The Magnificent Seven - Movie Review by Monte Yazzie

magnificent-7The Magnificent Seven  

Dir: Antoine Fuqua

Starring: Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke, Vincent D’Onofrio, Byung-hun Lee, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Martin Sensmeier, Luke Grimes, Peter Sarsgaard, and Haley Bennett


In 1960 veteran director John Sturges was tasked with taking some of the most recognizable actors in Hollywood and collaborating on an updated remake of an Akira Kurosawa film called “Seven Samurai”. That film would become the classic western “The Magnificent Seven”. The film starred Yul Brynner who was coming off two lauded films, “The Ten Commandments” and “The King and I”. It also starred the experienced, yet not established, Steve McQueen who would later make “The Great Escape” and “Bullitt”. Rounding out the film was Charles Bronson, Eli Wallach, Robert Vaughn, Brad Dexter, and James Coburn. Not a bad cast to make a movie with during this time.


While the 1960 version of the film was done only six years after Akira Kurosawa’s classic, it should be noted that the Japanese master filmmaker approved of Mr. Sturges western, director Antoine Fuqua is tasked with updating this film fifty-six years after the original film was released. Mr. Kurosawa is one of the most influential filmmakers in history, his film “Seven Samurai” has been copied, remade, and updated hundreds of times. How could an updated version of a film, which was already a remake, work in today’s remake saturated film world? Because stories of good versus evil and the journey of heroes facing insurmountable odds can still be an interesting element when done the right way, even when it’s been done so many times that even the most novice of film fan can see the path of the story a mile away. The 2016 version of “The Magnificent Seven” is entertaining and fun many times throughout; it's as mediocre of a popcorn movie as one could be.


The small town of Rose Creek, populated with hard working families, is under the brutal control of a greedy industrialist named Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard). Faced with the option of leaving town or meeting death, the townspeople employ the services of a bounty hunter named Chisolm (Denzel Washington). Needing more help than the townspeople can offer, Chisolm employs the services of six other men; a gambler named Faraday (Chris Pratt), an outlaw named Vasquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), a famous gunman named Goodnight Robicheaux (Ethan Hawke) and his knife-wielding associate Billy Rocks (Byung-hun Lee), a famous hunter named Jack Horne (Vincent D’Onofrio), and a lone Native American named Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeier).


While the locations and characters have changed just a bit with Antoine Fuqua's version of the film, the structure to the original films that have come before it are still very much intact. Justice needs to be served and the innocent need to be protected. Mr. Fuqua does a great job introducing these characters, even the villain who is offered the very first introduction is provided a startling and violent scene that makes the viewer despise him. This helps warrant the vigilante mentality of getting bounty hunters, gamblers, and outlaws together to fight the good fight. Still, Mr. Fuqua does not shy away from displaying the character flaws of some of the seven justice seeking men, specifically with group leader Chisolm who plays all of his emotional cards close to the chest.


Denzel Washington is great, he provides a swagger and charisma that shines brightest when the actor is allowed to move within a scene. Mr. Washington doesn't need to say much but the little mannerisms that the actor brings adds a sense of mystery, and also danger, with every deliberate move. Chris Pratt provides much of the humor, the actor is best when he is allowed freedom with the character but he also brings a natural likability to a character that isn't the most righteous of the group. Another standout in the film is Ethan Hawke who plays a prideful but tormented gunfighter. The talented Mr. Hawke has a knack for making these kind of secondary characters better than they should be.


Mr. Fuqua composes a film that is entertaining and fun, a film that goes the extra mile with characters and scenarios to make it a crowd pleasing experience. However, this also moves the film far away from being anything remotely memorable, in fact in some instances it makes the film rather boring. It's no better than the western made in 1960 except for supplying more action scenes and the narrative is so straightforward that all the brilliant touches of character development and narrative composition found in Akira Kurosawa's original work is mostly glossed over. So yes, many will be entertained and many will have a great time with this film, however some may find themselves wondering why they bothered remaking it at all?


Monte's Rating

3.25 out of 5.00

The Dressmaker - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

dressmaker‘The Dressmaker’ needs some alterations  

Written/Directed by:  Jocelyn Moorhouse

Starring: Kate Winslet, Judy Davis, Liam Hemsworth, and Hugo Weaving


“The Dressmaker” - “Make it work.”  - Tim Gunn


For those not familiar with the reality television show “Project Runway”, Tim Gunn offers advice to contestants to help fix their fashion project challenges.  When a dress looks to be in some trouble – with pattern, construction, color, and/or shape issues – Gunn offers guidance to help salvage a specific hot mess of fabric sitting on a plastic mannequin, and he usually concludes his consultation with the parting words, “Make it work.”


With limited time to pull together a great product, the competitors generally feel lots of stress during their televised periods of crisis, so Gunn is a most welcome face.


Tilly Dunnage (Kate Winslet) – a striking fashion designer who recently worked in London and Paris – is not a most welcomed face at her birthplace of Dungatar, a dusty, desolate town in the middle of nowhere in the Australian desert.   With a collection of small wooden-framed houses, a general store and a tiny one-room school, Dungatar is an isolated village which time apparently forgot.  Set in the 1950s, it has a distinctive, dystopian feel, like a spaghetti western shoot out is about to break out, and Tilly moves back to find an answer to a very important question.


She asks her mom (Judy Davis), “Am I a murderer?”


Australian writer/director Jocelyn Moorhouse is prepared to answer this question over the course of 1 hour and 58 minutes in her first film since 1997, and she includes many famous Aussies to help tell the story.  Davis steals nearly every on-screen frame of the picture in an engaging and entertaining performance as Tilly’s alcoholic, shut-in mom.  Liam Hemsworth is an attractive potential love interest.  Hugo Weaving (who was not born in Australia but grew up there during a portion of his childhood) plays a friendly long arm of the law, and this leaves Winslet – from England - as the only non-Australian lead actor.


Dungatar’s residents have character as well, but the strange kind.   Generally, they do not venture out of town all that often, and Moorhouse provides an eccentric atmosphere with several zany, slapstick-like sequences to accentuate their personas.  After meeting some of the locals – and then later through purposely-designed, comedic sequences -  the film suggests that Dungatar could be an endearing community, like the unforgettable, charming and tiny locale of Tullymore in “Waking Ned Devine” (1998).  We get similar glances of charm here, but they do not mesh with the very dark matter of Tilly’s potentially-murderous act and many of the residents’ mean-spirited, tittle-tattle natures.


