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Movie Review

Anthony Hopkins stars as Sir Nicholas Winton in 'One Life'. Photo courtesy of See-Saw Films

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

Early in One Life, twenty-nine-year-old London stockbroker Nicholas Winton (Johnny Flynn) visits a makeshift camp in the center of Prague in 1938. Here, the mostly Jewish displaced families from Germany and Austria who fled the Nazi regime live in homeless squalor and starvation. 

Encountering child after child, he produces a half-eaten chocolate bar, which he proceeds to divvy among the starving children. Of course, there is not enough. In this moment, director James Hawes brilliantly shows Winton’s tacit epiphany: he must rescue these young victims. 

Above, Johnny Flynn as the young Nicholas Winton. Photo courtesy of See-Saw Films

Over the next ninety minutes, the brisk, brutal, and beautiful film alternates between young Winton and the seventy-nine-year-old Winton (Anthony Hopkins) struggling with divesting remnants of his mammoth undertaking, symbolized by the briefcase given to him when he committed to helping the refugees’ plight. The briefcase is home to a scrapbook chronicling the entire undertaking.

While the film shifts in time, each section proceeds in a simple, linear fashion. The narrative is clear, with the story focusing on the action played out under the shadow of the encroaching Nazi invasion. Winton takes on the British government, negotiating immigration. Additionally, he finds hundreds of foster families. One Life makes paperwork and red tape a visceral issue of life and death. The scenes in Prague are vivid and harsh and truly haunting, calling to mind equally difficult images of current events. 

Winton becomes an active member of the Prague office of the British Committee for Refugees from Czechoslovakia (BCRC), headed by the formidable Doreen Warriner (Romola Garai). Devastating scenes of parents sending their children away and of sibling separation contrast with the cold British offices. 

Winton managed to get eight trains, with six hundred and sixty-nine children, from Czechoslovakia to London. The Nazi invasion of Poland stopped the ninth train, which contained three hundred and fifty children. Their fate, like so many, would be the Nazi death camps.

Anthony Hopkins plays the older Winton.
Photo courtesy of See-Saw Films

One Life is about faith in regular people, a tribute—as Winton declares of their coterie—to “an army of the ordinary.” Quiet but adamantly dogged in his pursuit of humanitarian aid, Winton is joined by his mother, Babi (Helena Bonham Carter). Babi is a Jewish-German immigrant who converted to the Church of England. Both sensitive and a voice of reason, she reminds Winton, “You cannot save them all. You must forgive yourself that.”

The 1988 section of the film shows Winton trying to decide what to do with the final remnants of these historical records. His internal struggle leads to his appearance on the crass but popular television show That’s Life. The recreation of his two appearances highlights the contemporary portion, allowing Winton to reconnect to the lives he saved. (The actual footage of the real Winton is available online and featured in the documentary The Power of Good: Nicholas Winton.)

Lucinda Coxon and Nick Drake thoughtfully crafted a tight, taut screenplay from daughter Barbara Winton’s account of her father, If It’s Not Impossible … The Life of Nicholas Winton. James Hawes’ powerful direction is matched by Zac Nicholson’s stark, desaturated cinematography and perfectly complemented by Lucia Zucchetti’s sharp editing.  

The ensemble cast is uniformly strong. Hopkins, one of the greatest actors of our time, offers nuance, introspection, and pain, presented with subtlety and sensitivity. He is the rare actor that you can watch think. Flynn is his equal as his contemplative, anxious, younger self.

As Babi, the terrific Bonham Carter is a matriarchal force of nature, balancing raw honesty and wry humor. Garai brings depth and pain to the no-nonsense Warriner. As Winton’s wife, Grete, Lena Olin provides a luminous grounding, showing her deep love for the conflicted Winton. Jonathan Pryce is warm and knowing as Martin Blake, the older version of one of the BCRC members. Samuel Finzi’s scene as the Prague Rabbi Hertz presents a poignant meditation on complicated fears in the Czech Jewish community. 

But the performances that resonate above all are the children who play the refugees: they transcend the screen to create a heartbreaking reality.

According to the film, twenty-six thousand Jewish Czechoslovakian children were interred in concentration camps. Fewer than two hundred and fifty survived. Sir Nicholas Winton died at age one hundred and six, a man who never wanted the work to be about him. His legacy is some six thousand descendants because of the rescue mission. One Life is a genuine, gut-wrenching, but ultimately uplifting account of the ability of one person to make a difference.

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

Timothée Chalamet stars as chocolatier Willy Wonka. Photo courtesy of Warner Bros.

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

Among British author Roald Dahl’s best-known children’s novels are James and the Giant Peach, The Witches, Matilda, and Fantastic Mr. Fox. The hilarious but macabre tales garnered controversy for their darkness and violence, as well as racist and sexist bents. However, his work remains popular, with many stage and screen adaptations. Published in 1964, his ninth and most popular book, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, followed a poor London boy, Charlie Bucket, and his venture in Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. To date, over twenty million copies have been sold in fifty-five different languages. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory takes its place with classics such as Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, The Wind in the Willows, and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. 

While Dahl vocally disliked the 1971 Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, it remains a visually clever, entertaining, and original film. Gene Wilder’s enigmatic, eccentric, and underplayed Wonka contrasts smartly with Jack Albertson’s likably gruff Grandpa Joe and a group of excellent child actors supported by equally strong adults. The film does not ignore Dahl’s vision that children can be selfish and often reprehensible. Tim Burton’s divisive and polarizing 2005 Charlie and the Chocolate Factory claimed to return to the Dahl’s original. But the unpleasant film was hampered by John August’s shrill script and Johnny Depp’s disturbing Michael Jackson-like Wonka.

Sam Mendes directed the stage musical Charlie and the Chocolate Factory in London’s West End, which ran for over three and a half years. However, the Broadway transfer barely eked out nine months. 

The prequel Wonka offers a technicolor glimpse into the early life of the inventor. Director Paul King (best known for the popular Paddington and Paddington 2 films) co-wrote the screenplay with Simon Farnaby. With a potential for a rich and exciting story, King and Farnaby deliver a pedestrian, often tedious, and surprisingly bland prequel.

