Hell or High Water - Movie Review by Monte Yazzie

Hell or HIgh WaterHell or High Water  

Director: David Mackenzie

Starring: Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Jeff Bridges, Dale Dickey, Katy Mixon, and Gil Birmingham



I have two younger brothers. From the outside one might watch the antics of three grown siblings insulting each other and describe the behavior as dysfunctional, and with the type of cringe inducing comments that we would make it would be very easy. However, and some of you who have brothers may completely understand, this behavior is normal. One minute you are ready to throw punches, or are already throwing punches, and the next you are laughing the kind of laugh that you’ll remember your entire life. No hurt feelings, no resentment, just the loyalty and love of brothers.


At the core of “Hell or High Water”, directed by David Mackenzie who last helmed the prison drama “Starred Up” and written by Taylor Sheridan who wrote the drug enforcement drama “Sicario”, is a character study about brothers and the complicated relationship that defines and motivates them. At the surface is a story about two bank-robbing brothers fighting to save the family farm from corporate corruption in West Texas. “Hell or High Water” is a shrewdly composed, wonderfully acted modern-day western.


Toby (Chris Pine) is a divorced dad who, out of desperation, organizes a plan with his ex-con brother Tanner (Ben Foster) to rob a string of West Texas banks. It’s a last ditch effort for the brothers to keep the bank from foreclosing on their family farm. It doesn’t take long for the robberies to find the attention of an almost retired Texas Ranger named Marcus (Jeff Bridges) and his partner Alberto (Gil Birmingham). As in any great western all roads eventually lead to a brutal, violent confrontation.


The structure of “Hell or High Water” has all the characteristics found in any form of a heist film, cloaked robbers with pistols on the run from lawmen with pistols. It’s an undeniable western motif, simply substitute a pick-up truck for a horse and many of the same qualities are easily found in this film. But it’s more than just that, there is so much stimulating detail involved in nearly every beautiful, portrait-worthy moment here. From the stunning landscapes corrupted with rotating oil pumps, the collapsing cities around otherwise pristine bank buildings, a touch of graffiti that tells as much a story as any line of dialog in the film, the world weary yet hard working people pushing along in the face of despair; the details are exquisitely composed offering a story that is more than just genre defining characteristics.


Adding to these visuals is a soundtrack by the enigmatic Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. For music fans think of Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds, a group that consistently evolved and dissected themes of love, death, and violence with a polish of American blues and punk-rock features. The composition within this film is similar, expansive and surging without become overly elaborate. The music is a character all itself.


Included in this story are four of the best performances seen this year. Chris Pine does a great job with a very quiet role, adding subtly touches of a man with everything to gain and lose. Ben Foster does off-kilter consistently better than most actors; his no-holds-barred mentality adds a great contrast to the more restrained Mr. Pine. The dynamic between the actors playing brothers is fantastic, at a moment miles away from any kind of mutual understanding and the next completely connected and ready to sacrifice everything for each other. This relationship is reflected with two other characters, two Texan Rangers. Jeff Bridges has played this role before, a tough-as-nails cowboy stuck in a world that doesn’t need him anymore; Mr. Bridges is brilliant. Gil Birmingham plays the partner, a half-Comanche and half-Mexican, with compassion and respect. Whether the calm reactions to being racially ridiculed and completely disrespected or the appreciation and respect he has for his partner, Mr. Birmingham is the most admirable character in a world of less than admirable people. It’s another brotherly relationship, while not by blood but rather by occupational brotherhood. It’s a balance for the two characters that is played with ease.


“Hell or High Water” is at times starkly comedic, at times wholly visceral, and at other times a cutting commentary on the economic state. It’s a western, a heist film, a detective story, and a family drama. It has a little bit of everything that makes going to the movies such an amazing experience.


Monte’s Rating

4.50 out of 5.00

Equity - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

Equity“Equity” raises plenty of capital in a female-driven Wall Street drama  

Directed by:  Meera Menon

Written by:  Amy Fox

Starring:  Anna Gunn, Sarah Megan Thomas and Alysia Reiner


“Equity” – “I like money.  I do.”  - Naomi Bishop


Speaking on a panel with a few other women, Naomi Bishop (Anna Gunn) gives that answer when asked, “What’s that thing that really makes you want to get up in the morning?”


Well, Naomi certainly is the right business, because she works as an investment banker in New York City and specializes in taking companies public, nine in all.   Director Meera Menon does not illustrate Naomi’s wealth with fancy cars or big vacations.  Although Naomi lives in a gorgeous Manhattan apartment, she has zero time for rest and relaxation, because she is always working.


Unfortunately, she suffered a major setback in the office, when her latest initial public offering (IPO) fell apart, because she ruffled her client’s feathers.  With Naomi’s boss dishing out regular verbal reprimands and feedback like “this doesn’t look like your year”, she feels all the pressure to get her newest IPO - Cachet, a security company that is launching a social network – right, but the Ghost from Failed Public Offerings Past is spooking her.  Naomi’s ghost and other problems cause her legit concern, but she pushes forward with the hope that Cachet will be different.


What is different about Menon’s film?  Three strong female characters are the leads in this tense Wall Street drama, and the actresses do a terrific job of representing career-oriented women in different stages of life and under varied personal-choice circumstances.


Naomi, unmarried and in her 40s, never had money as a kid and worked extremely hard for years for her lucrative career.   She plays by the rules but also knows how to play the game in order be a rainmaker for her clients.


Erin (Sarah Megan Thomas) – about 10 years younger - works for Naomi but feels woefully underpaid and underappreciated and struggles to balance her career and home life with her husband.


Samantha (Alysia Reiner) completes the triad, but she is a public servant lawyer who investigates white-collar crime, and she may have Naomi in her legal crosshairs.  Now, Samantha enjoys living in a happy marriage with her partner and raising two kids, so working long hours for a small government salary results in some pressure in the home too.


“Equity” does a good job of pulling back the curtains, and we clearly see the stresses in these women’s lives, while they manage or scrutinize the Cachet deal.   Naomi and Erin hope that their target IPO price of $32-$34/share is correct, so the stock will then take off, but so much elbow grease and saleswomanship in the form of international travel, constant meetings, phone calls, and presentations are needed.  On the other hand, when times get difficult, we see warm, feminine smiles are also called upon as well to help close the deal.   Samantha is not immune to using her sex appeal either, as she purposely hits on an unsuspecting broker to get vital information which she needs for her ongoing investigation.    In all such cases, the women clearly do not wish to play this card, but it is card they sometimes believe they have to play.


The film’s story arc plays through the Cachet deal to its (positive or negative) conclusion, and Naomi must recognize and dodge unforeseen financial shenanigans and landmines in order for the deal to thrive.  If not, then she may not politically survive.   Thankfully, the script does not patronize or take shortcuts in developing these roadblocks, because the hurdles to the IPO’s success are not dependent upon Naomi’s gender, but – instead – hard work, karma a little bit of luck in Wall Street’s dirty financial playground.


“Equity” is an effective and intriguing drama on a couple of levels with the film’s title holding a clear double meaning.   The equity markets of Wall Street may be gender-neutral, but for these women, society in 2016 still makes it very, very difficult – but not completely impossible - to have it all.

(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.


Florence Foster Jenkins - Movie Review by Kaely Monahan

  FFJFlorence Foster Jenkins: Failure to Success

By Kaely Monahan


Films like Florence Foster Jenkins are true delights that remind us of the good things in life. In this biopic, Meryl Streep stars as Florence, the 1940s aristocrat and singer extraordinaire who takes New York City by storm. But like her contemporaries, she does not have the voice of an angel. Rather she is horrible--arrhythmic and flat--and with a voice like nails on a chalkboard.


At her side is her doting husband St. Claire, performed by the perpetually sad-eyed Hugh Grant. Their marriage is something rarely seen in film. It is in no way sexual. Rather, theirs is a love that transcends into the chivalrous almost medieval love between a knight and a lady. However, that does not stop St. Claire from having a secret girlfriend on the side, and his own apartment separate from Florence.


Nonetheless, he loves Florence. He doesn't even hesitate to aid her in her quest to start singing again. And with her fortune, it's not difficult to find a respected teacher and hire a pianist. Indeed, Florence has a whole community that adores her--whether for her or her money is up for debate. She seemingly funds the entire New York music scene. Between playing the patron to maestros and throwing lavish dinners to raise money for the arts, Florence flutters like a fairy who sees only the good in the world.


And St. Claire ensures that her fantasy stays intact by shielding her for those who would mock her. Journalists are bought off and only those of the most elite music societies are allowed to attend her concerts. Anyone who is new to Florence's performances are quickly instructed on the proper etiquette--no laughing or jeering, and lots of applause.


Yet even those who would mock her cannot help but praise her. She puts her entire self into her performances--and you can't help but applaud that.


And Streep does much the same. Her performance is without reproach. She imbibes Florence with such sincerity and innocence while at the same time hitting all the comedic moments with a punch. And there are many in this film. It’s impossible to not laugh in awe of her musical talent—or rather lack of it. Streep proves yet again that she is the queen of Hollywood. There is nothing she can't do--no part out of her reach. She captures Florence's complexity, which at first seems hidden beneath a frivolous jejune view of life. Yet the film reveals Florence's tragic past as well.


At her side is Simon Helberg as Comsé McMoon, her private pianist. The Big Bang Theory star shows off his concert-pianist skills, which are genuine. His fingers have to fly in order to keep up with Streep. And many of the scenes where they are together were recorded live rather than redone later in a studio. That makes his performance all the more incredible, for he had to react to whatever Streep would do while staying in character.


And those moments are gold. Streep is giving her all as Florence while Helberg’s McMoon is trying is utmost best to not flounder against her terrible notes. Those scenes are some of the very best in the film.


It would be easy for anyone to wilt under the star power of Streep and Grant, but Helberg rises to the challenge and proves he can do more than just be a geeky engineering—and he’s quite a scene stealer.