In one scene, an elderly pharmacist – bent over because of a bad back – runs through the streets with Keystone Kops-like music playing in the background, but in another moment, the film shows ugly flashbacks of kids bullying a young Tilly, which may have led to the previously-mentioned potential murder.  The shifts in tones are terribly distracting and keep us guessing about what the movie is trying to convey.  The general feeling, however, is that Tilly will face her past and hopefully break the invisible chains that have emotionally held her in check for decades.  Her new Dungatar experience could become cathartic and transformational, as she begins to transform the town through her expert fashion skills as a dressmaker.


Before Tilly’s arrival, everything – including the physical environment, attitudes and clothing – seems to harshly bake in grays and browns because of the Australian sun, but she soon drapes Dungatar’s ladies with the latest fashions in gorgeous, bright reds, blues, greens, and whites.   Visually, the contrast between the new attire and current environment clashes in the most glorious, cinematic ways.


In many ways, “The Dressmaker” is a visually beautiful film, and Moorhouse – 19 years since her last movie – has an astute eye of capturing attention-grabbing and pleasing optics.  In addition, the four leads’ performances – and Tilly’s specific question – also keep us engaged.


Tilly’s past saw her as a victim and then – rightly or wrongly – a villain, but can she turn into a hero?  The movie attempts Tilly’s internal makeover but conversely struggles in deciding what it (the film itself) wants to be.


A slapstick comedy?  A dark, gloomy drama?  A revenge picture?  A redemption story? It does ultimately make a choice, but I feel it is a bad one.  In fact, after one particular decision in the movie’s third act, it left me figuratively throwing my hands in the air in frustrating disbelief.  Although some may appreciate the eventual direction of the story, it does not connect with much of the narrative that the film clearly lays out during Tilly’s time in Dungatar.  The script feels a hot mess sitting on a fascinating physical and emotional foundation, and the right adjustments could have turned “The Dressmaker” into the one of the best films of the year.


It clearly is not, and I wish Moorhouse called an objective third party to review the script before filming.  Perhaps, Tim Gunn was available.  His pep talk and trademark message might have – at least - focused the writing.  Unfortunately, as the movie stands, the filmmakers did not make it work.   (2/4 stars)


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

Storks - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

storks‘Storks’ delivers a fun animated experience  

Directed by: Nicholas Stoller and Doug Sweetland

Written by: Nicholas Stoller

Starring: Andy Samberg, Katie Crown, Kelsey Grammer, Keegan-Michael Key, Jordan Peele, Jennifer Aniston, Ty Burrell, and Danny Trejo


“Storks” – When I was about 7 years old, I asked my mother where babies came from, but I do not exactly remember whether or not my father was in the room when I inquired about this elusive puzzle.  If he was – and knowing my dad – he probably immediately turned to my mom with a nonverbal gesture that communicated, “I am not handling this and believe that I should mow the lawn right now.”


I do remember that my mother tried her best, but I recall leaving the conversation with unclear answers.


Fortunately for current 7 year olds, the movie “Storks” does provide a “clear” answer: storks deliver babies.  Actually, they used to, because apparently for the last 18 years, storks have opted out of the baby delivery business and operate an company called  Instead of children, storks fly millions of various products - like cell phones, tote bags and the latest shoes - straight to your door. rakes in the profits, but a “renegade” stork named Junior (Andy Samberg) and an 18-year-old girl named Tulip (Katie Crown) attempt to deliver a baby girl to the Gardner family, who live in Somewhere in the Suburbs, USA.


Generally speaking, watching the process of delivering anything – like tracking a FedEx package online – might seem like a boring proposition, and the lead characters, Junior and Tulip, do not offer much to change this particular belief.  They did not originally plan on this specific delivery but are now chartered to do the heavy lifting and complete this important undertaking.


Directors Nicholas Stoller and Doug Sweetland portray Tulip as an accident prone assistant and Junior as a nice – but passive - stork.  Given their natures, Tulip and Junior’s exchanges basically consist of sorting out the mechanics of getting from to the Gardner home and – quite frankly – their verbal back and forth is the weakest part of the film.


On the other hand, “Storks” is generally a fun animated experience, and especially when it features wacky visuals and introduces amusing secondary characters. CEO, Hunter (Kelsey Grammer), and his suck up sidekick, Pigeon Toady (Stephen Kramer Glickman), supply some clever, sarcastic scenes of corporate life which will make parents relate and kids laugh.  Outside of the office, Junior and Tulip encounter a pack of wolves led by Alpha and Beta Wolf (Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele) who chase them by hilariously forming into various modes of transportation, such as a “wolf minivan” made of up of the actual animals themselves.  Trust me, it has to be seen to be believed, and Key and Peele are the right comedians to lead these surreal on-screen transformations.


Speaking of transformations, Stoller and Sweetland let us in on the secret where babies come from in the form an alchemical, magical machine that looks like an elaborate contraption from a Dr. Seuss book, and it effectively sets up the conflict between the storks’ previous business model and the work that they do today.


The movie, however, never really explains how babies are made during the storks’ 18 year-absence from the delivery business, but kids are continually brought into the world.   “Storks” is not a “Children of Men” (2006) situation, a science-fiction movie in which women are no longer capable of having babies.  The movie never goes that dark.  Well, I suppose I should let this point go, because “Storks” is rated PG and appropriately kid-friendly.


On the heartwarming-side, the movie also showcases some pleasant moments of parental love and cute baby scenes.  Perhaps, brand new cell phones and other material possessions are less important than actual family time.  A novel concept, right?  Thankfully, “Storks” largely succeeds in delivering that message.   As far as delivering the actual answer about where babies come from, well, parents are still on their own.  Good luck with that.  (3/4 stars)


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



Snowden - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

snowdenOliver Stone’s ‘Snowden’ is a valuable ‘Citizenfour’ companion piece   

Directed by: Oliver Stone

Written by:  Kieran Fitzgerald, Oliver Stone

Starring:  Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Shailene Woodley, Rhys Ifans, Nicolas Cage, Zachary Quinto, Melissa Leo, and Tom Wilkinson


“Snowden” – “Be afraid.  Be very afraid.”


This ominous quote originates from David Cronenberg’s gruesome and nerve-racking horror film “The Fly” (1986), and it refers to a budding technology causing terrible, unintended consequences.  Specifically, a scientist’s experimental teleportation device inadvertently turns him into a monster, a half human/half housefly, and therefore, my particular use of the phrase “unintended consequences” becomes one of the top five understatements in recorded history.


(Hey, everything worked swimmingly, but now, you are a 6-foot insect.)


Well, after watching Oliver Stone’s “Snowden”, the audience learns to be afraid of a different kind of monster.  It is the wildly advanced technology that the CIA and NSA use to collect oceans of worldwide information, including Americans’ personal data from cellphones, laptops, emails, and instant messages.


