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Movie Review

Elisabeth Moss (Cecilia) in a scene from the film. Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures

By Jeffrey Sanzel

H.G. Wells’ 1897 science fiction novel The Invisible Man is the story of Griffin, a former doctor, who has invented chemicals that changes a body’s optics and renders the individual invisible. Whether from the process itself or the inability to reverse it, Griffin becomes unhinged and homicidal. 

Over the years, there have been various adaptations, most notably the 1933 film starring Claude Rains, which most closely followed its source. Sequels, spinoffs, and spoofs have traded on the concept with varying success.

Harriet Dyer (Emily) and Elisabeth Moss (Cecilia) in a scene from the film.

Written and directed by Leigh Whannell, the current version of The Invisible Man focuses on abused wife Cecilia Kass (Elisabeth Moss), married to Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), a world leader in the field of optics.  

The film opens with Cecilia narrowly escaping her violent husband and taking shelter with her sister Emily’s (Harriet Dyer) ex-husband James (Aldis Hodge), a San Francisco police detective. Two weeks later, Cecilia is informed that Adrian has committed suicide and left her a trust of five million dollars. 

Clearly, Adrian is not dead but has found a way to make himself invisible and Cecilia’s life begins to unravel. She knows this but, of course, no one will believe her. Adrian had warned her that “wherever I went, he would find me … that he would walk right up to me and I wouldn’t be able to see him … but he would leave me a sign so that I’d know he was there.”

The film is a traditional thriller, with all of the tropes, including the Kass house which is part tech laboratory, part museum, mostly glass, and all horror movie. Every movement is accented with an ominous chord; every sound — whether the flipping of a light switch or the gush of a faucet — is amplified. The camera slowly pans on vacant rooms and holds on empty corners. There are no surprises in its “surprises.”

Elisabeth Moss and Oliver Jackson-Cohen (Adrian) in a scene from the film.

But what makes the engine go is Elisabeth Moss, an always watchable actor, with just the right mix of classic Scream Queen and self-actualized modern woman. For the first twenty minutes, her character isn’t given much more to do but look around her, behind her, and over her shoulder. But somehow she endows it all with enough manic energy to make it believable. 

Like all horror movie heroines, at first Cecilia thinks she is going crazy (as do all of the people around her). When she realizes what is happening, it all falls into place and she goes on the offensive. As Adrian destroys Cecilia’s life, including framing her for murder, the stronger and more self-reliant she becomes. A life-altering revelation furthers her resolve. 

The majority of the film moves along as a psychological thriller and doesn’t resort to mild gore and special effects until well into the second half. This is a smart choice as floating objects, no matter how well executed, have a certain humor about them.

There are some nice touches that suggest Adrian’s presence: an exhaled breath in the cold night air, a dent in a chair cushion, a bloody fingerprint on a medicine bottle. These small strokes make up for many of the plot holes that are often found in horror movies. The climax is a predictable showdown but the denouement is satisfying enough.

While the film is practically a one-person vehicle, the supporting cast do the best they can. Hodge is likable as the friend. Dyer is relatable as the sister. Michael Dorman is given the unenviable task of Adrian’s sleazy jellyfish of a brother, Tom, who also served as his lawyer. Jackson-Cohen as the sociopathic Adrian barely has any screen time and is reduced to a few disembodied lines.

The Invisible Man will never be considered a great movie, and, for many, not even a good one. Even as a genre film, it doesn’t touch some of the contemporary classics like Halloween, Carrie, Get Out, The Babadook, and Let the Right One In. But for a star performance and a well-paced two hours, The Invisible Man entertains.

Rated R, The Invisible Man is now streaming online.

Winston Duke and Mark Wahlberg in a scene from the film. Photo by Daniel McFadden/Netflix

By Jeffrey Sanzel

Netflix began as a DVD rental source before it moved into streaming. Eventually, it began to produce its own material, including some exceptional films, series, and specials. These have included Beasts of No Nation, Roma, Mudbound, Orange Is the New Black, House of Cards, Stranger Things, and recently The Irishman and Marriage Story. Not everything has been this intense: Glow, Dear White People, and John Mulaney and the Sack Lunch Bunch, among many other smart, amusing offerings. It is unfortunate that Netflix now offers the disappointing action comedy Spenser Confidential. 

Spenser Confidential is loosely based on Ace Atkins’ novel Wonderland, with characters created by Robert B. Parker. Here, the responsible parties are Peter Berg (director) and Sean O’Keefe and Brian Helgeland (screenplay).

Mark Walhberg plays Boston police officer Spenser who is now being released from five years in prison for assaulting his captain (a stock villain played by Michael Gaston). While at first it seems that Spenser’s sole motivation was breaking up a domestic dispute, it is gradually revealed that there is more to it than just the captain’s mistreatment of his wife.  

