Movie Review

A scene from Disney's 'Encanto'. Photo courtesy of Walt Disney Animation Studios

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

The question of “What is a gift?” is the driving force of Disney’s 60th feature film, Encanto. Set in the mountains of Columbia, in an unspecified “once upon a time,” Encanto is one of Disney’s finest and most sophisticated animated musicals. Exquisitely directed by Byron Howard and Jared Bush (with a screenplay by Bush and Charise Castro Smith), this is a memorable story of family and responsibility.

Fleeing from marauding conquerors, Alma Madrigal loses her husband, Pedro, but saves her infant triplets. An “Encanto” is a charm; here, the spell is in a candle. The magical force of the candle creates the “casita”—a magic home for Alma and her children.

A scene from Disney’s ‘Encanto’. Photo courtesy of Walt Disney Animation Studios

The Encanto blesses each member of the Madrigal family with a special power. Together, these “gifts” help maintain the community. But what happens when that gift brings visions no one wants to know? Or, even more challenging, when a child seemingly has no gift at all? The latter is the case with granddaughter Mirabel, the heart of the narrative and, ultimately, the center and savior of family and village.

Mirabel is a quirky, frustrated young woman; smart and articulate but under-appreciated. Her mother, aunt, sister, and cousins outshine her with their showy skills. Julieta, Mirabel’s mother, heals any ailment with food. Gorgeous Isabela, Mirabel’s oldest sister, is considered perfect and makes flowers bloom. Just behind Isabela is Louisa, a girl of Herculean strength. Aunt Carolina’s emotions control the weather; she is often followed by her own cloud hovering over her head. Cousin Adassa has unparalleled hearing. Cousin Rhenzy is a shapeshifter, taking on the appearance of anyone he meets. Cousin Ravi-Cabot communicates with animals. 

While seemingly wonderful, these powers carry burdens as well, shared in often hilarious and telling ways.

The action goes into gear on the day Cousin Ravi-Cabot is to receive his gift. Mirabel, his favorite cousin, gives him the strength to face whatever is to come his way. While everyone is celebrating, Mirabel sees the house beginning to crack and the candle in danger of being snuffed. Her alarm is revealed to be a vision, but most do not—or choose not—to believe her. She embarks on a quest to solve the danger, encountering her Uncle Bruno, who had disappeared after his prognostications were met with resistance. 

With the knowledge gathered from Bruno, Mirabel understands her course and the dangers it includes.

Encanto is emotionally complicated and avoids preciousness. There is humor and plenty of magic, but the lessons it imparts are genuine. 

A scene from Disney’s ‘Encanto’. Photo courtesy of Walt Disney Animation Studios

Encanto is perhaps the least saccharine of any Disney film. Visually, the film is extraordinary, exploding with color and action. The house itself is a dynamic character, with its communicating tiles, floorboards that deliver slippers, and an alarm clock that nudges the householders to move along. 

The characters are charmingly animated, simultaneously broad and subtle. But, in the end, the film’s imparting is the all-important message that gifts do not have to be flashy and that miracles come from belief, perseverance, and love. The film never loses sight of these morals.

The vocal talent is exceptional. Stephanie Beatriz’s Mirabel is tremendous, portraying a struggling soul, imbuing her with perfect comedic timing and profound humanity. John Leguizamo’s Uncle Bruno uses twitchy antics to very slightly mask the character’s underlying sadness. Diane Guerrero’s seemingly vain Isabela finds new shades in her transformation. 

In Luisa, Jessica Darrow shows the drain of never complaining. And Maria Cecilia Botero raises the grandmother above caricature, finding depth and pain in the matriarch who comes to terms with her misplaced iron will. (Many of the actors will be voicing the Spanish language version as well.)

Hamilton/In the Heights’ Lin-Manuel Miranda has fashioned a serviceable and pleasant score, but the film stands on its own. An attempt to introduce the roster in “The Family Madrigal” doesn’t quite succeed but establishes the world in which the tale occurs. The strongest numbers are “Dos Orguitas,” a haunting tune sung in Spanish, and the joyous finale “All of You.” 

