First Man - Movie Review by Monte Yazzie

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First Man

 

Director:Damien Chazelle

Starring:Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy, Corey Stoll, Lukas Haas, Jason Clarke, Christopher Abbott, Ethan Embry, Patrick Fugit, Shea Whigham, and Kyle Chandler

 

“Where were you?” History, tragic and triumphant, can have a profound effect on how the future will look back on certain moments of change, so impactful that it becomes a date, time, or place that you will remember for your entire life. Where were you on September 11th? Where were you when Barack Obama was elected President? These are two recent moments that have that effect. However, before these recent memories, perhaps the greatest “where were you” moment was when astronaut Neil Armstrong stepped foot on the surface of the moon. 

 

Director Damien Chazelle, who won the Academy Award for directing the musical “La La Land” in 2016, crafts a grandiose and intimate film focused on Neil Armstrong and the American space program leading up to the momentous Apollo 11 undertaking. “First Man” is an unglamorous yet beautifully depicted look at the struggles, obstacles, and catastrophes experienced in the space race in the 1960’s. 

 

Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) is an ordinary man working in an extraordinary job. The calm demeanor and literal analysis of situations around him make him an unusual person working amidst engineers and pilots at NASA. But underneath this straight-forward demeanor is a man diligently striving to create an ordinary life for his kids and his loving, long-suffering, wife Janet (Claire Foy). But his occupation propels him into the national spotlight as America tries to beat Russia into expeditions beyond earth. 

 

As director Damien Chazelle continues to expand the size of his films, the focus remains on a singular character chasing their ambitious dreams. “Whiplash” and “La La Land” both showcase a young person struggling to establish themselves in an unknown world in pursuit of their passion. Neil Armstrong, played with intriguing softness by Ryan Gosling, is also pursuing a dream that will take him into an unknown world. Mr. Chazelle does a nice job of exploring the character, never offering much of a history lesson but rather looking into the personal afflictions, specifically the loss his daughter Karen, that would define the motivation of a man who was consistently looking towards the heavens. It’s never glamorously constructed but instead restrained in its depiction of the world around him.

 

This controlled perspective may not provide the splendor and awe seen in other space travel movies, where space shuttles float amidst starry filled backgrounds, but the purpose of maintaining minimal views helps in creating tension and making this well-known adventure to the moon have some kind of uncertainty associated with it. It’s a method that works early in the film, but as the historical familiarity settles in during the third act it, unfortunately, doesn’t connect the emotion as it feels like it intended and instead feels underwhelming. Still, Mr. Chazelle understands how to evoke that old-fashioned Hollywood nostalgia in moments, sometimes it’s big and boisterous and other times it’s small and composed. 

 

Neil Armstrong is portrayed as a mild-mannered family man who fits in nicely at the neighborhood barbecue; Mr. Gosling provides a quiet, analytical perspective for the character. Claire Foy provides the standout performance here however as Janet Armstrong. Ms. Foy is tasked with being the emotional core of the film and she succeeds on numerous levels. 

 

Mr. Chazelle takes a few moments to look into the American perspective of the time, with protests about the space programs exorbitant funding and one Gil Scott-Heron song that clearly identifies the race relation situation, but he never examines these aspects for long. “First Man” remains clear of its purpose of displaying the space race from the eyes of the man who would become the hero America was looking for at the time. 

 

Monte’s Rating

3.50 out of 5.00

The Hate U Give - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

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‘The Hate U Give’ leans on strong, devoted performances

 

Directed by:  George Tillman Jr.

Written by:  Audrey Wells, based on the novel by Angie Thomas

Starring:  Amandla Stenberg, Regina Hall, Russell Hornsby, Anthony Mackie, Common, K.J. Apa, and Algee Smith

 

“The Hate U Give” – Starr Carter (Amandla Stenberg) shines in director George Tillman Jr.’s film, and her celestial name fits, because she lives in two worlds. 

 

You see, Monday through Friday, her mom Lisa (Regina Carter) drives her a few miles to Williamson, a predominately white high school, and she lives with her loving family in Garden Heights, a mostly black neighborhood.  Starr explains that she can be herself at home with her family, friends and neighbors, and adds that her mom and dad say, “Our life is here, because our people are here.”

 

In school, however, Starr flips a switch and puts an effort to fit in with her white classmates.  For example, she does not wear her hooded sweatshirt at school, and generally speaking, she says that she is Starr at Garden Heights and Starr Version 2 at Williamson.    

 

She has been managing this administrative duality for years, and - so far – she has not faced collisions between her two social spheres, but that soon comes to a screeching halt in a massive way.  A white police officer shoots and kills her childhood friend Khalil (Algee Smith), and she is the lone witness. 

 

The lone witness.

 

“The Hate U Give” resides in combustible themes, as it copes with Khalil’s death through Starr’s personal experience, not only during the shooting, but over a painful aftermath of social minefields at home, school and more. 

 

Now, from the get-go, Starr is instantly likable and Stenberg and Tillman successfully draw us into her spaces and mindsets.  Not only with Starr’s dichotomy, but Tillman gives Garden Heights a bright and colorful atmosphere with lush greens, yellows and reds.  Williamson is bright as well, but it’s filled with icy, corporate blues and grays.  High school can be tricky enough without volleying between two different versions of yourself, and it’s easy to empathize and/or relate to Starr’s delicate balancing act.

 

After the shooting, Tillman’s movie works best when Starr leans on her family to process the emotional stress of Khalil’s death and accompanying legalese.  Russell Hornsby delivers a bedrock performance as Starr’s dad Mav, who is infinitely supportive of his daughter and two sons.  Mav dabbled in trouble during his youth, but experience begets knowledge, and he passes his reality of living in America to his kids, while also delivering a demonstrative strength as a sturdy pillar of support.  Lisa matches Mav’s love for their kids, and while Starr faces incoming, foreign societal forces, this teen can confidentially look within her home for affirmation and warmth.

 

Outside of Starr’s family, the relationships sometimes miss. 

 

Starr’s boyfriend Chris (K.J. Apa) from Williamson quickly becomes a nuisance (to this critic) with a constant barrage of ineffectual “How can I help?” encounters.  Sure, it’s important for the film to have Starr emotionally connected to someone at school, but their relationship never really progresses.  Quite frankly, the movie would exist just fine without Chris.  Although admittedly, he contributes to the most hilarious moment in the movie, which will not be named in this review.  Now, Starr’s changing relationship with her Williamson female friends is not funny at all.  Unfortunately, their suddenly troubled friendship feels a bit forced in the third act, and perhaps a subtler approach would have been more effective. (The less is more rule.) 

 

The film also tugs on frayed legal and media threads.  At times, Tillman deliberately moves the picture away from Starr’s immediate surroundings and into farther distances, but as she feels less connection to these outside forces, you might too. 

 

Through Starr’s eyes, “The Hate U Give” delivers a ground-floor look at race relations, injustice and the uphill struggles to affect change.  It is maddening to know that we live in a time when 18-year-old Michael Brown (1996-2014) of Ferguson, Mo. and many, many other young men of color are needlessly killed by those who protect and serve.  “The Hate U Give” offers a distressing and infuriating - but also an accessible and tangible - look into the matter, as Tillman’s movie shines brightest through Stenberg and her celestial-named character.

(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.

 

 

Bad Times at the El Royale - Movie Review by Ben Cahlamer

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Bad Times at the El Royale

 

Written and Directed by Drew Goddard

Starring Jeff Bridges, Cynthia Erivo, Dakota Johnson, Jon Hamm, Cailee Spaeny, Lewis Pullman, Nick Offerman, Chris Hemsworth

 

Drew Goddard, the man who adapted “The Martian” novel to an Academy Award nomination and directed “The Cabin in the Woods”, brings us a noir-lite film in “Bad Times at the El Royale,” featuring an all-star cast set in the late 1960’s.

Taking cues from both Alfred Hitchcock and Quentin Tarantino, Goddard’s film brings together an assortment of characters who, at the beginning of the film have no association to one another and yet, through a single night at the El Royale, come to cross paths, and perhaps wished they never had.

Just ask Miles Miller (Lewis Pullman), the manager of the El Royale, as he explains the  unique history of the property which straddles the California – Nevada border in Lake Tahoe, right down to a marked out line depicting the border. Or ask Father Daniel Flynn (Jeff Bridges), who has more than a bottle of holy water up his sleeves. Then there’s Darlene Sweet, a backup singer who just happens to be on her way to a job in Reno and needed a room for the night. Seymour Sullivan (Jon Hamm) really wants the honeymoon suite on the Nevada side of the hotel, yet he’s alone. And, he’s a vacuum cleaner salesman.

What gives with that?

Running a bit late to the party are Dakota Johnson as Emily Summerspring and her younger sister, Rose (Cailee Spaeny), and they bring a whole host of trouble with them in the form of the charismatic and pelvic-thrusting Billy Lee (Chris Hemsworth).

Eventually, things go awry at the El Royale when everyone’s secret comes out. This is the genius and some of the challenge with Goddard’s story: it relies more on the characters, their individual situations and their fateful encounters to carry the story itself.

