Authors Posts by Jeffrey Sanzel

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Chris Cooper, Brent Sexton and Steve Carell in a scene from Irresistible. Photo courtesy of Focus Features

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

Jon Stewart’s late-night reign on The Daily Show lasted sixteen years, from 1999 through 2015. His bold skewering of American and world events was equaled only by Stephen Colbert of The Colbert Report. Together, they dominated an outrageous corner of a unique brand of journalism.

Stewart’s first foray into writing and directing was the film adaption of the memoir Then They Came for Me, titled Rosewater (2014), a serious drama about London-based Iranian-Canadian journalist Maziar Bahari’s imprisonment in Iran. Now, Stewart has turned to comedy and written and directed the political satire Irresistible.

Rose Byrne and Steve Carell in a scene from the film.

Steve Carell (Michael Scott of The Office, General Naird in Netflix’s Space Force, and one of Stewart’s Daily Show colleagues) plays Gary Zimmer, a Democratic political strategist working the campaign of retired Marine Colonel Jack Hastings (Chris Cooper) as he runs for mayor in a what is a unanimously conservative Wisconsin town. Hastings had interrupted a town hall meeting with a plea for their undocumented workers, making a case that everyone’s responsibility is “to the least of us.” A viral video brings Hastings’ plea to Zimmer’s attention. 

Coming off the failed 2016 presidential campaign, this is Zimmer’s attempt to connect with the voters of the heartland. No sooner does he set up camp than his Republican equivalent, nemesis Faith Brewster (Rose Byrne), shows up to take over the current mayor’s (Brent Sexton) campaign. It is all-out war between the two factions as the battle is played out in the national media.

Initially, there are a good number of city-folk-in-the-country gags. Seeing the entire campaign staff crammed into a car in the high school parking lot because it’s the only place with decent Wi-Fi is amusing. One particularly obvious (but admittedly humorous) moment is the announcement of the Colonel’s campaign while Zimmer is trying to get the cows posed properly behind him. Fortunately, these easy laughs are not what make up the majority of the film. Most of the real wit comes at the expense of both the left and the right and the extremes they will go to “win,” as well as a viciously accurate look at the twenty-four hours news cycle.

Steve Carell and Mackenzie Davis in a scene from the film.

The film doesn’t avoid the dire straits and financial hardships of the current Midwest.  Deerlaken has been hard-hit by the closing of its military base. There are empty shops up and down the narrow main street. Its citizens are struggling. Stewart makes a point of honoring their humanity and intelligence; it is not a long stream of hick and redneck jokes but real people dealing with difficult problems. The fact that Deerlaken’s two sides don’t rise to the adversarial levels of the interlopers shows that they are, above all, a community.

A great deal is made about the age of information. Both Zimmer and Brewster bring in droves of consultants to research, conduct focus groups, and create over-the-top advertisements. One assessment that is an example of misplaced reliance on computer analysis is the disastrous leafletting campaign that ends up targeting a convent.  

The character development is subtle but ever present. All of the characters either grow or reveal themselves through the fast-moving hundred minutes. And while much of the situation is both ridiculous and untenable — and is as extreme as it gets — the reality is never gone. The campaign gets uglier, and Zimmer loses sight of his original goal. There is a comic discussion of “they go low; we go high” as he travels further down the twisted road in the opposite direction. This speaks to the overall question of what it means to be a good guy vs. “a good guy.”

One of the main takeaways is that elections are not even about politics. They are about math. If you can’t get more people to vote for your candidate, then you get fewer people to vote for the other. This is one of the few films to deal directly with the what is labeled the “election economy” — the money that is made through the campaigns but not necessarily for them. Fortunately, for a film about a corrupt and awful system, it never loses its comedic center.

The cast is all in top form. Carell gives a nuanced performance, with the growing realty that he is an outsider and yet believes in what he is doing. One of his most effective moments is when he explains the difference in the two factions; this gleam of non-partisan passion is beautifully understated. Byrne is a bit of evil incarnate but still manages to be wickedly charismatic. Chris Cooper accomplishes in silence what most actors can barely achieve with dialogue. When Zimmer drags him to New York for a West Side fundraiser, the pain and embarrassment are only matched by the pride in his own beliefs.  

Mackenzie Davis (recently seen in The Turning) has just the right mix of ease and strength as the Colonel’s daughter, who is wary of the entire process, and whose only concern is for her widowed father. Sexton’s mayor shows that he loves his people and is as frustrated with the situation as the Colonel. The supporting cast are all uniformly good, with the actors playing the locals being particularly dimensional and avoiding caricature.  

The film’s final shift is a smart-one and an incredible “ah-hah” moment — one that resonates in ways that will keep you thinking for quite some time. It raises very serious questions about the structure and value of the United States’ election process. And make sure to watch through the cunningly clever credits as well as the exit interview Jon Stewart conducts with Trevor Potter, former chairman of the Federal Election Commission. Though light in tone, its message is clear and drives home the questions raised in the film’s final act.

In short, Irresistible is very entertaining, with a big heart but an even bigger brain. You can watch it for the laughs but you will leave it with an education. Rated R, the film is now available On Demand.

Photos courtesy of Focus Features

Kevin Bacon and Amanda Seyfreid book the Airbnb from hell in Blumhouse's latest chiller. Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures

Reviewed By Jeffrey Sanzel

Kevin Bacon is no stranger to horror films. In his varied career, he has previously appeared in seven, from the original Friday the Thirteenth (1980) right through The Darkness (2016).  Now he stars in You Should Have Left, a film of some style but very little substance.  

