Baby Driver - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

Welcome to ‘Baby Driver’, the most entertaining movie of the year…by a mile  

 

Written and directed by: Edgar Wright

Starring: Ansel Elgort, Lily James, Kevin Spacey, John Hamm, Jamie Foxx, Jon Bernthal, Elza Gonzalez, and CJ Jones

 

“Baby Driver” – During the 1970s and 1980s, millions of boys grew up watching hundreds and hundreds of staged car chases on television shows like “Starsky & Hutch” and “The Dukes of Hazzard”, and include me in this motley group.  Pristine minds – void of any personal experiences of burning rubber and squealing tires – can certainly become mesmerized, when two Southern California police detectives and two Georgia locals man their four-wheeled chariots on tracks of asphalt and dirt, respectively and in the process, outwit their adversaries. 

 

Over time, however, mesmerized looks can turn into glazed over ones, when car chases simply become repeated vehicles (pardon the pun) to fill time during small screen programs.   In other words, for many experienced television and movie fans, it will take a heck of a car chase to garner our attention.

 

Enter Baby. 

 

Baby (Ansel Elgort) - an early 20-something who frequently sports shades, almost constantly blares music on his old school iPod and hardly speaks a word – drives. 

 

Baby drives several different teams of bank robbers – three at a time - to various jobs, and our sunspecs-sporting, earbud-wearing, soft-spoken hero is always the fourth in these criminal quartets.  The armed robbers change, but Baby remains the one constant, because he is the best. 

 

Right away, writer/director Edgar Wright showcases Baby’s skills behind the wheel of a red, 4-door Subaru in a getaway chase that heightens the senses, complete with hairpin turns on narrow streets, zigzags on busy freeways and an extremely clever deception that will induce frisky smiles, even from the most cynical, experienced “Starsky & Hutch” and ”The Dukes of Hazzard” viewers.

 

Wright literally and figuratively puts the pedal to the metal - and beautifully does so - in concert with a particular 1994 alternative rock track (which I will not name in this review) emanating from Baby’s iPod.   What an entrance, and welcome to “Baby Driver”, easily the most entertaining movie of 2017…so far.  In fact, with this film’s mix of music, action, comedy, and snappy dialogue within its congealed criminal elements and more, “Baby Driver” resonates a unique euphoria, similarly to two pictures in fairly recent history, “48 Hours” (1982) and “Pulp Fiction” (1994).  I cannot absolutely declare that Wright’s masterpiece is on par with these films, but with just one week out from seeing the picture, it sure feels that way.

 

Along with Baby, Wright pens a collection of felonious types, including a tattooed bully (Jon Bernthal), a veteran lawbreaker who always anticipates a double-cross (Jamie Foxx) and a couple who arrives as the most amiable of the bunch, because they endless shower affection for one another (John Hamm, Elza Gonzalez).  Every crook – rotating in and out – usually finds plenty to say, and their constant spoken opinions prove a huge contrast to Baby, who prefers to keep his distance, physically and emotionally.  Baby either believes that he does not belong in Doc’s (Kevin Spacey) various gangs of four, or he does, so detachment during the heists’ planning and execution stages helps him cope. 

 

The picture does not detach or unplug the audience during its 1-hour 53-minute runtime, and music and many, many references to it flood the screen, as the soundtrack feels like another character along for the ride (again, pardon the pun).  Music moves in harmony with the distinct characters, as they run through complex schemes of thievery in a windowless, concrete room and cinematically race them to fruition through Atlanta’s buzzing streets via kinetic, violent means.  Meanwhile, the narrative gradually unwraps Baby’s sorted history through haunting flashbacks which environmentally built – atom by atom - his nature in 2017, and the screenplay smartly offers him a courtship with a sweet, virginal waitress named Debora (Lily James) at the same pacing.

 

Baby and Debora’s scenes at Bo’s Diner feel precious and rare, as he continues to open up to this trusting, wide-eyed girl next door, sans the details of his current driving duties.  Baby’s reveals and personal growth (including a father/son relationship with Joseph (CJ Jones)) pour a highly important foundation to the film and serve as the emotional core that allows the audience the freedom to play and dollop in the wild, dangerous fun.  Stylistically, the film treats the flashbacks and current romantic sparks with Debora with the same, deep meticulous details as the thrilling set pieces, so transitions between relationship exploration and action are tonally seamless. 

 

Wright also conjures up some pleasing traces of “Reservoir Dogs” (1992) and “True Romance” (1993) – including a faint ode to Elvis with Baby’s given accent – but “Baby Driver” proudly carries its own spirit with less exposition (except for music references) and more focus on the tasks at hand.   You see, precision is a paramount prerequisite to a successful heist, and “Baby Driver” thoroughly crafts and layers intricate elements – throughout the picture - which lend its astonishingly elaborate mechanics to flow with the greatest of ease.  No, “Baby Driver” is not another action picture with well-placed, choreographed car chases.  Not by a mile

(4/4 stars)

 

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

 

The Exception - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

‘The Exception’ is intriguing but not necessarily exceptional

 

Directed by: David Leveaux

Written by: Simon Burke (screenplay), Alad Judd (novel)

Starring: Jai Courtney, Lily James, Christopher Plummer, Janet McTeer, and Eddie Marsan

 

 

“The Exception” - The definition of an exception is a person or a thing that does not follow a rule.  In director David Leveaux’s first feature film, he wonders if Capt. Stefan Brandt (Jai Courtney) can be an exception and not follow a rule or - more specifically - his orders.  Leveaux raises the stakes for the audience, because Capt. Brandt is not part of an ordinary military outfit, but a very infamous one.  The year is 1940, and Brandt is a German soldier.  Of course, SS soldiers who spoke the words “I was just following orders” have been forever scorned and shamed.

 

“The Exception” is not set in a concentration camp, but actually, the complete opposite, a lush and luxurious estate in German-occupied Holland.  Kaiser Wilhelm II (Christopher Plummer) lives in exile within the well-manicured, fully-staffed castle, and Brandt is ordered to protect the former German Emperor from a British spy who - according to intelligence reports - could assassinate him.    

 

Leveaux and writer Simon Burke do not forge this wartime thriller on a foundation of action and gunplay.  Instead, they construct an expositional, exploratory narrative through the eyes of three key characters who are figuratively placed in uncomfortable waters and asked to gently tread with a dangerous undercurrent looming nearby.  

 

Wilhelm still burns with frustration due the German economic calamity after World War I and sorely feels less than whole.  A king without a throne in his homeland.  Meanwhile, Capt. Brandt tries to escape his wartime demons, as he repeatedly dreams the same image of dead women and children laying in an ordinary field.  On this new assignment, death is ever-present too, because Brandt’s commander will execute him, if he fails to protect the king.  The third character in this triad is a maid named Mieke (Lily James) who serves Wilhelm.  Both Wilhelm and Brandt are smitten by Mieke’s beauty but also by her depth which carries some secrets. 

 

Brandt and Mieke delve into a sexual relationship from the get-go, despite their obvious geopolitical differences (since Germany invaded her country and all), and their bedroom scenes are very forward.  The tone almost pays tribute to films of the 1970s, when frank and open sex scenes can randomly appear out of nowhere, or perhaps the 1980s, as both Brandt and Mieke borrow a pick-up line from Daniel Day-Lewis’ Tomas in “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” (1988).  

 

Courtney and James share onscreen physical chemistry, but I did not quite buy into their emotional connection.  Now, I wholly believed their individual and collective angst in this particular castle but not necessarily the two as a potential long-term pair, either due to forced plot devices trying to unite them or their emotive fit as actors. 

 

Plummer does fit as Kaiser Wilhelm II, and it is impossible to take your eyes off him, whether reminders of the king’s past surface during stormy, awkward political talk at dinner or through a quiet moment with Mieke, as they feed the ducks.  Plummer plays Wilhelm as a complex soul, balancing proud, earned dignity with shame.  Well into his 80s, Plummer continues to churn out terrific performances (“Remember” (2015), “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” (2011) and “Beginners” (2010), among others), as his work in “The Exception” is no exception. 

 

Courtney, known for living and breathing tough guy and villainous roles, delivers his most likable performance that I have seen to date (which is ironic, because he plays a Nazi captain), and James offers another memorable turn with nuanced touches.  The film, however, does not quite possess that thriller-touch, as designed sequences like a race against time during an interrogation and an active search through the castle do not fetch enough tension.  Rather than inducing stress from a ticking clock or worry about a Nazi guard’s detective methods, these scenes just feel cliché. 

 

Although, I should note that Eddie Marsan – in a supporting role - is downright chilling as Heinrich Himmler, but as the movie plays out, the mechanics of the German military’s investigation are far less important than the lead characters’ growth.  Then again, the relationships between the three leads sometimes feel more fanciful than realistic, but at least Leveaux and Burke are not following cinematic orders.

(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.

 

Transformers: The Last Knight - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

‘Transformers: The Last Knight’ is a nightmare

 

Directed by:  Michael Bay

Written by:  Art Marcum, Matt Holloway and Ken Nolan

Starring:  Mark Wahlberg, Anthony Hopkins and Laura Haddock

 

“Transformers: The Last Knight” -  Have you ever walked into a classroom, sat down and the instructor hands out final exams to all the students, but you recoil in horror, because you haven’t attended one lecture all semester?

 

I have never felt such despair in real life but have encountered an occasional dream depicting the aforementioned, dreadful scenario.   Apparently, this type of nightmare stems from feeling anxiety or discomfort about a life situation during one’s waking hours.  During sleeping hours, a brutal sense of unpreparedness can temporarily rush over a person when looking down at a test with zero apparent paths to answer any of its questions. 

 

On June 19, I suffered a very rare occurrence, because I felt that dream-exam angst while wide awake during my 2-hour 29-minute “Transformers: The Last Knight” experience. 

 

Although I grasped the movie’s basic plot, as the narrative played out, I was lost, like sitting down and flipping through a five-page test booklet, without any understanding of the words typed on its pages.  Apparently, director Michael Bay has devised a cinematic language of his own, because this movie defies logic. 

 

Before expanding on the film’s many, many faults, let’s review the storyline. 

 

Set a few months or years after the events of “Transformers: Age of Extinction” (2014), the Autobots and Decepticons are leaderless, as Optimus Prime and Megatron are nowhere to be found.  Some robot-lawlessness exists, so humans formed the Transformers Reaction Force (TRF) to seek and destroy our mechanical heroes and enemies. 

 

Our human hero from the last film, Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg) found a home at a South Dakota junkyard, with various Autobots and a 20-something named Jimmy (Jerrod Carmichael) who adds absolutely nothing to the narrative.  Cade must have found a way to teleport across the United States to this junkyard, because he can apparently materialize in Chicago in a blink of eye, in a random act of heroism to rescue a girl and four boys. 

