Underrated Horror Movies by Jeff Mitchell, Monte Yazzie and Ben Cahlamer

With Halloween around the corner, the Phoenix Film Festival has a scary treat!  The trailer for “Winchester: The House that Ghosts Built” arrived online this week.  Helen Mirren and Jason Clarke star in this horror film about the mysterious Winchester House residing in San Jose, Calif. 


The film arrives in theatres on February 2nd, 2018, but the trailer is here now....


Whew…one might have a difficult time sleeping in that house!  Speaking of sleeping, the Phoenix Film Festival critics pulled together their Top 5 Sleeper Horror Movies for the spooky holiday season.  If you are looking for a horror movie or two that you never heard of or are itching to see an old favorite again, here are our three lists!   Feel free to read them at your leisure…if you dare.  

Happy Early Halloween!



Monte Yazzie’s List….


With the demise of the video store and the rise of streaming services, access to mass amounts of film content is now easily and readily available at the click of a button. And with a streaming service like Shudder, which specializes in only horror genre films, the ability to find both classic and lesser known horror movies is so simple. During the Halloween season take some time to watch the classics like “Halloween”, “The Shining”, and “Psycho” but also make some room in your final days of October to watch something lesser known, understated, or underrated. Here are five films that would be great introductions to some new, lesser known horror films.


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5. The First Power


Three words. Lou. Diamond. Phillips. For some reason I remember seeing the trailer for this film on every VHS horror film I rented in the late 80’s, early 90’s. The premise is similar to a Wes Craven film called “Shocker”, which came out a year before this one. A Los Angeles detective and a female psychic team up to stop a demonic serial killer who has supernatural powers. It’s a police procedural that takes a horror turn. This may be one of those films that means more to people who strolled the video store aisles in the 90’s or who have a soft spot for “La Bamba”.



4. Sole Survivor


Before there was “Final Destination” or “It Follows” there was 1983’s “Sole Survivor”. From director Thom Eberhardt, who also helmed the equally excellent “Night of the Comet”, “Sole Survivor” is a film about a woman who survives a plane crash and is then haunted by the feeling that that she shouldn't have lived through the experience. Just as she begins to move on with her life, the dead begin to come after her everywhere she goes. The film is satisfyingly unnerving; built around a simplistic structure that is nicely composed, crafting an atmosphere that is eerie, and an ambient soundtrack that further adds mood to the surroundings. It’s a film that succeeds on numerous levels, especially in giving the viewer the chills.


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3. Blood Rage


It’s only fitting that we finish the Halloween season and start preparing for Thanksgiving with a slasher film that takes place during the November feast. “Blood Rage” is one of those lesser known 1980’s slasher films that makes an undeniable impression on the viewer, in fact its one of those films that needs to be seen to be believed. The film starts at a drive-in with a violent murder, twin brothers are at the center of the investigation, and the wrong twin gets sent to a mental institute. It’s a completely bonkers premise that makes good on the gore and has that indelible charm that defined horror actors in the 1980’s.



2. Cherry Falls


Some films you discover in the theater, some you discover on late night cable television; “Cherry Falls” is one of those films I discovered on late night cable television more than likely hosted by Ronda Shear or Joe Bob Briggs. In the vein of teenage slasher films that hoped to capitalize on the success of “Scream”, “Cherry Falls” is one of the best copycats. This film subverts the slasher rules in an ingenious way, here the masked killer targets virgins in a small town called Cherry Falls. Brittany Murphy and Michael Biehn lead a fairly recognizable cast, lending a nice balance of drama and comedy to a horror film that makes bold decisions and confident turns.


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1. The Entity


Probably the scariest film on the list this time around. “The Entity” is a film that makes the most of its “based on true events” tagline, crafting a creepy and atmospheric vibe that builds impressive tension and boasts an exceptional performance from Barbara Hershey. A young mother undergoes the terrifying experience of being sexually assaulted, a disturbing and graphic portrayal, by an unseen entity. As she looks for help from friends, who don’t believe her, and scientists, who question her mental state, things only get worse. It’s a shocking and exploitive film that may not be for every horror fan, but for those willing to make the journey, it’s one of those films that will stay with you long after the credits roll.


Jeff Mitchell’s List….


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5. “The Brood” (1979)


Director David Cronenberg made a living for years by delving into body horror, and “Scanners” (1981), “Videodrome” (1983) and “The Fly” (1986) rightfully garner plenty of press and accolades.  Don’t forget his 1979 effort about a woman named Nola (Samantha Eggar) who begins bearing children in a most bizarre and twisted way.  One scene in particular could give you nightmares for days, weeks, months…


4. “Black Christmas” (1974)


“Halloween” (1978) might be considered the first mainstream slasher film, but director Bob Clark’s picture arrived in theatres four years earlier.   A group of sorority girls hope to spend a joyous holiday over Christmas break, but an unknown maniac – with unknown motivations – attempts to murder them one by one.   Creepy and violent, it has a raw and unsettling edge.  Margot Kidder stars.


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3. “Open Water” (2004)


Scuba diving in the Caribbean sounds like a fun way to spend a holiday, but for Susan (Blanchard Ryan) and Daniel (Daniel Travis), their trip turns into an unthinkable nightmare.  Their boat mistakenly leaves them, while they were swimming below the ocean’s surface and find themselves treading water with sharks nipping at their heels.  A suffocating movie that will make you hold your breath and lift up your feet from your living room floor.


2. “High Tension” (2003)


This savagely brutal French picture innocently begins with Alexia (Maiwenn Le Besco) inviting her college friend, Marie (Cecile De France), to her family’s farmhouse for rest and relaxation.  Unfortunately, this Norman Rockwell setting soon turns into a place of mayhem, when a mysterious stranger enters and splatters buckets of his victims’ blood all over the figurative artwork.  A wild twist elevates director Alexandre Aja’s already memorable picture.



1. "The Orphanage” (2007)


Laura (Belen Rueda) moves back to the closed orphanage that she lived in years ago and brings her husband and son as well.  Spooky noises and a child with a sack draped over his head appear, as this old house does not contain fun and games for Laura and her family.  Guillermo del Toro produced this emotional stunner from Spain, which is not an ordinary ghost story.






Ben Cahlamer’s List….


Only within the last year has Ben begun to submerse himself in the world of horror, so you may find his list focus on more recent titles. We imagine over the next few years his mind will be blown by what he’s been missing.  Here we go…..


5. “Green Room” (2015)


This film might not be underrated, but it certainly feels underseen. The film from Jeremy Saulnier features Anton Yelchin in one of his final performances. Patrick Stewart is in a role that we’ve seen before, but never in this setting. It’s a lot of fun.



4. “Hounds of Love” (2016)

Ben Young’s debut film is more of a thriller, but the implications of it read horror for the main character, Vicki played by Ashleigh Cummings. Emma Booth and Stephen Curry were equally as dangerous.


3. “Raw” (2016)

This French-Belgian horror film stunned audiences at Cannes in 2016 and ran the art house circuit in the US this year. While the technical side of this film is stunning, especially the makeup, effects and camera work, Garance Marillier was absolutely divine as Justine.



2. “Damien: Omen II” (1978)

In the middle of a mainstream resurgence of horror films, sits Don Taylor’s sequel to one of the more famous horror films. It is not as strong as the original, but the performance by Jonathan Scott-Taylor as young Damien still haunts me.




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1. “Alien 3” (1992)

This entry might turn some heads, but I have an affinity for David Fincher’s first big studio feature. Fraught with production issues, the film makes logical choices given the events of the two films that preceded it, even if they aren’t rational. The reason why I like this film so much is because it makes such brilliant use of dark corners. There really is no place to hide.

Thank You for Your Service - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

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‘Thank You for Your Service’ effectively offers a rare look at soldiers coming home


Directed by: Jason Hall

Written by: Jason Hall, based on the book by David Finkel

Starring: Miles Teller, Beulah Koale, Joe Cole, Haley Bennett, Keisha Castle-Hughes, and Amy Schumer


“Thank You for Your Service” – “How do you remove the shield that the warrior has been given in order to (step) into battle?   Taking away that shield is very hard.” – Jason Hall


Writer/director Jason Hall’s Iraq War movie is not a conventional one, because it focuses on soldiers returning home and the adjustments, struggles and churn that present brand new challenges for them.  As Hall explained in a recent Phoenix Film Festival interview, in order for the military to turn men and women into warriors, they have to teach them how to be fearless and to charge into harm’s way.  When soldiers come home, however, that emotional shell or shield that they have built - through training and combat - is not easily removed.  


Additionally, their homes that they originally left now feel different.  For the soldiers in “Thank You for Your Service”, their home is Kansas.


Adam (Miles Teller), Solo (Beulah Koale) and Will (Joe Cole) are three young Iraq veterans, who return home and attempt to restart their lives but are hampered and haunted by the emotional, mental scars endured from their time in Iraq.   This film carries an introspective, thoughtful weight, with quiet conversations and moments of reflection, as Adam, Solo and Will attempt to transition from a dangerous, violent Middle East arena to making breakfast for children, looking for work and addressing a broken relationship, respectively. 


While the men try to cope, Hall includes their families and significant others as equal partners in this after-combat equation.  Generally speaking, without any insight into their partners’ experiences overseas, soldiers’ spouses might wrongly assume that a life of normalcy at home is the perfect recipe to dial down from the front lines.  For these men, and hundreds of thousands of others who have served/are serving in the military since 9/11 and who suffer from a traumatic event, life is not nearly as easy as walking through the front door, receiving a hug, enjoying a meal, and soundly sleeping. 


