Man Down - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

The well-intentioned war movie ‘Man Down’ feels like it needed more filmmakers


Directed by:  Dito Montiel

Written by:  Dito Montiel and Adam G. Simon

Starring:  Shia LaBeouf, Jai Courtney, Kate Mara, and Gary Oldman


“Man Down” – U.S. Marine Gabriel Drummer (Shia LaBeouf) roams a decimated American countryside that looks like a recent victim of a nuclear attack.   With visuals reminiscent of the “Divergent” series (2014 – 2016), a nearby city is filled with broken, hollowed out skyscrapers, as Gabriel searches – along with his best friend, Devin (Jai Courtney) – for his young son (Charlie Shotwell) along the desolate, post-WWIII streets.     Director/cowriter Dito Montiel truly paints a terribly grim image of America, and the opening few minutes foreshadow an equally depressing picture.  Despite an admirable performance by LaBeouf, the film’s ultimate point regrettably becomes marginalized in the midst of a befuddled, overthought narrative. 


“Man Down” continually shifts between Gabriel’s experiences in post-WWIII to his days with the U.S. Marines, before everything went to hell, as it is commonly referred to in military films.  During the former, Gabriel and Devin – sporting beards and acting in survival-mode in a toxic wasteland - are no longer with the armed services and are hardened by a cataclysmic war that the audience does not experience onscreen.  In the latter, Gabriel and Devin go through basic training in Camp Lejeune, North Carolina and head out to a different war in Afghanistan, filled with open questions and the possibilities of urban warfare mistakes. 


Most of the time, both environments are cinematically adequate on their own, but the movie’s construct deliberately delivers a puzzle.   How does Gabriel go from a present-day U.S. Marine in Afghanistan to a future nomad rummaging through the ruined homeland?   This is especially confusing, because, in addition, Montiel and cowriter Adam G. Simon spend a significant amount of screen time with a military official (Gary Oldman) interviewing Gabriel.  As the movie treads forward between (actually) three time periods, it becomes obvious that the meeting with Peyton (Oldman) and Gabriel carries at least a portion of the film’s answers.   Then again, their conversation carries little insight or interest, as the officer and private work through tired, clichéd regulations in a dimly lit trailer complete with woodgrain paneling. 


While on the subject of lighting (or lack thereof), at one point during basic training in Camp Lejeune, I pulled off my glasses and also looked around the theatre.  Some scenes seemed slightly out of focus, and I wondered if the movie was presented in 3D, but I simply failed to pick up my 3D glasses.  After realizing that no one else - within a 20-yard radius - was wearing those special glasses, I felt reassured that I did not miss a “Pick up your 3D glasses here” sign before walking into the theatre.


The message, however, that Montiel and Simon want the audience to absorb is a vitally important one and not to be taken lightly.  I am most appreciative of the subject matter that the movie conveys and believe that it will open up dialogues over coffee after the theatre lights turn on.  At the same time, “Man Down” delivers this message like a sledgehammer whirling down on an unprotected box of supermarket eggs while simultaneously offering an unnecessary mystery over almost the entire 92-minute runtime.  “Man Down” certainly contains a worthy premise, but the movie is aptly named, because it feels like it needed more filmmakers.   

(1.5/4 stars)


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





Manchester by the Sea - Movie Review by Monte Yazzie

Manchester by the Sea


Director: Kenneth Lonergan

Starring: Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams, Kyle Chandler, C.J. Wilson, Gretchen Mol, Lucas Hedges, and Matthew Broderick


Tragedy changes people. It takes a piece of a person, never completely making them whole again. The saying “time heals all wounds” is true, however wounds leave scars, a life long reminder of the pain that you once felt. Kenneth Lonergan, a writer who’s films have a specific and special way of portraying death and the after effects it leaves on a person, manufactures his newest film “Manchester by the Sea” in a lingering fog of a tragedy.


Lee (Casey Affleck) is a janitor living near Boston. He does odd jobs like fixing faucets, shoveling snowy sidewalks, and plunging clogged toilets; but something is different about Lee, you can feel the frustration and anger in his every motion and see pain and despair behind his eyes. Lee receives an unexpected phone call from his hometown, his older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) has died from congestive heart failure. Lee quickly returns to his hometown to handle arrangements but also to take care of his nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges).


“Manchester by the Sea” is about people and the pains of death. Mr. Lonergan handles this aspect deftly and delicately, painting a portrait of ordinary people living in a small town dealing with death in a personal and many times genuine way. Life still moves forward without pause for compassion, little things like dinner still needing to be cooked, preparing for snow that is still going to fall, and partaking in the painstaking process of grieving. It’s uncomfortable to watch yet fascinating to see the process so meticulously staged by such a skillful writer. There is more going on still, the aspect of Joe’s death is just one component. Lee has a history in this small New England town, people recognize him and whisper condemningly in his direction.


The focus of Lee’s agony is revealed through flashbacks about half way through the film and the result is heart breaking. How do you deal with such immense tragedy? That’s the question that continues throughout the remainder of the film and is displayed through a man still dealing with the affects of death from the past and forced to handle it again in the present. You are offered two separate versions of man; it’s almost like watching two different characters completely. Lee, as a married family man, is the definition of “the life of the party”. He drinks with his friends, roughhouses with his brother, affectionately teaches his nephew how to fish, and flirts sweetly with his wife (Michelle Williams).  Lee, as a lonely janitor, is cautious and measured. A man clearly dealing with emotions flowing very close to the surface, it takes everything in his power to keep those emotions restrained; sometimes they come through as aggression and anger while other times they come through as nothing more than a long stare into the distance. Mr. Lonergan builds moments that place Lee in the middle of ordinary social situations that are difficult for him function in, then into the middle of complicated situations only to watch the character drown in his own sea of self-destruction and self-loathing. You can never tell exactly how Lee will react to these circumstances, it’s an intriguing quality methodically designed by the writer/director.


Accommodating the script is a slew of fantastic performances. Casey Affleck is superb, skillfully handling the weight of the emotions in the film and delivering one of the finest, gut-wrenching performances of the year. Add to this the committed performance from Lucas Hedges who plays Patrick, a teenager trying to find a handle on the death of his father. Mr. Hedges develops the character through the different stages of the grieving process, in one moment with the kind of teenage angst you’d expect from someone his age but also with the carefree outlook that you’d expect from a young person who has lived in the same safe community his entire life.


“Manchester by the Sea” is not a film for every film fan, it's uncomfortable and grueling to watch a character suffer with these kinds of feelings for two plus hours. While the film portrays a tragedy many of us will ever know, pain and sorrow is something we can all relate with in one way or another. We all have wounds that haven't fully healed, some are still aching while others are long past the point of pain. While "Manchester by the Sea" may be polarizing for many viewers, the film displays that we all deal with pain in different ways and some us have unimaginable wounds they may be trying desperately to hide underneath a wealth of different emotions.


Monte’s Rating

4.00 out of 5.0

Bad Santa 2 - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

‘Bad Santa 2’ is a flawed, funny stocking stuffer


Directed by:  Mark Waters

Written by:  Johnny Rosenthal, Shauna Cross

Starring:  Billy Bob Thornton, Tony Cox, Kathy Bates, Christina Hendricks, and Brett Kelly



“Bad Santa 2” - “He’s making a list, and he’s checking it twice.  Gonna find out who’s naughty or nice…” – “Santa Claus is Coming to Town”, written by John Frederick Coots and Haven Gillespie


“Bad Santa” turned this famous Christmas song on its head in 2003, by ironically finding a Kris Kringle (Billy Bob Thornton) who was both naughty and not very nice at all. Willie (Thornton) - a mean-spirited shopping mall Santa Claus who prefers booze over milk and cookies – routinely curses “over” his breath when various kids sit on his knee and ask for their most hopeful Christmas wishes. 


Thornton answered our comedy wishes by breaking several rules of Christmas decorum in this unique and hilarious performance.  Thirteen years later, Thornton resurrects Willie in director Mark Waters’ (“Mean Girls” (2004), “Mr. Popper’s Penguins” (2011)) new picture.


Like “Dumb and Dumber To” (2014) and “Bridget Jones’s Baby” (2016), there is no intellectual reason to convey another story of a beloved movie character in a sequel.  On the other hand, with Black Friday, flashing multi-colored bulbs positioned on rain gutters and a 100,000 percent increase in seasonal egg nog sales imminently upon us, tis the season for Christmas movies, and hence Willie’s time is now. 


