Authors Posts by Jeffrey Sanzel

Jeffrey Sanzel

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Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

The world of cinephiles divides between those who think Citizen Kane is one of (if not the) most brilliant films ever made — and those who think it is over-rated. Hundreds of thousands of words have been written about the film, dissecting its structure, cinematography, symbolism, background, and place in moviemaking history. 

The American Experience produced the documentary The Battle Over Citizen Kane (1996). It chronicled the battle between Orson Welles and William Randolph Hearst over the creation and release of the film. It was followed in 1999 by the historical drama RKO 281, which covered the same material and starred Liev Schreiber as Welles, James Cromwell as Hearst, and John Malkovich as screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz.

Netflix now offers David Fincher’s Mank. Fincher, best known for thrillers (Seven, Panic Room, Alien 3, Fight Club), has directed his late father Jack Fincher’s fascinating screenplay, less exploring Citizen Kane but instead focusing on the man behind the screenplay, Herman Mankiewicz. This is a piece of high style, evoking the noirish films of the 1940s; in essence, it tells the story in the way in which Welles himself would have. 

The film alternates between 1940 when Welles is eagerly waiting for Mankiewicz to finish the screenplay, and the early 1930’s where Mankiewicz is struggling to find a foothold. The screenplay, which would become Citizen Kane, is a thinly veiled and vicious take on the life of newspaper mogul Hearst and his relationship with his lover, Marion Davies. Mankiewicz is to receive a large fee for the screenplay but no credit. Laid up with a broken leg, he embarks on meeting Welles’ deadline.

Those looking for an account of the making of Citizen Kane should look elsewhere. Mank is instead an exploration of Hollywood, specifically the politics of show business and show business’ involvement in politics. A good deal focuses on the California gubernatorial election of 1934 and how the Republican MGM hierarchy ran a smear campaign against left-wing author Upton Sinclair.

Presented is a Hollywood of hedonism and an old boys’ network, of backroom deals, demanded loyalty, and the unchecked intersections of film, power, and money. In the midst of this is Mankiewicz who is battling his demons, both in his career and with his alcoholism. It is a story in which the protagonist is Quixote and Cervantes, an intriguing and demanding drama that requires full attention.

If the definition of being a great actor is to lose oneself in the role to the point of being unrecognizable, then there is no finer actor than Gary Oldman. He is a true chameleon. It is hard to measure his performances against each other because no two are alike in any way. His Mankiewicz is unique: charming, insightful, dissipated, conflicted, and inscrutable. It is one of the best performances of 2020.

Amanda Seyfried brings charisma and depth to Marion Davies, in contrast with Citizen Kane’s Suzanne Alexander Kane, a spoiled and unaware gold digger; Seyfried’s Davies has a core of honesty and a surprising self-awareness. Arliss Howard is effective as the volatile studio head Louis B. Mayer, a monster manipulator with no conscience. Charles Dance finds shades in his portrayal of Hearst that humanizes the character but in no way detract from the man’s ability to destroy. Tom Burke’s Orson Welles hovers around the periphery, more seen than heard (which is a good thing as he has successfully recreated Welles’ voice as his resemblance is only passing). Sam Troughton makes for a fussy John Houseman, sent by Welles to watch over Mankiewicz. Tuppence Middleton finds warmth and intelligence in Sara, Mankiewicz’s tolerant wife, as does Lily Collins as Rita Alexander, the willful secretary who assists him. The film is populated with cameos of icons of the era (Joan Crawford, Norma Shearer, Ben Hecht, George S. Kaufman, etc.) that enhance the epic feel.

The film is shot in rich black-and-white; Erik Messerschmidt’s cinematography deserves high praise. Equally credited should be Kirk Baxter’s spot-on editing. Donald Graham Burt’s production design complements the art direction of Chris Craine and Dan Webster. Trish Summerville’s hundreds of costumes perfectly reflect the era. 

Fincher’s collaboration with these artists has resulted in a vision of the darker Hollywood of another era. Mank is not so much a film about a film. It is instead a thoughtful portrait of the construction of art in the face of warring forces. 

In the end, Mankiewicz (who did not attend the ceremony) receives the Academy Award for Best Screenplay. Mankiewicz’s career would never reach another high of this proportion, and he would die thirteen years later from complications due to alcoholism, a genius dead at the age of fifty-five. This tacit and disturbing ending is an appropriate coda to an introspective and absorbing film.

Rated R, Mank is currently streaming on Netflix.

Viola Davis in a scene from the movie. Photo from Netflix

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

August Wilson, one of the foremost American dramatists, created the ten-play cycle The Pittsburgh Plays. The pieces explored different elements of the African-American experience, each work set in a different decade. The second play (and third chronologically) was Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. Inspired by blues singer Ma Rainey, it was set in a fictional recording session in Chicago. It opened on Broadway in 1984, receiving strong press and running for 276 performances.  

Netflix now offers an excellent film that enhances the stage production. George C. Wolfe has skillfully and sensitively directed a screenplay by Ruben Santiago-Hudson. Santiago-Hudson has wisely drawn the majority of the script from Wilson but has opened it up, most notably with a prologue showing Ma Rainey’s southern performance roots and the shift of African Americans from south to north in the Great Migration.  

The action shifts to the studio where the musicians await the arrival of Ma Rainey. The artists smoke, drink, and banter, and philosophize. But what seems like random chatter is a reflection of social injustice then and now. The men offer stories and anecdotes, with this slice of life elevated by Wilson’s honest and poetic words and exceptional performances.

