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Movie Review

Ashley Brooke and Bel Powley in a scene from 'A Small Light'. Photo from NatGeo

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

‘But even an ordinary secretary or a housewife or a teenager can, within their own small ways, turn on a small light in a dark room.’ — Miep Gies

No figure is more iconic than Anne Frank. Whether seen as an ordinary girl in extraordinary times, or a remarkable individual robbed of her potential, her short life and terrible death epitomize the darkest era of the twentieth century. And while her memory transcends decades, she should be remembered as a person with hopes and aspirations, feelings, and foibles. Anne Frank was not a symbol; she was a human being.

The Diary of a Young Girl—often called The Diary of Anne Frank—appeared in its original Dutch in 1947. The first English translation, Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl, was published in 1952. 

Bel Powley shines in her role as Miep Gies in A Small Light. Photo courtesy of Nat Geo

The diary was given to Anne as a thirteenth birthday present on June 12, 1942. She chronicled her life in this book and two school exercise books. On March 29, 1944, she listened to a London radio broadcast by the exiled Dutch Minister for Education calling for the preservation of “ordinary documents … simple everyday material” as a testimony to the plight of Dutch civilians under the Nazi regime. She began revising the entries with this in mind. Her final entry was on August 1, 1944, three days before her arrest and deportation. Miep Gies and Bep Voskuijl, two of the brave people who helped hide the Frank family, saved the loose pages of the manuscript. After the war, they gave the papers to the only surviving occupant of the attic, Anne’s father, Otto.

A stage adaptation premiered on Broadway on October 5, 1955. Adapted by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett (supposedly handpicked by playwright Lillian Hellman), the well-received production emphasized the hopeful aspects, highlighting (but perhaps ignoring true context) the signature quote: “Despite everything, I believe that people are really good at heart.” 

In 1959, this version was brought to the screen in the equally lauded version. It was not until 1997, when Wendy Kesselman revised and re-envisioned the play, there was an Anne Frank properly representing the true darkness and struggle, divesting itself from the earlier incarnation’s occasional saccharine. The BBC produced a television film in 2019 with an entirely new script.

Of the cinematic incarnations, the most powerful is Anne Frank: The Whole Story (2001). Due to a conflict between the producers and the Anne Frank Foundation, the creators were denied access to quote Anne Frank’s writings. Instead, according to producer David Kappes (in a private interview), the ninety-year-old Miep Gies was used as a primary source to tell Frank’s history. (Gies passed away in January 2010 at 100.) This account takes Anne beyond the annex, following her through deportation to the Westerbork transit camp, transport to Auschwitz, and finally, her death in Bergen-Belsen.

Gies told her story in the memoir Anne Frank Remembered: The Story of the Woman Who Helped to Hide the Frank Family (1987). Subsequently, she was featured in the Academy Award-winning documentary Anne Frank Remembered (1995). 

[The following is based on a viewing of the first two episodes of A Small Light.] 

Now, National Geographic has produced A Small Light, an eight part miniseries streaming on Disney+ and Hulu. This begs whether there is a need for another screen version of the story. If it is A Small Light, the answer is a resounding “yes.” 

Masterfully directed by Susanna Fogel (from a screenplay by Tony Phelan, Joan Rater, William Harper, and Ben Esler), A Small Light takes Miep Gies from the sidelines. It presents her center in a wholly realized and beautifully dimensional account. The series is an inversion of previous Anne Frank stories. Rather than the claustrophobic fear of being surrounded by the horrors of the outside, this is the terror of living day-to-day in a world with danger at every corner and every turn.

Episode one opens in 1942. Miep Gies (Bel Powley) bicycles with a frightened Margot Frank (Ashley Brooke) through the streets of an idyllic Amsterdam festooned with Nazi banners interspersed with “Resist” graffiti. Miep is attempting to get Margot through a Nazi checkpoint. The scene is taut, tense, and done in quick, sharp cuts.

Before they reach the front of the line, the action shifts back to 1933. After a night of drinking, Miep joins her large, adopted family for lunch, having slept until 2 p.m. Her frustrated parents suggest that if she cannot find a job, she marry her adopted brother (who, unbeknownst to his parents, is gay). Miep lives a leisurely, almost bucolic life. 

After an awkward interview, Otto Frank (Liev Shreiber) engages the unskilled Miep as a secretary. Brash and temperamental, she still learns the business and begins to find her place in the organization. Life goes along with Miep meeting her eventual husband, the shy Jan (Joe Cole), in a bar. 

On May 10, 1940, the Nazis invaded the Netherlands. Within five days, they had taken over the country. Laws change, and the harsh Nazi abuse transforms into greater crimes. (It is not until the middle of episode two that we see the brutality of the round-ups.) The infamous yellow star appears on clothing. 

Eventually, Otto shares the plan of taking his family, along with his employee Hermann Van Pels’ family, into hiding and asks for Miep’s help, to which she immediately agrees. However, Otto changes the moving date when his older daughter Margot receives deportation papers. The first episode returns to the opening scene as Miep gets Margot through the checkpoint and into the annex, the first glimpse of the hiding place.

The second episode shows the earliest days of the new life. On the inside, attitudes are already fraying as the Franks attempt to adapt. Miep must deal with the already frustrated and often frustrating individuals living like prisoners. She also faces the challenges of keeping the secret as well as finding food, ration books, etc. Husband Jan aids Miep but also begins his own journey to help the persecuted. This episode ends with the dentist, Fritz Pfeffer (Noah Taylor), completing the members of the attic.

The cast is uniformly exceptional. Liev Schreiber makes for a slightly mercurial but effective and compassionate Otto. Amira Casar’s Edith Frank is a stronger, more demanding Edith. Billie Boullet is an exceptional Anne, shining and passionate but grounded in reality. Ashley Brooke hits the right gentle notes as the reserved Margot. Joe Cole grows Jan throughout, going from reticence to strength with a charm that comes through.

