Woodshock - Movie Review by Monte Yazzie

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Woodshock

 

Director: Kate and Laura Mulleavy

Starring: Kirsten Dunst, Joe Cole, Pilou Asbaek, and Steph DuVall

 

Fashion designers, Kate and Laura Mulleavy, take a break from their Rodarte fashion line to make a movie about marijuana hallucinations and the paranoia that takes hold of a lonesome young woman played by Kirsten Dunst. “Woodshock” is moody and atmospheric, seemingly an artistic undertaking that is more concerned with painting a beautiful picture than structuring a cohesive narrative.

 

This is the first film for Kate and Laura Mulleavy who are following in the creative footsteps of another fashion designer turned filmmaker, Tom Ford. It’s easy to see the artistic and imaginative influences these fashion trendsetters share, however where Mr. Ford took his narrative direction from novels, the Mulleavy siblings have written their own story. And this is where “Woodshock” suffers its most debilitating error.

 

Theresa (Kirsten Dunst) lives in a quiet town in Northern California and works at a medical marijuana dispensary. Her mother (Susan Traylor) is suffering from a terminal illness. Theresa gives her mother some marijuana laced with a mysterious substance, helping to end her pain for good. From here Theresa is followed as she meanders somewhat meaninglessly from day to day, working through the grief of her decision.

 

“Woodshock” is beautifully and ingeniously shot, bringing the viewer into the turmoil that Theresa is experiencing. Lens flares, striking neon lights, and hazy visions in a forestry environment accommodate the characters loneliness but also her desperation to make amends for her decision. The film depends heavily on letting images move the narrative from one scene to another; unfortunately it’s not enough to help the story, which feels just as obscured as the environments in the film.

 

Kirsten Dunst is the bright spot in this film, the loneliness and emptiness she exudes is felt with nearly every activity in the film. Ms. Dunst’s performance anchors the film, the emotion she taps into helps provide a little substance to the aimless narrative. Pilou Asbaek plays Keith, the owner of the dispensary who assists Theresa in helping terminal patients commit suicide. Mr. Asbaek is placed in an awkward antagonistic role that doesn’t always match the tone that film is trying to achieve.

 

“Woodshock” tries to create a metaphorical connection between the abuse of nature and suicide, but it doesn’t go much farther than that. The Mulleavy sisters understand how to compose elegant images; meticulously taking care of the external style throughout the film and attractively composing frames with interesting camera designs. Unfortunately it never goes beyond these elements, making “Woodshock” feel less like a story and more like an experiment.

 

Monte’s Rating

1.75 out of 5.00

American Made - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

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‘American Made’ reproduces a truly wild story

 

Directed by: Doug Liman

Written by: Gary Spinelli

Starring: Tom Cruise, Sarah Wright, Domhnall Gleeson, Alejandro Edda, and Caleb Landry Jones

 

“American Made” – Thirty-one years ago, Tom Cruise “owned” the skies and movie theatres everywhere by playing a hotshot U.S. Navy pilot in “Top Gun” (1986).  This flashy, testosterone-filled box office juggernaut cemented Cruise’s big screen appeal after his breakout role in “Risky Business” (1983), just three years prior.  In 2017, Cruise plays a pilot again, another daredevil who takes massive risks, but sports a very, very different career in the wild, true story of Barry Seal, who made an American fortune in “American Made”. 

 

Barry’s tale of fortune begins during the country’s economically stressful days of the late-70s and early-80s and through more lucrative times in the mid-80s.  Although, Barry didn’t make money by investing in savings bonds or the stock market.   On the contrary, in 1978, this former-TWA pilot ran reconnaissance missions over Central America and took pictures of small military operations via a camera on the bottom of a trusty and nimble Cessna for the CIA.  Soon after, his CIA contact, Schafer (Domhnall Gleeson), instructs Barry to carry rifles and ammunition on his plane for preferred groups of rebels.  Taking lots of risks for little rewards and with a family to support at home, Barry looks for a pay raise.  One finds him, in the form of an infamous group of drug dealers (who I will not name in this review).    

 

Director Doug Liman dives deeply into Barry’s daring and rowdy career choices and captures the same tones and pacing in his film.  Moving at a breakneck speed, Barry narrates his story like a used car salesman, with a loosened necktie and a newly-poured fourth cup of coffee, reminiscing about his biggest deals and trades with an old friend.  Liman, meanwhile, whips his camera through the air and land as Barry and his Cessna dive into militant camps under lethal pops of gunfire and crash through treetops while trying to take off on an undersized runway consisting of crabgrass and dirt.  

 

Cruise seems to be really having fun here, while also somewhat playing against type.  His trademark smile and daredevil persona certainly blanket the big screen, but Barry’s ethical compass pulls due south when routinely packing cocaine and guns on his plane for a hard-earned buck.  Barry hobnobs with wealthy drug dealers, outsmarts the DEA and hires a crew of pilots to exponentially increase his operation, so this is not the life that he intended during his time as a commercial airline pilot, but it becomes one that he justifies.  

 

As director Patty Jenkins (“Monster” (2003)) says, “Every villain has their belief system that makes perfect sense to them.” 

 

Sure, Barry is not a villain, but he is bathing in illegal activity, and he knows it from the get-go.  The person who does not know Barry’s illicit dealings is his wife, Lucy (Sarah Wright), but she buys in once he comes clean….not to the law but to her, of course.  Lucy’s physical presence adds to the tomfoolery of the picture’s amusing, whimsical atmosphere.  Lucy is a stunning, 5’9” blonde-haired beauty who should be modeling swimsuits on a Southern France beach.  Here, Wright portrays a mom with three young kids in tiny Mena, Arkansas, in a moment of playful, unapologetic casting that rivals Denise Richards piloting a military spaceship in “Starship Troopers” (1997). 

 

“Starship Troopers” casting agents also had fun by pinning Casper Van Dien in the lead role as well, but I digress, and yes, Wright does holds her own and compliments Cruise nicely, as Barry’s ever-supportive better half.   Caleb Landry Jones (“Get Out” (2017), “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” (2017)) also drops in and stands out in a memorable supporting role as Lucy’s troublemaking, younger brother. 