Serving as the leader is guitarist and trombonist Cutler (Colman Domingo); Toledo (Glynn Turman) is the pianist and eldest of the group; Slow Drag (Michael Potts) plays double bass and Levee Green (Chadwick Boseman) is the rebellious trumpeter with big dreams. This quartet offer a glimpse into the challenges of being both black and musicians in the Chicago of the 20’s. The studio is run by Mel Sturdyvant (Jonny Coyne), whose mercenary tactics are slowly revealed. Irvin (Jeremy Shamos) is Ma’s anxious manager.

Ma Rainey (Viola Davis) arrives an hour late, setting off various complications. She is accompanied by her girlfriend, Dussie Mae (Taylour Paige), who has eyes for Levee, as well as her stuttering nephew, Sylvester (Dusan Brown), who she insists introduce the recording of “Black Bottom.”

What ensues is a battle of wills that represent issues of both music and race. While Ma appears to be difficult, it is really a matter of survival. She knows that she is being used by these white men, and they only cater to her as far as their needs. Viola Davis, possibly the finest actor working today, completely loses herself in Ma Rainey’s frustration and triumph. It is a flawless and mesmerizing performance of a woman who understands the nature of an unfair world.  

The film also marked the final performance of Chadwick Boseman, who sadly died of colon cancer at the age of forty-three. His performance is nothing less than brilliant, bouncing between Levee’s energetic and monomaniacal determination to create his own band and his inner demons. These lead to clashes with both Ma and his fellow musicians. His relating of his mother’s rape and his father’s revenge is one of the most chilling and raw moments in this or any film. 

The entire cast deliver dimensional and wholly present performances, easily drawing us into this world where they face both petty and large demands at every turn. Their stories take different shapes, some metaphoric and others brutally and vividly real. There is not a false or wasted moment. It builds to a harrowing climax and an equally brutal and telling coda. 

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom celebrates the power of the blues, chronicling an important part of African American history. It is a reminder of art and of exploitation, of defiance and disappointment. It is also an exceptional film. Rated R, the film is currently streaming on Netflix.

Photos courtesy of Netflix

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Center, from left, Ariana Rose and Jo Ellen Pellman in a scene from the film. Photo courtesy of Netflix

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

In 2018, the musical The Prom made its Broadway debut at the Longacre Theatre.  With music by Matthew Sklar, lyrics by Chad Beguelin, and book by Bob Martin and Beguelin, it dealt with a group of narcissistic Broadway actors who are trying to change their unlikable images. Looking for a cause, they select a lesbian high school student who is denied the right to take her girlfriend to the prom. The quartet of Broadway performers travel to the conservative Edgewater, Indiana, where, in an attempt to help, they wreak havoc. Ultimately, it all works out in the way that musical comedies do.

There was a great deal of feel-good material and a lot of messages about understanding and tolerance in the show. Casey Nicholaw strongly directed the production, if leaning a bit into the over-the-top humor alternating with easy sentimentality. His choreography was engaging and vigorous, often leaning towards the athletic. The original cast was made up of Broadway veterans who brought out the best in the material. For the most part, the reviews were good but it failed to find an audience and closed within the year.

James Corden, Nicole Kidman, Andrew Rannells and Meryl Streep in a scene from the film. Netflix photo

Ryan Murphy, who was one of the Broadway producers, has now directed a film version which has been released on Netflix and is also currently playing in movie theaters. Murphy recruited Martin and Beguelin to write the screenplay with the majority of the score intact. They have opened it up, taking advantage of a range of locations to give it more variety and a more kinetic energy. There are also some good flashbacks that enhance the story as well. Murphy has shown the same care and whimsy here that he did with the recent Netflix miniseries Hollywood, and the result is an entertaining two hours.

Murphy has replaced the entire Broadway company with well-known film and television personalities. So many cinematic stage transfers have been ruined by stunt casting that fails to preserve the integrity of the source material. That said, Murphy has assembled an excellent company who deliver. 

Meryl Streep is delightful as the Broadway diva, Dee Dee Allen. She is outrageous but grounded in her own selective reality and manages to make Dee Dee both insufferable and likable, often simultaneously. Her singing voice is solid, and she manages the big numbers well enough. Andrew Rannells is a younger, edgier take on the Julliard-trained Trent Oliver; he has real musical theatre chops (The Book of Mormon) and a hipper approach to the character.

Keegan-Michael Key evokes the right balance of controlled concern and star-struck fan as the principal who is enamored with Dee Dee. Kerry Washington brings snap and spark to the outraged PTA president who is doing all she can to keep the prom “straight.”  Kevin Chamberlin is charming as the long-suffering agent.

Only Nicole Kidman seems lost as the perpetual chorus girl, Angie Dickinson. Her vocals are adequate but she never finds her way with the character. It is also clear that she is uncomfortable with the Fosse style and it undermines her big number — “Zazz” —  and ultimately the character’s core.

Jo Ellen Pellman has a beautiful voice and winning presence as Emma Nolan, the girl who just wants to go to the prom. She shines through the entire film — one just wishes she wasn’t smiling the entire time; the absence of angst makes the final moments not quite as cathartic. Ariana DeBose as Alyssa, the daughter of the crusading PTA president, ably shows her internal conflict as Emma’s closet girlfriend and delivers in her musical number, “Alyssa Greene.” The ensemble of young singer-dancers handle the big numbers well and have a nice ease about them.

But if the film belonged to any one performer, it would be James Corden as Barry Glickman, Dee Dee’s costar in the failed Eleanor Roosevelt musical that incites the entire plot. He is warm and funny but truly vulnerable. He is completely at home as both a singer and a dancer, making his numbers some of the best moments. In many ways, it becomes just as much his story as Emma’s.

The film has a strong start, moving quickly from place-to-place and song-to-song, everything cast in a musical comedy glow. There are many excellent production numbers that are hilarious — “Changing Lives,” “It’s Not About Me,” and “Love Thy Neighbor” — and just plain joyous —“Tonight Belongs to You.” Murphy wisely retained Nicholaw as choreographer.