The psychological thriller, written and directed by David Koepp, is based on Daniel Kehlmann’s slender 2017 German novella, Du Hättest Gehen Sollen. It is unsurprisingly produced by Blumhouse, which recently has provided a mixed bag of the genre, ranging from the first-rate Get Out to the head-scratchingly terrible Fantasy Island.

You Should Have Left opens with a nightmare within a nightmare within a nightmare. One image becomes very important later in the film’s sole interesting reveal. But it is not enough to sustain the one and a half hours that bridge the gap.

The story is simple. Kevin Bacons plays former banker Theo Conroy, the older husband of the young and beautiful Susanna (Amanda Seyfried) and even older father of the precociously inquisitive Ella (Avery Essex). 

Susanna is a successful film and stage actress married to the brooding Theo — but it is hard to see why. (Cue Theo’s fits of jealousy, followed by half-hearted apologies. Statements like “I don’t trust because you’re a really good actress” followed by “I guess I shouldn’t have said that.” It’s not real strong on the dialogue front.) 

Hints about Theo’s unsavory past are dropped throughout the first leg of this limping journey. Eventually, it is divulged that he was accused and acquitted of murdering his first wife by letting her drown in the bathtub. (Cue lots of overflowing bathtub images, both with and without corpse.) However, the publicity forced him into an early retirement.

The family takes a remote house in a Welsh village, prior to Susanna’s next gig in London.  (Cue odd villagers making cryptic statements.)  They rent it online from a mysterious landlord with whom they never actually speak; Theo and Susanna later discover that they thought the other had rented it. (Cue Scooby Doo:  “Ruh roh!”) 

A scene from the film. Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures

The house is spacious and modern and rather blank; it is also off-kilter, with walls at strange angles, and an inside bigger than the outside. (Cue hallways and doors that lead to different hallways and other doors that open and close and lead back to rooms that couldn’t be there but are but … cue lots of running up and down stairs.) There are no pictures but plenty of wall switches.  (Cue lamps that turn on by themselves and light peeking from underneath doors.)

There are some genuinely unsettling moments: A trail of Polaroids is wonderfully ominous; a shadow without a source flits across a wall; a figure appears in the window as they attempt to escape; Theo’s complete awareness that he is having a nightmare and tries to unsuccessfully slap himself awake — all standard but crafted moments that just don’t add up to anything more than … standard crafted moments. (Cue “Isn’t that just like … ?”)

About half way through, there is a nice bit with two cell phones that plays both into Theo’s paranoia and his reality. It motivates the latter part of the film which accelerates in tempo and yet never seems to pick up steam. Early on, it is teased that time is not quite in sync and this becomes a major point in the film’s finale. However, it needs a little more plot and a little less plod.

The performances are not bad.  Kevin Bacon plays Theo as tightly-wound, introspective, and guilt-ridden. (Cue grimaces and ferocious journal writing and tossed pens.) Amanda Seyfried plays Susanna as both tolerant and vaguely narcissistic. (Cue long suffering looks alternating with exasperation.) Geoff Bell is the ominously knowing storekeeper, Angus.  (Cue impenetrable accent.)

But the real star of the film is the house. A modern wonder or an eyesore, depending on point-of-view. Is it evil or does it draw evil to it to punish? Angus mutters some vague history that there’s always been a house on the land and it’s the Devil’s Tower. (Cue “What did he say and should I rewind to hear it or never mind this must almost be over, right?”)

There have been plenty of entertaining films that have dabbled in the dark powers of a house — Burnt Offerings and The Haunting, for example. This just isn’t one of them.

Ultimately, it is just another in a long line of generic arthouse wannabes. Where it fails as a horror movie, it also doesn’t succeed as a character study. To quote Gertrude Stein (Cue pretentious comparison): “There is no there there.”

When faced with a title like You Should Have Left, so many possibilities come to mind.  You Should Have Left … and So Should I. You Should Have Left … and Taken Me With You. Or You Should Have Left … and That Would Have Been Right. (Cue bad pun.) But, probably the best title would have been You Shouldn’t Have Gone in the First Place. 

Rated R, You Should Have Left is available On Demand.

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

We saw from a distance the open truck with children. Marta was standing next to me with her twin girls, who were five years old. The Gestapo was looking for more children. The girls screamed to Marta, “Mama, the takeaway men are coming, they’re going to take us away!” And they scooped up my little nieces, and the truck — loaded with children — drove off, and we never saw them again.

Author Meryl Ain

This vivid and disturbing description will come back to haunt Aron, a Holocaust survivor, in a very different way.  

Meryl Ain’s The Takeaway Men (SparkPress) is an exceptional and vibrant first novel. It is the story of Aron and Edyta Lubinsky and their twin daughters Bronka and Johanna. It is a tale of painful secrets and complicated histories. It shows the shift in the United States and in the free world from the desire to find justice for the victims of the Nazi’s genocide to the paranoia surrounding the Red Scare during the Cold War. But The Takeaway Men is also a portrait of the power of love and the ability of family to embrace and heal.

The prologue takes place in Poland, 1942, at the threshold of the Holocaust’s darkest hours. It then briefly jumps to the displaced persons camp outside of Munich, where the twins are born on July 4, 1947. Finally, the main portion of the book begins in 1951, settling into Bellerose, Queens, where it plays out for the next eleven years. Here the Lubinski family is taken in by their only living relatives, Izzy and Faye. In 1908, at age twenty, Izzy had left Poland to escape an arranged marriage and a religious life. In America, he found a new path, opening up two bakeries, and enjoying both a more relaxed existence than he would have found as an orthodox rabbi.

