Ad Astra - Movie Review by Monte Yazzie

Photo Credit: Francois Duhamel / Twentieth Century Fox

Photo Credit: Francois Duhamel / Twentieth Century Fox

Dir: James Gray
Starring: Brad Pitt, Tommy Lee Jones, Ruth Negga, Liv Tyler, and Donald Sutherland 

In the first few minutes of director James Gray’s deliberately paced, visually intriguing space exploration “Ad Astra”, the image of a person uncontrollably plummeting to earth is witnessed. The tumbling, somewhat lifeless, figure falling from the blue heavens towards the green earth seems poetic in a film that aims for insight over intensity, that examines the journey of the exploration instead of the joy of the destination.

“Ad Astra” is an often quiet and utterly controlled film, one that is pulling influences from other methodically structured films like “2001: A Space Odyssey” and most often “Apocalypse Now”. The isolation from the world, the journey of self-discovery, and the fear of the unknown are all themes explored in all these referenced films. “Ad Astra” has all of these concepts clearly apparent from the opening minutes, sometimes even using a voice-over narrative to make these ideas extra focused.

The narrative mission is simple, an astronaut has gone rogue and his exploits are threatening life on earth. His son, a famous space scientist named Roy McBride (Brad Pitt), is tasked with traveling to the moon and then onto Mars to deliver a heartfelt message/plea to try and thwart the efforts if his father (Tommy Lee Jones).

The composition of the film is completely stunning, a visual treat of the “not-too-distant” future that seems completely genuine in the portrayal of what the arrival terminal would look like on the moon, how massive an antenna tasked with searching for extraterrestrial life would look, and how business would find a way to make a quick dollar with airline luxuries. Add to this the beautifully composed photography with striking color bursts and intriguing geographic angles, and the film is a complete pleasure to look at.

Director James Gray has a distinct quality that can be felt in the design elements but the narrative for “Ad Astra” depends heavily on actor Brad Pitt, who is fantastic here, to progress the scenes from one moment to another. Pitt does an interesting job of composing his journey of self-discovery, the subtle emotional touches seen with mannerisms during the crumbling connection with his wife (Liv Tyler) and the calm demeanor displayed during tense scenes help to display the focus of the character who is in search of answers outside the normal. But it is solely Pitt doing the heavy lifting throughout the film as many of the other actors in the film are crafted with minimal depth, sometimes no depth at all.

Even with great performances and some fantastic designs, the narrative for “Ad Astra” struggles consistently throughout the film in connecting its themes of loss, fear, abandonment, and isolation in more meaningful ways. Instead the film turns into a bland story about fathers and sons. And while it searches for more meaning, it begins to meander aimlessly. This severely affects the pacing of the film which starts with promise but very quickly slows to a crawl. Scenes begin to feel overly drawn out and, most disappointing, the investment in Roy McBride and the journey to find his father dwindles and ultimately is lost by the time the final act arrives.

“Ad Astra” is a beautiful film to look at with an exceptional performance from Brad Pitt. Unfortunately, the promising theme of self-discovery becomes, like it’s primary character, lost in its own search into the unknown.

Monte’s Rating
3.00 out of 5.00

Joker - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

This image released by Warner Bros. Pictures shows Joaquin Phoenix in a scene from Joker. (AP)

This image released by Warner Bros. Pictures shows Joaquin Phoenix in a scene from Joker. (AP)

Directed by:  Todd Phillips

Written by:  Todd Phillips and Scott Silver

Starring:  Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz, and Frances Conroy

 

“Joker” – “Is it just me, or is it getting crazier out there?” – Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix)

Filled with grime and crime, Gotham City is a mess. 

Piles of garbage lay in alleyways, a couple generations of crowded graffiti proudly shout from concrete walls and no present-day corporate pleasantries – like Time Square, with its welcoming, Las Vegas-like showmanship – can be found anywhere.

Director Todd Phillips’ camera points at a movie theatre with Brian De Palma’s “Blow Out” appearing on the marquee, so the year – presumably - is 1981.  The air is cold, moods are sour, work is scarce, money is tight, and crime is rampant.  Walking anywhere on your own, even in the middle of the afternoon, might invite a mugging, and police and ambulance sirens act as constant white noise for a populous without much reason to celebrate…anything.

This is Arthur Fleck’s current environment, and when we first see him, he’s celebrating “Everything Must Go” for a local business.  He’s dressed as a clown on a chilly street and spinning a sign with the aforementioned message, when a few kids grab it, smash it and then mash Arthur for no particular reason.  This isn’t Arthur’s first beating, because the world has been kicking him around for decades, and his face (with scratchy etched lines, a grayish skin tone and hollowed-out checks) speaks to a lifetime of hardship, probably complete with a steady diet of ramen noodles and soft drinks. 

This is Phillips’ mad scientist-creation, a bleak origin story for Batman’s foremost nemesis, The Joker, and Phoenix is the director’s monster.  Certainly, this celebrated villain has a long history in print, television and movies, but “Joker” has a story to tell.  Arthur descends into criminal madness, but more importantly, Phillips outlines the character’s cracked foundation and cursed circumstances that provide legitimate, explainable grounds for his turn into a sinister baddie. 

Meanwhile, Phoenix provides sympathy for the man, one who has been cast away by a grinding, unforgiving Darwinesque system.  Still, a publicly-funded therapist does listen to Arthur voice his problems, but as he points out, his issues fall on deaf ears. 

“You don’t listen, do you?  You just ask the same questions every week.  How’s your job?  Are you having any negative thoughts?  All I have are negative thoughts,” he says.

Physically, Arthur looks sickly and frail with a twisted pipe cleaner’s frame that seems to contort without provocation.  A body that matches his mind, pumped with several medications that trip over one another and most certainly cloud and confuse his perspective.  He’s searching for logic and light but routinely fines indifference, cruelty and shadows.  Phoenix shows some of the ferociousness of Freddie Quell, a massively imperfect protégé in Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Master” (2012).  Quell, however, was askew from the get-go, while Arthur slowly finds his way into spaces of malice. 

While Phillips paints a gloomy, cheerless setting throughout the movie’s 122-minute runtime, Phoenix allows Arthur to grow more self-assured and embrace - rather than fight - his surroundings. 

This is the film’s hook. 

Well, and of course, this is a Joker movie.  You won’t, however, see The Caped Crusader and his trusty sidekick, and there are no big budget, CGI “Justice League” (2017) or “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” (2016) entanglements…thankfully.  This is a personal, solitary journey between a misunderstood soul versus a nonsensical society, although obvious elements from the comics proudly reveal themselves. 

One obvious nod to 80s cinema does not have a superhero origin at all, as Robert De Niro plays Murray Franklin, a Johnny Carlson-like television host who Arthur idolizes.  Franklin feels similar to TV talk show host Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis) from Martin Scorsese’s “The King of Comedy”, and in that movie, De Niro plays a struggling but ambitious comedian named Rupert Pupkin, a guy desperately striving for fame.  Arthur, who is always trying to make people laugh, in some ways is Pupkin, and note that “The King of Comedy” was released in 1982.  Probably not a coincidence.

In 2019, one might say that it’s getting crazier out here at the moment, because who would have thought after Heath Ledger’s Oscar winning performance in “The Dark Knight” (2008), another actor would come along and possibly earn Academy Award gold playing the same character?  Well, after watching “Joker”, another actor will have to give a superhero-like effort to wrestle the 2020 Best Actor Oscar away from Phoenix.

(3.5/4 stars)

 

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

Downton Abbey - Movie Review by Ben Cahlamer

Photo Credit: Jaap Buitendijk / © 2019 Focus Features, LLC

Photo Credit: Jaap Buitendijk / © 2019 Focus Features, LLC

Directed by: Michael Engler

Screenplay by: Julian Fellowes

Starring: Hugh Bonneville, Jim Carter, Michelle Dockery, Elizabeth McGovern, Maggie Smith, Imelda Staunton, Penelope Wilton

Television turned film is a touchy subject because you don’t necessarily get to see your favorite characters utilized as well as they once were, whether it be because the film format only allows for so much story to be told or because of logistical challenges that don’t allow for a character to breathe. I suppose this is why binge-worthy programming on the likes of Netflix have bloomed recently.

British television on the other hand has managed to capture the essence of serialized television and tell compellingly funny and sometimes blunt stories. Take for instance the famed comedy “Mr. Bean,” a brainchild of Rowan Atkinson – the television series is world-renowned, yet the movie and its subsequent sequels have not fared as well. HBO’s “Entourage” is a good example of a show in the U.S. making a similar transition with limited results.

“Downton Abbey,” which ran on ITV in the U.K. and PBS in the U.S. ran from 2010 to 2015 over six seasons and has a devoted following. The story depicts the aristocratic Crawley family and their devout servants between 1912 and 1926. The film, which releases this weekend, picks up after the sixth and last season.

