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Movie Review

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.

From left, Ramona Edith-Williams and Kelly O'Sullivan in a scene from Saint Frances. Photo courtesy of Oscilloscope Labs

By Jeffrey Sanzel

Saint Frances begins with Bridget (Kelly O’Sullivan) listening passively to a man drone on about a dream he had and how life is about purpose. This indulgent harangue only ends when he discovers that she is not in her twenties but a 34-year-old server; upon hearing this, he unceremoniously moves on. 

This sets the tone for a story of someone who exists but does not actually live in her own life but drifts from moment to moment. Bridget seems unphased and unaffected by his rudeness and remains impassive. 

She is then engaged by a younger man, Jace (sweetly earnest Max Lipchitz). That night, they fall into bed. It is clear that Jace wants more than just the hook-ups that seem to populate Bridget’s life. But this is not Bridget. The self-described feminist-atheist doesn’t know who she is or, more importantly, what she feels. 

In short, she is a mess.

Gradually, details of her life are teased out.  As a server, she has no affinity for the job, shown as soul-crushing drudgery. She then interviews for a nannying position, clearly ambivalent about the actual work but just wanting to escape the restaurant. The situation is to take care of six year-old Frances (Ramona Edith-Williams). Frances’ mothers, pregnant Maya (Charin Alvarez, heartbreaking in her struggle, triumphant in her resolution) and lawyer Annie (layered and dimensional Lily Mojekwu) are dubious and pass on her.

In the meantime, Bridget discovers she is pregnant and Jace willingly offers to support her in any way. Almost immediately, Bridget decides to terminate the pregnancy. It is not so much a cavalier choice as it is, like all of her actions, done almost at a distance. Bridget is someone who lives apart from herself.

Two months later, after the original nanny is let go, Bridget is offered the position. She readily accepts even though she seems to have no affinity for children. Maya is now struggling with postpartum depression, and Annie is now back at work full-time and seemingly unavailable.  

Initially, Bridget is emotionally absent as a caretaker. She makes a series both benign and what could be (but do not result in) calamitous mistakes. However, she  gradually awakens to her responsibility, and not just to Frances, but to herself. Her journey is both darkly funny and achingly melancholy. Much of the film is excruciating as she perpetually teeters on and often goes over the edge of poor judgment. But, through her commitment to her charge, she grows. 

In the tumult of the chaos that is Bridget, there are many astute and charming scenes.  A hike with her parents who are humorous but caring eschews the usual clichés. Following the baptism of Maya and Annie’s baby, Frances gives confession to Bridget.  A sleepover shows that there is joy in the simplest moments.

At the center of the film is Kelly O’Sullivan’s riveting and nuanced performance, letting the light ever so gradually shine into Bridget’s life, building up to several wonderfully cathartic moments. She is matched by Ramona Edith Williams, an honest and endearing child actor. Whether dismissing Bridget with a “We’re done” or subtlety crumbling under the fear of being replaced by her new sibling, she is unmannered and, most importantly, real.  Together, they make the film beat as one.

Director Alex Thompson allows Kelly O’Sullivan’s insightful screenplay to breathe, never giving away what will happen next, but drawing us further and deeper into Bridget’s tumultuous wake. It is all beautifully filmed by cinematographer Nate Hurtsellers. Together, they have created a film that dissects and yet celebrates the fact that family given or chosen are equal parts love and dysfunction.

Ultimately, Saint Frances’ heart lies in purpose. Prior to Frances, Bridget is wandering ambivalently through her own story. Even her mother asks her if is she was happy she was born, even with her life “the way it is.” But with responsibility, Bridget becomes awakened, aware, and empowered. By actively involving herself in this family — by finding her purpose — she not only finds herself but her sense of value. Saint Frances leaves Bridget — and us — in a better place.

Not rated, Saint Frances is now streaming on-demand.

Jane Goodall. Photo courtesy of National Geographic

By Jeffrey Sanzel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A scene from the film. Photo courtesy of National Geographic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mackenzie Davis in a scene from 'The Turning'.

By Jeffrey Sanzel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brooklynn Prince in a scene from ‘The Turning’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photos courtesy of Universal Pictures

By Jeffrey Sanzel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photos courtesy of Amazon Studios