Tags Posts tagged with "Jeffrey Sanzel"

Jeffrey Sanzel

Carl Safina with his buddies, from left, Cady and Chula. Photo by Patricia Paladines

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

“A sperm whale learns who she will be journeying with, a macaw casts a covetous eye on a beautiful neighbor, a chimpanzee learns to pay to play. Culture creates vast stores of unprogrammed, unplanned knowledge. The whole world speaks, sings, and shares the codes.”

Carl Safina’s latest book, Becoming Wild: How Animal Cultures Raise Families, Create Beauty and Achieve Peace (Henry Holt and Co.), is a fascinating look at the world of animal culture. It is an analysis of what is passed down (inherited) and what is learned (culture). 

Much of the study focuses on communication within the species and how animals form their own societies. “A lot of learning travels socially from parents to offspring or from a group’s elders.”  the author doesn’t so much redefine the term culture but, instead, encourages us not to be quite so human-centric in our perceptions.  

Safina divides the book into the study of sperm whales (families); scarlet macaws (beauty); and chimpanzees (peace). Each of the three sections is rich, detailed and engaging enough to be a book onto itself. He has brought them together under the umbrella of his exploration of culture. 

Each is given a detailed history of the species; description of their habitats; personal characteristics; intersection with the human world; and many fascinating details in both macro and microcosm. This is expertly mixed with his first-hand accounts of his experiences among them as well as the people with whom he takes the journey.  It is both objective and wholly personal.

His observations are enlightening:  “Chimps horrify and delight us because we recognize in them parts of ourselves. We see in them aspects of our own passions, and so they hold us in fascination.  We cannot look away. So much of what is uncomfortable for us in watching chimps is their excruciating similarity to us.” The book is rife with these epiphanies that are presented so simply and yet with such acumen.

One point that Safina makes is the debate over nature vs. nurture. His belief is that it is impossible to separate them as they interact. “Humans,” he writes, “are genetically enabled to acquire any human language. But we must still learn a language. Genes facilitate the learning, but they do not determine whether we will speak Russian.” Applying this to the terms of his overall thesis: “Genes determine what can be learned, what we might do. Culture determines what is learned, how we do things.”  

Safina has exceptional clarity and explains his ideas with focus and an underlying hint of humor that bring the reader further into his universe. There are a handful of black-and-white sketches but there are eight pages of glorious color plates. These should be studied prior to reading each section as they will give the ideal visual compliment to the descriptions.

Safina writes in engaging prose, rich in detail, vivid in his descriptions.  The depictions of these beings in their habitats truly give a sense of place in a thrilling and absorbing way. 

The fact that he is out there, in the midst of it, gives a sense of his joy and wonderment and his unceasing desire to understand. He never loses his awe of the depth and breadth of the natural world. 

He is a teacher, a student, and a tour guide. “I seek encounters that will enable me not just to see … not just to observe … but to penetrate past the labels and feel the beings as selves, living with their families, sharing the air where our two worlds meet.” Safina succeeds in his goal —and shares with grace, passion, and honesty.  

An ecologist and a MacArthur Fellow, Carl Safina is the author of numerous books on the human relationship with the rest of the living world. He holds the Endowed Chair for Nature and Humanity at Stony Brook University and is founder of the not-for-profit Safina Center. 

Becoming Wild” is available online at bookrevue.com, barnesandnoble.com and Amazon.com. Learn more at CarlSafina.org.

Jane Goodall. Photo courtesy of National Geographic

By Jeffrey Sanzel

From scientist to activist: Dr. Jane Goodall addresses an audience in a scene from the film. Photo courtesy of National Geographic

It could not be more appropriate that the new documentary Jane Goodall: The Hope premiered globally on Earth Day, April 22, in 172 countries and 43 languages on National Geographic, Nat Geo WILD and Nat Geo MUNDO channels. At the heart of Goodall’s work is more than just the wonder of nature but the need to respect and honor our coexistence with other species of the planet. Her passionate yet gentle character is iconically associated with this message.

The two-hour film continues where Jane (2017) left off. Jane Goodall:  The Hope is an exploration of the work she has done since 1986, when she transitioned from scientist to scientist-advocate. It is a beautiful film, powerful and simple, with no narration. Instead, it is told through interviews juxtaposed with recent and archival footage spanning over six decades.  

There are a few nods to her earlier life.  One of the first scenes, Goodall shows her childhood copy of The Story of Doctor Dolittle, the book that first opened her eyes to a world of possibilities. There are occasional glimpses into her person life — some time spent with her grandchildren or having a glass of whiskey with friends. But the heart of the film is Jane Goodall as conservationist and messenger.  

