Authors Posts by Jeffrey Sanzel

Jeffrey Sanzel

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Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Rachel Zegler stars in The Hunger Games prequel. Photo courtesy of Lionsgate

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games (2008) and its sequels, Catching Fire (2009) and Mockingjay (2010), sold over one hundred million copies. The four films (2012 – 2015) made nearly three billion dollars worldwide. They featured John Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Stanley Tucci, and Donald Sutherland, with the role of Katniss Everdeen elevating Jennifer Lawrence to superstar. Like J.K. Rowlings’ Harry Potter, Collins’ Hunger Games transcended into a cultural phenomenon. 

The Hunger Games takes place in the ruins of Panem, a North American country composed of the central Capitol and thirteen surrounding districts. Each year, the remaining twelve districts (the thirteenth destroyed in the war) hold a lottery called “The Reaping” and send tributes to the Capitol to compete in the Hunger Games, a televised death match. The trilogy begins with the seventy-fourth Hunger Games.

In 2020, Collins published a prequel, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, focusing on eighteen-year-old Coriolanus Snow, the young man who would become president. The story opens on the cusp of the tenth annual Hunger Games, a time when the districts’ rebellion is still fresh.

The inherent problem with prequels is ending up where the story starts. At best, you gain insight into the characters’ development, but, for the most part, they either reinforce previous knowledge or, at worst, contradict established canon. The Many Saints of Newark proved to be a tacit outing, giving a little to enrich The Sopranos universe. Conversely, the entertaining Cruella seemed in opposition to much known about the titular character. 

Michael Lesslie and Michael Arndt’s screenplay for The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes hews faithfully to the novel, offering an interesting portrait of Snow at age eighteen. Born into a prestigious Capitol family, the orphaned Snow lives in borderline poverty with his grandmother and cousin in a lavish home that has seen better days.

Ballad’s action kicks in with the Academy’s graduating class conscripted to mentor the two dozen tributes. To win a coveted scholarship, Snow must somehow guide his charge to win. Out of spite, the Dean of the Academy, Casca Highbottom, assigns Snow a longshot: the female tribute from District Twelve, Lucy Gray Baird. Lucy Gray, a nomadic musician, is a Covey (read “Sinti” or “Roma”). Her skills as a singer become the game-changer, revealing an unusual—and more importantly—engaging persona to the Panem television audience.

The Hunger Games of Ballad are more akin to gladiators in Rome. The high-tech world of the trilogy comes later in the history. The tributes arrive in cattle cars and are imprisoned in an abandoned zoo without food. The savagery in the tenth games results from brute strength, alliances, and raw cunning. Hints and flashes of the technology that will dominate the later Games are teased, as is the burgeoning, quirky reality television, here shown with a retro 1950s vibe. 

The first hour and a half focuses on the buildup and execution of the Hunger Games. The remaining hour centers on a new track, focusing on district intrigue, political unrest, plotting, and betrayal. A distinctly Third Reich aura infuses the military components, emphasizing the fascist nature of the government.

As a film, it is neither more nor less than. Visually strong, its messages of corruption and guilt play on the surface. Director Francis Lawrence, who directed the final three Hunger Games, briskly paces the story. While absent of much innovation, the straightforward, brutal nature reflects Collins’ vision.

Tom Blyth creates a passionate and conflicted Snow. His understated performance pays off in his final transition, which he achieves flawlessly, wholly casting the shadow of who Snow will become. With an Appalachian twang, Rachel Zegler is an ideal Lucy Gray. She shows strength and an underlying danger and is one of the few in the film who achieves a third dimension. (She even makes the almost corny musical pieces work.) 

Josh Andrés Rivera is sympathetic if a bit overwrought as Snow’s classmate, the guilt-plagued Sejanus Plinth. Peter Dinklage mines the darkness of Highbottom (he is an actor incapable of giving anything less than a great performance). Jason Schwartzmann is hilariously callous as the weatherman-amateur magician Lucretius “Lucky” Flickerman, the first Hunger Games host.

But the film’s prize performance is Viola Davis’s deliciously over-the-top Dr. Volumnia Gaul, mastermind of the Hunger Games. Her unblinking, monomaniacal evil scientist is a riveting portrait of unbridled sadistic and political cruelty. Only an actor of her caliber could fashion a monster of such unrestrained villainy, endowing every moment with perfect plausibility. 

The film makes bold statements about actions and repercussions and the misuse of power, presented with little subtlety. But the depiction of the depravity of reality television resonates. Additionally, the concept of incentivized patriotism is a disturbing but accurate target. Here, Ballad succeeds on a higher plain. Ultimately, the message comes through: Pain can be turned into spectacle and revenge into profit. 

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

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Nikola Tesla and Guglielmo Marconi are the subjects of Joseph Sikorski's newest documentary. Image courtesy of Apple TV

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

Award-winning filmmaker Joseph Sikorski’s works include Arbor Day (1990), The Return of the King? (1993), Tower of Babble (2001), and Tower to the People: Tesla’s Dream at Wardenclyffe Continues (2015). The subject of the last—Tower to the People—plays an integral part in his newest documentary, Invisible Threads: From Wireless to War. Co-written with Michael Calomino, Invisible Threads takes an intriguing look at the early days of wireless technology and the conflicts between inventors Nikola Tesla and Guglielmo Marconi. Central to the story is a mysterious radio station erected in West Sayville, New York, by the German-based company Telefunken in 1911.