Preceding Encanto is Far From the Tree, a wordless short about a raccoon parent protecting its child with tough love. While simple and traditionally animated, the two pieces share how families relate and the deep-rooted desire to protect. They are perfect compliments, sharing overlapping cores, with Far From the Tree delicate and Encanto spark and sparkle.

In the end, Encanto teaches not just acceptance within a family but how family and community come together. These are big concepts, and younger viewers might not get them the first time. But like the best of family features—The Toy Story series, Coco, etc.—Encanto will be one that children will return to as they grow. 

And that said, there is much for everyone to relish in this beautiful and beautifully told tale

Rated PG, Encanto is now playing in local theaters.

 

On Nov. 21 the Town of Smithtown premiered War Stories, a documentary film devoted to the local heroes who served in combat throughout the various conflicts, at the Smithtown Center for Performing Arts. The production documenting the stories of local residents who enlisted to serve in the US Armed Forces during war time; from World War II to present day, will be available via Smithtown GTV and YouTube.

“This documentary is our way of saying ‘Thank You for Your Service.’ We hope that over time, we can build on this documentary, as a catalogue of stories from the story tellers themselves,” said Supervisor Ed Wehrheim.   “There’s an old saying that a soldier dies twice: once when he takes his last breath and again when he or she has been forgotten. Well this documentary is our oath to our veterans, our debt of honor, that you will never be forgotten.” 

The theatre was filled with family members of the 22 veterans, as well as members of the community, who wanted to show their support and gratitude for the men and women within our community who served to protect our nation’s freedoms. Residents filled two large boxes with non-perishable items for donation, which were delivered to the United Veterans Beacon House Food Pantry.

War Stories Cast (In order of appearance)

  • Bernard Nagel [ aviation machinist mate ] WWII

  • Jim “Red” Dowling [ 2nd lieutenant, 8th Army Air Corps ] WWII

  • Eddy Reddy [ 2nd lieutenant, 8th Army Air Corps ] WWII

  • Howard Laderwager [ US Navy hospital corpsman ] WWII

  • Anthony Romano [ US Army PFC ] Korean War | WWII Occupation

  • John R Steele [ US Navy Seaman ] Korean War

  • Robert Creighton [ US Navy Aerographer’s mate 3rd class ] Korean War

  • Nick Balducci [ United States Army 187th Airborne Regimental Combat Team ] [ 82nd Airborne Regimental Combat Team ] Korean War

  • Salvatore Scarlato [ B Company, 1st Shore Party Battalion, 1st Marine Division – private ] Korean War

  • William Harnaiz US Army [ Fifth Regimental Combat Team ] Korean War

  • Frank D’Aversa [ United States Navy Lieutenant ] Vietnam War

  • Jack Toomey [ United States Army |  Specialist 4 ] Vietnam War

  • Ed Wehrheim [ US Navy Aviation Director 3 ] Vietnam War

  • Walter Zawol [ United States Marines Corporal ] Vietnam War

  • Kevin O’Hare [ United States Army 25th Infantry ] Vietnam War

  • Victor Noce  [ US Marine Corps Private First Class ] Vietnam War

  • Jack Stevens [ US Navy Electronic Technician 2nd Class ] Vietnam War

  • Bill Ponce [ US Army Full Bird Colonel ] Kosovo, Iraq War

  • Grace Mehl [ Commander United States Navy ] Kosovo

  • Joseph Zawol [ United States Marines | Sergeant ] Iraq War | Afghanistan War

  • Megan Shutka [United States Navy | Lieutenant commander ] Iraq War | Afghanistan War

  • Eric Ryan [ United States Marines | Sergeant ] Iraq War | Afghanistan War

The Town began production of the veterans documentary, interviewing service members from World War II, through to modern day conflicts in 2019. The film was directed, edited and produced by Smithtown Public Information Officer Nicole Garguilo, and co-produced by Brian Farrell and Margo Gordon. Smithtown Public Safety Park Ranger Charles Kang was instrumental in orchestrating the interview process of Korean War Veterans. 

