Atomic Blonde - Movie Review by Monte Yazzie

Atomic Blonde


Director: David Leitch

Starring: Charlize Theron, James McAvoy, John Goodman, Eddie Marsan, Toby Jones, Sofia Boutella, and Bill Skarsgård


Actress Charlize Theron commands your attention whenever she is on the screen. It’s more than just her stunning beauty however; Ms. Theron has always had a unique, mysterious quality about her. It would seem that by this time in her career, considering her extensive filmography, that she should have tackled, punched, kicked her way through a cool, hard-hitting, spy film. However, this is one role that Ms. Theron hasn’t portrayed, it’s odd considering she would seem to be the perfect female version of James Bond. 


Director David Leitch took the simplistic, crowd-pleasing appeal of a revenge film called “John Wick”, starring Keanu Reeves, and turned it into one of the best action movie surprises of recent memory. Mr. Leitch’s blend of swift editing and detailed choreography turned his action fight scenes into something akin to early John Woo films. “Atomic Blonde”, based on a minimalist, black-and-white graphic novel by Antony Johnston, has a whole lot of style, fun characters, and some impressive fight scenes unfortunately mixed into a hallow, meandering script. 


It's 1989 and British secret agent Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron) is sent to Berlin on a mission before the fall of the wall. Her job is to infiltrate an espionage ring that has recently killed an undercover agent. Lorraine is assigned to work with the local station chief, David Percival (James McAvoy), to investigate and amend by any means necessary the threat to British and American intelligence agencies. However, from the moment she arrives in Berlin there is a target on her back.


Director David Leitch understands how to compose an action sequence, they are stylized, edited with an emphasis on continuity, and ingeniously choreographed. Early in "Atomic Blonde" Ms. Theron fights a group of bad guys with a garden hose in a tight apartment space set to the George Michael's song "Father Figure". It's an impressive scene that operates with an aggression that you can feel; all the hits, all the crashes pulse off the screen. 


Based off the graphic novel "The Coldest City", Mr. Leitch makes the most of the late 80's setting. Lorraine's style and costume are sleek and bold examples of runway fashion for the period, making every scene that Ms. Theron walks into look like she is sauntering for a fashion magazine. Her wardrobe also seems to be a nod to the artistic and character design of the graphic novel. Lorraine is in mostly black and white wardrobe, a highlight of how she was drawn in the comic but also displaying the nature of her character which in one moment can be passive and and in another aggressive. Most of these fashionable moments, along with some action moments, are set to an 80's soundtrack that features hits from The Clash, Public Enemy, Nena, and A Flock of Seagulls. 


Unfortunately all the style can't substitute for the lack of substance. Between the action scenes and fun music moments is a narrative that just doesn't do much. It's a story about spies and double agents, we know double crosses and twists are coming, but it never seems to pay off the way it would in other films like it. The problem lies with the composition of the lead character Lorraine, who isn't afforded an ambition to really pursue. In "John Wick" the character is out of vengeance, in "The Bourne Identity" the character is out for discovery, these small character motivations move the film from scene to scene. In "Atomic Blonde" the lead character may be operating for numerous reasons, which is fine, but it's never focused clear enough. Add to this a plot that wanders incoherently at times, utilizing a flashback narrative design that suffocates any momentum that it may be building.


Charlize Theron is fantastic when given the opportunity. This mostly happens during the action which displays an unshakable demeanor that is always cool, calm, and collected. In other small moments Ms. Theron's dominant presence is felt loud and clear, specifically when Lorraine is under investigation by a CIA Agent played by John Goodman and her MI6 higher-up played by Toby Jones. The highlight performance of the film comes from James McAvoy who oozes confidence, walks with an undeniable 80's punk swagger, and gives that devilish grin that adds mystery to his motivations. 


"Atomic Blonde" has impressive style and great action, and that's unfortunately about it. Still, even a few days after watching the film, the impressive action sequences and utter coolness of the characters still weighed positively. That alone may be worth the price of admission for some.


Monte's Rating

3.00 out of 5.00

Five Must-See Charlize Theron Performances by Jeff Mitchell

Five must-see Charlize Theron performances


Charlize Theron plays a dangerous spy - looking for answers in 1989 Berlin - in the stylish action picture “Atomic Blonde” which arrives in theatres on July 28.  Explosive performances are nothing new for Theron, because this very talented actress has been lighting up the big screen for over 20 years.   Versatility is one of her trademarks, as she can easily play a soft romantic lead, delve into a hard-hitting drama or jump into the fray of chaos and fisticuffs.   At 41, Theron shows no signs of slowing down, but let’s pause a moment to reflect upon her career.  With over 40 film credits to her name, she owns plenty of memorable roles, but here are five must-see Charlize Theron performances.


“The Cider House Rules” (1999), Candy Kendall – Dr. Wilbur Larch (Michael Caine) wonders why Homer (Tobey Maguire) has chosen apple picking as a career, but with just one glimpse into the young man’s life, the answer is as clear as day, Candy Kendall (Theron).   In a supporting role, Theron plays Homer’s beautiful muse, outside the safe confines of his 18 plus years in Dr. Larch’s orphanage.  Although, Candy is out of Homer’s “league”, Theron carefully weaves enough insecurity into her character for the audience to believe in their love affair and also give hope that it could last.  In 1999, “The Cider House Rules” was Theron’s most critically acclaimed film, and her performance catapulted her towards a steady stream of fruitful roles in her star-studded future. 


“Mad Max: Fury Road” (2015), Imperator Furiosa -  After a 30-year absence, Mad Max makes a triumphant return to the big screen in an absolutely enthralling action picture which is vastly superior to its three predecessors.  Nearly the entire movie plays out as a nonstop, mindboggling chase through a barren Australian wasteland, as Furiosa (Theron) defies her city’s deranged leader, Immortan Joe, by attempting to free his five wives from a lifetime of marital misery.  Mad Max (Tom Hardy) joins Furiosa on her death-defying journey, but not before they work out their differences through violent means.  Theron is so charismatic as the assured, confident, one-armed heroine, director George Miller’s film could have been easily named “Mad Max & Furiosa: Fury Road” without a complaint from anyone. 


“Monster” (2003), Aileen Wuornos – Theron truly delivers one of the most seminal performances in cinematic history as Aileen Wuornos, a real-life serial killer.  Writer/director Patty Jenkins does not spare the audience from the brutality of Aileen’s lifestyle (a homeless prostitute) and explores the frank talk and seedy moments of Theron’s character’s chosen profession.  Throughout the picture, Jenkins includes Aileen’s homicidal actions and designed reminders that hookers and murderers are not born…but made.   The screenplay’s overwhelming tones of despair are only topped by Theron’s jaw dropping emotional and physical transformation into this damaged, deranged person with no clear paths towards anything resembling a normal life.  Theron earned the 2004 Best Actress Oscar in the biggest no-brainer win in recent, movie award memory.    


“North Country” (2005), Josey Aimes – In 1989, Josey Aimes (Theron) leaves her abusing husband, grabs her children and moves back to her small hometown in Minnesota.  With no other viable ways to earn a living wage, she applies and lands a job at the local mine.  Josey realizes that the work would be demanding, but had no idea that she would become a victim of an avalanche of sexual harassment and emotional/physical abuse within the male-dominated environment.  From 9 to 5, Josey and other women live a nightmare, and while watching this movie, it absolutely makes one sick that this type of chauvinism existed just 28 years ago.  Based on a true story, Theron’s character summons the strength to stand up to seemingly impossible odds, while also toiling with her own vulnerabilities.  Theron and Frances McDormand rightfully earned Oscar nominations for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress, respectively.


“Young Adult” (2011), Mavis Gary – Mavis (Theron) lives in an expensive, beautiful apartment in Minneapolis, but disregards it with clothes and her belongings spewed everywhere.  She also neglects Dolce (her toy dog) and herself.  Mavis drinks way too much, dates the wrong men, and her problems include a serious case of arrested development.   In Theron’s wonderfully dark, comedic turn, Mavis runs back to her hometown of Mercury to win back her high school boyfriend, Buddy (Patrick Wilson), except there is one problem.  Buddy is happily married with a new baby.  This, of course, doesn’t faze Mavis in the least, as she pleads with him, “We can beat this thing together.”  Utterly relentless and equally ignorant, Mavis feels undeterred in her quest, while believing that everyone else has issues.  Patton Oswalt costars as her unlikely friend who she completely ignored in high school, but don’t overlook this movie and Theron’s terrific performance.


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

City of Ghosts - Movie Review by Ben Cahlamer

City of Ghosts


Director: Matthew Heineman


I grew up with Walter Cronkite and Dan Rather who shaped our opinions and our discussions.  We as an audience had trust in what they had to say, and more importantly in how they delivered it.  Today, the news needs to be delivered as quickly as possible, and corrections issued if a mistake is discovered.  It has become so much a part of my everyday life that I have all but abandoned traditional news outlets.  Despite this, I find myself living inside the vacuum created by social media and online news media and yet, I’m still all-too-well aware of what’s happening in the world.  However, I find that online media introduces a high-level of bias colored by a cacophony of voices rather than one person delivering the news each night.  That’s why, when I sat down to watch “City of Ghosts,” I was quite taken by surprise.  I was only peripherally aware of the Arab Spring rising of ISIL and its dangerous stranglehold on the Middle East.  I was not aware of a group of citizen journalists who have risked everything to raise awareness of the occupation of Raqqa, a city deep inside Syria on the Euphrates.  Academy Award – nominated director Matthew Heineman managed to open my eyes very quickly to the true nature of both sides of this conflict as he lays out ISIL’s ascension to power and the rapid growth of citizen journalist network Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS).


After opening the film with the group receiving the International Press Freedom Award in 2015, Heineman goes on to describe ISIL’s rise to power, appeasing a war-torn populous looking for freedom.  The state-run news agency portrays life in Raqqa as peaceful, where basic services meet the needs of the people.  RBBS starts capturing footage of ISIL’s atrocities; using social media, they work tirelessly to create an online campaign attracting the attention of global media outlets and the ire of ISIL.


