20th Century Women - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

‘20th Century Women’ carries us on a personal, nostalgic journey

 

Written/directed by: Mike Mills

Starring: Annette Bening, Elle Fanning, Greta Gerwig, Billy Crudup, and Lucas Jade Zumann

 

“20th Century Women” – In 2011, writer/director Mike Mills offered a heartfelt, personal tale about his relationship with his father in “Beginners”, starring Ewan McGregor and Christopher Plummer, who won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar.  Mills’ parents were married for over 40 years, but when his mother died, his father – in his 70s – declared that he was gay the entire time that they were married. 

 

Mills, who is trained as a graphic designer, brought his unique filmmaking perspective to the movie, by creating a - sometimes - dreamlike experience.  The picture’s nonlinear timeline grants us continual peeks into their relationship, while Mills infuses analogies with history’s effect on romantic relationships, along with wonderfully quirky imagery and oodles of meaningful still photos.  After watching the film, one can truly capture a sense of his dad, which sinks in via cinematic osmosis.

 

Mills follows up his memorable portrait of his father by delivering “20th Century Women”, which is an equally memorable portrait of his mother, played by Annette Bening. 

 

Although Mills grew up with two sisters and his parents were married for over 40 years (as previously stated), in this film, Bening plays a single mom to a teenage boy named Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) in 1979 Santa Barbara, the time and place that Mills also grew up. 

 

Dorothea (Bening) is a non-conventional mom. 

 

She was raised during the Great Depression, and Jamie feels that his mom never gave up her communal spirit, in which neighbors and friends take care of one another.  She owns a large home - built in the very early 1900s - and has two tenants, a 20-something photographer, Abbie (Greta Gerwig), and a 40-something mechanic, William (Billy Crudup).  Abbie and William rent rooms and help fit the “it takes a village” bill, or at the very least, offer good company. 

 

Dorothea, however, puts her beliefs into well-defined action, by asking Jamie’s plutonic friend, Julie (Elle Fanning), and Abbie to help raise her son, because she feels – as a single mom - that she cannot be there all the time.  Hence, these “20th Century Women” collectively attempt to raise Jamie, an impressionable teen, during a few weeks or months, in their beautiful coastal town. 

 

In this somewhat sleepy place, the film does not toss a dynamic collection of highs and lows and experiences at Jamie.  Instead, it smartly plays within the boundaries of ordinary Santa Barbara events, like meals around the house, skateboard rides on winding roads, a talk on the beach, or trips to local clubs to catch small punk rock shows.   These occurrences simply present the setting, but the real movement is with the valuable interactions between the five richly textured characters.

 

Dorothea and Jamie’s relationship clearly is the focal point, but Abbie, Julie and William play vitally important supporting players.  Mills gives each character a 60-second, fully-formed biography and places these individual reflections throughout the picture to explain their journeys, which eventually lead to Dorothea’s community.  

 

He gives them context, not only individual definitions of their imperfect selves, but avenues for authentic exchanges with one another, scene after scene.  We immediately settle in and feel comfortable with these characters, even when topics include health scares, explicit sex stories or reasons for loneliness.  Accompanied by a spiritual, new age score, these stories evoke empathic feelings for this genuine, onscreen ensemble and promote introspection on the winding paths of our own lives. 

 

All the while, Dorothea’s devotion to Jamie is never questioned.  Even though their generation gap – in terms of actual years - is larger than most moms and sons, it does not stop her from wanting to comprehend his interests:  girls, his friends and the ‘70s punk scene. Seemingly, about one thousand touching moments reach out from the screen, including some ideas not really spoken out loud in films. 

 

At one point Dorothea frankly says to Abbie with an air of despair, “You get to see him (Jamie) out in the world as a person, and I never will.”

 

I imagine that many mothers feel this way about their sons, but I have not heard it spoken in that specific fashion.   Perhaps Mills’ words combined with Bening’s deep, earthy and open performance will earn her a Best Actress Oscar.  That would be a nice bookend to Plummer’s win, but “20th Century Women” is a beautiful tribute to Mills’ mom and a special film, with or without Oscar hardware.

(3.5/4 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.

 

Julieta - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

Almodovar’s ‘Julieta’ explores the mystery of family

 

Written/directed by:  Pedro Almodovar

Starring:  Emma Suarez, Adriana Ugarte, Daniel Grao, Dario Grandinetti, Inma Cuesta, Blanca Pares, and Michelle Jenner

 

“Julieta” – “A family is a mystery.” – Sharon Olds

 

The latest film from acclaimed director Pedro Almodovar offers up a contemporary mystery, although “Julieta” is not a whodunit.  There are no criminal acts or terribly nefarious moves found anywhere within its 99-minute runtime.  The picture, instead, examines a portrait of a family.  A family in crisis, and the mystery of how it fell apart, a “howdunit”, if you will. 

 

Almodovar exercises his will by crafting the picture on two different timelines, featuring Julieta in her mid 20s during the 1980s and in her 50s in present day.  In 2017, this educated cosmopolite (Emma Suarez) plans on leaving Madrid with her long time beau, Lorenzo (Dario Grandinetti).  With her packing nearly finished and thoughts of a new life in her head, she randomly bumps into a woman from her past on a busy sidewalk at midday.   Suddenly, memories from a past life prevent her from advancing to the aforementioned next one, and Julieta decides to remain in Madrid in the last possible moments before her planned, permanent getaway. 

 

Heartbroken and left in the lurch, Lorenzo accepts the bad news like a grownup, but tells her, “I always knew there was something more important in your life that you never shared with me.”

 

Julieta then proceeds to share with the audience. 

 

Almodovar efficaciously establishes our curiosity around Julieta’s peculiar behavior and rewinds his cinematic clock 30 years to help illuminate the specific source of her sudden cold feet, with Adriana Ugarte portraying a younger Julieta.  Ugarte carries an uncanny likeness to Suarez, which makes one seriously wonder if Emma is playing Julieta in both time periods, as their performances (and physical appearances) feel perfectly in synch with the character. 

 

We see Julieta build a family with a supportive, kind soul, Xoan (Daniel Grao), but not every marriage falls perfectly into place, and in this case, legitimate disagreements can morph into transforming events.   

 

On the other hand, the larger conflict that Julieta faces is not due to crystal clear, decisive differences, but because of a cryptic dispute that truly is invisible to the naked eye and indistinguishable to every other organ that possesses the ability to sense.  Julieta may have taken a sudden, onetime misstep or perhaps constantly applied a slight offense and repeated it for a series of years, and over time, resentment slowly and unknowingly built.  Quite frankly, the reasons are unknown to Julieta, and when a struggle arises without warning or explanation, it can be a source of immense doubt and emotional turmoil. 

 

As a result of this singular divide, Julieta might as well be synonymous with pathos, but Almodovar also introduces a nonfamily-related, tragic event and her parents’ relationship as contributing factors to her personal despair.   They present an additional sense of guilt and some parental dysfunction which help fuel her current gloom, but they do not (appear to) completely gel with the story, and their connections feel deliberately subtle.

 

They do provide some additional cement to the foundation of the character, a woman tied to the past through a painful episode in which she still wonders what could have possibly been her own contribution.  Julieta may get her answer, but until then, her family – like many, many others - is a mystery. 

(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.

 

Bye Bye Man - Movie Review by Monte Yazzie

Bye Bye Man

 

Director: Stacy Title

Starring: Douglas Smith, Lucien Laviscount, Cressida Bonas, Michael Trucco, Jenna Kanell, Cleo King, Carrie-Anne Moss, Faye Dunaway, and Doug Jones

 

“Don’t think it. Don’t say it”. The creation of a monster for a horror film is difficult work these days, especially when you have classic villains like Freddy Krueger, Jason Voorhees, and Michael Myers still standing tall in the horror hall of fame. Still, the genre needs these new scary creations. “Bye Bye Man”, directed by Stacy Title, tries very hard to make the next great movie monster but unfortunately never gets all the pieces put in the right place.

 

Elliot (Douglas Smith), Sasha (Cressida Bonas), and John (Lucien Laviscount) are great friends that are moving into an old house off campus from their college. The house is rundown and filled with all the scary trappings of a haunted house, long hallways, creepy basements, and crawlspace doors with creaky hinges. The group of friends stumble across a piece of furniture that holds a secret to an evil entity, one that is responsible with driving people insane once they speak its name.

 

The genre influences are abundant in “Bye Bye Man”. Shades of “Candyman” and “Beetlejuice” motivate the mythology of speaking the monsters name, also the characters seem pulled from 1990’s slasher films like “I Know What You Did Last Summer” or “Urban Legend”. Unfortunately all of these influential pieces don’t sum up to a good experience. While the first few minutes of the film show promise, mostly because actor Leigh Whannell (from the "Insidious" films) is given the opportunity to play a deranged and tormented man, the rest of film feels thrown together with a mash-up of scenes peaked with subpar jump scares.

 

One of the main problems with the film is that the Bye Bye Man isn’t given a proper introduction. The first big reveal of the monster happens without much impact, the Bye Bye Man just sort of shows up. Looking at a film that played a big influence here, “Candyman”, the reveal of the hook-handed villain who haunts a young woman happens only after the narrative builds the mythology up in a few specific ways, like establishing the connection with the antagonist with the world of the protagonist through environment and storytelling that promotes the legend. “Bye Bye Man” tries to connect in this way, for a small moment in the beginning it succeeds, but the film undermines itself with cheap scares that distract from the creepy undertones and poorly composed characters.

 

Even the talents of Carrie-Anne Moss and Faye Dunaway, yes that Faye Dunaway, aren’t enough to save this film. While there are few effective moments, a scene with an underutilized psychic is nicely composed even if its been done hundred of times before, “Bye Bye Man” never reaches the potential of the influences it tries hard to emulate.

