Little Woods - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

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The crime film ‘Little Woods’ focuses on big American problems


Written and directed by: Nia DaCosta

Starring: Tessa Thompson, Lily James, Luke Kirby, James Badge Dale, and Lance Riddick


“Little Woods” – “You are so close.”


A few people say these exact words to Ollie (Tessa Thompson), but her probation officer (Lance Reddick) also adds, “Please stay out of trouble.”  


Her probation ends in eight days. 


Throughout her adult life, Ollie has emotionally and financially struggled in a small North Dakota town, a place that should be lapping the riches of the natural gas boom, but just about everyone we meet – including our heroine – looks exhausted. 


Exhausted from continuous turns of bad luck. 


Exhausted from the same self-inflicted mistakes. 


Exhausted from the lack of opportunities.


Exhausted from the past haunting the present.  


Ollie is an unenviable member of the working poor, and her criminal history originated out of necessity.  Her sister Deb (Lily James) suffers from missteps and trying circumstances too.  She’s unemployed and lives with her preteen son Johnny (Charlie Ray Bend) – the only known optimist (that she knows) within a hundred miles - in a camper that illegally resides on a big-box store parking lot.        


Ollie and Deb sit and rot in their miserable quandaries, but since they are sisters, they unfortunately share their troubles, and a messy sibling-history has formed emotional scar tissue and engorged vulnerabilities.  Now, with Ollie “so close” to freeing herself from her surroundings and invisible chains, Deb’s problems and horrible timing present her older sister with a near-impossible moral choice.  


The bleak financial environment in “Little Woods” feels as discouraging as the circumstances in “The Rider” (2018) and “Frozen River” (2008), and writer/director Nia DaCosta purposely chose a rural setting near the Canadian border.  DaCosta mentioned during a 2018 screening and Q&A that her picture centers around the inaccessibility of affordable and nearby health care and its effect on women.  


For instance, a clinic administrator mentions that without health insurance, a mother would have to fork over $8,000 to have a baby.  Meanwhile, in nearby Manitoba, the price tag would be dramatically less or perhaps nonexistent.  The fight for reproductive rights plays an important role in the story too.  While older men place legal binds on the said issue, Ollie and Deb are surrounded by uncooperative and threatening young blokes who infringe on their current spaces.


Landmines lurk everywhere, and Thompson and James are mesmerizing as the long-suffering sisters who repeatedly fail to avoid them.  Ollie needs emotional layers to hide her anxiety from those who could actually (and ironically) lend a hand, and although she properly conceals her true feelings from key, on-screen characters, the audience obviously sees the duality in Thompson’s gritty, nuanced performance.  Deb is a classic, younger-sibling screw-up who regularly reaches to Ollie for help and offers nothing but problems as payment.  Not unlike Ethan Hawke’s Hank in “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” (2007), Deb sports a magnet towards turmoil. 


“Little Woods” - DaCosta’s feature film debut - is a slow-burning crime film built on a foundation of big ideas and massive American problems, including one not mentioned in this review.  This talented writer/director is not “so close” to arriving on the big stage, because she proudly stands tall on it right now.

(3/4 stars)


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

Teen Spirit - Movie Review by Ben Cahlamer

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Teen Spirit


Written and Directed by Max Minghella

Starring Elle Fanning, Rebecca Hall, Zlatko Buric


Recently, a colleague posted a comment about how the style of movies changed in the 1970’s. The western was popular and started to fade away. The comment asked if there were any westerns made after the 1970’s that really struck a chord.

What amazed me about the commentary was that it missed the growth of the underdog story: characters who started on the down and out and rose to the challenge by the end of a 90-minute arc. Sure, “Rocky” is probably the best example of this, but comedies in the 1970’s and the 1980’s really focused on the underdog.

Max Minghella’s directorial debut, “Teen Spirit” is a call back to the types of comedies that I grew up with; the story is very obviously a call back to the reality TV shows like “Dancing With the Stars,” The Voice,” or “American Idol.”