In the opening frame, we peer into a motel room and we know what actions are happening, but we don’t know why. Goddard wisely chooses to obscure the character so that when that character’s actions are brought back into the story in the third act, the impact is heightened. Goddard employs a time-shifting style of storytelling, which works for the most part because his characters are on point as is Lisa Lassek’s editing. There are some areas where the character motivations are put in front of us that slow the pace of the film down. I got the sense that Goddard was in love with his characters, and I don’t mind that because the way the story unfolds is really well done.

Goddard does borrow from himself with certain plot devices and they can get a bit long-in-the-tooth as well, but his homages to Tarantino’s story telling methods and to the master of suspense himself make up for said infractions. Michael Giacchino outdoes himself with this score, evoking the time the film is set in as well as that nourish-mystery storyline

Noir fans won’t be disappointed with “Bad Times at the El Royale,” but general audiences might avoid the film because it can seem a little too full on itself. I enjoyed the ride with all of these characters, and their situations and the fateful encounters each of them has made for a real pulpy story.

3.5 out of 4

Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween - Movie Review by Ben Cahlamer

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Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween

 

Directed by Ari Sandel

Screenplay by Rob Lieber, Story by Rob Lieber and Darren Lemke

Based on “Goosebumps” by R.L. Stine

Starring Wendi McLendon-Covey, Madison Iseman, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Caleel Harris, Chris Parnell, Ken Jeong

 

As the weather turns cooler, and the leaves start falling off the trees, that most sacred of holidays comes upon us quite quickly. Pumpkins sacrifice themselves for the greater enjoyment . . . yes, I’m talking about Halloween. But, this isn’t just any ordinary Halloween.

It’s an R.L. Stein – imagined Halloween called “Goosebumps.”

A confession though, so that I’m not haunted throughout this review: I haven’t read any of Stein’s books and I haven’t seen the 2015 film that preceded this newest installment, “Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween,” though I did hear from several fans that Jack Black really made that first movie memorable.

Unfortunately, this “Haunted Halloween” isn’t as spooky as you might think. If anything, I got a “creepy, oompah-loompah vibe” from Rob Leiber’s screenplay. The challenge is that the story starts out so generically. Sarah Quinn (Madison Iseman) is a talented writer who is prepping her college admissions essay and stumbles upon writer’s block.

Of course, her helpful boyfriend sneaks into her room to surprise her, which gets foiled by mom, Kathy (Wendi McLendon-Covey). Within the first five minutes of the beginning of the story, we have trust issues and in any other director’s hands, it probably would have turned out for the better, but Sandel shies away from the mother-daughter trust angle and instead shifts it into a brother-sister trust issue.

Sonny (Jeremy Ray Taylor) and his friend Sam (Caleel Harris), who is conveniently dropped off for a couple of days with the Quinn’s for no reason whatsoever, start a junk collecting business. Sonny is a whip-smart kid too, but he doubts himself and doesn’t see his projects through.

Sonny and Sam are commissioned to clean out an abandoned, haunted home (big shocker). Whatever they want to keep, they can. One of the items they keep is a locked book, which is buried in a box in an anteroom. The gimmick to get us into the anteroom is cute and it should keep younger kids on their toes.

When they open the book, they read a passage in Latin, which awakens Slappy the Dummy (voiced by Mick Wingert). Slappy initially presents himself as a helpful dummy, but as his presence is made further known, his helpfulness turns deadly.

The sleepy town of Wardenclyffe, NY is the site for the events in this film. And by the end of the 90-minute run time, the town is turned upside down as Slappy makes use of the conveniently available Tesla factory where Nicolai Tesla built a huge electric rod to work on his experiments.

In truth, the story felt far too generic for a scary film. Its ideals are in the right place, but Slappy reminded me of another ghoulish little monster, Chucky a la “Child’s Play.” They were both little terrors, yet their bites were very little.

The plot device to wrap up the third act was rather brilliant and ties into Sarah’s writer’s block. Getting there is a little dry and not very interesting, though Ken Jeong as the Qunn’s neighbor, Mr. Chu is a highlight. He reminded me of a Clark Griswold for Halloween instead of Christmas and is just as funny and resourceful.

Kids around 10 – 15 might enjoy this as there are enough scares intended for little ones that they might enjoy. Otherwise, the story is a bit paint-by-the-numbers with a main cast that elicits no real affectation from the audience.

2 out of 4

The Happy Prince - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

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‘The Happy Prince’ sheds light on Oscar Wilde’s cheerless years

 

Written and directed by:  Rupert Everett

Starring:  Rupert Everett, Colin Firth, Emily Watson, Edwin Thomas, and Tom Wilkinson

 

“The Happy Prince” – “Be yourself, everyone else is already taken.” – Oscar Wilde

Rupert Everett (“My Best Friend’s Wedding” (1997), “The Importance of Being Earnest” (2002)) wrote a screenplay about Oscar Wilde and shopped it around, but he could not find a director willing to bring his work to the big screen.  Well, he took control of his own destiny and decided to film it himself, and this first-time director delivers a troubling and tragic portrayal, and in the process, Everett delivers a most absorbing performance.

The film’s title basks in cold irony, because Everett’s picture encompasses the cheerless, last few years of Wilde’s (Everett) life.  The ugly times, when this worldwide and beloved prince of written-artistry fell into exile and rotted in unforgiving squalor due to societal views of his sexual duality.  Wilde was imprisoned in 1895 for sodomy, and his fame instantly flipped to shame.

In an April 2018 interview, Everett said that “The Happy Prince” took 10 years to finish, but he was determined to see it through, because other Wilde biopics have concluded once the renowned writer was sentenced to prison.  In Everett’s case, the bulk of his picture takes place after Wilde was released from incarceration.

“There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.” – Oscar Wilde

In 1897, Wilde collapses into Parisian skid row.  Except for two homeless kids who listen to his stories and accept an occasional di minimis handout, Wilde is friendless (at first) in Paris.  He also copes with poor health and feels nearly-unbearable regret regarding his wife Constance (Emily Watson).  Sorrow, injustice and poverty construct a trifecta of on-screen discouragement, and hopes for brighter times appear impossible given greater communal mindsets.

“The really interesting part, the romantic fantasy at the end of the 19th century’s melodrama and tragedy, is Wilde in exile.  For me, it’s one of the great images (of the period),” Everett said.

Visually, the movie excels in two places.  Everett shines a spotlight on the blight of Paris’ underclass, by spending precious minutes with the displaced and desperate, as they collectively agonize in the shadows.  Wilde seamlessly blends into this world with an uncomfortable-comfort of belonging with orphaned children who beg for a spare franc or some bread.  He is orphaned himself and partially-accepts his fate by serving a makeshift penance while also feeling the brunt of a terrible injustice.  Second, his recent trauma has physically beaten him down.  Everett truly is unrecognizable here, especially for those who have not really seen him since “My Best Friend’s Wedding”, which was released 21 years ago.  To make this transformation, Everett wore a prosthetic fat suit and stuck projectiles inside his mouth to thrust out his cheeks.  Add disheveled, scraggily hair and a constant five o’clock shadow (that keeps pushing six), and Wilde is a man without direction or hope.

Counter these impressions with his former bourgeois life.  The film does present this side of Wilde, including his friendship with two trusty, wealthy allies from England – Reggie Turner (Colin Firth) and Robbie Ross (Edwin Thomas) – who come to his aid.  Couple these warm reunions with frequent flashbacks to happier, more lucrative times, and the gravity of the poet’s free fall becomes painfully illustrated.

“I never travel without my diary.  One should always have something sensational to read in the train.”  - Oscar Wilde

Since Wilde was a poet, playwright and novelist, he had a skillful penchant for words, and throughout the picture - whether he aches on streets of despair or embraces a gilded hotel room - Everett ensures that his character’s thoughts become transparent to the audience through a carefully-crafted script.  As poetic as Wilde was from pen to paper, his on-screen eloquence travels from his voice box to nearby ears just as effectively, which include recurring stories of The Happy Prince, and they are awfully symbolic.

No question, Everett delivers Wilde’s voice with prophetic magnitudes that constantly keep our anticipation for philosophical treasures.  Mixed with his decline, “The Happy Prince” triggers a desperate urgency to listen with sky-high interest and eternal empathy.

The film occasionally jumps into the past without warning and sometimes oddly navigates from scene to scene in Wilde’s present.  The man’s present was not pleasant, but offering congenial creature comforts is not the point, and while Everett’s organic approach does not always move the story in perfectly linear directions, he is effective in conveying Wilde’s experiences.  Everett also consulted and leaned on Merlin Holland – Wilde’s grandson - to ensure that he authentically captured the famous writer’s last few years of existence.  For the audience, this brand new director rewards us with a complete picture of Wilde.

“Behind every exquisite thing that existed, there was something tragic.” – Oscar Wilde

(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.