With unprecedented access to the core members of the group, Heineman depicts their everyday struggles to flee Syria for a safe haven in Turkey and Germany while the team remaining in Raqqa struggle to anonymously capture footage and photos of the atrocities that ISIL forces are inflicting. The team that remains in Raqqa upload the photos and videos of the atrocities to the teams in Europe.


As ISIL becomes aware of the clandestine efforts inside their borders we discover that there is truly no safe haven, for anyone.  In Raqqa, they order the citizens to destroy satellite dishes restricting internet access and cellular communications.  On the European continent, they execute members of RBBS.


In its simplest form, the picture Heineman paints is that of a propaganda war similar to one the British had with Nazi Germany during the early stages of WWII.  History is repeating itself.  Here, time is on the side of RBSS as they viral nature of social media works in their favor.  The more they post, the more it puts innocents in other countries at risk as evidenced by the attacks in France and in the United States.  And, it puts their own family members in harm’s way. 


The efforts of this citizen journalist network bring to light real-world problems.  The images and the flow of the narrative convey the situation succinctly.  I could imagine audiences who watch this would be shell shocked at best.  Not for the feint at heart, Matthew Heineman touches a raw nerve here and it will stick with you long after you leave the theater.


5 out of 5 stars.

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets - Movie Review by Monte Yazzie

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets


Director: Luc Besson

Starring: Dane DeHann, Cara Delevingne, Clive Owen, Rihanna, Ethan Hawke, Kris Wu, Sam Spruell, and Herbie Hancock


Filmmaker Luc Besson, who has composed a long career of interesting and successful choices like "The Fifth Element" and "Leon: The Professional", returns with a passion project adapted from a science fiction comic book first published in 1967 called "Valerian and Laureline". The French comic series, which has been linked as an uncredited source to George Lucas' space opera, follows two characters who travel the universe through space and time on different adventures. It's easy to see, from the opening moments of Mr. Besson's dazzling and daft "Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets", that this story has shaped and molded everything the director has done throughout his career. 


Valerian (Dane DeHann) is a soldier, strong willed, brave, and obedient of the orders from his superiors. Laureline (Cara Delevingne) is independent, intelligent, and opinionated about every order that is given her. Valerian and Laureline are partners, space special agents (the comics called them Spaciotemporal Agents) is probably the best term to describe them. 


Mr. Besson fills his films with a very specific style, characters talk and walk in a certain way and scenes are composed with very deliberate movements. It's easy to see from the first moments of the film, during an origin scene that shows the cultivation of culture and knowledge in an ever growing megalopolis known as Alpha, that the director plans on filling the visual palette with lavish designs and boisterous characterizations. Surprisingly this has always been a quality that the director has been good at capturing, and even when it becomes overindulgent the images are never boring or dull.


Unfortunately what hurts this film is the narrative, the story wanders from one atmosphere to another without much more purpose than to serve as a visual treat, Valerian and Laureline are introduced to new creatures and characters that work to serve small narrative device adventures, and the primary focus of the story is never given the attention it should. 


Dane DeHann and Cara Delevingne have a few moments of chemistry but unfortunately it is mostly lacking. However, whenever Ms. Delevingne is offered the spotlight she completely owns the scene. Mr. DeHann seems lost in the lead role, Valerian seems to have a bit of swagger and attitude but it's never provided through the actors performance. Supporting cast like Clive Owen and Ethan Hawke are given caricatures to animate and pop singer Rihanna performs an unnecessary burlesque dance and is almost immediately turned into a CGI alien, while her character is amusing it also don't serve much of a purpose.


"Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets" functions as a beautiful space adventure with lots of interesting visual ideas and atmospheres to occupy time, maybe not the entire 2 hour plus running time but enough. Unfortunately the characters and overall story are hard to invest in, which is unfortunately because something as visually captivating and creative as this film deserves more attention to the people and actions that is take place in it.


Monte's Rating

2.75 out of 5.00


Dunkirk - Movie Review by Monte Yazzie



Director: Christopher Nolan

Starring: Fionn Whitehead, Mark Rylance, Tom Hardy, Kenneth Branagh, James D'Arcy, Cillian Murphy, Tom Glynn-Carney, Barry Keoghan, and Harry Styles



In the chaos and confusion during an evacuation of more than 300,000 British and Allied Forces from the shores of France in director Christopher Nolan's World War II film "Dunkirk", one soldier tells another "Survival is not fair". Indeed, with the shores of England so close, safety for the Allied Forces was still far from being achieved.


For those keen on history, you'll understand why the Battle of France, specifically the Battle of Dunkirk and Operation Dynamo, are such unique historical pieces. Forced into the option of surrendering or dying; the Allied Forces, having been surrounded by German Troops, where defeated. However, neither surrender or complete destruction happened, as an evacuation from the beach saved many lives.


Film has a funny way of changing how one perceives historical events, the lens of cinema can paint new pictures and compose narratives in ways that alter the true significance of what happened in the past. Christopher Nolan, understanding of this concept, dramatizes "Dunkirk"; looking at the state of the war through the fictionalized eyes of people on land, in the air, and on the water but keeping the time, dates, and events of the war intact. In doing this Mr. Nolan has crafted an immersive experience, a war film that has all the technical aptitude the director has built his career upon but also the emotional quality associated with the aspect of a soldier's survival.


We are provided perspective through three different characters; a father (Mark Rylance) and son (Tom Glynn-Carney) traveling across the water directly into threatening territory, a soldier on land (Fionn Whitehead) who narrowly escapes the enemy and tries by numerous means to board a ship to get off the beach, and a pilot(Tom Hardy) engaging in dog fights in an attempt to offer the soldiers some safe passage. Mr. Nolan ingeniously interweaves these stories together, seamlessly and without recognition of specific time during the battle. One might think this non-linear aspect of storytelling would be confusing or frustrating to keep up with, the director has already done this once with the film "Memento", but it effectively sustains an unsuspecting quality which helps keep the tension building throughout the film and reinforcing the overwhelming nature of war in which violence and death can strike at any time.


There is very little dialogue in the film aside from a few key moments that help in establishing the events and decisions during the historical aspects of the battle, what fills these silent moments are actions that bring the viewer further into the atmosphere of the film. The photography is gorgeous and bleak, a wash of grey and blue with an impressive scope accommodated through wide angles but also through unique camera perspectives like a cockpit view from a Spitfire combat plane or a tracking shot that follows two soldiers carrying a wounded soldier along the shoreline.


To assist the picture is a unique composition from frequent Nolan collaborator Hans Zimmer. With a mix of strong bass notes that never seems to stop rattling the walls of the theater, to building crescendos of atmospheric sounds that serve to heighten the stimulation overload, and even in one scene the matching of a ticking stop watch with the music, it's unwieldy at times but also completely effective in making you more anxious about everything happen on the screen. It echoes the ominous nature of survival, especially when the enemy is on the verge of capturing or killing one another.


The performances are also a great attribution, Fionn Whitehead embodies the toil of survival, Cillian Murphy effective displays the traumatic nature of war, and Tom Hardy tells an entire emotional arc with his eyes. Add Kenneth Branagh as a Commander who refuses to say "surrender" and Mark Rylance as a determined citizen dangerously doing his part to help his country, and the result is impressively composed.


"Dunkirk", at mere 106 minutes and without the overwhelming effect of violence that a R rating would establish, could be Christopher Nolan's best directed film. It's a phenomenal survival film that has an exceptional technical quality and rousing unexpected heart. Mr. Nolan proves again why he is one of best directors to do the job.


Monte's Rating

5.00 out of 5.00

A Ghost Story - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

‘A Ghost Story’ does not scare, but it deeply haunts


Written and directed by:  David Lowery

Starring:  Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara


“A Ghost Story” – “Enjoy life.  There’s plenty of time to be dead.” – Hans Christian Anderson


Although writer/director David Lowery’s new film contains one arguably scary moment – in which several dishes fly around an ordinary kitchen – ironically, “A Ghost Story” is not a horror film.  Not at all. Instead, it best resembles a 1-hour 32-minute lesson:  to embrace, savor and enjoy the time that we have on this planet…while we are alive.  Heaven forbid if one carries significant, unfinished business at the time of death, because the results could be a painful existence for this individual, who will linger around the grounds in which he or she walked upon during life.


This picture walks around the grounds of an aging, three-bedroom ranch, sitting on - probably - an acre of land along a rural route.  A close, 30-something couple – played by Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara - rent this particular residence, and it is haunted by a ghost.   A ghost with unfinished business while it was a living, breathing human being, and now, it is led by a compulsion to seek earthly answers while desperately looking towards the past. 


Affleck and Mara have a filmography-past with Lowery, as they starred in his richly-textured, moody Texas crime drama, “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” (2013).  Although the plots of the two films are vastly different, they both encapsulate a profound theme of grief.  Additionally, Lowery applies his style of leaving a camera in quiet places, opening its lens and capturing everyday moments for long stretches.  Actually, in “A Ghost Story”, one particularly fascinating scene offers a prime example of this technique on steroids, as a character eats an impromptu meal over an agonizingly long stretch of three or four movie time minutes.


In addition to grief, time becomes the second key element in this afterlife concoction, and the movie routinely surprises in small and grand ways.  In our world, time always moves forward and at the same pace, but in “A Ghost Story”, these rules do not always apply, as the film challenges the audience to view existence from an apparition’s perspective.  Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life” (2011) is the closest comparison film in terms of tone, mood and narrative construction to this picture, and that is an eccentric compliment.  On the other hand, Malick’s 2011 film is very polarizing.  Talk to any two people who finished watching “The Tree of Life”, and more often than not, one person embraced the picture, while the other felt very frustrated by it. 


The same sentiment will probably hold for “A Ghost Story”, but this particular critic thinks highly of this thoughtful, striking and organically-driven picture.  Trudging through raw emotions and introducing unorthodox suggestions of time and space, Lowery’s film succeeds in tapping into basic human sentiments and also profound theories of metaphysics.   All of it centers around the experience of one ghost.  A ghost designed with the simplest cinematic effect that one could possibly construct: a plain, white sheet with two eyeholes cut at its top.     