And while the issues of fascism versus communism are part of the book’s political core, The Takeaway Men is truly a celebration of America. There is a deep appreciation of the United States as a country that welcomes refugees and it shares the message without preaching. It embraces the wonder of a free democracy to give hope to those fleeing tyranny and seeking a new life:

“You know,” [Aron] told Izzy, “in Europe, people think the streets are paved with gold.”

“Yes, I heard that rumor before I came here too,” Izzy said with a laugh. “America accepts people like us and gives us the chance to get ahead on our own merit — that’s what’s golden about it …”

But even here in America, Aron continues to be haunted by his past. When the neighbor Lenore is arrested by men in suits, he sees the shadow of the Gestapo. Lenore’s daughter cries: “The take-away men took Mommy away.  When is she coming back?”

What is revealed is Lenore had a vague connection to Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were arrested, convicted, and then executed for espionage. The plight of the Rosenbergs is one of the many historical elements that are subtly introduced throughout the story’s arc.

The Lubinskis remain with Izzy and Faye as the girls grow up. Aron has actively chosen not to reveal his nor Edyta’s history to the girls.  But several incidents, including a fascinating scene in which a Hebrew school teacher shares what she feels is necessary knowledge, the publication of The Diary of Anne Frank, as well as a suspected Nazi working in the neighborhood, force some painful and startling revelations.  

In addition to the central characters, the book is populated by characters richly drawn in all their human complexity. Izzy and Faye’s mentally troubled daughter, Becky, returns to the fold, introducing someone who has a capacity for great love but is chased by demons of her own. 

Jakob Zilberman, a gregarious friend, survived as a member of the Sonderkommando, the prisoners who were forced to work in the gas chambers and the crematorium. Unlike Aron, he is compelled to speak out on his experience. He is another man plagued by not only what he witnessed but by his own actions: “I would prefer to tell you another story, one in which I look brave and fearless. I would prefer a story where I was a hero and saved people. But that wasn’t possible in those circumstances, and I wouldn’t be honest if I embellished what really happened to make myself look better.” Ain gives us more than a hero:  she gives us a human being.   

And, at the novel’s heart are the twins, Bronka and Johanna, as they grow up and grow apart but never lose their bond in this every changing world.

Many of the characters struggle with their religious and ethnic identities. Izzy and Faye’s son has married outside the faith and it is a fascinating study of conflict to see the parents try to find a way to accept this without losing their own cultural commitment. The issue of what it is to straddle the Jewish and non-Jewish worlds is addressed without judgment. The question of how to belong and yet not lose one’s sense of self is raised in all its contradictions.   “It was easier to be a Jew in America than in Poland, but it still wasn’t easy … when you’re a Jewish immigrant in Bellerose, you don’t quite fit in, no matter how many Christmas carols you know.”

There is a refrain in the book that references the biblical Ruth. Ruth, who was not Jewish but married an Israelite, in widowhood remains with her mother-in-law. The idea that “whither thou goest, I will go” resonates throughout.

Ultimately, The Takeaway Men is not just about family — it is about a neighborhood and a community. It is about the choice to survive even if you must make great sacrifices in the process. But finally, it is about finding that acceptance comes from understanding and understanding is what can make one whole. 

Available Aug. 4, The Takeaway Men may be pre-ordered at BookRevue.com, BarnesandNoble.com and Amazon.com.

Marisa Tomei and Pete Davidson in a scene from the film. Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures

Reviewed By Jeffrey Sanzel

Director-writer Judd Apatow’s work has been a string of off-beat films, including The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up, Pineapple Express, and This Is 40. Some of these have been broader than others, with the majority being over-the-top comedies with heart-felt centers. His newest outing is The King of Staten Island, and it has a distinctly indie-vibe to it. Apatow has collaborated with Pete Davidson (who stars) and Dave Sirus to create the pensive, often funny, and frequently cringeworthy story of Scott Carlin (Davidson). 

Scott is a twenty-four year-old whose life is going nowhere and not very quickly at that. Scott’s great dream is to open up a restaurant-tattoo parlor, an idea as off-kilter as he is. He spends his days getting high with a ragtag group of friends (Moisés Arias, Ricky Velez, and Lou Wilson — all three wonderful in their complete commitment to each other as well as their clear obliviousness to the world) and having sex with his not-quite girlfriend, Kelsey, who loves him but is frustrated by his inability to communicate. 

As Kelsey, Bel Powley eschews caricature, bringing dimension to the devoted Staten Island girl, who is rough around the edges but with a charming inner clarity.  

Pete Davidson stars in ‘The King of Staten Island’

Scott’s sister Claire (delightful and no-nonsense Maude Apatow) heads off for college, leaving Scott alone in the house with their hard-working, widowed mother, Margie (Marisa Tomei). Margie’s husband was a fireman who died on the job seventeen years before, leaving her a single mother with two young children.  She is a nurse working two jobs — school and emergency room — and has devoted her entire life to bringing up the two children: she has never dated let alone entertained a serious relationship, with a living room shrine to her late husband as the home’s focal point. 

Tomei avoids cliché and shows Margie’s dawning realization that, with Claire gone, it is her chance to have her life back. While the focus of the film is Scott, Tomei draws us to Margie, who learns that while she is bruised she is not damaged. In the film’s turning point, she shows that she is nobody’s victim.

