Wonder Woman - Movie Review by Kaley Monahan

‘Wonder Woman’ redefines the superhero genre

By Kaely Monahan


It's been over a year of anxious anticipation for DC’s Wonder Woman. Fans of the heroine and the DC universe have prayed, “Please be good!” And begged, “Please don’t ruin it!” The small taste of Princess Diana was the only redeeming bit in last year’s “Batman V Superman.” And it only whet audience's appetites. So, the question is: Is Wonder Woman good?

The answer is no.

It’s fantastic!

It is the DC film fans have been hoping for. And it is the best superhero film in a generation.

Director Patty Jenkins clearly knew what she was doing. With only some TV credits, movie shorts, and one feature film under her belt, Jenkins isn’t the Hollywood giant you would expect to helm this movie. But the lack of credits certainly does not mean a lack of talent. Her eye for direction, action, and emotion drives the story.

Wonder Woman tells the origins of Princess Diana of the Amazons. For those of you who are comic book buffs, you’ll see that her story has been reinvented yet again. Diana’s story has evolved a lot since her first inception in the 1940s. Far from the star-spangled Lynda Carter version, Gal Gadot’s version draws heavily from Greek and Roman imagery and mythology. With plenty of references to "the gods" and the legendary Amazons of myth, this version of Wonder Woman is less the patriotic manifestation of the ideal female, and more the hero the world needs now. 

Fierce and independent, Gadot’s Diana is equal parts unbridled goddess and naïve "alien" who's hope is inspiring--if not exasperating for her sidekick. (At least at first.) Having been raised and sheltered for an untold number of years on the mythic paradise island of Themyscira, Diana has been honed into the ultimate weapon.

Paradise is interrupted when WWI spy and fighter pilot, Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) crashes near the island. His arrival sets into motion, Diana’s quest to destroy the God of War, Ares.

Gal Gadot is a powerhouse, energizing the screen with merely a look. She fully captures the innocence and grace that the sheltered heroine should have. At the same time, she leaves no doubt in your mind that she is all powerful. The god-like power is felt even when Diana runs about undercover in the streets of London or backwoods of Europe. If there are any doubts in Hollywood’s mind that an “unknown” can carry a franchise, Gadot dispels it. If anything audiences are thirsting for new faces. It was more exciting to see a foreign actress play the legendary heroine than a familiar Hollywood face. And the fact that Gadot is also from the Middle East—Israel—is a huge win for minority actors everywhere.

Megastar, Chris Pine, managed to be the perfect reflector for Gadot. His jaded, yet determined Steve Trevor, highlights Diana’s goodness and sense of justice. In a way, he refines it. As Diana is confronted with the duality of mankind’s nature he manages to pull her back, convince her that saving even just a few lives matters.

Of course, this wouldn’t be a superhero movie without epic battle scenes, and Wonder Woman also delivers. The spine-tingling power walk into no-man’s land, as briefly seen in the trailers, is only bested by the final battle between Diana and Ares. There’s enough slo-mo punches sprinkled with accelerated kung-fu moves to keep you wanting more.

To that point, many of the Amazon warriors are athletes and even law enforcement in real life. (Can this film get any cooler?) And if you’ve ever wanted to see what a battle between a Roman cavalry against modern war engines would look like, then the opening battle between the Amazons and Germans will satisfy all your nerdy history mash-up dreams. 

Many of the fight scenes look like they were lifted straight from the comics, much like in movie 300 there’s liberal use of CGI. But unlike that mess of a film, Wonder Woman manages to use it with care and skill.

The epic “Wonder Woman” theme by Hans Zimmer and Junkie XL is retained, but the rest of the soundtrack, written by Rupert Gregson-Williams will grab you by the throat and won’t let you go. Half of any action film is its music and the soaring epic music is the perfect soundtrack both on screen and in the car. Or on your phone. Or blast throughout your house. 

The DC film franchise has been gasping for a win ever since Man of Steel. Batman v Superman was all over the place and barely earned audience's regard. The quirky Suicide Squad had fans hopeful but it didn't quite hit the mark. If anything, DC's hopes must have been pinned on Wonder Woman. And they finally won one.

Wonder Woman is everything we hoped it would be. The next question I have for DC is, "When's Wonder Woman 2 happening?"


• Kaely Monahan is a journalist, graduate of City University London and the creator of Popcorn Fan Film Reviews. Follow her @PopcornFans and @KaelyMonahan.



Wonder Woman - Movie Review by Monte Yazzie

Wonder Woman


Director: Patty Jenkins

Starring: Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Robin Wright, Connie Nielsen, Danny Huston, David Thewlis, Said Taghmaoui, Ewen Brenner, Elena Anaya, and Eugene Brave Rock



While walking into the anticipated screening of director Patty Jenkins' film "Wonder Woman", two women were walking a few steps in front of me and one of them proudly said, "We finally have a superhero we can call our own". It's a pertinent comment because this "Wonder Woman" film is a huge step in the right direction for female fronted superhero films but also the DC Extended Universe, which has seen a string of disappointing superhero/antihero films with "Batman v. Superman" and "Suicide Squad".


When looking at the history of superhero/comic book films it provides an even greater depth to the comment made by two women walking into a predominantly male driven character genre of film. And when you look at the comic book films that promote a female lead, the results are less than favorable. DC Comics "Supergirl" was released in 1984 and starred Helen Slater, Peter O'Toole, and Faye Dunaway. The film was poorly received and felt like a cheap jumpstart for Christopher Reeves' "Superman" franchise which by this time was basically defunct. Marvel's "Elektra" which starred Jennifer Garner at the height of popularity suffered from poorly designed characters and storylines. "Catwoman" starring Halle Berry was a complete mess of a film that ignored much of what turned this character into an interesting hero, though the character was originally a villain. The best example of a female focused comic book film is probably the cult classic "Tank Girl" or the fantastic graphic novel "Ghost World", but both of these films venture far from the realms of the superhero mythos.


Fortunately, Ms. Jenkins has crafted a much better film than the ones just mentioned; "Wonder Woman" focuses on creating a good origin story for the character, something other films in the DC Extended Universe have struggled with. It also does a great job of separating this character from the others around her, primarily separating a woman from a bunch of men, and letting Wonder Woman discover her own path to heroism.


The film introduces Diana (Gal Gadot) as a fearless child eager to take on the attributes of the Amazon warriors around her, a population of women living on an island in the Mediterranean that is shrouded by magic. Diana's mother Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) wants a daughter who minds her royal upbringing while her aunt Antiope (Robin Wright) secretly trains Diana in the art of combat. As Diana matures into a woman it's easy to see she is unlike others living on the island. When a World War I fighter plane bursts through the clouds Diana is forced to save a drowning pilot named Steve Trevor (Chris Pine). But Steve isn't alone, he was being chased by enemies who invade the world of the Amazons; this pushes Diana into the world of men in an effort to end a war.


The script is written by Allan Heinberg who works to take the familiar troupes of the superhero genre and infuse it with a story of woman born with exceptional abilities. Instead of taking the journey of other heroes, where powers are received by some kind of accident or experiment gone awry, Diana simply is born into great power. From here the film has the character make the choice to intervene, make the choice to do what others say is impossible and attempt to make a difference in a world near the end of the Great War. Along the way the film provides more interesting character dynamics, one specifically placing Diana into the middle of world she knows nothing about. It's a "fish out of a water" moment that is pretty funny but it is also used to introduce Diana to the faults of the world, specifically the struggles of humanity. Another is playing with the issue of saving lives and taking lives, a problem that has plagued comic book heroes and recently brought complaints against Superman due to the ending of "Man of Steel". Diana's goal is to bring peace by any means necessary, this includes the death of lots of people. The film handles this aspect without over emphasizing the gratuitous nature of the violence.


Along for the journey with Diana is a group of men, Steve Trevor continues on the mission but adds a Scottish sharpshooter (Ewan Brenner), an Indian fast talker (Said Taghmaoui), and a Native American scout (Eugene Brave Rock). These characters play an important role individually, but the film never moves away from the emphasis on Diana. In fact, they actually play very good supporting characters that assist in making Diana understand why humanity is worth saving instead of taking control over the heroics in the film. The big superhero moments are all reserved for Wonder Woman.


Gal Gadot plays Diana exceptionally well, she has the charm and attitude to give her character immediate screen presence. Chris Pine is also good, the moments the actor has with Ms. Gadot create great chemistry for the pair with scenes that are both flirtatious and funny. Also making appearances here are Danny Huston who plays a villainous German army leader and Elena Anaya who plays the appropriately named Dr. Poison. As bad guys these characters are space fillers, a necessary evil for good to triumph over. They are never provided much opportunity to threaten Diana or her abilities, which in turn leads to an eventual encounter that holds no risk. It's a problem that plagues superhero origin stories, mainly that it is difficult to find time to compose a equally interesting villain to engage the hero.


Unfortunately the momentum isn't kept up all the way through, the third act of the film resembles every boring comic book movie finale that has come before it. CGI bad guy flying here, throwing somewhere over there, and blasting lightening bolts in all directions.  There is nothing interesting about it, nothing that displays the lessons learned on the journey made. Instead it's just there to fill time until the ending.


While the finale may end on a lackluster note, the beginning and middle parts of the film are well executed with the appealing mix of humor, heart, and spectacle. Gal Gadot completely owns the film with a great supporting group of actors to fill in the spaces around her. "Wonder Women" is the best film the DC Extended Universe has to offer so far.



Monte's Rating

3.50 out of 5.00

Churchill - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

Brian Cox transforms into ‘Churchill’ in this good, conversational biopic


Directed by:  Jonathan Teplitzky

Written by:  Alex von Tunzelmann

Starring:  Brian Cox, Miranda Richardson, John Slattery, Julian Wadham, and James Purefoy


“Churchill” – Steven Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan” (1998) reverberates in the halls of cinematic history as one of the greatest war films ever made.   It effectively pays homage to soldiers - any soldiers – who risk their lives on the battlefield through the personal story of Capt. John Miller (Tom Hanks).  Capt. Miller’s journey to bring Pvt. James Ryan (Matt Damon) home from the war is the true soul of the story, but the film is widely-known for its horrifyingly spectacular and technically iconic 23-minute vision of the D-Day invasion in June 1944. With large, menacing spikes littering Omaha Beach, the Allied Forces’ soldiers jump out of countless transport vessels into immediate gunfire, find land, crawl around barbed-wire netting, and attempt to overtake the Germans’ position.  The sheer power of this jaw dropping sequence reminds us of the horrors of war and the bravery of these men. 


“Churchill” is a movie about the D-Day invasion as well and told – obviously - from British Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s perspective.  This is a very different war movie, but the words “personal” and “iconic”, along with the phrase “horrors of war” are completely valid in describing the themes in director Jonathan Teplitzky’s film. 