We can sympathize with McMoon, who clearly had no idea what he was getting into and can’t understand why everyone praises Florence so highly when she is clearly terrible. And that’s the crux of the film. Why do people love her so much? Is it because she funds the music scene? Or they are bought off by St. Claire to be an adulating audience? Or is it because many of her audience members can't actually hear anything and only think she's talented? Or is something more?


That said, only those who love and support Florence (or are bought by St. Claire) are allowed to hear her sing—that is until she decides to rent out Carnegie Hall and sing for the troops.


Throughout the entire film, there is a moral dilemma. Where is the line between supporting someone and patronizing them? Yet, in the end, you can’t help but love Florence and want to see her succeed.


Her joy of music is something transcendent and rarely seen. The fact that she gives her all to it sets her apart. And while she will be remembered for singing poorly, at least she’ll be remembered for singing. And the real Florence said much the same.


  • Kaely Monahan is a journalist, graduate of City University London and the creator of Popcorn Fan Film Reviews. Follow her @PopcornFans and @KaelyMonahan.

Anthropoid - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

Anthropoid-poster‘Anthropoid’ doubles as a WWII thriller and an important Czech history lesson  

Director:  Sean Ellis

Writers:  Sean Ellis and Anthony Frewin

Starring:  Cillian Murphy, Jaime Dornan, Toby Jones, Charlotte Le Bon, Anna Geislerova, and Alena Mihulova


“Anthropoid” - “No one need think that the world can be ruled without blood.  The civil sword shall and must be red and bloody.” – Andrew Jackson


Jackson’s disconcerting comment about ruling unfortunately tends to prove true, because foreign nations – generally speaking - primarily use force to control a sovereign neighbor, and we have seen – and read about - way too many examples of this throughout human history.   Conversely, the conquered people can carry disdain for their occupiers, so blood can flow in both directions.  After Germany occupied Czechoslovakia in 1939, the SS ruled with an iron fist, and soon Reinhard Heydrich – the main architect of The Final Solution - ran operations on the ground.


In director Sean Ellis’ “Anthropoid”, he throws the audience into the middle of this conflict between the Germans and the Czech resistance, but his film is not a battlefront war movie in which armies are pummeling one another for two hours.  Instead, it is a real-life spy thriller, and the name Anthropoid refers to a specific, secret Czech mission.  Rather than creating a flashy, Hollywood-like production like “Valkyrie” (2008), this movie’s tenor and mood feel like the excellent British war picture, “’71” (2015).  Ellis’ film lives and breathes in gritty and earthy tones and captures many important personal moments of despair and worry among the Czech people that make it an affecting experience.


Josef Gabcik (Cillian Murphy) and Jan Kubis (Jamie Dornan) are soldiers in the Czech army, and they parachute into the country in December 1941 to meet the resistance and help enact Operation Anthropoid.   Josef and Jan both carry serious mindsets, and rightly so, with German soldiers standing on seemingly every Prague street corner with guns in hand, and the Czech resistance fighters hidden amongst the populace.  Ellis’ camera enters ordinary living rooms and concealed backrooms in public cafes where resistance organizers and fighters regularly rap secret knocks and speak in whispers in order operate unseen and unheard by German troops.


During the movie’s first hour, it lays quiet and intense groundwork.  As Josef and Jan settle into their new environment, they develop working relationships with Hajsky (Toby Jones), Mrs. Moravec (Alena Mihulova) and Karel (Jiri Simek) and romantic ones with Lenka (Anna Geislerova) and Marie (Charlotte Le Bon), respectively.   By and large, the film’s first half is “mostly free” from violence while careful planning takes center stage, but not everyone in the resistance is in agreement with actually carrying out Operation Anthropoid.


Heydrich, also known as The Butcher of Prague, executed 5,000 Czech prisoners as one of his first acts in the country, and some worry about a ferocious Nazi retaliation to Anthropoid.  Will the Germans wipe Czechoslovakia off the map?  This internal debate raises the stakes and churn while Josef and Jan move forward with their mission.  Murphy and Dornan are very convincing as soldiers, and while Murphy’s Josef is a cool customer with a frequent smoke always close by, Dornan’s Jan sometimes wavers in spirit and carries anxiety over actually pulling the trigger on anyone.   This dynamic also leaves the audience to wonder how Anthropoid will pan out.


Interestingly, “Anthropoid” really becomes a tale of two pictures:  before the mission and after the mission.   Beforehand, the promise of danger is close, and afterwards, it appears in brutally visual ways, including a long, extended climax, instead of a restrained denouement.  The film turns into a more familiar urban warfare battle, and Josef, Jan and other young fighters are thrown into a visceral and gripping conflict that generates vigorous hand-wringing.   It reminded me of a smaller-scale Ramelle clash in “Saving Private Ryan” (1998), and the impact is felt on-screen and off-screen.


“Anthropoid” is superbly acted, shot and written, and Ellis delivers an exceptional war picture that doubles as a gripping thriller and an important Czech history lesson, as Murphy, Dornan, Jones, Mihulova, Geislerova, Le Bon, and others put faces on the Czech people who lived through the period.   Operation Anthropoid may not be regularly reiterated in American schools and textbooks, but it is an eternally-critical moment for the Czech Republic.  This film boldly captures this difficult, tragic and heroic time in the country’s collective memoir and is another reminder that Jackson’s reference to the civil sword is, in fact, red and bloody.

(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.

An interview with Simon Helberg of Florence Foster Jenkins by Jeff Mitchell

Simon Helberg - of “The Big Bang Theory” fame - stars alongside Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant in “Florence Foster Jenkins”, a biopic about an opera singer – without a suitable singing voice – who became famous in the 1940s.  In the film, her husband, St. Clair (Grant), and her friends do not wish to hurt Florence’s (Streep) feelings, so no one tells her the frank truth about her off-key vocals, and her new pianist, Cosme McMoon (Helberg), blindly walks into this elaborate charade.   Streep is a trained singer, and Helberg is an accomplished pianist, and they performed together behind the scenes and on-screen.  

The Phoenix Film Festival took part in an interview call with Helberg and many other journalists (who contributed to this interview), and he spoke about his character’s motivations, his thoughts on why Florence’s friends kept up the illusion and playing music on set with Meryl Streep.


“Florence Foster Jenkins” opens on Friday, Aug. 12.


FFJQ:  What drew you to the part of Cosme McMoon?


SH:  Well, I couldn’t think of one reason why I wouldn’t be interested in or (wouldn’t) claw my way into this movie.  There are the obvious people that were making it and involved in it (who) are perhaps the best ever at this, between Meryl, (director) Stephen Frears, Hugh, (composer) Alexandre Desplat, (costume designer) Consolata Boyle, and (production designer) Alan MacDonald.   I mean, all I could say is that I feel like I’m accepting an award. 


The script is so unique, and the scenes really speak to me.  (It’s) not just the love of music, but this idea of perception and the disparity between our perception of ourselves and what other people perceive.  Does it matter that we hear one voice in our head, and other people hear a different one?  Maybe it all leads to the same place.


There was just something beautifully poetic about Florence’s journey.  I felt that the script did an amazing job at celebrating this woman and celebrating this love and joy that she found in music. 


Q:  Your character (showed) tons of facial expressions.  They are a huge part of your performance, and they went from very subtle to overt.  In the scene when Florence first sings, were you already aware of what Meryl was going to sound like or were those expressions real?


SH:  Well, both I guess.  (Meryl and I) had already rehearsed (the music) for about a week and a half, and we actually recorded at Abbey Road as well, which is amazing.  So, we had a lot of time to laugh and to figure out what we were doing. 


Of course, they ended up wanting to shoot it all live, so all of the stuff that we recorded was kind of thrown out, and because of that, we (were) playing all of that music live as you are seeing it and as it was being shot, which I think helped.  Well, it helped us contain our laughter and focus, because we had to actually get through the music, but it also made all of it very authentic. 


Q:  You speak with a slightly higher pitch in this film and changed up your speaking patterns.  What was behind your decision to do that and is that something that you pulled from actual recordings of McMoon’s voice, or things that you researched about him?


SH:  The most that I could find – in doing this research – were some facts and little tidbits of information that were in the movie, but there is a recording of him, actually.  He is much older, and he talks about that night at Carnegie Hall, and I had a moment of thinking, “I don’t know how much I want to use this as inspiration.”


McMoon was probably, I think, in his 70s at that point.  (His voice) was a bit different than I had pictured it, and his outlook was very different than in the script.  I thought (that) you really always want to start with the script.  To me, I just saw (his voice) vividly and heard him vividly in this way.  I saw him as being very pure, very chaste, very innocent, and having no sense of cynicism.  He hadn’t really been corrupted in any way whatsoever.  There is something very chaste about him and very alien at the same time.


There’s also the fact that it was the ‘40s, and he was walking into this elevated high society, cosmopolitan lifestyle.  People actually did take speech classes, and they (had) this anglicized way of talking back then.  All of those things combined led me to (McMoon’s speaking patterns in the movie).


PFF:  There is this great moment when McMoon asks St. Clair about his (unusual marriage) arrangement with Florence at St. Clair’s apartment.  Later, McMoon speaks to Florence at his apartment, and I thought that he really wanted to insert his opinion on Florence and St. Clair’s relationship but thought better of it.  He was protecting her like everyone else in the movie.


Later - at Carnegie Hall – McMoon says to Florence in a very confident voice, “We can do it.”


I think at that moment, at least to me, (the message) turned from protection to support.  Is that how you see it?  What do you think?


SH:  Wow.  You have really tapped into so many things that I thought, but I didn’t know that anyone else would necessarily pick up on.  All that you said is actually something that – at some point – I was cognizant of. 


There was a real moment there when I felt (that St. Clair thought or felt), “How dare you, Sir, ask me (that).  Of course, I love her.”


(Later,) Florence (goes) to McMoon’s apartment, and (the audience sees) how broken that she is by St. Clair.  This innocent, little McMoon is now somewhat corrupted by the harsh and strange reality of the relationship that Florence and St. Clair have with each other, and he - all of sudden - does have to step up.  He does feel this protective desire. 