On the day of Spenser’s release, the captain is murdered. The suspicion falls on a dirty cop who appears to have killed himself over it. Spenser seems to be the only one who suspects that all is not what it seems.  While all he wants to do is learn how to drive big rigs and move out to Arizona (!), he realizes that he is the only honest man in Boston and capable of seeing what no one else does. He sets out on a quest to clear the deceased officer’s disgraced memory. He teams up with his new roommate, Hawk, a gentle giant who had gone to prison for manslaughter. They are, of course, a caricature of a mismatch; while it tries, hilarity does not ensue.  

What follows is a plot that includes a host of standard tropes including a corrupt police force, white supremacists, gang violence, goons-for-hire, drug trafficking, and shady business at the soon-to-be-built casino, Wonderland. There is the obligatory “cops like doughnuts” joke and a boxing montage.  Spenser even provides lists for the camera reading “Who killed him?” and makes bold statements like, “I couldn’t let it go.” 

The tone strips its gears as it shifts between sitcom and deadly serious. A vicious dog attack is played as slapstick in this bizarre mix of real and cartoon violence. Perhaps there was an attempt to make this a common man as super hero vehicle — there are various references to Spenser as Batman — but there is no follow-through on that concept either. The jokey moments come across as precious, with glib quips often followed by an exceptionally ugly moment. It is not impossible to pull off this seemingly incongruent blend; the Dirty Harry movies did it brilliantly. Spenser Confidential doesn’t even try. It just lopes along, leaving a trail (and trial) of clichés. 

Mark Wahlberg is the star and obviously the only reason for the film being made; he appears in nearly every one of the one hundred and eleven minutes. He has a natural ease and, with a better script, he could have used his warmth to offset the character’s anger. But his Spenser (“a Boston cawp with a tempah”) seems to be a relic from television of the 70’s and his rage comes with a wink, making it all seem phony. 

As we now live in an age of complex anti-heroes — Tony Soprano, Walter White, Saul Goodman — Spenser comes across as insufferably self-righteous and squeaky clean. He is constantly spouting aphorisms about honesty and integrity and “doing the right thing.” The movie lacks subtlety and much of this can be attributed to Wahlberg’s mostly two-dimensional performance. Perhaps the character’s constant need to be liked, even when punching or being punched, is at the root of the problem. The writers failed to give Spenser any genuine emotional texture and this prevents him from engaging us.

For the most part, the supporting cast, with a few exceptions, are interchangeable.  Alan Arkin is fine if a bit low energy; he does what he usually does but there is a vague sense that he is walking through it.  

Winston Duke has a certain charm but his Hawk seems never committed to being one thing or another, floating through the story as a generic sidekick. The only thing we learn is that he likes animals; this doesn’t seem enough to flesh out a character who is basically to the second lead. 

Iliza Shlesinger is Spenser’s on-again off-again girlfriend, Cissy, a dog groomer with an attitude. She manages to make the most of what she is given, finding a few of the film’s only real laughs. Her scene with Spenser in a restaurant bathroom is particularly funny and tells us everything we need to know about their relationship.  (It should be noted that this scene, along with the violence and the language, are what would earn this an R rating.) 

Overall, the Boston accents fade in and out like the hackneyed desaturated flashbacks. At nearly two hours, it is overstuffed. Trimmed down to eighty minutes would not have solved the many problems but it would have eliminated the movie’s repetitiveness.  It is obvious from the final moments that the intention is to launch a series of films centered on Spenser and Company. Like Spenser Confidential¸ they will be for Mark Wahlberg fans only. If even them.

Spenser Confidential is now streaming on Netflix.

Mia Goth, left, as Harriet Smith with Anya Taylor-Joy as Emma Woodhouse in a scene from the film. Photo courtesy of Focus Features

By Jeffrey Sanzel

Jane Austen’s 1815 novel Emma is a sardonic comedy of manners that swirls around issues of love, marriage and social status. While perhaps not as popular as Pride and Prejudice, it has seen multiple stage, screen and television adaptations, most notably with the Emmas of Gwyneth Paltrow, Kate Beckinsale and Alicia Silverstone (renamed Cher) in Clueless, which moved the action to 1990s California. While its mischievous wit is unmatchable, there is a real commentary about human nature that underlies its humor. 

Directed by Autumn de Wilde, from a screenplay by Eleanor Catton, Emma. has arrived, complete with a full-stop at the end of its title. (This is to indicate it is a “period” piece.) It is lush and rich and comical, with just a hint of a modern sensibility to separate it from its predecessors.  

Austen opens the novel with a description of her complicated heroine:

Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.

This tongue-in-cheek portrait sets up one of the most meddling characters in all of English literature. Following closely to the book, the film opens with Emma having just succeeded at matchmaking her governess. With a taste for this endeavor, she now sets her sites on marrying off her friend Harriet Smith, a simple girl who is easily swayed by Emma’s every suggestion. What follows is a series of courtships and broken engagements, mismatches and misunderstandings, almost all due to Emma’s destructive and misplaced interferences. Like most comedic novels of this nature, it ends happily with multiple pairings, marriage being the ultimate goal.

