Authors Posts by Jeffrey Sanzel

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Janelle Monáe as Eden in a scene from the film. Photo courtesy of Lionsgate

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

Antebellum, the new psychological horror film, opens with a William Faulkner epigraph: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” 

This immediately segues into a bucolic image of a plantation in the Confederate south. The sky is a vivid blue and the grass a verdant green. It is a rich and welcoming landscape, contrasting with an ominous soundtrack of soaring strings. And, like a twisted version of Colonial Williamsburg, this bright backdrop enhances the ugly and chilling murder of a runaway slave.

The horror of life on this plantation is seen through the eyes of a slave named Eden. Commandeered by the Confederate army, the slaves are not allowed to speak, are constantly tortured, and the women are sexually abused.  It is a savage and sadistic portrayal. There is a feeling that this is presented as a distortion to the soft-sell of Gone with the Wind

About forty minutes in, a ringing cell phone shifts the entire narrative. Eden wakes up, and it is revealed at that she is actually Dr. Veronica Henley, a sociologist and activist, living with her loving husband and daughter in a well-appointed, if sterile, townhouse in present time. Henley flies to New Orleans to promote her new book, Shedding the Coping Persona. Following a dinner with friends, she is abducted and is next seen [spoiler alert] back on the plantation, where she once again is shown fighting for her life.

Antebellum is a twisty thriller in the vein of M. Night Shyamalan, where things are not what they seem. The remainder of the film is watching Veronica/Eden struggle from captive to victor. It is unflinching in its violence and viciousness which is certainly not inappropriate but sometimes feels voyeuristic. 

Writer-directors Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz had a great concept and have directed the film with high style, leaning into this not-quite-real world. Initially, the slow unwinding of the mystery is highly effective.  They present an intriguing premise and drive it with relentless tension. For a good part of the film, there is anticipation with the promise of revelation: a horrifying puzzle that will disclose its solution in due course.

However, the dialogue is stilted and the character development wanting. We never know who these people are; both victims and perpetrators are reduced to types rather than fully realized human beings. Given that Antebellum is offered as part of the horror genre, this would almost be acceptable. However, the film strives to be more. It is trying to make a statement about then and now — about the “unresolved past wreaking havoc on the present.” In this area, it doesn’t quite land. There are nods to the continuing social divide and the subtler forms of racism — a rude concierge, a bad table at a restaurant — but we’re never sure if this is part of the nightmare scenario or the social commentary. Maybe they are suggesting it is both but the lack of clarity muddles the point. There is also a great deal of heavy-handed symbolism that feels very film-school-clever.

Perhaps its biggest flaw is the unsatisfying conclusion. The ending fails to explain what has really happened. The absence of the who and the how make for an ambivalent collapse of the story and serves neither the social argument nor the narrative.

The radiant Janelle Monáe (Moonlight, Hidden Figures, Harriet) anchors the film as Veronica/Eden. Her extraordinary ability makes both worlds believable and present. She navigates the pitfalls, and there is never a wasted gesture. Her performance is a tribute to the economy of good acting, and she makes some of the more dramatic excesses real.

Gabourey Sidibe (best known for her exceptional, award-winning performance in Precious), as Veronica’s gal-pal Dawn, has a vivacity that would seem more at home in a rom-com. However, she infuses her screen time with a much needed energy. Jena Malone (Contact, The Hunger Games series) plays the over-the-top antagonist with great style, but it all feels rather James Bond villain.

Robert Aramayo, as Veronica’s husband, Daniel, is a warm and likable helpmate but he is barely in the movie. As for the rest of the cast, it is composed of slaves and soldiers who are not developed beyond standard tropes. An example is Tongayi Chirisa who makes the most of his few moments, but his story is left in the periphery, and we are never allowed to see who he really is.

Pedro Luque’s cinematography shifts from the lush plantation to the harsh, stark whites of the townhouse, to the murky city night, and back to the plantation. His strong, if on-the-nose, visuals successfully enhance the overall disconnect.

It is inevitable that comparisons with Jordan Peele’s Get Out and Us are going to be made. With those films, the creators skillfully blended horror with social awareness. They told their stories well and that clarity helped to further the commentary without sacrificing the artistry. Ultimately, Antebellum had the potential to transcend genre — but potential unfulfilled. 

Rated R, Antebellum is now on demand.

Ethan Hawke as the visionary Nikola Tesla. Photo from IFC Films

Reviewed By Jeffrey Sanzel

After dropping out of Harvard, writer-director-producer Michael Almereyda got a Hollywood agent based on a spec script about inventor and innovator Nikola Tesla. Tesla now arrives in theaters (and streaming) some three decades later. In the meantime, Almereyda has made over two dozen films, ranging from shorts to feature length to documentaries. He has worked with many of the same actors over the years — in this case reuniting with Ethan Hawke (who starred in Almereyda’s modern-dress Hamlet), Kyle MacLachlan, and Jim Gaffigan.

Kyle MacLachlan plays Thomas Edison, Tesla’s frenemy and rival in the film. Photo from IFC Films

The film is not a complete biopic but instead begins in 1884 when Tesla was unhappily working for Thomas Edison in his workshop. It quickly presents their incompatibility and Tesla’s subsequent embarkation on an independent path. The focus is on the battle between Edison’s direct current and Tesla’s alternate current. (Some of this material was covered in Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s The Current War, which emphasized the business competition between Edison and George Westinghouse with Benedict Cumberbatch as the former, Michael Shannon as the latter, and Nicholas Hoult in the less prominent role of Tesla.)

The structure of Tesla is eclectic. It is narrated by Anne Morgan, daughter of mogul J.P. Morgan, who later bankrolls Tesla. Dressed in period garb, she talks to the camera, referencing her laptop, and siting Google searches. This sets the tone for what is going to be an unconventional structure. The visual elements are highly stylized, with scenes often played out against enlarged photos, painted backdrops, or stock footage.  Sometimes this is highly effective; other times it has the feel of the cheaply made educational films of the 60’s and 70’s.

There is nothing wrong with this strange, theatrical tactic. Often, the unexpected vision or rough approach bring the explored world into a different focus by not enslaving it to its period. The result can present old concepts in new lights. When this fails, works such as these can still succeed as a triumph of style over substance. Unfortunately, Tesla is no triumph. The scenes that are part of the historical narrative are meandering, with a lot of mumbling scientific jargon that is no doubt well-researched and accurate, but make for very slow going.