Then, in Carnegie Hall, yes, that is the moment too.  You know that Florence is scared.  It’s just so beautiful the way the script is that you just see all of the colors of these people.  That is his moment.  He has that bond.


McMoon is the only one that understands the music, really, with her.  St. Clair doesn’t.  They don’t play music together.  So, here is this transition from, “OK, I’ll help this woman to – you know what?  Let’s do this.”


This is important not just for Florence but for McMoon.  We’re in it together.  We have something greater than this kind of career-minded or reputation-focused frame of mind.  We have the love of music, and it doesn’t matter, nothing else matters.


Q:  It is amazing to me how everyone around Florence continued to just keep up her fantasy.  She was so protected.  People truly did love her, but why do you think people fell in love with her so much?


SH:  Well, I think that there’s almost nothing more human than failure.  I think it’s funny, and it’s tragic, and it’s comforting, but only when it’s done passionately.  Only when somebody is putting themselves out there genuinely and ironically and aiming for the fences and kind of falling flat, no pun intended. 


I think that’s one element of it, and the fact that she was so filled with joy, so moved by music and wanted to share that joy and that love of music with people.  I think it’s just magnetic.  I mean, it’s like watching a little child just with total abandon singing out (loud) and dancing, and the part of your brain that has any kind of judgment or criticism of this is overwritten by the joyous part.  Whether people were laughing or their jaws were on the floor, I think that they were enjoying themselves. 


Q:  Since the movie is a period piece based on real life events, what was the most challenging aspect of making the film?


SH:  Combining the music and the acting was the most challenging part.  Being hired as an actor and then having the music take over was such an enormous part of the film. 


Meryl was going to sing and then (the filmmakers) wanted to do it live.  For her to sing live, they needed the piano to be live, so (the music) is going to be different every time.  So there is just the pressure of getting this music done live, while they’re shooting us.  Working with Meryl and Stephen in this incredible movie was a built-in sort of pressure, and it was challenging. 


On top of that, to find this character and to do it simultaneously, it felt (that) it’s already hard enough to play piano with two hands.  So it felt (that) I had eight arms and was trying to do multiple things, but, of course, you want to be faithful to these characters, because they’re real.  At the same time, there wasn’t a ton of information on them, so that was sort of liberating, because the script was “the Bible”.


Ultimately, it was great fun, even when it was sometimes brutally challenging. 


Q:  The world is about to find out that you are a very talented pianist from this movie, which they probably didn’t know before.  What else do you wish that the world knew about you?


SH:  Oh, I’m not that much of a showoff.  I’m good with the piano.  That’s cool.  I love acting, and especially in a case like this, sometimes, it requires other talents. I’m interested in discovering what else I might be able to do.  When I find things that I think I can’t do, it’s torturous sometimes, but it’s very gratifying to push through (it), and this (movie) was no exception.  I did not expect that I’d be able to play all of these (musical) pieces, and there were times when I thought, “Well, this one I can’t do.  Well, this one I definitely (can do), or I’m not going to get through (this one)…”


I just felt that if Meryl is going to sing all of (these songs) live, I better do my best to get there. 



Indignation - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

Indignation‘Indignation’ sneaks up on us and emotionally resonates    

Writer/director: James Schamus

Starring: Logan Lerman, Sarah Gadon and Tracy Letts


“Indignation” – For many valid reasons, one can look back at the 1950s as a prosperous and warm time in America.   Manufacturing and housing boomed, and visions of “Leave it to Beaver”, Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, and Marilyn Monroe are dancing in my head to Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock” when thinking about those “Happy Days”.   On the other hand, the Korean War took place from 1950 to 1953, segregation divided schools and the threat of Communism kept a sizable portion of the country awake at night.

For Marcus Messner (Logan Lerman), his task at hand was not to contemplate these themes of the day but instead, travel from Newark, N.J. to Ohio and begin his studies – via a scholarship - at Winesburg College in 1951.    With a strong working-class background and an intellectually curious persona, Marcus asks insightful questions in the classroom and hits the books very hard, but his upbringing did not prepare him for some of the school’s customs, his unsupportive roommates, an overbearing dean, and most of all, a gorgeous, whip smart coed named Olivia Hutton (Sarah Gadon).   While working at the library on a random weekday evening, Marcus cannot concentrate as Olivia sits at a nearby table and reads her textbooks, while her right leg casually swings back and forth for - seemingly - hours.

Writer/director James Schamus’ wonderfully-crafted film is a story about boy-meets-girl, but Marcus and Olivia’s courtship sails in trying waters due to issues of sexual repression and mental illness.  In 1951, these matters were more problematic, because sexual repression was more prevalent and mental illness was less understood.

It is easily understood, however, that Schamus encourages the audience to truly discover the key characters’ motivations, dispositions and behaviors with the film’s purposely relaxed pacing.  He takes his time with the material and features several scenes with extended one-on-one conversations with Marcus and his mother (Linda Emond), Dean Caudwell (Tracy Letts) and Olivia.   The pacing may be relaxed, but the dialogue of ideas between the leads carries a great deal of gravitas, as Marcus attempts to sift through new relationships and experiences.  Although Ohio is 500 miles from Newark, it might as well be 5 million, and his only support, his only life raft, his only comfort is Olivia, but ironically, Marcus only partially understands her story.

Olivia – a beautiful, blonde-haired, fair-skinned French literature major – sports a cool, calm temperament, because she knows that she is the smartest person in any room. Gadon’s Olivia masterfully conveys this by always directly addressing Marcus with a quiet intensity when - for example - exclaiming her love of escargots or explaining portions of her sorted history with the hope that he fills in the blanks.  Marcus usually doesn’t catch on due to his naivety.  This frustrates Olivia, but their connection is real and loving, and as audience member, I found their relationship easy to champion despite their differences.  Credit Gadon and Lerman for their layered performances and on-screen chemistry and credit Schamus for fostering these lovely moments of conversation and attraction.

This is a picture which wraps itself in the genuine sights and sounds of the collegiate experience.  The leadership delivers their authority with fond odes of tradition, rules and attendance slips, amongst the lush green grounds, beautiful courtyards, formal classrooms, and a sober chapel.  The film not only conveys a picturesque setting but offers careful droplets of personal lighting for Olivia and Marcus.  We see gentle glows of Olivia in the aforementioned library and similar glimmerings of the two in a French restaurant and also in an emotional dream sequence which captures the hopes and daydreams of true connection.

“Indignation” is a film that sneaks up on us.  The movie lulls and nurtures us into this rocky lullaby and discovery of first love but develops into something more, something important and then resonates with deep thoughts of Marcus and Olivia’s precious connection…and our own happy days.  (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.

Don't Think Twice - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

Don't Think Twice‘Don’t Think Twice’ takes a serious look at improv comedy  

Writer/director:  Mike Birbiglia

Starring: Mike Birbiglia, Keegan-Michael Key, Gillian Jacobs, Tami Sagher, Chris Gethard, and Kate Micucci


“Don’t Think Twice” – Have you ever attended an improv show?   I have been a few times over the last 10 years, and I always come away feeling very impressed with the entire experience.   Now, the performers seem to have the most difficult jobs, because they need to devise funny material – on the spot – based upon random audience suggestions and work in concert with their comedic brothers and sisters for 90 minutes or so.


Not easy.


“Don’t Think Twice” is a drama about a fictional, NYC improv troupe called The Commune, and although the film captures funny moments – especially on-stage – it is much more about the industry’s challenges and the comedians’ struggles.


Again, not easy.


The movie effectively opens with a shot of six empty chairs placed on-stage, and they represent the six Commune players – Miles (Mike Birbiglia), Jack (Keegan-Michael Key), Samantha (Gillian Jacobs), Lindsay (Tami Sagher), Allison (Kate Micucci), and Bill (Chris Gethard) – who are about to start a show.   Backstage, this tightknit group of 30-somethings rev each other up, and then everyone touches an inanimate “good luck bear” – for, of course, good luck – before racing onto the stage.


In their opening and subsequent performances, writer/director Mike Birbiglia and cinematographer Joe Anderson turn the camera into a seventh person.  The film’s Steadicam moves effortlessly around and in between the comics as they perform, and the result gives the movie audience a unique and pleasing perspective.  We seem to move around the stage with the six actors who dream up their immediate improv ideas, and the effect best resembles a smaller-scaled version of Martin Scorsese’s camerawork of The Rolling Stones in the concert film, “Shine a Light” (2008).


Now, The Rolling Stones are megastars, but The Commune players are not.  While they deliver sparkling and hilarious jokes, skits, stories, and quips worthy of huge paydays, the big jobs – like “Weekend Live!” (a sketch comedy show that best resembles “Saturday Night Live”) - are extremely few and far between.   Scoring a “Weekend Live!” cast member spot is like winning a golden ticket to Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory.  Until one wins such a “lottery”, an improv comic probably deals with difficult financial plights.  In the film, they wait tables, struggle to make rent, receive monetary help from parents, and sometimes live off a diet of hummus and chips, and Birbiglia captures all of this in an organic way through their daily trials and tribulations.


In one particular, telling scene, Miles runs into an old friend from high school, Liz (Maggie Kemper).  Like Miles, Liz is in her mid-30s, but unlike him, she has most of her life together.  She works internationally, dresses professionally and is well-spoken.  Meanwhile, Miles, unfortunately, seems trapped in a time warp since his early 20s, and his predicament is almost entirely due to his profession’s financial limitations.  A one point, Liz stops by Miles’ apartment but very clearly states that she will not stay overnight at “his dorm”, and her description of his place is 100 percent accurate.


Despite money problems, these comedians are best of friends and a family.  Family sticks together through the best and worst of times, but in this case, the best and worst of times can occur on the same day, every day. The best is when they write, practice and perform together, and the worst is the remainder of each day.  In fact, as the movie states, there are three rules of improv, and the second rule applies to on and off-stage events: “It’s all about the group.”


