The Highwaymen - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

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Costner and Harrelson take us on a new road in ‘The Highwaymen’

 

Directed by:  John Lee Hancock

Written by:  John Fusco

Starring:  Kevin Costner and Woody Harrelson

 

“The Highwaymen” – Hollywood superstars Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty famously portrayed the infamous outlaws Bonnie and Clyde in the 1967 movie of the same name.  Fifty-two years later, two other film icons star in a very different Bonnie and Clyde picture.  John Lee Hancock’s “The Highwaymen” centers around Texas Rangers Frank Hamer and Maney Gault - played by Kevin Costner and Woody Harrelson, respectively - who chase down Bonnie and Clyde.

 

It’s 1934, and Bonnie (Emily Brobst) and Clyde (Edward Bossert) have left a soiled trail of robberies and murders in their wake.  Law enforcement is chasing ghosts, because the 20-something gangsters orchestrate numerous disappearing acts in plain sight.  After they engineer a prison break at the Eastham Prison Farm in Houston County, Texas, governor Ma Ferguson (Kathy Bates) becomes absolutely desperate for a solution, and prison chief Lee Simmons (John Carroll Lynch) recruits Frank Hamer, a retired Texas Ranger to rein in the maniacal pair. 

 

Hamer is a manhunter with 16 bullets lodged in his body after a couple decades of violent confrontations splattered on his resume, and his old friend and Ranger-partner Maney Gault joins him to help even the odds between law enforcers and law breakers.  Ferguson, meanwhile, doubts Simmons’ judgment for “putting cowboys on Bonnie and Clyde”, but these two men also question themselves during their slow-burning pursuit. 

 

Are they too old to track down these kids? 

 

Do they have enough fight left? 

 

While they chase down the aforementioned ghosts, will their past-demons undo their present?

 

These are legitimate concerns, and Hancock (“The Founder” (2016), “The Blind Side” (2009)) and screenwriter John Fusco (“Young Guns” (1988), “Hidalgo” (2004)) explore Hamer and Gault’s friendship, their wounded souls and varying abilities to manage their pain. 

 

Costner and Harrelson are perfectly cast. 

 

Costner’s Hamer compartmentalizes his past deeds.  He lives comfortably with his beautiful wife Gladys (Kim Dickens) in a large country home, but thoughts of past sins invisibly reveal themselves through his quiet demeanor and etched crow’s feet.  Still, Hamer proves that pushing forward for a better-tomorrow and sifting through a troubling-yesterday can coexist. 

 

Maney actively joined in the same lead-laden shootouts, but his coping mechanisms carry less resistance.  The toil of his former, necessary deeds has left him vulnerable to vices and the misery of inaction.  These two wounded lawmen embark on a new, dark journey, but Hancock remarked that they are like “an old married couple”, as evidenced by Frank’s objections to Maney’s singing, drinking and repeated offers to drive. 

 

Costner is so well-versed at playing accessible, “aw, shucks” heroes who cope with the past, and just look to “Tin Cup” (1996), “Open Range” (2003) and “McFarland, USA” (2015) as spot-on examples.  In turn, Harrelson can fall into troubled antagonists – like in “The Messenger” (2009), “The Glass Castle” (2017) and “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” (2017) - with the greatest of ease.

 

With all this space to develop Hamer and Gault’s working relationship along the dusty Texas, Louisiana and Oklahoma highways, the film leaves little time for Bonnie and Clyde, but that’s by design.  Hancock and Fusco portray the criminals on-the-run as a mystery, and this decision feels entirely fitting.  These stylized, submachine gun-carrying misfits have met their match with a pair of old-fashioned gunslingers from another era.  Frank and Maney are in quiet, methodical pursuit, but Bonnie and Clyde just don’t know it.  Neither did this critic.

(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 Hummingbird Project - Movie Review by Ben Cahlamer

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The Hummingbird Project

 

Written and Directed by Kim Nguyen

Starring Jesse Eisenberg, Alexander Skarsgard, Michael Mando, Salma Hayek, Sarah Goldberg

 

As a child of the late 1970’s and 1980’s my intellectual curiosity about the need to increase the speed at which we can connect with one another, has been piqued.

No. I don’t want to talk to my mom any faster than a text will allow me to do. And, yes I love her.

Even beyond the ability to connect with one another is the speed at which we can get data from one point to another. As Kim Nguyen’s “The Hummingbird Project” explores the realm of the speed at which we transact in the financial markets, I thought to myself about the prospect of “speed to market,” which is really what his story is all about.

Vincent Zaleski (Jesse Eisenberg) is a high-pressured high-stakes trader on Wall Street. His cousin, Anton (Alexander Skarsgard) is a genius when it comes to the interconnected world that I referenced a moment ago. Between the two of them, we know something’s cooking. Anton is withdrawn and unwilling to talk to anyone other than Vincent. Vincent’s high-strung nature is exactly what someone like Eva Torres (Salma Hayek).

The film is set in 2011 as the market is recovering from the 2007 meltdown. Vincent wants to do more and thinks that there is a benefit to the market by increasing the speed at which traders can transact. The cousins eventually walk away from their employer in order to build a fiber-optic cable line between Kansas and New Jersey.

As with any well-laid plan, there are pratfalls and obstacles that get in the cousins’ way. It also obfuscates Mr. Nguyen’s story.

The caliber of the cast is first rate. Mr. Eisenberg plays his role to the hilt. As much a benefit of the roles he plays, Mr. Eisenberg has an air of mischievousness about him that draws me in to the characters he plays. Mr. Skarsgard is something of an anomaly. The make-up department went in to overtime to create a neurotic paranoid look for the character. And Mr. Skarsgard, who also stars in “The Aftermath” which expands this weekend to Phoenix, plays right into the neuroses and the idisyncracies.

Not to be outdone, in either the make-up department or is Eva Torres. She reminded me a bit of Signourney Weaver’s Katharine Parker from Mike Nichols’s “Working Girl”: stilted, conniving, and winning at any cost. Ms. Hayek looks simply captivating in her platinum length hairstyle and her cunning ways.

The story, which has the heart of a comedy with the lining of a drama doesn’t always work. The characters are doing most of the heavy lifting, which under other circumstances would have landed with a resounding thud. Here, they bring the comedy to life through the constant ‘clawing’ of one another while burying the drama, which is a shame because the drama really is the heart of the film.

There’s a scene at an Amish community where Vincent is trying to obtain the right-of-way to construct the cable and they refuse. It’s one of the few dramatic moments that actually work because the story understood the need for the tension to carry the story through to the third act.

The well-intentioned ending that results falls apart because the comedy once again takes center stage. It is endearing, but doesn’t come across as strongly as the drama does.

2 out of 4 stars

Us - Movie Review by Ben Cahalmer

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Us

 

Written and Directed by Jordan Peele

Starring Lupita Nyong’o, Winston Duke, Elisabeth Moss, Tim Heidecker

 

Whatever notions you have about Jordan Peele’s ability to scare you, put them out of your mind right now. Sure, you could fall in to the easy trap that his latest film “Us” is made of the same cloth as his freshmen effort, “Get Out.”

“Us” is nothing like “Get Out,” other than there are really solid characters and a story that’s going to make you think very hard. There is nothing in Mr. Peele’s story that doesn’t have some sort of function as the story progresses.

Mr. Peele starts us out with a series of title cards that talks about a series of abandoned caves and tunnels running all throughout the United States. These title cards are important in providing you guidance. And, before we know it, they’re gone in a blink to be replaced by a TV blaring 1980’s style commercials with numerous bits of details that give us a glimpse into young Adelaide’s (Madison Curry) life at that moment.

A trip to the Santa Cruz boardwalk results in a moment of trauma for Adelaide as she is separated from her parents. Instead of  dwelling on the trauma, Peele fast forwards us to the present day. Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) is a happily married woman with two kids, Zora and Jason, along with a husband, Gabe (Winston Duke).

They have returned to Santa Cruz for a well-earned vacation. As the family settles in, we would expect some tension and Ms. Nyong’o expertly holds that tension back as best as she can, but we can feel her discomfort. Gabe isn’t helping matters as he tries to have fun. Interestingly, both Jason and Zora seem very detached as they also settle in.

Mr. Peele layers in a number of idiosyncratic details, not to derail us, but to heighten the tension. And it works. Gabe is off having his fun (it kind of reminded me when I act like a fool, but I digress), the kids are off their own little world and when they catch up with the Tylers at the beach, Kitty (Elisabeth Moss) is a typical elitist trophy wife. She and Adelaide get along, despite Adelaide’s distance. She finally breaks her silence while Josh (Tim Heidecker) really gets along with Gabe like two peas in a pod.

