Coco - Movie Review by Ben Cahlamer

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Coco

 

Directed by Lee Unkrich

Screenplay by Adrian Molina and Matthew Aldrich

Story by Lee Unkrich, Adrian Molina, Jason Katz and Matthew Aldrich

Starring Anthony Gonzalez, Gael Garcia Bernal, Benjamin Bratt, Renee Victor, Alfonso Arau, Edward James Olmos

 

Culture is the hallmark of civilizations. It is a part of our language, our heritage and our families. Pixar and Disney have striven to embrace culture in all of their films. The beauty of culture is that it is ageless. And timeless, for it is not just for the living, but also for the dead, something that Lee Unkrich and his team explore in the new animated Pixar-Disney production, Coco.

Adrian Molina and Matthew Aldrich’s script (based on the story by Unkrich, Molina, Jason Katz and Aldrich) is centered around the Dia de Muertos holiday, as the Rivera family prepare to celebrate with offerings and photos of the dead. Music, however, is not allowed.

The film opens to vibrant cutouts depicting the Rivera’s history, where we learn of their discontent with music. Believing he was meant for more, young Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez) avoids his family’s attempts to take up the family business, instead trying to get himself heard in a Dia de Muertos celebration. Instead, he ends up in the Land of the Dead and now must find a way to return to the living before it is too late.

Aside from the stunning visuals, the voice cast is first rate. Grandmother Abuelita (Renee Victor) is on fire as she absolutely forbids Miguel’s playing music. As Mama Coco, Ana Ofelia Murguia makes a memorable impression. In the land of the dead, Miguel’s relatives are just as supportive of his growth as his living relatives, as long as it doesn’t involve music. The centerpieces in the Land of the Dead are Gael Garcia Bernal as Hector, a charming trickster who knows how to help Miguel maneuver and Benjamin Bratt as the esteemed Ernesto de la Cruz, a recording artist and movie star who is as charming on the screen as he is in the afterlife.

The anchor of the film is Anthony Gonzalez as Miguel. He was perfectly cast to play this role, which required a steady, young voice needed to carry a range of emotions while still being able to carry a tune, and he does so very magnificently. Alfonso Arau, who is more familiar to American audiences as El Guapo in Three Amigos and Juan in Romancing the Stone, voices Papa Julio, Miguel’s great-grandfather.

One of Pixar’s enduring strengths is their animation. There were many times through the 3D screening where the images looked as real as a physical person standing next to me and it only continues to get better with each Pixar film. Pixar is also focused on characters, and Coco is replete with relatable characters. The music, both Michael Giaccino’s Mexican-inspired score and original songs performed by the voice cast truly immerse you in the holiday that this film celebrates.

Although the well-developed characters and the vibrant images wrap us up in the story, Pixar has a formula that works for them. And while it doesn’t detract from the overall feelings and emotions that they were going for, the narrative felt recycled. It’s a minor nitpick considering the amount of work and the level of detail they manage to achieve. For an original Pixar film, it is a strong entry in their legacy. I’m hopeful that they can expand on the formula with Incredibles 2 next Spring.

Already a hit in Mexico, Coco is undeniable fun and it will entertain families from around the world with its breathtaking CGI and its strong characters.

Ben’s rating 3 out of 4

Roman J Israel, Esq. - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

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The ‘Roman J. Israel, Esq.’ verdict is in.  Washington’s marvelous performance is better than the film

 

Written/directed by: Dan Gilroy

Starring: Denzel Washington, Colin Farrell and Carmen Ejogo

 

“Roman J. Israel, Esq.” – Pay attention to the man behind the curtain.

 

Roman J. Israel, Esq. (Denzel Washington) and William Henry Jackson have championed civil rights as defense attorneys in Los Angeles, Calif. for decades, but suddenly, life – as it occasionally or often does - dramatically changes.  William suffers a heart attack and lies unconscious in MLK Community Hospital, and their secretary asks Roman to cover the day’s cases but tells him to just ask for continuances. 

 

Don’t rock the boat.

 

The audience soon learns – via Roman’s explanation – that William is the face of the firm.  William goes to court and litigates their cases, while Roman pours over books and legal precedents in the office.  Yes, William is the face of this partnership, but now – whether Roman likes it or not – the outside world must pay attention to the man behind the curtain.

 

Washington steps onto the big screen after his electrifying performance as a flawed father and husband in “Fences” (2016) to play a different type of semi-damaged soul as Roman, who is thoughtful and altruistic, but he is also unusual and eccentric.

 

He refreshingly speaks frankly but does so at inappropriate times, especially when a judge warns him that he could be found in contempt. 

 

He almost always sports a pair of headphones last seen in 1995, and they are attached to his iPod, packed with 8,000 songs. 

 

He frequently pushes up his glasses which slide down his nose during intense working hours and one-on-one conversations, and he walks everywhere, including back and forth from his tiny apartment where he frequently dines on his favorite sandwich. 

 

After practicing for decades, why is this law partner living like a hermit in a modest place?  Well, over the course of writer/director Dan Gilroy’s (“Nightcrawler” (2014)) 2-hour 9-minute film, Washington’s absorbing, thought-provoking performance effectively taps into our curiosity and reveals the internal workings of a deeply intriguing character.  

 

Roman’s speaks to disadvantaged clients – like Derrell (DeRon Horton) - who cope with crowded court schedules and daunting plea deals.  He also clearly sees the socioeconomic impacts working against this particular 17-year-old whose only crime was choosing a bad friend, but faces five years in prison in a best-case scenario.  By quickly establishing Roman’s sound moral center, both director and actor quickly gain the audience’s trust, and this allows acceptance of the character’s quirky idiosyncrasies and social shortcomings.   What Roman lacks in grace, he soars with noble civil rights beliefs through his speech and actions.  He is also blessed with an extraordinary, savant-like memory. 

 

This film is a character study, and Washington makes it easy to ride Roman’s exploration – the highs and lows – of his new universe, one that no longer consists of just his office and apartment and the sidewalks that connect the two.   This is a performance and a character that deserve a 4-star screenplay, but the story unfortunately feels limiting and smaller than it should.  It does include a superstar lawyer, George Pierce (Colin Farrell), and an idealistic activist, Maya (Carmen Ejogo), who meet our lead protagonist and introduce him to golden opportunities of work and romance, respectively.  

 

The moments with Maya are most encouraging for Roman, because of his previous hint about lost love in probably the only glimpse into his unknown past.  His work with George fills his days, and over the course of three weeks, the picture introduces anxiety and strain for Roman and the audience. 

 

For a legal drama, however, it does not feel like enough.  At one critical moment, Roman boxes himself into a very compromising circumstance, but the stress of that particular issue never reaches the level of his complicated personal journey.  Well, maybe that’s the point, because Roman’s character arc is more important than legalese dramatics, but the film’s construct does fall into familiar routines and recycled plots.  Although, there is nothing recycled about Roman: a unique personality filled with influences of Bayard Rustin and Angela Davis, and living and breathing with an inner beat of The Chamber Brothers. 

 

In “Roman J. Israel, Esq.”, this man’s “Time Has Come Today”, and for better or worse, he has stepped in front of the curtain.

(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.

Justice League - Movie Review by Ben Cahlamer

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Justice League

 

Directed by Zack Synder

Screenplay by Chris Terrio and Joss Whedon; story by Chris Terrio and Zack Snyder

Starring Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Gal Gadot, Ezra Miller, Jason Momoa, Ray Fisher, Jeremy Irons, Diane Lane, Connie Nielsen, J. K. Simmons

 

Zach Snyder’s Justice League should not work. And, let’s be clear, it doesn’t work as a whole. I’ve struggled with this film because it takes so many risks given the turbulent recent history of the DCEU film series that this film needed to fit a specific mold. It almost reminds me of a high-stakes game of poker, where you don’t want to show the opponent your fold card, yet you still flinch.

And, if it didn’t follow on the heels of some of the more dramatic previous entries in the series, that wouldn’t be a problem.

League picks up immediately after the events of Batman vs Superman. The world mourns the loss of Superman/Clark Kent (Henry Cavill). Batman/Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) bears that guilt. As Gotham City weathers strange attacks from insect-like figures, Batman begins to piece together an impending doomsday attack for which he alone cannot fight. Following a brief introduction in BvS and her own film earlier this year, Wonder Woman/Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) offers her support in assembling the Justice League.

Towards the end of Batman vs Superman, Mr. Snyder gave us a sequence in which he introduced us to the future members of the Justice League. At the time, I thought the sequence was an effective way of giving us a quick intro without potentially spoiling each of their future character-only entries. Had Mr. Terrio and Mr. Whedon stuck to that sequence as a basis for this film, I probably would have respected the first half of this film.

As it is, Aquaman/Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa), The Flash/Barry Allen (Ezra Miller) and Cyborg/Victor Stone (Ray Fisher) are all left to have an extended re-introduction. It gives each of the character’s extended introductory an opportunity to establish their emotional vulnerabilities as well as their functions on the team.

Mr. Terrio and Mr. Whedon also use the first hour to reintroduce Wonder Woman as well as Batman; something that wasn’t entirely necessary from a story perspective, but it does work to show just how broken Superman’s death left all of our characters and how well Mr. Affleck could play ‘vulnerable’. Jeremy Irons as the venerable Alfred Pennyworth, continues to offer his brazen consul and is a source of amusement throughout.

The screenwriting duo interweave establishing story elements for the second half of the film in between the remaining introductory moments. As we build our League, we get to witness Mr. Momoa’s dry wit with his deadly serious nature, something we got in spades with The Bad Batch. I did get a sense of déjà vu as they use similar elements from Man of Steel as Kal El tried to blend into the world around him to introduce us to Aquaman.

