7 Days in Entebbe - Movie Review by Ben Cahlamer

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7 Days in Entebbe


Directed by Jose Padilha

Written by Gregory Burke

Starring Rosamund Pike, Daniel Bruhl, Eddie Marsan, Ben Schnetzer, Lior Ashkenazi, Denis Menochet


There is a propensity in the human condition to stop and reflect every once in a while so that we can, hopefully make better decisions in the future. In doing so, we want to coax as much as possible out of the event in question.

Jose Padilha chose to explore Operation Entebbe in his latest film “7 Days in Entebbe”. The story uses the hijacking of an Air France airliner in 1976 as its background while focusing on the two members of the German Revolutionary Cell as the dramatic prose. In the background is Israel, a country that had a staunch policy of not negotiating with hostages. Gregory Burke’s script frames the story through two sets of opposing characters – Rosamund Pike’s Brigitte Kuhlmann and Daniel Bruhl’s Wilfried Bose as the German revolutionaries as our protagonists and Lior Ashkenazi’s Yitzhak Rabin and Eddie Marsan’s Shimon Peres fighting as our antagonists fighting for the right political reaction while the plane and its hostages were the ‘guests’ of Idi Amin (Nonso Anozie).

While the event had been covered by three telefilms previously, this is the first to focus on the two German revolutionaries. Ms. Pike’s and Mr. Bruhl’s performances are admirable, given the smaller scale that this film focuses on. Unfortunately, the way the story flows, their characters are ultimately reduced to pastiches of what could have been truly dramatic cinema. Instead, the film focuses on Mr. Ashkenazi and Mr. Marsan, both who deliver powerhouse performances in their own right.

The issue is that because the story chose to focus on this situation, and the actual raid, the drama was reduced to a point where their dialog became a table tennis match: “who can land their point of view into the winning square first.” 42 years later, we see the various results of their operations, which were a success. The story does paint the positive results of the operation in a quickly edited fashion, but it became secondary as the story didn’t know what to do by the time the attack happened.

There are two interesting aspects in Mr. Padilha’s film that I think need to be stated. The first is his use of mimes in brilliantly colored set. The operatic and balletic use of this structure is meant to wordlessly convey the actions in the film; to give it a grander scale. The interpretation was not lost on this reviewer, but it doesn’t functionally fit the film’s narrative either. The second is the closing moments of the film where the title cards outline the continuing effects on the world stage that this event had and its interconnectedness.

I was born a few months before these events happened, so I don’t remember them very well, if at all. What’s interested is that we would choose to make a movie about this subject, especially now, and given that there have been three previous telefilms covering the subject. I give kudos to the cast, their dramatic sides all showed in a film where the story just crushed their ability to rise above their principles.

Rating 1 out of 4

Love, Simon - Movie Review by Monte Yazzie

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Love, Simon


Director: Greg Berlanti

Starring: Nick Robinson, Katherine Langford, Alexandra Shipp, Jorge Lendeborg Jr., Logan Miller, Josh Duhamel, and Jennifer Garner


Teenage romantic comedies are formulaic; two young people in high school find themselves thrust into some kind of situation that ends with the two smooching amidst swelling pop music, it’s been done many times in many ways. What makes Greg Berlanti’s, the mind behind the recent DC Comics explosion on television, “Love, Simon” different is something that seems so obviously aware that it might be surprising that it hasn’t happened yet. The titular lead Simon, played by Nick Robinson, is a well-liked high school senior who leads a typical, normal life except for the fact that he is gay.


Simon has a group of great friends, one of which is his best friend Leah (Katherine Langford) who he has known nearly his entire life. Simon has great parents (Josh Duhamel and Jennifer Garner) who are still together in a loving relationship, they even sit around the television to watch movies together. Simon lives a life some might only expect to see in the movies, but Simon has a secret that he hasn’t told anyone.


Berlanti tackles “Love, Simon” with a nice blend of humor and a fair amount of heart. Simon is a likable main character but he is far from perfect, he’s a teenage student trying to traverse the already tumultuous terrain of the high school hallways while trying to determine how, when, and if he will reveal his true feelings to those around him. This creates a struggle as high school bullying and a gossip website place Simon in a difficult situation where his choices hurt and manipulate those close to him. Still, even when Simon isn’t making the best decisions it’s hard to blame the character for his selfishness.


Berlanti does a great job of composing the characters within the film, never over emphasizing the narrative themes and keeping everything simplistic while always remaining fun. In most stories that have gay protagonists things don’t always have the best outcomes; these characters don’t always have such good lives, and in the end of these tales it often feels like life is still going to be a struggle compared to the struggles of people who aren’t in gay relationships. Film manipulates expectations, and in the case of gay cinema the results are often disheartening and sometimes tragic for the characters wanting to express how they feel to people they love. The fact that Berlanti takes the all too common formula of a teenage romantic comedy and places a gay male character in the lead role without succumbing to the manipulations of hatred that force people into places of fear and shame for their choice of relationship is refreshing and necessary in the world we live in today.


“Love, Simon” is a heartfelt, familiar tale of first love. Greg Berlanti does a exceptional job of creating engaging characters and placing them in a situation that doesn’t exploit the topic of sexuality or oversimplify the aspect of youth. “Love, Simon” is a enjoyable film that demonstrates that stories and experiences, though they may seem different from different populations, are the same when stripped down to its most basic emotion.


Monte’s Rating

4.00 out of 5.00

Tomb Raider - Movie Review by Monte Yazzie

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Tomb Raider


Director: Roar Uthaug

Starring: Alicia Vikander, Dominic West, Walton Goggins, Daniel Wu, Kristen Scott Thomas, and Derek Jacobi


Lara Croft has been running through jungles, caves, and ancient ruins, solving all manner of puzzles and problems since 1996 when the character made her first appearance for avid gamers. More than twenty years later and Lara Croft is making her third appearance on the silver screen, this time replacing Angelina Jolie with Alicia Vikander in the second franchise building film simply called “Tomb Raider”.


Director Roar Uthaug, director of somber-toned disaster film “The Wave” in 2015, takes Lara Croft back to the beginning, establishing an introduction to the character before she becomes the double-gun toting character gamers identify. This adventure film plays just like a video game during action scenes and functions narratively like a film eager to start production on the sequel.


Lara Croft (Alicia Vikander) is a bicycle riding food delivery courier who refuses to give up hope concerning her father’s (Dominic West) mysterious disappearance. Lara is scrappy and tough, an attitude that has her taking a beating while refusing to tap out during a training scene and outsmarting a group of male bicyclists during a city chase scene. Lara is being coerced into taking over the Croft fortune and when a puzzle box reveals a secret about her father’s final adventure, the young adventurer is taken to an isolated island populated by a dangerous organization.


Alicia Vikander is working overtime here, providing Lara Croft with a charisma that makes the character work better than the script gives her opportunity. Still, Ms. Vikander makes the character likable while also displaying the physical toughness that allows her to do a majority of the action scene stunt work. It’s also refreshing to see the character, which has become an over-sexualized avatar throughout the years, stand on her own without a forced romantic relationship or the dependency of men to solve her problems.


Unfortunately, much of what transpires narratively in “Tomb Raider” falls all over itself in an attempt to push the character towards the next movie. This leaves much of the emotional core of the film, which exists between Lara and her father’s relationship, to be surmised through sloppy flashbacks. The villain here, played by Walton Goggins, doesn’t have much of a purpose in the second act beyond getting to hidden tomb before Lara does. This is the point in the film when “Tomb Raider” turns into a video game, providing missions for Lara to accomplish in order to get to the next dangerous level of the movie. It works in small amounts but quickly loses its effectiveness.


“Tomb Raider” is a decent action film, which unfortunately isn’t saying much in today’s superhero heavy cinemas, but Alicia Vikander is good enough to keep everything moving from scene to scene. “Tomb Raider” is clearly a launching platform for a bigger franchise, and this obvious emphasis leaves the film void of the qualities that would have established a better hero to journey into future adventures with.


Monte’s Rating

2.00 out of 5.00

Loveless - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell


Difficult not to love ‘Loveless’, a stunning and equally bleak film


Directed by:  Andrey Zvyagintsev

Written by:  Andrey Zvyagintsev and Oleg Negin

Starring:  Maryana Spivak, Aleksey Rozin and Matvey Novikov


“Loveless” – One of the more common statistics floating “out there” – spoken at happy hours, bake sales and around water coolers - is that half of marriages end in divorce.  The collective “they” might be right, because according to Google, the U.S. divorce rate is 41 and 60 percent for first and second marriages, respectively.    


Looking at divorce globally, an Oct. 18, 2017 article in The Telegraph, a UK newspaper, states that Maldives has the highest such rate in the world.  The United States?  We rank fifth. 