Well, the year 2016 has not treated our hero very well, or to be more accurate, Willie has not treated himself with kindness.  Behind on bills and in desperate need of a cleaning woman in his tiny Phoenix apartment, he believes that he has no apparent reason for living, when opportunity suddenly knocks!  His old business partner, Marcus (hysterically played by Tony Cox), offers him a safecracking gig with two million dollars at the end of a sorted rainbow. 


This particular prospect naturally contains a Christmas theme, which forces Willie to sport a Santa suit again.  This, of course, makes him want to grab the nearest adult beverage and punch an open wall, but a small fortune could make any malcontent perform a task for a few days.


While Willie, Marcus and their new business partner, Willie’s mom Sunny (Kathy Bates), plan to hatch their robbery, they also devilishly spread their holiday jeer with putdowns, insults and complaints with the veracity of a raw, blush-inducing segment on the Howard Stern Show or the most uncouth joke emanating from a Reno comedy club on a random Saturday, just after midnight. 


Thornton and Cox are masters at this type of humor with the abilities and timing to deliver expletives regarding “cultured” topics like sexual prowess or idiocy, and Bates joyfully plays along and hangs with their boorish behavior throughout the picture, including a bathroom scene in which she multitasks while watching her favorite reality show. 


The reality is “Bad Santa 2” is very funny, and if you enjoyed the foul-mouthed style of the first picture, you will get a yuletide kick out of the sequel.  Some of the sequences feel very familiar, such as various children asking Santa for presents and Willie finding a love interest (Christina Hendricks) with less importance on amore and more emphasis on physicality. The only moment, however, that really seems recycled is when Willie spews pizza from his mouth, which immediately flashes back to him screaming at a mall shopper that he is “on his lunch break” in the first movie.   All in all, the original picture is over a decade old, so although “Bad Santa 2” does not soak in originality, Willie’s antics - for his fans – are certainly welcome.


Even the kid, Thurman (Brett Kelly), who followed Willie like a lost puppy in the 2003 movie returns and has now reached 21 years old.  Several exchanges between Willie and this painfully naïve adult – who works as a sandwich consultant and wears a t-shirt three sizes too small – are some of the best in the film.


What is not the best?   Well, “Bad Santa 2” certainly has its flaws, including unremarkable production values and a terribly flimsy narrative that would fit nicely into a “Police Academy” reunion film, and that is not a compliment.  From that perspective, the movie reminds me of “The Heat” (2013) with Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy.  In other words, ignore the tired, formulaic construct and just enjoy the comedic performances.  


“Bad Santa 2” is not the biggest or best cinematic present that theatres will receive this holiday season, but it is an amusing (and very rated R) stocking stuffer.

(2.5/4 stars)


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







An interview with "Moana" animator Darrin Butters by Kaely Monahan

Behind the Scenes on ‘Moana’

Q&A with Moana animator Darrin Butters


By Kaely Monahan


Disney’s latest princess is one tough adventurer. Moana stars Auli’I Cravalho as the Polynesian princess, Moana, Dwayne Johnson as the trickster Maui. As the daughter of the chief of her island, Motunui she is tasked with the care of her people, but Moana feels an irresistible pull towards the ocean.


This pull eventually leads her to save the entire world from an encroaching darkness. Disney character animator Darrin Butters visited Phoenix and shared a behind the scenes look of what it took to make the newest Disney princess movie.


Which characters did you animate?

Traditionally you would work on one character in a movie. But now that we’ve kind of adopted a Pixar model of how to animate, you animate every character in the scene that you’re animating. One benefit of doing one character was that you really got to know that character, but the benefit of doing it this way is you get to animate a variety of characters. It’s exciting and new every single shot you get issued.

I animated probably more Maui shots than anything. I have an affinity for fun comical characters and they seem to cast me on shots of that ilk.


When you’re animating a character, you’re essentially embodying that character. What kinds of references did you use to make Maui, for example, come to life?

The animator is the actor basically, and computer animation is more like puppeteering than drawing. You’re really using all these tools to convey emotion to the audience. For Maui, I have to say Dwayne Johnson—The Rock—who does his voice gave us so much to work with.

In Polynesian folklore Maui is represented by many different versions of Maui. He’s like a trickster, sometimes he’s like a superman, and we really had fun with that kind of a rascal (character). And with Dwayne Johnson’s voice, he is cocky and played Maui with such an ego that he really gave us a lot to work with.


You guys looked like you were also using Johnson’s facial expressions too!

Oh yes! That eyebrow, that lifted eye brow and the smile, this beaming handsome smile, we really were able to leverage all of that.


With every Disney or Pixar film that comes out the animation bar gets raised. You’ve seen a lot of change yourself, being with the company for 20 years.

It’s been a great ride. And I definitely have to say that the Disney that it is now is the Disney I wanted to work for when I got there. We’ve definitely had to learn a lot and make some progress to get to where we are, but you can definitely see a trajectory. I would say from when John Lasseter and Ed Catmull came aboard and kind of re-engineered our management and our process, from Bolt to Tangled to Wreck It Ralph, Frozen, Zootopia, we just keep raising the bar for ourselves. And we seem to make it challenging for ourselves and hopefully we’re meeting that challenge.


Moana had to be challenging in so many ways. The sets for example, a lot of it is just open ocean—not a lot going on color-wise or visual-wise.

It was a huge challenge for every department. Layout had to come with a way of shooting this movie on a rocking boat between two characters. Effects had their work cut out for them. Water is probably one of the hardest things make believable in a computer simulation. We had wind; we had hair; we had a lot of skin—we had wet hair; we had wet skin—it was a huge challenge.

And animating, I’d say the challenge is always harder when you’re animating humans. Humans—other humans can detect what’s wrong with animated human. A fox or a rabbit? We can get away with talking and you don’t know what a talking fox is supposed to look like. But I’ll tell you what, a human—as soon as you make a misstep with the animation and go off that believability track, people spot it right away. So we had to up our game.


You also had the marriage of hand drawn 2D animation with CGI with Maui and his tattoos. How did you guys accomplish that?

It was such a great concept. And that’s the magic of animation—What if his tattoos moved and told the story of Maui’s background, or what if he could interact with his tattoos? We did a lot of research and come up with a system. We worked very closely with all of our hand drawn animating craftsmen that still work at Disney. Every step of the way we’re incorporating their knowledge and that legacy. Eric Goldberg, the lead on the genie from Aladdin, spearheaded the designing and the animating of the tattoos. It was really fun to do the back and forth with them. We would be issued the shot together, we’d plan out what was going to happen. They had a template of Maui’s tattoos and they would animate, pencil on paper, and we would scan that in and it would be mapped on to Maui’s rough animated 3D body. And we would be able to see if we needed to lessen the 3D animation so that you could read what the tattoo was doing. Or, maybe he was moving so much that there didn’t need to be much movement on the tattoos—and that back and forth is something that I’ve never experienced in my work at Disney. It was exciting.


Seems like Disney is moving further and further away from hand drawn animation. Does it still have a place in today’s animations?

We’re constantly looking at ways to make hybrids of hand drawn and 3D animation. I think Paperman was a really good example of melding those two mediums. Every step of the way from character design to getting notes on our shots we’re utilizing that legacy.


In the film, it’s hard to pinpoint just one Polynesian culture. It seemed very much a blend of many nations. Was that intentional?


When you’re telling a story, you want to tell—we wanted to tell this one character’s story. And it’s about her (Moana) finding her identity and her adventure. We were trying to be inspired by that region. We talked to archeologists, fisherman, and dancers and elders, and anthropologists from that entire area (Polynesia) to get an inspiration from all, and to check with them and see if we were respecting their culture.

It was a fun an enlightening journey because I when they did go to all these islands they came back changed not only in what kind of film we’re going to make, but you could tell that the impact was personal.


Also, Moana is not a wimpy princess. She’s built for adventure, which is exciting to see that body type represented.


Sure. Moana is the 16-year-old daughter of the chief and she is set to be the next chief of her island, Motunui Island. She’s a born leader but she has another pull and that’s to the ocean. And it seems like from childhood she’s had this affinity with the ocean. She’s athletic, she can kick some butt and she’s very strong willed and you can see that in her performance. 



 See Moana and Maui in theaters November 23rd.


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

Bleed for This - Movie Review by Monte Yazzie

Bleed For This


Director: Ben Younger

Starring: Miles Teller, Aaron Eckhart, Katey Sagal, Ted Levine, and Ciarán Hinds


Vinny “The Pazmanian Devil” Pazienza is a boxer with an unbelievable story. It’s not unbelievable because of the amazing fight he had with Roger Mayweather. It’s not unbelievable because of the WBA World Title he won against Gilbert Dele. And it’s not unbelievable because he stood toe-to-toe with one of boxing’s greatest champions, Roberto Duran, and was still standing when the final bell rang. No, it’s because Vinny Paz beat the odds after a terrible car crash, one that nobody in the boxing world thought he would come back from. Vinny Paz broke his neck, refused to stop fighting, and worked diligently to make a return to the ring.


