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Jeffrey Sanzel

By Barbara Anne Kirshner

Do you ever think back to your teenage years, to the time you were hanging out at the beach, local candy store or park and you turned around to stare into the eyes of the most gorgeous person you’ve ever seen? That snapshot is lodged somewhere in the deep recesses of your mind, but when you allow it to surface, you get that sweet nostalgia of those “Summer Nights.”

Grease, now rockin’ the rafters at Theatre Three, is that journey down memory lane with 1950’s Pink Lady jackets, Greasers and Greased Lightnin’. It explores the innocence of youth, the pangs of first love and the teenage psyche when everything was a crisis and monumental. This effervescent romp brimming with electrifying familiar songs ignites the audience making it difficult not to jump up, dance and sing along with the spirited ensemble.

The team of Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey wrote the book, music and lyrics with the original concept derived from Jacobs’ personal experiences at William Taft High School in Chicago. The name was changed to Rydell High in deference to the pop 50’s singer Bobby Rydell. Grease was first produced at the Kingston-Mines Theatre Company, Chicago in 1971, then went to Off-Broadway before moving to Broadway closing on April 13, 1980. The show received seven Tony Nominations in 1972.

This story of teenage love centers around greaser Danny Zuko and innocent Sandy Dumbrowski who have a summer romance that ends as the new school year begins. To the surprise of both, they bump into each other on the first day of school. But this reunion is awkward at first. Danny, leader of a greaser gang, is not what Sandy thought he was and Danny doesn’t want his gang to know he fell for this prim girl. Supported by a cast of exuberant characters and bursting with hits, this show has continued to delight audiences for decades.

The success of the 1978 movie version launched John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John into movie history and their performances are etched in our brains making it a monumental task for other actors to compare, but Jon Sawyer Coffin as Danny and Jenna Kavaler as Sandy are charismatic. The moment Coffin struts down the aisle in his seductive first entrance, he has the audience eating out of his hands. Kavaler, with her sweet smile, emits wholesomeness and her floating soprano wraps Hopelessly Devoted to You with emotion. We are with this Sandy right from the start and cheer for her and Danny to get together. 

Director Jeffrey Sanzel has assembled a dazzling ensemble of supporting characters with Pink Ladies, Rizzo (Rachel Greenblatt), Jan (Alanna Rose Henriquez), Marty (Heidi Jaye) and Frenchie (Michelle LaBozzetta). They are the cool girls hanging out with the super cool Burger Palace Boys, Kenickie (Steven Uihlein), Doody (C.J. Russo), Roger (Eric J. Hughes) and Sonny (Darren Clayton). This powerhouse company attacks the rock and roll score with vigorous dancing and stunning voices.

There are many stand out performances. Greenblatt’s Rizzo is dynamic as she grasps the audience with her cynical teasing of Sandy in Look at Me, I’m Sandra Dee, then exposes her vulnerable side with There Are Worse Things I Could Do. Jaye’s Marty portrays sophistication beyond her years and her Freddie My Love is such fun. LaBozzetta’s bubble-headed Frenchie flunks out of beauty school, but finds guidance from her Teen Angel played with animated elan by Londel Collier. The not so cool Jan (Henriquez) teams up with the jokester Roger (Hughes) for a comical Mooning. And, of course, we can’t have Grease without a hot rod, so suddenly taking center stage is Kenicke’s dream car replete with big round headlights prompting the Burger Palace Boys into a lively Greased Lightnin’.

Costumes by Ronald Green III from Pink Lady jackets to black leather jackets mirror the personalities of the characters. Sandy is wrapped in white cardigan over pastel full skirt as opposed to Rizzo’s tight-fitting reds and blacks. The dream sequence of Beauty School Drop Out is a delight with silver curlers piled on the girls’ heads and the entire company swathed in silver beauty parlor capes.

Nicole Bianco’s choreography is bouncy and artistic with many dance routines ending in gorgeous tableaus. Born to Hand-Jive with its synchronized sequences is frenetic.

The multi-level set design by Randall Parsons allows action to flow seamlessly. Lighting design by Robert W. Henderson, Jr. sets the mood from bright to sultry and provides flawless continuity.

Music director, Jeffrey Hoffman, and his four-piece band underscores the fun with their sparkling orchestration. A standout is Bill Kinslow’s sexy saxophone in There Are Worse Things I Can Do.

Theatre Three is celebrating its 51st season of bringing fine entertainment to Long Island audiences by kicking off the festivities with the world’s most popular musical, Grease. Come join in the fun!

Theatre Three, 412 Main St., Port Jefferson presents Grease through Oct. 30. Tickets are $35 adults, $28 seniors and students, $20 children ages 5 to 12. For COVID protocols, please visit the website at www.theatrethree.com. For more information, call 631-928-9100.

All photos by Brian Hoerger/Theatre Three Productions, Inc.

By Tara Mae

A Holocaust survivor’s complicated connection to the SS officer who nursed her through typhoid. An heir to a margarine fortune determined to give away his $25 million inheritance. A whistleblower whose patriotism leads to prison. These are just some of the stories explored when the award-winning Port Jefferson Documentary Series (PJDS) kicks off its Fall 2021 season on Sept. 20. 

Since 2005, the film series has been providing audiences access to films, artists, and stories that may otherwise not be as available to the general public. 

‘In Balanchine’s Classroom’ will be screened at Theatre Three on Oct. 25.

Sponsored by the Greater Port Jefferson-Northern Brookhaven Arts Council, the Suffolk County Office of Film and Cultural Affairs, Maia Salon Spa and Wellness, and Covati and Janhsen, CPAs, the PJDS will present seven intriguing documentaries at Theatre Three, located at 412 Main Street in Port Jefferson. 

The documentaries were handpicked by a six-member film board that includes co-directors Lyn Boland, Barbara Sverd and Wendy Feinberg along with Honey Katz, Lorie Rothstein and Lynn Rein. Although the final selections are made by the board, the screening committee also includes four longtime volunteers Denise Livrieri, Yvonne Lieffrig, Debbie Bolvadin, and Mitch Riggio. 

