Secondhand Hearts - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

‘Secondhand Hearts’ taps into firsthand emotions 


Written/directed by:  Austin Everett

Starring:  Ben Isaacs, Mallory Corinne, Allie Rae Treharne, Jericho Lopez, Rebecca C. Olson, and Ward Wright 


“Secondhand Hearts” - “Jaime, maybe we should talk about some things before we go in.” – Ben (Ben Isaacs)


“Okay, is something wrong?” – Jaime (Allie Rae Treharne)


Something is wrong. 


Ben just arrived back in the U.S. after a trip to Japan.  He is a photographer and traveled to Osaka - and some surrounding areas - to take photos for a calendar, but his trip turned out to be magical.   Sure, Ben’s pictures probably turned out fine, but he met a girl, Emily (Mallory Corinne). 


Ben – who is in a committed relationship with Jaime – ran into Emily in Japan, spent a few days with her, and it became a life changing event for him.  Now, this could be dismissed as a casual fling on the other side of the globe, but Ben and Emily feel a connection, complete with internal churns of butterflies, fireworks and lighting bolts.   Now, Ben is about to meet Jaime’s family for the first time over Thanksgiving dinner, and yes, something is wrong.  He needs to end his relationship with Jaime, and it comes at the worst possible time. 


Writer/director Austin Everett thoughtfully spends his time by offering a compelling drama about a man faced with a thorny decision, but due to newly discovered revelations, Ben’s choice seems impossible.  His thorny decision suddenly becomes wrapped in barbed wire and dipped in lemon juice, and Everett and Isaacs effectively communicate Ben’s anxiety and transmit emotional pokes and punctures from the big screen to the audience. 


The film’s construction pokes in different settings too, as it regularly volleys from affluent, manicured American suburbia to the woodsy and urban charm of faraway Japan.  Everett lays out an intentionally awkward meeting the family assembly with Jaime’s perfectly nice mother (Rebecca C. Olson) and father (Ward Wright).  They welcome Ben into their home and provide a warm environment, but Morris’ (Wright) physical presence is a bit intimidating – like he played football or rugby in college - so our young protagonist does feel the need to tread lightly.  For the record, anyone who has stayed over at a boyfriend or girlfriend’s parents’ home for the first time certainly knows the pressure of maintaining one’s very best order to survive the visit.  Due to events - which I will not reveal in this review – raise that pressure on Ben by a factor of oh, I don’t know, 10,000 perhaps?


Ben is emotionally trapped over the course the dinner’s main course.  Thankfully, Everett gives the audience regular reprieves from the confines of family civilities by shipping us back to those aforementioned, past experiences in Japan, Ben and Emily’s romance.  The film smoothly transitions back and forth through smart editing and writing, as the events between the two time periods feel linked.  For example, Ben takes a photo in Morris and Judy’s home, and the action then quickly shifts to Japan, when a group of kids pose with Emily for a picture and yell, “Cheese!”   The flashbacks occur many times, and each one has a distinct purpose. 


Speaking of purpose, Ben seems to have one during his Osaka trip and credit Isaacs for his character’s almost split personality.  Ben is playful, sarcastic, lively, and everything feels right when he is with Emily.  His actions speak to us in Japan but also through a chirpy montage accompanied by a beautiful, upbeat tune called “Brandenburg Stomp”, performed by Kishi Bashi.  It is the type of song that you’ll immediately search for in iTunes and blast in your living room several times in a row.  


Ben and Emily might have previously had their ducks in a row in separate, committed relationships, but they do feel right together and contrast that with Ben’s lethargic, listless spirit, when he is with Jaime.   He actually spells this out in a critical conversation in the third act, but we already felt it with every cinematic fiber of our collective-being.  If “Secondhand Hearts” spells out a life lesson here, this moviegoer hears it loud and clear. Ben is watching his own mistake-of-a-lifetime play out in slow motion, but he can prevent it at any time by taking an incredibly brave, brutally honest step.  The problem is that life is constructing an applecart for Ben, and he leans towards not upsetting it, even though he does not really care for apples.


We do care about these characters though, and Emily does appear in the post-Japan storyline.  While Isaacs plays Ben very differently in the two time periods, Corinne smartly plays Emily consistently during and after Japan.  Her character does not leave her emotions as wide-open as Ben and plays her cards close to the vest.  Perhaps she is thinking of her own self-preservation, but the end result is Ben seems singularly caught in this net, even though Emily has a vital stake in it as well.   Credit Treharne and Jericho Lopez too, who offer real surprises when we least expect it, including Lopez’s character’s reluctant heart-to-heart in an unlikely locale. 


Well, this particular chance encounter - in an unlikely locale from across the Pacific Ocean – causes many waves and “something wrong” in one suburban home over the holidays, and yes, “Secondhand Hearts” certainly taps into firsthand emotions.

(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, respec

Voice from the Stone - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

‘Voice from the Stone’ speaks with its stunning visuals, mysterious performances


Directed by:  Eric D. Howell

Written by:  Andrew Shaw

Starring:  Emilia Clark, Marton Csokas, Edward Dring, and Caterina Murino


“Voice from the Stone” – Jakob (Edward Dring) is hurting.  Seven months and 16 days ago, his mother, Malvina (Caterina Murino), died in her home, and Jakob was by her bedside when she passed away. 


