Certain Women - Movie Review by Kaely Monahan

“Certain Women” is a soft portrait of the female experience

By Kaely Monahan


Crafted like a delicate watercolor, Kelly Reichardt’s “Certain Women” is a subtle and beautiful tableau of the lives of three women. The three narratively are thinly interconnected with a gossamer touch that resembles something closer to poetry than strict storytelling.

The three women all live in or near Livingston, Montana. Each is independent, quietly powerful, and introspective. Laura Dern plays a middle-aged lawyer who confronts sexism and a client who becomes unhinged. Michelle Williams plays Gina Lewis, a wife, and mother with ambitions of building a house with natural materials. She too is confronted by sexism in the form of an elderly man who seems incapable of speaking to her—whether he is afraid of her or, more likely, doesn’t know what to do in the face of her alpha role in her marriage. She also faces a teenage daughter who despises her and a husband who is disloyal. (In fact, he is sleeping with Laura Dern’s character.)

Finally there is Lily Gladstone. A solitary woman who works on a horse ranch and apparently drives to the local high school and wanders into night classes. One such night she stumbles into Kristen Stewart’s history of education law. The pupils are all teachers who want only to know how to get lobby for higher pay or what recourse they have against students they don’t like. Gladstone’s character is actually curious about the subject and even more intrigued by Stewart’s character.

The true brilliance of this film is the groundedness of each of the characters. For most women, they will recognize the subtle sexist moments as true to life. None of the men or other women are trying to be misogynistic. Rather it’s moments like when Dern’s client refuses to accept the truth of his lawsuit until he’s heard it from a male lawyer. Dern’s character had told him the same thing for months. Or there’s the comment by the elderly man to Williams’ character’s husband – “Your wife works for you?” To which he replies, no he works for her.

At first glance “Certain Women” may seem dull and ultimately uneventful, but director Reichardt masterfully blends story drama and realism with the skill of an impressionist painter. “Certain Women” is soft, delicate, and engaging, like a Monet painting, and a must see for fall.


·         Kaely Monahan is a journalist, graduate of City University London and the creator of Popcorn Fan Film Reviews.



American Pastoral - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

‘American Pastoral’ breaks from all-American movie traditions


Director:  Ewan McGregor

Written by:  John Romano, based upon the novel by Philip Roth

Starring:  Ewan McGregor, Jennifer Connelly, Dakota Fanning, Peter Riegert, David Strathairn, and Rupert Evans


“American Pastoral” – Newark Maid Gloves, a thriving manufacturer owned by the Levov family, is located in an industrial neighborhood of the New Jersey city with the same name.   Life and business have operated swimmingly for decades, but riots during the late 1960s created a confrontational atmosphere for the factory.  Generally speaking, protestors concentrated their efforts in large U.S. cities, but one incident - far from the factory - in the small town of Old Rimrock, NJ rocked the unsuspecting farming community in Ewan McGregor’s feature film directorial debut, “American Pastoral”. 


McGregor plays Seymour ‘Swede’ Levov, and his character – for years - enjoyed a wonderful existence with his beautiful wife, Dawn (Jennifer Connelly), and their daughter, Merry (Dakota Fanning).  They created an appealing, Rockwellesque life in Old Rimrock for themselves to raise Merry, while Swede commuted to Newark to run the family business with his dad (Peter Riegert), until the aforementioned incident changed their lives.


Although this particular event is the story’s fulcrum, McGregor and screenwriter John Romano broadly explore the fragile nature of family through an intimate study of the Levovs.  First, the picture offers several carefully crafted scenes to establish Swede and Dawn’s virtue.  The couple may carry surficial, all-American good looks, but their internal intentions are just as honest and true.   For example, while Merry (at an elementary school age) struggles with a stutter and has problems making friends, Swede and Dawn show her much love and support and wish the very best for her. 


They frequently discuss and act upon various ways to lift their daughter up at their homestead, complete with docile cows, large swathes of lush green grass and outdoor barbeques.   Many of these scenes - with Ocean James playing an eight-year-old Merry - tug on our heartstrings, as we want to step into the screen and provide an encouraging word as well.  Despite Swede and Dawn’s efforts to raise a warm human being, their seemingly never-ending attempts may or may not reach this separate soul.


When the soul in question allegedly brings a crisis to their family, their solid foundation begins to crack rather than hold.


In one key way, “American Pastoral” differs from other family dramas.  When internal family dynamics explode in films, children usually take the protagonist roles, and out of touch parents play the hurdles and roadblocks to the kids’ salvation.  Here, McGregor’s movie presents Swede and Dawn in a sympathetic light.  They are the ones who are wronged.   They are the victims.  They are the ones who try to pick up the pieces and assemble a jumbled puzzle that carries no easy paths to solve.  The role reversal does not celebrate youthful exuberance and idealism.  Instead, it values stability and responsibility, and it offers the viewer a different perspective not too often seen in cinema.    


McGregor and Connelly are utterly believable as a wounded couple searching for answers, and Connelly is especially effective and perfectly cast.   As an aging beauty queen staring into a limited tomorrow, she gives one of the strongest supporting performances of the year and turns frighteningly icy during one brutally frank exchange.  Not to be forgotten, McGregor competently carries the dual mantles of a concerned dad and director alike.  


Keenly aware of his first effort from behind the camera, I noticed beautifully-filmed touchesthroughout the movie, and interestingly, many occurred during important walks by leads.  Some notable examples are:  Swede and Dawn’s determined stroll to the Newark Maid Gloves factory on a bright sunny day, a dark and cautious approach in one of the most deplorable sections in Newark and an affecting march during the film’s third act. 


“American Pastoral” is not a feel-good film.  The picture takes a loving family and applies damage to it.  At times, the theatrical experience felt like I placed the underside of my forearm - facing upward - on my armrest, as the film burned it with an open cigarette.  Emotions do run high, and "American Pastoral" demonstrates the unrequited parental love for a child more than any other of film -  that I have seen - in years. 


That specific love brightly burns, even when it hurts.


(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.


Ouija: Origin of Evil - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

‘Ouija: Origin of Evil’ conjures up some scares


Directed by:  Mike Flanagan

Written by: Mike Flanagan and Jeff Howard

Starring:  Elizabeth Reaser, Lulu Wilson, Annalise Basso, and Henry Thomas


“Ouija: Origin of Evil” –  One might find and purchase an ordinary-looking Ouija board at a toy store, but this particular item has the strangest rules:


1.      Never play alone

2.      Never play in a graveyard

3.      Always say, “Goodbye”


I am probably not breaking the “rules”, when I divulge that at least one person in “Ouija: Origin of Evil” fails to follow one or more of the aforementioned rules.  It is a horror movie, right?  That is to be expected.  Well, after watching this film – written and directed by Mike Flanagan - I absolutely expect that I will never purchase a Ouija board, let alone break any of its rules.  


Flanagan sets this disturbing story almost 50 years into the past - 1967 Los Angeles - and introduces us to the small business of Madame Zander - Fortune Teller, housed in a two-story Victorian home which reminded me of the locale from the 2016 horror film, “Lights Out”.  Although the home has ample square footage that would cause an eager real estate agent to salivate, the creepiness factor can make a semi-fragile moviegoer sweat. 


Alice Zander (Elizabeth Reaser) is sweating these days as well.   This likeable, 40-something widow is raising her two girls, Lina (Annalise Basso) and Doris (Lulu Wilson), and having serious trouble making financial ends meet.  Quite frankly, she is not a very good fortune teller.  One day, however, she discovers a Ouija board and adds it to her repertoire.  Her youngest daughter, Doris, takes to the new prop like a fish to water.  Doris seems to be communicating with the dead, and we all know that peace in this house will go south in a hurry.


With a runtime of one hour and 39 minutes, the story does not waste too much time, as mayhem ensues after some established pleasantries with Alice’s family.  This is a nice family, but they are under duress.  Lina, a high school sophomore, pushes her mom’s boundaries and Doris, about eight years old, struggles to make friends, and the girls’ issues place additional pressure on Alice.  In turn, their collective stressors help attract negative energy from beyond.  These undercurrents effectively garner additional sympathy for the family, as malevolent forces begin to invade their home.    


These forces make all three Zanders suffer, but Doris, a sweet, blue-eyed, blonde-haired kid, takes the massive brunt of it, not unlike Carol Anne from “Poltergeist” (1982).  In this case, Doris is not trapped inside of a television set, but Flanagan must have noted the parallels between the two films.  As a type of homage, Doris watches plenty of TV, while she is clearly not herself, after days of working the Ouija board.  


The overall story arc follows a predictable pattern:  the discovery of the board, the supernatural problems that it causes and the hopeful shutdown of its black magic.   Along the way, we see familiar supernatural snares from other recent horror films, like “Insidious” (2010) and “The Conjuring” (2013), but this movie successfully conjures up tension too.   A sense of claustrophobia forms as most of the scares occur within the house, and Flanagan adds a grandfather clock in the living room that constantly ticks and tocks in the background.


The picture is visually troubling as well, including the revealing findings that Doris sees by gazing through the planchette’s window and slowly panning across the parlor and living rooms. 


The movie does take a sudden and ambitious left turn in its third act which greatly expands the story but does so with mixed results.  Shutting down the board’s black magic becomes much more challenging for Alice and the girls, and the additional difficulty feels like they face unnecessary and impossible odds.   Conversely, the increased scope does not seem terribly inconsistent with the basic narrative and gives the film an added dimension.  


Speaking of dimensions, Flanagan’s movie asks us to take a couple leaps of faith, such as Lina’s ability to recognize the Polish language.  I know that French, Spanish and German were offered at my high school, but I do not believe Polish is a common fourth option with many typical curriculums.  Also, Father Tom (Henry Thomas) – the head of Doris and Lina’s catholic school – apparently has no other responsibilities other than to address their issues and make house calls for Alice, and his constant presence becomes eye rolling after a while.