All of this leads up to the eventual arrival of nearly exacting duplicates of the Wilsons.  After what looks like a standoff at the OK Corral, the duplicates take the Wilsons into their home and Mr. Peele uses these moments for Red, also played by Ms. Nyong’o, to explain why they are present in that moment.

It is as the explanation unfolds, that we are treated to Adelaide’s reaction as a child following her brief disappearance that night on the boardwalk. Mr. Peele achieves two objectives: he sets us up for the second act and he reinforces the tension of what is about to unfold. Each of the cast pulls double duty and because the characters are so wildly different, it only adds to the creepiness and the tension.

There are many highlights to Mr. Peele’s sophomore effort. He is a magician in a very good way. He is part Hitchcock: we get the set ups and the right angles to convince us that we’re seeing something completely different than what’s actually being shown, building the tension. Mr. Peele is also part Rod Serling. These two traits are not unlike what he presented us in “Get Out.”

It is the third trait that he folds into his fray in “Us,” that of Chris Carter. I liked the elements Mr. Peele brings with this aspect of his pallet. However, his paint brush was probably just a bit too fine because the three elements don’t always work together as much as the tension and the technical side of Mr. Peele’s talents would have us believe and boy do I believe!

Much like M. Night Shyamalan’s “Glass” from this past January there are numerous elements in “Us” that just don’t quite gel together. That’s not to say that we aren’t terrified and horrified and very much wowed by the talent he does display.

There’s a moment where Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake” plays to a beautifully choreographed dance routine. It is elegiac; it is pure beauty inside of a horrific situation. It is refined in a situation that unravels very quickly. And behind it all is Ms. Nyong’o, full of grace and dignity, adding a level of horror within her performance.

Mr. Peele has shown us the door to a horror that I don’t think any of us could quite possibly have imagined. His paint brush was probably just a bit too ambitious for this particular story, but the acting and the technical craftsmanship on display in “Us” is by far some of the strongest I’ve seen this year.

3 out of 4 stars

An interview with “The Highwaymen” director John Lee Hancock and writer John Fusco by Jeff Mitchell

An interview with “The Highwaymen” director John Lee Hancock and writer John Fusco

  

Over numerous decades, historians and filmmakers have documented Bonnie and Clyde’s story in papers, books, television, and movies.   Arthur Penn’s 1967 film “Bonnie and Clyde” is the most recognized, as it won two Oscars and garnered an additional eight nominations.  Obviously, the film centered on the wayward criminals noted in the title, but in 2019, director John Lee Hancock’s and writer John Fusco’s Bonnie and Clyde movie carries a different focus. 

 

“The Highwaymen” is the story of Texas Rangers Frank Hamer and Maney Gault who came out of retirement and chased down the said gangsters.  Hollywood superstars Kevin Costner and Woody Harrelson play Hamer and Gault, respectively.  

 

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John Lee and John flew into Phoenix and introduced a screening of “The Highwaymen” and participated in a fun and informative Q&A with a grateful Harkins Camelview at Fashion Square audience.  In addition, John Lee and John sat down with the Phoenix Film Festival and other movie outlets for an equally fun and informative group interview, and they talked about their inspirations to make this film, Bonnie and Clyde’s popularity during the Depression and much, much more.

 

“The Highwaymen” arrives in select theatres around the country on Friday, March 22 and on Netflix on Friday, March 29. 

 

 

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Q:  Your Bonnie and Clyde film focuses on the two men – Frank Hamer and Maney Gault - who tracked them down.  What inspired you to share their story?

 

JF:  I grew up with a real fascination with outlaws and gangsters.  So, when the 1967 Arthur Penn movie came out, I was in my pajamas at the drive-in with my mother and father.  It just continued to fuel my fascination with Bonnie and Clyde, and I wanted to know everything I could about them after that movie. 

 

I had these books, and my mother didn’t want me to have them, because they had graphic crime scene photos.  I was obsessed, but as I started researching, I realized that (Bonnie and Clyde) weren’t Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty. 

 

They killed a lot of people, left a lot of victims and destroyed a lot of lives during the Depression.  Along with that, the portrayal of Frank Hamer was so far off the mark, it was troubling to me as a young person.  I started researching Hamer and his life.  He didn’t kill (Bonnie and Clyde), because of some vendetta.  In actuality, he was one of the greatest law officers of the 20th century, who single-handedly took on the KKK and exemplified the “One Riot, One Ranger” ethos.  (He) was a really cool western hero to me as a kid.  Suddenly, here I was, going from gangster worship to (thinking) that Hamer got a bad deal in this.  So, I grew up waiting for someone to do his story on some level, and it never happened.  

 

(Writing this screenplay) had nothing to do with an answer to Arthur Penn’s movie, which I have to say, I recognize as a watershed film (and) a cultural touchstone.  I’m part of that filmmaking generation who was inspired by (it).  There’s no denying it, but I just felt like the story (of) two Texas Rangers coming out of retirement to enter the gangster era is a really cool western.  An elegiac, ride-the-high-country type of story.

 

JLH:  I’m a huge fan of the ’67 film, and I watch it all the time.  I was reading John’s script, and it wasn’t so much the Bonnie and Clyde (story) for me.  I was really drawn to the dark journey of these two men who have a terrible gift.  They are blood hunters, and they know it’s going to be ugly, and they know what it’s going to look like, and what’s at the end of the road waiting for them. 

 

There's no one who they can talk to but each other, almost like veterans of battle or something.  These two guys together drew me in, and I looked at (this movie) as – if anything - a companion piece to “Bonnie and Clyde”.

 

 

Q:  John Lee, I believe you said that Frank and Maney were like an old married couple.  Was it more important to show their friendship or working relationship in the film? 

 

JLH:  I am hopeful when you see these guys together in the car - with the rapport and the dialogue that John has written - that we (will) understand the legacy of their friendship.  Just the fact that Frank drove all the way to Lubbock to see if Maney might be up for the job speaks to that.  Hopefully, you can (see) them on the road (together), and that would be inherent. 

 

 

Q:  Did you purposely have Hamer wave at an FBI plane, because Hoover only got involved when an operation was successful?

 

JF:  Yes, that was my intention in the script.  Hoover really resented Frank Hamer, (but) other FBI agents on the ground recognized that (Hamer) was a real pro out there.  Hoover resented him and resented the fact that for two years, he couldn’t get (Bonnie and Clyde), and (then Hamer) goes out using Camanche tracking skills and (catches) them.  Hoover didn’t like Hamer.

 

 

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Q:  The film is set during the Depression, and a lot of Americans saw Bonnie and Clyde as hitting back at the establishment who has been screwing them over.  What were you trying to convey by showing the poverty of the era, while also demonstrating the horrible crimes that Bonnie and Clyde committed?

 

JLH:  Bonnie and Clyde were given a little bit of a pass, because (the) hatred was so great for the banks.  That was the overriding feeling.  The farms, the stores and your houses…the banks are taking them all.   Everybody is hurting.  They wanted Bonnie and Clyde to be Robin Hood.  Even though they are taking from the rich, they are not giving to the poor.  They are just “robin’”, not Robin Hood. 

 

You need a hero, when you are in that deep, dark place.  You want a hero, and you want somebody who (will) strike out at The Man.  I think in some ways, there’s a little of (that in) Penn’s movie too, in terms of the 60s and the Vietnam War.    

 

JF:  I think the lovers-on-the-run element really appealed to people.  Bonnie and Clyde played into it.  They were acting out a sick fantasy to be movie stars.  Bonnie wanted to be a Broadway star, and Clyde wanted to be a famous musician.  It was almost like (they thought), “If we can’t be famous, we’re going to be notorious.” 

 

They were very aware.  John Lee has said (that) they were branding before branding. If they had Instagram-

 

JLH:  -they would have a lot of followers.  (John Lee turns to John) I love when you talk about why Bonnie and Clyde were in the press because of the Depression. 

 

JF:  Newspaper circulation was plummeting during the Depression.  Newspapers were going under.  People did not want to read about depressing, economic news.  They were interested in three things: sports heroes, movie stars and flashy gangsters, and that’s what was getting the ink, and Bonnie and Clyde really played into that. 

 

Bonnie always referred to her public.  “I don’t want my public to think that I smoke cigars, so please let them know that I just took Clyde’s cigar, and I was posing for the shot, but I only smoke Camels.”