The setting is 1,736 days into World War II.  Churchill (Brian Cox) and the British people have been living with this conflict for five, long years, but American Gen. Dwight Eisenhower (John Slattery) – the commander of the Allied Forces – is just a few days away from launching Operation Overlord to hopefully overtake the Germans’ occupation.  


Churchill – who has seen bloody, destructive war just 30 years earlier – disagrees with the mission due to the immense risk and opposes Eisenhower, but Senior British Commander Bernard Montgomery (Julian Wadham) sides with Ike.  This leaves Churchill fighting a two-pronged war of his own between Eisenhower/Montgomery and his wife, Clementine (Miranda Richardson), who believes that he is meddling in places that he should not.  In the meantime, he also attempts to convince King George VI (James Purefoy) to call off the invasion or at least change it substantially. 


Churchill is a man of altruistic beliefs – granted, under a curmudgeon’s exterior -  with the best intentions for British men who are “too young to be afraid”, but he is not.  He knows the costs of war, and Teplitzky effectively communicates the ghosts from past conflicts, including an effective dream sequence in which Churchill stands on a British beach and helplessly watches bloody red ocean water roll at his feet.


Cox physically transforms into Churchill from his head to his feet and mesmerizes us in the process.  As the United Kingdom’s beloved leader, he dresses in black with his signature hat and usually stews on a large, fat cigar.  In the film, Cox portrays the man with an extremely strong sense of self and tenacity.  Every word is layered with decades of vast political, military experience, filling every room with gravitas.  Now, Churchill’s health was not grave in 1944, but he is clearly on the decline.  At 69 years-old, he is heavy and balding and in frequent need of a cane and a handy glass of scotch.  The film touches on Churchill’s battle with depression, but only lightly so.  Teplitzky and Cox tread in this space for just a few minutes, but they address it with sincerity and care.  Seventy-three years ago, one wonders how much was known about mental illness, and the film plays within these tones.  


Speaking of tones, the film visually pays strict attention to its color palettes as dream sequences become understandably muted, while car trips to far away meetings feature the beautiful, lush English countryside as a pleasant and striking backdrop.  A few times, Teplitzky pulls his camera back as Churchill, King George, Eisenhower, and others move like chess pieces on swathes of green.  Not surprisingly, a chess match is in play. 


This D-Day film does not drop the audience into action set pieces on a military front or beach, but lives in much smaller worlds where massive decisions are made.  In dimly lit rooms with lingering cigarette smoke, titanic personalities argue and caucus about the potential outcomes of sending 250,000 men to French beaches.  “Churchill” is a heady, conversational drama with one of modern history’s most recognizable heads of state at its center.  Churchill may be the prime minister of an empire in which the sun never sets, but he – surprisingly - does not own the largest influence over Operation Overlord.  Although Cox’s Churchill is determined to find a way, and the film transports us into history to watch how he worked.


In a movie with many intriguing moments, two truly stand out.  One occurs in private, and the other is historically inspirational.  Cox completely connects on both counts (and everywhere else over the 1-hour 38-minute runtime), as the film leaves its cinematic footprint, although much differently than “Saving Private Ryan”.  I would not go as far to say that “Churchill” is a companion piece to Spielberg’s film, but it highlights the man’s presence during the war and his contributions towards peace.     

(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.

Dean - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

Demetri Martin’s ‘Dean’ is hilarious and heartfelt


Written and directed: Demetri Martin

Starring:  Demetri Martin, Kevin Kline, Gillian Jacobs, Mary Steenburgen, and Rory Scovel


“Dean” –  Walking on a beautiful Southern California beach on a bright, sunny day is just about the most wonderful way to spend time.  Sure, Redondo, Manhattan, Santa Monica, and Venice might be crowded with the hustle and bustle of thousands of people with the same therapeutic thoughts of sand and sun, but a stroll on a beach can certainly provide a salutary reprieve from your troubles. 


In a wonderfully comedic visual, we see Dean (Demetri Martin) walking on a long stretch of beach, wearing street clothes and dragging his luggage through the soft powder.  This New York City illustrator flies to Southern California to get away from his anxieties back home, but Dean finds himself trekking on the beach at that particular moment for a very different reason.  He’s taking a risk.  A glorious, love-pursuing risk. 


Martin also took a risk by writing and directing his first feature film, “Dean”, but this stand-up comedian strikes cinematic gold by crafting the best comedy that I have seen so far this year. 


Now, sometimes the best humor stems from a place of tribulation.  In this case, Dean’s mother passed away, and he is coping with her death, trying to wrap his mind around the fact that she is gone.  Looking for solace, he listens to her old voicemails and turns to his father (Kevin Kline) for company and discourse, but he feels a bit betrayed.  His dad, Robert (Kline), is selling the family house, and Dean thinks that part of his mom’s memory will disappear once the house is sold and the closing is finalized. 


He needs to bolt, so this talented - but somewhat directionless - illustrator heads to the left coast to interview for a job and visit some friends.  Wrapped in a speedy runtime of 1 hour 27 minutes, the film features Dean’s awkward journey to hopeful self-discovery through a nearly constant series of hilarious sequences and seemingly hundreds of perfectly-timed moments that only a true comic talent can deliver.


Martin places Dean in the company of Southern California’s absurdities, including a very confusing conversation with an irrational wannabe actress, a run-in with two caffeinated improv actors and a club in which loud industrial beats drown out everything.  With sharp writing and steadfast performances, no false beats can be heard or seen anywhere. 


Dean’s encounters strike our funny bones with pure belly laughs or an intended mix of humor and angst.  This mix comfortably dances in the same ballroom with memorable comedies like “Frances Ha” (2012), “Annie Hall” (1977) and “Superbad” (2007) in which likeable heroes try to navigate in unfamiliar spaces and sometimes make wrong turns.  Martin makes lots of right turns with his pen and paper, as his own drawings make several onscreen appearances to reinforce Dean’s feelings in many, many scenes.


Martin’s drawings almost become another character, and their entrances are repeated welcomes for the audience.  Bear in mind, the movie’s surprises and pleasantries are not all fun and games, because Dean is grappling with the death of his mom, so the artwork and the overall story do move in dark places.  Death seems ever looming in Dean’s mind, so many light moments are sometimes laced with uneasiness or cynicism. 


Then again, that’s human nature and part of the healing process, so the supporting players stand by Dean’s side and challenge him with ample amounts of conversational fodder, including terrific performances by Rory Scovel, Gillian Jacobs and Kline.  Kline’s Robert grapples with current technology, his widower status and Dean’s curious choices, but this dad always emanates from a place of warmth and sincerity.  In a nice subplot, Robert meets a sweet real estate agent (Mary Steenburgen), and their onscreen time really makes you wish that Steenburgen can appear in every movie.  How can we make that happen?


Dean makes a sweet overture of his own after a chance meeting with Nicky (Jacobs), but not without an embarrassing first impression and a clever onscreen drawing.  Lately, Dean’s life has felt like an uphill climb, but to his credit, he is trying to make his own luck.  Now, taking a risk does open up vulnerabilities, where losing becomes a real possibility.  It takes guts and nerve, but if you follow that path, you could find yourself walking with a true purpose on a Southern California beach, looking ahead while trying to leave your troubles behind.

(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.

Interview with Demetri Martin (writer, director and star of "Dean") by Jeff Mitchell

In April, comedian Demetri Martin traveled to the Valley to screen his movie, “Dean”, and he spoke with an enthusiastic and warm Phoenix Film Festival audience.  The evening was a festival highlight, and Demetri also sat down with me that morning to talk about his movie.  “Dean” is a hilarious and heartfelt comedy about a New York City illustrator’s quest to find his footing in California after his mother passes away. 


Demetri not only stars in the title role, but he also wrote and directed the picture as well.  During our enjoyable and insightful discussion, he talks about his career trajectory before comedy, the inclusion of his drawings throughout the film and how the loss of his father inspired “Dean”.


“Dean” also stars Kevin Kline, Mary Steenburgen, Gillian Jacobs, and Rory Scovel, and it arrives in theatres on Friday, June 2. 



PFF:  I loved, loved, loved your artwork, and how you integrated it into the film.  Did you have your drawings already in place and build the script around them, or did you write the script and then create your artwork after the fact?  How did that process work?


DM:  It’s probably a 50/50 split.  Years ago, I started carrying around a notebook more, because I was writing jokes all the time, and I started to just draw in there.  It kind of reignited something.  I liked to draw as a kid, and then, somewhere along the way, I (decided) that I wasn’t great at it - or whatever happened – and just stopped.  Once I started having a notebook and a pen with me, this part of me came back to life, and I drew. 


When it came time to make a movie, I thought because I draw so much in my daily life – and I usually draw before I go to bed, just for fun – it would be cool to make my character an illustrator.  It would be another axis, that I could tell the story.  When I look through my notebooks, it turns out things that I gravitate towards in my drawings were not that different thematically (from the movie). 


I had some (drawings) to start with, and I looked through them and said, “You know what, I do have a lot of drawings about death here.”


These would be useful. 


When we got to the edit, I found that there were places (in the film), where a drawing would actually work really well rhythmically or would be a good transition to the next scene.  So, I found myself - almost commissioning myself - to do drawings for the movie, after I got to the edit.  So, it’s about 50/50. 


PFF:  In the film, Dean’s dad (Kline) is planning on selling his house.  He’s trying to move on after his wife’s passing, and Dean wants to hold on to the house, because it’s his childhood home.  What is Dean trying to emotionally hold onto?    


DM:  Here’s where I probably dip into my own life.  While the movie is all fictional, in my life my father was the parent who died young, when I was 20.  He was only 46.  It was a real shock to our family.  I think what I put into the movie and the character – and this was 20-plus years ago, but what I remember emotionally – was this idea that he was just gone.  It’s just so disruptive (when a parent dies), but yet, their stuff remains.  We had to get rid of (my dad’s) things, and it wasn’t long after my father passed that mom sold our house. 


I didn’t fight that or anything. I had gone to college. I was away, but I remember that feeling.  I wasn’t going to stop my mom.  She needed to move on, but it was weird.  It does feel like an erasure of your past, a very concrete removal of the documentation that this person was there.  So, I thought that was a very real and powerful way to externalize something that would be going on between them.  It’s a very easy battleground to have. 



PFF:  The movie includes a wedding scene, and Dean feels a little out of sorts.  The way that I was looking at it: Dean feels that his life is not together, but his friends have it “all” figured out.   


DM:  Yes, that’s how I was looking at it too.