Well, Russia is second in the said study, and in Andrey Zvyagintsev’s (“Leviathan” (2014)) “Loveless”, he explores the turmoil of one particular broken marriage during his anxiety-driven 2-hour 7-minute big screen experience, one that rightfully earned a Best Foreign Language Picture Oscar nomination.        


Actually, Boris’s (Aleksey Rozin) and Zhenya’s (Maryana Spivak) marriage has not officially dissolved on paper.  They are not divorced just yet, but their permanent, legal split will come soon. 


They hate each other. 


They loathe the sight of one another, live in a loveless household and share it with their 12-year-old son, Alyosha (Matvey Novikov).  When mired within the same daily living space, the parents’ mutual abhorrence boils into a constant, toxic ecosystem for all three individuals.  For Alyosha, he suffers the most emotional damage, as kids often do under the circumstances.        


Zvyagintsev paints icy circumstances for this family and the physical surroundings.  Filmed in a woodsy suburb of Moscow called the Yuzhnoye Tushino District, the setting is not under a siege of brutal blizzards in the dead of winter, but the air and the associated environment feel frigid.  


For instance, as the local children exit their concrete school – which could double as a faceless post office - Alyosha walks on the cold, stony slabs of the courtyard and into a lightly forested trail with leafless trees.  The trees won’t blossom for months.  They stand tall, but are dormant and brace for future snowstorms and below zero temps.


Boris, in his 40s, works a typical office job and braces for the latest policy that politely nudges him towards corporate conformity.  His 9 to 5 does not offer much joy, but at least his daytime hours act as a temporary reprieve from the misery of his marriage.  Well, that and his 20-something girlfriend, who he will cohabitate with, once his divorce papers are printed and signed. 


Zhenya, in her early 30s, is strikingly beautiful, and if not caught up in years of a dead marriage and the regret of becoming a mother, one could easily see her traveling the world as a model or designer and embracing the fruits of life.  In some parallel universe, she probably is.


In this universe, however, Zhenya, Boris and Aloysha are lost.  Lost souls, and Zvyagintsev explores the roots that manifested the present-day dysfunction and also the current patterns that allow it to fester.  He does so in eye-opening and cringe worthy ways, specifically by revealing how words can hurt and misguided actions are just blindly repeated.  Although Boris and Zhenya toil through several arguments, their first one sets the picture’s dark tone.  As their screams reach a fever pitch, the film seems to reach out, grab your neck and choke off your air supply. 


It might leave you a bit breathless, but rather than only wade through this family’s complicated living situation, the film takes a sudden left turn into a confounding mystery with no easy answers.  In fact, finding a needle in a haystack does not even begin to describe the struggle, as the picture’s foundation of doom is now topped with desperation.


Director Asghar Farhadi (“A Separation” (2011), “The Past” (2013), “The Salesman” (2016)) is a master a weaving complex family turmoil, as his players constantly grapple with shifting kinship challenges in very close, indoor spaces.  In Zvyagintsev’s picture, he introduces this family in a close, indoor space but – instead - drops a sledgehammer on our heads us and leaves us staggering for the duration.  Many times, we stagger in bleak but simultaneously stunning outdoor spaces, with visuals that will linger as long as our new memories of this family’s hopeless journey.  Zhenya, Boris and Aloysha certainly have a story, a difficult one, but no, they are not just a gloomy statistic.

(4/4 stars)


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

A Wrinkle in Time - Movie Review by Ben Cahlamer

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A Wrinkle in Time


Directed by Ava DuVernay

Written by Jennifer Lee based on “A Wrinkle in Time” by Madeline L’Engle

Starring Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon, Mindy Kaling, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Michael Pena, Storm Reid, Zach Galifianakis, Chris Pine


I’m learning that the emotional baggage we bring to a movie, reflects what we get out of it. This is true of any interaction we have with each other as well as the art we appreciate. One of the most unique aspects of Ava DuVernay’s “A Wrinkle in Time,” which opens this weekend, is how relatable it is to everyday people even if you bring the most negative of impressions towards it.

Based on Madeline L’Engle’s children’s novel of the same name, Ms. DuVernay taps into her inner child as Meg Murry (Storm Reid) and her younger brother, Charles Wallce (Deric McCabe) search for their long lost father, Dr. Alex Murry (Chris Pine) who gets lost after an experiment goes wrong. Dr. Kate Murry is played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw. Helping the kids on their journey are Mrs. Which (Oprah Winfrey), Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon), and Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling). Bringing balance to the universe is The Happy Medium played by Zach Galafianakis, while Michael Pena plays Red.

The screenplay by Jennifer Lee taps into very Disney-esque elements while Ms. Duvernay brings her own sensibilities to the story. As happens when a book is translated into a script, sequences get left out while other sequences might be tightened up to develop a strong character. As someone who hasn’t read the book, I can’t tell you what they carried over, or left behind.

What I can share is that the story is uneven. We do get Meg’s full arc and it’s a lovely one filled with a solid life lesson. Deric McCabe is stellar as Charles Wallace, with his innocence acting as a cover for a deep rooted intellect along with compassion. The supporting cast of Ms. Winfrey, Ms. Witherspoon and Mr. Galifianakis is exceptional. Yet, their presence in the film drifts off towards the end of the second act. This is a natural place for that send-off, yet it makes their presence in the film feel incomplete. At the same time, they are the best parts of who Meg is; she just chose not to accept them.

Another misstep is in the character of Red. I liked Mr. Pena’s take on the character, but he is on screen for such a small amount of time that I almost wish we had gotten something akin to The Nothing from “The Never Ending Story”.

Despite the danger to our characters and their adventures, I didn’t feel like the consequences of their journey or actions were presented as well as they could have been. Again, this is not the fault of Ms. DuVernay or the script. It is more a function of what elements they took from a rich, detailed novel that so many generations have come to love. The visual effects carried most of the danger effectively, though there were certain effects that became jarring, taking me out of the film.

In the end, “A Wrinkle in Time” will appeal to families with older children. There are some dark elements that might affect younger children. The messages in the film hit me front and center and made me realize that I have potential on my own journey. Perhaps you’ll choose to share in the journey and maybe even discover something about yourself. I know I did.

Rating 2 out of 4 stars

Vazante - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell


‘Vazante’ is an impactful, bleak 19th century story


Directed by:  Daniela Thomas

Written by:  Daniela Thomas and Beto Amaral

Starring:  Adriano Carvalho, Luana Nastas, Roberto Audio, Sandra Corveloni, and Fabricio Boliveira


“Vazante” – Looking back at history, one could claim that 1821 was a celebratory year.  


Greece gains independence from Turkey. 

The Saturday Evening Post prints its first edition.

Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua declare their independence from the Spanish Empire.

James Boyd patents the rubber fire hose.


These events are worthy enough to applaud and cheer, but in the same year, there is no merriment on Antonio’s (Adriano Carvalho) farm, located in the Diamantina Mountains, Brazil. 


In “Vazante”, he owns a massive parcel of land, complete with 20 or 30 slaves, but Antonio was in the diamond business.  Most unfortunately, the diamond mines have literally and figuratively lost their sparkle, and future prospects look grim. 


The mines are empty.  With one look at Antonio, the word grim best describes him. 


With a thick tuft of curly hair accompanied by a lengthy beard, his eyes - almost always - are spilled wide-open and alert, like he is itching for a gunfight, and his lips are tightly pressed, seemingly on the verge of opening for a primal scream.


Antonio, though, may not possess the vitality for such a scream.  His spirit is tired, worn-out and defeated, especially after a brutal personal tragedy.  Enter his brother Bartholomeu (Robert Audio) and his family, and they stay with Antonio on the farm.  The brothers are not exactly friendly.  They are not sworn enemies either, so this new sibling dynamic does not dramatically change the narrative, except in one respect:  Bartholomeu’s daughter, Beatriz (Luana Nastas).  


Director/co-writer Daniela Thomas spins a purposely bleak family tale and under a backdrop of glorious black and white, and her visual choice underscores the specific period and the regressive decisions made by the film’s characters.  She certainly sets a tone.  For instance, while Antonio and his slaves march through a tree-filled countryside under steady rain, one can almost imagine the lush colors that these men are experiencing all around them, but Thomas wipes these flushes of green, blue and yellow away.  The audience is left with a muffled – but also a crystal clear – window that dampens the mood both on-screen and in the theatre, not unlike Michael Haneke’s haunting German drama “The White Ribbon” (2009) or Nicolas Pesce’s horror film “The Eyes of My Mother” (2016).     


“Vazante” is not a horror film, but Thomas gives moviegoers barely anything to smile about during 1 hour and 56 minutes of agonizing, but also fascinating, screen time.  From an agonizing perspective, Antonio and his foreman, Jeremias (Fabricio Boliveira), utter curt commands to the homemakers and field hands, as these orders are met with assured, quiet obedience and zero serenity. 


