Crown Heights - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

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‘Crown Heights’ royally exposes a flawed justice system      


Written and directed by: Matt Ruskin

Starring: Lakeith Stanfield, Nnamdi Asomugha, Natalie Paul, Luke Forbes, and Bill Camp


“Crown Heights” – “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” – Martin Luther King Jr.


“There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.”  - Elie Wiesel


In 1980, Colin Warner (Lakeith Stanfield) lives with his mom in Brooklyn, NY and more specifically, in a neighborhood called Crown Heights.  From Trinidad, this 18-year-old has some close friends and is working towards a car mechanic-certification.  He is a good son and friend, but he – unfortunately - possesses an absolutely terrible habit of stealing cars for an ongoing group scheme.  


On April 10, while walking home by himself, two New York City detectives grab and arrest Colin.   He believes that the police are nailing him for auto theft, but to his complete surprise, they accuse him of murder, a crime that he absolutely did not commit.  He did not know the victim and was not present at the crime scene.  A miscarriage of justice soon follows in an unfiltered look at a failed criminal justice system and Colin’s unimaginable fate.


Although “Crown Heights” is a movie, a screenwriter did not dream up this tale while swimming in an alphabet soup think tank.  Colin’s story is unfortunately true, and writer/director Matt Ruskin serves it on the big screen.  As the film unfolds, it resonates as both an absorbing biopic and a public service announcement.


It is not a spoiler to announce that a jury convicts Colin, because the movie moves as swiftly as the downward speed of a judge’s gavel with just a 94-minute runtime.  In fact, at the film’s seven-minute mark, the police throw Colin in a jail cell (just seven minutes after the movie begins), and after 18 minutes of screen time, Colin sits in prison for two years.  Although Ruskin presents a pair of physical altercations during Colin’s incarcerated existence, he does not bog down the narrative with excessive prison drama that experienced audiences have come to expect.   Instead, Stanfield conveys Colin’s plight and utter frustration with an effective and heartfelt performance through several phone and in-person conversations with the outside world and moments of reflection in solitude.  Sure, the film moves quickly, but we simultaneously feel the days, months and years slowly trudge for Colin, while he is powerless to course correct the wheels of injustice. 


We feel helpless too.


Meanwhile his mother and friends – like Carl King (Nnamdi Asomugha) - feel the same way.  Their repeated efforts to free him fall on deaf ears, are wasted on a specific, incompetent legal ally and stumble due to ill-fated timing.  Timing very much plays into the movie, as a series of historical U.S. political decisions change the legal landscape during Colin’s arrest and subsequent appeals, and not in his favor.  Ruskin introduces these specific decisions (which I will not reveal in this review) and successfully communicates their unfortunate contributions towards Colin’s nightmare.


With seemingly equal contributions of Colin’s life on the inside and Carl’s driving determination to free his friend on the outside, “Crown Heights” strikes a balance of personal anguish and legal entanglement dramatics.  In a similar fashion as the aforementioned scenes of concrete captivity, Ruskin does not sink us into drawn out, bureaucratic quicksand during the inexplicable court motions and unwarranted legal decisions.  Instead, he efficiently delivers his points in a few key instances that effectively stir maximum outrage and exasperation.  Additionally, the system’s racial biases marked against Colin do not go unnoticed either, as the uncomfortable, institutional stacked deck purposely hovers over the picture like an ever-present, cloudy haze.


A haze that continues to linger…37 years later.

(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



I Do… Until I Don’t - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

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‘I Do… Until I Don’t’ does not live up to its vows


Written/directed by: Lake Bell

Starring: Lake Bell, Ed Helms, Paul Reiser, Mary Steenburgen, Wyatt Cenac, Amber Heard, and Dolly Wells


“I Do… Until I Don’t” – Traditional wedding vows commonly contain the phrase, “for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death do us part.”  


