Never Look Away - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

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‘Never Look Away’ compels us to keep watching

 

Written and directed by:  Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

(3.5/4 stars)

 

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

 

 

Happy Death Day 2U - Movie Review by Monte Yazzie

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Happy Death Day 2U

 

Director: Christopher Landon

Starring: Jessica Rothe, Israel Broussard, Phi Vu, Suraj Shurma, Sarah Yarkin, Rachel Matthews, and Ruby Modine

 

Take a moment and think of every great movie sequel you have ever seen. Now that you are done listing all the subpar sequels, how many are left on the list that are excellent? The craft of constructing a sequel is a difficult undertaking, especially if the first film is something special.

 

“Happy Death Day” was a surprise upon its release in 2017; a film that took the concept of the 1993 comedy “Groundhog Day” and turned it into a clever and unique horror film that delivered some really fun surprises. The turnaround for the sequel happened rather quickly, which is always a little concerning, but “Happy Death Day 2U” takes a route less travelled for movie sequels by twisting the narrative, including the genre, into something completely different.

 

Tree Gelbman (Jessica Rothe) lived the same day over and over, dying at the hands of a masked killer every day until she was able to solve her own murder. With the help of her boyfriend Carter (Israel Broussard), Tree thought she had escaped the time loop and could move on with her life. But things take a drastic reversal as a science experiment, conducted by Carter’s roommate Ryan (Phi Vu), creates another time jump that brings Tree back face-to-face with her baby-faced masked killer. But something’s changed, things are different this time.

 

Christopher Landon directed “Happy Death Day” with a clear understanding of tone for a horror film that offered a few frights, a creepy looking slasher, a charming hero, and some lighthearted humor. It felt like a PG-13 horror film from the 90’s mixed with the science fiction appeal of the 80’s. So, it’s not surprising that Mr. Landon brings the successful qualities back in different doses and combinations while making one interesting and tricky turn in the structure.

 

The narrative, which leaned strongly in the horror genre with only a sprinkling of sci-fi for the first film, flips into a straight forward science fiction film with a spattering of horror here and there. It’s a bold move that is somehow surprisingly pulled off. Utilizing a science fiction storytelling theme that feels reminiscent of “The Outer Limits”, “Happy Death Day 2U” refreshingly twists and morphs into a different film. While it still struggles with some shoddy dialog and unusual side character performances, like a wacky college professor who bumbles into the excitement at the worst time, the film still merges its quality elements in an enjoyable way.

 

A big part of why this film works so well is the exceptional screen appeal of Jessica Rothe who holds the film together with her tenacity and charisma. Ms. Rothe’s performance is convincing and entertaining throughout; whether she is wielding an axe or waking up with her hair frizzed from electricity, the actor entirely owns it.

 

“Happy Death Day 2U” works really well up to a point that it becomes slightly unhinged with its time looping dilemma and wanting to push for expanding its universe beyond the primary character’s life, but it doesn’t derail the fun that this movie is clearly trying to produce. Rarely do sequels work as well as it does with “Happy Death Day 2U”. Blumhouse Productions continues to surprise with their brand of genre films.

 

Monte’s Rating

 3.25 out of 5.00

 

 

Allita: Battle Angel - Movie Review by Ben Cahlamer

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Alita: Battle Angel

 

Directed by Robert Rodriguez

Screenplay by James Cameron and Laeta Kalogridis

Based on “Gunnm” by Yukito Kishiro

Starring Rosa Salazar, Christoph Waltz, Jennifer Connelly, Mahershala Ali, Ed Skrien, Jackie Earle Haley, Keean Johnson

 

In this world of CGI dinosaurs, spectacular sequences filled with well-endowed, form-fitting spandex heroes leaping from rooftop to rooftop, it is easy to lose sight of when a truly special film comes before your eyes.

Robert Rodriguez’s “Alita: Battle Angel” is a spectacle from its dreary beginnings to its spectacular form-fit heroine leaping from rooftop to rooftop. The story, based on the Japanese manga series, “Gunnm” is yet another dystopic story in a future where Earth is devastated, the well-to-do people live in a great city in the sky, Zalem and the everyday denizens live on what’s left of our history.