 

With a solid supporting cast and Barry soaring in and out of North, Central and South America, Liman orchestrates this three-ring circus that is full of surprises.  Well, when looking back at Cruise’s aforementioned 1986 film, “Top Gun” may be flashier, but “American Made” is - dare I say - more enjoyable, and that may be the biggest surprise.

(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.

 

 

Victoria and Abdul - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

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Dench shines in an uneven ‘Victoria and Abdul’

 

Directed by: Stephen Frears

Written by: Lee Hall, based on the book by Shrabani Basu

Starring: Judi Dench, Ali Fazal, Eddie Izzard, Adeel Akhtar, and Tim Pigott-Smith

 

“Victoria and Abdul” – In 1887, Abdul Karim’s (Ali Fazal) life dramatically changed.  A British officer selects him to present a coin to Queen Victoria (Judi Dench) at Buckingham Palace.  Along with another local from Agra, India - Mohammed (Adeel Akhtar) - Abdul sets sail for England for a ceremonial event, which seems like an awfully long journey for just a three-minute role during a royal dinner, but when in Rome….err, London.

 

While on the palace grounds, a few officials specifically instruct the two newcomers to avoid looking into the queen’s eyes during the dinner, but Abdul cannot help himself, and she catches his gaze and smile.  They connect for only a few seconds, but Queen Victoria wishes to know more about this unknown man who presented her with a gift from India.   After several exclusive meetings, Abdul soon becomes the queen’s friend, confident and eventually, teacher (or her munshi), as she is eager to learn about a new culture, language and the man himself. 

 

Director Stephen Frears (“The Grifters” (1990), “High Fidelity” (2000), “Philomena” (2013)) tells the story of Queen Victoria and Abdul Karim, one that was somewhat lost in time until a very recent discovery (2010) of Abdul’s journals.  Frears – who is no stranger to comedy – creates a light and airy story, built on a stranger in a strange land foundation.  In several very amusing sequences, the film showcases the overdone formalities of regal pomp and circumstance, and although Frears presents these scenes as matter-of-fact to anyone within eyeshot, the audience is treated to Mohammed and Abdul’s new perspectives of the royal customs.  Mohammed’s especially.  Akhtar – who played a terrific supporting role as a taunting older brother in “The Big Sick” (2017) – brings his comedic gifts to “Victoria and Abdul” as well.  

 

Mohammed hilariously complains about the English weather, the physical consistency of a gelatin dessert and the awkward fact that two people are presenting just one coin to the queen.  Dench dives into some big laughs too, as Queen Victoria frequently doses off, finds her daily rituals utterly boring and admits that everything – not just clothing - in Scotland is scratchy.   The queen enjoyably scratches at a newly rediscovered itch to learn, as her transformation from her joyless actuality to a blissful one places a contagious smile on her face and the audience’s.

 

Frears jams and packs many of these wonderful moments during the film’s whimsical first hour, and Akhtar, Dench and some clever visuals strap us into a fun movie, but the director does warn us of murkier times ahead with occasional racist quips or attitudes from the Brits towards the new visitors.     

 

Unfortunately, the film takes a sizable tonal shift in the second hour.  Queen Victoria is forced to repeatedly justify Abdul’s presence in her kingdom in the face of jealous and/or racist attitudes from Lord Salisbury (Michael Gambon), her royal subjects and family members, including the most villainous of the bunch, her son Bertie (Eddie Izzard). 

 

The caustic fight turns nasty and delves in dirty tricks, and the film’s dramatic shift feels one dimensional and ham-handed with no room for nuance.  Worse yet, Abdul’s character is barely explored.  Dench – of course – garners the opportunity to expand upon the queen’s colorful journey towards new enlightenment during her twilight years, but the narrative presents Abdul with one constant note as a humble servant, one with little exposition into his thoughts and feelings.  Now, perhaps Frears and/or writer Lee Hall did not wish to take creative license, but as a movie, it feels like an incomplete story.

 

Still, high production values and two stand out performances from Dench and Akhtar offer a worthwhile experience, but this critic wishes that “Victoria and Abdul” incorporated subtler shades of connective tissue.

(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.

 

Best of TIFF: Part Two - by Jeff Mitchell

Best of TIFF 2017 – Part Two

 

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The 2017 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) concluded on Sept. 17, and this movie celebration presented hundreds of features over 11 days.  I entered and exited theatres for an entire week and a half, caught 35 movies and wrote a “Best of TIFF – Part One” article (published on Sept. 15), which included five films.  Here are five more great films from this year’s TIFF, and this second commentary will round out my personal top 10 from the festival. 

 

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“I, Tonya” – The 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway is mostly remembered (in the U.S., anyway) as the dramatic climax of the Tonya Harding/Nancy Kerrigan saga.  This duel between two very different figure skaters seized the nation’s attention, primarily due to the infamous attack on Kerrigan in Detroit, Mich.  Twenty-three years later, director Craig Gillespie revisits the incident in the Motor City, but much, much more than that, his picture is a Tonya Harding biography with Margot Robbie starring in the title role.  Robbie is mesmerizing as Tonya, as she dazzles on the ice and also conveys the consequences of the physical and emotional abuse that Ms. Harding endured by her husband, Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), and mother, LaVona Golden (Allison Janney). “I, Tonya” simultaneously generates honest sympathy for Harding and wildly entertains with drama and heaps of unexpected humor, while also routinely breaking the fourth wall.  Janney should receive a supporting Oscar nomination.

 

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“Loveless” – Unfortunately, a significant portion of marriages fail, and this includes the nuptials of Zhenya (Maryana Spivak) and Boris (Aleksey Rozin).  They not only exist in a loveless marriage, but they absolutely despise each other and are not afraid to express their ire in the most vicious of terms.   Zhenya and Boris do still live together but are in the process of selling their apartment and physically going their separate ways.   The problem is that their son (about 10-years-old) prematurely goes his separate way, and suddenly, this cheerless couple is coping with a missing child.  Director Andrey Zvyagintsev’s (“Leviathan” (2014)) dark picture purposely mires in misery and hopelessness, and the famous analogy finding needle in a haystack does not even begin to describe the scope of the couple’s new struggle.  Skillfully filmed and constructed under a gloomy atmosphere, “Loveless” is a stunner.