PFF:  Now, I think that this all changes for him – and his healing process begins - when he sees his friend, Eric (Scovel), in California.  Dean discovers that Eric does not exactly have his life together either.  Was this the spot where the light went on for Dean?


DM:  I tried to write characters beyond myself, including the character that I am playing.  Dean is not me, but, of course, he’s going to be pretty close to me.  He’s definitely within my range as a person, but thinking about other people, not as supporting characters, but as people with their own stories, hopefully dimensional people. 


When I got to Eric, (I thought) what’s his story?  On the surface, Eric is one of these pickup artists.  It’s interesting to me, because we all know (a guy) like that, who is going to figure out how to get some hot girl to like him.  I wanted to go below the surface and - with a lot of characters - make him a little more human.  What I found was that if I can develop characters with a little more to them, it only helped me and my character in the end.  There was something to really play off of, and the scenes came to life a little bit more. 


So, yea I thought that was an important scene to show a turn, like you’re mentioning. I think Dean’s attitude (changes) in that scene.  I tried to learn how to do scenes, where there’s a turn, a place to go.  There’s a fulcrum, and something happens emotionally.  Even though it’s small, there’s still something that matters.  So, if Dean is a little more judgmental about his friend at the beginning of the scene, at least it tips, and there’s more empathy, there’s more compassion.



PFF:  There is a moment in the film, when you are dragging your luggage in the sand on the beach, and I love this scene for two reasons.  One, it’s a great visual.  Two, Dean ends up on the beach, because he decides to take a risk.  How difficult was it to drag your luggage in the sand?  It looked tricky.  Also, in your personal life, have you had one of those “I’m going to take a chance” moments?


DM:  I didn’t live that far from where we shot that scene, and there’s a big stretch of sand there, where Santa Monica meets Venice.  It dips inland, and the beach is already pretty wide.  When it came time to shoot the movie, I knew where I wanted to do that (scene), because it felt almost like a desert.  There’s so much sand, until you get to the ocean. When we were shooting it, it wasn’t too bad, but it was super windy.  I’m not working in a coal mine or anything, but it was harder than I thought. 


It’s funny when you make a movie, because it’s almost like you treat yourself as if you are a cartoon character or something.  You (think to yourself) that on Day One, I’ll do this, then we’ll do this thing, then I’ll run here, and I’ll chase the car, or whatever it is you’re shooting. 


You just think, “Yea, I can do it. I see people do it in movies.” 


Now, when you see a “Bourne” movie, and this guy is jumping out of windows, doing flips and s***, you (say), “Oh my God, these guys are professional athletes.”


Suddenly, I realize that I’m not in shape.  I haven’t been exercising.  There are 12, 13-hour days, and you start falling apart.  It’s a 20-day shoot, but halfway through the movie, I was exhausted.  I lost weight.  If anybody sees the movie, there’s nothing physical.  That’s about as physical as it gets.  Maybe riding bikes, a little bit. 


Did I ever go for it in life?  Yea, I did.  Professional definitely.  I was in law school, years ago, and I dropped out.  I just quit to be a comedian.  It’s the first time in my life that everybody was disapproving of my decision, but I felt that I wanted to take a chance, because I didn’t want to regret not trying stand-up.  I didn’t know if I could make a living or not, but I had to give it a shot. 


I didn’t want to look back and think, “Oh, I could have done that, or what would have happened?”


I’d rather try and fail than say, “What could have been?”


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.


Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales - Movie Review by Monte Yazzie

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales


Director: Joachim Ronning and Espen Sandberg

Starring: Johnny Depp, Geoffrey Rush, Javier Bardem, Brenton Thwaites, Kaya Scodelario, Kevin McNally, David Wenham, Golshifteh Farahani, and Orlando Bloom 


In the dark, watery confines of a boat ride in one of Disneyland's most beloved amusements, a deep voiced ghost utters the words "Dead men tell no tales". It was the striking phrase that stuck in my adolescent mind after a family trip to California in the late 80's. 


In 2003 the film "Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl" was released as a summer blockbuster to very positive reviews; it seemed that a film could capture some of the nostalgia, some of the magic of a theme-park ride. Starring Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow, a trickster with an affinity for rum and treasure, in the role that would define the actor and directed by Gore Verbinski, who would go on to direct the trilogy of features for the franchise, the film was a highlight for the typically overwrought CGI-fueled summer blockbuster design. 


Unfortunately, subsequent films could not maintain the quality of the first film. Though it didn't seem to matter because audiences continued to flock to the theaters for more pirate adventures, with each film getting worse in the progression. Surprisingly to say "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales", the fifth in the franchise for those who stopped keeping count, is actually much more entertaining than the other sequels. That doesn't necessarily mean that the quality of the story or characters are much better than any of the other films, but at this point that doesn't seem to be much of a concern to the filmmaking team. What does concern them is that the audience returning to see this film is being entertained


The plot involves the expedition of two young people, a young man (Brenton Thwaites) looking for the legendary pirate Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) to help save his family and a young woman (Kaya Scodelario) searching for a treasure laid out for her in a journal that has been with her since she was born. Both are looking for the same thing, a magical and powerful object that will help change their lives. However, an evil is unleashed by the hands of Jack Sparrow, a ship with a decomposing crew lead by the vengeful Captain Salazar (Javier Bardem).


You've seen this film before, everyone knows this including the team behind the film. The story is a familiar one, a curse exists that unleashes one of the many vengeful myths that haunt the sea. And, before the title card flashes across the screen in this film the bulk of the story is introduced; we get an encounter with the bad guy, an explanation of the adventure that awaits, and the acknowledgment that the franchise favorite pirate is going to come along for the mission. It's quick and foolish but works in establishing everything that is to come. 


Gore Verbinski is responsible for establishing the style and structure of these films, and new directors Joachim Ronning and Espen Sandberg don't deviate too much from everything that has been initiated. In fact, they actually honor much of the good elements that came with the original film. There are some very distinct and fun set pieces introduced here, one that feels like an alternative scene from the original film involving a bank safe that defies the laws of physics, another that is pure summer blockbuster ridiculousness involving a guillotine, and one that needs only two words to sell a ticket...shark zombies. 


We've all seen Captain Jack swagger and prance in and out of situations numerous times before, so it's nice that his character plays somewhat of a supporting character here. The film suffers whenever Captain Jack gets too much screen time, which is surprising to say considering Sparrow was the saving grace for some of the sequels. The film wisely focuses on two new characters, Henry and Carina, giving them a nice balance within their individual journeys. Also good is Javier Bardem as Captain Salazar, the design of his character is exceptional and the performance fits the realm nicely.


"Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales" easily ranks near the top for this franchise. It's a return to everything that made the original film so good even though it doesn't do anything new. Instead the film focuses on the fun associated with a swashbuckling adventure and the quality that the supernatural elements can add to a story.


Monte's Rating

3.00 out of 5.00

Baywatch - Movie Review from Monte Yazzie



Director: Seth Gordon

Starring: Dwayne Johnson, Zac Efron, Alexandra Daddario, Priyanka Chopra, Kelly Rohrbach, Ilfenesh Hadera, Jon Bass, and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II 


It's summertime, the beaches are open, and the water is nice. If this were the mid-90's the moment you arrived to the beach the soundtrack to your day would include the theme song to "Baywatch", the lifeguard beach drama that consistently remained serious through its 12 year run yet also wore its silliness like a badge of honor. Making a cultural icon, again, out of David Hasselhoff and solidifying Pamela Anderson as the sex symbol of the 90's, "Baywatch" was one of the most watched television shows of the time. 


The foolish and sexy characteristics of the television show are combined for a modern day remake starring Dwayne Johnson. Placing more emphasis on the comedic elements and the action sequences, the 2017 "Baywatch" wants to have a whole lot of fun, and for the first twenty minutes it actually accomplishes just that. But very quickly it turns into something similar to a blooper reel, lots of the same jokes told in different ways without much of a story.


Mitch Buchanan (Dwayne Johnson) is a no-nonsense tough guy with a perfect physique who's work as a lifeguard on the Bay is the stuff of legend. Matt Brody (Zac Efron) is a former Olympic swimming champion, also with a perfect physique, who has fallen on hard times because of his selfish, hard partying ways. Mitch is forced to add Matt to his team and the two immediately bump heads. While the new lifeguard team is working out their growing pains, a crime wave is bringing trouble to the Bay.


For those looking for a tame comedy with the somewhat risqué appeal that made the television show such a guilty pleasure, this film is not for you. The language warrants a hard R rating, the jokes are raunchy, and the sight gags are crude. It's a sign of the times for bigger comedies in the multiplex these days. For those that love films like last year's "Vacation" remake or another television remake "21 Jump Street", you'll be thoroughly entertained by "Baywatch". 


Dwayne Johnson, who seems to be in everything these days, is the perfect character to lead this film. He has the masculinity to pull off the action hero attitude and the charm that has sold comedy for him since his wrestling days. Add the stunning good looks of Zac Efron to the mix, place them in a situation to ridicule one another, and you have at least 15 minutes of scenes for your film right there. Unfortunately most of their jokes have been done before, some that both Mr. Johnson and Mr. Efron have done better in other films. Also, Mr. Efron's comedic efforts aren't utilized to their potential here, he has played this cocky character before and it would seem a perfect match across from a wisecracking character Dwayne Johnson is playing as Mitch Buchanan. Instead his character moves along the usual arc of self-realiance, self-realization, and redemption in the most basic of developments. 


After the first act the jokes get a little stale, the characters get less interesting, and the story moves in every familiar direction these action-comedy films could go. Even the cameos, which you know are coming, are completely uninteresting. "Baywatch" attempts to build on the indulgent quality the television series offered but instead opts for lazy comedy and boring action. 


Monte's Rating

1.75 out of 5.00


Land of the Little People - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

‘Land of the Little People’ reveals big household effects of war


Written and directed by:  Yaniv Berman

Starring:  Lior Rochman, Mishel Pruzansky, Amit Hechter, Ido Kestler, Maor Schwitzer, and Ofer Hayoun


“Land of the Little People” –  In writer/director Yaniv Berman’s film, two teens and two preteens enjoy a tight friendship, a friendship that adults rarely share due to preoccupied duties of marriage and mortgage payments.  Here, any one of these particular four kids can walk into the home of another, during any time of day, and they would immediately leave together in order to grab the other two.  As part of their seemingly daily ritual, the four trek to the nearby desert brush with a crossbow and a bow and arrow in hand.  Chemi (Lior Rochman), Yonatan (Amit Hechter), Tali (Mishel Pruzansky), and Louie (Ido Kestler) may live in large, suburban homes, but they partake in a very different existence when they step outside the comforts of warm meals and manicured neighborhoods.  


