Where's My Roy Cohn? - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

Photo Credit: Sony Pictures Classics

Photo Credit: Sony Pictures Classics

The documentary ‘Where’s My Roy Cohn?’ finds an answer to its question

 

Director:  Matt Tyrnauer

Starring:  Ken Auletta, Roy M. Cohn and Roger Stone

“Where’s My Roy Cohn?” – Roy Cohn died in 1986, but 33 years later, this American lawyer’s influence is shaping U.S. policy, dominating 24-hour news cycles and infuriating or bringing joy to a politically-split United States’ electorate. 

You see, Cohn was Donald Trump’s lawyer in the 1970s and 80s, and decades later, when Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from Robert Mueller’s investigation in 2017, the current President of the United States allegedly asked a question.  

Where’s my Roy Cohn?    

Director Matt Tyrnauer’s informative documentary – that also doubles as a 97-minute on-screen case of déjà vu – answers this question: Who is Roy Cohn?

Born into wealth in the Bronx, NY, this only child graduated from Columbia University Law School at 20, and – because of his age - the state made him wait a year to take the bar exam.  (Geez, and what were you doing at 20?) 

After prosecuting a hyper-infamous trial in 1951, Cohn became Sen. Joe McCarthy’s trusted chief counsel.  During the McCarthy hearings, Cohn was regularly seen in courtrooms and whispering shadowy advice to the aforementioned lawmaker, the most polarizing political figure of the 1950s.

From there, Cohn’s career takes off into murkier, darker heights in New York City.  Tyrnauer does not whisper, but - grabs a microphone and a couple dozen megaphones and - shouts from the tallest skyscrapers about this lawyer’s relentless, grimy panache of self-absorption and persistent ambition.  All the while, Tyrnauer interviews journalists, Cohn’s relatives and even conservative pundit Roger Stone, as they dissect and reflect on the man’s wholly controversial, but massively effective, philosophies.  

Never admit you’re wrong.

Always claim victory, even in defeat. 

Know the political value of wrapping yourself in the American flag…and more.

Certainly the parallels between Roy Cohn and Donald J. Trump become frighteningly or beautifully (depending upon your political stripe) clear, and although Tyrnauer’s film is a straight-up documentary, he carries a slanted view while proving his thesis.  The filmmaker, however, does score points by including Cohn’s friend Stone, and journalist Ken Auletta’s audio interview is the movie’s backbone, as we hear Cohn’s first-hand perspectives. 

Still, comparing President Trump to Roy Cohn is far from a moral compliment.  Quite the opposite.  The doc presents that Cohn courted nefarious clients, bathed in scandal and committed high larceny in plain sight, while also bellowing the biggest lies to newspapers and telling the smallest ones - without a second thought - to his closest allies and confidants. 

For those who loathe President Trump, “Where’s My Roy Cohn?” is reliving a daily nightmare, as Cohn is that irresponsible uncle who babysits his nephew on weekends.  Instead of putting together puzzles or playing catch in the backyard, he’s preaching hard lessons, sharing packs of cigarettes and hustling tourists out of their money in Time Square. 

“Where’s My Roy Cohn?” is not a pleasant, temporary reprieve from the news, campaign ads and the latest but he said-but she said-but they said-but we said-but the dog said.  This eye-opening tutorial convincingly draws a line – even more permanent than a Sharpie – between Cohn and Trump, and the answer to the film’s title is obvious. 

For better or worse, President Trump should look in the mirror.  

(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.

An interview with Claes Bang and Giuseppe Capotondi from ‘The Burnt Orange Heresy’ by Jeff Mitchell

Claes Bang and Elizabeth Debicki in The Burnt Orange Heresy.

Claes Bang and Elizabeth Debicki in The Burnt Orange Heresy.

A wealthy art collector (Mick Jagger) summons a struggling art critic/dealer (Claes Bang) to his opulent villa on Italy’s Lake Como and hands him an offer that he cannot refuse in the highly-engaging thriller “The Burnt Orange Heresy”. 

After catching the movie, this critic could not refuse a chance to chat with Claes (“The Square” (2017)) and director Giuseppe Capotondi (“The Double Hour” (2009)) on the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival’s (TIFF) Roy Thomson Hall red carpet.  Claes and Giuseppe were so generous with their time, and we talked about the marvelous cast, the leads’ cryptic motivations, the gorgeous locale, and more!

