Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

‘Jeremiah Tower:  The Last Magnificent’ is a doc that gets cooking


Directed by:  Lydia Tenaglia

Starring:  Jeremiah Tower, Mario Batali, Anthony Bourdain, Martha Stewart, and Wolfgang Puck


“Jeremiah Tower:  The Last Magnificent” – “The preparation of good food is merely another expression of art, one of the joys of civilized living.”  - Dione Lucas


“The worse thing that ever happened to me was that I wasn’t an orphan.” – Jeremiah Tower


Walking into this movie, I must woefully admit that I have never heard of Jeremiah Tower, but my knowledge of legendary chefs is very, very limited.  Julia Child, Gordon Ramsey, Anthony Bourdain, and Wolfgang Puck are the few names that come to mind, and – interestingly - over the course of the 1-hour 43-minute runtime of “Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent”, the latter two chefs actually appear in the documentary.  During this film, Bourdain, Puck, Martha Stewart, and a host of knowledgeable individuals in the culinary arts heap mountains of praise on Mr. Tower, and some also clearly mention the mystery surrounding the man.


Director Lydia Tenaglia attempts to uncover the mystery, and she presents a film that recounts Tower’s accomplished life.   She conveys – in great detail – Tower’s biography, including the influences that stemmed from his childhood.


Through Tower’s his own words, he describes the treatchurous obstacles that plagued him as a kid.  Without illuminating the reasons in this review, Tower says that food became his best pal, his companion and also adds that he read menus before books.  


Food became a comfort (pardon the pun) to him, not in terms of gluttony, but in celebration of it.  Through Tower’s verbal recitals into the past and several photos from yesterdecade, they help chronicle his experiences growing up.  He built the foundation for his gastronomic passions from the challenges of his youth.  Eventually, this leads him to become known as a father of modern American cuisine, and this self-taught chef brought two restaurants to massive prominence in one area of the country, the Bay Area:  Chez Panisse in Berkeley during the 1970s and Stars in San Francisco during the 1980s. 


Both places succeeded for different reasons, but Tower made food more dramatic and built menus based upon locally-grown ingredients and the personality of the region.  The film has fun with photos from Stars’ heyday, as the restaurant’s name is truly apropos.  Musical acts like Run-D.M.C. and the Beastie Boys frequented the locale, that – inside - resembled an ocean liner from another planet, complete with an 80-foot bar.  It was a theatrical experience, and Tower was its director. 


Like in the movies and in life, events can appear in threes, and Tower does not escape this organic rule of the universe.  The documentary records his third act in the industry, and we see and hear his firsthand experiences as well.   Tower has a massive reservoir of culinary knowledge, and Tenaglia offers us a peak into his world in real time. Of course, pioneers who define their own directions can also be complicated, and Tower is no exception, as the film properly presents that side of him as well.


Tower’s visions of his craft surely appear on the big screen, but I could not exactly connect the dots from his 1970s and 1980s experiences to his influence in present-day eateries.  Experts and semi-experts of modern restaurants might unquestionably and easily know how to draw these logical lines, but to laymen (like me), it is a blind spot.   


Still, “Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent” successfully documents a fascinating life of a man who influenced a couple generations within the universe of the culinary arts, and after watching his film, it will probably persuade you to step inside a nice restaurant. 

(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.


The Wedding Plan - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

‘The Wedding Plan’ executes very well


Directed and written by:  Rama Burshtein

Starring: Noa Kooler, Irit Sheleg and Oz Zehavi


“The Wedding Plan” – “If I get married, I want to be very married.” – Audrey Hepburn


Director/writer Rama Burshtein perfectly named her new film, because in “The Wedding Plan”, Michal’s (Noa Kooler) wedding is the movie’s signature event, and this character – in her 30s - has hoped for marriage her entire adult life.     


It’s her goal. 


It’s hard work, and she yearns that her search for Mr. Right will quickly end, like a “karate chop” smashing into a board. 


Most of all, her search is emotionally difficult, however new challenges have just begun. 


You see, Michal finds herself engaged to Gidi, but the unthinkable occurs. With the wedding a month away, Gidi reluctantly admits that he is not in love with her and backs out.  With a wedding planned but no groom, Michal pushes forward and trusts that God will provide a husband in time. 


Burshtein’s film is about marriage, not the complications of the institution, but the pursuit of it.  Through Michal, Burshtein explores the honest reasons – which I will not reveal in this review - that we search for a life partner, and her lead character leaves herself open to slights about her pursuit, that admittedly does feel desperate.  In fact, Michal freely admits despair.


At the same time, Michal’s feelings are justified.  They are legitimate.  Burshtein turns the camera on Kooler’s Michal, and this director and actress do not generate pity for her, but strength.  Strength through Michal’s convictions.  Burshtein deeply dives into her script, and Kooler successfully carries Michal through the fire of societal traditions that have burned her over a lifetime…and the film’s month-timeline.


She feels like an outcast, and throughout the picture, she absorbs repeated verbal jabs which reinforce that feeling.  More than a few call her crazy, because she is holding a wedding and hoping that a groom will magically appear, but one particular scene cuts much deeper. 


Michal owns a petting zoo and brings a snake for a small group of girls.  The kids are initially hesitant, but the teacher or aide instructs Michal to put the reptile away and later asks, what kind of woman would handle a snake?  This short but telling conversation highlights a symbolic gesture towards Michal.  She’s perceived as a woman who is less than. 


Yes, Michal is strong but also damaged by the occasional scrapes from blazing her own trail.


Kooler blazes her own trail too.  Working mostly in television, this is her first lead in a feature film, and the camera loves her.  Burshtein liberally frames Kooler with close-ups and places most of the scenes in close quarters. Kooler utilizes her acting gifts to convey restraint under turbulent circumstances, as we see every subtle change in sentiment while other entrenched emotions bubble to the surface.  She is wholly convincing as Michal, a woman under duress, and the picture ends and begins with her engaging performance. 


“The Wedding Plan” includes several supporting characters too – like Michal’s mom, sister and a small group of friends – but the film never really develops them, and they feel like random faces in a crowd.  This is Michal’s story, so it is not necessarily an issue, but I wished for more crowds.  Specifically, the film’s style is very conversational, and many scenes occur with two (or a few) characters in living rooms or an occasional dining room. Michal mentions that she lives in Jerusalem, so I was hoping to see some daytime shots, outside among crowded streets with Israeli scenery as a backdrop.  We do get one small moment on the beach at the Mediterranean Sea in the evening, but of course, for those who know Israel, Jerusalem is about an hour to the coast.


Burshtein’s film, however, does not coast.  It works hard delving into this self-inflicted predicament of a most determined woman.  Michal meets a highly diverse group of men along the way, and one might become her groom, or perhaps not.  While watching this picture, my hope was to see Michal grow along the way, groom or not. 

(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.




Alien: Covenant - Movie Review by Monte Yazzie

Alien: Covenant


Director: Ridley Scott

Starring: Michael Fassbender, Katherine Waterston, Billy Crudrup, Danny McBride, Demian Bichir, Carmen Ejogo, Jussie Smollett, Callie Hernandez, Amy Seimetz, and Nathaniel Dean


It's one of the most iconic surprises and images in genre film history, a gory scene of violence when an alien came bursting out of human's body in director Ridley Scott's space horror film "Alien". If you are brave enough to watch that scene again, I know genre fans will be, watch the reactions of the cast standing in the room as actor John Hurt begins to writhe in pain. The moment the alien appears you'll notice that all the actors in the room have looks of utter terror on their faces. That's because Mr. Scott didn't tell the crew what was going to happen or how intense it was going to be.


"Alien: Covenant" takes the theme of terror found in the original film and works to recreate the experience, building a film that works to erase the mythology and world building of Mr. Scott's last outing with this material in "Prometheus". Unfortunately in the effort to create a film that seems to be aimed for pure fan service, the interesting bits that "Prometheus" introduced are overlooked to compose a new film that takes a little bit of everything the "Alien" saga has crafted over its near 40 years of existence and mashes it together.


A crew of colonists are en route to a remote planet, an expedition that seems to encompass both an aspect of discovery and desperation. While in deep hyper sleep an accident occurs that forces the crew to awaken earlier than expected, an accident that takes the life of their captain.  A choice is proposed to the team, continue on the path to the original planet or venture into unknown territory to explore another planet that shows positive signs of habitation. Of course things don't go as expected and the Covenant crew comes face to face with an alien force.


"Alien: Covenant" honors the brand that has brought the franchise this far. Instead of moving in the direction of "Prometheus", which was to explain the origins of the aliens and discover the role of the "engineers" that played a predominant background role throughout much of the "Alien" mythos, this film film simply provides the alien design fans are familiar with and adds a bigger dose of mayhem.


Mr. Scott has crafted more of a horror film this time around, with aliens stalking victims who consistently make the worst decisions characters in slasher horror films can make. It seems unnecessary to critique the lapses in logic and gaps in cohesiveness seen in "Covenant" mostly because it's clear that this film is operating as merely a loose link to connect "Prometheus" to something that can connect to the 1979 "Alien" film. Who cares that the Covenant crew has a military team that doesn't operate with any kind of military mindset? Who cares that you land on a new planet and just start stomping around without any care of danger or risk? When you've got aliens who cares, right?


If you can get past the glaring flaws in character motivation and storytelling, there is a really good performance from Michael Fassbender who keeps every scene that he is in completely intriguing. There is genuinely a good story brewing with his character, one that touches on the interestingmythology, focuses on the critical flaws of humanity that have shaped the world in this film, and maybe even a little commentary about imperialism. It's all given to Mr. Fassbender through the use of two robot characters, one we've seen before named David and an upgraded model named Walter. His performance and character will repeatedly keep your interest in the film.


Mr. Scott is a confident and skillful filmmaker who crafts beautiful worlds. Look no further than "Blade Runner" or "Gladiator" for examples. His undeniable touch is seen throughout "Covenant", the long corridors of the ship harken back to the horror atmosphere found in "Alien" and the action set pieces move with the anticipation and intensity seen in many of his films. In small pieces throughout there are some really good things. While these elements offer a few moments of fun while you are watching the film, you'll soon remember that many of things you like about this film have already been done, sometimes better, in other "Alien" films.


Monte's Rating

2.25 out of 5.00

Paris Can Wait - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

‘Paris Can Wait’ might cause impatience


Directed and written by:  Eleanor Coppola

Starring:  Diane Lane, Arnaud Viard and Alec Baldwin

“Paris Can Wait” – Cannes is a dream for anyone who loves movies.  Well, this coastal city – located in the south of France and just down the road from Nice – is a dream for anyone, whether he or she enjoys movies or not.  (Although, who could possibly fall into the latter category, really?)  Of course, Cannes hosts the annual Festival de Cannes – a.k.a. The Cannes Film Festival - and Anne and Michael Lockwood (Diane Lane, Alec Baldwin) are completing their stay at the aforementioned event.  They just finished breakfast, and their bags are packed.