At the outset, local residents had the impression the site was to be a chocolate factory. Changing its name to Atlantic Communications Company, Telefunken built its radio tower with little public knowledge. The Suffolk County News editor Francis Hoag investigated, revealing the organization’s actual purpose. From here, the film follows the rise of wireless communication and the conflicts between Tesla and Marconi. Eventually, World War I becomes central to the narrative.

Marconi focused on developing a method to send Morse code through long-distance wireless communication. In contrast, Tesla had broader aspirations: He wanted to send sound, pictures, power, and electrical lighting by the same means. Thus came the Marconi-Tesla wireless race. 

The Wardenclyffe Laboratory in Shoreham. Photo courtesy of Apple TV

Tesla’s interests lay in the process, and concerned himself less with the applications. Marconi became a brand, with early telegrams being dubbed “Marconigrams.” As wireless technology grew, its impact and uses expanded. In 1912, wireless messages sent from the sinking Titanic saved lives. This alone boosted the value of Marconi’s system. The friction between Marconi and Tesla led to accusations and eventual wrangling over patents and lawsuits that dragged on for years.

But the heart of the story is Telefunken, who shipped the component parts from Germany to Long Island, assembling the tower in near secrecy. The company quickly demonstrated the ability to send a message from Sayville to Germany—four thousand miles—without a relay station in between. Telefunken’s process refinement even surpassed Marconi, leading to the U.S. government expressing concern that a foreign power had this control.

An “instrument of peace, commerce, and goodwill” changed in 1914 with the outbreak of the European war. The fear that Telefunken exploited the station to aid the German war effort proved true. Even with government oversight and surveillance, Telefunken used the system to communicate with Berlin: Telefunken was a major cog in the spy network. 

Conspiracies, subterfuge, and disinformation were all part of the complicated situation that even involved the sinking of the R.M.S. Lusitania. The tale is rife with saboteurs, cryptography, and Secret Service involvement, swirling with disinformation, assassinations, and labor unrest. All led to America entering World War I and taking over Telefunken. 

The film touches on the growing anti-German propaganda inflaming the American populace, particularly directed towards immigrants. Sikorski states that the majority of German-Americans were pro-American in the rising anti-German atmosphere but were subject to a wide range of persecution.

One of the most fascinating chapters involves the “Nauen Buzz,” a puzzle centered around coded messages accidentally solved by amateur radio enthusiast Charles E. Apgar. Sikorski presents Apgar through actual audio interviews recorded in 1934.

Another intriguing section explores Telsa’s remote-controlled boats outfitted with weapons. After a demonstration, government representatives dismissed its value—losing the earliest example of drone warfare. 

Invisible Threads masterfully mixes interviews with historians, authors, scientists, and other experts (and even a descendant) with hundreds of photographs and newspaper clippings. Restored historical images and 3D models for new perspectives were created from existing 2D photos. In addition, Sikorski nimbly weaves archival footage and dramatic recreations. He eschews dialogue with the latter but presents them with voiceovers, ambient sounds, and compelling underscoring. Additionally, the film details architectural challenges and scientific innovations.

Sikorski wisely chose the rich, evocative tones of Tony Todd for the narration. Todd, best known as the titular villain in the Candyman series, conveys a perfect blend of interest, insight, and a hint of menace.

With Invisible Threads: From Wireless to War, Joseph Sikorski presents a detailed, intriguing chapter in the world of communication—“So much creativity, so much destruction.”— and Long Island’s place in that history.

The documentary is now streaming on Apple TV and a special 4K edition with exclusive extras is streaming on Vimeo On Demand.

Robert De Niro and Leonardo DiCaprio in a scene from the film. Photo courtesy of Apple TV+

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

David Grann’s true-crime Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI brilliantly chronicles the Reign of Terror that cut a blood-stained swath through the Osage tribe in Oklahoma in the early 1920s. Two dozen murders were directly attributed to the four-year period, but further inquiry revealed a larger conspiracy that spanned at least two decades and hundreds of homicides. The book was one of the best or most notable books of 2017 by The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Time, NPR, and many others.

Members of the Osage Nation earned royalties from oil sales through their federally mandated “head rights.” As the oil market grew, many amassed wealth, leading to widespread swindles and violence on the unsuspecting Native Americans. In addition, the Burke Act (1906) imposed an unscrupulous situation of guardianships, depriving many of the Osage control over their money making them wards of predatory opportunists. 

Lily Gladstone and Leonardo DiCaprio in a scene from the film. Photo courtesy of Apple TV+

The book’s narrative is one of poisonings, shootings, and even the bombing of a house. The history is fraught with coverups by local authorities, high-profile citizens, police, doctors, and even undertakers. Coercion, blackmail, and negotiations with criminals are all part of the byzantine tapestry. The country found little sympathy for the victims, instead focused with a morbid glee on the lurid details: “Osage Indian Killing Conspiracy Thrills,” heralded the Reno Evening Gazette. 

With over forty films (including multiple documentaries), Martin Scorsese’s extraordinary roster includes Mean Streets, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Goodfellas, The Age of Innocence, Casino, The Departed, The Wolf of Wall Street, and, his last film, 2019’s The Irishman. The Award-winning director has co-written the screenplay for Killers of the Flower Moon with Eric Roth (Forrest Gump, Munich, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, and A Star Is Born). The result is a compelling epic. 

The story alternates between wider brutality and intimate moments among a trio of first-rate actors, surrounded by a varied, if not fully developed, supporting cast. Clocking in at nearly three and a half hours, Killers of the Flower Moon is a powerful, important film, but surprisingly misses some of the broader and significant elements of the story.

