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'The Vision Experiments'

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

Videre cras ante alli vivere: being able to see tomorrow before others live it.

Author John P. Cardone

John P. Cardone’s The Vision Experiments (Waterview Arts) is an entertaining thriller with a unique premise: What if the great minds and movers in history could see into the future? Speculation about figures such as Alexander the Great, Leif Erikson, Oliver Cromwell, Jonas Salk, J.P. Morgan, Thomas Edison, and Madam C.J. Walker form the hypothetical core of this unusual thesis. Explorers, inventors, and financiers—even the Oracle at Delphi—are part of the theoretical nucleus. 

And while these individuals are referenced, the center of the novel focuses on the present-day work of the shadowy Fisher Research Institute, located in Los Angeles. Founded by Southampton billionaire Lawrence Fisher III, the medical lab uses homeless men to perform experiments to understand the phenomenon, all connected to various eye treatments. When the procedures fail, the clinic dispatches the men by making them seem victims of a satanic cult.

The Institute has employed Professor William Clarkson to recover documents throughout the world to prove and  further the ideas. Clarkson began his work at the Penn Museum before taking a position at Stony Brook’s Southampton’s campus. From here, he was recruited by the Institute with “what was, in his mind, the possibility of altering the world in every possible way.” As an archaeologist and an expert in parapsychology, he presents the ideal “modern day Indiana Jones.”

Dr. Melissa Speyer, a speech-language pathologist, is dealing with her mother’s passing, a marriage ended by her husband’s departure, and both her father’s deterioration and refusal to go into much-needed care. While dealing with a possible eye infection, a pharmaceutical error provides her with eye drops that enable her to have visions of the future. This fluke comes to the attention of the Institute, resulting in Clarkson’s assignment to find out more. He approaches her, unaware that they will become emotionally involved. 

Here the story kicks into high gear as Los Angeles detectives, as well as the FBI, begin an investigation of the Los Angeles laboratory. From Oxford, England, to Los Angeles to New York City to Long Island, the book zooms across the world in brisk, succinct chapters, intercutting the action in a cinematic fashion. There is a sizeable roster of well-developed characters revolving through the action, with Speyer and Clarkson’s burgeoning romance at the center.

Cardone has done his research, cleverly integrating the ideas behind the all-seeing eye symbol (best known for its placement on the dollar bill). In addition, there are connections to the Eye of Horus and the Staff of Asclepius, associated with the medical profession. Whether Cardone is imparting the background of symbols such as these or explaining forensic examination, he keeps the narrative moving briskly forward.

Elevating the novel is the ethical considerations in the use of knowledge: whether used for gain or good. Because there is the ability, does it justify the action? The Institute does its work in the name of science but in complete denial of any sense of humanity. Cardone addresses the moral dilemma of power, the individual, and society as a whole.

Those who enjoy speculative fiction and a solid, quick summer read will enjoy John P. Cardone’s The Vision Experiments.

Author John P. Cardone is the founder of the Long Island Authors Group, a nature photographer, a wildlife photography instructor, and a lecturer on nature topics. The Vision Experiments is his fifth book and is available at Book Revue in Huntington, Amazon.com and BarnesandNoble.com.

A scene from 'Roadrunner'. Photo courtesy of Focus Features

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

Not since Julia Child has a chef had a higher profile than Anthony Bourdain. Smithsonian Magazine labeled him “the original rock star” of the culinary world. Gothamist referred to him as a “culinary bad boy.” His uncensored television persona was known for its profanity and sexual references. 

Born in Manhattan in 1956, Bourdain graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in 1978. He ran several high-end kitchens, notably serving as executive chef of New York’s brasserie Les Halles. Bourdain’s memoir Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly (2000) became a bestseller, followed by additional works of both fiction and non-fiction. His television work included A Cook’s Tour, Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations, The Layover, and appearances on a variety of television programs. 

A scene from ‘Roadrunner’. Photo courtesy of Focus Features

On June 18, 2018, while in France filming Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown, he committed suicide. He was sixty-one years old.

In Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain, director Morgan Neville explores the controversial celebrity chef through extensive video and interviews with friends and associates. While his childhood and early career are mentioned, the timeline begins with his rise to fame with the publication of Kitchen Confidential. 

With a two-hour running time, the expectation is a complete look at Bourdain. Fans will embrace the documentary, showing the subject in a sympathetic, if complicated light. Those who are less enamored will find it unsatisfying. Bourdain talks, smokes, eats, smokes, preens, and smokes. It touches on his drug use and hedonistic lifestyle. But mostly, the film consists of watching him smoke, talk, and preen. He ponders about life and his purpose. He travels. He smokes. In one particularly ghoulish cut, he eats a beating cobra heart. But mostly, he talks and smokes.

Neville almost ignores Bourdain as a chef for highlighting the man “hooked on travel,” describing him as “always rushing (thus the title). Bourdain was on the road at least two hundred and fifty days a year, covering hundreds of thousands of miles. The film emphasizes the exotic places: Lebanon, Port-au-Prince, Laos, and most dangerously, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, his Apocalypse Now/Heart of Darkness moment.

This would all be fine if it did not feel so posed. Neville constantly presents a brooding Bourdain, looking lost and despondent, or walking alone on the beach. Whether this reflects Bourdain or the filmmaker cobbling together footage to support his thesis, it is hard to parse. Particularly squirm-worthy is a clip of Bourdain in therapy that rings false and hollow.

There is a nod to his nearly thirty-year marriage to Nancy Putkoski that dissolved with Bourdain’s rise in fame, which “burned down [his] previous life.” His second wife Ottavia Busia (to whom he was married from 2007 to 2016) is interviewed extensively and has mostly kind things to say (whether this is fact or editing …). It was with Ottavia that he had his only child, Ariane. 