It is unfortunate that the second half of the movie sags a bit with dramatic scenes that have been introduced to give both weight and extended background to Barry and Dee Dee. While it gives the two actors an opportunity to emote, the tonal shift and the additional time do nothing to drive the action forward.

These additions necessitated the trimming of several numbers, most notably “The Acceptance Song,” done at a monster truck rally.

This is a minor quibble in an overall enjoyable outing. The Broadway quartet learn and grow, just as we know they would.  Emma and Alyssa celebrate their love with the exuberant “It’s Time to Dance” — as celebratory here as it was on Broadway.

If people take exception to the ease with which minds are changed and bigotry is overcome, it should be reminded that this is the world of fantasy. Just as with his Hollywood, Murphy offers us not necessarily the world we have but perhaps the world we can hope for — and some really terrific production numbers along the way.

Rated PG-13, The Prom is currently playing in local theaters and on Netflix.

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Glenn Close and Amy Adams star in film adaptation of best-selling memoir by J.D. Vance. Photo courtesy of Netflix

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

In 2016, J.D. Vance published Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis. In it Vance examined his family’s Appalachian roots and values and how they affected their lives in Middletown, Ohio. He highlighted the contrast of loyalty and love of country with a history of violence and abuse. The book was an immediate but controversial bestseller.

So overwhelming was the response to his view on what were perceived as myths about poverty, the book Appalachian Reckoning: A Region Responds to Hillbilly Elegy was brought out in 2019.  This collection of essays criticizes Vance’s opinions and generalizations. Over the years, Vance has become a vocal social conservative.

From left, Haley Bennett, Gabriel Basso and Amy Adams in a scene from the film. Photo courtesy of Netflix

Netflix now offers a film adaptation that basically eschews the more direct political elements of the autobiography and instead focuses on his struggle both as a teenager and a student at Yale. With an engaging if narrow screenplay by Vanessa Taylor and focused direction by Ron Howard, they have chosen to tell a personal story that will still raise many of the questions and complaints resulting from the book.

The film alternates between 1997 and 2011, with the teenage Vance struggling with his home situation and the older Vance working three jobs while attending Yale and attempting to land a summer internship with a law firm in Washington. What ensues over the next two hours is the unwinding of his childhood history along with his present struggles as Vance returns home to once again deal with his volatile mother. In some ways, the film is a blending of the traditional coming-of-age story with the well-trodden dysfunctional family saga.

The film’s strength lies in its performances. Gabriel Basso plays the older Vance with a mix of stoicism and vexation as he tries to navigate his familial responsibility while trying to go advanced his life and career. He believably conveys the battle between past and future. Owen Asztalos, as the younger Vance, is the right mix of hope and disappointment. Both actors appear to be playing the same person which does not always happen in film.

Haley Bennett, as Vance’s sister, shows her love and commitment that is overwhelmed by a sense of weariness. Freida Pinto is fine with the rather unexplored and undeveloped Usha, Vance’s Yale girlfriend (and later wife).

But the film belongs to two compelling performances. Amy Adams is raw and fearless as Vance’s drug-addicted, mercurial mother, a nurse with both substance abuse and mental issues. She alternates between expressions of unconditional love and brutal physical and emotional attacks. It is unlike anything Adams has done prior, with truly visceral pain and rage. (If it all seems a bit too much, that responsibility should be attributed to Taylor and Howard.)

Glenn Close is a gifted actor with technical skills rivaled by very few (Meryl Streep, being one of them). Her performances are usually complete but sometimes there is a sense of the mechanics behind them. In this case, she has completely subsumed herself in the role of Vance’s grandmother. She is unrecognizable as the calculating matriarch with an ugly history (that is only alluded to once) and a presence focused on her grandson’s survival and growth, most importantly through education. In this cold and disconnected woman, Close has found a strange warmth. In stillness and action, when she is on screen, the film is hers.

Many will take exception to Vance’s —and hence the film’s — point-of-view and its simplistic and dubious portrayal of the causes and results of poverty. This is a valid and legitimate concern. However, Hillbilly Elegy is worth watching for the performances of two great American actors.

Rated R, Hillbilly Elegy is currently streaming on Netflix.

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Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

“It’s not always about the time, but the place we are in our lives.”

Jeannie Moon’s Christmas in Angel Harbor (Tule Publishing Group, LLC) is a heartfelt romance of love deferred. As with all of her work, she creates engaging characters of charm and honesty. In this case, she has set her novel on Long Island, in the fictional town of Angel Harbor.

Author Jeannie Moon. Photo by Fox Gradin, Celestial Studios

Best-selling author Dan Gallo has returned home after an absence of several decades. It is revealed that his most recent novel inspired a psychopathic true-crime copycat. He has now decided to escape the fast lane and try to catch his breath by writing a more personal novel. He is also a man in search of himself; his quest is for an inner peace that his success has not provided. “He’d learned the hard way that a good life was a collection of small experiences. While big and flashy might impress in the short term, the millions of tiny details about an experience were what mattered.” He settles in with his sister’s family, living in a cottage on the property. He begins to unwind and to come alive.

Jane Fallon is the proprietor of Harbor Books. As a young woman, she had dreams of a world-spanning career in archeology. With her father’s sudden death, she felt obligated to return home to run the family bookstore. “It hadn’t been her dream job, but owning the store brought her many rewards and even more happy moments.” She is grateful for the life she has had — especially close bonds with both her mother, a retired school teacher, and her daughter, Tara. But Moon gives Jane a welcomed complexity: Jill still wonders about the life she could have had and that slight shadow of regret gives her an added dimension.