“Ouija: Origin of Evil” is an effective, but not necessarily terrific, horror film.  With its familiar style, it feels like it blends together with several recent movies rather than particularly standing out.  On the other hand, its B-movie 1960s vibe, creepy visuals and effective uses of sound help answer the call for the average horror movie fan. 


If someone calls me to play Ouija, I’ll counter with a less stressful activity, like skydiving.    


(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 Accountant - Movie Review by Monte Yazzie


The Accountant


Director: Gavin O’Conner

Starring: Ben Affleck, Anna Kendrick, J.K. Simmons, Cynthia Addai-Robinson, Jon Bernthal, Jeffrey Tambor, and John Lithgow


The action film lately has seen its fair share of tough guys. A transporter who can throw fists and kicks with the best of them, another named Wick who thought he hid a deadly past under a slab of concrete, and a tough guy who has “a particular set of skills” that are useful when he needs them. Who would have thought that an accountant would share the same qualities with every character mentioned above. 


It makes sense that an accountant would be a good action hero. Aside from the pocket protector and wingtips, an accountant has to be meticulously organized, prepared for unexpected variables, and capable of assessing large quantities of information at rapid speeds. Add some hand-to-hand combat skills and weapons training and you’d have a fairly deadly weapon ready for action.


The premise isn’t quite so simple in director Gavin O’Conner’s film “The Accountant”. Ben Affleck plays a man named Christian Wolff who has an impressive aptitude with numbers but not so much with human connections. Christian is autistic; his military father took a non-professional approach of treatment, exposing Christian to loud noises, flashing lights, but also military combat training. Aside from being a brilliant everyday accountant, Christian also organizes the books for some of the most dangerous men, terrorists, and mobsters in the world. How does Christian stay safe? His unique brain and training from his father has turned him into a seemingly unstoppable assassin. 


First, Ben Affleck is really good here. The character of Christian is a man who struggles with people, understanding different emotions and subtle personality traits is more difficult for him than going through years of extensive, complicated accounts with millions of numbers. Mr. Affleck holds together the loose ends that unfortunately compose the narrative. Anna Kendrick offers some good chemistry with Mr. Affleck but also some humor that the two utilize often. J.K. Simmons plays a retiring treasury agent with nothing but charm, a man with secrets and conflicts of his own but also an understanding of the world he operates in. Mr. Simmons always brings an interesting quality, even to the most unoriginal characters like this one.


Aside from Mr. Affleck’s detailed, deft performance that provides the messy narrative with some interesting moments, there are unfortunately movements in the script that make zero sense. Most of the turns and reveals in this thriller are fairly easily discerned. Still, there are some good scenes found throughout the clutter. Specifically the relationships established by Christian, one with an analyst (Anna Kendrick) of a company investigating the loss of millions that puts Christian in a difficult position and another with a family member seen mostly in flashbacks. It's these interesting character dynamics that keep the film engaging.


“The Accountant” is a no-nonsense, sometimes dull, action thriller with a great performance from Ben Affleck. Surprisingly it still has a very watchable and pleasant quality, in the same way that mindless action films can occupy space without any other requirement than executing a by-the-numbers script with a good character. The cast delivers and that may be enough for some to overlook the missteps within the story. 


Monte’s Rating

3.50 out of 5.00


American Honey - Movie Review by Monte Yazzie

American Honey


Director: Andrea Arnold

Starring: Sasha Lane, Shia LeBeouf, Riley Keough, and Will Patton


There is a moment in director Andrea Arnold’s film “American Honey” where a group of young people party around a bonfire behind a hotel, you can feel the tension, the frustration, the anger, and the confusion of youth in this instant, it’s one of the most genuine and authentic moments of any film this year. The achievement of “American Honey”, amidst a slew of imperfections, is that it operates to create these kinds of raw and honest moments that you can’t help but be drawn into the world of the characters.


Ms. Arnold composes this film in a very authentic way, cameras on shoulders walking with characters, cameras sitting next to characters as if you are part of the conversation, like a silent character interwoven into the narrative. This is the method that defines every step of “American Honey”, a rather long and many times drawn out experiment developed through a group of young people making their way, somewhat aimlessly, through the world.


Star (Sasha Lane) is a young woman watching over her siblings, dumpster diving and hitchhiking in a small town. Star is anxious and worn-out, she is looking for a way out of a life that doesn’t display any sort of direction. Escape comes in the form of an enigmatic traveller named Jake (Shia LeBeouf) who travels from state-to-state selling magazine subscriptions. Star runs away and into the midst of this group of travellers, who are all working for a woman named Krystal (Riley Keough) who is queen to this group of wanderers.


“American Honey” can be a difficult film at times. It’s a meticulous process, one that takes its time building an experience. The fact that Ms. Arnold is patient enough as a filmmaker to let things happen and unravel organically is impressive. She many times finds the beauty in the most mundane of situations and places. With that said, it also doesn’t work like it should many times throughout. The film meanders from scene to scene, with images of Middle America as a backdrop and the constant reminder of the socioeconomic divide throughout America in the form of environment and with the characters composing a road traveling family from different walks of life. When the film succeeds, these aspects all shine in the very effective ways. 


It's easy to see that these young people are desperate for change, but they are also complaisant when they find something comfortable. You can feel the yearning for bigger opportunities from them; their entire job as door-to-door sales people is based around being the biggest "earner" for the company, an achievement that comes with perks like riding around in a Mustang convertible and playing the role of leader to the group. Shia LeBeouf's character Jake is this company superstar, yet even in this sought after position Jake is still unsatisfied. This remains a theme throughout for these young people. Will they every find something that they are truly content with, something that makes them happy?   


Ms. Arnold does an exceptional job with these young characters, many of them first time actors. In the lead is Sasha Lane, an actress picked off the beach in Florida by the director, who brings a fiery ambition and a lively energy to the role of Star. Shia LeBeouf is the most recognizable name in the film, he is given plenty of room to compose the dangerous character and the result is a mixed bag of emotions which is exactly what the character is. One moment ready to risk everything and the next firmly planted in a place of indecision. One of the best performances comes from Riley Keough playing the opportunistic boss of the group. She is menacing and compassionate, sometimes at the same time; a character that feels pulled from another film, "Spring Breakers", that deals with these same coming-of-age themes.


"American Honey", a title taken from a Lady Antebellum song, is going to connect differently with each individual person. Everyone has a different perspective of the world because of experiences taken from the journey through it. That's what this film ultimately is, a journey through environments with no clear ending or easily explained theme. It's not so much about the destination but rather the journey. Some trips are long and arduous, something you'd never want to do again. Some are life affirming and rewarding, something you'll want to cherish and recreate. The journey through "American Honey" will be a similar path.


Monte's Rating

3.50 out of 5.0

The Accountant - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

‘The Accountant’ mostly adds up


Directed by:  Gavin O’Connor

Written by: Bill Dubuque

Starring:  Ben Affleck, Anna Kendrick, J.K. Simmons, Jon Bernthal, Jeffrey Tambor, Cynthia Addai-Robinson, and John Lithgow


“The Accountant” – Assets equal liabilities plus stockholders’ equity.  Debits equal credits.  Revenues minus expenses equal profit or loss. 


An Accounting 101 instructor teaches these basic rules during the first week of class, but in “The Accountant”, no simple equation can easily explain Chris Wolff (Ben Affleck).  Chris owns a small accounting practice, ZZZ Accounting, in a random strip mall, but large corporations also hire him to find answers to seemingly impossible financial questions.  Living Robotics brings him in to locate $61 million dollars, and he scans through piles of books and performs countless complex calculations in just one day that would probably take scores of staff accountants a month. 


You see, Chris has a high functioning form of autism, and his mathematical gifts seem like a cinematic combination of Raymond Babbitt (Dustin Hoffman) of “Rain Man” (1988) and John Nash (Russell Crowe) of “A Beautiful Mind” (2001).  Unlike Raymond and John, Chris also fires rifles like a black ops sniper and possesses the fighting prowess of a Navy SEAL with a black belt.   


As you may surmise, Chris Wolff is not a typical C.P.A. 


His wildly diverse set of skills seem utterly preposterous, but the movie plays it straight.  Director Gavin O’Connor dives all-in to explain our hero’s tricky backstory via a series of flashbacks peppered throughout the film.  The story – written by Bill Dubuque – tries really hard to develop Chris and convey what makes him tick.   We see how his autism – as a kid - impacted his family dynamics and sparked his father’s methods to “toughen him up” through a series of brutal martial arts classes.  


Although these scenes are important in explaining this modern-day secret weapon with a penchant for forensic accounting, less time spent in the past would have still been effective in illuminating the present.  From an action film perspective, more screen time with Affleck’s entertaining performance as a number cruncher/killing machine trumps his character’s countless struggles as kid. 


One place that the film certainly does not struggle with is the relationship between Chris and Dana (Anna Kendrick), a staff accountant at Living Robotics, and Kendrick channels her terrific performance as a professional newbie in 2009’s “Up in the Air” into this film.  Dana brings sincere pleasantries and a curious naivety, and these vibes strike the right chords with Chris and his buried emotions. 


The result is Kendrick and Affleck’s onscreen stretches offer warmth and humor.  In one example, Dana attempts to share her time with Chris during their lunch break on the outdoor steps of Living Robotics.  While Chris tries to bury himself in his routines in solitude, Dana asks him innocent, probing questions and briefly mentions her slightly embarrassing trip to Cancun.  Several moments like this allow Chris to connect with someone, and likewise, allow the audience to connect with him.   


The humor works in other unexpected places as well, and it usually appears when Chris demonstrates his talents not normally seen in an accountant with a handy pocket protector.   


