An interview with “Eighth Grade” writer/director Bo Burnham by Jeff Mitchell

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Ask a few, random adults about their eighth-grade experiences, and they might shiver in horror or shake their heads as a way to dismiss the question and the memories of the surreal purgatory between preteen innocence and young adulthood.   Well, eighth grade might not be that bad, but it can be a most trying time when social pressures, hormonal changes and anxiety peak, and senior year seems five or six centuries away. 

 

Well, Phoenix Film Festival enthusiasts did not have to wait six centuries for writer/director Bo Burnham’s comedy.  The 2018 Festival screened “Eighth Grade” - to a sold-out audience - on its closing night, April 15!  The next day, Burnham sat down with the Phoenix Film Festival - during a fun and insightful group interview with other movie outlets – and he spoke about his reasons for making the film, coping with today’s technology and much, much more.

 

“Eighth Grade” stars Elsie Fisher and Josh Hamilton, and it arrives in theatres on Friday, July 20.

 

 

Q:  Your film is from an eighth-grade girl’s perspective.  How did you find this character?

 

BB:  I wanted to write about the Internet.  So, I wrote a ton of stuff with all these different characters, stumbled upon Kayla (Fisher) and found that I could say everything (that) I wanted through her. 

 

So, it was not a conscious decision to write about an eighth-grade girl. 

 

I (am) violently-aware that I (am) a man.  Truly.  So, I (proceeded) with caution, but I mean, it just felt natural to me.  I think on the Internet, we all act like eighth graders, so it makes a lot of sense that a movie about the Internet would be about an eighth grader.  I think eighth graders are the only ones being themselves on the Internet.  We’re all being more immature versions of ourselves, (but) then I watched hundreds of videos of kids. 

 

Boys talked about Minecraft, and girls talked about their souls.  At that age, at least, the girls run severely more deep and interesting.  The eighth-grade boys’ stories are just a little more cloister or closed-off.  I think girls – for whatever reason…cultural pressures, whatever – are sort of forced to see themselves in that narrative a lot earlier than boys.  

 

Boys.  I don’t even know what they are thinking about at that age.  I met lot of them, and I still don’t know what they are thinking about.  The girls can actually have adult conversations and can actually talk.  They seem like young adults who are very, very thoughtful, and the boys are just like, ya know…

 

 

 Bo Burnham and Elsie Fisher on the set of EIGHTH GRADE

Bo Burnham and Elsie Fisher on the set of EIGHTH GRADE

Q:  In the mall, Kayla meets an older classmate’s friends, but some of them dismiss her, because she is a few years younger, a different generation in a way.  Generations seem to have wide swathes of years (Baby Boomers, Generation X, etc.), but do you think that they are shrinking these days because of technology?

 

BB:  I do.  It feels like it!  My girlfriend is 12 years older than me, and we feel closer than people four years younger than me.  I got Facebook, when I was 16 or 17 and had a little sense of myself before social media.  I would’ve been very different if I had Facebook (during) my freshman year of high school, only three years earlier. 

 

These sort of paradigm-shifting things are happening (all the time).  It used to be, (that we had) the printing press and then the Model T and then now…

 

There was a whole decade of people who listened to The Beatles.  Now, the culture turns over so, so quickly, do we even remember before 2017?  When was Obama president?  Like 12 years ago?  The generations are getting shorter, because time is getting wider, or something.  

 

 

Q:  It feels like the culture changes from year to year.  References that are “in” now will be “out” one year from now. 

 

BB:  Yea, culture ages like milk.  It’s why a lot of movies are nostalgic and set in other time periods, because people hate the current moment.  They think that we don’t even have a culture.  I think it may be right in a sense, that our culture is just recycling other images.  Like a weird dishwasher spin cycle of retro stuff, which is sad and strange. 

 

 

 PFF's Jeff Mitchell with Bo Burnham

PFF's Jeff Mitchell with Bo Burnham

Q:  Retro is kind of “in” right now.

 

BB:  Yea, but what were the Aughts?  We know what the 90’s were.  We know what the 80’s were.  What were the Aughts?  Were they something?  What (is) now?  Do we have a name for this decade?  I don’t know.  It’s a weird moment.  To be a kid in it is just wild. 

 

 

Q:  Would you want to live in a time before all of this technology?

 

BB:  No, no, I don’t think so.  I’d probably be happier.  I definitely wouldn’t want to write about another time.  I’m interested about this time.  It’s an interesting time to be alive and to be American and to be in the culture. 

 

(Pause…) Yea, I’d probably like to be in another time, (and) go back to cassette players and half the country not hating the other half of the country.  That’s fine.  

 

 

Q:  This is your John Hughes’ moment, because “Eighth Grade” captures what it’s like to be a kid during this time. 

 

BB:  Hughes is a good reference in a sense, because he captured – at the time – something very true.  The crux of the struggle of being a teen in the 1980’s was: how do you fit into the ecosystem of the (classroom)?  How do you feel (about) your parents and your family?  He captured it so well, that (filmmakers) have just recycled (these concepts) with different cultural decorations in different decades, but I don’t think it’s the core issue that kids are dealing with (today). 

 

So, you (can have) them dealing with being a jock or an emo kid with a cellphone, but for me, the struggle with being a kid now is interior.  If you notice in the movie, Kayla doesn’t get bullied.  She just gets ignored.   She just doesn’t (receive other kids’) attention, and (they) are giving or withholding (it) to each other.  Dispassionate attention is the sort of currency that goes around. 

 

We’re almost (wishing) for the days of high school hierarchy, parents who hated us and yelled at us, and we slammed the door in their faces.  Now, we are these fragile, little ego-people in our own heads, and our parents are looking at us like, “Are you okay?”  There are a bunch of kids on their phones, hyperconnected and super-lonely.  Overstimulated and completely numb, and I think that extends to adults too.  I think the bigger American problem is there’s no sense of community.  Even the jocks, the nerds, the cheerleaders, and the dorks.  That is a community.  So, the breakdown of that is sad, in a way. 

 

 

 Bo Burnham at the 2018 Phoenix Film Festival. Photo by Jennifer Mullins

Bo Burnham at the 2018 Phoenix Film Festival. Photo by Jennifer Mullins

Q:  Kayla and her father (Josh Hamilton) have a good relationship, even though she is more wrapped up with school, trying to make friends and focused on her phone.   What if her dad started dating?  Would she fight for attention or continue to pull back?

 

BB:  That’s hilarious.  I don’t know.  There are only five days in the life (of this movie).  That’s a whole other movie.  So much of the story is about the tiny things in Kayla’s life (that) are huge to her.  We are going really deep into five days, but at the end of the “day”, you don’t know her completely.  There are things that Kayla and her dad only know, and things that only she knows.  

 

 

Q:  Every little event in school is a huge moment or struggle for Kayla, it seems.

 

BB:  Exactly.  I think that’s why kids relate to Harry Potter.  They actually don’t see Harry Potter (films) as escapist.  They see (those movies) as realistic.  Could we make a movie that has a high stakes-feeling (like) those Young Adult films, but the actual stakes are pretty low?  For Kayla, walking to the pool party (is like) walking into some giant, hellish cave or something.  So, that was the hope:  to balance or synch the heartrates of Kayla and the audience. 

 

 

Q:  “Eighth Grade” is a coming-of-age film, but it feels like a horror movie at times too.  Did you have scary movies in the back of your mind when showing the horrors of eighth grade and the pressures that come with it?

 

BB:  I wasn’t going for that, but I was just trying to be honest.  I’m interested in cringe as a high form of empathy.  To cringe with something is to feel it.  Eighth grade is horrifying.  Truly, it is horrifying, and I’m glad that the movie feels like that at times. 

 

 

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 Boots Riley, director of Sorry to Bother You by Monte Yazzie

Changing the Game: Talking Film and Filmmaking with Hip Hop Pioneer and First Time Filmmaker Boots Riley

 

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Since 1993 hip hop group The Coup have been challenging the contemporary music industry system with thought provoking albums that clearly have a finger on the pulse of the political landscape but also offer keen insights into cultural perspective, America’s tarnished history, and Oakland, California. Over 70’s inspired funk, soul, and R&B beats that capture both the rhythm of the streets and the essence of the dance club, group founder Boots Riley is a pioneer for West Coast hip hop, it’s also easy to call Boots royalty amongst the pantheon of MC’s that have ever touched the mic.

 

25 years in the game and Boots is still operating like an artist in his prime. It’s hard to believe that the classic album, “Steal This Album”, was released in the late 90’s. It still feels as pertinent, if not more pertinent, than it was in 1998 with its themes of resistance, political movement, and lyrical imagery that are equally gritty and surreal. Boots has evolved the sound of The Coup towards thematic levels, even composing a concept album called “Sorry to Bother You”. Well before the release of this album Boots was already planning the next move, writing a script in 2012 that he eventually took to Sundance.

 

We had the opportunity to chat with Boots Riley and talk with him about his film “Sorry to Bother You”. Boots is an artist who wants to create material not easily categorized, an artist who has crafted a film that is as bold and captivating as his music.

 

Q: I still have your movie on my mind. And I have so many questions about your hip hop career so it’s going to be difficult to stick to just to film. Your film is so layered with themes like comedy, political satire, some real dramatic moments, and even themes similar to the genre of horror or science fiction. What are your cinematic influences for “Sorry to Bother You”?

 

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BOOTS RILEY: There’s a lot, thing is, I do wear all my influences on my sleeve, but I try to have a lot of sleeves. So, I would say, Emir Kusturica’s “Black Cat, White Cat”, there is a chaos he brings in the photography with his camera movements and his other films “Underground” and “Time of the Gypsies”. “Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters”, if you watch that movie there is a nod to it in my film. Even stuff like Francis Ford Coppola’s “One From the Heart”, what he did with lighting and reflections. Michael Cimino, “Deer Hunter” and “Heaven’s Gate” have scale and what they do with crowds, and similar in Milos Forman’s early stuff like “Loves of a Blonde”. Sergei Parajanov for some of the wider things, “The Color of the Pomegranates” specifically. And then a person that stole a lot from that movie, which I also like the movie in certain ways, is “A Holy Mountain” by Alejandro Jodorowsky. And, let’s see, Lindsay Anderson and his trilogy of films “If”, “O Lucky Man!”, and “Britannia Hospital”. Definitely Luis Buñuel, specially “The Exterminating Angel”. But directors like Stanley Kubrick, people who take themselves seriously as filmmakers, Charlie Kaufman, Spike Jonze, Michel Gondry, Terry Gilliam, those are all influences. I don’t know where to stop.

 

Q: What an impressive list of films and auteurs. Was it hard to layer the different elements happening in your film to something manageable and satisfying to you. With so many influences it sounds like it might have been difficult to find the right way to layer the script?

 

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BOOTS RILEY: I centered it around the things we know are real. If I do that with composition and performance then I can do anything. We care about Cassius in the film and actor Lakeith Stanfield is giving us a performance that feels realer than most because of his choices, because he’s not face acting or eyebrow acting. We do see things in his face but he’s not giving us the “confused look” with my eyebrow up, or here’s the “concerned look”; Lakeith is more concerned about what Lakeith feels and that’s going to show up, albeit in different ways than others. I have notes on the movie that say he should be more active, and I didn’t agree with that. But I knew that we couldn't have him delivering regular Hollywood choices, I knew we couldn't have him do that because it takes us a step further back and then all the fantastical things will start to feel like gimmicks.

 

Q: His normalcy really grounds the film. You see Lakeith in other films and he is usually tasked with being these bigger, more eccentric characters. Here he is given something more subtle and it works in grounding the character. Detroit (Tessa Thompson) feels like an amalgamation of the entire catalog of The Coup albums, was that purposeful?

 

BOOTS RILEY: Every character I wrote as myself. That’s my way of making sure I’m putting humanity in it and not saying “here’s what this person would say”. It’s “here’s what I would say” if I had these particular experiences, here’s what I would say and reflecting it off of that. Definitely, it may be strange to some people, but Detroit is probably the closest character to me.