Timothée Chalamet as Willy Wonka and Hugh Grant as Lofty the Oompa Loompa in a scene from ‘Wonka.’ Photo courtesy of Warner Bros.

Opening with the strains of Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley’s “Pure Imagination,” Willy Wonka (Timothée Chalamet) boisterously arrives in an unnamed European city. The magician-inventor-chocolatier aims to open a candy shop at the Galeries Gourmet. Quickly, the city bilks the eager youth of his pocketful of sovereigns. Additionally, he comes up against the city’s Chocolate Cartel: Arthur Slugworth (Paterson Joseph), Gerald Prodnose (Matt Lucas), and Felix Ficklegruber (Mathew Baynton).

Broke, with no place to sleep, the brutish Bleacher (Tom Davis) guides Wonka to a boarding house run by the sly Mrs. Scrubitt (Olivia Coleman). Ignoring the fine print, Wonka signs a one-night contract that sentences the boy to work in Scrubitt’s prison-like laundry. There he meets other victims of the Scrubitt and Bleacher plot: orphan Noodle (Calah Lane), Abacus Crunch (Downton Abbey’s Jim Carter), plumber Piper Benz (Natasha Rothwell), switchboard operator Lottie Bell (Rakhee Thakrar), and failed standup comedian Larry Chucklesworth (Rich Fulcher). 

With Noodle’s support, Wonka hatches a scheme to sell illicit chocolate around the city, using the sewers as a means and mode. Eventually, the Cartel destroys Wonka’s legally established store on its opening day.

King and Farnaby have gathered the components of an entertaining, if by-the-numbers plot. However, rather than seeking novel inspirations, the story rehashes successful and more effective predecessors. Elements of Oliver!, Annie, Matilda, and Newsies are “borrowed.” Coleman wickedly chews the scenery, but the character is a clumsy hybrid of Miss Hannigan, Widow Corney, and even Les Misérables’ Madame Thenardier. Her cohort, Davis, is a Disney thug come to life. (Their relationship is not for the younger audience.) 

Wonka’s underground team means well but is given so little development the resolutions to their stories hardly register. The Cartel is an amusing trio, but their predictable bits wear thin. Keegan-Michael Key’s chocolate-addicted chief of police becomes a running fat joke, and Rowan Atkinson’s corrupt Father Julius is just another one of his clerical buffoons. (However, the singing monks make for a clever aside.) The CGI-ed Oompa-Loompa, Lofty, allows Hugh Grant to display his wonderfully wry style. Still, the Oompa-Loompa subplot barely registers and contradicts most of the known Dahl mythology of the diminutive tribe. 

And it is perhaps here where Wonka fails strongly: it lacks the flavor of Dahl’s brilliant, distinctly edgy, and wildly unpredictable world. Nothing separates the film from dozens of children’s movies that build to a caper ending (here, replete with a giraffe and flamingos). Neil Hannon’s original songs offer ersatz melodies and dull lyrics. (Clearly, King and Farnaby were not unaware of this: they use “Pure Imagination” as a finale and have even brought back the Oompa-Loompa song with new lyrics.) Even the visuals seem strangely muted.

As for Wonka’s center, Chalamet is not without charm, but his performance is nothing mercurial or unexpected. The spark that will catch fire to the later Wonka is absent. Whether he is miscast or it is a failure of the material itself (most likely a combination), Wonka must be more than just likable. He must be “more than.” And Chalamet, for all his warmth, is not Wonka.

The creators had an opportunity to give insight into one of the most intriguing icons of twentieth-century children’s literature and produce a bright, thrilling odyssey. While Wonka could have soared as Mary Poppins, it instead lands with the thud of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

Rated PG, Wonka is now playing in local theaters.

From left, Eddie Murphy, Jillian Bell and Madison Thomas in a scene from the film. Photo courtesy of Amazon Prime

By Jeffrey Sanzel

The Faust story continually appears on stage and screen. Whether complicit or duped, someone—almost always a man—makes a deal with a satanic figure in exchange for a particular gratification. All That Money Can Buy (also known as The Devil and Daniel Webster) and Angel Heart exemplify the darker side. Damn Yankees!, Bedazzled (the original 1967 and its 2000 remake), and Oh, God! You Devil skew lighter. Now on Amazon Prime, Candy Cane Lane is a guileless, uninspired take on the legend.

Just days before Christmas, Chris Carver (Eddie Murphy) is part of a callous layoff by California’s Sydel Twain Industrial Plastics. Simultaneously, the already cut-throat neighborhood decorating competition receives a boost from local Prism Cable, offering $100,000 for the most festive house. Year after year, Chris has decked his home and yard with beautifully carved and hand-crafted pieces but has consistently lost to his shrill neighbors, Bruce and Suz (Ken Marino and Riki Lindhome), who populate their dwelling with crass inflatables. 

Determined to win the prize, Chris happens upon the mysterious Kringle’s, a Christmas shop located beneath an underpass, looking much like the toy store in Jingle Jangle. The proprietor, an elf named Pepper (Jillian Bell), coaxes Chris into a trove of large purchases. Chris signs the receipt without reading the fine print, a sinister contract that will turn him into one of her animated glass ornaments. The centerpiece of the decorations is a massive “Twelve Days of Christmas” Tree, which comes to life. Most of the film is taken up with the chase to acquire the “Golden Rings” that will break the spell. 

The premise is simple, and the action is predictable. Murphy is pleasantly understated and once again proves his easy, likable charm. Tracee Ellis Ross plays his wife, Carol, an executive on the cusp of a big promotion. She demonstrates the same wry command she showed in the series Blackish (basically the same character). They have three children: college-bound Joy (Genneya Walton), a struggling student but gifted musician Nick (Thaddeus J. Mixson), and the sweet, innocent youngest Holly (Madison Thomas). The older two children harbor secrets, which, when revealed, help solve the challenges the family faces. (Please note the lack of subtlety: Chris, Carol, Joy, Nick, Holly.)

Chris is aided and advised by three of Pepper’s previous victims, now glass figurines: Pip, Lamplighter Gary, and Cordelia (voiced by Nick Offerman, Chris Redd, and Robin Thede, respectively). The vocal group Pentatonix is a nice touch, as out-of-control carolers who are also under the enchantment.

