Goodbye Christopher Robin - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

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Say hello to an insightful biopic, ‘Goodbye Christopher Robin’


Directed by: Simon Curtis

Written by: Frank Cottrell Boyce and Simon Vaughan

Starring: Domhnall Gleeson, Margot Robbie, Will Tilston, and Kelly Macdonald


“Goodbye Christopher Robin” -  The name Christopher Robin should quickly resonate with anyone who has watched a Winnie the Pooh television special, film or read one of A.A. Milne’s (Domhnall Gleeson) children’s novels.  Friends with Winnie the Pooh, Christopher Robin is a human character in these tales, but he also doubles as the real-life son of A.A. Milne, and director Simon Curtis (“My Week with Marilyn” (2011), “Woman in Gold” (2015)) explores this absorbing family story as well as the origin of an exceedingly popular and lovable literary bear. 


Curtis takes us inside the Milne household in Sussex, UK, and although this beautiful, countryside home holds plenty of space, he thoroughly taps into and reveals the close dynamics between A.A., his wife, Daphne (Margot Robbie), Christopher Robin (Will Tilston), and their nanny, Olive (Kelly Macdonald).  A.A. (aka Alan, Blue) brought so much joy to the world by scribing his series of Pooh books, but he unintentionally introduced life changing strife to Christopher Robin (nicknamed Billy Moon).   Although Billy Moon did not physically run away during his youth, the Goodbye in “Goodbye Christopher Robin” is no less real, because his childhood – almost overnight – disappeared.  


Prior to the family’s move to the country, Gleeson and Robbie effectively embrace their roles as Blue and Daphne and offer rich context for this wealthy, prominent couple who regularly engage in London’s social pleasantries, just after World War I.  Blue – a very successful playwright - quickly establishes his struggle with post-traumatic stress, and Curtis emphasizes Milne’s internal churn with key close-ups of his face that literally fill the big screen, at least with an imagined 4:3 format. (Incidentally, Curtis effectively repeats similar close-ups with Billy Moon.)  Daphne, meanwhile, wishes that her husband would place the war behind him and welcome their happy existence of a life filled with friends, parties, drinks, and dancing. 


With the war recurrently entering his mind, Blue does wish to literally or physically dance in London any longer.  With a new home in Sussex and the birth of Billy Moon, Blue and Daphne introduce ingredients for a new type of happiness and the inspiration for several Winnie the Pooh books.


Beautifully filmed, Curtis offers a gorgeous backdrop of the Milne property, complete with a large backyard, an adjacent woods comprising of loosely-spaced, established trees and colorfully-dotted rolling hills that would easily induce inspiration for Claude Monet or Pierre-Auguste Renoir.  With a wondrous environment, buckets of sunshine (yes, apparently sunshine exists in England) and a wide-eyed little boy’s imagination, Milne runs towards Winnie the Pooh stories, rather than cowering from his aforementioned demons.


Regrettably, Blue and Daphne pull back from their duties as parents, as Olive tends to Billy Moon a majority of the time. Macdonald and Tilston’s onscreen relationship is particularly filled with joy and sweet nanny/child chemistry.  Both actors are instantly likable, and while Macdonald holds an expressive strength and gentle touch, Tilston exudes an ever-present kindness, curiosity and a Teflon-like resiliency against his parents’ frequent absence.  That resiliency, however, begins to erode for different reasons.


For several key reasons, “Goodbye Christopher Robin” hugely succeeds.  First and foremost, Curtis shepherds a nurturing environment for the four principal actors to engage in the nuances of family.  Dads of the 1920s did not actively partake in raising their children, and Gleeson balances this mindset while also showing Blue’s love for Billy Moon.  Meanwhile, Robbie delivers an aristocratic air to Daphne who does not wish to be bothered by mundane motherhood tasks, but does affectionately display her playful side and genuine care for her son.  In addition to a warm, motherly affection for Billy Moon, Macdonald’s Olive acts as the moral compass for the household, and Tilston shines with altruism and innocence in the title role. 


