12 Strong - Movie Review by Ben Cahlamer

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12 Strong

 

Directed by Nicolai Fuglsig

Written by Ted Tally and Peter Craig, based on Horse Soldiers by Doug Stanton

Starring Chris Hemsworth, Michael Shannon, Michael Pena, Navid Neghban, Trevante Rhodes, Geoff Stults, Thad Luckinbill

 

The greatest thing that any human can do for another is to sacrifice themselves. Each situation determines the level of sacrifice, however, no greater level of sacrifice occurs than when our servicemen are called to duty. Following the events on September 11th, 2001, the military swiftly and deftly moved in to Afghanistan.

Based on the novel Horse Soldiers by Doug Stanton, Nicolai Fuglsig’s 12 Strong focuses on the elite group of 12 Green Beret members of Operational Detachment Alpha (ODA) 595. While Task Force Dagger was the lead company responsible for those early operations, ODA-595 was on the ground, pushing through the Taliban’s strongholds using unconventional warfare.

Chris Hemsworth plays Captain Mitch Nelson, the leader of ODA-595. Mr. Hemsworth’s approach to the character was to infuse it with his trademark humor. He also approached the character as a deeply committed man to his family, something we get early on, to his country and to his men and the mission, most importantly. He earns our trust in the early stages of the film as well, especially as Chief Warrant Officer Spencer, played by Michael Shannon, comes to his aid. Michael Pena plays Sergeant Sam Diller who offers his own brand of humor while the acclaimed Trevante Rhodes (Moonlight) plays Sergeant Ben Milo. Both performers enhance the team on the screen, especially during the action sequences and both add to the unconventional nature of the film.

What makes Mr. Fuglsig’s directorial debut so interesting is its unconventional nature. The script by Ted Tally and Peter Craig builds trust quite quickly in our hero with his swift call to action. This is necessary because part of ODA 595’s mission was diplomacy. Captain Nelson not only needed to fight a war in unconventional means, but he also needed to build the trust of General Abdul Rashid Dostum (Navid Negahban) while getting in-country support and the lay of the land. The film only touches on this aspect in passing, but does it with the flair of a Jerry Bruckheimer production.

Bruckheimer staple William Fichtner makes an appearance as Colonel Mulholland, the leader of Task Force Dagger. His dry sense of timing and humor enlightens us as to the precarious nature of this mission and the dangers awaiting ODA-595. One of the best sequences in the film is played between Mr. Fichtner and Mr. Hemsworth and is a highlight of the film. Comedian Rob Riggle is yet another unconventional choice if you follow his stand-up and television career, but did you know that he was a Marine? In fact, the name of his character is the name of the man who he reported to as a Marine. It was a delight to see him share screen time with both Mr. Hemsworth and Mr. Fichtner.

Mr. Tally and Mr. Craig’s script uses all of these elements build us up to a moment of pride, as we see ODA-595 on horseback, riding through the mountains in yet another unconventional aspect of this mission: the mountains that make up the geography of Afghanistan are some of the most treacherous in the world that they cannot be walked with great ease, which makes for an ideal place for the Taliban regimes to hold out. Never underestimate the determinism and resolve of the United States military though. This is the hallmark of the producing team that brought us Only the Brave last fall.

The combination of the two production styles truly shines in Mr. Fuglsig’s hands. Mr. Fuglsig is a journalist by trade and much like the subjects of this film, Mr. Fuglsig’s past experiences prepared him for this moment. His eye for photography shines in this film through Rasmus Videbaek’s (The Dark Tower) eyes.

The amount of pride generated from this film sets aside many of the challenges the story has. It is as if the energy and the bravado from The Rock met the bravery and the heroism of Only the Brave with just a sprinkle of Lawrence of Arabia for good measure.

3 out 4 stars.

Den of Thieves - Movie Review by Ben Cahlamer

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Den of Thieves

 

Directed by Christian Gudegast

Written by Christian Gudegast and Paul Scheuring

Starring Gerard Butler, Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson, Pablo Schreiber, O’Shea Jackson Jr, Evan Jones, Dawn Olivieri, Mo McRae, Max Holloway

 

Bank heists have served as the foundation of some of the most ingenious films. Kathryn Bigelow’s “Point Break” immediately comes to mind as does Michael Mann’s “Heat.” Each of these films uses a bank heist as its central thesis to build the main characters; both films have rogues on either side of the law who are hell-bent on achieving their end goals, with no regard for others. Since the trope seems to be on the verge of “rinse, wash, repeat,” someone must’ve thought it was a good time to try and update the formula with a few new tricks. Here enters first-time director Christian Gudegast’s “Den of Thieves” featuring Gerard Butler.

Mr. Butler plays Nick O’Brien, the leader of the L.A. County Sheriff’s Major Crimes unit who, with his elite team, investigates the theft of an armored truck. Their investigation leads them to an elite crew looking to take down a major score. O’Shea Jackson, Jr, Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson and Pablo Schreiber co-star.

Character motives are key to a bank heist story. On the surface, Mr. Gudegast and Paul Scheruing’s (TV’s ‘Prison Break,’ “A Man Apart,” “The Experiment”) script misses this mark. We get murky characters who move throughout the film, whose function is to essentially stop one another. Yes, they are calculating, but they are doing it without any thought. Now, one would think that this is the prime reason for being a rogue. And, yet, there was no motive.

Mr. Gudegast understands his frame, and so the look of the film flows with an acceptable pace. However, his use of flashbacks distracts us, and apparently himself, from the key objective. Secondary to this, is the rehashed trope of a “detective on the edge”. In contrast to Al Pacino’s Vincent Hannah from “Heat,” Mr. Butler’s Nick O’Brien takes his self-abuse further. It’s an interesting experiment on the character. In the hands of another actor, it might have worked better, but I think both Mr. Butler and Mr. Gudegast put the character so far into ‘overdrive’ that the side story became irrelevant because it didn’t change his motive.

The rogues on the wrong side of the law have even fewer personal motivations, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t cool to watch on the screen. The trouble is that none of them are relatable, although as the investigation uncovers their histories, questions arise, which ultimately remain unanswered. I don’t necessarily think these details were meant to be addressed, but they felt like these details subverted the true potential of the film.

There’s a scene in the middle of the movie that pays homage to several other bank heist films and its linkage with the third act is probably the most ingenious part of this narrative. This is because the cast and crew are firing on all of their cylinders. It, unfortunately, leads into a protracted third act and the payoff.

The characters and the story deliver the payoff. But, it is not well-earned and that’s this film’s biggest flaw. A lack of motivation doesn’t yield the results you seek, even if you busted your ass to get there.

It’s funny the way Hollywood works out its release schedule. For two weeks in a row, two of the creatives behind “London Has Fallen” have had their respective releases: Babk Najafi’s “Proud Mary” and now Mr. Gudegast’s debut film here. I’d like to see more of what Mr. Gudegast has in his gas tank because I think he can go the distance. “Den of Thieves” has glimmers of his brilliance, but it isn’t there just yet.

2 out of 4 stars

An Interview with the Special Forces Soldiers Portrayed in 12 Strong by Jeff Mitchell

It is not every day that one meets two U.S. Special Forces team members in-person, but on Jan. 8, the Phoenix Film Festival did just that!  Mark Nutsch and Bob Pennington stopped in Phoenix to share their experiences and thoughts on director Nicolai Fuglsig’s action film, “12 Strong”, the real-life story of the first Special Forces unit sent into action in Afghanistan after 9/11.  Chris Hemsworth and Michael Shannon play Mark and Bob, respectively, but their on-screen names were changed to Captain Mitch Nelson and Chief Warrant Officer Hal Spencer.

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Mark and Bob offered generous amounts of their time and positive energy with the Phoenix Film Festival and other media outlets during this group interview, as we intently learned about their unique and dangerous workplace. 

 

“12 Strong” arrives in theatres on Friday, Jan. 19.  

 

 

Q:  What struck me about this movie is that all 12 men were singularly-focused.  They were looking forward to this mission and wanted to be the tip of the spear.  Is that always the mentality of Special Forces, or was there something extra, because of this circumstance?

 

BP:  This is the World Series.  This is the Super Bowl, the pinnacle of what all Green Berets dream about. This is going into a country and conducting the one principle task of the nine principle tasks that we have: unconventional warfare.    

 

MN:  Yes, the historic fact was not lost on us.  This is right after 9/11, but (today), there are Special Forces teams internally competing to get the best missions, the best training and to deploy to probably 80-plus countries around the world.  (Missions like) working with local partners and trying to tackle immense challenges with security or extremism, or to advise towards improving economic development.

 

Someone has to go out there to those far edges. The best people to do that are Special Forces.

 

BP:  I just retired only a year and a half ago, (and) I “did” over 30 years.  These last 10 years have been busy and so hard on the Force itself, but you don’t hear the guys (saying), “I’m not going to do that mission.” 

 

You hear, “What’s the (next) mission?  I want that.  Can I get it?  How can I fight for it?”

 

That’s how it is.  That’s how all Green Berets think.  Yet, we get tired.  We do get rundown, and it is happening more so.  The Force has to build back up, so we can continue to fight throughout the world.  That’s what it is, it’s a fight throughout the world. 

 

MN:  Our team’s attitude was: “Send me.  We are the team to go.”  

 

We had been picked, and by Sept. 15, 2001, we knew (that) we were going.  We didn’t know what the mission was, but we had been picked.  We deployed out early to a secret location, and I assure you (that) it was not as built up (as portrayed in the movie).   We had 48 hours from the time that we accepted the mission to be ready to insert.  Our entire operation’s order consisted of two pages, and because it was so early, there was nothing known.  (The U.S. had) to send someone in to figure it out, and we said, “We got it.  Send us, Sir.”  

 

 

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Q:  Did your individual trust in each other mature as well as it did in the movie, or did it take time? 

 

BP:  Here’s the thing.  (Mark) already built the team for two years, and then they pulled him off.  When 9/11 happened, I wanted to get him back.  I had 14 years of experience, and most of that was as a Green Beret.  When 9/11 happened, they said that we might be aligned to do this mission.  I needed to get my team back to 12.  I needed Mark back.  He knows the team (and) the Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs).  Why would I spin up somebody else?   They looked at me and said, “That makes sense.”

 

MN:  I had been with the team for two years already, and we deployed a half-dozen times to the Middle East, and I had about as much experience as a Special Forces officer could have in preparing for this mission. 

 

The team already trusted each other, because we had been through some pretty grueling training already.   Our team had incredible amounts of experience.  The average years of service was eight.  We were not a young team.  Our average age was 32.

 

BP:  Eleven of the 12 team members were married. 

 

MN:  Ten of us had kids.  Just incredible amount of experience - nine qualified snipers - but there were some adjustments on the ground.  We had to adapt to (ride) horses (and) the situation.

 

We learned quickly.

 

We had to continue to trust each other.  Every guy on the team provided input and played a critical role in what had to happen that day for our own safety, to help us survive the next five minutes, the next hour. 