Through two dark, eye-shaped circles - from a figure dressed in an everyday sheet - Lowery delivers a sobering, powerful experience.   An experience that will certainly divide its audience, but whether the picture works for you or it does not, it will absolutely leave a mark.  In that respect, “A Ghost Story” may not be scary, but it will deeply haunt. 

(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.


Wish Upon - Movie Review by Monte Yazzie

Wish Upon


Director: John R. Leonetti

Starring: Joey King, Ryan Phillippe, Ki Hong Lee, Shannon Purser, Sydney Park, Josephine Langford, Daniela Barbosa, and Mitchell Slaggert


Be careful what you wish for because it might come true. The concept of wish fulfillment in movies provides an interesting theme to play with. You can go the comedic route and have a young boys wish to be a grown-up granted by a carnival game like in the movie "Big", the fairytale route that makes a wooden marionette into a real boy in Disney's "Pinocchio", or the horror route where an ancient evil returns to make wishes come true like in the film "Wishmaster". The outcome in all these films is what they have most in common, mainly that the things you wish for come at a price. Whether the loss of childhood, the moral aspects of understanding what is right and wrong, or the trickery associated with having wishes come true.


The horror genre has utilized this concept almost as much as fairytales have, taking elements from the Arabic mythology of the "Djinn" or the W. W. Jacobs short story "The Monkey's Paw" as inspiration to turn wish making into something horrifying. "Wish Upon" is the newest genre film to tackle the subject, however instead of a monkey's paw playing the magical object it's a cursed music box.


Clare (Joey King) is a teenager in high school, surviving all the drama of adolescence. Clare has always endured a troubled life, her mother (Elizabeth Rohm) committed suicide in front of her as a child and her life was never the same. Her father (Ryan Phillippe), a former musician, spends his days digging through dumpsters, often right in front of Clare's school. Things change dramatically when Clare's father finds a music box, one that grants the wishes of the owner. Suddenly Clare is wealthy and popular, but her wishes come at a deadly expense.


"Wish Upon" operates in a very standard way, quickly establishing characters and moving them into the focus of the story. In some ways it functions similarly to its counterparts, those "teenagers-in-peril" films from the 90's that all tried to copy what "Scream" successfully achieved. It's unfortunate that it never fully commits to that blueprint or alternatively tries to craft something completely unique and different. Instead the film just lingers somewhere in the middle, throwing some of the style from "Final Destination", a familiar moment from "The Butterfly Effect", and a few callbacks to "Wishmaster" just to keep things familiar.


The cast is a mix of newcomers, lead by Joey King who has had some great turns in other films like "The Conjuring" and "Wish I Was Here". Unfortunately the young cast is hampered with terrible dialogue, like how clueless adults think teenagers today talk, and character motivations that offer unwarranted comedy and lead the characters in telegraphed directions. Ryan Phillippe, who played the role of the "teenager-in-peril" in the 90's, makes an appearance here and isn't provided much opportunity to build his character with any substance, even though there are numerous times where something meaningful could have been developed.


Director John R. Leonetti was the director of photography for "Insidious" and "The Conjuring", you can feel some of the influence from those films during the composition of the the scares here, specifically in the establishment of tension that plays well in one scene involving a garbage disposal. Unfortunately aside from a couple of scenes like this, the film never establishes an identity of its own. We've seen films with a PG-13 rating create some exceptional scares, Mr. Leonetti has worked on many of the recent examples, but "Wish Upon" struggles in this capacity throughout. Not all wishes come true.


Monte's Rating

1.50 out of 5.00

War for the Planet of the Apes - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

‘War for the Planet of the Apes’ prefers less combat, more drama


Directed by: Matt Reeves

Written by:  Matt Reeves and Mark Bomback

Starring:  Andy Serkis, Woody Harrelson, Steve Zahn, Karin Konoval, and Amiah Miller


“War for the Planet of the Apes” – Lions may be the kings of the jungle, but apes are the animal rulers of dystopian civilization cinema.   Hands – with opposable thumbs – down.  Six films and two television series donned the big and small screens, respectively, before director Rupert Wyatt resurrected the franchise in 2011 with “Rise of the Planet of the Apes”.   Wyatt did not monkey around (sorry, I couldn’t resist), as he opened a prequel-door to reveal key moments that led to the apes’ rise.  The pronounced bond between chimpanzee and human, Caesar (Andy Serkis) and Will (James Franco), effectively pulled the audience into the narrative, and the Frankenstein’s Monster-concoctions evoked devilishly-sick feelings during the picture’s second and third acts.  “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” followed in 2014, and now, “War” completes the reboot trilogy.


With a title like “War for the Planet of the Apes”, one might anticipate a couple hours of combat within the 2-hour 20-minute runtime, but writer/director Matt Reeves and writer Mark Bomback burn many more calories on exposition and Caesar’s psychology rather than gunplay and fisticuffs.  In fact, with all the havoc that Koba (Toby Kebbell) caused in 2014’s “Dawn”, that particular movie should have been named “War”, and this 2017 picture deserves to be called “Prison Escape of the Planet of the Apes”, because for a long stretch of film, apes are trapped in captivity, stuck in a mundane, hellish existence. 


Fortunately, Reeves and Bomback construct an affecting journey for Caesar, and his specific story arc captures a fulfilling science fiction experience – especially for fans - that feels like an authentically human one. 


Humans, of course, are at war with apes, as evidenced by soldiers wearing helmets with messages like, “Monkey Killer” and “Bedtime for Bonzo” scribed on them.   With homo sapiens almost wiped off the planet, and simians currently thinking like people, a simple, continued existence for human beings has become infinitely more complicated.  Cooler heads are not prevailing, as The Colonel (Woody Harrelson) - with a psychotic, solitary style reminiscent of Col. Kurtz (Marlon Brando) from “Apocalypse Now” (1979) - has declared war on his targeted enemy.   


Although the fighting has endured for a while, as far as the big screen is concerned, The Colonel’s band of soldiers strike first blood, and it becomes personal for Caesar, one who would rather live a separate, peaceful existence with humankind.  Now, however, revenge consumes him, and the search for the man – who held an eerie, green laser on his rifle - is in his sights. 


From my eyesight, the motion-captured visuals of Caesar, an orangutan named Maurice (Karin Konoval), a chimp named Bad Ape (Steve Zahn), and hundreds of others can take one’s breath away, because the technology appears flawless.  I am not 100 percent certain if the special effects have improved since the 2011 picture, but they feel more advanced, as – to the “untrained” (and I count myself in this group) naked eye – the apes truly seem real.  It is a bit chilling. 


The picture’s environment carries a chill in the air too, as the apes live in the Northern California wilderness and travel north to snowy country to seek out The Colonel’s lair.  Although the story arc – at its core – is a traditional road/revenge picture, Caesar’s relationships with other key characters carry an emotional depth that peak our interest.  New faces like Bad Ape – with some effective comedic touches - and a blonde-haired, human girl (Amiah Miller) – who wonderfully pays homage to the past - are two prime examples.


Yes, two large scale confrontations help loosely define the film’s title, but the picture does not bathe in violent acts nor include involved-war planning with several large swathes of fighting.  Instead, Reeves’ film works best while occupying within its designed, conversational spaces, steering the future soul of the apes’ existence.  Caesar’s internal churn between revenge or release carries the fate of his “people”, and this becomes the primary conflict, even if humans are the obvious cause of another, more dangerous one. 


The ape/human clashes fit into the series’ universe, but these ongoing physical battles become secondary to the picture’s philosophical dance.  This, of course, makes “War for the Planet of the Apes” a worthy experience and extends the series’ rule.

(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.



13 Minutes - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

Georg Elser’s biopic ‘13 Minutes’ is more than worth your time


Directed by: Oliver Hirschbiegel

Written by:  Leonie-Claire Breinersdorfer and Fred Breinersdorfer

Starring:  Christian Friedel, Katharina Schuttler, Burghart Klaubner, and Johann von Bulow


“13 Minutes” –  Johann Georg Elser (Christian Friedel) lived a content, happy existence in Germany.  Born in 1903, this carpenter and accordion player embraced life and seem to enjoy small moments, like playing music near a lake in the summertime and spontaneously dancing the tango with a pretty woman.  Something dark and spooky, however, began encroaching on his easy going days, as this particular form slowly changed minds within the local, modest neighborhoods in which he inhabits.  Comparable to “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” (1956), some friends, acquaintances and many strangers welcome a new, “foreign” movement, which is actually a very nationalist one, the Nazi Party.


In “13 Minutes”, director Oliver Hirschbiegel delivers a sobering and visceral biopic about Georg Elser’s experience in Germany during the 1930s and the event that almost altered history in a most dramatic way.


Elser’s name is widely known in German spaces, because in Nov. 1939, he attempted to assassinate Adolf Hitler.  As the film opens, we see Elser planting a device – about the size of a briefcase – complete with several intricate gears and levers.  As he sweats and toils over this bomb, he plans for its explosion during Hitler’s speech in Munich, and thereby removing the head of the Nazi Party.  


Hirschbiegel avoids expensive productions of other Hitler assassination films like “Valkyrie” (2008) and “Inglourious Basterds” (2009), and instead focuses on a deep character study, as he transports us to the 1930s and the profoundly uncertain times within German households and town courtyards.


We do not actually see the bomb explode inside the location, but Hirschbiegel quickly informs us that Elser’s plan failed.  The words “most unfortunately” never carried so much weight, as Hitler most unfortunately left the scene early, 13 minutes before the bomb’s detonation. 


The SS quickly computes its investigation-math, and they nab Elser and hold him for several intense, difficult interrogations.  Two officers, Arthur Nebe (Burghart Klaubner) and Heinrich Muller (Johann von Bulow), ask direct questions, and when they do not receive answers, their men deliver heavy doses of pain and torture.  These scenes effectively emote a hovering sense of doom, as they treat Elser like a rag doll within a nondescript, concrete-walled room of a bureaucratic office building, as sounds of typewriters and barking orders stir throughout its hallways.


Although, the film does not unfold as a 1-hour 54-minute torturous slog through repeated, back and forth Q&As.  Hirschbiegel frequently ships us back to Elser’s history, beginning in 1932.  His backstory is incredibly important, because we see the moments which organically change this carefree pacifist to an assassin. 