Tesla should not be a history report: It should engage on some visceral level. The surrounding structure is uniquely artistic and unpredictable; the content plays as pedestrian. The result is like a pie with an amazing and complex crust but a bland, tasteless filling.

There is a wonderful scene that ends in a small food fight between Edison and Tesla. This, like several other moments, are then corrected as only fantasy. The random appearance of a cellphone is a slyly introduced anachronism. This is where the film delights and surprises. The speculation, the what-if’s, and the flights of fancy engage us for a few moments but then we drift back into soporific stupor. There is great deal espoused about idealism versus capitalism and creation versus commerce. All are important concepts but they are not presented in any dramatic fashion.

When Tesla sets up his laboratory at Wardenclyffe in Shoreham, there are enough lightning flashes and electrical storms for half a dozen Frankenstein movies. It is stretches like these that seem to go on with little purpose.

Ethan Hawke makes Tesla a brooding genius, full of tics and OCD. As always, he fully commits to the role and delivers the best he can. But the problem is we never really learn who Tesla is. In many ways, he is a cipher at the center of his own story. Kyle MacLachlan’s Edison is an egotist of epic proportion but allows flashes of doubt to peek through. There are occasional sparks between them and the rivalry between these dysfunctional geniuses offer the strongest sequences. If only there were more.

Eve Hewson’s Anne Morgan is a fully-realized character, the underlying but never spoken love for Tesla a driving factor. She makes the  marveling at his genius and exasperation with his inability to communicate completely natural. Jim Gaffigan is a blowsy and sincere George Westinghouse and loses himself in the character. J.P. Morgan, as played by Donnie Keshawarz, enters late and is a borderline melodrama villain.

Rebecca Dayan as the grand dame of the theatre, Sarah Bernhardt, steers her away from the dangers of caricature, and her fascination with Tesla is intriguing if not fully explored. The rest of the cast are given one note each to play, and they struggle along with the weightier sections of exposition.

There are at least half a dozen electrical references that could be made to cleverly sum-up Tesla — comments about random sparks or broken circuits. But, ultimately, it is much simpler than that: The film just doesn’t work.

Tesla is rated PG-13 for some thematic material and some nudity.

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Photo courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

Disney has raided its vault over the last several years, producing live-action remakes of some of its most successful animated features. These have included Beauty and the Beast, Dumbo, The Lion King, Cinderella, The Jungle Book, and Aladdin. There are others that are in various stages of development:  Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, The Little Mermaid, Hercules, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and Pinocchio

Disney’s latest is Mulan, based on the 1998 cartoon, as well as its source, Ballad of Mulan, by Guo Moaqian.

A scene from the film.

The premise has remained the same. To defend the country from invaders, the Emperor of China decrees that one man from each family must service in the Imperial Army. Disguised as a man, Mulan takes the place of her war-wounded father. It is a story of inner-strength, loyalty, and bravery in the face of fear.

As a soldier, Mulan reaches her full potential and saves the country, earning both the respect of her family and the citizens of the grateful nation. Mulan takes her place with some of Disney’s stronger female characters, including Merida (Brave), Anna and Elsa (Frozen), and Tiana (The Princess and the Frog).

The original version of Mulan has the classic Disney take. While it deals with serious issues, it leans towards the humorous, aimed at younger viewers: a talking dragon sidekick (Eddie Murphy, basically doing his Donkey from Shrek), a cute cricket along for good luck, singing and dancing ancestral ghosts, and a hodgepodge of goofy soldiers.  It builds up to the latter group in drag as concubines, a rather false note in an otherwise entertaining outing that still brings home its messages.

The new version eschews almost all lightness, and, instead, is a more demanding and rough-hewn journey. An added prologue shows the child Mulan and her ability to harness her chi. Chi is defined as “vital energy that is held to animate the body internally.” Here, it is also given an additional mystical context, one in this world that is only associated with men, and, in particular, warriors. Mulan is discouraged by her family to show this power, but it is of value when unleashed in her male persona, Hua Jun.

A great deal of the first half of the film is taken up with the training of the soldiers. Just as in the cartoon, they are taught and challenged and Mulan’s skill and power comes to the surface. This is followed by multiple battles before the final confrontation.

A scene from the film.

The invaders are lead by Bori Khan, a Rouran warrior leader, who is bent on avenging his father’s death, a man who was slain by the Emperor. His followers are black clad villains who look like Ninja’s by way of Sons of Anarchy. They are being assisted by Xian Lang, a shapeshifting witch with extraordinary abilities; she serves as a sort of mirror image to Mulan. Unfortunately, the interesting parallel is introduced but never fully developed. Unlike the whimsical supernatural components of the original, here they are powerful and often deadly. It is unfortunate that, along with the parallels between Mulan and the witch, they are all left a bit vague.

Mulan also plays a great emphasis on the importance of family. Both versions show this but it is stronger in the new incarnation.  The fact that the romantic element from the first film has been removed — there is a faint hint of it — focuses Mulan’s desire to honor family above all else, from beginning to end.

The design is bold and colorful (its biggest nod towards its Disney root), and the settings, shot in China and New Zealand, are expansive and beautiful. Whether village, training camp, or the breathtaking Imperial Palace, there is a wealth of detail. Nothing in the film feels CGI and that is a big point in its favor. It all feels very present.

The cast is uniformly strong and all involved are committed to the material and the world in which the story takes place.  The performances come across as honest and, while the dialogue is limited, there is an integrity.

Liu Yifei (center), as Mulan, in a scene from the film.

Liu Yifei is superb as Mulan and strikes just the right quality in her alternate guise; she carries the film with the right mix of struggle and pride. Donnie Yen’s Commander Tung makes the Imperial Army leader human. As the almost-love interest, Chen Honghui, Yoson An is easygoing and earnest, in equal turns. Gong Li makes the most of the underwritten witch. Jason Scott Lee’s Bori Khan is a villain with a capital V. Jet Li’s Emperor is both regal and compassionate. Tzi Ma and Rosalind Chao do well with their limited screen time as Mulan’s concerned but loving parents. The assorted recruits are played well-enough but are more types than fully-realized individuals.