A scene from the film. Photo by Michael Christopher Brown/Magnum Photos

At 86, Goodall still maintains a grueling schedule of three hundred days on the road, traveling and speaking across the entire globe. In one sequence, she is shown shuttling from airport to hotel room (where she makes toast on an iron) to traveling again.  

It would be a difficult schedule for someone a third her age, but Goodall sees it as both quest and responsibility. When told she should slow down, her response is that she must speed up as time is running out. Between tours she lives in the English home that her family has had since 1940, sharing with her younger sister, Judy.  We are treated to just a few rare moments of rest, accentuating her constant and unflagging work.

Goodall never sought fame but has reluctantly accepted it to further her cause. She readily admits that she would have preferred to stay in the forests of Gombe, living with and studying chimpanzees, but realized she was in a position to speak out where people would listen.

Whether addressing a crowd of several thousand or interacting with a handful of elementary students, her unique spirit comes through. Her goal is to always reach people through their hearts. She is a guide and a messenger, not a preacher. One boy describes her as “Mother Theresa for the environment.”

Her outreach has included the Jane Goodall Institute as well as the Zanzibar-based Roots and Shoots program. The latter engages young people on issues of conservation and gets them directly involved. She is particularly inspiring to young girls, several of whom give impassioned paeans  to Goodall as a role model.  In fact, the latter third of the documentary concentrates on her legacy and the myriad results of the seeds she has planted.

A scene from the film. Photo courtesy of National Geographic

The film highlights her ability to connect with people and not divide them. James Baker, former White House Chief of Staff, was an avid hunter. Yet, she was able to find common ground in a belief in clean water. He readily gave her introductions to countries across the world. She developed a long-time relationship with Rodney Macalister, manager for Conoco.  Throughout, he is interviewed and marvels at how she managed to get a huge oil company to build a chimpanzee sanctuary. He states simply, “She commands respect in the softest of ways.”  

Goodall went into labs that used primates for experimentation so that she could report firsthand. Often questioned by more radical activists, she makes clear that she would rather work with people “to do it better” then to be constantly adversarial. Ultimately, with years of considerable yet considerate pressure, she got the National Institute of Health to reduce its use of animals for the testing of drugs and other experiments. She has the ability to bridge the gap between the most unlikely individuals.

It should be noted that there is disturbing footage of the torture and mistreatment of chimpanzees. The filmmakers have wisely not overused these important images but they are as devastating as they are essential in their depiction of cruelty and neglect.  

The documentary clearly shows Goodall’s inner focus: “I believe only that when head and heart can work in harmony we can achieve our true potential.” Her message is shared with everyone from the youngest children to the most educated of academics, from politicians to Prince Harry. And her affect on them is clear.  

She is hope attached to action. She understands that to make conservation work you have to engage with the local people and make their lives better. Conservation must help through community, remembering that there are basic needs that will come first (e.g., health, water, education).

Ultimately, it is Jane Goodall’s optimism that shines through. Her belief that the young people can and will make the world a better place. One of the final moments of the film is her speaking to a sold-out crowd.  She raises her hand and says: “Together we can —together we will save the world.” And because she believes, it makes us believe it too. Jane Goodall: The Hope is an important film in the truest of ways. It is not just to be seen; it is to be shared.  

Jane Goodall: The Hope is now streaming free on demand.

Mackenzie Davis in a scene from 'The Turning'.

By Jeffrey Sanzel

One of the definitions of “turn the screw” is “an action that makes a bad situation worse, especially one that forces someone to do something.”  

Henry James’ 1898 novella The Turn of the Screw was a landmark milestone of the Gothic genre. Unlike many of the thrillers that had come before and after, its power is rooted in the horror of uncertainty. Eschewing traditional ghost story tropes, the question of sanity versus reality gives the narrative a unique slant.  James’ tale is psychological rather than overt (such as Bram Stoker’s Dracula, published a year earlier).  

The first film adaptation, The Innocents (1961), was taken from the Broadway play.  Over the years, there have been various incarnations inspired by both the plot and the driving concept.

Now Floria Sigismondi (whose early career is in music videos) has directed a modern adaptation from a screenplay by Carey W. Hayes and Chad Hayes. In this update, set in Maine 1994 (most likely to assure there are no cell phones), Mackenzie Davis takes on the role of Kate Mandell, the new governess at the Fairchild Estate. Kate is replacing Miss Jessel who mysteriously disappeared.  

Finn Wolfhard and Brooklynn Prince in a scene from ‘The Turning’

There isn’t much detail given to how Kate gets the job. Then again, there aren’t many details given to anything. Kate tells her best friend Rose, (Kim Adis doing her best “stock best friend”) “I’m going from 25 screaming kids to one little girl. How hard can it be?” Isn’t this the question asked by every nanny, babysitter, and tutor in the history of horror movies? 

