Best of Toronto International Film Festival: Part Two by Jeff Mitchell

Best of TIFF 2018 – Part Two

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The 2018 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) concluded on Sept. 16, and this wonderful celluloid-feast offered hundreds of movies over 11 days.  I caught 36 during my trip and wrote a “Best of Toronto International Film Festival: Part One” article (published on Sept. 14), which included five films. 

 

Here are five more great films from this year’s TIFF, and one of these movies will also screen at the 2018 Peoria Film Fest (which runs from Oct. 19 to 21).  Pretty cool!  Please read the article to discover which film. 

 

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“Green Book” – Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali should receive Golden Globe Best Actor - Musical/Comedy nominations, and director Peter Farrelly’s movie ought to earn a Best Picture - Musical/Comedy nod as well in this crowd-pleasing road trip, buddy movie set in 1962.  Based on actual events, renowned concert pianist Dr. Don Shirley (Ali) hires an uncultured bouncer Tony Lip (Mortensen) as his driver for a musical tour through the Midwest and South.  The segregated South presents an uncomfortable backdrop for the audience and the leads, but Tony and “Doc” regularly improve our moods as their opposite outlooks comedically clash.  Mortensen has never been funnier on the big screen, and Ali is out of this world on the piano in Farrelly’s 2018 TIFF Audience Award Winner.

 

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“Meeting Gorbachev” –  Nobel Peace Prize winner President Mikhail Gorbachev introduced democratic reforms that dissolved the Soviet Union and ended the Cold War in the late 80’s and early 90’s, but this vastly important figure of the 20th century has been largely overlooked in 2018.  Not by directors Andre Singer and Werner Herzog!  They uncover precious, rare footage of Soviet imagery and Gorbachev’s life, and Herzog interviews the 87-year-old former Soviet leader in an absorbing documentary that captures a holistic picture of the man.  Gorbachev reveals his actions, motivations and feelings, and the associated archived video clips deliver an eye-opening history lesson.  Meanwhile, Herzog offers his celebrated voice and perspectives throughout the 90-minute runtime, which again proves that Morgan Freeman and he should narrate everything.

 

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“Rojo” – This TIFF Platform Prize nominee tenders a mysterious slow burn, as Claudio (Dario Grandinetti) feels the heat that interrupts his previously-pleasant life.  You see, this content lawyer and a happily married man unfortunately engages in a lengthy, uncomfortable verbal altercation with a cantankerous jerk (Diego Cremonesi), which results in Claudio bearing unexpected repercussions and unspoken paranoia.  Set in 1970’s Argentina, writer/director Benjamin Naishtat and his team perfectly capture the fashion and backdrops of the era and sometimes feature a yellowish-cloudy tinge during the film’s step into noir.  Supporting performers Alfredo Castro and Cremonesi add thick intrigue and danger, respectively, to a story that includes some shades of Tarantino and Hitchcock, but Naishtat drives the narrative with his own beats.

 

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“Roma” – Writer/director Alfonso Cuaron (“Y Tu Mama Tambien” (2001), “Children of Men” (2006), “Gravity” (2013)) constructs a visual masterpiece – filmed in black and white - about an ordinary housekeeper Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) living in Mexico City.  In most cases, Cleo’s employers – a family of five - treat her respectfully, but she endures occasional dismissiveness, and her boyfriend spews outright vicious verbal abuse.  Although Cleo casually searches for her voice, she is a woman of few words, but Cuaron surrounds her with wondrous, mammoth set pieces and sweeping camerawork that instantly and repeatedly earn gasps, disbelief and praise.  “Roma” won the top prize at the 2018 Venice Film Festival, and it is destined for a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar nomination.  This movie is a stunner!

 

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“Woman at War” – Halla (Halldora Geirharosdottir) is a woman at war, but not with a country or a military force.  She confronts global warming by cutting off electricity to a local smelting plant.  A kindhearted choir teacher in her spare time, this eco-terrorist also carries no shortage of determination in a quirky and highly-pleasing action film.  Director Benedikt Erlingsson takes glorious advantage of Iceland’s otherworldly beauty, as Halla routinely plays cat and mouse with the police, who are desperately trying to apprehend this unknown threat.  Jumping between stressful chases and oddball comedy, Geirharosdottir and Erlingsson fill the screen with surprises, including musicians and singers who regularly pop into the frame.  Well, the 2018 Peoria Film Fest took notice and will feature “Woman at War” during its inaugural Oct. 19 – 21 festival!

 

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.

 

 

 

Assassination Nation - Movie Review by Monte Yazzie

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Assassination Nation

 

Director: Sam Levinson

Starring: Odessa Young, Hari Nef, Suki Waterhouse, Abra, Colman Domingo, Bill Skarsgård, Bella Thorne, Maude Apatow, and Joel McHale

 

French New Wave auteur Jean-Luc Godard is often attributed with the phrase “all you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun”. This simplistic narrative design has been exploited throughout film history, applying it to numerous genres yet often keeping the two motivating factors of a girl and a gun separated. However, in today’s social climate, a better comment might be “all you need to make a movie is a girl WITH a gun”.

 

Director Sam Levinson takes the topic of “a girl with a gun” and amplifies everything up to eleven, making a hyper-stylized film about four girls who live an indulgent, manipulated, and exploited existence in a town filled with people who exude the worst qualities found in society today; entitlement, bullying, vanity, violence, racism, and all manner of phobias involving femininity. “Assassination Nation” is aiming for the target of empowerment and social consciousness but often misses the mark entirely.

 

Lily (Odessa Young), Bex (Hari New), Sarah (Suki Waterhouse) and Em (Abra) are a fearless feminist foursome of young ladies trying to survive the woes of high school. When a hacker starts revealing all the secrets of people around the town of Salem, things go from already worse to some kind of chaotic nightmare where the young ladies must fight and kill for their lives.

 

The film, with its neon lighting effects and split screen photography, is operating to do so much within its purposefully frantic pacing that it is often tonally unaware of what it is trying to accomplish. While it seems to understand the current cultural climate, with its thematic focus on the degradation and disrespect of women of all ages, the filmmaking is so uneven that it never completely grasps this purpose in meaningful ways. Instead we are provided with shocking violence and leering camera angles set against music video style motifs and slow-motion photography. While in moments it offers interesting frames, like a home invasion scene that pulls and pushes around and through the landscape of the home in ingenious ways, it mostly feels like an exercise in gratuity without the purpose to make it have thoughtful impact.

 

The film does boast some great performances from the leads, especially from Odessa Young who turns in a star making role as Lily. Her coolness amidst the youth and disillusionment with the world around her are fascinating to watch as life is thrown from bad to worse. Comedian Joel McHale also provides an interesting performance as a hate filled, misogynistic man who has an unhealthy relationship with Lily.

 

“Assassination Nation” can be a difficult and infuriating experience at times, it seems to be its primary purpose as the film descends into madness with an unsettling final act that unleashes all the terrible societal characteristics one might encounter if they asked their social media platform questions about religion or politics. “Assassination Nation” feels influenced by films like Larry Clark’s “Kids” or Catherine Hardwicke’s “Thirteen”, but it doesn’t have the tact or insight found in those films. Instead, it has style and flair that is flashy and enticing, wielding narrative haymakers in hopes of hitting a mark. It’s unfortunate that the interesting ideas it proposes about youth, feminism, sexuality, and identity in a social media driven world aren’t better corresponded.

 

Monte’s Rating

2.00 out of 5.00

 

Love, Gilda - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

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‘Love, Gilda’ offers plenty of reasons to remember and love Gilda

 

Directed by:  Lisa Dapolito

Starring:  Gilda Radner, Amy Poehler, Laraine Newman, Maya Rudoph, Melissa McCarthy, Martin Short, Bill Hader, Chevy Chase, and Alan Zweibel

 

“Love, Gilda” - “Because I’m not a perfect example of my gender, I decided to be funny about what I didn’t have instead of worrying about it.” – Gilda Radner

 

Gilda Radner, the very first cast member selected for “NBC’s Saturday Night”, did not always have it all, but she certainly garnered the adoration of millions and shot up to superstardom as one of three female Not Ready for Prime Time Players in 1975, along with Jane Curtin and Laraine Newman.  Martin Short affectionately remarks that Radner always lit up a room, and she set this television show on fire with positive and physical comedic energy, a big smile and a collection of hilarious characters like Roseanne Roseannadanna, Emily Litella and her hilarious impression of Barbara Walters, aka Baba Wawa.

 

Director Lisa Dapolito’s documentary “Love, Gilda” leaves a warm impression and ignites fond, forgotten memories of Radner that will rush back and lift the corners of your mouth.

