Authors Posts by Jeffrey Sanzel

Jeffrey Sanzel

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The main cast of 'Haunted Mansion.' Photo courtesy of Disney

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

There’s an old joke (incorrectly credited to W.C. Fields):

“… And I spent a week in Philadelphia.”

“When?”

“Day before yesterday.”

Which brings us to Haunted Mansion.

The Haunted Mansion is one of Disney’s most famous and beloved dark rides. The Disneyland premiere (1969) was followed two years later by the Disney World/Magic Kingdom location. 

Before its current resurrection, Disney produced the (mostly) critically drubbed Eddie Murphy vehicle The Haunted Mansion (2003). However, the film grossed over $100 million worldwide. Muppets Haunted Mansion (2021) appeared on Disney+. The Muppets’ first Halloween special ran a brisk fifty minutes and was warmly received. 

Unlike the park ride, which lasts an entertaining eight minutes, the current film’s interminable two hours offers little but some strong performances trapped like the spirits in the Haunted Mansion. Katie Dippold (Parks and Recreation, The Heat, and the 2016 Ghostbusters) cobbled a mess of sitcom, slapstick, and reflection on grief. Justin Simien (director of the brilliant Dear White People) fails to elevate the movie, which arrives as dead as the house’s occupants. (When Disney first announced a reboot, Guillermo del Toro was attached to the project but exited in 2013. One wonders what the gifted del Toro would have done with this mainstream project.)

Haunted Mansion is set in New Orleans, “the Most Haunted City in America.” In a short prologue, astrophysicist Ben Matthias (a truly grounded and likable LaKeith Stanfield) meets Alyssa (brief but likable Charity Jordan), a ghost tour guide. While he questions her belief in the supernatural, he falls in love with and marries her. After she dies in a car accident, he gives up his scientific work and takes over her ghost tour. 

The ghosts of Gracey Manor. Photo courtesy of Disney

Fast forward to New York doctor Gabbie (strong but underserved Rosario Dawson) and her nine-year-old son, Travis (a sensitive and mature Chase W. Dillon), moving into Gracey Manor to turn it into a bed and breakfast. As they enter the house, they realize they are not alone.

A goofy priest, Father Kent (Owen Wilson doing a nice job as Owen Wilson), recruits Ben to photograph the ghosts with the camera he had developed to shoot dark matter. The skeptical Ben agrees to the proffered ten thousand dollars. When he leaves the mansion, he realizes the ghost of a mariner has followed him. And this is the crux of the story: anyone who enters the house takes the spirits with them. “Ghosts are like bedbugs: they latch on.” A charming image.

Psychic Harriet (always enjoyable Tiffany Haddish) and college historian Professor Bruce Davis (Danny DeVito, both benign and manic) join the quartet. The “dream team,” as Kent labels them, discovers the house’s history and that the inhabitants want their help to be free (though this gets a bit muddled in the end … and the middle … and part of the beginning).

They learn from the crystal ball-trapped Madame Leota (Jamie Lee Curtis—remember her?—she just won an Academy Award) that William Gracey bought the mansion and engaged Leota to contact his dead wife. However, an evil entity tricked Gracey into taking his own life. The malignant force is Alistair Crumb, also known as the Hatbox Ghost (voiced for some reason by Jared Leto). There is talk of the 999 spirits and the need for a willing victim to make one thousand allowing Crump to escape the mansion. (Something like that.) The “climax” is the two worlds—the spectral and the real—colliding.

The movie suggests ghost movies of earlier eras: Bob Hope’s 1932 comedy The Ghost Breakers and William Castle’s creepy 13 Ghosts (1960) come to mind. But Haunted Mansion manages to be simultaneously fluff and leaden. (This calls to mind the old brain teaser: Which is heavier—a ton of feathers or a ton of cement? Answer: One hundred and nineteen minutes of Haunted Mansion.)

The effects replicate the Disney attraction. The low-tech feel serves the commercial advertisement but just makes the movie look cheap. The requisite cobwebs drape the dwelling, and the well-known Haunted Mansion denizens appear (the Bride, the Hitchhikers, etc.). Occasionally, the film nods towards introspection: Harriet speaks of “ghost winks”—messages of hope and comfort from people who have passed on. This heartening concept wandered in from another film.

But too often, the film relies on forced, clumsy humor. Punchlines include a joke about a Yankee Candle and an uncancelled Amazon subscription, a pen and pad purchased at CVS, and sage bought at Costco. Characters snore, and chairs fly down steps, dumping the occupants in mud. Hilarity reigns.

The cast does its best, with Stanfield and Dillon as standouts. A sprinkling of cameos—Marilu Henner as a tourist, Winona Ryder (uncredited, but very funny) as a tour guide, and Daniel Levy as her husband—are fun but do little more than distract for a moment.

Ultimately, Haunted Mansion is a ride not worth taking. Rated PG-13, the film is now playing in local theaters.

 

Molly Gordon and Ben Platt in a scene from 'Theater Camp' Photo courtesy of Searchlight Pictures/20th Century Studios

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

While recruiting campers for her AdirondACTS camp, director Joan Rubinsky (Amy Sedaris) is sent into a seizure-induced coma by the strobe light in a middle school production of Bye Bye Birdie. Her slacker son, Troy (Jimmy Tatro), takes over the struggling enterprise, ineptly mismanaging its staff of well-meaning but mildly narcissistic misfits. In addition, he must deal with the camp’s failing finances and imminent foreclosure. 

The simple and familiar premise—camp on the verge of closing—sets up a highly enjoyable niche outing, following in the footsteps of the slightly more satirical Camp (2003) and the equally intense Stage Door Manor documentary Stagedoor (2006). 

Based on a short film of the same name, Molly Gordon, along with co-director Nick Lieberman, Ben Platt, and Noah Galvin, has fashioned the heartfelt mockumentary Theater Camp, which delivers consistent laughs but never lacks heart. 