 

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“Sweet Country” – Set in 1929 Australia, director Warwick Thornton delivers an affecting western – which won TIFF’s Platform Prize – as it wraps its story in institutional racism between whites and aborigines.  When Fred Smith (Sam Neill) leaves his ranch for a business trip, his hired hand, Sam Kelly (Hamilton Morris), becomes embroiled in a violent incident, in which he was not at fault.  Sam and his wife, Lizzie (Natassia Gorey Furber), find themselves on the run, and Sgt. Fletcher (Bryan Brown) is in tight pursuit.   Sam and other aboriginal people – like Philomac (Tremayne Doolan) and Archie (Gibson John) – depict a collective subordinate bow towards white ranchers and authority figures, and Thornton captures these moments in very obvious and subtle ways.  Life has stacked the deck against Sam, but will the legal threads of Australian justice treat him fairly?  The parallels between “Sweet Country” and America’s history feel eerily analogous. 

 

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“Thelma” – Although a bit shy, Thelma (Eili Harboe) seems like an ordinary 18-year-old heading off to college.  She is an only child, so her folks – Trond (Henrik Rafaelsen) and Unni (Ellen Dorrit Petersen) – lean toward helicopter parent-tendencies.  In between attempts to make friends and study in the library, Thelma falls ill, and the doctors cannot rationalize the reasons.  In Joachim Trier’s slow-burning thriller, Thelma unknowingly carries more in her DNA than meets the eye, while she struggles to explain her present…and past.  Trier paints an antiseptic, lonely world for Thelma, and then suddenly pulls five-bell fire alarms due to onscreen emergencies.  Occasionally frightening imagery balances the steady narrative, as Harboe, Rafaelsen, Petersen, and Kaya Wilkins (who plays Thelma’s friend) offer strong contemporary performances in Trier’s unpredictable world.   

 

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“What Will People Say” – Writer/director Iram Haq serves a haunting family conflict between modern-day freedoms and vigorous tradition, as Nisha (Maria Mozhdah) – a 16-year-old Pakistani girl living in Norway - clashes with her parents’ conservative ideals.  Very early in the movie, her father, Mirza (Adil Hussain), misunderstands an awkward circumstance and takes his rage out on Nisha in extreme ways.  Intolerance and inflexibility rule in Nisha’s household, and she suffers through an emotional rollercoaster that makes the audience hold its collective breath during appalling displays of control and abuse.   Nisha lives a nightmare that she cannot wake up from and with no allies in sight, the film yanks on our heartstrings and leaves a lingering mark.  For those who embraced 2015’s “Mustang”, “What Will People Say” will resonate as well.  

 

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.

 

 

Year by the Sea - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

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Allen is likable in ‘Year by the Sea’ despite its familiar tide

 

Directed by: Alexander Janko

Written by: Alexander Janko, based on Joan Anderson’s memoir

Starring: Karen Allen, Yannick Bisson, Celia Imrie, Monique Gabriela Curnen, S. Epatha Merkerson, and Michael Cristofer

 

“Year by the Sea” – “If you don’t like the road you’re walking, start paving another one.” – Dolly Parton

 

In a manicured, pricey reception hall, Joan (Karen Allen) and her husband, Robin (Michael Cristofer), celebrate their son’s wedding, but almost immediately after, he reveals a different life change.  Due to Robin’s job, they need to move from the east coast to Kansas.  Suddenly, the two have emptied their house of furniture, and as they prepare for bed - on an air mattress - Joan’s mood turns somber.  That next morning, Robin drives to Kansas, and Joan briefly stays behind before heading in the other direction to Massachusetts.  She is separating from Robin, at least temporarily…but probably permanently. 

 

Based upon Joan Anderson’s memoir with the same title, director Alexander Janko brings “Year by the Sea” to life on the big screen and, in the process, gives Allen a chance to let her hair down in a very likable role.  A role in which her character didn’t like the road that she was walking, so she started paving another one

 

Taking up residence in a rustic Cape Cod home that sits on an island, Joan figuratively plays a fish out of water by the sea, and the film presents a series of new experiences for this woman who tries to rediscover herself.  To begin with, she struggles to even reach the house, because operating a row boat was never a skill that she mastered while raising a family and maintaining a household over the last 30 years.  She needs a job but also wishes to make friends and explore her new seaside environment, and Joan dives deeply into this adventure through trial and error. 

 

At first, the film does not really explain why Joan has decided to cordially separate from Robin, which is a little frustrating, but for those who may have drifted apart from a spouse after many years, no immediate justification from her is probably necessary.  Lists of reasons do not need to be verbalized, at least during the film’s first act, and Joan’s willingness to embrace her daily naiveties with a smile is contagious. 

 

Her smile and positive outlook also attract a series of new friends, but admittedly, her new encounters - and the people who come with them - feel cliché and preordained.  Luce (Monique Gabriela Curnen) contends with an abusive boyfriend, another Joan (Celia Imire) is a positive free spirit and always ready with a quotable bit of advice and Cahoon (Yannick Bisson) is a rugged, younger fisherman who – we assume - will eventually make a romantic connection with Joan in some fashion.  Whether or not Anderson met these individuals on her personal journey, the film presents them like a checklist for Onscreen-Joan, accompanied by a honey-soaked soundtrack. 

 

Two years ago, Blythe Danner starred in “I’ll See You in My Dreams”, in which Carol (Danner) – a widow - rediscovers herself and begins dating again, after years and years of living alone.  Both films feature women looking for a fresh start, but Danner’s picture wraps itself in touches of subtlety and humor, and the narrative gives Carol the room to breathe during her internal exploration.  Conversely, “Year by the Sea” provides activities for Joan to explore – like searching for clams and running a 5K (mind you, not at the same time) - but her emotional growth - through her physical actions - does not cinematically register as well as it should.

 

Still, Janko’s eye for scenic beauty does register on the big screen, as several shots of the Cape’s coastline do spark wonder and awe, including one scene in which Joan relaxes on a beach with a group of happy seals.  Yes, Joan has found her happy place, and for millions and millions of unhappy spouses who struggle for their identity and for brighter days, “Year by the Sea” does offer a positive message with its well-traveled story.