After visiting her delusional and institutionalized mother (Joely Richardson, whose three minutes of screen time hardly warrant the “and” billing), Kate arrives at Fairchild, with its lush grounds, Gothic architecture, and creepy statuary. Lest we forget, there’s the requisite overgrown pool where someone will be pulled in and pulled down.  

Kate’s charge is the precocious Flora (an able Brooklynn Prince), a hyper-articulate seven-year-old who makes very adult observations. Flora never leaves the property. This turns out to be connected to a genuine fear as she witnessed her parents dying in a car accident outside the house’s gate. 

Flora is quickly joined by her teenage brother, Miles (Finn Wolfhard), hip and happy, but dead-eyed, a Damien for the millennium. Miles has been expelled from boarding school where he brutally attacked another student. He plays electric guitar and likes spiders. Subtlety is not the film’s strong suit. There is another issue here: Whether his violent and sadistic tendencies are nature or nurture. But like any opportunity to find depth or dimension, the filmmakers choose neither.  

Brooklynn Prince in a scene from ‘The Turning’

The final addition to this genial band is Mrs. Grose, the briskly efficient housekeeper and family retainer. Barbara Marten does her best but the result is a cross between a hellish Mary Poppins and grinning Mrs. Danvers.  With silver hair and gray crepe skin, she is given to knowing looks and proclamations like “The children are very special … they are thoroughbreds” and “They were born into privilege.”  

The plot is driven by the possibility that Miss Jessel was murdered by Peter Quint, the brutish and drunken riding instructor, who was a bad influence on Miles. Quint also died under questionable circumstances. Kate begins to be haunted by images of both Jessel and Quint.  She begins to suspect that the children, who have taken to playing vicious pranks, can see them as well. Whether the visitations are real or in her mind is at the core.

It is and has always been a serviceable plot. The issue is one of style and character development. 

For the former — style — it could be any horror movie in the most generic sense. The opening shots are of a woman running away from a house. The mansion is vast, with rows of blank windows and a mysterious and dangerous east wing. Don’t forget the well-timed thunder claps, banging shutters, slamming doors, a menacing maze, obscured mirror and window reflections, and a whole bunch of scary dolls. There are some nice jump-out scares but they are of the “gimme” variety. That is, nothing new: a mannequin head that turns on its own, a sewing machine that comes to life, disembodied foot prints, etc.  It doesn’t help that if the film were any darker, it would be a radio play.

The real problem is in the latter: character development. There isn’t any. Kate honors her commitment to Flora that she won’t abandon her. But why would she agree to play flashlight tag? And with Miles, who threatens her and comes into her bedroom uninvited? 

The history of her mother’s mental illness and how that has affected her is skated by with comments about “not having parents.” It’s the ultimate kinda-sorta-let’s-address-this. We don’t know who these people are and, pretty quickly, we don’t care. And the questions still remain: Are they dreams? Are they visions? Is it over yet? No. She still has to run up and down the stairs and through the fog for another twenty minutes.

Perhaps this could all be forgiven if it had built towards a satisfying conclusion. Often, the final moments of a horror film have a shocking twist or a cathartic explanation. There can be that wonderful “ah-hah” moment.  Instead, there was an “oh, no” — as in “oh, no, I just wasted 90 minutes of my life for a film without an ending.” In any case, don’t “turn the screw” by watching this. That would just make a bad situation worse.

Rated PG-13, The Turning is now streaming On Demand.

Photos courtesy of Universal Pictures

Elevating the Nature of Modern Landscapes
By Piet Oudolf and Rick Darke

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

“I feel very strongly in the sort of planning that I do, that you feel the changes all the time.  It is a changing beauty: from beauty into beauty.” Piet Oudolf

In the introduction of Gardens of the High Line, Richard Hammond, co-founder of Friends of the Highline, addresses the issues that confronted the creators of the gardens. Is the goal to preserve the natural wildness of the vegetation or to recreate entirely? The final decision was to find something in between, that both honors the desire to conserve but also understands the value of change. 

Matt Johnson’s Untitled (Swan) was crafted from one of the High Line’s original steel rails

What resulted was both native and introduced flora:  “[a] multi-season garden of perennials, where the skeletons of plants have as much a part in the landscape as new growth … the wilderness in the city, the art museum on a train track. Like the park itself, the gardens hover between beauty and decay.”  

The High Line gardens are a true reflection of New York City. It is a place of growth and loss, romance and introspection; elements that are fixed and others that are constantly transforming. And, amazingly, it is where these aspects can co-exist.

The book’s prose is as elegant and eloquent as its imagery. It gives multi-leveled insight to not only the creation of the space but the more esoteric motivations beneath. It takes the reader through the history of the High Line and its roots in industry. It discusses its changing identity and evolution and, finally, its reinvention. 