Adam’s wife, Saskia (Haley Bennett), very quickly understands that her husband is not acting like himself and repeatedly asks him to communicate with her, but he remains mostly silent.  Not completely silent, but certainly not forthcoming on the details of his troubles.   While at a racetrack and hearing the noisy cars whizzing by as strident, mechanical white noise, Saskia looks for straight talk from Adam.  He gives her some sense – through osmosis - of a far away, grizzly encounter, but then gets up, walks to a fence surrounding the track and stares at the masses of steel burning up the concrete.  Adam knows that he needs help and solely opening up to his wife will not address the problem.   Solo is in worse shape, and with his partner, Alea (Keisha Castle-Hughes), carrying their baby, he knows that a comforting, pleasant future existence of family will be impossible, because he feels like a ticking time bomb. 


Unfortunately, the clock ticks and ticks and ticks at their local VA, as they wait and wait and wait for help, as the film effectively addresses the current supply/demand issues at veterans’ hospitals.  With not enough professionals to see the emotionally-wounded warriors, Adam, Solo and many other vets sit in the lobby, with the very dim hope of counseling actually occurring, and if it does, it could be months down the road.  The problem is: their problems exist right now. 


Will’s circumstances place him in even more dire straits, but he becomes a secondary character in the film, even though his important screen time greatly impacts the narrative.   Adam Schumann and Tausolo ‘Solo’ Aeiti are real life Iraq veterans, and this film is a depiction of their lives, based upon journalist David Finkel’s book of the same name. 


On its own, “Thank You for Your Service” is a moving, emotional and difficult journey, but when one recognizes that this movie captures the true stories of these men, it resonates even more.   During a screening and Q&A of the film with Hall on Oct. 12 in Tempe, Ariz., one also quickly realizes that the onscreen stories can be universal to any veteran in any branch of service.  It is a vitally important movie while clearly demonstrating that taking away that shield is very hard.

(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.


Wonderstruck - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell


‘Wonderstruck’ delivers cinematic wonders with a less effective mystery


Directed by: Todd Haynes

Written by: Brian Selznick

Starring: Millicent Simmonds, Oakes Fegley, Julianne Moore, and Michelle Williams


“Wonderstruck” – “Lighting can best be seen in the dark…Bright persons do best in bad circumstances.” – Erik Tanghe


In 1977, Ben (Oakes Fegley), a preteen boy living in Minnesota, runs into terrible circumstances, as a one in one hundred million chance event crashes down upon him.  Actually, it flashes down upon him, as a bolt of lightning upends his life.  The said event and the moments leading up to it then lead Ben on a journey, one towards New York City. 


Fifty years earlier, Rose (Millicent Simmonds), a preteen girl living in New Jersey, makes a mad dash for New York City as well.  Rose wishes to catch a glance - and in fact, some attention - from a stage/screen actress, Lillian Mayhew (Julianne Moore), as she rehearses for a new part, somewhere on Broadway.  


Although, these two kids share a similar journey, “Wonderstruck” slowly reveals - over 1 hour 57 minutes – that Ben and Rose have much more in common than initially meets the eye, which is the heart of the picture.  


Director Todd Haynes certainly has an eye for embracing beautiful cinematography with “Carol” (2015) and “Far from Heaven” (2002) proudly standing his resume, and this movie is no different.   Brian Selznick’s screenplay (based upon his book) alternates between the two time periods, and Haynes plays along with two dramatically distinct visuals of The Big Apple.  Haynes films 1927 NYC in black and white, but sometimes it feels like warm grays and whites.  In one particular scene, the bright lights of Time Square glow off the big screen, as their graceful rays seem to wrap the theatre audience with a gentle hug. 


Rose carries an earnest heart, but does not frequently receive gentle parental hugs.  Her stern, strict father constantly directs verbal assaults in her direction, and her absentee mother is not physically or emotionally available.  In fact, adults rarely provide comfort for her, but in one moment on the bustling streets, a random man reaches out his hand to help her up from the sidewalk.  As he gives Rose his undivided attention for a few seconds, she offers a rare smile, grateful for the kind gesture.   Simmonds offers delicate gestures of humanity through every minute of screen time, as she delivers a beautiful, heartfelt performance as emotionally renascent as the radiant glows from the city. 


She is a vulnerable kid in this massive place.  With the odds stacked against her, yes, she can satisfy her childhood ids, but only with perseverance and lots of luck.  You see, Rose is deaf.  Simmonds shares the same disability with her in real life, and Haynes adapts to Rose by always presenting her view of the world with the audience.  We – in turn – find her daily reality challenging and surprising.  The audience and she still receive 100 percent of her environment’s emotional messaging, even though she only carries 80 percent of her sensory gifts.  Credit Simmonds and Haynes for cinematically transporting us into Rose’s reality.


Even though Rose and Ben live in difficult realities, “Wonderstruck” operates in a world of mystical forces of fate.  These same forces pull Ben towards New York City, and his urban ecosystem looks, feels and sounds dramatically different than Rose’s.  Tight-fitting polyesters of oranges, yellows and purples dot and dance on the seas of rich, multicultural humanity.  While Rose’s world might be rigid and cold, Ben’s is lively and chaotic.  Both are intimidating and foreign to inexperienced children and are framed differently in their respective metropolitan glories.


Much of the film’s experience during the first hour contrasts their journeys, and the disparities and parallels effectively and cinematically offer intrigue.  Some parallels are obvious.  For instance, both kids engage with the same meteorite at the American Museum of Natural History.  Other experiences are more subtle, and the film would require multiple viewings to process many of its thoughtful visuals into actual audience connections.  On the other hand, the first hour’s pacing requires patience at times.  One could easily view Haynes’s movie as a classroom exercise for film students to pause, rewind, replay, pause again, and dissect.


As the film comes together in the third act, the mystery between the two kids’ connection becomes resolved.  Actually, rather quickly, but some of the smaller motivations – outside of their control - remain unclear and untied.  Perhaps Selznick and Haynes are expressing that kids will never have total insight into their parents’ ultimate rationales, or that children just try their best to see their complete realities while searching in the dark, even when a bolt of lightning leads the way.

(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.




Suburbicon - Movie Review by Ben Cahlamer




Directed by George Clooney

Written by Joel Coen, Ethan Coen, George Clooney and Grant Heslov

Starring Matt Damon, Julianne Moore, Noah Jupe, Oscar Isaac, Glenn Fleshler, Alex Hassell


No matter how much progress is made, race, money and politics are firmly in the minds of Americans. These are not necessarily negative subjects to talk about. As a matter of fact, if history has taught us anything, it’s that we are less close minded about these subjects, even if we still don’t like to talk about them. In fact, director George Clooney takes several risks to bring these subjects front and center in his latest film, the dark comedy Suburbicon.

Set in the late 1950’s, the small, unassuming and peaceful community of Suburbicon is just the haven families sought to escape from the hustle and bustle of city life. Suburbicon had all the amenities that a growing family needed to continue growing; plenty of land, lots of space and plenty of opportunities to socialize. Suburbicon hides its problems well. 

Perhaps a little too well.

As the film begins, the peaceful suburban respite of Suburbicon is disrupted when the Mayers move in, affecting the community as a whole. Behind the Mayers live the Lodges. Gardner Lodge is an extremely successful executive.  He has a wife, Rose and a son, Nicky. They seem to have everything they could want. A late night break-in results in Rose’s death and shakes the family to the core.  Rose’s sister, Margaret moves in to help take care of Nicky. Even with the citizens of Suburbicon up in arms over the Mayers, something more sinister involving the mob seeps in just below the surface.

Matt Damon plays the simple, yet multi-faceted Gardner Lodge; “simple” because the plans he hatches are so very simple and easy to trace. He’s multi-faceted because he has the foresight to counteract the hurdles he creates for himself, except one. Julianne Moore has had an absolutely stellar year and this is no exception. Noah Jupe plays Nicky; he is the quiet-type and is extremely respectful of his elders, a sign of the times the film is set in. Oscar Isaac shows up and steals the show while Glenn Fleshler and Alex Hassell are the strong arms.

In deference to Mr. Clooney, he went all out to make sure that we felt right at home, right down to the looks of the homes and the cars along with the situations the characters were placed in. Each of the cast members got the nuances of the characters right too. The film is so full of amazing detail along with Alexandre Desplat’s luscious score, that I felt like I was looking at a moving postcard, it’s that uncanny.

Sticking to the details, Mr. Clooney also assumed multiple risks in tackling such an involved film.

As swell as this film looks and sounds, the risks don’t pay off. Much like the sprawling suburb of Suburbicon, the script written by Joel Coen, Ethan Coen, Mr. Clooney and Grant Heslov hides its problems a little too well. The Coen’s originally wrote the script in the late 1980’s shortly after filming their acclaimed Blood Simple. Mr. Clooney and Mr. Heslov rewrote the script. The result is a series of outlandish and whacky vignettes which work because of the Coen – esque characters, but the overlapping narratives overlap the characters. The story objectifies the situations, rather than romanticizes them.

Which is a shame, because I am a huge sucker for all of the talents involved.

2.5 out of 4 stars

An interview with Jason Hall, director of Thank You for your Service by Jeff Mitchell

“Thank You for Your Service” is an Iraq War movie but not a conventional one.  Writer/director Jason Hall’s picture focuses on soldiers returning home and the adjustments, struggles and churn that present brand new challenges for them.  The film is based upon David Finkel’s 2013 non-fiction book with the same title, and Miles Teller, Beulah Koale and Joe Cole star as vets who carry internal, cerebral scars from the war. 


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Jason stopped in the Valley on Oct. 12 and 13 and sat down with the Phoenix Film Festival for a group interview.  This first time director – who also wrote “American Sniper” (2014) – talked about the importance of addressing soldiers’ experiences after combat, veterans’ reactions to his film and much more.


“Thank You for Your Service” arrives in theatres on Friday, Oct. 27.


