Cold War - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

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Pawlikowski’s ‘Cold War’ is a dreamy encounter and 2018’s best film

 

Directed by:  Pawel Pawlikowski

Written by:  Pawel Pawlikowski, Janusz Glowacki and Piotr Borkowski

Starring:  Joanna Kulig and Tomasz Kot

 

“Cold War”  – The Cold War lasted from the late 1940s to 1991, and Berlin was a metropolitan petri dish that unmistakably demonstrated the stark rift between East and West.  Recent notable films like “Good Bye, Lenin!” (2003), “The Lives of Others” (2006), “The Debt” (2010), and “Bridge of Spies” (2015) feature this schizophrenic German city, as an integral character of their narratives, one that physically separates democracy from communism.  Although each of the previously-mentioned films features a love interest, none of those movies are love stories. 

 

Far from it, but writer/director Pawel Pawlikowski’s picture is.  Berlin is not the centerpiece of “Cold War”, but the movie’s most pivotal moment occurs there, as the urban-poster child of political and cultural division becomes wholly symbolic of nearly every significant rift within Pawlikowski’s film, with two exceptions.  First, the underlying passion between the leads Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) and Zula (Joanna Kulig).  Second, the song, “Two Hearts, Four Eyes”, which appears in various forms throughout the picture, but one can also effectively argue that the track itself reflects the aforementioned divisions.    

 

In the most beautifully-shot movie of 2018, “Cold War” showcases a fervent love affair between a music director (Kot) and a singer/dancer (Kulig) that carries markedly more endurance than a typical June to August fling.  Wiktor and Zula meet in 1949 Poland, but summer is a forgotten memory.  Crossing the country in a van during the dead of winter, Wiktor, Irena (Agata Kulesza) and Kaczmarek (Borys Szyc) look for singers to perform in a traditional Polish music production.  Their company eventually camps at a rural “stately home”, but the snow has somewhat melted to uncover thick cakes of mud.  Several aspiring performers audition, and Zula and another young woman sing together.  Although our blonde-haired heroine is not as talented as the other, Wiktor says, “(She) has something.  Energy.  Spirit.  She’s original.”

 

Sometime afterwards, the two begin a romance, and although their deep infatuation burns, Wiktor and Zula do not function – or communicate with each other - terribly well through the procedural, mundane grinds of a relationship. 

 

For instance, Wiktor asks, “Tie or no tie,” to Zula before a party, and she responds, “Tie,” but he does not wear it to the event.  It goes both ways, as Wiktor assures her that she has no reason to be jealous of his old girlfriend (Jeanne Balibar), but that does not stop Zula from letting an invented resentment ruin her evening. 

 

Wiktor is older and even keel but naive, and Zula is the object of most men’s eyes, flutters at the attention but can strike or feel despondent when dealt an injustice or a perceived one.  (Zula actually signals her feelings through dance - as an organic barometer - both on and off-stage.)  The two don’t logically fit together, but when Wiktor and Zula dominate screen time, while enveloped by rich, vibrant baths of crystal clear and misty cinematic black and white, Pawlikowski compels his audience to hope for a continuous union.  His intention is justifiable, because his parents inspired the characters of Wiktor and Zula, which are their names as well.  In an Aug. 2018 interview, Pawlikowski said that the mechanics of his parents’ relationship exist with Wiktor and Zula on-screen, but their real-life story arcs do not. 

 

He laughed, “The realist version would be really boring.”

 

Not “Cold War”.  Pawlikowski’s film is a dreamy encounter of floating episodic vignettes that feel otherworldly, like floating in a welcoming sea of chocolate fondue.  As Wiktor and Zula dip into fateful decisions on both sides of the Iron Curtain – that reflect distinctive music, dances, moods, and politics – they slip into temporary self-destructions or potent bonds over 88 entrancing minutes and sew a common thread over an infamous 20th century divide.

(4/4 stars)

 

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

 

Glass - Movie Review by Ben Cahlamer

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Glass

 

Directed by M. Night Shyamalan

Written by M. Night Shyamalan

Starring James McAvoy, Bruce Willis, Anya Taylor – Joy, Sarah Paulson, Samuel L. Jackson

 

I don’t mind sequels.

Really, I don’t. I grew up with them. In fact if the world wasn’t being decimated by bureaucratic fools and their super computers, I was watching the continued adventures of the Starship Enterprise, the swashbuckling heroism that is Han Solo and Luke Skywalker or the exploits and adventures of Indiana Jones.

Heck, even Norman Bates got a sequel. Several sequels!

Are you detecting a theme here?

M. Night Shyamalan is no exception here. His 1999 film, “The Sixth Sense” raised audience awareness of his unique storytelling abilities with his character-driven narratives. (“I see dead people” still haunts me to this day and I didn’t even see it in a theater.) As with the characters I previously mentioned, Shyamalan understands how to create tension effectively, and in 2000, he introduced us to David Dunn (Bruce Willis) and Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson), two people who pitted against one another in a comic book infused story.

The film was a modest success, and for fifteen years, the world that Shyamalan created stood still until “Split” came along, introducing us to Kevin Wendell Crumb (James McAvoy), who with his 23 distinct personalities held several teenaged girls hostage. At the end of that film (spoiler alert), David Dunn’s character make an appearance when Kevin’s 24th personality, “The Horde” breaks out of the Philadelphia Zoo.

“Glass” picks up three weeks after “Split” and sees David Dunn searching for The Horide. Visually, Shyamalan created a riveting first act. The tension and excitement that coated “Split” is present in “Glass” as Dunn plays the vigilante, something Bruce Willis does very well.

When they are eventually captured and remanded to a psychiatric ward for observation the story loses its steam and its drive. This story’s antagonist, Mr. Glass doesn’t have the same threatening characteristics as Kevin and his personalities and by the time we get to this film, Kevin’s personalities lose their luster.

Part of the challenge is Sarah Paulson’s Dr. Ellie Staple.  As a psychiatrist, she tries to convince the three men that they suffer from delusions of grandeur and that she can help them overcome these thoughts of being superheroes, which is easily contradicted by Joseph Dunn (Spencer Treat Clark, “Unbreakable,” “Gladiator”) who believes his father’s abilities and a real-life super hero.

We ultimately learn the true motives behind the trio’s captivity, which plays as a poorly transitioned twist as it builds on another twist which then turns into a curveball. I got the sense that when we get to the third act that Shyamalan was indeed trying to wrap things up, but he felt compelled for some reason to shoehorn in yet another idea to the point where it just became ludicrous.

Ultimately, the finale suffers under the strain of all the twists. At its core, “Glass” has strong characters and motives, even if their individual purposes got muddled.

1 out of 4

Destroyer - Movie Review by Ben Cahlamer

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Destroyer

 

Directed by Karyn Kusama

Written by Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi

Starring Nicole Kidman, Sebastian Stan, Toby Kebbell, Tatiana Maslany, Bradley Whitford, Jade Pettyjohn, Scoot McNairy

 

I’ve striven very hard over the past year to avoid most details about projects, which is why Karyn Kusama’s “Destroyer” took me by surprise. While my goal is to know as few details as possible, so that I am not influenced by the film’s marketing, my awareness of this project was paltry, which is a shame because Ms. Kusama has a keen eye for details, something this film is full of.

“Destroyer” is the story of a burnt out detective on the trail of a murderer, as her past collides with her present. The detective, Erin Bell (Nicole Kidman) is so far over the edge that she shouldn’t be on the streets. Yet, she knows how to get the job done. The film opens on a dry Los Angeles river viaduct, a slain body and a dye pack-stained $100 bill are the only pieces of evidence that Bell, and we have to go on over the next two hours.

Kusama’s style shifts from the present to the past, building Erin’s story up to the present time. We sense that the character fears something, but we’re not given enough details to know exactly what. This is the film’s strength and its Achilles Heel: the film relies on each detail being layered on one another to move the time-shifting story forward. Within the details are several strong characters, but they never really rise above the story, which was a disappointment.

Erin’s partner, Chris (Sebastian Stan) is familiar to the gang that the duo eventually infiltrate. Together, they become almost chameleon like, blending into their surroundings. Their target is Silas (Toby Kebbell), a violent man with no morals and zero remorse. His girlfriend Petra (Tatiana Maslany) is more than window dressing in this story, which I appreciated.

As the story progresses, we meet the other members of the team as Erin interrogates them trying to hunt down Silas in the modern timeframe. The difficulty with these characters is that they are reduced to chess pieces; as the story doesn’t care about the past as much as it does to solving Erin’s story, each beat less compelling than the last.

The strength of this film is solely in Nicole Kidman’s performance, a fact that she was nominated for a Golden Globe. We see her desperation through the makeup, her relentlessness and the abuse that she takes for past sins. She reminded me of Al Pacino’s Vincent Hannah; always on the edge. The supporting characters should have boosted her performance and in a way they do, but the story forces the secondary characters in to the background along with her character being too far over the edge.

I very much wanted to like this film. Kidman’s performance is absolutely first rate. The story is strong, but the film suffers from showing too much while not giving the audience enough time to take the story in.

2.5 out of 4

Capernaum - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

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‘Capernaum’ shines a bright light on dark times

 

Directed by:  Nadine Labaki

Written by:  Nadine Labaki, Jihad Hojeily and Michelle Keserwany

Starring:  Zain Al Rafeea, Yordanos Shiferaw, Kawsar Al Haddad, Fadi Yousef, and Boluwatife Treasure Bankole

 

“Capernaum” – “I want them to stop having children.” – Zain (Zain Al Rafeea)

 

This is Zain’s plea/wish/demand that he utters in a Lebanese court of law.  He is about 12-years-old, but this child does not know his age.  Miraculously, his mother and father cannot pinpoint his date of birth either.  The family lives in poverty, and Zain and his siblings suffer from their parents’ neglect and ineptitude. 

 

Hence, Zain sues his parents for giving birth to him. 

 

This heartbreaking declaration defies comprehension, but since director/co-writer Nadine Labaki illustrates the living nightmare that this little boy endures, Zain’s thought process has undeniable merit. 

 

“Capernaum” is a brutal and painful 2-hour 1-minute slog on Beirut’s streets, where our lead suffers from economic destitution and emotional neglect.  Lebanon does not corner the market on impoverishment, because Labaki’s story could be set in just about any large American city, but she was born in Beirut. 

 

When speaking at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) in Sept. 2018, Labaki said, “The film is the result of four years of research.  I went to many places in Lebanon and spoke to many children, and what you are going to see is really inspired by things that they told me.  Unfortunately, the reality is sometimes harsher than (the events) in the film.”          

 

She captures these moments at ground level by following a young boy’s desperate journey – as Zain leaves his home and wanders around a concrete jungle - to discover any other sensation than absolute misery.  This young actor wears his character’s emotions on his sleeve, because Zain looks nothing but tired.  Weathered, actually.  While asking random strangers for work or attempting to sell various finds on sidewalk markets, he carries a constant aura of discontent.  He also seemingly wears layers of dust and dirt, like “Peanuts” Pigpen, but Schroeder is nowhere in sight to lighten the mood with his famous “Linus and Lucy” melody. 

 

Zain, however, does discover some moments of joy, but they eventually lead to an even more hopeless fate:  he somehow becomes the guardian of a toddler named Yonas (Boluwatife Treasure Bankole).  With no other answers, he places the child in an improvised wagon constructed of a skateboard and a large pot – as seen on the film’s theatrical poster - and they loiter through a maze of boulevards.

 

Yes, the film blatantly reveals the reasons for Zain’s state of affairs, but even though his parents Souad (Kawsar Al Haddad) and Selim (Fadi Yousef) are the lead antagonists, Labaki generates sympathy for them as well.  This small, brief groundswell of compassion for Zain’s folks feels like a minor miracle, while the film reinforces that coarse civic and cultural environments are co-conspirators for this family’s current despair.  In an alternative universe, Souad, Selim, Zain, and Yonas might lead very different lives, however, “Capernaum” is not science fiction.  It is reality.  

