Mary, Queen of Scots - Movie Review by Ben Cahlamer

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Mary, Queen of Scots

 

Directed by Josie Rourke

Screenplay by Beau Williamson

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2.5 out of 4

The Best of 2011 by Monte Yazzie

What a Year…2011 in Film

 

2011 doesn’t seem so long ago but a lot has changed in the landscape of film media. Blockbuster Video still had stores around, Best Buy still had a large area dedicated to movie purchasing, and Netflix streaming services was just beginning to take over the landscape of how consumers connected with movies.

 

Amidst these changes, filmmakers were transforming the way they made films. Martin Scorsese made his first 3-D film and a black and white silent film called “The Artist” won the Academy Award for Best Picture. Doesn’t seem so strange looking back through the lens of 2018 however.

 

This week the Phoenix Film Festival wanted to take a look back at 2011, here are the films that made my list of favorites for this unique year. 

 

 

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10. We Need to Talk About Kevin

Director Lynne Ramsey has 4 feature films under her belt since 1999. Needless to say, the director takes her time crafting her films. “We Need to Talk About Kevin” is a film that spends much of its time on a mother’s frustration, regret, confusion, and anger towards her son and family. It's crushing to watch this mother self-destruct amidst the turmoil of caring for a child who develops a pattern of strange and evil behavior over the course of his young life. This is a horror film that doesn’t rely on jump scares or clever editing, but rather well written characters and a focus on a relationship between a mother and child.

 

9.  Another Earth

The idea that there is another earth that could be a mirror of the earth we are living in lends much to the mystery of “Another Earth” from director Mike Cahill. Lead actress Brit Marling co-wrote the script for this film and offers an exceptional performance. Although the film doesn’t concern itself with actually science fiction beyond the concept, it does explore the nature of relationships and existence, and achieves an effect of asking indirect questions of the audience.

 

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8. Drive

One of the most underrated films of 2011. Nicolas Winding Refn crafted a movie thick with atmosphere, and positioned within a world seemingly lost in time. The 80’s influenced synth pop soundtrack accommodates the film but doesn’t date it strangely enough. “Drive” is still one of the best soundtracks of the last 10 years. It’s the kind of film that lends itself to numerous viewings and has garnered itself a strong fan following since its release in 2011.

 

7. Rango

“Rango” may not be your kid’s favorite film, but I know a few adults that absolutely love it. With a heavy emphasis on the American western genre, “Rango” plays like a Clint Eastwood spaghetti western filled with telling nods to the history of cowboy cinema. Johnny Depp voices the lead character Rango and is supported by other seasoned film veterans that compose an exceptional cast of voices. Famed director of photography Roger Deakins signed on as a visual consultant, his eye for action and the scope of his framing is stunning here.

 

6. A Separation

“A Separation” composes an unorthodox mystery regarded the aspect of “truth”. The facts are all present for an Iranian couple arguing about a pending divorce but their exploration of what “truth” means to them is at odds. If that sounds confusing I promise you it’s not, “A Separation” at its’ core is an analysis of religious law and how people fall into dissonance when trying to live in accordance of those laws. Time has aged this film exceptionally well, it’s the one film on this list that I would rank higher, closer to the top spot.

 

5. The Artist

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Who would have thought that a black and white, silent film would have made such an impact on the film scene in 2011? Many of the qualities that make this film so good are so simplistic it seems too easy. But every piece of this film is a calculated step in filmmaking. Director Michael Hazanavicius utilizes space and set design so well, actor Jean Dujardin conveys so much emotion with just his expressions. “The Artist” is pure nostalgia in motion.

 

4. Take Shelter

Michael Shannon is still one of my favorite actors; he is able to embody so many different kinds of characters with such a natural ease. “Take Shelter” is a simple premise for a film, however Mr. Shannon and the supporting cast elevate the narrative into something spectacular. Paranoia, along with elements of survival, desperation, and confusion play an important role to how each character deals with the range of emotions exhibited. Predictability typically ruins films that focus on apocalyptic themes, however, “Take Shelter” feels ambiguous, the viewer is never sure footed in their assessment of how the film will end, and that’s great credit to the film.

 

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3. Hugo

Martin Scorsese’s passion for film is displayed in every frame of this film, it’s as much a love letter to the genesis of filmmaking as it is a story of his own life. The film plays in two parts, showcasing the adventures of the young boy surviving in the train station and the career of the great filmmaker Georges Méliès. The combination of fantasy and reality is played upon and executed masterfully in both the reality of Hugo, who watches the world as a great fantasy, and the life of Méliès who succumbs to reality but embraces peace in the fantasy of film. Mr. Scorsese embraced technology for this film, composing it in some of the best 3-D of recent memory, and proved again why he is a master of the filmmaking craft.

 

2. Melancholia

Director Lars Von Trier creates abrasive films that push viewers in demanding ways with content that is disturbing and uncomfortable. This year the director crafted a bold personal work that is equally appalling as it is completely mesmerizing with the serial killer focused “The House That Jack Built”. But in 2011 Von Trier explored themes of loss, despair, tragedy, and conflict through the family dynamic and romantic relationship of a young woman with severe depression. All this transpires while also telling a story of Earth’s imminent apocalypse. Kirsten Dunst should have been nominated, if not have won, an Academy Award for her portrayal here. 7 years later and Lars Von Trier is still one of the most interesting and compelling filmmakers working.

 

1. Certified Copy

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The battle of authenticity and imitation has been explored in films before, however not with the passion and depth that director Abbas Kiarostami exhibits with “Certified Copy”. The story follows two somewhat unlikable characters as they journey through the streets of rustic Italy discussing issues of copies; weaving through art, architecture, emotion, and humanity, these two people compose a fascinatingly complex relationship. What is real and what is manufactured? “Certified Copy” offers no easy answers, and it doesn’t need to.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse - Movie Review by Ben Cahlamer

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Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

 

Directed by Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey and Rodney Rothman

Screenplay by Phil Lord and Rodney Rothman, Story by Phil Lord

Based on “Miles Morales” by Brian Michael Bendis and Sara Pichelli

Starring Shameik Moore, Jake Johnson, Hailee Steinfeld, Mahershala Ali, Brian Tyree Henry, Lily Tomlin, Nicolas Cage and Liev Schreiber

 

Audiences who had the patience to sit through the antics in Sony’s “Venom,” were treated to an extended sequence from “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” as a post credits sequence. Admittedly, I sat through the sequence, not necessarily list, but in awe at the beautiful animation. It was full of humor as our hero, Miles Morales, voiced by Shameik Moore, zips around New York City with an unconscious Peter Parker in tow. We don’t necessarily know why and we’re aren’t meant to know why; just that it looked exciting and dangerous.

The audience for that screening applauded with shrieks of excitement of what was to come. Was it worth the second wait?

Unequivocally, yes, it was worth the wait. Gone is the cheekiness from that permeated “Venom,” replaced with a brighter tone to the darker story of our webbed hero. Here is a time-twisting, parallel-inducing story of courage in the face of the odds. Miles is a high school aged-student. His mom is a nurse, his dad is a police officer. One of the bigger jokes that plays in the trailer and thankfully doesn’t get ruined over the course of the story is how playful Morales’s father (Brian Tyree Henry) is in expressing his love towards his son.

Mind you, Miles doesn’t want the affection afforded him by his parents. He wants to be more expressive than the new boarding school his parents have placed him in and his uncle, Aaron (Mahershala Ali) is just the ticket. And that’s when a rogue technology-drive spider bites Morales, giving him his powers.

Not to be outdone though, the film’s villain Kingpin (Live Schreiber) uses technology to return him to his wife and daughter by accessing parallel universes. The activation of the technology brings multiple Spider-people into our universe. An older, disheveled and jaded Peter Parker (Jake Johnson) tries to connect with Miles, but with mixed results. Miles, who was inspired by the Spider-Man of his own dimension wants to do the right thing, but in this story, can’t yet grasp the ideas behind the character.

Phil Lord and Rodney Rothman’s story fold in the traditional elements of a Spider-Man story, but they fine tune it for the dimension inducing elements introduced here. Along with the older Peter Parker, we also get Gwen Stacy (Hailee Steinfeld), Peter Porker (John Mulaney), Spider-Man Noir (Nicolas Cage), Peni Parker (Kimiko Glenn) as they all join forces to not only return to their respective universes, but to also defeat Kingpin.

With all of the iterations of Spider-Man, Lord and Rothman’s story also puts Miles front and center. This might appear to be a redundant statement, but with as many characters as populated this film’s 117-minute run time, the story finds time to allow us to get to know Miles while subtly altering “with great power comes great responsibility” theme. I like the fact that this story also doesn’t immediately assume that Morales is an orphan. He’s got a great, loving family. In fact it makes a reveal in the second half of the film that much more powerful, but you’ll need to see the film to see what I mean.

The animation is amongst the best I’ve seen in 2018 and it gives the story and the film a pulpy, animated look. And though I am not a comic book fan, this certainly got my attention in all the right ways.

3.5 out of 4

 

 

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.

For those in the U.S., “They Shall Not Grow Old” will be presented in theaters on December 17  and again on December 27 in 2D or 3D at the Harkins Scottsdale 101, Norterra 14 and Christown 14.