Ms. Gadot’s welcomed return as Wonder Woman is framed through the tense sexual overtones briefly presented in BvS. The characters’ sensuality is a good match for Bruce Wayne’s tough exterior, something that comes through more as a result of their acting than the story. Some of the drama between Wonder Woman and Batman felt unnecessary, but served the needs of the story.

Cyborg’s story was the least interesting aspect of the film. We got to see the majority of his creation in BvS when his dad, Silas Stone (Joe Morton, in another déjà vu moment) used the Kryptonian power to rebuild his son. Mr. Fisher’s acting through the CGI implants was fine, but unremarkable, because the story’s dangers for his character and those that surround him were rendered moot.

Mr. Miller’s The Flash was the true ‘hold-card’ of this deck and required the biggest exposition, as we learn about he and his past; a broken individual much like Bruce Wayne became after his parents were felled. The difference here is that Barry uses his humor to try and break up a tense situation, something that plays to Mr. Miller’s strengths as an actor. Most of the humor works, even if it becomes tiresome towards the end of the film; a limitation of the film’s story, not of the actor’s work.

If it seems like I’m focusing this review on the character development, it’s because this is the best aspect of the story, and yet, it its own worst enemy. Midway through the story, a tonal shift occurs that wrecked the flow. It gets recovered in the end, but the recovery is marred by a well-structured, but cheesy special effects-heavy battle.

I think back to Leonard Cohen’s, “The Stranger Song,” in which he belts out “Ah you hate to see another tired man Lay down his hand Like he was giving up the holy game of poker.” In the final analysis, the League prevails through adept acting and very solid character moments. However, Mr. Terrio and Mr. Whedon showed their fold card: we focus too much time on the character moments and not enough time meting out Justice.

2.5 out of 4 stars

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri - Movie Review by Ben Cahlamer

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Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

 

Directed by Martin McDonough

Written by Martin McDonough

Starring Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, John Hawkes, Peter Drinklage

 

Once in a while, a film like Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri comes along and smacks you so hard, you’re still reeling in your seat long after the final frame is up.

If you dig Martin McDonough (In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths), you won’t mind.

Someone might say that because he’s Irish that he can’t relate to we Americans, especially those who live in the South. My experiences down there lead me to believe that the characters, events and locations don’t fully resemble modern America in the South and yet, they’re not completely inexplicable either.

That’s not to say that there isn’t a character like Mildred Hayes running around, seeking answers about what happened to her daughter, who was raped and killed seven months prior to the start of the film. It’s not to say that there’s not a sheriff like Bill Willoughby maintaining ‘law and order,’ or someone like his deputy, Officer Jason Dixon, who still feels very strongly in traditional values. Heck, he even still lives with his mama.

Mr. McDonough has proved time and again that he can come up with the most outlandish characters and situations to drive his plots forward. The zaniness comes from the actors who embody said characters with panache and humility.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is no exception.

Frances McDormand delivers an Oscar-worthy performance as the aggrieved mother, Mildred Hayes. The beauty in her performance is in her no-nonsense approach. Despite being in a tumultuous relationship, she still cares, even if she can’t show it. Which is why she draws attention to the case by putting up three billboards asking the police to do something.

Woody Harrelson, who has had two strong performances already this year with LBJ and War for the Planet of the Apes brings his ‘A-game’ as Sheriff Willoughby, a decent family-man who genuinely wants to help, but has his hands full with running the town. Sam Rockwell steps into the shoes of Jason Dixon, a foul-mouthed namby-pamby who was coddled too much as a child and now doesn’t know any better. Mr. Rockwell, who has slowly become a part of Mr. McDonough’s acting-troupe, gives an Oscar-worthy performance here as well.

Mr. McDonough doesn’t stop with just his main characters here. John Hawkes has a stare of a thousand deaths as Mildred’s ex-husband, Charlie. His young girlfriend, Penelope (Samara Weaving) steals the show in every scene she’s in. Peter Drinklage would love to get into Mildred’s pants as James, a used car salesman.

Making a second appearance this year are Caleb Landry Jones (American Made) as Red, the owner of the billboards, who pushes boundaries with this role so much so, that I can’t wait to see what he does next, and Lucas Hedges (Lady Bird) as Robbie, Mildred’s son. He continues to play ‘traumatized’ quiet well (see Manchester by the Sea as an example), but here he adds a layer of muted sarcasm in just about every scene. If I had one nitpick, it would be that Mr. Hedges’ character was underutilized. However, he makes such a memorable impression, that you won’t truly notice his absence. Abbie Cornish plays Anne Willoughby, Bill’s wife. Her character’s humor is subdued and I think it’s important that’s called out because it strengths her character’s resolve further in the film.

Mr. McDonough’s script and direction are much more than just the characters and the world they inhabit. Ben Davis’ cinematography of the North Carolina mountains, which stood in for the fictional town of Ebbing, is exemplary. His use of color is critical to the film as well. An excellent example of this is in the opening sequence where the three billboards are surrounded by a gentle fog. You can tell the air is still, but there’s something hallowed about the ground that the billboards sit upon. It’s a moment of scary serenity because of how visceral it felt. Carter Burwell’s score exemplifies the heart and soul of the story and its characters.

As we get deeper into awards season, don’t mistake this film for being ‘Oscar-bait’. Mr. McDonough, his story, his characters and his town are all as real as they appear on the screen. Now in a limited theatrical exhibition, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is the genuine article.

4 out of 4 stars

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri - Movie Review by Monte Yazzie

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Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

 

Director: Martin McDonagh

Starring: Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, Caleb Landry Jones, Kerry Condon, Abbie Cornish, Peter Dinklage, John Hawkes, Clarke Peters, and Samara Weaving

 

Drive along any busy freeway in the city and you are bound to see advertisement billboards glowing throughout the day. Everything from political commentaries to sporting events to local attorneys get the opportunity to influence and inform their message on your drive through the city.

 

Travel any stretch of highway in America and billboards can compose a welcome sign of humanity after long stretches of paved asphalt on desolate highways. In director Martin McDonagh’s somber, tragic, and comedic film “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”, billboards play the vessel of emotion for a mother still grieving, still angry.

 

Three bright red billboards with bold black font proclaim a message to a local sheriff (Woody Harrelson) concerning the unsolved death of a young girl violently murdered in the nearby small town. The person responsible for this message is the young girl’s mother Mildred (Frances McDormand) who is using this advertising tactic to bring awareness, and provoke a response, from the police department.

 

Mr. McDonagh utilizes these billboards as a device to introduce a complicated story about human interaction, specifically how people react when faced with emotions they don’t want to confront or are afraid to confront. Mr. McDonagh, a playwright turned filmmaker, paints his story with characters easily distinguishable but working towards some kind of transformation. Yet, you can feel that this transformation isn’t going to be so simply achieved. Mildred, beneath the hardened, sharp tongued demeanor is still grieving and affected not only by the death of her daughter but also the life she has lived thus far and by the town she has planted roots in. The director plays with these aspects, molding a narrative that is peaked with sadness and cruelty but also undercut with biting comedy that comes as strong and harsh as the message emblazoned on the billboards. Mr. McDonagh articulates a message concerning the nature of humanity, both the redemptive and condemned qualities, through scenes of violence, within moments of tragedy, and beneath the unexpected laughs.

 

“Three Billboards” doesn’t work without a committed cast. Leading the charge is an exceptional performance by Frances McDormand. Her portrayal of Mildred is fiery and confident, filled with passion and heartache. Her story is a portrait of what grief has turned her in to, of how it has forever changed her. Some of Ms. McDormand’s best scenes come opposite the town sheriff played by Woody Harrelson, who composes a character struggling with more than a few obstacles in his life. Mr. Harrelson is terrific in the role. The always reliable Sam Rockwell makes an appearance here too, playing the evolving antagonist. Mr. Rockwell excels at this kind of role, making larger than life characters have subtle poignancy.

 

Mr. McDonagh is a talented filmmaker with a keen eye for drama and a strong sense of humor. “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” can be an emotional journey at times, but it’s also undeniably fascinating watching such interesting characters traverse the narrative terrain proposed here.

 

Monte’s Rating

4.50 out of 5.00

Justice League - Movie Review by Monte Yazzie

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Justice League

 

Director: Zack Snyder

Starring: Gal Gadot, Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Jason Momoa, Ezra Miller, Ray Fisher, Amy Adams, Jeremy Irons, Diane Lane, Connie Nielsen, J.K. Simmons, Amber Heard, and Joe Morton

 

There is nothing wrong with a little teamwork. The superhero genre has been working towards the team oriented concept for some time now. While the Marvel Cinematic Universe was the first to successfully achieve this feat with “The Avengers”, talk about a D.C. Comics Justice League movie has been brewing for some time now, long before Marvel thought about bringing a team of heroes to screens. While audiences have already got a taste of what a Justice League feature film might feel like with 2016’s much maligned “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice”, the D.C. Extended Universe has finally found some focus on how to make a superhero film resonate beyond just the diehard fans.

 

“Wonder Woman” was the first successful step, paving the way towards a “Justice League” film that is far less serious than past films in this superhero catalog and more aware of giving into the entertaining indulgences of humor, heart, and spectacle. While this emphasis renders the narrative left on the back burner, “Justice League” is undeniable fun if altogether somewhat dull.

 

Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) knows that bad things are abound now that Superman (Henry Cavill) is dead. In an attempt to get a head start on the oncoming threats, Bruce and Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) are in search of other metahumans to help the fight. This leads Bruce to the sea in search of a man named Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa) and to Central City to find a young man named Barry Allen (Ezra Miller). Diana on the other hand is looking for a scientist (Joe Morton) and his son Victor Stone (Ray Fisher). However, things may be too late as a formidable foe named Steppenwolf is looking to destroy humanity.