 

Meanwhile, Sir Edmund Burton (Anthony Hopkins) narrates tales of magic and history, and the movie references England’s Dark Ages.  Even Merlin the Magician conjures up an appearance, as the film reveals that Transformers existed in England – 1,600 years into the past -  while a mystical talisman and staff wield great power. 

 

On the Transformers’ home world of Cybertron, Quintessa (who maintains a similar role as the Borg Queen in the “Star Trek” Universe) wants to suck the Earth dry of its energy to jumpstart her world, and this ancient staff is the key to her plans.  So, lots of robots and humans find themselves in a race to find the staff to either destroy or save Planet Earth.

 

Since the entire Earth is danger, Bay includes many faraway locales on the big screen.  For instance, he flashes images of China, Jordan, Egypt, and West Africa.  Additionally, John Turturro’s character lives in Cuba and races to a pay phone to screech about impending doom.   Hopkins’ Burton resides in England and seems to possess all kinds of answers, except the whereabouts of the missing staff.  Cade zips to Illinois and South Dakota through his unknown mode of transportation that moves at the speed of light.  Thankfully, he carves out some time to check in with his daughter by leaving a voicemail and later writing a text, but I digress.  Upon reflection, I believe that Bay left out Antarctica, Australia and South America without representation during this global challenge.  That’s a terrible shame, because when saving the Earth, everybody knows that it takes a village.

 

Well, this village would not be complete without an attractive heroine, so Vivian Wembley (Laura Haddock) makes an entrance.  She doubles as polo player and professor at Oxford and at certain angles conveniently resembles Megan Fox, who starred in the first two “Transformers” films. 

 

Humans work with various Autobots - like Bumblebee and Drift – with a singular goal in mind, but seemingly every set piece seems to serve no purpose other than to manifest random action, chases or explosions for a few minutes at a time with little connective tissue to the previous scene.  Add Stonehenge, a submarine that explores some bizarre lost city of Atlantis, an obligatory desert highway crash, giant horns that emerge from the Earth’s surface, and extraterrestrial stirrups which dangle from Cybertron, and that is your movie.  A collection of nonsense that can somewhat be explained by Sir Burton, who speaks in hopeless riddles.  

 

Thankfully, the smartest person at NASA (Tony Hale) affirms that the best way to defeat Quintessa’s sinister plan is by leveraging nuclear explosions that will act like a Tiger Woods golf shot. 

 

Whew, I feel safe now.

 

Actually, I was mystified, because I cannot speak Michael Bay’s language, at least in the “Transformers” Universe, but I should not be surprised.  After the entertaining first film, “Transformers” (2007), Bay has been jamming explosion-filled diets of big screen junk food down our throats for four sequels now.  For those who never grew up with Optimus Prime, Megatron and Bumblebee toys and who appreciate lucid movie plots, these “Transformers” movies can be painful.  “Transformers: Age of Extinction” (2014) is worst picture in the series, primarily because it dragged on for 2 hours and 45 minutes with a shameless, grandiose importance of “The English Patient” (1996).   

 

The only positive aspect of this film?  It ran 16 minutes shorter than its predecessor.

 

At least this cinematic nightmare was not as long, but 149 minutes is still a brutal chore.  Well, when entering a “Transformers” classroom, perhaps the best course of action is to simply turn around and walk out.

(1/4 stars)

 

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

 

The Hero - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

Elliott shines as ‘The Hero’

 

Directed by:  Brett Haley

Written by:  Brett Haley and Marc Basch

Starring:  Sam Elliott, Laura Prepon, Nick Offerman, Krysten Ritter, and Katharine Ross

 

“The Hero” - “Lone Star Barbeque Sauce, the perfect partner for your chicken.”- Lee Hayden

 

“You seem sad.” – Charlotte, speaking to Lee

 

Sam Elliott is enjoying a busy and celebrated television and film career, spanning 48 years and counting.  He has starred in very memorable supporting roles over the years, including “Mask” (1985), “Road House” (1989), “Tombstone” (1993), “We Were Soldiers” (2002), and “I’ll See You in My Dreams” (2015), and when you think of Elliott, two thoughts immediately come to mind:  his voice and his mustache.  In “The Hero”, Elliott plays an actor, Lee Hayden, who is also known for his mustache and voice, and the film zeroes in on one of his obvious physical signatures from the get-go.  In the opening scene, Lee records a spot for Lone Star Barbeque Sauce in a funny bit in which his rich, deep vocal chords repeatedly pour over an endorsement for this particular condiment.

 

He makes a good living and lives comfortably in Los Angeles – via past royalties and paydays from the 1970s and 1980s – but, at 71 years old, he is itching for some meaningful work.  His agent, however, says that nothing is available at the moment and delivers an empty promise, “We’re expecting something soon.” 

 

Lee grasps the grim reality that his future acting prospects are few, but to make matters much, much worse, his current health problems prove deadly serious.  The prognosis is dire.  With only one, prideful acting accomplishment on his resume and painful conflicts with family, he owns massive life regrets, and his time is short.  

 

Elliott does not star in leading roles very often (“The Legacy” (1979) and “Conagher” (1991), for example).  The list might be short, but he truly shines as the lead in “The Hero”, a role that fits perfectly for him.  Elliott is known for playing tough guys with strong moral compasses, and his onscreen voice can bring a sense of calm and quiet confidence.  Now, Lee may not a have the most “northbound” compass - as characterized by his drug habits and emotional distance from his estranged daughter, Lucy (Krysten Ritter) - but he establishes a relaxed, casual hand through unobtrusive moments of reflection but also fear.  The end is near.  Director/cowriter Brett Haley guides us through this small, indie picture with big ideas about broken relationships, facing death and living with regrets, and he wraps it around Lee, who attempts to navigate his way without obvious answers. 

 

The story arc, admittedly, is not terribly remarkable nor is the subject matter unfamiliar, and in fact, in many cases, the film’s plot points (which I will not name in this review) are easily telegraphed.  If you wish to take notes or keep score with a notebook and pen in the movie theatre, you’ll find it a piece of cake to scribe checkmarks or draw lines to connect the dots.  Although the narrative feels predictable, it does engage, and primarily due to Haley’s gentle hand with the material and Elliott’s absorbing performance.

 

Haley films many of his scenes in quiet locales, like Lee’s place, his friend Jeremy’s (Nick Offerman) house, a random stop at a food truck, and gorgeous, empty Southern California beaches, in which crashing waves strike land.  The purposeful lack of onscreen distractions gives Lee space to exist, think, anguish, and cope.  Like the solitary resonance of crashing waves, sometimes Haley doles out soft, singular sounds in other places to create a sense of serenity.   In one scene, we only hear coffee brewing in the kitchen, and in another, Lee cleans the living room table with his hand, as we listen to the subtle brush of tiny marijuana leaves rolling towards the end of the wooden slab.  In some instances, Lee sits in his home in total silence, sans his thumb tapping his phone.

 

While the tranquil moments serve their purpose, Offerman and Laura Prepon wonderfully compliment Elliott in supporting Lee and pushing him past his obstacles, respectively.  Jeremy (Offerman) is probably his closest friend but doubles as his drug dealer, and while that sounds like a dubious relationship on the surface, Offerman’s Jeremy offers very welcomed, droll conversations and close camaraderie, as they smoke pot and eat Chinese food on any given lazy, weekday afternoon.  Charlotte (Prepon) brings some surprises with frank talk and meaningful, fresh life-perspectives.  An edgy, insightful 30-something with an unknown, dicey past, Charlotte also carries a strong light with good intentions, even if she includes devilish twists along the way.

 

Both Jeremy and Charlotte extend good karma for Lee, and every single interaction works cinematically, because of the actors’ chemistry and a crisp, honest script.  Elliott carries the film on his own, but you might find yourself waiting for another chat with Jeremy about icebergs or a hint about Charlotte’s backstory.   Katharine Ross (who is Elliott’s wife off-screen) and Ritter deliver sincere moments as well, but this is Lee’s journey.  Elliott completely captures this man who – for decades - swallowed his guilt, grief and failed accomplishments, but these demons finally seep to the surface. 

 

Accompanied by a flowing, mystical soundtrack, there’s almost a Buddhist quality to “The Hero”, as it embraces nature, dabs into poetry, speaks of immortality, and attempts to heal a damaged person and his broken relationships.  Lee is a hero to his legion of fans, but not to himself, and the film explores this through spoken and visual metaphors, including dream sequences from his iconic 1970s western, “The Hero”.  Not every dream sequence was completely necessary, but still, after seeing this film, I immediately felt required to go back and watch this talented, charismatic actor’s aforementioned supporting performances again.  Elliott’s voice certainly can sell barbeque sauce on the big screen, and he absolutely excels in a starring role.  I am sold. 

(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.

47 Meters Down - Movie Review by Monte Yazzie

47 Meters Down

 

Director: Johannesburg Roberts

Starring: Mandy Moore, Claire Holt, Matthew Modine, Yani Gellman, Santiago Segura, and Chris Johnson

 

It's been more than 40 years since the release of "Jaws" and people are still afraid to go in the water. That's the undeniable quality of the film, that its effect on generations of film fans is still, firstly, fear of what lurks in the water. Since its release numerous films have tried to emulate the qualities that so richly personify the film but very few have come close

 

Andrew Traucki's "The Reef" effectively captured the tension, Renny Harlin's "Deep Blue Sea" crafted the creature feature quality, and Chris Kentis' "Open Water" had the character dynamics; but where each achieve their own identifying quality they are all completely influenced by "Jaws" in one way or another.

 

Director Johannesburg Roberts' film "47 Meters Down", which was released last year on DVD but was pulled for a wide theatrical release, takes the shark attack film and places it deep beneath the surface of the water. Mr. Roberts' film is full of claustrophobic atmosphere, a film that makes the most of the simple premise of monsters lurking in the dark.

 

Lisa (Mandy Moore) and her sister Kate (Claire Holt) are vacationing in Mexico. Kate, the adventurous of the two, is helping Lisa cope with a recent break-up. In an effort to show her ex-boyfriend how adventurous she can be, Lisa is coerced by her sister to go on an excursion in a shark tank. Unfortunately things take a turn for the worse when their winch breaks and they plummet to the ocean floor surrounded by sharks.

 

The simpler you can make a shark film, the better it usually is. In the case of "47 Meters Down" it's about as simple as a film like this could get. Mr. Roberts doesn't waste too much time on dry land, aside from a simple introduction to the two sisters personalities and a little back story that persuades the characters decision to get inside a rusty shark tank, the film gets down to the fearful focus of the situation as quick as it can.