 

22 July - Movie Review by Ben Cahlamer

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22 July

 

Directed by Paul Greengrass

Written by Paul Greengrass based on “One of Us” by Asne Seierstad

Starring Anders Danielsen Lie, J Jon Øigarden, Thorbjorn Harr, Jonas Strand Gravli, Isak Bakli Aglen, Maria Bock

 

Paul Greengrass, despite the shaky action camera trademark he has built for himself, is also a man who understands the dramatic narrative. I have not seen “Bloody Sunday”, a film which in most cinephiles estimation is some of his best work. I do know him from his action - filled “Bourne” film series entries, “Supremacy”, “Ultimatum” and the most recent, “Jason Bourne”.

His finest hours have been with intimate stories that are a part of either larger, political dramas or smaller stories, most notably “United 93” and “Captain Phillips”. In his latest film, “22 July”, Greengrass focuses on the dramatic aftermath of the Norwegian extremist attacks of 22 July 2011 in which 77 lives were lost in the twin attacks.

The story based on the story One of Us by Asne Seierstad was adapted by Greengrass, focuses on the trial of extremist, Anders Behring Breivik, played by Anders Danielsen Lie (“Personal Shopper,” “Approaching the Unknown”). The story also focuses on the recovery of one of the victims, Vijar Hanssen (Jonas Strand Gravli).

Greengrass’s filmography prepared him well for this film as the opening of the film focuses on the attacks. There is an urgency to Pal Ulvik Rokseth’s cinematography as Breivik puts the final touches on his homemade explosives. The island of Utoya, where the Labour Party organized a summer camp for future was the site of the second attack, where Breivik mercilessly gunned down innocent youngsters.

Following the attack and the ultimate surrender and arrest of Breivik, is a legal docudrama as Greengrass interweaves Breivik’s attempt to force the government’s hand with the recovery of Viljar, who we see at the opening of the film is a future politician. Greengrass builds Breivik’s case through his legal counsel, Geir Lppestad, played by Jon Øigarden who, reluctantly agrees to defend him despite the strain it puts on his own family.

Breivik’s claim for his actions were that he was insane, which the story tries to build while at the same time, he pushes for putting the country on trial for allowing integration of refugees from other countries into Norway. It was interesting how this story thread, which condemns government immigration practices and its effect on the populace parallels our own struggles here in the United States.

Suddenly, the world feels much smaller.

As the legal drama unfolds, so too does Viljar’s recovery as well as his family’s recovery. His younger brother, Torje (Isak Bakli Aglen) was not injured physically, but mentally. Torje spends the majority of the film in the shadows, it isn’t until Viljar overcomes his own mental anguish that he is able to help Torje, which is an interesting take of the two characters, because that is not the way they start out in the film.

The strongest performance came out of Seda Witt’s Lara, an emigre herself. She is representative of someone who had a political reason to flee her homeland and worked hard to integrate into society. She is a gentle reminder for Viljar to stand strong for himself and for the other victims.

That’s the challenge with this story: we’re so used to Greengrass “the action-drama director” that when we get it, we’re enthralled. When we get into the legal case and the medical stories, they don’t hold the same punch. The lack of punch is attributable to the pacing, some of which could have been trimmed down to eliminate duplicitous story elements. It is a fascinating look at the Norwegian legal system and its similarity to the United States’ process.

The other issue are the characters and their place in the overall story, which is too big to be effective. For a cast who is relatively unknown, they did an excellent job, a hallmark of Greengrass’s experience. Anders Danielsen Lie, Jonas Strand Gravli and Seda Witt. They are the three figures of each of the interwoven stories.

I can only imagine how upset the people of Norway were when these events happened, trying to understand what would have driven someone to do such a dastardly and cowardly event. “22 July” doesn’t necessarily offer answers as much as it does insight into the, now global problems of immigration and people’s rights in each country.

Now streaming worldwide on Netflix and in select theaters.

2.5 out of 4

A Star is Born - Movie Review by Monte Yazzie

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A Star is Born

 

Director: Bradley Cooper

Starring: Lady Gaga, Bradley Cooper, Sam Elliot, Dave Chappelle, Andrew Dice Clay, and Anthony Ramos

 

 

The first version of “A Star is Born” was made in 1937 and featured Janet Gaynor and Fredric March as two star-crossed lovers on dramatically diverse paths of fame in show business. It’s a story that no matter the time period, seems to encompass all the romantic touchstones that construct heartfelt Hollywood fables about chasing that seemingly impossible dream of finding love and making your passion a reality. That’s probably why this film has been made four times in four vastly different eras associated with the quest for stardom.

 

The most recent iteration of “A Star is Born” features pop superstar Lady Gaga, in good company with Judy Garland and Barbara Streisand who previously played the role, and Bradley Cooper doing triple duty as actor, writer, and director. Mr. Cooper, who seems to have deep admiration for all the previous stories, builds an earnest adaptation that is grounded by naturalistic performances and a narrative that invests in the melodrama of  relationships.

 

Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper) is an aging alt-country rock star, singing boot stomping ballads while high on alcohol and pills. Jackson stumbles and mumbles through concerts, in flashes displaying why he is a rock star and in other moments why his star is fading into oblivion. While looking for a bar to go on another bender, Jackson staggers into a drag bar and encounters a singer named Ally (Lady Gaga). Her version of Edith Piaf’s “La Vie en Rose” completely enchants Jackson, pulling him from his alcoholic spiral and into an impromptu date that will change both of their lives.

 

Mr. Cooper displays early in this film a keen understanding of building and manipulating the beauty involved in the Hollywood love story. With frames that linger and examine the enraptured faces of two people who are falling deeply, passionately in love with one another, Mr. Cooper displays how easily the spell of love can overtake characters and also audiences. It’s in the first 50 minutes of this film, which slowly and deliberately invests in the budding relationship of Ally and Jackson that one will effortlessly fall entranced with everything that Mr. Cooper is doing with the story. The casting of Lady Gaga is perhaps the director’s greatest achievement here; the power and screen presence of the actress is no clearer than when her character finally gives in to her fears and performs an emotionally charged duet that will have you swooning over Gaga’s rendition and also the pair's romance.

 

This early romantic drama is beautifully and achingly achieved, but even the greatest of romances eventually have to deal with the perils of reality. When Ally and Jackson’s relationship encounters reality, one that is filled with the cruel sting of the music business, things begin to crumble. Jackson realizes that his career isn’t making an upward turn and Ally realizes that her star is far from reaching its peak. Jackson’s drug abuse gets worse, Ally’s career is guided in a different direction than expected, and quickly the romantic gaze disappears.

 

Everything in the second half of “A Star is Born” becomes a familiar tale, one that quickly delves into the turmoil complicated relationships experience with short illustrations that don’t allow for the kind of growth and control displayed when the relationship was developing early in the film. Instead, there is a loss of time and space as the romance ages, which unfortunately dulls the experience of displaying how effortless love can transition into complicated love which is an altogether different yet equally fascinating aspect of relationships if provided the attention.

 

Aside from the romance is a story about two artists who care as much about their craft as they do about their relationship, perhaps more in some ways. On one side we have a story about a musician struggling to remain true to his ideals, one that is examined with sober metaphors in an empty parking lot and drunken stupors in crowded places. On the other side is the story about a musician being swept into the power of the system and their own stardom, one that features simplistic pop music sensibilities and a Saturday Night Live performance that feel less than genuine. In the end however, it’s Lady Gaga’s character Ally that ultimately rules the show. The character is ambitious and independent, she pushes past the expectations created by those around her while refusing to succumb to the easy indulgences that have defined the two men she loves in her life.

 

Amidst some minor problems with pacing and the structure of the narrative that defines two separate aspects of a romantic relationship, “A Star is Born” is still the kind of heartbreaking Hollywood tale that is easy to fall in love with.

 

Monte’s Rating

3.75 out of 5.00

Venom - Movie Review by Monte Yazzie

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Venom

                                                                        

Director: Ruben Fleischer

Starring: Tom Hardy, Michelle Williams, Riz Ahmed, Jenny Slate, and Reid Scott

 

Joseph Campbell, author of the seminal “The Hero with a Thousand Faces”, details a plotting device called “the hero’s journey”. Look at any number of films, past and present, and you can find this character structure utilized in some form especially in the cinematic world of the superhero. It’s a technique that has been done to death but when implemented properly, or when twisted in a new direction, can have satisfying effects.

 

This “hero’s journey” may apply to heroic characters like Captain America or Superman, however often times the qualities associated with the “hero’s journey” shackles the characters to a moral code. When these characters start breaking away from the heroic descriptive terms that define them, they often fall into a characterization of being an “antihero”; characters like Deadpool, Mad Max, or The Man with No Name are examples.

 

Director Ruben Fleischer explores the complicated nature of the antihero with the origin story of the beloved Marvel character Venom. Providing an unusual, weird, yet satisfyingly kinetic performance is Tom Hardy as the merged human/alien being.

 

Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy) is a news reporter in San Francisco, providing a hard-hitting investigative reporting show. Brock’s local reputation provides him an exclusive interview with Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed), a science mogul who has discovered a slimy alien substance, “symbiote”, and is conducting human trials in an attempt to combine the alien substance with humans. Brock’s compulsive style leads to him losing his job and his relationship with his girlfriend Anne (Michelle Williams). In an attempt to get his job and girlfriend back, Brock breaks into Carlton Drake’s laboratory but encounters the alien symbiote.