There is also a detailed exploration of wild gardens, citing historical sources, and how untamed growth often transforms ruins. It explains the art that inspires and the craft that designs — and, most importantly — the alchemy that joins the two. This is not your average gardening book.

“Though it’s unlikely there will ever be another place quite like the High Line, it offers a wealth of insights and approaches worthy of emulation in gardens large or small, public or private. Authentic in spirit and execution, the High Line’s gardens offer a journey that is intriguing, unpredictable, imperfect, and, above all, transformative.”

After the introductory analyses, the book begins at the southernmost end of the High Line, at the Gansevoort Woodland, the area that is Gansevoort Street through Little West 12th Street. The route continues north, each section highlighting a different area: Washington Grasslands, Hudson River Overlook, etc., going all the way up to the Rail Yards, ending at West 34th Street.  

Ultimately, the glory of this book is the hundreds of photos by Rick Darke to be seen and savored. The photography is vivid, an explosion of color and texture. The chapters offer dozens of photos that span a range of viewpoints, showing the change of seasons, both extreme and subtle. Each turn of the page reveals the gardens in some different perspective, no two alike, but allowing the viewer to see the similarities as well as the contrasts. The book shows both an unbridled and an organized environment through the prism of the world as nature’s art gallery.

A compass plant frames the view west across the Hudson River to New Jersey.

In the end, the authors see the book’s goal as one that will “serve as a beautiful memory of a great place, as guide to the infinite opportunities it presents to practice the art of observation and as an inspiration to all who, publicly or privately, seek to elevate the nature of modern landscapes.” They have succeeded in a work that honors artistry and insight with deep understanding, celebrated through hundreds of dazzling and breathtaking images.

Published by Timber Press, Gardens of the High Line: Elevating the Nature of Modern Landscapes is available online at www.timberpress.com, www.amazon.com and www.barnesandnoble.com.

The show must go on(line). Theatre Three in Port Jefferson proudly presents Theatre Three Off-Stage/On-Line, an exciting series of short works, each no longer than fifteen minutes. 

In an effort to present original content in a unique way, Theatre Three’s call for scripts garnered over 125 submissions in its first week that can be presented exclusively on-line. The pieces have been written or re-conceived for the online platform, and writers have used the constraints of the format as a different way to tell stories.

The series will debut this Sunday, May 3, at 7 p.m. with the comedy Taking Sum Lumps by Ken Preuss, starring Michelle LaBozzetta and Brian Smith. This will be followed on Wednesday, May 6, at 7 p.m. with Phil Darg’s drama Trajectory, featuring Linda May and Stephen T. Wangner. 

The series is directed by Theatre Three’s Artistic Director Jeffrey Sanzel.  Technical production is by Tim Haggerty and Eric J. Hughes.

Coming soon will be You Give Me Fever by Thomas Pierce; Blinking in Treetops by Shirley King; Future Drew by John Mark Day; and Stage Fights Screen and The Birds Are Feeding Me, both by Rex McGregor, with more plays to be announced.

New premieres will be held every Sunday and Wednesday night at 7 p.m. on YouTube, Facebook and Theatre Three’s website, www.theatrethree.com.

Theatre Three continues to accept submissions; guidelines can be found at https://theatrethree.com/offstage-online.html.

By Jeffrey Sanzel

Ladj Ly’s Les Misérables is not another remake of the Victor Hugo novel, nor does it have anything to do with the musical blockbuster or its clumsy cinematic version. In fact, it only nods to the original source in slight but ultimately important ways.  

This Les Misérables is set in the French commune of Montfermeil in 2018. In the novel, Montfermeil is where Jean Valjean rescues the abused child Cosette. In addition, the title has been translated as The Miserables, The Wretched, The Miserable Ones, The Poor Ones, The Wretched Poor, The Victims and The Dispossessed. Any of these would apply to the denizens of the contemporary Montfermeil.  (Contrary to various sites, Hugo did not write Les Misérables in Montfermeil, but rather when he was in exile, living in Guernsey.)  

The film opens in Paris, just after the French victory at the 2018 FIFA World Cup. It is a scene of celebration and harmony, where people of all ethnicities joyously connect. This is the sole moment of unity to be seen in the next ninety minutes.

Quickly, the action shifts to Les Bosquets, Montfermeil’s most notorious and crime-ridden social estate. Police officer Stéphane Ruiz, an emotional and moral core as played in a brooding, heartfelt performance by Damien Bonnard, has arrived for his first day, having been transferred from Paris, to join the anti-crime brigade. He is placed with the high-strung, abusive, and sadistic Chris (Alexis Manenti, dangerously mercurial) and the more laid-back Gwada (understated but wholly engaging Djebril Zonga), who grew up in the neighborhood. 

