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Movie Review

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Jules Willcox in a scene from the film. Photo courtesy of Magnet Releasing

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

Alone could only be a labeled a “new” thriller in that it was just released. Nothing else could be considered new in this predictable and ultimately unsatisfying game of hunter and hunted. John Hyams has directed Mattias Olsson’s by-the-numbers screenplay with standard tropes and cliches.

From the beginning, everything is made to seem ominous. Even the packing of a U-Haul — dresser, chair, bicycle — is made to seem dark. When the protagonist, Jessica Swanson, is unable to take her potted plant, we know we are in dangerous territory. Her first word is “Sorry” — a response to honking horns as she sits at a changed light. “Sorry” doesn’t begin to describe what is ahead for her.

After five minutes of driving, the screen goes black and a spindly “The Road” appears.  This is the first of multiple titles that have been added for apparently no reason other than to give a certain pretension to an otherwise standard horror film.

On “The Road,” she is nearly driven off by a car that slows down, then speeds up, causing a near miss with an oncoming truck. Shortly after, a call to her father reveals that she left her apartment for “a reason.” In the motel, she scrolls through photos on her tablet, showing her with her late husband. Later, in a phone call with her mother, the “reason” is revealed to be six months in the past.

The next morning, the man who tried to run her off the road, introduces himself and apologizes. Everything is done to make him look both benign and frightening. Sandy hair, huge moustache, aviator frames. Chatty and pleasant with his arm in a sling, he’s just asking too many questions. 

Either one of two directions are inevitable.  It will be a game of cat-and-mouse on the highway or she will be abducted. A flat tire is the catalyst for the latter course. He attacks and drugs her. 

Marc Menchaca plays a creepy serial killer in ‘Alone.’ Photo courtesy of Magnet Releasing

When she wakes up, she is locked in an empty basement with morning light streaming through the single, barred window. When he finally enters the room, she begs for her life. She promises if he lets her go; she won’t say anything. His response is an off-hand “Do you think you’re the first one to say that?,” one of the few genuinely chilling moments. 

It is in captivity that we find out her late husband’s fate. The imprisonment doesn’t last long. She escapes and the rest of the movie is spent with the man in pursuit of Jessica.

What is revealed, in a cleverly pedestrian call from home, is that he is not a backwoods recluse but a husband and father with a deadly and perverse secret life. However, his attempts at psychological torture are clumsy and almost laughable. Just past the halfway mark, he is given a great big mess of a monologue that borders on parody.  Better he should have stayed the strong silent type. Well, weird silent type anyway. 

What works is Jessica doesn’t make the classic scream queen decisions. She does everything she can to keep herself safe, including calling 911. She is as resourceful as she can be, brave, and pretty smart.

Jules Willcox is strong as Jessica. Both in action and in stillness, she seems completely connected to her surroundings. She brings both grounding and believability to her performance.

Marc Menchaca is less successful as the man. At first, the “aww, shucks” quality works but his shift into villain is mechanical and uninspired. For a man leading a dual life, one would expect him to be have a intriguing persona.

The film is basically a two-hander.  Anthony Heald, a fine actor in all he does, makes the most of a minor role as a friendly hunter. While it’s just a bit longer than a cameo, it does lend a bit of texture to the extended chase.

So much is played in the dark that it’s shadow and shift and voices. In addition, every sound is amplified, including the placing of a gasoline hose into the tank, the rattle of the car, the creaking of the trees in the wind. The soundtrack provides every emphasis and sting that could possibly be squeezed in.

The movie is not without tension and, overall, it is decently shot. The problem is that it seems interminable. Since there is little character development, it is hard to invest and, in the long run, feels laborious. There is a great deal of filler with wandering through forest and hills, all darkly verdant and overgrown. 

The final confrontation has an interesting twist with a cell phone — but it’s all just too late in coming. Alone is probably better left … alone.

Rated R, Alone is streaming on demand.

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Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

Robin Williams was a true artistic genius. A comedian and actor unlike any other, his persona graced film, television, and the stage, both stand-up and legitimate. His range of comedic and dramatic roles as well as his voiceover work made him unique even amongst the most versatile performers. Bursting onto the scene with the sitcom Mork & Mindy, he went on to memorable roles in The World According to Garp, Good Morning, Vietnam, Dead Poets Society, Aladdin, Mrs. Doubtfire; and many others.

Now a new documentary by Tylor Norwood, Robin’s Wish, explores the performer’s final days.

On August 11, 2014, the world was shocked by the 63-year-old’s death by suicide. Immediately following this heartbreaking event, speculation as to the cause was rampant. Among the explanations that were discussed included depression hearkening to his long struggle with drug addiction, frustration with what he perceived as the onset of Parkinson’s, and the “sad clown syndrome” often associated with comedians and comedic actors.

Robin Williams

None of these turned out to be correct.  It was revealed that Williams had been suffering from undiagnosed Lewy body dementia.  According to the Mayo Clinic, Lewy body dementia is “… the second most common type of progressive dementia after Alzheimer’s disease dementia. Protein deposits, called Lewy bodies, develop in nerve cells in the brain regions involved in thinking, memory and movement (motor control). Lewy body dementia causes a progressive decline in mental abilities. People with Lewy body dementia may experience visual hallucinations and changes in alertness and attention. Other effects include Parkinson’s disease-like signs and symptoms such as rigid muscles, slow movement and tremors.”

The tragic fact is that Williams had all of these symptoms. He was aware that something was wrong but could not articulate what he was going through, gradually manifesting increasingly odd and startling behaviors. 

Those looking for a documentary that delves into Williams’ life will be disappointed. Little is explored in his earlier career, his meteoric rise to stardom, and his incredible body of work, as well as the darker moments in his journey. There is only the smallest nod towards his addictions  and eventually sobriety. It does share accounts from his time overseas, entertaining the troops and visiting hospitals. This gives a small glimpse into what is most likely a much larger and richer story.

