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Jeffrey Sanzel

Photo from Christine Pendergast

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

The name of the book is Blink Spoken Here. It is written by Dr. Christopher Pendergast and Christine Pendergast of Miller Place.

That’s really all you need to know.

That, and please buy the book.

Blink Spoke Here. Dr. Christopher Pendergast and Christine Pendergast.  Buy the book.

You don’t need to finish reading this review.

You just need to buy the book.

Blink Spoke Here. Dr. Christopher Pendergast and Christine Pendergast.  Please buy the book. Now.

For those who want to know more …

It is easy to say that this is an important book — because it is. It is about exceptional bravery in the face of unfathomable adversity.  It is about a man who has defied the odds and lived with one of the single most difficult and devastating diseases:  ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. Emphasis on lived with. It is told in his words, with the assistance of his wife.

Authors Dr. Christopher Pendergast and Christine Pendergast

The title refers to how he wrote the book, with an eye-controlled device, as he does not have the use of his hands or his voice. His journey began with the diagnosis in 1993 and continues to this very day — to the very moment that you are reading this sentence. The average lifespan with ALS is two to five years; Dr. Pendergast has survived for twenty-seven. There is no medical answer as to why. But perhaps the Universe has chosen him for bigger reasons. Two of them? First: his bringing awareness to this monstrous affliction through his inspirational Ride For Life. Second: He has written this book.

In 1993, Dr. Pendergast had been a teacher for twenty-three years, married to his childhood sweetheart, Christine.  At the time of his diagnosis, he was in the Northport school district, and he continued to teach in the classroom for as long as possible. When that was no longer an option, he continued as a teacher for the world. Blink Spoken Here is a portrait of a teacher in the best sense of the word.  His passion to impart knowledge has infused his entire life.

Beginning with a description of the disease’s arc, he brings us into his world:

“It was not a dramatic event like a building collapse but a more steady deterioration similar to a bridge failure. I was imploding. In 1993, my physical presence began shrinking before my very eyes. My contact with the world was severing, one function at a time.  Angry, scared and saddened I was like a stubborn mule fighting with tenacity for each inch I surrendered. First it was dressing, followed by grooming, driving, toileting, walking, feeding, and breathing. Now I cling to my last vestiges of talking. It forced me retreat towards within. The exterior husband, father, and friend was left behind.”

Dr. Pendergast is unflinching in his brutal honesty about the pains and the challenges. He shares some of the darkest moments in his life. But, just as often, he speaks of hope and appreciation and deep faith. Many of the simplest things that we take for granted have been taken from Dr. Pendergast.  And yet, in all of this, he manages to find not just the good in life but the lessons that are offered every day. 

If these are not good enough reasons to read this book (and they should be), it is also a beautiful piece of writing. Dr. Pendergast writes with extraordinary eloquence and sincerity, with humor and insight. His prose is exquisite. He shares anecdotes and parables, free verse and personal accounts. The craft is equal to the art and both are worthy of the humanity that created it.

The memoir is split into two sections.  The first focuses on his coming to terms with the disease and its myriad challenges. (The first half even concludes with a wicked send-up of Dr. Seuss.)

The second half of the book focuses on the Ride for Life, which began in 1998 as the Ride to Congress. It follows his goals of bringing national awareness to ALS as well as an increase in services, knowledge, and fundraising. Taking his cue from the activism of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, he finds his inspiration:

“For me, the remarkable results of these movements underscored the power of choosing to make a difference. The activists of those movements did more than complain about these wrongs; rather they opted to fight for change.  This activism formed a model in my subconscious. I followed this model 40 years later.” 

The initial support of his home school in Northport proves that it takes a village — or at least a district. Over the years, the Ride has evolved and has focused its activities in New York and Long Island.

From the “weight of secrecy” to his global advocacy, this is an odyssey that is both far-reaching and personal. His love for his wife and family and for his community comes through at every turn. This is a man who does not curse the darkness but moves towards the light. 

“Life is too short to spend wishing things were not so. Things are what they are. Some occurrences are not our choice. However, we do choose how to respond. We decide how to live the life we get.”      

There are too many incredible moments to enumerate. Even the description of the challenge of opening an envelope is a revelation. There is a particularly telling incident with his son and church. It is a lesson in forgiveness and perspective, and its reverberations reflect his own continuing journey.

The final chapter, entitled “The First Amendment,” is a crushing account of his loss of the ability to speak: “To the educator, the voice is a powerful tool. It commands respect, informs and on occasion, inspires. The voice becomes our signature for the world. Losing it is catastrophic.” 

Dr. Pendergast describes the gradual decline in his vocal power and the various methods of communication. His frustration is honest and palpable just as his deep belief that his and all voices should be heard in one form or another.  He advocates for those who are desperately ill with ALS and that this basic human right should not terminate at the hospital door.

“Speech is freedom. Communication is the connection to the outside world. We all have a right to be heard … I want to be able to speak, even if it is only one blink at a time.” 

This chapter brilliantly closes the book. Because while he may have lost the physical voice, his spiritual voice continues. It is powerful. It commands respect. It informs. And, truly and always, it inspires.

Once again.

Blink Spoken Here. Dr. Christopher Pendergast and Christine Pendergast.

Don’t wait. Please buy this book. Now.

Blink Spoken Here: Tales From a Journey Within (Apprentice House Press) is available at Book Revue in Huntington, Amazon.com and BarnesandNoble.com.

Katherine Langford stars as Nimue, the Fey Queen and wielder of the Sword of Power in 'Cursed.'

Reviewed By Jeffrey Sanzel

The Arthurian legend has been seen in films and on television for over one hundred years.  Whether it is Disney’s animated The Sword in the Stone (1963), the screen adaptation of Camelot (1967), Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975), or the gritty but effective Excalibur (1981), the tale and the characters have endured.  King Arthur and Queen Guinevere, the wizard Merlin and the Knights of the Round table — all are drawn from Sir Thomas Mallory’s epic fifteenth century Le Morte d’Arthur. The stories have been told and retold, celebrated and spoofed over centuries. 