A scene from ‘Roadrunner’. Photo courtesy of Focus Features

In 2017, he began seeing the much younger Italian actress, Asia Argento. She became heavily involved with and perhaps manipulative of his professional life before ending the relationship. The film less than subtly speculates that this contributed to his suicide. Argento declined to be interviewed, leaving a large hole in the accounting of his final days.

Neville alludes to Bourdain’s controlling side, illustrated by Bourdain’s range of obsessions, including taking up jujitsu at age fifty-eight. He became outspoken during the #MeToo movement, but this might have been due to Argento’s activism more than his personal beliefs. (One fascinating detail references him speaking ad nauseum about Argento’s skill at parking.) But nothing lasted with him—“not a person, place, or thing.”

The talking heads range from his producers and travel companions to various artists and musicians who became confidants. They seem to speak freely and appear devastated by his death. What is missing are interviews with people outside in the inner circle, who might cast light on the less sensitive behaviors and actions of which there are only hints.

There are multiple clips of Bourdain referencing violence against himself or others. His talks of self-doubt may be real or just part of the façade. Given the myriad footage, these could be passing comments. Even more damning is Helen Rosner’s interview with Neville in The New Yorker. Neville admitted to using A.I. technology for the construction of some of Bourdain’s voiceovers: “There were three quotes there I wanted his voice for that there were no recordings of … I created an A.I. model of his voice.”

Roadrunner feels incomplete, vaguely disingenuous, and almost rigged. And while all documentaries have a point-of-view, one wishes for a more objective and whole look at an unusual individual with a troubling legacy.  

Rated R, Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain is now playing in local theaters.

Image courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

In the summer of 1969, a series of concerts was held in Harlem’s Mount Morris Park. A celebration of African American music and culture and an opportunity to promote black pride, the Harlem Cultural Festival (sometimes deemed the Black Woodstock) was held on Sundays at 3 p.m., from June 29 through August 24. Performers included Nina Simone, B.B King, Sly and the Family Stone, Chuck Jackson, The 5th Dimension, Gladys Knight & the Pips, Stevie Wonder, Mahalia Jackson, among many others. Over 300,000 people attended the free events.

Director/producer Hal Tulchin filmed the concerts, but they were never commercially released. As much as he tried, he could find no interest in the films of the concerts. Whether this was due to its focus on the African American community or that Woodstock had overshadowed it is hard to say; most likely, it was a combination of the two. Segments were broadcast on Saturday nights by WNEW-TV Metromedia Channel 5 (now WNYW). After that, the footage languished in a basement where it remained for five decades.

Gladys Knight & the Pips perform at the Harlem Cultural Festival in 1969, featured in the documentary SUMMER OF SOUL. Photo Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2021 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved

Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson makes his directorial debut with the documentary Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised). The multi-hyphenate Thompson—musician-composer-disc jockey-author-journalist-producer—is the drummer and joint frontman (with Black Thought) for the hip hop band The Roots. With Summer of Soul, he has created an exceptional cinematic experience that resurrects both the performances and the driving forces behind it. In addition to a treasure trove of first-rate artists, interviews with festival attendees offer insight into both the event and the world surrounding it. Some of the surviving performers share perspectives of their experience; Chris Rock, Shelia E., Rev. Al Sharpton, Lin-Manuel Miranda, and his father, Luis, are just some who offer brief and pointed contemporary commentary. 

The first song shows nineteen-year-old Stevie Wonder moving from keyboards to drums in a jaw-dropping percussive display. His performance sets the tone for all that follows. There is a party atmosphere, a perpetual sense of anticipation, and the feel of a true communal gathering. The appreciation of culture is celebrated by a community that is unifying but also in the midst of great change and revolution. These elements are flawlessly blended.

Lounge singer Tony Lawrence hosted the Harlem Festival and served as producer, director, and promoter. His assistants speak of him with wry awe as a man who knew how to talk big and deliver. The film delves briefly into the overwhelming technical aspects of scheduling, contracting, equipment, and the myriad challenges the producer faced. The budget was such that the concerts needed to face west so that the sun could light the stage. Maxwell House underwrote the Festival, and liberal Republican Mayor Lindsay was in complete support and even appeared on stage.

With Viet Nam raging and general political disharmony, there was an underlying potential for violence that created a certain amount of anxiety. As a result, black Panther volunteers supplemented the limited police security presence. All of this serves as a background for the true joy: the celebration of identity through music. The performers range from the well-known to the more obscure. 

There are many highlights: The iconic Mahalia Jackson is an overwhelming and unique powerhouse. Up-and-coming Gladys Knight and the Pips perform “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.” In an interview, Knight remembers being taken aback by the magnitude and energy of the crowd.

One of the more delightful moments is watching Billy Davis, Jr. and Marilyn McCoo watch the videos of themselves performing. It gives them a chance to revisit as well as reflect on their status at the time. They felt it would help “the black group with the white sound by appearing in Harlem.” Their blending of “Aquarius” and “Let the Sun Shine In” has become a classic.

The Edwin Hawkins Singers, part of the Pentecostal movement, felt that they spread the gospel to the people in song. Religious aspects of the Christian church were core to many performers, and this was “an eruption of spirit.”

The audience goes crazy for Sly and the Family Stone’s “Sing a Simple Song” and “Everyday People.”

There was jazz, blues, gospel, rock, and Motown. Music also reflected both African and Cuban influences, showing the Harlem melting pot.

There are musings on hair and clothing changes that established distinctiveness. Difficult questions dealing with racism and economic disparity from the heroin epidemic to black militancy are explored. A good portion of the ending highlights the connection to Africa. New York Times writer Charlayne Hunter-Gault states that it was in 1969 that “Negro” died and “Black” was born.

One of the most enlightening sections features attendees questioned about their feelings towards the moon landing. The majority skew negative, expressing the belief that the money could have been used to feed people on this planet. Whether this was the consensus or just the opinions shown is hard to parse.

