Mile 22 - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

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‘Mile 22’ is a long way from a satisfying action movie


Directed by:  Peter Berg

Written by:  Lea Carpenter

Starring:  Mark Wahlberg, Lauren Cohan, Iko Uwais, John Malkovich, and Ronda Rousey


“Mile 22” – Twenty-one years ago, film critics and fans began taking Mark Wahlberg’s acting career very seriously with his memorable performance as Eddie Adams (aka Dirk Diggler), an awkward bus boy turned porn star in Paul Thomas Anderson’s wild 70s piece “Boogie Nights” (1997).  With Wahlberg’s charisma and built-in bankability via his music career, he excelled as an action hero and leading man in “Three Kings” (1999), “Rock Star” (2001) and “The Italian Job” (2003), but raised the bar in 2006 with a Best Supporting Actor nomination as Dignam, a fast-talking detective in Martin Scorsese’s “The Departed”.  


In “Mile 22”, he teams up with director Peter Berg – after their collaborations in “Lone Survivor” (2013), “Deepwater Horizon” (2016) and “Patriots Day” (2016) – in an espionage thriller set somewhere in Southeast Asia (that resembles Indonesia, but was actually filmed in Colombia), and Wahlberg channels a small portion of Dignam’s persona as Lt. James Silva.  Silva is a special ops soldier - for Overwatch, a group of good guy/girl mercenaries - but he carries noticeably less charm than Dignam and a lot more talk. 


A lot more.  Let’s call it chatter. 


Actually, let’s call it incessant chatter, because Silva does not seem to stop expressing his hardened views about Overwatch’s duties and the horrible consequences if they fail their missions.  In fact, in a terribly distracting job of editing, Silva seems to randomly spew extensive monologues for no reason whatsoever.  For instance, our stressed-out lieutenant screams at a computer programmer about the fallout from the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, while she’s already succumbing to enough pressure trying to crack an impossible code.  Other times, supporting characters engage in various discourses in office settings, but Berg – for unknown reasons – suddenly drops in long stretches of Silva rambling on and on - to someone else entirely - about his team members and that “they are very real and get s*** done.”


During the film’s 95-minute runtime, Silva’s long-winded, painful soliloquies of gunplay, teamwork and attitude probably comprise 35, and this estimate may be light.  No one on-screen seems to be listening, and this critic certainly tuned him out after the first act.


Oh, what takes place during the first, second and third acts? 


Silva and his tactical team - including Alice (Lauren Cohan) and Sam (Ronda Rousey) – need to transport a cagey undercover agent named Li Noor (Iko Uwais) from a nondescript special operations complex to a small airfield, and the distance is 22 miles.  You see, Li Noor handed over a cryptic file that spells out several locations of radioactive material, and he will reveal the secret code once he is safely flying out of the country. 


Take away Silva’s nonsensical diatribes that brandish his machismo, and that leaves about 60 minutes of an actual story.  Most of it is positioned in an urban setting with Silva’s small team shooting limitless numbers of faceless bad guys who feel compelled to capture or kill Li Noor.  The action is nonstop and kinetic, but not particularly suspenseful.  Even though Silva’s team copes with distress, the constant gunfire feels like a video game with no real stakes, and other than Alice - fiercely-played by Cohan – it is difficult to muster emotional investment with anyone else. 


Meanwhile, Berg cannot seem to hold a shot for more than two or three seconds, as both gunfights and average hallway conversations needlessly cut and jump in a dizzying overediting job perhaps not seen since “Moulin Rouge!” (2001).  That’s not a compliment.  


With thousands of bullets filling the second and third acts, “Mile 22” is actually best complimented during two enclosed hand-to-hand brawls featuring Li Noor and Alice, although they do not fight each other.  The movie could have used more such moments, and Rousey barely has chances to show off her close-range fighting skills, except briefly in the opening sequence.  That doesn’t make sense, and neither does Silva’s uncanny ability to solve jigsaw puzzles.


Jigsaw puzzles?


“Mile 22” is a head scratcher, as it unfolds like a watered-down combination of “Black Hawk Down” (2001) and “The Raid: Redemption” (2011).  Fans of those films might find glimpses of them here, but will also be reminded that “Mile 22” is an inferior version.   Speaking of “Black Hawk Down”, why doesn’t Silva just rent a helicopter to transport Li Noor over those fateful 22 miles, instead of slogging it out in the streets?  That would seem easier, but perhaps he was too busy gabbing to think of it. 

(1/4 stars)


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



Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood - Movie Review by Ben Cahlamer


Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood


Directed by Matt Tymauer

Starring Scotty Bowers


You might not have heard the name Scotty Bowers, but he has secrets. No, not classified, government grade secrets. He has Hollywood secrets. The kind of secrets that, now, most people know. See, he was a pimp in Hollywood from the 1940’s to 1980’s and he was responsible for getting things and for making connections with Hollywood’s elite.

The documentary, by Vanity Fair special correspondent Matt Tymauer opens the books on four plus decades of Hollywood’s most eligible bachelors and bachelorettes as we are invited into his myriad of storage places, chock full of material. So much so, that one might be inclined to think that Scotty is a pack rat. But, even at 95, he is still one of the most influential and recognized connections in the Hollywood gay community.

The film, which screened last fall at TIFF and this spring at the Phoenix Film Festival, exudes happiness, both from Scotty and as Scotty spoke of his subjects; he genuinely wanted to make people happy. The documentary, based on his memoirs, paints a picture of skepticism: did he really connect all the people he said he had?

Tymauer starts us in modern LA as Bowers recounts his beginnings at the Richfield Oil gas station on Hollywood Blvd. It was a hopping place and Scotty, a man who was and is interested in the human connection, was able to help people connect sexually.

More importantly, he secretly connected a lot of Hollywood’s leading men into gay relationships. Of course, we’ve suspected for a number years on some of the relationships, but the level of information provided leaves no doubt. Tymauer efficiently weaves a rather dramatic tale of posh encounters as a party bartender who really wanted everyone to be happy.

The most interesting aspect of the man? Every secret is in Bowers’ head and to hear him recount his incredulous experiences throughout the documentary is amazing. The wealth of details within his recounting opened up four decades worth of Hollywood history that many assumed was too good to be true. Yet, within three houses willed to Scotty by actor Beach Dickerson can attest to the voracity of his own mind.

As a matter of fact, in a moment of sadness, one of the homes was sold and we see him start the process of decluttering one location. His wife, a conservative cabaret singer reluctantly talks about what little she knew about his excursions: she didn’t know about them until recently and that’s what makes this documentary so much more tantalizing. Even as you believe the content, there is still a nagging question about it all.

Buried within the secrets was the morality code the studios put in to place in Scotty’s heyday, protecting subjects that were taboo to the conservative Christian sensibilities of the time, which included the thought that homosexuality was a mental disorder that could be treated. Scotty even connected Alfred Kinsey, the pioneering sex researcher with female subjects, so Scotty’s connections swung both ways.

At the end of the day, this richly told documentary sheds light on a man, a myth and the closely held secrets of Hollywood’s elite. It furthers the discussion of sexuality at a time where that notion is starting to go out the window. A must see!

3.5 out of 4

Alpha - Movie Review by Ben Cahlamer




Directed by Albert Hughes

Story by Albert Hughes

Screenplay by Daniele Sebastien Wiedenhaupt

Starring Kodi Smit-McPhee, Natassia Malthe, Joannes Haukur Johannesson, Jens Hulten


As a kid, one of my favorite, and ultimately saddest moments in movie watching came from Wolfgang Petersen’s “The Never Ending Story,” where Atreyu’s horse, Artax drowned. You learn very early in that film that Atreyu is a character with deep feelings and attachments. As an impressionable 8 year old, it captured my attention; it is something that’s stayed with me through today.

No, Albert Hughes’s “Alpha” is nowhere near as depressing as you might think. But, it is every bit as dramatic. Set in Europe approximately 20,000 years ago, Keda (Kodi Smit-McPhee) undertakes a journey of self-discovery as he is separated from his hunting group following an encounter with a steppe bison.

Part “Dances With Wolves,” part “The Black Stallion” Albert Hughes offers a deft direction from his original story; the screenplay was written by Daniele Sebastien Wiedenhaupt. The biggest theme of this film is friendship and Hughes approaches it with a lot of heart as Keda follows his path, both physically and mentally.

Keda’s endurance is put to the test multiple times, but nothing can prepare you for how his own journey starts. One of Hughes’s choices was to start the film at the actual hunt, we are left hanging awaiting Keda’s fate. But we learn very quickly of tribal society 20,000 years ago. I’m surprised to find that that aspect of modern society hasn’t evolved beyond tribalism, but that quality is what allows humans to survive.

Hughes’s choice to develop a language and use subtitles in a film aimed at children is a bold one. I found that the visual interactions on screen focused on the intimate details while the subtitles carried the story. It was interesting to watch Keda’s relationship with the wolf develop. There was a bond of trust which formed naturally (or as naturally as you can in a 96-minute film.)

Thematically, Alpha has many meanings in this film’s story as the balance of power, or better control, shifts from character to character. The progression is a natural one as Keda gains the wolf’s trust and they learn to survive together.

Creating the visual environment of 20,000 years in the past fell on the shoulders of cinematographer Martin Gsclacht (“Goodnight Mommy”). A large majority of the production was shot in Vancouver and had remote locations in Iceland as well as in Alberta. The images the Gsclacht captured were stunning. From intimate family gatherings in the teepee to treacherous savannahs to sheer cliff walls there is a reverential feel to Gslacht’s cinematography which managed to keep Keda and the wolf front and center.