 

 

Q:  Can you talk about the decision to refrain from showing Bonnie and Clyde’s faces for most of the film?  The result is a big visual impact. 

 

JLH:  It’s two-fold.  (One,) it was in the script.  John (wrote the screenplay) in such a way that you never quite got (a) look at Bonnie and Clyde that you (would want). 

 

(Two,) when I came on board, I thought this was an exciting opportunity to have two very different visual styles at play that meet up at the ambush site.  I wanted to shoot it like a graphic novel.  I wanted all the stuff with Bonnie and Clyde to be highly-stylized frames with amazing, beautiful poppy clothes and shiny cars.  I wanted it to look fast.  I wanted it to look sexy, and when Bonnie and Clyde enter the naturalistic part (or style) of the movie, (we see that) they are (just) scrawny kids.  

 

 

John Lee and John talk more about Frank and Maney…

 

JLH:  Do Frank and Maney come to the story without flaws, without demons (and) without their own “stuff”?  No, they don’t.  They are not perfect human beings, and I think that’s part of the journey.  The stuff that they regret.  

 

JF:  For two years, Bonnie and Clyde were out there killing.  When the law tried to do legal roadblocks to get them to surrender, officers were killed.  Hoover and a one-thousand-man dragnet were not able to catch them for two years.  It got to the point where “we” (have) to go into a dark place and bring out two guys who come from another era, the old-time ranger school. 

 

JLH:  I think that Frank Hamer took on (this) job, (because Bonnie and Clyde) galled him.  (Bonnie and Clyde) were more than small-town heroes.  They were national heroes and (were featured) in (the) international press, so I think it galled him that they were (becoming) famous for things that they should (have been) ashamed of.  Maybe that’s an old-fashioned sense of right and wrong, but I think that’s who Frank Hamer was. 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Climax - Movie Review by Monte Yazzie

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Climax

 

Director: Gaspar Noé

Starring: Sofia Boutella, Romain Guillermic, Souheila Yacoub, Kiddy Smile, Claude-Emmanuelle Gajan-Maull, Giselle Palmer, Taylor Kastle, Thea Carla Schott, Sharleen Temple

 

International auteur Gaspar Noé makes films that are challenging, creative, chaotic, uncompromising, distressing, and flawed. It’s the unbridled ambition and meticulous detail that the filmmaker delivers towards the technique and craft of filmmaking that makes his cinematic work compelling and frustrating in all the best and worst ways possible. And still, even with the polarizing outcomes, Gaspar Noé is a filmmaker that commands attention of films fans.

 

“Climax” is the provocateur’s newest and most accessible film of his entire diverse catalog. For those new to the director’s work, this will be a great introduction, and warning, before deciding to move forward with films like “Enter the Void” and the still completely affecting “Irreversible”.

 

A French dance ensemble gathers on a wintry night in an old and empty school building to rehearse. The diverse group of dancers, each of whom seem to possess their own unique style of physical rhythm, twist, sway, stomp, and gyrate in a communion of sweaty style and synchronization. After a successful session, the group settles in, begin to play music, share gossip about one another, and drink strong sangria. What the group is unaware of is that their drinks have been laced with LSD. Madness ensues.

 

In the beginning moments of “Climax” a bloodied woman crawls across a snowy landscape, the perspective is focused overhead, looking down on her body. Very soon after this scene the film’s end credits role, displaying all the people who, hypothetically, crawled across the ground bloodied and bruised in an effort to craft this film. Call it commentary on the state of the artistic process or how viewers of art treat the material or something deeper into the history of French art, however you identify this, it is without a doubt the director trying to say something to the audience.

 

The social commentary, which is often communicated through the violence and mayhem that exists in Noé’s work, is focused very clearly throughout “Climax”, which is part of the reason why this film is so accessible. And for a film that revels in showcasing the disgusting and destructive nature of humanity, with someone being burned alive while laughter ensues from the responsible party, to a pregnant woman being beaten by another woman, it’s not hard to guess what Gaspar Noé’s other films may have in tow for viewers.

 

Early in the film an old tube television is positioned within frame, personal interviews with the dance troupe answering questions about the dance process, ambition, and fears roll one right after the other. Surrounding the television are VHS films like Pasolini’s “Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom”, Argento’s “Suspiria”, and Żuławski’s “Possession” and books like Luis Buñuel’s autobiography “Mon Dernier Soupir”, these are the inspirations Noé was using for specific scenes or themes. Heavy inspirational ground for a heavily thematic film that features two over 15-minute-long single shot takes and a breathtaking dance number that never seems to end and yet never gets boring.

 

It’s this meticulous and calculated process that marks “Climax” as something special, even with its obvious errors which are easy to identify. Still, in the current cinematic world that is riddled with films trying to establish franchises and fit into the landscape of what everything else looks like, it’s nice to see a filmmaker introduce and indulge in complete stylistic chaos for 97 minutes.

 

Monte’s Rating

4.00 out of 5.00

Transit - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

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Don’t let Petzold’s ‘Transit’ pass you by

 

Written and directed by:  Christian Petzold

Starring:  Franz Rogowski and Paula Beer

 

“Transit” – According to Google, the definition of transit is an act of passing through or across a place.  That seems simple enough, but there is nothing straightforward about writer/director Christian Petzold’s (“Barbara” (2012), “Phoenix” (2014)) latest film “Transit”, a delicious and surreal puzzler that begins two moves ahead of the audience, and we need to play catch-up for most of the 101-minute runtime. 

 

Georg (Franz Rogowski) lives in Paris, but the city seems to be caught in a newly-formed police state or declaration of martial law.  In fact, some on-screen events - and certain moments of dialogue – point towards a WWII Nazi invasion, but the surrounding environment implies a 2019 timeframe.  With intimidating law enforcement aggressively scouring the streets, Georg needs to quickly flee the city and country, but not before his friend Paul (Sebastian Hulk) asks him to deliver two letters to a writer named Weidel, who is hiding in a nearby hotel. 

 

This begins Georg’s journey to the seaside city of Marseille. 

 

Petzold’s characters swim in his purposely and exceptionally cloudy narrative under the bright, sunny skies in the south of France, as Georg is caught in the desperate times of the period, well, whichever one (1942 or 2019) it might be.  At the moment, Marseille is saturated with an abundance of refugees, but tickets to better futures are as scarce as a Willy Wonka golden ticket. 

 

Meanwhile, Georg falls into a case of mistaken identity and repeatedly runs into a mysterious woman (Paula Beer) who sports “an elegant coat and smart shoes.”  She randomly appears in Georg’s life for a few seconds at a time and then – just as hastily - scurries away. 

 

As the story gently unfolds, both lead and supporting characters make false assumptions.  Secrets become increasingly valuable, but also more detrimental if they are revealed.  Georg reveals his resourceful nature out of a need to survive.  His unassuming persona and everyman look combined with swift thinking (through prudent choices of words after several seconds of blank stares and silence) make him a perfect conduit to open figurative doors that are closed to vast numbers of others who line up at consulates or hide in modest hotel rooms and apartments around town. 

 

One of these “others” is the aforementioned mysterious woman with the noticeable clothing and striking beauty, and her brief encounters – via coincidences and circumstances - with Georg eventually help engineer clarity to this intricate cinematic enigma.  Not unlike Petzold’s “Phoenix” (2014) – a film about blurred identities after WWII - he wraps this movie in a dreamlike ambiance of tipsy dystopia.  In order to rightly experience “Transit”, it is not important to actively investigate your questions.  Instead, just let the narrative run through you, so its rewards won’t pass you by.

(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..

Gloria Bell - Movie Review by Ben Cahlamer

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Gloria Bell

 

Directed by Sebastian Lelio

Screenplay by Alice Johnson Boher and Sebastian Lelio, Story by Sebastian Lelio

Starring Julianne Moore, John Turturro, Michael Cera, Caren Pistorius, Brad Garrett, Jeanne Tripplehorn, Sean Astin, Holland Taylor

 

There is a moment in 2015’s “Freeheld” in which Julianne Moore turns to her police partner Dane Wells (Michael Shannon) in which she breaks down, unable to deal with the terminal cancer diagnosis she faces. It was in that film that I recognized Ms. Moore’s ability to transform herself into a character that I cared for and about; I wanted to see more of her range.

In the reimagining of his own film, “Gloria,” Sebastian Lelio’s story affords us the opportunity to, once again, see Ms. Moore stretch beyond her boundaries as an actress, to transcend the screen. Not having seen Mr. Lelio’s original film from 2013, I cannot and will not attempt to compare the two films.