The place of honor goes to the extraordinary, versatile Nina Simone. In 1969, she was at the height of her popularity and most present in her outspoken advocacy for Civil Rights. Three full numbers are in the penultimate placement. “Backlash Blues” is followed by the more pastoral “To Be Young Gifted and Black,” inspired by the off-Broadway play that was running at the time. She finishes with the confrontational “Are You Ready?”—the strongest and most direct call to action. The final song is Sly and the Family Stone’s “Higher,” unifying the crowd in genuine delight.

Questlove has done incredible work creating Summer of Soul. His vision for the film shows unerring instinct. There is a seamless integration of interviews, both past and present, juxtaposed with news footage, historical context, and stock video footage of Harlem of the era. He knows when to present a song in its entirety or show a clip, cutting in with complementary material. His structure is subtle, and he has matched the excitement with peripatetic energy that builds the overall narrative. He smartly circles back to the individual experience, highlighting what it meant personally to both the performers and spectators. One man, who was a child when he attended, says, “It took my life from black and white into color.” Summer of Soul is more than a concert film, and the crime has taken fifty years to reach the screen.

Summer of Soul could not be timelier in its offering of the work done in the Civil Rights era—and a powerful reminder of the work yet to be done. Director Questlove offers a rich film preserving exceptional musical artistry and advocacy through the prism of a sadly forgotten event. 

Rated PG-13, the film is now playing in local theaters.

Dev Patel stars in the medieval fantasy ‘The Green Knight’. Photo courtesy of A24 Films

By Jeffrey Sanzel

A year ago, studios were deciding whether to release their summer slates. Would theaters open to limited seating? Should movies be offered on streaming platforms? Does it make sense to delay a few weeks or even hold off to the fall? Many films announced for July did not appear until September or even later. Disney+, Amazon Prime, Vudu, and others hosted a range of new releases. For the summer of 2021, it is notable that some will continue simultaneous theater and home viewing releases. 

Some of the more anticipated films are already out, so we will focus on what is coming up in July and August.

There is never a shortage of sequels, especially for those who like numbers in their titles: The Forever Purge (July 2); Spacejam: A New Legacy (July 16); Hotel Transylvania 4: Transformania (July 23); Escape Room 2 (July 16); and Don’t Breathe 2 (August 13). This list could also include the Candyman reboot (August 27) and the “soft reboot” of The Suicide Squad (August 6).

Summer of Soul

While Woodstock has become the cultural icon of music events, the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival had huge attendance. It featured legendary artists (Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight & the Pips, and Nina Simone, among many others.). Director Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s documentary explores the music and its influence with exceptional archival footage. 

Rated PG-13 · Release date July 2

Black Widow 

For those looking for a superhero blockbuster, Scarlett Johansson reprises her role as the Avengers super-spy in a prequel that takes place after the events of Captain America: Civil War. The character has been seen in over eight different films (including her death in Avengers: Endgame) in a ten-year span. This origin story is part of Phase Four of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Rated PG-13 · Release date July 9

Old 

Few cinematic auteurs cause as much anticipation and frustration as M. Night Shyamalan. In Old, a family on a tropical vacation realizes that they are aging rapidly. The basic premise was suggested by the graphic novel Sandcastle, but in Shyamalan(d), nothing is ever straightforward. Whether this will be The Sixth Sense or The Lady in the Water remains to be seen. 

Rated PG-13 · Release date July 23

Stillwater 

Matt Damon stars in director Tom McCarthy’s thriller about an Oklahoma oil-rig worker who travels to Marseille, France, to clear his daughter’s name when imprisoned for a crime she says she didn’t commit. The preview offers Damon in rugged protective father mode, emoting shades of Liam Neeson. The cast also includes Camille Cottin from Call My Agent.

Rated R · Release date July 30

The Green Knight 

One of the summer’s most anticipated movies is writer-director David Lowery’s take on the 14th-century poem “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” The always excellent Dev Patel stars as the titular lord in an epic fantasy with horror-movie overtones. The Green Knight is definitely something for those who have been missing Game of Thrones: The film is replete with quests, romance, giants and beheadings. Also starring Alicia Vikander, Joel Edgerton, and Sean Harris.

Rated R · Release date July 30

Respect 

Jennifer Hudson stars as the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin. Earlier in 2021, National Geographic’s Genius: Aretha received the ire of Franklin’s family, having been cut out of the production’s development. Conversely, the family has embraced the upcoming Respect, claiming that Hudson was the only person Aretha considered right to portray her. The exceptional cast includes Forest Whitaker, Marlon Wayans, Marc Maron, and Audra McDonald. 

Rated PG-13 · Release date August 13

Coda 

In a remake of the French-language La Famille Bélier (2014), Emilia Jones plays a teenager torn between musical aspirations and a devotion to helping her deaf family in their fishing business. This mix of coming-of-age romance and topical family drama received accolades at Sundance. Academy Award winner Marlee Matlin and Eugenio Derbez co-star.

Not Rated · Release date August 13

Free Guy 

Ryan Reynolds plays “Guy,” a bank teller who discovers that he is just a background player in someone else’s video game. This realization drives him to make a life for himself. The clever premise of this action-comedy could be a breakthrough experience or just another been-there-done-that.

Rated R · Release date August 13

Reminiscence 

Westworld co-creator Lisa Joy makes her directorial debut with a sci-fi drama starring Hugh Jackman as Nicholas Bannister, a veteran living in climate-ravaged Miami. Bannister provides an unusual service: He gives clients an opportunity to relive any memory. His course is derailed by an affair with Mae (Rebecca Ferguson), leading to twists and turns in both the past and present.

Rated PG-13 · Release date August 20

The Night House 

This psychological thriller follows a recent widow (Rebecca Hall) living alone in the lakeside house built for her by her late husband. In true horror mystery fashion, the night brings nightmares that drive her to delve into the dark secrets of her husband’s past. The film also stars Sarah Goldberg and Stacy Martin.