A very good supporting cast surrounds Affleck and Kendrick, including J.K. Simmons, Cynthia Addai-Robinson and Jon Bernthal, and the movie spends meaningful portions of screen time to develop the emotional natures of their supporting characters as well.  Normally, I would applaud such efforts, but in this case, the additional gravitas do not match the more shallow and silly action film tones.  In other words, with a noticeably long runtime of 2 hours and 8 minutes, the script unnecessarily delves too deep. 


Still, the movie – like a good accountant – ties up all its loose ends in (mostly) clever ways and potentially positions itself for “The Accountant 2 – A New Audit”.  I will probably see a sequel, because Affleck’s character introduces a new equation to the cinematic world:  the pen is equally as mighty as the sword.  (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 Birth of a Nation - Movie Review by Kaely Monahan

“Birth of a Nation” confronts America’s ugly past

By Kaely Monahan


"Birth of a Nation" fits into the category of must-see at least once. The harrowing tale of slavery in the Deep South. The horror of the film is balanced against beautiful shots and powerful acting.


The film recounts the events leading up to and including the 1831 Virginia slave rebellion. Led by slave Nat Turner, played by the director, Nate Parker, the film doesn’t hold back on the brutality of slave ownership and what life was like for blacks in pre-emancipation times. And it is stomach turning.


Parker does not hold back from the horrific conditions many black endured. There is one particularly tooth-pulling scene that will make you want to turn away. The core of this film will make you feeling sick at the atrocities committed against humanity.


The film opens with a young Nat Turner being singled out for the education—namely being taught to read. However, the only book his truly allowed to read is the Bible. From there young Nat grows into a man of unshakable faith.


Despite his lot in life, Nat is treated with more dignity than most slaves by his owners—the Turner family. He even develops a strong bond with his owner, Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer), which started during their youth.


When the Turner estate falls on hard times, Samuel decides to “rent out” Nat as a preacher to other slaveholders

. It then that Nat sees the true horrors of slavery. Most slave owners are not kind like Samuel.


Meanwhile, Nat falls in love with Cherry (played beautifully by Aja Naomi King). He eventually marries her. But when she is jumped by a group of slave catchers, the last straw breaks, and Nat begins to turn his mind to justice and liberation.


What happens next is just as gory as the torturing of slaves. Nat and his followers began killing their owners and in some respects, terrorize the countryside. However, as an audience member, you cannot help but sympathize and cheer for Nat.


But no matter how heroic he is, the question must be asked: is killing, or in truth, murdering, justice? As a country, we are still coming to terms with our past and where slavery fits into it.


“Birth of a Nation” demands your attention and demands you to see the horrific era of slavery for what it is: an ugly truth that America is still reeling from to this day. 


Kaely Monahan is a journalist, graduate of City University London and the creator of Popcorn Fan Film Reviews. 

The Girl on the Train - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

‘The Girl on the Train’ takes too many nonsensical turns


Directed by:  Tate Taylor

Written by:  Erin Cressida Wilson

Starring: Emily Blunt, Haley Bennett, Rebecca Ferguson, Justin Theroux, Luke Evans, and Edgar Ramirez


“The Girl on the Train” – “Mental wounds not healing.  Life’s a bitter shame.  I’m going off the rails on a crazy train.”  - Ozzy Osbourne, “Crazy Train”


This film – based upon a bestselling novel by Paula Hawkins – takes some crazy and illogical turns.  Rachel (Emily Blunt), the lead protagonist in the picture, is not necessarily crazy, but sad life events shattered her spirit, and she is in dire need of help.      


From the first moment that the camera focuses on Rachel, it is clear that she is not well.  With blotchy cheeks and chapped lips, she sometimes passively and sometimes very actively looks out the window of a train, which she takes to and from Manhattan on her Monday through Friday commute.   Her active gazes usually come into focus when the train passes two particular houses. 


One is the domicile of an unknown couple, who we later discover are Scott (Luke Evans) and Megan (Haley Bennett).  The other home is occupied by Rachel’s ex-husband, Tom (Justin Theroux), and his new wife, Anna (Rebecca Ferguson), so pining over these people who live in these large, expensive houses certainly is not the healthiest of activities.  It also is not healthy that Rachel usually sips from her water bottle filled with vodka or gin, while she confesses to the movie audience about her broken marriage and the subsequent emotional pain that she has endured for two years.


Two years ago, “Gone Girl” arrived in theatres, and this excellent adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s bestselling novel thrilled movie audiences and critics alike.  Now, it is Hawkins’ turn to have her highly successful book transformed into a major motion picture.  I only bring up “Gone Girl”, because the mere mention of “The Girl on the Train” to a knowledgeable movie aficionado will probably trigger a comment about the Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike white knuckler from 2014.  Sure, the name “Girl” may be in both titles, but from a movie perspective, these two films carry very different results. 


Director Tate Taylor has delivered very successful results from a pair of recent films - “Get on Up” (2014) and “The Help” (2011) - but in this case, he and screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson constructed a nonsensical mystery which also doubles as the most pedestrian thriller that I’ve seen in years. 


Well, admittedly, the mystery itself is not terribly nonsensical, but the path to solving it absolutely is.  Rachel – in an inebriated state - sees “something very wrong” at one of the aforementioned homes.  Since her life is in shambles and void of much meaning, a few days later she – while intoxicated - exits the train near the two couples’ houses to utterly break the rule of minding her own business.  From Rachel’s partially blacked out perspective, the audience witnesses a semi-coherent confrontation, and soon after, the local police department reports that Megan is missing. 


The movie, however, falls apart when Rachel decides to solve the whodunit by inserting herself into the lives of Scott, Tom, Anna, and another key character (who I will refrain from naming). 


In this twisted, melodramatic universe, Rachel is the most qualified person to act as a detective, because she was present, or at least nearby, when Megan disappeared.  On the other hand, she is the least qualified individual because of her fragile, alcoholic state, and yes, she is also a suspect. 


The movie’s pacing and construction are suspect too.   Through a series of plodding one-on-one exchanges, Rachel confronts the various characters and attempts to piece together the events on that fateful day, like an unqualified Sherlock Holmes with a terrible hangover. 


Although the screenplay methodically reveals the truth through important cinematic breadcrumbs, the film treats Rachel like a bumbling idiot, and we are subjected to her cloudy, erratic and poorly executed journey.  Blunt skillfully allows us to feel sympathy for Rachel, but the character’s repeated lapses in judgement – even when sober - wear on our patience. 


The screenplay plays out in a nonlinear timeline, as several flashbacks from two years, six months, four months, and two months ago appear on the screen, but sometimes the important glimpses into the past inconsistently exist for just a few moments or several minutes.    After a while, the numerous returns to prior times become tiresome, as they continually break the already jagged rhythm of Rachel’s story.    Rather than watch Rachel’s, Megan’s and Anna’s narratives unfold with intensity, they oddly just become curiosities.   Unfortunately, I found myself sitting in my theatre seat with my arms folded, while the picture leisurely chronicles the dysfunctional histories of three women which connect to their damaged present days.  


“The Girl on the Train” produces a couple surprises, but they seem better suited for a recycled Lifetime Network movie offered on a lazy Sunday afternoon.  Even worse, to make the story fit, four key characters concoct decisions that no actual human beings would ever ponder.  While watching their foolish behaviors – such as Rachel repeatedly trespassing on Tom and Anna’s property without the owning party even considering a restraining order -  my suspension of disbelief was completely flattened.  How much so?  Just imagine a speedy passenger train obliterating one small piece of fruit (a grape, perhaps) sitting on a railroad track.  


I will say that Blunt churns out a very good performance, and her portrayal of an emotionally damaged alcoholic feels authentic and sobering (pardon the pun).  Save wanting to experience one worthwhile performance or compare storylines between the book and the movie, “The Girl on the Train” might be a ride that you should miss.  Sadly, I know that my mental wounds caused by this movie are not healing yet. 

(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.


Queen of Katwe - Movie Review by Monte Yazzie

Queen of Katwe


Director: Mira Nair

Starring: Madina Nalwanga, David Oyelowo, Lupita Nyong’o, Martin Kabanza, and Taryn Kyaze


For a few years as a teenager I played chess almost every day. I read books, studied strategy, and tried to play different people as often as I could. Chess was an fun game but also a way to help me focus on being patient and also brought an understanding of what motivated people.


I remember being challenged by a coworker to a match. By this time I had played long enough to call myself “pretty good”. As we sat down I could tell that he was a serious player, his entire demeanor changed. I wasn’t worried until he played a brilliant opening. Within no time he had me on my heels and I loss. He would only play me two more times, completely dominating both matches.


In the Disney film “The Queen of Katwe” a young Ugandan girl’s life is changed after learning how to play chess. At one point in the film another chess student tells her “the small one can become the big one”.  It’s a simple but powerful statement about what a board game can do for a person’s self esteem, and more poignantly what it did for a young woman living in poverty with a stigma of gender biases and societal influences shaping her life.


Disney has a talent for making this kind of film and ESPN, who is the producing partner, understands how the essence of sports can be both dramatic and portray the struggles and achievements of humanity in captivating ways.


Phiona Mutesi (Madina Nalwanga) does not go to school; she sells corn in the busy streets of rural Uganda. Phiona is introduced to the game of chess from a youth ministry instructor named Robert Katende (David Oyelowo) and she quickly advances in skill. Seeing potential, Robert wants to take Phiona to competitions outside of Katwe, however Phiona’s mother Nakku (Lupita Nyong’o) is cautious and resists her daughter’s involvement. Robert shows Nakku that this board game has potential to change Phiona’s life for the better, reluctantly Nakku allows Phiona to compete.


These kinds of films have an inherent quality of being overly cliché and heavy handed on emotional cues that tug unabashedly on the heartstrings. The viewer knows where a film like this is going; it’s like a rollercoaster, a mix of narrative highs and lows that take a likable character through an extraordinary journey. All of these sentiments are on very clear display in “The Queen of Katwe”, but it surprisingly rarely hurts the film. In the same way that a good joke or a good scare can be effective when done correctly, this film displays what great characters portrayed by exceptional actors and guided by a creative director can do for a film. Especially one that audiences have seen many times over.