No one wants to live or work there. 


It’s not just the slaves, but Bartholomeu’s wife, Dona Ondina (Sandra Corveloni), refers to Antonio’s farm as hell.  Hell might be a stretch, but the onsite oppression, hours and hours of work and other moments of complete boredom certainly are heated in misery.


This miserable, cringe worthy experience is balanced by Thomas’s filmmaking gifts.  She completely transports her actors and audience to a desolate, desperate otherworld of grey emotional tones:  simpleminded thinking, oppression, racism, and sexism, but not through much dialogue, because spoken words are sparse. 


Thomas channels Werner Herzog and hustles through hilly terrain and reveals difficult horseback journeys.  Other times, she simply plants her camera and holds specific shots for a few more seconds than is comfortable to repeatedly raise unease.  For instance, an ordinary – supposedly friendly - dinner between Antonio and Bartholomeu becomes a distressing experience with blank stares and silence filling the dining room and the big screen.  


For Beatriz, she faces a most distressing experience too.  For this poor girl, her choices are extremely limited which provide her very little reason to celebrate.  I predict that audiences will not celebrate this picture either, but that’s not the point.    

(3/4 stars)


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


The Leisure Seeker - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

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Mirren and Sutherland work hard in ‘The Leisure Seeker’


Directed by:  Paolo Virzi

Written by:  Paolo Virzi, Stephen Amidon, Francesca Archibugi, and Francesco Piccolo, and based on the novel by Michael Zadoorian

Starring:  Helen Mirren and Donald Sutherland


“The Leisure Seeker” – “I am so happy when you come back to me.”


About 20 minutes into “The Leisure Seeker”, Ella (Helen Mirren) almost-tearfully declares the aforementioned statement to her husband, John (Donald Sutherland).   Now, John did not physically disappear from Ella’s sight and then reappear, but his mind did.  John, a retired history teacher, suffers from Alzheimer’s, and although his condition does not currently and completely debilitate him (and his relationship with Ella), his sporadic fades obviously create serious problems. 


Ella and John decide to set aside their problems and take a road trip from Massachusetts to Key West in their 1975 Winnebago, affectionately named The Leisure Seeker in Italian director Paolo Virzi’s (“Human Capital” (2013)) first American film. 


And it’s a good one.


Although the picture does wrap itself in familiar road trip storylines, led by two strong performances from two very likable acting-legends, “The Leisure Seeker” resonates with humor, nuance and angst over the course of 1 hour and 52 minutes.


The screenplay – co-written by Virzi and three others – has Ella and John spending their minutes, hours and days in an RV that captured decades of fond memories for the two, while they reminisce about their marriage, their loving family and the good old days on their way to Florida.  At least they attempt to remember, but John falls into distressing traps because of his condition.  This frustrates Ella, and even though they enjoy a strong marriage, their 40-plus years of cohabitation have not been completely full of bliss. 


Ella frequently loses her patience with John, while his lapses double the angst for the audience.  First, the couple’s sunny, positive vibes suddenly become stymied, because Ella needs to stop and grapple with John’s disorientation or fleeting memory, whether in a restaurant when he repeats and repeats his hunger for a burger or wonders where their little children are.  Meanwhile, their kids, Jane (Janel Moloney) and Will (Christian McKay), are 40-something adults.  Second, Ella simply wishes for a pleasant drive down the east coast free of incident, free of reminders of their advancing ages and the freedom to just embrace the moment, but her frustration tends to boil over into snipes and gripes. 


It certainly is easy for a movie audience to have sympathy for John, but Ella bears the burden of knowing decades of better times, while also coping with a completely separate issue of her own.   Her outbursts certainly ring with understanding, even if they do bruise our eardrums. 


Ella’s and John’s emotional beats should resonate for most, as this couple could be any elderly couple from Anywhere, U.S.A.  Mirren, Sutherland and Virzi create a relatable environment within the confines of The Leisure Seeker and every step outside it.  The three take great care in embracing the pair’s history through a specific and wonderful routine that Ella and John enjoy at every campground during their 1,600-mile journey.  It’s funny, because their particular evening practice (which will not be revealed in this review) can be a painful one for friends and relatives – in our own lives - to endure, but in this case, it is very sweet and loving and gives ample chances for moviegoers to learn about these two seniors with rich histories.


Accompanied by a rich, contextual soundtrack - from the 60s counterculture and the decade after – Mirren and Sutherland seem to effortlessly gel as husband and wife with a lifetime of memories.  Their moments of complaint, love and anticipating the others’ tendencies flow off the screen, while they also juggle their characters’ emotional diagonals with ease.  Sutherland’s work here is not as dynamic as Julianne Moore’s in 2014’s “Still Alice”, however, the narrative does not call for it.  Here, this simply is a weeklong trip, so the dramatic memory loss in Moore’s performance never comes into play.  Through this film’s subtle emotional touches, however, the pain of John’s loss certainly is no less heart-wrenching, and this critic certainly felt happy when John occasionally comes back to Ella too. 

(3/4 stars)


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

Monte Yazzie's Oscar Predictions

Monte Yazzie’s Oscar Predictions




The Super Bowl for the movie industry, the 90th Annual Academy Awards, is this Sunday night. It’s Hollywood’s big night filled with ball gowns, tuxedos, uncomfortable interviews, and more than likely a political charged acceptance speech or ten. Viewers, however, treat this event as an opportunity to contribute their two cents into the race of who is going to win when the ballot is opened. Still, even though countless film websites, historians, and Oscar super-fans have written extensive articles detailing every major category and who they think is going to win based on every other awards show that has come before, it’s still difficult to separate the head from the heart for me when picking the winners. And while sometimes it may be obvious who might be scribbled into the ballot for the win, sometimes it’s still difficult to accept.


So, for the Phoenix Film Festival Oscar predications this year, I’ve decided to provide both of my picks, the one from the head and the one from the heart. For all I know they may both be wrong. Watch the Academy Awards this Sunday and make sure to pick your winners.



Best Picture


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•   Call Me By Your Name

•   Darkest Hour

•   Dunkirk

•   Get Out

•   Lady Bird

•   Phantom Thread

•   The Post

•   The Shape of Water

•   Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri


HEAD: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

HEART: The Shape of Water



Actor In A Leading Role

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•   Timothee Chalamet, Call Me By Your Name

•   Daniel Day-Lewis, Phantom Thread

•   Daniel Kaluuya, Get Out

•   Gary Oldman, Darkest Hour

•   Denzel Washington, Roman J. Israel, Esq.


HEAD: Gary Oldman, Darkest Hour

HEART: Daniel Kaluuya, Get Out


Actor In A Supporting Role


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•   Willem Dafoe, The Florida Project

•   Woody Harrelson, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

•   Richard Jenkins, The Shape of Water

•   Christopher Plummer, All The Money In The World

•   Sam Rockwell, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri


HEAD: Sam Rockwell, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

HEART: Willem Dafoe, The Florida Project


Actress In A Leading Role


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•   Sally Hawkins, The Shape of Water

•   Frances McDormand, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

•   Margot Robbie, I, Tonya

•   Saoirse Ronan, Lady Bird

•   Meryl Streep, The Post


HEAD: Frances McDormand, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

HEART: Sally Hawkins, The Shape of Water


Actress In A Supporting Role


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•   Mary J. Blige, Mudbound

•   Allison Janney, I, Tonya

•   Lesley Manville, Phantom Thread

•   Laurie Metcalf, Lady Bird

•   Octavia Spencer, The Shape of Water


HEAD: Allison Janney, I, Tonya

HEART: Mary J. Blige, Mudbound


Best Director


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•   Christopher Nolan, Dunkirk

•   Jordan Peele, Get Out

•   Greta Gerwig, Lady Bird

•   Paul Thomas Anderson, Phantom Thread

•   Guillermo del Toro, The Shape of Water


HEAD: Guillermo del Toro, The Shape of Water

HEART: Guillermo del Toro, The Shape of Water


Animated Feature Film



•   The Boss Baby

•   Breadwinner

•   Coco

•   Ferdinand

•   Loving Vincent


HEAD: Coco



Documentary Feature


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•   Abacus, Small Enough to Jail

•   Faces Places

•   Icarus

•   Last Men in Aleppo

•   Strong Island


HEAD: Faces Places

HEART: Faces Places





Foreign Language Film



•   A Fantastic Woman

•   The Insult

•   Loveless

•   On Body and Soul

•   The Square


HEAD: A Fantastic Woman

HEART: The Square




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•   Blade Runner 2049

•   Darkest Hour

•   Dunkirk

•   Mudbound

•   The Shape of Water


HEAD: Blade Runner 2049

HEART: Blade Runner 2049

Red Sparrow - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

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The spy film ‘Red Sparrow’ flies in some twisty, some meandering directions


Directed by:  Francis Lawrence

Written by:  Justin Haythe, based on the book by Jason Matthews

Starring:  Jennifer Lawrence, Joel Edgerton, Matthew Schoenaerts, Charlotte Rampling, and Jeremy Irons


“Red Sparrow” – After the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 and the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, many Western Europeans and Americans - hoped for a less adversarial relationship with their/our former communist foe, Russia.  Sure, Russia technically is a democracy, but a sketchy one, and after recent shenanigans in 2016, this aforementioned “former-enemy” certainly is not behaving like a nation wanting to cozy up as best friends with the West.  Far from it.