In a recent interview, Curtis said, “(Tilston) is a magical kid, and I was lucky to have him in the film.”  


He’s right. 


While the film works as a collective character study and biopic, it also tenders wonderful, organic moments of Winnie the Pooh discoveries, like the naming of the beloved animal characters and the shaping of the willy nilly silly old bear himself, and one might find it impossible to keep from smiling during these well-placed surprises.


The film also carries angst and worry, emerging from the riches and fame of Blue’s famous books.  “Goodbye Christopher Robin” contains no villains, but only human beings laboring through the game of life.  Even surrounded by success, luxury and good intentions, parents can make mistakes and learn from them.  This makes A.A. Milne’s own family story his most important. 

(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.

Te Ata - Movie Review by Monte Yazzie

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Te Ata


Director: Nathan Frankowski

Starring: Q’orianka Kilcher, Boriana Williams, Gil Birmingham, Brigid Brannagh, and Graham Greene


Storytelling is a cultural component for Native American people. It is the way history, tradition, and religion are shared and nurtured across the near 566 federally recognized tribes in the United States. Each tribe, a unique and individualized community, shares these stories in different ways, whether through spoken story, song and dance, or through written history.


For the Chickasaw Nation, originally from the southern regions of Mississippi, Kentucky, Alabama and Tennessee but forcefully removed and migrated to Oklahoma, the stories they share are rooted in nature and the elements. For Chickasaw native Mary Thomas Fisher, storytelling would change her life and make her an important figure for Native American cultural barriers and changes in perceptions during the 1920’s and lasting into the 1980’s. Ms. Fisher was better known by her stage name Te Ata, which means “bearer of the morning”.


Produced by the Chickasaw Nation, the story of Te Ata comes to life with a passionate performance from Q’orianka Kilcher, who had her breakout role as Pocahontas in Terrance Malick’s “The New World” in 2005.


The biopic documents the rise of the Native American actress, dancer, and storyteller through her journey as a child living on the Chickasaw reservation, into college at the Oklahoma College for Women, and onto a performing career with a traveling show and theater career in New York City. Along the way Te Ata discovers her identity as an artist and advocate for Native American cultural expression. Leading her to opportunities that were significant steps for Native people but also women during a time when neither were given much prospect.


“Te Ata” boasts exceptional production value throughout; the costumes look great and the sets are well polished, all of it accommodated by the photography that offers a clean high definition perspective. It makes the natural landscapes, the rivers and vast plains, glow with beauty. 


The linear storytelling structure of the film works just fine, though in some moments it becomes a little monotonous. And because the film is working to tell a life’s story, the highlights of Te Ata’s life take away from some of the interesting points that made her life so important. The positive perspective makes this film uplifting and an admiration for a culture that helped change how many in the world perceived Native Americans. However, the negative aspects that still linger so many years later for Native people also tell a story. While the film hints at these aspects, specifically in a scene involving the stereotyping of Native Americans in film, it mostly passes over the elements of discrimination and racism that were definitely present during this time.


Early in the film Chickasaw Governor Douglas Johnston (Graham Greene) makes the statement, “We are a patient people, we will get what is ours, even if it takes 100 years”. This statement is made during discussions concerning the Code for Indian offenses, which during the early 20th century aimed for the abandonment of traditional practices and the assimilation of Native Americans into western obedience. Fast forward 100 years later and Native Americans are still fighting for their culture, their well-being, and their land.


Still, stories like Te Ata’s are pertinent to understanding the role that culture plays for indigenous people but also any person who may come from a diverse, unique, or different background. We all have stories to tell, voices that should be heard, and Te Ata’s story seems very relevant in the divided world we are living in today.