But the center is Bel Powley’s exceptional Miep. She grows from the lackadaisical party girl and reluctant employee to a ferocious, committed portrait of real courage. Whether flirting with a butcher to get a better chicken or resigned to revealing the true situation outside the attic walls, her reality and depth are flawless.

From an educational standpoint, the series is invaluable. The current curriculum rightfully deals with turning bystanders into upstanders and changing the bullying narrative. Miep Gies reminds us never to stand by; as individuals, we must choose to make a difference. We must do more and must do better. For that alone, her story is beyond important. The fact that A Small Light is art presented with raw integrity elevates the message to a higher level.

A scene from 'Peter Pan and Wendy' Photo from Disney +

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

Peter Pan traces his roots back to 1902. Created by Scottish author J.M. Barrie, the Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up first appeared in The Little White Bird before being placed center stage in Barrie’s play, Peter Pan (1904). In many stage incarnations, Peter was most often played by a young-looking actress, notably Maud Adams, Mary Martin (the 1954 Broadway musical broadcast on television), Sandy Duncan, and Kathy Rigby. 

Alexander Molony as Peter Pan. Photo from Disney +

There are dozens of cinematic adaptations, both animated and live-action. The story has been revisited and reinvented from the 1924 silent film, spanning Disney’s memorable (and, for many, definitive) 1953 cartoon, to Robin William’s grown Peter in Hook (1991). Captain Hooks have included Boris Karloff, Hans Conried, Jason Isaacs, Stanley Tucci, and Dustin Hoffman.

Now, Peter Pan and Wendy arrives on Disney+. Based on the Barrie source and Disney’s animated feature, the film’s first half covers no new ground, with the opening scene remain predictably problematic. The standard exposition remains the same, showing the Darlings in the early nineteenth-century nursery. The children play pirates, resist bedtime, the mother sings a lullaby, etc. The new piece is Wendy, the eldest child, being sent away to boarding school, something in which she has no interest. Wendy is frustrated by life’s changes, and she makes the wish never to grow up. A vague nod towards the theme of time threads through the opening and carries lightly throughout. 

Ever Anderson as Wendy in a scene from ‘Peter Pan and Wendy’. Photo courtesy of Disney +

The first half of the film feels like a musical without the songs. Each section builds but never quite reaches a climax before shifting to the next moment. Because it offers little original to the well-trod story, the action treads water. However, director David Lowery (who has penned the screenplay with Toby Halbrooks) accelerates the plot by having the pirate’s capture of the children moved to their arrival in Neverland. This allows for a slightly more original second half with a new point of view. 

The emphasis in Peter Pan and Wendy is a message of female empowerment, with the most self-actualized Wendy to date. Here, the protagonist works with a misunderstood Tinker Bell and a re-envisioned Princess Tiger Lily. This Peter Pan is truly the story of Wendy Darling, and where it places this focus, it soars. In addition, there are as many girls as boys in Peter’s tribe, and even a few female pirates. The creators present an overall welcome diversity that feels in no way forced and celebrates both the freedom of fantasy and the changing times.

Jude Law as Captain Hook. Photo from Disney +

Also introduced is a revised history of Peter and Captain Hook. Revealed is the friendship between the young Hook—James—and Peter. James left Neverland to search for his mother, creating a schism between them. Hook failed to reconnect with his parent and was rescued and recruited by the pirates, quickly ascending to captainship. The narrative is a bit convoluted, but once clarified, it provides a certain understanding between the enemies and an almost cathartic resolution.

Alexander Molony is a subdued Peter Pan, stronger in the quiet moments but hesitant in the more bombastic. Perhaps, Lowery chose this approach to highlight Wendy’s independence and maturation. Ever Anderson’s Wendy starts hesitantly but builds in power, stature, and depth in the character’s arc. Anderson easily avoids precociousness, offering a likable, humorous, and resourceful center.

Jude Law presents a less flamboyant Captain Hook but cleverly mines the subtlety. His Hook is smoothly wicked yet introspective, genuinely bloodthirsty, and wholly believable, finally owning the character in his unique approach. The underlying sadness enriches his Hook/James. Barely recognizable, Jim Gaffigan eschews the expectation of an over-the-top Smee and leans towards charmingly underplaying. Alyssa Wapanatâhk and Yara Shahidi do their best with the underwritten Tiger Lily and Tinker Bell, with Shahidi’s final interaction with Wendy strongly resonating.

Jim Gaffigan as See. Photo from Disney +

The almost traditional screenplay has flashes of wit, but more would have been welcome. Peter Pan and Wendy is visually striking, with a darker but evocative palate provided by cinematographer Bojan Bazelli and production designer Jade Healy. The flying effects feel natural, and the sword fighting well-staged. Daniel Hart composed a score that neatly blends traditional “Disney adventure” with a hint of New Age. Cleverly, a running joke makes use of The Pirates of Penzance.

It remains to be seen where this version will land. Compared unfavorably to the popular Robin Williams — Dustin Hoffman Hook? Placed ahead of the disastrous 2014 live event (with Allison Williams and Christopher Walken)? Or left in the forgotten netherworld of the 1976 television special (with Mia Farrow and Danny Kaye)? In the meantime, a handsome, mostly engaging, but somewhat uneven Peter Pan and Wendy will fly across screens for the present.

Rated PG, the film is now streaming on Disney +.

Florence Pugh and Morgan Freeman in a scene from 'A Good Person' Photo by Jeong Park/MGM

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

Zach Braff is best known for his acting work, most notably for his nine seasons as Dr. J.D. Dorian on the sitcom Scrubs. Additionally, his extensive work behind the camera includes producing, writing, and directing. The works encompass short films, television, and, most notably, the feature film Garden State (2004), a quirky but effective rom-com featuring Braff and Natalie Portman. Unfortunately, his follow-up, the domestic comedy-drama Wish I Was Here (2014), was not well-received.

Braff’s third offering, A Good Person, is a drama of dysfunction and addiction. The film opens with Morgan Freeman’s voiceover as he works on his model trains, wistfully proffering the idea that life is neither neat nor tidy. Then, the idyllic moment shifts to the raucous engagement party of Allison (Florence Pugh) and Nathan (Chinaza Uche). Allison sings an original song to her future husband, much to the delight of the guests.

