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'Captain Sedition'

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

Author K.C. Fusaro

K.C. Fusaro offers a compelling work of historical fiction with Captain Sedition: The Death of the Age of Reason. It opens in England, 1774. Joethan Wolfe barely survives a duel due to the duplicity of the woman who caused it. While he recovers, the narrative reveals Wolfe as an American ex-pat, working as a courier throughout Europe. Fourteen years earlier, his father had exiled him to England, resulting in their complete estrangement. Wolfe is a for-hire, with no particular scruples, a lothario, a charmer, and a bit of a profligate. Now, he lives in a house with none other than Benjamin Franklin — referred to with sly affection as “The Doctor.” 

Fusaro establishes his approach in the portrait of Franklin, one of the most famous and beloved Americans. He removes Franklin’s halo: “Benjamin Franklin was concurrently the most selfish and the most generous man Wolfe had ever known.” Franklin is miserly with lighting candles due to his difficult upbringing and a candlemaker father. Franklin is calculating, with a fondness for living that is contagious, but he is also Machiavellian. He is present only in the earliest chapters but the portrait establishes Fusaro’s adeptness with even minor characters’ backgrounds and motivations, heralding the rich, engaging tapestry that follows.

When Wolfe learns of his father’s arrest, he spends his last eight year’s earnings acquiring a royal pardon. He sets off on a harrowing trip from Portsmouth to Nova Scotia to the colonies. He intends to deliver various missives to the Tory government in the states. Included is an important document to be placed directly into Governor-General Thomas Gage’s hands, the highest-ranking British official in North America. But Wolfe’s real motive is to seek out and aid his parent. 

Wolfe is an interesting case. As an American abroad, he has found his sympathies lie with the British. But he is truly a man without a country. His ambivalence is unusual in this genre, which usually leans towards the rebels. His objectivity makes him a reliable and intriguing narrator;  each interaction embroils him in a country amid monumental and violent change.

The adventure takes Wolfe from Canada to Boston and then onto Connecticut and Long Island. As he searches for his father, he encounters the best and the worst of both sides. Wolfe’s goal is to stay neutral. However, by saving a man on the road, he lands in the two-sided conflict. While Wolfe makes choices based on his better instincts, the result is that every action becomes political.

One of the most powerful takeaways is the reminder that the Revolutionary War was the first Civil War. Though perceived as the British versus the Americans, the truth is that it encompassed neighbor against neighbor, citizen against citizen. Many had fought side-by-side with the Redcoats against the French. But in 1775, these allegiances are history. This constant state of unrest manifests in both ferocious loyalty and questionable actions.

The British Government doesn’t respect the Americans: “‘They conceive to govern these colonies from across the ocean with no say from we who actually live here. They could not show us more contempt did they spit on us.” Wolfe accepts the reality that “in his experience, all Englishmen viewed Americans as lesser creatures and the British aristocracy’s disdain for Americans was the worst. By their lights, disturbances in far-flung colonies were to be expected and dealt with, quickly and decisively. The better sort of Britons had no more tolerance for rebellious slaves in the Indies.”

Also revealed is the eagerness to fight. “‘You can’t wait for the fighting to start, can you?’ Wolfe said. Tim did him the honor of not pretending otherwise. He backed his ardor with a concise argument based on the English Constitution and especially the Massachusetts Colony Charter, but in the end, Tim wanted to fight.” The world of 1775 is dangerous and roiling, a powder keg in every sense.

The shadow of slavery pervades. Wolfe regards the ability to own slaves and yet fight for one’s own freedom as a gross stroke of hypocrisy. Says one militia commander, “‘… the people are entitled to life, liberty, and the means of sustenance by the Grace of God and without leave of the King.’ In Wolfe’s estimation, the appearance of a slave immediately after rendered the words hollow.”

The book is peopled with an extraordinary cast of characters, expertly blending the historical with the fictional: All seem real, fallible, and wholly dimensional, enforcing Fusaro’s premise that no side is completely right or wrong. Wolfe plays Devil’s Advocate with “‘… how long can Government suppress a population on the other side of the ocean against its will?’” followed by “‘We live in an age of reason. To not consider both sides would be unreasonable.’”

Fusaro’s research is extraordinary. His knowledge of everything from clothing to customs, from mercantile to mercenaries, is exceptional. Whether describing a ragamuffin tailing Wolfe, a difficult voyage, or a simple meal, he paints vivid and detailed pictures. He breathes life into the story with details that elevate the narrative. He has also found a syntax in language that honors the period but avoids sounding stilted or contrived. He also calls attention to the complicated religious landscape and the intolerance it bred within the communities.

The book’s climax is April 19, 1775: The Battle of Lexington and Concord. He unflinchingly describes the carnage —“the raw savagery.” It is in this clash that Wolfe must choose sides —“to declare.” It is a hard lesson for Wolfe, but he has reached the point of no return. He is torn but accepts the reality. 

It is a powerful ending to the first volume of a proposed three-book series. One year from the beginning of Wolfe’s journey, he has returned to his place of birth, witnessed and experienced the change in his homeland, and accepted his fate. We, like Wolfe, will await what comes next.

————————————————-

Author K.C. Fusaro grew up in Setauket, and after many years away, recently returned to take up residence in Rocky Point. Best known for plying the rock and roll trade with the band Body Politics, along the way to writing fiction there were excursions into film, theater and television, both in front of the camera and behind the scenes.

Pick up a copy of Captain Sedition at Book Revue in Huntington, barnesandnoble.com or amazon.com. 

The film follows Belinda Lane and her quest to find her daughter's killer. Photo from Netflix

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

catfish (noun)

cat·fish | \ ˈkat-ˌfish  \

Definition of catfish

1. any of an order (Siluriformes) of chiefly freshwater stout-bodied scaleless bony fishes having long tactile barbels

2. a person who sets up a false personal profile on a social networking site for fraudulent or deceptive purposes

— Merriam-Webster Dictionary

On February 24, 2006, in Riverside, California, twenty-four-year-old Crystal Theobald was fatally shot in the head while riding in a car with her boyfriend, Juan Patlan, and her brother Justin. (Patlan was hit in the abdomen but recovered.) The case would not be fully resolved until January 2020. The investigation revealed that the attack was due to mistaken identity. The shooter, a member of the gang 5150, mistook the car’s occupants for members of MD, a rival gang.

The driving force behind the Netflix documentary is Crystal’s mother, Belinda Lane, and her vow to find her daughter’s killers. Her use of MySpace to collect information is central to Why Did You Kill Me? 

At first, Belinda, who was in the car ahead of her children, identified the shooter from a picture and selects him in a lineup. But it turned out that the boy had a legitimate alibi and was released, making her an unreliable witness. Following this, Lane used MySpace to track down those involved. 

