Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald - Movie Review by Monte Yazzie

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Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald

 

Director: David Yates

Starring: Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler, Alison Sudol, Claudia Kim, Ezra Miller, Zoë Kravitz, Johnny Depp, and Jude Law

 

“You’ve never met a monster you couldn’t love.” This sentiment, proclaimed during a titular scene in the continuing wizard saga “Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald”, is the perfect description for the film and its author/screenwriter J.K. Rowling. This sequel is a monster, a rapturous beast that devours scenery without much rhyme or reason with its abundance of ideas. You can also feel its creators undying admiration and love for the material and characters. Regardless of how unwieldy and overstuffed the film becomes with its shifting plot elements, drifting characters, and magical creatures, it’s clear Ms. Rowling has generated one monster of a movie.

 

Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) trains, collects, and cares for magical creatures of varying size and magical specialty. Newt, when we last ventured with him, had just thwarted a plan from a powerful wizard, Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp), who was trying to engage war and chaos between the non-magic world and the magic world. Grindelwald, while being transferred from the United States to Europe to stand trial for his crimes, escapes and reignites his plot to form a world ruled by pure blood wizards. It is up to Newt and his pals to fight this evil force once again.

 

Director David Yates continues to mold his aesthetic over every frame of the film, creating an environment that clearly exists within the structure Mr. Yates has already established during his run with the Harry Potter franchise. With its 1920’s style, deep black and dreary gray visual palette, and flashy special effects laden action, “Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald” is a fun film to look at, especially when it unleashes all manner of beasts all over the screen. One scene involving a monster that can only be described as a Chinese New Year dragon, provides the fierce yet cute factor that has come to describe most monsters within the wizarding world established by J.K. Rowling.

 

While the film is constantly trying to connect viewers to the sentiments felt during the Harry Potter films, we are provided a visit back to Hogwarts and the inclusion of an old friend Albus Dumbledore played by Jude Law, the journey here feels more convoluted and purposefully mysterious. The questions asked during the first film are not any closer to being answered, instead we are provided with more questions and more mysteries needing to be solved. The awe and wonder of the magic spells and enchanted beings typically found within this world feels more ornamental here, a backdrop that will step in when needed to introduce a new character subplot or fill a quick narrative plot hole. The excitement and tension of spell casting, with wands at the ready, now feels like the simple mumbling and whispering of words.

 

However, what hurts this film most is its need to expand the universe and engage in more material to elongate this story. Grindelwald, introduced in the final moments of the first film, is slowly rising to power with new followers and new plans that center on a powerful character with an unknown origin. Romantic storylines take greater shape with the primary characters, centering on love lost and love discovered. New characters are introduced and are featured heavily within the main story of the film, adding complications to themes associated with the past and directly influencing matters of the future. And within all of this is the story of Newt and his fantastic beasts; it’s a lot to handle and direct in one film. You can sense early that more sequels will be needed to complete the story loops. It makes it hard to find perspective with a piece of work if you are only given the frame to work with, the vessel that would transport characters from one solution to another is never present with the film.

 

“Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald” still has some great characters that shine when given the opportunity. Eddie Redmayne is awkward and indecisive in very charming ways and Katherine Waterston does a great job of playing off Redmayne’s strangeness as the the head strong love interest. Johnny Depp plays the villain here, and while there is nothing wrong with the performance, the character of Grindelwald just never feels threatening in the composition of everything happening.

 

David Yates and J.K. Rowling clearly understand that this franchise will need more time, more characters, and more fantastic beasts to find its closure. And while, when it’s all said and done, we may look back and see how this film piece fits into the whole puzzle, currently it’s easier to find the crimes than the fantastic with this film.

 

Monte’s Rating

2.50 out of 5.00

 

 

 

Widows - Movie Review by Ben Cahlamer

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Widows

 

Directed by Steve McQueen

Screenplay by Gillian Flynn and Steve McQueen

Based on “Widows” by Lynda La Plante

Starring Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki, Cynthia Erivo, Brian Tyree Henry, Daniel Kaluuya, Robert Duvall, Liam Neeson

 

Whatever you think Steve McQueen’s “Widows” is about, throw your notions out the door before you enter the theater. McQueen’s ultra slick heist film is much more than a heist; it’s a deeply layered story with magnetic performances from its stellar cast, including Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki and Cynthia Eviro.

A job has gone bad and Harry Rawlings (Liam Neeson) and his crew are dead, leaving their widows with absolutely nothing, but a reputation. As the screenplay from Gillian Flynn and McQueen builds, we learn that there was more to the heist than met the eye; a lot of hands are in the pie, including two alderman who are fighting for their jobs, one an established politician, Jack Mulligan (Collin Farrell) and the other a crime boss turned politician, Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry).

When Veronica Rawlings (Viola Davis) discovers something left behind from Harry, she is threatened by a local enforcer, Jatemme Manning (Daniel Kaluuya). Undeterred, she sets out to take back what’s rightfully hers.

The beauty in McQueen’s story is not just in the casting, but in the way the story is told. This might be blasphemy, but the best way to describe this story to your friends is “The Counselor” meets “Heat.” The story is layered with so much detail, and surprise that you never know what’s going to come out of the next corner.

Viola Davis is very nearly a national treasure. She has the ability to just turn in to an emotionless being, but behind the eyes, there’s a level of intelligence that just leaps through the screen; she is calculating every move. Cynthia Erivo, who amazed audiences with her silky voice in “Bad Times at the El Royale” is on fire here as Belle. Michelle Rodriguez is Linda. She’s as tough as they come, but she has a softer, more humane side to her here. Elizabeth Debicki as Alice is the unknown card here and it is something the story thrives on though I won’t say why here. Let’s just say that the four of them make for a formidable team in any situation.

Of the supporting cast, Daniel Kaluuya was relentless and I liked that harder edge to him. He was threatening and charming at the same time. Brian Tyree Henry played a politician to the hilt as he balances his underworld dealings with his political stripes and in Chicago, I get this feeling that there isn’t much difference between the two worlds. Colin Farrell is a firecracker with an axe to grind as Jack Mulligan. The biggest aspect to his character is the fact that he’s living under his father, Tom’s shadow. Jack wants to be his own boss, but the elder Mulligan, played by Robert Duvall has other ideas.

The fact that the production shot on location in Chicago lends a nice authenticity to the film as Chicago becomes as much a character of the film as the actors. Flynn and McQueen never make the team’s job easy and I think that’s the film’s strength: as much as we want to see the mystery solved, we enjoy the ride in getting there. The cast and the story are so very strong that “Widows” would very easily make my Top 10 of 2018 if tomorrow was the end of the year.

4 out of 4 stars.

 

The Front Runner - Movie Review by Ben Cahlamer

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The Front Runner

 

Directed by Jason Reitman

Screenplay by Matt Bai, Jason Reitman, Jay Carons

Based on “All the Truth is Out: The Week Politics Went Tabloid” by Matt Bai

Starring Hugh Jackman, Vera Farmiga, J. K. Simmons, Alfred Molina

 

The year is 1988. I was in seventh grade when Colorado Senator Gary Hart announced his presidential campaign. I was more interested in ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation’ than I was about a presidential election because I was too young to appreciate that particular race and the time I lived in. The Soviet Union was on the brink of collapse and Reagan was making his overtures to Gorbachev as they sued for peace.

At the same time, Gary Hart (Hugh Jackman) was running an honest campaign. He was squeaky clean as far as the media was concerned and that’s because the mainstream media wasn’t interest in sensationalist press; we weren’t yet on the 24 by 7 news cycle just yet. But, when the Miami Herald gets wind of gossip that could affect Hart’s campaign, the birth of politics gone tabloid is born.

Let me get this out of the way: “The Front Runner” is a very awkward film. It starts with the characterization of Hart. He’s the All-American candidate with a wife and a daughter; he keeps his skeletons in the closet and away from the media. The problem is that Hart is a static character. He’s so overprotective of his privacy because he doesn’t believe that it is the media’s business what he does, but at the same time, he encourages reporters to follow him, goading them.

Jackman’s performance was fine. He transitions from lumberjack to politician to family man just fine. He gets angry, but it is without much aggression as if the games he’s playing are funny. I was waiting for the metal claws to come out whenever we see Hart get upset, but instead it’s a steady, even-keeled and bland performance.

Vera Farmiga, on the other hand, delivers a heart-wrenching performance as his wife, Lee. When the news breaks about her husband’s indiscretions, she isolates herself to avoid the press and the pressure on their daughter, Andrea (Kaitlyn Dever). To get her aggressions out, she plays the piano, violently. There was a dignity about her musical performance and to Farmiga’s credit, that is her playing the piano. This was part of the genius of Reitman’s direction: where we couldn’t get much emotional range out of Jackman, we got it in spades from the other members of the cast, including J. K. Simmons in yet another brilliant turn as Bill Dixon, Hart’s chief of staff. He is responsible for cleaning up the mess left behind by the scandal. When Hart won’t talk to reporters, Simmons’s temper just leaps off the screen; it’s sublime.

There was an ongoing gag between Hart and a Washington Post reporter, AJ Parker played by Mamoudou Athie in which Hart encourages Parker to read “War and Peace,” which is meant to be symbolic of their relationship. Athie’s performance is very strong for such a young actor; the trouble is that the story thread just trails off.