The major problems with Candy Cane Lane are Kelly Younger’s meandering script and Reginald Hudlin’s pedestrian direction. Neither committed to a tone or style, with constant shifts from traditional holiday fare to fantasy to topical satire to family drama to slapstick to sitcom to … occasional flashes of genuine wit nod toward the premise’s possibility. 

Prism hosts Emerson (Timothy Simons) and Kit (Danielle Pinnock) are genuinely funny, especially in the revelation of the prize status. A chaotic glimpse of Walmart followed by Target is smartly perceptive. A Hannukah house tops a Matrix-themed home in outrageousness. But these sparks get lost in the boomerang of treacly messages.

The film relies mostly on Murphy and Ross’s chemistry, along with some nice effects. The children play as many shades as possible within the limitations of the writing. Bell seems lost as Pepper, not finding the fun in her villain. “What’s Christmas without a little terror?” stated as the true meaning of the holiday seems unsure. Her joke about “human-splaining Christmas” falls flat. One wishes she was allowed to let loose rather than play Pepper like a Saturday morning children’s show baddy. Redd is hilarious as Lamplighter Gary, landing some of the biggest laughs. David Alan Grier smartly assays his contemporary Santa with just the right amount of wink.

A track meet dealing with “The Ten Lords a Leaping” and a quick debate about Die Hard as a Christmas movie furnish nice moments. (Though the “Maids a Milking” has an uncomfortable horror movie edge.) And the payoff of the “Five Golden Rings” contains genuine heart. 

Ultimately, the biggest problem is the sluggish pacing. Additionally, the film would have benefited from a shorter running time. Eighty minutes of break-neck whimsy would have played better than the nearly two hours of fits and starts. A mathematical loophole in Pepper’s contract adds twenty-plus minutes for a labored farcical finale. 

While benign if slightly saccharine, Candy Cane Lane is destined to be a lesser seasonal offering, an empty stocking to be packed away and forgotten.

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Joaquin Phoenix as Napoleon Bonaparte in one of the expansive battle scenes of Ridley Scott’s 'Napoleon.' Photo courtesy of Apple Original Films/Columbia Pictures

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

Director Ridley Scott’s career spans over four decades. His earliest films include Alien (1979), Blade Runner (1982), Legend (1985), and Thelma and Louise (1991). Gladiator (2000) garnered twelve Oscar nominations, winning five, including Best Picture. Scott received three nominations for Best Director: Thelma and Louise, Gladiator, and Black Hawk Down (2001). Additional nominations include three British Academy Film Awards (BAFTA), four Golden Globe Awards for Best Director, and two Primetime Emmy Awards. So … shame on you, Mr. Scott.

His latest contribution to the world of overstuffed, overlong, and overdone cinema is the one-hundred-and-fifty-seven-minute Napoleon, a biopic of staggering boredom. Passionless and plodding, the film’s sole strengths are in its excellent visuals, with brutal (albeit seemingly repetitive) battles. 

A scene from Ridley Scott’s ‘Napoleon.’ Photo courtesy of Apple Original Films/Columbia Pictures

A great deal has already surfaced about the film’s historical inaccuracies: Napoleon was not present at the execution of Marie Antoinette; he did not order his troupes to fire on the Pyramids of Giza; he never charged into battle; he never came face-to-face with the Duke of Wellington; there was no giant frozen lake at Austerlitz. But a film does not have to be a history lesson. 

Apocrypha—and even invention—can be forgivable in the name of art, insight, or entertainment. The latter cavils are two of the better moments in Napoleon. The Austerlitz confrontation is powerful but has also been seen in the film’s trailers, spoiling the most dramatic sequence. Napoleon’s meeting with Wellington aboard the HMS Bellerophon contains one of the few moments of dramatic subtext. But a handful of moments do not rescue this Waterloo.

Napoleon opens in 1793, at the height of the Reign of Terror during France’s French Revolution, and ends in 1821, with Napoleon exiled on the island of Saint Helena. Absent of pacing, the story’s twenty-eight years feel like they are playing in real-time. Scott announced he has a four-and-a-half hour cut. (Enough said.)

A scene from Ridley Scott’s ‘Napoleon.’ Photo courtesy of Apple Original Films/Columbia Pictures

Joaquin Phoenix plays Napoleon like a ventriloquist, his lips barely moving, his eyes vacant (somehow reminiscent of Jennifer Jason Leigh in Single White Female.) Occasionally, he throws an ineffectual temper tantrum to show the emperor’s immaturity—more man-child Stanley Kowalski than a legendary conqueror. When he discovers Joséphine’s infidelity, he whines like a frustrated teenager.

If this choice is to show his humanity, it is odd: Phoenix is distinctly modern, surrounded by a company playing some semblance of period style. Ultimately, Phoenix never loses himself in the character, and the audience remains aware of the actor making methodical choices for the sake of effect rather than motivation. (He also seems to live in his bicorne hat.) Vanessa Kirby’s Joséphine de Beauharnais is not without interest. She conveys thought and depth but feels distinctly unfinished. Her mercurial shifts seemed manufactured rather than rooted in emotional struggle. The fault lies in the script and direction, not the actors’ work.

The rest of the cast barely registers. The many cabinet members and historical denizens are interchangeable figures in costumes and wigs—albeit exceptional. Even the great Rupert Everett’s Wellington struggles to find individuality. The French street rabble wave and pump their fists like an overly eager community theatre production of Les Misérables. Oddly, the horrific deaths of the horses in battle convey stronger horror than the murder of the thousands of soldiers. 

A scene from Ridley Scott’s ‘Napoleon.’ Photo courtesy of Apple Original Films/Columbia Pictures

The battles are impressive, epically staged with hundreds of extras. But they seem almost generic. The military conflicts alternate with scenes of pomp and pageantry—balls and meals and a remarkable coronation, all gloriously and beautifully designed and executed. These contrast with scenes of domestic stagnation with Napoleon and Josephine sitting next to each other, staring blankly as if locked into a period spoof of Scenes from a Marriage. Whether it is the actors or the characters, the relationship lacks spark. The sexual encounters are painfully, unintentionally comic. (Or one would hope unintentionally.) Scott’s refusal to find a tonal center results in stretches that seem like a violent episode of Blackadder. 

