Movie Review

Movie Night at the Vanderbilt

Suffolk County Vanderbilt Museum, 180 Little Neck Road, Centerport continues its movie night series with a screening of “Mr. Popper’s Penguins” starring Jim Carrey on Friday, Sept. 25 and Saturday, Sept. 26 at 7:30 p.m. Admission for those who sit in their cars is $40 per carload, $34 for members. Bring lawn chairs and sit outside: admission is $30 per carload, $24 for members. Come early, bring a picnic to enjoy on the grounds at 6:30 p.m. Snacks and ice cream will be available for purchase. Tickets for this fundraising event are available online only at www.vanderbiltmuseum.org. No tickets will be sold at the gate. Questions? Call 854-5579.

Ethan Hawke as the visionary Nikola Tesla. Photo from IFC Films

Reviewed By Jeffrey Sanzel

After dropping out of Harvard, writer-director-producer Michael Almereyda got a Hollywood agent based on a spec script about inventor and innovator Nikola Tesla. Tesla now arrives in theaters (and streaming) some three decades later. In the meantime, Almereyda has made over two dozen films, ranging from shorts to feature length to documentaries. He has worked with many of the same actors over the years — in this case reuniting with Ethan Hawke (who starred in Almereyda’s modern-dress Hamlet), Kyle MacLachlan, and Jim Gaffigan.

Kyle MacLachlan plays Thomas Edison, Tesla’s frenemy and rival in the film. Photo from IFC Films

The film is not a complete biopic but instead begins in 1884 when Tesla was unhappily working for Thomas Edison in his workshop. It quickly presents their incompatibility and Tesla’s subsequent embarkation on an independent path. The focus is on the battle between Edison’s direct current and Tesla’s alternate current. (Some of this material was covered in Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s The Current War, which emphasized the business competition between Edison and George Westinghouse with Benedict Cumberbatch as the former, Michael Shannon as the latter, and Nicholas Hoult in the less prominent role of Tesla.)

The structure of Tesla is eclectic. It is narrated by Anne Morgan, daughter of mogul J.P. Morgan, who later bankrolls Tesla. Dressed in period garb, she talks to the camera, referencing her laptop, and siting Google searches. This sets the tone for what is going to be an unconventional structure. The visual elements are highly stylized, with scenes often played out against enlarged photos, painted backdrops, or stock footage.  Sometimes this is highly effective; other times it has the feel of the cheaply made educational films of the 60’s and 70’s.

There is nothing wrong with this strange, theatrical tactic. Often, the unexpected vision or rough approach bring the explored world into a different focus by not enslaving it to its period. The result can present old concepts in new lights. When this fails, works such as these can still succeed as a triumph of style over substance. Unfortunately, Tesla is no triumph. The scenes that are part of the historical narrative are meandering, with a lot of mumbling scientific jargon that is no doubt well-researched and accurate, but make for very slow going.

Tesla should not be a history report: It should engage on some visceral level. The surrounding structure is uniquely artistic and unpredictable; the content plays as pedestrian. The result is like a pie with an amazing and complex crust but a bland, tasteless filling.

There is a wonderful scene that ends in a small food fight between Edison and Tesla. This, like several other moments, are then corrected as only fantasy. The random appearance of a cellphone is a slyly introduced anachronism. This is where the film delights and surprises. The speculation, the what-if’s, and the flights of fancy engage us for a few moments but then we drift back into soporific stupor. There is great deal espoused about idealism versus capitalism and creation versus commerce. All are important concepts but they are not presented in any dramatic fashion.

When Tesla sets up his laboratory at Wardenclyffe in Shoreham, there are enough lightning flashes and electrical storms for half a dozen Frankenstein movies. It is stretches like these that seem to go on with little purpose.

Ethan Hawke makes Tesla a brooding genius, full of tics and OCD. As always, he fully commits to the role and delivers the best he can. But the problem is we never really learn who Tesla is. In many ways, he is a cipher at the center of his own story. Kyle MacLachlan’s Edison is an egotist of epic proportion but allows flashes of doubt to peek through. There are occasional sparks between them and the rivalry between these dysfunctional geniuses offer the strongest sequences. If only there were more.