Q: Two of three soldiers who come home, Adam (Miles Teller) and Solo (Beulah Koale), are real-life men, who you talked with prior to filming.  In the movie, Adam has difficulty speaking about his Iraq experiences.  He does not want to share with his wife, Saskia (Haley Bennett), and does not talk about it with his friends.  Is this because he was a leader in Iraq, so he feels that he should show a silent strength back home?


JH: The challenge with this (movie) was making the story personal enough about Adam, but also making a story - through these guys and their decisions – that applied to every warrior who has come home (under similar) circumstances.  (The military teaches) these guys to shoot at human targets, so they can shoot at humans and walk into the bullets (on the battlefield), when (one’s) primary instinct is to walk away.  They teach them how to be fearless, and how to do things that normal humans just don’t have the capacity to do. 


In doing that, they create this toughness and this shell that allow them to do it, and everything that comes (afterwards) about finding your way back to yourself is untaught.  How you remove the shield that the warrior has been given in order to (step) into battle? 


Taking away that shield is very hard. 


So, for someone like Adam, it blew me away that (for) everything heroic that he has done in battle, he came back and revealed himself to David Finkel (the author of the book, “Thank You for Your Service”), allowed him into his life and watch what he was going through.  Even (through) some of Adam’s resistance to tell stories or to hold on to certain things, his willingness to articulate, let this guy in and be vulnerable was as heroic as anything that he did in battle.



Q: Your film places more emphasis on what happens when a soldier comes home, as opposed to what happens in combat.  Why do you think that is so important to talk about, especially in film?


JH: I think (knowing) the consequences of war are tremendously important to a society, especially one that distances (itself) from the aftermath of war and the consequences (for) its warriors.  In my mind, and what I’ve seen, these guys are honorable, young men and women, who are making decisions to serve their country.  It’s beholden upon us - not just the government, but the citizens – to make sure that we are making the right decisions, and we are electing the right people who put us into conflicts equally as honorable as the men (and women) we are sending over there. 


For all the war films that we make, we haven’t made a ton about (soldiers) coming home.  Cinema holds a big responsibility, in that it’s able to shift people’s perception.  So, it’s also beholden upon us to tell the right story.  Tell the true story and not just half the story that sells a lot of tickets.



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Q: Do you see “Thank You for Your Service” as a response to “American Sniper” or a spiritual duo?


JH: I call it spiritual sequel, I think.  It stands as its own film (too).  (In “American Sniper”), these guys go away and fight a very different war.  They came from very different places and are very different people from who these guys in “Thank You for Your Service” are. 


It was challenging for me.  Early on, I thought, “I already know this war.  I’ll just step right in and tell this story.”


That wasn’t the case. 


Because of the selective process of special forces, there’s a different way that the soldiers in “American Sniper” deal with the traumatic effects of war.  In the Navy SEALs selection process, they weed out everybody, and it’s not a physical weeding out.  It’s a psychological one.  It’s not Olympic athletes who go to “Hell Week” and make it.  (They are) guys who have armors, who have tough minds, who (get) up at 5 o’clock in the morning, who know hard labor.  (They are) farmers, wrestlers and blue-collar kids that just have a toughness about them. That mental toughness translates to battle, and they are less susceptible to some of the things that others suffer because of that mental toughness.  They (are) able to compartmentalize pain (and) suffering, so it’s a psychological weeding out of those who are not able to process mental anguish in a way.


These guys, on the other hand, when you start talking to them, they had very little training.  There was very little time to prepare them. You are dealing with kids, and they don’t have the experience, they don’t have the training, and they don’t (go through a) weeding out process.  They are just (looking) for an opportunity. 


Adam comes from a nice family.  He comes from a well-off family.  For a lot of these guys, (joining the military) is their best opportunity.  Becoming a warrior is their best opportunity.  Adam Schumann fell in love with a girl.  He wanted a house (with) a picket fence, and he didn’t want go fracking in North Dakota.  He could’ve done fracking work or join the military and serve his country.  That seemed much more honorable to him.  So, it’s a different story than special forces.  This is really the working-warrior class.  It’s the blue-collar soldier that we send off to war, and I wanted to make a film with social realism about these warriors’ struggles when they come home. 



Q: What has been the reaction from Adam Schumann and vets who have seen “Thank You for Your Service”? 


JH:  It’s been terrific.  The first time I showed Adam, we got him some popcorn and a Coke, and he said that he didn’t touch the popcorn (and) Coke the whole time and basically cried for an hour and 45 minutes.  He (also) laughed and had these experiences of beauty.  Afterwards, I gave the guy a hug, and he said that (the movie) was beautiful.


The most common response that I have (received) from veterans is: “Somebody finally told our story.”



Q: One of the movie’s themes is: the real world that these men come back to is not the one that they (once) knew.  Something has changed, but their spouses might assume that home is exactly the same.  Does that frequently occur?


JH: I think spouses (sometimes) expect the (people) that they send off, return to them the same.  They expect that person to step into the same role that they left.  They are not expecting (that they) come back changed and parts of them are unknown now.  The trick is (to) structure (the film), so the audience is also in that unknown part as well.


You want (the audience) to be with Adam and the guys, but also step back and say, “Who are they talking about?  Who are these names that they are bantering around?  I don’t know what happened.  This is unclear.”


And (the movie) is intentionally unclear, because that is what (a) family experiences.  A family experiences the mystery, (tries) to unwrap the newness of this person and get to the bottom of this story.  (The returning warrior) had relationships and extraordinary experiences that (family members) don’t understand or even know about.


I wanted to structure the film, so the audience felt that too.  



Q: You started out acting and made the transition to screenwriting.  Now you are directing.  Would you say that it has been a very natural transition for you?


JH: Yea, I think they all happen organically.  There wasn’t a real plan there.  I tried to go to film school early on and (was) certain that I wanted to make (movies).  So, I just kept kicking on doors, until somebody let me do it.



Q: Working with Clint Eastwood on “American Sniper”, did you learn anything from him as a director?


JH: I think you learn a lot from anybody who is a master like that, and certainly, there is an ease and fluidity that Clint works that is intoxicating.  I don’t have (the) same persona as Clint.  I’m very anal.  So, God bless him, but I am not that kind of filmmaker. 


(In my movie), I wanted to find an architecture in the houses that was similar to the (ones) that they lived in.  I made sure that we had 200 actual veterans sitting in the VA, because I know that veterans recognize veterans.  I imported two tons of trash into Morocco, because I haven’t seen an Iraq war film that had enough trash in it.  “The Hurt Locker” (2008) was maybe an exception. 


So, I guess I learned a lot from Clint and nothing at all.  Maybe it just takes 100 films to get that ease and calm.


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.


Breathe - Movie Review by Ben Cahlamer




Directed by Andy Serkis

Starring: Andrew Garfield, Claire Foy, Hugh Bonneville, Dean-Charles Chapman, Tom Hollander, Diana Rigg

Written by William Nicholson


I’m going to go out on a limb here. Cinema, today is filled with nostalgia-driven stories that don’t necessarily focus on story or character, but on just being. Hollywood rages against itself with interconnected cinematic universes, which I’m not opposed to. In the same vein, there is a growing trend over the past few years that has seen an increase in nostalgia-driven biopics. More than that, they focus on historical aspects of our global society. Andy Serkis’ directorial debut, Breathe is a solid example of a film that fits both bills.

Set in the late 1950’s, the footloose and fancy-free Robin Cavendish (Andrew Garfield) courts Diana Blacker (Claire Foy), taking her on his tea-broking adventures to Kenya. Shortly after their arrival, he succumbs to polio at age 28, paralyzing his body from the neck down.

Mr. Garfield uses his roguish charms to convey the onscreen character’s exuberance for life. When he was diagnosed, they only gave him three months to live. He would go on to be the longest surviving “responaut” when he passed in 1994 at age 64. William Nicholson’s script wisely doesn’t focus on Cavendish’s suffering or the disease itself. It instead focused on his exuberant nature; his zest for helping others. It also focused on his family. Ms. Foy was perfectly cast as Diana. Their love for each other transcended his diminished state, and she supported her husband in all his efforts to extend not only his own quality of life, but their son, Jonathan’s as well.

The support network that Cavendish surrounded himself with does not stop at family, and Serkis takes full advantage of the nimble supporting cast. Tom Hollander plays Diana’s twin brothers, Bloggs and David Blacker, though you cannot tell in the film which twin is which. Hollander plays both roles with grace and humor. Hugh Bonneville plays Teddy Hall, the Oxford professor who helped convey Cavendish’s message to medical experts around the world.

Although his role was limited, Dean-Charles Chapman drives the human element as the next generation of Cavendish. It is important to note that Jonathan Cavendish produced this film, so we get a first-hand account of his experiences with his dad. His involvement in the film diminishes some of the emotional impact of the family life for the sake of dramatization, but it does not turn the film into a paint-by-the-numbers-drama.

Mr. Serkis, whose claim to fame is playing motion-capture characters such as Lord of the Rings’ Gollum or Caesar in the modern Planet of the Apes trilogy, uses his experiences here to frame Robin. Mr. Garfield naturally uses his facial expressions to convey his emotions, and Mr. Serkis uses his motion-capture character experiences to their full advantage, which sounds like it shouldn’t work because it is the exact opposite of his experience. The reason it does work is because a lot of the capture work is on his facial expressions, which requires his body to be still. Robert Richardson’s cinematography extends Serkis’ vision for the film, using a warm and inviting color palette.

It goes without saying that my praise for Breathe is largely in part due to Mr. Garfield, Ms. Foy and Mr. Serkis’ excellent direction. This might seem high praise, but after seeing the film, and knowing his background, I dare say that Mr. Serkis is a modern Frank Oz, and I hope he continues to explore his craft on both sides of the camera.