In the end, Napoleon is mostly style and little substance. Oppenheimer made science and math riveting. Napoleon makes extraordinary political intrigue banal. With a story of power struggles, revolution, betrayals, and world-shattering choices—including the death of millions, the result is strangely hollow. With clunky dialogue and lacking a true core, Napoleon tries—and fails—to clothe this emperor. 

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

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Rachel Zegler stars in The Hunger Games prequel. Photo courtesy of Lionsgate

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games (2008) and its sequels, Catching Fire (2009) and Mockingjay (2010), sold over one hundred million copies. The four films (2012 – 2015) made nearly three billion dollars worldwide. They featured John Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Stanley Tucci, and Donald Sutherland, with the role of Katniss Everdeen elevating Jennifer Lawrence to superstar. Like J.K. Rowlings’ Harry Potter, Collins’ Hunger Games transcended into a cultural phenomenon. 

The Hunger Games takes place in the ruins of Panem, a North American country composed of the central Capitol and thirteen surrounding districts. Each year, the remaining twelve districts (the thirteenth destroyed in the war) hold a lottery called “The Reaping” and send tributes to the Capitol to compete in the Hunger Games, a televised death match. The trilogy begins with the seventy-fourth Hunger Games.

In 2020, Collins published a prequel, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, focusing on eighteen-year-old Coriolanus Snow, the young man who would become president. The story opens on the cusp of the tenth annual Hunger Games, a time when the districts’ rebellion is still fresh.

The inherent problem with prequels is ending up where the story starts. At best, you gain insight into the characters’ development, but, for the most part, they either reinforce previous knowledge or, at worst, contradict established canon. The Many Saints of Newark proved to be a tacit outing, giving a little to enrich The Sopranos universe. Conversely, the entertaining Cruella seemed in opposition to much known about the titular character. 

Michael Lesslie and Michael Arndt’s screenplay for The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes hews faithfully to the novel, offering an interesting portrait of Snow at age eighteen. Born into a prestigious Capitol family, the orphaned Snow lives in borderline poverty with his grandmother and cousin in a lavish home that has seen better days.

Ballad’s action kicks in with the Academy’s graduating class conscripted to mentor the two dozen tributes. To win a coveted scholarship, Snow must somehow guide his charge to win. Out of spite, the Dean of the Academy, Casca Highbottom, assigns Snow a longshot: the female tribute from District Twelve, Lucy Gray Baird. Lucy Gray, a nomadic musician, is a Covey (read “Sinti” or “Roma”). Her skills as a singer become the game-changer, revealing an unusual—and more importantly—engaging persona to the Panem television audience.

The Hunger Games of Ballad are more akin to gladiators in Rome. The high-tech world of the trilogy comes later in the history. The tributes arrive in cattle cars and are imprisoned in an abandoned zoo without food. The savagery in the tenth games results from brute strength, alliances, and raw cunning. Hints and flashes of the technology that will dominate the later Games are teased, as is the burgeoning, quirky reality television, here shown with a retro 1950s vibe. 

The first hour and a half focuses on the buildup and execution of the Hunger Games. The remaining hour centers on a new track, focusing on district intrigue, political unrest, plotting, and betrayal. A distinctly Third Reich aura infuses the military components, emphasizing the fascist nature of the government.

As a film, it is neither more nor less than. Visually strong, its messages of corruption and guilt play on the surface. Director Francis Lawrence, who directed the final three Hunger Games, briskly paces the story. While absent of much innovation, the straightforward, brutal nature reflects Collins’ vision.

Tom Blyth creates a passionate and conflicted Snow. His understated performance pays off in his final transition, which he achieves flawlessly, wholly casting the shadow of who Snow will become. With an Appalachian twang, Rachel Zegler is an ideal Lucy Gray. She shows strength and an underlying danger and is one of the few in the film who achieves a third dimension. (She even makes the almost corny musical pieces work.) 

Josh Andrés Rivera is sympathetic if a bit overwrought as Snow’s classmate, the guilt-plagued Sejanus Plinth. Peter Dinklage mines the darkness of Highbottom (he is an actor incapable of giving anything less than a great performance). Jason Schwartzmann is hilariously callous as the weatherman-amateur magician Lucretius “Lucky” Flickerman, the first Hunger Games host.

But the film’s prize performance is Viola Davis’s deliciously over-the-top Dr. Volumnia Gaul, mastermind of the Hunger Games. Her unblinking, monomaniacal evil scientist is a riveting portrait of unbridled sadistic and political cruelty. Only an actor of her caliber could fashion a monster of such unrestrained villainy, endowing every moment with perfect plausibility. 

The film makes bold statements about actions and repercussions and the misuse of power, presented with little subtlety. But the depiction of the depravity of reality television resonates. Additionally, the concept of incentivized patriotism is a disturbing but accurate target. Here, Ballad succeeds on a higher plain. Ultimately, the message comes through: Pain can be turned into spectacle and revenge into profit. 

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

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Nikola Tesla and Guglielmo Marconi are the subjects of Joseph Sikorski's newest documentary. Image courtesy of Apple TV

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

Award-winning filmmaker Joseph Sikorski’s works include Arbor Day (1990), The Return of the King? (1993), Tower of Babble (2001), and Tower to the People: Tesla’s Dream at Wardenclyffe Continues (2015). The subject of the last—Tower to the People—plays an integral part in his newest documentary, Invisible Threads: From Wireless to War. Co-written with Michael Calomino, Invisible Threads takes an intriguing look at the early days of wireless technology and the conflicts between inventors Nikola Tesla and Guglielmo Marconi. Central to the story is a mysterious radio station erected in West Sayville, New York, by the German-based company Telefunken in 1911.

At the outset, local residents had the impression the site was to be a chocolate factory. Changing its name to Atlantic Communications Company, Telefunken built its radio tower with little public knowledge. The Suffolk County News editor Francis Hoag investigated, revealing the organization’s actual purpose. From here, the film follows the rise of wireless communication and the conflicts between Tesla and Marconi. Eventually, World War I becomes central to the narrative.