“The Burnt Orange Heresy” stars Bang, Jagger, Elizabeth Debicki, and Donald Sutherland.  It played at the Venice Film Festival and TIFF, and Sony Pictures Classics picked it up. 

Director Giuseppe Capotondi at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival.

Director Giuseppe Capotondi at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival.

 

PFF:  I appreciate that your film is set in the art world.  Do you have a favorite artist?

GC:  (Laughing) I have many favorite artists.  I am small collector of photography, including   Wolfgang Tillmans’ work, which I hope one day will be worth millions. 

 

 

PFF:  Claes, you play a museum curator in “The Square” (2017), and an art critic/dealer in “The Burnt Orange Heresy”.  Is there an ongoing art-theme with your career that we should know about?

CB:  I only do films that are set in the art world.  No, it’s a coincidence, but the fun thing is that this could be the continued story of what happened to Christian in “The Square”, because he loses his job in a big museum, and in this film, James just lost his job in a big museum.  So, there is a connection, but I think that Christian in “The Square” has a very big heart, and James has a very dubious moral issue going on.

 

PFF:  James meets Berenice (Debicki), a new love interest, and I could not read their motivations.  I was guessing all the way.  

CB:  I love you saying that, because I really thought that the script was so intriguing.  There’s this weird thing going on between (James and Berenice), and that drew me into (the story) from the very beginning.  I found out that Elizabeth was going to play Berenice, and I thought, “This film is going to be so, so interesting.”

 

PFF:  I love the cast with Claes and Elizabeth, and Donald Sutherland and Mick Jagger play critical supporting roles. 

GC:  First of all, Donald is such a generous man.  A fantastic actor, he really helped me a lot on this one, and Mick, it was luck, I suppose.  We knew, from common friends, that he was looking for a last film to make, so we sent a script.  He liked it.  I went to London and was very nervous to meet Mick Jagger from The Rolling Stones, but he’s such a gentle soul.  He put me at ease immediately.  It was a pleasure to work with him.

CB:  Donald Sutherland has been a hero forever, because he’s made some of the best films that I’ve ever seen.  He’s amazing.  (Now), on the day (of a shoot), I can’t sit there thinking that this is Donald Sutherland or Mick Jagger.  I’m with the person who I’m working with on (that) day, so it was more before they came on-set, but they were so lovely, so great and so professional.  It was really cool. 

 
Claes Bang at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival.

Claes Bang at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival.

PFF:  It seems like Cassidy (Jagger) is a man with all the answers.  Does James know that he’s starting at a disadvantage?

CB:  No, I don’t think so.  It’s quite important that he does not know.  

 

PFF:  If you could reach into the screen and give James advice, what would it be?

CB:  When James has been given the offer by Cassidy, I would say to him, “Take the girl (Debicki) and run!  Take the girl and run!  She’s lovely.”

 

 

PFF:  Speaking of lovely, Cassidy’s home and its location were amazing. 

CB:  It’s crazy, crazy beautiful. To be shooting in (Lake Como), I can only recommend that to everybody in the world.   

 

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.

3 From Hell - Movie Review by Monte Yazzie

Richard Brake as Winslow Foxworth Coltrane, Sheri Moon Zombie as Baby Firefly and Bill Moseley as Otis Firefly on the set of, “3 FROM HELL,” a Lionsgate / Saban Films release.

Richard Brake as Winslow Foxworth Coltrane, Sheri Moon Zombie as Baby Firefly and Bill Moseley as Otis Firefly on the set of, “3 FROM HELL,” a Lionsgate / Saban Films release.

Dir: Rob Zombie
Starring: Bill Moseley, Sherri Moon Zombie, Richard Brake, and Sid Haig

Amidst a barrage of bullets and backed by the theme of “Free Bird” by Lynyrd Skynyrd, director Rob Zombie pulled a cinematic magic trick with his 2005 horror film “The Devil’s Rejects” by making the vile, disgusting, psychotic murdering road show threesome into characters that strangely, in those final minutes of the film, have the poise and demeanor of folk heroes rushing into their final battle.