When Scott unwisely attempts to tattoo a nine-year-old boy, it brings the boy’s father, fireman Ray Bishop (Bill Burr, in a performance that grows throughout), into their lives. The abrasive Ray is at first appropriately enraged by Scott’s stupidity, but he trades ire for a softer approach as he is clearly drawn to Margie. They began secretly dating before eventually telling Scott, whose reaction is both childish and self-absorbed but unsurprisingly predictable. 

It is here that the film and Scott begin to find their focus. The ensuing path follows struggles and revelations, both past and present, that allow Scott to slowly grow.

Steve Buscemi, as the fire chief, gives one his best and most unmannered portrayals in years; it is a subtle jewel of a performance, showing kindness and warmth underneath a slightly brash exterior. Pamela Adlon hits all the right sour notes as Ray’s bitter ex-wife. The supporting cast — especially the firefighters — are uniformly excellent. 

This is a strange, awkward coming of age story, with Davidson’s sad sack accidentally finding the beginning of his road to adulthood in a not so much unlikely place but in an improbable way. His shift from his go-nowhere friends to the firefighters in Ray’s company might not be the most subtle narrative choice but it works. 

The story is semi-autobiographical as Saturday Night Live veteran Davidson lost his father during the September 11th attacks.  He has drawn on his own demons to create a memorable if marred version of himself. It is both raw and hilarious, often painful, and always honest. As an actor, Davidson makes every look and pause count. 

Scott’s impulsive and awful decisions are made with wide-eyed recklessness, making this character both endearing and infuriating as he veers from one mistake directly into another. It is not until he looks beyond himself that he is able to open up to possibility. The final moments of the film are a gentle catharsis that speak volumes to the glimmer of change.  

At almost two hours and twenty minutes, this is a film that is not in a rush to get to the end. It meanders, glancing around doorways and down streets, stopping to see what is happening, then strolling on. It hesitates and then briefly rushes forward before returning to its leisurely pace. This perfectly reflects the irregular course of Scott’s life. It is not a film of grand gestures but small movements. The King of Staten Island is a journey that takes its time but it is a journey worth taking.  

Rated R, The King of Staten Island is available On Demand.

Dakota Johnson and Tracee Ellis Ross in a scene from the film. Photo courtesy of Focus Features

Reviewed By Jeffrey Sanzel

The High Note is an entertaining if softened look at the high end domain of the music business. It has a sweet center and skirts many of the bigger issues that seem to peek around the corners. It is fortunate that it contains strong performances from many of its players, resulting in an enjoyable rom-com/behind-the-music hybrid.

The film features a vibrant Tracee Ellis Ross as Grace Davis, a star of grand proportions on the threshold of middle age. Ross is the daughter of Diana Ross — but the film is in no way about that legendary icon. Instead, it is actually a much smaller movie about a transitional moment in an epic career.  

Davis’s personal assistant is the earnest and overwhelmed Maggie Sherwoode (played with just the right eagerness by Dakota Johnson). She has been Grace’s assistant for three years but her dream is to be a record producer; this drives the simple through-line. 

After a misstep with Grace, she meets and befriends a gifted musician, David Cliff (charismatic Kelvin Harrison, Jr.), who is both self-effacing and unexplainably rich. Much to Maggie’s confusion, David plays supermarket openings and bar mitzvahs and doesn’t seem to want to move beyond these comfortable gigs. Maggie sees great potential and makes a move that ends up both bold and dishonest, temporarily fracturing their budding relationship, and causing damage she did not anticipate.  

The best scenes are those that focus on Grace and her frustration with being told who she is. Following a scene in which she faces off with executives who basically explain to her what her brand should be, she has a powerful scene with Maggie venting that this is the world she has had to face her entire career. 

Ross (best known for her portrayal of Rainbow Johnson on ABC’s sitcom Blackish) is able to navigate the humor that surrounds the over-the-top and extravagant life of a diva with the inner core of someone who has faced incredibly challenging hurdles and obstacles. 

Grace is not The Devil Wears Prada; played by Ross, she is a human being who has made difficult decisions because of both her race and gender. As she weighs the option of a Vegas residency, we see her question her own judgment as a creative artist. A revelation later in the film (that is not a huge surprise) speaks volumes to the course of Grace’s life.

Kelvin Harrison, Jr., is pure charm and ease. Even in stillness, there is a warmth and openness that makes us hope for him to get his professional due. Dakota Johnson is an actor who is easy to like. She is always watchable and makes Maggie’s growth understandable if unsurprising. 

Ice Cube plays Jack Robertson, Grace’s longtime manager, who has been with her since the beginning. He takes a role that could slide into predictability and caricature and infuses it with genuine mind and heart.  While he mines all of the laughs, it is his understanding of the business that show both fire and passion. His commitment to Grace is real and goes beyond their fiscal connection.  

Bill Pullman appears briefly Maggie’s supportive father. He isn’t given much to do but he has a pleasant, uncomplicated presence. Eddie Izzard has a cameo as a musician from whom Maggie asks a large favor. The scene takes place in a sauna and is as strange as one would expect with the off-beat Izzard.

One of the film’s strongest elements is the exceptional soundtrack. Both Ross and Harrison provide their own terrific vocals.  It should be noted that this is the first time Ross has sung publicly, and it as a powerhouse debut. “Stop for a Moment” is nothing short of glorious.  

There are not a great deal of fireworks in Flora Gleeson’s screenplay nor in Nisha Ganatra’s direction; the film eschews melodrama for real interactions. Together, with a first-rate cast, they have made The High Note tell a hopeful story in an engaging way.  