Elle Fanning plays Violet Valenski, a shy teenager living in a small European town has a voice and the flair to entertain. She and her mom are on hard times though and are barely scraping by. On a chance encounter, she interviews for the British sensation, ‘Teen Spirit’

Minghella’s script downplays the interview, setting us up for the inevitable. Though that aspect of the story could possibly be seen as a cop out, it actually plays to Fanning’s strengths as an actress because it gives her character a chance to grow with a down-and-out opera singer, Vlad (Zlatko Buric) who offers, drunkenly, to be her coach.

Violet is eventually invited to perform in front of a live audience in London where the pressure of all the intricacies involved in finding new talent catches up with her. It is here that she meets the last season’s winner, Keyan Spears (Ruairi O’Connor) and the record label’s manager, Jules, played by Rebecca Hal. Her intensity makes her a natural foil for Violet as she is cornered in to signing with a label. Interestingly, Violet’s own trappings come into focus as she is forced to make a decision, while squaring off with Vlad, whom Violet discovers is more than he seems. Her shyness melts away in the second act as the excitement of being in the moment catches up with her.

We are only four months into 2019 and this is the second film to feature an underdog theme; the first being Stephen Marchant’s “Fighting with My Family.” Both films feature female leads, something that was sorely lacking from the majority of the underdog stories I enjoyed as a kid. Both use humor to convey and mask their dramas, but the predictability of Minghella’s story is where “Fighting with My Family” edges out “Teen Spirit.”

That’s not to say that “Teen Spirit” doesn’t have its own heart. Everything builds up to ‘the’ moment, becoming more and more predictable. Minghella’s intentional focus on the essence of living in the moment eventually pays off bringing Violet’s journey to a satisfying conclusion.

Directing your first film can be daunting enough. Directing your own script can be downright scary. Max Minghella delivers just enough to make Violet’s journey relatable, but makes us wait just a bit too long for the ultimately satisfying payoff.

Full of glitz and glam, “Teen Spirit” will appeal to anyone who has a dream and the fortitude to follow it.

2 out of 4

Penguins - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell


“Penguins” brings warm smiles


Directed by: Alastair Fothergill and Jeff Wilson

Written by: David Fowler

Narrated by: Ed Helms


“Penguins” – “She smiled with the warmth of a penguin.” – author Kim Harrison


For many of us - especially those who shovel long driveways between Dec. 26 and the spring equinox - freezing, snowy winters are not a time for celebration, but “Penguins”, set in frosty Antarctica, will bring warm smiles.   


Adelie penguins stand about two feet high, sport recognizable tuxedo coloring, and with their awkward walks, soothing personas and indelible social graces, they are as lovable as Chilly Willy himself.


Directors Alastair Fothergill and Jeff Wilson filmed in Antarctica for four years, and their team braved the harshest of Earth’s conditions.  Temperatures sometimes dipped to 70 degrees below Fahrenheit, but it was worth it.  In the end, they gleaned and packaged their footage into 76 glorious, nifty, big-screen minutes of Adelie colonies, and their movie centers around one particular penguin:  Steve.


Producer Roy Conli - who stopped at the 2019 Phoenix Film Festival to introduce his movie and host a Q&A - said (in a different, online interview), “It’s the story of a young penguin father who learns how to become a dad.”


Comedian Ed Helms steps up to the microphone, narrates Steve’s adventure and also encapsulates our hero’s inner thoughts.  Meanwhile, Fothergill, Wilson and the filmmakers offer spectacular aerial, wide and close-up shots of oceans, chucks of floating ice, mountainous terrains, and the penguins themselves, as the Adelie congregations travel and also set up camp for the summer.  


With Antarctica’s warmest season shinning on Steve, thousands of his friends and first, second and third cousins, the bright sun and blue skies might convince movie audiences to purchase chunks of icy real estate, build igloos and post rentals on Airbnb.  With some IMAX screenings in play, a 60-foot Steve squawking and chatting will most likely widen eyes and swell hearts, and a sweet, courtship moment between Steve and his new found love Adeline while a famous REO Speedwagon tune plays in the background is just one on-screen example.