 

“Justice League” is different than previous D.C. Comic film outings; gone is the stiff emotional demeanor and long winded storytelling. This time around it’s more loose and witty, more free to let characters embrace the amusing qualities of their characters. The film is still a noisy mess of visuals and the villain is still an indomitable CGI creation that doesn’t have the personality to challenge the heroes in any way that seems intimidating. Still, “Justice League” has flashes of promise, especially when the team unites. While this takes some patience over the 120 minute running time, there is fun to be had in watching these comic book characters interact with witty banter and clever verbal jabs.

 

The team of actors together develop some good chemistry. Again the highlight of this film is Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman; her character is ultimately the tie that binds the group together. It’s a smart move considering Batman is still somewhat brooding here, though even the Dark Knight is offered a few moments of levity. Ezra Miller and Jason Momoa are the characters that offer the most entertainment; Mr. Miller’s Flash adds a naive youthful element to the team that offers the actor moments to cut the tension with a clever joke while Mr. Momoa basically gets to be a laid back surfer of sorts. Both actors seem to be having lots of fun with the roles.

 

It all adds up to an entertaining if wholly unoriginal film. Everything within “Justice League” has been done before; the action scenes, the comedy, the composition of the team, it all feels familiar and somewhat stale. Still, for a franchise of superhero films that has struggled to get off the ground, “Justice League” is much better than earlier attempts by the D.C. Extended Universe. Unfortunately that’s not saying very much but hopefully this is the first step towards better films in the future.

 

Monte’s Rating

3.00 out of 5.00

My Friend Dahmer - Movie Review by Ben Cahlamer

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My Friend Dahmer

 

Directed by Marc Meyers

Written by Marc Meyers based on My Friend Dahmer by Derf

Starring Ross Lynch, Alex Wolff, Vincent Kartheiser, Anne Heche, Dallas Roberts, Liam Koeth

 

Set in 1978, Marc Meyers’ My Friend Dahmer, is a stark look at the adolescent life of serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer in Ohio. In the titular role of Mr. Dahmer is Ross Lynch, who was cast against type for this film. Mr. Lynch is best known as one of the members of the pop rock band, R5 and has imbued his acting career with multiple Disney Channel characters. So, it is with a great sense of satisfaction that I can say his performance as the troubled and demented Dahmer is sublime.

Based on the graphic novel, My Friend Dahmer by Derf, Mr. Meyers surrounds Mr. Lynch with exceptional talent. Playing Derf is Alex Wolff. Although they didn’t start out, or even end up as friends, Derf was in the best position to give the world insight into some of the schizophrenic, and brilliant tendencies of Mr. Dahmer.

The source of much of Mr. Dahmer’s troubles were his parents, neither of whom were mentally stable either, at least in the film. Dallas Roberts plays Lionel Dahmer, an introvert with anti-social tendencies. He is someone who has adapted to world around him in order to provide for his family. The interaction between Lionel and Jeffrey is awkward, but there was genuine affection between father and son. Anne Heche plays Joyce Dahmer, Jeffrey’s mother. Ms. Heche was so very much in character that I didn’t recognize her. And that’s important because of the type of character she plays. Newcomer, Liam Koeth plays Jeffrey’s younger brother, Dave. Mr. Koeth was very passive in his role, but that serves to emphasize the dangers around him.

Mr. Meyers’ script focuses on the family dynamic, which gives the impression that it was the source of Jeffrey’s tendencies.  Interestingly, Jeffrey never turned his tendencies towards his family. At least, not in this film. He didn’t even turn them towards his friends. To the world, he seemed to be a strange, anti-social high schooler.

One thing that was extremely evident in Mr. Meyers’s script was Jeffrey’s homosexual tendencies, which Mr. Dahmer used to target his victims. Early in the film, Mr. Meyers establishes one of Jeffrey’s targets, Dr. Matthews, played by Vincent Kartheiser. There’s a scene later in the film between Jeffrey and Dr. Matthews that is awkwardly funny, but doesn’t seem out of place. Mr. Lynch’s coy approach blends extremely well with Mr. Kartheiser’s sarcasm.

I grew up in Wisconsin and a friend of mine used to joke that I grew up among some of the most heinous serial killers known to the world. I was a teenager when they finally apprehended Jeffery Dahmer. I knew of him from the news, but it never occurred to me just how truly dangerous he was. Mr. Lynch was perfectly cast as Mr. Dahmer and is surrounded by talent that really enhances his performance.

In a limited theatrical release now, Mr. Meyers’ My Friend Dahmer is a solid look into the adolescent mind of one of the nation’s high profile serial killers.

Ben’s rating 3 out of 4

Justice League - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

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‘Justice League’ team chemistry tops some muddled special effects, lackluster villain

 

Directed by: Zack Snyder

Written by: Chris Terrio, Zach Snyder, Josh Whedon

 

Starring: Ben Affleck, Gal Gadot, Ezra Miller, Jason Momoa, Ray Fisher, Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Jeremy Irons, Diane Lane, J.K. Simmons, and Ciaran Hinds

 

 

“Justice League” – There is no “I” in team. 

 

When confronted by a selfish player, a coach may use that sports proverb to help illustrate that looking out for No. 1 may prove fatal to the team’s success.  Now, if the team has one, some or a collection of self-centered basketball, baseball, football, volleyball, soccer, or insert-your-sport-here players, the end result could be a lost game or perhaps, a lost season.

 

In the movies, an individual superhero might not be self-regarding, but he or she may just not be capable of saving the world from a malevolent extraterrestrial on his or her own, but a team – working together as one – could be the planet’s only hope. 

 

In March 2016, many, many comic book movie fans conjured up very little hope for the DC Extended Universe’s (DCEU) future after a depressing and disjointed “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” (2016) arrived in theatres.  Apparently in the comics, Batman and Superman fought one another, but in director Zack Snyder’s film version, the motivation for this super-tussle was terribly forced, as the entire narrative seemed to only serve as a convoluted means to form a big screen Justice League, hence the second half of the film’s title.

 

Twenty months later, Batman (Ben Affleck) and Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) are back on-screen and act as a pair of super-coaches, as they attempt to recruit The Flash (Ezra Miller), Aquaman (Jason Momoa) and Cyborg (Ray Fisher) to save Earth from Steppenwolf (Ciaran Hinds), a powerful alien known as a conqueror of worlds.  If you thought Steppenwolf was only a band from the late 1960s and early 1970s, you are not alone, but no, in this film, this born-to-be-wild, 12-foot baddie sports a horned helmet and wields a glowing-orange executioner’s axe to cut down his foes.

 

It turns out that Steppenwolf returns to Earth to claim three mother boxes, which are explained as sources of power or energy or something, but when combined into one, they form The Unity.  All one has to know is that The Unity is really, really bad news, so Batman and Wonder Woman have very little time to pull together their super-team and put an end to Steppenwolf’s plans.

 

With a runtime of just two hours, the film cannot afford to waste time, as it catches us up on the Caped Crusader’s and Diana Prince’s latest adventures and introduces us to The Flash, Aquaman and Cyborg.  Snyder is judicious in highlighting each of their powers and injecting some appreciated camp and humor during the picture’s first 45 minutes.  He also needs to establish menace and danger with Steppenwolf, and he effectively accomplishes all of these tasks.  Sure, additional precious minutes of character backstory would have been appreciated, but the quick pacing and crystal clear, concise narrative lanes are vast improvements over “Batman v Superman”, in which brooding tones and confusing scenes plagued that film’s first hour.

 

This film’s camp and humor gladly continue throughout the entire picture, as Miller’s Flash plays up his inexperienced rookie routine who incrementally becomes more confident as a hero, while also delivering frank moments of disbelief during battles with weird alien antagonists.  Meanwhile, Momoa’s Aquaman exudes machismo, a certain surfer/motorcycle gang member mix, and after the movie, one might swear that he said “I dig it” about a half dozen times.  Then again, he might not have said it even once, but his cool guy bravado certainly resonates.

 

Fisher’s Cyborg is the least comfortable with his abilities and takes a more cerebral, cautious approach.  Since his body is now meshed with Kryptonian machinery that sends unknown impulses to his brain, one can understand that purposeful restraint can rule his days.  Batman and Wonder Woman are the glue that holds this new alliance together, and Affleck’s and Gadot’s iconic characters learn more about what makes each other tick and experience some growth against their own personal setbacks.  The film does not allocate enough time to explore more introspection, but carves out plenty of moments of authentic character chemistry between the five leads and highlights each of their individual strengths that, of course, blend into team harmony.  Snyder also includes some real surprises, one of his signature trademarks. 

 

This is an entertaining group of heroes to watch interact on the big screen.  Albeit, in the film’s third act, they fight for Earth’s survival in a cloudy, artificial special effects fishbowl.  In fact, the background environment during the closing clash with Steppenwolf and his army of parademons (who are essentially six-foot flying insects) closely resembles some of the worst green screen moments from any of the “Resident Evil” films.  Meanwhile, the laws of physics become hugely questioned when a flying Cyborg tosses Aquaman across the sky, as this man from the sea stabs a random “bug” with his trusty trident and then crashes into an abandoned factory.  In another instance, Batman catches The Flash with a grappling hook, but one might wonder how The Dark Knight’s eye-hand coordination matches the speed of light.  

 

The muddled special effects – which caused problems in “Batman v Superman” and “Wonder Woman” (2017) – continue their disappointing path in this film too, and the villain does not exactly inspire fear or vitriol either.  These are low points, but the comic book protagonists do form a charismatic justice league, a highly appealing and enjoyable lineup, and hey, there is no “I” in this team.  Like any great team, they lean on each other’s strengths, while the film’s shortcomings do not feel as important.   

 

Now, are we sure that this particular Steppenwolf does not play music and have a cousin named Bachman-Turner Overdrive?  I’m asking for a friend.