The story by Reitman, Jay Carons and Matt Bai, based on Bai’s novel, attempts to tackle a number of issues, but never fully explores them over the course of the film. The political aspects of the story read “Aaron Sorkin,” but don’t play like it because we’re stuck on protecting Hart from the tragedy of his own life. The story foretells so many truths about our reality today that it was painful because it was awkward. It couldn’t be funny and it couldn’t be dramatic; both emotions were incongruous to the story trying to be told.

There are some solid ideas worth exploring in “The Front Runner.” It’s too bad that the sensationalism it tries so hard to avoid ends up cannibalizing itself.

1.5 out of 4 stars

A Private War - Movie Review by Ben Cahlamer

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A Private War

 

Directed by Matthew Heineman

Written by Arash Amel

Based on “Marie Colvin’s Private War” by Marie Brenner

Starring Rosamund Pike, Jamie Dornan, Tom Hollander, Stanley Tucci

 

Each of us have a purpose on this planet. That’s not a spiritual manifesto, but rather a fact. These facts can be derived from our own experiences; the passion, the joy, the desire, the need to be driven towards a destiny. For Sunday Times reporter Marie Colvin (Rosamund Pike), she was driven to report on the humans who are stuck behind enemy lines, behind the lies that governments tell the media.

She wasn’t about the story as she was about uncovering the truth. And, she did it in the most hellacious places on Earth.

Based on the Vanity Fair article, “Marie Colvin’s Private War,” documentarian turned feature film director Matthew Heineman paints the drive and determination that fueled the reporter and Rosamund Pike embodied her in an Oscar-worthy performance.

The film opens in reverse. We know her destiny. Heineman spends the rest of the film working our way forward, from Sri Lanka in 2001 where she lost eyesight in her left eye due to an RPG blast. As an audience, we knew what kind of individual Colvin was and we knew we were going to get dirty throughout the next two hours.

It is Pike’s performance that reminds us of the sacrifice she was willing to make to get the stories told that needed to be told. An American by birth, she kept her head low and she dug in, taking risks where she needed to. There’s a scene in an Army base where she meets Paul Conroy (Jamie Dornan). As they start talking to each other, you can hear in the background how many restrictions were being placed on press by the military. Once the soiree breaks up, Norm Coburn (Corey Johnson) comes up to her and they talk about the barricades that were just erected. Both know, and convey to us that their experience would dictate which way they went and that’s why Colvin was drawn to Conroy; they worked well together.

Heineman shot the film on location in Jordan and in London, creating an authentic feel to the war torn regions that Colvin visited that lends credibility to the production. It also demonstrates her mental state, something the story reflects very heavily on. Whether she is attending an awards banquet with her ex-husband in tow or she is having lunch and drinks with her editor, Sean Ryan (Tom Hollander), we can see that she is as tormented as the lands and the people she writes about.

Her fate was as shocking as her life and Heineman and his team were respectful of that and his experience as a documentarian served him well in this film. His “City of Ghosts” last year is every bit as riveting as his film here; I felt like I was watching a documentary with interpretations of Colvin’s downtime fitted in just perfectly, but that wasn’t the case. Everything made sense and that’s a tribute to Pike’s performance.

Even as we’re rooting for her, there’s a nagging feeling at the base of your neck that we can’t shake. That was one of the drawbacks of the film: we get location title cards throughout the film by way of countdown. While I appreciated knowing where we were, I didn’t need a countdown to the inevitable; it wears on us as an audience. I also felt that her relationship to Tony Shaw (Stanley Tucci) was underutilized. I appreciated the fact that he was someone who could get through to her, but even that story thread overstayed its welcome and not because of Tucci’s performance; he lights up any movie he’s in.

“A Private War,” which opens in theaters today is a timely and important film which propels us in to the internal struggles of a woman who was driven to tell the world of external struggles. Pike’s performance really sets this film apart from others.

3.25 out of 4 stars

  

Instant Family - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

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Byrne, Wahlberg and ‘Instant Family’ earn a group hug

 

Directed by:  Sean Anders

Written by:  Sean Anders and John Morris

Starring:  Mark Wahlberg, Rose Byrne, Octavia Spencer, Tig Notaro, Isabela Moner, Gustavo Quiroz, and Julianna Gamez

 

“Instant Family” - “I looked on child rearing, not only as a work of love and duty, but as a profession that was fully as interesting and challenging as any honorable profession in the world, and one that demanded the best that I could bring to it.” – Rose Kennedy

 

“Everyone should have kids.  They are the greatest joy in the world.  But they are also terrorists.  You’ll realize this as soon as they are born, and they use sleep deprivation to break you.” – Ray Romano    

 

Writer/director Sean Anders and writer John Morris penned “Hot Tub Time Machine” (2010), “We’re the Millers” (2013) and “Horrible Bosses 2” (2014), but they move into lighter, family-friendlier tones with their new movie “Instant Family” and with good reason.  The film is loosely-based on Anders’ life, as Mark Wahlberg and Rose Byrne play a successful, childless couple who decide to adopt three kids. 

 

Anders’ personal film is a touching, sweet concoction of unconditional parental love but heavily seasoned with the authentic trauma of raising children.  At times, Pete’s (Wahlberg) and Ellie’s (Byrne) anxiety runs painfully thick, due to the abrupt change from their relatively carefree dual-income-no-kids existence to a confusing maelstrom of self-doubt and repeated rejection.

 

Ellie thought about having kids for a while, but their immediate leap into parenthood begins, when she explores an adoption website.  She sheds some tears, and Pete feels the same way but questions their aptitude for the job.   

 

“Ellie, people who take in foster kids are really special…the kind of people who volunteer, when it’s not even a holiday.  We don’t even volunteer on a holiday,” he says.

 

After visiting an adoption agency (managed by familiar faces Octavia Spencer and Tig Notaro) and a family-picnic day, Pete and Ellie decide to adopt Lizzy (Isabela Moner), but she’s has two younger siblings Juan (Gustavo Quiroz) and Lita (Julianna Gamiz).  So, they adopt three kids which massively increases their responsibility.

 

Like signing up for a 5K but deciding to run a marathon…on race day!  Pete and Ellie, however, embrace their long haul-decision with love and yes…fear. 

 

Admittedly, the overall story arc does follow a very predictable track, one that could be recited while half-asleep during a lazy Sunday afternoon on the couch, as Pete, Ellie, Lizzy, Juan, and Lita feel content and eager about their joyous beginnings, but inevitable adjustments and conflict soon arise.  Lizzy and Lita engage in demonstrative outbursts, while Juan’s accident-prone proclivity becomes his struggle.  Perhaps, the film is simply balancing cantankerous behavior with slapstick, but Juan’s frequent mishaps become tiresome for Pete and Ellie, as well as the audience. 

 

Still, the kids, Pete and Ellie are an awfully likable bunch, as waves of good intentions can easily win one over throughout the 119-minute runtime.  Even though the ups and downs feel lightweight, Anders purposely includes weighty messages, including a staggering statistic that 500,000 U.S. kids are in foster care today.  He devotes substantial on-screen minutes to the inherent struggles of foster care, including teens who age out of the system and supply vs. demand issues.  Spencer and Notaro, however, help bridge these problematic realities with frequent witty moments.  Other prospective parents lighten the mood too, including a single mom who seems to be motivated – as Ellie notes - by 2009’s “The Blind Side”. 

 

Well, it’s nearly impossible to root against this family, as Wahlberg and Byrne are the film’s driving forces.  Wahlberg is a natural at portraying an inexperienced dad who tries to translate “kid” into a language that he can comprehend, and Byrne beautifully adds a gentle touch balanced with impeccable comedic timing.  Truly, it’s hard to imagine a better fit for Ellie than Byrne.  With all due respect to gifted actresses like Sandra Bullock, Kristen Wiig and Elizabeth Banks, Byrne has an inherent soft-spoken vulnerability mixed with a resolute depth that is a perfect blend for Ellie’s step into motherhood.  Although both parents eagerly reach for bonds with the children, Ellie’s exploration is the film’s soul.  

 

Bryne’s performance, her chemistry with Wahlberg and the film’s adoption-exploration - with both amusing and honest tones - earn a group hug.

(2.5/4 stars)

 

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

Green Book - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

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‘Green Book’ is destined for golden nominations

Directed by:  Peter Farrelly

Written by:  Peter Farrelly, Nick Vallelonga and Brian Hayes Currie

Starring:  Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali

 

“Green Book” – “When growing up, I saw segregation.  I saw racial discrimination.  I saw those signs that said white men, colored men, white women, colored women…and I didn’t like it.” – U.S. Congressman John Lewis – GA (D), during a Nov. 16, 2016 interview with NPR’s Terry Gross

During the same interview, Lewis reflected on his childhood during the 40’s and 50’s, when segregation was everywhere, and he asked his parents, “Why?”

Lewis said that they just responded, “That’s the way it is.”

Set in 1962, Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), a renowned concert pianist living in New York City - who is black - knows how the south is too, but he wants embark on a music tour with his bass player and cellist in the aforementioned part of the country anyway.