Rob Zombie, a director whose style has fluctuated from music video motifs to major Hollywood gleam, continues his savage saga of murder mayhem with the Firefly Family in “3 From Hell”. The film is far more introspective than the other films in the trilogy; where “House of 1000 Corpses” crafted a funhouse with horror maniacs and “The Devil’s Rejects” aimed to humanize the cartoonish killers into grungy 70’s outlaws. “3 From Hell” attempts to create a family dynamic with these characters by further delving into their demented intentions and motivations. Unfortunately, the film often loses perspective and balance amidst the mixture of ideas and themes proposed throughout.

The film begins moments after the gun smoke lifts revealing the bullet riddled convertible carrying the Firefly Family members Otis (Bill Moseley), Baby (Sheri Moon Zombie), and Captain Spaulding (Sid Haig). Zombie wisely uses vintage footage of television reports and newspaper clippings to resurrect his characters and update the viewer on the happenings after the capture. All members of the murderous clan are serving life sentences, Otis is planning escape, Baby is tormented by a vengeful prison guard (Dee Wallace), and Captain Spaulding spouts boastful soliloquies for news reporters explaining the many reasons the Firefly Family is necessary for the world. It’s a haunting introduction that does a great job of moving the film from the late 1970’s into the early 1980’s.

Zombie combines more than a few themes throughout this film but the prevailing focus remains steadfast with the idea of family, both the severe dysfunction and deep-seated connections family members have with one another. When Zombie takes time to let this narrative focus breathe, “3 From Hell” exudes such an interesting blend of character driven ideas that makes the eventual road trip film have insight into the composition of these outlandish characters, even if the outcome is that their chaos is bred by the chaos they are inflicting onto the world.

In terms of violence and brutality, and may I emphasize that this film is NC-17 rated for a reason, this is a far more restrained film considering Zombie’s penchant for pushing the limits of sadism in his films. There is one moment that allows the group to indulge in their specific brand of bloody menace, it’s a scene that is photographed with jolting chaos in an effort to portray tormenting tension and it’s completely unnerving and uncomfortable.

The performances throughout are a mixed bag of emotions, each portrayed with different levels of success. Bill Moseley is mostly effective playing the leader of the group Otis, his sinister swagger and piercing eyes do most of the heavy lifting. Sheri Moon Zombie has the difficult task of playing the broken member of the group, in the big moments her blend of shrieking laughter mixed with playful pandemonium is pitch perfect, however in other quieter moments the performance just doesn’t connect like it should. Sid Haig, in his final performance, struggled with health concerns prior to shooting this film so his Captain Spaulding is only found in one short yet completely effective scene which displays why his character will always be a horror icon.

“3 From Hell” seems like a film that resisted every attempt to exist, yet it still came to life. That seems to be the quality that defines Rob Zombie as a filmmaker, an artist who will push to make his specific blend of horror come to life no matter what. While “3 From Hell” may not connect from moment to moment, with lapses in narrative cohesion and themes lost amidst the big ideas trying to be expressed throughout the film, fans of Rob Zombie’s films should still seek this one out.

Monte’s Rating
2.50 out of 5.00

 

 

Judy - Movie Review by Ben Cahlamer

Renée Zellweger as Judy Garland in JUDY. Photo Credit: David Hindley

Renée Zellweger as Judy Garland in JUDY. Photo Credit: David Hindley

Directed by: Rupert Goold

Screenplay by: Tom Edge

Based on the stage play “End of the Rainbow” by: Peter Quilter

Starring: Renée Zellweger, Finn Wittrock, Jessie Buckley, Rufus Sewell, Michael Gambon

As a kid, I remember “The Wizard of Oz” being a film about hope, that there was something better for all of us if we had the courage to persevere over evil. Judy Garland always impressed me with her voice. It was, unfortunately the only performance I can remember seeing her Ms.Garland’s.

Rupert Goold’s “Judy,” based on the musical drama “End of the Rainbow,” recounts the last months leading up to her premature death in 1968.  Tom Edge’s screenplay infuses the child, Judy Garland (Darci Shaw) with the adult Garland (Zellweger) as she struggles to take care of her children while continuing to perform.

Unlike “IT: Chapter II” which makes use of similar flashbacks to connect the characters, Goold and Edge use the flashbacks with a purpose, building the motivations of the adult Garland; driving her to continuously drink and use drugs to control her lack of sleep and her lack of appetite. Zellweger disappears completely into the character; she is stunning and gorgeous.