 

 

Q:  It sounds like your experience in all of your other missions really prepared you for this on-the-ground situation.

 

BP:  Absolutely. 

 

MN:  Special Forces guys typically come from different backgrounds.  I grew up on a cattle ranch in Kansas and “rodeoed” through high school and college.  Who knew how critical the ability to ride, understand horsemanship and maneuver-warfare on horseback would be?

 

 

Q:  This film is based on Doug Stanton’s 2009 book called “Horse Soldiers”.  Were you involved with the book?

 

BP:  Some of it.  Now, I talked to Doug for at least five or six hours, a little more than Mark was able to. 

 

MN:  Doug had limited access to our team.  After those initial interviews, we were not involved in Doug’s book.  We talked more with Doug since the book was published.  It’s a complex story.  There were other Special Forces teams in other parts of the country who did amazing thing also.  Some had books written about them.  Some have not, but yet did amazing things that are known in our community. 

 

 

Bob’s reaction to Chris Hemsworth and Michael Shannon playing Mark and him, respectively:

 

BP:  Mark always wanted Thor (to play him).  I wanted Ryan Reynolds, since I’m a little bit of a clown, (but) I talked to Michael Shannon for two or three days, and he’s a pretty thoughtful guy. 

 

 

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

 

 

An interview with Alex Roe, star of Forever My Girl by Jeff Mitchell

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Actor Alex Roe recently starred in “The 5th Wave” (2016) and “Rings” (2017), but his latest film is a distinct departure from science fiction and horror.  In “Forever My Girl”, he plays Liam Page, a country music superstar who returns to his hometown in Louisiana and reconnects with his ex-fiancée, Josie (Jessica Rothe).  Alex stopped by Phoenix on Jan. 11 and 12 and graciously sat down to chat with the Phoenix Film Festival about his new movie and the surprising fact that he never sang in public before playing Liam!  Wow!

 

“Forever My Girl” is rated PG, and it arrives in theatres on Friday, Jan. 19.

 

PFF:  Alex, you never sang in public before, but you seem like a natural country music performer on the big screen.  Did you take singing lessons as a kid?

 

AR:  We had drama and singing clubs at school, so I got to act and sing, a little bit as a kid.  I always just (sang) in the shower or when people were out of the house.  I’d go through phases of singing in my room, so I was a bit of a closeted singer, I guess. 

 

(Also), my mom bought me a guitar when I was about 12, so I picked it up and taught myself, now and then. I was obsessed with Elvis Presley when I was a kid, so when this script came along, (I thought) the possibility of playing a country star was really cool. 

 

 

PFF:  That’s terrific, and you traveled to Nashville for the film as well.

 

AR:  Yes, we went to Nashville to experience the country-scene and met quite a few singers.  We saw Luke Bryan and Little Big Town. I was lucky to get (some insight) about how it feels to perform in front of 50,000 people and then try to come back to your trailer or just (go) home.  So, that helped me understand where Liam was coming from, and how he got sucked into this world of fame.

 

 

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PFF:  When Liam moved away, he was having personal issues early in his career.  Was it because of his new celebrity-status, the heartbreak of leaving Josie or a mix of the two?

 

AR:  [SPOILER] I think that it’s a mix.  He also lost his mom just before he left town, so I think that he was dealing with the pain of that, or “not dealing” with (it).  He left the love of his life and dealt with the regret of that, and I think that fame for him became this temporary fix, a way to forget about those issues.  He’s running away, basically.  It’s not until he comes back home and reconnects with his family, his hometown and his roots that is he really able to come to terms with (his troubles).

 

 

PFF:  Now, when Liam left Josie, she was hurt but not necessarily hardened.   Since Josie emotionally picked herself up after Liam left, do you think that was an important ingredient for the two to possibly reconnect?  

 

AR:  [SPOILER] Yea, because Josie moved on with her life.  She had a (daughter), Billy (Abby Ryder Fortson), and by anyone’s standards, they are a happy, successful family.  It takes a village to raise a child, and I think that was definitely the case.  They were fine without Liam.  When he comes back into their lives, there’s this undeniable feeling that he was the missing piece to the puzzle in some way.  If Josie and the family hadn’t been okay, the romance (would) be less (likely) to develop.  Forgiveness is allowed to happen.

 

 

PFF:  Liam says, “Sometimes you got to let go, walk on the wild side, and everything will be okay.”   Do think that applies to you, by playing a country western star?  Did you say to yourself that you’d walk on the wild side and give it a shot?

 

AR:  Let’s have a go!  Yea.  Definitely.  I think it’s really interesting that you bring that up too, as far as the missing piece.  Liam brings a little bit of that into Josie’s and Billy’s lives, this carefree attitude, and especially for Billy.  (For example, Billy) doesn’t want to take her rabbit out of the cage, because she thinks it’s going to bite her.  She doesn’t want to get into a convertible, because of the statistics of surviving an accident are really low.  I think that’s where the missing piece of the puzzle comes in.  Liam does walk on the wild side a little bit and encourages that, because it’s necessary in life to do both.  To be cautious, but also to be carefree.  They are both important.

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PFF:  So, Liam carries around this old cell phone.  It’s eight years old and held together with duct tape. How old is your phone? 

 

AR:  My phone is a year and a half old.  By (current) standards and upgrades, I think it’s pretty good.  Actually, I broke it, and I had one of those (older) cell phones (for a while).  It was really nice to just text and have phone calls and not be available on email 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.  It was really refreshing!  So, I am jealous of Liam for that.

  

 

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.

 

 

Phantom Thread - Movie Review by Monte Yazzie

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Phantom Thread

 

Director: Paul Thomas Anderson

Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Vicky Krieps, and Lesley Manville

 

Paul Thomas Anderson directed a film called “There Will Be Blood”. It is a cinematic masterclass, a film that continues to grow stronger amongst the heavyweights of film history because of Mr. Anderson’s attention to detail and the rigorous composition of a character named Daniel Plainview.

 

Portraying this murky, dense character in the film is one of the greatest thespians to put performance to celluloid. Daniel Day-Lewis, a three-time Academy Award winner, is an actor who completely, obsessively embodies the characters he portrays. Mr. Day-Lewis played the 16th President with subtle, quiet attention in “Lincoln”, the resilient Christy Brown in “My Left Foot”, and a patriotic, murderous butcher named Bill in “Gangs of New York”; the actor can do just about anything in a performance.

 

Director Paul Thomas Anderson and actor Daniel Day-Lewis are similar in that they strive for a unique, personal purpose in film and rally for perfection in everything they do. “Phantom Thread”, the second film together for these two cinematic titans, is a complicated love story, one that harbors themes of dominating control, deep and dangerous emotional connections, and a passion that is not easily defined.

 

Reynold Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) is a dress designer in London during the 1950’s. Working with royalty and the upper echelon, the designer passionately crafts masterpieces with needle and fabric; his stern and particular personality assists in the meticulous creations, each of which have a secret message sewn into the seams by the artist. Reynold’s meets a waitress named Alma (Vicky Krieps) while on vacation, the two begin a personal and professional relationship, one that challenges Alma’s independence and ideals about love while disrupting Reynold’s obsessive and tormented world.

 

“Phantom Thread” is a beautiful film, filled to the edges with meticulous detail. The gorgeous costume design is the most obvious elegance, each dress fashioned as a nod to the character’s, and most likely the filmmaker’s, sensibilities. The score, composed by Johnny Greenwood from the band Radiohead, is exceptional; a blend of melodic harmonies that sway throughout the shifting tones of the film.

 

The composition of the characters here is intriguing and at times arresting. Mr. Anderson utilizes three characters to dictate the subtle and drastic changes in tone throughout the film. Whether the modeling of a new dress design, a stroll along a blustery beach, or the preparation of dinner, the director controls these scenes and guides the audience in ways most filmmakers would struggle to maintain. The film has an inherent sense of humor, one that is manipulated in numerous amusing ways through an offhanded comment or a sly remark. It walks the thin runway of comedy, drama, and melodrama, though it is dependent on the viewer to make that determination, that’s the fun of it all.

 

Daniel Day-Lewis is again impressive, from start to finish, in moments that are spoken and unspoken, Mr. Day-Lewis is intoxicating to watch. How does one challenge this powerful performance? You cast Vicky Krieps as the equal counterpart. Ms. Krieps, a relative newcomer, steals the show many times throughout the film. Her performance is pure confidence.

 

Anderson paints an image here that will linger long after it is over, not because of anything offensive or obscene but because of the startling and subtle emotion portrayed by Daniel Day-Lewis and Vicky Krieps. Paul Thomas Anderson doesn't need a big canvas to paint his portraits, even with a film that has three primary characters with most of the scenes taking place inside closed doors, the final product is still a work of art. This is supposedly Mr. Day-Lewis’ last film, if so, he ends on a fine note.

 

“Phantom Thread” is a strange love story unlike many you’ll see in the multiplex, it’s a tale of complicated lust and love, a psychological battle of wits between two passionate people, and a comedy about evolving relationships. Relationships are complicated and romance is unique and subjective; “Phantom Thread” never hides those qualities in the seams.

 

Monte’s Rating

5.00 out of 5.00

The Commuter - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

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‘The Commuter’ takes too many familiar turns

 

Directed by: Jaume Collet-Serra

Written by: Bryon Willinger, Philip de Blasi and Ryan Engle

Starring: Liam Neeson, Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Sam Neill, and Elizabeth McGovern

 

“The Commuter” – “You have no idea who you are up against.” - Oliver (Kobna Holdbrook-Smith), a train passenger

 

Michael MacCauley (Liam Neeson), a New York City insurance agent who just lost his job, finds himself mired in two seemingly impossible situations.   He and his wife, Karen (Elizabeth McGovern), are financially struggling, and now, Michael is out of work.  Cutting back on expenses and eating ramen noodles seven days a week will not save enough money to cover their mortgage and son’s upcoming tuition to Syracuse University.  

 

(By the way, according to Google, SU tuition is $43,318 a year, and that does not even include books, housing, all-you-can-eat chicken wings, and beer money.)

 

Next, a mysterious stranger named Joanna (Vera Farmiga) sits across from him on his commuter train and offers him $100,000, if he will do “one little thing.”  The problem?  Right away, one can only assume that “one little thing” surely means a complicated, very big thing.  

 

And how!

 

Our hero finds himself in a race against time to find someone on a busy train who stole something from Joanna and placed it in his or her bag.  As it turns out, Michael needs to solve this mystery, or Joanna will ensure that people will be hurt.  Killed, actually.  If this sounds closely familiar to Neeson’s 2014 film “Non-Stop” – which took place on a commercial plane - you are not alone.  Not so coincidentally, “The Commuter” director Jaume Collet-Serra also piloted “Non-Stop”, and unfortunately, this story feels terribly recycled and dances in preposterous spaces.  