They soon arrive at a nearby airport – with Jacques (Arnaud Viard), Michael’s business partner/local chaperone - to head to Budapest on a private plane, but Anne’s ears are bothering her, so the pilot recommends that she shouldn’t fly.  Rather than take a train to Hungary, she decides to travel back to their friends’ apartment in Paris, and Jacques offers to drive her to The City of Light, about eight or nine hours away. 


Makes sense, right?  Jacques knows the way, and he is Michael’s trusty business partner.  The problem is that Jacques is not exactly trustworthy, because he is a desperate flirt.    


Director/writer Eleanor Coppola’s film is a road picture, set in the beautiful, lush countryside of France under bright and optimistic blue skies.  Even though “Paris Can Wait” envelops Anne in a warm spring setting, Coppola – right away – sets a tone of casual angst and places her in an irritating predicament.  With Jacques’ one-two combination of frequent come-ons and a laissez-faire travel mantra, Anne quickly realizes that she is in for a long, winding trip.  


For example, Jacques pulls his green Peugeot into a gas station and mentions that he likes to stretch his legs and smoke a cigarette about once an hour when traveling.  Whether they are stopped or not, he constantly showers her compliments and chivalrous courtesies, as if they are embarking on a first date.  Mind you, he does not step over physical boundaries, but Jacques’ intention is crystal clear.


It’s difficult, however, to respond to the cinematic dramatic tension, because Jacques – even though he is cultured, knowledgeable and friendly - is not particularly likeable, at least to this moviegoer.  His advances – although again, not physical – are so blatantly over-the-top, there is very little sincerity in his courtship.  Surely, he believes that Anne is gorgeous, talented and intelligent, but he may have run through this romantic admiration-routine with a dozen women within the last week.  Not unlike the cartoon character Pepe Le Pew, the skunk who repeatedly stalks a black cat who accidentally acquires a white stripe of paint on her back, Jacques is shameless in his attempts for amorous approvals.  I have not watched a Pepe Le Pew cartoon for probably a couple decades, but I remember feeling lots of sympathy for the black cat.  Those feelings came rushing back for poor Anne, but to her credit, she keeps her real-life Pepe at arms length with grace and patience.   


Lane’s Anne – on the other hand – is very likeable.  Coppola does a nice job of establishing her as thoughtful and kind.  Back at the hotel, Anne and Michael’s room has a gorgeous view of the sea, but her eye is drawn to small details that one may not necessarily notice.  An amateur photographer, she takes close-ups of a half-filled glass of orange juice, a portion of a croissant and an empty group of tables on the landing below.  The small nuances of life are not lost upon her. 


Michael seems to have his good qualities too, but this Hollywood producer takes phone call after phone call, managing the small details of a complicated movie with little time for anything else.  His ringtone literally barks, so one can easily imagine that Anne has been hearing it in her sleep for years.  No wonder her ears hurt.   Anne has been emotionally rejected over the course of her marriage too, but Michael is not necessarily a current candidate to become a jilted husband. 


There are shades of gray here, and I appreciate Coppola for not making this potential infidelity a black and white issue.  On the other hand, a road picture needs its leads to have chemistry and its characters should fit or gel.  Unfortunately, I did not sense many sparks between Lane and Viard, and Jacques does not seem to be a plausible answer for Anne in the short-term and/or long term.  


This movie does, however, provide an answer to the question: What is food porn?  Jacques and Anne enjoy a fantastical bounty of French cheeses, wines, fruit tarts, breads, and chocolates.  This film absolutely knows how to rev up our taste buds, as they embrace appetizing pleasures during their journey, even if Anne does not appreciate the extra attention bestowed upon her.  Running at 1 hour 32 minutes, “Paris Can Wait” is a light affair that soaks up lovely scenery while presenting the possibility of an altogether different type of affair.  Just don’t expect that it will win a Palme d’Or award anytime soon.  You might be waiting a while.    

(2/4 stars)


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

An interview with Victoria Negri, director of Gold Star by Jeff Mitchell

“Gold Star” arrived in the Valley for the 2017 Phoenix Film Festival, and Victoria Negri not only directed the picture, but she produced it, wrote the screenplay and also played the lead named Vicki.  In the movie, Vicki’s father, Carmine (Robert Vaughn), suffers a stroke, and she commutes between New York and Connecticut to see her dad but then reluctantly falls into a caretaker role. 


Victoria took great care in crafting “Gold Star”, her first feature film, and she graciously found time to speak with the Phoenix Film Festival for an insightful 30-minute interview.  In real life, Victoria’s father ran into similar health issues, so she explains her inspirations to make this movie and describes the significant differences between Vicki and herself.  Regrettably, Vaughn died in November 2016, and “Gold Star” turned out to be his last film.  Victoria opens up about her experiences with Vaughn, reveals where “Gold Star” is heading next and much more.


PFF:  Vicki seems disconnected and unwilling to open up with her dad.  Perhaps it is because she is taking on a caretaker role or seeing her dad in a less healthy state is proving too difficult to process.  Why is Vicki feeling this way?


VN:  Obviously, “Gold Star” is a really personal film, (but there are) differences between what I actually went through and what (is) coming up with this character.  In real life, I was very close with my father.  I was there for him every day, when I could be there to take care of him.  (Although), I witnessed a lot of people in my life - close with my dad - who couldn’t bring themselves to even see him when he was sick.  It was painful for me to witness, and I was interested in exploring what that’s like.  What is it like to not be able to watch somebody in the last stage of their life?  My father couldn’t speak or communicate that well, so that made it difficult. 


I really wanted to explore, with Vicki, a character who is avoiding this looming presence of death.  She’s in complete denial.  She’s trapped by her inability to decide what to do in terms of her father.  So, she’s living in between these worlds, a life in New York and a life with her family in Connecticut.  Should she be there for them?  If not, what should she be doing? 


All of that (becomes) exaggerated, because she’s in her early 20s.  So, she’s young and hasn’t even figured out who she is yet.  To look at a parent and lose who (he or she was) is extremely shocking and difficult for somebody who probably isn’t the most mature person.



PFF:  So, Vicki’s experience was certainly not yours.


VN:  It’s very different.  Obviously, it was very difficult to see my dad struggle, and I was hopeful that he would maybe recover.   I (remember) thinking, ‘Oh, my 80-year-old father can bounce back from this.’  That’s one level of denial, but I was really interested in (exploring) the people in my life who (weren’t there).



PFF:  If Vicki took truth serum, what would she say to her dad?


VN:  “I’m sorry that I didn’t get to know you better.”    


I think kids are selfish.  Even me, and I think that I am much different than my character.  I heard my dad tell the same stories over and over, and I have so many regrets (about) not asking him more questions.  Now that he’s gone, I wish that I could talk to him about “this”.  You take people for granted, so I think if she took truth serum, then she would realize that.  It’s not quite truth serum, but I think that so many people have regrets in that way.



PFF:  Vicki meets Chris (Jacob Heimer), and he seems to hit it off with Carmine.  On one hand, Vicki appreciates Chris.  She likes him but also resents him too, because he seems to get along so well with her dad.  Why is it that our friends, colleagues or total strangers can just walk in and get along with our parents, when we may not?


VN:  That’s such a great question.  Why is that?  I guess that there’s no pressure.  There’s no pressure trying to please anyone.  (They) can just be themselves. 


Vicki is never herself around her father.  She’s herself around Chris, but not her family.  So, yea, I think it’s that.  A total stranger can walk in and not have that burden. 



PFF:  Are there one or two moments that you had with Robert Vaughn that stand out?


VN:  The scene (when) I am sitting next to him on the beach.  It’s a really emotional moment for both characters, and I used to bring my father to that beach all the time.  I asked Robert if he wouldn’t mind wearing my father’s red beret in the scene, (and he did). 


I was intimidated by him at the beginning of shooting, because he’s a legend, and this is my first film.  I was incredibly nervous.  So, this is the first big scene, and I just remember sitting next to him on the bench (at the beach) and something clicked.  An entire afternoon on the beach, I just sat with him.  We looked at the water, and I let the crew set up behind me. 


He told me about his fear of drowning. I felt really comfortable with him, because we’re having this moment in a place that was really special with my dad and me.  I brought my father there after his stroke in his wheelchair, so it’s really similar.  I remember acting with Robert during that scene, looking at him and thinking of his career, and who he is just fell away.  He just became Robert, a surrogate father to me.  That was a really powerful day. 


And other stuff.  Fun things.


He’d give me all of these nicknames.  He called me Mighty Mouse, because all of those caretaking scenes.  They are really physical.  I move him from a chair to the wheelchair, and I boost the chair up a step (in another scene).  I had to do that like 10 times, so yea, he called me Mighty Mouse.  He was just fantastic, and he interacted with everyone.  My sister was on-set, and he was asking her questions about (our) family and flipping through my parents’ wedding albums.


I could go on and on, but I think the beach day was the most special day.  Definitely.



PFF:  Did he give you input on the father/daughter relationship, or did he play it straight and go with your vision?


VN:  He played it straight and went with my vision.  Yea, he was really asking a lot of questions about what I went through with my dad. 


I remember right after we cast him, he asked, “If your father had a mantra, what would it be?  What was the thing that was his guiding principle that I can latch onto?”


I said, “I think it would be mind over matter.  He was a very determined person.” 


So, we carried that through and thought about how he would play the character.  Yea, he was extremely trusting of me.  As questions came up, he would ask them within scenes, especially because he has no dialogue. 


He would ask, “If I could say something, what would I say?”


We would talk about it together, but he just really listened, paid attention and played off of me and Catherine (Catherine Curtin).  I was blown away, that he trusted me that much. 



PFF:  How cool was that?

VN:  Yea, it was really cool [laughing].  He had no ego.  He was really there to help me make the greatest film that I could, and he was excited about how challenging the role was. 



PFF:  I believe that Robert died before he saw the film.  Is that right? 


VN:  Yea.  So, I sent Robert’s wife a DVD a few months before he passed away.  I knew he was sick, but I didn’t know how sick he was.  They kind of kept that under wraps from me, until he passed away.  His manager called me (when he died) to let me know, before they announced it publically which was the sweetest thing.  I was incredibly honored that the (family) did that, and I didn’t have to see it on the Hollywood Reporter or something.  I went to his funeral and spoke with his wife afterwards, and she said that she brought the DVD to his hospital room, (but) he wasn’t well enough to watch it.


So, I don’t know. I’m really torn about it.  It’s strange.  I feel like that I have no catharsis in so many ways.  I had this amazing relationship with Robert on-set.  We spoke a few times on the phone, and he mailed me a Christmas card.  It continued up until he got sick, and (then) it was obviously radio silence, and then he passed away. 