Rated R · Release date August 20

The Beatles: Get Back

 Peter Jackson has created a documentary that focuses on the making of the Beatles 1969 album Let It Be, using footage captured for Michael Lindsay-Hogg’s 1970 film (also called Let It Be). The creation of songs such as “The Long and Winding Road” and “Get Back” is played against the clashes and carousing of a band on the verge of dissolution.

Not Rated · Release date August 27

This article first appeared in TBR News Media’s Summer Times supplement on 06/24/21.

Rita Moreno in 'West Side Story'. Photo courtesy of MGM/Roadside Attractions

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

At age 89, Rita Moreno has shown no signs of slowing down. The actor-singer-dancer’s seventy-plus year career spans from Hollywood to Broadway to London’s West End, from clubs to television to regional theatre. The documentary Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It is a fascinating glimpse of this iconic figure.

Rita Moreno in a scene from the film.
Photo courtesy of MGM/Roadside Attractions

The film, made around the time of Moreno’s eighty-seventh birthday, is a revelatory exploration. Moreno is candid, whether speaking of the highlights of her career or her personal demons. She is one of the most award-winning performers, including that rare EGOT — Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony. (Only fifteen people have achieved this honor.) Moreno also has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, has received a Screen Actor’s Guild Life Achievement Award, and was presented with a National Arts Medal by President Barack Obama. 

But in all her fame, the documentary shows a warm, humorous, down-to-earth individual who has never let discrimination or gender inequality from stopping her. She faced some of the worst mistreatments common to young women in Hollywood. She braved setbacks and disappointments as well as violence. Moments of self-doubt have plagued her for seven decades. And yet, in all of this, she maintains a remarkable and inspiring sense of self.

Born December 11, 1931, in Humacao, Puerto Rico, Rosa Dolores Alverío Marcano was brought to the United States by her divorced mother when she was only six years old. (She never saw her brother again.) While barely into her teens, she began performing in New York City before a talent scout brought her out to Hollywood, where she began a film career that would span well over half a century. 

Landing a contract with MGM, Moreno was given the look of a Latina Elizabeth Taylor. Subsequently, her roles consisted of playing “ethnics,” often with darkened skin and thick accents. One exception — and an experience that she clearly prizes — was playing Zelda Zanders in the Golden Age musical Singin’ in the Rain. Here, she was allowed to eschew the stereotype that had been and would continue to dominate most of her career.

She achieved cinematic immortality (and an Oscar) for her portrayal of Anita in West Side Story. She expresses deep gratitude for the opportunity to play what she saw as an empowering role. She hoped that it would lead to more varied roles, but the offers that followed were much the same type — gang-related films and the like. 

Moreno continued to work on stage and in film and television, garnering praise and accolades. For many, she is the “Hey, you guys!” cast member of the PBS children’s show The Electric Company. The show ran from 1971 to 1977 and led to her Grammy Award.

The 1990s saw her as Sister Peter Marie Reimondo on the prison series Oz, something she credits with bringing her back into the public eye. Most recently, she featured as the grandmother in the short-lived reboot of One Day at Time. In addition, Stephen Spielberg created a role for her in the remake of West Side Story, due out on Dec. 11. 

Rita Moreno as a young girl with her parents. Photo courtesy of MGM/Roadside Attractions

Moreno shares openly about her personal life. Her Hollywood agent raped her; to her horror, she continued to use him as her agent. She speaks of her emotionally abusive seven-year on-again-off-again relationship with Marlon Brando, by whom she became pregnant. (Brando insisted she have an abortion.) Her heartbreak over the actor led to a suicide attempt. 

Equally as revealing is the frank discussion of her marriage. In 1965, she wed cardiologist Leonard Gordon, to whom she remained married until he died in 2010. To the world, they were the perfect couple. However, she admits that she was never truly happy with him and wished she had left him. Nevertheless, she remains close with their one daughter, Fernanda Gordon Fisher, and her two grandsons.

Throughout the film, her colleagues give insight into her success. Morgan Freeman (with whom she appeared on The Electric Company), producer-director Norman Lear, playwright Terrence McNally (for whom he wrote her Tony-Award winning role in The Ritz), her West Side Story co-star George Chakiris, fellow EGOT-winner Whoopi Goldberg, and one of the film’s executive producers, Lin-Manuel Miranda, marvel at her talent and tenacity. Film historians chime in with commentary about how she managed to rise above what were often dimensionless roles.

The film emphasizes Moreno as a social trailblazer, including her involvement in fighting racism and sexism. She is shown with Sammy Davis, Jr. at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech in August 1963. She continues with her social activist work to this day. 

Director Mariem Pérez Riera has constructed an elegant and eloquent film that celebrates not just Moreno’s fame but, more importantly, her humanity. The story is of a life both rich and challenging and one that led to the fullest. Any biography is a “version” of the subject. Riera presents Moreno in the strongest and most positive light. But there is something so completely present and unpretentious about the dynamic Moreno that one would be hard-pressed to doubt her sincerity.

Moreno’s recent remarks defending Lin-Manuel Miranda and the casting of In the Heights overshadowed the film’s release. Shortly after, she walked them back, but the controversy still hovers. It would be sad if this affected the documentary’s success. Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It is an honest look at an important figure: a survivor, a role model, an exceptional talent, and a vibrant and valued human being. 

In her own words, “You always have to be able to get up, dust yourself off, and move forward.” Hopefully, viewers will keep this in mind and embrace this incredible portrait. Rated PG-13, the documentary is now playing at local theaters.

A scene from 'Breaking Boundaries'. Photo from Netflix

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

Netflix’s Breaking Boundaries: The Science of Our Planet explores the idea that humanity has pushed the planet beyond survival and sustainability. While ably hosted by the ever-reliable Sir David Attenborough, the dominant voice is Swedish Professor Johan Rockström, an informed and articulate scientist with a range of facts and concepts that he introduces over the one hour and fifteen-minute running time.

