An interview with the stars and director of 'Finding Alice' by Jeff Mitchell

Finding Alice poster.jpg

“Finding Alice”, a drama about a resident aide who takes an old man from a nursing home to find his daughter, won the 2019 Phoenix Film Festival’s World Cinema Audience Award, and director Pablo Fernandez, actress Emma Melkersson and actor John La Briola flew from Sweden to the Valley to soak up some sunshine, meet new friends and celebrate their film. 

The Phoenix Film Festival recently caught up with Pablo, Emma and John via an international phone call, and we enjoyed a warm and lively reunion.  We discussed the challenges of playing the two characters, the film’s most emotional scene, the future for “Finding Alice”, and much more!

In addition to PFF’s award, “Finding Alice” also won the 2018 Oslo Film Festival’s Best Feature, the 2019 L’Europe autour de l’Europe’s Luna Award, and the 2018 October Los Angeles Film Awards’ Best Narrative Feature, Director and Honorable Mention Actress.

 

PFF:  John, how did you prepare to play Henry, a man with dementia, and what were the challenges?

JLBIn the original script, Henry had a stroke, so I (studied) people who were afflicted with that. As the film went on, we thought that Henry dragging his foot was not the way to go, and we went with dementia (instead).  A challenge was (deciding) how “with-it” is Henry?  

He has moments of clarity and some capacity for numbers.  He’s very preoccupied about how much an overdue library book would cost, so he has some idea that five cents a day for a book that should have been returned in 1965 adds up to (a large) amount, so he’s aware of that much.

I’ve had a few people criticize me about how believable (my performance) is.  A woman who has a mother with dementia was offended or something, but other people said that I nailed it, so I don’t really know. 

 

PFF:  Emma, you play such a complex character.  Right away, I was drawn to the story, because I wanted to understand Erin’s (Melkersson) motivation.  When she was making bad decisions in the nursing home and on the road, were you aware of her backstory?

EM:  I knew her backstory and how she ended up in the nursing home.  She’s trying to just find some sort of stability and closure with her very painful past, and yes, Erin is a complex character.    

 

PFF:  Many of the scenes were so thoughtfully framed, especially during a pivotal moment with Henry and Erin while their car was parked.  Were there certain scenes that you were really, really meticulous about getting a shot just right?

PF:  There is a funny story about that scene.   It was framed as a two shot, so we had Emma on the right and John on the left.  The DP and I were arguing about this framing.  We were shooting the scene, and for each take, Emma is getting better and better, and she’s just amazing.  Really great, and the DP decides that Emma is so good, we should get a close-up of her.

Changing an angle of a camera is never something that you do in two minutes.  Sometimes, it takes a half hour, and when an actor has reached a (certain) level of emotion, you don’t want to break it.  You want them to keep working and keep doing what they’re doing.  As we are shooting this scene – and Emma and John don’t see it - but the DP and I are behind a black (curtain) and are screaming at each other.  The DP wanted to get closer, and I didn’t want to break this moment.  We both had a point.  It would help the story to be closer to Emma when Erin is opening her heart, but at the same time, I thought the two shot was really good as it was. We didn’t need to get a close-up, and I didn’t want to break the moment…and we were screaming.

 

PFF:  Have moviegoers approached you after festival screenings to talk about that scene?

EM:  In Phoenix, a (couple) came up to me, and the husband was all teared up, and he said, “Thank you.  My wife had the same, exact story.” 

She was standing next to him in complete shock.  She was empty, and he was crying.  It was an amazing moment, because he was just so thankful for hearing Erin’s words in Pablo’s script.  So, that was a crazy moment.  It was true.  Those words, they were real.

PF:  It’s one of the scenes that people really, really remember.

Photo Credit: Lauren Hansen, Lunabear Studios

Photo Credit: Lauren Hansen, Lunabear Studios

 

PFF:  Michelle Williams said - in an interview - that she was really nervous about her most dramatic scene in “Manchester by the Sea” (2016).  Emma and John, how did you prepare for your scene?

EM:  Since, it was my casting scene, I said the words out loud, when I read the script.  So, I had them in mind, ever since I got the part.  When we shot it, it was about a year (later).  I knew that the scene meant a lot, and I wanted to do it with respect. 

That whole day, I was in my own mind, listening to music and trying to focus.  People tried to talk to me, but I needed to be peaceful.  Yea, I was nervous.  I was, because I wanted to do it justice. 

 

PFF:  Henry seemed to be sleeping during that scene, but do you think that he heard Erin in some way?

JLB:  I circled that scene on the calendar, and that was the one that I built up for.  On some level, I think that Henry hears her story in his sleep.  I don’t think this is a man who sleeps very well at all.  I think he has troubling dreams, and even though he can’t complete a thought sometimes, I think the emotions are there. 

 

PFF:  “Finding Alice” is a Swedish film, but English is the on-screen, spoken language.  Tell me about that choice. 

PF:  I wanted to reach a broader audience and as many people as possible.  I do love Sweden.  I do love the environment, and we, as Swedes, should be proud of this film.  We made something beautiful, and we made it in a different language, but it doesn’t matter. 

 

PFF:  Was there anything uniquely Swedish in the film?  For instance, when Henry and Erin walked in the countryside.

EM:  I guess we are spoiled.  We have beautiful nature here in Sweden, and we (embrace) our environment. 

Finding Alice 3.jpg

 

PFF:  “Finding Alice” has played at the Phoenix and Oslo Film Festivals…among others.  What’s next, and where can people see your movie?

JLB:  We’ve been nominated for four prizes in the Madrid Film Festival.  That’s coming up in August, and we also got into the Bucharest Film Festival.  So, nine festivals in total. 

PF:  After Bucharest, we don’t know.  Let’s see what happens.  The hard part with making a film is getting distribution.  We hope the festivals are helping us get some exposure.

 

PFF:  I love the two blue cars that Erin and Henry took on the road.  The beat up, older one and the shiny, new one.

JLB:  One interesting behind-the-scenes-thing is that the muscle car caught on fire.  It overheated, and we (ended up) pouring bottled water on the engine.  We had to stop shooting every 20 minutes, because the car would overheat, and it actually did catch on fire.  Emma and I were both sitting in it, and everyone was running, waving their arms and saying, “Get out!”

PF:  I was on the radio and saying quite calmly, “The car is on fire.  The car is on fire.”  I  think the crew didn’t understand what I was saying, but the car was on fire.   

EM:  We thought (you were saying), “The car is so cool, it’s like on fire.”

JLB:  We had a lot of car problems, but it led to a cool, spontaneous, unplanned scene late at night when Henry and Erin are on the bridge looking at the stars.  We were stuck in the middle of nowhere and waiting for another car, so we just got out and improvised.  It ended up in the film, so I like that moment a lot.  

PF:  Thank you to the Phoenix Film Festival for having us.  It was really a lot of fun, and you guys really took care of us.  We felt like we were home. 

EM:  We had the best time.

PF:  I really loved the festival and hope that we can go back.  Even without a film, I would like to experience it again.  It was amazing.

 

Photo Credit: Nader Abushhab, NBMA Photography

Photo Credit: Nader Abushhab, NBMA Photography

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

Stuber - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

Photo Credit: Karen Ballard / Copyright: © 2019 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved

Photo Credit: Karen Ballard / Copyright: © 2019 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved

‘Stuber’ is short on plot and originality but long on buddy-comedy laughs

 

Directed by:  Michael Dowse

Written by:  Tripper Clancy

Starring:  Kumail Nanjiani, Dave Bautista, Natalie Morales, Iko Uwais, and Mira Sorvino

 

“Stuber” – WWE fans have been wildly cheering and feverishly booing Dave Bautista, 50, since 2002, but this pro wrestler became an instant movie star in 2014 with Marvel Studios’ release of “Guardians of the Galaxy”.   His portrayal of Drax the Destroyer offered a combination of massive brawn and perfect comedic timing that made Arnold Schwarzenegger and The Rock household names.  Despite his formidable appearance, Drax flourishes as an accessible character with his frank honesty and nonexistent-awareness of nuanced conversation.  It’s a charismatic concoction that should not be ignored.

Kumail Nanjiani, 41, is a comedian, and he may have felt ignored for years as he bounced around with one-time appearances on television shows and small parts in random movies like as a cable guy in “Hell Baby” (2013).   

The “Silicon Valley” comedy series was Nanjiani’s big break, and he parlayed that success into a charming, relationship comedy “The Big Sick” (2017), a film that he co-wrote, so he properly fed himself loads of on-screen moments to drop his droll, observational humor.   

Bautista and Nanjiani have worked for years in developing and thoroughly knowing their strengths, and since they finally hit cinema-success in their 40s and late 30s, respectively, they don’t waste any time pushing their strong suits in “Stuber”, a clashing-personalities, buddy comedy.  Experienced moviegoers have downed this familiar movie-formula since the days of Bud Abbott and Lou Costello, but it somehow morphed to include policeman/detective angles during the 1980s with “48 Hours” (1982), “Lethal Weapon” (1987) and “Midnight Run” (1988), to name a few.  

Here, Vic Manning (Bautista), a police detective (naturally), is desperately trying to catch an elusive drug dealer named Oka Tedjo (Iko Uwais).  Sure, Tedjo is a bad guy, but he also killed Vic’s partner.  With a fuse shorter than Herve Villechaize bending down to tie his shoe, Vic is in no mood to waste time or compromise, however, due to a very specific reason, he cannot drive. 

That’s a tough pill to swallow in Southern California.