He is about 11 years old, and from the moment that she passed, he has not spoken a word to anyone, not even his grieving father, Klaus (Marton Csokas).  Klaus is beside himself because of the loss of his lovely, talented wife but also because of Jakob’s silence.   


He hired several nurses to hopefully find a way for his son to speak but to no avail.  One day, a nurse without a university degree, but with a special gift of connection, Verena (Emilia Clarke), enters their lives.  Verena, without a husband and kids of her own, enjoys a fruitful, successful career and a long track record of healing dozens of kids over the years.  She believes that she might be the key to reaching Jakob and helping him speak, and hence, Verena attempts to find a “Voice from the Stone”. 


Director Eric D. Howell’s picture is aptly named for a couple reasons.  First, in the classic story “The Sword in the Stone”, a boy becomes the only one in the kingdom to pull a sword from a stone.  In this film, Verena could be the only one to help Jakob rediscover his very lost voice.  Second, Malvina’s family is beyond exceedingly rich, as they earned their wealth – for over 1,200 years - through mining in the adjacent quarry.  Hence, “stone” has a literal meaning in this picture.


Literally, this film – told in a 1950s Tuscany setting - is visually beautiful.  Howell found a gorgeous setting - Castello Di Celsa in Siena, Italy – which serves as Klaus and Jakob’s home.  Hiding in the sometimes-gray fog, the property is a luxurious wonder.  With lush patterns of thick avocado-colored hedges and acreage in every direction, the carefully manicured land accompanies its massive stone castle-master with a towering crown.  The interior is just as impressive, but Howell filmed all of the indoor scenes in Montecalvello Castello, as the small, selected cast weave in between notable rooms steeped in massive amounts of history. 


Nearly everything feels wrapped in a shroud of mystery and secrets, as we see Verena walk in both light and shadows.  Much of the time, she is looking for Jakob.  The boy might not have his voice, but he certainly owns a mind of his own.  Verena continually attempts to reach a boy who does not wish to be found – both emotionally and physically - and keeping his distance seems to be his primary skillset.  Jakob is not stupid, because he knows very well that his silence breeds frustration with his dad and one starts to believe that it has a specific purpose. 


Clarke’s Verena is very sympathetic, especially after a reveal of her past and plays an effective protagonist, as we hope for her quick success.  With humility, grace and patience, she wins over the audience but struggles to warm up to a cold, distant Klaus and a confused boy, who appears to be in limbo of actually accepting her tutelage.  Verena is an honest broker, but this quality leaves her vulnerable to the unknown, which is in a heaping supply with 12 centuries of life, love and death in one place with one family.  The family has generated an uncountable amount of memories on this site, and along with wind, rustling leaves and creaky gates, Jakob swears that he hears something else, a voice. 


“Voices from the Stone” is a mystery, but through most of the picture, it is a subtle and slow one.  Running at a thrifty 1 hour and 34 minutes, the film does feel longer.  With just a few lead characters in a nearly empty house and very few times when anybody connects, the slower pace is noticeable, but it is also offset by a picturesque view in nearly any direction. 


The movie does pay off in the third act, and when looking back, the cryptic script does nestle into a logical conclusion.  Curiously, for a movie wrapped in subtlety, it does unnecessary reinforce its main plot point through the lyrics of a complimented song at the most critical time.  Attentive audiences do not necessarily need this cue, and my wish for a music-only melody played at this said, verbal moment.   It is probably the only time in the picture in which I wanted less, because for most of the film, I wanted more scripted, verbal nuance to match the intricate visuals.  Still, “Voice from the Stone” is a stylish mystery that ultimately answers why Jakob has been hurting for seven months, 16 days and counting, whether or not Verena is ultimately successful. 

(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.





The Lost City of Z - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

Gray and Hunnam discover an absorbing journey towards ‘The Lost City of Z’


Writer/Director:  James Gray

Starring:  Charlie Hunnam, Robert Pattinson, Sienna Miller, and Tom Holland 


“The Lost City of Z” – “It is there, and we must find it.” – Col. Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam)


“Ain’t nobody comes back from up there.” – A disbeliever    


When traveling, I frequently look to my phone for five-star reviews for some out of the way restaurant or coffee shop.  Sure, I may not be too familiar with the new neighborhoods or roadways, but the determination to discover a sought-after meal or liquid caffeine is strong.  Well, that is the extent of my efforts in exploration, so – to me - the fortitude of Col. Percy Fawcett (Hunnam), a true figure from the early 20th Century, is not simply remarkable, but incomprehensible.


In “The Lost City of Z”, the British government commissions Col. Fawcett to South America for two years to map the jungles of Bolivia, which will hopefully help settle a border dispute.  In an effort to clear his family name (from past missteps not caused by him), Percy decides to leave his wife and children behind for this treacherous journey. 


Director James Gray (“The Immigrant” (2013), “Two Lovers” (2008)) runs with the biopic material and shoots an astonishing-looking picture about a man’s quest to know the unknown.  During Percy’s surveying duties, however, he does change his focus.  Instead, he looks to find a lost civilization, a lost city.  A lost, landlocked city of Atlantis located in the middle of the jungle, a city that Percy labels as Zed.


“Z” is the last letter in the alphabet, and this lost city is one of the last places someone from Great Britain – with all of the creature comforts of the early 1900s - would venture, but with his colleague, Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson), and a small group of westerners and locals, they perilously move forward. 