Robin Williams and his third wife Susan Schneider. Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment

The film focuses mainly on the last two years of his life, only reaching back to about 2011 and his marriage to his third wife, Susan Schneider, who is the driving force and main storyteller of the film. How they met and the growth of their relationship is offered but little else in his personal or public life prior to this is touched upon.

Much of the emphasis is placed on two of his last projects: the film Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb and the television show The Crazy Ones. His colleagues talk with great respect for his work and love for him a person. In retrospect, they all had varying degrees of awareness that something was off, including his bouts of insecurity as well as a new found challenge in learning and retaining lines. It is a tribute to their feelings for Williams that none of this came out during these two processes.

The balance of the film is taken up with alternating between doctors and scientists explaining the nature of the disease and Schneider’s mix of guilt and sadness as she relates his gradual disintegration. Her love for Williams comes through and the importance of telling his story is clearly present. 

The goal of the film is a noble one: It is bringing awareness to a terrible and deadly disease. However, much of it feels padded out. The interviews are repetitive, with people covering the same ground. The individual accounts are broken up as an attempt to make them look more varied and expansive but it doesn’t quite land.   In particular, interviews with Williams’ neighbors have a strange “we knew there was something wrong in the house” quality that seems out of step with the film’s objective. 

In addition to some archival clips, there is an overly generous use of recreative footage that gives the whole piece the look of an exploitive crime recreation or a behind-the-autopsy show. This unnecessary stuffing cheapens the film, which would have benefited from either cutting its already short running time of an hour and a quarter or expanding it to a fuller exploration of the life of an American artist.

Robin’s Wish, while strong in purpose, only makes us yearn for a larger and more complete portrait of a complex and exceptional man.

Not rated, Robin’s Wish is streaming on demand.

The cast of The Boys in the Band. Photo courtesy of Netflix

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

In 1968, Mart Crowley’s The Boys in the Band premiered off-Broadway and, against all odds, ran for 1,001 performances. It was one of the first plays to deal with gay men not as ciphers, used symbols of deviance, or relegated to a comic sidekick stereotype. Instead, it is a portrait of fully realized, wholly human, and, in many cases, damaged individuals. It did not demonize homosexuality as “other,” but, at the same, it embraced its unique rising culture, one that had been forced to remain closeted. It is a dark play with great wit but a strong undercurrent of pain.

It was filmed in 1970 with members of the original cast, under the direction of William Friedkin. It was a fairly faithful adaptation and hewed, with one or two exceptions, very closely to the stage play.

The Boys in the Band centers around a birthday party for Harold, being thrown by his frenemy, Michael. The guests include Larry and Hank, a couple dealing with monogamy issues; Donald, Michael’s sometime boyfriend; Bernard, the most reserved of the group; and Emory, aggressive and aggressively flamboyant. In addition, “Cowboy,” a simple, good-looking hustler, has been engaged by Emory as a birthday present for Harold.

Jim Parsons in a scene from the film.

The dynamic shifts with the arrival of Michael’s college friend, Alan, a straight man, who is struggling with his marriage and possibly other issues. The evening builds to a game in which Michael, getting progressively drunker, shifts from distant warmth to pointed cruelty. He pressures the guests into calling the person whom they loved the most and confess their feelings. It is a harsh sequence, as Michael becomes more vicious. Harold says to Michael, “I’m turning on. You’re just turning.” And it is on this single word — “turning” — the story hinges.  Michael’s turning from host to host-from-hell is what drives the latter part of the evening; in particular, his relentless bullying of his former roommate, Alan. 

The plot is a simple one and derives its richness from the character development and the dimensional interactions. The first film was released in 1970, and it is clear the cast was able to transfer the raw depth that had developed from the stage onto the screen.  The excellent documentary Making the Boys (2011) chronicles The Boys in the Band from inception to performance to filming and beyond.

In 2018, The Boys in the Band was given an all-star revival on Broadway. This production received the Tony Award for Best Revival of a Play, and has now been made into a film for Netflix, produced by Ryan Murphy.

The difficulty in bringing this piece back lies in the change in the world. Even between the original production and the release of the original film two years later, the Stonewall Riots altered the identity of the gay community. The rise of AIDS and its impact also was a major factor in how the piece was viewed beyond the late 60’s/early 70’s. To make it work in the twenty-first century requires the commitment to present it as a moment-in-time and not allow present-day commentary to skew the play’s head and heart.

Unfortunately, this Boys in the Band does not succeed in this. While a great deal of it feels like a shot-for-shot recreation of the source, the tone is decidedly off. It feels less like the gritty Manhattan of 1968 but rather a strange off-shoot of Sex in the City. Unlike in the original movie, where it is peeking into a private party, there is a stilted, presentational quality. Everything seems very pointed and show-me.

The lack of period is most detrimental with Alan (Brian Hutchison), who is meant to represent the era’s accepted and brutal point-of-view towards homosexuality. Hutchison struggles with this dichotomy but is unable to make it land.

Zachary Quinto as Harold and Robin de Jesus as Emory in a scene from the film. Photo from Netflix
Cr. Scott Everett White/NETFLIX ©2020

Jim Parsons, as Michael, has not found the contrast in the before and after — the sober, kinder Michael and the inebriated and destructive one. Michaels’ need to be contrary never seems fully realized because it lacks a shift. He gets drunker but not deeper. The result is a rehash of Parson’s most recent and more effective performance in the Netflix miniseries Hollywood. When the game final arrives, Parsons then begins to work too hard, and it almost seems like a revenge movie.

A few elements have been changed for political correctness of the 21st-century. There are also some very unnecessary flashbacks during the game that became a choice that just screams “look we’re making a movie.”  With its gratuitous and clumsy flashes of nudity, it signals a mistrust of the material. 

Bernard’s phone call, which is devastating in the original, here lacks teeth. This is no fault of Michael Benjamin Washington, who does his best to portray one of the revamped characters. But it lacks Bernard’s complete implosion. The same problem can be found with the outrageous Emory. Robin de Jesús gives a solid performance, but, by softening the character’s grating edge, it drains the fearlessness from his interactions.