 

“Venom” is an unusual film. Like its primary character who is struggling to find balance and control of the monster inside him, the film struggles to find the same control between the indulgence to push the limits, establish an overall tone, and exist within the familiar realm found in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The film feels in moments influenced by the horror found in demon possession films, then transitions into a buddy comedy film that feels like a modified mainstream version of Frank Henenlotter’s “Brain Damage”, then moves into complete Marvel movie territory with a finale that is filled with all the familiar boom and bang. It’s all over the place, which makes the experience feel over long and tedious.

 

However, what keeps “Venom” engaging and consistently amusing is the committed performance from Tom Hardy who gives Eddie Brock a cowardly demeanor that is layered with ambitions to do the right thing and, when Venom takes over, the impulse to take over the world and feed on humanity. It’s unfortunate that the other characters surrounding Brock aren’t provided the same kind of energy. Michelle Williams is underutilized as Brock’s love interest and Riz Ahmed is given an antagonist that never feels threatening. 

 

“Venom”, at 120 minutes, attempts to be a different kind of superhero film. While it never successfully accomplishes the feat of crafting the super antihero that audiences can get behind, it does have Tom Hardy working overtime to make the character an oddly amusing creature.

 

Monte’s Rating

2.50 out of 5.00

The Old Man & the Gun - Movie Review by Ben Cahlamer

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The Old Man & the Gun

 

Written and Directed by David Lowery

Based on ‘The Old Man and the Gun’ by David Grann

Starring Robert Redford, Casey Affleck, Danny Glover, Tika Sumpter, Tom Waits, Sissy Spacek

 

There are two thoughts that flashed across my mind as David Lowery’s stunning tone poem, “The Old Man & the Gun” unfolded in front of me: the first was Billy Ocean’s song, “When the Going Gets Tough, the Tough Get Going,” where the situation is gets tough, strong people will become engaged.

This, unrequitedly applied to Robert Redford’s Forrest Tucker, a thief who steals money with a smile and a gun.

The second thought was that of Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea.” Perhaps this is an obvious give, but when put into the context of Casey Affleck’s Detective John Hurt, it begins to make a bit of sense. No, I’m not giving anything away by offering this thought; but it should give you some food for thought as you watch the two characters work their way through David Lowery’s 93 – minute script.

Based on a New Yorker article, “The Old Man and the Gun” by David Grann, Lowery takes a rather simple, yet elegant idea of a thief in the prime of his life and creates a cat and mouse game, as Detective Hurt tries to apprehend our loveable hero.

Set in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, Forrest and his crew, Teddy Green (Danny Glover) and Waller (Tom Waits) work across the panhandle of Texas and further east. They never hurt anyone and Forrest always has an escape plan.  Though Glover and Waits are used in a limited fashion, their screen presence anchors Redford’s nice – guy shtick. The fact that he is elderly and congenial allows him to blend into any situation, and that’s how he meets Sissy Spacek’s Jewel.

Once they meet, there is an ongoing gag where Forrest has wish list of items he wants to accomplish before he dies, though he does not expressly call it a “bucket list.” One of those items is to ride a horse, which Jewel has on her ranch. And, even though he confesses to her what he does for a living, she doesn’t initially believe him. That’s a part of the charm between the two actors and their characters: they don’t really care what each other has done, they only know that they are meant to be together.

Lowery uses the same approach with Detective Hurt and his wife, Maureen (Tika Sumpter). He is a family man and hasn’t had a major case in quite some time when he is assigned to investigate the thefts. As his investigation progresses, Lowery peppers in key pieces of Robert Redford’s screen history using older photos and film clips to carry the story forward. It was an ingenious way of paying homage to his past characters while carrying on the legacy of Forrest Tucker.

A lyrical quality to the performances is carried in the film’s score and music selections. Daniel Hart’s jazzy score is reminiscent of Dizzy Gillespie: upbeat, happy-go-lucky and free-spirited. It represents the essence of his character and his journey. Joe Anderson’s cinematography takes the audience back to the late 1970’s, early 1980’s with the use of grain and the color schemes: cool shades of blues and greys, but he also emphasizes the exterior sequences at the farm with warmer colors. It’s a deft blend that reflects the time the film was set in along with the free-spirited nature that is Forrest Tucker.

David Lowery has a home run on his hands that audiences, young and old should appreciate and if this is Mr. Redford’s final performance, he is getting out when the going’s good.

3.75 out of 4 stars

 

A Star is Born - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

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Gaga and Cooper shine in this ‘A Star Is Born’ rebirth

 

Directed by:  Bradley Cooper

Written by:  Bradley Cooper, Will Fetters and Eric Roth

Starring:  Bradley Cooper, Lady Gaga, Sam Elliott, Dave Chappelle, and Andrew Dice Clay

 

“A Star Is Born” – Lady Gaga can act, and Bradley Cooper can sing.

If one takes away anything from director Bradley Cooper’s remake of “A Star Is Born”, it is the aforementioned statement.

Cooper plays Jackson Maine, a famous country singer.  How famous?  The man cannot walk 20 yards without someone recognizing him, patting him on the back, claiming their fandom, and/or asking for a photo.  Jackson has the world by the tail, but not unlike every human, he suffers from flaws, and the biggest is his alcoholism.

After playing before thousands and thousands of fans, Jackson hops into his limo, downs an entire bottle of something stronger than a triple-espresso, asks his driver to stop, steps into a bar to guzzle more drinks, and unexpectedly meets Ally (Lady Gaga), who jumps on stage and sings.  With Jackson sitting on a barstool and staring – through a self-induced haze – solely at Ally, she belts out a riveting version of a very celebrated song (which will not be named in this review), and…he…is…hooked.  He’s hooked on Ally’s voice and the woman herself, and the two begin their journey as a teacher-apprentice duo in the music industry and gleefully embrace a loving relationship.

Cooper’s movie is the third remake of the 1937 original, but does the world need another “A Star Is Born” film?  No, but will millions flock to see it, and is it a worthwhile (and sometimes breathtaking) experience?

Yes and Yes.

The film crew sets up shop in real music venues in front of thousands of people, where Cooper and Gaga perform numerous original songs in country and pop star fashions that will dazzle and delight movie audiences who enjoy big screen theatrics.  Cooper keeps the camera on-stage and seemingly within inches of Jackson’s and Ally’s faces, as the film showcases spectacular gushes of sights and sounds.

No question, this movie should be experienced on the big screen.

Calling out the country and pop star distinction is important.  This is because Jackson pulls Ally on-stage to croon various duets under a country-guise, but she soon finds her own voice and becomes a pop star sensation.

Almost overnight.

Ally’s meteoric rise feels a bit implausible, given the dramatically-short number of calendar days that she goes from performing in front of 100 people at a local drag club to infinitely bigger audiences, who embrace her songs like “Look What I Found” and “Why Did You Do That?”

Then again, maybe it’s not that implausible, because just take a quick gander into Lady Gaga’s career.   This is exactly why casting Gaga is a remarkably-keen move, and she obviously manages the musical numbers like a pro, but this woman can act as well.  Gaga brings an accessible and congenial identity to Ally.  Prior to meeting Jackson, Ally’s reservoirs of singer/songwriter gifts remain untapped, because she only dreams within her own spaces.  Self-conscious of her looks, she never believed in big stage aspirations, but soon – via Jackson’s encouragement – she acquires faith in herself.

During the first hour of the film’s 2-hour 15-minute runtime, one might wonder if Ally’s experience is autobiographical to Gaga’s own.  Whether or not Ally’s on-set encounters are terribly familiar or brand new to Gaga, she is wholly believable as a budding singer/songwriter who is in awe of her new partner, while also finding comfort in her own skin. 

(As a side question: Did the script really need Jackson to help shape Ally’s self-worth?  Just asking.)

Meanwhile, Cooper’s Jackson only discovers comfort when alcohol and/or drugs reside in his system.  In many ways, Jackson resembles Jeff Bridges’ Bad Blake from “Crazy Heart” (2009), and his addiction – predictably – only feeds relationship and career disarray.  Jackson does offer a kind humanity, but his judgment frequently delves into cloudy periods of distrust, loneliness and jealousy.  Less so jealousy, as he does not envy Ally’s success as much as he misses their connection to the same music.

Jackson’s substance abuse is more prominent than John Norman Howard’s (Kris Kristofferson) from “A Star Is Born” (1976).  John’s self-destructive path has a hell-raiser quality of simply living in the moment, like when he jumps on a motorcycle, mindlessly rides it in circles during his concert and inevitably careens off the stage into a twisted heap below. 

Despite John’s ragged nature, 1976’s “A Star Is Born” spends more intimate time with John and Esther (Barbra Streisand) as a couple.  By design, director Frank Pierson devotes possibly 75 minutes of generous, uninterrupted screen time of John and Esther celebrating their relationship and also coping with his behavior.  This allows their connection to resonate with the audience.  Even though their careers follow opposing trajectories, Pierson focuses less time on the music and more with John and Esther as a devoted and struggling couple, and hence the film is highly effective in delivering its emotional punches when it counts. 