The film opens with a ritual burying of a peace pipe in a meditative and communal ceremony. Set to a pulsing soundtrack, the action shifts to an almost orgasmic oil gush, segueing into a portrait of the Osage, who became the world’s richest people per capita.

The scene changes to Fairfax, Oklahoma. While it is the 1920s, the town seems more a portrait of Wild West chaos, contrasting the wealthy Native Americans with an earthy population of white speculators and oil workers. 

Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio) returns from Europe, where he served as an infantry cook in World War I, and his uncle, William King Hale (Robert De Niro), takes him in. Hale, the self-titled King of the Osage Hills, is a friend and supporter of the Osage, speaking the language and moving with ease in their community. The façade is quickly dispelled as Ernest is drawn into Hale’s machinations of deception and vicious, destructive manipulations. With his sly, paternal benevolence, he advises Ernest not to make small but big trouble—for there lies the big payoff.

While driving a cab, Ernest meets and courts Osage Mollie Kyle (Lily Gladstone). Much of the film is shown through her eyes and heard in her brief voiceovers, simply and devastatingly enumerating the many uninvestigated tribal murders. After their marriage, Hale continues to involve Ernest in a range of illegal and immoral activities, resulting in the death of Mollie’s sisters. 

Scorsese and Roth have narrowed the scope, focusing mainly on Ernest, Mollie, and Hale, allowing for extraordinary performances. DiCaprio has never been better as the conflicted but easily swayed Ernest, who becomes one of the “squaw men,” the lay-about husbands living off their wives’ money. DiCaprio shows Ernest’s struggle, creating a character of active and passive complicity but still revealing lingering shreds of humanity. 

Lily Gladstone is a revelation of nuance and subtle dimension, finding joy, pain, humor, and strength. Her ability to project extraordinary shades of emotion in complete stillness is matched by her anguish in the film’s most gut-wrenching scenes of loss. Late in the film, her declaration that “this blanket is a target on our backs” reflects a woman robbed of peace of mind, living in a world crumbling from within and without.

De Niro balances the “great white father” with the darkness of a conscienceless villain whose lack of moral compass tips towards the amoral. De Niro (and the film) might have been better served by a gradual revelation of Hale’s true colors, something in which the book succeeds.

As for the rest of the players, there are no weak links, but they have only one or two notes to play. The rogues are rough, whiskey-soaked outlaws. The citizens of Fairfax carry a certain generic “oldy-timey” vibe. The members of the Bureau of Investigation (the forerunner to the FBI) are a tight-lipped crew, directed by Agent Tom White, an effective Jesse Plemons. While a good portion of Grann’s book deals with the investigation under J. Edgar Hoover, the film truncates the inquiry. The trial itself is abbreviated, with John Lithgow, as Prosecutor Leaward, and Brendan Fraser, as W.S. Hamilton, Hale’s attorney, basically serving their functions.

Throughout, the wrongs committed against the Osage are rightly and unflinchingly highlighted. Whether being overcharged for funeral arrangements, targets of arson and insurance fraud, or treated with disdain, suspicion, and envy by the “buzzards circling [the Osage] community,” the Osage nobility is fully present. Never caricatured, their ascendency from victim to the pursuit of justice in the face of systematic murder creates the core of the film’s final stretch. 

Scorsese’s penultimate scene is fascinating, allowing a seeming gimmick to work on another level (as it is fact-based). His cameo is fun, if a bit jarring. Killers of the Flower Moon’s final image, a contemporary nod, is beautiful—the ideal resolution to a film that casts light on a bloody, scarred chapter of American history.

Rated R, the film is now playing in local theaters and will later play on Apple TV+.

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'Gemja: The Message'

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

In K.M. Messina’s debut novel, Gemja: The Message, the author presents an engaging blend of science fiction and fantasy, combined neatly with a dose of romance and shades of New Age. With Resa Stone, she offers an honest, smart, and insightful protagonist. The book spans three worlds as well as ventures into dream states and astral projection. All the elements fuse to create a compelling, fast-paced read.

Author K.M. Messina

Gemja takes place in an alternate present. “Five years ago, an alien culture had presented itself on Earth, changing everything humans knew and thought they knew about the universe. Besides Earth, there were twenty-five other known planets in the cosmos that harbored sentient life, and alien technology had made interstellar travel among these civilizations simple and quick.” Resa’s father, a former chief of police, was the first person on Earth to make contact with alien life. The Stones became part of the “Worlds Meeting Worlds” experiment, a function of the Interplanetary Peace League (IPPL), which is central to the action. The family was one of a few chosen to live for six months on a foreign planet. 

As the story opens, Resa, her parents, and her twin brother, rebel-want-to-be Dakota, have lived under the tangerine sky of Wandelsta for three months. Resa, a witch-in-training, is a wonderful contradiction in terms—in short, a true teenager: “I was a logical, straight-A science geek, yet I believed in magic and ghosts. I would take the time to stop and help a turtle safely cross the road, but then I’d rush home to join my brother in watching a UFC fighting match where guys in a cage pounded each other to a pulp for sport.” Both spiritual and one hundred percent American youth, Resa struggles with day-to-day existence on the crimson-sanded Wandelsta that serves as an interplanetary garbage dump, with spaceships leaving tons of waste for disposal. The strange atmosphere shifts daily into a dangerous, polluted, and tangible “toxia.”

Resa spends her day drawing and writing in a journal to be published upon her return. At night, a dream vision, Nitika, tells her, “You are the one,” and there is something she must retrieve. In addition, she meets a strange young man with violet eyes to whom she finds an immediate attraction. Later in the story, this enigmatic figure becomes important in Resa’s journey.

