cast, especially Ron Howard, who was the original focus of the series. Howard’s frustration with the shift from ensemble to a Fonzie-centered show moved him towards his directorial pursuits. Winkler and Howard maintained a personal and professional relationship, with projects spanning from Night Shift to Arrested Development.

He claims many of his initial movie jobs came from fame and not necessarily talent; he spent years trying to escape the shadow of the Happy Days persona. “The truth was that the Fonz aside, I was half-baked as an actor. Self-conscious.” Few performers are as brave and self-reflective. 

Winkler is honest about his insecurities, his frugality, and even his occasions of obliviousness. He addresses the double-edged dangers of stardom. He talks about his verbosity, which increases when he is insecure or nervous. He admits when he feels disconnected or unsure, he talks too much.

He finds humor in his early failed romantic forays and smartly lets his wife, Stacey, speak for herself in various junctures in the book’s narrative. He does not shy away from his guilt and frustrations with intimacy and communication, something he did not fully deal with until therapy in the last decade. (He has been married to Stacey since 1978. He helped raise a son from her first marriage, and they have two children together. In addition, they have six grandchildren). 

After the Happy Days run, he did not act for seven years. Rather than retreating, he embarked on new vistas. He started a production company, began directing, and developed into a sought-after voice artist. Years later, he added best-selling children’s author, collaborating on twenty-eight “Hank Zipzer” novels about an elementary school student with dyslexia. The books became a well-received television series. 

Eventually, his acting career blossomed again. Scream, The Water Boy, and Royal Pains, along with “a string of authority figures lacking authority,” were hallmarks in later years. He returned to the stage, appearing in two Broadway productions, including a Neil Simon premiere.

His most recent sensation, HBO’s Barry, rewarded him with a much-deserved Primetime Emmy Award. (Note: He had already received two Daytime Emmy Awards.)

Winkler analyzes his initial meteoric fame and values its many gifts; he remains humble in his over half a century of remarkable and unique achievements. He is philosophical, embracing “that you couldn’t have known then what you know now. That only the process of living gets you there: you must do the work in order to eat the fruit of growing—of being.”

Henry Winkler’s beautiful account is, of course, a book for Happy Days fans. But it is also for readers seeking to understand the world of show business as told through a transparent and often profound narrator. And finally, Being Henry should be read by every actor or artist who has ever questioned their own value.

Being Henry: The Fonz…and Beyond is available on Amazon and at your local Barnes and Noble bookstore.