I confess that I have not seen the series it is based on, so homework is in order. Suffice it to say that as a newcomer, I was not entirely lost in this theatrical version of the beloved series. The story set in 1927 sees the Royal Family, King George (Simon Jones) and Queen Mary (Geraldine James) set to visit the humble Downton Abbey. The family, Robert Crawley (Hugh Bonneville), the Earl of Grathnam and Cora (Elizabeth McGovern), the Countess are less-than-excited to receive the Royal couple, but do so dutifully.

There are multiple story lines through the narrative, akin to a soap opera – the family preparing for the royal arrival above board along with the politicking that that tail ensues, the staff below board contending with the Royal Staff descending on their domain, and a subplot involving a threat to the king’s life.

Dame Maggie Smith as Violet Crawley, the Dowager (widow, yes I had to look it up) Countess of Grantham is the most boisterous and loveable of the upper echelon cast and story. She breathes life into a rather stuffy tale of the royal visit as she aims to confront her cousin, Lady Maud Bagshaw (Imelda Staunton) over an ongoing dispute over the heir apparent.

The juicy and far more operatic side of the story is the staff below the line, as the Royal Page of the Backstairs, Mr. Wilson (David Haig) informs them that their services will not be required during the Royal visit. Their honour at stake, they will do anything to ensure the integrity of the household by serving the Royal Family. Charles Carson (Jim Carter), the family’s retired butler is called into action before they are informed that their services were not required, but he has the confidence of the staff, especially Anna Bates (Joanne Froggatt) and John Bates (Brendan Coyle) and the Crawleys to pull off the Royal Engagement.

As the story bisects each line, we see the characters in their moments. There is a great deal of subtle humor throughout. There was a raw honesty in the third story line involving Thomas Barrow (Robert James-Collier) and Richard Ellis (Max Brown) that I didn’t expect. I’ll leave you to discover it for yourselves, but I think you’ll appreciate that story line as I did.

As interesting as the goings on were at Downton Abbey, I couldn’t help but feel that they stuffed too much into this film. For someone to play catch up, I wasn’t lost, but there were some of the nuances that I would have benefited from had I known the TV series before seeing this film.

Others have mentioned that Robert Altman’s “Gosford Park” is a better affaire, and I don’t think they’re wrong. It’s for just a well-established series like “Downton Abbey,” the film does justice to what I can only suspect is a very well-executed television series, which is currently streaming on Amazon Prime.

As you get ready to spend time with the Crawley’s and their staff, I’m going to get caught up with the series and I hope, we’ll meet over a spot of tea to talk shop. Cheerio!

2.75 out of 4

The Best of TIFF 2019 by Jeff Mitchell

Jeff Mitchell at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival.

Jeff Mitchell at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival.

The Best of TIFF 2019

This Phoenician left for the Great White North on Friday, Sept. 6 to soak up the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival for nine days, and as usual, this massive celluloid celebration did not disappoint.  This year, I proudly represented the Phoenix Film Festival as our press contact, and day after day, I sprinted between theatres and took copious notes.  After catching 32 movies, here are my top 10 films.    

 

“A Hidden Life” – Franz Jagerstatter (August Diehl) enjoys a beautiful life with his wife Franziska (Valerie Pachner) and their kids in the quiet Austrian village of St. Radegund, but trouble begins when World War II breaks out, and he refuses to pledge loyalty to Hitler.  Writer/director Terrence Malick dives into the true story of the Jagerstatters by reaching to nature, classical music and the heart of Franz and Franziska’s relationship that gel into a dreamlike concoction of operatic splendor.  A masterpiece.

“About Endlessness” – Writer/director Roy Andersson’s unique on-screen perspective is back, as he bestows a series of oddball sketches that feature mankind’s everyday collisions with modern society.  A deliberately bland, brown color palette, stiff deliveries by the (mostly) amateur actors and bleak, minimalist sets run throughout the film’s 78-minute runtime.  “About Endlessness” feels like a surreal trip to Whoville, if the collective Who-population was in dire need of Prozac, and their surroundings – although cartoonish – are devoid of whimsy.  Repeat viewings are required.

“Jojo Rabbit” – Growing up in Germany in the 1930s and 40s, Jojo Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis) loves his mom (Scarlett Johansson) and plays with his best friend Yorki (Archie Yates).  In many ways, Jojo is a typical 10-year-old boy, except for one glaring difference: he’s a prideful Hitler Youth member.  Jojo, however, begins to question everything, when he discovers that his mom is hiding a Jewish girl (Thomasin McKenzie) in their home.  Director Taika Waititi also dons a Nazi uniform to play Adolf Hitler, so he pushes boundaries, but with hilarious slapstick, sarcasm and delicate touches of humanity.   

“Joker” – Director Todd Phillips takes a stark departure from comedies and ventures into a dark, dystopian 1981 Gotham City to tell the origin story of Batman’s foremost nemesis.  Filled with crime and grime, Gotham is a miserable, hopeless mess, and so is Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), a man suffering from mental illness and surrounded by negative influences and triggers in all directions.  Arthur eventually cracks, and in turn, Joaquin should break into Best Actor Oscar-status with his hypnotic performance.  Quite frankly, another actor will have to give a superhero-like effort to wrestle Oscar gold away from Phoenix.

“Knives Out” – An extremely clever and entertaining whodunit!  Writer/director Rian Johnson thought up this murder/mystery story about 10 years ago, and after creating “Looper” (2012) and “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” (2017), he saved his best for last.  Crime novelist Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) dies on his 85th birthday, and detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) arrives on the scene to assess any foul play.  Johnson turns the genre on its head a bit and keeps us guessing, laughing and gasping in suspense, while an all-star cast - including Toni Collette, Chris Evans, Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, Don Johnson, Ana de Armas, and more – seem to be having as much fun as the audience.

“Proxima” -  Sarah (Eva Green), a French astronaut, prepares for the mission of her life, as she’s part of a three-person crew heading to the International Space Station.  She’s also a mom to an elementary school-age daughter Stella (Zelie Boulant), so while Sarah looks to the stars, she also feels the pull here on Earth.  Writer/director Alice Winocour gives us a behind-the-scenes look at Sarah’s training while keeping Stella ever-present - but compartmentalized - in her mother’s thoughts.  So, while Sarah deals with frequent, subtle slights of sexism, she also copes with her out-of-this-world job taking time away from her daughter.  Green gives a very strong and graceful performance.

“The Burnt Orange Heresy” – A wildly affluent art collector (Mick Jagger) invites a struggling critic (Claes Bang) to his massive Italian villa and offers a proposal that he cannot refuse.  James (Bang) brings along his brand new love interest (Elizabeth Debicki), but they barely know each other.  When high stakes are in play, the unknown can dramatically cloud and complicate the immediate present, and director Giuseppe Capotondi muddies the waters for James and Berenice (Debicki) in this twisty, nifty thriller.  Donald Sutherland co-stars. 

“The Song of Names” – Twenty-one years ago director Francois Girard brought “The Red Violin” to the screen, and now in 2019, he offers a different story on the same instrument in “The Song of Names”.  As kids, violin players Martin (Tim Roth) and Dovidl (Clive Owen) share a friendship and a love of music.  As adults, Martin looks for his friend, who disappeared decades before.  With World War II as a focal point and accompanied by an exceptional string score, Girard’s intricate drama sneaks up on you and strikes the right emotional beats.  

“The Two Popes” – Pope Francis and Pope Benedict XVI have personality and philosophical differences that reach a mile-long, but they both share the same job title and therefore, are card-carrying members of a most exclusive club.  Director Fernando Meirelles (“City of God” (2002)) gives us an insightful look at these two men through Anthony McCarten’s script that is generally conversational in nature.  Jonathan Pryce and Anthony Hopkins play Francis and Benedict, respectively during the Vatican’s transition of power in 2013, and the two Welsh actors might just share numerous conversations at the 92nd Academy Awards in 2020.

“Waves” – An affluent, hardworking family appears to have all the answers, but one’s teenage years - no matter how much support is felt - are anything but straight-forward.  Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) is a high school wrestler and his life is falling into place, but after an initial misstep, he takes a much larger plunge.  Writer/director Trey Edward Shults (“Krisha” (2015), “It Comes at Night” (2017)) pushes a modern score and free flowing camerawork that dives into the characters’ souls, as they struggle for answers.  This heavyweight drama packs a wallop. 

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

Wet Season - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

Photo Credit: Giraffe Pictures

Photo Credit: Giraffe Pictures

Chen effectively reflects on life’s ‘Wet Season’

Written and directed by:  Anthony Chen

Starring:  Yeo Yann Yann, Koh Jia Ler, Christopher Lee, and Yang Shi Bin

 

“Wet Season” –  “I love walking in the rain, because no one can see me crying.” – Rowan Atkinson

Ling (Yeo Yann Yann) lives in Singapore - a vibrant, bustling place with over five million residents - but when this high school language teacher is not giving lectures and handing out assignments, she is often alone.  Ling sits by herself at lunchtime and slowly lumbers in the hallways between periods, as if she’s carrying three students on her back while her shoes are filled with concrete.