David Oyelowo is great as the coach to a group of scrappy young people. Mr. Oyelowo is inspired and provides touching motivation in many different forms. His effectiveness as a coach doesn’t come from a place of pity or with unnecessary guidance with hope; it comes from a determination to have control over choices and confidence in your abilities. Lupita Nyong’o is fantastic, playing a mother who understands the struggles that life brings but is determined to work hard and instill the same toughness in her children. Ms. Nyong’o provides a heartbreaking and inspired performance. These seasoned actor accolades are very close to being outshined by the young Madina Nalwanga who plays Phiona with a perfect blend of shyness and self-confidence. Ms. Nalwanga becomes more poised with every chess match, maturing from scene to scene.


Director Mira Nair brings a genuine and authentic feeling to the entire film. Showcasing the struggles of the poor township but also displaying the beauty found in the community and the culture. Mrs. Nair has displayed this talent already; look no further than the “Monsoon Wedding” and “Mississippi Masala” for examples. While the film runs a bit long, which weakens some of the stronger sentiments found in the late narrative, the character of Phiona is compelling and her journey has that underdog quality that keeps a film like this intriguing. While the game of chess brings positive changes to Phiona’s life, the film never displays this aspect as the only factor for success. It instead offers a portrait of a young woman who understands the value of hard work and that her place in this world is not predetermined.


Monte’s Rating

4.00 out of 5.0

Demon - Movie Review by Monte Yazzie



Director: Marcin Wrona

Starring: Itay Tiran, Agnieszka Zulewska, Andrzej Grabowski, Tomasz Schuchardt, Adam Woronowicz, and Cezary Kosinski



Everything that happened after the vows on my wedding day is a bit of blur. The whirlwind reception that consisted of meet-and-greets with family and friends went by in a flash. So whenever a newly engaged couple asks me for advice about their wedding day, I tell them to remember to eat their dinner.


A wedding is the setting for director Marcin Wrona’s film “Demon”, a satire and also a horror film that evokes Polish history and culture to compose a remarkable genre-bending feature.


Piotr (Itay Tiran) is traveling from London to a small Polish town; he is coming to meet his bride Zaneta (Agnieszka Zulewska). Piotr and Zaneta are in a relatively new relationship, moving quickly towards marriage has placed Zaneta’s father Zygmunt (Andrzej Grabowski) is a position of caution. The young couple plans on living in the dilapidated house of Zaneta’s grandfather, where they are also holding the wedding in a nearby barn. Piotr discoveries human remains buried on the property and at the wedding reception he begins to act strangely and then falls ill with violent convulsions. Very quickly the family, in the middle of drunken debacle, assume the worse and come to the conclusion that Piotr is possessed by an evil entity known as a Dybbuk.


While the premise may seem very reminiscent of a horror film, exorcism and ghost story films especially, this genre plays merely a supporting character in a film that is more interested in utilizing compositions of culture and tradition and mixing it with history. When one of the few scary moments happens, it’s utilized more as a setup for something comedic or for nothing more than a distraction for the audience. Surprisingly, there are moments that are genuinely creepy all in the quietest way.


The photography is beautifully bleak; the Polish countryside is ominous with a sense of darkness clouded by fog in the distance. This aspect is completely purposeful; “Demon” utilizes both dark humor and not-so-subtle metaphors to evoke a narrative that displays a portrait of Polish history and a correlation to the Holocaust. It’s not hard to see the point the film is trying to make when you have a nonchalant comment about German’s destroying a bridge that hasn’t been rebuilt and the comments from the patriarch to a group of deliriously drunk guests that “we must forget what we didn’t see here”. It’s about the still looming shadow of World War II and the effect that it holds over Europe.


Itay Tiran gives a great performance as Piotr; the slow transformation from wedding groom into a possessed person is layered with exceptional touches. Also good, and very funny, is Andrzej Grabowski who plays the father of the bride. The performance is both manic and restrained, a character that goes to great effort to keep control of the uninhibited party while also keeping his reputation intact.


“Demon” is a different although refreshing genre film. While is doesn’t indulge in its horror conventions like most films would, the film instead deals with the effects of horrific events on people and how it changes and influences culture over time. Marcin Wrona’s talent as a director is undeniable; unfortunately Mr. Wrona’s life was cut short, his death was ultimately ruled a suicide, just as this film was about to premiere. “Demon” is the kind of film that displays how a creative artist can transform genre into something that evokes different emotions while also having something powerful to proclaim.


Monte’s Rating

4.25 out of 5.00

Deepwater Horizon - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

‘Deepwater Horizon’ horrifyingly recreates the 2010 disaster in-depth


Directed by:  Peter Berg

Starring:  Mark Wahlberg, Kurt Russell, Gina Rodriguez, John Malkovich, and Kate Hudson


“Deepwater Horizon” – I really should buy an electric car.  I have talked about it for years.  I just need to do it and then plug my future vehicle into a 50-foot high windmill each evening.   The idealist in me wants to reduce my carbon footprint, and this feeling substantially heightened during the ungodly British Petroleum (BP) oil spill in 2010.   On April 20, 2010, BP’s unstable oil well blew and almost 5 million barrels of crude subsequently spilled into the Gulf of Mexico over a period of months. In the process, it destroyed the Deepwater Horizon offshore rig – owned by Transocean - and massively polluted the surrounding environment in the worst such disaster in United States history.   The scope of 5 million barrels of oil pouring into the gulf’s ocean waters is truly unfathomable to comprehend, and for many people, BP will always be considered a “four-letter word”. 


The disaster film “Deepwater Horizon” uses revealing words and striking visuals to recreate the horrific events from the perspective of the rig’s chief electronics technician Mike Williams (Mark Wahlberg) over a speedy 1-hour 47-minute runtime.  Director Peter Berg sometimes misses with big budget action films – like “Hancock” (2008) and “Battleship” (2012) - but recently connected with the true war story “Lone Survivor” (2013) with Wahlberg in the title role.  This time, Berg and Wahlberg connect again in a film about true events, and the two form a winning combination in a movie that contains no winners.  We do, however, find heroes.     


Prior to the previously-mentioned disaster and heroic efforts, the movie performs an important visual service as well, by showcasing the elaborate infrastructure associated with offshore rigs.   Since the Deepwater Horizon sits about 40 miles out to sea, the quickest way to travel there - with your hardhat and lunch pail - is by helicopter via the Bristow Heliport, which feels like a highly secure mini-airport.  We see Mike, his boss Jimmy (Kurt Russell) and others, like his coworker Andrea (Gina Rodriguez), run through extensive protocols and then fly over the ocean to put in “normal” workdays for a number of weeks at a time.   Berg sets up a real sense of unease by introducing the isolation and danger of exploring for fossil fuels.  The danger initially appears through numerous, small Deepwater Horizon issues that Mike needs to address, and – of course - the drill itself which travels about one mile to the ocean floor.  


With an appropriately anxious setting established, the film quickly offers a lengthy list of Transocean protagonists and BP antagonists.  While I do not have actual knowledge of the black and white distinctions between “good” and “bad” characters here (and their respective companies, for that matter), the film portrays BP – led by oil executive Vidrine (John Malkovich) - as impatiently demanding to drill despite repeated warnings by Transocean employees.   As a viewer, once I saw Malkovich on the big screen, I immediately understood that BP would absolutely pull the wrong figurative levers to trigger the impending catastrophe.   (Hey, traditional Malkovich characters seem to possess that type of aura.)


The catastrophe obviously dominates much of the movie, and the impressive special effects portray a hellish nightmare of never-ending reservoirs of fossil fuel feeding an inferno amongst the twisted metal with over 100 souls on board.  Berg depicts an impossible situation with about a half-dozen heart-stopping moments and constant unease, as fire spreads in every direction with accompanying explosions on the manmade, floating island. 


“Deepwater Horizon” works as a thriller, because it offers a series of contrasts to drive our emotions.  For instance, it clearly introduces likeable and unlikeable characters.  With the likeable characters, we – at first - eavesdrop on their light, jovial conversations about family and college football versus the subsequent blaring exchanges with death seemingly very close.  Most of all, the struggle of man versus nature finds itself on display with horrendous and cataclysmic consequences. 


There is some time devoted to the worried families at home, but Berg keeps these storylines at a thrifty minimum and focuses on the actual incident and the missteps leading up to it.   The end result is an appreciatively exhausting film which doubles as a cautionary tale on whether or not such oil explorations should even be attempted in the first place. 


The idealist in me hopes that future generations everywhere will labor on massive solar panel grids or attend to friendly, towering windmills, rather than fly to faraway marine locales and trench the planet for oil.  Well, the realist in me understands that those days are probably far off, because six years after the BP oil spill, I am still pondering the purchase of an electric car.  (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.



Operation Avalanche - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

‘Operation Avalanche’ makes intriguing and entertaining leaps


Directed by:  Matt Johnson

Written by:  Matt Johnson, Josh Boles

Starring:  Matt Johnson, Owen Williams, Josh Boles, and Krista Madison


“Operation Avalanche” – “One small step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind” – Neil Armstrong


“Oh what tangled webs we weave, when we first practice to deceive.” – Walter Scott


Astronaut Neil Armstrong uttered those famous words, when he first stepped on the moon during the Apollo 11 mission in July 1969, and that particular landmark moment set off beaming amounts of pride and wonder for the entire country.  Even legendary television anchor Walter Cronkite took off his glasses and smiled during the CBS broadcast of the moon landing.   


“Operation Avalanche” presents an altogether different perspective about the Apollo 11 mission that would make Cronkite remove his glasses in disbelief for another reason.   Director Matt Johnson’s intriguing, enjoyable and fictionalized story provides an insiders’ view of NASA during the 1960s and “exposes” that the organization fabricated the famed moon landing.  