 

“It’s always something.” – Roseanne Roseannadanna

 

Actually, it’s always someone in “Love, Gilda”, as influential comediennes and comedians – like Amy Poehler, Melissa McCarthy, Bill Hader, and more – read from Radner’s own notes and/or diary.  They – along with Radner herself – narrate the film, as archive footage - from her childhood, teenage years and “NBC’s Saturday Night”/”Saturday Night Live” - rolls on the screen.  Many times, it is difficult to distinguish the actual person recounting Radner’s life at a given moment, but each voice offers kind vibes, and the said television and movie stars bestow their admiration.

 

“Oh…well that’s very different.  Never mind.” – Emily Litella

 

In one way, Radner took a different journey to television, and in another, she forged a typical path.  Dapolito chronicles Radner’s reasons for moving to Ontario (which will not be revealed in this review), but while in Toronto, her trek to “NBC’s Saturday Night” becomes clear.  She joined Toronto’s “Godspell” comedy troupe in the early 70’s, moved on to “Second City”, and John Belushi asked her to join “National Lampoon’s Radio Hour” as the sole “girl in the show.”  

 

TV soon followed in 1975, but Radner wasn’t the first female comedian to strike gold on the small screen.  Lucille Ball paved the way with “I Love Lucy”, and Carol Burnett starred in her own hit “The Carol Burnett Show” from 1967 to 1978, so the landscape had room for more comediennes.  “NBC’s Saturday Night” found an edgy, fresh niche, and Radner clearly was its biggest female star.  How big?  The film identifies the exact moment that Radner, Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Belushi, and others realized their massive influential reach with an enthusiastic American public.  Like most TV and movie stars, rising to the top and eventually falling (gently or rapidly) is not free from controversy and/or heartache, and Radner was no exception.

 

“This is Baba Wawa.” – Baba Wawa

 

Radner and close friends report and disclose her insecurities that eroded her happiness.  Thankfully, these demons did not dramatically grind down her joy, but like every human being, Radner carried self-doubts.  In fact, due to one of her specific patterns, she surprisingly avoided the big screen smash “Ghostbusters” (1984) for – again - reasons that will not be revealed in this review.

 

A quick glance on Google - for those who are not aware – will reveal that Radner was taken from us much too soon, but the documentary treats those times with grace and illustrates thoughtful, enlightening moments.  Told in linear fashion from beginning to end, “Love, Gilda” completely works as a heartfelt tribute to a bright star who recognized her faults but always lit up a room and our television sets.  For those precious on-screen moments, Gilda Radner perfectly delivered laughter and wrapped her gift with wonder.

(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.

Fahrenheit 11/9 - Movie Review by Ben Cahlamer

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Fahrenheit 11/9

 

Written and Directed by Michael Moore

 

“One of the penalties of refusing to participate in politics is that you end up being governed by your inferiors.” ~ Plato

In spite of being very familiar with his rhetoric, I have somehow managed to miss seeing Michael Moore’s documentaries. My avoidance has nothing to do with what he represents but rather a lack of desire to see documentaries until recently.

In his latest documentary, “Fahrenheit 11/9,” Moore explores what led to the election of the 45th President of the United States, billionaire executive Donald J. Trump. As the film opens, Moore focuses on elated Hillary Clinton supporters where, on November the 8th, she was projected to win the election by a wide margin: the people wanted to stay the course laid out by President Obama over the prior eight years.

In a moment of irony, Clinton’s celebration was hosted in a building made of glass, to represent her breaking through the glass ceiling.

Then the unthinkable happened: Trump won the election.

Through the culled footage, Moore locked in on the despondent and defeated faces of supporters, who thought that they had a win in hand. Yet, Moore had projected and even warned that Trump was going to win the office of the highest land, and when you think about his reasons, he was right.

I grew up in one of the rust belt states, Wisconsin where we did indeed elect a Republican governor every year that I was alive. And as I grew up, more and more manufacturing left the state, the lifeblood of it at one time. Moore focused his rust belt ideology on the Flint, Michigan debacle and how the ‘good ole boy’ mentality led to the governor, someone who had never run for office previously, engineered the problem so that he could essentially declare martial law.

Something of interest though was how he focused on Obama’s visit to the region before he left office, specifically a stunt involving his need for a glass of water. His staff pleaded with him to drink from a plastic bottle, but he refused, taking a perfunctory sip from a glass of Flint water. The citizens, who believed that Obama was going to bring the resources of the federal government to bear on the problem, instead left them stranded.

Trump swooped in, promising to Make America Great Again and built on the need of the region’s disenfranchised population.

He next focused on the Democratic National Convention where Independent candidate, turned Democrat Bernie Sanders went against the odds to try to win the party’s nomination. Moore showed examples of where the DNC outright lied, forcing his hand. Friends for Bernie turned into Friends for Hillary.

Citizens wanted change, and they believed (and he could have) led them to victory, if he had been given a fair chance.

Wait!  Don’t we have a two-party system in this country, asks an incredulous Moore. We do, but that assumption rests on the fact that neither party is what it once started out as. So, why then, did the DNC force Hillary in to spotlight, someone whom a number of voters simply didn’t trust?

In essence, the DNC has become as complacent and complicit as the GOP. They have sought the same special interest monies and support from big corporations and media companies. Moore even included Les Moonves’ commentary on why Trump was good for the election cycle, saying, “He might not be good for America, but he’s damn good for CBS.”

That’s the real foundation for Moore’s argument, something that I think he was successful in conveying even if he went off the rails getting us there: Trump won because he was able to better leverage his media presence. He won over states, populous states where Hillary’s team told her not to even go, saying that she’s got a lock on them.

The popular vote had Hillary’s win in the bag, but the Electoral College is ultimately the deciding factor. Someone was ready for change that infamous night, no matter how the popular vote swung.

Change is good, though.

One of the many unintended benefits of Trump’s win is how frustrated teachers in West Virginia decided to stand up for a pay increase and better health insurance. Their movement spread to other states, including Arizona’s Red For Ed.

Another example was of ordinary citizens who are so incensed by the political stalemate, standing up and running for office, a grassroots effort and so far in smaller, state offices, there has been change.

Finally, Moore focuses on the future with student uprisings following the Parkland, Florida student shooting. The suspect’s cell phone video warning that this was coming was included as well; it was chilling knowing that this was going to happen. In another example of change, the student survivors went to Washington to challenge lawmakers, but not before confronting Florida’s lawmakers.

One of Michael Moore’s many moving themes in “Fahrenheit 11/9” is that Trump’s win and Hillary’s loss was born of political compromise and a dictatorial regime that continues to be slowly unfolding in front of all of us. They were not the catalysts for our current situation, but they are the byproducts of complacency, corruption and ineptness.

His message is clear: no matter which side of the aisle you sit on, change is our fundamental responsibility and now, it turns out, our necessity. How will you rise to the challenge?

3 out of 4

Life Itself - Movie Review by Ben Cahlamer

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Life Itself

 

Written and Directed by Dan Fogelman

Starring Oscar Isaac, Olivia Wilde, Mandy Patinkin, Olivia Cooke, Laia Costa, Annette Bening, Antonio Banderas

 

Life has a funny way of finding connections when we least expect it. We never look for said connections and they are so random that unless we’re aware of every single moment that happens in our lives, we will pass unaware of said connection.

This is why I’m having difficulty accepting the messy connections formed in Dan Fogelman’s “Life Itself.” The real-world scenarios presented in each of our character’s lives are so disparately connected that they border incredulity. Almost.

Why “almost,” Ben?

It is because of the way Fogelman starts his story. Any film with a dramatic-action voice over by Samuel L. Jackson is looking to make an emphatic entrance. Perhaps it’s the intent of the scene, and the drama that unfolds not only in front of our eyes, but in front of Will’s (Oscar Isaac) eyes.

Will is aflutter with his wife, Abby (Olivia Wilde). They have the type of relationship that exists in fairy tales, when she is tragically struck down. Will is so stricken with grief that he goes mental. And this is where we find ourselves: his road to recovery. Annette Bening plays his psychiatrist, Dr. Cait Morris who tries to help him recover.

Through flashbacks, Fogelman explores Abby and Will’s relationship as well as the birth of their daughter, Dylan (Olivia Cooke) who is a tormented soul looking for her place in the universe. The same day as the tragedy affected Will and Abby, Rodrigo witnesses the accident and his life in Spain is never the same.

In a parallel story, Fogelman takes us back to what brought Rodrigo to that point, growing up with his loving parents Javier and Elena as tragedy strikes their family. Through the support of a wealthy landowner, Mr Saccione (Antonio Banderas), they are able to get Rodrigo the help he needs, eventually reconnecting him with his past.