“We run the documentary series as a real democracy. Every film has a showrunner; you pick a film that you are particularly excited about, and everyone votes it in,” explained Lyn Boland.

The films include Love It Was Not, Claydream, Dear Mr. Brody, United States vs. Reality Winner, Not Going Quietly, In Balanchine’s Classroom, and Mission Joy — Finding Happiness in Troubled Times. Screenings will take place 7 p.m. on Mondays, September 20 and 27; October 4, 11, 18, 25; and November 15. (See sidebar).

With the exception of Claydream, the films will be also offered virtually the following day. In addition, an eighth film, Torn, will be only offered virtually on Nov. 8. 

Each screening will be followed by a Q&A with the documentary’s director or producer, who will join the event via personal appearance, Skype call, or, in one case, a pre-recorded Zoom interview. Tom Needham, host of The Sounds of Film on WUSB, will act as emcee. 

“Tom is the consummate interviewer. We are so lucky to have him. He chooses his own very interesting questions which really gets to the heart of each film and the filmmaker’s reasons for making the film,” said Wendy Feinberg.

‘Love It Was Not’ will be screened at Theatre Three on Sept. 20.

Boland believes that this series may be the most diverse series yet. “This season is the most varied season I can remember us presenting. It covers a huge range of topics,” she said. Love It Was Not, a film by Maya Sarfaty, was Boland’s recommendation to the panel.

“It’s a Holocaust story about a prisoner who had an SS officer fall in love with her; a remarkable story,” Boland said. “He secretly nurses her through typhoid, decades later his wife calls her to testify at his Nuremberg trial. Of course this is a dilemma for her…”

Boland is excited to see all the films, especially Dear Mr. Brody, directed by Marc Evans and United States vs. Reality Winner directed by Sonia Kennebeck. 

Dear Mr. Brody is such a nostalgia piece from the 70’s, a period I loved, and it was a story I had never heard. I thought it was very unique and it was sparked by finding the trove of letters sent to him from that period.” 

United States vs. Reality Winner stood out to the co-director for how it explores the difficult decisions individuals in fraught situations may be forced to make. “It is important that the missed stories be told, the stories that really define their times,” she said. “I thought what Reality did was so brave, so right and what she went through for it shows how twisted up motivation and rules can be.” 

‘Dear Mr. Brody’ will be screened at Theatre Three on Oct. 4.

It’s that sort of authenticity that Boland believes makes documentaries so arresting and engaging. “I think what makes documentaries special is the extra dimension of knowing that they are true…there is no forgetting about the camera, like you do in a feature film. You are really aware that someone had to be there, in that situation, with a camera, and even if it is not dangerous or daring, it is still access, and with access you can make the film. Documentarians don’t always know how a story is going to unfold, but finding the story arc, that makes it a really riveting documentary,” she said. 

Everyone associated with the series is first and foremost a fan of the genre, according to Boland. And while many of the works are discovered by board members at festivals such as the Tribeca Film Festival, they are also being contacted by film distributors. 

“Distributors are reaching out to us more often. We’re not a festival, so we don’t solicit entries the way festivals do. We really feel that we are picking from an already selective group of films when we see them at a film festival. We used to absolutely require that a film had to have won an award or gotten rave critical review; we now trust our own judgement more,” she said. 

A labor of love for all those involved, holding the live screenings and Q&As at Theatre Three is an ongoing partnership.

“We’re providing an opportunity for an arts organization in our community. It is very valuable to screen films that people wouldn’t necessarily get to see in movie theaters; many of them noncommercial. The series offers a truly wonderful service,” said Theatre Three’s Artistic Director Jeffrey Sanzel.

Film Schedule:

The season begins with a screening of Love It Was Not on Sept. 20. Flamboyant and full of life, Jewish prisoner Helena Citron found herself the subject of an unlikely affection at Auschwitz: Franz Wunsch, a high-ranking SS officer who fell in love with her magnetic singing voice. Their forbidden relationship lasted until her miraculous liberation. Thirty years later, a letter arrived from Wunsch’s wife begging Helena to testify on Wunsch’s behalf in an Austrian court. She was faced with an impossible decision: should she help the man who brutalized so many lives, but saved hers, along with some of the people closest to her? Follow her journey in Love It Was Not. Guest speaker, recorded via Zoom, is Director Maya Sarfaty. This film is sponsored by Temple Isaiah and North Shore Jewish Center.

Up next on Sept. 27 is Claydream which follows the story of Will Vinton, a modern day Walt Disney who picked up a ball of clay and saw a world of potential. Known as the “ Father of Claymation,” leading a team of artists and writers, Vinton revolutionized the animation business during the 80’s and 90’s. But after thirty years of being the unheralded king of clay, Will Vinton’s carefully sculpted American dream came tumbling down. The film takes us on an exciting journey, rich with nostalgia and anchored by a trove of clips from Vinton’s life work, including his iconic, classic California Raisins. Guest Speaker is Director Marq Evans via Skype. *Please note, this film is not available virtually.

Next up on Oct. 4 is Dear Mr. Brody. In 1970, hippie-millionaire Michael Brody Jr., the 21-year-old heir to a margarine fortune, announced to the world that he would personally usher in a new era of peace and love by giving away his twenty-five million dollar inheritance to anyone in need. Instant celebrities, Brody and his young wife Renee were mobbed by the public, scrutinized by the press, and overwhelmed by the crush of personal letters responding to this extraordinary offer. Fifty years later, an enormous cache of these letters are discovered – unopened. 

In this riveting follow-up to his acclaimed film, TOWER, presented by the PJDS in 2016, award-winning director Keith Maitland reveals the incredible story of the countless struggling Americans who sought Brody’s help. Guest Speaker is Melissa Robyn Glassman, Producer and subject in the film.