 

Monte’s Rating

1.25 out of 5.0

Silence - Movie Review by Monte Yazzie

Silence

 

Director: Martin Scorsese

Starring: Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver, Liam Neeson, Tadanobu Asano, and Ciarán Hinds

 

What does it mean to have faith? This question means something different to every person and is categorized and signified by numerous factors beyond the simple aspect of religious designation. Director Martin Scorsese has dealt with this concept of faith and the doubt that comes with it throughout his entire film career. From the conflict of Jesus in "The Last Temptation of Christ", the maturation of the Dalai Lama in "Kundun", the divisiveness of clashing principles in "Gangs of New York", faith played a prominent role in each of these films. You can even analyze further the non-verbal imagery that Mr. Scorsese displays in his films and find aspects of faith throughout; the introduction of convict with a cross tattooed on his shoulders in "Cape Fear" is an easy example.

 

Faith can even be found in the ambition of Mr. Scorsese as a filmmaker, who has waited decades to create the passion project "Silence" which is adapted from the 1966 novel by Shūsaku Endō. "Silence" is a film about how one chooses to have faith and the challenges that come with expressing your faith within the world. It's a film that beautifully and complicatedly displays this aspect in every frame, a film that in less experienced, talented hands would not have the evocative power that Mr. Scorsese floods into every moment of the film.

 

The premise is simplistic, it's a story about two Catholic missionaries, Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garrpe (Adam Driver), who journey to Japan to find their mentor (Liam Neeson). The priests have been informed that their respected mentor committed apostasy, a renunciation of the faith. Christianity has been outlawed during this time in Japan, leading to violence and persecution against any person practicing the religion. Rodrigues and Garrpe, fearing for their lives and the lives of the people worshipping in secrecy, are left in a state of doubt and in a struggle of faith.

 

 

There is much to admire in the beautiful yet brutal “Silence”. The calmness of the camera during moments of crisis and conflict, the patience to ask questions of the viewer without easy explanation, the atmosphere that evokes a connection with natural sound rather than a big composition; it’s everything that you’d expect from an auteur like Mr. Scorsese. The meticulous nature of the filmmaking techniques are completely obvious, as are the odes to Japanese filmmakers like Akira Kurosawa and Kenji Mizoguchi; these moments craft some of the best images in film during 2016. While all these elements create an intoxicating film, there is so much more that is being proposed within the quiet narrative.

 

 

The narrative consistently reverts back to the aspect of faith and doubt. The question, "What does it mean to have faith?", is painstakingly analyzed throughout the film to lesser and greater degrees throughout. To call it complicated would be an understatement because the themes in this film hold such a specific, personal, and experiential quality with different people. Some may feel that at times Mr. Scorsese seems to hamper the purpose with an abundance of repetition while others may see this is a recurring link to the challenges that face people of faith. Again, it’s never completely defined one way or another. Mr. Scorsese offers scenes and images meant to create personal examination. It’s fascinating and infuriating at times.

 

The silence in the film reflects the role of God to the people that worship Him, call upon His name, and suffer tremendously for Him within this film, it's an examination of the concepts associated with having faith in something or someone. The silence also displays the struggle with doubt and belief, which is always present regardless of how faithful one may think they are. "Silence” is a complicated experience, but it’s a worthwhile experience for any cinephile or Martin Scorsese fan. It’s fascinating filmmaking from one of the best filmmakers of all time.

 

Monte’s Rating

4.00 out of 5.00

 

Things to Come - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

Huppert keeps us wondering about ‘Things to Come’

 

Written/directed by:  Mia Hansen-Love

Starring:  Isabelle Huppert, Andre Marcon, Edith Scob, and Roman Kolinka

 

“Things to Come” – “Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans.” – John Lennon

 

“An object in motion stays in motion with the same speed and in the same direction unless acted upon by an unbalanced force.”  - Isaac Newton’s First Law of Motion

 

For Nathalie (Isabelle Huppert), a published, high school philosophy teacher, she keeps herself busy with eventful, meaningful plans throughout her days.  Not unlike many hardworking women in 2016, she needs (or feels the need) to wear multiple hats.  Nathalie invests her time with her students and her two grown children.  Additionally, she maintains a household with some help from her husband, Heinz (Andre Marcon), but also looks after her aging mom (Edith Scob), who demands constant attention.  Sprinkle in an occasional escape from Paris to their beautiful, coastal home, and Nathalie enjoys her full life.  As the late Mr. Lennon once said, however, life can suddenly “happen”. 

 

Writer/director Mia Hansen-Love just so happens to compose a rich and thoughtful deep-dive on a character who must cope with significant changes and attempts to embrace an uncertain future.  The things to come.

 

Before Hansen-Love’s picture moves towards things that will come, she introduces Nathalie’s current life during the first act.   Even though Nathalie carries honest and noble intentions, at closer examination, the film reveals that negative forces surround her, and she simply accepts the burden.  While wearing various “hats”, she focuses on her obligations, from her classroom to her publisher, her home, and her mother’s home, and although adverse forces are not always intentional, they exist.  This is probably why Nathalie is always in motion, not just figuratively in terms of her responsibilities, but literally as well, by always briskly walking within given spaces. 

 

Her constant movement becomes quite noticeable after about 10 minutes of screen time, and Hansen-Love and Huppert seem to convey that this helps appease – or has become a byproduct of - her general discomfort.  In fact, she may not even realize her discomfort.  Sometimes in the midst of our demanding lives, we may not rest to notice.

 

American audiences might some have fun noticing the differences between U.S. and French cultures.  Although Nathalie’s story can be told from anywhere, two distinct moments are wonderfully French.  They deal with relationships, but to reveal them here would be a terrible disservice.  I will only mention that they occur with Heinz and a random stranger and are plainly evident when comparing and contrasting with our more uptight mores on this side of the Atlantic.

 

As quickly as Nathalie moves within various spaces – while either throwing away a bouquet of unwanted flowers or scurrying to her mom’s house to appease the latest self-induced catastrophe -  it also becomes abundantly clear that she is not moving forward, but in circles. 

 

In a serendipitous way, life’s “unbalanced forces” nudge her forward by disrupting her well-oiled routines.  She must move forward, but more importantly, she needs to stop and take assessment first. 

 

Nathalie’s self-exploration and the hope for a positive conclusion keep us engaged, and the story works because of Hansen-Love’s rich script in capturing the small details of her lead character’s life and, of course, Huppert’s absorbing performance.  Huppert wraps herself in Nathalie’s challenges and develops a bond with the audience.  She is comical at times, but mostly Nathalie is the responsible wondermom who we had growing up or possibly knew through a neighborhood friend. 

 

We should be so lucky.

 

Talented, thoughtful, beautiful, and well-spoken, she only lacks confidence when her worlds no longer remain their consistent selves.   In this case, this wondermom needs help and a friend, because Newton’s First Law of Motion should not be taken lightly.

(3.5/4 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.

 

 

Jeff Mitchell's Top 20 Films of 2016

Jeff Mitchell’s Top 20 Films of 2016

 

The year 2017 is very nearly upon us, but before we start planning new resolutions and goals, let’s take a quick look back at 2016, and specifically, the year’s best movies. 

 

I experienced just over 200 movies in 2016, and with so many great films, 30 of them could have found their way on my “Top 20 of the Year”.   Alas, that specific math does not work, so I made some difficult decisions and proudly believe that these 20 films are the very best of 2016.  

 

20. “Miss Sloane” – Jessica Chastain is a tour de force in the title role, and she plays a corporate lobbyist who is the smartest person in every room that she enters.  Elizabeth Sloane’s (almost entire) sole focus is on winning, but she meets her match during a showdown with the U.S. gun lobby.  Director John Madden’s intense drama seamlessly navigates through miles of modern-day, bureaucratic red tape, while Chastain dazzles at a breakneck speed.  With much respect to Annette Bening and Natalie Portman, Chastain gave the best lead actress performance of the year.  

 

19. “The Dark Horse” – This inspiring New Zealand biopic - about chess coach Genesis Potini (Cliff Curtis) – delves into surprisingly gritty territory.  We see his severe battles with mental illness and thorny external forces that constantly hinder his daily routines and future goals.  Curtis is nothing short of remarkable as Genesis, while writer/director James Napier Robertson captures the man’s longshot attempt at teaching chess to a group of underprivileged kids. 

 

18. “Les Cowboys” – A distraught father (Francois Damiens) searches everywhere for his missing daughter and recruits his son (Finnegan Oldfield) as well, on a winding, seemingly impossible journey.  Director Thomas Bidegain explores sensitive topics about Middle East refugees living in Western Europe, as Alain (Damiens) and Georges (Oldfield) feel like outsiders in familiar and unfamiliar lands.  John C. Reilly costars in this emotional French drama. 

 

17. “The Eyes of My Mother” – Writer/director Nicolas Pesce’s shoots his ghastly horror film with a distinct arthouse flair and constructs an isolated environment – in the form of a remote farmhouse – in which no one can hear you scream or see the merciless transgressions.  Led by Kika Magalhaes’ mesmerizing performance, this film promises to slink into an accessible crawlspace of the brain and plant its seedy roots.   

 

16. “Arrival” – Director Denis Villeneuve’s alien encounter picture taps into familiar themes from the genre and turns them on their head, when a communications expert (Amy Adams) attempts to learn our new visitors’ language.  These human/alien exchanges build high degrees of tension, relief and intrigue, and the narrative delivers surprises not normally explored in routine science fiction.

 

15. “The Nice Guys” – In the funniest movie of the year, Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe play a pair of somewhat dimwitted, but resourceful, private investigators who try to solve a puzzling Los Angeles murder case.  Gosling, Crowe and director Shane Black have lots of fun with the 1970s setting, as political correctness and general welfare can be extremely difficult to find.  The film leaves an opening for a sequel, and here’s hoping that Gosling, Crowe and Black return for “The Even Nicer Guys” in a year or two.