In fact, at one point – via flashbacks – Elser says, “Violence has never achieved anything.”


As the film plays out, his edict clearly changes.


With many World War II movies featuring specific battles like Midway, D-Day, Pearl Harbor, and the eventual German surrender, it is rare to find films that focus on the rise of the Nazi Party, at least in U.S. cinema. “13 Minutes” is a German picture, and it displays the country’s nationalistic movement through Hitler’s influence at that time. Brownshirts spontaneously multiply within urban and rural settings, and the picture visually introduces their presence through teens and preteens wearing brown uniforms which oddly resemble Boy Scout outfits.  Of course, their attitudes certainly do not reflect the altruistic nature of the aforementioned organization, as tolerance for independent thinking dwindles, and the Nazis begin to shun, persecute and separate Jewish communities.


We receive not only an insider’s view of the country’s shifting mores, but Elser’s internal shift as well.   Friedel’s performance captures Elser’s dramatically changing attitude towards Germany’s rule of law, but he still maintains his character’s core values and clearheaded thinking.  Elser remains noble and decent, rather than succumbing to the sudden takeover of bigotry.


The film also reflects this through his loving relationship with Elsa (Katharina Schuttler), a married woman who suffers brutal, autocratic rule from her abusing husband.  As their love affair progresses, Hirschbiegel constructs a narrative parallel between Elser saving Elsa and his country.  Although sometimes her husband’s violent acts feel over-the-top and almost too vicious to be believed, an independent observer also cannot comprehend how Germany’s soul morphs from the inside during the 1930s.


Heartbreaking and emotional at times, Elser eventually wonders out loud about his failed attempt in Munich.  Look, one can turn a blind eye and ignore injustice, or one can act.  Although, Elser could not alter Germany’s path, “13 Minutes” rightfully reflects this man’s heroic place in history. 

(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 Journey - Movie Review by Ben Cahlamer

The Journey


Directed by Nick Hamm, Written by Colin Bateman

Starring Timothy Spall, Colm Meaney, Toby Stephens, Freddie Highmore, John Hurt


“Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s Children.”  ~ Martin Luther King, Jr.


Featuring a heavily made-up Timothy Spall as the Reverend Ian Paisley, the founder of the Irish Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Colm Meaney as Martin McGuinness, a Sinn Fein politician and former Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) leader, “The Journey” is centered around the 2007 talks that eventually brokered a peace between the two factions and two men whose ideologies were not as far apart as they had assumed.  Toby Stephens plays British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Freddie Highmore stars as Jack and John Hurt played Harry Patterson, an aide to Tony Blair.


There is a degree of difficulty in portraying real-life people in fictional settings such as this.  Spall, who has played other real-life personae, is marvelous as Paisley.  Though they liberally applied his make-up with a trowel, his ability to act through the dental appliance was impeccable.  His character went from moments of quiet frustration and determinism to wrath-of-God-conviction inside of a few frames; it was remarkable to watch. In fact, he reminded the audience of his stature when he admonished a gas station clerk for not taking action to assist their party.  Colm Meaney’s calm demeanor has always been a hallmark of his acting abilities.  His calmness belies a forceful tone when he needs it and he and Spall made for exceptional sparring partners.  I wouldn’t want to be in the same room if they ever came to blows, though they’d probably ham-up the situation and then laugh it off.


Young Freddie Highmore who is better known to modern audiences from “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”, is the audience’s eyes and ears, watching history unfold with young eyes.  His character reminded me of myself growing up during the days of Russian perestroika and glasnost:  there was a level of intelligence and understanding in Jack’s playful banter with the old guard, though I would have given a jelly bean to have been in the same car as Paisley and McGuinness.  The real highlight of the film was seeing John Hurt in one of his final performances. Seeing him on the screen towards the beginning of the movie really moved me, and he anchors all of the characters really well, with his understated approach.


The majority of the film was shot inside of a Mercedes-Benz personal transporter, which was wide enough to accommodate the camera crew.  Greg Gardiner did a solid job of not making the mini-bus feel more claustrophobic then it might have seemed in real life.  Where the journey stopped long enough for our characters to continue their conversation, Gardiner’s ability to capture the natural beauty of the Scottish Highlands is second to none.   One of my favorite scenes was in an abandoned church with the light filtering through the stained glass murals and the ensuing conversation in a graveyard.   The banter did get a bit repetitive though.  Colin Bateman’s script managed to keep that playfulness confined to our main characters which from what I understand, was the nature of their real-life relationship.  But the film felt a bit awkward and uneven, full of character moments more than an actual narrative.  The eventual mention of powerful figures from the past, namely Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela really wasn’t a surprise and I wish that they had let the audience discover that aspect for themselves.


Opening in theaters today, I would recommend “The Journey”.


(Ben’s Rating:  3 out of 5)

Jeff Mitchell's Top 10 of far

Jeff Mitchell’s Top 10 Films of 2017…so far


Phoenix in July always means two things:  The year is halfway over, and it’s hot.  During hot days, air-conditioned movie theatres become sought after destinations for Valley residents.  For many movie fans, including me, theatres are always calling our names, 12 months a year. 


Out of the 109 films that I have seen so far this year, here are the 10 – in alphabetical order – that stand out to me as the very best.


“Baby Driver” – Writer/director Edgar Wright literally and figuratively puts the pedal to the metal in his utterly spectacular and stylish heist picture, in which a 20-something named Baby (Ansel Elgort) drives getaway cars for a collection of felonious types (Kevin Spacey, Jamie Foxx, Jon Hamm, Jon Bernthal, Elza Gonzalez, and more).  A nifty, hip soundtrack synchronizes with intricate robbery plans, burning rubber, squealing tires, and an abundance of gunplay in a movie that resonates a specific cinematic euphoria, not unlike two pictures in semi-recent memory, “48 Hrs.” (1982) and “Pulp Fiction” (1994).  Along with the devilishly impressive, criminal choreography, Wright includes a sweet romance between Baby and a virginal waitress, Debora (Lily James), that grounds the movie with an emotional heartbeat.  Yes, “Baby Driver” is the most entertaining movie of the year…by a mile.  


“Colossal” – Gloria (Anne Hathaway) is just floating through life in New York City, and after her umpteenth, irresponsible episode, her boyfriend unceremoniously breaks up with her, so she moves back home to the small town that she gladly left behind years ago.   If Gloria thought that her life could not be more turned around, she slowly realizes that she is linked to a Godzilla-like monster who is causing havoc and panic in Seoul.  In his very clever screenplay, writer/director Nacho Vigalondo’s quirky comedy also shifts its tones in a sudden move that is almost as surprising as the aforementioned plot point.  Hathaway and Jason Sudeikis skillfully and artfully dance in their characters’ unpredictable spaces.     


“Dean” – Dean (Demetri Martin) takes a love-pursuing risk and finds himself – in a wonderfully comedic visual – dragging his luggage through the soft powder of a Southern California beach.  Martin took a risk by writing and directing his first feature film but strikes cinematic gold by crafting the funniest movie of the year, so far.  After the death of his mother, Dean struggles for answers while continuously tripping into the crossfire of Left Coast absurdities, as the picture stirs an absorbing mix of humor and angst.  Martin includes his own drawings as an added dimension to the narrative, and his thoughtfully-placed illustrations become repeated welcomes for the audience.  The film travels in dark places too, so many light moments are laced with cynicism, but that’s all part of the healing process in this heartfelt and hilarious picture.  Kevin Kline and Mary Steenburgen costar.  


“Hounds of Love” – John (Stephen Curry) and Evelyn (Emma Booth) kidnap teenage girls for - apparently - the “sport” of it, as writer/director Ben Young’s camera enters their home and documents the daily, grimy details of the couple’s sick escapades.  The picture feels so raw and authentic, it captures a documentary-like feel that crawls into the darkest crevice of your brain and burrows itself into your permanent memory.  Vicki’s (Ashleigh Cummings) memory is permanently scarred when John and Evelyn choose her as their latest teen prize, and escape seems hopeless except for one psychological, longshot idea by playing the lovebirds against one another.  Creepy, intense and unforgettable, this Australian thriller truly is a frightening gem. 


“Maudie” – Sally Hawkins delivers an Oscar-worthy performance with her heartbreaking and inspirational turn as Maud Lewis in a biopic about a sweet, immensely determined and talented artist from Nova Scotia.  Lewis - a fragile woman, riddled with rheumatoid arthritis - suffered emotional and physical abuse throughout her life, but still decided to move in with Everett (Ethan Hawke), a simple man who uses corrosive anger and blunt insults as his methods of communication.  Director Aisling Walsh spends long, important and difficult minutes in the couple’s modest home to build towards an emotional payoff, when life bends in more positive directions through Maud’s cheerful paintings.  Bring your tissues for tears of gloom, joy and revelations. 


“The Midnighters” – Victor (Leon Russom) is free!  After 35 years in prison, this 72-year-old – who displays the effects of extensive confinement through deep etches in his face and pronounced, tired circles under his eyes – is now free.  In writer/director Julian Fort’s outstanding step into noir, he asks the question:  Will Victor remain free or fall into his criminal habits which could boomerang him back into prison or perhaps, a much worse fate?  Russom delivered the single best performance – that I saw - at the 2017 Phoenix Film Festival by embracing an empathetic character who tries to make sense of the 21st century, frequently revisits the mistakes of his past and ponders his limited time in an unknown future.


“Norman” – Richard Gere continues his recent streak of memorable performances (“The Dinner” (2017), “Time Out of Mind” (2014) and “Arbitrage” (2012)) with his work here as Norman, a scheming, aging and desperate New York City outsider looking to finally secure a seat at the big boys’ table.  Writer/director Joseph Cedar’s fascinating and relentless character study also doubles as a casually stressful thriller, as Norman attempts to turn a $1,192.18 investment into instant access to the connected world of big money and politics by constantly and figuratively knocking on a new door and leveraging the same, tired ones as well.  Steve Buscemi, Michael Sheen, Hank Azaria, and Lior Ashkenazi round out an excellent supporting cast who will witness Norman’s winding trip into either redemption or expulsion.   