He just needs a driver and hires Tony Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen), otherwise known as Tony Lip.  Tony is a hard-hitting bouncer with a crass and limited vocabulary, and usually employs a huge appetite.  He'll jump into an all-you-can-eat hot dog contest without a second thought.  He, unfortunately, displays racism in one key scene, but he loves his wife Dolores (Linda Cardellini) and their kids, and makes a decent living.  Tony’s club, however, suddenly closes, and he needs a job.  Now he works for Dr. Shirley!  Dr. Shirley - who Tony refers to as “Doc” - is a sophisticated socialite, and with Tony’s burly persona, these two polar opposites head into a buddy film that feels like a cross between “Midnight Run” (1988) and “Driving Miss Daisy” (1989).

The picture’s central premise dives into unpleasant institutional prejudice, and it covers plenty of uncomfortable and unethical moments, but it also works as a warm and sometimes riotous comedy due to Mortensen’s and Ali’s individual performances and their overflowing chemistry.  Instead of the conflicting tones falling into audience distraction, Tony's and Doc's moments of colloquial comedy bring frequent relief to their adverse environment.

Now, Tony has walked through life - for 40-some years – completely unaware of his social liabilities, but what he lacks in grace, he fills with candor.  He’s a freewheeling social conversationalist who fits perfectly within his local circles but figuratively bumps into roadblocks when strolling with posh crowds.  For instance, he spits out a fancy hord d’oeuvre at a nice reception, and again, without a second thought.

You see, Tony would much rather grab a bucket of takeout KFC.

His everyman persona is part of his charm, but another is his Teflon exterior to shake off (or sometimes not even notice) verbal slights or jabs.  While Doc regularly points out Tony’s unsophisticated practices – such as throwing out a paper cup from of a moving car – he never takes offense.

He usually just continues unfettered with his day, but yes, he does absorb Doc’s advice, like, “You can do better, Mr. Vallelonga.”

Doc and Tony might come from opposite worlds, but their differences do not escalate, and surface-level discourse never becomes irreversibly offensive to one another.  Since, they are a united two-person team, the audience doesn’t feel negative about their back-and-forth disagreements, and the picture organically presents these moments as opportunities for growth.

Doc and Tony are also united against segregation throughout their stops in Memphis, Little Rock, Macon, and more, and their journey also opens Mr. Lip’s eyes.  In turn, Doc’s sees in new ways too and directly because of Tony.  Your eyes may also open, when discovering who directed this celluloid blend of life lessons and flat-out hilarious comedy.

“Dumb and Dumber” (1994) director Peter Farrelly.

Sure, Farrelly knows humor, but he takes a leap into more mature spaces and provokes plenty of laughs without diving into gimmicks, which is his usual trademark (i.e. “Shallow Hal” (2001) or “Stuck on You” (2003)).

Instead, he embraces this pair during their somewhat-dubious voyage - via an automobile and asphalt - and in the process, Farrelly will surely earn himself a Golden Globe – Best Picture (Musical or Comedy) nomination, and Mortensen and Ali are destined for Golden Globe - Best Actor (Musical or Comedy) nods.  His film and the performances are that good, and while Mortensen absolutely transforms into the unrefined Tony, Ali is jaw-dropping masterful on the piano.

Not unlike U.S. Rep. John Lewis, Tony and Doc cannot stomach practices in the deep south either, but what about each other?  Well, let’s just say that you don’t need to bring a smile to the movie theatre, because yours will repeatedly and warmly appear during your golden “Green Book” experience.

(3.5/4 stars)

 

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

An interview with an Animation Supervisor of "Ralph Breaks the Internet" by Ben Cahlamer

We had an opportunity to sit down with Michelle Robinson, one of the animation supervisors on the latest Walt Disney animated film “Ralph Breaks the Internet”.

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Character Look Development Supervisor Michelle Robinson and her team were responsible for the texture of the characters and creating hair and fur. We had a chance to discuss the logistics of her role on the film as well as her favorite character. Ms. Robinson has worked on “Pocahontas”, “Bolt”, “Tangled”, “Wreck It Ralph”, and the Academy Award-winning “Frozen”.

 

 

PFF: How many staff people worked on your team through the project?

 

MR: I think when it was the maximum, it was about 12 artists. It ramps up and ramps down.

 

 

PFF: How long were you working on the project?

 

MR: Me personally, a little over two years. Two years and four months.

 

 

PFF: By the time you get to the end, it becomes a labor of love. You don’t want to necessarily let it go.

 

MR: True. There’s so much you pour into it, and you get really, really close to it. It becomes this thing with a really weird, emotional attachment too.

 

 

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PFF: You’re in a process where you get to see the [character] development from beginning to end and to see the completed project. From your team’s perspective, you deal with the textures, the look and the feel of the characters and you have a framework to start with, is that correct?

 

MR: We have a model that has essentially been built with some reference from the art department, usually a 2D drawing or sketch. They may pull some fabric swatches or something and say, “This is what we want the clothing to look like.”  We translate that onto the 3D model.

 

One of the biggest things we do is put on the hair. That’s a really interesting process to go from a drawing to a fully functional hairstyle that then can be passed on and be simmed [simulated], moved, and animated.

 

 

PFF: Do you work on the movement of the hair or with the hair itself and create a static base for future artists to use?

 

MR: We create the static sculpture. We build in an infrastructure that the artists, who do set up the movement, can work with. We work back and forth with them a little. We’ll hand them something and say, “Is this something that will work for you?”

 

We both need to make sure that it works aesthetically but also functionally so that they can make it move and it won’t get all tangled.

 

 

PFF: Very interesting. Were you responsible for any specific characters or did you work on all of them?

 

MR: My role as a supervisor, I’m going to meetings and making sure that the work gets done. I don’t do a whole lot of work on specific characters, but I did do the shark!

 

 

PFF: I’m so glad you said that because that was the one Easter Egg that I picked up in the movie. Were you responsible for that Easter Egg?

 

MR: No, I wasn’t responsible for that, but I’m glad you enjoyed it.

 

 

PFF: The textures are just amazing. There’s a nice dichotomy between the analog and the digital worlds in this film. Did you find that influenced your approach to the way you structured hair or movement or the way your work translated to the characters in either world?

 

MR: We definitely and specifically thought about the look of the characters who inhabit the Internet. We have different classes of characters, the net users with their square heads that look like monitors and the netizens, who were the service sector with the bright, poppy colors. Those were all decisions made to distinguish them, but also to indicate what their roles are. We didn’t want them to be confused with a game character or player or a human.

 

 

PFF: Do you have a favorite character in this movie?

 

MR:  From a visual standpoint, we made a character, Double Dan who represents a kind of a virus. When we started working with the character, he was described as being made of spam who had been dropped on the floor, so he’s made up of dirt and dust. The process of making a character that’s so unappealing is so much fun, because it’s totally not what we do. We’re all about appeal and cute and beautiful. But that guy? That was really fun!

 

We had a blast catching up with Michelle Robinson. Walt Disney’s “Ralph Breaks the Internet” opens on Wednesday, Nov. 21.

An interview with the team behind Instant Family by Jeff Mitchell

Writer/director Sean Anders and writer John Morris have penned plenty of comedies like “Hot Tub Time Machine” (2010), “We’re the Millers” (2013) and “Horrible Bosses 2” (2014), but they strike a different tone with “Instant Family” starring Mark Wahlberg and Rose Byrne.  Pete (Wahlberg) and Ellie (Byrne) decide to adopt three children in Anders’ most family-friendly film to date.  This is also a personal movie for Anders, because he and his wife adopted three kids. 

 

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Sean and John sat down with the Phoenix Film Festival and other movie outlets in a group interview to chat about foster care, incorporating real-life experiences into the script and much more!

 

“Instant Family” arrives in theatres on Friday, Nov. 16. 

 

 

Q:  How did you sell your movie to Mark Wahlberg? 

 

SA:  Obviously, we know Mark from the “Daddy’s Home” (2015, 2017) movies, but (he) gets 15 offers a day.  This movie has a different tone.  I wasn’t sure, if he would do it or not, (but) I sent him an email.  The next morning, I (drove) my kids to flag football, we (arrived) early and nobody was there.  We (sat) in an empty parking lot, and Mark calls, so I jump out of the car.

 

He immediately says, “Hey, I got your email, and I just wanted to call and say, ‘Yes!’”

 

It was amazing.  That doesn’t happen.  Movie stars don’t call you and say, “Yes!”  They call and say, “Oh, it sounds like a really great project.  We should talk about it.”  He started talking to me about (foster care children) that he met over the years, and it was (a subject) that really mattered to him.  I’m so excited, because Mark Wahlberg is doing (the) movie.  Now, (I) got a movie!

 

My kids asked, “What?  What happened?” 

 

I said, “Mark Wahlberg is going to do the adoption movie!”

 

They (responded), “Yea!!!  Who’s Mark Wahlberg?”

 

(Then), my wife calls and says, “You know that flag football is tomorrow, right?” 

 

So, I drove to an empty parking lot, got a “yes” from Mark Wahlberg and drove home.

 

 

Q:  This movie is more personal than your others.  How did the creative process differ, when you are taking stories from your own life?

 

JM:  We spent like two years writing it.  Sean adopted the children, and he would tell me stories about the (adoption) process and everyday things that would happen to the kids.  We then sat down to write the film, and I remembered (those stories).  We rehashed all (those moments), and they wound up in the script.