If there is one director who can make a film about Edward Snowden - the young man who, in 2013, famously or infamously (depending upon your point of view) broke the story of the previously-mentioned U.S. technological eavesdropping – it is Stone.  Some of Stone’s most celebrated films highlight unbalanced power between massive institutions and ordinary Americans, including “Platoon” (1986), “Wall Street” (1987), “Born on the Fourth of July” (1989), and “JFK” (1991).  Although “Snowden” is not as strong as these films, it fits into the same prized bucket of his “public service” movies.


As a public service to filmgoers, Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays the title role.  Snowden - an unassuming, soft-spoken and physically slight man in his 20s – projects an image of an accountant from a large bank or a small, near-invisible human spoke in a giant corporate wheel.  On the other hand, Snowden is wildly intelligent and, sometimes, unwittingly develops a few of the government’s most complicated and wide-reaching surveillance programs.


Gordon-Levitt perfectly falls into this role, and his performance conveys Snowden’s unpretentious, ordinary persona with a massive intellect percolating just beneath the surface.  The only piece of Gordon-Levitt’s work that feels amiss is Snowden’s voice, as he seemingly speaks two octaves lower than his own.  It does distract during the first 15 minutes, but then I started becoming accustomed to it and then no longer noticed.


What I did notice is the film’s structure and its purposeful departure from the 2014 Oscar winning documentary, “Citizenfour”, which captured several incredibly revealing interviews of Edward Snowden – by journalists Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras - from a small Hong Kong hotel room in 2013.  In the doc, Snowden – a former CIA and NSA employee – explains how the government spies on its own people through the convenient electronic devices which we hold most dear.


I walked away from that film with three general takeaways.  The first two are the massive scope of the actual surveillance programs and the wholly-invasive methods used to collect our personal data.  When Snowden explains the programs and methods in the most surreal, Orwellian fashion, his words sent shivers down my spine.  The third takeaway is the supreme, personal sacrifice that Snowden makes by revealing these highly-kept secrets in order to inform the American people and a worldwide audience.


Through Snowden’s own words, “Citizenfour” reveals his personal sacrifice, but the audience does not discover too many details of his personal backstory.  Stone’s film, however, presents Snowden’s private and professional bio from 2004 to 2013, and it follows him on his international ride within the highest levels of public power.  We see him rise to the top as one of the brightest technical minds within the CIA and NSA, and the more clearance that he receives, the more nefarious secrets – like a completely frightening program called XKEYSCORE - are unveiled to him and the audience.


The picture surrounds him with a terrific supporting cast, including Snowden’s CIA instructor (Rhys Ifans), mentor (Nicolas Cage) and longtime girlfriend (Shailene Woodley).  Cage’s role is small, but insightful.  It is nice to see him play someone more controlled and conventional, rather than trying to gun down a dingy troop of baddies or run around like a maniac.  Woodley’s part as Lindsay shows a grounding and calming influence on Edward, as she lives outside the red tape stickiness of his day job.


Stone’s dramatization generally works because of the performances and the illicit material to pull from, but the picture does not really feel like a thriller.  Snowden labors in front of computers for agencies immersed in spy games, but he is not James Bond.  He is a mild-mannered, young guy who feels guilt when the system figuratively chokes innocent victims and compromises hundreds of millions of others.  Instead, the movie engages as a steady reveal of many secrets which informed audience members may already know, but it also offers a character study of a brave man who we do not know, outside of his courageous (or traitorous) act.   As one can guess, it is not difficult to determine Stone’s feelings about Snowden’s actions.


“Snowden” is effective as a standalone picture, but I believe it works best as a companion piece with “Citizenfour”.  I recommend that audiences see the 2014 documentary first in order to receive the best experience of Stone’s film.   “Snowden” is a much deeper dive into the inner workings of the man, and in order to complete this bio, the film also intertwines the Hong Kong interviews with Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and Poitras (Melissa Leo).


Snowden’s interviews and hiding place are fascinating theatre, as they provide context for the incredibly high stakes.  At times, however, these scenes in “Snowden” feel a little incomplete.  For example, Greenwald lashes out at The Guardian (UK) editors for their slightly proposed delay of their news story.  At that moment, it seems like we missed some key minutes which could be sitting on the cutting room floor, because Greenwald blowing up feels out of character and out of place.  The movie does not spend enough time with the reporters who are key to Snowden’s overall story, and that is one example why “Citizenfour” almost feels like a required prerequisite.


Together, these pictures chronicle Edward Snowden’s remarkable journey, his findings and a technological horror show which “watched (or continues to watch) over” the masses.


Yes, be afraid.  Be very afraid.  (3/4 stars)


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


Blair Witch - Movie Review by Monte Yazzie

blair-witchBlair Witch  

Director: Adam Wingard

Starring: James Allen McCune, Callie Hernandez, Corbin Reid, Brandon Scott, Wes Robinson, Valorie Curry


It’s not too often that you get a film that changes the landscape of possibilities for a genre. “The Blair Witch Project” had that effect on horror. In 1999 directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez pulled the veil over the eyes of unsuspecting film goers, orchestrating a ruse of a marketing campaign that had audiences thinking the movie they were watching was real footage of three film students who went missing after searching the woods in Maryland for the local legend The Blair Witch. The film was shot on video with cameras you could buy at the nearby electronics store, the three leads were given instructions via walkie-talkie from the directors watching from a distance, and the budget for the entire film was a mere twenty-two thousand dollars. The film was a monumental success at the box office, grossing more than two hundred million dollars. The film paved the way for a plethora of copycats, leading to the point-of-view perspective film style that has been so abundantly overused.


A rushed sequel, “Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2”, was made the following year but it didn’t come close to matching the success or scary effect of the original. It seems so unusual in today’s remake mania for a film as highly regarded as “The Blair Witch Project” to not have a remake or re-envisioned release sooner, the fifteen year gap between the sequel and the current continuation is significant for a horror film.


Director Adam Wingard, who helmed the exceptional “You’re Next” and “The Guest”, ingeniously kept the cat in the bag with this film. Waiting until just a few months ago to reveal that the trailer advertising a film called “The Woods” was actually a “Blair Witch” sequel. Mr. Wingard and long time collaborative writer Simon Barrett put every scare-inducing sleight of hand trick into this film, crafting a fun enough experience but nothing that will keep you from venturing into the woods.


Mr. Wingard’s film cleverly connects the first film with the new film, making an easy transition back into the woods for a group of friends investigating the mysterious arrival of a video. Josh (James Allen McCune) has kept hope alive that he will one day find out what happened to his sister who was lost in the woods. That hope is enough to have him charging into forbidden territory.