(2/4 stars)

 

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

 

 

 

 

Stronger - Movie Review by Monte Yazzie

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Stronger

 

Director: David Gordon Green

Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Tatiana Maslany, Miranda Richardson, Richard Lane Jr., Nate Richman, Lenny Clarke, and Clancy Brown

 

Jeff Bauman may not be a name that you recognize but his story is one that you’ll remember. The Chelmsford, Massachusetts’s native was waiting at the finish line of the Boston Marathon on April 15th, 2013 when two homemade bombs detonated, which resulted in the loss of both of Mr. Bauman’s legs. While the images from that day will be forever remembered, Mr. Bauman’s story doesn’t end there.

 

Director David Gordon Green constructs a personal story of healing, detailing both the physical aspects needing to be re-learned but also the mental aspects that arise long after the initial trauma. It’s a welcome return for the director who has a done a little bit of everything since his first exceptional feature “George Washington”.  “Stronger” feels in the same form as the director's intimate films “All The Real Girls” and “Undertow”. The way the director handles tragedy and the traumatic ways it influences the lives of families and relationships has always been with a touch of compassion and an emphasis on honesty. Incorporating those same qualities into a film about a real event with a real person offers an interesting perspective on a still poignant day in America.

 

Leading the film is Jake Gyllenhaal playing Jeff Bauman. The film is based off the autobiography by Bauman and portrays the young man as a screw-up who drinks beers at the local bar and argues with his family with a mix of expletive one-liners. Still, while it’s mostly difficult to admire such character, there is also an undeniable charm that comes through. Mr. Gyllenhaal naturally has that likable quality and has shown already that he can make even the most annoying, self-centered character engaging; look no further than his exceptionally deranged performance in “Nightcrawler”. Gyllenhaal shines throughout the film, most notably when he is sharing the screen with Tatiana Maslany who plays Jake’s embattled girlfriend Erin. Ms. Maslany is fantastic as she moves through an arc of regret, support, and annoyance while caring for Jeff.

 

One of the interesting aspects about this film is the way it portrays the characters and the qualities typically associated with films concerned with redemption. Where another film might take a straightforward approach with the characters close to the trauma, Mr. Green instead goes for something closer to a caricature of the characters. Jeff’s mother, portrayed impressively by Miranda Richardson, is a heavy drinker who makes nearly every situation about her and what she thinks is right for her son. It’s overwhelming in moments but also nicely utilized especially when Jeff reaches his breaking point with those around him. The film also takes an interesting look at heroes and the definition of heroics. Jeff is constantly reminded of the worst day in his life by people who instead correlate it with aspects of strength and heroics. Mr. Green makes this an fascinating concentration in the second act as Jeff is bombarded with requests to make appearances at different events.

 

The film spends most its time focusing on the interesting aspects of the family dynamic and the crumbling relationship that Jeff is experiencing. So when the film needs make a change and display the redemptive aspects of Jeff’s healing, things come together forced and bit messy.  Still, the performances here are impressive and the narrative takes an interesting approach in showcasing how people deal with tough times. And in the finale, regardless of how it decides to conclude, “Stronger” still has the quality of being an inspiring journey.

 

Monte’s Rating

3.50 out of 5.00

Kingsman: The Golden Circle - Movie Review by Monte Yazzie

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Kingsman: The Golden Circle

 

Director: Matthew Vaughn

Starring: Taron Egerton, Mark Strong, Channing Tatum, Jeff Bridges, Halle Berry, Julianne Moore, Hanna Alstrom, Edward Holcroft, and Colin Firth

 

Throughout cinematic history the sequel was always meant to be bigger and better. However, bigger stories, bigger movie stars, bigger budgets doesn’t always result in better films. For every “Godfather 2”, “Aliens”, and “The Empire Strikes Back” we also get “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps”, “Speed 2: Cruise Control”, and “The Sting II”.  Sequels have an undeniable place in the cinematic experience today; and with more films wanting to create franchises out of successful ideas, the sequel doesn’t seem to be going anywhere, anytime soon.

 

Director Matthew Vaughn takes a swing at the sequel with “Kingsman: The Golden Circle”. Everything about this sequel is bigger. It’s filled with an abundance of ideas, more movie star power, and action set pieces that are trying at every turn to one-up the original film. For a sequel that is trying to be an edgier version of a James Bond film, it makes sense that it would be trying to be bigger. Unfortunately “Kingsman: The Golden Circle” misses many of the marks that the original film so firmly hit.

 

Eggsy (Taron Egerton) has saved the world, losing a mentor (Colin Firth) in the process, and isworking to represent the Kingsman like he was taught. However, a new villain named Poppy (Julianne Moore) targets the Kingsman and destroys their entire organization. Eggsy and Merlin (Mark Strong) are left to the task of saving the world again. However, their mission brings them to America and into the assistance of an allied secret spy agency called Statesman. The two agencies must band together to keep the world from succumbing to a mysterious drug.

 

At a seemingly endless length of 141 minutes, director Matthew Vaughn utilizes nearly every moment to showcase over-the-top action scenes that don’t have the same kind of impact that the brutal church scene had from the first film. Characters are given fancier weaponry, taking the James Bond approach to gadgets to a new extreme with bullwhips that double as versatile light sabers and briefcases that shoot every kind of explosive projectile. The villain has a meat grinder, robot dogs with pulverizing mouths, and drugs that, instead of making people maniacs like in the first film, make them dancing then paralyzed users. There is a wealth of visual extravagance but basically the same narrative structure as the original film.

 

The cameos throughout the film are also abundant. Channing Tatum shows up for a moment, full swagger and cowboy hat in tow. Jeff Bridges plays another version of the cowboy character that we’ve seen him play to varying levels of success over the past few films. Halle Berry makes an appearance as a computer guru, doing her best with the minimal time she is provided. These characters, despite the running time, aren’t given much opportunity to make a real impact on the story; instead they play characters of narrative convenience, showing up when the film needs to transition.  Even Sir Elton John makes an appearance, gushing expletives and singing songs in full flashy wardrobe.

 

“Kingsman: The Golden Circle” does have a few fun moments, mostly when Taron Egerton is left to showcase his natural charisma and Julianne Moore is provided the time to play her villain with devious glee. However, like most mediocre sequels the narrative isn’t given enough attention, abandoned for spectacle and familiar famous faces. “Kingsman: The Golden Circle” goes for bigger and better but instead just feels longer and forgettable.

