Angry Birds 2 - Movie Review by Monte Yazzie

Courtesy of Sony Pictures. © 2019 CTMG, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Courtesy of Sony Pictures. © 2019 CTMG, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Dir: Thurop Van Orman

Starring: Jason Sudeikis, Josh Gad, Bill Hader, Rachel Bloom, Danny McBride, Leslie Jones, Awkwafina, Sterling K. Brown, Tiffany Haddish, and Peter Dinklage

 

“This summer, winter is coming.”

Not sure how many young ones are going to correspond this tagline for “The Angry Birds Movie 2” to the adult television show “Game of Thrones”. However, it’s fitting for an animated movie based on one of the biggest mobile games of all time, which was probably played by adults on their cell phones before the little kids discovered it, to aim for some crossover appeal to encourage a weekend family trip to the movies.

“The Angry Birds Movie” found success upon its release in 2016 with a mix of slapstick antics, bathroom humor, and an occasional winking joke tailored for mom and dad. The film had just enough fuel to maintain the enjoyment factor for 97 minutes while only slightly over-staying its welcome.

“The Angry Birds Movie 2” does just about the same, sticking to a similar story formula from the first film while surprisingly applying some much-needed work to the characters leading the charge. The film is working with themes surrounding some typical subjects like friendship, romance, and self-confidence but it also handles topics surrounding masculinity, arrogance, and the fear of failure throughout.

Red (voiced by Jason Sudeikis) is beloved, a hero to the extent of being a folktale in the eyes of the flightless birds who were saved from destruction on Bird Island. Red is tasked as security for the island, protecting the inhabitants from the airborne threats from the king of Piggy Island, Harold (voiced by Bill Hader). Unbeknownst to the two foes is another threat, a group of birds lead by an intelligent yet resentful eagle named Zeta (voiced by Leslie Jones) from the frozen Eagle Island who are looking for new property to inhabit.

Most animated sequels take the route of rehashing a similar, sometimes the same, plot from the original film. “The Angry Birds Movie 2” does exactly this, however it also doubles down on all the qualities that made the original film so much fun; with bathroom humor that will have the kids giggling and music cues with lively songs that will have parents remembering the old school jams, the film is trying to meet as many demographics as it can with its blend of comedy.

The narrative moves surprisingly fast, quickly establishing the primary characters and introducing new ones in effort to make things feel different. It helps in a few places, especially when the whip-smart Silver (Rachel Bloom) is on screen to put Red in his place, but the overall structure of the story doesn’t deviate enough to make it very memorable in the end. Still, the quick pace and emphasis on random humor moments makes the running time fly, which is a pleasant surprise.

“The Angry Birds Movie 2” doesn’t reinvent its story or try for much new direction for its second outing, however its focus seems positioned for simple laughs and entertainment both for parents and kids. In this regard it succeeds in being a fun sequel for a lazy Saturday matinee.

 

Monte’s Rating
3.00 out of 5.00

After the Wedding - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

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‘After the Wedding’ keeps most of its vows

Directed by: Bart Freundlich

Written by:  Bart Freundlich; the original screenplay (2006) by Susanne Bier and Anders Thomas Jensen

Starring:  Michelle Williams, Julianne Moore and Billy Crudup

“After the Wedding” – A honeymoon naturally follows a wedding, however, in director Bart Freundlich’s picture, starring Michelle Williams and Julianne Moore, there are no rose-colored glasses for Isabel (Williams) and Theresa (Moore). 

No, they aren’t married or romantic in any way.  Life brings them together.  Theresa - a wildly successful entrepreneur who proudly wears her philanthropist hat - wishes to donate millions to Isabel’s orphanage in India and flies her to New York City to discuss the terms. 

Freundlich, on his terms, successfully establishes both characters and reinforces their striking contrasts.  Living as a selfless pauper and bathing in ideals, Isabel sports a boyish haircut, frequently meditates and seldom smiles, except when she’s speaking to a nine-year-old boy named Jai (Vir Pachisia) living at her orphanage.  She adores him, like a son.  Theresa is a wealthy pragmatist who has it all, including a doting husband and three children.  When we first meet Theresa, she’s driving home, blasting Lady Gaga’s “The Edge of Glory” and singing at the top of her lungs.

While Isabel lays down on a modest mat and speaks to Jai about his future, Theresa reads a story to her young twin boys in an enormous house, which could double as a compound best suited for royalty or the Vanderbilts. 

It’s no surprise that the film squarely focuses on these two characters played by these powerhouse actresses who earned a combined nine Oscar nominations, including Moore’s Best Actress win for “Still Alice” (2014).  Both Williams and Moore are up to the task, as they step into a modern-day mystery, one that feels orchestrated by Theresa and leaves Isabel and the audience guessing.

Based on the 2006 Danish drama starring Mads Mikkelsen, Freundlich swaps genders in this 2019-take on the story, as Williams plays his role.  This critic has not seen the original “After the Wedding”, but those who have can make a rightful comparison.  Here, the camera frequently presents close ups of Williams, as Isabel’s stoic impressions scream discomfort of Theresa and the surrounding, never-ending opulence.  As the movie dives deeper into the narrative, Isabel’s distrust and immediate desire to simply fly back to India grows. 

Conversely, the camera pulls back on Theresa and judges her from distances, as she frequently drinks, takes pills in the quiet comfort of her bedroom, occasionally curses, and releases  sudden outbursts at her office assistant and husband (Billy Crudup).  Looking back, Theresa singing, “I’m on the edge, the edge, the edge…” along with Lady Gaga during her opening scene rings true and further defines her as Isabel’s polar opposite.

“After the Wedding” delivers some devastating turns to the audience and our two leads.  Some moments feel as sharp as a heart attack, and others are ham-handed and forced, especially between Isabel and another female character.  The movie shines whenever Williams and Moore appear together on-screen.  Although, Williams is especially haunting on her own, when Isabel digests her predicament, and Mychael Danna provides some much-needed solace with his gentle, moving score.   These individual pieces are better than the surrounding whole, and this creates a semi-flawed but successful union between the film and its audience.  

(3/4 stars)

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

Where’d You Go, Bernadette - Movie Review by Ben Cahlamer

Credit: Wilson Webb / Annapurna Pictures

Credit: Wilson Webb / Annapurna Pictures

Directed by: Richard Linklater

Screenplay by: Richard Linklater, Holly Gent and Vincent Palmo, Jr.

Based on “Where’d You Go, Bernadette” by Maria Semple

Starring: Cate Blanchett, Billy Crudup, Kristen Wiig, Emma Nelson, Judy Greer, Zoe Chao, Laurence Fishburne

It occurred to me as I sat down to write this review that I haven’t experienced much of Richard Linklater’s filmography. This is not a slight on my own film watching habits as much as it is a reference point for the review of his latest film, “Where’d You Go, Bernadette”.

However, both points of view are clearly working against me.

His latest film, based on the novel of the same name by Maria Semple, features Cate Blanchette in the titular role. Bernadette is a mother and a wife. She is the neighborhood curmudgeon, who shirks away from anything sociable, attracting the ire of other, more involved parents. She was an up and coming architect who understood life a whole lot better than most would give her credit for, save for her daughter Bee (Emma Nelson), who tells the story from her perspective. Bee struggles to be accepted in school by her peers (and their parents) is loved by, and in fact doted upon by Bernadette that it almost seems as if nothing is amiss.

Billy Crudup plays Elgie, a workaholic who is too busy programming the latest technology craze to see what’s going on with his own family. The script, written by Linklater, Holly Gent and Vincent Palmo, Jr intentionally paints Elgie as the outsider in order to frame Bernadette’s lost ambition and uses Bee to give Bernadette a voice when she couldn’t speak up for herself. It’s actually a rather clever bit of storytelling.

The film, which does play as a bit of a dark comedy is so much more layered than the marketing suggests, which is a good thing. However, when I reflect back on those two points of view I mentioned, “Where’d You Go Bernadette” is an exercise in patience. It is both an experience based on how the story is told and it is a slight on the modern audience because the surface level view of this film is almost as icy as Ms. Blanchett’s character comes across.

Almost.

Laurence Fishburne’s character eases us into some of the deeper depths of Bernadette’s psyche and, I’ve seen enough of Linklater’s work be mindful that more is at work than meets the eye and that’s what drew me towards Bernadette’s story. Sure, I’m a sucker for dark comedies, but the way those elements are folded into the emotional side of the story warranted more of an examination of Bernadette as a character, which I won’t do here; that’s best enjoyed as a part of the experience.

The way Linklater laid out the details of the story, the family dynamic, the neighborhood dysfunction, the way Bee discovers more about her mom and Bernadette’s own insecurities, “Where’d You Go Bernadette” is a very timely look at society today. Suffice it to say, there’s a lot on the surface level, but to truly get mileage out of the story,

3 out of 4

Blinded by the Light - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

hero_blinded-by-the-light-movie-review-1.jpeg

The coming-of-age story ‘Blinded by the Light’ hits the right notes

Directed by:  Gurinder Chadha

Written by:  Sarfraz Manzoor

Starring:  Viveik Kalra, Kulvinder Ghir, Meera Ganatra, Aaron Phagura, Hayley Atwell, and Nell Williams

“Blinded by the Light” – “Everybody’s got a hungry heart.” – “Hungry Heart” (1980) by Bruce Springsteen

Javed (Viveik Kalra) is starving.  Not literally, but he’s starving for his voice.  Born in Pakistan, he and his family moved to England.  Luton, England, a town with more green than concrete, and it sits about 50 kilometers from London.  So close to the country’s largest metropolis, but so far for a teenager without a car, without a girlfriend and without a social life.  To make matters worse, his father Malik (Kulvinder Ghir) constantly sequesters him at home.  Javed’s not even a dreamer, because he’s too mired in the white noise of teenage confusion to decide on a specific aspiration, other than wonder about life in London. 