As the movie opens, they catch a prairie dog (of some kind) in a trap and feed it to an imaginary entity at the bottom of an abandoned well, and Tali recites, “Don’t eat us.  Keep us safe.  We’ll take care of you.”




Well, Berman immediately calls to distant memories of “Lord of the Flies” (1963, 1990) but without savage mutiny or scrummages for power.  There is no Piggy to ridicule, as these friends treat one another with mutual respect, like brothers and one sister in arms, and in this story, they find a common enemy.


“Land of the Little People” is a raw, edgy and sometimes very intense drama about a group of kids reacting to or coping with their circumstances at home, and Berman carefully includes several important scenes along the way that help illuminate the causes of Chemi, Yonatan, Tali, and Louie’s collective primal, warlike actions.    


Set in Israel, the country might share a collective anxiety – albeit, not always high – about the threat of war. 


On a personal note, I have traveled to Israel for work a few times, and an Israeli colleague once told me over dinner in Jerusalem, “You see, in Israel, we are surrounded by nations who want to kill us and wipe us off the map.” 


Those specific words have certainly stuck with me over the years, and in this film we organically see households impacted by military conflict.  Fathers are rarely seen, and in fact, at the beginning of the film, Chemi’s dad says goodbye, because his career resides in the military, and he must leave – like so many others – for the front.  At times, we do see brief glimpses of worried mothers – sometimes pregnant – wondering when their husbands will return, but how does this affect the “little people” in these communities?   


This is the underlying theme of the picture, and when dealing with the minds of children, they reason based upon their limited experiences.  They do not exactly know war, but they know their feelings about it.     


All of the child actors are convincing (led by Rochman and Pruzansky), as ordinary kids frustrated by two things: adulthood is still out of reach and their fathers face danger.  Those feelings are ever-present as they regularly leave for their wilderness playground, but they firmly walk with a purpose.  A purpose of exploring territory that they declare as their own with rules that they define.  They are not robots, however, and do enjoy a rare smile or two, but when it comes to claiming their space, these kids are determined.


Berman employs an especially effective camera technique to show this resolve.  In a couple key instances, the kids fire their weapons, but he keeps the camera on them instead of their targets, so we do not immediately know the impact of their decisions.  Their steely tenacity and Berman’s creative camerawork certainly raise our anxiety in a picture already filled with plenty of tension.  These four kids may share a close camaraderie like the gang from “The Goonies” (1985), but the film recalls a definite – and as previously mentioned – “Lord of the Flies” edge.  You see, on this random patch of Israeli desert, this tightknit group of little people find someone else attempting to lay claim.   

(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.






Wakefield - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

Cranston fights an implausible story in ‘Wakefield’


Directed and written by:  Robin Swicord


Starring:  Bryan Cranston, Jennifer Garner, Beverly D’Angelo, and Jason O’Mara


“Wakefield” – “I’m totally bewildered by the situation that I created for myself.” – Howard Wakefield


“A short story is the shortest distance between two points.  A novel is the scenic route.” – Robert J. Sawyer


Howard Wakefield (Bryan Cranston) is a married man who lives in a big, beautiful house nestled in an affluent suburb with his wife, Diana (Jennifer Garner), and their twin girls.  He is a law firm partner.  She is an assistant curator at the county museum.  Their lives appear in perfect order, one that the American dream can sometimes promise. 


Although, life in the Wakefield house is not perfect.  Not by a longshot, and discontent solely stems from Howard, a miserable, jealous and cantankerous human being.  We all know this type of person, and if we are smart and practice healthy boundaries, we hopefully keep our distance.  Distance from someone who desperately searches for blemishes on figurative canvases where none exist.


Howard wants out.  He wants out of his marriage.  He wants out of his life.  He wants out of himself.  He gets his wish, but in doing so, he voluntarily mires in a cesspool of self-pity and resentment in the most unlikely of places. 


Writer/director Robin Swicord constructs her portrayal of Howard Wakefield from an unlikely place, a 2008 short story appearing in “The New Yorker” by E.L. Doctorow.  Swicord – who penned the screenplays for “Little Women” (1994) and “Memoirs of a Geisha” (2005) – runs into an inherent problem here, because Wakefield’s story does not easily translate into a one-hour 46-minute feature film.  Instead, it feels like an experiment better suited for a short film, about half its runtime.


Within the first few minutes, one can easily discern that “Wakefield” is an adapted screenplay, because Howard narrates every move from his law office to the train station and eventually to his home.  Soon, it also becomes apparent that he will narrate the entire film, and this one-sided perspective turns into a deep character study of a flawed, damaged man.  Cranston, one of the most popular and skilled actors working today, seems tailor-made for this role and falls into belligerent distress very well. 


He is fascinating to watch.  As Wakefield fills the screen with his deepest, most secret thoughts of scorn, he descends into a primordial physical state.  He leaves his family but also dumps his posh lifestyle’s creature comforts.  Sure, manicures, wine tastings and drives to the coast no longer fit into his life plan, but Howard goes without running water, food refrigeration and a working thermostat as well.  This descent visually plays well, as routine practices – like shaving - become habitual exercises of the past and rummaging through garbage bins morph into his daily norms. 


Rhythmically, Swicord’s choices and Cranston’s charisma attract a morbid curiosity which begs the question:  How far down the rabbit hole will Wakefield travel?   On its own, Howard’s trip into madness is an absorbing one at times.  Swicord raises questions about fidelity, competition and warring factions within households.  Granted, Howard’s distorted view is one-sided, but it does ring with some traces of truth and leaves the audience ample heaps of coffee shop fodder. 


Unfortunately, the film’s construction runs into ample amounts of cinematic problems in a couple areas.  First, and as previously mentioned, Howard’s perspective is one-sided.  As he purchases his trip into self-exile, we never get Diana’s perspective, at least verbally.  We see her reactions to Howard’s disappearance but do not hear an equal and opposite reaction.  How is Howard’s without-a-trace disappearance impacting her physiologically?  Equal amounts of screen time of her thoughts is not necessarily needed, but a happy medium between zero and 50 should be in order.  I would actually be thrilled with 1.3 percent, but Swicord provides zilch.


Secondly, Howard takes a distant trip from his previous life but does not physically transport himself to a faraway place.  Actually, the main point of the film is that he does not travel very far in making his great escape, but he – miraculously - is not spotted by a friend, his girls or Diana.  That just plainly feels implausible.  The narrative dictates that he is cunning enough to remain invisible in near plain sight, but Harry Houdini should have as many tricks in his arsenal of deception.  Actually, he is spotted by a pair of unlikely neighbors, but the two or three random scenes of discovery look crowbarred into the story to appeal to Howard’s humanity.  Although he could use a little levity, these moments do not serve any purpose in the grand scheme.


Stuck with an inauthentic premise, one is solely left with Cranston’s performance.  Well, after a few weeks of exile, Howard’s motivations are wrapped in gamesmanship, and he plays his family and teases the audience.  How far and how long will he take it, and who is taking bets?  The film almost fights itself, a constant fracas between Cranston pushing Howard’s madness and the script spilling over into pools of implausibility.  Despite Cranston’s best efforts, for me, the implausible story “won”, but who knows.  If the movie ran just 53 minutes instead of 106, Cranston probably would have won me over.  After all, “Wakefield” is based on a short story.

(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.



Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

‘Jeremiah Tower:  The Last Magnificent’ is a doc that gets cooking


Directed by:  Lydia Tenaglia

Starring:  Jeremiah Tower, Mario Batali, Anthony Bourdain, Martha Stewart, and Wolfgang Puck


“Jeremiah Tower:  The Last Magnificent” – “The preparation of good food is merely another expression of art, one of the joys of civilized living.”  - Dione Lucas


“The worse thing that ever happened to me was that I wasn’t an orphan.” – Jeremiah Tower


Walking into this movie, I must woefully admit that I have never heard of Jeremiah Tower, but my knowledge of legendary chefs is very, very limited.  Julia Child, Gordon Ramsey, Anthony Bourdain, and Wolfgang Puck are the few names that come to mind, and – interestingly - over the course of the 1-hour 43-minute runtime of “Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent”, the latter two chefs actually appear in the documentary.  During this film, Bourdain, Puck, Martha Stewart, and a host of knowledgeable individuals in the culinary arts heap mountains of praise on Mr. Tower, and some also clearly mention the mystery surrounding the man.


Director Lydia Tenaglia attempts to uncover the mystery, and she presents a film that recounts Tower’s accomplished life.   She conveys – in great detail – Tower’s biography, including the influences that stemmed from his childhood.


Through Tower’s his own words, he describes the treatchurous obstacles that plagued him as a kid.  Without illuminating the reasons in this review, Tower says that food became his best pal, his companion and also adds that he read menus before books.  


Food became a comfort (pardon the pun) to him, not in terms of gluttony, but in celebration of it.  Through Tower’s verbal recitals into the past and several photos from yesterdecade, they help chronicle his experiences growing up.  He built the foundation for his gastronomic passions from the challenges of his youth.  Eventually, this leads him to become known as a father of modern American cuisine, and this self-taught chef brought two restaurants to massive prominence in one area of the country, the Bay Area:  Chez Panisse in Berkeley during the 1970s and Stars in San Francisco during the 1980s. 


Both places succeeded for different reasons, but Tower made food more dramatic and built menus based upon locally-grown ingredients and the personality of the region.  The film has fun with photos from Stars’ heyday, as the restaurant’s name is truly apropos.  Musical acts like Run-D.M.C. and the Beastie Boys frequented the locale, that – inside - resembled an ocean liner from another planet, complete with an 80-foot bar.  It was a theatrical experience, and Tower was its director. 


Like in the movies and in life, events can appear in threes, and Tower does not escape this organic rule of the universe.  The documentary records his third act in the industry, and we see and hear his firsthand experiences as well.   Tower has a massive reservoir of culinary knowledge, and Tenaglia offers us a peak into his world in real time. Of course, pioneers who define their own directions can also be complicated, and Tower is no exception, as the film properly presents that side of him as well.


Tower’s visions of his craft surely appear on the big screen, but I could not exactly connect the dots from his 1970s and 1980s experiences to his influence in present-day eateries.  Experts and semi-experts of modern restaurants might unquestionably and easily know how to draw these logical lines, but to laymen (like me), it is a blind spot.   


Still, “Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent” successfully documents a fascinating life of a man who influenced a couple generations within the universe of the culinary arts, and after watching his film, it will probably persuade you to step inside a nice restaurant. 

(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 Wedding Plan - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

‘The Wedding Plan’ executes very well


Directed and written by:  Rama Burshtein

Starring: Noa Kooler, Irit Sheleg and Oz Zehavi


“The Wedding Plan” – “If I get married, I want to be very married.” – Audrey Hepburn


Director/writer Rama Burshtein perfectly named her new film, because in “The Wedding Plan”, Michal’s (Noa Kooler) wedding is the movie’s signature event, and this character – in her 30s - has hoped for marriage her entire adult life.     