 

Monte’s Rating

2.00 out of 5.00

F(l)ag Football - Movie Review by Ben Cahlamer

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F(l)ag Football

 

Directed by Seth Greenleaf

Starring: Wade Davis, Jared Garduno, Brenton Metzler, Cyd Ziegler

 

We all struggle to find our own place in the world.  Life gets interesting as we discover ourselves and we form relationships with others.  It gets more complicated when we struggle with our sexual identity.  It’s not something most of us think about, let alone question.

The beautiful thing about humanity is that we are unique.  The struggle within our global communities today is that we are not accepting of our uniqueness which makes it difficult when moving to a new city or finding friends with the same interests as ours.  Seth Greenleaf explores our uniqueness in his raw and hilarious documentary F(l)ag Football.

Ironically named, Greenleaf’s documentary follows three teams of amateur flag footballers who happen to be mostly gay.  He explores the struggles each of the subjects had to find people with similar interests and the struggles of each team to find their rhythms. 

Wade Davis, a former pro-NFL player, Cyd Ziegler, Jared Garduno, and Brenton Metzler each sought to find their place, not only in the gay community, but also in their own lives and with each other, leading them to Flag Football.  Greenleaf captures their lives on the field as well as off it as they each prepare for the 2010 Gay X Bowl games in Phoenix.

Inclusion is the word of the day.  When we’re off the field, we are at our most intimate with each of the subjects opening up to Greenleaf.  In their candidness, we find good natured people with a lot of pent-up aggression and ambition, fears, desires and ultimately love. 

Each of the team members has something to say.  They fight with each other, they love each other; they grow together and apart from each other.  But within the team framework, Greenleaf captured the essence of love, life, happiness and inclusion.  No matter your orientation or your skin color or your creed or your gender, inclusion is at the center.

The notion of stereotypes goes right out the window too.  The sport allows for both gay and straight players, leading to the crux of the issue. 

Greenleaf creates a counterpoint when the subject of the number of straight players allowed on a team is raised.  As a rule of the NGFFL, no more than 20% of the team players can be straight and as one of the teams’ desires to win outweighs the rules, they fight to get the rule changed.  They are overruled and the team captain is forced to cut one of his straight players, one of the more difficult scenes to watch unfold.  It was interesting to see a form of reverse discrimination.  But I liked this aspect because it demonstrates that we are, all of us, human. And that’s something that we as a society need in today’s tumultuous world; a reflection that despite the push for equality, not everything is equal.

Featured at the Phoenix Film Festival in 2014 and now in theaters, Seth Greenleaf’s F(l)ag Football takes a candid look at the athletes, their sport, their lives and ambitions, and he puts a very human and humorous spin on it, immediately dismissing any stereotypes.

4 out of 5 stars

The Lego Ninjago Movie - Movie Review by Ben Cahlamer

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The Lego Ninjago Movie

 

Directed by Charlie Bean, Paul Fisher, Bob Logan

Screenplay by Bob Logan, Paul Fisher, William Wheeler, Tom Wheeler, Jared Stern, John Whittington

Starring: Dave Franco, Jackie Chan, Fred Armisen, Kumail Nanjiani, Michael Pena, Abbi Jacobson, Zach Woods, Justin Theroux

 

As a child, my older brother would get Lego kits. He would build them as I played with my Duplo sets and as we got older, his Lego sets became disjointed; pieces everywhere, allowing our imagination to soar as we created anything out of the pieces. The latest 3D Lego animated film, The Lego Ninjago Movie, co-directed by Charlie Bean, Paul Fisher and Bob Logan reminded me of my childhood.

Featuring an all-star voice cast, Ninjago is the story of a group of six young kids who very desperately want to learn the ways of the Ninja.  Lloyd Garmadon (Dave Franco) is at the very nerve center of the story. His high school chums, Kai (Michael Pena), Jay (Kumail Nanjiani), Nya (Abbi Jacobson), Zane (Zach Woods) and Cole (Fred Armisen) round out what will eventually become the secret ninja squad to protect the far-away land of Ninjago. Master Wu (Jackie Chan) harbors a secret as he starts training the impatient Lloyd and his friends, while the evil Lord Garmadon (Justin Theroux) harbors an even deeper secret.

I would normally complain about the number of creative writing staff on an animated film. However, the extremely nuanced story benefits from having so much talent. In the meantime, the very unique way they chose to frame the story effectively conveys the themes of family and trust. 

I got a late 1980’s, early 1990’s vibe from the film, and that is part of its problem. It felt like a rehash of The Empire Strikes Back, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers, which makes sense given their Asian-influences.  I even got a sense of Goonies and Gremlins, playing into the story’s adventuresome strengths. There are no monsters, unless you count the Dr. Evil-like Lord Garmadon and his volcanic lair, which is situated smack dab in front of Ninjago.  Or Meowthra.  You’ll just have to see the movie to get the full experience.

The animation here is second-to-none. Even in 2D, you feel like you’re in the middle of action.  None of the characters stood out, but then again, none of them were boring either.  Though the characters seemed flat, the animation drives the action and comedy.  The running gag with Lloyd’s first name never got stale, until they stopped doing it, but it works to establish several key character moments.

Pop music tracks are laid throughout the film as well, underscoring the on-screen action.  The amount of pop music really rendered Mark Mothersbaugh’s score mute, however, the songs enhanced the emotional overtones, helping to add a layer of emotion that the voices couldn’t necessarily carry.

There is more than enough to allow your imagination to soar, while still enjoying the confines of Ninjago.  If you can see the film in 3D, I would recommend it.  If not, you’ll enjoy it equally as well, but the animation just screams for the third dimension.  The Lego Ninjago Movie has something in it for everyone.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Kingsman: The Golden Circle - Movie Review by Ben Cahlamer

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Kingsman The Golden Circle

 

Directed by Matthew Vaughn

Written by Jane Goldman and Matthew Vaughn

Starring: Colin Firth, Taron Egerton, Mark Strong, Channing Tatum, Jeff Bridges, Julianne Moore, Halle Berry

 

History is replete with the spoils of cinematic spies; resources and gadgets are ready at an instant; beautiful locales, venomous villains and gorgeous ladies on tap.  James Bond was fashionable, Steve Rogers was symbolic, Austin Powers was hip, Derek Flint was cool, Ethan Hunt is grace under pressure. And then there was Eggsy Unwin, the unwitting street thug turned superspy.  He returns to theaters in Matthew Vaughn’s Kingsman: The Golden Circle.