(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

Wonder - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

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Tremblay, Roberts and Wilson kindly deliver in ‘Wonder’

 

Directed by: Stephen Chbosky

Written by: Stephen Chbosky, Steve Conrad and Jack Thorne based on the novel by R.J. Palacio

Starring: Jacob Tremblay, Julia Roberts, Owen Wilson, Izabela Vidovic, Mandy Patinkin, Daveed Diggs, and Danielle Rose Russell

 

“Wonder” – Be kind.

 

Auggie (Jacob Tremblay) walks with his parents – Isabel (Julia Roberts) and Nate (Owen Wilson) - towards Beecher Prep for his first day of middle school, and he is terrified.  Sure, middle school can be terrifying for just about any kid.  Think back to your years during that preadolescent and adolescent brew of confusion mixed with caste systems of rumors, doubt and Darwinism that distract from the primary tasks at hand: reading, writing and arithmetic.  

 

His future schoolwork does not concern him, but the potentially toxic social concoction does, because Auggie was born with genetic facial deformities.  Twenty-seven surgeries have helped normalize his appearance, but he does not look like other 10-year-olds, and this kind and thoughtful little boy demonizes himself because of it.  Isabel homeschooled Auggie through fourth grade, but now he is literally taking his first steps on a formal learning institution’s campus, and his mom pleads, “Dear God, please make them be nice to him.”

 

Be kind.

 

Co-writer/director Stephen Chbosky (“The Perks of Being a Wallflower” (2012)) and Tremblay - who is unrecognizable, not unlike Eric Stoltz in “Mask” (1985) – successfully capture Auggie’s emotional 5th grade journey.  That’s no surprise, but Chbosky unexpectedly and refreshingly devotes significant screen time with other key characters as well.  First and foremost, “Wonder” is Auggie’s spiritual mountain to climb.  His challenges also greatly impact others, especially those closest to him, namely his supportive and loving parents and sister, Olivia (Izabela Vidovic) or “Via” for short, and the picture frequently checks in with her often enough to almost call her a co-lead character. 

 

Vidovic’s Via successfully garners admiration and sympathy from the audience, as she deeply cares for her brother but also aches due to less devoted attention from her folks.  The film – at least during its first half – is structured in a chapter-format by presenting the names “Auggie” or “Via” on-screen, as introductions to their individual perspectives.  This approach gives some reprieve from Auggie’s heavy-handed troubles with close focus on Via’s own problems with isolation and the sudden, unknown brushoff from her best friend, Miranda (Danielle Rose Russell).  Certainly, Auggie grapples with monumental changes, but Via’s problems are no less real, as the picture thoughtfully embraces her story with sincerity.

 

Be kind.

 

Roberts is wonderfully cast, as Isabel convincingly communicates her sincere love for Auggie throughout the picture.  In one particular break-your-heart scene (after a difficult day of school), Tremblay and Roberts wholly convey Auggie’s helpless despair and Isabel’s strength to hold it together and not completely sob along with him.  Roberts does not normally play an understanding mom on-screen, but she falls into the role effortlessly with grace and sensitivity.  Wilson’s Nate is the least developed family member-character.  He is easy going dad who must earn at least a quarter of million dollars a year at some unknown big job, but cashes in plenty of time at home to show love and support while also giving Isabel gray hair with occasional glimpses of arrested development.  Nate does not hinder the film’s flow, but we don’t learn much about him, as Wilson basically plays the considerate, but semi-out-of-touch Nick Campbell from “The Internship” (2013).  Hey, perhaps Nate works at Google? 

 

One does not need to confer with Google to know that an acting-triad of Tremblay, Roberts and Wilson - plus a nice performance from Vidovic - will provide compelling moments of celluloid textile for the audience, but the picture is also anchored by a serviceable script.  Surely, “Wonder” carries familiar family and school themes, and it jams too many smaller narratives into one hour and 57 minutes.  In fact, the film feels like it reaches its rightful conclusion at the 1h 40m mark, but carries on for another 17 minutes. 

 

While the film’s beats are common, the characters – including key supporting ones, like Principal Tushman (Mandy Patinkin), a teacher named Mr. Browne (Daveed Diggs) and two school friends – enrich Auggie’s world and ours as well.  “Wonder” delivers a compassionate teaching moment that is so important for kids, and during these divisive times, a most worthy reminder for adults.

 

Be kind.

(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.

Murder on the Orient Express - Movie Review by Ben Cahlamer

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Murder on the Orient Express

 

Directed by Kenneth Branagh

Written by Michael Green

Starring Kenneth Branagh, Penélope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench, Johnny Depp, Josh Gad, Derek Jacobi, Leslie Ododm Jr, Michelle Pfeiffer, Daisy Ridley

 

My uncle once told me that when a movie features a ‘cast of 1000’s’, it typically wouldn’t be very good. This was based on the all-star murder mysteries that permeated tele-movies and theatrical movies of the mid-1970’s where a bevy of big named players would endure a small movie in order to build their credibility as actors. Sydney Lumet’s Murder on the Orient Express from 1974 was one such movie. However, audiences ate it up. Sadly, I haven’t seen it. However, as we explore Kenneth Branagh’s reimagining of the Agatha Christie mystery of the same name, I went in with a fresh pair of eyes and no expectations.

In the lead role of the Belgian detective, Hercules Poirot is Branagh. As the film opens, we learn intimate details about what would today be identified as obsessive compulsive disorder, but as he reminds us early in the story that life is real and murder is out of the ordinary. After solving one last crime, Poirot looks forward to some respite when he is called back into service on the Orient Express bound for France.

As with the aforementioned ‘cast of 1000’s’ comment, Branagh’s Orient Express features a strong cast of big names and up-and-comers. Front and center is Johnny Depp as Samuel Ratchett, an antiquities dealer looking for protection. Willem Dafoe plays Professor Gerhard Hardman, an Austrian professor trying to get to a conference. Penelope Cruz plays Pilar, a sultry au pair with more on her mind than meets the eye. In the plum role of Princess Dragomiroff is Dame Judi Dench, who manages to steal the show without even batting an eyelid. Josh Gad stepped out of his comfort zone as Hector MacQueen, someone who imbibes a bit more than he should. Michelle Pfeiffer surprises as Caroline Hubbard while Daisy Ridley demonstrates that she can wield more than a lightsaber as Mary Debenham. Tom Bateman plays Bouc, the director of the Orient Express and Poirot’s friend.

Mr. Branagh shot the film in such a way that the investigative conversations felt like we were watching a stage play while the special effects made the film feel as grand and as opulent as the train’s namesake. Much like Poirot, Mr. Branagh had a purpose for every shot, and there is an economy in the choices he made. The script, written by Michael Green based on Agatha Christie’s classic novel creates the openness while balancing against the intimacy of the setting. Patrick Doyle’s piano-based score enhances the opulence, the openness and the intimacy that Mr. Branagh aimed to achieve. This is a rare film amongst the special effects laden films we get where something explodes every five minutes. Here, the biggest effect is an avalanche caused by a lightning strike.

The rarity also works against the film. Mr. Branagh makes sure to frame himself, minimizing the supporting characters, especially once they were eliminated as suspects. They each have their moment, yet as the clues mounted up, you begin to realize what the story is about. I struggled with Mr. Bateman’s Bouc, who was extremely helpful in the early stages of the film, even offering some levity to Mr. Poirot’s indulgent nature. As the story wrapped up, he became less and less important. 

I won’t share what questions I had because that would give the film away. However, the visual effects and the opulence that Mr. Branagh delivers makes the film worth seeing on as big a screen as possible.

2.5 out of 4 stars

Novitiate - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

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Leo and Qualley shine during a dim view of the ‘Novitiate’

 

Written/directed by: Margaret Betts

Starring: Margaret Qualley, Melissa Leo, Julianne Nicholson, Dianna Agron, and Rebecca Dayan

 

 

“Novitiate” – Cathleen (Margaret Qualley) is 17 years old and in love.  She is in love with God.  Conversely, her mom, Nora (Julianne Nicholson), never embraced religion and does not quite understand her daughter’s love and faith.  Soon, everything that Nora knows - her own faith in a sense – becomes severely tested.  Cathleen joins a convent, Sisters of Beloved Rose, to become a nun, and Nora believes that she is too young to make this decision.

 

Faith and coming-of-age rise as the two primary themes in writer/director Margaret Betts’s picture that steps inside an unknown world to a vast majority of audiences.  In 1964, this isolated and insulated place lives by its own sacred laws and teachings, in a rigorous and tireless pursuit to transform women into perfect beings, ones who are worthy to devote their lives to God, the Church and Christ. 

 

Since human beings are inherently and painfully imperfect, this quest is ultimately impossible, but there is a certain nobility in becoming the best that one can be.  During the picture, Cathleen’s personal, principled journey ironically feels like she steps into U.S. Marine Corps boot camp.  Instead of becoming trained killer – as described by Gny. Sgt. Hartman (R. Lee Emery) in “Full Metal Jacket” (1987) – she hopes to become just the opposite.  A vehicle to teach and spread God’s love.  The process, however, feels the same.

 

Reverend Mother Marie St. Clair (Melissa Leo) – who has lived at Beloved Rose for 40 years - runs the operation.  Although the Reverend Mother represents the word of God, she shows no warmth towards longstanding nuns and the young upstarts.  She demands that her rules be followed without exception, including “grand silence”, which means that no one on the grounds - not even her - can speak during specific hours of the day.  Betts repeatedly shows nuns walking in silence with their eyes pointing downward on the lovely, pristine campus, and during breakfast - in a cafeteria which looks like a smaller version of Hogwarts’s dining hall – one can only hear forks, knives and spoons gently clanging against plates and bowls.  