Although, Fothergill’s and Wilson’s picture is not all lovable images and innocent storytelling.  Penguin predators emerge and give moviegoers some pause, but with the film’s breezy tones and everyman, awe-shucks Helms as our escort, experienced viewers should know the narrative arc’s ending before walking into the theatre.  “Penguins” is not a carbon copy of National Geographic’s “March of the Penguins” (2005), helmed by Morgan Freeman and his one-of-a-kind gravitas.  Freeman’s voice accompanied emperor penguins (who stand about twice as tall as the Adelies), and that film takes a more serious (but also rated-G) approach compared to the freewheeling “Penguins”. 


Admittedly, the world does not necessarily need another penguin documentary, but it’s been 14 years since “March”, improved camera technologies can enhance our experience and this appealing picture reaches our better angels.  For those who have seen nightmarish docs like “A Plastic Ocean” (2016), one might wonder why massive collections of plastic bottles, bags, caps, and wrappers do not float into Steve’s space and diet, especially since these said items and broken-down microplastics are toxic to ocean communities. 


“Penguins” is not that documentary, but there is one scene when Adelie chicks feel overheated, feel stress and profoundly pant while sitting on the shore.  A nod to climate change, perhaps?


Hopefully, this beautiful movie and the importance of the Adelies’ habitat will become permanent fixtures in the minds of children and adults everywhere.  Kids of all ages at the Phoenix Film Festival screening certainly carried oceans of warm smiles that matched the resting faces of the extraordinary Adelies, so it’s possible.

(3.5/4 stars)


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


The Chaperone - opening exclusively today at Harkins Shea 14






Written by Julian Fellowes    Directed by Michael Engler

Based on the book by Laura Moriarty


The Chaperone is opening exclusively Friday, April 12th at Harkins Shea 14!

Starring: Elizabeth McGovern, Haley Lu Richardson, Géza Röhrig, Victoria Hill, Miranda Otto with Blythe Danner and Campbell Scott.


Louise Brooks, the 1920s silver screen sensation who never met a rule she didn’t break, epitomized the restless, reckless spirit of the Jazz Age. But, just a few years earlier, she was a 15 year-old student in Wichita, Kansas for whom fame and fortune were only dreams. When the opportunity arises for her to go to New York to study with a leading dance troupe, her mother (Victoria Hill) insists there be a chaperone. Norma Carlisle (Elizabeth McGovern), a local society matron who never broke a rule in her life, impulsively volunteers to accompany Louise (Haley Lu Richardson) to New York for the summer.  


Why does this utterly conventional woman do this? What happens to her when she lands in Manhattan with an unusually rebellious teenager as her ward?  And, which of the two women is stronger, the uptight wife-and-mother or the irrepressible free spirit?  It’s a story full of surprises—about who these women really are, and who they eventually become.


Christopher Walken’s Top Eight Performances by Jeff Mitchell

Christopher Walken’s Top Eight Performances



Christopher Walken turns 76 on March 31, so let’s celebrate this Oscar-winning thespian’s birthday by looking back at his movie-resume and applauding his best work.  With over 90 film credits to his name, I would love to list 45 performances, but here are my top eight.


8. Duane Hall, “Annie Hall” (1977) – Annie (Diane Keaton) drags her boyfriend Alvy (Woody Allen) to her parents’ home for Easter dinner.  Now, Alvy’s anxiety usually bursts at the seams 365 days a year, and this particular one is no exception.  First of all, Alvy is Jewish, so this family event is not exactly ideal, but in addition, Annie’s brother Duane (Walken) confesses to him – in a dimly lit room - that he has a burning desire to drive into oncoming traffic.  Life doesn’t become any easier for Alvy, when Duane actually drives Annie and him home!  With “Annie Hall” winning 1978’s Best Picture Oscar, the film introduced Walken’s uncanny knack of playing mysterious, unusual characters to a worldwide audience.