Crystal Theobald was only 24 years old when she was murdered by a 5150 gang member. Photo from Netflix

Lane’s niece, Jamie McIntyre, began with a fake profile — party girl “Rebecca” — selecting a random photo she found on the internet. At that time, MySpace was relatively new as a social media outlet and quite popular, with sixty-six million users. “My typing was acting,” said McIntyre, who spent every day after school until the early hours of the morning on the site.

Through the Rebecca profile, they connected with various 5051 gang members. Lane decided that McIntyre should build another fake MySpace profile for “Angel,” using Crystal’s photo. Eventually, McIntyre became overwhelmed by the experience. “Making someone fall in love with someone who’s dead is not a good feeling inside.” Pretending to be her every day was a double-edged sword. It kept Crystal’s memory alive and close to her; yet it was a constant reminder of what happened. 

When the toll became too much for McIntyre, Lane took over. She created a plan to lure and shoot members of 5150 at “An End of the World Party,” scheduled for June 6, 2006 (6/06/06). “I made a plan to go murder people,” said Lane. But the day before it was to occur, she confronted the driver, William Sotelo, who was infatuated with the non-existent Angel. Lane sent messages beginning with “I know who you are” and “Do you love me?” on to “Then say it,” ending with “then why did you kill me?” Sotelo disappeared and would not resurface for over ten years. Lane gave up the MySpace ruse and released the passwords to the case’s detective, Rick Wheller.

Amid this, the police interrogated William and Manuel Lemus, brothers who had been in the back of Sotelo’s car. They were reluctant to cooperate until members of their gang burned their parents’ home. The pair then turned over the shooter, Julio Heredia. It was not until 2016 that Sotelo, the final perpetrator, was located in Mexico, extradited, tried, and sentenced.

What runs alongside the entire catfishing expedition are revelations about Belinda Lane and her family. Their reluctance to trust Detective Wheeler was rooted in the family’s extensive run-ins with the law. The Lane-Theobold family had “issues back in the day,” including fighting, arrests, and drug issues. Most had been in and out of jail. Belinda admits to being a meth user who became a drug dealer. “I sold a lot. I did a lot of damage out there.”

As she gathered intel through MySpace, Lane did everything she could, including trying to get them deported — calling the FBI and ICE. She contacted members of the Casa Blanca gang, inciting them against 5051. She readily admits that she caused all kinds of violence. As one close friend described her, Belinda was “psycho,” “crazy,” and “insane.” Also, the Lane sons wanted to “handle it their own way.”

Crystal Theobald was only 24 years old when she was murdered by a 5150 gang member. Photo by Netflix

Why Did You Kill Me? feels no different than most shows found on the True Crime Network. Ominous music accompanies quick cuts. Sound effects are heightened — including a heart monitor ceasing its beeping, indicating Crystal’s death. Footage of driving to various areas fleshes out the voiceovers. There is a model of the neighborhood where the killing took place, recreated in miniatures. Throughout, various cast members manipulate the cars in the street. Harrowing footage recovered from the security cameras outside a grocery store shows the wounded and dying Crystal in her brother’s arms. Archival family videos and photos are interspersed.

While we get background about the family, we never know who Crystal was. The facts shared are few: she was married and had won $38,000 on a slot machine. The couple used the winnings to open a heating company. At the time of Crystal’s murder, they were estranged, but no other information on their lives is offered, other than her husband had fallen back into drugs. After being mentioned at the outset, her current boyfriend, Juan Patlan, is conspicuously absent from the film. 

While we know that the family had its plethora of problems, Crystal’s life and challenges are never addressed. 

The gang crises and turf wars are touched upon but also not fully addressed. To give greater depth to the problem and tragic consequences, the creators could have developed this background. No history or explanation is given regarding the origins and presence of the Los Angeles 5150. A nod is given to the investigation into Heredia’s history — revealing drugs, alcohol, and neglect that drove him into gang life. But it does nothing to address the fact that this ruthless, complicated world caused Crystal’s tragic death.

Late in the film, Belinda says, “Justice and revenge. Yes, they are just about the same thing. One means you can stay in the free world, and the other means you can go sit in the defendant’s chair. And that’s a line I almost crossed myself.” Her self-reflection is one of the most powerful moments in the entire documentary. 

Lane’s statement contains the kernel of what the film could have been: something valuable, insightful, and cathartic. As it stands, Why Did You Kill Me? is just one in a long line of sensationalist rubbernecking of today’s violence. Should we marvel at the sleuthing? Delight in the internet as a tool? Find entertainment in Belinda’s eccentricity? There is no call to action, no reflection, and no lesson. Sadly, the result is a simple story of a life senselessly ended.

Why Did You Kill Me? is now streaming on Netflix.

'Nomadland' is TBR News Media's movie reviewer's pick for Best Picture this year.

By Jeffrey Sanzel

On Sunday, April 25, the 93rd Academy Awards will be held at the Dolby Theatre at the Hollywood & Highland Center. The show will air live on ABC beginning at 8 p.m. Producer Steven Soderbergh has promised this year’s presentation to be completely different. With no live audience, COVID restrictions, and a host of other challenges, he promises an experience like no other Oscars. Okay. Sure. Whatever. But it still comes down to who wins and who loses.

Whether you’ve seen one or most or (the unicorn of movie-watching) all of the nominees, you have an opinion. Often, it’s the negative: “I can’t believe [insert title/actor/director/costume designer here] was nominated! That was the worst [movie/acting/direction/costume design].” “Did you see it?” you will ask. “Well, no. But I heard it was …” 

Heated discussions, office pools, gatherings, and myriad Facebook posts consume the battleground. And, of course, everything comes down to personal taste. (I have a weakness for large manor houses where they iron the newspapers. Thank you, Downton Abbey.) Here is a very personal assessment. And while I don’t know if it will find agreement, hopefully there won’t be too much gnashing of teeth.

It is a tight race for Best Actor in a Leading Role, with five worthy candidates. Riz Ahmed has one of those visceral roles as a drummer losing his hearing in Sound of Metal. On the opposite end of the spectrum is Steven Yeun’s young father in Minari; it is a small, quiet performance of deep nuance with a delicate mix of pain and hope in every moment. Anthony Hopkins hits all the right notes as a contrasting patriarch in The Father. Hopkins presents a devastating look at the torments of dementia. While there are glimpses of kindness — particularly in the final moments — it is a colder performance. Gary Oldman is exceptional in all he does; he is a true chameleon. But he won in 2018 for his Winston Churchill. Screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz in Mank, working on Citizen Kane, while engaging, doesn’t compare in gravitas. Chadwick Boseman’s musician Levee in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom was extraordinary, building up to one of the finest performed monologues in cinematic history. The award — sadly posthumous — is his — and rightfully so.