United States vs. Reality Winner will be screened on Oct. 11. A state of secrets and a ruthless hunt for whistleblowers, the documentary tells the story of 25-year-old NSA contractor Reality Winner who leaked a top secret document to the media about Russian interference in the 2016 United States elections. Guest speaker will be Director Sonia Kennebeck.

The season continues with Not Going Quietly on Oct. 18. When 32-year-old activist and father Ady Barkan is diagnosed with ALS and given four years to live, he finds himself in a deep depression, struggling to connect with his young son, whose presence reminds him of the future he will miss. But, after a chance confrontation on an airplane with Senator Jeff Flake goes viral, Ady decides to embark on a tour of America, using his final breaths to fight for healthcare justice, and ultimately discovering that collective action and speaking truth to power can not only inspire movements, they can offer personal and emotional transformation as well. Guest speaker will be Director Nicholas Bruckman.

Up next on Oct. 25 is In Balanchine’s Classroom which takes us back to the glory years of Balanchine’s New York City Ballet through the remembrances of his former dancers and their quest to fulfill the vision of a genius. Opening the door to his studio, Balanchine’s private laboratory, they reveal new facets of the groundbreaking choreographer: taskmaster, mad scientist, and spiritual teacher. Today, as his former dancers teach a new generation, questions arise: what was the secret of his teaching? Can it be replicated? This film will thrill anyone interested in the intensity of the master-disciple relationship and all who love dance, music, and the creative process. Guest speaker is Director Connie Hochman.

Directed by Max Lowe, Torn will be screened virtually only on Nov. 8. On Oct. 5, 1999, legendary climber Alex Lowe was tragically lost alongside cameraman and fellow climber David Bridges in a deadly avalanche on the slopes of the Tibetan mountain, Shishapangma. Miraculously surviving the avalanche was Alex’s best friend and climbing partner, renowned mountaineer Conrad Anker. After the tragedy, Anker and Alex’s widow, Jennifer, fell in love and married, and Anker stepped in to help raise Alex’s three sons. The film will follow Max Lowe in his quest to understand his iconic late father as he explores family’s complex relationships in the wake of his father’s death. 

Mission Joy — Finding Happiness in Troubled Times, a profound and jubilant exploration of the remarkable friendship between Archbishop Desmond Tutu and His Holiness the Dalai Lama, closes out the PJDS Fall season on Nov. 15. Inspired by the international bestseller, The Book of Joy, the documentary welcomes viewers into intimate conversations between two men whose resistance against adversity has marked our modern history. Co-Directed by Louis Psihoyos and Peggy Callahan, the documentary reflects upon their personal hardships as well as the burden both men carry as world leaders dedicated to bringing justice to and fighting authoritarianism in their communities. Guest speaker is Co-Director Peggy Callahan via Skype.

The Fall 2021 Port Jefferson Documentary Series will be presented at 7 p.m. on select Monday nights from Sept. 20 to Nov. 15 at Theatre Three, 412 Main St., Port Jefferson and virtually the following day.  

Please note COVID-19 protocols will be fully enforced at Theatre Three. All ticket holders must show proof of vaccination status at the door, where it will be checked by two physician volunteers. Minor children too young to be vaccinated must be accompanied by a vaccinated adult, and all audience members must wear masks. 

Live screenings are capped at 100 people while virtual screenings are capped at 50 people. Tickets are $10 per person online or at the door. A film pass to see all the documentaries is $56. To purchase tickets, please visit www.portjeffdocumentaryseries.com. For more information, call 631-473-5220.

 

'Down the Ways' cover

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

“The success of Long Island shipbuilding was due in part to its rural location and the three things Long Island had in abundance — water, men and material. Surrounded by water, Long Island was an ideal location for shipbuilding.”

Above, author Beverly C. Tyler at the helm of America’s Cup yacht NZ41 in the Hauraki Gulf, from Auckland, New Zealand in September, 2002. Photo courtesy of NZ 40/41

Last fall, History Close at Hand published Beverly C. Tyler’s informative Setauket and Brookhaven History Through the Murals of Vance Locke. His most recent offering is Down the Ways – The Wooden Ship Era. Subtitled “East Setauket Shipbuilders, Ship Captains, Maritime Trades and Dyer’s Neck Homes,” the book is a celebration of an industry seen through a very local prism. 

As with his earlier work, Tyler leads with the deepest and sincerest respect for the indigenous people of Long Island — and, in particular, the Setalcotts. And while the title suggests a narrow exploration, the introductory pages place the topic in context. Fiscal, political, and agricultural information is presented, including the influence of the Erie Canal and the effects of the War of 1812.

Tyler references a wide range of sources, some dating back to the seventeen century. His research is meticulous, organized, and marvelously well-documented, with facts and figures as well as many dates to give the arc of the shipbuilding experience. Here are shipbuilders and ship workers, captains and crewmen. The rise and fall of the whaling industry and life on the sea give additional scope. Tyler does not shy away from touching on complicated issues, including slavery and the freed descendants whose treatment onboard was little better.

The focus of the book is on one area adjacent to Setauket Harbor. Tyler has cleverly constructed Down the Ways as a tour of the Dyer’s Neck Historic District. There are thirty-two stops, beginning on Bayview Avenue and ending with Scott’s Cove. A history of the place, its relationship to the shipbuilding industry, and the home’s inhabitants are vividly presented with each location. Facts blend with interesting trivia. These include Thomas W. Rowland, who had twelve children — six by each of his two wives; Mary Swift Jones’ voyage to eastern Asia, including Japan and China; Town of Brookhaven historian Barbara M. Russell’s account of Shore Acres boarding house; among other anecdotes. 

In addition, detailed but succinct descriptions of a range of careers and businesses, including blacksmith, ship joiner, carpenter, and ship chandlery, are explained. (A special note of the use of color in the text will make it easier for younger readers to discern the shift in focus and allow for easy location of information. Little doubt that this book will be an excellent resource for both the general reader and the student studying Long Island history.)

