Aladdin - Movie Review by Ben Cahlamer


Aladdin (2019)


Directed by Guy Ritchie

Screenplay by John August and Guy Ritchie, based on “Disney’s Aladdin” by Ron Clements, John Musker, Ted Elliott, Terry Rossio

Starring Will Smith, Mena Massoud, Naomi Scott, Marwan Kenzari, Navid Negahban, Nasim Pedrad, Billy Magnussen


Like many of the recent live-action reimaginings from Disney’s vast vault of treasured classics, Guy Ritchie’s (Snatch, Sherlock Holmes) “Aladdin” is memorable for its vivid imagery, its imaginative casting and for not trying to be more than the sum of its parts. Ritchie was not in unfamiliar territory when it comes to reimagining a classic (Warner Bros’ “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.”) and so it was with great interest that I sat down to watch this film.

That and the really big shoes that Will Smith had to fill.

The story features an impoverished street rat, the titular character of Aladdin played by Mena Massoud, who is currently playing a recurring role in the Amazon Prime series, “Jack Ryan”. He has the charm and grace to not only play a stealthy thief, but to also win the heart of a certain princess, Jasmine (Naomi Scott, who herself stars in the upcoming reboot of Charlie’s Angels).

The screenplay by John August and Ritchie based on Disney’s “Aladdin” by Ron Clements, John Musker, Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio doesn’t immediately fan the sparks between Aladdin and Jasmine. They instead focus on establishing Aladdin as a loveable scoundrel with his pet monkey Abu (voiced by Frank Welker who reprises his voice work from the animated film). The many sleights of hand that occur in the first fifteen minutes of the film, along with the stellar choreography, really sets the light touch that Ritchie is known for: it is serious, but there’s a spritely step about the way Aladdin strives to prove himself to Jasmine, who he thinks is a handmaiden.

We learn a thing or two about Jasmine as well. She is secluded, yet worldly in her understanding of how things work. Ms. Scott brings an intelligence to the role that was unexpected and refreshing, matched only by Mr. Massoud’s wit and bravery. There is a benevolence about Jasmine, something that I imagine translated over from the animated version of the character.

Since Aladdin is not a prince, he cannot court nor marry Jasmine and therefore it is up to Jasmine’s father, The Sultan of Agrabah to find a husband worthy of his daughter. There is an awkwardly funny scene early in the film in which the pompous Prince Anders of Skanland (Billy Magnussen) is introduced to Jasmine. Anders is a new character to this film and brings some brevity to the updated story.

New to this story also is Dalia (Nasim Pedrad), Jasmine’s handmaiden. Dalia’s introduction is also laden with humor. Ritchie injects more of a familial relationship between Dalia and Jasmine, enhancing Jasmine’s role and Ms. Scott’s performance as well as that of Ms. Pedrad’s performance. There is an ease between the two, as if they were sisters.

When Aladdin is discovered in the castle by Jafar’s (Maran Kenzari) guards, he is given a chance to prove himself worthy by bringing back a magical lamp to Jafar. In an ode to “Pirates of the Caribbean” and “The Mummy(the Brendan Frasier version, not the Alex Kurtzman version that featured Kenzari), we are treated to a rousing adventure full of danger and . . . . the Genie (Will Smith).

The Genie is definitely the highlight of this film and Will Smith knocks the character out of the park. Where Robin Williams voiced the beloved, original character, Will Smith not only puts away his swagger, he embodies the goodness of the character. In much the same way that Ritchie and John August gave Jasmine a sisterly relationship with Dalia, there is a brotherly closeness between The Genie and Aladdin. That relationship really drives the essence of what makes Aladdin loveable in the first place.

Mr. Smith’s performance does not take away from the voice that Robin Williams gave the character in 1992. In fact, I think audiences are going to quickly warm up to Smith’s interpretation. In an interview with the actor, “What Robin Williams did with this character, he didn’t leave a lot of room to add to the Genie. So I started out fearful. But then, I got with the music and it started waking up that fun, childlike, silly part of me.”

That’s the heart of this film: it is fun and silly, and that’s perfectly okay. That’s the essence of who Guy Ritchie is and what his films mean to his fans.

“Aladdin” is no exception.

If I had one, minor quibble, it’s that the Jafar story thread and interpretation doesn’t completely work. It fits nicely into the overall story and we really see the power of the character in the third act, but in the earlier stages of the film, he doesn’t feel as threatening as he probably could have.

“Aladdin” really is about changing your vantage point and unshackling yourself from the ties that bind you. The modern interpretation of these characters will spur on a whole new world for future filmmakers.

3.25 out of 4

The Tomorrow Man - Movie Review by Ben Cahlamer

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The Tomorrow Man


Written and Directed by Noble Jones

Starring John Lithgow, Blythe Danner, Derek Cecil, Katie Aselton, Sophie Thatcher, Eve Harlow


There is something visually astounding about Noble Jones’s directorial debut, “The Tomorrow Man,” a story about two people in their twilight years finding one another.

Noble, who also wrote his film served as his down cinematographer, allowing him to stage not only his actors, but also the intimate details that make up their lives. “The Tomorrow Man” is first a love story. John Lithgow is Ed, the town curmudgeon who lives his life in an orderly fashion. Everything is neat and tidy. He pays for his groceries by check and he has a contentious, one-sided relationship with his son, Brian (Derek Cecil).

He is intentionally all about preparing for the future.

Noble deliberately paints Ed’s existence as a nomad and Lithgow relishes in the opportunity to use his dry, deadpan humor much to the character’s benefit. Lithgow is naturally funny in a charismatic way, managing to flirt with the camera while at the same time using that humor to draw us in to the drama.

On one of Ed’s shopping excursions, he encounters Ronnie (Blythe Danner). Ronnie is in her own little world when we first meet her: excitable, yet calm in demeanor. Ed, who is reserved and cautious doesn’t immediately make a move, but with Noble’s attention to detail, you can pick up the nuances of Ed’s interest in Robbie through Lithgow’s performance.

It is on their second encounter where Ed finally and awkwardly courts Ronnie, who looks as if she’s been shocked awake from a deep slumber. As Ed wedges his way into her life, we find that they have a lot more in common than either realized. Ms. Danner’s performance nearly rivals Lithgow’s as her character’s life unfolds.

She is intentionally all about her past.

Noble uses his visual style to tell a story of love, of understanding and of trust. His use of the camera is something that I haven’t seen in quite some time, and in fact, it becomes a character in its own story flowing and transitioning between Ed’s life and Ronnie’s life.

The camera ebbs and flows so very well that it actually slows down the pace of the film. What is intended to be transcendent gets stuck in the second act as Ed takes Ronnie to Thanksgiving dinner at Brian’s home.  Until this point, Brian has been a voice only on the phone, a periphery in Ed’s world. Noble tries to quickly establish just how alike father and son are, but he can’t use the camera to make this work.

Noble’s intention might have been deliberate as he uses the dinner to transition us into the third act, something that involves Brian significantly more than in the earlier part of the story; we are introduced to Janet (Katie Aselton) and Tina (Eve Harlow), Brian’s wife and stepdaughter. Ronnie and Janet hit it off right away. Tina, however, has words for her stepfather and the scene ends on a shot of father and son standing next to one another.

The third act really brings Ed and Ronnie together, first through struggles in each of the respective characters’ lives and then, a common understanding. Noble’s attention to detail shines here the most as he brings Ed and Ronnie full circle.

John Lithgow and Blythe Danner are dynamite, both together and separately. Their emotions shine. Noble’s attention to detail and his use of the camera are characters themselves, but the style he used to tell the story ground the pacing to a halt.

“The Tomorrow Man” is definitely a showcase for talents. I am curious to see where Noble Jones goes from here because he has a unique way of storytelling that with more maturity can shine. For now, “The Tomorrow Man” is an actor’s showcase and for me, that counts as a win.

2.5 out of 4

Now playing at Harkins Camelview

John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum - Movie Review by Monte Yazzie

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Dir: Chad Stahelski

Starring: Keanu Reeves, Halle Berry, Ian McShane, Laurence Fishburne, Mark Dacascos, Asia Kate Dillon, Lance Reddick, and Anjelica Huston

There is a moment in John Woo’s seminal action classic, “The Killer”, when the movement of bodies amidst the barrage of bullets begins to find an unexpected rhythm, as if throughout the gratuitous violence there is a dance being organized. There is a moment in Lana and Lily Wachowski’s film “The Matrix” when the meticulously choreographed fight scenes begin to have an unanticipated elegance, a ballet of bodies dipping and dodging one another within the chaos of viciousness. It’s mayhem and carnage arranged with beautiful and artful composition.

These pure, cinematic, adrenaline-fueled qualities are prominently on display in “John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum”, the continuation of the lone assassin dressed in black hell bent for revenge. In true action movie sequel style, everything is amped up to the highest degree. However, where some movies lose track of how to handle the bigger and faster element of it all, “Chapter 3” somehow deftly handles the lofty expectations and crafts the one of the best action movies of the year.

John Wick (Keanu Reeves) is still out for vengeance, taking his unstoppable skillset to task against the bad guys that killed his puppy, then the organization that betrayed him, and now, in this third installment, it seems like Wick is out to fight the entire world. After being “excommunicado” from the assassin agency, known as the High Table, a 14-million-dollar bounty has been set for Wick’s life and every assassin in the world is provided the open opportunity. Hoping to find mercy from the leader of the High Table, John Wick travels across the globe to find atonement for his actions.

One of the downfalls with modern action films exists within the design of the action. Some directors will shoot with a realistic camera perspective, one that shakes and jolts in discombobulating ways with every punch and kick. Other directors will overedit scenes, cutting at moments to hide the fact that the actors in the movies just don’t know how to sell a fight. The great Jackie Chan, an action actor/stuntman who meticulously choreographed all his own fight scenes, has discussed this concept of fight scene composition at great length, specifically how the modern action movie falters in the design of human combat.