 

As soon as the filmed ended, a woman turned to this critic and said, “This movie destroyed me.”

 

Same here. 

(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.

 

Stan & Ollie - Movie Review by Monte Yazzie

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Stan & Ollie

 

Director: Jon S. Baird

Starring: John C. Reilly, Steve Coogan, Shirley Henderson, Nina Arianda, and Danny Huston

 

“The Dance of the Cuckoos” was the signature tune that played before all the films of the classic Hollywood comedic duo Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. Their visual slapstick style has become the iconic calling card for the duo, but the team’s ability at crafting ingenious narrative setups is often overlooked. Stan Laurel, an Englishman, and Oliver Hardy, an American, worked on more than 100 collaborations, creating memorable and influential routines but also developing a lifelong dedication to their craft and ultimately a friendship that would last a lifetime.

 

The story begins in the summer of 1937, Laurel and Hardy are walking the backlots of the Hal Roach (Danny Huston) production “Way Out West”. They are Hollywood superstars at the peak of their career but their relationship with the studios, the dawn of a new era in filmmaking, and their complicated personal lives signal the beginning of the end for their companionship. 16 years progress and Laurel and Hardy are pushing through a tour in Newcastle and Glasgow looking for one final standing ovation for their comedy stylings.

 

“Stan & Ollie”, directed by Jon S. Baird, takes a charming look at the later career of the two comedians. For fans of the comedy legends, the portrayal of Laurel and Hardy is impeccable. Steve Coogan gives a wonderful performance as Stan Laurel while John C. Reilly completely disappears, physically and emotionally, into the role of Oliver Hardy. It’s impressive how much detail was paid towards the routines and mannerisms of the duo, Mr. Coogan and Mr. Reilly absolutely nail the stage reenactments.

 

The narrative composes an interesting character study that is greatly accommodated by the performances of Coogan and Reilly. Instead of focusing on the tedious nature of a traditional biopic structure, the film wisely takes the focus towards the latter days of the duo’s career. We get to see the years of resentment boil over, we see Hardy’s health decline with a heart condition that makes his performance on stage difficult, and we see Laurel’s frustration with letting go of the past and having to adapt to the inevitable future. This helps bring a melancholy sensibility to the typically joyous routines they performed.

 

There are a few moments in the film that unnecessarily slow the pacing down, specifically when the film tries too hard to explain the complicated relationship of these two artists instead of trusting the performances which work so much better in showing the mix of emotions the pair are feeling as they realize that things will never be the same. Still, director Jon S. Baird does a fine job of turning a modest script into something much more genuine.

 

“Stan & Ollie” showcase the talent of a kind of comedy that has all but disappeared from the mainstream culture. While there are occasions when comedians will emulate a small piece of what these two iconic characters did so effortlessly, the style and grace of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy are truly one of a kind. “Stan & Ollie”, with its impressive performances, honors the legacy of a unique craft founded by two comedy craftsmen. 

 

Monte’s Rating

3.50 out of 5.00

Eight Must-see John C. Reilly Performances by Jeff Mitchell

Eight must-see John C. Reilly performances

 

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John C. Reilly is one of the most recognized and celebrated character actors today, and he stars in “Stan & Ollie”, a film about the famous comedy duo Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy.  The much-anticipated movie – that also includes Steve Coogan - arrives in Phoenix on Friday, Jan. 11, and while Reilly hopes to deliver in his latest film, let’s look back at his must-see performances. 

 

This list is limited to eight, but admittedly, many more movies/roles could have been included.  For instance, his work in “The Sisters Brothers” (2018) and “Kong: Skull Island” (2017) immediately come to mind, and others delve farther back, like his bit role in the Irish mob movie “State of Grace” (1990) and his Golden Globe-nominated effort in “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story” (2007).  Reilly works hard in front of the camera, but he makes it seem so effortless with a natural everyman-persona throughout his jam-packed, 30-year career.

 

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“Boogie Nights” (1997), Reed Rothchild – Writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson’s groovy and winding tale of a dishwasher-turned-pornstar struts with confident bravado but also twists through the seedy underbelly of the industry.  With a perilous journey ahead, our hero Eddie Adams (Mark Wahlberg) - who becomes Dirk Diggler – needs a wingman, and Reed (Reilly) is that guy!  Sure, Reed boasts about his weightlifting prowess and resemblance to Han Solo, but this good-intentioned doofus always has Eddie’s/Dirk’s back, even when they flail in the recording studio or attempt to rob a drug dealer.  What are best friends for?

 

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“Cedar Rapids” (2011), Dean Ziegler – Ed Helms and Reilly are perfectly cast as a squeaky-clean Tim Lippe and a boorish Dean Ziegler, respectively.  They - along with a collection of midwestern insurance salespeople - descend on Cedar Rapids for an annual convention.  While Lippe needs this business trip to find his way in the game of life, Dean feels overwhelming needs to play drinking games and regularly emit inappropriate comments, but hey, the man certainly livens up a room.  Every moment with Dean (nicknamed Deanzy, or is it Deanzie?) is pure comedic gold, and Reilly lifts an ordinary story to big, new heights with barrages of lows.

 

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“Chicago” (2002), Amos Hart – Director Rob Marshall’s musical collected some serious Oscar hardware, six statues to be exact, and the film also garnered seven other Academy Award nominations, including Reilly’s Best Supporting Actor nod.  While “And All That Jazz” is the most famous song, and “We Both Reached for the Gun” is the most catchy, “Mister Cellophane” might be the most memorable.  Mister Cellophane is none other than Amos Hart (Reilly), who is constantly passed over, used or ignored by his wife (Renee Zellweger), her lawyer (Richard Gere) - who cannot stop calling him Andy - and everyone else.  You see, Amos is right when he sings, “Cause you can look right through me, walk right by me and never know I’m there.”  Poor Andy…err, Amos.

 

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“Hard Eight” (1996), John Finnegan – Sad sack John (Reilly) sits on the ground and props his back against the wall of a diner without a dime or a friend in the world, but a grandfatherly gentlemen named Sydney (Philip Baker Hall) walks up and offers him a cup of coffee and a cigarette.  The two start a sunny teacher-apprentice relationship and navigate in-between the raindrops within the local casinos, but Paul Thomas Anderson’s feature film debut ensures that everyone on-screen gets a bit wet in a nifty, character-driven crime story.  This is Hall’s movie, but Reilly’s John brings a naïveté that always keeps the audience thinking, “When will John screw this whole thing up?”

 

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“Les Cowboys” (2016), The American – Reilly’s appearance, in this gritty drama wrapped in European cultural clashes, comes as a total surprise, so it feels like a spoiler to even mention that he stars in veteran screenwriter Thomas Bidegain’s first directing effort.  A concerned father Alain (Francois Damiens) desperately searches for his missing daughter and drags his son Georges (Finnegan Oldfield) into his pursuit.  They find few answers, but a mysterious American (Reilly) with a questionable background might provide some clues.  Reilly plays way off-type here, as his character offers plenty of risks instead of hearty laughs.

 

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“Magnolia” (1999), Jim Kurring – In Paul Thomas Anderson’s multiple-storyline masterpiece, he introduces several dysfunctional characters who cope with present day-life and dwell on the past.  Anderson’s favorite actors make appearances, including Philip Baker Hall, Philip Seymour Hoffman, William H. Macy, Alfred Molina, Julianne Moore, and of course, Reilly.  Reilly plays a lonely Los Angeles cop who falls for an emotionally-distressed woman but does not recognize her obvious troubles and shortcomings.  Officer Jim Kurring (Reilly) carries his own faults too.  He does not think that he’s the greatest cop, but he might surprise himself.  Well, one should not be surprised that Reilly hits another acting-bullseye.

 

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“Step Brothers” (2008), Dale Doback – Two years after directing “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby” (2006), Adam McKay brings Will Ferrell and Reilly together again for one of the funniest lowbrow comedies in recent memory.  Two 40-somethings with severe cases of arrested development are forced to live together, and the hilarity between Brennan (Ferrell) and Dale (Reilly) never stops for 98 minutes.  Look, Dale’s first kiss at the 34-minute mark is worth the entire price of admission.  Richard Jenkins, Mary Steenburgen, Adam Scott, Kathryn Hahn, and Rob Riggle help enable Ferrell’s and Reilly’s adolescent hijinks.  

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“Terri” (2011), Mr. Fitzgerald - High school is the best time of your life.  That’s what the collective they say, right?  Well, not for everyone and include Terri (Jacob Wysocki), a troubled loner, in this underappreciated group.  When Terri’s classwork suffers, and he starts sporting pajamas to school, assistant principal Mr. Fitzgerald (Reilly) intervenes.  Not by blasting him into an eternity of detention, but by becoming his mentor.  Reilly brings his unique comic touch to this charming indie, as Mr. Fitzgerald bares his soul and gives weathered perspectives like, “Life’s a mess, Dude, but we’re all just doing the best we can.”  Woody Harrelson’s work in “The Edge of Seventeen” (2016) includes more sarcasm, but he almost seems to model Reilly’s 2011 performance.

 

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 Upside - Movie Review by Ben Cahlamer

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The Upside

 

Directed by Neil Burger

Screenplay by Jon Hartmere Based on “The Intouchables” by Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano

Starring Kevin Hart, Bryan Cranston and Nicole Kidman

 

I walked out of my screening of “The Upside” feeling pretty good about the film. It had a lot of heart. It had a lot of courage. It made me feel good about myself, I suppose.

I had this same feeling coming out of “Green Book,” and I now can appreciate the concerns that were raised about that film because they apply to this film as well.

As I started thinking about it, I realized that it felt preachy and while I ascribe to giving people chances to improve and grow, I didn’t feel that either Dell Scott (Kevin Hart) nor Phillip Lacasse (Bryan Cranston) really grew. Sure, their characters grew out of their friendship, but if Dell hadn’t had a need, if he hadn’t been in the right place at the right time, the story wouldn’t have worked.

They needed each other and that symbiotic relationship was required to make the story work.

Neil Burger, who made one of my all-time favorite films, “The Illusionist” and directed “Divergent” really had to stretch here to make the content work. One of the biggest stumbling blocks is the way the film opens because it creates a level of confusion that the film doesn’t fully embrace.

But, I don’t think we’re meant to mind this “smoke and mirror” routine. Dell is a criminal with a long, sordid history. He is described in an archetypical fashion with a broken relationship, out of a job and on his last straw. As good natured as Hart is, he doesn’t come across as someone who is struggling, yet when we look at his wife and his son, they are struggling, but the struggle is in the relationship, not the surroundings.

Out on parole, his P.O. requires him to find a job or get signatures that he is actually trying to find work.  We are treated two scenes where Dell is interviewing when he finally comes across the ad for a live-in caregiver for Phillip, a paraplegic. The story uses Phillip’s dreams and memories to tell his tragic backstory, which is really this film’s Achilles Heel in that they never really relate the dreams to the overall story.

Dell on the other hand is along for the ride. Yes, he’s the emotional anchor of this film, trying to get Phillip to feel something, even if it is anger, but some sort of emotion as a reminder of a life that’s worth living. Cranston was superb at conveying those emotions, yet he appeared to be constricted by the physicality of his character. There are moments where Cranston’s smile comes out reminding us of his comedic timing, but they are so far and few between.

As I said, I felt good walking out of the screening, but I knew there was something itching at the nape of my neck about this film. I haven’t seen the French film that Jon Hartmere based his script on (I plan to this weekend). Part of my issue is that this story felt recycled.

In fact, I couldn’t help but think of Garry Marshall’s “Pretty Woman,” but significantly watered down. Some have compared it to “Driving Miss Daisy.” I don’t necessarily think that’s a fair comparison because it inevitably feels like a bromance rather than a look at race relations, though there are those themes present as well.