 

Q: You can feel that completely. For those that know your history in hip hop and the way your group challenged the political landscape, you can clearly see who you are in the characters. You’ve been in the entertainment industry for a long time. As someone who has been in the changing political landscape since the early 90’s, was it planned or just plain luck that this movie seems to hitting at the right time in terms of our current political atmosphere? Like if you made this movie at any other time in your career, it may not have been the right time.

 

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BOOTS RILEY: It’s probably a combination of a lot of things. I think that there are movements that the entertainment industry is trying to respond to. I think that maybe what I was doing would have had less chance of getting funded when I finished writing it in 2012. Not that it had no chance, it just would have had less chance. I think that all of these things, for instance I wrote it when Obama was in office, but Trump being in office has caused people to notice some things that have always been happening. And, separate from that, there are movements on the streets like “Black Lives Matter” and “Occupy” some years ago that have made it obvious that people are looking for something else. I think all of those things coming together have made this be the movie of the moment. But it’s also luck, because usually film will try to respond to the time, like right now there would have been someone writing a movie who is responding to these times. And that movie would come out three years from now, when it isn’t about this. But this is the stuff that I have been talking about my whole career, and its the stuff that is relevant to people’s lives, and actually it’s been relevant to people’s lives forever. But right now media outlets are open to talking about these things now.

 

Q: If you were going to pair this movie in a double or triple feature, your movie playing first, what would you choose?

 

BOOTS RILEY: I don’t know. I would play something totally different so mine seems better.

 

Skyscraper - Movie Review by Monte Yazzie

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Skyscraper

 

Director: Rawson Marshall Thurber

Starring: Dwayne Johnson, Neve Campbell, Pablo Schreiber, Noah Taylor, Roland Moller, and Chin Han

 

Take the barebones plot of “Die Hard”, now add fire to the building like “The Towering Inferno”, and lastly let Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson fight some bad guys. The elevator pitch for director/writer Rawson Marshall Thurber’s “Skyscraper” probably went something like that. And for a summer popcorn movie I’m sure that was more than enough information to greenlight this 80’s-esque action throwback. Having Dwayne Johnson as the foundation for a behemoth building-on-fire film is a pretty good way to guarantee that even though your film might check every single genre cliché, it will still have charm and entertainment value.

 

Will Sawyer (Dwayne Johnson) is a retired FBI hostage rescue agent, also retired soldier, who is doing building security contract work in Hong Kong. However, this isn’t just a regular building, this is the tallest building in the world. It is Will’s job to make sure it is also the safest building in the world. Will’s wife Sarah (Neve Campbell) and their two children (McKenna Roberts and Noah Cottrell) are the only people living inside the luxury rooms located high up in the skyscraper. While checking an offsite facility, where the sophisticated building operations system is located, the building is suddenly set on fire and blamed on Will who soon finds out his family is still in the building and he is the only one who can save them.

 

During one of the pivotal action scenes, the moment in the movie when our everyday hero moves from ordinary to extraordinary, Mr. Johnson’s character utters the line, “This is stupid”. The same may be uttered by some audience members during the movie as well. However, taking a look at the movie poster, which shows Dwayne Johnson jumping from construction equipment into a burning building, it’s obvious the kind of movie you are paying for. It’s a nonsensical, physics defying popcorn film in the vein of the movies teens from the 1980’s fondly recount.

 

The story is simplistic and idiotic at times, however the composition of Will Sawyer as a determined tough guy who, after an accident, must deal with having a prosthetic limb adds some nice moments of suspense. And it also limits the physicality of the character and specifically, for someone with an intimidating physique like Dwayne Johnson, it seems to give the bad guys an advantage during combat scenes and it makes the high-flying action scenes have increased suspense. Yes, we know nothing is going to happen to the character, that’s not how these kinds of films work; but when fire is blazing, when the ground seems miles away, or when our hero is dangling from a building by his prosthetic leg (as seen in the trailer), it’s intriguing to see how the character will escape his predicament.

 

Dwayne Johnson fits perfectly into the mix as the good guy out to save his family. Think about the Bruce Willis’ character John McClane in “Die Hard”, an everyday officer trying to save his wife, and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s character John Matrix in “Commando”, a masculine soldier trying to save his daughter; Dwayne Johnson’s character here is a mix of both of them and he is completely likable in the performance. Add Neve Campbell, who could easily transition her career with this type of tough character, and the character development nicely accompanies, and many times carries, the hampered script.

 

“Skyscraper” is a good action film, if you can overlook the fact that coherency will play no prime directive in the film. Still, Dwayne Johnson is a better actor than Arnold Schwarzenegger and has more charm than Sylvester Stallone. If he could only get that Jean-Claude Van Damme roundhouse kick, Johnson would have it all.

 

Monte’s Rating

2.75 out of 5.00

Five Great Female-Led Teen Films by Jeff Mitchell

 

 

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Bo Burnham is a successful comedian, but please add feature-film director and writer to his impressive resume!  In “Eighth Grade” – which played on the 2018 Phoenix Film Festival’s closing night – he drags his audience back to that awkward school year in childhood history that most would like to forget.  Elsie Fisher plays Kayla, the unfortunate soul dwelling in the purgatory between preteen innocence and young adulthood, and Josh Hamilton stars as her supportive dad.

 

Burnham’s hilarious, emotional and perceptive comedy offers plenty of heart, and it arrives in Valley theatres on Friday, July 20.

 

To help celebrate “Eighth Grade”, here are five great female-led teen films!  This is Part 1 of a 3-Part series, because on July 27 and Aug. 3, the Phoenix Film Festival will publish “Five memorable troubled-teen films” and “The five funniest teen comedies”, respectively.

 

So, feel free to get up early, catch the bus, arrive before the first bell, and read about new, indie and classic teen movies.

 

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“An Education” (2009) – “I’d be careful, if I were you, Jenny.  You don’t know who you’re dealing with.”  Jenny (Carey Mulligan) – an extremely bright high school senior and only child – studies for hours each day to hopefully land a spot at Oxford, but she receives an altogether different education, when a 30-something man (Peter Sarsgaard) finds interest in her.   In complete command of her craft, Mulligan – who earned a much-deserved Best Actress Oscar nomination - offers a moving and nuanced performance of a girl enjoying her sudden and premature push into adulthood while eagerly shedding her current responsibilities.  Mulligan and an all-star cast - including Alfred Molina, Olivia Williams, Rosamund Pike, Dominic Cooper, and Sarsgaard – pour themselves into their characters and help us ignore familiar storylines, so we can solely learn about Jenny’s dueling life-pathways.

 

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“Juno” (2007) –  Ellen Page, writer Diablo Cody and director Jason Reitman form a formidable driving force of cinematic wit and wonder in their modern-day classic about a teenage girl’s unexpected pregnancy and her decision to become a surrogate.  Through Cody’s Oscar-winning script, Juno (Page) bathes in sarcasm and usually splashes constant barrages of adult questions and retorts towards everyone in her path, with little self-awareness of her naïve – but admirable - core.  For instance, Juno repeatedly refers to her unborn baby as “the thing” and speaks like her nine-month expedition will whip by like recess on a Friday afternoon.  Then again, reality and its accompanied emotions catch up with her.  Well, the picture’s catchy, Bohemian soundtrack matches eccentric visuals, smart writing and colorful characters to add frequent comedic touches to lighten the obvious gravitas.  Juno’s solid support system makes her trying experience easier than most pregnant teens’ predicaments, but then again, it’s just a movie…an exceptional one.

 

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“Pariah” (2011) – “Whenever the bird with no feet flew, she found trees with no limbs.” – Audre Lorde.   These words open writer/director Dee Rees’ (“Mudbound” (2017)) insightful picture, and over the course of the 86-minute runtime, Alike (Adepero Oduye) tries to find that elusive footing.  Frustrated, she feels trapped between expressing her sexuality and coming out to her loving -  but traditional - parents, Audrey (Kim Wayans) and Arthur (Charles Parnell).  Set in New York City, Alike – a straight-A student - gives her folks no problems with her schoolwork, but she routinely breaks curfew and refuses to wear dresses and girlish clothes that her mom picks out.  Audrey and Arthur suspect/know the truth, but spoken candor is in short supply.  Rees offers plenty of tense family drama in close spaces in the big city, while Oduye’s portrayal of Alike’s brave, uncertain flight soars with authenticity. 

 

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“The Edge of Seventeen” (2016) – Seemingly always sporting a sky blue, polyester winter jacket, a skirt and mod basketball sneakers, Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld) forms her own counterculture revolution of one and rages against the system…with a passive-aggressive approach.  Her spouting surge of self-pity has been building for years but explodes when her best friend (Haley Lu Richardson) begins dating her brother (Blake Jenner).  Unfortunately, Nadine believes that the Game of Life handed everyone else hotels on Park Place and Boardwalk, but sent her to jail where she cannot pass Go and collect 200 dollars.  Woody Harrelson is a breath of fresh air as Nadine’s history teacher and passes along sage advice, when she stops teasing him about his low salary and receding hairline, of course.  Writer/director Kelly Fremon Craig does not retreat from genuine high school troubles and sidesplitting one-liners, and Steinfeld shows natural gifts in conveying both.

 

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“Thoroughbreds” (2018) – “We’ll do it ourselves.”  Teenagers Amanda (Olivia Cooke) and Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy) decide to take matters into their own hands, but what will they do exactly?  Plan a Sweet 16 party?  Prepare for the SAT without a study guide?  No, they agree to murder Lily’s stepdad!  Cooke and Taylor-Joy share sinisterly satisfying, on-screen chemistry, when Lily starts speaking honestly to Amanda, an admitted sociopath.  Amanda carries a sorted history, but Lily begins to follow her lead, as this brand-new wrecking crew of two bullies a small-time drug dealer (Anton Yelchin) into executing their dastardly scheme.  Then again, the girls are not that depraved, because Lily’s stepdad really is a horrible jerk.  Writer/director Cory Finley creates an odd, twisted nobility in each character, as they deliver their own corrosive, hypnotic truth, accompanied by the filmmaker’s equally compelling camerawork.  Sadly, this hypnotic dark comedy/crime drama is Yelchin’s last big screen appearance.

 

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.

Sorry to Bother You - Movie Review by Ben Cahlamer

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Sorry to Bother You

 

Written and Directed by Boots Riley

Starring Lakeith Stanfield, Tessa Thompson, Jermaine Fowler, Terry Crews. Patton Oswalt, David Cross, Omari Hardwick, Danny Glover, Steven Yeun, Armie Hammer, Kate Berlant

 

We are fortunate in this age of binge-watching, tentpole-driven media landscape to have as unique a voice as Boots Riley. His latest film, “Sorry to Bother You” is the second film this year to be set in and feature Oakland, California; to paint a picture of the citizens who make up the culture and history of the city.

Riley’s film starts out as unassuming a film as one could expect. Cassius “Cash” Green (Lakeith Stanfield) is down on his luck: he’s living in his uncle’s garage with his girlfriend, Detroit (Tessa Thompson) and is out of work. Using his own ingenuity, he lands a job at RegalView, a telemarketing firm a la “Glengarry Glen Ross” and “Boiler Room.” Cash has trouble at first finding his place until he meets Langston (Danny Glover) who teaches him the secret to closing the deal.

Not everything is as it seems as Riley layers in an ongoing storyline about a one-stop shop company, WorryFree that feeds, shelters and employs those who are also down on their luck. As Cash progresses to the next level of selling, his world collides with the real world with hilarious and dark consequences.

The world that Riley creates is very much in the same vein as Terry Gilliam’s dystopic “Brazil.” The world is well lived in and the characters are believable. The strength Riley’s approach is in his dual story telling. The cast bridges the storylines so effortlessly that you don’t notice the world coming unglued. Stanfield’s physical performance throughout is subtle and graceful. He never loses his cool. You believe that his character is experiencing the events that happen to him.