As Bob Dylan preached in his 1964 song “With God on Our Side”:


“I’ve learned to hate the Russians, all through my whole life. If another war starts, it’s them we must fight. To hate them and fear them, to run and to hide. And accept it all bravely with God on my side.”


In 2018, hating and fearing Russians are probably not necessary prerequisites for U.S. citizens, but with a different kind of war hitting our cyber-doorstep, developing healthy skepticism and raising our guards seem like prudent judgments, don’t you think?


In “Red Sparrow” - director Francis Lawrence’s spy vs. spy film – CIA agent Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton) needs to develop healthy skepticism with (and raise his guard against) Dominika Egorova (Jennifer Lawrence).  She is a Russian spy.  Actually, Dominika is a Sparrow, a siren who possesses both deadly intentions and powers of seduction. 


Nash blew his cover trying to protect a Russian mole, and Dominika needs to discover this person’s identity for Mother Russia and another relative, her real-life uncle, SVR Deputy Director Vanya Egorov (Matthias Schoenaerts).   Nash and Dominika duel – but also cooperate - in a battle of wits and sexual tension in various spots like Budapest and Vienna.   Although the picture looks fantastic (as it shows off some gorgeous (and moody) indoor venues that leap off the screen), carries an intriguing premise and Lawrence takes some risky chances, the film’s more introspective focus and sluggish pacing may leave audiences with lukewarm feelings rather than its intended red hot and icy cold endgame responses.


Lawrence works hard and steps out of her comfort zone throughout the picture, to her character’s intended detriment.  Justin Haythe’s script – several times - leaves Dominika and us very uncomfortable, especially during Sparrow training when her lead instructor, Matron (Charlotte Rampling), delivers emotionless, stony demands that attempt to strip our heroine’s humanity and her clothes.  Incidentally, Rampling is perfectly cast as Matron, whose character proudly carries decades of authoritarian, behind-the-Iron Curtain rhetoric like a second skin, graying out her pigment and erasing every grain of humor or joy from her being.  Rampling’s accent may not always ring true-Soviet, but Matron’s voice usually does not rise louder than a polite and poisonous conversational tone, making every uttered syllable a potentially harmful one.  Dominika’s anxious exchanges with Matron, her uncle and General Korchnoi (Jeremy Irons) are the best moments in the movie, as these focused players debate protocol and allegiance, with the mission and associated Russian prominence being the only two motivating factors in every decision.


Well, except for Dominika.  She is new to this cloak-and-dagger routine, and the movie’s fulcrum rests upon her ultimate loyalty or betrayal to the State.  The will-she or won’t-she thread successfully harnesses our attention, but Edgerton and Lawrence do not capture enough on-screen sparks, and the film does not help itself with long – and sometimes mundane - stretches between a few visceral, violent sequences. 


“Red Sparrow” feels like a “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” (2011)/“Mission Impossible” (1996) hybrid but with its own odd beats, including a couple strange choices.  For instance, one character suffers a horrific leg injury and sports a cane early on in the movie, but then - suddenly - is free of the aforementioned aide and appears to walk perfectly fine, which makes one wonder when he or she squeezed in the needed hours of physical therapy.  Second, during a specific operation, Dominika transfers data from a PC to a series of 3.5 inch disks, but wasn’t this technology last seen in the late 1990s?  Everything else in the picture looks like 2018, except for the absence of a simple thumb drive.  


Oh well, maybe the movie is set in 1996, but who knows.  Love or hate Russia, perhaps all that this critic knows is: it’s an awfully complicated place, as evidenced by my comment to my friend, two seconds after the movie ended.


“Well, I am never moving to Russia.” 


Admittedly, that is an icy cold response, amid some lukewarm feelings too.

(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.

Death Wish - Movie Review by Ben Cahlamer

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Death Wish (2018)


Directed by Eli Roth

Written by Joe Carnahan, based on the 1974 screenplay by Wendell Mayes and the novel “Death Wish” by Brian Garfield

Starring Bruce Willis, Vincent D’Onofrio, Elisabeth Shue, Dean Norris, Kimberly Elise, Camilla Morrone, Beau Knapp


It didn’t occur to me until I started really thinking about Eli Roth’s “Death Wish” how exacting the phrase “Revenge is a dish best served cold” would serve his film. It isn’t so much that the remake of the 1974 classic by the same name, which hits theater screens tomorrow, takes its time to exact the revenge our bereaved seeks.


No. In this version, written by Joe Carnahan (the “Smoking Aces” series, “A-Team”), the film takes its time to explore the slow build-up towards vengeance that Dr. Paul Kersey (Bruce Willis) experiences following the death of his wife (Elisabeth Shue) and his comatose daughter, Jordan (Camilla Morrone).


Mr. Roth uses modern day social media and talk-radio to guide a part of his narrative, in an effort to modernize this tale. Mr. Willis plays a passable ER surgeon and when he is called in to play his requisite hero role, the story loses its luster. 


Yes, you feel sympathy for what the character is going through, but a number of the plot points feel contrived, if not convenient. Where the original film featured the main character as an architect, here making the character a doctor gives the film an easy way out: the skills a doctor learns to save people, can very easily be used to turn against people.


To balance that aspect out, Mr. Roth surrounded Mr. Willis with a somewhat strong supporting cast, namely Vincent D’Onofrio, who seems to have faded into the background. He’s actually a nice foil for the successful Dr. Kersey as someone who understands the need to exact revenge: he is the audiences’ conscience. Dean Norris, who usually plays a heavy is pretty light as Detective Rains. In an era where the majority of this country don’t believe that cops do their jobs well, the Rains character depicts the struggle that the police go through to solve cases. His partner, Detective Jackson (Kimberly Elise) is adept at standing by Rains’s side.


For a protagonist to truly be effective, there needs to be an antagonist of equal intelligence. When they wrote the character of Knox, played by Beau Knapp, they intended the intelligence part, but they really got brawn. I could claim the same about every other lowlife scum that inhabits this film as Dr. Kersey goes through his warpath of vengeance. It makes the Kersey character that much more formidable, and yet, with Bruce Willis in the role, Mr. Roth didn’t need to make the path so easy.


You have to wonder if this is a comment on society-at-large, where we are all driven to the point where we feel the need to take action. The story fails because of the swiftness with which Dr. Kersey was able to take action. Yes, time passed by, something the story does get right. Society questions the need for his actions. Yet, the film justifies the means to an end.


Is it logical? No. Dr. Kersey, as well as Mr. Roth are on slippery slopes. Just because you have the knowledge and the instruments to take life, doesn’t mean that you should. Even if it means “an eye for an eye.”


Rating: 2 out of 4

Ben Cahlamer's Oscar Predictions

Ben Cahlamer’s Oscar Predictions



Awards season is finally coming to a close. Now, I know some of you, yes you there in the dark corner of the internet, are probably crying your eyes out that the season is coming to end and some of you are probably wishing it would have ended three months ago. But, I’m here to say that we have just a few more days.


Yet, here I am, making my first, official set of predictions. I’ve been fortunate to have seen all nine Best Picture-nominated films and all of them, for better or for worse, are equally deserving of the recognition that has been bestowed on them. Never before have I seen such a tight race.


I’m not going to dive in to some of the deeper categories here. For now:


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Screenplay (Original):

“The Big Sick”, “Get Out”, “Lady Bird”, “The Shape of Water”, “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”.


WINNER: “Lady Bird”


Screenplay (Adapted): “Call Me by Your Name”, “The Disaster Artist”, “Logan”, “Molly’s Game”, “Mudbound”.


WINNER: “Call Me by Your Name”


Best Actor Nominees: Timothee Chalamet, “Call Me by Your Name”, Daniel Day Lewis, “Phantom Thread”, Daniel Kaluuya, “Get Out”, Gary Oldman, “Darkest Hour”, Denzel Washington, “Roman J Israel, Esq”.


WINNER: Gary OIdman


Best Actress Nominees: Sally Hawkins, “The Shape of Water”, Frances McDormand, “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”, Margot Robbie “I, Tonya”, Saoirse Ronan, “Lady Bird”, Meryl Streep, “The Post”.