 

3.75 out of 4

Ben is Back - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

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Roberts and Hedges effectively play a struggling mother and son in ‘Ben Is Back’

 

 

Written and directed by: Peter Hedges

 

Starring:  Julia Roberts and Lucas Hedges

 

 

“Ben Is Back” – “Instead of a criminal or a drug addict, I was looking at a boy, just a boy.” – Shannon A. Thompson, “Take Me Tomorrow”

 

Ben (Lucas Hedges) is back home on Christmas Eve.  

 

Patches of crusty snow are scattered on suburban lawns, wintery-grays fill the skies and leafless trees remind us that warm weather won’t hug this neighborhood for a few distant months.  It might be comfy inside Ben’s house, but this (roughly) 18-year-old kid is locked out, because he did not tell his mom Holly (Julia Roberts), stepdad Neal (Courtney B. Vance) and siblings that he was arriving today. 

 

Once Holly, however, sees her son at the top of the driveway, she runs to him and throws her arms around his shoulders with an emotional concoction of disbelief and joy.  You see, Ben is not on his college break.  He took an unannounced leave from a rehabilitation center.  Ben is a drug addict and should focus on his recovery, but Holly wished that he could be home for Christmas, and the young man took her request literally. 

 

Writer/director Peter Hedges – who directed “Pieces of April” (2003) and “Dan in Real Life” (2007) and wrote “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape” (1993) - literally casts his son Lucas in this painful story about addiction that will figuratively put the audience through the wringer.  Although Ben’s issues impact every family member, the film primarily focuses on his relationship with his mother, and Lucas and Julia deliver two remarkable performances.  In fact, Roberts deserves her fifth Oscar nomination, and even though 2018 is a crowded field for female lead performances, her work “Ben Is Back” is that good. 

 

The film’s narrative lasts for less than a day, but Roberts seems to assemble Holly’s years of historical anguish over Ben’s addiction.  Holly retains both her uncompromising love for her son and the heartbreak caused by an emotional wrecking ball wrapped in his compulsions and boorish adolescence. 

 

Once Ben arrives, Holly and Neal decide that he will stay for a day, because it’s Christmastime.  This means, however, that Ben has to play by Holly’s rules, which include not leaving her sight during his entire visit.  No drugs.  She means business for Ben’s sake, but in reality, she is protecting her family and herself, because Neal, Holly and their other children Ivy (Kathryn Newton), Liam (Jakari Fraser), and Lacey (Mia Fowler) have been put through hell because of his past behavior.

 

Right away, Peter establishes an apprehensive tone. 

 

Holly feels conflicted-joy, but Ivy repeatedly reminds her that Ben’s unexpected entrance cannot be a welcome one.  At this point, the audience does not realize the extent of Ben’s painful reach, however Ivy delivers numerous warning shots.  This heightens our anxiety, and it is written all over Holly’s face, as she copes with a mix of the stern responsibilities of motherhood, love for her son and self-preservation.  

 

Ben feels anxiety as well.  The pressure to use, but his struggle also lies within his home town.  He carved a brutal path of destruction through these manicured cul-de-sacs, so returning home to face his neighbors – even for just 24 hours – is Ben’s cross to bear.  Embarrassment and/or shame can appear during any ill-timed glance at a mall food court, convenience store or church, which makes this harmless visit with family a painful reminder of the past. 

 

In “Manchester by the Sea” (2016), Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) could not tolerate the thought of returning to Manchester-by-the-Sea, Mass. due to the anguish of his personal tragedy. 

 

Even though time is supposed to heal all wounds, memories do not fade.

 

In writer/director Kenneth Lonergan’s affecting film, he flashes back to Lee’s said incident, and the agony punches us in the stomach and leaves us emotionally doubled-over for the remainder of the 2-hour 17-minute runtime and for two years (and counting) afterwards.

 

Peter does not include a similar moment in “Ben Is Back”, but he reveals Ben’s torment during a chosen confession to a room full of strangers with Holly present.  He spills his guts, and although we do not see Ben’s transgressions, his partial list of admissions is enough, as the scene confirms Ivy’s initial feelings, when Holly meets Ben on their driveway.   

 

“Ben Is Back” takes unexpected turns along the asphalt in this suburban Northeastern or Mid Atlantic community, and admittedly, it flirts with implausibility in a couple cases, but the film draws up a plot that squarely falls on mother and son.  Peter regularly follows their ragged journey with a handheld camera, and he sometimes micro-shadows Holly’s lateral and vertical movements.  This cinematically – and perhaps unconsciously – helps pull us into Holly’s experience, but Roberts’ layered portrayal of a damaged mother carries us on her own.   To prepare for this role, Roberts said in a recent interview that she did not meet with mothers of addicts for a very specific reason.

 

“I didn’t…it seemed terribly selfish to meet with someone and ask them to unpack their heartbreak for my creative benefit,” she said.  

 

Well, throughout the 1-hour 43-minute runtime of “Ben Is Back”, it truly feels like Holly and Ben have been struggling for years, when she looks at her boy on this particular day. 

(3/4 stars)

 

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

Roma - Movie Review by Ben Cahlamer

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Roma

Written and Directed by Alfonso Curaon

Starring Yalitza Aparicio, Marina de Tavira, Fernando Grediaga, Jorge Antonio Guerrero, Nancy Garica, Veronica Garcia

 

I wrote a piece for the Phoenix Film Festival this week about my very first year of film writing as I explained my first experience of trying to get into an advanced screening of another film, the feeling and exuberance of being able to define myself.

Expanding this week to Phoenix and other markets ahead of its global launch on Netflix on December 14, Oscar - winning director Alfonso Cuaron’s “Roma” feels very much like a look at my own journey. Check out Jeff Mitchell’s top Cuaron films too.

Set in late 1970 and early 1971, “Roma” is the story of Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) a maid to a wealthy Mexico City family comprised of Sofia (Marina de Tavira), her husband Antonio (Fernando Grediaga) a doctor, her mother Teresa (Veronica Garcia) and the four, young children.

Curaon uses the family as the centerpiece of the film, as we move throughout the home. An early scene shows the quiet stillness of the morning as we follow Cleo throughout the house, waking up the children and getting them ready for their day. Curaon, who also shot his own film, uses a smooth pan circling the home as we follow Cleo creating the illusion that we are Cleo.

Early in the film, we get the sense that Cleo is much more than a maid to the family; she has a matronly quality about her that allows her to be close to the children. This makes the character and Aparicio’s performance very relatable to the audience. Following a play gun fight between two of the children in which one of the children is ‘dead,’ Cleo comforts the child by pretending to be dead along with him. It’s a beautiful moment in which we see just how important Cleo was to the family. There’s a calmness and a serenity about Cleo which Curaon uses in the early scenes at the family home.

That calmness and serenity accentuates the rather dramatic entrance of Antonio, who has been away at a conference. Curaon purposely does not allow us to see the actor’s face, rather we are treated to precise maneuvering of the family’s Ford Galaxy into the narrow garage with classical music blasting and an ashtray full of spent cigarette butts. All this fanfare is much ado about nothing: Antonio is an overglorified geek.

Curaon does well to convince us that Antonio loves his family as they gather to watch a comedy special on television, but it is Cleo who really is the one the children relate the most to, even saying “I love you” as she puts them all to sleep.

Cleo, who barely says a word of her own challenges, is too reserved in her ways to say anything. She converses with her co-maid, Adela (Nancy Garcia) in their native Mextec language, but the story doesn’t dwell on their ongoing conversations.

This makes her interludes with martial arts – learning Fermin (Jorge Antonio Guerrero) that much more interesting. She is intrigued when he demonstrates his learned movements in the buff, but she is not scared. There is a tense intimacy to their relations, which results in an unintended pregnancy.

Curaon uses the cinema of the time to help tell Cleo’s story. In the first, a World War II comedy is the backdrop as Cleo tells Fermin of her pregnancy. Before the end of the film, he skulks off to the bathroom, running away. The second is a sequence from the 1971 classic Marooned in which we float in space as an astronaut tries to save another. Here we get the sense that we are floating above Cleo’s story, but at the same time, it is a pivotal moment in the lives of the children who must endure the realization that the family will never be the same.

In a way, Cleo will never be the same either. First, she goes off with the family to celebrate New Year’s Eve in a lavish, sprawling estate. It is here where the class distinction shines through as guns are shot off in wild abandon as children run around wildly, with no fears. In a scene reminiscent of the lower decks in Titanic, Cleo enjoys the festivities of the people with her friends and relatives discussing the recent land rights tensions that mar both the wealthy and the poor.

Before that night is up, the forest erupts in fire. As the guests rush to put it out, a countdown and a song ring in the New Year. Cleo eventually tracks down Fermin, who violently protests her claims that he is the father of their unborn child. Curaon uses this to set up the third act, but it also really reveals just how alone Cleo was in this encounter.

At the same time, the scene where she encounters Fermin and his soundly violent rejection of her really sets up who Cleo is, emotionally. Curaon uses the violence of the Mexican revolution in the streets below a muebleteria to carry the Fermin story thread to its logical conclusion. As the violence in the street breaks out, a couple on the run from the student demonstrators seeks shelter in the store as a band of rebels follows them in, executing them.