As subtle as the events Cash experiences are, the supporting cast buoys those experiences. Though their presence in the film is limited, the impact of Danny Glover’s Langston and Armie Hammer’s Steve Lift are critical to the flow of both stories. Tessa Thompson’s Detroit serves a number of purposes throughout the course of the film and her performance flows right along as if nothing was amiss. Steven Yeun plays Squeeze. His character is pivotal as an employee at RegalView as if Jermaine Fowler’s Sal, Cash’s best friend.

Riley’s direction is natural. His story requires the audience to be as engaged the characters are, each an active participant. The use of humor is as natural as the violence is in the film; the themes Riley speaks of are loud and clear. There is a confidence along with a humility. He doesn’t know everything, but his imagination takes over and is razor sharp. There’s something unique about the way Riley wrote the “white” version of Cash and Hammer’s Lift; they parallel each other without stepping over one another. Their motions are subtle and they compliment one another. It’s a moment of perfect casting and characterization.

This film won’t be for everyone, but it should be seen by everyone. Boots Riley is a modern Terry Gilliam. He has a flare for the imaginative, a gift for the truth and he absolutely loves sharing world views with an audience who will listen. “Sorry to Bother You” captivated this reviewer and I’ll shout praises about the film until I’m blue in the face.

4 out of 4

 

 

Jeff Mitchell’s Top 10 Films of 2018…so far

Jeff Mitchell’s Top 10 Films of 2018…so far

 

It is July in Phoenix, and the monsoons have begun!  In mysterious, unexplained ways, a sudden and vicious torrent of Arizona rain can cascade equal amounts of wonder, glee and terror into the hearts of desert dwellers all over the Valley.  

 

Well, speaking of terror, it feels a bit shocking that half of 2018 has already come and gone.  How did that happen?  Time does fly when one is having fun, because so many terrific movies arrived in theatres this year. 

 

This critic watched 143 movies from January through the first week of July, and after very, very careful consideration, here – in alphabetical order - are my top 10 films of 2018…so far.  (Oh, which film just missed the list?  My number 11 is Alex Garland’s “Annihilation” starring Natalie Portman and Oscar Isaac.)

 

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“A Quiet Place” – Director John Krasinski channels his inner Rod Serling and Alfred Hitchcock to scare up the thriller of the year, a brilliantly filmed and constructed alien invasion movie.  With little exposition, Krasinski utilizes a tightly-wound narrative to clearly outline a family’s current, lonely predicament.  The adversarial, unworldly invaders possess extremely acute hearing, so in order to survive, parents Evelyn (Emily Blunt) and Lee (Krasinski) and their children Regan (Millicent Simmonds) and Marcus (Noah Jupe) need to refrain from making noise.  Even whispering could be dangerous!  Clocking in at 90 minutes, this white-knuckler whips by, as it strangles your voice box and draws out your breath.  Simmonds especially shines in a key supporting role.  

 

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“Abducted in Plain Sight” (previously titled “Forever ‘B’”) – The Broberg family bravely sits in front of director Skye Borgman’s camera and speaks about a horror show in Pocatello, Idaho during the 1970’s that forever changed them.  All five members of this loving family were gravely impacted, but Jan Broberg, the eldest daughter suffered – far and away – the most emotional and physical damage.  She was abducted in plain sight.  The 2018 Phoenix Film Festival Best Documentary winner reveals deeply troubling, unsettling themes, while it continuously astonishes during its deliberately slow reveal.  This unforgettable picture offers very little comfort, but the fact that all five Brobergs are emotionally healthy enough to recount the details of their experiences is a blessing.  A miracle, actually.

 

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“Avengers: Infinity War” – For 10 years, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been building towards “Avengers: Infinity War”, and directors Anthony and Joe Russo do not disappoint, as they serve up the crown jewel in the staggeringly successful series.  In Marvel’s 19th installment, a purple, eight-foot titan named Thanos (Josh Brolin) treks across various galaxies to collect six coveted Infinity Stones.  Why?  To wipe out half the population of the universe, but the Avengers aim to stop him.  The Russo brothers construct their movie like a treasure hunt, mix densely-packed blends of action, intrigue and humor, and the on-screen events conjure a certain magic by always keeping us present during every single, individual moment throughout the 2-hour 29-minute runtime. 

 

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“Damsel” – In the movie business, when one says damsel, the words in distress usually follow.  Obviously, most unmarried women are not in distress, but Samuel (Robert Pattinson) believes that one particular damsel, Penelope (Mia Wasikowska), needs to be swept off her feet.  Directors David and Nathan Zellner’s (“Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter” (2014)) latest creation is a hilarious, offbeat surprise and the most unique western to arrive on the big screen in years.  With classic genre themes like long stretches on horseback, beautiful skies and hazardous saloons, but also quirky exchanges and visuals reminiscent of a Wes Anderson picture, the conflicting crescendos amuse and entertain.  All the lead and supporting players - including the Zellner brothers and a precious, little scene-stealer: a miniature horse named Butterscotch - embrace the picture’s pleasing and darkly comedic tones.

 

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“Eighth Grade” – Writer/director Bo Burnham drags his audience backwards to that awkward time in childhood history that most would like to forget: eighth grade.  Elsie Fisher plays Kayla, the unfortunate human being dwelling in this purgatory between preteen innocence and young adulthood, and Fisher and Burnham plop down a chair and give us a front row seat into her social pressures, insecurities, new attraction to boys, and struggle to make friends.  Technology consumes a significant portion of her days and nights, and it conveniently provides frequent, easy escapes from reality and chances to forge a new identity.  Insightful, hilarious and emotional, this comedy offers plenty of heart, including Kayla’s relationship with her supportive dad (Josh Hamilton).   

 

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“First Reformed” – Ethan Hawke deserves a Best Actor Oscar nomination in writer/director Paul Schrader’s muddy picture about a troubled alcoholic unable to cope with the past while fearful about the present and future.  Rev. Toller (Hawke) preaches sermons and other life lessons to sparse crowds who sit in white pews every Sunday at his First Reformed Church.  Meanwhile, black outlooks fill his soul.  By filming one or just a few characters at a time in small and large empty spaces – and with a bleak northeast winter as a backdrop - Schrader piles on gloomy despair, despite a setting of supposed affirmation.  Cedric the Entertainer and Victoria Hill contribute effective supporting performances, while Hawke dominates the screen and feeds parallels to Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) from “Taxi Driver” (1976), a film also written by Schrader. 

 

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“Sweet Country” – Set in 1929 Australia, director Warwick Thornton delivers a deeply affective western – which won TIFF’s 2017 Platform Prize – as it wraps its story in institutional racism between whites and aborigines.  When Fred Smith (Sam Neill) leaves his ranch for a business trip, his hired hand Sam Kelly (Hamilton Morris) becomes embroiled in a violent incident.  Sam and his wife Lizzie (Natassia Gorey Furber) find themselves on the run, and an ornery officer of the law (Bryan Brown) follows in tight pursuit.  Sam and other aboriginal people depict a collective subordinate bow towards white ranchers and authority figures, and Thornton captures these moments in very obvious and subtle ways.  Life has stacked the deck against Sam, but will the legal threads of Australian justice treat him fairly?  The parallels between “Sweet Country” and America’s history feel eerily analogous.

 

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“The Best of All Worlds” – Verena Altenberger is sensational as Helga, a mother who tries – and usually fails - to shield her 7-year-old son Adrian (Jeremy Miliker) from her heroin addiction.  Set in Salzburg, Austria, writer/director Adrian Goiginger’s film is autobiographical, and he reflects upon that troubling time in their cluttered, unkempt apartment.  Goiginger doubles as a cinematic wizard, as he summons two types of demons: human ugliness and imagined monsters.  Both feel and look terribly unpleasant, as Helga badly strains to free herself from her compulsions and insidious companionship.  Raw, unflinching and unfiltered, “The Best of All Worlds” hopes for the best of Helga’s and Adrian’s combined space, one clouded by an intrusive, chemical haze.

 

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“Thoroughbreds” – “We’ll do it ourselves.”  Teenagers Amanda (Olivia Cooke) and Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy) decide to take matters into their own hands, but what will they do exactly?  Plan a Sweet 16 party?  Prepare for the SAT without a study guide?  No, they agree to murder Lily’s stepdad!  Cooke and Taylor-Joy share sinisterly satisfying, on-screen chemistry, when Lily starts speaking honestly to Amanda, an admitted sociopath.  Writer/director Cory Finley’s dark comedy/crime drama purposely repels altruism, but he creates an odd, twisted nobility in each character, as they deliver their own corrosive, hypnotic truth, accompanied by the filmmaker’s equally compelling camerawork.  The late Anton Yelchin also stars in his last big screen performance.

 

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“Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” – “He was radical.  I know everyone says that, but he was radical,” Elizabeth Seamans says.  Ms. Seamans – who played Mrs. McFeely on “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” – is referring to the show’s creator and host Fred Rogers.  One might not think of Rogers as radical, but director Morgan Neville (“20 Feet from Stardom” (2013)) proves that he was.  Neville interviews family and coworkers (and also includes several interviews from the man himself), and they describe Rogers’ genuine, philanthropic nature and ingenuity.  For instance, he bravely incorporated difficult news headlines and unpleasant family issues into his show and broke them down into palatable lessons for children.  Accompanied by a touching score, the documentary raises general emotion for Fred Rogers and a hope that more individuals in 2018 could be more like him.  Perhaps many of us will watch this documentary and remember how to be…radical. 

 

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.

 

 

Damsel - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

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‘Damsel’ turns the American western on its head with hilarious, offbeat tones and performances

 

Written and directed by:  David Zellner and Nathan Zellner

Starring:  Robert Pattinson, Mia Wasikowska, David Zellner, Nathan Zellner, and Robert Forster

 

“Damsel” – In the movie business, when one says damsel, it is usually followed by two additional words:  in distress.  Obviously, most unmarried women are not in distress, but Samuel (Robert Pattinson) believes that one particular damsel needs to be swept off her feet. 

 

Penelope (Mia Wasikowska). 

 

Around 1870, Samuel aims to marry Penelope, and he hires a guide named Parson Henry (David Zellner) to take him across the American west to her home and then officiate their wedding.  Although their journey is long, Samuel’s story initially appears as predictable as a cowboy donning a hat on a bright summer day. 

 

It is not.   

 

Writers/directors David and Nathan Zellner’s newest creation is a hilarious surprise and the most unique western to arrive on the big screen in years. 

 

Four years earlier, these brothers wrote (and David directed) “Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter” (2014), the story of a Japanese woman’s perplexing journey.  Kumiko travels to the United States to find the money that Steve Buscemi’s character buried in the snow during 1996’s “Fargo”.  Of course, the cash sitting in this semi-permanent winter wonderland is fictitious, but Kumiko is not aware of this very, very important fact and actually believes that the said loot sits in North Dakota…ripe for the taking.   

 

As kooky as Kumiko’s plot thread sounds, Samuel’s is not far behind on the outlandish-scale (for reasons that will not be revealed in this review).  During the movie’s 1-hour 53-minute runtime, the initial perceptions of Samuel and his trek morph into unexpected, bizarre reveals.  Sure, the Zellners present classic western themes like long stretches on horseback, beautiful skies, hazardous saloons, and groups of simple townsfolk, but they marry these traditional images with eccentric, comedic characters. 

 

The movie somewhat feels like a Wes Anderson picture, but it deliberately slows the pace to match the genre.  Most of the main characters – like Samuel, Parson and Rufus (Nathan Zellner) – are not terribly bright, so they need to engage in long exchanges in order to properly communicate their thoughts.  This is especially noticeable, whenever Penelope appears in the frame, because her logical approaches resemble the mind of an independent woman living in 2018, rather than a 19th century, uneducated dependent living on the open range.

 

In addition to the period’s verbal nuances, David and Nathan offer entertaining, offbeat visuals of their own, and the most endearing is an adorable miniature horse named Butterscotch.  This beloved little animal appears throughout the picture and every precious on-screen frame is pure gold.  Parents should be warned that taking their small children to “Damsel” could be a dangerous proposition.  Sure, the movie is rated-R, but any child subjected to repeated views of Butterscotch will certainly induce a deep desire to own such a horse of his or her own.  Hey, just trying to save mothers and fathers from unneeded future expenses.