Katherine Langford stars as Nimue, the Fey Queen.

Netflix’s most recent offering is the ten-part series Cursed. Based on the 2019 novel by Thomas Wheeler and illustrated by Frank Miller, this is a reenvisioning of the legend told through Nimue, who would become the Lady of the Lake, the sorceress who is often associated with giving Arthur the sword Excalibur and later enchanting Merlin. In many ways, Cursed nods most towards The Mists of Avalon, Marion Zimmer Bradley’s modern reinterpretation that emphasizes the powerful women behind Camelot.

The first episode opens with a cluttered exposition, assaulting the viewer with the series’ lore. An amazing amount of information and jargon are stuffed into fifteen minutes. 

Nimue (Katherine Langford) is a member of the Sky People, one of the various Fey (fairy) tribes. She has gifts that are associated with witchcraft so is an outcast even among her own people. Her mother, Lenore (strong and kind as played by Catherine Walker), a healer and a pillar of strength in the tribe, tells her to never to be embarrassed of what she is. 

Nimue is unsure of the source of her powers and they seem to manifest when she is upset or feeling a strong emotion — sort of a medieval Carrie White. That is, until she whimsically wins a dice game about twenty minutes later.  (So much for consistency.) Mostly, they present as tree roots coming to life and graphically attack her persecutors. In a ritual offering by the community Elders, Nimue is chosen by the Hidden as the Summoner. This displeases the Elders and she decides to leave the community. 

Along with her rustic sidekick, Pym (mostly comic relief as played by Lily Newmark), she flees to a port town, only to discover that the ship she sought left the day before. Here she meets Arthur, the man-who-will-be-king, (Devon Terrell) in the standard market day scene. They do end up have a sexy, fireside duel. Actual engagement doesn’t occur for another eight episodes.

The first part ends with Nimue in a sword battle against some badly CGI-ed wolves. This brands her the Wolf Blood Witch.

Devon Terrell stars as King Arthur in ‘Cursed.’ Photo courtesy of Netflix

The sword is at the heart of the narrative, representing both honor and corruption. It goes by the name of the Devil’s Tooth and the Sword of First Kings and the Sword of Power. Nimue’s mother charged her with getting the sword to Merlin (Gustaf Skarsgård) and much of the first half of the series focuses on that quest.

While Cursed is a fantasy realm where both the flora and the fauna are enchanted, it is also a harsh, cruel, and bloody world — with emphasis on the bloody. It is not so much gallons of spilled blood but oceans. The number of slashings, knifings, and beheadings per episode is in the dozens. There is much more sword than sorcery in Cursed, and it is not for the squeamish.

Most interesting is the unrest in the world.  There is drought and plague and it is being blamed on King Uther Pendragon (Sebastian Armesto) and the various Fey enclaves. Father Carden (Peter Mullan) and the Red Paladins are a religious order under the guidance of Rome; they are shown destroying the Fey villages and mutilating its denizens. There is the mix of zealot fanaticism and sadism in the Paladins as they destroy everything in their paths, burning and hacking their way in the name of right.  They also torture their prisoners and burn them alive on crosses.

The tone is a strange blend of the traditional “Once upon a time …” with ABC’s Once Upon a Time. The dialogue is an odd mixture of modern and “oldey-timey,” with a scattering of milady’s but stopping short of “prithee” and “forsooth.”  There is one stray “hedge-born naïf.”

The cast is, for the most part, very good.  Langford makes Nimue strong and dimensional and carries the series well with charmingly honest Terrell an ideal match. Skarsgård’s Merlin is wily and dissipated, playing him with the right touch of ambivalence. Daniel Sharman’s Weeping Monk, the Paladin’s secret weapon, is appropriately menacing. Matt Stokoe’s Green Knight/Sir Gawain is proud but decent with a particularly strong moment where he relates the death of his brother. Aremsto’s spoiled king as a good match for Polly Walker’s cold-blooded Queen Regent mother. Mullan clearly understands the vicious, self-righteous monk. Shalom Brune-Franklin as Arthur’s sister Igraine/Morgana is a voice of reason until she isn’t. 

Emily Coates is a bit more than psychotic as the rebel nun, Sister Iris — watching her walk away from the burning convent is chilling.  Peter Guinness gives a richness to Sir Ector, Arthur’s uncle, who is more than reluctantly forced into the middle of the political mire.

There are dozens of characters who come and go (many with hatchets and swords in their chests; some missing hands). The villains tend to be pure evil which undermines the texture of the world. There are also Vikings and mercenaries and a variety of Fey to keep track of.

One nice touch is the animated illustrations that join the scenes. These clearly reference the Frank Miller illustrations from the book but they give a certain tone and flow that is aesthetically very elegant.

The problem with the series is the lack of consistency in the storytelling. The occasional stabs at humor don’t land well. While the first six episodes are dense with plot and background, they are well-paced. However, by episode seven, it all becomes predictable, and there is a sense of treading water (or blood) until the final episode and the great battle. By this time, the viewer is battle-fatigued and the fact that so much is left unresolved is both frustrating and predictable. 

There is a moment in the penultimate scene that is a wonderful reveal which is directly related to the Arthurian legend and what is to come. And that is the problem. So much of the latter episodes are setting up for a second season. Cursed is nine hours of playing time that could have been cut in half. It is a sprawling epic that doesn’t fully reach its potential or fulfill its promise. You could just wait for the second season. Or not.

Rated R, Cursed is now streaming on Netflix.

Foreground, from left, Juliette Binoche, Catherine Deneuve, Ethan Hawke and Clémentine Grenier in a scene from the film. Photo courtesy of IFC Films

Reviewed By Jeffrey Sanzel

The Truth (La Vérité), acclaimed writer-director Hirokazu Kore-eda’s first film set outside his native Japan and not in his native language, is a fascinating study of family dysfunction that is equally heartfelt and scathing.