 

SA:  There was a long research process as well, because we met with social workers and other families.  It is a fictional tale inspired by my own story, but also inspired by (other) families that we met along the way. 

 

It was the same process as “Hot Tub Time Machine” (2010), a really personal, well-researched (project).  You know, I really wanted (the studio) to release (that film) as “Hot Tub Time Machine - Based on the Incredible True Story”, but they wouldn’t do it.

 

 

Q:  The movie mentions that 500,000 kids are in foster care today.  Do you hope that your film will shine a light on foster care and contribute in some way?

 

SA:  Absolutely.  Foster kids are like any other kids.  They need families who have love to give.  I really hope that people (will) come away from the movie with a better depiction of who these kids are.  There have been great movies about foster care, but they tend to reinforce negative ideas about kids in the system.  I’m hoping (to shed) a more positive light on foster kids, and by the way, it’s honest positivity.  My story and the stories of other families who I met - even the ones who have gone through some really rough times - have wonderful, heartfelt, sweet stories to tell.

 

 

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Q:  Rose and Mark thrive in dramas and comedies.  Were there specific moments during the shoot that you really enjoyed?

 

SA:  All of it.  Rose was amazing from the beginning.  Mark and Rose haven’t worked together, and we never worked with (her).  In the first scene, Ellie (Byrne) looks at (foster) kids on a website and proposes the idea (of adoption) to Pete (Wahlberg).  It was an emotional, but funny scene.  In the middle of our very first take, I could hear the crew whispering how good Mark and Rose are together.  Everybody instantly knew that they had really good chemistry.

 

 

Q:  The film highlights a lot of positives about adoption, so John, did you think about becoming a foster parent after working on this film?

 

SA:  You’ve adopted what, 26 kids now?

 

JM:  I have a teenager, and I thought about giving him up for adoption.  It’s funny, when Sean brought up (the idea of adoption), I told him that kids are kids.  Mine are loud, and they’re sticky, and they’re going to break your s***.   If you can deal with that, then you can have kids.  You can have three kids, and it will be fine, but no, I haven’t adopted yet. 

 

SA:  By the way,  I can deal with everything but sticky.  Loud?  Breaking?  That’s fine.  Sticky?  I don’t tolerate sticky.

 

 

Q:  Is “Instant Family” the modern nuclear family?  

 

SA:  I don’t think there is a modern nuclear family.  Family is changing in so many different ways.  I can speak from my own experience.  I met my kids in about the most random way possible with just a phone call.  Within weeks, they were in my house.  I was supposed to be their dad, and they were supposed to be my kids.  You would think that cannot be a recipe for a family, (but) I love my kids like crazy.  They are such great kids! 

 

Many (children grow) up without families and some of the basics that we all take for granted, (so) I really hope that more and more people explore adoption, because, at least in my own experience, it was a wonderful way to start a family.     

 

 

Q:  You have directed four rated-R films, and “Instant Family” is your third PG-13 film, your most family-friendly movie to date.  Will you continue in this direction, or is “Horrible Bosses 3” on the horizon?

 

SA:  We really don’t think in terms of ratings.  John and I both have families.  Our lives are wrapped up in our kids and our day-to-day, so I think that those kinds of stories really interest us.  We are just in that part of our lives. 

 

JM:  NC-17.

 

SA:  Yea, straight up NC-17. 

 

 

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.

Overlord - Movie Review by Monte Yazzie

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Overlord

 

Director: Julius Avery

Starring: Jovan Adepo, Wyatt Russell, Mathilde Ollivier, Pilou Asbaek, and John Magaro

 

A convoy of American war ships and transport planes are traveling on the sea and through the sky with Germany in its sights. It’s the night before D-Day, a billowing cloud of smoke erupts with explosions that illuminate the sky as combat planes fad into the abyss of artillery clouds. A group of soldiers, fresh out of boot camp, nervously wait for their call to parachute into battle. In a blink, bullets riddle the airplane and chaos overtakes the company. The adrenaline fueled, absolutely terrifying, chaos of war.

 

Director Julius Avery and writing team Billy Ray and Mark L. Smith introduce their crossover genre film “Overlord” with an emphasis on real life atrocities and the terror of combat. However, the team also isn’t too concerned with making a full-blown war film but rather focus their attention on crafting a fright fest. “Overlord” utilizes many of the awful aspects of war to make its point about monsters; the captivity, the torture, and the maniacal control make perfect sense when crossing paths with horror.

 

Boyce (Jovan Adepo) and Ford (Wyatt Russell) are two paratroopers who survive the fall to earth after their plane is destroyed over the combat zone. Their mission is to take down a Nazi controlled radio tower that sits atop a hill outside a nearby village. Boyce, trying to connect with other members of his platoon, gets forced into the radio tower station which is completely occupied by Nazi soldiers. Boyce discovers a laboratory beneath the tower where a scientist is conducting terrifying experiments on locals from the village and captured soldiers.

 

“Overlord”, amidst some nasty bits of human experimentation, torture, and assault, is operating to induce the same sensation one might feel while playing an intense round of team deathmatch in a multiplayer first-person video game. And, unfortunately, just like the sporadic and fleeting nature of video game shooters, the thrill is short lived. That’s the major issue with “Overlord”, it seldom commits towards embracing the frenetic and frightening pace it achieves in very small doses, specifically the first and final 15 minutes of the film which are fantastic. It lingers in moments of needless exposition and meaningless side missions, these moments undercut the thrill achieved in the introduction and take away from the building excitement of entering a madhouse of horror.

 

However, when the film unleashes into action sequences, with all of its monster mayhem and breakneck brutality, the film is an absolute crowd pleaser. The intensity of the terror, when it pushes into this realm, is such a good time. It feels like your favorite video game with the gun fights, the exploration and finding of clues inside different environments, and the stalking through dingy tunnels and darkened hiding places. While this technique doesn’t allow for the best character development, there are still a few highlighted performances specifically from lead Jovan Adepo who controls the balance of showing humanity versus turning into the monsters he is fighting. Also, Mathilde Ollivier, playing a French freedom fighter, does a nice job wielding a flame thrower and showing the soldiers she can fight just like them.

 

“Overlord” struggles in finding the path and tone it wants to take, combining the war and horror genre was the best choice here because neither story in this film was strong enough to exist on their own. Still, there are many genre film fans who will find the nearly 2-hour experience entertaining because of its commitment to punishing war violence and gory monsters.

 

Monte’s Rating

3.00 out of 5.00

Boy Erased - Movie Review by Monte Yazzie

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Boy Erased

 

Director: Joel Edgerton

Starring: Lucas Hedges, Russell Crowe, Nicole Kidman, Madelyn Cline, and Joel Edgerton

 

For many of us, the correlation of “erasing” something is in direct reference to righting a mistake, correcting something that didn’t turn out how we perceived. “Boy Erased” is a film exactly about that, though in a far more horrific and inhumane way. What is being “erased” in this film isn’t a mistake on an art project or a misspelled word on a hand-written letter, it’s the identity of a young man who is struggling with his sexuality and the conflicts it has on his faith. The people doing the “erasing” are his parents through a conversion therapy program. “Boy Erased” is a horror film in the most reality driven way.

 

Jared Eamons (Lucas Hedges) is a college student with loving parents who have supported him in every aspect of life. His father Marshall (Russell Crowe) is a car dealership owner and a minister in the local church, his mother Nancy (Nicole Kidman) is a proud wife and even prouder mother. Jared, trying desperately to keep his secret, is forced to come out to his parents. They are not receptive and through guidance from members of their church Jared is sent to the “Love in Action” program, a conversion therapy program.

 

The film is based on the memoir of Garrard Conley and adapted for the screen by Joel Edgerton who also directs and stars in this film. Mr. Edgerton, who proved his skill behind the camera with the 2015 thriller “The Gift”, shapes “Boy Erased” with a jumping narrative that switches from the past into the present. It helps in quickly establishing the key moments that lead to Jared’s stay at “Love in Action”. Unfortunate , here also lies the problem with the film. The aspects of the past that are explored during the film are so neatly packaged that its easy to lose sight of the complications that would exist with a family so committed to their faith that they lose sight of their own son’s physical and mental well-being. Lost is the emotional conflict for the family who aren’t necessarily bad people, Nancy has a few moments of doubt, as they are being guided by the structure and views of their faith and other people who have no connection to Jared.

 

Still, the performances are what transcend the simplistic designs of the character and narrative. Lucas Hedges does a great job of displaying the concerns that exist with his decision of embracing his feelings and committing to a wayward treatment for the comfort of his family structure. Russell Crowe and Nicole Kidman are equally good too; Mr. Crowe offers a convincingly staunch approach to the portrayal and Ms. Kidman does a great job of being the compassionate mother who is skeptical of the entire process but is bound to the hierarchy that exists within her religious foundation. Joel Edgerton plays the leader of the therapy center, it’s a character who epitomizes the hatred that exists with those who are unwilling to accept people regardless of their differences.

 

“Boy Erased” has some truly disturbing and troubling moments, a scene of sexual assault and the abandonment seen in Jared’s eyes when he reveals his feelings to his family are completely heartrending. Joel Edgerton never tries to sensationalize the drama during this film, instead, the director quietly guides the viewer into the situation and diverts from the perils that may exist along the way. The film makes a point about the terrible things that happen every day in America, both inside terror facilities like conversion therapy clinics but also the misfortune that enters the home with parents and friends who are unaccepting of the feelings and emotions of others. While the narrative could have pushed for more insight and observation of Jared and his family’s journey, the effort being presented in “Boy Erased” is well-intentioned. Sometimes you don’t need ghosts or masked killers to bring horror to life, sometimes reality is all the monster you need.