Eve Hewson’s Anne Morgan is a fully-realized character, the underlying but never spoken love for Tesla a driving factor. She makes the  marveling at his genius and exasperation with his inability to communicate completely natural. Jim Gaffigan is a blowsy and sincere George Westinghouse and loses himself in the character. J.P. Morgan, as played by Donnie Keshawarz, enters late and is a borderline melodrama villain.

Rebecca Dayan as the grand dame of the theatre, Sarah Bernhardt, steers her away from the dangers of caricature, and her fascination with Tesla is intriguing if not fully explored. The rest of the cast are given one note each to play, and they struggle along with the weightier sections of exposition.

There are at least half a dozen electrical references that could be made to cleverly sum-up Tesla — comments about random sparks or broken circuits. But, ultimately, it is much simpler than that: The film just doesn’t work.

Tesla is rated PG-13 for some thematic material and some nudity.

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Photo courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

Disney has raided its vault over the last several years, producing live-action remakes of some of its most successful animated features. These have included Beauty and the Beast, Dumbo, The Lion King, Cinderella, The Jungle Book, and Aladdin. There are others that are in various stages of development:  Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, The Little Mermaid, Hercules, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and Pinocchio

Disney’s latest is Mulan, based on the 1998 cartoon, as well as its source, Ballad of Mulan, by Guo Moaqian.

A scene from the film.

The premise has remained the same. To defend the country from invaders, the Emperor of China decrees that one man from each family must service in the Imperial Army. Disguised as a man, Mulan takes the place of her war-wounded father. It is a story of inner-strength, loyalty, and bravery in the face of fear.

As a soldier, Mulan reaches her full potential and saves the country, earning both the respect of her family and the citizens of the grateful nation. Mulan takes her place with some of Disney’s stronger female characters, including Merida (Brave), Anna and Elsa (Frozen), and Tiana (The Princess and the Frog).

The original version of Mulan has the classic Disney take. While it deals with serious issues, it leans towards the humorous, aimed at younger viewers: a talking dragon sidekick (Eddie Murphy, basically doing his Donkey from Shrek), a cute cricket along for good luck, singing and dancing ancestral ghosts, and a hodgepodge of goofy soldiers.  It builds up to the latter group in drag as concubines, a rather false note in an otherwise entertaining outing that still brings home its messages.

The new version eschews almost all lightness, and, instead, is a more demanding and rough-hewn journey. An added prologue shows the child Mulan and her ability to harness her chi. Chi is defined as “vital energy that is held to animate the body internally.” Here, it is also given an additional mystical context, one in this world that is only associated with men, and, in particular, warriors. Mulan is discouraged by her family to show this power, but it is of value when unleashed in her male persona, Hua Jun.

A great deal of the first half of the film is taken up with the training of the soldiers. Just as in the cartoon, they are taught and challenged and Mulan’s skill and power comes to the surface. This is followed by multiple battles before the final confrontation.

A scene from the film.

The invaders are lead by Bori Khan, a Rouran warrior leader, who is bent on avenging his father’s death, a man who was slain by the Emperor. His followers are black clad villains who look like Ninja’s by way of Sons of Anarchy. They are being assisted by Xian Lang, a shapeshifting witch with extraordinary abilities; she serves as a sort of mirror image to Mulan. Unfortunately, the interesting parallel is introduced but never fully developed. Unlike the whimsical supernatural components of the original, here they are powerful and often deadly. It is unfortunate that, along with the parallels between Mulan and the witch, they are all left a bit vague.

Mulan also plays a great emphasis on the importance of family. Both versions show this but it is stronger in the new incarnation.  The fact that the romantic element from the first film has been removed — there is a faint hint of it — focuses Mulan’s desire to honor family above all else, from beginning to end.