I was looking forward to celebrating with him at premieres.  I don’t know.  I guess every kid goes back to wanting their parents to say, “Good job.  I’m proud of you.”  


I think that Robert kind of became a father figure on-set, (and) I was so hoping that he would watch the film and be proud of it.  Obviously, I never got that.  I think - and I hope - that he would be proud of it.  The biggest reactions to the film - any moments in the film - are from him, the subtle moments of him without words.  That’s why he wanted to do it, for that challenge.  It’s been a strange journey with so many levels of loss layered onto this film for me, but I am proud of it, and I think he would be too.



PFF:  In the “Gold Star” sequel, do Vicki and Chris live happily ever after in Connecticut?


VN:  I think it takes Vicki a while to figure (things) out.  Maybe she bounces around more and decides to come back to Connecticut.  Maybe Chris is still available, maybe he’s not.  She probably, eventually comes around, but she probably runs away again.  I don’t know that she gets the closure that she needs for a while. 



PFF:  I totally see that.


VN:  I think she needs to find herself, before she can do that.



PFF:  Where is “Gold Star” heading next, and how was your Phoenix Film Festival experience?


VN:  The film is playing at The Art of Brooklyn Film Festival opening night on Wed., June 7, and then we are up for a lot more film festivals after that.  I’d like to play through the fall, because that will give us a year on the festival circuit. 


The Phoenix Film Festival.  I have to say that my conversations at the Phoenix Film Festival were just incredible.  I was standing in that lobby for so long with people and just talking.  It was really refreshing.  You go to some film festivals, and you have to work so hard to get anyone to come to your screening, but people at the Phoenix Film Festival just want to see good stuff.  You walk into that lobby, and you see full queues of people waiting to see films.  It was really incredible.


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




The Lovers - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

Letts and Winger masterfully play a flawed couple in ‘The Lovers’


Written/directed by: Azazel Jacobs

Starring: Tracy Letts, Debra Winger, Melora Walters, and Aiden Gillen


“The Lovers” – “Cheating and lying aren’t struggles.  They’re reasons to break up.” – Patti Callahan Henry


Michael (Tracy Letts) and Mary (Debra Winger) have been married for eons.  Perhaps many of their years together have been happy, but not recently.  Residing in Santa Clarita, California, this 50-something couple share a comfortable suburban home and drive to white-collar jobs that one might find near Initech, the infamous company from “Office Space” (1999). 


Although Michael and Mary have zero passion for their day jobs, their work does not create emotional heartburn, per se.  No, Michael and Mary have, instead, checked out from a different job, their lifelong commitment to one another.  Their marriage.  On the figurative love-meter scale, their needle unfortunately resides at zero, as they sleepwalk through their mornings and repeatedly lie about staying late at the office, so they can canoodle with their respective lovers. 


Yes, both Michael and Mary are cheating on each other, but their best-laid plans of starting new lives with two others hit an unexpected bump that shake their foundations in this light – but absorbing - comedy/drama from writer/director Azazel Jacobs.  Shuffling romantic partners is not a brand-new cinematic concept, but “The Lovers” hooks us because of Letts and Winger’s nuanced performances and an unexpected twist that drives the main narrative. 


Letts is riding high from 2016 with three very memorable supporting roles in “Indignation”, “Wiener-Dog” and “Christine”.  He is an expert at playing caustic characters who seem to distantly sting from a past wrong turn taken in life.  Here, Michael regrets a couple wrong turns as well but does use them as excuses to verbally sting Mary.  He just keeps his distance.  Michael is not without his faults, but he does not stir audience disdain for his transgressions either.  He simply looks for happiness with the wrong girl, a challenging and demonstrative ballet teacher named Lucy (Melora Walters).  One wonders if Michael is attracted to drama, because he does not step away from her, despite her occasional explosions. 


Winger is very likeable as Mary.  Now, the screenplay implies that Mary has known about Michael’s affairs for years, and therefore, she decides to follow the what’s good for the goose is good for the gander approach and found a new man, Robert (Aiden Gillen).  Michael may have apparently wronged his wife for a long, long time, but Winger’s Mary does not play a victim.  She seems to have calmly concluded that their imperfect marriage ran painfully adrift and reclaimed her happiness by standing tall and sharing her life with someone else, a few hours at a time. 


Well, it is wonderful to see Winger on the big screen again for the 1-hour 34-minute runtime of “The Lovers”, especially because I have not seen her in a film since 2008’s “Rachel Getting Married”.  In that movie, her character – in a hugely explosive scene – becomes entangled in a vicious spat with her daughter (Anne Hathaway).  Winger has a history of playing tough, complicated and sometimes damaged women who are not afraid of a fight.  Similar to Letts, many of her characters will not shy away from a terse argument, but Mary might. She is strong but soft, feminine and willing to talk first rather than don verbal boxing gloves.  One hopes that happiness is truly in her future, even if her chosen new love interest occasionally shows his petty side.  


“The Lovers” might be a small movie, but Letts and Winger show off huge amounts of talent and charisma.  The two truly feel like a married couple of 30 years.  Each spouse intimately knows the other’s breathing cadences, and their “secret decoder rings” translate the slightest inhalation changes.  In other words, each one instantly recognizes when the other lies...and cheats. This brisk and thoughtful indie does not lie and/or cheat, but it sneaks up on us with its smarts, charm (which includes a very well-placed song, performed by Letts) and unexpected steps to find love.

(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.


Happy - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

‘Happy’ demonstrates that love is magic and happiness requires work


Written/directed by:  Michael Patrick McKinley

Starring:  Leonard Zimmerman


“Happy” – “Love is magic.  You can have it.  Reach into the air and grab it.” – Afrobeta


“If you want to be happy, you have to work to make it happen.” – Michael Buckley


As “Happy” opens, we are treated to the upbeat beats of Afrobeta’s “Love is Magic”, along with the visuals of someone just starting his day.  This unidentified person turns off his alarm clock, hops in the shower, pours some coffee, puts on socks with different patterns for each foot, tightens up the bows of his high-top Converse sneakers, grabs a stack of yellow stickers and his keys, and heads outside to the warm sunshine of Augusta, Ga.


This person is an artist named Leonard “Porkchop” Zimmerman, and “Happy” is a documentary about his story.  During 9 to 5, Leonard is a graphic designer for an ad agency.  His coworkers rave about his unique, positive energy, but – through his art – Leonard’s reach stretches far beyond the agency. 


Leonard is primarily known for his robot paintings.  His colorful, mechanical characters are sometimes placed in contemporary settings that communicate big ideas about the human condition.  For example, in one painting, a robot holds an umbrella and nervously looks up at one lone, gray cloud sitting right above its head.  Other times, Leonard might pick an iconic item of pop culture, like recreating “Sgt. Pepper” with four robots standing in place of The Beatles or a robot who doubles as a View-Master and places a circular wheel of photos inside its own head.  In addition to his robot paintings, Leonard started another project that is named after the title of this movie.  Much to his surprise, it has hugely expanded from Augusta to a worldwide stage.  He has touched countless numbers of people with his art, including director Michael Patrick McKinley.   


McKinley discovered Leonard’s art and felt inspired to make a film about the man.  Hence, McKinley now has the titles of director, writer and producer of “Happy”.  This is McKinley’s first film, and he successfully constructs an absorbing documentary over a speedy 1-hour 18-minute movie experience.  Sure, Leonard’s engaging personality, talent and work provide a rich cinematic canvas for McKinley, but this director also gets it right by including important details needed to make a well-rounded doc. 


This includes a welcoming plethora of Leonard’s photos and home movies from his childhood, probably hundreds of examples of his paintings, an explanation of his style which resembles an Ernest Hemingway quote, and spectacularly bold, plush moments from his life today.   


Of course, these images and heartwarming touches need narrative context, and McKinley includes a wide variety of artists, friends and colleagues who lend their voices and explain their positive connections to Leonard.  After just a few minutes, one realizes that they all really, really wanted to speak about the man.  One of the most memorable individuals is Rosanne Stutts, Leonard’s art teacher and very constructive mentor who immediately recognized his talent.  Leonard’s parents, Nona and Leonard Sr., emboldened him too by embracing his curiosity and imagination.  His creativity – while growing up - was not spurred by a negative environment.  Instead, his spirit came from a home of warmth and joy. 


Although be warned, the film introduces a very difficult, painful period that entered Leonard’s life and tossed him around like a Category 5 hurricane snatching, spinning and crumpling one lone leaf from a sugar maple tree.  It left him shaken to his core with no relief in sight, as the film’s bubbly pleasantries shift into moments that deflate hope. On the other hand, adversity begets growth. In Leonard’s case, this is certainly true.


“Happy” captures both Leonard’s strong foundation and winds of adversity that make up his environmental DNA.  It is a film that embraces the easy breeziness of love found through friends, colleagues, families, and partners.  It is magic.  It also spells out that no magic pill can make you a happy person.  Happiness is a choice, and one has to work to make it happen.  I have a feeling that Leonard “Porkchop” Zimmerman could inspire you to do the same.

(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.


The Wall - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

Taylor-Johnson and Cena cannot rest against ‘The Wall’


Directed by:  Doug Liman

Written by:  Dwain Worrell

Starring:  Aaron Taylor-Johnson, John Cena and Laith Nakli


“The Wall” – What images immediately come to mind when you read the words, “war movie”?  Human history unfortunately can provide thousands of examples in which people become mired in mass conflict and attempt to kill one another, and the big screens sometimes masterfully recapture those horrific struggles. 


For me, three films immediately pop into my brain.


Steven Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan” (1998) illustrates the murderous spectacle of war via the Allied invasion of Normandy.  Stanley Kubrick’s “Paths of Glory” (1957) depicts the brutality of war, when French soldiers scurry over mud, crawl under barbed wire and dodge German gunfire and grenades in No man’s land during World War I.  Lastly, “The Deer Hunter” (1978) places the enemy’s face in close-up view, as Vietnamese guards force American prisoners of war to play Russian roulette against one another, again and again and again. 


All three are all-time classic war movies, among the best in cinematic history.  Director Doug Liman’s “The Wall” is not an all-time classic, but it is a good film and also very different than most war pictures.  It does not carry the grand spectacle of “Saving Private Ryan”, the visceral brutality of “Paths of Glory” or a close-up view of the other side like “The Deer Hunter”.  Instead, it pits two American soldiers against an unknown enemy in the middle of 2007 Iraq, four years after the United States claimed “mission accomplished”.   


Sgt. Isaac (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Staff Sergeant Matthews’ (WWE’s John Cena) mission is to investigate a situation.  About eight American contractors lay dead - where they stood - in the middle of seemingly Nowhere, Iraq.   Isaac and Matthews, very experienced through several difficult tours, believe that the person responsible is not too far away, and therefore this ordinary, partially-constructed infrastructure site is extremely dangerous. 