It’s her goal. 


It’s hard work, and she yearns that her search for Mr. Right will quickly end, like a “karate chop” smashing into a board. 


Most of all, her search is emotionally difficult, however new challenges have just begun. 


You see, Michal finds herself engaged to Gidi, but the unthinkable occurs. With the wedding a month away, Gidi reluctantly admits that he is not in love with her and backs out.  With a wedding planned but no groom, Michal pushes forward and trusts that God will provide a husband in time. 


Burshtein’s film is about marriage, not the complications of the institution, but the pursuit of it.  Through Michal, Burshtein explores the honest reasons – which I will not reveal in this review - that we search for a life partner, and her lead character leaves herself open to slights about her pursuit, that admittedly does feel desperate.  In fact, Michal freely admits despair.


At the same time, Michal’s feelings are justified.  They are legitimate.  Burshtein turns the camera on Kooler’s Michal, and this director and actress do not generate pity for her, but strength.  Strength through Michal’s convictions.  Burshtein deeply dives into her script, and Kooler successfully carries Michal through the fire of societal traditions that have burned her over a lifetime…and the film’s month-timeline.


She feels like an outcast, and throughout the picture, she absorbs repeated verbal jabs which reinforce that feeling.  More than a few call her crazy, because she is holding a wedding and hoping that a groom will magically appear, but one particular scene cuts much deeper. 


Michal owns a petting zoo and brings a snake for a small group of girls.  The kids are initially hesitant, but the teacher or aide instructs Michal to put the reptile away and later asks, what kind of woman would handle a snake?  This short but telling conversation highlights a symbolic gesture towards Michal.  She’s perceived as a woman who is less than. 


Yes, Michal is strong but also damaged by the occasional scrapes from blazing her own trail.


Kooler blazes her own trail too.  Working mostly in television, this is her first lead in a feature film, and the camera loves her.  Burshtein liberally frames Kooler with close-ups and places most of the scenes in close quarters. Kooler utilizes her acting gifts to convey restraint under turbulent circumstances, as we see every subtle change in sentiment while other entrenched emotions bubble to the surface.  She is wholly convincing as Michal, a woman under duress, and the picture ends and begins with her engaging performance. 


“The Wedding Plan” includes several supporting characters too – like Michal’s mom, sister and a small group of friends – but the film never really develops them, and they feel like random faces in a crowd.  This is Michal’s story, so it is not necessarily an issue, but I wished for more crowds.  Specifically, the film’s style is very conversational, and many scenes occur with two (or a few) characters in living rooms or an occasional dining room. Michal mentions that she lives in Jerusalem, so I was hoping to see some daytime shots, outside among crowded streets with Israeli scenery as a backdrop.  We do get one small moment on the beach at the Mediterranean Sea in the evening, but of course, for those who know Israel, Jerusalem is about an hour to the coast.


Burshtein’s film, however, does not coast.  It works hard delving into this self-inflicted predicament of a most determined woman.  Michal meets a highly diverse group of men along the way, and one might become her groom, or perhaps not.  While watching this picture, my hope was to see Michal grow along the way, groom or not. 

(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.




Alien: Covenant - Movie Review by Monte Yazzie

Alien: Covenant


Director: Ridley Scott

Starring: Michael Fassbender, Katherine Waterston, Billy Crudrup, Danny McBride, Demian Bichir, Carmen Ejogo, Jussie Smollett, Callie Hernandez, Amy Seimetz, and Nathaniel Dean


It's one of the most iconic surprises and images in genre film history, a gory scene of violence when an alien came bursting out of human's body in director Ridley Scott's space horror film "Alien". If you are brave enough to watch that scene again, I know genre fans will be, watch the reactions of the cast standing in the room as actor John Hurt begins to writhe in pain. The moment the alien appears you'll notice that all the actors in the room have looks of utter terror on their faces. That's because Mr. Scott didn't tell the crew what was going to happen or how intense it was going to be.


"Alien: Covenant" takes the theme of terror found in the original film and works to recreate the experience, building a film that works to erase the mythology and world building of Mr. Scott's last outing with this material in "Prometheus". Unfortunately in the effort to create a film that seems to be aimed for pure fan service, the interesting bits that "Prometheus" introduced are overlooked to compose a new film that takes a little bit of everything the "Alien" saga has crafted over its near 40 years of existence and mashes it together.


A crew of colonists are en route to a remote planet, an expedition that seems to encompass both an aspect of discovery and desperation. While in deep hyper sleep an accident occurs that forces the crew to awaken earlier than expected, an accident that takes the life of their captain.  A choice is proposed to the team, continue on the path to the original planet or venture into unknown territory to explore another planet that shows positive signs of habitation. Of course things don't go as expected and the Covenant crew comes face to face with an alien force.


"Alien: Covenant" honors the brand that has brought the franchise this far. Instead of moving in the direction of "Prometheus", which was to explain the origins of the aliens and discover the role of the "engineers" that played a predominant background role throughout much of the "Alien" mythos, this film film simply provides the alien design fans are familiar with and adds a bigger dose of mayhem.


Mr. Scott has crafted more of a horror film this time around, with aliens stalking victims who consistently make the worst decisions characters in slasher horror films can make. It seems unnecessary to critique the lapses in logic and gaps in cohesiveness seen in "Covenant" mostly because it's clear that this film is operating as merely a loose link to connect "Prometheus" to something that can connect to the 1979 "Alien" film. Who cares that the Covenant crew has a military team that doesn't operate with any kind of military mindset? Who cares that you land on a new planet and just start stomping around without any care of danger or risk? When you've got aliens who cares, right?


If you can get past the glaring flaws in character motivation and storytelling, there is a really good performance from Michael Fassbender who keeps every scene that he is in completely intriguing. There is genuinely a good story brewing with his character, one that touches on the interestingmythology, focuses on the critical flaws of humanity that have shaped the world in this film, and maybe even a little commentary about imperialism. It's all given to Mr. Fassbender through the use of two robot characters, one we've seen before named David and an upgraded model named Walter. His performance and character will repeatedly keep your interest in the film.


Mr. Scott is a confident and skillful filmmaker who crafts beautiful worlds. Look no further than "Blade Runner" or "Gladiator" for examples. His undeniable touch is seen throughout "Covenant", the long corridors of the ship harken back to the horror atmosphere found in "Alien" and the action set pieces move with the anticipation and intensity seen in many of his films. In small pieces throughout there are some really good things. While these elements offer a few moments of fun while you are watching the film, you'll soon remember that many of things you like about this film have already been done, sometimes better, in other "Alien" films.


Monte's Rating

2.25 out of 5.00

Paris Can Wait - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

‘Paris Can Wait’ might cause impatience


Directed and written by:  Eleanor Coppola

Starring:  Diane Lane, Arnaud Viard and Alec Baldwin

“Paris Can Wait” – Cannes is a dream for anyone who loves movies.  Well, this coastal city – located in the south of France and just down the road from Nice – is a dream for anyone, whether he or she enjoys movies or not.  (Although, who could possibly fall into the latter category, really?)  Of course, Cannes hosts the annual Festival de Cannes – a.k.a. The Cannes Film Festival - and Anne and Michael Lockwood (Diane Lane, Alec Baldwin) are completing their stay at the aforementioned event.  They just finished breakfast, and their bags are packed.


They soon arrive at a nearby airport – with Jacques (Arnaud Viard), Michael’s business partner/local chaperone - to head to Budapest on a private plane, but Anne’s ears are bothering her, so the pilot recommends that she shouldn’t fly.  Rather than take a train to Hungary, she decides to travel back to their friends’ apartment in Paris, and Jacques offers to drive her to The City of Light, about eight or nine hours away. 


Makes sense, right?  Jacques knows the way, and he is Michael’s trusty business partner.  The problem is that Jacques is not exactly trustworthy, because he is a desperate flirt.    


Director/writer Eleanor Coppola’s film is a road picture, set in the beautiful, lush countryside of France under bright and optimistic blue skies.  Even though “Paris Can Wait” envelops Anne in a warm spring setting, Coppola – right away – sets a tone of casual angst and places her in an irritating predicament.  With Jacques’ one-two combination of frequent come-ons and a laissez-faire travel mantra, Anne quickly realizes that she is in for a long, winding trip.  


For example, Jacques pulls his green Peugeot into a gas station and mentions that he likes to stretch his legs and smoke a cigarette about once an hour when traveling.  Whether they are stopped or not, he constantly showers her compliments and chivalrous courtesies, as if they are embarking on a first date.  Mind you, he does not step over physical boundaries, but Jacques’ intention is crystal clear.


It’s difficult, however, to respond to the cinematic dramatic tension, because Jacques – even though he is cultured, knowledgeable and friendly - is not particularly likeable, at least to this moviegoer.  His advances – although again, not physical – are so blatantly over-the-top, there is very little sincerity in his courtship.  Surely, he believes that Anne is gorgeous, talented and intelligent, but he may have run through this romantic admiration-routine with a dozen women within the last week.  Not unlike the cartoon character Pepe Le Pew, the skunk who repeatedly stalks a black cat who accidentally acquires a white stripe of paint on her back, Jacques is shameless in his attempts for amorous approvals.  I have not watched a Pepe Le Pew cartoon for probably a couple decades, but I remember feeling lots of sympathy for the black cat.  Those feelings came rushing back for poor Anne, but to her credit, she keeps her real-life Pepe at arms length with grace and patience.   


Lane’s Anne – on the other hand – is very likeable.  Coppola does a nice job of establishing her as thoughtful and kind.  Back at the hotel, Anne and Michael’s room has a gorgeous view of the sea, but her eye is drawn to small details that one may not necessarily notice.  An amateur photographer, she takes close-ups of a half-filled glass of orange juice, a portion of a croissant and an empty group of tables on the landing below.  The small nuances of life are not lost upon her. 


Michael seems to have his good qualities too, but this Hollywood producer takes phone call after phone call, managing the small details of a complicated movie with little time for anything else.  His ringtone literally barks, so one can easily imagine that Anne has been hearing it in her sleep for years.  No wonder her ears hurt.   Anne has been emotionally rejected over the course of her marriage too, but Michael is not necessarily a current candidate to become a jilted husband. 


There are shades of gray here, and I appreciate Coppola for not making this potential infidelity a black and white issue.  On the other hand, a road picture needs its leads to have chemistry and its characters should fit or gel.  Unfortunately, I did not sense many sparks between Lane and Viard, and Jacques does not seem to be a plausible answer for Anne in the short-term and/or long term.  


