An interview with Niki Caro, director of The Zookeeper's Wife by Jeff Mitchell

Director Niki Caro’s (“McFarland, USA” (2015), “Whale Rider” (2002)) new film is about a zoo, a very unique and historical zoo.  In “The Zookeeper’s Wife” - starring Jessica Chastain, Johan Heldenbergh and Daniel Bruhl - she tells the story of Antonina (Chastain) and Jan Zabinski (Heldenbergh), two zookeepers who saved hundreds of lives during the days of World War II’s Warsaw Ghetto.  Niki spoke with the Phoenix Film Festival about Jessica’s bond with the animals, how this war story is told from a female point of view and more.

“The Zookeeper’s Wife” arrives in theatres on Friday, March 31.

PFF:  I really appreciated the first shot - at least, I remember it as the first shot - in which two lion cubs are lying on a bed with Antonina’s (Chastain) sleeping young son, Ryszard.  The scene instantly identifies Antonina as having a kinship with animals.  How did that moment strike you as a storyteller but also as a filmmaker?  Did you say to yourself, “How do we mechanically do this scene?”

 

NC:  It’s an interesting story.  The first image of Antonina, as scripted, was to be her in a chair feeding two lion cubs with a bottle.  That classic Madonna image but with little lions.  On the day the little lion cubs came to the set, they had already been fed.  So, they didn’t need to be fed again and like all babies, they were sleepy.  Rather than force them to do something (that) they weren’t prepared to do, we changed the script, and this was the philosophy of all the filmmaking with the animals.  The animals dictated the shots in many ways. 

 

It’s one of the most wonderful ways to work, because the animals are really like babies.  You can’t make them do what you want them to do, and neither should you.

 

So, we changed the shot.  I put the little babies on the bed with little Rys (Timothy Radford), and I put a camera behind Antonina, which is, in fact, a better image.  It was very appropriate, I felt, to introduce Antonina in a very enigmatic way, because she was such an enigmatic character, and also to express her maternal nature.  Then, of course, when (Jessica) left the room, the little lion woke up and watched her move across the room.  That’s interesting too, because Jessica has an identical gift with Antonina Zabinski.  Jessica is a genuine animal whisperer, and there was a very, very strong…unusually strong bond with her and the animals.  I was very confident in being able to do all of the animal work, and nobody is doubling for Jessica. 

 

 

PFF:  Jessica was completely effective and believable as Antonina, a person who devoted her life to animals.  She expressed this in many ways, like her joyous bike ride through the zoo and helping in the elephant area during one critical scene.  Jessica established this strength, a feminine strength.  When Jessica and you dove into the material, did you have discussions about portraying Antonina as being strong with a feminine spirit?

 

NC:  That was the driving force.  Her femininity.  War stories in cinema are almost never told from the female point of view.  Almost all war stories express the male experience, and that is absolutely appropriate, but this one was about a woman who was both very, very soft and very, very strong.  Jessica and I totally committed to her femininity and even more than that, all of the filmmaking is inspired by that.  Femininity was explored in the lighting, in the way things were (shot) and in expressing what Antonina’s experience was.  Her husband, Jan (Johan Heldenbergh), was with the resistance and had a lot more (wartime) action.  Her experience was no less important, and you could argue maybe, more important, because she had - at any given time - up to a dozen people living in their house, in (secret) places and everywhere in the zoo, while the zoo was being patrolled by German soldiers.  The short answer is that this (story) is told very much from the feminine point of view and very proudly so.

 

 

PFF:  The film takes place in Warsaw, the zoned-off ghetto from that period, but there was a hugely important moment in the movie that reminds the audience of what happens after the ghetto.  At a train station, Jewish children were looking to adults – including Jan - to help “lift them up” onto the train.  Was it important to include that particular scene? 

 

NC:  Yea, that was hugely important.  As a filmmaker, I’m always reaching for an image that speaks loudly without using words, and as a parent, I’m kind of hyperaware of when a child puts (his or her) arms up to you.  It’s all trust.  It’s pure trust and confidence that you are going to pick them up and take care of them.  So, it was an important image for me to bring to the film and give to Jan.  Of course, (for the) audience and Jan, the context is so brutal, and yet, we still have to (meet the) trust of the children and help them onto the train.      

 

PFF:  Jan and Antonina seemed to enjoy a partnership, an equal partnership in their marriage.  Thinking back to the time (1939) and wrongly perhaps, power centers in marriages may have been frequently very one-sided, but their relationship was not.  Was that a key theme? 

NC:  I’d say that Antonina – in many ways – was a traditional wife at that time.  She did defer to her husband, but what happens in wartime is that women come into themselves.  She became, over those years, incredibly strong, and by the end of the movie, they - of course - are totally supportive of (each other).  They were zookeepers.  Jan was a doctor, very much the brains of the operation, but she was the heart.  He admired her so much for the person that she was and the gifts that she had.   

 

 

PFF:  And that’s how a marriage should work.

 

NC:  Yea, different but equal.

 

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.

 

Personal Shopper - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

‘Personal Shopper’ somewhat works as thought-provoking window shopping

 

Writer/director:  Olivier Assayas

Starring:  Kristen Stewart, Lars Eidinger and Ty Olwin

 

 

“Personal Shopper” – Maureen (Kristen Stewart) lives in Paris and spends most of her days volleying between two activities.  One should be exciting and fun, while the other usually is a frustrating affair, but – surprisingly - Maureen finds both sides of her work-coin unsatisfying and a little maddening. 

 

She is a personal shopper for Kyra (Nora von Waldstatten), who is a fashion icon of sorts, and Maureen runs around the city’s arrondissements, buying expensive clothing and accessories.  Many women that I know would kill for that job, but Maureen seems dispassionate when handing over 4,500 EUR - of someone else’s money - for a belt and two handbags.  The horror, right?  Well, it is a bit unfair to judge too harshly, because Kyra has a reputation as a monster, although the movie audience never really sees that behavior. 

 

Well, the movie audience does hear what Maureen hears.  Ghosts.  When she is not plunking down thousands of euros for her “monster”, she is chasing ghosts.  She is a medium and finds herself on a challenging quest: to receive a “sign” from her departed twin brother, Louis.

 

Director Olivier Assayas (“Summer Hours” (2008), “Clouds of Sils Maria” (2014)) cooks up a mash-up, a contemporary drama and a ghost story in one of the fashion capitals of the world.  An odd mix, but an intriguing one, and Stewart is featured in most of the frames throughout the picture’s 1 hour 45 minutes. 

 

Maureen is icy and despondent, and Assayas portrays beautiful Paris in the same light, in grays, blues and shadows.  Nearly everywhere in town feels subdued and muted.  Unimpressed with the city that surrounds her, Maureen is much more preoccupied with hearing from her late-brother while also worrying about similar health concerns that he experienced.  Her bad vibes are not lost on her boyfriend (who she communicates with through Skype), local friends and the occasional acquaintance.  Critics and audiences have criticized Stewart for similar, sluggish portrayals in the “Twilight” series, but she has accomplished a lot of great work since, and here, her character’s persona is set by design to fit with a melancholy tone.

 

In addition to Maureen’s complaints about Kyra and general disinterest, she continues her quest to find a sign from Louis, while Assayas changes the mood during some tension-filled moments.  We hear things that occasionally go bump in the night (or day), and since Maureen is a medium, she and the audience wonder if the bumps and thumps are friendly ones or not.  One particular plot thread dominates the second and third act, and the film repeatedly tugs on it to attempt to ramp up our anxiety.  Assayas certainly weaves a mystery, but a slow-moving one, and since the collective onscreen energy feels low, that inevitably translated to this audience member.

 

Now, “Take Shelter” (2011), starring Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain, has a comparable structure and possesses a similar restrained tone as “Personal Shopper”, but – in the end - it proves to be a more effective thriller.  Its story - about a man, Curtis (Shannon), in rural Ohio who has visions of a massive storm that no one else can see – deliberately builds up tension over its 2-hour runtime and feels more singularly-focused.  Also, Curtis emotionally explodes in the second act, and his shocking actions truly capture the turmoil that is gurgling inside of him.  At the moment of truth, the film more than delivers its expected payoff.

 

Unfortunately, the payoff in “Personal Shopper” – possibly due to a roaming narrative and persistently cool performances - unfolds as a curiosity rather than a dramatic conclusion. 

 

Krya’s boyfriend, Ingo (Lars Eidinger), pops in on a couple of occasions as a curiosity as well, but Assayas seems to clip those threads, and the opportunity for an effective, meaningful layer becomes lost.  We are left with Maureen’s general malaise in a story of shopping and ghost hunting duties. I do highly commend Assayas’ penchant for risk-taking, but neither storyline successfully sold me.  Then again, the film somewhat works as thought-provoking window shopping, especially in Paris.  

(2/4 stars)

 

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

 

 

 

 

T2 Trainspotting - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

‘T2 Trainspotting’ is flawed, but fans will get their fix

 

Director:  Danny Boyle

Writer:  John Hodge

Starring:  Ewan McGregor, Jonny Lee Miller, Ewen Bremner, and Robert Carlyle

 

“T2 Trainspotting” – “It felt just like coming home.” – Ewan McGregor

 

In a recent group interview with the Phoenix Film Festival and other entertainment outlets, McGregor expressed his feelings about the “Trainspotting” (1996) cast returning to Scotland to film their much anticipated sequel, “T2 Trainspotting”.

 

Of course, the original movie – about a group of friends loitering in the game of life – is edgy and highly entertaining, and it still resonates with audiences everywhere.  These friends are Renton (McGregor), Sick Boy (Jonny Lee Miller), Spud (Ewen Bremner), and Begbie (Robert Carlyle), who – in the film’s third act – complete a drug deal for 16,000 pounds.  Under the tremendous weight of the group’s incredible dysfunction and a desire to get away from it all, Renton flees with the cash (sans 4,000 pounds, which he left for Spud) with an assumption that he would never return to Edinburgh.

 

In the new film, McGregor’s aforementioned “coming home” comment completely fits for his character too, because Renton returns to Edinburgh after 20 years.  After two decades, Simon (aka Sick Boy), Spud and Begbie’s life trajectories did not earn them riches or fame. 

 

Far from it. 

 

Even worse, the three are struggling in very different ways, and none of them are enjoying happy lives. 

 

Far from it.

 

The three also have not forgotten Renton’s getaway, and – at least initially – time does not heal all wounds. 

 

Far from it. 