The film’s peripatetic beginning has an almost farcical feel. The scenes are short, clipped and over-the-top. There are a good many laughs but it takes at least 20 minutes to land for more than a few moments. Ultimately, this is an intentional device. As the film progresses, this whimsical conceit shifts to an earnestness that matches Emma’s maturity. From childishly frenetic to wisely focused, the film and its protagonist grow. The true turning point comes when an off-hand barb wounds deeply. Confronted for her behavior, she realizes that it is time to look beyond herself. It is amazing that as the film begins to breathe in its journey, it picks up momentum: It slows to go quickly.

The performances are uniformly excellent. Emma’s father, who is equally afraid of drafts as he is of being alone, is played with perfect understatement by the redoubtable Bill Nighy; with the simple raise of an eyebrow, he manages to steal every scene in which he appears. Callum Turner avoids the clichés as he finds dimension in the seemingly narcistic Frank Churchill. Chloe Pirrie as Emma’s sister and Oliver Chris as her brother-in-law are one of cinema’s most hilariously unhappy couples. Myra McFayden’s chatterbox of a Mrs. Bates reveals painful dimension in her humility. Rupert Graves as the jolly if slightly flustered Mr. Weston is matched by Gemma Whelan as his self-assured wife. Mia Goth hits the right notes of naivete as Harriet Smith, the unfortunate object of Emma’s machinations. Josh O’Connor and Tanya Reynolds are amusingly vulgar as the minister and his new bride. Amber Anderson does the best she can with the underwritten Jane Fairfax. Connor Swindells’ innocent gentleman farmer infuses his few moments with genuine sweetness.  

At the center of the film is Anya Taylor-Joy, luminous and wholly engaging as Emma. Taylor-Joy manages to be both insufferable and charming at the outset and then finds a natural and touching shift to self-awareness, ultimately embracing her adulthood. Even in stillness, there is a sense of Emma’s ever whirring brain. Johnny Flynn’s George Knightley is appropriately wry and astute, the pain in his growing love for Emma becoming the film’s center.

Christopher Blauvelt’s sumptuous cinematography has made every frame a celebration of Regency England. The film is lavish and credit must be given to the design team: Kave Quinn (production design), Alice Sutton (art direction), Stella Fox (set decoration) and, especially, Alexandra Byrne (for flawless and Oscar-bait costume design).

This Emma. is wonderfully conceived and thoroughly entertaining. It is a reminder of why Jane Austen is a cinematic favorite and why her works — and insights — are still fresh 200 years later. Rated PG.

Harrison Ford and his digitally rendered best friend in a scene from the film.

By Jeffrey Sanzel

Published in 1903, Jack London’s novella Call of the Wild has become a classic, read by people of all ages. Set in the Yukon during the 1890s Gold Rush, it follows the adventures of Buck, a dog stolen and sold. The book shows Buck’s gradual shift from domestication to feral, a portrait of the power and influence of nature and environment. It is a vivid and brutal story of survival, with animals given human thoughts. Film adaptations began with the 1923 silent movie with notable versions in 1935 (starring Clark Gable), 1972, 1981 and 1997.

Now Chris Sanders, in his live-action debut, has directed a script by Michael Green.  Using the book’s inciting incidents and cherry-picking elements of the story, this is a gentler, friendlier and more politically correct manifestation, dropping many of the book’s violent episodes and removing the particularly anti-Native American sections.

The story begins as the book’s did. Buck, a St. Bernard/Scotch collie, lives in Santa Clara, California, with his master, Judge Miller (a nice cameo by Bradley Whitford). After being stolen and shipped north, he is sold into the service of a mail-delivering dogsled team. 

Run by two kind French Canadians (played charmingly if only slightly over the top by Omar Sy and Cara Gee), Buck finds joy and fulfillment in becoming part of the pack. He runs into trouble with the vicious pack leader, a husky named Spitz (who comes across like a ferocious Mean Girl). Buck vanquishes Spitz and takes his place. 

Buck’s growth in his new position results in several rescues, whereby he earns love, loyalty and appreciation. During his journey, he has visions of a wolf, full eyes a-blazing, evidently symbolizing his deeper connection to his ancestral roots.

When the mail route is replaced by the telegraph, Buck and his compatriots are sold to Hal (Dan Stevens practically twirling his moustache). This is the film’s most resounding false note with villains who seem to have been lifted from One Hundred and One Dalmatians.  