Monte’s Rating

3.25 out of 5.00

Blade Runner 2049 - Movie Review by Monte Yazzie

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Blade Runner 2049


Director: Denis Villaneuve

Starring: Ryan Gosling, Harrison Ford, Robin Wright, Ana De Armas, Sylvia Hoeks, Dave Bautista, and Jared Leto


In 1968 science fiction author, now legend, Phillip K. Dick released the novel “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep”. In 1982 Ridley Scott, just off the release of “Alien” in 1979, composed the adaptation of Phillip K. Dick’s seminal work with the science fiction opus “Blade Runner”. The film was critically panned upon its release, however over time film fans have come to the consider Mr. Scott’s film a “masterpiece”.


Taking place in post-apocalyptic San Francisco, the film and novel focus on the perspective of a gumshoe named Rick Deckard; yet another memorable character of the early 1980’s portrayed by Harrison Ford. Deckard is known as a Blade Runner, a law enforcement officer tasked with tracking down bioengineered beings and “retiring” them. Ridley Scott’s film is a complex, visually stunning film that is influenced by the noir style of the 1940’s and 1950’s. It’s a film that movie enthusiasts should put on their “must watch” list.


 Director Denis Villaneuve, who is compiling quite an exquisite catalog of films, takes the task of continuing the Ridley Scott sci-fi saga with “Blade Runner 2049”. Mr. Villaneuve’s striking visual style and skillful narrative design is a perfect companion to the original film, taking the memorable aspects that play proper tribute to the 1982 film and adding exceptional elements to move out of the considerable shadow it casts. What Mr. Villaneuve and team have created with “Blade Runner 2049” is simply an exceptional sequel.


It’s 2049 and a young blade runner named K (Ryan Gosling) is working for the LAPD to “retire” bioengineered beings still operating in Los Angeles. During an investigation K uncovers a secret, long hidden, that has the potential to throw what’s left of the crumbling world into anarchy. Along K’s investigation, he is led on a journey to find retired blade runner Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) who has been missing for 30 years.


Director of Photography Roger Deakins has crafted a stunningly gorgeous film; it’s one of the best looking films of the entire year. The composition of this destroyed world, which looks like it’s approaching the final days, is a mix of green, blue, and red. The separation of colors offers a distinct marker for the different places within the narrative. But it also evokes the design of the original film and the way it might look 30 years later. Technology is still advancing, with interactive holograms and floating space cruisers all around, yet nature is a barren wasteland of dust and mud. Science fiction narratives have always utilized technology as a way of turning the mirror on humanity; Mr. Deakins’ camera does the same in regards to the connection of the advanced future and the problems that exist in the current environmental landscape today.


Ryan Gosling’s character K is interesting, a calm and complex character that operates with subtlety even when the moment peaks with intensity. Harrison Ford’s return to the character of Deckard is also well implemented. Deckard always seemed the closest to the persona most fitting to the actor in reality. Watching Mr. Ford operate the character against Mr. Gosling’s creates some ingenious emotional and motivational dynamics.  However, to reveal much more about their relationship would be to do the film a disservice. Add other talented actors like Robin Wright playing K’s LAPD Commander, Jared Leto as a mannered and restrained tech visionary, and Sylvia Hoeks as the deceptive and dangerous “problem solver” allows the film to add morelayers to the narrative.


Hampton Fancher and Michael Green wrote the screenplay, Denis Villaneuve organizes a puzzle and forms a slow unraveling mystery that works to emulate the pacing and mood of the original film. For much of “Blade Runner 2049” this aspect works surprisingly well. Though, as the film begins to build towards its ultimate culmination, the commanding nature that the film constructs through the finely tuned elements begins to dissipate. While it still continues to render beautiful images, superb sound, and fascinating performances, the narrative puzzle tries to do too much in the end.


At a running length of close to 3 hours the film never seems long, it instead attracts you into the realm through the beautiful composition. Director Denis Villaneuve is an innovative filmmaker, even when he is dealing with material that is over 30 years old. “Blade Runner 2049” is a polished film throughout that still proposes interesting ideas and questions concerning the nature of humanity and the course that history will pave into the future. At the core, that’s what these films have always been trying to do...make you question what you think you know.