 WINNER: Frances McDormand

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Best Supporting Actor & Actress: Willem Dafoe, “The Florida Project”, Woody Harrelson and Sam Rockwell, “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”, Richard Jenkins and Octavia Spencer, “The Shape of Water”, Christopher Plummer, “All the Money in the World”, Mary J. Blige, “Mudbound”, Allison Janney, “I, Tonya”, Leslie Manville, “Phantom Thread”, Laurie Metcalf, “Lady Bird”.


WINNERS: Sam Rockwell and Allison Janney


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Best Director Nominees: Christopher Nolan for “Dunkirk”, Jordan Peele for “Get Out”, Greta Gerwig for “Lady Bird”, Paul Thomas Anderson for “Phantom Thread”, Guillermo del Toro for “The Shape of Water”


WINNER: Guillermo del Toro





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Best Picture Nominees: “Call Me by Your Name”, “Darkest Hour”, “Dunkirk”, “Get Out”, “Lady Bird”,
“Phantom Thread”, “The Post”, “The Shape of Water”, “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”.


WINNER: “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”, or another ‘envelope malfunction,’ whichever comes first.


Jeff Mitchell's Oscar Predictions

Jeff Mitchell’s Oscar Predictions



It is almost that time.  Yes, the 90th Academy Awards ceremony arrives on Sunday, March 4, complete with red carpet interviews, pomp and circumstance, pageantry, and…the awards!  Of course, I’ll be glued to a television set for the latter.  Last year, however, the show became a bit unglued during the infamous “Moonlight” / “La La Land” mix-up, but let’s hope that this year’s production is gaffe-free. 


(Although, if someone on camera wants to publically declare that “The Florida Project” is 2017’s best film, I completely endorse that decision.)


Now, scribing and endorsing our own Oscar predictions can certainly add intrigue to cinema’s most prestigious awards show and include me in the fun!  Even though I sometimes incorrectly select and then misread my movie-Tarot cards, I shuffled them well, fanned them out on the kitchen table and made my picks…my fearless movie-guesses for the 2018 Academy Awards.   In addition to “Who/What will win”, I also included “Who/What should win” and “Who/What should have been nominated”, but what do you think?  


Well, I think that you should make your picks, grab a tux or your best dress and enjoy the Oscars!


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Best Adapted Screenplay:

Who will win:  James Ivory (“Call Me by Your Name”)

Who should win:  James Ivory (“Call Me by Your Name”)

Who should have been nominated:  N/A, the five nominations make sense.



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Best Original Screenplay:

Who will win:  Greta Gerwig (“Lady Bird”)

Who should win:  Martin McDonagh (“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”)

Who should have been nominated:  Terence Davies (“A Quiet Passion”) and Steven Rogers (“I, Tonya”)




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Best Supporting Actress:

Who will win:  Allison Janney (“I, Tonya”)

Who should win:  Allison Janney (“I, Tonya”)

Who should have been nominated:  Holly Hunter (“The Big Sick”)





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Best Supporting Actor:

Who will win:  Willem Dafoe (“The Florida Project”)

Who should win:  Willem Dafoe (“The Florida Project”)

Who should have been nominated:  Michael Stuhlbarg (“Call Me by Your Name”)





Best Actress:

Who will win:  Frances McDormand (“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”)

Who should win:  Frances McDormand (“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”)

Who should have been nominated:  Cynthia Nixon (“A Quiet Passion”), Diane Kruger (“In the Fade”) and Sally Hawkins (“Maudie”) 



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Best Actor:

Who will win:  Gary Oldman (“Darkest Hour”)

Who should win:  Gary Oldman (“Darkest Hour”)

Who should have been nominated:  James Franco (“The Disaster Artist”) and Robert Pattinson (“Good Time”)



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Best Director:

Who will win:  Guillermo del Toro (“The Shape of Water”)

Who should win:  Christopher Nolan (“Dunkirk”)

Who should have been nominated:  Sean Baker (“The Florida Project”)





Best Picture:

What will win:  “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”

What should win:  “Dunkirk”  

What should have been nominated:  “The Florida Project”, “I, Tonya”, “Loveless”, and “A Quiet Passion”



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.


Annihilation - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell


‘Annihilation’ horrifically demolishes old boundaries


Written and directed by: Alex Garland

Starring: Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tessa Thompson, Gina Rodriguez, Tuva Novotny, Oscar Isaac, and Benedict Wong


“Annihilation” – Nobody.


Nobody comes back. 


Nobody comes back after entering The Shimmer.    


Actually one person does come back, and Lena (Natalie Portman), a doctor – who also spent seven years in the United States Army – feels compelled to enter it.  In doing so, she takes movie audiences on a sometimes beautiful, but mostly a deeply unsettling, nightmarish journey in writer/director Alex Garland’s (“Ex Machina” (2014)) visionary science fiction stunner.


The Shimmer is a bizarre phenomenon, a growing permeable force field, created by a meteor that landed near an ordinary lighthouse in Small Coastal Town, U.S.A.  Sensors, radar and satellite imagery cannot penetrate it, as The Shimmer seems to bend light.  Bleed it, actually, as its environment – from the outside - looks like one of those popular wavy-lined images from a few years ago. 


You know the ones. 


If you stared at a said image for a few minutes, you could see a bowl a fruit, a Chihuahua or the Mona Lisa, but this most unique on-screen environment provides visuals never really seen before in cinema.  The closest comparison is: if Garland carefully grasped the creature from John Carpenter’s “The Thing” (1982), roped in sick body horror concepts from the mind of David Cronenberg and melded them with a previously-pristine and lush rural location.  For Lena, this means that each step inside The Shimmer could produce an unexpected horror, and thankfully, she does not explore this other worldly ecosystem alone.


In fact, she is one of five armed women, and the team carries a dynamic mix of personalities and physical and educational skill sets.  The team’s leader Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), along with Anya (Gina Rodriguez), Josie (Tessa Thompson) and Cass (Tuva Novotny) accompany the newcomer Lena in this self-described suicide mission, but they have a purpose: to discover the source of the strange spectacle with the sincere hope of safely returning to normal ecology.  


Walking through the heavy foliage, the narrative feels – in some ways - like a female version of “Predator” (1987), as these five modern-day explorers could engage in combat at any minute amid the deathly silence and Garland’s industrial, purposely off-putting soundtrack.  As refreshing as the gender-twist on the familiar exploratory storyline is, the plot bends again, again and again, as the film does not follow straight hunt-or-be-hunted scenarios.  Instead, it moves to its own terrifying and creepy beats, and even though fragments of “Annihilation” can be traced to sci-fi or horror classics of the past, Garland’s creation stands on its own.


In addition to time spent inside The Shimmer, the film periodically reaches out from this outlandish bubble to our own familiar humanity, complete with imperfections, of course, and these unfold across the screen in unexpected ways, especially from the steady, somber dynamics delivered by Portman, Leigh and Oscar Isaac (who also starred in Garland’s “Ex Machina”).  These imperfections are physically and philosophically lugged into The Shimmer, and in a place where unpredictability reigns, all bets – and preconceived notions walking into the theatre – are off.  “Annihilation” is not a palatable film by a long shot, but it is an unforgettable and unshakable one.  Just start at a place of nobody comes back, and then the film demolishes old cinematic boundaries.

(3.5/4 stars)


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


Annihilation - Movie Review by Monte Yazzie




Director: Alex Garland

Starring: Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson, Tuva Novotny, and Oscar Isaac


Science fiction offers a medium to explore the fantastic, the extraordinary elements that compose advancements in tech, explorations into space, and numerous other insights that pose humanity against the unknown.


Director Alex Garland challenged the concept of humanity and artificial intelligence with the exceptional, one of the best films of 2014, “Ex Machina”. Mr. Garland returns to science fiction with the new film “Annihilation”, an astounding science fiction film that refuses to play toward expectations or succumb to easy explanations. It’s exactly what science fiction should be.


Lena (Natalie Portman) is a biologist who is mourning for her husband (Oscar Isaac), a military solider, who did not come home from his latest mission. Unexpectedly her husband returns, but he’s different. Before he can give any explanation for his disappearance he becomes extremely sick. While rushing to the hospital a group of government vehicles stop the ambulance and take Lena and her husband to an undisclosed location. When Lena awakens she is at facility, Area X, that is researching an unexpected event known as “The Shimmer”, a growing translucent bubble that has surrounded a small community with peculiar, deadly consequences.


Alex Garland has already, with just a few films, demonstrated his undeniable skill with crafting atmosphere. “Annihilation”, amidst some stunning and startling imagery and some beautiful landscapes, somehow creates an environment of that oozes with dread and menace. There is an uneasiness that is composed in nearly every frame, you can’t help but feel concerned for the group of women who have entered this chaotic, confusing world that is filled with mutated plants and animals. Garland deliberately paces the film with natural suspense, the world in the “The Shimmer” is alive and every place the women explore continues to prove more dangerous.