Director Ben Younger directs “Bleed For This” with a constant focus on the charismatic, arrogant Vinny Pazienza, played fiercely by Miles Teller. The film utilizes effectively many of the familiar themes boxing films have employed in order to display the fight of recovery Mr. Pazienza pursued. “Bleed for This” may not be as technically exciting or crowd pleasing like other boxing films, the journey for Mr. Pazienza is completely captivating.


The film begins with Vinny (Miles Teller) desperately working out on a bicycle, his body wrapped in plastic. Vinny is trying to make weight for a big fight against the famed Roger Mayweather. Many boxing insiders, including his trainer (Ted Levine), believe Vinny's career is coming to an end after the fight. This doesn't stop the boxer who quickly finds a new trainer (Aaron Eckhart), a struggling alcoholic, who moves him up a weight class and makes him a contender again. At the peak of Vinny Paz's career as a boxer a terrible event takes everything the fighter has trained for away, placing the future of his fighting career in jeopardy.


A few months ago a boxing film called "Hands of Stone", about the career of iconic Panamanian fighter Roberto Duran, was in theaters. Duran and Pazienza fought during the same time period, they also fought each other in a particularly classic match. What makes these films so different, and what highlights "Bleed for This", is the nature of the narrative. Both boxers have exceptional careers and have had classic matches but Vinny Paz has the story that feels more cinematic because it is so hard to comprehend the journey after his injury. A boxer with a broken neck makes a comeback and the first fight after injury is against an already established boxing legend, every punch has the potential for catastrophic consequences.


For boxing fans all the moments that define boxing films are here. This helps and hinders the film, it helps when the complicated characteristics of a boxer are accommodated by a fantastic performance from Miles Teller and it hinders the film when fight scenes are composed exactly like everything we've seen before.


Performances throughout the film are great, especially Miles Teller who really embodies the mannerisms and accent of Pazienza. Aaron Eckhart is also good, playing against the type that he is usually cast in. However, what makes these two performances excel isn't the fact that Mr. Teller composes a loud, brass, unapologetic character or that Mr. Eckhart is stepping outside of the comfort zone with a role, it's instead the combined relationship that the two actors compose as coach and athlete. The have an honesty with one another that is so true of the dynamic in athletics.


"Bleed for This" is better than some of the other "based on a true story" boxing films. While the film may not have the spectacle of something like "Creed", it still composes a great character dynamic accommodated by great performances from Miles Teller and Aaron Eckhart. It displays the mentality and heart of a fighter, that no matter what odds are in their path, they refuse to acknowledge defeat.


Monte's Rating

3.50 out of 5.0

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them - Movie Review by Monte Yazzie

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them


Director: David Yates

Starring: Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterson, Dan Fogler, Alison Sudol, Carmen Ejogo, Ezra Miller, Samantha Morton, Jon Voight, and Colin Farrell


It’s only been five years since the last Harry Potter film was in theaters. Talk to any Potter fan and it might as well be a lifetime. An amusement park in California and Orlando has been keeping the magic alive, allowing fans to visit their favorite school of witchcraft and wizardry and relive all the highlights from the books and films. Author J.K. Rowling, perhaps seeing the massive potential to continue her written stories on film, makes her screenwriting debut in director David Yates’ film “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them”.


With an entire universe already established, one that had the luxury of having the same lead character in all eight films, how does one reestablish the world that has become so recognizable and beloved? First, you hire the director who worked on half of the films that established the universe. Second, you get a stellar cast lead by an Academy Award winning actor. Third, and most important, you get the author of the books to write the film. It doesn’t take long to see the positive influence these three factors have on the film; “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” reignites some of the magic of the Harry Potter films.


It’s 1926 and Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) has just arrived in New York City for a quick stopover after completing an adventure across the globe to find and document magical creatures. Newt is in possession of a magical case that houses some of the fantastic beasts that he has encountered during his journey. Before Newt can get comfortable in America, a non-magic human named Jacob (Dan Fogler) takes the magical case by accident that allows for some of Newt’s creatures to escape. With tensions heavy between the wizarding world and the non-magic world, Newt’s mishap could spell terrible consequences.



From the beginning notes of the recognizable score David Yates' film begins to orchestrate the merging of worlds, transitioning the design and style of the Harry Potter films and blending them into a new story in a new location. After a bumpy beginning, with the bumbling Newt accidently switching briefcases with the "No-maj" New Yorker Jacob, the film very quickly begins to find some narrative footing. Introducing all the characters that seemingly will have some kind of influence on the future franchise films, there are already 4 more films planned for development. This proves a little frustrating because many of these characters are given small introductions and some are never really utilized again in the film. Jon Voight makes an appearance as a newspaper owner helping one of his sons run for political office and Samantha Morton shows up as the stone-faced leader of a witch hunting group. Neither are given the time to really develop any kind of connection with the narrative that is playing out.


However, the characters that are given time to develop are very good, especially the group that forms to defeat the evil entity destroying New York. Eddie Redmayne and Dan Fogler are fun to watch together; add in the dynamic of two magical sisters played by Katherine Waterson and Alison Sudol and the whole group have a great chemistry. These characters are highlighted by Colin Ferrell, playing an Auror (highly skilled magical detective) named Graves with equal amounts of swagger and creepiness. It's a great role for Mr. Ferrell.



"Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them" develops a good amount of fun moments, many times tapping into the charm and humor that made the Harry Potter films so memorable. While the film functions as the foundation for an entire new franchise, an aspect you can feel many times throughout, it still crafts some interesting moments and provides fans of this wizarding world with enough mystery to have them clamoring for the next film.



Monte's Rating

3.75 out of 5.00


The Edge of Seventeen - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

Engaging performances give ‘The Edge of Seventeen’ an edge over other high school films


Written/directed by:  Kelly Fremon Craig

Starring:  Hailee Steinfeld, Haley Lu Richardson, Hayden Szeto, Blake Jenner, Woody Harrelson, and Kyra Sedgwick



“The Edge of Seventeen” – Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld) is not 16-years-old and on the cusp or edge of turning 17.  No, Nadine is already 17, and I believe that the “edge” in this film’s title refers to the acidity can come with this particular age.   As the movie plays out, Nadine feels that the “Game of Life” did not exactly deal her a straight flush, however, in this new high school comedy/drama, the audience quickly learns that the world does not spill figurative acid on her either.  Nadine spills it on herself.  Writer/director Kelly Fremon Craig addresses familiar personal growth themes, but her movie deserves our attention with hilarious moments and engaging performances which cover the struggling teen years.  


Steinfeld works her magic to transform herself to a self-loathing, nearly friendless girl who might as well have “woe is me” tattooed on her forehead.  Her lousy attitude began at the age of seven when she concluded that there are two types of people in this world:  Those who are carefree and confident and those who hope that the carefree and confident ones die in an explosion. 


Her brother, Darian (Blake Jenner) fits into the former category, and, of course, Nadine slides into the latter.  Krista - another unpopular girl, but who carries a healthy, positive attitude – befriends Nadine in elementary school, and they remain BFFs through their years at Lakeview High School in a nice, Pacific Northwest suburb.


One day, however, Krista (Haley Lu Richardson) gets a boyfriend, and for reasons that I will not reveal, Nadine makes her best friend choose between her new beau and her.  Krista goes with her heart and picks her boyfriend, and Nadine’s existence – in her mind – suddenly becomes a living nightmare.   Seemingly always sported with a sky blue, polyester winter jacket, a skirt and mod basketball sneakers, Nadine forms her own counter culture (of one) and passive aggressively rages against a system that she sees pitted against her.   Refusing to compromise and make other friends, she’d rather sit in self-pity or even threaten suicide rather than pull herself up by her shoelaces and put on a smile. 


Before you begin wondering if “The Edge of Seventeen” is void of smiles, it certainly is not.  Nadine’s two other confidents provide plenty of perfectly-timed comic relief:  her history teacher, Mr. Bruner (Woody Harrelson), and a classmate, Erwin (Hayden Szeto), who takes a keen interest in her. 


With Krista enjoying time with her new boyfriend off-camera, Nadine forgoes looking to her mother (Kyra Sedgwick) for advice, and turns to Mr. Bruner instead, when she is not teasing him about his follicly-challenged hairline or modest teacher’s salary.  Bruner delivers verbal jabs of his own with the cynical methodology of an overworked school teacher, but his underlying support for Nadine does shine through their back and forth bantering.   