This movie does, however, provide an answer to the question: What is food porn?  Jacques and Anne enjoy a fantastical bounty of French cheeses, wines, fruit tarts, breads, and chocolates.  This film absolutely knows how to rev up our taste buds, as they embrace appetizing pleasures during their journey, even if Anne does not appreciate the extra attention bestowed upon her.  Running at 1 hour 32 minutes, “Paris Can Wait” is a light affair that soaks up lovely scenery while presenting the possibility of an altogether different type of affair.  Just don’t expect that it will win a Palme d’Or award anytime soon.  You might be waiting a while.    

(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.

An interview with Victoria Negri, director of Gold Star by Jeff Mitchell

“Gold Star” arrived in the Valley for the 2017 Phoenix Film Festival, and Victoria Negri not only directed the picture, but she produced it, wrote the screenplay and also played the lead named Vicki.  In the movie, Vicki’s father, Carmine (Robert Vaughn), suffers a stroke, and she commutes between New York and Connecticut to see her dad but then reluctantly falls into a caretaker role. 


Victoria took great care in crafting “Gold Star”, her first feature film, and she graciously found time to speak with the Phoenix Film Festival for an insightful 30-minute interview.  In real life, Victoria’s father ran into similar health issues, so she explains her inspirations to make this movie and describes the significant differences between Vicki and herself.  Regrettably, Vaughn died in November 2016, and “Gold Star” turned out to be his last film.  Victoria opens up about her experiences with Vaughn, reveals where “Gold Star” is heading next and much more.


PFF:  Vicki seems disconnected and unwilling to open up with her dad.  Perhaps it is because she is taking on a caretaker role or seeing her dad in a less healthy state is proving too difficult to process.  Why is Vicki feeling this way?


VN:  Obviously, “Gold Star” is a really personal film, (but there are) differences between what I actually went through and what (is) coming up with this character.  In real life, I was very close with my father.  I was there for him every day, when I could be there to take care of him.  (Although), I witnessed a lot of people in my life - close with my dad - who couldn’t bring themselves to even see him when he was sick.  It was painful for me to witness, and I was interested in exploring what that’s like.  What is it like to not be able to watch somebody in the last stage of their life?  My father couldn’t speak or communicate that well, so that made it difficult. 


I really wanted to explore, with Vicki, a character who is avoiding this looming presence of death.  She’s in complete denial.  She’s trapped by her inability to decide what to do in terms of her father.  So, she’s living in between these worlds, a life in New York and a life with her family in Connecticut.  Should she be there for them?  If not, what should she be doing? 


All of that (becomes) exaggerated, because she’s in her early 20s.  So, she’s young and hasn’t even figured out who she is yet.  To look at a parent and lose who (he or she was) is extremely shocking and difficult for somebody who probably isn’t the most mature person.



PFF:  So, Vicki’s experience was certainly not yours.


VN:  It’s very different.  Obviously, it was very difficult to see my dad struggle, and I was hopeful that he would maybe recover.   I (remember) thinking, ‘Oh, my 80-year-old father can bounce back from this.’  That’s one level of denial, but I was really interested in (exploring) the people in my life who (weren’t there).



PFF:  If Vicki took truth serum, what would she say to her dad?


VN:  “I’m sorry that I didn’t get to know you better.”    


I think kids are selfish.  Even me, and I think that I am much different than my character.  I heard my dad tell the same stories over and over, and I have so many regrets (about) not asking him more questions.  Now that he’s gone, I wish that I could talk to him about “this”.  You take people for granted, so I think if she took truth serum, then she would realize that.  It’s not quite truth serum, but I think that so many people have regrets in that way.



PFF:  Vicki meets Chris (Jacob Heimer), and he seems to hit it off with Carmine.  On one hand, Vicki appreciates Chris.  She likes him but also resents him too, because he seems to get along so well with her dad.  Why is it that our friends, colleagues or total strangers can just walk in and get along with our parents, when we may not?


VN:  That’s such a great question.  Why is that?  I guess that there’s no pressure.  There’s no pressure trying to please anyone.  (They) can just be themselves. 


Vicki is never herself around her father.  She’s herself around Chris, but not her family.  So, yea, I think it’s that.  A total stranger can walk in and not have that burden. 



PFF:  Are there one or two moments that you had with Robert Vaughn that stand out?


VN:  The scene (when) I am sitting next to him on the beach.  It’s a really emotional moment for both characters, and I used to bring my father to that beach all the time.  I asked Robert if he wouldn’t mind wearing my father’s red beret in the scene, (and he did). 


I was intimidated by him at the beginning of shooting, because he’s a legend, and this is my first film.  I was incredibly nervous.  So, this is the first big scene, and I just remember sitting next to him on the bench (at the beach) and something clicked.  An entire afternoon on the beach, I just sat with him.  We looked at the water, and I let the crew set up behind me. 


He told me about his fear of drowning. I felt really comfortable with him, because we’re having this moment in a place that was really special with my dad and me.  I brought my father there after his stroke in his wheelchair, so it’s really similar.  I remember acting with Robert during that scene, looking at him and thinking of his career, and who he is just fell away.  He just became Robert, a surrogate father to me.  That was a really powerful day. 


And other stuff.  Fun things.


He’d give me all of these nicknames.  He called me Mighty Mouse, because all of those caretaking scenes.  They are really physical.  I move him from a chair to the wheelchair, and I boost the chair up a step (in another scene).  I had to do that like 10 times, so yea, he called me Mighty Mouse.  He was just fantastic, and he interacted with everyone.  My sister was on-set, and he was asking her questions about (our) family and flipping through my parents’ wedding albums.


I could go on and on, but I think the beach day was the most special day.  Definitely.



PFF:  Did he give you input on the father/daughter relationship, or did he play it straight and go with your vision?


VN:  He played it straight and went with my vision.  Yea, he was really asking a lot of questions about what I went through with my dad. 


I remember right after we cast him, he asked, “If your father had a mantra, what would it be?  What was the thing that was his guiding principle that I can latch onto?”


I said, “I think it would be mind over matter.  He was a very determined person.” 


So, we carried that through and thought about how he would play the character.  Yea, he was extremely trusting of me.  As questions came up, he would ask them within scenes, especially because he has no dialogue. 


He would ask, “If I could say something, what would I say?”


We would talk about it together, but he just really listened, paid attention and played off of me and Catherine (Catherine Curtin).  I was blown away, that he trusted me that much. 



PFF:  How cool was that?

VN:  Yea, it was really cool [laughing].  He had no ego.  He was really there to help me make the greatest film that I could, and he was excited about how challenging the role was. 



PFF:  I believe that Robert died before he saw the film.  Is that right? 


VN:  Yea.  So, I sent Robert’s wife a DVD a few months before he passed away.  I knew he was sick, but I didn’t know how sick he was.  They kind of kept that under wraps from me, until he passed away.  His manager called me (when he died) to let me know, before they announced it publically which was the sweetest thing.  I was incredibly honored that the (family) did that, and I didn’t have to see it on the Hollywood Reporter or something.  I went to his funeral and spoke with his wife afterwards, and she said that she brought the DVD to his hospital room, (but) he wasn’t well enough to watch it.


So, I don’t know. I’m really torn about it.  It’s strange.  I feel like that I have no catharsis in so many ways.  I had this amazing relationship with Robert on-set.  We spoke a few times on the phone, and he mailed me a Christmas card.  It continued up until he got sick, and (then) it was obviously radio silence, and then he passed away. 


I was looking forward to celebrating with him at premieres.  I don’t know.  I guess every kid goes back to wanting their parents to say, “Good job.  I’m proud of you.”  


I think that Robert kind of became a father figure on-set, (and) I was so hoping that he would watch the film and be proud of it.  Obviously, I never got that.  I think - and I hope - that he would be proud of it.  The biggest reactions to the film - any moments in the film - are from him, the subtle moments of him without words.  That’s why he wanted to do it, for that challenge.  It’s been a strange journey with so many levels of loss layered onto this film for me, but I am proud of it, and I think he would be too.



PFF:  In the “Gold Star” sequel, do Vicki and Chris live happily ever after in Connecticut?


VN:  I think it takes Vicki a while to figure (things) out.  Maybe she bounces around more and decides to come back to Connecticut.  Maybe Chris is still available, maybe he’s not.  She probably, eventually comes around, but she probably runs away again.  I don’t know that she gets the closure that she needs for a while. 



PFF:  I totally see that.


VN:  I think she needs to find herself, before she can do that.



PFF:  Where is “Gold Star” heading next, and how was your Phoenix Film Festival experience?


VN:  The film is playing at The Art of Brooklyn Film Festival opening night on Wed., June 7, and then we are up for a lot more film festivals after that.  I’d like to play through the fall, because that will give us a year on the festival circuit. 


The Phoenix Film Festival.  I have to say that my conversations at the Phoenix Film Festival were just incredible.  I was standing in that lobby for so long with people and just talking.  It was really refreshing.  You go to some film festivals, and you have to work so hard to get anyone to come to your screening, but people at the Phoenix Film Festival just want to see good stuff.  You walk into that lobby, and you see full queues of people waiting to see films.  It was really incredible.


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 Lovers - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

Letts and Winger masterfully play a flawed couple in ‘The Lovers’


Written/directed by: Azazel Jacobs

Starring: Tracy Letts, Debra Winger, Melora Walters, and Aiden Gillen


“The Lovers” – “Cheating and lying aren’t struggles.  They’re reasons to break up.” – Patti Callahan Henry


Michael (Tracy Letts) and Mary (Debra Winger) have been married for eons.  Perhaps many of their years together have been happy, but not recently.  Residing in Santa Clarita, California, this 50-something couple share a comfortable suburban home and drive to white-collar jobs that one might find near Initech, the infamous company from “Office Space” (1999). 


Although Michael and Mary have zero passion for their day jobs, their work does not create emotional heartburn, per se.  No, Michael and Mary have, instead, checked out from a different job, their lifelong commitment to one another.  Their marriage.  On the figurative love-meter scale, their needle unfortunately resides at zero, as they sleepwalk through their mornings and repeatedly lie about staying late at the office, so they can canoodle with their respective lovers. 


Yes, both Michael and Mary are cheating on each other, but their best-laid plans of starting new lives with two others hit an unexpected bump that shake their foundations in this light – but absorbing - comedy/drama from writer/director Azazel Jacobs.  Shuffling romantic partners is not a brand-new cinematic concept, but “The Lovers” hooks us because of Letts and Winger’s nuanced performances and an unexpected twist that drives the main narrative. 