What’s curious about this particular story, written by James Cameron and Laeta Kalogridis (“Alexander,” “Pathfinder,” “Shutter Island,” “Terminator Genisys”), is just how Alita (Rosa Salazar in her debut performance) comes across the screen. I’m not referring to the revolutionary motion capture systems used to create the character, though that is just as amazing. No, we actually get to see Ms. Salazar’s naiveté, her sense of wonder.

Found in a heap of junk by Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz), a wunderkind himself, Alita is brought to life. We learn very quickly of the haves and have-nots in this society. We learn of Ido’s life, leading him to this moment and of his ex-wife, Chiren (Jennifer Connelly).

Peripherally, we learn of Vector (Mahershala Ali) and his power over the have-nots. Ed Skrien plays Zapan, probably the one character in the film that actually freaked me out while Jackie Earle Haley plays a thuggish cyborg named Grewishka. I came to liken Grewishka as the Energizer Bunny: he just kept coming and coming and coming.

But that’s the part of “Alita: Battle Angel” that I really admired. As thin as the story is, against the special effects and the effectiveness of the Dolby Cinema 3D presentation, the characters really stood out against their environment.

Don’t mistake me. There were elements that seemed hopelessly cheesy; namely the relationship between Alita and Hugo (Keean Johnson), the dashing John Travolta-type bad boy: we know he’s trouble. Yet, we don’t really care because we know of the inevitability of this type of character: as far in love as they get, we know it can’t work, but we care because Hugo is genuinely someone who is full of ideals and integrity, something the “bad boy” type isn’t usually imbued with. It was interesting to see Hugo interact with his own clique, especially Jorge Lendeborg, Jr, who has sprung up out of practically nowhere over the last year, first in “Love, Simon” and then the recent and popular “BumbleBee.”

The centerpiece of this whole affair is the “motorball” game, a la Norman Jewison’s “Rollerball”. The idea for this part of “Alita” is as much an homage as it is an inventive story device: it gives Alita her ‘character.’ Without the aggressiveness, Alita would be a passive individual. It strengthens her motives and her resolve.

The sideshow with Hugo and the ongoing, relentless bounty hunter chases really wears one down by the third act.  I admit that it was fun to see the dregs of the assassin pool in a Star Wars-cantina style bar, where Jeff Fahey and Rick Yune make appearances.

“Alita: Battle Angel” never relents. And that is part of its challenge. It is a cacophony of sight and sound. It shines a brilliant light on a heroine that people can genuinely cheer for. But, I don’t know if it has the substance that it thinks it does. My biggest disappointment is in Mahershala Ali’s Vector. He has a terrific screen presence, but his character is truly rendered as a puppet. Now that I say that, I could totally see him playing a future version of Mr. Anderson from “The Matrix,” but I digress.

Unlike “Avatar,” James Cameron created something that people can relate to, something of value to latch on. Robert Rodgriguez’s direction is assured through the technology behind the film. Just like a lot of his early films, Cameron is still experimenting. It’s showy and flashy, but it is reality.

Is it good? To an extent. It is overt in its intentions and subversive in its characters. Just like a traditional James Cameron film ought to be. There is feeling, depth and the characters are strong, but the story doesn’t completely hold up next to the amazing spectacle that the movie really is.

3 out of 4 stars

Arctic - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

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Mikkelsen carries the torch in ‘Arctic’

 

Directed by:  Joe Penna

Written by:  Joe Penna and Ryan Morrison

Starring:  Mads Mikkelsen

 

“Arctic” – Mads Mikkelsen’s character kneels on a narrow path of black rock and chips away at ice and snow with a pick and a serrated piece of sheet metal.  For anyone who has ever shoveled a driveway when the temperature hovers around zero, the opening scene of “Arctic” is a stressful reminder of Old Man Winter and his associated, compulsory chores. 

 

The difference between Overgard (Mikkelsen) and John Q. Public scrapping coagulated powder in the frozen suburbs of Minneapolis, Chicago, Buffalo, Toronto, Boston, and Spokane is the latter poor soul can – at least - catch reprieve inside a heated home stocked with hot chocolate.  Overgard, however, finds no such balmy comfort, but actually, a crashed carcass of an aircraft does serve as an indispensable refuge. 

 

He is the lone survivor of a plane crash and is now stranded in a freezing anti-wonderland with little hope of rescue, as the unforgiving elements bear down on his mortal self.

 

“By far, the toughest thing I’ve ever done in my life.  The conditions were overwhelming,” Mikkelsen said in a recent interview.