Buck is rescued by Jack Thornton (Harrison Ford, full on grizzle). Buck and Thornton had crossed paths earlier and now forge a deep bond. Thornton is running from his demons:  the loss of his son that led to the crumbling of his marriage and an apparent drinking problem. Buck’s companionship on a journey further north brings Thornton back to life. Harrison, who also serves as narrator, finds humor and depth throughout, and his love for his newfound friend is wholly believable.

The tone and style of this Call of the Wild harkens back to the Wonderful World of Disney of the 1970s. The sense of adventure is a wholesomeness one; its heart beat is the joys of nature with only a few and fairly minor moments of real ferocity. The film never fully embraces the question of domestication versus the savage and untamed, making the deeper animal instincts into something gently spiritual rather than instinctual.  

The main cavil is with the CGI. Buck — and all of the animals in the film, including every dog, wolf, bird, rabbit, fish and caribou — have an odd, almost cartoonish feel. It is clear that the creators have made a choice to anthropomorphize, giving the dogs in particular human-like expressions. It is a choice and one that almost works in context — certainly better than it did in the recent Lion King. And these dogs are far more honest than the humans embarrassingly cavorting in the disastrous Cats. That the dogs don’t ever fully blend into the universe is also due in part to settings that also seem primarily CGI. Often, it feels like a Yukon virtual reality ride.  

Ultimately, these complaints don’t negate the film. Call of the Wild is engaging from beginning to end. It tells its story fluidly, with a wide-eyed sincerity. It has plenty of thrills and is touching and sweet in its more pastoral scenes. And while it never truly emulates nature, the film is certainly a celebration of family entertainment. 

Rated PG, Call of the Wild is now playing in local theaters

Photos courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox


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Will Ferrell and Julia Louise-Dreyfus in a scene from the film. Photo courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

By Jeffrey Sanzel

At the outset, the most important thing to know going into this movie is that it has been mismarketed as a black comedy. It doesn’t help that the two stars of Downhill are known for their exceptional work in the world of film and television: Will Ferrell and Julia Louis-Dreyfus are iconic comedic actors. Their reputations are not of great help in the context of this drama of a marriage in jeopardy. Yes, there are flashes of humor but they are few and appropriately dark.  The occasional attempts at traditional comedy are intrusive. There are few of these but when they appear, they are jarring.

Directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, with a screenplay co-written by Faxon, Rash and Jesse Armstrong, Downhill is a remake of the 2014 Swedish comedy-drama Force Majeure.

A scene from the film. Photo courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

Pete and Billie Staunton (Ferrell and Louis-Dreyfus) have brought their two sons (nicely understated Julian Grey and Ammon Jacob Ford) to a ski resort in the Alps. Pete is still mourning the passing of his father eight months prior; the father was a travel agent who never traveled. Clearly, Pete has inherited some of his stasis. Even before the film’s inciting event, the marriage seems frayed.

At the beginning of the vacation, while sitting in an outdoor restaurant, they are subjected to a small avalanche. Rather than protecting his children, Pete grabs his cell phone and runs. This action drives the rest of the film.  What follows is the unraveling of the marriage as Billie simmers before reaching a boiling point. In one of the stronger moments, Louis-Dreyfus recalls the experience, unleashing a torrent of anger and pain. Underneath this is the desperation of someone who no longer recognizes her partner of over two decades.

The plot is simple but Ferrell and Louis-Dreyfus manage to be fully present in this couple’s emotional turmoil and are able to convey their deep inner conflicts. 

The supporting cast fares less well. Miranda Otto’s aggressive hotel hostess is an annoyingly predictable hedonist. She is a caricature, saddled with the film’s coarse jokes. It is she who sets Billie up with a sexy but understanding ski instructor (Giulio Berruti); whether he is intended to be a parody is not clear. 

Will Ferrell and Julia Louise-Dreyfus in a scene from the film. Photo courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

Serving as a plot device are Pete’s co-worker (Zach Woods) and his girlfriend (Zoë Chao), a younger couple who are enjoying the freedom of an adventurous and unplanned journey across Europe. It is hard to judge if their initial pretentiousness is intentional or incidental. Discussions of what is “better than decent” and “live your best life” because “every day is all we have” swirl around the film. Like the title, the metaphors are obvious and heavy-handed. Much is made of isolation and the cold and “going solo.” It is all too on-the-nose.

The film works best in its silent moments.  The tension that plays between Ferrell and Louis-Dreyfus is honest and brittle. It is when the film tries to explain itself that it falls down the slope. The mostly banal dialogue never approaches the subtlety of its two leads.

Sadly, the solution is rushed and more than a trifle facile. However, the film’s final moment is a the true resolution; it is smart, surprising, and resonant. It is a strong “aha” for a film that never fully finds its way.  

On a positive note, Danny Cohen’s cinematography is exquisite and he creates an atmosphere that is at once idyllic and melancholy. 

The film’s promise rested in its leads, playing against a breathtaking backdrop. If only they had been given less to say and more to do.