As Garland, Zelwegger is a range of emotion, whether she is addressing her children, talking to her ex, Sidney Luft (Rufus Sewell) or on stage, performing there is a level of confidence in Zellweger’s performance that is magical; my heart fluttered at her pain and delighted when she belted out a tune. There was a tenderness in her approach that gave the character a flawed, human touch, which is reinforced by the ongoing struggles she had as a child actor. There is an early scene with Louis B. Mayer on the “Wizard of Oz” set.  Goold uses this early scene to set us up for the constant bullying she endured along with defining the screen character’s own rebellious streak. One thing that the story doesn’t necessarily make clear is whether the rebellion as a child is due to the demands of the job or if she was naturally a rebel, but it is a small concern.

The flashbacks do not limit the pacing of the film, but the lack of a focal center for the story does; often I felt as if Judy was a character on the sideline of her own story, and perhaps with the drugs and alcohol involved, that was the point. Yet, there were times when the film was lucidly aware that Judy was a star, that she was a performer first, but that she also needed support, even when she didn’t want it, namely in the form of Rosalyn Wilder (Jessie Buckley).

There were several times during the film where Ms. Wilder looked at Garland with bewilderment as the performer suffered through her stupors, but managed to maintain her composure. There was an awkwardness between the two ladies during the earlier parts of the film that seemed off putting, but also gave Finn Wittrock an opportunity to shine as Mickey Deans, Garland’s second husband and business manager. Sadly, Mickey Deans comes just as quickly as he goes and the film seems content to not go into further details surrounding their brief marriage.

“Judy” doesn’t seem interested in questioning her last days beyond the constant abuse of drugs and alcohol, or even why she took her own life. There are questionable editing issues in the third act and some camera shots that look positively out of focus that I found distracting.

It does, however celebrate the life of an amazing performer who touched lives in an exceptionally positive way, especially as a gay icon.

The film has a smaller story thread of a gay couple who have the opportunity to interact with someone of Garland’s caliber. The couple, portrayed by Andy Nyman and Daniel Cerqueira, are her biggest fans, but they represent the most beautiful, and lasting impact she had on people, especially when Nyman’s character, Dan breaks down over how the government has treated his relationship with Stan (Cerqueira); my heart melted. I swooned over Zelwegger’s performance of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” It is both uplifting and heartbreaking at the same time.

“Judy” is a character study of the struggles Judy Garland went through. It is a flawed look at those aspects. Ms. Zellweger, who just absolutely inhabits Ms. Garland’s personae, is as good as it gets.

I’m in tears just finishing up this review, that’s how much I loved her performance.

2.75 out of 4

The Burnt Orange Heresy - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

Claes Bang and Elizabeth Debicki in The Burnt Orange Heresy. Photo Credit: TIFF

Claes Bang and Elizabeth Debicki in The Burnt Orange Heresy. Photo Credit: TIFF

‘The Burnt Orange Heresy’:  Bang, Debicki, Sutherland, and Jagger draw up a highly-engaging thriller

Directed by:  Giuseppe Capotondi

Written by:  Scott B. Smith, based on the novel by Charles Willeford

Starring:  Claes Bang, Elizabeth Debicki, Donald Sutherland, and Mick Jagger

“The Burnt Orange Heresy” - “I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse.” – Don Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando), “The Godfather” (1972)

“Let’s get a little crazy here.” – artist Bob Ross 

From the very beginning, it’s difficult to get a read on James Figueras (Claes Bang) and Berenice Hollis (Elizabeth Debicki).  Assured and knowledgeable, James delivers a slick and measured art lecture – with explanations of brushstrokes and hues that tie to a remarkable history lesson – but in the process, he twists the room of engaged, wide-eyed listeners into knots, but in a most gratifying way. 

James orchestrates a magic trick of sorts…and then reveals his secrets. 

If this magician - wrapped in art critic/dealer clothing -  figuratively escapes from a straitjacket while trapped in a water tank today, these fascinated patrons would drop serious coin to watch him saw a lady in half next week.  Apparently, James is particularly skilled at delivering surprises, or from another perspective, maybe he’s comfortable swimming in pools of deceit. 