She’s depressed.  Not only because her students seem completely uninterested in learning Chinese, but the school does not prioritize it either. 

Her life at home is no better, and actually, it’s worse, because her husband Andrew’s (Christopher Lee) constant indifference to her well-being feels infinitely more personal.  He rarely spends time at home and seems more concerned with his golf game and entertaining clients into the wee hours of the evenings, rather than canoodling – or simply having polite conversation - with wife.

In life and love, Ling feels cheated and trapped, and to add insult to injury, she’s childless, despite trying to conceive for years.  We also meet Ling during Singapore’s monsoon season, as the rain reflects her mood in writer/director Anthony Chen’s absorbing, affecting drama “Wet Season”.

Chen establishes the film’s tone right away through Ling’s melancholy, as she shuffles between home, school and her fertility doctor.  Ling also cares for her elderly and incapacitated father-in-law (Yang Shi Bin) at home, so she never gets a break. 

Yeo perfectly captures Ling’s fatigue, but the actress also gives her character an ever-present grace in the face of on-screen adversity.  Both Chen and Yeo provide wide-open spaces of sympathy for Ling that allow us to emotionally connect with her straightaway and, therefore, hope that she forms any sort of new friendship to break her perpetual malaise. 

Her student Wei Lun (Koh Jia Ler) looks to be that person.  Although his schoolwork floats in a shallow pool of mediocrity, Wei Lun is polite, curious and respectful, which is more positive energy than Ling has probably received in years.  Ling usually keeps her emotions in check, because she’s unfortunately learned to blindly accept her current reality after nursing figurative wounds delivered by the Game of Life over the past four decades. 

Over the course of the film, Ling’s leaps of personal growth are packaged in nuance, so a rare, slight smile from her becomes a moment of on-screen treasure, one that will warmly elicit beaming grins from the audience through tender cinematic reciprocity.

Many of Singapore’s trademark sights and sounds are anything but tender, as this astonishing city-state – that sits one degree above the equator - bursts with towering concrete wonders and gorgeous tropical beauty.  Although Chen provides some scenes to capture this highly photogenic locale, he conveys Ling’s story within middle class neighborhoods and everyday life, as opposed to the pomp and circumstance of the larger scale surroundings.  His decisions feel tonally on target, because hopes for massive celebrations are not within Ling’s immediate grasp. 

It is, however, Singapore’s monsoon season.  Rain certainly may bring sorrow and hide tears, but it can also wash away the past. 

(3/4 stars)

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

Interview with ‘Wet Season’ writer/director Anthony Chen by Jeff Mitchell

Photo credit: Giraffe Pictures

Photo credit: Giraffe Pictures

“Wet Season”, a TIFF 2019 Platform film, takes place during Singapore’s monsoon season, and   writer/director Anthony Chen’s affecting movie is about a high school teacher named Ling (Yeo Yann Yann) who is struggling to have a baby.  To make matters worse, Ling’s career and marriage are going nowhere.  She feels quite alone but makes a connection with one of her students (Koh Jia Ler). 

The Phoenix Film Festival had a chance to sit down with Anthony in Toronto, and we had an enjoyable, engaging conversation.  We talked about Anthony’s inspiration for the movie, filming in the rain and much more!  

 

PFF:  The film shows Ling alone quite a bit.  She lumbers to school on her own and usually eats by herself.  This solitude is rather ironic, because she lives in Singapore, a bustling, busy metropolis.  They say that we can be lonely while standing in a crowd.  Ling seems to be going  through this experience.

AC:  I think you read it quite well.  Sometimes, you are lonely, because you haven’t made connections.  When there are so many things going on (in a big place), how could you feel lonely?  But if you are not making emotional connections, you don’t exist.  

 

PFF:  Singapore is a picturesque place with plenty of urban wonders and natural beauty.  The film does not focus on the bright, gorgeous surroundings and instead, spends time on everyday life in middle class neighborhoods and ordinary streets.  Can you talk about that choice?

AC:  Ling is under life pressures.  She has a busy job as a teacher.  She has to look after her half-paralyzed father-in-law who takes up so much time.  (She doesn’t have) any form of social life, and she’s been trying really hard - for years - to have a baby. 

That’s very much how I see her.  She works during the day, comes home, changes her father-in-law’s clothes, cooks, feeds him, puts him to sleep, and does the dishes.  Life has basically weighed her down, and there’s no time to have any other life.  It’s not so much about not showing Singapore’s (beauty) but showing her life.  

She is trapped, and she is stuck.  She’s in crisis.  She’s in crisis in her marriage.  She’s in crisis in her family life.  She’s in crisis in her career. 

 

Photo credit: Giraffe Pictures

Photo credit: Giraffe Pictures

PFF:  You’ve talked about your family’s challenges on having a baby.  Did that experience inspire you to make this movie?

AC:  Every time I make a film, at some point, “world-life” and my personal life will collide.  For a long time, we had (to cope with fertility treatments) and go to the doctor all the time.  It was very volatile.  It was very stressful, and I experienced all of that first-hand.  In a way, I started writing about this woman who was trying to have a baby, and somehow in my life, it sort of happened and collided. 

After I made the film, (my wife and I had) a baby.  We have a baby boy.  Literally, just as I finished editing the film, he was born.  I’m not a religious person, but I always believe that in filmmaking, there’s some kind of divine intervention.  

 

PFF:  Rain can obviously bring sorrow, but it can also wash away the past.      

AC:  I think you can see rain in different ways.  Personally, for the longest time, I wanted to use weather elements in a film.  In Singapore, we are a tropical country.  We have no seasons.  It’s always really, really hot, and the only time the weather changes – massively – is two months of rain during the monsoon season in December and January.  Now, it’s drifting because of climate change.  Sometimes, it starts in February. 

I always thought rain (would be) poetic and beautiful to capture in a film.  It’s a very appropriate metaphor to describe Ling’s emotional state.  That’s one way of looking at it.  In (the film), Singapore is completely shrouded in rain, and it’s sort of cold and a little bit heartless.  I think that there’s something to be said about that.  Singapore, over the past 10 years, has become a much colder place.

 

PFF:  How did you work in the rain?  Did you manufacture it?

AC:  I (really enjoyed) writing the script, but when I had to film with 80 percent (of the scenes) calling for rain, the execution was tough.  In this film, all the rain that you see (uses) practical effects.  So, there isn’t a single (moment of) CGI.  Of course, we couldn’t wait for the rain, so we had to create it.  The movie feels like a very small, intimate drama, but actually, beyond that frame, there was so much work.   

 

PFF:  Ling takes care of her father-in-law (Yang Shi Bin), while her husband Andrew (Christopher Lee) usually can’t be bothered.  Ling’s father-in-law can’t speak, but what would he say to his son?

AC:  There is one scene with Ling’s husband and his father.  He looks at his son, and in those eyes, you just knew that he was disappointed.  That one scene says so much.  I think this is a film where I try to say a lot with very little. 

 

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

Hustlers - Movie Review by Ben Cahlamer

Photo Credit:  Barbara Nitke / Motion Picture Artwork © 2019 STX Financing, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

Photo Credit: Barbara Nitke / Motion Picture Artwork © 2019 STX Financing, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

Directed by: Lorene Scafaria
Screenplay by: Lorene Scafaria
Based on “The Hustlers at Scores” by: Jessica Pressler
Starring: Constance Wu, Jennifer Lopez, Julia Stiles, Keke Palmer, Lili Reinhart, Lizzo, Mercedes Ruehl, Cardi B

I have to laugh.

“Hustlers,” the latest film from writer-director Lorene Scafaria, earned high praise coming out of its Toronto International Film Festival premiere on September 9th while the online buzz was “meh.” I’m laughing because, as the movie so succinctly points out, we’re all being hustled, some just do it better than others.

Based on the New Yorker article, “The Hustlers at Scores,” Scafaria paints a picture of struggle as a group of strippers concocts a plan to steal money from unsuspecting Joes. Constance Wu plays Dorothy, a wholesome, next-door-neighbor type who is reserved at first when she is forced to get a job as a stripper. Anxious and nervous, she finds a friend in Ramona played by Jennifer Lopez.

Under Ramona’s expert tutelage, Dorothy finds the lifestyle to be very easy; the money, the attitude, the control that come with those situations is addictive. When disaster, in the form of the 2008 financial collapse happens, we realize just how vulnerable everyone is.

Scafaria doesn’t hide behind the effects of the meltdown either. Dorothy, who is already struggling to make herself alluring in the face of stiff competition, also now has a baby to consider. Wu gives a range of emotion during this time as she forced to find other work, forcing Dorothy and Ramona to part ways.

The story flashes forward a few years and we see Dorothy and Ramona catch up unexpectedly, where their friendship resumes as if time was frozen and that’s the point at which the plan is hatched.

The grand heist felt like it could have been patterned from numerous heist films that have come before it, but my mind keeps comping back to Scorsese’s “Goodfellas,” because of the way Scafaria frames the story and develops her characters. It takes a few individuals to scheme the system and it takes several rotten eggs to ruin it.