Now, to say that the exchanges between Szeto and Steinfeld are priceless would be a complete understatement, as Erwin constantly attempts to win over Nadine in the clumsiest, but also in the most utterly genuine, gentle ways.  While Nadine is internally consumed with losing her best friend, she either does not realize or does not want to realize that this guy is sincerely interested and a great catch!  Craig’s clever writing and Szeto’s deliberately awkward performance offer many of the biggest laughs in the film, including a potential first kiss that goes terribly sideways.


With Nadine’s perception that her life is sideways, the film effectively communicates and establishes that close relationships with her mom, Darian or anyone else do not stand much of a chance.  In addition, without a male role model in Nadine’s life, Mr. Bruner and Erwin help fill a need, even though she does not completely grasp the amount depth that they both carry. 


In order for Nadine to see the beauty in people and her environment, she needs to first raise her self-esteem and identify her self-worth.  Steinfeld’s committed performance will make you hope than Nadine fundamentally changes from being her own worst enemy to becoming her own biggest champion.  No one said that it will be easy, but there is a reason why the age of 17 has an edge. 

(3/4 stars)


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


An interview with Haley Lu Richardson from "The Edge of Seventeen" by Jeff Mitchell

Phoenix native Haley Lu Richardson made a triumphant return to the Valley on Nov. 16 and sat down in a group interview with the Phoenix Film Festival and other news/entertainment outlets to chat about her new film, the high school comedy/drama “The Edge of Seventeen”.   In the movie, Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld) and Krista (Richardson) are best friends.  Life becomes complicated, however, when Krista (Richardson) gets a boyfriend and Nadine (Steinfeld) makes her to choose between her new beau and her.      


Richardson opens up about the movie’s themes, the bonds of friendship, a brief big screen appearance of her fashion line, and more.  This fun interview does mention a minor spoiler (twice), but I’ll warn you ahead of time.  “The Edge of Seventeen” also stars Woody Harrelson, Kyra Sedgwick, Blake Jenner, and Hayden Szeto, and it opens on Friday, Nov. 18. 


Q:  The movie felt like a realistic portrayal of high school.  How much input did you and your castmates have with the dialogue?  


HLR:  I’m so glad that you feel that way.  I heard that Kelly Fremon Craig - the writer/director - spent a significant amount of time traveling to high schools and interviewing and observing kids.  Even though she went to high school (years ago), things have changed.  It’s 2016, and she really wanted to capture this generation and how things actually are today.


Kelly was super open.  We had two weeks of rehearsal time.  I just spent time with Hailee, and we did our scenes.  Kelly was open to (improvisation) during the rehearsals and not being stuck to the page. I didn’t do much improvising on set, but all of the work that we did in the rehearsal period changed the scenes a bit. 



Q:  So, you are not that far away from high school.  Did that help you relate to the characters? 


HLR:  It’s really funny, because I have been acting professionally for five years, ever since I was 16.  Since then, I’ve literally just played high school kids (laughing). I feel like that I’m constantly forced into all of those memories, and I’m just stuck there reliving it forever.  So, yes, I could definitely relate to all of the (high school) characters. 


I think what I related to the most was the friendship between Krista and Nadine. Even when everything goes down, neither of them are bad people.  I feel that they have a very real bond and a selfless friendship, which I feel that I’ve had in my life.



Q:  Your character makes an important choice.  Do you think that friendships are more important than a potential boyfriend or is all fair in love and war?


HLR: (* MINOR SPOILER *) That’s a tough one.  I don’t know if it is breaking “girl code”.  I know you don’t want to date an ex-boyfriend but dating a best friend’s sibling is kind of on-the-line.  Kelly and I did not want to make Krista the stereotypical villain that ruins the protagonist’s life.  Krista had reasons for what she did, and she’s not a bad person.  She’s not even doing anything that bad. 


She’s been such a selfless friend for so long and realizes that she could possibly have this great connection with this guy.  She had to do something for herself at some point.   I don’t even view it – and maybe this is just my bias because I had to get into this headspace to play Krista – but I don’t view that she had to make a choice between a relationship and a friendship.  If it’s not crossing the line or disrespectful to a friend, I don’t think there really has to be a choice.  You can make it work.



PFF:  Krista and Nadine had a falling out in the film’s second act.  We saw Nadine’s story, but we did not see Krista’s.  How was Krista feeling during that time, and were there any thoughts of Krista reaching out?  


HLR: (* MINOR SPOILER *) That’s a really interesting question.  It sets up different challenges when you are playing a supporting character, because you do not have all of the pressure of carrying the movie.  You also have different pressures of making your character well-rounded, even though the audience does not see all of that person’s life. 


There was a scene with Blake Jenner (Krista’s boyfriend, Darian) that I really liked (which did not make the final cut). Krista and Darian were in his bedroom playing foosball, hanging out and giggling, and then we heard Nadine walk in downstairs.  Krista and Darian stop, look at each other and ask (each other if they are okay).  That moment sums up where they both were.  They both so badly wished that (the conflict with Nadine) wasn’t happening, but they had to follow their hearts and do something for themselves.  I think that’s where Krista was and sums up what she was feeling. 



PFF:  When Krista meets Blake, she is ready for this relationship and is self-assured.  On the other hand, their classmate Erwin (Hayden Szeto) tries to connect with Nadine, and it’s not working.  Nadine either doesn’t see a connection or doesn’t want to see one.  My interpretation is that she doesn’t love herself, so how can she put herself out there for someone else.  Do you see it that way?


HLR:  Oh yes, absolutely.  In my life, that is something that I realized early on.  You really have to take care of yourself and love yourself (in order) to be giving to other people.



Q:  There are a lot of themes of adolescence in the movie.  What messages do you want the audience to take away? 


HLR:  My best friend called me after she saw it and said what she (took away) is that sometimes you have to give people space.  Sometimes you cannot hash it out, and it will all be good. 


What I really get from the film is sometimes we think that everyone is out to get us.   Everyone else is the bad guy, but really, when we reflect what is in our head, we are our own worst enemy.  We are the ones choosing to be insecure and choosing not to open up to people.



Q:  You have a fashion line called Hooked by Haley Lu.  Did you bring your sense of style or influence onto the set?


HLR:  Oooh.  There is a scene, and it’s so quick.  When we go to the party, I start playing beer pong.  There’s this moment when I take off my jacket, and I’m wearing one of the tops that I crocheted!  I am really proud of it! 


Crocheting is something that I do, that I literally feel no pressure.  It’s a really good thing to have in a world where there is so much pressure.  My mom taught me how to crochet when I was eight, and I’ve been doing it ever since and coming up with patterns and designs.  It’s something that I do just creatively and to have fun. 


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


Photos courtesy of Lunabear Studios


Arrival - Movie Review by Monte Yazzie



Director: Denis Villeneuve

Starring: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg, and Mark O’Brien


“E.T.”, “Independence Day”, “The War of the Worlds”, “The Day the Earth Stood Still”, “First Encounter of the Third Kind”; these are all films that have portrayed contact with alien beings from outer space in different ways. Some of these films display a curious, confused, friendly intergalactic organism while some portray a hostile, angry, vindictive space creature. No matter how one may examine these extraterrestrials it’s undeniable that the event of such an arrival on Earth would display some interesting characteristics from our divided, emotional population.


Talented director Denis Villeneuve, who directed the impressive “Sicario” last year, returns with another remarkable film called “Arrival”. The filmmaker utilizes the premise of a science fiction film, specifically the invasion angles associated with the genre, to craft a thoughtful and tender film about communication, love, and the human condition.  It’s an incredibly well thought out film that displays the power of genre film and how, in talented hands, a story about extraterrestrials unexpectedly arriving on Earth can also be an incredibly artistic endeavor.


Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams), a linguistics expert, is teaching at a college when the world is disrupted by the arrival of alien spacecrafts that position themselves all across the globe. Dr. Banks is called to assist the government in establishing communication with the alien visitors; assisting her is a theoretical physicist named Ian (Jeremy Renner) and an army Colonel (Forest Whitaker). Once on board the ship the team must decipher a language in order to figure out the purpose of the extraterrestrials while the world around them grows progressively more hostile towards the unexpected visitors.


This broad synopsis is all you need to know about the story going in. It may be the best way to approach this film experience. “Arrival” does a great job of creating a detailed and complex, yet completely accessible, narrative. However, its biggest triumph is the genuine and heartfelt emotional experience that is organized along the way. Communication and language play vital roles in the composition of the film, specifically how humans communicate with each another and how they communicate the emotions that motivate their every decision. There is a strong aspect concerning language and how it is used to provide structure in the way we examine history and comprehend the future. The characters composed in the film beautifully explore these aspects, specifically the sensitive construction of Dr. Banks played by Amy Adams.