Swedish Professor Johan Rockström

There are few topics — if any — more important than the future of Earth. And while some make claims against it, climate change, global warming, and other man-driven destructions are real and present dangers, ones that seem to be growing geometrically. This documentary attempts to explain these issues by setting down a theory of boundaries. It then proceeds to explain how they are being crossed.

Breaking Boundaries opens with a discussion of the stability of Earth’s temperature and climate for 10,000 years; this allowed for the development of the modern world. The documentary then proceeds to cite examples of our destructive behaviors and how they have negatively impacted various ecosystems, including the Amazon, the Great Barrier Reef, etc. Rockström’s refrain is, “It is not about the planet. It is about us. About our future.” Perhaps he is trying to appeal to our self-centered nature rather than our desire to correct what we have broken. Unfortunately, his slightly skewed sense of humanity is probably well-founded.

The film starts with a glimmer of hope, but five minutes in, the bad news is announced: over the past fifty years, we have pushed ourselves out of the norm that existed the previous 10,000 years. And there may be no fix for this situation. 

Over the next fifty minutes, a disjointed narrative attempts to explain the nine planetary boundaries — the distance from the safe zone to the danger zone to the high risk/critical zone. Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has caused droughts, heatwaves, forest fires, and flooding. Ocean acidification, the dangers of aerosols, and novel entities of human pollution are just some of the ideas introduced. Thus, there is an immediate need not just to reduce but to fossil-free within three decades.

‘Breaking Boundaries’. Photo from Netflix

Scientists meditate on the destruction of the icecaps, evaluate the reduction of flora and fauna to the point of extinction, and offer a great number of numbers that sometimes seem like … a great number of numbers. (Overwhelming statistics and an extraordinary list of theories make for a bit of confusion.) Finally, the film circles back to the four boundaries that have been crossed and possibly irrevocably (but maybe not?): climate, forest loss, nutrients, and biodiversity.

Every bit of this is important information. But the problem comes down to this: Breaking Boundaries is a documentary dealing with a life-and-death topic in a clumsy and wrong-headed approach. Director Jonathan Clay has underestimated his audience, deciding that an MTV assault is the only way to connect. As a result, the bells and whistles drown out the material. Yes, they are alarm bells and fire whistles, but this is an onslaught, not an explanation. 

One talking head goes so far as to refer to the “Mad Max future.” A drinking game based on the repetition of “tipping point” and “irreversible” would put the players out in under twenty minutes. There is probably truth in every statement and comment. But judicious editing would have allowed for a variety of tactics, rather than what comes across as a relentless, one-note attack. 

The effects are overwhelming and non-stop, with even the most sedate moments backgrounded with a strange light show. (Was this Mr. Clay’s first time with a green screen?) The graphics seem to be inspired by the 1980s’ Tron. Or perhaps Saturday Night Fever. Everything explodes on screen, making for restless, jittery filmmaking. The result wholly lessens the film’s integrity.

Many moments succeed in capturing the beauty of nature. If a bit generic, they serve as a strong reminder of what is being destroyed. Some disturbing images are not sensational but instead are telling: wild animals who now live close to settled and “civilized” areas are shown in droves on highways and the environs of cities. While we are always warned not to anthropomorphize, there is a palpable fear in their eyes.

‘Breaking Boundaries’. Photo from Netflix

There are two moments of resonating humanity. First, a scientist discussing the bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef becomes choked up, clearly a spontaneous and honest reaction to what he has seen. Second, a conservationist revisits one of the sites where she had studied birds before its incineration. The destruction of fifty million acres of Australian land caused the displacement or death of an estimated three billion animals. While she looks at the bleak landscape, she says, “This is an ecological catastrophe.” But this is also highly personal and, again, powerful in its simplicity. 

If only the director had trusted moments like these. Instead, he chose window dressing that makes the experience a late-night infomercial for the predictions of Nostradamus.

After fifty-nine minutes of apocalyptic prognostication, there are twelve minutes of “but-it-can-all-be-saved.” We need to bend the global curve of emissions, cutting 6 to 7% per year. We can draw down the carbon by planting more trees. Changing our diets to healthy foods will contribute to the saving of the planet. We can eliminate waste by turning the linear cycle into a circular one by recovering raw materials (and benefit the economy). Finally, we must turn towards renewable energy. “The window is still open.” Rockström believes that 2020 to 2030 is the decisive decade: what happens in these ten years will determine what happens over the coming centuries.

Perhaps there is no longer a way to make people listen — and more importantly, take action — without being sensationalist. However, this film will win no converts and will probably not engage the already aware and committed. The call is to act as “earth’s conscience — it’s brain — thinking and acting with one unified purpose — to ensure that our planet forever remains healthy and resilient — the perfect home.” It is not just a noble purpose but an essential one. There have been, and there will be many valuable examinations of this subject matter. Unfortunately, in the end, Breaking Boundaries is not one of them.

Anthony Ramos and Melissa Barrera in a scene from the film. Photo courtesy of Warner Bros./A24

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

Before there was Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda burst onto the scene with the wholly personal In the Heights. A celebration of a largely Dominican community living in Washington Heights, Miranda provided music and lyrics and starred as Usnavi. The show was an instant hit with only minor carping on the book. The production ran from March 9, 2009, through January 9, 2011, for 1,184 performances. 

The show received thirteen Tony Award nominations and won for Best Musical as well as Best Musical Score (Miranda), Best Choreographer (Andy Blankenbuehler), and Best Orchestrations (Alex Lacamoire and Bill Sherman). The original cast recording received a Grammy for Best Musical Show Album. Dozens of subsequent companies — including multiple productions in Spanish — have been seen in the Philippines, Panama, Japan, Brazil, Australia, Peru, Denmark, and many other places. 

After a false start in November 2008 (with cancellation in 2011), it was announced in May 2016 that Miranda would co-produce the film with Harvey Weinstein. In the wake of Weinstein’s sexual misconduct charges, he was removed as the producer on the film, and Warner Bros. acquired the production.