A special section focuses on the author’s grandfather, Captain Beverly Swift Tyler, who was a ship captain, boat builder, racing sailor, and boarding house owner. This unique and personal inclusion further brings to life the living history element of the writer’s undertaking.

Visually, this is a striking tome. Down the Ways includes reproductions of maps, paintings, murals, clips of period newspapers, and a wealth of beautiful photos, both historical and current. All of them have been richly integrated into the text. In addition, dozens of pictures juxtaposing the current residence with those from early periods display both the changes and what remains the same. 

Down the Ways is more than just a book. It is an opportunity to explore a Long Island neighborhood in a completely different way. So, pick up a copy of the book, make your way to 41 Bayview Avenue, and let Beverly C. Tyler guide you on a course that will take you on an enlightening journey through time and place

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: 

Beverly C. Tyler is a writer, author, photographer and lecturer on local history. He has conducted walking tours and field trips as Revolutionary War farmer and spy Abraham Woodhull and as a 19th-century ship captain. 

Mr. Tyler writes a local history column “History Close at Hand” for the TBR Newspapers’ Village Times Herald. He has written more than 900 local history articles since 1975. His most recent book, Setauket and Brookhaven History through the Murals of Vance Locke was published in November 2020.

Down the Ways — The Wooden Ship Era is available through the Three Village Historical Society online gift shop at www.tvhs.org.

 

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By Jeffrey Sanzel

Summer has long been the mainstay of cinematic superhero releases. Joining this season’s Black Widow and The Suicide Squad is Marvel Studio’s Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, an enjoyable, if not wholly inspired, two hours.

In the wake of the hit television show Kung Fu, the Shang-Chi character debuted in Special Marvel Edition #15 (December 1973) and starred in a solo title through 1983. Spun-off from author Sax Rohmer’s work, Shang-Chi was the unknown son of Rohmer’s arch-villain, Dr. Fu Manchu. Writer Steve Englehart stated that Shang-Chi’s name came from the study of I-Ching, with “sheng” meaning “ascending” and “chi” vital energy. After Marvel lost the rights to Rohmer’s rogue, the company renamed Shang-Chi’s father, Zheng Zu.

After a nearly five-decade history, and several attempts dating back as early as 1980, Shang-Chi has now made it to the big screen in a colorful, predictable action-adventure.

The film opens over a thousand years ago, with Xu Wenwu (Tony Leung) wielding the ten rings, bands that give extraordinary power to their holder. With his organization, the Ten Rings, behind him, he becomes a warrior-conqueror throughout hundreds of years of history. 

In 1996, he becomes obsessed with locating Ta Lo, a village said to be the home of mythical beasts. He journeys through a magical forest, where the Ta Lo village guardian, Ying Li (Fala Chen), thwarts him. The two fall in love and leave the village, living in peace with their two children. Wenwu’s enemies, the Iron Gang, murder Li, causing Wenwu to resurrect the Ten Rings. He trains his son, Shang-Chi, in martial arts. When Shang-Chi is fourteen years old, his father sends him to avenge his mother’s murder.

The film jumps to present-day San Francisco. Shang-Chi (Simu Liu), now mild-mannered parking valet “Sean,” lives a quiet, unimpressive life, palling around with his best friend, the thrill-seeking Katy (Awkwafina). After an attack by the Ten Rings, Shang-Chi shares his past with Katy, and they journey to Macau in search of Shang-Chi’s sister, Xu Xialing (Meng’er Zhang).

The intersection of legend and legacy, fantasy and family, and the all-important good versus evil follows. Thematically, the writers emphasize the idea that we are all “a product of what came before,” intersecting with the more violent “a blood debt must be paid by blood.” Shang-Chi confronts that he must “face who [he is].” Much of this works because of Simu Liu’s “Who me?” charm growing into a more self-actualized and self-aware individual. With his inherent “watchability” and appealing warmth, he easily carries the film. 

While the supporting roles are underdeveloped, the cast is more than capable. Awkafina makes for an affable sidekick who comes into her own. Leung brings the gravitas with a touch of underlying pain to the patriarch. One wishes that Zhang’s Xialing had been given a bit more dimension as there is a wealth of potential. Her struggle with a sense of childhood abandonment is touched upon but not fully realized. Ben Kingsley reprises Trevor Slattery, a character introduced in the Marvel One Shot short film All Hail the King. Without previous knowledge, this inclusion is a bit off. Kingsley is amusing, especially interacting with the mythical beast, whom he calls “Morris,” but lacking the background, the result is an unfulfilling cameo.

But the true raison d’être of the film is the many action sequences, which range from extraordinary pairings to epic battles. There are enough fights to satisfy the cravings of even the most eager fans. There are battles on a bus, in a fight club, a parking garage, a bar, a field, etc. There is a point where it almost feels like a demented Green Eggs and Ham—“Would you, could you in a …”—and insert a location. But they are all beautifully staged, the more pastoral echoing the landmark Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. 

The CGI is neatly integrated, with a range of hybrid animals and fantastical creations. While, of course, created on a vastly higher level, there are nostalgic shades in the monster encounters, reminiscent of the stop-motion animation of Ray Harryhausen or even the earlier Godzilla movies.

Director Destin Daniel Cretton collaborated on the screenplay with Dave Callaham and Andrew Lanham. And while the dialogue is often stiff and declarative (with a handful of shoehorned wisecracks), the film is busy enough to keep propelling forward. With enough plot and lots of action, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings epitomizes summer fare. And, like the majority of the genre, it will most likely be the first of many in the series.

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

By Jeffrey Sanzel

Cinderella has long been a cinematic staple, with various versions on the large and small screens. The story traces its roots to both Charles Perrault (1697) and the Brothers Grimm (1812), though the former gave us the glass slipper.