The design is bold and colorful (its biggest nod towards its Disney root), and the settings, shot in China and New Zealand, are expansive and beautiful. Whether village, training camp, or the breathtaking Imperial Palace, there is a wealth of detail. Nothing in the film feels CGI and that is a big point in its favor. It all feels very present.

The cast is uniformly strong and all involved are committed to the material and the world in which the story takes place.  The performances come across as honest and, while the dialogue is limited, there is an integrity.

Liu Yifei (center), as Mulan, in a scene from the film.

Liu Yifei is superb as Mulan and strikes just the right quality in her alternate guise; she carries the film with the right mix of struggle and pride. Donnie Yen’s Commander Tung makes the Imperial Army leader human. As the almost-love interest, Chen Honghui, Yoson An is easygoing and earnest, in equal turns. Gong Li makes the most of the underwritten witch. Jason Scott Lee’s Bori Khan is a villain with a capital V. Jet Li’s Emperor is both regal and compassionate. Tzi Ma and Rosalind Chao do well with their limited screen time as Mulan’s concerned but loving parents. The assorted recruits are played well-enough but are more types than fully-realized individuals.

Both original and remake were written by a team of writers. Here Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, Lauren Hynek, and Elizabeth Martin have taken elements of the 1998 but have fashioned a very different product. They have wisely removed the handful of songs and used them as underscoring as the current version would have made a rather peculiar musical. Niki Caro has directed it with a sure and bold hand. The team have brought out the important theme of the equality of women from a modern point-of-view — but that is in the film’s favor.

The biggest question comes down to this:  Who is the audience? It is certainly too dark and too violent for young children. There are many battles with multiple deaths in each one. And while we never see a drop of blood, plenty are shot through with arrows or felled by sword and spear. But adults might find it all too simplistic. There isn’t a great deal of suspense and, with few exceptions, the scenes play to forgone conclusions.

Mulan is sincere and epic and, for the most part, entertaining. Its messages of loyalty and fairness are strong and important. It is stunning to look at and well-acted. But it will remain a film in search of its audience.

Rated  PG-13, Mulan is now streaming on Disney Plus.

'Star Wars: A New Hope' kicks off this weekend's round of movies on Sept. 11 at 8 p.m.

Based on a successful summer season, Long Island event producer Starfish Junction has announced it will continue its pop-up drive-in movie series, Movie Lot, at the Smith Haven Mall in Lake Grove through the fall. The series has entertained over 4,000 cars since it launched in May.

“We’re working on a fantastic lineup for fall. We’ve had such a positive response to the summer series that we decided to extend the drive-in movies into the fall season. We’ve got some awesome movies coming for the next few weeks and we’re currently finalizing plans for a Halloween spooktacular weekend, with movies sure to appeal to both kids and adults,” said Lauren Powers, Senior Director at Starfish Junction. 

While drive-in theaters have been staging a comeback across the country, Starfish Junction has positioned itself as one of the leaders here on Long Island, owning the biggest pop-up drive-in screen, 52-feet, available locally. Future showings will include movies perfect for date nights, family fun nights, girl’s night out, sing-alongs, and classic films.   

There are a limited number of tickets available for each showing. Tickets are on sale now ($40 per carload for early shows, $30 per carload for late night shows) and must be purchased online in advance at the Movie Lot website to adhere to the promise of contactless processing.

Ticketholders are permitted to bring their own food and snacks to enjoy during the show. Attendees may also consider Smith Haven Mall restaurants for curbside pick up before filing into the lot for the movie.  Portable restrooms will be available for use and the showings will take place rain or shine. All ticket sales are final. For tickets and more information, visit www.MovieLotDriveIn.com.

The film festival kicks off tonight with a screening of 'Dreamfactory.'

If the pandemic of 2020 has done anything, it has made us realize how small the world truly is – and how alike we all are in our hopes, dreams, fears and failings. This year, more than ever, thought-provoking and innovative films introduce us to inspiring characters and transport us to new worlds, all from the comfort and safety of our homes.