It is here where we see Cleo in a vulnerable state as her water breaks in the store. They rush her to the hospital as best as they can, given the violence in the streets.  Curaon’s masterful handling of the camera in the delivery room conveys all we need to know about Cleo and this struggle in her life.

The third act is where we see the broken parts of the House of Sofia and Cleo’s life come back together. Sofia formally tells the children of their marital problems and to get away from the distractions, they go to the beach in the aforementioned Ford Galaxy.

There is a sense of release and relief in the events at the beach, first the sunburn as the kids refuse to listen to their mom despite a cloudy first day. Of course, I did the same thing to my mom when I was a kid and we would visit relatives in Arizona.

Then the theme of water is brought back in to the story as Cleo who’s life-saving efforts at the beach really brings home the “slice of life” aspect that Curaon gives audiences who are willing to take this journey with him. As much as it is about the every day happenings of life, it is also keenly aware of death at any moment.

“Roma” is as much an homage to his home country. The drama that happens is a backdrop to the zen feeling we get as Cleo’s story unfolds, but the drama weighs the zen feeling down a bit too much for this slice of life to be perfection.

3 out of 4 stars

An interview with Jonathan Kite of All the Creatures Were Stirring by guest writer Molly Henery

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In the past year, writer/directors Rebekah and David Ian McKendry’s new horror anthology, All the Creatures Were Stirring, as had an exceptionally successful film festival run including the International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival. The film has since been picked up by RLJE Films and it will have a DVD and VOD release in time for Christmas.

 

All the Creatures Were Stirring follows different tales of Christmas horror, often with a dark comedic twist. The different segments cover Christmas ghosts, a strange evil entity, a murderous office party, and many more.  One of the stars of the film, Jonathan Kite (2 Broke Girls), was kind enough to speak with us. We spoke about his role in the film, how he became involved in he project, and even what his experience was like on set.


IHSFF: We’re here to talk about your new film, All the Creatures Were Stirring and you star in a segment titled “All Through the House,” which, of all the segments, is probably the most recognizable as a Christmas story. What can you tell us about the segment and your character?

 

Jonathan Kite: It’s a modern adaptation, retelling of A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens and my character, Chet, is alone on Christmas Eve. It sort of follows the tradition of the story with the three ghosts, but it’s not as blatant. The ghosts, their there, but when we visit the past, present, and the future the ghosts sort of talk through me. There’s a great scene in the mirror when I’m having a conversation with myself where we kind of talk about where my life is headed and it’s not me talk to the ghost of Christmas present or future. It is, but it comes in the form of me. So it was a very cool. I’d never done that before and it was a very cool kind of a process to figure out that dub matching of the shots and whatnot.

 

IHSFF: You seem to play multiple characters. How did you get into each character, even thought some of them are just different versions of yourself, but they all feel very distinct?

 

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Jonathan Kite: Myself and Amanda Fuller, who plays my girlfriend, and Archie and Connie we all play different people, but they all sort of have the same point of view. Like, for instance, when I play my father he’s sort of what I would have been thirty years ago or something. So we had talk about that, sort of creating a family dynamic and of how people would relate before cell phones because we’re all on the couch watching little me sing a song and it’s like those boring family gatherings. We were trying to do something as a unit and kind of give off a flavor more than an individual performance added to the scene picture. For me, I focused on what I would have been like thirty years ago or what Chet would have been like thirty years ago and would have been like as a kid.

 

IHSFF: How did you get involved with the project?

 

Jonathan Kite: I know Morgan Brown, who executive produced it. Morgan and I go back years and years and years. We went to university together and he had been telling me about it. I love horror anthologies like The Twilight Zone; the original is one of my favorite TV shows of all time. I really like this kind of stuff like Tales From the Crypt and Creepshow and stuff. So he had talked about producing it and finding people he really wanted to work with and he was like, “Hey if I ever do this would you be interested?” and I said, “Of course.” He literally came to me and was like, “We want you to play Scrooge in this thing, will you do it?” and I didn’t even read the script and I was like, “Yep, I’m in.”

 

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IHSFF: Between working with the McKendrys and some of the more unfortunate events that your character goes through, what was your experience like working on the film?

 

Jonathan Kite: You know what, it was pretty amazing because I know Morgan exceptionally well and his wife. Other than that I knew the sound guy, but I didn’t really know anyone else until I got there. I had never met the McKendrys. I think they were kind enough to sign off on me just from, maybe they had seen footage of me or Morgan, I have no idea how that went down. We shot everything I was in, we shot it in one day, which is a little insane because the mirror scene took forever. Just, everything had to be matched and I had to go back in later and redo the ADR because of the camera, the sound on it, but it was pretty amazing that we were able to get all of the stuff I was in in one day. It’s interesting because everybody got along so well on set and it was a very positive environment. We just sort of trusted each other. You know, in that situation where you’re trying to do everything one and done and figuring it out on the fly, because we used an actual house and figuring out camera angles when you can’t move the walls with the lighting, you’re limited to even the colors of the walls and how that bounces the light. The crew was really amazing. Just great, great, smart people who really knew what they were doing and worked well on the fly and it was a great team. So I had a very positive experience. Amanda and I became good friends; she plays my girlfriend on the segment. I think everybody was very good at the job they were hired to do, which always helps.

 

IHSFF: Now this is more of a fun question for you. If you were to plan a double feature, which film would you show along with All the Creatures Were Stirring?

 

Jonathan Kite: Wow, that is a good question. Maybe Krampus or… Well, I don’t know, maybe Gremlins.

 

IHSFF: That’s a good one.

 

Jonathan Kite: Yeah, I love that movie and I love that it’s a Christmas movie.

 

All the Creatures Were Stirring will be available on DVD and VOD December 4th and available to stream on Shudder on December 13th.

Top 10 of 2015 by Ben Cahlamer

As we wrap up the end of 2018, the Phoenix Film Festival reviewing staff decided it would be a fun idea to take a look back at their favorite films from a select year in the 2010 era. This week, Ben Cahlamer (who can’t even spell his own last name) takes a look at the very first year he started writing movie reviews, 2015.

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2015 didn’t start out for me with my saying “I’m going to write movie reviews.” My mom kept pleading with me to keep a journal. Lord knew I didn’t want to write down my own thoughts for posterity. But, I was starting to appreciate independent and foreign cinema more and more. In fact, it’s the first year that I can remember where I attended an advanced screening for “Woman in Gold.” That screening which was held at the original Harkins Camelview ended up being filled to capacity and I couldn’t get in on the standard line, so they turned us away. I had waited patiently for four hours and felt dejected.

As I walked away from the theater, I thought to myself “Ben, they must have at least one seat . . .  something.” At that point, I didn’t even care if it was in the front row, so I went and talked to the screening rep and sure enough, they had one seat left in the very front row!  “I’ll take it!”

The movie was a wonderful experience. What made it even more rewarding was that the theme of the film matched my own experience – stand up for what you believe is right, or fair. As a nice bonus, the director of the film, Simon Curtis was on hand for a Q & A after the film.

Here’s a link to the video, which I didn’t realize was moderated by fellow Phoenix Critics Circle member David Appleford.  https://www.facebook.com/ben.cahlamer/videos/10155398748770397/

What has any of this to do with my Top 10 Films of 2015?

To be honest, very little. I was overzealous with my first review, a product of the excitement of being able to get in to the screening. Three years on, and it wouldn’t even make it in to my Top 10. (it’s still a well-acted film with stunning locales.) In a year where I thought “Southpaw” would have been a Best Picture contender and “Terminator: Genisys” and “Jurassic World” were on my radar, how could I ever hope to come up with a top 10?

Let’s look at what did make it into my Top 10 of 2015?

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10. “Room” (d. Lenny Abrahamson) This was one of the film that we screened as a part of the Winter Series in 2015. Featuring Brie Larson in her Best Actress – winning role and Jacob Tremblay in his first role, this is the story of a mother and son held in captivity and their journey to free themselves.

9. “The Martian” (d. Ridley Scott) This film brought audiences to laughter as the first mission to Mars results in a botanist, Mark Whatney (Matt Damon) being stranded on Mars when an abrupt storm forces the crew to abandon the surface. When he miraculously recovers and makes contact with NASA, his crew mounts a rescue effort.


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8. “Brooklyn” (d. John Crowley) A look at the life of Irish immigrant Ellis Lacey as she learns to survive in Brooklyn in the early 1950’s. As much a period piece, “Brooklyn” makes my top 10 for the acting. Saoirse Ronan and Emory Cohen along with Domhnall Gleeson really bring the era of the past to life. Ronan and the film were nominated for Actress, Picture and Adapted Screenplay, respectively.

7. “Time Out of Mind” (d. Oren Moverman) Part of the Phoenix Film Society’s Summer Series, Oren Moveman’s film features Richard Gere as George, a mentally ill and homeless man on the streets of Manhattan. What I liked about the film was the way Moverman and Gere worked to make us face ourselves as we witness George’s journey.