Whether Burger and Hartmere intended it, this rags to riches – type story for Dell doesn’t come off as well as it probably could have even if we do enjoy Hart and Cranston’s performances.

1.5 out of 4

Jeff Mitchell's Golden Globe Predictions

Jeff Mitchell’s Predictions - 2019 Golden Globe Awards

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Happy Belated New Year!  Geez, all of a sudden, the calendar flipped ahead another year, and before one can say, “If I had a checkbook, I would stress about writing the wrong year on my checks,” the 76th Annual Golden Globes will arrive too.  Sunday, Jan. 6, to be exact. 

 

The second-biggest movie-awards event spreads the wealth, because it splits the best films and lead performances over two categories, Musical/Comedy and Drama, so King Midas works a bit of overtime.  I’m happy to work more as well, and although I am not an infallible prognosticator, here are my best-educated and fearless predictions of the biggest awards.

 

In addition to “Who/What will win”, I also included “Who/What should win” and “Who/What should have been nominated”, but what do you think?  

 

Well, I think that you should make your picks, grab a tux or your best dress, watch Andy Samberg and Sandra Oh host the event, and embrace the Golden Globes!

 

 

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Best Foreign Language Film:

What will win:  “Roma”

What should win:  “Roma”

What should have been nominated:  “Cold War”

 




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Best Screenplay:

Who will win:  Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara (“The Favourite”)

Who should win:  Adam McKay (“Vice”)

Who should have been nominated:  Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal (“Blindspotting”)

 


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Best Supporting Actress:

Who will win:  Regina King (“If Beale Street Could Talk”)

Who should win:  Regina King (“If Beale Street Could Talk”)

Who should have been nominated:  Olivia Cooke (“Thoroughbreds”)

 



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Best Supporting Actor:

Who will win:  Mahershala Ali (“Green Book”)

Who should win:  Mahershala Ali (“Green Book”)

Who should have been nominated:  Steven Yeun (“Burning”)

 





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Best Actress – Musical or Comedy:

Who will win:  Olivia Colman (“The Favourite”)

Who should win:  Olivia Colman (“The Favourite”)

Who should have been nominated:  Lady Gaga (“A Star Is Born”) 

 




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Best Actress – Drama:

Who will win:  Lady Gaga (“A Star Is Born”)

Who should win:  Glenn Close (“The Wife”)

Who should have been nominated:  Jessie Buckley (“Beast”), Julia Roberts (“Ben Is Back”) and Toni Collette (“Hereditary”)

 



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Best Actor – Musical or Comedy:

Who will win:  Christian Bale (“Vice”)

Who should win:  Christian Bale (“Vice”)

Who should have been nominated:  Bradley Cooper (“A Star Is Born”) and Rami Malek (“Bohemian Rhapsody”)

 



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Best Actor – Drama:

Who will win:  Rami Malek (“Bohemian Rhapsody”)

Who should win:  Rami Malek (“Bohemian Rhapsody”)

Who should have been nominated:  Ethan Hawke (“First Reformed”) and Marcello Fonte (“Dogman”)

 


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Best Director:

Who will win:  Bradley Cooper (“A Star Is Born”)

Who should win:  Alfonso Cuaron (“Roma”)

Who should have been nominated:  Pawel Pawlikowski (“Cold War”), Warwick Thornton (“Sweet Country”), and Paul Schrader (“First Reformed”)

 


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Best Picture – Musical or Comedy:

What will win:  “The Favourite”

What should win:  “Vice”  

What should have been nominated:  “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “A Star Is Born”

 




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Best Picture – Drama:

What will win:  “A Star Is Born”

What should win:  “If Beale Street Could Talk”  

What should have been nominated:  “Blindspotting”, “Cold War”, “Roma”, “Sweet Country”, and “Transit”

 

 

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.

 

Jeff Mitchell's Best of 2018

Jeff Mitchell’s Top 20 Films of 2018

 

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December in the movie-world means award season is around the corner and annual top 10 and 20 lists are here!  The Phoenix Film Festival’s movie critics make no exception, as we vote for our favorite pictures and performances with the Phoenix Critics Circle and also reveal our own best films of the year. 

 

After watching 268 new movies in 2018, I grabbed my slide rule and protractor, performed numerous calculations and perhaps flipped a coin to proudly reveal My Top 20 Films of 2018.  (By the way, which film just missed the list?  #21 is “Capernaum”, the dizzying and draining Lebanese drama from Nadine Labaki.) 

 

 

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20 - “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” – Melissa McCarthy steps away from her comedic-comfort zone and commands the screen in a dramatic role about author Lee Israel’s true-life scandal.  Unable to pull together a successful book in years, Israel began selling forged letters as collectors’ items in order to pay her bills.  Director Marielle Heller pays close attention to Israel’s dark mood and matches it with dimly-lit New York City bookstores, pubs and restaurants as several settings for her dubious intentions.  Hey, a woman has to make a living, right?  Well, Israel pulls her new friend Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant) into her scheme as well, as they forge ahead together.  McCarthy emotes Israel’s on-screen fear of getting caught during a couple key sales and swallows those concerns, but they reveal themselves as subsequent bouts of stress.  No award-stress for McCarthy and Grant, because they earned Golden Globe acting nominations. 

 

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19 - “Dogman” – A gentle dog groomer Marcello (Marcello Fonte) lives a happy life in a seaside, blue-collar neighborhood.  He loves his daughter, animals and job, but a boorish ex-boxer’s (Edoardo Pesce) constant threats and brutish behavior compromises Marcello’s comfy working and emotional spaces.  Director Matteo Garrone (“Gamorrah” (2008)) is not afraid to let his actors get dirty, as everything encompassing this grimy state of affairs points to an ugly ending.  Garrone could not have casted two more physically different actors than the massive Pesce and diminutive Fonte, which naturally raises the tension whenever they appear together on-screen.  This, however, is also true when Fonte is alone, as the worry on Marcello’s face feels ever-present, even when he cares for his doggie customers or lovely daughter, and his performance earned him a Best Actor award at the Cannes Film Festival.

 

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18 – “Green Book” - Viggo Mortensen has never been funnier, and Mahershala Ali delivers a nuanced performance and is out of this world on the piano in a crowd-pleasing road trip movie set in 1962.  Based on actual events, renowned concert pianist Dr. Don Shirley (Ali) hires an uncultured bouncer Tony Lip (Mortensen) as his driver for a musical tour through the Midwest and South.  Director Peter Farrelly addresses segregation and deep-rooted and casual racism, but Tony and Doc regularly improve our moods as their opposite outlooks comedically clash.  Director Peter Farrelly’s movie succeeds as a feel-good comedy, because it focuses more on Tony’s and Doc’s relationship, rather than the surrounding intolerance.

 

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17 – “The Rider” – “Sometimes, dreams aren’t meant to be.” Writer/director Chloe Zhao’s beautiful but heartbreaking picture tenderly embraces this aforementioned resignation in the world of rodeo riding.  Brady Jandreau, a real-life rodeo rider suffered a brain injury on the circuit, and he plays Brady Blackburn, who suffers the same fate.  Brady’s doctors forbid him to get on a horse again, and through quiet moments of reflection, he attempts to internalize his fate and cope with an unknown future.  Everything feels raw and authentic, as Brady struggles with poverty, but also gallops on scenic South Dakota prairies, and matched with Nathan Halpern’s score, both extremes foster audience tears.

 

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16 - “Damsel” – Samuel (Robert Pattinson) believes Penelope (Mia Wasikowska) needs to be swept off her feet in directors David and Nathan Zellner’s (“Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter” (2014)) latest creation.  “Damsel” is a hilarious, offbeat surprise and the most unique western to arrive on the big screen in years.  The picture houses classic genre themes like long stretches on horseback, beautiful skies and hazardous saloons, but also quirky exchanges and visuals reminiscent of a Wes Anderson picture, and the conflicting crescendos amuse and entertain.  All the lead and supporting players - including the Zellner brothers and a precious, little scene-stealer: a miniature horse named Butterscotch - embrace the film’s pleasing and darkly comedic tones.

 

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15 – “BlacKkKlansman” – Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) becomes the first black officer with the Colorado Springs Police Department during the 1970s and creates waves, but not in ways that one might suspect.  He decides to run an undercover investigation against the Klu Klux Klan and signs up his fellow officer Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) as the face of the operation.  Director Spike Lee’s picture somehow balances stressful and hilarious (yes, it’s funny) themes and delivers a real-life history lesson and chilling moments, as Ron and Flip need to walk on eggshells in the presence of menacing company.   

 

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14 – “Thoroughbreds” – “We’ll do it ourselves.”  Teenagers Amanda (Olivia Cooke) and Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy) decide to take matters into their own hands, but what will they do exactly?  Plan a Sweet 16 party?  Prepare for the SAT without a study guide?  No, they agree to murder Lily’s stepdad!  Cooke and Taylor-Joy share sinisterly-satisfying chemistry, when Lily starts speaking honestly to Amanda, an admitted sociopath.  Writer/director Cory Finley’s dark comedy/crime drama purposely repels altruism, but he creates an odd, twisted nobility in each character, as they deliver their own corrosive, hypnotic truth, accompanied by the filmmaker’s equally compelling camerawork.  The late Anton Yelchin stars in his last big screen performance.

 

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13 – “If Beale Street Could Talk” - Director Barry Jenkins adapts James Baldwin’s novel into a film of dreamy beauty and rich textures but also weaves a troubling narrative that feels all-too-common in the United States of America.  Tish (KiKi Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James) have been friends since childhood, but their relationship grows romantic as adults.  They are young – 19 and 22 years-old – but Tish’s parents and Fonny’s father joyfully offer their love and encouragement.  Unfortunately, life can often meddle with our perfectly-designed plans, and this young woman and man become its latest victims.  Several strong supporting performances bolster Layne and James, led by Regina King, Teyonah Parris and Brian Tyree Henry.

 

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12 – “A Quiet Place” - Director John Krasinski channels his inner Rod Serling and Alfred Hitchcock to scare up this brilliantly filmed and constructed alien invasion movie.  With little exposition, Krasinski utilizes a tightly-wound narrative to clearly outline a family’s current, lonely predicament.  The adversarial, unworldly invaders possess extremely acute hearing, so in order to survive, parents Evelyn (Emily Blunt) and Lee (Krasinski) and their children Regan (Millicent Simmonds) and Marcus (Noah Jupe) need to refrain from making noise.  Even whispering could be dangerous!  Clocking in at 90 minutes, this white-knuckler whips by, as it strangles your voice box and draws out your breath.  Simmonds especially shines in a key supporting role.  

 

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11 – “Free Solo” – The most stressful movie experience of the year!  Alex Honnold attempts to climb El Captain - a 3,000 foot granite wall in Yosemite National Park - without a rope and directors Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi capture his incomprehensible expedition every step of the way (pardon the pun).  Someone trying to free solo a cliff like El Cap has be to wired differently than most, and the film presents Honnold’s quirky habits, like eating his meals from a frying pan and spatula, but his congenial persona and singularly-focused goals gain our admiration.  If there was not enough drama with his El Cap journey, Honnold finds a charming, caring girlfriend, and now, his daredevil pursuits directly impact someone else.  A mind-blowing documentary. 

 

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10 – “First Reformed” - Ethan Hawke deserves a Best Actor Oscar nomination in writer/director Paul Schrader’s muddy picture about a troubled alcoholic unable to cope with the past while fearful about the present and future.  Rev. Toller (Hawke) preaches sermons and other life lessons to sparse crowds who sit in white pews every Sunday at his First Reformed Church.  Meanwhile, black outlooks fill his soul.  By filming one or just a few characters at a time in small and large empty spaces – and with a bleak northeast winter as a backdrop - Schrader piles on gloomy despair, despite a setting of supposed affirmation.  Cedric the Entertainer and Victoria Hill contribute effective supporting performances, while Hawke dominates the screen and feeds parallels to Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) from “Taxi Driver” (1976), a film also written by Schrader. 