Ms. Adams conveys a character restrained by emotion yet motivated towards the process of connection. How can you have a genuine connection without emotion? It’s a compelling contrast that is expertly crafted by the actor. Jeremy Renner’s character also brings an important component to the film; the actor’s character is looking for an explanation grounded by some sense of logic, it’s a great character to utilize in the science fiction genre.


Influencing all these narrative and character aspects is the astute direction of Denis Villeneuve. The director continues to grow with every film that he orchestrates, here again displaying the themes of the film through every aspect of the filmmaking process. Mr. Villeneuve connects with director of photography Bradford Young in composing a world filled with images that build an atmosphere of disconnection that is reproduced in the characters. This is utilized in a variety of ways, either with tight close-ups that blur the world around the character or with singular shots that correlate to the loneliness experienced by the barriers imposed with humanity and with the aliens trying to communicate.


“Arrival” is an impressive experience; a film that is more about the human connection and less about the aliens and the ominous spacecrafts. It’s a film that subverts the science fiction genre in ingenious fashion, avoiding formulaic conventions while utilizing genre characteristics in intelligent ways. It’s a film that boldly goes beyond the contemporary expectations that usually defines the genre.


Monte’s Rating

4.50 out of 5.00

The Eagle Huntress - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

From the other side of the world, ‘The Eagle Huntress’ soars with inspiration 


Directed by:  Otto Bell

Starring:  Aisholpan Nurgaiv and Daisy Ridley


“The Eagle Huntress” – In the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election, Hillary Clinton attempted to – but could not break – this country’s ultimate glass ceiling.   On the other side of the world in Mongolia, however, a 13-year-old girl named Aisholpan attempts to shatter a sky-high – and more intimidating - glass ceiling nestled in the Altai Mountains, in trying to become a full-fledged eagle huntress.  This fascinating documentary – directed by Otto Bell – transports the audience to an unknown land, presents a little-understood culture and offers a close and personal story about this amazing teenager. 


Now, the life of a Mongolian nomad is a laborious, proud one and built on traditions.  For Aisholpan’s family, they live in a large marquee during the summer months and move to permanent housing during the winters.  Her mom raises the children and tends to the camp, and her father hunts with his eagle.  In this culture, for hundreds (or perhaps, thousands) of years, each male hunter finds an eagle, and he and his bird become partners to look for game.  Just like life in this environment, working in tandem with a winged hunting partner is not an easy proposition. 


Aisholpan, an excellent student, does not settle for easy challenges and wants to be a doctor when she grows up.  For now, she embarks on a most difficult journey: to partner with her very own eagle and emotionally grow into an eagle huntress.   


Bell’s picture does a terrific job of framing Aisholpan’s day-to-day life within the community, but he also presents breathtaking shots of the Altais with dangerously steep, rocky ledges and vast grasslands below.  This portion of Mongolia seems inviting at times, but mostly, Bell presents a harsh ecosystem in which its inhabitants need heavy coats to block dry, callous winds that could easily crackle one’s skin.  (Just picture a Mad Max movie during a frosty winter.) 


While the surroundings may be abrasive, Aisholpan’s family is certainly not.  As a tomboy apprentice, she follows her dad on his hunting trips and related duties, and her father warmly supports her interest.   This is highly unique, because the community’s elders massively frown upon women even considering hunting.  


Their beliefs are wrapped in familiar misogyny seen in countless forms across societies and locations all over the world, but here, they are completely engrained in long, long traditions.  The film displays these cultural barriers - blocking Aisholpan - when various elders deliver stern statements that explain away women’s roles in hunting.  


For Aisholpan, her focus is simply with her dad and learning her craft with a bright smile and upbeat persona.  When she does, indeed, find her own eagle, her internal light shines even brighter.  With her dad’s tutelage and her natural affinity to partner with her beautiful, soaring bird, she can climb to brand new figurative heights. 


The film climbs cinematic heights too, as it works as an informative lesson about this faraway community and its way of life.  By introducing Aisholpan, she injects a fresh approach for the audience, but also for local families.  Since eagle hunter traditions move from father to son, Aisholpan clearly breaks the mold.  With her warmth, talent and love of her winged partner, they are welcome ingredients for success and inspiration to girls and everyone else. 


Daisy Ridley - an inspiration to girls all over the world in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” (2015) - narrates the documentary, however, her voice seems to appear for only a few minutes during the 87-minute runtime.   No, do not run to “The Eagle Huntress” to hear Ms. Ridley speak for five or so minutes.  Go to this documentary to see a most gifted teen with a big heart. 

(3/4 stars) 


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


Loving - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

The historical drama ‘Loving’ lives up to its name


Written and directed by:  Jeff Nichols

Starring:  Joel Edgerton, Ruth Negga


"Loving” – “Your blood doesn’t know what it wants to be.”


In 1958, Sheriff Brooks (Marton Csokas) utters these words to Virginia bricklayer Richard Loving (Joel Edgerton), because he, a white man, married Mildred (Ruth Negga), a black woman.  In that place and at that time, interracial marriages were illegal.  In 2016, Virginia’s old state law does not even seem possible, but the sheriff arrested Richard and Mildred for exactly that reason. 


Jeff Nichols – known for slow burning thrillers like “Take Shelter” (2011) and “Midnight Special” (2016) – writes and directs his first movie based upon a true story.  Even though “Loving” is a historical drama, Nichols’ signature touch gives the film an edge, bathed in quiet intensity.


Now, the movie opens with a moment that is the opposite of intense and is best described by the film’s title.  Shortly after dusk, Richard and Mildred sit on a porch and exchange tender verbal and nonverbal cues, and the scene clearly conveys that they enjoy a devoted, caring relationship.  A few scenes later, he takes her to a lush field and proclaims that he will build a house for them, and the camera slowly moves towards her face that captures pure joy.   Despite knowing Virginia’s marriage laws, they decide to travel out of state and get hitched, but the harsh legal rules quickly follow them when they return. 


Although Nichols could present several angles of Richard and Mildred’s story, he smartly focuses on their innermost perseverance and the personal toll that the law took on their family for years.  In the beginning, Richard appears to have all the answers (for their relationship) until their legal troubles start.  Edgerton’s shifts Richard’s outlook from self-assurance to fear and doubt, as the consequences of their decision are too large for him to absorb.  At that point Negga’s Mildred develops a tranquil strength and looks for legal means to right the wrong-headed law.  The film absolutely depicts their desire for a happy, legal existence within their home state, but they express it very differently.   While Richard feels overwhelmed and regularly looks over his shoulder for the law’s long arm to grab him by the neck, Mildred steps out of her comfort zone to pursue outside legal help.


Nichols settles into his comfort zone as well by delivering key scenes which feature Richard’s anxiety.  For instance, while heading across the border into Virginia at night, Richard and Mildred’s drive on a winding country road spins like a spy film.  Every car with bright lights could be law enforcement ready to ship them to prison, and much of the film keeps this overall uneasiness. 


Conversely, Richard and Mildred push forward with an unbreakable bond and show their love with an ever-present and steady presence at home.  She is the family’s caretaker, and he carries his lunch pail and yardstick-long level to and from construction sites.  We see this play out repeatedly, as they are simply a family grinding through the trials of raising kids and putting food on the table.  Even though they do not display much physical affection, their relationship is never in doubt. 


Both Edgerton and Negga’s performances capture a rustic, authentic relationship under environmental duress but thankfully, none really exists between them.  Edgerton’s work as Richard is pretty transformational, and Negga carries Mildred’s tranquil strength.  Mildred certainly is the film’s soul, as she attempts to bridge her marriage with the legal means to legitimize it.  


They also fight racism, but it mostly appears in the form of an occasional look that turns into a stare or a casual choice of wording.  On the other hand, during the original arrest, Nichols introduces an overt racist moment when the sheriff and his deputies enter the Lovings’ front and bedroom doors.   


Virginia owned warped reasons for their law, and the sheriff’s comment that Richard’s “blood doesn’t know what it wants to be” will haunt you.  After the movie ended, I clearly wished that 1958 was 200 years ago.  Sadly, it is not, but “Loving” presents a recent history lesson about a devoted couple which will resonate well into the future.

(3.5/4 stars)


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


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Moonlight - Movie Review by Kaely Monahan

‘Moonlight’ poetically gives voice to gay black experience

By Kaely Monahan


“Moonlight” is a quiet film, just like its protagonist. It invites you into the most intimate of settings: the mind of a young, black gay boy. It follows his story through adulthood. Yet for all its watercolor delicacy, "Moonlight" is a movie about strength and what defines it.