6. “The Danish Girl” (d. Tom Hooper) In his Oscar – winning role, Eddie Redmayne was a godsend when he took on the role of Elbe, one of the first known recipients of sex reassignment surgeries. He has such a large presence on screen and he acts with his eyes while he blends in to the background, making his performance here so memorable. Alicia Vikander co-stars in her Oscar – winning role for Best Supporting Actress.

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5. “Trumbo” (d. Jay Roach) With a sly, silver tongue and a flair for modern audiences, Dalton Trumbo could write a script like the best of them. When he gets himself caught up in the House Committee of Un-American Activities owing to his membership in the Communist Party of the USA, he gets himself blacklisted, cutting off any ability of his to work in Hollywood legitimately. Bryan Cranston is the sole reason why this movie rates as high as it does – his Oscar-nominated performance evokes many emotions over the course of the film, most of all empathy for his plight.

4. “Mad Max: Fury Road” (d. George Miller) It had been years since we’d seen George Miller’s desolate survivalist tale on the screen. Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy) is captured by the War Boys while Furiosa (Charlize Theron) makes an escape with valuable cargo. The film’s imaginative story, exceptional cinematography and stunning performances from Hardy and Theron are what set this film in my top five.

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3. “The Big Short” (d. Adam McKay) My parents always taught me never to talk politics, money or religion with people I don’t know. Heck, I don’t talk about any of those subjects with people that I do know. Why then do I adore Adam McKay’s Oscar-winning film so much? Perhaps because it does such a good job of explaining what happened to cause this country’s greatest financial debacle since The Great Depression. The cast, especially Christian Bale and Steve Carrell really make McKay’s script come to life. Their emotions, or in Bale’s case his emotion-less performance, are very unglamorous in relation to the smoke and mirrors that happens in the background. Ryan Gosling is a younger version of Gordon Gekko. In short, “The Big Short” allows me to talk all three things my parents never said I should talk about.

2. “The Hateful Eight” (d. Quentin Tarantino) The fact that this film did not get a Best Picture nomination has confounded me for the past three years. No matter, it sits in the number two slot. The cinematography was gorgeous, better than “The Revenant’s”. Tarantino’s script is full of venom and class as eight people descend on a snowbound lodge with a world-class cast to match it.

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1. “Spotlight” (d. Tom McCarthy) I am a fiend for stories that center around a journalistic investigation and McCarthy’s Oscar-winning script was the finest film of 2015. The film, which the Phoenix Film Society screened as a part of its Winter Series was touted as a potential Best Picture winner, and I thought it important to make myself known to the PFS staff that year. Three years later, my own budding journalism side job is continuing to grow. I don’t think I’m going to take down the Boston Archdiocese in my mid-life career aspirations; it was also the final film I saw at the original Harkins Camelview, before it closed for good . . . .

Four Essential Alfonso Cuarón Films by Jeff Mitchell

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“Four Essential Alfonso Cuarón films” – Alfonso Cuarón’s “Roma” (4/4 stars) won the Venice Film Festival’s Golden Lion, and his sweeping, gorgeous and autobiographical tale of a family and their housekeeper arrives in theatres on Friday, Dec. 7.

 

To help celebrate “Roma” and Cuarón (who takes visionary approaches to storytelling and cinematography), here are four of his essential films.

 

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“Y Tu Mama Tambien” (2001) – When their girlfriends leave for a European trip, teenagers Tenoch (Diego Luna) and Julio (Gael Garcia Bernal) are left to their own devices.  With school out of session, the young men enjoy sleeping in, loitering, talking about women, taking drugs, and delivering bathroom humor with the zeal of fast food addicts diving into a bucket of Big Macs.  This critic was an 18-year-old boy once, so admittedly, Tenoch’s and Julio’s antics do fall within one standard deviation of normalcy.  Well, the two meet Tenoch’s cousin Luisa (Maribel Verdu) and invite her on a road trip to see a picturesque beach called Heaven’s Mouth.  A sudden life-change soon befalls the 30-something Luisa, so she joins the boys, and this trio of free spirits explore the road, conversation and each other.

 

Cuarón wrote the script with his brother Carlos, and their narrative combines sexually-charged tension and interest between the leads and meticulous exposition for just about everyone who we meet.  The film takes several mini-detours – for about 20 seconds at a time - to expound on the pasts and futures of random characters, and these moments help contrast the massive world that surrounds Tenoch’s, Julio’s and Luisa’s intimate spree.  Meanwhile, Luna and Bernal splurge plenty of boy-clumsiness against Verdu’s internal tussle of worldly melancholy and potential optimism.

(4/4 stars)

 

 

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"Children of Men" (2006)  - The year is 2027, and the world is in chaos.  Great Britain appears to be the only place with some semblance of order, but it’s also a punishing police state where threatening men in uniform spend a majority of their time locking up immigrants in internment camps or shipping them out of the country.  London isn't faring very well, as random bombs explode at local businesses and garbage litters the streets.   

 

Why?   

 

As of 2009, women all over the world - due to reasons that no one knows - have become infertile, and the youngest person on the planet is 18 years, 5 months and 11 days old.  Without hope for the human race's continuity, civil obedience has become passé.  Theo’s (Clive Owen) attitude of hopelessness reflects his surroundings.  He carries a bottle of liquor inside his jacket, and his hair and clothes are unkempt as he trudges through busy streets under cloudy skies, but a friend from two decades past re-emerges and pulls him into a daring mission that could change everything.

 

Cuarón does a brilliant job of creating bleak circumstances that feel frighteningly believable, as he filters his camera with a grayish/blue lens and paints everything with a depressing and gloomy brush.  In this world, the human race won’t be wiped out in a matter of minutes, but over an agonizing 70 years, and this painful realization is not lost on anyone.

 

Miriam (Pam Ferris), who is part of Theo’s mission, says, "(When the) sound of playgrounds faded, despair set in."

 

Can despair transform into hope? 

(4/4 stars)

 

 

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“Paris, je t’aime”, “Parc Monceau” (2006) – This cinematic love letter to Paris includes about 18 short stories from a deep well of talented directors including, Joel and Ethan Coen, Gus Van Sant, Olivier Assayas, and Alfonso Cuarón.  In Cuarón’s five-minute installment – which is one continuous shot - he follows Vincent (Nick Nolte) and Claire (Ludivine Sagnier) during their involved conversation.  Claire feels stress, and Vincent cannot easily find the words to relieve her angst, and as dusk approaches, they stroll towards an unknown destination.  All may or may not be as it seems, but at the segment’s conclusion, every previous moment will make perfect sense, and then you’ll want to immediately watch Cuarón’s creation again.

(3/4 stars)

 

 

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“Gravity” (2013) - The most technically-elaborate film of 2013 is an extraordinary piece of science fiction art.  First-time astronaut Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) teams up with veteran space walker Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) to make some repairs on the Hubble Space Telescope.  As Kowalski playfully banters and circles around - via a thruster strapped to his back - Stone tries to focus, without getting sick, on the restorations.  Even though Bullock and Clooney wear burdensome, bulky spacesuits, they share instant on-screen chemistry.  We like these characters right away.

 

With lots of good feelings and mind-boggling shots of our bright blue planet and the blackest of space, trouble unfortunately approaches around the horizon.  Actually, it approaches around the Earth’s orbit in the form of space debris traveling at maniacal speeds. 

 

“Gravity” is a lump-in-your-throat thriller, and Cuarón places our heroine and hero in impossible situations, as spectacular sequences frighten and dazzle.  The movie moves at a 9,100 mph pace in a scant 91 minutes, but the action pauses during a few key scenes.  During these precious minutes, Stone - a brilliant NASA scientist - finds courage and strength, and with all due respect to Bullock’s work in “The Blind Side” (2009), she gives the performance of her career here.

 

Don’t be fooled, “Gravity” is not just a special effects picture, but yes, you’ll repeatedly wonder, “Wow! How did Cuarón do that?”

(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 Wife - Movie Review by Monte Yazzie

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The Wife

 

Dir: Björn Runge

Starring: Glenn Close, Jonathan Pryce, Elizabeth McGovern, Max Irons, Harry Lloyd, Annie Starke, and Christian Slater

 

There are many comments about the role that women have in shaping men, but my favorite of all the comments goes something like this, “Behind every successful man is a woman rolling her eyes”. The eyes play an important role in director Björn Runge’s film “The Wife”, an adaptation of author Meg Wolitzer’s novel “In the Shadow of Big Boys”. The intriguing eyes here belong to the magnificent Glenn Close who composes the title character with unspoken resilience and subtle confidence, a woman who has been burdened with the ungrateful role of caring for an egotistical and petulant man who is admired by everyone around him.

 

The film concerns the long relationship between a married couple who have seen a lifetime of ups and downs both in the literary world and in their own personal marriage. Joe (Jonathan Pryce) is an author whose lifetime body of work is being honored with the Nobel Prize, his wife Joan (Glenn Close) sits in the shadows doing the arduous task of keeping her husband presentable, personable, and productive. They travel to Stockholm for the awards ceremony and the wounds from their past begin to open up.