I managed to see the film in 3D and though it doesn’t create any additional emotional connection to the characters or their environment, it certainly helps to keep your attention. I found myself white-knuckling the theater chair armrests even though I knew what would potentially come next. I don’t want to leave you with the idea that the story telegraphs its resolution. Intuitively, it does that from the trailers. But there’s so much story that the 3D does indeed grab you and doesn’t let go.

There were some moments of incredulity where you might be inclined to say “that’s not believable.” Those moments are not enough to put you out of the movie. It’s a great family adventure in the tradition of “The Black Stallion” and “The Never Ending Story” and children will be enthralled by the adventure and the story of friendship.

3 out of 4.

Crazy Rich Asians - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

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‘Crazy Rich Asians’ offers a wealth of fun but the script needed a tighter budget


Directed by: Jon M. Chu

Written by: Peter Chiarelli and Adele Lim, based on the novel by Kevin Kwan

Starring: Constance Wu, Henry Golding, Michelle Yeoh, Gemma Chan, Lisa Lu, Awkwafina, and Ken Jeong



“Crazy Rich Asians” – Singapore is a wondrous place.  Located just one degree above the equator in Southeast Asia, this small island city-state (only 31 miles by 17 miles) bustles as a massive business hub and hosts over five million residents.  Malay is Singapore’s single national language, but the country proudly boasts three additional official ones: English, Mandarin and Tamil.  The multi-lingual culture is no accident, because the island’s gorgeous, tropical beauty, towering skyscrapers and commercial importance are universal attractions.  


In director Jon M. Chu’s film, he wholly and beautifully captures Singapore and all three of the said qualities in a splashy, two-hour romcom based on Kevin Kwan’s 2013 novel, about an American woman visiting her boyfriend’s family in the Lion City for the first time. 


This particular critic enjoyed two astonishing visits to Singapore about 18 years ago, so on a personal note, I hope that this film will inspire moviegoers to travel to this incredible place.  If one can brave – and afford - a 17-hour flight from Los Angeles and appreciate year-round 90-degree highs, many emotional and visual riches await. 


Chu conveys several emotional highs and visuals throughout his picture and some terrific supporting characters amp up the humor to keep pace with the setting, but several puzzling script choices partially derail the narrative and ruin the movie’s chance at enjoying a cinematic triumph.   


Well, Rachel (Constance Wu) and Nick (Henry Golding) feel like their one-year-relationship is a blessed triumph.  These two young professionals live in New York, treat each other respect, and one day, Nick invites Rachel to Singapore to celebrate his best friend Colin’s (Chris Pang) wedding.  Rachel has never been to Nick’s home, so when the two arrive, she experiences the first-time wonders of Singapore, like most of the movie-audience.  Chu wonderfully flaunts seafood flavors at a massive hawker (food market) center, soaring concrete towers (like the futuristic Marina Bay Sands Hotel), blue coves, and hot weather.  In fact, Rachel’s bouncy, initial experiences might tempt audiences to remove their jackets in air-conditioned theatres, briefly step out to concession stands and ask for shrimp, noodles and hot sauce.


Rachel does not confront any friction at first, but the main rub revolves around Nick’s money.  Actually, his family’s money.  The Youngs are the wealthiest developers in Singapore, and like the film’s title says, they are crazy rich.  Rich enough to buy a pair of 1.2 million dollar earrings during a random stop at a jewelry store. 


The problem is that Nick’s mother Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh) and grandmother Ah Ma (Lisa Lu) have other plans for him, and they do not include Rachel.  Sure, Rachel is a bright economics professor at NYU, but she comes from a single-mother household and does not possess the wealthy lineage that Eleanor and Ah Ma expect.


So, the film is constructed as a hopeful rags-to-riches princess story with Rachel learning about Nick’s other life and attempting to gain the Youngs’ acceptance. 


Tall orders.  Unfortunately, Nick isn’t much help.


After a year of dating, he never mentions that his family is loaded, because he enjoys that Rachel loves him as a person, not his money.  One would think that after 365 days, his affluent home life might pop up once in conversation, but no.  This unwittingly sets up Rachel to suddenly confront an overwhelming barrage of wealth and his family’s judgment, when they arrive in Singapore.  


In short, he blindsides her.   


Even worse, Nick does not offer much comfort, while Rachel copes with Eleanor’s attempts to make her feel unworthy and navigates through various locales filled with jealous women.  The script keeps Nick and Rachel separated quite a bit during the second act, and assumingly, this is done so she can overcome the arranged hurdles on her own.


Nick, however, is supposed to be prince of sorts and is actually referred to as one.  He mainly provides good looks, dignified talk and some “I love you” moments, but – sadly – he remains very clueless in protecting his girlfriend from the forces conspiring and siding up against her.  Nick sometimes seems aloof, like Prince Edward (James Marsden) from “Enchanted”, and - spoiler alert – that particular 2007 movie-character does not get the girl at the end. 


Screenwriters Peter Chiarelli and Adele Lim do not pen another protagonist, so Nick is it!  He’s the only guy for Rachel, and at least for this critic, that begs the question:  Does a romcom work if one roots for the featured couple to go their separate ways? 


The film runs into other problems too.  Here are a few.  One of the most intriguing supporting characters is Nick’s cousin Astrid (Gemma Chan) from Shanghai.  Astrid has beauty, panache, brains, and wealth (of course).  She carries all the potential to work extremely well within her own story and as a close ally to Rachel, but Chu doesn’t give her much to do, other than deal with a troubled marriage.  She becomes a victim of sorts, and the script does not offer any memorable Astrid-words-of-wisdom or notable moments, except purchasing the aforementioned diamond earrings.  As far as Astrid’s husband Michael (Pierre Png), well, he oddly steps out of a steamy shower in his first scene.  In retrospect, that may make sense, because Michael doesn’t add any conversational interest throughout the rest of the movie.  


In another thread, Colin builds up plenty of negative interest against his chief antagonist Bernard (Jimmy O. Yang), a sophomoric bachelor party host, but his arc becomes lost sometime after he shoots flares with a bazooka.  Don’t ask.   


Feeling the need to rewrite some key characters and removing or puffing up specific subplots probably are not ingredients for a great romcom either.  “Crazy Rich Asians” is supposed to be the first of a trilogy, so that may explain some script choices, but the film does not benefit as a two-hour, self-contained experience. 


Having said that, Chu’s film also includes lots of pomp and circumstance, glitz, glamor, and fun.  At times, it’s a dizzying Las Vegas act that also includes covers of “Money (That’s What I Want)” by Cheryl K  and “Material Girl” by Sally Yeh.


Awkwafina, Ken Jeong and Nico Santos always seem to deliver laughs during every minute of their screen time, by playing Rachel’s friend Peik Lin, Peik Lin’s dad and Nick’s cousin Oliver, respectively.  The film needed these three characters on-screen more often, and granting them bigger roles to further assist Rachel would have been very well-served. 


“Crazy Rich Asians” does nicely serve Singapore and its princess storyline.  The wonderful financial excesses are a blast to behold, and it is amazing that Chu and company made the movie – filmed in Singapore and Malaysia - for just 30 million dollars.  Wow!  But the script?  Well, it needed a tighter budget.

(2.5/4 stars)


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


Summer of 84' - Movie Review by Guest Contributor, Matthew Robinson

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Opening on August 17th is International Horror & Sci-Fi Selection, Summer of '84. We've brought in guest contributor, Matthew Robinson to take a special look at this one

You can find Matthew's weekly reviews over at  


Nostalgia is everywhere these days, particularly for the 1980's. The success of Stranger Things has created a market for thrillers set during this time involving young adults. The directing trio of François Simard, Anouk Whissell, and Yoann-Karl Whissell hit all the marks of films like Super 8 or It and yet there is something a missing from Summer of '84. The film feels like a cover of a great 80's song and depending on your appetite for nostalgia, you may find enough here to satisfy. 


The opening voice-over reminds us that "Even serial killers live next door to somebody." This sets up a familiar yet fun plot of suburban paranoia that evokes Disturbia which evoked Rear Window. Davey Armstrong (Graham Verchere) and his friends Tommy (Judah Lewis), Dale (Caleb Emery), Curtis (Cory Gruter-Andrew) and Nikki (Tiera Skovbye) get caught up in believing a neighbor of theirs is killing children in their sleepy town. Worst yet, he is a cop named McKay (Rich Sommer). They soon begin investigating and spying on their neighbor, their curiosity driving the plot forward. 


The characters here are pretty standard for this type of story. Davey is pure and just, leading the friends. Dale is the fat kid, who seems like a token character for horror films involving young kids. They don't stand out as dynamic characters. This is largely the fault of the screenplay that reduces them to archetypes and never gives them much depth. The cast of teens do a fine job and do create chemistry between them. This helps to overshadow the fact that they don't necessarily make sense as a collective. How the hot girl and the bully team up with the fat kid and the nerd is a bit illogical and yet in the moment, you may not mind thanks to some funny dialogue exchanges. 


The same is true of the plot which will feel familiar to any horror fan. We can guess early on if Davey is right about McKay. That isn't to say there isn't a fun surprise or two within Summer of '84, just that one shouldn't expect anything they haven't seen before. The film is well paced and directed with an eye for era. Le Matos's score pulsates and evokes the synth-wave music of the time.