 

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9 – “Burning” – Director Lee Chang-dong’s picture is about haves and have-nots, belief and uncertainty, clear direction and lack of focus, urban abundance and rural frugality, and romance and unrequited love.  Lee Jong-su (Yoo Ah-In) accounts for half of these opposing forces, as this young man – about 20 years-old – unfortunately, does not seem to have direction in the game of life. “To me, the world is a mystery,” Jong-su says.  So is this film, as “Burning” assembles a slow-boiling love triangle between Jong-su, his free-spirited friend Shin Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo) and a cagey playboy Ben (Steven Yeun).  With an endless supply of money, time and confidence, Ben seemingly has it all, and Jong-su tries to crack the man’s code, but he may have uncovered something very different.  Like walking 20 minutes late into a class lecture, “Burning” stokes a burning need for answers, and clinging to Jong-su is our only hope, but remember, to him, the world is a mystery.

 

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8 – “Avengers: Infinity War” - For 10 years, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been building towards “Avengers: Infinity War”, and directors Anthony and Joe Russo do not disappoint, as they serve up the crown jewel in the staggeringly-successful series.  In Marvel’s 19th installment, a purple, eight-foot titan named Thanos (Josh Brolin) treks across various galaxies to collect six coveted Infinity Stones.  Why?  To wipe out half the population of the universe, but the Avengers aim to stop him.  The Russo brothers construct their movie like a treasure hunt, mix densely-packed blends of action, intrigue and humor, and the on-screen events conjure a certain magic by always keeping us present during every single, individual moment throughout the 2-hour 29-minute runtime. 

 

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7 – “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” - “He was radical.  I know everyone says that, but he was radical,” Elizabeth Seamans says.  Ms. Seamans – who played Mrs. McFeely on “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” – is referring to the show’s creator and host Fred Rogers.  One might not think of Rogers as radical, but director Morgan Neville (“20 Feet from Stardom” (2013)) proves that he was.  Neville interviews family and coworkers (and also includes several interviews from the man himself), and they describe Rogers’ genuine, philanthropic nature and ingenuity.  For instance, he bravely incorporated difficult news headlines and unpleasant family issues into his show and broke them down into palatable lessons for children.  Accompanied by a touching score, the documentary raises general emotion for Fred Rogers and a hope that more individuals in 2018 could be more like him.  Perhaps many of us will watch this documentary and remember how to be…radical. 

 

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6 – “Vice” – Christian Bale deserves to win his second Oscar, as he transforms physically and seemingly spiritually into former U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney in this wildly-presented biopic that entertains, informs and horrifies.  Writer/director Andy McKay employs his similar snappy, wise-cracking style of “The Big Short” (2015) to “Vice”, but rather than dive into numerous stories, McKay centers on one of the most influential but extremely discreet political figures in recent memory.  Bale truly is uncanny and eerily analogous to V.P. Cheney, as we remember him over the last 30 years, but the picture explores his 20s, and it’s not complimentary.  Neither is the unflattering line that McKay draws from the Nixon White House to 2018, but the movie shows respect for this quiet man’s skill set, as well as his love for his family.  Amy Adams deserves a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for her turn as Lynne Cheney, Dick’s motivating force and forever-champion.

 

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5 – “Transit” - Writer/director Christian Petzold’s latest is a surreal puzzler that begins two moves ahead of us, and then we play catch-up for most of the 101-minute runtime.  Georg (Franz Rogowski) is on the run.  He’s a German living in Paris, but he needs to quickly flee the city and country.  He’s close to his escape while hiding in Marseille and waiting for his getaway-ship to arrive.  As Georg lingers in this seaside city, one might wonder why the events mirror World War II, but everything on-screen looks like 2018.  Meanwhile a mysterious woman (Paula Beer) repeatedly appears in Georg’s life for a few seconds at a time and then scurries away.  It is not important to actively investigate your questions during Petzold’s film, but rather, let the narrative run through you.  

 

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4 – “Sweet Country” - Set in 1929 Australia, director Warwick Thornton delivers a deeply affective western – which won TIFF’s 2017 Platform Prize – as it wraps its story in entrenched divides between whites and aborigines.  When Fred Smith (Sam Neill) leaves his ranch for a business trip, his hired hand Sam Kelly (Hamilton Morris) becomes embroiled in a violent incident.  Sam and his wife Lizzie (Natassia Gorey Furber) find themselves on the run, and an ornery officer of the law (Bryan Brown) follows in tight pursuit.  Sam and other aboriginal people depict a collective subordinate bow towards white ranchers and authority figures, and Thornton captures these moments in very obvious and subtle ways.  Life has stacked the deck against Sam, but will the legal threads of Australian justice treat him fairly?  The parallels between “Sweet Country” and America’s history feel eerily comparable.

 

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3 – “Roma” - Writer/director Alfonso Cuaron (“Y Tu Mama Tambien” (2001), “Children of Men” (2006), “Gravity” (2013)) constructs a visual masterpiece – filmed in black and white - about an ordinary housekeeper Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) living in Mexico City.  In most cases, Cleo’s employers – a family of five - treat her respectfully, but she endures occasional dismissiveness, and her boyfriend spews outright vicious verbal abuse.  Although Cleo casually searches for her voice, she is a woman of few words, but Cuaron surrounds her with wondrous, mammoth set pieces, sweeping camerawork and hundreds and hundreds of tiny details that nurture her story.  “Roma” won the top prize at the 2018 Venice Film Festival, and it is not only the favorite to earn a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, but it could earn a Best Picture Oscar nomination as well.

 

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2 – “Blindspotting” – Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal wrote the screenplay and star in a frank, cinematic-conversation about gentrification as experienced by two lifelong Oakland, Calif. friends.  Collin (Diggs) and Miles (Casal) work for a local moving company, as they watch – firsthand – their neighborhoods permanently change.  Miles resents these transformations, but Collin remains more engaged about reaching greater heights.  Collin also sees institutional racism as a very real glass ceiling (and much worse), and the film lays out the justification for his anxiety.  Director Carlos Lopez Estrada establishes a likable friendship between Collin and Miles, which instantly wins over the audience.  Their blissful banter and comedic timing taps our funny bones, but the men also show their flaws.  Miles’ frequent volatility exposes several problematic entanglements that just roll off his back, while the mild-mannered Collin only surrendered to one weak moment in his past that haunts him exponentially.  Everyday moments are light, but the aforementioned flint-filled issues could combust in dire ways.

 

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1 – “Cold War” - Music director Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) meets Zula (Joanna Kulig) during a tryout for a new song and dance ensemble in 1949 Poland, and soon after, they start a fervent love affair in the most beautifully-shot movie of the year.  Director Pawel Pawlikowski’s (“Ida” (2014)) dreamlike narrative – with an indeterminate final destination - plays out like floating episodes, individually scripted by fateful decisions on either side of the Iron Curtain which directly reflect distinct moods and music.  Every celluloid frame soaks in either traditional or modern themes, but the common thread is the passionate tie between Wiktor and Zula, which triggers both temporary self-destructions and potent bonds over 88 entrancing minutes.      

 

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.

 

Monte Yazzie's Best of 2018

Monte Yazzie's Best of 2018


Film is a vessel of analysis into the world we are living in. It’s a bridge that will forever connect the opinions and emotions of the people in 2018 with those who view these artistic capsules in the future. Film in 2018 took risks, made statements, and portrayed the world from vastly different perspectives.

 

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2018 displayed the frustrations with the political structure, the analysis of the past and the ramifications it has on the present times, the loneliness felt by people because of the divisions that exist with the world, with family, and with self, and as per usual, a bunch of remakes, sequels, and movie franchises clamoring for a piece of the box office.

 

For every personal story about growing up and growing old, every melancholy romantic film positioned in the past, every personal story about race and inequality, every documentary about fascinating figures, and every genre tale that displayed horrors brought about by humanity…it all serves as a vessel of perspective for the artist. Here are the films that moved me, enlightened me, and captured my spirit in 2018.

 

10. Roma

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For filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón, “Roma” is utilized to tell a tale of discovery, exploration, and memory. Within the black and white photographed film is a family dynamic concerning three generations of women and how they handle the problems blocking their paths. The way Mr. Cuarón develops the characters here creates a strong emotional connection, one that arrives somewhat unexpectedly but completely encompasses the journey within the film but also for the director. “Roma” is the most beautifully composed film to be made this year from one of the greatest auteurs of the 21st century.

 

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9. Cold War

 

Another film shot in stunning black and white, “Cold War” is a love story that transpires over the course of many years. It’s like an old scrapbook being flipped through, distressed pictures of faded memories that show the smiles amongst the blurry backgrounds of a world that never stops changing, never stops threatening the happiness of people who love one another. Director Pawel Pawlikowski crafts a romantic story that is filled with passion and pain, optimism and melancholy; however, through the journey over time, over love and loss, “Cold War” will seduce you with performance and technique.   

 

8. Blackkklansman

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Director Spike Lee has composed an illustrious career of films that handle aspects of race relationships, both present and past, in thought provoking ways. “BlacKkKlansman” is a career highlight for the director; it’s a film that utilizes every skill Mr. Lee has developed over his entire career in different, intriguing ways. It’s quite impressive seeing everything come together; the composition of the narrative is sensitive and abrasive in effective ways, the performances are nuanced, and the style is a mix of both classic Hollywood and 70’s blaxploitation in only a way that Lee could compose. This film displays the filmmaker’s restraint and also his ability to control tone in big and small ways. Spike Lee displays here why his name should be considering amongst the greatest living American directors.

 

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7. Minding the Gap

 

Next time you come across a group of people skateboarding, stop and watch how many times they fail and fail again before they successfully execute a trick. The determination and perseverance for these athletes is unbelievable. “Minding the Gap” is a documentary about the space that forms between youth and adulthood, the social class divide in middle America, an analysis on manhood, broken homes, trauma and abuse. However, amidst all these different elements, this film is about the freedom one can achieve by having something you can call your own, the freedom that exists through friendship, and the freedom that develops by simple trying to achieve something in the face of failure. This is a stunning debut from director Bing Liu.

 

6. If Beale Street Could Talk

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There is a sense of optimism felt in the final moments of Barry Jenkins’ adaptation of the 1974 classic novel, “If Beale Street Could Talk”, written by James Baldwin. It’s a quiet moment of unrelenting, unwavering love between two young people who grow up in Harlem in the 1970’s and are forced to fight for their love amidst racism that ultimately keeps them apart. Along the path to this moment we are introduced to two families struggling to make a better life for their children, a mother who will travel the ends of the earth for the people she loves, and a young woman who is committed to establishing and building a family. The beauty and tragedy of this film, amidst the remarkable social connection Jenkins is doing with the story, is that the tale is far too familiar, both as an impassioned love story and commentary surrounding the hatred that still exists in 2018.

 

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5. The Favourite

 

Director Yorgos Lanthimos has helmed some impressively unique features in the past few years, tackling interesting subject matter with a keen visual perspective and a distinctive sensibility to narrative structure. “The Favourite”, a career highlight for the Greek director, is a bitingly dark costume comedy about royal affairs, prestige, politics, hierarchy, and the morally abrasive manners that compose the quest for power. The performances are some of the best of 2018. Olivia Colman is exceptional as Queen Anne; her petulant nature, shrieking voice, desperate looks, and tearful pleading compose a character that is trapped and lonely. Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone compete and bicker with amusing flair. “The Favourite” is pleasantly frustrating and sharply hilarious. It’s the best film of Yorgos Lanthimos intriguing career. 