The next morning, Allison drives her future sister-in-law and brother-in-law from New Jersey into New York City. Checking the map app on her phone, Allison involves them in an accident where her prospective in-laws die.

A year later, Florence is an unemployed pharmaceutical rep addicted to pills. She lives in a perpetual state of conflict with her mother, Diane (Molly Shannon), who lacks the insight or emotional resources to help her struggling daughter. Florence has run through her oxy, and none of her doctors will refill her prescription. After a failed attempt to blackmail a former colleague, she ends up in a bar where she smokes with two low-lifes with whom she had gone to high school. Florence has hit bottom.

She attends an AA meeting, running into Daniel (Morgan Freeman), the man who would have been her father-in-law. She leaves, but Daniel stops her, suggesting fate has brought them together. They form an odd bond that becomes a tenuous friendship. 

Retired Daniel was a cop for forty years and a drunk for fifty. Sober ten years, he grapples with raising his orphaned granddaughter, the now rebellious Ryan (Celeste O’Connor). He accepts that he does not know how to raise a teenager, having left that to his wife. The worlds collide as Allison and Ryan accidentally meet at Daniel’s house and also form a strained connection. Ryan shares her late mother’s feelings that Allison was the best thing to happen to her uncle Nathan. Ryan lets slip that her grandfather blames Allison for the accident.

The film is rife with revelations and the sharing of histories. An alcoholic father abused Daniel. In turn, Daniel became a blackout drunk, mistreating his own children. In an inebriated rage, Daniel beat Nathan so severely that the boy lost hearing in his right ear. Estranged, the adult Nathan and Daniel have only the slightest of relationships. 

While the film covers no new territory, the narrative contains the makings of a dramatic and interesting story. Sadly, the gap between intention and execution can be the distance between Perth Amboy and Perth, Australia. 

The film tackles difficult subject matters—guilt, addiction, withdrawal, forgiveness—but somehow manages to avoid depth. Director Braff works from his screenplay, which seems a patchwork of acting class scenes. The occasional smart quip—“the opiate of the masses is opium”—is lost among aphorisms and cliches—“Comparison is the thief of joy.” 

Daniel’s Viet Nam veteran cap is jaw-droppingly unsubtle. In a film brimming with life and death issues, the result is often tensionless and pedestrian. The metaphors—the model trains, Allison’s father’s watch, swimming, songwriting—even a haircut—are heavy-handed. 

However, while Braff the writer might have failed, he cast well and brought out strong performances. Florence Pugh finds the anguish and ugliness in Allison’s spiral. She is mesmerizing rawness in every moment, alternating between a hyper-aware ferocity and a disconnected stupor. Morgan Freeman is incapable of shoddy work and remains one of the most watchable cross-genre actors. While Daniel sits in the center of his range, he manages to nuance the darker moments, contrasted with Freeman’s often-seen “wise” humor.

Molly Shannon’s mother is a bit shrill, but her brittleness and immaturity are not misplaced. Chinaza Uche is given little more than shades of pain, but what he does is imbued with sincerity. Twenty-something Celeste O’Connor embodies the angry teenager, Ryan, and easily holds her own against Pugh and Freeman. She proffers fire, grief, and even joy, while hovering on the verge of implosion.

So much of A Good Person feels manipulated, if not downright manipulative. Ultimately, Braff confuses messy lives with sloppy filmmaking. 

Rated R, the film is now playing in local theaters.

Woody Harrelson, far right, stars in the new comedy, Champions. Photo by Shauna Townley/Focus Features

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

After being ejected for shoving the head coach, disgraced minor league basketball coach Mark Markovich (Woody Harrelson) goes on a bender, hitting a police cruiser. Given a choice between eighteen months in jail or ninety days of community service, he opts for the latter. His sentence is to work with The Friends, the local recreation center’s intellectually challenged basketball team.

“What do I call them?” Mark asks the judge. “I suggest you call them by their names,” the judge replies.

Therein lies the heart and head of Champions, a sweet, predictable, but sincere comedy. 

Woody Harrelson in a scene from ‘Champions’. Photo courtesy of Focus Features

Champions is based on Campeones, Javier Fesser’s 2018 Spanish film which was inspired by a team created with people with intellectual disabilities that won twelve Spanish championships between 1999 and 2014. 

Bobby Farrelly (working solo for the first time) takes a straightforward approach in directing Mark Rizzo’s workmanlike but satisfying screenplay, resulting in a simple but heartfelt story. Thematically, Champions trods no new ground. Mark is a man who “can’t stick” anywhere, bumping from job to job—Ohio to Greece to Turkey to Iowa—his inability to connect results from a combination of anger and almost terminal self-absorption. 

While working with The Friends, Mark is more transformed than transforming. As much as he affects the team, he learns to see the players as human beings—something absent from both his personal and professional lives.

Harrelson’s performance offers nothing surprising, but that does not make it ineffectual. He shows restraint, an ability to listen, and seems fully present. His metamorphosis from ambivalence (texting during their first game) to commitment (running up and down the sidelines) is obvious but acceptable. He manages to make Mark’s retreat from self-destruction believable. 

There are the inevitable plot bumps and the requisite speech about what it is to be a champion. A particularly clumsy comedic interlude involves raising money for the trip to Canada. But these are to be expected. Champions is a light narrative, not a revelatory documentary.

Mark becomes involved with Alex, player Johnny’s sister. An actor of a certain age, she tours in her van, presenting Shakespeare to middle school students. The Shakespeare piece integrates later in the film but is a bit forced. It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia’s Kaitlin Olson makes Alex mildly tough and likable in a mostly limited role. Her fear of Johnny moving into a group home offers an alternate familial insight and provides her with her best moments.

