Movie Review

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Richard Jenkins, Debra Winger and Evan Rachel Wood in a scene from the film.

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

Currently streaming on demand, Kajillionaire is either a very bleak comedy or a humorously edgy drama. Both disturbing and honest, it is a measured film, taking its time, but it never loses the tension that is introduced from its very first moments. Credit for this goes to the clear vision and masterful creativity of writer-director Miranda July who is working with a company of perfectly cast actors.

Kajillionaire is the story of a family of con artists living a hand-to-mouth existence in California. Robert and Theresa Dyne (Richard Jenkins and Debra Winger) and their twenty-six-year-old daughter, Old Dolio (Evan Rachel Wood), are petty criminals with an emphasis on petty.

Richard Jenkins, Debra Winger and Evan Rachel Wood in a scene from the film.

Robert states flatly that he doesn’t want to be a “kajillionaire” — he’s very happy to just “skim.” Their crimes are predominantly minor, such as stealing from post office boxes or returning stolen goods. They perk-up at the possibility of the daughter earning $20 for covering a girl’s court-ordered attendance at a child-rearing class. They are minimalists in every sense of the word. Currently, they are three months behind on their rent — a $500 a-month office space connected to a soap factory that leaks bubbles into the living space at least once a day.

They are a codependent trio but are completely disconnected. Old Dolio is treated as an equal partner — she gets one third of the take — but strangely not as family. There is no sense of there ever having been parental guidance, interpersonal relationships, or love. Compared to the Dynes, the Kim family of Parasite are the Cleavers.

Everything changes when Old Dolio comes up with a scam that involves lost luggage, insurance, and a trip to New York.  On the return flight, the parents are seated with a gregarious young woman, Melanie (Gina Rodriguez), who they befriend and then enlist to aid them. Robert and Theresa take to her and begin treating Melanie as a daughter. The true dysfunction of this turns much darker as the film progresses, building up to a particularly uncomfortable encounter centered around a hot tub.    

Melanie, an optician’s assistant, is drawn to the family’s off-beat existence and proposes a job that involves finagling antiques out of her elderly clients. In one of the most powerful scenes in the film, a bedridden, dying man (Michael Twaine) asks them to make the sounds of a family. In a hideous lampoon of normalcy, they create idle chatter, underscored with the rattling of silverware and the playing of the piano.

In the meantime, Old Dolio becomes both intrigued by and jealous of Melanie. What starts off adversarial shifts to something almost undefinable, all hinging on a single word: “Hon.” What ensues is both uplifting and devastating as Old Dolio becomes aware of her family’s emotional bankruptcy. The climax is both surprising and inevitable.

Gina Rodriguez and Evan Rachel Wood in a scene from the film.

To be sure, the Dynes are not the colorful cons of Hollywood movies. These are cheaters of the lowest sort, alternating between a sort of manic assuredness and twitchy doubt, second guessing their choices in a life that is a perpetual scrabble. There are also bursts of paranoia that derail them, resulting in flashes of anger. In addition to the minor rip-offs, they are entering contests under various names, winning things that they can never use. They are the definition of survival at its meanest, dragging through their days. This near-deadness is most pronounced in the neglected and, ultimately, emotionally starved and abused daughter.

Jenkins is an odd mixture of alpha and bumbler, a destructive father from hell. And yet seemingly, he is unaware that he is being anything other than kind. He wears so many masks, it is impossible to tell which is the true Robert. It is a detailed performance that bears re-watching.

Winger, practically unrecognizable as Theresa, is the almost fanatically committed wife whose child is nothing more than an appendage. She sees Old Dolio as utilitarian — someone who works with the family. She believes that her daughter is incapable of feeling so invests not even the slightest warmth into their dealings. It is a chilling, understated performance.

Rodriguez brings both charm and reality to Melanie. She makes Melanie incredibly present, a wonderful contrast with the others’ absence. She manages to imbue every moment as an opportunity for growth. While easily engaged, she is not a fool. The light of kindness radiates in Rodriguez’s Melanie. “Most happiness comes from like, dumb things,” she says, while making Old Dolio pancakes, part of a strange agreement that drives the latter part of the film. She understands the joy in even the smallest kindnesses.

But, if it is anyone’s film, it belongs to Evan Rachel Wood. Her ability to portray the pain of the emotionally stunted Old Dolio permeates every moment. She is both incredibly graceful and agonizingly awkward. Her face during the faux family scene for the dying man is a study in heartbreak. Even in her complete stillness, she projects a lifetime of confusion and disappointment. The film is her journey to the awareness of her dangerous addiction to her family.

Kajillionaire is not an easy film to watch. Its edge is as sharp as a scalpel. It is a portrait of an incomplete family at its ugliest. And yet, underneath it all, July finds light and hope in a dark and disturbing world.