Zachary Quinto’s Harold is strong and closely resembles Leonard Frey’s performance in the original. But, for some reason, it feels as if the character is more peripheral. 

Matt Bomer is nicely understated as Donald, Michael’s boyfriend. Andrew Rannells comes off slightly sadistic as the more promiscuous of the couple, but manages to find some of the struggle towards the end. Tuc Watkins is both suitably uptight and gentle as his partner.  Charlie Carver, as Cowboy, is likable if a bit less prominent than he should be.

Overall, there’s a lack of danger, like some strange game of dress-up, stylized rather than present. The stakes all seem very low which undermines the immediacy. An added coda — both unnecessary and pretentious — destroys the honest, raw simplicity of the ending. Ned Martel is billed as co-author with Crowley for the screenplay. Surprisingly, all these changes were sanctioned by Crowley (who passed away in March of 2020). 

Much of the blame for this misfire must be placed on director Joe Mantello, whose lack of vision and failure to capture the essence of the story leaked into every moment and interfered with potentially strong performances.

The Boys in the Band is a powerful statement about the love-hate of self, of stereotypes, and of introspection. It is a raw snapshot of real people in a real time in history. It is sad that this will be the version that many will watch and wrongly judge Crowley’s source. We can only hope that they will do themselves the favor and seek out the original.

Rated R, The Boys in the Band is now streaming on Netflix.

From left, Henry Cavill, Millie Bobby Brown and Sam Claflin star in 'Enola Holmes'. Photo courtesy of Netflix

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

The world’s most famous detective, Sherlock Holmes, first appeared in print in A Study in Scarlet (1887). Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s iconic sleuth would become one of the best-known characters in all of literature. For over a century, he has been seen in print, onstage, and onscreen. More than two hundred films, along with the dozens of television episodes, have made him cinema’s most often portrayed character. In addition, there have been offshoots, updates, and parodies that would form a substantial list of its own.

Nancy Springer’s young adult series The Enola Holmes Mysteries features the fourteen year-old sister of Sherlock, who is twenty years her senior. To date, there have been six books, published between 2006 and 2010.  Now, Netflix offers the first adaptation with its Enola Holmes, what is clearly meant to be the premiere of a franchise.

Henry Cavill, Sam Claflin and Millie Bobby Brown in a scene from the film.

Millie Bobby Brown (Eleven on Stranger Things) embodies the brilliant budding detective, Enola. Enola is “Alone” spelled backwards, a nod to her isolated upbringing, and Brown embraces this along with the girl’s spark and insight. Brown is more than enough reason to watch this very entertaining venture. 

Enola wakes-up on her sixteenth birthday (her age increased from the book’s fourteen to allow for romantic overtures) to discover that her mother has disappeared. As she embarks on a quest to find her, she becomes embroiled in a conspiracy to influence a reform vote in the House of Lords. This thread centers on a young marquess, Lord Tewkesbury, who is being hunted as he tries to escape his responsibilities. She reluctantly saves and befriends him, taking her slightly off her initial course. 

Brown delightfully breaks the fourth wall as she ponders, plots, and explores. Like her famous older brother, she finds herself in disguise, infiltrating various social strata. She mines both the humor and the honesty in every moment. She easily shows both Enola’s fears and gradually maturation throughout the two hour running time.

Henry Cavill makes for a heart-throb of a Sherlock Holmes. Tall, broad-shouldered, and charming, he cuts a rather romantic figure, unusual in the canon. That he makes this more emotionally engaged Holmes work is a tribute to strong writing and a desire to create a character with the ability to grow. The fact that he cares about Enola infuses his quest to get her back with more than a disconnected interest.

Sam Claflin, as the rigid eldest brother, Mycroft, finds the center of the self-important and socially-obsessed uncle. Twitchy and smug, he lords over his ward, Enola. There is the faintest glimmer of concern for the girl and that lends him a bit of welcomed texture.

Helena Bonham Carter infuses the eccentric matriarch, Eudoria Holmes, with her usual eclectic style. Where sometimes Bonham Carter’s stock-in-trade seems forced onto a character, here it works well. She is seen predominantly in flashbacks, teaching and training Enola in not just skills and knowledge, but also a sense of self. Her own journey is revealed throughout, showing Eudoria’s larger purpose.

There is an overtone in the series that was certainly less pronounced in the books; this clearly is a reflection of our present time. A great deal of the film focuses on self-empowerment, both of Enola as an individual and as a woman. In addition, the political shades definitely nod towards the issues of the haves and have nots. Fortunately, these elements only enhance the investment in Enola and her stories.

There is a nice balance of intellect and action. The story shifts nimbly from Enola solving puzzles with the use of word tiles to jumping from a moving train to besting a thug (menacing Burn Gorman) with her martial arts training. While perhaps there is nothing surprisingly original, it all comes together cohesively and maintains an energy and sincerity that carries it along.

Harry Bradbeer shows an adept, clear hand directing Jack Thorne’s clever script (much more satisfying than his recent take on The Secret Garden). 

Louis Partridge makes a charming, boy-band marquess who definitely develops a soft-spot for Enola. Adeel Akhtar’s Inspector Lestrade (a staple of the Sherlock Holmes universe) pulls him back before he crosses the line into caricature. Susan Wokoma strikes a powerful presence as one of Eudoria’s allies, Edith. She is given some of the more political and socially reflective material and manages to make it real without seeming too preachy. 

Fiona Shaw, one of the finest actors working on stage and screen, is both hilarious and dangerous as Miss Harrison, the head mistress of the finishing school to which Enola is briefly sentenced. Perhaps the most intriguing performance is given by stalwart Frances de la Tour as The Dowager, Tewkesbury’s grandmother. She creates depth and a hint of melancholy in her few brief scenes, building up to a fascinating payoff. 

The film contains a plethora of visual “asides” with images and animations that enhance the more whimsical elements.  Credit goes to production designer Michael Carlin and the half-dozen members of the art direction department (along with an enormous visual effects team).