The film triumphs in its small moments. The center’s director, Julio (beautifully methodical Cheech Marin), describes the players, and we are shown moments of their day-to-day lives. One works at an animal shelter; another is a master welder. These glimpses are gentle, tacit, and entirely real. Whether seeing them at work or home, these slivers are wonderfully honest and exposed without feeling intrusive. 

Woody Harrelson, center, with the cast of ‘Champions’. Photo courtesy of Focus Features

The soul and driving force of the film are the ten intellectually challenged team members, played not as victims or outsiders but as wholly realized individuals. Whether it is Casey Metcalfe as savant Marlon, expounding a wide variety of trivia, or James Day Keith’s Benny rehearsing a speech to request time off from work, they are riveting in their presence. 

Madison Tevlin is delightful as the team’s sole female, the no-nonsense Consentino. Kevin Iannucci mines Johnny for dimension and heart. The most powerful scene involves Joshua Felder’s gifted Darius. A car crash survivor, the confrontation with Mark addresses the horrors of DWI. If a bit facile, the validity cannot be denied.

Is Champions exploitive? 

For over a decade, Matt Nelson has worked for Evanston Special Recreation. He has coached basketball, track and field, powerlifting, swimming, volleyball, softball, and flag football. In addition, he has been the assistant athletics coach for Team Illinois at the 2013 USA Games (Seattle) and the 2022 USA Games (Orlando). 

In speaking with Matt on this question, he responded: “Champions is super realistic in its portrayal of a Special Olympics team with regards to their athletic abilities and the individual personalities of each athlete. Each one of my athletes comes from a different living situation—group home, living with parents, living on their own. The movie is no different and stresses how each athlete has a unique story to tell. My teams always succeed the most when they work as a team which Champions accurately portrays. And both my team and I loved the ending and thought it was PERFECT.”

The film’s climax occurs at the North American regionals during the Winnipeg Special Olympics. In agreement with Matt and his players, The Friend’s final shot has a reverberating emotional justice. 

Those looking for great depth and searing truth will find this a slight outing. But for a feel-good sports movie that gently celebrates a unique group of underdogs, Champions delivers. Ultimately, the moral comes not from Mark but from the team. “We play for each other.”

Rated PG, Champions is now playing in local theaters.

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Brendan Fraser in a scene from ''The Whale' Photo courtesy of A24

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

In 2012, Samuel D. Hunter’s The Whale premiered off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizons. It won both the Drama Desk and the Lucille Lortel Awards for Outstanding Play. Hunter has adapted his play for the screen in a compelling film directed by Darren Aronofsky.

The film opens with Charlie, a morbidly obese college professor, teaching online from his Idaho apartment. While Charlie urges his students to write from a place of truth and honesty, he leaves his camera off so they cannot see who he really is. His friend Liz, a nurse with personal ties to Charlie’s history, urges him to go to the hospital as he is bordering on congestive heart failure. Charlie refuses, citing a lack of health insurance and the fear of incurring huge debts.

Charlie spends his days grading papers, eating, and struggling with declining health. Thomas, a missionary from the New Life Church, visits, attempting to bring him to God. Charlie’s only other outside interaction is with the Gambino’s pizza delivery man, Dan, with whom he speaks through the closed door.

Knowing that his time is limited, Charlie reaches out to his estranged daughter, Ellie. Charlie had not seen the girl since he left her and her mother, Mary, for Alan, one of his continuing ed students. 

A dysfunctional family drama ensues that touches on depression, suicide, religion, money, and homophobia. For the screenplay, Hunter hewed closely to his original work. The play was set entirely in Charlie’s living room, and Aronofsky wisely opts to keep most of the action in the dark, cluttered room, only opening up to the apartment’s additional rooms and the porch (though Charlie never goes beyond the threshold).

The film is not subtle in its storytelling and metaphors. The titular “whale” refers to Moby Dick—both Charlie and a student essay he rereads obsessively. Nevertheless, The Whale derives strength from exceptional performances from its ensemble cast. 

The connection between Liz and Charlie is central to his survival, and Hong Chau balances her love and frustration as Charlie’s only direct contact with the outside world. She frets over his health but is a not-so unwitting enabler. Sadie Sink brings multiple shades of anger and darkness to Ellie, showing her pain but also an almost sadistic need to manipulate. 

Ty Simpkins, as Thomas, avoids cliché and makes the later revelations valid and believable. Samantha Morton appears in one scene, imbuing Mary, the alcoholic ex-wife, with the right sense of hurt and damage. But, at the center of the film is Brendan Fraser as Charlie.

Fraser’s early career included Dogfight (1991), Encino Man (1992), and School Ties (1992). He is best known for The Mummy series (1999, 2001, 2008), with other movies ranging from Dudley Do-Right (1999) and Blast from the Past (1999) to Journey to the Center of the Earth (2008) and No Sudden Move (2021). Certainly, none of these prepare audiences for the heartbreaking depth of this performance.

Going beyond the physical challenges, Fraser makes Charlie a complicated figure. He alternates between a resigned need to apologize—his litany of “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry …”—and a passionate desire to see the good in people (specifically, the mercenary Ellie, who may or may not warrant this faith). 

Harrowing moments include a choking fit and a pizza binge—each horrifying and gut-wrenching in its own way. But they are no more painful than Ellie’s malevolent, “I’m not spending time with you. You’re disgusting.” And his cry, “Who would want me to be a part of their life?” Even his struggle to stand and cross the room resonates with a deep hurt. Fraser never loses sight of Charlie’s humanity, creating a dimensional, unforgettable performance. 

Fraser has already won twenty awards, an equal number of additional nominations, and another dozen pending, including the Oscar for Best Actor.

However, the film has been in the crosshairs of two controversies. Fraser’s casting required him to wear nearly three hundred pounds of prosthetics. This raised questions about why a more appropriately sized actor was not selected. (Shuler Hensley, who appeared in The Whale off-Broadway, was also heavily padded for the role.)