3 out of 4 stars.


Geostorm - Movie Review by Ben Cahlamer




Directed by Dean Devlin

Starring: Gerard Butler, Abbie Cornish, Ed Harris, Jim Sturgess, And Garcia

Written by Dean Devlin and Paul Guyot


I feel really badly because I was going to open this review with yet another “when I was a kid” type stories to share. Yes, I grew up with effect-laden spectacles, and I even found a second wind with the disaster epics that permeated moviegoers’ minds in the 1970’s and 1980’s. They had stories and characters that amplified the moods of audiences. Most importantly, they had stories that audiences could relate to. Unfortunately, Dean Devlin’s Geostorm has all of the ambition, but none of the relatability.

In the film, 18 of the world’s governments band together to create a satellite network called “Dutch Boy”, which was designed to control the global weather, creating calm. The chief architect behind “Dutch Boy”, Jake Lawson (Gerard Butler) brings the system online in 2019. Three years later, he is removed from the program in a bureaucratic move, and when a freak ice storm kills a village full of people in the deserts of Afghanistan, Jake is called back into action.

The film does do two things right. First, it builds on the global warming environment. It doesn’t dwell on it, but it does bring those concerns to the center of the world stage. It also brings together collaboration by world governments. I leave the particulars of the ‘hows’ and the ‘whys’ for audiences to discover.

Needless to say, the script by Mr. Devlin, Paul Guyot and in an uncredited re-write, Laela Kalogridis, is largely uninspired. It felt as if they took the best parts of Gravity, Independence Day, The Core, Deep Impact, The Day After Tomorrow and Armageddon, put them in a blender, shook the chunks out and called it a day.

The casting is fine for this type of film. Jim Sturgess doesn’t do action very well, but as Max Lawson, he is convincing when he conveys the seriousness of the situation. Abbie Cornish was no-nonsense serious as Secret Service Agent Sarah Wilson, but the relationship between Sarah and Max feels extremely forced. It was nice to see Richard Schiff in a cameo, while Andy Garcia makes for a formidable POTUS. Ed Harris plays Leonard Dekkom, the Secretary of State. I don’t know where his character’s inspiration came from, but if you’re paying attention to the dialog, the outcome of the film becomes clear very early on.

The second thing that this film gets right are the gorgeous special effects. Yes, some of the effects are hyper-frenetic. Yet, they had plausibility to the narrative. The scenes in orbit looked extremely realistic and the future space shuttles gave me hope for a second round of the Space Program.

It was clear that Mr. Devlin had a vision, and when the film didn’t test well, extensive reshoots were ordered and the film sat on the shelf for two years. It is not an abomination, but it is not Mr. Devlin at the top of his game either. I have to say that I was genuinely unhappy when, after the house lights came up, I couldn’t even laugh at some of the gross overstatements the film makes. As I was trying to figure out how to convey my feelings for Geostorm, I decided to let something that made an impact on me as a child convey my feelings for me: “It’s Not Nice to Fool Mother Nature.”

1.5 out of 4 stars

Only the Brave - Movie Review by Monte Yazzie

Only the Brave.jpg

Only The Brave


Director: Joseph Kosinski

Starring: Josh Brolin, Miles Teller, Jeff Bridges, Jennifer Connelly, James Badge Dale, Taylor Kitsch, Andie MacDowell, Geoff Stults, and Ben Hardy


The story of the Granite Mountain Hotshots is tragic and heroic. It’s a story that displays the consistent, and often underappreciated, bravery that firefighters demonstrate while battling some of the biggest fires in the country. 19 Granite Mountain firefighters gave the ultimate sacrifice on June 30th, 2013 in Yarnell, Arizona, in one of the deadliest wildfires in recent U.S. history.


Turning the story of these men and their specialized work into a film is a daunting task, especially when it comes to creating a biography that engages and honors the memory of these firefighters. Director Joseph Kosinski, who tacked the science fiction films “Tron: Legacy” and “Oblivion”, may not seem like the most likely choice. However, “Only the Brave” operates as a film that aims to pay tribute to the memory of these firefighters first and foremost.


“Only the Brave” takes its time telling the story of the Granite Mountain team, watching them progress towards certification as the nation’s first municipal firefighting team with elite status as “hotshots”, which is the title given to firefighters who specialize in wildfire suppression tactics. Leading the team from Prescott, Arizona is Eric Marsh (Josh Brolin), a tough supervisor who is haunted by dreams of a bear engulfed in flames. Eric and his wife Amanda (Jennifer Connelly) have a strained relationship due to the prolonged hours Eric works. Preparing for their certification opportunity, Marsh hires a new recruit named Brendan McDonough (Miles Teller) who is trying to turn his life around. McDonough earns his place within the team, “the family” as many of the firefighters describe it.


“Only the Brave” operates differently than other films like it. Take for instance a film like “Blackhawk Down” where much of the story is told through an action vehicle lens, “Only the Brave” rarely utilizes fire as motivational force. Instead the film steadily focuses on the characters and the drama that takes place away from actual firefighting, at home and during the down time. Mr. Kosinski utilizes these moments to provide insight into the lives of the firefighters, we see them with their families and watch them bond as teammates. Whether it’s taking care of an infant with a high fever, arguing with a significant other about life’s problems, or hanging out a barbecue, the film displays the ordinary and everyday lives of these men away from their heroics inside a dangerous fire. While this has a tendency to single out certain characters, it’s important to remember that all these men have a story to tell, it never undervalues the brotherhood these men have with one another.


The cast is a group of recognizable faces. Josh Brolin plays Eric Marsh as a tough but fair leader. James Badge Dale plays Jesse Steed, the second in command to Marsh, with loyalty and an unwillingness to let his team be anything but the best. Miles Teller plays Brendan McDonough with empathy, portraying a young man doing his best to make good on a second chance. Jennifer Connelly plays Amanda Marsh with compassion; she is a woman who must share her husband with a career. Connelly and Brolin have good chemistry even though they are stilted with some unfortunate dialog.


It’s impossible to honor each of the 19 men equally, even within the 133 minute running length of the film. While some of the specific stories and characters are singled out for dramatic storytelling purposes, the emphasis remains on the aspect of honor and bravery. Regardless of whether you are familiar with the story, everyone knows the tragic and devastating outcome; and trust me it’s one of the most heartbreaking scenes you’ll see in the cinema this year. These were real people, with real families, who made a real sacrifice for public safety. “Only the Brave” may not be the most unique title but it’s the perfect phrase to describe the men in this story.


Monte’s Rating

3.75 out of 5.00

Only the Brave - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

Only the Brave.jpg

‘Only the Brave’ salutes Prescott’s elite firefighting team


Directed by: Joe Kosinski

Written by: Sean Flynn, Ken Nolan and Eric Warren Singer

Starring: Josh Brolin, Miles Teller, Jennifer Connelly, James Badge Dale, Taylor Kitsch, Jeff Bridges, and Andie MacDowell


“Only the Brave” – “If this isn’t the greatest job in the world, I don’t know what is.”  - Eric Marsh (Josh Brolin)


Eric Marsh utters the aforementioned declaration during a moment of satisfaction of a job well done, but his chosen profession is also one of the most grueling and physically taxing that one can imagine.   Eric is the superintendent of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, an elite firefighting force, and this particular group of men earned a notable distinction.  The hardworking, Prescott, Ariz. crew became the first municipal hotshot team in the United States, and director Joe Kosinski’s “Only the Brave” honorably tells their true story on the big screen.


Like police officers who run towards the sound of gunshots to serve and protect, wildland firefighters charge towards dangers that appear in the form of raging infernos, those which burn helpless trees for thousands and thousands of acres.  Beautiful, green trees that unfortunately become labeled as “fuel”.  Teams like the Granite Mountain Hotshots leap to the front of these fires’ paths, quickly dig trenches and cut down vegetation to squelch these scorching demons, hell-bent on burning everything in sight.


At times, “Only the Brave” is an action picture, and Kosinski captures stunning moments of massive fires ripping through Arizona forests (which are seamless blends of actual New Mexican fires, flames created by the film crew and CGI), while these 20 brave men endure oppressive heat, rough terrain and long days and nights battling against their chosen enemy.   Like many war films - such as “We Were Soldiers” (2002) and “Saving Private Ryan” (1998) – a more prominent facet of “Only the Brave” is the comradery that these men have for one another.  The brotherhood that they share. 


In an interview with the Phoenix Film Festival, Kosinski said, “That is the heart of this film.  It’s about the brotherhood.  It’s about what we are capable of, when we can rely on the guy standing next to you.”


With a runtime of 2 hours 13 minutes, Kosinski’s picture spends time in expressing these bonds through moments of humor, quiet conversations, demanding training, and hair-raising action in the field. 


These 20 men have 20 unique, personal stories, and the film deepens its focus on a few select firefighters, including polar opposites (at least at first) Eric Marsh and Brendan McDonough (Miles Teller) who garner the most screen time.  They are connected. 


Brolin’s Marsh is a no-nonsense leader, a drill sergeant in a way and develops his men into tireless warriors to battle the forces of nature on the smoky front lines.  Eric is the type of person who intellectually ponders a fire’s thought process and then quickly throws himself into the mix for 16-hour days and delivers firm orders to suffocate fires, while also caring about his men’s safety.


In his spare time, Eric rides horses with his wife, Amanda (Jennifer Connelly), as this power couple also seem to double as a cowboy and cowgirl placed in a time capsule from 150 years ago and resurrected in present-day.  Kosinski ensures that Eric and Amanda’s three-dimensional relationship is properly captured on-screen.  Connelly is terrific in portraying a woman who is crazy in love with her husband, accepts his dangerous job but also desires his equal attention in their relationship.  Many times, this becomes an impossible task for Eric.  He deeply loves her, but – as the leader of the Granite Mountain Hotshots – a majority of his time is spent on assignment, saving lives by containing and ending runaway forest fires.   We also learn a surprise backstory which adds to their intrigue as both an empathetic and respected couple. 