 

It's within this atmosphere that the film takes shape, turning the murky waters of the deep ocean into the same atmosphere you might associate with a haunted house. In the same way, each time one of characters ventures into the darkness to help assist their escape from a watery tomb, the film begins to feel like you're watching someone juggle sharp knives; the element of sudden, quick danger becomes ever-present. This structure and environment are the shining elements of this film, one of the primary reasons it works.

 

Unfortunately, with the simplistic design there is less time to focus on character development, even though for a small moment in the beginning the film introduces a character element between the siblings that is interesting. Once the two sisters only have each other to depend on deep in the ocean, the film begins to incorporate some nice twists regarding equipment issues and the physiological aspects of being so deep in the water. But neither of the actors are provided much more than making the same statements and asking the same questions, "I'll be right back", "Don't leave me down here", "Watch out"; it becomes laughable during times that are suppose to be intense.

 

"47 Meters Down" is ingenious in its simplicity, a story that operates to build moments of tension and offer the occasional jump scare. While "Jaws" will undoubtedly never be duplicated, its effect on the genre will always try to be emulated; in that regard this film works much better than most.

 

Monte's Rating

3.25 out of 5.00

The Mummy - Movie Review by Monte Yazzie

The Mummy

 

Director: Alex Kurtzman

Starring: Tom Cruise, Sofia Boutella, Annabelle Wallis, Jack Johnson, and Russell Crowe

 

The legendary Boris Karloff portrayed many iconic characters throughout his long career, The Monster in "Frankenstein" and "The Mummy" are undoubtedly two of the most recognizable. Mr. Karloff's role in these films is a fundamental building block in creating the foundation for Universal Pictures, which would go on to make the classic monsters we can all identify today. 

 

Tom Cruise has been chosen to lead the Universal Monster universe in a new direction, with a new franchise. In recent years, the actor has become somewhat typecast as the "smartest guy in the room" action hero and he's actually quite good playing this character. Mr. Cruise has a charisma about him and a dedication to keep everything authentic, even down to performing his own terrifying stunts or taking roles earlier in his career that were different and out of character. This makes it all the more perplexing when you consider his completely miscast role in Universal's newest "The Mummy", which is an introductory piece to the new "Dark Universe" concept that aims to bring all the classic monsters into the same united world. Mr. Cruise, talent and all, just doesn't belong in this film and the film itself is a terrible first step for the design of this monster franchise.

 

Nick Morton (Tom Cruise) is a soldier with a penchant for antiquities, ones that he steals and sells for his own gain. Nick has a sidekick named Chris (Jake Johnson), the voice of common sense to Nick's insane ideas. The two encounter some resistance in a small Iraqi village, but after calling in an air strike that decimates the area a tomb is uncovered hidden below the surface. The tomb belongs to a princess named Ahmanet (Sofia Boutella) who was banished far from her kingdom after murdering her family. Her vengeful resurrected body is unleashed on the world and Nick has been chosen to assist in her devious plan.

 

The setup may not be exactly identical to the last incarnation for this ancient monster, which came out in 1999 and was directed by Stephen Somers and starred Brendan Frasher, though it does share quite a few moments, most obvious a giant dust storm with the face of the villain in it. However, it also pulls more influences from other films. You'll get an awful attempt to emulate a shining aspect of "American Werewolf in London", a piece of the underrated 80's horror gem "Lifeforce", and even a little underwater zombie mayhem care of Lucio Fulci's "Zombie" (all that's missing is the shark). Though, while this film pulls material from some good places, it never fully assists the film in crafting anything that helps the story or characters.

 

Again, this franchise exists within the realms of the Universal Monster's. The film never hides the fact that this is basically Universal's version of Marvel's "Avengers" saga. You actually get the message loud and clear in the first few moments of the film. While this isn't necessarily a bad thing, in fact it's what many horror genre fans have been waiting for since they saw "The Monster Squad" or the "Abbott and Costello Meet..." films, it never proposes the material in interesting ways. Instead "The Mummy" feels contrived and rushed. Characters are introduced and developed less by meaningful interactions and more by scenes of them running from one place to another either in search of or retreat from the monster.

 

Tom Cruise is the star here, playing what seems to be a bumbling thief who has heroic moments. But his character and performance don't match the tone the film is trying to achieve. The two female leads in Sofia Boutella as The Mummy and Annabelle Wallis as a researcher, are overlooked. Ms. Boutella has moments to shine when she actually gets to play the monster, most of the time she is tied up or seen in flashbacks. Ms. Wallis is simple hampered with a terrible role as merely a liaison to Nick's adventure.

 

"The Mummy" tries hard to bring in all the elements that make for mindless summer blockbuster fun, unfortunately it struggles to even be a film that distracts with visual entertainment for near 2 hours. The spectacle never feels big enough, the interesting characters are only provided a few real moments to be used, and the glaring plot holes raise questions consistently throughout. It's an unfortunate mistake that makes "The Mummy" less of step towards a franchise and more towards a hasty exit from the summer cineplex.

 

Monte's Rating

1.50 out of 5.00

It Comes at Night - Movie Review by Monte Yazzie

It Comes At Night

 

Director: Trey Edward Shults

Starring: Joel Edgerton, Carmen Ejogo, Christopher Abbott, Riley Keough, and Kelvin Harris Jr.

 

In John Conrad's cynical, politically influenced work "Under Western Eyes", the author takes steps in describing themes of terrorism, the degradation of character, and the suffering experienced by ordinary people caught in the wave of political influence. Mr. Conrad makes a poignant statement during the course describing how two factions of society lived in pre-Revolutionary Russia when it is stated, "only that a belief in a supernatural source of evil is not necessary; men alone are quite capable of every wickedness".

 

It's within this nature of humanity that writer/director Trey Edward Shults positions his new film "It Comes At Night"; within the turmoil that humanity faces with the unknown, within the natural distrust that exists deep in the souls of humans, within the emotions that motivate choices to act without compassion. In the same way the genre of horror effectively plants its most troublesome and terrifying roots with these same elements, blossoming monsters, madmen, and demons, Mr. Shults builds a film that is an unnerving look into the monsters that humans can become in the face of fear, desperation, and loneliness.

 

An unknown terror has forced humanity into isolation, survival has come down to wearing gas masks and carrying weapons whenever you venture outside. Paul (Joel Edgerton) runs a meticulous house with Sarah (Carmen Ejogo) and Travis (Kelvin Harris Jr.), maintaining strict rules that includes not going out at night, keeping a certain red door locked at all times, and separating themselves from any other outside human interaction. During one evening a young man named Will (Christopher Abbott) tries to break into Paul's home, after a torturous interrogation Paul compassionately decides to invite Will and his family into his home. Paranoia and distrust take over, making survival a deadly game for the two groups.

 

Mr. Shults first film, "Krisha", was an uncompromising character study that functioned on the surface as a drama but underneath was composed in the same way a filmmaker would craft a horror film. "It Comes at Night" operates very much the same, an analysis on how people function in a world without rules, in a world where the element of trust has all but disappeared. Placing characters within this treacherous environment provides the director opportunity to build tension through the interactions of the people living together and a mystery concerning how the characters will react during certain situations. However it also functions with all the mannerisms of a horror film, from the trepid movements into the darkness, the manipulative camera movements, and the use of sound to heighten the atmosphere. The monster here is keenly crafted as noises and movements in the darkness of the woods. In a nice touch the camera will many times linger on a specific point of perspective, a red door, a tree, an open road, just long enough to make the viewer investigate the frame looking for something that isn't always there. 

 

Mr. Shults wisely keeps the emphasis on the real monster in the film, which is humanity. You get the feeling early on that something isn't right with the people in the film, you can make the guess that this group of people have already had to make terrible choices along their journey into obscurity. For Paul, friendship and companionship are aspects long forgotten and the composition of the family dynamic doesn't seem to exist. Paul's relationship with Sarah and Travis is uncomfortable and awkward, so when he encounters a more traditional family unit he displays compassion, this family in need is sort of a symbol of hope in a hopeless world. Watching this group of people progress through different stages of trust is fascinating, and watching their ultimate dismantling is heart breaking.

 

The film maintains a deliberate pacing, never getting too far ahead of itself though in a few moments not offering enough narrative development to achieve the same impact that it achieves with its third act. This film is less a horror film and more a meticulously paced character study, though that doesn't make it any less scary. "It Comes At Night" may not be the film that makes you jump in your seat but it's the kind of film that will stay with long after you leave the theater.

 

Monte's Rating

4.00 out of 5.00

Waking David - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

‘Waking David’ opens our eyes to the price of family secrets

 

Directed by:  Kevin Nash

Written by:  Kevin Nash, Kristy Bruce, Shane Bruce, and Harriet Madeley

Starring:  Harriet Madeley, Kristy Bruce, Shane Bruce, Mark Katz, Paul Mooney, and Kathryn Worth

 

“Waking David” - “Communication is paramount to the success of any relationship.”

 

“Does she know about David?”

 

Scarlett (Harriet Madeley) is a young, successful professional.  This American – while only in her mid-20s – is speaking at a conference in Great Britain, sporting a head-worn microphone like a pop star and commanding the stage, as she is reciting the aforementioned quote about communication. 

 

Quite frankly, who can argue?  If we look back at our own failed relationships, the lack of meaningful communication could be a prime reason that stymied or doomed them.

 

“Waking David” is about the lack of communication within an entire family.  A family constructed by some emotionally damaged members, and the current state of kinship-disarray is exasperated due to massive shortages of honest discourse.  Director Kevin Nash introduces us to this mystery, one in which every on-screen character – apparently – knows the answer to it, except for Scarlett.  Due to Scarlett’s nature, however, she is determined to find answers to her open questions.  Since we, the audience, seek similar answers, this places Scarlett in a valuable lead protagonist role.  

 

Scarlett is resourceful, educated and optimistic, and while in the UK - for some reason - she stops at Julie’s (Shane Bruce) home, with her luggage and two welcomed bottles of celebratory alcohol in tow.  She is staying at Julie’s for a couple days, but why?  Curiously, Julie greets Scarlett with a fairly cool reception.  She is in her 40s or 50s, and they do not appear to be friends or close family.  One might immediately conclude that Julie is renting out an upstairs bedroom via Airbnb, but the film quickly dismisses that possibility.    

 

Actually, Scarlett arrives in Julie’s home for answers about David (whose role will not be revealed in this review), but this Brit is not willing to share many details about him.  Julie’s daughter, Amy (Kristy Bruce), feels equally unhelpful.  The same goes for Julie’s boyfriend, Simon (Mark Katz), and her sister, Helen (Kathryn Worth). 

 

Why?  A deep, dark secret is buried here, and Scarlett - the wide-eyed, idealist – feels the family’s hostile protection in keeping it classified, but she soon demands the reasons for hush-hush surrounding her very simple, straightforward inquiries.

