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Movie Review

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

Reviewed By Jeffrey Sanzel

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

Katherine Langford stars as Nimue, the Fey Queen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rated R, Cursed is now streaming on Netflix.

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

Reviewed By Jeffrey Sanzel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rated PG, The Truth is now streaming On Demand.

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

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rated R, Relic is now streaming On Demand.

'Hamilton' Photo by Joan Marcus

Reviewed By Jeffrey Sanzel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photos courtesy of Focus Features

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

Reviewed By Jeffrey Sanzel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A scene from the film. Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marisa Tomei and Pete Davidson in a scene from the film. Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures

Reviewed By Jeffrey Sanzel

Director-writer Judd Apatow’s work has been a string of off-beat films, including The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up, Pineapple Express, and This Is 40. Some of these have been broader than others, with the majority being over-the-top comedies with heart-felt centers. His newest outing is The King of Staten Island, and it has a distinctly indie-vibe to it. Apatow has collaborated with Pete Davidson (who stars) and Dave Sirus to create the pensive, often funny, and frequently cringeworthy story of Scott Carlin (Davidson). 

Scott is a twenty-four year-old whose life is going nowhere and not very quickly at that. Scott’s great dream is to open up a restaurant-tattoo parlor, an idea as off-kilter as he is. He spends his days getting high with a ragtag group of friends (Moisés Arias, Ricky Velez, and Lou Wilson — all three wonderful in their complete commitment to each other as well as their clear obliviousness to the world) and having sex with his not-quite girlfriend, Kelsey, who loves him but is frustrated by his inability to communicate. 

As Kelsey, Bel Powley eschews caricature, bringing dimension to the devoted Staten Island girl, who is rough around the edges but with a charming inner clarity.  

Pete Davidson stars in ‘The King of Staten Island’

Scott’s sister Claire (delightful and no-nonsense Maude Apatow) heads off for college, leaving Scott alone in the house with their hard-working, widowed mother, Margie (Marisa Tomei). Margie’s husband was a fireman who died on the job seventeen years before, leaving her a single mother with two young children.  She is a nurse working two jobs — school and emergency room — and has devoted her entire life to bringing up the two children: she has never dated let alone entertained a serious relationship, with a living room shrine to her late husband as the home’s focal point. 

Tomei avoids cliché and shows Margie’s dawning realization that, with Claire gone, it is her chance to have her life back. While the focus of the film is Scott, Tomei draws us to Margie, who learns that while she is bruised she is not damaged. In the film’s turning point, she shows that she is nobody’s victim.

When Scott unwisely attempts to tattoo a nine-year-old boy, it brings the boy’s father, fireman Ray Bishop (Bill Burr, in a performance that grows throughout), into their lives. The abrasive Ray is at first appropriately enraged by Scott’s stupidity, but he trades ire for a softer approach as he is clearly drawn to Margie. They began secretly dating before eventually telling Scott, whose reaction is both childish and self-absorbed but unsurprisingly predictable. 

It is here that the film and Scott begin to find their focus. The ensuing path follows struggles and revelations, both past and present, that allow Scott to slowly grow.

Steve Buscemi, as the fire chief, gives one his best and most unmannered portrayals in years; it is a subtle jewel of a performance, showing kindness and warmth underneath a slightly brash exterior. Pamela Adlon hits all the right sour notes as Ray’s bitter ex-wife. The supporting cast — especially the firefighters — are uniformly excellent. 

This is a strange, awkward coming of age story, with Davidson’s sad sack accidentally finding the beginning of his road to adulthood in a not so much unlikely place but in an improbable way. His shift from his go-nowhere friends to the firefighters in Ray’s company might not be the most subtle narrative choice but it works. 

The story is semi-autobiographical as Saturday Night Live veteran Davidson lost his father during the September 11th attacks.  He has drawn on his own demons to create a memorable if marred version of himself. It is both raw and hilarious, often painful, and always honest. As an actor, Davidson makes every look and pause count. 

Scott’s impulsive and awful decisions are made with wide-eyed recklessness, making this character both endearing and infuriating as he veers from one mistake directly into another. It is not until he looks beyond himself that he is able to open up to possibility. The final moments of the film are a gentle catharsis that speak volumes to the glimmer of change.  