He needs a taxi or - as we say in 2019 - an Uber, and this is where Stu (Nanjiani) answers the call.  Vic’s constant dependence on Stu and his Nissan Leaf is the glue that reluctantly bonds these two characters, as this impatient cop snaps at his unassuming driver to shuttle them all over Los Angeles - from Koreatown to Long Beach - to chase down Tedjo. 

Well, you might be blinded by the continuous bombardment of police clichés that fill the movie’s 93-minute runtime.  Which clichés?  Vic’s boss (Mira Sorvino) wants to take him off the case, constant mentions about an impending drug deal, shootouts in seedy neighborhoods, and a strained relationship with a close family member because of the job.  In this case, it’s between Vic and his daughter Nicole (Natalie Morales). 

Except for Morales’ positive screen presence, none of the other aforementioned elements contribute anything to the story.  In fact, the background noise surrounding Vic and Stu almost feels like a designed parody, and its tone is caught in purgatory between farce and serious storytelling.  Unfortunately, the movie doesn’t connect with either one.

On the other hand, just about every moment between Vic and Stu does connect with good old-fashioned cheesy slapstick and sharp-witted verbal jabs.  At the outset, the hulking Vic climbs into the car, and Stu comments, “Let me guess, you want me to drive you to all the Sarah Connors in the city.”  

Since Vic’s actual bark with Stu is much worse than his bite, our driver shouldn’t feel too much danger from him…just from the surrounding gunplay and bloodshed.  Okay, the arthouse-only crowd won’t be amused, but “Stuber” has a definite audience, as Bautista and Nanjiani’s natural chemistry serves up plenty of laughs. 

So, never mind that you can see a typical double-cross coming from a mile away, and Tedjo does not utter more than a few syllables (if any) until the last 10 minutes of the third act.  These problems don’t matter, right?  Geez, Bautista and Nanjiani certainly know their strengths.

(2.5/4 stars)

 

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

Summer Night - Movie Review by Ben Cahlamer

Summer Night.jpg

Directed by: Joseph Cross

Screenplay by: Jordan Joliff and Joseph Cross

Story by: Jordan Joliff

Starring: Ellar Coltrane, Ian Nelson, Analigh Tipton, Callan McAuliffe, Ella Hunt, Bill Miner, Hayden Szeto, Lana Condor, Elena Kampouris, Melina Vidler, Khris Davis, Victoria Justice, Justin Chatwin

Joseph Cross’s “Summer Night” is a peculiarity. It is a coming-of-age story, which reflects the real-world values that affect high school and college-aged kids. The theme of the film is deftly set with Cross’s use of “Can’t Catch Me” by NoMBe & New Mystics as we meet Taylor (Callan McAuliffe).

“Summer Night” is also a very self-aware story. This theme of “we’re invincible” comes alive as Cross and co-screenwriter Jordan Joliff introduce us to Jameson (Ellar Coltrane, “Boyhood”) and Seth (Ian Nelson) in a very fluid way within the same forest as Taylor. Jameson is very much a loner as he ponders his life. It’s not immediately known why Jameson is in a brooding mood, but Coltrane plays it with panache as we know that this is his story.

As Seth, Ian Nelson has a far more interesting and robust character. Cross and co-screenwriter Jordan Joliff take a risk in not immediately disclosing Seth’s situation and Nelson’s performance is nuanced well enough that we don’t necessarily want to know right away either.

By not immediately disclosing Seth’s situation, it has the intended benefit of allowing Cross to continue to fluidly integrate other characters, giving them each a chance to shine, namely Analeigh Tipton as Mel, Seth’s girlfriend. Telling the story in the way that Cross did, It also obfuscates Jameson’s story by building in too many other, smaller moments. They define the driving theme, but the story’s fluidity also gets in the way of truly shaping the main characters and their situations.

Once we get into a party atmosphere at The Alamo, where Jameson settles with Harmony (Victoria Justice) and he avoids Corin (Elena Kampouris), Jameson doesn’t have so much pent up tension, we get the chance to see Coltrane relax too. We get to watch Taylor strut his vocal chords as well as his theatrics on stage.

As Jameson, Seth and Taylor realize that they aren’t as invincible as they once thought they were, Cross forces them to decide if they’re going to remain within the comfort of their cocoons or if they’re really ready to mature in to that next stage of adulthood. This is where Coltrane and Nelson really shine; their defining moments decided in the drunken haze of partying.

Though Taylor is not a central figure in this story, the character defines Cross’s themes. Taylor gave the appearance of being a “rough and tumble” type character, but he definitely has a soul that complimented Jameson and Seth.

“Summer Night” screened at the Phoenix Film Festival this past April and is being released in theaters nationwide this weekend. The performances are really what make Joseph Cross’s film sing. Some of the story mechanics don’t necessarily work, but the fluidity with which we’re introduced to characters and their intertwining situations really push the envelope of coming-of-age stories.

2.75 out of 4 stars

Wild Rose - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

Wild Rose.jpg

Buckley blooms in ‘Wild Rose’  

 

Directed by:  Tom Harper

 

Written by:  Nicole Taylor

 

Starring:  Jessie Buckley, Sophie Okonedo, Julie Walters, Daisy Littlefield, and Adam Mitchell

 

“Wild Rose” – “Whosever heard of a country singer from Glasgow?” – Rose-Lynn Harlan (Jessie Buckley)

 

Rose-Lynn loves country music!  It’s sewn into the fabric of her being and also into her white leather jacket (with tassels) and accompanying white cowboy boots.  When she’s not performing onstage at the Glasgow Grand Opry, she listens to this particular music genre - born in the southern United States sometime during the early 20th century – on the bus or at the Inness House where she vacuums and dusts from 9 to 5 as a cleaning lady.  Rose-Lynn refers to country as three chords and the truth, and she firmly stands by that claim, because those words are tattooed on her right forearm.

 

Her conflicted truth is that she desperately wants to travel to Nashville and make it as a singer, however, she’s saddled with responsibilities in her Priesthill working-class neighborhood.  You see, Rose-Lynn has two young children, Lyle (Adam Mitchell) and Wynonna (Daisy Littlefield), who desperately need – and compete for - her attention, so dropping her life in Scotland and leaving for the United States carries all the practicality of skydiving while attempting to solve differential equations on a spiral notebook.  Should one attempt this dual-pursuit?  Sure, but probably not without messy consequences.

 

Director Tom Harper, writer Nicole Taylor and Buckley passionately shepherd Rose-Lynn through her conflicted struggle, as she desperately craves to fly towards her dreams but is grounded from leaving the nest.  She’s stuck, in a somewhat-similar fashion as Guy (Glen Hansard) from the indie Irish musical “Once” (2007), except he stunted his musical career through self-doubt, anxiety and ongoing acceptance of meager creature comforts.  Certainly, Rose-Lynn has insecurities and does not possess the wherewithal to locate open doors towards a more promising future, but make no mistake, her aspiration-barriers – in the form of her truly lovely kids – are physically real.

 

Taylor’s adoration for country music is wholly genuine, as she notes in a 2018 interview, “I’m a lifelong country music fan.  It’s been my obsession, since I was 12 years old.” 

 

She adds, “You get two and a half minutes of catharsis in every country song, and for people who are not used to articulating how they feel, it’s the best.”  

 

Meanwhile, Buckley delivers the best lead female performance of the year (so far) as Rose-Lynn.  This redheaded Irish actress served a masterful turn as an unsettled young woman in the slow-burning thriller “Beast” (2017), and here, Buckley offers a duality to Rose-Lynn, but with designed palatability. 

 

Harper and Buckley – from the get-go – establish Rose-Lynn’s coarse outer shell, as she frequently curses, is willing to come to blows and overlooks her responsibilities while throwing down drinks at local pubs.  Rose-Lynn is a cluttered handful, however, when she sets aside her daily realities and sings, her worries disappear into toe-tapping rockabilly-thunder and misty blisses of gentle harmonies that ask for our notice, and we enthusiastically and freely bequeath.

 

To put it simply, Buckley is magic, and her tender ballads like “Peace in This House” and “Glasgow” are the most enchanting.  Buckley and Taylor wrote some tracks like “Cigarette Row” and “Covered in Regret”, but actress Mary Steenburgen – of all people – co-wrote “Glasgow”.

 

During a June 2019 interview with Stephen Colbert, Buckley said, “(Mary Steenburgen) is amazing.  I mean, how much talent can one person have?”

 

After experiencing “Wild Rose”, you will undoubtedly ask yourself that same question about Jessie Buckley. 

(3.5/4 stars)

 

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

 

 

 

 

Maiden - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

Sony Pictures Classics, via Associated Press

Sony Pictures Classics, via Associated Press

‘Maiden’ is a must-see voyage

 

Directed by:  Alex Holmes

Starring:  Tracy Edwards, Dr. Claire Russell Warren, Angela Heath, and Jeni Mundy

“Maiden” – Some people reach for the stars.  Tracy Edwards reached for the ocean.

Growing up in a loving household, Tracy’s sunny trajectory in the UK took a sharp and painful detour, and before one could say “troublemaker”, high school administrators suspended her 26 times.  This frustrated teenager left home, and her unlikely, winding path led her to, of all things, sailing.  In approximately eight years – and fueled by a motivated, adventurous spirit – Tracy hired a crew and captained a yacht in the 1989 Whitbread Round the World Race – a 33,000-mile nautical journey - at the age of 24.  

“It was something I had to do,” Edwards says.

Director Alex Holmes (“Stop at Nothing: The Lance Armstrong Story” (2014)) sits down with Edwards, her crew members and competitors, as they look back at this historic race.  Certainly, anyone who possesses the courage to sail around the world deserves thunderous accolades, but her story offers a groundbreaking twist, because she captained her ship, the Maiden, with an all-female crew.