“Waking David” contains a battle of wills and a clash of cultures.  Scarlett is in a foreign land, and Julie, Amy and Simon treat her like an unwelcome solicitor who suspiciously asks for donations.

 

Nash effectively sets an uneasy, anxious tone in the close quarters of Julie’s home, and Scarlett and the audience feel it.  His camera finds small nooks or sits around tables, like another member of the family, as the picture almost feels like a documentary, capturing frank conversations of a family on edge.  Argumentative conversations – between Julie, Amy and Simon (and to a lesser extent, Helen and her husband, Greg (Paul Mooney)) - can be heard through thin walls, and the exchanges are centered around Scarlett’s intrusion into their lives.  This young American has apparently opened old wounds that were never healed but covered by several layers of bandages, barricaded by wood planks and overlaid in concrete.

 

Unfortunately, when one buries their problems, they seep out and reveal themselves in very negative ways, and Amy and Julie clearly demonstrate this phenomenon.  Kristy and Shane Bruce are terrific as Amy and Julie, who – both - desperately grasp for emotional tools to grant them refuge during this time of unexpected burden.  They just need to get through Scarlett’s weekend visit, but the damage inflicted by this family secret can be written all over their faces.  Julie seems like a thoughtful, considerate person, but appears to feel the frustration of making repeated bad choices over the past few decades.  Her latest bad choice is Simon, who would rather complain about the world and grab a drink than address Julie in a supportive way. 

 

With Amy, Nash supports a very stark contrast to Scarlett.  Through the apparent advantages of growing up in a healthy environment, Scarlett thrives in life and embraces her emotional strength and education.  She sees the world as filled with opportunities, while Amy – who is about the same age – completely feels the opposite.  Amy wears dark clothes, smokes and exudes a constant resentment towards anyone within eyeshot.  Only in her mid-20s, Amy sees no positive prospects in her immediate future or over the next 60 years, and the last place that she wishes to spend her time is in her mother’s home. 

 

“Waking David” is an uncomfortable – but very absorbing – journey in the confines of one house over a few, difficult hours.  Nash escorts us through the broken limbs of a teetering family tree and slowly reveals the distant windstorm that snapped its spirit so many years ago.  All of the actors convincingly jump into this tangled web, as Madeley’s Scarlett attempts to discover the ultimate truth.  In this case, an alarm of frank, direct communication might wake a muddled history, and this family’s future success depends on it.

(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.

Megan Leavey - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

‘Megan Leavey’ inspires in real life and on-screen

 

Directed by:  Gabriela Cowperthwaite

Written by:  Pamela Gray, Annie Mumolo and Tim Lovestedt

Starring:  Kate Mara, Common, Edie Falco, Bradley Whitford, and Will Patton

 

“Megan Leavey” – “You don’t really connect with people very well.”

 

No, Megan Leavey (Kate Mara) does not easily connect with people, and she cannot find her footing in the game of life either.  Working a dead-end job in the small community of Valley Cottage, NY and feeling frustrated by her overbearing, unsupportive mom (Edie Falco), this young woman is reaching her limit.  She needs a change, and faster than you can say “forward march”, Megan joins the United States Marine Corps (USMC).  After an eye-opening basic training stint, the USMC whisks her to Southern California, but – predictably – she finds herself in a heap of trouble.  Sgt. Martin (Common) orders her to clean the dog kennels for a week, but Megan unknowingly finds her calling:  working with the bomb-sniffing dogs.  Specifically, she forms a special bond with the camp’s most aggressive canine, a German Shepherd named Rex.

 

Well, director Gabriela Cowperthwaite bonds with Megan’s real life story and delivers “Megan Leavey” to the big screen in a biopic that tugs on your heartstrings and inspires in expected and unexpected ways.  Animal lovers who cherish films like “My Dog Skip” (2000) and “Hachi: A Dog’s Tale” (2009) will certainly appreciate the person/dog dynamic here.  Cowperthwaite and Mara carve out meaningful establishing scenes that showcase Megan’s attempts to engage with Rex, who appears untrainable at times as well as dangerous.  Megan not only has to overcome her fear of Rex but needs to conquer her own self-doubt.  Adding another layer of intricate complication, the film shifts to the war-torn landscapes of Iraq in the early 2000s.

 

This is an Iraq War picture, and Cowperthwaite does not pull punches. The film includes some very intense moments, in which Megan and Rex probe potential dangers in suspect locales, including a random home in the dead of night and car checkpoints, which are anything but routine.  Their job?  To be the canaries in the coal mine.  With Megan’s guidance and initially shaky leadership, Rex sniffs out guns and Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs), paving the way for hopeful, safe journeys for her brothers and sisters on the battlefield. 

 

Make no mistake, Megan and Rex reside on the front lines, but they are not assigned to run towards enemy gunfire with bullets flying.  Instead, their responsibilities are much more hazardous and infinitely uncertain, as they make repeated, first contacts with the unknown, when the air is still.  

 

 

 

IEDs could be hidden anywhere, so “Megan Leavey” definitely channels a “The Hurt Locker” (2008) vibe, but this movie splits its time between nail-biting sequences and Megan’s growth through her relationship with Rex.  Mara is very convincing as a stymied human being looking for purpose, finding it and then unearthing the strength and courage to hold onto it.  Mara – who is slight in stature (5’ 2”) and build - does not physically resemble a typical marine, so her portrayal of Megan’s initial apprehensions in the field are terribly convincing.  Several moments of handwringing resonate in our movie theatre seats, as Megan carefully - but assuredly - walks towards extreme risk, and her eyes peer from underneath a helmet which looks about one and a half sizes too large.  

 

Cowperthwaite does not shy away from the intensity, but she also brings a distinct, feminine touch to the film.  She and Mara delve into Megan’s upstream fights with Sgt. Martin, her mom and her place in the world, and effectively capture her struggle to define herself as a responsible soldier and as a woman.  One particularly warm moment involves Megan’s initial work with Rex in California.   After – seemingly – weeks of Rex initiating fear and/or ignoring Megan altogether, he finally follows one of her commands, and she releases a look of utter surprise, joy and empowerment.  This wonderful, this-is-where-I-belong scene certainly draws us to Megan, as we see her positive life-turn in sight.

 

Whether or not Megan – in real life - struggled with sexism during her time in the USMC, the film does not identify it as part of her experience, save a few initial glances from her male counterparts when she arrives in California.  Otherwise, she is treated like a complete equal, which is highly refreshing. 

 

Even though Megan’s affecting bond with Rex is a huge part of the picture, thankfully, “Megan Leavey” does not bathe us in tears, but yes, it does splash us at times.   Anchored by Cowperthwaite’s steady hand and strong performances – including key supporting work by Falco and Bradley Whitford (who is almost unrecognizable) - “Megan Leavey” defines a person of character, who does connect with others and in the process, finds her purpose, 6,000 miles away from Valley Cottage, NY.  Sounds like a reason to celebrate…with tears of joy. 

(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.

Wonder Woman - Movie Review by Kaley Monahan

‘Wonder Woman’ redefines the superhero genre

By Kaely Monahan

 

It's been over a year of anxious anticipation for DC’s Wonder Woman. Fans of the heroine and the DC universe have prayed, “Please be good!” And begged, “Please don’t ruin it!” The small taste of Princess Diana was the only redeeming bit in last year’s “Batman V Superman.” And it only whet audience's appetites. So, the question is: Is Wonder Woman good?

The answer is no.

It’s fantastic!

It is the DC film fans have been hoping for. And it is the best superhero film in a generation.

Director Patty Jenkins clearly knew what she was doing. With only some TV credits, movie shorts, and one feature film under her belt, Jenkins isn’t the Hollywood giant you would expect to helm this movie. But the lack of credits certainly does not mean a lack of talent. Her eye for direction, action, and emotion drives the story.

Wonder Woman tells the origins of Princess Diana of the Amazons. For those of you who are comic book buffs, you’ll see that her story has been reinvented yet again. Diana’s story has evolved a lot since her first inception in the 1940s. Far from the star-spangled Lynda Carter version, Gal Gadot’s version draws heavily from Greek and Roman imagery and mythology. With plenty of references to "the gods" and the legendary Amazons of myth, this version of Wonder Woman is less the patriotic manifestation of the ideal female, and more the hero the world needs now. 

Fierce and independent, Gadot’s Diana is equal parts unbridled goddess and naïve "alien" who's hope is inspiring--if not exasperating for her sidekick. (At least at first.) Having been raised and sheltered for an untold number of years on the mythic paradise island of Themyscira, Diana has been honed into the ultimate weapon.

Paradise is interrupted when WWI spy and fighter pilot, Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) crashes near the island. His arrival sets into motion, Diana’s quest to destroy the God of War, Ares.

Gal Gadot is a powerhouse, energizing the screen with merely a look. She fully captures the innocence and grace that the sheltered heroine should have. At the same time, she leaves no doubt in your mind that she is all powerful. The god-like power is felt even when Diana runs about undercover in the streets of London or backwoods of Europe. If there are any doubts in Hollywood’s mind that an “unknown” can carry a franchise, Gadot dispels it. If anything audiences are thirsting for new faces. It was more exciting to see a foreign actress play the legendary heroine than a familiar Hollywood face. And the fact that Gadot is also from the Middle East—Israel—is a huge win for minority actors everywhere.

Megastar, Chris Pine, managed to be the perfect reflector for Gadot. His jaded, yet determined Steve Trevor, highlights Diana’s goodness and sense of justice. In a way, he refines it. As Diana is confronted with the duality of mankind’s nature he manages to pull her back, convince her that saving even just a few lives matters.

Of course, this wouldn’t be a superhero movie without epic battle scenes, and Wonder Woman also delivers. The spine-tingling power walk into no-man’s land, as briefly seen in the trailers, is only bested by the final battle between Diana and Ares. There’s enough slo-mo punches sprinkled with accelerated kung-fu moves to keep you wanting more.

To that point, many of the Amazon warriors are athletes and even law enforcement in real life. (Can this film get any cooler?) And if you’ve ever wanted to see what a battle between a Roman cavalry against modern war engines would look like, then the opening battle between the Amazons and Germans will satisfy all your nerdy history mash-up dreams. 

Many of the fight scenes look like they were lifted straight from the comics, much like in movie 300 there’s liberal use of CGI. But unlike that mess of a film, Wonder Woman manages to use it with care and skill.

The epic “Wonder Woman” theme by Hans Zimmer and Junkie XL is retained, but the rest of the soundtrack, written by Rupert Gregson-Williams will grab you by the throat and won’t let you go. Half of any action film is its music and the soaring epic music is the perfect soundtrack both on screen and in the car. Or on your phone. Or blast throughout your house. 