Each of the aforementioned superspies were successful because their creators managed to put their characters in the middle of timely stories; they reflected the challenges that faced modern society while the actor inhabiting the role brought a certain braggadocio and swagger that made the performance ultra-cool for swooning audiences looking for an escape.

Vaughn has successfully delivered on this formula in the past, most notably X-Men: First Class and to an extent, the Kingsman’s previous outing, 2014’s Kingsman: The Secret Service.  The story there gave our future hero, Eggsy (Taron Egerton) an identity thanks to a life-oath sworn to between his dad and Harry Hart (Colin Firth).  The bond that Jane Goldman and Vaughn created worked so well because it was about polishing the street-wise punk, making him realizing his potential; a proverbial rags-to-riches story.  And, as much as it was The Secret Service’s script, Egerton and Vaughn are an exceptional duo when it comes to films.  See the melodrama Eddie the Eagle for a solid example of the actor-director’s teamwork.

In the over-long The Golden Circle, Eggsy is back, more polished with just a wink of his former street-wise life.  In the opening frame, he demonstrates how well he can handle himself in a defensive situation, thwarting a former Kingsman applicant (Edward Holcroft).  In the next frame, we see him with his girlfriend, Tilde (Hanna Alstrom) and his street-wise punk friends, establishing that he hasn’t fallen too far from his original tree, but he’s sprouting new leaves.  Of course, he’s wiser as evidenced by the snarky, expletive-laden commentary throughout the course of the film.

Following a disaster that all but decimates the Kingsman, Eggsy and Merlin (Mark Strong) find themselves turning to bourbon and their American brethren, the Statesman.  Here, Jeff Bridges, Channing Tatum, Pedro Pascal and Halle Berry come to the Kingsman’s rescue, and unless you live under a cinematic rock, the next part will not be a shock: Harry returns from the dead.  Vaughn and Goldman go to great lengths to explain how this is possible.  This plot instrument is valuable in a sequence later in the film, but it’s an instrument that wears its welcome.

As spy networks cross, a sinister plot lurks around the other side of the globe with a deliciously evil Poppy Adams played by Julianne Moore.  Moore’s performance is one of the three highlights of the film, her pitch-perfect villainy was enough to make Blofeld blush.  Except Charles Gray’s turn in Diamonds Are Forever. That’s a story for another time.  Sadly, her presence on the screen is marred towards the end of the third act, but it isn’t enough to make you dismiss her character completely. Bruce Greenwood puts on his stately manner as the President of the United States and gives us a good show.

What troubles me about The Golden Circle is that I was left to wander off in my own thoughts during a key action sequence, partially because it was Bond-lite; something I’ve seen so many times.  The parallel characters between the two spy organization are so similar, they seemed unnecessary, which is why it is a shame that neither Jeff Bridges nor Channing Tatum had too much to do in this film.  What managed to bring the film around for me was a quote by Winston Churchill, uttered by Harry Hart.  I won’t recite it here, but you’ll know it when you hear it.

Despite the film’s shortcomings, the film is timely, even if it is over-the-top.  Several strong character moments, specifically between Egerton and Strong support the film’s premise. Its length and distracting antics don’t always work. Rest assured, Vaughn, Eggsy, Harry and the rest of the team will be back.  Your box office dollars will ensure that.

3 out of 5 stars

Best of TIFF: Part One - by Jeff Mitchell

Best of TIFF 2017 – Part I

 

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Toronto – one of the world’s most iconic cities – sports a lively downtown, soaring high rises, a culturally-rich and warm populace, major league sports teams, the CN Tower, and much more.  This Canadian metropolis also hosts one of the world’s most iconic film festivals, the Toronto International Film Festival or TIFF.   This year’s festival runs from Sept. 7 to 17, and I’ve anchored myself in downtown Toronto for the entire film fiesta.  Of course, I have not seen every feature but have caught 28 movies (as of Sept. 14), via a healthy mix from many genres.  Here are some of the very best films that I have seen so far, and on Sept. 22, I’ll conclude the list with a “Best of TIFF – Part II” article.     

 

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“The Captain” – In April 1945, Herold (Max Hubacher), a young German soldier, is running for his life from his own army and some locals, however, in an incredible stroke of luck, he stumbles upon a pristine captain’s uniform.  He suddenly forms a brand new identity – with his new appearance – which commands respect, but can Herold convince his fellow soldiers and officers that he is a captain?  Hubacher delivers a highly convincing performance as a desperate man who must continually swallow his fear to survive, and over time, his anxiety transforms into something else.  Writer/director Robert Schwentke’s movie - filmed in black and white - hypnotizes and/or horrifies us during every step of Herold’s journey.   

 

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“The Disaster Artist” – “The Room” (2003) is rightfully considered one of the worst movies in recent memory, but legions of fans have embraced it as a cult classic and continue to religiously watch this disaster (as an unintended comedy) at local arthouses to this day.  Director James Franco’s downright hilarious film – based upon actor Greg Sestero’s memoir - revisits the making of “The Room”, and he also offers a pitch-perfect performance of its unorthodox creator, Tommy Wiseau.  Franco is simply brilliant as Wiseau, who sports 80s heavy metal hair, claims that he is from New Orleans (but carries a thick Eastern European accent) and enjoys an endless supply of money.  “The Room” fans will immediately embrace this picture and probably watch it over and over and over.  For those who have not seen “The Room”?  Well, it is probably a prerequisite for “The Disaster Artist”.

 

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“The Florida Project” – The Magic Castle – splashed in purple and yellow - sits in Orlando, Florida, but tourists from around the world do not target it as a specific destination.  It is an extended stay motel that resides near a busy freeway and a concrete neighborhood of fast food joints and gas stations, but to 6-year-old Moonee (Brooklynn Prince), this is her playground!  Director Sean Baker (“Tangerine”) organically captures Moonee’s daily adventures of mischief and laughter, as she and her friends find wonder and opportunity in ways that only children can.  Baker’s film volleys between comedy and tragedy, because he presents – in full view – the poverty and grit of Moonee’s living conditions provided by her irresponsible mother (Bria Vinaite).  Willem Dafoe gives an Oscar-worthy performance as the motel’s manager and do not be surprised if Prince is nominated as well. 