Throughout high school, Dan had used the table in the bookshop as his writing headquarters. Dan and Jane had been best friends since fifth grade and, while they had never been a couple, their relationship had an emotional intimacy. While Dan was getting ready for law school, Jane indicated that she wanted more. Spooked, Dan disconnected from Jane and the entire Angel Harbor community. Even when Jane’s father passed away, Dan maintained both distance and silence.

And now he has returned. Jane struggles with her feelings but, with great caution, allows him to begin writing at the table once again. “They were bound by an old friendship, and by the shared history of a small town that held one of them back, while the other shot forward.” Needless to say, they begin to rekindle what was snuffed out thirty plus years before.

What is delightful is the innocence of the courtship between two fifty year-olds. There is a sense of wanting to recover what was lost, picking up almost where they left off. Moon gives us a couple that is reminiscent of Our Town’s George and Emily: love and hope and possibility.  “… there was something magical about her, something so centered it was seeping into him. Even as she faced huge changes in her own life, she found a way to focus on others … for the first time since he’d left home all those years ago, he wasn’t on edge.” But their relationship is not without heat, and the pull between them is genuinely strong.

The  story begins two weeks before Thanksgiving and carries through the Christmas holiday. Both Dan and Jane are going through struggles, internal and external. Dan’s current project is outside his comfort zone; he wants to inspire readers and allow his work to be a source of healing.  However, he is facing pressure from his “people” to stay with what works. Jane is facing her mother’s relocation to warmer climes and her daughter’s departure for college the following fall. As always, the store’s survival and growth is always present.

Playing as a backdrop for the story is a wonderful sense of village life in modern times. With shades of nostalgia, Moon finds the richness of a Long Island Christmas, from the perfect pastry to snowfall to walks in the brisk night air. The writing is easy and fluid, with characters rooted in personal realities as well the world she has vividly fashioned for them. It all rings romantically true.

A little past the half-way mark, the real crisis is introduced, throwing Jane’s fate into turmoil. It is not the suspense of what will happen but the painting of the community that rises to the surface. The denouement has shades of It’s a Wonderful Life.

Christmas in Angel Harbor gives us something that we need right now: the joy that can come in the Christmas season. Here is a romance with the sights and sounds but above all the heart that we associate with hope in the holidays. Looking for the gift of a little light in the darkness? This book is just the right present.

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A school librarian by day, and an established author by night, Jeannie Moon has written 17 books to date. Christmas in Angel Harbor is available at bookrevue.com, barnesandnoble.com and amazon.com.

Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell in a scene from the film. Photo courtesy of Netflix

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

In 2018, Netflix released The Christmas Chronicles, a warm comedy with a wonderfully edgy center. It followed siblings Kate and Teddy Pierce who almost prevented Santa from making his deliveries. While it had plenty of fantasy, it was rooted in the reality of children coming to terms with the passing of their father, a fireman who died in the line of duty. Each child was struggling in his or her own way but grew from their encounter with Santa.

Darby Camp and Judah Lewis were both understated and grounded as the children, with Darby’s believing sister playing nicely off of the skeptical and borderline delinquent brother. While Kimberly Williams-Paisley, as their mother, Claire, didn’t have much screen time, she managed to impart the difficulty of being a single parent. The heart of the film was Kurt Russell’s Santa, both hilarious and extremely cool. Russell reinvented St. Nick without losing sight of the symbolic heart.

Darby Camp as Kate and Jahzir Bruno as Jack in a scene from the film. Photo courtesy of Netflix

The first film had a clever, solidly constructed screenplay by Matt Lieberman, complemented by Clay Kaytis’ smart and well-paced direction. It was produced by Chris Columbus who has now taken up the directorial reins for the sequel, The Christmas Chronicles 2, and has co-written the screenplay with Lieberman and Enrico Dante-Mann.

From the beginning, it is apparent that the sequel will take a completely different approach. It opens in a world of cold which is later to be revealed as the North Pole in all its whimsy. It establishes the villain, Belsnickel, and his plot to destroy Santa’s world.

The action then shifts to Mexico. Kate, now a frustrated teen, is unhappy with her mother’s new relationship. The Pierces —Kate, Teddy, and mom — are on vacation in Cancun with mom’s new beau, Bob, and his neurotic son, Jack. These few scenes are stiff and false. They play as the most basic exposition, stating the characters’ intentions, rather than allowing the complications to reveal themselves in context. In every way, it lacks the subtlety, finesse, and honesty of the first movie.

Very quickly, Belsnickel captures Kate (and, accidentally, Jack) and uses them to break the veil of Borealis that protects Santa’s village. Belsnickel makes bold statements about Santa falling into his trap. If he had a mustache, he most certainly would be twirling.

Santa rescues the frozen Kate and Jack, and Mrs. Claus heals them with magic hot chocolate. Santa and the Missus give them a tour of the Village, with elves making toys and candy in shades of Willy Wonka.  Emphasis is placed on the Village’s power source, the Christmas Star that contains a bit of the Star of Bethlehem.

The Clauses allow the children to stay overnight. There is a strange moment when Mrs. Claus, unprompted, decides to tell them the history of Santa Claus, beginning with his origin as a bishop in Turkey, then segueing into elf lore. From there, it gives an account of Belsnickel, a talented but naughty elf who rebelled; his behavior turned him into the thing he despised the most — a human. Again, rather than showing and revealing, his saga was shoehorned into this awkward and rather dark bedtime story.

Belsnickel poisons the elves with elfbane, making them crazy and then steals the star for his own village. He wants to reverse the curse that has been placed on him and sums up his frustration with rather ineloquent “Humans suck; elves rule.” Belsnickel seems to be crafted less as a traditional Christmas antagonist and more as a lesser supervillain.