 

Well, a ticket to see “Damsel” is easily worth the price of admission.  In addition to enjoying an ingenious dark comedy, one will walk out of the theatre and not immediately associate the words in distress with the film’s title.  How refreshing!

(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.

Whitney - Movie Review by Ben Cahlamer

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Whitney

 

Written and Directed by Kevin Macdonald

Featuring Whitney Houston, Bobby Brown, Bobbi Kristina Brown, Cissy Houston, Gary Houston, John Houston

 

I was a young kid when “How Will I know” hit the local pop radio station in Milwaukee; MTV was popular then. Whitney Houston came on the scene in the early 80’s. She was elegant, poised, respected. In every interview, she had an answer for every question put to her. She lived in the moment. What we as an audience weren’t aware of is just how-in-the-moment she lived.

Kevin Macdonald’s brave documentary, “Whitney” which opens this weekend looks at Ms. Houston’s life and career.

It begins, humbly in the Jersey suburbs outside NYC. Her father, John Houston, Jr a politician and her mother, Cissy a back-up singer for the likes of Aretha Franklin and Dionne Warwick, Whitney’s cousin. Macdonald makes a point early on to demonstrate how distanced they both were from all of their kids. Whitney had to fend for her siblings at a young age, demonstrating her perseverance and determination. They were never alone though, living with various family members.

Recognizing her potential, Cissy took her under her wings, not only coaching her singing, but her posture and presence on the stage and what a dramatic presence it was, despite the stress on their relationship, something that Macdonald also works to bring to the forefront.

As Whitney’s career grew, the family grew closer together. Macdonald paints a portrait of a family in distress, which brings them even closer together, if not for security then out of blood. Gary Garland, Whitney’s half-brother was interviewed, sharing stories of drug use and the ease with which it could be obtained, and alcohol. Macdonald uses home video footage from behind the stages to show Houston’s fun side, but also to demonstrate her demons, how on the edge she lived.

Macdonald also documents a power struggle for control over Whitney’s affairs between a college friend and the family. College friend Robyn Crawford, who is frequently the subject of the family videos in this film was the one person Whitney would listen to when she wanted to go off the rails, but not before Whitney met Bobby Brown.

In the second half of the documentary, Macdonald explores who Bobby Brown is and gets his side of the story of their relationship. What caught me by surprise was Brown’s reaction to the drugs aspect of Macdonald’s questioning. Macdonald ties this back to Brown’s declining career while Whtiney’s was just taking off. Literally.

Whitney transitioned from the world of recording and touring artist to actor when she took the role of a singer whose life is threatened by a fan in 1992’s “The Bodyguard” co-starring Kevin Costner as the bodyguard who she eventually falls in love with.

Macdonald makes it a point to show revealing last moments of the film because it demonstrates the Whitney Houston’s power over the entire spectrum of her audience. Along with her song “I Will Always Love You”, this move in her career was the penultimate expression of relationships in the 1990s and defined a whole new generation.

The second half of the documentary focuses on Whitney, Bobby and Bobbi Kristina Brown, the stresses of being on the road put on their relationship and on Bobbi and Whitney’s attempts at stardom a second time.  This second half looks down at Whitney. Perhaps this is to curry the audience’s emotions. It wasn’t disrespectful, but it left a gaping hole in Whitney’s legacy that is just as critical as her beginnings.

In the end, Whitney Houston entertained and delighted millions. Kevin Macdonald’s “Whitney” answers some of the toughest questions, sheds light on the family struggles and details her struggles with addiction and why; it is exceptionally informative. For a documentary that runs two hours, it spends a little too much time in some areas that it does not focus on her comeback from 2006 – 2012 as much as it probably could have.

2.5 out of 4

 

Ant-Man and the Wasp - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

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‘Ant-Man and the Wasp’ has big laughs and tiny shortcomings

 

Directed by:  Peyton Reed

Written by:  Andrew Barrer, Gabriel Ferrari, Chris McKenna, Paul Rudd, and Erik Sommers

Starring:  Paul Rudd, Evangeline Lilly, Michael Douglas, Michael Pena, Hanna John-Kamen, Walton Goggins, Randall Park, and Michelle Pfeiffer

 

 

“Ant-Man and the Wasp” – “It takes two to make a thing go right.  It takes two to make it outta sight.”  - Rob Base and DJ E-Z Rock, “It Takes Two” (1988)

 

In a recent “Ant-Man and the Wasp” trailer, the aforementioned classic rap song blasts across the screen in crystal clear apropos action-fashion, as the film’s dynamic duo races around San Francisco’s streets – in a quasi-updated version of 1968’s “Bullitt” - and shakes down a host of bad guys.  

 

Actually, the lack of a true noteworthy villain is one of the very few issues with Marvel Studios latest entry.  Director Peyton Reed follows up his funny, refreshing 2015 film with an equally enjoyable sequel.  Credit the five writers, the cast’s comedic timing and Reed, who gives his talented team the freedom to take chances.  Paul Rudd (who is also a co-writer) and Michael Douglas return as the current and former Ant-Men, respectively, but the big change is Dr. Hank Pym’s (Douglas) daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly) dons The Wasp uniform, as teased at the end “Ant-Man” (2015). 

 

Although Scott/Ant-Man has kept his sense of humor, he lives under semi-grave means these days.  The FBI placed him on house arrest after violating the Sokovia Accords, when he joined Captain America (Chris Evans) and other Avengers in “Captain America: Civil War” (2016), but thankfully, his sentence is nearly finished.  Despite his semi-incarceration, Scott keeps a great relationship with his daughter Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson), and she thinks that he is the World’s Greatest Dad, even though she gives him a World’s Greatest Grandma trophy. 

 

Meanwhile Dr. Pym and Hope are trying to reconnect with his wife/her mother, Janet Van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer), the original Wasp.  Thirty years ago, Janet shrunk down to an atomic size and has been lost in something called the Quantum Realm ever since.

 

Dr. Pym and Hope are feverishly trying to find her.   

 

The narrative finds two contentious storylines.  One between Scott and Hope, because their relationship has strained.  Hope harbors legit reasons to be cross with Scott, and their very early threads of romance – from the last film - have been broken.  Rudd continues his on-screen specialty of making his characters infinitely likable.  He continues his magic here, but Scott needs to demonstrate huge amounts of contrition and more importantly, plenty of action behinds those words of regret. 

 

Lilly is perfectly cast as Hope.  Her character is tough, fierce, skilled, and sharp.  She certainly is a worthy Avenger, and Scott usually needs to play superhero-catch-up around her.  Their conflicting energy is agreeably contagious, so it becomes very, very easy to wish for their romance to work itself out.

 

While Scott attempts to repair the previous off-screen emotional damage, the two level some hurt on small-time baddies.  This leads into the second struggle: the desperados throw flies into the heroes’ ointment, by suddenly making Dr. Pym, Scott and Hope’s collective search for Janet an increasingly difficult race against time.  Although Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen) demonstrates wild superpowers, she – unfortunately - is not a smaller part of a greater, criminal enterprise.  No Infinity War or giant story tie-ins with her character.  Ghost and an arms dealer named Sonny Burch (Walton Goggins) present roadblocks in the Pyms’ and Scott’s path, but these adversaries never feel significant or big enough for the film.  Their struggle is just secondary, as the quest to locate Janet stands front and center.  

 

Meanwhile, Rudd, Douglas, Michael Pena, Randall Park, and a few others constantly set the tone with hilarious quips and amusing moments.  Pena, especially.  He steals every scene as a congenial former conman who speaks quickly and has a new affinity for telling the truth in a memorable montage. 

 

Mix lots of comedy with head-scratching technology and “Ant-Man and the Wasp” becomes a much-needed, light reprieve from the difficult events of “Avengers: Infinity War” (2018).   Yes, this film does tie into “Infinity War”, but it mainly serves as a stand-alone movie. 

 

This adventure also proves that “it takes two to make a thing go right”, but we hope that Hank and Janet make it four. 

(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.

An interview with the team behind "Boundaries" by Ben Cahlamer

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Boundaries SXSW Interview Final

 

It was a bright, sunny day in Austin, TX. The smell of fresh paint greeted me as I walked in to the lobby of the Four Seasons Hotel Austin to meet Shana Feste, director of her latest dramedy, Boundaries which opens in theaters today. Lewis MacDougall, who plays Henry, and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, who plays Serge joined us. Vera Farmiga who plays the lead, Laura was unable to join us, but she gave an eloquent speech the night prior during the film’s Q&A.

Since the film hit me square in the chest, I felt it incumbent to say that I really enjoyed the film. Shana was quite pleased to hear that. As the film’s writer, I complimented her on the rich characters and the stunning performances she got out of such a diverse cast.

She had mentioned in the Q&A that she set out to make a personal drama and I found that it developed into a comedy with the cast she was able to assemble. She laughed saying, “I’m not a comedy writer. My body of work is very heavy on romance and melodrama.” Continuing with a little bravura, “This definitely is not what I want to do. Initially it felt like a challenge to me.” She turns to Yahya Abdul-Mateen II and Lewis MacDougal as she says, “I don’t know if you guys feel like this in your careers, once you do one thing, ‘you stay in that lane’ especially as a female filmmaker.”

They both agreed. I even nodded in agreement (because it’s true.)

She brightened up as she continues, “I could live in the YA (Young Adult) love story space for the rest of my career and people would be very happy with that. So, if I want to do something different, I need to write it myself.” She chuckled when she mentioned, “I don’t think anybody gets a comedy [script] and says, ‘what about Shana Feste for this? She’d be perfect.’ I’d like to write my own comedy.”

She reminisced about comedy in her prior films, “I just remember, even in my dramas, I’d play them at festivals and I’d get that first laugh, it always felt so good. ‘I’m glad I wrote that joke there.’ It’s such a nice release for the audience.”

Ms. Feste mentioned in her Q&A that the source of her film was her father (played in the film by the eminent Oscar-winner, Christopher Plummer). “My father is incredibly funny and he always made me laugh, so I knew there was going to be a lot of humor in this. I don’t want people to walk away [thinking] ‘oh, that was a cute little comedy. What’s next?’”

Comedy is rooted in trauma, drama or pain and Ms. Feste is no exception. “The source of the comedy was pain from some childhood trauma that I wanted to explore. I knew it needed to have more than just to be a sweet little comedy even though the ‘sweet little comedy’ was the easiest part to write. I knew I had to take it a step further and investigate my own anger.”

I complimented Ms. Feste on the nuances of the film, especially in the interactions between characters. I discussed the fact most of the film is a road trip and that when you get into an intimate space like a car, you can use a wide angle lens to create the intimacy of a road trip, building the dramatic subtext on top of the comedic material.

I turned to Lewis MacDougall for my follow-up question because his character frequently has the most hilarious interactions with Mr. Plummer and I asked him what it was like to act with him.

“Yeah, he was great. He was just nominated for an Oscar (for All the Money in the World). I had a lot of scenes with him because we were sneaking around everyone else.” Mr. MacDougall was complimentary saying, “he always made me feel at ease, even though I was star struck at first and intimidated. I mean, its CHRISTOPHER PLUMMER. I learned a lot from him.”

I tapped into Mr. MacDougall’s at ease comment about Mr. Plummer as I note that he has a very old soul, adding that he came across the screen as being very experienced (for a fourteen year old). I noted that it was a nice counterbalance to Mr. Plummer’s child-like performance. I included Ms. Feste in the remainder of my comments as I mentioned that I thought Mr. MacDougall’s performance enriched the story far beyond its intended years and that I appreciated it.

Mr. MacDougall’s jaw dropped to the floor, because I don’t think he expected to hear that, but he regained his composure very quickly, thanking me for the compliment. Mr. Mateen added that he thought it was a great observation.