The film follows the four-week theatrical process, from auditions to opening. While mounting productions of Damn Yankees, Cats, and Crucible, Jr. (a hilarious joke to those familiar with the Jr. concept), the focus is on the annual original musical, written by the drama director, Amos Klobuchar (Platt), and the music director, Rebecca-Diane (Gordon). The project, Joy, Still (a bio-musical of the camp founder), takes up most of the film’s rehearsal and performance focus and manages to be simultaneously ridiculous and sincere. 

Perhaps the mix of these tonal elements—ridiculous and sincere—best describes Theater Camp. While hurling barbs at theatre training and its many pretensions, it never loses its love for its subject. This truth is best reflected in the campers who shine in their own ways, displaying raw talent, fearlessness, and pure desire to perform. They represent a true demographic cross-section, bonded in the joy of all things theatrical. 

The staff are an over-the-top crew but somehow make the caricatures believable. Platt and Gordon infuse the codependent pair with the dysfunction common to longtime theatrical collaborators who cannot communicate. Caroline Aaron plays the managing director with a mix of tough love and the awe of the non-artistic. Without losing the humanity, Nathan Lee Graham camps up the choreographer, Clive DeWitt, as does Owen Thiele as the costumer, Gigi Charbonier. 

Ayo Edebiri makes the fraud, Janet, a charming grifter; her teaching of a mask class is one of the satirical highlights. Tatro’s lost Troy is likable, and his gradual awareness of the beauty of what his mother has created is genuine and touching. But it is Noah Galvin, as the jack-of-all-trades stage manager, Glenn, who provides the film’s biggest surprise. Galvin’s transformation at the climax is a revelation and a marvel. 

Thematically, Theater Camp centers on being “one of us.” The staff and campers are cut from the same mold. They are the ones who are never picked first or second (or third or fourth) for teams. They are social outcasts in the outside world. But at AdirondACTS, they are not just accepted but celebrated. 

Towards the end, the camp hosts a mixer with the neighboring camp, the privileged Lakeside. The Lakeside campers view the boisterous, outgoing theatre kids with not just disdain but the view that they are “other.” The film’s creators smartly refrain from giving the Lakeside campers commentary; the contempt is clear but unspoken. For all its problems—and they are myriad—AdirondACTS provides an outlet and a haven for these budding artists. 

In the wake of artistic blockbusters (Barbie, Oppenheimer), Theater Camp is a lightweight diversion and an enjoyable slice of summer fun.

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

Cillian Murphy as J. Robert Oppenheimer in a scene from the film. Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

J. Robert Oppenheimer (1904-1967) is considered a founding father of the American school of theoretical physics. His work included the exploration of astrophysics, nuclear physics, spectroscopy, and quantum field theory. In the 1930s, he wrote papers suggesting the existence of what are now labeled black holes.

At the dawn of World War II, Oppenheimer was instrumental in developing the atomic bomb (often referred to as its “father”). In June 1942, he was appointed scientific director of the Manhattan Project and supervised the construction of the Los Alamos laboratories.

Following the War, Oppenheimer assumed the chairmanship of the General Advisory Committee to the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC). In this role, he voiced opposition to the development of the hydrogen bomb. In 1953, at the height of the Cold War and Red Scare, Oppenheimer was accused of communist sympathies, and the AEC canceled his security clearance.

Matt Damon and Cillian Murphy in a scene from ‘Oppenheimer’. Image courtesy of Universal Pictures

In the year’s best film so far, director Christopher Nolan’s epic Oppenheimer traces the controversial figure’s rise, fall, and redemption. Nolan’s screenplay, closely adapted from Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin’s 2005 Pulitzer Prize-winning biography American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer, runs on three timelines: the buildup of the Manhattan Project, leading to the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki; the AEC’s rigged hearing that stripped Oppenheimer of both prestige and access; and Lewis Strauss’s senate confirmation hearing for Secretary of Commerce.

Many films tackle issues of scientists and scientific discovery: The Imitation Game (2014), A Beautiful Mind (2001), Hidden Figures (2016), and The Theory of Everything (2014) are examples of some of the stronger genre offerings. However, these films often stress the personal elements or water down the science. In the case of Oppenheimer, the epic but breathtakingly paced three hours manages to keep science in the forefront without losing interpersonal relationships.

The film begins with twenty-two-year-old Oppenheimer struggling with anxiety at Cambridge’s Cavendish Laboratory. After an aborted attempt to poison his professor, Oppenheimer meets Niels Bohr, who suggests he complete his education in Germany. Upon graduation, Oppenheimer begins teaching at the University of California, Berkley, and the California Institute of Technology. The film balances his day-to-day life, including his left-leaning politics, with an attempt to show his genius through strong, abstract imagery. 

Much of Oppenheimer plays in lectures and classrooms, as well as offices and laboratories. Nolan keeps the action moving and the stakes perpetually high. The rise of Hitler deeply affects the scientific community, many of whose members were Jewish. In 1942, General Leslie Groves recruits Oppenheimer to lead the Manhattan Project. Oppenheimer gathers an extraordinary team to secretly develop the atomic bomb in Los Alamos, New Mexico. Throughout, the scientists debate the issues of the long-term and far-reaching effects of their actions. In addition, the constant specter of espionage hovers over the project. 

The film builds to the first of several milestones with the Trinity, the test of the atomic bomb on July 16, 1945. Simultaneously, it highlights the perpetually shifting collaborations, suspicions, setbacks, and infighting throughout the three years of development. 

Marking his sixth collaboration with Nolan, Cillian Murphy delivers a flawless performance as the gifted, complex Oppenheimer. He brings a range of shades, from the self-important to the self-doubting. Following the dropping of the atom bomb, his simple, devastated, “And now I am the condemned. Destroyer of worlds,” is of Hamlet proportions. He manifests the struggle between the intense scientist and the man drawn to the power given to him as leader of the Manhattan Project. A womanizer who loves his wife, a father who shows little interest in his family, and a man later plagued by his choices, Murphy delivers a truly Oscar-worthy performance. 