The introduction gets everything moving fairly quickly. Mr. Wingard employs updated technology, a small camera that rests on the ear to document the individuals experience and a flying drone camera that provides perspective for the vastness of the woods. The raw and unpredictable movement of the camera here recalls the style of the original film. Mr. Wingard utilizes this to craft quite a few jump scares, some effectively executed and some frustratingly formulaic.


Writer Simon Barrett adds a few creepy touches to the mythology that lends itself nicely when the finale arrives but doesn’t provide enough moments earlier in the film to accommodate people running around and screaming from every rustling bush, faint noises in the woods, or blurry figures lurking behind trees. We’ve seen this all before, look at the high point film “REC” in this specific subgenre of horror for the best example.


Unfortunately, instead of building on everything that has already been achieved with found footage horror the film seems content with doing the familiar very well. Where “The Blair Witch Project” layered the atmosphere and manipulated the characters towards a taut, unforgettable ending, “Blair Witch” gets lost in the early maze that it builds and stages a showy ending that doesn’t carry the impact of the original.


Monte’s Rating

3.00 out of 5.00


Top Ten Clint Eastwood directed films by Jeff Mitchell

The Top 10 films directed by Clint Eastwood  

sullyHollywood legend Clint Eastwood’s 35th directorial effort, “Sully” (3/4 stars), arrives in theatres on Friday, Sept. 9 with Tom Hanks in the title role.  The film chronicles U.S. Airways pilot Chesley ‘Sully’ Sullenberger’s heroic landing on the Hudson River in January 2009.  With another solid Eastwood film in theatres, this seems like a perfect time reflect upon his work.   Although I would love to compile a Top 20, 17 or 15 list, my pragmatic nature and movie critic tendencies “require” me to somehow limit the number of movies to 10, so here are my Top 10 films directed by Clint Eastwood.


  1. “White Hunter Black Heart” (1990) – In one of Eastwood’s most engaging performances, he plays director John Huston on the somewhat-troubled set of “The African Queen” (1951). The trouble is solely caused by Huston (named John Wilson in the film), as he is more focused on finding and shooting an elephant than shooting his own picture (named “The African Trader” in the film). The audience is treated to an insider’s look of the movie business, scenic moments of Zimbabwe and Eastwood’s portrayal of Huston/Wilson as a man of character and Hemingway-like principles.  The narrative offers a lighter ride on a faraway journey, but Eastwood includes some surprising and moving gravitas when we least expect it.


  1. “Bird” (1988) – Forest Whitaker delivers a Herculean performance as jazz saxophonist Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker. Fans bought Parker’s records and watched his concerts in droves, but he was plagued by money problems, alcoholism and heroin. Eastwood and Whitaker capture both sides of Parker’s “life-coin” with a healthy runtime of 2 hours 41 minutes, as the movie takes an organic approach.  Succinct timelines and milestones are not explicitly presented, and instead, Eastwood offers a holistic view of Parker’s adult life through several gigs in smoky clubs, constant travel between Chicago and New York, squabbles with his wife (Diane Venora), and the repercussions of his addictions.  About halfway through this engrossing biopic, I was nearly convinced that Whitaker actually was Charlie Parker.


  1. “The Outlaw Josey Wales” (1976) – Josey Wales (Eastwood) loses everything during the Civil War, when eastwood-2some Union fighters burn his house and kill his wife and son. With nothing to live for, he joins a group of Confederates, and soon after, he finds himself on his own and an outlaw.  In a film that truly showcases everything about the American Western, Wales covers a winding story from Missouri to Texas and partners with – at various times – a teenager, two Native Americans and a family from Kansas.  Eastwood mixes good fun with plenty of gunfights, as Wales offers a barrel full of memorable lines, countless visuals of his chewing tobacco spit, dead bodies in his wake, and - possibly - a reason to live.


  1. “Letters from Iwo Jima” (2006) – In 1944, the U.S. compromised Japan’s air defenses and naval fleet, and Japanese military commanders sent platoons of soldiers to defend the island of Iwo Jima, considered a launching pad to the mainland. Iwo Jima is a place with no water and limited living conditions, and many men suffered from hunger, dysentery and homesickness. Eastwood tells their personal stories with a focus on General Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe) and a young private named Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya).  Set in muted visual tones, this downcast tale depicts a group of men without much hope during a war going very badly.  Since the film is told from a Japanese viewpoint, it places human faces and feelings on a group of men who were thought of as vicious U.S. enemies just over 80 years ago.


  1. “A Perfect World” (1993) – Back in 1993, Kevin Costner did not usually play a bad guy, but in “A Perfect World”, he is an escapedeastwood convict from a Huntsville, Texas prison. On the morning after Halloween in 1963, Butch (Costner) and another con kidnap an 8-year-old boy named Phillip (T.J. Lowther). After Butch dumps his partner, the two drive across the state with Texas Ranger Red Garnett (Eastwood) on their tail.   The movie volleys between Red and Butch, and it soon concocts a semi-case of Stockholm syndrome for Phillip and the audience.  Butch treats Phillip with esteem and kindness, so Costner does not wind up playing a complete bad guy, but Red is an empathetic figure as well.  With an occasional protagonist and a fulltime protagonist on opposite sides of the law, “A Perfect World” reminds us that we do not live in one.


  1. “Play Misty for Me” (1971) – Sixteen years before Glenn Close terrified men everywhere in 1987’s “Fatal Attraction”, Jessica Walter was nominated for a Golden Globe by causing nightmares for – probably - the same number of guys in Eastwood’s directorial debut. In the coastal city of Carmel, Calif., Dave (Eastwood) – a disc jockey for KRML – meets and has a fling with Evelyn (Walter), his number one fan. Their series of brief encounters, however, turns deadly serious and dangerous when she wants a substantial relationship.    Eastwood plays with our senses by alternating between sweeping views of a gorgeous California paradise and closed, dark quarters of Dave’s apartment, a local restaurant and a quiet radio station, and nowhere seems to be safe.  Unfortunately for Dave, Evelyn could appear just about anywhere and cause emotional or physical mayhem at any time in this very well-crafted and purposely-raw thriller.


  1. “The Bridges of Madison County” (1995) – Francesca Johnson (Meryl Streep) passes away, and in her will, she requests that her children spread her ashes over a nearby covered bridge rather than be buried next to her husband. Through a series of journals, the kids read her story of a secret love affair with a National Geographic photographer, Robert Kincaid (Eastwood). Eastwood - widely known as America’s tough guy at the time - reveals his sensitive side with Robert’s delicate and loving few days with Francesca.  Streep and Eastwood carry warm and sincere chemistry, as they depict a pair of onscreen adults who emotionally connect despite less-than-ideal circumstances.  This film takes its time in sleepy Iowa, but the designed slower place helps capture these precious few days, as the audience hopes that Robert and Francesca find much more time.