There’s also an inherent class about the way in which the ladies of the night work their magic; an honesty and an integrity about it; we genuinely believed these women were doing it because they needed to survive and had no other skills to offer the world, something that Scafaria builds out: empathy. We are empathetic to their struggles and the movie is self-aware enough to know that our empathy will go only so far.

Which is why Julia Stile’s Elizabeth character works as well as it does. Dorothy’s interactions with Elizabeth are minimal at first and they are framed in a way to make you think that their conservation is leading you in one direction when the script is flipped.

“Hustlers” isn’t your typical heist story. It has heart and humor. It’s layered with intricacies that will catch you by surprise. Most imperatively, it is empowering and liberating. The story sets out to tell the events of a bad situation going worse, while managing to come out smelling like roses. Ae the end of the day, you won’t mind being hustled out of your $15 for a movie ticket because they earn every dollar in their pocket.

3.75 out of 4

The Goldfinch - Movie Review by Monte Yazzie

Nicole Kidman and Ansel Elgort in 'The Goldfinch.' / Photo Credit: Macall Polay

Nicole Kidman and Ansel Elgort in 'The Goldfinch.' / Photo Credit: Macall Polay

Dir: John Crowley

Starring: Ansel Elgort, Oakes Fegley, Nicole Kidman, Jeffrey Wright, Finn Wolfhard, Luke Wilson, and Sarah Paulson

The first major art exhibit I attended featured the landscape and floral works of Georgia O’Keeffe. As I strolled through the collection of beautiful artworks listening to experts and enthusiasts discuss aspects of form, space, and contrast, an older couple wandering in front of me asked an interesting question to one of museum curators… “how many people have tried to steal something off the wall?”. The curator responded, “more than you’d think”.

Author Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel “The Goldfinch” centers on a stolen piece of art, the real Carel Fabritius painting of a chained goldfinch bird on a perch, and a young boy named Theo who grows up keeping a secret about the famed piece of art. It’s a sprawling story featuring numerous plot themes ranging from terrorism, antique collecting, and drug abuse that spans the tragic childhood and tormented adulthood of Theo.

Director John Crowley organizes an exceptional group of talented actors in an earnest attempt to bring this expansive story to life. The result is a confounding adaptation that struggles to fit all the plot pieces and subtle character developments from the book into a nicely packaged cinematic experience.

Theo (Oakes Fegley) is visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art with his mother when a bomb explodes, killing his mother and destroying the museum in the process. Theo is placed with an upper-class foster family in the Upper East Side, nurtured and helped through the traumatic experience by Mrs. Barbour (Nicole Kidman), and then transfers to Nevada and into the care of his neglecting father (Luke Wilson). Theo (Ansel Elgort), now a young adult, works in the antique community with his mentor Hobie (Jeffrey Wright) selling modified antique furniture. But Theo has been keeping a secret since the day that changed his life, a stolen art piece that he took from the rubble of the museum. 

For a film that centers on a bomb explosion and the theft of a piece of art, you would think the plot would be a fairly straight-forward thriller, possibly a whodunit mystery. “The Goldfinch” never commits to these simplistic ideas, instead it remains somewhat plotless throughout the course of the film while it focuses on Theo and his absolutely terrible journey through life. The theme of love and loss is present throughout, the feeling of loneliness and dependency is felt in numerous places. All of these pieces are present but somehow missing the emotional mark or rushed into and out of scenes for the sake of narrative progression.

The best concept involves the theme of family which permeates every interaction that Theo has with the world. The death of his mother leads Theo to search for that special connection with someone, anyone who will have him or is around him. It’s tragic watching the young character have numerous people ripped from his life, seemingly while he is on verge of making an emotional connection with someone.

Ansel Elgort does a nice job of composing older Theo with a charm just thick enough to hide the broken parts of his character. Nicole Kidman is the highlight in the film however, displaying a refined yet somewhat cold motherly demeanor. In her quiet moments, when she is watching Theo interact with other kids, is when Ms. Kidman shines bright.

“The Goldfinch” feels like the quick highlights from the novel bundled together in a film adaptation with talented actors and beautifully composed photography. It’s the equivalent of the cliff notes for a story, enough information so that you can talk about it without the deeper substance to make it as memorable as it should be.

Monte’s Rating
3.00 out of 5.00

Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice - Movie Review by Ben Cahlamer

Linda Ronstadt in a scene from “Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice.” (Greenwich Entertainment)

Linda Ronstadt in a scene from “Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice.” (Greenwich Entertainment)


Directed by: Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman

Starring: Linda Ronstadt, Jackson Browne, Ry Cooder, Sheryl Crow, Cameron Crowe, David Geffen, Don Henley, Dolly Parton, Aaron Neville, Bonnie Raitt, JD Souther

The beauty in our shared human collective is that we are each of us, unique. Our talents are what makes us unique, and ultimately brings us together. Much like the opening frames of “Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice,” Academy Award-winning co-directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman never dwell on the Linda Ronstadt of today. She does give a voice to her own story to be sure.

The co-directors instead focus on her roots, specifically touching on her upbringing in Tucson in the late 40’s and 50’s, her original influences were her parents who both listened to a variety of music. Linda had a voice, but she didn’t have the right back-up, which led her to forming a trio with her siblings, The Stone Poneys. Epstein and Friedman fold in interviews with her siblings to give background, and there was never a moment where you weren’t interested in what they had to say.

Ronstadt’s move to Los Angeles, which is where her big breakout came was full of a lot of musical acts that I was familiar with. What surprised me the most though was how Don Henley’s association with Ronstadt led to the formation of the Eagles, but Epstein and Friedman connected so many dots between acts, it was quite incredible.

Once in L.A., a performance of “Different Drum” by The Stone Poneys at the Troubadour is what caught Capitol Records’ attention. While they recorded the trio, they found that the musical background, which was folksy, didn’t quite work for them, so they re-recorded it with an orchestra, much to Ronstadt’s chagrin. She was initially resistant, but with the power of her voice and the orchestra, the song rose to a completely different plane.

The documentary follows her career growth from that first record, with recordings of her concert footage, which demonstrated her voice, which was fully developed by the time she started touring, which she wasn’t necessarily happy with doing, but she loved to sing. I got the impression from the film that she was unnerved with how powerful her own voice was. As it is repeated in the film, she was confident in her ideas, but not in her abilities.

Thank goodness for solid management and peers to keep her moving forward.

Ronstadt immediately found success, but in the forward progression of her career, she also had to overcome the male dominance, where band members would be used to being a part of a group of guys, Ronstadt found that she had to assert herself more directly. The film uses some of her romantic interests as a way of moving her progress forward, a key relationship being Jerry Brown, the governor of California. The two met at Lucy’s, a famous Hollywood restaurant who catered to many occupations.  and though the relationship was short lived, you could tell that they were a dynamic pair. Epstein and Friedman highlight just how audacious Ronstadt was with her views on the world during her time with Brown, a lighter part of her career.

Ronstadt’s career spanned multiple genres of music, not just rock, but country and pop as well with at least one of her songs making the top of three different charts simultaneously.

The latter half of the film sees Ronstadt branching out into Gilbert & Sullivan’s “Pirates of Penance” with Kevin Kline, who was as surprised that Ronstadt was willing to take on such a piece, and was equally as impressed with her powerful voice; it was a natural fit. As her career began winding down, the documentary segues into taking her Mexican heritage, showing an even greater range within her voice.

We’re reminded of her current condition, having last performed in 2009 and retired in 2012 following her Parkinson’s diagnosis, which the documentary notes runs in her family. The disease robbed her of her talent, but her presence in the documentary shows just how strong of a presence Linda Ronstadt is.

“Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice” is as much about the singer’s success and the influence she has had on so many of her fellow artists. As each song came up, I felt a chill, full of fond memories of my own, which will truly bring a smile to your face, reminding us of the power of her voice.

3.75 out of 4

TIFF 2019: “Knives Out” World Premiere at The Princess of Wales Theatre

Photo Credit: Claire Folger / Lionsgate

Photo Credit: Claire Folger / Lionsgate

TIFF 2019:  “Knives Out” world premiere and red carpet with Christopher Plummer, Toni Collette, Daniel Craig, Jamie Lee Curtis, and director Rian Johnson

Director Rian Johnson’s “Knives Out” – which arrives in theatres on November 27 - is an extremely clever and fun whodunit with an incredible cast, so it is no mystery that the film drew a big crowd at The Princess of Wales Theatre for its world premiere and red carpet event.  The Phoenix Film Festival teamed up with journalists Mariana Mijares and Barbora Soskova Dudinska, and we had a blast chatting with Johnson and the cast.  

 

Christopher Plummer at TIFF.

Christopher Plummer at TIFF.

PFF:  Mr. Plummer, you’ve starred in many serious roles in recent years, like “All the Money in the World” (2017), “Remember” (2015) and “The Exception” (2016).  Did you enjoy working on “Knives Out” as a change of pace?