7. Gabriel, “The Prophecy” (1995) – This unremarkable, clunky horror movie pits a former seminary student/present-day cop Thomas (Elias Koteas) against a nasty angel Gabriel (Walken).  Gabriel is searching for a soul that could tip the balance of power in a spiritual war, while Thomas is playing catch up and struggling with his past.  Other than an experiencing a “Some Kind of Wonderful” (1987)-reunion between Koteas and Eric Stoltz, the only reason to watch this movie is Walken’s devilishly campy performance as Gabriel.  While sporting jet black hair and chalky skin, he lights people on fire and rips out their hearts, but still finds time to encourage schoolkids to “study their math.”  Well, maybe Gabriel can work with students on weekdays and torture humanity on the weekends.  Just a thought.

6. Vincenzo Coccotti, “True Romance” (1993) – “Do you know who I am?  I am the Antichrist.  You got me in a vendetta-kind of mood,” Vincenzo Coccotti says to Clifford Worley (Dennis Hopper).  Clifford’s son Clarence (Christian Slater) and Alabama (Patricia Arquette) stole a large bag of cocaine.  They disappeared, so the fearsome Mr. Coccotti wants them and the said drugs back stat!  The result is a 10-minute faceoff in Clifford’s home, where both men know that the questionee will not survive the interrogation. Hence, Clifford dives into an uncomfortable, racist monologue squarely directed in Vincenzo’s direction.  The result is a mesmerizing cinematic moment of both Clifford’s words and Vincenzo’s reaction, and even though Vincenzo has not “killed anybody since 1984”, his streak is about to end.

5. Captain Koons, “Pulp Fiction” (1994) – Butch was just a kid, when his father was killed in the Vietnam War, but his dad’s friend Captain Koons (Walken) pays the young man a visit.  Why?  To pass along Butch’s late-father’s watch, but the captain also chronicles the impressive, absorbing history of this precious male heirloom with the deliberate cadence of a determined soldier filled with an equal mix of empathy and brutal honesty.  The latter creates an unexpected, riotous surge of audience laughter, as only writer/director Quentin Tarantino (who also wrote the script for Walken’s #6 performance) could engineer.  Walken, of course, is his perfect conduit.   


4. Hans, “Seven Psychopaths” (2012) – By 2012, Walken played more than his fair share of villains.  In writer/director Martin McDonagh’s dark comedy, yes, Walken plays a criminal, but he is not a bank robber, angel or mob consigliere.  Hans (Walken) and his partner Billy (Sam Rockwell) are dog kidnappers who collect rewards from unsuspecting owners.  Sure, they cause emotional trauma to doggie moms and dads, but Hans is a pacifist and the pets are never harmed.  Quite the opposite, actually.  Meanwhile, Walken seems thoroughly delighted to pal around with this talented ensemble that includes Rockwell and Colin Farrell and delivers the film’s most memorable moment by refusing to raise his hands when facing the barrel of a gun.  Crazy, right?

3. Frank Abagnale, “Catch Me if You Can” (2002) – Masterful conman and teenager Frank Abagnale Jr. (Leonardo DiCaprio) successfully impersonates a commercial pilot, a doctor and a lawyer, and his father’s (Walken) troubles triggered this infamous, dishonest spree.  Along his twisty journey, Frank Jr. routinely checks in with his dad, and Walken’s Frank Sr. tenders layered messages of love and perseverance while unsuccessfully hiding his deep sorrow.  At one point, Frank Jr. teeters on giving up, but Frank Sr. – in a moment of pure conviction - says, “They’re never gonna catch you, Frank.”  Walken caught himself a Best Supporting Oscar nomination.