At almost two hours and twenty minutes, this is a film that is not in a rush to get to the end. It meanders, glancing around doorways and down streets, stopping to see what is happening, then strolling on. It hesitates and then briefly rushes forward before returning to its leisurely pace. This perfectly reflects the irregular course of Scott’s life. It is not a film of grand gestures but small movements. The King of Staten Island is a journey that takes its time but it is a journey worth taking.  

Rated R, The King of Staten Island is available On Demand.

Dakota Johnson and Tracee Ellis Ross in a scene from the film. Photo courtesy of Focus Features

Reviewed By Jeffrey Sanzel

The High Note is an entertaining if softened look at the high end domain of the music business. It has a sweet center and skirts many of the bigger issues that seem to peek around the corners. It is fortunate that it contains strong performances from many of its players, resulting in an enjoyable rom-com/behind-the-music hybrid.

The film features a vibrant Tracee Ellis Ross as Grace Davis, a star of grand proportions on the threshold of middle age. Ross is the daughter of Diana Ross — but the film is in no way about that legendary icon. Instead, it is actually a much smaller movie about a transitional moment in an epic career.  

Davis’s personal assistant is the earnest and overwhelmed Maggie Sherwoode (played with just the right eagerness by Dakota Johnson). She has been Grace’s assistant for three years but her dream is to be a record producer; this drives the simple through-line. 

After a misstep with Grace, she meets and befriends a gifted musician, David Cliff (charismatic Kelvin Harrison, Jr.), who is both self-effacing and unexplainably rich. Much to Maggie’s confusion, David plays supermarket openings and bar mitzvahs and doesn’t seem to want to move beyond these comfortable gigs. Maggie sees great potential and makes a move that ends up both bold and dishonest, temporarily fracturing their budding relationship, and causing damage she did not anticipate.  

The best scenes are those that focus on Grace and her frustration with being told who she is. Following a scene in which she faces off with executives who basically explain to her what her brand should be, she has a powerful scene with Maggie venting that this is the world she has had to face her entire career. 

Ross (best known for her portrayal of Rainbow Johnson on ABC’s sitcom Blackish) is able to navigate the humor that surrounds the over-the-top and extravagant life of a diva with the inner core of someone who has faced incredibly challenging hurdles and obstacles. 

Grace is not The Devil Wears Prada; played by Ross, she is a human being who has made difficult decisions because of both her race and gender. As she weighs the option of a Vegas residency, we see her question her own judgment as a creative artist. A revelation later in the film (that is not a huge surprise) speaks volumes to the course of Grace’s life.

Kelvin Harrison, Jr., is pure charm and ease. Even in stillness, there is a warmth and openness that makes us hope for him to get his professional due. Dakota Johnson is an actor who is easy to like. She is always watchable and makes Maggie’s growth understandable if unsurprising. 

Ice Cube plays Jack Robertson, Grace’s longtime manager, who has been with her since the beginning. He takes a role that could slide into predictability and caricature and infuses it with genuine mind and heart.  While he mines all of the laughs, it is his understanding of the business that show both fire and passion. His commitment to Grace is real and goes beyond their fiscal connection.  

Bill Pullman appears briefly Maggie’s supportive father. He isn’t given much to do but he has a pleasant, uncomplicated presence. Eddie Izzard has a cameo as a musician from whom Maggie asks a large favor. The scene takes place in a sauna and is as strange as one would expect with the off-beat Izzard.

One of the film’s strongest elements is the exceptional soundtrack. Both Ross and Harrison provide their own terrific vocals.  It should be noted that this is the first time Ross has sung publicly, and it as a powerhouse debut. “Stop for a Moment” is nothing short of glorious.  

There are not a great deal of fireworks in Flora Gleeson’s screenplay nor in Nisha Ganatra’s direction; the film eschews melodrama for real interactions. Together, with a first-rate cast, they have made The High Note tell a hopeful story in an engaging way.  

Rated PG-13, The High Note is available On Demand.

Steve Carell takes another spin in the boss's chair as Gen. Mark R. Naird in the new Netflix series. Photo by Aaron Epstein/Netflix

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

Steve Carell and Greg Daniels, creators of the landmark American version of The Office, have reteamed for the Netflix series Space Force. The ten episodes follow General Mark Naird (Carell) as he is appointed head of the newly minted U.S. military branch Space Force. Naird (yes, to sound almost — but not quite — like “nerd”) moves his family to White Horse, Colorado. The action jumps forward a year with a plot driven by the unseen and unnamed United States president’s desire to have “boots on the moon.”