The DC film franchise has been gasping for a win ever since Man of Steel. Batman v Superman was all over the place and barely earned audience's regard. The quirky Suicide Squad had fans hopeful but it didn't quite hit the mark. If anything, DC's hopes must have been pinned on Wonder Woman. And they finally won one.

Wonder Woman is everything we hoped it would be. The next question I have for DC is, "When's Wonder Woman 2 happening?"

 

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

 

 

Wonder Woman - Movie Review by Monte Yazzie

Wonder Woman

 

Director: Patty Jenkins

Starring: Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Robin Wright, Connie Nielsen, Danny Huston, David Thewlis, Said Taghmaoui, Ewen Brenner, Elena Anaya, and Eugene Brave Rock

 

 

While walking into the anticipated screening of director Patty Jenkins' film "Wonder Woman", two women were walking a few steps in front of me and one of them proudly said, "We finally have a superhero we can call our own". It's a pertinent comment because this "Wonder Woman" film is a huge step in the right direction for female fronted superhero films but also the DC Extended Universe, which has seen a string of disappointing superhero/antihero films with "Batman v. Superman" and "Suicide Squad".

 

When looking at the history of superhero/comic book films it provides an even greater depth to the comment made by two women walking into a predominantly male driven character genre of film. And when you look at the comic book films that promote a female lead, the results are less than favorable. DC Comics "Supergirl" was released in 1984 and starred Helen Slater, Peter O'Toole, and Faye Dunaway. The film was poorly received and felt like a cheap jumpstart for Christopher Reeves' "Superman" franchise which by this time was basically defunct. Marvel's "Elektra" which starred Jennifer Garner at the height of popularity suffered from poorly designed characters and storylines. "Catwoman" starring Halle Berry was a complete mess of a film that ignored much of what turned this character into an interesting hero, though the character was originally a villain. The best example of a female focused comic book film is probably the cult classic "Tank Girl" or the fantastic graphic novel "Ghost World", but both of these films venture far from the realms of the superhero mythos.

 

Fortunately, Ms. Jenkins has crafted a much better film than the ones just mentioned; "Wonder Woman" focuses on creating a good origin story for the character, something other films in the DC Extended Universe have struggled with. It also does a great job of separating this character from the others around her, primarily separating a woman from a bunch of men, and letting Wonder Woman discover her own path to heroism.

 

The film introduces Diana (Gal Gadot) as a fearless child eager to take on the attributes of the Amazon warriors around her, a population of women living on an island in the Mediterranean that is shrouded by magic. Diana's mother Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) wants a daughter who minds her royal upbringing while her aunt Antiope (Robin Wright) secretly trains Diana in the art of combat. As Diana matures into a woman it's easy to see she is unlike others living on the island. When a World War I fighter plane bursts through the clouds Diana is forced to save a drowning pilot named Steve Trevor (Chris Pine). But Steve isn't alone, he was being chased by enemies who invade the world of the Amazons; this pushes Diana into the world of men in an effort to end a war.

 

The script is written by Allan Heinberg who works to take the familiar troupes of the superhero genre and infuse it with a story of woman born with exceptional abilities. Instead of taking the journey of other heroes, where powers are received by some kind of accident or experiment gone awry, Diana simply is born into great power. From here the film has the character make the choice to intervene, make the choice to do what others say is impossible and attempt to make a difference in a world near the end of the Great War. Along the way the film provides more interesting character dynamics, one specifically placing Diana into the middle of world she knows nothing about. It's a "fish out of a water" moment that is pretty funny but it is also used to introduce Diana to the faults of the world, specifically the struggles of humanity. Another is playing with the issue of saving lives and taking lives, a problem that has plagued comic book heroes and recently brought complaints against Superman due to the ending of "Man of Steel". Diana's goal is to bring peace by any means necessary, this includes the death of lots of people. The film handles this aspect without over emphasizing the gratuitous nature of the violence.

 

Along for the journey with Diana is a group of men, Steve Trevor continues on the mission but adds a Scottish sharpshooter (Ewan Brenner), an Indian fast talker (Said Taghmaoui), and a Native American scout (Eugene Brave Rock). These characters play an important role individually, but the film never moves away from the emphasis on Diana. In fact, they actually play very good supporting characters that assist in making Diana understand why humanity is worth saving instead of taking control over the heroics in the film. The big superhero moments are all reserved for Wonder Woman.

 

Gal Gadot plays Diana exceptionally well, she has the charm and attitude to give her character immediate screen presence. Chris Pine is also good, the moments the actor has with Ms. Gadot create great chemistry for the pair with scenes that are both flirtatious and funny. Also making appearances here are Danny Huston who plays a villainous German army leader and Elena Anaya who plays the appropriately named Dr. Poison. As bad guys these characters are space fillers, a necessary evil for good to triumph over. They are never provided much opportunity to threaten Diana or her abilities, which in turn leads to an eventual encounter that holds no risk. It's a problem that plagues superhero origin stories, mainly that it is difficult to find time to compose a equally interesting villain to engage the hero.

 

Unfortunately the momentum isn't kept up all the way through, the third act of the film resembles every boring comic book movie finale that has come before it. CGI bad guy flying here, throwing somewhere over there, and blasting lightening bolts in all directions.  There is nothing interesting about it, nothing that displays the lessons learned on the journey made. Instead it's just there to fill time until the ending.

 

While the finale may end on a lackluster note, the beginning and middle parts of the film are well executed with the appealing mix of humor, heart, and spectacle. Gal Gadot completely owns the film with a great supporting group of actors to fill in the spaces around her. "Wonder Women" is the best film the DC Extended Universe has to offer so far.

 

 

Monte's Rating

3.50 out of 5.00

Churchill - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

Brian Cox transforms into ‘Churchill’ in this good, conversational biopic

 

Directed by:  Jonathan Teplitzky

Written by:  Alex von Tunzelmann

Starring:  Brian Cox, Miranda Richardson, John Slattery, Julian Wadham, and James Purefoy

 

“Churchill” – Steven Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan” (1998) reverberates in the halls of cinematic history as one of the greatest war films ever made.   It effectively pays homage to soldiers - any soldiers – who risk their lives on the battlefield through the personal story of Capt. John Miller (Tom Hanks).  Capt. Miller’s journey to bring Pvt. James Ryan (Matt Damon) home from the war is the true soul of the story, but the film is widely-known for its horrifyingly spectacular and technically iconic 23-minute vision of the D-Day invasion in June 1944. With large, menacing spikes littering Omaha Beach, the Allied Forces’ soldiers jump out of countless transport vessels into immediate gunfire, find land, crawl around barbed-wire netting, and attempt to overtake the Germans’ position.  The sheer power of this jaw dropping sequence reminds us of the horrors of war and the bravery of these men. 

 

“Churchill” is a movie about the D-Day invasion as well and told – obviously - from British Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s perspective.  This is a very different war movie, but the words “personal” and “iconic”, along with the phrase “horrors of war” are completely valid in describing the themes in director Jonathan Teplitzky’s film. 

 

The setting is 1,736 days into World War II.  Churchill (Brian Cox) and the British people have been living with this conflict for five, long years, but American Gen. Dwight Eisenhower (John Slattery) – the commander of the Allied Forces – is just a few days away from launching Operation Overlord to hopefully overtake the Germans’ occupation.  

 

Churchill – who has seen bloody, destructive war just 30 years earlier – disagrees with the mission due to the immense risk and opposes Eisenhower, but Senior British Commander Bernard Montgomery (Julian Wadham) sides with Ike.  This leaves Churchill fighting a two-pronged war of his own between Eisenhower/Montgomery and his wife, Clementine (Miranda Richardson), who believes that he is meddling in places that he should not.  In the meantime, he also attempts to convince King George VI (James Purefoy) to call off the invasion or at least change it substantially. 

 

Churchill is a man of altruistic beliefs – granted, under a curmudgeon’s exterior -  with the best intentions for British men who are “too young to be afraid”, but he is not.  He knows the costs of war, and Teplitzky effectively communicates the ghosts from past conflicts, including an effective dream sequence in which Churchill stands on a British beach and helplessly watches bloody red ocean water roll at his feet.

 

Cox physically transforms into Churchill from his head to his feet and mesmerizes us in the process.  As the United Kingdom’s beloved leader, he dresses in black with his signature hat and usually stews on a large, fat cigar.  In the film, Cox portrays the man with an extremely strong sense of self and tenacity.  Every word is layered with decades of vast political, military experience, filling every room with gravitas.  Now, Churchill’s health was not grave in 1944, but he is clearly on the decline.  At 69 years-old, he is heavy and balding and in frequent need of a cane and a handy glass of scotch.  The film touches on Churchill’s battle with depression, but only lightly so.  Teplitzky and Cox tread in this space for just a few minutes, but they address it with sincerity and care.  Seventy-three years ago, one wonders how much was known about mental illness, and the film plays within these tones.  

 

Speaking of tones, the film visually pays strict attention to its color palettes as dream sequences become understandably muted, while car trips to far away meetings feature the beautiful, lush English countryside as a pleasant and striking backdrop.  A few times, Teplitzky pulls his camera back as Churchill, King George, Eisenhower, and others move like chess pieces on swathes of green.  Not surprisingly, a chess match is in play. 

 

This D-Day film does not drop the audience into action set pieces on a military front or beach, but lives in much smaller worlds where massive decisions are made.  In dimly lit rooms with lingering cigarette smoke, titanic personalities argue and caucus about the potential outcomes of sending 250,000 men to French beaches.  “Churchill” is a heady, conversational drama with one of modern history’s most recognizable heads of state at its center.  Churchill may be the prime minister of an empire in which the sun never sets, but he – surprisingly - does not own the largest influence over Operation Overlord.  Although Cox’s Churchill is determined to find a way, and the film transports us into history to watch how he worked.

 

In a movie with many intriguing moments, two truly stand out.  One occurs in private, and the other is historically inspirational.  Cox completely connects on both counts (and everywhere else over the 1-hour 38-minute runtime), as the film leaves its cinematic footprint, although much differently than “Saving Private Ryan”.  I would not go as far to say that “Churchill” is a companion piece to Spielberg’s film, but it highlights the man’s presence during the war and his contributions towards peace.     

(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.

Dean - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

Demetri Martin’s ‘Dean’ is hilarious and heartfelt

 

Written and directed: Demetri Martin

Starring:  Demetri Martin, Kevin Kline, Gillian Jacobs, Mary Steenburgen, and Rory Scovel

 

“Dean” –  Walking on a beautiful Southern California beach on a bright, sunny day is just about the most wonderful way to spend time.  Sure, Redondo, Manhattan, Santa Monica, and Venice might be crowded with the hustle and bustle of thousands of people with the same therapeutic thoughts of sand and sun, but a stroll on a beach can certainly provide a salutary reprieve from your troubles. 