Needless to say, up until that time, yachting was a male-dominated sport.  In fact, out of 230 sailors in the previous Whitbread Race, only a handful of women (four or five) – including Edwards who worked as a cook - participated.  Edwards desired to race again but rather than be - literally - relegated back to the kitchen, she wanted to navigate a ship and decided that the only way to ensure this dream is to form an all-female team.  This, of course, changed the reality of the sport, and since the media and her competitors deemed her efforts as a sideshow, a stunt or exercise in futility, she and her crew changed perceptions as well.

“Maiden” not only works as an empowering tale but also as a harrowing one.  In addition to forming a team with 12 other women, taking on a dual role of skipper and navigator, and fighting through unforgiving, unpredictable weather, Edwards had two cameras on board to capture their victories and hardships. 

Very quickly, we realize that a round-the-world sailing voyage is a life-and-death struggle, because, Mother Nature can show no forgiveness. 

As Edwards explains, “The ocean is always trying to kill you.  It doesn’t take a break.”

Holmes weaves the miraculous 30-year footage of the Maiden team and their trials on the high seas, while Edwards, and some of her crew members – like Dr. Claire Russell Warren, Angela Heath and Jeni Mundy – reminisce about their thought processes leading up to the race and their experiences during the half-year expedition. 

While the women, as their youthful 1989-1990-selves, adjust to constantly changing winds and conditions, keep keen eyes on the competing yachts and push towards a hopeful triumph, their 2019-counterparts offer calming, confident vibes for the camera.  Every woman carries a self-assuredness that may be difficult to quantify, but so easy to see and embrace with joy and admiration.  Tracy Edwards and the Maiden crew may or may not steer you towards the ocean, but these women will leave you inspired to reach for the stars.

(3.5/4 stars)

 

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

Midsommar - Movie Review by Monte Yazzie

Midsommar.jpg

Dir: Ari Aster
Starring: Florence Pugh, Jack Reynor, William Jackson Harper, and Will Poulter

 

Death, dying, and the grieving process can be a personal and unique experience. For each individual who must endure watching someone leave, mourn the death of someone important in their lives, and ultimately grieve the fact that life will proceed without that person in their lives, the process can be a mixture of emotions both good and bad. But it is a process that is wholly unique for the individual.

In some cultures, this process has a defined set of steps that must be followed. For Native American tribes, the grieving practice is often incorporated into the processing of the burial arrangements with each tribal community having a different set of operations that are incorporated into the traditional practices. Some of these specific practices are vastly different, oftentimes misunderstood or challenged by non-tribal people, from the “normal” process demonstrated throughout traditional America. But when you break it down, all the steps in the grieving process are present.

Director Ari Aster, who expertly crafted one of the best horror films of the last decade with “Hereditary” which also featured one of the most stunning lead performances of 2018 from Toni Collette, returns for his sophomore film and focuses again on emotional trauma felt and caused by humanity. “Midsommar” is a film about clashing cultures, emotional codependency, and romantic manipulations wrapped up in dark shrouds of black humor.

Dani (Florence Pugh) is still grieving a family tragedy when her boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) invites her to a once-in-a-lifetime midsummer celebration in Sweden. Dani, lost in utter heartache and grasping to remaining fibers of her relationship with Christian, reluctantly pushes herself to commit to the trip. Not long after entering the mysterious community at the start of an 11-day festival, the couple begins to participate in strange rituals, drinking concoctions that lead to hallucinatory nightmares and partaking in bizarre ceremonies with unusual outcomes.

“Midsommar” functions on numerous levels, with influences ranging from films like “The Wicker Man” for thematic control and “The Color of Pomegranates” for color and design. However, the films of Ingmar Bergman seem most influential throughout the film, specifically “Scenes from a Marriage” pairs beautifully with the narrative components and tone being operated throughout this film.

It’s within the narrative that “Midsommar” is most impressive. Aster has already proved with “Hereditary” why genre film is such a good vessel for complex narratives and emotional storytelling but also why horror films can specifically evoke so many different types of emotions in the process of deeply affecting the viewer. “Midsommar” is operating with many of the same processes but the story here is reaching farther, tackling issues of foreign predispositions, cultural misunderstandings, gender dominance, the power of femininity, relationship codependency, and the many meandering meanings of romantic relationships.

At its core, “Midsommar” is a break-up film mixed with the grieving process that follows the end of a relationship, it’s an examination of that terrible relationship everyone has tried to save only to suddenly, and often times disastrously and painfully, come to the realization that it cannot be saved. Mr. Aster layers relationship concepts ingeniously throughout the film; through the ritual of cult ceremonies that operate as metaphors for sex and desire, through the process of aging and the death and dying rite involved in the relationship one has to another and the pain of moving forward without that person, and through the miscommunication of culture and tradition in examining just how different perceptions of love can be.

The composition of this film is familiar in tone and structure to “Hereditary”, however, the themes are fashioned in a far different way. The horror elements, which are violent and shocking throughout, accommodate the bleak yet humorous tone that Aster is trying to achieve. It’s interesting that throughout this film, where the emotional strings are being plucked at vastly different strengths, the humor feels so natural. It helps bring some levity to the dark subject matter that is transpiring in bright daylight scenes, sometimes tinged hallucinatory perspectives.

These concepts do not work without the brilliant performance from Florence Pugh who in the first few minutes of the film completely invades the viewer's emotional space through devasting pain and sorrow. The remaining performance is a range of emotions that are genuinely composed. Jack Reynor plays Christian, the not-so-great boyfriend character, who convincingly displays that he is more self-obsessed and self-concerned than he is dedicated to his relationship.

“Midsommar” is a beautifully photographed film that is most often composed in the bright shining sunlight. There is an uneasiness to horror films that operate in daylight, that the evil being orchestrated has no remorse for whatever it plans on doing in full, clear view. It’s an achievement to the director of photography Pawel Pogorzelski who has proven such an immense range with the collaboration with Ari Aster in two films. From stunning wide frame shots of peaceful yet inescapable environments to unnerving wandering shots seemingly taken from something watching in the clouds, all the way to the gory glory of shocking violence, it’s all beautifully and purposefully rendered.

“Midsommar” is the second film for director Ari Aster, that’s an impressive two-film catalog already. Mr. Aster continues to strengthen his voice and skillset as a filmmaker, but his perception for how one can utilize genre to tell emotionally complicated stories is the real achievement for this filmmaker. “Midsommar” demonstrates that sometimes the scariest monster isn’t a monster at all, sometimes it’s the emotion connected with the fear of loss and outlook towards the unknown.

Monte’s Rating
4.50 out of 5.00

Spider-Man: Far from Home - Movie Review by Monte Yazzie

This image released by Sony Pictures shows Jake Gyllenhaal, left, and Tom Holland in a scene from Spider-Man: Far From Home. (Jay Maidment/Columbia Pictures/Sony via AP)

This image released by Sony Pictures shows Jake Gyllenhaal, left, and Tom Holland in a scene from Spider-Man: Far From Home. (Jay Maidment/Columbia Pictures/Sony via AP)

Dir: Jon Watts

Starring: Tom Holland, Zendaya, Jon Favreau, Samuel L. Jackson, Cobie Smulders, Marisa Tomei, Jacob Batalon, and Jake Gyllenhaal

 

Growing up is complicated. It involves shifting attitudes and desires, becoming comfortable and capable with new responsibilities, and often times the destruction and development through awkward phases where self-confidence and self-awareness builds and crumbles with every encounter within every situation. If that sounds terrible, it is!!

 

Think about all these multifaceted aspects of emotional and physical development and add to all of this an extra special ability, something not provided to the rest of your peers. With this great power comes the great responsibility of having the abilities to save a life, to end a life. Suddenly the algebra test, the big dance, the pep rally, don’t have the same level of importance.

 

Director Jon Watts returns to further the adventures of Peter Parker with “Spider-Man: Far from Home”. Taking the story to new territory, this time away from the school hallways and into foreign countries on a class trip, the journeys of the friendly neighborhood Spider-Man grow more dangerous with added hero duties but also more personal as Peter’s two lives converge with greater risks. For a film coming off the heels of a pop culture event like “Avengers: Endgame”, “Spider-Man: Far from Home” succeeds by looking towards the future and offering a glimpse of what the continued Marvel Universe might have in store.

 

Peter Parker (Tom Holland) continues to go through the trials and tribulations of adolescence, however, the world isn’t the same anymore after the near cataclysmic “snap” from Thanos that altered lives and caused a 5-year pause of life for millions of people…including Peter Parker and many of his classmates.

 

Now, the world is trying to return to some state of normalcy, but for Peter, the world will never be the same. Spider-Man is an Avenger, went to another planet in space, helped save the world from Thanos, and, most affecting, lost a mentor/father figure in the process of it all; for Peter, life continues to grow vastly complicated. And, just when things seem to settle down, when Peter has a moment to plan his pursuit of MJ (Zendaya) during his class trip abroad, another terror arrives destroying cities across the globe while a new ally named Mysterio (Jake Gyllenhaal) enters Earth from a parallel dimension. Complications abound.

 

Screenwriters Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers do a nice job of tying together the major events that have passed since “Avengers: Endgame”, utilizing Peter’s interactions, like a touching discussion with Happy Hogan (John Favreau) or humorous banter with bestie Ned (Jacob Batalon), and general world interruptions, like a funny school news report or foreign television correspondence, to move the story forward. However, amongst all of these world establishing elements is something much stronger, an emotional component that directly addresses the missing piece of Tony Stark whose memorialized visage is a constant reminder for Peter of the responsibility and ultimate sacrifice heroes must make. Most of these reminders are subtle designs, like graffitied walls or physical objects like a pair of sunglasses left for Peter from Tony.