While there is some violence (most notably the Brown-Gorman fights), overall, it is definitely “kid-friendly” and is ideal family entertainment. If this is any indication of where the series can go, Enola, in Brown and company’s capable hands, makes a welcome new addition to the world of Sherlock Holmes.

Rated PG-13, Enola Holmes is now streaming on Netflix.

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Janelle Monáe as Eden in a scene from the film. Photo courtesy of Lionsgate

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

Antebellum, the new psychological horror film, opens with a William Faulkner epigraph: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” 

This immediately segues into a bucolic image of a plantation in the Confederate south. The sky is a vivid blue and the grass a verdant green. It is a rich and welcoming landscape, contrasting with an ominous soundtrack of soaring strings. And, like a twisted version of Colonial Williamsburg, this bright backdrop enhances the ugly and chilling murder of a runaway slave.

The horror of life on this plantation is seen through the eyes of a slave named Eden. Commandeered by the Confederate army, the slaves are not allowed to speak, are constantly tortured, and the women are sexually abused.  It is a savage and sadistic portrayal. There is a feeling that this is presented as a distortion to the soft-sell of Gone with the Wind

About forty minutes in, a ringing cell phone shifts the entire narrative. Eden wakes up, and it is revealed at that she is actually Dr. Veronica Henley, a sociologist and activist, living with her loving husband and daughter in a well-appointed, if sterile, townhouse in present time. Henley flies to New Orleans to promote her new book, Shedding the Coping Persona. Following a dinner with friends, she is abducted and is next seen [spoiler alert] back on the plantation, where she once again is shown fighting for her life.

Antebellum is a twisty thriller in the vein of M. Night Shyamalan, where things are not what they seem. The remainder of the film is watching Veronica/Eden struggle from captive to victor. It is unflinching in its violence and viciousness which is certainly not inappropriate but sometimes feels voyeuristic. 

Writer-directors Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz had a great concept and have directed the film with high style, leaning into this not-quite-real world. Initially, the slow unwinding of the mystery is highly effective.  They present an intriguing premise and drive it with relentless tension. For a good part of the film, there is anticipation with the promise of revelation: a horrifying puzzle that will disclose its solution in due course.

However, the dialogue is stilted and the character development wanting. We never know who these people are; both victims and perpetrators are reduced to types rather than fully realized human beings. Given that Antebellum is offered as part of the horror genre, this would almost be acceptable. However, the film strives to be more. It is trying to make a statement about then and now — about the “unresolved past wreaking havoc on the present.” In this area, it doesn’t quite land. There are nods to the continuing social divide and the subtler forms of racism — a rude concierge, a bad table at a restaurant — but we’re never sure if this is part of the nightmare scenario or the social commentary. Maybe they are suggesting it is both but the lack of clarity muddles the point. There is also a great deal of heavy-handed symbolism that feels very film-school-clever.

Perhaps its biggest flaw is the unsatisfying conclusion. The ending fails to explain what has really happened. The absence of the who and the how make for an ambivalent collapse of the story and serves neither the social argument nor the narrative.

The radiant Janelle Monáe (Moonlight, Hidden Figures, Harriet) anchors the film as Veronica/Eden. Her extraordinary ability makes both worlds believable and present. She navigates the pitfalls, and there is never a wasted gesture. Her performance is a tribute to the economy of good acting, and she makes some of the more dramatic excesses real.

Gabourey Sidibe (best known for her exceptional, award-winning performance in Precious), as Veronica’s gal-pal Dawn, has a vivacity that would seem more at home in a rom-com. However, she infuses her screen time with a much needed energy. Jena Malone (Contact, The Hunger Games series) plays the over-the-top antagonist with great style, but it all feels rather James Bond villain.

Robert Aramayo, as Veronica’s husband, Daniel, is a warm and likable helpmate but he is barely in the movie. As for the rest of the cast, it is composed of slaves and soldiers who are not developed beyond standard tropes. An example is Tongayi Chirisa who makes the most of his few moments, but his story is left in the periphery, and we are never allowed to see who he really is.

Pedro Luque’s cinematography shifts from the lush plantation to the harsh, stark whites of the townhouse, to the murky city night, and back to the plantation. His strong, if on-the-nose, visuals successfully enhance the overall disconnect.

It is inevitable that comparisons with Jordan Peele’s Get Out and Us are going to be made. With those films, the creators skillfully blended horror with social awareness. They told their stories well and that clarity helped to further the commentary without sacrificing the artistry. Ultimately, Antebellum had the potential to transcend genre — but potential unfulfilled. 

Rated R, Antebellum is now on demand.

Ethan Hawke as the visionary Nikola Tesla. Photo from IFC Films

Reviewed By Jeffrey Sanzel

After dropping out of Harvard, writer-director-producer Michael Almereyda got a Hollywood agent based on a spec script about inventor and innovator Nikola Tesla. Tesla now arrives in theaters (and streaming) some three decades later. In the meantime, Almereyda has made over two dozen films, ranging from shorts to feature length to documentaries. He has worked with many of the same actors over the years — in this case reuniting with Ethan Hawke (who starred in Almereyda’s modern-dress Hamlet), Kyle MacLachlan, and Jim Gaffigan.

Kyle MacLachlan plays Thomas Edison, Tesla’s frenemy and rival in the film. Photo from IFC Films

The film is not a complete biopic but instead begins in 1884 when Tesla was unhappily working for Thomas Edison in his workshop. It quickly presents their incompatibility and Tesla’s subsequent embarkation on an independent path. The focus is on the battle between Edison’s direct current and Tesla’s alternate current. (Some of this material was covered in Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s The Current War, which emphasized the business competition between Edison and George Westinghouse with Benedict Cumberbatch as the former, Michael Shannon as the latter, and Nicholas Hoult in the less prominent role of Tesla.)