What I found exceptionally refreshing about Ms. Moore’s performance here was the range of freedom she expressed in the titular character of Gloria Bell. Gloria Bell is a divorced middle aged woman living in Los Angeles. We find her reserved in her ways, shy about putting herself out there to find another mate. She has friends and co-workers that she spends time with.

Her family life is also, well, let’s just say that it “is.” We also know that she dotes on her children, even though they are not receptive to said doting. She gets advice from her amazing mother, played by Holland Taylor.

And then she meets Arnold (John Turturro) in a club one night. The club scene is a signature Lelio moment. There was a vibrancy about the way Gloria and Arnold meet: it’s very tender and romantic while remaining convincing that there is a genuine spark between the two. Mr. Turturro plays his role with a twinkle in his eye. We know he’s looking, but we also know he’s not completely available, while Ms. Moore gives us the full package: “I’m here, I’m going to dance the night away (no, sorry that’s not an in-film reference to the Van Halen song) and I am going to release every inhibition I have away because it is here where I feel the most freedom.”

And yet, when Ms. Moore gives us her vibrant uninhibited best, it still manages to remain reserved because we know there is more to her than just a club dance. When we finally get to meet the rest of Gloria’s family, including her ex, Dustin (played with great humor by Brad Garrett) and his new wife (played by Jeanne Tripplehorn).

There is familial tension between Gloria and her children, especially with her son, Peter, who is going through his own marital problems. Lelio really pushed to establish the generational overburdening parents put on their children and the effects it has on future offspring. The other angle Lelio pushes is the way Dustin and Gloria are still into each other.

Unfortunately this storytelling decision made Gloria’s relationship with Arnold seem less important in the middle of the film, even though Mr. Lelio goes to lengths to keep us interested. It is Ms. Moore’s acting that really sells what would have been a much weaker character in another actresses’ hands.

Where the script sags in the middle, it picks up once again in the third act with a few twists that I really appreciated, again compliments of Ms. Moore’s performance. Mr. Lelio and Ms. Boher’s script really brings the character of Gloria Bell to life in a way that I hadn’t expected. And, even as she falls down, Gloria picks herself up by the bootstraps and ends the film on a very high note.

The film makes use of pop tunes that were at times a bit too on-the-nose, but they are nonetheless appreciated because they help carry the story and they complement Ms. Moore’s performance in a way that captures the vibrancy and immediacy that those moments in Gloria Bell’s life.

3 out of 4 stars

Wonder Park - Movie Review by Ben Cahlamer

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Wonder Park

 

Directed by David Feiss, Clare Kilner and Robert Iscove

Screenplay by Josh Appelbaum and Andre Nemec

Story by Robert Gordon, Josh Appelbaum and Andre Nemec

Featuring Jennifer Garner, Ken Hudson Campbell, Kenan Thompson, Matthew Broderick, Mila Kunis, John Oliver, Ken Jeong, Norbert Leo Butz, Brianna Denski

 

As a youngster, I wanted nothing more than to make my dreams a reality. No, I’m not talking about writing film reviews or being a hotel manager. No, I dreamt of making a waterfall work that I saw in a television show. I always said to my mom: “hey, look!  So and so made this work. Can we try it?” My mom of course knew better (whose mom didn’t, right?)

But, I always kept it in the back of my mind that I could be the creative, crafty one, even though I inevitably colored outside the lines. It goes without saying that I never got around to making my own “Wonder Park,” the center of the animated feature that hits screens this weekend.

It wasn’t for a lack of trying, that I can assure you.

No, I was not as lucky as June, voiced by Brianna Denski in her debut role. Nor as talented. Of course, even though my mom was great, June has to settle for Jennifer Garner (could you go wrong with a voice like that!?) and a dad that sounded a lot like Matthew Broderick. As a young girl, armed with a grand imagination, she worked to build Wonder Park, a place where things can be created in an instant.

Through Peanut, a chimpanzee and Wonderland’s chief mascot, June’s imagination soared. In a wonderful opening sequence, June reimagines her Wonderland with her friend Banky (voiced by Oev Michael Urbas). The script makes very little bones about the fact that Banky has a crush on June, something she ignores. Of course, on their first attempt on their recreated ride results in disaster, but it was fun for us to see the imagination come to fruition even if I had a painful reminder of the number of times I thought I could do something when it was far beyond my own, singular ability to accomplish.

And, that’s one of the life lessons that “Wonder Park” gets right. It’s not a singular effort, even though the story spends a lot of its precious time pretending that June would rather be on her own.

June eventually gives up on keeping Wonderland alive, putting away her childish things. It isn’t until her mom falls ill and she tries to be an adult, that she realizes how much her imagination still plays a vital role in her life.

The screenplay by Josh Appelbaum and Andre Nemec really drive that point home, a la “Swiss Family Robinson” style, and by accident, June realizes that by running away from the best parts of ourselves is really an affirmation of their importance in who we are.

There is a vibrancy in the animation that makes up the dilapidated Wonderworld. This, after June falls in to it unexpected. She runs in to the rest of her pals, Gus, Cooper, Boomer, Greta and Steve. They are each an extension of her mind, safety catches if you will. There is distrust and there is a need for teamwork to rescue Peanut who is at the behest of a great nothing which has swept over the Wonderland.

The story really reflects, perhaps a bit too accurately, on that which ails June’s life. This is a downfall of the film – rather than being a natural extension of her struggles, the story relies too heavily on the escape paralleling her journey.

“Wonder Park” has its moments though: building on imagination, we realize that our own inner child is where we can find the best of ourselves. But relying on it requires team work. The story doesn’t always work, but the animation is stunning and the characters are easy to fall in love with.

2 out of 4 stars.

The Wedding Guest - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

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‘The Wedding Guest’ might serve as a satisfying ‘I do’ or a disappointing ‘I don’t’

 

Written and directed by: Michael Winterbottom

Starring:  Dev Patel and Radhika Apte

 

“The Wedding Guest” – When approaching a cineplex ticket window, looking up at the selections and times, seeing “The Wedding Guest” starting in 20 minutes, and plunking down 21 dollars for two tickets on a Saturday evening, one has certain expectations for the movie experience. 

 

Take any recent film with wedding in the title.  “Wedding Crashers” (2005), “My Best Friend’s Wedding” (1997), “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” (2002), and “The Wedding Plan” (2016) all have weddings as their central themes, and heck, “Four Weddings and a Funeral” (1994) has – at last count - multiple said instances.    

 

Be warned, this is not, not, not the case with “The Wedding Guest” starring Dev Patel and Radhika Apte.  Instead, writer/director Michael Winterbottom’s picture is a slow-burning thriller, and pubic vows of love, a best man speech and a first dance are nowhere to be found.

 

To be fair, Jay (Patel) does step foot into a home after a wedding reception, but he was never invited to the event.  He is an intruder on a covert mission, and the shifty, edgy score clues us into his intentions from the opening credits to the actual home invasion.  Twenty-something Samira (Apte) is his target. 

 

In a recent interview, Apte describes the movie and says, “It’s about two strangers who meet,” but Patel cuts her off and interjects, “and things happen.”

 

Quite frankly, that perfectly describes the film’s premise.

 

Winterbottom directed “The Trip” series with Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, and his comedies are aptly named. 

 

Here, the actors, the crew and he spend time on the road in Pakistan and India.  Jay and Samira travel in secret, make vital phone calls and play the waiting game, and although their journey is not completely filled with danger, it is littered with complications. 

 

Now, the movie is not littered with problems, but it has pacing issues, despite a runtime of only 94 minutes. 

 

Jay’s motivations are spinning mysteries during the film’s first 30 minutes, but soon after, astute moviegoers might surmise the picture’s ultimate ending.  In other words, the surprises are revealed in the first act, but the second and third fall into routine, even with beautiful locales, a lovely score and strong performances by Patel and Apte. 

 

Patel completely embraces his weapon-carrying, singularly-focused, supremely-capable character in an on-screen role that we have not previously seen from him.  Despite Jay’s strict attention to his hazardous and morally-flawed task at hand, he carries a righteous core, but one wounded by money and shaded due to his dodgy profession.  For Samira, her drive originates from her lack of presentable life-choices, which are unfortunately and directly related to her gender. 

 

Even with gunplay, shrouds of secrecy and changing roles between chaser and chasee, an oppressive patriarchy - that surrounds Samira and millions and millions of other women - emerges as a central theme.  Winterbottom’s film is not an amusing, cinematic dance into matrimony.  It’s a confrontation against the spirit of it, at least when one half of a two-person party is not a willing participant.  So, depending upon your expectations, “The Wedding Guest” might serve as a satisfying I do or a disappointing I don’t.