 

Overgard sports chapped lips and dry, pink cheeks that are burned from the frigid air, and when roaming outside the plane during daylight hours, he encases himself in a red down jacket, a gray hat and – what looks like – snowmobile pants as his only protection from the cold.  The nearby buttes do not exactly deflect the elements or provide shelter, and as he fishes in icy water, shovels into crusty ice (for a reason that will not be revealed in this review) and hand cranks a small transmitter in the hopes that someone will hear a faint ping, we can feel the cold seeping into our bones while sitting in comfortable theatre seats. 

 

Like “127 Hours” (2010) and “Cast Away” (2000), the harsh environment forces our solitary hero into resourceful ingenuity, but unlike those films, “Arctic” does not flashback to leisurely moments or capture stretches of screen time in urban civilization.  Here, the movie – which was filmed in Iceland - is always set on location, and it’s up to Mikkelsen to carry the torch throughout the picture. 

 

Whether he plays a Bond villain, an 18th century white knight or an elementary school teacher falsely accused of a heinous act, Mikkelsen always seems to deliver a sturdy, charismatic performance with his suave and articulate Northern European flair.  He commands the screen throughout the 97-minute picture in near-total isolation, and one Phoenix Film Society member mentioned just after a Scottsdale screening on Jan. 30, “Even though Mikkelsen speaks very few words, he communicates so much in silence during the entire movie.”

 

This is especially true during the last 60 minutes, as a very specific moral choice repeatedly confronts Overgard.  Meanwhile, the screenplay places nature’s obstacles in front of him that challenge his altruistic compass, as the director successfully performs a high wire act by introducing imposing theatrical impediments while not manipulating the audience.  

 

Hence, Penna – who is directing his first feature film – displays massive resourcefulness and imagination in the most punitive of settings, and when asked why he chose such a difficult shoot, he said, “To tell a story of resilience, it had to be in the Artic.” 

 

Overgard and Mikkelsen naturally fit with the surroundings.  Our fragile selves might not, but bring a down jacket, a hat, snowmobile pants, and a scarf too…and be awed. 

(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 Lego Movie 2: The Second Part - Movie Review by Monte Yazzie

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The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part

 

Director: Mike Mitchell

Starring: Chris Pratt, Elizabeth Banks, Will Arnett, Tiffany Haddish, Stephanie Beatriz, Alison Brie, Nick Offerman, Charlie Day, and Maya Rudolph

 

Everything is NOT awesome with the happy residents of Bricksburg, especially the happy-go-lucky master builder Emmett who saved the toy-inspired universe in the standout hit from 2014. The masterminds, Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, behind the origin story for these toys-turned-movie characters return to write the script but new director Mike Mitchell takes over directing duties. This doesn’t matter too much because the formula hasn’t changed between the different Lego franchises.

 

Emmett (Chris Pratt) saved the city of Bricksburg from President Business and just before they could celebrate their victory, a cutesy alien Lego society descended from the sky and turned the bright shining world into a dystopian, Mad Max-esque wasteland. The aliens destroy everything that has and will be made, leaving the citizens of Bricksburg to live in fear of building anything new or shiny. Things get worse when all the great warriors and leaders are kidnapped; Lucy (Elizabeth Banks), Batman (Will Arnett), Benny (Charlie Day), Unikitty (Alison Brie), and Metalbeard (Nick Offerman) are all captured leaving Emmett to venture into the unknown after them.

 

Much of the appeal and charm for these Lego films has come from the use of humor and the inclusion of pop culture referencing throughout nearly every frame of the film. Where else are going to find “Jurassic Park” velociraptors, every member of the Justice League from DC Comics, and John McClane from “Die Hard” in the same movie, sometimes at the same time? The fact that these sometimes subtle, mostly blatant nods to pop culture come off so delightfully is quite impressive.

 

Helping make these interesting crossovers come to life are the exceptional voice actors. Firstly, Will Arnett’s low baritone Batman steals the show, it’s easy to see why this character received a spinoff feature. Tiffany Haddish plays the morphing evil alien queen wreaking havoc on the Lego universe. Ms. Haddish has such a unique cadence and rhythm in her dialog, it’s easy to laugh and smile even when a joke isn’t  being pushed into the narrative. Unfortunately, the two leads, Emmett and Lucy, have a narrative that is stifled by poor character development and a strange over saturation of Chris Pratt’s vocal work. The second act of the film is consumed by Emmett and Rex Dangervest, a new character who embraces the solitude life of a hero on a spaceship run by dinosaurs. These two characters are voiced by Mr. Pratt but the storyline for why they  come together brings the pacing of the film to a halt in an effort to add some kind of mystery that is building towards the inevitable ending, which surprisingly accomplishes  enough with the other characters throughout to remain a kindhearted message.