 

One of these spaces is that Joanna and her associates have eyes and ears everywhere on this train and can track all of Michael’s movements.  Is Michael playing ball or is he making overtures for help from his fellow train passengers?  Joanna always seems to know, but how?   

 

Does she have cameras and microphones located in every conceivable nook and cranny on this train traveling from Manhattan to Cold Springs?  Does she have operatives - on board - intently watching Michael?  The film is not entirely clear, but when Joanna knows a random passenger’s phone number and calls him (Andy Nyman) in order to talk to Michael - who does not have his phone - one is simply forced to assume that she possess a magical white pages directory that can tap anyone on this particular train.  Ah, eyes and ears, I guess.

 

In order to keep us guessing, Collet-Serra offers a number of suspicious characters who might have this infamous package in their bag, including an early 20-something woman with a lousy boyfriend, a rough-and-tumble bouncer type, a musician, and more.  The intended intrigue partially rests with Michael using deductive reasoning to uncover the covert target, but the film does not offer enough clues for the audience to play along.  Instead, Collet-Serra zips and zags from one nondescript, suspicious passenger to the next, as Michael grasps at possibilities to untangle this confounding knot.  Rather than build cinematic tension, the constant misdirection and the always watching/always listening, omnipotent antagonists - who don’t seem to play by this universe’s rules – ironically create an aura of passivity for the audience.  Well, at least for this audience member. 

 

Then again, moviegoers might find joy when watching Neeson’s Michael work his magic.  Neeson is popular in these types of films, and Michael is a very likable character.   Collet-Serra and Neeson also deliver a couple crowd-pleasing moments that specifically address the fleeting reach of the “American Dream”, so that does not go unnoticed.  It is also nice to notice McGovern’s on-screen appearance, and the only regret is that the script does not give her much to do.  

 

Conversely, the script gives Neeson plenty to do, but most of his work feels emotionally distant because of his aforementioned circumstance on the train.  Even though, Michael has no idea who he is up against, it is regrettably easy to determine how this story will ultimately unfold.  Maybe, we should just catch the next train, or will Collet-Serra set “The Commuter 2” on a cruise ship?

(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.

Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool - Movie Review by Ben Cahlamer

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Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool

 

Directed by Paul McGuigan

Written by Matt Greenhalgh based on Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool by Peter Turner

Starring Annette Bening, Jamie Bell, Vanessa Redgrave, Julie Walters, Kenneth Cranham, Stephen Graham, Frances Barber, Leanne Best

 

One might disagree with this assertion, but in today’s ever-expanding, global cinema, there are few stars in the traditional Hollywood-sense; someone who when you saw them on the screen, the camera just absolutely embraces them, heightening our awareness of genuine talent. Now, I haven’t seen one iota of Gloria Grahame’s oeuvre, but based on the pre-release buzz, she was a starlet for the ages.

It is with a sense of remorse that I begin my journey of absorbing her body of work with a biography of her last years with us. Matt Greenhalgh’s script, based on Peter Turner’s biography of the same name goes to lengths to demonstrate just how steadfast Mr. Grahame was at trying to hide her weakened condition. Annette Bening plays the famous star, and she radiates the dwindling beauty. Jamie Bell plays Peter Turner, a reserved, yet passionate man. He is able to stand strongly next to Ms. Bening; neither of them overshadow the other.

Their love affair is at the center of the story as they meet during rehearsals for her first UK performance in 1978. She tries to avoid dealing with her declining health in Liverpool, instead allowing Mr. Turner to seduce her. Mr. McGuigan uses many classic filming techniques, especially rear projection, to build out the environment of the late 1970’s. Key to this is the Turner’s home in Liverpool where Peter convinces his family to take in Ms. Grahame, not realizing the severity of her condition. The story makes clear that the family is aware of their affair. In fact, Bella Turner (Julie Walters) goes out of her way to treat Ms. Grahame like she’s family.

The story flashes back to Ms. Grahame’s life in California, showing the struggles she faced growing up. The sentimentality of these flashbacks draw attention away from Ms. Bening’s performance, a byproduct of the script reaching too far into why she struggled so much. If this were more about her life rather than her affair with Mr. Turner, I certainly would have been more interested in her backstory.

Mr. McGuigan certainly created a grand image of Ms. Grahame and the era in which the film is set in. Seeing elegance of modern London set against the drab motif in Liverpool was a nice juxtaposition. All of this, however, is nothing much without Ms. Bening and Mr. Bell inhabiting their roles. The story knows this too, and while their performances are the standout, the story doesn’t really serve them in the same, favorable way.

2 out of 4 stars

 

Paddington 2 - Movie Review by Ben Cahlamer

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Paddington 2

 

Directed by Paul King

Written by Paul King and Simon Farnaby based on Paddington Bear by Michael Bond

Starring Hugh Bonneville, Sally Hawkins, Brenda Gleeson, Julie Walters, Jim Broadbent, Peter Capaldi, Hugh Grant, Ben Whishaw

 

The story of Paddington Bear by Michael Bond is as famous as Winnie the Pooh and Christopher Robbin, never mind the fact that they’re both British in origin. As children’s books, they highlight adventures that youngsters, including this one, could follow with great ease whilst at the same time, they carry very adult themes which are designed to teach youngsters basic manners and customs. Paul King and his co-scribe, Simon Farnby caught the essence of both in Paddington’s latest adventure, Paddington 2.

In this adventure, the marmalade sandwich – loving Paddington (voiced by Ben Whishaw), seeks to get his mum the greatest gift he possibly can for her birthday. More in appreciation for everything she gave him as a young cub, he finds the most perfect pop-up children’s book in Mr. Gruber’s (Jim Broadbent) antique shop. The pop-up book attracts the interest of other parties, much to Paddington’s troubles.

Mr. King’s direction is first rate as we learn more about what makes Paddington tick. The supporting cast is first rate, and I don’t mind saying that I’ve never seen Hugh Grant look as deliciously evil as he does here. Sally Hawkins continues to impress in a smaller, but no less active role as we’ve seen recently. Hugh Bonneville is wonderfully wooden as Paddington’s dad, Henry. Samuel Joslin and Madeline Harris are standouts as Judy and Jonathan, Paddington’s human sister and brother. Brendan Gleeson applies his tough guy routine to his character here and it pays off perfectly.

Paddington the character wouldn’t be much without the softly spoken Ben Whishaw voicing the character. His inflections are perfectly suited to the subtleness of Paddington’s emotions, yet his affection for those around him really convey his sense of finding the good in everyone he meets.

Beyond the story is the technical achievement in not only creating Paddington, but integrating him into each scene. There is a significant amount of action for this character. The technical team was up to the challenge, and it is amongst the best looking I’ve seen in a while. As much fun as the film is, there is always an element of danger and Dario Marianelli’s score lyrically carries us through Paddington’s adventures.

There might be a few nitpicks with the story, but they are too few to mention here and really don’t detract from this wonderful time at the movies. Make sure to take the entire family. You won’t be disappointed.

3 out 4 stars.

Hostiles - Movie Review by Ben Cahlamer

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Hostiles

 

Directed by Scott Cooper

Written by Scott Cooper

Starring Christian Bale, Rosamund Pike, Wes Studi, Jesse Plemons, Adam Beach, Rory Cochrane, Ben Foster

 

One of the greatest cinematic experiences I had as a teenager was when my dad took me to see the Academy Award - winning Dances with Wolves. I was at that age where I didn’t want to see an epic; I wanted to see explosions and special effects. What I realized as that film opened up, was the great sacrifice men and women were willing to make as this nation expanded westward. It was with this same sense of teenaged excitement that I anticipated Scott Cooper’s Hostiles.

In Mr. Cooper’s story, Christian Bale plays the war – wary Captain Blocker, a man on the verge of retiring from service. For his final mission, he agrees to escort Chief Yellow Hawk, a dying Cheyenne war chief played by Wes Studi and his family to their home land.

Mr. Bale’s approach to the character puts his motives front and center and we are never given an opportunity to question his hatred. What was interesting about the approach was in the way he and Mr. Cooper layered in post-traumatic stress. It made the character feel more authentic, especially as he engaged with other characters in the film.

As the escort makes its way across the mountainous region between New Mexico and Wyoming, Captain Blocker encounters a widowed Rosalie Quaid, played by Rosamund Pike. Ms. Quaid’s progression is very much the opposite of Blocker’s. Mr. Cooper infused her character with an opposing post-traumatic stress to Blocker’s own experience, offering her a strength built out of pent up rage. It was something that was interesting to watch unfold on the screen.

In the end, they were forced to become hostiles in a foreign land through others actions.

Of itself, this might make for a boring drama. What makes it interesting is the addition of Chief Yellow Hawk. His performance was that of a quiescent man; someone who knew his time on this mortal earth was coming to an end. He had made peace with this fact. Yet, his own self-worth would not allow his family, Black Hawk (Adam Beach), Elk Woman (Q’orianka Kilcher) and Little Bear (Xavier Horsechief), to be harmed. Neither Captain Blocker nor Yellow Hawk trusted one another, but they knew they needed each other to survive the trip.

Mr. Cooper infuses a significant amount of emotion into his story and his characters. His use of the camera, especially light, conveys much more than the dialog of each character can. The slowly unwinding bonds of distrust melt away throughout the course of the film, leaving the story wanting for more drama and action.

And, that’s the trouble with this story. Where each character fills the requisite nature of a “hostile,” there is a need to introduce a new scenario which carries the escort’s journey from the beginning of the film through to its end. There is one major subplot which, on paper probably made absolute sense, but its execution is marred because of where it falls within the story; it isn’t needed to explain Captain Blocker’s motives, and if anything it diminishes his own progression as a character.

The supporting cast is used to nuance our experience. Rory Cochrane as Master Sgt. Metz was probably the best supporting character of the film, as someone who held on to his sanity by the thinnest of strings. Stephen Lang as Col. Biggs plays his character with the same gusto as we got when he played Col. Quaritch in James Cameron’s Avatar. Though he is onscreen for a few minutes, he chews up every frame like it was his last. It’s a lot of fun to watch. Bill Camp plays Jeremiah Wilks a journalist, who knew enough about Captain Blocker to push his buttons, goading him into taking the mission. Their interaction doesn’t serve a great deal of purpose other than reinforcing the captain’s need to take the mission, something that Col. Biggs does very well on his own. I liked Mr. Camp’s performance, even if it felt very similar to the Timmons character that Robert Pastorelli played in Dances with Wolves.

Unlike Dances with Wolves, I found Hostiles to be very icy towards the Native American experience. If this was by intention, it renders our main character’s resolutions mute. For all the nuances that the story builds, layering emotions and trauma, they don’t pay off very well.

Audiences should find quite a bit to like in this film. The story is serviceable, full of strong, if uneven performances. This is not the fault of the performers, but rather the way the story makes use of them.

Now in theaters, Scott Cooper’s Hostiles should be respected for what it tries to say, even if the end result is marred by its intentions. My teenaged excitement has been irrevocably extinguished.