Equal to Murphy is Robert Downey, Jr., as the seemingly mild, almost benign, but ultimately vindictive Lewis Strauss, who offered Oppenheimer the directorship of Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study. Downey, Jr. gives one of his finest, most dimensional performances as Strauss’s real and imagined slights drive him to take down the scientist. As with Murphy, Downey, Jr., will most likely receive an Academy Award nomination (if not a win). 

Emily Blunt makes alcoholic and volatile wife, Katherine, a frustrating and noble figure. Matt Damon’s General Groves is the company man who sees the bigger picture. Florence Pugh’s independent communist Jean Tatlock brings both sensual and tragic qualities to Oppenheimer’s sometimes lover. David Krumholtz is powerfully understated as Isidor Rabi, a voice of wisdom and conscience, as is Tom Conti as the knowing Albert Einstein. 

In the Senate confirmation hearing, Rami Malek’s David Hill smartly projects shades of Joseph Welch taking down Joseph McCarthy. Kenneth Branagh makes a strong cameo as Niels Bohr, and Gary Oldman, one of the greatest actors of his generation, is indelible as President Truman. Josh Hartnett, Casey Affleck, Jason Clarke, Matthew Modine, and Tony Goldwyn are among the dozens of supporting performers who comprise this exceptional ensemble. 

Hoyte van Hoytema’s astonishing cinematography enhances and highlights the shift in time and place, perfectly complementing the work of production designer Ruth De Jong. Every element is in perfect synchronicity, from costumes to soundtrack. But Nolan, as Oppenheimer’s creator, manifested this exceptional undertaking. He skillfully blended science, politics, and morality into a cinematic gem that will be honored now and remembered as a work as complicated and brilliant as its subject. 

Rated R, the film is now playing in local theaters.

Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling in a scene from 'Barbie' Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Entertainment

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

What can you say about someone who has had over two hundred careers—fashion editor, science teacher, paramedic, paratrooper, Canadian Mountie, aircraft engineer—but was quoted as saying, “Math is tough?” While she beat Neil Armstrong to the moon, she encouraged her followers to “Get your sparkle on—show the world where you belong.” 

Featured from toy shelves to The Nutcracker (to The Magic of Pegasus 3-D), Barbie—full name Barbara Millicent Roberts—first appeared in March 1959. The eleven-inch plastic figure was the brainchild of Ruth Handler (Mattel, Inc. co-founder, with husband, Elliot). Inspired by the German Bild Lilli doll, the first Barbie sold for $3. Today, Barbie is a multi-billion-dollar industry.

Barbie’s world includes her on-again-off-again boyfriend Ken, best friend Midge, and sister Skipper. The first celebrity Barbie was Twiggy (1967). Barbie first ran for president in 1992 and has been on the campaign trail at least seven times since. She will continue to evolve and be reinvented. But as busy as she is, Barbie has now made time for a feature film. 

Director Greta Gerwig (Lady Bird, Little Women) reteams with Frances Ha screenwriter Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale, Marriage Story, Margot at the Wedding) to direct “big screen” Barbie. They have written a fascinating societal exploration, presented through the prism of the alternate world, Barbie Land. Barbie is no theme park ride or action toy translated to a mass market money grab. The film is a serious meditation on gender roles and expectations. It takes on multiple overlapping themes—perhaps too many to answer—and resonates long after its brisk two-hour running time.

Margot Robbie in a scene from ‘Barbie’. Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Entertainment

Barbie deals with a tear in the separation of Barbie Land and the real world, a rip connected to Barbie’s doubts about her perfect existence. She leaves the female/Barbie-dominated universe to learn that women have not achieved the positions of strength they have in her native existence. Initially, the comedic conflict sparks from the clash of the two planes. Still, the bigger issue arises from Ken’s awareness of the disproportionate power allotted to men outside Barbie Land. (In Barbie Land, the Kens are relegated to a peripheral existence, not holding the key positions taken by the Barbies.) Ken’s epiphany causes Barbie Land to devolve into a world of toxic masculinity dominated by the Kens. The host of mindless bros’ tenuous grasp turns the idyllic utopia into an almost hellish frat-scape, Kendom Land. The fact that Ken somehow connects patriarchy to horses speaks volumes.

The resolution strangely errs on the side of hijinks, with the Barbies righting their world through a subterfuge that plays on Kens’ easily flattered egos. The commentary is strong but subsumes the message of self-awareness and empowerment. They fool the doltish Kens rather than directly engage them. However, in the end, the Kens gain a modicum of self-awareness. 

Barbie manages to be comedy, spoof, satire, and message movie, sometimes in turn, other times simultaneously. From its 2001: A Space Odyssey opening to its exquisitely conceived Barbie Land that is both vibrantly two- and three-dimensional, Barbie is a delight, with visual jokes, hilarious asides, and social commentary.

Margot Robbie’s in all ways flawless Barbie proves the actor’s exceptional skills and depth. She manifests a true living doll but allows for both growth and arc, never missing a beat or a laugh. Ryan Gosling makes the ideal foil, as the mostly clueless Ken, coming to a misplaced awareness. The supporting Barbies are effective on different levels, as are the coterie of Kens. 

America Ferrera’s real-world Gloria has the most memorable moment in the film—a speech about the double standard women face daily. Her passion and laser focus give weight without weighing down the significance. Ariana Greenblatt, as her daughter, Sasha, neatly represents today’s generation of detached teens searching for connection. Michael Cera’s sad sack Allan is subtly hysterical.

Rhea Pearlman offers the luminous, not-so-spectral spirit of Barbie creator Ruth Handler. In her two scenes, she manages to be heartbreakingly human and otherworldly wise. She speaks as the head and heart of possibility, which was her inspiration in creating the doll. She is somehow Dumbledore to Barbie’s Harry. 

The film’s major misfire is the comedic Mattel corporate board, headed by Will Ferrell, doing Will Ferrell at his most Will Ferrell. The painfully predictable slapstick seems forced in an otherwise sharp and meditative story.

*Reviewing is the definition of subjective. I left unsure of exactly how I felt about what I had witnessed. I also knew that I was not its true demographic. 