The structure of Tesla is eclectic. It is narrated by Anne Morgan, daughter of mogul J.P. Morgan, who later bankrolls Tesla. Dressed in period garb, she talks to the camera, referencing her laptop, and siting Google searches. This sets the tone for what is going to be an unconventional structure. The visual elements are highly stylized, with scenes often played out against enlarged photos, painted backdrops, or stock footage.  Sometimes this is highly effective; other times it has the feel of the cheaply made educational films of the 60’s and 70’s.

There is nothing wrong with this strange, theatrical tactic. Often, the unexpected vision or rough approach bring the explored world into a different focus by not enslaving it to its period. The result can present old concepts in new lights. When this fails, works such as these can still succeed as a triumph of style over substance. Unfortunately, Tesla is no triumph. The scenes that are part of the historical narrative are meandering, with a lot of mumbling scientific jargon that is no doubt well-researched and accurate, but make for very slow going.

Tesla should not be a history report: It should engage on some visceral level. The surrounding structure is uniquely artistic and unpredictable; the content plays as pedestrian. The result is like a pie with an amazing and complex crust but a bland, tasteless filling.

There is a wonderful scene that ends in a small food fight between Edison and Tesla. This, like several other moments, are then corrected as only fantasy. The random appearance of a cellphone is a slyly introduced anachronism. This is where the film delights and surprises. The speculation, the what-if’s, and the flights of fancy engage us for a few moments but then we drift back into soporific stupor. There is great deal espoused about idealism versus capitalism and creation versus commerce. All are important concepts but they are not presented in any dramatic fashion.

When Tesla sets up his laboratory at Wardenclyffe in Shoreham, there are enough lightning flashes and electrical storms for half a dozen Frankenstein movies. It is stretches like these that seem to go on with little purpose.

Ethan Hawke makes Tesla a brooding genius, full of tics and OCD. As always, he fully commits to the role and delivers the best he can. But the problem is we never really learn who Tesla is. In many ways, he is a cipher at the center of his own story. Kyle MacLachlan’s Edison is an egotist of epic proportion but allows flashes of doubt to peek through. There are occasional sparks between them and the rivalry between these dysfunctional geniuses offer the strongest sequences. If only there were more.

Eve Hewson’s Anne Morgan is a fully-realized character, the underlying but never spoken love for Tesla a driving factor. She makes the  marveling at his genius and exasperation with his inability to communicate completely natural. Jim Gaffigan is a blowsy and sincere George Westinghouse and loses himself in the character. J.P. Morgan, as played by Donnie Keshawarz, enters late and is a borderline melodrama villain.

Rebecca Dayan as the grand dame of the theatre, Sarah Bernhardt, steers her away from the dangers of caricature, and her fascination with Tesla is intriguing if not fully explored. The rest of the cast are given one note each to play, and they struggle along with the weightier sections of exposition.

There are at least half a dozen electrical references that could be made to cleverly sum-up Tesla — comments about random sparks or broken circuits. But, ultimately, it is much simpler than that: The film just doesn’t work.

Tesla is rated PG-13 for some thematic material and some nudity.

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Photo courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

Disney has raided its vault over the last several years, producing live-action remakes of some of its most successful animated features. These have included Beauty and the Beast, Dumbo, The Lion King, Cinderella, The Jungle Book, and Aladdin. There are others that are in various stages of development:  Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, The Little Mermaid, Hercules, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and Pinocchio

Disney’s latest is Mulan, based on the 1998 cartoon, as well as its source, Ballad of Mulan, by Guo Moaqian.

A scene from the film.

The premise has remained the same. To defend the country from invaders, the Emperor of China decrees that one man from each family must service in the Imperial Army. Disguised as a man, Mulan takes the place of her war-wounded father. It is a story of inner-strength, loyalty, and bravery in the face of fear.

As a soldier, Mulan reaches her full potential and saves the country, earning both the respect of her family and the citizens of the grateful nation. Mulan takes her place with some of Disney’s stronger female characters, including Merida (Brave), Anna and Elsa (Frozen), and Tiana (The Princess and the Frog).

The original version of Mulan has the classic Disney take. While it deals with serious issues, it leans towards the humorous, aimed at younger viewers: a talking dragon sidekick (Eddie Murphy, basically doing his Donkey from Shrek), a cute cricket along for good luck, singing and dancing ancestral ghosts, and a hodgepodge of goofy soldiers.  It builds up to the latter group in drag as concubines, a rather false note in an otherwise entertaining outing that still brings home its messages.

The new version eschews almost all lightness, and, instead, is a more demanding and rough-hewn journey. An added prologue shows the child Mulan and her ability to harness her chi. Chi is defined as “vital energy that is held to animate the body internally.” Here, it is also given an additional mystical context, one in this world that is only associated with men, and, in particular, warriors. Mulan is discouraged by her family to show this power, but it is of value when unleashed in her male persona, Hua Jun.

A great deal of the first half of the film is taken up with the training of the soldiers. Just as in the cartoon, they are taught and challenged and Mulan’s skill and power comes to the surface. This is followed by multiple battles before the final confrontation.

A scene from the film.

The invaders are lead by Bori Khan, a Rouran warrior leader, who is bent on avenging his father’s death, a man who was slain by the Emperor. His followers are black clad villains who look like Ninja’s by way of Sons of Anarchy. They are being assisted by Xian Lang, a shapeshifting witch with extraordinary abilities; she serves as a sort of mirror image to Mulan. Unfortunately, the interesting parallel is introduced but never fully developed. Unlike the whimsical supernatural components of the original, here they are powerful and often deadly. It is unfortunate that, along with the parallels between Mulan and the witch, they are all left a bit vague.

Mulan also plays a great emphasis on the importance of family. Both versions show this but it is stronger in the new incarnation.  The fact that the romantic element from the first film has been removed — there is a faint hint of it — focuses Mulan’s desire to honor family above all else, from beginning to end.

The design is bold and colorful (its biggest nod towards its Disney root), and the settings, shot in China and New Zealand, are expansive and beautiful. Whether village, training camp, or the breathtaking Imperial Palace, there is a wealth of detail. Nothing in the film feels CGI and that is a big point in its favor. It all feels very present.