Jackson’s and Ally’s tender romance is also recurrently troubled, and Cooper’s vision drives within the same guardrails as 1976’s “A Star Is Born”.  The difference is Cooper spends much of the second hour diving into Ally’s music.  Sure, awarding Ally copious amounts of on-screen minutes to learn dance choreography, perform new tracks and deal with the business aspects of the music industry are important to the story.  These moments, however, interrupt the soulful flow of the film’s first hour. 

Jackson’s and Ally’s struggles become their own as individuals, rather than mutually muddling through their issues together. 

Presenting their anxieties separately will frustrate the audience, and this is a deliberate choice.  The problem?  The emotional payoffs may not resonate the way that they should, because Jackson’s and Ally’s independently-shown career paths encourage detachment…for them and moviegoers.

Even though it has been a long 42 years, no one really needed to give birth to another version of “A Star Is Born”, but the 2018 film shines best during the happier, intimate moments with the leads and their beautiful, dynamic musical numbers. 

This film is unquestionably destined for Golden Globe - Musical/Comedy nominations for Best Picture, Actress and Actor, and yes, Gaga and Cooper fans will go gaga (this critic went there) for this movie.  Others will appreciate and even love the pomp and circumstance, and the rest will – at a minimum – acknowledge that Lady Gaga can act, and Bradley Cooper can sing.

(3/4 stars)

 

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

The Sisters Brothers - Movie Review by Monte Yazzie

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The Sisters Brothers

 

Director: Jacques Audiard

Starring: John C. Reilly, Joaquin Phoenix, Jake Gyllenhaal, Riz Ahmed, Rebecca Root, and Rutger Hauer

 

Through the pitch darkness of night, orange flashes from gun barrels explode into the quietness of Oregon Territory as the Sisters Brothers, Eli and Charlie, hunt and kill a group of men. And just as quickly as fire engulfs a nearby barn, the Sisters Brothers return to the darkness amused yet concerned about their knack for killing.

 

“The Sisters Brothers” directed by Jacque Audiard, who last directed the captivating and character driven “Dheepan” in 2015, delves with his first English-language film into the traditional form of the American Western film with a unique tale about two brothers tasked with killing a man in 1851. With picturesque backdrops, gun fights, and the search for easy wealth, the motifs for cowboy storytelling are all present in some design. However, what makes “The Sisters Brothers” stand confidently is its ease with paying reverence and parodying the classic western aspects audiences have become so familiar with.

 

Eli (John C. Reilly) and Charlie (Joaquin Phoenix) are brothers who have a distinguishing skillset, they are hired killers. A man, known as the Commodore (Rutger Hauer), hires the brothers to meet a refined detective named John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal) who is tracking the target, a man named Herman Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed). The Sisters Brothers, who attract their fair share of threats along their journeys, soon find themselves at odds with each other and anyone who tries to cross their path to find their target.

 

When in the hands of foreign filmmakers, the classically American design of western film can find a fresh perspective. Take for instance the films of Sergio Leone, Ferdinando Baldi, or Sergio Corbucci who painted their west with violent strokes of betrayal and greed, often times providing social commentary through their fantasies with men in cowboy hats. Director Jacque Audiard applies some of these aspects to “The Sisters Brothers” but in a different way, sometimes starkly humorous and other times completely serious. It’s a balancing act that allows the film to exist somewhere in the middle of what typically defines the western genre. Charlie and Eli are gunslingers but not glamorous ones like Clint Eastwood or John Wayne, the design of the film lingers through hazy hilltops and cramped forests as opposed to the elaborately composed designs of trail chases and stagecoach pursuits found in Sam Peckinpah or John Ford films. Still, “The Sisters Brothers” amidst its deliberate pacing and shifting narrative tones is invigoratingly distinctive.

 

The two leads, Phoenix and Reilly, steal the show with their charming bond as two somewhat dimwitted brothers. Joaquin Phoenix slyly injects Charlie with the right amount of frustratingly reckless character traits to make the audience hate him yet still stick around to watch what bumbling situation he will get into next. John C. Reilly is in top form here, the sensitive and thoughtful composition of his character makes his journey to leave the life of death dealing behind fascinating to play out. Add Jake Gyllenhaal flexing a tailored suit with an interesting accent and Riz Ahmed blindly stuck in the middle as the only reliable voice of reason, and the film has enough talented ammunition to hold everything at peak attention.

 

“The Sisters Brothers” is a smartly written and keenly directed film that plays with the western genre in really interesting ways. The narrative design wisely toys with the expectations of those familiar with cowboy tales, dodging the typical pitfalls associated with the genre. What ultimately satisfies throughout is how Mr. Audiard perceives the progression of the American west to the contemporary state of America, with cowboys uneasy to relinquish their guns for the betterment of society and idealists stuck dreaming of a society free of gun fights, stage coach robberies, and bullying authority figures.

 

Monte’s Rating

4.25 out of 5.00

The Children Act - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

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Thompson, Tucci lead ‘The Children Act’ but the script needs discipline 

 

Directed by:  Richard Eyre

Written by:  Ian McEwan

Starring:  Emma Thompson, Stanley Tucci, Ben Chaplin, Eileen Walsh, and Fionn Whitehead

 

“The Children Act” – “There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.” – Nelson Mandela

 

Judge Fiona Maye (Emma Thompson) faces difficult decisions every day.  With stacks of high profile cases and judgments piled up in her well-documented history, the work refuses to slow down in her present.  On any given weekday, one can find Judge Maye quietly stewing in her chambers, pouring over documents, making phone calls, and wrestling with conflicting - and sometimes explosive - particulars. 

 

From her office, she briskly walks – several times a day – to and from her courtroom, a place where her chair sits dramatically higher than the lawyers, plaintiffs, defendants, court reporters, and spectators, who reside far below. 

 

Director Richard Eyre’s camera captures angles from the courtroom attendees’ perspective, and from down here, Judge Maye seemingly carries the starched authority of the UK’s Prime Minister, the UN Secretary-General or Hera herself.  You see, her interpretations of the law behave as permanent verbal-tapestries that set lasting consequences for the country. 

 

In Eyre’s “The Children Act” – to no one’s surprise – Judge Maye has a troubling case involving children, or in this case, one teenage boy.  Adam (Fionn Whitehead), a 17-year-old, suffers from leukemia but refuses a blood transfusion because of his religious beliefs.  Fiona must determine if doctors can intervene with the said transfusion.

 

The film works very well as an intriguing courtroom drama.  Well, for about 45 or 50 minutes. 

 

Through writer Ian McEwan’s script, Fiona makes her decision fairly early in the story and then copes with the repercussions in a lengthy denouement.  One that feels clunky and middling.  The reasoning for the narrative’s structure is so Fiona – an exceedingly brilliant legal mind - can grow on a personal-level by inhabiting her verdict at ground level, rather than settling on the problematic case and walking away.  This time, she cannot just step aside from her towering chair and exit stage left into her chambers. 

 

In theory, this story arc has its place, but in practice, it feels noticeably forced.  It’s like stopping by your neighborhood coffee shop, jumping over the counter and begin working with your favorite barista.  Sounds like a fresh opportunity to bond with a familiar face for eight hours that day, but in a practical sense, what about your current responsibilities, and wouldn’t the manager object that you skipped your official job interview?

 

Plus, how do you make a vanilla bean latte with a splash of pumpkin spice anyway?

 

The film falls into this trap, and our disbelief moves from suspension to resumption.

 

Thompson and Stanley Tucci (who plays Fiona’s husband Jack) are the movie’s two saving graces.  The second major narrative thread is their relationship, which has fallen under a terrible strain for years. 

 

Like Judge Fiona Maye, Thompson throws everything into her work, and she thrives in her richest role since 2013’s “Saving Mr. Banks”.   Thompson’s Fiona gladly welcomes her career’s forceful weight, but due to the affecting sways within the legal world, she has to keep her feelings in check while in court.  This practice spills into her home as well, as she shuts down emotionally 24/7, which leaves Jack in a romantic lurch.

 

Many of the movie’s best moments are the frequent and frank exchanges between Fiona and Jack, and unless their wounded marriage takes a dramatic course-correction, the consequences will prove severe and swift.  Even though Fiona’s job comes with massive responsibilities, Eyre and McEwan furnish equal weight to the couple’s relationship.  Jack frequently offers pragmatism to appeal to her sensibilities, but nether logic or sentiment can easily crack Fiona’s shell. 

 

Their marriage seems worth saving, and Thompson’s and Tucci’s combined wealth of thespian know-how, almost saves the “The Children Act”, but not quite.  Then again, maybe leave the children at home on a lazy Saturday and treat yourself to Thompson’s best work in five years. 

(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.