 

4. Blindspotting

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Racism, police brutality, political structures, gentrification are but a few of the subjects tackled with impressive style and undeniable wit by first-time feature film director Carlos Lopez Estrada. Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal offer brilliant performances as two best friends trying to save a friendship and survive in a rapidly changing Bay Area. It’s the most unorthodox film on this list because it refuses to play by the rules; when you think the film should turn left, it turns right, when you think it should retreat from a subject, it charges full speed. “Blindspotting” is pure powerful poetry in so many different ways.

 

 

 

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3. First Reformed

 

Paul Shrader has garnered an impressive list of films under his belt both as a director and writer. “First Reformed” is a difficult film surrounding the aspects of honor, humility and ultimately faith; the film asks challenging questions about religion and politics without the need for an answer from anyone, the director included. The filmmaking is rigid and formal with everything having an order or place, the performance from the exceptional Ethan Hawke feels tortured yet somehow awakened, and the narrative design is foreboding and ominous. Paul Shrader, even after a long and varied career, demonstrates his mastery of filmmaking with “First Reformed”.

 

 

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2. Burning

 

Director Lee Chang-dong has composed six films since 1997, each of them more provocative and emotional than the last. “Burning”, based on a short story by Haruki Murakami, takes aim at the increasing disconnection humanity has with one another and how fractured a person can become by this division. The film expertly shifts its tone, at one moment harboring the characteristics of a lovelorn romance and then transitioning into a mystery that becomes increasingly enthralling. Themes of class division, family trauma, and political division give the film its teeming atmosphere while the performances from the three leads beautifully grounds the story throughout its changing forms with characters obsessed, jealous, and madly in love. “Burning” is captivating cinema from start to finish.

 

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1. Hereditary

 

Horror films have utilized the family dynamic, mostly broken beyond repair, to build visions of invasive family structure terror. Think of films like “The Omen”, “The Shining”, or even more recently “The Conjuring”. What makes director Ari Aster’s first feature film different from most is the structure concerning the family, specifically the historical structure and the ongoing trauma and despair that has permeated the foundation of this family’s ancestry. “Hereditary” takes the viewer into horrific aspects concerning grief, trauma, and ultimately despair before unleashing the supernatural threat, it’s why the film is so effective. It’s this journey into the emotion that ultimately makes the visions of horror resonate so strongly. 

 

The Best of the Rest

11. Sorry to Bother You

12. Suspiria

13. You Were Never Really Here

14. Annihilation

15. Border

16. Beast 

17. Revenge

18. Shirkers

19. Let the Sun Shine In

20. The Sisters Brothers

21. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

22. Shoplifters

23. Mandy

24. Black Panther

25. Vice

Ben Cahlamer's Best of 2018

Ben Cahlamer 2018 Top 10

 

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I have to admit that 2018 was a much harder year in which to come up with my Top 10 of 2018. At the end of 2017, there were two clear films that stood the test of time. This year, and though I suspected that I knew what my top film was going to be, I was just floored by the amazing amount of cinema we got this year.

And yet, I came up with my Top 10. There were a lot of tears and I suspect that there might be some jeers. But that’s okay. Just like the movies I see, this list is just as subjective and that’s what makes going to the movies fun.

Without further ado, here are my Top 10 films of 2018.

 

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10. “Roma” – With Alfonso Curaon’s latest masterwork, I was enthralled with how the 1970’s Mexico City environment carried the story of a live-in-maid (newcomer Yalitza Aparicio) and her journey towards personal salvation. The fact that Curaon used mostly unknown talent is what gives the gorgeous black and white film its flavor; it’s color if you will.



9. “Annihilation” – Alex Garland’s latest Sci-Fi film boggled minds with its ending and eight months later, we are still talking about it. The thing that struck me was how effective the flashbacks to Oscar Isaac’s character worked at defining the story. What really sells the story though is Natalie Portman’s bleary eyed scientist, who has given up hope.


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8. “Hereditary” – I think I’ve mentioned a thousand times that I didn’t start out this career as a lover of horror films and yet, here I am with a horror film in my Top 10 of 2018. Ari Aster’s directorial debut is a master stroke held together by Toni Collette’s riveting performance and that of young Milly Shapiro.


7. “Cold War” – The second foreign language film to be released this year in black and white is a love story between a musical director (Tomasz Kot) and a young singer (Joanna Kulig) who he discovers set during the Cold War in the 1950’s. Pawel Pawlikowski’s film depicts the love struggle as well as the political challenges each character faces over the years.


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6. “Leave No Trace” – Debra Granik’s film carries many themes, but the omnipresent theme is that of survival. Ben Foster, who had three outstanding turns this year is a vet who suffering from PTSD. In order for him to survive and for him to be able to care for his daughter, they have to live “off the grid.” The story really is a reflection on our consumerist society and our lack of skills to survive off the land and without much money. What caught my attention though is throughout all of their adversities, how raising his daughter as he did, taught her how to care for him.

5. “Burning” – I went in to this film knowing absolutely nothing about it and that made for a much richer experience. I will tell you that I laughed. I cried. I emoted over the class warfare that Lee Chang-dong brought to the forefront of his film. The characters that inhabit the film are the best aspect of the film as Chang-dong explores what drives our hungers. It is a slow burn, but very worthy of your time.

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4. “If Beale Street Could Talk” – Barry Jenkins’s follow up to “Moonlight” is full of wonderful performances from KiKi Layne, Stephan James, Brian Tyree Henry, Colman Domingo and Regina King, who the PCC awarded its Best Supporting Actress award to. The cinematography is what captures your attention, bringing you into the film. It is now in theaters and is well worth your time.


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3. “The Favourite” – I am a confessed fan of Yorgos Lanthimos. I also happen to like period pieces. The cast is the foundation for this amazingly wicked story of revenge and love as two cousins, one of status (Rachel Weisz) and another, not (Emma Stone), try to vie for court favorites of Queen Anne (Olivia Colman). The dark humor that ensues is a hallmark of Lanthimos, but here the story written by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara lends itself to the physicality of the humor.


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2. “First Reformed” – Though it screened at Venice in 2017, Paul Schrader’s film didn’t come to my attention until South by Southwest earlier this year as I stood in the press box for the cast and crew’s arrival on the red carpet. I missed the movie then, but caught it when it ran at the Phoenix Film Festival a month later. Ethan Hawke’s performance as Reverend Toller is perhaps one of the best lead actor performances I’ve seen this year. Schrader’s screenplay is as taught as his direction is.

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1. “Blindspotting” – I knew next to nothing about Carlos Lopez Estrada’s debut film when I saw it at South by Southwest earlier this year, and it absolutely blew me away. Yes, there are other films that speak to the same themes of oppression, but the reason why “Blindspotting” is sitting at the very top of my Top 10 is simply down to Rafael Casal and Daveed Diggs’s script and their acting. The last five minutes of the film is worthy of the price of admission alone. It’s got heart and it has soul. I got chastised for the title of my review back in March, but it really is the film we all need. Particularly now.

 

On the Basis of Sex - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

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‘On the Basis of Sex’ might be a good companion piece with ‘RBG’

 

 

Directed by:  Mimi Leder

Written by:  Daniel Steipleman

Starring:  Felicity Jones, Armie Hammer, Kathy Bates, Sam Waterston, Jack Reynor, and Stephen Root

 

“On the Basis of Sex” – In Julie Cohen’s and Betsy West’s 2018 documentary “RBG” (3.5/4 stars), they cover a comprehensive history of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s life, including her childhood, collegiate years, marriage to Martin, legal work, and her views while sitting on the highest court in the land.  Cohen and West also film Justice Ginsburg’s workout routine, and all of this and more efficiently and miraculously fill a jam-packed 1-hour 38-minute runtime. 

 

It’s a fabulous big screen document that is chockfull of surprises, and the most valuable aspect is Justice Ginsburg’s work as a trial lawyer, as she became a paramount champion for equal rights during the 1970s, as evidenced by her quote of 19th century feminist forerunner Sarah Grimke:

 

“I ask no favor for my sex.  All I ask of our brethren is that they take their feet off our necks.”

 

She blazed a trail to help ensure that both women and men are treated equally under the law, and director Mimi Leder’s feature film “On the Basis of Sex” – with Felicity Jones playing Ginsburg - mainly focuses on one specific trial, rather than the sweeping facts, figures and nuance of “RBG”. 

 

How does “On the Basis of Sex” fit with “RBG”?  It’s a companion piece, and there is nothing wrong with a competent feature film celebrating Justice Ginsburg’s life, but “RBG” conveys vastly more information and oceans of celebration, and it accomplishes this in less time than “On the Basis of Sex”.  Twenty-two minutes less.  

 

Leder’s movie, however, does convey the institutionally-sexist obstacles that Ginsburg and women in general – in any profession/facet of life – faced (or face).  The film begins in the mid-1950s during her first year of Harvard Law School.   As Ginsburg enters a Harvard hall, she is noticeably only one of three women out of the numerous rows of men that fill the place, and the numbers problem becomes exacerbated soon after.  Dean Griswold invites all the female law students to his home for dinner and asks them to justify their entrance to the school, because they are taking spots away from men.  Say what? 

 

If a dean spouted a similar statement in 2018, he or she would then quickly add, “Just kidding,” or “I’ll be filing my resignation now.”

 

Women certainly had a near-impossible climb to reach equal treatment under the law or simple common courtesy, so the film establishes a foundation for today’s audience and Ginsburg’s on-screen journey, including several career-doors slammed in her face.

 

She, however, finds a different path, and all directions point to a specific legal challenge that Ginsburg will take to the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals.  She and her husband Martin (Armie Hammer) accept this case for an important reason (that will not be named in this review). 

 

This is a landmark case, and it leads to future rulings that help protect people from discrimination “on the basis of sex.”

 

In addition to the aforementioned limited scope, Leder builds Ginsburg’s story arc in two ways.  One, she seemingly lands the entire weight of the women’s movement on her shoulders.  Two, the film presents Ginsburg as vastly inexperienced in the courtroom, and in the Tenth Circuit Court, she commits a sizable number of gaffs when presenting her case.

 

Whether these small blunders occurred or not in real life, this on-screen record of Ginsburg does not match the superhero persona shared in “RBG”.   Walking out of that film, most people rightfully believed that Ginsburg is pretty darn infallible and possibly indestructible.  She is known as the “Notorious RBG” in many circles, of course.

 

So, one could conclude that screenwriter Daniel Stiepleman included the undue pressure of 130 million women counting on her and several nervous courtroom mistakes to ensure that she overcomes a pair of obstacles for storytelling-sake.  Maybe not, however they feel dramatized and/or inconsistent with the perception of our black-robed hero. 

 

Nonetheless, “On the Basis of Sex” paints a sympathetic picture of women’s long journey to equality in the classroom and workplace, demonstrates Ruth’s and Martin’s devotion to one another and yes, features her limited height.  Ginsburg does not quite stand 5-feet 1-inch tall, so Jones’ height of 5 feet 3 inches is properly disparate to Hammer’s 6 feet 5 inches.  If anything, Leder can claim a bit of genius-casting, but at the end of the day, fans should see “On the Basis of Sex” before “RBG” or perhaps just watch the documentary twice.

(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.

 

 

If Beale Street Could Talk - Movie Review by Ben Cahlamer

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If Beale Street Could Talk

 

Directed by Barry Jenkins

Screenplay by Barry Jenkins based on “If Beale Street Could Talk” by James Baldwin

Starring KiKi Layne, Stephan James, Colman Domingo, Teyonah Parris, Michael Beach, Dave Franco, Diego Luna, Pedro Pascal, Ed Skrein, Brian Tyree Henry, Regina King

 

I remember walking into my screening of “Moonlight” a few years back with no idea what the film was, other than what I had heard coming out of TIFF. As Barry Jenkins’ story unfolded in front of us I was enthralled by Barry Jenkins’s direction and his screenplay; I was impressed with the level of acting, especially that of Mahershala Ali, who would go on to win Best Supporting Actor. What struck me the most was James Laxton’s cinematography and how integral it was to the story Mr. Jenkins’s was trying to tell.