With the Village no longer powered by the Star, Santa and Kate fly off to Turkey to see the Forest Elves and magical elf elder Hakan (voiced by Malcolm McDowell) to have a new Christmas Star fashioned. Jack remains with Mrs. Claus to solve the elf problem.

Then there is the wormhole that rends the fabric of time, a “spontaneous” musical number in a snowbound airport and featuring a terribly underused Darlene Love, a Nerf crossbow, flame-shooting drones, and a yule-cat that looks like a Saber-toothed tiger … There is a lot of busyness but little focus and even less purpose. Needless to say, it all works out in the end.

Kurt Russell is still delightful in his hip take on the holiday icon but there is less of the wry perspective and surprising magic. Gone is the wonderful, quirky knowingness that was the center of his St. Nick. Goldie Hawn, who had a cameo at the end of the first film, seems uncomfortable as Mrs. Claus, trying to make her both traditional and feminist, magical and maternal. Julian Dennison’s Belsnickel plays what he is given but, of all the characters, his lines are the most wooden; there is potential in his portrayal but the screenplay truly lets him down.

Darby Camp is given the unenviable task of representing every sulky teen and the writers do nothing to help her find the transition to understanding. Jahzir Bruno’s Jack is lifted from any number of sitcoms but he’s likable enough as the nerdy, sensitive sidekick. Judah Lewis, as Teddy, is barely in the film; Kimberly Williams-Paisley (as Kate and Teddy’s mom) even less so. Sunny Suljic has some nice moments and a good reveal in the airport scene, set in 1990 Chicago.

The Christmas Chronicles cleverly shared its message, wrapped up in plot-driven action and sly humor. In The Christmas Chronicles 2, the morals are flatly stated. The comedic elements are forced jokes, and the action is adventure for adventure’s sake. In real life when people announce what they’re going to do and do it, we appreciate that. In movies, not so much.

The Christmas Chronicles 2 is strictly for children (though there is one violent moment involving an attack on one of the reindeer). There is an emphasis on the elves who are extremely cute gremlin-like creatures with their own chattery language. In the first film, they didn’t appear until the end and were a fun surprise. Here, they are wedged into every possible moment, most likely with an eye on marketing their likenesses in plush toys and Happy Meals.

The elves — like the Village, like the reindeer — are CGI. Actually, the entire film seems to be computer generated — add Santa, cute children, a rogue elf, lessons on bravery and decency — compute — and out pops a finished product. What is missing is inspiration and humanity and dimension.

At the center of both films is the idea of being a true believer. The idea is that by believing in Santa, you believe in Christmas,  and by taking Christmas into your heart, you connect with the joy and opportunity in the world. Those are big concepts and good sentiments. In the first film, the idea is nicely baked in; here, the principles aren’t so much integrated as slathered on top like a moral condiment.

Last week, I offered a mixed review of Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey. But the difference is that Jingle Jangle’s intentions are clearer, its goals more connected, and, ultimately, provides a more rewarding experience. Jingle Jangle is problematic but there is the underlying love and wonder. The Christmas Chronicles 2 seems to be locked into the commerce of sequels — the use of a success to sell an inferior product. And perhaps some elfin merchandise.

Rated PG, The Christmas Chronicles 2 is now playing in local theaters and streaming on Netflix.

The film's opening scene where a brother and sister (Ria Calvin, Kenyah Sandy) ask their grandmother (Phylicia Rashad) to read them a Christmas story. Photo courtesy of Netflix

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

Thanksgiving heralds the coming of the Christmas season — which means it is time to revisit the myriad opportunities for holiday viewing. In addition to the many Christmas Carols, there are the popular staples — It’s a Wonderful Life, Miracle on 34th Street, and A Christmas Story. Add to these the innumerable children’s classics — Santa Claus Is Coming to Town, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Frosty the Snowman — there is viewing for not just days but weeks. And this does not touch on the Hallmark romances, television specials, and “very special Christmas” episodes that seem to populate prime-time.

Filmmakers are constantly looking to add to the tradition, finding something that can become an annual event. Strangely, they have been less successful in the area of musicals, a form that should lend itself to season. Discounting the animated features, the field is pretty thin. For every White Christmas, there is a Mrs. Santa Claus.   

Which brings us to Netflix’s offering, Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey. There are recommendable aspects in this new film but a lackluster and sometimes clumsy script and uneven storytelling gets in the way of its rising to its potential.

Diana Babincova as the younger Jessica Jangle with Justin Cornwell as the younger Jeronicus Jangle. Photo courtesy of Netflix

Jeronicus Jangle is an inventor, toymaker, and proprietor of Jangles and Things. He has just received a component for his latest invention that will change the world of toys. This element brings to life an automaton, Don Juan Diego, a matador doll. Jeronicus goes out to celebrate with his family, leaving his apprentice, Gustafson, in charge.

Gustafson, who feels underappreciated, is tricked by Diego (who doesn’t want to be mass-produced) into absconding with him and Jeronicus’ book of inventions. This choice destroys Jeronicus’ empire; as his fortunes fail, Gustafson becomes a huge success.

Fast forward to Jeronicus as a bitter widower, estranged from his daughter.  He has turned the toy emporium into a pawnshop which is now on the verge of bankruptcy. However, he continues to tinker with the ideas that had given him his start.

Enter his granddaughter Journey, brilliant in her own right, with a burning to desire to bond with her grandfather. Unsurprisingly, she becomes the catalyst for his resurrection and redemption, all centered around a robot called the Buddy 3000. The major conflict arises from Gustafson’s desperate need for a new product. This fuels the action for the latter part of the story.