 

While these components all push the story in some really interesting directions, it does take some overly deliberate time to get these pieces into operational places. For the first 45 minutes of the film, the pacing is a complete mess. Side stories like a romance between Ned and classmate Betty (Angourie Rice) and encounters between Happy and Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) are introduced quickly without much consequence towards the primary focus of everything. Amongst the complications that have overtaken Peter’s life, some of the side stories seem inconsequential in perspective of everything that has happened. Perhaps that’s the purpose, however, that the minor distractions in Peter’s life are easier to handle than the burden of the greater components. That focusing on minor issues that Peter understands how to grasp is better than trying to figure out why threats are constantly trying to tear the world to pieces. It feels like this was the direction being proposed in the early moments of everything in the film, but it’s not so clear.

 

When Mysterio, a really charming yet offbeat Jake Gyllenhaal, enters the equation, “Far from Home” finds exceptional traction because of some inventive narrative choices but also because it focuses specifically on Peter Parker and the enormous emotional swings that have been affecting his life. In the second part of the film, it becomes obvious that Peter Parker can no longer just be the “friendly neighborhood Spider-Man”, that the world has changed so much for Peter that his motivation and identity will forever be connected to a red mask of a superhero.

 

“Spider-Man: Far from Home” is connecting a wealth of story ideas to make its ultimate point. In the process, the film struggles initially to find its balance of all these themes, but by the end, the different storylines, whether delicately or forcefully placed, work in establishing a new world and direction for Spider-Man to venture.  

 

Monte’s Rating
3.00 out of 5.00

Spider-Man: Far from Home - Movie Review by Ben Cahlamer

Tom Holland as Spider-Man. Photo: Jay Maidment/Columbia Pictures

Tom Holland as Spider-Man. Photo: Jay Maidment/Columbia Pictures


Directed by: Jon Watts

Written by” Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers

Based on “Spider-Man” by” Stan Lee and Steve Ditko

Starring: Tom Holland, Samuel L. Jackson, Zendaya, Cobie Smulders, Jon Favreau, J. B. Smoove, Jacob Batalon, Marisa Tomei, Jake Gyllenhaal

I love it when a plan comes together.

The funny thing about “Spider-Man: Far From Home”, the latest adventure featuring your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man is that it is a story about plans being formulated and then systematically being questioned, shredded and then reformulated.

And disrupted yet again.

Tom Holland had big shoes to fill in his first film, “Homecoming” as he inherited a role previously played by Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield, and he did so with grace. He joined the Avengers for their last two outings, Infinity War and the recent “Endgame”, which if you want a Marvel Double Feature, you can still catch it in theaters.

“Far From Home” takes place shortly after the events in “Avengers: Endgame,” with a running gag to remind us of those events. Don’t worry, the gag plays itself out really well. With this story immediately following “Endgame”, Peter Parker has even bigger shoes to fill as he’s reminded of the death of his mentor, Iron Man.

The creative team behind “Homecoming”, director Jon Watts and co-screenwriters Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers return, giving “Far From Home” a nice sense of welcome continuity and, more importantly, some stability following the events in “Endgame.”

McKenna and Sommers balance the levity of Spider-Man’s character with the danger that faces him, as a teenager fawning for MJ (Zendaya). His trusty sidekick, Ned (Jacob Batalon) is along for the ride. MJ is a bit more aloof here than the character was in Homecoming, and that distraction serves Parker’s lusty angst towards her well. Batalon has a lot of fun as the ground cover for Parker, but his antics weren’t as unique as they were in “Homecoming”. McKenna and Sommers did a nice job of building out his character so that it didn’t seem as overbearing as it might have seemed.

Jake Gyllenhaal’s Quentin Beck is the wild card. McKenna and Sommers present him to us as an expert on the Elementals, who mysteriously threaten the earth. The performance grew on me as the story progressed, with Gyllenhaal using his low-key dramatic style to nuance the character.

The writing duo also gave our supporting cast a very meaty presence. Samuel L. Jackson returns as Nick Fury, playing the detached role of “uncle” to Peter; someone to remind him of his responsibilities as Spider-Man. Marisa Tomei, whose final moment in Homecoming is still talked about two years later, has a smaller presence here, but is no less prominent. In fact, her motherly love and advice gets us on the right foot as Parker and his classmates take off on their grand adventure. Jon Favreau returns as Happy Hogan.

Watts brings a grand sense of adventure as Parker and his classmates take a science trip all over Europe with stops in Venice, Prague and London. As with “Homecoming”, Watts continues his grounded visual style in Spider-Man: Far From Home, giving us the look and feel of an epic MCU story with the reality of the environment.

This is an important distinction as it relates to our hero. Within Watts’s reality-driven visual style, McKenna and Sommers bring a brevity to Peter Parker. As someone who is still grieving over the loss of his mentor, Tony Stark, Parker is torn between his desires as a teenager and his responsibilities as Spider-Man. In fact, there were a couple of moments where I felt that the trio, Watts, McKenna and Sommers channeled their inner Richard Donner.

Speaking of disruptions in well-laid plans, the film clips at a nice pace for a 129 – minute film, but the trademark humor of the MCU hampers the film just a bit much. There is a point in the film where the pace picks up a bit more momentum, making the second half of the film better than the first.

I had one criticism about “Homecoming” that omits the Uncle Ben character. No, it’s not because the characters’ name is similar to mine, but because I didn’t feel that strong, guiding hand presence from Tony Stark that the character gave Peter in Sam Raimi’s film. “Spider-Man: Far From Home” rectified this for me in an exceptionally meaningful way.

“Spider-Man: Far From Home” is an uneven film, but it demonstrates what grown-up MCU can look like. It is still heavily dependent on the humor, which is doesn’t need to be. Both Holland and Gyllenhaal give strong performances.

Oh, and don’t forget to stay through all of the credits.

Yesterday - Movie Review by Monte Yazzie

Yesterday movie.jpg

Dir: Danny Boyle

Starring: Himesh Patel, Lily James, Sophia Di Martino, Ellise Chappell, and Kate McKinnon

 

I have spent enough time perusing the aisles of record stores throughout my life that it’s pretty easy to identify which store clerk is the Beatles fan. The amount of reverence for John, Paul, George, and Ringo is almost always the same too, it’s a feeling of admiration and honor for a musical group that many critics consider the greatest rock n’ roll band of all time.

 

Sir Paul McCartney recently played a show locally; radio stations curated their playlists to day-long Beatles’ music, generations of music fans heading to social media to discuss their connection to Paul and the band, even the state highway department customized their safety banners to clever song lyrics with quips like “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da, Life Goes On...If You Slow Down”. It was amazing to see during the course of one day just how much of a cultural influence/phenomenon the Beatles are and will continue to be.

 

Director Danny Boyle (“127 Hours” and “Slumdog Millionaire”) and screenwriter Richard Curtis (“Love Actually” and “Notting Hill”) take the influence of the Fab Four and pose the question, “what if the Beatles never existed?”. “Yesterday” is a unique idea wrapped up in an overly familiar structure, still, it’s a charming little tale that is going for all those feel-good vibes you are expecting.

 

Jack Malik (Himesh Patel) is a struggling singer/songwriter with a decent voice and a personality that is suited for a moody artist who plays tunes alone on stage with just their guitar. Jack decides to quit his pursuits as a musician and return to being a school teacher, but his best friend/road manager/chauffeur/biggest fan Ellie (Lily James) convinces him to keep the dream alive. While riding his bike home after yet another failed gig, Jack has a traffic accident at the very moment the entire world undergoes a power outage. When he awakens, the Beatles have been erased from history.

 

“Yesterday” has an ingenious premise that brings about a nice mixture of humor and a heartfelt homage to the myth and renowned catalog of the Beatles. The question “what happened if the Beatles never existed” is well-worn throughout the composition of the world being built in the film; we are shown the extent of the band’s influence beyond just their music but also blending into the cultural, social, and political landscape throughout time. It’s consistently amusing, sometimes quite funny, even when the film fades into the derivative narrative components associated with a love story angle and the common thematic arc of the rise and fall of the struggling artist.

 

What helps the romantic approach is the performance from Lily James who is simply the charm and heart that keeps the relationship between Jack and Ellie have such a genuine sentiment.

 

Himesh Patel does a decent job as Jack but unfortunately, the character development feels somewhat one-note in terms of Jack’s overall motivation and conflict resolution between love and success in the end. Fortunately, Mr. Patel does a better job as an artist singing some of the most famous songs in music history, that’s the most daunting task of the film.

“Yesterday” doesn’t try to over-explain anything with its premise; we are never informed of the “why” or “how” of everything, which is a good thing because it helps the film retain its crowd-pleasing charm. While it will be easy to ask questions that will effortlessly poke holes in the narrative once you have a chance to step away from the film. Still, if you love the Beatles and are looking for one of the highlight feel-good movies of 2019, “Yesterday” will have you singing.

 

Monte’s Rating
3.50 out of 5.00

Spider-Man: Far from Home - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

Spider Man far.jpg

‘Spider-Man: Far from Home’ doesn’t stray from Marvel’s Midas touch

 

Directed by:  Jon Watts

Written by:  Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers

Starring:  Tom Holland, Jake Gyllenhaal, Jacob Batalon, Zendaya, Samuel L. Jackson, Cobie Smulders, Marisa Tomei, and Jon Favreau

 

“Spider-Man: Far from Home” – Peter Parker (Tom Holland) needs a break.