Best Actress in a Leading Role offers a range of possibilities. Viola Davis is mesmerizing as Ma Rainey; her performance is jaw-dropping in scope, fire, and nuance, and she is almost unrecognizable. That makes for a winning combination. What might cancel out Davis is Andra Day’s competing performance as another musical icon in The United States vs. Billie Holiday. Both Vanessa Kirby and Frances McDormand (always a favorite) give powerful performances that dominated their films — Pieces of a Woman and Nomadland, respectively. Carey Mulligan — also seen giving a completely different performance in The Dig — is both harrowing and enigmatic in her portrait of revenge in Promising Young Woman; while not the kind of role that usually attracts high-profile awards, she could challenge Davis. But McDormand is still in the running with her multi-dimensional turn. This category is truly anyone’s game.

Equally hard to predict is Best Actor in a Supporting Role. While voters love a comedic actor in a serious role, Sacha Baron Cohen (The Trial of the Chicago 7) is the least likely to win. As Sound of Metal didn’t get the viewers, this would also put Paul Raci at the back of the pack. With the remaining three — Daniel Kaluuya and LaKeith Stanfield in Judas and the Black Messiah and Leslie Odom, Jr. in One Night in Miami — it is Kaluuya as Black Panther leader Fred Hampton who will most likely take the trophy. There is always the possibility of a split vote with Stanfield, which could move Odom, Jr. or even Raci’s Viet Nam vet to the front.

As for the Best Actress in a Supporting Role nominees, Amanda Seyfried brings a hint of complexity to Mank’s Marion Davies, but it gets lost in the overall clutter of the film. And while Maria Bakalova has garnered accolades for Borat 2, the movie has divided audiences. Olivia Colman is beautifully measured as the daughter in The Father and, in another season, might have won. The oft-nominated Glenn Close does some of her best work in Hillbilly Elegy; like Oldman, she is unrecognizable. However, the film itself had so much political backlash that unfortunately makes a win very unlikely. I predict Youn Yuh-jung is going to receive the Oscar. Her grandmother in Minari is a wealth of surprises, eschews every expectation, and is the film’s heartbeat.

I am reluctant to pick a winner for Best Director as I have always felt the award is tied to the Best Picture (or perhaps should be). Unlikely are Thomas Vinterberg for Another Round and David Fincher for Mank. Lee Isaac Chung’s work might be too subtle in Minari, lacking in grand strokes. Emerald Fennell has done an exceptional job shaping Promising Young Woman, but I think the award will go to Chloé Zhao for the heartfelt guidance she has given to Nomadland.

Of the eight nominees for Best Picture, The Father is least likely to win. While memorable, its stage roots show. Sound of Metal has not gotten the traction that it needs to move up in the ranks. Mank is probably too much of an insider’s look into the film business. Promising Young Woman’s black comedy edge may be too much for much of its audience. The Trial of the Chicago 7 and Judas and the Black Messiah overlap in their portrayal of a time of political turmoil and intersect with portrayals of the murdered Black Panther Hampton. They are both historical and yet very timely, with the latter film being a stronger possibility. But it is the devastating, universal Nomadland (recipient of the Golden Globe for Best Drama) that will most likely take this year’s crown.

And that ends a very narrow, biased, wholly random assessment of a few of the upcoming Academy Award categories. Time — and Sunday night — will tell.

(Oh, and while there are some very fine works nominated for Best Animated Feature, my money is completely on Soul.)

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

‘So many people ask why I photograph abandonment. To me, it’s more than the decay or what people leave behind. Rather, it is the why … It’s the when. It’s the how. Sometimes we can research it. And other times we have to imagine it.’   from the Preface of exploring HOME by Holly Hunt

Author Holly Hunt

Reviewing any book of art is the epitome of subjectivity, especially one that showcases the work and not the process or biography. The millions of words that have been written about painting, sculpture, and photography do not approach seeing the work itself. 

That said, I will try to find words to describe the visceral, sometimes disturbing, but always extraordinary photographic work of Holly Hunt, presented in her collection exploring HOME. 

The locations range from outside houses to inside churches, against brick walls or open to the heavens; the subjects are as varied as the images. Each one speaks for itself, but together create a breathless whole. It also helps that she is a strong writer, and the accompanying text only enhances the pictures. Her prose is both lyrical and raw, exposing her soul every bit as much as the visuals she has captured. Sometimes the narrative directly references the photo; other times it is a more elusive reflection of the tone. And, in perhaps the richest complementary pieces, they somehow stand apart and yet together.

All artists are adventurers of one sort or  another; they embark on journeys into the mind’s eye and soul. These are dangerous waters. Hunt takes this one step further. “… fear is a strange thing. It can hold you in its embrace and prevent you from flying, or it can propel you forward and set you free. Exploring set me free. And my camera was my security blanket.” Her camera was also a  key, a window, and wings. 

Whether sharing her mother’s struggle with cancer as well as her own illness, tales of bullying, or details of her love life, her efforts are ferociously, unapologetically personal. These are not bowls of fruit, sunsets, and landscapes. They are her heartaches and triumphs laid bare — fearless and challenging.

She is part alchemist, part phoenix. Ache and absence become imagery; art rises from the ashes. And occasionally, wry humor winks out in unusual places (“The Skirt,” “The Princess,” “The Prayer,” “The Gifts,” “The Cake”). 

There are intriguing juxtapositions. Discussion of an unconsummated soulmate shows against a house whose façade doesn’t quite mask the deconstruction behind. The sense of loss on this bright day creates a contrast with her prone figure on the front walk. In the curve of a back, she captures anguish. Each picture represents an event and a life lesson: in pain, in loss, in epiphany. 

Each will speak differently to the individual viewer. On a personal level, these moments demand attention:

The muted colors and forced perspective of “The Umbrella” perfectly evoking the intersection of dream and reality.

The peeling paint, subtly unsettling, above the fireplace mantel in “The Demon.”

The embodiment of the word “seems” as her figure hangs over a bathtub in “The Bath.”

“The Some Bunny” engulfed in a chair, almost obscured, passively peeking around the door frame.

The coldness of the steps in “The Letter.”

The prideful blank verse of “The Haters” versus the horror of disappearance.

The contrast of the light from without and the darkness within in “The Stained Glass.”

A ceiling that is celestially damaged in “The Voiceless.”

The whimsy of the story versus the terror in the image of “The Shadow Puppets.”

The harshness against sparseness in “The Grief.”

A sky both blue and icy in “The Farewell.”

The play of light through the window of “The Drive Home.”

The nostalgia of intimate chaos in “The Crafter.”

The absolute pain of isolation in “The Game.”

The weight of the “The Anger.”

The barren loss of “The Records.”

The sun bleaching the emptiness of “The Theater.”

The starkness of “The Monster.”

“The Diner” echoes pastoral into pain.

Or that which is indescribable in “The Memory.”