 

14. “Anthropoid” – The film’s title refers to a secret WWII operation in Czechoslovakia, and director Sean Ellis’ creation is split into a tale of two distinct halves: before and after the mission.  During the planning stage, Czech army soldiers (Cillian Murphy, Jamie Dornan) develop close relationships with resistance fighters, but must deal with the operation’s violent consequences.  This deliberately schizophrenic narrative yanks the audience through an emotional journey, while offering an important history lesson probably not included in most U.S. school textbooks.

 

13. “Indignation” – Writer/director James Schamus’ expertly crafted film – based upon Philip Roth’s novel – is a story about boy-meets-girl, but the college-aged couple’s (Logan Lerman, Sarah Gadon) courtship sails into trying waters due to sexual repression and mental illness.  Despite their relationship hurdles, the movie nurtures us into a rocky lullaby and discovery of first love, but resonates into broader themes when we least expect it.   

 

12. “Jackie” – Director Pablo Larrain’s film about Jackie Kennedy (Natalie Portman) deliberately strays from routine biopic patterns in a fascinating, almost experimental, look at the former first lady during the days after President John F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1963.  In a recent interview, Larrain said that he wanted to create a film that allows the audience to feel the results – and share the emotion – of those days with Jackie. Based upon his organic approach and Portman’s landmark performance, his vision is realized.

 

11. “20th Century Women” – Set in 1979 Santa Barbara, Dorothea (Annette Bening) embraces the saying “it takes a village” when raising her son, Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann).  She recruits two young women (Elle Fanning, Greta Gerwig) to help guide him on the ways of the world, because she perceives that she cannot be there all the time.  Bening gives a touching, accessible performance, and she and writer/director Mike Mills lead a memorable look at a cast of characters who try to steer their own ways too, mistakes and all.

 

10. “Moonlight” – Alex R. Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes portray a boy/teen/man nicknamed “Little” through three time periods, in a film which writer/director Barry Jenkins organically captures how a child’s environment can impact his or her outlook as an adult.  Skillfully acted at every turn, Mahershala Ali arguably gives the film’s most memorable performance as Juan, a small-time drug dealer who offers a kindhearted hand to Little.

 

9. “The Handmaiden” – Director Chan-wook Park’s highly entertaining picture creates a feast for the senses in a diabolical spinning web of deceit, when a count (Jung-woo Ha) recruits a female laborer (Tae-ri Kim) to help hijack a fortune from a Japanese heiress (Min-hee Kim).  A movie-lover’s movie, but be warned, it is rated “NR” for a reason. 

 

8. “Captain America: Civil War” – The latest effort in the Marvel franchise successfully juggles 12 superheroes in a harmonious balance of emotional conflict and action.  Somehow, directors Anthony and Joe Russo highlight the best of each character without making the picture feel like a greatest hits parade. 

 

Captain Fantastic.jpg

7. “Captain Fantastic” – Ben (Viggo Mortensen) raises six children off the grid in the Pacific Northwest, and although the film bathes in out of the box thinking, at its core, it is simply about love and family.  Striking emotional chords with family dynamics in a wholly unique way, writer/director Matt Ross offers the most satisfying drama of the year.  

 

6. “O.J.: Made in America” – In a year chock-full of excellent documentaries – like “Weiner”, “13th”, “De Palma”, and “Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World” - director Ezra Edelman’s film towers over them all.  A sprawling work of genius, which runs almost eight hours, it explores the dysfunctional foundations in O.J. Simpson’s life and racial tensions in Los Angeles that led to a 1995 not guilty verdict and much, much more.  This highly insightful doc cannot be missed.

 

The Witch.jpg

5. “The Witch” – Ill misfortune plagues a pioneer family in the form of black magic from a witch living in a nearby forest, and writer/director Robert Eggers turns on his camera and makes us sweat every ounce of terror and confusion that they suffer.  The movie does not rely on jump scares or gore, but instead delves into morbid terrors through eerie tones and 17th Century thinking, and in the process, “The Witch” brews a highly sinister concoction.

 

4. “Manchester by the Sea” - A Boston janitor, Lee (Casey Affleck), emotionally cuts ties with the world, but that dramatically needs to change when he is asked to become his nephew’s legal guardian.  Writer/director Kenneth Lonergan – an expert at creating intriguing characters within ordinary slices of life - weaves an intricate, subtle picture that sneaks up on the audience and punches us in the gut.  Hands down, Affleck delivers the performance of the year in Lonergan’s masterpiece.

 

 

3. “Hell or High Water” – Chris Pine and Ben Foster play desperate brothers who rob banks all over West Texas, and Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham are a pair of Texas Rangers trying to chase them down.  Although the movie takes place in 2016, everything feels like a classic western, as the movie garners our complete attention with its cat and mouse narrative and riveting performances.  Foster deserves to win the Best Supporting Actor Oscar.   

 

2. “The Lobster” – The most unique movie experience of the year can best be described as a Wes Anderson picture with a more forlorn and darker feel.  In this dystopian society, a single person has 45 days to fall in love or “the authorities” will turn him or her into an animal, and that is the proposition posed to an introvert named David (Colin Farrell).   David attempts to work his dating magic, while the highly charged script makes snide observations at societal views about relationships and the reasons why we choose our partners.  Director Yorgos Lanthimos’ wicked cinematic eye-opener has the most memorable ending of 2016.

 

1. “La La Land” – Writer/director Damien Chazelle’s utterly wonderful film is a throwback to Old Hollywood, as he spins a tale about two young hopefuls, Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and Mia (Emma Stone), dreaming to make it as a jazz musician and an actress, respectively.  Spectacular sequences - including a mind-boggling song and dance number on a log jammed Los Angeles freeway - hypnotize us, and the movie feels like a two-hour eight-minute stroll through a candy factory, bursting with sugary splashes of primary colors.  The film, however, is not just rainbows and lollipops.  Sebastian and Mia’s dreamy relationship faces the reality of their career aspirations, and in turn, this provides a soulful look at love and finding the right person.  “La La Land” found itself as the right film for my #1 spot of the year.      

 

Monte Yazzie's Top 15 Films of 2016

Best Films of 2016

By: Monte Yazzie

 

It was good year for film. Yeah, that’s probably a cliché thing for a film critic to say. But it’s true; when your top three films could each hold the first place ranking on a different day you know that there were quite a few really good films that came out this year. Making the obligatory end of year list very difficult to narrow down to a mere fifteen.

 

Film seemed all the more revealing this year; with all the changes in the political landscape and conflicts in society it was easy to figure those factors into many of the films. I always find it interesting to examine and re-examine film as time moves forward and changes occur in culture and society. Film is a reflection of our time; great artists create images and write words because of the influences around them. 2016 was a special year for film, however what I think was most important about film this year was how closely and effectively it analyzed elements inherent to all of us, aspects of communication, identity, religion, gender, history, and the political agenda. Here are the best films of 2016.

 

 

15. The Wailing

Meticulous in its method and steady in its execution, “The Wailing” is a horror film that manipulates expectations by pulling the viewer deeper into the abyss of the mystery but also the characters that are placed in such terrible settings. This combination of horror and character gives the film an unexpected emotional undertone that makes the scary moments all the more affecting.

 

14. Manchester by the Sea

Casey Affleck and Michelle Williams provide stunning portrayals in “Manchester by the Sea”, a film that can be a polarizing experience, but one that generates wonderful discussion. Director Kenneth Lonergan examines tragic events and how, no matter how much people may try, life moves forward with or without you.

 

13. Sing Street

The best way to describe “Sing Street” would be to compare it to a really good mixtape. It has a little bit of everything; dance worthy moments, sentimental trips, melancholy cuts, and uplifting hits. It also understands how these emotional moments relate with the ebb and flow of being a teenager.

 

12. O.J. Made in America

The five part documentary, from ESPN’s “30 for 30” series, is an exhaustive analysis of the O.J. Simpson murder trial coined “the trial of the century” which placed a real life courtroom drama in the American home. Though the success of the film doesn’t rest in its painstaking measures but rather in the examination of the American culture, the role of celebrity, and the history of an admired athlete.

 

11. The Fits

There is a moment in “The Fits” when a young 11-year-old girl turns an overpass into a practice space for her two athletic passions, boxing and dancing. It’s a raw, aggressive and emotional scene that frames this stunning first feature from director Anna Rose Holmer in the realms of a horror film and an adolescent coming-of-age drama.

 

10. Kubo and the Two Strings

What a good year for animation, with films like “Zootopia” and “Moana” getting lots of the attention, it was a stop motion animated film called “Kubo and the Two Strings” that was the standout. It’s a familiar fable about a young boy who goes on a journey and must face fears from his past. Though this common story done in the now uncommon and time consuming manner of stop motion artistry has a significant amount of heart but also some great insight into matters of friendship, family, and courage.

 

9. Green Room

People have different definitions of horror; some may call “Green Room” a thriller though I like to think of it as survival horror. Just like zombies in “Dawn of the Dead” or vampires in “From Dusk till Dawn”, Jeremy Saulnier’s film creates monsters out of a community of white supremacists. “Green Room”, like the band featured in the film, is the very definition of punk rock. It’s a film that understands the rules but decides to play by its own tune, a fast, aggressive, and stripped down horror tune that is a masterclass of tension.

 

8. The Lobster

Perhaps the most unique film of the year, writer and director Yorgos Lanthimos creates a surreal and eccentric allegory about relationships and the methods to which people find love. It’s unlike other films this year; a journey into surrealism and satire that is both humorously genuine and heartbreakingly bleak while consistently being diligently straightforward. Colin Farrell and Rachel Weisz both give exceptional performances. It’s an experience that stays with you.

 

7. Paterson

“Paterson” is so much more than the simplistic premise about a week in the life of a bus driver in Paterson, New Jersey. It’s a film about the development of the poet, the rhythm of daily life, and the influences that shape and mold the structure of poetry. Adam Driver delivers a striking performance, one that is nuanced and restrained. Director Jim Jarmusch admires this kind of character, one that looks deeply into the world and through the ordinary to compose the extraordinary that exists.  