I don’t find the intersecting lives bit paradoxical in the slightest. As I stated at the beginning of this review, we never know when our lives will have touched one another. The trouble that I’m having is that the story starts out with such a dramatic bang that by the time we get to the end, we’re so emotionally exhausted from all the to’s and fro’s of each characters part in the story that we have to ask ourselves, “why was this journey so important?”

The more compelling tragedy is that the storytelling is so disjointed that the characters ultimately didn’t matter. Just as with David Frankel’s “Collateral Beauty,” it wasn’t so much that we were watching the  character’s reactions to the tragedies that befell them, but we were witnessing events. Where “Collateral Beauty” was a bit more successful because its timeline didn’t veer too wildly like Fogelman’s did, Fogelman’s characters are admittedly stronger, which should make their journey’s more compelling.

Perhaps that is Fogelman’s point.

While we never know the impact we will have on someone else’s life, life itself brings us together, conveniently packaged in a two-hour film.

1.75 out of 4

The Predator - Movie Review by Monte Yazzie

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The Predator

 

Director: Shane Black

Starring: Boyd Holbrook, Trevante Rhodes, Olivia Munn, Keegan-Michael Key, Sterling K. Brown, Thomas Jane, Alfie Allen, Augusto Aguilera, Jake Busey, and Jacob Tremblay

 

Make a list of the action film staples of the 1980’s and it won’t take long to arrive at director John McTiernan’s science fiction adventure movie “Predator” starring Arnold Schwarzenegger.  It’s a highlight in the explosive catalog of Schwarzenegger who is partly responsible for influencing the prototype for the modern action film that audiences are familiar with.

 

Shane Black, the writer behind the “Lethal Weapon” franchise and most recently “The Nice Guys”, returns to the franchise he had an early acting role in back in 1987. However, this time Mr. Black is the director of “The Predator”, an entertaining, overstuffed, and brainless film determined to achieve the highest amount of fan service possible.

 

A military operation involving a drug cartel in Mexico is disrupted by a crashing unidentified flying object. The cartel members and military soldiers are slaughtered brutally by a cloaking alien hunter. A sniper named Quinn McKenna (Boyd Holbrook) is the only survivor of the attack. Before a group of scientists from a program called Stargazer can assess the scene, McKenna takes the mask and a weapon off the Predator and sends it away for evidence of the encounter. McKenna is eventually arrested and interrogated; he is placed in custody with a ragtag group of military soldiers who are forced into action when the Predator escapes.

 

Shane Black is a talented writer who imbues his scripts with humor, quirk, and interesting characters. “The Predator” thrives on these qualities throughout the film. It emulates the catchy team aspect from the original film with a group of military tough guys but here adding some genuinely funny moments from the cast and a female character played by Olivia Munn who can hold her own just fine amidst all the testosterone. In the first major action scene in the film Mr. Black pitch perfectly catches the tone of the original films.

 

Replacing Arnold Schwarzenegger is actor Boyd Holbrook who, minus the muscles and accent, does a decent job of playing the hero here. Olivia Munn is provided a thankless role, though it does offer a few moments for her to flex her toughness. The standout performances belong to Keegan-Michael Key and Trevante Rhodes who banter and bicker with a mile-a-minute tempo that simply provokes some of the best laughs of the film.

 

There are some really fun moments and setups throughout, like when the film blatantly salutes the first two films with a series of clever one-liners and when the Predator is simply left to unleash chaotic attacks. Unfortunately, “The Predator” feels lopsided as it tries t0 balance too many things. The mix of humor and action works in some aspects and in other places it feels out of place. The narrative introduces a few interesting choices connected to the mythology of the otherworldly sport hunters but it also feels stuffed with ideas that never payoff the way they should. You can feel the film working every angle for a sequel.

 

Amidst all that is going on with Predator dogs, a character with Tourette’s Syndrome (Thomas Jane), biological modification, a genius young boy (Jacob Tremblay), and Sterling K. Brown playing a scientist with more swagger and coolness than he should have, “The Predator” is definitely a messy premise but thrives to provide entertainment and action first and foremost.

 

Monte’s Rating

3.00 out of 5.00

Best of Toronto International Film Festival: Part One by Jeff Mitchell

Best of TIFF 2018 – Part One

 

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As noted on the Toronto International Film Festival’s or TIFF’s website, this movie celebration “is dedicated to presenting the best of international and Canadian cinema and creating transformational experiences for film lovers and creators of all ages and backgrounds.”  From firsthand experience, this critic concurs. 

 

Certainly, TIFF is a mammoth 11-day event, but this proud Toronto jewel also carries an equally strong qualitative core of personable and efficient touches, not unlike our own Phoenix Film Festival.  Well, this proud Phoenician arrived in Toronto on Sept. 5 to attend this year’s TIFF and caught 26 movies so far (as of Sept. 13).  Yes, watching so many movies can be a dizzying experience, but I paused for a few moments to jot down five of the very best films that I have seen so far.  On Sept. 21, I’ll add an additional five in a “Best of TIFF 2018 – Part Two” article.

 

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“Capernaum” – Zain (Zain Al Rafeea), a 12-year-old, sues his parents for bringing him into this world.  Over the course of director Nadine Labaki’s two-hour movie, the audience will discover Zain’s heartbreaking reasons.  Told in retrospect, Zain runs away from home and lives on the streets of Beirut, but even worse, he – somehow - becomes a caretaker to a baby.  As the two trudge from one brutal circumstance to the next, Labaki must carry remarkable patience when filming the untrained actors during their hopeless journey.  “Capernaum” rips at your core and leaves you exhausted, as evidenced at a TIFF screening.  Just after the film ended, a woman sitting next to this particular critic said, “This movie destroyed me.”  Completely agree. 

 

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“Cold War” –  Music director Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) meets Zula (Joanna Kulig) during a tryout for a new song and dance ensemble in 1949 Poland, and soon after, they start a fervent love affair in the most beautifully-shot movie of the year…so far.  Although their on-again, off-again relationship – admittedly - carries familiar beats, director Pawel Pawlikowski (“Ida” (2014)) captures and documents the couple’s emotional devotion, even when they live apart.  The score, cinematography and camerawork develop into the film’s third, fourth and fifth main characters, as the gorgeous black and white picture tempts one to walk up to the big screen and swim in Pawlikowski’s post-WWII cinematic triumph. 

 

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“If Beale Street Could Talk” – Director Barry Jenkins adapts James Baldwin’s novel into a film of dreamy beauty and rich textures but also weaves a troubling narrative that feels all-too-common in the United States of America.  Tish (KiKi Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James) have been friends since childhood, but their relationship grows romantic as adults.  They are young – 19 and 22 years-old – but Tish’s parents and Fonny’s father joyfully offer their love and encouragement.  Unfortunately, life can often meddle with our perfectly-designed plans, and this young woman and man become its latest victims.  Several strong supporting performances bolster Layne and James, led by Teyonah Parris as Tish’s sister and Brian Tyree Henry as Fonny’s friend.

 

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“Transit” – Writer/director Christian Petzold’s latest is a surreal puzzler that begins two moves ahead of us, and then we play catch-up for most of the 101-minute runtime.  Georg (Franz Rogowski) is on the run!  He’s a German living in Paris but needs to quickly flee the city and country.  He’s close to his escape while hiding in Marseille and waiting for his getaway-ship to arrive.  As Georg lingers in this seaside city, one might wonder why the events mirror WWII, but everything on-screen looks like 2018.  Meanwhile a mysterious woman (Paula Beer) repeatedly appears in Georg’s life for a few seconds at a time and then scurries away.  It is not important to actively investigate your questions during Petzold’s film, but rather, let the narrative run through you.  

 

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“Widows” – The best ensemble cast of the year stars in the best crime film of the year...so far.  Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez and Elizabeth Debicki play widows who attempt a heist, even though they have zero armed-robbery experience.  This layered and stressful picture from Steve McQueen (“Shame” (2011), “12 Years a Slave” (2013)) meticulously plunges into lawbreaking, politics and family with stylish, violent action sequences and affecting sentiment of personal loss.  McQueen delivers thrills and yanks on heartstrings in an experience that hoists you onto a dangerous ride and dazzles with highly-memorable characters and several moving parts.  Colin Farrell, Brian Tyree Henry, Daniel Kaluuya, Liam Neeson, and Robert Duvall co-star.

 

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.

 

 

 

 

White Boy Rick - Movie Review by Ben Cahlamer

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White Boy Rick

 

Directed by Yann Demange

Screenplay by Andy Weiss, Logan Miller and Noah Miller

Starring Matthew McConaughey, Richie Merritt, Bel Powley, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Brian Tyree Henry, Rory Cochrane, Eddie Marsan, Bruce Dern, Piper Laurie

 

Based on a real-life figure, Richard Wershe Jr, who became the youngest FBI informant in history, Yann Demange’s “White Boy Rick” is a static look at a family on the verge of breaking apart in the slums of 1980’s Detriot.