2 out of 4 stars

The Post - Movie Review by Ben Cahlamer

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The Post

 

Directed by Steven Spielberg

Written by Liz Hannah and Josh Singer

Starring Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Sarah Paulson, Bob Odenkirk, Tracy Letts, Bradley Whitford, Bruce Greenwood, Matthew Rhys

 

“If ever a time should come, when vain and aspiring men shall possess the highest seats in Government, our country will stand in need of its experienced patriots to prevent its ruin.”

– Samuel Adams

 

I’m not usually given to opening a film review with a quote from one of this country’s founding fathers, but there is something to be said about the power the press has to shape this country’s ideological thinking. Or, at least there was in the early 1970’s. And that’s the picture that master director Steven Spielberg paints for us in his latest thriller, The Post.

As the film opens, the script by Liz Hannah and Josh Singer offers background on Vietnam, our war there and its political tensions across multiple presidencies. This leads into the Nixon administration, where we are given a glimpse of his distaste for the press and his efforts to hush them. As the story further unfolds, we learn of the struggles of a modern national newspaper in the early 1970s as Katherine Graham (Streep) forges an unlikely alliance with her new editor, the brash, young Ben Bradlee (Hanks).

This is classic Spielberg at its finest. Not just because Hannah and Singer’s script is so meticulous, but because the entire story waltzes through its own minimalism as if we know exactly what the outcome will be. However, it never lets the dangers of the time, the risks in what Graham and Bradlee were trying to accomplish during this struggle. More importantly, it uses the small tears that were slowly beginning to widen in the Constitutional Crisis during the struggle to keep the tension built.

It is important to note the role that The New York Times played in all of this. History will show that they were the first to break the Pentagon Papers story, and they were the reason for the case being taken all the way up to the Supreme Court. The film does fold these events into the story, as they are integral to decisions the films’ narrative structure, but they are not the main focus of the story. Whether the narrative choices are kind to history will be up for audiences to decide. For this critic, their role was given an appropriate amount of light, and heightened the thematic tension.

It is easy to compare The Post to Spotlight from a few years back, but I would be reticent to make this same comparison: The Post is very much about the protecting the source from being corrupted, having integrity in reporting the news and holding our government to its very highest standards; Spotlight was about slowly investigating and building the case. And, they are two truly separate functions in journalism. Mr. Spielberg never lets us forget this difference, and that’s the key to his success here. The first rate cast drive home the ideology and integrity behind their decisions. Nothing is taken lightly, but nothing lingers either.

In the 1970’s, our primary method of receiving the news was in a newspaper like The Washington Post or the 5 PM and 10 PM newscasts, where hard research and attention to detail drove whether a story made it to column 1 on page 1 or column 1 on page 14 in the sports section. Mr. Spielberg makes it a point to mention that not every effort to obtain information was on the level, but it was a last effort to obtain information. Mr. Spielberg also, cleverly, reminds us that the news cycle never stops, even if it wasn’t reported, back then, 24 hours a day.

As the film expands this weekend, and opens wide on January 12th, one might be inclined to look at this film with an eye towards our modern state of journalism, government and the role each plays in a balanced and just society. Hopefully the distinction is not lost.

3 out of 4

 

Hostiles - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

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‘Hostiles’ is a purposely grim, well-acted but incomplete western

 

Written and directed by: Scott Cooper

Starring: Christian Bale, Wes Studi, Rosamund Pike, Q’orianka Kilcher, and Adam Beach

 

“Hostiles” – “He’s a butcher.” – Capt. Joseph J. Blocker (Christian Bale)

 

“Then the two of you should get along just fine.” – Jeremiah Wilks (Bill Camp)

 

For decades, Capt. Joseph J. Blocker (Bale) has lived his adult life immersed in violence via his chosen profession in the U.S. Calvary.   After spending a career hunting down and killing Native Americans, he has become hardened and emotionally inhibited - something less than human, without a hint of light or angelic joy - after causing and witnessing so much death.

 

His commanding officer Col. Abraham Biggs (Stephen Lang) gives Joseph a new assignment.  Actually “gives” is not the right word, because he forces the unwilling captain to escort Chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) and his family from New Mexico to Montana, to let the man die with dignity on his homeland.  Joseph vehemently opposes this particular mission, because Yellow Hawk is a lifelong enemy, a “butcher” as he states. 

 

A hostile.

 

Chief Yellow Hawk feels the same way about Capt. Blocker, but after seven years in a U.S. Calvary jail and in the twilight of his life, he seems at peace.

 

Writer/director Scott Cooper (“Out of the Furnace” (2013), “Black Mass” (2015)) does not shy away from dark material, and here, he dives headfirst into his bleak picture, not necessarily filled with death, but lathered in the stink of past casualties and the brutality of some ugly, on-screen ones.  Certainly, horrible slices of everyday life littered the American West during the 19th century, and Cooper offers an unflinching portrayal of the said period in 1892.

 

Bale is unflinching as well.  As Capt. Blocker, he delivers convincing somber tones of regret and seething anger, as a man currently living with layers of violence protecting a vulnerable human core, and the film’s main arc successfully captures his journey towards - possibly - shedding this hardened shell.  Rosalie Quaid (Rosamund Pike) might be a person to tap into his humanity.  Blocker, his men and Chief Yellow Hawk’s family unexpectedly meet Rosalie on their northern trek.  Tragically, she is currently churning with demons of her own, as she suffered a fate that is very reminiscent of the opening scene from Clint Eastwood’s “The Outlaw Josey Wales” (1976).   Pike gives a devastating and heartbreaking supporting performance that tosses several damaging daggers into one’s soul, as her sorrow pours off the screen.  The hope is that she can summon some lasting strength from the bowels of despair.

 

While Joseph’s and Rosalie’s spiritual journeys stand as two tall pillars in the film, Chief Yellow Hawk’s and his family’s – Black Hawk (Adam Beach), Elk Woman (Q’orianka Kilcher), Living Woman (Tanaya Beatty), and Little Bear (Xavier Horsechief) – stories are sadly not explored.  The picture falls down in this space, because several individual narratives should be expressed, not just two.  At a minimum, Yellow Hawk’s feelings should have been articulated, but outside a few lines of personal reflection, the audience learns next to nothing about him.  Meanwhile, Black Hawk, Elk Woman, Living Woman, and Little Bear are just along for the ride. 

 

With the film’s 2-hour 13-minute runtime, Cooper offers plenty of opportunities for insight and character growth for these supporting players.  Instead, he wanders into a storyline cul-de-sac at the film’s 74th minute with an oddly-placed cameo.  The cameo and associated subplot serve very little purpose, except to illustrate the captain’s mindset from his distant past, which actually is not terribly different from his present.  In fact, this tangent – inserted more than halfway into “Hostiles” – further calls out the picture’s already-existing pacing issues. 

 

These pacing issues, however, are somewhat offset by gorgeous and glorious moments of prairies, mountain trails and campfires underneath the stars, as Cooper thoughtfully captures the beauty and allure of the region under tranquil peace.  These occasional serene moments are also soon paired with bloodshed, but that was the reality of the time that still arguably loiters in 2017.   “Hostiles” effectively reflects a grim sliver of the country’s history that deserves to be told, but Cooper only recounts half the story.  Mind you, he does not “butcher” the film but wanders into repeated, circular themes, and ultimately, the work feels incomplete.   

(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.

 

Insidious: The Last Key - Movie Review by Monte Yazzie

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Insidious: The Last Key

 

Director: Adam Robitel

Starring: Lin Shaye, Leigh Whannell, Angus Sampson, Kirk Acevedo, Caitlin Gerard, Spencer Locke, and Josh Stewart

 

“The Further”, the foggy spirit space where supernatural entities exist, has been explored numerous times within the frightening franchise “Insidious”. The liaison into the darkness is a psychic named Elise, played with vigor by actress Lin Shaye, however she does more than just connect people to the other side. Elise is a protector of sorts, a medium who rids the world of evil spirits; she has encountered terrible entities throughout her entire life.

 

“Insidious: The Last Key”, the fourth installment in the franchise, focuses on the somber and tragic life of Elise. Directed by Adam Robitel, who made the underrated 2014 horror film “The Taking of Deborah Logan”, provides Lin Shaye with the opportunity to shine as the lead of this film while also executing an effective scare or two. Unfortunately the narrative stumbles into overused cliches, uninteresting setups, and ghosts that never conjure the scares this franchise is known for.

 

We are introduced to Elise (played as a youth by Ava Kolker and as an adult by Lin Shaye) as a child growing up with her family in a large home located next to a prison in Five Keys, New Mexico. Elise’s father Gerald (Josh Stewart) works at the prison, he is abusive towards Elise and her brother Christian (played as a youth by Pierce Pope and as an adult by Bruce Davison). Elise’s supernatural gift brings about an evil entity that attaches itself to Elise’s family and anyone who lives inside the house after them.

 

It’s about time Lin Shaye was given the spotlight for this franchise. Her character is one of the more interesting parts about these films, offering a character who seems fearless yet is still affected by the scary encounters because she understands that real consequences exist with the terrible spirits she is hunting. Ms. Shaye gives it her all here, the performance holds much of the film together. It is unfortunate that many times in the film she is provided with some cringe-worthy dialogue and moments that never really tap into the emotional qualities of the character.

 

The film jumps throughout a few different timelines, transitioning from Elise’s life as a young woman in her family home to her life as a grown adult with her new quirky family of Specs (Leigh Whannell) and Tucker (Angus Sampson), the spectral hunting team that documents Elise’s travels. The other timeline concerns the history of the franchise, as this film aims to tie everything in the “Insidious” universe together. The composition of the film does a decent job of jumping throughout the different stories, but with everything trying to be told here some aspects feels rushed while others are completely overlooked. The film builds towards a climax that doesn’t feel very satisfying, which is a disservice to the franchise favorite characters on display here.

 

Mr. Robitel does a fine job of building an atmosphere, sometimes toying with expectations in amusing, less frightful, ways. The film composes moments that should satisfy fans of the franchise even though it doesn’t have the polish of the original film and doesn’t always craft the purposeful jump scares of the second or third film. While “Insidious: The Last Key” may be scarce on scares and story, it’s nice having Lin Shaye’s character in the spotlight here.

 

Monte’s Rating

2.75 out of 5.00

Monte Yazzie's Best of 2017

Monte’s Favorite Films of 2017

 

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2017 was an interesting year filled with heavy moments of frustration, conflict, and confusion throughout our world. However, I’d like to believe that it also had its moments of joy, peace, and tranquility in smaller more motivating ways. Film was equally as divisive, with films from numerous walks of genre making exceptional statements that were melancholy, heartfelt, and argumentative. That’s a good thing, film should challenge itself to take risks and make statements, to portray and paint the world in different ways with different perspectives. That’s what this artistic medium has the power to do, influence in ways both subtle and direct. With every horror film that made a social statement, drama that challenged contemporary ideologies, romantic comedy that portrayed difference with commonality, or science fiction movie that provided insight into a piece of humanity…it all serves in making film accessible to new voices, new ideas, and new visions. It’s, in my humble opinion, the purpose of any artistic endeavor. Here are the films that moved me, enlightened me, and captured my spirit in 2017. My favorite films of 2017.