Marconi focused on developing a method to send Morse code through long-distance wireless communication. In contrast, Tesla had broader aspirations: He wanted to send sound, pictures, power, and electrical lighting by the same means. Thus came the Marconi-Tesla wireless race. 

The Wardenclyffe Laboratory in Shoreham. Photo courtesy of Apple TV

Tesla’s interests lay in the process, and concerned himself less with the applications. Marconi became a brand, with early telegrams being dubbed “Marconigrams.” As wireless technology grew, its impact and uses expanded. In 1912, wireless messages sent from the sinking Titanic saved lives. This alone boosted the value of Marconi’s system. The friction between Marconi and Tesla led to accusations and eventual wrangling over patents and lawsuits that dragged on for years.

But the heart of the story is Telefunken, who shipped the component parts from Germany to Long Island, assembling the tower in near secrecy. The company quickly demonstrated the ability to send a message from Sayville to Germany—four thousand miles—without a relay station in between. Telefunken’s process refinement even surpassed Marconi, leading to the U.S. government expressing concern that a foreign power had this control.

An “instrument of peace, commerce, and goodwill” changed in 1914 with the outbreak of the European war. The fear that Telefunken exploited the station to aid the German war effort proved true. Even with government oversight and surveillance, Telefunken used the system to communicate with Berlin: Telefunken was a major cog in the spy network. 

Conspiracies, subterfuge, and disinformation were all part of the complicated situation that even involved the sinking of the R.M.S. Lusitania. The tale is rife with saboteurs, cryptography, and Secret Service involvement, swirling with disinformation, assassinations, and labor unrest. All led to America entering World War I and taking over Telefunken. 

The film touches on the growing anti-German propaganda inflaming the American populace, particularly directed towards immigrants. Sikorski states that the majority of German-Americans were pro-American in the rising anti-German atmosphere but were subject to a wide range of persecution.

One of the most fascinating chapters involves the “Nauen Buzz,” a puzzle centered around coded messages accidentally solved by amateur radio enthusiast Charles E. Apgar. Sikorski presents Apgar through actual audio interviews recorded in 1934.

Another intriguing section explores Telsa’s remote-controlled boats outfitted with weapons. After a demonstration, government representatives dismissed its value—losing the earliest example of drone warfare. 

Invisible Threads masterfully mixes interviews with historians, authors, scientists, and other experts (and even a descendant) with hundreds of photographs and newspaper clippings. Restored historical images and 3D models for new perspectives were created from existing 2D photos. In addition, Sikorski nimbly weaves archival footage and dramatic recreations. He eschews dialogue with the latter but presents them with voiceovers, ambient sounds, and compelling underscoring. Additionally, the film details architectural challenges and scientific innovations.

Sikorski wisely chose the rich, evocative tones of Tony Todd for the narration. Todd, best known as the titular villain in the Candyman series, conveys a perfect blend of interest, insight, and a hint of menace.

With Invisible Threads: From Wireless to War, Joseph Sikorski presents a detailed, intriguing chapter in the world of communication—“So much creativity, so much destruction.”— and Long Island’s place in that history.

The documentary is now streaming on Apple TV and a special 4K edition with exclusive extras is streaming on Vimeo On Demand.

Robert De Niro and Leonardo DiCaprio in a scene from the film. Photo courtesy of Apple TV+

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

David Grann’s true-crime Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI brilliantly chronicles the Reign of Terror that cut a blood-stained swath through the Osage tribe in Oklahoma in the early 1920s. Two dozen murders were directly attributed to the four-year period, but further inquiry revealed a larger conspiracy that spanned at least two decades and hundreds of homicides. The book was one of the best or most notable books of 2017 by The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Time, NPR, and many others.

Members of the Osage Nation earned royalties from oil sales through their federally mandated “head rights.” As the oil market grew, many amassed wealth, leading to widespread swindles and violence on the unsuspecting Native Americans. In addition, the Burke Act (1906) imposed an unscrupulous situation of guardianships, depriving many of the Osage control over their money making them wards of predatory opportunists. 

Lily Gladstone and Leonardo DiCaprio in a scene from the film. Photo courtesy of Apple TV+

The book’s narrative is one of poisonings, shootings, and even the bombing of a house. The history is fraught with coverups by local authorities, high-profile citizens, police, doctors, and even undertakers. Coercion, blackmail, and negotiations with criminals are all part of the byzantine tapestry. The country found little sympathy for the victims, instead focused with a morbid glee on the lurid details: “Osage Indian Killing Conspiracy Thrills,” heralded the Reno Evening Gazette. 

With over forty films (including multiple documentaries), Martin Scorsese’s extraordinary roster includes Mean Streets, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Goodfellas, The Age of Innocence, Casino, The Departed, The Wolf of Wall Street, and, his last film, 2019’s The Irishman. The Award-winning director has co-written the screenplay for Killers of the Flower Moon with Eric Roth (Forrest Gump, Munich, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, and A Star Is Born). The result is a compelling epic. 

The story alternates between wider brutality and intimate moments among a trio of first-rate actors, surrounded by a varied, if not fully developed, supporting cast. Clocking in at nearly three and a half hours, Killers of the Flower Moon is a powerful, important film, but surprisingly misses some of the broader and significant elements of the story.

The film opens with a ritual burying of a peace pipe in a meditative and communal ceremony. Set to a pulsing soundtrack, the action shifts to an almost orgasmic oil gush, segueing into a portrait of the Osage, who became the world’s richest people per capita.

The scene changes to Fairfax, Oklahoma. While it is the 1920s, the town seems more a portrait of Wild West chaos, contrasting the wealthy Native Americans with an earthy population of white speculators and oil workers. 

Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio) returns from Europe, where he served as an infantry cook in World War I, and his uncle, William King Hale (Robert De Niro), takes him in. Hale, the self-titled King of the Osage Hills, is a friend and supporter of the Osage, speaking the language and moving with ease in their community. The façade is quickly dispelled as Ernest is drawn into Hale’s machinations of deception and vicious, destructive manipulations. With his sly, paternal benevolence, he advises Ernest not to make small but big trouble—for there lies the big payoff.