Gray – who actually shot many of the scenes in Colombia – takes painstaking efforts to paint an aura of danger.  If the overbearing, intense heat – that seemingly bleeds off the screen - does not wither Percy, Henry and company, instinct-driven jungle mammals or serpents could gnaw on our heroes.  Although, the biggest threats are some local tribes, who might consider outsiders the enemy or worse yet, FOOD.   Yes, cannibalism is not an unfamiliar practice within these mazelike circles.  Clearly, animals gobbling up one for dinner is a vastly unpleasant proposition, but fellow human beings concocting a person-stew can raise the onscreen characters’ anxiety to a fever pitch.   The audience’s anxiety too. 


In one of the most effective scenes, the group travels down a silent river in a large raft, completely vulnerable with copious jungle surrounding them on both sides.  Silence becomes their only dreaded companion, with a very real possibility of a sudden ambush occurring at any moment. 


This is Percy’s exploration story, but the film’s other main thread is the toll that his worldly travels have on his family back in Britain.  Sienna Miller is convincing as Percy’s supportive wife, Nina, but Tom Holland offers different sentiment as Jack, their oldest son. 




Resentment for his father placing his ambitions above them.  This knotty family subplot, however, does not work as well.  While the movie spends majority of the time in South America, the emotional pull from England seemingly becomes nonexistent.  Gray gives Percy very few sentimental reaches for home during his pursuits in the jungle.  This explorer appears solely focused on his adventure, so there is little opportunity for the audience to be invested in Percy’s family, because - generally speaking – he is not.   


Percy does cope with his missed family, when he makes a brief return, late into the 2nd act, and this is when Holland delivers heavy doses of guilt.  On the other hand, since Percy is not privy to modern parenting skills nor have access to self-help books from a fully-stocked Barnes & Noble rack, subtler needs at England do not necessarily register with him.


One explicit fact that should register with the audience is that the film is a biopic, and in these cases, a movie can be held to history in order to explain…well, history.  Now, I cannot confirm if Percy did experience contentious moments with his eldest son or not.  The picture does form their relationship in that way, but it does not distract from the story.  On the other hand, the third act takes a sudden left turn which does distract from the basic narrative, but apparently, the film is at the mercy of history. 


These quibbles aside, “The Lost City of Z” is an absorbing picture about an exceedingly brave man who attempts to write his name in textbooks and folklore for future generations, and Gray and Hunnam capture Col. Percy Fawcett’s spirit which honors his aspirations.  You see, Percy is the type person who hears “nobody comes back from up there”, digests the warning but pushes forward anyway, and that type of courage should be heard, seen and experienced.  

(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.





Norman - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

Gere and Cedar make ‘Norman’ a definite BUY


Writer/Director:  Joseph Cedar

Starring: Richard Gere, Lior Ashkenazi, Michael Sheen, Steve Buscemi, and Hank Azaria


“Norman” - $1,192.18


Norman Oppenheimer (Richard Gere), the struggling head of Oppenheimer Strategies – who usually wears an unflattering, light brown winter coat, a longshoreman’s cap and sports ear buds connected to his iPhone - makes an investment of $1,192.18 during an ordinary weekday in Manhattan.  Hoping that this cash outlay would land him future opportunities, his spontaneous action – in fact - earns him a life-changing seat at the table, the connected world of money, politics and access! 


Well, sort of. 


You see, Norman’s entire life seems to be broiled in sort of terms, because he is not a clearly-defined businessman.  He frequently hands out his Oppenheimer Strategies cards and asks perspective clients, “What can I do for you?”  The problem?  It is difficult to know what he can offer or how he can help. 


He does claim long friendships with sought-after people, but when one asks a probing question or two, Norman then speaks in riddles, half-truths or outright lies.  A keen, well-trained eye can spot Norman’s shyster-act a mile away, but an unassuming type could mistake his enthusiasm as genuine.   Actually, Norman’s desire to become connected is genuine, so sheathes of honesty in his speech do ring true.  This is, of course, among the promises that he doesn’t exactly know how to keep. 


Writer/director Joseph Cedar’s fascinating character study - which doubles as a casually stressful thriller – is a keeper. 


Cedar throws us into Norman’s universe - the cold and busy New York City pavements - and into this man’s desperation for a deal.  Norman always seems to be on the outside looking in, and Cedar strategically places and paints his lead character in that light.  For one, in many circumstances when he steps into a building, the lighting is deliberately dim.  Sometimes we only see outlines of business people lurking - or even plainly standing - in the shadows, and this makes forming bonds with possible leads more difficult.  More importantly, it symbolizes Norman’s hobbling attempts to secure a win in the figurative dark.  Secondly, he frequently works outside in the below freezing temps during a typical Big Apple winter.  Always bundled up with his aforementioned coat and hat, Norman’s face is usually red from the frigid wind or perhaps of embarrassment from constantly fighting an uphill battle.  When we see Norman waiting to deliver a sales pitch at 6:56am in Central Park, desperation is the first word that comes to mind.


Masterful is a word that describes Gere’s performance, as he plays a man burdening himself with difficult-to-keep verbal agreements stacked upon one another like a self-defeating pyramid scheme.  While Norman is a singularly-focused, one-note machine to reach a monetary promise land, we can also see his internal churn.  Gere allows us to feel sympathy for Norman, while sharing his slow descent into quicksand, not entirely unlike the highly effective Sam Raimi’s 1998 thriller, “A Simple Plan”.  In that film, one fateful decision by two brothers (Bill Paxton, Billy Bob Thornton) leads to a handwringing experience in which they find themselves over their heads, and Norman discovers a similar slippery slope, that cinematically frays our nerves.  