“John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum”, in the first 10 minutes, has one of the most exhilarating and impressively composed fight scenes seen in some time…inside a quiet library and with the utilization of a book as a weapon! Add a chase scene with motorcycles and horses with homage to “The French Connection”, ingeniously orchestrated gun combat involving two Belgian Malinois dogs, and the superb casting of the underappreciated Mark Dacascos of the 90’s action film “Only the Strong”, and “John Wick: Chapter 3” is doing everything at its highest quality.

Director Chad Stahelski, who started his career as a stunt coordinator and stunt double for Keanu Reeves, deserves much of the appreciation for the great structure of action seen throughout this film. The hand-to-hand combat is often times shot with a wide-angle lens, showing all the movements within the frame so that the viewer gets all the visual information they need to distinguish characters and see the ferocity of the hits.

Keanu Reeves should also be praised for his performance throughout this series. With a quiet and calm demeanor, Mr. Reeves’ John Wick feels like a faster, more agile version of Clint Eastwood’s Blondie character from “The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly”. Plus, take a moment to search for YouTube videos of Keanu Reeves training with real weapons for this film, it’s absolutely amazing. This type of training provides a foundation for making the physical movements of the character have purpose and reason, all adding to making the many fantastic elements throughout this film somehow seem reasonable and realistic.

“John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum” is not the strongest version of the story told within the series, but it is the best composed in terms of action set pieces of all the films. It’s brutal, bloody, barbaric action composed with so much artful attention that it’s impossible to look away. Prepare for a war of the senses in the best way possible.  

Monte’s Rating

4.25 out of 5.00

A Dog’s Journey - Movie Review by Ben Cahlamer


Directed by Gail Mancuso

Screenplay by W. Bruce Cameron, Cathryn Michon, Maya Forbes, Wally Wolodarsky

Based on “A Dog’s Journey” by W. Bruce Cameron

Starring: Marg Helgenberger, Betty Gilpin, Henry Lau, Kathryn Prescott, Dennis Quaid, Josh Gad, Emma Volk

This might land me in hot water, but I am not a dog person.

Why, Ben, would you open a review for “A Dog’s Journey” by stating that?

That’s a good question and the simple answer is that I’ve always found them to be more animated than I am, that I could never get on a dog’s level. What a film like “A Dog’s Journey” taught me though, is that the dog initiates our connection to the dog.

It is literally love at first sight. And yet, there is something so much more than a simple connection.

“A Dog’s Journey” is a continuation of the story started in “A Dog’s Purpose” with Bailey the dog and Ethan Montgomery (Dennis Quaid in a supporting role) and his wife, Hannah (Marg Helgenberger). Lasse Hallstrom who directed that first film returns here as a producer.

Based on W. Bruce Cameron’s novel of the same name, this story concerns itself with Gloria, Hannah’s daughter-in-law and her daughter CJ. There is a discord between the trio over the care of CJ, who is the story’s protagonist. As she gets older and endures more pain throughout her life, she finds companionship in a dog.

The trailer, and the nature of “A Dog’s Purpose” suggests that Bailey passes through several dogs’ lives always being there, in some way for CJ. This is one of the film’s weaknesses. Even though she is a strong character, CJ’s (Kathryn Prescott) troubles don’t necessarily flow well with the Bailey character. Each interaction is strung together, but the separate parts don’t necessarily equal the whole.

Josh Gad provides comic relief (I guess that was an unintended doggie pun; sorry) as his journey progresses. We’re reminded of the unconditional love that a dog, or any pet can provide, making his character essential to the film, though his transitions into new lives felt more like a secondary thought to the main story than a focus.

The human supporting characters, Gloria (Betty Gilpin) and Trent (Ian Chen as the younger Trent and Henry Lau as the adult Trent) add some context and depth to CJ’s life which moves the story forward, even if the respective interactions with CJ were awkward.

I hadn’t watched “A Dog’s Purpose” prior to seeing this new film, however I don’t think that is a slight on this film. Going into this film with a limited knowledge worked for me, but it is intentionally designed around a dog’s transcendence, speaking to how dogs and humans interact with one another.

While the first and second act are hampered by the lack of a central character and interactions supported by convenience, the threads that they weave are wrapped up in an exceptionally strong third act. Whether by intention, design or divine provenance, and in spite of my preference for less spirited animals, I’ve always believed that dogs serve a higher purpose in our lives and I have the utmost respect for their companionship. You will laugh. You will cry. And, if you’re not interested in “John Wick: Chapter 3,” which also opens this weekend, you will be glad that you chose to see “A Dog’s Journey.”

2 out of 4

The Sun is Also a Star - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

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‘The Sun is Also a Star’ barely flickers


Directed by:  Ry Russo-Young

Written by:  Tracy Oliver based on Nicola Yoon’s novel

Starring:  Yara Shahidi and Charles Melton


“The Sun Is Also a Star” – “It’s fate.” – Daniel Bae (Charles Melton)


Natasha Kingsley (Yara Shahidi) stands in the middle of Grand Central Station and looks up at its celestial ceiling.  Daniel (Melton) notices Natasha and sees stars too.  For Daniel, it’s love at first sight or at least serious interest at first sight.  Natasha is wearing a blue polyester jacket, one that sports the phrase “Deus Ex Machina”, and divine intervention strikes him.  He decides to follow her to say, “Hello,” in-person.  For the sake of argument, let’s not call it stalking, but by definition (“pursue or approach stealthily”, “track down”, “go after”, “give chase to”, etc.), he is. 


He does, however, carry noble, idealistic intentions, not crooked ones.  Daniel, an early 20-something poet, is a romantic, and upon meeting Natasha, a high school senior, he discovers that she is a pragmatist.  They have opposite mindsets, and this would instantly be a matching-problem in real life, but stark differences between boy and girl are a necessary ingredient for almost every rom-com since the beginning of motion pictures.  No, there is no eHarmony prerequisite before on-screen romance begins in “The Sun is Also a Star”.  Instead, it simply is: boy sees girl, boy pursues girl, girl gives boy a healthy dose of reality, but boy attempts to convince girl to fall in love with him anyway. 


We know this story.


Well, the young adult novel “The Sun Is Also a Star” topped The New York Times Best Seller list, so a worldwide audience already knows this particular yarn, and director Ry Russo-Young tries to bring Nicola Yoon’s novel to life on the big screen.  While Russo-Young, Melton and Shahidi show good intentions to tell a tale of young love through a chance encounter (which Daniel believes is no coincidence), the picture unfortunately dulls the senses and riddles with clichés. 


The narrative could seem bright and brand new to an average 13-year-old, but it’s as two-dimensional and tired as a Hallmark card penned by a checked-out writer who gave up coffee for Lent.


“I’m not a dream,” Daniel says.


Natasha, however, might feel that she’s hallucinating, as Daniel constantly pines for her through sappy, guileless passages from his head in the hopes that she falls for him within a day.  In return, she retorts with rational reasons for not falling in love during such a short window, and more importantly, repeatedly states that she doesn’t have time for him today.  Rather than dive into any sort of depth, the script sits and sits and sits within a narrow band of please vs. no, thank you and this is planned vs. this is coincidence, until Natasha finally shows some predictable, ho-hum cracks in her emotional armor.


On the plus side, Daniel and Natasha are very likable, Russo-Young places our champions in New York City, and the film is a love letter to The Big Apple.  Since Daniel and Natasha are New Yorkers, they don’t sightsee (except for a casual stroll through the Rose Center for Earth and Space), but converse with pizzerias, delis, jewelry stores, and multicultural foot traffic in every direction.  (Although, Russo-Young could have cut the number of skyscraper drone shots from six thousand to six.) 


Since they only have a day (for reasons that are not stated in this review) and also wander around one city, the film feels very, very similar to “Before Sunrise”, except in the 1995 modern-day classic, Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) share vitally important elements like chemistry and humor.  Except for one moving montage at a karaoke spot and another 12 seconds at a revolving glass door, “The Sun Is Also a Star” is remarkably void of both romance and joy. 


As Daniel states, “Always remember to open up your heart to destiny.”


This critic tried.

(1.5/4 stars)


Jeff – a member of the Phoenix Critics Circle – has penned film reviews since 2008 and graduated from ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism.  Follow Jeff and the Phoenix Film Festival on Twitter @MitchFilmCritic and @PhoenixFilmFest, respectively.


Pokémon Detective Pikachu - Movie Review by Monte Yazzie


Dir: Rob Letterman

Starring: Ryan Reynolds, Justice Smith, Kathryn Newton, Chris Geere, Bill Nighy, and Ken Watanabe

Remember the 1988 film “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” which paired a down-on-his-luck gumshoe and an anxious animated rabbit named Roger? At the time of the release, this was a cutting-edge combination of movie magic, placing real actors with animated characters and bringing the animation studio giants together where Bugs Bunny and Mickey Mouse could share the same frame, where Donald Duck and Daffy Duck could perform skydive hijinks. But one element that is often overlooked is that the film pieces together a nice homage to the detective tales and film noir styles of the late 1940’s and early 1950’s. Adding a mature element to the world of cartoons.

“Pokémon Detective Pikachu” takes much of its influence from “Who Framed Roger Rabbit”, bringing the iconic Japanese “Pocket Monsters” together for their own brand recognition praise with a film that is mostly fan service, framed within a flimsy neo-noir detective story.

Tim Goodman (Justice Smith) lives in a world where Pokémon and humans live peacefully with one another, some becoming connected enough to create an inseparable bond. When Tim’s father Harry goes mysteriously missing, Tim returns to Ryme City to investigate his father’s disappearance. Helping Tim with his search is Harry’s Pokémon, Detective Pikachu, who has suffered amnesia after an accident. The two encounter more sinister plans involving the Pokémon, leading them to a dangerous game of cat-and-mouse.