For the first time in its 25-year history, the Stony Brook Film Festival, presented by Island Federal, moves from a 10-day live event to a 12-week virtual festival starting tonight, Sept. 10, at 7 p.m. and closing with a live Awards Ceremony on Dec. 15.

The films, which can be watched on all platforms and devices in your home including FireTV, AndroidTV, AppleTV, Roku, Chromecast and GooglePlay, feature 24 new and independent premieres from a dozen countries including the United States, Israel, Germany, Hungary, Poland, France, Switzerland, New Zealand, Canada and Portugal. Each feature is preceded by a short film.

The exciting lineup offers stories of every genre: comedy, coming of age, romance, drama and documentaries with many of the films sharing a theme of life interrupted, a universal topic many can relate to as we navigate the COVID-19 pandemic.

“In these very uncertain and precarious times we find ourselves in we hope the mix of these socially conscience films balanced with uplifting, often fun and joyous stories, with spectacular performances, will provide the stimulation and entertainment we are all so desperately craving,” said festival director Alan Inkles.

The Festival kicks off tonight with the American premiere of Dreamfactory, the romantic story between two movie extras who are torn apart when East Germany closes its border and erects the Berlin Wall. An epic tale told against the backdrop of history, this film is part comedy, part musical, part romance, and a pure joy from beginning to end.

Tickets are available as an all-access, 12-week pass for $60 or may be purchased as a single ticket for each film for $6. The pass for 24 films allows 72 hours each week for viewers to watch and re-watch the weekly line-up. It also includes exclusive filmmaker interviews and Q&As with directors, cast and crew, as well as behind-the-scenes footage and back stories. For more information, visit stonybrookfilmfestival.com or call 631-632-ARTS [2787].

Film schedule:

September 10

FEATURE: Dreamfactory (Germany)

SHORT: Extra Innings (United States)

September 17

FEATURE: The Subject (United States)

SHORT: Corners (United States)

September 24

FEATURE: Those Who Remained (Hungary)

SHORT: Sticker (Macedonia)

October 1

FEATURE: Of Love and Lies (France/Belgium)

SHORT: Generation Lockdown (United States)

October 8

FEATURE: When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit

(Germany/Switzerland)

SHORT: Walk a Mile (New Zealand)

October 15

FEATURE: The Art of Waiting (Israel)

SHORT: Waterproof (United States)

October 22

FEATURE: Higher Love (United States)

SHORT: A Simple F*cking Gesture (Canada)

November 5

FEATURE: Long Time No See (France)

SHORT: Touch (Israel)

November 12

FEATURE: Submission (Portugal)

SHORT: They Won’t Last (United States)

November 19

FEATURE: Relativity (Germany)

SHORT: Forêt Noire (France/Canada)

December 3

FEATURE: On the Quiet (Hungary)

SHORT: Jane (United States)

December 10

FEATURE: My Name is Sara (United States)

SHORT: Maradona’s Legs (Germany/Palestine)

December 15

CLOSING NIGHT AWARDS CEREMONY LIVE 7 p.m.

* Please note: All films in the Stony Brook Film Festival are premiere screenings and have not been rated. Viewer discretion is advised. Films are available to begin streaming at 7 p.m. on Thursdays.

Vanderbilt Movie Night

Suffolk County Vanderbilt Museum, 180 Little Neck Road, Centerport continues its outdoor movie night series with a screening of “Ice Age” (Rated PG) tonight and Sept. 12 at 8 p.m. Admission for those who sit in their cars is $40 per carload, $34 for members. Bring lawn chairs and sit outside: admission is $30 per carload, $24 for members. Feel free to bring a blanket and arrive at 7 p.m. to picnic on the lawn. Snacks and ice cream will be available for purchase. Tickets for this fundraising event are available online only at www.vanderbiltmuseum.org. No tickets will be sold at the gate. Questions? Call 854-5579.