Berenice wanders into his classroom, and through an initial physical attraction, a fascination with the art world or perhaps a long ago-decided calculation, she willingly wishes to be his trusty assistant, one on equal footing.  This eye-catching pair – who could double as Prince Charming and Cinderella – might look like royalty, but they – individually - carry grifter-vibes which invite trouble. 

In director Giuseppe Capotondi’s highly-engaging noir thriller, James and Berenice step into jaw-dropping opulence in the form of a massive villa at Lake Como, Italy.  Here, art collector Joseph Cassidy (Mick Jagger) presents James with an offer that he cannot refuse, and it involves a character – who will not be described in this review – played by Donald Sutherland. 

In a case of the immovable object versus the irresistible force, James has to fight an uphill battle while Berenice – who somewhat sits on the sidelines - may or may not be sharpening her own sword.

Writer Scott B. Smith introduces several prickly points and warm creature comforts that lay the groundwork for mixed emotions.  Rather than stretch the material into 150 minutes, Capotondi keeps the picture at 99.  The film delivers flurries of strikes within a shorter-than-expected window, so the pain pierces deeper, not because of long periods of exposition that allow the audience to bond with the leads, but just the opposite.  James and Berenice do not truly know one another that well.  We don’t either, and hence, as the events unfold, we need to play catch-up, and like James’ opening scene, the film offers surprises. 

What might be a terrific surprise is how accomplished Jagger is on the silver screen.  The Rolling Stones frontman is certainly not shy of a big stage, and he dazzles here as Cassidy, a smooth aristocrat (in the monetary sense) who seems to have all the answers.

In 1982, director Werner Herzog said of Jagger, “(He’s) not a good actor, that would be wrong to say.  He’s a sensation, and no one has realized that.  What a performer…just incredible.”

Herzog’s words ring true, as Jagger’s Cassidy intimidates by conveying unwelcome personal truths with a soothing suave grace and smiling eyes, that will instantly trigger an immediate desire to retreat. 

Cassidy and Debney (Sutherland) reveal more to the audience in a few minutes than James and Berenice would divulge over a month of Sundays.  This, however, is all by Capotondi’s and Smith’s chosen design, and Bang, Debicki, Sutherland, and Jagger hold on tight to the movie screen’s four corners, because “The Burnt Orange Heresy” gets a little crazy which – like art – leaves a lasting impression.

(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.

Raising Buchanan - Movie Review by Ben Cahlamer

Cathy Shim, Jennifer Pfalzgraff, and Amanda Melby in Raising Buchanan. Photo Credit: Raising Buchanan/PBATHW LLC

Cathy Shim, Jennifer Pfalzgraff, and Amanda Melby in Raising Buchanan. Photo Credit: Raising Buchanan/PBATHW LLC

Written and Directed: by Bruce Dellis

Starring: Rene Auberjonois, Amanda Melby, Cathy Shim, Terence Hines, M. Emmet Walsh, Jennifer Pfalzgraff, Steve Briscoe

If you were so desperate to solve a financial challenge, would you consider stealing and ransoming a dead president’s body?

This is the situation that confronts, and confounds Ruth Kiesling (Amanda Melby) in “Raising Buchanan.” If Bruce Dellis’s film sounds like a horror story gone wrong, you couldn’t get further from the truth. Dellis’s screenplay is full of witticism, cynicism, and wisdom as Ruth, a donut shop employee with anger management issues tries to figure her way out of serval messes, including how to get away with the aforementioned theft and ransom.

Dellis’ ingeniously manages to portray Ruth in two lights – the first is in her irrational physical world, those filled with the problems that plague many of us, which makes the film relatable. In this world, Ruth has friends, namely her roommates, Meg (Cathy Shim) and Holly (Jennifer Pfalzgraff) along with Philip Crosby (Terence Hines), her probation officer.

The way the characters interact with Ruth is imaginative; Meg and Holly are the “plucky comic relief” characters in that they know Ruth and try to support her through her ordeal as best as they can, especially when it comes to her father, Larry (M. Emmet Walsh). The story works Meg and Holly’s comedy in with Ruth’s allowing Melby to shine; even in her most depressive state, she is a hoot.

Ruth is portrayed in a second light that relates to both James Buchanan (Rene Auberjonois) and an egotistical ventriloquist, Errol (Steve Briscoe). As she comes across his body and hatches her scheme, Dellis places us in Ruth’s head, allowing us to see the higher reasoning behind what makes her tick. In the physical world, Ruth plays cello on a series of popular You Tube videos featuring Errol.