 

“The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part” isn’t as awesome as the first installment, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not good. Underneath the story of an alien invasion, forced wedding nuptials, and catchy songs that ruin your mind, there is a story about brothers and sisters, being kind to one another, and accepting childhood for as long as possible. It’s a sweet sentiment when the film transitions into the “real” world and not the Lego world. So, while everything may NOT be awesome, this film still has all the workings of a good family film worth the trip to the movies.

 

Monte’s Rating

3.50 out of 5.00

Cold Pursuit - Movie Review by Ben Cahlamer

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Cold Pursuit

 

Directed by Hans Petter Moland

Written by Frank Baldwin

Based on “In Order of Disappearance” by Kim Fupz Aakeson

Starring Liam Neeson, Tom Bateman, Tom Jackson, Emmy Rossum, Domenick Lombardozzi, Laura Dern, William Forsythe

 

Revenge is a very dirty business.

But, when done appropriately and privately, and with dry humor intact, well, the grit and gristle of revenge isn’t as distasteful.

Take Nels Coxman (Liam Neeson). He’s a genuinely nice guy. A family man who, as attested to by his Citizen of the Year award is shook to his very core when his son, a baggage handler at the local airport turns up dead from a heroin overdose.

Based on the 2014 foreign language picture from director Hans Petter Moland, “In Order of Disappearance,” this film derives its guts from the dark and dry humor that permeated “Fargo” in 1996. As in that film, a quiet town disrupted by a violent act, which turns into a series of violent pratfalls as the local gangster, Trevor “Viking” Calcote (Tom Bateman) realizes something is amiss when members of his crew start disappearing.

When we’re laughing at the lunacy that is Bateman’s snarmy character, decked out in his ultramodern mountain villa and his Tesla Model X, we take delight in the unassuming ways in which Nels dispatches his victims. All of it is senseless and Baldwin’s screenplay doesn’t make any bones about that; we’re just along for the ride.

Adding to the Coen-esque nature of the film is the gung-ho deputy, Kim Dash (Emmy Rossum). The character is aware that something sinister is happening around her, but her partner Gip (John Doman) encourages her to back down, to enjoy the serenity of the Rocky Mountain community.

Coxman’s antics stir up two hornets’ nests. The first is a bloody gang war between Viking and an American Indian drug cartel. Moland and Baldwin extrude some fine detail about a part of history that not many are aware of. The second nest is on the home front. Grace (Laura Dern) is genuinely struggling over the death of their son, leaving her to grieve alone.

The art direction becomes as much a character as the talent that inhabits the screen. From the warmth of the Coxman home, a log home meant to symbolize a bit of normalcy, to ground Nels as compared to the austere look and feel of the aforementioned sleek and ultramodern home that Viking inhabits. The look here gives a squeaky clean image to the violence that Viking has wrought.

I mentioned “Fargo” as an influence for this movie, but I would be remiss if I didn’t mention “The Substitute” with Tom Berenger and, not unintentionally, William Forsythe, who plays a former crew member of Viking’s is a “middleman,” providing information to interested parties is just as humorous as the rest of the film. His wife, Ahn (Elizabeth Thai) was an absolute delight in the middle of the chaos.

I saw the film before Mr. Neeson’s interview broke. Though it explores themes of racism, his character is most certainly not. In fact, it goes out of its way to ensure that where that theme could go awry, it steers itself back on course.

Though it would probably have done better in the 1990’s, “Cold Pursuit” is timeless tail of family and revenge.

3 out of 4

The Idea of Manhood - Movie Review by Ben Cahlamer

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The Idea of Manhood

 

Directed by Serge Kushnier

Written by Serge Kushnier

Starring Jeremy Kushnier, Karl Bury, Thomas Sullivan, Meg, McCrossen, Elizabeth Masucci, Melanie Merkosky

 

“Life finds a way.” Leave it me to find a way to tie a deeply moving, life-altering buddy dramaedy into one of the most oft repeated lines from a movie that is turning 25 this year. God, I feel old.