The cute star of the film is Detective Pikachu (voiced by Ryan Reynolds); for those unfamiliar with this property, Pikachu is a small yellow critter who conjures electricity as a defense mechanism. Ryan Reynolds is a good choice to voice this character, his charm and quick wit provide the tiny animated character with cuteness that distracts from some of the issues with the story. Justice Smith, who had a nice turn in the Netflix series “The Get Down”, tries to keep up with the disorganized plot but his character seems lost amidst everything happening. It’s unfortunate because at the core of this story is a relationship, the bond between a boy and his pet. As the film develops, when it’s not random action scenes or detective story clichés, Pikachu and Tim have nice chemistry and offer some minor moments where you can see Tim regain his love for his childhood that ended too early.  

Amongst the many forms the franchise brand has taken in multimedia avenues, the film is based on the video game and the pacing of the story resembles the structure of those video games. One clue leads to a mission which leads to another adventure, the story moments don’t tie together so well when this logic is translated to the cinema but there are enough fan moments to distract from this absence of plot structure.

“Pokémon Detective Pikachu” never completely commits to the mystery story it’s trying to tell, it seems more concerned with offering fun moments and fan appreciation. You don’t have to be a fan of the Pokémon to find the easy-going fun trying to be had here, but if you do like those “Pocket Monsters” it may be easier to overlook the glaring issues with this detective yarn.

Monte’s Rating

2.00 out of 5.00

Tolkien - Movie Review by Ben Cahlamer


Directed by Dome Karukoski

Written by David Gleeson and Stephen Beresford

Starring: Nicholas Hoult, Lily Collins, Colm Meaney, Derek Jacobi

The year was 2001. I had gone back to Wisconsin to visit family for the Christmas holiday after having moved to Arizona. The hottest films during that week leading into Christmas were the “Ocean’s Eleven” remake and a small, little film you might remember called “Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring.” My uncle and I went to the movies and we had to decide between the two films.

Of course, I’d seen “Ocean’s Eleven” before getting to Wisconsin, so the only choice was to see “Lord of the Rings” yet something about the film was, instinctually, rubbing me the wrong way.

I relented of course, and what unfolded in front of me was something magical. It made the bond between my uncle and me very special.

That same bond is the fundamental underpinning of the eponymous character in Dome Karukoski’s (“Tom of Finland”) “Tolkien,” which opens in theaters this weekend. Nicholas Hoult plays J. R. R. Tolkien. The film centers, not on his destitution but on his survival. It uses his time during World War I as a focal point in his journey.

Karukoski is known for his documentary-style filmmaking which has won him a number of awards. Much like “Tom of Finland,” David Gleeson and Stephen Beresford’s script moves the story along through the use of flashbacks to his childhood we are introduced to what made Tolkien tick. Much of his history is full of transition as his family, destitute following his father’s unexpected death from rheumatic fever, seeks the Church’s help with the kind father, Francis Morgan (Colm Meaney) is there to support them.

The young Tolkien (Harry Gilby) does not want to leave his home, and reluctantly does so, the first of many traumas in his life. Father Morgan is there as a literal father figure to he and his brother, Hilary.

Against the odds, Tolkien finds love. He does not immediately pursue Edith Bratt (Lily Collins, “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile”), but he does eventually court her. His awkwardness attracts the attention of Christopher Wiseman (Ty Tennant/Tom Glynn-Carney), Geoffrey Bache Smith (Adam Bregman/Anthony Boyle) and Robert Gilson (Albie Marber/Patrick Gibson).

Together, they were unstoppable, creating a “fellowship” from which they fed off of one another’s boundless energy. I found it stimulating to see a group of individuals form such a tight bond where they could learn and grow from each other’s experiences and wisdom. That is until World War I threatens to break up the “fellowship.” The story uses the trauma of the war and its aftermath to really help drive Tolkien’s desire to create a lush world, full of not only richly developed characters, but also a language that was as unique as the world he was creating.

The story focuses on the relationship between Tolkien and Edith, using sacrifice to define their ultimate relationship. The story also focuses, specifically on Christopher and Geoffrey. Christopher reminds Tolkien to pursue his passions while getting him into trouble. Geoffrey has the heart of a poet, and there’s an unspoken depth of feeling between Geoffrey and Tolkien that I found touching.

Some may find the pacing of the film to be slow, however this is to the film’s advantage as it explores not only the life of the author of our favorite fictional works, but also the inspiration behind those characters. The multi-layered story is full of rich characters, a solid bond between those characters and a friendship . . . . a fellowship . . . that has endured long after Tolkien passed.

Which is the same way I feel about my experience seeing “The Fellowship of the Ring” in 2001. Sadly, my uncle passed not long after we saw the film together. It’s a memory that continues to endure in me and “Tolkien” inspires me to be a better me.

3.25 out of 4 stars

Shadow - Movie Review by Monte Yazzie


Dir: Zhang Yimou

Starring: Chao Deng, Li Sun, Kai Zhang, Ryan Zheng, Qianyuan Wang, Jingchun Wang, Jun Hu, Xiaotong Guan, and Lei Wu

Director Zhang Yimou rose to international acclaim with the brilliant wuxia films (a genre of Chinese fiction where martial artist heroes interact with Ancient China) “Hero” and “House of Flying Daggers”. The director’s big splash in America was supposed to be the epic heroes versus monster’s movie “The Great Wall”. The splash, unfortunately, was a misstep for the talented director who, with his earlier films, accomplished the often-difficult combination of crafting grand action fight scenes and detailed character development supported by exceptional performances.

“Shadow” is Yimou’s newest film and it’s a welcome return to form for the director. The film is carefully crafted, with some exceptional fight choreography and action set pieces. It is sustained by an impressive design, one that the director has become a true auteur in the development of desaturated atmospheres and mesmerizing locales. These aspects are complimented nicely by some great performances, ones that make the slow and complicated courtroom-like drama sensibilities much more manageable than they otherwise might be.

Set during China’s Three Kingdom’s era, the King of Pei (Kai Zhang), an arrogant and pompous ruler, and his sister, Princess Qingping (Xiaotong Guan), rule a kingdom that has found peaceful times because of the cruel King’s policies. The Commander (Chao Deng) holds much of the admiration for finding this peace. However, the Commander has a secret shadow, an identical double that has been trained since childhood to take the place of the Commander in case something unfortunate should happen. Shifting influences and betrayal soon begin and spell disaster for the kingdom.

Zhang Yimou has an impressive visual style, capable of combining meticulously crafted action scenes within a beautifully composed environments. “Shadow” is desaturated of color, the deep variations of grey, black, and blue take over and add an atmosphere that feels lonesome, one that feels steeped in an everlasting state of dread. It’s a nice design once the action settles into its superb spectacle; combinations of slow-motion acrobatics and swordplay mix with large droplets of rain and deep gushes of red blood unleashed amidst the battle. Yimou’s talents are on a full and impressive display in the final act of the film.

The narrative is dense with plot devices that have subtleties intertwined within that aren’t always easy to make sense of. There are no straight forward answers to questions, motivations are blanketed in mystery, and conversation is filled with untrustworthiness. While it takes some time building towards the true purpose of why all the wheels are spinning, the performances from the cast make it completely interesting to watch. Chao Deng plays two characters within the film and does a fantastic job of displaying the melodrama of each, one that bleeds rage and another that controls the internal struggle.

“Shadow” is a return to form for Zhang Yimou, an action film filled with moments of impressive violence and the stunning dance of combat. It’s so wonderfully composed that it feels more like a ballet than a fight. While the story wanders more often than it should, the grand style and careful structure of the characters make “Shadow” an entertaining and artistic action drama.

Monte’s Rating

4.00 out of 5.00

Poms - Movie Review by Ben Cahlamer

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From the moment the house lights went down, the opening monologue that Martha (Diane Keaton) uses to convey what type of film “Poms” ultimately becomes, I knew I was in for a treat.

There was an energy, which I haven’t felt from a movie in a while that Zara Hayes’s theatrical debut just releases within the first few minutes. It grabs at you and doesn’t let you go for another 88 minutes.

Now, you might be asking why I’m talking about jolts of electricity when the description for “Poms” features ‘retirement community.’ That’s because the screenplay by Hayes and Shane Atkinson (“Penny Dreadful”) works very hard to make us forget the ‘retirement’ portion of that statement.

The film begins with the end in mind as Martha packs up her apartment, selling those items that she doesn’t want. That jolt of electricity that I mentioned is from Hayes and Atkinson’s injections of humor from the very opening frame. Martha is a no-nonsense, typical New Yorker, but we can tell that something is weighing on her.

Hayes and Atkinson don’t skirt over that aspect. In fact, it becomes a part of her character as she starts a new journey at the Sun Springs Retirement Community in rural Georgia. When she arrives, the welcoming committee is there to greet her with wider arms than she was looking for. Vicki (Celia Weston) in the lead, they proceed to take a tour of the . . .  campus. There are very well manicured lawns and tennis courts, and bowling alleys and lots of activities to keep everyone engaged.

Then there are the clubs (activities). That’s the one official rule of Sun Springs – everyone is required to join a club. If there isn’t a club for you, you can start your own. That’s exactly what Martha goes about doing with her rambunctious next door neighbor, Sheryl (Jackie Weaver).

In an “Odd Couple” way, Martha and Sheryl work, even though they shouldn’t. Sheryl, in addition to being rambunctious, also breaks conventional rules, while Martha has that New Yorker spirit in her – she likes her privacy, but is willing to do what it takes.

Sheryl finds an old cheerleading uniform in Martha’s belongings and the rest is film history. It is the inspiration for a call-out to the community to form a cheerleading squad. Of course, they encounter resistance to their idea, both in the form of an ongoing feud between the association and the squad and the overprotective son of one of the squad’s members.

