Logan Lucky - Movie Review by Monte Yazzie

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Logan Lucky


Director: Steven Soderbergh

Starring: Channing Tatum, Adam Driver, Katie Holmes, Riley Keough, Seth MacFarlane, Katherine Waterston, Sebastian Stan, Hilary Swank, and Daniel Craig


Director Steven Soderbergh retired about four years ago, citing that the Hollywood system has done nothing but treat filmmakers in increasingly “horrible” ways. While Mr. Soderbergh parted ways with Hollywood, he didn’t leave the creative seat; the director transitioned to the medium that has become more appealing to filmmakers, television. He directed all twenty episodes of Cinemax’s “The Knick” and served as executive producer of Starz’s “The Girlfriend Experience”. Soderbergh returns from the short-lived retirement with a hillbilly heist film that feels perfectly suited for his creative style.


Boasting a star-studded cast, one that features Channing Tatum, Adam Driver, and Daniel Craig, “Logan Lucky” is a familiar return for the director but the process of bringing this film to theaters is different than in his past. Using an experimental method of distribution, one that the director formed himself, the plan could offer an alternative for filmmakers looking for more freedom and control in their art. If “Logan Lucky” is the first example of what we will get from the director when allowed to work on his own terms, viewers are in for a great time.


Jimmy (Channing Tatum) has just been laid off from a construction job; it’s the final straw in a life that has consistently come up short. Jimmy has a daughter, Sadie (Farrah Mackenzie), who lives with his ex-wife (Katie Holmes) in West Virginia. Wanting to change the course of his life, and keep his daughter close to him, Jimmy recruits his brother Clyde (Adam Driver) and sister Mellie (Riley Keough) to help him with a robbery of the Charlotte Motor Speedway during the Coca-Cola 600.


Mr. Soderbergh has a way of establishing an environment and crafting characters that fit the mold; in “Ocean’s Eleven” he swaggered a Hollywood roster into a Rat Pack influenced heist film in Las Vegas and in “Magic Mike” he took Channing Tatum into the sordid backstage world of male strippers in Florida. In “Logan Lucky” the director does something similar, taking another group of recognizable Hollywood faces and making them proud West Virginians using all the resources they have to pull off something much bigger than they should ever attempt. It’s Soderbergh doing what he does best, and for much of the film the combination of interesting characters and caper constructing storytelling works quite well.


“Logan Lucky” feels familiar to some of Soderbergh’s work however it’s also somewhat different. Where “Ocean’s Eleven” and the subsequent sequels strived for entertainment and coolness, “Logan Lucky” seems to be making more of a statement about the state of the world even though it never directly implies it with dialog. The “steal from the rich and give to the poor” motif works well here, it also adds a few moments of comedy as The Logan family doesn't seem to be the brightest group of thieves capable of concocting such a complicated robbery plan.


The film is supported by strong performances from Adam Driver, playing a war veteran who is missing an arm and worries about a family curse, and Daniel Craig, giving a knock-out performance as a prison inmate with a specific set of criminal skills. But the standout of the film is Channing Tatum, playing a working class man driven to tough decisions. Mr. Tatum displays a quality here that is as much dimwitted as it is sincere, sometimes at the same time. It’s seen clearly in every moment with his daughter but also in smaller moments, like in one scene involving his brother’s lost prosthetic arm.


There is a moment in the film when John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads” plays; everyone in the scene begins to sing. It’s an interesting moment that defines the film, an anthem for a group of people that means something significant, specifically to them. It doesn’t matter at this point if anyone else understands it, because the moment in the film has enough honesty and heart to make it mean something. That’s what Mr. Soderbergh does best in “Logan Lucky”, he makes this southern charged heist film mean something more than the silly premise might imply.  Hopefully we continue to see more from the talented director in the future.


Monte’s Rating

3.75 out of 5.00

Menashe - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell


‘Menashe’ effectively voices a familiar struggle in an unfamiliar environment


Directed by: Joshua Z. Weinstein

Written by: Joshua Z. Weinstein, Alex Lipschultz and Musa Syeed

Starring: Menashe Lustig, Ruben Niborski, Meyer Schwartz, and Yoel Weisshaus


“Menashe” – “You must find a new wife.  She will run your household.  She’ll keep your home clean.  It will be a fine, pious home.” - Rabbi Yaakov (Meyer Schwartz)


Menashe (Menashe Lustig) is a widower who lost his wife, Leah, about a year ago.  He lives alone in his Brooklyn, NY apartment but does not urgently feel the need to remarry.  Unfortunately, his rabbi (Schwartz) says that he must marry again in order to be reunited with his son, Rieven (Ruben Niborski).  


You see, Menashe is a Hasidic Jewish man, and traditions state that Rieven needs to live in a two-parent household, or he will be kicked out of school.  Hence, Menashe’s conundrum is a classic tale of one person fighting against the system, but his story is told in an unfamiliar setting in director Joshua Z. Weinstein’s feature film, “Menashe”. 


From the first moments of “Menashe”, one notices the picture’s documentary feel, but that should be no surprise.  Over the past 12 years, Weinstein has directed, written and produced documentaries, and his solid foundation in this space lends itself to this movie.   He filmed on location in Borough Park, where many speak Yiddish and maintain long-established customs, and Weinstein’s actors – including Lustig – have never spent time in front of a movie camera. 


In Borough Park, it is not uncommon to see the streets occupied with men wearing black hats and jackets and sporting long side locks of hair, and women managing their children and covering their hair with scarves.  In fact, in a recent interview, Weinstein said that in this particular location, Hasidic men walk on one side of the street and women on the other.  Within the movie’s 82-minute runtime, Weinstein certainly carries his camera on the Brooklyn streets but also into apartments and small rooms, as he closely follows Menashe’s struggles.  His struggle to be his own man, to refrain from always bowing towards customs, to not wear a hat and jacket, and to date or marry when he wishes.  The mores in his world, however, are very, very strong, and any significant resistance against them will result in paying some kind of price. 


At the moment, the biggest price is that Rieven must live with Menashe’s ex-brother-in-law, Eizik (Yoel Weisshaus), and his family, and this is a most painful consequence for our protagonist.  Through quiet – and sometimes not so quiet – daily conversations with Eizik, his boss, a scheduled blind date, and others, the film does an excellent job of framing Menashe as a misfit, someone on the outside looking in.  Menashe unfortunately does not help himself either, when he always seems to run 30 minutes late for everything and is the direct cause of both minor and major life screw-ups.   He is a loveable, kind-hearted human being, but one who does not look out for himself and is surrounded by others who pounce on his every mistake. 


To quote Bob Seger, Menashe is “running against the wind” at nearly every life turn.  One completely curious turn throughout the picture is that everyone speaks Yiddish, which, of course, contributes to Weinstein’s documentary feel, but he leaves one seminal moment in which Menashe breaks into English in a completely heartfelt scene.