 

Now, Renton rides into town on a collision course to face his past, and director Danny Boyle channels his past to deliver a new story about these four men, who are now middle-aged and emotionally scarred by the cruel reality of bad decisions and Father Time.  Renton attempts to make amends with Simon and Spud, while avoiding, avoiding, avoiding Begbie – a violent psycho – at all costs. 

 

Visually, the picture works very well.  Boyle employs a slick flair, peppered with eye-popping moments and beautiful touches.  Some showcase Edinburgh, almost a love letter to it, including Old Town, Scottish Parliament and a gorgeous shot atop Arthur’s Seat overlooking the city.  Others include daydream sequences and special effects, such as the unexpected sight of numbered floors from an elevator flashing on the outside of an apartment building.  Add various moments of visceral violence, and this feels like a “Trainspotting” film.

 

Not only does it feel like a “Trainspotting” film, but the four leads easily fall back into their characters.  It is as though McGregor, Miller, Bremner, and Carlyle took no other film roles over the last 20 years and specifically saved themselves for this picture.  For fans, observing these men stepping into their characters again is a joyous miracle, like witnessing the Loch Ness Monster jump ashore and sing Franz Ferdinand’s “Take Me Out”.  Rather than delve into how each character has changed physically and emotionally, those nuisances should be saved for the big screen.  Although, I will add that heroin use plays a very minimal part in this 2017 picture, but other seedy ill-gotten gains “thankfully” fill the void.

 

Speaking of voids, as far as the story itself, “T2 Trainspotting” – unfortunately - does not seem to have much of a point.  Now, the picture does offer insightful thoughts on the magnetic power of friendship.  In reaching that end, however, the movie seems to navigate from one set piece to the next, without much connective tissue. 

 

For instance, Spud develops a penchant for writing by scribbling short stories on scrap pieces of paper, but his arc hardly ties into the overall picture.  Sure, it connects to some extent and seeing Spud apply positive initiative is terrific, but he could have taken up scuba diving or become a master at Sudoku, and it would not have made much difference. 

 

Now, make no mistake, Boyle and the gang do offer wonderful set pieces.  One in particular has Renton and Simon caught in a thorny circumstance in front of a potentially very hostile crowd that will absolutely blow the movie house down.  Like a greedy junkie, I wanted to experience more of these moments, but did not see enough.  Additionally, while waiting for the inevitable confrontation between Renton and Begbie, the second half of the picture stalls in parts and a serious plot hole – to gather all four men together at the movie’s climax – exists. 

 

“T2 Trainspotting” is a flawed, imperfect film.  It’s spotty with its pacing and does not contain enough highs (pardon the pun).  

 

On the other hand, from a fan’s perspective, each moment is a pleasurable opportunity to absorb every word and every action from four celebrated antiheroes, or at least one antihero and three misguided others.  Perhaps, that’s the point.   This is a movie for the fans, with many, many references and nods to the first film and some very enjoyable surprises.  Coming home may not be as thrilling as the first go-round in life, but nonetheless, it can be satisfying.

(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.

Raw - Movie Review by Monte Yazzie

Raw

 

Director: Julia Ducournau

Starring: Garance Marillier, Ella Rumpf, Rabah Nait Oufella, Joana Preiss, and Bouli Lanners

 

It was a Friday afternoon. The group of people from the office I worked at were going to get lunch at a new sushi place. At this point I wasn't a big fan of sushi but was willing to give it another try. One of my co-workers had never had it before either. The introduction for us was sashimi, a Japanese delicacy of very fresh raw meat. I hated it, my co-worker absolutely loved it. I remember him calling the meal "life changing".

 

The awakening of emotions and instincts in a young female veterinary student in director Julia Ducournau's new film "Raw" also brings about life-changing events, more than just finding a new favorite food. The experience in this film is so much more than just the visceral imagery you might connect to a film about cannibalism. Instead, the connection to the title of the film holds a deeper and more thought-provoking meaning, one that evokes a strong look at feminism, sexuality, and maturity. Ms. Ducournau has crafted a bold and confident dramatic horror film.

 

Justine (Garance Marillier) is a young vegetarian woman who is on the fast academic track to veterinary school. However, after a carnivorous hazing ritual that the upperclassmen impose on all new students, in which they must eat raw meat, Justine begins to have strong cravings.

 

At the core of "Raw" is a coming-of-age story about a young girl thrown into maturity. In the film she is basically kidnapped in a cruel hazing ceremony that ends up with her at a wild party that feels like something out of "The Warriors". Ms. Ducournau does an exceptional job of displaying Justine's confusion and frustration with people around her but also how the new experience naturally entices her inquisitive nature. It's within this maturation that Justine begins to find herself, where she begins to find her true self. Regardless of how strange and unusual that person might be, the film never flinches during these awkward and startling moments.

 

Also interwoven into the film is a story about family, specifically the bonds of sisterhood. Justine's older sister Alexia (Ella Rumpf) is naturally perturbed that her younger, annoying, know-it-all sister is in school with her. Early in the film you get a sense that these sisters both love each immensely, however you also understand that the sisters are naturally competitive with each other. This leads to interesting moments that display the heartfelt and the cruel nature that siblings can have with one another, specifically in the way that they communicate with each other. The aggression builds, but so does the compassion and understanding. It's a complex relationship, and as aspects of cannibalism begin to take hold you can feel that these two siblings understand that the only way they will survive is to help each other. It's a fascinating narrative undertone that provides a depth to challenge the intense aspects of the film.

 

The performances from Garance Marillier and Ella Rumpf are exceptional. They embody the difficult aspects very well, but that isn't very hard to do considering the graphic nature of the theme. Instead it's the subtle progression of these two women and how they change, you get insight into what is shaping Justine and what has already shaped Alexia.

 

"Raw", as the title implies in many ways, is a film that can be uncomfortable and difficult to watch, but not simply because of the intense scenes of gore and violence but rather the emotional turmoil that many of the characters in the film are dragged through. This isn't a film for every film fan, this includes horror fans. Still, director Julia Ducournau has crafted an impressive debut film that challenges how filmmakers are utilizing genre film to tell stories. Whether a commentary about gender and sexual empowerment, a coming-of-age film that displays the fragility of the process, or a film about family and how unique the definition is to everyone; its quality that I hope continues within the genre.

 

Monte's Rating

4.25 out of 5.00

Interview with Danny Boyle and the 'T2 Trainspotting' Cast by Jeff Mitchell

Director Danny Boyle delivered his landmark picture, “Trainspotting” in 1996, and this highly entertaining and edgy movie - about a group of friends loitering in the game of life - still resonates with movie audiences everywhere.  In 2017, Boyle, Ewan McGregor, Ewen Bremner, Jonny Lee Miller, and Robert Carlyle return for their very anticipated sequel, “T2 Trainspotting”. 

 

Danny, Ewan, Ewen, and Jonny found the time to speak with the Phoenix Film Festival and other entertainment outlets for an insightful group conversation and expressed their thoughts on the film’s iconic characters, themes and even the new soundtrack.  

 

“T2 Trainspotting” arrives in theatres on Friday, March 24.

 

Q: What prompted you to revisit “Trainspotting” after 20 years?

 

DB: We tried ten years ago.  Irvine Welsh published a book, “Porno”, which was a ten-years-later sequel to his original novel.  John Hodge (the screenwriter for “Trainspotting”) and I (worked) on a script, but I didn’t even bother sending it to the actors, because (I) didn’t feel there was a reason to do (the film).  Obviously, there is an onus on you, when you return to something with the impact that the first film had.  If you’re going to update it, you’ve got to have a reason, and it didn’t feel like there was (one).  It was just a caper again, and also the actors didn’t really feel any different.  They didn’t look any different.  I’m sure they would have felt different, but they didn’t look any different from 10 years ago, not really.  They’re all smirking at me now, but actually, we did used to joke – at the time – that they looked after themselves so well that basically, they still looked in their early 20s.

 

Anyway, so we met in Edinburgh two years ago, again, John Hodge, Irvine Welsh, two producers, and me.  I think when we sat down, we thought, ‘This won’t work. We’ll have to do due diligence, (and) because there is a big anniversary coming up, there will be a lot of interest in whether (a new film) will happen or not.’ 

 

What emerged was much more personal and gave us reason to make the film, really.  It is - obviously - a sequel.  You can’t deny that, but it has its own right to exist. 

 

Raison d’etre, the reason to be, which is the passage of time, and especially masculine behavior over time.  The (first) film is a great celebration of a certain period of your life through the most extreme prism that you can imagine.  These junkies in Edinburgh.  The update is when they’re 46, and they’re f*****, as Renton (McGregor) says.

 

 

Q:  As performers, what is the surrealism of revisiting the characters all of these years later?  Did you feel that you weren’t just making a sequel, and you were making a reflection upon sequels, in general?  How you can’t go back to the past, and sometimes, the past is the best time of your life?

 

EB:  Age is cruel, and you don’t realize that until you get to this point in your life.  In the first film, we were full of exuberance and potency, and we thought that we were invincible.  It took us 20 years to realize that we’re just running on the spot, and time is flying by.  So, when Danny asked us to come back together and find out who these guys were after 20 years, we had an opportunity that is unparalleled, that never comes along for actors. 

 

Danny lets you really run with every idea, and he feeds you full of fantastic ideas to play with.  So, we just had a bag full of opportunities.

 

 

PFF:  Thinking about how the first film ends and the second one begins, the words “friendship” and “betrayal” come to mind. 

 

I read a quote about these two words, and it simply stated, “Apology accepted.  Trust denied.”    

 

Thinking about Spud (Bremner) and Simon (Miller), I think that they felt just the opposite:  Apology denied, but trust accepted.  Do you think that is right?  If so, is it because that they began their friendships as kids, so “trust accepted” is just inherently there?

 

DB:  Well, friendship is a very powerful thing that none of us are really in control of.  It takes over your life in a way, that you can’t anticipate.  Irvine Welsh said something very interesting about this dynamic, and about the first film in relation to the second film.  The first film was about the power of friendship, and how it’s intoxicating and overwhelming, and it is a real hit the vein.  Ultimately, to be part of this (group of friends), it crushes your individuality.  So in the first story, the individual, Renton, has to break free of the crushing conformity of the group.  (In) the second film, the individual (comes) back into the fold, because to survive out in the wilderness is just as crushing.  So, the individual comes back to try to find succor in this difficult part of his life. 

 

 

Q:  The music in “Trainspotting” is seminal and very evocative, very representative of that era and that culture.  Danny, can you talk a bit about the score of this movie and the concept behind it, two decades later?