Throughout all of Martha’s and Sheryl’s foibles and adventures, there is a genuine laughter, an electricity that made me feel young at heart. Part of that electricity is also from the supporting cast. Pam Grier is a hoot as a married woman who doesn’t mind putting herself out there. Rhea Perlman plays Alice, a very cloistered individual, who like the tree at the beginning of the film, is planted and grows. As much a credit to Ms. Perlman’s performance as it is the direction, she grew the most out of all the supporting characters.

Bruce McGill plays the community’s security officer. He has a badge and he has a nameplate and that’s about it, but he’s along for the ride and his character is just a lot of fun.

One of the other aspects of Hayes’ and Atkinson’s story is the merging of generations. Sheryl’s grandson (Charlie Tahan) lives with her, against the community regulations and he has a crush on the lead of the high school’s pom squad (Alisha Boe). Through a convenient mishap, they eventually join forces, rounding out that ‘electricity’ feeling I keep thinking about.

Some will see the advertising for this film and probably misjudge its intentions. There are somber moments in the film, because it is set in a retirement community, but the story doesn’t act like it’s a billboard for a retirement community.

The strength in “Poms” are the characters and their drive to be something more than the sum of their parts. It’s rather amusing and embarrassing, but before the film even started, I was talking with a fellow critic and I mentioned that the marketing had the appearance of being a “Bring It On” for the advanced generation. I’m embarrassed because I realized just how wrong the “advanced age” part of that statement is, but how appropriate and true it is to the spirit of the film. It truly is the film’s wisdom that sparked the energy I felt.

3 out of 4

The Hustle - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell


Hathaway and Wilson are terrific, but ‘The Hustle’ runs out of good ideas


Directed by: Chris Addison

Written by: Stanley Shapiro, Paul Henning, Dale Launer, and Jac Schaeffer

Starring: Anne Hathaway and Rebel Wilson



“The Hustle” – “There’s nothing more compelling to a man than a vulnerable woman.”  - Josephine Chesterfield (Anne Hathaway)


Josephine Chesterfield and Penny Rust (Rebel Wilson) proudly live by the aforementioned edict.  You see, they habitually call upon their damsel in distress powers to lure men.  Not for romance or companionship, but for cash.  They are con artists. 


Con women. 


Josephine frequents high-end casinos, wraps herself in designer garments that would be the eternal envy of every runway model at New York Fashion Week and targets various wealthy gentlemen to glean small fortunes through the art of unscrupulous, manipulative conversation.


Structurally, Penny employs the same fraudulent techniques with her marks, but her current universe is dramatically more low-brow.  She meets men at local watering holes and convinces them to fork over a few hundred dollars towards her sister’s breast augmentation surgery.  Yes, this works, believe it or not!


These professional birds of a feather - from opposite sides of the couth-scale – connect on a train traveling through the South of France and eventually join larceny-forces to pilfer the daylights out of random, affluent blokes.


In director Chris Addison’s first feature film “The Hustle”, he leans on the comic gifts of Wilson and Hathaway to carry the colloquial and physical scenes, as Penny and Josephine dig deep into their bag of tricks.  Wilson delivers her usual, expected performance of a droll misfit with a special panache for dishing out heaping mounds of backhanded compliments and self-deprecation.  It comes as no surprise that Wilson hilariously stumbles and bumbles in Josephine’s crash course-boot camp of femme fatalism, when Penny discovers the daunting and thorny worlds of pommel horse jumping and knife throwing.  


Hathaway, on the other hand, offers the biggest revelation as Josephine.  It’s easy to categorize Hathaway as just another glamorous actress who fits into various cookie-cutter films that regularly reside at your local cineplex and just look to “The Devil Wears Prada” (2006), “Bride Wars” (2009), “One Day” (2011), and “Les Misérables” (2012) as prime examples.  That, however, would be a mistake.  This terrific actress regularly takes chances with projects that showcase her ingenuity and imagination.  Whether she’s a mentally-anguished sister coping with guilt in “Rachel Getting Married” (2008), a young woman afflicted with Parkinson’s in “Love & Other Drugs” (2010) or a screw-up who inadvertently channels a Godzilla-like alter-ego in “Colossal” (2016), Hathaway will let her hair down, roll up her sleeves and dive into just about any role. 


Include slapstick comedy as another winning color in her acting-palette, because Hathaway’s Josephine perfectly matches – through sarcastic, snooty riffs and polished, worldly talents – with clumsy, street-smart Penny.  


These actresses share marvelous chemistry, and they seem to be having a blast throughout the 94-minute film, even though we may not.   Don’t blame Hathaway and Wilson.  The script falters in the second half, once the two swindlers stop working together and decide to compete against one another, once a new mark (Alex Sharp) enters their sights.  The bouncy camp turns to forced gimmicks, and Sharp’s uninspired, flat presence sucks the oxygen out of the theatre.  Sure, Thomas (Sharp) is supposed to be a milk-toast kid, but either Sharp perfectly nails the dull role, or he is simply displaying his natural, narrow range.  It’s difficult to tell or analyze, when repeatedly looking at one’s watch after 60 seconds of Thomas filling time and speaking blather.  


Unfortunately, writers Stanley Shapiro, Paul Henning, Dale Launer, and Jac Schaeffer also leave a lengthy, hanging thread after Penny meets “Nazi Gollum” on a plane and step into a gigantic plot hole when Josephine pretends to be a doctor.  Also, Josephine’s police-assistant disappears in the third act for some reason. 


The film frankly works best when the ladies are allies, which is temporary.  In fact, in a series of hysterical sequences as partners, Penny plays a character named Hortense the Princess, while Josephine pretends to be oblivious to her insane royal antics.  These moments feel an awful lot like Steve Martin’s turn as Ruprecht in “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” (1988), but this actually makes perfect sense.  Shapiro, Henning and Launer wrote that script too.  Well, as a female-led remake or a unique stand-alone picture, Hathaway and Wilson met the challenge, but perhaps the writers will recruit Adam McKay to help with a sequel.  These fierce, compelling women deserve a better story.

(2/4 stars)


Jeff – a member of the Phoenix Critics Circle – has penned film reviews since 2008 and graduated from ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism.  Follow Jeff and the Phoenix Film Festival on Twitter @MitchFilmCritic and @PhoenixFilmFest, respectively.


4 Questions with Joe Berlinger by Monte Yazzie

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4 Questions with Joe Berlinger, director of Netflix’s new Ted Bundy drama “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile”.

My Netflix queue has changed, recently, from independent films and arthouse classics to a combination of cake decorating shows and true crime documentaries. While I have no excuse for the cake decorating shows, I do enjoy a good holiday themed three-tier cake, true crime documentaries are fascinating shows to experience.

Director Joe Berlinger is one of the auteurs behind the true crime film boom. Berlinger is responsible for the superb “Paradise Lost” film series and the equally fascinating “Brother’s Keeper” documentary from 1992. The director has always pointed his lens and focus within the people involved in crime, behind their reasoning and decisions, and throughout the pathways that have led them to the present. It’s captivating work.

Mr. Burlinger’s latest documentary, “Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes”, dropped on Netflix earlier this year and immediately became one of the most talked about new shows on the streaming service. And today Mr. Berlinger releases his first feature film that is not a documentary, “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile”. The film stars Zac Efron as Ted Bundy.

The Phoenix Film Festival had the opportunity to sit down with Joe Berlinger to ask him about his new film, the process behind turning true crime into a feature film, and understanding the characters behind these infamous crimes.


Phoenix Film Festival (PFF):  Was it your intent from the start to do both the documentary and the feature? Did they inspire one another or contribute towards the development of ideas?

Joe Berlinger:  I wish I could say that there was some master plan and that I’m this amazing stratetician like, “Oh, I’m going to do both of these shows that come out at the same time. Isn’t that great?”. But, honestly it was a lot of coincidence. In January of 2017 a guy named Stephen Michaud, who wrote this book two decades before called “Conversations with a Killer”, recorded all these death row interviews with Bundy. He used that as the basis of this book, he reached out to me in January of 2017 because he was a fan of my work.  He said, “I have these tapes that I based the book on that have been sitting in my closet. Do you think there’s something there? Because there seems to be more and more interest in this kind of programming”. I said, “Well, there’s been a lot of stuff done on Bundy. So, let me take a listen and I’ll tell you what I think”. The bar has to be high because there has been other Bundy stuff. So, I got the tapes, immediately was captivated by them because just hearing from him, going inside the mind of the killer, I thought was just a fascinating way to tell the story. I knew the 30th anniversary was coming up and it just seemed like a good time to reflect back. 

PFF: After doing the documentary, was there any pressure or desire to take liberties with the facts and situations while doing the feature film?

Joe Berlinger: I wouldn’t say pressure, but the nature of narrative filmmaking is that you have to compress time on film. That the unfolding of time is not the same as in real life and you do have to take certain liberties. But I’m very proud of the film, and that it actually hues very closely to real life. But you have to think of the three-act structure, you have to make it entertaining for an audience.

Truthfully, probably the biggest issue I struggled with is in the memoir that this is based, there are a few times in the memoir where she (reference to Lily Collin’s character Liz Kendall in the film) talks about having found things that made her think twice. Like she found the knife in the glove box of his car, they kept separate apartments even though they lived together and, in his apartment, she found the bowl of keys. Why did he have so many house keys? But these are isolated events that take place over a seven- or eight-year period.  It’s like if you’re living with a cheating spouse or an alcoholic spouse or a drug-addicted spouse and they claim to be on the wagon or they claim to not be cheating, you have an ability to kind of push that aside over a period of time and it’s only when it reaches a critical mass in real life, that when you have an experience like this, then all the clues come together and you’re like, “Oh right. I should’ve realized this all along”.

That was the biggest issue I had to leave out of her memoir because time is different in a narrative film then it is in real life.


PFF: You have two great performances from Zac Effron and Lily Collins. What was the process for bringing these two actors into such an infamous story? How did you prepare them for the roles?