Rated R, Downhill is now playing in local theaters.

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Lucy Hale, Austin Stowell and Michael Peña in a scene from the film. Photo by Christopher Moss/Columbia Pictures

By Jeffrey Sanzel

Few who lived through the late-seventies to mid-eighties could avoid an awareness of the two cultural − and, ultimately, cult − monoliths that dominated Saturday night television: The Love Boat (nine seasons; 1977 to 1987) and Fantasy Island (seven seasons; 1977 to 1984). Both were introduced in TV movies, played on ABC, and boasted a parade of guest stars, ranging in both level of celebrity and talent.

Each episode of Fantasy Island, the darker of the pair, featured two to three separate stories. The island’s visitors all came away wiser if a bit bruised from the experience. The theme, week after week, was clearly “careful what your wish for.”

Entering the realm of iconography was the spritely Hervé Villechaize as Tattoo, and his cry of “The plane! The plane!” This was complimented by Ricardo Montalbán, suavely raising a glass with his, “My dear guests, I am Mr. Roarke, your host. Welcome to Fantasy Island.”

Portia Doubleday and Lucy Hale i a scene from the film. Photo courtesy of Columbia Pictures

Directed by Jeff Wadlow (with a script by Wadlow, Chris Roach and Jillian Jacobs), Fantasy Island has reached the big screen as Blumhouse’s Fantasy Island albeit a decidedly different incarnation. Blumhouse Productions gave us the cutting and insightful satire Get Out, but it also is responsible for more common fare such as Truth or Dare, Happy Death Day 2U, and others. Fantasy Island clearly falls into the latter category.

A group of disparate people believe they have won a contest and are brought to a remote island where they are each told they will received the fantasy of their choice. Gwen Olsen (Maggie Q) needs to undo what she thinks was the worst choice of her life: rejection of a marriage proposal. Former policeman Patrick Sullivan (Austin Stowell) aspires to be a soldier; his wish is wrapped up in a need to connect with his father who died saving men in his platoon. Stepbrothers and “bros” J.D. (Ryan Hansen) and Brax (Jimmy O. Yang) want to “have it all.” Finally, Melanie Cole (Lucy Hale) desires revenge on her childhood bully (played by Portia Doubleday).

They are told at the outset by the not-so-mysterious Mr. Roarke (Michal Peña) that they must see their fantasies through to the end. The machine grinds to life.

All of this might − might − have worked had the film aimed for a modicum of subtlety. The idea of wishes always being a doubled-edged sword is not new but has great potential. Sadly, it is surprising to think that the rather kitsch television series was ultimately more sophisticated.  

From the first moments of the film, “THIS IS A HORROR MOVIE” is not so much telegraphed as it is ballistically launched. Generically ominous music, a ghoulish staff that lopes and hovers like refugees from a Halloween walk-through, and images of snakes everywhere (a nod toward the invasion of the Garden of Eden? a sale on serpent knickknacks?), there is no possibility of anything other than waiting for the limp scares. How much more interesting it would have been to let the fantasies emerge and grow before changing into nightmares. For such a dark movie, it is almost completely lacking in tension; even the jump-outs and the mild gore seem lacking in any commitment to frighten.

Instead, the movie immediately devolves into the characters running around the island, hiding and escaping and then being caught … and then hiding and escaping and then being caught. What eventually comes to the forefront is a convoluted mythology of how the island works. It is both simple and overly complicated, dampened by a lot of dripping black blood.  

It is not until late in the film that all the strands come together for a very nice “aha” moment of how the characters are actually connected. It is here that the story takes a brief up-tick with an extra twist before once again watching the characters hide and get caught and escape. For just a few clever moments, there is a glimmer of hope before it all slides back down into the mire of its own lore, winding toward a very anti-climactic dénouement. There is one humorous nod to the series in the last moments of the film but it was one of the very few shout-outs and seems a bit misplaced. 

With the move toward constant reboots, the real fear is what will come next? Joanie Loves Chachi Loves Satan? Facts of Life: Tootie’s Revenge? One can only hide in the jungle for so long.

Rated PG-13, Blumhouse’s Fantasy Island is now playing in local theaters

George Mackay as Lance Cpl. Schofield in a scene from the film Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures

By Daniel Dunaief

The film “1917” is a good news, bad news movie experience.

In a race against time, World War I soldiers Lance Cpl. Blake (played by Dean-Charles Chapman) and Lance Cpl. Schofield (George MacKay) maneuver through dangerous, German-controlled territory to stop an attack by the British that is destined to fail.

The good news for the Universal Pictures movie, which was written by Krysty Wilson-Cairns and Sam Mendes, is that it is a tour de force in direction and cinematography. Audiences track the movements of Schofield and Blake, who has a vested interest in completing a mission that will also likely save his brother, so closely that they feel as if they are on the battlefield. The soldiers trudge through mud, hunch low to avoid incoming bullets, and wade through icy cold water during their difficult mission.