Incidents send the family back to Earth early. They return to Mount Desert Island, Maine, greeted as celebrities. Resa learns of a deeper connection to her Wiccan grandmother, now suffering from dementia. The mystery surrounding her grandmother informs a great deal of the supernatural aspects. In the magic world of the novel, “a spell was a prayer said with intent, and earthy objects like wood and stones have the energy to give life to your most far-fetched wishes.”

From there, Resa, her friend Sarah, and Dakota travel to the Academy in Oganwandok, the universe’s capital, to engage in secret studies. The Academy trains young people to “become the future leaders, peacekeepers, and advocates for change across the cosmos.”

The driving force of the novel’s mythological foundation is the titular legend of Gemja, explaining the origin of the universe. The crystals of Gemja contain extraordinary powers, one of which comes into Resa’s possession. The unification of the crystals will no doubt be central to subsequent books. “… If all the crystals are found and activated, space will warp to reveal Gemja, a glorious crystalline planet where our every wish comes true.”

The author expertly weaves exposition and character, smartly painting a picture of a family dealing with a unique situation. Messina is a gifted world-builder, introducing a range of species: the rodent-like Slopees, the kind, well-meaning, and generous indigenous population of Wandelsta; the charming plant-like Yrdians from the rain-deprived Yrd; and the docile pacifists, the Ploompies of Glucosa, a sugar-based planet, under attack by the insectoid Siafu.

One of the book’s most memorable and affecting elements deals with the Stones’ homecoming, where life is now somehow more alien. Messina makes a profound and pointed statement about the ugliness of immigrant paranoia in several incidents in their brief time back on Earth.

Gemja is rich in adventure, humor, and humanity, balancing its reality with the fantastical. From first to last, the novel will delight readers of all ages, a gateway to a unique world that promises to grow with each welcomed addition to the series. 

Gemja: The Message is available at www.amazon.com. Visit the author’s website at www.kmessina.com.

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Megan Suri in a scene from 'It Lives Inside.' Photo courtesy of NEON

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

Director Bishal Dutta has directed nineteen shorts. He has received worldwide acclaim, garnering half a dozen Best Director laurels at various international film festivals. Most recently, Life in Color was an official selection at The American Pavilion Emerging Filmmakers Showcase (2018 Cannes Film Festival). His work has included music videos and broadcast commercials. 

NEON (distributor of the Academy Award-winning Parasite), along with QC Entertainment and Brightlight Pictures, produced Dutta’s first feature, the horror film It Lives Inside. Indian-born Sam (Megan Suri) is a high school student whose goal is assimilation. Her mother, Poorna (Neeru Bajwa), clings to their cultural roots, while her father, Inesh (Vik Sahay), attempts to navigate the two worlds and make peace between mother and daughter.

Megan Suri and Gage Marsh in a scene from ‘It Lives Inside.’ Photo courtesy of NEON

At school, Sam’s childhood friend, Tamira (Mohana Krishnan), is something of an outcast. She comes late to class, wanders the halls, and lurks underneath the bleachers, muttering fiercely and tapping a glass container that never leaves her hands. (Until this point, the film’s subtitle could have been Monster in a Mason Jar.)

Concerned but hesitant to associate with Tamira, Sam confronts her former friend. Tamira attempts to explain the evil within. In the ensuing disagreement, Sam calls her “a psycho” and smashes the jar, releasing the trapped entity. Tamira disappears, and the spirit latches onto Sam.

The rest of the film follows Sam’s arc from the fear of losing her sanity to accepting the reality of the pishacha, a flesh-eating demon. The pishachi, part of Hindu and Buddhist mythologies, feed on dark feelings like anger and hatred. They attack by first isolating the target, then slowly eating the soul. 

In many ways, It Lives Inside is standard monster fare, no different than dozens (hundreds?) of high-school-girl-in-terror movies. (The high school mascot—a bit on-the-nose—is a werewolf.) However, Dutta, who penned the screenplay, presents a unique reflection of the immigrant experience through this unusual horror prism. 

The cultural elements are integral in the storytelling and ultimate resolution. The family celebrates Durga Puja, a holiday paying homage to the Hindu goddess Durga’s victory over the shape-shifting demon Mahishasura. The party offers a glimpse into the community, showing Poorna’s desire to honor her heritage and Sam’s desire to remain outside it. When Dutta shows these pieces, the film comes to life.

The most lingering moment involves the aftermath of a grisly death that Sam witnesses. The neighbors’ faces suggest suspicion, not compassion. Dutta comments boldly and effectively on “immigrant as other,” revealed in the brief visual commentary. This moment speaks more powerfully than a dozen speeches could convey. 

Suri is first-rate as Sam, balancing the character’s struggles, seeming descent into madness, and inner strength. She is the modern Scream Queen: resourceful, smart, and brave; willing to sacrifice everything but her humanity. She manages to make even the weakest dialogue believable. 

Bajwa and Sahay avoid caricatures and find a nice contrast as the parents, both trying to understand and support their child. Gage Marsh is very “boy band” as a quasi-date who meets an inevitable end. Betty Gabriel plays Sam’s teacher, Joyce Dixon, one of those fantasy mentors who never seem to leave school and are always available. We know she is cool because she wears a Berkley sweatshirt (coincidentally, where Dutta teaches film). Gabriel makes the stock character completely real. 

Strangely, the film seems underpopulated. Students barely register; party guests are mere ciphers. 