“You can’t start a fire without a spark.” – “Dancing in the Dark” (1984) by Bruce Springsteen

On a presumed ordinary day in 1987 - a time when young Brits listened to Depeche Mode, The Smiths, and yes, even Tiffany - a classmate named Roops (Aaron Phagura) hands over his Bruce Springsteen “Born in the U.S.A.” cassette to Javed, and once he plays “Dancing in the Dark”, his life will never be the same.

Written by Sarfraz Manzoor, “Blinded by the Light” is his personal story and the earth-shattering impact that Springsteen had on his teenage beliefs.  This is a story of instant, obsessive influence that gives a young man direction, an outlet and a passion.  Of course, Javed’s new focus is contrary to his father’s wishes and conservative beliefs, let alone his dad’s agitation that his son worships a rebellious, soulful American rock star. 

“Badlands, you gotta live it every day.  Let the broken hearts stand, as the price you’ve gotta pay.” – “Badlands” (1978) by Bruce Springsteen

Director Gurinder Chadha – who wrote and directed “Bend It Like Beckham” (2002) - has captured disparities between child and parent before, and here, she delivers similar beats, although this film is more confrontational.  Javed’s conflict with his dad is universal, but the added element of Malik’s eternally rigid views pile on more contention. 

Throughout the film’s 1-hour 57-minute running time – which, admittedly, feels long – Malik’s downward constraints on Javed’s intrinsic wants never let up.  He’s not an antagonistic, cruel ogre, but Malik’s on-screen appearances promote anxiety and semi-dread, because his strict messages are frequently anticipated and always fulfilled. 

While his dad’s consistent ying drags Javed down, Chadha and Manzoor introduce Ms. Clay (Hayley Atwell) who supplies a never-ending yang of praise and encouragement.  The film does not present Javed with the familiar cinematic pattern of a steady upward trajectory, and instead, it regularly presents starts and stops, peaks and valleys, and joys and heartbreaks, when volleying between the open world of opportunities out there and restrictions at home.  In other words…real-life.  A space that will probably resonate with anyone who clashed (or current clashes) with their parents.

“Come on with me.  Tramps like us, Baby, we were born to run.” – “Born to Run” (1975) by Bruce Springsteen

Music, generally speaking, plays a massive role in teenagers’ lives, and with Javed’s love for Springsteen’s records, much of “Blinded by the Light” is bliss for any Bruce fan, and Chadha delivers thoughtful tributes to The Boss, again and again.  For those unfamiliar with Springsteen’s work, Javed’s fixation might be puzzling, so insert your favorite band while watching this picture, and it all becomes clear.  “Blinded by the Light” sprinkles other 80s tunes into the mix, so there’s a little something for everyone who enjoys the music from this particular era.  More importantly, for those not satisfied with their personal status quo, Javed’s passion hits the right notes. 

(3/4 stars)

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

An interview with the ‘Blinded by the Light’ team by Jeff Mitchell

Blinded by the Light IMDB Poster.jpg

On July 24, the Phoenix Film Society put on a rock star event.  Director Gurinder Chadha (“Bend It Like Beckham” (2002)), writer Sarfraz Manzoor and actor Aaron Phagura arrived in the Valley to host a “Blinded by the Light” screening.  Based on Sarfraz’s real-life experiences, the film is about a Javed (Viveik Kalra), a Pakistani-Brit who wishes to free himself from his father’s strict rules and leave his hometown of Luton, England, but, along the way, he discovers Bruce Springsteen’s music and becomes a massive fan.  

The Phoenix Film Festival sat down and enjoyed a terrific conversation with Sarfraz, Gurinder and Aaron (who plays Javed’s friend Roops), and we talked about the comparisons between the film and Sarfraz’s teenage years, the racism portrayed on-screen and much, much more.  

“Blinded by the Light” opens in Phoenix on Friday, Aug. 16.

 

PFF:  If you didn’t have Bruce Springsteen’s music in your life, would you have stayed in your hometown of Luton?

SM:  I would have probably left, but I don’t quite know what I would be doing today.  Bruce is now so embedded in my life, it’s hard to make a distinct angle into that.  I think my life would not be as rich, creative and fulfilling as it is.

 

PFF:  Javed had three strong women in his life:  his mom, his girlfriend Eliza (Nell Williams) and his teacher Ms. Clay (Hayley Atwell).   Were these women part of your life-story as well?

SM:  My mom definitely was.  The Eliza-character is entirely fictionalized.  Sort of fictionalized, because she’s based on people, who I met later in life to some extent.  When I was 16, I wasn’t allowed out of the house, so there’s actually no way that I was going to have a girlfriend, but (we wanted) the character to have a girlfriend to add richness to the story.  

I did have a teacher.  I changed her name (for the movie), but I had a teacher who really believed in me, had a lot of faith in me and encouraged me.  She was charismatic and attractive, (and she) really believed in me and was inspirational in that way. 

I’m still trying to contact her, and I message people on Facebook (and post), “Does anyone remember this particular teacher?” 

So far, nobody has been able to track her down.

 

PFF:  Javed’s journey was not a constant upward trajectory.  He had peaks and valleys along the way.  How important was it to show the peaks and valleys?

GC:  Well, it’s real life.  When you’re the child of an immigrant, you have certain dreams.  Your parents also have dreams, but they are not always what you want for yourself. 

(Parents may) say, “Look what we’ve done for you.  How can you repay us like this?”

That’s a tricky area to negotiate, but that’s what I love, because that’s my experience.  That’s what I know how to do:  the tricky stuff between two generations of family.  Finding those points where one can negotiate.  To me, that’s drama.  That’s a push and pull, and in the end, the hopeful resolution is moving.   

Cultural negation, that’s what we all do with our parents. 

Copyright: © 2019 WARNER BROS. ENTERTAINMENT INC / Photo Credit: Dan Steinberg  Aaron Phagura, Nell Williams, Gurinder Chadha, Writer/Director/Producer, Sarfraz Manzoor, Writer, Viveik Kalra / Warner Bros. The Big Picture 2019 at CinemaCon 2019 at The Colosseum at Caesar's Palace, Las Vegas, NV, USA - 2 April 2019

Copyright: © 2019 WARNER BROS. ENTERTAINMENT INC / Photo Credit: Dan Steinberg

Aaron Phagura, Nell Williams, Gurinder Chadha, Writer/Director/Producer, Sarfraz Manzoor, Writer, Viveik Kalra / Warner Bros. The Big Picture 2019 at CinemaCon 2019 at The Colosseum at Caesar's Palace, Las Vegas, NV, USA - 2 April 2019

 

PFF:  Did you consider turning the movie into a musical?

SM:  Gurinder had more (thoughts) about the musical-idea than I did, and I have to say that I was nervous about it.  If you put those musical moments in (the movie), it becomes bigger.  I was worried (that) if Javed jumps up and starts singing the whole time, are we going to care about him?   Are we going to care about his struggle, if we think that he just prances around singing every five minutes? 

So, I was worried about the tonal-thing, and whether one would care about him.  (We didn’t go in that direction), and Gurinder did a really good job of making (the movie) feel big, feel warm and feel exciting, but at the same time, we still care about Javed.  She did a really good balancing act, but I don’t think I would have been up for a full-blown musical, because I wanted to care about the characters. 

 

PFF:  Do you still have the poems that you wrote in high school?

SM:  I keep them in shoebox, and they’re in the film.  When you see Javed with his poems on the wall, those are my real poems.  It was very weird when we were actually on-set.  I mean, I just met the camera (team) and make-up people, and they’re reading these poems where I’m anguishing about my dad, about love or whatever, (and my writing contains) deeply personal stuff.

Jeff Mitchell with writer Sarfraz Manzoor, director Gurinder Chadha , and actor Aaron Phagura.

Jeff Mitchell with writer Sarfraz Manzoor, director Gurinder Chadha , and actor Aaron Phagura.

 

PFF:  Javed’s new best friend Roops plays a vital role in the movie.  He introduces Javed to Springsteen’s music, but I think that he plays a more important part by standing with Javed and being his friend.  What do you think?

AP:  It was vital, because, all in all, Javed’s confidence rose after to listening to Springsteen, so that played a big part, (but yes,) Roops is such a (supportive) guy.  Everyone needs a friend like him.  After Javed met Roops, he started doing a lot better in all aspects of life, (including his writing).  We all need a friend like Roops.

 

PFF:  Javed’s family and Roops had to cope with racism from some Luton residents.  Was it difficult to insert those moments into the film, and how much has race relations improved in the UK since the 80s?

GC:  It was hard doing those scenes, and it really reminded us of that time.  In a way, that’s progress to show how much things have changed…a chilling reminder.  So, I think there has been progress.  That’s not to say that there aren’t extremists, but I think for the majority of people, they are interested in other cultures and backgrounds. 

Look at the cuisine everyone eats, and the stories that people are interested in, so yea, I have to believe that things are better.  I have children, and I don’t want them to grow up in a world, where people are cynical and prejudice.  Parents don’t teach their children to be racist. 

They don’t say, “Now, I’m going to sit down and teach you how to be racist.”  

Little kids are not like that.  Kids don’t grow up with that instinct.  We grow up to have empathy.   That’s what makes us human, and I think we, as parents, that’s our job: to remind our kids of that.  That was my mission in this movie:  to show tolerance and empathy across all boundaries. 

 

Jeff Mitchell with writer Sarfraz Manzoor, director Gurinder Chadha , and actor Aaron Phagura.

Jeff Mitchell with writer Sarfraz Manzoor, director Gurinder Chadha , and actor Aaron Phagura.

PFF:  Fathers, whether they know it or not, pass their passions and other qualities onto their sons.  Sarfraz, you became a Springsteen fan on your own, but what did your father pass on to you?

SM:  My father passed on a sense of trying to be respectful of his and his generation’s story.  

To say, “Look, we came over from another country and put up with a lot of crap.  We worked really hard.  We lived our lives without any kind of respect from others, so you could have an opportunity.” 