The film revolves around famous French actress Fabienne Dangeville (screen legend Catherine Deneuve) on the cusp of her memoir release. Her daughter, screenwriter Lumir (Juliette Binoche), arrives in Paris from the United States, and had expected to see the manuscript; she is chagrined to discover that it has already gone to print. When she does read the book, she confronts her mother with the liberties she has taken, particularly the portrayal of their history. In contrast to the idealized childhood presented in the book, the reality was distant and disconnected, a situation that has continued into adulthood. Fabienne’s answer: “My memories. My book.”

This is just the catalyst as the film doesn’t return to this initial conflict but instead focuses on their current relationship. Lumir is cornered into acting as Fabienne’s assistant as her mother navigates her current job, a low-budget science-fiction picture titled Memories of My Mother.

If it seems a bit on the nose, it is forgivable as the metaphor is much more complicated. The plot of the sci-fi film focuses on a terminally ill mother who lives in space so that she won’t succumb to her condition.  She visits her daughter, Amy, at various times in her life. While she doesn’t age, Amy does. Fabienne has been cast as the eldest of the three Amy’s.

Looming in the background is the specter of Sarah, a woman who is referenced many times, but the connection is only gradually revealed. Sarah, an actress, was both Fabienne’s friend and rival. Lumir felt closer to Sarah than to her own mother, and Sarah’s death by suicide or accident — depending on who is telling the story — impacted Lumir deeply. There are also accusations of Fabienne’s complicity in the woman’s death. The suggestion that Sarah was a superior actress is something with which Fabienne has refused to come to terms.

All of these disparate pieces come together in the person of Manon (Manon Clavel) who is playing the mother in the film. Manon is presented as a brilliant up-and-comer and the heir to Sarah’s legacy. Fabienne is resentful of the woman’s talent and mistrustful of her sincerity. 

Fabienne is a narcissist of the first order. In one of the earliest discussions, she is unaware which of her colleagues are alive or dead; when corrected, it is clear that she doesn’t really care.  She is not even capable of apologizing to Luc (Alain Libolt), her long-suffering manager, and asks Lumir to write the apology for her.  Deneuve is one of the great actors and creates a Fabienne whose monstrous ego doesn’t eclipse her insecurities. Deneuve makes her mercurial behavior not just wholly believable but strangely sympathetic. 

Binoche never allows Lumir to become an object of pity. As a child who raised herself, she takes on emotionally caring for mother with a mix of amusement and resignation. Her exasperation with her mother is tempered by understanding. Binoche is incapable of giving a performance that is anything but truthful, and the film benefits from her ability to play humor and pain simultaneously. Her growing closeness to Manon (hearkening back to her relationship with Sarah) is a both delicate and subtle.

Clémentine Grenier as daughter Charlotte strikes a nice balance between precocious and present, and is particularly delightful in her scenes with Deneuve. Clavel is ideal as Manon, revealing an understated ferocity in the Memories of My Mother scenes and depth and warmth in her off-camera moments.

The film’s men not are not so much underdeveloped as they are intentionally ciphers. Ethan Hawke plays Hank, Lumir’s husband, a second-rate television and internet actor. He is a fraction of a man who only comes alive when reflected in the women around him. Libolt’s agent is even tacit in his rebellion. Sébastien Chassagne strikes the right subservient chord as  the rather ineffectual and nameless director of Memories of My Mother.

Roger Van Hool appears briefly as Fabienne’s estranged husband, a sweet, wild-eyed figure of nominal importance in their lives. (Fabienne reported him as deceased in her book.) There is a wonderful bit of whimsy that poses the question of whether or not Fabienne has turned her ex-husband into a turtle that lives in the garden. This bit of fantasy is left shrewdly unanswered. 

The film circles around themes of loneliness, emotional abandonment, and isolation as well as the fact that memory can never be fully trusted. It takes the ideas and threads them through both the narrative and in the film-within-the film. They are neatly balanced, with the professional world alternating with the personal. The truth, in the context of this story, is not so much subjective as it is flexible. 

But, at the heart, is Deneuve’s self-absorbed Fabienne. Just when she is on the verge of connecting, she retreats, playing a wild game of emotional hide-and-seek to which only she knows the rules. “I’m an actress. I won’t tell the naked truth.” And it is clear she never does.

Rated PG, The Truth is now streaming On Demand.

Suzanne McKenna Link with her third novel, 'Finding Edward'

By Jeffrey Sanzel

Looking for a life-affirming summer romance? Finding Edward, Suzanne McKenna Link’s third novel in her Save Me Series, is a first-rate diversion.

Author Suzanne McKenna Link

The stand-alone story follows Eddie Ruddack, a Long Island boy of twenty-six, in a time of challenge and transition.  The novel opens with him reluctantly leaving his family home. His brother, Ray, is moving in with his fiancée, so Eddie is going to live with his boss, Toby, his pregnant wife, Claire, and their two daughters. And while he lives in the basement, it is clear he is a welcomed addition to the household.

Toby is a benevolent and involved employer; Claire is the ideal confidant and surrogate mother; both are things that Eddie desperately needs. In the meantime, Eddie, Ray, and their mother are awaiting news of the maternal grandmother’s will and their shared inheritance. 

Eddie is a nice “getting-by” guy in search of answers but isn’t sure of the questions.  And while he claims to want the perfect relationship (i.e., family, children), he just hasn’t found himself. He’s not so much a slacker as he is floater, much due to a spotty and inconsistent upbringing. His interests are clothes and art, without ever committing to a passion or landing on who he is or what he wants to be.

Even when taking a look at his room for the last time, there is a sense of disconnect: “A trash bag of dried up dreams filled with old tubes of paint, brittle paintbrushes, sketchbooks with yellowed pages, and several near-finished canvases. Bulky with squared edges that threatened to poke through the plastic, the bag was heavier than all the others. I dropped it off at the curb for waste pickup.” 