America’s sweetheart, Mary Pickford, appeared in the earliest known adaptation, the 1914 silent film. None is more beloved than the 1950 Disney cartoon, loosely remade as a live-action version in 2015, with a luminous Lily James. The Rodgers and Hammerstein musical has gone through three television incarnations, with Cinderella portrayed by Julie Andrews (1957), Lesley Ann Warren (1965), and Brandy (1997). Add to these the many appearances of the character in modernizations, sequels, spoofs, and revisionist fair. 

In addition, Cinderella has appeared in operas, ballets, and stage productions, including the 2013 Broadway production and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s current West End vision, replete with a Goth heroine. 

Kay Cannon, best known for the Pitch Perfect series, has written and directed the latest incarnation. The musical follows the basic plot: With the aid of a fairy godmother, an orphaned waif (put-upon by her stepmother and stepsisters) catches the eye of a prince and lives happily ever after. 

Utilizing pop hits, Cannon has created a peripatetic world in Candy Land colors and clashing patterns. The opening number, a mashup of Janet Jackson’s “Rhythm Nation” and Desirée Weekes’ “You Gotta Be,” plays like Beauty and the Beast’s “Belle” on speed. It is explosive and joyfully aggressive, setting the tone, more The Greatest Showman and less Disney. (Both pieces share the athletic and often delightful work of choreographer Ashley Warren.) Other numbers include “Somebody to Love,” “Material Girl,” and “Perfect,” all fairly well integrated.

Where this Cinderella departs is in its feminist viewpoint. Cinderella’s greatest desire is to design dresses for her own shop. Forbidden to pursue her dream by her stepmother, she also faces the town’s prohibition on women owning businesses. Cinderella’s quest is not for a man; it is for independence and a sense of self. Much of this is presented on the nose and succeeds because of a charismatic star. 

Singer Camila Cabello holds center as a strong, funny, and intelligent Cinderella in her acting debut. She also composed the movie’s (oft-repeated) “Million to One,” a predictable if tuneful number. Nicholas Galitzine’s Prince Robert has almost as much screentime. In line to be king, Galitzine alternates between traditional Crown Prince and frat boy. He is “charming,” if a bit bland, due to his ambivalence to his eventual succession. Unfortunately, his passivity makes him less engaging and no match for Cabello’s feisty, forward-looking Cinderella.

The rest of the all-star cast mostly triumphs over uneven material. The marvelous Idina Menzel, who has the film’s strongest voice, struggles with finding Cinderella’s stepmother Vivian’s center. She ranges from comic villainy to severely cruel, with peaking glimpses of humanity. Instead of creating dimension, the character feels unfinished. Maddie Ballio and Charlotte Spencer are hilarious and a pure delight as stepsisters Malvolia and Narissa. They deserved more screen time and a number to themselves as they become sidelined. 

The royal family features Pierce Brosnan as a king who is more bluff than gruff, Minnie Driver as his better half, and Tallulah Greive as the mildly scheming princess who aspires to rule. There is so much going on and yet very little result. Like with the stepsisters, Greive warranted a bigger presence. All three performances are good if incomplete.

Billy Porter is the Fabulous Godmother, and Fabulous he is. Porter should appear in every new movie, if not by his choice, then by Act of Congress. He brings hilarity, sensitivity, and depth to his five minutes of screen time.

The ensemble is composed of wonderful dancers who land the handful of lines peppered throughout the larger scenes. Cannon has corralled the company nicely — though she failed to mine a very funny piece of business with a royal choir. 

Ultimately, the entire movie is entertaining if unfulfilled potential, with the scales tipping back and forth. Five-note range generic pop songs follow clever lines. Spectacular dance numbers spell stretches of declarative dialogue telling us the ideas of equality rather than showing them. Cannon struggles to find a consistent writing style. Some moments swipe at a period quality. Other scenes aim for a tough, clear reality (a particularly awkward exchange between the monarchs that borders on embarrassing). But mostly, the dialogue is contemporary “sass,” which is what serves its cast best. It aims for “poppin’” (as one character states) but often tries a bit too hard.

While this Cinderella will never achieve status as even a semi-classic, it reflects its time. And, with a message of self-actualization, the solid cast is up to the telling. Like its prince, this Cinderella might not be Mr. Right — but it’s Mr. Right Now.

Rated PG, Cinderella is playing in select theaters and on Amazon Prime.

Photo by Julianne Mosher

The North Shore of Long Island was hit hard when the aftermath of Tropical Depression Ida swept along the East Coast.

While the storm pummeled the Island Wednesday night, the National Weather Service issued a tornado warning for Suffolk County. Severe flooding headed down Main Street, E Broadway and the side streets of Port Jefferson, causing damage to local stores, the Port Jefferson Fire Department and Theatre Three.

Photo from PJFD

On Wednesday night the fire department responded to numerous water rescue emergencies, and multiple victims were rescued from their vehicles by its High Water unit. They were joined by the Terryville Fire Department and Mount Sinai Fire Department.

According to the PJFD, in some cases, civilians were found on the roof of their vehicles, or trapped within a floating vehicle. Additionally, a landslide took place on Dark Hallow Road, which left the road essentially impassable with nearly 4-feet of mud and debris.

As a result of the landslide, eight families were evacuated from their apartment building due to unstable conditions of the land.

While fire department volunteers made their ways out to help others, they, too, were victims of the storm. The firehouse on Maple Avenue suffered extensive flood damage.

“Our firefighters did an excellent job coordinating multiple rescues,” said Chief of Department Todd Stumpf. “We have a lot of cleanup ahead, but we are fully in service and able to respond to all emergencies.”

Photo from PJFD

He added that fortunately no injuries were reported during the storm.

Down the street, Theatre Three said they had more than three-and-a-half feet of water inside as of Wednesday morning.

Executive artistic director Jeffrey Sanzel said that the theatre has had its fair share of floods throughout the years, and even though they were more prepared for Ida than others in the past, it was still a hard hit.

“This will be two or three days of cleaning,” he said, “But we’ll get it done and you won’t know what happened.”