 

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“The Square” – Writer/director Ruben Ostlund (“Force Majeure” (2014)) is back with an infinitely quirky and entertaining picture about an art curator’s (Claes Bang) experiences after an unusual incident during an ordinary morning in Stockholm.  Ostlund fills his movie with many said incidents, odd visuals and strong comedic writing, as the eccentricities of the museum’s modern art sometimes reflect the lives of everyday people.   Bang anchors the picture with a steady hand, while the supporting players cinematically dance and dart around him.  Elisabeth Moss is hysterical as an American journalist, and Terry Notary contributes to the year’s most uncomfortable scene (in a comedy) with his portrayal of an unconventional performance artist.  

 

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“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” – Frances McDormand is destined for an Oscar nomination with her best performance since “Fargo” (1996) in writer/director Martin McDonagh’s (“In Bruges” (2008), “Seven Psychopaths” (2012)) latest dark comedy.  Mildred Hayes (McDormand) pays $5,000 to place a message on three billboards, and her actions cause an uproar in the small town of Ebbing and the surrounding areas.  Sam Rockwell deserves an Oscar nomination too – by playing a bigoted deputy with terrible cases of arrested development and poor judgment - and Woody Harrelson, Peter Dinklage and John Hawkes lead an outstanding supporting cast.  Salty language, rough behavior and violence heavily pepper the snappy dialogue and big laughs in one of the year’s best screenplays.

 

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.

 

 

Columbus - Movie Review by Ben Cahlamer

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Columbus

 

Written and Directed by: Kogonada

Starring: John Cho, Haley Lu Richardson, Parker Posey, Rory Culkin, Michelle Forbes

 

Within the first few minutes of Kogonada’s Columbus, the very nature of yin and yang becomes evident, where our characters are struggling with a personal issue, and yet, it isn’t until they meet their opposite that they realize their potential. 

For Jin (John Cho), his father’s coma is the impetus for harbored feelings of abandonment and a lack of appreciation in what his father tried to share with him.  At the same time, Casey (Haley Lu Richardson) struggles with self-abandonment issues, making excuses as to why she is unwilling to move on with her life, chosing to bury herself in the post-modern architecture that surrounds her dilapidated home.

As Kogoanda’s story moves forward, Jin and Casey fall for each other, though they realize that their ghosts must be resolved, becoming betwixt in what each is and what each must become.  The ice is broken quite effectively when Jin asks Casey why she likes a particular structure and she answers as if she’s guiding him through her own life, with monotonous detail instead of articulating why she likes the home.  In fact, Jin stops her, asks her to essentially take a moment and reflect inward to then answer his question.  Even after reflecting, she still cannot get past her own demons.

For Casey, this was a difficult proposition.  She must be the responsible one in the family; her mom, Maria, is recovering from substance abuse and their living conditions reflect their past.  Michelle Forbes plays Maria.  The actress has been known for shadowy, diffused characters and this is no exception. The scene between Forbes and Richardson towards the end of the film is heart-wrenching, but also offers one of the most satisfying resolutions I’ve seen in quite some time, a credit to their performances.  Richardson in particular carried the weight of the film, balancing the character’s demons magnificently.

Jin and Casey try to draw out of each other their own demons, so that they can help one another.  There is genuine care in the way they approach this as is the care Kogonada gives to the emotions he is trying to convey.  For as much as Jin and Casey can help each other, they both required familiar characters to ground their emotions, namely his father’s assistant, Eleanor (Parker Posey) and Gabriel (Rory Culkin).

Elisha Christian’s cinematography is simply stunning, capturing the depth of the human condition through reflections and static camera work conveying themes of opacity, love, regret and ultimately, passion.  There are two scenes that stood out in particular, a scene towards the end of the second act with Cho and Posey as they reflect on what might have been.  Christian shot the entire scene from behind both characters so that the actors were caught in individual mirrors, allowing we the audience to reflect on their relationship.  I’ll leave you to find the other scene, but when you see it, it makes Casey’s decisions, and Jin’s so much more clear.

Sound and music are imperative to this film’s fabric.  As much as Kogonada reflects outwardly, we are caught in a moment in each character’s lives and the intent is to reflect the peace and serenity we find when we are retrospective in our reflections: we are very much alone, and yet we’re not.  A number of scenes carried over dialog or the sounds of the world around us, the clap of thunder or the din of leaves rustling, effectively reconnecting us with the beauty of the world that surrounds us.  Finally, Hammock’s music is hauntingly beautiful.  It is cleverly hidden in the background, allowing the sounds and the imagery to convey the emotional impact of the characters.

Kogoanda frames his film perfectly, as our characters find their own resolutions and Casey and Jin part ways, there is a moment of quiet reflection and just before the end credits role, the once quiet streets fill with cars and life again before he fades to white, signaling the life goes on.  This film reminded me very much of the reflective poetry of Jim Jaramusch’s Patterson from 2016.

Now in theaters, Columbus is stunningly perfect in its reflections on life.

4.5 out of 5 stars

 

mother! - Movie Review by Monte Yazzie

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mother!

 

Director: Darren Aronofsky

Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, Ed Harris, Michelle Pfieffer, Brian Gleeson, Domhnall Gleeson, Stephen McHattie, and Kristen Wiig

 

In the middle of an undisclosed forest, a house exists. It’s an odd looking mansion of sorts that, once entered, is filled with pathways leading throughout the labyrinthine structure. A woman and a man live in this house; the woman is tasked with shaping and molding the house into a home, while the man searches for inspiration for his new book wherever and with whomever he can. You can feel that this story is building towards something uneasy, something difficult; a place that will challenge the characters’ understanding as they try so desperately to control their crumbling, destructive situation.

 

Director Darren Aronofsky, the auteur behind films like “Requiem for a Dream” and “Black Swan”, composes a story that functions as a metaphor, a parable, and a satire. It’s an allegory that is a bold artistic expression with equally frustrating and fascinating strokes. Mr. Aronofsky’s film is also deeply personal, for the director and the viewer, echoing sentiments from places religious, political, and ecological.