 

In a wonderfully comedic visual, we see Dean (Demetri Martin) walking on a long stretch of beach, wearing street clothes and dragging his luggage through the soft powder.  This New York City illustrator flies to Southern California to get away from his anxieties back home, but Dean finds himself trekking on the beach at that particular moment for a very different reason.  He’s taking a risk.  A glorious, love-pursuing risk. 

 

Martin also took a risk by writing and directing his first feature film, “Dean”, but this stand-up comedian strikes cinematic gold by crafting the best comedy that I have seen so far this year. 

 

Now, sometimes the best humor stems from a place of tribulation.  In this case, Dean’s mother passed away, and he is coping with her death, trying to wrap his mind around the fact that she is gone.  Looking for solace, he listens to her old voicemails and turns to his father (Kevin Kline) for company and discourse, but he feels a bit betrayed.  His dad, Robert (Kline), is selling the family house, and Dean thinks that part of his mom’s memory will disappear once the house is sold and the closing is finalized. 

 

He needs to bolt, so this talented - but somewhat directionless - illustrator heads to the left coast to interview for a job and visit some friends.  Wrapped in a speedy runtime of 1 hour 27 minutes, the film features Dean’s awkward journey to hopeful self-discovery through a nearly constant series of hilarious sequences and seemingly hundreds of perfectly-timed moments that only a true comic talent can deliver.

 

Martin places Dean in the company of Southern California’s absurdities, including a very confusing conversation with an irrational wannabe actress, a run-in with two caffeinated improv actors and a club in which loud industrial beats drown out everything.  With sharp writing and steadfast performances, no false beats can be heard or seen anywhere. 

 

Dean’s encounters strike our funny bones with pure belly laughs or an intended mix of humor and angst.  This mix comfortably dances in the same ballroom with memorable comedies like “Frances Ha” (2012), “Annie Hall” (1977) and “Superbad” (2007) in which likeable heroes try to navigate in unfamiliar spaces and sometimes make wrong turns.  Martin makes lots of right turns with his pen and paper, as his own drawings make several onscreen appearances to reinforce Dean’s feelings in many, many scenes.

 

Martin’s drawings almost become another character, and their entrances are repeated welcomes for the audience.  Bear in mind, the movie’s surprises and pleasantries are not all fun and games, because Dean is grappling with the death of his mom, so the artwork and the overall story do move in dark places.  Death seems ever looming in Dean’s mind, so many light moments are sometimes laced with uneasiness or cynicism. 

 

Then again, that’s human nature and part of the healing process, so the supporting players stand by Dean’s side and challenge him with ample amounts of conversational fodder, including terrific performances by Rory Scovel, Gillian Jacobs and Kline.  Kline’s Robert grapples with current technology, his widower status and Dean’s curious choices, but this dad always emanates from a place of warmth and sincerity.  In a nice subplot, Robert meets a sweet real estate agent (Mary Steenburgen), and their onscreen time really makes you wish that Steenburgen can appear in every movie.  How can we make that happen?

 

Dean makes a sweet overture of his own after a chance meeting with Nicky (Jacobs), but not without an embarrassing first impression and a clever onscreen drawing.  Lately, Dean’s life has felt like an uphill climb, but to his credit, he is trying to make his own luck.  Now, taking a risk does open up vulnerabilities, where losing becomes a real possibility.  It takes guts and nerve, but if you follow that path, you could find yourself walking with a true purpose on a Southern California beach, looking ahead while trying to leave your troubles behind.

(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.

Interview with Demetri Martin (writer, director and star of "Dean") by Jeff Mitchell

In April, comedian Demetri Martin traveled to the Valley to screen his movie, “Dean”, and he spoke with an enthusiastic and warm Phoenix Film Festival audience.  The evening was a festival highlight, and Demetri also sat down with me that morning to talk about his movie.  “Dean” is a hilarious and heartfelt comedy about a New York City illustrator’s quest to find his footing in California after his mother passes away. 

 

Demetri not only stars in the title role, but he also wrote and directed the picture as well.  During our enjoyable and insightful discussion, he talks about his career trajectory before comedy, the inclusion of his drawings throughout the film and how the loss of his father inspired “Dean”.

 

“Dean” also stars Kevin Kline, Mary Steenburgen, Gillian Jacobs, and Rory Scovel, and it arrives in theatres on Friday, June 2. 

 

 

PFF:  I loved, loved, loved your artwork, and how you integrated it into the film.  Did you have your drawings already in place and build the script around them, or did you write the script and then create your artwork after the fact?  How did that process work?

 

DM:  It’s probably a 50/50 split.  Years ago, I started carrying around a notebook more, because I was writing jokes all the time, and I started to just draw in there.  It kind of reignited something.  I liked to draw as a kid, and then, somewhere along the way, I (decided) that I wasn’t great at it - or whatever happened – and just stopped.  Once I started having a notebook and a pen with me, this part of me came back to life, and I drew. 

 

When it came time to make a movie, I thought because I draw so much in my daily life – and I usually draw before I go to bed, just for fun – it would be cool to make my character an illustrator.  It would be another axis, that I could tell the story.  When I look through my notebooks, it turns out things that I gravitate towards in my drawings were not that different thematically (from the movie). 

 

I had some (drawings) to start with, and I looked through them and said, “You know what, I do have a lot of drawings about death here.”

 

These would be useful. 

 

When we got to the edit, I found that there were places (in the film), where a drawing would actually work really well rhythmically or would be a good transition to the next scene.  So, I found myself - almost commissioning myself - to do drawings for the movie, after I got to the edit.  So, it’s about 50/50. 

 

PFF:  In the film, Dean’s dad (Kline) is planning on selling his house.  He’s trying to move on after his wife’s passing, and Dean wants to hold on to the house, because it’s his childhood home.  What is Dean trying to emotionally hold onto?    

 

DM:  Here’s where I probably dip into my own life.  While the movie is all fictional, in my life my father was the parent who died young, when I was 20.  He was only 46.  It was a real shock to our family.  I think what I put into the movie and the character – and this was 20-plus years ago, but what I remember emotionally – was this idea that he was just gone.  It’s just so disruptive (when a parent dies), but yet, their stuff remains.  We had to get rid of (my dad’s) things, and it wasn’t long after my father passed that mom sold our house. 

 

I didn’t fight that or anything. I had gone to college. I was away, but I remember that feeling.  I wasn’t going to stop my mom.  She needed to move on, but it was weird.  It does feel like an erasure of your past, a very concrete removal of the documentation that this person was there.  So, I thought that was a very real and powerful way to externalize something that would be going on between them.  It’s a very easy battleground to have. 

 

 

PFF:  The movie includes a wedding scene, and Dean feels a little out of sorts.  The way that I was looking at it: Dean feels that his life is not together, but his friends have it “all” figured out.   

 

DM:  Yes, that’s how I was looking at it too.

 

 

PFF:  Now, I think that this all changes for him – and his healing process begins - when he sees his friend, Eric (Scovel), in California.  Dean discovers that Eric does not exactly have his life together either.  Was this the spot where the light went on for Dean?

 

DM:  I tried to write characters beyond myself, including the character that I am playing.  Dean is not me, but, of course, he’s going to be pretty close to me.  He’s definitely within my range as a person, but thinking about other people, not as supporting characters, but as people with their own stories, hopefully dimensional people. 

 

When I got to Eric, (I thought) what’s his story?  On the surface, Eric is one of these pickup artists.  It’s interesting to me, because we all know (a guy) like that, who is going to figure out how to get some hot girl to like him.  I wanted to go below the surface and - with a lot of characters - make him a little more human.  What I found was that if I can develop characters with a little more to them, it only helped me and my character in the end.  There was something to really play off of, and the scenes came to life a little bit more. 

 

So, yea I thought that was an important scene to show a turn, like you’re mentioning. I think Dean’s attitude (changes) in that scene.  I tried to learn how to do scenes, where there’s a turn, a place to go.  There’s a fulcrum, and something happens emotionally.  Even though it’s small, there’s still something that matters.  So, if Dean is a little more judgmental about his friend at the beginning of the scene, at least it tips, and there’s more empathy, there’s more compassion.

 

 

PFF:  There is a moment in the film, when you are dragging your luggage in the sand on the beach, and I love this scene for two reasons.  One, it’s a great visual.  Two, Dean ends up on the beach, because he decides to take a risk.  How difficult was it to drag your luggage in the sand?  It looked tricky.  Also, in your personal life, have you had one of those “I’m going to take a chance” moments?

 

DM:  I didn’t live that far from where we shot that scene, and there’s a big stretch of sand there, where Santa Monica meets Venice.  It dips inland, and the beach is already pretty wide.  When it came time to shoot the movie, I knew where I wanted to do that (scene), because it felt almost like a desert.  There’s so much sand, until you get to the ocean. When we were shooting it, it wasn’t too bad, but it was super windy.  I’m not working in a coal mine or anything, but it was harder than I thought. 

 

It’s funny when you make a movie, because it’s almost like you treat yourself as if you are a cartoon character or something.  You (think to yourself) that on Day One, I’ll do this, then we’ll do this thing, then I’ll run here, and I’ll chase the car, or whatever it is you’re shooting. 

 

You just think, “Yea, I can do it. I see people do it in movies.” 

 

Now, when you see a “Bourne” movie, and this guy is jumping out of windows, doing flips and s***, you (say), “Oh my God, these guys are professional athletes.”

 

Suddenly, I realize that I’m not in shape.  I haven’t been exercising.  There are 12, 13-hour days, and you start falling apart.  It’s a 20-day shoot, but halfway through the movie, I was exhausted.  I lost weight.  If anybody sees the movie, there’s nothing physical.  That’s about as physical as it gets.  Maybe riding bikes, a little bit. 

 

Did I ever go for it in life?  Yea, I did.  Professional definitely.  I was in law school, years ago, and I dropped out.  I just quit to be a comedian.  It’s the first time in my life that everybody was disapproving of my decision, but I felt that I wanted to take a chance, because I didn’t want to regret not trying stand-up.  I didn’t know if I could make a living or not, but I had to give it a shot. 

 

I didn’t want to look back and think, “Oh, I could have done that, or what would have happened?”

 

I’d rather try and fail than say, “What could have been?”

 

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.

 

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales - Movie Review by Monte Yazzie

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales

 

Director: Joachim Ronning and Espen Sandberg

Starring: Johnny Depp, Geoffrey Rush, Javier Bardem, Brenton Thwaites, Kaya Scodelario, Kevin McNally, David Wenham, Golshifteh Farahani, and Orlando Bloom 

 

In the dark, watery confines of a boat ride in one of Disneyland's most beloved amusements, a deep voiced ghost utters the words "Dead men tell no tales". It was the striking phrase that stuck in my adolescent mind after a family trip to California in the late 80's. 