Of course, that last portion encapsulates the permanent union – during earthly years, anyway - between two people, and that is the center of Vivian’s (Dolly Wells) criticism.  She’s a filmmaker and self-help provocateur who believes that marriage should be a seven-year contract, with a renewal option.  Anchoring in Vero Beach, Fla. for a number of weeks, Vivian is shooting a new documentary and looking for some subjects to prove her thesis: marriage is not an enduring institution. 


After a short while, three couples organically appear before her camera, as writer/director Lake Bell’s new comedy, “I Do… Until I Don’t”, explores the pairs’ struggles.   Bell constructs her comedy like a 103-minute episode of “Love, American Style” or “The Love Boat”, and those particular television programs featured various couples who grapple with cohabitation difficulties and – in the end - generally solve their problems or sometimes come to a conclusion of separating.  Although audiences regularly flocked to these aforementioned shows from 1969 to 1973 and 1977 to 1987, respectively, looking back, these programs resembled mundane junk food during the bell-bottom and polyester eras.   Regrettably, as this film treads – minute by minute – through familiar domestic difficulties, the parallels between TV melodrama and events on the big screen become painfully evident.


Harvey (Paul Reiser) and Cybil (Mary Steenburgen) are coping with emotional pain.  Actually, they suffer from boredom, because after 30-plus years of marriage, they don’t feel any sort of amorous overtures for one another any longer.  As an example, Cybil grants permission for her husband to experience a questionable massage parlor event rather than endure a romantic evening at home.  Meanwhile, Noah (Ed Helms) and Alice (Bell) grapple with financial pressures and feel stressed about trying to start a family.  Lastly, Zander (Wyatt Cenac) and Fanny (Amber Heard) round out the featured pairs, and they appear to be faring quite well – as the lone unmarried couple – however, he wishes to further strengthen their bond. 


The film sometimes bonds with the audience during various disagreements between the characters, either in the privacy of their own homes or in front of Vivian’s camera.  Sometimes, their verbal jousts feel improvisational, and these veteran actors deliver relationship banter with the ease.  Reiser – who spent seven seasons with Helen Hunt in “Mad About You” - seems quite at home in this environment, and he is a welcome member of the cast, at least to this critic.  As a side note, producers and casting directors should take notice and feature this very capable 60-year-old in more projects.


Steenburgen, Bell and Helms are good copilots here too, but the material and pacing are problems.  Right away, Bell throws so many issues on the screen, especially with Alice and Noah’s circumstances, we never get enough time to emotionally invest in these characters.  Sure, empathy exists, but it always seems at an arm’s-length, while the narrative continually rotates between the three stories and Vivian’s villainous turn to see the three relationships go bust.  


Zander and Fanny share the least amount of issues and have the smallest chance to see their connection blow up, but their hippie personas borderline on cartoonish, so the intended humor does not register and seems ham-handed at best.  Throw in two more characters in the picture’s third act via a very, very overused plot device, and “I Do… Until I Don’t” finally crashes during its crowded crescendo.  Truly, there is nothing particularly terrible or completely unwatchable about Bell’s follow-up to “In a World…” (2013), but it feels tired, congested and cliché, like an uninspired, 40-year-old television show. 

(1.5/4 stars)


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


Five Sequels that are Better than the Original Films by Jeff Mitchell

Twenty-six years ago, director James Cameron’s “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” dazzled movie audiences, and on Friday, Aug. 25, this film returns to the big screen at AMC Theatres everywhere.  This time, however, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Linda Hamilton, Robert Patrick, and Edward Furlong will appear in 3D.  


With mind-bending special effects and a wild premise, the sequel to the seminal original, “The Terminator” (1984), became 1991’s highest grossing film and influenced science fiction for a generation.  Looking back, “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” is one of those rare movies that is better than the original, at least this particular critic thinks so.  


Now, a vast majority of the time, the first film in a big screen series is the best, but not always.  For fun, let’s explore cinema’s rolodex and identify those second movies that are better than the first.  More than five movies could easily make this list, but here are five, including “Terminator 2: Judgment Day”.