This is a small moment with grand ideas in a small movie with big, sweeping themes, and “Menashe” resonates with its one man versus the system conflict, as it meshes with an organic insider’s view into unknown spaces.  Menashe’s ultimate fate within his space truly feels unknown until the film’s final few minutes.  He may be flawed, but with or without a wife, Menashe is a worthy underdog and an amiable soul.

(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.

Dave Made a Maze - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

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‘Dave Made a Maze’ offers more visual treats than narrative dead ends


Directed by:  Bill Watterson

Written by:  Steven Sears and Bill Watterson

Starring:  Nick Thune, Meera Rohit Kumbhani, Adam Busch, Kirsten Vangsness, Stephanie Allynne, and James Urbaniak


“Dave Made a Maze” – After a long weekend away, Annie (Meera Rohit Kumbhani) walks into her apartment and finds a massive cardboard box creation sitting in the middle of her living room.  Immediately, she discovers that her boyfriend, Dave (Nick Thune), has taken up residence in this thing for three days and will not leave it, because he’s lost. 




If this premise sounds crazy, just imagine the thoughts swirling around in Annie’s head. 


“Dave Made a Maze” is a heady, wonderfully crazy idea that captures the imagination with its visual surprises, and the catalyst of the on-screen mischief is, of course, Dave.  Dave - in a moment of inspiration - decided to craft a cardboard fort/fortress/maze that resembles a creation from the mind of a random preteen boy.  His fort, however, is laced with intricate alchemy that one would not nearly expect from a 9-year-old kid, and from the outside looking in, it is an impressive work from a man with way too much time on his hands and who clearly owns a case of untreated arrested development.     


The vast and “unarrested” development from inside the maze, however, resembles a dangerous funhouse, and Annie and others ignore Dave’s warnings and enter the fragile labyrinth to rescue their missing hero. 


From a pure creative perspective, director Bill Watterson constructs a truly mindboggling world, as Annie and Dave’s friends – Gordon (Adam Busch), Harry (James Urbaniak), Leonard (Scott Krinsky), Jane (Kirsten Vangsness), and others - carefully step into passageways and around corners fabricated by brown, corrugated paper with 10-foot high ceilings.  During their bizarre journey, the film reveals many wonders, and after each nifty visual, one cannot even guess the next cinematic bombshell that will appear next.  (Additionally, how long did Watterson and his crew actually take to build the maze itself?)  I will not reveal the phenomena from within their catacombs, but Watterson and writer Steven Sears do pull some inspiration from “Star Wars” (1977), “Raiders of the Lost Ark” (1981), “The Evil Dead” (1981), and “Jurassic Park” (1993) in some carefully designed spots. 


As enjoyable as this twisted world of make-believe is, the film was not nearly as industrious with its script.  Even though the picture runs a scant 76 minutes, the story feels like it struggles to even fill its very short runtime or give the large supporting cast enough to do.  Ironically, it burns way too many calories with Harry’s story.  He is a reporter – or perhaps a wannabe reporter – and the picture devotes so much of its screen time with Harry and his two colleagues (who man his camera and sound mike) interviewing Annie and the rest for some cockamamie news story or documentary. Watterson and Sears feature – what seems like – one third of the picture on Harry’s movie within a movie, as he repeatedly directs Annie, Dave and Gordon to express more emotion or show their feelings in a specific way for his camera.  Rather than advancing the story within the cardboard caves, Harry’s amateur film project just stalls it. 


Furthermore, Watterson and Sears miss a golden opportunity to show some of the footage that Harry’s cameraman (Scott Narver) shot.  With this three-person crew sucking up so much oxygen in filming their documentary, it would have been nice to at least see some glances of it during the end credits.


Certainly Dave deserves credit for building his maze, but he has trouble expressing himself in front of both Watterson’s and Harry’s cameras.  This is on purpose, because Dave possesses mountains of creativity but is void of the personal tools needed to hone his craft.  Dave never finishes what he starts, and in turn, he does not necessarily inspire as a lead protagonist.


For example, when Harry asks Dave why he started the maze, he responds, “I built the maze, because I wanted to make something.”  


As vague and insipid as Dave’s aforementioned statement is, the film smartly does not reveal his magical, artistic secrets, and hence Dave leaves the audience with designed gaps in comprehending his sleight of hand.


How did he do it, and how did the maze adopt a kooky life of its own?    


Dave cannot even explain the mystery, but there is no ambiguity with the film’s originality and entertainment values.  Even though Dave cannot verbalize his creative mind, there is no doubt that Dave, Watterson and Sears can proudly tout their highly imaginative creation.  At the end of the day, “Dave Made a Maze” bears more cinematic gifts than narrative dead ends and delivers a unique experience that is worth getting lost for 76 minutes.   

(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.

Annabelle: Creation - Movie Review by Monte Yazzie

Annabelle: Creation


Director: David Sandberg

Starring: Stephanie Sigman, Miranda Otto, Lulu Wilson, Talitha Bateman, Philippa Coulthard, Samara Lee, Grace Fulton, Tayler Buck, and Anthony LaPaglia


Horror filmmakers are working really hard to make creepy clowns and demonic dolls scary again. We still have to wait a few more weeks for the clown nightmares to come back again, but this weekend the disturbing doll from “The Conjuring” saga returns to theaters in director David Sandberg’s newest chiller.

“Annabelle: Creation” is the third outing for the demon inhabiting doll, this time serving as a prequel to a prequel to the original film it was featured in. Mr. Sandberg made a splash in the horror genre last year with “Light’s Out”, a film that displayed the director’s interesting touch with composing a jump scare. You can feel that influence in “Annabelle: Creation”, a film that aims to do more than it’s predecessor did with a scare while also providing more crumbs to feed the appetite of those looking for the origin story behind the Annabelle doll.


A doll maker (Anthony LaPaglia) and his family live a peaceful life in the 1940’s until a tragic accident takes the life of their only daughter. 12 years later the doll maker and his wife are trying to move on with their lives, they open their large home to a nun (Stephanie Sigman) and a group of orphaned girls. It doesn’t take long for strange things to happen, leading one inquisitive girl to a closet lined with pages from the Bible. Inside is a terrifying doll with a connection to a family secret.


Mr. Sandberg moves quickly, letting the scares take control of the story early and watching the audience squirm with anticipation of the next creepy fright coming from a dark hallway, under a bed sheet, or with a child’s toy gun. Some of the scares are cheap, mostly jump scares that horror audiences have seen better in numerous films. Still, Mr. Sandberg has skill in composing these moments, and when he does achieve a great fright it’s because of techniques like framing and composition of the environment. There are far more genuinely creepy moments here than in the original “Annabelle” film that came out in 2014.


Some nice performances exist in the film when the narrative provides the opportunity for a piece of character development to come through. Anthony LaPaglia’s tormented father is an interesting character, but aside from the actor walking around looking angry there isn’t much room to fit him into the framework of why evil lives in his home. The young women in the film compose some nice chemistry when they get a moment to interact with one another, though most of the film they are alone walking into dark rooms or running from scary noises.