“Raw” – Justine’s (Garance Marillier) parents drop her off at veterinary school, and she feels a bit nervous about her new journey.  Her older sister, Alexia (Ella Rumpf), already studies there and should be an obvious friendly face, but the college feels like a horror show much of the time, as the upper classmen constantly haze the younger students.  Under a backdrop of very disturbing, organized teasing, a more gruesome horror show rises when Justine – a vegetarian – acquires her first taste of meat.  Writer/director Julia Ducournau weaves an unseemly tale of twisted hunger in a supposed bastion of learning.  Filmed in Belgium, this film keeps the audience off-balance through its story of personal despair via an uncontrollable primal urge that crosses an extremely taboo human boundary.  A highly effective and deeply disturbing horror movie.   


“Spider-Man: Homecoming” - Without watching “Captain America: Civil War” (2016), the thought of another Spider-Man reboot screams the words: completely unnecessary.  On the other hand, Tom Holland’s playful performance as your Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man in the aforementioned Captain America picture did lend plenty of excitement for a new big screen adventure with the famous wall crawler.  “Spider-Man: Homecoming” does not disappoint!  Director Jon Watts flings Peter Parker back to high school and spends lots of screen time there – more than any other Spider-Man film - through a multitude of charming and awkward adolescent moments but routinely hurls him into danger on New York City’s grownup streets too.  The film offers some nifty tie-ins to the Marvel Universe, and Michael Keaton is terrific as the complex villain, The Vulture.  It’s either the best or second best Spider-Man film, but I’m not sure. I better see it again and again…


“Toni Erdmann” – Sandra Huller is nothing short of sensational as Ines, a hardworking, driven management consultant coping with the constant barrage of practical jokes played by her father, Winfried (Peter Simonischek), who owns a serious case of arrested development.  Winfried is simply trying to connect with Ines, but his unconventional methods push her away even further.  Writer/director Maren Ade’s 2-hour 42-minute film magically breezes and zips along due to the kinetic, emotional dynamics between father and daughter, and she unlocks deep, soulful themes and comedic twists that constantly surprise.  The Academy nominated “Toni Erdmann” for a 2016 Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, but this unique comedy/drama from Germany did not play in Phoenix until 2017, so I am including on my list.  This movie fabulously and unapologetically marches to the beat of its own drum. 


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.




Spider-Man : Homecoming - Movie Review by Monte Yazzie

Spider-Man: Homecoming


Director: Jon Watts

Starring: Tom Holland, Michael Keaton, Marisa Tomei, Zendaya, Jacob Batalon, Laura Harriet, Tony Revolori, Bokeem Woodbine, Jon Favreau, and Robert Downey Jr.


It was the summer of 2002, "Spider-Man" was swinging into theaters under the steady guidance of Sam Raimi. The result was impressive, a comic-book movie that would further define the blueprint of the superhero film. Two years later the sequel would come out, a film that I still hold as one of the top three best comic-book movies ever made.


Fast forward and in a mere 15 years audiences are getting their sixth overall film and their second reboot of the Spider-Man saga. While it would be easy to write this film off, we have seen a version of this story six times already, "Spider-Man: Homecoming" is the first film to be controlled by Marvel Studios; it is also the first Spider-Man film to make the character a piece of the expansive Marvel Cinematic Universe.


Director Jon Watts, coming off the acclaimed "Cop Car", takes control of the film this time around. Tom Holland steps into the role of Peter Parker, previously occupied by Toby Maguire and Andrew Garfield; the noticeably younger version of Spidey is a welcome arrival, providing a tone for the film that can switch from high school comedy to action summer blockbuster with a simple change of costume. While "Spider-Man: Homecoming" plays all the safe bets and hits many of the same high notes as the earlier films, it importantly tries to add something different, some much needed life into the smaller elements that compose the web-slinging superhero.


Peter Parker (Tom Holland) is just a kid in high school, he deals with many of the same concerns kids in high school have always faced; trying to fit in, trying to find a girlfriend, trying to deal with the school bully, but Peter is also unlike many kids in high school because he's hiding an alter ego, one that was recruited by his famous friend Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.). Together, and with help from other Avengers, they fought to keep the superhero peace. Now, Peter is itching for his next opportunity to be a hero but Tony is reluctant to give a teenager so much responsibility. Peter, wanting to prove his worth, goes looking for trouble and finds it in the shape of a weapon's dealer with a winged suit named Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton).


The film opens with a clever and funny nod to the film "Captain America: Civil War", where Spider-Man made his first appearance in a scene stealing cameo. In establishing the tone for this film, the introduction is perfection; it brings everything within this new Spider-Man universe and the Marvel Cinematic Universe to the current while also establishing the atmosphere for the rest of the film, which is trying to very hard to emulate what John Hughes did best with his teenage comedy/dramas.


Unfortunately, "Spider-Man: Homecoming" rarely excels beyond the standard superhero movie cliches, however when it does excel the film is genuinely exciting and whole lot of fun to watch. In developing the Peter Parker character the film emphasizes, sometimes overly, that Peter is a kid. This, in the moments when the film transcends, does a great job of creating a dichotomy between Peter and his Avenging counterparts. At the end of the day what makes Peter vulnerable is his age, the fact that he still has a curfew, that he still needs to go to chemistry class, and that he is still fighting to find a place in the teenage world. In other moments, Peter's youth is mishandled and provided two different defining characteristics; instead of making him look inexperienced and stubborn, the way all new superheroes learning their skills would look, the film instead makes him look silly and foolish.


Tom Holland is the best Spider-Man, hands down. Mr. Holland is filled with charm and screen charisma, there is an undeniable likability to this Peter Parker. Part of why this works is because the actor has an exceptional group of supporting characters around him. Jacob Batalon plays Peter's best friend with excitement, Donald Glover plays a would-be criminal who has great banter with Peter, Martin Starr's comic timing is put to great mumbling use as a teacher, and Zendaya has attitude to spare. But the real accomplishment here is Michael Keaton, who plays the winged Vulture as Spider-Man's primary baddie. Mr. Keaton is menacing throughout, playing a disgruntled working man forced to a life of crime because of the Avengers. In one scene Mr. Keaton and Mr. Holland face off in a car, it feels like one of the many tense scenes from Mr. Watt's film "Cop Car" in the way it just simply allows two good actors a moment to chew up scenery.


'Spider-Man: Homecoming" has its high moments of pure entertainment, but it also has its low moments when it does much of the same thing every other superhero and Spider-Man movie has done already. It's unfortunate because Peter Parker and Spider-Man have such rich emotional qualities. Still, it's nice to have Spider-Man playing well with the Marvel Cinematic Universe, here's hoping we don't need another reboot in a few years.


Monte's Rating

3.50 out of 5.00

The Beguiled - Movie Review by Monte Yazzie

The Beguiled


Director: Sophia Coppola

Starring: Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst, Elle Fanning, Colin Farrell, Oona Laurence, Angourie Rice, Addison Riecke, and Emma Howard


In the midst of the summer blockbuster season, it’s understandable that we would get a remake or ten. So why am I making this statement in review about Sophia Coppola’s “The Beguiled”, because, unknown to a few people, it’s a remake of a Don Siegel directed film of the same title from 1971, which starred Clint Eastwood. “The Beguiled” is one of Mr. Eastwood’s most overlooked and severely underrated films. A tale that straddles the line of horror and melodrama, it offered Mr. Eastwood an opportunity to take a break from the western hero character that had defined his early work and ushered in a transition for the actor to become the updated hero with a gun in “Dirty Harry”.


Sophia Coppola has quite a career already; “The Virgin Suicides” and “Lost in Translation” are two highlights that display the director’s talented eye for filmmaking. It may seem obvious to those that are familiar with Ms. Coppola’s catalog to understand why she would remake “The Beguiled”, the director has a particular talent for crafting strong and complicated female leads but also creating an interesting and multifaceted ensemble. Ms. Coppola’s version of “The Beguiled” is a captivating work, one that is beautifully photographed and filled with absorbing characters.


While collecting mushrooms in the smoke of the morning surrounding an old plantation house in the South sometime during the Civil War, young Miss Amy (Oona Laurence) encounters a wounded Union soldier named John McBurney (Colin Farrell). Showing compassion on the man, Miss Amy helps him back to her home, a former school for girls that is run by Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman). The small group of women nurse Mr. McBurney back to health, an agreement is made that once he is better the group will call the Confederate troops roaming the area to take him into custody. However, Mr. McBurney manipulates his way into the lives of these women, turning them against one another..


Ms. Coppola’s style of filmmaking is restrained and quiet at times, ethereal in the way the narrative and camera evokes emotion from certain scenes and characters. The entire location is immersed in a haze of canon smoke; you can feel the destruction and isolation of the world around them. The design of the environment is exceptional, many times resembling a fairy tale in certain moments.


The narrative here still brings in the element of fear; is Mr. McBurney someone who can be trusted? Are his intentions pure? Where the original film went for something more akin to a gothic horror film that reveled in the exploitive elements of sex and violence, Ms. Coppola’s is more interested in developing a dramatic thriller that focuses on the atmosphere created by people and the subtle characterizations associated with women of different ages and experiences. For the director’s style, “The Beguiled” works better as the moody character piece that she is trying to create. To assist, the film also adds in some interesting narrative facets. There is a greater emphasis on the outside world invading and influencing the environment of the women. The emotions that Mr. McBurney makes the women feel allow them to envision a life away from the plantation, a life some of them are desperately trying to reach.


Unfortunately Ms. Coppola’s effort erases a significant aspect of this time period, chiefly the aspect of slavery. While the film never makes it a point to let the politics of the world surrounding the plantation to invade, aside from a few Confederate soldiers who stop by momentarily, this film is content to stay with the women and their uninvited guest.


Nicole Kidman seems made for the role of Miss Martha, her cold and methodical personality fits the structure of the school. You can feel her influence on every character in the film. The director’s reliable collaborator, Kirsten Dunst, is also great as Miss Edwina. Ms. Dunst has a consistent look of remorse on her face, it’s not until the soldier enters the equation that Miss Edwina shows a glimmer of a smile, a glimmer of hope. Elle Fanning also shines as the meddlesome and coy Miss Alicia, playing the character somewhat naïve but also completely understanding of what she is doing, her connection with Mr. McBurney is played as a game.