Eric runs a respected firefighting company in Prescott but wishes to certify his team as hotshots.  They need to flawlessly execute their work to even sniff at a chance to call themselves hotshots, but in a twist of fate and with the worst sense of timing, Eric cuts a flawed young man a break by giving Brendan McDonough a chance to join his firefighting team.  Teller is perfectly cast, as the actor portrays Brendan as a directionless local whose ever-present route of underachievement is his one certainty.   With drug use and trouble with the law as predominant entries on his resume, a 180-degree life turn is the only foundation that could beget any inkling of success as a firefighter.  Of course, that is not lost on the other men, like Chris (Taylor Kitsch) and Jesse (James Badge Dale), and especially when they desperately hope for their elusive certification.  They also realize that Brendan is now their brother.


Jeff Bridges and Andie MacDowell round out an impressive, star-studded cast, and one might easily derive that many, many great actors and actresses hoped for a piece of screen time in this film.  The Granite Mountain Hotshots are a hugely memorable firefighting team, not only for their groundbreaking accreditation, but for their mark in history during one particular fire.  Many Arizonians know Granite Mountain’s story, but whether one is aware of it or not, it does not spoil the movie experience.  A visual and truly emotional one that keeps us on the edge of our seats, offers a deeper understanding of a firefighter’s bond with his or her brothers and sisters on the front line and a sense of what makes this particular job…the greatest in the world.

(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.


Interview with the cast and crew of Only the Brave by Jeff Mitchell


Director Joe Kosinski’s “Only the Brave” is the true story of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, a firefighting force from Prescott, Ariz.  The men who formed this team became the first municipal hotshot crew in the United States, and on Oct. 10, hundreds of people helped celebrate the Granite Mountain Hotshots by descending on Tempe Marketplace’s Harkins Theatres for a red carpet event and movie screening. 


Josh Brolin, Miles Teller and James Badge Dale played three of the firefighters in the film, and they – along with country singer Dierks Bentley, Joe Kosinski, and real-life Granite Mountain Hotshots Brendan McDonough and Pat McCarty - attended the festivities!  The Phoenix Film Festival had the honor to sit down and speak with all of them during a series of group interviews with three other critics earlier that day. 


Only the Brave.jpg

If you are unfamiliar with the Granite Mountain Hotshots, please note that the interviews with Brendan McDonough, Pat McCarty, Dierks Bentley, James Badge Dale, and Miles Teller contain spoilers, but you do not have to wait long to see “Only the Brave”.  It arrives in theatres on Friday, Oct. 20.  





Director Joe Kosinski


Q: How involved was Brendan McDonough (a Granite Mountain Hotshot), when you were making the film?


Joe Kosinski: Very.  He was the first person (who) I met with.  The movie takes a unique approach of having two points of view.  The point of view of Eric Marsh (Josh Brolin), the superintendent, and Brendan’s (Miles Teller), the rookie on the team.  I find Brendan’s story very inspiring, because of where he starts and where he ends up.  You find out what Eric Marsh did for him (by) giving him a second chance, when no one else would.  I thought (Eric’s gesture) was a wonderful story, and - to me – was the heart of what (the Granite Mountain Hotshots) were about. 


Q: Many times in war movies, the narratives focus on the brotherhood of the soldiers, such as in “We Were Soldiers” (2002) and “Saving Private Ryan” (1998).  I found the same theme in this film and feel that the brotherhood of these men was a more prominent aspect than the actual firefighting.  Was it your intention to emphasize the men’s comradery?


  Joe Kosinski:

Joe Kosinski:

Joe Kosinski: That is the heart of this film.  It’s about brotherhood.  It’s about what we are capable of, when we can rely on the guy standing next to you.  I felt that (this) theme is universal and transcends firefighting.  Great movies, movies that you a remember (are the) ones that you can relate to, if you are not in that world.  (The Granite Mountain Hotshots had a) really tight dynamic.


When I asked - any of the (firefighters): what makes you come back season after season?  They all said the same thing, which is the brotherhood, wanting to hang out with your guys.  I said to the actors from the beginning, that (a) sense of connection is what’s going to make this movie work.  You cast it the best way that you can, and you hope for that chemistry.  This is one of those cases where that chemistry on set was real.  That’s not acting.  Those guys really bonded, because I think they knew how important this story is. 


Q: How much of the fire that we see in the film is actual, practical fire versus creating it on a computer monitor? 


Joe Kosinski: Most of is practical.  Anytime that you see the actors in close proximity to fire, most of that is done practically, because this is not a movie that I wanted to shoot on a blue screen stage.  This was shot on location.  The environment that fire creates – because it is a light source – is very unique, and that’s very hard to create after the fact.  So, most of the fire in the movie is real. 


Some of the big fires were shot during a real forest fire in Southern New Mexico.  They had a control burn.  Sometimes they burn off tracks of timber, so they can do it in a controlled way.  So, we filmed some of that using helicopters and aerial equipment.  Yes, there are certain scenes that the fire is so large and so intense, that I had to rely on visual effects to enhance it and try to create the scale of some of the (historic) wildfires that are in the film.  The challenge was to make something that’s digital blend with all of the practical fire.  I enlisted the help of the best visual effects artists in the world, the same guys who worked on my other two movies (“TRON: Legacy” (2010), “Oblivion” (2013)), and they found this to be the most challenging thing that they have ever done.  I mean, (fire) is so unpredictable, so hard to capture, so hard to simulate.  At the end of the day, it’s a mix, but it’s mostly practical.



Josh Brolin, who plays Eric Marsh


Q: The authenticity of this film is really evident, even down to the little details.   In the beginning of the film, after a long run, you can see sweat marks and stains on your shirts. 


 Jeff Mitchell and Josh Brolin

Jeff Mitchell and Josh Brolin

Josh Brolin: All of that’s real.  No, it’s seriously real.  It was actually our sweat, all that salty, real, pore-sweating guck.  It’s funny, because you usually have the makeup artist (show) up, and she (throws) something that looks like that, but it was important to Joe Kosinski – in a major way – to be authentic.  We had Pat McCarty, who is a former Granite Mountain Hotshot (there).  We had Donut (Brendan McDonough) there.  We had a lot of firefighters there. 


When Joe and I were talking with them, (we would say), “Be brutal with us about authenticity,” and they were.  


I made everybody wear 45-lb. packs all the time.  A lot of time in movies, you might take out the 45-lb. packs and put in foam, and you can tell that (they are) not really heavy.  (All of the actors) were pretty gung-ho.  In the beginning, a couple guys were making jokes, and I just wouldn’t have any of it.  I said that the joking can come after establishing who were are as a community, who we are as a collective.  When I feel that everybody has the correct amount of respect for what we’re doing, then we can start to joke around, so I wasn’t the nicest guy.  It paid off though.  It did, because everybody really gave one thousand percent to this. 


Q: I loved Eric’s relationship with his wife, Amanda (Jennifer Connelly).  There was this terrific scene where Jennifer and you were arguing in Eric’s truck over emotional distance and conflicting thoughts about starting a family.


Josh Brolin: Jennifer was great.


Q: Oh, she’s knocked it out of the park.


Josh Brolin: She killed it.  Killed it.


Q: In your conversations with Amanda or other spouses of firefighters or hotshots, how do they cope with their husbands or wives doing such a dangerous job? 


 Josh Brolin

Josh Brolin

Josh Brolin: My brother-in-law is a fireman.  He’s a wildland firefighter, so my sister waits.  (A wildland firefighter’s) life is like an actor’s life, but with danger.  You (leave), and you become comfortable in that highly intense (environment) with electric nerves.  You come home, and you’re supposed to just mellow out in a normal domestic life, and it’s impossible.  So, (it’s difficult to) have some semblance of a real relationship.  People are constantly having to readjust and readjust. There is no set paradigm, where people can find comfort.  It’s hard, and it was hard for Amanda.  She told me a lot about it, and Jennifer, thank God, she was the one (cast), because a lot of people were vying for this role.  She and I started rehearsing, and we just started screaming at each other.  I don’t know why, maybe we had it out for each other. 


We’re two actors saying, “I can scream louder than you.”  


We had it out, and Joe Kosinski said, “Set up the camera.  Do it again.  Do it again.”


We did it again, and it wasn’t like (the first time). 


He said, “No, you guys go back to what you were doing.”


We tried to go back, and you have to find it.  It’s not organic.  It becomes inorganic, because it has already happened.  You don’t have the same fight twice.  You are just two actors doing a scene, and you are trying to find that really uncomfortable, yet magical moment between two people who are crazy about each other, (but) who have every obstacle in front of them that gets in the way of just having a nice, normal, loving relationship.


I think it was conveyed in that scene, and I think a lot of that was Jennifer.  I think I was okay.  My wife was crying, when she watched it.  She said that it was the most raw scene (that she has) seen in a long time, but I laugh because I see how scared I actually was.  (Jennifer’s) great!



(** Contains Spoilers **) Granite Mountain Hotshots Brendan McDonough and Pat McCarty


Q: This was a traumatic event that everyone in Arizona remembers very well.  How difficult is it to sit through the film and relive it?


  Brendan McDonough

Brendan McDonough

Brendan McDonough: We’ve watched it a few times, and that film has brought such great life to our brothers’ stories again.  It’s so honorable and reminds us of so many great memories that we have.  (In this movie), you laugh, and there might even be some relatable experiences.  (The film does) get to this tragedy, but it’s no greater honor for us to see our brothers on the big screen and for people to learn about them.  You watch this film, and you learn something.  You either learn something about (wildland) firefighting, the guys, the families, the community, or you learn something about yourself, and I think that everyone is going to be able to take away something from this film.  