Christopher Plummer:  Oh, I loved it!  It was great fun.  Dear old Ryan is such a wonderful writer.  Interesting, different sort of writing.

 

 
Toni Collette at the world premiere of “Knives Out”.

Toni Collette at the world premiere of “Knives Out”.

PFF:  How do you compare the Hoover family in “Little Miss Sunshine” with the Thrombey family in “Knives Out”?

Toni Collette:  Equally dysfunctional.  Maybe this family is a little more affluent.  (Toni bursts into laughter.)

 

BSD: What attracted you to this type of genre, filming mysteries?

Daniel Craig:  It’s a lot of fun, and (this movie) is a piece of entertainment for families.  Everybody (on the film) got into the tone of it.  Everybody got into the feel of it.  I watched it once, and I’m going to watch it with an audience tonight, and (the film) makes me laugh.

PFF:  How did this experience compare to “Logan Lucky” when you played Joe Bang.  It looks like you had fun in both.

Daniel Craig: I try to have fun, when I work. I always do.

 

 
Jamie Lee Curtis at the world premiere of “Knives Out”

Jamie Lee Curtis at the world premiere of “Knives Out”

MM:  What was the most fun about being involved with this movie, and what was the hardest? 

Jamie Lee Curtis:  The fun of it is being part of a group.  The difficulty is learning how to listen in a room full of 15 people (who) are all talking at the same time.  It really strengthened my skills as a listener.   

 

 

PFF:  I understand that you’ve had this idea kicking around for about 10 years.  When you were making “The Brothers Bloom” (2008), “Looper” (2012) and “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” (2017), were you itching to get started on this film?

Chris Evans, left, Ana de Armas and director Rian Johnson on the set of “Knives Out.” (Claire Folger /Lionsgate)

Chris Evans, left, Ana de Armas and director Rian Johnson on the set of “Knives Out.” (Claire Folger /Lionsgate)

Director Rian Johnson:  I’ve always loved whodunits, and I’ve always tried to think of what I would do for (one).  About 10 years ago, I had the basic idea.  I just chewed on it since then, but when I actually sat down to write it, it all happened very quickly.

 

 

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

TIFF 2019: “The Two Popes” red carpet with director Fernando Meirelles and Jonathan Pryce

“The Two Popes” Cast and Crew on the Red Carpet at TIFF 2019

“The Two Popes” Cast and Crew on the Red Carpet at TIFF 2019

U.S. Presidents come and go every four or eight years, but transitions of power between popes occur less frequently, so these special events absolutely capture our attention.  “The Two Popes” is playing at TIFF 2019, and Fernando Meirelles’ (“City of God” (2002)) captivating film, about the changing of the guard between Pope Benedict XVI (Anthony Hopkins) and Pope Francis (Jonathan Pryce), is one to stop and take notice. 

A special event occurred on Monday, Sept. 9, because Meirelles and Pryce graciously walked the Winter Garden Theatre red carpet and chatted with the Phoenix Film Festival.  Sir Anthony Hopkins was not in attendance, but in a way, the film did have two popes on the red carpet, because Juan Minujin, who plays a young Pope Francis, soaked up the atmosphere as well.

 

Fernando Meirelles at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival.

Fernando Meirelles at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival.

PFF:  Your film features two very different popes who have several one-on-one conversations before their transfer of power.  How is the film constructed?  

FM:  I just loved (Anthony McCarten’s script), and you really get engaged in the conversation.  Of course, you can’t have an hour and a half of conversation.  My challenge was how to make (their discussions) feel organic and keep the audience interested.  So, they move (between locations), and some things interrupt (them), but at the end of the day, the film is about their conversations. 

 

PFF:  Now, these popes are very different.  Pope Francis is so revered, and Pope Benedict –

FM:  Has no charisma at all.  Completely dull.

 

Jonathan Pryce at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival.

Jonathan Pryce at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival.

PFF:  Is Pope Benedict portrayed that way on-screen?

FM:  In the film, Pope Benedict, played by Tony Hopkins, is quite charming.  (Jonathan Pryce’s) Pope Francis is like the real Pope Francis, and Benedict is much more charming than the real one.  It’s good, because that’s how (the audience can) understand Benedict and (even) like him a bit.  If you have a less charismatic actor, maybe the film wouldn’t work, (but on-screen), you see the chemistry and (become) interested in both of them.

 

PFF:  You couldn’t ask for two better actors.

FM:  Jonathan was quite an obvious choice.  If you Google the pope and Jonathan - one next to the other - they look alike.  I (also) watched an interview with Jonathan, and I felt (that) he has a warmth and a (great) sense of humor, and I saw the pope!  This guy not only looks like him physically, but he feels like the pope.  He’s tremendous in the film. 

 

Juan Minujin at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival.

Juan Minujin at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival.

PFF:  We seem to know a lot about Pope Francis.  Will the film reveal new insight about him?

JP:  When you see Pope Francis in the film, I think you’ll see a fictionalized version of him.   These conversations between Pope Francis and Benedict are conjecture.  They’re imagined, but everything is taken from things that Francis and Benedict have said or written or published, and they’ve been contrived into a conversation between the two men.  I think you’ll see more than a documentary.  As an actor, I could look at YouTube videos of Francis and take his qualities on-board and reimagine and interpret them.  So, you (can) expose a bit more of his personality.

 

PFF:  Their personalities are significantly different.  Coming out of the film, do you feel that Francis and Benedict have more in common than you thought?

JP:  They still have their differences.  Absolutely, but what especially grew between them in the film is a mutual respect.  They kind of liked each other, and (for) Tony and I, our relationship as actors is reflected in Benedict and Francis’ relationship.

 

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

TIFF 2019:  A portion of “The Report” Press Conference with Adam Driver, Annette Bening and Jon Hamm

AdamDriver.jpg

Writer/director Scott Z. Burns’ “The Report” is a highly informative look at U.S. Senate staffer Daniel J. Jones and his eye-opening 6,700 page report about the CIA’s use of torture after the 9/11 attacks.  In the film, Adam Driver plays Jones, and Annette Bening and Jon Hamm star as U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein and former U.S. Deputy National Security Advisor Denis McDonough, respectively. 

Burns, Driver, Bening, Hamm, Jones, and producer Jennifer Fox attended a “The Report” press conference at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival at The Omni King Edward Hotel, and the Phoenix Film Festival was there.

We will post more of the press conference in November, closer to the film’s November 15 release date, but here’s a sneak peek with the Phoenix Film Festival’s question to Adam Driver, Annette Bening and Jon Hamm. 

 

JonHamm.jpg

PFF:  Dan was asked, in the movie, if he had any nightmares (while working on the report), and I was wondering – and this goes to Adam, Annette and Jon – did you have any sleepless nights preparing for the film and was there anything in the script that surprised you? 

JH:  There was a lot that surprised me.  I did not read the 500-page summary, nor did I read - because I wasn’t allowed - the 6,700-page actual report.  There’s a lot that Dan knows that he’s not legally allowed to tell us, but the stuff that I did learn is horrifying.  The fact that it occurred with the blessing of our government is a real bummer. 

Scott took this 6,700-page behemoth, that was knocked down to 500 pages, (turned it) into a 2-hour movie and told that story.  As Adam was saying, (Dan) became the top guy (who) got that information out and reminds everybody that this is not okay.  I wouldn’t say that I had nightmares, but I definitely was reminded that that’s wrong.  

 

AB:  One of the important things, I think, to emphasize is that there were many people in the CIA who refused to cooperate with this (torture) program.  They either asked to be transferred out, or they just refused.  So, these people, of course, are nameless, because there’s so much about the entire operation that’s still secret.  So, I think that’s a really important thing to remember.  I hope that (the) message gets through to the public about the film: that this is not, in any way, an attack on the CIA.  It’s an attack on what happened to a group of people, who were under enormous pressure from 9/11 to do something. 

AnnetteBening.jpg

One of the things that I was surprised by was how eloquent Dianne Feinstein was, as was (Sen.) McCain by the way.  They both gave incredible speeches, when (the report) was finally put out, and she basically says, “The strength of our system is measured by how we respond, when we make mistakes.”  So, here we are.  We are acknowledging something that happened.  We are saying to the world that we did a wrong thing, and we are now rectifying it, as they did.  We passed an amendment - as you all know probably, because it’s in the movie - where they said that we are reaffirming that no American can participate in this kind of behavior.  We are going to abide by the Army Field Manual, and from now on, (for) anyone taken prisoner, the International Red Cross has to be invited.  So, just reaffirming what was on the books before.

So, there’s a lot of shocking things for me in the story.  The memo that was drafted within the Administration, justifying torture.  Two contractors, who are not technically federal employees, making 80 million dollars between the two of them, to torture people.  The cases are still going on. 

It’s an ongoing story, but (the movie) was a pleasure to do.  It was a pleasure to be part of it, and I felt really grateful. 