One of the reasons the scares are better here is because there are more opportunities to incorporate them. The lack of emphasis on the torn family dynamic, the background of the children, the reason the evil exists for this family and why it utilizes the doll, isn’t given too much attention aside from a film quick scene to try to tie everything together. Still, for genre fans looking for something a little creepy or for just a few jump scares, “Annabelle: Creation” will do the job.


Monte’s Rating

3.00 out of 5.00

Step - Movie Review by Monte Yazzie



Director: Amanda Lipitz

Starring: Paula Dofat, Blessin Giraldo, Cori Grainger, and Tayla Solomon


“Step”, an inspiring story about a group of young women from Baltimore on a step-dancing team, is less about dancing and more about the determination to pursue the future. Taking the “fly-on-the-wall” approach to this documentary, director Amanda Lipitz simply watches as personalities mold and clash throughout the senior year for the inaugural class of the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women.


The school was established in 2009 with a mission of sending every one of the students, most of them from low-income families, to an opportunity in college. The struggles of high school life, the drama, the homework, the obligation to the team, are further complicated by troubles at home, the family issues, the lack of money, the struggles of a city divided in the wake of the suspicious death of Freddie Gray while in police custody. “Step” teems with personality and a sense of joy, even when it makes all the turns that you’d expect a film like this to make. You’ll still want these young women to succeed in everything they do, in both their journey to become champions of their hobby and their future.


The Lethal Ladies of BLSYW, that’s their step-dance team name, are a fierce group of young women together but also individually. The film looks specifically at a few young women on the team.


Cori Grainger is the brain of the bunch, an impressive young mind who has high ambitions of getting into Johns Hopkins on a “full-ride” scholarship. Her family, always supportive but realistic of the costs associated with higher education, worry about how they are going to make it all work. Cori worries too.


Tayla Solomon has an authority about her; she’s confident and passionate, many times challenging her teammates with attitude. Makes sense considering her mother is a strong willed corrections officer determined to give a better life to her children.


The personality of the group is Blessin Giraldo, the team captain and motivator of the group. Blessin is complicated, her family life is complicated, and this makes her academic career complicated just before graduation.


For these young women dance is an escape from their hectic and stress filled lives, but just because it’s an escape doesn’t make them any less passionate about it. “Step” watches the progression of a team on their way to the final state event. Along the way we see them grow as a team, we see them on good days and bad days, we see them struggle and achieve. It’s truthful in its portrayal of team dynamics, being the best isn’t easy and you can feel that aspect during their practices.


“Step” does a great job of showcasing how a team can reveal character within an individual, how it builds character to achieve high expectations, and how it shapes character to deal with obstacles that will arise in the future. All of this comes together in the film’s highlight performance, a beautiful piece of resistance, confidence, and determination. It’s a joyous thing to witness.


Monte’s Rating

4.00 out of 5.00

An interview with the team behind "Step" by Monte Yazzie

"Leading the young ladies of "Step" into the future"


Coming to theaters today is a new documentary about an all-girls’ step-dance team from Baltimore, Maryland called "Step". The team, a mix of confident and determined young personalities, is trying to win their first championship. Throughout their year long journey the girls face trying obstacles in the form of the everyday drama of being a teenager in high school but also the barriers of being from low income families who are doing their best to make a future for their children. Add in the turmoil of being in a city experiencing protesting and riots between citizens and authority figures.


What's makes "Step" so unique, apart from the likable young women and the joyous aspect of watching a team come together despite the hardships, is the fact that the film provides a viewpoint for the people that are trying to maintain the path for these young women to travel. The parents, the teachers, and the counselors at the school are provided a genuine portrayal, one that shows the worry associated with preparing young women for roles in the real, tumultuous world.


The Phoenix Film Festival had a quick opportunity to sit down with the young women and administrative team behind the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women (BLSYW).


This behind-the-scenes look at the operation of a school can create some disruption in the day-to-day aspects of running an education facility. When talking with Paula Dofat, the Director of College Counseling at BLSYW, we asked if she had any apprehensions before the start of the filmmaking process, specifically with letting a film crew come into the school and have such an intimate, realistic, and genuine portrayal of school life? Ms. Dofat explains:


We wanted to make sure that the integrity of our jobs, and how we do our jobs, was maintained…and that was shown. I'm doing what I have to do. So it's not a secret, if they pull out any of the deleted scenes, I threaten the kids. And I tell them things like, "I wish you would come back to my office without that, and let's see what's going to happen.” And I say things like, "I feel froggy." And they're like, "That means you're going to jump?" "Yeah, so where's my stuff?" I'm more of the the realist. I'm the one who will hold their feet to the fire.


Part of Ms. Dofat's job is to prepare these young women for the future. To make sure they are ready to go to college and the get the education they need to make life better in the future. It's molding and shaping these young women, sometimes through tough love, but also with an approach that generates accountability and responsibility. When talking about how she approaches this aspect Ms. Dofat explains:


I'm the one who's there to tell them, "Check this out. At some point nobody's going to give a doggone about you. So you'd better care. So have your stuff together, know what you're doing, know how you're getting there." Right. Because this thing that we have going on here, this is a great foundation, and you need to take it with you. But at the same time, know that every place you go is not going to be like that. So let's get it together. Making sure that they're in a position. That they're not going to need people in certain ways. That's why I make sure that when they are off to college, they have the least amount of debt. I will overlook a name brand school any day, any time of the week, for a smaller school that's willing to make sure my kid is going to come out and not owe money. So I really don't care about the name of your school. I care about - is it a good fit academically for my kid, whoever that kid is for me. And whether it's going to be a good financial fit. If you can't do that for me, keep it moving. Appreciate you, I will say nice things about your school, but none of my kids will go there. And I have no qualms about that. I'm also a huge historically black college supporter. There's 103 of them. A good majority of our girls go to historically black colleges. There's something that happens there. And I support all schools, but there's something that happens there that's very, very magical. And it cannot be duplicated. And I'd love to dispel the myth, the lie, that those schools do not have money, that they do not present great opportunities, and you cannot be employed. So I make sure that they have opportunity at all schools.


In one of the most compelling scenes late in the film, Ms. Dofat's emotion overwhelms her. It happens when she is trying to get Blessin Giraldo, the team captain and fierce personality of the team, into a college. It's a passionate scene of an educator pleading for one of their students. Ms. Dofat explains why this scene played out the way it did.


Can we give you some context very quickly. We were 30 days before graduation. We had 30 days left. And there was no way on God's green earth that that young lady (pointing at Ms. Giraldo) was going to walk out of that school and not have the same opportunity that everybody else in that school had, or everybody else in the United States. So if I had to cry, if I had to go and cajole…that girl was going someplace.