This second rule is gravely tested, however, when one Commune player might find a taste of serious success, and the reaction from the other comics is at the heart of Birbiglia’s film.  The results are a fascinating look at a figurative family of human beings who learn life’s chief rule: it isn’t fair.   With Birbiglia’s years of firsthand improv experience, “Don’t Think Twice” fairly and successfully depicts the joys and troubles of the performers, and we learn the hard way that conjuring up funny material might actually be the easiest part of their job.  (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.

An interview with "Indignation" director James Schamus by Jeff Mitchell

James Schamus owns an extensive list of impressive credits.  He wrote “The Ice Storm” (1997), co-wrote “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” (2000) and produced “Brokeback Mountain” (2005) and “Suffragette” (2015), and now, he directed his first feature film, “Indignation” (2016).  

Indignation“Indignation” is a superbly-crafted drama about boy-meets-girl on an Ohio college campus in 1951, and Mr. Schamus – who also wrote the screenplay based upon the novel by Philip Roth – stopped in Phoenix and found some time to sit down and speak with the Phoenix Film Festival about his new movie.


“Indignation” opens on Friday, Aug. 5 and stars Logan Lerman, Sarah Gadon and Tracy Letts.


PFF: “Indignation” is a story about boy-meets-girl, and it takes place in 1951, when sexual repression was more prevalent and mental illness was less understood.  In 2016, do you look back at this film and think - as a society - that we have come a long way or believe that we really have not changed much at all?


JS:  I wish the answer was the former, not the latter.  I think things have changed decidedly, and “Indignation” is a story very specific to its time.  Our young hero, Marcus (Lerman), has - by any young man’s standards in many eras - a fabulous first date but is thrown in a way that a lot of young people today would find very odd and old-fashioned. 


On the other hand, the denouement of that interaction and the way Olivia’s (Gadon) part in it is punished by a social structure which keeps trotting out an age-old rhetoric – in this case, a kind of slut-shaming and blame-gaming – it is remarkable to me that it is very much the culture right now. 


It was tricky.  We have a main character, a protagonist, who I hope we really empathize with and identify with, and I love this kid, but Marcus is also clueless.  He does not read the evidence in front of him of what this young woman, Olivia, has actually gone through.   That was a tough balancing act.


PFF:  I really appreciate the movie’s pacing.  You took your time with the material, and many times the film features extended conversations between two characters.  Was the pacing a partial-ode to movies of that time, or did you wish to highlight the dynamics of the characters and their relationships?


JS:  It is more of the latter.  I was really focused on how to stay as close to these characters as I could and let the emotions sneak up on you.   In fact, films from the 50s may not be edited as quickly in our own “ADD-era” now.   The flow of this film is really paced to the emotions of the characters and their own journeys.  I think for the emotional payoff to (work), we really needed to be able to sit with these folks and to see what they are going through.


PFF: Marcus is Jewish, and I was bracing for a difficult anti-Semitic struggle that thankfully never came.  Is this consistent with the novel?


JS:  Yes, we took from the book…what we took from the book.  I would say that there was this kind of pervasive structural and gently-put anti-Semitism.  This is still an era when there were quotas for Jewish students in many major universities, and there were real estate covenants and neighborhoods that would not allow Jews to buy property or homes or join clubs.  This was all part of that era, and Dean Caudwell (Letts) is replicating some of those attitudes but in a very seemingly non-personal way.  The dean is not a raging anti-Semite, but the anti-Semitism was structural.  It was present and pervasive, but it was not always personal. 


PFF:  The film does an excellent job of capturing the first day on a college campus, such as when Marcus walks into his dorm for the first time or signs-in at the front desk.   Those can be exciting - but also anxiety-filled - times, and these scenes took me back to my first day of college.  Based on your college experience, could you relate to those first-day scenes as well? 


JS:  I hope that everybody sees something of themselves with Marcus, because he is trying.  He is trying so hard, (but) he makes that detour, when he discovers something in himself that wasn’t planned.  He’s thrown off by that, by Olivia, by the dean, by his roommates, and by everybody, and I hope as you enter that whirlwind, you really are feeling as if you identify with that character.      


PFF:  At one point, Marcus pursues Olivia by standing outside her window for hours or watching her dad drop her off at the dorm, however, she was still receptive to his advances.   Do you think Olivia’s acceptance of his behavior was due to the time period or because of her general nature? 


JS:  On the set, I always used to say to Sarah Gadon, “Remember, Olivia is smarter than Marcus.”  


She gets that Marcus is lost.  He just doesn’t have anywhere else to go at that point, emotionally, mentally and physically, and she gets it.  She’s a lost soul herself. 


PFF: “Indignation” is your (feature film) directorial debut.  Now that the movie is complete, what are you most proud of and what were a couple key learnings from your experience?


JS:  It’s funny, because the learning experiences are the things that I most proud of.   It is not for me to pass judgment on what worked or did not.  I know enough to separate myself from that level of engagement.  To me, it was different from writing or producing (by) working with actors. 


I’ve never done that before, and it’s just a tremendous privilege to spend days and days with people where you are really centered on emotion and gesture and voice and tone.  It’s very specific work, and you are not telling somebody what to do, because that doesn’t work as a director.  Rather, create an environment that the actors need to do their best work and (have them) surprise you.  I was course-correcting a lot - as one should - but I was not trying to reign in or pre-negotiate the outcome of each scene.  I wanted (the actors) to be as surprised as they could be, so I – and the viewer – can be surprised too.


PFF:  I came away from this film with a message that a connection of the heart is special, vitally important, precious, and fragile.  Are there ways that we can recognize these connections in the moment and maybe hold on to them a little tighter?


JS:  I hope the movie is a reminder of that.  You do need to try your best in recognizing it when it’s happening.

Suicide Squad - Movie Review by Kaely Monahan

Suicide SquadThe Noble Villain: The Anti-Heroes Rise in Suicide Squad


By Kaely Monahan


Allegedly, Suicide Squad did some reshoots after the lackluster audience response to Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice. Whether or not those reshoots bettered the film is up for debate, but the final edit is satisfactory. It certainly flows much better than Batman V Superman. And it also has some surprising depth for a “shoot ‘em up” movie.


Directed by David Ayer and filled to the brim with star-studded talent, Suicide Squad takes the most iconic villains of the DC world and throws them into a loose gang manipulated by the U.S. government..


Will Smith plays the dry, anti-hero Deadshot. Margot Robbie is the demented yet sensual Harley Quinn; Jared Leto plays the Joker with a manic edge. His version of the character doesn’t conflict with Heath Ledger’s rendition; rather Leto’s Joker feels more insane whereas Ledger’s was darker and more depressing.


Viola Davis is a powerhouse presence as Amanda Waller who heads the squad. Her performance cannot be praised enough. While all the acting was strong in this film, Davis brought an edge and gravitas that is downright chilling. Her character is more frightening than anyone of the labeled “bad guys.”


Which brings us to one of the major themes in the film—what makes a villain? Ostensibly, the “villains” are the heroes Suicide Squad. Whether they want to be or not. We are meant to sympathize with them, embrace them, love them. A lot of time is spent humanizing Smith’s character, who is a father. It is his daughter who motivates him—and who gets him captured. She’s determined to see the good in him—even though he’s a hitman for hire. The lines between good and evil are thoroughly blurred with him.


Harley Quinn is an example of someone descending into mental illness. Once a psychiatrist she falls in love with the Joker and is willing to do anything for him—even though it’s clear he abuses her psychologically. There’s a whole film waiting right there to be explored and is only briefly touched upon in this film. But again, here is someone we can feel sympathy towards. She is manipulated and essentially tortured by the Joker. He makes her crazy and ultimately she is “more dangerous” than him.


The other members of the squad are also given brief backgrounds, and again each story is designed to manipulate your emotions. These are not good people. They murder and brutalize and commit heinous crimes. But you still feel for them.


Back to Davis’ character. She is cold, ruthless, and unstoppable. Her control over the meta-human villains is absolute, and she flaunts that power. Her cold brutality is even more frightening than the insanity of Harley. As Deadshot points out, there is a sort of code among thieves. Amanda Waller doesn’t subscribe to it. Sort of like Big Brother—or perhaps Big Sister—on steroids, Waller represents all the fears America has of its own government: surveillance, control, and creating a feeling of helplessness. Your life is not your own.


However, big government (and by extension, modern warfare, science, and technology) rub up against instinctual human fears: magic and the unknown.


The ultimate villain is the Enchantress—an ancient witch—played by Cara Delevigne. She represents nature and man’s inability to control it. Once worshiped by ancient humans, she is released on the world—by Mankind, or more accurately a female archeologist, bumbling about “where she shouldn’t be.” Read into that what you will.


Waller is determined to harness The Enchantress’ power, but she loses that control. (As in Jurassic Park, she didn’t respect the power of nature, and nature lashes back as an all-consuming, unstoppable force.)


The Enchantress laments the loss of human worship and decides to take over the world by creating a magical machine. The motivation behind this being humans now worship machines.


On the surface Suicide Squad is a romp in the dirt with some diverse characters thrown together in a misadventure. But dig a little deeper and there are interesting questions to explore.


The film seems to hesitate to cast its anti-heroes as true villains—even though in truth they are rather despicable. It really makes you question what a villain is—and perhaps what is our society’s definition of a bad guy. (Is it good to sympathize with killer sociopaths?) Still humor and character building go a long way of humanizing even the worse of society, and in the end Suicide Squad does just that. And while it is a bit clumsy in its storytelling and seems to veer all over the place in tone, it is still more entertaining than the lamentable Batman V Superman.


  • Kaely Monahan is a journalist, graduate of City University London and the creator of Popcorn Fan Film Reviews. Follow her @PopcornFans and @KaelyMonahan.