 

AD:  It’s hard to rank what is more or less surprising.  I mean, if you just read the findings in the conclusion’s section of the actual report, which you can get on Amazon.  I don’t mean it as a plug to Amazon, but in a way, (I’m) just saying that it’s simple to get, which again, is a backway of plugging Amazon. 

I think one of the biggest things that was shocking to me, even just taking emotion out of it, (is) that (the program considered) torture (as) an effective way of getting information.  It’s so well-documented throughout time that (torture) is not useful.  It’s like someone coming along and thinking that we should change cars to square wheels instead, and everyone kind of going along with it, even though we (have) a lot of facts that the opposite is true. 

But, as far as losing sleep, no, I didn’t literally lose sleep.  Although, we shot in 26 days, and that was stressful.  So, in that instance, I lost sleep.  We made (the movie) in a fervor, which I wouldn’t have wanted to change any other way.

 

AB:  I want to just add one more thing, if I may.  It’s helpful to be reminded that a group of people wrote the report – Dan being the primary writer – and eventually got it out.  Individuals do matter, and the force of character of one person who decides – as Dan did – to not be buried by five zillion pages of documents that the CIA dumped. 

That was part of the (CIA’s) strategy.  They figure, something will happen.  Somebody’s going to get bored.  Many people did quit and had to for very good reasons, (but) Dan’s force of character – and others - did make a difference.  That is an encouraging thing to see, because right now, in so many places, we feel like we need that.  We feel like we need individuals who are willing to step up and say, “I’m sorry, this isn’t acceptable.”

 

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

It Chapter Two - Movie Review by Monte Yazzie

It chapter two review monte.jpeg

Dir: Andy Muschietti

Starring: Jessica Chastain, James McAvoy, Bill Hader, Isaiah Mustafa, Jay Ryan, James Ransone, Andy Bean, and Bill Skarsgård

 

Memory is a funny thing. Think for a moment about what you remember from the past? Think about a fair or carnival you went to. Do you remember the sound of the carnival? The smell of the cotton candy? The words illuminated in bright florescent lights on the rides? The feeling of seeing that clown make a puppy out of balloons? Is it the one sensation, the one word, or is it all of it? Depending on the experience, specifically, the emotion connected, will determine what and how you remember the event. And as the memory drifts farther from the moment, elements tend to change in exaggerated ways or sometimes fade in how strongly you remember everything.

“It Chapter Two” explores this aspect of memory and also the trauma and fear associated with the past in the continuation of the sinister saga of Pennywise the Clown versus the formerly young, now adult Loser’s Club.

27 years have passed since the showdown between a group of young friends and a monstrous being who utilizes the deepest, darkest fears of its victims against them. The young Loser’s Club defeated the evil creature, who takes the form of a clown named Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård), but only in delaying his feeding schedule. 27 years later and the group of adults must return to their hometown of Derry, Maine to face the fears of their past unleashed upon them by the malevolent Pennywise. 

The Loser’s Club are grown-ups who have found success; Richie (Bill Hader) is a comedian, Ben (Jay Ryan) is an architect, Eddie (James Ransone) is a risk analyst, and Bill (James McAvoy) is a famous writer. Beverly (Jessica Chastain), the lone lady in the group, seems to have a successful life but is married to an abusive husband. While they have worked to separate themselves from their past trauma, a simple phone call from Mike (Isaiah Mustafa), who still lives in Derry, brings the past crashing back to the present.

The past has a way of coming back. This is target sentiment for “It Chapter Two” and a turn of dialog uttered in different ways by every member of the grown-up Loser’s Club. The narrative focuses significantly on this primary story element throughout the proceedings that occupy a journey for a group of adults back to the past. Through flashbacks, scenes featuring the completely delightful young Loser’s Clubs actors from the first film, and terrifying manipulated recreations, ones that evoke the deep-seated fear and trauma from the childhood of these characters, “It Chapter Two” composes a rich and rather interesting analysis of fear.

The past makes and molds different developments of life; the way we think about the past often connects our emotions in the present in different ways. Much is the same here with these characters. No matter how far these characters have moved away from home, how far they have separated their trauma from their consciousness, their past remains intact and intertwined with the experience they had in their hometown, with their friends and family, and with the creature Pennywise. The film narrative uses memory as a catalyst for fear. The past is the foundation for everything that defines these now grown adults, the pieces that have ultimately connected these characters into the world 27 years after they conquered their fear. Pennywise the clown is a metaphor for trauma; childhood, societal, and historical all represented in different ways in the film. It’s an interesting touch to the narrative working with genre frights and scares.

It’s unfortunate that this horror film, amidst its exploration of past trauma as a vessel for horror, somehow fails to execute many of the scary elements throughout the film. Computer-generated effects substantially hinder the effectiveness of the shocks. The sound design is pumped up in places to entice a jump scare but the images associated fail to do much more in making things scarier. The best moments are the simple ones when Bill Skarsgård is allowed to act in clown makeup and modify his voice in truly disturbing ways. The sound of a weeping clown in the shadows of the dark is truly terrifying. The CGI design of some of the other monsters found here come and go without much remembrance.

The film does a great job of matching the young actors in the first film with their older counterparts. And the performances throughout “It Chapter Two” are good, specifically Bill Hader as the wise-cracking Richie and James Ransone as the asthma-induced Eddie. The banter between them adds levity to some of the more serious moments.

“It Chapter Two” is nearly three-hours long, it doesn’t need to be even though fans of the source material might enjoy the deliberateness. There are moments in the film that drag and the tone lingers in places that it doesn’t need to, this is what ultimately makes the running time feel so overlong. Still, the narrative and performances are especially interesting even if the scares are undercut by an overabundance of exaggerated spectacle. “It Chapter Two” doesn’t have the charm of the first film but that doesn’t keep it from being an interesting continuation of the themes of friendship, innocence, and the places that exist between reality and the unknown that Stephen King explored in his beloved novel.

Monte’s Rating
3.25 out of 5.00

Official Secrets - Movie Review by José-Ignacio Castañeda

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Directed by: Gavin Hood

Starring: Keira Knightley, Matt Smith, Ralph Fiennes, Indira Varma and Rhys Ifans

“Official Secrets” whispers the true story of the British intelligence officer, Katharine Gun (Keira Knightley), and the fallout of events that occur after she tries to prevent Britain from entering the Iraq war in 2003.

Amid the rising tensions of war, Gun transcribes decoded foreign messages into her computer. Suddenly, a memo from the NSA infects her inbox.

The memo details the United States’ plan to garner the help of the British intelligence community in order to blackmail key members of the United Nations into voting for the war in Iraq. Shocked and nullified, Gun decides to print the memo and sneak it out of her workplace.

Gun then hands the memo off to her old friend and anti-war movement supporter, Jasmine (MyAnna Buring). After failing to publish the memo in other newspapers, the document is finally given to Martin Bright (Matt Smith), a journalist for the Observer. 

Bright vigorously vets the memo before he decided to pitch the story to his hothead editor, Roger Alton (Conleth Hill). Alton decides to print the blackmailing story alongside the memo, but once the story runs, everything falls apart.

The public is shocked by the Observer’s story but no one believes it due to an error in the memo. Certain words in the memo, which was alleged to have been written by an American NSA official, are mistakenly autocorrected to the King’s English. With that error and without a credible “leaked” source, the memo begins to fold under pressure.

Meanwhile, Gun’s workplace begins to conduct internal investigations in order to oust the whistleblower. As the investigation intensifies, Gun decided to confess in order to protect her coworkers and legitimize the memo.  

Gun must then face the consequences of her actions under the constricting hand of the British government and the Official Secrets Act.

With secretive government agencies, underground parking garage meetings and tie-loosening journalists, this film resembles a revamped British version of “All the President’s Men,” but instead of president it’s Prime Minister.

“Official Secrets” executes tension extremely well on a variety of levels. From the most basic human-to-human interaction to an interaction between a government and its people. The stakes of the movie are carefully and wisely placed inside the sympathetic character of Gun, whom Keira Knightly extraordinarily plays.

Keira Knightley delivers a great performance with a specialization in portraying the internal conflict that ravages Gun throughout the movie. Additionally, Matt Smith, Ralph Fiennes and Rhys Ifans give marvelous performances. Most of the main characters in the movie don’t share the screen too often, and they absolutely don’t need to. Their characters are strong and interestingly independent.

This timely film operates well within the powerhouse of a political thriller, while also dividing its storytelling evenly among its well-written characters. 3.75/4 Stars

Satanic Panic - Movie Review by Monte Yazzie

Photo: Eliana Pires/RLJE Films

Photo: Eliana Pires/RLJE Films

Dir: Chelsea Stardust

Starring: Rebecca Romijn, Hayley Griffith, Ruby Modine, Jerry O’Connell, Jordan Ladd, and Arden Myrin

 

Every Friday night during my childhood was pizza night. My parents would call their friends, the kids would rent some scary movies from the video store, and food would be delivered from the local pizza palace. Thirty minutes later the doorbell would ring and the delivery person would be standing there, waiting with fresh pizza and hoping for hefty tip.