While driving a cab, Ernest meets and courts Osage Mollie Kyle (Lily Gladstone). Much of the film is shown through her eyes and heard in her brief voiceovers, simply and devastatingly enumerating the many uninvestigated tribal murders. After their marriage, Hale continues to involve Ernest in a range of illegal and immoral activities, resulting in the death of Mollie’s sisters. 

Scorsese and Roth have narrowed the scope, focusing mainly on Ernest, Mollie, and Hale, allowing for extraordinary performances. DiCaprio has never been better as the conflicted but easily swayed Ernest, who becomes one of the “squaw men,” the lay-about husbands living off their wives’ money. DiCaprio shows Ernest’s struggle, creating a character of active and passive complicity but still revealing lingering shreds of humanity. 

Lily Gladstone is a revelation of nuance and subtle dimension, finding joy, pain, humor, and strength. Her ability to project extraordinary shades of emotion in complete stillness is matched by her anguish in the film’s most gut-wrenching scenes of loss. Late in the film, her declaration that “this blanket is a target on our backs” reflects a woman robbed of peace of mind, living in a world crumbling from within and without.

De Niro balances the “great white father” with the darkness of a conscienceless villain whose lack of moral compass tips towards the amoral. De Niro (and the film) might have been better served by a gradual revelation of Hale’s true colors, something in which the book succeeds.

As for the rest of the players, there are no weak links, but they have only one or two notes to play. The rogues are rough, whiskey-soaked outlaws. The citizens of Fairfax carry a certain generic “oldy-timey” vibe. The members of the Bureau of Investigation (the forerunner to the FBI) are a tight-lipped crew, directed by Agent Tom White, an effective Jesse Plemons. While a good portion of Grann’s book deals with the investigation under J. Edgar Hoover, the film truncates the inquiry. The trial itself is abbreviated, with John Lithgow, as Prosecutor Leaward, and Brendan Fraser, as W.S. Hamilton, Hale’s attorney, basically serving their functions.

Throughout, the wrongs committed against the Osage are rightly and unflinchingly highlighted. Whether being overcharged for funeral arrangements, targets of arson and insurance fraud, or treated with disdain, suspicion, and envy by the “buzzards circling [the Osage] community,” the Osage nobility is fully present. Never caricatured, their ascendency from victim to the pursuit of justice in the face of systematic murder creates the core of the film’s final stretch. 

Scorsese’s penultimate scene is fascinating, allowing a seeming gimmick to work on another level (as it is fact-based). His cameo is fun, if a bit jarring. Killers of the Flower Moon’s final image, a contemporary nod, is beautiful—the ideal resolution to a film that casts light on a bloody, scarred chapter of American history.

Rated R, the film is now playing in local theaters and will later play on Apple TV+.

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Megan Suri in a scene from 'It Lives Inside.' Photo courtesy of NEON

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

Director Bishal Dutta has directed nineteen shorts. He has received worldwide acclaim, garnering half a dozen Best Director laurels at various international film festivals. Most recently, Life in Color was an official selection at The American Pavilion Emerging Filmmakers Showcase (2018 Cannes Film Festival). His work has included music videos and broadcast commercials. 

NEON (distributor of the Academy Award-winning Parasite), along with QC Entertainment and Brightlight Pictures, produced Dutta’s first feature, the horror film It Lives Inside. Indian-born Sam (Megan Suri) is a high school student whose goal is assimilation. Her mother, Poorna (Neeru Bajwa), clings to their cultural roots, while her father, Inesh (Vik Sahay), attempts to navigate the two worlds and make peace between mother and daughter.

Megan Suri and Gage Marsh in a scene from ‘It Lives Inside.’ Photo courtesy of NEON

At school, Sam’s childhood friend, Tamira (Mohana Krishnan), is something of an outcast. She comes late to class, wanders the halls, and lurks underneath the bleachers, muttering fiercely and tapping a glass container that never leaves her hands. (Until this point, the film’s subtitle could have been Monster in a Mason Jar.)

Concerned but hesitant to associate with Tamira, Sam confronts her former friend. Tamira attempts to explain the evil within. In the ensuing disagreement, Sam calls her “a psycho” and smashes the jar, releasing the trapped entity. Tamira disappears, and the spirit latches onto Sam.

The rest of the film follows Sam’s arc from the fear of losing her sanity to accepting the reality of the pishacha, a flesh-eating demon. The pishachi, part of Hindu and Buddhist mythologies, feed on dark feelings like anger and hatred. They attack by first isolating the target, then slowly eating the soul. 

In many ways, It Lives Inside is standard monster fare, no different than dozens (hundreds?) of high-school-girl-in-terror movies. (The high school mascot—a bit on-the-nose—is a werewolf.) However, Dutta, who penned the screenplay, presents a unique reflection of the immigrant experience through this unusual horror prism. 

The cultural elements are integral in the storytelling and ultimate resolution. The family celebrates Durga Puja, a holiday paying homage to the Hindu goddess Durga’s victory over the shape-shifting demon Mahishasura. The party offers a glimpse into the community, showing Poorna’s desire to honor her heritage and Sam’s desire to remain outside it. When Dutta shows these pieces, the film comes to life.

The most lingering moment involves the aftermath of a grisly death that Sam witnesses. The neighbors’ faces suggest suspicion, not compassion. Dutta comments boldly and effectively on “immigrant as other,” revealed in the brief visual commentary. This moment speaks more powerfully than a dozen speeches could convey. 

Suri is first-rate as Sam, balancing the character’s struggles, seeming descent into madness, and inner strength. She is the modern Scream Queen: resourceful, smart, and brave; willing to sacrifice everything but her humanity. She manages to make even the weakest dialogue believable. 

Bajwa and Sahay avoid caricatures and find a nice contrast as the parents, both trying to understand and support their child. Gage Marsh is very “boy band” as a quasi-date who meets an inevitable end. Betty Gabriel plays Sam’s teacher, Joyce Dixon, one of those fantasy mentors who never seem to leave school and are always available. We know she is cool because she wears a Berkley sweatshirt (coincidentally, where Dutta teaches film). Gabriel makes the stock character completely real. 