AMC Stony Brook 17, 2196 Nesconset Highway, Stony Brook presents a screening of Annie (1982) on Sunday, Nov. 22  at noon and 4 p.m., courtesy of Fathom Events.

Based on one of the most popular comic strips of all time and adapted from the smash Broadway musical, Annie is set in Depression-era New York City, where a spunky little girl (Aileen Quinn) lives in an orphanage run by the boozy, tyrannical Miss Hannigan (Carol Burnett). Annie’s hopes soar when multigazillionaire Oliver Warbucks (Albert Finney) decides to take in an orphan for a week to “upgrade his image.” She gets herself chosen, gradually Annie and her adopted dog, Sandy, ingratiate themselves, and eventually Warbucks adopts the girl. But his search for Annie’s missing parents turns up only the villainous Rooster (Tim Curry) and his venal girlfriend, Lily (Bernadette Peters), who conspire with Miss Hannigan to relieve Warbucks of both the girl and a hefty reward. It is left to Sandy, the other orphans and Daddy Warbucks to rescue Annie before it’s too late.

The sun is coming out on this special event that includes exclusive insights from Turner Classic Movies.

Order tickets at www.fathomevents.com.

Julius Feldmeier and Saskia Rosendahl in a scene from 'Relativity'

Stony Brook Film Festival

Stony Brook University’s Staller Center for the Arts continues its 25th annual Stony Brook Film Festival virtually on Nov. 19 at 7 p.m. with a screening of the short film Forêt Noire followed by the feature film Relativity.

“Forêt Noire”: A judge orders the re-enactment of a crime scene to shed light on some inconsistencies in a murder case. In French with subtitles.

“Relativity”: Nora and Aron meet in the subway on a rainy day and quickly fall in love. Nora sees it as a coincidence, but for Aron, it must be fate. Tragedy strikes, leaving Nora devastated and numb to her feelings, but she eventually lands in Natan’s arms. Though he is a complete stranger, Nora feels like she already knows him, and her increasing sense of déjà vu makes her suspect that something more is going on. A moody and intense sci-fi thriller that keeps you guessing until the end. In German, with subtitles.

An all-access pass is available for $60; individual tickets are also available for $6. Visit www.stonybrookfilmfestival.com or call 631-632-2787.

Emma Roberts and Luke Bracey star in 'Holidate'. Photo courtesy of Netflix

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

“Boy, I hope there’s a really unfunny rom-com to kick-off the holiday season,” said no one ever. But that’s what the Netflix offering Holidate delivers. In place of wit, there is … not wit. Holidate is not even worthy of a deprecatingly clever simile.

The premise is simple and has probably been seen dozens of times. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing. There are many plots that have been revisited over the years. The goal, of course, is to find something fresh, unusual, or intriguing in the situation. Unfortunately, Tiffany Paulsen’s terribly clunky, crass script is further exposed by John Whitesell’s clumsy and pedestrian direction.

Emma Roberts and Luke Bracey in a scene from ‘Holidate’
Photo courtesy of Netflix

Holidate opens with Sloane (Emma Roberts) still reeling from her break-up six months prior. She is having a Christmas from hell in which she is plagued by her family’s constant harping on her singlehood. Sloane is offered advice from her man-chasing Aunt Susan (Kristin Chenoweth) to always have someone to date for the holiday. In Susan’s case, she has brought home a mall Santa.

Across town, Jackson (Luke Bracey) is having a nightmare of his own, spending the holiday with the family of a girl whom he has only dated three times. It is apparent that the young woman thinks that they are in a much more serious relationship, one that she has shared with her eager family.

The next day Sloane and Jackson meet on a department store return line. What comes of this chance encounter is an agreement to be “holidates” for New Year’s Eve. There is not a great deal of background given to either characters. He is a golf pro; she works remotely. She eats junk food; he does not. He’s Australian; she isn’t. And they’re off.

Freed of expectations, this “mismatched” couple has a good time on New Year’s Eve. There is a cute send-up of Dirty Dancing, evoking a smile if not a full-on laugh.   The evening ends awkwardly with Sloane deciding it isn’t worth pursuing.

On Valentine’s Day, Sloane runs into her ex with his new, younger girlfriend.  Jackson (who just happens to be walking by the store) rescues her from complete embarrassment by swooping in, pretending to be her significant other. Realizing that the situation will work for them, they agree to be friends without benefits, committing to all calendar celebrations for the foreseeable future.

The film now begins to traverse a year’s worth of holidays: St. Patrick’s Day, Easter, Cinco de Mayo, Mother’s Day, etc. Each seems to be centered around drinking and almost — but not quite — having sex. While their friendship grows, Sloane’s mother (Frances Fisher) is desperately trying to set her up with the new neighbor, nice guy doctor Faarooq (Manish Dayal).

Fourth of July is particularly eventful with Jackson having a finger blown off as the men launch M-80’s. Sloane takes him to the hospital (where the Faarooq happens to be on-call). His finger is re-attached. There are the stirring of sparks between Sloane and Jackson. Will they? Won’t they? Do we care?