After Isaac and Matthews become caught in a fiery exchange, the only refuge is a modest, stone wall, about 20 yards long.  This wall was part of a school that the Americans destroyed during the war, and now it serves a much different purpose.  “The Wall” – which runs a scant 1 hour 21 minutes – has a very small cast, but it raises big moments of anxiety in a couple of ways. 


The enemy is a sniper, hiding somewhere close by, and Isaac and Matthews initially have zero clue where he or she is located.  The shots could be coming from anywhere, and Liman sets a noticeably unsettling tone.  Isaac and Matthews - simply standing upright in plain view and with high-powered rifles in hand – could be struck down in any second, and the beads of sweat running down their brows might also be running down ours as well.  This tension-filled setting feels like an outpost from a rustic western with the sun beating down on our heroes and barren desert stretching in every direction. 


They are alone, and their only occasional companions are subtle and not so subtle noises.  Bits of torn plastic wrap flapping in the breeze and the crunching of dirt fall into the former, and the piercing cracks of single gunshots belong in the latter.  The gunshots repeatedly surprise the men as much as they surprise us, especially since the actual crack of a fired bullet arrives about a second after it strikes its intended target.


Targeting this sniper is the most pressing problem, and with his or her unknown whereabouts, “The Wall” effectively offers a sense of isolated doom.  Doom is featured in other ways too, as the film raises bigger questions about the Iraq War itself.  Through creative means, Isaac and the sniper actually communicate, and they reveal their motivations within a war without an apparent purpose. 


We have seen the hellish results of war in just about every such movie that I can remember, so Liman’s picture does not break any new ground in that respect.  It does, however - through subtle conversation and the complications of laying in the desert behind a modest stone wall - underscore their dire circumstances, and how their lives were irrevocably changed because of decisions made at the highest political level. 


Five years from now, “The Wall” will probably not enter my consciousness when I think about great war films, but individual soldiers fighting for a cloudy cause - four years after the conflict supposedly ended – could still linger.

(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.

Chuck - Movie Review by Monte Yazzie



Director: Phillipe Falardeau


Cast: Liev Schreiber, Elisabeth Moss, Naomi Watts, Ron Perlman, Jim Gaffigan, Michael Rappaport, Pooch Hall, and Morgan Spector



Do you recognize the name Chuck Wepner? What if I told you that Chuck Wepner was a boxer who went the distance in the ring with Mohammad Ali when "The Greatest" was in his prime, in the first fight after Ali defeated George Foreman in Zaire in "The Rumble in the Jungle". Ring any bells? Sounds unbelievable right? Sounds like something out of a movie? Well, if you've seen the film "Rocky" then you've seen the film inspired by Chuck Wepner.


"Give the White Guy A Break", that's how boxing promoter Don King billed the fight between Wepner and Ali. The fight had everything good sports stories are made of, a blue collar underdog going up against a sports icon with a loud mouth, a scrappy fighter known for taking a punch (Wepner was nicknamed the "Bayonne Bleeder") verse a flashy fighter known for giving a punch, and at its core a fight that had more to do with the racial divide than it did for the talents of the fighters. The surprise of the whole thing, Wepner made it 15 rounds and knocked Ali down to the ground.


Director Phillipe Falardeau isn't so much concerned with the big fight, it plays a role as an early first act transition. What is emphasized is Wepner's life after the fight, the fame from the unexpected hit film "Rocky", the indulgence of women and drugs, and of course the subsequent fall from fame and the spotlight. Regardless of how much Mr. Falardeau tries to tell a different boxing story, the film still utilizes many of the familiar motifs found in sports/boxing films. But, just like Chuck Wepner, the film puts up a pretty good fight.


Liev Schreiber plays the embattled boxer, a liquor salesman one day and a local folk hero the next day, with charm and confidence. It's a quality that makes it all the more difficult to watch the character when mistakes are made over and over again. In one of the most cringe-worthy scenes Chuck is given an opportunity to try out for the "Rocky" sequel by Sylvester Stallone (played convincingly by Morgan Spector), his addictions ruin the opportunity. Mr. Schreiber maintains a grounded performance throughout that gives the character surprising appeal amidst his extensive flaws.


Elisabeth Moss plays Chuck's diligent and patient wife Phyliss with the steadfast hope that her unfaithful husband will change his ways, and when he doesn't she becomes a woman determined to never be stepped on again. Naomi Watts shows up for a supportive role as Chuck's new girl Linda, a woman unwilling to commit to a man who won't change or see that life has a different purpose than remaining relevant. It's a small role but Ms. Watts does a good job of creating quick chemistry with the Mr. Schreiber. Also making appearances are Jim Gaffigan as Chuck's best friend, Ron Perlman as his trainer, and Michael Rappaport as his brother. It's a good cast all playing support to Mr. Schrieber's lead.


Unfortunately as the film begins to delve into Wepner's downfall, the interesting character bits begin to disappear in favor of the standard biopic sentiments that gloss over a lifetime of information in order to show the upward trajectory for the character in the end. While Mr. Schreiber's performance and voice over narration help when the film begins to wane, the familiarity and compliance to never explore the fighting character more than surface interactions prevents the film from having a lasting effect.


Monte's Rating

3.00 out of 5.00

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 - Movie Review Monte Yazzie

Guardians of Galaxy Vol. 2


Director: James Gunn

Starring: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Michael Rooker, Kurt Russell, Karen Gillan, Pom Klementieff, Elizabeth Debicki, Sean Gunn, and Sylvester Stallone


Have you ever made a mixtape? Those of us from the cassette days probably understand this concept best. It can be a complicated process depending on the kind of theme you want the music to have. Do you start the mix off with something that gets your adrenaline flowing? Do you slowly build the mix towards a climactic final song? For those experienced in this process, you know that there is always a standout mixtape that all other mixtapes will be judged by.


"Guardians of the Galaxy Vol.2" is like a mixtape in regards to how it handles composing all the good feelings and emotions in order to match the quality that made the first film so excellent. Happy to say that director James Gunn has made a pretty good mixtape of a film here, one that has more emotion and feel good moments than expected, though a few choices keep the film from reaching the heights of its predecessor.


The Guardians of the Galaxy, lead by Peter "Star-Lord" Quill (Chris Pratt), are introduced in preparation to fight a new foe, a blobby, tentacled beast with pulverizing rows of razor sharp teeth. Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper), and Drax (Dave Bautista) fly around chopping and blasting at the beast while an adorable Baby Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel) upstages the entire action set piece with a dance number. From the early moments of the film you can feel the playfulness and silliness that made the first film so unique in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Mr. Gunn, who also penned the script, enjoys moments of levity in his films. When another film would bask in a tension filled action scene, Mr. Gunn instead opts for well placed sight gag or a verbal jab. Many times in his films, it's a welcome moment, however in "Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2" it undercuts some of the nice emotional content that he builds.


The emotional content here was an unexpected surprise, there are more than a few moments that will tug at the heartstrings. It provides an opportunity for the talented cast to display some insight into their characters. There are familial themes strung throughout the entire film, fathers and sons, the bond of siblings, the abandonment and loss of family are a few. Mr. Gunn does a good job of utilizing these narrative elements to add some structure to the characters, which is necessary considering there is no true origin story for the world that these characters operate in. While little elements continue to become clear concerning the core Guardians' team stories, the focus is clearly on Peter Quill's backstory and family. This allows a welcome surprise from veteran actor Kurt Russell playing Peter's father Ego with the kind of charm and laid back demeanor that has made Mr. Russell so appealing for all these years. It's great casting because it's not too big of a stretch to see Mr. Pratt follow in the same career path as Mr. Russell.


The team in the "Guardians of the Galaxy" film are a near perfect mix for a ragtag team of heroes, even though they aren't the original team from the comic books. While the spotlight was evenly distributed in the first film, some characters are given lesser or too much attention in the sequel. Gamora is trying to patch up her past quarrel with her sister Nebulla (Karen Gillan) but the conflict is never given much time to fully have the impact that it should and Drax's vengeance-fueled emotional quality is substituted for comedy that sometimes hits but mostly misses the target.


There are fan surprises throughout the film, a quality that this franchise completely understands how to incorporate without ruining a scene. But the surprises aren't limited to Marvel world connecting or one-off references to lesser known comics, it's also how Mr. Gunn makes a digital character like Rocket Raccoon the heart of the film or how he takes the talented abilities of Michael Rooker and provides the actor with a character and material that displays why he is such a great actor. While this film may not compose the combination of elements that made the first film so impressive, it's still consistently fun and filled with heart. A good mixtape is a good mixtape.


Monte's Rating

3.50 out of 5.00

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 - Movie Review by Kaely Monahan

Starlord returns to work through some daddy issues

By Kaely Monahan


Making a sequel is hard but Marvel has built an empire out of creating not just sequels but vast interconnecting storylines that somehow feed our inner need for a great action film. Even so, there’s always a chance the second film in a franchise will not reach a fan’s hopes and dreams. That said, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 comes nearly there.


James Gunn is at the helm was once more both writing and directing GotG2. Starlord (Chris Pratt) is back with his characteristic swashbuckling style and flair for the dramatic. The entire crew returns with Zoe Saldana as Gamora, Dave Bautista as Drax, Bradley Cooper as Rocket and the totally adorable Baby Groot, who Vin Diesel voices.


The film opens with a flashback to when Peter Quill/Starlord’s mother was with his father, Ego, played by a young-looking Kurt Russell. Some necessary plot points are planted here before moving on 37 years later. We catch up with the Guardians on a planet filled with a race of golden perfectionists. The Guardians are tasked with saving a shiny object—in this instance, batteries of some amazing power. They have to fight what looks a cross between a slug and an octopus—which shall henceforth be called a “slug-o-pus.” For whatever reason, slug-o-pus wants the batteries. Does he want to eat them? Does he want to wear them? Perhaps his phone needs charging? Who can say?


For all the spectacular action sequences, the film quickly zeroes in on its focus: family. If the first film is about finding yourself, this one is about finding your family. For Pratt’s Peter Quill, it means discovering who is father is and what his heritage means. For Gamora and Nebula, it’s realizing what being sisters is all about. Even Rocket goes through an incredible character arc in the short amount of time that he’s on screen.


The film isn’t afraid to question what family is. Peter has to decide if his family is the one he grew up with and created with the Guardians, or if it’s the relationship with his blood father. There is also a strong vein of forgiveness—even if you screw up over and over again.


James Gunn and fellow writer Dan Abnett put together a remarkably deep storyline despite the shallowness of some of the characters. At first glance, you might not catch just how introspective the story is.