Both original and remake were written by a team of writers. Here Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, Lauren Hynek, and Elizabeth Martin have taken elements of the 1998 but have fashioned a very different product. They have wisely removed the handful of songs and used them as underscoring as the current version would have made a rather peculiar musical. Niki Caro has directed it with a sure and bold hand. The team have brought out the important theme of the equality of women from a modern point-of-view — but that is in the film’s favor.

The biggest question comes down to this:  Who is the audience? It is certainly too dark and too violent for young children. There are many battles with multiple deaths in each one. And while we never see a drop of blood, plenty are shot through with arrows or felled by sword and spear. But adults might find it all too simplistic. There isn’t a great deal of suspense and, with few exceptions, the scenes play to forgone conclusions.

Mulan is sincere and epic and, for the most part, entertaining. Its messages of loyalty and fairness are strong and important. It is stunning to look at and well-acted. But it will remain a film in search of its audience.

Rated  PG-13, Mulan is now streaming on Disney Plus.

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

At the outset, I must confess that I am allergic to self-discovery. I break out in hives of disinterest. Mostly when I read these accounts, they make me want to be a less successful, unhappier person. Call it the Self-Enlightenment Repellent Effect.  And yet …

Author Stephanie Hayman

Who would think that a book entitled Surviving My First Decade in Corporate America, written by a thirty-year-old marketing strategist, would be one of the most engaging and enlightening books of the last year?

Stephanie Hayman’s slender tome is a clever, informative, and beautifully written account of her twenties in the workplace. Her prose is crisp, laugh-out-loud funny, and smart. The book is flawlessly constructed and her advice is logical and practical; her point-of-view is personal, which makes it all the more valuable. She never speaks in generalities and backs up her ideas with personal experiences and well-placed anecdotes. Her style is breezy and conversational but never feels flippant or dismissive.

This is a tremendous book.

Her target audience is young people entering the professional world for the first time. Upon graduation, the book should be required reading, perhaps handed out with diplomas if necessary. While she deals predominantly with corporate, office, and business workplaces, there is a universality to her perspective that applies to most jobs and careers.

The book is composed of about two dozen quick chapters, with some shrewd interludes. She actually opens the book with “An Ode to Change,” composed of eight comical haikus, reflecting her shift from college to the world beyond. A personal favorite: “Met for two hours today/This could have been an e-mail/What a waste of time.”

Her prologue sets the tone for what is to come: When I was a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed 22-year-old college senior, I wish I had some insight into what to expect as I entered the business world. I imagined that I’d pop out of bed with a smile on my face, shut the alarm on the first ding, and brush my teeth with such gusto, feverishly anticipating the exciting work day ahead. LOL, clearly my young self had quite the active imagination and didn’t quite grasp the concepts of commuting, 9 a.m. meetings, and overall exhaustion.

And so it began and so it begins.

The first chapter is titled “Social Paparazzi vs. Background Checks.” Right out of the starting gate, she tackles the dangers and pitfalls of social media and how it effects how one is perceived in the greater world. She strikes home with the reality that those bar pictures might have been fun at the time, but they will do you no good (and possible ill). 

In “Trading College for a Cubicle,” she gives an overview of some of the unexpected challenges in her first job. An amusing story about a difficult bad weather commute is followed by an honest, self-revelatory conclusion: “As much as everyone tells you their stories, and you feel like you know what to expect, you will never truly understand or grasp the transition to professional life until you experience it yourself.” 

“Friends, Foes and Corporate Beaus” deals with romance in the workplace. It can be done as long as you are open and honest. It worked for her but she cautions “the personal and professional not only intersect, but become emotionally entangled with one another.” This segues into “Spoiler Alert: Work/Life Balance Doesn’t Exist.” After years of hearing how important it is to separate work and life, she makes the point that it is more myth than method. “Working doesn’t stop and life doesn’t stop” — and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.  It is about sensible integration.

One of the most pointed chapters — “Sorry Doesn’t Cut It!” — addresses the mis- and over-use of “I’m sorry.” (This was an ah-hah moment for me and will resonate with any reader.) In an age of responsibility deflection, this is a reminder to choose the words that address what is actually happening, rather than resort to meaningless clichés and social dodges. Her advice on networking is succinct and pragmatic; anyone wondering how to begin developing the necessary skills are given a sensible and accessible approach.

Hayman pulls no punches. “Asking for a raise without proper justification just straight up makes you look dumb. As a millennial asking for a raise without anything to back up your claim, just makes you look like … well, a millennial.”

She takes on challenging topics with the same clear-headed, no-nonsense tactic: organizational culture, the importance of personal days, interaction in a multigenerational workforce, gender disparity, graduate degrees, and, ultimately, the pandemic. No matter how difficult the situation, she is neither self-aggrandizing or self-pitying.

One of the interludes compares reactions of her age twenty-two self to her age twenty-nine self. She covers cold calls, meetings, traveling, high heels, getting ready, bosses, emails, and availability, all with wicked accuracy and a sense of how we grow. It is also a reflection of how priorities mature with experience.

Throughout, there is a refrain of learning to trust your gut and speaking up and speaking out: “In the workplace if you don’t speak up, you’re forgotten. You become the friend that shows up to every family gathering without bringing an app, dessert or bottle of wine. Quickly everyone begins to wonder: why are you here and what do you actually contribute?”

At the end of each chapter, she has “What I knew then, but know now.” It is composed of three points summing up the material addressed in the previous pages. They are as witty and well-crafted as the body of the chapter and offer an excellent way for the book to be used as an ongoing source. After the reader has gone through the entire book, he or she can use those points as a constant refresher. Once again, the book is highly entertaining and completely practical. 

“This is not high school and you are not defined by a ‘label.’ Every day you have a new chance to reinvent or grow your existing persona. Who you are at 22 will not be who you are at 30. Don’t lump yourself in a box, and celebrate all of the differentiated parts of you.”  Wise words and good advice.

It would be easy to quote the entire book in this review. Instead, go out and get a stack of copies for the young people in your life who are graduating college (or even high school). Along with the card and the check, give them Stephanie Hayman’s Surviving My First Decade in Corporate America. And while you’re buying a copy for them, pick up a copy for yourself. You won’t be sorry.