Sadly, as a horror film, it falls short. The absence of tension is not replaced by any genuine atmosphere or style. The tired tropes—whispering voices, red lights, a journal with dire warnings and disturbing sketches, dreams within dreams—play strictly as clichés, making the short running time seem to plod towards its inevitable and strangely tacit conclusion. Often, it feels like a lesser episode of the 1970s television series Kolchak: the Night Stalker. 

Of the monster itself, it remains invisible for most of the film. Occasionally, Dutta allows a glimpse—mostly a shape in the dark with eyes charged by a pair of old AAA batteries, accompanied by a growl that claims the eeriness of an annoyed Dachshund. The final encounter reveals a refugee from the creature-feature rubber suit brigade. The matinee monster looks slightly less than a Party City Alien or perhaps something ordered out of the back of a comic book. Spikey and mildly reptilian, it elicits no response outside of a mirthless and disappointed chuckle from the anesthetized audience.

If only Dutta had leaned further into the social core, he would have created something memorable. Instead, It Lives Inside remains a rather flabby thriller with a fascinating—but unrealized—potential.

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

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From left, Kelly Reilly, Tina Fey, Kenneth Branagh, Michelle Yeoh, and Jamie Dornan star in 'A Haunting In Venice' Photo courtesy of 20th Century Studios/Disney

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

With over two billion books in print, Agatha Christie remains history’s second best-selling author (just behind Shakespeare). Her works span sixty-six detective novels and fourteen short story collections. Having opened in 1952, The Mousetrap is the world’s longest-running play, with over twenty-nine thousand performances. Christie’s best-known creations are the private detective Hercule Poirot and the amateur sleuth Miss Marple.

Poirot—the meticulous Belgian of the “little gray cells”— is featured in thirty-three novels and fifty-one short stories, with over a dozen films following his exploits. 

Notable actors such as Albert Finney (nominated for an Academy Award for Murder on the Orient Express), Peter Ustinov, Alfred Molina, John Malkovich, and Tony Randall donned the waxed mustache. David Suchet has been the most successful and beloved with Agatha Christie’s Poirot series, which presented seventy episodes from 1989 to 2013. Suchet’s large-than-life Poirot remarkably manages to remain wholly dimensional. 

Kenneth Branagh and Tina Fey in a scene from ‘A Haunting In Venice’. Photo courtesy of 20th Century Studios/Disney

In 2017, Kenneth Branagh directed and starred in Murder on the Orient Express, a labored adaptation that paled in comparison to the 1974 film and the 2010 television version. Branagh followed it up with the even less adept Death on the Nile (2022). 

His newest entry, A Haunting in Venice, claims its source as Hallowe’en Party (1969). The crisp novel deals with a girl who claims to have witnessed a murder and, shortly after, is drowned in a bobbing-for-apples tub. The similarities between the source and the film are slim. Apart from one character, a few names, a tub of apples, and a Halloween setting, A Haunting in Venice is an unrelated tale.

Hercule Poirot (Branagh) lives in an unsettled Venetian retirement with a bodyguard, ex-policeman Vitale Portfoglio (Riccardo Scamarcio). Mystery writer Ariadne Oliver (Tina Fey), Poirot’s acquaintance with whom he shares a professional history and a slightly antagonistic bent, coerces Poirot into attending a séance at a nearby palazzo, which follows a children’s Halloween party. Skeptic Poirot agrees to accompany her, intending to reveal the medium as a fraud. 

The palazzo’s owner, Rowena Drake (Kelly Reilly), wants to contact her daughter, Alicia (Rowan Robinson), who had committed suicide by throwing herself into the canal a year earlier. The guests include the family doctor, Leslie Ferrier (Jamie Dornan), his son, Leopold (Jude Hill), and the housemaid, Olga Seminoff (Camille Cottin). The medium, Joyce Reynolds (Michelle Yeoh), speaks in the daughter’s voice, proclaiming she was murdered. Poirot quickly exposes Reynolds as a fake. But is she? While Poirot reveals her confederates—Romani siblings Desdemona and Nicholas Holland (Emma Laird and Ali Khan)—doubt looms.

The ensuing plot hinges on the revelation of Alicia’s killer and the question of the palazzo’s haunting by the ghosts of children locked in to die during the plague years. 

A Haunting in Venice is an old dark house thriller with the requisite rainstorm, a falling chandelier, strange shadows, whispering voices, and assorted things that go bump in the night. The real stars are the technical elements. Visually, the film is exquisite: Haris Zambarloukos’s whirring and winding cinematography complements John Kelly’s elegant and evocative production design.

The performances are solid enough, all playing in the same world—but certainly not Christie’s universe. In a complete departure from the author’s self-satirizing writer (cleverly played by Zoë Wanamaker in the series), Fey’s Oliver is a wise-cracking 1940s soubrette and Poirot’s active adversary. Yeoh brings a winking gravitas to the medium, and Reilly ably manages a mother’s grief. Laird and Kahn make for a mercurial pair.

The center of any Poirot mystery is, of course, Poirot. Branagh’s twenty-first-century reinterpretation of the role results in a unique, often troubled, human character. Oddly, the choice becomes problematic, offering a Poirot with a lack of “Poirot-ness.” Missing is the twinkling genius, one step ahead. Instead, this Poirot runs alongside the pack until the final moments. However, Branagh embraces Christie’s vision in the resolution, where he exercises his insights and logic in unraveling the solution. Here, Branagh finds a few moments to shine, offering a glimpse of his potential. 