In addition, the character itself has stoked ire in various sectors. “Some of the film’s critics believe it perpetuates tired tropes of fat people as suffering, chronically depressed and binge eating.” (Time Magazine, December 9, 2022) Appropriately, Aronofsky’s career has included a range of controversial films, including Requiem for a Dream, Black Swan, Noah, and Mother!

These challenges aside, the film and its key performance are more than worthy of viewing. At its heart, The Whale asks: Can anyone save anyone? The Whale is a disturbing, extraordinary exploration that leaves the question unanswered. 

Rated R, the film is now playing in local theaters.

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Tom Hanks and his furry costar Schmagel in a scene from the film. Photo by Niko Tavernise/Columbia Pictures

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

Fredrik Backman’s A Man Called Ove (2012) spent forty weeks on the New York Times Best Seller List. First published in Swedish, the English version received almost unanimous raves. The author attributed his inspiration to a newspaper article about a man named Ove who had created a stir while purchasing tickets at an art museum. As a result, Backman created a series of blog posts: “I am a Man Called Ove.” Here, he vented about the world’s many minor aggravations. Eventually, this became the source of the book.

The novel’s Ove is a curmudgeon of the first order. A rule follower, he adheres with almost religious fervor to the letter of the law. He is also deeply mourning for his wife, who passed away six months before the story starts. Forced into retirement, he sees nothing to live for and is determined to end his life so that he may join her. However, a chance encounter with his new neighbors changes his entire course. Reluctantly, Ove becomes drawn into their day-to-day drama and becomes a hesitant but invaluable ally. This involvement shifts Ove’s view of life, and he finds new purpose, mending fences and making changes.

A Swedish film, adhering closely to the source material, was adapted and directed by Hannes Holm, and starred Rolf Lassgård as Ove. Released in 2016, the well-received film was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film and is now Sweden’s third-most-watched Swedish theatrical film of all time. 

In 2017, it was announced that Tom Hanks would star in an English-language remake. (He is also a co-producer, along with his wife, Rita Wilson, Fredrik Wikström Nicastro, and Gary Goetzman). The danger of the material is leaning into its sentimentality and eschewing the darker tones. 

Director Marc Forster (Finding Neverland, Christopher Robin) and screenwriter David Magee (Finding Neverland, Life of Pi) have marginally avoided too gooey a center. While maintaining the plot and most details, this incarnation is distinctly more emotional than the novel or the Swedish version. However, taken for itself, A Man Called Otto is a surprisingly fast-paced, heartfelt two hours and a worthwhile journey. If there are moments that might feel saccharine, the end is both rewarding and cathartic.

The story revolves around Otto, first seen buying five feet of rope sold by the yard. He argues that he does not want to pay the additional thirty-three cents. Even though planning on using the rope to end his life—and clearly, the change would not make a difference to his future—he obsesses on principle. The scene establishes the man and his views.

Each day, Otto makes his morning rounds of the community. Neighbors attempt to engage him, but he responds, “I have too many things to do.” (This mantra will eventually shift from the negative to the positive.) While Backman’s Ove is taciturn, Hanks’ Otto borders on chatterbox, with a running commentary muttered under his breath. Occasionally, his vocalizations conjure an irate Mr. Bean. 

A few changes bring the film into the present: A gay character is now transgender. Social media becomes a force for good. But, overall, the throughline remains the same. 

The major narrative shift is in the use of flashbacks of Otto’s life. The book and earlier film reveal Ove’s history as a series of bad breaks, hard work, and patience. Important is his particular hate for the bureaucratic “men in the white shirts” responsible for many of the worst events in his life. In Otto, the flashbacks are used almost exclusively for his courtship, marriage, and life with Sonya (Rachel Keller). This obscures much of the causality in the story that showed Sonya bringing him out of his misfortunes. (Tom Hanks’ son Truman plays the young Otto, but his work fails to link the two Ottos.) Ove is a man marinated in sourness. Conversely, one suspects Otto is a false Grinch, masking his too-large heart.

Of course, the film’s purpose is Tom Hanks. Tom Hanks is the great American Everyman, so his Otto becomes not a scarred survivor but a reflection of what anyone would become from this loss. Like Jimmy Stewart, Hanks is unique because he manages to be all of us but wholly himself. Different from Backman’s Ove, Hanks makes Otto his own. 

There is a wonderful eclectic nature to the neighborhood residents. In particular, Mariana Treviño brings humor and grounding to Marisol, the new neighbor. In addition, Treviño offers a warm but knowing presence, suspecting that there is more going on with Otto than he shows. 

The interactions between Treviño and Hanks are the highlights of the film. (Christiana Montoya and Alessandra Perez deserve special mention for playing her children with an energy that is neither precocious nor shrill.)

In the end, A Man Called Otto is a different, if gentler, take on a touching, tender, and uplifting tale. 

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

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Trinity Bliss, as Tuk, in a scene from Avatar: The Way of Water. Photo courtesy of 20th Century Studios

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

Released in 2009, Avatar took in over $2.9 billion, making it the highest-grossing film of all time. The brainchild of James Cameron, who wrote, directed, and produced, Avatar received nine Academy Award nominations and won three: Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography, and Best Visual Effects. It won the Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture and Best Director, and garnered other major awards and nominations.

Over a decade later, Avatar: The Way of Water arrives in theaters with many of the same strengths: exceptional visual artistry, extraordinary special effects, and thrilling action sequences. This time, Cameron collaborated with Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver on the screenplay (with “story by” credits adding Josh Friedman and Shane Salerno). 

Avatar: The Way of Water, a spectacle of the first order, is many things. It is also too long. Whether by twenty minutes or an hour and twenty minutes, this epic desperately sags in the middle. The original Avatar is a long film that runs two hours and forty-two minutes. Avatar: The Way of Water clocks in at three hours and twelve minutes. Is this too much of a good thing or just too much? The reality is that it is an unnecessarily extended three hours. That said, for the pure beauty of vision, it lands in the win column.

Much of the film plays like a reboot of Avatar, except this time underwater. As a result, it plays the assumption of an audience familiar if not fully aware of the background. (To a certain extent, the history is referenced and recapped in the first thirty minutes.) 