 

Without ever stating specific names, the film opens with the awakening of a woman identified as Mother (Jennifer Lawrence) looking for a man identified as Him (Javier Bardem) throughout a sprawling house in the middle of rejuvenation. The couple seems distracted and lonely, lost in the seclusion they have manufactured for themselves. Interruption invades their seemingly idyllic existence in the form of two guests (Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer), from this point the paradise that they have created becomes torn apart.

 

From the beginning moments of “mother!” you can feel the influences taking hold and pushing your attention in different ways. Mr. Aronofsky doesn’t aim for subtle movements, the narrative design may operate on a few different planes of explanation but the connections to the ideologies the director is trying to express are felt throughout. What you may connect with may not be the same as someone else who watches this film but that’s not the point. This is a film that aims to conjure an emotion, in some moments you may feel aggravated or confused while in other places you may feel surprisingly optimistic. To a point, these feelings may depend largely on your outlook within the world or your relationship with the themes examined. Saying this film is about religious fascination, political and social divisions, or environmental destruction may be too easy an explanation.

 

The director connects again with his longtime visual collaborator, director of photography Matthew Libatique, who composes the film within swathes of light that illuminate natural shadows composed by the house. The camera follows Mother while she moves throughout the house, we see her frustration and visualize her changing emotions, you can feel her seclusion and isolation through the tight framing of the camera. The photography also takes a cue from Stanley Kubrick, playing with space and time within the house similarly to how it was composed in “The Shining”.

 

Jennifer Lawrence is provided the difficult task of playing Mother, a multifaceted character that plays passive throughout the melodramatic first half of the movie and dynamic in the frenzied latter portion. Because her character is written to embody far greater meaning than the simple aspect of a woman living in a problematical relationship, the changeover in the finale for the character is equally as complicated. The portrayal is brimming with passion and extravagance while in other ways it is missing an emotional component that makes the character feel empty and somewhat inhuman. It's all by design and Jennifer Lawrence does her best to convey everything that's being introduced.

 

Film, like any other form of art, is subjective. Your ultimate interpretation is part of the process of connecting with an artistic expression, regardless of whether it’s negative or positive. “mother!” will be divisive but it will also be thought provoking. Some may see the demonstrations of violence and the more sensational aspects of the script too intense while others, myself included, will find the comic audacity in the embellishment of the ideas the director is trying to transmit. “mother!” in many instances is what filmmaking should be, a vessel for the expression of ideas.

 

Monte’s Rating

4.50 out of 5.00

 

 

It - Movie Review by Monte Yazzie

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It

 

Director: Andy Muschietti

Starring: Jaeden Lieberher, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Sophia Lillis, Finn Wolfhard, Chosen Jacobs, Jack Dylan Grazer, Wyatt Oleff, Nicholas Hamilton, and Bill Skarsgård

 

“Everything down here floats…” If you were a fan of Stephen King and watched television in the fall of 1990, there’s a good chance that you didn’t look at clowns the same way ever again. Mr. King’s novel, “It”, was made into a two-part television miniseries starring Tim Curry as the menacing, dancing clown named Pennywise who tormented a group of young people in the fictional town of Derry, Maine. The film is still regarded by many people as one of the most traumatic film experiences, turning jovial clowns into the stuff of nightmares.

 

After losing writer/director Cary Fukunaga (“True Detective”), the retelling of Stephen King’s story looked bleak. However director Andy Muschietti, who last helmed the horror film “Mama”, stepped in and composed a film that is much more successful than early insights might have suggested. “It” taps into 1980’s nostalgia and mixes it with highlights of Mr. King’s expansive story, utilizing a group of young characters that add substance to the horror that is coming for them.

 

 

Derry is a small town with a high historical death count and a current rash of missing children. Some think the town is cursed but for a group of friends the mysterious circumstances in their town has taken a sinister shape, a clown named Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård) who feeds on the fear of his victims. For Bill (Jaeden Lieberher) the terror has taken a personal turn, his brother Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott) is an unfortunate victim. Bill, along with his friends, are tormented by Pennywise, forcing them to either face their fear or succumb to it.

 

Stephen King’s stories have a unique way of creating a sense of dread for everyone involved; even the stories that are structured within the lives of adolescent people, the characters aren’t exempt from being forced to deal with mature situations. It’s no different here, the children deal with a multitude of concerns; from a homicidal bully at school to despicable adults at home, the world outside of their group of friends is a terrible place. And there are more disturbing situations in the book that aren’t detailed in the film.

 

Director Andy Muschietti taps into some of those feelings, the emotional rollercoaster of pubescent maturation and the influence of a community that doesn’t seem concerned with the walking nightmares their children express seeing. So it’s surprising that this film has such a strong undercurrent of humor that breaks up the chilling moments from scene to scene. While this disrupts the overall tone in some places during the film, it also helps in creating an interesting wave of emotions between creepy horror sights and what would be an exceptional coming-of-age drama without the genre elements.

 

 

It’s the genre elements that cause the most frustration within this film. Unnecessary digital elements in which Pennywise, an already scary monster in makeup alone, is given elongated features or overly shaky motions undercut the rather impressive performance from Bill Skarsgård. When the actor is given an opportunity to provide the character some personality the result is completely chilling. In one scene involving a spooky, decrepit house Pennywise is given the stage to taunt and torment in exceptional fashion.

 

Within the Loser’s Club, that’s what these teenagers call their band of outsiders, is a young person that you can identify with. The foul-mouthed jokester Richie (Finn Wolfhard) has a smart quip for every situation, Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer) has asthma and allergies, and Beverly (Sophia Lillis) is the lone lady with enough confidence to match all the boys in the group. Leading the charge is Bill, a kid with a stutter that also feels like the friend we all hoped to have in school. These characters are nothing without the talented performers behind them; their character’s personalities seem so genuine and heartfelt throughout the film. Ms. Lillis is a particular standout amongst the group, her character is strong-willed and provides the courage that promotes the boys to act.

 

At over two-hours in length, “It” never seems to lose much steam. This is partly because the character story is so well composed, which keeps the attention off the horror film that never fully commits to creating something that is very scary or unnerving. Still, “It” is much better than I was expecting and, not surprising for those that have seen the original television film or read the book, we will have an opportunity to float again.

 

Monte’s Rating

 

3.50 out of 5.00

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”.

 

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“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

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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.