Author Stephanie Hayman is a marketing strategist with 8+ years industry experience at Fortune 500 companies and boutique businesses. A graduate of Stony Brook University, the Hauppauge resident frequently publishes her thoughts on her blog, www.bystephaniehayman.com and will host a virtual and in-person event at SBU for current students and alumni this coming fall.

Surviving My First Decade in Corporate America is available online at Amazon, iBooks, Google Books and Barnes & Noble.

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Tatyana McFadden of the United States competes in the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games in 2016. Photo by Matthew Stockman

Reviewed By Jeffrey Sanzel

The new Netflix documentary Rising Phoenix is a poignantly heartfelt and honest look at the Paralympics. But, first and last, is about athletes. They face challenges that are sometimes unfathomable, but their goals and their drive are a tribute to the passion for success and the will of the human spirit. There is no better or more powerful example of turning negatives into positives.

The Paralympic games are populated by a range of differently-able athletes, and they have grown to be the third largest sporting event in the world, drawing thousands of participants from over one hundred countries. Prince Harry, who founded the wounded warrior Invictus Games, observes that you are watching something “you’ve been taught is impossible.”

Focusing on nine athletes from seven different countries, this is an exceptional film.  The documentary alternates between interviews with the athletes, footage of them competing, and archival clips of them throughout their lives. It is some of the latter shots that stay with the viewer as they often trace the athletes from infancy and childhood through the present day, offering a glimpse into their incredible paths.

In addition, three past and present members of the International Paralympic Committee —Andrew Parsons, Sir Philip Craven, and Xavier Gonzalez — give insight into the difficulties and challenges of organization and funding, most notably with the Rio Olympics of 2016.

Throughout, the history of the Paralympics is introduced in short spurts, much through interviews with its founder’s daughter, Eva Loeffler. The seed for the games was sown by Loeffler’s father Dr. Ludwig Guttmann, a German-Jewish refugee, who brought his family to England in 1939. Guttmann, a neurosurgeon, began treating soldiers with spinal injuries. Their plight and his work with them inspired him to create a sports competition at the Stoke Mandeville Hospital.

The first, with sixteen participants, was held to coincide with the 1948 Olympics; the second was held in 1952. It was the latter that welcomed the first international competitors, with the addition of Dutch and Israeli veterans.  It was these Stoke Mandeville Games that were the precursor of the first official Paralympic Games, held in Rome in 1960. From then on, the games grew in size and fame. Since 1988, the Paralympics have almost always been held immediately following the Olympics.

Rising Phoenix does not explain in detail the structure of the event nor does it detail the breakdown of categories. (Because of the wide variety of disabilities that Paralympic athletes have, there are actually ten eligible impairment types.) Instead, the creators wisely focus on individual athletes with a variety of backgrounds and challenges.

The title of the film is taken from Bebe Vio, a young Italian athlete who competes in wheelchair fencing. Already a successful competitor, she was struck with meningitis at age eleven which caused the necessity of the amputation of both her arms and legs. But, like the phoenix, she rose again and returned to her passion.  Her moments on camera are some of the most vivid; her drive and enthusiasm are mesmerizing. She is fully present, practically leaping off the screen.

Each narrative is unique but the bond that connects them is the will to play and to play to win.

Tatyana McFadden was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, afflicted with spina bifida, paralyzed from the waist down. The earliest part of her life was in Orphanage Number 13. She had no wheelchair and had to scoot across the floor. In 1993, at age six, she was adopted by an American family. With unflagging parental support, she was encouraged to pursue her athletic passions. She and her family sued for the right to participate in high school sports. The winning of the case ushered in the Sports and Fitness Equity Law.

McFadden has dozens of awards and holds multiple world records — a fact brought in during an interview clip from the Ellen DeGeneres show. At a Winter Paralympics, we see her reunited with her birth mother. (It should be noted, that McFadden is also one of the producers of Rising Phoenix.)

Great Britain’s Jonnie Peacock is shown beating the famous and now infamous Oscar Pistorius in the 100 meter. Australian swimmer Ellie Cole lost her leg to cancer at age ten but is one of the top swimmers in this world competition. Matt Stutzman, of the U.S., is an archer born without arms; he tells the story of his adoption and the love of his siblings. Cui Zhe, a Chinese powerlifter, speaks of the improved attitude towards the disabled since the Beijing 2008 Olympics and subsequent Paralympics.

Because of a wealth of pictures and family video, we get a real portrait into the arc of Australian Ryley Batt’s journey. Born missing both legs and several fingers, it was the love of his grandfather and the man’s belief in him that gave him the support that he needed. A fierce player and a self-described adrenaline junkie, he had many highs and lows but has risen through the ranks of wheelchair rugby — appropriately nicknamed “murderball.”

Ntando Mahlangu, of South Africa, speaks of the shame of a family having a disabled child. The Cheetah blades on which he runs enabled him to look people in the eye after twenty years in a wheelchair. These prosthetics have given him the freedom and joy of movement. 

Possibly the most gut-wrenching story belongs to Jean-Baptiste Alaize. At three years old, Alaize’s leg was cut-off with a machete during the Burundian Civil War; he then watched the murder of his mother. He spent the next number of years in an orphanage before being adopted by a French family. For him, running has been part of his escape. “Falling and getting back up again is life.” The film captures his pain but also his surviving courage.

The film builds up to the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Paralympics that almost didn’t happen. Due to financial mismanagement, the Brazilian Olympic committee had used money designated for the Paralympics towards the Olympics themselves. Just weeks before, there was the danger of cancellation. The film’s telling of this is done with the fluidity and tension of a thriller. Fortunately, through last-minute machinations, the event went forward.

Directors Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui and cinematographer Will Pugh have done flawless work creating a tapestry of rich and diverse stories with a unified theme:  Giving up is never an option.

The use of slow-motion and replay along with Greco-statues of the nine participants further elevate this from a traditional documentary. They don’t ignore the darker aspects — the often lack of respect or inclusion — but they celebrate all that is wonderful. They honor the hundreds and often thousands of hours of training, of winning and losing, and of making what seems impossible is possible. The viewer can’t help but be drawn in and deeply, deeply moved by this cinematic achievement.