Sommer as McKay, is particularly good. His performance keeps you guessing if he is evil or not thanks to his balancing of creepy yet good cop-like behavior. He keeps the film interesting even as it hits so many familiar beats. Sommer wisely avoids going big in the finale as well, keeping McKay a complex and unsettling mix of sinister and socially adjusted. There is never a question of how a cop like him could potentially be a killer and go unnoticed. 


Summer of '84 is worth your time if you can't get enough of the 80's nostalgia wave. While it isn't original, it does satisfy what you want from a film like this. The kid cast is solid all around but McKay is the standout here, giving a genuinely unsettling performance. The directing team recreate elements of 1984 and give the film an authentic look on what is clearly a low-budget. Kudos to them for achieving a convincing suburban setting. The film shows promise from them and I look forward to seeing what they do next.



The Meg - Movie Review by Monte Yazzie

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The Meg


Director: Jon Turteltaub

Starring: Jason Statham, Bingbing Li, Rainn Wilson, Cliff Curtis, Ruby Rose, Page Kennedy, Robert Taylor, and Jessica McNamee


You think shark, you think “Jaws”. Steven Spielberg’s iconic film that was responsible for making audiences scared to go in the water; it’s a masterclass of suspense and ingenuity, a film that somehow ages better as years continue to move forward. “Jaws” is also historic as one of the first summer blockbuster films, spending 14 consecutive weeks at the top of the box office. It changed the way films and filmmaking were done and continues to influence today.


The summer blockbuster has continued to grow since “Jaws”, with films boasting bigger budgets and bigger spectacle. “The Meg”, directed by Jon Turteltaub and starring Jason Statham, takes the most superficial quality of “Jaws” and exploits it. The great white shark is replaced for IMAX screens with an even bigger monster, a prehistoric water beast known as a Megalodon.


A team of researchers are working in an underwater facility, they are exploring uncharted depths of the ocean. During their history making dive, the team encounters a gigantic beast that leaves the crew in the voyaging submersible stranded. With time running out and a monster stalking their moves, the research team call rescue diver Jonas Taylor (Jason Statham) to save the day. As Jonas ventures to help the stranded team he comes face to face with the ancient monster.


I enjoy a film that embarrasses its B-movie qualities, especially when it comes to creature features. “Deep Rising”, the 1998 cruise ship caper starring Treat Williams, and “Piranha 3D”, the ridiculous 2010 go-for-the-gore fish film, are two examples of genre films embracing the simplistically silly premises and turning them all the way up. “The Meg” tries to do the same but never fully commits to embracing its outlandish qualities. Yes, the shark is bigger, way bigger, but the carnage and suspense that should go along with a beast of such magnitude is never accomplished. Mr. Turteltaub tries to make things suspenseful but the execution feels so cliched and the payoff fails to have the satisfaction you’d expect from a big shark movie.


Part of why “The Meg” doesn’t work is because of the script. The story succumbs to predictable setups and stiff characters. Even the usually charismatic Jason Statham, who saved B-movies like “The Transporter” and “Crank”, isn’t given much opportunity to make the role his own. And there are other talented actors hampered with paper thin roles in the film; Rainn Wilson plays an annoying billionaire and Cliff Curtis is stuck playing the sidekick role. Any suspense that the film could build when these characters are in peril is lost because of their composition.


But some viewers aren’t here for character development or story structure, some are simply here for the shark. The pure summer movie escapism factor may be the biggest reason for some to seek out “The Meg”. If that’s the case, you’ll probably have a good time watching the computer generated shark chase super-charged submersibles or stalk a crowded beach where hundreds of people are wading in the water. Still, even with that perspective in mind, it seems like there is something missing. The charm that the film should wear proudly on its sleeve is seldom appreciated. Instead the film lingers somewhere near the surface, never pursuing the depths of genre that it feels like it was aiming for.


Monte’s Rating

1.50 out of 5.00

Dark Money - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

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‘Dark Money’ sheds light on a massive political problem


Directed by:  Kimberly Reed

Written by:  Kimberly Reed and Jay Arthur Sterrenberg



“Dark Money”Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission (2010) – “Political spending is a form of protected speech under the First Amendment, and the government may not keep corporations or unions from spending money to support or denounce individual candidates in elections.”


No matter your political stripe, it is difficult to declare that the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 decision on Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission is good for the country’s democracy.  This ruling – a 5-4 decision - opened up the floodgates for corporations to spend unlimited funds to influence elections, while simultaneously minimizing citizens’ voices.  This impacts democrats, republicans, independents, and other voting blocks, and the only ones who benefit are big businesses, political action committees and wealthy individuals.  Naturally, these latter groups carry their own viewpoints and/or agendas, and they now have the legal avenues to advance them in public elections. 


In director/co-writer Kimberly Reed’s documentary, she explores the impact of dark money (political advertising dollars spent by unknown sources) and spends most of her time on one specific state, Montana. 


With Montana and its residents still suffering from a brutal history of corporate corruption, the state government – decades ago - proudly passed very strict campaign finance laws, but the Citizens United decision encroaches on these protections.  Unfortunately, Montana’s state legislature - made up of teachers, farmers, homemakers, and others who still maintain their full-time jobs - becomes highly vulnerable to dark money’s adversarial influence.  


Reed sets up her picture as a whodunnit, and she introduces Montana in two ways: as a unique case study and a microcosm for the country. 


Montana is nicknamed “The Treasure State” due to its vast, mineral resources.  It’s the 4th largest state but is ranked just 44th in population, with less than a million residents.  Due to the disparity between its actual physical size and population, Montana’s politics is inherently exposed to corporate influence.  Dark money is also a national problem, and the issues plaguing this state can be found just about anywhere in the U.S.


This mystery also doubles as a horror show, because negative and false advertising can flood into local mailboxes and behave like sickening airborne viruses that float from unknown locations.  These campaign messages can shape public opinion, and investigative journalist John Adams explains that determining the original sources can prove impossible.  


This documentary carries similar bleak tones and viewer-frustration as Best Documentary Oscar winner “Inside Job” (2010), which explained – through interviews, Matt Damon’s narration and several flowcharts – the root causes of the 2008 housing collapse.  “Dark Money” steps into comparable muck, as Adams, several Montana state legislators and U.S. Senator Jon Tester help untangle the knotty concepts of corporate campaign cash. 


Reed does venture on a slightly odd turn with Adams’ personal story as a struggling print reporter living in a digital age.  This tangent does not exactly fit into the film’s premise, but Adams’ role as a truth-teller pits a human face against a massive, faceless problem. 


Reed’s film explains the problems caused by dark money, but the most powerful one is the colossal – and now abandoned – open-pit mine in Butte, Mont.  The mine is not only a brutal eyesore for the locals, but - even worse - it’s a heartbreaking, toxic disaster.  The doc would have been well-served to spend more time on this specific superfund site – one that behaves like a manmade lake of stomach acid - but perhaps that is a different movie.


“Outside Job”?  


Well, “Inside Job”, “Outside Job” and “Dark Money” are enough to inspire this critic to run for elected office, but then again, who are the corporate opponents?  Don’t know.  Great question.

(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.


Never Goin' Back - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

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Go towards the unruly, raw comedy ‘Never Goin’ Back’  


Written and directed by:  Augustine Frizzell

Starring:  Maia Mitchell, Camila Morrone, Kyle Mooney, Joel Allen, Kendal Smith, and Matthew Holcomb



“Never Goin’ Back” – “I know that in my past I was young and irresponsible, but that’s what growing up is.”  - Lindsay Lohan


Angela (Maia Mitchell) and Jessie (Camila Morrone) are young and irresponsible. 


They dropped out of high school, waitress at the Buttermilk Café, barely make ends meet, and begrudgingly live with other housemates, including Jessie’s brother Dustin (Joel Allen).  Ending their diploma-pursuits was not a terribly wise and graceful career move, but the girls stumble into a series of additional missteps that completely exasperate their delicate financial state of affairs in a raw comedy full of foolish antics. 


Angela and Jessie spew directionless vibes reminiscent of Dante (Brian O’Halloran) and Randal (Jeff Anderson) from “Clerks” (1994), as the girls - as well as Dustin and his friends Brandon (Kyle Mooney), Tony (Kendal Smith) and Ryan (Matthew Holcomb) – regularly engage in horrible lapses in judgment throughout the film’s 85-minute runtime.


So many bad decisions.  So little screen time.  


Writer/director Augustine Frizzell, however, makes plenty of good decisions in her directorial debut.  “Never Goin’ Back” is a very funny story about the bumpier turns of adolescence and new adulthood, a time when youthful intuition does not consider an impending consequence that can appear one year, one month, one day, or one hour after a risky choice. 


Frizzell clearly establishes a small-town Texas setting through a series of visual choices, when Angela and Jessie walk to work.  The girls pass several local business – like Bo Bo Delight Donuts and Quickway Shopping – that sit on empty concrete parking lots with thin swathes of tangled grass that rise in the pavement cracks.  Economic prosperity and upward mobility left decades ago or never existed in the first place, and no one appears thrilled with their current surroundings.  Although, an 8-year-old Buttermilk Café customer enjoys pouring a jar of maple syrup on Angela’s foot, when she takes his mom’s order. 


Ah, hopping on the I-10 freeway and heading west to California feels like unattainable-heaven, but Angela surprises Jessie with a more affordable version of bliss.  She dropped their rent money on an ocean-front cottage in Galveston!  Angela’s plan?  They work their scheduled shifts over the next group of endless days and earn enough dough to cover their rent and upcoming trip. 


Sounds perfect.  What could go wrong?