Strangely, the film seems underpopulated. Students barely register; party guests are mere ciphers. 

Sadly, as a horror film, it falls short. The absence of tension is not replaced by any genuine atmosphere or style. The tired tropes—whispering voices, red lights, a journal with dire warnings and disturbing sketches, dreams within dreams—play strictly as clichés, making the short running time seem to plod towards its inevitable and strangely tacit conclusion. Often, it feels like a lesser episode of the 1970s television series Kolchak: the Night Stalker. 

Of the monster itself, it remains invisible for most of the film. Occasionally, Dutta allows a glimpse—mostly a shape in the dark with eyes charged by a pair of old AAA batteries, accompanied by a growl that claims the eeriness of an annoyed Dachshund. The final encounter reveals a refugee from the creature-feature rubber suit brigade. The matinee monster looks slightly less than a Party City Alien or perhaps something ordered out of the back of a comic book. Spikey and mildly reptilian, it elicits no response outside of a mirthless and disappointed chuckle from the anesthetized audience.

If only Dutta had leaned further into the social core, he would have created something memorable. Instead, It Lives Inside remains a rather flabby thriller with a fascinating—but unrealized—potential.

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

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From left, Kelly Reilly, Tina Fey, Kenneth Branagh, Michelle Yeoh, and Jamie Dornan star in 'A Haunting In Venice' Photo courtesy of 20th Century Studios/Disney

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

With over two billion books in print, Agatha Christie remains history’s second best-selling author (just behind Shakespeare). Her works span sixty-six detective novels and fourteen short story collections. Having opened in 1952, The Mousetrap is the world’s longest-running play, with over twenty-nine thousand performances. Christie’s best-known creations are the private detective Hercule Poirot and the amateur sleuth Miss Marple.

Poirot—the meticulous Belgian of the “little gray cells”— is featured in thirty-three novels and fifty-one short stories, with over a dozen films following his exploits. 

Notable actors such as Albert Finney (nominated for an Academy Award for Murder on the Orient Express), Peter Ustinov, Alfred Molina, John Malkovich, and Tony Randall donned the waxed mustache. David Suchet has been the most successful and beloved with Agatha Christie’s Poirot series, which presented seventy episodes from 1989 to 2013. Suchet’s large-than-life Poirot remarkably manages to remain wholly dimensional. 

Kenneth Branagh and Tina Fey in a scene from ‘A Haunting In Venice’. Photo courtesy of 20th Century Studios/Disney

In 2017, Kenneth Branagh directed and starred in Murder on the Orient Express, a labored adaptation that paled in comparison to the 1974 film and the 2010 television version. Branagh followed it up with the even less adept Death on the Nile (2022). 

His newest entry, A Haunting in Venice, claims its source as Hallowe’en Party (1969). The crisp novel deals with a girl who claims to have witnessed a murder and, shortly after, is drowned in a bobbing-for-apples tub. The similarities between the source and the film are slim. Apart from one character, a few names, a tub of apples, and a Halloween setting, A Haunting in Venice is an unrelated tale.

Hercule Poirot (Branagh) lives in an unsettled Venetian retirement with a bodyguard, ex-policeman Vitale Portfoglio (Riccardo Scamarcio). Mystery writer Ariadne Oliver (Tina Fey), Poirot’s acquaintance with whom he shares a professional history and a slightly antagonistic bent, coerces Poirot into attending a séance at a nearby palazzo, which follows a children’s Halloween party. Skeptic Poirot agrees to accompany her, intending to reveal the medium as a fraud. 

The palazzo’s owner, Rowena Drake (Kelly Reilly), wants to contact her daughter, Alicia (Rowan Robinson), who had committed suicide by throwing herself into the canal a year earlier. The guests include the family doctor, Leslie Ferrier (Jamie Dornan), his son, Leopold (Jude Hill), and the housemaid, Olga Seminoff (Camille Cottin). The medium, Joyce Reynolds (Michelle Yeoh), speaks in the daughter’s voice, proclaiming she was murdered. Poirot quickly exposes Reynolds as a fake. But is she? While Poirot reveals her confederates—Romani siblings Desdemona and Nicholas Holland (Emma Laird and Ali Khan)—doubt looms.

The ensuing plot hinges on the revelation of Alicia’s killer and the question of the palazzo’s haunting by the ghosts of children locked in to die during the plague years. 

A Haunting in Venice is an old dark house thriller with the requisite rainstorm, a falling chandelier, strange shadows, whispering voices, and assorted things that go bump in the night. The real stars are the technical elements. Visually, the film is exquisite: Haris Zambarloukos’s whirring and winding cinematography complements John Kelly’s elegant and evocative production design.

The performances are solid enough, all playing in the same world—but certainly not Christie’s universe. In a complete departure from the author’s self-satirizing writer (cleverly played by Zoë Wanamaker in the series), Fey’s Oliver is a wise-cracking 1940s soubrette and Poirot’s active adversary. Yeoh brings a winking gravitas to the medium, and Reilly ably manages a mother’s grief. Laird and Kahn make for a mercurial pair.

The center of any Poirot mystery is, of course, Poirot. Branagh’s twenty-first-century reinterpretation of the role results in a unique, often troubled, human character. Oddly, the choice becomes problematic, offering a Poirot with a lack of “Poirot-ness.” Missing is the twinkling genius, one step ahead. Instead, this Poirot runs alongside the pack until the final moments. However, Branagh embraces Christie’s vision in the resolution, where he exercises his insights and logic in unraveling the solution. Here, Branagh finds a few moments to shine, offering a glimpse of his potential. 

A Haunting in Venice is a distinct improvement over Murder on the Orient Express and Death on the Nile. But whether Haunting is a Christie-inspired film or just a movie cashing in on the author’s fame, the answer must veer towards the latter. Viewers seeking a traditional Poirot murder mystery with the classic intrepid detective will most likely be frustrated and disappointed. Those more flexible (or less invested in the canon) will find a quick-paced and visually satisfying thriller.