Set in 1965, Johnson and Owen Williams play two young CIA analysts who generally toil in the bowels of the agency.  Now, they do recently complete a project called Operation Deep Red which concludes that director Stanley Kubrick is not a spy.  (Well, that’s a relief, right?)  Johnson then filibusters his boss that Williams and he are perfect for a new mission, Operation Zipper, to find a Soviet spy wandering around hallways of NASA.  


By somehow winning over the CIA director, they earn the job and pose as National Educational Television filmmakers.  They are pretending to film a documentary about the Apollo program at NASA while truly looking for the elusive spy.  Soon, however, their mission takes a dramatic left turn (for reasons that I will not mention), and it is up to Johnson, Williams and two other CIA film crew members to concoct a fake moon landing to massively fool a worldwide television audience. 


To the naked eye, “Operation Avalanche” could fool just about anyone in believing that the movie itself actually is from the 1960s.  Filmed from the perspective of Johnson and Williams’ two camera crew assistants, the picture does admittedly have a familiar found footage style that we have seen in countless movies ad nauseam ever since “The Blair Witch Project” (1999).  On the other hand, everything shot has an intentionally grainy, 1960s look and feel and very much resembles old movies from elementary school science classes in which a deadpan scientist with horn-rimmed glasses smokes a cigarette and explains basic gravity or demonstrates how water boils at 212 degrees Fahrenheit.    


(If I am dating myself and you are not familiar with such wonders of childhood, see also Patches O’Houlihan’s (Hank Azaria) enlightened explanation of the rules of dodgeball in the 2004 comedy “Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story”.) 


Although Johnson’s movie is marketed as a thriller (and it does contain some effectively gripping moments), it also doubles as a comedy too.  Johnson plays a brilliant, Type A and ambitious jokester.  When he is not pushing boundaries within the CIA and NASA, he spends time teasing and bothering an introverted Williams and the man’s wife (Krista Madison).  Although make no mistake, devising schemes to create a false moon landing is Johnson’s passion.  He is excellent at his job while also offering hearty laughs of wonder for the audience, as we experience the construction of a moon surface, spacewalk, spacecraft, and more.  In addition, to simulate the moon’s environment, Johnson improvises a nifty rock and feather gravity trick. 


There are no mysteries or tricks in finding the strengths of this movie:  the lead performances, the seemingly authentic 1960s production values and the fascinating behind-the-scenes steps needed to engender one of the greatest conspiracy theories of all time. “Operation Avalanche” thrives within these spaces but gets a bit lost during its spy thriller narrative. 


Remember, Johnson and Williams’ original mission is to find the Soviet mole within NASA.  Unfortunately, this narrative rears its dangerous head, when I just wanted to see Johnson play a mad scientist and create his incomprehensible hoax on the American people in 1969.  Still, there is plenty of cinematic food for thought and an ambitious CIA agent’s tangled webs of deceit to make “Operation Avalanche” an entertaining leap.  (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 Magnificent Seven - Movie Review by Monte Yazzie

magnificent-7The Magnificent Seven  

Dir: Antoine Fuqua

Starring: Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke, Vincent D’Onofrio, Byung-hun Lee, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Martin Sensmeier, Luke Grimes, Peter Sarsgaard, and Haley Bennett


In 1960 veteran director John Sturges was tasked with taking some of the most recognizable actors in Hollywood and collaborating on an updated remake of an Akira Kurosawa film called “Seven Samurai”. That film would become the classic western “The Magnificent Seven”. The film starred Yul Brynner who was coming off two lauded films, “The Ten Commandments” and “The King and I”. It also starred the experienced, yet not established, Steve McQueen who would later make “The Great Escape” and “Bullitt”. Rounding out the film was Charles Bronson, Eli Wallach, Robert Vaughn, Brad Dexter, and James Coburn. Not a bad cast to make a movie with during this time.


While the 1960 version of the film was done only six years after Akira Kurosawa’s classic, it should be noted that the Japanese master filmmaker approved of Mr. Sturges western, director Antoine Fuqua is tasked with updating this film fifty-six years after the original film was released. Mr. Kurosawa is one of the most influential filmmakers in history, his film “Seven Samurai” has been copied, remade, and updated hundreds of times. How could an updated version of a film, which was already a remake, work in today’s remake saturated film world? Because stories of good versus evil and the journey of heroes facing insurmountable odds can still be an interesting element when done the right way, even when it’s been done so many times that even the most novice of film fan can see the path of the story a mile away. The 2016 version of “The Magnificent Seven” is entertaining and fun many times throughout; it's as mediocre of a popcorn movie as one could be.


The small town of Rose Creek, populated with hard working families, is under the brutal control of a greedy industrialist named Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard). Faced with the option of leaving town or meeting death, the townspeople employ the services of a bounty hunter named Chisolm (Denzel Washington). Needing more help than the townspeople can offer, Chisolm employs the services of six other men; a gambler named Faraday (Chris Pratt), an outlaw named Vasquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), a famous gunman named Goodnight Robicheaux (Ethan Hawke) and his knife-wielding associate Billy Rocks (Byung-hun Lee), a famous hunter named Jack Horne (Vincent D’Onofrio), and a lone Native American named Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeier).


While the locations and characters have changed just a bit with Antoine Fuqua's version of the film, the structure to the original films that have come before it are still very much intact. Justice needs to be served and the innocent need to be protected. Mr. Fuqua does a great job introducing these characters, even the villain who is offered the very first introduction is provided a startling and violent scene that makes the viewer despise him. This helps warrant the vigilante mentality of getting bounty hunters, gamblers, and outlaws together to fight the good fight. Still, Mr. Fuqua does not shy away from displaying the character flaws of some of the seven justice seeking men, specifically with group leader Chisolm who plays all of his emotional cards close to the chest.


Denzel Washington is great, he provides a swagger and charisma that shines brightest when the actor is allowed to move within a scene. Mr. Washington doesn't need to say much but the little mannerisms that the actor brings adds a sense of mystery, and also danger, with every deliberate move. Chris Pratt provides much of the humor, the actor is best when he is allowed freedom with the character but he also brings a natural likability to a character that isn't the most righteous of the group. Another standout in the film is Ethan Hawke who plays a prideful but tormented gunfighter. The talented Mr. Hawke has a knack for making these kind of secondary characters better than they should be.


Mr. Fuqua composes a film that is entertaining and fun, a film that goes the extra mile with characters and scenarios to make it a crowd pleasing experience. However, this also moves the film far away from being anything remotely memorable, in fact in some instances it makes the film rather boring. It's no better than the western made in 1960 except for supplying more action scenes and the narrative is so straightforward that all the brilliant touches of character development and narrative composition found in Akira Kurosawa's original work is mostly glossed over. So yes, many will be entertained and many will have a great time with this film, however some may find themselves wondering why they bothered remaking it at all?


Monte's Rating

3.25 out of 5.00

The Dressmaker - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

dressmaker‘The Dressmaker’ needs some alterations  

Written/Directed by:  Jocelyn Moorhouse

Starring: Kate Winslet, Judy Davis, Liam Hemsworth, and Hugo Weaving


“The Dressmaker” - “Make it work.”  - Tim Gunn


For those not familiar with the reality television show “Project Runway”, Tim Gunn offers advice to contestants to help fix their fashion project challenges.  When a dress looks to be in some trouble – with pattern, construction, color, and/or shape issues – Gunn offers guidance to help salvage a specific hot mess of fabric sitting on a plastic mannequin, and he usually concludes his consultation with the parting words, “Make it work.”


With limited time to pull together a great product, the competitors generally feel lots of stress during their televised periods of crisis, so Gunn is a most welcome face.


Tilly Dunnage (Kate Winslet) – a striking fashion designer who recently worked in London and Paris – is not a most welcomed face at her birthplace of Dungatar, a dusty, desolate town in the middle of nowhere in the Australian desert.   With a collection of small wooden-framed houses, a general store and a tiny one-room school, Dungatar is an isolated village which time apparently forgot.  Set in the 1950s, it has a distinctive, dystopian feel, like a spaghetti western shoot out is about to break out, and Tilly moves back to find an answer to a very important question.


She asks her mom (Judy Davis), “Am I a murderer?”


Australian writer/director Jocelyn Moorhouse is prepared to answer this question over the course of 1 hour and 58 minutes in her first film since 1997, and she includes many famous Aussies to help tell the story.  Davis steals nearly every on-screen frame of the picture in an engaging and entertaining performance as Tilly’s alcoholic, shut-in mom.  Liam Hemsworth is an attractive potential love interest.  Hugo Weaving (who was not born in Australia but grew up there during a portion of his childhood) plays a friendly long arm of the law, and this leaves Winslet – from England - as the only non-Australian lead actor.


Dungatar’s residents have character as well, but the strange kind.   Generally, they do not venture out of town all that often, and Moorhouse provides an eccentric atmosphere with several zany, slapstick-like sequences to accentuate their personas.  After meeting some of the locals – and then later through purposely-designed, comedic sequences -  the film suggests that Dungatar could be an endearing community, like the unforgettable, charming and tiny locale of Tullymore in “Waking Ned Devine” (1998).  We get similar glances of charm here, but they do not mesh with the very dark matter of Tilly’s potentially-murderous act and many of the residents’ mean-spirited, tittle-tattle natures.


In one scene, an elderly pharmacist – bent over because of a bad back – runs through the streets with Keystone Kops-like music playing in the background, but in another moment, the film shows ugly flashbacks of kids bullying a young Tilly, which may have led to the previously-mentioned potential murder.  The shifts in tones are terribly distracting and keep us guessing about what the movie is trying to convey.  The general feeling, however, is that Tilly will face her past and hopefully break the invisible chains that have emotionally held her in check for decades.  Her new Dungatar experience could become cathartic and transformational, as she begins to transform the town through her expert fashion skills as a dressmaker.