  1. “Mystic River” (2003) eastwood-3– Sean Penn and Tim Robbins won Oscars for Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor, respectively, in Eastwood’s dark crime tale filled with massive Shakespearean themes, when three childhood friends’ (Penn, Robbins and Kevin Bacon) lives intersect as adults under brutal circumstances. In chilly Boston, a coed is found dead, and the three previously-mentioned men approach the incident from very different perspectives, while the tightly-wound and complicated murder investigation pushes forward. An all-star cast – including, Laurence Fishburne, Marcia Gay Harden and Laura Linney – complete a mesmerizing experience which brings constant thoughts friendships, loyalties and how the sins of the past impact the present.  The film’s most memorable line – “The last time I saw Dave” - will haunt you for years.


  1. “Million Dollar Baby” (2004) – Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank) - a seemingly ordinary 31-year-old girl - walks into Frankie Dunn’s (Eastwood) Hit Pit Gym with dreams of becoming a boxer. Dunn initially discounts her wishes, but he eventually trains Maggie, and this rags-to-riches tale appears to follow conventional sports storytelling but with very absorbing father figure/surrogate daughter chemistry. The movie, however, takes one of the biggest left turns in recent cinematic memory which almost knocked this moviegoer unconscious back in 2004.  Narrated by Morgan Freeman, the film develops into an absorbing human drama on a completely different level and – in the process - earned four Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress for Swank, and Best Supporting Actor for Freeman who plays Dunn’s best friend, Eddie Dupris.


  1. “Unforgiven” (1992) – Clint Eastwood’s last western rightfully lassoed four Oscars, including Best Picture, eastwood-4Best Director, Best Supporting Actor for Gene Hackman, and Best Film Editing and proved – along with “Dances with Wolves” (1990) – that the genre can win the Academy’s top prize. Eastwood delivers a prized role as well as William Munny, an aging cowboy who takes one last bounty hunter job after years of living a clean life. Munny frequently speaks of his violent past, but the audience presently sees a cordial and respectful man, so any previous sinister dealings seem either deeply buried or simply exaggerated.  In the movie’s final act, however, Sheriff Little Bill Daggett (Hackman) tests Munny’s patience with potentially explosive consequences.   Most everything in the town of Big Whiskey, Wyo. (actually filmed in Alberta, Canada) feels bleak and cold, and the tones match Munny’s job of attempting to kill two cowboys for a group of prostitutes.  In this world, no one is completely innocent, and Munny mentions to one of his partners in passing, “We all have it coming, Kid.”   Not only does Little Bill have it coming, but so does the Kid, the targeted cowboys, Munny’s other partner named Ned (Morgan Freeman), and Munny himself.  Munny’s past sins – unfortunately – are just skin-deep, and even though his wife forgave his past misdeeds, to him, they remain unforgiven.


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


Sully - Movie Review by Kaely Monahan

sully“Sully” is a new American hero Hollywood needs By Kaely Monahan


If you have a fear of flying then, “Sully” is not the film for you. Or perhaps it is. Based on the incredible 2009 water landing of U.S. Airways flight 1549 into the Hudson river, the story is one that will live on in America lore and FAA logs forever. If you ever find yourself crash landing, this film will make you want Sully in the cockpit.


But before I go on, a disclaimer: My father is a U.S. Airways pilot—now American Airlines. (In case you have forgotten, U.S. Airways bought the legacy carrier in 2015.) Due to some insider airline politics, I perhaps know a little too much about the facts of this event. Therefore, I see the film through the rosy-colored glasses director Clint Eastwood puts on.


Does the film accurately portray what happened? Yes, and no. But ultimately, this is a work of fiction based on real life. What biopic film ever gets things 100 percent correct?


That said, “Sully” is a masterful work of cinematic art. From the scripting to the casting, the film has you gripping your seat. This is the type of hero movie we need.


Eastwood approaches the story Captain Chelsey “Sully” Sullenberger’s (Tom Hanks) story in an unconventional way. Instead of starting with the landing, we are confronted by Sully who is second guessing what he did. Was his decision sound? Did he truly have no real option other than landing in the Hudson?


For those who don’t recall, Flight 1549 had taken off from LaGuardia in New York City and was headed for Charlotte, N.C. Shortly after take-off, and not yet at cruising altitude, they hit a flock of birds. This damaged both engines. Losing altitude, Sully attempted to return to LaGuardia but was unable to. He made the decisive decision to land in the Hudson—the only clear area that was long enough to accommodate a forced landing of an Airbus A320.


The survival rate of water landings is historically low, but miraculously Sully managed to land the plane safely. Every passenger was rescued with only minor injuries reported. Such a feat had never been done before.


However, Sully and his co-pilot Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart) end up under investigation by the National Transportation Security Board—as is protocol. As this film is based on true events, Eastwood needed to invent a “bad guy.” The NTSB was his choice.


Painted through Eastwood’s eyes, the federal agency appears conniving, vindictive and determined to prosecute Sully and Skiles. A fact that is very much fabricated. Anyone who has sat through a government hearing will know how methodically boring and tedious such meetings are.


As the investigation carries on, we see the events of the landing slowly pieced together throughout the film so that by the end, we see what really happened. Throughout the film, Sully struggles with his choice but sticks to his story. He did everything he could and he stands by that decision. The movie culminates with a hearing with the NTSB, which is again portrayed as the nasty villain. (An unsurprising move as the government is a popular choice for a baddie these days.)


In the end, the martyred Sully is vindicated, and his hero-ship firmly tacked on.


Tom Hanks is brooding, psychologically challenged but cool. He fits the mold of the perfect hero captain—a modern day Moses—he leads his “people” through calamity into ultimate glory. He can do no wrong. Much of this film is cerebral, as Sully struggles with his decisions.


Interestingly, this film is almost devoid of music. Its lack lends a certain gravitas to the story. This is not some action-packed, explosion-riddled thriller. This is a psychological thriller. Much of the action is seeing through flashbacks, daydreams, and nightmares.


The story unfolds nonlinearly, which can be challenging. But Eastwood proves he still has it, even at 86-years-old. It’s also clear he is in love with Sully’s story. The hero who faces the scorn of the world and wins.


Despite the Hollywood-ization of the facts, “Sully” fills the need to see a “believable” hero movie. I, despite my reservations, found myself lulled by Eastwood’s “Sully” to the point that I was cheering for the captain at the end. Sometimes, it’s better to know less about our heroes than more.