The history of stage-to-screen musicals is an uneven one. For every Music Man and Sound of Music, there is an Annie or a Rent. Whether it is to one’s taste, Grease proved to be an enduring hit. Disasters have included Camelot, A Little Night Music, and Les Misérables. Genre connoisseurs argue the faults and merits of the cinematic incarnations of A Chorus Line and Into the Woods. Over the last few years, there has been a resurgence with mixed results: the brilliant reimagining of Chicago, the head-scratching Hairspray, the train wreck Cats. Being released this December is Stephen Spielberg’s much-anticipated remake of West Side Story.

It all comes down to whether the musical is making a joyous noise — or just making noise. 

Does In the Heights live up to expectations? Oh, yes. That and much more. While it does not reinvent the genre, the film’s sheer exuberance is a celebration of both “a” community and this particular community.

The basic plot follows two couples. Usnavi, a bodega manager, pines for aspiring fashion designer Vanessa, who works in a local salon. Benny is a dispatcher in love with his boss’s daughter, Nina, who has just returned from Stanford, where she must confess that she dropped out. What follows is three days leading up to a blackout and its aftermath. 

While Vanessa wants to move downtown, Usnavi struggles with a desire to rebuild his father’s restaurant in the Dominican Republic. Nina grapples with her experience in college and the events that led up to her return. In the Heights is equally a portrayal of the neighborhood — the connections, the gossip, the struggle, the pride — as it is the romance. If anything, the personal relationships are less engaging than the exploration of identity.

The film has departed from the Broadway production, adjusting multiple plot points for streamlining purposes. Some of the changes improve the narrative; others are less successful. Small cavils can be launched at the screenplay, which is serviceable but never rises to the level of the music and choreography. New issues — most notably that of the Dreamers — are introduced. Nina also speaks of a horrible racist experience she endured at Stanford. It is brought up and then dropped. If the writers choose to take on such important and complicated topics, the results deserve deeper exploration. 

In addition, some of the scenes go on longer than necessary. (A dinner party meanders, never quite focusing.) “It Won’t Be Long Now”— one of the best numbers — is oddly broken up. The framing device of Usnavi telling the story in flashback seems to undermine the immediacy. But these are minor quibbles on what is pure joy. 

John M. Chu directs the film with an eye for detail and an energetic but never rushed pace; the nearly two and a half hour running times flies. But it is Christopher Scott’s spectacular choreography that dominates. His work is bold, fearless, and epic, often encompassing hundreds of dancers. His dances will enter the annals of movie musical history (the climactic ballet in An American in Paris, the rooftop “America” in West Side Story, the barn-raising in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, the opening to La La Land, just about any moment in Singin’ in the Rain, etc.)

The combination of old-fashioned musical theatre and contemporary style are perfectly blended. The title number sets the tone for the stunning production numbers to follow. Most notably are “No Me Diga” (a wryly hilarious and delightful number in the salon), “96,000” (a swimming pool blockbuster with more than a few shades of Busby Berkley), the haunting and jaw-dropping “Paciencia y Fe” (which will be referred to in perpetuity as “the subway song”), and the finale-like “Carnival del Barrio,” the celebrates rejoices at communities within communities. (Even the “small” numbers are equally impressive, especially Nina’s “Breathe.” Certainly, credit should be given to Chu, who knows when to pull back.)

The cast is uniformly excellent, all exceptionally effortless singers and dancers whose performances are grounded in truth. They make the transition from dialogue to singing seem natural, often something that feels disjointed or, worse, falls flat in the movies. Anthony Ramos delivers a heartfelt Usnavi, both anchor and core to the story. He is matched by Melissa Barrera’s strong but conflicted Vanessa. Corey Hawkins brings warmth and vulnerability to Benny. Leslie Grace’s Nina shows the strength and struggle of someone trying to both go forward in her life but honor her past. Her scenes with the gifted Jimmy Smits as her father are effectively complicated. (Smits shows a pleasant singing voice in his few vocal moments.) 

Daphne Rubin-Vega (Broadway’s Mimi in Rent) finds humor and dimension in Daniela, the salon owner, who aspires for grander things. Olga Merediz, the only major holdover from the Broadway production, embodies matriarch “Abuela” Claudia with love and light. As Usanvi’s clerk Sonny, Gregory Dia IV easily mixes charm and “chutzpah” with a melancholic underpinning. Miranda is terrific as Piragüero, the Piragua Guy (shaved ice). While it is a small turn, his confrontation with the Mr. Softee vendor plays as the film’s cameo/Easter Egg highlight.

Usnavi speaks of sueñito — the idea of “little dreams.” The residents of this world all have them. But what comes through is that ultimately, they are not little. The dreams are big and powerful, honest and revelatory. In the Heights immerses the viewer in these hopes in a film that somehow manages to be both intimate and spectacular. This is the feel-good movie for which we have been waiting. While available on HBO Max, In the Heights is one of the best reasons to leave your couch behind and venture out to enjoy this bright shining jewel. Rated PG-13.

By Jeffrey Sanzel

There’s no real way to prove this, of course, but the Man of Steel’s image — the muscular body wrapped in skintight primary colors, a cape billowing behind him and a large S splayed across his chest — is universally recognized … From the very young to the very old, from Australia to Algeria to Alaska, it’s a pretty safe bet that almost everyone knows Superman. 

excerpt from Is Superman Circumcised?

In Is Superman Circumcised? (McFarland Publishing), Roy Schwartz investigates the creators behind the most iconic superhero and his symbolic connection to Judaism and his place in the general cultural pantheon. It is a fascinating work that mines the historical and sociological place of the Man of Steel.

Author Roy Schwartz

Author Schwartz was born and raised in Tel Aviv and began reading comics at age nine. It was through this medium that he learned English. (Comics allowed him to be comfortable with using the word “swell.”) In his freshman year of college, Schwartz wrote an essay entitled “World’s Finest: Superman and Batman as Didactic Utopian and Dystopian Figures.” Throughout his New York college career, he continued to study the power and place of comic lore, building to his senior thesis, which was the launching source of this book.