His beloved grandmother’s bequeathal brings forward some life-altering truths, the most important of which is that Tom Ruddack, the father who walked out his family years before, is actually not Eddie’s biological father. His mother had a brief affair with a man named Giovanni Lo Duca, an Italian who was on a short-term work visa.

According to his grandmother’s wishes, Eddie needs to travel to Positano, on the Amalfi Coast. After the trip, he will receive money that she hopes will go towards tuition for art school, the interest that had bonded them in his childhood.

Eddie departs bruised — both figuratively and literally:  the former from the news of his unknown paternity, the latter courtesy of her mother’s boyfriend, Mike. He arrives feeling “like a randomly placed pushpin on a wall map.” Immediately, the situation becomes fraught with problems, including the loss of his wallet with his debit card.

His disastrous first day in this idyllic setting is an excellent juxtaposition of a contradictory adventure. However, a chance act of bravery in the hotel lobby makes him a local hero, changing the course of his visit.

Through this he earns first the respect and then the friendship of the beautiful doctor, Ivayla, and ends up as her guest, staying in the house she shares with her two fathers, the gregarious Mario and the taciturn, reclusive, but gifted artist, Paolo. Ivayla becomes his guide as well as the object of his ardor. Their growing attraction fuels the book’s more personal and eventually intimate moments.

The cover of ‘Finding Edward’

The book is full of rich detail, painting a vibrant Italian countryside, along with celebrating its people, its culture, and, of course, its food. Link is an engaging storyteller and shows us this magical foreign country through Eddie’s eyes. The descriptions reflect Eddie’s artistic bent and enhance the sense of a potentially bright and welcoming new world.

“Sun-bleached pastel houses, in gold, peach, white, and red, stacked high like a seawall. Precariously perched, they appeared ready to tumble into the sea at any moment. I imagined the people who lived in such a vertically challenged geography would be mentally tenacious and squat, physical powerhouses.” It is this artistic whimsy through which Link gives us a glimpse of Eddie’s creative potential.

Eddie experiences a reluctant but powerful awakening. He realizes that prior to Italy he had been living but not alive. “If I’d been home, I probably would have been in my basement apartment on the computer. I was here in an Italian city sharing wine and olives on a warm sunny evening with a local man and a mature, beautiful woman. Heightened by the foreign sights, sounds, and smells, my senses were becoming acutely discriminating, picking up scents and flavors I hadn’t known I was capable of.”

Ultimately, art and love become deeply intertwined. Eddie needs both to take the next step in his growth. The tale comes to a satisfying conclusion:  Scritto nelle stelle … “It is written in the stars.” It is the incomplete Eddie who leaves for Italy but it is the maturing Edward who returns home. Finding Edward is a charming journey with just enough Italian sun to warm the heart.

A resident of Sayville, Suzanne McKenna Link (suzannemckennalink.com) is also the author of Saving Toby and Keeping Claudia. Pick up a copy of Finding Edward at bookrevue.com, Amazon.com or BarnesandNoble.com.

From left, Robyn Nevin, Emily Mortimer and Bella Heathcote. Photo courtesy IFC Midnight

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

First-time director Natalie Erika James takes a new spin on the possessed residence genre with the atmospheric psychological horror film, Relic. James has co-written the heady screenplay with Christian White, and the result is ninety minutes of introspective dread that are grounded more in family than in fright. Relic had a buzzy debut at Sundance last year; it is equally arthouse and haunted house.

Three generations of women confront the dark but unexplained spirits possessing their family. When the elderly Edna (Robyn Nevin) disappears for three days and then suddenly reappears without explanation, daughter Kay (Emily Mortimer) and granddaughter Sam (Bella Heathcote) respond differently to the older woman’s erratic behavior.

The core of Relic is the portrait of a dysfunctional family staring down its matriarch’s slip into dementia. What is revealed is that years before, Edna’s grandfather suffered a fate similar to Edna’s.  He died alone in a cabin on the property — the first structure put up on the land.  (Kay has visions of both the old man and the cabin.) And while it no longer exists, pieces of it had been incorporated into the existing house, most notably the stained glass window now found in the front door.

It is as if the evil that destroyed the man followed it into the house, biding its time to possess its owner, in this case, Edna. But is it evil or illness? The answer is both.

While there are many traditional images, they feel fresh in James’s hands. In the opening moments, the house “breathes.” While an overflowing bathtub is a well-known trope, there is something about the water’s flow down the stairs that sets the tone for what will be the film’s creeping malevolence. 

Initially, the house itself looks benign and suburban, if a bit cluttered. Yes, it is large and well-appointed, but this is not a caricature of the old dark house, and this is a very different kind of haunting. The black mold appears to be an insidious manifestation of the dementia, and it is consuming the family homestead.

At first, Edna seems to have a bruise on her chest. In actuality, the same mold is overrunning house and body. The possession is a slow poison that hovers around the edges before taking over; the metaphor is clear. Scattered around the house are Edna’s notes to herself — ranging from the simple “Flush” to the alarming “Don’t let it in.”

The layers and twists are neatly woven, alternating between the ever weakening bond between Edna and Kay and the malign forces that are present. The fact that they are joined makes the film unique as it is impossible to disconnect one from the other.  The evil dwelling in the house is just as real as what has clearly been a disintegration of Edna’s mind.

This is a film that allows the narrative to slowly unravel. The scenes are short with staccato dialogue but the tempo remains at a slow burn for a majority of the time. It does not rely on gore or even visual scares.  Instead, it allows us to peer into the shadows, unsure of what they — or we  — are seeing.

It helps that all three actors — Mortimer, Nevin, and Heathcote — give understated and grounded performances. Nevin’s descent into confusion is marked by flashes of anger and disturbing behavior. There is a moment where she wanders away from the house and attempts to eat photographs before trying to bury the album itself. Wide-eyed, she looks at her daughter and cries, “Where is everyone?” It is a moment that is both horrifying and heart-breaking.