As Serge, Mr. Mateen had the fewest scenes in the film, but his presence is felt throughout the entire film as a friend at first and a potential romance. If you’d been in the room, you might have thought I was offering a backhanded compliment to his character as I likened it to being in an antique bookshop with an elegant bookend on either side of the road trip. His character, and by extension his performance, delineates Laura’s struggles at the beginning of the film and the aforementioned relationship that will happen after the story ends.

Mr. Mateen took my commentary in stride, a smile on his face. “As a character, I think Serge has an extremely big heart. He was thinking about [Laura] along the way. I’d like to think that he picked up the phone a few times and they had a conversation [off camera] or he wanted to pick up the phone and thought, ‘nah, I don’t think I can do that.’ He saw something in her that made him want to be a little closer. It’s a great compliment and a testament to Shana’s writing and vision on the character and the story also.”

I completely agreed saying that one of the best moments in the film is when Serge acknowledges the future relationship when he fell in love with the dogs, that he related to Laura (Vera Farmiga). It was at that moment that I acknowledged how excited I was about that scene because Mr. Mateen’s performance was exceptionally strong. “Thank you. Really good directors, writers and acting partners make the job fun to do.”

Ms. Feste adds on to this point. “I think it was a bit of wish fulfillment. I am an animal rescuer. I am in control of what’s on the page and I get to write my own dream guy. That one shot of Yahya, when you’re holding all the animals and the car is driving away, that’s my dream guy. He’s talking on all my broken animals and still smiling.”

Laughter all around ensued.

I shared in the thought by suggesting that that relationship is like any one of us walking down the street and I make eye contact with someone and we walk past each other, we then turn around look at them and there’s a connection. The rear view mirror in the scene Ms. Feste described is that connection.

My final comment surrounded a series of scenes that mirrored each other. One of the scenes was in a motel where the long shot is centered on two arcadia (sliding patio) doors, one is open the other is closed, but you can see both Ms. Farmiga and Mr. Plummer. Towards the end of the film, there is a similarly staged shot with Ms. Farmiga and Mr. MacDougall from behind the actors. I mentioned to Ms. Feste that what I had observed was that Jack (Plummer) was genuinely willing to be open, to rekindle his relationship with Laura, but she was not willing to do so, hence the closed door. The same shot later on with Laura and Henry (MacDougall) embracing one another, shows signs of their rekindled relationship between mother and son. I concluded my commentary by saying that I thought it brought the characters full circle.

Ms. Feste appreciated the compliment saying, “The motel was not initially my idea. But when I saw it with the anamorphic lens and I saw that we could still see Vera and Chris, I stopped everything and lit both rooms so that we could see their lives going on. I’m glad you caught that.”

I shared with her that I thought it was a brilliant choice and that I was glad she stuck with the shot.

I am 1400 words into this written article for an interview that lasted 10 minutes and I don’t think I’ve ever had a director embrace me following our conversation. It was an absolute joy speaking with Shana Feste, Lewis MacDougall and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II. I’d like to thank Sony Pictures Classics for the opportunity. Boundaries is in theaters now.

 

Sicario: Day of the Soldado

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Sicario: Day of the Soldado

 

Director: Stefano Sollima

Starring: Benicio Del Toro, Josh Brolin, Isabela Moner, Jeffrey Donovan, Catherine Keener, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Shea Whigham, Elijah Rodriguez, and Matthew Modine

 

In the first 15 minutes of “Sicario: Day of the Soldado” more than one disturbing act of violence, pulled from the world headlines, is on full display. Backed by an ominous, pulsating score the tone for director Stefano Sollima’s film is clearly and emphatically established. It doesn't take long for the film to delve deeper in the political darkness it so carefully, and carelessly, utilizes to establish the politically driven secret wars taking place in the Middle East and across the border in Mexico.

 

“Sicario: Day of the Soldado” is an unusual sequel to director Denis Villeneuve’s 2015 film “Sicario”, substituting for the interesting style and broad scope that the original film so deftly weaved into a subverted revenge film is a sequel that depends more on expanding established characters into a world that operates with clear genre tendencies. This is an action film with tough guys operating in tough situations with no clear direction, caught in the crossfire are the innocent, and the innocence, of people trying to survive their own difficult circumstances.

 

Matt Weaver (Josh Brolin) is still the shadowy government figure who comes into to do the dirty work the higher political figures are too squeamish to do for themselves. By his side for the more grisly jobs is Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro), the hitman who is hunting down everyone involved in the death of his family. Matt is tasked by the secretary of defense (Matthew Modine) to clean up the cartel issues across the border in Mexico; the plan is to start a war between two drug cartels.

 

Amidst the startling violence and political confusions is a film that operates without much clear direction except to display how complicated and murky the maze associated with the terrible happenings in the world can be. Human trafficking, terrorism, and bad guy power coups are just a few of the narrative weapons unabashedly and sometimes irresponsibly unleashed throughout the film. When the film tries to transpose the current political atmosphere into the film it never commits to providing any kind of insight into the reality of political decision-making. Instead it safely watches like the helicopters that hunt for border crossers in the film.

 

At the middle of everything is an interesting relationship between two lone soldiers fighting for their own strained beliefs of how order should be brought into the world. Both are figures with unknown backgrounds, with stories that have shaped and molded them into the seemingly heartless decision makers that reorganize how complicated situations will be solved. The truth is that resolution is far from the primary concern; instead it’s the necessary maintenance to keep everything from spiraling out of control.

 

We’ve seen these archetypes before, the lone gunman traveling from town to town in the western film or the worn out hit man doing one last job in the crime film; Matt and Alejandro are the updated contemporaries to these cinematic figures. It’s the relationships that these two characters have with the world that is ultimately the most fascinating aspect about “Sicario: Day of the Soldado”. When two young people, the kidnapped daughter (Isabela Moner) of a drug cartel leader and a young teenager (Elijah Rodriguez) growing into a role with the cartel,  intrude in the grown up affairs, Matt and Alejandro become less fascinating because the mystery behind their creation becomes more clear. Still, in some of the quieter moments, like when Alejandro is left to protect the young girl after a failed operation, the film establishes a familiar yet interesting dynamic between the choices made in the present and how they will ultimately affect the future.

 

“Sicario: Day of the Soldado” trudges through some murky waters, trying to connect the narrative arcs into the current political climate doesn’t work in the scheme of the film. Josh Brolin and Benicio Del Toro swagger in and out of action scenes nicely and when their characters are offered glimpses to contemplate the gravity of their violent tendencies the film speaks to the nature of the real victims in the war on terror and the shockwaves that will change lives and attitudes in both negative and positive ways in the future.

 

Monte’s Rating

3.00 out of 5.00

 

Izzy Gets The F Across Town - Movie Review by Monte Yazzie

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Izzy Gets The F Across Town

 

Director: Christian Papierniak

Starring: Mackenzie Davis, Alia Shawkat, Haley Joel Osment, Carrie Coon, Lakeith Stanfield, Sheldon Bailey, Brandon T. Jackson, Kyle Kinane, and Annie Potts

 

Any method of transportation across greater Los Angeles, any day of the week, can consume your entire day. For a young down-on-her-luck musician named Izzy, who once played major festivals and had popular songs on Spotify, the journey from Venice Beach to Los Feliz is an arduous task filled with interesting characters from numerous walks of life.

 

Director Christian Papierniak composes “Izzy Gets The F*** Across Town” with the same spirit as the punk rock fueled soundtrack that tracks Izzy’s progress across town. Amidst the chaos of characters and plot turns is a ferocious performance from Mackenzie Davis who perfectly captures the self-defeating, excuse-riddled spirit of her character.

 

Izzy (Mackenzie Davis) wakes up after a one night stand stranded in Venice Beach. She soon discovers some concerning news about her ex-boyfriend who is newly engaged. Izzy decides to travel across town to crash the engagement party, however her path is littered with obstacles.

 

“Izzy Gets The F*** Across Town” offers character material for the talented Mackenzie Davis to showcase her impressive emotional range. Ms. Davis is the glue for this film. When a film focuses on the exploits of one character, someone we take every step of the journey with, it’s important for the character to be relatable or unique enough to contribute 90 minutes of engaging material. The accomplishment here is that Izzy is quite an unlikable character throughout the entire film yet she is still engaging.  Mr. Papierniak, who also wrote the film, does an exceptional job of taking Izzy through the emotional ringer. As the film progresses Izzy is dealt numerous situations that continuously go from bad to worse; a broken romantic relationship, a sister that sees through her personality facades, and even a scene involving a hypodermic needle; anything that could go wrong does. Still, it’s hard to cheer Izzy’s success at times, her reasoning for the decisions she makes is tinged with self-sabotaging elements.

 

Mr. Papierniak makes some interesting choices in composing the script, layering poetic ramblings or philosophical discussions during encounters with the many people Izzy finds on her mission. It’s great dialog for the actors to chew on but it doesn’t really do much to engage the journey of Izzy more than being nice advice that goes in one ear and out the other. The shifting nature of the tone also gets somewhat distracting as the film progresses into darker dramatic territory. But again, Mackenzie Davis does a terrific job of holding it all together.

 

“Izzy Gets The F*** Across Town” is filled with interesting characters that engage with nice conversation, it also has some clever narrative turns that keep the film moving, but in the end, this film belongs to Mackenzie Davis. While it’s a joy to watch her practice her craft, it will be even more rewarding when a film utilizes her skill set to make something more memorable.

 

Monte’s Rating

3.00 out of 5.00

Leave No Trace - Movie Review by Ben Cahamer

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Leave No Trace

 

Directed by Debra Granik

Written by Debra Granik and Anne Rosellini based on ‘My Abandonment’ by Peter Rock

Starring Ben Foster, Thomasin McKenzie, Jeff Kober, Dale Dickey

 

As a human, one of the greatest experiences I have had the privilege of enjoying is being able to explore my surroundings, to move about without fear of repercussions of sorts. I am aware that everywhere I go a footprint of my existence in that moment is recorded; a stone turned over, a fallen branch, a footprint in the earth, a wrapper from a candy bar or uneaten food. I alter the environment around me. Yet the environment adapts to me at the same time. There is a precarious balance, a harmony between human and nature.

Debra Granik’s fascinating and brilliant “Leave No Trace” explores what happens when that environment is up ended, as it is for Will (Ben Foster) and his daughter, Tom (Thomasin McKenzie). The foundation of their father-daughter relationship is survival and Granik’s purposeful direction supports this as we learn more about them. They have made a home within an urban park, living off the land, with nothing much more than the clothes on their back, some simple utensils and cooking apparatuses. They have a tarpaulin cover to protect themselves from the elements and they forage for most of their food.

The dialog is natural between the two, but you can tell that Will is suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. As methodical as Granik’s direction is so too is their conversation: there is a natural flow about it as if we are nature observing their interactions, but it is direct and to the point. It leaves no quarter for questions and no traces of their past. Yet, Tom is very well educated.

What’s so fascinating about the construct of the film and the performances is that we realize that even though they are “off the grid,” they are actually not too far removed from the everyday conveniences of modern life and that despite their choices, they need some of the services of modern society. The result of the decision to live off the grid eventually catches up with them.

When they are first discovered there is a wide angle shot between Tom and Jean Bauer (Dana Millican) where Tom is on the left side of the frame, Jean is on the right side a thick tree separates them. The composition of the shot is the turning point in the story, but also defines the gulf between Tom and by extension, Will’s existence off the grid and their future journey. This is the visual power of their story.

It is important to note that they are not drifters. The story makes a point to show that even with his back to the wall, Will can be a meaningful contributor to society, but Will cannot comply with the demands society puts on him. Something ingenious happens within the story at this point as a subtle shift between Tom and Will happens. This shift is as much a tribute to Foster and McKenzie’s performances as it is Granik’s direction.

While we might be quick to feel badly for Will and Tom’s situation or to judge them for their choices, we are encouraged to look beyond their environment. They successfully adapted to their surroundings and the surroundings adapted to them. As they are forced to reintegrate with society, we find that society is not as forgiving as nature is.

Their perseverance to be humans and individuals is as remarkable as the film is.