        

        

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15.    Good Time

 

A night of bad choices follows a despicable young man named Connie, played with poise and energy by Robert Pattinson, as he tries to stay one step ahead of all the trouble that is trying to find him. The Safdie Brother’s direct this story of brotherhood and consequence with pulsing anxiousness and vibrant life.

 

14.    Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

 

“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” can be an emotional journey at times, but it’s also undeniably fascinating watching such interesting characters journey through a film that is at many times somber, comedic, and tragic; sometimes all of those emotions at the same time. Frances McDormand gives an emotionally charged performance that is one of the best of 2017.

 

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13.    The Beguiled

 

It’s understandable why director Sophia Coppola would remake the 1971 pulp drama “The Beguiled”; the director has a particular talent for crafting strong and complicated female leads but also creating a multifaceted ensemble. Ms. Coppola’s version of “The Beguiled” is different than the original, a unique vision that is lonesome, beautiful and captivating.

 

12.    Hounds of Love

 

Director Ben Young composes an unsettling character study in the debut feature “Hounds of Love”. The film centers on a serial killer couple living in Perth, Australia during the 1980’s. Mr. Young shrewdly constructs this film, utilizing effective filmmaking techniques that help in building the suspense and making the nastier bits much more shocking than they actually are. The performances are exceptional here; along with the creative hand of Ben Young, “Hounds of Love” is an effective piece of cinema.

 

 

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11.    Lady Bird

 

The story of a mother and daughter is superbly told by writer/director Greta Gerwig. Boosting standout performances from Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf, this film about the growing pains of growing up is sweetly genuine, making it feel somewhat autobiographical. The portrayal of youth here is one of the best of any film in 2017.

 

10.    Call Me By Your Name

 

This coming-of-age story gives way to a love story that is gorgeously composed and peaked with performances that are achingly passionate. Director Luca Guadagnino’s film “Call Me By Your Name” is patiently paced, building the intimacy, the confusion, the lust, and the ultimate joys of first love with heartbreaking authenticity. Timothee Chalamet gives a [p[]stunning and confident performance as Elio. It’s one of those films that holds an exquisite power because of how it handles and portrays the emotions of love; it will stay with you far after it ends.

 

9.      Blade Runner 2049

 

Director Denis Villaneuve takes the task of continuing the Ridley Scott classic sci-fi saga with “Blade Runner 2049”. Mr. Villaneuve’s striking visual style and skillful narrative design is a perfect companion to the original film, taking the memorable aspects that play proper tribute to the 1982 film and adding exceptional elements that propose new questions concerning the nature of humanity and thought provoking ideologies concerning technologies influence on the future. Mr. Villaneuve and team have created a visual stunning sequel.

 

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8.      The Big Sick

 

Romantic comedies can be a tedious effort. While “The Big Sick” may feel familiar, it moves and operates in very genuine and unique ways. Themes of clashing cultures, race issues, and relationship complications are all handled with care, with attention given to the small and sometimes complicated bits that flesh out a script and make characters more relatable and stories more authentic.“The Big Sick” hits so many satisfying notes it’s almost impossible not to find something that makes you smile. The jokes are sweet while also having an edgy element, and the romantic qualities are sincere due large in part to some really great performances. It’s the best romantic comedy of 2017.

 

7.      Raw

 

Director Julia Ducournau has crafted an impressive debut film with her uncomfortable and emotionally daring film “Raw”. Ms. Ducournau utilizes the film to challenge how filmmakers are utilizing the genre to tell stories, especially ones dealing with commentary concerning gender and sexual empowerment. “Raw” is a coming-of-age film that displays the fragility of the process of growing up but also the complicated relationship found in every individualized family unit. Raw, in many ways, is the best description for this film.

 

6.      Baby Driver

 

Director Edgar Wright has always had a distinguishable style, however with every film in his growing catalog the director has only become better at combining his unique editing, camera, and narrative flow into a tightly packaged work. With "Baby Driver" the director may have perfected his style, making a film that is ridiculously fun and filled with creative filmmaking elements. “Baby Driver” doesn’t do anything new to transcend the heist genre, in fact it takes a lot from the 1978 Walter Hill film “The Driver”; still what Mr. Wright does with everything that defines this specific subgenre of action film is bold and innovative, crafting one of the best music videos ever made.

 

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5.      mother!

 

Director Darren Aronofsky, the filmmaker behind films like “Requiem for a Dream” and “Black Swan”, composes a story that functions as a metaphor, a parable, and a satire; possibly much more depending on what you might be looking for or feeling at that particular moment. Mr. Aronofsky paints an allegory that is a bold artistic expression with equally frustrating and fascinating strokes; it’s deeply personal and echoes sentiments from places religious, political, and ecological. “mother!” in many instances is what filmmaking should be, a vessel for the expression of ideas.

 

4.      Dunkirk

 

Film has a funny way of changing how one perceives historical events, the lens of cinema can paint new pictures and compose narratives in ways that alter the true significance of what happened in the past. Christopher Nolan, understanding of this concept, composes "Dunkirk" with an emphasis on emotion and perspective. In doing this Mr. Nolan has crafted an immersive experience, a war film that has all the technical aptitude the director has built his career upon but also the emotional quality associated with the aspect of a soldier's survival. “Dunkirk" is an exceptional war film that has rousing heart. Mr. Nolan proves again why he is one of best directors to do the job.

 

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3.      Get Out

 

No film, of all genre of films released in 2017, felt more timely and of the moment than Jordan Peele’s “Get Out”. Released mere months after the divisive Presidential election, the United States was at a boiling point with social concerns surrounding race and gender. “Get Out” tapped into race, cultural, and socioeconomic issues, transcending yet honoring the horror genre with a film that manipulated tension and crafted an atmosphere like a Hitchcock film. Jordan Peele proves himself more than just a comedic talent but perhaps one of the most conscious filmmakers currently working.

 

2.      Phantom Thread

 

Director Paul Thomas Anderson and actor Daniel Day-Lewis are similar in that they strive for a unique purpose and rally for perfection. “Phantom Thread” is a complicated love story, one that harbors themes of dominating control, deep and dangerous emotional connections, and a passion that is not easily defined. Anderson paints an image here that will linger long after it is over, not because of anything offensive or obscene but because of the startling and subtle emotion portrayed by Daniel Day-Lewis and Vicky Krieps, a newcomer who steals scenes from one of the greatest living actors in the business. This is supposedly Mr. Day-Lewis’ last film, if so, he ends on a fine note.

 

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1.      The Shape Of Water

 

“The Shape of Water” is one of the most beautiful and superbly acted films in 2017. Guillermo Del Toro composes another fairytale, this time with a romantic touch that permeates far beyond the premise of an amphibious creature meeting a mute woman might suggest. The director has proven throughout many films that he can find beauty in even the darkest of places, so when something so tender and touching is on display, as it is in “The Shape of Water”, the film is filled to the edges with elegance. Mr. Del Toro has always blended and manipulated genre characteristics, the auteur is quickly defining his own genre of filmmaking. It is movie magic at its finest.

 

 

Honorable Mention:

•   Only The Brave

•   I, Tonya

•   War for the Planet of the Apes

•   Okja

•   Brawl in Cell Block 99

•   Hounds of Love

•   The Post

•   Patti Cake$

•   Coco

•   The Square

•   A Quiet Passion

•   Molly’s Game

•   The Disaster Artist

•   It Comes At Night

•   Logan

•   Dave Made A Maze

•   Colossal

•   Mudbound

Ben Cahlamer's Best of 2017

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Ben Cahlamer’s Best of 2017

 

10. Good Time (A24) The Safdie Brothers’ crafted a tale of intrigue as Connie tries to find every angle to not only cover his own, but to spring his brother from jail after a failed bank heist. It’s a chase movie, with a vibrant look and sound. And Robert Pattinson is electric.

 

 

9. The Big Sick (Amazon Studios) A genuine bright spot this past summer, Kumail Nanjiani and his real life wife, Emily V. Gordon wrote an abbreviated (and fictionalized) version of how they met. Zoe Kazan plays Emily and Ray Romano and Holly Hunter co-star as her parents. Hunter’s performance rivals Laurie Metcalf’s and Allison Janney’s performances.

 

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8. Ingrid Goes West (Neon) A film about social media and stalking, Aubrey Plaza plays Ingrid, a down on her luck young lady who just wants to be liked. When she moves to Los Angeles to follow her Instagram obsession, Taylor Sloane (Elizabeth Olsen), Ingrid’s ways catch up to her, but not before finding the true meaning of friendship.

 

7. The Killing of a Sacred Deer (A24) Yorgos Lanthimos’ film about the power of suggestion is a stunning film. Featuring performances from Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman and Barry Keoghan, the film is one of many dark comedies, but this films’ nuances say one thing, but they contain multiple different meanings.

 

6. Lady Bird (A24) Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut is full of amazing performances and feel good moments. Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf are dynamite on the screen as a mother – daughter duo. Tracy Letts is in the backdrop, but his performance never lets you forget that he’s there for support.

 

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5. I, Tonya (Neon) The autobiographical look at the life of Tonya Harding, Craig Gillespie’s dark comedy is full of wit and charm, and surprisingly, empathy towards Tonya. Margot Robbie is sensational, while Sebastian Stan plays Jeff Gillooly her husband. Allison Janney is a hoot as her vindictive mother, who wanted nothing but the best for her daughter.

 

4. Dunkirk (Warner Brothers) Christopher Nolan’s World War II epic divided a number of people over the summer, but one thing’s for certain: there was no shortage of tension in this tight thriller which effortlessly combines three vantage points to tell the same story. It is certainly one of the most uniquely constructed films this year and looks stunning on IMAX.

 

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3. The Shape of Water (Fox Searchlight) This film caught me by surprise. I was familiar with Guillermo Del Toro, but hadn’t seen any of his works. Then this love story in the guise of the ‘Creature from the Black Lagoon’ comes along. Its premise is simple, but its intentions are not. Sally Hawkins, Richard Jenkins, Michael Shannon, Michael Stuhlbarg, Octavia Spenser and Doug Jones star.

 

 

2. Call Me by Your Name (Sony Pictures Classics) There was a lot of buzz about this film, especially the performances coming out of Sundance and a number of latter year festivals. Luca Guagadnino’s lush film is set in the Italian countryside in 1983. Oliver, played by Armie Hammer, is a graduate student invited to stay with the family for the summer, studying under Sam, Elio’s father and a professor of archaeology. The film is an “actors’ movie” which focuses on the performances, but the story is as paramount to this film as are the performances.