As Jean-Baptiste Alaize states:  “My disability is my strength.”  Rising Phoenix more than just pays tribute to an important world event.  It shares the faces and the voices of people who truly understand the intersection of diversity and excellence.

Rated PG-13, Rising Phoenix is now streaming on Netflix.

Micheál Richardson and Liam Neeson in a scene from the film.

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

The history of literature, theatre, film, and television is charged with the division between fathers and sons. It has shown the pain and the humor, the discord and the disconnect, the hurt and the healing. It has often been done with great skill and sensitivity.

Spoiler alert: Made in Italy isn’t one of them.

Corollary Spoiler alert: There’s nothing to spoil.

Micheál Richardson and Liam Neeson in a scene from the film.

To say Made in Italy is the definition of predictable is an insult to all of the predictable films that have been … predictable. The film is being presented as a comedy-drama. This is true in that there is comedy and that there is drama. However, it is not so much blended as it is thrown together like two unrelated forms.  Think mustard and sparkplugs.

The plot is simple. In London, twenty-something Jack Foster’s wife is divorcing him. He stands to lose his half of the gallery that they had managed together but which had belonged to her family. His only hope is to get his estranged father, Robert (a dysfunctional artist) to agree to sell the Tuscan house which they co-own. When they arrive, they discover the house is as neglected as their relationship. (How’s that for a metaphor? Do you think that maybe they’ll fix-up the house and rediscover the familial bond?) Over the next hour and thirty minutes, “secrets” (note the quotes; more to come) are “revealed.” (More quotes.)

Robert’s wife has died in a car accident years before. This event has driven a wedge between father and son. It’s not so much that Robert can’t communicate; it’s that he won’t.  At first, he appears difficult and unpleasant but that goes by the wayside fairly quickly so he can be “wise” and “witty.” Jack and Robert’s relationship seems to be built on omission. Or maybe it’s just the script left things out — things like dimension and character motivation. But don’t worry, there’s some “funny” stuff with spaghetti.

Jack meets the village’s local restaurant owner, Natalia, who has a tense relationship with her ex-husband and a custody struggle over their daughter. Love springs between Jack and Natalia. Instantly.

There is slapstick. There are tears. There is forced laughter but little genuine mirth. The whole thing feels like a bad Hallmark connect-the-dots — or in this case, paint-by-numbers. The only thing more banal than the narrative is the dialogue that alternates between forced sitcom jokes and “deep” comments like “people are no good at seeing themselves.” (“Deep,” huh?)

There’s the standard beautiful Italian scenery juxtaposed with the whole range of rundown Money Pit jokes, with requisite dust, dirt, rusty water, and a weasel living in the bathroom. The fact that they are able to fix the house in what seems to be two days is due to myriad montages.

Liam Neeson, Costanza Amati, Valeria Bilello and Micheál Richardson in a scene from the film. Photo courtesy of IFC Films

A mural that Robert painted in his darkest hour is on the main wall of the house. It is discussed, commented upon, and joked about. It represents the pain that Robert felt when he lost his wife. We know this because he tells us. So much for symbols or trusting your audience. Robert has hardened himself to his feelings. But has he? Robert cares about nothing.  But wait, does he? Robert can’t deal with his son? But hold on, can he? And more “stuff.” (Last quotes.) Cue laughter. Cue tears. Cue revelations. Set up a conflict and then solve it instantly. Moving on. Nothing to see here. Literally. (Except the mural and the scenery.)

The responsibility for this unsavory stew falls squarely on first time writer-director James D’Arcy who has not succeeded as director but has failed as a writer. Any salvageable moments are due to Liam Neeson, as Robert; Neeson is an actor incapable of giving a bad performance. He does his best to infuse Robert with a bit of life and has been given a few substantial comedic and dramatic moments.

Neeson’s real-life son, Micheál Richardson, plays Jack. Whether his awkwardness is intentional or not, it kinda-sorta works (maybe a little). Valeria Bilello is charming as Natalia, but the character has truly nothing new to offer. Lindsay Duncan makes the most of the no-nonsense realtor, Kate, who is engaged to sell the house. She is a great actor and one wishes she had been given more to do. There are several people who come to look at the house and a few generic villagers; they have been handed what could charitably be called caricatures.

Finally, one can’t help thinking of the vague and truly uncomfortable life parallel. Neeson’s wife and Micheál’s mother was the gifted actor Natasha Richardson, who died tragically from head injuries sustained in a skiing accident in 2009. The shadow of this does a disservice to her memory, and somehow feels inappropriate and diminishing. While one would hope the creators’ were not using this particularly terrible event as a core, you can’t help but wonder. The reality is there and really can’t be denied. It is a sour coda to an unsatisfying film.

Rated R, Made in Italy is now streaming on demand.

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'Eight Paths of Purpose'

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

“We are internally wired to make the world a better place for ourselves and our children.  Every time we take a step along this path, we feel an inner sense of accomplishment.  Even if we have but a very small part in this process, we feel connected to the larger goal.”

Author Rabbi Tuvia Teldon

Rabbi Tuvia Teldon explores the nature and power of purpose in his inspirational Eight Paths of Purpose [Outskirts Press]

His journey began in 1977 with the birth of his son, Boruch: “What happens when you thought you boarded the plane for Paris, but you land in Timbuktu?” Within five hours of the birth, the boy was diagnosed with a form of cystic fibrosis (CF) and required immediate life-saving surgery. Instantly, he and his wife faced a reversal of expectation. Dark questions crowded his mind — “How could this happen to us?” and “What did we do to deserve this?”  They were presented with a difficult challenge to the family’s projected road.

Teldon worked to accept and embrace this seismic shift. Over the years, Teldon’s family grew, gaining four more children. Boruch’s health was relatively stable until he was nine, where things became worse. In June 1991, at age twelve, Boruch received a double lung transplant, giving the family greater hope.  Sadly, the boy’s body rejected the transplant, and he died.

The devastation was unfathomable. “My burning question was what purpose could this Higher Power possibly have for bringing such suffering into the world, and specifically to my family?” In his quest for understanding, he began writing this book during the seven-day mourning period. He proceeded to work on it over the ensuing twenty-eight years.