Additionally, Kings Park resident and Gulf War Veteran Eric Burnett assisted with arranging a number of interviews for the documentary. War Stories has been dedicated in memory of two World War II Veterans; Eddy Reddy and Howard Laderwager, who starred in the documentary, but have since passed away. 

The Smithtown Performing Arts Council graciously volunteered their time, space and efforts to premiere the documentary. If you would like to make a donation to help Save the Smithtown Theatre, visit www.gofundme.com/f/save-smithtown-theatre.  

All photos courtesy of Town of Smithtown

From left, reporter Tom Cullen, editor Art Cullen and publisher John Cullen of the Storm Lake Times.

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

“Readers decide our future. Not any branch of government.”

Sixty-five million Americans live in news deserts—counties with only one local newspaper or none at all. In the past fifteen years, one in four newspapers has shuttered in the U.S. Storm Lake, the fascinating documentary by Jerry Risius and Beth Levison, follows The Storm Lake Times, a family-run paper located in Buena Vista County, Iowa. Operating at break-even, The Times, a twice-weekly paper, is one of the last of its kind.

Editor Art Cullen at his desk at the Storm Lake Times

Located in the northwest corner of the state, Storm Lake is home to about 11,000 residents. Originally an almost exclusively Caucasian community, it now contains a large Latino population. Tyson Foods employs over 2,200 workers at its hog slaughterhouse, meatpacking plant, and turkey processing plant.

In ninety well-crafted minutes, Storm Lake offers a portrait of the small-town newspaper industry and a family whose goal is to keep it alive. Founded in 1990 by John Cullen, The Storm Lake Times’ face and voice is Art Cullen, John’s brother. Art, a benign curmudgeon and county’s Democratic voice, presents somewhat like a hippie Mark Twain. At age 59, he received the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Writing. He “ask[s] the big questions, speak[s] truth to power, and share[s] the struggles and successes of his unique community.” The paper is a liberal bastion in the predominantly conservative area.

The Times has ten employees, including Art’s son, Tom, who is the main reporter. Founder John explains that he donates his salary because he is on Social Security. Art’s wife, Mary, can be seen taking pictures and writing features. Art’s sister-in-law provides the recipe column. The family dog, Peach, lolls on the office floor or rides along with drop-offs. 

Leisure editor Mary Cullen of the Storm Lake Times

The film smartly divides its focus between the big and small pictures. As a result, the day-to-day life of the paper contrasts with larger events. Advertising is the lifeblood of any paper, and The Storm Lake Times grapples with filling its quota. Most of the revenue derives from mom-and-pop stores, but large corporations have driven many out of business. 

There are many happy stories: births, local celebrities, “Miss Pigtails,” educational advancements, and county fairs. Local government is given the same weight as national politics. For their readers, garbage pickup is more important than a presidential hopeful’s visit. “Local journalism is the heart of telling the local story.” The report on Ice Out Day, when the ice melts, encompasses a reference to climate change. The Times follows a local Tyson plant worker who is moving forward on a Spanish language talent show. 

The paper never shies away from addressing issues of prejudice, extremely important in its growing immigrant community. The story of eight-year-old Julio Barroso, who was deported along with his family, is highlighted; the staff tracked him down in Mexico twenty-two years later. In addition, a partnership is developed with the Spanish paper La Prensa to share content and ads.

The staff listens to its community and responds to their thoughts and criticism. “There are consequences for everything we do, and we feel that feedback immediately,” says John.

Storm Lake Times editor Art Cullen interviews Elizabeth Warren in a scene from the film.

Broader politics included the coverage of The Heartland Presidential Forum, with major Democratic candidates speaking: Art Cullen was the draw. He interviewed Elizabeth Warren, Julio Castro, and Amy Klobuchar, among others. The Iowa Caucus occupies much of the middle and latter half of the film. But even here, there is a discussion about the cutting down of the paper’s TV listings from eighty channels to thirty-one to save space and money. Risius and Levison never lose sight of the myriad challenges.