 

Silence is one challenge, but it pales in comparison to the 18-month rigor of the novitiate, the time in which the transformation occurs.  The Reverend Mother and other nuns keep the novitiate’s secrets private until Cathleen and the others experience it for themselves, and Betts offers windows into the women’s deepest thoughts, and many times, these reveals will greatly surprise.  For the Reverend Mother, she has heard these spoken thoughts hundreds and hundreds of times, and during the novitiate, Leo’s performance surprises as well.  Sometimes she portrays the Reverend Mother as very engaged and active in dispelling imperfections in her young pupils, and other times, she goes through the motions.  Her mind wanders somewhere else, or she simply dispassionately disconnects, while half-listening to a sob story from another wavering young spirit.  

 

Although others like Sister Evelyn (Morgan Saylor) and Sister Candace (Eline Powell) share Sister Cathleen’s journey, this is her story, and Qualley effectively presents an altruistic, pure spirit with the very best of intentions.  Referring back to the aforementioned two themes, Cathleen’s intrinsic faith does not necessarily waver, but coming-of-age – to her disbelief – clashes with her training and her larger pursuits.  What seemed so clear upon entering the convent is now very cloudy. 

 

Betts’s picture is a takedown of the novitiate, but she also accounts for the year that her film takes place.  During the early 1960s, the Vatican II promoted changes to the church to lighten up or eliminate stringent practices.  Since this particular convent’s traditions are in need of change, some may not view “Novitiate” as a repudiation on the Catholic Church but only its harsh, past practices.   Others may view this film as a complete denunciation.  No matter one’s position, Betts attempts to create universal sympathy for these young women.  

(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.

Lady Bird - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

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‘Lady Bird’ flies with humor and universal, high school truths

 

Written and directed by: Greta Gerwig

Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Laurie Metcalf, Tracy Letts, Lucas Hedges, Jordan Rodrigues, and Beanie Feldstein

 

“Lady Bird” – “None of the things that happen in the movie literally happened to me, but they all rhyme with the truth.” – Greta Gerwig, 2017 New York Film Festival

 

On the surface, Gerwig’s “Lady Bird” – in which she wrote and directed - does appear autobiographical.   Both her and her lead character, Lady Bird (Saoirse Ronan), grew/grow up in Sacramento, attended/attend a Catholic high school and dreamed/dream of getting into college on the East Coast, but as Gerwig says, this film is not her life story.     

 

Still, when watching Ronan play Lady Bird - whose God-given name is Christine – she seems to channel her inner-Greta Gerwig, complete with the writer/director’s on-screen trademarks.  Lady Bird carries a quick wit, a distinct, matter-of-fact assuredness of the obscure and a prideful and purposeful outsider’s point of view.  Observing high school’s absurdities with figurative crossed arms fuels Lady Bird, but she wades in the adolescent think tank just enough to be relatively accepted by its populace, but still deemed “weird” by the popular kids.   

 

Not only does Ronan capture Gerwig’s likable attributes and preaches her words from the screenplay, but she delivers her lines and carries her mannerisms like a devout student of “Damsels in Distress” (2011), “Frances Ha” (2012) and “Mistress America” (2015).  Ronan strolls through this non-autobiographical film with an effortless, breezy ease, like she was born to play this role, even if she is actually five years older than the average high school senior.

 

The picture runs through Lady Bird’s senior year, and along with identifying markers on the calendar – like Thanksgiving, Christmas and St. Patrick’s Day – she delves into hilarious anecdotes and universal moments of dating, theatre groups, school assemblies, and guidance counselor appointments.  These collection of moments do feel familiar with other films, because how many different ways can one slice high school? 

 

Then again, Lady Bird certainly can charm a movie audience.  Not despite her faults, but because of them.  She surely does not have all the answers, because yes, her poised persona is wonderfully mixed with her inexperience.  Thankfully, she can medicate with a seminal Dave Matthews song with her best friend, Julie (Beanie Feldstein), and these two share an engaging, authentic relationship that is not afraid to flash its occasional warts.  Almost every, on-location moment with her fellow students and school faculty captures our attention with rich, clever dialogue but admittedly, does not break new ground.  We’ve seen these stories before.

 

On the other hand, the narrative does feel different than most high school movies, because the script features Lady Bird’s parents – Marion (Laurie Metcalf) and Larry (Tracy Letts) – as prominent characters.  In many high school pictures, filmmakers treat parents like out of touch buffoons (e.g. “Better Off Dead…” (1985) and “The Edge of Seventeen” (2016)).  Other times, parental figures play meaningful but very, very supporting roles (e.g. “Sixteen Candles” (1984) and “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” (2012)).

 

Here, the Marion/Lady Bird dynamic is integral to the story.  While Lady Bird tries to navigate around her school year potholes, she also attempts to dodge her mother’s constant criticism.  Gerwig perfectly casted Metcalf, as she brings an everywoman’s quality to Marion, and this actress knows how to portray a character with decades of emotional baggage.  Marion is the type of mom who wants the best for her kids – Lady Bird and Miguel (Jordan Rodrigues) - but her nitpicking, fault-finding methods do not exactly bloom self-esteem.  Since Lady Bird is Marion’s lone daughter, mom’s daily verbal disapprovals ride on a wide-open, one-way freeway towards this redheaded (with rebellious tinges of pink and purple locks) teen. 

 

Although, Marion is not the Wicked Witch of the West.  Far from it.  She is a flawed, overworked woman, stifled by some unknown broken dreams, and through it all, delivers moments of care and love.  Marion truly loves her family, including Lady Bird, but the mixed messages can be confusing to a high school senior, and her naiveté is expressed through casual, conflicting comments of “my mom hates me” and “my mom loves me” during the picture.

 

She has no doubt where her dad stands, as Larry always expresses unconditional love and support for Lady Bird through a soft-spoken voice.  Letts – a late blooming rising star on the indie circuit – delivers in every scene, and Lady Bird appreciates her dad’s encouragement, but it is always countered by her mom’s less sympathetic persona.  

 

The words coming from Sister Sarah Joan’s (Lois Smith) voice – during a conversation with Lady Bird – probably sum up this particular mother/daughter relationship, and her astute thought (which will not be repeated in this review) could apply to anyone or anything, including the city of Sacramento itself.  Okay, Gerwig’s film may not be her autobiography, but “Lady Bird” will certainly “rhyme with the truth” for many, many others.

(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.

 

LBJ - Movie Review by Ben Cahlamer

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LBJ

 

Directed by Rob Reiner

Written by Joey Hartstone

Starring Woody Harrelson, Michael Stahl-David, Richard Jenkins, Bill Pullman, Jeffrey Donovan, C. Thomas Howell, Jennifer Jason Leigh

 

“May you live in interesting times.” ~ Robert Kennedy

 

Never in the modern political history of the United States has there been a time where we have not lived in ‘interesting’ times. And that irony is not lost on director Rob Reiner, who made the bold choice to focus his latest film, “LBJ” on the life and career of the 36th President of the United States, Lyndon Baines Johnson.

Joey Hartstone’s script focuses on LBJ’s idiosyncratic need to be loved and Mr. Reiner keeps that need center stage, using the constitutional crisis following JFK’s assassination as the impetus for the events. In the titular role of then-Vice President Lyndon Johnson is Woody Harrelson. Harrelson, who has had numerous roles in television and film, also has performed on stage. It is his theatrical nature along with his good humor that makes him such a suitable actor for this role.

The film opens as LBJ and Lady Bird Johnson (Jennifer Jason Leigh) arrive at Love Field along with JFK and Jackie. The onlookers are cheering for JFK on the bright, sunny November day in 1963. As the crowd continues to cheer for JFK, LBJ tries to engage his constituents, though they never acknowledge him. As a senator and the House Majority Leader, LBJ had even fewer friends. Never was this more apparent than the heated distaste between LBJ and Senator Ralph Yarborough (Bill Pullman), who we will discover are on opposing sides of the same initiatives.

Throughout the film, flashbacks are used to show LBJ’s struggles to gain support for his own initiatives. Mr. Reiner and Mr. Heartstone use these flashbacks to support LBJ’s insecurities and Lady Bird’s rock-solid support of her husband as he suffers setback after setback. Harrelson’s performance is good natured, as he tries to work both sides of the aisle, knowing that compromise would get what he wanted, and needed done. The ongoing relationship between LBJ and Senator Richard Russell (Richard Jenkins) was key to this. Jenkins, whose career began in theater, was an excellent match for Harrelson.

Using the assassination as the focal point brings its own set of problems, namely other key players who have been seen on screen before. As JFK, Jeffrey Donovan conveyed the looks and mannerisms, but didn’t bring anything new. Kim Allen as Jackie was rightfully reduced to a smaller performance, but so much happened as the transfer of power occurred that more could have been made of her role. Michael Mosley as Kenneth O’Donnell was solid, but I kept thinking back to Kevin Costner’s performance in “Thirteen Days”; here again I wanted more.

The brightest supporting performance was Michael Stahl-David’s as Robert Kennedy, someone who hasn’t had much exposure on screen. He was the counterpoint to Mr. Jenkins’ Senator Russell, giving us the bridge that LBJ needed to heal a grieving country.

As I mention all the actors involved in the film, a theme of theatricality seems to spring to mind. Mr. Reiner gave the film a theatricality in the way it was staged. Barry Markowitz’s cinematography was static in its framing, but within the framing, there was always some level of fluidity.

The use of the flashbacks to build LBJ’s story became a challenge to sit through. Harrelson did a remarkable job performing through all of the makeup and prosthetics, but the pity party portrayed through the first two acts held the drama back.

It wasn’t until the third act, when he finally determined that he was going to push JFK’s Civil Rights Act without any changes, pushing the nation forward, that we got a true sense of what and who LBJ was. The historical context of his emotional state was interesting, but it seemed to go by the wayside once he was firmly in office.

Mr. Reiner demonstrates that he still has the technical prowess to tell stories. His eye for detail is exceptional and his flair for theatricality is second to none. “LBJ” doesn’t tick all of the boxes for me.