But, you know what? Serge Kushnier’s “The Idea of Manhood” reminded me that it is okay to question our choices, to make a right turn when a left turn might be the right thing to do. Still with me?

Good!

Kushnier’s award-winning dramaedy features two college buddies chumming it up one weekend; Jacob, a married man whose wife and kids just happen to be up north for the summer at camp is a bachelor, footloose and fancy-free in his Brooklyn Brownstone when his buddy, Sandy shows up unexpectedly. Their reunion is a bit awkward at first, as Jacob tries to pry out of Sandy why he’s suddenly on his doorstep.

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There is a simplicity in Kushnier’s approach to his script, to the staging of his characters and their environs. As he related to us at the Phoenix Film Festival, he shot the film in the NYC area over a nine-day period. The simplicity pays off as the script slowly builds to its thunderous crescendo as two friends, who seemingly had drifted apart find one another in a moment of . . . well . . . manhood.

Jeremy Kushnier is sublime as Jacob, a man who we can tell at the beginning of the film is just exhausted. We don’t necessarily know why, but the idea of a sorely needed bachelor’s weekend is slowly worked into our vantage point by actor and director Kushnier, respectively. Kushnier plays low key throughout the course of the story as he is suddenly put on the spot to entertain Sandy.

Karl Bury gives one of the most emotionally-driven performances I’ve seen this year. Through the early phases of the film, Sandy is very awkward, trying to grab attention from Jacob. Yet, nothing he shares with Jacob is surprising, given the state of affairs in this country. It is only when Sandy is introduced to people in Jacob’s life, outside of Jacob’s family, that we start to see Sandy finally peel himself out of his shell, creating a really nice twist on what would seem another downtrodden character.

Before I touch on that twist, there’s a moment where Jacob is entertaining his friends, bringing Sandy in to his personal environment. Jacob states that he enjoys hanging out with people younger than he is. As such, his guests spend most of their time on their cell phones, leaving an uncomfortable silence. Sandy suggests Beer Pong, which they all agree to, and in the middle of a match, Sandy recites a story, which at first will sound familiar, but the way its told, the audience will think twice about it (I know I did) and when he’s finally done reciting the story, the reactions of the guests is priceless.

It is this afternoon’s activities that cause a monumental shift in the way the characters are perceived. The way Kushnier builds the story, the way select scenes are staged and shot by DP John L. Murphy, you know that something is brewing and the reveal is finally delivered. There’s a sense of relief and calm, that all is right in the world. Yet, there’s an air of mystery still left when all is said and done,

Writer/Director Serge Kushnier

Writer/Director Serge Kushnier

And, that’s the beauty of Serge Kushnier’s story. It’s a simply executed story full of witty and dramatic dialog, allowing Jeremy and Karl to deliver two of the most complex and diverse characters I’ve seen in independent cinema since “Black” reconnected with Kevin in “Moonlight”. That’s the level of craftsmanship that Jeremy Kushnier and Karl Bury brought to their characters:  we have little pieces of a puzzle to put together both men’s lives, and yet, when the story is over, the script is flipped and you’re left with a desire to know more. Subtly though, you really don’t need anymore. As I said at the beginning life does indeed find a way through all the chaos.

So too does Serge Kushnier. And brilliantly so.

4 out of 4 stars

Miss Bala - Movie Review by Monte Yazzie

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Miss Bala

 

Director: Catherine Hardwicke

Starring: Gina Rodriguez, Ismael Cruz Cordova, Matt Lauria, Aislinn Derbez, Cristina Rodlo, Ricardo Abarca, and Anthony Mackie

 

Explosions and bullets blaze around the silhouette of a lone female wearing a beauty pageant dress and holding an assault rifle. Bodies flee the mayhem, bodies fall to the ground, but a changed woman marches forward with survival and the promise of freedom motivating her every step. It’s a wonderful sight to see. 

 

“Miss Bala”, a remake of the 2011 film that was also Mexico’s submission for the Academy Award’s Best Foreign Language Film category, is offered a frenzied Americanized update starring Gina Rodriguez. The film, directed by the talented Catherine Hardwicke, doesn’t stray too far from the original premise but adds a great performance from the cool and clever Gina Rodriguez and supporting tough guy gangster Ismael Cruz Cordova. 