2. Johnny Smith, “The Dead Zone” (1983) – Johnny (Walken) was enjoying a happy life.  He loved his relationship with Sarah (Brooke Adams) and his job as a school teacher, but after a horrible car accident, he fell into a coma for five years.  Sarah moved on, and Johnny laments the time and relationship that he lost, but he gains something else: a power to see someone’s future through physical touch.  In director David Cronenberg’s eerie adaptation of Stephen King’s novel, Walken perfectly delivers the internal churn of an ordinary man coping with loss and his new, extraordinary gift.  The story, however, dramatically raises the stakes once a horribly-flawed U.S. Senate candidate (Martin Sheen) arrives in town, and Johnny does not like what he sees

1. Nick, “The Deer Hunter” (1978) – The Vietnam War left no United States community untouched, and director Michael Cimino’s sobering masterpiece captures the military conflict’s carnage on a group of friends in the tiny steel town of Clairton, Pa.  The government sends Steve (John Savage), Michael (Robert De Niro) and Nick (Walken) to Vietnam, and the war took dreadful tolls on each man, but Nick suffers the most severe emotional breakdown.  Walken is nothing short of masterful as Nick, who was the most sensible of the bunch but succumbs to perilous madness.  His haunting character arc – along with tears of anguish and disbelief - shatter our comfort zones, as Walken’s work carries the picture’s emotional core.  “The Deer Hunter” won five Oscars, including Walken’s Best Supporting Actor statue.

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.


Hotel Mumbai - Movie Review by Ben Cahlamer

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Hotel Mumbai


Directed by Anthony Maras

Screenplay by John Collee and Anthony Mara based on “Surviving Mumbai” by Victoria Midwinter Pitt

Starring Armie Hammer, Dev Patel, Nazanin Boniadi, Tilda Cobham-Hervey, Anupam Kher, Jason Isaacs


The world we live in today is consumed by mass quantities of news on a 24 by 7 cycle, rendering us immune to most world events. We are not immune because these events happen so far away from us. Rather it is because of the distance that television and the commentators constantly telling us what’s going on that separates and polarizes us.

The constant barrage of negative news also desensitizes us to these same world events.

Anthony Maras’s “Hotel Mumbai” removes the immunity and puts us right into the middle of the coordinated attacks on 12 different Mumbai locations in 2008. Maras, whose won several screenwriting awards for his short films co-wrote the screenplay with John Collee (“Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World,” “Happy Feet,” “The Legend of Tarzan”) based on the documentary, “Surviving Mumbai.”

As the film opens, and in between the quick edits establishing the terrorists as they disperse throughout Mumbai, the screenplay firmly puts us in the feet of Arjun (Dev Patel, “Lion”), a kitchen server in the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel. He is a committed family man. As he rushes off to work, the terrorists continue to ascend on their targets throwing the city into chaos.

As Arjun arrives at work, we meet David (Armie Hammer) and Zahra (Nazanin Boniadi), an architect and his actress wife, along with Vasilli (Jason Isaacs), all extreme VIPs at the hotel. Amidst the chaos of the lobby, the manager is busily prepping the staff, giving detailed instructions about how hot the water in the tub must be and to not discuss the nuptial of the couple. As an hotelier, I was impressed with the level of intricate and accurate detail about how senior levels of hotel staff go about prepping for VIP arrivals. There was a quick pace about the preparations, but it was never rushed.

Maras expertly balances the attacks throughout the city and the events that bring the terrorists to the Taj Mahal with the familial scenes, a calmness before the storm if you will that when the attack hits, you are as trapped as the victims were. British cinematographer Nick Remy Matthews, who has worked with Maras previously on the short film, “The Palace” and “Spike Up,” deftly handles the action scenes, but also maintains the strength of the drama.

The tension ratchets up when we’re locked in the hotel with nowhere to go. In a way, “Hotel Mumbai” reminded me of “The Poseidon Adeventure” in that that grand disaster classic look and feel. The reason why the film works on so many levels is because we are desensitized to the nature of terrorism.

Maras and Collee build on that, layering in religion, class, politics, and a humility that I haven’t seen in a disaster genre film previously. On the ground, the police are ill equipped to mount a rescue, and yet, through courage and determination, they make an attempt. In the hotel, desperate terrorists, who are promised riches for their efforts are guided by a faceless voice, commanding them through one execution on to the next. Some of the hostages are ensconced in a safe room in the hotel, the fear in their eyes is palpable.