The script by Andy Weiss and Logan and Noah Miller focuses on the everyday dangers presented to the Wershe family. Matthew McConaughey plays Richard Wershe Sr, a businessman who bought and sold arms legally. His son, Richard learned the trade and became street smart at a very young age, making him a valuable asset to the FBI. Bel Powley plays Dawn Wershe, Jr’s sister the lynchpin for the family.

Demange paints the risks to the Wershe’s with a broad stroke. Detroit at the time was a haven for corrupt politics and stronger drugs.

Underpinning the time the film is set, each actor’s performance was subtle and nuanced, McConaughey especially. He had his kids to worry about let alone worrying about getting killed for selling weapons. Newcomer Richie Merritt’s performance as Richard Jr is equally as subtle and emotion – driven. He plays ‘tough’ as well as ‘caring’ and ‘regret’.

Dawn spends most of the movie escaping from their reality. Through the haze, she trusts Jr to do the right thing. There’s a scene towards the end of the second act where father and son go to retrieve Dawn. Dawn’s reaction and McConaughey’s nuanced approach make the scene one of the more powerful in the film. The emotion in the scene between father and son, father and daughter and, especially brother and sister creates such tension that, when it lets up, you should be spent.

The lead cast is nothing without their supporting counterparts. Jennifer Jason Leigh as FBI Agent Snyder played the subtle card as effectively as the lead cast. She was nonplussed as McConaughey’s Wershe Sr grills her for assurances. Rory Cochrane, who plays somewhat of a chameleon in other roles, has a bit more to say as her partner, Frank Byrd. He was perhaps the most vocal role of the troupe, but his acting style sublimates the risk to Jr as well as to Sr.

Bruce Dern and Piper Laurie play Ray and Vera Wershe, Richard Sr’s parents. They live right around the corner from Sr’s family. Even at 82 years of age, Dern still can raise his voice in a quiet way, his experience prevailing. There’s a scene where Jr is staying with them. It’s a quiet morning, Ray makes pancakes for Vera, and she curtly reminds him that she doesn’t like pancakes. Jr walks into the room and Ray asks him if he wants the pancakes, Jr politely deflects the offer. Instead of raising his voice, objecting to the proffered food, he just throws his hands up in the air, realizing he’s lost that battle. And they were damned perfect pancakes too.

That’s the type of filmmaking that Yann Demange displays for us: expert performances full of quiet rage and fury, signaling nothing. There’s the rub with the film. The performances are all exceptionally low-key that the story simply can’t keep pace. It tries to be bigger than the characters and events it contains. Even the stronger scenes, as tense as they were, weren’t really effective in the grand scheme of the story.

I confess to not being familiar with Richard Wershe Jr’s story. In fact, very few people knew of his story until 2014 when Evan Hughes published a long article in The Atavist, “The Trials of White Boy Rick.” Though the article is not the basis for the screenplay, it tells the story of how the FBI coerced Wershe Jr. in to the life that he had to live. It is much more than that though and you will have to see the movie to better understand what I’m referring to.

The film is not “Goodfellas,” though it feels like it could have and should have been.

2 out of 4

American Chaos - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

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Stern searches for order in ‘American Chaos’

 

Directed and written by: James D. Stern

 

“American Chaos” – “They hate her, and they hate Obama too.” – James D. Stern

 

The aforementioned quote about Hillary Clinton and President Obama is one of the conclusions that director James D. Stern inevitably acknowledges in his documentary “American Chaos” about a nearly two-year-old event, the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election.  Stern – a lifelong Democrat who declares that Bobby Kennedy is one of his heroes – probably already knew that particular fact before making his movie.  He confirms it, however, during his own personal ground game.

 

For six months leading up to election day, Stern travels to Ohio, Florida, West Virginia, and Arizona, finds passionate Americans who back Trump and conducts 1:1 interviews.  His larger point?  To explore Trump supporters’ perspectives and reasons for the attraction to their candidate.

 

It’s not easy for Stern, a passionate progressive, because other than declaring, “Lady Gaga likes to explore fashion,” describing U.S. politics as a divisive mess might be the understatement of the year. 

 

With two polarizing presidential candidates, tribal television, radio and social media constantly reinforce that the other (Republican or Democrat) is alien.

 

Stern meets these so-called aliens, like Julio Martinez of Florida and Brian and Kristi Beddow of West Virginia.  Of course, Trump supporters’ views have been well-documented ad nauseam for a couple years now.  To Stern’s credit, rather than snap a few soundbites via contentious CNN panels, he provides a welcoming space and plenty of time for his interviewees to state and expand on their points, and they do. 

 

Sometimes, they rightfully vent about the declining coal industry and then shift towards hope that Trump will bring jobs back.  On other occasions, they will curtly say that Hillary Clinton should be locked up.  In one case, Brian Beddow – who appears poised to jump at Stern’s throat at the slightest provocation - alludes that Hillary’s use of a public email server for government business justifies prison or perhaps worse.  (Note that Beddow does not recommend the death penalty, but he does not rule it out either.)

 

Stern mostly lets his on-screen subjects speak without debate and interruption, but he occasionally disagrees.  When Stern does interject, his retorts are respectful and aren’t combative.  His unsaid-mindset appears to be: Trump voters are free to express their thoughts unimpeded, but if a particular comment falls so far out of bounds, I might spontaneously combust by staying silent.

 

This allows for calm discourse and opportunities to listen.

 

Stern also listens to others who cast sensible arguments against Trump supporters: sociology, climate, race-relations, and media experts, like Dr. Darrell Hunt and Dr. David Archer.  For Stern, these small reprieves give him some relief, especially after feeling like an oddball within a sea of “Make America Great Again” red baseball caps for months. 

 

Democrats are not completely void from the film, as a few Hillary voters display their unwise overconfidence over the heartland’s hearts.  Make no mistake, “American Chaos” looks at the world through a progressive lens, but it also reaches across the aisle.  Hillary supporters just might discover empathy for some Trump voters, because on-screen discourse over vanishing jobs and porous international borders are justified arguments. 

 

Sure, Trump voters will continue to dislike President Obama and Hillary Clinton, and Stern might forever-loathe their guy, but these Americans in front of and behind the camera do not seem to hate one another. 

 

Hey, that sounds like progress! 

(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.

A Simple Favor - Movie Review by Ben Cahlamer

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A Simple Favor

 

Directed by Paul Feig

Screenplay by Jessica Sharzer Based on “A Simple Favor” by Darcey Bell

Starring Anna Kendrick, Blake Lively, Henry Golding, Andrew Rannells

 

I love me a good mystery. I love me a good mystery even more when the plot points aren’t obvious, a good curve ball comes at you out of left field, and when comedy is a central element in the film.

Are you with me?  Good!

Then check out “A Simple Favor”.  The End.

Wait a minute!  Why is that the end? Wasn’t there supposed to be a plot and characters and everything else that goes in to making a film?

Okay, I’ll give.

Stephanie Smothers (Anna Kendrick) is the PERFECT mommy. She raises her son, Miles and she has a blog where she offers tips and tricks for the other mommies in their suburban Connecticut community; she is an absolute ball of energy. She meets Emily Nelson (Blake Lively), a powerful ad executive who is more interested in keeping herself sedated then taking care of her son, Nicky. When Emily disappears suddenly, Stephanie steps up to the plate to uncover the truth.

After the disastrous “Ghostbusters,” one might have wondered what was up Paul Feig’s sleeves next. It turns out that Darcey Bell’s “A Simple Favor” was the answer. Jessica Sharzer’s (‘The L Word,’ ‘American Horror Story,’ ‘Nerve’) script is razor sharp, infusing the hallmarks of a good solid mystery like “Diabolique” or “Gone Woman” with the humor of Cohen brothers or Gregory McDonald (“Fletch”).

In fact, “Fletch” was most on my mind as this story unfolded. Kendrick is a gem as the spunky, plucky Stephanie. She’s so perfect that the other mommies and daddies are scared. The character’s use of the  blog to offer updates on the ongoing investigation is where Kendrick shines.

That, and when she is with Blake Lively’s Emily Nelson. When they are together, film magic happens.

Stephanie is very reserved and Emily brings her out of her shell like it was nothing. Emily is the very definition of a bad girl. But she cares about Nicky and she cares about her husband Sean (Henry Golding, “Crazy Rich Asians”). As the story unfolds, Emily is still very much a part of the mystery, so don’t count her out just yet. Scene stealer!