“The Beguiled” is a beautifully composed film, a signature quality of Ms. Coppola’s style in crafting scenes and establishing an environment. While the energy in the film wanes slightly at times, in the steady hands of Ms. Coppola it’s still a haunting and subversive take on the original story.


Monte’s Rating

4.00 out of 5.00

The Big Sick - Movie Review by Monte Yazzie

The Big Sick


Director: Michael Showalter

Starring: Kumail Nanjiani, Zoe Kazan, Holly Hunter, Ray Romano, Anupam Kher, Zenobia Shroff, and Adele Akhtar


Relationships require a lot of work in general; add in complicated and unexpected life events and it makes it even harder. Comedian Kumail Nanjiani and writer Emily V. Gordon are married, their relationship was struck with a difficult life event and they turned this scary encounter into a script that is the basis for the film “The Big Sick”.


It’s not hard to guess what happens in the film, the title alone is spoiler enough, but how the film develops the relationship between a comedian looking for an opportunity and a college student trying to focus on her future is the big accomplishment here. While the film exists within the stranglehold of romantic comedy familiarity, the performances and narrative do not. Kumail Nanjiani and Zoe Kazan have exceptional chemistry and the depth of the narrative keenly interweaves the relationship drama with cultural concerns/misunderstandings. “The Big Sick” is one of those films that will charm you into submission.


Kumail (Kumail Nanjiani) is a struggling Pakistani comedian, working on his set in a nightclub with other comics looking for a break. Kumail comes from a family of devout Muslims, with a mom (Zenobia Shroff) and dad (Anupam Kher) who are looking to arrange a marriage for their son. Kumail, born and raised in Chicago, is living the American life; when he tells his parents that he is going to pray before dinner, he is actually looking at videos on his phone. Kumail meets Emily (Zoe Kazan), she heckles him during a set, and after some persuasion from Kumail the two get serious. Kumail keeps his new relationship from his parents, but he also keeps his parents intentions to marry within his culture from Emily. When Emily finds out the two break-up, then Emily falls ill, forcing Kumail to deal with everything that he has been trying to avoid. 


Romantic comedies have a tendency to operate in very familiar and formulaic ways. “The Big Sick” is familiar at times but it is far from formulaic. What keeps it from trending the same territory with the same results is the accomplishment of the performances and the narrative tone that keep the developments fresh and somewhat off kilter.


Mr. Nanjiani has a natural appeal, he has a deadpan way of telling a joke but can also switch to a serious demeanor quickly. Zoe Kazan is consistently good, a great counterbalance to her costar. Ms. Kazan is offered a few moments, especially during their breakup, that are heart breaking to watch. Veteran actors, Holly Hunter and Ray Romano, play Emily’s parents. Ms. Hunter is fantastic and Mr. Romano is offered room to let his specific style of comedy to shine through. It should also be noted that famed actor Anupam Kher, who has done more than 500 films and has won numerous awards for his Hindi films, plays Kumail’s father.


The narrative does a great job creating authenticity within certain scenes. While one film might turn the illness aspect into the primary focal point, “The Big Sick” would rather display how people cope and deal with difficult situations and how culture treats aspects specific to family and raising children. While Emily’s parents may seem completely opposite of Kumail’s parents, they are actually both trying to setup the best future for their children. While one film might use the environment of a standup comedy club as an easy way to incorporate jokes, this film instead focuses on the dynamic of how vulnerable and isolating it would feel to be on a stage trying to connect with strangers, similarly to how Kumail may feel as a Muslim living in America or how he may feel being in a mixed relationship. It’s all handled with care, with attention given to the small and sometimes complicated bits that flesh out a script and make characters more relatable and stories more authentic.


“The Big Sick” hits so many satisfying notes it’s almost impossible not to find something that makes you smile. The jokes are sweet but also edgy and the romantic qualities are sincere, add in some really great performances and the combination is an enjoyable trip down relationship road.


Monte’s Rating

4.25 out of 5.00

Maudie - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

Hawkins delivers an Oscar-worthy performance in ‘Maudie’


Directed by: Aisling Walsh

Written by: Sherry White

Starring: Sally Hawkins and Ethan Hawke


“Maudie” – “I’ll get a job or something.” – Maud Lewis


Maud (Sally Hawkins) is soft spoken, pleasant and kind, and for fun, she spends an occasional evening at a club, enjoying a drink and dancing by herself.  One night at the aforementioned club, she soaks up laughter and music but without socializing or speaking to anyone.  Maud fills her time that evening surrounded by people, smiles and feels content, but she is terribly isolated in the crowd.


She lives rent-free at her Aunt Ida’s (Gabrielle Rose) home, and on one occasion, Maud’s brother, Charles (Zachary Bennett), stops by and badgers his sister by saying that she cannot take care of herself.  In her 30s, Maud suffers from rheumatoid arthritis and has never been on her own, so this moment strikes her as an opportunity to hit the pavement, find a job and move out.   She does so in all three cases, when a local fisherman, Everett (Ethan Hawke), hires her as his housemate, to clean and cook in his very modest home, just down the road in Marshalltown, Nova Scotia. 


What is a housemate?  What are Everett’s conditions?  What are the living arrangements?  This job carries very muddy boundaries, but eventually, Maud’s purpose becomes crystal clear in the most surprising way.  


Director Aisling Walsh fulfills her crystal clear vision of Maud Lewis’ biopic.  A biopic about a sweet, immensely determined and talented artist.  Maud and her paintings left a lasting legacy, and Walsh recreates the harsh conditions in which this artist lived.  Certainly, the wind, snow and biting cold can be unforgiving in this Canadian coastal providence, but difficult weather is only one element of her hardships.  The picture begins while Maud is an adult, but Hawkins drops many reveals that her character’s past has been littered with emotional and physical abuse.  For instance, while walking with Everett, Maud casually mentions that a group of kids threw rocks at her on the way to his house, as if the pelting that she endured was simply routine. 


During another scene with Everett, Maud confidently responds to comments of her limp and irregular movements – from the arthritis - by saying, “I was born funny.”


Hawkins delivers the line to Hawke’s Everett with deep resonance, as if Maud has repeated this announcement for decades - to hundreds of people – in order to explain why she finds trouble walking.   These moments become terribly effective in painting the historical adversity of Maud’s grueling physical affliction, during a time and place when sympathy is rarely found.      


Not only does Maud clue the audience into her arduous past, but her relationship with Everett – a simple man who appears to only know corrosive anger and blunt insults as his only mode of communication – is brutal and abusive.  Everett most likely left his sensitivity at the door of the orphanage in which he grew up, and can be best described as a caveman sending showers of thoughtless decrees in Maud’s direction. 


Everett wishes for a wife, so - early in the film - he places an advertisement for a “housemate” in a general store as an awkward, 1930s/1940s version of a 21st century dating site.  Maud is not who Everett envisioned as his “housemate”, so she becomes an easy target.    


Hawke persuasively portrays this ogre in black and white terms from the start, but over the course of the picture, he slowly slips in Everett’s softer humanity towards Maud in unexpected ways.  He succeeds in this challenging acting task, as Everett’s behavior to this sensitive soul shifts, but not before our heart goes out to Maud, a woman without options. 


Thankfully, Hawkins – who has plenty of acting options - decided to play Maud, and she is extraordinary here.  She is entirely convincing as a fragile woman who has received emotional (and sometimes physical) scorn from kids, townsfolk and her own family due to her physical limitations.  In the film, Everett is just about the only person - that the audience sees - delivering mean-spirited words in her direction, but Hawkins carries – in her face, in her movements and in her spirit – the decades of toil that Maud endured off-camera.  In one on-camera instance, Everett tells Maud that his dog and chickens are more important than her, and she begrudgingly accepts these harsh words as business as usual, as her off-camera years of abuse have built up her scars.


Therefore, when Maud turns to art as a cathartic outlet from her depressing, bleak environment, her escape into paint becomes a lift of epic proportions for the viewer.  For Maud, painting makes her happy, and her lovely, adorable paintings of birds, cats, trees, blue skies, and more reflect how she sees the world, despite the cold, cruel existence that we see.   Hawkins delivers all of this, and her work here absolutely deserves an Oscar nomination in a deeply affecting, unforgettable performance.  Beautiful and heartfelt.


The movie runs nearly two hours, and Walsh carries us to some dark places, but with the excellent lead performances, a grounded tone and a gentle, moving soundtrack, the picture never loses our attention, especially as we try to embrace Maud’s spirit.


Maud simply viewed the world in a different light than most of us, but Walsh and Hawkins do not offer a secret decoder ring to unlock her secret to success.  We receive no answers but do experience massive inspiration, joy and tears.    

(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.

Despicable Me 3 - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

Too many storylines, not enough Minions in ‘Despicable Me 3’


Directed by: Eric Guillon, Kyle Balda and Pierre Coffin

Written by: Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio

Starring: Steve Carell, Kristen Wiig, Trey Parker, and Julie Andrews



“Despicable Me 3” – When thinking about the “Despicable Me” series, what is the first image that pops into your mind?   Minions, right?


Those pintsized, yellow, pill-shaped, lovable devils have caused hilarious havoc in three previous animated adventures, including their own film, “Minions” (2015).   As entertaining as this collection of miscreants can be, Minions are best served in small, steady and frequent doses.  The best film in the series is the second one (2013), in which they were wholly integral to the main narrative but did not dominate the story.  In that movie, the main villain, El Macho (Benjamin Bratt), applies a sinister serum that turns our little “heroes” into purple, violent maniacs. 


“Despicable Me 2” (2013) found that sweet spot, a balance between not enough Minion-screen time and too much.  With “Despicable Me 3”, directors Eric Guillon, Kyle Balda and Pierre Coffin have found balance, not with the Minions, but in a different fashion.  In fact, in a very rare life instance, they have ironically applied way too much balance, and the picture suffers. 