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

‘The Color Purple’ heads to theaters on Christmas Day. Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

By Tim Haggerty and Jeffrey Sanzel

Filmgoers can look forward to an exciting  field of offerings for the fall and holiday season. A wide range of releases promises a host of titles in a strong cross-section of genres including horror, musicals, historical dramas, and family movies. Here are some of the most anticipated movies for the rest of 2023, listed in order of release date. Ready, set, … action!

A Haunting in Venice

Kenneth Branagh’s follow-up to Death on the Nile is A Haunting in Venice, his third outing as celebrated sleuth Hercule Poirot. The Agatha Christie-inspired story focuses on murder during a séance and promises thrills offered up by a star-studded. Along with director-actor Branagh are Tina Fey, Jamie Dornan, Kelly Reilly and Michelle Yeoh, among others.

Rated PG-13· Release date September 15

Saw X

While not for the faint of heart (or stomach), Saw X marks the tenth in the Jigsaw saga. The film is set between the events of Saw and Saw II and follows a desperate man traveling to Mexico for a medical procedure, which is revealed to be a scam. Tobin Bell once again takes on the role of John Kramer/Jigsaw.

Rated TBA· Release date September 29

The Exorcist: Believer

David Gordon Green appropriately follows the end of his recent Halloween trilogy with The Exorcist: Believer. Originally, the producers were going to reboot the series, but instead have opted for a direct sequel to the landmark 1973 original. Ellen Burstyn reprises her starring role. 

Rated R· Release date October 13

Killers of the Flower Moon

It has been four years since Academy Award-winner Martin Scorsese’s much-lauded The Irishman. Now, the great director presents Killers of the Flower Moon. Based on David Grann’s bestseller of the same name, the film centers on a series of Oklahoma murders in the Osage Nation during the 1920s, committed after oil was discovered on tribal land. The film, which stars Leonardo DiCaprio, Robert De Niro, Lily Gladstone, John Lithgow, Jesse Plemons, Tantoo Cardinal and Brendan Fraser, promises to be one of the fall’s best and most exciting films.

Rated R· Release date October 20

Priscilla

Sofia Coppola tells the Elvis story through meeting, courtship, and marriage in Priscilla. Based on Priscilla Presley’s memoir Elvis and Me, Coppola creates the private life of the superstar in what will hopefully be her signature brilliance, blending high art with raw emotion. Cailee Spaeny and Jacob Elordi star as Priscilla and Elvis.

Rated R· Release date October 27

Five Nights at Freddy’s

Taking its cue from the video game, Five Nights at Freddy’s follows a security guard (Josh Hutcherson) on night-time patrol at Freddy Fazbear’s Pizza, an abandoned family entertainment center, where animatronic mascots kill anyone there after midnight. 

Rated PG-13 Release Date October 27

Pain Hustlers

David Yates features Emily Blunt, Chris Evans, Andy Garcia, and Catherine O’Hara in Pain Hustlers, a true-events crime drama centered on a criminal conspiracy at a pharmaceutical start-up.

Rated R· Release date October 27

The Marvels

The Marvel Universe expands with The Marvels, a Captain Marvel sequel starring Nia DaCosta, along with Brie Larson as Carol Danvers, and Iman Vallanis’ Kamala Khan (Ms. Marvel of the Disney+ series). 

Rated PG-13· Release date November 10

The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes

The multi-million-dollar Hunger Games franchise returns with a prequel based on Suzanne Collins’ novel The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes. Series vet Francis Lawrence directs the story that follows young Coriolanus Snow (played by Donald Sutherland in the previous four films) and his involvement with the Hunger Games.

Rated PG-13· Release date November 17

Next Goal Wins

Based on the 2015 documentary, Next Goal Wins tells the story of Dutch American soccer coach Thomas Rongen (Michael Fassbender), hired to help turn around the American Samoa national team, considered one of the worst in the world. (The trailers suggest a warm Ted Lasso vibe.)

Rated PG-13· Release date November 17

Napoleon

Napoleon joins director Ridley Scott with Joaquin Phoenix as the French general-turned-emperor. While the film will include a number of Napoleon’s most famous battles, its primary focus is on his tempestuous love story with his first wife, Joséphine (Vanessa Kirby).

Rated R· Release date November 22

Maestro

Perhaps one of the most anticipated fall films is Bradley Cooper’s biopic Maestro. Director Cooper has co-written (along with Josh Singer) the screenplay in which he stars as the extraordinary and complicated musician Leonard Bernstein. The film also stars Carey Mulligan, Maya Hawke and Jeremy Strong.

Rated R· Release date November 22

Wish

Disney’s Wish chronicles the origin story of the Wishing Star, with Ariana DeBose,  Chris Pine and Alan Tudyk starring in Frozen writers Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck’s screenplay. When darkness falls upon the Kingdom of Wishes, a young girl wishes upon a star to save her home, only to have the star physically come to her aid and becomes her sidekick. If the advance buzz is any indication, the animated film could become another Disney classic.

Rated TBA· Release date November 2

Poor Things

Emma Stone plays Bella Baxter, a young suicide brought back to life by a scientist (Willem Dafoe) in the unusual and surreal Poor Things, based on the 1992 Alasdair Gray novel. 

Rated R· Release Date December 8.

Wonka

Timothée Chalamet takes on the title role in Wonka, an origin story of the eccentric candy maker. Paddington director Paul King has assembled an all-star cast with Olivia Colman, Sally Hawkins, Keegan Michael-Key, and Rowan Atkinson. The film promises to be a visual feast and a fascinating take on Roald Dahls’ legendary character.

Rated PG· Release date December 15

The Color Purple

Stephen Spielberg filmed Alice Walker’s indelible novel The Color Purple in his Oscar-nominated 1985 film. Now Blitz Bazawule brings the Broadway musical to the big screen, with  Danielle Brooks, Halle Bailey, Fantasia Barrino, Taraji P. Henson, and Louis Gossett Jr., showcasing the Tony-nominated score by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis, and Stephen Bray.

Rated PG-13· Release date December 25

This article originally appeared in TBR News Media’s Harvest Times supplement on Sept. 14.