What this Guardians film lacks is the magic of the first one. The initial film had a certain spunk and sparkle that took us completely off guard. The bar was raised very high, which means the second film must be beyond spectacular. GotG2 gets pretty close, but some of the jokes feel forced; there’s a few moments that feel flat. Baby Groot, for example, was really built up in the promos, but some of his novel cuteness seems to have suffered from too much exposure leading up to the film. He’s cute, but not that cute. His best gags were given away in previews.


The relationship of Gamora and her sister Nebula feel sacrificed for time, which is unfortunate. These are two powerful female characters in the Marvel universe and they hardly get time to work out their storylines. This is very unfortunate, but unsurprising. From the beginning, Marvel films have struggled to give due credit to the female heroes. (Where’s our Black Widow film??)


James Gunn and Dan Abnett had a real golden opportunity to give these women real depth but more screen time was given to a CGI raccoon and a blue alien. No offense to Rocket or Yondu. While the story arc for both Rocket and Yondu were great and emotionally satisfying, us lady fans of Marvel could really use a win for the superwomen in its universe .


Even Starlord’s daddy issues feel subverted by the emotional rollercoaster Rocket goes through. By comparison, these two get almost equal screen time. Baby Groot and Drax are reduced mostly to comedic sidekicks who have no real story, but then there’s only so much time you can devote when you have more than seven important characters.


In the end, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 accomplishes its goal of being an entertaining follow up on our favorite space heroes. Is the first one better? Yes. But this one holds up rather well and fans, for the most part, won’t be disappointed.



   • Kaely Monahan is a radio producer, entertainment journalist, and the creator of Popcorn Fan Film Reviews. Follow her @PopcornFans and @KaelyMonahan.


Five Must-See Kurt Russell Performances By Jeff Mitchell

Five must-see Kurt Russell performances


“Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” arrives in theatres on March 5, and our five heroes – Star-Lord, Gamora, Drax, Rocket, and Groot (actually, Baby Groot) return to ride through the cosmos and attempt to save the galaxy again while offering heaps of action, humor and alien-human-plant-raccoon camaraderie.  New characters appear as well, but none more pivotal than the one played by longtime, Hollywood action star, Kurt Russell.  Russell shines in Marvel Studios’ latest effort, but the man has been blazing across big screens for decades, appearing in over 50 featured films since the 1960s.  In celebration of his new role in “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2”, let’s look back at a portion of his illustrious film career.  There are so many highlights to choose from, but instead of including every one of his films, here are five must-see Kurt Russell performances.      


“Bone Tomahawk (2015), Sheriff Hunt – Russell’s most famous performance in a western is Wyatt Earp in 1993’s “Tombstone”, but his best work within the genre is in writer/director S. Craig Zahler’s “Bone Tomahawk”.  In this picture, Sheriff Hunt (Russell) leads a group of three other men – played by Richard Jenkins, Matthew Fox and Patrick Wilson - on a long, treacherous journey from their town of Bright Hope to a frightening community of cannibalistic cave dwellers.  About 75 percent of the film embraces the pureness of the American western with saloon drinks, cowboy talk (i.e., “If you don’t say who you are, I’ll shoot you dead.”) and the open range, but the last 30 minutes delve into gruesome horror that will be etched in this movie critic’s brain for eternity.  Don’t say that you were not warned!  On the other hand, Russell’s machismo persona nicely gels with the other three leads, as their verbal jousting and friendly banter during their trek will absolutely bring a smile to anyone who loves westerns.  A hidden gem.


“Escape from New York” (1981), Snake Plissken – The year 1997 was a relatively peaceful time in America, but not in writer/director John Carpenter’s dystopian action picture.  In “Escape from New York”, 1997 New York City is no tranquil walk in the park.  In fact, the federal government walls off Manhattan Island and declares it a prison for the most ruthless criminals, and somehow the U.S. President (Donald Pleasence) finds himself trapped inside.  Enter Snake Plissken (Russell), the ultimate tough guy with a black tank top, eye patch and a snake tattoo breathing on his stomach.  This former military specialist with two purple hearts cuts a deal to rescue the president within 24 hours in a race against time inside an infinitely violent concrete jungle.  Everyone he meets seems to think that he was already killed but do not test this assumed dead man.  Ernest Borgnine, Adrienne Barbeau, Harry Dean Stanton, and Isaac Hayes join in the “Mad Max”-like carnage in this classic action film.


“Miracle” (2004), Herb Brooks – “I’m not looking for the best players, Craig.  I’m looking for the right ones.”  - USA Hockey Head Coach Herb Brooks (Russell)


Coach Brooks has only seven months to construct and train a hockey team to play in the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, and with a very short window to put a championship team on the ice, he tells his assistant coach, Craig Patrick (Noah Emmerich) that needs the right players.  Brooks recruits 21-year-old hockey “kids”, who attempt to do the improbable: win a gold medal for the United States.  Director Gavin O’Connor and Russell recreate a terrific, behind-the-scenes look at Brooks’ out of the box thinking and methods which inspired 20 young hockey players and an entire nation.  While the players - sometimes begrudgingly - follow Coach Brooks’ words, we gaze and listen to every moment that Russell appears on screen in one of the most satisfying sports movies in recent decades.  


“Do you believe in miracles?” 


Well, after seeing this movie, we all should.


“The Thing” (1982), R.J. MacReady – Director John Carpenter’s “The Thing” is best known for its wild special effects and extreme gore, but his movie is much, much more than buckets of blood and innards thrown on the screen.  It is an intense and frightening story within the cramped confines of a lonely science institute on the world’s most desolate continent.  You see, a malevolent alien enters the compound with the ability to kill and mimic any living creature and hides in plain sight, disguised as one of the men in the isolated premises. 


Any of the men could be the creature, as the no-nonsense pilot, R.J. MacReady (Russell), rightly exclaims, “Nobody trusts anybody now.”


Russell delivers an unforgettable performance as MacReady, and while under extreme duress and terror, this character keeps his cool in order to survive an impossible situation. He is the type of guy who you want quarterbacking your football team, a person with plenty of street smarts and a burly toughness to lead men, even when they don’t want to be led.


“Used Cars” (1980), Rudy Russo – Admittedly, writer/director Robert Zemeckis’ comedy has not particularly aged well over the last 37 years.  The shock value of its raunchy punchlines feel dated, and the “Smokey and the Bandit” (1977) bit in the third act is a bit tired.  Still, when Rudy Russo (Russell), an especially talented, scheming car salesman, tells a perspective female car buyer that her hair matches the color of the tires, one becomes amazed with his power of persuasion.  During Rudy’s journey to raise enough money to leave the car business to become – of all things – a state senator, “Used Cars” flashes some memorable faces from the past, like Al “Grandpa” Lewis, Michael McKean and David L. Lander.   The movie was shot in the Valley too and showcases some filmed footage of the ASU Sun Devils!  Really? 


As Rudy would say, “Trust me!”


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

The Dinner - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

‘The Dinner’ serves up an intriguing, tense drama


Written/directed by:  Oren Moverman

Starring:  Richard Gere, Laura Linney, Steve Coogan, and Rebecca Hall


“The Dinner” – Look up “dinner” in the dictionary, and it reads “the principal meal of the day” and “a formal feast or banquet”.  For most households, however, dinner has a larger meaning.  It is a time when families congregate to share their experiences and feelings while also - functionally - breaking bread.  Sometimes laugher fills these caucuses, but many times, family members toss issues on the table and either productively work through them or dive deeper into valleys of conflict. 


For decades, television shows have featured American experiences at the dinner table, and one might find industrious communication on “The Waltons” or “Leave it to Beaver” or something altogether dysfunctional like on “All in the Family”.  


Seriously, did anything productive ever occur when Archie (Carroll O’Connor), Edith (Jean Stapleton), Michael (Rob Reiner), and Gloria (Sally Struthers) sat down for a meal?


In writer/director Oren Moverman’s “The Dinner”, he invites the audience to a family affair, and his characters need to discuss an event.  An event in which nothing good happened, and in fact, it is much, much worse than nothing good.  The meal is not in someone’s home but in an exclusive French restaurant, complete with posh, dimly lit rooms, expensive wine lists and five-star menus.  This is a place in which four servers and a maître d present every meal’s celebratory course.  A place that serves diverse, intricate tastes like Thumbelina carrots, pumpernickel soil, Bayley Hazen Blue cheese, and bananas Foster without even breaking a sweat, but four patrons are certainly feeling pressure.


Brothers Stan (Richard Gere) and Paul (Steve Coogan) share some serious tension.  Most of it emanates from Paul, as he regularly fires heaping amounts of disdain towards his brother, who is a prominent U.S. congressman.  Prior to the dinner, Paul has zero desire to step outside of his home with his wife, Claire (Laura Linney), and spend any time with Stan and his wife, Katelyn (Rebecca Hall).  He figuratively stomps his feet at his house, on the way to the restaurant and throughout the meal.  Coogan is perfectly cast as Paul, dripping with sarcasm and out-of-line insults towards anyone - not named Claire – within his immediate view. 


Those with razor sharp wit can verbally dance with clever, humorous banter, but Paul’s words cut with razor sharp blades that slash with direct intention to cut one’s spirit, one vicious, snide remark at a time.  Paul is fascinating, because to the audience, we do not have insight into his motivations, and Coogan raises the intrigue for us to discover it.  Meanwhile, Stan, Claire and Katelyn challenge his caustic remarks, but sometimes, they just casually accept his mean-spirited words.


Like it or not, Paul is emotionally damaged, and Linney’s Claire seems to have absorbed the negative energy throughout the years, like a victim slowly exposed to toxic radiation, day after day, week after week and year after year.   Not enough exposure to kill someone at once - or even over a lifetime - but enough to wound one’s psychology and general state of peace. 


The four enter this meal with baggage but must address a new a challenge, one also concerning family. 


The next generation. 


Moverman introduces this challenge over a cracked foundation of twisting quarrels.  The film meticulously opens the mysteries to Paul and Stan’s history and their children’s (Rick, Michael and Beau) present through a slow burn, but sometimes the picture releases effective, quick-hitting explosions.  We are teased too, as the dinner itself runs into several snags in navigating from one course to the next, and usually at least one person is leaving the table.  One wonders if anyone will touch their food at all or even address the elephant in the room…that these four know all too well.  We just guess. 


After a while, we do not have to guess any longer.  The exact reason for the dinner could completely blow up these nuclear families, and the fallout might never possess a half-life.  This dinner will hopefully navigate the future, but when opinions are split - especially when it comes to the fate of one’s children - emotions run high. 


“The Dinner” may or may not provide answers that the audience would like, but it addresses mental illness and the trials of parenting in a forceful way.  The picture’s shrewdly-written script and top-notch performances effectively introduce the characters’ stressors, which are simultaneously both familiar and not fully understood to us.  Then again, the concept of family is not complicated, although its mechanics are.  This makes the potential for any evening meal – whether it consists of meatloaf or four courses – to become an involved and emotional experience.  (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.