Director Amanda Lipitz makes this documentary with an emphasis on change, specifically concerning the perception of the city of Baltimore. But the filmmaking process created more than Ms. Lipitz could have ever expected. She explains:


I wanted to make a musical. I wanted to make a musical documentary that changed the story about Baltimore. That was the impetus of it, changing the conversation about Baltimore. I was completely and utterly inspired by these young women. The young women seated at this table, and the 19 of them who are not here with us. Every single one of them had a story. And truly, I made it for them. I didn't make it thinking that it was going to go to Sundance or be bought by Fox or be sitting here with all of you. I just made it so that they would've been proud to have been a part of it. And that's all that ever mattered to me. So for me, I have just incredible amounts of respect and love. We're a family for these women. And their mothers and their extended families for being brave - to share their stories, for trusting me to tell it. And for continuing to inspire people all over the world by continuing to work, so that this film gets the opportunity we just never ever, ever, ever dreamed it would have.


When the group of young women, the filmmaker, and the administration from the school talked about what they hoped audiences would take away from this film, Coach Gari McIntyre (the kids call her Coach G) provided a poignant and fitting takeaway. Coach McIntyre explains:


What I hope people take away, especially mentors and educators, is that they look at this and see themselves, like as a tribute to what they do. And hopefully it keeps them going every day. 'Cause you get discouraged. I'm sure all of us up here have gotten discouraged. All of us in this room have gotten discouraged in what we do. And it's hard to find that passion and that fire that you had when you first wanted to go into it. And then if you don't mentor or do anything, I hope that people really do find time in their day to pay forward whatever they're doing, whatever they're good at. Art, music, journalism, dance - doesn't have to necessarily be sports. Engineering, math, technology, all of those things.


The students of the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women are in good hands. "Step" can be seen at Harkins Camelview at Fashion Square today.

The Glass Castle - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

‘The Glass Castle’ lets us clearly see into a soulful bundle of life


Directed by:  Destin Daniel Cretton

Written by:  Destin Daniel Cretton and Andrew Lanham, based upon the memoir by Jeannette Walls

Starring:  Brie Larson, Woody Harrelson, Naomi Watts, Ella Anderson, and Chandler Head


“The Glass Castle” – “This is as real as it gets kids.  You learn from living.” – Rex Walls (Woody Harrelson)


Rex Walls proudly exclaims the aforementioned statement to his young children during an impromptu stop in the desert, while he points out the intricacies of the arid – but wondrous – surroundings.  Rex and his wife, Rose Mary (Naomi Watts), are very knowledgeable and talented individuals, and their kids – Jeannette, Lori, Brian, and Maureen – could absolutely learn a couple lifetimes of facts, figures, philosophy, art, and science by simply listening to their parents during their childhood years. 


Simultaneously, Rex and Rose Mary are also free spirits, and they don’t buy into conventional rules or mores found in most suburban domiciles with children.  Due to his fierce independent streak, Rex fails to avoid conflicts at work.  Hence, holding a steady job becomes problematic and so does consistently providing the basics – food, clothing and shelter – for his family.  Rose Mary does not particularly object, and therefore, the Walls family regularly struggles with poverty.


Years after growing up under her parents’ rules, Jeannette Walls wrote her memoir in 2005 called “The Glass Castle”.  Her story became a sensation.  It spent years on The New York Times Best Sellers List and is currently sitting at #1 for Print/E-Book and Paperback Nonfiction.  Jeannette’s work caught director Destin Daniel Cretton’s (“Short Term 12” (2013)) attention, and he brought her book to life on the big screen. 


In a recent interview, Cretton said, “It’s an amazing book, because there is so much good stuff in it, and the main struggle (was) figuring out what we (could) actually fit into a screenplay.”


For those who enjoyed Jeannette’s book, have no fear, because Cretton masterfully constructs a flowing and comprehensive narrative within his film’s 2-hour 7-minute runtime.  Certainly – and not unlike any film adaptation - not all sections of Jeannette’s memoir are covered in the movie.  For instance, Cretton – who also co-wrote the screenplay – skips the family’s time living in Central Phoenix.  Additionally, some events are combined or changed to help fit the on-screen experience.  One example involves Jeannette’s infamous swimming lesson.  In the book, Rex teaches Jeannette how to swim in a hot spring, but the movie shifts this event to a pool in West Virginia.  Despite some differences between the mediums, Cretton gets so much of Jeannette’s book right.


This also applies to the performances as well.  I recently interviewed Ms. Walls (published on the Phoenix Film Festival’s website on Aug. 7, 2017) and asked her what Harrelson and Watts got right about her parents, and she responded, “Everything.  It was breathtaking.”


She added, “I fancy myself as somebody who is astute on picking up mannerisms or whatever that I am observing, and Woody and Naomi blew me out of the water.”


Woody and Naomi deliver terrific performances, and Harrelson is especially mesmerizing as Rex, a charismatic – but flawed – tornado, blowing into any small or grand space, demanding attention and scooping all the positive or negative energy within laughing or shouting distance, respectively, depending upon the particular exchange or his mood.


Although Rose Mary owns a strong screen presence, “The Glass Castle” truly focuses on the father-daughter relationship between Rex and Jeannette.  As the patriarch, Rex should theoretically declare and accept responsibility to provide for his family, but he often stumbles in following through with his declarations.  The reasons cannot be exactly pinpointed to one specific, dysfunctional origin, but alcoholism appears as a recurring issue in his present.   


Frequent themes of broken promises and procrastinated plans become the norm, and “younger Jeannettes” in the film – played by Chandler Head and Ella Anderson – discover that their hopes pinned to their dad can be routinely dashed.  The love between father and daughter exists, but the slow decline of faith in his word becomes realized.  Jeannette’s memoir (mostly) takes a linear approach, but the film frequently jumps between her very different adult life and the struggles of childhood.  Brie Larson plays Jeannette in the present and successfully stores a complex mixture of resentment and love for Rex, as the film’s flashbacks effectively expose justifications for Jeannette’s current feelings as an adult.


Despite terrible distractions for the Walls children, like not having a prepared meal in their home for three days, they develop a collective resiliency.  A resiliency to simultaneously accept the past while moving forward towards fruitful futures.  From an audience’s perspective, depending upon the person, one might look upon their own childhood with a deep sense of gratitude or commiserate with Jeannette’s experience.  Either way, “The Glass Castle” delivers a soulful and rich bundle of life, because Jeannette’s childhood is as real as it gets, and one can learn a lot by experiencing her book, this film or both.

(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


Brigsby Bear - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

‘Brigsby Bear’ does not hibernate during its light, bizarre trip 


Directed by: Dave McCary

Written by: Kyle Mooney and Kevin Costello

Starring: Kyle Mooney, Mark Hamill, Greg Kinnear, Jane Adams, Jorge Lendeborg Jr., Michaela Watkins, and Matt Walsh


“Brigsby Bear” – “We have dreams and imaginations to help us escape, and no one can take that away from you, ever.” – Ted (Mark Hamill)


Kyle Mooney and Kevin Costello certainly possess vivid imaginations, because they penned “Brigsby Bear”, a most original and oddball story that follows James Pope’s (Mooney) odyssey in attempting to fit into society, whether he wants to or not. 