In a scene from the film, the Allman Brothers Band pose with Jimmy Carter at a benefit concert for the presidential candidate in 1975. Photo from PJDS

The Port Jefferson Documentary Series kicks off its 26th season on Monday Sept. 14 with an outdoor screening of “Jimmy Carter: Rock and Roll President” at the Harborfront Park, 101 E. Broadway, Port Jefferson at 7 p.m. This fascinating documentary charts the mostly forgotten story of how Jimmy Carter, a lover of all types of music, forged a tight bond with musicians Willie Nelson, the Allman Brothers, Bob Dylan and others. Director Mary Wharton assembles a star cast including Trisha Yearwood, Garth Brooks, Nelson, Dylan and Bono and fills the soundtrack with Southern rock, gospel, jazz, and classical. Bring seating and a mask. Rain date is Sept. 15. Advance tickets only are $10 at www.portjeffdocumentaryseries.com/ticketsvenues.

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Tatyana McFadden of the United States competes in the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games in 2016. Photo by Matthew Stockman

Reviewed By Jeffrey Sanzel

The new Netflix documentary Rising Phoenix is a poignantly heartfelt and honest look at the Paralympics. But, first and last, is about athletes. They face challenges that are sometimes unfathomable, but their goals and their drive are a tribute to the passion for success and the will of the human spirit. There is no better or more powerful example of turning negatives into positives.

The Paralympic games are populated by a range of differently-able athletes, and they have grown to be the third largest sporting event in the world, drawing thousands of participants from over one hundred countries. Prince Harry, who founded the wounded warrior Invictus Games, observes that you are watching something “you’ve been taught is impossible.”

Focusing on nine athletes from seven different countries, this is an exceptional film.  The documentary alternates between interviews with the athletes, footage of them competing, and archival clips of them throughout their lives. It is some of the latter shots that stay with the viewer as they often trace the athletes from infancy and childhood through the present day, offering a glimpse into their incredible paths.

In addition, three past and present members of the International Paralympic Committee —Andrew Parsons, Sir Philip Craven, and Xavier Gonzalez — give insight into the difficulties and challenges of organization and funding, most notably with the Rio Olympics of 2016.

Throughout, the history of the Paralympics is introduced in short spurts, much through interviews with its founder’s daughter, Eva Loeffler. The seed for the games was sown by Loeffler’s father Dr. Ludwig Guttmann, a German-Jewish refugee, who brought his family to England in 1939. Guttmann, a neurosurgeon, began treating soldiers with spinal injuries. Their plight and his work with them inspired him to create a sports competition at the Stoke Mandeville Hospital.

The first, with sixteen participants, was held to coincide with the 1948 Olympics; the second was held in 1952. It was the latter that welcomed the first international competitors, with the addition of Dutch and Israeli veterans.  It was these Stoke Mandeville Games that were the precursor of the first official Paralympic Games, held in Rome in 1960. From then on, the games grew in size and fame. Since 1988, the Paralympics have almost always been held immediately following the Olympics.

Rising Phoenix does not explain in detail the structure of the event nor does it detail the breakdown of categories. (Because of the wide variety of disabilities that Paralympic athletes have, there are actually ten eligible impairment types.) Instead, the creators wisely focus on individual athletes with a variety of backgrounds and challenges.

The title of the film is taken from Bebe Vio, a young Italian athlete who competes in wheelchair fencing. Already a successful competitor, she was struck with meningitis at age eleven which caused the necessity of the amputation of both her arms and legs. But, like the phoenix, she rose again and returned to her passion.  Her moments on camera are some of the most vivid; her drive and enthusiasm are mesmerizing. She is fully present, practically leaping off the screen.

Each narrative is unique but the bond that connects them is the will to play and to play to win.

Tatyana McFadden was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, afflicted with spina bifida, paralyzed from the waist down. The earliest part of her life was in Orphanage Number 13. She had no wheelchair and had to scoot across the floor. In 1993, at age six, she was adopted by an American family. With unflagging parental support, she was encouraged to pursue her athletic passions. She and her family sued for the right to participate in high school sports. The winning of the case ushered in the Sports and Fitness Equity Law.