It is revealed that Naird’s wife (Lisa Kudrow, giving a strangely middle-of-the-road performance) is in prison, serving forty years.  The reason is never revealed; this is just one of many threads that are introduced and then abandoned. Naird is now fully responsible for his teenage daughter Erin. Dianna Silvers plays the girl in a constant state of petulance; the actor, at twenty-two, does not pass for a high school junior.

Naird’s foil is John Malkovich’s scientist Adrian Mallory, a voice of reason. Malkovich gives a wry and restrained performance which generates contrast with the parade of over-the-top military and government figures. However, his relationship with Naird doesn’t so much progress as it shifts when it is convenient to the plot. Sometimes, it seems that Carell and Malkovich are in a rather strained astral buddy comedy. The inconsistency in the writing for Malkovich/Mallory only gets by because of the actor’s ability to make eccentrics accessible.  

Much of the topical humor is given to Ben Schwartz as F. Tony Scarapiducci (who has an unprintable nickname) as the social media director. Schwartz is channeling his intentionally insufferable Jean-Ralphio from Parks and Recreation.  

Naird’s nemesis is Air Force General Kick Grabaston. Noah Emmerich plays him like every bullying university president trying to shut down the partying fraternity.  

Tawny Newsome does her best with Captain Ali. Initially, she seems peripheral but eventually becomes more central to the story. Her growing romance with likable Jimmy O. Yang’s Dr. Kaifang is sweet but either predictably clumsy or clumsily predictable.

It seems that Carell and Daniels did not establish a unifying style and tone. It wants to be satire but tips towards spoof. There are thin political jokes that are low hanging fruit, with easy jabs at current politics. There is a less than thinly veiled congressional hearing that climaxes with Naird giving a touching speech about the importance of humanity in the space race. This is juxtaposed with characters that are poorly concealed imitations of contemporary legislators.  

Political satire can be done outrageously and hilariously without losing its edge; Veep showed this. Here, the creators seem to be hedging their bets. Is it Michael G. Scott Goes to the Moon? Or Airplane III: Team Lunar? Does it aspire to be Dr. Strangelove Redux? Yes, it is all of these — sort of. There are shades of sentimental dramedy exploring the difficulty of being a single parent. It is a send-up of all things media. Basically, Space Force is a watered down version of a whole range of tropes and genres.  The result is light beer and water — all the same and less.

By not committing to a style, it becomes a string of set-ups for either ridiculous jokes (uniforms designed by the First Lady) or instants of great introspection, capped off by earnest speeches. Instead of character development, there is “The Monkey Episode,” “The Washington Episode,” “The Lunar Habitat Episode,” etc. It all feels vaguely sitcom. Eventually, the stakes are raised but, by then, it is too late.

There are many well-known television actors filling out the ensemble. Don Lake plays the one-star general who serves as Naird’s dogsbody; it’s the same bumbling, amusing performance that he has given in the Christopher Guest movies. Patrick Warburton, Jane Lynch, Diedrich Bader, and Dan Bakkedahl are various members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff: They’re gifted actor/comedians saddled with toothless caricatures of all that is wrong in government. Kaitlin Olson (It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia) appears in one episode as phony Edison Jaymes, a character suggested by Elon Musk. This was Fred Willard’s final appearance; he plays Naird’s confused father in his usual whimsical style; it is a bit hard to swallow as it is really a dementia joke.

Carell is the creator and star and obviously driving force behind Space Force. He is an actor who is long on charm and has done both exceptional comedic and dramatic work.  However, it seems that he is trying to draw equally from both wells. 

What made The Office’s Michael Scott work was that he was a buffoon but consistent onto himself. He made excruciating decisions but they came from a lack of true self-awareness.  Scott was wholly human in a mundane world.  Here, Carell seems to have taken elements of Scott and grafted them onto the gravel-voiced Naird, but they haven’t fully taken. Is he a buffoon? Are the monkeys running the circus? Too many questions and very few answers.

By the end, he seems to have “grown” but it seems strained. The final episode is a horrifying and ugly mismatch of tones — when is attempted self-immolation ever funny? — and ends annoyingly, ridiculously incomplete.  

There is a moment in episode three where, with great exasperation, John Malkovich labors up and down staircases; he moves quickly but jerkily. In essence, that is the entire Space Force series: it moves forward with purpose but not without a great deal of frustration. 