The beauty of Feig’s direction is that we never know which direction the characters are going in next, but the constant updates from Stephanie keep us on track. In fact, as she gets deeper into solving Emily’s disappearance, she becomes even bolder.

Now, I haven’t seen David Fincher’s “Gone Girl” yet. In fact, the shrunk wrapped Blu ray is still sitting in my closet collecting dust (that story will never solve itself, BEN!)

…oh, sorry; that darned inner monologue again…

As I was saying, despite not having seen “Gone Girl,” I can say with confidence that Fincher’s imprimatur was imparted on Feig, the cast and the story.

If I had to put a mental image of the film in your head, it could be best described as a young kid skipping rocks on a smooth lake, each wave caressing the other as they dissipate. As the mystery deepens, the waves of Stephanie’s investigate have far reaching, and hilarious consequences.

Do me “A Simple Favor” and see it. You won’t regret it.

3.75 out of 4

The Nun - Movie Review by Monte Yazzie

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The Nun

 

Director: Corin Hardy

Starring: Demián Bichir, Taissa Farmiga, Jonas Bloquet, and Bonnie Aarons

 

 

“The Conjuring” universe continues to grow with director Corin Hardy’s “The Nun”. Taking the mythos of an evil spirit that manifests the physical form of a nun, who was last seen in another connected ghost franchise “Annabelle: Creation”, “The Nun” continues to operate within the blueprint established by recent master of horror James Wan, the director responsible for “Insidious” and “The Conjuring”. Unfortunately, “The Nun” feels stifled by familiar setups and a bare bones narrative that aims to offer nothing more than sequences to build scares around.

 

Father Burke (Demián Bichir) is tasked by the Vatican to investigate the mysterious death of a nun in Romania. He is provided a novitiate (Taissa Farmiga) on the threshold of her final vows to accompany him on the voyage. The two travel to Romania and meet up with the young man (Jonas Bloquet) who discovered the deceased nun. The group travel to the secluded abbey and uncover a dark and unholy secret involving a demon named Valek that is trying to escape the monastery.

 

“The Nun” boasts an interesting atmosphere that pours on the fog and deepens the long shadows, composing a visually interesting gothic scenery. It helps in crafting the structure to make some of the more deliberate scares have greater effect than they otherwise might have. Dark hallways that seem endlessly guided into thick blackness, catacombs with swathed bodies surrounded by dense fog, and, of course, a cemetery with crooked crosses each of which have bells connected to strings so that people buried alive could alert those above ground. It’s a great setup.

 

Unfortunately, even with some creative moments “The Nun” never feels cohesive enough to make the demon Valek have the lasting fright that it should. And this monster has such an effective design that we should think twice about turning the lights off after we watch the movie. But there are few frights here that seem altogether memorable, if you’ve seen “The Conjuring” or “The Insidious” films you’ve seen all these scares before. The most effective scare featuring The Nun doesn’t even happen in this film.

 

The two lead characters, who are given earnest performances by Mr. Bichir and Ms. Farmiga, are rarely provided the construction to put much value in their journey. The narrative is trying to establish an origin story but the dots never seem to connect effectively enough, though this isn’t always a bad thing for horror films. In fact, sometimes a muddled backstory can make the monster more effective. That unfortunately isn’t the case here.

 

“The Nun” has a few moments that embrace the nice mix of humor and horror that makes these supernatural vehicles so much fun. In particular the inclusion of a specific weapon by one of the characters offers a nice gag. “The Nun” has some spooky imagery and establishes some great atmosphere, which is were most of its fun is had; unfortunately it never conjures the spectacle or the scares that such a visually interesting  monster should have.

 

Monte’s Rating

2.00 out of 5.00

We the Animals - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

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‘We the Animals’ captures childhood truths and perspectives

 

 

Directed by:  Jeremiah Zagar

Written by:  Jeremiah Zagar and Daniel Kitrosser, based on the novel by Justin Torres

Starring:  Evan Rosado, Josiah Gabriel, Isaiah Kristian, Sheila Vand, and Raul Castillo

 

“We the Animals” – “I made a snowman and my brother knocked it down, and I knocked my brother down, and then we had tea.” – Poet Dylan Thomas

 

Based on title alone, one might surmise that “We the Animals” is an animated film, complete with a hippopotamus, giraffe, fox, antelope, parrot, and perhaps a lost penguin thrown in for good measure.  No, director Jeremiah Zagar’s picture is not a quasi-descendent of “Madagascar” (2005) or “Kung Fu Panda” (2008). 

 

Far from it. 

 

“We the Animals” is a live-action movie about three preteen brothers, and the uninhabited, joyful and reckless spirit that many, many boys possess.  Based on Justin Torres’ 2011 novel, the film features a financially-struggling family of five, and three kids’ (Manny (Isaiah Kristian), Joel (Josiah Gabriel) and Jonah (Evan Rosado)) worldviews, but primarily from Jonah’s perspective.  He also narrates.  Director Jeremiah Zagar takes an organic approach to portray childhood, by sometimes conveying dreamlike-states, as if Zagar is channeling Torres’ and his own boyhood-memories along with “snips and snails and puppy-dogs’ tails.” 

 

Sure, the aforementioned nursery rhyme depicts an unfair description of boys, but yes, it rings with some truths, and Zagar captures that spirit. 

 

In an Aug. 17, 2018 interview, Zagar said, “The book was wild, so the movie had to be wild and messy and dirty and alive.”

 

He also portrays the camaraderie and friendship of brothers, who garner shared histories and invent into their own rituals, like huddling together when chilly and chanting, “Body heat, body heat, body heat.”

 

Manny, Joel and Jonah live in a warm household with Paps (Raul Castillo) and Ma (Sheila Vand), as their parents certainly love and care for them and each other.  Paps and Ma, however, also feel the heavy exertions of making ends meet, even though they live in a fairly-spacious 2,000 sq. foot, three-bedroom home in the semi-suburbs of Upstate New York.  Their outdoor surroundings erupt with green and mosquitos in the summer and ache with cold and bare, brown matchstick-trees in the winter.  Much like the heavily-varied seasonal weather, Paps’ and Ma’s moods also shift, but on assorted, unpredictable schedules, and an unfortunate incident triggers explosive consequences for Ma and Jonah, and eventually everyone in the household. 

 

All five cope with this internal combustion, and while the boys rally to their communal defenses, Jonah also draws his feelings via crayon and paper, which occurs throughout the film.  Jonah’s narration and illustrations grant insight into his feelings, which diverge in specific ways from his brothers, and they cinematically morph into frequent surges of crayon-animation and primal actions. 

 

The kids are explorers, and they attempt to rule their domain with releases of pent-up aggression but also with lighter, counterbalanced amounts joy and humor.  Zagar’s picture somewhat resembles “The Florida Project” (2017) in terms of perspective, style and the realities of the working poor, although director Sean Baker captures bright, vibrant colors and shapes of Orlando’s gift shops as the playground for his movie-kids.  Meanwhile, “We the Animals” features muddy tones, free of modern consumer conveniences, which also force Jonah and his brothers into fantasy with the tools that they have. 

 

Diving under a bed sheet with a flashlight or laying in the mud while starring at the sky are two nearby means to spur imaginations.  

 

“We the Animals” is an imaginative, first-person assessment of the world, and it bursts with frustrations, passions and love.  One may not find a snowman, nor will the kids enjoy cups of tea, but for 90 minutes, similar wild, messy, dirty, and alive boyhood-keepsakes pour off the screen.

(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.

 

God Bless the Broken Road - Movie Review by Ben Cahlamer

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God Bless the Broken Road

 

Directed by Harold Cronk

Screenplay by Jennifer Dombush and Harold Cronk

Starring Lindsay Pulsipher, Makenzie Moss, Andrew W. Walker, Kim Delaney, Robin Givens, Gary Grubbs, LaDainian Tomlinson, Jordin Sparks, Arthur Cartwright

 

There are two certainties in life: death and taxes and in between, we live a life of endless possibilities full of choices. One of the greatest gifts we’ve been endowed with is the gift of choice. We can choose “right” or “wrong”; we can choose to ignore something or face it head on. Sometimes, life hands us a challenge that is not of our own doing and we have a choice on how we respond to that situation.

Amber Hill (Pulsipher) has an amazing voice and a strong community to support her while her husband, Darren (Liam Matthews) is on a mission in Afghanistan. When he is killed in action, Amber is left to take care of their daughter, the spunky Bree (Makenzie Moss).

The screenplay by Jennifer Dombush and director Harold Cronk follows Amber and Bree’s recovery from their traumatic event. The heartfelt and genuine story focuses on Amber’s struggles to overcome her grief. She refuses the help of her support network, something that was so strong before Darren’s death.