 

In 2003 the film "Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl" was released as a summer blockbuster to very positive reviews; it seemed that a film could capture some of the nostalgia, some of the magic of a theme-park ride. Starring Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow, a trickster with an affinity for rum and treasure, in the role that would define the actor and directed by Gore Verbinski, who would go on to direct the trilogy of features for the franchise, the film was a highlight for the typically overwrought CGI-fueled summer blockbuster design. 

 

Unfortunately, subsequent films could not maintain the quality of the first film. Though it didn't seem to matter because audiences continued to flock to the theaters for more pirate adventures, with each film getting worse in the progression. Surprisingly to say "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales", the fifth in the franchise for those who stopped keeping count, is actually much more entertaining than the other sequels. That doesn't necessarily mean that the quality of the story or characters are much better than any of the other films, but at this point that doesn't seem to be much of a concern to the filmmaking team. What does concern them is that the audience returning to see this film is being entertained

 

The plot involves the expedition of two young people, a young man (Brenton Thwaites) looking for the legendary pirate Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) to help save his family and a young woman (Kaya Scodelario) searching for a treasure laid out for her in a journal that has been with her since she was born. Both are looking for the same thing, a magical and powerful object that will help change their lives. However, an evil is unleashed by the hands of Jack Sparrow, a ship with a decomposing crew lead by the vengeful Captain Salazar (Javier Bardem).

 

You've seen this film before, everyone knows this including the team behind the film. The story is a familiar one, a curse exists that unleashes one of the many vengeful myths that haunt the sea. And, before the title card flashes across the screen in this film the bulk of the story is introduced; we get an encounter with the bad guy, an explanation of the adventure that awaits, and the acknowledgment that the franchise favorite pirate is going to come along for the mission. It's quick and foolish but works in establishing everything that is to come. 

 

Gore Verbinski is responsible for establishing the style and structure of these films, and new directors Joachim Ronning and Espen Sandberg don't deviate too much from everything that has been initiated. In fact, they actually honor much of the good elements that came with the original film. There are some very distinct and fun set pieces introduced here, one that feels like an alternative scene from the original film involving a bank safe that defies the laws of physics, another that is pure summer blockbuster ridiculousness involving a guillotine, and one that needs only two words to sell a ticket...shark zombies. 

 

We've all seen Captain Jack swagger and prance in and out of situations numerous times before, so it's nice that his character plays somewhat of a supporting character here. The film suffers whenever Captain Jack gets too much screen time, which is surprising to say considering Sparrow was the saving grace for some of the sequels. The film wisely focuses on two new characters, Henry and Carina, giving them a nice balance within their individual journeys. Also good is Javier Bardem as Captain Salazar, the design of his character is exceptional and the performance fits the realm nicely.

 

"Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales" easily ranks near the top for this franchise. It's a return to everything that made the original film so good even though it doesn't do anything new. Instead the film focuses on the fun associated with a swashbuckling adventure and the quality that the supernatural elements can add to a story.

 

Monte's Rating

3.00 out of 5.00

Baywatch - Movie Review from Monte Yazzie

Baywatch

 

Director: Seth Gordon

Starring: Dwayne Johnson, Zac Efron, Alexandra Daddario, Priyanka Chopra, Kelly Rohrbach, Ilfenesh Hadera, Jon Bass, and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II 

 

It's summertime, the beaches are open, and the water is nice. If this were the mid-90's the moment you arrived to the beach the soundtrack to your day would include the theme song to "Baywatch", the lifeguard beach drama that consistently remained serious through its 12 year run yet also wore its silliness like a badge of honor. Making a cultural icon, again, out of David Hasselhoff and solidifying Pamela Anderson as the sex symbol of the 90's, "Baywatch" was one of the most watched television shows of the time. 

 

The foolish and sexy characteristics of the television show are combined for a modern day remake starring Dwayne Johnson. Placing more emphasis on the comedic elements and the action sequences, the 2017 "Baywatch" wants to have a whole lot of fun, and for the first twenty minutes it actually accomplishes just that. But very quickly it turns into something similar to a blooper reel, lots of the same jokes told in different ways without much of a story.

 

Mitch Buchanan (Dwayne Johnson) is a no-nonsense tough guy with a perfect physique who's work as a lifeguard on the Bay is the stuff of legend. Matt Brody (Zac Efron) is a former Olympic swimming champion, also with a perfect physique, who has fallen on hard times because of his selfish, hard partying ways. Mitch is forced to add Matt to his team and the two immediately bump heads. While the new lifeguard team is working out their growing pains, a crime wave is bringing trouble to the Bay.

 

For those looking for a tame comedy with the somewhat risqué appeal that made the television show such a guilty pleasure, this film is not for you. The language warrants a hard R rating, the jokes are raunchy, and the sight gags are crude. It's a sign of the times for bigger comedies in the multiplex these days. For those that love films like last year's "Vacation" remake or another television remake "21 Jump Street", you'll be thoroughly entertained by "Baywatch". 

 

Dwayne Johnson, who seems to be in everything these days, is the perfect character to lead this film. He has the masculinity to pull off the action hero attitude and the charm that has sold comedy for him since his wrestling days. Add the stunning good looks of Zac Efron to the mix, place them in a situation to ridicule one another, and you have at least 15 minutes of scenes for your film right there. Unfortunately most of their jokes have been done before, some that both Mr. Johnson and Mr. Efron have done better in other films. Also, Mr. Efron's comedic efforts aren't utilized to their potential here, he has played this cocky character before and it would seem a perfect match across from a wisecracking character Dwayne Johnson is playing as Mitch Buchanan. Instead his character moves along the usual arc of self-realiance, self-realization, and redemption in the most basic of developments. 

 

After the first act the jokes get a little stale, the characters get less interesting, and the story moves in every familiar direction these action-comedy films could go. Even the cameos, which you know are coming, are completely uninteresting. "Baywatch" attempts to build on the indulgent quality the television series offered but instead opts for lazy comedy and boring action. 

 

Monte's Rating

1.75 out of 5.00

 

Land of the Little People - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

‘Land of the Little People’ reveals big household effects of war

 

Written and directed by:  Yaniv Berman

Starring:  Lior Rochman, Mishel Pruzansky, Amit Hechter, Ido Kestler, Maor Schwitzer, and Ofer Hayoun

 

“Land of the Little People” –  In writer/director Yaniv Berman’s film, two teens and two preteens enjoy a tight friendship, a friendship that adults rarely share due to preoccupied duties of marriage and mortgage payments.  Here, any one of these particular four kids can walk into the home of another, during any time of day, and they would immediately leave together in order to grab the other two.  As part of their seemingly daily ritual, the four trek to the nearby desert brush with a crossbow and a bow and arrow in hand.  Chemi (Lior Rochman), Yonatan (Amit Hechter), Tali (Mishel Pruzansky), and Louie (Ido Kestler) may live in large, suburban homes, but they partake in a very different existence when they step outside the comforts of warm meals and manicured neighborhoods.  

 

As the movie opens, they catch a prairie dog (of some kind) in a trap and feed it to an imaginary entity at the bottom of an abandoned well, and Tali recites, “Don’t eat us.  Keep us safe.  We’ll take care of you.”

 

Umm…what?

 

Well, Berman immediately calls to distant memories of “Lord of the Flies” (1963, 1990) but without savage mutiny or scrummages for power.  There is no Piggy to ridicule, as these friends treat one another with mutual respect, like brothers and one sister in arms, and in this story, they find a common enemy.

 

“Land of the Little People” is a raw, edgy and sometimes very intense drama about a group of kids reacting to or coping with their circumstances at home, and Berman carefully includes several important scenes along the way that help illuminate the causes of Chemi, Yonatan, Tali, and Louie’s collective primal, warlike actions.    

 

Set in Israel, the country might share a collective anxiety – albeit, not always high – about the threat of war. 

 

On a personal note, I have traveled to Israel for work a few times, and an Israeli colleague once told me over dinner in Jerusalem, “You see, in Israel, we are surrounded by nations who want to kill us and wipe us off the map.” 

 

Those specific words have certainly stuck with me over the years, and in this film we organically see households impacted by military conflict.  Fathers are rarely seen, and in fact, at the beginning of the film, Chemi’s dad says goodbye, because his career resides in the military, and he must leave – like so many others – for the front.  At times, we do see brief glimpses of worried mothers – sometimes pregnant – wondering when their husbands will return, but how does this affect the “little people” in these communities?   

 

This is the underlying theme of the picture, and when dealing with the minds of children, they reason based upon their limited experiences.  They do not exactly know war, but they know their feelings about it.     

 

All of the child actors are convincing (led by Rochman and Pruzansky), as ordinary kids frustrated by two things: adulthood is still out of reach and their fathers face danger.  Those feelings are ever-present as they regularly leave for their wilderness playground, but they firmly walk with a purpose.  A purpose of exploring territory that they declare as their own with rules that they define.  They are not robots, however, and do enjoy a rare smile or two, but when it comes to claiming their space, these kids are determined.

 

Berman employs an especially effective camera technique to show this resolve.  In a couple key instances, the kids fire their weapons, but he keeps the camera on them instead of their targets, so we do not immediately know the impact of their decisions.  Their steely tenacity and Berman’s creative camerawork certainly raise our anxiety in a picture already filled with plenty of tension.  These four kids may share a close camaraderie like the gang from “The Goonies” (1985), but the film recalls a definite – and as previously mentioned – “Lord of the Flies” edge.  You see, on this random patch of Israeli desert, this tightknit group of little people find someone else attempting to lay claim.   

(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.

 

 

 

  

 

Wakefield - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

Cranston fights an implausible story in ‘Wakefield’

 

Directed and written by:  Robin Swicord

 

Starring:  Bryan Cranston, Jennifer Garner, Beverly D’Angelo, and Jason O’Mara

 

“Wakefield” – “I’m totally bewildered by the situation that I created for myself.” – Howard Wakefield

 

“A short story is the shortest distance between two points.  A novel is the scenic route.” – Robert J. Sawyer

 

Howard Wakefield (Bryan Cranston) is a married man who lives in a big, beautiful house nestled in an affluent suburb with his wife, Diana (Jennifer Garner), and their twin girls.  He is a law firm partner.  She is an assistant curator at the county museum.  Their lives appear in perfect order, one that the American dream can sometimes promise. 

 

Although, life in the Wakefield house is not perfect.  Not by a longshot, and discontent solely stems from Howard, a miserable, jealous and cantankerous human being.  We all know this type of person, and if we are smart and practice healthy boundaries, we hopefully keep our distance.  Distance from someone who desperately searches for blemishes on figurative canvases where none exist.