“Terminator 2: Judgment Day” (1991) – James Cameron’s sequel to his 1984 science fiction masterpiece completely recaptures a nail-biting atmosphere of an unrelenting, unstoppable and unfeeling cybernetic force in constant pursuit of its prey, however, two new onscreen factors in 1991 top the original film.  Admittedly, the first is simply a factor of time, as Cameron discovered onscreen technologies which offered mind-blowing special effects.  The new T-1000 Terminator (Robert Patrick) morphs into various shapes that induce massive wonder and new fears.  Secondly, Arnold Schwarzenegger reprises his most iconic role, but injects so much new humor and personality (e.g. “Hasta la vista, Baby!”, “No problemo.”) as a terminating good guy, the sequel adds an additional popcorn film dimension while keeping an equal amount of heart-pounding angst.  


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“Before Sunset” (2004) – Writer/director Richard Linklater’s “Before Sunrise” (1995) is a movie about a magical and organic chance encounter between Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) who meet on a train.  Nine years later, he continues their story in Paris in “Before Sunset”, in which the on-screen characters’ lives have fast-forwarded nine years too.  The conversational structure of the first film remains intact in the second, as Jesse and Celine walk, take a taxi/limo and ride a boat through The City of Lights.  They express their feelings, fears, hopes, and desires via a rich and rewarding script written by Linklater, Hawke and Delpy.  The three deeply know and love these characters, and so do the “Before Sunrise” fans (and include me in this group).  Hence, a second chance to experience their continued journey feels like an elevated, rewarding and generous gift during the film’s entire 80-minute runtime.      


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“Captain America: The Winter Soldier” (2014) – The first 45 minutes of “Captain America: The First Avenger” (2011) begins as a solid introduction to Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) transforming from a 90-pound weakling to good ole Cap!   Soon after though, the script begins to feel thin, and Captain America’s flag waiving, Boy Scout routine wears a bit thin as well.  Conversely, the 2014 sequel wraps itself in espionage, intrigue and double-crosses, as Steve Rogers teams up with Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and Falcon (Anthony Mackie) to fight the forces of Hydra which emanate from very, very unsuspecting places.  During a fast-paced, quickly-moving narrative with plenty of metropolitan chases and shootouts, Rogers further develops his healthy skepticism about simply following orders.  One of the very best pictures in the Marvel Universe.


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“Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn” (1987) – Director/co-writer Sam Raimi’s follow-up to “The Evil Dead” (1981) is insane.  Wonderfully, beautifully insane, and very unexpected, because the first few minutes of “Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn” is a pseudo-remake/recap of the 1981 movie, but then it takes sharp left, right, up, and down turns and detours.  Like the first film, Ash (Bruce Campbell) and his girlfriend, Linda, drive to an isolated, rundown cabin in the mountains for rest and relaxation but run into violent demons instead. Note that in “The Evil Dead”, Ash and Linda were joined by three others on their drive, but the major differences in this movie are a bigger budget for gorier special effects and a shift in tone towards jarring, demented humor.  For example, Ash’s hand – possessed by a demon - delivers a middle-finger salute towards our hero, but not before he cuts it off from his own arm while screaming, “Who’s laughing now?”  Well, we are…surprisingly.  


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“Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” (1982) – After a lackluster big screen debut in 1979, the Star Trek crew returns with a swashbuckling space adventure that arguably stands as the very best entry in the series.  The old saying goes that an action/adventure movie is only as good as its villain, so thankfully, Khan (Ricardo Montalban) returns as one of the USS Enterprise’s chief antagonists.  Bent on revenge, Khan simultaneously wishes to punish Kirk (William Shatner) and acquire - and then warp - the powerful Genesis device to use it for evil.  Looking back to 1982, the special effects do not hold up, but Montalban’s fearsome portrayal of a brilliant - but flawed - madman stands the test of time.  This Star Trek installment also includes the biggest shock from any of the 13 films, spanning 38 years.


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.