In the many self-portraits, she obscures part of or even her entire face. And yet, she is in no way less present or unseen. The directness makes itself known. She is not hiding; she is revealing. 

From sadness and grief — and the act of grieving — Hunt faces the shadows that looms. She also embraces the light that emerges from that darkness. It is not so much about resilience or survival; it is more than that. Time and again, she finds hope. Her final words: “This is only the beginning. I promise.”

These photos will haunt you. But, in the best sense. You won’t be able to look away.

Pick up your copy of exploring HOME at www.hollyhuntphotography.com and check out Holly Hunt’s current exhibition, “Abandoned Beauties,” at The Cheese Patch, 20 East Main Street, Patchogue, through May 30. Island Kava, 73 North Ocean Ave., Patchogue will also present a photography exhibit by Hunt this summer.

Olivia Colman and Anthony Hopkins in a scene from the film. Photo courtesy of SONY Pictures

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

The first question Anne asks: “What happened?” The Father’s inciting conflict centers on the exit of a home healthcare worker who has quit after being threatened by the man in her charge. When Anne confronts her father, he falsely deflects: “She was stealing.” 

So begins the powerful, twisting course of The Father, as much a suspense thriller as it is a study of dementia. That question of “What happened?” becomes both thesis and driving force for all that follows.

French playwright Florian Zeller makes a sure-handed, sensitive directorial debut with an adaptation of his award-winning play. The Father garnered accolades for its 2014 Paris premiere; international stagings followed in forty-five countries. The Manhattan Theatre Club production received a Tony nomination for Best Play. Its star Frank Langella won the Tony Award for Best Actor.

Imogen Poots, Olivia Colman and Anthony Hopkins in a scene from the film. Photo courtesy of SONY Pictures

Zeller has co-written the screenplay with Christopher Hampton; Hampton is responsible for the English translation used in the London, Australian, and New York stage productions. Occasionally, the dialogue sounds like elevated text. The screenplay carries a tone found in the works of many language-centric playwrights (Harold Pinter, Tom Stoppard, Simon Gray, etc.). Whether this reflects Zeller’s writing or Hampton’s adaptation is hard to judge. For the most part, the style works in this dream/nightmare world.

Anthony Hopkins plays eighty-year-old retired engineer Anthony (André in the play but renamed here for its star). He lives in his London flat, looked after by his daughter, Anne. But is it his flat or hers? Is she married or has she met someone and is moving to Paris? These are the ever-shifting questions as his reality is never fully grounded. 

Layered onto this is that two different actors of similar appearance play Anne —predominantly Olivia Colman, but also Olivia Williams. Also, two actors appear as her husband Paul: Rufus Sewell and Mark Gatiss. Laura, a new home healthcare provider who reminds Anthony of his other daughter, Laura, is played by Imogen Poots. Until she isn’t. The apartment itself is never quite the same, changing in the placement of a lamp or a new chair’s appearance. Morning and evening don’t so much blend as occur simultaneously. 

Anthony obsesses his watch’s whereabouts; if a bit on the nose, the point is his loss of time. Sometimes the action suggests several days; other times, it feels that a single day is playing over. The same uncomfortable dinner seems to recur, but always with slightly different details. The plot is simple; the execution is complex as it goes deeper into Anthony’s ever-shifting sense of his world.

Hopkins’ work has bridged the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, including stage, screen, and television. He has had an unmatched body of work. Performances include the Academy Awarding-winning turn as The Silence of the Lambs’ insidious Hannibal Lecter, the rigidly oblivious butler Stevens in Remains of the Day, the deeply felt C.S. Lewis in Shadowlands, and his monumental King Lear in 2018 (a good parallel reference to The Father). He has delivered indelible performances for over six decades. 

His work in The Father is no less than brilliant. He brings raw depth to Anthony’s frustration and growing paranoia. Flashes of anger followed by clumsy recovery present with a frail honesty: “Everything is fine … the world is turning.” Moments of childlike abandonment — “What’s going to become of me?” — are followed by accusations and berating tirades. Hopkins makes Anthony’s loneliness and desolation palpable. Whether listening to opera or struggling to identify his son-in-law, Hopkins’ eyes are a window to Anthony’s pain.

In a heartbreaking moment, he cannot figure out how to put on a sweater, and then allows Anne to put him in it. In an oasis of clarity, he says, “Thank you for everything.” It offers a glimpse of who he might have been. But what always bubbles below the surface is the question of which is the real Anthony. Is it this kind, appreciative man or the vitriolic and hyper-articulate charmer who wins over Laura with an improvised tap dance? Hopkins, the actor, seamlessly navigates these shifts.

Olivia Colman’s conflicted daughter Anne swallows the constant slights, usually putting his needs before her own. In the threads in which she is married, Anthony’s presence in her home has caused her shaky relationship to crumble. Whether her father’s cruelty is something new or behavior she has endured her whole life is never revealed. But Colman’s repressed hurt and roiling guilt is achingly realized with every glance, hesitation, and sigh. Her breezy avoidance of directly answering his repetitive questions with cheery distraction belies the brittleness underneath. The performance is subtle, and the wounds are real.

While Hopkins dominates, the film’s title is The Father. It is not just about Anthony’s downward spiral, but about the effect on his relationship with his daughter, about her loss in this poignant, relevant story. Hopkins and Colman are equally matched.

Unlike the more meditative Still Alice, The Father’s tension is constant and relentless. The shifting of cast/characters highlights Anthony’s existential dread. Whether this reflects the experience of dementia, we can never know. 

In the end, Anthony asks, “What about me? Who … exactly am I?” While the film arrives at a conclusion that answers this question, there remains a shadow of ambivalence. However, in the doubt and pain, there resonates a breath of love, hope, and care.

Rated PG-13, The Father is now streaming on Amazon Video.

The last Blockbuster Video in existence located in Bend, Oregon

Reviewed (sort of) by Jeffrey Sanzel

You see, there’s this new movie — The Last Blockbuster — and it’s fun, you know (ya know)?

‘Cause, when you watch it, sure, you’re going to (gonna) watch it, but what you’re really going to (gonna — all right, I’ll stop now) do is remember. For a movie about a business that was only around for thirty-five years, it evokes a nostalgia for days-gone-by — for a kinder, gentler time before the world went to streaming-in-a-handbasket, and those crazy kids wouldn’t stay off your lawn. Or something like that.

But seriously. (Kinda …)

Writer-director Kevin Smith

As the various celebrities you might have heard of (and a whole bunch of people you’ve never seen) share their thoughts about Blockbuster, you’ll exclaim, “Right! That’s it! That’s what I did! That’s exactly right!” (And, yes, every sentence you say or think is going to end with an exclamation point.)

As I watched The Last Blockbuster, written by Zeke Kamm and directed by Taylor Morden, I thought of my video watching history. I was twenty when I bought my first VCR — a Goldstar I believe. I had memberships at two mom-and-pop stores (one was actually just several shelves in a pharmacy) where the prices ranged from $1 to $2.  