Since this is a rom-com, they get their wires crossed, resulting in a crisis with a Labor Day wedding where they choose to bring other dates. Sloane takes the doctor; Jackson brings Aunt Susan. (The resulting aunt-doctor hookup at the wedding becomes a subplot that can be kindly described as cringeworthy.)

Halloween sees them taking their relationship to the next step. But not before a disgusting laxative encounter. Thanksgiving shows their divide, with a dramatic confrontation that aims for soul-searching but winds up to be just being embarrassing. And guess what happens at Christmas?

Emma Roberts and Kristin Chenoweth in a scene from ‘Holidate’

None of this would be a problem if the film showed a single spark of originality, charm, or warmth. Holidate instead is consistently tasteless — what is less than single entendre? Basically, it’s watered-down Hallmark with an R rating. A raunchy, crude comedy attempting to make a bigger, heartfelt statement. It achieves being the worst of both worlds. Occasionally, they seem to be sending up the genre but this just confuses and contradicts the majority of the film when they are “being real.” You can’t have it both ways. Or at least they can’t.

The problem is further acerbated by performances that lack subtlety and dimension. Emma Roberts is better than this. Of the cast, she comes across the strongest, but she was given a lot of action but little to play. Luke Bracey is handsome but stiff. Kristin Chenoweth, a truly wonderful performer, is painfully miscast as the vamp; every moment feels excruciatingly forced. If she took the role on to expand her range, she didn’t succeed. If she needed the paycheck, a Go Fund Me would have had more dignity.

The rest of the characters (mostly trope cooky family members) come and go but the director’s complete lack of vision gave no consistent style in which the actors could invest. As a bonus, there are the requisite precocious children who make adult observations and occasionally inappropriate comments.

In the final scene, there was one of maybe three genuinely funny moments in the movie. It involves a Christmas choir at the mall. But one bright note does not a symphony make just as ten clever seconds don’t erase and hour and forty minutes of vulgarity.

Spoiler Alert: Sloane and Jackson end up together. Now you don’t have to watch the movie. You’re welcome.

Holidate is now streaming on Netflix.

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Natalia Dyer and Donna Lynne Champlin in a scene from the film. Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

It is the fall of 2000. It is a world of chunky cellphones, dial-up modems, AOL Instant Messaging, and VHS tapes. Alice (a mesmerizingly authentic Natalia Dyer) is a high school junior in a strict mid-western Catholic school. Written and directed with insight and an incredibly skilled hand, Karen Maine has created an engaging coming-of-age story, Yes, God, Yes. It is both laugh-out-loud funny and brutally honest.

The film opens with a teacher (the wonderfully dour Donna Lynne Champlin) passing out detentions and monitoring the hall like an avenging meter maid. This sets the tone for the emotionally claustrophobic  atmosphere in the school, where abstinence is taught and (seemingly) embraced by the student body. 

What comes to light very quickly is that Alice is the subject of an unsavory rumor about an occurrence at a recent party. The scandal spreads as Alice tries to quell the accusation that she doesn’t fully understand. She is both buoyed up and beaten down by her BFF, Laura (Francesca Reale, bringing just the right amount of acid to this borderline mean girl). Alice is also struggling with her burgeoning awareness of her own sexuality and desires, which further complicate the already challenging situation.

Natalia Dyer in a scene from the film.

The majority of the film takes place on a four-day Kirkos retreat, where the students go to connect with themselves and with their connection to God and their religion. It is here that Alice comes face-to-face with both the caring and sensitivity of some of the students as well as the hypocrisy that often comes with repression.

Guilt and gossip flower along with misinformation. There are some extreme moments and some jaw-dropping revelations. There is also terrific humor. After Alice is punished for holding onto her cellphone, one of the girls gives her a s’more from the campfire she missed: “We pretended each marshmallow was a mortal sin before burning it.”

Maine pulls no punches. She presents these people in all of their flaws. And that is the heart of the film. She creates people and therefore legitimate tension. These are not the cyphers and stereotypes found in many teen movies. Instead, there is an inherent truth in her reflection of this particular corner of the universe.

Not all is played as satirical attack; there are instances of genuine compassion. One of the students leading the retreat, Nina (a warmly present Alisha Boe), tells how she has always felt absent in her large family. It is a touching moment and her sharing is met with sympathy and understanding. Letters from their parents are read out loud. Again, they are not greeted with smirks and eye rolls but appreciated with less embarrassment than would be expected. These are sweet and kind flashes of welcomed contrast.

But even in the midst of this idyllic retreat of finding self, the vicious buzz continues to haunt and chase Alice, leading her to several less than generous choices. Ultimately, she takes some if not all the responsibility one would hope.