Part of Schwartz’s connection to Superman was rooted in their mutual connection of being immigrants, sharing Superman’s sense of alienation, loneliness, and sense of mission. As a result, Schwartz continually surveys the concepts in the Superman oeuvre. 

Jewish influence in the comic book industry is easily traced to its roots. The majority of the original writers and artists were children of immigrants. Superman’s creators — writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster — are very much part of this. They “freely borrowed elements from their cultural environment, including the extensive Jewish tradition of heroic stories about men and women given special abilities to defend the helpless, from biblical to rabbinical.”

The book explains in detail how Superman’s origins and adventures reflect the Jewish experience, both biblical and historical, as a prophetic figure and modern hero:

Their Man of Tomorrow reimagined a mythology is old as civilization, capturing the imagination of America and the world. From Krypton’s destruction echoing the biblical flood in Genesis, to his origin as a baby rocketed to safety paralleling that of Moses and Exodus, to the Clark Kent persona as a metaphor for Jewish immigrant assimilation, to Kryptonite symbolizing remnants of the Jewish civilization destroyed by the Holocaust, to this role as a modern Golem advocating the New Deal, open immigration and intervention in World War II, Superman’s legend is consistent as Jewish allegory.

Schwartz gives a detailed account of Siegel and Shuster’s upbringing, inspirations, and odyssey. He traces them from their teen years, when they conceived of the hero, their attempts to sell it, their breakthrough and rise, and ultimately, both its loss and legacy. On March 1, 1938, they sold the first Superman story to DC for $10 a page, totaling $130. Unfortunately, the contract cost them millions of dollars as they sold the story and the rights to the character as well. This would haunt them for the rest of their lives. Moreover, the impact of this sale would continue beyond their deaths, entangling issues of ownership that the estates would wage.

The earliest part of the book focuses on the biblical connections. Superman is most closely associated with Moses and Samson, but Schwartz also explores Superman as a Jesus figure. While the early Superman reflects an Old Testament figure, in film, television, and later incarnations, the Christ symbolism became strongest.

In the second section of the book, Schwartz expands to the general world of comic books and the influence of the exodus of Eastern European Jewry to the lower East Side of Manhattan. He traces the history of comic books, noting that it was at the bottom of the artistic industry, but one in which Jews could participate, having been blocked out of legitimate magazines and newspapers. 

He discusses both the religious and secular influences on this particular art and its manifestations in various titles. There is an emphasis on the bridging of the foreign culture integrating into American life. “Whatever his metaphorical foundation, the Man of Tomorrow is, and was always intended to be, a symbol of cultural collaboration, exemplified by his origin story as an alien refugee taken in by loving Americans and his life’s mission of bringing to bear the gifts of his heritage for the benefit of all.”

There is no question that the rise of anti-Semitism at home (the KKK and the Bund) and abroad (the ascent of the Nazis) strongly influenced the comic. Amid this rise in anti-Jewish sentiment, Action Comics #1 debuted Superman in June 1938. A year later, Superman #1 appeared, which coincided with the St. Louis — known as “the Voyage of the Damned” — being refused entry and sent back to Germany. Thus, Superman’s origin of a “refugee from a destroyed home when traveling to safe harbor in a vessel granted asylum by kindly Americans” could not have been more germane.

Schwartz gives both context and perspective. He points out that the idea of Superman was so original, there was no true point of reference. “How utterly ridiculous Superman must have seemed to editors then. A strongman from outer space, dressed in long johns, wellingtons and a cape. What a mashugana idea.”

Schwartz demonstrates extraordinary insight in his overview of the intersection of comics, the history of heroes and heroines, theological knowledge, and pop culture. He easily communicates how time and place and the personal history of the creators manifested in the character’s launch. Schwartz imparts the information with humor, focus, a range of examples, and an uncanny ability to join the concepts in an accessible, entertaining, and enlightening way. He easily debunks esoteric theories and interpretations that are rooted in extreme scholarship but have no factual basis. He draws on a wide range of sources, including Siegel’s unpublished memoir.

Schwartz addresses Superman as the ultimate wish-fulfillment: “He’s neurotic catharsis in a cape.” He spends time dissecting the question of who Superman’s true self: the caped hero or Clark Kent. Schwartz delves into the philosophical and cultural aspects, touching on everything from Nietzsche and religion to the accusation of comic books as a corrupting influence. He discusses the many incarnations and traces the constant reinvention of Superman in print and celluloid. He notes the contradiction both the liberal and conservative claim on Superman.

In all of this, the final takeaway, and perhaps the heart of this exploration, is one of identity. The message is a powerful one and valuable as much now as it was in 1938. “For all their glory and symbolism of American might and rectitude, superheroes were created by a band of Jewish kids from the ghetto, and they reflected their fears, fantasies and faith — if not religious, then in the promise of the nation that took them or their parents in.” Superman, as an immigrant, “showed the refugees weren’t, and some insisted, dangerous strangers from the hinterlands, ungrateful, clannish and treacherous. They were thankful and faithful contributors to the American collective.”

Is Superman Circumcised?: The Complete Jewish History of the World’s Greatest Hero  is available online at www.amazon.com and www.barnesandnoble.com. Visit the author’s website at www.royschwartz.com.

From left, Paul Walter Hauser, Emma Stone and Joel Fry in a scene from the film. Photo courtesy of Disney

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

Villains are by far more interesting than heroes. The antagonist seems to have the opportunity for greater richness; there is an opportunity for variety and texture that is often absent in the world of the “good.” Snow White and Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella are almost interchangeable. But the difference between the Wicked Queen, Maleficent, and the Stepmother is an entirely different story. Disney’s rogues’ gallery includes the aforementioned three as well as infamous favorites Captain Hook, Jafar, Scar, and Ursula. 