Patti Cake$ - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

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‘Patti Cake$’ cuts and trudges through the New Jersey grit to inspire dreams


Written and directed by: Geremy Jasper

Starring: Danielle Macdonald, Siddharth Dhananjay, Mamoudou Athie, Cathy Moriarty, and Bridget Everett


“Patti Cake$” –  For Patti (Danielle Macdonald), her dreams are far better than her present state of affairs.  This 23-year-old, lifelong New Jerseyite lives with her mom (Bridget Everett) and grandmother (nicknamed Nana (Cathy Moriarty)) in a crowded house in which the television is always turned on, and her working hours are spent bartending at a depressing local tavern named Lou’s.  Lou (John Sharian) is stingy about granting Patti more hours but freely gives her frank, direct orders like, “The toilet is still clogged, and the karaoke machine isn’t going to set itself up.”


Setting herself up for success is not a routine that Patti usually practices, but that is not surprising after a couple decades of zero encouragement from her mom and repeated teasing from classmates about her weight.  Not only do those schoolyard taunts echo as painful memories, but they reside in her present, as those same bullies repeatedly call her “Dumbo” to this day.   Thankfully, Nana and her best friend, a pharmacist named Jheri (Siddharth Dhananjay), always provide kind words.


Jheri and Patti form an unlikely duo, but the two attempt an improbable journey towards stardom as hip-hop artists, as they dream in a place where hope is nonexistent or fleeting at best.  Even though their aspirations feel farfetched, writer/director Geremy Jasper crafts an underdog story which feels wholly genuine within an aging New Jersey neighborhood, sitting just across the Hudson River from New York City. 


From the very beginning, Jasper – very effectively - deposits the audience in a blue-collar desperation of clouded misery with several establishing shots of Patti’s environment, including a drone shot of a nearby automobile graveyard and another capture of smoke emanating from a power plant or chemical factory just off the freeway.  Her outside surroundings emotionally match her mood within the confines of her cluttered room as contents from her pockets from the last six months and random pieces of clothing are strewed in her bedroom.   In some ways, Patti’s life parallels Rocky Balboa’s, and her platonic Adrian is Jheri.  He is a positive light in her life, and one of the very few driving forces in opening up her talent.  Jasper offers an early hint of Patti’s gifts, as she delivers some machine gun-rhymes to the pounding beat of Jheri’s palm smacking the hood of her car.


Her talent exists, but it needs a chance to bloom through opportunity.


In turn, Macdonald makes the most of her “Patti Cake$” opportunity.  She completely shines by playing both sides of her character:  an insecure, naïve young woman who willingly turns into and spins in never-ending life cul-de-sacs, but who also possesses genius abilities to fly over them at any point…if she knew how.  Unfortunately, Patti does not have the self-esteem and knowhow to soar, and her weight problems emotionally pull her down and act as a figurative anchor of self-loathing.  Macdonald’s Patti hardly ever verbalizes her internalized contempt, but we see it in her face and body language in many moments throughout the picture.  Her one spoken exception is when she looks in the mirror and says to herself that she is gorgeous, but it is bathed in sarcasm.  When she raps, however, she thankfully and fortunately proclaims goddess-like status, as her music is a positive outlet in multiple ways.


Macdonald and Jasper lay skillfully-crafted groundwork to offer a very worthy protagonist to rally behind and support, while the picture takes familiar turns towards better places.  Any moderately informed moviegoer can see the film’s direction, but through the memorable and likable characters’ trying journeys fighting the cold New Jersey grit, it becomes very easy to lose yourself in the moments and cheer on the heroes.  This occurs, even when one of Patti’s champions calls himself Bastard the Antichrist (Mamoudou Athie).  Yes, that is his name, or his stage name anyway.  Nana develops into a strong ally as well and delivers some key spots of crowd-pleasing humor.  Nana’s onscreen presence serves an important one, as she also acts as a trustworthy passageway for those not familiar with hip-hop, especially when her role steps into the music business.


One does not have to be a rap or hip-hop fan to enjoy “Patti Cake$” for two reasons.  One, its relatable themes garner our empathy and understanding, even if the physical setting seems foreign.  Two, Macdonald’s convincing rap faculties lift our spirits and offer pleasing head-bouncing rhythms, and the film’s performances combined with the music offer a smiling inducing nirvana that is the stuff of dreams.    Not dreams of the future, but those of the present.     