Water record-setting levels heading too close for comfort to the stage downstairs. Sanzel said water knocked over and carried one of the dumpsters outside, as well as damaged dozens of costumes, furniture and a beautiful, donated upright piano that is now ruined.

Other businesses like Ruvo and Lavender Fields had flood damage and are currently in the midst of cleaning up.

“Port Jeff was hit again with a flash flood of over 7’’ of torrential rainfall,” said Mayor Margot Garant. “While it hit hard, we remain resilient and continue our work with the state emergency office and state agencies on our flood remediation efforts.”

Jennifer Hudson pays homage to the Queen of Soul in 'Respect'. Photo from MGM

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

Aretha Louise Franklin began her career as a child singing in her father’s Baptist Church. She would go on to be one of the most important and influential vocalists of all time. Beloved as a musician as well as civil rights activist, “the Queen of Soul” would touch millions.

Tony-Award nominated Liesl Tommy makes her featured film debut with Respect, a biopic of Franklin’s early life and rise to fame. Beginning in her Detroit home in 1952 and traveling forward twenty years, Tracey Scott Wilson’s screenplay is a mostly straightforward look at one of the most iconic figures of the music industry. 

The film begins with ten-year-old Aretha (a marvelous Skye Dakota Turner) being woken by her father, Baptist minister C.L. Franklin (Forest Whitaker), to entertain his guests. The opening sequences show his pride in her vocal prowess and his manipulative nature, themes that will carry through their entire relationship. During one party, a friend of her father’s rapes the preadolescent Franklin. The film is a bit hazy about the rape and the birth of her first two children, sidestepping a murky part of Franklin’s past. (There have been multiple articles written about both the liberties and inaccuracies of Respect.)

Jennifer Hudson and Marlon Wayans in a scene from ‘Respect’. Photo courtesy of MGM

The story continues with her breaking from her father’s supervision and connecting with Ted White (Marlon Wayans), who becomes her manager and husband. Unfortunately, White is abusive, with Franklin trading one controlling man for another. Along the way, she signs with Atlantic Records producer Jerry Wexler (Marc Maron), who becomes an impetus in her career shift. 

One senses a list of items that the creators wanted to cover and checked them off as they went, manifesting in a mechanical progression. In addition, the dialogue often states the characters’ thoughts and feelings rather than revealing them in action. As a result, the subtext—the underlying humanity—is often lost as the plot moves forward. 

Tommy and Wilson have managed to make recording fascinating and engaging. The breakthrough recording in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, runs the gamut from tense to exhilarating. Throughout, the scenes focusing on Franklin’s art and craft shine. Recreation of interviews is cleverly juxtaposed with the “reality” of the moment. But more could have—and should have—been made of her civil rights work.

Jennifer Hudson and Forest Whitaker in a scene from Respect. Photo by Quantrell D. Colbert/MGM

Whitaker makes the most of Franklin’s father, but because Wilson has avoided many of the more unsavory aspects of C.L. Franklin (alluded to but unconfirmed), the character never feels fully realized. Marlon Wayans fairs a bit better, finding the edge and danger in White. 

Marc Maron is a joy as Wexler, both caring and quirky. Kimberly Scott shines as the family matriarch. Audra McDonald makes the best of what is little more than a cameo as Franklin’s mother. Tituss Burgess embodies kindness as James Cleveland, a man who arcs through her entire life. Mary J. Blige brings the right blend of imperious ego and genuine no-nonsense to Dinah Washington (though her major scene is an incident most likely connected to Etta James).

At the center of the film is Jennifer Hudson, delivering a knockout performance. Hudson first encountered Franklin when she sang “Share Your Love With Me” in her American Idol audition. Then, following Hudson’s Academy Award win for Dreamgirls, Hudson visited Franklin in New York. According to Hudson, “… one of the first things she said to me was, ‘You’re gonna win another Oscar for playing me, right?’”.

Hudson brings warmth and intelligence to her Franklin, navigating the entire range of innocence and hope to the constant struggle with her inner demons. She allows the pain to swell and recede, some moments turning in and others lashing out. Her growth to stardom and the price that she paid remain in precarious balance. Hudson owns every song, honoring Franklin but bringing her own power to the interpretations. She celebrates the entire range of Franklin’s work, from the church music to early jazz standards to finally those that became her signature songs. Whether taking on the traditional “Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive,” finding the depths in “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You),” soaring with “Amazing Grace,” or exploding with “Respect,” Hudson delivers in the dozen-plus songs.

There is an odd misstep in the closing of the film. Franklin’s Kennedy Center Honors performance of “Natural Woman” is shown in its entirety, a spectacular reminder of Franklin’s unique, extraordinary presence. Hudson follows this singing “Here I Am (Singing My Way Home,” a new song composed for the film. This pleasant if unspectacular song highlights the exceptional Franklin songbook and comes across as a clumsy attempt for a Best Song Oscar nomination. It seems a step-down and superfluous.

Respect touches on many of the highs and lows of Aretha Franklin’s rise to fame. Franklin had a complicated life, and while Respect is sincere, Franklin deserved a more complex approach to telling her story. But, in the end, Jennifer Hudson’s star performance shines through.

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

A scene from 'The Suicide Squad'. Photo courtesy of Warner Bros.

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

Superhero movies don’t aim for high art. The goal is big box office sales. For the most part, they have never been awards fodder and rarely make best film lists. However, that doesn’t preclude examples of great craft, skill, and even insight. They are not revisionist art descending into the mire of pretension (yes, you, Green Knight) or thrillers aspiring to greater depth (don’t look away when I’m talking to you, Old). Historically, superhero movies strive for entertainment. And there is nothing wrong with that.

The Suicide Squad is the follow-up to Suicide Squad (2016), differentiated by losing its definite article. A sequel? A spinoff? A reboot? A relaunch? There are carryovers from the previous film, so it’s not a completely new entity. But, for whatever reasons, the recent incarnation is a vast improvement—funnier and smarter and far better paced. It is also R-rated, as opposed to the previous PG-13, which means this is a more violent, gorier outing. 