4 out of 4 stars

Uncle Drew - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

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Despite some laughs, ‘Uncle Drew’ misses and misses

 

Directed by:  Charles Stone III

Written by:  Jay Longino

Starring:  Kyrie Irving, Lil Rel Howery, Shaquille O’Neal, Chris Webber, Reggie Miller, Nate Robinson, Lisa Leslie, Erica Ash, and Nick Kroll

 

 

“Uncle Drew” – Basketball is a team sport, but one individual point guard stands out.  He stands above all others who played before and after him.

 

Uncle Drew (Kyrie Irving).

 

Don’t just take this critic’s word for it.  Ask NBA greats George Gervin, Dikembe Mutombo, Jerry West, David Robinson, and Steve Nash (to name a few), as they rave about Drew’s gifts on the court during the opening moments of director Charles Stone III’s (“Drumline” (2002), “Mr. 3000” (2004)) movie “Uncle Drew”.   Keep in mind that these basketball greats speak of Drew in the past tense by design.  Years and years and years ago, Drew dominated the game and became a living legend, but one day, this icon suddenly disappeared from basketball.

 

This all changed one afternoon, when an awkward, but goodhearted recreational basketball coach named Dax (Lil Rel Howrey) looks for a new star player and randomly discovers Drew on an outdoor court.  Drew – who is now 70-something and sports gray hair and a matching beard – has not lost too many steps, as he crushes a much younger man in a game of one-on-one.  

 

With some inspiration from Dax, Drew decides to gather the old team back together for The Rucker 50 Tournament and a 100,000 dollar prize!

 

Well, the fate of Stone III’s prize comedy/sports movie relies on two ideas. 

 

First, the elderly athletes tossing away their wheelchairs, dusting off their basketball shoes and ripping up the court should visually and emotionally resonate.  Second, its sports-movie arc and NBA-level hoops action should deliver plenty of thrills. 

 

Although real-life basketball stars – Irving, Shaquille O’Neal, Chris Webber, Reggie Miller, and Nate Robinson – comprise Dax’s Harlem Money squad (and they certainly demonstrate their on-the-court chops), the script does not provide them with enough nuanced and clever exchanges to keep our attention.  Hence, the one-note gag of seniors whipping 20 and 30-somethings in basketball gets old pretty quickly and could induce audiences to call a timeout to hope for something more.

 

Now, it feels like Irving, O’Neal, Webber, Miller, and Robinson are – at least - giving their all for 1 hour and 43 minutes.  Webber’s turn as Preacher – who has a most unique manner of baptizing children at The Calm Before the Storm Devine Ministries – delivers the funniest single scene from this group.  Miller carries some whimsy with his character’s limitations, and specifically, Lights (Miller) is legally blind.  O’Neal has an amusing moment in the picture’s third act, but otherwise his shtick feels tired.

 

Actually, the most significant character-driven issue is that the film’s centerpiece, Uncle Drew, is written and portrayed as a humorless character who mainly grumbles and sometimes offers occasional words of wisdom that have already been said, referenced and repeated over and over since the dawn of civilization.  For instance, Dax needs a resonant pep talk, and Drew reminds him that he will miss 100 percent of the shots that he doesn’t take.  Luckily for Dax that he is the only person on Planet Earth who has never heard this advice.

 

“Uncle Drew” is supposed to be breezy and comedic sports film.  Although the movie desperately needs funnier material, the filmmakers do get the breezy portion of the equation right, because Stone III and writer Jay Longino create a harmless picture.  Their film exudes safe, half-adequate entertainment for many sports-obsessed kids and some NBA fans wanting see hoops stars on the big screen, but simultaneously, most of the movie feels like a miss.  Not a complete failure, like the God-awful and painfully unfunny Will Ferrell basketball project “Semi-Pro” (2008), but “Uncle Drew” does not give 100 percent effort either.  It should be a better movie, and sloppy filmmaking takes part of the blame.

 

For example, the guys scrimmage an Alabama high school girls team in the deep south, but they need to be in New York City the next day for their tournament.  Not sure how they arrived on time (spoiler alert), when they needed to travel 1,000 miles in a 40-year-old orange van.  Additionally, Big Fella (O’Neal) walks on court with a Harlem Money jersey, but didn’t he quit the team during an earlier practice?  How did he get his jersey?  Also, the guys change their Harlem Money uniforms to represent a different name, but with no memorable rhyme or reason for the textile alteration. 

 

Okay, maybe these gripes are not important, but the plot is terribly predictable, many of the jokes are uninspired and references to other basketball films – like “Hoosiers” (1986) and “White Men Can’t Jump” (1992) – just remind us that much better sports movies exist.   Although Uncle Drew’s short career during his youth delivered a lasting impression, his forgettable film does not stand very tall, and that’s a problem in basketball.

(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.

 

 

Eating Animals - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

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Eating Animals’ is an important doc and a tough pill to swallow

 

Directed by:  Christopher Dillon Quinn

Written by:  Christopher Dillon Quinn, based on the book by Jonathan Safran Foer

Narrated by:  Natalie Portman

 

 

“Eating Animals” – “I wonder what my grandkids or generations past me will think about this period, a time when we raise our meat, dairy and eggs in many (compromising) ways.” – “Eating Animals” director Christopher Dillon Quinn, June 14, 2018 during a Phoenix Film Festival interview

 

Quinn is speaking about factory farming.  This current practice mass produces 99 percent of the meat that Americans consume today, and his emotional, eye-opening documentary sheds a light on the highly disturbing state of affairs. 

 

Narrated by Natalie Portman, who also co-produced the film, she walks the audience into the twisted world factory farming.  The doc quickly dives, shifts and doubles back into several stories over 1 hour and 34 minutes, while offering plenty of unsettling and nightmarish images.  Some visuals are expected, like warehouses stretching over the length of football fields, filled with chickens who barely have any space to move.  Others are unexpected, like small pink ponds dotted all over North Carolina that are toxic blends of pig excrement and waste, sitting with odd glows under a blazing, southern sun.

 

In addition to describing this world, Portman and Quinn explain the repercussions of factory farming.  For instance, the previously-mentioned chickens are genetically bred to grow faster and – of course - bigger, and frequently, the birds cannot even carry their own bodyweight, while their feet and legs have the consistency of rubber.  Those pink ponds eventually bleed into downstream rivers, lakes and coastal areas, which wreck fishing communities. 

 

So, the film not only depicts the “unmitigated misery” of cows, birds and pigs but also outlines the environmental impacts, including climate change.   As we discover these horrors, Portman speaks with phrases like “I learned”, “I discovered” or “I was surprised to learn”, and this relatable approach helps soften the emotional burden for us.  In other words, Portman has traveled here before and holds our hands as we walk into the brutal and heartless abyss.

 

Craig Watts, a chicken farmer who works for one of the large poultry corporations, has spent decades in this abyss, and gray hair, dark circles under his eyes and the combination of stress and exhaustion in his voice mark his thankless journey.  He can no longer cope with the daily grind, the massive monetary debts and tending after his countless sick chickens.  His trauma hemorrhages off the screen into our eyes and ears, as he hopes for another way to make a living. 

 

There is another way.

 

The narrative also mixes in refreshing stories of small, independent farmers, and their positive routines are more recognizable to Americans.  Quinn introduces us to Frank Reese.  He owns a small, independent turkey farm, and his free range turkeys enjoy…free range on his property! 

 

They even have the time and space to play! 

 

In fact, one turkey sits in a tree and seems to teasingly speak to Quinn’s camera.  Although these turkeys will meet their eventual doom (and Frank admits that he “hates” doomsday), the birds live in a welcoming environment under a man who cares for and loves them. 

 

A couple other “Charlotte’s Web” moments unexpectedly pop up, which act as reminders that these animals have the personalities of house pets, when given the chance.   Not that pigs or chickens will or should replace typical house cats or dogs, but Quinn effectively humanizes these animals for the audience. 

 

Make no mistake, humans will find “Eating Animals” to be a troubling, unpleasant but important cinematic trip.  “Food, Inc.” (2008) offered similar messages 10 years ago, and while that film opened many audiences’ eyes to factory farming for the very first time, “Eating Animals” reminds us that these problems have not gone away, but have accelerated.  The movie is a needed warning signal, because future generations will most likely judge our current actions, so there’s no time like the present to make meaningful changes.

(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.

 

Interview with Christopher Dillon Quinn, director of Eating Animals by Jeff Mitchell

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Interview with “Eating Animals” director Christopher Dillon Quinn

 

According to “Eating Animals”, factory farms produce 99 percent of the meat that Americans consume today, and director Christopher Dillon Quinn explores these institutions and their troubling practices in his eye-opening documentary.  The 2018 Phoenix Film Festival screened “Eating Animals” – which Natalie Portman proudly narrates – and it opens at Harkins Shea 14 on Friday, June 29.

 

The Phoenix Film Festival caught up with Christopher, and we talked about the disconcerting state of factory farming, Natalie Portman’s connection with his movie, the push towards vegetarian alternatives (including White Castle now offering a veggie burger), and more.  Yes, that White Castle!

 

 

PFF:  Looking back at our country’s history, we have some periods of shame.  Manifest Destiny, slavery and unsafe practices of industrialism at the turn of the 20th century, to name a few.  How will history judge factory farming, either 10, 20 or 100 years from now?

 

CDQ:  I think about (that) a lot.  I wonder what my grandkids or generations past me will think about this period, a time when we raise our meat, dairy and eggs in many (compromising) ways and (the impacts) on the environment and our own human health.  (Also), never before in the history of man have we caused (so much animal) suffering.  That combination is a recipe for some indictment down the road.  I think people are going to wonder what we were thinking.

 

 

PFF:  Is factory farming a blind spot to Americans, because we don’t think about how meat reaches our dining room tables?

 

CDQ:  This whole factory faming system isn’t that old.  Only 40 years.  In the 70’s, we had a “taste” for efficiency and quick, cheap food and have really accelerated to the place where it is today.  I think (that) people do not think about it. 

 

We also have (a farming) heritage.  We had a (patchwork) quilt of small farming communities all across America that raised our food, and that’s really not the case now.  Ninety-nine percent of all meat, dairy and eggs come from a factory farm.  The independent, American farmers make up a mere 1 percent.  As you see in the film, it is quite difficult to make a living doing what they do.  So, there is a bit of “I don’t want to know”, but the industry spends a tremendous amount of money every year divorcing us from our food and where it comes from.  They do that by reminding us of the former (family) farms and the images that you see on milk containers.  To me, that suspends us in this place where we believe that there are farmers out there doing good to provide food for us, but that’s just nonexistent.  Nearly nonexistent.

 

 

PFF:  Natalie Portman narrates the film, and she also co-produced it.  I like her narration style, because – and I’m paraphrasing a bit – she would sometimes start her commentary with “I learned”, “I discovered”, “I was surprised to learn”, etc.   Was she active in the writing process, and can you describe her enthusiasm for the project?

 

CDQ:  She met Jonathan Safran Foer (the author of “Eating Animals”) years ago.   Jonathan sent (his book) out to friends, including Natalie.  (Natalie and Jonathan) got in touch with me, and they ended up co-producing the film. 

 

(The movie) has been Natalie’s charge.  It is something that is very near to her, and she’s ultimately the one who wanted the film to get made.  It’s been a great involvement.   

Natalie, as the narrator, is ideal and perfect.  You talk about the pronoun usage in the narration, and that was intentional.  This unraveling and discovery are eye-popping.  Natalie’s voice really lends itself to the idea of somebody going through the process of discovery.  We worked on writing the narration, and it was a constant vision to get it just so. 

 

 

PFF:  Speaking of Jonathan, he was quoted as saying, “A moving image can capture somebody’s heart in a way that is different - not better or worse - than the way that a book can.”

 

During your experience in making the movie, was there any particular image, moment or fact that you discovered that really impacted you.