So, he passed on a sense of gratitude and an awareness of the sacrifices that he and my mom made. 

 

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

The Art of Racing In The Rain - Movie Review by Ben Cahlamer

Photo Credit: Doane Gregory © 2019 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All rights reserved.

Photo Credit: Doane Gregory © 2019 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All rights reserved.

Directed by: Simon Curtis

Screenplay by: Mark Bomback

Based on: “The Art of Racing in the Rain” by Garth Stein

Starring: Milo Ventimigila, Amanda Seyfried, Kathy Baker, Martin Donovan, Gary Cole, Kevin Costner

Based on Garth Stein’s novel, “The Art of Racing in the Rain,” Simon Curtis (“Goodbye Christopher Robin,” “Woman in Gold”) tugs at our heartstrings with a story of a dog, Enzo (voiced by Kevin Costner) and his human, Denny (Milo Ventimigila) and their adventures together.

The script, adapted by Mark Bomback (“The Wolverine”) takes us on a journey in which we get to experience life through Enzo’s eyes. It starts on a rather somber note - we know Enzo’s fate. By starting out this way, we are steeled for the eventuality of life and, for better or for worse, we get to enjoy Enzo’s life because he believes that a dog who is prepared with life experiences will become human once they’re reborn.

Now, I don’t know if you believe in reincarnation, and that’s not the focal point of the movie. Once the story establishes Enzo’s fate, we are taken back to when Denny first meets Enzo as a puppy. Costner provides his droll sense of comedic timing as Denny struggles to find his place in the world. A race car driver by profession, Denny strives to reach the pinnacle of his profession.

But life gets in the way when Denny meets Eve Swift (Amanda Seyfried) and Enzo clearly understands that he needs to fight for attention. Bomback and Curtis insert a number of driving analogies, anticipating how to take turns and knowing when to back off. This instilled an interesting personality into Enzo as he navigates his world not only through his eyes, but also through Denny’s.

While Enzo has trouble adjusting to Eve being the center of Denny’s attention, it gets even more interesting when Zoe comes into the picture. Enzo knows of the changes in Eve’s moods and body language as she goes through her pregnancy and once Zoe is born, Enzo has a new mission - to protect Zoe.

The most difficult aspect of the entire affair is through Denny’s strained relations with Eve’s parents, Trish (Kathy Baker) and Maxwell (Martin Donovan). Because dogs are highly perceptive to our changes, Enzo reacts swiftly to Maxwell with hilarious results.

Life isn’t all fun and games, and this is the second film this year to explore dog’s innate ability to sense when we are in poor health, leading to Denny’s struggles and challenges in his own life. But, the ever faithful . . . no, the ever loyal Enzo remains dutifully by Denny’s side through thick and thin.

As Denny makes his way through his trials, so too does Enzo, finally submitting to the great beyond, but not before a very special race around a track. As I said, Curtis and Bombeck speed us towards the inevitable, but “The Art of Racing in the Rain” makes life seen through the eyes of a dog and with Kevin Costner’s narration an enjoyable experience.

3 out of 4

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark - Movie Review by Monte Yazzie

Image courtesy of CBS Films

Image courtesy of CBS Films


Dir: André Øvredal
Starring: Zoe Margaret Colletti, Michael Garza, Gabriel Rush, Austin Zajur, and Dean Morris

 

“In the dark and the gloom, it is easy for someone listening to imagine all sorts of strange and scary things.”

Alvin Schwartz’s collection of scary stories for children played a pivotal role for many young horror kids in the 80’s and 90’s. The creepy tales, urban legends, and campfire yarns opened the creaky door to a generation of scary kids who would fill their summer reading lists with short stories about ghosts with bloody fingers, a corpse looking for their lost toe, and hook-armed killers stalking teenagers. It served as a gateway for many young horror fans into the world of the strange, the unusual, and the scary.

The pivotal novel finds its big screen adaptation at the hands of director André Øvredal, who’s big monster film “Troll Hunter” and unnerving supernatural film “The Autopsy of Jane Doe” seem fitting entries for a filmmaker tackling the eerie yet playful tone found within the short tales in “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark”.

The film is positioned in 1968, Stella (Zoe Margaret Colletti), Auggie (Gabriel Rush), and Chuck (Austin Zajur) are going out on Halloween night with a plan to get revenge on some school bullies. Things take a turn for the worst, a stranger named Ramon (Michael Garza) steps in to protect the group of friends at the drive-in, and before Halloween is over they are all exploring a haunted mansion with a dark town secret. While searching the house, the group stumble onto a collection of books featuring stories from Sarah Bellows, a girl locked away for her entire life by an evil family.

From the opening moments, which features a voiceover that emulates the foreword from the novel, Øvredal establishes an atmosphere that is wholly creepy and mature but very quickly turns tailored for a younger audience. Having a group of young people as the focal point is a great touch, the composition of the friends have a vibe most familiar to “Stranger Things” with interesting touches from films like “Stand by Me” and “The Monster Squad”. It works well in establishing the environment of the film which starts with lighthearted and humorous banter between the group of friends, who have great chemistry with one another, before turning towards the scary elements. The composition of Stella, played nicely by Zoe Margaret Colletti, as a horror movie loving nerd is especially fun.

The screenplay, with a story by Guillermo del Toro that’s scripted by Kevin and Dan Hageman, does the difficult task of adding the overarching narrative with the kids and the haunted house within the anthology of stories from the novel. There are some really strong elements incorporated in parts of the film and a few problematic pieces that glaringly come to light when everything needs to be wrapped up at the end. The strong moments exist with the establishing of the characters and with how the stories from the books come to life in the film, specifically the story of a scarecrow and another about a walking corpse which are both completely creepy. Unfortunately, the film needs to find a conclusion to the story of four friends trying to escape the scary stories of a vengeful spirit, and in the process of maneuvering the twists and turns introduced through the tales of Sarah Bellows, the concluding 30 minutes is lost in its own maze of stories.

The frights throughout the film have fun building tension with payoffs that are mostly loud jump scares which works until the scares begin to thread on similar ground. The best of the scares work when the film commits to practical effects design, it just feels creepier and more threatening than the computer-generated effects which simply aren’t scary.

“Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” is having a lot of fun tailoring a film for a new generation of fright fans. While some aspects within the script don’t come together so nicely from start to finish, the overall tone feels just spooky enough to open the door for that young horror fan wanting to make the jump into the genre.
 

Monte’s Rating
3.25 out of 5.00

An interview with Eugenio Derbez on 'Dora and the Lost City of Gold' by Jeff Mitchell

Credit: Vince Valitutti / Copyright© 2018 Paramount Players, a Division of Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

Credit: Vince Valitutti / Copyright© 2018 Paramount Players, a Division of Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

Eugenio Derbez has enjoyed a very successful career in Mexico, including turns in two beloved television comedies “XHDRbZ” (2002 – 2007) and “La familia P. Luche” (2002 – 2012), but five years ago, he embarked on a new entertainment-adventure by moving to the U.S.  In 2019, Eugenio enjoys an exciting on-screen trek in “Dora and the Lost City of Gold”, a live-action movie patterned after the iconic animated character.  He plays Alejandro, who attempts to reunite Dora with her parents in the Peruvian jungle. 

Well, this world traveler stopped in the Valley on Aug. 5 and sat down with the Phoenix Film Festival and other entertainment outlets for an especially enjoyable group interview.   Eugenio spoke about the film shoot, Dora’s positive qualities, his journey from Mexico to the U.S., and much more!

“Dora and the Lost City of Gold” opens in theatres on Friday, Aug. 9.

 

Q:  Not only are you in an actor in the film but also a producer.   Were you first attached to the project as an actor or producer?

ED:  (I’ve always complained) that (movies) portray Latinos in a negative way.  In every very single movie, we are the criminals or the drug lords, and I wanted to change that in Hollywood.  That’s why I started producing my own films, because (that’s) the only way to (bring about) change. 

So, I was aware that this movie was in development, and I (wanted) to be part of (it), because it’s a good way to portray Latinos on-screen.   I know that I can bring a lot of things to the table.  I was born and raised in Mexico.  I’m a real Mexican, so I can help (the filmmakers) with the Latino culture, not only as an actor, but as a producer.  Basically, I was in charge of supervising anything related to the Latino culture, and I also did the adaptation of the script into Spanish.   

 

Q:  So, one of the lessons that Dora follows is to stay true to herself.  Do you have examples in your life where you can say, “I stayed true to myself.”

ED:  My story is kind of weird.  I worked my entire life in Latin America, in Mexico.  I was born and raised there, and I did my entire career there, and my shows were always very successful.  (When) I did a movie called “Instructions Not Included”, my life changed, and all of sudden, the doors in Hollywood opened, and it was now or never.

Everyone was telling me, “You’re not a kid anymore.” 

My agent was telling me, “It’s now or never.”  

In Mexico, they were telling me, “You’re crazy.  Don’t do it. You have a career here.” 

So, I shut down my office and everything, and I came to the U.S.  When I was here, (I thought), “What am I going to do?  I’m not going to be better than Adam Sandler or Will Ferrell or Will Smith, or you name it.  I’m not going be.  It’s not my language.  I’m still learning English.”

I have to be honest, I was trying to be like them, and one day I said that I have to be who I am.  It’s the only thing I know…be myself.  So, by staying true to myself, I need to do my own kind of movies (with) my own kind of humor.  I have to in order to succeed.  And here I am, and that’s why I’ve been succeeding, because I don’t want to be another version of another comedian.  I’ve been true to myself.  That’s why. 

 

Q:  The film had lots of broad, physical comedy, especially with your character.  Did you perform most of those scenes yourself?

ED:  Yes, I have a lot of experience with that.  For some reason, in Latin America, we like to do comedy in a broader way.  Everything is big, big, big.  I love doing my own stunts.  So, it was a lot of fun, but (also) very demanding.  Physically, (this) is the most demanding movie that I’ve ever done.  For instance, there’s an underwater scene, and they trained us to hold our breath for two minutes. 