Chris and Gwada have been working this area for the past decade. At one point, the hairpin-triggered Chris states,“I am the law.” It is horrifyingly comic and twistingly reflective of how this community functions. It is just as skewed as Hugo’s wrongheaded but self-righteous policeman Javert.  (However, it should be noted, Javert is many things but crooked is not one of them.)

The plot centers around a teenager, Issa (a piercing Issa Perica), who has stolen a lion cub from a Roma circus and posted a picture on Instagram. This causes great unrest in the already volatile zone, divided by race and religion.  

Stéphane, Chris, and Gwada attempt to locate and return the cub, revealing the corrupt and cruel underpinnings of the area, ruled over by a mayor (played with a sly, controlled charm by Steve Tientcheu), an arch and accomplished manipulator. 

Confrontations ensue with the citizens of both African and Arab decent; the Muslim Brotherhood, run by former felon Salah (the subtlety dimensional Almamy Kanoute); drug dealers; and hordes of almost feral teenagers.  

Even after they locate Issa, it is an act of violence — revealed to be not as accidental as it first seems — that drives the latter part of the film. From then on, it is a race between the police officers and the various residents to track down the video from Buzz (wide-eyed and fearful Al-Hassan Ly), the boy whose drone recorded the incident. It all builds to a showdown that is both a literal and figurative conflagration.

The film depicts a wide range of abuses against poor citizens. To label them all as victims is to oversimplify and to take away the social and fiscal complexity of the issues. Many of them are held back by conditions beyond their control; but their reactions are often brutal and disproportionate, fueled by a distrust and deep-seeded anger.  

This is a world of temporary alliances but no allegiances. Amongst themselves there is hierarchy but no respite or solace. It is a constant struggle for survival through power and dominance and unflinching brutality. And, at the bottom, there are the disenfranchised teenagers of various ethnicities, portraits of seething unrest.

The film quotes Hugo: “Remember this, my friends: there are no such things as bad plants or bad men. There are only bad cultivators.” It is a reminder that this actions are the consequences of societally-made circumstances.  

Ladj Ly has directed this film with a relentless anxiety. Every moment is tension-filled; even in stillness, it holds its breath. The clock is always ticking and the countdown is to another moment of destruction in a sphere that is wracked by crime and poverty.  

One thing this Les Misérables shares with the original is its look at the law — not in black and white but in shades of terrible grays. But this is to be expected in a universe where an eye-for-an-eye can become literal. If you were looking for a film with clear good and bad and right and wrong, this is not it.  But if you want to be challenged, Les Misérables will resonate with a unique and unsettling power.

The final moment is the perfect metaphor: a Molotov cocktail burning down. Where it lands, remains to be seen.

In French with English subtitles, Les Misérables (Rated R) is now streaming on Amazon Prime.

Photos courtesy of Amazon Studios


Eleanor Tomlinson and Sam Claflin in a scene from the film. Photo by Riccardo Ghilardi/Netflix

By Jeffrey Sanzel

In these dark and often challenging times, it is nice to know there are movies and television shows that can take us out of ourselves for an hour or two. It is a welcome opportunity to jump into a rom-com world that is delightful and whimsical and wholly engaging. Netflix’s offering, Love Wedding Repeat, is not that.

With beautiful scenery, a glorious sunshine filled-day, and elegance in everything from the lavish dress to the flawless table settings, it takes a great deal of effort to be this consistently abrasive and charmless. There is a difference between trying very hard and just being very trying. Four Weddings and a Funeral it’s not. Well, maybe just the funeral.

Dean Craig has directed his own screenplay based on the 2012 French film Plan de Table.  In the prologue, British Jack (Sam Claflin) attempts to kiss American Dina (Olivia Munn), the roommate of his sister Haley (Eleanor Tomlinson). They are interrupted by a boorish friend of Jack’s and there goes the kiss. Jump three years forward to Hayley’s Roman wedding to Roberto (Tiziano Caputo). Once again, Jack has the opportunity to connect with journalist Dina. The film spends the next hour and a half keeping them apart.

The thin conceit hangs on two things:  the name cards at the English table and a misappropriated sedative. The film’s gimmick is that it plays out one scenario with a brutally unhappy ending (truly ugly) and a second with a cheerier resolution. Separating the two is an interlude in fast-forward during which half a dozen possibilities are played out around the table. 

The film’s structure is not the film’s problem.  Instead, it is as if someone emptied the cliché bag of every wedding movie. “Nothing could spoil this day …” followed by the arrival of the coked-up ex-boyfriend (scenery chewing Jack Farthing). Who could see that coming? 

There is the old man who insists on kissing everyone on the mouth. A not Scottish guy in a kilt (Tim Key) — oh, those hilarious kilt jokes — whose inability to talk to women is the source of so much amusement. Of course, given the nature of the film, in the second part, he learns that it all comes down to “just listening.”  