(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.

Captain Marvel - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

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‘Captain Marvel’ is a fun, milestone Marvel film that you won’t easily forget

 

Directed by:  Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck

Written by:  Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck and Geneva Robertson-Dworet

Starring:  Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson, Ben Mendelsohn, Jude Law, and Annette Bening,

 

“Captain Marvel” – How proficient is your memory?  Do you need to pause and seriously flip through your synaptic Rolodex, when someone asks, “What did you do last weekend?” 

 

Sure, that’s a temporary, problematic moment during a water cooler stop, but vast numbers of souls suffer from far worse recollection problems.  

 

Movie studios do not shy away the subject.  Some movies deal with the devastating effects of Alzheimer’s or dementia, and “Lovely, Still” (2008), “Amour” (2012), “Still Alice” (2014), and “Remember” (2015) are some recent, effective entries.  Other films, like “RoboCop” (1987), “Total Recall” (1990), “Memento” (2000), and “Finding Dory” (2016), cope with different forms of memory loss and wrap them in action/adventure stories. 

 

Marvel Studios is in the business of action/adventure wonders, and their new big screen entry’s central premise dives head-first into the topic.  In directors Anna Boden’s and Ryan Fleck’s celestial and Earth-bound film “Captain Marvel”, our lead protagonist is a cosmic fighter who can only remember the last six years of her life.  Vers (Brie Larson) is a Kree soldier on an elite team - led by Yon-Rogg (Jude Law) - whose motto is “Serve well with honor.”

 

The Kree are fighting a war with their sworn enemy the Skrulls, a race of green-skinned shapeshifters who can take the physical form of anyone.  A Skrull just has to see an individual, and then, boom, he or she becomes an instant doppelgänger, down to the DNA and recent memories of the person in question.  Well, if you are best friends with a Skrull, perhaps he or she can cover for you at the office on Mondays, Wednesdays and every other Friday?  Hey, you never know until you ask, right?

 

Anyway, Vers lives on the Kree homeworld of Hala, but she inadvertently returns to C-53 (otherwise known as Earth), and it appears that this warrior - who dons a green latex bodysuit and fires laser blasts from her hands – had a life on our planet, but she cannot remember it.  On her trek through Los Angeles, Vers causes quite a stir, so S.H.E.I.L.D. agent Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) arrives on the scene, and before you can say “Hey, Fury has two eyes”, they partner up, while she chases down Skrulls, waits for her fellow Kree soldiers and looks for clues to her unknown past.

 

Fury has two eyes, because this film is set in 1995, and he has not yet lost his left one.  Movie fans first saw Jackson’s Fury in the “Iron Man” (2008) post-credit scene, and yes, he wore a black patch over his left eye. 

 

Boden, Fleck and co-writer Geneva Robertson-Dworet have fun placing buckets and buckets of 90s references into their script, including some laugh-out-loud moments of dated technology and fond memories of the decade’s alternative rock scene, unless Elastica’s “Connection” is not your thing. 

 

Larson and Jackson clearly enjoy their on-screen banter during a comedic and action-filled road trip, but the film balances comic book whimsy of spaceships, laser blasts and alien races with the clear and notable realization that this is the first female-led solo film of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) beginning in 2008.  (Note, that Jennifer Garner starred in “Elektra” in 2005, but that movie is not connected to this MCU run.)   

 

The positive, encouraging message of standing up after being literally, figuratively and repeatedly knocked down is a universal one - no matter one’s age, shape or sex - but with a female superhero as the lead, Boden and Fleck make fitting and satisfying choices to celebrate women.  Larson shines in the role, as Vers is determined, fierce and carries a quick wit, but she is also vulnerable due to her uncertain past.  Not quite realizing her gifts and complete identity, Vers - through most of the film - is purposely raw and unrefined, but in an origin story, the hero usually has to find his or her way.  Here, Vers has to actually remember herself.

 

Most likely, you’ll find yourself enjoying this spectacular superhero’s self-discovery, and comic book movie fans will embrace the film’s surprising connections to the MCU.   Speaking of connections, Law, Annette Bening and Ben Mendelsohn (who is one of this critic’s very favorite actors working today, and who also starred in Boden’s and Fleck’s fabulous gambling picture “Mississippi Grind” (2015)) wonderfully fit as vastly important supporting characters in “Captain Marvel”, Larson’s big screen trip that you won’t easily forget.

(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.

 

Ruben Brandt Collector - Movie Review by Ben Cahlamer

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Ruben Brandt Collector

 

Directed by Milorad Krstic

Story by Milorad Krstic, Screenplay by Milorad Krstic and Radmila Roczkov

Starring Ivan Kamaras, Gabriella Hamori, Zalan Makranczi, Csaba Marton

 

I went into Milorad Krstic’s “Ruben Brandt, Collector” knowing nothing, other than the title was captivating. To my surprise, as the film started I realized that it was an animated film. But, that shouldn’t stop you from appreciating the piece of art that it is.

The art isn’t within the animation, and as a matter of fact, the animation is the perfect vessel for a story such as this. You might be inclined to think of the title as something that might fit an espionage story.

That’s partially true, but it isn’t the entire story.

Ruben Brandt (voiced by Ivan Kamaras) is a psychoanalyst treating patients at his isolated clinic, itself a work of art. The calm and serene environment would be just the perfect place for a talented individual like Ruben Brandt to help get other people’s souls pieced back together.

But, Ruben Brandt is a troubled, and perhaps more aptly, a tormented soul himself as he experiences nightmare after nightmare involving priceless works of art.

Krstic breaks each of Ruben’s nightmares into vignettes, increasing their impact on us. As these vignettes progress, each gets more and more thrilling and daring. But it also does an exceptional job of hiding the parallel story, that of the voluptuous Mimi (voiced by Gabriella Hamori) and an ongoing investigation by P.I. Mike Kowalski (voiced by Makranczi Zalan).

Every movement, every character, every piece of art has a function within the screenplay by director Krstic and Ramila Roczkov. And that is part of this film’s challenge as well. While it is beautiful to look at, once the reveal is made, the story becomes something we’ve seen many times over.

What saves the film from being overly generic are the characters and especially the animation. Each character, from Mimi to Mike Kowalski to Ruben’s patients, Bye-Bye Joe, Membrano Bruno and Fernando, the characters lend an authenticity to the heist themes as well as the noirish look and feel.

Then there’s the art, too.  Renoir, Gauguin, Van Gough, Picasso, Manet and even, yes, Warhol are featured in the film. Subliminally, the inclusion of these pieces and their manipulation remind us that the beauty, or the danger, in art are in the eyes of the beholder.

Though there are homages to “Rififi,” my bar is John McTiernan’s 1999 remake of “The Thomas Crown Affair”. These two references should give you a general idea of Ruben’s state of mind and the type of story that Krstic and Roczkov were trying to tell.

Mike Kowalski and his assistant, Marina lend a “Maltese Falcon” type noir element to the story. Mike’s investigation puts a human spotlight on the situations that plague Brandt, and to an extent all of us.

Now in theaters, the innovating strokes of “Ruben Brandt, Collector’s” brush will shock you and make you laugh. But it should also make you see the inner beauty of everyone on this planet.

3.5 out 4

Apollo 11 - Movie Review by Ben Cahlamer

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Apollo 11

 

Directed by Todd Douglas Miller

 

One of the many aspects of living in Arizona is that we are blessed with clear skies at night. Depending on where you live, you should have an unobstructed view of the starry sky. The moon, when it’s full will rise in the eastern sky, shrinking as its orbit around the Earth rises from my vantage point.

I often look up at the sky and wonder, “when are we going to go back?”

If I sound a little bit like Tom Hanks’s Jim Lovell from “Apollo 13,” it’s because he has asked such an important question: when will man get to rise above the confines of our little blue-green sphere and face the next challenge.

Todd Douglas Miller’s documentary, “Apollo 11” aims to answer some of that question by taking us back to a time when our astronauts flew by the seat of their pants, when the general public was interested in such things. Part of it was the political situation of the late 1960’s: Vietnam, Watergate, the Cold War. For Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Buzz Aldrin, the world’s attention was focused on their efforts beginning July 16, 1969. That was the day NASA launched Apollo 11 with the goal of putting a man on the moon.

Miller’s documentary took the original 35mm and 70mm film elements from the crew, the NASA team and private collections as well and painstakingly cleaned the image up. What follows is a linear recreation of the launch, the transition between earth and moon, the landing and the return trip, which occurred over eight days.