 This teenager fought alongside Tony Stark, became an Avenger, traveled into deep space, battled a purple-skinned, 8-foot Titan, died with half the universe’s population, and – five years later - came back to life.  If you have not seen “Avengers: Endgame” (2019), this critic will not reveal any more spoilers from that film’s colossal closing chapter on the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s (MCU) first 11 years.

Yes, “Endgame” delivered a spectacular ending, with all the madness and pomp and circumstance of a trifecta-trip to an amusement park, a rock concert and The World Cup…all rolled up into one evening. 

By contrast, “Spider-Man: Far from Home” is the morning after. 

Peter is back in Queens.  He lives with his Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) and takes classes at Midtown High School.  Life has been a whirlwind, and Peter hopes that a Midtown-sponsored European class trip is a healthy and healing dose of calmer life-weather.  Quite frankly, MCU fans could use a tonal shift too, and director Jon Watts (“Spider-Man: Homecoming” (2017), “Cop Car” (2015)) delivers a needed change of pace in this very good superhero film that also doubles as a lively comedy with (a little more than) a pinch of teenage romance.

It’s been five years and eight months since Thanos’ (Josh Brolin) snap, and although this film is set in the near-future, the soundtrack takes a time warp into the past.  With music that includes yesterdecade-acts like The Ramones and The Go-Go’s, these groovy sounds match the script with plenty of breezy high school banter between Peter and his best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon), Flash (Tony Revolori), MJ (Zendaya), and teachers Mr. Harrington (Martin Starr) and Mr. Bell (J.B. Smoove).  Many of the quips connect, especially with Peter and Ned’s philosophical analysis of the dating-world.  Mr. Harrington and Mr. Bell show stunningly-bad chaperone-ineptitude, as the teachers basically play into a clueless-adult schtick from almost every teenage comedy over the last 40 years, from “Better Off Dead…” (1985) to “Booksmart” (2019).  Admittedly, some of their hopeful moments fall a little flat. 

Meanwhile, Peter hopes that his plans for a romantic jumpstart with MJ in Paris don’t fall flat.  This restless teenager simply wants to hang out with his friends and win over the girl, but Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders) have other ideas.  They need his help along with a brand new superhero, Quentin Beck (Jake Gyllenhaal).  This man-of-mystery, dubbed as Mysterio, sports an opaque crystal ball as a helmet, a metallic-green suit, a maroon cape, and a can-do attitude.  He needs a positive outlook, because he dukes it out with four 100-foot creatures called Elementals.  No, you won’t find Philip Bailey, but Earth, Wind, Fire, and Water are represented, and these creatures wreak havoc over European hotspots like Venice. 

The film successfully dangles a pair of heated emotional pulls that tug at Peter:  the slow healing process from his recent time/space rollercoaster and the current crossroads between high school adolescence and superhero responsibilities.  When love fills a teenager’s head, crowbarring other life-plans into purview may prove nearly-impossible, and Fury and Hill don’t hold the right keys to unlock the power of persuasion.

Holland, 23, needs no persuading to convince (most) moviegoers that he perfectly captures Peter’s challenges to process his clashes with Thanos, face future responsibilities and cope with the painfully-real teen angst of butterfly feelings.  These latter moments are complete with stolen glances and awkward conversations, and Zendaya allows MJ to let her guard down with Peter, as their energy travels into warmer spaces.  Peter’s relationship with Happy (Jon Favreau) evolves too, because Stark’s best friend nicely lightens up on Marvel’s youngest protagonist. 

“Spider-Man: Far from Home” certainly is a lighter affair than the two-part “Infinity War” saga but it is not without some enormous special effects and highly-kinetic sequences.  Watts, Holland and the cast and crew hand MCU fans a 2-hour 9-minute chance to ease into a Marvel Phase 3 denouement, regroup for Phase 4 and - more importantly - watch our friendly neighborhood Spider-Man grow from his European vacation, even though it is not the break that he expected. 

(3/4 stars)

 

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

Annabelle Comes Home - Movie Review by Ben Cahlamer

Annabella Comes Home.jpg

Directed by: Gary Dauberman

Screenplay by: Gary Dauberman

Story by: Gary Dauberman and James Wan

Starring: Mckenna Grace, Madison Iseman, Katie Sarife, Patrick Wilson, Vera Farmiga

There’s an inherent curiosity in horror films that has drawn me toward them as an adult; perhaps it’s the carnage, or maybe the mayhem that ensues. Perhaps I’m just demented with a macabre sense of humor - the horror films that I avoided as a kid are more than a passing interest for me. I’m drawn into them more for the technical aspects of the filmmaking.

First time director Gary Dauberman has extensive background on this film’s antagonist and horror in general having written “Annabelle,” “Annabelle Creation,” “It” and “The Nun”. Yet, when I reflect on “Annabelle Comes Home,” I am left with an empty feeling.

No, the empty feeling is not the glass case used to house Annabelle. My feeling has more to do with the fact that Dauberman’s narrative structure, who co-wrote the story with series’ producer James Wan, felt exceptionally limp.

Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga, respectively) are an integral part of the story, as they bring Annabelle to rest. Knowing that simply locking Annabelle in a box is insufficient, the Warrens have a priest’s holy blessing to keep Annabelle’s evil at bay.

The Warrens focus on their family while continuing their demonology exploits. Their grown-up daughter, Judy (Mckenna Grace) has become the subject of ridicule at school because of her parents, but a protective neighbor, Mary Ellen (Madison Iseman) defends her, while Daniela (Katie Sarife) marvels after the idea of what the Warren’s do for a living.

The Warrens leave Judy in Mary Ellen’s care for an overnight and that’s when the fun begins. I say fun because Annabelle Comes Home has an exceptionally strong fun-house atmosphere. Sure, some of the jump scares are probably a little tried and true, but once Annabelle is on the loose, the women’s worlds are turned upside down and inside out. I found myself surprised a number of times too.

And, I don’t like surprises.

Mckenna Grace’s performance is the highlight of the film. She had an innocence about her that amped up the tension while at the same time, the character’s innocence was reserved because she knew what her parents did for a living, despite many attempts to shield her from their work. Madison Iseman did an effective job at playing coy and then getting creeped out by the whole experience.

My biggest disappointment and the reason why I think the film doesn’t work as well as it could is with Daniela. Katie Sarife’s performance was strong, but the character’s motivations weren’t believable and this is a fundamental issue with the story.

I suppose for the time the film is set in and her own situation, the context makes sense, but the bond between the three girls doesn’t gel.

“Annabelle Comes Home” works on a technical level, but the story leaves a lot to be desired. Still, this film has me curious about the rest of the “Conjuring” universe that Warners has embarked on and I’m looking forward to what the future holds.

2 out of 4 stars

Toy Story 4 - Movie Review by Monte Yazzie

Toy Story 4 second pic.jpg

Dir: Josh Cooley

Starring: Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Annie Potts, Tony Hale, Keegan-Michael Key, Jordan Peele, Joan Cusack, Christina Hendricks, and Keanu Reeves

 

1995. That was the year Disney and Pixar Animation Studios released an animated film that would reshape how the animation movie would be developed. “Toy Story” is a seminal cartoon classic, a film that has aged with the many young people who experienced it first in the 90’s.

For those who may have been children in 1995, the “Toy Story” franchise has been a continuing saga of storytelling; moving cowboy Woody, spaceman Buzz Lightyear and the rest of the toys through the entire childhood of Andy, who grew up and gave his toys to another young person named Bonnie who could restart the journey. It’s an accomplished feat of storytelling, a journey filled with fun adventures, countless laughs, boundless amounts of love, and ageless life lessons.

So, it’s surprising that the tale continues with “Toy Story 4” more than 20 years after the release of the initial film. The quality that exists in this extended story is that many of those young children who first watched “Toy Story” now have the opportunity to take their young children to experience these characters on the big screen again. After the near perfection of “Toy Story 3” it would seem like there is no other way to take the story of Woody and Buzz in a direction that would be satisfying enough to not tarnish the quality of the trilogy that came before it. Worry not, “Toy Story 4” is exactly what you are expecting it will be, but it is also something unexpectedly different in surprising ways.

Woody (Tom Hanks), Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen), and the rest toys are going on a road trip. But they have a new friend, Forky (Tony Hale), that Bonnie (Madeleine McGraw) crafted during her first day at school. The new adventure has Woody taking care of Bonnie’s new favorite toy Forky, who is consistently trying to escape. During the journey, however, Woody has an unexpected reunion with a long-lost friend Bo Peep (Annie Potts) and encounters a new toy named Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks) who has devious plans.

Pixar has crafted these animated worlds with such precision and meticulous detail that it’s starting to blur the visual lines between what is real and what is manufactured. A colorful carnival at night with glistening and glowing lights, a dusty antique store filled with cobwebs and creepy ventriloquist dolls, and an aggressive feline who purrs as honest as it hisses are exceptionally composed works of animation. It’s simply beautiful to see these worlds operate.

“What happens when playtime is over”? This narrative theme plays throughout the film, specifically with the character of Woody who has been replaced, almost completely, as the favorite toy of Bonnie’s. The story does a nice job of leaving the home, building a fun road trip adventure that veers in and out of situations with old friends while supplying new friends to fill some necessary spaces for Woody’s character development.

It’s within the journey of Woody and the new struggle he is having with the relationship of his purpose as a toy that the most interesting elements of “Toy Story 4” begin to take shape. It’s reflective and somewhat melancholic in a way that connects on numerous levels for viewers who grew up with the content but also for those new to the story. That’s the joy of good storytelling, it connects with people in different and unique ways. Whether the elements related to understanding the role parents have when adapting to the maturation of children or the aspect of being brave while understanding fear for young children, it’s a nice composition.