The end of the film deals with the COVID crisis, and specifically, the Tyson plants. The Storm Lake Times reported on the disproportionate number of immigrants endangered by their work in unsafe conditions. Art states that this is “subtle racism—but racism all the same.” The Tyson operation became the hottest spot in the country for COVID cases. 

The denouement shifts briefly to the paper’s labors to survive the pandemic when “ads fell off a cliff,” and Art and John thought of closing the paper. Fortunately, with a go-fund-me and other support, The Storm Lake Times survived. With its new website, it reaches 1.2 million readers per month.

Storm Lake contains the expected filler of printing and binding papers, along with stacks dropped off in stores and machines. Occasionally, there is something meta about the documentarians shooting the television on which Art appears on a talk show. But there are wonderful extended quotes from many of Art’s insightful and passionate editorials. In addition, the documentarians know when to let the film breathe: a talk about feeding the dog, a discussion of a new shirt, or briefly watching Art pick the cashews out of a can of mixed nuts all add to the humanity.

In a world where people want their news for free, Storm Lake is a powerful and important reminder about local journalism’s responsibility, value, and contribution. The film ends on the hopeful note that good journalism elevates a community by reporting on what is good. 

“You can change the world through journalism. The reporter is the cornerstone in a functioning democracy. And without strong local journalism, the fabric of the place becomes frayed.”

For a free viewing of the film, visit www.pbs.org/independentlens/documentaries/storm-lake/.

Get in the spirit of the holidays with a screening of The Polar Express in a real train car!

The Port Jefferson Station-Terryville Chamber of Commerce will host screenings of The Polar Express in the Chamber Train Car, corner of Nesconset Highway and Route 112, Port Jefferson Station on Fridays, Nov. 26, Dec. 3, 10 and 17 at 6 p.m.; Saturdays, Nov. 27, Dec. 11 and 18 at noon, 3 and 6 p.m.; and Sunday, Dec. 5 at 3 p.m. and 6 p.m. $15 per person includes popcorn, a cookie and hot cocoa. To reserve your tickets, visit www.pjstchamber.com.

 

Natalie Wood and Richard Beymer in a scene from the film.

In celebration of its 60th anniversary, West Side Story will return to select cinemas nationwide on Sunday, Nov. 28 and Wednesday, Dec. 1, courtesy of Turner Classic Movies, MGM and Fathom Events.

This electrifying musical, with music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics from Stephen Sondheim, sets the ageless tragedy of Romeo and Juliet in the slums of 1950’s New York.

West Side Story explores the rivalry between two teenage street gangs — the Jets and the Sharks. When a member of the Jets falls in love with the sister of the Sharks’ leader, things look hopeful at first, but rapidly go downhill. Illustrating the events are many memorable song and dance numbers such as “America,” “Somewhere” and “I Feel Pretty.”

Starring Natalie Wood, Rita Moreno, Russ Tamblyn, Richard Beymer and George Chakiris, the film went on to win 10 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, ans was the highest-grossing movie of the year on its original release in 1961.

This special anniversary event will feature exclusive insights from Turner Classic Movies. Locally, the film will be screened at AMC Stony Brook 17, 2196 Nesconset Highway, Stony Brook on Nov. 28 at 3 p.m. and 7 p.m. and Dec. 1 at 7 p.m. and Island 16 Cinema De Lux, 185 Morris Ave., Holtsville on Nov. 28 at 3 p.m. and Dec. 1 at 7 p.m. To order tickets in advance, visit www.fathomevents.com.

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The screening is the perfect precursor to Steven Spielberg’s much anticipated adaptation of the beloved film which is expected to hit theatres on Dec. 10. Featuring Ansel Elgort and Rachel Zegler as leading love-interests Tony and Maria, the star-studded cast not only includes Dance Moms alum Maddie Ziegler and Hamilton’s Ariana DeBose, but also features a special appearance by Rita Moreno who played Anita in the original film.