Before Tilly’s arrival, everything – including the physical environment, attitudes and clothing – seems to harshly bake in grays and browns because of the Australian sun, but she soon drapes Dungatar’s ladies with the latest fashions in gorgeous, bright reds, blues, greens, and whites.   Visually, the contrast between the new attire and current environment clashes in the most glorious, cinematic ways.


In many ways, “The Dressmaker” is a visually beautiful film, and Moorhouse – 19 years since her last movie – has an astute eye of capturing attention-grabbing and pleasing optics.  In addition, the four leads’ performances – and Tilly’s specific question – also keep us engaged.


Tilly’s past saw her as a victim and then – rightly or wrongly – a villain, but can she turn into a hero?  The movie attempts Tilly’s internal makeover but conversely struggles in deciding what it (the film itself) wants to be.


A slapstick comedy?  A dark, gloomy drama?  A revenge picture?  A redemption story? It does ultimately make a choice, but I feel it is a bad one.  In fact, after one particular decision in the movie’s third act, it left me figuratively throwing my hands in the air in frustrating disbelief.  Although some may appreciate the eventual direction of the story, it does not connect with much of the narrative that the film clearly lays out during Tilly’s time in Dungatar.  The script feels a hot mess sitting on a fascinating physical and emotional foundation, and the right adjustments could have turned “The Dressmaker” into the one of the best films of the year.


It clearly is not, and I wish Moorhouse called an objective third party to review the script before filming.  Perhaps, Tim Gunn was available.  His pep talk and trademark message might have – at least - focused the writing.  Unfortunately, as the movie stands, the filmmakers did not make it work.   (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.

Storks - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

storks‘Storks’ delivers a fun animated experience  

Directed by: Nicholas Stoller and Doug Sweetland

Written by: Nicholas Stoller

Starring: Andy Samberg, Katie Crown, Kelsey Grammer, Keegan-Michael Key, Jordan Peele, Jennifer Aniston, Ty Burrell, and Danny Trejo


“Storks” – When I was about 7 years old, I asked my mother where babies came from, but I do not exactly remember whether or not my father was in the room when I inquired about this elusive puzzle.  If he was – and knowing my dad – he probably immediately turned to my mom with a nonverbal gesture that communicated, “I am not handling this and believe that I should mow the lawn right now.”


I do remember that my mother tried her best, but I recall leaving the conversation with unclear answers.


Fortunately for current 7 year olds, the movie “Storks” does provide a “clear” answer: storks deliver babies.  Actually, they used to, because apparently for the last 18 years, storks have opted out of the baby delivery business and operate an Amazon.com-like company called Cornerstore.com.  Instead of children, storks fly millions of various products - like cell phones, tote bags and the latest shoes - straight to your door.


Cornerstore.com rakes in the profits, but a “renegade” stork named Junior (Andy Samberg) and an 18-year-old girl named Tulip (Katie Crown) attempt to deliver a baby girl to the Gardner family, who live in Somewhere in the Suburbs, USA.


Generally speaking, watching the process of delivering anything – like tracking a FedEx package online – might seem like a boring proposition, and the lead characters, Junior and Tulip, do not offer much to change this particular belief.  They did not originally plan on this specific delivery but are now chartered to do the heavy lifting and complete this important undertaking.


Directors Nicholas Stoller and Doug Sweetland portray Tulip as an accident prone assistant and Junior as a nice – but passive - stork.  Given their natures, Tulip and Junior’s exchanges basically consist of sorting out the mechanics of getting from Cornerstore.com to the Gardner home and – quite frankly – their verbal back and forth is the weakest part of the film.


On the other hand, “Storks” is generally a fun animated experience, and especially when it features wacky visuals and introduces amusing secondary characters.


Cornerstore.com CEO, Hunter (Kelsey Grammer), and his suck up sidekick, Pigeon Toady (Stephen Kramer Glickman), supply some clever, sarcastic scenes of corporate life which will make parents relate and kids laugh.  Outside of the office, Junior and Tulip encounter a pack of wolves led by Alpha and Beta Wolf (Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele) who chase them by hilariously forming into various modes of transportation, such as a “wolf minivan” made of up of the actual animals themselves.  Trust me, it has to be seen to be believed, and Key and Peele are the right comedians to lead these surreal on-screen transformations.


Speaking of transformations, Stoller and Sweetland let us in on the secret where babies come from in the form an alchemical, magical machine that looks like an elaborate contraption from a Dr. Seuss book, and it effectively sets up the conflict between the storks’ previous business model and the work that they do today.


The movie, however, never really explains how babies are made during the storks’ 18 year-absence from the delivery business, but kids are continually brought into the world.   “Storks” is not a “Children of Men” (2006) situation, a science-fiction movie in which women are no longer capable of having babies.  The movie never goes that dark.  Well, I suppose I should let this point go, because “Storks” is rated PG and appropriately kid-friendly.


On the heartwarming-side, the movie also showcases some pleasant moments of parental love and cute baby scenes.  Perhaps, brand new cell phones and other material possessions are less important than actual family time.  A novel concept, right?  Thankfully, “Storks” largely succeeds in delivering that message.   As far as delivering the actual answer about where babies come from, well, parents are still on their own.  Good luck with that.  (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.



Snowden - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

snowdenOliver Stone’s ‘Snowden’ is a valuable ‘Citizenfour’ companion piece   

Directed by: Oliver Stone

Written by:  Kieran Fitzgerald, Oliver Stone

Starring:  Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Shailene Woodley, Rhys Ifans, Nicolas Cage, Zachary Quinto, Melissa Leo, and Tom Wilkinson


“Snowden” – “Be afraid.  Be very afraid.”


This ominous quote originates from David Cronenberg’s gruesome and nerve-racking horror film “The Fly” (1986), and it refers to a budding technology causing terrible, unintended consequences.  Specifically, a scientist’s experimental teleportation device inadvertently turns him into a monster, a half human/half housefly, and therefore, my particular use of the phrase “unintended consequences” becomes one of the top five understatements in recorded history.


(Hey, everything worked swimmingly, but now, you are a 6-foot insect.)


Well, after watching Oliver Stone’s “Snowden”, the audience learns to be afraid of a different kind of monster.  It is the wildly advanced technology that the CIA and NSA use to collect oceans of worldwide information, including Americans’ personal data from cellphones, laptops, emails, and instant messages.


If there is one director who can make a film about Edward Snowden - the young man who, in 2013, famously or infamously (depending upon your point of view) broke the story of the previously-mentioned U.S. technological eavesdropping – it is Stone.  Some of Stone’s most celebrated films highlight unbalanced power between massive institutions and ordinary Americans, including “Platoon” (1986), “Wall Street” (1987), “Born on the Fourth of July” (1989), and “JFK” (1991).  Although “Snowden” is not as strong as these films, it fits into the same prized bucket of his “public service” movies.


As a public service to filmgoers, Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays the title role.  Snowden - an unassuming, soft-spoken and physically slight man in his 20s – projects an image of an accountant from a large bank or a small, near-invisible human spoke in a giant corporate wheel.  On the other hand, Snowden is wildly intelligent and, sometimes, unwittingly develops a few of the government’s most complicated and wide-reaching surveillance programs.


Gordon-Levitt perfectly falls into this role, and his performance conveys Snowden’s unpretentious, ordinary persona with a massive intellect percolating just beneath the surface.  The only piece of Gordon-Levitt’s work that feels amiss is Snowden’s voice, as he seemingly speaks two octaves lower than his own.  It does distract during the first 15 minutes, but then I started becoming accustomed to it and then no longer noticed.


What I did notice is the film’s structure and its purposeful departure from the 2014 Oscar winning documentary, “Citizenfour”, which captured several incredibly revealing interviews of Edward Snowden – by journalists Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras - from a small Hong Kong hotel room in 2013.  In the doc, Snowden – a former CIA and NSA employee – explains how the government spies on its own people through the convenient electronic devices which we hold most dear.


I walked away from that film with three general takeaways.  The first two are the massive scope of the actual surveillance programs and the wholly-invasive methods used to collect our personal data.  When Snowden explains the programs and methods in the most surreal, Orwellian fashion, his words sent shivers down my spine.  The third takeaway is the supreme, personal sacrifice that Snowden makes by revealing these highly-kept secrets in order to inform the American people and a worldwide audience.


Through Snowden’s own words, “Citizenfour” reveals his personal sacrifice, but the audience does not discover too many details of his personal backstory.  Stone’s film, however, presents Snowden’s private and professional bio from 2004 to 2013, and it follows him on his international ride within the highest levels of public power.  We see him rise to the top as one of the brightest technical minds within the CIA and NSA, and the more clearance that he receives, the more nefarious secrets – like a completely frightening program called XKEYSCORE - are unveiled to him and the audience.


The picture surrounds him with a terrific supporting cast, including Snowden’s CIA instructor (Rhys Ifans), mentor (Nicolas Cage) and longtime girlfriend (Shailene Woodley).  Cage’s role is small, but insightful.  It is nice to see him play someone more controlled and conventional, rather than trying to gun down a dingy troop of baddies or run around like a maniac.  Woodley’s part as Lindsay shows a grounding and calming influence on Edward, as she lives outside the red tape stickiness of his day job.


Stone’s dramatization generally works because of the performances and the illicit material to pull from, but the picture does not really feel like a thriller.  Snowden labors in front of computers for agencies immersed in spy games, but he is not James Bond.  He is a mild-mannered, young guy who feels guilt when the system figuratively chokes innocent victims and compromises hundreds of millions of others.  Instead, the movie engages as a steady reveal of many secrets which informed audience members may already know, but it also offers a character study of a brave man who we do not know, outside of his courageous (or traitorous) act.   As one can guess, it is not difficult to determine Stone’s feelings about Snowden’s actions.