The “Toy Story” franchise has been around for a long time. Children have grown into teenagers who have grown into adults and may have young children of their own now, that’s the best part of having this new tale available now, as an opportunity to experience cinema together as a family. “Toy Story 4” is a film you may not have wanted, but rest assured it’s a film that you will be happy you got.

 

Monte’s Rating
4.25 out of 5.00

Toy Story 4 - Movie Review by Ben Cahlamer

toy story 4.jpg

Directed by: Josh Cooley

Screenplay by: Stephany Folsom and Andrew Stanton

Story by: John Lasseter, Rashida Jones, Will McCormack, Josh Cooley, Valerie LaPointe, Martin Hynes, Stephany Folsom, Andrew Stanton

Woody (Tom Hanks) and Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) could have very well gone off in to the sunset with “Toy Story 3” and the world would have been okay.

Pixar had other designs for the characters who filled Andy’s life with joy. “Toy Story 4” continues in that tradition with grace, laughs and a genuine moment of self-reflection.

Many might see another adventure as a ploy to pull on the heartstrings, and the cash, of those who have been with the films since Randy Newman’s “You’ve Got a Friend in Me” played to audiences’ delight. That theme still resonates through “Toy Story 4.” Andy has gone off to college and to greater things. Bonnie has taken on the responsibility of caring for the toys.

Bonnie, who is at that preschooler age, is preoccupied with her dolls and cowgirls rather than cowboys and astronauts, but is no less aware of the fact that the hand-me-downs from Andy are a part of her life when her introduction to kindergarten is thrust upon her. She is initially resistant, but her parents know what Woody reluctantly acknowledges; that this is a part of the growing process and is ultimately necessary.

What surprised me about “Toy Story 4” is that it expands on what has come before, without changing our perception of what’s come before. The screenplay by Stephany Folsom and Andrew Stanton, story by John Lasseter, Rashida Jones, Will McCormack, Josh Cooley, Valerie LaPointe, Martin Hynes, Folsom and Stanto, treats this story with kid gloves especially as we go along with Bonnie (Madeline McGraw) to her first day. We see the growing pains with trying to integrate, socially, with other kids: we don’t make it easy on one another, which is why we take comfort in our toys.

In a moment of inspiration, Bonnie creates Forky (Tony Hale), who becomes her special friend. The herd is perfectly willing to integrate Forky, but Forky doesn’t understand what it’s like to be loved. It takes a great adventure like a late summer family vacation to make the point stick, which leads us to a whole host of new characters and some familiar friends.

Nothing about “Toy Story 4” is somber. The forward – looking story weaves our existing characters into its threads and themes, and in a very exciting way, so as not to be a continuation of the original trilogy, but as an extension of it. This is Woody’s story and some very adult themes come about as a result. It isn’t overbearing in that regard. We’re happy to see Bo Peep (Annie Potts) make a return in this film, who I found to be the most evolved of the characters, giving Woody a new outlook on what being a toy is really all about.

Forky’s existential crisis is also treated with a light touch, enough so that kids of all ages (yes, even this one) could grasp the concept. In an interesting contrast, where Bonnie was left to fend for herself in the classroom, Woody helped Forky adjust into their world; it was a nice touch that gave Forky more development and allows Woody to discover himself.

Of all the characters for this new film, the grandest was Duke Caboom, voiced by Keanu Reeves. There was cinematic joy in seeing yet another forgotten toy come back to life in a meaningful, and Canadian way. That’s no easy feat for a story where the main human character was missing.

Then again, the heart of “Toy Story” has always been Woody.

“Toy Story 4” is poetic in this regard. It is not a direct sequel to Andy’s adventures with Woody and Buzz, but the incredible storytellers at Pixar managed to cook up something new and brilliant with beautiful animation at its heart.

3.75 out of 4

Hudson - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

Hudson Picture.png

‘Hudson’ offers simple pleasures, warm smiles and a couple gentle tears. 

 

Directed by:  Sean D. Cunningham

Written by:  Sean D. Cunningham and Gregory Lay

Starring:  David Neal Levin, Gregory Lay and Mary Catherine Greenawalt

 

“Hudson” – Talk to any random group of New York City residents – especially those born and raised in The Big Apple – about Upstate New York, and four out of five will say, “Upstate isn’t really New York.” 

Technically, they are wrong, but culturally, those blokes and blokettes have a point.  The City sports over 8 million residents in just 300 square miles.  It has Broadway, Chinatown, Greenwich Village, Wall Street, Yankees baseball (and 27 World Series championships), The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and great pizza.

Meanwhile, in between Syracuse, Albany, Rochester, and Buffalo, Upstate features never-ending stretches of rolling hills filled with deciduous trees.  You’ll also drive by an occasional red barn, a cider mill, a local garage named Al’s Automotive, and a confusing network of somewhat-maintained country roads that have more curves than Jason Momoa and Christina Hendricks on a joint-calendar shoot. 

Yes, director/co-writer Sean D. Cunningham’s “Hudson” features a clash of philosophies between Downstate and Upstate but not with earthshaking bombardments between tribes, factions and armies.  He reunites two cousins - who live in the aforementioned opposing worlds – in a road trip comedy/drama, complete with simple pleasures, warm smiles and a couple gentle tears. 

As the film opens, 30-something Ryan (Gregory Lay) takes a train from NYC to Small Town, U.S.A.  Ryan – a hip actor who lives in the Village - has some downtime, so he visits his cousin Hudson (David Neal Levin).  They haven’t seen each other in ages and have an initial awkward reunion, as Hudson’s recluse-persona immediately stands out.  He is a mellow, kindhearted soul but dons a bathrobe in the middle of the day, shares numerous Haikus and races his remote control car around the living room and mentions, “I have a few more laps to get in.” 

Hudson’s genial nature sincerely draws in the audience through an inherent contrast, as this puzzling, droll character places us in complete ease but delivers the most unexpected commentary, similar to “Saturday Night Live’s ‘Deep Thoughts by Jack Handey’”, but more childlike.  For instance, Hudson picks up Chinese takeout and says, “I hope you like food.” 

Well, the camera doesn’t just like Levin.  It loves him, and he shares its adoration with Mary Catherine Greenawalt who plays a free spirit named Sunrise.  For reasons that will not be revealed in this review, the cousins hop into a burgundy/brownish Volvo and hit the road to address a family matter, but – along the way – they pick up Sunrise out of necessity, despite Ryan’s reservations.  Since Ryan’s frequent impatience clashes with Hudson’s laidback attitude, Sunrise plays an important buffer, as this misfit-triad heads to a place called Cherry Ridge.  Incidentally, one would be hard-pressed to find a ridge of any kind at the said location, but that’s not the point. 

The point, instead, is to enjoy the journey and the small conversations.  Ryan and Hudson reminisce about their preadolescent days and Sunrise shares her dreams and history, while they drive on the winding asphalt, surrounded by vibrant orange and red hues.  Cunningham also ensures that the three crunch on beds of leaves in the woods, a common Upstate practice.

You don’t have to be from the East Coast to embrace “Hudson”, just a moviegoer who appreciates a small, earnest story about family, as a temporary break from special effects-laden blockbusters.  Family undercurrents, of course, can be naturally complex, and these cousins share a surprising layer of gravitas in addition to inconsequential, one-sided arguments but also cordiality, as a beautiful score - that feels like the best of SiriusXM’s Coffee House station – keeps our toes tapping.     

Yes, Levin, Lay, Greenawalt, and Cunningham are completely dialed-in during this stroll through Upstate, as the film’s simple pleasures, warm smiles and a couple gentle tears are most certainly real.

(3/4 stars)

 

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

The Fall of the American Empire - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

Fall of the American Empire.jpg

‘The Fall of the American Empire’ does not have highs and lows

Written and directed by: Denys Arcand

Starring:  Alexandre Landry, Maripier Morin and Remy Girard

“The Fall of the American Empire” - Three numbers:  .1, 188 and 90.

The richest .1 percent of Americans earn 188 times as much as the bottom 90 percent, according to a 2017 study featured on inequality.org.  The 2019 numbers surely have grown more disproportionate, but if one thinks that the U.S. is the only country with such frightening statistics, the answer is no.  Include Canada too.

Set in Montreal, writer/director Denys Arcand (“The Barbarian Invasions” (2003)) disburses “The Fall of the American Empire”, an economic inequality commentary delivered by a comedy-caper storyline.  Unfortunately, the film is void of amusing, thrilling and dramatic highs and lows, as its tone and pacing remain flat for nearly the entire 2-hour 7-minute runtime.

Well, the movie does have some curious moments, and yes, Arcand’s moral-messaging somewhat-connects - albeit via repeated and obvious didactic deliveries - but the overall narrative fails to deliver big payoffs.  

Our hero Pierre-Paul (Alexandre Landry) certainly feels the need for a big payoff, both emotionally and financially.  He graduated with a PhD in philosophy, but rather than teach, he earns more delivering packages for Col Par, which resembles UPS’s Canadian first cousin.

During a middle-of-the-day stop at a strip mall, he witness the aftermath of a robbery gone wrong, and two bulky duffle bags full of money lay at his feet.  Rather than hand the nylon sacks of treasure to the police, Pierre-Paul quickly tosses them into his Col Par truck.