Timothy Simons (Veep), as Father Murphy, the spiritual leader of both school and retreat, dodges complete caricature. He has some very questionable actions but there is a sense that, more often than not, he is attempting to do the right thing for these children in his care. He is eventually confronted with his own contradictions but it is not presented as a revenge opportunity but more a look at his personal fallibility.

Alice receives the best and most honest answers when she escapes into a lesbian bar. It is owner Gina (Susan Blackwell, grounded and kind) who gives Alice the best advice she gets the entire film — before bringing her back safely to the retreat.

The entire cast is excellent and the young actors manage to come across as “kids,” even in some of the more excessive sections. But it is Natalia Dyer’s Alice who is the heart and heartbeat of the film. In her life, she is both heroine and her own worst enemy. And Dyer makes every moment work. 

Yes, God, Yes is not for everyone. It is crass in the way that young people are not always careful. It tells some unsavory truths. It is boundary-pushing and often cringe-inducing. But it is a beautiful, dimensional portrait of a genuine young person struggling in a real world.

Rated R, Yes, God, Yes is currently streaming on Netflix.

Tyler Posey and Donald Sutherland find themselves in the middle of a zombie apocalypse. Photo courtesy of Lionsgate

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

Last week, I reviewed the movie Alone, a cat-and-mouse/abduction film. This week, we turn to Alone, a zombie apocalypse movie. This is not the Indian horror film Alone, which follows the angry spirit of a murdered conjoined twin. And it’s highly unlikely that it would be confused with the reality series Alone, that has been running since 2015.

So … this Alone (the zombie one) … is similar to the Korean film #Alive. This would make sense as #Alive’s screenplay was co-written by Matt Naylor, who provided the screenplay for Alone. Both seem to have been cribbed from the 2018 French film The Night Eats the World.

Which brings us back to Alone—the zombie apocalypse one. Director Johnny Martin and writer Matt Naylor have attempted to do something different, with mixed results. They get an A for effort and a B+ for creativity. The visual effects are okay if not spectacular; let’s say a B. Character development is weak even in its best moments — maybe a D+.

The film begins on day 42 of the apocalypse. Aidan (Tyler Posey, who appears in just about every frame of the film) has been video logging during this time, as he announces this to the camera. The next moment, he is seen trying hang himself. Then it flashes back to 42 days earlier, Aidan, sans beard, in bed with … someone. She sneaks out and is never heard from again. Clearly, she is not going to be a major player.

Donald Sutherland in a scene from the film. Photo courtesy of Lionsgate

He turns on the television to be greeted by the chilling Emergency Broadcast System.  Then all hell breaks loose. There are sounds of yelling and breaking glass; a helicopter crashes; people are running in the streets. A little girl is set upon by shrieking zombies.  His neighbor, Brandon (Robert Ri’chard), who he has never met, stumbles into his apartment; he was just attacked by his roommate. Thus, the set-up.

It is strange that it all happens at once — that there was no warning, no build-up. Especially as the talking heads on the television share that the virus is transmitted through the blood — scratches and bites.  You’d think there would have been some kind of change that led to total destruction … and not insta-zombies. But, these are the cards that we’re dealt.

Aidan realizes Brandon is infected and forces Brandon out as he transforms. He watches the destruction in his hall through the peephole and then just listens to the cries for help and the murderous attacks.

The next stretch involves the disintegration of the world as reflected in the one apartment building. Phone circuits go from busy to dead. Sirens. More yelling and screaming. The infected wander the halls, banging on doors. Aidan counts the days by marking his mirror with a pen. The last advice he gets from his parents before they are murdered (he hears this on a message) is to “Stay Alive.” He puts this on a post-it.

More information is eked out about the virus. The infected only eat living flesh that is uninfected. But, and most interestingly, the zombies are aware of their state. They alternate between attacking and begging for death. It is a struggle between the disease’s power and the victim’s residual humanity. At any given point, they could be demanding “Come here” or warning “Stay way” or begging “Kill me.” This is unique in zombie myth and lore and separates it from the shuffling, brain-eating corpses that have been more prevalent in past outings. There is also something about mob mentality that enters into it but it’s not really clarified.

The power goes out and food is low. Aidan kills a zombie and stuffs it in his bathroom crawlspace, wedging it shut with a surfboard. (Later, the same surfboard will be seen in two other places before he returns to the bathroom where it somehow had remained.)

Eventually, the timeline catches up to where we started. Just as he is about to kill himself, he spots a woman (Summer Spiro) — clearly alive and healthy — in the building across from his. What follows is probably the sole meet-cute in any zombie movie. And, as a bonus, she is surprisingly well-groomed given the whole end-of-the-world thing going on. (Well, maybe a few split-ends but what can you expect?) They begin to communicate with hand-written signs. She is Eva. Aidan and Eva. He holds up: “U R the 1st person I’ve seen.” The Aidan-Eva/Adam-Eve thing is not exactly subtle.