Joe Berlinger: Everyone working on this movie thought we were doing something special. Every cast member was my first choice, which never happens. Everyone felt like there was something special here, so despite the dark subject matter there was a great camaraderie. Zac and Lily, in particular, worked really hard. These were not easy roles for either of them, both of them are going outside of their comfort zone of what they have normally done in the past.

I did a couple of different things. With Zac, I gave him a lot of archival and proprietary footage to look at, footage from the documentary that’s not available online. But Lily, I did not want her to see anything. At first, she was like, “where is my footage to look at?” I told her, “I don’t want to see at anything, don’t look on the internet, don’t learn about Ted Bundy”. In fact, the first time she actually saw any graphic imagery was right before we shot something graphic for the film. That’s when I pulled her aside and said “look, this is what this guy did”. She was able to use that.

More importantly, to me, the whole film rests upon you believing in their relationship despite what Ted Bundy did. I believe that there is one spectrum of human behavior. We want to think that serial killers, who are committing terrible crimes and displaying abhorrent behaviors, I’m not trying to lighten that, what they did is terrible…but there is one spectrum of compartmentalization of evil that we all exist on, and we all compartmentalize and do bad things in varying degrees. Most of us here, I would hope, our compartmentalization is a little lie here or a little thing here and then we just move on.

I believe Bundy actually was capable of love, which is a controversial comment, but I think he needed and craved normalcy but he compartmentalized this terrible evil that he did. So, for me, the relationship being real is the crux of the movie. Some people have criticized, “where is the violence in this film, you are glossing over his evil”. To me, the catalog of killings in a serial killer movie has been done to death. Why do I need to populate a movie with that? What I am portraying is the seduction of evil and how you can be fooled.  So, the key to that is the relationship being real. This love is real between the two of them, and that connection needs to burn off the screen. That was the thing I worked on the most. Not because I’m glamorizing a serial killer or glossing over the violence, just the opposite. I want to portray how someone who is intelligent, who had a child, who had her whole life in front of her, was able to be seduced by a guy who presents to be one thing but turns out to be another.

PFF: It feels like there is a sense of satire within the film, specifically in the way Bundy’s charm was shown in the media. Was that your intent?

Joe Berlinger: To call a movie a satire would be an overstatement. But there are satirical elements to it because I am definitely making a comment on how the media helped to contribute and create this monster and how there were so many opportunities to catch this guy.  It is being somewhat satirical. For example, the title of the movie is “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile”. It’s an absurd title. But if you notice the movie doesn’t begin with that title, it ends with that title because by the time those words are pronounced, the gravity of it is felt. And yet, when I think people see this, see the poster or see the trailer and go into a movie called “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile” they think they’re going to have kind of a good time. For me, the truth, just like the title of the movie and its meaning is right in front of you.  By the end of the movie, when the title is spoken, it takes on a whole other meaning. To me, the question of everybody’s culpability in allowing Bundy to flourish is what would be commented on. And so, there are moments when there is some satire because I’m trying to let people know that the truth is often right in front of you. It’s kind of a warning, because especially in today’s day and age, where we live in these curated worlds of Instagram and Facebook and we all pretend to be something that isn’t the actual essence of our life. There is a danger that people could take that to a much greater degree and be dangerous to society.



You can watch Mr. Berlinger’s new film today, May 3rd, on Netflix.

Extremely Wicked Shockingly Evil and Vile - Movie Review by Ben Cahlamer

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Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile

Directed by Joe Berlinger

Screenplay by Michael Werwie based on “The Phantom Prince: My Life with Ted Bundy” by Elizabeth Kloepfer

Starring Zac Efron, Lily Collins, Kaya Scodelario, Jeffrey Donovan, Jim Parsons, John Malkovich

A curious set of events befell me as I undertook this assignment to review Joe Berlinger’s “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile,” which debuts on Netflix on May 3 and opened the 2019 Phoenix Film Festival. We were invited to our press screening knowing that we were going to be interviewing Mr. Berlinger and as I watched the film unfold, I couldn’t help but repress a smile.

Zac Efron’s performance as Ted Bundy, the infamous serial killer who was finally executed in 1989, was electrifying. I knew, instinctively that it was Efron who was performing, but he was in such command of his performance that I was in awe. His performance wasn’t filled with a set of hijinks. There was something much more sinister afoot and it is a completely different role for him.

When we sat down with Mr. Berlinger, and you can read our interview with him, he confirmed what I suspected to be the case: that “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile” is a sadistic, dark comedy, and yet, there is very little on screen violence.

You might ask me when you see me in the corridors of a theatre why that was an important distinction for me to make. And I’ll tell you it’s because this is not Ted Bundy’s story. This is, in fact, Liz’s story about how they first met in Washington State and their romance blossomed. She remained by Ted’s side as he went from jail to jail to, finally prison in Florida.

Efron could not have pulled off his performance without the help of Lily Collins as Liz Kendall. When they were on screen together, you could easily see why they would have made the perfectly normal couple. Her composure throughout the entire ordeal is something I’ve only seen on a politician’s face when they realize they’ve made a mistake, but won’t or can’t admit it. Collins evoked a very quiet, personal fear that matched Efron’s controlled command.

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It was rather funny to see Efron come unglued during his trial. A law student and extremely well versed, his trial in Florida, presided by Judge Edward Cowart, Bundy went toe to toe with the judge. It was interesting to see the trial from afar, not necessarily through Liz’s point of view, but that of the public’s point of view where, Liz blended in with the rest of America. Bundy’s trial was the first to be nationally televised in 1989.

Performances aside, I can understand the reaction from the critics at Sundance. “Extremely Wicked” is a lot to take in. But, this film is a commentary on the state of media in this country and our obsession with “if it bleeds, it leads.”

That’s why it was almost heartbreaking for me to hear Malkovich recite Cowart’s statement during Bundy’s sentencing. (Before seeing the film, I had not heard that speech, so it was a fresh, raw experience.) Brandon Trost’s (“Can You Ever Forgive Me”) cinematography during that scene really enhances just how powerful that interaction was.

The former black listed screenplay from fellow Wisconsinite, Michael Werwie sat in a desk somewhere collecting dust until, just like in the movie, someone’s people called their people to call other people to make this deal happen. And it so happens that it landed in director Joe Berlinger’s lap. Mr. Berlinger is known for being an award winning documentarian, and in fact, then Mr. Werwie’s script was brought to his attention, he was already working on the Ted Bundy documentary, “Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes.” In fact that documentary premiered on Netflix the same day that “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile” premiered at Sundance earlier this year and makes for an excellent companion piece.

Mr. Berlinger’s documentary background was perfectly suited for “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile,” both as a black comedy and a social satire on the state of media today, 20 years after the Bundy’s trial.

As the film rolled in the Cine Capri at the Harkins Scottsdale 101, with a capacity crowd, I realized just how true Joe Berlinger’s film rings. It took a compelling performance from the entire cast, but it was much more than that. This is one of the better-nuanced dramas I’ve seen this year.

3 out of 4 stars

Hail Satan? - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

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The documentary ‘Hail Satan?’ triggers heaping doses of curiosity and anxiety

Directed by:  Penny Lane

Starring:  Lucien Greaves and Jex Blackmore

“Hail Satan?” – It’s January 2013 in Tallahassee, Fla., and a man lounges in a living room during the middle of the day and calls a local ABC affiliate about a state capital rally by The Satanic Temple.  

The Satanic Temple?

Two women sit close by, but the camera cuts to another man walking upstairs dressed in a black cape and hefty goat horns protruding from his head.  One of the women then draws “I love Satan” (with a heart sketched in place of the word “love”) on white poster board.

Admittedly, that particular moment of director Penny Lane’s documentary purposely feels like a surreal comedy, something out of “What We Do in the Shadows” (2014), because what exactly is happening here?  

“Hail Satan?” is not a mockumentary.  Not at all, and The Satanic Temple is a sincere organization.  Still, ordinary people in polite society making matter-of-fact comments about satanic demonstrations – with probably grocery shopping or kids’ soccer practice also shoehorned into the day – can catch moviegoers off-guard and deliver heaping doses of curiosity and anxiety with a pinch of skepticism.  

As the rest of Lane’s intriguing work plays out over 95 minutes, skepticism quickly disappears, curiosity rises and anxiety falls, although not completely.  

Lucien Greaves is completely all-in with The Satanic Temple.  He is the co-founder of the international group out of Salem, Mass., but in just a few years, several other chapters form, including ones in Santa Cruz, Chicago, Atlanta, and also Arizona.  

Soft-spoken, gracious and unassuming, Greaves took the mantle of spokesperson, because he “wanted to be sure that Satanism was properly represented.”    

Well, Lane captures b-roll of some bizarre occult-like ceremonies in which nude women choke on red wine, nude men place pig heads on stakes and others sport pentagrams on their midriffs, while various speakers and onlookers cheer, “Hail Satan!”  

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These images, however, tell a small portion of The Satanic Temple’s story and Greaves’ vision, as its members frequently dive into political issues and confront religious organizations that blur the lines between church and state.  Without jumping into the specifics (in order to avoid spoiling the film’s surprises), they peacefully argue their political viewpoints in Little Rock, Phoenix and other spots around the country. The Satanic Temple does craft controversies and cause caustic uproars, due to its name and beliefs and also the members’ physical appearances.  Opposing reactions seem to be universal. Just imagine…

These fundamental and very public disagreements frequently become awkward and entertaining, as two very different viewpoints face one another in the same physical spaces.  Additionally, for those who disdain the push of religion into the public sectors (like in school classrooms or on state government property), you might find yourself siding with the Satanists, especially when confronted with a binary choice.  

For those who embrace religion within our government institutions, “Hail Satan?” is not your movie, but everyone can learn a lot about modern-day Satanism through the Temple’s community activism and Lane’s one-on-one interviews with its accessible supporters who follow The Seven Tenets.  

In fact, The Satanic Temple’s first tenant says, “One should strive to act with compassion and empathy towards all creatures in accordance with reason.”