Emma Stone as Cruella in a scene from the film. Photo courtesy of Disney

Perhaps most unusual in the lot is The 101 Dalmatians’ Cruella de Vil, created by Dodie Smith for her 1956 novel. While her name is a pun/elision of “cruel” and “devil,” there is also the possibility it is a reference to the Rolls-Royce 25/30 Sedanca de Ville motorcar Smith purchased in 1939. In any case, the character’s goal is to make puppy pelts into fur coats. In a world of villains with questionable actions, something about this separates her from general wickedness. 

Following the successful animated film (1961), the story found its way into various television series, before being recreated in a live-action outing (1996) and a sequel (2000), with Glen Close headlining as Cruella, reimagined as a fashion house magnate specializing in fur haute couture.

Now comes Cruella, a prequel to the entire canon, offering the character’s backstory. Directed with great style by Craig Gillespie, it has a screenplay by Dana Fox and Tony McNamara, from a story by Aline Brosh McKenna, Kelly Marcel, and Steve Zissis. McKenna, who penned a screenplay for the project in 2013, is best known for her adaption of The Devil Wears Prada. (Keep this fact in mind.)

The film opens in 1954, with the birth of Estella, crowned with her natural half-black/half-white hair. Raised by a single mother, the action jumps ten years to her entering school, where the rewards for being strong and standing up to bullies are demerits that result in her expulsion. The young Estella (a decidedly spot-on performance by Tipper Seifert-Cleveland, without a whiff of precociousness) shows a knack for extreme fashion, so her mother decides for both their benefits to relocate to London. On their way, they make a stop at a remote manor where a gala is underway. Estella witnesses her mother pleading with the unseen hostess for money before her mother is driven over a cliff by the hostesses’ dalmatians. Estella thinks she caused it and carries this guilt throughout her life.

Estella escapes to London, where she takes up with two scrappy urchins, Horace and Jasper (Ziggy Gardner and Joseph MacDonald, both terrific and a match for Seifert-Cleveland). She joins them and learns the ropes of survival through petty crime. Fast forward ten years to the swinging London of 1974, and the trio have elevated their grifts, but, more importantly, have formed a family built on mutual respect, trust, and love. 

Estella is still obsessed with fashion, so Jasper arranges an entry-level job for her as a cleaner at the high-end Liberty department store. There she is discovered by Baroness von Hellman, the dangerously self-absorbed (and just plain dangerous) haute couture designer. Estella goes to work in von Hellman’s factory-like design house, a place of abuse and terror. What follows is the birth of Cruella, Estella’s alter-ego that her mother had encouraged her to suppress as a child. Cruella becomes a sort of superhero/supervillain/anti-hero/competitive designer. 

This split personality reflects in the screenplay that is part origin story (think The Joker meets Harley Quinn meets dominatrix), part personal awakening, part send-up of the fashion industry, part heist movie, and part Disney caper. You can see the problem. The film never lands on a tone or style for too long before it shifts or twists. The dialogue is full of quips and is delightfully arch, and the first half plays at an engagingly break-neck pace. 

But, the second half slows and repeats. Issues of nature versus nurture, the driving forces of guilt, and the need for revenge (Estella/Cruella refers to this as the sixth stage of grief) swirl around the film, either enriching the experience or confusing the flow, depending on your point of view. Moreover, much of it makes no sense to what has been established about Cruella in the later works. At two hours and fifteen minutes, there is too much material with no real commitment.

However, in the win column is a uniformly phenomenal cast, with not a weak link or false performance.

At that center is Emma Stone, who never fails to delight. As Estella/Cruella, she hits bottom and bounces back; she plots and plans and schemes. And while Cruella is a larger-than-life character, Stone never loses her center. Glen Close (who played Cruella in the Disney live-action movies) was brought on as an executive producer for character continuity. There is little that connects the style and quality of the two actors. Close, who finds her villainy in a brittle soprano, is nothing like Stone’s earthy, growling alto, whose performance is reminiscent of Tallulah Bankhead. (There is an homage to this with a clip from Hitchock’s Lifeboat.) Whether the put-upon Estella passing out drunk in a store window or the leather-clad, crop-wielding Cruella, she is a wicked triumph. (The film’s PG-13 rating could be summed up in that sentence.)

Matching Stone stitch for stitch (forgive the pun) is Emma Thompson as the vicious Baroness von Hellman. Similarities to Meryl Streep’s Miranda Priestly of The Devil Wears Prada are less than subtle. Miranda and the Baroness are cut from the same cloth (forgive the pun). But the similarities do nothing to detract from Thompson’s outrageous, hilarious monster. Every line drips with venom; every look is a poison dart. Whether she is slashing a dress with a straight razor, taking a nine-minute power nap, or ordering a murder, she is both contained and over-the-top, and pure comic danger.

Joel Fry is wonderfully understated as Jasper, the thief who cares for Estella. As a sister and perhaps more, his love for her embodies the power of what we do for the family we make. He pairs perfectly with Paul Walter Hauser’s Horace, a bumbling cross between James Corden and Bob Hoskins. The duo is the perfect double-act, caring and funny, physical and heartfelt.

Kirby Howell-Baptiste brings a wide-eyed wryness to Estella’s sole childhood friend, Anita Darling, now a gossip columnist. Mark Strong (looking like Stanley Tucci) is stoic as John, The Baroness’ trusted henchman. John McCrea finds depth in the flamboyant vintage clothing store owner, Artie. The supporting company is strong, with great timing, and all are playing in the same story.

Award-winning costume designer Jenny Beaven created a visual explosion that perfectly complements Fiona Crombie’s rich and varied production design. 

For those looking to connect the source material to the origin story — or are looking for a great outing for the kids — Cruella isn’t for you. But if you want to revel in sensational performances in a stunning setting, and often laugh-out-loud antics, there are worse ways to spend a couple of hours.