The Midnighters - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

Russom and Fort shine in ‘The Midnighters’


Written/directed by:  Julian Fort

Starring:  Leon Russom, Gregory Sims, John Wesley, Larry Cedar, and Charles Dierkop


“The Midnighters” – Victor (Leon Russom) is free.


After 35 years in prison, this 72-year-old – who physically and emotionally displays the effects of extensive confinement through deep etches in his face and pronounced, tired circles under his eyes – is now free. 


His former “business associate”, Louie (Charles Dierkop), asks him, “Do you know what you are going to do now?”


Victor responds, “Not a clue.”


At this moment of “The Midnighters” - writer/director Julian Fort’s outstanding step into noir – my mind immediately traveled back to 1994’s “The Shawshank Redemption”, when the state grants parole to an aging prisoner named Brooks (James Whitmore).   Brooks – unfortunately – could not process his new-found freedom, because the world was much too large, compared with his tiny, cement block cell that he knew for probably half a century, and I feared Victor would fall into the same tragic fate.


Victor is unsure of himself and his new surroundings. 


Are his friends still alive?  Is his money still in safekeeping?  Will he recognize Los Angeles in the 21st century?   


Even though Fort sets his film in the present, his well-crafted crime drama harkens back to gritty affairs from the 1970s, the time – actually - in which Victor was originally imprisoned.  Every main character sports a shady past, and even Victor’s parole officer (Larry Cedar) appears to have worked through his share of issues as well, as Fort deliberately crafts a downcast tone.  His camera follows Victor around blue-collar neighborhoods, as this ex-con attempts to process his next move for the first 45 minutes of the picture’s 1-hour 26-minute runtime.  


Russom – who delivered the single best performance that I saw at the 2017 Phoenix Film Festival – offers an authentic and wholly empathetic character in Victor.  A man now misplaced in time, Victor quietly fights through uncertainty.  One can feel that he is panicking with internal, physiological combustion but copes by smoking a random cigarette whenever he can.  Sometimes, we see Victor speaking in masculine metaphors with an old friend, Chester (John Wesley).  Other times, he sits alone and deeply ponders his limited time in an unknown future or dwells on his mistake-filled past.  He exists in an unhealthy state, personified – at one point – by dining on a piece of moist, heavily frosted chocolate cake contained in a plastic, supermarket box and drinking a bottle of cold beer. 


He – and his diet - may be unhealthy, but he is free.  


Although, his freedom consists of living on the wrong side of tracks in a weekly-rented apartment at King Solomon’s Reef.  His place includes wood paneling on its thin walls, and they easily permeate the sounds of crying babies and drunks breaking bottles, day or night. 


Like the film’s title, most of the picture takes place at night, and dark tones are also reflected in Victor’s clothing choices (including a loose-fitting, black sweatshirt), his general mood and the overall feeling of dim hope.  The mood and pacing change however, when - out of the blue/dark - a man from his past, Danny (Gregory Sims), suddenly appears and provides a reason for some rarely-felt optimism.  The problem is that Danny could take Victor to a place which could land him back in incarceration.  At this point, the math says that another 35-year sentence means life in prison.


Fort’s film is split into two halves:  Victor’s doubts about his brand new present and the huge step towards a potential future.  Of course, this step is a criminal one, and Fort and Russom lead us down a tricky and tension-filled path in which we really root for Victor to come out the victor.  Our hero’s history of luck has not been a good one, however, and his age does not appear to be his ally.  Sure, experience does beget knowledge, but this is balanced by the stress that extensive prison time has also created.  In one very important 90-second stretch towards the end of the second act, a bead of sweat rolls down Victor’s brow, and we sit next to him and feel the pressure too.  During this precise moment, Victor does have a clue – but not absolute certainty – about this particular action, but as “The Midnighters” unfolds, we don’t have a clue how it will end for this man approaching the midnight of his life. 

(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.



Secondhand Hearts - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

‘Secondhand Hearts’ taps into firsthand emotions 


Written/directed by:  Austin Everett

Starring:  Ben Isaacs, Mallory Corinne, Allie Rae Treharne, Jericho Lopez, Rebecca C. Olson, and Ward Wright 


“Secondhand Hearts” - “Jaime, maybe we should talk about some things before we go in.” – Ben (Ben Isaacs)


“Okay, is something wrong?” – Jaime (Allie Rae Treharne)


Something is wrong. 


Ben just arrived back in the U.S. after a trip to Japan.  He is a photographer and traveled to Osaka - and some surrounding areas - to take photos for a calendar, but his trip turned out to be magical.   Sure, Ben’s pictures probably turned out fine, but he met a girl, Emily (Mallory Corinne). 


Ben – who is in a committed relationship with Jaime – ran into Emily in Japan, spent a few days with her, and it became a life changing event for him.  Now, this could be dismissed as a casual fling on the other side of the globe, but Ben and Emily feel a connection, complete with internal churns of butterflies, fireworks and lighting bolts.   Now, Ben is about to meet Jaime’s family for the first time over Thanksgiving dinner, and yes, something is wrong.  He needs to end his relationship with Jaime, and it comes at the worst possible time. 


Writer/director Austin Everett thoughtfully spends his time by offering a compelling drama about a man faced with a thorny decision, but due to newly discovered revelations, Ben’s choice seems impossible.  His thorny decision suddenly becomes wrapped in barbed wire and dipped in lemon juice, and Everett and Isaacs effectively communicate Ben’s anxiety and transmit emotional pokes and punctures from the big screen to the audience. 


The film’s construction pokes in different settings too, as it regularly volleys from affluent, manicured American suburbia to the woodsy and urban charm of faraway Japan.  Everett lays out an intentionally awkward meeting the family assembly with Jaime’s perfectly nice mother (Rebecca C. Olson) and father (Ward Wright).  They welcome Ben into their home and provide a warm environment, but Morris’ (Wright) physical presence is a bit intimidating – like he played football or rugby in college - so our young protagonist does feel the need to tread lightly.  For the record, anyone who has stayed over at a boyfriend or girlfriend’s parents’ home for the first time certainly knows the pressure of maintaining one’s very best order to survive the visit.  Due to events - which I will not reveal in this review – raise that pressure on Ben by a factor of oh, I don’t know, 10,000 perhaps?


Ben is emotionally trapped over the course the dinner’s main course.  Thankfully, Everett gives the audience regular reprieves from the confines of family civilities by shipping us back to those aforementioned, past experiences in Japan, Ben and Emily’s romance.  The film smoothly transitions back and forth through smart editing and writing, as the events between the two time periods feel linked.  For example, Ben takes a photo in Morris and Judy’s home, and the action then quickly shifts to Japan, when a group of kids pose with Emily for a picture and yell, “Cheese!”   The flashbacks occur many times, and each one has a distinct purpose. 


Speaking of purpose, Ben seems to have one during his Osaka trip and credit Isaacs for his character’s almost split personality.  Ben is playful, sarcastic, lively, and everything feels right when he is with Emily.  His actions speak to us in Japan but also through a chirpy montage accompanied by a beautiful, upbeat tune called “Brandenburg Stomp”, performed by Kishi Bashi.  It is the type of song that you’ll immediately search for in iTunes and blast in your living room several times in a row.  


Ben and Emily might have previously had their ducks in a row in separate, committed relationships, but they do feel right together and contrast that with Ben’s lethargic, listless spirit, when he is with Jaime.   He actually spells this out in a critical conversation in the third act, but we already felt it with every cinematic fiber of our collective-being.  If “Secondhand Hearts” spells out a life lesson here, this moviegoer hears it loud and clear. Ben is watching his own mistake-of-a-lifetime play out in slow motion, but he can prevent it at any time by taking an incredibly brave, brutally honest step.  The problem is that life is constructing an applecart for Ben, and he leans towards not upsetting it, even though he does not really care for apples.


We do care about these characters though, and Emily does appear in the post-Japan storyline.  While Isaacs plays Ben very differently in the two time periods, Corinne smartly plays Emily consistently during and after Japan.  Her character does not leave her emotions as wide-open as Ben and plays her cards close to the vest.  Perhaps she is thinking of her own self-preservation, but the end result is Ben seems singularly caught in this net, even though Emily has a vital stake in it as well.   Credit Treharne and Jericho Lopez too, who offer real surprises when we least expect it, including Lopez’s character’s reluctant heart-to-heart in an unlikely locale. 


Well, this particular chance encounter - in an unlikely locale from across the Pacific Ocean – causes many waves and “something wrong” in one suburban home over the holidays, and yes, “Secondhand Hearts” certainly taps into firsthand emotions.

(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, respec

Voice from the Stone - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

‘Voice from the Stone’ speaks with its stunning visuals, mysterious performances


Directed by:  Eric D. Howell

Written by:  Andrew Shaw

Starring:  Emilia Clark, Marton Csokas, Edward Dring, and Caterina Murino


“Voice from the Stone” – Jakob (Edward Dring) is hurting.  Seven months and 16 days ago, his mother, Malvina (Caterina Murino), died in her home, and Jakob was by her bedside when she passed away. 


He is about 11 years old, and from the moment that she passed, he has not spoken a word to anyone, not even his grieving father, Klaus (Marton Csokas).  Klaus is beside himself because of the loss of his lovely, talented wife but also because of Jakob’s silence.   


He hired several nurses to hopefully find a way for his son to speak but to no avail.  One day, a nurse without a university degree, but with a special gift of connection, Verena (Emilia Clarke), enters their lives.  Verena, without a husband and kids of her own, enjoys a fruitful, successful career and a long track record of healing dozens of kids over the years.  She believes that she might be the key to reaching Jakob and helping him speak, and hence, Verena attempts to find a “Voice from the Stone”. 


Director Eric D. Howell’s picture is aptly named for a couple reasons.  First, in the classic story “The Sword in the Stone”, a boy becomes the only one in the kingdom to pull a sword from a stone.  In this film, Verena could be the only one to help Jakob rediscover his very lost voice.  Second, Malvina’s family is beyond exceedingly rich, as they earned their wealth – for over 1,200 years - through mining in the adjacent quarry.  Hence, “stone” has a literal meaning in this picture.


Literally, this film – told in a 1950s Tuscany setting - is visually beautiful.  Howell found a gorgeous setting - Castello Di Celsa in Siena, Italy – which serves as Klaus and Jakob’s home.  Hiding in the sometimes-gray fog, the property is a luxurious wonder.  With lush patterns of thick avocado-colored hedges and acreage in every direction, the carefully manicured land accompanies its massive stone castle-master with a towering crown.  The interior is just as impressive, but Howell filmed all of the indoor scenes in Montecalvello Castello, as the small, selected cast weave in between notable rooms steeped in massive amounts of history. 