“Snowden” is effective as a standalone picture, but I believe it works best as a companion piece with “Citizenfour”.  I recommend that audiences see the 2014 documentary first in order to receive the best experience of Stone’s film.   “Snowden” is a much deeper dive into the inner workings of the man, and in order to complete this bio, the film also intertwines the Hong Kong interviews with Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and Poitras (Melissa Leo).


Snowden’s interviews and hiding place are fascinating theatre, as they provide context for the incredibly high stakes.  At times, however, these scenes in “Snowden” feel a little incomplete.  For example, Greenwald lashes out at The Guardian (UK) editors for their slightly proposed delay of their news story.  At that moment, it seems like we missed some key minutes which could be sitting on the cutting room floor, because Greenwald blowing up feels out of character and out of place.  The movie does not spend enough time with the reporters who are key to Snowden’s overall story, and that is one example why “Citizenfour” almost feels like a required prerequisite.


Together, these pictures chronicle Edward Snowden’s remarkable journey, his findings and a technological horror show which “watched (or continues to watch) over” the masses.


Yes, be afraid.  Be very afraid.  (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.


Blair Witch - Movie Review by Monte Yazzie

blair-witchBlair Witch  

Director: Adam Wingard

Starring: James Allen McCune, Callie Hernandez, Corbin Reid, Brandon Scott, Wes Robinson, Valorie Curry


It’s not too often that you get a film that changes the landscape of possibilities for a genre. “The Blair Witch Project” had that effect on horror. In 1999 directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez pulled the veil over the eyes of unsuspecting film goers, orchestrating a ruse of a marketing campaign that had audiences thinking the movie they were watching was real footage of three film students who went missing after searching the woods in Maryland for the local legend The Blair Witch. The film was shot on video with cameras you could buy at the nearby electronics store, the three leads were given instructions via walkie-talkie from the directors watching from a distance, and the budget for the entire film was a mere twenty-two thousand dollars. The film was a monumental success at the box office, grossing more than two hundred million dollars. The film paved the way for a plethora of copycats, leading to the point-of-view perspective film style that has been so abundantly overused.


A rushed sequel, “Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2”, was made the following year but it didn’t come close to matching the success or scary effect of the original. It seems so unusual in today’s remake mania for a film as highly regarded as “The Blair Witch Project” to not have a remake or re-envisioned release sooner, the fifteen year gap between the sequel and the current continuation is significant for a horror film.


Director Adam Wingard, who helmed the exceptional “You’re Next” and “The Guest”, ingeniously kept the cat in the bag with this film. Waiting until just a few months ago to reveal that the trailer advertising a film called “The Woods” was actually a “Blair Witch” sequel. Mr. Wingard and long time collaborative writer Simon Barrett put every scare-inducing sleight of hand trick into this film, crafting a fun enough experience but nothing that will keep you from venturing into the woods.


Mr. Wingard’s film cleverly connects the first film with the new film, making an easy transition back into the woods for a group of friends investigating the mysterious arrival of a video. Josh (James Allen McCune) has kept hope alive that he will one day find out what happened to his sister who was lost in the woods. That hope is enough to have him charging into forbidden territory.


The introduction gets everything moving fairly quickly. Mr. Wingard employs updated technology, a small camera that rests on the ear to document the individuals experience and a flying drone camera that provides perspective for the vastness of the woods. The raw and unpredictable movement of the camera here recalls the style of the original film. Mr. Wingard utilizes this to craft quite a few jump scares, some effectively executed and some frustratingly formulaic.


Writer Simon Barrett adds a few creepy touches to the mythology that lends itself nicely when the finale arrives but doesn’t provide enough moments earlier in the film to accommodate people running around and screaming from every rustling bush, faint noises in the woods, or blurry figures lurking behind trees. We’ve seen this all before, look at the high point film “REC” in this specific subgenre of horror for the best example.


Unfortunately, instead of building on everything that has already been achieved with found footage horror the film seems content with doing the familiar very well. Where “The Blair Witch Project” layered the atmosphere and manipulated the characters towards a taut, unforgettable ending, “Blair Witch” gets lost in the early maze that it builds and stages a showy ending that doesn’t carry the impact of the original.


Monte’s Rating

3.00 out of 5.00


Top Ten Clint Eastwood directed films by Jeff Mitchell

The Top 10 films directed by Clint Eastwood  

sullyHollywood legend Clint Eastwood’s 35th directorial effort, “Sully” (3/4 stars), arrives in theatres on Friday, Sept. 9 with Tom Hanks in the title role.  The film chronicles U.S. Airways pilot Chesley ‘Sully’ Sullenberger’s heroic landing on the Hudson River in January 2009.  With another solid Eastwood film in theatres, this seems like a perfect time reflect upon his work.   Although I would love to compile a Top 20, 17 or 15 list, my pragmatic nature and movie critic tendencies “require” me to somehow limit the number of movies to 10, so here are my Top 10 films directed by Clint Eastwood.


  1. “White Hunter Black Heart” (1990) – In one of Eastwood’s most engaging performances, he plays director John Huston on the somewhat-troubled set of “The African Queen” (1951). The trouble is solely caused by Huston (named John Wilson in the film), as he is more focused on finding and shooting an elephant than shooting his own picture (named “The African Trader” in the film). The audience is treated to an insider’s look of the movie business, scenic moments of Zimbabwe and Eastwood’s portrayal of Huston/Wilson as a man of character and Hemingway-like principles.  The narrative offers a lighter ride on a faraway journey, but Eastwood includes some surprising and moving gravitas when we least expect it.


  1. “Bird” (1988) – Forest Whitaker delivers a Herculean performance as jazz saxophonist Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker. Fans bought Parker’s records and watched his concerts in droves, but he was plagued by money problems, alcoholism and heroin. Eastwood and Whitaker capture both sides of Parker’s “life-coin” with a healthy runtime of 2 hours 41 minutes, as the movie takes an organic approach.  Succinct timelines and milestones are not explicitly presented, and instead, Eastwood offers a holistic view of Parker’s adult life through several gigs in smoky clubs, constant travel between Chicago and New York, squabbles with his wife (Diane Venora), and the repercussions of his addictions.  About halfway through this engrossing biopic, I was nearly convinced that Whitaker actually was Charlie Parker.


  1. “The Outlaw Josey Wales” (1976) – Josey Wales (Eastwood) loses everything during the Civil War, when eastwood-2some Union fighters burn his house and kill his wife and son. With nothing to live for, he joins a group of Confederates, and soon after, he finds himself on his own and an outlaw.  In a film that truly showcases everything about the American Western, Wales covers a winding story from Missouri to Texas and partners with – at various times – a teenager, two Native Americans and a family from Kansas.  Eastwood mixes good fun with plenty of gunfights, as Wales offers a barrel full of memorable lines, countless visuals of his chewing tobacco spit, dead bodies in his wake, and - possibly - a reason to live.


  1. “Letters from Iwo Jima” (2006) – In 1944, the U.S. compromised Japan’s air defenses and naval fleet, and Japanese military commanders sent platoons of soldiers to defend the island of Iwo Jima, considered a launching pad to the mainland. Iwo Jima is a place with no water and limited living conditions, and many men suffered from hunger, dysentery and homesickness. Eastwood tells their personal stories with a focus on General Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe) and a young private named Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya).  Set in muted visual tones, this downcast tale depicts a group of men without much hope during a war going very badly.  Since the film is told from a Japanese viewpoint, it places human faces and feelings on a group of men who were thought of as vicious U.S. enemies just over 80 years ago.


  1. “A Perfect World” (1993) – Back in 1993, Kevin Costner did not usually play a bad guy, but in “A Perfect World”, he is an escapedeastwood convict from a Huntsville, Texas prison. On the morning after Halloween in 1963, Butch (Costner) and another con kidnap an 8-year-old boy named Phillip (T.J. Lowther). After Butch dumps his partner, the two drive across the state with Texas Ranger Red Garnett (Eastwood) on their tail.   The movie volleys between Red and Butch, and it soon concocts a semi-case of Stockholm syndrome for Phillip and the audience.  Butch treats Phillip with esteem and kindness, so Costner does not wind up playing a complete bad guy, but Red is an empathetic figure as well.  With an occasional protagonist and a fulltime protagonist on opposite sides of the law, “A Perfect World” reminds us that we do not live in one.


  1. “Play Misty for Me” (1971) – Sixteen years before Glenn Close terrified men everywhere in 1987’s “Fatal Attraction”, Jessica Walter was nominated for a Golden Globe by causing nightmares for – probably - the same number of guys in Eastwood’s directorial debut. In the coastal city of Carmel, Calif., Dave (Eastwood) – a disc jockey for KRML – meets and has a fling with Evelyn (Walter), his number one fan. Their series of brief encounters, however, turns deadly serious and dangerous when she wants a substantial relationship.    Eastwood plays with our senses by alternating between sweeping views of a gorgeous California paradise and closed, dark quarters of Dave’s apartment, a local restaurant and a quiet radio station, and nowhere seems to be safe.  Unfortunately for Dave, Evelyn could appear just about anywhere and cause emotional or physical mayhem at any time in this very well-crafted and purposely-raw thriller.


  1. “The Bridges of Madison County” (1995) – Francesca Johnson (Meryl Streep) passes away, and in her will, she requests that her children spread her ashes over a nearby covered bridge rather than be buried next to her husband. Through a series of journals, the kids read her story of a secret love affair with a National Geographic photographer, Robert Kincaid (Eastwood). Eastwood - widely known as America’s tough guy at the time - reveals his sensitive side with Robert’s delicate and loving few days with Francesca.  Streep and Eastwood carry warm and sincere chemistry, as they depict a pair of onscreen adults who emotionally connect despite less-than-ideal circumstances.  This film takes its time in sleepy Iowa, but the designed slower place helps capture these precious few days, as the audience hopes that Robert and Francesca find much more time.