 

CDQ:  It was important for us to show the pastoral images of what we imagined the farm to be.  There was a real intention to create the landscape that is beautiful and have it intermixed with these manmade complexes that house the chickens, pigs and cows that we consume.  That language was just learned by being out on the road so long and spending so much time filming.  We ended up wanting to have that contrast between (factory farming) and the beautiful imagery, the American mythos.  You can see that in the landscape with 1 percent of farmers, but then it turns on its head and you see a feed lot with 175,000 cows all in one confined area.  It’s pretty devastating to see where we have come with our agricultural practices. 

 

 

PFF:  On the lighter side, the film had a couple moments that reminded me of “Charlotte’s Web”.  In one case, on Frank Reese’s independent farm, one of his turkeys was having fun by sitting in a tree, and it was a nice reminder that these animals are living beings with personalities, like pets.  Do you feel the same way?

 

CDQ:  It’s interesting.  Frank’s turkeys do have their personalities, and they do attach themselves to individual humans.  That kind of “Charlotte’s Web” moment can be felt when you go to a farm, where an animal is making its living by being itself.  I ran across those moments.  There was a little piglet on (another) farm that would grab a cornstalk and want to play catch with me. 

 

All these moments are surprising, and then you go into a confined, animal feeding operation.  This is a place where animals are too sick to barely keep their bodies up.  They’ve been hybridized to grow so fast, and they are really in a constant state of suffering.  You contrast the two, and that was incredibly striking for me.  When I got back, I was with my dog, and (the experience) really challenged the way that I look at pets as animals, and then animals raised for food. 

 

 

PFF:  What can we do as world citizens to help?   The movie mentioned that we can vote with our forks three times a day.  Is that a good start, or are there other actions that we can take?

 

CDQ:  I think it’s an amazing start.  It really does matter what you put on your plate.  That’s a difficult thing to ask of anybody.  (What) if you opt out of meat for one of your meals and just take the commodity meat off your plate?  If everybody did that, it would radically change the way we’re heading (in terms) of climate change.  It would do a tremendous amount to end the suffering for the animals, and by the way, it’s also good for your health.  It’s argued that the so-called cheap meat isn’t necessarily very good for you, when it comes down to the nutritional value.

 

 

PFF:  The movie talks about meat alternatives, like Beyond Meat.  Have you sampled these products?   What would you say to someone who is skeptical?

 

CDQ:  Well, I think you have to try (them).  I don’t have one particular favorite, but these companies with plant-based alternatives are coming up.  They can be an important part of the (equation).  The carbon footprint (difference) of growing a plant-based burger versus a meat burger is really, really significant.  Those burgers are getting to such a place, where they are really good. 

 

The Impossible Burger is delicious.  You would have to look this up, but somebody was telling me that the Impossible Burger is actually starting at White Castle.  The only reason that it could get to White Castle in the first place is it’s that good.  It just tastes that good.  The Beyond Burger is the same thing.  It is something that I eat all the time at home.  It’s very satisfying, and it kind of fulfills that need of (a) burger that everyone craves.  There are a lot of advantages to looking at plant-based alternatives.  Eighty percent of all meat grown goes into fast food, so if you just change that percentage a little bit, it’s really going to have a great effect. 

 

(Note:  PFF looked on White Castle’s website, and the company offers a Veggie Slider.)

 

 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.

“Jurassic Park” Legacy A Prehistoric Journey 25 Years in the Making - by Ben Cahlamer

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“Jurassic Park” Legacy A Prehistoric Journey 25 Years in the Making

 

I am your a-typical kid (at heart). I didn’t much care for dinosaurs when I was younger. Monsters scared me more than they entertained me. The closest way I found to relate to dinosaurs was a joke in 1982’s “Airplane II: The Sequel” in which a member of the ground staff, Johnny is asked to recount history: “Let’s see. First, the Earth cooled. Then the dinosaurs came, but they got too big and fat so they died and they turned into oil.”

It isn’t a very funny joke, but it fits the theme of this article.

25 years ago, Steven Spielberg wowed us with the original “Jurassic Park,” Despite the fact that Steven Spielberg’s name was attached to it, I had no real interest in seeing that first film. A friend of mine strongly encouraged me to go see it and when it made the rounds a second time, I caught it.

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What worked for me in that original film was not the technology or the dinosaurs themselves. It was the story and the people who inhabited that world. Michael Crichton and David Koepp managed to create an environment full of danger, of wit, of adventure. They managed to capture the strength of the core argument: should humans play God. It’s a timeless story, of course. Mr. Spielberg did not cast the film with notable, A-List actors either and that’s a plus to the film. Sam Neill, Laura Dern, Sir Richard Attenborough, Jeff Goldblum, Martin Ferro, Samuel L. Jackson, Wayne Knight, Bob Peck, Ariana Richards, Joseph Mazello and B.D. Wong all offered a richness of character that we would not see in future entries. There’s enough background into each of their characters that addresses several key questions, namely who, what, when where, how and why.

The technology used to create the dinosaurs is rudimentary by today’s standards. But, in 1992, when the first teasers started rolling, audiences were hooked. The film would go on to win multiple technical Oscars and would usher in a new theatrical digital sound format, DTS.

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Four years later, Mr. Spielberg and company came back in “The Lost World: Jurassic Park.” Both Laura Dern and Sam Neill bowed out and Jeff Goldblum made a significant appearance. Sir Richard Attenborough, Ariana Richards and Joseph Mazello return in cameo roles. Julianne Moore stepped in to the Sam Neill character, which was a welcome change. Pete Postlethwaite, Vince Vaughn, Peter Stomare, a shaved Richard Schiff (for those who have seen every episode of ‘The West Wing,’ the loss of the beard was remarkable) and Arliss Howard are along for the ride.

“The Lost World” exposes a second site for InGen’s testing. A family stumbles on the island and a young girl is injured prompting an expedition led by Goldblum’s Ian Malcom. His girlfriend, Dr. Sarah Harding is already on the island in the natural element studying the creatures, who have not been contaminated through human contact. Arliss Ludlow, Hammond’s greedy nephew and current CEO of InGen has also sent a hunting team to collect samples to bring them back to the U. S. Mainland. It becomes a race.

The effects in this film are just as jaw dropping as the first. My initial reaction to the film was not as positive when I originally saw it. Moore’s performance and Goldblum’s humor are what brought me around. But, I also like Postlethwaite’s character, Roland Tembo.

This film was a tipping point for CGI to replace traditional animatronic dinosaurs, opening up some of the action shots, which hold up even today. The story is nowhere near as strong and the last act is dismal (I was surprised to learn that fan pressure pushed Crichton to write the novel for this film, which David Koepp based his script on). Spielberg’s direction is on point and it is as rousing an adventure as any other Spielberg film.

“Jurassic Park III” was the first film in the series not directed by Steven Spielberg. Joe Johnston of “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids,” “The Rocketeer,” and “Jumanji” fame took the directing reins. Sam Neill returns along with Laura Dern in a cameo role.

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“JP3”’s scale is much smaller than the two previous entries. It features a strong supporting cast with William H. Macy, Tea Leoni, Alessandro Nivola, Trevor Morgan and Michael Jeter. Don Davis scored the film with John Williams composing his Jurassic Park theme. The script by Peter Buchman, Alexander Payne (“Downsizing”), and Jim Taylor focuses on a family looking for their lost child on the original Site A, Isla Nublar.

I was unkind to this film when it first came out. The story lacked the same pizzazz and grandeur that marked the first two. The characters were also so very transparent, making them less effective. The story does do a good job of containing itself to the island again, instead of trekking off. There’s an ongoing gag throughout the film about a missing satellite phone and Sam Neill’s presence in the film strengthens the adventurous nature of the story.

2015 saw a reboot of the series with Colin Trevorrow’s “Jurassic World”. I have a more extensive review of the film over on my website, The Movie Revue if you care to indulge. In fact, it was one of my first attempts at a professional review.

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The film, featuring Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard is a CGI spectacle where the effects are the story.  Vincent D’Onofrio, B.D. Wong, Irrfan Khan, Ty Simpkins and Nick Robinson co-star. Mr. Trevorrow co-wrote the screenplay with Derek Connolly, Rick Jaffa, and Amanda Silver (story by Jaffa and Silver). Their story has some interesting ideas that aren’t really expanded upon. Pratt is an adventurer, but his is more brawn. His intelligence is high and he asks the moral questions, but spends most of the film running. I likened him to Indiana Jones, which I don’t think is wrong, but I think it is the wrong character for this type of film. Ms. Howard’s character is frigid and rubbed me the wrong way. I understand why the character is the way she is, but it also felt completely out of place.  There are two bright spots: B.D. Wong’s take on a character he’s been playing for 25 years and the kids. For the first time since the original film, they fit the roles the story had in mind for them. Michael Giancchino offers a solid take on John Williams’s themes.

The film broke opening box office weekend records and went on to become the second highest grossing film of 2015. Audiences wanted this film even if critics didn’t agree and I get it. There’s something compelling about huge monsters fighting one another or the chills we get when a dinosaur threatens our characters.

As I said, I am your a-typical kid (at heart). I am not a huge fan of monsters (though they’re growing on me) so I am not necessarily the target audience for the modern “Jurassic” films. It is the characters and the stories that interest me, particularly the first film 25 years ago.

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“Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom,” the latest film in the series is now playing at a theater near you. While I am not a fan of it, it is the perfect summer popcorn film and it will eat audiences up.

Do you have a favorite “Jurassic” film? Sound off on our Facebook or Twitter page. We’d love to hear from you.

Ten Nice Movies - Part Three by Jeff Mitchell

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“Ten (More) Nice Movies – Part 3”

 

In celebration of “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” (4/4 stars), the wonderful and sentimental Fred Rogers documentary, this is the final week of the Phoenix Film Festival’s three-part series to recognize nice films.

 

This article includes a few well-known domestic films and many international pictures as well, because nice movies are a universal art.

 

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“Babe” (1995) – Narrated by Roscoe Lee Browne and three field mice, “Babe” is the story about a naïve, sensitive pig who tries to find a purpose on a quaint and beautiful sheep farm.  One day, however, poor Babe (Christine Cavanaugh) discovers that a pig’s job is to eventually become bacon, sausage, pork chops, and/or ham, but this sweet little orphan might discover another date with destiny.  James Cromwell stars as farmer Arthur H. Hoggett, and his animals – with speaking parts – act as his costars, including a border collie (Miriam Margolyes) who Babe calls Mom.  Sure, director Chris Noonan’s film includes a few syrupy moments that will not work for all adults, but stay with the movie until the end, because this little piggy is a worthy equal to Wilbur from “Charlotte’s Web” (1973).   

 

 

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“Babette’s Feast” (1987) – Director Gabriel Axel’s picture – which won 1988’s Best Foreign Language Film Oscar – plays like a tranquil, but otherworldly, fable.  In a tiny, Danish seaside village during the 19th century, overcast skies always loom over this community of gray homes, and the residents match their houses (and the weather) by sporting gray, green and black textiles.  The locals hardly ever experience surprises.  That includes two elderly sisters, Filippa (Bodil Kjer) and Martine (Birgitte Federspiel), with one exception.  Despite their meager income, they employ a French maid named Babette (Stephane Audran) who also lives under their roof.  Babette is a welcome outsider, but the sisters suddenly feel very uneasy, when she wishes to cook an elaborate French dinner.  In turn, this subtle and quiet tale offers plenty of food for thought.

 

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“Big” (1988) – Zoltar says, “Make your wish.”  That’s all it takes for 12-year-old Josh Baskin, when he steps up to a Zoltar Speaks machine at a local fair and wishes to be big!  The next morning, Josh wakes up with an adult body.  Specifically, he becomes a 32-year-old Tom Hanks.  With all the switcheroo/body swap movies (“Freaky Friday” (1976), “All of Me” (1984), “Like Father, Like Son” (1987), “13 Going on 30” (2004), and many more) out there in Movieland, director Penny Marshall’s “Big” probably stands the tallest.  Hanks’s comedic gifts are on full display throughout the picture, but especially when he struggles to fit into his kid pants, eats Oreos while watching “The French Connection” (1971), nibbles on a miniature corn on the cob, and dances on large piano keys with Robert Loggia in the famous FAO Schwarz scene.  While Hanks holds court as the most authentic corporate vice-president in MacMillan Toys history, Elizabeth Perkins plays his perfect cinematic partner, a jaded executive who lets down her guard around this playful and youthful adult.  Will he stay big forever?  It’s up to Zoltar. 