2 out of 4 stars

Thor: Ragnarok - Movie Review by Monte Yazzie

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Thor: Ragnarok

 

Director: Taika Waititi

Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Cate Blanchett, Tessa Thompson, Mark Ruffalo, Idris Elba, Karl Urban, Anthony Hopkins, and Jeff Goldblum

 

In the Marvel Cinematic Universe Thor, the god of thunder, gets the short end of the hammer. Having two feature films and numerous cameos, Thor has been relegated to somewhat of a supporting character position within the heavy hitters in the Avengers. Iron Man is charismatic, Captain America is proud, Hulk is smash, and Thor, well, he has a hammer. Both stand-alone films, which weren’t very good, failed to establish the powerful son of Odin as much more than an ego driven hero who doesn’t really understand, or learn, what his purpose is. The most memorable part of the Thor films was always his brother Loki, played by the scene stealing Tom Hiddleston.

 

“Thor: Ragnarok” makes some exceptional changes; supported by the vision of talented director Taika Waititi, who helmed last year’s fantastic “Hunt for the Wilderpeople”, the film adds a welcome dose of humor and a structure that resembles something akin to a “buddy cop” movie. And who might Thor’s partner in heroics be? Non other than the Incredible Hulk. “Thor: Ragnarok” is easily the best Thor movie and, surprisingly, the best Hulk movie

 

Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is searching the worlds for his father Odin (Anthony Hopkins), who has been missing since Loki (Tom Hiddleston) deviously found his way onto the throne in Asgard. Just as Thor begins to fix the mess his brother and few former foes have created, his long exiled sister Hela (Cate Blanchett) returns to reclaim her rightful position as heir. Thor and Loki, while trying to fight Hela, are sent to a different realm and Hela returns to Asgard to wage war. Thor finds himself enslaved, positioned to fight as a gladiator in a tournament organized by a flashy showman who calls himself Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum).

 

Director Taika Waititi has a way establishing a charming human quality within his stories, one that utilizes witty banter and silly premises while also composing wholly unique characters that seem to fit perfectly into every aspect. This is refreshingly established in different ways throughout  “Thor: Ragnarok”, however the most noticeable change is the use of humor in the film. Thor, who is typically on the receiving end of a good joke in “The Avengers” films, is the primary focus of most of the jokes here. It creates a playful tone, especially when the supporting cast gets involved in the jabs.

 

And the supporting cast is a great mix of actors. Jeff Goldblum makes a wonderful appearance as Grandmaster, playing a flamboyant master of ceremonies. Mr. Goldblum is excellent in the role, chewing scenery with glee. Mark Ruffalo returns as Bruce Banner, providing a nice emotional quality in a few scenes to the character who here is mostly the raging Hulk. Tessa Thompson plays a member of Thor’s ragtag group and fits comfortably in the mix with the heroes. Cate Blanchett plays the formidable villain, there are moments were the character offers a nice counterbalance to the heroes but also times when she isn’t given much to do except wait for the heroes to return and perform in an occasional fight.

 

This use of Ms. Blanchett is an example of how “Thor: Ragnarok” struggles; the narrative operates in such a familiar way that it becomes rather tedious, we know the moves this kind of story is suppose to make. With so many superhero movies coming out during the year it's becoming easier to identify these plot devices. We know a big fight is suppose to happen, we know new characters will enter the journey, we know the hero must fall before they can rise again; with this film many of those devices are present and predictable.

 

Still, “Thor: Ragnarok” is a surprisingly fun if altogether overly familiar. You’ll laugh quite a bit, you’ll get to see some pretty impressive effects, and Jeff Goldblum is here to make you remember how great he is at tailoring a character; all the entertaining check marks will be checked. However, change is on the horizon for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, so enjoy the lightheartedness of “Thor: Ragnarok” because it may be the last laugh before things take a serious turn for the Marvel superhero friends in 2018.

 

Monte’s Rating

3.50 out of 5.00

 

The Square - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

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‘The Square’ marvelously carries bizarre and hilarious edges

 

Written and directed by: Ruben Ostlund

Starring: Claes Bang, Elisabeth Moss, Terry Notary, Christopher Laesso, and Dominic West

 

 

“The Square” – Do you enjoy modern art?   Modern art can offer fascinating trips into extraordinary visions, kooky madness, fashionable imagery turned on its head, and much more.  Walk into a modern art museum, and one might find neon orange cubes that turn purple and then back to their original color every 30 seconds or so.  In another room, one could spot repeated portraits of Sophia Loren layered with newspaper and paraded on the walls, and the adjacent corridor may house an oil painting splashed by one thousand hues and shapes. 

 

Such a museum may even feature the second largest ball of twine on the face of the earth, one that Clark Griswold (Chevy Chase) hoped to visit in “National Lampoon’s Vacation” (1983). 

 

No matter what you think of the discipline, modern art often delivers a feast for senses. 

 

Writer/director Ruben Ostlund’s (“Force Majeure” (2014)) latest film – which won Cannes coveted 2017 Palme d’Or - delivers a feast for the senses too.  It’s a bizarre and hilarious story about an art curator’s wildly unexpected journey within the confines of his social circles, dating life and workplace, the X-Royal Museum.  Christian’s (Claes Bang) day begins like any other, as he walks to work in downtown Stockholm, when an unknown pedestrian approaches him in an unusual manner.  Their off-the-wall exchange results in Christian’s misfortune and triggers a series of repercussions throughout the rest of the film.

 

While trying to navigate through his suddenly-presented First World problem – which should truly be labeled as an inconvenience – he also copes with daily lunacy that matches the peculiar X-Royal exhibits.  

 

Bang – who is 6’ 4” – appears even taller and carries a James Bond-like air.  Debonair, charming and suave, Christian seems like he opted for the British Secret Service early retirement program after one too many close calls with SPECTRE and embraced an alternative, tranquil existence of choosing and promoting paintings, sculptures and other thoughtful works.  The museum surrounds itself with pieces like a towering stack of cafeteria chairs and a looped film of a man acting as a primate, and its newest creation is called The Square and defined as “a sanctuary of trust and caring.”  

 

One might think that The Square would be a pleasant, one-off departure of quiet normalcy, but its promotion hilariously skids off the guardrails, primarily because of Christian’s continued distraction from the said, opening encounter in the film.    

 

Ostlund takes creative chances with situational set pieces that are wildly entertaining on their own, but admittedly do not always fit with the narrative.  For instance, one character (who shall not be named in this review) shares an apartment with a monkey, but the film never explains why.  One could simply conclude that Ostlund solely introduced this infinitely peculiar choice for comedy’s sake, but hey, this particular decision works in the moment and so do many others throughout the film.  Five minutes into the picture, “The Square” sweeps its audience on a ride, accompanied by a figurative florescent billboard that flashes, “Don’t ask questions.  Just go with it!” 

 

Many times, this leap of faith rewards the audience with showers of hysterical riches but also with some uncomfortable ones too, including a scene specifically designed to leave us squirming in our seats for 10 long, agonizing minutes.  One can “thank” Ostlund and actor Terry Notary for the most awkward and uneasy big screen event (within a comedy) in 2017.  Notary, however, is not the only memorable supporting contributor, as Elisabeth Moss (“Mad Men” (2007 – 2015)) wonderfully soaks up every on-screen moment with her perfect comedic timing as an American journalist. 

 

Moss is a treasure, as well as so much of “The Square”, and just like so many experiences when viewing modern art, feasts for the senses are not always easily explained or understood. 

 

Don’t ask questions.  Just go with it. 

(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.

A Bad Mom's Christmas - Movie Review by Ben Cahlamer

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A Bad Moms Christmas

 

Written and Directed by:  Scott Moore, Jon Lucas

Starring: Mila Kunis, Kristen Bell, Kathryn Hahn, Cheryl Hines, Christine Baranski, Susan Sarandon, Peter Gallagher

 

Following on the heels of their breakout hit last summer, Bad Moms’ Mila Kunis, Kristen Bell and Kathryn Hahn return to deliver a Yule tide surprise with Bad Moms Christmas. This time, co-writer-directors Scott Moore and Jon Lucas bring the mom’s moms (Christine Baranski, Cheryl Hines and Susan Sarandon) along for the ride as they all rediscover the meaning of Christmas Spirit.

The film opens amidst a chaotic and destroyed living room with Amy Mitchell (Kunis) in tears. She opens up to we, the audience, to bring us up to speed about how she’s ruined Christmas for her entire family. As she elaborates, the story backs up a couple of weeks to the start of the chaos. We all know how much the holidays can be a struggle for moms as they struggle to give the most perfect Christmas they know how.

For Amy, she struggles with a broken family and a boyfriend, Jesse (Jay Hernandez) with a daughter. Things go from stressful to downright bad when her parents, Ruth (Baranski) and Hank (Peter Gallagher) show up. Moore and Lucas made a point to paint Amy and Ruth’s relationship in a sporting, claws-all-out type battle to offer the most supreme Christmas. The realization of why they try to one-up another at the end of the film is the hallmark (please, pardon my pun) reason why families struggle at this time of the year. I found this duo’s resolution to be the most satisfactory. Both Ms. Kunis and Ms. Baranski seemed to enjoy themselves. It helped that their natural acting abilities and their past experiences were a good match for their characters and their own personalities.

In the other corner is Kiki (Bell). She remains the demure mom of the group as her mom, Sandy (Hines) spends most of the movie trying to ingratiate herself in their lives. Even psychiatric help can’t solve this mother-daughter duo’s issues, but it results in some truly hilarious moments. I felt like this combination didn’t work as well as it could have. Ms Hines and Ms. Bell played their roles too close together and their relationship struggles came off as clichéd rather than genuine, though the reason for their dysfunction is touching.