Nearly everything feels wrapped in a shroud of mystery and secrets, as we see Verena walk in both light and shadows.  Much of the time, she is looking for Jakob.  The boy might not have his voice, but he certainly owns a mind of his own.  Verena continually attempts to reach a boy who does not wish to be found – both emotionally and physically - and keeping his distance seems to be his primary skillset.  Jakob is not stupid, because he knows very well that his silence breeds frustration with his dad and one starts to believe that it has a specific purpose. 


Clarke’s Verena is very sympathetic, especially after a reveal of her past and plays an effective protagonist, as we hope for her quick success.  With humility, grace and patience, she wins over the audience but struggles to warm up to a cold, distant Klaus and a confused boy, who appears to be in limbo of actually accepting her tutelage.  Verena is an honest broker, but this quality leaves her vulnerable to the unknown, which is in a heaping supply with 12 centuries of life, love and death in one place with one family.  The family has generated an uncountable amount of memories on this site, and along with wind, rustling leaves and creaky gates, Jakob swears that he hears something else, a voice. 


“Voices from the Stone” is a mystery, but through most of the picture, it is a subtle and slow one.  Running at a thrifty 1 hour and 34 minutes, the film does feel longer.  With just a few lead characters in a nearly empty house and very few times when anybody connects, the slower pace is noticeable, but it is also offset by a picturesque view in nearly any direction. 


The movie does pay off in the third act, and when looking back, the cryptic script does nestle into a logical conclusion.  Curiously, for a movie wrapped in subtlety, it does unnecessary reinforce its main plot point through the lyrics of a complimented song at the most critical time.  Attentive audiences do not necessarily need this cue, and my wish for a music-only melody played at this said, verbal moment.   It is probably the only time in the picture in which I wanted less, because for most of the film, I wanted more scripted, verbal nuance to match the intricate visuals.  Still, “Voice from the Stone” is a stylish mystery that ultimately answers why Jakob has been hurting for seven months, 16 days and counting, whether or not Verena is ultimately successful. 

(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.





The Lost City of Z - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

Gray and Hunnam discover an absorbing journey towards ‘The Lost City of Z’


Writer/Director:  James Gray

Starring:  Charlie Hunnam, Robert Pattinson, Sienna Miller, and Tom Holland 


“The Lost City of Z” – “It is there, and we must find it.” – Col. Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam)


“Ain’t nobody comes back from up there.” – A disbeliever    


When traveling, I frequently look to my phone for five-star reviews for some out of the way restaurant or coffee shop.  Sure, I may not be too familiar with the new neighborhoods or roadways, but the determination to discover a sought-after meal or liquid caffeine is strong.  Well, that is the extent of my efforts in exploration, so – to me - the fortitude of Col. Percy Fawcett (Hunnam), a true figure from the early 20th Century, is not simply remarkable, but incomprehensible.


In “The Lost City of Z”, the British government commissions Col. Fawcett to South America for two years to map the jungles of Bolivia, which will hopefully help settle a border dispute.  In an effort to clear his family name (from past missteps not caused by him), Percy decides to leave his wife and children behind for this treacherous journey. 


Director James Gray (“The Immigrant” (2013), “Two Lovers” (2008)) runs with the biopic material and shoots an astonishing-looking picture about a man’s quest to know the unknown.  During Percy’s surveying duties, however, he does change his focus.  Instead, he looks to find a lost civilization, a lost city.  A lost, landlocked city of Atlantis located in the middle of the jungle, a city that Percy labels as Zed.


“Z” is the last letter in the alphabet, and this lost city is one of the last places someone from Great Britain – with all of the creature comforts of the early 1900s - would venture, but with his colleague, Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson), and a small group of westerners and locals, they perilously move forward. 


Gray – who actually shot many of the scenes in Colombia – takes painstaking efforts to paint an aura of danger.  If the overbearing, intense heat – that seemingly bleeds off the screen - does not wither Percy, Henry and company, instinct-driven jungle mammals or serpents could gnaw on our heroes.  Although, the biggest threats are some local tribes, who might consider outsiders the enemy or worse yet, FOOD.   Yes, cannibalism is not an unfamiliar practice within these mazelike circles.  Clearly, animals gobbling up one for dinner is a vastly unpleasant proposition, but fellow human beings concocting a person-stew can raise the onscreen characters’ anxiety to a fever pitch.   The audience’s anxiety too. 


In one of the most effective scenes, the group travels down a silent river in a large raft, completely vulnerable with copious jungle surrounding them on both sides.  Silence becomes their only dreaded companion, with a very real possibility of a sudden ambush occurring at any moment. 


This is Percy’s exploration story, but the film’s other main thread is the toll that his worldly travels have on his family back in Britain.  Sienna Miller is convincing as Percy’s supportive wife, Nina, but Tom Holland offers different sentiment as Jack, their oldest son. 




Resentment for his father placing his ambitions above them.  This knotty family subplot, however, does not work as well.  While the movie spends majority of the time in South America, the emotional pull from England seemingly becomes nonexistent.  Gray gives Percy very few sentimental reaches for home during his pursuits in the jungle.  This explorer appears solely focused on his adventure, so there is little opportunity for the audience to be invested in Percy’s family, because - generally speaking – he is not.   


Percy does cope with his missed family, when he makes a brief return, late into the 2nd act, and this is when Holland delivers heavy doses of guilt.  On the other hand, since Percy is not privy to modern parenting skills nor have access to self-help books from a fully-stocked Barnes & Noble rack, subtler needs at England do not necessarily register with him.


One explicit fact that should register with the audience is that the film is a biopic, and in these cases, a movie can be held to history in order to explain…well, history.  Now, I cannot confirm if Percy did experience contentious moments with his eldest son or not.  The picture does form their relationship in that way, but it does not distract from the story.  On the other hand, the third act takes a sudden left turn which does distract from the basic narrative, but apparently, the film is at the mercy of history. 


These quibbles aside, “The Lost City of Z” is an absorbing picture about an exceedingly brave man who attempts to write his name in textbooks and folklore for future generations, and Gray and Hunnam capture Col. Percy Fawcett’s spirit which honors his aspirations.  You see, Percy is the type person who hears “nobody comes back from up there”, digests the warning but pushes forward anyway, and that type of courage should be heard, seen and experienced.  

(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.





Norman - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

Gere and Cedar make ‘Norman’ a definite BUY


Writer/Director:  Joseph Cedar

Starring: Richard Gere, Lior Ashkenazi, Michael Sheen, Steve Buscemi, and Hank Azaria


“Norman” - $1,192.18


Norman Oppenheimer (Richard Gere), the struggling head of Oppenheimer Strategies – who usually wears an unflattering, light brown winter coat, a longshoreman’s cap and sports ear buds connected to his iPhone - makes an investment of $1,192.18 during an ordinary weekday in Manhattan.  Hoping that this cash outlay would land him future opportunities, his spontaneous action – in fact - earns him a life-changing seat at the table, the connected world of money, politics and access! 


Well, sort of. 


You see, Norman’s entire life seems to be broiled in sort of terms, because he is not a clearly-defined businessman.  He frequently hands out his Oppenheimer Strategies cards and asks perspective clients, “What can I do for you?”  The problem?  It is difficult to know what he can offer or how he can help. 


He does claim long friendships with sought-after people, but when one asks a probing question or two, Norman then speaks in riddles, half-truths or outright lies.  A keen, well-trained eye can spot Norman’s shyster-act a mile away, but an unassuming type could mistake his enthusiasm as genuine.   Actually, Norman’s desire to become connected is genuine, so sheathes of honesty in his speech do ring true.  This is, of course, among the promises that he doesn’t exactly know how to keep. 


Writer/director Joseph Cedar’s fascinating character study - which doubles as a casually stressful thriller – is a keeper. 


Cedar throws us into Norman’s universe - the cold and busy New York City pavements - and into this man’s desperation for a deal.  Norman always seems to be on the outside looking in, and Cedar strategically places and paints his lead character in that light.  For one, in many circumstances when he steps into a building, the lighting is deliberately dim.  Sometimes we only see outlines of business people lurking - or even plainly standing - in the shadows, and this makes forming bonds with possible leads more difficult.  More importantly, it symbolizes Norman’s hobbling attempts to secure a win in the figurative dark.  Secondly, he frequently works outside in the below freezing temps during a typical Big Apple winter.  Always bundled up with his aforementioned coat and hat, Norman’s face is usually red from the frigid wind or perhaps of embarrassment from constantly fighting an uphill battle.  When we see Norman waiting to deliver a sales pitch at 6:56am in Central Park, desperation is the first word that comes to mind.


Masterful is a word that describes Gere’s performance, as he plays a man burdening himself with difficult-to-keep verbal agreements stacked upon one another like a self-defeating pyramid scheme.  While Norman is a singularly-focused, one-note machine to reach a monetary promise land, we can also see his internal churn.  Gere allows us to feel sympathy for Norman, while sharing his slow descent into quicksand, not entirely unlike the highly effective Sam Raimi’s 1998 thriller, “A Simple Plan”.  In that film, one fateful decision by two brothers (Bill Paxton, Billy Bob Thornton) leads to a handwringing experience in which they find themselves over their heads, and Norman discovers a similar slippery slope, that cinematically frays our nerves.  


Regrettably, the soundtrack’s slow jazz vibe - filled with snare drum beats and a moody, downtrodden horn section – wore on my nerves fairly quickly.  It did fit with Norman’s sort of lovable loser persona, but a tick tock, staccato beat – instead - could have increased the picture’s anxiety.  Perhaps no accompanying soundtrack at all would have been more effective, but apparently Cedar did not receive my wish list. 


Well, he did pleasantly surprise with a terrific supporting cast, including Michael Sheen, Steve Buscemi, Hank Azaria, and Lior Ashkenazi in perfectly-fit roles to witness Norman’s winding trip to possible redemption or expulsion.   In the nebulous world of Oppenheimer Strategies, it turns out that $1,192.18 could buy him either one.

(3.5/4 stars)


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



The Promise - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

‘The Promise’ conveys an emotional World War I history lesson


Directed by:  Terry George

Written by:  Terry George and Robin Swicord

Starring:  Oscar Isaac, Charlotte Le Bon, Christian Bale, Shohreh Aghdashloo, and Marwan Kenzari


“The Promise” – “There are churches and mosques like you wouldn’t believe.”


In 1914 Constantinople, this is Mikael Boghosian’s (Oscar Isaac) reaction to Turkey’s most prominent city.  Although cultural differences can be a source of tension and divisiveness, Turks and Armenians live in relative harmony during this time, not only in this massive cultural center, but also in Mikael’s small village of Siroun. 


As director Terry George’s (“Hotel Rwanda” (2004)) picture opens, Mikael – an Armenian - makes a promise to a Maral (Angela Sarafyan), that after two years away at medical school, they will marry when he returns. 