Jenkins is back with “If Beale Street Could Talk,” based on the novel of the same name by James Baldwin.

“If Beale Street Could Talk,” is the story of a young husband, Fonny (Stephan James) and his wife, Tish (KiKi Layne) struggling in early 1970’s Harlem. They are madly in love and want nothing more than to start a family. Before they get the chance to do that, Fonny is falsely accused of a crime he didn’t commit.

Jenkins’s adaptation makes brilliant use of flashbacks to reinforce the strong love between Fonny and Tish. That bond and the structure of the story really define the underlying drama as Tish, now pregnant, has to track down Fonny’s accuser to prove his innocence, eventually involving their mutual families, despite not wanting to do so.

Early in the film, Tish must break the news to her parents that she’s pregnant. Her father, Joseph (Colman Domingo) and mother, Sharon (Regina King) are elated at the news as is her sister, Ernestine (Teyonah Parris). They decide that now is a good time to break the news to Fonny’s family. Because they are not yet married and Fonny’s mother is a devout woman, Tish is afraid of breaking the news. When the news is eventually broken, Fonny’s father, Frank (Michael Beach) is as elated as Sharon and Joseph were, but Mrs. Hunt IAunjanue Ellis) and siblings, Adrienne (Ebony Obsidian) and Sheila (Dominique Thorne) won’t have anything to do with a child born out of wedlock.

The camera work in this scene focuses solely on the emotion and the reaction of each of the characters, allowing us to be an active participant; you are so engrossed in what is happening on the screen that you cannot turn your attention away. This happens throughout the rest of the story as Jenkins takes us back to happier times.

He uses these flashbacks as a means to build Fonny’s character. It paints the picture of a hardworking, decent man who would go to whatever means to protect Tish. Their love, it makes you feel like you’re ensconced in a bubble. This is encapsulated in numerous scenes, not the least of which is when Fonny takes Tish on a tour of a prospective loft.

Jenkins and the characters ask us to envision a future life, full of happiness. It also speaks to Fonny’s resourcefulness as he thinks about their future together: even though he doesn’t have the money together, he has come to an understanding with Levy (Dave Franco) to keep the place for them until he has the money. Jenkins and cinematographer James Laxton again bring us into their world with the use of mimicry as they position furniture and appliances throughout the loft. Jenkins breaks the fourth wall in this moment, but carefully orchestrates it so that we still remain in the bubble. The amount of sunlight captured by Laxton is just right, giving us a moment of hope, of joy, of love.

There is a follow up sequence later that same evening as they visit a small grocer. Something triggers a reaction from Fonny that could be perceived as violence, but we know that he has been goaded into a confrontation with Officer Bell (Ed Skrein). And just as quickly as his street smarts kick in, Tish is there to cool him down. Their love, once again, prevails. But the sequence is a stark reminder of the current times we live in. It isn’t a reminder so much of the unnecessary violence, but of the power of two people to overcome any obstacle.

It is within these moments that “If Beale Street Could Talk” really sings, bringing a gravitas to Tish’s struggle as she works to defend her husband against all odds. This, coupled with her impending pregnancy, make their journey and our sharing within that journey, worthy.

Amidst the ruins of their Harlem apartment, Tish gives birth to their child. You might be asking yourself why I’m sharing this with you. To be honest, Jenkins’s story brought us to this point. But, more importantly, it’s a reflective moment as Tish remembers their last night together with Fonny and Daniel Carty (Brian Tyree Henry) over dinner and beers. Daniel is a part of Fonny’s past; Tish and their child are a part of his future and much like Phoenix rising from the ashes, this moment symbolizes their future together.

That is the power of “If Beale Street Could Talk.” It is so much more than the sum of its individual parts and, just as with “Moonlight,” this story allows the audience to feel alive. It is as reflective as it is hopeful.

4 out of 4 stars

Bumblebee - Movie Review by Ben Cahlamer

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Bumblebee

 

Directed by Travis Knight

Written by Christina Hodson based on “Transformers” by Hasbro

Starring Hailee Steinfeld, John Cena, Jorge Lendenborg, Jr, John Ortiz, Jason Drucker, Pamela Adlon

 

Perhaps I’m dating myself just a bit, I was a kid during “The Transformers” run on television. I cheered when an animated film made it to theaters. I had the toys too. Somehow as I got older, I lost touch with my “Transformers” past. I suppose that happens to every person as they grow older, remembering fond aspects of their childhood, but putting them away to become more responsible.

Of course, this didn’t stop Michael Bay from reimagining the franchise with big, bombastic action-adventure films. The adult in me didn’t really want to sit through a modern, CGI-enhanced rendition of his childhood. I relented for the first three films and then completely gave up on the later entries.

Why, then, did I actively seek out the latest spinoff, “Bumblebee” which hits theaters this weekend?

Most importantly, it was because I have a 12-year-old nephew who’s still at that age where he can appreciate the film for what it is, much like I appreciated the cartoon when I was his age. In that, I get to live vicariously through him.

In that same stretch, Christina Hodson’s story allowed me to vicariously live through the late 1980’s setting of the film. Some have equated the story to “The Iron Giant” and Steven Spielberg’s eponymous “E. T.”, which I agree with. (Mr. Spielberg was an executive producer on this film.)

Those equations are not wrong. Everything that made the prototypical 1980’s fantasy film successful is here. Hailee Steinfeld plays Charlie Watson, a social outcast from both her family and from society. She has a supportive family, but the one, key figure in her life is missing. We know she has potential, but the hole in her life has her wandering aimlessly. That is until Bumblebee comes into her life.

Bumblebee, which is introduced to us in a fairly provocative standoff, is rendered mute. Before I move forward, I suppose I should share that a war has broken out between the Decepticons and the Autobots on Cybertron. If this seems like gobble-de-gook, it’s because it is. Fortunately, for the story we don’t spend too much time involved in the overall Transformers lore. In fact, director Travis Knight steers us clear of most of that, in part because we’ve seen it in the past five movies. More importantly, it allows us to enjoy a single character and their defining moment.

Sent as a sentry to protect Earth and to prepare for the coming war, Bumblebee (voice by Dylan O’Brien) is just a cool, emoting character. Here, he communicates more though motion than through voice, though a really strong connection is formed when Charlie realizes that he is teaching himself to learn English so that he can communicate.

On the flip side is the all-encompassing military story. The Army happened to be in the right place at the right time when Bumblebee first arrives and now Jack Burns (John Cena) wants it as does Dr. Powell (John Ortiz). And, this wouldn’t be a “Transformers” movie without some sort of Decepticon resistance, compliments of Blitzwing (voiced by David Sobolov), Shatter (voiced by Angela Bassett) and Dropkick (voiced by Justin Theroux.)

In spite of Bumblebee, Charlie’s family and friends are pretty cool, if rote characters. Pamela Adlon plays her mom, Sally. She’s the typical mom of the 80’s, overworked and caring. There is an emotional disconnect between mother and daughter that plays nicely as we get further into the story. The geekly brother, this time Otis (Jason Drucker) is fun, but really doesn’t come into his own until the third act. Stephen Schneider plays Ron, Charlie’s stepfather. He tries to help in that condescending 1980’s way. It is awkward to see it portrayed today, but it also rivals the best of that same type of character from the past.

Jorge Lendenborg, Jr (“Love, Simon,” the upcoming “Alita: Battle Angel”) plays Memo. He has a lot of feelings for Charlie and he just doesn’t know how to connect with her. It makes for a playful adventure even if we know that it won’t end up going anywhere.

The biggest challenge with this movie is its third act. The story represents all that was good about the 80’s and the worst. “Bumblebee” works because it doesn’t try to be anything more than it actually is, which is a relief after the last set of “Transformers” movies. But, what should have actually been a showstopper of a third act really just fades away with a wisp.

Is “Bumblebee” worth seeing? Yes, it is. Will you enjoy it? Sure. Will you remember it in five minutes? Probably not. But, if you’re looking for popcorn entertainment that the entire family can see, this is your ticket.

2.5 out of 4

Bird Box - Movie Review by Ben Cahlamer

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Bird Box

 

Directed by Susanne Bier

Written by Eric Heisserer based “Bird Box” by Josh Malerman

Starring Sandra Bullock, Trevante Rhodes, Jackie Weaver, Tom Hollander, BD Wong, Sarah Paulson, John Malkovich and Colson Baker

 

There’s something curious about the recent spate of post-apocalyptic stories featuring zombies. As I’m sure I’ve mentioned, I grew up not being a fan of horror films. As I come to have a better understanding of what the term actually means, I’ve begun to realize that there is a duality to the phrase ‘horror.’ By that I mean there are stories that are meant to be scary, such as “Halloween.”

Then, there are stories like Susanne Bier’s “Bird Box,” which portray the horrors of survival.

Malorie (Sandra Bullock) is a very tense woman. As the film opens, we don’t know why she’s tense, but we’re aware that the environment which surrounds her is full of danger as she instructs two, young children to not take their blindfolds off; that the journey they’re about to take requires their absolute concentration. Bier then jumps backward five years to the point at which Malorie’s story starts.

Malorie is pregnant and getting a check-up when, amidst the chaos, we learn of a strange occurrence in Europe where mass suicides are occurring. The news is easily dismissed until it happens right in front of her. Unable to initially escape, Tom (Trevante Rhodes, “Moonlight”) rescues her from the attack only to be forced into hiding with other frightened strangers.

These early scenes depict not only the struggle for shelter, but the struggle for survival. Each of the people in the home are terrified. No one has exact information on what’s going on in the outside world, so in a sense, the audience is isolated. This is accomplished by papering the windows to prevent outside contact with whatever is compelling people to commit suicide.

By isolating ourselves though, we also force the survivor’s guilt and rage to the forefront. And that’s where this film’s eclectic cast comes into play. Legendary for his intentionally deliberate delivery, John Malkovich plays Douglas, a spiteful and vindictive individual who puts himself first. He’s the type of person who believes in rules and will do what it takes to protect himself first and by a “halo effect,” he protects others. BD Wong, who owns the home is willing to take other people in, but his desire to protect others is quickly outweighed by the needs of survival.

At one point, a furious knocking at the front door introduces us to Olympia (Danielle MacDonald). She is scared and in need of shelter. In a rather convenient moment of fortuity, Olympia is also pregnant. However, Olympia is a lot less sure of herself than Malorie. At the same time, Olympia has a lot more heart than Malorie, leading Olympia to open the home to yet another stranger, Gary (Tom Hollander).

Hollander has a smooth on-screen presence throughout the film. We’re aware that not everything is as it seems with him, but we don’t question his presence either. This leads to an unintentionally hilarious moment with Malkovich, but reminds us of our insatiable need for self-preservation.

The introduction of Olympia and of Gary are meant to build tension in the film and in Olympia’s case, progress the story forward. I found the Olympia character more annoying and ingratiating simply because she reminded me of, well me.

The way the story is structured, Gary’s placement is awkward. He shifts the plot forward in an effective way, but his presence also undermines the future tension by forcing events forward. By this I mean that there is a five year gap between Malorie’s ride down the river and the escape from the house.

This lapse in the story leaves very little time for us to really get to know “Boy” and “Girl” or even Malorie and Tom. The family unit they’ve formed is as tight knit as I’ve seen, but we know at some point they will become separated.

The names, “Boy” and “Girl” as the kids are referred to is intriguing because the world around them has caused them to become anonymous, another aspect of the film’s self-preservation theme. It also emotionally detaches us from caring about the characters, forcing us to focus on the danger in front of us.

We are acutely aware that even through the danger, they will prevail otherwise there’s no point in telling this particular story. I mentioned earlier though about the dual meaning of horror, that of the horror of survival.