Monte’s Rating

4.25 out of 5.00

Lucky - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell


Luckily, Harry Dean Stanton decided to star in ‘Lucky’


Directed by: John Carroll Lynch

Written by: Logan Sparks and Drago Sumonja

Starring: Harry Dean Stanton, David Lynch, Ron Livingston, Ed Begley Jr., Tom Skerritt, Yvonne Huff, Beth Grant, and James Darren


“Lucky” – “I’m a late bloomer.  It’s just a matter of how you evolve, of what your pace is.  Hopefully, the older you get, the more you grow.  So, that’s been my speed.” – Harry Dean Stanton


Lucky (Harry Dean Stanton) walks everywhere throughout his modest, Southwestern town.  He practices yoga every morning, but he also smokes every day.  During a doctor’s visit, the good physician (Ed Begley Jr.) happily reports that Lucky’s blood pressure is a fit 115/70, and he appears perfectly healthy.  Lucky is 90 years old.  Lucky is lucky.


After a few minutes of observing this aging, steadfast protagonist during first-time director John Carroll Lynch’s film, one quickly realizes that Lucky lives life by his own rules and rituals, and has done so for decades…and decades.  He embraces a simple existence, which consists of the previously mentioned, methodical activities, but please include his regular television programs, trips to his favorite bar and diner as necessary servings of his daily pursuits.  


Although Lucky can name everyone in town and mentally considers them as - at least - distant acquaintances, he values his solitude, and Lynch gently introduces a quiet setting in a sleepy, little town - nestled among saguaros and rocky buttes - that matches his individual isolation. 


Chiefly, the film is a character study about Lucky, and it is nicely arranged around him.  Admittedly, a couple moments - like one particular group discussion in a pub - feel forced and do not quite work, but the vast majority do click.  In many respects, the screenplay introduces designed scenes for recognized stars – like Begley Jr., Ron Livingston and director David Lynch (who is very memorable as an eccentric local worried about his missing pet) – who enter the picture and interact with Lucky, but really, these moments translate into golden opportunities for these actors to simply converse with Mr. Stanton.  Golden opportunities for the audience as well.


“Anybody can be an actor, if you have a good director.  Tell them to be themselves, and they’ll be brilliant.”  - Harry Dean Stanton


In many ways, Stanton and Lucky are the same person. 


They both never married. 


They don’t have kids, or as Lucky says, “None that I am totally sure of.”  


They also both served as cooks in the United States Navy during World War II, and while Lucky reminisces about the past and contemplates the future during the film’s 88-minute runtime, one distinctly feels like Stanton is offering his own words of wisdom and baring his soul.  Now, did Stanton practice yoga every morning to start his day?  Who is to say, although Lucky’s downward dog form would earn high praise from a yoga instructor worth his or her salt. 


On a more serious note, when Lucky reveals a secret to his friend, Loretta (Yvonne Huff), one might hear a theatre audience hold its collective breath, because it feels like Stanton is speaking his deepest thoughts as well. 


Harry Dean Stanton died on Sept. 15, 2017 in Los Angeles at the age of 91, but before he left, this man - who felt perfectly comfortable accepting dozens and dozens of small roles – resonates with a soulful, matter-of-fact and purposely caustic leading performance.


Lucky is a mixture of quiet pleasantries and sudden, gruff responses with his experiences ranging from enjoying small creature comforts to burying traces of regret that have slowly etched deeper lines across his face during the second half of the 20th century and 17 years into the 21st.  Although the film does not reveal the mysteries of life, it offers insight into a character who – for years - probably never gave death a second thought.  He has been too busy drinking coffee while sitting on his favorite diner seat, trekking to the convenience store to pick up cigarettes and milk and conversing with the locals over a beer or two.  Now, Lucky is now facing the last few years of his life and attempting to wrap his head around what it all meant.  It might result with him lashing out or warmly embracing the moment or both, but no matter which route he chooses, there is an awfully good chance that you’ll feel lucky that Harry Dean Stanton decided to star in “Lucky”.   