There are heroes, in Arjun and the other staff of the hotel. Service is first and foremost in the host country and the film really zooms in on that aspect. There were shocking moments as well, that really sear into the back of your mind that, in spite of the fact that we’re seeing something unfold on a screen in front of us, which ironically is not much different than watching the news, we’re making our own determination about the events that unfold in front of us.

Perhaps this is because there was no sense of escape, for either the terrorists or their hostages.

It isn’t until the final few minutes of the film, when that sense of danger comes to its logical conclusion, that we release our breath. Our heart rates return to their normal levels, but we remember the danger as the real life footage from the documentary and the news clips run during the end credit roll.

You might turn a blind eye to “Hotel Mumbai,” and that would be certainly understandable. It’s not something that we would immediately jump up after seeing the trailer and say, “I’m going to see that film right away.” It is something that will take time to process. “Hotel Mumbai” is as much about its human characters as it is a moment in human history that shows us what compassion and pure hatred look like in the same two-hour time span.

Unlike “The Poseidon Adventure,” you probably won’t want to see “Hotel Mumbai” again. But it is an experience well worth taking.

3 out of 4


Dumbo - Movie Review by Ben Cahlamer




Directed by Tim Burton

Screenplay by Ehren Kruger

Based on “Disney’s Dumbo” by Otto Englander, Joe Grant and Dick Huemer and “Dumbo” by Helen Aberson and Harold Pearl

Starring Collin Farrell, Michael Keaton, Danny DeVito, Eva Green


Stories that stir the imagination, that bring us to think about more than just our immediate surroundings are what got me interested in films to begin with. Animation was my gateway as a kid because it allowed my imagination to soar. So too did films like “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” and later, “Pee Wee’s Big Adventure” and “Beetlejuice.”

To a certain extent, they all were vivid escapes from my reality. They did what movies are supposed to do – allow us to escape from our present surroundings, to be more than the sum whole of our parts. Of course, we are only as good as the movies we watch too.

Tim Burton’s “Dumbo,” is the first bonafide fantasy film that I’ve seen in 2019 that actually works as a fantasy. It also manages to tug at our heartstrings, and never lets go.

Set in 1916, Holt Farrier is returning from war to two strong, intelligent children, Milly (Nico Parker) and Joe (Finley Hobbins) who are desperate to show the world what amazing people they can be. They’ve been living with a couple in the Medici Brothers Circus, their mom having been killed by the flu.

Mr. Burton doesn’t waste any time setting up the particulars of the story; during the opening credits, a montage shows the state of Max Medici’s (Danny DeVito) circus as it tours the Southeastern part of the United States: Medici is broke and destitute and is looking for a quick solution, a miracle.

That miracle doesn’t come from any one aspect of the story. Ehren Kruger’s (“Arlington Road”) screenplay, inspired by the 1941 animated film of the same name by Otto Englander, Joe Grant and Dick Huemer (based on the story “Dumbo” by Helen Aberson and Harold Pearl) takes the animated classic to the next level.

Never mind the rich CGI animation on Dumbo as well as the other animals featured in the film, the characters are dynamic; their emotions and needs ooze out of the screen. Not in a sappy way, mind you. Kruger created a rich foundation on which Burton was able to build his neo-real world.

None of the actors outshines one another. This is very much about Dumbo, but it is more about how Dumbo inspires the other characters. It might seem cheesy in that classic Disney sense and it has been nitpicked for that reason, but the clever magician that is Tim Burton, the one who brought us “Pee Wee’s Big Adventure” 34 years ago or “Batman” a couple years later has inspired this retelling of a future classic.

Mr. Burton also surrounded himself with actors who could evoke a classic sense of struggle balanced with the gumption to go the distance. Mr. Burton has worked with both Danny DeVito and Michael Keaton previously in “Batman Returns.” Long gone are the dark shades of villainy from Mr. DeVito. Here as Mr. Medici, he is a gruff voice of hope as he guides us through the story. As the glitzy showman V. A. Vandevere, Mr. Keaton channels his inner Johnny Depp, as plantinum-blond haired character transforms from a composed, reserved business person to a cartoonish madman intent on getting what he wants, spewing singular wisdom for the selfishly independent.