That sounds awfully positive.  This is coming from a satanic organization, right?  Yes, and cue curiosity and anxiety again and again.

(3/4 stars)   

Jeff – a member of the Phoenix Critics Circle – has penned film reviews since 2008 and graduated from ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism.  Follow Jeff and the Phoenix Film Festival on Twitter @MitchFilmCritic and @PhoenixFilmFest, respectively.

El Chicano - Movie Review by Ben Cahlamer

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El Chicano

Directed by Ben Hernandez Bray

Screenplay by Ben Hernandez Bray and Joe Carnahan

Starring Raul Castillo, Aimee Garcia, Jose Pablo Cantillo, David Castaneda, Marco Rodriguez, George Lopez

If you’ve been reading me for any length of time, you know that I seek out independent cinema where I can find stories that push boundaries. Stories that challenge us to think outside our comfort zones and down-to-earth characters that I can potentially relate to.

“El Chicano” is one of those stories. The film isn’t really interested in what you think about. Nor does it care that you won’t agree with its politics. The story centers around three main situations: the east side of Los Angeles, a cop who tries to solve his brother’s murder and an avenging vigilante.

Bray’s story, based on his memoirs about the death of his brother uses the gang elements to build the meat on the story. It is a detective story, with Raul Castillo in the role of Pedro Hernandez. He’s a stand-up detective who will fight to protect his family, both blood and blue. His partner, Detective Martinez (Jose Pablo Cantillo) is the perfect foil. He is constantly reminded that his street smarts from Chicago won’t necessarily work in Los Angeles, but he definitely can hold his own.

Joe Carnahan will be familiar to audiences for his film “Narc,” as well as “Smokin’ Aces.” He co-wrote the screenplay with Bray. The story is steeped in Mexican history and revenge became a common theme. The level of violence in the movie didn’t shock me, but it was unrestrained. The opening scene set in the past, when Pedro, Diego and “Shotgun” (David Castaneda as the adult “Shotgun”) were kids.

They were witness to El Chicano’s first appearance. The level of detail that went into creating the myth in the story and on the screen was impressive for this level of production. The touches that were added heighten the tension and the excitement, even though the narrative projects itself.

That’s the beauty and the drawback of the story – it does write itself, but it seems to paint itself into a corner as well. We know how this story is going play out. It manages to set itself apart by having well rounded characters.

I did feel that the story leaned a little too heavily on the Mexican history of gringos taking the land that is now California, Arizona and New Mexico from Mexico. It plays into the gangster elements just a bit too easily but it works because of the characters who carry its part of the story. The violence was comical because it was so over the top. It reminded me of Mark Goldblatt’s “The Punisher” where the motives behind that film’s Frank Castle matches Pedro’s motives. It also reminded me of a smaller film with similar themes and characters from 1993 called “Street Knight,” featuring Jeff Speakman and Marco Rodriguez who plays Jesus in this film.

Outside of Pedro, Jesus is one of the most interesting characters. His character isn’t wooden or token; he has a depth that really gives credence to El Chicano. He also a plays a messianic character; not necessarily a deity, but a spiritual character that carries the history and serves as a medium between the culture and the events that unfold in the story. Rodriguez’s performance, though minimal should not be underestimated.

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George Lopez has some very choice words as Captain Gomez. He’s also got the streetwise wisdom to back it up. It was a nice dramatic turn for this stand-up comedian, playing a father figure to Pedro. There is trust between the two characters, which probably stretches too many boundaries, but I bought into why their dynamic worked.

“El Chicano” works because of its characters and themes. It plays the violence card a bit too heavily handed. The myth works because of the characters that perpetuate it, not because of the myth itself.

2.5 out of 4 stars

Long Shot - Movie Review by Monte Yazzie

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Long Shot

Dir: Jonathan Levine

Starring: Charlize Theron, Seth Rogen, June Diane Raphael, Ravi Patel, Bob Odenkirk, and O’Shea Jackson Jr.

Cinema has demonstrated many visions of love at first encounter, on first sight. When Forrest meets Jenny on the school bus in “Forrest Gump”, when Jack finds Rose gazing into the ocean in “Titanic”, or when Tony and Maria dance into one another’s lives in “Westside Story”; these examples display the complicated encounters of love in their romantic, tragic, and one-sided forms.

“Long Shot”, the new romantic-comedy from talented director Jonathan Levine, focuses on a first encounter of love between two unlikely people who have more in common than they actually realize. Charlize Theron and Seth Rogen are the two characters leading the charge into a tumultuous environment while trying to hold their newfound feelings intact. If you feel like you’ve seen this before, you have…still, “Long Shot” has a completely charming and raunchily hilarious heart that keeps its fairytale sensibilities in line.

Charlotte Field (Charlize Theron) is the Secretary of State for the United States, she is a born leader with a work ethic that keeps her one step ahead of her counterparts. Fred Flarsky (Seth Rogen) is a struggling investigative journalist, he is ambitious in the most reckless ways and impulsive in behavior that often gets him into trouble. Charlotte and Fred both attend a swanky party, their eyes meet across the dance floor and, for one of them, emotions blossom again. Charlotte, needing a speech writer, hires Fred and the two begin a worldwide political tour of private jets, fancy dinners, and lots of conversation.

What separates “Long Shot” from other romantic stories like them? Not much, but it does one thing that detaches it significantly from other rom-coms, it constructs a female character who possesses all the power, in all its forms, in the relationship. It’s surprisingly refreshing to see this dynamic work itself out between the characters, and for it to remain throughout a majority of the film.

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Charlize Theron is fantastic, without her this film would lose its charming and genuine portrayal of relationships when the cliched melodrama or the raunchy comedic elements take over. Seth Rogen may not be the most talented dramatic actor but he is offered a few quiet, contemplative moments where he shines. But this film belongs to Ms. Theron, a force of screen presence but also a complimentary performer for those who share the space with her. Ms. Theron’s character is the smartest, strongest, and most confident character in the film. It creates an interesting dynamic for a film that starts in the residence of white supremacists spouting hate rhetoric and trying to convince newcomers to brand themselves with hate symbols. It’s establishing a world where even the smartest, strongest, most confident female character would still be looked upon as a long shot for every position men feel entitled to, which is sadly still not to far from the reality we are currently living.

The narrative writes itself into somewhat of a corner, as the fairytale of the relationship builds towards a reality that is more complicated to portray, more complicated when real life reveals its complex pathways. While it’s not completely unsatisfying, it does feel like the easiest, but also laziest, route towards a conclusion was taken in order to retain its foundation as a comedy.

“Long Shot” may not be the best first date film, but it may be the best third date film. You’ll get the romantic sentiments while also challenging how far your significant other’s comedy threshold is for uneasy situations and sometimes crude conversation. It’s a film that has charm and heart at its core, a film that tries its very best to have you leave the theater with the same feelings you might feel when you encounter that special someone across the room.

Monte’s Rating

3.50 out of 5.00

The White Crow - Movie Review by Ben Cahlamer

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The White Crow

Directed by Ralph Fiennes

Screenplay by David Hare based on “Nureyev: The Life” by Julie Kavanagh

Starring Oleg Ivenko, Adele Exarchopoulos, Chulpan Khamatova, Ralph Fiennes, Alexey Morozov, Raphael Personnaz, Olivier Rabourdin, Sergei Polunin

You might hear someone say that there is no destiny. That we make up our own story as we go along. That is true to a certain extent, Our stories are informed and influenced by external factors, yet what makes us “unique” is how we allow those influences to guide us. At the end of the day, the human spirit is an indomitable one.

This brings us to Rudolf Nureyev, the real-life subject of Ralph Fiennes’ latest film, “The White Crow.” Nureyev was Russia’s greatest gift to ballet. He was a troubled soul though, which is the subject of David Hare’s adaptation of Julie Kavanagh’s “Nureyev: The Life.”

Fiennes offers us a minor glimpse in to the beauty and tragedy of this young ballet dancer who dreams of making it big one day. The stage is Paris, in the early 1960’s. Young Nureyev has been granted a chance by the State to study with the best ballet instructors. We are treated to his early failures, but what interested me in Oleg Ivenko’s performance is how committed and how driven he remained to his studies.

In fact, early in the film his inexperience is mentioned in relation to his age. He is so fiercely sure that he can advance in the classes that he pushes himself to the breaking point. After a falling out with his assigned teacher, he demands to be paired with the famous instructor, Alexander Ivanovich Pushkin, played by Fiennes in a supporting role.

Pushkin pushes Nureyev to his limit, but doesn’t necessarily provide a motive. When we first see Nureyev dance in Pushkin’s class, the cinematography is reflective, using the mirrors to allow us to see Nureyev from Pushkin’s vantage point. This vantage point, which is beautifully staged, allows us to see the flawed, human Nureyev.

Nureyev’s troubled journey is not merely set in 1961 Paris. Fiennes and cinematographer Mike Eley transition us between the young adult and the child, Nureyev. The unique composition of the images that represent his childhood stand in stark contrast to the determined dancer to be.

It is singly, perhaps, some of the best cinematography I’ve seen in awhile.

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Sadly, David Hare’s screenplay doesn’t completely do this film or Nureyev’s true story justice as some of the transitionary drama gets bogged down through several trysts as well as an ongoing adventure to explore Paris and make friends outside of the school, and their Russian handlers.

We know, instinctually, why the story is being told, though it feels almost like we’re being guided through a museum of important events in his life, much like a gallery. The aforementioned transitions help to carry the emotional impact of the film, leading to an emotionally satisfying payoff, rivaling some of the best Le Carre and Clancy adaptations we’ve seen about Soviet Russia in that era.

It isn’t until Pushkin asks Nureyev a pivotal question, that we are able to look past the surface of Nureyev or his drive. That we are able to look past ourselves.

“What story do we wish to tell?”

It’s a very powerful conviction to be able to answer it the way Nureyev ultimately does and the rest is truly history.