Letts is riding high from 2016 with three very memorable supporting roles in “Indignation”, “Wiener-Dog” and “Christine”.  He is an expert at playing caustic characters who seem to distantly sting from a past wrong turn taken in life.  Here, Michael regrets a couple wrong turns as well but does use them as excuses to verbally sting Mary.  He just keeps his distance.  Michael is not without his faults, but he does not stir audience disdain for his transgressions either.  He simply looks for happiness with the wrong girl, a challenging and demonstrative ballet teacher named Lucy (Melora Walters).  One wonders if Michael is attracted to drama, because he does not step away from her, despite her occasional explosions. 


Winger is very likeable as Mary.  Now, the screenplay implies that Mary has known about Michael’s affairs for years, and therefore, she decides to follow the what’s good for the goose is good for the gander approach and found a new man, Robert (Aiden Gillen).  Michael may have apparently wronged his wife for a long, long time, but Winger’s Mary does not play a victim.  She seems to have calmly concluded that their imperfect marriage ran painfully adrift and reclaimed her happiness by standing tall and sharing her life with someone else, a few hours at a time. 


Well, it is wonderful to see Winger on the big screen again for the 1-hour 34-minute runtime of “The Lovers”, especially because I have not seen her in a film since 2008’s “Rachel Getting Married”.  In that movie, her character – in a hugely explosive scene – becomes entangled in a vicious spat with her daughter (Anne Hathaway).  Winger has a history of playing tough, complicated and sometimes damaged women who are not afraid of a fight.  Similar to Letts, many of her characters will not shy away from a terse argument, but Mary might. She is strong but soft, feminine and willing to talk first rather than don verbal boxing gloves.  One hopes that happiness is truly in her future, even if her chosen new love interest occasionally shows his petty side.  


“The Lovers” might be a small movie, but Letts and Winger show off huge amounts of talent and charisma.  The two truly feel like a married couple of 30 years.  Each spouse intimately knows the other’s breathing cadences, and their “secret decoder rings” translate the slightest inhalation changes.  In other words, each one instantly recognizes when the other lies...and cheats. This brisk and thoughtful indie does not lie and/or cheat, but it sneaks up on us with its smarts, charm (which includes a very well-placed song, performed by Letts) and unexpected steps to find love.

(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 Wall - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

Taylor-Johnson and Cena cannot rest against ‘The Wall’


Directed by:  Doug Liman

Written by:  Dwain Worrell

Starring:  Aaron Taylor-Johnson, John Cena and Laith Nakli


“The Wall” – What images immediately come to mind when you read the words, “war movie”?  Human history unfortunately can provide thousands of examples in which people become mired in mass conflict and attempt to kill one another, and the big screens sometimes masterfully recapture those horrific struggles. 


For me, three films immediately pop into my brain.


Steven Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan” (1998) illustrates the murderous spectacle of war via the Allied invasion of Normandy.  Stanley Kubrick’s “Paths of Glory” (1957) depicts the brutality of war, when French soldiers scurry over mud, crawl under barbed wire and dodge German gunfire and grenades in No man’s land during World War I.  Lastly, “The Deer Hunter” (1978) places the enemy’s face in close-up view, as Vietnamese guards force American prisoners of war to play Russian roulette against one another, again and again and again. 


All three are all-time classic war movies, among the best in cinematic history.  Director Doug Liman’s “The Wall” is not an all-time classic, but it is a good film and also very different than most war pictures.  It does not carry the grand spectacle of “Saving Private Ryan”, the visceral brutality of “Paths of Glory” or a close-up view of the other side like “The Deer Hunter”.  Instead, it pits two American soldiers against an unknown enemy in the middle of 2007 Iraq, four years after the United States claimed “mission accomplished”.   


Sgt. Isaac (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Staff Sergeant Matthews’ (WWE’s John Cena) mission is to investigate a situation.  About eight American contractors lay dead - where they stood - in the middle of seemingly Nowhere, Iraq.   Isaac and Matthews, very experienced through several difficult tours, believe that the person responsible is not too far away, and therefore this ordinary, partially-constructed infrastructure site is extremely dangerous. 


After Isaac and Matthews become caught in a fiery exchange, the only refuge is a modest, stone wall, about 20 yards long.  This wall was part of a school that the Americans destroyed during the war, and now it serves a much different purpose.  “The Wall” – which runs a scant 1 hour 21 minutes – has a very small cast, but it raises big moments of anxiety in a couple of ways. 


The enemy is a sniper, hiding somewhere close by, and Isaac and Matthews initially have zero clue where he or she is located.  The shots could be coming from anywhere, and Liman sets a noticeably unsettling tone.  Isaac and Matthews - simply standing upright in plain view and with high-powered rifles in hand – could be struck down in any second, and the beads of sweat running down their brows might also be running down ours as well.  This tension-filled setting feels like an outpost from a rustic western with the sun beating down on our heroes and barren desert stretching in every direction. 


They are alone, and their only occasional companions are subtle and not so subtle noises.  Bits of torn plastic wrap flapping in the breeze and the crunching of dirt fall into the former, and the piercing cracks of single gunshots belong in the latter.  The gunshots repeatedly surprise the men as much as they surprise us, especially since the actual crack of a fired bullet arrives about a second after it strikes its intended target.


Targeting this sniper is the most pressing problem, and with his or her unknown whereabouts, “The Wall” effectively offers a sense of isolated doom.  Doom is featured in other ways too, as the film raises bigger questions about the Iraq War itself.  Through creative means, Isaac and the sniper actually communicate, and they reveal their motivations within a war without an apparent purpose. 


We have seen the hellish results of war in just about every such movie that I can remember, so Liman’s picture does not break any new ground in that respect.  It does, however - through subtle conversation and the complications of laying in the desert behind a modest stone wall - underscore their dire circumstances, and how their lives were irrevocably changed because of decisions made at the highest political level. 


Five years from now, “The Wall” will probably not enter my consciousness when I think about great war films, but individual soldiers fighting for a cloudy cause - four years after the conflict supposedly ended – could still linger.

(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.

Chuck - Movie Review by Monte Yazzie



Director: Phillipe Falardeau


Cast: Liev Schreiber, Elisabeth Moss, Naomi Watts, Ron Perlman, Jim Gaffigan, Michael Rappaport, Pooch Hall, and Morgan Spector



Do you recognize the name Chuck Wepner? What if I told you that Chuck Wepner was a boxer who went the distance in the ring with Mohammad Ali when "The Greatest" was in his prime, in the first fight after Ali defeated George Foreman in Zaire in "The Rumble in the Jungle". Ring any bells? Sounds unbelievable right? Sounds like something out of a movie? Well, if you've seen the film "Rocky" then you've seen the film inspired by Chuck Wepner.


"Give the White Guy A Break", that's how boxing promoter Don King billed the fight between Wepner and Ali. The fight had everything good sports stories are made of, a blue collar underdog going up against a sports icon with a loud mouth, a scrappy fighter known for taking a punch (Wepner was nicknamed the "Bayonne Bleeder") verse a flashy fighter known for giving a punch, and at its core a fight that had more to do with the racial divide than it did for the talents of the fighters. The surprise of the whole thing, Wepner made it 15 rounds and knocked Ali down to the ground.


Director Phillipe Falardeau isn't so much concerned with the big fight, it plays a role as an early first act transition. What is emphasized is Wepner's life after the fight, the fame from the unexpected hit film "Rocky", the indulgence of women and drugs, and of course the subsequent fall from fame and the spotlight. Regardless of how much Mr. Falardeau tries to tell a different boxing story, the film still utilizes many of the familiar motifs found in sports/boxing films. But, just like Chuck Wepner, the film puts up a pretty good fight.


Liev Schreiber plays the embattled boxer, a liquor salesman one day and a local folk hero the next day, with charm and confidence. It's a quality that makes it all the more difficult to watch the character when mistakes are made over and over again. In one of the most cringe-worthy scenes Chuck is given an opportunity to try out for the "Rocky" sequel by Sylvester Stallone (played convincingly by Morgan Spector), his addictions ruin the opportunity. Mr. Schreiber maintains a grounded performance throughout that gives the character surprising appeal amidst his extensive flaws.


Elisabeth Moss plays Chuck's diligent and patient wife Phyliss with the steadfast hope that her unfaithful husband will change his ways, and when he doesn't she becomes a woman determined to never be stepped on again. Naomi Watts shows up for a supportive role as Chuck's new girl Linda, a woman unwilling to commit to a man who won't change or see that life has a different purpose than remaining relevant. It's a small role but Ms. Watts does a good job of creating quick chemistry with the Mr. Schreiber. Also making appearances are Jim Gaffigan as Chuck's best friend, Ron Perlman as his trainer, and Michael Rappaport as his brother. It's a good cast all playing support to Mr. Schrieber's lead.


Unfortunately as the film begins to delve into Wepner's downfall, the interesting character bits begin to disappear in favor of the standard biopic sentiments that gloss over a lifetime of information in order to show the upward trajectory for the character in the end. While Mr. Schreiber's performance and voice over narration help when the film begins to wane, the familiarity and compliance to never explore the fighting character more than surface interactions prevents the film from having a lasting effect.


Monte's Rating

3.00 out of 5.00

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 - Movie Review Monte Yazzie

Guardians of Galaxy Vol. 2


Director: James Gunn

Starring: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Michael Rooker, Kurt Russell, Karen Gillan, Pom Klementieff, Elizabeth Debicki, Sean Gunn, and Sylvester Stallone


Have you ever made a mixtape? Those of us from the cassette days probably understand this concept best. It can be a complicated process depending on the kind of theme you want the music to have. Do you start the mix off with something that gets your adrenaline flowing? Do you slowly build the mix towards a climactic final song? For those experienced in this process, you know that there is always a standout mixtape that all other mixtapes will be judged by.


"Guardians of the Galaxy Vol.2" is like a mixtape in regards to how it handles composing all the good feelings and emotions in order to match the quality that made the first film so excellent. Happy to say that director James Gunn has made a pretty good mixtape of a film here, one that has more emotion and feel good moments than expected, though a few choices keep the film from reaching the heights of its predecessor.


The Guardians of the Galaxy, lead by Peter "Star-Lord" Quill (Chris Pratt), are introduced in preparation to fight a new foe, a blobby, tentacled beast with pulverizing rows of razor sharp teeth. Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper), and Drax (Dave Bautista) fly around chopping and blasting at the beast while an adorable Baby Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel) upstages the entire action set piece with a dance number. From the early moments of the film you can feel the playfulness and silliness that made the first film so unique in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Mr. Gunn, who also penned the script, enjoys moments of levity in his films. When another film would bask in a tension filled action scene, Mr. Gunn instead opts for well placed sight gag or a verbal jab. Many times in his films, it's a welcome moment, however in "Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2" it undercuts some of the nice emotional content that he builds.