Of note is Colin Farrell’s Holt Farrier, a man of action, a man hurting over the loss of his wife, and the disconnect that war has caused on his children, Farrell was much more reserved than we’ve come to see from him in past roles. This works in the film’s favor as it balances out not only his own family struggles, but also his character’s journey. Eva Green’s (“Casino Royale”) role as Collette Marchant is complementary to Farrell’s Farrier in that she is a very strong character, someone who knows how to take care of herself. She should be as a trapeze artist. She also has a trusting nature, aiding Farrier in finding the inspiration he seeks.

There are some elements of the film that felt a little too “on-the-nose” but they are not enough to put people off. It is a genuine film with exceptional craftspeople behind the camera. Chris Lebenzon is a storied editor with a number of credits to his name, he’s been a Burton collaborator for a number of years having been nominated several times in the past. This is the second Disney-released film for British cinematographer Ben Davis (“Captain Marvel” his work here shows a strong patina at the beginning of the film, a beautiful representation of the struggles in a very classic way.

What really brings the film together though is Danny Elfman’s score, full of bright notes, down notes and fun notes. If I had to pinpoint one element of the film that really brings the whole experience together, it is Elfman’s music combined with Burton’s timing. They are very simpatico.

I could gush on about Tim Burton’s imaginative Dumbo. It is a stark reminder to trust one another, to use our imagination and allow our imagination to flow. It has Disney-forward elements while it reflects on where Disney came from. It isn’t humble, but it doesn’t wear its history on its sleeve either; its refection is tempered.

I can only hope that the future re-imaginings are as tempered as Tim Burton’s “Dumbo” is.

3 out of 4 stars

The Highwaymen - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell


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


Directed by:  John Lee Hancock

Written by:  John Fusco

Starring:  Kevin Costner and Woody Harrelson


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


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


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


Are they too old to track down these kids? 


Do they have enough fight left? 


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


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


Costner and Harrelson are perfectly cast. 


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


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


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


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

(3/4 stars)


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



The Hummingbird Project - Movie Review by Ben Cahlamer

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The Hummingbird Project


Written and Directed by Kim Nguyen

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2 out of 4 stars

Us - Movie Review by Ben Cahalmer




Written and Directed by Jordan Peele

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3 out of 4 stars

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

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


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


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



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


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




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


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


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


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


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


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


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



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


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



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


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




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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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



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


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


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



John Lee and John talk more about Frank and Maney…


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


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


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


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







Climax - Movie Review by Monte Yazzie




Director: Gaspar Noé

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


Monte’s Rating

4.00 out of 5.00

Transit - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell


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


Written and directed by:  Christian Petzold

Starring:  Franz Rogowski and Paula Beer


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

(4/4 stars)


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

Gloria Bell - Movie Review by Ben Cahlamer

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Gloria Bell


Directed by Sebastian Lelio

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3 out of 4 stars

Wonder Park - Movie Review by Ben Cahlamer

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Wonder Park


Directed by David Feiss, Clare Kilner and Robert Iscove

Screenplay by Josh Appelbaum and Andre Nemec

Story by Robert Gordon, Josh Appelbaum and Andre Nemec

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2 out of 4 stars.

The Wedding Guest - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

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


Written and directed by: Michael Winterbottom

Starring:  Dev Patel and Radhika Apte


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

(2.5/4 stars)


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

Captain Marvel - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

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


Directed by:  Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck

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

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

(3/4 stars)


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


Ruben Brandt Collector - Movie Review by Ben Cahlamer

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Ruben Brandt Collector


Directed by Milorad Krstic

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3.5 out 4

Apollo 11 - Movie Review by Ben Cahlamer

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Apollo 11


Directed by Todd Douglas Miller


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3.75 out of 4

Greta - Movie Review by Monte Yazzie




Director: Neil Jordan

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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



Monte’s Rating

2.00 out of 5.00