The Town of Smithtown will premiere its Veterans Documentary, entitled War Stories, on Sunday, November 21 at 6 p.m. at the Smithtown Center for Performing Arts, 2 East Main St., Smithtown. The documentary focuses on local residents who enlisted to serve in the US Armed Forces during war time, from World War II to Present Day.

“I’m forever grateful to the men and women all across the Country who have served in our US Armed Forces. This began as an interview process, so we could document and preserve the stories of patriotism, camaraderie and strength of our brave hometown heroes, for future generations. But it has become so much more. This is our way of saying Thank You for Your Service to our local heroes… for we owe them everything,” said Supervisor Ed Wehrheim.

Tickets are free and members of the public are encouraged to attend the premiere to show support and gratitude for the Men and Women within our community who served in protection of our Nation’s freedoms. Residents are encouraged to bring non-perishable items for donation, which will be delivered to the United Veterans Beacon House Pantry.

The Town began production of the Veterans documentary, interviewing service members from World War II, through to modern day conflicts. Filming for the documentary began in 2019 on Veterans Day, November 19th. The film is dedicated in memory of two World War II Veterans; Eddy Reddy and Howard Laderwager, who were filmed for the documentary, but have recently passed away.

For more information, call 631-360-7600.

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Pablo Pauly and Bill Murray in a scene from the film. Photo from Searchlight Pictures

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

Auteur Wes Anderson’s works are an eclectic mix. From Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums to The Fantastic Mr. Fox and Moonrise Kingdom, his voice and vision are unique among filmmakers. Quirky characters in fast-paced comedies carry an underlying melancholy and introspection. His films have received a total of fifteen Academy Award nominations. The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) received nine nominations and won four.

Now Anderson has written and directed a star-studded omnibus, The French Dispatch of the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun. Newspaper editor Arthur Howitzer, Jr. (Bill Murray) dies of a heart attack, leaving instructions to close the paper following a farewell issue. The final publication is to feature three articles from past editions, along with Howitzer’s obituary.

This thin framework is the basis for an anthology of three peculiar tales from the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun’s French foreign bureau, located in Ennui. Each vignette focuses on one of the staff writers. Perhaps the stories are meant to be a send-up of a particular genre; the overall tone is firmly tongue-in-cheek, more spoof than satire.

In the first (“The Concrete Masterpiece”), J.K.L. Berensen (Tilda Swinton) tells of an artist, Moses Rosenthaler (Benicio del Toro), serving a prison term for double murder. While incarcerated, he paints a series of prison guard Simone (Léa Seydoux), that comes to the attention of another prisoner, Julien Cadazio (Adrien Brody). Cadazio (based on controversial British art dealer Lord Duveen) feels he has found the ideal modern artist. When released, he approaches his uncles (Henry Winkler and Bob Balaban) to embark on an exhibition of Rosenthaler’s work. The fly in the ointment is that Rosenthaler has painted the works on the prison walls.

In “Revisions of a Manifesto,” Lucinda Krementz (Frances McDormand) is a correspondent reporting on the “Chessboard Revolution.” While becoming involved with a much younger Zeffirelli (Timothée Chalamet), the bumbling leader of the revolt, she claims that she can maintain journalistic distance and integrity. In addition to their romantic liaison, Krementz rewrites Zeffirelli’s manifesto, including an appendix. 

The final chapter is “The Private Dining Room of the Police Commissioner.” Reporter Roebuck Wright (Jeffrey Wright), a nod to James Baldwin and A.J. Liebling, recounts the kidnapping of Gigi (Winston Ait Hellal), the son of the Ennui police commissioner (Mathieu Amalric), by a criminal syndicate. Police officer/noted chef Lt. Nescaffier (Stephen Park) becomes the hero through an elaborate poisoning. 