In director Chelsea Stardust’s new film, “Satanic Panic”, a pizza delivery girl named Sam (Hayley Griffith) is trying to keep herself financially above water by delivering to a wealthy neighborhood known for their odd practices. After being stiffed for a tip, Sam stumbles into the house and realizes that she’s interrupted a party…a party of Satanist’s looking for a virgin to sacrifice.

“Satanic Panic” is going for that 1980’s straight-to-video vibe, trying to achieve in its less than 90-minute run time that nice balancing act of combining enough humor to keep the tone fun, freewheeling and campy, a few gory scenes to make one “ooh” and “aah” at the viscera, and enough odd and strange twists and turns to make it stand apart from others like it.

And, for the most part, the film is successful in remaining entertaining primarily because of the lead performance of Hayley Griffith who provides Sam with enough self-confidence and honesty to maintain the seriousness of her character’s dilemma. Supporting character Ruby Modine, playing an accompanying sacrificial offering named Judi, has some great one-liners while Arden Myrin, playing one of the more bonkers occultists named Gypsy, gets to chew on the scenery with comedy throughout the film. Rebecca Romijn, one of the big names in this production, gets to hail and hiss with hubris as the head-witch named Danica.

There is a strong 80’s aesthetic being pushed throughout the film; the score specifically has all the digital synth sounds to evoke that feeling and the emphasis on practical grisly effects is a nice touch. The narrative also aims for throwback vibes but wobbles between an interesting final girl scenario that is unconventional in a good way and a worn-out occult tale that struggles to make the impact necessary to turn the devilish troupe into something more sinister. However, it’s still fun to watch the inventive ways the film finds to eliminate the evildoers.

Unfortunately, some of the dialogs come off clumsy, with some characters stumbling over wordy exchanges and others not provided much to work with at all. The pacing crashes from scene to scene with inconsistent results while trying to connect the puzzle of effects gags and story transitions.

Still, there is a fun vibe composed throughout this film, one that shows that the creators of this movie grew up with scary VHS tapes from the video store and greasy pizza from the delivery guy.

Monte’s Rating
3.00 out of 5.00

It Chapter Two - Movie Review by Ben Cahlamer

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Directed by: Andy Muschietti

Screenplay by: Gary Dauberman

Based on: “It” by Stephen King

Starring: James McAvoy, Jessica Chastain, Bill Hader, Isaiah Mustafa, Jay Ryan, James Ransom, Andy Bean, Bill Skarsgard

Life finds an interesting way to connect past events to the present. Yes, in a way I am referring to Andy Muschietti’s “It Chapter Two,” which sees grown up versions of the Losers Club returning to Derry as children start mysteriously disappearing. But it also reminds me of my years in middle school, when Stephen King’s novels were popular with my peers; and despite my best efforts, I could not get the librarian to let me check out “It” without my parents’ permission.

Many moons later, I find myself watching films based on King’s novels, and liking them.

There’s more to it than that. One of the things that I respect the most about the various adaptations of King’s novels is the characters and the way they are compelled to face their own inner demons. The returning duo of Andy Muchietti and “It” scribe Gary Dauberman ensures that those characterizations remained richly intact, especially given the fact that the events are set 27 years later.

Most of the Losers Club have moved on and Muschietti spends much of the first act reacquainting us with these characters in their adult states. The adult cast is first rate, with James McAvoy playing Bill Denbrough. I appreciated McAvoy’s tactile approach to the role, the center of a great deal of humor. Jessica Chastain is a natural choice for Beverly Marsh, having to stand up for herself after enduring years’ of abuse. Jay Ryan plays Ben Hanscom who is successful as an adult, and the one character who changed the most between the adult and child versions.

One of the interesting juxtapositions of “It Chapter Two,” are the overly numerous flashbacks to the younger versions of these characters, mostly as a way to carry the adult’s stories forward. None of the characters’ has as strong of a transition as Richie Tozier, played as an adult by Bill Hader. As strong of a comedian as Hader is, a fact that they build upon in the first act, the trauma and the drama the lies underneath a comedian is omnipresent in Hader’s performance.

Rounding out the main ensemble are Isaiah Mustafa plays Mike Hanlon, the one, lone member of the Losers Club who remains behind in Derry, James Ransone as Eddie Kaspbrak and Andy Bean as Stanley Uris.

Dauberman does an exceptional job of bringing the club members back together. There is a lot of nervous humor to keep us on the edge of our seats and when they are together, they are a formidable group against Bill Skarsgard’s Pennywise the Dancing Clown. Skarsgard still terrifies even me, and the scares populate this film rather than punctuate it, though they are effective

What wasn’t necessarily effective was the length of the film, which gives way to several challenges within, namely pacing. While it was interesting to see the flashbacks and for some of the characters, rather effective, they become a distraction to the overall story. Within that distraction though, I still felt more invested in the teenaged characters’ stories.

Where “It” felt like a take on “Stand by Me,” another King staple, “It Chapter Two” feels like a take on “The Shining” with respect to the characters and their narrative arcs. “It Chapter Two’s” length and excessive flashbacks keep it from being a stronger film.

2.75 out of 4

Vita & Virginia - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

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Arterton and Debicki work very well individually in ‘Vita & Virginia’ but share no chemistry

Directed by:  Chanya Button

Written by:  Eileen Atkins

Starring:  Gemma Arterton, Elizabeth Debicki and Isabella Rossellini

 

“Vita & Virginia” – “Nothing thicker than a knife’s blade separates happiness from melancholy.” – Virginia Woolf, “Orlando” (1928)

Director Chanya Button’s “Vita & Virginia” depicts the relationship between Vita Sackville-West (Gemma Arterton) and Virginia Woolf (Elizabeth Debicki), and with two commendable actresses and a vastly intriguing historical premise, her film carries two key ingredients that can garner the Academy’s attention. 

Unfortunately, there’s a lot more that separates “Vita & Virginia” from celebrating Oscar gold-happiness and wading in a state of cinematic-melancholy, and this film lands in the latter.

Certainly, Button’s altruistic intentions bear high praise, as noted during the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival.

“If we can be relied to know anything about (Virginia Woolf), it’s how she died.  Whereas, I think this story marks a moment of profound strength,” Button said.

Button accomplishes her goal, but along the way, the movie runs into distracting problems and delivers a flat, lackluster romance that certainly deserves more emotional interest, celebration, scandal, and a sense of danger.  This is especially noticeable, given Vita and Virginia’s relationship crossed taboos in the 1920s, and they willingly and openly committed adultery.

Before Vita’s relationship with Virginia began, her husband Harold (Rupert Penry-Jones) and she enjoyed a happy marriage, and in this case, happy is defined as satisfaction from ordinary companionship.  Their passion, however, is missing, like walking outside with your keys in hand and discovering that your car has been stolen. 

The fire between Vita and Harold has flamed out, and the entire movie feels like this couple’s pedestrian union.  For instance, in the first act, Virginia attends her sister Vanessa’s (Emerald Fennell) party.  During a quiet portion of the evening, Virginia and others casually gaze at their friend Geoffrey (Rory Fleck Byrne) and Vanessa slow dancing, and they – including the said couple – seem to be looking for sleep rather than enjoying each other’s company. 

Cinematographer Carlos De Carvalho paints bright colors, and costume designer Lorna Marie Mugan parades beautiful, vibrant attire that can be found everywhere, but the film’s energy remains low throughout, including the intimate scenes between our two leads. 

Look, Arterton and Debicki share zero chemistry.  They just don’t work as a couple, even though they individually play their parts of pursuer and pursuee in very convincing fashion. 

Ever the socialite and with one eye on human treasures, the lively, gorgeous Vita aggressively chases, or rather hunts down, Virginia, and her intrigue stems from Ms. Woolf’s writing.  Artenton delivers her portrayal with genuine smiles and vitality (pardon the pun) combined with an undeniable aura of mischievousness. 

As one would expect, Button instructs her makeup department to douse Debicki’s skin with gray, English winter-tones, while the actress rightly includes shades of Woolf’s mental illness that barely hold her vulnerable heart strings.

Instead of including an accompanying string orchestra soundtrack, the film sports modern, electronic beats that feel best appropriate for Saturday night clubbing at 2 a.m.  Naturally, the universe carves out places for this music to reside, but these off-putting, pulsating fillers regularly and unsuitably dominate the film’s lulls, and the score includes occasional female gasps for unnecessary reasons.

Speaking of breaths, Button incorporates several extreme closeups of Vita’s and Virginia’s mouths and eyeballs, which begin during the opening scene and continue through the 1-hour 16-minute mark.  There may be many, many more of these camera choices, but this particular critic was probably more concerned with digital flashes on his watch during the picture’s last 34 minutes.