Pat McCarty: We are in such a unique situation here and have a great opportunity to tell the world about these men.  Not only them, but the men and women who do this job every day.  Anybody who has lost a loved one would love the opportunity to share who those people really were with the world, especially if they die in such a tragic way.  So, we are in a great situation to share that, and I feel like “Only the Brave” really does justice to not just those men, but those men and women that still do this job every day.


Q: Obviously, it is a big story to take on and tell it the right way.  As somebody who was so involved and part of the crew, how well did the movie capture the Granite Mountain Hotshots?


Brendan McDonough: I think (the filmmakers) did an amazing job (in capturing) what it is like to be on a hotshot crew, and what that brotherhood and comradery look like.  The men and women who worked on this film are so authentic, and when we did the boot camp, the actors really took on a sense of responsibility to honor them.  We saw the actors form an organic brotherhood with each other, and that really gave so much depth to the film. 


 Pat McCarty

Pat McCarty

Pat McCarty: The movie is so true to the hotshot life, because when you are out there on the line and working as hard as these guys are, sometimes it can be miserable.  It’s those stories, it’s those little interactions throughout the day with your buddies, and being out there with 19 or 20 other people, there’s always a new story.  Somebody always went home and had a new story to talk about.  Somebody broke up with a girlfriend.  Something’s always new.  So, it’s those organic brotherhood stories that really shine in this movie and (are) true to the hotshot lifestyle. 


Q: Brendan, you joined the team, because the girl you were seeing became pregnant.  You felt that you had to take some responsibility in your life and spoke to Eric Marsh about a job with his crew.  If that significant event did not happen, where would your life have taken you? 


Brendan McDonough: Oh.  I don’t know where I’d be today without my brothers, and that life changing moment of becoming a father.  There’s a difference between having a child and being a dad.  At that point, I had a child, and my brothers brought me to (becoming) a father.  So, (I’m) just so grateful for everything that they have given me.  I wouldn’t be here without them, and I wouldn’t be the dad that I am today without the lessons that they taught me.  Being a great firefighter, but most importantly, a person of a community and hitting that dad aspect.  We had such great mentors, and they just brought so much life into me.  I’m just so honored to be called a Granite Mountain Hotshot and to be a dad. 



(** Contains Spoilers **) Dierks Bentley, who contributes a song, “Hold the Light”, to the film


Q: You are from Arizona, so the Granite Mountain Hotshots’ story is a hometown tragedy for you.


 Dierks Bentley and Miles Teller

Dierks Bentley and Miles Teller

Dierks Bentley: Yes, it was, and it is still home.  I love Nashville, but Arizona will always be home.  Living here, you are always aware of the fires and fire seasons, so you are cognizant about it.  Even if you are cognizant of it, after watching the movie, I realized (that) there is so much more that I didn’t know (about the Granite Mountain Hotshots).


Q: In the movie, Eric Marsh says at one point, “If this isn’t the greatest job in the world, I don’t know what is.”   When I watched the film, I certainly got a taste of that, but I don’t think one really knows until you actually do that job.  When you heard Eric say that line, what thoughts went through your mind?


Dierks Bentley: I love that line.  I feel the same way about what I do.  Throughout the day (when you are) on the road, you are tired.  You are away from your family, but the second my feet hit the stage, this feeling of sheer joy washes over me and wonder and appreciation for what I get to do.  I hate to relate anything that I do with what (hotshots) do.  (Hotshots are) a band of guys together, out there, in nature, working to serve and save lives in (their) communities.  They embrace the “suck”.  It’s 105 degrees at 9am, and they are digging through the dirt, weeds and rattlesnakes, and it’s dusty.  How can this be the greatest job in the world?  It’s a feeling about (being) a part of something that’s bigger than yourself.



(** Contains Spoilers **) James Badge Dale, who plays Jesse Steed


 James Badge Dale

James Badge Dale

Q: I loved the early scene when Jesse Steed went to work.  He said goodbye to his wife and small children, and this scene established that even though he is doing a very risky job, he is going to work like anyone else.  At the same time, there is a chance that he won’t come home.  How did you approach that scene?


James Badge Dale: When (these guys) get up and go to work in the morning, (they) want to come home.  They expect to come home, (Jesse) did (this job) for a long time.  He was 36 years old, when he passed.  He loved this job.  He’d go to work, and maybe he would (be gone) for a week or two at a time, but he’d come home.  (He) wanted to come home to his family, and that was one of the big things that struck me, when I talked to his wife before filming.  She said to me that this man would go to work for 16 hours a day, and then come home and be with her and their children, as if he hadn’t spent that time (working incredibly long days).  He was present at home.  He was loving and funny, and he gave to his family.  That’s what I thought about in that moment.  That was a beautiful little scene. 


Q: Brendan wasn’t really accepted with the other firefighters right away, but Eric gave him a chance.  After a long run, Brendan was exhausted, and Jesse offered him a water and some words of comfort.  Do you feel that was an important moment in the film, and does it go back to the brotherhood that these men generally felt about one another?


James Badge Dale: 100 percent.  Absolutely.  That moment, when Eric Marsh says, “Alright, we’ll see you on Monday.”  Jesse Steed’s job is to turn around and say, “Okay.”  He’s that big brother that we all wanted to have.  Jesse Steed would never come down on a guy.  If you were not doing it right, he’d come up to you on the line and start (working) with you.  He would lead by example.  He would lead by attitude, and that was so important for me to find in this film for Jesse.  Even when Jesse is on the line, yelling (at the guys to) pick it up, there’s this love to it.  


Listen, you let people in and give them a chance.  Jesse Steed was (a giving) type of person.  You know, I learned a lot from that, and it was important for me to be a part of (this) film.  I’d just (like) to say that maybe I’ve spent time in my life taking, and I didn’t know Jesse Steed, but he’s taught me something.  I’m trying to be a better person because of Jesse Steed. 



(** Contains Spoilers **) Miles Teller, who plays Brendan McDonough


 Miles Teller

Miles Teller

Q: You had a different experience than the other actors, because you play the sole survivor.  How did you go about your preparation during your conversations with Brendan?


Miles Teller: I flew to Prescott to hang out with Brendan, and I didn’t have any type of agenda or anything.  When I met him, the incident only happened (a few) years prior, and he was dealing with a lot of post-traumatic stress and survivor’s guilt.  It’s sensitive material, so I didn’t want to come down and be like a journalist.  I just came down, we got food, we got some drinks, and walked around Prescott, which I felt was important, because these guys represented their town, and their town was a piece of them.  I come from a small town in Florida, a country town.  I take a lot of pride (in) where I come from, so I was able to absorb a lot just being down there.  I think a lot of people (who worked on the movie) benefited from having Brendan around, because he was a great resource for all the (actors).  Because of (Brendan), we were able to personalize each of these roles.  The movie is about authenticity first and entertainment second. 


Q: One of the best scenes in the movie is when Amanda reaches out and comforts Brendan. 


Miles Teller: Yea, and that’s true.  (That happened.)


Q: When you were playing Brendan, what did that moment mean to you, and do you know what it meant to Brendan?


Miles Teller: That was a moment. 


I lost two of my best friends in car accidents five weeks from each other, when I was 21 years old.  Two guys who were really close to me.  So absolutely, Man. I went through grief, but that moment (in the movie, when he discovers all of the hotshots – except for him - perish in the Yarnell Hill Fire) is completely unique to Brendan, because (it just) happened, and he was still kind of numb from it. 


So, he said that it was such a low self-loathing (moment), (and he just wanted) to disappear.  So, yes, I got to talk to him about that, and (it) was really tough to try to capture, but I can be in his skin a little bit.  When Amanda comes to him, he’s not looking for sympathy.  He doesn’t want anybody to feel bad for him.  He doesn’t want to make this moment about him, (but) Amanda does want him to be okay with the fact that he survived.  Eric would have wanted that, and so it’s a surreal moment that’s unique to Brendan.   


 PFF's Lead Critic Jeff Mitchell

PFF's Lead Critic Jeff Mitchell

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 Florida Project - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

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Sean Baker constructs ‘The Florida Project’, one of the best films of 2017


Directed by: Sean Baker

Written by: Sean Baker and Chris Bergoch

Starring: Brooklynn Prince, Willem Dafoe and Bria Vinaite



“The Florida Project” - “Childhood means simplicity.  Look at the world with the child’s eye – it’s very beautiful.”  - Kailash Satyarthi, a children’s rights and education advocate


“These are the rooms we’re not supposed to go in, but let’s go anyway!” – Moonee (Brooklynn Prince)


Families from all over target Orlando, Fla. as a vacation city, because of its famous theme parks, and Disney’s Magic Kingdom shines as its crown jewel.  According to a June 1, 2017 The New York Times article, 20.4 million people visited the Magic Kingdom in 2016, and although “children of all ages” enjoy the park, it is really an enchanted place for kids. 


The Magic Castle – splashed in purple and yellow – also resides in Orlando, but this is not a lush Disney attraction.  It is an extended stay hotel that sits among fast food joints and discount gift shops, and for many of its residents, they struggle to make ends meet.  Although this community accommodates temporary tenants who may arrive, pay rent for a few weeks and leave for a more permanent place, others stay – sometimes for years – as an unending alternative to living on the street. 


Director Sean Baker and screenwriter Chris Bergoch – who worked together on “Tangerine” (2015) and “Starlet” (2012) – explored the budget hotel concept and actually won a grant to research and visit them.  With “The Florida Project”, they are raising awareness of budget hotel communities on the big screen.    