You see – for reasons that I will not disclose in this review - James spent the first 20 plus years of his life obsessed with a kids’ television show called “Brigsby Bear”.  Even though he has reached and blown past the voting age, James owns a Brigsby Bear bedspread, lamp, posters, and all 736 episodes of his favorite TV program.  Let’s face it, “Brigsby Bear” is the only program that matters to James, and his entire world – from sunup to sundown – revolves around it.


Brigsby is the main protagonist on this program which resembles a 1970s Sid and Marty Krofft production.  For those not familiar with Sid and Marty’s work, they created several live-action, Saturday morning kids shows – like “H.R. Pufnstuf”, “The Bugaloos” and “The Lost Saucer” -  which featured a few human characters interacting with others dressed as sea monsters, aliens and insects, to a name a few types of eccentric costars.  Despite limited budgets, clunky scripts (that introduce and wrap up a random, trivial issue in 22 minutes) and embarrassing special effects, their programs were quite popular in the preteen universe at the time.  Looking back, one can only speculate on the vast quantities of drugs that were consumed during those creative writing sessions from almost a half century ago.


If you remember those towering, 22-minute blocks of confectionary nonsense, you might find yourself in the grips of an acid flashback when watching “Brigsby Bear”, as the film dabbles in various clips of our furry friend (while always donning his trademark blue t-shirt) learning various lessons and dueling with the series main antagonist, Sun Snatcher.  Regardless how it sounds, director Dave McCary’s film – rated PG-13 – is not a kids’ movie, but James’ journey does stir some sweet moments, as well as hilarious and head scratching ones. 


Sporting a mop of disheveled, curly hair and out-of-fashion glasses, James channels his inner Hanson brother (from “Slap Shot” (1977)), minus the hockey abilities or propensity for sudden violence, of course.  He is a gentle soul thrust into 2017 suburbia without many clues on how the big world works, but it initially aims to decouple his Brigsby obsession from his DNA.


Without giving away the movie’s secrets, many supporting characters – played by Matt Walsh, Michaela Watkins, Greg Kinnear, and Jorge Lendeborg Jr. – wish James well on his voyage towards conformity, but the cinematic tension arises when some reject his Brigsby-love, while others support it.  Still, the conflict never really reaches a fierce boiling point, so even those who roll their eyes or verbally snap during any talk of Brigsby do not wish James ill will.  Generally speaking, his new environment treats him with a gentle hand to match his personality, and hence Costello and Mooney’s creation becomes a light, bizarre trip rather than an unpalatable one.   


Admittedly, it is difficult to comprehend the attraction to this wacky television show, even though a given number of on-screen characters do embrace it.  I don’t know how many moviegoers will clamor for a Brigsby Bear lamp or trading cards in the near or distant future, but I suspect that many will appreciate this highly original film, as Mooney, Costello and McCary’s thoughtful dreams and imaginations play out on the big screen.  

(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



Wind River - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

‘Wind River’ hurts throughout its spellbinding murder/mystery


Written and directed by: Taylor Sheridan

Starring: Jeremy Renner, Elizabeth Olsen, Graham Greene, Gil Birmingham, Althea Sam, Kelsey Asbille, and Julia Jones


“Wind River” – The cold hurts.


In the middle of winter - whether one shovels heavy powder off a lengthy driveway, lifts a car’s hood to jumpstart a dead battery or trudges through an enormous shopping mall parking lot on a freezing day while searching for a lost vehicle – the cold hurts. 


These, however, are extremely minor inconveniences compared to the fate that the cold inflicted on Natalie (Kelsey Asbille), a young woman who froze to death in the snow after running, stumbling and crawling in the bitter, wintertime temperatures of Wyoming.  A nearby game tracker, Cory (Jeremy Renner), finds her face down – without her shoes - but the mystery deepens because Natalie was miles from anywhere. 


“Most murders are never solved.  Most criminals are never found.” 


This is the tagline in writer/director Taylor Sheridan’s new film, and the “Hell or High Water” (2016) and “Sicario” (2015) screenwriter delivers a picture lurking in somber tones that match its bleak outlook on homicides.  Wind River – a Native American reservation – is the setting, and Sheridan reincarnates the desolate locales of his aforementioned screenplays, except here, snow and ice replace the dirt and clay of West Texas and Mexico, respectively.   Wind River might as well be in “The Middle of Nowhere, Alaska”, with residents driving snowmobiles as frequently as four-wheel drive pickups when traveling miles and miles to and from isolated homes which occasionally dot the landscape.


On the reservation, Sheridan’s camera briefly captures an upside-down American flag that reflects malaise or discontent, but Martin (Gil Birmingham) and Annie (Althea Sam) feel immeasurably worse due their agonizing grief over the loss of their daughter found frozen to death.


FBI Agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) – from Las Vegas - arrives on the scene, and she feels somewhat emotionally frozen.  This relatively young investigator does not possess any knowledge of this snowy wilderness and sparse population.  


A local officer, Ben (Graham Greene), reinforces her trepidation when he exclaims, “This isn’t the land of backup, Jane.  This is the land of you’re on your own.”   


Luckily, Cory – who has spent years tracking animals all over these mountains – agrees to team with Jane, and the actors, who fight together as Hawkeye and The Scarlet Witch in the “Avengers” films, pair up in this very different picture.  


Along the way, Sheridan stingily reveals very few clues to the audience, as we feel as out of our element as Jane.  On the other hand, the pair’s measured detective work – through interviewing locals and decoding tracks imprinted in snowflakes – does allow plenty of screen time to explore their characters’ DNA, especially Cory’s motivation for helping Jane.


In turn, we also realize that even though Jane is inexperienced via the rugged peaks of secluded Wyoming, she is not a helpless doe loitering in view of some unknown predator’s crosshairs.  Speaking of which, “Wind River” immerses itself with predator/prey symbolism on several occasions, and this dynamic resonates as a dominant theme through horror, tears and the pursuit of backyard justice.


Every on-screen actor does justice to their characters by delivering a collective emotional sobriety, with hints of joy cloaked by hardened shells.  These shells amassed because of the landscape’s difficult, unsupported ambiance and through unfair and/or viciously cruel events in which no presiding, governing entity doles out a fair and equitable split of positive and negative life outcomes.   Thankfully, Greene – whose welcome presence has lit up big screens for decades – brings occasional levity to an otherwise dark picture in which the only other light exists in the form of white snow.  Then again, where snow exists, one knows that the cold is its faithful companion, and the latter hurts.

(3.5/4 stars)


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


Interview with Glass Castle author, Jeannette Walls by Jeff Mitchell

Author Jeannette Walls wrote her astonishing memoir “The Glass Castle” in 2005, and her book became a sensation.  It spent years on The New York Times Best Sellers List and is currently sitting at #1 for Print/E-Book Nonfiction as well as Paperback.  Jeannette’s work garnered director Destin Daniel Cretton’s (“Short Term 12” (2013)) attention, and he has brought her book to life on the big screen!  “The Glass Castle” is now a feature film, starring Brie Larson as Jeannette, and Woody Harrelson and Naomi Watts play her parents, Rex and Rose Mary.  Last week, Ms. Walls stopped in the Valley to host a screening of the film and sat down to speak with the Phoenix Film Festival as well.   Ms. Walls talked about her time living in Phoenix as a kid, her reactions to watching her life portrayed on-screen and much more.  “The Glass Castle” is rated PG-13, and it opens on Aug. 11. 