Rated PG-13, The High Note is available On Demand.

Steve Carell takes another spin in the boss's chair as Gen. Mark R. Naird in the new Netflix series. Photo by Aaron Epstein/Netflix

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

Steve Carell and Greg Daniels, creators of the landmark American version of The Office, have reteamed for the Netflix series Space Force. The ten episodes follow General Mark Naird (Carell) as he is appointed head of the newly minted U.S. military branch Space Force. Naird (yes, to sound almost — but not quite — like “nerd”) moves his family to White Horse, Colorado. The action jumps forward a year with a plot driven by the unseen and unnamed United States president’s desire to have “boots on the moon.”

It is revealed that Naird’s wife (Lisa Kudrow, giving a strangely middle-of-the-road performance) is in prison, serving forty years.  The reason is never revealed; this is just one of many threads that are introduced and then abandoned. Naird is now fully responsible for his teenage daughter Erin. Dianna Silvers plays the girl in a constant state of petulance; the actor, at twenty-two, does not pass for a high school junior.

Naird’s foil is John Malkovich’s scientist Adrian Mallory, a voice of reason. Malkovich gives a wry and restrained performance which generates contrast with the parade of over-the-top military and government figures. However, his relationship with Naird doesn’t so much progress as it shifts when it is convenient to the plot. Sometimes, it seems that Carell and Malkovich are in a rather strained astral buddy comedy. The inconsistency in the writing for Malkovich/Mallory only gets by because of the actor’s ability to make eccentrics accessible.  

Much of the topical humor is given to Ben Schwartz as F. Tony Scarapiducci (who has an unprintable nickname) as the social media director. Schwartz is channeling his intentionally insufferable Jean-Ralphio from Parks and Recreation.  

Naird’s nemesis is Air Force General Kick Grabaston. Noah Emmerich plays him like every bullying university president trying to shut down the partying fraternity.  

Tawny Newsome does her best with Captain Ali. Initially, she seems peripheral but eventually becomes more central to the story. Her growing romance with likable Jimmy O. Yang’s Dr. Kaifang is sweet but either predictably clumsy or clumsily predictable.

It seems that Carell and Daniels did not establish a unifying style and tone. It wants to be satire but tips towards spoof. There are thin political jokes that are low hanging fruit, with easy jabs at current politics. There is a less than thinly veiled congressional hearing that climaxes with Naird giving a touching speech about the importance of humanity in the space race. This is juxtaposed with characters that are poorly concealed imitations of contemporary legislators.  

Political satire can be done outrageously and hilariously without losing its edge; Veep showed this. Here, the creators seem to be hedging their bets. Is it Michael G. Scott Goes to the Moon? Or Airplane III: Team Lunar? Does it aspire to be Dr. Strangelove Redux? Yes, it is all of these — sort of. There are shades of sentimental dramedy exploring the difficulty of being a single parent. It is a send-up of all things media. Basically, Space Force is a watered down version of a whole range of tropes and genres.  The result is light beer and water — all the same and less.

By not committing to a style, it becomes a string of set-ups for either ridiculous jokes (uniforms designed by the First Lady) or instants of great introspection, capped off by earnest speeches. Instead of character development, there is “The Monkey Episode,” “The Washington Episode,” “The Lunar Habitat Episode,” etc. It all feels vaguely sitcom. Eventually, the stakes are raised but, by then, it is too late.

There are many well-known television actors filling out the ensemble. Don Lake plays the one-star general who serves as Naird’s dogsbody; it’s the same bumbling, amusing performance that he has given in the Christopher Guest movies. Patrick Warburton, Jane Lynch, Diedrich Bader, and Dan Bakkedahl are various members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff: They’re gifted actor/comedians saddled with toothless caricatures of all that is wrong in government. Kaitlin Olson (It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia) appears in one episode as phony Edison Jaymes, a character suggested by Elon Musk. This was Fred Willard’s final appearance; he plays Naird’s confused father in his usual whimsical style; it is a bit hard to swallow as it is really a dementia joke.

Carell is the creator and star and obviously driving force behind Space Force. He is an actor who is long on charm and has done both exceptional comedic and dramatic work.  However, it seems that he is trying to draw equally from both wells. 

What made The Office’s Michael Scott work was that he was a buffoon but consistent onto himself. He made excruciating decisions but they came from a lack of true self-awareness.  Scott was wholly human in a mundane world.  Here, Carell seems to have taken elements of Scott and grafted them onto the gravel-voiced Naird, but they haven’t fully taken. Is he a buffoon? Are the monkeys running the circus? Too many questions and very few answers.

By the end, he seems to have “grown” but it seems strained. The final episode is a horrifying and ugly mismatch of tones — when is attempted self-immolation ever funny? — and ends annoyingly, ridiculously incomplete.  

There is a moment in episode three where, with great exasperation, John Malkovich labors up and down staircases; he moves quickly but jerkily. In essence, that is the entire Space Force series: it moves forward with purpose but not without a great deal of frustration. 

 

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

Anthony Sciarratta’s The Letter (Post Hill Press) is a romance that examines both the power of faith and the strength of love. 

Author Anthony Sciarratta

Victor Esposito is a novelist who came to success in this thirties with each work featuring a very distinct female protagonist. His readers are unaware that she is not solely (or wholly) a creation of fiction: She is based on Eva Abrams, a vibrant and quirky individual he met by chance at concert just over a decade before. Eva, married with three children, was as drawn to Victor as he is to her. The two embarked on an intense but painfully platonic affair that lasted about year. “How could you see someone you know is perfect for you and never act on your feelings?”