 

DB:  We were very lucky on the first film.  We found an Underworld album called “Dubnobasswithmyheadman”.  I remember saying to John Hodge (screenwriter) and Andrew Macdonald (producer) that this would be the heartbeat of the film.  You’re always looking for that on a film, if you can.  You don’t always find it, but you find some way in the musical choice that represents the film, and of course, we found “Born Slippy” - which wasn’t on that album - and it ended the film.  Coming into the new (film), you want to try and find that equivalent heartbeat, and we found this band, Young Fathers. They came from the same estates around Edinburgh that Irvine Welsh came from and where his stories are based from 25 years ago.  These guys, Young Fathers, weren’t even born, and yet their stuff fits into the film, so we used three or four of their tracks. 

 

There are some reflections on the first film, like the Prodigy remix of “Lust for Life” and the Underworld reimaging of “Born Slippy”, but it’s the heartbeat of the new film that sustains you the most, and that was the relationship with Young Fathers.  Their songs are peppered throughout the film, (including) a wonderful song called “Only God Knows”.  

 

 

Q:  The original “Trainspotting” monologue can be frightening to someone who is about to enter “real life” after school.  Can you talk about some of the lessons in both films that are about that period in your lives?

 

JLM:  I think the monologue in the first movie is a lot about masculinity.  There’s a confidence and that fearlessness which permeates the first movie, and it’s really summed up in the voiceover, especially in the end speech. 

 

This is what I’m going to do.  This is who I am.  This is who I am going to be, and it’s directed to the audience. 

 

It’s an assault on the audience, a confidence boost.  That falls away later in life, and what you are left with, you reflect more on it.  I think that the second film really reflects that very well.  Your confidence - maybe - disappears a little bit.  It’s not your confidence, (but) it’s your brash attitude to life.  You don’t feel invincible anymore.  Your mortality is more evident to you perhaps, either subconsciously or consciously.  You’re either aware of that, or you’re not.  

 

 

Q:  What was it like coming together – as actors - after all of these years? 

 

EM:  I hadn’t seen Jonny for maybe 15 years, and I hadn’t seen Bobby (Robert Carlyle), since the “Trainspotting” premiere in Scotland.  I can’t believe that’s true.  Ewen and I, this was our fifth movie together, so we’ve worked with each other over the years.

 

So, we’re getting back together again, and our relationships were founded (by) working on “Trainspotting”.  We had a short space of time to make that movie.  I think we shot it in seven weeks (or) six weeks, and we worked really hard on it.  We were also all aware, that we were doing something really special and important, and so we were giving it our all.  So, to come back together and find each other again under the same conditions, if you like, and with the same responsibility for this film was just fantastic.  It felt just like coming home.  It wasn’t until the very end - and quite late in the shooting – (when) the four of us were actually on set at the same time, and that was extra special.

 

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.

 

 

 

Beauty and the Beast - Movie Review by Monte Yazzie

Beauty and the Beast

 

Director: Bill Condon

Starring: Emma Watson, Dan Stevens, Luke Evans, Josh Gad, Kevin Kline, Ewan McGregor, Ian McKellen, Stanley Tucci, Audra McDonald, and Emma Thompson

 

“Tale as old as time”. In 1946 French artist, playwright, and filmmaker Jean Cocteau brought a classic of storytelling to stunning, visionary life. “Beauty and the Beast” has since been retold and reimagined, though it wasn’t until 1991 that a film would come close to matching the magical quality of Cocteau’s film. Disney animation crafted a children’s musical that would become a beloved staple for a generation of young people.

 

Director Bill Condon, “Mr. Holmes” and “Dreamgirls”, adapts the Disney animated film in near shot-for-shot fashion, lovingly recreating many of the moments fans will remember from the classic animation. Add a group of talented live action actors, computer generated household items like the candelabra “Lumière” and the teapot “Mrs. Potts”, and a digitally composed beast, and it would seem like all the pieces are present to make another beloved film for a new generation. To a large extent this rendition of “Beauty and the Beast” works just fine, supplying enough uplifting tunes and beautiful imagery to arouse a sense of nostalgia or make you forget that you’ve seen this film many times before.

 

Emma Watson plays the confident Belle with wit, charm, and tenacity. Belle has always been one of the more interesting of the Disney princesses, a maturing girl raised by her father in a village that she has outgrown. Her escape ultimately comes in the form of a capture. Ms. Watson fits the role perfectly, her look and handling of the character’s defining qualities, the empathy and intelligence especially, is the glue that holds the film together.

 

Dan Stevens plays the Beast, a performance composed with a motion capture suit that is then transformed digitally into the towering, roaring monster. This method works half the time, mostly when Ms. Watson is there to support and react to the performance. Whenever the Beast is left to portray dramatic moments, and sing on a few occasions, some of the digital seams are revealed and the emotion that should come through, as it did with the beautiful performance by Jean Marais in Jean Cocteau’s film over 70 years ago, is lost.

 

Still, Mr. Condon builds such a spectacle of song and dance that even a talking pot, voiced by Emma Thompson who accomplishes the giant charge of replacing Angela Lansbury, and a mannerly candelabra, voiced by Ewan McGregor and tasked with singing “Be Our Guest”, are provided opportunities that will undoubtedly sweep the viewer into all the fun.

 

As for all the controversy that has produced anger and boycotts from different groups, these scenes are so minuscule, so slight, so simplistically woven into minor moments in the film that unless you go into this film specifically looking for controversy, you will hardly recognize it. For a film that displays a character living in a world that attacks difference, it seems so foolish to think that some viewers wouldn’t recognize the moral of the journey of Belle, which is empathy, acceptance, and knowledge above all can change anything.

 

“Beauty and the Beast” spends more time, over two hours, building a display of lavish digitally composed atmospheres than it does trying to establish a better narrative or deeper connections to the interesting characters found in this fairytale. Still, the loyal and dutiful allegiance to the original animated feature may be enough to overlook the blemishes.

 

Monte’s Rating

3.50 out of 5.00

Beauty and the Beast - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

‘Beauty and the Beast’ is a beautiful, noticeably longer live-action remake 

 

Director:  Bill Condon

Writers:  Stephen Chbosky and Evan Spiliotopoulos

Starring:  Emma Watson, Dan Stevens, Emma Thompson, Ewan McGregor, Kevin Kline, Josh Gad, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, and Ian McKellen

 

 

“Beauty and the Beast” – “Little Town, it’s a quiet village.  Every day like the one before.”

 

Director Bill Condon’s live-action adaptation of Disney’s eternally wonderful, animated treasure “Beauty and the Beast” (1991) – which, in turn, was based upon the 1946 French film with the same name - reaches the big screen, and it begins with a prologue, an explanation of how a prince turns to a beast. 

 

We know this story. 

 

Well, we believe to know this movie’s beginning, middle and end, and especially after a refresher release of the 1991 animated picture just a few years ago in 2012.  Unless Condon and writers Stephen Chbosky and Evan Spiliotopoulos really wished to shake the ground from beneath our feet and generate legitimate outrage from “Beauty and the Beast” fans everywhere, they would leave the lead narrative void of major twists and deliver the story that we all know. 

 

As the film moves from its prologue at the castle to a small French village, we meet Belle (Emma Watson), as she begins her day. 

 

She breaks into a number called “Belle” and sings the words noted at the beginning of this review.  At that moment, Condon, Chbosky, Spiliotopoulos, Watson, the costume designers, choreographers, cinematographers, and everyone else working on the picture has us.

 

To borrow a line from “Jerry Maguire” (1996), “They had us at ‘Belle’.” 

 

Initially, at least.

 

The song and presentation are spectacular, with all of the musical pageantry, poetry and moving parts triangulated into a flowery, fanciful feast for one’s eyes and ears, as Belle recites her story of yearning for something more than her little town has to offer.   Reciprocally, most of the townsfolk find Belle fairly strange for reading books all day and searching for adventure outside of their village’s borders, sans her inventor father named Maurice, played with a light, comedic bounce by Kevin Kline.  

 

Maurice naturally and inadvertently becomes the catalyst to unite the girl and the cursed prince (Dan Stevens), who broods in his gray, solemn castle. 

 

The Beast’s castle and the winter wonderland surrounding it look as though Disney poured millions and millions of dollars into their construction.  According to imdb.com, the film’s budget is estimated at $160 million, and it is money well-spent.  Belle and Beast stand emotionally opposed during their first meeting, but their hearts gradually grow closer over time.  Simultaneously, sweeping set pieces, entertaining royal subjects - who appear as ordinary housewares, like Lumiere (Ewan McGregor), Mrs. Potts (Emma Thompson) and Maestro Cadenza (Stanley Tucci) - and agreeable songs rush through us like the wonder of a brand new Disney World ride.   Although, that is not exactly correct, because this live-action, multimillion dollar tour is not brand new. 

 

We know this tour. 

 

Condon successfully passes the earlier-mentioned challenge of not significantly altering the narrative, but with any remake, it cannot escape comparisons to the original, especially if it does abide by the rules of following the same story.  For example, during the magical scene at the castle when Mrs. Potts (Thompson) sings “Beauty and the Beast”, it feels impossible to not compare her work to Angela Lansbury’s timeless rendition.  Thompson certainly performs pleasantly and skillfully during the movie’s most important moment, but 2017’s three-minute sequence does not possess that “it-factor” of its 1991 predecessor.     

 

Conversely, other sequences like “Gaston”, “Something There” and “Be Our Guest” drew no judgmental comparisons from me, for reasons I cannot explain other than the live-action versions truly hit their marks. 

 

The movie’s runtime, however, does not hit its mark.  The picture runs a noticeably long 2 hours and 9 minutes, which could be a very tough sell for younger children, and as a point of reference, the 1991 picture ran a tidy 1 hour and 24 minutes.  At least a portion of the additional 45 minutes covers more fight time between Beast and the knuckleheaded lead antagonist, Gaston (Luke Evans), extra tracks like a solo by Beast called “Evermore” and Belle’s family history.   

 

We do not know that backstory.

 

With Disney’s backing and a recognizable, A-list cast including, Watson, Thompson, Kline, Evans, McGregor, Tucci, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, and Ian McKellen, “Beauty and the Beast” does reach its lofty expectations of pomp and circumstance.  This film is a beautiful piece of work that deserves accolades from casual and rabid fans alike. 