PFF:  Jeannette, you lived in Phoenix for a while as a kid.  What did you enjoy about Phoenix?


JW:  The warmth, the sun, the mountains, and people just felt very accepting.  We lived in a largely Mexican neighborhood, and everyone was just so nice and friendly and embraced our family in a way that we weren’t always embraced.  (After) moving to West Virginia, I missed the sunshine, the warmth and the openness.   It’s a lot easier to be poor in a place that’s warm, than a place that’s cold. 


PFF:  In the movie, your fiancé, David (Max Greenfield), arm wrestles your dad, Rex (Harrelson).  On-screen Jeannette (Larson) was very spirited in rooting for David to win, but what was going through her mind at that time?


JW:  That scene was pivotal, because it was a battle:  which side is Jeannette going to align herself with, David or Rex, and who is stronger?  If David wins, that “means” that she can continue (her comfortable, prosperous) lifestyle (with him).  If Rex wins, she’s got to acknowledge that he – in some way – is superior.  So, that’s why she was so desperately cheering for David to win.  It was to validate her choice.  Rex knew that, and that’s why he popped David in the “snot locker”.  Rex knew that he has to physically best David, because the physical (confrontation) was somehow an embodiment of emotions…of her lifestyle. 


PFF:  When you saw Woody and Naomi on-screen, what did they get right about your parents?


JW:  Everything.  It was breathtaking.  I don’t have a single criticism.  I mean, it was eerie to the degree in which these actors get inside people.  As a writer, I’m more of an observer.  I fancy myself as somebody who is astute on picking up mannerisms or whatever that I am observing, and Woody and Naomi just blew me out of the water.  They (work) from the inside out.  They get the heart and the soul of somebody, and they attach these physical movements to (the performances).   The body language, the posture, the eyes.  Taking to Sarah Snook (who plays my older sister, Lori) was a little bit weird, because looking into her eyes, it felt just like I was looking into my older sister’s.  It was unreal. 


My brother, Brian, talked to Josh Caras (who played him as a kid).  I talked to Josh afterwards, and he said, “I didn’t need to talk to (Brian) that long.  I got it.”  


And he got it!


PFF:  It’s remarkable how actors work.


JW:  They understand.  It’s a language that good actors speak, and this world that they inhabit.  It’s almost like, and I hope that this doesn’t sound derogatory, but they are almost like wild animals. The level of intuition is staggering.  It all comes together, and I didn’t expect that.  I expected them to be good, but not that good. The thing about the performances is that no one was ever looking to make fun of anybody.  That’s why I think the movie is filled with love. 


PFF:  So, your mom lives with your husband and you in Virginia.  Does she live under your rules, or does she operate under own rules, or is it a mix of both? 


JW:  A little bit of both.  I tried to make her live by my rules, but that just wasn’t working.  We just got into too many fights.  I built her a little cottage, and in no time at all, it was all filled up, because she is a hoarder.  I didn’t realize it, because our houses were always burning down when I grew up.  She collects everything, because she thinks everything is beautiful.  She tells me that many artists are hoarders. Picasso was, and Andy Warhol was, but because they have so much money, they aren’t considered hoarders, but collectors.  They can buy extra houses, and they see everything as beautiful.  I eventually just hired somebody to clean up her place, because I was getting into too many fights, and now we have a better relationship than we ever had in our lives.  She is an interesting, complicated and unique human being, and if I can let go of the disputes over housecleaning, she’s a lot of fun to be around. 


PFF:  That’s great that your relationship has grown stronger.


JW:  Absolutely.  My husband thinks that she’s one of the most interesting people that he’s ever met.  He’s a great intellectual, and he said, “I’ve never met anyone as smart as your mother.”


She (has so much knowledge about life), but she has no idea what her own Social Security number is.  If you ask her, she’ll say, “I don’t find my Social Number particularly interesting.” 


So, if she loves something or has interest in it, she keeps it, whether it’s an object or information.  She keeps it forever. 


PFF:  She has interesting philosophies of life and her own logic which was portrayed in the film. 

JW:  Absolutely.  A logic that is cohesive within her world.  It doesn’t make sense to most people, and she’ll say some things that are simultaneously absolutely inane and absolutely brilliant.  


PFF:  Yes, for instance, the hot dog scene, when young Jeannette asks Rose Mary for lunch.  She replies that she wants to finish her painting first, because it will exist forever, while a hot dog will only last a few minutes.


JW:   Yea, and it’s true!  It’s true that art is more valuable than hot dogs.  She’s also said that she considers buying paints the wisest investment in the world.  For the price of paints and a canvas, you might get a million-dollar masterpiece.  She’s right, but nobody thinks like that except for her. 


PFF:  The movie and the book primarily portray your relationship with your father, and your mom is seen as more of a supporting character.   Was your mom more of a supporting character in real life, and did you like that the movie depicts her that way?


JW:  Dad sucks all of the oxygen out of the room.  The minute that he walks into a room, it is all about him, and it used to drive my mom nuts. 


She would say, “I’m this talented artist, and I’m constantly battling for center stage.”


That was one of the (reasons) for their fights.  Destin was just very smart in realizing that the book is about the relationship between the father and the daughter.  I think Naomi realized that too.  How do you be on screen with somebody who is that powerful and that potent?  It’s not that Rose Mary plays second fiddle, but nobody can compete with my father, and nobody can compete with Woody Harreleson.  I don’t know about you, but whenever Woody was on-screen, I could not pull my eyes off of him.  He just exploded.  I’ll be candid with you.  I wasn’t sure whether Woody could capture the energy, but he did.  He got it completely, and Naomi quickly understood that if you are costarring with Rex Walls - whether it’s in life or in a movie – you are going to be almost the supporting cast.  Rose Mary was profound and fabulous, but Rex wouldn’t let anybody else be center stage. 


PFF:  It’s all on Rex.


JW:  Always.  Always, and the minute that it wasn’t, it would get it back on him.


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.

Detroit - Movie Review by Monte Yazzie



Director: Kathryn Bigelow

Starring: John Boyega, Anthony Mackie, Algee Smith, Jacob Latimore, Will Poulter, Jason Mitchell, Hannah Murray, Kaitlyn Dever, Jack Reynor, and Ben O’ Toole


In the summer of 1967 in Detroit, race issues between Black Americans and authority figures divided the city; turning it into a war zone of military patrolled streets filled with angry and frustrated protestors. Things were escalating for some time in Detroit before the rioting and looting began, and this was only the beginning as merely a year later Dr. Martin Luther King would be assassinated further escalating the fight for equality in America.