“You get older.  In the end, you end up accepting everything in your life:  suffering, horror, love, loss, hate, all of it.  There’s no answer to it.  Ultimately, it’s just what it is.”  - Harry Dean Stanton

(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.


Happy - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

‘Happy’ demonstrates that love is magic and happiness requires work


Written/directed by:  Michael Patrick McKinley

Starring:  Leonard Zimmerman


“Happy” – “Love is magic.  You can have it.  Reach into the air and grab it.” – Afrobeta


“If you want to be happy, you have to work to make it happen.” – Michael Buckley


As “Happy” opens, we are treated to the upbeat beats of Afrobeta’s “Love is Magic”, along with the visuals of someone just starting his day.  This unidentified person turns off his alarm clock, hops in the shower, pours some coffee, puts on socks with different patterns for each foot, tightens up the bows of his high-top Converse sneakers, grabs a stack of yellow stickers and his keys, and heads outside to the warm sunshine of Augusta, Ga.


This person is an artist named Leonard “Porkchop” Zimmerman, and “Happy” is a documentary about his story.  During 9 to 5, Leonard is a graphic designer for an ad agency.  His coworkers rave about his unique, positive energy, but – through his art – Leonard’s reach stretches far beyond the agency. 


Leonard is primarily known for his robot paintings.  His colorful, mechanical characters are sometimes placed in contemporary settings that communicate big ideas about the human condition.  For example, in one painting, a robot holds an umbrella and nervously looks up at one lone, gray cloud sitting right above its head.  Other times, Leonard might pick an iconic item of pop culture, like recreating “Sgt. Pepper” with four robots standing in place of The Beatles or a robot who doubles as a View-Master and places a circular wheel of photos inside its own head.  In addition to his robot paintings, Leonard started another project that is named after the title of this movie.  Much to his surprise, it has hugely expanded from Augusta to a worldwide stage.  He has touched countless numbers of people with his art, including director Michael Patrick McKinley.   


McKinley discovered Leonard’s art and felt inspired to make a film about the man.  Hence, McKinley now has the titles of director, writer and producer of “Happy”.  This is McKinley’s first film, and he successfully constructs an absorbing documentary over a speedy 1-hour 18-minute movie experience.  Sure, Leonard’s engaging personality, talent and work provide a rich cinematic canvas for McKinley, but this director also gets it right by including important details needed to make a well-rounded doc. 


This includes a welcoming plethora of Leonard’s photos and home movies from his childhood, probably hundreds of examples of his paintings, an explanation of his style which resembles an Ernest Hemingway quote, and spectacularly bold, plush moments from his life today.   


Of course, these images and heartwarming touches need narrative context, and McKinley includes a wide variety of artists, friends and colleagues who lend their voices and explain their positive connections to Leonard.  After just a few minutes, one realizes that they all really, really wanted to speak about the man.  One of the most memorable individuals is Rosanne Stutts, Leonard’s art teacher and very constructive mentor who immediately recognized his talent.  Leonard’s parents, Nona and Leonard Sr., emboldened him too by embracing his curiosity and imagination.  His creativity – while growing up - was not spurred by a negative environment.  Instead, his spirit came from a home of warmth and joy. 


Although be warned, the film introduces a very difficult, painful period that entered Leonard’s life and tossed him around like a Category 5 hurricane snatching, spinning and crumpling one lone leaf from a sugar maple tree.  It left him shaken to his core with no relief in sight, as the film’s bubbly pleasantries shift into moments that deflate hope. On the other hand, adversity begets growth. In Leonard’s case, this is certainly true.