The fact that the screenplay is very conversational doesn’t help, but Vita and Virginia do recite their letters to one another while Ms. Woolf resides in England and Ms. Sackville-West – a diplomat’s wife – whisks off to Persia and Berlin.  These moments have appealing merit, if one can digest the two actresses staring straight into the camera, which becomes tiresome after a while. 

Well, Vita and Virginia’s amorous relationship and platonic friendship lasted quite a while, about 15 years.  Vita also became the inspiration for one of Virginia’s most famous novels, and their on-screen story probably argues that toxic masculinity can be a knife’s blade away from troublesome femininity.

(2/4 stars)

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

Aquarela - Movie Review by Ben Cahlamer

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Director: Viktor Kossakovsky

It is creepily eerie that I’m submitting this review as a massive hurricane barrels down on the Florida panhandle. We talk on social media and in the news about the impacts of global warming, something that has been on my radar in my 43-short years on this planet. And yet, I still have the impression that we have only a small inkling of the power of water and its role in the delicate ecological balance that keeps our small blue ball in the solar system together.

The power behind Viktor Kossakovsky’s enveloping documentary, “Aquarela” is to remind us of water’s awesomeness, its destructiveness and its place in the aforementioned ecological balance.

Water isn’t simply something that covers 71 percent of our surface or 96.5 percent of all the earth’s water is held by oceans. It is in the air as water vapor, in rivers, lakes and as we see in the beginning of the documentary, it is in icecaps and ice floes.

Kossakovsky doesn’t offer a verbal narration of the images that unfold on the screen in front of us. Instead, he relies on the natural sounds, and the happenings on the screen to captivate us. It’s no wonder then that we see people driving across a glacier off in the distance when suddenly the ice gives way and the camera crew goes in to assist.

The purpose of showing this was twofold. First, it demonstrates the fragility of our world and the life on it; second, it begins the narrative flow, literally and figuratively as we move from the frozen world of Russia to a scientific expedition across the Atlantic on a sailboat where we are witness to the rough seas and the constant changing conditions. We see the wear and tear that life on the sea has on us. I noted that as the relentless waves crashed over the hull, the crew became more hardened against what Mother Nature wanted to throw their way.

Kossakovsky takes us from the Northern Hemisphere into the Southern Hemisphere. The shift from the open, rough seas to the wind-blown streets of an unfamiliar town really took me by surprise. The city, which it turns out was Miami during Hurricane Irma was familiar because of the landscape. The power of Irma’s destructive winds was not enough to level the culture and the art deco look of the city, but it reminded me of just how fragile our infrastructure is.

Finally, we float down to Angel Falls in Venezuela where we see the high and mighty water drop into a pool. There is calmness and serenity within the falls, but the images and the sounds that we experience before getting to this point are chaotic. We’ve created the chaos and we can weather it, but water will eventually consume us.

During my screening, and for whatever reason, I chose to sit towards the front of the theater, something I never do. And as the sound of the waves fall over us sonically, Kossakovsky successfully puts us right in the middle of the wave or driving through the hurricane in Florida. I thought to myself, without a voice over narration, this film would sound amazing in Dolby Atmos and to my surprise, they formatted the sound for it. The imagery was also stunning. None of the cameras wavered when you would think they should. It was as if the flow of water running through the Earth’s crust from north to south had a straight path from north to south.

“Aquarela” is the type of film where you have to let the visuals guide you through its story. It is an exceptionally rewarding experience and something that I hope people get to see on as big a screen as possible.

3.75 out of 4

Brittany Runs A Marathon - Movie Review by Ben Cahlamer

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Written and Directed by: Paul Downs Colaizzo

Starring: Jillian Bell, Michaela Watkins, Utkarsh Ambudkar, Lil Rel Howery, Micah Stock

Premiering at Sundance, Paul Downs Colaizzo’s “Brittany Runs a Marathon” is an uplifting, inspired comedy-drama, featuring Jillian Bell as Brittany Forgler.

Brittany has all the right qualities for an up and coming young executive in New York City, but she has one problem: she has very little self-respect and she has no motivation whatsoever.

Her roommate, Gretchen (Alice Lee) is full of herself and she projects that on to the world. Brittany also has an aggressive attitude toward Catherine (Michaela Watkins), the fitness guru of the apartment building they live in.

Colaizzo, a playwright from Pennsylvania, imbues his film with solid characters and situations that will feel very familiar to just about anyone who sees this film. The level of humor and self-deprecation with which Bell approaches her character is what drives this story. None of the themes felt forced; the struggling substance abuse/recovery motif, the gay best friend, the inclusivity of it all is something the story cherishes because they are all facets of Brittany’s journey.

The challenge of the story is that is relies so much on the humor that the drama fell short and when it peaks, the direction it goes doesn’t surprise. It actually felt as if every 1980’s soaring underdog film came together at once, that’s how powerful the peak is.

And then the recovery phase of Brittany’s story, while just as compelling really felt awkwardly paced. It’s as if the story knew which direction to go and tried to get there, but then derailed itself at the same time. Bell holds all of this together.

I don’t mind saying that some of the awkwardness I felt was because it summed me up to a ‘T’. And I got the feeling that Brittany was a stand-in for the director’s own story, which if true, kudos for putting yourself out there, Mr. Colaizzo. It’s difficult to share a journey where the character changes so dramatically, not only in physical figure, but also in a mental state, to the point where we realize that we must make our own way in the world, that we must be responsible for our own happiness and well-being.

The supporting cast really helped to cement the push. Michaela Watkins, who was misunderstood at the beginning of the film, really had a strong arc and progression. Utkarsh Ambudkar, who I remembered from “Blindspotting” last year, played “bohemian” really well (you’ll have to see the movie to understand the reference, but trust me, it works). Lil Rel Howery really drove the film’s thesis home and while I liked his character, he came in during that awkward phase of the film I guess because I heard what the character had to say to me and I just didn’t want to hear it, much like Brittany.

“Brittany Runs a Marathon” is an uplifting story with a feel-good ending wrapped up in a familiar ball of energy. Jillian Bell does an amazing job with the performance and the character, but the story falls flat in the third act.

2.75 out of 4

One Child Nation - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

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‘One Child Nation’ is a brutal, must-see history lesson

Directed by:  Nanfu Wang and Jialing Zhang

“One Child Nation” – “It was like fighting a war.”

A population war.

This eye-opening documentary – from directors Nanfu Wang and Jialing Zhang - dives into a massive conflict that embroiled China for about 35 years, a conflict entirely within its own borders.  Due to China’s constrained resources and rapidly expanding population, the government – in 1979 - enacted a one child policy that limited nearly all families to just one offspring.  Except for some exceptions within designated rural communities, China strictly enforced this edict that finally ended in 2015.  It was the largest family planning project in modern history, and although a macroeconomic graph would logically illustrate the country’s supply versus demand conundrum, this policy unleashed senseless and immeasurable collateral damage – both emotional and physical.

For Nanfu Wang, it’s personal.

Born in China in 1985, Wang grew up under the said policy, and once she became a mother, she decided to explore the topic from behind the camera.  She interviews her family, friends and neighbors, as they all look back at those troubled times. 

Wang effectively narrates the film in broad strokes and intimate details, and she introduces the policy to the viewers and, in the process, unleashes figurative body blows through interviewer/interviewee discourse.  Some of the answers shocked Wang.  They will also stun audiences into absolute silence, and other moments will draw painful gasps.

Well, the Chinese government declaring that families can only have one child is simple enough to say, but infinitely more laborious to enforce.  To an outsider, the policy might seem terribly invasive, but when one’s imagination wonders about the possible implementation methods, expect the worst.  Once the government set the policy in motion, they needed to follow-up with three steps:  delivering the message, investigating behavior and carrying out course correction. 

The film walks through each phase in blunt fashion, and the first - as one would expect - involves propaganda.  When running a communist country, resistance to messaging simply doesn’t exist.  Reminders of the one child policy were found everywhere.  Textbooks, live performances, television, and posters are obvious mediums, but calendars and matchbooks might seem overboard. 

Then again, when an elementary school kid (on television) lectures the populace by rapping, “If you have a second child, you violate the law,” you know that the government is addressing their marketing campaign in vastly creative ways.

China’s people living through constant messaging is one burden, but Wang discoverers much darker forces when the government pursues investigation and course correction, and Zhang and Wang’s camera sears from the interviews’ brutal reveals.  This is especially true during a frank conversation with Wang’s mother (Zaodi’s) midwife, and her role as an enforcer.

Wang’s uncle’s story will probably reduce you to tears, and her brother Zhihao also speaks on camera.  If you’re wondering how Wang has a brother, her family was one of the aforementioned rural exceptions.  Since Nanfu was a girl, the government allowed her parents to try again, in the hopes of having a boy. 

Governmental, institutional and everyday treatment of girls and women as second-class citizens is not a decidedly new concept and just look to thousands of years of human history for countless examples.  In this particular case, Wang explores China’s views and actions.  The doc moves from birth reduction and into another direction, and none of material is easy to digest.

Wars never are.

(3.5/4 stars)

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