The cast is uniformly strong and all involved are committed to the material and the world in which the story takes place.  The performances come across as honest and, while the dialogue is limited, there is an integrity.

Liu Yifei (center), as Mulan, in a scene from the film.

Liu Yifei is superb as Mulan and strikes just the right quality in her alternate guise; she carries the film with the right mix of struggle and pride. Donnie Yen’s Commander Tung makes the Imperial Army leader human. As the almost-love interest, Chen Honghui, Yoson An is easygoing and earnest, in equal turns. Gong Li makes the most of the underwritten witch. Jason Scott Lee’s Bori Khan is a villain with a capital V. Jet Li’s Emperor is both regal and compassionate. Tzi Ma and Rosalind Chao do well with their limited screen time as Mulan’s concerned but loving parents. The assorted recruits are played well-enough but are more types than fully-realized individuals.

Both original and remake were written by a team of writers. Here Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, Lauren Hynek, and Elizabeth Martin have taken elements of the 1998 but have fashioned a very different product. They have wisely removed the handful of songs and used them as underscoring as the current version would have made a rather peculiar musical. Niki Caro has directed it with a sure and bold hand. The team have brought out the important theme of the equality of women from a modern point-of-view — but that is in the film’s favor.

The biggest question comes down to this:  Who is the audience? It is certainly too dark and too violent for young children. There are many battles with multiple deaths in each one. And while we never see a drop of blood, plenty are shot through with arrows or felled by sword and spear. But adults might find it all too simplistic. There isn’t a great deal of suspense and, with few exceptions, the scenes play to forgone conclusions.

Mulan is sincere and epic and, for the most part, entertaining. Its messages of loyalty and fairness are strong and important. It is stunning to look at and well-acted. But it will remain a film in search of its audience.

Rated  PG-13, Mulan is now streaming on Disney Plus.

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Tatyana McFadden of the United States competes in the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games in 2016. Photo by Matthew Stockman

Reviewed By Jeffrey Sanzel

The new Netflix documentary Rising Phoenix is a poignantly heartfelt and honest look at the Paralympics. But, first and last, is about athletes. They face challenges that are sometimes unfathomable, but their goals and their drive are a tribute to the passion for success and the will of the human spirit. There is no better or more powerful example of turning negatives into positives.

The Paralympic games are populated by a range of differently-able athletes, and they have grown to be the third largest sporting event in the world, drawing thousands of participants from over one hundred countries. Prince Harry, who founded the wounded warrior Invictus Games, observes that you are watching something “you’ve been taught is impossible.”

Focusing on nine athletes from seven different countries, this is an exceptional film.  The documentary alternates between interviews with the athletes, footage of them competing, and archival clips of them throughout their lives. It is some of the latter shots that stay with the viewer as they often trace the athletes from infancy and childhood through the present day, offering a glimpse into their incredible paths.

In addition, three past and present members of the International Paralympic Committee —Andrew Parsons, Sir Philip Craven, and Xavier Gonzalez — give insight into the difficulties and challenges of organization and funding, most notably with the Rio Olympics of 2016.

Throughout, the history of the Paralympics is introduced in short spurts, much through interviews with its founder’s daughter, Eva Loeffler. The seed for the games was sown by Loeffler’s father Dr. Ludwig Guttmann, a German-Jewish refugee, who brought his family to England in 1939. Guttmann, a neurosurgeon, began treating soldiers with spinal injuries. Their plight and his work with them inspired him to create a sports competition at the Stoke Mandeville Hospital.

The first, with sixteen participants, was held to coincide with the 1948 Olympics; the second was held in 1952. It was the latter that welcomed the first international competitors, with the addition of Dutch and Israeli veterans.  It was these Stoke Mandeville Games that were the precursor of the first official Paralympic Games, held in Rome in 1960. From then on, the games grew in size and fame. Since 1988, the Paralympics have almost always been held immediately following the Olympics.

Rising Phoenix does not explain in detail the structure of the event nor does it detail the breakdown of categories. (Because of the wide variety of disabilities that Paralympic athletes have, there are actually ten eligible impairment types.) Instead, the creators wisely focus on individual athletes with a variety of backgrounds and challenges.

The title of the film is taken from Bebe Vio, a young Italian athlete who competes in wheelchair fencing. Already a successful competitor, she was struck with meningitis at age eleven which caused the necessity of the amputation of both her arms and legs. But, like the phoenix, she rose again and returned to her passion.  Her moments on camera are some of the most vivid; her drive and enthusiasm are mesmerizing. She is fully present, practically leaping off the screen.

Each narrative is unique but the bond that connects them is the will to play and to play to win.

Tatyana McFadden was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, afflicted with spina bifida, paralyzed from the waist down. The earliest part of her life was in Orphanage Number 13. She had no wheelchair and had to scoot across the floor. In 1993, at age six, she was adopted by an American family. With unflagging parental support, she was encouraged to pursue her athletic passions. She and her family sued for the right to participate in high school sports. The winning of the case ushered in the Sports and Fitness Equity Law.

McFadden has dozens of awards and holds multiple world records — a fact brought in during an interview clip from the Ellen DeGeneres show. At a Winter Paralympics, we see her reunited with her birth mother. (It should be noted, that McFadden is also one of the producers of Rising Phoenix.)

Great Britain’s Jonnie Peacock is shown beating the famous and now infamous Oscar Pistorius in the 100 meter. Australian swimmer Ellie Cole lost her leg to cancer at age ten but is one of the top swimmers in this world competition. Matt Stutzman, of the U.S., is an archer born without arms; he tells the story of his adoption and the love of his siblings. Cui Zhe, a Chinese powerlifter, speaks of the improved attitude towards the disabled since the Beijing 2008 Olympics and subsequent Paralympics.