“Happy” captures both Leonard’s strong foundation and winds of adversity that make up his environmental DNA.  It is a film that embraces the easy breeziness of love found through friends, colleagues, families, and partners.  It is magic.  It also spells out that no magic pill can make you a happy person.  Happiness is a choice, and one has to work to make it happen.  I have a feeling that Leonard “Porkchop” Zimmerman could inspire you to do the same.

(3/4 stars)  


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


The Mountain Between Us - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

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‘The Mountain Between Us’ is worth a small climb 


Directed by: Hany Abu-Assad

Written by: Chris Weitz

Starring: Idris Elba and Kate Winslet


“The Mountain Between Us” – The fear of flying in any type of aircraft is called aviophobia, but one might suspect that a fear of crashing is its close companion or the chief reason for the aforementioned diagnosis.


Ben Bass (Idris Elba) and Alex Martin (Kate Winslet) do not suffer from aviophobia, because they – without a hint of second thoughts - step into a small plane that is headed from Idaho to Denver.  Ben is a neurosurgeon trying to make it to Baltimore via Denver to perform an operation, scheduled for the next day, and Alex, a photojournalist by trade, is getting married, with an anxious groom-to-be wondering if she will make the ceremony.   These two strangers are desperate to get on that plane, but it pales in comparison to the despair that they will feel…9 minutes into this movie.  Soon after takeoff, with barely any warning, their plane crashes in the middle of nowhere, deep in Idaho’s secluded mountains. 


Yes, “The Mountain Between Us” is a survival story. 


For people who enjoy modern, 2017 conveniences like cellular service, Amazon Prime and a Starbucks sitting on every street corner (alright, every third street corner), movies like this effort from director Hany Abu-Assad can certainly stir angst, because indoor plumbing, electric blankets and a handy barista ready with a maple pecan latte are nowhere to be found.


Ben and Alex have much bigger problems. 


Thankfully, writer Chris Weitz’s screenplay – based on the novel by Charles Martin – avoids major personality conflicts between the two principal characters.  Ben and Alex are both educated, logical and generally supportive of one another, so Martin and Abu-Assad save the audience from typical, customary bickering between two leads.  Their predicament – finding themselves stuck on a snowy mountain with very little resources -  feels problematic enough, so the only significant conflict between the two is whether they wait by the plane for a rescue party or trudge through the freezing powder to find some semblance of civilization. 


Although the lack of squabbling feels fresh, their battle against the unforgiving elements does not, as their fight against nature’s obstacles tends to fall into cliché, including one particular, groan-inducing moment on a frozen pond.  To be fair, Old Man Winter only possesses a finite number of ways test a human being, so yes, a screenwriter might find difficulty in conjuring up new tricks for the audience.  With wintry conditions offering little to the imagination, the working relationship between Ben and Alex draws in the audience and takes a surprising turn (which I will not reveal in this review). 


It is no surprise that main strength of the picture rests with the two A-list actors, and the nuances that Elba and Winslet bring to table…err mountain.  Both characters are amiable and carry layers of depth – with intriguing backstories, especially Ben’s - and integrity that stoke sympathy.  Their ultimate survival truly feels up in the air (pardon the pun), as these two city folks improvise through frigid temperatures, wild animals and quickly diminishing food rations, consisting of granola bars and some almonds.  Although just about every evening, Ben does possess an infallible ability to start – off camera - a warm campfire.   He must have excelled in the Boy Scouts or found his footing on CBS’s “Survivor”, but I digress.


Yes, “The Mountain Between Us” is a survival story, a familiar one, but if you suffer from bigscreenbombphobia (a fear of bad movies) please feel at ease with this picture, because it is worth your time.  Just don’t hop in a small plane and travel one thousand miles to see it.  

(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.

Woodshock - Movie Review by Monte Yazzie




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



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.



“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. 



“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.   



“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




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


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


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


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



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.   



“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.  



“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




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




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




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