I said, “I can’t do more than 45 seconds.  I can’t.” 

(Holding your breath) is more mental than physical, and in the end, we did it.  I was able to be underwater for two minutes and five seconds.  That’s my record.  

 

Q:  Live-action adaptations of animated movies or television shows are a huge trend right now.  For audiences that might be a bit fatigued by this, what would you say to encourage them to see this film?

ED:  The storyline in the Dora cartoon is simple.  Honestly.  It’s very simple, but no, this movie is different.  They did a great job with the script and made (Dora) a more three-dimensional character.  It has humor for everyone, and James Bobin, (who) directed “Flight of the Conchords” is an amazing comedy-director.  If you go with your kids, toddlers or teenagers, they are going to enjoy (it).  There’s humor for everyone. 

 

Q:  You have a five-year-old daughter, so how special was it for you to share this project with her?

ED:  Oh, it was really special.  I mean, she was not aware (of) my career.  She never watched one of my films before.  My last one was “Overboard”, and I told my wife, “You know, (this will) be great, because (this is) the first time that (our daughter) will see me on the big screen.”

(My wife) said, “No way.  You kiss many women, and that (will) be confusing.”  

Thank God she said that, because, my mom was a soap opera actress, and I remember the first time I saw (her in a) movie.  I was the same age, like 5 years old, and I cried, and I cried, because my mom kissed another man.  So, I remember that, and I said, “Yea, you’re right.”

So, this was the first time that she was able to watch (one of my movies).

 

Q:  Dora is sort of an anti-Indiana Jones.  Instead of taking things from other cultures and bringing them to the West, she learns about them and keeps them where they are.  Since that’s sort of new territory for adventure movies, what do you think that will mean to kids?

ED:  I think it’s one of the great lessons in this movie.  I have a 5-year-old kid, a baby girl.  Every time she sees a small flower, she wants to grab it. 

One day, I told her, “You can’t do this.  She’s going to die.  She has a family.  Look, this is her mother, her father and cousins.  Just leave (the flower) there.  Just watch her, talk to her and admire her, but you have to leave (her) here, because, if not, in the future, there (will) not be any (more) flowers.” 

She understood that so well.  It’s the same thing that Dora’s parents (tell) her:  “We don’t have to steal.  We are not treasure hunters.  We’re explorers.” 

We’re here to see, document and tell the world about these amazing things in nature.  So, I think it’s very important for (this) generation.

 

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

Them That Follow - Movie Review by Ben Cahlamer

Them That Follow.jpg

Written and Directed by: Britt Poulton and Dan Madison Savage

Starring: Olivia Colman, Kaitlyn Dever, Alice Englert, Jim Gaffigan, Walton Goggins, Thomas Mann, Lewis Pullman

The mood, or rather atmosphere in story telling is equally as important as the cast and the story itself. Mood can be derived from the performances or characters, from the setting or the period in which a story is set.. Horror films, which I detested as a kid are usually pretty good about setting the mood, their goal is to scare an audience, offer a rush we wouldn’t normally experience. Stories that peer into the darker side of religion without getting into the supposed horrors are equally as effective.

“Them That Follow” from the writing-directing duo of Britt Poulton and Dan Madison Savage straddles the line between the two end of this genre, managing to evoke more tension than scares.

The mood in “Them That Follow” is set by the mysterious nature of the characters and their situation. The story is set on a commune of serpent handlers as the pastor, Lemuel Childs (Walton Goggins) prepares to give away his daughter, Mara (Alice Englert) in marriage to Garret (Lewis Pullman).

As the story evolves, we learn what a tightly-knit society Pastor Childs has created for his clan, using snakes to cleanse those who are not of pure faith. Mara tries to hide numerous things, things that would be perceived as mischievous for an ordinary teenager, but are more serious given the environment they live in.

That’s at least the implication that Poulton and Savage want to convey as the story unfolds. They let on early about Mara’s secret. It’s the how’s and why’s that the story works out in the form of Oscar winner Olivia Colman as Hope Slaughter. Since Mara and Lemuel live alone, Hope is put in charge of the final details of Mara’s wedding.

In a rather shocking scene, Hope learns Mara’s secret as well. The level of violation surprised me and yet, I appreciated the viscerality of the experience because it seemed natural to the setting of the film. In the context of the story, it also makes sense that Mara would endure the ritualistic side of the preparations in order to find her path forward.

The discovery of Mara’s secret is kept from Lemuel as Garret continues to try and court Mara, an awkwardness in the film that supports her later decisions. It certainly reinforces Lemuel’s dominance both over the society of the commune and as a father. Goggins, who manages to evoke a strong sense of fear, rational or otherwise is a key aspect to Mara’s struggles.

Colman plays Hope with the same vigor as she approached Queen Anne in “The Favourite” last year: a matronly quality with a no-nonsense hard edge which supports Lemuel’s hard-nosed take on his own daughter.

The challenge is that “Them That Follows” spends so much time building the environment that it fails to tell a truly compelling story. The film is worth watching for the rich performances, but fails to capture the spirit it tried to evoke.

2.5 out of 4

Brian Banks - Movie Review by Ben Cahlamer

Credit: Katherine Bomboy / Bleecker Street

Credit: Katherine Bomboy / Bleecker Street

Directed by: Tom Shadyac

Written by: Doug Atchison

Starring: Aldis Hodge, Greg Kinnear, Sherri Shepherd, Melanie Liburd, Xosha Roquemore, Tiffany Dupont, Jose Miguel Vasquez, Morgan Freeman

I would be what you consider a “fair weather” sports fan. I’ll watch sports if they’re on TV, but I don’t go out of my way to do so. When it comes to movies about sports though, I find myself rather drawn towards them, if nothing else to remind me of the power of the human spirit; the rise to excellence and the achievement of perfection, while never quitting.

“Brian Banks,” which had an excellent showing at the Phoenix Film Festival this past April is in theaters this weekend. It tells a semi-autobiographical story of Brian Banks (Aldis Hodge, “Straight Outta Compton,” “Hidden Figures”), a man falsely accused of kidnap and rape when he was 16. Banks was an all star football player in his Long Beach high school team and had the attention of the big college bowl teams.

Shadyac, who brought Jim Carrey to prominence with “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective” in 1994 used that experience to piece together a legal drama with a sports theme. Atchison’s (“Akeelah and the Bee”) script focused more on the mental prison that Banks faced as he served out his prison sentence and his probation while trying to find a way to get his case reviewed and his conviction overturned.

Atchison pins the story on the theme of perspective and forgiveness rather than rage, that we are in control of our own reactions to what life throws our way. In that regard, Greg Kinnear appears as Justin Brooks, the head of the California Innocence Project. He would be the lawyer who eventually helps Banks’ file his motion of Habeas Corpus.

Hodge’s performance as a man both physically and mentally incarcerated and his journey to face not only his own demons, but those of the legal system that didn’t care about him in the first place, are strong points in this film’s favor. Kinnear plays Brooks a bit more restrained than I was expecting, perhaps so as not to get our hopes up.

Shadyac, who moved from comedy to drama showed a great ease with all of the material, especially when it came to demonstrating Banks’s struggles to get support, but the drama doesn’t always work, especially when it came to balancing out the legal aspects of Atchison’s script, which felt somewhat forced; a function of the editing and the story rather than the direction.

Morgan Freeman makes an uncredited cameo appearance in the film as a counselor that preaches a mantra, “All you can control in life is how you react to life.” Banks’s, and by extension, Hodge’s journey are really all about reinforcing this principle.

Some might find the sentiment to be schlocky and question the film’s timing.

Shadyac directs Hodge with style; Hodge offers conviction in his performance. Together, they give us hope and inspiration in a time when violence in the news has reached an all-time high.

Movies are meant as an escape from our own realities. They often can shape our perception of the world around us. “Brian Banks” successfully challenges us to look at the world through better eyes than the hand that we are dealt.

3.25 out of 4

Dora and the Lost City of Gold - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

Photo Credit: Vince Valitutti / © 2018 Paramount Players, a Division of Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

Photo Credit: Vince Valitutti / © 2018 Paramount Players, a Division of Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

‘Dora and the Lost City of Gold’ earns a sizable pile of silver

 

Directed by:  James Bobin

Written by:  Matthew Robinson and Nicholas Stoller

Starring:  Isabela Moner, Eugenio Derbez, Michael Pena, Eva Longoria, and Jeff Wahlberg

 

“Dora and the Lost City of Gold” – Homeschooling kids has been a modern-day topic in suburban households for years.  Certain families may have the resources and aptitude to teach reading, writing and arithmetic - and throw in sex education and dodgeball for good measure - to their children that may prove as effective as public schools.  The advantage, of course, is a familiar home-environment insulates kids from the disruptions and distractions in the hallways, playgrounds and cafeterias that can cloud learning.  Then again, confronting anxieties - and the people who contribute to them - at a young age can only help prepare young minds for adulthood-complications. 

In 2016’s “Captain Fantastic”, a father (Viggo Mortensen) homeschools his six children, as they all live off the grid in the woodsy Pacific Northwest.  The kids speak multiple languages, recite the intricacies of U.S. history and live off the land like Swiss Family Robinson, however, socializing with others might feel as awkward as playing tennis in a tuxedo and wingtips.  When the oldest sibling (George MacKay) proposes to a random girl after 15 minutes of courtship, the verdict – in this case - is in.  So, perhaps this dad can’t teach his kids everything. 

In “Dora and the Lost City of Gold”, Cole (Michael Pena) and Elena (Eva Longoria) are all-around fantastic and loving parents to their daughter Dora (Isabela Moner).  Dora is an off-the-charts brilliant kid with a bright, positive outlook, but since her professor-parents raised her in South American isolation, wearing a boa, actually means, wearing a boa constrictor.