 

“The Wife” has all the trappings of becoming an overly sentimental and forgettable story about the complexities of marriage, something that has been done before with films like “Another Year” from director Mike Leigh or “Scenes from a Marriage” by Ingmar Bergman. But “The Wife” wisely keeps clear of easy solutions or indulgent sentimentality and instead focuses on the characteristics that change people over time and how the definition of love means something wholly unique to two people in a long-term relationship. It also helps that the actors here are exceptionally talented and provided with meaty material to lavish over.

 

Glenn Close and Jonathan Pryce play the married couple. Mr. Pryce does a fantastic job of playing the whiny and arrogant author who consistently neglects the good woman that has stood by his side their entire life. But Glenn Close, providing one of the better performances of the year, plays the wife with meticulous composition. Ms. Close does more with her eyes and demeanor than with any spoken words in the film. In one moment the character is tasked with holding the coat of her husband during a bustling dinner party, Ms. Close’s character is positioned mostly in center frame, her eyes darting around at the admirers of her husband and also through the drivel her husband expels at length. During this entire time, as you can see Ms. Close sizing up the entire room, she has her husband’s coat shackled around her hands. It’s subtle filmmaking composing a powerful message about their relationship.

 

“The Wife” is a movie for grownups, a film that details complicated behaviors between two people who have a long connected past. It’s fascinating to watch the development of the characters, even if the narrative takes a few predictable turns. If that doesn’t intrigue you enough, watch this movie to see Glenn Close show why she is one of the best actors to do the job.

 

Monte’s Rating

3.50 out of 5.00

Border - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

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‘Border’ is not afraid to cross into bizarre territory

 

Directed by:  Ali Abbasi

Written by:  Ali Abbasi, Isabella Eklof and John Ajvide Lindqvist

Starring:  Eva Melander, Eero Milonoff and Jorgen Thorsson

 

 

“Border” – Tina (Eva Melander) is a border agent, and to say, “She is effective at her job,” is an understatement!  Thousands of travelers pass by Tina and her coworkers, but she can sniff out those few troublemakers who attempt to smuggle alcohol, drugs and/or much worse.   Literally sniff them out.  She possesses an uncanny sense to pinpoint one’s “shame, guilt or rage” and, along with those emotions, specific items in which he or she is attached.  

 

Tina has an extraordinary gift, and she does not fit a standard profile either.  By most physical beauty-benchmarks, she is unattractive, and extremely so.  With a protruding forehead, a snarled jawline, unkempt hair, and the self-confidence of a rookie stand-up comic bombing on stage, Tina could – most unfortunately - moonlight as a propped-up circus attraction in the evenings.

 

During the film’s third act – she mentions that kids teased and tormented her throughout her childhood, and as an adult, Tina is simply ignored and/or shunned.  She doesn’t feel like she belongs.

 

Well, director Ali Abbasi’s picture certainly belongs among the best films of the year.  Sweden submitted “Border” to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to compete for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, but this movie also contains a very unusual premise and the single most bizarre on-screen moment that this critic witnessed in 2018.  No question.  In fact, this specific scene could provoke unsuspecting couples (on a first date or going on 30 years of marriage) to walk out of theatres or wish that they picked another movie.

 

Consider this a dire warning.

 

“Border” is not a spiritual sister to “Mary Poppins Returns” (2018) or “Ralph Breaks the Internet” (2018).  Abbasi’s rated-R picture delves into perplexing adult themes (and sometimes very explicitly), that will surely spur surreal disbelief and highly-uncomfortable anxiety for the audience.  Tina and Vore (Eero Milonoff), a man who she meets at the border, lead this angst-inducing charge, but some tangential characters step into sinister territory. 

 

Tina, however, is not sinister.  Just misunderstood, and this 1-hour 50-minute picture canvasses Tina’s trip into self-discovery that falls outside her typical 9-to-5 duties.   Abbasi keeps us off-balance from the get-go with stark framing of Tina’s out of bounds appearance and behavior, but soon veers into her personal life.  Her relationship with her slacker boyfriend Roland (Jorgen Thorsson) will not win any couple-of-the-year contests, as he prefers to ingest a daily diet of ramen noodles and 14 hours of television.  While Tina’s job may be an appropriate fit, it does not exactly provide much joy, and Roland’s preferences for the couch and gambling do not exactly translate into a winning formula of love and support. 

 

In many ways, Tina’s predicament of feeling like an outsider is not unlike many others wandering the planet in 2018, but her particular circumstances are more complicated and severe.  Vore holds the key to unlock Tina’s lifelong questions, but she barely knows him, and although they share a similar appearance (like long-lost siblings from a twisted gene pool), do they share the same values?  

 

Well, they do look alike, and that’s a starting point for Tina. 

 

For the actors, they endured four hours of prosthetics and makeup applications each day before filming, and despite living and breathing under layers and layers of cosmetic concealments, Melander effectively emotes both Tina’s frustration and desires, while Milonoff equally communicates Vore’s certain – but unknown - ambitions.  Vore masks (pardon the pun) his intentions very well, but he openly shares his taste for maggots.  Maggots?  Yes, and again, you’ve been warned.

(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 Favourite - Movie Review by Monte Yazzie

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The Favourite

 

Director: Yorgos Lanthimos

Starring: Rachel Weisz, Emma Stone, Olivia Colman, Nicholas Hoult, James Smith, and Mark Gatiss

 

At a recent birthday party, I watched two young little girls vie for the affection and attention of the birthday girl. With a temporary crown, that was bedazzled with costume jewels, the birthday princess sauntered from activity to activity with the two little girls in tow. The two girls fiercely competed for attention from the young birthday princess at each activity, pushing and pulling their way towards the side of the honored guest.

 

Director Yorgos Lanthimos has helmed some impressively unique features in the past few years, tackling interesting subject matter with keen visual perspective and a distinctive sensibility to story 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 in the 1700’s.

 

Queen Anne (Olivia Colman), a freewheeling yet distracted monarch of the British throne, lives a life trapped in the rigors of the controlling patriarch and the long-lasting tradition that defines but also besets royalty. Anne is surrounded by men in ever-growing white wigs, staff who wait on her every ridiculous request, and lives in a residence that is lavishly composed with shining décor from the floors to the ceiling. Anne’s only friend, Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz), provides the primary directives as it concerns the affairs of the state and consistently keeps Anne composed at parties and in the ruling court. Lady Sarah is clearly in control until her distant relative Abigail (Emma Stone) arrives and paves her own path towards some kind of power.

 

Taking a moment from the royal ruling history of the Queen of Great Britain, Mr. Lanthimos and writers Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara compose a fictionalized costume drama that fits all the realms familiar with a period piece film. From the tragic nature of Shakespearean content to the prim and proper appeal of the Baroque perspective, “The Favourite” fashions a film that accepts and twists perceptions of these specific genre of film. While it honors the designs of the time, with flaring white wigs and ornate costumes, it also deliberately pokes fun at the tradition associated with them. Mr. Lanthimos unveils the nastier side of the moral code that typically defines the characters in these films as well; cheeky language, blatant sexual insinuation, and cold-blooded motivations exist throughout every angle of the film. The wolves are faintly dressed as sheep throughout the film.

 

The composition of the environments is beautifully arranged. The wide-angle lenses distort the reality of the world, consistently reminding the viewer that the vision they are watching is purposefully askew. The photography is a mix of overwhelming frames filled with the superficial decadence of design and, more impressive, the subtle structure of the what is lurking in the shadows and what is illuminated by flickering flames. It adds an element of unease at times, especially when the director meticulously holds on long frames of character’s faces. It’s captivating and thoughtfully ordered.

 

The performances are some of the best of the year. Olivia Colman is exceptional as Queen Anne; her petulant nature, shrieking voice, desperate looks, and tearful pleads compose a character that is trapped and lonely. Ms. Colman impressively yields to the composition of becoming an “easy target” for her two closest “friends”. Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone compete and bicker with amusing flair, their chemistry is palpable the moment Abigail wanders into the royal quarters slathered in mud. For these two actresses it is more than verbal jabs, it’s the way they position their bodies, the way they gaze with a composition of emotions with just a singular look.

 

“The Favourite” is a sometimes bleak but completely comic demonstration of the lengths people will go to be accepted and the motivations they will embrace to achieve power. It’s frustrating, it’s hilarious, and it’s one of the best films of Yorgos Lanthimos intriguing career.

 

Monte’s Rating

4.50 out of 5.00

 

 

Shoplifters - Movie Review by Ben Cahlamer

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Shoplifters

 

Written and Directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda

Starring Lilly Franky, Sakura Ando, Mayu Matsuoka, Kairi Jo, Miyu Sasaki, Kirin Kiki

 

I am more fortunate than most. I grew up in a loving home. My parents like to say that they “beat me twice a day” whether I needed it or not. No, they didn’t actually beat us. In fact, they were patient, and understanding. I say I am fortunate in that I had a stable family.

Modern times call for modern families. That’s not to say that there aren’t families like mine. But, as society speeds up and an infinitesimal rate, the structure of what we consider a family has also changed.