Because of a wealth of pictures and family video, we get a real portrait into the arc of Australian Ryley Batt’s journey. Born missing both legs and several fingers, it was the love of his grandfather and the man’s belief in him that gave him the support that he needed. A fierce player and a self-described adrenaline junkie, he had many highs and lows but has risen through the ranks of wheelchair rugby — appropriately nicknamed “murderball.”

Ntando Mahlangu, of South Africa, speaks of the shame of a family having a disabled child. The Cheetah blades on which he runs enabled him to look people in the eye after twenty years in a wheelchair. These prosthetics have given him the freedom and joy of movement. 

Possibly the most gut-wrenching story belongs to Jean-Baptiste Alaize. At three years old, Alaize’s leg was cut-off with a machete during the Burundian Civil War; he then watched the murder of his mother. He spent the next number of years in an orphanage before being adopted by a French family. For him, running has been part of his escape. “Falling and getting back up again is life.” The film captures his pain but also his surviving courage.

The film builds up to the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Paralympics that almost didn’t happen. Due to financial mismanagement, the Brazilian Olympic committee had used money designated for the Paralympics towards the Olympics themselves. Just weeks before, there was the danger of cancellation. The film’s telling of this is done with the fluidity and tension of a thriller. Fortunately, through last-minute machinations, the event went forward.

Directors Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui and cinematographer Will Pugh have done flawless work creating a tapestry of rich and diverse stories with a unified theme:  Giving up is never an option.

The use of slow-motion and replay along with Greco-statues of the nine participants further elevate this from a traditional documentary. They don’t ignore the darker aspects — the often lack of respect or inclusion — but they celebrate all that is wonderful. They honor the hundreds and often thousands of hours of training, of winning and losing, and of making what seems impossible is possible. The viewer can’t help but be drawn in and deeply, deeply moved by this cinematic achievement.

As Jean-Baptiste Alaize states:  “My disability is my strength.”  Rising Phoenix more than just pays tribute to an important world event.  It shares the faces and the voices of people who truly understand the intersection of diversity and excellence.

Rated PG-13, Rising Phoenix is now streaming on Netflix.

Micheál Richardson and Liam Neeson in a scene from the film.

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

The history of literature, theatre, film, and television is charged with the division between fathers and sons. It has shown the pain and the humor, the discord and the disconnect, the hurt and the healing. It has often been done with great skill and sensitivity.

Spoiler alert: Made in Italy isn’t one of them.

Corollary Spoiler alert: There’s nothing to spoil.

Micheál Richardson and Liam Neeson in a scene from the film.

To say Made in Italy is the definition of predictable is an insult to all of the predictable films that have been … predictable. The film is being presented as a comedy-drama. This is true in that there is comedy and that there is drama. However, it is not so much blended as it is thrown together like two unrelated forms.  Think mustard and sparkplugs.

The plot is simple. In London, twenty-something Jack Foster’s wife is divorcing him. He stands to lose his half of the gallery that they had managed together but which had belonged to her family. His only hope is to get his estranged father, Robert (a dysfunctional artist) to agree to sell the Tuscan house which they co-own. When they arrive, they discover the house is as neglected as their relationship. (How’s that for a metaphor? Do you think that maybe they’ll fix-up the house and rediscover the familial bond?) Over the next hour and thirty minutes, “secrets” (note the quotes; more to come) are “revealed.” (More quotes.)

Robert’s wife has died in a car accident years before. This event has driven a wedge between father and son. It’s not so much that Robert can’t communicate; it’s that he won’t.  At first, he appears difficult and unpleasant but that goes by the wayside fairly quickly so he can be “wise” and “witty.” Jack and Robert’s relationship seems to be built on omission. Or maybe it’s just the script left things out — things like dimension and character motivation. But don’t worry, there’s some “funny” stuff with spaghetti.

Jack meets the village’s local restaurant owner, Natalia, who has a tense relationship with her ex-husband and a custody struggle over their daughter. Love springs between Jack and Natalia. Instantly.

There is slapstick. There are tears. There is forced laughter but little genuine mirth. The whole thing feels like a bad Hallmark connect-the-dots — or in this case, paint-by-numbers. The only thing more banal than the narrative is the dialogue that alternates between forced sitcom jokes and “deep” comments like “people are no good at seeing themselves.” (“Deep,” huh?)

There’s the standard beautiful Italian scenery juxtaposed with the whole range of rundown Money Pit jokes, with requisite dust, dirt, rusty water, and a weasel living in the bathroom. The fact that they are able to fix the house in what seems to be two days is due to myriad montages.

Liam Neeson, Costanza Amati, Valeria Bilello and Micheál Richardson in a scene from the film. Photo courtesy of IFC Films

A mural that Robert painted in his darkest hour is on the main wall of the house. It is discussed, commented upon, and joked about. It represents the pain that Robert felt when he lost his wife. We know this because he tells us. So much for symbols or trusting your audience. Robert has hardened himself to his feelings. But has he? Robert cares about nothing.  But wait, does he? Robert can’t deal with his son? But hold on, can he? And more “stuff.” (Last quotes.) Cue laughter. Cue tears. Cue revelations. Set up a conflict and then solve it instantly. Moving on. Nothing to see here. Literally. (Except the mural and the scenery.)

The responsibility for this unsavory stew falls squarely on first time writer-director James D’Arcy who has not succeeded as director but has failed as a writer. Any salvageable moments are due to Liam Neeson, as Robert; Neeson is an actor incapable of giving a bad performance. He does his best to infuse Robert with a bit of life and has been given a few substantial comedic and dramatic moments.

Neeson’s real-life son, Micheál Richardson, plays Jack. Whether his awkwardness is intentional or not, it kinda-sorta works (maybe a little). Valeria Bilello is charming as Natalia, but the character has truly nothing new to offer. Lindsay Duncan makes the most of the no-nonsense realtor, Kate, who is engaged to sell the house. She is a great actor and one wishes she had been given more to do. There are several people who come to look at the house and a few generic villagers; they have been handed what could charitably be called caricatures.