By the time I was in my early twenties, Blockbuster had replaced most small operations. I alternated between the two in Port Jefferson Station and the one in Rocky Point. It always the time/geography formula:

Let’s see, I’ll be coming from work, but I won’t be going back that way until Monday, so maybe if I swing by the one in Rocky Point before going home, that would make more sense. But, if I don’t rent any new releases, it would be just as easy to go to the one on Route 112, and I can return it when I’m on my way in to work on Monday. 

It became the world’s least significant word problem. “If a man leaves the house at noon, on a Tuesday, with one movie due the following day, but two movies rented three days earlier at $2.99 …”

So … The Last Blockbuster.

The Last Blockbuster, ironically, is now streaming on Netflix. Ironic because services like Netflix, while not directly killing video stores, were one of the final nails in its plastic coffin. The documentary goes to certain lengths to explain that it was the financial meltdown of 2008 that caused Blockbuster’s true downward spiral. But there is no question that streaming services and VOD were detrimental to the traditional setup.

Sandi Harding, manager of the last Blockbuster video store

The movie begins by tracing the history of the business. It follows the rise and the decline of the video rental service, giving insight into the shift from the small operations through the Blockbuster takeover, and the corporate stores versus the franchises. 

It points out that revenue sharing changed the entire face of the video industry. Blockbuster would sell movies to the stores at the lowest costs, and then they would take a percentage of the rental fee. It reduced the store owner’s costs from $100 a movie to a few dollars, enabling the purchase of multiple copies. As small video stores were incapable of competing, Blockbuster created a monopoly. 

At one point, Netflix offered to sell to Blockbuster for a surprisingly low price tag. The film’s hypothetical reenactment depicts this with great whimsy: Muppet-like puppets around a board room table laugh a Netflix rabbit out of the room.

The movie takes some time to find its rhythm. The filmmakers were concerned that the company’s history would not be interesting enough to be presented linearly so they’ve interspersed it with individual remembrances, which muddies the progress. Once they are past that, it flows better.

Comedian Doug Benson

The catalyst for the entire project is The Little Store That Could. At its peak, there were 9,000 Blockbuster stores. Supposedly, there was a time when one was opening every seventeen hours. When the filmmakers began, there were twelve remaining stores. Then there were four, with three of them in Alaska. And then there was one. 

As of 2019, the last existing Blockbuster is in Bend, Oregon, managed by Sandi Harding, the Blockbuster Mother. Much of the film focuses on Sandi, following her around the store and in her home, interacting with customers and her family, and shopping for stock at Target. 

Sandi is beloved, having employed dozens of young people in her community and many of her family members. She is charming, open, and honest. There is something truly noble about her desire to keep the store going — almost a mythic figure on a hero’s quest. We can’t help but root for her. 

Throughout, she is waiting to hear from Dish, the monolith who bought the bankrupt Blockbuster. The film’s only suspense is whether they will allow her to renew for another five years. The Bend store has now become a place of pilgrimage. People come from all over the world to take pictures and buy souvenirs. It is a Grand Canyon of pop culture.

Various men in the video industry offer insight into the business side. Often, there is a sense that they are reluctant witnesses, tight-lipped and uncomfortable, weighing in on both the smart and less savvy choices made by the company, including the infamous eradication of late fees, costing the company two-thirds of its revenue. They make for a strong contrast with the others who are interviewed simply for their love of the place. 

Brian Posehn in a scene from the film.

Writer-director Kevin Smith (Clerks) has only the fondest memories. Comedian Doug Benson is giddy when he finally visits Bend. Others singing the praises are actors Ione Skye, Brian Posehn, Paul Scheer, Samm Levine, and Jamie Kennedy. 

Particularly entertaining are the random musings of Ron Funches, whose free-associating is one of the film’s quirkier delights. Some have direct connections to Blockbuster in their pasts, having worked in local outfits in their teen years; others simply reminisce.

As I watched, I realized that everyone was saying the same thing, which brought me to the realization that what The Last Blockbuster truly celebrates is the universal experience. We are all part of a collective memory because we all had the same experience:

It’s Friday night, and we enter the blue and yellow temple with our significant other or spouse or family or friends. Occasionally, we make a solo visit. We breathe in the smell of stale popcorn and slightly opened soda, the library aroma of media dust, and the unique scent of plastic cases. We walk the perimeter of new releases, looking at each one, staring at the covers, occasionally reading a blurb. 

Oh, look, the one we wanted isn’t in. We go to the register and ask the clerk when it’s due back. It was due back today. So we stand at the counter and hope that it gets returned. After a bit, we roam the aisles, meandering into the older sections, neatly divided by genre. We make stacks of videos (and later DVDs). We negotiate: If we rent that for you, can we get this for me? Finally, we’re ready to check out. The clerk goes through each one to make sure that the tape matches the case.  (Ah, the plastic VHS cases with their brick-like weight and satisfying click as they close with a perfect snap.)

Sometimes we spent more time looking for the movies than we did watching them.

That was the Blockbuster culture. And that was a great part of the joy. “Ah,” we think, “the youth of today will never know this as they scroll through their My List of a hundred movies and a thousand television shows.”

The Last Blockbuster is not a great documentary. For something that doesn’t even run a full ninety minutes, it is often repetitive. But it has an enormous heart and genuine nostalgia. It celebrates the last bastion of a bygone era. So, when you watch it, be kind. (And rewind.)

Photos courtesy of 1091 Pictures

A scene from Minari. Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

In the opening shot of director-writer Lee Isaac Chung’s engrossing Minari, the Yi family arrives at the Arkansas land that the father Jacob (an extraordinary Steven Yeun) purchased. Jacob drives the truck with the family’s possessions. His wife, Monica (Han Ye-ri, simultaneously heartbreaking and a pillar of strength), follows in their car. A small crack in the windshield is almost indiscernible. But this fissure reflects the slow fracturing of the couple’s relationship.

Minari is a thoughtful film, both delicate and tense. And while the story is intimate, it is not small. It deals with the clash of family responsibility and the desire to follow a dream. 

A scene from the film

Initially, Chung wanted to adapt Willa Cather’s My Antonia, but he discovered the late author’s wishes blocked any screen adaptations. Still wanting to create a tale of rural life, he turned inwards and created a semi-autobiographical work inspired by his upbringing. He begins with a list of eighty childhood memories and guidance from Cather’s words: “Life began for me, when I ceased to admire and began to remember.” From this unusual start, Chung fashioned the wholly personal screenplay for Minari.