After some unknown time from the second picture, Gru (Steve Carell) and Lucy (Kristen Wiig) are a happy couple, together at work - as agents for the Anti-Villain League (a.k.a. AVL) - and at 

home with the three girls, Margo, Edith and Agnes.  They are nestled into a wonderful existence, but the new AVL head unceremoniously fires both Gru and Lucy.  To make matters worse, the Minions leave Gru as well, citing grievances for not enough villainy in their mentor’s new happy life.


With some semblance of good news, Gru discovers that he has a twin, a long-lost brother named Dru (Steve Carell as well).  So, he, Lucy, the girls, and a pair of Minions (who stuck around) promptly leave for some place called Freedonia, and they meet Dru, who seems quite agreeable and giddy to catch up for lost time with his sibling.  Conflict arises, however, when Dru wishes to take up a life of crime and learn from the best, his brother, but Gru’s somewhat recent turn as a good guy creates quite the pickle for him in Freedonia.


The film fashions quite a pickle for the audience, because writers Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio jam about 1,000,006 stories into a movie that is listed as 1 hour 30 minutes, but with a quick, unscientific glance at my watch - while in theatre - it only ran for 1 hour 25 minutes.  “Despicable Me 3” apparently is the shortest film in the series, but with so many plot threads, it never devotes enough time in developing any of them.   It seems that Guillon, Balda and Coffin hoped to tender the same commitment to “every” character, but to the audience’s detriment.  Lucy struggles with her role as a mom, Gru grapples with his brother’s criminal intensions, Agnes endlessly drones on and on about finding a unicorn, and the Minions drift on their own, attempting to discover a new purpose. 


I have not even mentioned the main villain, Balthazar Bratt (Trey Parker), whose heart still pines for the 1980s, as he routinely wears a Members Only-like jacket, sports a mullet and dances to classic pop from his favorite musical era.  The filmmakers and Parker designed a very imaginative baddie who is intentionally annoying but assuredly captures our attention.  On the other hand, with all the time – basically – squandered on the pointless fodder in Freedonia, Bratt hardly graces the screen.  In fact, at one point, it felt like 30 minutes dragged on without a second of Bratt and his evil deeds appearing in the film. 


One may suppose that the “Despicable Me” team collectively decided that the story’s heartbeat should be Gru and his family’s progression as cartoon-human beings, but the truth is that the weakest link in the series is Gru and the three girls.  This film feeds us a steady diet of them and their issues, and with Dru now involved in the mix, second helpings appear on the menu too.  Out of 1 hour and 25 minutes, the film sadly summons about 20 minutes of entertainment for adults.  Bratt offers scores of 1980s references with the accompanying soundtrack, and his trademark saying “I’ve been a bad boy” brings back knee slapping memories of “I’d buy that for a dollar” from the original “Robocop” (1987) picture.  The precious minutes that the Minions do reach the screen are thankfully not wasted, including a hilariously elaborate prison scene, but we needed more of the little guys.  


As previously mentioned, the picture finds balance, but by equitably including everyone throughout the story, this equilibrium tips the film-scale towards a dull and uninspired cinematic effort.  Too much balance?  Yes, just don’t mention this to my yoga instructor.  

(1.5/4 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.

Baby Driver - Movie Review by Monte Yazzie

Baby Driver


Director: Edgar Wright

Starring: Ansel Elgort, Kevin Spacey, Lily James, Jon Hamm, Jamie Fox, Eiza Gonzalez, and Jon Bernthal


What's you favorite driving song? Do you like something heavy and loud? Do you like something with some rhythm? I'm impartial to soul and funk music, "Jungle Boogie" by Kool and the Gang or "Gonna Have A Funky Good Time" by James Brown. Regardless of how cool I may think my driving music is, it will never be as cool as the songs, and just about everything else, in director Edgar Wright's "Baby Driver".


Mr. Wright has always had a distinguishable style, even back in his early days you could notice it, however with every film in his growing catalog the director has only become better at combining his unique editing, camera, and narrative flow into a tightly packaged work. With "Baby Driver" the director may have perfected his style, making a film that is ridiculously fun and filled to the edges with creative filmmaking elements.


It's a simple story about a young man looking to get out of bad situation. Baby (Ansel Elgort) is a driver, though his form of transportation has him chauffeuring clients wearing masks and holding pistols. Baby owes a debt to Doc (Kevin Spacey), the brains behind the heist operations, and is close to getting square, which will allow him to leave the life of crime behind. All baby needs to do is finish one last job.


Who doesn't like a good heist film? That's exactly what "Baby Driver" is, a film about bad guys trying to get rich. Stuck in the middle of these shady characters is Baby, a young man who organizes every aspect of his life around music. In the literal soundtrack to his life, Baby jauntily shuffles his way to the coffee shop with Bob & Earl's "Harlem Shuffle" perfectly matched to every step, turn, and even breath taken by Baby. The joy during many of the scenes comes from the balance of editing and the use of music. The music tells more story than the words spoken by the characters. The emotion felt during certain song choices tells you more about the characters than any word they could utter in the film. Every song is hand-picked for the scene, it's an eclectic jukebox of music that ranges from soul, rock, hiphop, punk, and jazz. You don't have to be a music fan to like this movie, but music fans will get an absolute thrill over the use of some of these songs.


The ingenious editing accommodates the music perfectly. Cuts match tempo and actions are choreographed in near perfect synchronicity to the music. It's not the first time Mr. Wright has done this; in "Shaun of the Dead" a zombie is pummeled with Queen playing in the background, in "The World's End" beers are guzzled in syncs to a tune by The Doors, and in "Scott Pilgrim vs. The World" the entire film is predicated on a band fighting villains with music. But there is something different about how the director uses this technique here, in the past it was a purposeful element that played a supporting character but in "Baby Driver" it’s an exercise, a process to compose an entire film with a beating musical pulse.


What the film lacks in the form of an original story it more than accommodates with its creative use in every other element that composes a film. The technique is wholly unique and the performances are nuanced and playful. Ansel Elgort plays Baby with a quiet charm while the other players like Kevin Spacey, Eiza Gonzalez, Jamie Foxx, Jon Bernthal, and Jon Hamm play their versions of tough criminals with bad attitudes with a mix of cartoon menace but also intimidation when the story takes a turn for the serious. Lily James, playing the love interest to Baby, glows in the small supportive role as well.


"Baby Driver" doesn't do much to heighten the modern take of the heist film, but what it does in composing all the aspects around it is absolutely impressive. It's one of the most entertaining pieces of film this year, and quite possibly one of the best music videos ever made.


Monte's Rating

4.50 out of 5.00

Baby Driver - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

Welcome to ‘Baby Driver’, the most entertaining movie of the year…by a mile  


Written and directed by: Edgar Wright

Starring: Ansel Elgort, Lily James, Kevin Spacey, John Hamm, Jamie Foxx, Jon Bernthal, Elza Gonzalez, and CJ Jones


“Baby Driver” – During the 1970s and 1980s, millions of boys grew up watching hundreds and hundreds of staged car chases on television shows like “Starsky & Hutch” and “The Dukes of Hazzard”, and include me in this motley group.  Pristine minds – void of any personal experiences of burning rubber and squealing tires – can certainly become mesmerized, when two Southern California police detectives and two Georgia locals man their four-wheeled chariots on tracks of asphalt and dirt, respectively and in the process, outwit their adversaries. 


Over time, however, mesmerized looks can turn into glazed over ones, when car chases simply become repeated vehicles (pardon the pun) to fill time during small screen programs.   In other words, for many experienced television and movie fans, it will take a heck of a car chase to garner our attention.


Enter Baby. 


Baby (Ansel Elgort) - an early 20-something who frequently sports shades, almost constantly blares music on his old school iPod and hardly speaks a word – drives. 


Baby drives several different teams of bank robbers – three at a time - to various jobs, and our sunspecs-sporting, earbud-wearing, soft-spoken hero is always the fourth in these criminal quartets.  The armed robbers change, but Baby remains the one constant, because he is the best. 


Right away, writer/director Edgar Wright showcases Baby’s skills behind the wheel of a red, 4-door Subaru in a getaway chase that heightens the senses, complete with hairpin turns on narrow streets, zigzags on busy freeways and an extremely clever deception that will induce frisky smiles, even from the most cynical, experienced “Starsky & Hutch” and ”The Dukes of Hazzard” viewers.


Wright literally and figuratively puts the pedal to the metal - and beautifully does so - in concert with a particular 1994 alternative rock track (which I will not name in this review) emanating from Baby’s iPod.   What an entrance, and welcome to “Baby Driver”, easily the most entertaining movie of 2017…so far.  In fact, with this film’s mix of music, action, comedy, and snappy dialogue within its congealed criminal elements and more, “Baby Driver” resonates a unique euphoria, similarly to two pictures in fairly recent history, “48 Hours” (1982) and “Pulp Fiction” (1994).  I cannot absolutely declare that Wright’s masterpiece is on par with these films, but with just one week out from seeing the picture, it sure feels that way.


Along with Baby, Wright pens a collection of felonious types, including a tattooed bully (Jon Bernthal), a veteran lawbreaker who always anticipates a double-cross (Jamie Foxx) and a couple who arrives as the most amiable of the bunch, because they endless shower affection for one another (John Hamm, Elza Gonzalez).  Every crook – rotating in and out – usually finds plenty to say, and their constant spoken opinions prove a huge contrast to Baby, who prefers to keep his distance, physically and emotionally.  Baby either believes that he does not belong in Doc’s (Kevin Spacey) various gangs of four, or he does, so detachment during the heists’ planning and execution stages helps him cope. 


The picture does not detach or unplug the audience during its 1-hour 53-minute runtime, and music and many, many references to it flood the screen, as the soundtrack feels like another character along for the ride (again, pardon the pun).  Music moves in harmony with the distinct characters, as they run through complex schemes of thievery in a windowless, concrete room and cinematically race them to fruition through Atlanta’s buzzing streets via kinetic, violent means.  Meanwhile, the narrative gradually unwraps Baby’s sorted history through haunting flashbacks which environmentally built – atom by atom - his nature in 2017, and the screenplay smartly offers him a courtship with a sweet, virginal waitress named Debora (Lily James) at the same pacing.