Within this, we see Ruth interacting with Buchanan in his own time, using the cello as a gateway between the two sides of Ruth, making for a unique look at how we rationalize irrational thoughts. Auberjonois, who has a long history of comedic roles and is known for his dry humor was the perfect actor to play Buchanan; he has an aristocratic way about himself that plays beautifully off Ruth, who is just a snide and snarky in her mind as she is in the real world.

The snarky side plays beautifully off of her probation officer. There’s a hilarious scene as he visits Ruth at the donut shop as they discuss her anger issues and how she’s dealing with them. As she gets deeper in to her own mess, though, she realizes that no one seems particularly interested in Buchanan’s body, giving rise to antics that matches the ongoing chase in Stanley Kramer’s “It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” – the characters are all so crisscrossed that the prize becomes less important than the goal – finding the best in ourselves.

“Raising Buchanan” was a highlight at the 2019 Phoenix Film Festival, full of laughter and is an excellent example of how our creative outlets can help us cope even when the situation is bad. The film plays exclusively at Harkins Scottsdale Shea.

3 out of 4

Monos - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

Photo Credit: NEON

Photo Credit: NEON

‘Monos’ is an unorthodox teen spirit war movie

Directed by:  Alejandro Landes

Written by:  Alejandro Landes and Alexis Dos Santos

Starring:  Sofia Buenaventura, Moises Arias, Julianne Nicholson, and Julian Giraldo

 

“Monos” – Writer/director Alejandro Landes’ picture, about eight teens manning a military post in the middle of nowhere, is a visual stunner. 

The film heavily leans on the great outdoors and plays on sights, sounds and feelings rather than intricate storytelling.  Sitting alongside the clouds, this camp resides on a mountainous, rocky swathe of terrain that must frequently see rain, because everything feels incessantly damp.  Damp, like dewy grass in the morning, except this soaked state lingers throughout the day and night. 

If your sneaker – along with your foot  – ever accidentally fell into a puddle during at 9am hike at summer camp, you know the uncomfortable feeling of carrying a soggy wheel around all day.  At best, “Monos” will make you relive that unpleasant memory, and at worst, the film will desperately call to your better angels, because the on-screen societal norms are in dire need of a massive yoga class.  Please throw in a civics lecture for good measure. 

During times of war, yoga and civics apparently have to wait. 

The eight young soldiers, led by Wolf (Julian Giraldo), have heaps of time on their hands and no specific orders, other than to watch over their prisoner, a 40-something woman named Doctora (Julianne Nicholson).  Not only is Doctora significantly older than her adversaries, but she’s also Caucasian, while the kids are persons of color.  The differences between age and race are not explicitly called out, but both could be symbolic.

Although the teens have adult roles, their adolescence shines through the forced, imperfect masks of maturity, and when events do not follow the designed plan, these cracks become more pronounced and the grown-up shells are sometimes shattered.  The parallels between “Monos” and “Lord of the Flies” are obvious, but these kids are tethered – albeit a thin line - to a military hierarchy, so hey, marching orders are marching orders.

During times of war, chaos sometimes reigns supreme.

Bigfoot (Moises Arias), who may be third or fourth in command, fills a leadership role through his own volition.  As one can imagine, following his supervisors’ direction is not his first priority, and instead, satisfying his own warrior-id takes precedence.

Throughout the uncomfortable times, idle times, challenging times, and chaotic times, Rambo (Sofia Buenaventura) is the group’s moral compass, but this soldier’s message will only resonate if others look to it.  Despite the name, Rambo is not the alpha but is the film’s protagonist.  Curiously, Rambo is played by a young woman, but blurred pronoun lines, a short haircut, and a unisex wardrobe can bring our initial assumptions into question. 

Much less uncertain is Alejandro Landes’ message about this society.  In an early scene, Landes centers the young people – one at a time - squarely in his frame, as they run in place for training purposes.  Conversely, in the third act, Rambo meets a family watching something mindless on television, so perhaps no matter who you are – fighting a war or sitting on the sidelines - we are all going nowhere.

During times of war, life might not have a purpose.

(2.5/4 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.

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