Jacob Yi has brought his family from California to Arkansas to start a farm — his own “Garden of Eden.” It is 1983, and 30,000 Korean immigrants were entering the United States annually. Jacob plans to grow Korean produce for sale to stores in Dallas. The Yis take-up residence in a single-wide, fourteen-foot trailer on the plot, and Jacob begins to farm. Monica’s stoicism cracks with their change in life: “It just gets worse and worse.”

In the meantime, Jacob and Monica continue the work they had done in California, sexing chickens in a hatchery. To watch their two children, they bring Monica’s mother, Soon-ja (Youn Yuh-jung, brilliantly eschewing any caricature of a grandmother), over from Korea.

While the family has come for a new start, the marriage shows signs of deep trouble. There are disagreements about where to live and how to spend their money; they don’t fully agree on dealing with their son’s heart murmur. They live in a cold distance, with anger always brewing under the brittle surface. Moments of affection are severed by the movement of a hand, the turning of a head, or the shrugging of a shoulder. The children’s stress reflects their parents’ inability to communicate. Soon-ja observes, “You two will fight over anything.” The daughter, Anne (Noel Kate Cho, mature beyond her years), is more parent than child, running interference and caring for her younger brother, David (Alan Kim, real, honest, and very funny).

Two pieces become central to the story. The first is water, the essential element of farming. Its importance in its presence and absence threads through the entire film. The need for water comes full circle, almost as a washing away of mistakes that have come before. The water allows for a fresh beginning.

The second is the connection between David and his grandmother. Forced to share a room, he dislikes her for not being what his idea of a grandparent should be. His concept is the cookie-baking, non-swearing elder of American media. But from her, he draws strength and begins to leave the fear of illness behind. The bond is a real one; there is nothing precious or sentimental. The grandmother takes him to plant the titular minari (a sort of wild celery). For her, minari represents all that is wonderful: it protects and heals; it grows wild and yet nurtures. It is perhaps not the subtlest part of the film, but it perfectly defines the grandmother-grandson link.

Elements of Korean culture — in food, discipline, and family — are carefully woven into the film, present without being “presented.” There is a yearning for their homeland but also the shadow of the Korean War. The parents predominantly speak Korean to each other and the children. The children respond in kind. However, between them, Anne and David speak English. Language is both communication and barrier, constantly floating and shifting. American culture appears in some of the most unlikely places. The obsession with Mountain Dew is both amusing and telling.

A scene from ‘Minari’

The film lives in the beats and the silences. Whether it is a shot of the idyllic verdant landscape or the dark, cramped trailer, life unfolds. While beautifully cinematic, there is no artifice. In an unusual and exquisite performance, Will Patton plays Paul, a Korean War veteran who works side-by-side with Jacob. Paul, who is a bit of a religious fanatic, chatters and blesses. But he is kind, and, even in his eccentricity, Paul is grounded in the established world. 

When the family attends church, the citizens of the nearby town welcome them. They are not a hillbilly send-up, with a reception that is kind if a bit awkward. While Monica was the motivating force to attend, she decides not to return but sends the children each week. The Yis face curiosity, subjected to the occasional peculiar question or comment. But they are not ostracized or mistreated. Chung offers human beings and not archetypes. 

Discussions about religion and heaven, many of them directed towards David, swirl about the characters. But in the end, Minari is about a different kind of belief. With its flawless cast and sensitive writing and direction, the film illustrates the ability to overcoming obstacles. It shows faith in self, growth, and the love of family. In short, Minari is about life.

Rated PG-13, Minari is now streaming on Amazon Video

Photos courtesy of A24

 

Dev Patel stars as David Copperfield in latest adaptation. Photo courtesy of Searchlight Pictures
A joyous new vision of a Dickens classic

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

“Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.” — the opening lines of Charles Dickens’ The Personal History of David Copperfield

After Shakespeare (and perhaps J.K. Rowling), Charles Dickens is the most famous writer in the English language. His major works include Oliver Twist, Great Expectations, A Tale of Two Cities, Bleak House, and A Christmas Carol, with hundreds of stage, screen, and television adaptations.

Charles Dickens began crafting his autobiography in the late 1840s. But he found the writing too painful and burned what he had written. He then fictionalized many of his personal experiences for what became David Copperfield. It is Dickens’ premiere work told in the first person (and note that David Copperfield’s initials are Charles Dickens’ backward, suggesting a reflection of the author himself).

From left, Tilda Swinton, Dev Patel, Hugh Laurie and Rosalind Eleazar in a scene from the film.
Photo courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

The Personal History of David Copperfield was published in monthly installments, serialized from 1849 to 1850, and then brought out in book form. Dickens’ longest work, Copperfield is rich in plot and contains close to one hundred characters. It is an incredible journey, full of adventure, but it is also about mastering one’s fate, growing from passive child to self-aware adult. Young David is acted upon; adult David is a figure who has taken control of his own life.

The cinematic history includes three silent and over a half dozen others. The most notable is the two-part BBC television version (1999) featuring an extraordinary cast, with Danielle Radcliffe as young David, Bob Hoskins as Mr. Micawber, and Maggie Smith as Aunt Betsey. 

The newest incarnation is a unique and slightly madcap adaptation. Directed by Armando Iannucci, from a screenplay by Iannucci and Simon Blackwell, it condenses the epic novel into a brisk, laugh-out-loud, and always heartfelt two hours. The choices are often wild and surprising, but no moment, no matter how peculiar, departs from the vision’s integrity.

The film opens with David Copperfield (a mesmerizing Dev Patel, reinventing the role) reading his book to a packed theatre. But is it David or Charles Dickens? Ultimately, it is both. He states the first two lines and then literally steps into the story, being present at his own birth. 

Baby David’s arrival coincides with the appearance of his late father’s aunt, Betsey Trotwood (impeccably played by Tilda Swinton, swanning through the story like a cross between a tornado and neurotic albatross). She declares herself the child’s godmother, leaving when presented with a boy and not the girl she was demanding. It is a comic rollercoaster of a scene, tumultuous and culminating with Betsey exiting in high dudgeon. And so begins David’s life. 

Young David (Jairaj Varsani, a child performer of exceptional skill) has an idyllic childhood. He is loved by a doting mother (the delicate and sweet Morfydd Clark) and his even more attentive nursemaid Peggotty (genuine warmth and personal proverbs as played by Daisy May Cooper). The peace is shattered by his mother’s remarriage to Edward Murdstone (terrifying in Darren Boyd’s cold-eyed villainy). Murdstone’s abuse of David begins the cycle of flux that he will face for the rest of his life. He gains, then loses, then recovers, only to lose again.

Eschewing the boarding school section, David is banished to the blacking factory, sentenced to work in miserable conditions. This pivotal juncture is taken directly from the darkest chapter of Dickens’ childhood, one he kept secret his entire life. David boards with penurious Micawber (Peter Capaldi, artfully blending the kind and the con) and his ever-growing family. It seems that every time David meets up with the Micawber family, they have added a baby to the ever-expanding brood. 