Finally, one can’t help thinking of the vague and truly uncomfortable life parallel. Neeson’s wife and Micheál’s mother was the gifted actor Natasha Richardson, who died tragically from head injuries sustained in a skiing accident in 2009. The shadow of this does a disservice to her memory, and somehow feels inappropriate and diminishing. While one would hope the creators’ were not using this particularly terrible event as a core, you can’t help but wonder. The reality is there and really can’t be denied. It is a sour coda to an unsatisfying film.

Rated R, Made in Italy is now streaming on demand.

Dixie Egerickx in a scene from the film. Photo courtesy of STXfilms

Reviewed By Jeffrey Sanzel

British-American novelist Frances Hodgson Burnett wrote three dozen novels for children. Of these, the best known were Little Lord Fauntleroy, A Little Princess, and The Secret Garden, all published between 1885 and 1911. While the first two have had various cinematic incarnations, it is The Secret Garden that has endured, in remakes on film and television over a half dozen times. It was also the source for the 1991 Tony-nominated Broadway musical.

Amir Wilson, Edan Hayhurst and Dixie Egerickx in a scene from the film. 

Set at the turn of the 20th century, The Secret Garden has a dark narrative and, interestingly, a difficult and selfish protagonist. Unlike the title characters in Fauntleroy and Princess, Mary Lennox is a willful, headstrong child; she is indulged by her servants and used to getting her own way. After her parents die of the cholera in India, Mary is sent to live at Misselthwaite Manor, an isolated mansion on the Yorkshire moors. There she is to live with her Uncle Archibald Craven, whom she has never met. Archibald is a damaged and distant widower, brooding over the loss of his beloved wife.

Mary learns that her behavior will not be tolerated and is forced to become more self-sufficient and respectful. Hearing sobbing in the night, she discovers the invalid boy, Colin, who is kept hidden away. Told that he is too frail to be out in the world, Colin is another self-absorbed and difficult child. It is a story of deception and despair as well as hope, growth, and awakening; the titular garden is a metaphor for death and rebirth.

The current adaptation is directed by Marc Munden, from a screenplay by Jack Thorne.  (Thorne is responsible for last season’s Broadway production of A Christmas Carol, an introspective, intriguing, and literate vision.) The creators have moved the action to 1947, the eve of the partition between India and Pakistan. This was a time of deep unrest as thousands fled conflict and disease.

The opening sequences accentuate Mary’s abandonment, with the house in disarray; she listens to the not-so-distant sounds of gunshots, forced to fend for herself. She eats rotting food and drinks tea dregs, telling herself and her doll tales of the Indian gods.  Her ability to tell stories is one that follows through the rest of the narrative.

Colin Firth in a scene from the film.

Next, she is put on a sort of Indian Kindertransport and sent to England. She arrives at Misselthwaite, which looms like a haunted Downton Abbey. The house is in disrepair, having been used as a hospital during the war. She is warned by the housekeeper, Mrs. Medlock, not to go “poking about.” The film then begins to follow the novel: Mary wandering around the vast, empty rooms, eventually discovering the temperamental Colin, a boy whose manners are worse than hers. What ensues is Mary’s healing herself through her healing of Colin. She goes from spoiled and demanding (she won’t even dress herself) to generous and self-reliant. It is a predictable journey but a good lesson for younger viewers.

The Secret Garden is not a plot driven piece but is more rooted in character and atmosphere. Different versions focus on the personal struggles; others highlight the more fantastical elements. In the current offering, it is a mix, with emphasis placed equally on the relationship of Mary’s and Colin’s mothers, who were twins. They are seen in flashbacks as well as spirit guides in the present. The garden itself is an almost mystical jungle, an idyll with oversized plants and hundreds of CGI-ed butterflies. Lights dapple on moss-covered trees as the verdant bower explodes in vivid color.

In Thorne’s screenplay, Mary learns almost too quickly to say “please.” There isn’t much an arc as instantaneous awareness. Within a day of her arrival, she has befriended a stray dog, and there are many shots of them running on the grounds to the strains of Disney-like accompaniment. It is the dog that leads her to the secret garden. 

The acceleration of action is a problem that could be leveled at the entire film.  Development is rushed to get to the next grand image. There are many fantasy moments (wallpaper that comes to life, the sisters appearing and disappearing, etc.) but seeing the characters interacting would have made for more of an emotional investment.

Dixie Egerickx is an engrossing Mary Lennox. She’s a rough-and-tumble survivor and never has a false moment. There is always a sense that she is taking everything in; she is a wonderful mix of spontaneity and thoughtfulness. Amir Wilson makes an honest, vaguely feral Dickon, brother to the housemaid Martha (a solid but underused Isis Davis); a sort of local “wild boy,” he and Mary clear the garden together and form a deep bond.

Edan Hayhurst’s Colin is a bit shrill and one-note but that is the nature of the character; he does manage a nice shift in his ultimate awakening. The usually formidable Julie Walters doesn’t have much to do as the sour Mrs. Medlock; she clomps up and down stairs, opening and closing doors, and jangling her keys.

Colin Firth is a terrific actor and the tormented Archibald should have been an ideal match for his skills. Sadly, he has barely any screen time, appearing briefly on Mary’s arrival and then disappearing for the next hour. He has a few nice moments (in particular, in his late wife’s room) but it’s just not enough. Archibald is a fascinating character with dimensional possibilities that are sadly unexplored. His absence tamps down any real build in tension, and what should be his climactic reunion with his son Colin is less than cathartic. It doesn’t help that it is brought about by a clumsy, melodramatic twist.

The Secret Garden touches on many themes.  At its heart, it is about how forgiveness — of both others and of ourselves — leads to understanding. In this case, incomplete families become whole by embracing truths that have been kept hidden. Painful memories come to light and this leads to acceptance and growth. And while the newest version of The Secret Garden is certainly not definitive, it is visually striking and has a bold, believable Mary its center.

Rated PG, The Secret Garden is now streaming on demand.

Photos courtesy of STXfilms