A Haunting in Venice is a distinct improvement over Murder on the Orient Express and Death on the Nile. But whether Haunting is a Christie-inspired film or just a movie cashing in on the author’s fame, the answer must veer towards the latter. Viewers seeking a traditional Poirot murder mystery with the classic intrepid detective will most likely be frustrated and disappointed. Those more flexible (or less invested in the canon) will find a quick-paced and visually satisfying thriller.

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

‘The Color Purple’ heads to theaters on Christmas Day. Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

By Tim Haggerty and Jeffrey Sanzel

Filmgoers can look forward to an exciting  field of offerings for the fall and holiday season. A wide range of releases promises a host of titles in a strong cross-section of genres including horror, musicals, historical dramas, and family movies. Here are some of the most anticipated movies for the rest of 2023, listed in order of release date. Ready, set, … action!

A Haunting in Venice

Kenneth Branagh’s follow-up to Death on the Nile is A Haunting in Venice, his third outing as celebrated sleuth Hercule Poirot. The Agatha Christie-inspired story focuses on murder during a séance and promises thrills offered up by a star-studded. Along with director-actor Branagh are Tina Fey, Jamie Dornan, Kelly Reilly and Michelle Yeoh, among others.

Rated PG-13· Release date September 15

Saw X

While not for the faint of heart (or stomach), Saw X marks the tenth in the Jigsaw saga. The film is set between the events of Saw and Saw II and follows a desperate man traveling to Mexico for a medical procedure, which is revealed to be a scam. Tobin Bell once again takes on the role of John Kramer/Jigsaw.

Rated TBA· Release date September 29

The Exorcist: Believer

David Gordon Green appropriately follows the end of his recent Halloween trilogy with The Exorcist: Believer. Originally, the producers were going to reboot the series, but instead have opted for a direct sequel to the landmark 1973 original. Ellen Burstyn reprises her starring role. 

Rated R· Release date October 13

Killers of the Flower Moon

It has been four years since Academy Award-winner Martin Scorsese’s much-lauded The Irishman. Now, the great director presents Killers of the Flower Moon. Based on David Grann’s bestseller of the same name, the film centers on a series of Oklahoma murders in the Osage Nation during the 1920s, committed after oil was discovered on tribal land. The film, which stars Leonardo DiCaprio, Robert De Niro, Lily Gladstone, John Lithgow, Jesse Plemons, Tantoo Cardinal and Brendan Fraser, promises to be one of the fall’s best and most exciting films.

Rated R· Release date October 20

Priscilla

Sofia Coppola tells the Elvis story through meeting, courtship, and marriage in Priscilla. Based on Priscilla Presley’s memoir Elvis and Me, Coppola creates the private life of the superstar in what will hopefully be her signature brilliance, blending high art with raw emotion. Cailee Spaeny and Jacob Elordi star as Priscilla and Elvis.

Rated R· Release date October 27

Five Nights at Freddy’s

Taking its cue from the video game, Five Nights at Freddy’s follows a security guard (Josh Hutcherson) on night-time patrol at Freddy Fazbear’s Pizza, an abandoned family entertainment center, where animatronic mascots kill anyone there after midnight. 

Rated PG-13 Release Date October 27

Pain Hustlers

David Yates features Emily Blunt, Chris Evans, Andy Garcia, and Catherine O’Hara in Pain Hustlers, a true-events crime drama centered on a criminal conspiracy at a pharmaceutical start-up.

Rated R· Release date October 27

The Marvels

The Marvel Universe expands with The Marvels, a Captain Marvel sequel starring Nia DaCosta, along with Brie Larson as Carol Danvers, and Iman Vallanis’ Kamala Khan (Ms. Marvel of the Disney+ series). 

Rated PG-13· Release date November 10

The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes

The multi-million-dollar Hunger Games franchise returns with a prequel based on Suzanne Collins’ novel The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes. Series vet Francis Lawrence directs the story that follows young Coriolanus Snow (played by Donald Sutherland in the previous four films) and his involvement with the Hunger Games.

Rated PG-13· Release date November 17

Next Goal Wins

Based on the 2015 documentary, Next Goal Wins tells the story of Dutch American soccer coach Thomas Rongen (Michael Fassbender), hired to help turn around the American Samoa national team, considered one of the worst in the world. (The trailers suggest a warm Ted Lasso vibe.)

Rated PG-13· Release date November 17

Napoleon

Napoleon joins director Ridley Scott with Joaquin Phoenix as the French general-turned-emperor. While the film will include a number of Napoleon’s most famous battles, its primary focus is on his tempestuous love story with his first wife, Joséphine (Vanessa Kirby).

Rated R· Release date November 22

Maestro

Perhaps one of the most anticipated fall films is Bradley Cooper’s biopic Maestro. Director Cooper has co-written (along with Josh Singer) the screenplay in which he stars as the extraordinary and complicated musician Leonard Bernstein. The film also stars Carey Mulligan, Maya Hawke and Jeremy Strong.

Rated R· Release date November 22

Wish

Disney’s Wish chronicles the origin story of the Wishing Star, with Ariana DeBose,  Chris Pine and Alan Tudyk starring in Frozen writers Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck’s screenplay. When darkness falls upon the Kingdom of Wishes, a young girl wishes upon a star to save her home, only to have the star physically come to her aid and becomes her sidekick. If the advance buzz is any indication, the animated film could become another Disney classic.

Rated TBA· Release date November 2

Poor Things

Emma Stone plays Bella Baxter, a young suicide brought back to life by a scientist (Willem Dafoe) in the unusual and surreal Poor Things, based on the 1992 Alasdair Gray novel. 