2.75 out of 4

UglyDolls - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

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‘UglyDolls’ offers cute music and positive messages but through a discounted narrative  

Directed by:  Kelly Asbury

Written by:  Alison Peck

Starring:  Kelly Clarkson, Janelle Monae, Ice-T, Pitbull, Blake Shelton, Wanda Sykes, Gabriel Iglesias, and Jane Lynch

“UglyDolls” – “It’s not easy being green.” – Kermit the Frog

Moxy (Kelly Clarkson), a rejected doll from a toy factory, proudly sports pink fur and three teeth and lives with her fellow oddities in Uglyville, a coastal community, complete with rugged, steep peaks made from cardboard boxes.  Her friends Uglydog (Pitbull), Babo (Gabriel Iglesias) and Ox (Blake Shelton) love Uglyville, and Moxy appreciates her home too, but she dreams of becoming the best doll-friend to a little girl in The Big World.  

Ox, the town mayor, wishes that Moxy would just enjoy her current digs and opines, “It doesn’t get better than this,” but she thinks that Out There could be better and leads her polyester pals on a passage to potential paradise.  

Director Kelly Asbury’s film offers some awfully important messages for younger kids.  You see, his dolls do not sport Barbie’s perfect blonde hair or G.I. Joe’s bulging biceps.  Instead these squatty, Muppet-like, huggable creations mimic the misfit toys’ circumstances in “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” (1964), except the 2019 group of playthings carry more optimism than their North Pole counterparts.

With a cast that includes Clarkson, Pitbull, Shelton, and Janelle Monae, Asbury’s picture absolutely calls for light fun through music, and “UglyDolls” certainly hits some high notes, especially with Clarkson and Monae leading “Today’s the Day” and “All Dolled Up”, respectively.  Five year-olds will munch on popcorn and bob their heads to the upbeat beats, and parents will toe-tap as well. In fact, the aforementioned “UglyDolls” numbers are more memorable than anything performed in the overhyped “Mary Poppins Returns” (2018).

On the other hand, after its catchy tunes and positive messages, playtime with “UglyDolls” is over, as the plot devices - to (hopefully) carry Moxy to her higher purpose - take shortcuts.  The film just jogs in place during the second and third acts. Moxy only needs to make one stop at The Institute of Perfection before reaching her dreams, but she and her buds need to cope – seemingly forever - with a whiny brat named Lou (Nick Jonas) and a 200-doll-clique of perfect-looking figures and figurines who poke fun at our colorful furballs, solely based on their looks.

Asbury sends the audience to this imperfect world of perfection to sit through forced, inane conflicts started by Lou for about 50 minutes of the film’s 87-minute runtime.  Despite Lou’s best push into tyranny, he’s about as threatening as an inch worm’s impact on 5pm freeway traffic, and his threatening Gauntlet challenge - at the picture’s crescendo - turns into a familiar and tired “The Hunger Games” (2012) gimmick.  

This critic was starving for on-screen inspiration, but these one-dimensional “Monsters, Inc.” (2001) lookalikes are not given a whole lot to do.  Their new ally Mandy (Monae) does give the gang a makeover – so they feel better about themselves - but that conflicts with one of the movie’s chief points:  be proud of who you are.

Maybe kids won’t notice the irony or forget it entirely, especially with “All Dolled Up” blasting through movie theatre speakers.  Maybe they won’t question that the town is named Uglyville, but everyone seems accepting of their appearances. Maybe the film is just an hour and a half distraction.  

Well, it’s not easy being green…or pink, but neither is sitting – with a critical eye - through “UglyDolls”.

(2/4 stars)

Jeff – a member of the Phoenix Critics Circle – has penned film reviews since 2008 and graduated from ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism.  Follow Jeff and the Phoenix Film Festival on Twitter @MitchFilmCritic and @PhoenixFilmFest, respectively.

Dogman - Guest Movie Review by Jose Ignacio Castaneda


Directed by: Matteo Garrone

Starring: Marcello Fonte, Edoardo Pesce and Alida Baldari Calabria


“Dogman” follows the muddied tracks of the subdued dog groomer Marcello (Marcello Fonte) and his complicated relationship with the neighborhood brute, Simoncino (Edoardo Pesce).

Marcello carries out a peaceful existence as a mild-mannered divorced dad who owns the neighborhood dog-grooming store in a dreary seaside Italian town. He competes in grooming competitions, plays soccer with the other neighborhood shopkeepers, sees his daughter on occasion and shares his pasta dinner with his dog. In spite of his daily activities, Marcello is laced with undertones of crime due to his volatile relationship with Simoncino.

Simoncino is the surly local bully who commits petty crimes and constantly harasses the nearby shopkeepers. His flimsy relationship with Marcello is built upon the fact that Simoncino can continuously bum cocaine off of him. In order to gain Simoncino’s favor, Marcello constantly rolls over into nefarious schemes involving drugs and theft.

This rickety friendship arrives at a breaking point when Simoncino forcefully asks Marcello to give him the keys to his shop in order to break through the wall and ransack the jewelry store next door. During this discussion, Marcello must decide whose approval he wishes to garner more: Simoncino’s or his fellow shop-keeping friends.

“Dogman” is bathed in a beautiful and somber style that parallels that of “Children of Men” (2006). With it being set in a rundown seaside town in its off-season, the film immediately immerses you in a setting that invokes a sense of melancholy nostalgia.

The panning shots in the film are extremely smooth and they capture the essence of the story that the film is trying to tell. Matteo Garrone does an amazing job at exploring the characters through their actions, instead of exposition or dialogue. The characters unfold frame-by-frame with every beat and step the actors take.

Both Marcello Fonte and Edoardo Pesce gave fantastic performances through their vastly different characters. Before any dialogue is exchanged, the difference can quietly be seen in Marcello’s hunched and lanky posture and Simoncino’s meaty and barbaric stance. The contrasts in their separate characters helped evolve their combined relationship on-screen.

Marcello and Simoncino formed an unlikely pair in a somewhat unwilling friendship, but they played off of each other extremely well.

This Italian feature slowly explores a relationship through a dark, bleak lens. It unveils the underbelly of a sleepy coastal town and the limits of a seemingly complaisant dog groomer. 2/4 stars

Marvel Cinematic Universe's Movie Rankings by Jeff Mitchell

The Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Movies, Ranked #22 to #1

With “Avengers: Endgame” selling out just about every movie theatre in the Valley during its opening weekend, it feels like the perfect time to take a few moments and look back at the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) and its 22 films.  After painstaking consideration, here is my ranking of the MCU films, #22 to #1. I hope that you enjoy this stroll down Movie-Memory Lane and, of course, “Endgame”!

22. “Iron Man 2” (2010) – The world knows that Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) is Iron Man, so new threats like Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke) and Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell) do not need to peek under our hero’s red and gold helmet.  Unfortunately, the script peaks during the first act – on a Monaco race track - and slides into surprising boredom for the rest of the 2-hour 4-minute runtime. Tony also gets drunk and feels sorry for himself, and after sitting through this movie, you might too.


21. “Thor: The Dark World” (2013)
– A perfectly serviceable setup between the Dark Elves’ leader Malekith (Christopher Eccleston) and Thor (Chris Hemsworth) plays third fiddle to the God of Thunder’s suddenly tired relationship with Earth’s Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) and endless, silly portal jumps between the Nine Realms.  Thankfully, Loki (Tom Hiddleston) shines bright sarcasm and charisma.  Where would this movie be without Loki?

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20. “Iron Man 3” (2013)
– Ben Kingsley’s Mandarin reveal is downright hilarious, but it also might be the most disappointing moment in the MCU’s catalog.  The rise of Tony Stark’s new adversary Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce) is no laughing matter though. Killian puts up a threatening fight, but this Iron Man story just isn’t big enough for the MCU’s most celebrated star.  The film actually works best when Tony hangs out with a 10-year-old kid (Ty Simpkins) during a sizable portion of the second act.

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19. “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” (2017)
– Lightning does not strike twice, as the tight-knit wonder of James Gunn’s marvelously-kooky “Guardians of the Galaxy” somewhat disappears in a sea of noisy, bombastic excess in the sequel.  Sure, it’s a joy to experience the Guardians cracking smart-alecky one-liners again and again, but the celestial plot between father (Kurt Russell) and son (Chris Pratt) and the music – which was so memorable in the first film – do not quite resonate.

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18. “Avengers: Age of Ultron” (2015)
– When one of Tony’s programmed Iron Man-like androids – Ultron (James Spader) - becomes sentient, it quickly surmises that the human race should be eliminated.  Geez, just like that? Did Ultron binge-watch a season of “Paradise Hotel”? Well, our beloved Avengers – who pick up a couple more heroes along the way – return to the big screen to fight this modern-day terminator, but its ultimate plan to wipe out humanity feels – quite frankly - half-baked at best.

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17. “The Incredible Hulk” (2008)
– The old adage that a movie is only as strong as its villain certainly applies here, as The Hulk (Edward Norton) faces Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth) who turns into another ferocious, green monster known as Abomination.  With an opponent as powerful as The Hulk, their mono e mono struggle delivers visceral comic book-movie theatre. The problem is that the CGI – as revolutionary as it was in 2008 - had a long way to go to completely suspend disbelief.

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16. “Captain America: The First Avenger” (2011)
– Captain America’s (Chris Evans) goody two shoes persona feels a bit cornball, and standing in a long concession stand line with a dead cellphone battery carries more excitement than the film’s WWII battle scenes.  The Tesseract, however, proves to be an intriguing everlasting battery for Hydra Commander Johann Schmidt’s (Hugo Weaving) war machines, and learning his true identity is a big payoff.