The film’s ending, though strangely compelling because of Bier’s direction, the structure of Heisserer’s story and Bullock’s acting, fell flat. Everything that should work to bring us to the film’s conclusion works against its ending.

Perhaps I’m immune to these post-apocalyptic survival stories. Perhaps I’m not hip to zombified human beings. Perhaps it’s the inner-Olympia in me, but “Bird Box” for all its complexities and subtleties, while interesting, missed for me.

“Bird Box” is playing in a limited theatrical release and is now streaming, globally, on Netflix.

2 out of 4

Jeff Mitchell’s Top 10 films of the 2010s…so far

Jeff Mitchell’s Top 10 films of the 2010s…so far (2010 – 2017)

 

During an April 2018 group interview with comedian/screenwriter/director Bo Burnham (when he was in town for the Phoenix Film Festival), he rhetorically asked, “What were the aughts (2000s)?”  He also wondered how 2018 could be defined as well.   Good questions.  An exploding fascination with social media and an intensified political divide, perhaps?  That might speak to life today, but on the positive-side, this year was a great time for movies.  Well, before Monte Yazzie, Ben Cahlamer and I reveal our favorite films of 2018, our team has been posting Top 10 lists from past years.  I decided to look back at the 2010s…so far, so here are my Top 10 films from 2010 to 2017, eight years of an undefinable decade.

 

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10 – “The Act of Killing” (2013) This brave and bizarre documentary, from directors Joshua Oppenheimer, Christine Cynn and Anonymous, crawls into the minds of Indonesian executioners from the mid-1960s and in the process, presents one of the most frightening films that you will ever see.  Told in present-day Indonesia, Anwar Congo and his fellow death squad leaders openly reflect upon their engagement in mass slaughter, and they even reenact their methods.  Not literally reenact, but they recreate their sordid, murderous techniques into a surreal movie-presentation for the documentary.  Now, this two-hour doc meanders nonlinearly, so we need to find our footing at times, but since the material is so unsettling, the editing-choices feel appropriate.  Although nothing else feels fitting, as “The Act of Killing” is an unshakable movie experience.

 

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9 – “Her” (2013) – Just about everyone seems tethered to their smart phones these days, and Spike Jonze projects an evolution of this connection in his insightful science fiction picture.  Set in the not-too-distant future, a heartbroken writer (Joaquin Phoenix) develops a relationship with his handheld computer’s operating system (voiced by Scarlett Johansson), and Phoenix is exceedingly believable as this lost loner.  Unfortunately, Theodore (Phoenix) usually walks with his head down in crowded subways and on populated streets.  When Theodore does join a rare conversation, he sometimes mumbles his words with the utility of a soaked spiral notebook lying in a puddle.  This makes his rapport with Samantha (Johansson) all the more believable, as Jonze suspends our disbelief and warmly captures their unlikely bond.  The film also cleverly presents a forthcoming Los Angeles with subtle “Buck Rogers” touches and shots of Shanghai’s space-age skylines as a backdrop for the film’s eternally-human, emotional core. 

 

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8 - “The Florida Project” (2017) – The Magic Castle – splashed in purple and yellow - sits in Orlando, Fla., but tourists from around the world do not target it as a specific destination.  It is an extended stay motel that resides near a busy freeway and a concrete neighborhood of fast food joints and discount gift shops, but to 6-year-old Moonee (Brooklynn Prince), this is her playground!  Director Sean Baker (“Tangerine” (2015)) organically captures Moonee’s daily adventures of mischief and laughter, as she and her friends find wonder and opportunity in ways that only children can.  Baker’s film volleys between comedy and tragedy, because he presents – in full view – Moonee’s meager living conditions provided by her irresponsible, but loving, mother (Bria Vinaite).  Willem Dafoe gives the best supporting actor performance of 2017 as The Magic Castle’s weathered but sympathetic manager in a movie that offers a revealing view of America’s have-nots.   

 

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7 - “Toni Erdmann” (2016) – Sandra Huller is nothing short of sensational as Ines, a hardworking, driven management consultant coping with the constant barrage of practical jokes played by her father Winfried (Peter Simonischek), who owns a serious case of arrested development.  Winfried is simply trying to connect with Ines, but his unconventional methods push her away even further.  Writer/director Maren Ade’s 2-hour 42-minute film magically breezes and zips along due to the kinetic dynamics between father and daughter, and she unlocks deep themes and comedic twists that constantly surprise.  Ade’s picture – nominated for a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar - fabulously and unapologetically marches to the beat of its own drum. 

 

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6 - “Two Days, One Night” (2014) - Rightfully nominated for a Best Actress Oscar, Marion Cotillard plays Sandra, a woman in dire emotional and financial stress.  Her employer lets her go (under conflicting circumstances), but she reluctantly fights to keep her job and pleads her case to 16 co-workers over the course of a weekend.  Writers/directors Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s revealing drama finds Sandra battling her defeatist tendencies and personal demons on a semi-methodical trek to each colleague’s home. Sandra believes she’s only marching to keep her job, but her journey - without knowing it - becomes an opportunity to discover her self-worth. This quietly powerful film reveals the human condition’s wide spectrum within a modern-day environment where downsizing is all too commonplace.

 

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5 – “Inside Llewyn Davis” (2013) – During the dead of winter in 1961 Greenwich Village, Llewyn (Oscar Isaac) performs at the Gaslight Café.  While strumming on his acoustic guitar, he softly sings “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me” under a bright spotlight in a dark room.  Shortly after, this performer runs into a violent situation, as the soulful moment moves into darker spaces.  This shift towards gloomier skies noticeably occurs in Llewyn’s world throughout the film.  While trying to make a steady buck in the music biz (and to find a place to sleep), he – unfortunately – is always his own worst enemy.  Leveraging Llewyn’s downer-persona, Joel and Ethan Coen’s magical mash of music, eccentric characters and contention engenders a gratifying and (purposely) prickly cinematic-concerto.  Carey Mulligan is hilarious as Llewyn’s caustic, bitter ex-girlfriend, and Justin Timberlake, Adam Driver, John Goodman, and F. Murray Abraham deliver memorable supporting roles.  Last, but not least, Isaac gives the best male lead performance of 2013.  

 

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4 - “A Separation” (2011) – Writer/director Asghar Farhadi is an absolute master of stirring up massive waves and churn within a household, and his twisty 2011 tale burrows into financial problems, deceit, the twilight of life, religious pressure, and a martial separation.  He makes us feel uncomfortable from the get-go, when Nader (Payman Maadi) and Simin (Leila Hatami) attempt to negotiate new terms of their marriage, but the anxiety does not let up throughout the 2-hour 3-minute runtime.  Unfortunately, their family becomes squeezed by bad luck and strife, as the screenplay pivots and darts in unexpected directions.  Farhadi purposely holds back, as he plays out critical scenes off-camera, and this results in guesswork of the real truth.  The truth is this Best Foreign Language Picture Oscar winner dives into complex, stressful nuance in the smallest of spaces while also offering broader insight into Iranian culture.  “A Separation” begs for multiple viewings.  

 

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3 – “Animal Kingdom” (2010) – Keep your friends close and your enemies closer, but what if your most fearsome nemesis is your family?  For teenager Josh Cody (James Frecheville), this is his dilemma.  He lives with his grandmother Janine (Jacki Weaver), who happens to be the head of a crime family in Melbourne, Australia.  Josh’s uncles – Darren, Craig and Pope (Ben Mendelsohn) – and a family friend (Joel Edgerton) perform armed robberies and/or sell drugs for a living, and business is booming.  The walls of justice, however, close in on the Codys, which triggers paranoia and an immediate need to tie up loose ends.  Janine may be the most devious Cody, but Uncle Pope – without question – is the most sinister in this claustrophobic, visceral thriller.  David Michod’s “Animal Kingdom” launched Edgerton’s and Weaver’s successful American film careers, and led Mendelsohn to star as a villain in just about every big movie over the last few years, and with good reason.

 

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2 - “Searching for Sugar Man” (2012) – Folk singer Sixto Rodriguez may have taken the most unlikely career trajectory in modern times, as director Malik Bendjelloul features the songwriter’s story along with the men – Craig Bartholomew Strydom and Stephen “Sugar” Segerman – who pieced together a wild mystery.  Never heard of Rodriguez?  You are not alone, because his record producer sarcastically claims that the man only sold six records in the U.S. during the early 1970s.  Bendjelloul, Strydom and Segerman lead the audience down an unknown path and surprising destination, while Rodriguez’s songs – which carry Dylanesque vibes, catchy hooks and moving lyrics about bad luck, far-off speculation and broken relationships – fill the air.  After watching this 2013 Best Documentary Oscar winner, it will be virtually impossible to not become an instant Rodriguez fan.

 

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1 - “Boyhood” (2014) - Writer/director Richard Linklater creates an astonishing celluloid time capsule by chronicling a boy’s upbringing in an ingenious way.  He filmed 6-year-old Ellar Coltrane, who plays Mason, for 12 years until they “both” reached 18.  Coltrane, Ethan Hawke, Patricia Arquette, and Linklater’s daughter Lorelei play Mason’s family members and contribute to his journey and their own characters’ narratives as well.   While some scenes may seem like ordinary, everyday events, others point to critical discourse that will shape Mason, for better or worse.  As the characters/actors routinely and magically become older over the movie’s 2-hour 45-minute runtime, Mason progresses and triumphs, but also stagnates and steps on emotional land mines.  Hopefully, he will embrace his successes and avoid mistakes after the age of 18.  One will never know, because Mason’s future – like all human beings – is predictably unpredictable.

 

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.

Mary Poppins Returns - Movie Review by Monte Yazzie

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Mary Poppins Returns

 

Director: Rob Marshall

Starring: Emily Blunt, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Ben Wishaw, Emily Mortimer, Julie Walters, Meryl Streep, and Colin Firth

 

The moment a group of lamplighters, led by the talented Lin-Manuel Miranda, start dancing with whirlwind choreographed precision and singing a memorable, foot-tapping number called “Trip a Little Light Fantastic”, it’s easy to remember that Disney has been crafting these sorts of unforgettable sequences consistently throughout its storied career. “Mary Poppins”, made in 1964 and Disney’s first film to receive an Academy Award for Best Picture, is one of the most iconic live-action films in the Disney catalog. Julie Andrews, in her feature film debut, and Dick Van Dyke are exceptional in the roles, even still today. 

 

“Mary Poppins Returns”, a direct sequel, is guided by Rob Marshall, a director who has some experience bringing musicals to life on film with the 2002 Academy Award Best Picture winner “Chicago” and the 2014 crowd pleaser “Into the Woods”. Taking the role of the affable Mary Poppins is Emily Blunt, who does a surprisingly good job of filling the gigantic shoes left by Julie Andrews by making the role her own, and offering support is the multi-talented artist Lin-Manuel Miranda, who is completely amusing every time he is on screen. “Mary Poppins Returns” doesn’t try anything completely new here, which is unfortunately felt in some spaces, but instead focuses on honoring the past in numerous ways. 

 

Michael (Ben Wishaw) and Jane Banks (Emily Mortimer), the youngsters from the first time Mary Poppins came to visit, are all grown-up and leading very responsible lives. Michael works at a bank and has three little children (Pixie Davies, Nathanael Saleh, and Joel Dawson), Jane is a union organizer during this Great Depression time who has made a significant point in helping her brother who is grieving after the death of his wife. Things aren’t going great for the Bank’s family, money is running low and their house is being sought after by a greedy bank owner (Colin Firth). But just as things are about to get worse, an unexpected visitor from the past arrives to help the family.

 

“Mary Poppins Returns” is doing its best job of paying homage to the original classic. The structure of the story is very familiar and mostly unsurprising; the original film casts a long shadow and this sequel tries its best to stay within its shade. This makes for a story that never quite finds its own unique path or creates much of its own emotional connection with its new audience. Still, there are some really interesting moments that distract from these concerns, specifically when Mary Poppins guides the youngsters into fun environments or into situations with amusing characters like Cousin Topsy played with scene-stealing glee by Meryl Streep.