Rated R· Release Date December 8.

Wonka

Timothée Chalamet takes on the title role in Wonka, an origin story of the eccentric candy maker. Paddington director Paul King has assembled an all-star cast with Olivia Colman, Sally Hawkins, Keegan Michael-Key, and Rowan Atkinson. The film promises to be a visual feast and a fascinating take on Roald Dahls’ legendary character.

Rated PG· Release date December 15

The Color Purple

Stephen Spielberg filmed Alice Walker’s indelible novel The Color Purple in his Oscar-nominated 1985 film. Now Blitz Bazawule brings the Broadway musical to the big screen, with  Danielle Brooks, Halle Bailey, Fantasia Barrino, Taraji P. Henson, and Louis Gossett Jr., showcasing the Tony-nominated score by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis, and Stephen Bray.

Rated PG-13· Release date December 25

This article originally appeared in TBR News Media’s Harvest Times supplement on Sept. 14.

Two Faces of the Moon: A Small Island Memoir

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

Carolyn McGrath’s Two Faces of the Moon: A Small Island Memoir [Brandylane Publishers, Inc.] first presents as an idyllic echo of the natural world. And while the book touches on the bounty and splendor of nature, the work is much more. Two Faces is a rich, sometimes dark, but wholly truthful familial reflection.

Author Carolyn McGrath

While written during the pandemic, Two Faces of the Moon takes place in 2001, the year of her nonagenarian mother’s passing. McGrath establishes the tone by opening with her delivery by cesarean section—“lifted into the world unsullied by the normal push and pull.”

McGrath’s storytelling is boldly unsentimental. She was born to a mother of thirty-six and a father of forty-seven, a man who had a daughter from a marriage twenty years earlier. McGrath lost her father when she was seventeen but found herself constantly drawn to this “troubled man, an alcoholic, a heavy smoker, a war veteran, whose great talent for cussing often caused my mother to cover my ears. A father who clearly wished he had a son instead.” 

The statement paves the way for years of rumination about their thorny relationship, explored throughout this slender, powerful autobiography. While many works of this nature err towards the hagiographic, McGrath is unflinching and frank in her account.

Each summer, McGrath leaves her Long Island suburban home to drive five hundred miles north to Bob’s Lake, Ontario. There, she spends several months living in the 1926-built log cabin her father bought in 1937 for $400. Life is rustic, with an outhouse and a four-burner kerosene stove. She must drive to the nearby farm to draw drinking water from a well. She is accompanied by her dog, Blue, and is joined by the neighbor’s dog, Ring. 

While pondering the saying, “You could never go home again,” she answers: “The trick is to have two homes and never really leave either. I leave home to come home every summer and find it just the same.”

While the book delves into the history of the island, the house, and the lake, Two Faces of the Moon is, first and foremost, a tale of family. McGrath’s vivid, distinctly raw prose recalls the opening line of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” She alternates between the 2001 narrative in present tense and musings on her parents’ lives. The intersection creates friction that leads to constant sparks of insight. 

She celebrates her isolation. “The delicious feeling I have of being alone here is nothing like loneliness.” She examines the motivations for these journeys: “I discovered my craving for solitude when I realized that I was losing myself. There must be many wives like me who feel their lives were commandeered by the demands of marriage and family.” While directly referencing her parents, family, and friends, she never speaks of her husband by name. 

For all the things she admired about her father, she was afraid of him and felt “as a role model, my dad was terrible.” The outdoorsman focused on fishing, hunting, and frogging. “Guns were like wallpaper while I was growing up.” She aimed to please him but was also aware of the complexity of their bond.

In the present, she details visiting her elderly, ailing mother in the nursing home located an hour from the cabin. She paints one of the most vivid and heart-breaking portraits of aging, with a painfully accurate depiction of dementia. Her reaction to her mother’s passing and its aftermath is one of the most insightful moments in the book.

“While I’m here in the cabin, I feel I’m with both of my parents. My dad’s presence is everywhere […] my mother’s apron still hangs behind the kitchen door…” She shares her parents’ histories, scrutinizing their paths as a tool to reflect on her own choices. She accomplishes this without judgment but with a keen self-awareness. “It seems to me that children are born to be conflicted,” asking the questions: “Which parent do you love more? Fear more? Respect more?”

Living on the island is meditative, her own Walden Pond. And while she examines her life, she never loses the chance to be at one with her surroundings. “I wake up to the sound of Ervin’s cattle lowing lazily across the bay, where they’ve come down to drink. Through the window, I watch seven young ducklings following their momma […] all moving as one large duck atom, no sound. Song sparrows have hatchlings in a tree cavity …” 

Her world is a strange mix of stillness and teeming activity, allowing her to think, wonder, and, above all, feel. McGrath imparts wisdom and fallibility in equal measures. In short, she movingly presents a human being in all her dimensions. McGrath knows a long life comes with “pleasures and rewards, its booby traps and tortures.” She shares her experiences, trials, triumphs, and perspectives in the honest, sometimes lyrical, and always memorable Two Faces of the Moon.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Carolyn McGrath has a degree in classics from the University of Iowa and an MA in creative writing from Stony Brook University in New York where she taught for years in the Department of English and directed the Stony Brook $1000 Short Fiction Prize. She now lives in Charlottesville, Virginia. Two Faces of the Moon is available on Amazon.com, and at Barnes & Noble.