For a piece of work that was born in such deep pain, it is an uplifting treatise on finding our way into the light of purpose. At the outset, Teldon delves into this concept, defining and clarifying purpose before exploring it in detail throughout the next hundred pages.

The book’s central concept is that human beings inherently desire to make a difference and that this driving force, whether active or passive, is at our core. It is about embracing this idea and mining the possibilities it presents. Teldon also readily acknowledges that people are unique and have different things to offer.

It is this notion — what we have to offer — that is paramount. Tikan olam — fixing the world — should become our primary focus. (In the Japanese culture, it is known as Ikigai.) How we do this is an individual journey. Teldon lays out ways to delve within ourselves. He recognizes that people face different challenges — financial, emotional, etc. — and that often through accepting adversity, life experiences can guide us. Reframing negatives as positives and “turning tragedy into something good, even if only in some small way” are possible in our personal odyssey. Also, it can be the small things that have as much value as the large. Only we restrict our choices:

It is not limited to accomplishing some great feat or reaching a lofty goal. Purpose in life should be felt on Main Street and in our kitchen, just as much as in a place of worship, in the halls of Washington, or during an inspiring personal experience […] At one moment, purpose may be expressed through our attendance at a PTA meeting; at another moment, how we handle a difficult situation or fix a broken appliance at home; at yet another it could be our decision to donate to an environmental cause in South America.

He reminds that goals are not the endgame but that they will help us to fulfill our larger purposes. “A life of purpose inspires us to see all imperfections as opportunities for us to go beyond our limits and, one hopes, create meaningful personal growth while making the world a better place.”

Teldon breaks down his eight paths and also introduces a vocabulary to flesh them out. He discusses elements of life, personality, relationships, ethics, and happiness. Fate, faith, and God are all strong components. It is a book to be read carefully and — appropriately — with purpose. These are big concepts and demand to be taken in, thought through, reviewed, reflected upon, and returned to.

(On a personal note, even after a single reading, I found an immediate application; I found myself sharing the thrust of the book in a discussion with colleagues on a current project. The clarity of his terms and vision are invaluable.)

Rabbi Teldons family

Many of the chapters end with a series of pointed questions followed by exercises to implement the precepts. Cumulatively, this gives Eight Paths a strong mix of the practical and the philosophical, alternating between explanation and narrative examples. Interspersed throughout the book are anecdotal and statistical insertions that liven Teldon’s discussion. Many of these enhance his central concepts with views on the history and evolutionary progress of the world. He quotes an interesting range of people from Thomas Carlyle and Helen Keller to Maria Shriver and Marla Gibbs.

Tuvia Teldon’s Eight Paths of Purpose is small only its length; it is huge in its scope. It is formidable in its insight and inciting the bridging meaningful acts into a purposeful existence. It is a both a primer and an advanced text on living a life of greater value and satisfaction. Ultimately, it can be summed-up in his choice of quotes from Ralph Waldo Emerson: “The purpose of life is … to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.”

A resident of Commack, author Rabbi Tuvia Teldon is the Senior Rabbi on Long Island and  oversees a staff of over 50 rabbis in 38 centers. Eight Paths of Purpose is available at Book Revue in Huntington, www.outskirtspress.com, www.barnesandnoble.com and www.amazon.com.

Dixie Egerickx in a scene from the film. Photo courtesy of STXfilms

Reviewed By Jeffrey Sanzel

British-American novelist Frances Hodgson Burnett wrote three dozen novels for children. Of these, the best known were Little Lord Fauntleroy, A Little Princess, and The Secret Garden, all published between 1885 and 1911. While the first two have had various cinematic incarnations, it is The Secret Garden that has endured, in remakes on film and television over a half dozen times. It was also the source for the 1991 Tony-nominated Broadway musical.

Amir Wilson, Edan Hayhurst and Dixie Egerickx in a scene from the film. 

Set at the turn of the 20th century, The Secret Garden has a dark narrative and, interestingly, a difficult and selfish protagonist. Unlike the title characters in Fauntleroy and Princess, Mary Lennox is a willful, headstrong child; she is indulged by her servants and used to getting her own way. After her parents die of the cholera in India, Mary is sent to live at Misselthwaite Manor, an isolated mansion on the Yorkshire moors. There she is to live with her Uncle Archibald Craven, whom she has never met. Archibald is a damaged and distant widower, brooding over the loss of his beloved wife.

Mary learns that her behavior will not be tolerated and is forced to become more self-sufficient and respectful. Hearing sobbing in the night, she discovers the invalid boy, Colin, who is kept hidden away. Told that he is too frail to be out in the world, Colin is another self-absorbed and difficult child. It is a story of deception and despair as well as hope, growth, and awakening; the titular garden is a metaphor for death and rebirth.

The current adaptation is directed by Marc Munden, from a screenplay by Jack Thorne.  (Thorne is responsible for last season’s Broadway production of A Christmas Carol, an introspective, intriguing, and literate vision.) The creators have moved the action to 1947, the eve of the partition between India and Pakistan. This was a time of deep unrest as thousands fled conflict and disease.

The opening sequences accentuate Mary’s abandonment, with the house in disarray; she listens to the not-so-distant sounds of gunshots, forced to fend for herself. She eats rotting food and drinks tea dregs, telling herself and her doll tales of the Indian gods.  Her ability to tell stories is one that follows through the rest of the narrative.

Colin Firth in a scene from the film.

Next, she is put on a sort of Indian Kindertransport and sent to England. She arrives at Misselthwaite, which looms like a haunted Downton Abbey. The house is in disrepair, having been used as a hospital during the war. She is warned by the housekeeper, Mrs. Medlock, not to go “poking about.” The film then begins to follow the novel: Mary wandering around the vast, empty rooms, eventually discovering the temperamental Colin, a boy whose manners are worse than hers. What ensues is Mary’s healing herself through her healing of Colin. She goes from spoiled and demanding (she won’t even dress herself) to generous and self-reliant. It is a predictable journey but a good lesson for younger viewers.

The Secret Garden is not a plot driven piece but is more rooted in character and atmosphere. Different versions focus on the personal struggles; others highlight the more fantastical elements. In the current offering, it is a mix, with emphasis placed equally on the relationship of Mary’s and Colin’s mothers, who were twins. They are seen in flashbacks as well as spirit guides in the present. The garden itself is an almost mystical jungle, an idyll with oversized plants and hundreds of CGI-ed butterflies. Lights dapple on moss-covered trees as the verdant bower explodes in vivid color.