Curious, I engaged with people exiting the film and reached out to others over the next few days. These ranged from adult mothers and daughters with complementary opinions to viewers in their twenties and thirties. Three slightly dazed mothers with a half dozen girls under age eight contemplated how much their young charges had—or had not—understood. 

While a few attendees were mildly disappointed, the consensus was that Barbie was an effective and affecting film. Older viewers seem most linked by the nostalgia, reflecting bittersweetly on childhood hours. However, recurring comments tended towards empowerment, identity, and reflection of girlhood/womanhood. The film seriously considered the day-to-day struggles of being female and cultural over-sexualization. But Barbie also symbolizes the ability to change, hearkening to her creation as representing myriad possibilities. Many were deeply moved by the montage of women throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries; almost all cited Gloria’s monologue as a high point. The most common refrain was, “I felt seen.”

Ultimately, Barbie transcends. As a work and work of art, it accomplished something extraordinary, something “more than.” It has let its audience “feel seen.” And that alone makes Barbie exceptional. 

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

Harrison Ford in a scene from 'Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny'. Photo courtesy of Lucasfilm Ltd. / Disney

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

The Indiana Jones films are among the most popular blockbusters of all time: beginning with Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), followed by the prequel Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), then Indiana Jones and the Lost Crusade (1989). It was almost twenty years before the fourth chapter was released: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008). This last received the poorest reviews and the weakest response. Stephen Spielberg directed all four films, with Harrison Ford starring as Dr. Henry Walton “Indiana” Jones, Jr., an archeology professor. Worldwide grosses have approached two billion dollars. 

In between the third and fourth films, a television series, The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, followed Jones as a child and youth. Twenty-eight episodes and four made-for-television films ran from 1992 through 1994. In addition, dozens of books, comic books, toys, and other tie-ins surround the Jones icon.

Phoebe Waller-Bridge, as Helena, and Harrison Ford, as Indiana Jones, star in ‘Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny.’ Photo courtesy of Lucasfilm Ltd./Disney

Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny opens in the closing days of World War II. Jones faces Nazi adversaries as he attempts to recover the Lance of Longinus. The German officers reveal Hitler believes the relic to contain extraordinary powers that could reverse the course of the war. The Lance is a fake, but Nazi astrophysicist Jürgen Voller has found half of Archimedes’ Dial, an invention of the ancient Syracusan mathematician said to be able to locate fissures in time. 

After an extended fight and chase on a train, Voller is killed (spoiler alert: he is not), and half of the Dial is supposedly lost (spoiler alter: it is not). Of course, Jones and sidekick, archaeologist Basil Shaw, survive.

The action jumps from 1944 to July 1969, just after the moon landing. Borderline alcoholic Jones, a passionless professor at New York City’s Hunter College, instructs indifferent students on the eve of his forced retirement. His son, Mutt, died in Viet Nam, and his wife, Marion Ravenwood, left him. Enter his goddaughter, Helena Shaw, Basil’s only child. Helena seeks the Dial, and while Jones had promised the near-insane Basil to destroy it, he preserved it in the college storeroom.

While retrieving it, Jones and Helena are attacked by muscle sent by Voller, now a scientist working for NASA. During this melee, Helena reveals herself to be less a student of archeology and more a mercenary treasure hunter planning to sell the Dial fragment in a Tangiers black-market auction. What ensues is a world-crossing journey, with a plethora of fights and escapes. These—the film’s raison d’être—are slightly cartoonish but grandly, energetically executed. However, they are too long. Much, much too long. 

Somewhere along the way, the series traded its signature humor and bold but neatly developed characters for impressive but bloated action sequences: extended chases in narrow streets and open spaces, replete with rooftop leaps, helicopters, planes, motorcycles, and innumerable cars. There is even an escape on horseback through a parade, invading the New York City subway.

With a few exceptions, the body count is composed of expendable characters. The almost bloodless violence borders on heightened slapstick, with square-landed punches usually followed by an attempt at a wry quip. The core villain, Voller, could be straight out of a Hollywood propaganda film; his henchmen are the usual obedient thugs. Helena’s sidekick, Teddy Kumar, vaguely replicates Short Round from the earlier films.

So much of The Dial of Destiny is an homage to Indiana Jones, one through three. While the trio paid tribute to the serials of the 1930s and ‘40s, Dial celebrates the trilogy. As soon as the chords of John Williams’ unmistakable underscore play, Jones saves the day (or at least the moment). But building an entire two hours and twenty minutes on waves of nostalgia comes up, if not empty, certainly less than satisfying. The film’s climax, a bizarre sword-and-sandal sequence, becomes uncomfortably comical and slightly clumsy.

While Ford announced this would be his final performance in the role, he remains in fine form as the curmudgeonly Jones, with his have-hat-and-whip-will-travel presence. He continues making the most incredible situations palatable. (Perhaps the CGI that renders the prologue’s younger Jones is the most extraordinary special effect.) 

Phoebe Waller-Bridge creates a quirky, amoral Helena, a great foil for Jones. She infuses the grifter with a mix of noir femme fatale and girl-next-door charm. Mads Mikkelsen’s Voller succeeds as the typically erudite fascist with requisite lip-curling contempt. Ethann Isidore manages to avoid precociousness as Teddy.

The supporting cast play mostly enlarged cameos. Antonio Banderas twinkles as Renaldo, a boat captain. John Rhys-Davies is delightful in his return as Jones’ old friend, Sallah. Toby Jones strikes the right balance between sanity and madness as Basil. Shaunette Renée Wilson gives one of the more dimensional performances as a government agent. 

While forging no new ground, those looking for another chapter in the saga will be either disappointed with its failure to compete with the earlier films or delighted with its improvement over the fourth, ill-conceived outing. With exotic locations, Teutonic villains, time travel, giant bugs, eel-filled waters, and enough stolen car chases for a dozen films, Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny neither improves nor weakens the franchise. 

Disney recently announced that The Dial of Destiny is the final entry. And while not perfect closure, it is good enough to draw the curtain on four decades of epic adventure.