The energy ranges from hyper-kinetic to meandering. The result is a strange “fast-slow” whereby the plot holes become pronounced. Perhaps they are banking on the younger viewers not seeing them but this is a mistake. Never underestimate the insight and instinct of children. As much as they will enjoy the magic and pageantry, there is a good chance that they will wonder about some of the more unexplained or contradictory moments. Or, even worse, lose interest.

Concepts from other fare — if you believe, you can fly — are borrowed but not transformed.

David E. Talbert is both writer and director, and it might have served the project to have some objective distance to solve the problems. The score is a mix of hip hop, R&B, pop, and a bit of traditional musical theatre. The songs, by Philip Lawrence, Davy Nathan, Michael Diskint, and John Legend, are all serviceable but nothing overly memorable. 

Madalen Mills as Journey, Forest Whitaker as the older Jeronicus Jangle in a scene from the film. Photo courtesy of Netflix

The choreography is enthusiastically athletic. Ashley Wallen recreates his success with The Greatest Showman’s “This Is Me” with “This Day”— but it seems like all the same and less. The fact that it comes so early in the film is also not helpful: We don’t know who those people are so it is hard to invest.  Sadly, there is no finale whereby Wallen could have once again engaged us — but this time we would have had the knowledge of the journey.

There is no question that the look of Jingle Jangle is a visually rich if overwhelming one.  A cross between benign Steampunk and Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, it is a vibrant world, full of bold colors and brass gears. The costumes (by Michael Wilkinson) are loudly spectacular in their delicious gaudiness. Gavin Bocquet’s production design is clever and creative, mixing steroidal Victorian with just a hint of FAO Schwarz.

Forest Whitaker just manages to nuance Jeronicus beyond a standard Christmas curmudgeon. He commits to the recluse’s petulance but allows us to see the struggle beneath. He also dodges the saccharine trap most associated with these cantankerous characters. He has a light but pleasant singing voice, which is nicely showcased in the ballad “Over and Over.”

Keegan-Michael Key’s adult Gustafson is a sort of villainous Wizard of Oz (right down to the green costume for his entrance). He seems to be having a grand time in the big number “Magic Man G” but sometimes it seems that he is searching for the right tone. He is a gifted comedian and a solid actor but the script doesn’t commit to a character.

Madalen Mills as Journey has a great deal to carry. She has a lovely singing voice and an open, honest persona, believable as the exuberant young genius. She is given a huge solo with “Not the Only One” and truly owns it. Anika Noni Rose, a very strong actor, plays her mother but, unfortunately, does not enter until late in the film — much past the point of introducing a new character with high stakes. Phylicia Rashad adds both elegance and eloquence as the storyteller.

Keegan-Michael Key plays the villain Gustafson in the film. Photo from Netflix

One of the stranger choices is Jeronicus’ love-interest. The romantically aggressive postwoman Ms. Johnston is a bit over-the-top but Lisa Davina Phillip does her best to give her genuine warmth. It is strange that they didn’t opt for an actor who could actually do her own singing; instead, Marisha Wallace provides this with great style. Hugh Bonneville is barely on screen as the banker Mr. Delacroix; one feels that the role could have provided more forward movement if written to be an antagonist, rather than a semi-supportive, minor player.  Ricky Martin is amusing if predictable as the voice of Don Juan Diego.

Jingle Jangle is a pleasant but mixed outing. It’s heart is absolutely in the right place and its messages of family, honesty, and perseverance are welcomed. But, with its convoluted plot and inconsistent pacing, it sadly won’t find a permanent place in annual visits.

Rated PG, Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey is now streaming on Netflix.

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Richard Jenkins, Debra Winger and Evan Rachel Wood in a scene from the film.

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

Currently streaming on demand, Kajillionaire is either a very bleak comedy or a humorously edgy drama. Both disturbing and honest, it is a measured film, taking its time, but it never loses the tension that is introduced from its very first moments. Credit for this goes to the clear vision and masterful creativity of writer-director Miranda July who is working with a company of perfectly cast actors.

Kajillionaire is the story of a family of con artists living a hand-to-mouth existence in California. Robert and Theresa Dyne (Richard Jenkins and Debra Winger) and their twenty-six-year-old daughter, Old Dolio (Evan Rachel Wood), are petty criminals with an emphasis on petty.

Richard Jenkins, Debra Winger and Evan Rachel Wood in a scene from the film.

Robert states flatly that he doesn’t want to be a “kajillionaire” — he’s very happy to just “skim.” Their crimes are predominantly minor, such as stealing from post office boxes or returning stolen goods. They perk-up at the possibility of the daughter earning $20 for covering a girl’s court-ordered attendance at a child-rearing class. They are minimalists in every sense of the word. Currently, they are three months behind on their rent — a $500 a-month office space connected to a soap factory that leaks bubbles into the living space at least once a day.

They are a codependent trio but are completely disconnected. Old Dolio is treated as an equal partner — she gets one third of the take — but strangely not as family. There is no sense of there ever having been parental guidance, interpersonal relationships, or love. Compared to the Dynes, the Kim family of Parasite are the Cleavers.

Everything changes when Old Dolio comes up with a scam that involves lost luggage, insurance, and a trip to New York.  On the return flight, the parents are seated with a gregarious young woman, Melanie (Gina Rodriguez), who they befriend and then enlist to aid them. Robert and Theresa take to her and begin treating Melanie as a daughter. The true dysfunction of this turns much darker as the film progresses, building up to a particularly uncomfortable encounter centered around a hot tub.    

Melanie, an optician’s assistant, is drawn to the family’s off-beat existence and proposes a job that involves finagling antiques out of her elderly clients. In one of the most powerful scenes in the film, a bedridden, dying man (Michael Twaine) asks them to make the sounds of a family. In a hideous lampoon of normalcy, they create idle chatter, underscored with the rattling of silverware and the playing of the piano.