 

 

Colette - Movie Review by Ben Cahlamer

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Colette

 

Directed by Wash Westmoreland

Written by Wash Westmoreland, Rebecca Lenkiewicz and Richard Glatzer

Starring Keira Knightley, Dominic West, Eleanor Tomlinson, Denise Gough

 

Oppressed voices, no matter what time we live in, have been a part of our global history. No oppressed voice has been more expressed than that of the voice of women, or lack thereof. Seen as inferior to men, incapable of much and maligned except for wily pleasures of the body, women have been painted in such a way that their struggle to rise above oppression is near difficult.

It’s a man’s world, of course.

Don’t tell that to Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, or Colette as she simply was known. A French novelist who was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1948, her best known work is the novella “Gigi,” the 1958 Audrey Hepburn film.

Keira Knightley stars as the scintillating Colette, a firecracker if there ever was one. Knightley’s composed performance is more about dignity than any other virtue. Yet underneath that composed complexion is a woman waiting for her voice to be heard.

Before the modern, pioneering works found their way into the hands of the masses, Colette, who dreamed of living in the Burgundy countryside and was as audacious as her name suggests married Henry Gauthier – Villars (Dominic West), a publisher and author in his own right.

Villars, a womanizer and a Romeo at the same time (isn’t that a paradox?) adored Colette, but needed a steady stream of income to keep his debtors at bay.  To that end, he coaxed a series of stories out of her, but in his name, the thought being that no one would buy a book with a woman’s name as author.

The books, featuring the character of Claudine, based on her own real-life stories were swept up very quickly by unsuspecting men, and by women who realized that there was someone who had spoken to them; a very relatable character.

Out director Westmoreland (“Still Alice”) is the perfect choice to have taken on this story. Not only does it put modern social issues in the limelight, but for a period piece, it does not shirk or dismiss them so easily. Knightley is, as I mentioned a composed firecracker whose beauty is as stunning as her actions. She and Dominic West light up the screen together.

However, it is when Knightley is with Mathilde de Morny, or Missy played by Denise Gough when the character of Colette blossoms. Westmoreland emphasizes this aspect of Colette and Knightley embraces it. Villars doesn’t mind the interludes, and in fact encourages it.

Giles Nuttgens’ cinematography captures the essence of the period as well as the romantic nature of Paris. There is a cloud that hangs over certain interior set pieces, dampening the mood especially as it relates to Villars’s financial struggles. The exterior shots and those featuring Knightley are profoundly beautiful.

“Colette” is a strong companion piece to Bjorn Runge’s “The Wife” and Knightley is as strong as Glenn Close was though they are not the same character, their struggles were the same.

It is coincidental that I am writing this review and that this film is seeing its release this weekend with the events in the U.S. Congress and the inquiry into Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanugh. No matter which era we live in, women still fight hard to make their voices heard, something that should not be a social issue today. Films like “Colette” give strength to that fight.

3.75 out of 4

Smallfoot - Movie Review by Ben Cahlamer

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Smallfoot

 

Directed by Karey Kirkpatrick

Screenplay by Karey Kirkpatrick and Clare Sera

Story by John Requa, Glenn Ficarra and Karey Kirkpatrick based on ‘Yeti Tracks’ by Sergio Pablos

Featuring the Voice Talents of Channing Tatum, James Corden, Zendaya, Common, LeBron James, Danny DeVito, Gina Rodriguez

 

There is always a danger that when a trailer for a movie gets us excited for a movie, that the movie lives up to the trailer. In our era of immediacy, far too often trailers disappoint or worse, over promise and under deliver, or vice versa. As a critic, I avoid them, wanting to go into a film without too much influence.

What does this have to do with Karey Kirkpatrick’s animated film, “Smallfoot”?

Well, not a great deal, but it was an interesting experiment in how many of you are paying attention to my every word. That’s important because our central characters in the film, Channing Tatum’s Migo and James Corden’s Percy Patterson need their respective camps to focus on their words, trying to convince them of something that others will never believe.

In an interesting twist, Migo, a Yeti is bound by the traditions of his heritage. He has a father, Dorgie (Danny DeVito) who is training him for a most important job, that of the town crier. No, he’s not sad! Migo is a scientist, who remains skeptical of the stones that rule the yeti society as administered by Stonekeeper (Common), and believes in something more than the community they’ve formed and the stones that govern them.

On the flip side, there is Percy Patterson, a TV personality who has lost his way, and his all-important viewers. He’s looking for the big break like Migo, but is left to do parlour tricks to make his point and when they run into each other, havoc ensues.

The animation is absolutely first rate as Sony Image Works’ magicians moved mountains and snow to within an nth of each pixel. Karey Kirkpatrick’s (“Chicken Run,” “Over the Hedge”) script brings a number of social issues and fears into the animated realm as one society nearly implodes and another nearly explodes. Its this duality in the two worlds and the script flipping of an old tale that makes the film work, even if some of the themes and messages felt shoehorned in; they are still relevant as ever to the times we live in.

The characters are where Kirkpatrick and the voice cast shine. Channing Tatum authoritative, yet playful voice gives imagination and a vibrancy to Migo. He isn’t clueless, but he knows he needs help, too. Corden on the other hand is witty and cocksure, something that works against him time and again, until he gets a grip on his new reality. Zendaya’s lyrical voice is sophisticated and direct, giving the character of Meechee a strength needed to glue the story together. Common as the Stonekeeper is the voice of many, much like Mufasa in “The Lion King”: soothing and reassuring and commanding when necessary.

LeBron James as Gwangi and Jimmy Tatro as Thorp, were probably my favorite secondary characters; they give the humor gravitas and credence in the story. Yet, Danny DeVito’s Dorgie is the heart and soul of the film a literal “roosting hen”. Heitor Perira’s (“Despicable Me”) score is sublime.

Kids will love the animation and appreciate the message; adults can learn a thing or two from these melding of societies. “Smallfoot” isn’t perfect, but no society ever is, even if Channing Tatum sings a song called “Perfection.”

2.75 out of 4

Best of Toronto International Film Festival: Part Two by Jeff Mitchell

Best of TIFF 2018 – Part Two

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The 2018 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) concluded on Sept. 16, and this wonderful celluloid-feast offered hundreds of movies over 11 days.  I caught 36 during my trip and wrote a “Best of Toronto International Film Festival: Part One” article (published on Sept. 14), which included five films. 

 

Here are five more great films from this year’s TIFF, and one of these movies will also screen at the 2018 Peoria Film Fest (which runs from Oct. 19 to 21).  Pretty cool!  Please read the article to discover which film. 

 

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“Green Book” – Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali should receive Golden Globe Best Actor - Musical/Comedy nominations, and director Peter Farrelly’s movie ought to earn a Best Picture - Musical/Comedy nod as well in this crowd-pleasing road trip, buddy movie set in 1962.  Based on actual events, renowned concert pianist Dr. Don Shirley (Ali) hires an uncultured bouncer Tony Lip (Mortensen) as his driver for a musical tour through the Midwest and South.  The segregated South presents an uncomfortable backdrop for the audience and the leads, but Tony and “Doc” regularly improve our moods as their opposite outlooks comedically clash.  Mortensen has never been funnier on the big screen, and Ali is out of this world on the piano in Farrelly’s 2018 TIFF Audience Award Winner.

 

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“Meeting Gorbachev” –  Nobel Peace Prize winner President Mikhail Gorbachev introduced democratic reforms that dissolved the Soviet Union and ended the Cold War in the late 80’s and early 90’s, but this vastly important figure of the 20th century has been largely overlooked in 2018.  Not by directors Andre Singer and Werner Herzog!  They uncover precious, rare footage of Soviet imagery and Gorbachev’s life, and Herzog interviews the 87-year-old former Soviet leader in an absorbing documentary that captures a holistic picture of the man.  Gorbachev reveals his actions, motivations and feelings, and the associated archived video clips deliver an eye-opening history lesson.  Meanwhile, Herzog offers his celebrated voice and perspectives throughout the 90-minute runtime, which again proves that Morgan Freeman and he should narrate everything.

 

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“Rojo” – This TIFF Platform Prize nominee tenders a mysterious slow burn, as Claudio (Dario Grandinetti) feels the heat that interrupts his previously-pleasant life.  You see, this content lawyer and a happily married man unfortunately engages in a lengthy, uncomfortable verbal altercation with a cantankerous jerk (Diego Cremonesi), which results in Claudio bearing unexpected repercussions and unspoken paranoia.  Set in 1970’s Argentina, writer/director Benjamin Naishtat and his team perfectly capture the fashion and backdrops of the era and sometimes feature a yellowish-cloudy tinge during the film’s step into noir.  Supporting performers Alfredo Castro and Cremonesi add thick intrigue and danger, respectively, to a story that includes some shades of Tarantino and Hitchcock, but Naishtat drives the narrative with his own beats.

 

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“Roma” – Writer/director Alfonso Cuaron (“Y Tu Mama Tambien” (2001), “Children of Men” (2006), “Gravity” (2013)) constructs a visual masterpiece – filmed in black and white - about an ordinary housekeeper Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) living in Mexico City.  In most cases, Cleo’s employers – a family of five - treat her respectfully, but she endures occasional dismissiveness, and her boyfriend spews outright vicious verbal abuse.  Although Cleo casually searches for her voice, she is a woman of few words, but Cuaron surrounds her with wondrous, mammoth set pieces and sweeping camerawork that instantly and repeatedly earn gasps, disbelief and praise.  “Roma” won the top prize at the 2018 Venice Film Festival, and it is destined for a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar nomination.  This movie is a stunner!