 

 

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“Children of Heaven” (1997) – Some women really love shoes, but a little girl named Zahra (Bahare Seddiqi) desperately needs a pair.  Her brother Ali (Amir Farrokh Hashemian) took her damaged pink shoes to the cobbler but lost them afterwards.  It was not his fault, but this misstep causes a chain reaction of problems inside and outside their home in Tehran.  Nominated for a 1999 Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, writer/director Majid Majidi does not overcomplicate his movie.  It centers around the siblings who share Ali’s sneakers, and they easily spur audience sympathy by exhibiting wide swings of emotion.  Just when one becomes accustomed to the humble environment of twisty, urban sidewalks, Majidi sends his cameras into entirely different visual spaces and emotional tones.  Hey, when a pair of shoes are a stake…

 

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“Eat Drink Man Woman” (1994) –  Master chef Chu (Sihung Lung) lost his sense of taste, but not his penchant for worrying about his three grown daughters - Jia-Chien (Chien-Lien Wu), Jia-Jen (Kuei-Mei Yang) and Jia-Ning (Yu-Wen Wang) - nor his talent for whipping up downright fabulous meals in the kitchen.  Director/co-writer Ang Lee celebrates the art of cooking, but he mainly follows the women’s individual journeys and their collective relationship with their father.  Lee’s movie – nominated for a 1995 Best Foreign Language Film Oscar - rarely features the sisters on-camera together, and instead, they each attempt to find love via separate and very distinct approaches.  Lee and co-writers James Schamus and Hui-Ling Wang pen twists along the way, which will leave audiences guessing how family and Taiwanese cuisine will connect in the end.   

 

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“Father of the Bride” (1991) – Steve Martin is hilarious as George Banks, an infinitely stressed father whose little girl has grown to a 22-year-old woman (Kimberly Williams-Paisley)…and is now engaged!  Engaged?  How did 22 years fly by so quickly, and who is this guy?  Amid coping with losing his daughter, George realizes that Annie’s (Williams-Paisley) wedding will cost a fortune.   Director Charles Shyer’s film falls into familiar suburban clichés, but Martin’s performance – filled with constant trepidation - carries the picture from beginning to end.  Fathers everywhere will relate to George’s frequent flashbacks, but no one will exactly sync up with an eccentric wedding coordinator played by Martin Short, Martin’s “Three Amigos” (1986) co-star.  Coordinate your schedules to look back at this comical and gentle 90’s classic that fits into any era. 

 

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“Good Bye, Lenin!” (2003) – The time and place – 1989 Berlin – is absolutely essential for director Wolfgang Becker’s exceedingly inventive comedy/drama.  The Berlin Wall came tumbling down on November 9, and it brought Germany together tangibly.  Emotionally?  Well, that came later.  Early 20-something Alex (Daniel Bruhl) is truly hoping that his mother (Katrin Sab) refrains from emotions.  Mutter (Sab) – an East German loyalist - does not know that the Wall fell (for reasons that will not be revealed in this article), and for her health, Alex dives into several schemes to keep her in the dark.  Filled with several surprises and many mentions of Spreewald pickles, Becker’s picture will constantly entertain, act as a history lesson and prompt deep sentiment.  With some scenes of brief nudity and more instances of cursing (in German, of course), “Good Bye, Lenin!” may not exactly be classified as a nice movie, but Alex’s heartfelt devotion to his mother is more than memorable.

 

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“The Concert” (2009) – Sometimes, life presents opportunities for second chances, and director Radu Mihaileanu’s offbeat story features a most worthy one.  In “The Concert”, Andrey Filipov (Aleksey Guskov) has been looking for a second chance for 30 years.  Andrey currently works as a janitor for the famed Russian orchestra The Bolshoi, but he once led the company as a conductor.  His career fell apart, but fate gives him the possibility to finish some personal business from three decades ago.  Andrey and his best friend Sasha (Dmitriy Nazarov) attempt to recruit the old gang and a brilliant, young violinist (Melanie Laurent) to play for one night in Paris.  Not every single visual gag or bit of slapstick comedy completely registers, but set aside this small quibble for a moving third act.   

 

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“Waking Ned Devine” (1998) –  In the little Irish town of Tullymore (population: 52), someone won the national lottery!  But who?  Jackie (Ian Bannen) did not strike gold, but he hopes that the lucky ticket holder will share some of the winnings with him!  Sure, why not?  In writer/director Kirk Jones’s wonderful charmer, Jackie recruits his best friend Michael (David Kelly) to help acquire a portion of the money, but they step into knotty complications.  Jones bathes the screen with Ireland’s cultural riches (even though he filmed his movie on the Isle of Man) and many notable characters, led by Jackie and Michael, naturally.  Speaking of which, Jackie’s wife Annie (Fionnula Flanagan) ironically refers to these two 60-somethings as “the boys”, but this film does not drag on for 60 years.  Quite the opposite, it zips by at 91 minutes, and in the end, you will feel like a million bucks!

 

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“Winged Migration” (2001) –  “For 80 million years, birds have ruled the skies, seas and earth.  Each spring, they fly vast distances.  Each fall, they fly the same routes back.”  These words mark the opening of directors Jacques Perrin’s, Jacques Cluzaud’s and Michel Debats’s remarkable movie.  The aforementioned filmmakers spent three years on all seven continents following the migratory paths of countless types of birds, and in the process, their work helps translate 80 million years of instinct into an 85-minute documentary.  Perrin, Cluzaud and Debats capture closeups of greylag geese, sandhill cranes, bald eagles, and many, many more birds in flight that will send you into dreamlike trances of fanciful, majestic beauty and the realization of their incredible hardships.  This Oscar-nominated doc should really be experienced in an IMAX theatre, but a big screen television will fly as well.

 

 

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.

 

Tag - Movie Review by Ben Cahlamer

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Tag

 

Director: Jeff Tomsic

Starring:  Jeremy Renner, Ed Helms, Hannibal Buress, Jake Johnson, Annabelle Wallis, Rashida Jones and Jon Hamm

 

Anyone who knows me, knows that I really don’t like the kind of surprises where someone jumps out from underneath a desk or from behind a wall. I’m liable to scream like a little girl if that happens. Yet, I find myself smiling, even snickering at the thought of five friends who have managed to play a game of tag for most of their adult lives.

And that’s just for starters. Jeff Tomsic’s feature film debut, “Tag” is ostensibly about finding the inner kid and hanging on to it for as long as you can.

Based on a Wall Street Journal news article, It Takes Planning, Caution to Avoid Being It by Russell Adams, Mark Steilen and Rob McKitrick tell the story of five guys who have drifted apart over the years. And even though they have their own lives, they still manage to find time to play the game one month every year.

Ed Helms is “Hoagie,” the ring leader of sorts. He is an absolute hoot to be around, but he’s also very seriously devoted to this game. Jon Hamm plays Bob Callahan, a successful business executive. You’d never know it, but he’s a bigger kid than “Hoagie”. That’s Hamm’s gift: he can tap into his inner child very quickly, but revert to ‘serious’ very quickly. Jake Johnson plays “Chili.” Chili is the biggest child of the entire group, but that’s what makes him so loveable. Hannibal Buress plays Kevin Sable. I related the most to Kevin because “I’m that guy.” Once you get Kevin warmed up though, his head is in the game.

The story is based on a 2013 WSJ article about the real-life group of five guys. I understand that names have been changed, which makes their story all the more interesting, including the role of the reporter. Not to be outclassed, the female characters in this film are an absolute riot. Annabelle Wallis plays the WSJ reporter, Rebecca Crosby. Tomsic, McKitrick and Steilien weaved her character throughout the story. Isla Fisher is an absolute riot as Hoagie’s wife, Anna. Rashida Jones plays Cheryl Deakins a love interest for two of our fellas. Her interactions with both Hamm and Johnson are too good to mention here.

You might be wondering right about now why I haven’t yet mentioned Jeremy Renner who plays Jerry Pierce. See, Jerry is the one member of the group who has never been tagged. If you’ve seen the trailer, you’re already aware of this. It’s the level of physicality that Renner brings to this role, along with the twinkle in his eye that tells us that we’re in for a real treat. I understand that he broke something on both arms during the production and still managed to salvage a shot. Leslie Bibb is his fiancée, Susan. Keep an eye on her character.

Now in theaters, Warner Brothers is on a roll with their comedies this year. Much like “Game Night,” “Tag” is the right type of summer programming that audiences need. It will be interesting to see how well it plays against “Incredibles 2” which also opens this weekend.

3.5 out of 4 stars

Incredibles 2 - Movie Review by Monte Yazzie

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Incredibles 2

 

Director: Brad Bird

Starring: Craig T. Nelson, Holly Hunter, Sarah Vowell, Huck Milner, Catherine Keener, Sophia Bush, and Samuel L. Jackson

 

In the age of superhero overload it’s interesting to remember that 14 years ago one of the best superhero films was the animated Disney Pixar film “The Incredibles”. Before Marvel’s venture into the comic book franchise, the superfamily lead by husband and wife partners Mr. Incredible and Elastigirl was the best version of The Fantastic Four cinema had seen, in fact they still are.

 

Director Brad Bird, who made his foray into Pixar’s animation fold with “The Incredibles”, returns to continue the saga with the sequel. Picking up almost immediately following the events in the first film, Mr. Bird easily loops the 14 year gap between the films with beautiful designs and fantastic action in the first few minutes. It’s clear that “Incredibles 2” wants to be entertaining but also follow the flow of the contemporary action designs audiences are more than accustomed with.

 

Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson) and Elastigirl (Holly Hunter) are in hot destructive pursuit of one of the many bad guys in the fantasy 1960’s city they live in. Once the smoke settles, the team is interrogated by the police because of the destruction; the age of superhero is made illegal by the government, forcing the crime fighting family into hiding. It doesn't take long for a nostalgia driven businessman to make room on his roster for the husband and wife team to put their masks and tights back on to promote a changing of the tide for the supers. However, only one is needed and Elastigirl is given the spotlight while Mr. Incredible is forced to stay home and take care of the family.

 

14 years of time hasn’t stopped the advancement of technology, which is evident from the first frame of this film. The design is impeccable; the shiny suits, the close-up textures of characters faces, and the action set pieces are amazing to look at. You’d almost want the movie to move a little slower just so that your eyes can draw in the rich details.

 

Director and writer Brad Bird fashions “Incredibles 2” in the vein of other superhero films with a balance of the necessary amount of exposition and amusing action sequences that break everything up. The revisit to these characters is still quite interesting to watch; Mr. Incredible is begrudgingly tasked with being the family man while Elastigirl is provided room to shine as the lead superhero, and the kids continue to encounter the growth that comes with adolescence. Young Jack Jack (Eli Fucile) steals the show as a growing infant who displays numerous humorous abilities; Dash (Huck Milner) and Violet (Sarah Vowell) are each going through the growing pains as well. The chemistry of the kids is very fun.

 

Still, the narrative suffers a little bit from wanting to introduce too much into the details. At 2 hours long, the film moves swiftly in some ways but stalls to a crawl in other ways. When details about feminism, family, and empowerment make an appearance, the film glows with character but when issues concerning the government’s involvement and the spousal miscommunications that happen between the couple, the film loses traction. While it’s all good stuff to discuss, some of the topics become lost in the mix of it all, overshadowed by stronger emotions and the continuous push for action.

 

“Incredibles 2”, after being gone for some time, feels a little late to the superhero party in some ways. Still, the action and characters are top tier, making it fun to go on the adventure. And even amidst some minor hiccups, the film has lots of heart and displays a great message about the superhero strength found within the family dynamic.

 

Monte’s Rating

3.50 out of 5.00