 

The filmmakers, however, are subjected to an unfair squeeze play: keep the story intact, but also deliver something fresh and new.  Even with an additional 45 minutes of film, I don’t know if Condon is entirely successful.

 

I felt a bit like Belle during her opening song and walked away thinking, “This movie is like the one before.”

 

“Beauty and the Beast” (2017) is, but it is also gorgeous.   

(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 Sense of an Ending - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

‘The Sense of an Ending’ effectually explores the imperfections of memories

 

Director:  Ritesh Batra

Writers: Nick Payne (screenplay), Julian Barnes (novel)

Starring:  Jim Broadbent, Charlotte Rampling, Harriet Walter, Michelle Dockery, Emily Mortimer, Billy Howle, and Freya Mavor

 

“The Sense of an Ending” – “The difference between false memories and true ones is the same as for jewels: it is always the false ones that look the most real, the most brilliant.”  - Salvador Dali

 

Tony Webster’s (Jim Broadbent) life appears in order.  Retired, he now owns a small, vintage camera shop and – generally speaking - minds his own business, when he is not accompanying his single, pregnant daughter, Susie (Michelle Dockery), to her Lamaze classes, of course.  He supports Susie as best he can, but surely, he feels out of his element. 

 

On an ordinary afternoon, the contents of an envelope knock Tony off-balance too, when he reads that Sarah Ford (Emily Mortimer) passed away.  It just so happens that Sarah left him a personal memento, which she possessed from their mutual friend.  Complications and frustration arise, however, because family entanglements prevent him from properly receiving this very important keepsake.  

 

From the minute that Tony opens the letter, memories from 50 years ago entangle him too.  They do not necessarily flood back, but frequently occupy his mind – like waves striking a vulnerable, sandy beach - over the next few weeks.  These synaptic surges open up a puzzle, one from the very distant past.  Piecing it together can be immensely complicated, especially when Tony originally believed that his life appeared in near-perfect order, with no mysteries to solve. 

 

Director Ritesh Batra (“The Lunchbox” (2013)) unveils the mystery of Julian Barnes’ novel on the big screen.  Set in present-day London, Batra interjects frequent flashbacks from the 1960s, Tony’s college years.  Sometimes, a 2017 trigger sends the narrative back for long stretches.  In other instances, ancient visions flash in front of him, like the sudden, temporary appearance of his first love, Veronica (Freya Mavor), sitting behind a laptop in place of a random legal secretary. 

 

The onscreen relapses do feel unwanted – to the audience - at times, because the film does not seemingly set a deliberate pattern of when they appear in front of Tony.  Then again, unless human beings sit in constant mediation for 24-hours a day, we do not own complete control of when our memories materialize.  In my case, for instance, any 2017 conversation about rustic, 24-hour diners, can immediately send my mind to a 2 a.m. pancake experience at a Long Island establishment in 1992.  In retrospect (pardon the pun), the film’s numerous flashbacks do feel appropriate, almost like an additional character repeatedly bumping into us on a figurative busy street corner.

 

With London as a beautiful, urban backdrop, Tony feels bent on solving his conundrum and pursues the one person who could help, Veronica (Charlotte Rampling).  Rampling is perfectly cast as the mysterious ex-girlfriend from a lifetime ago and delivers a cool, rigid performance.  Veronica stands as a 5’ 6 1/2” roadblock to Tony’s personal mini-salvation and cryptically doles out information like an emotional-pained grim reaper.  This only makes Tony’s journey more difficult, as the screenplay slowly unveils the complex truth, one careful step into the past at a time.

 

Broadbent and Rampling - two skilled, veteran character actors - wonderfully duel in a game in which only one is wholly unaware of history, while the other lived it all too well.  This is a frequently-used device in storytelling, but “The Sense of an Ending” offers something more.  Tony’s dilemma is not an uncommon one, because a distorted view of history based upon memories is inherently human.  The film explores this imperfect slice of the human condition and forces us to ask how we view our own experiences.  What mysteries exist right in front of our faces, or to be more accurate, deep within our own incomplete versions of the past?

 

Looking back to my Long Island diner experience from 25 years ago, which specific words were spoken over coffee and carbohydrates after midnight that I absorbed back then, but am missing now?  Shucks.  Try as I might, I cannot remember.     

(3/4 stars)

 

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

An interview with Ritesh Batra, director of The Sense of an Ending - By Jeff Mitchell

Director Ritesh Batra (“The Lunchbox” (2013)) carved out some time to chat with the Phoenix Film Festival about his new movie, “The Sense of an Ending” starring Jim Broadbent and Charlotte Rampling.  In this intriguing character study – based upon the novel by Julian Barnes - Tony (Broadbent) discovers that an acquaintance from long ago passed away.  This stirs up memories and feelings that he had not actively reflected upon in years, but are his recollections completely accurate or just his version(s) of history?   

 

During our insightful discussion, Mr. Batra describes a key difference between the film and novel, expands on some of the story’s themes and mentions that a positive experience with his grandfather ties to the movie in a small way.  

 

“The Sense of an Ending” opens on Friday, March 17.

 

PFF: “The Sense of an Ending” deals with our own versions of the past that may not quite add up to actual history.  Do you think that imperfect memories are just a flaw of being human, or do we deliberately alter them to protect ourselves? 

 

RB:  If I had the answer to that question, my life would be a lot easier (laughing).  

 

I spoke a lot about this - before we made the movie - with Jim Broadbent.  Did Tony conveniently forget, or did he choose to forget?  It is important that the movie walks that line.  In the book, it clearly states that he forgot (about his past).  Tony is the first-person narrator, and we take his word for it.  We don’t have a choice.  That’s the power of literature, but in a movie, you are watching (him) on screen. 

 

A movie can (place) you in someone else’s shoes and in someone else’s head, to some degree.  As an audience member, you (can) really question whether he forgot or conveniently forgot.  That’s a good line to walk, and that’s what is exciting about this project: to find lines to walk on and stay on them, so the audience can ask questions. 

 

I’m glad that you asked that question, but I don’t know even if the Dalai Lama has the answer.

 

 

PFF:  One of the nicest moments in the film is when Tony treats the delivery man nicer than he did earlier in the picture.  What’s happening to Tony here?  By reflecting upon his life, is he trying to capture moments of humanity in his present?

 

RB:  In the editing room, the editor and I would talk about these things all the time.  What’s happening to Tony?  I feel like once a movie is (made and) out there, it belongs to you, and what you see in it.  If that’s what you see, yes, of course, I agree with you.  That’s exactly what’s happening. If (someone) can see and feel the truth in a movie, and there’s no false note in it, that’s all that one can hope for.

 

Tony is in a hurry in the morning (during the earlier scene), and the movie is so much about time.  As we grow older, time goes faster and faster.  I had the real privilege of growing up with my grandad.  We shared a room during the first 18 years of my life and the last 18 of his.  When I was a teenager, it was a real pain sometimes, but now I feel like it was a real gift.  I could see - as my grandfather grew older and older - that he tried to slow down time (to appreciate it).  I didn’t understand it at the time, but I do now. 

 

 

PFF:  Is it fun shooting scenes from the 1960s with the fashions and music of the period, or is it stressful because something from 2017 might accidentally appear in the film?

 

RB: (Laughing) We had a lot of fun shooting those scenes and had a great team around us committed to the truth of the era.  Yes, of course, when you are shooting on location, you (spend a lot of effort) capturing the order of the period and how it works, but that’s part of the fun too. 

 

 

PFF:  Veronica (Rampling) can appear as a “cool customer”.  Do you think that her memories of Tony are not entirely based in reality?  She appears to treat him more harshly than she should, or is this just the way that she is?

 

RB:  Tony has not traveled a great distance in terms of experiencing the tragedies and the ups and downs of life. The actors playing Tony – Billy Howle (in the 1960s) and Jim Broadbent (in present day) – feel like the same person, and that’s important to the story.

 

On the other hand, (there is a difference between the) younger Veronica (Freya Mavor) and the older Veronica (Rampling).  When you see Charlotte on screen, Veronica is someone who has lived a full life, a full and real human life, full of pain and sorrow and humor and ups and downs and everything else. The difference between the younger Veronica and the older Veronica is great, and the story tells you the reasons why.   

 

We were really lucky that we signed the actors that we did.

 

 

PFF:  Tony owns a camera shop, and his first love, Veronica, introduced him to his first camera.  Do you think that Tony works in the camera business as a way to hold onto his first love, because the love itself is no longer present? 

 

RB:  I think that’s a fine interpretation.  Who knows, maybe Veronica will walk into his camera shop one day, and maybe Tony doesn’t even know (that) he hopes for that.  

 

 

PFF: The film’s first 20 minutes kept me off-balance.  Tony receives a letter, and a few names of unfamiliar characters were quickly spoken.  Were you trying to keep the audience off-balance, just like the wrench that was thrown into Tony’s life?

 

RB: Absolutely.  The book unfolds differently.  In Part I, it’s all about Tony’s younger years, and Part II is about Tony’s older years.  The movie doesn’t have the luxury of chapters, so it was a good opportunity to use the tropes of thrillers and use them differently to tell a character-driven story.  We were all excited (for) that opportunity. 

 

 

PFF:  Did Tony need the revelations of the movie to improve upon his present, or could he have gotten along fine without knowing or correctly remembering the truth?

 

RB:  It depends upon what your definition of “fine” is.  What’s very captivating to me about this material is Tony is searching for “the sense of an ending”.  You can call it whatever you want, but it is a sense of closure, and do we really have it (during) any chapter in our lives?  I look back at my life, and I have not had closure about anything. 

 

One day, the clock is just going to stop, and that’s the extent of closure that we are going to get. 

 

Often times, you read a newspaper (article) about the relatives of a victim who are looking for the body, because they want closure. I hope that they do find that body, but are they ever going to have closure?  I don’t think so. 

 

I’m glad that the movie gives thought to your question.  It’s a very good question.   

 

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 Last Word - Movie Review by Kaely Monahan

With crotchety charm and sass Shirley MacLaine shines in ‘The Last Word’

By Kaely Monahan

 

How do you want to be remembered? What will your legacy be? And who gives a rat’s bottom if it’s true? In The Last Word, Shirley MacLaine’s Harriet Lauler, she cares very much, even though she scowls defiantly at the world.

 

Marketing queen with a tongue that can cut through flesh and men’s insecurities, MacLaine portrays an elder woman who at first glance is sour, wretched and downright awful. But “The Last Word” challenges the crotchety old woman stereotype with surprising finesse and hilarity.