In simple terms, the film is about this poor, black gay boy growing in a ghetto neighborhood in Florida. There are drugs, bullying and even glimmers of gangs, but the film is not categorized by any of those things. Rather, it is simply the stage wherein bigger life questions are asked.


“Moonlight” could have very easily gone completely wrong. It could have fallen into cliché and stereotyping on so many levels, from race to underprivileged America to the minority gay experience. But writer and director Barry Jenkins avoids all the pitfalls by choosing instead a hero whose strength lies in introspective quiet. The lead, Chiron may be a man of few words, but he is far from silent. Instead, his life is seen through the hardships around him and his reserve, at times, seems more defiant than meek.


Set up in three acts, Chiron, is played first by young Alex Hibbert. Through his eyes, we meet a young boy who doesn’t fit in and desperately wants to. Bullied by his peers, slowly disregarded by his mother, he finds solace and stability in another wealthier black family. Which, as it turns out, is affluent because the head of the house is a drug seller. Teenage Chiron is played by a gangly Ashton Sanders who beautifully embodies the awkward stage of teenagehood. From learning how to stand up for himself to discovering his sexual awakening, Sanders lends a vulnerability to Chiron that is wholly believable.


Finally, adult Chiron is played by a brooding and intensely introvert Trevante Rhodes. This Chiron is not what we would have expected from such a reserved boy. Having spent some years in prison and now a drug dealer himself, the man seems at odds with his true self--yet he challenges anyone to say he should be otherwise.  


Chiron is powerfully quiet and everything is internalized. It is not a simple part to play as the character’s thoughts are completely evoked through action and cinematography. Young Hibbert makes you want to reach out and hold him. Wide-eyed, scared but also rebellious, young Chiron is reminiscent of any young boy. And that is part of the film's success. At each stage of Chiron's life, he feels real. You forget you're watching a movie and get lost in the story.


"Moonlight" addresses the usual tenants of a growing of age film but also challenges them. What does it mean to be a black kid growing up in the ghetto? What is homophobia? What does it mean to be a strong man? What is friendship and can it survive betrayal? Director-writer Jenkins also flips around the stereotypes, playing with ideas of what the gay experience is; who drug dealers are; and how to find yourself.


Moonlight - Movie Review by Monte Yazzie



Director: Barry Jenkins

Starring: Alex R. Hibbert, Jaden Piner, Mahershala Ali, Naomie Harris, Janelle Monáe, Ashton Sanders, Jharrel Jerome, Trevante Rhodes, and André Holland


Films like “Boyz N The Hood”, “Menace II Society”, “Dope”, “Straight Outta Compton”, portray a world for young men that is fraught with violence, poverty, and drugs. These films depict young black men struggling to escape, working to make ends meet by any means necessary, and many times falling into the trappings of their environment. Scroll through your social media feed or turn the television to any news agency and it’s easy to see that the reality of the fictionalized world isn’t too far off from the lived in world.


This makes Barry Jenkins film “Moonlight”, an adaptation of a play entitled “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue” by Tarell Alvin McCraney, an exceptional achievement in filmmaking. “Moonlight” displays how violence or the threat of violence can dehumanize and destroy young people, is shows the depth of poverty for entire communities, and it also illustrates the heartbreaking affect of drug abuse. But that is a small piece of a much bigger and breathtakingly beautiful story. “Moonlight” is a film composed of moments, small pieces in the developing life of an adolescent child, who then becomes a maturing teenager, and finally grows into an adult man. Each piece portrays the same person but is played by different actors that fit the specific age.


We are introduced to a young, quiet boy named Chiron (Alex R. Hibbert) running away from some kids who are trying to beat him up. Chiron, nicknamed Little, finds safety in an abandoned apartment. Juan (Mahershala Ali) is a local drug dealer who helps Chiron and offers him dinner and a place to sleep. Chiron lives in a housing project with his mother Paula (Naomie Harris), a drug addict who ignores and takes advantage of him. The story doesn’t stay here; Chiron is also portrayed as a self-conscious and confused teenager, tormented by a bully at his high school and befriended by a friend from his childhood. Chiron is then shown as an adult, a changed man with a confidence that is ultimately a protective mask so that he doesn’t have to experience the pain that has come to define his life.


From the first frames “Moonlight” establishes a very calm, quiet quality. Even when the film becomes aggressive or ominous, a unique atmosphere is constructed that changes the way you analyze the emotions and attitudes of the characters. It almost feels like standing in the eye of the storm, watching destructive things happen all around you.  Director Barry Jenkins begins to ask very tough questions from the beginning. Chiron answers many of these questions without words but rather with his actions. You can feel the discomfort, the awkwardness, the struggle, the pain, and the vulnerability in everything that he does. Mr. Jenkins shows significant restraint, never attempting to manipulate these themes but instead introducing them and letting the characters progress authentically and specifically. It would be easy to turn this film into a blatant perspective on race or a deliberate analysis on male gender roles, however Mr. Jenkins is both purposeful and ambiguous with his character choices. The director deconstructs aspects of race and gender, at times providing enough stereotype or easy categorization to then destroy whatever you perceived or assumed about the characters.


The filmmaking technique utilized throughout compliments the narrative perfectly. The photography is exceptionally restrained and simplistic, composing that independent film look viewers are very keen to identify and manipulating it to create stunning moments of everyday life, both the delicate and painful moments. For instance the comfort of sitting at the dinner table in an early scene, the uncertainty of the beach at night in the second act, and the freedom of a road trip at the end of the film, it’s all utilized to bring more identification to Chiron’s changed character. The music also composes another powerful element as well, whether the use of Aretha Franklin’s “One Step Ahead” to bring definition in certain scenes, the classical pieces during transformative character transitions, or the use of the hip-hop song “Cell Therapy” by the group Goodie Mob in punctuate Chiron specifically within the framing of the story, it all serves a very important reason to the structure of the narrative and the development of the characters. It's some of the best use of music in film this year.


“Moonlight” is a beautiful and at times complex film with exceptional performances all around. It’s a coming-of-age film, a film about sexual identification, a film exploring masculinity, a film that doesn’t succumb to easy stereotypes or simple exploitation. What “Moonlight” does best is show the power that a film can possess, and how that power has the ability to transcend, destroy barriers of preconception.


Monte’s Rating

5.00 out of 5.00

Doctor Strange - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

A strong foundation supports the bizarre trip of ‘Doctor Strange’


Directed by Scott Derrickson

Starring:  Benedict Cumberbatch, Tilda Swinton, Mads Mikkelsen, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Benedict Wong, and Rachel McAdams


“Doctor Strange” – “I don’t understand what is happening.”


While on her hospital shift, Dr. Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams) exclaims these words during an obvious point of confusion.  She cannot explain the magic that her former colleague and love interest, Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), conjures up in front of her.  




For instance, while Strange lies wounded on an operating table, his astro form leaves his body and floats above it.  In other scene, he opens a storage room door and shows Christine a circular portal – created by a sling ring that harnesses the energy from the multiverse.   In another moment, she blankly stares at a floating red cape – called the Cloak of Levitation – that seems to possess a mind of its own. 


An astro form, a sling ring and a Cloak of Levitation? 


For those of us not familiar with the comic book sorcerer named in this film’s title, this latest Marvel movie certainly can be confusing.  On the other hand, director Scott Derrickson thankfully spoon-feeds the head scratching cosmic map of Strange’s journey to the audience.   Derrickson keeps a general audience conversant with the basics, so we can stand on some solid ground before he takes the story into wild - and sometimes disturbing - vicinities of science fiction.  For example, he plays with similar matter-altering concepts in “Inception” (2010), stands them on their head and then folds them into paper airplanes. 


The special effects are spectacular.  In addition, “Doctor Strange” also comfortably drives within the guardrails of Marvel’s successful recipe by showcasing consummate actors playing well-written characters as a necessary cinematic foundation.  Since this particular film bathes in the supernatural, it becomes vitally important that the audience feels grounded and buys into the lead characters.


Before the movie catapults us into a series of universes (yes, universes), it introduces us to Strange and his life on this one.  Cumberbatch is perfectly cast, and he plays the off-the-charts, brilliant neurosurgeon with a James Bond-like confidence.  Although Strange’s wit is sometimes reminiscent of 007, it is more ruthless, more sarcastic and more wrapped in narcissism.  In a few choice early scenes, Derrickson effectively captures and establishes Strange’s egotism.