 

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1. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (Fox Searchlight) Martin McDonagh’s dark comedy sits at the top of my list because of its “no holds barred” brazenness. It tells the story of grief and of rage, but it does it in a very approachable way. Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson and Sam Rockwell are three of the most memorable characters this year and their performances here are no exception.

 

Honorable Mentions:

The Post

The Florida Project

Phantom Thread

All the Money in the World

The Square

Tom of Finland

Columbus

Get Out

City of Ghosts

The Midnighters*

The Lost City of Z

Land of the Little People*

Beach Rats

Dean

Lucky

Jeff Mitchell's Best of 2017

Jeff Mitchell’s Top 20 Films of 2017

 

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No matter how one feels about 2017, from a movie-perspective, I think that the year has been a most eventful and enjoyable one!  After seeing 247 new films over 12 months, 45 movies could have easily found their way on my Top 20 list.  Well, after much hand-wringing and lots of careful consideration over a few late nights, here are the best 20 films that I have seen in 2017.  (By the way, which film just missed the list?  No. 21 is “Logan Lucky”, Steven Soderbergh’s comedy/heist film.)  

 

20. “Colossal” – Gloria (Anne Hathaway) is just floating through life in New York City, and after her umpteenth, irresponsible episode, her boyfriend unceremoniously breaks up with her, so she moves back home to the small town that she gladly left behind years ago.   If Gloria thought that her life could not be more turned around, she slowly realizes that she is linked to a Godzilla-like monster who is causing havoc and panic in Seoul.  In his most unique and clever screenplay, writer/director Nacho Vigalondo’s quirky comedy also shifts tones in a sudden move that is almost as surprising as the aforementioned plot, as Hathaway and Jason Sudeikis artfully play in their characters’ unpredictable spaces.    

 

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19. “Call Me by Your Name” – Set in Italy during the summer of 1983, an American teenager, Elio (Timothee Chalamet), has an unforeseen love affair with his father’s graduate assistant, Oliver (Armie Hammer), in a film that director Luca Guadagnino gives the time and space to let their budding relationship breathe over a 2-hour 12-minute runtime.   Elio and Oliver walk with nuanced chemistry, as often times their feelings go unsaid, and their actual spoken words deliver effective complementary impacts.  Elio’s father (Michael Stuhlbarg) offers some words - in one key moment - that effectively tie the film together in an unexpected, breathtaking way. 

 

18. “A Ghost Story” -  Although writer/director David Lowery’s film contains one – arguably – scary moment, “A Ghost Story” is not a horror film.  Not at all.  Instead, it best resembles a 1-hour 32-minute lesson: to embrace, savor and enjoy the time that we have on this planet…while we are alive.  Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara play an unnamed couple who rent a three-bedroom rural ranch that is haunted by a ghost, one compelled to search for earthly answers from the past.  Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life” (2011) is the closest film-comparison in terms of mood, tone and narrative construction, and this polarizing film will effectively haunt those who embrace its eccentric, spiritual experience.

 

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17. “Lady Bird” – Greta Gerwig’s picture appears autobiographical, as both her and her lead character, Lady Bird (Saoirse Ronan), grew/grow up in Sacramento, attended/attend a Catholic high school and dreamed/dream of getting into an East Coast college.  Gerwig, however, said at the 2017 New York Film Festival, “None of the things that happen in the movie literally happened to me, but they all rhyme with the truth.”  Her comedy follows Lady Bird’s senior year with a collection of hilarious detours, mishaps and opportunities for growth, but the strength of the picture lies with the title character’s relationship with her mom, dad and brother (Laurie Metcalf, Tracy Letts and Jordan Rodrigues) in the most honest family picture of the year.  Chances are that “Lady Bird” will “rhyme with the truth” for many, many others.

 

16. “The Disaster Artist” – “The Room” (2003) is rightfully considered one of the worst movies in recent memory, but legions of fans have embraced it as a cult classic and continue to religiously watch this disaster (as an unintended comedy) at late-night screenings to this day.  Director James Franco’s downright hilarious film – based upon actor Greg Sestero’s memoir - revisits the making of “The Room”, and he also offers a pitch-perfect performance of its unorthodox creator, Tommy Wiseau.  Franco is simply brilliant as Wiseau, who sports 80s heavy metal hair, claims that he is from New Orleans (but carries a thick Eastern European accent) and enjoys an endless supply of money.  “The Room” fans will immediately embrace this picture and probably watch it over and over and over.  What if you have not seen “The Room”?  Well, it is probably a prerequisite for “The Disaster Artist”.

 

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15. “Wind River” – Screenwriter Taylor Sheridan (“Sicario” (2015), “Hell or High Water” (2016)) is no stranger to creating material that is soaked in bleak and somber tones, and with “Wind River”, he wrote and directed a picture dripping with a similar dark ambiance.  During the coldest months of winter in Wind River, Wyo. (a Native American reservation), a game tracker (Jeremy Renner) finds a woman frozen to death, faced down in the snow and without her shoes, but the mystery deepens, because her (Kelsey Asbille) body is miles from anywhere.  A green FBI agent from Las Vegas (Elizabeth Olsen) arrives to help, but she feels somewhat emotionally frozen, like her new environment.  The performances, including Gil Birmingham and Althea Sam, carry demonstrative sobrieties - save Graham Greene, who offers welcome humor in spots – that match this detective story which delves into backyard justice.

 

14. “What Will People Say” – Writer/director Iram Haq serves a haunting family conflict between modern-day freedoms and vigorous tradition, as Nisha (Maria Mozhdah) – a 16-year-old Pakistani girl living in Norway - clashes with her parents’ conservative ideals.  Very early in the movie, her father, Mirza (Adil Hussain), misunderstands an awkward circumstance and takes his rage out on Nisha in extreme ways.  Intolerance and inflexibility rule in Nisha’s household, and she suffers through an emotional rollercoaster that forces the audience hold its collective breath during displays of control and abuse.   Nisha lives a nightmare that she cannot wake up from and with no allies in sight, the film yanks on our heartstrings and leaves a lingering mark.  For those who embraced 2015’s “Mustang”, “What Will People Say” will resonate as well.  

 

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13. “Maudie” – Sally Hawkins delivers an Oscar-worthy performance with her heartbreaking and inspirational turn as Maud Lewis in a biopic about a sweet, immensely determined and talented artist from Nova Scotia.  Lewis - a fragile woman, riddled with rheumatoid arthritis and no stranger to emotional and physical abuse - decided to move in with Everett (Ethan Hawke), a simple man who uses corrosive anger and blunt insults as his chief methods of communication.  Director Aisling Walsh spends long, important and difficult minutes in the couple’s modest home to build towards an emotional payoff, when life bends in more positive directions through Maud’s cheerful paintings.  Bring your tissues for tears of gloom, joy and revelations. 

 

 

12. “Raw” – Justine’s (Garance Marillier) parents drop her off at veterinary school, and she feels a bit nervous about her new journey.  Her older sister, Alexia (Ella Rumpf), already studies there and should be an obvious friendly face, but the college feels like a horror show, as the upper classmen constantly haze the younger students.  Under a backdrop of very disturbing, organized teasing, a more gruesome horror show rises when Justine – a vegetarian – acquires her first taste of meat.  Writer/director Julia Ducournau weaves an unseemly tale of twisted hunger in a supposed bastion of learning.  Filmed in Belgium, this movie keeps the audience off-balance through a story of personal despair via uncontrollable primal urges that cross an extremely taboo human boundary.  A highly effective and deeply disturbing horror movie.   

 

11. “Thelma” – Although a bit shy, Thelma (Eili Harboe) seems like an ordinary 18-year-old heading off to college.  She is an only child, so her folks – Trond (Henrik Rafaelsen) and Unni (Ellen Dorrit Petersen) – lean toward helicopter parent-tendencies.  In between attempts to make friends and study in the library, Thelma falls ill, and the doctors cannot rationalize the reasons.  In Joachim Trier’s slow-burning thriller, Thelma unknowingly carries more in her DNA than meets the eye, while she struggles to explain her present…and past.  Trier paints an antiseptic, lonely world for Thelma, and then suddenly pulls five-bell fire alarms due to onscreen emergencies.  Occasionally frightening imagery balances the steady narrative, as Harboe, Rafaelsen, Petersen, and Kaya Wilkins (who plays Thelma’s friend) offer strong, contemporary performances in Trier’s unpredictable world.  

 

10. “The Square” – Writer/director Ruben Ostlund (“Force Majeure” (2014)) is back with an infinitely quirky and entertaining picture about an art curator’s (Claes Bang) experiences after an unusual incident during an ordinary morning in Stockholm.  Ostlund fills his movie with many said incidents, odd visuals and strong comedic writing, as the eccentricities of the museum’s modern art sometimes reflect the lives of the everyday characters.   Bang firmly anchors the picture, while the supporting players cinematically – and sometimes inexplicably - dart around him.  Elisabeth Moss is hysterical as an American journalist, and Terry Notary contributes to the year’s most uncomfortable scene (in a comedy) with his portrayal of an unconventional performance artist.  

 

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9. “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” – Frances McDormand is destined for an Oscar nomination with her best performance since “Fargo” (1996) in writer/director Martin McDonagh’s (“In Bruges” (2008), “Seven Psychopaths” (2012)) latest dark comedy.  Mildred Hayes (McDormand) pays $5,000 to place a message on three billboards, and her actions cause an uproar in the small town of Ebbing and the surrounding areas.  Sam Rockwell deserves an Oscar nomination too – by playing a bigoted deputy with terrible cases of arrested development and poor judgment - and Woody Harrelson, Peter Dinklage and John Hawkes lead an outstanding supporting cast.  Salty language, rough behavior and violence heavily pepper the snappy dialogue and big laughs in one of the year’s most quotable screenplays.

 

8. “Baby Driver” – Writer/director Edgar Wright literally and figuratively puts the pedal to the metal in his utterly spectacular and stylish heist picture, in which a 20-something named Baby (Ansel Elgort) drives getaway cars for a collection of felonious types (Jamie Foxx, Jon Hamm, Kevin Spacey, Jon Bernthal, Elza Gonzalez, and more).  A nifty, hip soundtrack synchronizes with intricate robbery plans, burning rubber, squealing tires, and an abundance of gunplay in a movie that resonates a specific cinematic euphoria, not unlike two pictures in semi-recent memory, “48 Hours” (1982) and “Pulp Fiction” (1994).  Along with the devilishly impressive, criminal choreography, Wright includes a sweet romance between Baby and a virginal waitress, Debora (Lily James), that grounds the movie with an emotional heartbeat.     