 

6. Arrival

Science fiction is the perfect genre to tell complicated stories. Director Denis Villeneuve composes “Arrival” to tell a story about the human condition, love, and communication. While aliens and the ominous spacecrafts linger in every trailer, the film isn’t so much concerned about those genre fascinations. It’s a film that subverts the science fiction genre in ingenious fashion, avoiding formulaic conventions and boldly going beyond the contemporary expectations that usually define science fiction films.

 

5. The Handmaiden

Director Chan-wook Park has made a career of making interesting, edgy arthouse films; though some moviegoers may consider his films more from the grindhouse than the arthouse. Still, film should be a vessel to tell challenging stories. “The Handmaiden” is a beautifully composed erotic tale of betrayal, forbidden passions, and blossoming love. It’s melodrama in its highest, most artistic form.

 

4. Hell or High Water

 “Hell or High Water”, directed by David Mackenzie, is starkly comedic and absolutely visceral. It undercuts these themes with biting social commentary on the economic state while also utilizing genre characteristics from traditional western films, heist films, detective stories, and family dramas to create a film that is an effective blend of everything that makes going to the movies such an amazing experience. 

 

3. La La Land

Three films in and director Damien Chazelle is just getting better every time. “La La Land” is an inspired musical with beautiful melodies and wonderful choreography, but even better is that it’s a character film that challenges the viewer to look beyond the happy-go-lucky moments and the cheery musical movements. “La La Land” is a film about the past and the future and how the decisions people make in the moment define their connection with both. It’s one of the best musicals of recent memory.

 

2. The Witch

It’s been a long time since a horror film has affected me the way Robert Egger’s film “The Witch” has. A film that lives and breathes on manipulating the atmosphere that it lives in, building dread and creating an environment that saturates any glimmer of light with darkness. It’s hard to call it just frightening or menacing, it’s something more, something darker and more authentic than those terms can embody. It’s a nightmare that you can’t wake up from, one that lures you into the blackened world and then forces you to keep going when you want to turn back. “The Witch” is the best horror film this year.

 

1. Moonlight

Director Barry Jenkins crafted the most beautiful and complex film of the year. “Moonlight” asks difficult questions to the viewer and doesn’t succumb to Hollywood. It tells entire stories with simple body language, a few verses of a song, the stillness of a camera that never flinches from a character. It’s a coming-of-age film, a film about sexual identification, a film exploring masculinity, a film that doesn’t surrender to easy stereotypes or simple exploitation. What “Moonlight” does is show the power that a film can possess, and how that power has the ability to transcend and destroy barriers of preconception.

 

 

Honorable Mention

Jackie

A Monster Calls

I, Daniel Blake

Silence

Everybody Wants Some

Hunt for the Wilderpeople

High-Rise

A Bigger Splash

Deadpool

Miles Ahead

Loving

Midnight Special

The Nice Guys

20th Century Women

Embrace of the Serpen

Fences - Movie Review by Monte Yazzie

Fences

 

Director: Denzel Washington

Starring: Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Mykelti Williamson, Jovan Adepo, Russell Hornsby, and Stephen McKinley Henderson

 

Have you ever met someone who can tell stories with such flare and emotion that it feels like you are in that exact moment? Someone who can inspire a group of people with meaningful and honest messages of encouragement? Someone who can bring the house to its knees in laughter with yarns that connect into amusing, hilarious insights of everyday life? These people fascinate me because of their undeniable talent to command a room of people with such natural authority.

 

American playwright August Wilson, an exceptionally talented author, wrote a character that you could describe as one of these “great conversationalists” in a play called “Fences”. The character, Troy Maxson, is a charismatic man with strong ideas and perceptions about the world around him and the world that has and will shape his future. Troy is a difficult character to like, but he is undeniably riveting to listen to.

 

Denzel Washington, reprising the role he established in the stage adaptation a few years ago, plays Troy Maxson. However, Mr. Washington is doing more than just acting, he also directed this film. Also reprising her role from the play is Viola Davis, playing a beautiful and thoughtful woman, mother, wife who loves her family and makes Troy a better man than he actually is. “Fences” is a film that operates within set boundaries, much like its title insinuates, and it places the viewer in the middle of a family dynamic that lumbers and crumbles under the stress of past woes, selfish decisions, and the pursuit for the happiness that motivates the American dream.

 

We are introduced to Troy Maxson (Denzel Washington), waxing and jabbing with his best friend Bono (Stephen McKinley Henderson) about their job as sanitation workers, their lives as husbands and fathers, and the past that has solidified their relationship with such a fierce bond that underneath every mean spirited joke and personal stab you can feel the kind of love that comes with shared experiences both good and bad. Troy’s wife Rose (Viola Davis) is the glue that holds her family together, a woman who adores her husband amidst the knowledge that everything in their relationship, and with their family, is not the best that it could be.

 

“Fences” was adapted from a play, but Mr. Washington doesn’t allow the constraints within that structure to keep him from expanding the limits. By no means does the film have flashy photography or offer technical flare; instead Mr. Washington establishes a parameter, the inside of the house, the confines of the backyard, the sidewalks and road of the street Troy walks home on. Within these boundaries Mr. Washington displays the American dream for a family that experienced the social injustices that tarnished their pursuit of that dream. Troy is still weary and angry from these experiences, he was a baseball player that peaked before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier and a sanitation worker who believes that being a driver is meant for people of a different color than him. While these experiences are never shown, Troy discusses them with such intricacy and passion that you can see these scenes formulate from his words. Still, this harsh mentality about the world saturates every decision he makes with his family. His youngest son Cory (Jovan Adepo), who plays football and is vyingfor a scholarship to play in college, is challenged on numerous occasions in a similar fashion as when Troy discusses how bad a baseball player Jackie Robinson was. It starts as part tough love but moves into something that feels like bullying, Troy’s other son Lyon (Russell Hornsby), who is a struggling musician, is also belittled for wanting to borrow money and then later in the film denied the opportunity to pay his father back because of Troy’s pride. It’s within these moments with family where we begin to see the charismatic talker, who boasts about fighting the devil and hitting homeruns, show his true colors. In a heartbreaking scene and performance from Viola Davis, Rose confronts her husband who has just boasted about another woman, complained about his home life, and offered regrets about why the world has passed him by. Through a flow of tears, she asks him the question “What about my life, what about my dreams?” and Troy has no response.

 

“Fences” is never an easy film, it asks complicated questions and insists that you try and see the world through the eyes of the characters. This sometimes offers valuable insight, like when Troy discusses why he “likes” his son, and at other times confuses, like when Rose complaisantly accepts an unimaginable responsibility because of Troy’s selfishness. Still, great characters should make these aspects of life difficult to understand, it’s easy to say that we would respond differently but it’s never that easy in the moment. That’s the accomplishment that Mr. Washington achieves in “Fences”, making the murky and thorny choices these characters make resonate so emotionally long after the film ends.

 

Monte’s Rating

4.00 out of 5.00

Elle - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

“Elle” is a strange, ineffectual Parisian thriller 

 

Directed by:  Paul Verhoeven

Written by:  David Birke

Starring:  Isabelle Huppert, Laurent Lafitte, Anne Consigny, Charles Berling, and Jonas Bloquet

 

“Elle” – Michele Leblanc (Isabelle Huppert) is a tough and talented business woman.  She founded a video game company with her best friend, Anna (Anne Consigny), even though neither one appears particularly familiar with the industry.  Their company sits in a beautiful, modern office in Paris, and business appears to be booming and probably due to their stewardship. 

 

Gaming is her career, but a brutal incident occurred in her apartment that was no game.  A masked intruder broke into Michele’s home and raped her, and director Paul Verhoeven pulls no punches in depicting the vicious assault.  The nefarious scene plays more than once on the big screen, guarantees a deeply distressing few minutes and leaves a much longer burn after the end credits roll.  What is also surprising, however, is Michele’s reaction to that doomed event, and she attempts to find her perpetrator in the most unexpected and seemingly casual manner. 

 

Huppert’s brave performance has generated support and accolades at the beginning of awards season, including European Film Awards and Golden Globes nominations for Best Actress.  Due to circumstances that I will not reveal, her character, Michele, does not turn to the police for help.  Instead, she initiates an investigation of her own, and the script offers a few key suspects from both her work life and personal life in order to keep Michele and the audience guessing.  Without professional law enforcement, Michele needs to fend for herself, and the film successfully places us in her uneasy shoes.

 

Michele quickly conveys that she is an incredibly busy woman and garners our sympathy.  Besides running her own company, she also attempts to manage her inhibited mother (Judith Magre), her irresponsible 20-something son, Vincent (Jonas Bloquet), and much, much more.  Quite frankly, with all of her commitments, I am not sure how she has time to track down her assailant.  In between delivering repeated, sound advice to Vincent (in vain, I may add), listening to her mom’s latest ideas and trying to meet difficult deadlines at work, she squeezes in some moments to practice her aim on the gun range and to ask her IT guy to hack into her employees’ electronic mailboxes for clues.  

 

On the plus side, Huppert and Verhoeven probably paint a realistic picture of a modern woman who wears many hats and stretched terribly thin between a multitude of players.  Conversely, due to the film’s nonchalance, it does not work as an effective thriller, but a meandering and exhausting walk through a few weeks (or perhaps months) in Michele’s life.  Even though her search is her top priority, she compartmentalizes it in a way that just does not register as believable. 

 

Many other characters don’t act in a believable way either.  For example, her best friend’s husband, Robert (Christian Berkel), interacts with her in a particularly selfish manner, especially after knowing the trauma that she has been through, and Vincent constantly whines and carries on like a 12-year-old.  Michele successfully juggles about five key relationships and her video game company as well, but while she oversees these dysfunctional moving parts, finding her rapist becomes lost in the narrative somewhere. 

 

Although, figuring out the bad guy was not lost on me.  Personally, I have a historically terrible track record at picking out the villain but had little trouble this time around.  Perhaps it was a lucky guess, but I was more than happy to help, because Michele’s calendar seemed busy. 