Dev Patel and Morfydd Clark. Photo courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

Micawber and his wife (bubbling and bug-eyed Bronagh Gallagher) are hunted and haunted by creditors, much like Dickens’s own father: Both the Micawbers and Dickens’ parents wound up in debtors’ prison. The Micawbers are Dickens’ gentle depiction of his parents, for whom he bore a life-long grudge due to his exile to the blacking factory. Later, Capaldi is pathetically outrageous as Micawber attempts — and fails — to teach a Latin lesson.

Unlike in the novel, the factory sequence shows David’s transition from boy to man. When Murdstone informs him of his mother’s death, David’s reaction is violent, more reminiscent of Nicholas Nickleby beating the schoolmaster than the always put-upon and long-suffering David Copperfield. Iannucci’s vision is self-actualized and capable of independence. 

David walks from London to Dover, seeking sanctuary with his Aunt Betsey. Even under duress, he aids Betsey’s lodger, the eccentric Mr. Dick (heart-breaking and hilarious Hugh Laurie, a man with the delusion that the decapitated King Charles I’s thoughts have been placed in his head). 

In the bosom of his remaining family, David thrives (for a while). There is romance and adventure, complications and resolutions. The film handles them with quick turns, ranging from near-slapstick to deep introspection. The narrative is rich in whimsy but doesn’t avoid the darkness. The characters retain the vivid character traits endowed by Dickens but are enriched with inner lives. 

David’s creativity is highlighted, even as a young child. He spins yarns and draws sketches, heralding the great writer. Like Dickens, he jots down unusual phrases and collects the people in his life, developing them in the mirror.

There is a meta-cinematic quality about the film, often breaking (and literally tearing) the fourth wall to allow the characters to observe or even flow into other scenes. The film’s colors are lush and rich, leaning towards childhood fantasy, but can quickly shift to somber shades. As a child, the seaside town of Yarmouth was a place of storybook magic; when David returns, it is a place of shadows.

In addition to the previously mentioned cast members, note should be made of Rosalind Eleazar, who makes the intolerably insipid Agnes Wickfield a strong, likable foil for the maturing David. Clark, who plays young David’s mother, Clara, doubles beautifully as David’s love interest Dora Spenlow — endearing, exhausting, and empty-headed. Uriah Heep, usually much oilier and damp in his “umble” sycophancy, is more dangerous in Ben Whishaw’s performance. Paul Whitehouse’s Mr. Peggotty is appropriately paternal; Benedict Wong brings tannic notes to the dissipated Mr. Wickfield. 

Whether it is colorblind or color-conscious, casting director Sarah Crowe has perfectly gathered an enormous, multi-racial company, flawless from Dev Patel’s dimensional, delightful David to Scampi, who plays Dora’s dog Jip.

While Iannucci takes liberties with much of the novel, most notably in the latter half’s rushed solution, this Copperfield celebrates the original by transcending it. The film culminates with a catharsis rooted in hope. Perhaps purists would lean towards the more complete and faithful 1999 version, but in the spirit and the sense of joy, the new David Copperfield is wholly satisfying.

Rated PG, the film is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video.

Margaret Qualley stars in Joanna Rakoff's memoir

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

Joanna Rakoff’s 2014 memoir My Salinger Year joins The Devil Wears Prada and The Nanny Diaries as veiled paeans to victimhood. In 1996, young Joanna, having just acquired a bachelor’s degree in English, goes to work for a prestigious literary agency. She learns to stand up for herself and moves on, with lessons learned and head held high. 

Sigourney Weaver and Qualley in a scene from the film.

The boss (called the Boss in the book and Margaret in the film) is not a demon on the level of Prada’s Amanda Priestly. Rather, she is an eccentric holdover from an earlier era, maintaining a kingdom locked in the 1950s. Think of her as the Boss from Heck. All employees must use typewriters, with a single computer introduced to track copyright violations. The agency dwells in the world of martini lunches and name-dropping its most prestigious — and mostly dead — clients: Dylan Thomas, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Agatha Christine, and, of course, J.D. Salinger. Salinger is the jewel in the agency’s crown. The organization is responsible for all his literary business and for dealing with the thousands of fan letters that have steadily arrived for decades.

The book emphasizes Joanna’s fears, with the earlier part of the work written in a tightly wound, almost neurotic prose, coming out and fits and starts. As she matures, so does the relating of her story.

Turning a book about the love of books, writing, and writers into a film is challenging. To show the passion for the written word in a cinematic setting has myriad pitfalls. The tone is either lost or shifted. What is often simple and honest is forced to take on a more melodramatic tone. 

The film My Salinger Year balances its faith to the source and the need for a more cinematic-friendly narrative. Joanna’s personal life is simplified, focusing on her decision not to return to Berkley to join her long-term boyfriend and to remain in New York. She quickly becomes involved with Don, a wannabe novelist who works part-time in a socialist bookstore. A few years older and a complete narcissist, Don goes from supportive to condescending to emotionally destructive. 

Assistants in the literary world believe that they will be reading brilliant manuscripts and use the contacts and opportunity to fulfill their ambitions. In Joanna’s case, she has had two poems published in The Paris Review and has her heart and sights set on The New Yorker. 

Much to her chagrin, Joanna is relegated to secretary, transcribing Margaret’s letters from Dictaphone tapes. Joanna is also assigned the form letter — dating from 1963 — that is the only approved answer to any mail sent to Salinger. The letter states that Salinger does not correspond. Eventually, Joanna takes it on herself to respond personally, with varying degrees of success and disaster. In the film, a disgruntled high school girl arrives in person to castigate Joanna. In the book, it is all done via post.

Margaret Qualley stars in Joanna Rakoff’s memoir

The main action focuses on Salinger wanting to publish one of his old magazine stories, “Hapsworth,” in a stand-alone volume, printed by a small press in Virginia. Salinger expects his exact specifications to be adhered to, with no surrounding publicity for the tome’s release. The book and the film take two completely divergent paths to this event.

Joanna connects with Salinger during his occasional phone calls, and he encourages her to write every day. And Joanna, who had never read any of Salinger’s works — “What I imagined Salinger to be: insufferably cute, aggressively quirky, precious” — reads and understands their power and value.

Margaret Qualley’s Joanna is fully-realized, finding the humor and the strength in creating a dimensional character. She is never maudlin or self-indulgent and appears to be taking in everything around her. Qualley makes Joanna’s watching watchable. Her falling for Don (appropriately pretentious and self-involved as played by Douglas Booth) is wholly believable. Her actions speak to someone seeking adventure. Her gradual awareness of his cruelty is painful and truthful. 

Sigourney Weaver plays Margaret with the grandeur of someone living in a different era. A cigarette constantly in hand, she can be both deliberately and casually cruel. After a terrible loss, she leans into the brittleness of the boss’s crumbling foundation. Weaver also makes Margaret utterly unpredictable, lending both tension and relief in turn.