Regrettably, the soundtrack’s slow jazz vibe - filled with snare drum beats and a moody, downtrodden horn section – wore on my nerves fairly quickly.  It did fit with Norman’s sort of lovable loser persona, but a tick tock, staccato beat – instead - could have increased the picture’s anxiety.  Perhaps no accompanying soundtrack at all would have been more effective, but apparently Cedar did not receive my wish list. 


Well, he did pleasantly surprise with a terrific supporting cast, including Michael Sheen, Steve Buscemi, Hank Azaria, and Lior Ashkenazi in perfectly-fit roles to witness Norman’s winding trip to possible redemption or expulsion.   In the nebulous world of Oppenheimer Strategies, it turns out that $1,192.18 could buy him either one.

(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.



The Promise - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

‘The Promise’ conveys an emotional World War I history lesson


Directed by:  Terry George

Written by:  Terry George and Robin Swicord

Starring:  Oscar Isaac, Charlotte Le Bon, Christian Bale, Shohreh Aghdashloo, and Marwan Kenzari


“The Promise” – “There are churches and mosques like you wouldn’t believe.”


In 1914 Constantinople, this is Mikael Boghosian’s (Oscar Isaac) reaction to Turkey’s most prominent city.  Although cultural differences can be a source of tension and divisiveness, Turks and Armenians live in relative harmony during this time, not only in this massive cultural center, but also in Mikael’s small village of Siroun. 


As director Terry George’s (“Hotel Rwanda” (2004)) picture opens, Mikael – an Armenian - makes a promise to a Maral (Angela Sarafyan), that after two years away at medical school, they will marry when he returns. 


In the meantime, George treats Mikael and us to the sheer beauty and pageantry of Constantinople with wondrous sightlines and artistic gifts.  Actually, according to, George did not film in Turkey, but through the magic of cinema, we certainly believe it.   Isaac is also very convincing that Mikael is having the time of his life.  Learning his chosen profession at the Imperial Medical School, making well-placed friends, spending time with family, and meeting Ana (Charlotte Le Bon). 


Ana is seeing an American AP reporter, Chris Myers (Christian Bale), but his drinking has driven a wedge in their relationship, and as it turns out, Mikael and Ana share immediate chemistry. Isaac and Le Bon have fun with their characters’ new friendship - with potential for more - and effectively interject humor, playfulness and outright attraction for one another.  They create a classic love rectangle problem with Chris and Maral as the odd ones out, but the familiar formula works here, because Ana and Mikael are very, very likeable. 


Although scorned partners are the least of their problems, because when Turkey joins World War I in October 1914, Mikael’s bright, new world is laid to waste.


George immediately shifts the material from a good-natured exploration to a gripping, war-torn drama, laced with romance during a time of chaos, confusion and shattered dreams.  Turkey suddenly becomes a place where the previously perceived harmony becomes a distant memory, as the Turkish military begins an elimination of the Armenian people within its own borders.  Mikael, his family, Ana, and others who we began to know during the film’s first half hour are immediately endangered, and the picture takes an ambitious approach in capturing this countrywide horror. 


The screenplay follows Mikael’s twisting path from a respected medical student to a fleeing war prisoner, and his life and heart are turned upside down.  Mikael’s personal anguish bleeds into the frightening Armenian plight that grips the nation, and suddenly, Armenians become nomadic people within their own borders.  George captures their hardships by filming many brutal walks through the deserts and forests.


The shifts in tone shake our foundation, but the core relationships between Chris, Ana and Mikael remain intact.   Chris, in turn, places himself in constant danger to report on the Turkish atrocities, and Mikael and Ana focus on saving as many Armenians as they can.  We have seen these types a war-driven romances before, but the unknown subject matter (at least to this moviegoer) and George’s very high production values keep our eyeballs glued to the screen. 


This film must have generated the interest of several well-known actors, because during the second and third acts, some key cameos suddenly appear.  I can point to three real surprises, where famous actors take small, supporting roles.  Although their arrivals into the film are noteworthy, they also can temporarily distract and pull us out of the story.  These cameos are not nearly as disruptive as the constant stream of A-list actor appearances in Terrence Malick’s “The Thin Red Line” (1998), but it feels the same way, to a lesser degree. 


To a greater degree, I keep coming back to Mikael’s words of the churches and mosques, a time of accord among two groups of people who are different, but held mutual respect.  I suppose “The Promise” is telling example that peace is fragile and precious, and life does not need a very dramatic push to toss it aside.  Well, maybe we should look 103 years into the past, when mosques and churches are spoken in the same sentence with harmony.  In 2017, we should be so lucky.

(3/4 stars)


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


An interview with director Justin Barber, director of "Phoenix Forgotten" by Jeff Mitchell

In March 1997, a mysterious set of lights appeared in the Phoenix, AZ sky, and this famous UFO sighting is known, naturally, as the Phoenix Lights.  Twenty years later, that onetime phenomenon continues to baffle eyewitnesses and give hope to UFO believers.  Director Justin Barber – fascinated by the story as a high school student in 1997 – has now made a movie about it. 