 

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7. “Dawson City: Frozen Time” – When “Talkies” arrived, silent films died, but who could possibly have guessed that they were buried in Dawson City, which sits in northwest Canada, near the Alaskan border.  Director Bill Morrison recounts the mindboggling discovery of over 500 silent films in the one of the most remote areas in North America.  Visually, Morrison constructs the vast majority of his documentary with found-stills and footage of this kinetic little town - that boomed during the gold rush at the turn of the 20th century - and also the previously-lost silent movies.  As Dawson City’s history plays out, Morrison cleverly marries the city’s story with thoughtful edits from the stacks and stacks of silent pictures from the era.  An absolute must-see for film and history buffs, as the ghosts from this bizarre story will sit with you long after the end-credits roll. 

 

6. “Hounds of Love” – John (Stephen Curry) and Evelyn (Emma Booth) kidnap teenage girls for - apparently - the “sport” of it, as writer/director Ben Young’s camera enters their home and documents the daily, grimy details of the couple’s sick escapades.  The picture feels so raw and authentic, it captures a documentary-like feel that crawls into the darkest crevice of your brain and burrows itself into your permanent memory.  Vicki’s (Ashleigh Cummings) memory is permanently scarred when John and Evelyn choose her as their latest teen prize and escape seems hopeless except for one psychological, longshot idea by playing the “lovebirds” against one another.  Creepy, intense and unforgettable, this Australian thriller/nightmare truly is a frightening gem. 

 

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5. “A Quiet Passion” – Cynthia Nixon delivers one of the very best performances of 2017 with her affecting portrayal of Emily Dickinson in writer/director Terence Davies thoughtfully-crafted picture.  Davies weaves Dickinson’s work into his script, as she fights uphill battles against 19th century sexism and her own demons.  Although Dickinson carries substantial love for her family, she shows little regard for her own worth, as a happy young woman regresses toward isolation and self-doubt.  Using his cinematic gifts, Davies works lighting, music and camera movement to reflect impactful swings of mood, humor, conflict, and duress in a simple setting - the Dickinson home - for a majority of the picture, while Nixon nurtures every nuanced second of her screen time.  A heartbreaking treasure.

 

4. “Dunkirk” – With hundreds of thousands of Allied troops trapped on the French beaches of Dunkirk and time running out, only an extraordinary rescue can save these men and women.  Writer/director Christopher Nolan plays with time and space – from three different perspectives - and amasses extraordinary on-location efforts to recreate this landmark event of World War II in, arguably, the most compelling war film since “Saving Private Ryan” (1998).   The picture throws the audience into dire despair and then progresses within massive set pieces that connect in ways that are not always clear…at first.  In fact, it may take more than one viewing to completely absorb the film’s intricate and enormous moving parts.  A-list cast members - including Mark Rylance, Tom Hardy, Kenneth Branagh, and Cillian Murphy – effectively offer their characters’ small, individual pieces into this sweeping story commanded by Nolan’s bravado.      

 

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3. “Loveless” – Unfortunately, a significant portion of marriages fail, and this includes the nuptials of Zhenya (Maryana Spivak) and Boris (Aleksey Rozin).  They not only exist in a loveless marriage, but they absolutely despise each other and are not afraid to express their ire in the most vicious of terms.   Zhenya and Boris do still live together but are in the process of selling their apartment and physically going their separate ways.   The problem is that their son (about 10 years old) prematurely goes his separate way, and suddenly, this cheerless couple is coping with a missing child.  Director Andrey Zvyagintsev’s (“Leviathan” (2014)) dark picture purposely mires in misery and hopelessness, and the famous analogy finding needle in a haystack does not even begin to describe the scope of the couple’s new struggle.  Skillfully filmed and constructed under a gloomy atmosphere, “Loveless” is a stunner.

 

2. “I, Tonya” – The 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway is mostly remembered (in the U.S., anyway) as the dramatic climax of the Tonya Harding/Nancy Kerrigan saga.  This duel between two very different figure skaters seized the nation’s attention, primarily due to the infamous attack on Kerrigan in Detroit, Mich.  Twenty-three years later, director Craig Gillespie revisits the incident in the Motor City, but much, much more than that, his picture is a Tonya Harding biography with Margot Robbie starring in the title role.  Robbie is mesmerizing as Tonya, as she dazzles on the ice and also conveys the consequences of the physical and emotional abuse that Ms. Harding endured by her husband, Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), and mother, LaVona Golden (Allison Janney). “I, Tonya” simultaneously generates honest sympathy for Harding and wildly entertains with drama and heaps of unexpected humor, while also routinely breaking the fourth wall.  The Academy should just hand Janney the Best Supporting Actress Oscar now and also give Robbie a Best Actress nomination.

 

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1. “The Florida Project” – The Magic Castle – splashed in purple and yellow - sits in Orlando, Fla., but tourists from around the world do not target it as a specific destination.  It is an extended stay motel that resides near a busy freeway and a concrete neighborhood of fast food joints and discount gift shops, but to 6-year-old Moonee (Brooklynn Prince), this is her playground!  Director Sean Baker (“Tangerine” (2015)) organically captures Moonee’s daily adventures of mischief and laughter, as she and her friends find wonder and opportunity in ways that only children can.  Baker’s film volleys between comedy and tragedy, because he presents – in full view – Moonee’s meager living conditions provided by her irresponsible, but loving, mother (Bria Vinaite).  Willem Dafoe gives the best supporting actor performance of the year as The Magic Castle’s emotionally-weathered, sympathetic manager in a movie that offers a revealing, transparent view of America’s have-nots.   

 

All the Money in the World - Movie Review by Ben Cahlamer

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All the Money in the World

 

Directed by Ridley Scott

Written by David Scarpa based on Painfully Rich: The Outrageous Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Heirs of J. Paul Getty by John Pearson

Starring Michelle Williams, Christopher Plummer, Mark Wahlberg, Romain Duris, Charlie Plummer

 

Using the lens of a film camera to capture history has always been an interesting exercise to me. For one, the trade craft have an opportunity to look at fashion and make up; the prop department gets to find classic cars of the era while set designers find just the right artwork to hang on the wall. Filming the 1970s in 2017 has its own set of logistical challenges as well, as Ridley Scott learned during the filming of his latest crime thriller, All the Money in the World.

Why is any of the above germane to your enjoyment of this film?

David Scarpa’s story, set in the mid-1970s, is as much about the look of the times the film is set as much as it is about the story and the man behind an empire. Mr. Scott, for his many gifts, is a perfectionist and there’s no better director out there today to have captured this era or its main subjects, let alone to have captured it twice.

The film centers on the kidnapping of John Paul Getty III (Charlie Plummer) by an organized crime syndicate. A ransom demand is issued for his release, however Gail Getty (Williams) doesn’t have the money to pay the ransom and she fears the worst. As a result, she turns to J. Paul Getty (Christopher Plummer) for help, for which he refuses to pay the ransom. Instead, he turns to his business affairs manager, Fletcher Chase (Mark Wahlberg) to investigate and assist Ms. Getty through the ordeal.

The cast is first rate. Ms. Williams’ performance reminded me of Ellen Burstyn’s performance in The Exorcist: regal, stylish and fashionable, yet very much weary from the family events of the time. Mark Wahlberg has played this role previously, but his performance is fresh. He reminded me of Alain Delon in Scorpio: cool, collected and when called upon, unassuming. Charlie Plummer as young J. Paul Getty could be reminiscent of any young jettsetting actor/musician of the mid-1970’s, but Shaun Cassidy comes to mind: footloose and fancy-free while also being very worldly, having lived in Italy and Morocco as a teenager, yet like his mom, he was guarded. The film suggests that his worldliness made it easier to kidnap him, while his guard prolonged his captivity: he was ingenious when given the chance. Romain Duris, who I wasn’t familiar with before this film, plays Cinquanta, one of young Getty’s captors.

There is a duality between Gail and Fletcher which runs over the course of the film, a symbiotic need even if neither immediately recognizes it. The same duality runs between John Paul and Cinquanta. Both of these relationships are a strong foundation to a remarkable story.

At the center of it all is the man with the tight purse strings, J. Paul Getty. Christopher Plummer, who has been recognized with a Golden Globe nomination for his performance, is absolutely magnetic as the old, miser. As the world’s richest oil magnate, ‘deal’ and ‘discount’ were his operative phrases; ‘family’ was most definitely not one of his top priorities.

As much as it was a logistical nightmare to recreate 1970s Europe, so was the casting of the pivotal role of J. Paul Getty. Reports surfaced during casting that Christopher Plummer was Mr. Scott’s first choice for the role, but he was unavailable. The role was awarded to Kevin Spacey, whose scenes appeared in early trailers and advertising. The film was also set to close the AFI Fest this year, but when a scandal rocked Hollywood and directly implicated Mr. Spacey, the studio decided to pull the film from the AFI Fest and Mr. Scott recasted the role with his original choice, reshooting Mr. Getty’s scenes in just nine days, keeping the film’s release more or less on track.

As with any film Ridley Scott touches, there are many layers and nuances and All the Money in the World is no exception. Each character represents a pawn in Mr. Getty’s grand chess game. Some move willingly, others not so. But, there is an end game in mind, and the reveal at the end of the film is so subtly done that you almost don’t see it coming. And, that’s the hallmark of a Ridley Scott film.

Now in theaters, Ridley Scott’s All the Money in the World captures the essence of what the Getty’s represent to society at large, past and present, while offering a wonderful, modern 1970’s-esque escapist film like The French Connection. Mr. Scott effectively channels his inner Billy Friedkin and John Frankenheimer while exploring the dynamic of a dynasty.

3.5 out of 4

Monte Yazzie's Favorite Christmas Movies

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Meet Me In St. Louis (1944)

Directed by Vincente Minnelli

 

The 1944 Technicolor romantic musical “Meet Me In St. Louis” may not be the first film to come to mind when thinking about Christmas films. The story about the Smith household, told in seasonal vignettes over the course of a year, is a lavishly composed film that features a exceptional performance from Judy Garland. It’s impossible not to get into the holiday spirit once Ms. Garland performs “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”.

 

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Love Actually (2003)

Directed by Richard Curtis

 

“I feel it in my fingers, I feel it in my toes.” When Bill Nighy’s aging rock star character Billy Mack sings those lines the Christmas spirit is alive. “Love Actually” might be considered by some as a sappy romantic comedy, however I think it’s a better than average Christmas movie. Based in London a month before the big holiday, this film focuses on the lives of numerous couples exploring what love and the Christmas spirit means to them.

 

 

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Black Christmas (1974)

Directed by Bob Clark

 

It’s amazing that director Bob Clark has a hand in creating two holiday themed classics. “A Christmas Story”, more than 30 years after its release, still plays on repeat on Christmas morning. However, Mr. Clark’s horror film “Black Christmas” had a role in changing the landscape of horror and helped in defining the modern slasher movie genre. While on Christmas break a group of sorority girls are stalked by a unseen killer; it’s a simple plot that is executed with tension and fear. 