What ensues is their desire to connect and to be together, and it leads him to explore various ways of getting to her. It is during this foray that he meets Edward (the always intriguing Donald Sutherland). Is he good, bad, or just peculiar? The theme of “You take care of the people you love” comes out in an unusual way. Again, the creators’ approach is different and enriches both the encounter and the narrative.

There is mid-range gore which is not excessive but certainly present. (With this amount of ongoing and unchecked carnage and scattered corpses, there would probably be a lot more rot.) There are relatively few jump-out scares, which speaks well to the filmmakers’ restraint, and a handful of well-staged and tense mini-battles.

Where Alone stumbles the most is on actually understanding who these people are. Aidan offers a few pieces of himself that seem to be counter-indicated by everything around him. Eva is barely given a chance to show any range or depth. Both Posey and Spiro do the best they can, but we only invest in them as they are pretty much the last people on earth.

Alone is not the allegory of the low-budget but ground-breaking Night of the Living Dead. It doesn’t strive for the simultaneously introspective and epic nature of the adaptions of Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend (adapted three times). And it lacks the style and kinetic energy of 28 Days Later. But it does try to do something different. For effort and novelty, let’s give it a B- which is not the worst entry in the genre.

Rated R, Alone is streaming on demand.

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Jules Willcox in a scene from the film. Photo courtesy of Magnet Releasing

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

Alone could only be a labeled a “new” thriller in that it was just released. Nothing else could be considered new in this predictable and ultimately unsatisfying game of hunter and hunted. John Hyams has directed Mattias Olsson’s by-the-numbers screenplay with standard tropes and cliches.

From the beginning, everything is made to seem ominous. Even the packing of a U-Haul — dresser, chair, bicycle — is made to seem dark. When the protagonist, Jessica Swanson, is unable to take her potted plant, we know we are in dangerous territory. Her first word is “Sorry” — a response to honking horns as she sits at a changed light. “Sorry” doesn’t begin to describe what is ahead for her.

After five minutes of driving, the screen goes black and a spindly “The Road” appears.  This is the first of multiple titles that have been added for apparently no reason other than to give a certain pretension to an otherwise standard horror film.

On “The Road,” she is nearly driven off by a car that slows down, then speeds up, causing a near miss with an oncoming truck. Shortly after, a call to her father reveals that she left her apartment for “a reason.” In the motel, she scrolls through photos on her tablet, showing her with her late husband. Later, in a phone call with her mother, the “reason” is revealed to be six months in the past.

The next morning, the man who tried to run her off the road, introduces himself and apologizes. Everything is done to make him look both benign and frightening. Sandy hair, huge moustache, aviator frames. Chatty and pleasant with his arm in a sling, he’s just asking too many questions. 

Either one of two directions are inevitable.  It will be a game of cat-and-mouse on the highway or she will be abducted. A flat tire is the catalyst for the latter course. He attacks and drugs her. 

Marc Menchaca plays a creepy serial killer in ‘Alone.’ Photo courtesy of Magnet Releasing

When she wakes up, she is locked in an empty basement with morning light streaming through the single, barred window. When he finally enters the room, she begs for her life. She promises if he lets her go; she won’t say anything. His response is an off-hand “Do you think you’re the first one to say that?,” one of the few genuinely chilling moments. 

It is in captivity that we find out her late husband’s fate. The imprisonment doesn’t last long. She escapes and the rest of the movie is spent with the man in pursuit of Jessica.

What is revealed, in a cleverly pedestrian call from home, is that he is not a backwoods recluse but a husband and father with a deadly and perverse secret life. However, his attempts at psychological torture are clumsy and almost laughable. Just past the halfway mark, he is given a great big mess of a monologue that borders on parody.  Better he should have stayed the strong silent type. Well, weird silent type anyway. 

What works is Jessica doesn’t make the classic scream queen decisions. She does everything she can to keep herself safe, including calling 911. She is as resourceful as she can be, brave, and pretty smart.

Jules Willcox is strong as Jessica. Both in action and in stillness, she seems completely connected to her surroundings. She brings both grounding and believability to her performance.

Marc Menchaca is less successful as the man. At first, the “aww, shucks” quality works but his shift into villain is mechanical and uninspired. For a man leading a dual life, one would expect him to be have a intriguing persona.

The film is basically a two-hander.  Anthony Heald, a fine actor in all he does, makes the most of a minor role as a friendly hunter. While it’s just a bit longer than a cameo, it does lend a bit of texture to the extended chase.

So much is played in the dark that it’s shadow and shift and voices. In addition, every sound is amplified, including the placing of a gasoline hose into the tank, the rattle of the car, the creaking of the trees in the wind. The soundtrack provides every emphasis and sting that could possibly be squeezed in.

The movie is not without tension and, overall, it is decently shot. The problem is that it seems interminable. Since there is little character development, it is hard to invest and, in the long run, feels laborious. There is a great deal of filler with wandering through forest and hills, all darkly verdant and overgrown. 