One day, however, Strange’s nerves of steel in the operating room become literally severed, and in a fevered race to find a cure for his traumatic ills, he figuratively pushes everyone away.  Strange’s arrogance gifts birth to a new sibling called spite, and these emotional brothers are toxic.  To become physically whole again, he finds his way to Nepal for help and steps into a locale that looks like Ra’s Al Ghul’s lair with a noticeably lighter atmosphere.  There, he meets three spiritual teachers:  The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Wong (Benedict Wong), and they offer lessons of magic and martial arts.


Although Strange’s race to solve his terrible physical problems is a most serious one, not unlike other Marvel pictures, the film takes intentionally funny turns.  Strange pokes (and pokes fun) at the rules that The Ancient One created, and most of the boundaries are pushed at Wong’s expense to very humorous effects, including one borrowed classic moment from “Guardians of the Galaxy” (2014).  While Strange completes important assignments like creating orange, sparkly lassos of energy, opening portals with his sling ring and entering a mirror dimension, his wit moves from narcissistic to playful.  Hence, as Strange becomes more entertaining, his superhero turn is even more welcomed.   


Derrickson – previously known for horror films like “The Exorcism of Emily Rose” (2005) and “Sinister” (2012) – takes a welcome chance at this bizarre-looking superhero film.  True to horror movie form, Mads Mikkelsen (“Casino Royale” (2006)) plays a scary villain, Kaecilius, who carries blackened circles under his eyes so dark, you’d swear that he hasn’t slept a wink in the 21st century.    


Like most origin superhero films, Strange has to overcome obstacles within himself before he can duel with a skillful antagonist.  While “Doctor Strange” offers a visually dazzling and unusual voyage into flexible physics and beliefs, at the movie’s core, Cumberbatch and the cast deliver a gratifying story about a most unique doctor.   From that perspective, we do know what is happening. 

(3.5/4 stars)


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




Doctor Strange - Movie Review by Monte Yazzie

Doctor Strange


Director: Scott Derrickson

Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, Benedict Wong, Tilda Swinton, and Mads Mikkelsen


What makes a good superhero? The kind of powers they possess? The kind of origin story they have? Perhaps how cool they look in their costume? Yes, all of these assist in making a good superhero, however a great personality can go a long way with these characters. Look no further than Tony “Iron Man” Stark, the charming genius with enough personality for ten different heroes. Adding Robert Downey Jr. as the actor tasked with bringing this personality to life could be one of the best casting choices of the decade.


The Marvel Cinematic Universe is charging along, moving into the third phase of character and story implementation. The first phase began in 2008 with the first “Iron Man” film. We’ve seen standalone films, team films, human heroes, alien and mutant superheroes, and other dimensional superheroes. Now, with “Doctor Strange”, we have a mystic magical art superhero. More importantly we have another unique personality and the great casting choice of Benedict Cumberbatch.


Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a brilliant, arrogant neurosurgeon with a perfect surgical record. For Dr. Strange it's less about saving lives and more about beating the odds. Dr. Strange walks and talks like a man invincible, until a car accident almost takes his life and renders the nerves in his hands disabled. Looking for any kind of hope for recovery, Dr. Strange travels across the globe to Nepal to find a Celtic guru known as The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) in hopes of being healed. Dr. Strange is introduced to the mystic arts and learns that logic no longer applies to the world that he knows.


The traditional journey of the hero that has categorized heroic tales in film is on full display here. The foolhardy, egotistical Dr. Strange falls and needs to build himself into something different, nothing particularly new with this story structure here. While this film brings emphasis to a different kind of Marvel universe, one with sorcerers and conjured spells, it also wisely allows enough room for the characters to develop. Obviously there are plans to keep this character around for a while. As with any origin story it's important to understand the protagonist, to have some kind of definition of the character so that as the character grows you can empathize with their journey. It's unfortunate that the same kind of time wasn't given to the overall story here. It doesn't help that "Doctor Strange" comes on the heels of some very strong Marvel properties, "Captain America: Civil War" and the Netflix series "Luke Cage". Still, even though it's been done hundreds of times in film, a good journey and character is the foundation for a quality film and franchise.


Director Scott Derrickson infuses so much visual flair into the film that you sometimes forget about the boring narrative design. This is one of the few films that I would advise watching in IMAX 3-D. The world, when the battles between good and evil start, are manipulated in extravagant ways; cities fold onto one another and roads venture in sharp angles in every direction. It’s confusing at times but the emphasis never moves from the characters in action, which adds a grounded element to everything that is going on.


It also helps that the film cast fan favorite Benedict Cumberbatch in the lead role. Mr. Cumberbatch is perfect for the role with his smug demeanor and dry sense of humor. Rachel McAdams is also good as a working associate to Dr. Strange. Add to this the committed performances from Mads Mikkelsen, somewhat underutilized villain named Kaecillius, and Tilda Swinton, a entire movie could be made of her character, and the silly aspects in the narrative are easier to accept when such accomplished actors discuss time travel and multiple dimensions with such conviction.


The build up to the final showdown will display the issues with the story, it's just not that exciting or intriguing like other comic book films. Villains are usually given the indulgences and bravado not afforded to a hero, which makes them an interesting counterpart to the hero and builds a dynamic quality that makes the final battle exciting. This is where "Doctor Strange" is different from the pack because the heroic character here is consistently interesting. Look at the first "Iron Man" film, you had the fantastic talents of Jeff Bridges playing the big bad guy but that's not what you remember about the film, it's always about Tony Stark. "Doctor Strange" operates in the same way because the hero is provided with enough complexity and charisma to fill all the scenes, Dr. Strange is his own worst enemy. It's a battle that composes every scene, it makes Mads Mikkelsen's villain unnecessary. This is the overall success of "Doctor Strange", proving that personality goes a long way.


Monte's Review

3.50 out of 5.00

Oasis Supersonic - Movie Review by Kaely Monahan

‘Oasis: Supernova’ fizzles out before its time

By Kaely Monahan


Like a story cut from the imagination of a screenwriter Oasis: Supersonic delves into the unreal back story of the biggest band of the ‘90s. Artfully directed by Mat Whitecross, the documentary dives into the whirlwind chaos that is Oasis with the same fizziness as champagne.


While visually engaging at first, Whitecross starts to overplay his hand when the film takes on the look of something like a long credits montage. Old film footage, voice recordings, and kitschy animations flesh out the documentary.


Oasis is certainly one of the most memorable bands prior to the digital age of music—and a tantalizing focal point for a documentary. Their dramatic rise to stardom is like watching a rocket launch into space then exploded. Hailed by some as the bad boy version of the Beatles, Oasis came bursting out of Manchester with a vengeance to reach for the stars and beyond.


The band members mostly voice the film with Liam and Noel Gallagher taking the lead. Paul “Bonehead” Arthurs, Tony McCarroll and Paul McGuigan also lend their perspective. The main drama swirls around the two brothers, Noel and Liam whose personalities are in some ways larger than life.


Noel describes himself as a cat while he says Liam is a dog. A lion is probably a better moniker for the narcissistic guitarist-songwriter. He was driven to lead and if anyone disagreed with him then there was trouble—and Liam knew exactly how to get under his brother’s skin.


The film opens with the 1996 concert at Knebworth before jumping back into time to the band’s origins. The story then skims over childhood, alluding to an upbringing by a single mother who does get a few opportunities to share her thoughts. The Gallagher’s father is absent both in voice and in the story. He’s hardly mentioned until the end of the documentary.


We see meteoric rise of the band and get a glimpse of some of the genius behind the songwriting. But everything remains surface level and it stays that way throughout the entire film. Whitecross seems unwilling to dive into the drama that is clearly there. Instead, he rolls around the rim of the Gallagher brother’s lives, relying instead on glitzy images, snide laughter and shrugs. The film is like sipping cheap champagne when it should be Dom Pérignon.


The film does bear a resemblance to Amy, which makes sense as the producers of that documentary produced this one. However, unlike Amy, Oasis: Supersonic feels a bit more out of control and less revealing. This could be deliberate as the band itself seemed to be roiling lake of lava prone to explosions. Perhaps working with the band members today is still a rollercoaster experience.


Oddly the film never touches on what exactly happened to the band after that 1996 concert. We’re left empty handed though the film is just over two hours long. Like some drug-art experiment Oasis: Supernova tries to reach for a deeper meaning behind one of the top bands of the last millennia. But it fails to truly dredge up the drama of this rocket-bottle band.   