“Phoenix Forgotten” is a fictional thriller, and Justin features the lights as the picture’s main platform.  The Phoenix Film Festival did not see the film at the time of this interview but enjoyed chatting with Justin about his new movie!   Justin talked about his belief in UFOs, the documentary style of the picture, some places that he filmed in Phoenix, and more.


“Phoenix Forgotten” arrives in theatres on Friday, April 21.


PFF: I was living in Phoenix at the time that the Phoenix Lights phenomenon occurred, but sadly, I was cooped up inside watching television that night – probably “Seinfeld” – and completely missed the lights.  Did you interview Valley residents who claimed to have seen them in preparation for the movie?


JB: I did, and I tried to approach the movie with a mindset that this was real world material.  I did spend a lot of time in Phoenix trying to track down real people, eyewitnesses and experts to get to the bottom of (the lights). 


(When the Phoenix Lights happened,) I was in high school at the time, living in Florida and remember hearing about them through the news. Twenty years ago, I (wrote) an article for my high school newspaper about them.  It was cool when (making) the movie to go back and pick up that thread again, and yes, I did find that people who had actually seen them.  Some of those people are interviewed in the movie.  The movie is a mix of real people and actors.  Yes, I tried to get to the bottom of it myself and go to Phoenix, the scene of the crime. 


PFF:  I like that you wrote a paper about the Phoenix Lights in high school.  That’s pretty amazing, and here you are and just directed a movie about it.


JB:  Yes, it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy, I guess.  The interest has persisted.  It was such a big story, and it remains such a big story.  It’s a modern urban legend for the southwest.  For a lot of people, we remember it 20 years on, because it was such a bizarre event, and a lot of people think that it has not been fully explained. 


PFF:  I’d like to believe in UFOs and apt to believe than not believe, but I’ve heard friends and colleagues - over the years – discount UFO sightings, because they occur in small, remote places, where hardly any witnesses are present.  Is that what makes the Phoenix Lights so unique?


JB:  I think so.  I think it’s the sheer number of eyewitnesses.  Some people say hundreds of people saw (it), and others say that thousands of people saw (it).  People were able to film it!  There is that iconic footage of the formation of lights, and you see them in other movies.  In M. Night Shyamalan’s “Signs” (2002), there are images of lights in the sky that the characters see.  That’s inspired, I think, by the Phoenix Lights. Yes, it took place over a populated area, but there is footage of it as well. 


That’s where our story begins.  Like I said, I approached this as real world material, but our movie has fictional characters.  It is historical fiction past a certain point.  A lot of people know about the Phoenix Lights and recognize this footage.  Fewer people know the story of the kid who shot it.  It was shot by Josh Bishop (Luke Spencer Roberts), a high school kid in Phoenix, and six weeks later, he disappeared with two of his friends and was never seen again.  That’s the story that we are telling.  What happened to these three kids? Was there a connection between their disappearance and the Phoenix Lights? 


These are the fictional characters that we are inserting into the real life backdrop of the Phoenix Lights event.


PFF:  Should I assume that you used the actual Phoenix Lights footage for the picture?  If so, how much cleanup was needed to properly insert the footage into your movie?


JB:  My main character, Josh, films the Phoenix Lights, and one of the big scenes early on in the movie is the sighting.  (He and his family) are having a backyard barbeque in Phoenix, and Josh is tasked with filming the event.  The Phoenix Lights sighting happens in the middle of it, and he spins the camera around and films the sighting from the party.  We recreated the Phoenix Lights sighting from scratch for this scene, using the actual Phoenix Lights footage as a reference. 


The reason is because we sculpted a scene around (the party) and needed a lot of control of how the sighting unfolded.  There is a lot of real world footage in the movie, because – for the most part - the movie is treated as a documentary, so I did license actual footage here and there, but this key footage of the Phoenix Lights that Josh films, I did recreate from scratch (using) visual effects.  Although, it is in the vein of the actual Phoenix Lights sighting. 


The other reason is when I really dug into this material and looked at the photographic evidence, (the lights) actually look like - to me - the official explanation, that they are military flairs.  Eyewitnesses describe seeing something really different from what was photographed.  I think there could have been more than one thing happening. 


People claim to have seen this ship, but there is this footage of - what to me - looks like military flairs.  I wanted my main character, Josh, to be a little bit more “on the fence” than myself.  It needed to look more like a UFO, because when I looked at the real footage, it didn’t look that otherworldly to me, honestly.  So, I recreated the sighting.  The way it moves.  The way it appears and disappears. I wanted a little more control of it as a director.


PFF:  Do you believe in UFOs?


JB:  I don’t know where I stand on the Phoenix Lights, except to say that the footage looks like flairs. That being said, a lot of eyewitnesses say that they saw something totally different, and the footage was not necessarily what they saw.  They describe looking up at a formation of lights that flew overhead, and it blocked out the stars.  They couldn’t make out any structure, but they could definitely tell that there was an object up there, between these lights connecting them that seemed to block out what they could see up in the night sky.   Some people will tell you that the flair drop was a diversion from this actual craft. 


As far as actual UFOs, I do think there is life out there.  I think statistically the universe is so big and so old, that I subscribe to what Carl Sagan would say.  There are so many worlds out there, mathematically, there is bound to be life. 


There are so many people who claim that they had experiences on our planet with spacecraft or strange beings.  There is either something going on, or there is some sort of collective psychological experience that (they) are all having, but that’s what so interesting about it.  These experiences haven’t been explained yet, really.  It just comes down to: do you want to believe, or do you not want to believe?   