When Cole and Elena plan to explore Peru to search for Parapata (the Lost City of Gold), they decide to send Dora on an equally foreign journey:  to temporarily live in Los Angeles with her aunt, uncle and cousin Diego (Jeff Wahlberg), who she hasn’t seen in 10 years.  

Dora – who regularly breaks into song, finds bustling crowds at the airport fascinating, carries a flare gun in case of emergencies, and looks at every moment as an opportunity to learn or share joy – immediately stands out at Silverlake High School, and she is the source of Diego’s embarrassment, who just tries to get through his schooldays without incident or fanfare.

If you do not know Isabela through her recent appearances in “Sicario: Day of the Soldado” (2018) or “Instant Family” (2018), you might become a new fan.  She brings a never-ending, compelling exuberance to the world-famous animated children’s character, and rather than existing as an elementary school-age kid, this live-action teenager offers a more palatable tale – of dodging high school obstacles and the Peruvian wilderness - for adults.  Just think back to “Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace”, as George Lucas inexplicably forced Star Wars fans to experience 9-year-old Anakin Skywalker’s adventure.  The horror; the horror.

This well-intentioned and prepared teen leads Diego and two classmates on the outing of a lifetime to find her parents and the aforementioned lost city, while dodging dangerous wildlife and cartoonish mercenaries.  Director James Bobin’s light comedy with a primarily Latino cast – including Eugenio Derbez, Benicio Del Toro and Danny Trejo - has an upbeat tone and enough Indiana Jones-like sequences to fill 102 minutes.  Plus, for those who enjoyed (or currently relish) “Dora the Explorer” (2000 – 2019), you will most likely accept this story straightaway.   

For parents, you may not consider an immediate move to South America, but score one point for homeschooling children. 

(3/4 stars)

 

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

Surprise Me! - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

SUrprise Me.jpg

The predictable rom-com ‘Surprise Me!’ is incorrectly named

 

Written and directed by:  Nancy Goodman

Starring:  Fiona Gubelmann, Jonathan Bennett, Sean Faris, and LaShawn Banks

 

“Surprise Me!” – Genie Burns (Fiona Gubelmann) has it all!  A great job, terrific friends, a loving mom and stepfather, her health, and the perfect man.  Actually, scratch the last mention.  Genie’s single, but she’s waiting for the right guy to come along, and she declares to her friend Danny (Jonathan Bennett) while eating breakfast, “I want the whole plate.”

Don’t we all, and please include the garnish, some Tabasco and a full jar of ketchup.

Speaking of food, one day while Genie strolls through a Whole Foods-like grocery store, that mass produces its own sunshine and hands out kittens at the checkout lines, a random guy flirts with her.  Jeff (Sean Faris) - who best resembles a brunette version of Cobra Kai’s Johnny (William Zabka) from “The Karate Kid” (1984) – takes an immediate liking to this perky, positive and together lady, who also owns Surprise Enterprise, an event-planning company that specializes in throwing parties.   

Well, surprise!  Despite Jeff’s creepy, player vibes - that anyone with 20/100 vision and three out of the five senses can clearly recognize - Genie falls for him anyway, and (spoiler alert), by the 35-minute mark, this mismatched couple exchange those three little words

Writer/director Nancy Goodman follows Genie’s torturous, train-wreck trek, as her relationship quickly turns sour, and she tries to make it work.   Unfortunately, Jeff does not seem to care about Genie’s well-being, so she hashes out her problems with her on-screen support system.  Ah, if only the movie audience could be spared from this familiar rom-com theme, as this – otherwise - strong woman pines for a manipulative, callous jerk.

Genie pulls in Danny, her friend Lori (Robyn Coffin), and business partner Steven (LaShawn Banks) to help sort out her skewed perspective.  She has plenty of time, because apparently in this utopian universe - during a warm, picturesque summer in Chicago - no one really seems to work.  Sure, Genie throws a couple surprise parties in the first act - and she sort of manages a massive wedding for a wealthy client - but her plastic surgeon boyfriend Jeff, her attorney best friend Danny and she seem to spend all their waking moments riding bikes, enjoying amusement parks and shuttling between lofts and suburban McMansions. 

All these bright, pristine mechanics might feel like a typical Disney Channel sitcom, but the aforementioned small screen programs don’t have Attention Deficit Disorder, like this production.

In some ways, “Surprise Me!” feels like Tommy Wiseau’s “The Room” (2003), where random ideas and events suddenly appear out of nowhere, have little connective tissue to the previous scenes and serve no distinct purpose other than to fill some imagined, screen time quota. 

-          For instance, Genie still stings from her father death from decades ago, and the film even flashes back to her youth, but this thread never really ties to anything in present-day, and the idea eventually disappears as mysteriously as it was introduced. 

-          Lori takes Genie to a paintball tournament, and the ladies hide behind a car and attempt to dodge paint projectiles for an entire 12 seconds.  Again, their entire on-screen paintball experience lasts just 12 seconds, and in the very next scene, Genie casually rides her bike in a beautiful park.  Did she bring her bike to paintball?

-          On top of all this unneeded drama, she also develops a food-binging disorder that calls for a therapist to intervene.  Don’t worry though, the screenplay’s tone seems to take none of this seriously, as a maniacal therapist – like Melissa McCarthy with an acute case of Turrets but zero comedic gifts – screams advice at her. 

Well, you might not scream at the big screen during a “Surprise Me!”-trip to the theatres, but don’t be surprised if your inside voice wishes for a much better movie.

(1/4 stars)

 

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

Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw - Movie Review by Monte Yazzie

Photo Credit: Universal Studios

Photo Credit: Universal Studios

Dir: David Leitch
Starring: Dwayne Johnson, Jason Statham, Idris Elba, Vanessa Kirby, Helen Mirren, and Cliff Curtis 

“Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”. “Thunderbolt and Lightfoot”. “Freebie and the Bean”. “Tango and Cash”. “Turner & Hootch”.

“Fast and Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw” continues the story tradition of the “buddy” film formula; two unlikely, often complete opposite, characters are somehow forced into cooperation and are whisked into a narrative that involves hijinks, adventure, crime, or romance. We’ve had follies with escaped convicts, escapades with rogue cops, and jaunts that pair human and animal.

“Hobbs & Shaw”, two foes who first threw each other through windows and broke each other over furniture in “Furious 7” and then continued their fighting while working together in “The Fate of the Furious”, somehow has a little bit of everything thrown into its lofty narrative structure. This is an action movie plain and simple, a summer blockbuster extravaganza with enough “boom” and “bang” to fill two movies. It completely understands how to utilize its action movie super humans to the fullest extent, allowing enough witty one-liners and tree-chopping put downs to fill the spaces between action set pieces with enough humor to distract from the glaring lapses in narrative design. Still, if you’ve seen all eight “Fast and Furious” films, watched all four of the “The Transporter” movies, or watched Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson deliver wrestling moves in World Wrestling Entertainment, you know exactly what to expect from “Hobbs & Shaw”.

A genetically enhanced bad guy (Idris Elba) with a physics-defying motor cycle is trying to steal a dangerous, world-ending virus but is thwarted by a special agent (Vanessa Kirby) who steals the weapon and retreats into hiding. Lawman Luke Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) and outcast Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham) are called in, unbeknownst to each other, to form a team to save the world.

Director David Leitch, who helmed “Atomic Blonde” and “Deadpool 2”, understands how to craft an action scene and how to provide that crucial element of fan service. When working with a franchise, “Fast and Furious”, that has built expectations so high for death-defying action scenes, applying the right amount fan service can be a difficult task. “Hobbs & Shaw” hits all the obvious marks, fans get a few explosive car chases, tough guy humorous banter between Dwayne Johnson and Jason Statham, and several  bone-crushing fist fights. The film is checking all the boxes.

But there is unfortunately something missing, the element of coherence and logic in storytelling that has all but been erased from the “Fast and Furious” films as they have grown in action franchise dominance. The element of drama and emotion that fleshes out their over heroic characters which has been replaced with heavy-handed emotional scenes that feel out of place and, in the case of “Hobbs & Shaw”, a “bromance” that plunges awkwardly between moments that are trying to be heartfelt and humorous. This dramatic element succeeds a handful of times when Johnson and Statham work individually with other characters in the film, unfortunately it seldom exists between the two leads.

“Hobbs & Shaw” highlights the primary expectations fans of the “Fast and Furious” franchise are looking for. The action moves closer to comic book movie status while the humor works on the most superficial terms. For the last film of the 2019 summer blockbuster movie season, “Hobbs & Shaw” is an easy, simple, unremarkable distraction.

 

Monte’s Rating
2.25 out of 5.00

Skin - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

Jamie Bell in “Skin.” (Voltage Pictures / A24)

Jamie Bell in “Skin.” (Voltage Pictures / A24)

‘Skin’ leaves a mark

 

Written/directed by:  Guy Nattiv

Starring:  Jamie Bell, Danielle Macdonald, Vera Farmiga, and Bill Camp

 

“Skin” – “Skin” is an ugly movie.  An ugly movie about fractured race relations, a problem that has plagued the United States for hundreds of years, ever since Manifest Destiny became a twisted thought, the slave trade opened for business and the shameful list goes on and on. 

Pick a sin.  Pick a year.  For all the positives about America, malevolent transgressions also plague our country’s history.  Racism is America’s original sin, and tragically, it continues to live, breathe and – in some spaces - thrive in 2019. 

Writer/director Guy Nattiv’s “Skin” is set in the 2009 Midwest during the grays of fall and winter, as the Viking Social Club sits in the countryside, surrounded by brown snow, muddy fields and dormant, leafless trees.  This group of men – and some women - willingly accept and embrace white power teachings, and their hate speech is equally matched by rugged, sporadic violence.  Their aggression is carefully orchestrated too, and the latest incident broke out between white nationals and black residents in Columbus, Ohio that resulted in 19 injuries, including one perpetrated by Byron “Babs” Widner (Jaime Bell) on a 14-year-old African-American boy. 