A scene from ‘The Suicide Squad’. Photo courtesy of Warner Bros.

There is plenty of plot centering around a group of villains given the opportunity to reduce their prison sentences by running covert missions for the United States government. Task Force X lands on a Southern American island nation, Coro Maltese, after a military insurrection puts the country in the hands of an anti-American faction. Task Force X—the titular Suicide Squad—is sent to destroy Project Starfish, a laboratory housed in a Nazi-era fortress, Jötunheim. The experiment is a giant alien starfish that the new regime will use against its enemies, most notably America.

The Task Force splits into two squads, with one unit almost completely eradicated in an ambush. Only its leader, Col. Rick Flag, and the mercurial Harley Quinn evade death. Bloodsport leads the surviving, joined by Peacemaker, King Shark, Polka-Dot Man, and Ratcatcher 2. They unite with rebel forces, led by Sol Soria, who agree to assist them. Added to the mix is the Thinker, the eccentric scientist who is running Project Starfish. Most of the action is the Suicide Squad invading the capital and laying siege to Jötunheim. Along the way, there is massive carnage, with bodies being shot, blown up, torn apart, and even eaten. This is not a Disney movie.

Perhaps not quite as irreverent as Deadpool, The Suicide Squad consistently amuses. While the humor is, for the most part, sophomoric, the jokes usually land. The writing is smart(ish) and the direction is brisk—both due to James Gunn’s clear vision. And he has assembled a first-rate cast that somehow makes it all worthwhile.

Idris Elba is terrific as Bloodsport, who reluctantly heads his team to help his daughter. His dry wit, spot-on delivery, and underlying humanity give dimension without losing the danger. John Cena’s Peacemaker is equal parts flag-waving psychotic and macho frat boy. The contrast of Elba’s self-aware Bloodsport and Cena’s almost oblivious Peacemaker create a wonderful contrast. Joel Kinnaman’s Rick Flag is less showy but brings both an aww-shucks integrity and wide-eyed understanding.

Sylvester Stallone voices the bizarre hybrid, man-eating King Shark, with just the right monosyllabic innocence. David Dastmalchian shows depth in the melancholy Polka-Dot Man, one of the more eccentric characters, and has the best line in the film. Daniela Melchior is the perfect millennial slacker-with-a-heart-of gold, Ratcatcher 2 (with an adorable CGI sidekick rodent, Sebastian). Peter Capaldi’s Thinker is an appropriately underplayed mad scientist, with just enough danger to avoid caricature. 

And, of course, Margot Robbie’s third time as Harley Quinn is just as impulsive, amoral, and insane; it is a psychotic tour-de-force. But in this rogue’s gallery, Viola Davis’s Amanda Waller is the most cold-blooded. Davis, an exceptional chameleon of an actor, is chillingly methodical as the program leader.

What separates the focus on villains rather than superheroes is often the angst. Few characters are more brooding than Batman, and even Superman has found a darker side. What works so well in The Suicide Squad is that there is little indulgence or over-sentimentality. Genuine moments of compassion flash throughout, and they enrich the experience, but Gunn never dwells as he moves on to the next fight, explosion, and decapitation. He creates hyper-real environments. 

Waller rules over the agency with an iron fist, but that doesn’t stop her subordinates from making side bets on who will survive the mission, a nod towards office pools. A screaming match between Bloodsport and his daughter is both over-the-top and recognizably domestic. Gunn’s world is the intersection of the extreme with honest threads of reality.

If you’re looking for art, look elsewhere. But if you’re looking for easy laughs, first-rate special effects, and a good—if extremely violent—escape, you could do worse than The Suicide Squad. 

The film is now playing in local theaters and streaming on HBO Max.

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

The tales of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table have always been fair game for adaptation. Whether it is Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889), Lerner and Loewe’s Broadway musical Camelot (1960), or the gritty but entertaining film Excalibur (1981), the story has embraced (or at least stood up to) revisionism. As a result, the legends have endured over seven centuries, from The Sword in the Stone (1963) to Spamalot (2005).

The Green Knight loosely draws on the fourteenth-century poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and other sources. Knowledge of the story and history is not necessary to view the film. Clearly. David Lowery has written, directed, edited, and produced the film. So, he can be considered the responsible party.

Gawain (Dev Patel) awakes on Christmas morning in a brothel, having spent the night with Essel (Alicia Vikander). His mother, sorceress Morgan le Fay (Sarita Choudhury), sends him on his way to celebrate Christmas with King Arthur (Sean Harris) and Queen Guinevere (Katie Dickie). 

Unbeknownst to Gawain, his mother performs a ritual, raising and sending the Green Knight to the feast where the tree-like titular lord issues a challenge: If anyone can land a blow on him, he will win his green axe. However, in exchange, the victor must meet the Green Knight on the following Christmas to receive a reciprocal hit. For some reason, Gawain, a bit of a slacker, volunteers. He decapitates the Green Knight, who then picks up his head and leaves. Sort of a hah-hah-see-you-next-Christmas.

Fast-forward a year. Gawain has become something of a celebrity; he is even featured in a puppet show. He sets off to the Green Chapel, and throughout, he encounters a handful of challenges, mostly unsatisfying blips. He also meets a fox who joins his journey. “The Quest” is a well-known, often-trod trope and can be exciting, engaging, and enthralling. Unfortunately, it can also be an epic slog into scenery, mumbled dialogue, and symbols. Oh, so many symbols. The Green Knight is full of meaning and “meaning” and meaning and MEANING. 

One suspects that Lowery’s goal was a rumination on the nature of heroism and honor, with a few nods to the dangers of celebrity. But this is all lost in a meandering and pretentious narrative. There are a few dramatic strokes, but these do not add up to a film.