PFF:  I assumed that you filmed in Phoenix.  If so, are there certain landmarks that Arizona residents be on the lookout for?


JB:  Yes, I hope that Phoenix residents appreciate how much we were able to shoot in Arizona.  I did have to shoot in California for a lot of the movie, but I was fortunate that the producers let me go to (Arizona).


I think people who know Phoenix will recognize different places.  We went to the Phoenix Public Library.  The Botanical Gardens are in there.  A bulk of the early part of the movie has Josh setting out and making his own documentary.  He hits the streets in Phoenix and talks to as many people as he can.  I think that you will recognize parts of town in that respect.


PFF:  It’s funny, when people think about crime or violence, they immediately point to large metropolitan cities.  On the other hand, a classic staple of horror films is a remote location, a cabin in the woods or places in the middle of nowhere like in “Friday the 13th” (1980), “The Evil Dead” (1981) and “The Blair Witch Project” (1999).  Josh and his friends head out to the remote desert to follow the lights, so what makes remote locales scary and downright eerie?


JB: Well, there’s no one there to help you, when things go south.  I think that’s what it comes down to.  For me, I remember one of the first times that I drove across the United States. You hit a patch in Utah and see a road sign that says, “No gas for 150 miles.” 


You are in the middle of nowhere, and that’s an unusual experience when you grow up in the suburbs or live in a big city.  Now, I do like getting out to those parts of the country for fun, but yes, you are on your own.  If you are in trouble, it is up to you to survive.  Essentially, the last half of the movie is a survival story. I think that’s part of it.  I think also there is a lot of lore about the desert, specifically.  There is character in the movie who is an Apache storyteller.  Native people have their own lore about lights in the sky.  We explore that in the movie.  What is it about the desert where there are so many UFO sightings and strange things happening?  It’s just a mysterious place, and our characters try to get to the bottom of it.  


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.





Tommy's Honour - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

‘Tommy’s Honour’ birdies, pars and bogeys 


Directed by:  Jason Connery

Written by:  Pamela Martin and Kevin Cook

Starring:  Jack Lowden, Peter Mullan, Ophelia Lovibond, and Sam Neill


“Tommy’s Honour” – “I love the way the game of golf is lived and played in Scotland.  I always have.” – Tom Watson


Many, many fans rightfully consider Tom Watson as golf-royalty, but “Tommy’s Honour” is a biopic about another athlete of the links, Tommy Morris (Jack Lowden), a 19th Century prodigy from Scotland. 


He is also known as Young Tom, because his father – naturally – is nicknamed Old Tom (Peter Mullan), a masterful greenskeeper at the legendary St Andrews golf course.  Director Jason Connery chronicles Tommy’s rise as a professional golfer against two main themes.  His struggles in a frictional relationship with his father and a spoken - not unspoken - financial class system alive and well in the 1860s and 1870s. 


Mullan is perfectly cast – while sporting memorable facial hair - as a vastly knowledgeable man who is resigned to “knowing” his place within the golf community. 


For example, after Tom wins a caddie tournament, one of the club members exclaims, “Now, you got work to do.  Get the scorecards.” 


Tom accepts his given, preordained place in the world.  On the other hand, Tommy does not. Lowden capably portrays Tommy as an idealist pioneer who loves golf and wants to make money as a professional, perhaps play in England for “money, glory and fun!”


Connery clearly paints a picture of professional golf as very different from the PGA Tour that we know today.   No Titleist sponsorships and Golf Channel television coverage exist in 19th Century Scotland.  Instead, golfers make money via gambling props.  The aristocratic gamers assemble matches and distribute winnings like hucksters arranging street fights, and their paying “customers” circle and cheer the combatants while tightly gripping their betting slips.   


Connery includes some unusual sights, such as fans standing on the fairway and watching drives land just a few yards in front of them.  Additionally, we see occasional jeers from those losing bets and an actual fistfight or two breaking out.  Tommy accepts all of this, because golf is a route to make his own way. 


Along the way, Tommy is faced with the challenges of his father and breaking through a cast system of sorts, but the script does not cinematically contest him enough, and that is a problem with the picture.  Yes, Tommy engages in an occasional argument with his father or St Andrews Captain Alexander Boothby (Sam Neill), but one never really feels that the young golfer’s destiny is significantly challenged.  The movie’s narrative barriers are not steep enough, and therefore the tension rarely rises to its intended level.  Well, it does during the third act, but with a runtime of 1 hour 57 minutes, the film takes a while to get there. 


Tommy’s journey takes a leisurely path during his reign as a professional golfer in a sport sometimes noted for the same tones.  Similar hushed tones are reserved for his three younger siblings, two brothers and a sister.  The script includes them in multiple scenes - in and out of the Morris home - but without meaningful screen time.  Other than Lizzie’s (Kylie Hart) sisterly affection for Tommy’s love interest, Meg (Ophelia Lovibond), and one brother’s unfortunate inability to walk, the audience does not receive many chances to learn about them. 


On the other hand, Connery provides the audience many, many opportunities to experience Scotland’s scenic beauty, including the film’s jaw dropping opening shot of the country’s coastline, several rustic moments during matches, our first memorable look at Old Tom emerging from the ocean, and even a momentary pause from golf to watch a pack of horses rumble past the camera.   While Connery and cinematographer Gary Shaw present Scotland’s best looks on display, Robert Macfarlane’s impeccable touch with costume design completely transports us 145 years into the past.