 

Monte’s Rating

3.25 out of 5.00

Maria by Callas - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

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‘Maria by Callas’ bursts with authentic celebration and heartbreak

 

Directed by:  Tom Volf

Starring:  Maria Callas and Joyce DiDonato

 

“Maria by Callas” – “There are two people in me.  I would like to be Maria, but there is the Callas that I have to live up to.” – Maria Callas, 1970

 

Before Beyonce, Mariah Carey and Madonna, there was Maria Callas.  Callas, who passed away in 1977, is considered one of the best, if not the premier, opera singers of the 20th century, and with her larger than life persona and massive talent, she was also known as La Divina. 

 

Director Tom Volf’s directorial debut is nothing short of divine, as his documentary embraces this legendary soprano’s life.  As one would expect, the film is packed with Callas’ performances, interviews, b-roll clips, and photos, and is filled with her own words.  Opera singer Joyce DiDonato narrates the picture by referencing and reading Callas’ memoirs and letters.  Quite frankly, DiDonato and Callas sound nearly identical, so the film feels like La Divina directly collaborated with Volf from behind the grave throughout the 1-hour 53-minute runtime.  

 

For those who cherished her career during the 1940’s, 50’s and 60’s, but had little insight into her personal life, “Maria by Callas” shines a bright light into her vulnerabilities, thoughts, dreams, loves (including her relationship with Aristotle Onanais), and the price of fame.  For newcomers, Volf’s doc is a rich and layered invitation to explore. 

 

An intimate portrait through and through, the picture is framed with a highly-revealing David Frost 1970 interview. 

 

Volf begins his film with a portion of this television interview and frequently returns to it about every 20 minutes.  Here, Callas opens up and is devastatingly frank.  She offers countless examples of her clarity on her own youth and reveals an undertow of sadness due to her highly visible vocation gobbling up any sense of a normal, healthy personal life.  A trade-off, but not always a happy one, especially when she was pushed into opera at a young age.  In some ways, she felt trapped.

 

“Destiny is destiny.  There’s no way out,” she says.

 

Callas is very open and forthright, like she was speaking to her best friend, but with absolute grace and professionalism.   As fascinating as the contents of the Frost-Callas discussion are, it is substantially more remarkable that Volf has the televised conversation in the first place. 

 

During a 2018 Toronto International Film Festival Q&A, he explains, “It actually aired only once in 1970.  It was not recorded (by the station).  It was not preserved, so there was not even a trace of it…(but) one of her friends preserved it in the way (that) they did back in the day.  He actually filmed the television with his Super 8 camera, and he had a real tape recorder for the sound, because of course, super 8 cameras don’t have sound recording.”

 

DiDonato’s narration, of course, is infinitely important to the film, but Frost’s conversation with Maria is the film’s launching pad and foundation.  Whenever the movie swings into her remarkable bel canto or verismo performances, joyous triumphs or occasional troubles (like the infamous 1958 Rome concert), Volf then refers back to the aforementioned interview.

 

In addition to admissions and heartbreaks, Volf’s picture bursts with lengthy on-stage moments - including her return to New York City - and enormous swathes of adoration from her fans from all over the planet.  “Maria by Callas” is a cherished treasure, and a personal and global look at this landmark figure, which indeed offers both sides, Maria and Callas. 

(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.

The Girl in the Spider's Web - Movie Review by Ben Cahlamer

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The Girl in the Spider’s Web

 

Directed by Fede Alvarez

Screenplay by Jay Basu, Fede Alvarez and Steven Knight

Based on “The Girl in the Spider’s Web” by David Lagercrantz

Characters by Stieg Larsson

Starring Claire Foy, Sverrir Gudnason, Lakieth Stanfield, Sylvia Hoeks, Stephen Merchant, Vicky Krieps, Christopher Convery

 

As Fede Alvarez’s “The Girl in the Spider’s Web” opened, I was struck with a bleak tone. Realizing that it was intentional, I accepted the stark reality that espionage stories are not nearly as important as they once were. Part of that is rendered moot by the fact that most government level terrorist acts are done via the internet and not through traditional, physical means.

Featuring characters from the Swedish novel and film series, and the David Fincher film, comes the latest film to use Stieg Larsson’s characters. The novel on which Alvarez, Jay Basu and Steven Knight based their screenplay was written by David Lagercrantz, is a globetrotting espionage type thriller involving dramatic locations, stunning set pieces, over-the-top stunts, exotic cars and a lot of coercion.

Why, then, did I feel like this film was a letdown?

It wasn’t for the acting. Claire Foy makes for a strong Lisabeth Salander, a hacker who it turns out has a morality complex. In Larsson’s novels and their adapted films, Salander is a bystander in her own story as journalist Mikael Blomqvist (Sverrir Gudnason) puts the pieces of her puzzle together in a journalistic investigation. Here, Blomqvist is a secondary character.

That’s a critical distinction because her sister Camilla (Sylvia Hoeks) is a very, very devious woman. She’s the head of an international cartel on the hunt for a government security program and its programmer, Frans Balder (Stephen Merchant). This in turn attracts the attention of the NSA, specifically Edwin Neeham (Lakieth Stanfield in his second role this year).

If the acting wasn’t the issue, what was it?

The biggest hurdle was that this was Lisabeth Salander’s story, or at least it was told from her point of view. Larsson’s stories, even David Fincher’s film worked better because the story is told from Blomqvist’s vantage point. This allows Lisabeth’s story to fit the Me Too movement; it’s relatable.

Before you squash my commentary, I don’t think it’s a bad thing that they took this approach. I just don’t think it works for this set of characters. The bleak, melancholy theme renders the dramatic tension bland.

Alvarez and his cinematographer Pedro Luque make up for the melancholic with the sensual and sexual. There’s lots of leather (why is it that hackers must always wear skin tight leather clothing?!), there are fast cars. There’s even a brilliantly executed motorcycle chase, which ends on a frozen lake, complete with an abandoned observatory, a la “Chain Reaction.”

Alvarez has the right instincts for a big, epic film such as “The Girl in the Spider’s Web” because he had a strong lead. I couldn’t help but think about Martin Campbell’s “GoldenEye,” the first Pierce Brosnan – era James Bond film, mainly because our heroine must face herself. The distinction is that Salander is really an anti-hero, and in that regard her character, here, isn’t strong enough to play that role because the stakes weren’t high enough.

“That’s the trouble with the world today; no one takes the time to do a really sinister interrogation any more. It’s a lost art.” In spite of its bleakness, “The Girl in the Spider’s Web” does find the art of the interrogation quite splendidly. I just wish the film made better use of its time getting to that point.

1.5 out of 4 stars

Burning - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

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‘Burning’ sparks unconventional mysteries

 

Directed by:  Chang-dong Lee

Written by:  Chang-dong Lee and Jungmi Oh

Starring:  Ah-In Yoo, Jong-seo Jeon and Steven Yeun

 

“Burning” – Director Chang-dong Lee’s picture – which is South Korea’s Best Foreign Language Film Oscar entry – is about haves and have-nots, belief and uncertainty, clear direction and lack of focus, urban abundance and rural frugality, and romance and unrequited love.

 

Lee Jong-su (Ah-In Yoo) accounts for half of these opposing forces, as this young man – about 20 years-old – unfortunately, does not seem to have many answers in the game of life.

 

“To me, the world is a mystery,” Jong-su says.

 

He hopes to be a writer but does not truly devote any time to his craft.  Instead, he fills his days with working random jobs and worrying about his father who might be sentenced to prison.  Jong-su does not have a purpose or mentor to help blaze a path, but his perpetually hapless condition finds a sudden burst of optimism, when he crosses paths with an old friend Shin Hae-mi (Jong-seo Jeon).  She’s a beautiful free spirit, who could catch the eye of any man between the ages of 17 and 97, but – at this moment – she only gazes at him.  Despite her eccentricities - or perhaps, because of them – he develops some clarity, but the film throws Jong-su a curve ball, when Ben (Steven Yeun) suddenly steps into Hae-mi’s world, and naturally, his as well.

 

With a runtime of 2 hours and 28 minutes, the picture consumes intriguing stretches to establish Jong-su’s current spheres by breathing in both Seoul and his small hometown of Paju.  While in the city, he attempts to navigate within his comfort zones (which are only a few feet at a time), but exploring places like a casual restaurant, Hae-mi’s apartment and Ben’s condominium are brand new encounters with unexpected results. 

 

For instance, Hae-mi asks him to feed her cat while she is out of the country, but – for some reason - he cannot find her pet in the tiny apartment.  How can that be?  

 

In another example, Ben always carries a confident swagger and a seemingly endless supply of money, but does not spend a moment actually working or explaining his chosen profession.  He boasts that he never sheds tears and usually conducts every minute of his carefree days by shrugging his shoulders and smiling about his gilded existence.  How is Ben so untroubled? 