The story picks up fifteen years following the end of the first film. Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) is now chief of the Pandora tribe Omaticaya, raising a family with his wife, Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña). They have two sons, Neteyam (Jamie Flatters) and Lo’ak (Britain Dalton), daughter Tuk (Trinity Bliss), and adopted daughter Kiri. The latter was born from Grace Augustine’s (Sigourney Weaver) inert avatar. Added to the family mix is a human boy, Spider (Jack Champion), who is the son of Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang).

The Resources Development Administration (RDA) has returned to Pandora to pave the way for human colonization for a dying Earth. Na’vi avatars have been implanted with the minds and memories of deceased soldiers, with Quaritch ruthlessly leading the group. After Sully leads an attack on the RDA, Quaritch captures Jake’s children. Sully and Neytiri rescue them, but Quaritch realizes that Spider is his son and draws him in to help with his knowledge and navigation of the Na’vi. 

Meanwhile, Sully and his family flee the Omaticaya forest and hide with the Metkayina, a clan spiritually connected to the sea. While initially rejected by the Metkayina, the family eventually integrates. After a series of adventures and clashes, the film builds to a staggering thirty-plus-minute climax of jaw-dropping action. 

Thematically, like its predecessor, Avatar: The Way of Water addresses larger issues. While not approached with any subtlety, the concept of wanton plundering of natural resources and the callous destruction of an indigenous people play clearly. 

Likewise, the unwelcome and unwanted outside force annihilates for commercial gain. Embodied by the RDA’s almost carelessly sadistic General Ardmore (Edie Falco), the military destroys everything in its path. Whether devastating wildlife or destroying homes, the overwhelming and relentless insensitivity is always at the center.

The acting is fine—neither terrible nor remarkable. While the Na’vi are CGI-ed, the characters relate a range of expressions matching the vocalized emotions, allowing the viewer to believe them to be as real as their human counterparts. In addition, the meticulous detail accomplishes more than just ciphers but individuals with drive, humor, fears, and desires. 

Lo’ak (Britain Dalton) with Payakan. Photo courtesy of 20th Century Studios

The filmmakers have done miraculous work in the creation of sea creatures. Particularly wonderful is Payakan, who rescues one of Sully’s children. Payakan is a Tulkun, an intelligent aquatic mammal (resembling a whale). The creators have embodied this creature with a reality that makes it noble and sympathetic. Again, the film’s strength is in imaginative world-building.

At its heart, Avatar: The Way of Water wants to celebrate family and community and the ends to which we go to protect those we love. The story strives for honesty and integrity, enhanced by astonishing visuals. And while the running time is excessive (and perhaps off-putting), the final film is still a work of art. And if not great art, the film is spectacular craft. 

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

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Carey Mulligan and Zoe Kazan in a scene from 'She Said' Photo courtesy of Annapurna Pictures/Plan B Entertainment/Universal Pictures

By Jeffrey Sanzel

In 2019, Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey published She Said: Breaking the Sexual Harassment Story That Helped Ignite a Movement. The two New York Times reporters had exposed producer Harvey Weinstein’s long history of abuse and sexual misconduct, leading to national awareness of the #MeToo movement. The phrase traces to MySpace 2006: Sexual assault survivor and activist Tarana Burke founded the movement as a way for Black girls to share their stories of sexual trauma.

From All the Presidents Men (1976) through Spotlight (2015) and The Post (2017), cinema has addressed difficult topics through the sub-genre of investigative journalism. These movies take a potentially static premise—working an article through phone calls, research, and interviews—and elevating them into an emotionally connective experience. Director Maria Schrader has masterfully directed Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s smart and lean script for She Said. The result is a taut, unsettling, and riveting two hours.

She Said opens with the 2016 inquiry into then-presidential candidate Donald Trump’s alleged sexual misconduct. The quick prologue presents the retaliation against his accusers and death threats against the reporter. The telling segment sets up what is to follow.

The film jumps five months to the ousting of conservative commentator Bill O’Reilly. The New York Times staff embarks on exposing sexual harassment in the workplace, finding widespread problems in large companies, including Amazon and Starbucks. 

Actor Rose McGowan becomes an inciting force when reporter Jodi Kantor receives a tip that McGowan had been raped by Weinstein when she was twenty-three. Kantor pursues leads and conducts interviews, but she realizes that even high-profile stars—including Ashley Judd and Gwyneth Paltrow—do not want to go on record. This reluctance further emphasizes the power and exploitation systemic in the Hollywood community and culture.

Kantor then joins forces with Megan Twohey. They interview some of Weinstein’s victims, encountering appalling experiences. The pair relentlessly pursue leads, traveling across the country and even to the UK. In every case, they face reluctance rooted in fear. 

The film accurately paints Weinstein as an arch manipulator—a bully who used emotional abuse to prey on young women. He cajoled with statements such as, “It’s just business.” He promised advancement and threatened to blackball, with his greatest weapon being his far-reaching control in the industry. One victim expresses guilt and shame over her powerlessness: “It’s like he took my voice that day.” Weinstein’s influence, coupled with Miramax’s multiple payouts and NDAs (non-disclosure agreements), kept the producer safe for years. Weinstein built the silence, and people complied.

The interviews with two former assistants—Zelda Perkins and Laura Madden—are central to the film. Madden, who initially declines to speak, hears from someone in the Weinstein organization, revealing the network of awareness in Weinstein’s court. This threat ignites Madden’s desire to cooperate with the investigation. 

The film shows the difficulty in finding corroborating evidence. The title—She Said—indicates the challenge of going beyond accusations. Threats of career loss, bad publicity, and “cash for silence” are roadblocks that Kantor and Twohey must overcome. Even the EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) shows reluctance to cooperate. 

The quest takes a toll on Kantor and Twohey, invading their personal lives (though they are fortunate in the support of understanding husbands). Twohey gives birth early on and struggles with postpartum depression. Their perseverance is rewarded when several sources agree to go on public record, including Ashley Judd, who appears as herself.