The plots are simple: a send-up of modern art (with a prison movie slant); a parody of young rebels and pointless causes; and a cops-and-robbers noir. But the telling is either brilliantly twisted or frustratingly convoluted, depending on the point-of-view. While ostensibly an homage to the day of the printed magazine (i.e., The New Yorker), the visual gymnastics are the driving force. Both cinematically steroidal (including rich black-and-white and vivid pop-art color, an awareness of the artifice of the sets, and even an animated car chase) and meta-theatrical (tableaux vivant), The French Dispatch is an often absorbing, wholly strange, and indefinable two hours.

The first-rate cast is clearly game for Anderson’s world. They play in a style that could be described as hyper-low key—sly, wry, and somehow conscious of the audience. In addition to the previously mentioned, appearances include an extraordinary ensemble in roles both large and small: Owen Wilson, Elizabeth Moss, Jason Schwartzman, Fisher Stevens, Lois Smith, Larry Pine, Christoph Waltz, Liev Schreiber, Edward Norton, Willem Dafoe, and Saoirse Ronan. Anjelica Huston is the omniscient narrator.

Some will find The French Dispatch a delightful and engaging absurdist meringue, visually striking, playing on multiple levels. Others might see it as a pretentious shaggy dog story, an in-joke of epic and head-scratching proportions. In any case, it would be impossible to experience this movie and not have an opinion.

Rated R, The French Dispatch is now playing in local theaters.

A scene from 'High Society'

In celebration of its 65th anniversary, High Society returns to select cinemas nationwide on Sunday, Nov. 14, courtesy of TCM Big Screen Classics and Fathom Events. 

Heiress Tracy Lord (Grace Kelly) is engaged to one man (John Lund), attracted to another (Frank Sinatra) and, just maybe, in love again with her ex-husband (Bing Crosby) in this effervescent musical reinvention of Philip Barry’s play The Philadelphia Story featuring an endlessly delightful Cole Porter score. 

Among High Society’s high points: Sinatra and Celeste Holm ask “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?,” Crosby and Kelly share “True Love” and Ol’ Blue Eyes swing-swing-swingle “Well, Did You Evah?” and Crosby and Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong perform “Now You Has Jazz.”

Sing and dance your way to the movie theatre for this special anniversary event that includes exclusive insights from Turner Classic Movies.

Screenings will be held at AMC Stony Brook, 2196 Nesconset Highway, Stony Brook at 3 p.m. and again at 7 p.m. and Island 16 Cinema de Lux, 185 Morris Ave, Holtsville at 7 p.m. To order tickets in advance, visit www.fathomevents.com.

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Anya Taylor-Joy, left, and Thomasin McKenzie in a scene from the film. Photo courtesy of Focus Features

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

Director Edgar Wright’s best-known work includes Hot Fuzz, Shaun of the Dead, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, and Baby Driver. In a strong departure from his more satiric work, Last Night in Soho is an entertaining psychological thriller, mixing familiar tropes with clever, original ideas. Wright nods towards British horror films of an earlier era and a shadowy look at the “Swinging Sixties.” If the ending does not quite live up to its potential, it is a minor cavil in a fast-paced two hours.

Eloise (a riveting Thomasin McKenzie) leaves her sheltered Cornwall home for London to study fashion design. After her mother’s death (due to an unspecified mental illness that drove her to suicide), “Ellie” was raised by her grandmother (fluttering and supportive Rita Tushingham). Ellie has two passions: fashion and the 1960s, illustrated in a spot-on (if a bit on-the-nose) opening with her dancing in a newspaper gown to the sounds of “A World Without Love.” However, rather than feeling precious, there is more than a hint of frailty and even menace in a seemingly benign sequence.

Anya Taylor-Joy, left, and Thomasin McKenzie in a scene from the film. Photo courtesy of Parisa Taghizadeh / Focus Features

While anxious to have a career in high fashion to which her mother aspired, scholarship student Ellie finds the cutthroat university world overwhelming. Her roommate, mean girl Jocasta (Synnøve Karlsen, doing the best she can with the caricature), drives her out of their shared student housing. 