 

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“Woman at War” – Halla (Halldora Geirharosdottir) is a woman at war, but not with a country or a military force.  She confronts global warming by cutting off electricity to a local smelting plant.  A kindhearted choir teacher in her spare time, this eco-terrorist also carries no shortage of determination in a quirky and highly-pleasing action film.  Director Benedikt Erlingsson takes glorious advantage of Iceland’s otherworldly beauty, as Halla routinely plays cat and mouse with the police, who are desperately trying to apprehend this unknown threat.  Jumping between stressful chases and oddball comedy, Geirharosdottir and Erlingsson fill the screen with surprises, including musicians and singers who regularly pop into the frame.  Well, the 2018 Peoria Film Fest took notice and will feature “Woman at War” during its inaugural Oct. 19 – 21 festival!

 

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.

 

 

 

Assassination Nation - Movie Review by Monte Yazzie

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Assassination Nation

 

Director: Sam Levinson

Starring: Odessa Young, Hari Nef, Suki Waterhouse, Abra, Colman Domingo, Bill Skarsgård, Bella Thorne, Maude Apatow, and Joel McHale

 

French New Wave auteur Jean-Luc Godard is often attributed with the phrase “all you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun”. This simplistic narrative design has been exploited throughout film history, applying it to numerous genres yet often keeping the two motivating factors of a girl and a gun separated. However, in today’s social climate, a better comment might be “all you need to make a movie is a girl WITH a gun”.

 

Director Sam Levinson takes the topic of “a girl with a gun” and amplifies everything up to eleven, making a hyper-stylized film about four girls who live an indulgent, manipulated, and exploited existence in a town filled with people who exude the worst qualities found in society today; entitlement, bullying, vanity, violence, racism, and all manner of phobias involving femininity. “Assassination Nation” is aiming for the target of empowerment and social consciousness but often misses the mark entirely.

 

Lily (Odessa Young), Bex (Hari New), Sarah (Suki Waterhouse) and Em (Abra) are a fearless feminist foursome of young ladies trying to survive the woes of high school. When a hacker starts revealing all the secrets of people around the town of Salem, things go from already worse to some kind of chaotic nightmare where the young ladies must fight and kill for their lives.

 

The film, with its neon lighting effects and split screen photography, is operating to do so much within its purposefully frantic pacing that it is often tonally unaware of what it is trying to accomplish. While it seems to understand the current cultural climate, with its thematic focus on the degradation and disrespect of women of all ages, the filmmaking is so uneven that it never completely grasps this purpose in meaningful ways. Instead we are provided with shocking violence and leering camera angles set against music video style motifs and slow-motion photography. While in moments it offers interesting frames, like a home invasion scene that pulls and pushes around and through the landscape of the home in ingenious ways, it mostly feels like an exercise in gratuity without the purpose to make it have thoughtful impact.

 

The film does boast some great performances from the leads, especially from Odessa Young who turns in a star making role as Lily. Her coolness amidst the youth and disillusionment with the world around her are fascinating to watch as life is thrown from bad to worse. Comedian Joel McHale also provides an interesting performance as a hate filled, misogynistic man who has an unhealthy relationship with Lily.

 

“Assassination Nation” can be a difficult and infuriating experience at times, it seems to be its primary purpose as the film descends into madness with an unsettling final act that unleashes all the terrible societal characteristics one might encounter if they asked their social media platform questions about religion or politics. “Assassination Nation” feels influenced by films like Larry Clark’s “Kids” or Catherine Hardwicke’s “Thirteen”, but it doesn’t have the tact or insight found in those films. Instead, it has style and flair that is flashy and enticing, wielding narrative haymakers in hopes of hitting a mark. It’s unfortunate that the interesting ideas it proposes about youth, feminism, sexuality, and identity in a social media driven world aren’t better corresponded.

 

Monte’s Rating

2.00 out of 5.00

 

Love, Gilda - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

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‘Love, Gilda’ offers plenty of reasons to remember and love Gilda

 

Directed by:  Lisa Dapolito

Starring:  Gilda Radner, Amy Poehler, Laraine Newman, Maya Rudoph, Melissa McCarthy, Martin Short, Bill Hader, Chevy Chase, and Alan Zweibel

 

“Love, Gilda” - “Because I’m not a perfect example of my gender, I decided to be funny about what I didn’t have instead of worrying about it.” – Gilda Radner

 

Gilda Radner, the very first cast member selected for “NBC’s Saturday Night”, did not always have it all, but she certainly garnered the adoration of millions and shot up to superstardom as one of three female Not Ready for Prime Time Players in 1975, along with Jane Curtin and Laraine Newman.  Martin Short affectionately remarks that Radner always lit up a room, and she set this television show on fire with positive and physical comedic energy, a big smile and a collection of hilarious characters like Roseanne Roseannadanna, Emily Litella and her hilarious impression of Barbara Walters, aka Baba Wawa.

 

Director Lisa Dapolito’s documentary “Love, Gilda” leaves a warm impression and ignites fond, forgotten memories of Radner that will rush back and lift the corners of your mouth.

 

“It’s always something.” – Roseanne Roseannadanna

 

Actually, it’s always someone in “Love, Gilda”, as influential comediennes and comedians – like Amy Poehler, Melissa McCarthy, Bill Hader, and more – read from Radner’s own notes and/or diary.  They – along with Radner herself – narrate the film, as archive footage - from her childhood, teenage years and “NBC’s Saturday Night”/”Saturday Night Live” - rolls on the screen.  Many times, it is difficult to distinguish the actual person recounting Radner’s life at a given moment, but each voice offers kind vibes, and the said television and movie stars bestow their admiration.

 

“Oh…well that’s very different.  Never mind.” – Emily Litella

 

In one way, Radner took a different journey to television, and in another, she forged a typical path.  Dapolito chronicles Radner’s reasons for moving to Ontario (which will not be revealed in this review), but while in Toronto, her trek to “NBC’s Saturday Night” becomes clear.  She joined Toronto’s “Godspell” comedy troupe in the early 70’s, moved on to “Second City”, and John Belushi asked her to join “National Lampoon’s Radio Hour” as the sole “girl in the show.”  

 

TV soon followed in 1975, but Radner wasn’t the first female comedian to strike gold on the small screen.  Lucille Ball paved the way with “I Love Lucy”, and Carol Burnett starred in her own hit “The Carol Burnett Show” from 1967 to 1978, so the landscape had room for more comediennes.  “NBC’s Saturday Night” found an edgy, fresh niche, and Radner clearly was its biggest female star.  How big?  The film identifies the exact moment that Radner, Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Belushi, and others realized their massive influential reach with an enthusiastic American public.  Like most TV and movie stars, rising to the top and eventually falling (gently or rapidly) is not free from controversy and/or heartache, and Radner was no exception.

 

“This is Baba Wawa.” – Baba Wawa

 

Radner and close friends report and disclose her insecurities that eroded her happiness.  Thankfully, these demons did not dramatically grind down her joy, but like every human being, Radner carried self-doubts.  In fact, due to one of her specific patterns, she surprisingly avoided the big screen smash “Ghostbusters” (1984) for – again - reasons that will not be revealed in this review.

 

A quick glance on Google - for those who are not aware – will reveal that Radner was taken from us much too soon, but the documentary treats those times with grace and illustrates thoughtful, enlightening moments.  Told in linear fashion from beginning to end, “Love, Gilda” completely works as a heartfelt tribute to a bright star who recognized her faults but always lit up a room and our television sets.  For those precious on-screen moments, Gilda Radner perfectly delivered laughter and wrapped her gift with wonder.

(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.

Fahrenheit 11/9 - Movie Review by Ben Cahlamer

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Fahrenheit 11/9

 

Written and Directed by Michael Moore

 

“One of the penalties of refusing to participate in politics is that you end up being governed by your inferiors.” ~ Plato

In spite of being very familiar with his rhetoric, I have somehow managed to miss seeing Michael Moore’s documentaries. My avoidance has nothing to do with what he represents but rather a lack of desire to see documentaries until recently.

In his latest documentary, “Fahrenheit 11/9,” Moore explores what led to the election of the 45th President of the United States, billionaire executive Donald J. Trump. As the film opens, Moore focuses on elated Hillary Clinton supporters where, on November the 8th, she was projected to win the election by a wide margin: the people wanted to stay the course laid out by President Obama over the prior eight years.

In a moment of irony, Clinton’s celebration was hosted in a building made of glass, to represent her breaking through the glass ceiling.

Then the unthinkable happened: Trump won the election.

Through the culled footage, Moore locked in on the despondent and defeated faces of supporters, who thought that they had a win in hand. Yet, Moore had projected and even warned that Trump was going to win the office of the highest land, and when you think about his reasons, he was right.