 

The classic cut-in animation is still represented and, in a very pleasant surprise, is utilized in a unique and effective way. Rob Marshall has a talent for engaging movement within in the frames of his films, here blending different aspects of animation makes for some really engaging images that are interesting to watch. In one of the best scenes of the film, the characters walk into an animated world similar to one directly from Disney’s early cartoon genesis. 

 

The musical numbers are filled with pure Disney cheer and joy. While some of the songs may not have the staying power like the ones from the original, the themes “Nowhere to Go But Up” and “Trip a Little Light Fantastic” are still being hummed weeks after seeing the movie. 

 

“Mary Poppins Returns” doesn’t tell a new story as much as it honors everything from the past. Nostalgia is a powerful tool and for many fans, this spoonful of sugary nostalgia will be a memorable ride.

 

Monte’s Rating

3.75 out of 5.00

 

Welcome to Marwen - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

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Gladly saying Goodbye to ‘Welcome to Marwen’

 

Directed by:  Robert Zemeckis

Written by:  Robert Zemeckis and Caroline Thompson

Starring:  Steve Carell, Leslie Mann, Merritt Wever

 

“Welcome to Marwen” – It’s difficult to remember a film that featured as many toy army action figure sequences as “Welcome to Marwen”.  The little green army men from the “Toy Story” series come to mind, but the plastic troops, led by the voice of R. Lee Ermey, were just supporting players.  In co-writer/director Robert Zemeckis’ new movie, a small group of 12-inch fabrications occupy, perhaps, fifty percent of a very, very long 1-hour 56-minute runtime.  

 

The picture begins with an engaging animated World War II aerial scenario over Belgium, where Captain Hogie, who looks and sounds like Steve Carell, flies a plane, but the Germans shoot him down.  He survives the crash landing, however, a group of Nazis quickly face him.  Thankfully, they are blown to bits by a barrage of gunfire from a group of five likable women who resemble a cross between the Spice Girls and a spruced-up, female version of the Village People.  All of the players are plastic action figures coming to life, and based on the first few minutes of “Welcome to Marwen”, this strange, 1940s worldbuilding from Zemeckis’ mind does have welcome appeal. 

 

It turns out that these characters come from the mind of Mark Hogancamp, a middle-aged Kingston, NY artist who suffers from PTSD from a life-altering hate-crime beating, and Captain Hogie and the female dolls, who he refers to as Dolls, now rent most of his headspace and time, even while he’s working at a pub or occasionally conversing with local residents.

 

“Welcome to Marwen” is a personal story about overcoming trauma, and the movie attempts to balance Mark’s reality with his chief outlet to recover from his said ordeal, but the fictional world of Marwen does not really allow him to move forward.  He simply trades his pain for an occupying obsession, and the cycle repeats. 

 

This does not exactly work as appealing storytelling, because throughout the picture, Hogie and the Dolls (actually, that sounds like a cool band name) repeatedly engage the Nazis, which ultimately lead to the bad guys’ bullet-riddled demises.  The Nazis always revive though, like zombies, except plastic does not decompose.  No, they look brand new and are full of emotional vitriol, when The Band confronts them again and again.

 

Since, the film unwisely reveals the source of Mark’s suffering within the first 10 to 15 minutes, the narrative has little place to go, so Zemeckis and company decide to play out numerous, analogous plastic fights instead.

 

Sure, these recurring resurrections have a certain fascination, like kittens chasing the same piece of string every morning, afternoon and evening.  In this movie, however, less is more, and the novelty of plastic toys playing war and devolving into nearly identical arguments loses his luster at about the 50-minute mark.

 

Speaking of “mark”, naturally, the events and characters in Marwen reflect Mark’s experiences.  The Nazis represent the hooligans who beat him senseless.  The Dolls are strong women in his life, and their modern-day self-assuredness presents a positive appeal.  Add a sweet neighbor named Nicol (Leslie Mann), and Mark could have a love interest.

 

This could be nice.

 

Mark suffers from physical and psychological trauma, copes with his limitations and struggles with medication, so the film makes it easy to cheer for our protagonist.  However, the movie’s more innocent tones become muddled, when Mark purchases and “cares for” a red-headed doll as a depiction of Nicol.  He even names her Nicol, and when he lovingly applies lipstick (with a giddy smile on his face) to the Nicol-doll under a magnifying glass, the scene seems anything but virtuous.  Quite frankly, it feels creepy, and by the way, another doll runs around with an open blouse for a short while.  This particular braless plastic girl also doubles as Mark’s friend Roberta (Merritt Wever), so yes, it gets awkward. 

 

Are these scenes supposed to be endearing and/or funny? 

 

The one saving grace is that “Welcome to Marwen” is based on Mark Hogancamp’s true story, so some latitude is warranted, and this critic hopes that he lives a happy and fruitful life.  It does not excuse Zemeckis’ ham-handed handling of tones and misplaced enthusiasm for gratuitous plastic gunplay.  Since Mark’s story deals with adult concepts, less adolescent playtime would translate much better on-screen.  Childlike concepts and adult themes can work well in film.  Just go back to the aforementioned “Toy Story” series, but they feel repetitive, odd and off-putting here. 

 

Lastly, the hopeful point of the picture is to see Mark conquer his demons, but Zemeckis leaves little time for the man’s recovery, so the final confrontation seems added as an afterthought.  Here’s another afterthought:  Goodbye, “Welcome to Marwen”.

(1.5/4 stars)

 

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

 

 

 

Aquaman - Movie Review by Monte Yazzie

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Aquaman

Director: James Wan

Starring: Jason Momoa, Amber Heard, Willem Dafoe, Patrick Wilson, Nicole Kidman, Dolph Lundgren, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, and Temuera Morrison

The Aquaman had some time to shine in the DC Universe mash-up “Justice League”, but now the comic book character gets an opportunity to swim on his own. Director James Wan, who has helmed some really good films like “Insidious” and “The Conjuring”, takes control of the character but also suggestion from the comic book movie fans who have griped about the seriousness of the DC Universe. What develops is a film filled with flaws, masked under the guidance of something trying to have “fun”. 

Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa) has abandoned a life in an underwater kingdom, one that would call him king if he accepted the call. Arthur was born into two worlds, his father Thomas (Temuera Morrison) is a light keeper in the human world and his mother Atlanna (Nicole Kidman) is a princess from the underwater nation of Atlantis. As the world begins to learn more about The Aquaman, so does the underwater world that has shunned Arthur and his family. King Orm (Patrick Wilson), Arthur’s half-brother, wants to start a war with the human world. It is up to Aquaman to defeat Orm and reclaim the underwater kingdom.


James Wan is one of the more interesting directors working in Hollywood right now; the work he has done in horror has already earned him the accolade of being called a “master” of the genre. And this title is absolutely earned. The director has also displayed his skill for big action vehicles with the competent and over-indulgent fast car franchise “Furious 7” which starred Dwayne Johnson. This makes Mr. Wan’s association with the DC Universe fitting considering the want for a direction change for their superhero movies. 


The director tries for a bit of everything in “Aquaman”. There are big special effects on land and underwater, two villains to occupy every second of Aquaman’s quest, and an easy-going appeal for the narrative that adds levity and zero consequences to a majority of the journey. For the films featuring DC characters, “Aquaman” feels the exact opposite of Christopher Nolan’s fantastic “Batman” films, though it does feel like it could have existed just fine in the Joel Schumacher universe of “Batman Forever” with its larger-than-life characters, bizarre narrative functions, and neon-colored designs. 

“Aquaman” suffers from a poorly written script that stumbles for nearly 60 minutes to establish a simple origin story and then completely falls everywhere but the ocean trying to connect the dots for an adventure that leads from the Sahara to Sicily. The family drama, pushed with sincerity from Nicole Kidman and Temuera Morrison, briefly adds an emotional connection for Arthur but they are placed awkwardly as flashbacks in the story. James Wan’s presence comes through in some parts of the film, specifically when Aquaman and the Disney mermaid princess lookalike Mera (Amber Heard) travel to the Kingdom of the Trench with monstrous mermen in close chase. It’s the one scene that has the scope and excitement fans of Mr. Wan’s movies have come to expect. 


“Aquaman” is trying to change the tone established by previous films in the recent DC Universe, though “Wonder Woman” has done the best job so far. Unfortunately, the need to make something less bad and more fun sinks this film quicker than Aquaman can inflict a bad one-liner. 

Monte’s Rating

1.50 out of 5.00

Mary, Queen of Scots - Movie Review by Ben Cahlamer

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Mary, Queen of Scots

 

Directed by Josie Rourke

Screenplay by Beau Williamson

Based on “Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart” by John Guy

Starring Saoirse Ronan, Margot Robbie, Jack Lowden, Joe Alwyn, David Tennant, Guy Pierce

 

I have a fascination with period pieces, especially those that look at royalty of the past. For when religion governed all that was just, monarchy was seen as a symbol of world power. Though her story is less known, Mary, Queen of Scots was someone who spent much of her life away from the throne. Her father had been killed at a very young age and she was sent to France to grow up while the country was ruled by regents.

Josie Rourke’s “Mary Queen of Scots” explores Mary’s life as she returns to Scotland, a widow in 1561. Academy Award – nominated Saoirse Ronan plays the role of the queen, someone who returns to a Scotland fraught with the dangerous political situation in her home country. The biggest threat to her crown was not her own will, but that of her cousin, Queen Elizabeth played by Margot Robbie.

Based on a biography from John Guy, Beau Williamson’s script focuses on conflict between the two countries in the late 1500’s. As rival factions start to form between the Scottish Catholics and Protestants, England looks to seize power, folding the country into a greater kingdom. John Knox, played by David Tennant is the most prominent in the film as an instigator in factions that divide the small country.

On the English side, William Cecil played by Guy Pierce is an advisor to Queen Elizabeth. He also is portrayed as an instigator of the wedge that develops between the two cousins. Robert Dudley, played by Joe Alwyn is somewhat stuck in the middle as a pawn that never really becomes a pawn. His is an interesting performance though as Elizabeth’s lover.

The picturesque cinematography by John Mathieson really captures the essence of Scotland with its towering stone walls and lush greenery. But he also captures the deep seated infighting between religious factions that we’ve seen time and again. The way Rourke stages his shots is akin to “Braveheart” or “Gladiator”: swiftly violent, but with a purpose. Ronan is very much a leader and someone who earns our faith and trust in the opening frames; someone who will lead her people through the gates of Hell if necessary.

For a film that purports to focus on Mary Stuart, the focus really is on her undoing, much to the film’s undoing. We see a political power struggle between two countries and with one’s own country. Mary, who could not keep a husband specifically because she was such a powerful leader, is constantly on the run.

By the time we get to the third act, where Mary and Elizabeth actually meet for the first time, we’re sure that this will work out between two cousins, that they can live in harmony. History has other plans, of course. Which brings me back to the focus of the film. As much as the film demonstrates Mary’s prowess and her courage, Elizabeth is on her heels as are their respective conspirators.

Margot Robbie’s performance as Elizabeth is grand and austere.

The story really frames Mary as a lessor figure because she didn’t stop the constant challenges to her own authority as she tried to bring two countries together. If the biography that the film is based on is to be believed, Ms. Ronan’s performance is no less grand, but I think the constant wear on the character makes her ultimate fate much less impactful in this story.

The film’s strength lies in its costume and makeup design as the late 1500’s are brought to life. From the pageantry of royalty to the violence of war torn peoples and villages, the look and the feel of this film is authentic.

“Mary Queen of Scots” had the unenviable task of following up 2017’s “Darkest Hour” as a late year historical piece. In an overly complicated way, it misses.

2.5 out of 4