 

When we meet Harriet, she’s harassing her gardener. He’s cutting the hedges from top to bottom, which is clearly the wrong way. It must be a bottom to top and—oh move over! Harriet is, unequivocally, a control freak. One who seems very familiar to anyone who has dealt with an overbearing boss—or perhaps you yourself can’t stand to see other people do things incorrectly.

 

She even butts her cook out of the kitchen and prepares her own meal. Harriet lives a lonely existence in a giant house that is only fractionally reminiscent of Lady Catherine de Bourgh in Pride and Prejudice. Sour, unlikeable, MacLaine imbues Harriet with a certain earnest fury. The world is turning but not consulting her—and it should.

 

By chance, she glances at the obituaries in her local newspaper and comes up with the idea that she will have her obit drafted before she dies. Perhaps not a novel idea in real life (there are plenty of obits standing in the wings, as it were, at most news organizations), but in “The Last Word” MacLaine is determined that her life be immortalized exactly as she desires.

 

Marching into the local paper, which she used essentially subsidize, Harriet throws out the editor-in-chief and demands to have a meeting with the obituary writer. Here we meet Amanda Seyfried. Young, millennial, with a bit of boho attitude to go with the chic, Seyfriend’s Anne is a dreaming realist. She’s a writer, or yearning to be one, but she has a secure job writing obituaries. One the side she writes essays that she shares with no one.

 

Being the force of nature that she is, Harriet volun-tells Anne that she will be writing her obituary and that she’s figured out the key parts to one and proceeds to tell her how to go about it. The resulting relationship is like two sheets of sandpaper against each other. Yet as the film progresses, the sheets smooth away the rougher edges and the true persons beneath are revealed.

 

For as charming and hilarious as the script is, these are highly nuanced performances and probably won’t get the acclaim they deserve. Ms. MacLaine is a legend in her own right, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that she takes to the role effortlessly. But the performance really is flawless. MacLaine knows when to fidget and when to sit still—you can see her thoughts as they cross her mind. Harriet is a woman on a mission to the very end.

 

Abrasive but ultimately kind at heart, MacLaine lends Harriet a real authenticity. As for Seyfried, she seems to shine next to MacLaine. They play off each other well, and it’s clear that both she and her character Anne benefited from working with MacLaine and Harriet.

 

But the breakout star in this film would have to be AnnJewel Lee Dixon as Brenda. While her role as the “unfortunate black kid from the projects” is cringe-worthy, Dixon’s performance is not. The Last Word is apparently her first feature film and she lights up the screen every time she is on. She takes the stereotype and turns it on its head—as much as the script will allow. Sassy, foul-mouthed and bold, she’s a mirror to MacLaine’s Harriet.

 

The Last Word is one of those films that can slide by as barely a blip on the radar, but it would be unfortunate for you to not see it. Funny, witty, and with a serious dose of tender-hearted brashness, it’s a film that will be remembered by all who see it.   

 

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

 

Kong: Skull Island - Movie Review by Monte Yazzie

Kong: Skull Island

 

Director: Jordan Vogt-Roberts

Starring: Brie Larson, Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson, John Goodman, John C. Reilly, Corey Hawkins, Tian Jing, Toby Kebbell, Thomas Mann, Shea Whigham, and Jason Mitchell

 

Kong is king!! And since 1939, Kong has been one of the iconic movie monsters. Nearly 80 years, which included numerous films, and the giant ape has gone from a stop-motion puppet to a spectacle of computer-generated effects. Kong isn’t the only super charged element in director Jordan Vogt-Roberts new monster movie "Kong: Skull Island", a rather fun and never too serious action adventure film.

 

Monsters are real. Well, at least that’s what scientist Bill Randa (John Goodman) believes. He has spent his entire life hunting for evidence of monsters and he believes that proof exists on Skull Island, an undocumented island that is kept hidden by a massive storm that surrounds it. Randa is finally given permission to explore the island with the help of a military platoon led by Lt. Col. Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson). Knowing that something beyond imagination could exist on the island, Randa employs a tracker named James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) as well. It doesn’t take long for the team to realize whose toes they stepped on by invading the island. Kong is king.

 

You get a sense early on that Mr. Vogt-Roberts is not trying to emulate the past incarnations of the famed ape. A majority of the past films have kept the introduction of Kong a secret, waiting untilthe midway point of the film before we finally see the monsters full image and size. With "Kong: Skull Island" we are introduced to Kong in the first few minutes of the film, even the first full battle sequence with a striking image of Kong blocking the sun happens before the 20 minute mark.

 

The film takes place in 1973 with the United States stumbling out of the Vietnam War. The sentiments felt by incorporating a military team at the end of their tour in Vietnam, waiting happily to go home, offers a nice compliment to the story and the ultimate battle with Kong. Leading the charge is Lt. Col. Packard, a famed war hero, who is looking for one more chance to prove himself in a war he refuses to believe was a failure.

 

Lt. Col. Packard, played with wild eyed and stern toned aggression by Samuel L. Jackson, leads the charge via helicopter into the uncharted island. Again, it doesn't take long for Kong to make an impact. The swarm of helicopters are blindsided by Kong, even with all of their gun power they are no match for massive monster. Losing many of his men during this attack, many of whom we never get a chance to meet, sends Packard into madness and on a journey of vengeance that has him touting man's superiority over animal. It's hard not to feel the influence of other war films during these moments with the soldiers, "Apocalypse Now" and "Platoon" most recognizably hold a strong influence over the creative choices in the narrative. These moments work when they function in the vein of something like "Predator", however this is not always the case as the film also shifts to a serious tone in some awkward places.

 

What helps immensely with the clumsy script and at times terrible dialogue is the acting team collected here. They are all exceptionally talented. When you have actors like Tom Hiddleston, Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson, and John Goodman, you're bound to make terrible dialogue have some kind of power. Mr. Jackson is just fun to watch, from the beginning moments his character is intriguing mostly because of Mr. Jackson's bravado. The most interesting of the group is Brie Larson's photographer Mason Weaver; the moments that she has with Kong are less "beauty that killed the beast" and more beauty that helps the beast. There is also a nice cameo by a familiar actor who always seems to be having the most fun in whatever role he gets to play. Unfortunately, with so much talent in the film, some characters are only given a few moments to really shine.

 

"Kong: Skull Island" is fun when it doesn't take itself too serious, the kind of monster action that emulates epic battles you may have had in the sandbox with your toys as young kids. The acting is better than expected and the action is loud, fast, and aggressive. It's already been revealed that this is just the beginning for the monsters, "Kong: Skull Island" is a good start.

 

Monte's Rating

3.50 out of 5.00

Kong: Skull Island - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

‘Kong: Skull Island’ does and does not monkey around

 

Director:  Jordan Vogt-Roberts

Writers:  Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein and Derek Connolly

Starring:  Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson, Brie Larson, John C. Reilly, and John Goodman

 

“Kong: Skull Island” – “This place is hell.”

 

An apprehensive visitor to a previously uncharted isle in the Pacific Ocean, Skull Island, appropriately describes the location as Hades.  Why?  Well, for starters, Skull Island is eerily – and I suppose, predictably - shaped like a skull, which cannot bode well for local tourism.  Even worse, planes and boats traveling near the island have reportedly disappeared, perhaps “eaten” by a violent low pressure system - best resembling a Category 5 hurricane - encircling the place 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and 52 weeks a year. 

 

And you thought your February trip to Seattle was challenging? 

 

Allegedly, this island has not been explored by humans, but its shape and problematic weather patterns do not deter scientists Bill Randa (John Goodman) and Houston Brooks (Corey Hawkins) in the least.  They recruit a military escort and an experienced tracker, James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston), to march into the unknown and chart the previously uncharted.

 

Before leaving Saigon for Skull Island in 1973, James lists all of the ways that the Randa/Brooks contingent could die on this journey and recites, “Rain, heat, disease-carrying flies, and we haven’t started on all the things that want to eat you alive.”

 

Oh, Mr. Conrad could not be more correct about his final point.   In “Kong: Skull Island”, the latest King Kong film, the famous ape may not necessarily wish to eat you alive, but hordes of odd, dangerous species on his island home certainly do. 

 

Think “Jurassic Park” (1993) without the cool rides and amusement park infrastructure, but include malaria-infested waters and a primitive, wide-open tropical rain forest with almost nowhere to hide.

 

Jordan Vogt-Roberts – who directed the indie comedy, “The Kings of Summer” (2013), about three teens living in a tree house for a few months, just out of reach of suburbia – creates another film in the wilderness, but this one is a high-octane action picture, featuring one of Hollywood’s greatest movie monsters, and he connects.  Vogt-Roberts connects with his audience, looking for massive, well-choreographed battles between King Kong and hideous creatures and human visitors alike. 

 

The showcase clash versus people is a wild and lengthy helicopter fight with Randa and Brooks’ military escorts in an exposed valley, where Kong can be seen in plain view.  As the copters zip and zag around the gigantic gorilla, one immediately recognizes the ode to Kong films of the past, sans a New York City skyscraper.  This is simply one of Vogt-Roberts’ many looks into Kong’s history as well as ours, which also include the repercussions of nuclear testing in the South Pacific and the end to the Vietnam War. 

 

Samuel L. Jackson spins an effectively steely character (who he can play blindfolded) named Lt. Col. Preston Packard.  Lt. Col. Packard hates that his fighting days are over and still feels the itch to trade blows, and Kong is a perfect target.  This bitter soldier does bravely lead troops and civilians on an excursion into a nightmarish ecosystem, but this collective group becomes physically separated and then emotionally split about their feelings for Kong. 

 

Not only are the monsters - in addition to Kong - massive, but the film’s cast is too.  Too big.  With seemingly 16 soldiers and civilians, Roberts attempts to highlight each one.  While one can admire the willingness to grant a signature moment or two for everyone, there is not enough movie runtime to properly connect with each character.  Tian Jing and Corey Hawkins’ screen time is completely wasted with random fills of unimportant blather.  Thomas Mann, Toby Kebbell and Eugene Cordero engage in familiar soldier speak heard in every war movie that you have ever seen, but with the gravitas and urgency of buying a pack of gum at a convenience store.  Brie Larson is not given much to do either, however, she plays an important role in the film’s third act.