Suicide Squad - Movie Review by Monte Yazzie

Suicide SquadSuicide Squad  

Director: David Ayers

Starring: Will Smith, Margot Robbie, Jai Courtney, Viola Davis, Joel Kinnaman, Jay Hernandez, Cara Delevingne, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Karen Fukuhara, Adam Beach, and Jared Leto

Warner Bros. Pictures

123 Minutes


It’s fun to cheer for the bad guy. Don’t get me wrong watching Spider-Man swing into action to fight Doc Ock or reading about The Green Lantern meeting archenemy Sinestro always makes it fun to have a hero to cheer behind. But I couldn’t help but wonder what the comic book universe would look like if Doctor Doom or Kingpin got the best of the hero. In comic books it’s inevitable that these super villains would eventually have their day to shine in some incarnation of a long running print story but in film the superhero/comic book movie villain rarely finds the finish line first.


DC Comics looks to amend this by bringing their anti-hero covert-ops “Suicide Squad” into the mix. Directed by David Ayers, who helmed the 2014 war tank film “Fury” and the gritty 2012 cop drama “End of Watch”, “Suicide Squad” is unlike the typical comic book movie fair audiences are becoming wholly accustomed with throughout the year. No, it’s not a dark and solemn affair like DC’s last outing “Batman v. Superman” or is it a composition of responsibility and morals like “Captain America: Civil War”. This is a film that is trying very hard to have fun and be playful, it’s a film that is trying to make the viewer forget about the constraints levied upon heroes in these types of films.


Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) is a conniving, unmerciful leader of a secret government agency tasked with protecting the world from new, powerful threats that have come in the wake of the emergence of people like Superman and Batman. This super villain task force, composed of the worst of the worst incarcerated criminals, is sent into action when the odds are the most insurmountable. Lead by a super soldier named Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman) the group is composed of a deadly marksman named Deadshot (Will Smith), the Joker’s girlfriend Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), a fire wielding gangster named Diablo (Jay Hernandez), an wise-cracking Australian named Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney), a sewer dwelling monster known as Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), a samurai sword swinging woman named Katana (Karen Fukuhara), and an ancient witch known as Enchantress (Cara Delevingne). How will these villains fill the shoes of the heroes?


Mr. Ayer doesn’t waste much time making his impact known, the style of “Suicide Squad” is frantic from the opening moments and the design has an energetic neon grittiness. The villainous group is quickly introduced via a montage of capers gone wrong that result in their capture. Mr. Ayers does not pull any punches during these moments, providing a few surprises for the DC fan.


While all of this spectacle and flair provides the film with an early, much needed breath of fresh air it unfortunately doesn’t last very long. Aside from some ingenious character introductions and the promise of a few good action sequences to come, the story lacks in any kind of structure or substance to make it interesting from scene to scene. Just as everything starts to get comfortable the pace changes, or simply restarts. Yes, everything remains quick and somewhat exciting but the fluidity is missing between the story and characters. For instance, Deadshot and Harley Quinn are introduced and then needlessly introduced again later in the film and at another point an action packed scene is basically redone with different characters, it all serves no other purpose than lazily leading the narrative from plot point to plot point. It’s hard to even distinguish a memorable action sequence, most of the memorable scenes happen in humorous or quiet moments between the characters.


The cast is a large group of recognizable faces. Some are really good, some are present, and some are completely overlooked. Will Smith is given a majority of the screen time, unfortunately he never completely sheds the heroic persona his characters are known for and this is no fault to Mr. Smith but rather the script that consistently portrays Deadshot, an assassin, with a significant amount of redeeming qualities. Margot Robbie is next in line for screen time and she provides a bubbly, demented character. Mrs. Robbie completely owns many of the scenes that she is in. Much talk was made of Jared Leto’s portrayal of the Joker, interesting would be a great description of the performance. Mr. Leto works his way into something unique with the character. Viola Davis is perfectly cast as the operator of this task force, stoically poised and on the verge of a killing spree she is the perfect complement to these characters.


It’s unfortunate that Mr. Ayers doesn’t allow the bad guys to simply be bad. There is a constant reminder that the viewer should see these characters differently, take for instance the hero music themes that play in the background during group shots. Why can’t bad guys just be bad guys?


“Suicide Squad” struggles to find a balance for its villains. While it has some very fun moments and some good performances, there is unfortunately few times where it succeeds in accomplishing the lofty mission of letting villains lead the charge. It can be fun to cheer for the bad guy, if you can find one.


Monte’s Rating

2.75 out of 5.00

Nerve - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

Nerve‘Nerve’ taps into our social media fears  

Directed by: Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman

Written by: Jessica Sharzer

Starring: Emma Roberts, Dave Franco, Emily Meade, Miles Heizer, and Juliette Lewis


“Nerve” – “Anything is possible, if you’ve got enough nerve.” – J.K. Rowling


Vee (Emma Roberts), a high school senior, does not believe that anything is possible, because she plays it safe.  Now, she studies hard and takes lots of terrific photos as a photographer on the yearbook staff but is too shy to speak to her crush, J.P. (Brian Marc), a star on the football team.  Vee also applied to a prestigious California art school, and they accepted her into their program, but since her mother wants her to live at home in Staten Island, she has little intention to move across the country. Ironically, her best friend, Sydney (Emily Meade), shows no fear and will try anything, but the more brazen that she is, the less adventurous Vee becomes.   Sydney seems to suck up all of Vee’s oxygen, and they – unfortunately – are both comfortable with this arrangement.


On the other hand, directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman suddenly introduce Vee to a dangerous online game called Nerve, and she immediately taps into her unused reservoir of courage in a sometimes thrilling, sometimes thought-provoking teenage drama.


As the movie explains it, Nerve is “a game of truth or dare but minus the truth.”


This online community is connected by cell phones, and the participants choose to be players or watchers.  The players are the “doers”, and they attempt various dares that the game proposes.  The watchers, in turn, follow them, like on Twitter or other forms of social media.  In a twisted way, this movie-version of social media is perilously social.


In the beginning, we realize that this intriguing concoction has the chance to simmer, but most likely we figure that Nerve will boil over and create a dangerous mess for anyone logging in as a player.   As the movie progresses, Joost and Schulman set up enjoyable madness for both the audience and watchers to experience, while Vee ventures on her intense life-experience journey in just one evening.


Vee’s interest in the game soars when she meets Ian (Dave Franco).  Since Vee has not dated, she gladly follows this “knight in shining armor” (dressed in a leather motorcycle jacket and jeans) from dare to dare among the nighttime lights of The Big Apple.  Roberts is very likeable here, and so is Franco, primarily because Ian is the catalyst to Vee spreading her wings.  Even though Ian possesses a sense of danger - and most likely hiding something very dark – Vee experiences joy and embraces an adrenaline potion mixed with equal parts of physical risks and girlish excitement.  We approve of her feeling alive but also fret with parental, big brother or big sister anxiety, as the hazards of the game grow.


Since Vee and her friends attend high school, the film splashes in a purposely adolescent pool, and the traditional teen worry of popularity stands on the high dive for everyone to see.  In this case, popularity transcends high school and graduates into this obsessing social app.  “Nerve” gets visually creative with this concept, as neon-colored, animated flags pop up high above the urban mass of buildings in New York City with screen login names.  Hundreds of virtual flags in the sky deliver some uneasiness, as we see the numbers of players and watchers multiply, while Vee, Sydney and many, many others take on dares such as mooning a crowd, kissing a stranger or real dangerous stunts like placing a ladder in between two buildings – 10 stories up – and walking across.


The tension methodically and effectively climbs as the movie zips forward, and the famous saying, “It is all fun and games, until someone gets hurt” repeated over and over in my head.


Another real fear popped into my head, when the movie explores the handing over of our personal information to an online source.  During a very uneasy sequence – which only lasted a few seconds – the film demonstrates how the Nerve game pulls our info from many online places that we hold dear.  With all of the nail-biting, treacherous challenges which Vee and Ian attempt, these few seconds of data mining by the Nerve game raise the hair on the back of our necks and deliver the scariest moment in the film.


Generally speaking, “Nerve” is an effective thriller but trips up in the third act via a clunky ending that tries too hard to wrap up its sweeping ideas of social acceptance and the swiftness of viral, online phenomenons.  At one point, Vee’s mom (Juliette Lewis) frets about her little girl and ends up conversing with a group of computer hackers.  What?


Well, the movie still leaves a pretty memorable mark.


Will you enjoy “Nerve”?


As J.K. Rowling stated, “Anything is possible.”


I would reply, “There’s a decent chance.”  (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.


Don't Think Twice - Cast Interview by Kaely Monahan

Dont Think TwiceFailure is the key to success Q&A with Don’t Think Twice cast

By Kaely Monahan


Comedy doesn’t just encourage failure. It requires it. That’s what comedian and actor Mike Birbiglia says. His newest film Don’t Think Twice (coming in July) deals specifically with the dynamic between comedy and failure.


The film stars Birbiglia, Keegan-Michael Key, Gillian Jacobs, Chris Gethard, Kate Micucci and Tami Sagher who all are a part of a New York improv group the Commune. Tight-knit, hilarious, sometimes scathing, each of the characters is striving towards an ultimate goal of success.


Filmed with a sort of documentary-fly-on-the-wall feeling, Birbiglia strives to recreate the magic of live long-form improv on the screen. The film pulls from the experiences of what it’s like to try and break out as a comedian and be successful or not.


Birbiglia and fellow comedian-actor Chris Gethard recently shared their experience in a group interview of making the film and life as a comedian at Changing Hands Bookstore in Phoenix.


The long-form improv art has only been around for about 60 years. Awareness of the craft is-generally—not that broad. Improv is often associated with shows like Whose Line is It Anyway? Or improv games like freeze tag. However, it has greater depth than that.


Birbiglia: In a lot of ways I like to think of it as these are improvised plays happening in the moment. There’s something really special about it. As Sam says in the movie improv is an art form unto itself.


Birbiglia not only acted in the film but he wrote and directed it as well. However, as a comedian, he approached script writing in a different way than most screenwriters.