In Thorne’s screenplay, Mary learns almost too quickly to say “please.” There isn’t much an arc as instantaneous awareness. Within a day of her arrival, she has befriended a stray dog, and there are many shots of them running on the grounds to the strains of Disney-like accompaniment. It is the dog that leads her to the secret garden. 

The acceleration of action is a problem that could be leveled at the entire film.  Development is rushed to get to the next grand image. There are many fantasy moments (wallpaper that comes to life, the sisters appearing and disappearing, etc.) but seeing the characters interacting would have made for more of an emotional investment.

Dixie Egerickx is an engrossing Mary Lennox. She’s a rough-and-tumble survivor and never has a false moment. There is always a sense that she is taking everything in; she is a wonderful mix of spontaneity and thoughtfulness. Amir Wilson makes an honest, vaguely feral Dickon, brother to the housemaid Martha (a solid but underused Isis Davis); a sort of local “wild boy,” he and Mary clear the garden together and form a deep bond.

Edan Hayhurst’s Colin is a bit shrill and one-note but that is the nature of the character; he does manage a nice shift in his ultimate awakening. The usually formidable Julie Walters doesn’t have much to do as the sour Mrs. Medlock; she clomps up and down stairs, opening and closing doors, and jangling her keys.

Colin Firth is a terrific actor and the tormented Archibald should have been an ideal match for his skills. Sadly, he has barely any screen time, appearing briefly on Mary’s arrival and then disappearing for the next hour. He has a few nice moments (in particular, in his late wife’s room) but it’s just not enough. Archibald is a fascinating character with dimensional possibilities that are sadly unexplored. His absence tamps down any real build in tension, and what should be his climactic reunion with his son Colin is less than cathartic. It doesn’t help that it is brought about by a clumsy, melodramatic twist.

The Secret Garden touches on many themes.  At its heart, it is about how forgiveness — of both others and of ourselves — leads to understanding. In this case, incomplete families become whole by embracing truths that have been kept hidden. Painful memories come to light and this leads to acceptance and growth. And while the newest version of The Secret Garden is certainly not definitive, it is visually striking and has a bold, believable Mary its center.

Rated PG, The Secret Garden is now streaming on demand.

Photos courtesy of STXfilms

By Jeffrey Sanzel

Arcadia Publishing Co.’s Images of America Series’ latest offering is Charles Denson’s illuminating and handsomely constructed Coney Island’s Wonder Wheel Park. The book doesn’t just explore the area’s oldest and most famous attraction, the Wonder Wheel, but honors Brooklyn’s Coney Island as a vibrant neighborhood of variety and independence. It also celebrates the importance of our country as a melting pot:

The story of the Wonder Wheel is the story of immigration in America.  The century-old landmark comes with a narrative:  this incredibly complex machine was designed, built, owned, operated, and ultimately saved by immigrants with little formal education who came to the United States penniless and wound up realizing the American Dream.

In 1907, 17-year-old Romanian-born Charles Hermann immigrated to the United States. While working in San Francisco, he saw the Aeroscope at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition. It was this device that most likely inspired him to design his “perpetual motion machine.” (His early concept bore a resemblance to one of Leonardo da Vinci’s sketches for a similar invention. The book smartly shows the drawings together.)

Above, the Wonder Wheel viewed from the Bowery and West 12th St. in Brooklyn during the 1940s.
Image courtesy of the Coney Island History Project

In New York, Hermann teamed with the more business savvy Herman Garms (born Rosenfeld) to form the Eccentric Ferris Wheel Company. (Coincidentally, Garms and Hermann both arrived in the U.S. in the same year; the latter from Germany). It was realist Garms who suggested that it become a wheel and be used for an amusement ride. The pair were joined by businessman William J. Ward who was instrumental in the development of Coney Island. It was Ward who enabled the erection of the Wheel on the site of the torn-down Roosevelt’s Rough Riders roller coaster.

The book succinctly traces the building and opening of the Wonder Wheel in 1920 and notes that once built, Hermann walked away from it to pursue other projects. Typical of Hermann, he was more interested in creation and innovation than he was in financial gain. His life was a series of sometimes brilliant inventions for which he received little financial renumeration. In contrast, Garms stayed with the Wheel and his descendants would operate it for the next sixty years.

Throughout the 1920’s Coney Island flourished. Between 1917 and 1923, the City bought back the beachfront property from private holders to create a wide beach and public boardwalk. Rollercoasters — the Thunderbolt, Tornado, and Cyclone — were joined by two luxurious theaters: the RKO Tilyou and the Loew’s Coney Island. The Half Moon Hotel, fourteen stories high, opened in 1927.  Ward was the driving force behind much of the renaissance.

The book continues by briskly tracing the events of the ensuing decades, highlighting the ups and downs with interesting and informative anecdotes. It shows the shifts in the attractions (changes in the businesses, various fires, etc.) and leads up to the purchase of the Wonder Wheel by Greek immigrant Denos Vourderis, in 1983.

Vourderis (born Constantinos Dionysios Vourderis in 1920) joined Greece’s merchant marine at the age of fourteen and then fought for the Americans in World War II. He began with a hotdog pushcart before growing his business to restaurants and food concessions. Fulfilling a life-long dream, he bought the Wonder Wheel and its environs, creating Deno’s Wonder Wheel Park, a family business that endures today. Vourderis is another wonderful example of the fulfillment of the American Dream.

One of the great joys of the Images of America series is, of course, the pictures. There are literally hundreds of photos spanning a century, each telling its own story. There are fascinating sketches and blueprints that show Hermann’s process and progress. There are maps and admission tickets, promotional stills, and candids. There is artwork from the popular Spook-A-Rama and behind the scenes photos revealing many of the innerworkings. There are also publicity pictures from films that have used the area as a location juxtaposed with the myriad visitors and employees. And, of course, dozens of pictures of the families that have been integral to its upkeep, survival, and improvement.