The narrative never tries to easily explain away the ideas it proposes, it’s thought provoking concept driven theories add an interesting depth to the script. Also surprising here is how the film handles the emotional connection between characters, it creates aspects concerned with love, loss, indifference, change, and evolution. It does this while fluctuating between the genres of horror, romance, and suspense. Mr. Garland understands that the science fiction genre can sometimes create the strongest metaphors for life; with “Annihilation” you can feel the heartfelt connections associated with disease, death, and the mourning process. The director knows exactly what he wants and how he can manipulate it to lead the viewer into different places.


The cast is a nice combination of female actors, however the film mostly belongs to Natalie Portman and Jennifer Jason Leigh. Ms. Portman is the emotional core of the film, the character that continuously tries to find reason with what is going on around her. Portman’s performance grounds the film with a reality that keeps the heady material and intense imagery from becoming distracting. Ms. Leigh is the opposite, she is somewhat emotionless and cold towards the journey, operating purely for the reason of finding out what answer exists at the end.


The film is based on a trilogy of books from Jeff VanderMeer, however those passionate about the source material may be surprised with the direction Alex Garland takes with the story. Still, what he does with the film is craft a unique vision that never takes the easy route. “Annihilation” is beautiful, ingenious, horrific, and deeply heartfelt filmmaking, a science fiction film that embodies everything that the genre should be defined as.


Monte’s Rating

4.50 out of 5.00



Game Night - Movie Review by Ben Cahlamer

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Game Night


Directed by John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein

Written by Mark Perez

Starring Jason Bateman, Rachel McAdams, Billy Magnussen, Sharon Horgan, Kylie Bunbury, Jesse Plemons, Michael C. Hall, Kyle Chandler


Growing up in a suburb of Milwaukee, we knew our neighbors; had block parties with them. Today, we live in an age where we feel more secure when we lock our doors. We don’t commiserate with our neighbors, fearing the worst in someone. I might be on a slippery slope in generalizing the feelings of communities throughout the world, but one look at the news or a post on social media, confirms my suspicions.


Going into the new comedy “Game Night” without knowing much about the film or its story is the best way to appreciate it. And, I am glad that I knew nothing, because it allowed me to enjoy the humor so much more.


Mr. Perez’s script is simple, yet elegant. The affable Jason Bateman plays Max. He is married to Annie, played by Rachel McAdams. They organize weekly game nights with friends with a focus on board games. When Brooks (Kyle Chandler), Max’s brother shows up, he flips the script on the neighborhood game night full of hilarious hijinks.


The secret to the film by Mr. Daley and Mr. Goldstein is that they use confusion and suspicion to their greatest advantage. It helps when you have a brilliant ensemble to execute on the confusion. Mr. Bateman has only one method of acting, but it works so perfectly here. Ms. McAdams is very much the spunky one in their relationship, but Mr. Bateman just feeds off of that energy. Mr. Chandler is amusing as he keeps us guessing throughout the night. As Ryan, Billy Magnussen is an absolute hoot. In a way, he reminded me of Don Knotts, as he is oblivious to his surroundings, yet happens on everything by pure chance. Sarah, his love interest plays her role in a deadpan style, which compliments Ryan’s ineptness. As Kevin and Michelle (Lamorne Morris and Kylie Bunbury, respectively), they steal the show as they argue throughout the night over a past transgression. Kevin won’t let go of it, which makes their argument funnier.


The real MVP of the film is Jesse Plemons as Gary, Max and Annie’s next door neighbor, who also happens to be a cop. His Joe Friday-esque take on the role is so perfect as he struggles to fit in. He is as loveable as his dog, but just as lost.


There are times when the film feels a bit over the top. Yet, it is the reason why we go to the movies: to escape from our reality. And that is something that this story gets right in spades. Messrs. Daley and Goldstein went to great lengths to create that balance, and they succeed largely due to the ensemble. But, they also make you feel as if you were a part of the game as our characters try to unravel the mystery confronting them. Part “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, World,” part “Clue,” and all fun, “Game Night” will entertain and delight.


3 out of 4 stars

Annihilation - Movie Review by Ben Cahlamer




Directed by Alex Garland

Screenplay by Alex Garland based on “Annihilation” by Jeff VanderMeer

Starring Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson, Tuva Novotny, Oscar Isaac


“We aren’t living in the past or the present. This is the future.”


I find it amusing that science fiction films that I enjoyed as a kid, and in large part as an adult, tend to focus on a dystopian future, where the dregs of society hang in the balance as power becomes concentrated among a few. It is only recently where dystopic science fiction has become science fact. It doesn’t need to look drab or shabby to present real world challenges to the future of the human race.


This is the beauty of Alex Garland’s latest film, “Annihilation.”


As with his prior directorial effort “Ex Machina,” Mr. Garland layers his film with an obscure viscerality, replete with finely tuned twists and turns. His characters, especially Natalie Portman’s Lena, are non-descript. Some might choose to use the word ‘bland’ to describe Lena and the other characters that inhabit “Annihilation.” The non-descript nature serves a purpose as the story unfolds at its own pace, layering in detail after detail.


In the near future, on Earth, a zone labeled “The Shimmer” appears. The government has sent in several expedition teams to explore, but with no result. Lena is a part of the latest expedition team sent in to determine the zone’s purpose. The deeper the expedition pushes through “The Shimmer”, the greater the danger. Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, Oscar Isaac and Benedict Wong co-star.


The level of detail that permeates Mr. Garland’s script, based on Jeff VanderMeer’s novel still boggles my mind. There is a predisposition to dismiss the film because the ‘wrapper’ feels very plain, a reference to my earlier comment about the characters. Their situations feel one dimensional as well, but, at the same time, they are very much alive.


While Mr. Garland gets the directorial credit, the ensemble does such an amazing job. There’s a genuine level of stern control that Ms. Portman exhibits, almost a clinical level of control, while Ms. Leigh holds her emotions just at the edge of losing control. Their pairing makes for an interesting dichotomy. Ms. Thompson and Ms. Novotny are smaller players in the overall arc of the story, but their journeys are no less compelling as each face their own greatest fears. Ms. Rodriguez is the most interesting in the expedition. Her take on Anya is unsurprising, and yet her purpose in the story is because she is the audience echoing our own worst nightmares.


In an unfamiliar environment, sound is as important as sight. The score by Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury is otherworldly, yet familiar and it carries the eerie feeling exceptionally well. The sound design is its own animal, contributing to the otherworldly experience. Rob Hardy’s cinematography is not to be overlooked. Mr. Garland’s use of light in the film is a key element in the story, especially deep in the forest.


Technical details aside, this film embraces the narrative risks it takes head-on. Mr. Garland and his cast are to be commended. Certainly, his producer, Scott Rudin also deserves some of those kudos as well. The story might very well confound some audiences. It might turn off other audiences.


And that’s okay. “Annihilation” is very much like cracking open a walnut or the horror of walking down the stairs on Christmas morning, realizing that the nightmare of getting a lump of coal in your stocking was true. Mr. Garland proves that there are times when you crack them open, there is a gem on the inside, just waiting to be discovered. You will remember this film long after you’ve stopped watching it.


4 out of 4 stars.

Ten Essential, Timeless Female Teams in the Movies

Ten Essential, Timeless Female Teams in the Movies 




Director Alex Garland’s new science fiction thriller, “Annihilation”, invades theatres on Friday Feb. 23, as five armed women accept a mission to step into a bizarre, unknown phenomenon called The Shimmer which changes an ordinary American marshland into something else.   Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tessa Thompson, Gina Rodriguez, and Tuva Novotny play the women from the aforementioned group, and their work in this film certainly adds to the rich history of great female on-screen teams and duos throughout the decades.  Well, looking back through movie history, here are my picks for 10 essential and timeless ones.    


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Jess Bhamra, Juliette Paxton and the Hounslow Harriers - “Bend It Like Beckham” (2002) – Juliette (Keira Knightley) encourages Jess (Parminder Nagra) to step out of her comfort zone and play for an all-girls English football team.  The problem is that Jess’s parents are far more uncomfortable with this proposition, as this fun and inspiring comedy embraces family, friends and chasing one’s dreams.  Director Gurinder Chadha offers a refreshing look into East Indian culture and treats the characters and customs with grace, including a skillful blend of choreography between a traditional wedding and movement on the pitch in the rousing third act.  Nagra and Knightley display plenty of ample football skills too, but the film devotes more time to their off-field stories.  Be on the lookout for Anupam Kher, who also plays Azmat (the father) in 2017’s “The Big Sick”.