I grew up in one of the rust belt states, Wisconsin where we did indeed elect a Republican governor every year that I was alive. And as I grew up, more and more manufacturing left the state, the lifeblood of it at one time. Moore focused his rust belt ideology on the Flint, Michigan debacle and how the ‘good ole boy’ mentality led to the governor, someone who had never run for office previously, engineered the problem so that he could essentially declare martial law.

Something of interest though was how he focused on Obama’s visit to the region before he left office, specifically a stunt involving his need for a glass of water. His staff pleaded with him to drink from a plastic bottle, but he refused, taking a perfunctory sip from a glass of Flint water. The citizens, who believed that Obama was going to bring the resources of the federal government to bear on the problem, instead left them stranded.

Trump swooped in, promising to Make America Great Again and built on the need of the region’s disenfranchised population.

He next focused on the Democratic National Convention where Independent candidate, turned Democrat Bernie Sanders went against the odds to try to win the party’s nomination. Moore showed examples of where the DNC outright lied, forcing his hand. Friends for Bernie turned into Friends for Hillary.

Citizens wanted change, and they believed (and he could have) led them to victory, if he had been given a fair chance.

Wait!  Don’t we have a two-party system in this country, asks an incredulous Moore. We do, but that assumption rests on the fact that neither party is what it once started out as. So, why then, did the DNC force Hillary in to spotlight, someone whom a number of voters simply didn’t trust?

In essence, the DNC has become as complacent and complicit as the GOP. They have sought the same special interest monies and support from big corporations and media companies. Moore even included Les Moonves’ commentary on why Trump was good for the election cycle, saying, “He might not be good for America, but he’s damn good for CBS.”

That’s the real foundation for Moore’s argument, something that I think he was successful in conveying even if he went off the rails getting us there: Trump won because he was able to better leverage his media presence. He won over states, populous states where Hillary’s team told her not to even go, saying that she’s got a lock on them.

The popular vote had Hillary’s win in the bag, but the Electoral College is ultimately the deciding factor. Someone was ready for change that infamous night, no matter how the popular vote swung.

Change is good, though.

One of the many unintended benefits of Trump’s win is how frustrated teachers in West Virginia decided to stand up for a pay increase and better health insurance. Their movement spread to other states, including Arizona’s Red For Ed.

Another example was of ordinary citizens who are so incensed by the political stalemate, standing up and running for office, a grassroots effort and so far in smaller, state offices, there has been change.

Finally, Moore focuses on the future with student uprisings following the Parkland, Florida student shooting. The suspect’s cell phone video warning that this was coming was included as well; it was chilling knowing that this was going to happen. In another example of change, the student survivors went to Washington to challenge lawmakers, but not before confronting Florida’s lawmakers.

One of Michael Moore’s many moving themes in “Fahrenheit 11/9” is that Trump’s win and Hillary’s loss was born of political compromise and a dictatorial regime that continues to be slowly unfolding in front of all of us. They were not the catalysts for our current situation, but they are the byproducts of complacency, corruption and ineptness.

His message is clear: no matter which side of the aisle you sit on, change is our fundamental responsibility and now, it turns out, our necessity. How will you rise to the challenge?

3 out of 4

Life Itself - Movie Review by Ben Cahlamer

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Life Itself

 

Written and Directed by Dan Fogelman

Starring Oscar Isaac, Olivia Wilde, Mandy Patinkin, Olivia Cooke, Laia Costa, Annette Bening, Antonio Banderas

 

Life has a funny way of finding connections when we least expect it. We never look for said connections and they are so random that unless we’re aware of every single moment that happens in our lives, we will pass unaware of said connection.

This is why I’m having difficulty accepting the messy connections formed in Dan Fogelman’s “Life Itself.” The real-world scenarios presented in each of our character’s lives are so disparately connected that they border incredulity. Almost.

Why “almost,” Ben?

It is because of the way Fogelman starts his story. Any film with a dramatic-action voice over by Samuel L. Jackson is looking to make an emphatic entrance. Perhaps it’s the intent of the scene, and the drama that unfolds not only in front of our eyes, but in front of Will’s (Oscar Isaac) eyes.

Will is aflutter with his wife, Abby (Olivia Wilde). They have the type of relationship that exists in fairy tales, when she is tragically struck down. Will is so stricken with grief that he goes mental. And this is where we find ourselves: his road to recovery. Annette Bening plays his psychiatrist, Dr. Cait Morris who tries to help him recover.

Through flashbacks, Fogelman explores Abby and Will’s relationship as well as the birth of their daughter, Dylan (Olivia Cooke) who is a tormented soul looking for her place in the universe. The same day as the tragedy affected Will and Abby, Rodrigo witnesses the accident and his life in Spain is never the same.

In a parallel story, Fogelman takes us back to what brought Rodrigo to that point, growing up with his loving parents Javier and Elena as tragedy strikes their family. Through the support of a wealthy landowner, Mr Saccione (Antonio Banderas), they are able to get Rodrigo the help he needs, eventually reconnecting him with his past.

I don’t find the intersecting lives bit paradoxical in the slightest. As I stated at the beginning of this review, we never know when our lives will have touched one another. The trouble that I’m having is that the story starts out with such a dramatic bang that by the time we get to the end, we’re so emotionally exhausted from all the to’s and fro’s of each characters part in the story that we have to ask ourselves, “why was this journey so important?”

The more compelling tragedy is that the storytelling is so disjointed that the characters ultimately didn’t matter. Just as with David Frankel’s “Collateral Beauty,” it wasn’t so much that we were watching the  character’s reactions to the tragedies that befell them, but we were witnessing events. Where “Collateral Beauty” was a bit more successful because its timeline didn’t veer too wildly like Fogelman’s did, Fogelman’s characters are admittedly stronger, which should make their journey’s more compelling.

Perhaps that is Fogelman’s point.

While we never know the impact we will have on someone else’s life, life itself brings us together, conveniently packaged in a two-hour film.

1.75 out of 4

The Predator - Movie Review by Monte Yazzie

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The Predator

 

Director: Shane Black

Starring: Boyd Holbrook, Trevante Rhodes, Olivia Munn, Keegan-Michael Key, Sterling K. Brown, Thomas Jane, Alfie Allen, Augusto Aguilera, Jake Busey, and Jacob Tremblay

 

Make a list of the action film staples of the 1980’s and it won’t take long to arrive at director John McTiernan’s science fiction adventure movie “Predator” starring Arnold Schwarzenegger.  It’s a highlight in the explosive catalog of Schwarzenegger who is partly responsible for influencing the prototype for the modern action film that audiences are familiar with.

 

Shane Black, the writer behind the “Lethal Weapon” franchise and most recently “The Nice Guys”, returns to the franchise he had an early acting role in back in 1987. However, this time Mr. Black is the director of “The Predator”, an entertaining, overstuffed, and brainless film determined to achieve the highest amount of fan service possible.

 

A military operation involving a drug cartel in Mexico is disrupted by a crashing unidentified flying object. The cartel members and military soldiers are slaughtered brutally by a cloaking alien hunter. A sniper named Quinn McKenna (Boyd Holbrook) is the only survivor of the attack. Before a group of scientists from a program called Stargazer can assess the scene, McKenna takes the mask and a weapon off the Predator and sends it away for evidence of the encounter. McKenna is eventually arrested and interrogated; he is placed in custody with a ragtag group of military soldiers who are forced into action when the Predator escapes.

 

Shane Black is a talented writer who imbues his scripts with humor, quirk, and interesting characters. “The Predator” thrives on these qualities throughout the film. It emulates the catchy team aspect from the original film with a group of military tough guys but here adding some genuinely funny moments from the cast and a female character played by Olivia Munn who can hold her own just fine amidst all the testosterone. In the first major action scene in the film Mr. Black pitch perfectly catches the tone of the original films.

 

Replacing Arnold Schwarzenegger is actor Boyd Holbrook who, minus the muscles and accent, does a decent job of playing the hero here. Olivia Munn is provided a thankless role, though it does offer a few moments for her to flex her toughness. The standout performances belong to Keegan-Michael Key and Trevante Rhodes who banter and bicker with a mile-a-minute tempo that simply provokes some of the best laughs of the film.

 

There are some really fun moments and setups throughout, like when the film blatantly salutes the first two films with a series of clever one-liners and when the Predator is simply left to unleash chaotic attacks. Unfortunately, “The Predator” feels lopsided as it tries t0 balance too many things. The mix of humor and action works in some aspects and in other places it feels out of place. The narrative introduces a few interesting choices connected to the mythology of the otherworldly sport hunters but it also feels stuffed with ideas that never payoff the way they should. You can feel the film working every angle for a sequel.

 

Amidst all that is going on with Predator dogs, a character with Tourette’s Syndrome (Thomas Jane), biological modification, a genius young boy (Jacob Tremblay), and Sterling K. Brown playing a scientist with more swagger and coolness than he should have, “The Predator” is definitely a messy premise but thrives to provide entertainment and action first and foremost.

 

Monte’s Rating

3.00 out of 5.00