One particularly fun photo is an advertisement that includes the Wheel’s statistics (Height:  150 feet; Weight:  150 tons; Cars: 24—8 “dip” cars; Capacity: 132 riders) with “THRILLS” emblazoned across the Wheel along with  “CONEY’S COLOSSUS!” and “STUPENDOUS!  AWESOME! THRILLING!” in the text. The Wonder Wheel did not come with an operating manual; there is a photo of the only existent instructions, jotted down on the inside of a cigarette carton. At the end of the two columns is “Good Luck.”

The Wheel is more than an amusement ride. It’s a work of art and the ultimate survivor in an ephemeral world — a link to Coney’s remarkable past.

Coney Island’s Wonder Wheel Park is an the ideal tribute to a ride, a place, and a way of life.

The executive director of the nonprofit Coney Island History Project, author Charles Denson grew up in Coney Island and began documenting his neighborhood as a boy, a passion that continues to this day. Pick up a copy of Coney Island’s Wonder Wheel Park at Book Revue in Huntington, www.amazon.com or www.barnesandnoble.com.

The film uncovers footage that the congressman/activist had never seen. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures
New documentary is a loving tribute to an American hero

Reviewed By Jeffrey Sanzel

Freedom is not a state; it is an act. It is not some enchanted garden perched high on a distant plateau where we can finally sit down and rest. Freedom is the continuous action we all must take, and each generation must do its part to create an even more fair, more just society.

Across That Bridge: A Vision for Change and the Future of America by John Lewis

When Congressman John Lewis passed away on July 17 at age eighty, the world lost the man who was called “one of the most courageous persons the Civil Rights Movement ever produced.” Lewis was a beacon for the protection of human rights and won the respect and admiration of colleagues on both sides of the aisle.

Having dedicated his life to the Civil Rights movement, he was a member of the “Big Six” who organized the legendary 1963 March on Washington. In 1965, he led the first of three Selma to Montgomery marches across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. In the infamous Bloody Sunday (March 7, 1965), he was one of the nearly six hundred marchers who were viciously attacked. Lewis suffered a skull fracture, and he bore the forehead scars for the rest of his life.

Now, Dawn Porter has directed the powerful and absorbing documentary John Lewis: Good Trouble. The title refers to a belief that Lewis held his entire life: 

Do not get lost in a sea of despair. Be hopeful, be optimistic. Our struggle is not the struggle of a day, a week, a month, or a year, it is the struggle of a lifetime. Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble.

Lewis said that age fifteen he was inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks to get into “good trouble.”

The ninety minutes are a portrait of a man of deep belief and unfathomable courage. Much of the film focuses on the all-important voting rights. Instead of taking a traditional linear biographical approach, it alternates between his work in the 1960’s with his continued work in the 2000’s. Porter is clearly drawing a parallel between the two eras. The first where there was a struggle to secure equal voting opportunities for African Americans and other minorities, and the present where these secured rights are once again imperiled. 

Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

The documentary opens with and frequently returns to Lewis watching film footage of the Civil Rights movement in the 1960’s, much of which he has never seen. In his stillness is the wisdom of a man who has seen much and experienced more. His pain is mixed with pride and awareness. Occasionally, he comments on what he is watching, but mostly he just takes it in. It is incredibly moving in its simplicity as he reviews many of the most disturbing moments in a long history.

Interspersed with archival clips, many featuring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as well as John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy (for whom Lewis worked at the time of his assassination), George W. Bush, Ronald Reagan, Lyndon B. Johnson, and Barack Obama, are short interviews including Hillary Clinton and Bill Clinton, Elijah Cummings, Nancy Pelosi, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Cory Booker, and Ilhan Omar, all praising the Congressman’s work and his commitment. These help shape the overall picture of Lewis and his journey.

He is shown on the campaign trail with young, vibrant contenders, frequently first time candidates. Beto O’Rourke and Stacey Abrams are just two of the many he has supported. There are wonderful clips of his unchecked joy watching the returns of the 2018 mid-terms. 

The film gives only a sketch of his personal life and history, with appearances of his sisters and brothers, who clearly love him but remain slightly in awe of his accomplishments. His wife and son are briefly touched upon, and her passing in 2012 was clearly a blow. There is a brief bit about his friendship with Julian Bond that turned acrimonious when they ran against each other. Few details are given but clearly this was a difficult personal time in his career.

What continues to come across is Lewis’s incredible warmth and generosity, a gentle leader and a continuing inspiration. His humor is in stark contrast with the often fiery passion he shows when speaking.  His speeches are mesmerizing in their raw honesty. These are as much a part of him as are the amusing anecdotes that are introduced throughout. (His preaching to the chickens as a boy can only be appreciated by listening to his telling.)

A viral dance, his reaction to the election of President Obama as well as that president’s gratitude towards him, and his easy banter with his longtime chief of staff, Michael Collins, are just some of the glimpses into his gracious humanity. His message of non-violence is continually emphasized. The right to protest but the responsibility to do it without intentional harm was deeply rooted in his choices and actions. 

But central to the film and Lewis’s story is the quest to eradicate voter suppression. This is been the head and heart of Lewis’s life. In addition to the many important moments of the 1960’s is the bipartisan Voting Rights Act of 2006. The subsequent 2013 attack on it led to the 2016 election being the first without the protection of this act.

I fear that we are facing the end of democracy. As long as I have breath in my body, I’ll do what I can.”

The film builds to a quick sequence highlighting the dozens of bills that Lewis co-sponsored, the breadth of his work including not only voting and civil rights but gun control, health care reform, immigration, and a host of other important social issues. It is clear that his goal has been to make a better, freer, and more equal world:

As a nation and a people, we are not quite there yet; we have miles to go.

Porter never shies away from presenting disturbing and often brutal images, including attacks during marches, sit-ins, and lunch counter desegregations. There is nothing sensationalist about her choices; they are an honest representation of a dark blot on our country’s history. But the film truly honors the spirit and accomplishments of John Lewis. It is a documentary that should be viewed by families and seen in classrooms, discussed, contemplated, and taken to heart. The final words of the film are appropriately his:

We will create a beloved community. We will redeem the soul of America. There may be some setbacks, some delays … but as a nation and as a people, we will get there. And I still believe, we shall overcome.

Rated PG, John Lewis: Good Trouble is now streaming on demand.