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


Sully - Movie Review by Monte Yazzie


Director: Clint Eastwood

Starring: Tom Hanks, Aaron Eckhart, Mike O’Malley, Laura Linney, and Chris Bauer


The summer saw its fair amount of superheroes. Viewers watched extraordinary mutants fighting an ancient enemy in “X-Men: Apocalypse”, they were introduced to a group bad guys with amazing skills fighting a threat to the world in “Suicide Squad”, and they even saw the return of super agent Jason Bourne again performing acts that would get any normal human serious injured. Arriving in theaters this weekend is another story about a hero, however this hero doesn’t have superhuman abilities or extraordinary powers though he can fly.


U.S. Airways Flight 1549 departed New York’s LaGuardia Airport on the afternoon of January 15, 2009 with 150 passengers. About 3 minutes after takeoff the plane struck a formation of birds. The plane lost thrust in both engines and was too far away from the departing airport to turn around. Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger and first officer Jeffrey B. Skiles were forced to land the plane in the Hudson River. Miraculously the crew accomplished this impossible feat without the loss of one human life.


“Sully” is a compelling real life story about people being forced into acts of heroism and then having to deal with the repercussions of their actions. Director Clint Eastwood has been directing films since 1971, many times also acting in his films. "Sully" is not particularly new territory for the 86 year old filmmaker who has tackled many of the same character themes in films like “American Sniper”, “Flags of the Father”, and “Unforgiven”. Mr. Eastwood is a talented director and “Sully” is accommodated because of his skill.


The narrative is working with an event that only lasted 208 seconds. Mr. Eastwood tells this story in a purposeful and disjointed fashion, emulating how the event was scrutinized and pieced together during the National Transportation Safety Board hearings that followed the incident. Mr. Eastwood does a fantastic job of composing the emotions of Mr. Sullenberger, displaying how the pilot recreated the events in his mind sometimes with a deadlier outcome. It is often a frightening and tense experience; the fear induced when the pilot of the plane says “brace for impact” over the intercom is just the beginning. Mr. Eastwood does more than just recreate the events of the “Miracle on the Hudson”, the director taps into the anxiety still lingering in the wake of September 11th but also the solidarity of the people who came together during this time of need. 150 passengers and 5 flight crew members survived a plane crash, stood in freezing cold weather and water, and all of them lived to tell the story.


In the heroic roles are Tom Hanks as Mr. Sullenberger and Aaron Eckhart as Mr. Skiles. Mr. Hanks plays the role with quiet, calm, professional dignity. Mr. Hanks shines as this kind of earnest hero; no flash or flamboyance needed just a connection to a character that was simply doing his job. Mr. Eckhart is also good as the supportive, straight-shooting partner and friend of Sully, offering a performance that never waivers from the position of supportive friendship.


“Sully” has some difficulty maintaining the drama of the event as the film recounts the situation a few times over. It also introduces the perspectives of the passengers a little too late to truly generate the kind of connection to the fear and panic felt in the early scenes of the plane charging into the water. Still, in the capable hands of Clint Eastwood, “Sully” displays the miracle of ordinary people doing their jobs with the absolute highest possible efficiency. After a summer of watching superhuman comic book heroes save the world, it’s a nice reminder that superheroes do exist and they don’t need to shot lasers from their eyes or leap buildings but could simply do the diligent work they do on a daily basis.


Monte’s Rating

3.50 out of 5.00

The Wild Life - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

wild-lifeThis Crusoe story, ‘The Wild Life’, is visually pleasant but feels lost  

Directed by:  Vincent Kesteloot and Ben Stassen


“The Wild Life” – “Dogs and other animals – goats, donkeys, cows, a grumpy rooster – continue to change my writing life.”  - author Jon Katz


In the “The Wild Life”, directors Vincent Kesteloot and Ben Stassen create an animated version of the novel, “Robinson Crusoe”, and their vision includes animals – a whole lot of animals - who help and hinder our hero’s time on a deserted island.


As the movie opens, a pirate ship with perceived jagged teeth in its bow moves through the water, and the ruffians onboard discover Crusoe’s (Matthias Schweighofer) shipwrecked boat.  The pirates rescue him and his trusted parrot, Tuesday, and Crusoe recants his story to Long John Silver and the others, as the film moves into an extended flashback.


He explains how he found himself trapped below deck on a large sailing ship, when it began to fall apart.  Crusoe’s shipmates rowed off to safety, while he crashed with his loyal dog, Aynsley, and two horribly caustic cats, Mal and May.


The film clearly defines these two cats as the main antagonists, and they were not particularly thrilled with Crusoe before the crash, because he stopped them from stealing a chicken, or as Mal and May called it, trying to have lunch.


There are no free lunches for Crusoe, as he struggles to define his new space on the island, and seven native animals – who resemble various Disney-like creations - could be friends or foes.  The natives - including a parrot (Tuesday), a bluebird, a chameleon, a porcupine, a goat, and two other animals (who I could not recognize) - have never seen a human being before and approach him with some curiosity and much caution.


Now, I had much curiosity and determination to discover the names of these new characters, but after 30 minutes, I mostly gave up.   There are literally too many animals to keep track of and catalog, and all of their personalities seem to blend together except for Tuesday and an elderly goat with sight problems named Scrubby.   I had to play catch up with the other five.


In “The Lion King” (1994), Simba becomes lost in the jungle, but the movie introduces us to Timon and Pumbaa, and they sing “Hakuna Matata”.   Their verbal preamble followed by their (now) famous song help establish these characters and define their personalities.   The two become allies with Simba, and we the audience easily identify them.


“In the Wild Life”, Kesteloot and Stassen introduce all seven at once, but without a distinctly signature quip, moment or song, the individual characters do not particularly stand out, and as previously mentioned, I was playing catch up.


Eventually, this collection of island creatures become friendly with Crusoe, and since none of them studied to be engineers, they create a series of Rube Goldberg contraptions to gather water and other comforts.  Life appears grand, except those mangy cats multiplied like rabbits and try to crash their party (i.e.: cause havoc and attempt to eat most of them).


Watching all of these events, I developed some incarnation of island fever, as the film’s runtime seemed like over two hours, but miraculously, it ended abruptly after just 90 minutes.    Although the native animals overcame their fear of an unknown human, and Crusoe overcame his initial inability to adapt to life on the isle, the overall narrative felt like a collection of nonevents.


Now, some of the chase scenes between the army of felines and our new friends are creative, and one extended waterslide sequence is particularly fun.  The picture also carries a lot of colorful beauty, and the tropical environment brings visual pleasantries to the screen.


Regrettably, without much of a story or establishment of characters who we emotionally connect with, the visuals alone are not enough.   Oddly, during the film’s epilogue, it showcased – in still photos - two desirable outcomes for both Crusoe and Tuesday.   In other words, after the movie ended, it – only then – presented new elements to its thin and circular script.