Varla, Rosie and Billie - “Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!” (1965) – “Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to violence.”   Those words start director Russ Meyer’s 1-hour 23-minute foray into Varla’s (Tura Satana), Rosie’s (Haji) and Billie’s (Lori Williams) odd, twisted journey in the California desert.  Varla, a relentless instigator, leads this trio into trouble, including verbal and physical spats with an All-American couple and a half-baked plot to steal from an old man and his grown boys.  With heaps of an unapologetic, counterculture style and a cartoonish figure, Varla’s live fast, tough girl persona is only matched by her metaphorical speech.  Hey, Daddy-o, there ain’t nothin’ pleasant about this movie, but it’s a crazy, low-budget ride, Man.


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Dorothy Shaw and Lorelei Lee – “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” (1953) – Dorothy (Jane Russell) and Lorelei (Marilyn Monroe) work as a lounge/club act, and exclaim – in song – that they are two girls from Little Rock.  Well, from Little Rock or not, they end up on a cruise ship heading for France in a breezy comedy, in which these two legendary heroines absolutely shine.  Russell and Monroe play polar opposites, as Dorothy’s pragmatism creates hilarious semi-combustible exchanges with the starry-eyed Lorelei who searches high and low for a millionaire to shower her with diamonds.  Actually, she doesn’t have to look terribly far, and the film features Monroe’s iconic delivery of “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend”.  That same year, Monroe, Betty Grable and Lauren Bacall starred in “How to Marry a Millionaire”, and their three characters had a more focused goal as a team, but “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” is a better movie.


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Katherine G. Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson - “Hidden Figures” (2016) – When walking on the moon in 1969, Neil Armstrong said, “One small step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind,” but three African-American women made giant leaps of their own at NASA, beginning in 1961.  Based on the true story, Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monae play mathematicians Katherine G. Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn and Mary Jackson, as these three women help trailblaze the way for civil rights with their outstanding contributions at the nation’s leading space center.   Director Theodore Melfi and the actresses emote the women’s struggles against institutional racism and related setbacks, along with their forward-thinking ingenuity, led by Johnson who is the lone black woman on Al Harrison’s (Kevin Costner) high profile team.  This inspiring film – nominated for three Oscars, including Best Picture - flies with all the right beats and reaches for – and catches - the stars.    


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Dottie Hinson, Kit Keller and the Rockford Peaches - “A League of Their Own” (1992) – World War II called a nation of young American men to duty, including baseball players.  This, however, did not prevent sports fans from watching professional baseball, because a collection owners and female athletes formed the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League in 1943.  In a dramatized story about a real baseball league, the talented cast - led by Geena Davis, Lori Petty, Rosie O’Donnell, Madonna - showcase the competitive spirit and fun of America’s pastime in, arguably, the most celebrated female sports film in movie history.  Not only does director Penny Marshall offer some hilarious moments from the tough-as-nails duo of Doris (O’Donnell) and Mae (Madonna), the Rockford Peaches head coach (Tom Hanks) and lead scout (Jon Lovitz), but she does not shy away from revealing the sexism that the Peaches endured, along with game time dramatics and tension between sisters Dottie (Davis) and Kit (Petty).  All the on and off-field moments feel earnest and authentic, and when the movie ends, you will declare, “We need a sequel. Let’s play two!”


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Annie Sullivan and Helen Keller – “The Miracle Worker” (1962) – Annie (Anne Bancroft) and Helen (Patty Duke) do not really work well as a teacher-student team.  Quite the opposite, actually.  Six-year-old Helen is blind and deaf, and she physically and emotionally resists Annie’s persistent attempts to communicate with her.   Their struggle pours off the screen and douses the viewer with anxiety for a majority the film’s 1 hour and 46 minutes, as Annie truly needs to become a miracle worker to explain words, concepts and very basic manners to a lost child with no palatable points of reference.  Quite frankly, the exhausting, 10-minute dining room table scene alone should garner Annie a medal.  Well, the Academy certainly noticed, because Bancroft and Duke won the Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress Oscars in 1963.  This film depicts a portion of Helen’s real-life story, and she went on to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree, so yes, Annie Sullivan and Helen are both miracle workers.   



Lale, Nur, Selma, Ece, and Sonay – “Mustang” (2015) – Raised by their grandmother, five sisters (played by Gunes Sensoy, Doga Zeynep Doguslu, Tugba Sunguroglu, Elit Iscan, and Ilayda Akdogan) harmless play in the Black Sea with some boys, but their uncle responds with massively excessive repercussions in a movie which intimately captures the struggle between child and adult and freedom of expression versus oppression more than any other film in recent memory.  The girls respond to their repressive new environment in varying ways, while writer/director Deniz Gamze Erguven organically communicates the involved bonds of sisterhood and heartbreaking moments within figurative and literal enclosed spaces.  The Academy rightly nominated “Mustang” for the Best Foreign Language Film of the year.


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Judy Bernly, Violet Newstead and Doralee Rhodes – “9 to 5” (1980) – “The Empire Strikes Back” was 1980’s highest grossing movie, but “9 to 5” – which addresses unfair workplaces for women in a comedic and empowering way – was the second highest.  In the film, Judy (Jane Fonda), Violet (Lily Tomlin) and Doralee (Dolly Parton) plot against their boss, Franklin Hart (Dabney Coleman), after years of his repeated sexist slights.  All three leads are especially good and very likable, and Fonda delivers the biggest surprise with her understated performance.   The film struck a chord with audiences, especially women impacted by discriminating office environments of their own, and one can only imagine theatres bursting into laughter and emotional release, when Doralee threatens Mr. Hart by saying, “I’m gonna get that gun of mine and change you from a rooster to a hen in one shot.”



Elinor, Marianne, Margaret, and Mother Dashwood – “Sense and Sensibility” (1995) – Due to British legal complications, Mr. Dashwood’s (Tom Wilkinson) estate is passed to his male son from his first marriage and not to his wife (Gemma Jones) and daughters (Emma Thompson, Kate Winslet and Emile Francois) from his second.  For the Dashwood women, in addition to missing their late husband/father, they also lost their financial comforts.  In director Ang Lee’s adaption of Jane Austin’s novel, the four women rally together and support one another, despite their dissimilar personalities, especially between the reserved Elinor (Thompson) and idealistic Marianne (Winslet).  Displaced to a cottage in the country, the film basks in topnotch performances and a tightrope act of finding love, when pleasantries, obligations and duties usually trump passion.   Nominated for seven Oscars – including Thompson and Winslet for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress, respectively – it makes perfect sense to embrace this picture again, 23 years after its initial release.


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Thelma Dickinson and Louise Sawyer - “Thelma & Louise” (1991) – Thelma (Geena Davis) and Louise (Susan Sarandon) embark on a weekend road trip, and their travels begin extremely well, as they smile and sing “The way you do the things you do” in a green Thunderbird convertible. On the first evening of their vacation, however, they suddenly begin humming an extremely different tune, because misfortune and bad judgment collide with their previously-merry plan.  Director Ridley Scott, Davis and Sarandon capture a transformational journey with these two women, who have been living with chauvinism and economic oppression that they release on the road in the American desert.  Nominated for six Oscars, including two Best Actress nominations for Davis and Sarandon, this film moves the needle on female empowerment, because Thelma’s and Louise’s methods do not abide by traditional manners. 


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.


Black Panther - Movie Review by Monte Yazzie

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Black Panther


Director: Ryan Coogler

Starring: Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Martin Freeman, Daniel Kaluuya, Letitia Wright, Sterling K. Brown, Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker, and Andy Serkis


There are more than a few moments in director Ryan Coogler’s superhero feature “Black Panther” when the real trials and injustices of the past converge with the fictional lives of the characters living in this superhero universe, it displays a world unlike any world portrayed in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It’s refreshing, unexpected, and altogether necessary considering the divided world we live in today. “Black Panther” imbeds culture and tradition into every single frame of the film, displaying a Black world filled with rich environments, conflicted characters, and complicated scenarios all surrounding and socially aware of race, gender, social class, and history.


T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), the new King of Wakanda, returns home to the technologically advanced hidden African nation to oversee rule. However, T’Challa quickly realizes that rule in his country comes with obstacles, many from factions within Wakanda. The country has a material called vibranium that allows them to develop technology that far exceeds anyone else in the world. This brings two enemies into the conflict, both wanting to utilize Wakanda’s resource for their own deadly plans.


Mr. Coogler, who brought back the Rocky Balboa saga with the standout “Creed”, composes a Marvel film that has all the familiar and cliché sequences one would expect in a comic book movie; fast cars, explosions, flying costumed characters with super capabilities are all on clear display. However, it also does something wholly different from most recent Marvel films; it explores the mythology of a culture that thrives with tradition and emphasizes its uniqueness in the modern world; the wardrobe, the ceremonies, the design of Wakanda all have strong visions influenced by African and African American imagery. It’s beautiful every time it’s on display.