Mortimer’s struggle with ambivalence and obligation are palpable. Her love is mixed with resentment. She shows equal amounts of frustration and hurt in witnessing her mother’s desolation. Heathcote strikes the right balance in trying to be a loyal daughter and an attentive granddaughter. She also makes the climax (an extended sequence lost in the house’s impossible labyrinth) a showpiece in discovery. Both the spoken and unspoken pain and disappointment of this trio build the narrative.

Cinematographer Charlie Sarroff has effectively desaturated the color to the point of almost being absent. Robert Mackenzie’s eerie sound design — with ambient noise tamped down or oddly amplified — greatly enhances the off-kilter world. The distorted sounds of an empty washing machine and the gunshot bang of a bolt into a lock are jarring in just the right (wrong?) way.

For those looking for something different in the genre, Relic is an evasive but mysterious tale, cleverly flying in the face of traditional horror movie expectations. It masterfully blends many of the everyday fears for our loved ones with darker forces. Give it the time and it will stay with you long after its bizarre final moments.

Rated R, Relic is now streaming On Demand.

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

Mike Domino’s seventh novel, Camp Hero, is a vigorous thriller with hints of noir around the edges.

Author Mike Domino

Private investigator Bobby Fallon takes on a case in Montauk that becomes more complicated the deeper he goes. Fallon, a former Manhattan detective, was accused of killing the man who murdered his brother, another New York City cop.  He was tried and acquitted but has been branded the Vigilante Cop. While it cost him his position on the force, it cuts a strong swathe with the townsmen of Montauk, an important fact as he enters the world of eastern Long Island.

Fallon has been dispatched from the City by the high end law firm for which he works to help clear the Montauk sheriff of an accusation that is most likely a set-up. Sheriff Kemp has been accused of sleeping with an underaged prostitute, which he flatly denies. Kemp, who cares for his two adult special needs children, is a tight-lipped fellow who gives Fallon little information to go on. Fallon trusts his instincts and realizes there is much more to the investigation. 

In the midst of this, Senator Vance Hildreth is in league with multi-millionaire Matilda Wong, a Wall Street demagogue whose fortune was in pharmaceuticals, specifically a wonder drug called Zioxyn, a painkiller used for late stage cancer.

Fallon stays in a group of nearly deserted bungalows called The Beehives. There he meets and teams up with successful mystery writer Jennifer Connery, who becomes not just his assistant but an astute set of eyes on the case. They quickly become romantically involved as well.

At the center of the story is Camp Hero.  Hildreth and Wong want to turn the old army base into a national park. But their motives are clearly not as pure as they sound. Hildreth is connected to organized crime and has no problem engaging help from the wrong side of the law. This he does to the tune of twenty-five million dollars.

There is a great deal about Camp Hero’s use during and after World War II. Top-secret experiments, the CIA, SAGE (Semi-Automatic Ground Environment) radar, and Operation Paperclip (that covertly brought top Nazi scientists to the United States to work on rocket missile propulsion technologies) have all swirled around the site’s history.

In addition, alleged drums of nuclear waste dating back to 1958 are rumored to be beneath the empty facility. These speculations are important both to the building mystery and the final outcome. Domino knows how to lead the reader down one path and then swiftly alter to a separate course.

There is a nice peripheral piece introduced about Bonackers. These are the descendants of the original European settlers of Scottish and German lineage; much of the Bonacker lore is centered around the Hamptons and its environs. The early Bonackers were fisherman, cattlemen, and farmers. In later years, those still active are fisherman. Again, what seems like randomly introduced trivia and character background becomes germane to action later in the book.

Domino writes in an easy style, moving quickly from scene to scene and event to event. It has the right energy and pace for a thriller, and it is dialogue-rich, allowing the characters to speak for themselves, avoiding lengthy descriptions. One of the few places Domino goes for detailed narrative is a disturbing incident during a demolition. Both the accident and the reaction of those involved are well presented and have the complete ring of truth.

Mike Domino’s Camp Hero is a swift and entertaining thriller — and it takes place right in our own backyard.

A resident of Port Jefferson, author Mike Domino is also a feature filmmaker (“Mott Haven: Cash for Keys”) and the owner of Domino Plastics Company. Pick up a copy of his latest novel in paperback or on kindle at www.amazon.com. For more information, visit www.campheromontauk.com.

'Hamilton' Photo by Joan Marcus

Reviewed By Jeffrey Sanzel

No single theatrical event of the past ten years has had the presence of the musical Hamilton. The powerhouse blockbuster crossed into everyday culture unlike any previous work in the American theater. Eleven Tony-Awards and the Pulitzer Prize is only the beginning of the list of accolades and honors Hamilton has received.  Ardent fans in New York and across the country guaranteed years if not decades of sold-out performances.

In full disclosure, I saw the Broadway production as well as the national tour. In 1923, literary critic Samuel Taylor Coleridge said of Edmund Kean: “To see him act, is like reading Shakespeare by flashes of lightning.” Until I sat in a theater and watched Hamilton, I had not truly appreciated this statement. (Theatre Three alum/Long Island native Ryan Alvarado was the standby for Hamilton, Burr, and King George in the tour. I had the great joy of seeing his extraordinary performance in the titular role in San Francisco.)

Hamilton: An American Musical (its full title) is the sole creation of the unparalleled Lin-Manuel Miranda who had already risen to prominence with his In the Heights. Miranda used the Ron Chernow biography Hamilton (2004) as his source, but this is no traditional musical biopic. With his unique book, music, and lyrics, he has fashioned a celebration unlike any other, and in doing so, has redefined what theater can be.

The score is flawless alchemy, drawing from hip hop, R&B, pop, and soul as well as traditional musical theater. Each song is a crafted gem of tune and words, perfectly fitting the moment and the character. The book alternates between the historical and the personal, shifting seamlessly from one to the other. Director Thomas Kail and choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler clearly understood Miranda’s intentions as their staging is both breathtaking and clear, synthesizing every moment, every beat.