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15. (Tie) “Ant-Man” (2015) and “Ant-Man and The Wasp” (2018) –
Paul Rudd might be the perfect actor to match the breezy tone of “Ant-Man”, and the 2015 movie – at the time - immediately vaulted to the top of the MCU’s funniest films.  Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) hires Scott Lang (Rudd) for a heist and lends him his patented Ant-Man suit for cover, and the new protégé also hopes to start dating the good doctor’s daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly).  Three years later, Dr. Pym, Hope and Lang try to rescue Janet van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer) from a bizarre micro universe called the Quantum Realm in “Ant-Man and The Wasp”. Who is van Dyne? Just Dr. Pym’s wife and Hope’s mom.  Whoa. Can they do this? It’s no small feat.

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13. “Doctor Strange” (2016)
– Benedict Cumberbatch’s identity in “Star Trek Into Darkness” (2013) was a baffling mystery, so it’s fitting that he plays one of the MCU’s most puzzling protagonists.  Dr. Stephen Strange (Cumberbatch) loses his ability to perform surgery but discovers his higher calling as a sorcerer. The movie is not entirely enchanting, but Tilda Swinton, Mads Mikkelsen, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, and Cumberbatch certainly keep us mesmerized.

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12. “Captain Marvel” (2019)
– Vers (Brie Larson), a Kree warrior, is captured by some Skrulls, crashes on Earth and forms a partnership with S.H.I.E.L.D.’s Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson).  Set in the 1990s, directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck have a blast with old music references and poking fun at out-of-date technology. Vers and Fury share plenty of buddy-comedy chemistry, and Larson proudly stands tall in the MCU’s first female-led superhero film.

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11. “Thor” (2011)
– Director Kenneth Branagh helms Marvel’s first cosmic movie and skillfully balances Shakespearean themes and some welcomed, well-placed wit.  Thor’s father Odin (Anthony Hopkins) banishes his son to Earth. Now, Thor must find his way without Asgard’s creature comforts, and Chris Hemsworth’s likable God-out-of-space-water routine gels with co-stars Natalie Portman, Kat Dennings and Stellan Skarsgard.


10. “Black Panther” (2018)
– If Dorothy ended up in Wakanda instead of Oz, she never would’ve tapped her ruby slippers to return to Kansas.  Wakanda feels like a 24th century paradise, and Prince T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) appears to be its new king, but not without challengers.  Director Ryan Coogler rightfully chose Michael B. Jordan – and the two worked together on “Fruitvale Station” (2013) and “Creed” (2015) – as T’Challa’s/Black Panther’s fiercest rival, appropriately named Killmonger.

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9. “Spider-man: Homecoming” (2017)
– Okay, “Homecoming” is the third big-screen incarnation of the famous wallcrawler since 2002, but with Peter Parker’s (Tom Holland) tie to Tony Stark and the Avengers, this MCU wrinkle breathes new life into the character.  Holland might have been 21 in 2017, but he convincingly channels his inner 15 year-old on the big screen. The high school banter feels authentic, and so does Michael Keaton’s baddie turn as the Vulture. Keaton should star in everything.

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8. “The Avengers” (2012)
– Writer/director Joss Whedon threw seven superheroes together (including Nick Fury) from previous films into a super-movie that could have turned into a cinematic disaster. Instead, he wrote a cohesive story and delicately shoehorned all seven enormous characters into one tightly-crafted picture which signaled green lights for even bigger and better MCU collaborations.  Yes, “The Avengers” proved that Marvel’s grand experiment worked.

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7. “Iron Man” (2008)
– Who was your favorite superhero in 2007?  Iron Man, perhaps? Except for some committed, diehard comic book fans, it’s not likely, but director Jon Favreau and Robert Downey Jr. changed all of that in 2008.  “Iron Man” was not Downey Jr.’s comeback movie. He starred in “Good Night, and Good Luck” (2005) and “Zodiac” (2007), among other films, but “Iron Man” made him a transcendent star.  Who knew that Tony Stark’s “I am Iron Man” declaration would permanently intertwine Downey Jr. to the character as well?

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6. “Thor: Ragnarok” (2017)
– Chris Hemsworth showed flashes of his sense of humor in the two previous Thor films, but director Taika Waititi serves up a big screen stage for continuous laughs and smiles for 2 hours and 10 minutes.  “Thor: Ragnarok” plays like a comedy more than an action/adventure piece, and Waititi and Hemsworth set the tone right from the get-go, as Thor awkwardly spins in chains in front of a demon-like creature named Surtur.  Mark Ruffalo, Cate Blanchett, Tessa Thompson, Tom Hiddleston, and Jeff Goldblum are having a blast. We are too!

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5. “Avengers: Endgame” (2019)
– No spoilers.  Just see this movie!

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4. “Captain America: Civil War” (2016)
– When Tony Stark and Steve Rogers have a falling out, the other Avengers take sides, and they don’t discuss their differences over coffee and donuts.  They fight. Avenger against Avenger. Friend against friend. How could this happen? Well, a specific event from a previous MCU film fuels Zemo's (Daniel Bruhl) bloodlust, and his discovery of a deeper conflict leads to a vicious, emotional fight between the Avengers’ biggest titans.  

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3. “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” (2014)
– Joe and Anthony Russo turned the MCU on its head by delivering a surprising and spectacular spy movie in “Captain America: Winter Soldier”.   Captain America (Chris Evans) and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) discover that the nefarious Hydra has been growing like a “parasite” for decades in plain sight!  Cap and Widow – along with Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) – aim to cut off Hydra’s head and tentacles, but when you cannot trust anyone, watch your back.

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2. “Guardians of the Galaxy” (2014) - When five ruffians band together to deliver a mysterious orb for an astronomical profit, they discover the meaning of friendship.  Director James Gunn’s highly entertaining, wholly unique and goofy action film is accompanied by a splendid, stylish 70s soundtrack that operates like another surreal character.  Walking out of the theatre after “Guardians of the Galaxy”, this critic felt the same dazzled, bowled-over haze from a very different movie: “Raiders of the Lost Ark” (1981).

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1. “Avengers: Infinity War” (2018)
- For a decade, the MCU has been building towards a two-part Avengers finale, and directors Anthony and Joe Russo do not disappoint.  In Marvel’s 19th installment, Thanos (Josh Brolin), a purple, eight-foot titan, treks across various galaxies to collect six coveted Infinity Stones.  Why?  To wipe out half the population of the universe, but the Avengers aim to stop him.  The Russo brothers construct their movie like a treasure hunt, mix densely-packed blends of action, intrigue and humor, and the on-screen events conjure a certain magic by always keeping us present during every single, individual moment throughout the 2-hour 29-minute operatic runtime.   

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Jeff – a member of the Phoenix Critics Circle – has penned film reviews since 2008 and graduated from ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism.  Follow Jeff and the Phoenix Film Festival on Twitter @MitchFilmCritic and @PhoenixFilmFest, respectively.

Red Joan - Movie Review by Ben Cahlamer

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Red Joan

Directed by Trevor Nunn

Written by Lindsay Shapero based on the novel by Jennie Rooney

Starring Stephen Campbell Moore, Sophie Cookson, Tom Hughes, Ben Miles, Tereza Srbova, Judi Dench

As I watched Trevor Nunn’s (Lady Jane) “Red Joan” unfold, I was uniquely aware of my childhood. I grew up during the Cold War, but not once did I really think about how that affected my childhood. I was completely engrossed in science fiction, though I suppose now that I think about that, the ‘Star Wars’ race really was a reflection of what had come before me.

It is important to understand how the era you grew up in, influences how you react to modern events. I’d often hear my grandparents say “kids these days.” I’m not necessarily thinking about that, but I am thinking about Joan Stanley, played by Judi Dench. The story, written by Lindsay Shapero based on the novel of the same name by Jennie Rooney, transitions between modern times where the elderly Joan Stanley is arrested on charges of treason.

As the story opens, Shapero’s story flashes back to Joan’s younger days at Cambridge. The younger Joan, played by Sophie Cookson, is a bit of a milquetoast character in that she is an ideologue. Her passion was physics, but so much of the early part of the film focuses on how the male-dominated world perceived her.

She eventually comes to the attention of Sonya (Tereza Srbova) and her brother Leo (Tom Hughes). The “recruitment” is subtle in terms of the story, but the films and the allegiance song suggests that her journey was anything but subtle.

As with many of the best spy movies, “Red Joan” works overtime to make sure that the protagonist’s ideologies are cemented in our consciousness, a critical component of the modern times as the interrogation serves to try to break that.

In the past, Max (Stephen Campbell Moore), is the lead scientist working to build the atomic bomb. His character adds a lot of interesting insight in to how the British were stuck between the ‘yanks’ and the Russians with the technology and he confided in Joan. Leo (Tom Hughes) was trying to court her and coerce her in to giving information over to the Russians.

The subtleties are still present as the story tries to build a romance, but ultimately the story isn’t interested in that context as it progresses forward in time: the more we learn about Joan’s history, her loss of innocence and the complexities of treason, the less interested we become in her character’s journey.

It’s a shame too because there’s so much detail about how diplomacy, and the struggle for peace that gets lost in the background. The character of Joan is believable, but it’s the constant use of time shifting to tell the story and give us a perspective that gets lost.

Nick (Ben Miles) plays Joan’s son. Continuing in the family lineage, he is a powerful individual in the government, his character a counter for Max. That balance in the character restores some of the motive behind Joan’s path. However, by the time we get there, her story is so convoluted that we aren’t really interested in the why’s, only the how’s.

Ms. Dench’s performance is fine for this type of story as was Ms. Cookson’s, something that salvaged the film for me. The story really got bogged down in transitioning constantly that the details became irrelevant.

As those details sunk in it reminded me of just how unique the passage of time becomes, our sense of that time and our place within that time. We try to defend our actions of the past in a time where life moves so fast that the modern, older versions of ourselves struggle to prove that what we’ve done was honorable to a younger generation that has become intolerant.

“Red Joan” had the power to connect generations, but it gets stuck in its own ideology and never really lets that ideology sing.

1.5 out of 4 stars