McFadden has dozens of awards and holds multiple world records — a fact brought in during an interview clip from the Ellen DeGeneres show. At a Winter Paralympics, we see her reunited with her birth mother. (It should be noted, that McFadden is also one of the producers of Rising Phoenix.)

Great Britain’s Jonnie Peacock is shown beating the famous and now infamous Oscar Pistorius in the 100 meter. Australian swimmer Ellie Cole lost her leg to cancer at age ten but is one of the top swimmers in this world competition. Matt Stutzman, of the U.S., is an archer born without arms; he tells the story of his adoption and the love of his siblings. Cui Zhe, a Chinese powerlifter, speaks of the improved attitude towards the disabled since the Beijing 2008 Olympics and subsequent Paralympics.

Because of a wealth of pictures and family video, we get a real portrait into the arc of Australian Ryley Batt’s journey. Born missing both legs and several fingers, it was the love of his grandfather and the man’s belief in him that gave him the support that he needed. A fierce player and a self-described adrenaline junkie, he had many highs and lows but has risen through the ranks of wheelchair rugby — appropriately nicknamed “murderball.”

Ntando Mahlangu, of South Africa, speaks of the shame of a family having a disabled child. The Cheetah blades on which he runs enabled him to look people in the eye after twenty years in a wheelchair. These prosthetics have given him the freedom and joy of movement. 

Possibly the most gut-wrenching story belongs to Jean-Baptiste Alaize. At three years old, Alaize’s leg was cut-off with a machete during the Burundian Civil War; he then watched the murder of his mother. He spent the next number of years in an orphanage before being adopted by a French family. For him, running has been part of his escape. “Falling and getting back up again is life.” The film captures his pain but also his surviving courage.

The film builds up to the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Paralympics that almost didn’t happen. Due to financial mismanagement, the Brazilian Olympic committee had used money designated for the Paralympics towards the Olympics themselves. Just weeks before, there was the danger of cancellation. The film’s telling of this is done with the fluidity and tension of a thriller. Fortunately, through last-minute machinations, the event went forward.

Directors Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui and cinematographer Will Pugh have done flawless work creating a tapestry of rich and diverse stories with a unified theme:  Giving up is never an option.

The use of slow-motion and replay along with Greco-statues of the nine participants further elevate this from a traditional documentary. They don’t ignore the darker aspects — the often lack of respect or inclusion — but they celebrate all that is wonderful. They honor the hundreds and often thousands of hours of training, of winning and losing, and of making what seems impossible is possible. The viewer can’t help but be drawn in and deeply, deeply moved by this cinematic achievement.

As Jean-Baptiste Alaize states:  “My disability is my strength.”  Rising Phoenix more than just pays tribute to an important world event.  It shares the faces and the voices of people who truly understand the intersection of diversity and excellence.

Rated PG-13, Rising Phoenix is now streaming on Netflix.

'The Greatest Showman'

Vanderbilt Movie Night

Suffolk County Vanderbilt Museum, 180 Little Neck Road, Centerport continues its movie night series with a screening of “The Greatest Showman” (rated PG),  the story of legendary circus promoter P.T. Barnum, starring Hugh Jackman tonight and Sept. 5 at 8 p.m.

Admission for those who sit in their cars is $40 per carload, $34 for members. Bring lawn chairs and sit outside: admission is $30 per carload, $24 for members. Feel free to bring a blanket and arrive at 7 p.m. to picnic on the lawn. Snacks and ice cream will be available for purchase. Tickets for this fundraising event are available online only at www.vanderbiltmuseum.org. No tickets will be sold at the gate. Questions? Call 854-5579.

'Keeping Up with the Steins'
A scene from ‘Keeping Up with the Steins’

Save the date! Temple Beth Chai, 870 Townline Road, Hauppauge hosts a special outdoor screening of  “Keeping Up with the Steins” on Saturday, Sept. 26 at 8 p.m. Gates open at 7:45 p.m. Tickets are $25 per vehicle and must be purchased in advance. For further information, call Penny at 631-724-5807 or email [email protected]