The emotional content here was an unexpected surprise, there are more than a few moments that will tug at the heartstrings. It provides an opportunity for the talented cast to display some insight into their characters. There are familial themes strung throughout the entire film, fathers and sons, the bond of siblings, the abandonment and loss of family are a few. Mr. Gunn does a good job of utilizing these narrative elements to add some structure to the characters, which is necessary considering there is no true origin story for the world that these characters operate in. While little elements continue to become clear concerning the core Guardians' team stories, the focus is clearly on Peter Quill's backstory and family. This allows a welcome surprise from veteran actor Kurt Russell playing Peter's father Ego with the kind of charm and laid back demeanor that has made Mr. Russell so appealing for all these years. It's great casting because it's not too big of a stretch to see Mr. Pratt follow in the same career path as Mr. Russell.


The team in the "Guardians of the Galaxy" film are a near perfect mix for a ragtag team of heroes, even though they aren't the original team from the comic books. While the spotlight was evenly distributed in the first film, some characters are given lesser or too much attention in the sequel. Gamora is trying to patch up her past quarrel with her sister Nebulla (Karen Gillan) but the conflict is never given much time to fully have the impact that it should and Drax's vengeance-fueled emotional quality is substituted for comedy that sometimes hits but mostly misses the target.


There are fan surprises throughout the film, a quality that this franchise completely understands how to incorporate without ruining a scene. But the surprises aren't limited to Marvel world connecting or one-off references to lesser known comics, it's also how Mr. Gunn makes a digital character like Rocket Raccoon the heart of the film or how he takes the talented abilities of Michael Rooker and provides the actor with a character and material that displays why he is such a great actor. While this film may not compose the combination of elements that made the first film so impressive, it's still consistently fun and filled with heart. A good mixtape is a good mixtape.


Monte's Rating

3.50 out of 5.00

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 - Movie Review by Kaely Monahan

Starlord returns to work through some daddy issues

By Kaely Monahan


Making a sequel is hard but Marvel has built an empire out of creating not just sequels but vast interconnecting storylines that somehow feed our inner need for a great action film. Even so, there’s always a chance the second film in a franchise will not reach a fan’s hopes and dreams. That said, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 comes nearly there.


James Gunn is at the helm was once more both writing and directing GotG2. Starlord (Chris Pratt) is back with his characteristic swashbuckling style and flair for the dramatic. The entire crew returns with Zoe Saldana as Gamora, Dave Bautista as Drax, Bradley Cooper as Rocket and the totally adorable Baby Groot, who Vin Diesel voices.


The film opens with a flashback to when Peter Quill/Starlord’s mother was with his father, Ego, played by a young-looking Kurt Russell. Some necessary plot points are planted here before moving on 37 years later. We catch up with the Guardians on a planet filled with a race of golden perfectionists. The Guardians are tasked with saving a shiny object—in this instance, batteries of some amazing power. They have to fight what looks a cross between a slug and an octopus—which shall henceforth be called a “slug-o-pus.” For whatever reason, slug-o-pus wants the batteries. Does he want to eat them? Does he want to wear them? Perhaps his phone needs charging? Who can say?


For all the spectacular action sequences, the film quickly zeroes in on its focus: family. If the first film is about finding yourself, this one is about finding your family. For Pratt’s Peter Quill, it means discovering who is father is and what his heritage means. For Gamora and Nebula, it’s realizing what being sisters is all about. Even Rocket goes through an incredible character arc in the short amount of time that he’s on screen.


The film isn’t afraid to question what family is. Peter has to decide if his family is the one he grew up with and created with the Guardians, or if it’s the relationship with his blood father. There is also a strong vein of forgiveness—even if you screw up over and over again.


James Gunn and fellow writer Dan Abnett put together a remarkably deep storyline despite the shallowness of some of the characters. At first glance, you might not catch just how introspective the story is.


What this Guardians film lacks is the magic of the first one. The initial film had a certain spunk and sparkle that took us completely off guard. The bar was raised very high, which means the second film must be beyond spectacular. GotG2 gets pretty close, but some of the jokes feel forced; there’s a few moments that feel flat. Baby Groot, for example, was really built up in the promos, but some of his novel cuteness seems to have suffered from too much exposure leading up to the film. He’s cute, but not that cute. His best gags were given away in previews.


The relationship of Gamora and her sister Nebula feel sacrificed for time, which is unfortunate. These are two powerful female characters in the Marvel universe and they hardly get time to work out their storylines. This is very unfortunate, but unsurprising. From the beginning, Marvel films have struggled to give due credit to the female heroes. (Where’s our Black Widow film??)


James Gunn and Dan Abnett had a real golden opportunity to give these women real depth but more screen time was given to a CGI raccoon and a blue alien. No offense to Rocket or Yondu. While the story arc for both Rocket and Yondu were great and emotionally satisfying, us lady fans of Marvel could really use a win for the superwomen in its universe .


Even Starlord’s daddy issues feel subverted by the emotional rollercoaster Rocket goes through. By comparison, these two get almost equal screen time. Baby Groot and Drax are reduced mostly to comedic sidekicks who have no real story, but then there’s only so much time you can devote when you have more than seven important characters.


In the end, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 accomplishes its goal of being an entertaining follow up on our favorite space heroes. Is the first one better? Yes. But this one holds up rather well and fans, for the most part, won’t be disappointed.



   • Kaely Monahan is a radio producer, entertainment journalist, and the creator of Popcorn Fan Film Reviews. Follow her @PopcornFans and @KaelyMonahan.


Five Must-See Kurt Russell Performances By Jeff Mitchell

Five must-see Kurt Russell performances


“Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” arrives in theatres on March 5, and our five heroes – Star-Lord, Gamora, Drax, Rocket, and Groot (actually, Baby Groot) return to ride through the cosmos and attempt to save the galaxy again while offering heaps of action, humor and alien-human-plant-raccoon camaraderie.  New characters appear as well, but none more pivotal than the one played by longtime, Hollywood action star, Kurt Russell.  Russell shines in Marvel Studios’ latest effort, but the man has been blazing across big screens for decades, appearing in over 50 featured films since the 1960s.  In celebration of his new role in “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2”, let’s look back at a portion of his illustrious film career.  There are so many highlights to choose from, but instead of including every one of his films, here are five must-see Kurt Russell performances.      


“Bone Tomahawk (2015), Sheriff Hunt – Russell’s most famous performance in a western is Wyatt Earp in 1993’s “Tombstone”, but his best work within the genre is in writer/director S. Craig Zahler’s “Bone Tomahawk”.  In this picture, Sheriff Hunt (Russell) leads a group of three other men – played by Richard Jenkins, Matthew Fox and Patrick Wilson - on a long, treacherous journey from their town of Bright Hope to a frightening community of cannibalistic cave dwellers.  About 75 percent of the film embraces the pureness of the American western with saloon drinks, cowboy talk (i.e., “If you don’t say who you are, I’ll shoot you dead.”) and the open range, but the last 30 minutes delve into gruesome horror that will be etched in this movie critic’s brain for eternity.  Don’t say that you were not warned!  On the other hand, Russell’s machismo persona nicely gels with the other three leads, as their verbal jousting and friendly banter during their trek will absolutely bring a smile to anyone who loves westerns.  A hidden gem.


“Escape from New York” (1981), Snake Plissken – The year 1997 was a relatively peaceful time in America, but not in writer/director John Carpenter’s dystopian action picture.  In “Escape from New York”, 1997 New York City is no tranquil walk in the park.  In fact, the federal government walls off Manhattan Island and declares it a prison for the most ruthless criminals, and somehow the U.S. President (Donald Pleasence) finds himself trapped inside.  Enter Snake Plissken (Russell), the ultimate tough guy with a black tank top, eye patch and a snake tattoo breathing on his stomach.  This former military specialist with two purple hearts cuts a deal to rescue the president within 24 hours in a race against time inside an infinitely violent concrete jungle.  Everyone he meets seems to think that he was already killed but do not test this assumed dead man.  Ernest Borgnine, Adrienne Barbeau, Harry Dean Stanton, and Isaac Hayes join in the “Mad Max”-like carnage in this classic action film.


“Miracle” (2004), Herb Brooks – “I’m not looking for the best players, Craig.  I’m looking for the right ones.”  - USA Hockey Head Coach Herb Brooks (Russell)


Coach Brooks has only seven months to construct and train a hockey team to play in the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, and with a very short window to put a championship team on the ice, he tells his assistant coach, Craig Patrick (Noah Emmerich) that needs the right players.  Brooks recruits 21-year-old hockey “kids”, who attempt to do the improbable: win a gold medal for the United States.  Director Gavin O’Connor and Russell recreate a terrific, behind-the-scenes look at Brooks’ out of the box thinking and methods which inspired 20 young hockey players and an entire nation.  While the players - sometimes begrudgingly - follow Coach Brooks’ words, we gaze and listen to every moment that Russell appears on screen in one of the most satisfying sports movies in recent decades.  


“Do you believe in miracles?” 


Well, after seeing this movie, we all should.


“The Thing” (1982), R.J. MacReady – Director John Carpenter’s “The Thing” is best known for its wild special effects and extreme gore, but his movie is much, much more than buckets of blood and innards thrown on the screen.  It is an intense and frightening story within the cramped confines of a lonely science institute on the world’s most desolate continent.  You see, a malevolent alien enters the compound with the ability to kill and mimic any living creature and hides in plain sight, disguised as one of the men in the isolated premises. 


Any of the men could be the creature, as the no-nonsense pilot, R.J. MacReady (Russell), rightly exclaims, “Nobody trusts anybody now.”


Russell delivers an unforgettable performance as MacReady, and while under extreme duress and terror, this character keeps his cool in order to survive an impossible situation. He is the type of guy who you want quarterbacking your football team, a person with plenty of street smarts and a burly toughness to lead men, even when they don’t want to be led.


“Used Cars” (1980), Rudy Russo – Admittedly, writer/director Robert Zemeckis’ comedy has not particularly aged well over the last 37 years.  The shock value of its raunchy punchlines feel dated, and the “Smokey and the Bandit” (1977) bit in the third act is a bit tired.  Still, when Rudy Russo (Russell), an especially talented, scheming car salesman, tells a perspective female car buyer that her hair matches the color of the tires, one becomes amazed with his power of persuasion.  During Rudy’s journey to raise enough money to leave the car business to become – of all things – a state senator, “Used Cars” flashes some memorable faces from the past, like Al “Grandpa” Lewis, Michael McKean and David L. Lander.   The movie was shot in the Valley too and showcases some filmed footage of the ASU Sun Devils!  Really? 


As Rudy would say, “Trust me!”


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.