And then there’s Carla (Hahn) and her mom, Isis (Sarandon). Of the three mother-daughter combinations, their story is the most human. Neither wants anything to do with the other and yet, they need each other more than ever. Carla has a job in a salon and it gives her the perfect opportunity to be as profane, lewd and raunchy as Ms. Hahn can take her character. Ms. Sarandon approached the character as if she was a cross between a gypsy and a trucker, and she relished every moment of her performance. She was a realist as was her daughter, and that’s why I liked their relationship.

None of the laughs in Mr. Moore’s and Mr. Lucas’s script felt forced or out of place, but the humor got to be a bit over the top as each family tried to improve on their gamesmanship. In the end, they managed to bring the meaning of Christmas right-side up. At an estimated budget of $28 million, I would hardly be surprised if this film isn’t another breakout.

2 out of 4 stars

Underrated Horror Movies by Jeff Mitchell, Monte Yazzie and Ben Cahlamer

With Halloween around the corner, the Phoenix Film Festival has a scary treat!  The trailer for “Winchester: The House that Ghosts Built” arrived online this week.  Helen Mirren and Jason Clarke star in this horror film about the mysterious Winchester House residing in San Jose, Calif. 

 

The film arrives in theatres on February 2nd, 2018, but the trailer is here now....

 

Whew…one might have a difficult time sleeping in that house!  Speaking of sleeping, the Phoenix Film Festival critics pulled together their Top 5 Sleeper Horror Movies for the spooky holiday season.  If you are looking for a horror movie or two that you never heard of or are itching to see an old favorite again, here are our three lists!   Feel free to read them at your leisure…if you dare.  

Happy Early Halloween!

 

 

Monte Yazzie’s List….

 

With the demise of the video store and the rise of streaming services, access to mass amounts of film content is now easily and readily available at the click of a button. And with a streaming service like Shudder, which specializes in only horror genre films, the ability to find both classic and lesser known horror movies is so simple. During the Halloween season take some time to watch the classics like “Halloween”, “The Shining”, and “Psycho” but also make some room in your final days of October to watch something lesser known, understated, or underrated. Here are five films that would be great introductions to some new, lesser known horror films.

 

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5. The First Power

 

Three words. Lou. Diamond. Phillips. For some reason I remember seeing the trailer for this film on every VHS horror film I rented in the late 80’s, early 90’s. The premise is similar to a Wes Craven film called “Shocker”, which came out a year before this one. A Los Angeles detective and a female psychic team up to stop a demonic serial killer who has supernatural powers. It’s a police procedural that takes a horror turn. This may be one of those films that means more to people who strolled the video store aisles in the 90’s or who have a soft spot for “La Bamba”.

 

 

4. Sole Survivor

 

Before there was “Final Destination” or “It Follows” there was 1983’s “Sole Survivor”. From director Thom Eberhardt, who also helmed the equally excellent “Night of the Comet”, “Sole Survivor” is a film about a woman who survives a plane crash and is then haunted by the feeling that that she shouldn't have lived through the experience. Just as she begins to move on with her life, the dead begin to come after her everywhere she goes. The film is satisfyingly unnerving; built around a simplistic structure that is nicely composed, crafting an atmosphere that is eerie, and an ambient soundtrack that further adds mood to the surroundings. It’s a film that succeeds on numerous levels, especially in giving the viewer the chills.

 

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3. Blood Rage

 

It’s only fitting that we finish the Halloween season and start preparing for Thanksgiving with a slasher film that takes place during the November feast. “Blood Rage” is one of those lesser known 1980’s slasher films that makes an undeniable impression on the viewer, in fact its one of those films that needs to be seen to be believed. The film starts at a drive-in with a violent murder, twin brothers are at the center of the investigation, and the wrong twin gets sent to a mental institute. It’s a completely bonkers premise that makes good on the gore and has that indelible charm that defined horror actors in the 1980’s.

 

 

2. Cherry Falls

 

Some films you discover in the theater, some you discover on late night cable television; “Cherry Falls” is one of those films I discovered on late night cable television more than likely hosted by Ronda Shear or Joe Bob Briggs. In the vein of teenage slasher films that hoped to capitalize on the success of “Scream”, “Cherry Falls” is one of the best copycats. This film subverts the slasher rules in an ingenious way, here the masked killer targets virgins in a small town called Cherry Falls. Brittany Murphy and Michael Biehn lead a fairly recognizable cast, lending a nice balance of drama and comedy to a horror film that makes bold decisions and confident turns.

 

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1. The Entity

 

Probably the scariest film on the list this time around. “The Entity” is a film that makes the most of its “based on true events” tagline, crafting a creepy and atmospheric vibe that builds impressive tension and boasts an exceptional performance from Barbara Hershey. A young mother undergoes the terrifying experience of being sexually assaulted, a disturbing and graphic portrayal, by an unseen entity. As she looks for help from friends, who don’t believe her, and scientists, who question her mental state, things only get worse. It’s a shocking and exploitive film that may not be for every horror fan, but for those willing to make the journey, it’s one of those films that will stay with you long after the credits roll.

 

Jeff Mitchell’s List….

 

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5. “The Brood” (1979)

 

Director David Cronenberg made a living for years by delving into body horror, and “Scanners” (1981), “Videodrome” (1983) and “The Fly” (1986) rightfully garner plenty of press and accolades.  Don’t forget his 1979 effort about a woman named Nola (Samantha Eggar) who begins bearing children in a most bizarre and twisted way.  One scene in particular could give you nightmares for days, weeks, months…

 

4. “Black Christmas” (1974)

 

“Halloween” (1978) might be considered the first mainstream slasher film, but director Bob Clark’s picture arrived in theatres four years earlier.   A group of sorority girls hope to spend a joyous holiday over Christmas break, but an unknown maniac – with unknown motivations – attempts to murder them one by one.   Creepy and violent, it has a raw and unsettling edge.  Margot Kidder stars.

 

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3. “Open Water” (2004)

 

Scuba diving in the Caribbean sounds like a fun way to spend a holiday, but for Susan (Blanchard Ryan) and Daniel (Daniel Travis), their trip turns into an unthinkable nightmare.  Their boat mistakenly leaves them, while they were swimming below the ocean’s surface and find themselves treading water with sharks nipping at their heels.  A suffocating movie that will make you hold your breath and lift up your feet from your living room floor.

 

2. “High Tension” (2003)

 

This savagely brutal French picture innocently begins with Alexia (Maiwenn Le Besco) inviting her college friend, Marie (Cecile De France), to her family’s farmhouse for rest and relaxation.  Unfortunately, this Norman Rockwell setting soon turns into a place of mayhem, when a mysterious stranger enters and splatters buckets of his victims’ blood all over the figurative artwork.  A wild twist elevates director Alexandre Aja’s already memorable picture.

 

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1. "The Orphanage” (2007)

 

Laura (Belen Rueda) moves back to the closed orphanage that she lived in years ago and brings her husband and son as well.  Spooky noises and a child with a sack draped over his head appear, as this old house does not contain fun and games for Laura and her family.  Guillermo del Toro produced this emotional stunner from Spain, which is not an ordinary ghost story.

 

 

 

 

 

Ben Cahlamer’s List….

 

Only within the last year has Ben begun to submerse himself in the world of horror, so you may find his list focus on more recent titles. We imagine over the next few years his mind will be blown by what he’s been missing.  Here we go…..

 

5. “Green Room” (2015)

 

This film might not be underrated, but it certainly feels underseen. The film from Jeremy Saulnier features Anton Yelchin in one of his final performances. Patrick Stewart is in a role that we’ve seen before, but never in this setting. It’s a lot of fun.

 

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4. “Hounds of Love” (2016)

Ben Young’s debut film is more of a thriller, but the implications of it read horror for the main character, Vicki played by Ashleigh Cummings. Emma Booth and Stephen Curry were equally as dangerous.

 

3. “Raw” (2016)

This French-Belgian horror film stunned audiences at Cannes in 2016 and ran the art house circuit in the US this year. While the technical side of this film is stunning, especially the makeup, effects and camera work, Garance Marillier was absolutely divine as Justine.

 

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2. “Damien: Omen II” (1978)

In the middle of a mainstream resurgence of horror films, sits Don Taylor’s sequel to one of the more famous horror films. It is not as strong as the original, but the performance by Jonathan Scott-Taylor as young Damien still haunts me.

 

 

 

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1. “Alien 3” (1992)

This entry might turn some heads, but I have an affinity for David Fincher’s first big studio feature. Fraught with production issues, the film makes logical choices given the events of the two films that preceded it, even if they aren’t rational. The reason why I like this film so much is because it makes such brilliant use of dark corners. There really is no place to hide.

Thank You for Your Service - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

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‘Thank You for Your Service’ effectively offers a rare look at soldiers coming home

 

Directed by: Jason Hall

Written by: Jason Hall, based on the book by David Finkel

Starring: Miles Teller, Beulah Koale, Joe Cole, Haley Bennett, Keisha Castle-Hughes, and Amy Schumer

 

“Thank You for Your Service” – “How do you remove the shield that the warrior has been given in order to (step) into battle?   Taking away that shield is very hard.” – Jason Hall

 

Writer/director Jason Hall’s Iraq War movie is not a conventional one, because it focuses on soldiers returning home and the adjustments, struggles and churn that present brand new challenges for them.  As Hall explained in a recent Phoenix Film Festival interview, in order for the military to turn men and women into warriors, they have to teach them how to be fearless and to charge into harm’s way.  When soldiers come home, however, that emotional shell or shield that they have built - through training and combat - is not easily removed.  

 

Additionally, their homes that they originally left now feel different.  For the soldiers in “Thank You for Your Service”, their home is Kansas.

 

Adam (Miles Teller), Solo (Beulah Koale) and Will (Joe Cole) are three young Iraq veterans, who return home and attempt to restart their lives but are hampered and haunted by the emotional, mental scars endured from their time in Iraq.   This film carries an introspective, thoughtful weight, with quiet conversations and moments of reflection, as Adam, Solo and Will attempt to transition from a dangerous, violent Middle East arena to making breakfast for children, looking for work and addressing a broken relationship, respectively. 