I had the opportunity to see the film in IMAX, which opens today for a one-week engagement. As much as I was in awe of the images and the natural dialog between Mission Control and the crew, the flow of the documentary was seamless as if I was watching a recreation of the events rather than the preserved footage, it is that powerful.

The key to the documentary though is in the power of Miller’s award-winning editing. The film, which Neon acquired in 2018 and premiered at Sundance in January, will be of interested to fans of the space program, historians, film buffs and anyone with a general curiosity.

There’s something else about “Apollo 11” that makes the film even more special: you’re allowed to watch the events unfold naturally. What I mean by that is Miller takes the time to explain the technical terms, or who the players are; I never felt talked down to by the narrative.

I learned something as well, but that’s for you to discover.

I am going to be one of “those critics,” and fold Damien Chazelle’s “First Man” into this review. There are a couple of reasons for doing this, but the most important reason is that I now have a better understand the importance of Chazelle’s ending. I was just watching a now classic science fiction film, “DeepStar Six” the other night and, while that film really has nothing to do with these two films, it shows the effects of decompression from underwater. “Apollo 11” really offers great insight into the physiology of oxygenation of the blood because the atmosphere for the astronauts’ changes compared to being on earth. “DeepStar Six” explored the same theories.

“Apollo 11” is as educational as it is fascinating. The technical quality to the visual and audio aspects of the presentation really helped to put you in the mood. Matt Morton’s score for this film was created using instruments that would have only been available in 1969. It evokes tension in the right spots (maybe I’m overly sensitive) as well as bringing levity to the moments where we get to experience what it was actually like to see the country come together in support of something positive.

If I could offer a suggestion: firstly, see “Apollo 11”, secondly, stick through the end credits. Miller does something really amazing with the title card that, if you’re not paying attention will catch you off guard. More importantly, stay through all the credits. I’m not telling you this because I’m a credit snob (I really am, but that’s not important now.)

Miller closes his documentary with an important message that rallied the citizens behind one cause: something to capture our imaginations. Our spirit. Our kinship with one another. As I started out, I relish in the opportunity to look up in to the night sky and ask “when are we going forward?”

3.75 out of 4

Greta - Movie Review by Monte Yazzie

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Greta

 

Director: Neil Jordan

Starring: Chloë Grace Moretz, Isabelle Huppert, Maika Monroe, Zawe Ashton, and Colm Feore

 

“No act of kindness, however small, is ever wasted,” an excerpt from an Aesop fable.

 

Aesop’s words and fables have illustrated numerous, valuable life lessons humanity can still learn from today. Though, considering just how terrible humanity can be to one another, it’s easy to remember moments in life when you may have been too nice to someone else, and had that act of kindness taken advantage of.

 

Director Neil Jordan crafts his own wicked fable with the film “Greta,” a story that deals with aspects of obsession and compulsion conveyed upon a young woman played by, Chloë Grace Moretz, who was trying to simply live by Aesop’s rule of kindness.

 

The unhinged predator in pursuit is none other than Academy Award winning actress Isabelle Huppert doing her best “big bad wolf” performance.

 

Frances (Chloë Grace Moretz) is a small town girl living in the big city, working as a waitress in a fine dining restaurant. She lives in a modern style loft with her best friend Erica (Maika Monroe), wandering around the city with wide eyed amusement, and travels on the subway to get to work.

 

Frances is clearly trying to separate herself from the past but is doing her best to live a happy life in the present. On a trip home on the subway Frances finds a purse left behind, she searches it and finds an address that leads her to a lonely older woman named Greta (Isabelle Huppert).

 

Frances develops a connection with Greta, they play the piano and look at dogs to adopt, and the two quickly become friends. But Greta has a secret and when Frances discovers it their relationship quickly changes.

 

Stories of obsession are common in cinema; whether a young man’s obsession with his dead mother from “Psycho,” or a woman’s obsession with a married man in “Fatal Attraction,” or a deranged Hobbit’s obsession with a golden ring in “Lord of the Rings.”

 

Obsession can make for intriguing tales that display the lengths that humanity will go to capture the person, place or thing they value so greatly.

 

“Greta” at its narrative core is composed around the aspect of obsession, turning a story that straddles the line between being a cat-and-mouse thriller and a straight up survival horror film.

 

It’s unfortunate that the film never makes a clear choice of what it wants to be, but instead fumbles about with some great actors doing their best with a story that never builds the tension or fear that it is trying to achieve.

 

While the setup functions nicely to introduce the two characters together, with Moretz and Huppert creating some good chemistry with each other, once the deception is revealed the film falls into familiar territory.

 

At one moment the film feels like it may swerve in another direction, which would make sense considering director Neil Jordan’s ability to turn strange circumstances into intriguing character studies. But instead it continues on its one-dimensional path.

 

Moretz is a great actress who unfortunately isn’t utilized completely here, just like in other recent films, with ineffective ways that display her raw and emotional talent.

 

Huppert keeps the film afloat with her sly smile and unhinged outbursts, but even her character at times feels pulled from a different story completely.

 

The character Greta seems rich with a backstory that is never used to build more complexity into why she is doing such terrible things. “Greta” boasts a capable cast, a good director and an intriguing setup, each of which is completely underutilized in this by-the-numbers thriller.

 

 

Monte’s Rating

2.00 out of 5.00

To Dust - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

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‘To Dust’ is not an old, tired story, but it is a strange one

 

Directed by:  Shawn Snyder

Written by:  Shawn Snyder and Jason Begue

Starring:  Geza Rohrig and Matthew Broderick

 

“To Dust” – “I have questions.” – Shmuel (Geza Rohrig)

 

“This is all kinds of wrong.” – Albert (Matthew Broderick)

 

After watching Shawn Snyder’s strange indie “To Dust”, one might walk out of the theatre having questions and proclaiming that this movie is all kinds of wrong.  Sure, the premise is bizarre and off-putting, but admittedly, it does cover ground about a never-talked about subject:  a loved one’s body decomposing after the burial.

 

Shmuel morns the loss of his wife.  She dies from cancer, and not only has her passing ripped a hole in Shmuel’s life, but he obsesses over her decaying corpse which lays under six feet of soil. 

 

When will she find peace?  When will she turn to dust and become one with the earth?  How long will it take?  Weeks?  Months?  Ew.

 

Surely, Shmuel’s boys Naftali (Sammy Voit) and Noam (Leo Heller) could use some earthly advice from their dad, but not until he finds peace too.   With Shmuel finding no solace from religion, he turns to science and drives to New Hempstead Community College for answers.  He arrives in a classroom unannounced and surprises Albert, an apathetic biology professor.   After answering a few random questions about rotting corpses, Albert believes that Shmuel will go on his “merry” way, but the two – instead - become joined at the hip due to this particular widower’s relentless quest for emotional rest.

 

Shmuel and Albert somehow form an amusing odd couple under the most morbid of conditions, as the film attempts to create levity from despair, and mainly through Broderick’s gifted comedic timing.  Many times, Albert pokes fun at Shmuel’s odd requests, but also at the man himself.

 

Even though Shmuel’s thoughts about his wife’s body might be his natural outlet in the grieving process, this abnormal fixation provides ripe material for outsider sarcasm, and his physical appearance becomes an unmeasured portion of the comedy equation.  Shmuel is a Hasidic Jewish man, and in some recent movies like “Menashe” (2017) and “Disobedience” (2018), this religious community is self-contained within the narratives.  Here, Shmuel’s travels around the semi-rural suburbs of New York draw comments and looks from those not familiar with a shtreimel or a payot, and Snyder and co-writer Jason Begue do not shy away from these awkward moments. 

 

Meanwhile, Rohrig plays his character straighter than a hypotenuse during a geometry final exam, as Shmuel internalizes the subtle digs and stares, but he pushes forward – undeterred - to solve this after-death riddle.  Frustration, despair, naivete, and sorrow are his most trusty emotions, and silence is his closest friend.  He does, however, find – literally, in some cases – a partner in crime with Albert. 

 

Broderick’s Albert might be channeling shades of high school teacher Jim McAllister from “Election” (1999), and in fact, both educators could be the same person.  Hey, it’s 20 years removed from Mr. McAllister’s ouster from a Nebraska high school, and perhaps he changed his name, developed an active marijuana habit and lost his enthusiasm for teaching. 

 

Well, this step into Albert’s and Shmuel’s on-screen realities will not make a whole lot of sense or feel like the right ingredients for a wildly appealing movie, but “To Dust” does offer a unique experience, especially if a movie-concoction of religious humor, rotting corpses and shady deeds is your jam.   