50 years later and the fight is still being fought; portraits of Black Americans and uniformed authority figures still flash in the media with headlines that echo sentiments of justice and injustice for a divided world.  It places director Kathryn Bigelow’s film “Detroit” in an all too pertinent place in history, one which is similar to the world we live in today in both emotion and context. Ms. Bigelow’s film takes a snap shot moment from the Detroit riots and transports the viewer into an uncomfortable yet insightful place, it’s not an entertaining film but rather a bold expression of emotions that compose many of the social concerns that have and are still relevant in the world today.


“Detroit” focuses its attention on a single night, with a group of people at the Algiers motel on the west side of the city. Musician Larry (Algee Smith) and his friend Fred (Jacob Latimore) are staying at the motel, escaping the chaos of the city after a failed performance earlier in the night. The young men meet two girls, Karen (Kaitlyn Dever) and Julie (Hannah Murray), and join them at a party with some other hotel guests. Things take a terrifying turn when three local policemen, one of them still working after fatally shooting an unarmed looting suspect, and a patrol of National Guardsmen respond to reports of sniper gunfire coming from the motel.


Ms. Bigelow takes the events of the Algiers Motel incident and turns it into something similar to a horror film. For a large majority of the film the viewer is placed in the middle of unrelenting terror. The interrogation of a group of black men, but also two white women, is disturbing; events escalate from harsh language, to physical abuse, to mental torture, and ultimately death. Ms. Bigelow and writer Mark Boal aren’t too concerned with providing surprise developments, ingenious plot structuring, or even much of a historical lesson, instead they focus on the raw emotion of the moment, the fear that motivates action, and the individualized perception of how people remember a significant situation. While this method allows the filmmaker the opportunity to burrow into the feelings of the viewer within the specific moment, it also at times prevents the film from displaying why this moment meant so much for the city of Detroit and the civil rights movement.


“Detroit” is shot in a very specific way, with an emphasis on the feeling of chaos and uncertainty. Cinematographer Barry Ackroyd, who’s credits include “The Hurt Locker” and “United 93”, takes the camera and puts it in the middle of all the action and in the face of the characters. You can see the ignorance and blind compliance many of the people within the film are experiencing. The city burns and smolders in the background as the camera walks with characters and tightly frames them within terrible situations, in an essence trapping the viewer within the experience. It’s a technique that has been done before in cinema but the sturdy direction of a talent like Ms. Bigelow really makes this technical choice shine.


As the film ventures further into the tragic events of the evening, the film begins to lose its way. Instead of developing the situation and characters in delicate and subtle ways, like they do with the relationship of two friends or with the motives of a security guard (John Boyega) trying to promote peaceful relationships, the film resorts to a disordered commentary promoted by violence and brutality.


“Detroit” is many times an observant look at a complicated, appalling situation. The opening of the film sets the precedent that issues in Detroit, but also in America, were at a boiling point; it was a progression of events highlighted by discrimination, segregation, and the abuse of authority and it slowly happened over decades of time. While the narrative never encapsulates the point of how rebellion led to change or how this change played a role in shaping American sentiments at the time, it does painfully display how familiar the past can look in the present.


Monte’s Rating

3.75 out of 5.00


Detroit - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

‘Detroit’ is a powerful film that presents an unfiltered abuse of power


Directed by:  Kathryn Bigelow

Written by:  Mark Boal

Starring:  John Boyega, Anthony Mackie, Algee Smith, Jacob Latimore, Will Poulter, Jason Mitchell, Hannah Murray, Kaitlyn Dever, and Jack Reynor


“Detroit” – The definition of power:  possession of control, authority or influence over others; a controlling group.


On July 23, 1967, a group of Detroit policemen raided a private gathering at the Economy Printing Company Building.  In a very public display, white police officers forced their way into the facility and grabbed, mishandled and arrested several black patrons, because party organizers served alcohol without a license.  With decades of racial tension already woven into the collective fabric of a frequently aggressive white police force and overcrowded black neighborhoods, the incident sparked outrage in the Motor City, which incited a riot.  A five-day riot which resulted in over 40 people killed and 2,000 buildings destroyed.


In director Kathyrn Bigelow’s picture, she dramatically recreates this ferocious, large scale uprising by traveling 50 years into the past.  Looters smash rocks through store windows and torch local businesses, and soon, city blocks are reduced to rubble, not unlike many scenes depicting Iraq in Bigelow’s Academy-award winning “The Hurt Locker” (2008).  While some residents actively damage property and take merchandise, in turn, some police officers damage human beings and take lives, as this combustible powder keg of concrete, brick and racial inequality blows into another horrifying stain on race relations in the United States. 


Bigelow weaves actual footage of this real-life, domestic warzone with her own staged creation, and the differences between the two feel negligible in a frightening, cinematic spectacle.  As difficult as the riots are to digest, the true horror show appears in an ordinary hotel, a place without an angry crowd.  On July 25 - Day 3 of the riots - no one staying at the Algiers Motel committed any violent acts, but the Detroit Police arrived and delivered a sick and brutal tragedy on the soil of a previously peaceful oasis. 


“Detroit” runs for 2 hours and 23 minutes, but the events within the Algiers Motel purposely and agonizingly crawl for probably an hour during the film’s second act.  Bigelow throws the audience, a nearby security guard named Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega) and two teenagers, Larry (Algee Smith) and Fred (Jacob Latimore), into this now infamous urban inn.  Earlier in the evening, the two teens were searching for shelter from the hurled rocks and raised billy clubs in Detroit’s streets, and for $11, they bought themselves some presumed safety at the Algiers.  They meet two 20-somethings – Julie (Hannah Murray) and Karen (Kaitlyn Dever) - and the girls introduce Larry and Fred to others – like Carl (Jason Mitchell) and Greene (Anthony Mackie) – staying at the motel as well, and weathering the storm.


The ferocius, stormy events which occur next are a twisted collection of ugly, racist moments from white police officers who exercise their power over a group of unarmed black men and two white women.  As the cops – led by Officer Krauss (Will Poulter) – point guns, bark orders, force the men and women to face the wall, and randomly and routinely deliver beatings to squeeze information, Bigelow’s camera does not pull punches or provide any reprieve for the audience.


In a recent interview, Bigelow explained that she invited the real Julie, Melvin and Larry to the set to help reconstruct the events of the horrific night, and their fears and anxieties from 50 years ago certainly translate onto the screen.  During these particular hours at the Algiers, one can almost feel the years of an uneven playing field and a city under siege for decades, as the black men always comply - through distinct layers of distress and tears - to the unrelenting white police officers.  At times, one can easily imagine this particularly vicious 1967 power play on a southern plantation a couple hundred years ago, in Ferguson, Mo. today or quite frankly, take your pick on any place and time in America.


Now, the film could have ended at the motel on July 25, but it takes a surprising turn in its third act.  At first, the direction is not entirely clear, but Bigelow eventually reveals an important fact in the denouement, a key person’s very personal, post-traumatic stress caused by the murderous events at the Algiers.   With all of the jaw dropping scenes of suppression and rage throughout the streets of Detroit and the perverse use of authority within an ordinary motel, this one individual’s PTSD is both a subtle and powerful reminder that an abuse of power during a random July evening can trigger a lifetime of damage. 