Baby and Debora’s scenes at Bo’s Diner feel precious and rare, as he continues to open up to this trusting, wide-eyed girl next door, sans the details of his current driving duties.  Baby’s reveals and personal growth (including a father/son relationship with Joseph (CJ Jones)) pour a highly important foundation to the film and serve as the emotional core that allows the audience the freedom to play and dollop in the wild, dangerous fun.  Stylistically, the film treats the flashbacks and current romantic sparks with Debora with the same, deep meticulous details as the thrilling set pieces, so transitions between relationship exploration and action are tonally seamless. 


Wright also conjures up some pleasing traces of “Reservoir Dogs” (1992) and “True Romance” (1993) – including a faint ode to Elvis with Baby’s given accent – but “Baby Driver” proudly carries its own spirit with less exposition (except for music references) and more focus on the tasks at hand.   You see, precision is a paramount prerequisite to a successful heist, and “Baby Driver” thoroughly crafts and layers intricate elements – throughout the picture - which lend its astonishingly elaborate mechanics to flow with the greatest of ease.  No, “Baby Driver” is not another action picture with well-placed, choreographed car chases.  Not by a mile

(4/4 stars)


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


The Exception - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

‘The Exception’ is intriguing but not necessarily exceptional


Directed by: David Leveaux

Written by: Simon Burke (screenplay), Alad Judd (novel)

Starring: Jai Courtney, Lily James, Christopher Plummer, Janet McTeer, and Eddie Marsan



“The Exception” - The definition of an exception is a person or a thing that does not follow a rule.  In director David Leveaux’s first feature film, he wonders if Capt. Stefan Brandt (Jai Courtney) can be an exception and not follow a rule or - more specifically - his orders.  Leveaux raises the stakes for the audience, because Capt. Brandt is not part of an ordinary military outfit, but a very infamous one.  The year is 1940, and Brandt is a German soldier.  Of course, SS soldiers who spoke the words “I was just following orders” have been forever scorned and shamed.


“The Exception” is not set in a concentration camp, but actually, the complete opposite, a lush and luxurious estate in German-occupied Holland.  Kaiser Wilhelm II (Christopher Plummer) lives in exile within the well-manicured, fully-staffed castle, and Brandt is ordered to protect the former German Emperor from a British spy who - according to intelligence reports - could assassinate him.    


Leveaux and writer Simon Burke do not forge this wartime thriller on a foundation of action and gunplay.  Instead, they construct an expositional, exploratory narrative through the eyes of three key characters who are figuratively placed in uncomfortable waters and asked to gently tread with a dangerous undercurrent looming nearby.  


Wilhelm still burns with frustration due the German economic calamity after World War I and sorely feels less than whole.  A king without a throne in his homeland.  Meanwhile, Capt. Brandt tries to escape his wartime demons, as he repeatedly dreams the same image of dead women and children laying in an ordinary field.  On this new assignment, death is ever-present too, because Brandt’s commander will execute him, if he fails to protect the king.  The third character in this triad is a maid named Mieke (Lily James) who serves Wilhelm.  Both Wilhelm and Brandt are smitten by Mieke’s beauty but also by her depth which carries some secrets. 


Brandt and Mieke delve into a sexual relationship from the get-go, despite their obvious geopolitical differences (since Germany invaded her country and all), and their bedroom scenes are very forward.  The tone almost pays tribute to films of the 1970s, when frank and open sex scenes can randomly appear out of nowhere, or perhaps the 1980s, as both Brandt and Mieke borrow a pick-up line from Daniel Day-Lewis’ Tomas in “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” (1988).  


Courtney and James share onscreen physical chemistry, but I did not quite buy into their emotional connection.  Now, I wholly believed their individual and collective angst in this particular castle but not necessarily the two as a potential long-term pair, either due to forced plot devices trying to unite them or their emotive fit as actors. 


Plummer does fit as Kaiser Wilhelm II, and it is impossible to take your eyes off him, whether reminders of the king’s past surface during stormy, awkward political talk at dinner or through a quiet moment with Mieke, as they feed the ducks.  Plummer plays Wilhelm as a complex soul, balancing proud, earned dignity with shame.  Well into his 80s, Plummer continues to churn out terrific performances (“Remember” (2015), “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” (2011) and “Beginners” (2010), among others), as his work in “The Exception” is no exception. 


Courtney, known for living and breathing tough guy and villainous roles, delivers his most likable performance that I have seen to date (which is ironic, because he plays a Nazi captain), and James offers another memorable turn with nuanced touches.  The film, however, does not quite possess that thriller-touch, as designed sequences like a race against time during an interrogation and an active search through the castle do not fetch enough tension.  Rather than inducing stress from a ticking clock or worry about a Nazi guard’s detective methods, these scenes just feel cliché. 


Although, I should note that Eddie Marsan – in a supporting role - is downright chilling as Heinrich Himmler, but as the movie plays out, the mechanics of the German military’s investigation are far less important than the lead characters’ growth.  Then again, the relationships between the three leads sometimes feel more fanciful than realistic, but at least Leveaux and Burke are not following cinematic orders.

(2.5/4 stars)


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


Transformers: The Last Knight - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

‘Transformers: The Last Knight’ is a nightmare


Directed by:  Michael Bay

Written by:  Art Marcum, Matt Holloway and Ken Nolan

Starring:  Mark Wahlberg, Anthony Hopkins and Laura Haddock


“Transformers: The Last Knight” -  Have you ever walked into a classroom, sat down and the instructor hands out final exams to all the students, but you recoil in horror, because you haven’t attended one lecture all semester?


I have never felt such despair in real life but have encountered an occasional dream depicting the aforementioned, dreadful scenario.   Apparently, this type of nightmare stems from feeling anxiety or discomfort about a life situation during one’s waking hours.  During sleeping hours, a brutal sense of unpreparedness can temporarily rush over a person when looking down at a test with zero apparent paths to answer any of its questions. 


On June 19, I suffered a very rare occurrence, because I felt that dream-exam angst while wide awake during my 2-hour 29-minute “Transformers: The Last Knight” experience. 


Although I grasped the movie’s basic plot, as the narrative played out, I was lost, like sitting down and flipping through a five-page test booklet, without any understanding of the words typed on its pages.  Apparently, director Michael Bay has devised a cinematic language of his own, because this movie defies logic. 


Before expanding on the film’s many, many faults, let’s review the storyline. 


Set a few months or years after the events of “Transformers: Age of Extinction” (2014), the Autobots and Decepticons are leaderless, as Optimus Prime and Megatron are nowhere to be found.  Some robot-lawlessness exists, so humans formed the Transformers Reaction Force (TRF) to seek and destroy our mechanical heroes and enemies. 


Our human hero from the last film, Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg) found a home at a South Dakota junkyard, with various Autobots and a 20-something named Jimmy (Jerrod Carmichael) who adds absolutely nothing to the narrative.  Cade must have found a way to teleport across the United States to this junkyard, because he can apparently materialize in Chicago in a blink of eye, in a random act of heroism to rescue a girl and four boys. 


Meanwhile, Sir Edmund Burton (Anthony Hopkins) narrates tales of magic and history, and the movie references England’s Dark Ages.  Even Merlin the Magician conjures up an appearance, as the film reveals that Transformers existed in England – 1,600 years into the past -  while a mystical talisman and staff wield great power. 


On the Transformers’ home world of Cybertron, Quintessa (who maintains a similar role as the Borg Queen in the “Star Trek” Universe) wants to suck the Earth dry of its energy to jumpstart her world, and this ancient staff is the key to her plans.  So, lots of robots and humans find themselves in a race to find the staff to either destroy or save Planet Earth.


Since the entire Earth is danger, Bay includes many faraway locales on the big screen.  For instance, he flashes images of China, Jordan, Egypt, and West Africa.  Additionally, John Turturro’s character lives in Cuba and races to a pay phone to screech about impending doom.   Hopkins’ Burton resides in England and seems to possess all kinds of answers, except the whereabouts of the missing staff.  Cade zips to Illinois and South Dakota through his unknown mode of transportation that moves at the speed of light.  Thankfully, he carves out some time to check in with his daughter by leaving a voicemail and later writing a text, but I digress.  Upon reflection, I believe that Bay left out Antarctica, Australia and South America without representation during this global challenge.  That’s a terrible shame, because when saving the Earth, everybody knows that it takes a village.


Well, this village would not be complete without an attractive heroine, so Vivian Wembley (Laura Haddock) makes an entrance.  She doubles as polo player and professor at Oxford and at certain angles conveniently resembles Megan Fox, who starred in the first two “Transformers” films. 


Humans work with various Autobots - like Bumblebee and Drift – with a singular goal in mind, but seemingly every set piece seems to serve no purpose other than to manifest random action, chases or explosions for a few minutes at a time with little connective tissue to the previous scene.  Add Stonehenge, a submarine that explores some bizarre lost city of Atlantis, an obligatory desert highway crash, giant horns that emerge from the Earth’s surface, and extraterrestrial stirrups which dangle from Cybertron, and that is your movie.  A collection of nonsense that can somewhat be explained by Sir Burton, who speaks in hopeless riddles.  


Thankfully, the smartest person at NASA (Tony Hale) affirms that the best way to defeat Quintessa’s sinister plan is by leveraging nuclear explosions that will act like a Tiger Woods golf shot. 


Whew, I feel safe now.


Actually, I was mystified, because I cannot speak Michael Bay’s language, at least in the “Transformers” Universe, but I should not be surprised.  After the entertaining first film, “Transformers” (2007), Bay has been jamming explosion-filled diets of big screen junk food down our throats for four sequels now.  For those who never grew up with Optimus Prime, Megatron and Bumblebee toys and who appreciate lucid movie plots, these “Transformers” movies can be painful.  “Transformers: Age of Extinction” (2014) is worst picture in the series, primarily because it dragged on for 2 hours and 45 minutes with a shameless, grandiose importance of “The English Patient” (1996).   


The only positive aspect of this film?  It ran 16 minutes shorter than its predecessor.


At least this cinematic nightmare was not as long, but 149 minutes is still a brutal chore.  Well, when entering a “Transformers” classroom, perhaps the best course of action is to simply turn around and walk out.

(1/4 stars)


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