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

Margot Robbie in a scene from 'Barbie'. Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Entertainment

By Tim Haggerty & Jeffrey Sanzel

This summer’s cinematic offerings range from blockbusters to independents, with Hollywood stars intermingled with well-known character actors and a handful of up-and-coming personalities. 

Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny

First up is the fifth installment of the Indiana Jones franchise: Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny. Three decades in, Harrison Ford continues his adventures three decades in as the titular professor of archeology, Dr. Henry Walton Jones, Jr. Approaching retirement, Indy must don his hat and pick up his whip once more to make sure an ancient and powerful artifact, the Antikythera, doesn’t fall into the wrong hands. Phoebe Waller-Bridge plays his goddaughter.

Rated PG-13 · Release date June 30

Insidious: The Red Door

Patrick Wilson makes his feature directorial debut with The Red Door. Wilson and Rose Byrne appear in this last entry of the Insidious run, in which the original Lambert family attempts to (finally?) exorcise the demons plaguing them. (As with most horror movies of this ilk, demons surprisingly can be resurrected by decent box office returns.)

Rated PG-13 · Release date July 7

Joy Ride

Joy Ride stars Oscar-nominated Stephanie Hsu (Everything Everywhere All at Once) joins Ashley Park, Sherry Cola and Sabrina Wu in a buddy comedy about a quartet of friends who embark on a trek across Asia to help one of their group search for her birth mother. Directed and co-written by Adele Lim (Crazy Rich Asians).

Rated  R · Release date July 7

Mission: Impossible 7

Ving Rhames, Simon Pegg, and Rebecca Ferguson join headliner Tom Cruise in Mission: Impossible—Dead Reckoning, Part One. Ethan Hunt (Cruise) and his team embark on “their most dangerous mission,” tracking down a weapon that threatens humanity in this action-franchise. The claim is that Dead Reckoning, Part Two (due out June 28, 2024) will be the final chapter. 

Rated PG-13 · Release date July 12

Theater Camp

Budding thespians are the target of the satirical Theater Camp which follows the eccentric staff of a rundown theatre camp in upstate New York as they come together with a less-than-theatrically-inclined member of the camp family to keep the program going following the sudden absence of the beloved founder with Dear Evan Hansen’s Ben Platt playing a counselor guiding the campers in their summer’s big show. 

Rated PG-13 · Release date July 14

Oppenheimer

Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer promises to be a dark, powerful, and cutting-edge biopic of the scientist J. Robert Oppenheimer, chronicling his work on the atomic bomb and the repercussions on his professional and personal lives. Cillian Murphy plays Oppenheimer, supported by an extraordinary cast: Emily Blunt, Matt Damon, Robert Downey Jr., Kenneth Branagh, Florence Pugh, Benny Safdie, Gary Oldman, Rami Malek, and Josh Hartnett.

Rated R · Release date July 21

Barbie

Possibly the most anticipated release is Greta Gerwig’s Barbie. With an all-star cast—Margot Robbie, Ryan Gosling, Kate McKinnon, Issa Rae, Will Ferrell, Dua Lipa and many others—the meta-comedy shows a particular Barbie (Robbie) and Ken (Gosling) as they venture into the real world. If the trailers reflect the finished production, it should be one of the summer’s best.

Rated PG-13 · Release date July 21

Haunted Mansion

Haunted Mansion is Disney’s latest foray into bringing amusement park rides to the big screen. A woman and her son enlist a motley crew of so-called spiritual experts to help rid their home of supernatural squatters. All -star cast includes LaKeith Stanfield, Danny DeVito, Owen Wilson, Rosario Dawson, Jared Leto, Winona Ryder, Tiffany Hadish and Jamie Lee Curtis.

Rated  PG-13 · Release date July 28

Talk to Me

The Australian horror film Talk to Me was a hit at the Sundance Film Festival and has already garnered excellent reviews. The traditional plot centers on friends who unwittingly unleash malevolent forces when conjuring spirits with an embalmed hand.

Rated  R · Release date July 28

TMNT: Mutant Mayhem

The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle phenomenon returns with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem. The movie’s revival is due to longtime fans Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg and is computer animated feature emphasizing the “teenage” element of the original comics.

Rated  PG-13 · Release date August 2

Strays

Will Ferrell leads an all-star voice cast (Jamie Foxx, Isla Fisher, Josh Gad, Will Forte, Sofia Vergara) in the adult live-action animal adventure Strays. A naive border terrier (voice of Ferrell), abandoned by his deadbeat owner, decides to trek back home to exact his revenge. 

Rated  R · Release date August 18

Blue Beetle

Those seeking a superhero infusion will embrace Blue Beetle. Cobra Kai’s Xolo Maridueña plays the title character in this DC origin story about a recent college grad who becomes possessed by the Scarab, an ancient alien biotechnological relic, which turns him into the Blue Beetle. With Susan Sarandon and George Lopez.

Not Rated  · Release date August 18

Bottoms

After her dark comedy Shiva Baby, director Emma Seligman’s sophomore outing is Bottoms. Seligman reunites with Shiva Baby’s Rachel Sennott for this teen sex comedy in which two high school seniors create a fight club so they can hook up with cheerleaders.

Not Rated  · Release date August 18

Brief Encounters

Brief Encounters is the summer’s most unusual opening. Filmed in 1967, the movie was banned in the Soviet Union and is finally getting its formal American release. Romanian-born director Kira Muratova (generally identified as Ukranian) sets a romantic triangle amid the casual shortages and shoddy apartments of professional-class Odessa.

Not Rated · Release date August 25

With a mix of comedy, drama, thriller, and pure escape—along with the usual sequels—summer 2023 promises something for every filmgoer. 

This article originally appeared in Summer Times, TBR News Media’s seasonal guide supplement.

Scarlett Johansson in a scene from the film. Photo courtesy of Focus Features

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

Auteur Wes Anderson’s first feature film was Bottle Rocket (1996), based on a short he made in 1994 with Luke and Owen Wilson. His sophomore outing, Rushmore (1998), brought him to prominence. The quirky, line-crossing comedy follows a high school student (Jason Schwartzman) with a crush on a fifth-grade teacher (Olivia Williams).The film featured Bill Murray in the first of nine collaborations with the director. 