(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.

Lion - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

Pack some tissues for “Lion”, a true and emotional journey

 

Directed by:  Garth Davis

Written by:  Luke Davies, based upon the book, “A Long Way Home” by Saroo Brierley

Starring:  Dev Patel, Sunny Pawar, Abhishek Bharate, Priyanka Rose, Nicole Kidman, Rooney Mara, and David Wenham

 

“Lion” -  In 2016, I imagine that a vast majority of kindergartners probably do not have mountains of responsibility or stress.  I am not familiar with the average kindergarten curriculum these days, but when I went to school – about 150 years ago - I remember memorizing my phone number, learning to tie my shoes and understanding that the word “button” began with the letter B.  From my recollection, life was fairly anxiety-free with the exception of taking that big step of climbing on the yellow school bus. 

 

This is not the case for a Saroo (Sunny Pawar) in 1986 India. 

 

With one incredibly costly - but completely innocent - mistake, Saroo becomes lost from his tiny village of “Ganestalay” and ends up miles and miles away in Calcutta, and the film “Lion”, from first time feature-film director Garth Davis, chronicles his journey.  Davis structures the picture, based upon Saroo Brierley’s book, “A Long Way Home”, into two distinct halves:  Saroo’s misstep as a child and his attempt to reunite with his family as an adult (Dev Patel).  Although the latter introduces substantive material, the former works better cinematically. 

 

Pawar is a mesmerizing little actor, as he convincingly portrays the emotions of a lost, 5-year-old boy, without the comfort of his mother Kamla (Priyanka Rose), brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate) and sister Shekila (Khushi Solanki).  Davis and Pawar truly capture the utter despair involved, as Saroo screams out for “Guddu” and “Mum” over and over within a sea of busy strangers at a train station or while painfully alone with no one to listen.  Eventually, his cries for help become muted to the resignation that no one will answer, and Saroo’s helplessness and that sick feeling in his stomach transmit from the screen to the audience, along with gentle prodding on our collective tear ducts. 

 

The story takes a distinct turn in the second act.  Many years later, a small event triggers a 20-something Saroo to search for his family.  Saroo’s pursuit becomes manic and obsessive at times, and he feels deep guilt for putting hit mother, brother and sister through distressing worry for two decades.  The problem is no one has heard of his hometown of “Ganestalay”, so he has to somehow retrace his steps from 20 years ago to find it.  Fortunately, the modern conveniences of 2007 - such as the Internet - exist, so Saroo might have the right tools to find his invisible needle in a country-sized haystack.

 

While he combs through countless electronic searches, he also turns his living room walls into a scene reminiscent of “A Beautiful Mind” (2001), with pins and strings darting over countless directions on maps of India.   Saroo agonizes, but unlike the first portion of the movie, it seems more difficult to translate his sudden feelings of despair.   Davis injects several flashbacks originating from Saroo’s memory, but they become repetitive and a little clumsy.  Since Saroo pushes away his supportive girlfriend (Rooney Mara), many times Patel is left to his own devices to convey angst, and generally speaking, Google searches are not terribly engaging as filmmaking instruments. 

 

The movie does introduce two engaging constants in Saroo’s life, John and Sue Brierley (David Wenham, Nicole Kidman), who certainly bring a calming and stable presence.  Davis devotes significant supporting screen time for Kidman, and she delivers a solid performance in presenting unwavering devotion to Saroo.  

 

Davis, Patel and the rest of the cast and filmmakers carry the same devotion to the story, as Saroo attempts to take an unfathomable leap to correct an unsuspecting boy’s poorly-timed misstep. 

 

As an adult, your only responsibility is to pack enough tissues before leaving for the theatre. 

(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.

 

 

 

La La Land - Movie Review by Kaely Monahan

‘La La Land’ brings back old Hollywood glamor

By Kaely Monahan

 

The real magic of La La Land is director Damien Chazelle’s ability to capture what made Hollywood movies so great during the golden age of film. Music, song, and dance seamlessly combined into sweet but compelling stories as foundational to Hollywood as palm trees are to Santa Monica.

However, the question for today’s audiences is can we stomach the old song and dance movie experience? The box office numbers give a resounding “yes.” And it shouldn’t come as a surprise.

 

La La Land dazzles with creativity on every level. Each scene is meticulously choreographed, either with dance or without. From the first opening number to the last, your toes will be tapping.

 

The story is fitting for a modern Hollywood musical, following in the traditions of Funny Face and An American in Paris. The girl meets a guy, but before sparks fly they verbally spar before falling in love. This time, however, instead of Audrey Hepburn and Fred Astaire, we have Emma Stone as Mia and Ryan Gosling as Sebastian.

 

She’s an aspiring actress and he a down on his luck but determined (and über diehard) jazz musician. Set in L.A. they fittingly meet in the midst of a traffic jam snaking its way into the heart of the city. It is but a fleeting moment where angry gestures are traded—a spark that eventually grows into something more as Mia and Sebastian continue to meet in odd situations.

 

The core of this film, though, are the songs and dance numbers. Perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise that Stone effortless breaks into song. Her voice straddles sweet and pure to dusky and evocative, hiding what might otherwise be a weak voice. That’s not to say she can’t sing, but you can tell it’s not her forte.

 

The same goes with Gosling. Throughout the film you sense that he’s uncomfortable with singing and the dancing. He’s just a bit too stiff or hesitant—but he proves that he can bust a move, which makes one wish there were more movies like this one.

 

But despite any sort of lack on Stone’s and Gosling’s Broadway skills, which is very small, La La Land still whisks you into a feeling of sweetness and innocence—feelings that are like a balm after a year like 2016. The film is a feast for the eyes and ears and will be one of those films you’ll want to watch over and over because it’s simply that good.

 

   • Kaely Monahan is a journalist, graduate of City University London and the creator of Popcorn Fan Film Reviews. Follow her @PopcornFans and @KaelyMonahan.

 

 

 

La La Land - Movie Review by Monte Yazzie

La La Land

 

Director: Damien Chazelle

Starring: Emma Stone, Ryan Gosling, Rosemarie DeWitt, and J.K. Simmons

 

A Los Angeles freeway gridlocked with traffic is the beginning image for Damien Chazelle’s film “La La Land”. With the camera sweeping through and around the rows of vehicles, the commuting masses jump out of their vehicles and break into song and dance to a carefree, California personified tune called “Another Day in the Sun”. It isn’t until after the melodic spectacle that the film focuses on the characters that the viewer will follow for the remainder of the film. It’s a perfect introduction to a film as much influenced by musicals of the past and classic love stories as it is about the trials of being ambitious and being in love and the difficult choices that occupy each. It’s a whimsical, melancholy musical jaunt filled with delicate emotion and beautiful structure. Damien Chazelle has invigorated this musical and crafted a film that is simply intoxicating. 



Mia (Emma Stone) is a struggling actress working as a barista on the Warner Bros. backlot. Everything in her world is focused on getting that audition that will change her life. Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) is a struggling musician, a jazz pianist forced to play Christmas tunes in a restaurant and 80’s pop songs in a cover band though his true ambition of keeping the vanishing life of jazz music alive can be easily seen through his many concert posters and a stool that belonged to Hoagy Carmicheal. The paths of these two ambitious artists cross early and over the course of four distinguished seasons they experience a life-changing relationship that forces them to answer questions about their future as two people in love and two artists pursuing their dreams. 



Who doesn’t like a good musical? I’m sure a lot of people don’t but “La La Land” is a different kind of musical, one that doesn’t boast polished vocal performers but rather utilizes two strong actors to connect romantic emotions and then having them genuinely move through song and dance numbers. The musical moments are secondary, though a very strong secondary component, that accommodates the story of the two characters. 



With that said, the music is exceptional. A blend of dreamy ballads, personal melodies, and cheerful choruses; the music is it’s own character in the film, offering an identity to the world of the two heartfelt lovers. “City of Stars” is the piano-tinged song that becomes the definition of the story, a somber piece that displays at different moments touches of hope, despair, success, failure, confidence, and insecurity. It’s a perfect piece of music for the film from composer Justin Hurwitz.



The performances are impressive. Emma Stone is particularly great, adding moments that show the uncertainty of putting yourself in the spotlight. In one particular scene her character is asked during an audition to read a dramatic scene, the progression of emotions during this section is superb. Ryan Gosling is also great, giving a passionate performance that allows Mr. Gosling opportunity to mold the character naturally. Watching his reaction during a small moment where he is lost in a sea of emotions is outstanding. 



The film builds towards an interesting point, one that would be easily wrapped up in a nice bow if it weren’t for the confident hand of director Damien Chazelle who instead challenges the viewer and the characters in the film to look beyond the happy-go-lucky moments and the cheery musical movements and identify with the characters, their aspirations and their love for each other. “La La Land” is a film about the past and the future and how the decisions people make in the moment define their connection with both. It’s one of the best musicals of recent memory and one of the best movies of the year. 



Monte’s Rating

5.00 out of 5.00



 

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story - Movie Review by Monte Yazzie

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

 

Director: Gareth Edwards

Starring: Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Alan Tudyk, Donnie Yen, Forest Whitaker, Wen Jiang, Ben Mendelsohn, Riz Ahmed, and Mads Mikkelsen

 

Last December one of the most anticipated movie events took place, “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” was released into theaters. People waited in lines, online ticket sales broke websites, it shattered box office records; it was a film that provided Star Wars fans with every emotion they wanted to feel from a new film. It was an invitation back to safe/familiar territory for fans worried that the results would echo the sentiments felt after “Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace”, but also a new story for newcomers to invest themselves in like so many did back in 1977.

 

“Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” is not a continuation of the events seen in “The Force Awakens”, it’s a new story that takes place somewhere in the saga that is the Star Wars universe. Introducing new characters into the familiar stomping grounds of Darth Vader, Luke Skywalker, and Rey is ingenious, it offers an opportunity to explore different elements not directly related to the heroes everyone knows. The characters here are lesser heroes, a group of individuals doing the groundwork with smaller victories that eventually lead to bigger victories.