As a film, She Said is relentlessly tense, with almost no breathing space, though much plays in low tones and silence. A few occasional flashbacks are a bit clumsy, but the disturbing recreation of the audiotape of Italian model Ambra Battilana Gutierrez is brilliantly recreated against images of hotel corridors. Likewise, a victim’s clothing on the floor, shown against the sound of a shower, is equally unnerving.

Carey Mulligan (Twohey) and Zoe Kazan (Kantor), both intense but never overwrought, skillfully head up a fine ensemble cast. As editor Rebecca Corbett, Patricia Clarkson once again shows her ability to be understated and fully present, guiding the two reporters with a strong hand. 

Andre Braugher displays wry depth as executive editor Dean Baquet. Jennifer Ehle and Samantha Morton are outstanding as Laura and Zelda, bringing dignity to the pain of two damaged survivors. Peter Friedman’s canny lawyer, Lanny Davis, offers dimension as well as the prevailing attitude of the misogynistic “normal.” Zach Grenier’s adversarial account, Irwin Reiter, seethes with conflict. 

While Weinstein’s hulking figure is only seen from the back, Mike Houston imbues the predator’s voiceovers with brutish, self-entitled cruelty. Finally, Judd’s presence lends an incredible additional weight to the film. Everyone invests in the narrative’s high stakes.

Suffused with tension, She Said finds much of its center in the necessarily uncomfortable and the shadow of the unspoken. Just before the story is about to run, Twohey expresses the prevailing fear: it will run, and people won’t care. While She Said is an incredible film, it is also a sober reminder there is still much work to be done.

Rated R, the film is now playing in local theaters.

Ryan Reynolds and Will Ferrell in a scene from 'Spirited.' Photo courtesy of Apple TV+

By Jeffrey Sanzel

No holiday season goes by without a new take on that perennial favorite, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Whether traditional or modern, serious or spoof, the story survives and thrives. 

Reviews are expected to contain some sense of objectivity. However, having had a long and personal connection to this story, I would be disingenuous, pretending I do not have strong, protective feelings. Over the years, I have viewed every version possible. 

Ryan Reynolds and Will Ferrell in a scene from ‘Spirited.’ Photo courtesy of Apple TV+

Adaptations of A Christmas Carol are most often referenced by their principals. Among the finest of the traditional versions are, of course, Alistair Sim and George C. Scott. The stronger musicals include Albert Finney, Mr. Magoo (voiced by Jim Backus), and the Muppets (with Michael Caine as the miser). Henry Winkler, Cicely Tyson, Vanessa Williams, Robert Guillaume, and Susan Lucci barely scratch the surface of the updated undertakings. Many are fans of Bill Murray’s Scrooged, but I confess to have never been on board with its strident humor and ambivalent ending. I have endured Kelsey Grammar, Tom Arnold, Tori Spelling, and even Barbie. 

This leads us to the newest addition, Spirited. Director Sean Anders has co-written the screenplay with John Morris. Composers Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (The Greatest Showman, La La Land, Dear Evan Hansen) provide the score. Will Ferrell and Ryan Reynolds star. And the film is pure, outrageous joy from beginning to end.

The plot is an absurdist mix of sentimentality and insanity, offering a fresh new vision that surprises and charms for the brisk two hours and ten-minute running time. Jacob Marley (phenomenal Patrick Page, looking and playing like a spritely Christopher Plummer) has managed the afterlife trio of Christmases Past (Sunita Mani, nailing both the earnest and the deadpan), Present (Ferrell at his best), and Future (voiced hilariously by Tracy Morgan), along with an enormous staff in what looks like a Victorian office meets twenty-first-century bureau. 

Each year, one reprehensible human is selected to be studied and redeemed. Research is done; sets are built; plans are made. The world is Alice in Wonderland crossed with M.C. Escher—sort of The Good Place: Holiday Edition.

Ryan Reynolds and Will Ferrell in a scene from ‘Spirited.’ Photo courtesy of Apple TV+

In a chance encounter, Present sets his heart on rescuing the seemingly unredeemable Clint Briggs (perfectly wry Ryan Reynolds), a media consultant lacking any conscience. Against Marley’s wishes, Present embarks on the mission to save the unsavable. Spoiler Alert (sort of): Present is Ebenezer Scrooge. The story then follows the intersection of these two who share a commonality. In essence, the question becomes, “Who redeems the redeemer?”

Ferrell is both genuine and hilarious, showing incredible restraint and real connection. He even succeeds as the traditional Scrooge in a few momentary flashbacks. Reynolds is the perfect foil, edgy and honest, and very funny. 

The great Octavia Spencer is Briggs’ quasi-Bob Cratchit but also becomes the object of Present/Scrooge’s affections. Glimpses of Brigg’s family, including his late sister, Carrie (poignant Andrea Anders), and her daughter, Wren (unassuming and genuine Marlow Barkley), build background. 

All these pieces are standard Christmas Carol tropes. But the zany, hyper-meta view matched by a fantastic score, jubilant dancing (outrageously choreographed by Chloe Arnold), and two lead performances that land every moment make Spirited something special. 

From the opening (“That Christmas Morning Feelin’”) to Reynold’s psychotic call to commerce (“Bringin’ Back Christmas”) to the greatest send-up of “Consider Yourself” since Monty Python’s “Every Sperm Is Sacred” (“Good Afternoon”), the film’s musical sequences simultaneously celebrate and satirize. Spencer finds the right blend of humor and heartache in “The View from Here.” While none of the leads are powerhouse singers, the uniformly pleasant voices hit the right vocal and emotional notes.

Anders succeeds on every level as director and adaptor, supported by a production team that delivers strong visuals and whimsical designs. He makes the central message—our choices make us who we are—feel earned rather than saccharine. In addition to a range of Dickens Easter Eggs, the film contains one of the greatest cameos seen in years.