Well, from a supervisory perch, one can imagine several potential mini-calamities, and yes, many come to fruition.  Through a series of miscues, dead ends and vulgar blowups (accompanied by a sluggish rap soundtrack that may dull your senses) at least Angela’s and Jessie’s constant support and love for one another is a positive constant. 


Although the teens crudely disrespect two authority figures and regularly give each other bad advice, Mitchell and Morrone devote encouraging, best-friend energy into their characters. 


Angela and Jessie may not have the inquisitive knowhow and limitless vocabulary of Dante and Randal, but Frizzell does not write her characters with slick vernacular.  They are a sheltered pair without visible paths to expand their potential, so they lumber on life’s hamster wheel while coping with Dustin’s dumb schemes and their bad luck.  Meanwhile, their Galveston vacation seems terribly, terribly distant.


“Never Goin’ Back” is an offensive, purposely-unpolished and comedically-effective movie experience that also never distances itself from the beautiful intimacy of a close friendship.  Through massive dysfunction, this particular bond is vitally important to these young and irresponsible kids, and hey, that’s a valuable lesson for everyone, including responsible adults.

(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.


Far from the Tree - Movie Review by Ben Cahlamer

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Far From the Tree


Directed by Rachel Dretzin

Starring Andrew Solomon


A parent’s love is, or rather should be, unconditional. I don’t make this assertion lightly because I’ve known it first – hand. I know a good deal of what my parents had to endure to raise me and I feel their love even today. I am no different than the subjects in Rachel Dretzin’s documentary, “Far From the Tree,” which opens in Phoenix on Friday, August 10th.

Based on the bestselling book of the same name by Andrew Solomon, the documentary features Mr. Solomon’s story of his struggles with his sexuality and his acceptance of his parent’s support. A mother and her son are determined bring Down syndrome into the light, couple learn how to communicate with their nonverbal autistic son, a young woman deals with what it means to be the only little person in her family and parents whose love for their son only deepens after he has committed an unspeakable crime.

Dretzin’s documentary really sheds light on each subjects’ courage to persevere in the face of societal adversity in addition to their own adversity. Perspective is key in each of the stories being told and it celebrates the diversity, even as some tribal instincts seem to bubble to the surface in an effort to protect their uniqueness. As we explore each of our subjects, their own uniqueness comes to light and there is a parent or parents, or even family to provide support.

Solomon starts the story out from his own experiences of being gay, his journey and his parent’s reactions: “All parents deal with children who are not what they imagine.” This led him to look at the concept of family, not just gay families, but all families.

What Solomon uncovered is beauty in the face of adversity, that it should be celebrated and not feared. Yet, when your perspective is limited because you aren’t understood, it makes it difficult for us to cope. Dretzin takes us on a journey of self-discovery, a journey of compassion, something we don’t see too frequently, a journey of life.

There is a segment in the film that I had a challenge with, though I think it encompasses the parent’s struggles more confidently than other segments; it captured the essence of parenting, acceptance and life after a tragedy. Whoever created the trailer must’ve understood this experience as well, because it is front and center amongst all the other stories, but is no less or more important than the other experiences.

Families need to experience the joy of other’s uniqueness, especially kids. There were several instances where the subjects would mention difficulty with other kids in school settings. Acceptance of everyone is critical and understanding our differences is what makes us human.

You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, and your idea of “normal” will be challenged at every corner of “Far From the Tree,” especially as our subjects discover themselves for what seems like the first time. The concept of “family” has just been confidently expanded, and its name is “Far From the Tree.”

Rating 3.5 out of 4

BlacKkKlansman - Movie Review by Ben Cahlamer




A Spike Lee Joint

Screenplay by Spike Lee, David Rabinowitz, Charlie Wachtel, Kevin Willmott

Based on Black Klansman by Ron Stallworth

Starring John David Washington, Adam Driver, Laura Harrier, Topher Grace, Alec Baldwin


There is something beautiful when the film release schedule aligns to give audiences multiple different perspectives on the Human Condition. There is something even more beautiful when a film strikes the right balance between ‘topical’ and ‘human’. Following on the heels of “Get Out,” 2018 has been been lucky to have films such as “Blindspotting,” “Sorry To Bother You,” “The Equalizer 2” and now “BlacKkKlansman,” the latest Spike Lee Joint.

Each film has been able to reflect on modern society without pandering to its audience. “BlacKkKlansman” is the story of Colorado Springs police rookie Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) and his ‘true’ story of the infiltration of the Klu Klux Klan in 1979. The particulars of Stallworth’s story aren’t germane to this review because the world that Lee creates is much more than his story.

The script by Lee, David Rabinowitz, Charlie Watchtel and Kevin Willmott is as elegant as it is incendiary. The script focuses on the characters and their settings. Stallworth is a cool cat who is out to keep peace between  . . . well, everybody. Much like John Shaft and Cleopatra Jones, Stallworth knew the risks to achieve his ends, using his intellect to gain others trust, especially his partner, Flip Zimmerman.

Much like Boots Riley’s “Sorry To Bother You,” Lee uses key phrases and pronunciations to punctuate the dialog as Ron and Flip work together to become one personality. Adam Driver’s sarcasm works perfectly with Washington’s straight-laced rookie. As I watched Ron and Flip’s characters develop, I was reminded, perhaps too easily of Riggs and Murtaugh from the “Lethal Weapon” series: there was an initial lack of trust in one another, but as they learned how each other ticked, they found a rhythm – neither individual was perfect, but as a duo, they were terrific. This is the film’s greatest strength.

While trying to avoid getting either he or Flip killed, Stallworth falls head over heels for Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier). She is the stunning personification of Pam Grier and Tamara Dobson: she is as intelligent as Ron, is less trusting than he of authority and is of strong character; she is not vulnerable and that’s an important distinction in her character as the film progresses.

Topher Grace personifies “Make America Great Again,” from a 1970’s perspective. The interesting dynamic with his character is how gullible David Duke was. Grace’s performance plays right into the idiosyncrasies inherent in Stallworth and Flip. That’s because Lee understands the context of the characters and their framework.

The supporting cast is no less important than our main characters. If anything, they are the fabric of this story. Corey Hawkins (“Straight Outta Compton”) plays Kwame Ture, a freedom fighter organizing the local college students in a protest. Jasper Paakkonen plays Felix Kendrickson, a member of the local Klan. His distrusting nature makes the character unintentionally funny. You laugh at his prejudices, but you find a common ground with which to understand his position as well, not that you agree with it. Paul Walter Hauser (“I, Tonya”, “Super Troopers 2”) spends much of the movie in a drunken slur, but he plays Ivanhoe as a loveable twat. Like Felix, you know there’s a dangerous side to him, but we’re dissuaded from exploring it. Ryan Eggold’s Walter Breachway is the bridge between the two worlds as the local Klan leader. He’s straight laced, but is less distrusting than Felix, making it easier for the story to flow.

Alec Baldwin plays Dr. Kennebrew Beaureguard, who narrates the story. His soft voice sets the tone, but never takes us out of the story.

If I’ve spent too much time talking about the characters, it’s because they are so integral to the story and the world that Lee created. Equally important are the technical crafts. Chayse Irvin’s cinematography captures the essence of 1970’s Colorado Springs by way of upstate New York. The number of interior shots and the lighting recreated the shadowy feel of the 1970’s, where distrust ruled the day. Key interior locations were framed to capture the mood of each scene.

The key to this film’s success is in its pacing. While it runs 135 minutes, Barry Alexander Brown’s editing is superb. We get a sense of who these characters are and we want to be a part of their world. This is Brown’s sixth collaboration with Spike Lee, and it shows. Jazz musician Terence Blanchard is also a frequent collaborator with Spike Lee. In fact, people familiar with their works will recognize a familiar piece of music towards the end of the film. Blanchard keeps the pacing of his score light while underscoring the dramatic tension.

I could spend all day talking about my love for this film. It is no coincidence that Focus Features planned the release date with the one year anniversary of the Charlottesville rally. The fight for equality continues even today. We can share a chuckle at these characters and their situations. Hopefully this brings us closer to the table where we can find our commonalities, a continuing struggle for the Human Condition. Spike Lee’s Joint reflects on what was while playing towards our modern sensibilities.

Rating 4 out of 4 stars

Christopher Robin - Movie Review by Monte Yazzie

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Christopher Robin


Director: Marc Forster

Starring: Ewan McGregor, Hayley Atwell, Bronte Carmichael, Jim Cummings, Brad Garrett, Nick Mohammed, Peter Capaldi, Toby Jones, Sophie Okonedo, and Mark Gatiss


“Silly old bear”. After a pleasant picnic and day of doing nothing, young Christopher Robin sits atop a grassy hillside with his best friend Winnie the Pooh. Christopher is leaving the Hundred Acre Wood to go to school and his friends are having a celebration to say goodbye. Then an event that is rarely explored in children’s stories happens, Christopher Robin goes to boarding school, gets married, goes to war, has a child, and grows old of childish things.


Director Marc Forster adapts author A. A. Milne’s poems about the lovable stuffed bear and fellow forest friends into a whimsical tale that stresses the importance of family and the bonds we have to the past. Mr. Forster approaches the story with a steady emphasis on the simplistic joy that the stories of Winnie the Pooh brought but also the harsh realities of adulthood.


Christopher Robin (Ewan McGregor) has grown into a preoccupied corporate specialist for a luggage company. Failing sales leads to Christopher being tasked with working an entire weekend to make cuts to personnel at his job, it also means that he is going to have to bail on a weekend getaway with his wife (Hayley Atwell) and daughter (Bronte Carmichael). But as Christopher is about to forget the lessons he learned as a child, his old friend Winnie the Pooh leaves the Hundred Acre Wood to find him in London.