 

To explain the details of the story may spoil the fun for some fans, the quick details are that a group of rebels lead by a woman named Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) are tasked with stealing secret plans to provide an upper hand against forces threatening to conquer the galaxy. Change a few key words in this description and the story could easily describe a western or a war film; though it shouldn’t surprise anyone familiar with Star Wars that both of these specific genres have played significant influence in the development of the universe with this franchise.

 

The films have always functioned as tales of good versus evil, war versus peace, and it isn’t much different with “Rogue One”. While these story components have been told in imaginative, provocative ways in the past, this Star Wars story feels content with providing safe and simple moments to keep fans happy. While some will say that “The Force Awakens” did the same thing, which would be true, “Rogue One” doesn’t have the luxury of having familiar characters with rich histories to accompany the new characters. This unfortunately makes the film feel somewhat mediocre rather than completely memorable. Still, there are many moments here that will make any fan of “Star Wars” feel excited, one in particular is something this fan has been waiting for since seeing the first film.

 

It’s a shame that more emphasis wasn’t provided to developing the characters in this film in which there are some very talented actors who give very good performances, specifically Felicity Jones and Ben Mendelsohn. There are good pieces introduced that look to provide direction towards some great conflict with some of the characters, Jyn and her father Galen have an interesting dynamic that could have been explored to provide more emotional substance, even the ambition of making a “Star Wars” influenced film actually feel like a war movie has potential to display so many aspects associated with purpose and reason why people make the decision to fight or take a side. There is also a blind martial artist and a militant extremist rebel who aren’t offered much more than a quick setup and thenquickly thrown into the mix. While each of these characters have their moments to shine, they still feel underutilized. Again, this is a film about war and the sacrifice that these rebels are making to change the state of the world they are living in. The potential for some of the characters in this Star Wars tale to become truly memorable is there but the script only hints at these directions, instead it lingers in a space that never combines the heart and heroics of the situation in an effective way.

 

Still, the moments when this story connects with the past and the moments just after the end credits rolled left me happy and excited about what I saw. It wasn’t until some contemplation that the holes in the script and the deficiencies of the characters became glaringly obvious. Whether this happens to you will probably depend on what your expectations are and howpassionate of a Star Wars fan you are. “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” is a suitable film that plays just an okay supporting role to the much bigger primary Star Wars story.

 

Monte’s Rating

3.25 out of 5.0

The Eyes of My Mother - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

‘The Eyes of My Mother’ effectively drives you to look away

 

Written/Directed by:  Nicolas Pesce

Starring:  Kika Magalhaes, Diana Agostini, Olivia Bond, Will Brill, and Paul Nazak

 

“The Eyes of My Mother” – “Loneliness can do strange things to the mind.”

 

Mother (Diana Agostini) tells a story about St. Francis to her young daughter, Francisca (Olivia Bond), and closes the tale with the above quote.  Little does the girl realize the supreme accuracy of her mom’s statement.  Not only does “The Eyes of My Mother” prove that loneliness can do strange things to the mind, but it can also drive twisted and depraved ones as well, in the one of the most unforgettable films of 2016.  

 

Presented in black and white and set in – what looks to be – the 1950s, an innocent-looking farm house sits in the rolling hills of, possibly, the rural Midwest. 

 

Small town America.  Quiet.  Peaceful. 

 

A place where a casual conversation might be pleasantly drowned out by the chirping of the surrounding crickets. 

 

Oddly, Mother, who looks more like a grandmother with decades of angst and stress carried in her face, cuts open a cow’s eyeball at the kitchen table and explains its anatomy to Francisca, who hangs on every word.   Later that day, a strange man approaches the house, and unfortunately, Mother and Francisca do not heed the classic warning, “Don’t talk to strangers.”

 

Rather than solely focus on the events of that day, 26-year-old writer/director Nicolas Pesce’s film presents that aforementioned, fateful moment as a seedy seed planted into the mind of a future killer, and the audience witnesses its aftereffects on a grownup Francisca (Kika Magalhaes). Short, demure and slight, Francisca would be hard pressed to physically intimidate anyone.  If a stiff gust of wind huffed by, there is a better than average chance that it would knock her over.  On the other hand, with dark hair, black eyes and chalky-white skin, she also comfortably carries a vampire-like look, and with her soft-spoken demeanor, she can easily create a false sense of trust.  

 

Trust me when I state that Francisca is immensely dangerous, and Pesce’s camera skillfully captures her exploits with – sometimes - a minimalist approach.   For instance, the audience may witness an act of violence from a noticeably distant point of view or just out of frame.  In one scene, we only see the aftermath of bloodshed during an “ordinary” moment of cleanup, due to the mess that was just enacted off camera.  Generally speaking, murderous close ups are not particularly necessary in an effective use of “less is more” in the horror genre, and I applaud it here.  On the other hand, immediate murder is not always Francisca’s modus operandi, and conversely, the film absolutely features the sickening sights and sounds from the results of her carefully crafted decisions.

 

Pesce shoots his beautifully horrific creation with a distinct arthouse flair and constructs an isolated environment, in which no one can hear you scream and no one can see the merciless transgressions. 

 

Although, we see and want to look away. 

 

With a runtime of just 76 minutes, Pesce does not mince words or waste time with the narrative.  He does, however, hold the camera (in place) long enough during a number of ghastly sequences that will make you crave a shower after the film’s conclusion to wash away the vile nature of humanity that you just experienced as a semi-willing viewer.  At the same time, no mere antiseptic rinse can remove the portrait of woman - brought up in a wholly unhealthy environment - from one’s mind, as Francisca promises to slink into an accessible mental crawlspace. Loneliness may do strange things to the mind, but be warned: “The Eyes of My Mother” may trigger permanent damage. 

(3.5/4 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.

Miss Sloane - Movie Review by Monte Yazzie

Miss Sloane

 

Director: John Madden

Starring: Jessica Chastain, Mark Strong, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Alison Pill, Michael Stuhlbarg, Jake Lacy, Sam Waterston, and John Lithgow

 

Powerful, sure-minded women who speak their minds and have intelligent opinions are often given a bad reputation in motion pictures. Many times being told, mostly by men, that they are cold, heartless, or unfeeling. Coming on the heels of a divided election and having an even more pertinent message than the producers could have imagined , "Miss Sloane" is a film about an ambitious female lobbyist in Washington D.C. going toe-to-toe with a male dominated gun industry. The film is directed by John Madden, a best director Academy Award nominee for the film "Shakespeare in Love"  in 1999, in the style of a political-thriller but is more suited as being an intriguing character study with a strong performance from Jessica Chastain who plays the title character.

 

Elizabeth Sloane (Jessica Chastain) is introduced sitting in a Congressional hearing concerning the ethical intentions of her role as a lobbyist for an organization that was spearheading a new bill on gun regulation. Every aspect of her career in under scrutiny, including her personal life and her former employment with another organization that is currently her opponent for the gun bill. Mr. Madden orchestrates a taut courtroom drama in these moments, with Sloane the target seemingly from every angle and every person in the courtroom. However, these beginning moments aren't given much context other than an brief introduction to all the players associated with Sloane.

 

The film takes the viewer back to the beginning, two years, when Sloane was an up-and-coming lobbyist making positive and negative impressions with everyone she encountered. Abruptly, Sloane decides to leave the organization and move to a rival group after being asked to consult on a campaign opposing background checks for gun owners by a National Rifle Association-like group. From this moment the film begins to dig into the character of Elizabeth Sloane, displaying her shrewd tactics, viewed by some as conniving, and her meticulous methods that display her ambition for success. While this sometimes comes off as callous to her constituents who have trouble keeping up with her decisions, they cannot deny the results she achieves. Many times she seems one, two, even three steps ahead of everyone in the room.

 

Director John Madden handles the aspects of Sloane's character with confidence, portraying a female character in a such a way that no character in the film ever feels like her equal. It's her character that makes the film so enjoyable, a quality that should be attributed foremost to the wonderful performance by Jessica Chastain who deftly layers many aspects of the performance with engrossing touches that correspond to the themes of vanity, loyalty, and purpose that define her character. Without such strong lead performances from the lead and supporting cast, Gugu Mbatha-Raw as a pawn for manipulation and Michael Stuhlbarg as a loud antagonist to Sloane are both very good, some of the deficiencies of the narrative would be harder to ignore. Aside from the long-winded political rhetoric which offers great opportunities for the actors to unleash a bit; the structuring of the build-up for the story doesn't fit many of the resolutions, which seem too neatly packaged for as complicated as the issues are explained to be.

 

Still, "Miss Sloane" is a great character film that offers an impressive performance from Jessica Chastain. While it may not completely achieve the thrilling political moments it reaches for, it does create a thrilling mystery watching a character that is never easily categorized and is always a step ahead of everyone.

 

Monte's Rating

4.00 out of 5.0

Jackie - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

Nothing about ‘Jackie’ feels routine

 

Directed by:  Pablo Larrain

Written by:  Noah Oppenheim

Starring:  Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgaard, Billy Crudup, John Hurt, and Gretta Gerwig

 

“Jackie” – “The only routine with me is no routine at all.” – Jackie Kennedy

 

Director Pablo Larrain’s new film about Jacqueline Kennedy, “Jackie”, deliberately strays from routine biopic patterns in a fascinating, almost experimental, look at the former first lady during the days after President John F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1963.   Leading up to the release of the movie, Larrain said in an interview that he did not wish to tell what happened during those dark, confusing days in November 1963.  Instead, he wanted to make a film that allows the audience to feel the results - and share the emotion - of those events with Jackie (Natalie Portman).   Based upon the combined strength of the narrative’s organic approach and Portman’s landmark performance, Larrain’s vision is realized. 

 

“Jackie” is one of the best pictures of 2016.  