Birbiglia: My writing process is very feedback based. So when I do stand up, I did my “Thank God For Jokes” show the one I did just off Broadway, I did it in a hundred cities—and Mesa Arts Center was on that tour—I listen to the audience. I try to understand what’s connecting what’s not connecting. And then rewrite, rewrite, rewrite…


I had about 10 readings at my house. I had Chris and Tami Sagher, who is in the movie, and other writers…I invited to read the script with me…and give critical thoughts… Over the course of that process, we arrived at a script that we were really proud of. And then once we got on set you hire five brilliant actors like this, I always say you know whatever comes out and feels most real is what I want on screen. And so don’t feel compelled to be married to these words verbatim—though they’re pretty good. If you need something to fall back on, they’ll work.


In fact, Birbiglia encouraged improv on set. He said that they would do a take verbatim and then go back and paly with it.


Birbiglia: Ultimately I wanted these guys to be comfortable saying kind of whatever came out. There’s this great improvised moment that Chris has where we’re improvising that eulogy scene where we’re like Jack was a great man. And we all have these things to say about it and then I go, ‘His body’s not in there!’ And then Chris improvised ‘It’s his headshot!’ And when he improvised that I broke down laughing.


Gethard: Obviously with the content of this movie and Mike’s background as a comedian I think he was better than most people I’ve worked with in a director’s setting, as far as going ‘Great we got the thing that’s on the page who wants to push it a little bit further? Anybody got anything else? And just like to push it through to a place we’re not seeing. And I think that obviously is a very smart call.


One of the dangers of trying to make a movie about live comedy is that you’re trying to emulate that in a way that will just totally ring false—so I think the idea that Mike consistently pushed the cast and crew to just stay one, two more takes, and just find something else; find some variation on this, some extension of this. I think that kept that feeling of live comedy in a way that was absolutely necessary for people to not like call foul on this movie for trying to represent a live experience.


When it comes to being a comedian, both actors agreed that the most difficult aspect is being performance mode at all times.


Gethard: There’s a weird loneliness that comes with being a comedian. Especially stand up. I think, even with improvisers, there’s like these certain moments of truth where you feel really, really connected to audiences and that’s when you’re on stage, and I think there’s something definitely inside the personality of a person who wants to be a comedian that’s looking to connect at all times and that’s where the adrenaline rushes in their lives comes in.


But I think outside of performing you’re someone who’s analyzing life and thinking about it and kind of observing so much that in my opinion in can make you feel sort of like on the outside looking in of like normal standard—I get very jealous of my friends who have like traditional families and nine to five jobs.


Birbiglia: You’re always on duty because you’re in a constant state of observation. So that’s one of the challenges of it and I think one of other challenges is that whether we like it or not it’s a profession that requires failure…. You need to know what doesn’t work to know what works…And failure is hard. There’s no way around… Bombing on stage never feels great. You feel judged. You feel alone. But then when it works it’s transcendent.


Constant throughout the film is the struggle between chasing “the dream” and making a living. For some of the characters they achieve the highest success, while others never make it.


Birbiglia: One of the things I wrote on my wall as an inspirational line with the film is, ‘What happens when life gets in the way of dreams?’ That’s a question that I don’t know the answer to. But the movie tries to take a stab at what it feels like.


Gethard: I know that in my experience I was working a lot of freelance gigs and cobbling together rent while I was also trying to be a comedian and I actually had a shrink. And the shrink stepped in and was like, ‘You gotta go for it ‘cause you’re driving yourself nuts. You have to figure out if you’re going to go all in on this or if eventually you’re going to walk away from this. You need to give yourself no other option and only make money off of things that you actually want to be doing.’ –And I was like I’ll starve, (she said) well then you’ll starve and then you can move on. You can be at peace with that. And it was great advice although it was scary. I went for about a year under that advice and then I hit the first point in my adult life where if I had to pay my rent that day I wouldn’t have been able to.


Don’t Think Twice comes out August 5.



  • Kaely Monahan is an entertainment reporter and creator of the film review podcast Popcorn Fan Film Reviews.


Star Trek Beyond - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

Star Trek Beyond‘Star Trek Beyond’ does not go beyond or even reach expectations  

Directed by: Justin Lin


Starring:  Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Karl Urban, Simon Pegg, Zoe Saldana, John Cho, Anton Yelchin, Idris Elba, and Sofia Boutella


“Star Trek Beyond” – The Star Trek phenomenon is a beloved science fiction entity with five television series and 13 feature-length films under its collective celestial belt.  Personally, I am a pretty serious Star Trek fan.  Now, I have never dressed up in a Federation uniform for a Comic-Con convention, but – admittedly – I have donned a Jean-Luc Picard costume for at least two Halloweens.  Those, however, are stories for another time.  I enjoy Star Trek for many reasons, and the crews’ comraderies and the engaging narratives that successfully balance logic, science and humanity are the two central motives for my fondness of the series and films.


“Star Trek Beyond” – like the last two movies – completely captures the charisma, tension and comedic interplay between its crew members.  Catching up with Kirk (Chris Pine), Spock (Zachary Quinto), Uhura (Zoe Saldana), Bones (Karl Urban), Scotty (Simon Pegg), Sulu (John Cho), and Chekov (Anton Yelchin) on the big screen is a wonderful, warm reunion between fans and characters which should happen more frequently than once every three or four years.


Unfortunately, director Justin Lin crashes a surprisingly lackluster and – at times – nonsensical story coupled with haphazard visuals and some bad judgement.  In spite of the wonderful crew chemistry and a couple spectacular sequences, this film disappoints by not offering an engaging narrative on few levels, but let’s level set.


The year is 2263, and the USS Enterprise is traveling in deep space on the third year of a five-year mission.  The crew is adjusting to their lengthy journey but also looking forward to some rest and relaxation on the Yorktown, a highly-sophisticated space station nearby to Parts Unknown to us, the audience.   The Yorktown is an impressive self-run facility which has the urban density of a Xandarian city in “Guardians of the Galaxy” (2014) with the vulnerable glassiness of Elysium in “Elysium” (2013).


The Enterprise is docked for seemingly five minutes, when they are called back out into space to rescue the crew of a crashed ship on a desolate planet.   Life becomes massively problematic for Kirk and the Enterprise, when everyone needs to abandon the ship and escape to the same desolate planet.   The antagonist opposite the Enterprise – and who caused their current strife - is a warlike, malevolent alien named Krall (Idris Elba), and he desperately searches for an ancient artifact that Kirk has in his possession.


Our Trek heroes are separated on this seemingly inhabitable mass of dormant, volcanic rock and must use their Starfleet training with limited communications to find one another, get off the planet and hopefully stop Krall and his unspecified plans.


Five writers (including Pegg) penned lots of entertaining dialogue between the leads, including a smart decision of pairing up Spock and Bones, as they trudge across the strange terrain and bicker and bond to the delight of both fans and nonfans.  Meanwhile, Scotty meets a technically-savvy warrior named Jaylah (Sofia Boutella).  She is a solid addition to the cast and humorously and repeatedly refers to Scotty as “Montgomery Scotty”.


One of the problems, however, is that no one can really infer who Krall is or his motivation outside of wanting this ancient artifact.  The script does not give us much opportunity to learn about him or his backstory throughout much of the picture.  Now, he absolutely does a destructive number on the Enterprise with his can opener-like, swarming tiny ships known as “bees”.  We also know that he is menacing, but he is unfamiliar in the Trek universe, and the script hardly devotes any time to reveal what makes him tick.


When the movie does reveal some mysteries from “behind the curtain”, it unfortunately feels preposterous, as the writers suffered from a case of trying to be too smart for their own good.   His motivations are not terribly believable either, and when a science-fiction movie’s villain is flawed, the overall product will suffer in some way.


Speaking of ways, many times I lost my way during the dizzying action sequences.  The designs of the Yorktown and the catacombs of the fractured Enterprise are impressively intricate, but they are also overwhelming.  As Lin’s cameras spin, dart and track through countless half-destroyed Enterprise hallways and the Yorktown’s wildly sophisticated urban structures, railways and passageways, I found myself losing perspective of where I was.  Lin does not explain how the Enterprise crew and Krall’s team are supposed to physically move from points A to B to C to D.  Instead, Lin just presents constant movement through a never-ending abundance of technology and alchemy, and so these colossal, time-consuming scenes lose their sense of tension and danger.  To put it simply, they were over-engineered.


The one exception is Krall’s initial attack on the Enterprise.  It transfers extraordinary amounts of helplessness from the screen to the audience, as his swarm looks like vicious nanotechnology attacking on a grand scale.  Regrettably, there are plot holes which puzzle on grand scales as well.  For instance, Jaylah found a crashed ship in which she now calls home and keeps it invisible to Krall, but he lived on the planet long before she arrived, so how would he not know that it exists?


Also, the Enterprise crew may have found a way to battle Krall’s bees, but their methods do not make any logical sense, and they rival Jeff Goldblum’s (character’s) inane computer virus idea in “Independence Day” (1996).   There are certainly more moments like the previously-mentioned two, and overall, the film seems too contrived, as the plot plods along from scene to scene on the planet’s surface and during some limited time in space. “Star Trek Beyond” feels like amateur hour, and that is ironic when considering the film’s extravagant heaps of special effects.


There are a few special human moments, such as the tributes to the late Leonard Nimoy and Anton Yelchin.  Also, during the movie’s first 10 minutes, Kirk mentions that he wonders about his life’s purpose and offers thoughts about his deceased father.  For some reason, Lin and company never revisit this seemingly important setup for Kirk, but my guess is…it will be part of the next film.


Good or bad, I’ll certainly spend two hours to see it, just like this movie.


That’s what Star Trek fans do. (1.5/4 stars)


Cafe Society - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

Cafe SocietyAllen’s ‘Café Society’ is not a golden film, but it is a valuable one  

Written/directed by:  Woody Allen

Starring:  Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Steve Carell, Blake Lively, Corey Stoll, and Parker Posey


“Café Society” – During woeful times, Americans tend to turn to movies for escape, and the Great Depression is a prime example.  This marriage between big screen entertainment and the economically-challenged general public soared in the 1930’s, and it is no coincidence that Hollywood’s Golden Age began during this time.


Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg) – an eager 20-something - is experiencing woe of his own.  Wanting to leave his father’s struggling business in New York City, he packs his bags and looks to Hollywood for hope.  Actually, Bobby is looking for his Uncle Phil (Steve Carell) for hope, help and a job, or at least some contacts, to start a new life in the City of Angels.   Phil is a wealthy and connected Hollywood agent, and after some prodding, he hires Bobby as his assistant, and this young New Yorker immediately experiences the glitz and glamour of Tinsel Town.


Writer/director Woody Allen opens the door to this world in which everyone dresses for success and speaks at the top of their game with an “elevator speech” ripely prepared for anyone and everyone at a poolside party, a private film screening or a high-powered lunch.  Allen establishes and captures a clear sense of this tone with absolutely beautiful settings within the playgrounds of the rich and famous, and he also plays with colors and lighting.  For example, at one of Phil’s daytime events, everyone in attendance wears some form of yellow, gold or mustard, and at an evening event, the entire posh backyard environment carries a cool, but inviting, shade of electric blue.


The film is pleasing to the eye and so is a budding romance between Bobby and Phil’s secretary, Vonnie (Kristen Stewart).   Vonnie gives Bobby ample warning about her heart beating for another fella, but he does not surrender his efforts, and Allen captures some simple and sweet moments of an imperfect connection.   Allen’s writing connects during Bobby and Vonnie’s conversations and also between bit players and family members as well.  Bobby’s mother (Jeannie Berlin) and brother (Corey Stoll) are especially good and offer several comedic high points in the picture.


It is a little puzzling, however, that during the first half of the movie, Allen spends a significant amount of time on Bobby’s family back in New York, when the focus should be in Los Angeles.  The reason becomes clearer well into the second act, but the film suffers at times during the first hour, because it feels like meandering storytelling.   From a storytelling perspective, Allen takes up the narration, so his actual voice appears in the film, as well as his figurative one through the lead, Bobby.  Eisenberg successfully carries the director’s torch with this character’s combination of anxiety and hope towards a potential path of career and romantic attainment.  A budding career in California and soulful relationship with Vonnie could be in the cards, but they both will not be easy to reach.


Bobby’s brother-in-law quotes Socrates and says, “The unexamined life is not worth living, but the examined one is no bargain.”


For all the levity that the film brings, Allen slyly inserts emotional gravitas around this specific comment and offers something deeper than initially meets the eye.  One could argue that 2016 is a time of woe as well, and Allen’s film delivers some mild escapism and an unexpected reminder of an important life lesson.  “Café Society” may not be a golden film, but it is a valuable one.  (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.


Lights Out - Movie Review by Monte Yazzie

Lights OutLights Out  

Director: David F. Sandberg

Starring: Theresa Palmer, Gabriel Bateman, Alexander DiPersia, Maria Bello, and Billy Burke


Who’s afraid of the dark? It’s a fear that still motivates a genre of writers and filmmakers to create all manner of ghost, monster, stalker, demon that are living under the bed, inside the closet, or outside the front door. It motivated director David F. Sandberg to make one of the best short films in some time, a film that functions on the simple premise of lights on and lights off. “Lights Out” was the name of the short film and remains the name of the feature length studio film hitting theaters this weekend. And it’s sure to make a whole group of people think twice before they turn the lights out.


Martin (Gabriel Bateman) is a young boy living with his mother Sophie (Maria Bello), but everything isn’t all right. Whenever Martin turns off the lights a shadowy creature appears, when he turns the lights on it disappears. Every time he does this the creature gets closer and closer. This leads to Martin keeping the lights on and not sleeping while his mother continues to grow more distant and more consumed by her depression.


After Martin falls asleep in class, and his mother does not respond to calls to pick him up, his older sister Rebecca (Theresa Palmer) gets involved. Rebecca does not have a good relationship with her mother and wants to keep Martin away from her. Unfortunately this does not work out and Martin returns home with his mother and the closing grasp of the shadowy creature that lives in the dark.


If you are a horror movie fan there isn’t much here that you haven’t already seen, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. This is the kind of horror film that many people will love because it incorporates much of the same material that makes horror fun for general audiences; especially those that love a summer scare. “Lights Out” is a mix of effective jump scares, it offers a story that doesn’t hide the twists and turns that are coming up, and it provides an atmosphere that continuously plays with the expectations of the viewer. Still, while these techniques work very well within this specific film, the 80 minute running time helps immensely, they are also the reasons why the film quickly becomes a monotonous caricature of other films.


Again, this technique is nothing new in horror. Influence is important in keeping the genre fresh and finding new creative ways to make familiar material unique. The strongest influence for “Lights Out” is the simple scary movie premise of the fear of the dark and director David F. Sandberg, kudos to the production company for letting the creator of the short film direct the feature film, shows some accomplished skill in setting up a scare. A scene with a police officer shooting a gun at the creature is especially amusing and there are more scenes that are equally fun to watch.


Unfortunately the script is filled with head shaking character clichés and unoriginal setups that grow increasingly dull as the film progresses. As the origin unravels the film progresses into a third act that loses the entire earned atmosphere and effective frights that it incorporated early in the film. While there is nothing wrong with offering an explanation in a horror film sometimes it’s better to keep the monster in the dark, to let the monster retain some of the power that it holds over the story. “Lights Out” doesn’t do this and all the time spent crafting such a good monster is lost, taking with it all the scary strength. It’s unfortunate because there is a tremendous amount of quality material that could have been utilized to deepen the fear imposed by the creature, aspects associated with maternal qualities, the connection to mental illness, and the maturing child in peril are all places the script could have emphasized to provide the film with good structure without having to explain the monster.


“Lights Out” is the kind of horror film that many genre fans love to watch, it’s also the kind of horror film that many genre fans will be indifferent about, if not outright dislike. Still, there is a place for well-honed scares that serve no other purpose than to make someone jump out of their seat. And there is something to be said about a horror film that makes you, even for a small moment, question turning off the lights.


Monte’s Rating

3.00 out of 5.00

Absolutely Fabulous - Movie Review by Kaely Monahan

ab fabLulu and Lumely Remain Fabulous By Kaely Monahan


British comedy holds a unique place in the psyche of many Americans. The often dry, stodgy English pathos is up-ended by ridiculous circumstances, witty banter, and posh accents (at least to our ears). As such, it’s no surprise that Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie did “absolutely” well with American audiences.


The film more or less picks up where the beloved TV show left off. And don’t worry if you haven’t seen the original series, the film introduces you to Lulu (played by Lulu, birth name Marie McDonald McLaughlin Lawrie) and Patsy (Johanna Lumley)—two old birds who constellate around the fashion scene as PR reps. They’ve struck a bit of a dry spell and are looking for their next big client, who will ostensibly bring them back to the top so they can continue living their over the top lifestyles.


When it comes out that supermodel Kate Moss got rid of her PR person, Lulu and Patsy jockey to get her as a client. However, things don’t go according to plan as Lulu accidentally knocks the model into the Thames river during a fashion event. The beloved supermodel disappears, and Lulu and Patsy become the two most hated women in Britain, prompting them to flee the country to France.


There is actually a remarkable cast in this film including the ridiculously talent Mark Gatiss (one of the masterminds behind Sherlock and Doctor Who); Gwendoline Christie (Game of Thrones), Graham Norton, Jennifer Saunders, and of course, Kate Moss.


The film runs like a series of TV episodes stitched together. The plotline is stretched thin like a piece of canvas. However, Lulu and Lumley’s charm keeps the film going. Both women are hilarious and endearing. Neither of them shies away from crude jokes or exploring “taboo” subjects for older women. These are not neutered females going calming into dotage. Rather they are sexually alive, zestful powerhouses that aren’t afraid to be silly.


One of the best scenes in the whole film involves them getting high off weed and ending up in Lulu’s granddaughter’s room. Lumley even dons a ridiculous onesie nighty and parades about like a girl of 16.


The jokes keep coming and that’s what sustains the film. And it’s a good introduction to a classic TV series. For those who know and love the original show, the film will go one of two ways: you’ll either love it or hate it. Regardless, it’s great to see Lulu and Lumley together on screen once more.


  • Kaely Monahan is a journalist, graduate of City University London and the creator of Popcorn Fan Film Reviews. Follow her @PopcornFans and @KaelyMonahan


Captain Fantastic - Movie Review by Kaely Monahan

fantasticCaptain Fantastic is unexpectedly charming and delightfully entertaining By Kaely Monahan


It’s not another super hero movie. Captain Fantastic is about a man and his six children and their wild lives. They live sustainable lives out in the woods of Oregon that would make any modern eco-conscious hipster jealous. Viggo Mortensen stars as devoted father Ben. He teaches his children not only survival skills like hunting and gathering, but also martial arts and high intellectual concepts. This family derides the consumeristic world of 1970s America. (Instead of Christmas they celebrate Noam Chomsky Day.) The children are walking-brains that would make the rest of us feel lacking in intelligence.

Their idyllic lives are disrupted after finding out that their mother, Ben’s wife—(played by Kathryn Hahn), committed suicide. She was being treated for mental illness when it happened. Her parents—namely her father—tell Ben he is not welcome to come to her funeral. However after prompting from his children they hit the road on their bus named Steve and head to New Mexico.

The film is written and directed by Matt Ross, who is known for the addictive TV show American Horror Story and the side-splittingly funny Silicon Valley. Ross’ script and direction save this story from soapbox evangelization about the horrors of modern life, and turn it into a real study between living off the grid and living with it.

There’s a moment when one of the kids, Rellian (Nicholas Hamilton) sprains his wrist while rock climbing. Instead of rushing to help the boy, Ben essentially tells him to pull himself up by his bootstraps. It’s a moment that would make and modern parent cringe. However, Ben fully realizes later in the story that he has been putting his children in danger. It’s a hard realization and he is wracked with guilt and questions his entire life.