“Christopher Robin” is functioning on pure nostalgia for a large majority of it’s 104 minute runtime. The story is simple and reminiscent of “The Chronicles of Narnia” and “Where the Wild Things Are” without the deeper complications or metaphors found in those films. Director Marc Forster focuses on telling a heartwarming tale and not much else; the film operates without much to worry about except to reacquaint and introduce viewers to a story about friendship with Winnie the Pooh, Tigger, Eeyore, and Piglet. It’s a sweet yet unfortunately hallow experience.


The computer generated composition of the furry characters is jarring at first but quickly turns into something quite amusing because it looks like the human characters are actually interacting with stuffed animals. The voice work is also nicely rendered; veteran voice actor Jim Cummings gives Winnie the Pooh the relaxed and easy-going demeanor the character is known for while Brad Garrett steals the show as the deadpanning Eeyore.


The character Christopher Robin, played by Ewan McGregor, seems to be the biggest problem with the film. The overdone development of the character feels forced when compared with the simplistic tone the film is obviously aiming for. When Winnie the Pooh and friends join in the adventure the film takes on a mixture of wonder and whimsy that works very well. Once Christopher mets up with his childhood friends the film moves into a awkward realm that disregards the coming-of-age aspects and instead focuses on the rigors of adult life. It never finds the balance achieved when Winnie the Pooh and friends are left to their own guidance.


Still, there is something magical about the characters from the Hundred Acre Wood. When Christopher Robin returns, crawling back into the world he helped create as a child, it feels like you are entering the pages of the storybook. You begin to feel why these characters are so powerful even in their most basic structure. Call it nostalgia, call it movie magic, either way it’s a feeling that makes you forget about the real world for a short time. I wish the film did more of this, “oh bother”.


Monte’s Rating

3.00 out of 5.00

Puzzle - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell


Macdonald shines and warmly fits in ‘Puzzle’ 


Directed by:  Marc Turtletaub

Written by:  Polly Mann and Oren Moverman, based on Natalia Smirnoff’s original screenplay

Starring:  Kelly Macdonald, Irrfan Khan and David Denman


“Puzzle” – “Every day is sort of a jigsaw puzzle.  You have to make sure that you’re putting the most important things first.” – Julia Hartz, Eventbrite CEO


“I might be good at this.” – Agnes (Kelly Macdonald)


Louie (David Denman) is content.  He enjoys fixing cars at his auto repair shop in a small town located about a half hour from New York City.  He married Agnes, they have two boys (their youngest Gabe (Austin Abrams) is ready to graduate high school) and they own a beautiful  getaway cabin on a scenic lake.  He has it all.  His life fits.


Based on her experiences, expectations and available choices, Agnes’ life fits as well.  A homemaker, Agnes is sweet, introverted, always puts her family first, and carries out her responsibilities – like shopping, making dinner and keeping a nice home – to perfection, although not obsessively so. 


In fact, her oldest says, “You do a million things, and you are good at all of them.”


Modesty is another of Agnes’ virtues.


On her birthday, she received a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle, completed it within a morning and unknowingly begins a new passion and tangential journey. 


Director Mark Turtletaub and writers Polly Mann and Oren Moverman – who adapted this story from director/writer Natalia Smirnoff’s Argentinian picture “The Puzzle” (2009) – starts the audience’s journey by squarely presenting Agnes’ space in plain view within the movie’s first few minutes.  Turtletaub dims the lighting within Louie and Agnes’ house.  Not only during her evening birthday party, but no matter what time of day - other than the first sight of morning in the master bedroom – their place feels slightly dusky.


During the film’s first hour, Agnes, however, discovers her own light through a new and encouraging friend Robert (Irrfan Khan), who has a similar affinity for solving jigsaw puzzles.  Khan plays Robert as a bit of a lost soul, but a confident one within his own abilities, and Agnes learns self-assurance through him.  They spend their time conversationally, due to the nature of their shared interest, but their talks are not casual in nature.  Since Agnes is a woman of few words and rarely expresses her own needs and wishes, their moments of discourse don’t demand our attention, but organically draw us in, as we hang on every movement and sound. 


Macdonald shines as the lead, and her movements and spoken words feel authentic and true.  Macdonald has been a recognizable, successful actress for two decades now, beginning with her celebrated debut as the object of Mark Renton’s (Ewan McGregor) affections in “Trainspotting” (1996).  She always seems to bestow rich supporting performances and sometimes transforms or camouflages within her work.  Her turn as Llewelyn’s (Josh Brolin) inquisitive wife Carla Jean in “No Country for Old Men” (2007) is a prime example.  Agnes and Carla Jean are quite similar.  Both wives truly hold gifts that go unutilized and unnoticed, and they are married to men who earn all (or nearly all) the household’s income and make every significant life-decision.


Here, Agnes gradually begins to notice her potential through Macdonald’s gentle energy and nuanced feelings that peek through small looks, glances and thoughts.  Macdonald delivers the warmest, most welcoming performance of the year (so far), and naturally, her completed puzzles reflect Agnes’ cordiality.  Even though this housewife’s current existence appears ordinary, the images in her puzzles are moving, classical artworks or contemporary images splashed with vibrant colors.  That’s no coincidence. 


Oh, but cinematically, is constructing multiple puzzles a palatable viewing exercise for moviegoers?  Yes, because Agnes is connecting to much more than a hobby or passion, and she just might launch her desire to put the most important things first.

(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 Five Funniest Teen Movies by Jeff Mitchell

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Bo Burnham is best-known as a stand-up comic, but add successful movie director and writer to his resume!  His first feature-film “Eighth Grade” screened on the 2018 Phoenix Film Festival’s closing night, and it arrived – along with plenty of acclaimed reviews - at Harkins Camelview at Fashion Square Theatres on July 20. 


On Aug 3, “Eighth Grade” expands to more theatres, and to help celebrate this admired slice of middle school life, the Phoenix Film Festival is looking back at 15 notable teen films through a three-part series.  


On July 13, we recalled “Five great female-led teen films” and on July 26, we remembered “Five memorable troubled-teen films”.  Since Bo Burnham is a comedian by trade, let’s change the pace and explore “The five funniest teen comedies”.  


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It is no surprise that anyone’s teenage years can be highly problematic, so naturally, humor might be the best medicine.  Hence, Hollywood has flooded theatres with high school comedies for decades, which makes selecting an exclusive list of just five so difficult.  Female-led comedies like “Sixteen Candles” (1984), “Clueless” (1995) and “Easy A” (2010) are certainly worthy candidates, and every minute of Richard Linklater’s authentic ode to 1976 “Dazed and Confused” (1993) lives and breathes the words eternal classic.  Well, here are five more eternal classics: the five funniest teen comedies of all-time.




5. “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” (1986) – Ask any Generation-Xer, “Who is the ‘King of High School Comedies’?”  John Hughes will almost always be his or her answer.  From 1984 to 1986, Hughes enjoyed a legendary run of four high school hits that intimately connected with his core audience.  These movies also introduced some insight for adult moviegoers and delivered plenty of laughs during the decade of Michael Jackson, the Space Shuttle, the Rubik’s Cube, and the Ronald Reagan years.  This critic was particularly tortured in deciding Hughes’ funniest film – “Sixteen Candles” (1984) or “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” (1986) -  but ultimately went with the story that is more madcap, offers heartier belly laughs and holds up better in 2018. 


Matthew Broderick is nothing short of a charismatic wonder as Ferris, a crafty slacker who decides to skip a day of school by playing sick – and brings his girlfriend Sloane (Mia Sara) and best friend Cameron (Alan Ruck) along for the ride - but not without a master plan.  Due to Ferris’ reputation, his chief rival, the Dean of Students Ed Rooney (Jeffrey Jones), is hell-bent to prove that this teenage thorn-in-his-side is just joyriding on this particular school day. 


Ferris’ excursion through greater Chicago tenders equal portions of magic and laughter and would score higher on this list, if not for Cameron’s perpetual bummer-attitude.  His malaise – including one clunky scene with his dad’s car – brings down the fun a few notches, but Ferris’ ongoing duel with Rooney, several amusing supporting players and regular breaks through the fourth wall (“Never had once lesson.”), make this a memorable film in 1986, 2018 and every year in between.




4. “Rushmore” (1998) – “He’s one of the worst students we got.”  Dr. Nelson Guggenheim (Brian Cox) is referring to Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman), a 15-year-old at Rushmore Academy, who is in grave danger of expulsion due to his poor grades.  If Max applied himself, he may or may not earn straight A’s, but he spends nearly all of his waking hours with after-school clubs, so he finds zero time for studying.  In a wacky montage, director/co-writer Wes Anderson proudly reveals Max’s other pursuits with smattering snippets of this industrious kid’s work as the French Club president, Yankee Review publisher, debate team captain, lacrosse team manager, and astronomy society founder, to name a few. 


While his dismissal feels like an impending certainty, Max turns most of his attention towards a thoughtful new Rushmore teacher Rosemary Cross (Olivia Williams) and a wealthy donor Herman Blume (Bill Murray).  As bad luck would have it, both Max and Herman develop a crush on Rosemary and vie for her affections.  


Anderson shows great affection for his material with droll, sarcastic humor and oodles of comical, eccentric visuals.  He contrasts his film’s mellow, conversational tempo by constantly filling the screen with lively, unconventional images, and the occasional blast from the mod soundtrack compliments this amusing dichotomy.  Schwartzman commands every on-screen second, and Murray’s sardonic nonchalance adds the perfect ingredient to Max and Herman’s friendship/tension.