The film understands the power of gender, utilizing female characters that not only support the male hero at the forefront but form the foundation for everything that T’Challa stands for. By his side, saving his life a few times throughout the film, is General Okoye (Danai Gurira) who is a strong, tough-as-nails woman that is the definition of fearless. Ms. Gurira has an exceptional presence in the film. Making the gadgets is T’Challa’s sister Shuri (Letitia Wright), a smart young woman who knows exactly how to put her older brother in check. Ms. Wright is simply fantastic, a star turning role for the actress. Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) is a spy who challenges T’Challa in understanding the role he has as King of Wakanda. To call her the “love interest” is a disservice to the role that she really encompasses. Nakia, played with passion by Ms. Nyong’o, is the connection to the real world, to the world that still struggles, to the people that still fight for the most basic human rights.


Mr. Coogler separates his film from the Marvel Universe in another way by composing a villain that actually feels threatening, one that feels more than just another bad guy looking to destroy the world. Erik Killmonger is operating with a purpose, one that is directly connected to the past that helped in building Wakanda and completely influenced by the future that T’Challa is trying to protect. It’s great character development for Killmonger because it comes with realistic complexities such as the mistreatment of African American’s throughout history and the hope for a future where oppression will finally be challenged. This is the best composed Marvel film villain in some time.  Michael B. Jordan exudes confidence and has an intensity that shines when his character comes face to face with the Black Panther. Assisting Mr. Jordan’s character is another steady performance from Andy Serkis who is having all kinds of fun chewing the scenery as Ulysses Klaue.


Race is of great significance in this film. It’s the pivotal narrative element that separates “Black Panther” from the other Marvel films because it is handled in such a multifaceted manner. We are provided a film that understands the affect of the past, how history has treated a people in unfair and unjust ways, and how the abuse of power has threatened an entire cultural way of life. That alone makes any film thrive with a quality that resonates far beyond the barriers of any genre, the fact that a superhero film embodies this element on a mainstream platform is a wonderful, and important, achievement.


Monte’s Rating

4.25 out of 5.00

Black Panther - Movie Review by Ben Cahlamer

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Black Panther


Directed by Ryan Coogler

Written by Ryan Coogler and Joe Robert Cole

Based on ‘Black Panther’ by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby

Starring Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Martin Freeman, Daniel Kaluuya, Letitia Wright, Winston Duke, Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker, Andy Serkis


I don’t think it’s a big secret at this point that I am not a fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I didn’t grow up on comic books, so for me, I’m not invested in this universe. What is interesting is that after seventeen movies, I have discovered that the stories follow fantasy films that I enjoyed as a kid, because the themes they explored are carried within the MCU. Never have those themes congealed as well as they did in Ryan Coogler’s “Black Panther,” the eighteenth film in the MCU, which opens in theaters tomorrow.


As the film opens, we are treated to a question about how the Wakandans came to be. It gives rise to Vibranium and explains the birth of the first Black Panther, who united the five warring tribes, forming the nation of Wakanda. Years later, the sitting king of Wakanda, T’Chaka (John Kani) is killed, forcing his son, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) to ascend to the throne as the rightful heir. A secret from the past threatens the kingdom and the world.


Mr. Coogler (“Fruitvale Station,” “Creed”) brings a very assured and confident hand in his directorial turn, something that I didn’t think I needed in a Marvel film, and yet, I appreciated it. The key to the film is in its script, which Mr. Coogler co-wrote with Joe Robert Cole.


They managed to create a microcosm not only within the movie, but within the Marvel Cinematic Universe as well. The brilliance in the story is that it is self-contained and yet, it is steeped in culture and tradition. Lightning quick dialog touches on numerous themes of isolation, oppression and repression to the forefront with a ferocity that has been lacking in other Marvel films.


Mr. Boseman does an amazing job as he is called upon to fight in a ceremonial challenge to his crown in addition to inhabiting the Black Panther personae. Family is very critical to the Wakandans. Standing by his side are his mother, Ramonda (Angela Bassett), his younger sister Shuri (Letitia Wright) and his closest friend, W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya, “Get Out”). Loyal to the crown is Okoye (Danai Gurira), the leader of the Dora Milaje, the all-female Special Forces. Her athleticism was called upon several times throughout the film, but her ability to emote through her eyes said a lot about her performance and the character.


Forest Whitaker played Zuri, an elder statesman in Wakanda, a role we’ve seen him play time and again. It is his diplomatic approach to a role that gives him the gravitas to approach this role and lends itself well to the traditions of Wakanda. Martin Freeman has an extended role as Everett K. Ross. He is an effective addition to the cast, helping to build intrigue and adventure into the narrative.


Michael B. Jordan plays Killmonger, who is hell-bent on reclaiming his rightful place in Wakandan society. I was impressed with his determination as Adonis Creed and his fierce nature is on display in this role. However, I thought his aggressiveness diminished the impact of the character, but I am convinced the he can play another villain. He wasn’t as cartoonish as Andy Serkis’s Ulysses Klaue. Serkis was the most animated character in the entire film. He presented a dangerous aspect, and while he grounded the film in the MCU reality, his character felt out of place when the entire film is considered.


Visually, the film is stunning. Rachel Morrison’s cinematography carries the largess of the Wakandans, while the effects teams created an environment fit for a king. The real heartbeat of this film is its wonderful score from Ludwig Goransson. From subtle drum beats to full, action-packed themes, it carries the heritage of a society ready to burst forth and to put itself on the world’s stage.


Despite my praise, I initially found the film to be “flat” as it emulated the espionage-driven films of the 1970s with a hint of “Wonder Woman,” a little bit of “Lion King,” and some small measure of Shakespeare. It was as I started to break the film down that I realized the subliminal power of what this film means to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I understand its importance to not only the universe it inhabits, but the symbolism of our own tribes coming together as one. Perhaps it is because of its serious nature that I still struggle with the film itself.


2.75 out of 4 stars


Early Man - Movie Review by Ben Cahlamer

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Early Man


Directed by Nick Park

Screenplay by Mark Burton and James Higginson

Story by Mark Burton and Nick Park

Starring Eddie Redmayne, Tom Hiddleston, Maisie Williams, Timothy Spall


One of my favorite lines in a film has to be when William Shatner quips to someone “I guess irony can be pretty ironic sometimes.” It isn’t just that the line is hilarious. There is a lot of truth behind the comment. As I was thinking about Nick Park’s latest stop-motion animated film “Early Man” arriving in theaters tomorrow, the quote comes to mind.


Mr. Park along with his talented team of story tellers at Aardman has been delivering animated delights for many years. What started with “Wallace and Gromit” on the BBC transitioned into a chicken farm teeming with life to a sheep who doesn’t speak, but motions exceptionally well. Why, then, is a tribe of cavemen in the Stone Age funny let alone remotely appealing?


In part, it’s the dry, droll, ironic humor that Mr. Park and Mark Burton infused into their story, with the screenplay written by Mr. Burton and James Higginson. The humor is visually carried by the animation, but the voice cast really drive it home. In the Stone Age, the Earth is still cooling; volcanoes burp and spew lava. A valley, created by a meteorite impact is home to a caveman tribe. Led by Chief Bobnar (Timothy Spall), his tribe hunt rabbits. The most animated of his tribe is Dug (Eddie Redmayne). One night, their home is invaded by Lord Nooth (Tom Hiddleston), whence it is declared that the Stone Age has ended and the Bronze Age has begun. In a signature Aaardman moment, Dug is whisked away to the big city where he learns the truth about the caveman’s origins.


I am a huge fan of Aardman films. Their stories are short and to the point. They don’t waste a single animated cell while the characters are down to earth. It’s the theme of friendship, family and, ultimately trust that makes their stories so appealing. The animation is so pleasing to the eye as well. And, that’s where I struggled with “Early Man.” Much like other established content companies, Aardman has a formula that works for them. And I will always line up to see the animation. At some point though, risks must be taken. In this film, the risk is in Maisie Williams’ Goona, someone who Dug befriends during the course of the story. It was a nice touch to see Goona represent herself so strongly as a character.


Mr. Redmayne’s voice perfectly captured Dug’s innocence and his inquisitiveness. He played meek against Goona, but was able to defend his honor against Lord Nooth. Mr. Hiddleston was an excellent foil because he is the anti-hero; he sees no wrong in his antics, an irony that is not lost on this reviewer. Mr. Spall is subdued in this film, but that serves a purpose, which I think teaches an important lesson for younger children. The real MVP of the film is Hognob, Dug’s pet wild boar, played by Nick Park. I’ll let you see the movie to understand why.


Despite feeling like Aardman is stuck in their mold, they surprised me with characters and a story that reflect our own real-world situations. It might sound cliché, but the Geico insurance tagline “So easy, a caveman can do it” kept running through my head as the story unfolded. ABC tried to capitalize on this many years ago. There is irony in the fact that Aardman succeeded where ABC TV failed. But it’s probably not as funny as I think it is.


3 out of 4 stars