Oh well. Hakuna matata.  (1.5/4 stars)


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







Complete Unknown - Movie Review by Monte Yazzie

complete UnknownComplete Unknown  

Director: Joshua Marston

Starring: Rachel Weisz, Michael Shannon, Kathy Bates, Danny Glover, and Azita Ghanizada


Nobody likes a liar. I once worked at a resort and it was fairly common to have people make reservations with an alias. Some people chose famous names while others would make up something ridiculous.  When I asked one of the veteran managers if this behavior was common they replied simply with “people like to play pretend”.


This behavior, in director Joshua Marston’s dramatic tale, is much more dedicated from a woman who consistently reinvents herself into a different person. “Complete Unknown” is a shape-shifting story that takes a look at the lies people tell themselves and one another on a daily basis, it’s about the consuming regrets that push people, and it’s also about the journey some people venture on to find their place in this complicated world.


It’s Tom’s (Michael Shannon) birthday and he is having a dinner party with some close friends. One of his co-workers invites a girl named Alice (Rachel Weisz) to the party. Tom is uneasy the entire time, almost annoyed at the presence of Alice to the point of asking near threatening questions. As events transpire to a night of dancing Tom becomes more agitated with Alice, prompting her to leave the dance club with Tom in pursuit. What follows is an encounter between two people searching for answers to questions neither are ready to accept.


At the core of “Complete Unknown” is a character study vaguely disguised as a thriller. Though at times some of the filmmaking techniques try to compose a mystery, such as the foreboding photography and ominous composition notes, this film is more concerned with watching two people analyze and understand one another. In this regard, and with the help of two exceptional performers, Mr. Marston offers some interesting moments.


The depiction of Alice is fascinating and frustrating at times. Alice is a mysterious woman who changes her identity every few years in search of new beginnings. However, with these constant changes comes an underlying hope that she will find a life that ultimately makes her happy. Tom is a married man living with regret, pushed forward into a life that he is unsure about. Place these two characters in the same space, exposing a secret they both share, and you have moments of drama filled with many different emotions.  Mr. Shannon and Ms. Weisz hold many of these competing elements together; they have an unusual chemistry that works in assisting the unraveling motivations each encounter with one another.


Mr. Shannon, with his stern demeanor, says more with his body language and eye glares than any line of dialog could possibly convey. From the moment Alice walks into the room you can feel Tom’s changing temperament, Mr. Shannon is always a pleasure to watch. Ms. Weisz, with her steadfast commitment to embodying a lie, provides a nuanced portrayal that makes it difficult to detect what parts of her story are truthful, exaggerated, or simply made up. Ms. Weisz pulls everything off with ease.


It’s unfortunate that the good pieces that compose the story don’t always add up cohesively when played from scene to scene. Part of this comes from the unnecessary need to build a mystery and the attempt to make it feel like a thriller. There are quite a few scenes that linger pointlessly while other scenes feel out of place, specifically one scene with some very good actors involved. There are times when you get a sense of what the director may be trying to express, the apathy of life that would make lying exciting or the mundaneness that influences the pieces of life between the memorable moments. Or maybe it’s something completely different? Nothing is straightforwardly expressed.


“Complete Unknown” is an ambiguous story that unfortunately never becomes as compelling as the subject matter may entice. While the performances are great, the film never proposes any kind of purpose and unfortunately becomes the character it creates, a shape-shifter that is never sure what it wants to be.


Monte’s Rating

2.75 out of 5.00

The Hollars - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

HollarsTwo solid performances cannot stop ‘The Hollars’ from feeling hollow  

Directed by: John Krasinski

Written by:  James C. Strouse


“The Hollars” – Margo Martindale, Richard Jenkins, Sharlto Copley, Anna Kendrick, Charlie Day, and John Krasinski are a collection of hugely-talented actors who can move mountains of movie magic, given the right script and direction.  Individually, they have certainly accomplished this with past projects, and now, one spotlight shines on all of them in “The Hollars”.


Although the actors deliver some intriguing moments, “The Hollars” – a film about a dysfunctional family pulling together, when Mom (Martindale) needs them most – inserts light and zany comedic touches, while also introducing` heavy-handed subject matter.  The end result?  Rather moving the earth, the film randomly and erratically throws rocks of pushy comedy and heavy drama into a quiet lake for 1 hour and 28 minutes.


This movie reminds me of 2015’s “Love the Coopers” which presented another all-star cast coming home, but the occasion was Christmas.   Just about every family member in “Love the Coopers” carried emotional wounds that flared during their homecoming, but the script’s mix of comedy and malfunctioning family dynamics never gelled or felt quite right.  I remember not believing one single character in that film, and I almost feel the same way here.


Set in an unnamed, small town in Ohio, the Hollar family circles the wagons to support the matriarch, Sally (Martindale), as she suddenly and literally falls ill.  Each of the Hollars carry their baggage of distress with them, but I’d not rather give too much away, so I’ll just deliver some brief introductions.


Obviously, Sally could use support but so could her husband, Don (Jenkins), who repeatedly bursts into tears at the thought of his wife’s possible passing.  One of their sons, John (Krasinski), flies in from New York City, and his girlfriend (Kendrick) inexplicably arrives a couple days later.  John’s brother, Ron (Copley), is already in town, and, in fact, resides in their parents’ basement.  Hovering around 40 and living as a dependent, one knows arrested development issues plague Ron, and that storyline forces itself in odd ways.


That’s the problem with most of “The Hollars”.  It feels forced, as screenwriter James C. Strouse and director Krasinski shoehorned several recycled ways to create suburban conflict and crammed them into a thin theatrical presentation.


To alleviate the tension, the picture delivers some laughs, such as Ron’s uneasy meeting with his ex-wife’s new boyfriend (Josh Groban), and John’s uncomfortable dinner with his ex-girlfriend (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and her new husband (Day).  Copley and Day are asked to delve into cartoonish places, and they execute their individual scenes well, but these moments seem misplaced within the movie’s darker themes.


On the other hand, Krasinski’s camera does capture some wonderful moments which resonate across generations, such as a visit to an old tire swing, a quiet conversation in a soda shop, a nervous twist of a wedding ring, and a touching moment of nurture between mother and son.


Martindale is especially good here and so is Krasinski.   Regrettably, the others are confined into one-dimensional characters, and although I enjoyed their efforts in trying to burst from single notes to multiple ones, the screenplay’s artificial landscape can only take them so far.


No, “The Hollars” does not move mountains, but it invites us to skip rocks for 90 minutes.  Well, I suppose there are worse ways to spend a Sunday afternoon.