In the meantime, Old Dolio becomes both intrigued by and jealous of Melanie. What starts off adversarial shifts to something almost undefinable, all hinging on a single word: “Hon.” What ensues is both uplifting and devastating as Old Dolio becomes aware of her family’s emotional bankruptcy. The climax is both surprising and inevitable.

Gina Rodriguez and Evan Rachel Wood in a scene from the film.

To be sure, the Dynes are not the colorful cons of Hollywood movies. These are cheaters of the lowest sort, alternating between a sort of manic assuredness and twitchy doubt, second guessing their choices in a life that is a perpetual scrabble. There are also bursts of paranoia that derail them, resulting in flashes of anger. In addition to the minor rip-offs, they are entering contests under various names, winning things that they can never use. They are the definition of survival at its meanest, dragging through their days. This near-deadness is most pronounced in the neglected and, ultimately, emotionally starved and abused daughter.

Jenkins is an odd mixture of alpha and bumbler, a destructive father from hell. And yet seemingly, he is unaware that he is being anything other than kind. He wears so many masks, it is impossible to tell which is the true Robert. It is a detailed performance that bears re-watching.

Winger, practically unrecognizable as Theresa, is the almost fanatically committed wife whose child is nothing more than an appendage. She sees Old Dolio as utilitarian — someone who works with the family. She believes that her daughter is incapable of feeling so invests not even the slightest warmth into their dealings. It is a chilling, understated performance.

Rodriguez brings both charm and reality to Melanie. She makes Melanie incredibly present, a wonderful contrast with the others’ absence. She manages to imbue every moment as an opportunity for growth. While easily engaged, she is not a fool. The light of kindness radiates in Rodriguez’s Melanie. “Most happiness comes from like, dumb things,” she says, while making Old Dolio pancakes, part of a strange agreement that drives the latter part of the film. She understands the joy in even the smallest kindnesses.

But, if it is anyone’s film, it belongs to Evan Rachel Wood. Her ability to portray the pain of the emotionally stunted Old Dolio permeates every moment. She is both incredibly graceful and agonizingly awkward. Her face during the faux family scene for the dying man is a study in heartbreak. Even in her complete stillness, she projects a lifetime of confusion and disappointment. The film is her journey to the awareness of her dangerous addiction to her family.

Kajillionaire is not an easy film to watch. Its edge is as sharp as a scalpel. It is a portrait of an incomplete family at its ugliest. And yet, underneath it all, July finds light and hope in a dark and disturbing world.

Painting by Vance Locke

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

History Close at Hand has published the noteworthy and informative Setauket and Brookhaven History, a book that relates its story through the murals of Old Field artist Vance Locke (1913-1977). Commissioned by philanthropists Ward and Dorothy Melville as a gift to the community, the murals, completed in 1952, adorn the walls of the Setauket School’s Woodhull Auditorium.

Author Beverly C. Tyler

Beverly C. Tyler’s prose is crisp and his materials are well-chosen, clearly explaining the content of the murals. Throughout, he posits questions to the reader which will prompt further exploration. He often indicates where the reader can see the referenced locations and offers additional resources. He has selected quotes from the late historian William B. Minuse to further develop the narrative. Tyler touches on Locke’s process of conceptualizing and painting as well as his revising to get the correct representations.

One of the first ideas in the book — and a powerful one — is an explanation of Indigenous Culture. Tyler’s recognition bears repeating:

We call the native people who were the first humans to live here Native Americans or American Indians. A more accurate description might be Indigenous People. Everyone else who came, beginning with the English settlers are immigrants. It is important for me (personally) to say, “I wish to acknowledge that I am sitting on the land of the Setalcott Indigenous People in Setauket and I pay respect to the Setalcott people whose land is where I live.”

The murals, along with archaeological studies, have helped piece together the evolution of the changing lives on Long Island. Tyler presents how and when the facts were discovered. The murals progress through time, highlighting farming and millwork, the blacksmith and the shipwright. There is the cutting of ice and the mercantile and the purchase of land. The last is appropriately followed by an explanation that the Setalcotts did not share the same view of land ownership proffered by the English settlers.

The book is about craft and skills, commerce and community. Short anecdotes woven into the chronicle’s fabric augment the comprehensive facts and general text. For example, there is a quick account of the Daisy that sunk from a leak created by beans swelled by seawater, bursting the ship’s hull.

Often, there is the intersection of work and communal gatherings, represented by the uniquely American general store. With each section of the mural, Tyler gives background on the various aspects of day-to-day existence as well its historical relevance. The aspects of general life are enhanced with specific sketches and personal histories that surround a particular topic. Many of the names will be familiar to Long Island denizens. 

The most extended section deals with Setauket’s place in the Revolutionary War — especially George Washington’s Culper Spy Ring which was based in Setauket. In many ways, the first half of the book is building to this, allowing for context of the events.

Tyler uses both primary and secondary sources to enrich his telling of the story, shedding light on the challenges and sacrifices, the humanity and the intrigue. It is appropriately thorough but equally succinct.     

In addition to reprinting the murals in vivid color, there are photos of artifacts as well as the current sites and artifacts, reprints of period maps and documents, and stills of historical recreations. The plethora of illustrations are well-chosen for their interest and variety, and they effectively supplement the text.

Setauket and Brookhaven History is a slender book that is rich in detail and will hold the interest of readers of all ages. The ease of Tyler’s writing belies the hundreds of research hours that undoubtedly went into its creation. This edifying work is ideal to be read aloud and discussed. It will certainly stimulate thought and conversation both in the family and the classroom.