 

Gloria (Gina Rodriguez) is a makeup artist working in Los Angeles. Her childhood friend Suzu (Cristina Rodlo) lives in Tijuana and is planning on competing in the Miss Baja beauty pageant. Gloria is coming to support her friend and help with her makeup. Before the pageant, Gloria and Suzu head out for a night on the town when a group of armed drug cartel members comes to assassinate a political figure at the club they are at. During the chaos the two friends are separated, Gloria tries to find her friend but comes face to face with Lino (Ismael Cruz Cordova), the leader of the drug organization.

 

The narrative in “Miss Bala” pushes an aspect of empowerment throughout, Gina Rodriguez does a nice job of displaying the transition of Gloria’s trauma and helplessness to ultimate resolve and revenge. Still, there is something missing, or lost, in the composition of this updated version of the film. The analysis of the socioeconomic environment in Mexico, the honest citizens forced into fear-induced captivity, and the corruption that makes trust an unreliable commodity are only touched upon in this version; the focus is clearly aimed at the inevitable action sequences and the empowerment of one intelligent woman’s demand to survive. The empowerment angle is actually very well-conceived throughout the film. 

 

Gina Rodriguez accomplishes the transformation into a confident and shrewd hero nicely. However, she is also assisted by an interesting performance from Ismael Cruz Cordova who composes the villain Lino with a subtle hint of chivalrous merit that is ultimately smeared by a life lived by using fear as a weapon. When the dynamic between the two is utilized effectively, “Miss Bala” shines as a character piece driven by the natural cat-and-mouse dynamic of motivations between the abductor and the abducted. In one of the better scenes Lino takes Gloria to a small village he grew up in, they share a meal and Lino talks about his past while Gloria figures out her exit plan. 

 

Director Catherine Hardwicke is a very capable director hampered here by a script that is looking for mass appeal in the action-thriller genre. The performances will keep your attention and the occasional action scene will fulfill the need to watch a likable character find her comeuppance, however, these moments are fleeting in a film that just doesn’t commit to being more than a familiar tale we’ve seen many times already. Still, the image of a brave woman owning her femininity and staring down danger is a welcome sight on the silver screen.

 

Monte’s Rating

2.75 out of 4.00

They Shall Not Grow Old - Movie Review by Ben Cahlamer

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They Shall Not Grow Old

 

Directed by Peter Jackson

 

“They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old.”

~ From “For the Fallen” by Laurence Binyon

To be able to peer through a looking glass, to see the past as it was while presenting stories that modern audiences might not have ever seen, is an amazing idea. Peter Jackson, who may be more familiar to audiences for his ground breaking work on “The Lord of the Rings” and “The Hobbit” trilogies now brings us an exemplary look at World War I with his 3D documentary, “They Shall Not Grow Old.”

Culled from over 600 hours of interviews from the BCC and the IWM as well as 100 hours of original film, Jackson immerses his audience in experiences rather than a traditional narrative guiding an audience through the story. This allows Jackson to tell a narrative of the innocence of young, brave men who wanted to see action.  There was a sense of pride, especially from the men who were younger than the draft age.

There was a sense of community as well. For the voiceovers, Jackson used the recorded interviews of those who were present at this point in history. Many of the recollections painted a picture of defiance when parents would try to hold their children back: “I want to serve!” they claimed. And when they presented themselves to join, the military staff even tried to turn them away. Alas, they needed all the young, able-bodied men they could get their hands on.

Innocence rules the day as these men start their training as the military machine pushed these eager beavers to their limits and beyond. Once, trained, they are marshalled off to the battlefields of France where the German military was entrenched. It is here where Jackson switches from a series of still photos to a re-creation of the experiences on the battlefield with the continued interviews as narration.

The mood of the film changes, but the esprit de corps remains. There’s a lot of laughter and fond remembrances as the men settle in to squalid conditions, sharing stories of their memories of the events. The combination of the sound design, the visuals and the interviews really serve to put you in the middle of the action, to immerse you in their experience, something you’re unlikely to see elsewhere.

Of the many aspects of the film that I liked, the fact that we are not force-fed locations or dates; we are allowed to share in this experience as it unfolds for us, as it would have for these men, who simply followed orders. In this regard, it is rather a haunting experience, seeing events that I had only read about as a kid.