(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.

 

Fighting with My Family - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

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Don’t fight it.  ‘Fighting with My Family’ is a good movie.

 

Written and Directed by:  Stephen Merchant

Starring:  Florence Pugh, Dwayne Johnson, Nick Frost, Lena Headey, Jack Lowden, and Vince Vaughn

 

“Fighting with My Family” – Some people want to be rock ‘n’ roll singers, and others hope to be cowboys.  For proof, just look back at Bon Scott’s wish in AC/DC’s “Rock ‘n’ Roll Singer” (1975) and Boys Don’t Cry’s declaration in “I Wanna Be a Cowboy” (1986).  Other folks dream of becoming ballerinas, center fielders, quarterbacks, teachers, doctors, or astronauts. 

 

For Saraya-Jade Bevis (Florence Pugh), she wants to be a WWE wrestler.  Actually, her dad Ricky (Nick Frost), mom Julia (Lena Headey) and brother Zak (Jack Lowden) all have the same dream.  They are a wrestling family who manage, work and brawl in the ring for their own local promotion, the World Association of Wrestling in Norwich, England.  Hence, writer/director Stephen Merchant’s film title “Fighting with My Family” makes perfect sense.  Now, the family doesn’t really fight, because pro wrestling is scripted entertainment, but the bumps and bruises are real.

 

Actually, Saraya’s journey is a real-life one, and Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson wanted to bring her story to the big screen. 

 

“I know that family, a crazy, loving (and) at times dysfunctional family.  That was my family growing up,” Johnson said in a recent interview. 

 

Merchant also could relate to Saraya’s experiences. 

 

“This is a working-class family who just had these dreams and these desires, and particularly (the) kids’ to go on and enter the world of entertainment and shoot for the stars.  That’s something that I responded to very much,” Merchant added.

 

Even though the film is packaged with familiar underdog themes, it is easy to respond positively to “Fighting with My Family”, whether you are a wrestling fan or not.  Although, admittedly, pro wrestling fans will better relate to the material. 

 

These four wrestlers are perfectly happy in Norwich, as they produce (and perform in) their shows and clinics, but when the WWE has a tryout in London, Saraya and Zak figuratively and literally jump at the chance.   Saraya, who also goes by wrestling names Britani and Paige, punches her ticket to the WWE training center in Orlando to hopefully make the minor league circuit.  Far from home, this stranger feels out of place in this strange land of sunshine, pristine corporate offices and blonde-haired beauties. 

 

She has to find her way.

 

The film easily finds ways to engage the audience, and it starts with Pugh’s convincing performance.  Pugh said that they only had a limited time to work out their wrestling moves, but this actress flips, spins, punches, and kicks like she’s grappled in the squared circle for years.  She also has the acting chops to pull emotional strings with a new sibling conflict that emerges, and Lowden successfully carries the other half of this unfortunate struggle. 

 

Keep in mind, with all this talk of fighting, punching, brooding, and toiling, Merchant’s picture is also quite funny, which, of course, captures the spirit of pro wrestling, and Frost, Johnson, and Vince Vaughn – who plays Saraya’s/Britani’s/Paige’s WWE coach Hutch – openly lend their comedic talents.   Although, be warned, Vaughn is dramatically-less frat boy and much more drill sergeant, when whipping the wrestlers into shape. 

 

At times, “Fighting with My Family” feels like one long WWE commercial, because the logos, references, toys, posters, and arena events regularly appear on-screen, so the theatre experience doubles as a product-placement nirvana.  Then again, Saraya lived through these events, so buying into (pardon the pun) the marketing - rather than fighting it - allows one to embrace the film, and the performances and story are strong enough to deliver magical goosebump-moments.  “Fighting with My Family” is surprisingly emotional, and Saraya – who is always referred to as Paige these days – was speechless when Johnson wanted to make a movie about her. 

 

“I was crying my eyes out,” Paige said.  

 

Sounds like someone’s dreams came true.

(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.

 

How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World - Movie Review by Ben Cahlamer

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How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World

 

Directed by Dean DeBlois

Written by Dean DeBlois based on “How to Train Your Dragon” by Cressida Cowell

Featuring the voices of: Jay Baruchel, America Ferrera, Cate Blanchett, Craig Ferguson, F. Murray Abraham, Gerard Butler, Jonah Hill, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Kit Harrington

 

As I’ve gotten older, my desire to experience animated films has only grown. I like the stories they tell, the characters that they offer. There’s a sense of, freedom, of really expression in a blank computer screen.

There is an exception to that rule, and unfortunately, it is a sequel or a trilogy. And it happened to DreamWorks’ third entry in their fantastically successful “How to Train Your Dragon” series, which concludes with the third film, “The Hidden World,” now playing in theaters.

We’ve seen series of animated films where studios have waited too long in between entries for audiences to want to catch up. I saw the first one, and I admittedly fell in love with Toothless, the dragon and Hiccup (Jay Baruchel), the future leader of Berk.

I never really let go of those characters either, but I did forget about their adventure, having missed the sequel, ironically titled “How to Train Your Dragon 2”. If it sounds like I am mocking the series, I really am not.

Oh, look! There was a television series too and it ran between 2012 and 2018.

Even though I love animation, and it sure is gorgeous in “The Hidden World,” looking nearly photo-real, I was awestruck at just how flat the characters had become. In fairness, I might have missed a beat or two over the past nine years. A lot has apparently happened.

But, you don’t need to have seen the television series or the second film to really pick up on what’s happening in this latest adventure. Some of the situations that are presented in “The Hidden World” might have made more sense, but the story’s framework, while serviceable, is something we’ve seen rehashed before.

What brings this film to life are the characters. I remembered Toothless and found Hiccup memorable. Dean DeBlois, who wrote and directed the second entry in this series is back and he brought a lot of heart to this film, especially in the courting aspects, which were represented exceptionally well through facial expressions and just a little bit of nudging.

F. Murray Abraham’s Grimmel is the villain in this story. The animators did an incredible job of capturing his the actor’s likeness and the seriousness at which is plots his nefarious ways was effective. It wasn’t until the third act, when the big extravaganza kicks in to full force that we really see him for the dangerous character that he is.

That’s really the challenge with the narrative arc. It certainly does complete Hiccup’s journey as well as Toothless’s. But for a “final entry,” even with as much heart, candor and romance in it, I don’t know that the story completely captures the essence of what’s driving it: the theme of letting go. It ties up loose ends, however the closure isn’t as clean as it could have been.

We so much want to be accepted for who we are. All of us. Hiccup does. Toothless does. Heck, even Grimmel does, but we don’t care about that because he’s just another token villain. Astrid (America Ferrera) is steadfast in her ways, and she is an exceptionally strong character as is Valka (Cate Blanchett.) Many of Hiccup’s friends and comrades are just as much fun.

The cast has a lot of fun in this story. It is light on its feet, and families will be drawn to it. John Powell’s light score is adventurous in spirit and fun in its emotions.

“How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World” is a fun, vivid film. The cast is strong, but the story wasn’t as effective a closure as it could have been. It will satisfy audiences and long-time fans of the series.

2.5 out of 4

Monte Yazzie's Oscar Predictions

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Oscar season draws to a close this Sunday night when the 91st Annual Academy Awards finalize the cluster of, in my opinion, crazy nominations that have composed this year’s ballots. “Green Book”, “A Star Is Born”, and “Roma” have been the “best picture” talk of the season while films like “First Reformed”, “Burning”, “Blindspotting”, and “If Beale Street Could Talk” missed the top award nomination. There was controversy for cutting the nominations for two critical elements of the filmmaking process from televised recognition, enough people complained and they brought them back. There was controversy about the early announced host for the Oscars, enough people complained and the host has been eliminated from the show. It’s been a crazy season.

 

Since everything seems a little off kilter this year, I’ve decided to embrace it. Every year I’ll make two ballots for Oscar nominations, one list designated from my “head” and another ballot designated from my “heart”. It is much more difficult than it should be trying to figure out which film deserves recognition. So, here is a list detailing both of the choices for a few of the categories for the Academy Awards.