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3. “American Pie” (1999) – “All that you got to do is just ask them questions and listen to what they have to say and ****.”  “I dunno, Man.  That sounds like a lot of work!”  This is one of about 150 exchanges between East Great Falls High school buddies, who are desperately pursuing various strategies to have sex with their female classmates.  Of course, this struggle has been portrayed in high school films for years and years, but “American Pie” rips down boundaries with sight gags and uncomfortable sexual hilarity probably more than any other mainstream teenage comedy-hit since “Porky’s” (1981). 


Jason Biggs, Thomas Ian Nicholas, Eddie Kaye Thomas, and Chris Klein forge a pact to lose their virginity before they graduate in three weeks, but they individually approach the challenge in very different ways.  Much of the time, three of the four friends’ individual journeys feel like recycled clichés, but the strength of director Paul Weitz’s film lies in two places. 


First, about 10 terribly vulgar and embarrassing scenes truly buck convention but effectively dole out perverse, juvenile bliss.  Second, the movie’s supporting characters – all-around jerk Steve Stifler (Seann William Scott), Jim’s Dad (Eugene Levy) and band geek Michelle (Alyson Hannigan) – gloriously steal every moment of screen time and inadvertently outshine their lead counterparts.  Levy is particularly necessary to help ground the picture with his character’s good intentions and naïve compass, while everyone else runs towards depraved destinations. 




2. “Election” (1999) – Pick Flick!  Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon), a resolute overachiever, relentlessly pushes to be picked/elected as the student government president, but history/civics/current events teacher Mr. McAllister (Matthew Broderick) tries to obstruct her seemingly-destined political culmination.  


Writer/director Alexander Payne’s wild, stressful ride first appears as a straight-forward, light comedy, but he repeatedly surprises with unexpected, off-color zingers that jump out of nowhere, like a deer - wearing a clown suit - that suddenly hops in front of moving car.  Payne perfectly calculates his series of car crashes, as we helplessly rubberneck towards the scholastic damage. 


Witherspoon may have won an Oscar for “Walk the Line” (2005) and is loved as Elle Woods in “Legally Blonde” (2001), but her turn as the tight-lipped, wound-up go-getter from G. W. Carver High School is her best performance.  With perfect comedic timing and both subtle and bulldozing facial expressions and body language, the 5 foot 1 ½ inch Tracy Flick can make any adversary quake in their boots.  Speaking of quaking, Broderick – in a hilarious physical performance - plays the polar opposite of his risk-taking, teenage alter ego Ferris Bueller, and Chris Klein and Jessica Campbell are pitch-perfect in key supporting roles.




1. “Superbad” (2007) – Seth (Jonah Hill) and Evan (Michael Cera) are best friends and spend a majority of their free time delving into foolishness that ordinary, 17-year-old boys usually pursue.  They drink an occasional beer in their parents’ basements, play video games, deliberate pornography, and talk about girls and their associated elusive nature. 


With senior year rapidly approaching to an uneventful close, the guys suddenly find themselves with a golden opportunity to impress their high school crushes – Jules (Emma Stone) and Becca (Martha MacIsaac) – by supplying the alcohol for Jules’ party. 


The boys’ goals:  Buy alcohol and win over the girls! 


Sounds simple enough, but director Greg Mottola’s picture – written by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg – spins a tangled rite of passage for Seth and Evan (the characters) via a 24-hour, suburban adventure.  Perfectly cast, Hill and Cera play off each other with Seth’s continuous frazzled frustration and Evan’s genial quirkiness.  With sidesplitting barrages of rapid-fire jokes propagated through both casual and heightened conversations and matched with ludicrous – but somehow plausible – life-pickles, “Superbad” is a wild, daredevil trip that tears into the previously-mentioned – but vitally important - teenage goals. 


Not to be forgotten, another pal named Fogell (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) establishes a third pillar in this mischievous triad, but he’s forever-known in modern pop culture as McLovin.  To top it off, Rogen and Bill Hader portray the most irresponsible police officers to hit the big screen since the gang from “Super Troopers” (2001).  Cool.  How bad is that? 



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.



McQueen - Movie Review by Ben Cahlamer




Directed by Ian Bonhote and Peter Ettedgui

Written by Peter Ettedgui

Starring Magdalena Frackowiak, Gary James McQueen, Alexander McQueen, Janet McQueen


To look at someone’s life is to bare their soul, release their burden. I don’t know who said that, but it sounded good. The opening statement says a lot about what I took away from Ian Bonhote and Peter Ettedgui’s documentary, McQueen, the story of Alexander McQueen, a Scottish lad who found his way by expressing himself through fashion.

Bonhote and Ettegui designed the documentary around several cassettes, which compartmentalize McQueen’s life. Born Lee Alexander McQueen, he was the youngest of six children. His dad Ronald was a taxi driver, his mum Joyce and social science teacher. The first cassette talks about his home life when he was a wee lad.

His mum made it a point that he wasn’t going to sit at home, doing nothing. She saw an advert for apprenticeships on the famed Saville Row, where he learned to create an impeccably tailored look. McQueen attended school where his teachers recognized his talent, putting him into the MA program at Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design. The documentary lays out his journey from Saville Row apprentice all the way to influential fashion stylist Isabella Blow discovering him.

In the second of the cassettes, Blow took McQueen, now known by his middle name, Alexander to places he might have gotten on his own. We get to meet Katy England, a very influential individual in his early creative works.

The third cassette goes on to describe McQueen’s more controversial and shocking runway collections. The documentary doesn’t shy away from this because I suspect that is what made him who he was. This second of the documentary focused on his theatricality and what video is included of his work was shocking to say the least. But I think it expressed who he was emotionally. As a critic, I could look at it with dispassion, but that’s not how I felt when Bonhote and Ettegui presented it in their documentary.

The last cassettes deal with McQueen’s downfall, but not before his stint at famed Givenchy. McQueen was opinionated, but he was also resolute to create art that the world would know him for. His first show for them did not go very well, but once he pared back his designs, he found his groove again.

McQueen was openly gay and much to my surprise and delight, Bonhote and Ettegui don’t shy away from it. In fact, knowing this about him made his art unique. His mum was openly okay with her son, but his dad had troubles. He eventually came around. His partner was also interviewed. You could tell that even though they were not together as a couple, there was still love present.

The final cassette focused on McQueen’s death. Not long before, his mum’s health deteriorated resulting in her death. The documentary makes the assertion that they were very close with one another and that this contributed to his suicide on February 11, 2010. His family and friends were shocked and saddened. He had so much more to give, but the documentary celebrates all that he was.

I was not familiar with Alexander McQueen before I watched the documentary. “McQueen” goes a long way towards sharing his life, in a very positive way.

Rating 3 out of 4

An Interview with 'Eighth Grade' actress Elsie Fisher by Jeff Mitchell

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The 2018 Phoenix Film Festival capped an 11-day movie marathon with “Eighth Grade” on its closing night, April 15, and writer/director Bo Burnham’s all-too-real comedy about the aforementioned middle school year was one of the brightest moments of Arizona’s biggest motion picture celebration.  After watching “Eighth Grade”, moviegoers should find it very easy to celebrate and champion Elsie Fisher’s endearing and sympathetic performance as Kayla, a shy kid who struggles to connect with her classmates. 


As luck would have it, Elsie found time to connect with the Phoenix Film Festival and chat about her new movie!  During our breezy, insightful interview, we talked about the Internet, her career aspirations, Kayla’s relationship with her on-screen dad, and much more!


“Eighth Grade” – also starring Josh Hamilton - opened in the Valley at Harkins Camelview at Fashion Square Theatres on July 20 and will enjoy a wider release on Aug. 3.



PFF:  Kayla seemed to be connected to the Internet a lot, whether it was on her phone or making videos on her laptop?  Do you (or would Kayla) think that there are times when John or Jane Q. Citizen should disconnect from the Internet?  Perhaps, using an old-fashioned alarm clock instead of a phone or shutting off electronics in the evenings? 


EF:  Right off the bat, I’m not sure how Kayla would answer.  Sure, there are many times that we should put the phone down.  I think that everyone is on (their phones) a bit too much.  I don’t think that’s the problem, as opposed to how (little) we are getting done during our time (online).  People use their phones as their means to (interact with) social media, but social media is so much and very overwhelming.  


If you want to use a regular alarm clock as opposed to your phone, go ahead, and we should probably all stop using (our phones) at night.  I’ve read (that phones are) supposed to give you insomnia, because of the blue light in your eyes.  It’s not great. 



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PFF:  Was Kayla discouraged, because she wasn’t receiving many views on her videos, and why was it easier to make videos rather than talk to other students in school?


EF:  I think the videos are a diary for her, or a coping mechanism, because she is always talking about things that she wants to do, and she pretends (through her videos), like “Being Yourself” and “Being Confident”.  So, it doesn’t matter to her that she’s not getting views, because these videos are probably making her feel better.  Kayla probably started (making videos, because) she wanted to be one of the YouTubers who she watched and thought, “Oh, look how perfect they are.” 



PFF:  Kayla’s dad (Josh Hamilton) was really supportive, and as a viewer, I appreciated his attentiveness.  Kayla was going through a tough time in school, but why didn’t she reach out to her dad more often?  Is that just part of being an eighth grader?


EF:  I think that’s part of being people.  (Now,) we don’t really know much (about) Kayla’s and her dad’s relationship, apart from the week that we are seeing.  They could be much closer than the way that they are portrayed on-screen. 