In the theatre across the hall, the sounds of The Suicide Squad could clearly be heard. Sitting at The Green Knight was like attending a lecture that you suspect might be good for you, but next door, there’s a barnburner where everyone is having a good time. “I’ll bet it’s fun over there,” you think. “But, no, this is going to make me a better and smarter person.” You have plenty of time to think these thoughts because, in The Green Knight, the pauses are longer than the dialogue. There are pauses and scenery. Lots of pauses. Lots of scenery. Then a monologue. Please note the singular: monologue. While there are multiple long speeches by various characters, they all sound like the same monologue. Followed by some pauses. And then some scenery.

The filming itself is impressive, highlighting the vast expanses of wilderness as Gawain travels towards his destiny. Cinematographer Andrew Droz Palermo has done beautiful work capturing the natural/supernatural world. But landscape only goes so far. In this case, it seems to go really, really far.

Dev Patel is a fine actor, and he does what he can. But he is offered the emotional range of dissipated to slightly less dissipated. The script’s Gawain is painfully passive; Patel ultimately struggles to show the character’s evolution. The rest of the talented cast is saddled with dialogue that is spoken in harsh whispers with a great deal of meaning and “meaning and … (One suspects the CGI-ed fox called his agent mid-filming to see if he could get out of his contract.)

The ending—one of the only brisk moments in the film—has been much discussed on the internet. Suffice it to say, the denouement owes not a little to t, the well-crafted story by Ambrose Pierce later made into a memorable short film.

As a public service and attempt to salvage the reader’s time, the balance of this review is given over to something of value. Here is the beginning of a recipe for a good vegan pound cake: Preheat the oven to 350 F. Grease a 9 x 5-inch loaf pan.

Rated R, The Green Knight is now playing in local theaters.

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Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

“Good friends, a hot summer day, on their way to the beach, and not a care in the world.”

Author Robert Lorenzo

It’s never too late for an engaging summer read. Sunday Gravy by Robert Lorenzo is a sincere, brisk novel that is just the right blend of naivete and coming-of-age. Dealing with the day-to-day heartaches of adolescence and greater issues, the book is a page-turning adventure exploring the chasm between childhood and maturity and the burgeoning self-awareness.

Set in the fictional Heatherwood, in the very real Setauket of 1974, the streets sit on what were once potato fields. The setting is Suffolk County, post-pastoral but prior to the siege of condos and developments. 

The story depicts the highs and lows of summer in the height of a heatwave, viscerally painted throughout. Here, boys gather in a fort made from abandoned crates, ride their bicycles to get ice cream, and dream of girls. Lorenzo shares the universal yet is always specific. While the boys’ experiences are easily recognizable, they are uniquely detailed. 

Eastern Long Island is a world of fathers who work in Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Queens and mothers who stay home: 

“Their long days of chugging to work on the train and fulfilling their forty-hour work weeks kept them away from home for too many hours […] Up before dawn and home after dark, the task of disciplining the kids fell onto the sturdy shoulders of their loyal wives. Tired from running their households every day and raising their kids virtually on their own, a lot slid by the moms, who were very willing to ignore minor infractions.”

At the center of the story is thirteen-year-old Eddie Ragusa, who idolizes his brother, Tommy, two years his senior. Good looking and self-assured, Tommy has his first girlfriend, the beautiful and slightly older Maria. “Maria was another puzzle piece, but more like a silky one he’d found unexpectedly on the floor that didn’t quite fit anywhere in the current puzzle. She was unexpected, but welcome. The way he felt about her was new and exciting. This was his first real relationship, and he had real feelings for her.” 

Tommy and Maria are Our Town’s George and Emily for a savvier time. While they are actively intimate, there is still innocence and awakening. Tommy is in the rush and flush of first love, where every moment means something: hours of phone calls, of anticipation. Lorenzo writes with accuracy, of hormones and hope, but also with kindness. His young people wade through their own truths and struggle with hypocrisies. There is sex and drugs, but there is also a genuine connection.

Joining the brothers in the narrative are Eddie’s buddies Darren O’Leary, Michael Dorazio, and K.K. Krause, a ragtag crew of mixed ethnic backgrounds, enjoying the freedom of being young in the suburbs. Whether fantasizing about the divorcée on the corner or sharing an illicitly “borrowed” magazine, their bond is genuine.

Lorenzo introduces a range of characters into the mix, creating a landscape of family and community. The recluse Anne Clarkson is notable in the roster. Dubbed “Old Lady Annie” by the kids, she is a smart blend of bogeyman and tragic figure. Her introduction to the narrative bears interesting fruit.

There are plenty of local references —Smith Point County Park, Carvel’s, the Port Jefferson Firemen’s Carnival, West Meadow Beach, The Dining Car 1890, Mario’s restaurant, Ward Melville High School, Comsewogue High School, etc. — that ground it in its Long Island locale. 

The fort, central to the story, is cleverly shown through three different perspectives: the adolescents who embrace it as a refuge; the young adults as a haven to cut loose; and the adults who regard it warily. Best of all, Lorenzo understands the fine line and great divide between ages thirteen and fifteen.

Ultimately, the Ragusas are the driving force and center. Lorenzo insightfully explores both functional and dysfunctional domestic dynamics with a revelation that separates and reunites the clan. Finally, in the wake of a terrible accident, there is a portrait of the power of neighborhood, where disparate people set aside their differences and come together to help their children recover.

With Sunday Gravy, Robert Lorenzo has fashioned an honest, entertaining tale of the joys and heartaches of youth. He celebrates the untidiness of life and what it means to hurt and heal, to live and forgive.

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Author Robert Lorenzo was born in Queens and grew up in East Setauket.  He spent his childhood playing outside, riding bikes, exploring the woods in and around his home, and visiting the beautiful beaches all over the region. He began his first career in the advertising industry in New York City and now teaches high school English in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida. Lorenzo is currently working on his second novel, inspired by the recent worldwide pandemic. 

Visit his website at www.robertlorenzobooks.com and pick up a copy of Sunday Gravy online at Amazon.com.