It isn’t until race car driver Cody Jackson (Walker) comes into their lives that she sees the light. Throughout the story, Amber rejects Cody’s attempts to be friends, but he finds a way into Bree’s world.

It is as these two characters come to a realization that they were destined to find one another where the supporting cast shines. Former NFL running back, LaDainian Tomlinson plays Pastor Williams. Though his role is small, his presence can be felt during the most crucial of moments. Robin Givens plays Karena, a friend of Amber’s who is there to support her as is Bridgette, played by Jordin Sparks.

The most pivotal character, or at least the most relatable character is that of Joe Carter played by Gary Grubbs as he steers Cody to where he needs to be. Literally. Kim Delaney plays Patti Hill, Darren’s mom. We know her intentions are good, even if she ends up being ingratiating. And that’s because she’s hurting just as much as Amber and Bree are.

Where the cast shines, the story tries to tackle far too many themes and doesn’t know what it really wants to say. There is a definitive beginning, middle and end, but they employ a flashback to tell Darren’s story, something that is meant to give Amber’s story a stronger presence. And, I don’t think the real issue is with Amber’s story; it’s with Cody’s.

Dombrush and Cronk paint a need on both ends of the friendship, but they didn’t use Cody’s real struggles to bring it full circle. I think they were so desperate to frame Amber’s struggles that they lost sight of the counterbalance between the characters, because each of the secondary characters had to have some sort of resolution as well.

The choices we make, the friends we have, they all interconnect back to Amber’s story, but in a very messy way. The struggle is genuine, there’s no doubt about that. We just needed to focus on one character or event and that simply didn’t happen here.

1.5 out of 4

Searching - Movie Review by Ben Cahlamer

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Searching

 

Directed by Aneesh Chaganty

Written by Aneesh Chaganty and Sev Ohanian

Starring John Cho, Debra Messing

 

We live in a world where everything happens on a screen of some sort. Heck, even as I’m writing this review, I’m paying attention to the news on my smart phone. We’re more interconnected to one another than just the words that comprise my review of Aneesh Chaganty’s “Searching,” which expanded this weekend after a strong limited debut.

In what is sure to be one of the more unique mainstream releases of 2018, “Searching” was shot entirely using a computer screen. John Cho plays David Kim, a father of one. He is adept at using the technology in front of him, being able to communicate with family members and conducting general life events.

His daughter, Margot (Michelle La) is a typical high schooler – she uses the internet to communicate with her dad, a point the story makes is that even a father can chastise his child and the words on the screen still have that “unwavering parental finger wagging” that I would get as a kid and in person; it’s that powerful.

When Margot goes missing, David reacts like any parent would: “where is my child?!” But it takes time for him to come to that ultimate conclusion.

At some point he involves the police and Detective Rosemary Vick (Debra Messing) is brought on. This is where the script by Chaganty and Sev Ohanian gets even better, because you think you know your child and you realize you don’t leading David to frantically dig into his daughter’s past to find clues about what’s become of her.

The reason why this tried and true story works as well as it does is because the audience is following the clues along with David. You can feel his pain and anguish when a clue doesn’t yield the results you’d expect, or a well-placed camera catches an outburst.

Cho is sublime as a desperate father. He has to adapt as he scours the internet and the character grows as a result of this situation. Messing is direct, even blunt in some instances as she must be. As the case unfolds, it was interesting to see, not only their conversations, but also the visual cues carrying the story towards its rather shocking conclusion.

Web cameras play a huge role in some aspects of this story and cinematographer Juan Sebastian Baron needs to be acknowledged for his inventiveness. There’s a scene about a third of the way through the film where David confronts his brother, Peter (Joseph Lee). Using multiple camera angles, Baron composes the conversation and the result and with multiple vantage points, an energy is created that makes this particular scene the most relatable to audiences.

I had an opportunity to speak with the film’s producer, Timur Bekmambetov at South by Southwest earlier this year in relation to another movie where he mentioned that, through his production company Bazlevs, they were going to continue to explore this style of filmmaking.

“Searching” is the modern equivalent to watching the now-infamous O.J. Simpson Bronco chase down the 405 in 1994: we are seeing life unfold in real-time. It is harrowing, it is funny, it is sad, it is messy, but it is genuine and it is powerful.

I for one will be first on line this weekend to catch “Searching” again and I look forward to what is in store for Aneesh Chaganty.

3.5 out of 4

 

The Little Stranger - Movie Review by Ben Cahlamer

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The Little Stranger

 

Directed by Lenny Abrahamson

Written by Lucinda Coxon based on The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

Starring Domhnall Gleeson, Ruth Wilson, Will Poulter, Charlotte Rampling

 

The horror genre wears many faces, and if I weren’t writing a review on a film that takes its horror seriously, I’d be laughing at myself for that ludicrous opening statement. When I was a kid, I was afraid of horror films. I tried watching them, but could never get myself over the tension.

As an adult films like Lenny Abrahamson’s “The Little Stranger,” appeal to me. It’s a strange dichotomy, but I’ve learned to accept it.

Much like the film, a lot of my own fears were reflective, not reflexive.

During the summer of 1947, Dr. Faraday (Domhnall Gleeson) is summoned to an ailing young housemaid at the Hundreds Hall home, a once-stately manor now fallen into disrepair. As he completes his work, he is introduced to Caroline Ayres (Ruth Wilson) and Roddy Ayres (Will Poulter), the son and daughter of Angela Ayres (Charlotte Rampling). From that first meeting, Dr. Faraday takes on Roddy, who was injured during a war and suffers from PTSD.

The beauty of The Little Stranger is in Lucinda Coxon’s dialog. It is sharp and witty, in a dignified way that befits the Hundreds Hall home and the differing social climate in post-war England. Faraday, the son of a housemaid who once was on staff at the home during its heyday.

The strongest attribute of the film is in the casting. Gleeson is sedate at first as he gets his bearings. As he becomes more comfortable around the family and the house, his demeanor changes. There’s a twinge of guilt that hangs on his every word at the beginning turning into reverence, but never respect.

Ruth Wilson’s Caroline is aloof, a preening heir more concerned in taking care of her brother than finding a relationship. As she warms up to Faraday, the air of responsibility gives way to fear. Her body language says one thing, but her actions and words say something completely different. Caroline is as strong as Faraday, but for different reasons much like Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay’s pairing in Abrahmson’s “Room.”

I could sit in a room and watch Charlotte Rampling just staring out a window all day and not be bored, she is that much of a presence. She lends her grace and dignity here, which suits the role of the head of the home quite well. She is the type of actress who says more with her eyes, speaking only when necessary and when she does, her words are as sharp as a knife. There is authority in her presence.

Will Poulter continues to surprise me in that he started out in comedy and has moved into far more dramatic roles, something that I think suits the actor. As Roddy, he has the double duty of acting through an appliance while trying to be the man of the house. The way Abrahamson and Coxon treated his character, you tend to think one thing about his motives.

Lenny Abrahamson understands his characters and their function. As with “Room,” “The Little Stranger” is walled-in, meaning the characters are the story leaving very little room for the story to balance out the characters. Some may find that challenging as the narrative unfolds, but the characters are so interesting that I didn’t mind it.

3 out of 4

Kin - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

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‘Kin’ misfires its laser gun story

 

Directed by:  Jonathan and Josh Baker

Written by:  Daniel Casey, Jonathan and Josh Baker

Starring:  Myles Truitt, Jack Reynor, Zoe Kravitz, Dennis Quaid, and James Franco

 

“Kin” –  Speaking from personal experience, many preteen boys who grew up in the late 1970’s enjoyed “Star Wars” (1977) and wished to own laser guns similar to Han Solo’s and/or Chewbacca’s.  Sure, sheriffs and outlaws firing rifles during “Bonanza” reruns carried a certain admired machismo, but laser guns discharging explosive light missiles provided an indescribable allure.

 

With certainty, a significant subset of these anxious, excitable kids asked their fathers, “Dad, have ‘they’ invented laser guns yet?” 

 

Again, speaking from personal experience.

 

In 2018 Detroit, one would be hard-pressed to find a nearby laser gun manufacturer, but Eli (Myles Truitt) – a 14-year-old who collects scrap metal and wiring for resale – miraculously stumbles onto a bizarre, futuristic rifle sitting in an abandoned factory.  Wow, a kid’s dream come true.  It’s a thin, metallic box about two feet long and 9 inches high, but when he slides his thumb over a lighted corner, a scope rises, a trigger appears and a gun barrel extends from this contraption.

 

This thingamajig could do some damage.