In thinking about my experience watching Kore-eda Hirokazu’s “Shoplifters” unfold, I understood why it won the Palme d’Or: It asks of its audience “what makes a family,” as Osamu (Lilly Franky) and Nobuyo (Sakura Ando) share a small home in one of the underserved sections of Tokyo. They live with Osamu’s mom, Hatsue (Kirin Kiki) and his sister, Aki (Mayu Matsuoka). Together, they take care of Shota, Osamu and Nobuyo’s son.

When they aren’t living off of Hatsue’s pension from her late husband, Osamu takes what work he can get. We get the sense that he isn’t interested in working, but would rather play. He is better at the art of shoplifting, hence the story’s namesake. He even teaches Shota the art. One day while they are frolicking about following their latest heist, they meet Yuri. She looks lost and hurt and so they take her in, much to Nobuyo’s chagrin.

At its heart, “Shoplifters” is a modern family full of disparate relationships bringing people together who need support. What is interesting in the makeup of this family is that they are all willing to work hard to ensure that everyone is taken care of.

Kore-eda starts with a spartan, worn-out abode, something akin to Chicago’s Cabrini Green. The abode belongs to Hatsue, who presides over the soul of her departed husband. It has a lived-in look beyond its years, yet it is full of love and life. That’s the most critical distinction about Kore-eda’s script: it is full of love and life.

Key to that are the hijinks that ensue when they undertake their shoplifting exploits. Kore-eda’s script makes light of it, while the cinematography conveys the seriousness of their needs and the acts against society as a whole. The fact that Osamu is able to “mentor” both Shota and Yuri says something about how desperate their situation is.

We as an audience are along for the journey because of the love that encompasses the family. There’s a scene where a shopkeeper catches young Shota and Yuri, and gives them something because he knows what it’s like to struggle.

Kore-eda balances the light with the dark. Aki, who was providing a steady income is suddenly without a job, a result of a slowdown at the factory she was working in. This sequence reminds us that even through the tight bonds of family, we still face hardships and need each other to survive.

This idea is reinforced when the family visits the beach. Everyone is able to take a moment, let the waves of the salt water wash over their problems. It allows us as an audience to relax and enjoy the moment, or sonohi no tame ni ikimasu.

Then Kore-eda throws us a curveball. One that, if we’re paying attention to the story, we’re steeled for, But the curveball is so wide and fast that we take stock of our own surroundings. This is why his film won the Palme d’Or: family is the ties that bind us, that allows us to live in the moment, but reminds us of our responsibilities.

Kore-eda’s film is a slow burn, but it is worth the journey.

3 out of 4 stars

Creed II - Movie Review by Monte Yazzie

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Creed II

 

Director: Steven Caple Jr.

Starring: Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, Tessa Thompson, Phylicia Rashad, Dolph Lundgren, and Florian Munteanu

 

There is a quality in the sport and spectacle of boxing that is absolutely captivating. The way boxing promoters shape and mold the tale of the tape, composing gladiators that have reached the peak of their physical prowess, where the only place left for these athletic gods to venture is into the arena of battle, to prove with their hardened fists that they are the greater fighter. The battle itself is a circus, with pulsating entrance music, explosions of flame, and flashing strobe lights. And right before the two warriors pummel one another, a bell will echo into the night letting all know where their attention should rest. It’s exciting, it’s barbaric…it’s entertainment.

 

The “Rocky” franchise, built with an underachieving underdog from Philadelphia, is one of the rare sports franchises in film history. With Sylvester Stallone, who wrote all 6 films in the Rocky Balboa saga, fashioning a world where the predominant odds from every possible angle came hurtling into the squared circle to bombard Balboa with their fists. Still, even though Rocky single handedly ended Cold War conflicts with Russia in “Rocky IV”, the hardest fight for this character was always the one he fought with himself.

 

While Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) has since retired his boxing gloves, the son of his former foe/best friend Apollo Creed has picked up the boxing legacy and paved his own path to success. Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan) has fought his way up the boxing ranks, with Rocky as his corner man, and into the championship glory achieved by his father. Adonis, now famous in the boxing world and making plans for the future with his girlfriend Bianca (Tessa Thompson), is still struggling to understand his place amidst the daunting heritage of his father that his defined every aspect of his life. And just as the past has influenced Adonis’ path, it has also influenced the path of another fighter who is trying to bring pride back to his family name. Viktor Drago (Florian Munteanu) arrives in the United States with his father (Dolph Lundgren) to reclaim the past that was stolen from his family.

 

“Creed II”, directed by Steven Caple Jr., further explores the complicated past of both the Creed and Balboa storylines, specifically the events that transpired in “Rocky IV”. It’s a narrative balancing act handled with varying degrees of success. It’s a difficult task trying to blend stories, separated by more than 30 years, into something that feels new and fresh while also honoring what is still well regarded from the past. “Rocky IV”, regardless of how silly the story may seem now, took the Balboa story and turned it into something of epic caliber both within the fight in the ring and within the state of affairs in the world in 1985. “Creed II” doesn’t quite achieve the mythical prowess/silliness achieved in “Rocky IV” but it does craft in small moments an interesting take on family, responsibility, and lineage.

 

Adonis is growing and still immature, trying to live a life honoring the father that was stolen from him in the ring and creating his own path and legacy. Michael B. Jordan is a fantastic actor and imbues Adonis with conflict and confusion. Sylvester Stallone is the reason why Rocky Balboa connects so well, and more than 40 years later the actor still composes the character with undeniable charm, seen through fortune cookie mantras he dispels to Adonis, and well-worn integrity, displayed when he struggles to connect Adonis to the past, present, and future. If for nothing else, these two characters are the reason “Creed II” succeeds even with the missteps found in the narrative.

 

“Creed II” becomes overly familiar at times, making steps and pushing choices in the same ways we’ve seen from films like this in the past; it fits the “hero’s journey” too completely. Where “Creed”, directed in 2015 by Ryan Coogler, also took a familiar path, it felt less obvious because the history it was revisiting was simply a background fragment, Adonis was his own person trying to break free of the past that would define him. Because “Creed II” revisits so much, the momentum and build up to the final fight against the seemingly superhuman foe just doesn’t have the same quality, the stakes just don’t feel as high or dangerous because it’s already been done so many times. Still, there are moments in “Creed II” that are complete crowd pleasers, the big fight against Drago is filled with the back and forth combat that makes the sport of boxing so much fun.

 

“Creed II” is a predictable journey, and while it may not ruin the film it doesn’t help it in establishing itself apart from the past. Still, the performances from Mr. Jordan and Mr. Stallone are excellent and the film builds towards the kind of “feel good” sports moments that make this genre of films so endearing.

 

Monte’s Rating

3.00 out of 5.00

At Eternity's Gate - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

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‘At Eternity’s Gate’ paints a memorable Van Gogh portrait

 

Directed by: Julian Schnabel

Written by: Julian Schnabel, Jean-Claude Carriere and Louis Kugelberg

Starring: Willem Dafoe, Rupert Friend, Oscar Isaac, and Mads Mikkelsen

 

“At Eternity’s Gate” – “When facing a flat landscape, I see nothing but eternity.” – Vincent Van Gogh (Willem Dafoe)

 

Director Julian Schnabel’s “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” (2007) – the story of Jean-Dominique Bauby’s struggle with nearly-total paralysis – floats into a dream-like state, as the film delivers a sensitive portrayal of the man’s limited physical capabilities and deeply resonant firsthand experiences.  Bauby’s left eye was not paralyzed, as Schnabel attempts to capture the former “Elle” magazine editor’s rich viewpoint through this unique lens.

 

The director takes a similar approach with “At Eternity’s Gate”: Vincent Van Gogh’s perspective during the last couple years of his life in the rural community of Arles – located in southeast France - when and where he painted massive amounts of work.  Schnabel also films in Arles with its rolling hills, flatlands, open fields, skies of both grays and blues, and tangible surfaces of dirt.  In fact, at one point during the movie, Van Gogh rolls on the loose, dry earth to help connect with his surroundings. 

 

Willem Dafoe takes up the Herculean task of playing Van Gogh and connects, physically and emotionally.  To begin with, Dafoe looks like Van Gogh.  Thin and gaunt, but also hungry.  Hungry to create.  This obsessive and passionate prodigy bids to absorb every inch of his new environment as his inspiration. 

 

He regularly exits his humble quarters - with a blank canvas and tubes of paint – and hikes grassy buttes and forever-long fields, as music composer Tatiana Lisovkaia adds a moving score of a single piano or violin throughout many of Van Gogh’s open-air excursions.  Schnabel pays strict attention to Arles and depicts the land’s trancelike nature as Van Gogh probably saw it, including breathtaking pastures of dormant sunflowers, distinctly vertical cypress trees and acres of farmlands with splatters of browns, greens and faint pinks. 

 

Although “At Eternity’s Gate” associates the countryside to Van Gogh’s stimulation, one of Schnabel’s most effective scenes resides in our protagonist’s quarters.  For about three or four minutes, Van Gogh sits alone in his room, takes off his shoes to reveal holes in his socks and paints on a canvas.  While a piano and/or violin are ever-present during his treks across Arles, they are noticeably absent here, as only scant, gentle sounds of a secluded man working reach our eardrums. 