 

Anchored by and told in retrospect via an interview in Hyannis Port, MA with an unnamed journalist (Billy Crudup) - within a couple or few weeks after JFK’s death - Jackie leads him through that incredibly trying period and, in addition, a brief stop on her famous 1961 network television special, “A Tour of the White House with Mrs. John F. Kennedy”.  The interview feels contentious as an emotionally depleted Jackie distrusts the reporter and wonders about his story’s potentially-crooked angle.  Kennedy presents a formidable challenge for any potential adversary, and the movie reveals her growth and thickened porcelain skin through the emotional and political battles she endured as the first lady.

 

Just 31 years old when President Kennedy took office, the winds and weight of the U.S. Presidency pushed and tested Jackie, and Portman delivers a convincing portrayal, by navigating through true events.   After her husband his killed, Jackie is seen as isolated - through imaginative camerawork and dramatization - even though she is sometimes surrounded by people. 

 

For instance, while in Dallas, the shock of the shooting sent waves over Jackie, the president’s staff, Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson (John Carroll Lynch), and his wife, Lady Bird (Beth Grant), however, the first lady stands alone, while everyone else circles her but keeps a distinct physical and emotional distance.  The only form of comfort towards Jackie is a slight touch of the shoulder from LBJ.  The moment offers a telling lesson, because she appears to be an outsider, especially after LBJ is sworn in as president, and his staff have seemingly moved on.  Whether or not the events occurred in that manner, Larrain and Portman are communicating that Jackie felt isolated. 

 

Other scenes of seclusion also transpire, when Jackie is truly on her own.  She grieves her lost husband and the loss of her own figurative life, before and after Nov. 22, 1963.  We see a woman with fame thrust upon her, complete with massive, new roles, demanding expectations and the revelations that they were not entirely welcome.   What is welcomed, however, is Portman’s cadence, makeup, hair, mannerisms, walk, and energy that seem to channel Jackie.  In fact, during some particular spells during the 99-minute runtime, I took a few specific double takes while experiencing Portman’s effective depiction of one of the most revered women of the 20th century.  It simply is difficult to take your eyes off Portman, no matter where she appears in the frame.  She delivers some mesmeric work here, not only to suitably play well-documented events but to also fill in the blanks during those undocumented ones, based upon the filmmakers’ and Portman’s interpretations. 

 

Do not expect a movie that presents several thoughtful, revealing exchanges with her husband, played by Caspar Phillipson.   The Danish actor certainly resembles President Kennedy, but he only appears for a scant, few minutes, and he may have spoken a few words on camera, but perhaps I dreamt it.

 

Quite appropriately, Larrain sometimes presents “Jackie” in a dream-like state with a mixture of striking imagery and illuminating dialogue.  Rather than offer a standard biography, with decades of occurrences that total her environmental DNA as of 1963, “Jackie” opens the White House doors for a limited time and reveals a woman who was far from routine. 

(3.5/4 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.

 

 

An interview with Miss Sloane director John Madden by Jeff Mitchell

Acclaimed director John Madden (“Shakespeare in Love” (1998), “The Debt” (2010), “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” (2011)) stopped in Phoenix on Nov. 17 to introduce his new film, “Miss Sloane” starring Jessica Chastain in the title role, for a Phoenix Film Society screening at the Harkins Scottsdale 101.   The Phoenix Film Festival had a chance to sit down with him for an additional few minutes on that day as well, and Madden offered some wonderful insight about the title character, the reasons why Chastain was terrific for the part and more. 

 

“Miss Sloane”, a thriller revolving around the U.S. gun lobbies, arrives in theatres on Friday, Dec. 9. 

 

PFF:  You worked with Jessica on “The Debt” (2010), and she brought a steely, sober acumen to the table in that movie.  In “Miss Sloane”, Elizabeth Sloane (Chastain) frequently rattles off a litany of concepts, facts and red tape dynamics at breakneck speed, like a CEO of a high tech company, and she is a very intimidating presence.  What did you see in Jessica that made you think of her for this role?

 

JM:  Jessica is one of a handful of actors who has that virtuoso kind of skill.  She can do anything, as you know.  She’s extremely smart and has a kind of effortless skill at what she does. You can’t see the wheels turning at all, and she internalizes what she does and inhabits what she does.  She always has a vulnerability about her, a fragility about her, even when she’s playing a fiercely determined character like in “Zero Dark Thirty” (2012) or “The Martian” (2015). 

 

So, I was under no doubt whatsoever that she could do that, and I also thought that she would absolutely be able to master the verbal dexterity that you are talking about.   Not only do that, but do that with “a music” that meant that you weren’t just listening to a verbal assault and reeling from it.  I heard a lot of the movie during (various) auditions, and you know what it can be like when you hear someone who hasn’t got “the music”. 

 

It’s amazing what Jessica has pulled off.  She dominates everything, but she makes everything so fascinating.  It’s a highly verbal (film) - which is considered a danger zone for movies - but I always believed that you can make that thrilling, if you get it right and make it work right.     

 

PFF:  The audience receives just a touch of insight into Elizabeth’s past.  Did you have thoughts of revealing more of her past, or did you want to keep it a mystery? 

 

JM:  The (way that the) film is presented (is) actually a very deliberate choice. If you are telling, for example, a family drama or a character portrait that is bound up in the past and choices that were made in the past, that’s one thing.  I think there is a kind of lazy orthodoxy that requires an event to be included in the story that illustrates how this person became this person. 

 

This film is partly characterized as a thriller, obviously, and quite deliberately, and part of what you are doing is figuring out what is going on, and how and why it is going on.  I felt, the writer (Jonathan Perera) felt and Jessica felt that the interesting experience is to watch that character and understand that character, as the story unfolds in a way that is sufficient to the story itself. 

 

PFF:  It’s self-contained. 

 

JM: It’s self-contained. You sort of know - instinctively - I think from the story, that she had to carve her own way through her life and her existence.  Somewhere or another, she has compartmentalized or suppressed (her past), where she doesn’t allow it to become part of her normal discourse, her emotional life. 

 

It’s true.  (Any) circumstance where she allows any personal contact or intimacy is one which she holds the key to herself.  It’s transactional.  That person (who she meets in the film), the other half of that relationship, is constantly trying to mine her for information, which she won’t give.  It felt to me that it was truthful to who the character was and what she was.  I don’t come out of the movie - and I wouldn’t come out of the movie, had I not directed it - being frustrated by that.  People become the way they are for a number of reasons, but it is not germane to this particular story as its own shape, its own weight and its own way of telling a story, I think. 

 

Elizabeth has no friends.  She has no relationships, outside of professional ones, and she is alone.

 

PFF:  Do you think that Elizabeth, after this film ends, would open up and find love? 

 

JM: Yes, I think that she will open up in some way, because I think – (and) you don’t understand this in the beginning - but she stands over a colossal void. 

 

She’s running herself into a hole that she’ll never be able to climb out of.  She has nothing to live for actually, beyond the addictive charge of success and winning.  She recognizes, I think, that it’s empty, and that is nothing to aspire to or to live by, but she couldn’t begin to know how to access the parts of herself that have somehow been cauterized, lost and forgotten.

 

PFF:  The film revolves around the gun lobby.  How familiar were you with the inner workings of lobbies, lobbyist firms and/or the fight for and against gun restrictions coming into the project? 

 

JM:  One of the privileges of making movies is that you get to examine issues that you just have some intuitive sense of, but not a real understanding of.  I didn’t know much more (about lobbyists other) than the job description.  It’s an opaque thing to most people.  I think that’s one of the pleasures of the film.  The lid gets lifted on (lobbying firms) and how (they) work.  Obviously, we are taking a very extreme example.  I wouldn’t necessarily say that it represents all of that industry.  That’s one thing.  

 

The gun issue is one that I have been fascinated by from afar, because I am baffled by it. From an outside perspective, (after an incident like) the Sandy Hook massacre, why would anybody sensibly not wish to control the sale of firearms, without it necessarily violating their 2nd Amendment rights?  Let’s (just) be careful about who is able to purchase these things.  The fact that the majority of people believe in that, but it never becomes actual in a legislative sense, is a paradox or a scandal, depending upon which way you want to look at it. 

 

It isn’t, (however), the subject of the film.  The film is not a polemic, and I never intended it to be that.  It’s the context of the film, but its political process is really the subject of the film, as well as the story of this character.  The bafflement is a very good spur to moviemaking.  How do I understand this, and how do I articulate its contradictions?  The key to it is the (U.S.) Constitution, of course.  Those of us outside need to (come) to grips and understand what the significance of it is - politically - in the country, and I respect that. 

 

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.

 

 

 

Man Down - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

The well-intentioned war movie ‘Man Down’ feels like it needed more filmmakers

 

Directed by:  Dito Montiel

Written by:  Dito Montiel and Adam G. Simon

Starring:  Shia LaBeouf, Jai Courtney, Kate Mara, and Gary Oldman

 

“Man Down” – U.S. Marine Gabriel Drummer (Shia LaBeouf) roams a decimated American countryside that looks like a recent victim of a nuclear attack.   With visuals reminiscent of the “Divergent” series (2014 – 2016), a nearby city is filled with broken, hollowed out skyscrapers, as Gabriel searches – along with his best friend, Devin (Jai Courtney) – for his young son (Charlie Shotwell) along the desolate, post-WWIII streets.     Director/cowriter Dito Montiel truly paints a terribly grim image of America, and the opening few minutes foreshadow an equally depressing picture.  Despite an admirable performance by LaBeouf, the film’s ultimate point regrettably becomes marginalized in the midst of a befuddled, overthought narrative. 

 

“Man Down” continually shifts between Gabriel’s experiences in post-WWIII to his days with the U.S. Marines, before everything went to hell, as it is commonly referred to in military films.  During the former, Gabriel and Devin – sporting beards and acting in survival-mode in a toxic wasteland - are no longer with the armed services and are hardened by a cataclysmic war that the audience does not experience onscreen.  In the latter, Gabriel and Devin go through basic training in Camp Lejeune, North Carolina and head out to a different war in Afghanistan, filled with open questions and the possibilities of urban warfare mistakes. 