In the meantime, George treats Mikael and us to the sheer beauty and pageantry of Constantinople with wondrous sightlines and artistic gifts.  Actually, according to, George did not film in Turkey, but through the magic of cinema, we certainly believe it.   Isaac is also very convincing that Mikael is having the time of his life.  Learning his chosen profession at the Imperial Medical School, making well-placed friends, spending time with family, and meeting Ana (Charlotte Le Bon). 


Ana is seeing an American AP reporter, Chris Myers (Christian Bale), but his drinking has driven a wedge in their relationship, and as it turns out, Mikael and Ana share immediate chemistry. Isaac and Le Bon have fun with their characters’ new friendship - with potential for more - and effectively interject humor, playfulness and outright attraction for one another.  They create a classic love rectangle problem with Chris and Maral as the odd ones out, but the familiar formula works here, because Ana and Mikael are very, very likeable. 


Although scorned partners are the least of their problems, because when Turkey joins World War I in October 1914, Mikael’s bright, new world is laid to waste.


George immediately shifts the material from a good-natured exploration to a gripping, war-torn drama, laced with romance during a time of chaos, confusion and shattered dreams.  Turkey suddenly becomes a place where the previously perceived harmony becomes a distant memory, as the Turkish military begins an elimination of the Armenian people within its own borders.  Mikael, his family, Ana, and others who we began to know during the film’s first half hour are immediately endangered, and the picture takes an ambitious approach in capturing this countrywide horror. 


The screenplay follows Mikael’s twisting path from a respected medical student to a fleeing war prisoner, and his life and heart are turned upside down.  Mikael’s personal anguish bleeds into the frightening Armenian plight that grips the nation, and suddenly, Armenians become nomadic people within their own borders.  George captures their hardships by filming many brutal walks through the deserts and forests.


The shifts in tone shake our foundation, but the core relationships between Chris, Ana and Mikael remain intact.   Chris, in turn, places himself in constant danger to report on the Turkish atrocities, and Mikael and Ana focus on saving as many Armenians as they can.  We have seen these types a war-driven romances before, but the unknown subject matter (at least to this moviegoer) and George’s very high production values keep our eyeballs glued to the screen. 


This film must have generated the interest of several well-known actors, because during the second and third acts, some key cameos suddenly appear.  I can point to three real surprises, where famous actors take small, supporting roles.  Although their arrivals into the film are noteworthy, they also can temporarily distract and pull us out of the story.  These cameos are not nearly as disruptive as the constant stream of A-list actor appearances in Terrence Malick’s “The Thin Red Line” (1998), but it feels the same way, to a lesser degree. 


To a greater degree, I keep coming back to Mikael’s words of the churches and mosques, a time of accord among two groups of people who are different, but held mutual respect.  I suppose “The Promise” is telling example that peace is fragile and precious, and life does not need a very dramatic push to toss it aside.  Well, maybe we should look 103 years into the past, when mosques and churches are spoken in the same sentence with harmony.  In 2017, we should be so lucky.

(3/4 stars)


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


An interview with director Justin Barber, director of "Phoenix Forgotten" by Jeff Mitchell

In March 1997, a mysterious set of lights appeared in the Phoenix, AZ sky, and this famous UFO sighting is known, naturally, as the Phoenix Lights.  Twenty years later, that onetime phenomenon continues to baffle eyewitnesses and give hope to UFO believers.  Director Justin Barber – fascinated by the story as a high school student in 1997 – has now made a movie about it. 


“Phoenix Forgotten” is a fictional thriller, and Justin features the lights as the picture’s main platform.  The Phoenix Film Festival did not see the film at the time of this interview but enjoyed chatting with Justin about his new movie!   Justin talked about his belief in UFOs, the documentary style of the picture, some places that he filmed in Phoenix, and more.


“Phoenix Forgotten” arrives in theatres on Friday, April 21.


PFF: I was living in Phoenix at the time that the Phoenix Lights phenomenon occurred, but sadly, I was cooped up inside watching television that night – probably “Seinfeld” – and completely missed the lights.  Did you interview Valley residents who claimed to have seen them in preparation for the movie?


JB: I did, and I tried to approach the movie with a mindset that this was real world material.  I did spend a lot of time in Phoenix trying to track down real people, eyewitnesses and experts to get to the bottom of (the lights). 


(When the Phoenix Lights happened,) I was in high school at the time, living in Florida and remember hearing about them through the news. Twenty years ago, I (wrote) an article for my high school newspaper about them.  It was cool when (making) the movie to go back and pick up that thread again, and yes, I did find that people who had actually seen them.  Some of those people are interviewed in the movie.  The movie is a mix of real people and actors.  Yes, I tried to get to the bottom of it myself and go to Phoenix, the scene of the crime. 


PFF:  I like that you wrote a paper about the Phoenix Lights in high school.  That’s pretty amazing, and here you are and just directed a movie about it.


JB:  Yes, it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy, I guess.  The interest has persisted.  It was such a big story, and it remains such a big story.  It’s a modern urban legend for the southwest.  For a lot of people, we remember it 20 years on, because it was such a bizarre event, and a lot of people think that it has not been fully explained. 


PFF:  I’d like to believe in UFOs and apt to believe than not believe, but I’ve heard friends and colleagues - over the years – discount UFO sightings, because they occur in small, remote places, where hardly any witnesses are present.  Is that what makes the Phoenix Lights so unique?


JB:  I think so.  I think it’s the sheer number of eyewitnesses.  Some people say hundreds of people saw (it), and others say that thousands of people saw (it).  People were able to film it!  There is that iconic footage of the formation of lights, and you see them in other movies.  In M. Night Shyamalan’s “Signs” (2002), there are images of lights in the sky that the characters see.  That’s inspired, I think, by the Phoenix Lights. Yes, it took place over a populated area, but there is footage of it as well. 


That’s where our story begins.  Like I said, I approached this as real world material, but our movie has fictional characters.  It is historical fiction past a certain point.  A lot of people know about the Phoenix Lights and recognize this footage.  Fewer people know the story of the kid who shot it.  It was shot by Josh Bishop (Luke Spencer Roberts), a high school kid in Phoenix, and six weeks later, he disappeared with two of his friends and was never seen again.  That’s the story that we are telling.  What happened to these three kids? Was there a connection between their disappearance and the Phoenix Lights? 


These are the fictional characters that we are inserting into the real life backdrop of the Phoenix Lights event.


PFF:  Should I assume that you used the actual Phoenix Lights footage for the picture?  If so, how much cleanup was needed to properly insert the footage into your movie?


JB:  My main character, Josh, films the Phoenix Lights, and one of the big scenes early on in the movie is the sighting.  (He and his family) are having a backyard barbeque in Phoenix, and Josh is tasked with filming the event.  The Phoenix Lights sighting happens in the middle of it, and he spins the camera around and films the sighting from the party.  We recreated the Phoenix Lights sighting from scratch for this scene, using the actual Phoenix Lights footage as a reference. 


The reason is because we sculpted a scene around (the party) and needed a lot of control of how the sighting unfolded.  There is a lot of real world footage in the movie, because – for the most part - the movie is treated as a documentary, so I did license actual footage here and there, but this key footage of the Phoenix Lights that Josh films, I did recreate from scratch (using) visual effects.  Although, it is in the vein of the actual Phoenix Lights sighting. 


The other reason is when I really dug into this material and looked at the photographic evidence, (the lights) actually look like - to me - the official explanation, that they are military flairs.  Eyewitnesses describe seeing something really different from what was photographed.  I think there could have been more than one thing happening. 


People claim to have seen this ship, but there is this footage of - what to me - looks like military flairs.  I wanted my main character, Josh, to be a little bit more “on the fence” than myself.  It needed to look more like a UFO, because when I looked at the real footage, it didn’t look that otherworldly to me, honestly.  So, I recreated the sighting.  The way it moves.  The way it appears and disappears. I wanted a little more control of it as a director.


PFF:  Do you believe in UFOs?


JB:  I don’t know where I stand on the Phoenix Lights, except to say that the footage looks like flairs. That being said, a lot of eyewitnesses say that they saw something totally different, and the footage was not necessarily what they saw.  They describe looking up at a formation of lights that flew overhead, and it blocked out the stars.  They couldn’t make out any structure, but they could definitely tell that there was an object up there, between these lights connecting them that seemed to block out what they could see up in the night sky.   Some people will tell you that the flair drop was a diversion from this actual craft. 


As far as actual UFOs, I do think there is life out there.  I think statistically the universe is so big and so old, that I subscribe to what Carl Sagan would say.  There are so many worlds out there, mathematically, there is bound to be life. 


There are so many people who claim that they had experiences on our planet with spacecraft or strange beings.  There is either something going on, or there is some sort of collective psychological experience that (they) are all having, but that’s what so interesting about it.  These experiences haven’t been explained yet, really.  It just comes down to: do you want to believe, or do you not want to believe?   


PFF:  I assumed that you filmed in Phoenix.  If so, are there certain landmarks that Arizona residents be on the lookout for?


JB:  Yes, I hope that Phoenix residents appreciate how much we were able to shoot in Arizona.  I did have to shoot in California for a lot of the movie, but I was fortunate that the producers let me go to (Arizona).


I think people who know Phoenix will recognize different places.  We went to the Phoenix Public Library.  The Botanical Gardens are in there.  A bulk of the early part of the movie has Josh setting out and making his own documentary.  He hits the streets in Phoenix and talks to as many people as he can.  I think that you will recognize parts of town in that respect.


PFF:  It’s funny, when people think about crime or violence, they immediately point to large metropolitan cities.  On the other hand, a classic staple of horror films is a remote location, a cabin in the woods or places in the middle of nowhere like in “Friday the 13th” (1980), “The Evil Dead” (1981) and “The Blair Witch Project” (1999).  Josh and his friends head out to the remote desert to follow the lights, so what makes remote locales scary and downright eerie?


JB: Well, there’s no one there to help you, when things go south.  I think that’s what it comes down to.  For me, I remember one of the first times that I drove across the United States. You hit a patch in Utah and see a road sign that says, “No gas for 150 miles.” 


You are in the middle of nowhere, and that’s an unusual experience when you grow up in the suburbs or live in a big city.  Now, I do like getting out to those parts of the country for fun, but yes, you are on your own.  If you are in trouble, it is up to you to survive.  Essentially, the last half of the movie is a survival story. I think that’s part of it.  I think also there is a lot of lore about the desert, specifically.  There is character in the movie who is an Apache storyteller.  Native people have their own lore about lights in the sky.  We explore that in the movie.  What is it about the desert where there are so many UFO sightings and strange things happening?  It’s just a mysterious place, and our characters try to get to the bottom of it.  


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.