Two more Christmas Carols will be arriving this season. A Christmas Karen takes a comedic look, with a demanding woman coming to terms with her sense of entitlement. Netflix offers the animated Scrooge: A Christmas Carol, adapted from the 1970 film. With a star-studded cast, Luke Evans voices Scrooge. Whether they become valued additions to the canon remains to be seen. In the meantime, we have Spirited to keep us warm and happy. 

I suspect many will disagree with this glowing assessment and see Spirited as one big “Bah, humbug.” As a good friend always said, “That’s why refrigerators come in different colors.” I went into this movie skeptical, dubious, and with my quill sharpened. But, like Scrooge, I left in a giddy state of Christmas euphoria.

Rated PG-13, Spirited is currently playing in local theatres as well as on Apple TV+.

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Jalyn Hall and Danielle Deadwyler in a scene from 'Till' Photo by Lynsey Weatherspoon/Orion Pictures

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

On August 28, 1955, while visiting family in Money, Mississippi, Emmett Till, a fourteen-year-old African American, was lynched for allegedly flirting with a white woman four days earlier. His assailants—the white woman’s husband and his brother—made Emmett carry a seventy-five-pound cotton gin fan to the bank of the Tallahatchie River and ordered him to take off his clothes. The two men beat him nearly to death, gouged out his eye, shot him in the head, and then threw his body, tied to the cotton gin fan with barbed wire, into the river.

The brutal and brilliant Till tells the aftermath of this horrific, racially motivated murder. Under Chinonye Chukwu’s flawless direction (from a taut screenplay by Chukwu, Keith Beauchamp, and Michael Reilly), the film’s relentless two hours tell the harrowing story with unflinching rawness.

Till follows Emmett’s mother, Mamie (Danielle Deadwyler, delivering the year’s best performance), as she struggles with the inconceivable death of her son, Emmett (beautiful Jalyn Hall), and her attempt to find justice in a system stacked against her.

Till opens in Chicago to the strains of “Sincerely.” Mamie, tense but hopeful, drives Emmett to a department store, preparing him for a visit to his cousins in Mississippi. There she encounters the subtler racism of the North, a harbinger, but in no way fully a reflection, of what is to follow. Excited for the next day’s journey, the normally stuttering Emmett—endearingly called Bobo by his family—sings along with a Bosco commercial, showing how he has overcome the stammer. The simple, exquisite moment reflects a boy who has been raised with love and support by his war-widowed mother. Emmett is goofy, wide-eyed, and innocent — in short, a child trusting the world to be a good place.

Concerned by what he might encounter, Mamie warns Emmett “to be small down there.” The next day, the Black passengers move to the back cars when the train crosses into Mississippi. The next time we see Emmett, whimsical and outgoing, he is picking cotton with his cousins. They, like his mother, warn him that he should be careful. While in a general store that caters to the Black community, Emmett compliments the clerk, Carolyn Bryant (Haley Bennett), telling her that she looks like a movie star. Delighted, he shows her the picture that came with his new wallet. Bryant follows him out of the shop, where he naively whistles at her with a sweet smile. Bryant chases him and his cousins away at gunpoint. 

Three nights later, her husband and brother show up at the cousins’ house and drag Emmett out, also at gunpoint. Chukwu chooses not to show the torture and murder. Instead, a lit shed and Emmett’s cries are seen and heard from a distance. The choice amplifies what must have been the child’s fears in his final hours.

Mamie receives news of his kidnapping, but it is several days before his body is found and his fate is revealed. Eventually, in a slow and heart-rending process, Mamie shifts from mother-in-mourning to activist. Her first fight is to have her son brought home for burial. After seeing his mutilated body, she decides that the strongest action is to have a public viewing. When told that Emmet is in no condition to be seen, she counters that he is in just the right shape and that the whole world must see. She leans over the open casket and whispers: “You’re not just my boy anymore.” 

Following this, supported by her estranged father (gentle Frankie Faison), she bravely goes South for the trial: her purpose is to confirm the body’s identity so that the defense cannot claim it was not him. Knowing the danger in testifying—that she will also be on trial—does not deter Mamie’s desire for even a modicum of justice.

In the South, as in Chicago, she encounters members of the NAACP with whom she eventually connects, most notably the Civil Rights activists and voting rights champions Medgar and Myrlie Evers (Tosin Cole and Jayme Lawson, both strong). In 1963, Medgar was assassinated in front of his wife and children.

In Till, Chukwu tells Mamie’s story through her eyes. For most of the film, she shows Deadwyler alone or singly framed, highlighting Deadwyler’s extraordinary portrayal and Mamie’s isolation. Mamie’s all-encompassing love and bottomless pain are present in the brittle silences and the primal screams. Whether sharing a moment of anguish with her fearful and guilt-ridden mother (outstanding, understated Whoopie Goldberg), confronting her cousin, Moses (conflicted and dimensional John Douglas Thompson), or silently watching Bryant hold her son during the trial, Deadwyler’s work is haunting and indelible. Watching her see the crate with Emmett’s casket taken from the train or holding his last, unfinished letter are searing moments of terrible power.

From Mamie’s entrance to the courthouse—callously patted down by a smirking guard—to the prosecuting attorney refusing to shake her hand—to Bryant’s outright perjury, the trial is a forgone conclusion. How can there be an honest application of the law when the entire jury look like the perpetrators? Or when the sheriff states it is a hoax perpetrated by the NAACP, and Emmett is in hiding? The vicious, virulent, and even casual racism looms throughout. Yet, the hate and ugliness are matched by the dignity, sensitivity, and desire for change of those surrounding and supporting Mamie. 

Till is not a movie of the week, a procedural drama, or a John Grisham novel. Till is not about just one wrong verdict but thousands over years of oppression and bigotry. Any attempt to fully describe this film is difficult and feels somehow disrespectful. However, silence is never an option. It is easy to bandy the word “important” to the point where it loses weight and meaning. But Till is important—an exceptional film that must be seen.

Coda. The Emmett Till Antilynching Act makes lynching a federal hate crime. It was signed into law on March 29, 2022 … sixty-seven years after the murder of Emmett Till. 

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