The relatively unknown actors do an incredible job as everymen, portraying the soldiers asked to do the impossible with resources often limited to their survival instincts and their reliance on each other.

Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures

Directed by Mendes, the movie includes a few heart-stopping moments, as audience members in a packed theater hold their breaths along with the actors to avoid giving away their position to the unseen but omnipresent enemy.

Even the scenes that don’t involve bullets and combat have a gritty feel. The camera moves through cramped trenches, where the spaces narrow in some areas to places where barely two people can fit shoulder to shoulder.

The film succeeds in portraying so many elements of the horrors of the battlefield. The enormous responsibility of saving 1,600 men weighs heavily on the two soldiers. The film immerses the audience completely in the time period, the action and the goal.

The bad news is that the script is noticeably thin. We don’t know much about either character and, apart from the set up lines uttered by Colin Firth as Gen. Erinmore and Benedict Cumberbatch as Col. Mackenzie, the script isn’t nearly as memorable as the visuals.

Indeed, apart from compelling music, which includes an original score from Thomas Newman that was nominated for an Oscar, the movie could easily have been a silent film with a few subtitles sprinkled between the visuals.

As a movie watching experience, “1917” is immersive and compelling, but its visuals show a better story than its thin script.

Moving from one horrifying and dangerous scene to another, we feel as if we’re running alongside strangers we would like to succeed, if only to reach their important destination and save other troops for whom we have almost as much information as the two lance corporals.

Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures

At times, the R-rated movie has overtones with other war films, like “Gallipoli,” a Mel Gibson film with a far superior script, and even with “Saving Private Ryan,” the Steven Spielberg directed epic with Tom Hanks.

In many scenes in “1917,” the effort, amid raining bullets and bombs that fall everywhere, make it seem impossible to survive. Some of the bullet and bomb dodging strains credibility.

The film also includes a quietly touching scene between Schofield and a random French woman, who is caring for an infant. The dialog, however, doesn’t make much sense, though, as she speaks only French and he speaks English, and yet they seem to understand each other.

Looking past the shortcomings of “1917,” the film offers an engaging visual experience, even if we don’t become invested in the characters whose singular mission forms the action and scenery-driven plot.

Winner of 3 Academy Awards (Best Cinematography, Best Sound Mixing and Best Visiual Effects), “1917” is now playing in local theaters.

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A scene from 'Gretel and Hansel'. Photo courtesy of Orion Pictures

By Jeffrey Sanzel

It is no secret that fairy tales inhabit a frightening universe. They are supernatural worlds of violence and betrayal where no one is safe. Often told as warnings to children — don’t stray from the path, don’t talk to strangers, etc. — they are rife with brutality. No story is truer to this dictum than Hansel and Gretel, which deals with famine, child abandonment, forced incarceration and cannibalism.  

Alice Krige is the cannibalistic witch Holda in the latest version of the Grimm fairy tale. (Patrick Redmond/Orion Pictures via AP)

Fairy tales are an almost limitless source for darker viewpoints. Some are lurid or graphic; others rely more on what is unseen or, even better, what is within ourselves. Modern retellings of these stories have been seen in the thriller genre: in the Company of Wolves (Little Red Riding Hood), The Lure (The Little Mermaid), Snow White: A Tale of Terror, The Curse of Sleeping Beauty, Cadaverella as well as multiple anthologies.  

Added to this list of tales of terror comes Gretel and Hansel. The creators of this film must have misheard, and, instead of a horror movie, they have created a horrible movie.

The plot draws only skeletally from the original source (may the Brothers Grimm rest uneasily if not fully in peace). Instead, it creates its own mythology about power and sacrifice. There might even be a message of female empowerment, but even this is muddled in a mess of ideas and images. The concept is there but the result lacks the depth to induce the fear and dread that underlies the story. While trying very hard to be “eerie,” the film falls into its own predictability and quickly feels repetitive. 

There is plenty of dialogue in the movie; we know this because the characters are speaking (lots of) words. Most of them are meant to have deep meanings and allegorical value. But there is such a struggle with the quasi-stylized dialogue that it sounds like sayings from demonic fortune cookies or Hallmark cards from hell.

A scene from ‘Gretel and Hansel’. Photo courtesy of Orion Pictures

In addition, the film is stuffed with murky symbols to complement the art house lighting. The characters use the (lots of) words to talk about the (lots of) symbols. Unfortunately, even with many (many) words, these many (many) symbols create a wearying and eventually exhausting experience.

Not wishing to name names, the film’s threadbare screenplay is directed with a heavy hand and a pace leaden to the point where it seems like the action is going backward. The two lead actors clearly do their best: both Sophia Lillis (as a mature Gretel, coming to terms with her own powers) and Alice Krige (as the witch with a backstory) are as engaging as the film ever gets. But it is not enough to justify the pretentiousness. The climax — long in coming — is violent but lacks the catharsis of the original story.  