 

Most of the time, both environments are cinematically adequate on their own, but the movie’s construct deliberately delivers a puzzle.   How does Gabriel go from a present-day U.S. Marine in Afghanistan to a future nomad rummaging through the ruined homeland?   This is especially confusing, because, in addition, Montiel and cowriter Adam G. Simon spend a significant amount of screen time with a military official (Gary Oldman) interviewing Gabriel.  As the movie treads forward between (actually) three time periods, it becomes obvious that the meeting with Peyton (Oldman) and Gabriel carries at least a portion of the film’s answers.   Then again, their conversation carries little insight or interest, as the officer and private work through tired, clichéd regulations in a dimly lit trailer complete with woodgrain paneling. 

 

While on the subject of lighting (or lack thereof), at one point during basic training in Camp Lejeune, I pulled off my glasses and also looked around the theatre.  Some scenes seemed slightly out of focus, and I wondered if the movie was presented in 3D, but I simply failed to pick up my 3D glasses.  After realizing that no one else - within a 20-yard radius - was wearing those special glasses, I felt reassured that I did not miss a “Pick up your 3D glasses here” sign before walking into the theatre.

 

The message, however, that Montiel and Simon want the audience to absorb is a vitally important one and not to be taken lightly.  I am most appreciative of the subject matter that the movie conveys and believe that it will open up dialogues over coffee after the theatre lights turn on.  At the same time, “Man Down” delivers this message like a sledgehammer whirling down on an unprotected box of supermarket eggs while simultaneously offering an unnecessary mystery over almost the entire 92-minute runtime.  “Man Down” certainly contains a worthy premise, but the movie is aptly named, because it feels like it needed more filmmakers.   

(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.

 

 

 

 

Manchester by the Sea - Movie Review by Monte Yazzie

Manchester by the Sea

 

Director: Kenneth Lonergan

Starring: Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams, Kyle Chandler, C.J. Wilson, Gretchen Mol, Lucas Hedges, and Matthew Broderick

 

Tragedy changes people. It takes a piece of a person, never completely making them whole again. The saying “time heals all wounds” is true, however wounds leave scars, a life long reminder of the pain that you once felt. Kenneth Lonergan, a writer who’s films have a specific and special way of portraying death and the after effects it leaves on a person, manufactures his newest film “Manchester by the Sea” in a lingering fog of a tragedy.

 

Lee (Casey Affleck) is a janitor living near Boston. He does odd jobs like fixing faucets, shoveling snowy sidewalks, and plunging clogged toilets; but something is different about Lee, you can feel the frustration and anger in his every motion and see pain and despair behind his eyes. Lee receives an unexpected phone call from his hometown, his older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) has died from congestive heart failure. Lee quickly returns to his hometown to handle arrangements but also to take care of his nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges).

 

“Manchester by the Sea” is about people and the pains of death. Mr. Lonergan handles this aspect deftly and delicately, painting a portrait of ordinary people living in a small town dealing with death in a personal and many times genuine way. Life still moves forward without pause for compassion, little things like dinner still needing to be cooked, preparing for snow that is still going to fall, and partaking in the painstaking process of grieving. It’s uncomfortable to watch yet fascinating to see the process so meticulously staged by such a skillful writer. There is more going on still, the aspect of Joe’s death is just one component. Lee has a history in this small New England town, people recognize him and whisper condemningly in his direction.

 

The focus of Lee’s agony is revealed through flashbacks about half way through the film and the result is heart breaking. How do you deal with such immense tragedy? That’s the question that continues throughout the remainder of the film and is displayed through a man still dealing with the affects of death from the past and forced to handle it again in the present. You are offered two separate versions of man; it’s almost like watching two different characters completely. Lee, as a married family man, is the definition of “the life of the party”. He drinks with his friends, roughhouses with his brother, affectionately teaches his nephew how to fish, and flirts sweetly with his wife (Michelle Williams).  Lee, as a lonely janitor, is cautious and measured. A man clearly dealing with emotions flowing very close to the surface, it takes everything in his power to keep those emotions restrained; sometimes they come through as aggression and anger while other times they come through as nothing more than a long stare into the distance. Mr. Lonergan builds moments that place Lee in the middle of ordinary social situations that are difficult for him function in, then into the middle of complicated situations only to watch the character drown in his own sea of self-destruction and self-loathing. You can never tell exactly how Lee will react to these circumstances, it’s an intriguing quality methodically designed by the writer/director.

 

Accommodating the script is a slew of fantastic performances. Casey Affleck is superb, skillfully handling the weight of the emotions in the film and delivering one of the finest, gut-wrenching performances of the year. Add to this the committed performance from Lucas Hedges who plays Patrick, a teenager trying to find a handle on the death of his father. Mr. Hedges develops the character through the different stages of the grieving process, in one moment with the kind of teenage angst you’d expect from someone his age but also with the carefree outlook that you’d expect from a young person who has lived in the same safe community his entire life.

 

“Manchester by the Sea” is not a film for every film fan, it's uncomfortable and grueling to watch a character suffer with these kinds of feelings for two plus hours. While the film portrays a tragedy many of us will ever know, pain and sorrow is something we can all relate with in one way or another. We all have wounds that haven't fully healed, some are still aching while others are long past the point of pain. While "Manchester by the Sea" may be polarizing for many viewers, the film displays that we all deal with pain in different ways and some us have unimaginable wounds they may be trying desperately to hide underneath a wealth of different emotions.

 

Monte’s Rating

4.00 out of 5.0

Bad Santa 2 - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

‘Bad Santa 2’ is a flawed, funny stocking stuffer

 

Directed by:  Mark Waters

Written by:  Johnny Rosenthal, Shauna Cross

Starring:  Billy Bob Thornton, Tony Cox, Kathy Bates, Christina Hendricks, and Brett Kelly

 

 

“Bad Santa 2” - “He’s making a list, and he’s checking it twice.  Gonna find out who’s naughty or nice…” – “Santa Claus is Coming to Town”, written by John Frederick Coots and Haven Gillespie

 

“Bad Santa” turned this famous Christmas song on its head in 2003, by ironically finding a Kris Kringle (Billy Bob Thornton) who was both naughty and not very nice at all. Willie (Thornton) - a mean-spirited shopping mall Santa Claus who prefers booze over milk and cookies – routinely curses “over” his breath when various kids sit on his knee and ask for their most hopeful Christmas wishes. 

 

Thornton answered our comedy wishes by breaking several rules of Christmas decorum in this unique and hilarious performance.  Thirteen years later, Thornton resurrects Willie in director Mark Waters’ (“Mean Girls” (2004), “Mr. Popper’s Penguins” (2011)) new picture.

 

Like “Dumb and Dumber To” (2014) and “Bridget Jones’s Baby” (2016), there is no intellectual reason to convey another story of a beloved movie character in a sequel.  On the other hand, with Black Friday, flashing multi-colored bulbs positioned on rain gutters and a 100,000 percent increase in seasonal egg nog sales imminently upon us, tis the season for Christmas movies, and hence Willie’s time is now. 

 

Well, the year 2016 has not treated our hero very well, or to be more accurate, Willie has not treated himself with kindness.  Behind on bills and in desperate need of a cleaning woman in his tiny Phoenix apartment, he believes that he has no apparent reason for living, when opportunity suddenly knocks!  His old business partner, Marcus (hysterically played by Tony Cox), offers him a safecracking gig with two million dollars at the end of a sorted rainbow. 

 

This particular prospect naturally contains a Christmas theme, which forces Willie to sport a Santa suit again.  This, of course, makes him want to grab the nearest adult beverage and punch an open wall, but a small fortune could make any malcontent perform a task for a few days.

 

While Willie, Marcus and their new business partner, Willie’s mom Sunny (Kathy Bates), plan to hatch their robbery, they also devilishly spread their holiday jeer with putdowns, insults and complaints with the veracity of a raw, blush-inducing segment on the Howard Stern Show or the most uncouth joke emanating from a Reno comedy club on a random Saturday, just after midnight. 

 

Thornton and Cox are masters at this type of humor with the abilities and timing to deliver expletives regarding “cultured” topics like sexual prowess or idiocy, and Bates joyfully plays along and hangs with their boorish behavior throughout the picture, including a bathroom scene in which she multitasks while watching her favorite reality show. 

 

The reality is “Bad Santa 2” is very funny, and if you enjoyed the foul-mouthed style of the first picture, you will get a yuletide kick out of the sequel.  Some of the sequences feel very familiar, such as various children asking Santa for presents and Willie finding a love interest (Christina Hendricks) with less importance on amore and more emphasis on physicality. The only moment, however, that really seems recycled is when Willie spews pizza from his mouth, which immediately flashes back to him screaming at a mall shopper that he is “on his lunch break” in the first movie.   All in all, the original picture is over a decade old, so although “Bad Santa 2” does not soak in originality, Willie’s antics - for his fans – are certainly welcome.

 

Even the kid, Thurman (Brett Kelly), who followed Willie like a lost puppy in the 2003 movie returns and has now reached 21 years old.  Several exchanges between Willie and this painfully naïve adult – who works as a sandwich consultant and wears a t-shirt three sizes too small – are some of the best in the film.

 

What is not the best?   Well, “Bad Santa 2” certainly has its flaws, including unremarkable production values and a terribly flimsy narrative that would fit nicely into a “Police Academy” reunion film, and that is not a compliment.  From that perspective, the movie reminds me of “The Heat” (2013) with Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy.  In other words, ignore the tired, formulaic construct and just enjoy the comedic performances.  

 

“Bad Santa 2” is not the biggest or best cinematic present that theatres will receive this holiday season, but it is an amusing (and very rated R) stocking stuffer.

(2.5/4 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.