New documentary examines the future of artificial intelligence               and the impact it will have on our world.

Reviewed By Jeffrey Sanzel

We Need to Talk About AI is an intriguing and occasionally alarmist documentary that explores the historical and current developments in Artificial Intelligence. It raises far more questions than it even attempts to answer and that, most likely, is its point.  The title’s urgency is appropriate to this peripatetically engaging ninety minutes.

Director Leanne Pooley has conducted extensive interviews with scientists, engineers, philosophers, filmmaker James Cameron, and a whole range of experts, along with dozens of clips from news broadcasts and nearly one hundred years of science fiction movies. The film plays at a breakneck pace, fervently bouncing from one opinion to an alternate point-of-view.

Currently streaming On Demand, the documentary is appropriately hosted by Keir Dullea, who gives a dry menace to the narration and occasionally appears walking through crowded streets like a being from an alternate universe. Dullea is best known as astronaut Dave Bowman in Stanley Kubrick’s landmark 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).  Pooley uses the film’s HAL (Heuristically Programmed ALgorithmic Computer) as the example of man’s greatest fear in the world of AI: a computer that becomes sentient and will no longer obey its human creators.

The early days of AI work seems almost quaint in comparison to latter-day capabilities.  Much of this can be traced to the advancement in the computer technology and the rise of the internet. The internet’s considerable expansion in the last two decades has been the greatest gamechanger. 

A constant refrain is that the dialogue surrounding AI has been “hijacked” by Hollywood: the majority of the populace associate AI in negative terms. It is about the rebellion of manmade machines (e.g., The Terminator). The scientists are in agreement that this is a misrepresentation. That is, they are for the most part. As the film progresses, the views on the dangers of AI diverge.

It all comes down to the question of conscience and autonomy. There is a dissection of the issues behind self-driving cars and how to embed ethics into the machine. The Trolley Problem — how do you decide who to save —  is used to demonstrate the challenge. To make the decision, the machine would have to be a conscious being. 

Furthermore, can a machine be conscious or have a conscience? The idea of conscious and conscience becomes central.  As it is almost impossible to define what “conscious” is, it creates additional conflicts in the narrative. This leads to conversations on emotion and whether machines will ever be able to feel and react to social cues.  

The film poses many hypotheses and explores the predicament from all sides. There is rarely uniform agreement. Can a machine make itself smarter by programming itself? Will the evolution be gradual or exponential?

Even now, robot surgery, agriculture, and even Facebook’s suicide awareness algorithms are examples given of the recent uses of AI. Computers can now beat the world’s greatest chess players. Not that many years ago, these were considered impossible outside of speculative fiction.

Throughout, Pooley returns to the teaching of Baby X, an intelligent toddler simulation that is both fascinating and chilling. Baby X almost seems human and appears to be learning. It is a strange and exciting phenomenon.

Already, the argument is made that we carry less in our brains because we carry parts of them in our pockets in the form of cell phones. In essence, they are the merging of minds with computers. They are an augmentation and a symbiotic integration. 

Ultimately, it comes down to not so much how we build AI but what we do with it. The unifying position of the interviewed is the fear that this power will be used for evil — or at least negative purposes. (Pooley unsubtly does a quick montage of the world’s foremost demagogues.) 

The consensus is that it should not be about who arrives first but who gets there safely. They hope but doubt for regulation. If it is corporations or business (Google, Microsoft, etc.) that get primary control, it will be driven by greed. If it is the military, it will be about killing. They say we only have one chance to get it right, and the leader in the field must, in essence, be the good parent. AI will dominate the economy and, therefore, the world. 

There are myriad questions raised: What it means to be human? If machines become more, will we be become less? Is AI going to do something for you or to you? Is science fiction the canary in the coal mine? That is, do we face the apocalypse if AI doesn’t play out the positive scenarios?

And then there are the moral questions. Can machines be made accountable? Does a machine have rights? If so, is this a form of slavery, where conscious beings are created and then dehumanized? There is a brief section about the rise of sex robots that is twinned with a clip from the 1927 silent film Metropolis. Can a machine say, “No?”

Perhaps we have come a long way from the science fiction movies of our past. Maybe we will never face the voice of HAL saying, “I’m sorry, Dave. I can’t do that.”

Or perhaps we will.  

The final line sums up the entire journey:  “What do we want the role of humans to be?” We Need to Talk About AI is a great place to start.