The final confrontation has an interesting twist with a cell phone — but it’s all just too late in coming. Alone is probably better left … alone.

Rated R, Alone is streaming on demand.

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Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

Robin Williams was a true artistic genius. A comedian and actor unlike any other, his persona graced film, television, and the stage, both stand-up and legitimate. His range of comedic and dramatic roles as well as his voiceover work made him unique even amongst the most versatile performers. Bursting onto the scene with the sitcom Mork & Mindy, he went on to memorable roles in The World According to Garp, Good Morning, Vietnam, Dead Poets Society, Aladdin, Mrs. Doubtfire; and many others.

Now a new documentary by Tylor Norwood, Robin’s Wish, explores the performer’s final days.

On August 11, 2014, the world was shocked by the 63-year-old’s death by suicide. Immediately following this heartbreaking event, speculation as to the cause was rampant. Among the explanations that were discussed included depression hearkening to his long struggle with drug addiction, frustration with what he perceived as the onset of Parkinson’s, and the “sad clown syndrome” often associated with comedians and comedic actors.

Robin Williams

None of these turned out to be correct.  It was revealed that Williams had been suffering from undiagnosed Lewy body dementia.  According to the Mayo Clinic, Lewy body dementia is “… the second most common type of progressive dementia after Alzheimer’s disease dementia. Protein deposits, called Lewy bodies, develop in nerve cells in the brain regions involved in thinking, memory and movement (motor control). Lewy body dementia causes a progressive decline in mental abilities. People with Lewy body dementia may experience visual hallucinations and changes in alertness and attention. Other effects include Parkinson’s disease-like signs and symptoms such as rigid muscles, slow movement and tremors.”

The tragic fact is that Williams had all of these symptoms. He was aware that something was wrong but could not articulate what he was going through, gradually manifesting increasingly odd and startling behaviors. 

Those looking for a documentary that delves into Williams’ life will be disappointed. Little is explored in his earlier career, his meteoric rise to stardom, and his incredible body of work, as well as the darker moments in his journey. There is only the smallest nod towards his addictions  and eventually sobriety. It does share accounts from his time overseas, entertaining the troops and visiting hospitals. This gives a small glimpse into what is most likely a much larger and richer story.

Robin Williams and his third wife Susan Schneider. Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment

The film focuses mainly on the last two years of his life, only reaching back to about 2011 and his marriage to his third wife, Susan Schneider, who is the driving force and main storyteller of the film. How they met and the growth of their relationship is offered but little else in his personal or public life prior to this is touched upon.

Much of the emphasis is placed on two of his last projects: the film Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb and the television show The Crazy Ones. His colleagues talk with great respect for his work and love for him a person. In retrospect, they all had varying degrees of awareness that something was off, including his bouts of insecurity as well as a new found challenge in learning and retaining lines. It is a tribute to their feelings for Williams that none of this came out during these two processes.

The balance of the film is taken up with alternating between doctors and scientists explaining the nature of the disease and Schneider’s mix of guilt and sadness as she relates his gradual disintegration. Her love for Williams comes through and the importance of telling his story is clearly present. 

The goal of the film is a noble one: It is bringing awareness to a terrible and deadly disease. However, much of it feels padded out. The interviews are repetitive, with people covering the same ground. The individual accounts are broken up as an attempt to make them look more varied and expansive but it doesn’t quite land.   In particular, interviews with Williams’ neighbors have a strange “we knew there was something wrong in the house” quality that seems out of step with the film’s objective. 

In addition to some archival clips, there is an overly generous use of recreative footage that gives the whole piece the look of an exploitive crime recreation or a behind-the-autopsy show. This unnecessary stuffing cheapens the film, which would have benefited from either cutting its already short running time of an hour and a quarter or expanding it to a fuller exploration of the life of an American artist.

Robin’s Wish, while strong in purpose, only makes us yearn for a larger and more complete portrait of a complex and exceptional man.

Not rated, Robin’s Wish is streaming on demand.

The cast of The Boys in the Band. Photo courtesy of Netflix

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

In 1968, Mart Crowley’s The Boys in the Band premiered off-Broadway and, against all odds, ran for 1,001 performances. It was one of the first plays to deal with gay men not as ciphers, used symbols of deviance, or relegated to a comic sidekick stereotype. Instead, it is a portrait of fully realized, wholly human, and, in many cases, damaged individuals. It did not demonize homosexuality as “other,” but, at the same, it embraced its unique rising culture, one that had been forced to remain closeted. It is a dark play with great wit but a strong undercurrent of pain.

It was filmed in 1970 with members of the original cast, under the direction of William Friedkin. It was a fairly faithful adaptation and hewed, with one or two exceptions, very closely to the stage play.