The film stars 6-year-old Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) and her young mother, Halley (Bria Vinaite), who live at The Magic Castle.  Halley - an early 20-something who sports large tattoos and cops an attitude against authority - occasionally scrapes together an income by selling perfume in parking lots of nearby resorts.  Sometimes she gathers enough cash to cover the weekly rent - for their hotel room with a queen size bed that fills up most of the space -  but other weeks, she needs to improvise.   Feeding Moonee an irregular diet of pizza and free waffles (courtesy of her friend, Ashley (Mela Murder)), this mother and daughter are not living in 2017 America, but existing. 


Well, they are existing, but when Moonee is left on her own, which is very, very often, she becomes an explorer, an explorer of a childlike interpretation of her world as a vast playground, as the meaning of Satyarthi’s aforementioned quote dances across the big screen.  Moonee and her friends Scooty (Christopher Rivera) and Jancey (Valeria Cotto) trek all over the concrete, suburban sprawl (and an occasional grassy field), as Baker strategically places his camera, opens up the lens and captures the artificial, confectionary beauty that these kids notice, but adults ignore, while speeding to work or running errands on Route 192. 


In one particularly effective sequence, the three kiddos take little steps across large, expansive parking lots towards their ice cream haven, as they walk by Orange World’s giant half-orange roof and a 30-foot magician’s face sitting on top of a business simply named Gift Shop.  Baker layers these smile-inducing visuals with the youngsters’ childlike banter and their various negotiations, as Moonee, Scooty and Jancey converse like the “South Park” kids, but with much less cursing, more harmless sass and added intentions of satisfying their collective id.  Jancey is the least audacious, while Moonee leads the charge, whether its digesting a Costco-sized jar of jelly and a half loaf of bread or visiting a group of nearby cows for an ad hoc safari trip. 


Modern-day, suburban parents - who routinely schedule playdates – could be aghast by the lack of daily supervision, but 30-somethings, 40-somethings and baby boomers might reminisce when their parents said at 9am on a Saturday, “Go play outside and be home for dinner.”


Fortunately, The Magic Castle’s manager, Bobby (Willem Dafoe), also unofficially works as a caretaker, watching Moonee and the other kids who live there, as they run around the property.  Although Halley truly loves Moonee, she does make terrible choices as a parent.  Bobby fits into Baker and Bergoch’s narrative as an effective and respected anchor versus the carefree decisions emanating from Halley and Moonee.  Through a couple understated, revelatory moments, we learn that Bobby has not endured 50+ years of an easy life, and in small, daily ways he almost seems to be subtly repairing past mistakes by caring about and/or expressing empathy for his tenants.


In a recent interview, Dafoe said, “(‘The Florida Project’) is one of those films that makes you look at your relationship to other people and what your responsibility is, and the quality of your life is going to be colored by how you treat other people…..You’ll be a more content person when you look at the person across from you and know that you got to help each other.”


Dafoe’s comforting and principled performance should earn him a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination, and he, Prince and Vinaite all deliver authentic work here.  Baker shot his film at a real budget hotel (yes, named The Magic Castle), and the three leads seamlessly fall into their roles as a manager and two residents, as if they have worked/lived there for years.  Due to her age, Prince has one previous film credit on her resume, and “The Florida Project” is Vinaite’s first movie.  In fact, in a stroke of genuine luck and out of the box thinking, Baker found Vinaite on Instagram.  


While Moonee offers adorable, aw, shucks scenes and oodles of kid humor, Vinaite’s Halley carries the hardship of adulthood, as if an 800 lb. gorilla is throwing its dead weight on her back.  This pressure and a lifetime of heartache surrounded by poor role models have resulted in Halley embracing caustic slices of arrested development and horrible judgment, and Baker and Vinaite fully display the unpleasant, and sometimes heartbreaking choices that this mother makes. 


Baker spoke with the Phoenix Film Festival, and he said that his mixture of tones is deliberate.


“The whole film (contained many) contradictions, a lot of clashing with adult and childlike content. The whole movie is that,” Baker said.


He added, “I think the whole film is about a balance between the two worlds, because it’s about two worlds.  It’s a whole other world right outside the Magic Kingdom, so I am always trying to have a clash.”


This clash alternates between entertaining (although mischievous) kid humor and acidic realities of poverty, so “The Florida Project” throws its audience on a roller coaster ride of highs and lows, and sometimes, through the use of music or when Moonee and Halley are paired up on a perfume-selling spree, these contrasting themes reach the screen simultaneously.   


For millions and millions of people in this country, a painful cycle of poverty regularly snares them on a cruel merry-go-round, but – thankfully - through a child’s eyes, any present environment can be transformed into a playground.  Baker and Moonee found beauty at The Magic Castle and all along Route 192, but will these moments of wide-eyed adventure last for these kids?  Perhaps, but kids grow up.


As poet and playwright Seamus Heaney said, “I think childhood is, generally speaking, a preparation for disappointment.”

(4/4 stars)


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



Professor Marston & the Wonder Women - Movie Review by Ben Cahlamer

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Professor Marston & The Wonder Women


Written and Directed by Angela Robinson

Starring Luke Evans, Rebecca Hall, Bella Heathcote, Oliver Platt, Connie Britton


As a child, comic books were vaguely on the periphery of my consciousness. Fantasy-adventure films of the time, like Flash Gordon, The Never Ending Story, Labyrinth, or even the Muppets were my comic books come to life. I certainly read the comic books that came out, but they were tie-ins to existing properties.  Though their stories were original, their ideas were not. For an original idea, I’d have to go back to when my dad was a kid (sorry dad, I don’t mean to age you.)

In the early 1940’s, when Angela Robinson’s riveting drama Professor Marston and the Wonder Women is set, war, violence and conservatism permeated the minds of average citizens, as did patriotism. Do those ideas sound vaguely familiar today?

For those of you who were kids, you might be able to relate more to this than my words could ever convey, but these values were instilled in you, and even me, generationally.

As the film opens, the idea of how to convey these ideas has come into question. Luke Evans, who plays William Moulton Marston is on the hot seat, being grilled for including lewd and suggestive acts in his ‘Wonder Woman’ comic book that has parents across the nation worried about what ideas their kids might get into their heads.  Again, does this sound familiar?

Though the storytelling is inconsistent at times, writer-director Angela Robinson takes us from the governmental bureaucracies of the time to the halls of academia where Marston is a psychologist teaching at Radcliffe College, the all-female annex of Harvard University. The stunning Rebecca Hall (2016’s Christine, The Town, The Prestige) plays Marston’s wife, Elizabeth, who is dismayed at the idea that Harvard continually denies her a doctorate degree simply because of her gender.

Together, they professionally court student Olive Byrne to intern for them. Olive is played with a delightful chaste by Bella Heathcote (The Neon Demon, Fifty Shades Darker). It is the foundation of this professional relationship, turned much more intimate, that serves as the foundation for the fictional comic book character, Wonder Woman.

Robinson worked diligently to ensure a scientific approach to the experimentation the trio undertook to not only explore their own lives together, for better and for worse, but to develop the complex behaviors associated with the Wonder Woman character. Robinson also went on to show the reactions of kids and adults.

Was the reaction a bit over dramatic?  Sure. But the ideas conveyed throughout the film have not changed in 76 years. Our perceptions today have certainly changed but that perception does not and should not diminish the ideas Robinson or even Marston were trying to convey. And, that is the heart and soul of Professor Marston and the Wonder Women.

I mentioned earlier about my childhood experiences.  They are an evolution of entertainments of the past.  Instead of pulp and ink being used to convey ideas, for me it was miniatures, smoke, mirrors and lighting, combining aspects of both forms of entertainment for today’s masses. Of course, todays talent such as Gal Gadot and Patty Jenkins embody the physical aspects of the characters and their ideals. 

In between Wonder Woman (2017) and the upcoming Justice League sits a ruby-laden tiara and its name is Professor Marston and the Wonder Women. We can now add Angela Robinson to the list of voices for change, fairness, patriotism and above all else, justice.

3.25 stars out of 4

Happy Death Day - Movie Review by Monte Yazzie

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Happy Death Day


Director: Christopher Landon

Starring: Jessica Rothe, Israel Broussard, Ruby Modine, Rachel Matthews, Charles Aitken, and Jason Bayle


Remember that movie “Groundhog Day” starring Bill Murray? It’s the film where Murray relives the same day over and over again. It’s a simplistic, often goofy, premise that conveniently allowed the comedian the opportunity to do what he does best.


“Happy Death Day” is a new horror film that takes this idea, adds the element of a slasher wearing a creepy mask, and focuses the narrative on the self-referential aspect of other horror and time travel films. While this may not necessarily sound that promising, “Happy Death Day” is a surprisingly fun horror film that feels straight out of the 90’s.


Tree (Jessica Rothe) wakes up in a stranger’s dorm room. Immediately realizing her bad decision she promptly leaves, pretentiously throwing verbal jabs at two college guys on her way out. It doesn’t stop there; Tree is a snob and, before she returns to her sorority house, she abuses numerous people along her path. It’s Tree’s birthday though she doesn’t seem too happy about it. As the day progresses Tree finds herself alone on a walk to a party. A masked assailant confronts her and, while trying to escape, Tree is killed but immediately wakes up to relive the day again.


For a film that relies so heavily on a specific narrative device, a feature that becomes somewhat annoyingly implemented in the film “Groundhog Day”, “Happy Death Day” amusingly utilizes it well. Part of the reason it’s effective is because of the genre it is operated within. The horror genre allows the filmmakers opportunity to exploit one key element here, specifically that the main character must die in order for time to restart. Just like a slasher film, take for instance something like “Friday the 13th”, it’s the continuous gruesome methods of violence that drives these particular subgenre of films. While “Happy Death Day” operates within the boundaries of its PG-13 rating, much of the violence is cut before the visual payoff some horror fans will be looking for, the film composes a quality that is reminiscent of the teenager-in-peril motifs of the 90’s.