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

Inferno - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

‘Inferno’ burns up our patience


Directed by:  Ron Howard

Written by:  David Koepp, based upon the novel by Dan Brown

Starring:  Tom Hanks, Felicity Jones, Omar Sy, Irrfan Khan, Ben Foster, and Sidse Babett Knudsen


“Inferno” – Around 2005, many of my close friends and casual acquaintances read Dan Brown’s fascinating novel “The Da Vinci Code”, a fictionalized, modern-day thriller which examines clues within famous artworks.  These specific clues lead professor Robert Langdon on a chase to uncover the greatest kept secret of the last two thousand years.   I personally loved the book and remember quickly turning its pages well past midnight for several weekdays and paying a price during the subsequent mornings, when my alarm regularly struck at 6:00 a.m. 


It was worth it. 


In the following year, it was worth experiencing director Ron Howard’s film adaptation of Brown’s famous story – with Tom Hanks playing Langdon - but admittedly, the movie did not capture the magic of the book.  Howard and screenwriter Akiva Goldsman did a Herculean job of including all (or nearly all) of the important steps and details of Langdon’s journey, but these efforts came at a price.  In order to include the novel’s key plot points, the film crowbars several massive concepts and heaps of intricate clues within a two-hour 29-minute runtime.  The constant, “big idea” reveals move at such a hectic pace, a moviegoer truly does not get a chance to stop, breathe and reflect upon the stated ideas and ingenious links to the art world. 


Conversely, a reader can put down the book, take a moment and say, “Wow!”  


The film does not allow for those pauses. In the end, it was pleasing to see Brown’s vision play on the big screen, even though it felt inferior to the reading experience.  


Quite frankly, I do not remember much from the second film adaption of Brown’s work, 2009’s “Angels & Demons”, but I do know that Hanks was back, and I vaguely recall that Ewan McGregor made an appearance too.  Now, in 2016, Langdon is onscreen for a new adventure in “Inferno”.


Hanks reprises his role as Langdon and wakes up in a Florence, Italy hospital with terrible bouts of amnesia and blurry vision, but thankfully, a young doctor named Sienna (Felicity Jones) tends to his injuries, and also his escape.  This is because an assassin runs into the hospital and attempts to kill Langdon. 


Not only is an assassin – who works for some nefarious organization – looking for Langdon, but the World Health Organization is holding a huge interest in him too.   You see, he is carrying an image of Sandro Botticelli’s Map of Hell, and it could be the key to stopping a mass murder of epic proportions. 


In other words, finding Langdon is a big deal.


Similarly to “The Da Vinci Code”, “Inferno” takes Langdon on a wild race across Europe (and in this case, a small portion of Asia), in which he and Sienna solve various clues in an elaborate puzzle intertwined with religion, art and present day chemistry.  The problem with “The Da Vinci Code” exists here as well.  Cinematically, the extensive brainteasers whip up various facts about the identified artworks, and at every step, Langdon and Sienna solve the impossible riddles so quickly, that the filmmakers only give the audience a minute or two (or sometimes a few seconds) to absorb the movie’s messages.  


I constantly felt that I was 10 minutes behind the narrative and urgently needed to play catch-up.  Additionally, the script introduces several, unexpected – and unneeded - twists.  With a steady stream of swerves and hypotheses flying around the screen like possessed winged creatures diving upon confused residents in Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds” (1963), I sometimes gave up trying to follow the story.


At one point, Langdon says, “This is the first McDonald’s restaurant that opened in Italy, and on its men’s room wall, Ernest Hemingway predicted that Marlon Brando would refuse to attend the 1973 Academy Awards.”


Alright, that might not be correct.  Langdon may have said that a guy named Donald believes that humming birds would deliver a human-killing virus across the globe.  Well, I am not sure about that either, so please do not quote me.


You can quote me, however, that the movie is a confusing mess with more moving parts than Santa’s toy factory a week before Christmas.   Some villains might not be villains, and some protagonists may not be protagonists.   Even Langdon is regarded as a villain for a short while, but – due to his head injury – he, instead, becomes entangled in unhealthy amounts of screen time attempting to remember the past few days.  For “good” measure, Howard provides a steady stream of incoherent flashbacks from Langdon’s immediate past.


At least the script gives Langdon a love interest with the World Health Organization’s Elizabeth Sinskey (Sidse Babett Knudsen) entering the picture, but a random Saturday trip to the nearby hardware store offers more excitement than their onscreen chemistry.  


I have not read Brown’s “Inferno”, so I do not know the chemistry of moving from novel to film, but one might be better served by stopping in a bookstore and picking up the book instead of watching the movie.


Hey, at least one could put down the book, digest the contents of Chapter X, and say, “Wow.  Now, let me take a minute and examine Sandro Botticelli’s Map of Hell.”  


Well, that map somewhat resembles my “Inferno” movie experience.   

(1.5/4 stars)

The Pickle Recipe - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

‘The Pickle Recipe’ just feels plain


Directed by:  Michael Manasseri

Written by:  Sheldon Cohn and Gary Wolfson

Starring:  Jon Dore, Lynn Cohen and David Paymer


“The Pickle Recipe” – Do you have a legendary family recipe?  Perhaps, it is your grandma’s secret spaghetti sauce or your uncle’s deadly spicy hamburger relish.  It seems like everyone has one such creation sitting on an extended branch of their family tree. 


In the new movie “The Pickle Recipe”, Grandma Rose (Lynn Cohen) has coveted her secret recipe for a very long time, over 60 years, and it is for…well, you guessed it.   Since 1955, loyal customers have flocked to her restaurant, Irv’s Deli in Detroit, for breakfast, lunch and a taste of her amazing pickles.  Even though Rose’s late husband, Irv, passed away, life for the famous 80-something pickle maker is going swell.   For Joey (Jon Dore), her 30-something grandson, life has tossed a roadblock in front of him and slashed his tires for good measure. 


With his DJ business literally going up in flames, he is financially desperate to play at his daughter’s bat mitzvah.   In his childlike mind, the only solution to his financial pickle is to steal Rose’s recipe and sell it to his Uncle Morty (David Paymer) to commit the highest form of family blasphemy for a quick buck.


This is the half-cooked premise of “The Pickle Recipe”, and this indie comedy unfortunately feels like a Disney Channel movie rather than a theatrical release. 


As Joey places his worst foot forward to perpetrate this family thievery, the film does admittedly provide some amusing moments, but they mainly circle around Joey’s slacker friend named Ted (Eric Edelstein) and Rose.  Rose orders Joey to slow down from 32 mph to the 30 mph speed limit, constantly complains about her estranged son, Morty, demands that the deli workers clock in at 5 a.m. sharp, and will raise an unholy fuss if anyone steps into her kitchen while she makes pickles.  Rose definitely channels a bit of Anne Ramsey’s intentionally incorrigible role as Mamma from 1987’s “Throw Mamma from the Train”, but she is also a competent businesswoman, reasonable when reminiscing about her beloved Irv and carries a soft streak too.  


The film smartly presents Rose’s soft side in a brief – but key - hospital scene, to sympathize with her, but one also realizes that her patience is thinner than Taylor Swift on a hunger strike.  Outside of Rose’s amusing antics and Ted’s clumsy attempt at playing a rabbi, almost everyone else strikes out or just feels passable.  Joey’s ex-wife (Ashley Noel), her new husband (Brandon Matthew Layne) and Uncle Morty are not very believable characters, and the crew at Irv’s sit like garnish on a deli plate with not much to do.


With director Michael Manasseri and screenwriters Sheldon Cohn and Gary Wolfson serving a predictable story arc - of a desperate guy making careless, impulsive decisions with a distant, but probable, possibility of redemption – the film needs to rely on funny, memorable moments to keep moviegoers engaged.  Joey and Morty’s scheme and its related twists, however, are not particularly noteworthy.   Instead, the movie feels reminiscent of old sitcoms, like an uninspired blend of an average “Alice” (1976 – 1985) episode and the least funny bits of “Three’s Company” (1976 – 1984) during the Priscilla Barnes years.   


I will say that “The Pickle Recipe” will certainly make you hungry for pickles. Walking out of the theatre, I absolutely was.  Also, unlike movies like “Gran Torino” (2008), “Searching for Sugar Man” (2012) and “Robocop” (1987), Manasseri showcases Detroit in the nicest possible light.  The film could make a summer trip to The Motor City seem like an appealing possibility, but the overall movie experience – unlike Rose’s recipe - just feels plain. 

(1.5/4 stars)


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



Certain Women - Movie Review by Kaely Monahan

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

By Kaely Monahan


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

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

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

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

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


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



American Pastoral - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

‘American Pastoral’ breaks from all-American movie traditions


Director:  Ewan McGregor

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

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


That specific love brightly burns, even when it hurts.


(3.5/4 stars)  


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