 

 

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A Christmas Carol (1971)

Directed by Richard Williams

You can’t have a holiday list without including one of the many versions of Charles Dickens “A Christmas Carol”. While I enjoy many of the versions, especially the 1984 version with George C. Scott, the animated version directed by Richard Williams is one my favorites. The animation is beautiful and creepy with a tone that is consistently gloomy, similar to the composition of the Scrooge character. This version brings out the darker aspects of the tale, displaying a world without hope; this makes it all the more enriching when the light of joy comes through in the finale. A must watch for Christmas Carol enthusiasts.

 

 

BONUS

 

 

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"And All Through The House" (Tales From The Crypt Season 1 Ep. 2)

Directed by Robert Zemeckis

Director Robert Zemeckis and screenwriter Fred Dekker crafted one of the best episodes of the entire “Tales From The Crypt” series with “And All Through The House”. A quick and effective tale that defined the structure of the entire television series with Larry Drake as an escaped mental patient stalking a vengeful wife in a Santa outfit on Christmas Eve. It’s a short but effective season’s greetings.  

Jeff Mitchell's Favorite Christmas Movies

No question, Christmas was my favorite holiday during my youth.   What is not to love about a treasure trove of carefully wrapped gifts sitting underneath a Douglas Fir Christmas tree, peppered with blinking lights and dozens of handmade ornaments made from past art classes, right?  My family was not particularly religious, but we thought of the holiday as a blessing, a rare glimpse of warmth during a long, blustery Upstate New York winter. 

 

Today, as a bachelor, I admit that – these days - Christmas is not too much more than a small, pleasant diversion.  With 330 days of sunshine a year, Dec. 25 is not a needed glimmer of comfort, but instead, a day off and a nice excuse to visit a crowded cineplex to watch three new movies back-to-back-to-back.  I would not exactly claim that “Bah! Humbug!” frequents my vocabulary, but I am less celebratory of the day than most Americans.  

 

Having said that, my favorite Christmas movies will probably not differ too much from yours, but I certainly had to pull down some cobwebs to jog my memory.  It’s been a while.  Perhaps I will watch some of these on Christmas Day 2017, but – quite frankly - I’d love to see “I, Tonya” again and catch “All the Money in the World” and even “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” in busy movie theatres.

 

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5. “Scrooged” (1988) – This updated take on “A Christmas Carol” features Bill Murray as Frank Cross, a miserable television executive whose station is broadcasting a live showing of the aforementioned famed story on Christmas Eve.  Frank’s selfish, unapologetic persona rubs everyone the wrong way, and for his bad energy-efforts, the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future visit him in an attempt to change his ways.  No, this is not the most regal version of “A Christmas Carol”, but Murray’s sardonic humor is fun to watch.  Shades of his “Saturday Night Live” lounge singer act nicely appear in the third act, and Carol Kane’s take on the Ghost of Christmas Present is priceless too.  

 

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4. “The Muppet Christmas Carol” (1992) – Sure, “A Christmas Carol” has been repurposed about 1,000,006 times (See # 5), but not like this.  Director Brian Henson spins a charming version of the story - Muppet-style - in his feature film debut.  Henson perfectly casts Michael Caine as Scrooge, and the talented actor faces the Muppet-ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future.  For good measure, his old business partners Jacob and Robert Marley are played by those cranky old men from the theatre balcony, Waldorf and Statler.  Much of the fun is anticipating which Muppets will play the famous Dickens characters, so I will not give away any more secrets.  If you have young kids, this movie should be their first experience with “A Christmas Carol”, but there is a very good chance that you will enjoy it even more.

 

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3. “Bad Santa” (2003) – Department store Santas have been inadvertently scaring little children for years.  Well, it’s probably due to their long grey beards, but I digress.  On the other hand, children and adults of all ages should feel apprehensive of Willie (Billy Bob Thornton), who is one of the very worst Santas in recorded history.  This belligerent thief with massive drinking and manners problems, uses his Kris Kringle alter ego as a cover to perform larcenies. When he is not arguing with his business partner, Marcus (Tony Cox), and a dim kid who follows him around, Willie forms a romantic relationship with Sue (Lauren Graham) who possess a Santa fetish.  This Rated-R comedy is not for kids, but this film proudly features one of Thornton’s most memorable roles and 91 minutes of offensive hilarity.   

 

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2. “It’s a Wonderful Life” (1946) – Frank Capra’s classic is not exactly a Christmas movie, but since its long-standing holiday season run on television and, of course, the picture’s ending, this wonderful Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed vehicle fits the bill.  All-around good guy George Bailey (Stewart) always plays by the rules, but due to a simple mistake by his Uncle Billy, the family’s loan company faces dire consequences.  George contemplates suicide, but an angel named Clarence cleverly attempts to change his mind.  Led by Stewart’s and Reed’s earnest performances and Capra’s hand in capturing the beauty of everyday moments, “It’s a Wonderful Life” blooms with humanity and good feelings.  The dance/swimming pool scene is a perfect example of a hundred smile-inducing moments. 

 

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1. “A Christmas Story” (1983) – Mother and Old Man Parker (Melinda Dillon and Darren McGavin) make every attempt to deliver a warm, memorable Christmas for their kids, Ralphie and Randy, but director Bob Clark’s film breaks many holiday movie rules that existed at that time, because their efforts were also laced with daily dysfunction.  Designed warts and all, the picture paints a comedic and relatable winter wonderland, complete with Randy’s obnoxious snowsuit, an impatient department store elf, the infamous leg lamp, and much, much more.   This particular critic saw “A Christmas Story” in a movie theatre in 1983, and looking back 34 years, one can easily see that its style paved the way for countless TV series and films, like “Malcom in the Middle” (2000 – 2006) and the “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” series. 

 

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.

Ben Cahlamers Favorite Christmas Films

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5. Home Alone – I was old enough to understand the film’s more mature themes, but young enough to still appreciate the juvenile humor. This was John Hughes at his finest and he introduced the world to a young Macaulay Culkin, who defends his house from two cat burglars (Joe Pesci, Daniel Stern) and a very worried mom (Catherine O’Hara).

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4. A Christmas Story – This was another tradition in my home. Mom and dad introduced me to it. Although it gets continuous play on TNT and TBS between Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, there’s never a moment where I’m not chuckling over the vindictive nature of each of the characters. The voice over narration is exquisite. Peter Billingsley plays Ralphie perfectly: one look at that face, and you’d never believe that he was the troublemaker. The best scene isn’t “you’ll shoot your eye out” or the bunny rabbit onesie. It is Chinese dinner on Christmas day and “fa rah rah rah rah”’s.

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3. Elf – This film represents, I think, the understanding that most kids have about jolly old Saint Nick. But, it was a good opportunity for Will Ferrell to do what he does best: he plays the biggest kid on the block, and in this film, that’s a literal translation as he was an orphaned human being who Santa picks up, and raises him among the elves. James Caan plays his long lost father. Peter Drinklage is an absolute firecracker. Veterans Ed Asner and Bob Newhart make appearances as well.

 

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2. Die Hard – The eternal battle (okay, so it’s only been going on since 1988) whether this film is a Christmas movie or not is not as essential as the film’s location in Los Angeles. As a resident of the Valley, I can definitively say that it is a Christmas movie. Bruce Willis plays a lone New York City cop when the building is overrun by terrorists, namely Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) and his henchman (Alexander Godunov). The supporting cast, including Reginald Vel Johnson make this a memorable holiday classic.

 

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1. It’s A Wonderful Life – Frank Capra’s classic featuring Jimmy Stewart is breathtaking every time I watch it. Nothing gets me more choked up than hearing “every time a bell rings, an angel gets its wings.” Do right by others, be there for one another and you’ll earn your just rewards.

From the Phoenix Film Festival critic staff, we wish you the Happiest of Holidays and a Happy New Year. We’ll see you at the movies in 2018.

Molly's Game - Movie Review by Monte Yazzie

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Molly’s Game

 

Director: Aaron Sorkin

Starring: Jessica Chastain, Idris Elba, Kevin Costner,

 

“Sports doesn’t build character, it reveals it”. My high school basketball coach drilled this sentiment into my head, especially when things weren’t going like I had planned them. Molly Bloom was on the verge of punching her ticket to the Winter Olympic Games until an unavoidable disaster sent her plummeting down a hill, severely injuring her in the process, and shattering the chance she had been training for her entire life. If this wasn’t one of those character building moments, I don’t know what is.

 

Aaron Sorkin tackles this interesting true life story of a would-be Olympic athlete turned organizer of one the world’s most exclusive high stakes poker games with all the wordy flair and verbose film style you might expect from this screenwriter turned director. Starring Jessica Chastain in the pivotal role of Molly Bloom, “Molly’s Game” is a quick witted, fast paced story about the fortitude of a woman who refused to play by the rules.

 

Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain) is struggling after her accident on the slopes. She has moved to Los Angeles, sleeping on a friends couch, and works as a waitress at night and an office secretary for a loud mouthed executive named Dean Keith (Jeremy Strong). Dean is pretending his way towards the Hollywood dream, rubbing elbows with high rollers at a high stakes poker match that he organizes in the back room of restaurant. Molly gets roped into Dean’s scheme, though Molly has never been much of a follower and soon starts her own exclusive poker game, bringing the wrath of movie stars, mobsters, and the federal government.

 

“Molly’s Game” is a jumpy, high energy film that feels more like a heist flick than a drama about greedy poker players and a headstrong yet drug addicted gambling facilitator. The film has a fluctuating timeline that hops throughout three facets of Molly’s life; while this method of editing has a tendency to becoming somewhat confusing, annoyingly so, it also works in giving the story legs.

 

Mr. Sorkin has consistently displayed his talent as a wordsmith, but his characters are also part of the reason the speeches, the sentimental stories, and the pointed word placed in the perfect position have such power. Molly is provided so many qualities amidst her extensive flaws, she is strong willed, determined, confident, conniving, manipulative, and deceitful. She is the kind of character that could be wholly comfortable strong-arming a power move in a board room or on the gritty streets while still composing herself as an upstanding professional.

 

Jessica Chastain gives yet another knock-out performance as Mollly; she completely embodies the confidence and compassion of the character, displaying the conviction of a woman who will not be told how to live, how to work, or how to act. Working against Ms. Chastain’s tough character is Idris Elba who plays the respectable attorney that represents Molly. Mr. Elba does a great job of bringing conflict and conviction to Molly’s story, playing the only character who sees through some of the more disreputable qualities that forwarded Molly into the position of power she had. Amidst these two fine performances is also Kevin Costner playing Molly’s psychiatrist father. Costner has one of the best speeches of the film in a uncomfortable yet poignant conversation with his daughter.

 

This is Aaron Sorkin’s directorial debut; in places, like with the editing decisions and some of the meandering scenes, you can feel the growing pains of a first time director. However, the narrative content is completely suited for Sorkin’s style as a writer, building intriguing characters that are both complicated yet sympathetic. What “Molly’s Game” does best above all is reveal the character that a woman must have amidst the objectification, the barriers, the cheap shots, and the manipulation when fighting in a world controlled by men.

 

Monte’s Rating

4.00 out of 5.00