(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.

Good Time - Movie Review by Monte Yazzie

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Good Time


Director: Benny and Josh Safdie

Starring: Robert Pattinson, Benny Safdie, Taliah Webster, Barkhad Abdi, Necro, and Jennifer Jason Leigh


If you are going to make bad choices, it's important to stay a step ahead of them. Directors Benny and Josh Safdie make the most of this method in the new film "Good Time". Starting with a bank heist gone sideways, The Safdie's move through a manic and murky night on the streets of Queens accompanying a slimy purveyor of bad choices portrayed by Robert Pattinson. "Good Time" will keep you anxious of every single choice that is made.


Connie (Robert Pattinson) and Nick (Benny Safdie) are brothers. Nick is mentally disabled and Connie is, simply put, a terrible person. Connie coerces Nick into helping him rob a bank, things don't go as planned and Nick is snatched by the cops. Connie doesn't seem very concerned in the moment about his brother's well being, though he does work to pay for bail after the fact. In an effort to save his brother from jail time, Connie spends a night doing everything he can to free his brother.


The Safdie's are crafty filmmakers, seemingly influenced by director Michael Mann's style of nighttime photography and the sense of momentum found in films like "Thief" and "Collateral". The directors create a breakneck pulse for their film; from the jittery motion of the camera during frantic chase scenes, to the unfocused nature of photography during conversations, and the floating camera that offers a bird's eye view of the journey on the streets, the imagery throughout jumps and cuts with aggression. Add to this one of the best soundtracks of 2017, a synth driven punch of energy from Oneohtrix Point Never aka Daniel Lopatin, and "Good Time" does everything it can to consume you.


Still, in a film with so much life, it's hard to find compassion with many of the characters in the film. They are all flawed and unlikable most of the time. Still, Connie is provided an inkling of heart amidst all the terrible and damaging characteristics that compose his personality. Watching Connie fly by the seat of his pants makes it hard to root for this character, mostly because of his consistent selfishness but also because he makes the worst choices. In one moment he seems like a caring brother and the next he abandons the familial bond, in another he talks with care for his girlfriend and the next he manipulates her feelings for his own devices, it's consistently frustrating. Nick is the pawn in the whole game, watching him cling to the prospect that Connie will do something to help him is heartbreaking at times. Though in these moments, when Connie actual shows some heart, the viewer is given a glimmer of hope, a glimmer of redemption that may be on the horizon.


The composition of Connie is fascinating, part of the reason the film remains so interesting and engaging is because of Mr. Pattinson's energetic yet poised performance. The actor is proving himself capable of doing a variety of complicated things in film, look no further than David Cronenberg's "Cosmopolis" and David Michod's "Rover" for examples. Mr. Pattinson, still a striking movie star even underneath the unkept hair and dirty fingernails, is doing his best to make you forget about the sparkling vampire from the "Twilight" series.


"Good Time", in all its pulsing and vibrant life, is a story about brotherhood. You can feel this aspect from the first moments in the film. Though it's hard to support these characters, the directing Safdie siblings work to compose this bond and then utilize it to exploit the lengths that brotherhood will take you after you rob a bank, find a bottle of LSD, and end up in an amusement park all in one night.


Monte's Rating

4.00 out of 5.00

Leap! - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell


Taking a small ‘Leap!’ towards this animated picture is a no-brainer


Directed by: Eric Summer and Eric Warin

Written by: Eric Summer, Carol Noble and Laurent Zeitoun

Starring: Elle Fanning, Nat Wolff, Carly Rae Jepsen, Maddie Ziegler, Terrence Scammell, and Julie Khaner


“Leap!” –  Felicie (Elle Fanning) lives in an orphanage, and this particular redhead dreams of becoming a ballet dancer in Paris.  Hundreds of millions of teens and preteens most likely wish for the same date with destiny, but with Felicie’s rustic, coastal town of Brittany sitting just 500 kilometers from Paris, she has a better shot at reaching her goal than say, Suzie Smith from Wichita, KS, simply due to distance.