Ellie rents a top-floor apartment from the no-nonsense Ms. Collins (the final performance of the great Diana Rigg). Once ensconced in the bedsitter, Ellie begins having visions of Sandie (The Queen’s Gambit’s Anya Taylor-Joy, radiant and disturbed in equal measure). Sandie is a self-assured would-be singer in an idealized, peripatetic 1960s London.

Whether Ellie is transported back to 1965 or is having visions (or both) is part of the premise. Sometimes she sees herself reflected as Sandie. Other times, Ellie is outside Sandie, watching her. In any case, she experiences what Sandie does. At first, Ellie is delighted, finding joy in the new feelings. But quickly, the encounters turn. A talent manager, Jack (Matt Smith, oily and dangerous), engages Sandie. But Jack is a vicious, manipulative pimp, and Sandie’s life becomes a nightmare from which Ellie cannot escape.

Terence Stamp makes the most of a mysterious gentleman who seems to straddle both worlds, haunting Ellie in the pub where she has taken a job as well as the neighborhood itself. Michael Ajao’s John is warm and fully present as the fellow student who has feelings for Ellie. He owns the tricky balance of supporting Ellie but not furthering what he perceives as her delusions. 

Rigg mines depth in the wry and knowing landlady, with a final scene that skirts predictability through a dimensional, effortless, and mesmerizing performance. 

The film is strongest when it leans into the psychological elements of the story. The screenplay, by director Wright, along with Krysty Wilson-Cairns, presents two conflicted heroines. 

Ellie battles with inner demons that prevent her from adjusting to city life. The struggles are fully awakened—and acerbated—by her presence in the room where Sandie lived. Sandie fights the terrors of her horrific day-to-day life of fear and forced prostitution. Wright has created a relationship that is complementary and symbiotic and that somehow runs parallel and intersects. 

Both McKenzie and Taylor-Joy give extraordinary, textured performances, showing two individuals in search of identity. (There are some obvious but nonetheless telling moments dealing with names.) Both actors palpably manifest a powerful connection in their disconnected worlds.

Wright has used his soundtrack to great advantage, using the songs as commentary on the narrative. The nearly two dozen numbers include “Wishin’ and Hopin’,” “You’re My World,” “Puppet on a String,” “(Love Is Like a) Heatwave,” “Don’t Throw Your Love Away,” and Taylor-Joy’s acapella rendition of Petula Clark’s signature “Downtown” which is simultaneously alluring and chilling.

Clearly, Roman Polanski’s Repulsion has inspired Wright; the 1965 Catherine Deneuve film dealt with sex, violence, and a descent into madness. Where Last Night in Soho is weakest is in the horror department. The spirits take on an almost creature-feature appearance and undermine the more cerebral, edgier aspects. Cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung presents a muted present-day London while the flashbacks are initially vivid and colorful before shifting to darker hues as Sandie’s world crumbles.

While by no means a perfect film, Last Night in Soho is an excellent antidote for mindless slasher films (Halloween Kills) that seem to spring up this time of year. The film offers strong performances and an entertaining, twisty addition to the world of psychological thrillers. 

Rated R, Last Night in Soho is now playing in local theaters.

Nick Castle as Michael Myers in a scene from the film. Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

The Halloween franchise boasts eleven films, including seven in the first series (with the third an unconnected entry), a reboot, and a continuation of its premiere track. The most recent, Halloween (2018), is now joined by Halloween Kills.

Jamie Lee Curtis and Judy Greer in a scene from the film. Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures

While falling into the category of “slasher movie,” Halloween (1978) remains one of the finest thrillers. Taut, brooding, and atmospheric, it relied on shadows, tension, and an unforgettable score to create its horror. John Carpenter directed and co-wrote the film that remains definitive in the genre. In addition, the film catapulted its lead, Jamie Lee Curtis, to Scream Queen stardom. She presented Laurie Strode as a self-actualized and resourceful heroine. Curtis would reprise the role four more times in addition to Halloween Kills and Halloween Ends (projected for release in 2022).