The Boys in the Band centers around a birthday party for Harold, being thrown by his frenemy, Michael. The guests include Larry and Hank, a couple dealing with monogamy issues; Donald, Michael’s sometime boyfriend; Bernard, the most reserved of the group; and Emory, aggressive and aggressively flamboyant. In addition, “Cowboy,” a simple, good-looking hustler, has been engaged by Emory as a birthday present for Harold.

Jim Parsons in a scene from the film.

The dynamic shifts with the arrival of Michael’s college friend, Alan, a straight man, who is struggling with his marriage and possibly other issues. The evening builds to a game in which Michael, getting progressively drunker, shifts from distant warmth to pointed cruelty. He pressures the guests into calling the person whom they loved the most and confess their feelings. It is a harsh sequence, as Michael becomes more vicious. Harold says to Michael, “I’m turning on. You’re just turning.” And it is on this single word — “turning” — the story hinges.  Michael’s turning from host to host-from-hell is what drives the latter part of the evening; in particular, his relentless bullying of his former roommate, Alan. 

The plot is a simple one and derives its richness from the character development and the dimensional interactions. The first film was released in 1970, and it is clear the cast was able to transfer the raw depth that had developed from the stage onto the screen.  The excellent documentary Making the Boys (2011) chronicles The Boys in the Band from inception to performance to filming and beyond.

In 2018, The Boys in the Band was given an all-star revival on Broadway. This production received the Tony Award for Best Revival of a Play, and has now been made into a film for Netflix, produced by Ryan Murphy.

The difficulty in bringing this piece back lies in the change in the world. Even between the original production and the release of the original film two years later, the Stonewall Riots altered the identity of the gay community. The rise of AIDS and its impact also was a major factor in how the piece was viewed beyond the late 60’s/early 70’s. To make it work in the twenty-first century requires the commitment to present it as a moment-in-time and not allow present-day commentary to skew the play’s head and heart.

Unfortunately, this Boys in the Band does not succeed in this. While a great deal of it feels like a shot-for-shot recreation of the source, the tone is decidedly off. It feels less like the gritty Manhattan of 1968 but rather a strange off-shoot of Sex in the City. Unlike in the original movie, where it is peeking into a private party, there is a stilted, presentational quality. Everything seems very pointed and show-me.

The lack of period is most detrimental with Alan (Brian Hutchison), who is meant to represent the era’s accepted and brutal point-of-view towards homosexuality. Hutchison struggles with this dichotomy but is unable to make it land.

Zachary Quinto as Harold and Robin de Jesus as Emory in a scene from the film. Photo from Netflix
Cr. Scott Everett White/NETFLIX ©2020

Jim Parsons, as Michael, has not found the contrast in the before and after — the sober, kinder Michael and the inebriated and destructive one. Michaels’ need to be contrary never seems fully realized because it lacks a shift. He gets drunker but not deeper. The result is a rehash of Parson’s most recent and more effective performance in the Netflix miniseries Hollywood. When the game final arrives, Parsons then begins to work too hard, and it almost seems like a revenge movie.

A few elements have been changed for political correctness of the 21st-century. There are also some very unnecessary flashbacks during the game that became a choice that just screams “look we’re making a movie.”  With its gratuitous and clumsy flashes of nudity, it signals a mistrust of the material. 

Bernard’s phone call, which is devastating in the original, here lacks teeth. This is no fault of Michael Benjamin Washington, who does his best to portray one of the revamped characters. But it lacks Bernard’s complete implosion. The same problem can be found with the outrageous Emory. Robin de Jesús gives a solid performance, but, by softening the character’s grating edge, it drains the fearlessness from his interactions.

Zachary Quinto’s Harold is strong and closely resembles Leonard Frey’s performance in the original. But, for some reason, it feels as if the character is more peripheral. 

Matt Bomer is nicely understated as Donald, Michael’s boyfriend. Andrew Rannells comes off slightly sadistic as the more promiscuous of the couple, but manages to find some of the struggle towards the end. Tuc Watkins is both suitably uptight and gentle as his partner.  Charlie Carver, as Cowboy, is likable if a bit less prominent than he should be.

Overall, there’s a lack of danger, like some strange game of dress-up, stylized rather than present. The stakes all seem very low which undermines the immediacy. An added coda — both unnecessary and pretentious — destroys the honest, raw simplicity of the ending. Ned Martel is billed as co-author with Crowley for the screenplay. Surprisingly, all these changes were sanctioned by Crowley (who passed away in March of 2020). 

Much of the blame for this misfire must be placed on director Joe Mantello, whose lack of vision and failure to capture the essence of the story leaked into every moment and interfered with potentially strong performances.

The Boys in the Band is a powerful statement about the love-hate of self, of stereotypes, and of introspection. It is a raw snapshot of real people in a real time in history. It is sad that this will be the version that many will watch and wrongly judge Crowley’s source. We can only hope that they will do themselves the favor and seek out the original.

Rated R, The Boys in the Band is now streaming on Netflix.