Captain Fantastic doesn’t shy away from exploring both the good and bad of society—be it on or off the grid. Yet the glue that holds this film and carries it to a brilliant conclusion are the actors. Mortensen is known for being highly selective in his film work. A bit of recluse himself, he seemed to inhabit Ben fully to the point where it was hard to separate the character from the actor.

Mortensen is one of those actors who reaches inside your soul and twists it with his performances. The cast is stacked with brilliant child actors as well including George MacKay (Pride, Defiance, and How I Live Now), Samantha Isler (Grey’s Anatomy and Supernatural) and Annalise Basso (Bedtime Stories and Oculus). Each child had personality and depth to them but their individual stories didn’t slow down the plot.

In all, Captain Fantastic is masterfully crafted and a worthy summer film.

  • Kaely Monahan is an entertainment reporter and creator of the film review podcast Popcorn Fan Film Reviews.


Captain Fantastic - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

fantasticFantastic is a perfect way to describe ‘Captain Fantastic’  

Written/directed:  Matt Ross

Starring:  Viggo Mortensen, George MacKay, Frank Langella, Ann Dowd, Kathryn Hahn, Steve Zahn, and Trin Miller


“Captain Fantastic” – According to the U.S. Department of Education, 3.4 percent of American children are homeschooled.  Over the years, advocates and opponents of the practice have enjoyed a healthy debate between its pros and cons, and from a layman’s perspective, I have always seen both sides of the argument.  In “Captain Fantastic”, Ben (Viggo Mortensen) and Leslie (Trin Miller) introduce their six children to the ultimate homeschooling curriculum by taking their entire family “off the grid” and living off the land in the Pacific Northwest.   Their views of education and parenting are certainly unique in the face of 2016’s creature comforts and luxuries, and writer/director Matt Ross delivers an emotional story in an appropriately organic way.


The movie does not begin fantastically but dangerously and viscerally in a primal display of nature’s order, namely, man over beast.  Ross dramatically and immediately knocks you back in your theatre seat and sets an early tone regarding this family’s living arrangements.  Now, rather than continuing to focus on the initial savagery, the camera – instead - lightly dots all over their camp in which three boys and three girls manage watering schedules, prepare meals and start campfires.  They orchestrate their work - accompanied by the film’s beautiful new age soundtrack (which frequently and welcomingly appears throughout the picture) - but these activities are balanced by later reveals of textbook learning, Zen-like discipline and physical training.   These children - ranging from (roughly) six to 18 - are living and breathing renaissance beings who impress us with their physical prowess, mastery of multiple languages and vast knowledge of abstract concepts and philosophies.


Ben and Leslie wanted to raise their kids in a completely natural and unspoiled environment.    Ross, in turn, introduces us to this family’s world and succeeds in placing the audience on a mental pendulum between deciding if this unprocessed lifestyle is actually good for the children or not.  Most of the time, I was fairly supportive of Ben and Leslie’s methods, and especially when the kids frequently displayed their inquisitive instincts and intelligence by – for example - critiquing the novel “Lolita” or explaining the “Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission” U.S. Supreme Court decision.  At one point, Ross adds Ben’s sister (Kathryn Hahn) and her family into the mix, and their contrasting, suburban inclusion helps give an ironic, healthy credence to Ben and Leslie’s nonconformist methods.


On the other hand, the eldest, Bo (George MacKay), suffers through a painfully awkward life lesson due to his extreme naivety of the outside world, and his episode will make every man shudder in embarrassment for him.  True doubt certainly creeps into Ben’s worldview and set of mores.  There is no denying, however, this family’s love and refreshing support for one other, and the effect is most impressive and ultimately pleasing.   The child actors offer convincing performances by bonding with their characters’ whip-smart personas and emotive cores.


The movie easily flows due to the kids’ believable efforts, but Mortensen’s terrific performance is central in harmonizing the picture with an earthy, grounded strength woven into an unorthodox point of view.   Ben is not infallible, however, and Ross smartly presents his vulnerability and struggles by literally placing him underneath a gorgeous waterfall and an average showerhead in helping him cope with two crises.   We see that Ben raises his children the best way that he knows but – even he – does not have all the answers.


I believe they call that parenting.


“Captain Fantastic” is a film bathed in eccentric thinking, but - at its core - is simply about love, kinship and family.  It strikes affecting chords with, admittedly, familiar themes but in a wholly unique narrative and into one of the most memorable and satisfying films of 2016.   (4/4 stars)


Ghostbusters - Movie Review by Monte Yazzie


Director: Paul Feig

Starring: Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, Kate McKinnon, Leslie Jones, and Chris Hemsworth


“Awful”. "Terrible". "Disappointed". These were the overwhelming sentiments from social media and entertainment sites concerning the trailer for the rebooted “Ghostbusters” film well before it was set to arrive in theaters. Things got worse as some criticized the film’s decision to utilize an all-female cast of lead characters. Cue the release of a poorly updated rendition of the Ray Parker Jr. theme song for this film, by none other than Fall Out Boy and Missy Elliot, and everything looked bleak for the reboot of the beloved 80’s film. Paul Feig’s “Ghostbusters” is far from terrible, in fact there are some really good moments supported by the cast of truly comedic women and some ingenious fan service offered throughout the film, but unfortunately it’s also far from impressive.


It’s not the same as the 1984 film but that doesn’t keep it from trying to be. Erin Gilbert (Kristen Wiig) is on the cusp of getting tenure at the college that she teaches at, however an early career as a paranormal scientist disrupts this. Erin is forced to visit an old friend and colleague, Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy), after a book the two them authored surfaces under strange circumstances. The investigation of an apparition leads to the formation of a team, adding Abby’s assistant Jillian (Kate McKinnon) and a subway worker named Patty (Leslie Jones), which is quickly dubbed the Ghostbusters.


Much of the success of the first film rested in the capable casting and subsequent chemistry of the leading stars of the film, Bill Murray, Harold Ramis, Dan Aykroyd, and Ernie Hudson. Mr. Feig has done an exceptional job of organizing some of the most talented, funniest women working in film today into this project. Unfortunately these exceptional women are not always utilized in the best ways, particularly in ways that make them endearing throughout the film. Melissa McCarthy has a few funny moments but is very much restrained here, Kristen Wiig is impeccably awkward in the best way possible, Leslie Jones has a majority of the best punchlines, and Kate McKinnon gives a performance that you will either love or completely hate. Chris Hemsworth is also involved, playing a dimwitted hunk of a secretary who garners some great laughs. Individually these characters would not work but strangely enough, amidst some flaws, they become the driving force that keeps everything flowing in the right direction. Regardless of how poorly composed they may be, they are consistently amusing to watch on screen.


A majority of this film is dedicated to fan service, providing enough winks and nods to the original film that all the nostalgia can come back in a positive way. While some of the subtle moments of reflection work extremely well it also feels forced at times, especially when it comes to the more obvious callbacks. Still, there are some great surprises that will undoubtedly please those fond of the original.


The narrative is a quick mix of highlight, exposition, and tech talk. Do we really know how all this technology works? No. Do we need too? Absolutely not. That doesn't keep the film from rambling along with a rhythm of science words, a nice touch dedicated to the original film.


What hurts the narrative is inconsistency; the plot never seems to extend beyond the simple aspects of ghosts and ghostbusters, we are given one scene that provides very little background into the nature of these characters passion for the unknown, and the antagonist mumbles something about an evil vortex but never achieves any real purpose besides wanting to destroy humanity.


These are all criticisms about a film that seems more interested in pleasing the various expectations of the viewer, to the point that as long as the film is meeting the big complaints found on the Internet everything will be okay.  Is it still entertaining? Yes. Will it stand the test of time and become as beloved as the original? Not likely. So enjoy the reboot for what it is, an entertaining escape that provides quite a few laughs and will entice you to rewatch the original film that made you love the 80’s horror comedy.


Monte’s Rating

3.00 out of 5.00

The Infiltrator - Movie Review by Kaely Monahan

InfiltratorCranston shines as the good cop in The Infiltrator By Kaely Monahan



The Infiltrator is a complete 180 for Breaking Bad star, Bryan Cranston. In a story “based on real events,” Cranston plays with the white-hats in the 1980s drug war. Directed by Brad Furman, the film follows the story of Federal agent Robert Mazur (Cranston) who goes undercover to take down an international money laundering scheme.


You might recall Colombian drug lord, Pablo Escobar who, in the ‘80s, was sending several tons of cocaine through Miami and into the U.S. Mazur goes undercover as Bob Musella—with “ties” to the New York Mafia. Through careful maneuvering and trust building, he works his way through the network of drug lackeys until he finally meets and befriends one of Escobar’s top lieutenants: Roberto Alcaino (Benjamin Bratt).


The film follows a familiar true-crime story arc but is nonetheless compelling. Mazur is a man who has to learn how far he’ll go to get his perp. All the while he must balance a wife and kids and keep them safe.


Along the way, he is aided by the streetwise Emir Abreu (John Leguizamo), who gets him inside with the Miami cocaine scene and Kathy Ertz (Diane Kruger) who plays his faux wife.


The Infiltrator is not a gory film, but watching it feels like a loose slowly tightening. Cranston seems to relish Mazur’s conflicting desires. Mazur can’t resist getting into the game, even when he has the chance to retire. Yet he is conflicted by the need to protect his family. (There are several nail biting moments when ask yourself, “Why didn’t he put his family in hiding?”) At the same time, he can’t stop pulling on the thread that leads him closer and closer to the prize.


The Infiltrator is classic movie-making. Furman keeps the plot going with expert direction and editing. The film moves slowly, but it works. In a day and age of high-action, saturated special-effects, it's refreshing to watch something that inches towards a highly effective climax.


  • Kaely Monahan is a journalist, graduate of City University London and the creator of Popcorn Fan Film Reviews. Follow her @PopcornFans and @KaelyMonahan.