And, just like those same 90’s genre films, the narrative is structured to compliment the trick it is trying to execute. This makes for some pretty cringe-worthy moments of dialog and more than a few sloppy plugs for the plot holes. However, it also confidently understands how to use humor in a horror film and keenly plays the genre characteristics against type. The film understands the lengths to which the premise can go, pushing the silly nature of the key idea to its limitations without ever going to far.


This wouldn’t all work so nicely without the convincing performance from Jessica Rothe who takes the character of Tree on a full journey of self-discovery, at the hands of the masked killer who kills her repeatedly into some kind of understanding. Ms. Rothe is believable on numerous levels throughout the film while also having a charismatic quality that works so well here.


“Happy Death Day” does a lot with very little. Even with some of the glaring flaws it’s easy to get caught up in the carefree, appealing quality of this horror film. Having fun in horror doesn’t happen too often these days, which is much of the reason why “Happy Death Day” works.


Monte’s Rating

3.25 out of 5.00



Interview with Sean Baker, director of The Florida Project by Jeff Mitchell

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Director Sean Baker’s “The Florida Project” is set at The Magic Castle in Orlando, Fla., but this purple and yellow locale is not a lush Disney World attraction.   It is an extended stay hotel that resides among fast food joints and gift shops, and for many of its residents, they struggle to make ends meet.  The film introduces us to 6-year-old Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) and her childlike interpretation of her world as a playground, but her life is also coupled with the difficult financial realities that she shares with her young mother, Halley (Bria Vinaite).  Willem Dafoe stars as Bobby, The Magic Castle’s manager, who sympathizes with Halley’s and Moonee’s economic and environmental circumstances.  (For the record, this critic believes that Dafoe deserves a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for his performance.)  


Sean spoke with the Phoenix Film Festival about his film’s conscious clash between adult themes and childhood content, the reasons for telling this difficult story while also including ample amounts of humor, and much more.


“The Florida Project” arrives in theatres on Friday, Oct. 13.



PFF: Moonee (Prince) is an adorable, and also a very resourceful, 6-year-old girl.  For instance, she is not afraid to ask strangers for money to buy ice cream and gladly accepts and eats a large jar of jelly from a charitable organization.  She is full of life and smiles a lot, but I can envision her struggling as an adult, like her mother is today.  Were you thinking about the comparisons between childhood innocence and the hardships of adulthood?


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SB: Most definitely.  Screenwriter Chris Bergoch originally brought me the idea of this world.  In 2014, we actually got a grant and started taking trips to visit budget hotels.  We found out that (people living in budget hotels for long periods of time) was an ongoing problem, and we were meeting kids - who were Moonee’s age – who have spent their entire lives in budget motels.  So, we saw that this (trend) wasn’t changing, and there’s a very good chance that this lifestyle could continue and continue. 


The one thing about Halley (Vinaite) that separates her from Moonee is: it (appears) that she had no parental support.  No parents to speak of.  What we are trying to show with Moonee is that she does have a mom, and although Halley is misguided because of her age and perhaps the circumstances that she is in, (she has) a true love for her child.  She wants to be there for her child.  So, you don’t know if the cycle will continue or repeat, but, of course, the threat is there.  The threat is real.  It’s very rare when one breaks out of poverty, and so that was something that we wanted to show.  This is a definite possibility. Who knows the future?  Moonee’s future is very much up in the air.



PFF: Halley is struggling.  She does not make the best choices and leaves Moonee on her own many, many times, but she is still trying to provide for her and doing the best that she can with her skillset.  Halley knows that she could be a better mother, but does not necessarily know how.


SB: Yes.  Also, it’s not exactly the point of whether or not (audiences) agree or disagree with her parental skills, or how (they) see this woman in that aspect. 


Audience members have walked out of the theatre saying, “The love that mother had for her child was so incredible.  I wish that my mom had that sort of love for me.” 


Then I heard the other side, where they (believed that Halley was) a terrible mother.  I’ve heard the extremes on both sides, but my point – and hopefully one of the goals of this film – is that you at least have empathy for her.  You look at her circumstance, and you try to walk in her shoes for just a moment.  Look, she was probably 15, when she had Moonee.  No formal education.  No parental support.  Moonee’s father is obviously not in the picture.  We hint that she has a criminal record and is pretty much unemployable.  So all of these things build up against her, and she’s really in survival mode, and we’d really like audiences to at least walk away hopefully having empathy for somebody in that situation. 



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PFF: Halley and Moonee live in a budget hotel called The Magic Castle, which is a perfect name, since it is located in Orlando in the shadows of Disney World. 


SB: It’s an actual place, The Magic Castle, and we were lucky enough (to shoot there).  The owner was extremely generous.  There are small businesses lined up on Route 192 and exist there outside of the parks.  That’s the whole reason that we decided to set our story there, because this is actually a national problem.  There are basically people who are holding on to a roof over their heads by using budget hotels throughout the country, as one step away from being on the streets.  So, this is something that we could have set anywhere, but it was the juxtaposition that we were focusing on between kids growing up in motels and the “Happiest Place on Earth” right next door, less than a couple miles away. Not for cynical irony, but to show that if it can happen there, it can happen anywhere.



PFF: This location includes lots of asphalt, exit ramps, gift shops, and fast food joints, but to Moonee, this place can be a land of adventure as well.   So, even though life might not be ideal for Moonee and her friends, they see wonder and adventure in their world.  Is that a reason why childhood is special?


SB: Exactly.  You got it.  Little Moonee is able to use her imagination and wonderment to almost visit those attractions that you associate with (Orlando), but without actually visiting them.  For example, there are cow pastures that are only 10 feet behind these hotels.  She can walk behind the hotel, look at some cows and say, “Oh, here’s a safari,” instead of going to Animal Kingdom.  


She’s always making the most of it in her childlike way. 



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PFF: Bobby (Dafoe) runs The Magic Castle.  He’s the manager, but he also holds an unofficial fulltime job as a caretaker, watching the kids who live there, as they run around the property.  The film offers a couple small revelations that Bobby has endured a difficult 50+ years of existence.  He didn’t have an easy life.   


SB: We are trying to show that Bobby had loss in his life.  He saw his own family break apart, as he is seeing many other families break apart.  We discover that Bobby is estranged from his wife, when his son (Caleb Landry Jones) visits.  In a way, Bobby was paying his son for his presence by hiring him for the day.  That was Bobby’s way of at least keeping in contact with him. 



PFF: At times, children’s television programs or music can be heard in the background, when Halley would also use coarse, inappropriate language in the apartment.   Was the use of sound another element in weaving Moonee’s existence with her mother’s? 


SB: Yes, the whole film (contained many) contradictions, a lot of clashing with adult and childlike content.  The whole movie is that.  If you think about it, we start the film with (Kool & the Gang’s) “Celebration”, and obviously, it won’t remain celebratory for long.  I think the whole film is about that balance between the two worlds, because it’s about two worlds.  It’s a whole other world right outside The Magic Kingdom, so I am always trying to have a clash.  Whether it’s a clash of music, or adult content with child content or (socioeconomic) classes, it’s all of that. 




PFF: Moonee seems to be resilient to her environment but also aware of it.  Perhaps, completely aware.


SB: Not completely aware.  We were always playing with how much she would be absorbing, but there is no doubt about it, that a child in that situation is going to be introduced to things that she shouldn’t at such an early age.  I’ll give you a little anecdote. 


I was holding a 3-year-old at one of the hotels that I was doing my research, because you become friends with everybody there.  I was giving her a piggyback ride, and (she) whispered in my ear, “My mother smokes weed in the bathroom.”


Now, I didn’t even know what the word “weed” meant, until probably I was 14, and this girl was obviously very aware of what was happening.  Kids do have to grow up fast in that environment.  It is a dangerous (one), but kids are still kids at the same time, so again, there are a lot of contradictions and a lot of clashing.



PFF: The movie contains serious material, but it is also very, very funny.   Was it important for you to inject humor into the film?  


SB: I do that with all of my films.  We all use humor and laughter to cope, and in everyday life you see things that are comedic.  I feel that – sometimes - films that deal with serious issues become so entrenched in melodrama and devoid of all humor, that they become untruthful, because that’s not real life.  Sometimes in your darkest hours, you just have to smile or laugh to be able to cope and get by. 



Also, this movie is about kids.  Kids are inherently funny.  They are still growing up.  They are still learning how to hold themselves and talk.  Their use of grammar is off, and it can be funny.  If little Moonee was slumping over the entire time with a frown on her face, it would be so incredibly untruthful and condescending to these subjects. 


This is something that is very important to me, and at the same time, cinema is an entertaining medium, and I want audiences to know that they are going to be able to laugh with these kids and spend the summer with these kids.  There is comedy here, and there’s humor.  There are also important issues that we are shedding a light on, and hopefully, audiences will go home and think about the real Moonees and real Halleys, but they should know that there is a degree of escapism with this movie, and hopefully a return to summers of their youth.



PFF: This is not a question, but a compliment.   I loved how you visually told the story and paid attention to the beauty of the immediate environment around The Magic Castle. 


SB: I was working with a wonderful director of photography, Alexis Zabe, who has an eye for these things, and also my sister, Stephonik Youth, who was doing production design.   We really worked on embracing the beautiful, Floridian colors, and Route 192 is really incredible-looking, because all of these small businesses are targeting the same tourists as the parks.  So, they had all of these thematic candy colors and approaches to their businesses.  So, as a director, this (place) was (presented) to me as a gift:  Here, you have beautiful stuff to shoot. Shoot it! 


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.

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

Mountain Between Us.jpg

‘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.