This includes the golf courses as well, with all of the challenging, countryside nuances that links golf can provide.  We see sand traps, rock traps, puddle traps, and the occasional duck standing in the field of play.  Golfers will enjoy soaking up much of the pastoral surroundings, putts cutting through long green blades and drives from the tee boxes.


Connery gets so much of the sights and sounds right, but unfortunately, does not become creative enough during match play.  We see Tommy and others repeatedly drive from the same camera angle, just a few yards away from every golfer, which almost made this moviegoer want to step out of my seat, walk into the big screen and stand behind them or perhaps stare down from overhead.  A special effects shot or two that follows a golf ball’s path would have added to the wonder and drama of the matches.    


Having said that, “Tommy’s Honour” certainly brings light to an extraordinary, influential athlete and an understanding of Tom Watson’s aforementioned love of the sport in its homeland. The picture generates a polite golf clap from me, and I do have an itch to pick up Kevin Cook’s 2007 book about Tommy Morris, grab my clubs and hop on plane to Scotland.


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 Blackcoat's Daughter - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

‘The Blackcoat’s Daughter’ will form a kinship with horror fans  


Directed and written by:  Oz Perkins

Starring:  Kiernan Shipka, Lucy Boynton and Emma Roberts


“The Blackcoat’s Daughter” – “Creepy is better than just plain scary, because you can’t look away from creepy.  You want to know the truth.” – Ransom Riggs


First-time director Oz Perkins made a confusing film. 


He made a sinister, spooky, atmospheric, and confusing film. 


Throughout much of its 1-hour 33-minute runtime, Perkins barely explains why events are set in motion and deliberately leaves the audience stranded at the mercy of the narrative.  Perkins simply walks away, while we scramble to discern which room in Hades he just placed us.  Truth be told, however, every single living and breathing second of “The Blackcoat’s Daughter” is creepy, and in the horror world, sometimes, creepy is enough. 


Oh, we cannot look away either.


The Bramford School is where Perkins wants the audience to look.  It is an all-girls boarding school, and winter break finally arrives.  We know its wintertime, because crunchy snow covers the campus and not a leaf can be found on any of the surrounding dormant trees.  School can be a place of great joy and camaraderie, but from the dour weather outside and the antiseptic rooms and hallways inside, every single girl might want to make a dead sprint for her parents’ car and ask them to run through every red light on the way home. 


Two girls - a freshman named Kat (Kiernan Shipka) and an upperclasswoman named Rose (Lucy Boynton) - do not have a ride home, and the dean clearly explains that they cannot live here during the break.  Somehow, they need to get home, but alas, Kat and Rose stay at Bramford anyway, sans any parental figures willing or able to pick them up. 


Kat and Rose do not really know each other, and Rose could care less about Kat, but they both stay at school overnight, amidst of collection of darkly lit hallways and rooms.  Now, institutions like schools or hospitals might feel safe and comfortable during the bustle of a busy workday.  Conversely, try walking down the same corridors, but with zero souls accounted for in any direction, and the sound of one’s breath as one’s only companion.  Attempt that same activity at night with barely any florescent light illuminating the hallways, and that is a surefire recipe for anxiety-ridden panic attack.  (See also “Halloween II” (1981) or “The Exorcist III” (1990).)


Speaking of sounds, Perkins employs a disturbing score that seems to constantly drum during the entire picture and resembles industrial noise emanating from an oscilloscope via Guillermo del Toro’s or David Lynch’s laboratory of ideas.  This otherworldly and unnerving racket clutters up our senses but perfectly fits with the film’s shadowy setting.


The film is dark, figuratively and literally.  When trying to cut through the shadows, it is sometimes difficult to visualize what we are actually observing.  Since the accompanying soundtrack is constantly buzzing as well, the end result is a hypnotic effect.  Thankfully, Perkins snaps us out of the trance and introduces a third character to the mix, Joan (Emma Roberts).  She resides off-campus, but we soon discover that she might be closing in on destiny, tied to the school in some way. 


“The Blackcoat’s Daughter” has its way with us, and we are helpless to fight it off.  This raw, low budget affair borrows from a couple classic movies of the genre, but in the end, it stands on its own with its disturbing style and tones.  Walking away from the movie, one will probably have more questions than answers.  I wrote this review with a designed vague intent, because quite frankly, I still have questions.  More importantly, I did not want to give away the film’s main secrets.  Well, it is no secret that “The Blackcoat’s Daughter” will sit in the pit of one’s stomach, as it extends its tentacles when taking root.  Yes, creepy horror movies can have that effect, especially if one never really grasps the entire truth.

(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 Zookeeper's Wife - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

‘The Zookeeper’s Wife’ is an insightful war story, told from a female perspective


Directed by: Niki Caro

Written by:  Angela Workman (screenplay), Diane Ackerman (book)

Starring:  Jessica Chastain, Johan Heldenbergh and Daniel Bruhl


“The Zookeeper’s Wife” – “You can never tell who your enemies are or who to trust.  Maybe that’s why I love animals so much.  You look in their eyes, and you know exactly what’s in their hearts. They aren’t like people.”  - Antonina Zabinski (Jessica Chastain)


Antonina (Chastain) and Jan Zabinski (Johan Heldenbergh) run a zoo in Warsaw, and life couldn’t be better for them during the summer of 1939.  A place of beauty and wonder, and on any typical morning, one might see Antonina ride her bike through the zoo and greet all of the animals with her sweet, nurturing voice.