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Picture

“Roma” – The Head Pick
“A Star Is Born”
“BlacKkKlansman”
“Black Panther”
“Bohemian Rhapsody”

“The Favourite” – The Heart Pick
“Green Book”
“Vice”

  

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Actress

Glenn Close “The Wife” – The Head and The Heart Pick

Yalitza Aparicio “Roma”
Olivia Colman “The Favourite”
Lady Gaga “A Star Is Born”
Melissa McCarthy “Can You Ever Forgive Me”

 

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Actor

Rami Malek “Bohemian Rhapsody” – The Head Pick
Christian Bale “Vice”

Bradley Cooper “A Star Is Born” – The Heart Pick
Willem Dafoe “At Eternity’s Gate”
Viggo Mortensen “Green Book”

 


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Supporting Actress

Regina King “If Beale Street Could Talk - The Head and The Heart Pick
Amy Adams “Vice”
Emma Stone “The Favourite”
Marina de Tavira “Roma”
Rachel Weisz “The Favourite”

 

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Supporting Actor

Mahershala Ali “Green Book” - The Head Pick
Adam Driver “BlacKkKlansman"
Sam Elliott “A Star Is Born”

Richard E. Grant “Can You Ever Forgive Me?" - The Heart Pick
Sam Rockwell “Vice”

 

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Director

Alfonso Cuarón “Roma" - The Head and The Heart Pick

Yorgos Lanthimos “The Favourite”
Spike Lee "BlacKkKlansman”
Adam McKay “Vice”
Pawel Pawlikowski “Cold War”

 


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Documentary

“RBG” - The Head Pick
“Free Solo”
“Hale County This Morning, This Evening”

“Minding the Gap” - The Heart Pick
“Of Fathers and Sons”

 

 

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Animated Feature

“Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” - The Head and The Heart Pick
“Incredibles 2”
“Isle of Dogs”
“Mirai”
“Ralph Breaks the Internet"


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 Foreign Language

“Roma” Mexico - The Head and The Heart Pick
“Capernaum” Lebanon
“Cold War” Poland
“Never Look Away” Germany
“Shoplifters” Japan

 

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Film Editing

“Bohemian Rhapsody” – The Head Pick

“BlacKkKlansman” - The Heart Pick
“The Favourite”
“Green Book” 
“Vice”

 

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Cinematography

“Roma” - The Head and The Heart Pick
“Cold War”
“The Favourite”
“Never Look Away”
“A Star Is Born”

Ben Cahlamer's Oscar Picks

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Ben Cahlamer Final Oscar Picks

 

One thing is for certain: the 91st Oscar season has been anything but an assured thing. From one PR nightmare to another, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (Academy) has pressed onward, and this Sunday, they announce the biggest winners of the season.

2018 was a magical year at the cinema. From a British period piece with vengeance on its mind to a live-in maid keeping an on-the-rocks family from falling apart, there has been no shortage of great cinema.

And no matter how hard the producers and studios campaigned for their respective films, yes, I am looking at you Netflix, my picks will ultimately have something in common with the actual winners: they will be completely chosen at random, because there’s absolutely no rhyme or reason to what’s happened this year.

Oh. Unlike the Academy, I have omitted certain categories because I did not see enough of the films for me to qualify a winner. Please note that this will not shorten your reading time in any way, shape, or form.  Thank you, ABC and, good night.

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Screenplay (Original): “The Favourite,” Written by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara.

Screenplay (Adapted): “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” Screenplay by Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty.

Visual Effects: “First Man,” Paul Lambert, Ian Hunter, Tristan Myles, J.D. Schwalm

Sound Mixing: “Roma,” Skip Lievsay, Craig Henighan and Jose Antonio Garcia

Sound Editing: “A Quiet Place,” Ethan Van der Ryn and Erik Aadahl

Music (Original Song): “Shallow” from “A Star Is Born,” Music and Lyric by Lady Gaga, Mark Ronson, Anthony Rossomando and Andrew Wyatt

Music (Original Score): “If Beale Street Could Talk,” Nicholas Britell

Makeup and Hairstyling: “Vice,” Greg Cannom, Kate Briscoe and Patricia Dehaney

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Foreign Language Film: “Roma,” Mexico; Alfonso Curaon

Film Editing: “Bohemian Rhapsody,” John Ottman

Documentary: “Free Solo,” Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, Jimmy Chin, Evan Hayes and Shannon Dill

Directing: “BlacKkKlansman,” Spike Lee

Costume Design: “Mary Queen of Scots,” Alexandra Byrne

Cinematography: “Cold War,” Lukasz Zal

Animated Feature Film: “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse”

Actress in a Supporting Role: Regina King, “If Beale Street Could Talk”

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Actor in a Supporting Role: Mahershala Ali, “Green Book”

Actress in a Leading Role: Glenn Close, “The Wife”

Actor in a Leading Role: Rami Malek, “Bohemian Rhapsody”

Best Picture: “BlacKkKlansman,” Sean McKittrick, Jason Blum, Raymond Mansfield, Jordan Peele and Spike Lee

Phoenix Film Society Member's Top Five Movies of 2018

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The Phoenix Film Society Member’s Top Five Movies of 2018

 

With Hollywood’s grandest night arriving on Sunday, Feb. 24, let’s recognize that the Phoenix Film Society had a big moment of their own on Jan. 30!

 

Before the PFS’s “Arctic” screening, the members in attendance voted for their favorite film of the year.   The Carney-Mitchell accounting firm monitored the procedures and tabulated the votes, and here are the Phoenix Film Society’s Top Five Movies of 2018:

 

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5. “Roma”

4. “The Wife”

3. “A Star Is Born”

2. “Bohemian Rhapsody”

1. “Green Book” 

Never Look Away - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

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‘Never Look Away’ compels us to keep watching

 

Written and directed by:  Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s

Starring:  Tom Schilling, Paula Beer, Sebastian Koch, Saskia Rosendahl, Oliver Masucci, and Evgeniy Sidikhin

 

“Never Look Away” – “Hardly anyone likes photos of themselves, but everyone’s supposed to like a painting.” – Kurt Barnert (Tom Schilling)

 

“Everything is connected.” – Elisabeth May (Saskia Rosendahl)

 

Writer/director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s feature film “The Lives of Others” (2006) weaves such an absorbing, layered conflict into 1980s East Germany’s acknowledged intrusive culture so well, it topped Guillermo del Toro’s best film “Pan’s Labyrinth” (2006) that year and won the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar in 2007.  Yes, “The Lives of Others” is that good!

 

After Donnersmarck’s Johnny Depp/Angelia Jolie vehicle “The Tourist” (2010), “Never Look Away” is his third film.  The Academy recognized Donnersmarck’s second German movie with a Best Foreign Language Best Picture Oscar nomination, but due to its 188-minute runtime, “Never Look Away” does feel like a long commitment while sitting in your theatre seat.  Still, this movie does need time to breathe on-screen to eventually reveal its secrets and for the characters to reap enlightenment on their journeys.

 

Set in 1937 Dresden, 20-something Elisabeth takes her five-year-old nephew Kurt to a museum to experience and celebrate modern art, but a caustic tour guide attempts to sour their trip by bemoaning the various pieces as silly drivel created by faulty minds.  Quite frankly, the curators should apply more scrutiny when hiring their museum staff, but the somewhat-hostile chaperon fuels foreshadowing of the dark forces within the country.  “The Lives of Others” unmasks one series of German sins, but “Never Look Away” features two, the Nazi Party and the subsequent physical, cultural and political divides between East and West.  One particular character embodies the iniquity of both eras, and this individual propels the former’s sinister mindset into the latter’s clouded reality.

 

Kurt’s mindset, instead, is altruistic and with his aunt’s initial persuasion and his natural gifts, he eventually becomes an art student and meets Ellie (Paula Beer) who majors in fashion design.  These two kids start a romance that begins to follow Elisabeth’s decree. 

 

Donnersmarck’s film taps into a recipe that the Academy loves, as it wraps our protagonist in a loving romance and navigates it through several historical markers.  Additionally, “Never Look Away” will regularly surprise with unexpected detours through history, and it personalizes these stops with rich supporting characters who arrive and depart but leave lasting memoirs.  Russian Major Murawjow (Evgeniy Sidikhin) and Professor Antonius van Verten (Oliver Masucci) are just two examples.  Meanwhile, Max Richter’s beautiful score helps maintain continuity throughout the film, as one wonders how Elisabeth’s words of wisdom in the first act will carry through with Kurt to the end.  The story is loosely-based on painter Gerhard Richter, and his connection with Germany’s political split is a natural fit with Donnersmarck’s history as well.  

 

This particular critic caught the movie at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival, but the picture’s thoughtful threads did not quite resonate to earn epic personal praises, however, upon a second viewing, Donnersmarck’s themes rang truer.  Do you need to watch “Never Look Away” twice?  No, but it took this moviegoer 6 hours and 16 minutes to fully appreciate the nuance of its messages.

(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.