Innocence is a theme as the soldiers repatriate. They find that their own sacrifice is met with distaste. War changes not only those who serve, but those who stay behind as well because the involvement is one-sided; those who stay behind get their updates from the news and think that the experiences of the men coming home, of those who survived can’t be used in day to day work activities. It was a sobering reality that thankfully, didn’t repeat itself during World War II as much because everyone was involved.

“They Shall Not Grow Old” is a history lesson come to life. It isn’t clouded by either side’s reasoning for battling one another. It is a tale in morality and of sacrifice, something the world needs a good dose of today. The technical achievement alone is worthy of your time.

After a series of successful screening events over the last two months, They Shall Not Grow Old opens in theatres on Friday, February 1st.

 

3.75 out of 4

Serenity - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

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‘Serenity’ triggers agitation, frustration and exasperation

 

 

Written and directed by:  Steven Knight

Starring:  Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Djimon Hounsou, Jason Clarke, and Diane Lane

 

 

“Serenity” – Baker Dill (Matthew McConaughey) drinks from a World’s Greatest Dad coffee mug, but he might not be the best at anything.  World’s Greatest Screwup, perhaps.  He’s a fisherman on Plymouth Island, a magical blue and sandy oasis where wealthy tourists descend for a week or two of R&R, but locals need to scrape and herd random sources of cash to keep roofs over their heads.  Baker may be the most desperate, but he is his own worst enemy. 

 

As the film opens, his friend Duke (Djimon Hounsou) and he take two vacationing-guys on a fishing trip, however, Baker pulls a knife on them in an erratic rage, and poof, his 700 hundred dollar-boating fee-bounty gets away in a sea of hurt feelings. 

 

Speaking of feelings, according to Google, the definition of serenity is the state of being calm, peaceful and untroubled, and Baker is anything but.  After sitting through writer/director Steven Knight’s torturous nonsense of a movie, tranquility could be the furthest emotion that you feel as well.  How about agitation, frustration and exasperation?

 

At the center of this mess is McConaughey, one of the most cinematically-schizophrenic actors working today.  When he dives into the right movies - like “U-571” (2000), “Killer Joe” (2011), “Mud” (2012), “Dallas Buyer’s Club” (2013), and “Interstellar” (2014) – he carries them with a sly bravado and comfortably commands our journey into (and through) big screen hazards. 

 

Lately, he has tripped with “Gold” (2016), “The Dark Tower” (2017) and those car commercials with bizarre soliloquies that prompt double takes or head scratches rather than inspiration. 

 

Here, McConaughey speaks to himself and others, as if he is sitting in one of those Lincolns but seemingly semi-crazed via cocaine or Red Bull while verbalizing with his trademark slow drawl, sporting two days of beard growth and gnarled hair, and soaking in beads of sweat. 

 

As Baker obsessively attempts to catch his white whale in the shape of a humongous tuna who always seems to snap his line, he struggles with his past, including a separation from his son, and this toxic combination fuels his circular existence of bad moods and financial jeopardy.  Thankfully, Constance (Diane Lane) regularly pays him for sex, so he garners enough gasoline-dough for his boat to catch Charlie the Tuna’s obese grandson.  Well, that’s a relief. 

 

Baker’s ex-wife Karen (Anne Hathaway) breaks up his monotony - by showing up out of nowhere – and asks him to kill her current husband Frank (Jason Clarke) for 10 million bucks. 

 

Hey, that score could buy 3.6 million gallons of gas!

 

In-between erratic camera movements, cartoonish supporting characters and a serious moral choice, Baker embarks on a voyage of self-discovery. While coping with his probable borderline personality disorder, he swims naked, sees an apparition, meets a persistent salesman in a black suit, and acts out in two scenes that channel Tommy Wiseau’s Johnny from the cult classic “The Room” (2003). 

 

No, “Serenity” does not make a whole lot of sense until the third act, but only through clumsy and preposterous explanations.  On the bright side, we see Hathaway with blonde hair, and a remake of “The Room” seems possible.  The movie was also filmed on the island of Mauritius, just east of Madagascar, so at least the cast enjoyed a nice vacation.  For movie audiences?  Watching “Serenity” is work, and getting through it should earn you a World’s Most Patient Moviegoer mug.  It’s not worth it though, not even for 3.6 million gallons of gas.

(1/4 stars)

 

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

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