The casting of people of color is not about color-blind or color-conscious casting. It is not a theatricalization or a nod towards political correctness. It can be taken as a bold statement about the founding of this country, including its references to immigration. It is a fusion of history and time, reflecting both its historical roots and the era in which it first appeared.  However, it is a different world from when Hamilton opened in 2015, and the musical’s resonance is quite different in 2020.

The Hamilton that made its debut July 3 on Disney Plus is edited from three live performances in 2016 plus several scenes that were filmed in an empty theater to provide the opportunity for close-ups. Christmas has come early because this is a gift.

Over the years, there have been various attempts to bring the experience of live theater to television with varying success. The American Playhouse presentation of Into the Woods (1991) was one of the stronger examples, featuring the show’s original cast. The Public Theatre’s presentation of The Apple Plays, composed of four plays by Richard Greenburg, worked extremely well. It’s interesting to note that a fifth Zoom/COVID play presented in April — without an audience — was the best of all of them.

The recent line of live productions made for television — a clumsy Sound of Music, an overly rewritten The Wiz, a painfully wrong-headed Peter Pan — are examples of how not to do it. Oddly, Grease managed to capture some of the excitement and energy of a live performance — highlighted by actors rushing from soundstage to soundstage in golf carts. While it’s not exactly theater, the “live” element was maintained.

This is a long way of saying that there is always a danger of trying to capture those “flashes of lighting.”

However, stage director Kail has wisely chosen to offer as close to a faithful representation of seeing it in the theater as possible. The majority of the taping is in wide-shots that allow for the scope of the production, but there is still a liberal use of close-ups as well as shots from backstage towards the audience, from the wings, etc. Kail emphasizes the big picture but knows when to bring us in to the individuals. The compensation for not being “in the room where it happens” is that we are given an opportunity to see myriad details that we certainly would have missed in the theater.

One of the treasures of this recorded Hamilton is that it preserves the original company. And this cast is exceptional: a group of young (only two casts members were even in their forties) and astoundingly talented singer/dancer/actors execute a story with not only precision and commitment but unparalleled joy.

As Hamilton, Miranda mines both the humor and pathos. The pain he shows in “It’s Quiet Up Town” is only matched by Phillip Soo’s as Eliza Schuler Hamilton singing “Burn.” Daveed Diggs plays the Marquis de Lafayette with great flair but it his outrageous Thomas Jefferson and “What’d I Miss?” that brings down the house.

Leslie Odom Jr. balances the fence-sitting reserve of Aaron Burr with his fierce, underlying desire for power and position; Odom brings reality to Burr’s complicated psyche and his “The Room Where It Happens” is a breath-taking showstopper.

Jonathan Groff literally foams at the mouth as King George, who is simultaneously hilarious and dangerous. Renée Elise Goldsberry’s exposed honesty as Angelica Schuyler shows the entire range of human emotions in “Satisfied,” the counterpoint to her sister’s “Helpless.”

Christopher Jackson brings dignity and humility to George Washington, especially in his farewell “One Last Time.” And while several principals play dual roles, none is better than Okieriete Onaodowan as the brash Hercules Mulligan and the almost blushing James Madison; it truly is like watching two entirely different performers.

Thousands of words have been written on Hamilton but none can capture the magic of this landmark work of art. It should — no, must — be seen. “Flashes of lightning?” Hamilton is a full-on electrical storm.

Rated PG-13, Hamilton: An American Musical is now available on Disney Plus.

Chris Cooper, Brent Sexton and Steve Carell in a scene from Irresistible. Photo courtesy of Focus Features

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

Jon Stewart’s late-night reign on The Daily Show lasted sixteen years, from 1999 through 2015. His bold skewering of American and world events was equaled only by Stephen Colbert of The Colbert Report. Together, they dominated an outrageous corner of a unique brand of journalism.

Stewart’s first foray into writing and directing was the film adaption of the memoir Then They Came for Me, titled Rosewater (2014), a serious drama about London-based Iranian-Canadian journalist Maziar Bahari’s imprisonment in Iran. Now, Stewart has turned to comedy and written and directed the political satire Irresistible.

Rose Byrne and Steve Carell in a scene from the film.

Steve Carell (Michael Scott of The Office, General Naird in Netflix’s Space Force, and one of Stewart’s Daily Show colleagues) plays Gary Zimmer, a Democratic political strategist working the campaign of retired Marine Colonel Jack Hastings (Chris Cooper) as he runs for mayor in a what is a unanimously conservative Wisconsin town. Hastings had interrupted a town hall meeting with a plea for their undocumented workers, making a case that everyone’s responsibility is “to the least of us.” A viral video brings Hastings’ plea to Zimmer’s attention. 

Coming off the failed 2016 presidential campaign, this is Zimmer’s attempt to connect with the voters of the heartland. No sooner does he set up camp than his Republican equivalent, nemesis Faith Brewster (Rose Byrne), shows up to take over the current mayor’s (Brent Sexton) campaign. It is all-out war between the two factions as the battle is played out in the national media.

Initially, there are a good number of city-folk-in-the-country gags. Seeing the entire campaign staff crammed into a car in the high school parking lot because it’s the only place with decent Wi-Fi is amusing. One particularly obvious (but admittedly humorous) moment is the announcement of the Colonel’s campaign while Zimmer is trying to get the cows posed properly behind him. Fortunately, these easy laughs are not what make up the majority of the film. Most of the real wit comes at the expense of both the left and the right and the extremes they will go to “win,” as well as a viciously accurate look at the twenty-four hours news cycle.

Steve Carell and Mackenzie Davis in a scene from the film.

The film doesn’t avoid the dire straits and financial hardships of the current Midwest.  Deerlaken has been hard-hit by the closing of its military base. There are empty shops up and down the narrow main street. Its citizens are struggling. Stewart makes a point of honoring their humanity and intelligence; it is not a long stream of hick and redneck jokes but real people dealing with difficult problems. The fact that Deerlaken’s two sides don’t rise to the adversarial levels of the interlopers shows that they are, above all, a community.