Despite his questionable – but understandable – ethical choice, Pierre-Paul - otherwise - lives by a strong moral code that compliments his pragmatic view of the world, born from his university-learned philosophic insights.  He’ll justify his decisions throughout the picture with his ex-girlfriend Linda (Florence Longpre), new business partner Sylvain ‘The Brain’ Bigras (Remy Girard) and love interest Camille (Maripier Morin) by quoting various intellectuals like Ludwig Wittgenstein or Marcus Aurelius.

Arcand lays out a path for Pierre-Paul’s ultimate destination along with the mechanics of institutionally-hiding a heaping pile of dirty money.  Pierre-Paul steps out of his comfort zones of commercial deliveries and complaints of modern society’s shortcomings and into criminal and banking universes, as his natural naiveté drags him into trouble, but his philosopher training lifts him up.  Although these big-money worlds help shape Pierre-Paul’s new perspective, experienced moviegoers have frequently faced familiar criminal and comedy storylines through hours and hours of “Law & Order” and “The A-Team” episodes, but this feature film is missing the late-Jerry Orbach and Mr. T.   Ah, if only…

Well, the clichés wouldn’t be complete without police detectives hot on Pierre-Paul’s trail, but they casually stroll into homes and businesses to interview forgettable mob bosses, their underlings and our hero with all the excitement of people-watching in a nearly-empty shopping mall.  

The most engaging aspect of “The Fall of the American Empire” is Pierre-Paul’s volunteer work with the homeless.  This is Arcand’s connection to the haves and have-nots dichotomy, but other than a couple random conversations with one displaced man, we don’t learn a whole lot about Pierre-Paul’s friends who frequent the soup kitchen.

Maybe Pierre-Paul will successfully hide the money in offshore accounts.  Maybe he won’t. Don’t know if it matters a whole lot, but while reading this review, the richest .1 percent earned an even bigger piece of the economic pie.  Oh well. Which ancient televisions shows are available to stream, and when does the mall close?

(1.5/4 stars)


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

The Last Black Man in San Francisco - Movie Review by Ben Cahlamer

the-last-black-man-in-san-francisco-.jpg

Directed by: Joe Talbot

Screenplay by: Joe Talbot and Rob Richert

Story by: Jimmie Fails and Joe Talbot

Starring: Jimmie Fails, Jonathan Majors, Danny Glover, Tichina Arnold, Rob Morgan, Mike Epps, Finn Whitrock, Thora Birch

Joe Talbot’s “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” is not what you think it is, and that’s only the beginning of a beautiful journey which slowly unfolds through strong characters and themes that will resonate with audiences for years to come.

The story, based on Jimmie Fails’ own life has a harmony about it as a man who works to preserve his heritage in the form of a house his grandfather built.  The home, a Victorian mansion in the Fillmore District serves as the centerpiece of gentrification, of love, of family, of self.

Fails who plays himself in his own story is sublime. There is a determination about the way he goes in the story. He’s committed to restoring his legacy. His friend, Montgomery Allen (Jonathan Majors) is an artist and has a unique view of the world, a layer that shapes the direction the story takes us. Neither Fails nor Montgomery are employed, but they share a room together along with Montgomery’s grandfather, Allen played by Danny Glover.

Joe Talbot, who won the Sundance Best Directing award for his debut film along with a Special Jury Prize for Creative Collaboration, uses his entire pallete to slowly unveil the details behind the story. The pacing is purposeful, but is never distracting. The key to this story is in the details and its unique twists and turns needed the pacing to be spot on. Talbot enlisted the help of David Marks, who edited “Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far” for Gus Van Sant last year as they ease us into the shifting tides of the Bayfront area where Jimmie and Montgomery live to the Fillmore District where the house stands.

As a character, Fails is quiescent allowing Talbot and co-screenwriter Rob Richert to move the story forward through visual cues rather than dialogue. Within the calm, quiet demeanor, Fails also uses his body language with a fervor and a passion. We know what he wants, we understand why he wants it and the story ultimately and painfully explains the ramifications of his actions.

The emotion of pain is manifested in several, beautiful ways in this film as we learn more about Jimmie through his father, James Sr. (Rob Morgan). There’s a playfulness about James Sr, but when it comes to Jimmie and the house, he becomes very serious as we learn the lessons of how the Bay Area has changed over the years, and continues to change.

If asked today what my favorite movie of 2019 is, Joe Talbot’s “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” sits at the top of that list. It is magnetic, literally poetry in motion. From Talbot’s unique point of view to the entire ensemble and the technical team behind the camera, I can easily understand why this film won the awards it did at Sundance.

4 out of 4 stars


5B - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

5B.jpg

Hospital Ward ‘5B’ is a heartbreaking and inspirational destination

Directed by:  Paul Haggis and Dan Krauss

Starring:  Alison Moed Paolercio, Cliff Morrison, David Denmark, Mary Magee, Rita Rockett, Hank Plante, and Dr. Paul Volberding

“5B” – “I was ready, but I was scared.” - Alison Moed Paolercio, Ward 5B nurse manager

In 1981, the AIDS crisis frightened the nation.  San Francisco and other U.S. metropolitan centers became ground zero, and this mysterious disease – born from unknown causes - was horribly labeled Gay Cancer.

Out of nowhere, young gay men developed ghastly skin lesions, as the disease pulverized their immune system into dust.  Soon after – sometimes within a month – their bodies followed suit.

How is AIDS contracted?  How is it spread? Blood transfusions became a known cause for transmission, but varying degrees of more casual contact, including touching, were open questions.

“The director of nursing (at) San Francisco General (Hospital) said, ‘We have to do something,’ and I said, “Okay, I’ll do it.’”  – Cliff Morrison, Ward 5B nurse

Despite the risks, San Francisco General Hospital formed Ward 5B in 1983, the first AIDS ward in the country, and a number of healthcare workers elected to face their fears along with those who didn’t have a choice: their patients.

To some, the early 1980s might feel like another lifetime ago, and directors Paul Haggis and Dan Krauss became modern-day historians with their solemn but also vastly inspirational documentary “5B”.  They not only found truly remarkable Ward 5B footage from the period, but they also interviewed the men and women who helped form and ran this new humanitarian wing of the hospital.

“You have to get out of the mode that you’re here for curing people and really get into the mode that you’re here to care for people.” – Mary Magee, Ward 5B nurse recites the advice from fellow nurse David Denmark.

With countless patients facing certain death, Magee, Morrison, Paolercio, Denmark, and other nurses stood on the front lines and not only cared for these young men, but sat with and held them as well in a radical approach to hospital care, but one that seemed imperative.

In 2019, knowingly hugging someone with HIV might feel as benign as a simple job interview handshake, but Haggis and Krauss – from the get-go - offer so much dated footage of bedridden, sickly-thin young men who sport looks of either absolute bewilderment or dread, that the filmmakers push us into this time capsule, where confusion and fear are exceedingly real.  Anguish is another emotion, especially when the ages – like 23 or 26 - of some patients are randomly revealed…when we least expect it.

Haggis and Krauss also create a surreal duality between the 1980s and today, because Magee, Paolercio, Morrison, Denmark, and Dr. Paul Volberding not only speak about those times in present-day, but we also repeatedly see them in Ward 5B as young people, sans their current gray hair and earned crow’s feet.  

In deeply meaningful ways, their 2019 selves become anchors or lifelines for moviegoers, because their seasoned perspectives and reflections on their historic 5B work help arm us a bit when the screen turns back the clock to a very different time.  A time when AIDS was not understood, even by the most dedicated Ward 5B workers, who at first didn’t know if they would contract the disease when offering basic medical care.

“So much in life is not what you say or what you do.  It’s how you make people feel.” – Rita Rockett, Ward 5B volunteer

In many circles throughout the country, intolerance for AIDS patients and gay communities grew, and “5B” spends some stretches exploring these views.  These needed moments offer an accurate framework for the decade, but naturally, the individual stories within the ward are the most affecting and rewarding, and these personal memoirs also deliver a pair of real surprises that raised gasps during the June 12 Phoenix Film Society screening.  

It shouldn’t be a surprise that similar inhales, gulps and tears will find their way into a “5B” showing near you.  Silence, heartbreak and inspiration, however, might be the prevailing emotions felt, after witnessing these scared souls – both the patients and nurses of Ward 5B – bravely staring into the abyss…together.

(3.5/4 stars)

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


Shaft - Movie Review by Ben Cahlamer

Shaft Movie.jpeg

Directed by: Tim Story

Screenplay by: Kenya Barris and Alex Barnow

Based on “Shaft” by: Ernest Tidyman

Starring: Samuel L. Jackson, Jessie Usher, Regina Hall, Alexandra Shipp, Richard Roundtree

Before my screening of Tim Story’s “Shaft,” I went to work on revisiting the private eye’s legacy because that’s what you might be inclined to think that this latest iteration is all about.

In a way, you’d be right. The latest “Shaft” is about legacy.

Based on the characters created by Ernest Tidyman, screenwriters Kenya Barris and Alex Barnow tapped the essence of the stories and characters that have come before this film; the nuances of what made Shaft such a bad mother . . . . I’m just gonna shut my mouth.

The story also modernizes the character for the next generation.

In this regard, Tim Story offers a modernized Shaft in an expected way. The trailer that riffed on the comedic aspects of the film and the banter between Samuel L. Jackson and Jessie T. Usher is not misrepresented.

It’s not the whole story though.

If anything the film has a level of intelligence and thoughtfulness with respect to the characters and their situations. Admittedly, this film’s set up doesn’t necessarily work as well as it could have, but it did serve as a way to reintroduce us to Jackson’s John Shaft II, the role he originated in John Singleton’s Shaft 2000. Director Story starts the film in 1988 and an incident separating him from his wife and their son, John Jr.