 

Howard wants out.  He wants out of his marriage.  He wants out of his life.  He wants out of himself.  He gets his wish, but in doing so, he voluntarily mires in a cesspool of self-pity and resentment in the most unlikely of places. 

 

Writer/director Robin Swicord constructs her portrayal of Howard Wakefield from an unlikely place, a 2008 short story appearing in “The New Yorker” by E.L. Doctorow.  Swicord – who penned the screenplays for “Little Women” (1994) and “Memoirs of a Geisha” (2005) – runs into an inherent problem here, because Wakefield’s story does not easily translate into a one-hour 46-minute feature film.  Instead, it feels like an experiment better suited for a short film, about half its runtime.

 

Within the first few minutes, one can easily discern that “Wakefield” is an adapted screenplay, because Howard narrates every move from his law office to the train station and eventually to his home.  Soon, it also becomes apparent that he will narrate the entire film, and this one-sided perspective turns into a deep character study of a flawed, damaged man.  Cranston, one of the most popular and skilled actors working today, seems tailor-made for this role and falls into belligerent distress very well. 

 

He is fascinating to watch.  As Wakefield fills the screen with his deepest, most secret thoughts of scorn, he descends into a primordial physical state.  He leaves his family but also dumps his posh lifestyle’s creature comforts.  Sure, manicures, wine tastings and drives to the coast no longer fit into his life plan, but Howard goes without running water, food refrigeration and a working thermostat as well.  This descent visually plays well, as routine practices – like shaving - become habitual exercises of the past and rummaging through garbage bins morph into his daily norms. 

 

Rhythmically, Swicord’s choices and Cranston’s charisma attract a morbid curiosity which begs the question:  How far down the rabbit hole will Wakefield travel?   On its own, Howard’s trip into madness is an absorbing one at times.  Swicord raises questions about fidelity, competition and warring factions within households.  Granted, Howard’s distorted view is one-sided, but it does ring with some traces of truth and leaves the audience ample heaps of coffee shop fodder. 

 

Unfortunately, the film’s construction runs into ample amounts of cinematic problems in a couple areas.  First, and as previously mentioned, Howard’s perspective is one-sided.  As he purchases his trip into self-exile, we never get Diana’s perspective, at least verbally.  We see her reactions to Howard’s disappearance but do not hear an equal and opposite reaction.  How is Howard’s without-a-trace disappearance impacting her physiologically?  Equal amounts of screen time of her thoughts is not necessarily needed, but a happy medium between zero and 50 should be in order.  I would actually be thrilled with 1.3 percent, but Swicord provides zilch.

 

Secondly, Howard takes a distant trip from his previous life but does not physically transport himself to a faraway place.  Actually, the main point of the film is that he does not travel very far in making his great escape, but he – miraculously - is not spotted by a friend, his girls or Diana.  That just plainly feels implausible.  The narrative dictates that he is cunning enough to remain invisible in near plain sight, but Harry Houdini should have as many tricks in his arsenal of deception.  Actually, he is spotted by a pair of unlikely neighbors, but the two or three random scenes of discovery look crowbarred into the story to appeal to Howard’s humanity.  Although he could use a little levity, these moments do not serve any purpose in the grand scheme.

 

Stuck with an inauthentic premise, one is solely left with Cranston’s performance.  Well, after a few weeks of exile, Howard’s motivations are wrapped in gamesmanship, and he plays his family and teases the audience.  How far and how long will he take it, and who is taking bets?  The film almost fights itself, a constant fracas between Cranston pushing Howard’s madness and the script spilling over into pools of implausibility.  Despite Cranston’s best efforts, for me, the implausible story “won”, but who knows.  If the movie ran just 53 minutes instead of 106, Cranston probably would have won me over.  After all, “Wakefield” is based on a short story.

(2/4 stars)

 

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

 

 

Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

‘Jeremiah Tower:  The Last Magnificent’ is a doc that gets cooking

 

Directed by:  Lydia Tenaglia

Starring:  Jeremiah Tower, Mario Batali, Anthony Bourdain, Martha Stewart, and Wolfgang Puck

 

“Jeremiah Tower:  The Last Magnificent” – “The preparation of good food is merely another expression of art, one of the joys of civilized living.”  - Dione Lucas

 

“The worse thing that ever happened to me was that I wasn’t an orphan.” – Jeremiah Tower

 

Walking into this movie, I must woefully admit that I have never heard of Jeremiah Tower, but my knowledge of legendary chefs is very, very limited.  Julia Child, Gordon Ramsey, Anthony Bourdain, and Wolfgang Puck are the few names that come to mind, and – interestingly - over the course of the 1-hour 43-minute runtime of “Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent”, the latter two chefs actually appear in the documentary.  During this film, Bourdain, Puck, Martha Stewart, and a host of knowledgeable individuals in the culinary arts heap mountains of praise on Mr. Tower, and some also clearly mention the mystery surrounding the man.

 

Director Lydia Tenaglia attempts to uncover the mystery, and she presents a film that recounts Tower’s accomplished life.   She conveys – in great detail – Tower’s biography, including the influences that stemmed from his childhood.

 

Through Tower’s his own words, he describes the treatchurous obstacles that plagued him as a kid.  Without illuminating the reasons in this review, Tower says that food became his best pal, his companion and also adds that he read menus before books.  

 

Food became a comfort (pardon the pun) to him, not in terms of gluttony, but in celebration of it.  Through Tower’s verbal recitals into the past and several photos from yesterdecade, they help chronicle his experiences growing up.  He built the foundation for his gastronomic passions from the challenges of his youth.  Eventually, this leads him to become known as a father of modern American cuisine, and this self-taught chef brought two restaurants to massive prominence in one area of the country, the Bay Area:  Chez Panisse in Berkeley during the 1970s and Stars in San Francisco during the 1980s. 

 

Both places succeeded for different reasons, but Tower made food more dramatic and built menus based upon locally-grown ingredients and the personality of the region.  The film has fun with photos from Stars’ heyday, as the restaurant’s name is truly apropos.  Musical acts like Run-D.M.C. and the Beastie Boys frequented the locale, that – inside - resembled an ocean liner from another planet, complete with an 80-foot bar.  It was a theatrical experience, and Tower was its director. 

 

Like in the movies and in life, events can appear in threes, and Tower does not escape this organic rule of the universe.  The documentary records his third act in the industry, and we see and hear his firsthand experiences as well.   Tower has a massive reservoir of culinary knowledge, and Tenaglia offers us a peak into his world in real time. Of course, pioneers who define their own directions can also be complicated, and Tower is no exception, as the film properly presents that side of him as well.

 

Tower’s visions of his craft surely appear on the big screen, but I could not exactly connect the dots from his 1970s and 1980s experiences to his influence in present-day eateries.  Experts and semi-experts of modern restaurants might unquestionably and easily know how to draw these logical lines, but to laymen (like me), it is a blind spot.   

 

Still, “Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent” successfully documents a fascinating life of a man who influenced a couple generations within the universe of the culinary arts, and after watching his film, it will probably persuade you to step inside a nice restaurant. 

(3/4 stars)

 

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

 

The Wedding Plan - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

‘The Wedding Plan’ executes very well

 

Directed and written by:  Rama Burshtein

Starring: Noa Kooler, Irit Sheleg and Oz Zehavi

 

“The Wedding Plan” – “If I get married, I want to be very married.” – Audrey Hepburn

 

Director/writer Rama Burshtein perfectly named her new film, because in “The Wedding Plan”, Michal’s (Noa Kooler) wedding is the movie’s signature event, and this character – in her 30s - has hoped for marriage her entire adult life.     

 

It’s her goal. 

 

It’s hard work, and she yearns that her search for Mr. Right will quickly end, like a “karate chop” smashing into a board. 

 

Most of all, her search is emotionally difficult, however new challenges have just begun. 

 

You see, Michal finds herself engaged to Gidi, but the unthinkable occurs. With the wedding a month away, Gidi reluctantly admits that he is not in love with her and backs out.  With a wedding planned but no groom, Michal pushes forward and trusts that God will provide a husband in time. 

 

Burshtein’s film is about marriage, not the complications of the institution, but the pursuit of it.  Through Michal, Burshtein explores the honest reasons – which I will not reveal in this review - that we search for a life partner, and her lead character leaves herself open to slights about her pursuit, that admittedly does feel desperate.  In fact, Michal freely admits despair.

 

At the same time, Michal’s feelings are justified.  They are legitimate.  Burshtein turns the camera on Kooler’s Michal, and this director and actress do not generate pity for her, but strength.  Strength through Michal’s convictions.  Burshtein deeply dives into her script, and Kooler successfully carries Michal through the fire of societal traditions that have burned her over a lifetime…and the film’s month-timeline.

 

She feels like an outcast, and throughout the picture, she absorbs repeated verbal jabs which reinforce that feeling.  More than a few call her crazy, because she is holding a wedding and hoping that a groom will magically appear, but one particular scene cuts much deeper. 

 

Michal owns a petting zoo and brings a snake for a small group of girls.  The kids are initially hesitant, but the teacher or aide instructs Michal to put the reptile away and later asks, what kind of woman would handle a snake?  This short but telling conversation highlights a symbolic gesture towards Michal.  She’s perceived as a woman who is less than. 

 

Yes, Michal is strong but also damaged by the occasional scrapes from blazing her own trail.

 

Kooler blazes her own trail too.  Working mostly in television, this is her first lead in a feature film, and the camera loves her.  Burshtein liberally frames Kooler with close-ups and places most of the scenes in close quarters. Kooler utilizes her acting gifts to convey restraint under turbulent circumstances, as we see every subtle change in sentiment while other entrenched emotions bubble to the surface.  She is wholly convincing as Michal, a woman under duress, and the picture ends and begins with her engaging performance. 

 

“The Wedding Plan” includes several supporting characters too – like Michal’s mom, sister and a small group of friends – but the film never really develops them, and they feel like random faces in a crowd.  This is Michal’s story, so it is not necessarily an issue, but I wished for more crowds.  Specifically, the film’s style is very conversational, and many scenes occur with two (or a few) characters in living rooms or an occasional dining room. Michal mentions that she lives in Jerusalem, so I was hoping to see some daytime shots, outside among crowded streets with Israeli scenery as a backdrop.  We do get one small moment on the beach at the Mediterranean Sea in the evening, but of course, for those who know Israel, Jerusalem is about an hour to the coast.

 

Burshtein’s film, however, does not coast.  It works hard delving into this self-inflicted predicament of a most determined woman.  Michal meets a highly diverse group of men along the way, and one might become her groom, or perhaps not.  While watching this picture, my hope was to see Michal grow along the way, groom or not. 

(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.