 

While the men try to cope, Hall includes their families and significant others as equal partners in this after-combat equation.  Generally speaking, without any insight into their partners’ experiences overseas, soldiers’ spouses might wrongly assume that a life of normalcy at home is the perfect recipe to dial down from the front lines.  For these men, and hundreds of thousands of others who have served/are serving in the military since 9/11 and who suffer from a traumatic event, life is not nearly as easy as walking through the front door, receiving a hug, enjoying a meal, and soundly sleeping. 

 

Adam’s wife, Saskia (Haley Bennett), very quickly understands that her husband is not acting like himself and repeatedly asks him to communicate with her, but he remains mostly silent.  Not completely silent, but certainly not forthcoming on the details of his troubles.   While at a racetrack and hearing the noisy cars whizzing by as strident, mechanical white noise, Saskia looks for straight talk from Adam.  He gives her some sense – through osmosis - of a far away, grizzly encounter, but then gets up, walks to a fence surrounding the track and stares at the masses of steel burning up the concrete.  Adam knows that he needs help and solely opening up to his wife will not address the problem.   Solo is in worse shape, and with his partner, Alea (Keisha Castle-Hughes), carrying their baby, he knows that a comforting, pleasant future existence of family will be impossible, because he feels like a ticking time bomb. 

 

Unfortunately, the clock ticks and ticks and ticks at their local VA, as they wait and wait and wait for help, as the film effectively addresses the current supply/demand issues at veterans’ hospitals.  With not enough professionals to see the emotionally-wounded warriors, Adam, Solo and many other vets sit in the lobby, with the very dim hope of counseling actually occurring, and if it does, it could be months down the road.  The problem is: their problems exist right now. 

 

Will’s circumstances place him in even more dire straits, but he becomes a secondary character in the film, even though his important screen time greatly impacts the narrative.   Adam Schumann and Tausolo ‘Solo’ Aeiti are real life Iraq veterans, and this film is a depiction of their lives, based upon journalist David Finkel’s book of the same name. 

 

On its own, “Thank You for Your Service” is a moving, emotional and difficult journey, but when one recognizes that this movie captures the true stories of these men, it resonates even more.   During a screening and Q&A of the film with Hall on Oct. 12 in Tempe, Ariz., one also quickly realizes that the onscreen stories can be universal to any veteran in any branch of service.  It is a vitally important movie while clearly demonstrating that taking away that shield is very hard.

(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.

 

Wonderstruck - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

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‘Wonderstruck’ delivers cinematic wonders with a less effective mystery

 

Directed by: Todd Haynes

Written by: Brian Selznick

Starring: Millicent Simmonds, Oakes Fegley, Julianne Moore, and Michelle Williams

 

“Wonderstruck” – “Lighting can best be seen in the dark…Bright persons do best in bad circumstances.” – Erik Tanghe

 

In 1977, Ben (Oakes Fegley), a preteen boy living in Minnesota, runs into terrible circumstances, as a one in one hundred million chance event crashes down upon him.  Actually, it flashes down upon him, as a bolt of lightning upends his life.  The said event and the moments leading up to it then lead Ben on a journey, one towards New York City. 

 

Fifty years earlier, Rose (Millicent Simmonds), a preteen girl living in New Jersey, makes a mad dash for New York City as well.  Rose wishes to catch a glance - and in fact, some attention - from a stage/screen actress, Lillian Mayhew (Julianne Moore), as she rehearses for a new part, somewhere on Broadway.  

 

Although, these two kids share a similar journey, “Wonderstruck” slowly reveals - over 1 hour 57 minutes – that Ben and Rose have much more in common than initially meets the eye, which is the heart of the picture.  

 

Director Todd Haynes certainly has an eye for embracing beautiful cinematography with “Carol” (2015) and “Far from Heaven” (2002) proudly standing his resume, and this movie is no different.   Brian Selznick’s screenplay (based upon his book) alternates between the two time periods, and Haynes plays along with two dramatically distinct visuals of The Big Apple.  Haynes films 1927 NYC in black and white, but sometimes it feels like warm grays and whites.  In one particular scene, the bright lights of Time Square glow off the big screen, as their graceful rays seem to wrap the theatre audience with a gentle hug. 

 

Rose carries an earnest heart, but does not frequently receive gentle parental hugs.  Her stern, strict father constantly directs verbal assaults in her direction, and her absentee mother is not physically or emotionally available.  In fact, adults rarely provide comfort for her, but in one moment on the bustling streets, a random man reaches out his hand to help her up from the sidewalk.  As he gives Rose his undivided attention for a few seconds, she offers a rare smile, grateful for the kind gesture.   Simmonds offers delicate gestures of humanity through every minute of screen time, as she delivers a beautiful, heartfelt performance as emotionally renascent as the radiant glows from the city. 

 

She is a vulnerable kid in this massive place.  With the odds stacked against her, yes, she can satisfy her childhood ids, but only with perseverance and lots of luck.  You see, Rose is deaf.  Simmonds shares the same disability with her in real life, and Haynes adapts to Rose by always presenting her view of the world with the audience.  We – in turn – find her daily reality challenging and surprising.  The audience and she still receive 100 percent of her environment’s emotional messaging, even though she only carries 80 percent of her sensory gifts.  Credit Simmonds and Haynes for cinematically transporting us into Rose’s reality.

 

Even though Rose and Ben live in difficult realities, “Wonderstruck” operates in a world of mystical forces of fate.  These same forces pull Ben towards New York City, and his urban ecosystem looks, feels and sounds dramatically different than Rose’s.  Tight-fitting polyesters of oranges, yellows and purples dot and dance on the seas of rich, multicultural humanity.  While Rose’s world might be rigid and cold, Ben’s is lively and chaotic.  Both are intimidating and foreign to inexperienced children and are framed differently in their respective metropolitan glories.

 

Much of the film’s experience during the first hour contrasts their journeys, and the disparities and parallels effectively and cinematically offer intrigue.  Some parallels are obvious.  For instance, both kids engage with the same meteorite at the American Museum of Natural History.  Other experiences are more subtle, and the film would require multiple viewings to process many of its thoughtful visuals into actual audience connections.  On the other hand, the first hour’s pacing requires patience at times.  One could easily view Haynes’s movie as a classroom exercise for film students to pause, rewind, replay, pause again, and dissect.

 

As the film comes together in the third act, the mystery between the two kids’ connection becomes resolved.  Actually, rather quickly, but some of the smaller motivations – outside of their control - remain unclear and untied.  Perhaps Selznick and Haynes are expressing that kids will never have total insight into their parents’ ultimate rationales, or that children just try their best to see their complete realities while searching in the dark, even when a bolt of lightning leads the way.

(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.

 

 

 

Suburbicon - Movie Review by Ben Cahlamer

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Suburbicon

 

Directed by George Clooney

Written by Joel Coen, Ethan Coen, George Clooney and Grant Heslov

Starring Matt Damon, Julianne Moore, Noah Jupe, Oscar Isaac, Glenn Fleshler, Alex Hassell

 

No matter how much progress is made, race, money and politics are firmly in the minds of Americans. These are not necessarily negative subjects to talk about. As a matter of fact, if history has taught us anything, it’s that we are less close minded about these subjects, even if we still don’t like to talk about them. In fact, director George Clooney takes several risks to bring these subjects front and center in his latest film, the dark comedy Suburbicon.

Set in the late 1950’s, the small, unassuming and peaceful community of Suburbicon is just the haven families sought to escape from the hustle and bustle of city life. Suburbicon had all the amenities that a growing family needed to continue growing; plenty of land, lots of space and plenty of opportunities to socialize. Suburbicon hides its problems well. 

Perhaps a little too well.

As the film begins, the peaceful suburban respite of Suburbicon is disrupted when the Mayers move in, affecting the community as a whole. Behind the Mayers live the Lodges. Gardner Lodge is an extremely successful executive.  He has a wife, Rose and a son, Nicky. They seem to have everything they could want. A late night break-in results in Rose’s death and shakes the family to the core.  Rose’s sister, Margaret moves in to help take care of Nicky. Even with the citizens of Suburbicon up in arms over the Mayers, something more sinister involving the mob seeps in just below the surface.

Matt Damon plays the simple, yet multi-faceted Gardner Lodge; “simple” because the plans he hatches are so very simple and easy to trace. He’s multi-faceted because he has the foresight to counteract the hurdles he creates for himself, except one. Julianne Moore has had an absolutely stellar year and this is no exception. Noah Jupe plays Nicky; he is the quiet-type and is extremely respectful of his elders, a sign of the times the film is set in. Oscar Isaac shows up and steals the show while Glenn Fleshler and Alex Hassell are the strong arms.

In deference to Mr. Clooney, he went all out to make sure that we felt right at home, right down to the looks of the homes and the cars along with the situations the characters were placed in. Each of the cast members got the nuances of the characters right too. The film is so full of amazing detail along with Alexandre Desplat’s luscious score, that I felt like I was looking at a moving postcard, it’s that uncanny.

Sticking to the details, Mr. Clooney also assumed multiple risks in tackling such an involved film.

As swell as this film looks and sounds, the risks don’t pay off. Much like the sprawling suburb of Suburbicon, the script written by Joel Coen, Ethan Coen, Mr. Clooney and Grant Heslov hides its problems a little too well. The Coen’s originally wrote the script in the late 1980’s shortly after filming their acclaimed Blood Simple. Mr. Clooney and Mr. Heslov rewrote the script. The result is a series of outlandish and whacky vignettes which work because of the Coen – esque characters, but the overlapping narratives overlap the characters. The story objectifies the situations, rather than romanticizes them.

Which is a shame, because I am a huge sucker for all of the talents involved.

2.5 out of 4 stars