I think it is difficult to reach out to people, when you are going through a tough time, and it’s much harder when you have to live and talk with them.  That’s just weird.  No reason why.  It just is. 


When you don’t have a whole grasp of what you are feeling and what your problems are, it can be difficult to reach out to people.  I don’t think Kayla ever made a conscious decision to not reach out to her dad.  She was just so wrapped up in the way that she was feeling, her way to cope was (through) her videos and going on the Internet.  


Kayla’s dad loves her so much, but (that attention) can be almost suffocating.  It gives her something to fight against.  Maybe she’s so mad and just wants to take it out on something.  Everyone (in school) ignores her, and then she goes home and her dad is just staring at her lovingly.  It’s just like, “Oh, stop!”



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PFF:  The pool party was a fantastic set piece, although Kayla felt a lot of anxiety about it.  Do you think that she would’ve been more comfortable if only a few kids attended the event, rather than so many?  On the other hand, if only a few teens were there, she would be “forced” to talk with them and not just blend into the crowd.   


EF:  I think both (circumstances) are equally difficult, because pool parties are just weird.  Her main struggle at the pool party is that it’s just a little overwhelming.  There are a lot of people there.  She’s probably thinking in her head, “Oh my God, everybody is looking at me and making fun of me in their heads.”  In reality, she’s being – for the most part – ignored.  If the pool party was with a smaller group, yes, it would be difficult (too), because she would be forced to talk with people. 



PFF:  Kayla had a shoebox with many mementos that represented her hopes and dreams.  What are some of your hopes and dreams or goals that you’d like to accomplish?


EF:  Yea, I have a lot of career aspirations!  Probably too many.  I’d like to do stand-up.  I think that would be really fun, because I like making people laugh and doing something that I (can create on my own). 


Surprise, surprise, I’d be interested in writing and directing after spending 10 years in the entertainment industry.  I like drawing, so if all hell breaks loose, I could be an animator.  I like making music (too).  I have way too many career aspirations, I swear. 


PFF:  That’s a good thing!



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.

Mission: Impossible - Fallout - Movie Review by Monte Yazzie

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Mission: Impossible - Fallout


Director: Christopher McQuarrie

Starring: Tom Cruise, Henry Cavill, Ving Rhames, Simon Pegg, Rebecca Ferguson, Sean Harris, Angela Bassett, and Michelle Monaghan



If it’s the summertime and Tom Cruise is running from mysterious bad guys who are trying to end the world, it’s probably a good sign that we have another “Mission: Impossible” movie. Director Christopher McQuarrie returns to continue the action-packed franchise with “Mission: Impossible - Fallout”, an entertaining popcorn film that attempts to give fans everything they have come to love about this franchise all in one film.


Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) is still leading the Impossible Missions Force (IMF) team with Luther (Ving Rhames) and Benji (Simon Pegg) tagging along into dangerous, end-of-the-world scenarios that teeter on the verge of failure until the last possible moment. The mission, should he choose to accept it, this time is concerned around some stolen plutonium and plans to build a nuclear weapon by a group of terrorist mercenaries who call themselves the “Apostles”. It is up to Ethan and his team to uncover who is behind the devious plan so that they can save the world.


Action sequels have a consistent aspect of oneupmanship associated with their design; the plots need to be more complicated, the action needs to be bigger, and the bad guy needs to have a more evil plan than the one before. After six films in the “Mission: Impossible” franchise just about every angle for the over-the-top action and story elements have been done. While the story is a bit of a mess in this film, having Tom Cruise’s seemingly superhuman abilities anchoring your film means that the high flying action elements can continue to grow more audacious as long as Mr. Cruise is willing and healthy enough to do the work.


In “Fallout” Tom Cruise displays again that he is one of the hardest working actors in the business; willing to risk tremendous harm, he broke his ankle doing a stunt in this film, to bring authenticity to the role. It’s amazing to watch. Having a great cast around him is also a plus; Simon Pegg brings humor while newcomer to the franchise Henry Cavill, the macho and muscular tough guy to Cruise’s charming spy, is a perfect compliment to the cast. Aside from Cruise’s dedication to the role, “Fallout” pushes the action set pieces from small scale bathroom brawls to helicopter chaos against a picturesque snowy mountain backdrop. Every action scene in the film has something to cheer about; the bathroom brawl is humorous while also being bone crushing and about midway through the film there is thrilling scene that is more exciting and suspenseful than anything you’ve seen this year. That’s a hard feat to accomplish for any film let alone one that is six films into the franchise.


Amidst all the action is a plot that is so overly convoluted and filled with unnecessary twists that it becomes hard to follow how one scenario moves into another scenario without extensive  questions needing to be answered. While Mr. McQuarrie, who also wrote the script, builds an ingenious action vehicle that is filled with pulse-pounding spectacle the story just never compliments everything that is happening on the screen. But in the end, this is a film that is fronted by the boom and blast of car chases and fight scenes, the story is just extra credit.


“Mission: Impossible - Fallout” is one of the better action films of the summer. Tom Cruise’s performance is fun to watch and the breakneck action pacing makes the nearly 150 minute runtime seem short. The story is frustratingly routine but it hardly matters here, the spectacle of Tom Cruise, motorcycle chases, explosions, and hand-to-hand combat does the impossible mission of making a sixth film in a franchise stand on its own.


Monte’s Rating

4.00 out of 5.00



Impossible Mission: PFF Picks Its Favorite “Mission: Impossible” Film by Ben Cahlamer

Impossible Mission: PFF Picks Its Favorite “Mission: Impossible” Film


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“Good morning, PFF. We have had several reports of The Syndicate inciting incidents in Prague & Virgina, Sydney, Shanghai, Moscow, Dubai & Mumbai, and London. Your mission, should you choose to accept it is to select your favorite mission from the five feature length films. If you are caught or killed the Secretary will disavow your actions. Good luck, PFF.”

Whew, and I thought this mission was going to be difficult.

“This isn’t Mission: Difficult, Mr. Hunt. This is Mission: Impossible.”

All joking aside, for the past 22 years, Tom Cruise and company have seen to stewarding the Mission: Impossible film franchise to a record $2.2 billion in worldwide box office grosses. Death defying stunts, strong characters, intelligent stories, beautiful global locations and relatable characters all make for a fun day at the movies. This weekend marks the release of the latest, “Mission: Impossible – Fallout.” Make sure to check it out.

To prepare for this newest mission, I recently sat down to binge all five “Mission” Impossible” films. There is no denying the power of the directors involved in them: the brilliance and technical storyteller that is Brian DePalma, the stylistic John Woo, the bombastic JJ Abrams, the light – hearted and deadly serious Brad Bird and finally, the witty Christopher McQuarrie. Figuring out my favorite is not an easy decision, but it certainly has been fun to revisit the series and watch Tom Cruise and company stop nefarious villains from inflicting harm on the innocent.

Without further ado . . . .

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5.  “Mission: Impossible 3”: I need to confess that I didn’t get into ‘Lost’. I did get in to ‘Fringe’ and I liked the direction of the series. It was with a sense of adventure that I went into this third mission. My initial reaction was not very positive. After a couple of viewings, I’ve come around, but the story reveals the twist far too early. The film’s saving grace is a really powerful and dynamic villain in Philip Seymour Hoffman, but the story lacks punch.  1.5 out of 4 stars


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4. “Mission: Impossible 2”: The Hitchock hour of the series, this film is set in Australia and concerns itself with the recovery of a deadly virus. Sir Anthony Hopkins makes an uncredited cameo as the IMF handler. The theme of John Woo’s film is “Set a thief to catch a thief.” As the villain’s former lover, Thandie Newton plays Nyah Nordoff-Hall. She is a seductress and a smooth talker. Mr. Cruise free climbs in a stunning opening credits sequence. Unfortunately, the stylistic action overshadows a weak adversary in Sean Ambrose (Dougray Scott). 1.75 out of 4 stars.

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3. “Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation”: Christopher McQuarrie’s follow up to Brad Bird’s entry is every bit as good as “Ghost Protocol.” In fact, they are on par. Although it is this entry’s strength, the paranoia of the CIA, which plays directly in to the story line. Brad Bird took the series to new heights following the second and third entries and it is for this reason that the remaining three entries as so close together in scoring. 3.5 out of 4




2. “Mission: Impossible”: Brian De Palma’s entry started this whole series in motion. It introduced us to Ethan Hunt and was made before Bourne, so the action wasn’t a focus. The story is intelligent, the set pieces were stunning and the mystery holds itself together until nearly the beginning of the third act.


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1. “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol”: If Mr. Woo’s entry was the Empire State Building, Mr. Bird’s entry reaches the height of the Burj Khalifa, which is ironic because this entry’s iconic stunt was completed on the outside of the world’s tallest building. This story introduces us to William Brandt (Jeremy Renner) and brings many of our favorite series cast members back. The film manages to convey and intelligent story and bridges the past with the future. Michael Nyqvist made for a determined villain, even if his principles were misguided. Sophie Marceau is lethally stunning. Paula Patton as IMF Agent Jane Carter plays her role to the nines.

There.  “Mission, accomplished!”

“This message will self-destruct in five seconds.”

Hot Summer Nights - Movie Review by Ben Cahlamer

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Hot Summer Nights


Written and Directed by Elijah Bynum

Starring Timothee Chalamet, Maika Monroe, Thomas Jane, Alex Roe, Maia Mitchell, Emory Cohen, William Fichtner


As kids, we struggle to find our place in the universe. We want more and more without necessarily thinking of the consequences. In the summer of 1991, Daniel Middleton (Chalamet) goes to stay with his aunt on Cape Cod. Daniel is an awkward teenager, struggling to fit in and is bored. When he runs into the local “baddie,” Hunter Strawberry (Roe), his life changes immediately, and not necessarily for the better.