The skies may be gray, but on that particular night, the two primarily colors were white and black. 

Babs’ skin is also white and black, as his white face and shaved head are covered in black tattoos (ironic, isn’t it?), including a sizable arrow resting just below and rising above his right eye.  In this case, “eyesore” has a double-meaning, and his tats most certainly prevent him from working at any sort of “normal” 9-to-5.  Somewhere along the way, however, he hopes for something better, something righteous, and it begins after meeting Julie (Danielle Macdonald) and her three girls Desiree, Sierra and Iggy.

This is a small story about huge themes, and as troubling as Bell looks, it’s impossible to take your eyes off him, as Nattiv ensures that he points his unfiltered camera on Babs throughout the 2-hour runtime.  In his early 30s, Babs’ harsh exterior masks his guilt, and the film captures his possible shot at redemption, that is heavily tempered by his past physical choices and current immediate environment. 

Everything about “Skin” feels gritty, raw and unseemly, and while Bell rightfully dominates and carries the picture, Vera Farmiga delivers the best performance as Babs’ adoptive mom Shareen.  Known to everyone in the club as Ma – and married to its leader Fred (Bill Camp) -  Shareen certainly is in tune with her mothering instincts.  She’s gentle with these young, lost men and embraces them with kindness, warm meals and love, but Shareen never wears a speck of makeup and her long gray and brown locks might remind one of Margaret White (Piper Laurie) from Brian De Palma’s “Carrie” (1976).  You know…Carrie’s mom, and we know how that story went down. 

Nattiv opens a door and shoves us down into a world that we hoped didn’t still exist.  We might see racist images or hear comments on the 24-hour news, but under the murkiest conditions, “Skin” shines a spotlight on one of its distinct faces.

(3/4 stars)

 

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

David Crosby: Remember My Name - Movie Review by Ben Cahlamer

Photo Credit: Edd Lukas and Ian Coad/Sony Pictures Classics

Photo Credit: Edd Lukas and Ian Coad/Sony Pictures Classics

Directed by: A. J. Eaton

Featuring: David Crosby, Jan Crosby, Cameron Crowe, Graham Nash, Stephen Stills, Neil Young

As a kid, my family and I would travel cross country from Milwaukee to Phoenix during our spring breaks. Those trips are a part of the reason why I like long road trips.

They’re an even bigger reason for my being a fan of music acts like the Eagles, Kansas, James Taylor and Crosby, Stills and Nash (there’s probably even a tune when Neil Young was a part of the quartet.) I confess to not knowing much about the personal lives or the struggles each of the people who made up these acts had.

Documentaries about the lives and times these musicians lived in, or in David Crosby’s case, still lives in are fascinating to me because of my constant love of human interest stories. A. J. Eaton’s “David Crosby: Remember My Name” fits that bill rather effectively.

The doc, which takes place during a 2018 concert tour starts at Crosby’s home. The man, who has had his share of run ins with the law, with drugs and with life itself, isn’t too keen on leaving his wife and their beautiful home, when he acknowledges that he still needs the gigs to pay for their sprawling and beautiful ranch.

A quick search of Eaton’s IMDB profile reveals several shorts credited to him, so it appears that “David Crosby: Remember My Name” is his first feature-length documentary, but it doesn’t necessarily feel like his first documentary. There’s a rich history as Crosby takes us on a tour of spots that have become historical markers in his life; the home where he and his first wife lived, coincidentally the home where CSN was first formed too. Crosby goes on to talk about why he lived in the Hollywood Hills in the first grocery store to populate the area.

What riveted me with his life is how much love he had for what surrounded him; people, places, but never things. What angered me was how much he threw most of it away on senseless and arbitrary actions on his part to destroy those relationships around him.

The documentary also painted him as a man in continual distress, even to this point on his life and the most remarkable perspective is his questioning why he is still here, even after a bout with Hepatitis C, a liver failure and transplant, and his ongoing issues with diabetes. Eaton helps to define all of this through Crosby’s wife, Jan. There is love between the two of them: you can see Crosby’s passion for her, for everything he does.

Including creating rifts and hardships for others in his life.

Crosby’s discussion about how Graham Nash and Stephen Stills came in to his life, about how they were able to harmonize together, like no one had ever heard, was painful to hear in some respects because of their falling out, which Eaton uses archival interviews with Nash, Stills and Neil Young to carry the throughline of the documentary.

In that throughline though, we discover a very stubborn man. Someone whose thirst for gifting the world with music, his music, was the only way, driving a wedge between those he cared for and himself. His stubbornness was also his passion and the need to constantly fuel that passion with drugs and love, leading to personal tragedy and jail.

Eaton delves into Crosby’s love for sailing, with Crosby talking about the schooner he bought named Mayan. Crosby wrote several of the songs eventually performed by CSN/CSNY while he was out sailing. One gets the sense that sailing for Crosby was almost as powerful as any drug he could have ingested.

All of this leads us back to the documentary’s coda; there is still passion and love for what Crosby does. There is regret for the things that happened in his life, the relationships he’s broken. It certainly didn’t feel like he took responsibility for those break-ups.

As riveting and as informative as “David Crosby: Remember My Name” is the man still feels like he’s searching for something that this documentary can’t answer, except to say that passion fuels the journey forward, even if we never know the destination.

3 out of 4 stars

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood - Movie Review by Monte Yazzie

Credit: Andrew Cooper - © 2019 CTMG, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Credit: Andrew Cooper - © 2019 CTMG, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Dir: Quentin Tarantino

Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Kurt Russell, Al Pacino, Dakota Fanning, Emile Hirsch, and Timothy Olyphant

 

“When people ask me if I went to film school I tell them, ‘no, I went to films.’”

This sentiment from filmmaker Quentin Tarantino is a poignant statement not only for his entire career, but specifically for the ninth feature film from the writer/director “Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood”. Often times labeled as a film nerd of the highest degree or a cinephile with encyclopedic knowledge, which are both completely true, Tarantino is also a dedicated film historian who is working within all of his films to keep the essence of long-ago filmmaking genre, structure, and style alive.

In “Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood” the nostalgia for the films and the history that defined the end of the 1960’s and the beginning of the 1970’s for the film industry is present from the first frame and saturated until the final frame. Movie posters loom like skyscrapers over Los Angeles in 1969, Hollywood glows with rich detail and stunning beauty through the lights and architecture of famous landmarks, and real-life movie stars like Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), Bruce Lee (Mike Moh), and Steve McQueen (Damian Lewis) weave into Tarantino’s fictional yarn.

It’s a combination of everything that the director has honed and crafted in his style and structure over the course of his career, there are even winks to his past found in both subtle and direct sources on the screen. While it’s undoubtedly a Quentin Tarantino film, “Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood” is also different from other films in his catalog. This film, in terms of story structure is akin to “Pulp Fiction” while the tone and pace feels most like “Jackie Brown”.

The story here centers on two friends working in the film industry in Los Angeles in the late 1960’s. Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) is the movie star whose leading man status is fading while the changing industry begins to embrace the counterculture movement of the time. Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) is the stunt man looking for work while helping his buddy Rick as both a personal motivator and occasional handyman. After a meeting with a producer (Al Pacino), an offer to work in Italian spaghetti westerns is offered to Rick who immediately realizes that his status in Hollywood is changing. The traditional hero with the chiseled jawline and neat appearance is being replaced with contemporary tough guys with shaggy hair who dress like hippies. Rick is beside himself while Cliff seems okay with change as long as there is work. It doesn’t help Rick’s ego that he lives on Cielo Drive in Beverly Hills, right next door to new rising starlet Sharon Tate and her husband Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha).

Tarantino does a fantastic job of contrasting the two lives of Rick and Cliff against the life of Sharon Tate. Rick is grasping for the past throughout the film, struggling to understand the changing times and how he fits into a new era of movie making. Rick has a nasty cough that never seems to go away and a stutter that gets worst when he is forced to embrace the inevitable change that is coming. On the opposite side is Sharon Tate, a rising star full of enthusiasm who is just breaking into the Hollywood system. Seeing her bubbly charm as she dances at a big party, with some of Hollywood’s biggest stars at the time watching her own the dance floor, is as much lovely as it is somber. While Tarantino may weave fiction and fact into his own kind of revisionist history, we as the audience know the fate of Sharon Tate and her close friends at the hands of the Manson family.

The cast in Tarantino’s films are always abundant with familiar faces, the same is true here for the cameos which are incredibly fun. However, the film belongs to Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt who are both fantastic in the roles. Leonardo DiCaprio plays Rick Dalton as an entitled Hollywood actor most concerned about his relevance and the process behind his acting. In one moment, Rick destroys his trailer after messing up his speaking lines on set and the next he’s crying huge tears after a young actor offers words of admiration. DiCaprio is fantastic throughout. Brad Pitt, in one of the best roles of his career, plays Cliff with colossal amounts of coolness but also a hint of danger from a past that may or may not have involved murder. Pitt is phenomenal. Also impressive is Margot Robbie playing Sharon Tate, her performance is charming especially when she sneaks into a cinema to watch “The Wrecking Crew”, the breakout role for Tate.

This is perhaps Tarantino’s most directly reflective film; the auteur is clearly looking back on his place in cinema history amidst the rapid and immense changes that have come along over the course of the director’s career. Tarantino has always been cutting edge in technique and storytelling but the progression of his films has gone from liberal examinations of present matters through foul-mouthed gangsters and sword-wielding assassins and have turned towards conservative genre structures from the past like war films with vengeance-seeking soldiers and western stories featuring six-gun shooting double-crossers.

“Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood” has everything that Quentin Tarantino loves about films jam packed into one movie. Yet still, this film feels farthest from the style he is known for. There are still flares of vocabulary, amazing musical cues, and the occasional scene of violence, but the underlying tone in Tarantino’s ninth film is sweeter than anything he has done before. The introspection shown in regards to the aspects of film that Tarantino loves so deeply, that he fights to keep alive, is what gives “Once Upon a Time…” its beating heart. And through the journey of an aging movie star that believes he is becoming a has-been Tarantino deliberates on his own relevance as a filmmaker. It’s a beautiful, somber, and touching film. A fitting finale for one of cinema’s greatest filmmakers.

 

Monte’s Rating
5.00 out of 5.00

Quentin Tarantino Retrospective by Ben Cahlamer

‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’

‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’

Merely uttering the name Quentin Tarantino in most film circles has cinephiles running for the corners, checking their cards and making sure that their credentials are in order. All of this takes place even before his oeuvre can be discussed, palms glistening with sweat as conversation in hushed, hurried voices about his influences go on.

“Once Upon a Time . . .  in Hollywood” is poised to hit U.S. and Canadian theaters this weekend and  Phoenix Film Festival critic Ben Cahlamer is celebrating Tarantino’s mark on film history with his ordering of Tarantino’s classics.

Note that for the purposes of this list, “Kill Bill: Volume 1” and “Volume 2” are being treated as separate films, though the argument could be made that they are one film. We are intentionally omitting “Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood” because it is a new release this weekend.

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9. “Death Proof” (2007, Dimension Films) Part of the double feature, “Grindhouse” along with Robert Rodriguez’s “Planet Terror,” “Death Proof” is a tale of a stunt man (Kurt Russell) in his ‘death proof’ car. The film pays homage to the classic slasher, exploitation and muscle car films of the 1970s. I’ve only seen the film once and it has all of the hallmark Tarantino riffs, but in paying homage, it felt hyper-realistic and didn’t completely work for me.

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8. “Kill Bill: Volume 2” (2004, Miramax) The second part of “The Bride” is a beautiful film in that it has the most character development of the two. But, because it is a separate part from the first volume, Tarantino’s homage to Martial Arts and Spaghetti Westerns doesn’t work as well as the first part. Bill’s (David Carradine)speech at the end of the film is heartfelt, but Uma Thurman’s empathetic reaction is even more on point.

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7. “Reservoir Dogs” (1992, Miramax) I only saw Tarantino’s first film recently, but the heist story, the non-linear time line and the cast really drive this film in such a unique way. As I sit here thinking about it, “Reservoir Dogs” is what would have happened had all the villains from Joseph Sergeant’s “The Taking of Pelham One, Two, Three” escaped, but became cornered after the event goes badly.

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6. “Django Unchained” (2012, The Weinstein Company) Though it is a revision of the classic Italian film, “Django,” Tarantino’s stylized version unleashes Django Freeman (Jamie Foxx) in an ultraviolent story of revenge in the Deep South. Tarantino would go on to win several awards for his screenplay, while the film would be nominated for Best Picture. Christoph Waltz won Best Supporting Actor for his role as Dr. King Schultz, a German dentist-turned bounty hunter. Leonardo DiCaprio was a riot as Monsieur Calvin J. Candle.

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5. “Pulp Fiction” (1994, Miramax) This was the film that put Tarantino on mainstream audience’s radar and was the start of John Travolta’s second renaissance. I actually caught this film on my university’s movie channel long after it was out of theaters, but I knew it was all the rage going into the 1995 Oscar’s telecast. The violence, the story telling, the attention to detail that Tarantino gave this black comedy caper is still fresh in my mind.

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4. “The Hateful Eight” (2015, The Weinstein Company) I managed to see this twice in theaters, once on the 70MM Roadshow release and again on digital. My preference is for the Roadshow version because it creates a classic atmosphere for such a violent affair. What makes this movie sing for me isn’t just the cast; this is perhaps Tarantino’s strongest cast, only bested by one other of his films. But, the fact that the film is shot on two main locations (the stage coach and the lodge) and the tension that the limited locations provides, makes for a great drama.

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3. “Kill Bill: Volume 1” (2003, Miramax) Originally intended to be released as a four-hour film, Uma Thurman proves, once again, why she is a stunning actor. The physicality of what she had to endure, in terms of choreographed fights and the savage beating she took makes this a masterpiece. But, it also keeps Bill in the shadows, something that adds to the homage to Martial Arts films that “Kill Bill” pays tribute to. The majority of the action is played out in this first volume, leaving the dramatic story telling for the second volume. Watched together, it makes for a single, excellent film, but “Kill Bill” suffers from the same problem as the “Star Trek: The Next Generation” third season cliffhanger “The Best of Both Worlds”: it starts off so spectacularly that the pent up energy really has nowhere to go in the second volume.

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2.  “Inglorious Basterds” (2009, The Weinstein Company) Like many of Tarantino’s films, I hadn’t had the chance to watch the films he pays homage to until after I’d seen the Tarantino film. That’s because I have faith in his ability to create something wholly original and he succeeds in yet another black comedy; featuring Brad Pitt, Christoph Waltz, Michael Fassbender, Diane Kruger, Daniel Bruhl and Melanie Laurent. The film is exceptionally violent, but the story it tells is one of understood retribution. Waltz would go on to win Best Supporting Actor at the 2010 Oscar telecast, along with the Cannes Best Actor Award, the BAFTA, SAG, Critics’ Choice and the Golden Globe.

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1. “Jackie Brown” (1997, Miramax) The only script that Tarantino adapted from another work, Elmore Leonard’s “Rum Punch,” this homage to Blaxploitation films has an eclectic cast, a dynamite soundtrack and a beautiful romance. Pam Grier absolutely steals the show as the titular character while Samuel L. Jackson, though not as strong as his performance in “Pulp Fiction” really is a lot of fun to watch. The supporting cast, namely Robert Forster as a bondsman, Max Cherry (a role he was destined to play) and Michael Keaton as Ray Nicolette, a loose cannon of an ATF agent really bind the whole film together. The whole affair is  as laid back as Tarantino is and he stamps his inimitable style on Leonard’s novel.

Before you go, did you know that Tarantino was an uncredited screenwriter on both “Crimson Tide” (1995) and “The Rock” (1996)?

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

Photo Credit: ANDREW COOPER; © 2018 CTMG, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Photo Credit: ANDREW COOPER; © 2018 CTMG, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Tarantino’s ‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’ is a flawed tale that’s too short and too long

 

Written and directed by: Quentin Tarantino

Starring:  Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Margaret Qualley, Timothy Olyphant, Al Pacino, and Kurt Russell

 

“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” – “L.A. is my lady.” – Frank Sinatra, “L.A. is My Lady”(1984)

The Chairman of the Board may have claimed the City of Angels as his girl, but she’s been in a committed relationship with Quentin Tarantino for decades.  This modern-day cinema legend famously set his first three pictures - “Reservoir Dogs” (1992), “Pulp Fiction” (1994) and “Jackie Brown” (1997) - in Los Angeles, and Tarantino knows this urban terrain extremely well, because he’s lived in L.A. nearly his entire life. 

One’s hometown can certainly leave an impression, and although Quentin was born in Tennessee, he moved to Southern California around the age of 3, as noted in the book “Quentin Tarantino FAQ: Everything Left to Know about the Original Reservoir Dog” by Dale Sherman.  Hence, the rest is history. 

Well, Tarantino’s new film “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” is partially a history lesson.  It’s set in 1969 La La Land, but the title sounds like a restless children’s story.  A fable, perhaps, and in the said year, Quentin turned 6 years old.  

Perhaps an appropriate opening is “Once upon a time in 1969, racial tensions were explosive, the Vietnam War divided the country, but in July, Man landed on the Moon, and in August, a seminal rock festival invaded Upstate New York.  Say what you want about 1969, but the time was far from mundane.”

In Tarantino’s picture, life has become mundane for actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his longtime stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt).  Rick was a bankable television star in the traditional-western “Bounty Law” on NBC during the early 60s, but these days, he occasionally plays antagonists as a TV guest star.  Unfortunately, his villainous characters always lose the big fights and aren’t kept around the win the wars.  Rick’s career is slipping before his eyes, and Cliff triggered two controversial incidents that dissuade studios from hiring him.  So, Cliff now plays the eternal role of Rick’s driver, but hey, he is not acting when proclaiming his friendship with Rick by sharing pizza and regularly offering encouraging words.  They are best buds, through and through.

They both need their mutual support, as the movie biz – with a smile - slowly pushes Rick off a cliff and into relative obscurity.  While Rick fears his future, Cliff really has nowhere else to go, and this laidback Marlboro Man – who wears moccasins in place of boots - truly embraces today’s blessings.  He drives Rick’s yellow Coupe de Ville and hopes to find some stunt work, despite his questionable past. 

This is a buddy movie, and one that isn’t afraid to take its time, as Tarantino fills the screen with intricate nuances from the period, as only he can.  Fans will guzzle and slurp Tarantino’s signature small touches, including his famous brand of cigarettes, but this film feels more personal than his others. 

Sure, “Pulp Fiction” had Butch sitting 12 inches from a television and watching a bizarre, dated cartoon, and “Reservoir Dogs” offered K-Billy’s Super Sounds of 70s, but here, Tarantino seems to insert even more moments from his childhood.  For instance, a random Wheaties box sits on a kitchen counter in plain sight, a crane shot lovingly captures the Van Nuys Drive-In, and several beats from the period like “Hush” and “Mrs. Robinson” along with random radio commercials pop out of nowhere and settle as a misty foundation that gently soaks into our eardrums. 

Tarantino clearly and successfully transports us into this time and place, but narratively, the movie lumbers with serious problems.  On top of Rick’s and Cliff’s journeys, the film introduces Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie).  Her career is on the rise, and despite living next door to Rick on Cielo Drive in Benedict Canyon, the only time that their paths have crossed is that invisible inflection point when Sharon’s star brightly sparkles upward and Rick’s….well, you know.

Sharon’s screen time remains separate.  Separate, but not equal, as we don’t learn a lot about her, other than she enjoys her California lifestyle via a few car rides, either with Roman Polanski, a hitchhiker, or on her own as she stops at a local movie theatre to watch herself perform in “The Wrecking Crew” (1968). 