From left, Henry Cavill, Millie Bobby Brown and Sam Claflin star in 'Enola Holmes'. Photo courtesy of Netflix

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

The world’s most famous detective, Sherlock Holmes, first appeared in print in A Study in Scarlet (1887). Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s iconic sleuth would become one of the best-known characters in all of literature. For over a century, he has been seen in print, onstage, and onscreen. More than two hundred films, along with the dozens of television episodes, have made him cinema’s most often portrayed character. In addition, there have been offshoots, updates, and parodies that would form a substantial list of its own.

Nancy Springer’s young adult series The Enola Holmes Mysteries features the fourteen year-old sister of Sherlock, who is twenty years her senior. To date, there have been six books, published between 2006 and 2010.  Now, Netflix offers the first adaptation with its Enola Holmes, what is clearly meant to be the premiere of a franchise.

Henry Cavill, Sam Claflin and Millie Bobby Brown in a scene from the film.

Millie Bobby Brown (Eleven on Stranger Things) embodies the brilliant budding detective, Enola. Enola is “Alone” spelled backwards, a nod to her isolated upbringing, and Brown embraces this along with the girl’s spark and insight. Brown is more than enough reason to watch this very entertaining venture. 

Enola wakes-up on her sixteenth birthday (her age increased from the book’s fourteen to allow for romantic overtures) to discover that her mother has disappeared. As she embarks on a quest to find her, she becomes embroiled in a conspiracy to influence a reform vote in the House of Lords. This thread centers on a young marquess, Lord Tewkesbury, who is being hunted as he tries to escape his responsibilities. She reluctantly saves and befriends him, taking her slightly off her initial course. 

Brown delightfully breaks the fourth wall as she ponders, plots, and explores. Like her famous older brother, she finds herself in disguise, infiltrating various social strata. She mines both the humor and the honesty in every moment. She easily shows both Enola’s fears and gradually maturation throughout the two hour running time.

Henry Cavill makes for a heart-throb of a Sherlock Holmes. Tall, broad-shouldered, and charming, he cuts a rather romantic figure, unusual in the canon. That he makes this more emotionally engaged Holmes work is a tribute to strong writing and a desire to create a character with the ability to grow. The fact that he cares about Enola infuses his quest to get her back with more than a disconnected interest.

Sam Claflin, as the rigid eldest brother, Mycroft, finds the center of the self-important and socially-obsessed uncle. Twitchy and smug, he lords over his ward, Enola. There is the faintest glimmer of concern for the girl and that lends him a bit of welcomed texture.

Helena Bonham Carter infuses the eccentric matriarch, Eudoria Holmes, with her usual eclectic style. Where sometimes Bonham Carter’s stock-in-trade seems forced onto a character, here it works well. She is seen predominantly in flashbacks, teaching and training Enola in not just skills and knowledge, but also a sense of self. Her own journey is revealed throughout, showing Eudoria’s larger purpose.

There is an overtone in the series that was certainly less pronounced in the books; this clearly is a reflection of our present time. A great deal of the film focuses on self-empowerment, both of Enola as an individual and as a woman. In addition, the political shades definitely nod towards the issues of the haves and have nots. Fortunately, these elements only enhance the investment in Enola and her stories.

There is a nice balance of intellect and action. The story shifts nimbly from Enola solving puzzles with the use of word tiles to jumping from a moving train to besting a thug (menacing Burn Gorman) with her martial arts training. While perhaps there is nothing surprisingly original, it all comes together cohesively and maintains an energy and sincerity that carries it along.

Harry Bradbeer shows an adept, clear hand directing Jack Thorne’s clever script (much more satisfying than his recent take on The Secret Garden). 

Louis Partridge makes a charming, boy-band marquess who definitely develops a soft-spot for Enola. Adeel Akhtar’s Inspector Lestrade (a staple of the Sherlock Holmes universe) pulls him back before he crosses the line into caricature. Susan Wokoma strikes a powerful presence as one of Eudoria’s allies, Edith. She is given some of the more political and socially reflective material and manages to make it real without seeming too preachy. 

Fiona Shaw, one of the finest actors working on stage and screen, is both hilarious and dangerous as Miss Harrison, the head mistress of the finishing school to which Enola is briefly sentenced. Perhaps the most intriguing performance is given by stalwart Frances de la Tour as The Dowager, Tewkesbury’s grandmother. She creates depth and a hint of melancholy in her few brief scenes, building up to a fascinating payoff. 

The film contains a plethora of visual “asides” with images and animations that enhance the more whimsical elements.  Credit goes to production designer Michael Carlin and the half-dozen members of the art direction department (along with an enormous visual effects team).

While there is some violence (most notably the Brown-Gorman fights), overall, it is definitely “kid-friendly” and is ideal family entertainment. If this is any indication of where the series can go, Enola, in Brown and company’s capable hands, makes a welcome new addition to the world of Sherlock Holmes.

Rated PG-13, Enola Holmes is now streaming on Netflix.