(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.


Brave New Jersey - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

Brave New Jersey.jpg

‘Brave New Jersey’ is a charming, almost-alien invasion story


Directed by:  Jody Lambert

Written by:  Jody Lambert and Michael Dowling

Starring:  Tony Hale, Heather Burns, Anna Camp, Sam Jaegar, Leonard Earl Howze, Dan Bakkedahl, Raymond J. Barry, and Erika Alexander


“Brave New Jersey” – “For one night, you can let go of your inhibitions and become someone completely different.” – Peg (Anna Camp)


Peg, a schoolteacher who lives in the small, farming community of Lullaby, NJ, harmlessly explains her interpretation of this one night, Halloween, to her students.  Little does she realize that Halloween and its effects will arrive one day early on Oct. 30, 1938. 


For history buffs, this date owns significant meaning:  Orson Welles’ radio broadcast of “The War of the Worlds”.  Seventy-nine years ago, his famous/infamous retelling of H.G. Wells’ alien invasion story caused an unnecessary panic over a portion of the American public, and for the residents in the sleepy town of Lullaby, they are not exempt from this collective anxiety in director Jody Lambert’s enjoyable first feature film “Brave New Jersey”. 


Lambert’s picture is not a horror film.  Instead, it is a throwback to old-fashioned movies of yesterdecade.


Now, any negative, preconceived notions of New Jersey’s crowded freeways, industrial corridor eyesores and aging concrete neighborhoods will be quickly dismissed.  Lullaby completely feels like a Norman Rockwell painting waltzing on the big screen, as its main street promenade – complete with a general store and an ice cream shop - nice compliments the inviting, rolling green hills.   Mayor Clark Hill (Tony Hale) embodies the town’s surroundings as a soft-spoken protagonist who writes his never-ending list of errands in his trusty notebook and greets everyone with a smile, especially towards the sweet – but also very married – Lorraine (Heather Burns).


Clark, Lorraine, Lorraine’s Husband (Sam Jaeger), Peg, Peg’s boyfriend (Matt Oberg), a reverend (Dan Bakkedahl), a church-going couple (Leonard Earl Howze and Erika Alexander), and a host of other folks run through their own normal patterns of small-town life, but when the aforementioned radio broadcast reaches their collective eardrums, this nearby alien invasion sparks their true, inner feelings which suddenly disrupt their familiar routines. 


The film nicely maneuvers between the plethora of “Lullabians” and their individual journeys prior to and after the Oct. 30th broadcast, as some characters emotionally travel farther within the confines of Lullaby than they ever could via a physical trip to a proposed-alien home world.  Lambert and writer Michael Dowling explore slices of the human condition with the characters’ true selves that suddenly burst onto the scene, triggered by the possibility of death or alien enslavement.   Human beings – as we all know - are far from perfect, and with a community of individuals exploring their ids, several changes in behavior do not always result in collective kumbayas, but rather, the worst in people. 


With an invisible Frankenstein’s Monster who might stomp its feet in their little town – a place that boasts the fourth tallest water tower in three counties – Lullaby residents sharpen their pitchforks and ready their rifles.  Cooler heads might prevail, but Clark’s gentle hand might not be enough to douse the agitated flames.  Whether or not Clark saves the day, we just hope that a romance will spark with Lorraine.  Hale and Burns share a warm chemistry of two kind souls half-reaching towards one another, and their welcoming on-screen presence anchors this nostalgic, cinematic trip.  Camp delivers a notable performance as well, as Peg takes the film’s most pronounced turn in a series of surprises, including her final close-up.   


Whether one sits close to the theatre screen or far away in the last row, “Brave New Jersey” looks richly filmed with dozens of nice touches, including bookend shots of a picturesque country road, an occasional glace to the stars and flawlessly lit night scenes that never allow the audience to struggle with shadows or dim obscurities.  There is nothing obscure about the film’s presence at the 2017 Phoenix Film Festival, as “Brave New Jersey” took the Best Ensemble Acting, Best Director and Best Picture awards.  In turn, this almost-alien invasion story will reward its audience with a charming trip to Lullaby and a foreign concept for too many of us:  expressing one’s true feelings.

(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.

Dark Tower - Movie Review by Monte Yazzie

The Dark Tower


Director: Nikolaj Arcel

Starring: Idris Elba, Matthew McConaughey, Tom Taylor, Abbey Lee, Dennis Haysbert, and Jackie Earle Haley


Stephen King’s “The Dark Tower” was in the development trenches for some time, with filmmakers like J.J. Abrams and Ron Howard in the seat to make the book series come to life.  All that time and attention unfortunately didn’t help the final version of this film, even with the capable cast lead by the stoic, heroic Idris Elba and the talent of a villainous Matthew McConaughey “The Dark Tower” is an incoherent mess.


Three of Stephen King’s stories will be seen in some way throughout the year. “The Mist” television show has already premiered and later next month the new version of “It” will float into theaters. With “The Dark Tower”, one of Mr. King’s more complex novels, the film adaptation focuses less on the story from the books and more on a continuation of sorts.


Jake (Tom Taylor) is having nightmares about otherworldly happenings that consist of a battle between good and evil and a plot to destroy a tower that keeps evil out of Earth, referred to by characters in the film as Keystone Earth. Protecting the realm, known as Mid-World, is a gunslinger named Roland (Idris Elba) who comes from a lineage of brave protectors who once fought the good fight long ago. Evil is winning and leading the charge to destroy the tower is the man in black, otherwise known as Walter (Matthew McConaughey). It is up to Jake and Roland to battle this evil force and protect the realm of Earth.


Idris Elba is the best thing about this film; the actor is a sullen loner who journeys across the different realms in search for vengeance. Mr. Elba has an appealing quality that shines through his otherwise downtrodden character’s personality. Matthew McConaughey mostly wanders into scenes, waves his hands, and whispers things like “stop breathing” to everyone that gets in his way. In small moments you can see what this film may have been trying to do, there is potential in the characterizations but the film never develops it.


The narrative is a complete clutter of ideas that don’t add up to anything more than cheap hero journey clichés. The movie attempts to build momentum towards some kind of conclusion, but the beginning and middle meander from the Mid-World to Keystone Earth, from foggy forests to the commotion of New York City with only a vague plot line of defeating an evil threat. We are introduced to characters that offer information about the journey only to have them disappear from the story. Jake’s family is given a small role to promote his future heroism, but the relationship with them is never really established with any kind of meaning. From scene to scene the movie progressively makes less sense.


For fans of Stephen King’s stories it may be a fun distraction to look for all the telling nods to the author’s works, the world here is trying to pay some kind of homage to the stories crafted by the author. Aside from a few qualities found in the lead performance, there isn’t much to really appreciate about this film. That’s a shame because “The Dark Tower” deserved better.


Monte’s Rating

1.00 out of 5.00

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.