It is the 1880s, so high speed trains are not at our heroine’s disposal, but her best friend, Victor (Nat Wolff) – also an orphan, who owns a fierce determination and a quirky clumsiness - plans to help Felicie spring towards The City of Lights.  Hence, Felicie takes a massive leap towards fulfilling her dreams in the scenic and sweet animated picture, “Leap!”. 


Directors Eric Summer and Eric Warin wonderfully lather the big screen with bright colors and beautiful Parisian scenery which capture the glamor of France’s most prominent city.  Cobblestone streets, lush open greenbelts and the Seine River set the foundation for Paris’s gorgeous, signature Haussmannian architecture and, naturally, The Eiffel Tower.  Actually, in “Leap!”, builders are just beginning construction of The Eiffel Tower, and this in turn, pinpoints that the film transpires in 1887.    


Actually - and this is a bit of a spoiler – The Statue of Liberty makes a few appearances in the movie, because it was built in France and presented as a gift to the United States.  Not to nitpick, but the Green Lady was dedicated in New York City in 1886, so the film’s timeframes do not exactly line up.  The Statue, however, is put to good use in the picture’s narrative, so this slight historical revision can be forgiven.  Additionally, the scenes in “Les Miserables” – published in 1862 – depict a much darker and dirtier version of Paris, but hey, this is a positive animated film, so this modification of the past can be excused as well.   


For anyone who has seen Paris, these thoughtful, sweeping shots of the city will instantly urge one to make another visit.  For those who have yet to experience Paris, these moments spur a real desire to hop on Expedia and book a flight, and credit Summer, Warin and the animators for proudly featuring the metropolitan eye-candy.


As wondrous as the Parisian background is, the story turns conventional, as the young underdog needs to overcome several hurdles – both circumstantial and human – to reach her lofty goals.  The main antagonists are a wealthy, Tonya Hardingish rival named Camille (Maddie Ziegler) and her mother, Regine (Julie Khaner), who could easily play Cinderella’s wicked stepmother’s twin, and they spew and spit mean-spirited, detrimental fodder and actions that warrant and generate sympathy from the audience.  Plus, Felicie’s hypercritical ballet instructor, Merante (Terrence Scammell), does not exactly provide a bastion of comfort either, especially as his classes are fashioned like “American Idol”, because each day, he eliminates one ballet dancer.


Keeping us firmly planted in our theatre seats, Felicie’s likability quotient scores very high, as her awkward, Bambi-like coordination progresses towards graceful swan-status.  Whether or not Summer and Warin have dance backgrounds, they focus their animated powers on delivering real drama and admiration through the girls’ various ballet balances, twirls, hops, and - of course - leaps.   


As much as the dance scenes keep our attention, Felicie’s connection with Victor feels like the weakest link of the picture.  Victor’s bungling, dumb boy act gets old in a hurry, and one might hope that he would simply keep his distance and find another girl to fawn over, because after all, Paris is a big city.  On the flip side, Felicie’s connection with her mentor, Odette (Carly Rae Jepsen), garners the most feelings and warmth, and the picture’s message of following one’s dreams resonate through their individual stories and teacher/student relationship.  At one point, we see Odette scrubbing the floor, but her mind wanders back to a what-could-have-been past that might emotionally prod unsuspecting tear ducks in crowded movie theatres everywhere. 


Sure, “Leap!” features ballet as its main conduit, but the film’s universal themes should click with movie fans of all ages, except for some preteen boys who are deeply connected to fire trucks and bugs.  The film’s creative team did attach an inventor’s streak in Victor’s personality, but it may not be enough to win over a young male audience.  I am guessing a bit, as I think back to my own elementary school days.  For everyone else, driving to theatre to watch this thoughtful picture is a no-brainer and definitely worth a small leap. 

(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.

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

Dave Made A Maze.jpg

‘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