Even though Sharon’s arc plays a fundamental part in Tarantino’s overall vision, she’s caught in movie-purgatory.  The camera burns enough calories that require more insight into Sharon, but it never comes.  Robbie either needs more to do, or her scenes should be dramatically cut.  Just give the audience a few glances of Sharon instead, and she become an on-screen mystery, and a deeply intriguing one. 

We don’t get either, and meanwhile Rick and Cliff meet some colorful, rich supporting characters, including a studious 8-year-old actress who appears to channel Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) from “True Grit” (2010), an insightful producer (Al Pacino) and a free-spirited teen (Margaret Qualley).  They leave such noteworthy impacts that beg for more minutes, but with a 2-hour 41-minute runtime already, there isn’t exactly room.   Even though “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” feels long, one could fruitfully argue that Tarantino needs four hours to ultimately fulfill his vision.  Just look to the last act, as it suddenly and clumsily introduces Kurt Russell as a narrator who explains a rushed-montage of events, which is highly bizarre, given the easy-going, carefree pace of the first two hours. 

Like Robbie’s screen time, this film feels caught in a terrible case of limbo that would wildly deliver either with a stripped-down, 90-minute Rick and Cliff-comedy or Tarantino’s possible narrative that needed 240 minutes instead of 161.  

Yes, “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” is a gorgeously-shot picture, DiCaprio and Pitt work their tails off to – indeed - become these two men who battle Father Time and their immediate environment to reclaim their places in the world, and Tarantino includes – in excess - his familiar indulgences, for better or worse.  With all this effort poured into this restless, SoCal “children’s” story, it’s inexplicable that the narrative seems so incomplete and this – in turn - lessens the eventual payoff.  This might not be Tarantino’s worst film, but given the presented construction, it’s his most flawed.  His undying connection with Los Angeles can never be questioned, but a loving relationship isn’t perfect every day.

(2/4 stars)

 

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

The Lion King - Movie Review by Monte Yazzie

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Dir: Jon Favreau
Starring: Donald Glover, Beyoncé, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Alfre Woodard, John Oliver, Keegan-Michael Key, Eric André, Seth Rogen, Billy Eichner, and James Earl Jones

 

W.C. Fields famously quoted about the filmmaking process, “Never work with children or animals”.

There was a moment a few years ago, while watching a young filmmaker work on getting a cat to walk through a dog door, when these words haunted a production set for 2 hours. After numerous requests, which very quickly became pleas, of “cut” and “action” the director asked if there was any way to make a digital cat for the scene.

One week later, director Jon Favreau released the photorealistic digital remake of the beloved 1967 animated film “The Jungle Book”; a visual feast of the advancements in technology that made a jungle full of animals come to life like a nature documentary. With a star-studded group of voice actors, this new rendition of “The Jungle Book” was the spark that opened up the possibilities of Disney Studios revisiting more than just their human focused stories.

“The Lion King”, the 1994 landmark cartoon that changed the trajectory of Disney’s animation studios, is the newest past property to be reimagined through photorealistic strokes of digital artistry. The result is a technical marvel without much dramatic spirit, an absolutely beautiful painting that struggles consistently with adding emotional touchstones to its flawless digital rendering.

From the opening sequence, the breathtaking progression through the Pride Lands as baby Simba is introduced to the world, the amazing digital wizardry is immediately on full scale display. Nearly every character, landscape, and motion from the original animated film is mirrored with such meticulous care and constructed in such high definition clarity that you won’t realize you are smiling until you realize that you already started singing “Circle of Life”. It’s a gorgeous technological feat.

As the film progresses into the heft of the narrative, with its Shakespearean-esque cues and sing-a-long musical numbers, the technology remains impressive but the emotional components of these characters get lost in all the realistic animal composition. The flexibility of standard animation, which allows moments to compose backgrounds for atmospheric effect and exaggerate features for heightened reactions, assist in making Mufasa’s (James Earl Jones) death so tragic and allowing Scar’s (Chiwetel Ejiofor) murderous deeds to feel so threatening.

What this new film does is craft what looks like a Disneynature film; with such fine-tuned character compositions, Simba’s (JD McCrary) playfulness while singing “Just Can’t Wait to be King” seems dulled and at times oddly structured. Scar and the Hyenas appear so visually threatening on first introduction, with glowing eyes and sinister stalking motions, but they lose that edge the moment they sing or clumsily tumble into one another during altercations with the lions.

It doesn’t help that the film is trying so hard to be a shot-for-shot remake of the original cartoon. In the same way that the threat, thrill, and tension was lost in director Gus Van Sant’s recreation of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho”, the heart, humor, and harmony of this updated version of “The Lion King” also feels lessened by its need to match scenes and emotions from the original.

There are few moments when the joy and pleasure of the original take over, especially when Timon (Billy Eichner) and Pumbaa (Seth Rogen) are on screen discussing slimy cuisine and singing about their life motto or when the formal Zazu (John Oliver) is flying around providing morning reports.

The talented voice actors throughout the film all have opportunities to shine but it never lasts too long. Beyoncé voices older Nala and sings exceptionally well, Donald Glover plays older Simba and offers a maturity that feels somewhat timid with hints of kingly confidence, and James Earl Jones brings all the gravitas, almost exactly so, from the original performance.

“The Lion King” is very often a beautiful experiment of how precisely detailed and richly composed technology can make an artificial world resemble the real thing. Unfortunately, it’s still a few steps away from providing this recreated film with the heart and soul found so affectionately in traditional methods of animation that made the 90’s version of this film such a classic.

 

Monte’s Rating
2.50 out of 5.00

The Farewell - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

Photo: Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

Photo: Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

Please say ‘Hello’ to ‘The Farewell’

 

Writer/Director:  Lulu Wang

Starring:  Awkwafina, Zhao Shuzhen, Tzi Ma, Diana Lin, Lu Hong, Jiang Yongbo, Chen Han, and Aoi Mizuhara

“The Farewell” – Writer/director Lulu Wang’s film is about family.  For those who advocate to write about what you know, Wang took those words to heart.  “The Farewell” is a personal story, and as noted in the opening credits, this particular life-chapter is based on an actual lie.  Certainly, love is a common thread woven into most family tapestries, but lies – albeit in a reduced role – intertwine themselves into permanent lineages too. 

Whether large or small, a designed falsehood between family members can aid both parties, but usually, a fib disproportionally benefits the giver or receiver. 

For instance, Billi (Awkwafina), a late 20-something, is struggling financially in New York City.  When her mom Jian (Diana Lin) asks about her bills, Billi dismisses the question by answering that things are fine.  What’s more, Billi cannot quite find her career-footing, and her dreams of a fellowship dissipate into the ether via a rejection letter.  Soon after, her dad Haiyan (Tzi Ma) innocently inquires about any fellowship-news, and Billi responds that she hasn’t heard yet.  Both harmless lies benefit Billi, the giver, so she doesn’t have to summon the energy to speak out loud about these painful setbacks that already dance in her head on a continuous loop.

“The Farewell” centers around a big lie, but this one is designed to aid the receiver, Billi’s grandmother Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen).  She lives across the Pacific in Changchun, a growing urban center that sits in the northeast corner of China.  Her sister Little Nai Nai (Lu Hong) receives terrible news – directly from a doctor - that Nai Nai contracted lung cancer and has three months to live.  Rather than have Nai Nai stress about her fatal condition, the family decides to keep the news to themselves.  In addition, they all travel to Changchun and plan a fake wedding for her grandson Hao Hao (Chen Han) and his girlfriend Aiko (Aoi Mizuhara), as an excuse to see her one last time…and have an event to celebrate.

Wang’s picture is a glorious one to celebrate, as she perfectly captures the twisty nuances, frank discourse and natural measures of both anxiety and security that brew when extended families throw themselves together for a reunion, a wedding or a weekly meal. 

Other than some establishing shots of Changchun and other glances of the city, most of the fermenting drama, humor and several, several enticing meals reside in the close quarters of living rooms, kitchens and restaurants.  Everyone feels the weight of Nai Nai’s impending fate, but the trick is to sustain the pretenses and pleasantries, while she – without any idea – smiles, encourages everyone to eat, but also complains about Aiko. 

And why not?  Aiko is not part of the family just yet, right?

Well, Nai Nai’s intimate concoction of charm and blunt talk drive her magnetic charisma, and her everyday exchanges offer frequent opportunities for the audience to chuckle along with her.  You might recognize traces or perhaps heaps of Nai Nai on your family tree, and Zhao adds a bubbly, irresistible grace that lights up the camera with a blankets of warm coziness, even though this matriarch feels equally free to launch orders at her faithful subjects.  

Billi is Nai Nai’s most faithful subject.  Growing up in the U.S., she’s also the “most” American and feels practically incapable of keeping this family secret.  Billi is reliving Lulu Wang’s experience, and Awkwafina presents the film’s director as constantly shouldering this burden. She also wears grays, blacks and browns and the lightest – if any – makeup, as her physical presence matches her emotional demeanor. 

Billi looks to blurt out her sorrow for about 88 minutes of the film’s 98-minute runtime, as Wang not only organically constructs universal anthropological themes into a uniquely personal narrative, but also into a stressful drama, in which the family’s righteous plan could be exposed at any moment. 

Awkwafina and Zhao anchor the film through their deeply-relatable, soulful performances, and the supporting players flawlessly fit – including the real Little Nai Nai playing herself - as principled but also imperfect beings.  Wang must have deeply searched through her swathes of memories, as her on-screen family argues, partners, laughs, eats, and shares spaces with meticulous detail during this specific time capsule.  One that even fitting includes Lauryn Hill’s “Killing Me Softly”. 

At one point, Nai Nai declares, “It’s been too long since we’ve all been together like this.”

She speaks the truth. 

(3.5/4 stars)

 

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