Story treats us to a montage over the opening credits, evoking a feel of the time the character originated; you feel a sense of nostalgia as the montage shows Shaft’s attempts to be in John, Jr’s (JJ) life along with scenes from 2000 interspersed in between new footage.

Usher plays JJ, the younger Shaft, an FBI data analyst. He’s immediately shot down when he puts himself in the running for a big case (one that, ironically doesn’t need visibility) forcing JJ to act meek. Usher’s performance in these early scenes exude what the world thinks a typical millennial is: technology forward and incapable of standing up for themselves. I’m generalizing for the benefit of the story, which is the film’s second issue.

There’s a running gag about JJ’s sexual preference, which got to be a bit too much; a fundamental problem with the script as it tries to balance the values of the elder Shaft with those of the younger Shaft who has been coddled to the point where he can’t defend himself nor speak to women. Story, Barris and Barnow intended this to be a contrast between the two characters as a way to connect them. In the context of layering the legacy, this contrast works.

The contrast also tries to “teach an old dog new tricks” as JJ enlists Shaft’s help to uncover the mysterious circumstances of JJ’s friend, Karin’s (Avan Jogia) death. JJ is the stiff lipped son who thinks his dad bailed on him. Shaft tries to teach his son how to release the energy that’s preventing him from being himself. There’s a scene in a bar where the younger Shaft breaks out some swift fighting moves. The elder Shaft asks him where he learned his moves and the quick response was, “Mom.” Unfortunately, this joke is only the start of the condescending nature of the story.

The story tragically uses the guise of a detective story to lead us to Richard Roundtree’s Shaft along with the story’s villain. By this time, the comedic banter between father and son and the various contrasts between generations, exhaustion sets in because the villain and the conflict mean very little to the overall context of the story. Perhaps that’s the film’s point: ambiguity rules the day with multiple layers which obfuscate the truth.

48 years ago, Gordon Parks’s Shaft electrified audiences. It was a simplistic story by today’s standards. Tidyman used the characters and their environment to elevate the story. You believed Richard Roundtree was a badass who could handle himself. That’s what made John Singleton’s 2000 reboot a success: Samuel L. Jackson uses the same level of badassery, but his was born out of frustration with the system. In Tim Story’s Shaft, JJ’s instincts are coaxed out of him as the story moves forward, as if each piece of the puzzle feels like breadcrumbs leading him to the prize.

The clichéd nature of the storytelling in this Shaft and the condescending banter, which felt more like a buddy cop story than a father-son bonding, misses its target.

1.5 out of 4


Dark Phoenix - Movie Review by Monte Yazzie

Photo Credit: Doane Gregory TM & © 2019 Marvel & Subs. TM and © 2019 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.

Photo Credit: Doane Gregory TM & © 2019 Marvel & Subs. TM and © 2019 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.

Dir: Simon Kinberg

Starring: Sophie Turner, James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Nicholas Hoult, Tye Sheridan, Alexandra Shipp, Evan Peters, Kodi Smit-McPhee, and Jessica Chastain

 

Before “The Avengers”, before “The Justice League”, before “Spider-Man”, the foundation for the modern era model for comic book movie franchises was started with a 2000 film called “X-Men”. Nineteen years later and the X-Men have gone from wrapping up one storyline to rebooting the entire series of characters altogether, the twelfth installment of the long-standing franchise concludes once again with the film “Dark Phoenix”.

Director Simon Kinberg, who has produced a wealth of action and comic book films, helms his first feature with “Dark Phoenix”. Unfortunately the results aren’t terrific but there are moments of potential with certain characters and with some of the moments of spectacle. For a franchise that has seen its progression roller coaster from fantastic heights to disappointing depths, “Dark Phoenix”, though not the worst in series, deserved a better sendoff for its characters and storyline.

Professor Xavier’s (James McAvoy) School for Gifted Youngsters has grown into a veritable superhero training academy and, for some, a safe place for young mutants to educate themselves and hone their powers for inclusion into the “normal” world. Jean Grey (Sophie Turner), Professor X’s prized pupil, continues to develop at staggering pace along with the rest of the young team which features Ororo “Storm” Munroe (Alexandra Shipp), Scott “Cyclops” Summers (Tye Sheridan), and the team leaders Raven “Mystique” (Jennifer Lawrence) and Hank “Beast” McCoy (Nicholas Hoult). During a mission into space the X-Men team encounter a powerful force that embeds itself into Jean Grey, turning her into an unstoppable force consumed by anger and rage.

The character of Jean Grey is a fascinating and intriguing villain, a force of dominance amongst the X-Men world but also a character with a rich backstory who is directly connected to all the core characters in this world. There are narrative themes associated with trauma that shape the story early in “Dark Phoenix”; Jean has a past steeped in pain and sorrow, her newly achieved power opens up these memories that Professor Xavier has been trying to hide, unknowingly adding to the traumatic elements that Jean has already experienced in her life.  The story does a nice job initially of displaying the turmoil Jean has been through but also proposing that Professor Xavier’s best intentions for the mutant world may be more self-serving than helpful. It’s a nice element introduced for these characters.

Unfortunately, these interesting insights and intriguing narrative themes dissipate as Jean grows into a force that is being hunted by the X-Men, the Government, and an old foe named Magneto (Michael Fassbender). The film quickly introduces another villain, a rogue group of alien beings led by a determined and stoic Jessica Chastain, and all the work to establish “Dark Phoenix” like a Jean Grey focused film disappears into the same familiar formula we’ve seen before in the X-Men Universe before. While this narrative formula isn’t necessarily bad, there are some nicely composed battles and some interesting references for fans, after twelve films it just feels overly familiar.

Sophie Turner, unfortunately, isn’t provided the proper character to develop here, any nuance of emotion is replaced with big bursts of raw anger and sadness that never feels necessary or provides the scenes with the kind of power they are shooting for. Ms. Turner is a talented actress capable of so much more. Even Jennifer Lawrence and James McAvoy aren’t provided the character structure to build upon. Michael Fassbender’s Magneto character doesn’t change much throughout these films, so the actor does a decent job of being brooding and filled with rage, hellbent for revenge.

“Dark Phoenix” has a few moments when the action takes over, director Simon Kinberg seems most comfortable during these big scenes, nicely composing effects with crisp clarity and utilizing the best abilities from the characters to showcase some great fight moments. It’s a shame that more attention wasn’t provided towards the story or characters interacting throughout. The film is trying hard to rise above the other films in this franchise, though it’s far from terrible, “Dark Phoenix” gets lost along the way.

 

Monte’s Rating

2.75 out of 5.00

 

The Secret Life of Pets 2 - Movie Review by Ben Cahlamer

the-secret-life-of-pets-2-2478_TPA_00050R_rgb.jpg

Directed by: Chris Renaud

Written by: Brian Lynch

Featuring the Voices of: Patton Oswald, Eric Stonestreet, Kevin Hart, Jenny Slate, Tiffany Haddish, Lake Bell, Nick Kroll, Dana Carvey, Ellie Kemper, Hannibal Buress, Bobby Moynihan, Harrison Ford

One of the many reasons I like the movies is because it allows me to escape from my reality. Of course, when you write reviews as I do, it isn’t as much an escape now, but I don’t mind it. I enjoy sharing my thoughts with the rest of the world.

And that’s how I felt about “The Secret Life of Pets”, which opened our eyes to the loveable Jack Russell Terrier, Max. The movie allowed me to escape from my reality of being a non-pet lover into a world of imaginative and creative dogs. I wasn’t a fan of the film because it took itself a little too seriously.

It did well enough at the box office that the sequel, “The Secret Life of Pets 2” was greenlit and it hits theaters this weekend. Much like the first film, the animation is gorgeous. We’ve gotten to a point where computer generated images have become as believable as the real world.

The challenge is that the story telling still hasn’t necessarily caught up with the animation (unless you’re Pixar). “The Secret Life of Pets 2” picks up three years after the first film. Patton Oswalt has replaced Louis C.K. who voiced Max in the first film. I found Max to be a bit more loveable and warm as a result of the change.

The story forwards us through Katie (voiced by Ellie Kemper) as she gets married to Chuck (Pete Holmes) and they have baby Liam. Just like the spoiled kid who finally gets a younger sibling, Max fears being replaced by Liam. The story takes on a dual role in that Max is also feeling like the overprotective bigger brother and no matter how many times Duke (Eric Stonestreet) tries to reassure him, Max just won’t have any of it. There are some cute moments as Katie tries to get some help for Max, but what they all really need is a trip away from the big city.

Max entrusts his favorite toy in the care of Gidget (Jenny Slate), who very quickly loses it. Her story thread was interesting as Lynch explores the idea of a dog playing a cat. Gidget’s story elicits some chuckles and it was a nice way to tie in the more humane part of the story.

As Max, Liam and the rest of the family head off to the country, trouble is still afoot for Snowball (Kevin Hart), a white rabbit who sounds like he’s had a six pack too many of Red Bull. His owner likes to cosplay with him, leading him to believe that he is a superhero. To some, his story will be exactly that as he tries to rescue a white tiger from a circus. It is, as I mentioned the most humane story about coming together to rescue a distressed animal.

More importantly though is what happens to Max during his country adventure. This is where the characters get creative in their environments as Max learns to deal with his inadequacies with the help of a familiar sounding farm hand dog, Rooster.

The story runs a little off the rails in the third act as Renaud and Lynch try to tie the lessons of the three stories together. It’s a bit murky, but the laughs, the humanity and my god, the animation keep “The Secret Life of Pets 2” redeem the film.

If you’ll excuse me, I’m going to find a dog to hug now.

2.75 out of 4