After meeting two and three times a week, Eva broke it off with no explanation. During the ensuing years, the two had no contact. But she continued to be his muse, fueling his creative process: “To write a book about someone, to capture every groove of their face, curve of their body, and thought in their head, takes a great deal of studying … It was a special bond they shared that no person would ever come to understand.”  

Now in his forties, Victor is a successful writer living in a luxurious Manhattan apartment. One night, he is shot during a bodega hold-up while saving a mother and child, resulting in his ending up in a coma. When Eva learns of this, she immediately leaves her Long Island home to be at his bedside. His mother, Barbara, immediately recognizes who this woman must be: “Victor has no children, no wife. You’re the only mark he left on this world. His life’s work is because of you.”

While sitting vigil, Eva examines the choices that have brought her to this juncture. Coming from an abusive and unstable childhood, Eva gave up her dreams of being a musician for the constancy of domestic life, married to the steady but disconnected Stanley. While being a mother gave her great joy, the marriage was never fulfilling resulting in a gnawing sense of loss.  

Meanwhile, Victor does not regain consciousness. He is transported to a limbo where he, too, examines his life choices, in particular his brief relationship with Eva that motivated the change in his career from carpenter to writer. In this netherworld, he is guided by the enigmatic Benedict, who turns out to be someone from Victor’s earlier life.  This half-world becomes populated with important figures of his and Eva’s histories.

Throughout, the characters are revealed in all their humanity, wearing their scars just below the surface. Sciarratta is not afraid to show confrontation or petty jealousies. These moments lend further dimension and texture.  

The cover of ‘The Letter’

Also present is the shadowy figure of Louis, who appears just before the bodega incident, and then returns in the book’s final chapters. He is the dark angel that lurks in the mind’s shadows: “I bet you have a lot of regrets now. You had everything: Money, health, and a great career. Being a good guy isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, huh, buddy?” He is a chilling figure that offers temptation and relief. This emissary of worst fears adds further conflict to the final road in Victor’s journey.  

While the book is primarily a romance, it has elements of mystery as Sciarratta unravels his lead characters narratives.  

His lovers’ consummation is unusual — if not unique — in its setting. It is both ardent and detailed.  However, this does not in any way obscure the romantic force of the novel. Eva is his “North Star, guiding him through a depression by showing him what unconditional love feels like. She had looked past his sadness, despair, and anger to find a man with a beautiful soul …” A pair of socks given at a candlelit lunch in the park become a particularly compelling totem, representing a deeper caring than even the most fervid caress can show.

The story also nods to the solace drawn from belief: “Eva protected those she loved with a shroud of prayer, hoping that God would bless the lives that meant so much to her.” It is this mix of the spiritual and the visceral that are the foundations of both the story and the relationship. Whether drawn from religion or from nature, they find their way. In a touching episode, Victor sees himself in a wounded bird that he gently cradles in his hands; knowing that it wants to live but also accepting that death is part of the plane of human existence.  

Ultimately, The Letter addresses the issue of soul mates. This is seeded at the outset and blooms in its epilogue. It is about the alchemy of love and its power to heal wounds, whether psychological or physical. It is a bold statement in a book that tells its story with straightforward passion and wide-eyed honesty.  

The Letter is available at bookrevue.com, barnesandnoble.com and amazon.com.

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

Author Talia Carner

Talia Carner’s The Third Daughter (William-Morrow and Company) is one of the most intriguing and riveting books published in the last year. Batya is the third of poor Russian milkman Koppel’s four daughters. The Third Daughter begins in 1889 as the family flee their ravaged shtetel of Komarinoe. If this seems a nod towards Sholom Aleichim’s Tevye, it is not unintentional.  In essence, Carner is using the end of those stories as a place to begin her narrative but in no way does it attempt to be a sequel. The Third Daughter is wholly original. In the prologue, with a few simple strokes of place and time, she is able to evoke the horror of the pogrom. This sets the tone and style for the rest of Batya’s grim  journey. It is told vividly but with never a wasted word or thought.  

The family’s goal is to travel to America.  “God wasn’t here [in Europe], where His Jews were being tortured and exiled, if not murdered.  Maybe he was in the Holy Land — but more likely He was in America, where everyone prospered and ate chicken every day.” Koppel’s brother — with whom he has had no contact for many years — lives in Pittsburgh; this becomes the golden dream. 

With no money or way to travel to the United States, they are forced to live in conditions worse than they endured in Komarinoe. There is a shabbat meal with a cobbler’s family that distills the grueling and grinding poverty of eastern Europe. Unlike many portrayals of these small villages, Carner never glamourizes. This is a hallmark of the entire book.

Enter Yitizk Moskowitz, a prosperous businessman, who takes a shine to the fourteen year-old Batya. He makes a deal with Koppel for Batya’s hand in marriage.  Initially, he agrees that he will come back for Batya in two years but then changes his mind, saying that he will take her now, and she will live with his sister until she is sixteen and of age. Koppel readily agrees.  

This begins the dark heart of the book. Moskowitz is not the businessman he claims but, instead, a procurer. (Another nod towards Aleichem, this time his short story The Man from Buenos Aires.)  Later, Moskowitz describes himself:  “‘My hands never get dirty in menial work,’ he liked to say when he delegated the beatings and cigarette burnings to others.” He assaults Batya; her violation in essence brands her. “‘You are mine now,’ said Reb Moskowitz.  ‘Forever.’” He then turns her over to a thug who transports her to a ship where she is further abused. Finally, she lands in Buenos Aires.  