When she says, “Good morning, my sweethearts,” the animals seem to smile back. 


In a recent interview with the Phoenix Film Festival, director Niki Caro spoke about the Zabinskis, and said, “They were zookeepers.  Jan was a doctor, very much the brains of the operation, but (Antonina) was the heart.  He admired her so much for the person that she was and the gifts that she had.” 


Antonina was an animal whisperer of the most unique sorts, but the Zabinskis’ lives became completely unsorted on Sept. 1, 1939, when the German military began bombing Warsaw and World War II arrived in Poland.  Great conflict can beget even greater courage, however, and in the interest of saving lives, the Zabinskis turned their place of business and love into “a human zoo”. 


Based upon true events, “The Zookeeper’s Wife” is a war story.  Like all war stories, an incredibly difficult and emotional one in many respects, but the film is a gift, because it reveals the Zabinskis’ heroism in a time of crisis. 


Animal lovers will be instantly drawn to the material from the opening shot.  Caro captures Antonina sitting in a chair and watching over her sleeping son, Ryszard (Timothy Radford), while two little lion cubs lay next him on his bed.  Caro and Chastain immediately succeed in establishing Antonina’s kinship with animals. 


Once the Germans occupy the city and form the infamous Warsaw Ghetto, Jan and Antonina form another kinship, with the persecuted Jewish people.  The film chronicles Jan and Antonina’s determination to save as many lives as they could by moving them from the ghetto to the basement of their home, right underneath the Germans’ noses.  Although the picture offers some very tense moments – with a cloak and dagger feel during those movements from harm’s way to refuge - “The Zookeeper’s Wife” does not necessarily unfold as a thriller because of its overall construction.


Instead, the picture is broadly built, as it attempts to cover several aspects of the Zabinskis’ lives and the war itself. We see several of Jan’s tactics to free the Jewish people from the ghetto, their stay at the Zabinskis, Antonina’s struggle with a German zoologist, Lutz Heck (Daniel Bruhl), the strain on her marriage, bigger developments and consequences of the war, the outcome of the zoo’s animals, and more. 


Alas, in an attempt to cover a breadth of events, the film does not dive deeply in certain places.  I wanted to see more time in exploring the day-to-day events within Jan and Antonina’s house and developing the relationships between the Zabinskis and the people who they saved.  We get a good sense of these rich and complex stories, but not completely fulfilling ones.  On the other hand, the movie is beautifully filmed, and during the Zabinskis’ brave deeds, Jan and Antonina managed several moving parts, as Caro does a splendid and noble job of opening up the material and allowing the audience to see into their lives. 


The three leads, Chastain, Heldenbergh and Bruhl are perfectly cast in playing the lives of Antonina, Jan and Lutz.  Bruhl gives Lutz a conflicted, somewhat-ineffectual flair that allows the Zabinskis to work their rescue-magic.  Heldenbergh brings a grounded authenticity to Jan, a pragmatic zoologist, who suddenly – beginning in Sept. 1939 – needs to dramatically think outside the box, and “The Zookeeper’s Wife” - as denoted in the title - is Chastain’s picture.  Chastain commands every scene that she steps into with a strong, feminine spirit, and delivers so many moments – of tears, wonder and joy - that help define Antonina, a hugely important female voice during the darkest times of war. 


Antonina may have prided herself on loving animals, but in “The Zookeeper’s Wife”, the audience also sees that she loved people.

(3/4 stars)


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



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

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

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

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


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


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


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



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


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



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


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


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

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



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


NC:  Yea, different but equal.


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


Personal Shopper - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

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


Writer/director:  Olivier Assayas

Starring:  Kristen Stewart, Lars Eidinger and Ty Olwin



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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

(2/4 stars)


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





T2 Trainspotting - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

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


Director:  Danny Boyle

Writer:  John Hodge

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


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


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


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


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


Far from it. 


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


Far from it.


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


Far from it. 


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

(2.5/4 stars)


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

Raw - Movie Review by Monte Yazzie



Director: Julia Ducournau

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


Monte's Rating

4.25 out of 5.00

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

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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



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


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


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



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


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


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


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



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


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


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



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


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


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


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



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


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


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


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




Beauty and the Beast - Movie Review by Monte Yazzie

Beauty and the Beast


Director: Bill Condon

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


Monte’s Rating

3.50 out of 5.00

Beauty and the Beast - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

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


Director:  Bill Condon

Writers:  Stephen Chbosky and Evan Spiliotopoulos

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



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


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


We know this story. 


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


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


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


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


Initially, at least.


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


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


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


We know this tour. 


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


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


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


We do not know that backstory.


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


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


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


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

(3/4 stars) 


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




The Sense of an Ending - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

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


Director:  Ritesh Batra

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

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

(3/4 stars)


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

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

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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



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


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


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



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


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



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


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


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


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



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


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



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


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



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


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


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


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


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


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





The Last Word - Movie Review by Kaely Monahan

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

By Kaely Monahan


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


Kong: Skull Island - Movie Review by Monte Yazzie

Kong: Skull Island


Director: Jordan Vogt-Roberts

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


Monte's Rating

3.50 out of 5.00