  1. “Mystic River” (2003) eastwood-3– Sean Penn and Tim Robbins won Oscars for Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor, respectively, in Eastwood’s dark crime tale filled with massive Shakespearean themes, when three childhood friends’ (Penn, Robbins and Kevin Bacon) lives intersect as adults under brutal circumstances. In chilly Boston, a coed is found dead, and the three previously-mentioned men approach the incident from very different perspectives, while the tightly-wound and complicated murder investigation pushes forward. An all-star cast – including, Laurence Fishburne, Marcia Gay Harden and Laura Linney – complete a mesmerizing experience which brings constant thoughts friendships, loyalties and how the sins of the past impact the present.  The film’s most memorable line – “The last time I saw Dave” - will haunt you for years.


  1. “Million Dollar Baby” (2004) – Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank) - a seemingly ordinary 31-year-old girl - walks into Frankie Dunn’s (Eastwood) Hit Pit Gym with dreams of becoming a boxer. Dunn initially discounts her wishes, but he eventually trains Maggie, and this rags-to-riches tale appears to follow conventional sports storytelling but with very absorbing father figure/surrogate daughter chemistry. The movie, however, takes one of the biggest left turns in recent cinematic memory which almost knocked this moviegoer unconscious back in 2004.  Narrated by Morgan Freeman, the film develops into an absorbing human drama on a completely different level and – in the process - earned four Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress for Swank, and Best Supporting Actor for Freeman who plays Dunn’s best friend, Eddie Dupris.


  1. “Unforgiven” (1992) – Clint Eastwood’s last western rightfully lassoed four Oscars, including Best Picture, eastwood-4Best Director, Best Supporting Actor for Gene Hackman, and Best Film Editing and proved – along with “Dances with Wolves” (1990) – that the genre can win the Academy’s top prize. Eastwood delivers a prized role as well as William Munny, an aging cowboy who takes one last bounty hunter job after years of living a clean life. Munny frequently speaks of his violent past, but the audience presently sees a cordial and respectful man, so any previous sinister dealings seem either deeply buried or simply exaggerated.  In the movie’s final act, however, Sheriff Little Bill Daggett (Hackman) tests Munny’s patience with potentially explosive consequences.   Most everything in the town of Big Whiskey, Wyo. (actually filmed in Alberta, Canada) feels bleak and cold, and the tones match Munny’s job of attempting to kill two cowboys for a group of prostitutes.  In this world, no one is completely innocent, and Munny mentions to one of his partners in passing, “We all have it coming, Kid.”   Not only does Little Bill have it coming, but so does the Kid, the targeted cowboys, Munny’s other partner named Ned (Morgan Freeman), and Munny himself.  Munny’s past sins – unfortunately – are just skin-deep, and even though his wife forgave his past misdeeds, to him, they remain unforgiven.


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.


Sully - Movie Review by Kaely Monahan

sully“Sully” is a new American hero Hollywood needs By Kaely Monahan


If you have a fear of flying then, “Sully” is not the film for you. Or perhaps it is. Based on the incredible 2009 water landing of U.S. Airways flight 1549 into the Hudson river, the story is one that will live on in America lore and FAA logs forever. If you ever find yourself crash landing, this film will make you want Sully in the cockpit.


But before I go on, a disclaimer: My father is a U.S. Airways pilot—now American Airlines. (In case you have forgotten, U.S. Airways bought the legacy carrier in 2015.) Due to some insider airline politics, I perhaps know a little too much about the facts of this event. Therefore, I see the film through the rosy-colored glasses director Clint Eastwood puts on.


Does the film accurately portray what happened? Yes, and no. But ultimately, this is a work of fiction based on real life. What biopic film ever gets things 100 percent correct?


That said, “Sully” is a masterful work of cinematic art. From the scripting to the casting, the film has you gripping your seat. This is the type of hero movie we need.


Eastwood approaches the story Captain Chelsey “Sully” Sullenberger’s (Tom Hanks) story in an unconventional way. Instead of starting with the landing, we are confronted by Sully who is second guessing what he did. Was his decision sound? Did he truly have no real option other than landing in the Hudson?


For those who don’t recall, Flight 1549 had taken off from LaGuardia in New York City and was headed for Charlotte, N.C. Shortly after take-off, and not yet at cruising altitude, they hit a flock of birds. This damaged both engines. Losing altitude, Sully attempted to return to LaGuardia but was unable to. He made the decisive decision to land in the Hudson—the only clear area that was long enough to accommodate a forced landing of an Airbus A320.


The survival rate of water landings is historically low, but miraculously Sully managed to land the plane safely. Every passenger was rescued with only minor injuries reported. Such a feat had never been done before.


However, Sully and his co-pilot Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart) end up under investigation by the National Transportation Security Board—as is protocol. As this film is based on true events, Eastwood needed to invent a “bad guy.” The NTSB was his choice.


Painted through Eastwood’s eyes, the federal agency appears conniving, vindictive and determined to prosecute Sully and Skiles. A fact that is very much fabricated. Anyone who has sat through a government hearing will know how methodically boring and tedious such meetings are.


As the investigation carries on, we see the events of the landing slowly pieced together throughout the film so that by the end, we see what really happened. Throughout the film, Sully struggles with his choice but sticks to his story. He did everything he could and he stands by that decision. The movie culminates with a hearing with the NTSB, which is again portrayed as the nasty villain. (An unsurprising move as the government is a popular choice for a baddie these days.)


In the end, the martyred Sully is vindicated, and his hero-ship firmly tacked on.


Tom Hanks is brooding, psychologically challenged but cool. He fits the mold of the perfect hero captain—a modern day Moses—he leads his “people” through calamity into ultimate glory. He can do no wrong. Much of this film is cerebral, as Sully struggles with his decisions.


Interestingly, this film is almost devoid of music. Its lack lends a certain gravitas to the story. This is not some action-packed, explosion-riddled thriller. This is a psychological thriller. Much of the action is seeing through flashbacks, daydreams, and nightmares.


The story unfolds nonlinearly, which can be challenging. But Eastwood proves he still has it, even at 86-years-old. It’s also clear he is in love with Sully’s story. The hero who faces the scorn of the world and wins.


Despite the Hollywood-ization of the facts, “Sully” fills the need to see a “believable” hero movie. I, despite my reservations, found myself lulled by Eastwood’s “Sully” to the point that I was cheering for the captain at the end. Sometimes, it’s better to know less about our heroes than more.



  • Kaely Monahan is a journalist, graduate of City University London and the creator of Popcorn Fan Film Reviews. Follow her @PopcornFans and @KaelyMonahan.


Sully - Movie Review by Monte Yazzie


Director: Clint Eastwood

Starring: Tom Hanks, Aaron Eckhart, Mike O’Malley, Laura Linney, and Chris Bauer


The summer saw its fair amount of superheroes. Viewers watched extraordinary mutants fighting an ancient enemy in “X-Men: Apocalypse”, they were introduced to a group bad guys with amazing skills fighting a threat to the world in “Suicide Squad”, and they even saw the return of super agent Jason Bourne again performing acts that would get any normal human serious injured. Arriving in theaters this weekend is another story about a hero, however this hero doesn’t have superhuman abilities or extraordinary powers though he can fly.


U.S. Airways Flight 1549 departed New York’s LaGuardia Airport on the afternoon of January 15, 2009 with 150 passengers. About 3 minutes after takeoff the plane struck a formation of birds. The plane lost thrust in both engines and was too far away from the departing airport to turn around. Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger and first officer Jeffrey B. Skiles were forced to land the plane in the Hudson River. Miraculously the crew accomplished this impossible feat without the loss of one human life.


“Sully” is a compelling real life story about people being forced into acts of heroism and then having to deal with the repercussions of their actions. Director Clint Eastwood has been directing films since 1971, many times also acting in his films. "Sully" is not particularly new territory for the 86 year old filmmaker who has tackled many of the same character themes in films like “American Sniper”, “Flags of the Father”, and “Unforgiven”. Mr. Eastwood is a talented director and “Sully” is accommodated because of his skill.


The narrative is working with an event that only lasted 208 seconds. Mr. Eastwood tells this story in a purposeful and disjointed fashion, emulating how the event was scrutinized and pieced together during the National Transportation Safety Board hearings that followed the incident. Mr. Eastwood does a fantastic job of composing the emotions of Mr. Sullenberger, displaying how the pilot recreated the events in his mind sometimes with a deadlier outcome. It is often a frightening and tense experience; the fear induced when the pilot of the plane says “brace for impact” over the intercom is just the beginning. Mr. Eastwood does more than just recreate the events of the “Miracle on the Hudson”, the director taps into the anxiety still lingering in the wake of September 11th but also the solidarity of the people who came together during this time of need. 150 passengers and 5 flight crew members survived a plane crash, stood in freezing cold weather and water, and all of them lived to tell the story.


In the heroic roles are Tom Hanks as Mr. Sullenberger and Aaron Eckhart as Mr. Skiles. Mr. Hanks plays the role with quiet, calm, professional dignity. Mr. Hanks shines as this kind of earnest hero; no flash or flamboyance needed just a connection to a character that was simply doing his job. Mr. Eckhart is also good as the supportive, straight-shooting partner and friend of Sully, offering a performance that never waivers from the position of supportive friendship.


“Sully” has some difficulty maintaining the drama of the event as the film recounts the situation a few times over. It also introduces the perspectives of the passengers a little too late to truly generate the kind of connection to the fear and panic felt in the early scenes of the plane charging into the water. Still, in the capable hands of Clint Eastwood, “Sully” displays the miracle of ordinary people doing their jobs with the absolute highest possible efficiency. After a summer of watching superhuman comic book heroes save the world, it’s a nice reminder that superheroes do exist and they don’t need to shot lasers from their eyes or leap buildings but could simply do the diligent work they do on a daily basis.


Monte’s Rating

3.50 out of 5.00