A pretentious film director (Paolo Mazzarelli), caricatured right down to the pony tail, is being stalked by the maid of honor, Bryan (Joel Fry). To add further chaos, Bryan has only just learned that he has to give a speech. Don’t forget the obnoxious friend (Aisling Bea) who says everything she thinks but, deep down, just wants to be loved. Don’t worry: She ends up with someone who sees her for who she is, deep down. Freida Pinto is saddled with the thankless role of Jack’s ex, a gorgeous harridan who is tormenting her current boyfriend (Allan Mustafa, who must play a rather unsavory obsession).  

There are some truly gross moments that are somehow meant to be funny. There is both the expected and extraneous sex jokes. What’s less than single entendre? The whose-taken-the-sedative-and-is-falling-asleep gag seems interminable and inescapable. These “hijinks” are played out against a great deal of talk about “grabbing choices” and “finding love.” Pick a lane, please.

In theory, it is a clever idea to show two different views of the same day and the matrimonial  setting is an ideal choice. But the contrast between the two parts is not strong enough nor are the characters likable enough to root for.

Claflin has a certain warmth but the material doesn’t give him enough variety or backbone. Munn is smart as the object of his affection but seems to be suffering much of the time. Tomlinson, a true English Rose, is handed an unforgivable transgression given the context. Key tries his best to make the supportive friend less of a trope and more of a human being. It comes down to the fact that this is a talented cast who are not served by the writing’s grinding machinations and the often less-than-pleasant characters.

The moral of Love Wedding Repeat is it all depends on where you sit. I guess that’s true. I wish I hadn’t sat in front of the television.  

Rated TV-MA for mature audiences only, Love Wedding Repeat is now streaming on Netflix.

Hilary Swank and Betty Gilpin in a scene from the film. Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures

By Jeffrey Sanzel

“Whether they’re smart pretending to be idiots or idiots pretending to be smart …”  

The Hunt follows “elitist snowflakes” stalking “deplorables” on a sprawling compound in Croatia. In this film, both groups have earned the quotes in one way or another. The rich are insufferable and entitled on a whole new level; the rednecks behave in the way they are most often caricatured. It is hard to label the film: satire, horror, action thriller, or political commentary. All are relevant but not one fully encompasses the frenzied whole. It is also hyperviolent, bloody, frequently sadistic, but, more often than not, engaging.  

Co-written by Nick Cuse and Damon Lindelof and directed by Craig Zobel, The Hunt’s release was scheduled for September 2019 but was postponed because of mass shootings in Dayton and El Paso. It was finally released in theaters in early March; when the theaters were closed, it was quickly offered on pay-per-view sites.

This is not the first movie to follow humans hunting humans. Richard Connell’s 1924 short story The Most Dangerous Game was first adapted for film in 1932. It has been seen in about a dozen incarnations over the years. The Hunt’s strong political thread separates it from many of its predecessors.

A group of captives from various parts of the United States are dropped into a forest where, upon their release, the majority are slaughtered in a scene reminiscent of The Hunger Games:  bullets, landmines, arrows, a pit with spikes, etc. Those who escape are then hunted down in various ways throughout the next hour.  Playing in the background is the discussion of Manorgate, a conspiracy theory that seems to be coming true for these targets: the left-wing rich tracking the poor for sport.

The film spends little time developing character but is more concerned with the broad strokes, moving swiftly through a range of vicious encounters. Late in the film, a flashback explains but in no way attempts to justify the actions of the privileged. Centering on a leaked text introduced in the beginning, it is the impetus for the events, leading to the question of motivation versus wish fulfillment. This is part of the all-over and over-the-top nature of the entire story.

The cast makes the most of the chaos. The dark humor surfaces in unexpected times, including Amy Madigan and Reed Birney’s argument over an issues of political correctness as they clean-up and store bodies. It is either hilarious or horrifying, depending on the point-of-view. Perhaps, it is both.

Most of the characters are either given first names or simple monikers. For example, Emma Roberts is billed as “Yoga Pants.” Her quick dispatch is enough reason not to go further into her character. Justin Hartley (Kevin of television’s This Is Us) also disappears early on.  People do come and go very quickly here and all in unpleasant circumstances.

The stand-out is Betty Gilpin as Crystal Creasey, one of the pursued, who proves to be a match for her assailants at every step and turn. Gilpin (best known as Debbie “Liberty Bell” Eagan on the Neflix series GLOW) is extraordinary. She makes Crystal quirky and mannered, yet entirely believable. In the most powerful and disturbing moment, she retells the story of the tortoise and the hare with a brutal and unexpected outcome. Her delivery is both painful and chilling. It also comes full circle at the end.