Colm Feore has a small but pivotal role as Margaret’s partner, slightly built up from a character only mentioned in the book. His spritely and delicate presence provides contrast to Weaver’s often harsh callousness. 

Almost Dickensian denizens populate the office. Brían F. O’Byrne’s Hugh deals with the contracts but is also the kindest and most interested in Joanna. Yanic Truesdale, as Max, brings the right energy to the partner who wants the agency to move forward. Leni Parker embodies the office manager, Pam, who is completely devoted to the antique ways and the old guard. Théodore Pellerin, as Boy from Winston-Salem, has the right blend of edge and sadness as Joanna’s imaginary confidant. Tim Post, only glimpsed, provides kindness in the voice of J.D. Salinger.

Writer-director Philip Falardeau has mostly succeeded in creating a film that honors the book’s spirit but finds interesting ways to present some of the more introspective moments. Wisely, he allows Joanna to express her thoughts in voiceover or directly to the camera. Also, instead of Joanna reading the letters, he shows the fans in their environments, having them communicate directly with Joanna. The further she goes into the letters, the more present they become. It is a device that has been seen elsewhere but is used effectively and to good purpose.

Where the film is weakest is in a tendency to veer towards the saccharine. It often tries too hard to make a point about the humanity of a character, rather than letting the actions speak for themselves. There is a grating fantasy dance sequence that only confuses. An infuriating bit of business with a fan letter contradicts all the established norms — and flies in everything the book professes. These liberties are annoying but do not eradicate the film’s overall integrity.

My Salinger Year is an engaging if uneven portrait of the ability to transform. Occasionally, its predictability undermines its own spark. But, in the end, it celebrates the love of the written word, brought to life with a strong cast and a creative eye. Rated R, the film is now streaming on demand.

Photos courtesy of IFC Films

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

In his new book, World War II Long Island: The Homefront in Nassau and Suffolk (The History Press), author Christopher Verga presents a detailed but succinct look at the titular era. He has written a powerful and informative tome that represents the community in all its strengths and flaws. Wisely, he brings a keen twenty-first-century eye to address social inequality issues, giving the book a deep resonance. He demands that the reader reflects on what has and has not changed in the past eighty years.

Author Christopher Verga

The book opens with pre-World War II Long Island. Unlike many works that create a picture of idyllic and often pastoral life, he shows the attitude towards the outside world: 

“Similar to other small agricultural areas of the time, both counties had an isolationist mentality toward New York City, immigration, and foreign affairs …” He explains this as reflexive to the losses in World War I as well as the Spanish Flu pandemic. 

In this time, Long Island faced a recession and a labor glut. There was also an influx of Italian, Jewish, Eastern European immigrants, and myriad African-Americans fleeing the south, all looking for jobs. This increase in the non-native population created unrest and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan’s membership and power. Add to this the stock market crash of 1929 and the hurricane of 1938 (which did major property damage and destruction to the oyster beds). The result was a depressed and divided Long Island.

While the prologue offers a bleak introduction, the book proceeds to show the major transitions that allowed Long Island to flourish during World War II and beyond.

One of the uniting forces was the enemy from without. The potential for economic growth via wartime manufacturing enhanced the outlook. “Within a few short years, aircraft manufacturers had an exclusive customer with a blank check: the government.” Of course, the boon came with many problems, including poor background checks and security clearances. He shows the frightening ease of military infiltration by German and German-American spies: two major German spy rings infiltrated the system. 

He also gives one of the clearest explanations of the rise of the German-American Bund. Verga has unearthed exceptional photos of Camp Siegfried, with its Nazi banners and crowds of Nazi sympathizers, dressed in their para-military uniforms. Again, contemporary events live in the shadow of this organization’s white supremacist mentality and the KKK.

Much of the book covers the shift that came with the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. The attack spurred civilian involvement along with unification behind the war effort. He documents the early failures and gradual shift to competency in air raid drills across the Island. This example also emphasizes the growing cooperation between the military and non-military populations. 

The war provided many small-town young men with an opportunity to embark on what they saw as an adventure. Leaving their lives of fishing, farming, and small-scale shops, they volunteered for service. And while there was the chance for new opportunities, most were fulfilling what they saw as their patriotic duty. The author has multiple accounts of families where all of the sons went off to war, and many did not return.

Amazingly, Verga covers an impressive quantity of material in this slim volume. There are anecdotes of famous generals along with first-hand accounts of soldiers who came from Long Island. He deals with anti-Italian biases before and throughout the war and writes of training in high schools and beyond. He includes the draft board scandals. He focuses not just on the manufacturing success but also the factories’ dangers to the workforce. The various military bases are explained in their use during the war and after. In his dissection of rationing and war bonds, he doesn’t just emphasize the nationalistic view but also discusses people circumventing the rules and the illegal gas stamp rings.

A unique section focuses on the contrast of German POWs’ humane treatment in the States instead of American POWs’ brutal, destructive treatment in Germany. He also shares the local backlash with the German’s use as the labor force on farms and other businesses.

The author shows women in the workforce and the rise of the WAC (Women’s Army Corp) and its offshoots. He explains the stigma and false accusations surrounding women in service, an important point rarely taken up in the war’s history. He also chronicles women losing their place at the end of the war. 

Racial injustice receives the boldest accusations. From the segregated military units to the refusal to sell housing to Black veterans, Verga gives numerous examples of Long Island’s divide. Again, his use of history mirrors many current challenges.

In each chapter, Verga provides the larger national picture juxtaposed with events and facts specific to Long Island. His research is meticulous, with a complete command of dates and specific and enlightening statistics. There is a wealth of photos and documents that enhance the text. But he never loses sight of the humanity of the story he is relating. He consistently paints a portrait of men and women in action: a time of fear but of great patriotism. 

Verga presents a balanced picture of a complicated era. He suggests that negative actions were the exception, and most of Long Island reflected the overall country doing its civic duty.

Christopher Verga’s World War II Long Island is a rich, textured, and honest account. The book reports on a complex time with great depth, sensitivity, and originality. It makes for a rewarding read for both students of history and any inquiring mind.

Author Christopher Verga is an instructor of Long Island history and on the foundations of American history at Suffolk Community College, as well as a contributor to the online local news sites Greater Babylon, Greater Bay Shore and Greater Patchogue. His published works include Images of America: Civil Rights Movement on Long Island, Images of America: Bay Shore and Saving Fire Island from Robert Moses. Verga has his educational doctorate from St John’s University. His dissertation work included Long Island Native Americans and the impact of tribal recognition within their cultural identity. 

World War II Long Island is available at Book Revue in Huntington (www.bookrevue.com), at Barnes and Noble bookstores and on Amazon.