Ignoring much of the mythology developed during the progressively less inspired sequels, the well-received Halloween (2018) picked up forty years after the original film, with institutionalized killer Michael Myers (once again Nick Castle and James Jude Courtney) escaping while being transferred to a maximum-security prison. After returning to Haddonfield and embarking on a killing spree, he “dies” in Laurie’s burning home. The film emphasized Laurie as a wounded survivor, finding the inner strength to confront her living nightmare. The script—by Jeff Fradley, Danny McBride, and David Gordon Green—honored the story’s roots. Carpenter praised the outing, noting the strength of the screenplay and Green’s direction.

It would be easy to say things like Halloween Kills … an hour and forty-six minutes of your life. Or Halloween Kills … the desire to go to the movies. Or Halloween Kills … a franchise. It would be easy to pick this low-hanging fruit. So, I won’t say any of those things. 

Halloween Kills is a movie cobbled together with brutal violence and an absence of actual conflict. It serves as a placeholder between the first film, which reintroduced the characters, and the third (and hopefully final) chapter that concludes Laurie’s journey. That Michael Myers must survive to complete the trilogy is a given. Nevertheless, it does not need to be so painfully generic. In the first fifteen minutes, Michael slaughters an entire team of first responders. What follows is one meaningless killing after another.

The film makes the egregious error of showing flashbacks to the Halloween (and Halloween) of 1978. However, these newly shot scenes lack the meditative, shadowed world of the original. Instead, they are overwrought, introducing information with only the slightest nod towards character development. Additionally, the use of footage of Donald Pleasance (the powerful, understated Dr. Loomis of the source film) is a reminder of the complete absence of style and substance in this newest incarnation.

Having been stabbed in the abdomen, Laurie spends almost the entire film in a hospital bed (shades of Halloween II’s hospital location). Sidelining the strongest character is a mistake. Saddling an actor of Jamie Lee Curtis’s caliber with embarrassingly clumsy dialogue is a crime.

The roster of townspeople is a mix of new characters and shout-outs to minor characters in the original. Some of the 1978 cast returns to play themselves forty years later; others are the grown-up versions of the children hunted that fateful night. 

Anthony Michael Hall is the adult Tommy, the boy Laurie was babysitting. The role edges to slightly more than one dimension. At a bar talent night(!), Tommy shares the story of “The Bogeyman,” who terrorized the town. His character misfires on every level, trading trauma for campfire whimsy and rally-round-the-pitchfork-boys. Among the new victims for the stalk-dispatch-repeat are an African American couple (she’s a doctor; he’s a nurse) and a gay couple (Big John and Little John). Please don’t get too invested in the diversity; they are all undefined fodder for the knife.

Worst of all, in a nod to topicality, the creators introduce the dangers of mob mentality and vigilante justice. “Evil dies tonight!” they chant. Multiple times. Declarations such as “No, he’s turning us into monsters,” “The more he kills, the more he transcends,” and “He is the essence of evil” don’t elevate the situation.

The performances never overstep the awkward script. Judy Greer (as Karen Nelson, Laurie’s daughter), Andi Matichak (as Allyson Nelson, Laurie’s granddaughter),  and Will Patton (as Deputy Frank Hawkins) continue their paths from Halloween (2018). Greer, a talented actor, is a cipher. It is also hard to believe that her husband was murdered by Michael this same night. It is as if the year between the release of the films has allowed her to accept it. The storyline and timeline are bizarrely disconnected. 

For those looking for a predictable, sadistic bloodbath, Halloween Kills might be for you. But, for those hoping for plot, motivation, thought, tone, and engagement … well, there’s always next Halloween. Rated R, the film is now playing in local theaters.

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Other seasonal fair to consider: the Candyman reboot; Malignant, the twisty thriller from James Wan; Lamb, the story of a human/sheep hybrid; Last Night in Soho, a psychological time-travel film with a horror overtone; malevolent forces in Shepherd; and the supernatural creature-feature Antlers, starring Keri Russell. (Please note: These films have not been reviewed by TBR News Media.)