With a focus on (and often delight in) the dysfunctional and a sense of heightened reality, Anderson’s works (for which he not only directed by served as writer and producer) have included The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004), The Darjeeling Limited (2007), The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014), and The French Dispatch (2021).

His films have received fifteen Academy Award nominations (winning four, all for The Grand Budapest Hotel). In addition, the works have 20 BAFTA nominations (winning five) and 10 Golden Globes (winning two). 

To discuss Anderson’s latest offering, Asteroid City, two terms are helpful. The first is “meta.” Definitions of “meta” vary slightly. The most accessible is Merriam-Webster’s informal explanation: “showing or suggesting an explicit awareness of itself or oneself as a member of its category; cleverly self-referential.” It goes on to cite various examples:

“The Bar?” she said. “I know the place. Been meaning to drop by. Love the name. Very meta.” — Gillian Flynn

A new comedy about fantasy football, which follows a group of armchair quarterbacks as they try to tackle life. How meta would it be if people started betting on what was going to happen on the show? — TV Guide

Leave it to Larry [David] to contort public desire for a Seinfeld reunion into a meta plot that chronicles his not-necessarily-noble struggle to pull off a Seinfeld reunion. —Dan Snierson

The second term is “shaggy dog story.”

Again, let us turn to Merriam-Webster: “of, relating to, or being a long-drawn-out circumstantial story concerning an inconsequential happening that impresses the teller as humorous or interesting but the hearer as boring and pointless.”

And therein explains the meta-comedy/shaggy dog story Asteroid City, one hundred and five minutes of tedious indulgence that evokes an occasional strained chuckle but otherwise ceaselessly plods to a non-conclusion. 

A Rod Serling-like host (Bryan Cranston) introduces a television show following the creation of a play penned by world-famous writer Conrad Earp (Edward Norton). The black-and-white framing device evokes the earliest days of television. Earp’s play, Asteroid City (presented widescreen in vivid shades of sherbet), tells of the titular desert town hosting a youth astronomy convention. The action shifts between the presentation of the play and the television special. Some might complain that the documentary gimmick interferes with the narrative action. However, this is a minor cavil since the story plays in virtual stagnation.

Anderson creates a story where everything means something, even if it doesn’t. The 1955 world of the Cold War, atom bomb testing, a movie star, singing cowboys, a grieving widower, and a host of odd types and situations parade limply through the convoluted plot. Eventually, the assorted characters end up under government quarantine when an alien briefly appears, stealing a meteorite fragment. 

There is enormous potential for commentary and outrageous, pointed humor between the two worlds- the theatrical and the narrative. However, Anderson misses on almost every count. Even his concept of a three-act play bears no sense of understanding, with its only true reference to the indication of scenes.

He has assembled an all-star cast (many veterans of his films), headed by Jason Schwartzman (as the widower) and Scarlett Johansson (as the movie star), supported by first-rate talents including Tom Hanks, Jeffrey Wright, Tilda Swinton, Adrien Brody, Liev Schreiber, Hope Davis, Matt Dillon, Steve Carell, Hong Chau, Willem Dafoe, and Margot Robbie. 

Sadly, they all give the same performance—or rather, the idea of a performance of a performance. Everyone speaks in an identically flat cadence, lips barely parting like poorly skilled ventriloquists, mouthing pretentious dialogue, wanting—but failing—to be outrageously quippy or metaphorically deep. Rarely has so much talent gone for so little. 

The only interest rests in the two-dimensional visuals, alternating between crisp black-and-white and hyper-rich colors, the work of cinematographer Robert Yeoman. A few whimsical pieces—vending machines that dispense martinis complete with lemon twists or others that offer valueless desert real estate—evoke a weary smile. But again, not enough to sustain the short but interminable running time.

Great art manifests best when the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. What happens when there is no center? When the whole is a hole? Several times, the lead actor complains, “I don’t understand the play.” The director’s response: “But just keep doing it.” Well, perhaps not.

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

Lake, voiced by Ava Hauser; Ember, voiced by Leah Lewis; and Wade, voiced by Mamoudou Athie, in a scene from 'Elemental.' Image courtesy of Disney/Pixar

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

Elemental marks Pixar’s twenty-seventh animated feature. The most successful include the four Toy Story movies, Finding Nemo, Monsters, Inc., Cars and its sequels, WALL-E, Coco, Inside Out, and most recently, the unusual but fascinating Lightyear. 

Director Peter Sohn pitched the idea for Elemental to Pixar after the release of The Good Dinosaur (2015). The son of immigrants, Sohn took inspiration from his childhood in the culturally diverse 1970s New York City, as well as romantic films such as Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967), Moonstruck (1987), and Amélie (2001). 

In a 2022 Variety interview, Sohn explained: “Maybe it’s because when I was a kid, I really didn’t appreciate or understand what it meant to be an immigrant, to come to the U.S., and all the hard work that [my parents] did to give my brother and me our lives […] On the other side, I married someone that wasn’t Korean, and there was a lot of culture clash with that in my world. And that brought to me to this idea of finding opposites. And the question of what if fire fell in love with water came.”

While perhaps not the most brilliant of the studio’s output (Toy Story, Coco), Elemental is a surprisingly clever, heartfelt story of opposites uniting. Set in a world of the elements—fire, water, earth, and air—daughter of Fireland immigrants, Ember Lumen, becomes involved with water element Wade Ripple, an easily flustered water inspector. 

After Ember causes a plumbing accident in her father’s convenience store, The Fireplace, Wade appears in the soaked basement. An adventure ensues throughout Element City, with the unlikely pair joining forces to solve the immediate situation, then becoming involved in solving a greater problem within the community. Ember learns to curtail her destructive temper, but equally as important, she learns to speak her truth.