 

Also, while walking through his father’s home in Paju, Jong-su gazes at old photographs, but they don’t bring any resemblance to his dad’s present-day circumstances.  How did his father’s solid yesterday result in such a makeshift-today?

 

These are mysteries. 

 

Chang-dong Lee’s and writer Jungmi Oh’s winding narrative will hopefully provide resolutions; however, they purposely don’t make it easy for us.  Jong-su sees Ben’s combined financial freedom, social network and confidence as an intimidating corner of this newly-formed love triangle and salvaging a relationship with Hae-mi feels increasingly unattainable.  There is an unknown key to Jong-su’s eternal bliss, but he doesn’t immediately possess the tools to find it or know where to look.   

 

Although we can, perhaps, dismiss Jong-su’s bewilderments as simple circumstances of the world’s order in 2018, the film takes a specific slow-moving, head-scratching turn that places our lead protagonist and us into a state of confusion, in which abandoned greenhouses are the explicit points of contention.

 

Like walking 20 minutes late into a class lecture, “Burning” stokes a burning need catch up to the filmmakers, and hence, clinging to Jong-su is our only hope for answers, but remember, to him, the world is a mystery.

(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.

 

The Grinch - Movie Review by Ben Cahlamer

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The Grinch

 

Directed by Scott Mosier and Yarrow Cheney

Screenplay by Michael LeSeur and Tommy Swerdlow

Based on “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” by Dr. Seuss

Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Rashida Jones, Kenan Thompson, Cameron Seely, Angela Lansbury

Narrated by Pharrell Williams

 

I loved early December when I was a kid. Thanksgiving had just passed, Christmas was on the horizon and my favorite holiday cartoons would pop on the television. I remember seeing Dr. Seuss’s “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” the inspiration for Illumination’s latest animated feast, “The Grinch,” in theaters this weekend.

That animated feature that I enjoyed as a kid has been recounted numerous times. From what I’m told, I’ve been fortunate to have missed the other versions, so why did I feel the need to revisit a modern retelling of a classic? In a word, I am enthralled by Illumination’s animation. “The Grinch” is perhaps the most photo-realistic animated film I’ve seen this year, right down to the fibers on Max, the Grinch’s trusted canine companion.

Scott Mosier and Yarrow Cheney direct this third adaptation of the classic story of a mean-spirited individual who has the hair brained idea to steal Christmas from the Whos of Whoville. The Whos are a community who celebrates the best meaning of Christmas. Benedict Cumberbatch voices the Grinch. Cumberbatch brings a cynical menace to the Grinch’s voice that detracts from the character’s meaning to the film while Rashida Jones voices Donna Lou Who, an overworked single mom. She has two kids, but her pride and joy is Cindy Lou Who, voiced by Cameron Seely.

Cindy Lou has one wish and she spends much of this “Grinch” trying to find a way to get to Santa in order to tell him her one wish. On the other side, is the Grinch, who we come to learn a little bit more about the basis of his contempt for Christmas. Keenan Thompson voices Bricklebaum, a jolly citizen of Whoville who embodies the Christmas spirit, a la Clark Griswold. A nice surprise was the beloved voice of Angela Lansbury as the voice of Mayor McGerkle. Though her role is small, it was a nice touch.

As much as I love his music, Pharrell Williams’ narration was the most disappointing aspect of the film. His narration was monotone, less dramatic than say a John Houseman or a Boris Karloff. I suspect that the tradeoff was made here to modernize the story telling and to allow the Grinch character to be more sinister than evil.

Michael LeSeur (“You, Me and DuPree,” “Keeping Up with the Joneses”) and Tommy Swerdlow (“Straw Dogs,” “Little Giants”) do a very capable job with modernizing this classic, but that’s where the story really stops. Within the modernization is a rather simplistic story with a well-meaning message that gets wrapped up rather conveniently.

One of my biggest concerns with Illumination is that they pattern their nefarious characters off of their one, inimitable creation: Gru (“Despicable Me”) and that the Grinch would follow the same pattern, and it does exactly that. Children have a way of tugging at our heartstrings, even if our heart is a lump of coal. But, that doesn’t mean that every single film has to follow the same pattern, even if that’s what modern audiences want.

Modernizing a classic is as much about finding a new audience as it is about keeping that classic theme relevant. Where the Grinch was an ogre to the eight year old me, this Grinch might be the same to an eight-year old today.

This version of “The Grinch” probably won’t be talked about 20 years from now, which is a shame because it’s a beautiful film to look at even if the characters are flat.

1.5 out of 4

 

Suspiria - Movie Review by Monte Yazzie

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Suspiria

 

Director: Luca Guadagnino

Starring: Dakota Johnson, Tilda Swinton, Mia Goth, Chloë Grace Moretz, and Angela Winkler

 

The way one discovers a film is important. Some films can transfer from simple moving pictures into some kind of transportive experience, where you will remember everything that contributed to the event and its effectiveness. Dario Argento’s horror masterwork “Suspiria” is one of those films. For me it was a 35mm print that was slightly distressed inside a theater with sticky floors and stale popcorn. It was an experience that I would never forget.

 

In today’s film world no film is sacred enough to be kept from being remade or reimagined, even a film as well-regarded in the horror community like Argento’s “Suspiria”. Also, when you mention a film during first encounters with cinephiles as holding a place on your cinematic handshake, as I do, it’s impossible not to have speculations or expectations attached. Director Luca Guadagnino, who last helmed the impressive drama “Call Me by Your Name”, takes on the daunting task of remaking  Argento’s film and transforms it into a wholly individual artistic expression that is equally beautiful as it is completely brutal.

 

Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson) is an aspiring dancer from America who arrives unexpectedly and uninvited to the Helena Markos Dance Company in West Berlin. Provided the opportunity to showcase her talent, Susie dazzles Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton) and is summoned to attend the prestigious school. Amidst the all female dance troupe, Susie begins to experience strange occurrences, ones that overtake her when she performs.

 

Mr. Guadagnino is known for meticulously crafting the elements in his films; from the boisterous emotional content, to the beautifully designed environments, and the luscious locales that richly compose the backdrops, the director understands how to arrange captivating frames and characters you can’t help but get attached to. All of these facets are present in “Suspiria” as well, the film is gorgeously composed on all technical levels. The photography zooms and whips across and through the dance school’s staircases and studios while lingering in disheveled streets and vacant lots in Germany. The construction of the dance facility is a maze of hallways and mirrors swathed with gothic fascinations, an oddly ornamented room or the darkened corners of a hidden dungeon are equally unsettling. The score from composer Thom Yorke is mesmerizing, a mix of ambiance and vocal work that blends nicely into the chaos of it all.

 

Tilda Swinton, who has worked with the director quite a few times, is fantastic in numerous roles here. Ms. Swinton’s versatility is exceptional, the actress can do anything, even taking on the primary male performance in prosthetic makeup. Dakota Johnson is also good, playing naïve with a wild-eyed charm but also completely determined to the extent of seeming obsessive. It works for the progression of the character who discovers new things about herself, awoken amidst the witchcraft of the dance she is performing.

 

The aspect of history is the only, minor, misstep in the film. The script, written by David Kajganich, composes a backdrop in Germany that features 1970’s political upheaval featuring riots, violence, kidnappings and mentions of the Baader-Meinhof group and also the Holocaust. There’s a lot going on beyond the story of evil deeds in a dance school. Whether commentary to discuss the role and abuse of women during times of political dissonance, or how fear induces emotional change over the course of continued trauma, or simply a backdrop to keep 1972 Berlin relevant amidst the chaos of devilish dances and evil enchantments, the writer and director are clearly alluding to some kind of connection.

 

Still, Luca Guadagnino’s “Suspiria” is absolutely entrancing and hypnotizing. The design elements are stunning and the performances are impressive. The film remarkably transitions between arthouse compositions and grindhouse exploitations, the ballet of blood and brutality is off the charts at times. This re-envisioned take on Argento’s classic stands confidently on its own designs.

 

Monte’s Rating

4.50 out of 5.00

Bohemian Rhapsody - Movie Review by Ben Cahlamer

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Bohemian Rhapsody

 

Directed by Bryan Singer

Story by Anthony McCarten and Peter Morgan, Screenplay by Anthony McCarten

Starring Rami Malek, Lucy Boynton, Gwylim Lee, Ben Hardy, Joseph Mazzello, Aiden Gillen, Tom Hollander, Mike Myers

 

I was first introduced to the rock group Queen through their theme song for the 1980 film, Flash Gordon. I fell for their style, the music flowed to its own rhythm, a rhapsody if you will. By that definition, it was enthusiastic about its protagonist, someone who was out to be humanity’s savior. My older brother introduced me to more of their music on a road trip. Bicycle Race was the song that stuck with me. Little did I know that I had already heard their anthem We Are the Champions when I saw Revenge of the Nerds at a young age.

All of this formed my impression of a group of musicians who didn’t sound like they belonged playing together, yet they made music that anyone could relate to. They had a distinctive style all their own.

But, it was nothing without lead singer, Freddie Mercury (Rami Malek). Or so his biopic, Bohemian Rhapsody tells us. Freddie, who died due to complications from AIDS, was as much as showman as he was an artist. He was a recluse; someone who fought his own identity despite the fact that everyone around him knew that he was gay.