 

Eli’s family has suffered some damage as well.  His mom passed away, his older brother Jimmy (Jack Reynor) sits in jail and his dad Hal (Dennis Quaid) weathers their personal storm with occasional curt conversation and a permanent semi-scowl.  Father and son are mourning without tears.

 

Jimmy, however, just finished serving his six-year prison sentence and returns home, much to the displeasure of Hal, who still harbors resentment for his eldest son’s mistakes.  Even though Jimmy hopes for a new start, trouble has followed him home, and soon after, Eli and he begin a rocky journey across the country.

 

“Kin” is a road picture.  A generic and shaky one that dives into predicable spaces in repeated, painful examples of we’ve-seen-this-movie-before.  During their trip, the brothers catch up over six years of lost time and bond a bit, but their haphazard jaunt – led by an ex-con’s faulty instincts – is, of course, destined to fall apart.  You see, Jimmy keeps a secret from Eli, but some future, unlucky circumstance will inevitably pry it open.  The script also calls for a female ally, and eureka, Milly (Zoe Kravitz) – a small-town stripper – makes a marvelous new life-choice by joining this ex-con and teenager on their adventures. 

 

Sounds solid. 

 

Milly lands on this decision after meeting the boys for about six minutes of screen time.  Well, let’s be fair.  It may have been eight minutes.  Eight minutes or eight days, the three instantly gain each other’s trust, and Milly develops a maternal instinct for Eli.  

 

Even though they speed down various highways, this thinly-constructed narrative runs in place with the exception of Eli’s aforementioned weapon.  Rather than wonder if Jimmy and Eli will strengthen their rapport and/or ponder when Milly will decide to rob them blind, the film begs for more laser gun time. 

 

Directors Jonathan and Josh Baker do feed the greedy need for exploding deeds, but the futuristic shootout-grandeur infrequently occurs.  This critic didn’t tally up the exact number of laser blasts, but it didn’t feel like enough.  Every once in a while, Eli will reluctantly fire at a standing object or person in between Jimmy’s declarations of hope that his little brother would refrain from trouble.  Then again, who took him on the road, encouraged him to drink at a strip bar, stop in a casino, and shoot bad guys?

 

In addition to the gun, the other notable character is Taylor, a bad dude played furiously by James Franco.  Franco has a celebrated history of selecting curious roles, and he brings a real sense of danger to the film.  One hopes that Taylor might show a brief moment of levity, but this character may have reinvented the term bad to the bone, and admittedly, furnishes a legit reason for Jimmy’s desire to hit the pavement at 90 mph. 

 

If only the police could help, but no law enforcement appears anywhere during the first two acts, while Taylor uses his bottomless freewill to commit felonious aggression.  Actually, plenty of John and Jane Q. Laws arrive in the third act, and the Bakers pay homage to – arguably - the seminal action picture of the 1980’s, but despite this tribute, “Kin” regularly misfires.  Most likely, kids and adults of all ages probably won’t be dreaming of finding Eli’s laser rifle anytime soon, but then again, with the amount of gun violence in today’s climate, perhaps we should all thank the filmmakers for their movie’s unintended public service.

(1.5/4 stars)

 

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

 

 

Operation Finale - Movie Review by Ben Cahlamer

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Operation Finale

 

Directed by Chris Weitz

Written by Matthew Orton

Starring Oscar Issac, Ben Kingsley, Melanie Laurent, Lior Raz, Nick Kroll, Haley Lu Richardson, Joe Alwyn

 

Winston Churchill once said, “History is written by the victors.” This might appear callous, or even cruel when used in reference to The Holocaust and the subsequent Nuremberg trials.

However, in the context of Peter Malkin, a Mossad agent who successfully captured the Holocaust mastermind, Adolf Eichmann in a secret intelligence operation, it puts into perspective just whom the victor really was.

Such is the subject of Chris Weitz’s dramatic period piece, “Operation Finale” featuring Oscar Isaac as Malkin. When word reaches the Mossad ranks that they have located Adolf Eichmann in Argentina, they plan to retrieve Eichmann in secret and return him to Israel for trial.

Weitz’s direction is assured as we learn more about the character of Peter Malkin, and what drives him. The beginning of the film depicts Malkin as a less-than-capable officer and an even more unfortunate lover. He is a flawed human being, haunted by a past that he could not control, yet he cannot accept.  His ingenuity in planning the mission is his strongest characteristic and Isaac performs this beautifully.

As Eichmann, Ben Kingsley is superb, though a little too tan. His take on the role was quiescent as he tried to blend in to a nation of supporters. He, his wife and their two kids lived simple lives and he worked as a supervisor.

The strongest scenes in Matthew Orton’s script are when Malkin and Eichmann are playing mind games with one another, one learning about the other in the hopes of gaining an advantage. The film captured passion behind their performances as Isaac and Kingsley try to outdo one another. Their scenes are emotionally charged as each lays bare their own secrets.

The supporting cast is just as strong. Melanie Laurent plays a very strong willed Hanna, a doctor and a former agent who is called back in to service. Nick Kroll plays Rossi, the logistics man. His humor cut through the story’s tension.

Two standout performances go to Joe Alwyn as Klaus Eichmann, Adolf’s young and impressionable son and to Haley Lu Richardson as Sylvia Herman. They are the younger version of Malkin and the senior Eichmann, at odds over religious ideologies and standing up for what each believes amidst a country full of supporters who would like nothing more than to see the rise of the Reich. Richardson’s performance in particular rises above her character’s principals.

Weitz is a strong visual storyteller and cinematographer Javier Aguirresanrobe captured a classic, romantic look at 1960’s Argentina along with the risks Malkin and team took to bring Eichmann back. Their work truly transports you back to that time while Alexandre Deplat’s brassy score brightens a somber film.

Despite the strong performances, the story felt overdramatized, to the point where it became anti-climactic. As each new problem arose, Weitz and Orton didn’t leave us room to digest each situation as they leached into one another. There are moments of levity and the focus remained on the Malkin-Eichmann conversations. For a 122 – minute run time, I would have appreciated some down time, but in this story there is no real victor as Eichmann is allowed to tell his story even as a people see justice for his crimes.

The victims are made whole, but they can never reclaim that which is lost. Perhaps the beauty of this story is in being able to let go of the past and move towards the future.

2.75 out of 4

The Wife - Movie Review by Monte Yazzie

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The Wife

 

Dir: Björn Runge

Starring: Glenn Close, Jonathan Pryce, Elizabeth McGovern, Max Irons, Harry Lloyd, Annie Starke, and Christian Slater

 

There are many comments about the role that women have in shaping men, but my favorite of all the comments goes something like this, “Behind every successful man is a woman rolling her eyes”. The eyes play an important role in director Björn Runge’s film “The Wife”, an adaptation of author Meg Wolitzer’s novel “In the Shadow of Big Boys”. The intriguing eyes here belong to the magnificent Glenn Close who composes the title character with unspoken resilience and subtle confidence, a woman who has been burdened with the ungrateful role of caring for an egotistical and petulant man who is admired by everyone around him.

 

The film concerns the long relationship between a married couple who have seen a lifetime of ups and downs both in the literary world and in their own personal marriage. Joe (Jonathan Pryce) is an author whose lifetime body of work is being honored with the Nobel Prize, his wife Joan (Glenn Close) sits in the shadows doing the arduous task of keeping her husband presentable, personable, and productive. They travel to Stockholm for the awards ceremony and the wounds from their past begin to open up.

 

“The Wife” has all the trappings of becoming an overly sentimental and forgettable story about the complexities of marriage, something that has been done before with films like “Another Year” from director Mike Leigh or “Scenes from a Marriage” by Ingmar Bergman. But “The Wife” wisely keeps clear of easy solutions or indulgent sentimentality and instead focuses on the characteristics that change people over time and how the definition of love means something wholly unique to two people in a long-term relationship. It also helps that the actors here are exceptionally talented and provided with meaty material to lavish over.

 

Glenn Close and Jonathan Pryce play the married couple. Mr. Pryce does a fantastic job of playing the whiny and arrogant author who consistently neglects the good woman that has stood by his side their entire life. But Glenn Close, providing one of the better performances of the year, plays the wife with meticulous composition. Ms. Close does more with her eyes and demeanor than with any spoken words in the film. In one moment the character is tasked with holding the coat of her husband during a bustling dinner party, Ms. Close’s character is positioned mostly in center frame, her eyes darting around at the admirers of her husband and also through the drivel her husband expels at length. During this entire time, as you can see Ms. Close sizing up the entire room, she has her husband’s coat shackled around her hands. It’s subtle filmmaking composing a powerful message about their relationship.