“Murals tell a story, sometimes more than one. Could there be more than one story in this mural?” Tyler gives us a good deal to observe, a great deal to read, and even more to think about it.

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Author Beverly C. Tyler is the historian for the Three Village Historical Society and conducts walking tours and field trips as Revolutionary War farmer and spy Abraham Woodhull. He has appeared on the History Channel’s Histories Mysteries production Spies of the Revolutionary War and writes a local history column for TBR News Media’s Village Times Herald.

Pick up a signed copy of Setauket and Brookhaven History and meet the author at the upcoming outdoor Holiday Market at the Three Village Historical Society, 93 North Country Road, Setauket on Nov. 28, Dec. 5, 12 and 19 from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. The book will also be available at the Three Village Historical Society’s online gift shop at www.TVHS.org in January 2021.

Emma Roberts and Luke Bracey star in 'Holidate'. Photo courtesy of Netflix

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

“Boy, I hope there’s a really unfunny rom-com to kick-off the holiday season,” said no one ever. But that’s what the Netflix offering Holidate delivers. In place of wit, there is … not wit. Holidate is not even worthy of a deprecatingly clever simile.

The premise is simple and has probably been seen dozens of times. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing. There are many plots that have been revisited over the years. The goal, of course, is to find something fresh, unusual, or intriguing in the situation. Unfortunately, Tiffany Paulsen’s terribly clunky, crass script is further exposed by John Whitesell’s clumsy and pedestrian direction.

Emma Roberts and Luke Bracey in a scene from ‘Holidate’
Photo courtesy of Netflix

Holidate opens with Sloane (Emma Roberts) still reeling from her break-up six months prior. She is having a Christmas from hell in which she is plagued by her family’s constant harping on her singlehood. Sloane is offered advice from her man-chasing Aunt Susan (Kristin Chenoweth) to always have someone to date for the holiday. In Susan’s case, she has brought home a mall Santa.

Across town, Jackson (Luke Bracey) is having a nightmare of his own, spending the holiday with the family of a girl whom he has only dated three times. It is apparent that the young woman thinks that they are in a much more serious relationship, one that she has shared with her eager family.

The next day Sloane and Jackson meet on a department store return line. What comes of this chance encounter is an agreement to be “holidates” for New Year’s Eve. There is not a great deal of background given to either characters. He is a golf pro; she works remotely. She eats junk food; he does not. He’s Australian; she isn’t. And they’re off.

Freed of expectations, this “mismatched” couple has a good time on New Year’s Eve. There is a cute send-up of Dirty Dancing, evoking a smile if not a full-on laugh.   The evening ends awkwardly with Sloane deciding it isn’t worth pursuing.

On Valentine’s Day, Sloane runs into her ex with his new, younger girlfriend.  Jackson (who just happens to be walking by the store) rescues her from complete embarrassment by swooping in, pretending to be her significant other. Realizing that the situation will work for them, they agree to be friends without benefits, committing to all calendar celebrations for the foreseeable future.

The film now begins to traverse a year’s worth of holidays: St. Patrick’s Day, Easter, Cinco de Mayo, Mother’s Day, etc. Each seems to be centered around drinking and almost — but not quite — having sex. While their friendship grows, Sloane’s mother (Frances Fisher) is desperately trying to set her up with the new neighbor, nice guy doctor Faarooq (Manish Dayal).

Fourth of July is particularly eventful with Jackson having a finger blown off as the men launch M-80’s. Sloane takes him to the hospital (where the Faarooq happens to be on-call). His finger is re-attached. There are the stirring of sparks between Sloane and Jackson. Will they? Won’t they? Do we care?

Since this is a rom-com, they get their wires crossed, resulting in a crisis with a Labor Day wedding where they choose to bring other dates. Sloane takes the doctor; Jackson brings Aunt Susan. (The resulting aunt-doctor hookup at the wedding becomes a subplot that can be kindly described as cringeworthy.)

Halloween sees them taking their relationship to the next step. But not before a disgusting laxative encounter. Thanksgiving shows their divide, with a dramatic confrontation that aims for soul-searching but winds up to be just being embarrassing. And guess what happens at Christmas?

Emma Roberts and Kristin Chenoweth in a scene from ‘Holidate’

None of this would be a problem if the film showed a single spark of originality, charm, or warmth. Holidate instead is consistently tasteless — what is less than single entendre? Basically, it’s watered-down Hallmark with an R rating. A raunchy, crude comedy attempting to make a bigger, heartfelt statement. It achieves being the worst of both worlds. Occasionally, they seem to be sending up the genre but this just confuses and contradicts the majority of the film when they are “being real.” You can’t have it both ways. Or at least they can’t.

The problem is further acerbated by performances that lack subtlety and dimension. Emma Roberts is better than this. Of the cast, she comes across the strongest, but she was given a lot of action but little to play. Luke Bracey is handsome but stiff. Kristin Chenoweth, a truly wonderful performer, is painfully miscast as the vamp; every moment feels excruciatingly forced. If she took the role on to expand her range, she didn’t succeed. If she needed the paycheck, a Go Fund Me would have had more dignity.

The rest of the characters (mostly trope cooky family members) come and go but the director’s complete lack of vision gave no consistent style in which the actors could invest. As a bonus, there are the requisite precocious children who make adult observations and occasionally inappropriate comments.

In the final scene, there was one of maybe three genuinely funny moments in the movie. It involves a Christmas choir at the mall. But one bright note does not a symphony make just as ten clever seconds don’t erase and hour and forty minutes of vulgarity.

Spoiler Alert: Sloane and Jackson end up together. Now you don’t have to watch the movie. You’re welcome.

Holidate is now streaming on Netflix.