 

Goodman, Hiddleston and Jackson work their hero-magic when asked, but John C. Reilly brings much needed humor and oddball silliness to the screen.  Except for Hank’s (Reilly) continuous and welcome assertions of charm and absurdity, “Kong: Skull Island” plays it straight and serious.  In fact, Reilly becomes a leading costar of sorts, alongside Kong.  While audiences enjoy the ferocious pageantry of 10-story monsters beating and chewing each other into bits, Reilly’s Hank is about the only memorable human character.

 

The soundtrack attempts to memorialize the period with a constant – and after a while, very tiresome and distracting – array of Black Sabbath and Creedence Clearwater Revival tunes during various montages and temporary stops in the action.  Unfortunately, this movie tries way, way too hard in a classic case of more equals less.  

 

As far as actual King Kong sightings on the big screen, Vogt-Roberts thankfully subscribes to a winning formula of more equals more, including a surprising first look at the humongous star within the film’s opening minutes.   Yes, King Kong unquestionably knows how to raise – and bask in - hell, and all of our inner-teenagers will reap the benefits. 

(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.

Logan - Movie Review by Monte Yazzie

Logan

 

Director: James Mangold

Starring: Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, Dafne Keen, Boyd Holbrook, Stephen Merchant, and Richard E. Grant

 

Hugh Jackman has played the Marvel Comics character “Wolverine” since 2000, with the inclusion of “Logan” this would be the eighth time (ninth if you include a cameo) Mr. Jackman has played the clawed mutant superhero. Seventeen years and the role is coming to an end for Mr. Jackman in “Logan”, a gritty and violent fond farewell that wraps up the journey of the beloved character. 

 

It’s been an interesting trip for the Wolverine in all these films, especially in the standalone films, which have had a difficult time successfully composing the complicated character. The Wolverine is unlike other superheroes, a somewhat reluctant loner of few words who is powerful enough to be an asset to both the good guys and the bad guys. “Logan” explores something the other films haven’t emphasized, that even though this character has the ability to heal the worst physical wounds what kind of emotional wounds has he sustained from a life of fighting the good fight.

 

Logan (Hugh Jackman) has outlived his superhero counterparts; he has seen the efforts for peace amongst mutants fail. In the future the mutants have been all but eradicated, leaving those remaining forced into hiding. Two of the most powerful mutants in history, the Wolverine and Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), are aged and fragile. Professor Xavier is suffering with dementia, leaving the most powerful mind in mutant history a ticking time bomb. Logan is also sick, his healing properties are weakened and his emotional state is on the verge of crumbling. A mysterious young girl (Dafne Keen) is thrown into the lives of these two iconic mutants, leading to one final battle to protect the future.


 

Director James Mangold, who helmed 2013's "The Wolverine", returns and from the first moments of the film you can feel that "Logan" is going to be something different. This film, seemingly taking point off the success of "Deadpool", is rated R for "strong brutal violence and language throughout, and for brief nudity". However, these elements, albeit noticeable from the beginning, aren't what separates the film from the rest in the franchise. It's the tone, the bleak and grim atmosphere and the future that seems hopeless and, to a large extent, at the end of its life. Logan is lost, wandering desolate highways and dark corners of large cities. Professor Xavier is a mumbling and confused old man, forced into taking medication to prevent seizures that have the power to destroy entire cities. It's an existence that is difficult to watch but one that feels wholly realistic in terms of the social and political climate. The narrative does a fine job of underlining these concerns of separation and alienation, whether mutants verse humans, parents verse children, men verse women, black verse white, the film is clearly making an example.


 

Logan, trying to keep a low profile, is still an icon of mutant support and resistance. Comic books featuring the tales of the X-men are the only pieces of history for new generations of mutants to learn from. This brings a young girl with exceptional, familiar talents into the lives of Logan and Professor Xavier. Laura (Dafne Keen) is on the run from a group of hired mercenaries lead by a mechanical-armed tough guy named Pierce (Boyd Holbrook). Newcomer Dafne Keen is fantastic in the role, offering a great counterpart to Logan, one that also provides a strong willed emotional quality that plays nicely, fiercely with the Logan character.


 

While "Logan" leans more into the character study aspects than past films, it is still very much an action film. There are few stunning moments that let the character bring havoc and mayhem into the frame. However, even with the ramped up violence, you actually get to see the full extent that long adamantium claws have when challenged against the human body, and the occasional strong moments with adult language, the R-rating doesn't play much of role in making the narrative feel anymore critical than it would have if it remained PG-13. That's actually a compliment to the script, which instead of engaging in overindulgence of the spectacle that can come with an adult rating composes strong characters that make the story compelling and provides an emotional quality that may have some fans dropping a few tears.


 

Hugh Jackman has always owned this role but here the character is really given something to build upon, offering moments that allow Logan to be affected by the life that he has lived but also affected by how he will live the remaining time that he is given. If this is the end for The Wolverine, it's the best way that it could have ended.  


 

Monte's Rating

4.00 out of 5.00

 

Logan - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

A vulnerable ‘Logan’ delivers an indestructible Wolverine movie

 

Directed by:  James Mangold

Written by:  James Mangold, Scott Frank and Michael Green

Starring:  Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart and Dafne Keen

 

 

“Logan” – “Not okay!”

 

Logan (Hugh Jackman) directs these words to an uber-aggressive mutant named Laura (Dafne Keen), who is roughly 11 years-old.  She was about to make mincemeat of an unsuspecting convenience store clerk, because he caught her stealing a pair of sunglasses and a box of Pringles.  Thankfully, in a life-or-death teaching moment, Logan stopped Laura from turning this random 20-something into a 180-pound slushie.  

 

Logan performed admirably in that instant, but he is not physically well.  Not at all.  In the year 2029, his healing powers have dramatically slowed, and he looks sickly and old.   Not 90 years-old, but his face has noticeably aged, seemingly weathered by some bizarre, accelerated cancer eating away at his insides.  

 

Logan is not okay.

 

On the other hand, “Logan”, the movie, is a wonderfully constructed and executed comic book picture.  A small, character-driven film, and one which bathes in sooty, dark and solitary territory.   Director James Mangold (“3:10 to Yuma” (2007), “Walk the Line” (2005)) also directed the ultimately silly, second Wolverine picture, ”The Wolverine” (2013), but he strikes all of the right notes here, during the presumed last appearance of Jackman donning the famous metallic claws. 

 

Mangold’s film takes place in world void of heroes, and void of mutants as well.  Logan’s only companions – when he is not working as a limousine driver and hauling corporate execs and bachelorette parties across economically depressed communities - are an albino caretaker named Caliban (Stephen Merchant) and Professor X (Patrick Stewart).  While Logan may have physically aged, the years have not blessed the professor in other – and vastly more hazardous – ways.  The three are in seclusion for a very important reason, but fate – in the form of an 11-year-old girl - brings them out of hiding, and Logan, Professor X and Laura find themselves on the run from a little-known enemy. 

 

The first two Wolverine solo films attempted to balance moments of Logan’s isolation and bloody, violent pulp.  Neither movie, however, successfully captured the appropriate cinematic calibrations.  “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” (2009) felt uneven and scattered, and “The Wolverine” (2013) struck more isolationist tones but fell apart during a cartoonish third act.    

 

This Wolverine picture, however, seems to have dialed in the right combination of Logan’s tendencies for seclusion and brutal graphic violence.   The MPAA appropriately gave “Logan” an R-rating, because yes, the violence at times can be brutally graphic, especially during some choice scenes that - indeed - showcase how Logan’s claws can rip and skewer flesh and bones. 

 

Oh, the vicious carnage that Logan can unleash. 

 

Simply “ask” a two-bit gang of ruffians who attempt to tinker with Logan’s limo and shoot him for it.

 

This gang, however, is not the main group of villains.  Instead, an unknown parade of corporate baddies aims to hunt down Laura, and Logan and Professor X become her protectors in a cat-and-mouse road picture.

 

Even though Logan probably owns the copyright to the term “primal violence” and Professor X is arguably the most powerful mutant, they do not presently stand at the pinnacle of their powers, so tensions remain high.  A sense of danger always exists onscreen, even though Mangold offers plenty of quiet spaces during the 2-hour 17-minute runtime to explore Logan’s humanity, and along with it, his relationship with the professor and this wondrous new find, Laura.  (Actually, the young Miss Keen is a wondrous new find as well.)

 

Although this road trip movie certainly dips into cliché, the three are a pleasure to watch.  Stewart delivers an added dimension to Professor X, and while witnessing this three-mutant journey, X-Men fans might truly feel the need to soak up every precious moment.  You see, the indestructible Logan’s best and most intriguing solo movie is the one in which he isn’t physically okay. 

(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.

 

Table 19 - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

‘Table 19’ sets as a predictable, likeable event

 

Director: Jeffrey Blitz

Written by:  Jay Duplass and Mark Duplass

Starring:  Anna Kendrick, June Squibb, Lisa Kudrow, Chris Robinson, Stephen Merchant, Tony Revolori, and Wyatt Russell

 

“Table 19” – Weddings receptions are fun!  During a well-planned afternoon or evening, a great wedding reception can shower its guests with tasty food, adult beverages, music, dancing, laughter, and love.  Who wouldn’t love this celebration of love? 

 

Well, those sitting at Table 19, who are placed in the furthest back corner of the ballroom.  Table 19 is reserved for a collection of misfits with little or distant connections to the bride and groom.  While almost everyone else – from Tables 1 through 18 - seems to be enjoying themselves, Eloise (Anna Kendrick), Walter (Stephen Merchant), Jerry (Chris Robinson), Bina (Lisa Kudrow), Renzo (Tony Revolori), and Jo (June Squibb) mope at this infamous table, soaked with the realization that they are not necessarily welcomed on this day of merriment. 

 

After a short while, they communally feel that some imaginary team captains deliberately picked them last for a dodgeball game but also banished them to the sidelines, even before one red ball is thrown. 

 

Director Jeffrey Blitz and writers Jay and Mark Duplass do not include any actual dodgeballs in the story, but this cluster of strangers feels emotionally slugged.  Additionally, each character lugs their own personal baggage to the table (pardon the pun), needing to overcome their own melancholy and individual challenges.  Admittedly, we have witnessed similar personal journeys countless times in movies - and your average sitcoms –  for decades. 

 

To be blunt, there are very few surprises here, but the very talented cast offers their comedic skills to generate rooting interests for (most of) these likeable underdogs, and they know how to make us smile.  Blitz hands Merchant, Revolori and Squibb the best material, and they roll with several funny moments, regarding prison time, sexual frustration and growing older, respectively.  Merchant is especially hilarious with Walter’s missteps in trying to mask his questionable past.