The story, by Anthony McCarten and Peter Morgan, screenplay by McCarten paints a picture of someone who was uncomfortable in his own skin, but once the music started, he found himself. This is the main theme that director Bryan Singer explored.

Malek, in a word, is breathtaking as Mercury. The Mr. Robot actor is known for his shyness. In Rhapsody he makes bohemian sheikh. Reportedly, he spent a great deal of time prepping for the role by watching Mercury’s performances, mimicking his movements with his on stage theatrics and flamboyance.

The background details, that of the formation of Queen, its associated rise, fall and rise again were aided by surviving band members Brian May (Gwylim Lee) and Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy.) A good portion of the film is dedicated to the creation of several songs written either by Mercury or jointly with other members of the group.

Mike Myers, who should get a supporting nomination is a foundation for the shape and direction, or lack thereof of Queen in his role as Ray Foster, an EMI executive. There’s a scene in his lavish office in which Queen and he argue the merits of putting Bohemian Rhapsody out as a single. The argument is that the six minute length song won’t get air time because it’s too long. Myers relished in the role and we relish seeing him on the screen.

Although these details never really detract from Mercury’s story, it doesn’t leave a great deal of room to focus on Mercury as a person. For a biopic, he was the front man of a musical movement. Other than his family life and his relationship with Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton), the nerve of the film was Queen. Ms. Boynton was a strong choice to play Mary Austin, someone who had to put up with Mercury’s idiosyncrasies. There’s a scene where they are in their respective homes, Mercury phones her to invite her over for a drink and they woo each other over the phone. It’s a cute scene, which is filmed with a good deal of affection.

There are lose threads within the story about the destructive nature of his dependence on alcohol and drugs, something that’s fueled by Paul Prenter (Allen Leach). The story treats Prenter’s relationship with Mercury as having some great importance, but in reality, the relationship was just a blip. The sequence in the German rental home, which serves as Mercury’s return to reality is perhaps the best dramatic moment in the film. I was not keen on Mr. Leach’s performance because the character required someone to be a vile man, someone who could truly cut Mercury off from the rest of the world. Rather, that sequence turns out to be Ms. Boynton’s finest hour.

Singer’s direction, and reportedly his editing, focuses on the rise, fall and rise of Queen that it doesn’t leave much time in the 134 minute run time to speak to Mercury’s contraction of AIDS or of his later relationship with Jim Hutton (Aaron McCusker). I am glad that the filmmakers chose to not use his illness in a certain way, making the scene where he breaks the news to his mates, his family, much more poignant. In spite of this, it still feels secondary to the 1985 Live Aid performance at Wembley Stadium.

That’s what’s the most troublesome. This could have, and should have been a much better film about Freddy Mercury. Instead, the troubled production which reportedly churned for over 12 years, is more about Queen. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Malek really is the star of the film. He makes us forget that there were problems or that there was another version, which we will never see, sadly.

Fans of Queen will find much to like with Bohemian Rhapsody. It has a troubling style all its own. Queen always was for the people and so is Bryan Singer’s film, for better or worse.

2.25 out of 4 stars

The Nutcracker and the Four Realms - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

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‘The Nutcracker and the Four Realms’ is not as fun as it looks

 

Directed by:  Lasse Hallstrom and Joe Johnston

Written by:  Ashleigh Powell, based on E.T.A. Hoffman’s novella

Starring:  Mackenzie Foy, Keira Knightley, Helen Mirren, and Morgan Freeman

 

 

“The Nutcracker and the Four Realms” – Santa Claus at the nearest shopping mall, big-box store sales, holiday music, and television broadcasts of “It’s a Wonderful Life” (1946) and “A Christmas Story” (1983). 

 

These are sure things that one can expect at Christmastime each year, and add ballet productions of “The Nutcracker” to this exclusive holiday list.  In fact, Phoenix’s Symphony Hall will host “The Nutcracker” performances beginning on Dec. 13. 

 

Get your tickets!

 

On Nov. 2, one can also purchase movie tickets to “The Nutcracker and the Four Realms”, a new adventure based on the concepts of E.T.A. Hoffman’s novella “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King.”  Visually, this holiday movie-present splashes its actors, actresses and dozens of extras with dazzling, whimsical costumes and drops these thespians into alchemy-driven fantasy worlds, but the film is like a beautifully-wrapped gift that contains three pairs of white socks. 

 

To be frank, it’s a bit forgettable.

 

Clara (Mackenzie Foy), however, is not forgetting her mother at Christmastime.  This teenager – who is a part-time inventor, as evidenced by her Rube Goldberg contraption within the film’s first few minutes - is in deep mourning, because her mom recently passed away.  Her brother Fritz (Tom Sweet), sister Louise (Ellie Bamber) and father (Matthew Macfadyen) share her sorrow, but they attempt to pick up their spirits and embrace the holidays at a nearby party.  It is there, when Clara visits her godfather Drosselmeyer (Morgan Freeman) and asks for a key to open an ornamental egg, a gift from her mother from beyond the grave.  He offers more than that and sends Clara on a journey – ala “Alice in Wonderland” (1951) and “The Wizard of Oz” (1939) – to The Four Realms, which begins in the Christmas Tree Forest. 

 

Directors Lasse Hallstrom (“What’s Eating Gilbert Grape” (1993), “The Cider House Rules” (1999)) and Joe Johnston (“Captain America: The First Avenger” (2011)) chaperon Clara on an Alice-like or Dorothy-like adventure, where she encounters a nutcracker soldier named Phillip (Jayden Fowora-Knight) and The Sugar Plum Fairy or Sugar Plum for short (Keira Knightley).  There is no Mouse King exactly, but hundreds of mice stack themselves together to construct a giant replica that moves like a wavy rodent abomination, and various other Four Realms characters hope that Clara – who again, is an inventor - can save their world.

 

Apparently, the missing key is the key to everything, as the narrative plods along with a series of happy accidents.  Clara pushes for self-discovery, bumps into disturbing clowns who look like Pennywise’s first cousins and listens to Sugar Plum’s complaints about a war.  The Four Realms – with its flowery, sugary and snowy landscapes – does not really seem like a battle-weary place, so it’s difficult to feel sympathy for its residents. 

 

Is this world really in danger?  This particular critic wasn’t stressed out.

 

Meanwhile, Clara and Phillip loiter in a palace that best resembles Saint Basil’s Cathedral, confront someone called Mother Ginger (Helen Mirren) and our heroine slips down a rabbit hole, err, a mouse hole, but these steps are just cold mechanics that lack any sense of joy. 

 

A few song and dance numbers would have livened things up and could have turned this dull excursion into a fun sing-along like “Labyrinth” (1986).  No such luck.  This isn’t a musical. Other than a three-minute ballet sequence with Misty Copeland and some random, scant moments of the nostalgic chords, the classic music is mostly absent.

 

“The Nutcracker and the Four Realms” is not a terrible movie, but its presentation and execution feel misguided.  The written and spoken tones are as wooden as a nutcracker soldier and do not come close to matching the picture’s visual eccentricities, with only one exception.  Knightley – far and away – is the most compelling character in the movie.  Her hypnotic take on Sugar Plum has a look of Marie Antoinette caught in a cotton candy bin coupled with a high-pitched voice that approaches a mash-up of Glinda the Good Witch and the prostitute who sang “Duke of Earl” to Dr. Michael Hfuhruhurr (Steve Martin) in “The Man with Two Brains” (1983).

 

Sure, it’s a random comparison, but Knightley is that memorable.  The rest of the film?  Well, it should receive Oscar considerations for Costume and Production Designs, but overall, the annual ballet is a better holiday choice.  How much are tickets?

(2/4 stars)

 

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

 

 

Wildlife - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

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Mulligan and Gyllenhaal shine in Dano’s ‘Wildlife’

 

Directed by:  Paul Dano

Written by:  Zoe Kazan and Paul Dano, based on the novel by Richard Ford

Starring:  Carey Mulligan, Jake Gyllenhaal, Ed Oxenbould, and Bill Camp

 

“Wildlife” – “Do you know what they call trees in a forest fire?  Fuel.  Do you know what they call the trees when the fire goes by?  The standing dead.” – Jeanette Brinson (Carey Mulligan)

 

Jeanette (Mulligan) and Jerry Brinson (Jake Gyllenhaal) and their teenage son Joe (Ed Oxenbould) look like an all-American family during a Montana autumn in 1960.

 

Jerry and Ed toss the football around in front of their modest home, while Jeanette has dinner waiting for them.  Both parents show affection to each other, encourage Joe with his schoolwork and seem very content with their collective purpose in the world. 

 

In short, life is good.

 

Soon, however, cracks of realism fall in front of director/co-writer Paul Dano’s camera.  Jerry runs into trouble at work – due to his own transgressions – and since he is the only breadwinner, financial snags loom, and Jeanette knows it.  They have apparently lived through this before, and another domestic crash feels imminent. 

 

Dano and co-writer Zoe Kazan bring Richard Ford’s novel to life on the big screen and chronicle the Brinsons’ fate after Jerry’s unfortunate choice.  Dano and Kazan chose to work together again!  They starred as a flawed couple in 2012’s “Ruby Sparks”, and Kazan also penned that script.  Their characters’ on-screen relationship (in that film) fell into turmoil due to a fanciful, mystical premise.  There is no whimsy in “Wildlife”, however, as this family faces a grim, cold reality because of a simple case of misplaced pride.