 

“The Wife” is a movie for grownups, a film that details complicated behaviors between two people who have a long connected past. It’s fascinating to watch the development of the characters, even if the narrative takes a few predictable turns. If that doesn’t intrigue you enough, watch this movie to see Glenn Close show why she is one of the best actors to do the job.

 

Monte’s Rating

3.50 out of 5.00

The Miseducation of Cameron Post - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

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‘The Miseducation of Cameron Post’ offers an unsettling look and lesson into conversion therapy  

 

Directed by:  Desiree Akhavan

Written by:  Desiree Akhavan and Cecilia Frugiuele, and based on the book by Emily M. Danforth

Starring:  Chloe Grace Moretz, Sasha Lane, Forrest Goodluck, John Gallagher Jr., and Jennifer Ehle

 

“The Miseducation of Cameron Post” – Conversion therapy is the practice of changing an individual’s sexual preference from homosexual or bisexual to heterosexual using psychological techniques or spiritual interventions, citing Wikipedia.  

 

One might think that this alarming tradition ended decades ago in the United States, but that’s not true.

 

According to a January 2018 study from UCLA’s The Williams Institute, 698,000 U.S. adults (ages 18 – 59) have received conversion therapy.  These rituals are not behind us either, because the same study added that 57,000 U.S. kids (ages 13 – 17) will receive conversion therapy before they reach 18. 

 

Will receive.

 

Why are U.S. kids still possibly subjected to conversation therapy?  Well, a July 5, 2018 NBC News article stated that only 13 states have banned licensed mental health service professionals from administering this therapy on kids under 18 years-old. 

 

Only 13, and Arizona is not one of those states. 

 

As frightening as that seems, “The Miseducation of Cameron Post” – which won the 2018 Sundance Film Festival’s Grand Jury Prize - jumps right into the alarming material.  

 

This feature film is about a teenager’s experience and state of mind, when her guardian drops her off at a religious camp to fix her homosexuality.  Director Desiree Akhavan and Chloe Grace Moretz, who plays Cameron or Cam, take the audience down an uneasy, uncomfortable path into a world that few moviegoers have experienced.  Then again, almost 700,000 U.S. citizens have a deep understanding of this twisted form of therapy all too well.

 

Cam had no idea that her life - in 1993 - would take a dramatic left turn during a double-date at a school dance.  After an awkward reveal that night in the back seat of a car, she is now stuck/trapped/ensnared at God’s Promise – a sprawling camp remotely located somewhere in the middle of a Northeastern forest – as the counselors try to cure her. 

 

Akhavan deliberately creates a world of isolation for Cam (Moretz), physically and emotionally.  For instance, when Cam is left at God’s Promise, Akhavan captures the scene from atop of the camp’s living quarters and shoots down towards a nearly empty parking lot.  It’s nearly empty, because this unnerved teen stands alone without another soul close by.  She’s on her own.  The program begins soon after, and Cam does not express her deepest thoughts with her new roommate Erin (Emily Skeggs).  Erin seems to accept God’s Promise’s purpose, while Cam appears too dizzy from the drastic changes in her living and schooling arrangements to begin to share her feelings. 

 

Moretz delivers a very effective and realistic performance as the shell-shocked teen, and Cam regularly answers, “I don’t know,” or “I’m fine,” to most questions.  She makes it nearly impossible for the counselors and the other teenagers to gain an imprint of her feelings.  Is she really fine, or is she just reciting programmed answers that the counselors and teens want to hear? 

 

She makes it difficult for the audience to discern too. 

 

During an Aug. 7 Phoenix Film Festival Summer Showcase screening of this movie, our audience was split.  Some moviegoers thought that Cam was too stunned to convey her true feelings, while others believed that her responses were calculated. 

 

It’s very possible to see both.

 

Speaking of both, Cam’s main interactions reside with two counselors and two new friends, and they equally impact her journey over 91 movie-minutes, in different ways, of course.  Lydia (Jennifer Ehle) – who always seems to ominously wear red – and Rick (John Gallagher Jr.) believe that they are performing God’s work through their consultations, sermons, lectures, and prayers to blaze a path for these kids towards heterosexuality.  Ehle and Gallagher Jr. do not play their characters as malevolent, but they are resolute.  Lydia takes on a bad cop role, as opposed to Rick, who is more soft-spoken and understanding.  (Note: Although Lydia’s and Rick’s methods are uncomfortable, some historical conversion therapies have also used harsher techniques, so the movie may present a tamer version of the practice.)

 

Are Lydia’s and Rick’s messages reaching these kids?  Over the course of the film, the audience discovers their success rates with Cam and others.

 

Thankfully, Cam finds a pair of allies with Jane (Sasha Lane) and Adam (Forrest Goodluck), as this inseparable trio offers a close space of frank discourse.  Similarly to Cam’s parking lot scene, the three always feel disconnected from their surroundings, and especially during one particular shot.  Akhavan isolates Cam, Jane and Adam sitting in chairs in the last row of a large karaoke activity.  With plenty of other teens close by, the camera slowly pulls back and leaves Cam, Jane and Adam deeply alone and distant from everyone else.  At least they feel detached as a cohesive unit from the group. 

 

Cam’s detached journey of supposed, new self-discovery feels like a colossal waste of time for her, because every moment ultimately points to a disorderly split with God’s Promise.  The film, however, gives no promises or clues how Cam will separate, but yes, the teacher-student relationship seems ultimately doomed.  Meanwhile, conversation therapy feels as ineffectual on-screen as one can imagine it off-screen. 

(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.

 

Juliet, Naked - Movie Review by Ben Cahlamer

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Juliet, Naked

 

Directed by Jesse Peretz

Written by Tamara Jenkins, Jim Taylor, Phil Alden Robinson, Evgenia Peretz

Based on Juliet, Naked by Nick Hornsby

Starring Rose Byrne, Ethan Hawke, Chris O’Dowd

 

As Jesse Peretz’s latest film, Juliet, Naked opens, Duncan Thomson (Chris O’Dowd) is neck deep into his Tucker Crowe fan website. Crowe, played by Ethan Hawke mysteriously disappeared during a concert some years before and Thomson uses his passion to keep the myth of Tucker Crowe alive. Thomson comes across as a know-it-all as he whittles away hours in a headset and web cam talking to other fans across the globe.

His live-in girlfriend, Annie (Rose Byrne) isn’t remotely interested in Duncan’s exploits or the music of Tucker Crowe. She spends her days working for the mayor’s office on a jubilee exhibit project and her nights with her sister, Carrie (Megan Dodds).

A previously unpublished recording put Annie and Duncan at odds and eventually leads Annie to the real Tucker Crowe. This is where director Jesse Peretz shines. Peretz, who started his career as a bass guitarist with The Lemonheads and has since worked on shows like Girls and Nurse Jackie has the right instincts when it comes to the Crowe character. Ethan Hawke carries the loveable grunge look. But it is his tender side to playing the aging hipster without being cynical about it.

Rose Byrne plays off those charms. Much like You’ve Got Mail, the relationship between she and Tucker starts out more as pen pals. Tucker’s situation requires him to head to London where they meet for the first time. Their first meeting is probably the most awkward part of the film as Tucker’s family politics makes the situation schmaltzy.

Part of the problem with this is that the script written by Tamara Jenkins, Jim Taylor and Evgenia Peretz (Phil Alden Robinson has an uncredited turn as well) is that it is a paint-by-numbers love story. What wakes the film up is of course the performances by our three leads.

Once Annie and Tucker start communicating on a deeper level, Ms. Byrne perks up a bit more.  It is a part of the character as Nick Hornsby originally envisioned her. And there’s enough of a relationship difference between Annie and Tucker to make the transition less awkward, again a compliment to Ms. Byrne and Mr. O’Dowd’s acting chops, and comedy chops too.

Chris O’Dowd is best known for his comedy and here his body movements and language is as important as the lines he delivers. Though he is stuck in his man cave, and there is a humorous scene when Tucker happens upon Duncan’s lair, he could be a good match with Annie. But his comedic nerves get the better of him and we’re left with the one relationship that truly works.

Once Ms. Byrne and Mr. Hawke finally settle down with each other, we find that they are what one another needs. The jubilee celebration scene really cements this aspect as an elderly member of the community compliments Annie on her photo, the recollection of the past so clear. Then, the mayor who has just learned who Tucker is, brings him on stage to sing acapella. It’s a beautiful moment that symbolizes what newfound relationships are all about.

The film does a lovely job of painting the dynamics of relationships without necessarily reflecting on the aging process. It layers in the messiness of past, broken relationships, even if some of those moments in the film don’t necessarily work. The cast is first rate and is the primary reason to catch this film.

Rating 2.75 out of 4