 

Not only do Schanbel and Dafoe render Van Gogh’s urges to produce a constant stream of work, but they portray his loneliness and misunderstood mental illness as well.  The villagers properly consider him obsessive, but some badly misjudge him as ill-intentioned, as often happens when confronted by those with such disorders.  Dafoe’s Van Gogh not only struggles with his personal demons, but also his place on the planet, one that treats him like a space alien.

 

Thankfully, Van Gogh has a couple key allies: his brother Theo (Rupert Friend) and fellow artist Paul Gauguin (Oscar Isaac).  You might find yourself continually hoping that one or both will remain with Vincent to help extend his temporary reprieves from self-doubt and disarray.  Even though Paul disagrees with Vincent’s artistic approach, he appreciates his gifts, and Theo always, always, always champions his brother’s work.  Alas, Paul’s and Theo’s appearances are rare commodities, as Van Gogh is mostly left to his own devices. 

 

Through the toil of Van Gogh’s personal discomfort, however, he creates masterful pieces, and “At Eternity’s Gate” works as a holistic picture that operates at the most organic levels of his relationship with the world.  Rather than run through a set collection of linear milestones, this biopic breathes with oceans of visceral rhythms and imagery (not unlike 2017’s animated feature “Loving Vincent”).  Over a 1-hour 50-minute runtime, one can easily walk away with a deeper understanding of Van Gogh’s feelings during his most productive, creative genius and - through his efforts - his drive for eternity.

(3/4 stars)

 

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

 

 

 

Ralph Breaks the Internet - Movie Review by Ben Cahlamer

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Ralph Breaks the Internet

 

Directed by Rich Moore and Phil Johnston

Screenplay by Phil Johnston and Pamela Ribon

Story by Rich Moore, Phil Johnston, Jim Reardon, Pamela Ribon and Josie Trinidad

Starring John C. Reilly, Sarah Silverman, Jack McBrayer, Jane Lynch, Gal Gadot, Taraji P. Henson, Alfred Molina, Alan Tudyk, Ed O’Neill

 

“You’ve Got a Friend In Me” milled through my mind as I watched “Ralph Breaks the Internet.” Sure, it’s from another Disney/Pixar movie, but the themes it represents spoke very well to the continuing adventures of Wreck-It Ralph, gleefully voiced by John C. Reilly and Vanellope von Schweetz, voiced by Sarah Silverman.

Litwak’s Family Fun Center & Arcade is home to games such as “Fix-It Felix, Jr” and “Sugar Rush.” Each of the respective characters that inhabit the games meet in a power strip that resembles Grand Central Station. When Vanellope wants a new course to race, Ralph endeavors to give it to her. The users who weren’t expecting the game to have a mind of its own tug and pull on the joystick of the classic game, breaking it.

This results in Mr. Litwak (Ed O’Neill) having to shut the game off because the replacement part is too expensive. At the same time, Mr. Litwak brings his arcade in to the 21st century with a Wi-Fi router giving our heroes access to a much bigger, wider world then they ever imagined.

To put this review in to context, I missed the first “Wreck-It Ralph,” but I found the characters here to be very relatable because they represented the games and films that I grew up with in the 1980’s, so I was never lost.

The new world representing the internet made for an interesting dichotomy with analogue characters in a digital world. The characters that inhabit the Internet are fast paced and humorous, raising themes safety, security, friendship and the dangers of the Internet. Alan Tudyk as KnowsMore the search engine was the funniest of the characters as he helps to speed our characters on their way to their destination. Gal Gadot has a more sensual voice as Shank, the lead driver in “Slaughter Race,” which is where Vanellope spends a good deal of her time. Shank is Vanellope’s equal in the digital world, someone she can rely on and trust in, not that she doesn’t do both with Ralph; but a girl’s deepest secrets are best shared with her equal.

One of the themes that resonated most with me was the need for currency, or real money in the virtual world; something that I think we all take for granted. Johnston’s and Ribon’s script gave rise to how you make money in the virtual world, reminding us of the dangers of getting rich quick schemes, pop-ups, pop-unders and dubious links. They answer this call brilliantly with Taraji P. Henson’s Yesss (no, that’s not a typo). Yesss is an algorithm in the form of a real human, dressed to the nine’s and very quick witted about what’s trending in the moment on BuzzTube.

Whether it’s kittens purring, or some hapless clown who rides a bike off a pier into a cold lake, Yesss is responsible for pushing the content that brings in likes. The object is that the video that gets the most likes will draw in cash. Ralph responds with some nifty tricks.

In the meanwhile, Vanellope and Shank form a solid bond, something that Vanellope cannot let go of and Ralph feels compelled to bring Vanellope back to his side, leading to  . . . .  you guessed it: “Ralph Wrecks the Internet.”

The film is just a lot of fun, with good humor while reflecting on how we behave within the Internet’s confines, if there are any. The characters that inhabit the virtual world are some of the wackiest and coolest I’ve seen in a while and the digital environment is filled with icons of not only the Internet age, but of Disney properties.

The “princesses” sequence, which has permeated the film’s trailers, is even funnier in the context of the movie. Alfred Molina, who plays Double Dan is perhaps my favorite character in the film. You can learn more about him in our interview with Character Look Supervisor Michelle Robinson.

“Ralph Wrecks the Internet” will please audiences of all ages.

3.5 out of 4 stars.

 

 

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald - Movie Review by Monte Yazzie

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Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald

 

Director: David Yates

Starring: Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler, Alison Sudol, Claudia Kim, Ezra Miller, Zoë Kravitz, Johnny Depp, and Jude Law

 

“You’ve never met a monster you couldn’t love.” This sentiment, proclaimed during a titular scene in the continuing wizard saga “Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald”, is the perfect description for the film and its author/screenwriter J.K. Rowling. This sequel is a monster, a rapturous beast that devours scenery without much rhyme or reason with its abundance of ideas. You can also feel its creators undying admiration and love for the material and characters. Regardless of how unwieldy and overstuffed the film becomes with its shifting plot elements, drifting characters, and magical creatures, it’s clear Ms. Rowling has generated one monster of a movie.

 

Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) trains, collects, and cares for magical creatures of varying size and magical specialty. Newt, when we last ventured with him, had just thwarted a plan from a powerful wizard, Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp), who was trying to engage war and chaos between the non-magic world and the magic world. Grindelwald, while being transferred from the United States to Europe to stand trial for his crimes, escapes and reignites his plot to form a world ruled by pure blood wizards. It is up to Newt and his pals to fight this evil force once again.

 

Director David Yates continues to mold his aesthetic over every frame of the film, creating an environment that clearly exists within the structure Mr. Yates has already established during his run with the Harry Potter franchise. With its 1920’s style, deep black and dreary gray visual palette, and flashy special effects laden action, “Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald” is a fun film to look at, especially when it unleashes all manner of beasts all over the screen. One scene involving a monster that can only be described as a Chinese New Year dragon, provides the fierce yet cute factor that has come to describe most monsters within the wizarding world established by J.K. Rowling.

 

While the film is constantly trying to connect viewers to the sentiments felt during the Harry Potter films, we are provided a visit back to Hogwarts and the inclusion of an old friend Albus Dumbledore played by Jude Law, the journey here feels more convoluted and purposefully mysterious. The questions asked during the first film are not any closer to being answered, instead we are provided with more questions and more mysteries needing to be solved. The awe and wonder of the magic spells and enchanted beings typically found within this world feels more ornamental here, a backdrop that will step in when needed to introduce a new character subplot or fill a quick narrative plot hole. The excitement and tension of spell casting, with wands at the ready, now feels like the simple mumbling and whispering of words.

 

However, what hurts this film most is its need to expand the universe and engage in more material to elongate this story. Grindelwald, introduced in the final moments of the first film, is slowly rising to power with new followers and new plans that center on a powerful character with an unknown origin. Romantic storylines take greater shape with the primary characters, centering on love lost and love discovered. New characters are introduced and are featured heavily within the main story of the film, adding complications to themes associated with the past and directly influencing matters of the future. And within all of this is the story of Newt and his fantastic beasts; it’s a lot to handle and direct in one film. You can sense early that more sequels will be needed to complete the story loops. It makes it hard to find perspective with a piece of work if you are only given the frame to work with, the vessel that would transport characters from one solution to another is never present with the film.

 

“Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald” still has some great characters that shine when given the opportunity. Eddie Redmayne is awkward and indecisive in very charming ways and Katherine Waterston does a great job of playing off Redmayne’s strangeness as the the head strong love interest. Johnny Depp plays the villain here, and while there is nothing wrong with the performance, the character of Grindelwald just never feels threatening in the composition of everything happening.

 

David Yates and J.K. Rowling clearly understand that this franchise will need more time, more characters, and more fantastic beasts to find its closure. And while, when it’s all said and done, we may look back and see how this film piece fits into the whole puzzle, currently it’s easier to find the crimes than the fantastic with this film.

 

Monte’s Rating

2.50 out of 5.00

 

 

 

Widows - Movie Review by Ben Cahlamer

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Widows

 

Directed by Steve McQueen

Screenplay by Gillian Flynn and Steve McQueen

Based on “Widows” by Lynda La Plante

Starring Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki, Cynthia Erivo, Brian Tyree Henry, Daniel Kaluuya, Robert Duvall, Liam Neeson

 

Whatever you think Steve McQueen’s “Widows” is about, throw your notions out the door before you enter the theater. McQueen’s ultra slick heist film is much more than a heist; it’s a deeply layered story with magnetic performances from its stellar cast, including Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki and Cynthia Eviro.