 

Many, many wedding films of the past predictably make big deals around best man speeches, cake cutting and first dances.  Although these wedding reception milestones do occur in “Table 19”, they refreshingly transpire in passing, without trumped-up fanfare.  Instead, the film focuses on the characters’ light moments and personal dramedies.  The narratives work, with the exception of Jerry (Robinson) and Bina’s (Kudrow) marital problems.  They trudge through typical arguments, and the actors’ comedic and romantic chemistry just feels off, despite their best efforts.  Since one “knows” how their story will end, the continued hope is that Blitz limits this troubled couple to less than their allotted slice of the 87-minute runtime.  Since we have five Table 19 stories, that officially calculates to 17.4 minutes of Jerry and Bina bickering.  Unfortunately, it seemed like more.

 

Thankfully, Kendrick carries her solid mix of charm, cuteness and nerve, as Eloise copes with a recent breakup, while wandering in the netherworld of singledom on the day of her best friend’s wedding.  Naturally, this makes her decision to either accept Francie’s (Rya Meyers) wedding invitation “with pleasure” or “decline with regret” a complete dilemma. 

 

You might be happy that you checked “accept with pleasure” on a figurative invitation to a weekend matinee.  While “Table 19” will not inspire spontaneous proposals or cause standing ovations, it is a pleasant and likeable event.

(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.

Get Out - Movie Review by Monte Yazzie

Get Out

 

Director: Jordan Peele

Starring: Daniel Kaluuya, Allison Williams, Catherine Keener, Bradley Whitford, Caleb Landry Jones, Lakeith Stanfield, and Lil Rey Howery

Blumhouse Productions

130 Minutes

 

We’ve all been in that weird, unnerving situation or environment where it seems like everyone in the room is completely different than you. This seems to happen much more these days in the divisive landscape that we currently experience in America. “Get Out” takes the premise of a stranger in a strange world, adds in some pertinent social commentary about race and racism, and mixes it up with an interesting horror angle that is both disturbing and darkly humorous. 

 

Jordan Peele, one part of the sketch comedy show “Key and Peele”, showcases some serious genre filmmaking chops in his directorial debut. Though that shouldn’t be too big of a surprise for those who watch his comedic television show, which has tackled the genre of horror and different social commentary themes on numerous occasions. It also shouldn’t be a surprise that Mr. Peele gets the homage to horror scares with near perfect execution; good comedy is all about timing, so is the composition of a good scare. But it’s more than just the frights and the humor and the gore, “Get Out” shines genre light on an aspect of American culture that is so clearly and personally on display everywhere you look. It’s the horror of stereotypes, assumptions, and racism.

 

Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) is a photographer who is in a relationship with a woman named Rose (Allison Williams). Rose is excited to introduce Chris to her family, who live in a small estate in a remote town. However, Chris is concerned about going because Rose hasn’t told her Caucasian family that he is African-American. That's really all the premise you need, going in with more information will ruin the experience.  

 

Mr. Peele introduces the film in a unique way, bringing in the anxiety of being a person of color in a community that is unlike what may be familiar with. As a young black man (Lakeith Stanfield) walks through a suburb that looks eerily familiar to the town of Haddonfield in “Halloween”, with houses that resemble those found on Elm Street in “A Nightmare on Elm Street”, he is targeted and attacked after making every attempt to sidestep the situation. It’s a familiar horror movie moment done extremely well; one that introduces the tone of the story which is filled with dread and suspicion but also humor and a sense of authenticity. It also places the viewer in the perspective of the outsider in this world. 

 

From this moment Mr. Peele continues to pile on the awkward, the anxious, the peculiar, and the downright frightening pieces, creating a claustrophobic environment that doesn’t offer an easy escape. Even when moments of levity make an appearance it comes in the form of a vessel, a telephone, which connects Chris to the outside world and with his friend Rod (Lil Rey Howery). When this vessel of escape becomes an object in jeopardy, the walls close in further. It’s an ingenious strategy that Mr. Peele utilizes here but also in a few different ways to continue building the tension and introduce the viewer to the real mystery. 

 

What grounds “Get Out” is the moments when real life steps in; when Chris must appease his girlfriend’s family’s obvious stereotypes and prejudices, when the separation of friends and foes becomes blurred because of how familiar and normal these race concerned situations are for Chris. It’s not until he see’s people like him, other black people, acting in ways that are so far flung from the ordinary that suspicion is raised for him, when what some would call ignorance begins to have a menacing and threatening undertone. In one of the best moments in the film Chris has a personal moment with the family's black maid Georgina (Betty Gabriel), he expresses concern and nervousness about the strange situation and is greeted with a chilling response of a forced smile with intense eyes filled with tears, outwardly maintaining composure and internally screaming to be heard. Metaphor is a powerful tool in this film and Mr. Peele brilliantly wields it in the same way blood is thrown around in slasher films.

 

Good horror stories are always trying to say something, take a look at George Romero’s seminal social commentary in “Dawn of the Dead” for an example of this. The remarkable aspect of “Get Out” isn’t the scares or the monsters, it’s the situation it introduces and utilizes to portray aspects of race and racism in thought-provoking and frightening views. Here’s to hoping that Mr. Peele has more horror to share in the future.

 

 

Monte’s Rating

4.25 out of 5.00

 

Jeff Mitchell’s Oscar Predictions

The 89th Academy Awards are almost here!  On Feb. 26, the very best films, performances, technical achievements, and other important efforts will be recognized with pageantry and, of course, highly coveted Oscars.  For movie fans, this is your biggest night!  (Although, some might argue that the opening night of “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” will be the biggest evening of 2017, but I digress.) 

 

Let’s not digress from a completely fun element of the Academy Awards: making predictions.

 

Admittedly, my crystal ball sometimes contains a cloudy haze, and my fortune teller skills cannot find – let alone read – a lifeline, but I do love movies and outstanding performances.   Rather than only offer my picks for the top categories, I also include who “should” win and who “should” have been nominated.    Enjoy the Oscars, cinema’s biggest night!

 

Best Adapted Screenplay:

Who will win: Barry Jenkins (“Moonlight”)

Who should win: Eric Heisserer (“Arrival”)

Who should have been nominated: Seo-kyeong Jeong and Chan-wook Park (“The Handmaiden”)

 

Best Original Screenplay:

Who will win: Kenneth Lonergan (“Manchester by the Sea”)

Who should win: Efthimis Filippou and Yorgos Lanthimos (“The Lobster”)

Who should have been nominated: Noah Oppenheim (“Jackie”)

 

Best Supporting Actress:

Who will win: Viola Davis (“Fences”)

Who should win: Michelle Williams (“Manchester by the Sea”)

Who should have been nominated: Lily Gladstone (“Certain Women”)

 

Best Supporting Actor:

Who will win: Mahershala Ali (“Moonlight”)

Who should win: Mahershala Ali (“Moonlight”)

Who should have been nominated: Ben Foster (“Hell or High Water”) and Jeremy Irons (“The Man Who Knew Infinity”)

 

Best Actress:

Who will win: Emma Stone (“La Land”)

Who should win: Natalie Portman (“Jackie”)

Who should have been nominated: Annette Bening (“20th Century Women”), Jessica Chastain (“Miss Sloane”) and Sandra Huller (“Toni Erdmann”)

 

Best Actor:

Who will win: Casey Affleck (“Manchester by the Sea”)

Who should win: Casey Affleck (“Manchester by the Sea”)

Who should have been nominated: Ryan Gosling (“The Nice Guys” instead of “La La Land”)

 

Best Director:

Who will win: Damien Chazelle (“La La Land”)

Who should win: Damien Chazelle (“La La Land”)

Who should have been nominated: Yorgos Lanthimos (“The Lobster”)

 

Best Picture:

What will win: “La La Land”

What should win: “La La Land”

What should have been nominated: “The Lobster”, “The Witch” and “Captain Fantastic”

 

 

Jeff Mitchell’s 10 favorite Oscar winners over 10 years (2007-2016)

What do the stock market, a wild roller coaster ride and mood swings from a long ago ex have in common?  They come packaged with significant highs and lows, and quite frankly, we should include the Academy Awards as another example.   

 

The lows – naturally - appear as Oscar snubs of our favorite movies, filmmakers, writers, actors, and actresses who see their “rightful” trophies fall into the hands of others.  I certainly remember my share of Oscar snub-gripes while watching the Academy Awards over the past few decades. 

 

Rather than focus on the negatives, let’s flip the script (pardon the pun) and reflect on joyous Oscar wins.  Choosing just one award per year, here are my favorite Oscar winners over the last 10 years and feel free to disagree.  Some of my highs could be your corresponding lows.   

 

10. “Inside Job”, Best Documentary (2011) – The 2008 financial collapse stunned a nation (and the world) and left many of us to ask, “What just happened?”  Director Chris Ferguson crawls into the gilded cracks of flawed regulations and devious schemes that crushed worldwide financial markets and explains them into clear, logical and easily-understandable concepts. Just don’t watch this documentary on a full stomach.

 

9. “The Artist”, Best Picture (2012) – Writer/director Michel Hazanavicius chooses timeless themes and wraps them into a beautifully-filmed picture which – nicely complimented with an instrumental soundtrack – is almost entirely without a spoken word.   This black and white movie transports us back to movie era not entirely forgotten, dusts off its magic and offers one of the most unique cinematic experiences in recent memory.

 

8. Spike Jones (“Her”), Best Original Screenplay (2014) – With just about everyone we know (including us) becoming more reliant and occupied by cell phones, Jones elevates this human/machine relationship to the next level.  A romantic one.  In his constantly surprising picture, Jones scribes a believable, futuristic connection with a broken-hearted loner (Joaquin Phoenix) and his phone’s operating system (Scarlett Johansson), and the results leave an emotional mark that even Siri cannot quite define.

 

7. Patricia Arquette (“Boyhood”), Best Supporting Actress (2015) – Writer/director Richard Linklater filmed his movie – in an extraordinary stroke of genius – over a 12-year period that features a boy’s (Ellar Coltrane) mental, emotional and physical growth from child to adult.  Arquette plays Mason’s (Coltrane) mom and successfully and organically conveys how a parent’s successes and mistakes can impact a child’s internal makeup.  Her character – flaws and all - anchors this extraordinary cinematic achievement.    