Ultimately, it all feels dishonest. The film’s self-awareness becomes self-indulgent. It is a failure of style over substance. When compared with Gretel and Hansel, the Swarovski commercial that preceded the film had a greater claim to a cohesive and rewarding narrative.  

While I did buy popcorn, I must confess that I snuck in a can of Diet Coke. Maybe sitting through this film was my punishment. And, perhaps, like with the original fairy tale, I have learned a lesson. In the future, I will stay out of these woods.

Rated PG-13, Gretel and Hansel is now playing in local theaters.

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Parasite is the first South Korean movie to receive Oscar nominations for best picture and best international film.

By Jeffrey Sanzel

Parasite is a portrait of the unexpected. In both the film and its worldwide reception, it is an undefinable work that both crosses and defies genre. It is also extraordinary cinema. Like JoJo Rabbit, it defies expectation and Parasite joins this film as one of the two best of the year. This South Korean hit lingers long after the fadeout.

The story seems deceptively simple. The Kim family lives in a squalid basement apartment, barely scraping by on menial jobs. Even in this they don’t succeed: witness an excruciating scene when they are called to task for their inability to properly fold pizza boxes. It is clear that they have gone from job-to-job with little success and diminishing prospects. Cramped into narrow, filthy rooms, they literally crawl the walls like insects, trying to steal a Wi-Fi signal.

The son (affable Choi Woo Shik) is given the opportunity to tutor an affluent high school student (innocent Jung Ji-so). His sister (wily Park So-dam) forges his degree. When he enters the Park home, his wide-eyed awe is palpable. The house was constructed by a renowned architect and is more museum than home. Bright, modern and spacious, it whispers untold wealth — a stark contrast with the infested living conditions faced by the Kims.

In taking in this wholly foreign world, it dawns on the son that this is an opportunity: He will bring his family in to work for the wealthy Park family. This turning point sets the Kims on a moral downward spiral. From down-and-outers to grifters, they sacrifice what few principles they could afford.

One-by-one, the Kims integrate themselves into the Park household. First, the sister is engaged as the son’s art therapist; she then manipulates the firing of the chauffeur (Park Geun-rok) so that her father (Song Kang-ho, effectively soulful) can take that position. 

The final piece is the removal of the faithful housekeeper (earnest Lee Jung-eun) in a particularly nasty scheme involving an allergy to peaches. (Prior to this, we are treated to a delightfully cheeky scene in which they rehearse the possible dialogue that would arise during the ousting of the loyal servant.) The mother (blowsy Chang Hyae-jin) becomes the housekeeper, completing the quartet’s presence in the house. 

Part of the con is that the Parks are unaware that all of these new employees are related.

From here, the action twists and turns, rises and sinks (like the films labyrinth of staircases) as the Kim family makes themselves indispensable. However, one of the film’s tenures is that making plans is a dangerous thing. What ensues is a host of situations involving a secret bunker, Morse code, a garden party from hell, a rainstorm that becomes a vile deluge and a range of other complications that are both darkly comic and horrifying. From fanciful swindle to shocking violence, the wake of destruction is both surprising and inevitable.

Much of the film is a dissection of class and socioeconomic status where “money is the iron that smooths the wrinkles.” The smell of poverty clings to the Kim family, brought into focus against the almost sterile cleanliness of the Park house. Whether it is greed, frustration, privation or a combination of all of them, the Kims’ actions lead to their own dissolution. However, underneath there is a fierce love that connects them and, through all of their reprehensible behavior, it is clear that they care for each other. Yes, these are awful people doing terrible things, but — unlike in the disappointing Uncut Gems — there is a genuine and oddly believable core to this disturbing adventure.

The film is flawlessly directed by Bong Jon-ho, with a constantly shifting pace that never loses its relentless tension. The screenplay (by Jon-ho, along with Han Jin-won) is articulate, smart and outrageously wicked; Hong Kyung-pyo’s desaturated cinematography is the perfect compliment.

In a film of exceptional performances, there are several standouts. Park So-dam as the Kim daughter shows a vulnerability under her insidiousness. Cho Yeo-jeong, as the beautiful Park matriarch, is in turn simply welcoming and willfully callous; her planning of her son’s impromptu birthday party is a study in selfishness. Lee Jung-eun as the fired housekeeper manages to find a range from subservient to almost borderline insane.

A brutal dark comedy? A dysfunctional family drama played out as a heart-pounding thriller? A violent depiction of economic inequality? Parasite is all of these and more. And most of all, Parasite is a modern masterpiece. 

Rated R for language, some violence and sexual content, Parasite is now playing in local theaters.