Batya enters a realm of torture and debasement, a world devoid of humanity: the legal brothels of this Argentinian city. There, she is sent to Freda, Moskowitz’s equally pitiless sister, who runs the house for him.  

Carner has done her research and her depiction of Zwi Migdal, the far-reaching union of pimps, is as ugly as it is accurate. This ruthless organization rules through physical violence, bribes, and corruption. Buenos Aires is shown as a community that is just as poor as the one Batya escaped with the difference that this South American hell is a glimpse of Sodom and Gomorrah. 

The anti-Semitism of the Old Country is replaced by an equally appalling existence in the New World. Carner’s ability to make the reader feel Batya’s shame and fear is extraordinary; even among her own people, Batya is an outcast, as shown by a scene in which her humiliation is furthered as she is driven from the synagogue. Carner never lets us forget that Bayta is a child, an innocent thrust into a nightmare. There is one heart-rending moment where the girl creates a doll out of a pillowcase, attempting to give herself a moment of solace. Batya, whose name means “daughter of God,” is paradoxically given the name Esperanza, which translates as “hope.”

There are occasional odd acts of kindness.  Freda allows Batya to sit shiva (the ritual seven day period of mourning) for her mother. The prostitutes form a quick female minion, the group of ten that is the sole province of men, to pray with her in her loss. The laying to rest of a prostitute who has committed slow suicide shows a kindness underneath the day-to-day suffering.  Another time, Batya is taken to a café where she encounters girls from another house: “She caught the eyes of a sister across the table and smiled.  She didn’t know the woman’s name, and they couldn’t chat over the men’s conversation, but the bond of shared tragic history was a fine spiderweb that tied them together.”

Carner never allows sentimentality to overtake the reality. Batya’s wondrous visit to an opera house is rightly juxtaposed with the hideous persecution of an abducted girl who refused to become a prostitute. Her subsequent descent into insanity and the knowledge of her eventual fate cuts through any joy.  

Batya is introduced to the tango, which becomes both thematic and pivotal to what ensues. She is given context by Nettie, another prostitute: “This is what happens to sadness once it reaches Argentina. We can either cry about the past or laugh about the future. So we drown out the old pain in dance.” This is particularly germane to the final quarter of the book which involves Batya’s attempts to both bring her family over and to free herself from her bondage. It is as page-turning and tense as any thriller, with many complications that build the relentless suspense. Batya is forced to make life-altering choices, each with possibly calamitous repercussions.  

Talia Carner’s The Third Daughter is an epic work that is rooted in a deep sense of truth. While it deals with a cruel and terrifying chapter of history, the novel is also a celebration of the ability of great writing to transport and enlighten. It is a work of art, of craft, but, above all, humanity.  

The Third Daughter is available at bookrevue.com, barnesandnoble.com and amazon.com.

New documentary examines the future of artificial intelligence               and the impact it will have on our world.

Reviewed By Jeffrey Sanzel

We Need to Talk About AI is an intriguing and occasionally alarmist documentary that explores the historical and current developments in Artificial Intelligence. It raises far more questions than it even attempts to answer and that, most likely, is its point.  The title’s urgency is appropriate to this peripatetically engaging ninety minutes.

Director Leanne Pooley has conducted extensive interviews with scientists, engineers, philosophers, filmmaker James Cameron, and a whole range of experts, along with dozens of clips from news broadcasts and nearly one hundred years of science fiction movies. The film plays at a breakneck pace, fervently bouncing from one opinion to an alternate point-of-view.

Currently streaming On Demand, the documentary is appropriately hosted by Keir Dullea, who gives a dry menace to the narration and occasionally appears walking through crowded streets like a being from an alternate universe. Dullea is best known as astronaut Dave Bowman in Stanley Kubrick’s landmark 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).  Pooley uses the film’s HAL (Heuristically Programmed ALgorithmic Computer) as the example of man’s greatest fear in the world of AI: a computer that becomes sentient and will no longer obey its human creators.

The early days of AI work seems almost quaint in comparison to latter-day capabilities.  Much of this can be traced to the advancement in the computer technology and the rise of the internet. The internet’s considerable expansion in the last two decades has been the greatest gamechanger. 

A constant refrain is that the dialogue surrounding AI has been “hijacked” by Hollywood: the majority of the populace associate AI in negative terms. It is about the rebellion of manmade machines (e.g., The Terminator). The scientists are in agreement that this is a misrepresentation. That is, they are for the most part. As the film progresses, the views on the dangers of AI diverge.

It all comes down to the question of conscience and autonomy. There is a dissection of the issues behind self-driving cars and how to embed ethics into the machine. The Trolley Problem — how do you decide who to save —  is used to demonstrate the challenge. To make the decision, the machine would have to be a conscious being. 

Furthermore, can a machine be conscious or have a conscience? The idea of conscious and conscience becomes central.  As it is almost impossible to define what “conscious” is, it creates additional conflicts in the narrative. This leads to conversations on emotion and whether machines will ever be able to feel and react to social cues.  

The film poses many hypotheses and explores the predicament from all sides. There is rarely uniform agreement. Can a machine make itself smarter by programming itself? Will the evolution be gradual or exponential?

Even now, robot surgery, agriculture, and even Facebook’s suicide awareness algorithms are examples given of the recent uses of AI. Computers can now beat the world’s greatest chess players. Not that many years ago, these were considered impossible outside of speculative fiction.