The climax is a showdown between Crystal and the driving force behind the Hunt, Athena Stone (an unbridled Hilary Swank). It could be an example of female empowerment or could easily just be plain exploitation. Either way, it is an all-out brawl of epic proportions.

“Whether they’re smart pretending to be idiots or idiots pretending to be smart …” states Crystal. As to who are the heroes and who are the villains, this is left in a strange ambivalence. Certainly, many will see the film as a portrait of the underlying divide between the left and the right. Others will see it as a blood-drenched spectacle. With its extreme violence and twisted politics, ultimately, The Hunt is an equal opportunity offender.

Rated R, The Hunt is now streaming on demand.

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

“One of the things that attracted me so greatly to Masonry, that I hailed the chance of becoming a mason, was that it really did act up to what we, as a government and as a people, are pledged to — of treating each man on his merits as a man.”

— Theodore Roosevelt to the Grand Lodge of Pennsylvania, Nov. 5, 1902

Author Ronald J. Seifried

Many of us have been intrigued by the society known as the Freemasons but most know little about its history. Huntington Station resident Ronald J. Seifried has written Long Island Freemasons to offer background and anecdotes of this organization while still respecting its privacy. Seifried, a Freemason for over seventeen years, succinctly defines the Order:

“Freemasonry is a worldwide fraternal organization that is a system of morality, veiled in allegory and illustrated by symbols.  Formally organized in London, England, in 1717, Freemasonry initiates men from various professional and social backgrounds, well recommended, with a shared belief of a supreme being without prejudice of religious affiliation. A society with secrets, but not a secretive society, Freemasons forbid the discussion of politics or religion in the lodge, creating an atmosphere of harmony and removing any conflictive or divisive nature. Charity has been an important aspect and virtue of Freemasonry since its foundation.”

The introduction provides a brief history before focusing on Long Island’s connection to the association, which traces its roots to George Washington. Seifried then gives a detailed timeline of Long Island’s various lodges, some of which still exist today. He cites the challenges faced by the earliest members, including the traveling of great distances and economic struggles. His presentation is well thought-out and his research is a wealth of detail.

Suffolk No. 60 Lodge in Port Jefferson

The book is rich with hundreds of photos. There are pictures of lodges and meeting halls, both interiors and exteriors. Seifried gives descriptions of the buildings’ histories and architecture as well as the costs of construction. Faith in the Freemasons’ goals has historically attracted generosity with many wealthy individuals and families donating money and land for lodges and their locations. There are explanations of lodge names, many of them obtained from Native American sources. Pictures of gathered lodge members give background on the individuals and their positions in the lodge. There is a mammoth amount of information in this slender volume.

The author acknowledges the enigmatic nature of the Freemasons:  “The secrecy of this group of men lent a certain level of mystery and respect when the members appeared in public. Schools were dismissed and locals turned out en masse to see the Masons parade.”  Often, this is the only time the community ever sees the members in their Masonic regalia. In addition, dedications were also public events and several images show these gatherings.

The book is divided into geographical sections: Central Suffolk; Western Suffolk; Oyster Bay; Town of Hempstead; North Hempstead; and Glen Cove.  Seifried finds what makes each area special to the group and offers a range of photos that pertain to the region. The final chapter touches on affiliated groups, including the Shriners, Eastern Star, and the Scottish Rite, among others.

There are intriguing accounts scattered throughout: “Part of a brother’s introduction into Freemasonry included a drama representing the building of King Solomon’s Temple, with chief architect Hiram Abiff as the central character, murdered for not revealing the secret word of a master mason; the lodges are often referred to as ‘temples,’ as an allegorical reference to King Solomon’s temples.”  

The Hawkins-Mount Homestead, in Stony Brook, was used several times in 1802 as a meeting place for the Suffolk Lodge; its owner, Major Jonas Hawkins, was a member of the Culper Spy Ring during the American Revolution. Chief Crazy Bull, grandson to the famous Sioux Chief Sitting Bull of the Hunkpapa Lakota Tripe, was a member of the Suffolk No. 60 Lodge, which is still located on Main Street in Port Jefferson. 

Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt was invited to speak at Huntington’s Jeptha No. 494 Lodge, in commemoration of the adoption of the U.S. Constitution. He was late due to inclement weather and traffic and quipped that the island should be named “Longer Island.”

The color plates in the book’s center are striking. They have contemporary shots of existing lodges, explaining the various rooms. There are paintings that depict the three degrees of Freemasonry, offering a insight to the overall core of spirituality. The Long Beach No. 1048 Lodge’s stained glass window dome is photographed beautifully and the symbols are clearly explained.  

Today, there are 28 active lodges across Suffolk and Nassau counties. Ronald J. Seifried’s Long Island Freemasons is an excellent look into the local history of the world of Freemasonry as well as a tribute to its survival and contribution.  