A job has gone bad and Harry Rawlings (Liam Neeson) and his crew are dead, leaving their widows with absolutely nothing, but a reputation. As the screenplay from Gillian Flynn and McQueen builds, we learn that there was more to the heist than met the eye; a lot of hands are in the pie, including two alderman who are fighting for their jobs, one an established politician, Jack Mulligan (Collin Farrell) and the other a crime boss turned politician, Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry).

When Veronica Rawlings (Viola Davis) discovers something left behind from Harry, she is threatened by a local enforcer, Jatemme Manning (Daniel Kaluuya). Undeterred, she sets out to take back what’s rightfully hers.

The beauty in McQueen’s story is not just in the casting, but in the way the story is told. This might be blasphemy, but the best way to describe this story to your friends is “The Counselor” meets “Heat.” The story is layered with so much detail, and surprise that you never know what’s going to come out of the next corner.

Viola Davis is very nearly a national treasure. She has the ability to just turn in to an emotionless being, but behind the eyes, there’s a level of intelligence that just leaps through the screen; she is calculating every move. Cynthia Erivo, who amazed audiences with her silky voice in “Bad Times at the El Royale” is on fire here as Belle. Michelle Rodriguez is Linda. She’s as tough as they come, but she has a softer, more humane side to her here. Elizabeth Debicki as Alice is the unknown card here and it is something the story thrives on though I won’t say why here. Let’s just say that the four of them make for a formidable team in any situation.

Of the supporting cast, Daniel Kaluuya was relentless and I liked that harder edge to him. He was threatening and charming at the same time. Brian Tyree Henry played a politician to the hilt as he balances his underworld dealings with his political stripes and in Chicago, I get this feeling that there isn’t much difference between the two worlds. Colin Farrell is a firecracker with an axe to grind as Jack Mulligan. The biggest aspect to his character is the fact that he’s living under his father, Tom’s shadow. Jack wants to be his own boss, but the elder Mulligan, played by Robert Duvall has other ideas.

The fact that the production shot on location in Chicago lends a nice authenticity to the film as Chicago becomes as much a character of the film as the actors. Flynn and McQueen never make the team’s job easy and I think that’s the film’s strength: as much as we want to see the mystery solved, we enjoy the ride in getting there. The cast and the story are so very strong that “Widows” would very easily make my Top 10 of 2018 if tomorrow was the end of the year.

4 out of 4 stars.

 

The Front Runner - Movie Review by Ben Cahlamer

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The Front Runner

 

Directed by Jason Reitman

Screenplay by Matt Bai, Jason Reitman, Jay Carons

Based on “All the Truth is Out: The Week Politics Went Tabloid” by Matt Bai

Starring Hugh Jackman, Vera Farmiga, J. K. Simmons, Alfred Molina

 

The year is 1988. I was in seventh grade when Colorado Senator Gary Hart announced his presidential campaign. I was more interested in ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation’ than I was about a presidential election because I was too young to appreciate that particular race and the time I lived in. The Soviet Union was on the brink of collapse and Reagan was making his overtures to Gorbachev as they sued for peace.

At the same time, Gary Hart (Hugh Jackman) was running an honest campaign. He was squeaky clean as far as the media was concerned and that’s because the mainstream media wasn’t interest in sensationalist press; we weren’t yet on the 24 by 7 news cycle just yet. But, when the Miami Herald gets wind of gossip that could affect Hart’s campaign, the birth of politics gone tabloid is born.

Let me get this out of the way: “The Front Runner” is a very awkward film. It starts with the characterization of Hart. He’s the All-American candidate with a wife and a daughter; he keeps his skeletons in the closet and away from the media. The problem is that Hart is a static character. He’s so overprotective of his privacy because he doesn’t believe that it is the media’s business what he does, but at the same time, he encourages reporters to follow him, goading them.

Jackman’s performance was fine. He transitions from lumberjack to politician to family man just fine. He gets angry, but it is without much aggression as if the games he’s playing are funny. I was waiting for the metal claws to come out whenever we see Hart get upset, but instead it’s a steady, even-keeled and bland performance.

Vera Farmiga, on the other hand, delivers a heart-wrenching performance as his wife, Lee. When the news breaks about her husband’s indiscretions, she isolates herself to avoid the press and the pressure on their daughter, Andrea (Kaitlyn Dever). To get her aggressions out, she plays the piano, violently. There was a dignity about her musical performance and to Farmiga’s credit, that is her playing the piano. This was part of the genius of Reitman’s direction: where we couldn’t get much emotional range out of Jackman, we got it in spades from the other members of the cast, including J. K. Simmons in yet another brilliant turn as Bill Dixon, Hart’s chief of staff. He is responsible for cleaning up the mess left behind by the scandal. When Hart won’t talk to reporters, Simmons’s temper just leaps off the screen; it’s sublime.

There was an ongoing gag between Hart and a Washington Post reporter, AJ Parker played by Mamoudou Athie in which Hart encourages Parker to read “War and Peace,” which is meant to be symbolic of their relationship. Athie’s performance is very strong for such a young actor; the trouble is that the story thread just trails off.

The story by Reitman, Jay Carons and Matt Bai, based on Bai’s novel, attempts to tackle a number of issues, but never fully explores them over the course of the film. The political aspects of the story read “Aaron Sorkin,” but don’t play like it because we’re stuck on protecting Hart from the tragedy of his own life. The story foretells so many truths about our reality today that it was painful because it was awkward. It couldn’t be funny and it couldn’t be dramatic; both emotions were incongruous to the story trying to be told.

There are some solid ideas worth exploring in “The Front Runner.” It’s too bad that the sensationalism it tries so hard to avoid ends up cannibalizing itself.

1.5 out of 4 stars

A Private War - Movie Review by Ben Cahlamer

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A Private War

 

Directed by Matthew Heineman

Written by Arash Amel

Based on “Marie Colvin’s Private War” by Marie Brenner

Starring Rosamund Pike, Jamie Dornan, Tom Hollander, Stanley Tucci

 

Each of us have a purpose on this planet. That’s not a spiritual manifesto, but rather a fact. These facts can be derived from our own experiences; the passion, the joy, the desire, the need to be driven towards a destiny. For Sunday Times reporter Marie Colvin (Rosamund Pike), she was driven to report on the humans who are stuck behind enemy lines, behind the lies that governments tell the media.

She wasn’t about the story as she was about uncovering the truth. And, she did it in the most hellacious places on Earth.

Based on the Vanity Fair article, “Marie Colvin’s Private War,” documentarian turned feature film director Matthew Heineman paints the drive and determination that fueled the reporter and Rosamund Pike embodied her in an Oscar-worthy performance.

The film opens in reverse. We know her destiny. Heineman spends the rest of the film working our way forward, from Sri Lanka in 2001 where she lost eyesight in her left eye due to an RPG blast. As an audience, we knew what kind of individual Colvin was and we knew we were going to get dirty throughout the next two hours.

It is Pike’s performance that reminds us of the sacrifice she was willing to make to get the stories told that needed to be told. An American by birth, she kept her head low and she dug in, taking risks where she needed to. There’s a scene in an Army base where she meets Paul Conroy (Jamie Dornan). As they start talking to each other, you can hear in the background how many restrictions were being placed on press by the military. Once the soiree breaks up, Norm Coburn (Corey Johnson) comes up to her and they talk about the barricades that were just erected. Both know, and convey to us that their experience would dictate which way they went and that’s why Colvin was drawn to Conroy; they worked well together.

Heineman shot the film on location in Jordan and in London, creating an authentic feel to the war torn regions that Colvin visited that lends credibility to the production. It also demonstrates her mental state, something the story reflects very heavily on. Whether she is attending an awards banquet with her ex-husband in tow or she is having lunch and drinks with her editor, Sean Ryan (Tom Hollander), we can see that she is as tormented as the lands and the people she writes about.

Her fate was as shocking as her life and Heineman and his team were respectful of that and his experience as a documentarian served him well in this film. His “City of Ghosts” last year is every bit as riveting as his film here; I felt like I was watching a documentary with interpretations of Colvin’s downtime fitted in just perfectly, but that wasn’t the case. Everything made sense and that’s a tribute to Pike’s performance.

Even as we’re rooting for her, there’s a nagging feeling at the base of your neck that we can’t shake. That was one of the drawbacks of the film: we get location title cards throughout the film by way of countdown. While I appreciated knowing where we were, I didn’t need a countdown to the inevitable; it wears on us as an audience. I also felt that her relationship to Tony Shaw (Stanley Tucci) was underutilized. I appreciated the fact that he was someone who could get through to her, but even that story thread overstayed its welcome and not because of Tucci’s performance; he lights up any movie he’s in.

“A Private War,” which opens in theaters today is a timely and important film which propels us in to the internal struggles of a woman who was driven to tell the world of external struggles. Pike’s performance really sets this film apart from others.

3.25 out of 4 stars