 

6. “Spotlight”, Best Picture (2016) – Led by an outstanding ensemble cast, director/co-writer Tom McCarthy reveals a wholly compelling account of a tenacious group of Boston Globe reporters who uncover a widespread Catholic priest sexual abuse scandal.  The picture – with a whip-smart script – opens up a world of exemplary journalistic practices to the audience, reinforces the importance of the media as the Fourth Pillar of Democracy and leaves us hanging on every single word. 

 

5. Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova (“Falling Slowly” from “Once”), Best Original Song (2008) – This small Irish musical packs the biggest heart!  A struggling musician (Hansard) meets a young mom (Irglova) on Dublin’s Grafton Street, they form a friendship – with much deeper feelings – and make a record.  This charming, gentle picture invites us to root for these two underdogs, and the catchy soundtrack is led by its signature track, the beautiful and haunting duet, “Falling Slowly”. 

 

4. Martin Scorsese (“The Departed”), Best Director (2007) – As of 2006, one of the biggest oversights in Oscar history was Martin Scorsese’s glaring resume hole: zero Best Director Oscars.  That all changed in 2007, when the Academy presented a well-deserved, long overdue and satisfying Oscar to Scorsese for his unpredictable Boston police/Irish gang drama featuring an all-star cast, including Jack Nicholson, Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, and Mark Wahlberg, to name a few.

 

3. Heath Ledger (“The Dark Knight”), Best Supporting Actor (2009) – Christian Bale may play the signature star in this DC superhero movie, but Ledger utterly mesmerizes and steals every scene in which he appears with a visionary portrayal of Batman’s greatest villain, Joker. Ledger pulls some slices from past Jokers but introduces dangerous, mentally unstable elements which escalate the character’s psychopathic tendencies never seen before on the big screen.  Ledger’s posthumous Oscar win celebrated his overwhelming heaps of talent, while leaving the viewing audience distraught over his future work that will never be.

 

2. Christoph Waltz (“Inglourious Basterds”), Best Supporting Actor (2010) – Speaking of villains, Waltz masterfully plays a diabolical, unrelenting Nazi, Col. Hans Landa, during the German occupation of France in WWII.  Director Quentin Tarantino’s picture winds through a twisted array of intricate, dialogue-driven set pieces, and Waltz’s Landa perfectly fits with his mastery of several languages and without any chinks in his sinister, cerebral armor.  Any slight glimpses of a reasonable individual are quickly dashed with a menacing look or dreadful words over bites of strudel or in between gulps of milk, respectively.  An unforgettable performance!

 

1. “Searching for Sugar Man”, Best Documentary (2013) – Director Malik Bendjelloul travels back to the early 1970s and chronicles the truly remarkable career of Sixto Rodriguez.  A Detroit singer/songwriter with a Bob Dylanesque style, Rodriguez probably sold just over a handful of records in the U.S. but unexpectedly made life-changing impacts on the other side of the globe. The film contains two absolutely implausible twists, which I will refrain from revealing here.  Just find this movie and enjoy one of the most absorbing documentaries that you will ever see. Trust me.

 

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

 

A United Kingdom - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

‘A United Kingdom’ is an extraordinary story that needs more time

 

Directed by:  Amma Asante

Written by:  Guy Hibbert

Starring:  David Oyelowo and Rosamund Pike

 

“A United Kingdom” – Effective love stories stir emotion.  Effective historical dramas help enlighten.  

 

In a recent interview, David Oyelowo (“Selma” (2014), “A Most Violent Year” (2014)) said that after reading the book “Colour Bar: The Triumph of Seretse Khama and His Nation”, he wanted to play Seretse Khama on the big screen and then turned to his friend, Amma Asante (“Belle” (2013)), to direct the film.  In 2017, his wish became reality, as Oyelowo plays the real life, inspirational leader of Bechuanaland (and later named Botswana) in an historical drama that is rooted in a love story.  A love story against all odds.  Seretse – a black, African prince - married a white, English woman, Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike), and almost everyone that the couple knew opposed their union, but due to their determination, they helped change history in completely unexpected ways.

 

Oyelowo said, “The film illustrates the power of love.  It’s as simple as that.”

 

“A United Kingdom” does truly enlighten the audience on a little known story, but the movie spends so much time on the vast saga of Seretse and Ruth’s winding political journey, Asante simply does not provide enough space for their personal love story to emote on-screen. 

 

Their journey, however, is an intriguing one, to say the least.

 

The film begins in 1947 London, and Seretse relaxes at a dance after a difficult boxing match just a few hours before, and Ruth accompanies her sister, Muriel (Laura Carmichael), to the same ballroom.   Seretse and Ruth meet and immediately hit it off, although complications do arise on their second date.  Seretse explains that he is Bechuanaland’s prince and has duties to his homeland.  Distance and his responsibilities are not an issue with Ruth, and with loving eyes, mutual respect, laughs, and fun, the pair enjoy dating for a few more weeks and generate internal sunshine in England’s dreary, foggy surroundings.

 

They soon marry, move to Africa, and the film turns from some local disdain of their interracial relationship to an outright, international incident.   Asante introduces elements of racism, big and small from both Europe and Africa.  The bigotry equally appears as occasional, contemptuous looks, a matter of fact statements (like blacks are not allowed to drink alcohol) and highly charged political stances.  With dated, racist outrage attempting to thwart the couple from all sides, the overwhelming feeling is that Seretse and Ruth need to possess extraordinary determination to fight the external forces moving against them. 

 

Plenty of antagonists – such as British diplomats and their wives – appear, and their posh words and cultured etiquette blend with snarly disparagements reminiscent of James Bond villains.   Although, do not be fooled.  Goldfinger, Blofeld and Le Chiffre are exceedingly more intelligent than this ignorant lot in “A United Kingdom”.  Thankfully, this gives Seretse and Ruth distinct advantages, but they still need to trudge through the muck to hopefully find salvation.  Not only for their relationship, but for the future of Bechuanaland. 

 

This potentially bright future travels through a maze of dogmatic bureaucracy, and the screenplay does capture these sometimes-predictable/sometimes-very-unpredictable twists. The problem is with only a runtime of 1-hour 51-minutes, the screenplay zips from one historical roadblock after another without room for the plot points to breathe.  One minute, the country’s mineral rights appear front and center, and the next includes arguments in British Parliament.  Political red tape, economic dependencies and disapproval from South Africa block Seretse and Ruth’s happy existence, and unfortunately, the narrative rushes through the precious, small moments that are needed to establish Oyelowo and Pike’s chemistry.

 

For example, while the couple walks London’s streets, Ruth comments that she wishes that they could see the stars through the cloudy British skies.  Seretse quickly adds that the stars are wondrous in Bechuanaland.  When they make roots in Africa, the movie, unfortunately, never provides that magic, looking-at-the-stars moment for the two.  Instead, the movie audience receives a random 1.5 second shot of a starry, African evening inserted from nowhere, seemingly as a last-minute add to tie up a loose end. 

 

Well, “A United Kingdom” did not seem to miss loose ends on Seretse and Ruth’s fight for their marriage, and successfully chronicles - and shines a light on - their story.  Asante even went the extra mile (literally and figuratively) by actually filming in their original home in Bechuanaland (Botswana).  On the other hand, when any on-screen couple decides to spend the rest of their lives together at a film’s 12-minute mark, a story can feel hurried, and then it becomes difficult to emotionally buy-in. 

 

What’s that old saying?  I need more time.  During this movie, I needed more time.

(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.

 

Fist Fight - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

The high school comedy ‘Fist Fight’ mostly feels like study hall

 

Directed by:  Richie Keen

Written by:  Van Robichaux and Evan Susser

Starring:  Charlie Day, Ice Cube, Tracy Morgan, Jillian Bell, Christina Hendrix, Kumail Nanjiani, and Dean Norris

 

“Fist Fight” - During my high school days, two events would whip the students into a frenzy.

 

Guaranteed.

 

A basketball game in our school’s gym and a fist fight somewhere on campus.  The former might occur 10 times a year, and the latter could be the same number as well.  The difference is that the basketball games were scheduled well in advance, and the fights were not predetermined at all.  They just happened, out of nowhere.  The spontaneity of two people stepping out of the orderly nature of school and into a rudimentary “natural” order of sudden, violent Darwinism can grab the attention of even the most passive of temperaments.  In other words, fist fights can attract a crowd, in a hurry.

 

Director Richie Keen hopes to attract big crowds to his feature film, a comedy called “Fist Fight”, and with an impressive cast, including Charlie Day, Ice Cube, Tracy Morgan, Jillian Bell, Christina Hendricks, and Dean Norris, he has the star power to do it.  It just takes two to make a fight, however, and Day and Cube play the main combatants on the last day of the academic year at Roosevelt High School.

 

It is also the most stressful day that English high school teacher Andy Campbell (Day) will ever remember.  His pregnant wife (JoAnna Garcia Swisher) could give birth at any moment, his daughter (Alexa Nisenson) is nervous about her talent show performance, budget cuts could cost him his job, and oh yes, the most intense teacher on campus, Ron Strickland (Ice Cube), challenges him to a fight in the courtyard at 3p.m., because Andy got him fired.

 

In this particular case, the fight is scheduled and therefore, will attract a massive crowd.  The big event draws our curiosity too, but in the meantime, not a whole lot transpires during a majority of the film’s 1-hour 31-minute runtime.  The aforementioned cast members play various teachers and administrators who become witnesses or victims to several student pranks, like athletic fields chalked with sexual imagery or office supplies glued to desks. 

 

The kids – who we never really become familiar with or learn any of their names – feed a steady stream of gags, which seem outrageous to the characters, but do not generate a sense of outrage or stress for us in the audience.  Let’s face it, a trip wire that releases splatters of paint on an unsuspecting teacher is just sophomoric (pardon the pun), even for a high school movie.  After a while, the pranks become window dressing, background noise or mostly unfunny nuisances stepping in front of Andy’s way.

 

With a talented group of comics, like Day, Morgan and Bell, the movie clears the way for an entertaining preamble to the fight.  Unfortunately, other than some wonderfully shameful one-liners by Holly (Bell), a meth-induced teacher who has a crush on one of her students and a hilarious musical number by Andy’s daughter, the actual fight is the film’s one attraction. 

 

With a thrilling mix of pugilism and slapstick, Keen’s keen fight can – just about - stand alongside a lengthy battle in “Every Which Way But Loose” (1978).  That is a big compliment.

 

Keep in mind that one fight does not make an entire movie, even if the word “fight” is included its title.  It certainly takes a while to get that point, especially when one feels stuck in a study hall without a pen and paper from 8a.m. until the 3p.m. bell.

(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.