Long Island Freemasons by Ronald J. Seifried, part of the Images of America series by Arcadia Publishing, is currently available online at www.arcadiapublishing.com, www.amazon.com or www.barnesandnoble.com.

A scene from 'Harriet'

By Jeffrey Sanzel

Harriet Tubman was born into slavery but escaped to the North where she became the most famous “conductor” on the Underground Railroad. With unfathomable bravery, Tubman repeatedly risked her life to bring her family and other plantation slaves to safety. An extraordinary individual, she became a leading abolitionist prior to the Civil War; during the war, she worked directly with Union Army as a spy among other roles. Beyond the war, she worked with freed slaves as well as campaigning for women’s suffrage. 

Directed by Kasi Lemmons, who collaborated with Gregory Allen Howard on the screenplay, Harriet is a powerful and important biopic that focuses on the strength and perseverance of this exceptional person.

A scene from ‘Harriet’

The film opens in 1849 and shows the twenty-something Harriet (born Araminta Harriet Ross, nicknamed “Minty” by her parents) newly married to John Tubman. While she is still a slave to the Brodess family, John is a freedman. Harriet lives on a farm in Dorchester, Maryland, with her mother and sister, her other sisters having been sold South.  

It is revealed that the Brodess’s have denied the family’s freedom that was promised in the great-grandfather’s will. When confronted with a letter from a lawyer, the plantation owner rips it up and dismisses the claim. In private, Harriet prays for God to take him — this witnessed by the adult son, Gideon. When the father dies suddenly, Gideon decides to sell Harriet as punishment.  Realizing this, she flees and begins the nearly impossible journey one hundred miles to the Pennsylvania border.

Harriet had been struck in the head as a child and, because of this, has seizures in which she receives visions that she believes are the guidance of God.  Throughout, these flashes help her make difficult decisions and they become pivotal in her choices.

Once acclimated in Philadelphia, Harriet plans to return south for her husband. John, believing she was dead, has remarried and his wife is pregnant. While distraught from this discovery, she decides to bring her family to freedom. This she does along with bringing several other slaves to the North. 

Thus begins Harriet’s life’s work, returning time after time to bring more slaves to freedom. Legend grows around this mysterious figure dubbed “Moses” and incites the wrath of the plantation owners. Harriet remains undaunted and continues her work, even after the Fugitive Slave Act is passed, allowing escaped slaves in free states to be returned to their bondage.

The film builds to a confrontation between Harriet and Gideon. After this, there is a small epilogue that suggests her work with the Union Army, in particular leading black soldiers who free hundreds of slaves.

It is a compelling film that tells the story with great clarity and doesn’t shy from the brutality of its topic. Lemmons finds the flow of the story and rich detail. There is an occasional lack of tension because Harriet sometime seems a bit too invincible. This undermines the danger and risk that were clearly apparent in her every action and choice. It is a minor cavil but surprising given the life-and-death stakes.  

Cynthia Erivo delivers a gripping performance as Harriet Tubman.

Both the center and the heart of the film is Cynthia Erivo’s Harriet.  Erivo shows the struggle, pain, and triumph. Her transition from “Minty” Ross to Harriet Tubman is done with poignancy and a raw honesty that inspires every moment of the story. Joe Alwyn does his best to avoid the clichés as the spoiled and vicious Gideon. His scenes with Erivo are some of the strongest in the film.  

Leslie Odom Jr. charms as William Still, the Philadelphia abolitionist who connects Harriet with the Underground Railroad.  Janelle Monáe’s Marie Buchanon offers the right strength as the free-born owner of a boarding house in Philadelphia where Harriet stays; there is a sensitivity in   the growing friendship and mutual respect between them.

Clarke Peters and Vanessa Bell Calloway, as Harriet’s parents, both find dimension in their limited screen time. Omar Dorsey is terrifying as Bigger Long, a brutal slave-catcher. Henry Hunter Hall is a bit whimsical as Walter, a black slave tracker who switches to Harriet’s side. Jennifer Nettles is appropriately brittle as Eliza Brodess, Gideon’s mother.

The rest of the cast does the best it can but many of the parts including most of Harriet’s family are not full developed. The exception is Deborah Olayinka Ayorinde, as Rachel Ross, Harriet’s sister; in one brief scene she shows monumental struggle and fear.

In 2016, it was announced that Harriet Tubman would replace Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill; this was to coincide with the hundredth anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which granted women the right to vote. Last year, this well-deserved honor was postponed until 2028 (or beyond).  While Harriet Tubman might not grace American currency anytime soon, Harriet is a sensitive and honest reminder of this unique and remarkable human being.

Rated PG-13, Harriet is now streaming on demand.

Photos courtesy of Focus Features