The film tackles multiple issues with style and finesse. The story’s foundation focuses on honoring one’s culture and the sacrifices often entailed. But it also celebrates the individual’s pursuit of personal happiness. Much of the screenplay (by John Hoberg, Kat Likkel, and Brenda Hsueh) addresses bias and hostility regarding the treatment of immigrants. Boldly shown in the prologue, Ember’s parents, newly arrived, are shut out of living quarters controlled by people of earth, air, and water. There is also the issue of the burden often placed on first-generation children to continue what their parents have started. The film smartly addresses this with great sensitivity without resorting to preaching.

Ultimately, Elemental is a traditional rom-com, with all the hurdles and pitfalls, and even a dating montage—but an entirely unique setting. (This more adult slant in the film lost some of the younger audience members who became restless as the film progressed.) However, the gloriously exquisite animation is a joy, the anthropomorphizing creating a perfect blending of human and “other.” The visual puns are matched by the cleverly ever-present, sometimes subtle—and often not so subtle—wordplay.

While not as starry as many of the Pixar catalogue, the vocal talent is first-rate. Leah Lewis embodies Ember’s struggle with wry wit and genuine charm. Mamoudou Athie presents Wade’s growth from mildly neurotic underachiever to hero, never losing his kind center. Ronnie del Carmen and Shila Vosough Ommi play Ember’s parents with the right blend of love and whimsy, arcing from frustration to acceptance. 

Catherine O’Hara is delightful as Wade’s mother, Brook Ripple, featured in a hilarious dinner party where Ember is both welcomed and mildly embarrassed by the overly and overtly emotional Wade clan. This scene leads to Ember’s pointed comment on Wade’s rich-kid-follow-your-heart family, said with vexation tinged with a hint of jealousy. In what amounts to a cameo, Wendi McLendon-Covey’s Gale Cumulus, Wade’s employer, makes a bigger-than-life impression in an appropriately grand performance.

Starting with the premise “Elements don’t mix,” touching on the bonds and struggles of parents and children, building to a love that crosses boundaries, and culminating with a message of acceptance and love, Elemental may never become a classic, but it sits easily—and proudly—in the Pixar family.

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

*A bonus, “Carl’s Date,” precedes the feature. The Up short marks one of the final works of Ed Asner, who passed away in 2021. The sweet piece shows a gentler side of the curmudgeonly Carl as he prepares for a date while being advised by the “talking” dog, Dug. It is an ideal complement to the romantic elements of Elemental. 

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

Sarah Beth Durst’s over two dozen books include writings for children, teenagers, and adults, many in the fantasy genre. Among the prolific author’s works are The Bone Maker, The Deepest Blue, The Stone Girl’s Story, and Even and Odd (all reviewed in this paper). With The Lake House (HarperTeen), Durst has crafted a first-rate young adult thriller.

Author Sarah Beth Durst

The novel follows three teenagers sent to an “enrichment retreat” in Maine, a place to “learn new skills, have new experiences, make new friends.” Claire Dreyer is the center: “Claire excelled at three things: ballet, homework, and identifying all the ways there were to die in any given situation.” Claire’s self-awareness is both insightful and crippling. “[She] thought longingly of her bedroom with all her books and a door that closed everyone out.” Ultimately, she hopes the opportunity to be “a new Claire here, a never-before-seen version of herself who made friends easily and didn’t freak out about every little thing.”

Two contemporaries join Claire. The pessimistic Reyva Chaudhari doesn’t “do performative emotions.” But, after some prodding, she discloses her passion: Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) fighting—an endeavor that turns out to be of great value. Reyva’s wry humor and tendency to find amusement in the darker possibilities contrasts with Claire’s need for constant order. Mariana Ortiz-Rodriguez, a Californian transplant, is the perkiest of the three. Fascinated by cars and engines, her skills become vital in the climax. 

All three share complex backgrounds with various parental pressures and complicated home lives. Their parents make choices they perceive as good for their offspring but often fail consideration of their children’s emotional needs. As they venture forward, the girls reveal secrets, voicing fears they have never previously shared. Their vulnerability strengthens their bond, allowing for a genuine evolution of well-placed trust. 

Insightfully—and with no malice—Mariana evaluates Reyva: “My guess: your parents have opinions on what you’re allowed to feel, as well as what you do, and so you respond by controlling what you show the world. Do you want us to think nothing phases you? Fact is, you care a lot, and you’re terrified that someone will realize it and use it against you. Like, you know, I’m doing right now.”

The girls arrive at the end of June, planning to remain through the end of August. A young man, Jack, takes them to the island on his boat, leaving them on the shore. They hike the short distance up a trail to discover the Lake House burned, with the charred remains still smoking. With no cell service or communication with the outside world, the trio contemplates their short- and long-term fates. They discover a dead body in the surrounding woods: a woman dead from a gunshot from an unknown assailant. 

Secluded in a national forest, miles from civilization, they face natural trials: dehydration, starvation, insects, and weather. Additionally, they must accept that they are not alone and are targets of one or even two dangerous island inhabitants. 

Eventually, Durst introduces a fascinating supernatural element. The malevolence merges a camp ghost legend and the concept of “the sins of the father.” Their struggle combines “the strain of the lack of food, and the constant supply of fear.” 

Durst quickly ratchets up the tension, plunging into a face-paced narrative fraught with challenges and revelations. Fortunately, she writes about people, not tropes. As in all her work, the characters have dimension and texture—recognizable but individual. 

While The Lake House is a thriller, it portrays perseverance and rising to extraordinary circumstances. The story lives not in the isolation of Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet or the savagery of William Golding’s The Lord of the Flies. It avoids the world of Mean Girls and Robinson Crusoe. Instead, the book celebrates the ability to thrive on mutual reliance. The mantra is “stick together, and we’ll survive,” and Claire, Reyva, and Mariana grow because they see themselves through the eyes of others—companions who value their potential.

The Lake House offers three strong young women facing a range of demons, both personal and real, in a location that is both doom and destiny. Finally, they learn, “I am enough exactly as I am.” Durst, a gifted storyteller, neatly balances thrills and introspection in this entertaining and engaging story.