Photos courtesy of Neon


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Stampeding ostriches on a pecking mission are part of the next level in the game of Jumanji. Photo from SONY Pictures

By Heidi Sutton

Riding on the coattails of the 2017 box office hit Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, director Jake Kasdan has reassembled the original cast for an equally exciting sequel, Jumanji: The Next Level. Since opening mid-December, the action-packed film has dominated the box office, raking in over $700 million worldwide. 

Awkwafina joins the cast of Jumanji in The Next Level. Photo courtesy of SONY Pictures

Based on Chris Van Allsburg’s 1981 children’s book, “Jumanji,” the story first appeared on the big screen in 1995. Starring Robin Williams, it centered around a creepy board game that summoned forth dangerous jungle creatures each time the dice was thrown.

Kasdan’s successful 2017 reboot featured four high school students — Spencer (Alex Wolff), Bethany (Madison Iseman), Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain) and Martha (Morgan Turner) — who come across the video game version of Jumanji while serving detention together. 

When each teenager picks an alias to start the game, they are teleported to the world of Jumanji and become the actual avatars they had chosen. Spencer becomes archaeologist Dr. Xander “Smolder” Bravestone (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson), Bethany is cartographer Professor Shelly Oberon (Jack Black), Fridge turns into zoologist Franklin “Mouse” Finbar (Kevin Hart) and Martha is transformed into martial arts expert Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan). 

With only three lifelines each, evident as black stripes on their wrist, the gang is tasked with a series of challenges in order to “win” the game. Only after successfully retrieving the Jaguar’s Eye from an evil villain, with a little help from avatar Jefferson “Seaplane” McDonough (Nick Jonas), aka Alex Vreeke (Colin Hanks) who had been stuck in the game for 20 years, do they earn safe passage home. 

In The Next Level, the four teenagers, now in college, make plans to meet up at a local cafe for Christmas break. 

Danny Glover and Danny DeVito join the cast of Jumanji in The Next Level.

When Spencer fails to show up for the reunion, his friends go to his house looking for him. To their dismay, they discover the infamous video game, broken but still functional, in the basement and realize their friend has gone back to Jumanji. They decide to go rescue him but things take a funny turn. While Fridge and Martha reenter the digital world, Bethany is bypassed by the game and Spencer’s Grandpa Eddie (Danny DeVito) and Eddie’s former best friend Milo (Danny Glover) are unwittingly sucked in as well.

In a hilarious body swapping twist, Danny DeVito’s character initially finds himself in the Rock’s muscular 6-foot 5-inch body while Danny Glover’s character is now a zoologist in Kevin Hart’s body. Martha once again takes the form of Ruby Roundhouse but Fridge is now Jack Black’s map reader. 

Bethany joins the group later on in a nonhuman form and Jonas’ Jefferson “Seaplane” McDonough also makes a reappearance. As the story unfolds, the cast switch avatars several times more by swimming in magic water, and we are introduced to a new character, a cat burgler named Ming Fleetfoot (rapper Awkwafina).

From left, Nick Jonas, Jack Black, Karen Gillan, Dwayne Johnson, Awkwafina and Kevin Hart star in the third installment of the Jumanji franchise.
Photo courtesy of SONY Pictures

As the game is now at the next level, the stakes have also been elevated. Jumanji is suffering from a massive drought. To leave the game, the group, in addition to finding Spencer, must recover the Falcon’s Heart — a magical necklace stolen by warlord Jurgen the Brutal — which can end the drought if brought before sunlight and uttering Jumanji. Like before, each avatar has three lifelines with the addition of new skills (Ruby Roundhouse is now a nunchuck expert) and weaknesses (Prof. Oberon can now add heat, sun and sand to his growing list). 

The special effects are top notch. In addition to an exciting rope bridge scene in the jungle with vicious mandrills, the game’s map has now expanded to include the desert and dunes where the avatars are chased by prehistoric-looking ostriches and to Jurgen’s castle on an icy mountaintop where they face perilous cliffs and an unfriendly host.

As far as laughs go, The Next Level just might outdo its predecessor. Blain’s character Fridge finds much to complain about being in his new avatar, Prof. Oberon, which he finds even worse than when he was stuck as “Mouse,” whose weaknesses include cake. “At least I was still black,” he groans. 

Hart and Johnson’s characters are even funnier as perennially confused grandpas stuck in younger bodies. Johnson’s Danny DeVito impersonation with a New Jersey accent has hilarious results, especially when attempting to “smolder,” while Hart is tasked with capturing Glover’s slower speech, and his avatar ends up revealing key facts of the game too slowly to be of any use.

The clever script, filled with action, adventure and lots of comedy coupled with an outstanding cast and terrific soundtrack, is a winning formula. The final scene hints at a “Jumanji 4” — can’t wait! Running time is two hours. 

Rated PG-13 for adventure action, suggestive content and some language, Jumanji: The Next Level is now playing in local theaters.