 

Dano, Kazan, Mulligan, Gyllenhaal, and Oxenbould should beam with pride over their film, because “Wildlife” is a masterful - but affecting and somber - look at family and its fragility. 

 

In a January 2018 interview at Sundance, Dano said, “(Family) is one of the greatest sources of love we’ll ever have in our lives, and it’s also one of the greatest sources of struggle we can have in our lives.”

 

Dano captures both.  Love through soft, subtle moments.  For instance, Jerry and Jeanette embrace during a quiet evening at home with Joe looking on with warm approval.  Other ways are demonstrated through Jeanette’s mechanics to provide a comforting home.  She prepares meals, cleans floors, and looks beautiful by wearing long, conservative dresses and sporting flawless make-up and hair.  Jeanette makes a concerted effort.

 

Jerry, however, makes less of an effort and willfully walks into damaging spaces.  The story implies that Jerry’s behavioral shifts are recognizable patterns from his past, and he certainly provokes frustration with the audience.  A visit to a therapist would be a great start, but with his history and the 1960 Montana setting, that sort of aid might as well exist on the dark side of the Moon. 

 

It’s just not in his orbit.

 

Jeanette undergoes the most change, as her worldview dramatically shifts, and Mulligan perfectly and tragically captures both sides of Dano’s comment about family.  Jeanette accepts the responsibilities as a wife and mother and reaps the affections, but she suffers over Jerry’s irresponsibility – past and present – and this time, her reassurances to Joe and herself are not enough.   Mulligan is a whirlwind here and delivers the film’s most complicated performance with the commanding ease of a lion tamer placing a 6-week-old kitten in front of a bowl of milk.  Jeanette decides to govern her own fate, despite the limited options for women, as she drives the film’s pace and tone.

 

“Wildlife” is a history lesson.  A future warning.  A current reflection of ourselves or our possible-selves.  With surroundings of brown grasslands and cool temperatures, the outlooks seem bleak.  Dano guides this uncertain – and potentially explosive - dynamic with steady, gentle sensitivity.  Sometimes with bold strokes, but mostly through careful, thoughtful nuance.  Some of his grace spills into Joe too, and hence, this teen may offer some hope that living as the standing dead is not a permanent condition.    

(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.

 

 

 

 

What They Had - Movie Review by Ben Cahlamer

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What They Had

 

Written and Directed by Elizabeth Chomko

Starring Hillary Swank, Michael Shannon, Robert Forster, Blythe Danner, Taissa Famiga

 

A funny thing happened to me as I watched Elizabeth Chomko’s debut film, “What They Had” unfold in front of me: I reflected on all the families I’ve seen over the years where children take care of their parents in the most difficult of circumstances.

I asked myself – why do children take care of their parents? Is it out of necessity, or rather tradition, or is it because we’re expected to? I certainly don’t have all of the answers and in fact, I would never presume to take care of my parents out of expectation, but because I would want to.

In Ms. Chomko’s story, a fractured family comes together when the matriarch of the family, Ruth (Blythe Danner) wanders off into a Chicago blizzard unexpectedly. Bridget (Hillary Swank) and daughter Emma (Taissa Farmiga) come in from California to help.

Throughout this ordeal is husband, Burt (Robert Forster). He insists that he can continue to care for Ruth, in spite of what their son, Nicky (Michael Shannon) wants for them. Nicky needs Bridget to convince their dad that the best thing for Ruth is a home where she can get the care she needs.

The beauty in Ms. Chomko’s script is its characters. This film is very much a slice of life. This family was legally prepared, driving a wedge between children. Complicating the matter is Burt’s own health, something that Nicky is keen to keep in check.

A good portion of the story centers around the concept of “Reminiscence Therapy,” where photos are used to trigger memories. I got the sense that Ms. Chomko’s story was personal yielding such rich characters and their own situations.

The main situation breeds other situations, germane to the individual characters: Bridget is struggling mom trying to understand her daughter, while Emma has pressures of her own. Nicky not only feels the pressure of being the child to take care of their folks full time, but to try to salvage his own life, which is falling apart at the seams.

Ms. Chomko uses Ruth’s dementia to bring them all together, even if the steam coming from the heated debates is enough to melt the late December snowfall. And within that, magnetic performances too.

Ms. Swank is, by nature an introvert, or she chooses to play introverted character; it’s a part of her acting strength to be able to take charge when called for, and to have it deliver an emotional punch. Her character deals with much more than just the care of their parents. Michael Shannon continues to impress with his emotionally-laden performance with a brilliant mixture of quiet frustration and outright hostile, foul-mouthed reactions; he’s the hot-tempered one. And rightfully so.

There’s a beautiful scene between he and Robert Forster’s Burt that is the essence of the film.

I don’t know that I’ve ever seen Robert Forster more tender in a performance. Here he has double duty to protect Ruth from their children while at the same time defending his actions as a father. In the end, there’s nothing but love between Burt and Ruth.

Ms. Danner had, by far, the most difficult role to play in this film, and I would submit her for a supporting actress nomination if I were Bleecker Street: to be able to fade in and out of dementia, to be lively and comedic in one moment followed by an introspective moment is the hallmark of a brilliant actress. She essentially lived in her own world throughout the film, oblivious to all but Burt’s attempts to bring her back into the present.

Some might see his actions as being selfish, an attempt to relive the past for his own benefit. Its a natural progression for his character, and for hers.

The struggle with all of these fine character moments and the world they inhabit is that it leaves the story feeling flat. Understanding that the story intentionally takes a back seat to the performances shouldn’t be so much of a problem.

It was just difficult to balance the two out.

With that, all I can say is that the magnetic performances won this critic’s heart, even if the story doesn’t fully support said performances.

TURKEYS!

2.75 out of 4

Can You Ever Forgive Me? - Movie Review by Ben Cahlamer

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Can You Ever Forgive Me?

 

Directed by Marielle Heller

Screenplay by Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty based on ‘Can You Ever Forgive Me?’ by Lee Israel

Starring Melissa McCarthy, Richard E. Grant, Jane Curtin, Dolly Wells, Anna Deavere Smith, Stephen Spinella, Ben Falcone

 

As a film critic, I can understand “writers block,” that notion that the blank page stares back at you when you’ve hit a dry spell. Today, it’s looking at the blinking cursor.

Marielle Heler and Melissa McCarthy are here to remind writers everywhere that there is no such thing as ‘writers block’ in their latest film, “Can You Every Forgive Me?”

Based on the real life biographer, Lee Israel who made her living, originally with at least one ‘New York Times’ bestselling novel has hit her bout of writers block. As her publisher Marjorie (Jane Curtin) reminds us, the writer’s job doesn’t just stop when the last page is finished and that being a writer is about putting yourself out there on the interview circuit, allowing people to see you for who you are.

Israel was content with being a recluse, tending to her cats and her drinking problem. Sitting on her last dime, she takes her publisher’s advice literally tapping into her “creative side,” but not before she meets Jack Hock, played beautifully by Richard E. Grant and Oscar-worthy turn if there ever was one.

A rapscallion himself, they are two peas in a pod when they meet each other at the local watering hole. While Lee can take all the credit for coming up with her plan, Jack really brought out the best in her, something Ms. Holofcener and Mr. Whitty emphasize; that underneath all the dry, humorless stares, Lee Israel was a human being and a redeemable character at that.

The central events in this film reminded me of Bart Layton’s “American Animals” from earlier this year where the characters set out to do something in a moment of desperation only to realize that they really were better than the events they set in motion.

There’s a scene midway through the movie where, as we get to know Jack better, he gets involved in her scheme and she gets very protective when he tries to run around her. McCarthy, who is usually known for her boisterous personality (see the ill-fated “Happytime Murders” from earlier this year) is anything but here.

I’ve had a problem in the past where she’s played the “oh, woe is me” type character who uses laughs to make us feel better about not only her character, but ourselves as well. Here, she taps into her dramatic side, using dry humor to underpin the drama. It helps that Mr. Grant is along for the ride.

Where Ms. McCarthy would play the humor, she lets Mr. Grant’s natural charm and grace, and class, dictate the dark humor. She feeds right into his antics and her performance here is a breath of fresh air.

This is her Robin Williams moment tapping into the drama, the humor, the humanist that can get under our skin and stay there with us for the rest of our days, it’s that powerful.

The technical side of this film is just as important as the acting is, especially Brandon Trost’s cinematography where he captures the rich, detailed and dirty New York City environment in the 1970’s through the use of colored filters amplifying the character’s emotional states even further.

In addition to Israel’s exploits, the film folds in a very gay-centric story through Lee’s past relationships and Jack’s current affairs. Though it probably could have been explored further Israel’s dinner with Anna (Dolly Wells) is a poignant moment. Her conversation with Elaine (Anna Deavere Smith) in Central Park is perhaps the finest moment in the film.

For a film that had a somewhat troubled beginning, the final product has produced two serious Awards contenders in Mr. Grant and Ms. McCarthy. Ms. Heller’s direction is deft, while the screenplay hits all the right notes.

If you’re feeling bummed by “The Happytime Murders,” don’t. She doesn’t have to beg for it, but “Can You Forgive Me?” is Melissa McCarthy’s finest hour.

Rating 3.75 out of 4