A great deal is made about the age of information. Both Zimmer and Brewster bring in droves of consultants to research, conduct focus groups, and create over-the-top advertisements. One assessment that is an example of misplaced reliance on computer analysis is the disastrous leafletting campaign that ends up targeting a convent.  

The character development is subtle but ever present. All of the characters either grow or reveal themselves through the fast-moving hundred minutes. And while much of the situation is both ridiculous and untenable — and is as extreme as it gets — the reality is never gone. The campaign gets uglier, and Zimmer loses sight of his original goal. There is a comic discussion of “they go low; we go high” as he travels further down the twisted road in the opposite direction. This speaks to the overall question of what it means to be a good guy vs. “a good guy.”

One of the main takeaways is that elections are not even about politics. They are about math. If you can’t get more people to vote for your candidate, then you get fewer people to vote for the other. This is one of the few films to deal directly with the what is labeled the “election economy” — the money that is made through the campaigns but not necessarily for them. Fortunately, for a film about a corrupt and awful system, it never loses its comedic center.

The cast is all in top form. Carell gives a nuanced performance, with the growing realty that he is an outsider and yet believes in what he is doing. One of his most effective moments is when he explains the difference in the two factions; this gleam of non-partisan passion is beautifully understated. Byrne is a bit of evil incarnate but still manages to be wickedly charismatic. Chris Cooper accomplishes in silence what most actors can barely achieve with dialogue. When Zimmer drags him to New York for a West Side fundraiser, the pain and embarrassment are only matched by the pride in his own beliefs.  

Mackenzie Davis (recently seen in The Turning) has just the right mix of ease and strength as the Colonel’s daughter, who is wary of the entire process, and whose only concern is for her widowed father. Sexton’s mayor shows that he loves his people and is as frustrated with the situation as the Colonel. The supporting cast are all uniformly good, with the actors playing the locals being particularly dimensional and avoiding caricature.  

The film’s final shift is a smart-one and an incredible “ah-hah” moment — one that resonates in ways that will keep you thinking for quite some time. It raises very serious questions about the structure and value of the United States’ election process. And make sure to watch through the cunningly clever credits as well as the exit interview Jon Stewart conducts with Trevor Potter, former chairman of the Federal Election Commission. Though light in tone, its message is clear and drives home the questions raised in the film’s final act.

In short, Irresistible is very entertaining, with a big heart but an even bigger brain. You can watch it for the laughs but you will leave it with an education. Rated R, the film is now available On Demand.

Photos courtesy of Focus Features

Kevin Bacon and Amanda Seyfreid book the Airbnb from hell in Blumhouse's latest chiller. Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures

Reviewed By Jeffrey Sanzel

Kevin Bacon is no stranger to horror films. In his varied career, he has previously appeared in seven, from the original Friday the Thirteenth (1980) right through The Darkness (2016).  Now he stars in You Should Have Left, a film of some style but very little substance.  

The psychological thriller, written and directed by David Koepp, is based on Daniel Kehlmann’s slender 2017 German novella, Du Hättest Gehen Sollen. It is unsurprisingly produced by Blumhouse, which recently has provided a mixed bag of the genre, ranging from the first-rate Get Out to the head-scratchingly terrible Fantasy Island.

You Should Have Left opens with a nightmare within a nightmare within a nightmare. One image becomes very important later in the film’s sole interesting reveal. But it is not enough to sustain the one and a half hours that bridge the gap.

The story is simple. Kevin Bacons plays former banker Theo Conroy, the older husband of the young and beautiful Susanna (Amanda Seyfried) and even older father of the precociously inquisitive Ella (Avery Essex). 

Susanna is a successful film and stage actress married to the brooding Theo — but it is hard to see why. (Cue Theo’s fits of jealousy, followed by half-hearted apologies. Statements like “I don’t trust because you’re a really good actress” followed by “I guess I shouldn’t have said that.” It’s not real strong on the dialogue front.) 

Hints about Theo’s unsavory past are dropped throughout the first leg of this limping journey. Eventually, it is divulged that he was accused and acquitted of murdering his first wife by letting her drown in the bathtub. (Cue lots of overflowing bathtub images, both with and without corpse.) However, the publicity forced him into an early retirement.

The family takes a remote house in a Welsh village, prior to Susanna’s next gig in London.  (Cue odd villagers making cryptic statements.)  They rent it online from a mysterious landlord with whom they never actually speak; Theo and Susanna later discover that they thought the other had rented it. (Cue Scooby Doo:  “Ruh roh!”) 

A scene from the film. Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures

The house is spacious and modern and rather blank; it is also off-kilter, with walls at strange angles, and an inside bigger than the outside. (Cue hallways and doors that lead to different hallways and other doors that open and close and lead back to rooms that couldn’t be there but are but … cue lots of running up and down stairs.) There are no pictures but plenty of wall switches.  (Cue lamps that turn on by themselves and light peeking from underneath doors.)

There are some genuinely unsettling moments: A trail of Polaroids is wonderfully ominous; a shadow without a source flits across a wall; a figure appears in the window as they attempt to escape; Theo’s complete awareness that he is having a nightmare and tries to unsuccessfully slap himself awake — all standard but crafted moments that just don’t add up to anything more than … standard crafted moments. (Cue “Isn’t that just like … ?”)

About half way through, there is a nice bit with two cell phones that plays both into Theo’s paranoia and his reality. It motivates the latter part of the film which accelerates in tempo and yet never seems to pick up steam. Early on, it is teased that time is not quite in sync and this becomes a major point in the film’s finale. However, it needs a little more plot and a little less plod.

The performances are not bad.  Kevin Bacon plays Theo as tightly-wound, introspective, and guilt-ridden. (Cue grimaces and ferocious journal writing and tossed pens.) Amanda Seyfried plays Susanna as both tolerant and vaguely narcissistic. (Cue long suffering looks alternating with exasperation.) Geoff Bell is the ominously knowing storekeeper, Angus.  (Cue impenetrable accent.)