Throughout, Pooley returns to the teaching of Baby X, an intelligent toddler simulation that is both fascinating and chilling. Baby X almost seems human and appears to be learning. It is a strange and exciting phenomenon.

Already, the argument is made that we carry less in our brains because we carry parts of them in our pockets in the form of cell phones. In essence, they are the merging of minds with computers. They are an augmentation and a symbiotic integration. 

Ultimately, it comes down to not so much how we build AI but what we do with it. The unifying position of the interviewed is the fear that this power will be used for evil — or at least negative purposes. (Pooley unsubtly does a quick montage of the world’s foremost demagogues.) 

The consensus is that it should not be about who arrives first but who gets there safely. They hope but doubt for regulation. If it is corporations or business (Google, Microsoft, etc.) that get primary control, it will be driven by greed. If it is the military, it will be about killing. They say we only have one chance to get it right, and the leader in the field must, in essence, be the good parent. AI will dominate the economy and, therefore, the world. 

There are myriad questions raised: What it means to be human? If machines become more, will we be become less? Is AI going to do something for you or to you? Is science fiction the canary in the coal mine? That is, do we face the apocalypse if AI doesn’t play out the positive scenarios?

And then there are the moral questions. Can machines be made accountable? Does a machine have rights? If so, is this a form of slavery, where conscious beings are created and then dehumanized? There is a brief section about the rise of sex robots that is twinned with a clip from the 1927 silent film Metropolis. Can a machine say, “No?”

Perhaps we have come a long way from the science fiction movies of our past. Maybe we will never face the voice of HAL saying, “I’m sorry, Dave. I can’t do that.”

Or perhaps we will.  

The final line sums up the entire journey:  “What do we want the role of humans to be?” We Need to Talk About AI is a great place to start.

From left, Ramona Edith-Williams and Kelly O'Sullivan in a scene from Saint Frances. Photo courtesy of Oscilloscope Labs

By Jeffrey Sanzel

Saint Frances begins with Bridget (Kelly O’Sullivan) listening passively to a man drone on about a dream he had and how life is about purpose. This indulgent harangue only ends when he discovers that she is not in her twenties but a 34-year-old server; upon hearing this, he unceremoniously moves on. 

This sets the tone for a story of someone who exists but does not actually live in her own life but drifts from moment to moment. Bridget seems unphased and unaffected by his rudeness and remains impassive. 

She is then engaged by a younger man, Jace (sweetly earnest Max Lipchitz). That night, they fall into bed. It is clear that Jace wants more than just the hook-ups that seem to populate Bridget’s life. But this is not Bridget. The self-described feminist-atheist doesn’t know who she is or, more importantly, what she feels. 

In short, she is a mess.

Gradually, details of her life are teased out.  As a server, she has no affinity for the job, shown as soul-crushing drudgery. She then interviews for a nannying position, clearly ambivalent about the actual work but just wanting to escape the restaurant. The situation is to take care of six year-old Frances (Ramona Edith-Williams). Frances’ mothers, pregnant Maya (Charin Alvarez, heartbreaking in her struggle, triumphant in her resolution) and lawyer Annie (layered and dimensional Lily Mojekwu) are dubious and pass on her.

In the meantime, Bridget discovers she is pregnant and Jace willingly offers to support her in any way. Almost immediately, Bridget decides to terminate the pregnancy. It is not so much a cavalier choice as it is, like all of her actions, done almost at a distance. Bridget is someone who lives apart from herself.

Two months later, after the original nanny is let go, Bridget is offered the position. She readily accepts even though she seems to have no affinity for children. Maya is now struggling with postpartum depression, and Annie is now back at work full-time and seemingly unavailable.  

Initially, Bridget is emotionally absent as a caretaker. She makes a series both benign and what could be (but do not result in) calamitous mistakes. However, she  gradually awakens to her responsibility, and not just to Frances, but to herself. Her journey is both darkly funny and achingly melancholy. Much of the film is excruciating as she perpetually teeters on and often goes over the edge of poor judgment. But, through her commitment to her charge, she grows. 

In the tumult of the chaos that is Bridget, there are many astute and charming scenes.  A hike with her parents who are humorous but caring eschews the usual clichés. Following the baptism of Maya and Annie’s baby, Frances gives confession to Bridget.  A sleepover shows that there is joy in the simplest moments.

At the center of the film is Kelly O’Sullivan’s riveting and nuanced performance, letting the light ever so gradually shine into Bridget’s life, building up to several wonderfully cathartic moments. She is matched by Ramona Edith Williams, an honest and endearing child actor. Whether dismissing Bridget with a “We’re done” or subtlety crumbling under the fear of being replaced by her new sibling, she is unmannered and, most importantly, real.  Together, they make the film beat as one.

Director Alex Thompson allows Kelly O’Sullivan’s insightful screenplay to breathe, never giving away what will happen next, but drawing us further and deeper into Bridget’s tumultuous wake. It is all beautifully filmed by cinematographer Nate Hurtsellers. Together, they have created a film that dissects and yet celebrates the fact that family given or chosen are equal parts love and dysfunction.

Ultimately, Saint Frances’ heart lies in purpose. Prior to Frances, Bridget is wandering ambivalently through her own story. Even her mother asks her if is she was happy she was born, even with her life “the way it is.” But with responsibility, Bridget becomes awakened, aware, and empowered. By actively involving herself in this family — by finding her purpose — she not only finds herself but her sense of value. Saint Frances leaves Bridget — and us — in a better place.

Not rated, Saint Frances is now streaming on-demand.