Xolo Maridueña in a scene from 'Blue Beetle.' Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures/DC Comics

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

For every superhero blockbuster, an equal number are box office disasters. For each Avengers: Endgame or Iron Man 3, there is Shazam! Fury of the Gods and The Flash. Many superheroes have risen and fallen, only to rise again in a parade of reboots and colored tights.

The Blue Beetle first appeared in Fox Comics’ Mystery Men Comics #1 (1939). The titular hero, Dan Garet, took Vitamin 2X, which gave him “super-energy.” When Fox went out of business, Charlton Comics bought the character, reprinting some of the stories before launching its version in 1955. In 1964, Charlton re-envisioned the character: Dan Garrett acquired an extra “r” and “t” along with a new origin story centered around a mystical power-giving Egyptian scarab. In 1966, inventor Ted Kord became a gadget-centric Blue Beetle following Garrett’s death. Next, the character’s mythology was reinvented with both Blue Beetles—Garrett and Kord—in Americomics (published by AC Comics). 

Xolo Maridueña in a scene from ‘Blue Beetle.’ Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures/DC Comics

DC Comics bought Charlton’s superhero collection in 1983, changing Ted Kord to a billionaire industrialist. This Ted Kord appeared in various titles, including Justice League, Justice League America, and Birds of Prey, the identity continuing through 2005. DC presented a new Blue Beetle in 2006: teenager Jaime Reyes, whose powers came from the scarab, a piece of alien technology. While the initial series was cancelled due to poor sales, a revival came in 2011, disconnecting Reyes from previous Beetles. In 2016 Garrett and Kord were restored as previous Blue Beetles. Jamie Reyes was the focus of a limited series, Blue Beetle: Graduation Day, offered from 2022 to 2023. 

Enter DC studio’s Blue Beetle. After a prologue establishing Kord Industries locating the scarab in a frozen tundra, the action quickly shifts to bright-eyed pre-law college graduate Jamie Reyes returning home to the fictional Texan town of Palmera City. As he rides down the airport escalator, he adjusts his mortarboard. Turning to the gentleman beside him, he asks, “How do I look?” The man dryly responds, “Like you’re six figures in debt.” The smart quip establishes the tone and world that Jamie faces. 

Jamie is greeted by his family—mother, father, grandmother, sister, and eccentric uncle. During a celebratory meal, Jamie learns that his auto mechanic father lost his job due to a heart attack. They are now in danger of losing the family home, three months in arrears. His sister, Milagro, gets them a job working in the mansion of Kord Industries CEO Victoria Kord (whom Milagro describes with begrudging respect as “Cruella Kardashian”). They lose their positions when Jamie steps into a fight between Victoria and her niece, Jenny. In gratitude, Jenny offers Jamie employment and tells him to come to Kord Tower. 

The next day, Jenny discovers that Victoria uses the scarab for her OMAC (One Man Army Corps) project. Jenny steals the scarab in a fast-food hamburger container, but the laboratory director discovers its theft, and the building is put on lockdown. In danger of being caught, Jenny passes the box to Jamie, who takes it home, warning him not to open it or touch its contents.

Upon returning, the family pressures him to see what is in the box. In full view of his family, Jamie touches the scarab, which attaches itself to him. He is immediately surrounded by an exoskeleton/armored suit, complete with a guidance voice and myriad abilities, including flight and a host of defensive and offensive capacities. (Jenny later tells Jamie that the scarab is an ancient sentient weapon that has chosen him as host.) 

The plot is traditional: a struggle between the emerging hero and the dastardly villain. Jamie learns to harness the powers as Victoria sets out to reclaim the scarab. Victoria is a classic nemesis cut in the Bond villain mode. Susan Sarandon chews the scenery, practically singing the watchcry, “Sacrifices must be made for the greater good.” Her main conflict is with her brother’s daughter, Jenny (Bruna Marquezine), an underdeveloped and bland character. Victoria has a traditional henchman, Ignacio Carapax (Raoul Max Trujillo, expressive with only a few lines), with an important backstory. 

A scene from ‘Blue Beetle.’ Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures/DC Comics

There are references to Jenny’s father, Ted Kord, as well as Ted’s professor, archaeologist Dan Garrett, bringing the Blue Beetle’s entire history into superficial play. The effects are pure videogame, with an excessive amount of blue electricity. The action often resembles Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots. 

On the surface, little new or exciting is on offer. However, director Ángel Manuel Soto and writer Gareth Dunnet-Alcocer manage one important coup: the extraordinary bond of the Reyes family. 

Unlike many genre movies, Blue Beetle uses family not as a vehicle but as the core force. If the theme of familial bond is heavy-handed, the first-rate cast engages us on a genuinely human level. Xolo Maridueña shines as Jamie, easily holding center for the film’s stretched two hours. Damián Alcázar makes the father, Alberto, wise and touching, a patriarch of great understated strength. He is matched beautifully by Elpidia Carrillo as Rocio, Jamie’s mother. Adriana Barraza, as Nana, the matriarch, avoids cliché and has a fun eleventh-hour reveal. Belissa Escobedo brings humor and caring to Milagro, Jamie’s sister. George Lopez takes Uncle Rudy to the limit and beyond, both hilarious and touching. Each stands out individually, but as a whole, they are an exceptional unit. 

While there have been Latino superheroes, Blue Beetle puts representation at its center. An important moment comes late in the film involving the laboratory director (played with conflicted integrity by Harvey Guillén). The exchange leads to a bold choice, highlighting racial issues that weave through the film. 

In the end, Blue Beetle is uneven and occasionally uninspired, but a superior cast and a celebration of family let the film soar. Rated PG-13, Blue Beetle is now playing in local theaters.