But the real star of the film is the house. A modern wonder or an eyesore, depending on point-of-view. Is it evil or does it draw evil to it to punish? Angus mutters some vague history that there’s always been a house on the land and it’s the Devil’s Tower. (Cue “What did he say and should I rewind to hear it or never mind this must almost be over, right?”)

There have been plenty of entertaining films that have dabbled in the dark powers of a house — Burnt Offerings and The Haunting, for example. This just isn’t one of them.

Ultimately, it is just another in a long line of generic arthouse wannabes. Where it fails as a horror movie, it also doesn’t succeed as a character study. To quote Gertrude Stein (Cue pretentious comparison): “There is no there there.”

When faced with a title like You Should Have Left, so many possibilities come to mind.  You Should Have Left … and So Should I. You Should Have Left … and Taken Me With You. Or You Should Have Left … and That Would Have Been Right. (Cue bad pun.) But, probably the best title would have been You Shouldn’t Have Gone in the First Place. 

Rated R, You Should Have Left is available On Demand.

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

We saw from a distance the open truck with children. Marta was standing next to me with her twin girls, who were five years old. The Gestapo was looking for more children. The girls screamed to Marta, “Mama, the takeaway men are coming, they’re going to take us away!” And they scooped up my little nieces, and the truck — loaded with children — drove off, and we never saw them again.

Author Meryl Ain

This vivid and disturbing description will come back to haunt Aron, a Holocaust survivor, in a very different way.  

Meryl Ain’s The Takeaway Men (SparkPress) is an exceptional and vibrant first novel. It is the story of Aron and Edyta Lubinsky and their twin daughters Bronka and Johanna. It is a tale of painful secrets and complicated histories. It shows the shift in the United States and in the free world from the desire to find justice for the victims of the Nazi’s genocide to the paranoia surrounding the Red Scare during the Cold War. But The Takeaway Men is also a portrait of the power of love and the ability of family to embrace and heal.

The prologue takes place in Poland, 1942, at the threshold of the Holocaust’s darkest hours. It then briefly jumps to the displaced persons camp outside of Munich, where the twins are born on July 4, 1947. Finally, the main portion of the book begins in 1951, settling into Bellerose, Queens, where it plays out for the next eleven years. Here the Lubinski family is taken in by their only living relatives, Izzy and Faye. In 1908, at age twenty, Izzy had left Poland to escape an arranged marriage and a religious life. In America, he found a new path, opening up two bakeries, and enjoying both a more relaxed existence than he would have found as an orthodox rabbi.

And while the issues of fascism versus communism are part of the book’s political core, The Takeaway Men is truly a celebration of America. There is a deep appreciation of the United States as a country that welcomes refugees and it shares the message without preaching. It embraces the wonder of a free democracy to give hope to those fleeing tyranny and seeking a new life:

“You know,” [Aron] told Izzy, “in Europe, people think the streets are paved with gold.”

“Yes, I heard that rumor before I came here too,” Izzy said with a laugh. “America accepts people like us and gives us the chance to get ahead on our own merit — that’s what’s golden about it …”

But even here in America, Aron continues to be haunted by his past. When the neighbor Lenore is arrested by men in suits, he sees the shadow of the Gestapo. Lenore’s daughter cries: “The take-away men took Mommy away.  When is she coming back?”

What is revealed is Lenore had a vague connection to Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were arrested, convicted, and then executed for espionage. The plight of the Rosenbergs is one of the many historical elements that are subtly introduced throughout the story’s arc.

The Lubinskis remain with Izzy and Faye as the girls grow up. Aron has actively chosen not to reveal his nor Edyta’s history to the girls.  But several incidents, including a fascinating scene in which a Hebrew school teacher shares what she feels is necessary knowledge, the publication of The Diary of Anne Frank, as well as a suspected Nazi working in the neighborhood, force some painful and startling revelations.  

In addition to the central characters, the book is populated by characters richly drawn in all their human complexity. Izzy and Faye’s mentally troubled daughter, Becky, returns to the fold, introducing someone who has a capacity for great love but is chased by demons of her own. 

Jakob Zilberman, a gregarious friend, survived as a member of the Sonderkommando, the prisoners who were forced to work in the gas chambers and the crematorium. Unlike Aron, he is compelled to speak out on his experience. He is another man plagued by not only what he witnessed but by his own actions: “I would prefer to tell you another story, one in which I look brave and fearless. I would prefer a story where I was a hero and saved people. But that wasn’t possible in those circumstances, and I wouldn’t be honest if I embellished what really happened to make myself look better.” Ain gives us more than a hero:  she gives us a human being.   

And, at the novel’s heart are the twins, Bronka and Johanna, as they grow up and grow apart but never lose their bond in this every changing world.

Many of the characters struggle with their religious and ethnic identities. Izzy and Faye’s son has married outside the faith and it is a fascinating study of conflict to see the parents try to find a way to accept this without losing their own cultural commitment. The issue of what it is to straddle the Jewish and non-Jewish worlds is addressed without judgment. The question of how to belong and yet not lose one’s sense of self is raised in all its contradictions.   “It was easier to be a Jew in America than in Poland, but it still wasn’t easy … when you’re a Jewish immigrant in Bellerose, you don’t quite fit in, no matter how many Christmas carols you know.”

There is a refrain in the book that references the biblical Ruth. Ruth, who was not Jewish but married an Israelite, in widowhood remains with her mother-in-law. The idea that “whither thou goest, I will go” resonates throughout.

Ultimately, The Takeaway Men is not just about family — it is about a neighborhood and a community. It is about the choice to survive even if you must make great sacrifices in the process. But finally, it is about finding that acceptance comes from understanding and understanding is what can make one whole. 

Available Aug. 4, The Takeaway Men may be pre-ordered at BookRevue.com, BarnesandNoble.com and Amazon.com.