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Sarah Beth Durst is the award-winning author of over twenty books for kids, teens, and adults. She lives in Stony Brook with her husband, her children, and her ill-mannered cat. Pick up a copy of The Lake House online at www.amazon.com or www.barnesandnoble.com. For more information, visit www.sarahbethdurst.com.

Halle Bailey stars as 'The Little Mermaid'. Photo courtesy of Disney

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

Live-action adaptations of Disney cartoons have become commonplace. Cinderella, Aladdin, Dumbo, Mulan, Peter Pan and Wendy, and The Lion King have been reviewed in this paper. Unfortunately, the results have been predominantly tepid. 

The Little Mermaid (1989) remains the gold standard for the cartoon musicals of Disney’s animated renaissance. Written and directed by John Musker and Ron Clements, the film was funny, imaginative, and beautifully designed. The Alan Menken – Howard Ashman songs remain the strongest in the Disney canon, and the film received two Academy Awards: Best Original Score and Best Original Song (“Under the Sea”). The first-rate voice talent included Jodi Benson (Ariel), Christopher Daniel Barnes (Prince Eric), Pat Carroll (Ursula), Kenneth Mars (King Triton), and Samuel E. Wright (Sebastian, the crab). The film became the first animated feature to earn over $100 million.

The 2008 Broadway musical, with a book by Douglas Wright, limped through a year-and-a-half run but found more success in regional, community, and school productions. In 2019, The Wonderful World of Disney broadcast The Little Mermaid Live, an interesting hybrid, where the film was projected and interwoven with live musical performances.

The source for the various Mermaids is Hans Christian Andersen’s 1836 Danish fairy tale. No incarnation considers the tale’s more serious elements, which focus on the nature of the soul building to a moral of redemption. Andersen’s tale ends with the mermaid’s death and ultimate spiritual transcendence, reflecting a more religious denouement. The Disney interpretation is far more prosaic, focusing on earthly love based on (mostly) physical attraction, and struggles to find a message of empowerment. The narrative is one of sacrificing everything—including your voice—for the love of a man you do not know.

Now Broadway director-choreographer Rob Marshall (who helmed the first-rate Chicago film) directs David Magee’s live-action adaptation, a revision of the Clements-Musker screenplay, swollen to 135 minutes, a full 52 minutes over the 1998 running time. The extended length is the major cavil in an otherwise effective film.

Javier Bardem as King Triton. Photo courtesy of Disney

Once again, Ariel is one of the seven daughters of Triton, ruler of the sea. She is fascinated by the world above: “I wanna be where the people are,” sings Ariel in the anthem “Part of Your World.” She becomes entranced by Prince Eric, who she sees onboard a ship that runs afoul of a storm. She saves him, falling in love with the handsome young man. When her father learns of her feelings, his rage drives him to destroy her collection of human artifacts. Distraught, Ariel makes a deal with Ursula, the sea witch. In exchange for her voice, Ariel will be given legs and three days to make Eric fall in love and kiss her. If she fails, she becomes a prize addition to the sea witch’s nightmarish garden.

The story follows the earlier version, with additional background and minor adjustments. It is twenty-one years since the royal family rescued Eric from a shipwreck. Unlike his late adopted father, the king, Eric wants to be a ruler for and among the people and venture beyond the island. In addition, there is a clear suspicion between the land and sea dwellers. The queen is vocal in her distrust of the “sea gods.” Both communities blame the other for the damage of shipwrecks. The political overtones resulting from this friction is  lost for most of the film, only to return at the end. 

A scene from ‘The Little Mermaid’. Photo courtesy of Disney

A scene in the marketplace demonstrates the joy of legs/feet/dancing (and an opportunity for a cameo by original Ariel Benson). Additionally, Ursula is Triton’s younger sister, upping the revenge quotient. One major—and welcomed change: as part of the spell, Ariel forgets that she must kiss Eric. This enables a more organic growth of their love. 

Most of the new Mermaid follows the original, often shot-for-shot, and here it succeeds best. The shortcomings are few: Truncating both “Poor Unfortunate Souls” and “Kiss the Girl” is disappointing, and the few new songs (written with Lin-Manuel Miranda) add little. The creation of Ariel’s crab, bird, and fish cohorts have an odd flatness, but eventually one gets used to them.

Marshall makes the musical highlight, “Under the Sea,” less whimsical but joyous in a new way. The director utilized Alvin Ailey dancers as templates for creating this photoreal experience. (Much of the film hovers between Jacques Cousteau and CGI.)

Scuttle (voiced by Awkafina), Flounder (voiced by Jacob Tremblay) and Ariel (Halle Bailey), in a scene from the film. Photo courtesy of Disney

Halle Bailey is a luminous Ariel. With a beautiful voice and a knowing presence, she elevates and dimensionalizes the mermaid. Whether singing or just communicating with her eyes, each moment and every gesture ring true. She is a worthy addition to the pantheon of princesses. Jonah Hauer-King makes for a pleasant, if mild, Prince Eric. Given the strength of Bailey’s Ariel, this seems intentional. Melissa McCarthy, channeling Pat Carroll, is a triumph, perfectly balancing traditional Disney villainy with contemporary side comments. Javier Bardem appropriately broods as Ariel’s frustrated father, lending a Tevye quality to his Triton. 

Noma Dumezweni, as the newly introduced Queen Selina, seems like a benign refugee from Bridgerton; however, Dumezweni is a strong actor and brings warmth and strength to her limited role. Art Malik humanizes Grimsby, Eric’s keeper and confidant. Daveed Diggs’ delightful Sebastian offers a less neurotic but highly entertaining crab. Awkwafina finds a new and fun approach to the chatterbox Scuttle, no longer a seagull but a diving bird. Special mention goes to Jessica Alexander, whose brief appearance as Vanessa, Ursula’s human alter ego, easily shifts from charming to maniacal. 

From the pastoral underwater opening to the Clash of the Titans climax, The Little Mermaid does what few Disney remakes have done: it rightfully earns a place next to its dazzling original. Rated PG, the film is now playing in local theaters.