Elijah Bynum’s directorial debut has the look and feel of a major blockbuster motion picture. It also has a star in Timothee Chalamet, who performs awkward and intelligent in the same sentence. As an audience, we don’t mind that he switches gears; it is dynamic.

Alex Roe’s performance is akin to a chameleon. We know he’s physically there, but he is extremely laid back to the point where, when he goes off on someone, you can feel it through the screen. It is a nice counterpoint to Chalamet.

Bynum’s story focuses on two essential plot points: a love story between Daniel and McKayla and their drug operation. Daniel’s taste for bigger and better things gets in the way of a friendship that he forms with Hunter. The trifecta gets in the way of Daniel being able to see that bigger is not always better.

Which is a problem because Bynum doesn’t execute on this aspect very well. The way the story unfolds, we feel sympathetic towards their own struggles because their decisions put them in the line of danger and we cannot empathize because all three understand the dangers, yet they choose to risk their lives.

Bynum’s direction, much like his story is overstylized. He attempts to pad the story with characters that we can empathize with, namely Thomas Jane’s Sergeant Frank Calhoun. Emory Cohen (“Brooklyn”) plays Dex, the drug dealer and the muscle. The performance is just as unassuming as Roe’s, almost to the point of being comical. He is physically threatening, but that’s all he really is.

There is a moment of irony as we are introduced to William Fichtner’s Shep. The scantily clad hostess in the room is sitting at a piano, playing “Layla (Piano Exit)”, a song that typically exemplifies an oncoming, ominous problem. She is immune to the business deal that Daniel is trying to run on his own. The scene is drab, yet full of light. We are hopeful that Daniel will come through unscathed, but the odds are against him.

Had Bynum made this film 20 years ago, I think he would have found more success. He had the right ideas, but couldn’t full execute on them. Timothee Chalamet does prove that he can carry a film. He doesn’t upstage his co-stars and he connects with every actor on the screen. We like him because he’s miserable and finds love; we hate him because he tries to take on too much. In the end, the hyperstylized world that Bynum creates feels out of date and out of touch.

Rating 2.5 out of 4.

Gauguin: Voyage to Tahiti - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell


‘Gauguin: Voyage to Tahiti’ is an uninspired trip


Directed by:  Edouard Deluc

Written by:  Edouard Deluc, Etienne Comar, Thomas Lilti, and Sarah Kaminsky, based on the book by Paul Gauguin

Starring:  Vincent Cassel and Tuhei Adams 


“Gauguin: Voyage to Tahiti” – Paul Gauguin (Vincent Cassel), a French, post-impressionist artist, is living his dream in Tahiti, at least in two respects. 


“I paint and draw all day long.  I live in harmony with everything around me,” Gauguin exclaims with glee. 


Prior to his move, he grew frustrated with France’s most glamorous city in 1891, because of his inability to enjoy a proper work/life balance, a phrase often used in the corporate world in 2018.  One night, Gauguin grumbles to his friends that “we spend half our time and all our energy” to make a simple living.


Tahiti represents an escape to his nirvana, and director/co-writer Edouard Deluc offers movie audiences a chance to experience Gauguin’s life in this faraway land, but the painter’s time in paradise grew into difficult internal and personal financial battles.  In fact, when looking up struggling artist in the dictionary, it probably includes: see also Paul Gauguin, the Tahiti years.


Unfortunately, Deluc’s film struggles too. 


“Gauguin: Voyage to Tahiti” carries a runtime of just 102 minutes, but it feels much longer, as our lead randomly lumbers through jungles, mountains and along coastlines.  He tries to establish himself as a contributing resident, but the film offers no real milestones and does not effectively deep dive into the lead’s emotional ascents and descents.  We become distant observers to the man’s on-screen events rather than feeling his experiences.  


As far as experiencing Tahiti itself, Deluc and cinematographer Pierre Cottereau take full advantage of the natural splendor with a constant barrage of gorgeous set pieces on beaches, near waterfalls and in valleys with palm trees standing close by and lush, green buttes smiling in the distance.  Gauguin’s hopes for environmental wonders ring true, which provide him inspiration, and a young Tahitian woman named Tehura (Tuhei Adams) does as well.  


He forms a romantic relationship - and an apparent marriage - with her, although their on-screen ceremony seems like playacting, rather than a serious ritual.  A majority of the movie features their beats as a couple.  She serves as his muse, and Deluc films several scenes with Tehura posing in various ways, while Gauguin enjoys painting images of her on canvas after canvas.  Due to their significant age difference, Gauguin – naturally - makes all the important household decisions, and Tehura functions as his quiet subordinate. 


Quiet is one of the issues with their formal (or informal) bond, because the film does not really offer substantive discussions between the two.  Their relationship goes nowhere, other than to fill space for Gauguin’s craft.  Meanwhile, the monetary issues that compromised Gauguin in Paris follow him to the island, in a clear case of no matter where you go, there you are.   


Straining to rub two francs together, Gauguin’s attitude and health take expected downturns, and Cassel’s performance conveys the artist’s decline.  Cassel is 51 but looks over 65 with a straggly, gray beard, unkempt and greasy streaks of hair and an ever-present film of sweat draped on his loose-fitting clothes.  Poverty does not positively contribute to his overall well-being, and he noticeably coughs during the second and third acts.  Never a good sign. 


“Gauguin: Voyage to Tahiti” truly gives the audience a good sense of this particular artist’s life and accompanying mindset but regrettably, through an uneventful and monotonous narrative.  Well, just a portion of his life, because 95 percent of the film is set during Gauguin’s short stay in Tahiti.  Actually, Deluc’s choice for a film title is misleading, because we do not see Gauguin’s voyage - by boat - to the Pacific.  Hey, this critic felt a little cheated, but then again, watching 102 detached minutes of lackluster, uninspired exertion was a bit worse.   

(2/4 stars)


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


Blindspotting - Movie Review by Ben Cahlamer




Directed by Carlos Lopez Estrada

Written by Rafael Casal and Daveed Diggs

Starring Daveed Diggs, Rafael Casal, Janina Gavankar, Jasmine Cephas Jones, Ethan Embry, Tisha Campell-Martin, Utkarsh Ambudkar, Wayne Knight


There is a certain rhythm inherent in a movie’s story. Whether it’s the beat the characters move to, the three-act script or the music, all the pieces converge on one focal point to form an underlying drama.  Without that rhythm, nothing moves.

In Carlos Lopez Estrada’s inspiring film, “Blindspotting,” the film’s rhythm is very much that of Oakland, California. As it happens, I had a chance to visit the city for the first time last fall on my travels, and the film captures the essence and feel of the changing dynamic that affects everyone who lives, works or even visits, especially those whose roots are firmly planted in a city facing mass gentrification.

Featuring a script from rapper – actors Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal, the story concerns itself with Collin’s (Diggs) desire to complete his community service following a prison sentence. Mr. Diggs’ performance is a tour de force in dramatic tension as his character witnesses a life-altering event that shakes him to the core of his being. His best friend, Miles (Casal) concerns himself with his image and is less to do with his responsibilities as a father and a husband. Mr. Casal’s performance speaks volumes to the swagger the character thinks he needs to carry to survive and thrive in an ever-changing environment.

The story uses Collin’s struggles to stay the straight and narrow because he knows that even as a black man in Oakland, the police will detain him. Mr. Diggs and Mr. Casal smartly use comedy, and more importantly, the buddy-comedy motif to break up the tension, allowing us to breathe.

Mr. Estrada uses sight and sound to bring us into the ever-changing world that is Oakland, bringing in visual cues and characters to surround our leads. Janna Gavankar plays Val. Val understands Collin and wants to see him find the best part of himself. There’s a quiet brooding approach to the way Jasmine Cephas Jones plays Ashley, Miles’ partner. Midway through the film, there is a scene between them where she gives Miles a piece of her mind; you could feel the audience reacting to this scene, it was palpable. To give the scene away here, would ruin a part of the film, but it is a theme that plays into all of our worst fears.

Music is a key ingredient to this film. First time director Mr. Estrada interweaves the rhythmic sounds that have emanated from the Bay Area for a long time. The film’s music supervisor, Jonathan McHugh attended the SXSW screening I was at and he mentioned that the production wanted music that was authentic to Oakland. Those choices drive home the “love-letter” aspect to the film’s message.

I would be remiss if I didn’t call out Mr. Diggs’ performance, specifically. I must acknowledge Mr. Estrada’s direction in setting up this scene, but towards the end of the film, Mr. Diggs, his eyes wide open, full of emotion, exhales in a percussive rap that expresses how we all feel about the current state of life. The scene allows us to exhale; to recognize that change is all about us, that we must deal with it in our own way, but we must also be willing to change to see the light.

The film opened Sundance in January and was subsequently picked up by Lionsgate for distribution. The film opened in LA and NYC last weekend, expands to Phoenix this weekend and will slowly expand in August. Audiences at SXSW were thunderous in their applause. The film is very much in the moment; it’s fears are laid out for us to explore. Mr. Estrada has been named as one of the directors to keep an eye on because he wrapped his head around what Mr. Daveed and Mr. Casal had to say. “Blindspotting” is beautiful, inspired, scary and timely, and I wouldn’t want it any other way.


4 out of 4 stars