(2/4 stars)


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



The Light Between Oceans - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

light between oceansThe emotional, beautifully-filmed ‘The Light Between Oceans’ had me at G’day  

Directed by: Derek Cianfrance

Written by: Derek Cianfrance, based upon the novel by M.L. Stedman

Starring: Michael Fassbender, Alicia Vikander and Rachel Weisz


“The Light Between Oceans” – “A lighthouse is not interested in who gets its light!  It just gives it without thinking!  Giving light is its nature.”  - Mehmet Murat Ildan


In 1918, a lighthouse was probably the furthest object from Tom Sherbourne’s (Michael Fassbender) mind.   Having just returned from WWI’s bloody battlefields in France, he felt numb, scarred and devoid of any light in his life and therefore, had none to give.  Ironically, upon his return home, the Australian government offers Tom a 6-month job to run a lighthouse on Janus, a remote island, and his half-year stay then turns into a 3-year contract.   After all of the death that he had seen and caused in Europe, solitude is exactly what – he believes - his soul needs.   Thoughts of lonely isolation all change, however, when he meets a young, bright and happy woman named Isabel (Alicia Vikander) for the second time during a rare mainland visit.   Tom and Isabel soon marry, she moves to the island and they begin their lives together.


Writer/director Derek Cianfrance (“Blue Valentine” (2010), “The Place Beyond the Pines” (2012)) is a recent expert in crafting romantic relationships on the big screen, and he adapts M.L. Stedman’s novel, “The Light Between Oceans”, into a gorgeous and captivating picture.   Although the mainland scenes are scenic, the time spent on Janus Rock (actually filmed in Marlborough, New Zealand) is utterly stunning and at times, will literally take your breath away.   Cianfrance seemingly captures scores of never-ending sunsets and surf and the distant line that draws them together from the point of view of a proud lighthouse standing on a grassy, stony isle.


On this grassy, stony isle, he establishes loving tones between Tom and Isabel, as the newlyweds frolic, laugh and enjoy tender moments in a dreamy – but remote – location at the end of the Earth.  The camera loves Fassbender and Vikander, as they easily convey Tom and Isabel’s devotion to one another.   These characters love each other unconditionally, but it was Isabel’s initial persistence that helped win Tom’s heart.  Tom felt that his dark years spent in the war left him emotionally damaged, but she saw the light in him, and his self-discovery to give love only strengthens his commitment to her.


Ironically, this commitment could cost Tom and Isabel everything.


His internal light also is an obvious metaphor for the lighthouse.  On one particular day, April 27, the lighthouse itself does not act as a beacon, but Tom and Isabel do, and somehow, their dreams are realized when a tiny boat and its contents wash ashore.  Rather than ask questions, they accept their blessings, but over time, Tom inadvertently discovers the answers to their initial (and then silent) inquiries about the boat’s origins.    Rachel Weisz completes the picture’s triad of A-list actors, and her character, Hannah, stands on the other side of the figurative door that Tom and Isabel never want to face.


Although the narrative covers territory that sophisticated audiences have previously seen in different forms, Fassbender, Vikander and Weisz’s performances are completely absorbing. Fassbender’s Tom carries this undercurrent of guilt from the war but slowly buries it during his time with Isabel.  In turn - with her amorous virtue - Isabel becomes his lifeline to happiness, and she is the audience’s as well, because we hope for Tom, and this troubled soul has finally found hope through her.   Vikander delivers such warmth for Isabel, and during her difficult choice – in the film’s pivotal moment - also garners sympathy and understanding.


Couple the performances with an absolutely spectacular backdrop, and any thoughts of familiar themes never entered my head during the film’s entire 2 hours and 12 minutes.  This emotional ride on a fictional, secluded island in the southern hemisphere truly is the most beautifully-filmed picture that I have seen so far this year, and it grabbed me within its first 10 minutes.  Well, quite frankly, “The Light Between Oceans” had me at G’day.  (3.5/4 stars)


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

A Tale of Love and Darkness - Movie Review by Kaely Monahan

tale-of-love-and-darknessNatalie Portman shines as a master storyteller in “A Tale of Love and Darkness” By Kaely Monahan


Natalie Portman’s "A Tale of Love and Darkness" combines the mystic allure of a foreign film with the heart jerking influence of an indie film. Adapted from Amos Oz’ autobiography, the film is both dark and poetic. Portman not only stars as Fania Oz, Amos’ mother, but she also wrote and directed the film.


This is Portman’s debut feature-length film as a director and writer, and it could not be more beautiful or well composed. Set almost entirely in Jerusalem, the story is seen through the eyes of young Amos (Amir Tessler). His world is quaint and warm, but that changes as his perfect family disintegrates.


Set in the mid-1940s after World War II, Jews from all over the world are settling in Israel, which is yet to be an independent state. It's a moment in time when anything is possible when the violence seen in Israel today could possibly be avoided.


The violent descent of the country mirrors Amos' mother's decline as if she is a foil for the country itself. Portman's Fania starts off with dreams and aspirations that are quickly dashed as the roles of wife and mother consume her. As the demands of her life increase, Israel finds itself embroiled in a bitter conflict with the native Palestinians. Fania breaks as the country does.


Portman’s version of the Jewish mother is sincere and recognizable, unlike the stereotyped portrayals that clutter many films. She is loving, doting, but also a mom who struggles to create a world of possibilities for her child.


Gilad Kahana plays the father Arieh Oz. A linguist and highly educated man, he is dedicated to his family as much as his work. However, this is a movie about a mother and her son.


We see Fania as a young girl from Eastern Europe who is uprooted by her family to Jerusalem at the outbreak of the war.


She’s a girl of hopes, dreams, and fantasies. When she marries, she turns her personal dreams into stories that she and Amos tell together. She imparts wisdom to her boy, giving him all the tools for life. It’s a tragically beautiful relationship that comes crashing to an end.


When Israel wins its nationhood, it is as though all the life goes out of Fania, leaving her son and husband at a loss. Whether there is a physical problem that could not be diagnosed or if it is  a deeper breaking of her spirit, Fania eventually dies. Meanwhile, the country is bathed in the blood of conflict.


The story, while tragic, it is unabashedly human. This could have easily been a vanity project for Portman; a chance to show off her skills as a writer, director, and actress. But the story never strays there. Instead, Portman's performance is heartfelt. But the Academy-Award winning actress doesn’t overshadow the rest of the cast. Instead, there are strong performances all around.


What makes this film even more remarkable is that it is almost entirely in Hebrew. Perhaps, it shouldn’t be too surprising since Portman was actually born in Jerusalem, though she grew up in the U.S. Nonetheless, it is quite a feat for a beloved American actress to pull off.


For a debut, Portman couldn't have done better.


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

Morris from America - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

morris‘Morris from America’ is a coming-of-age Christmas gift  

Written/directed by:  Chad Hartigan

Starring: Markees Christmas, Craig Robinson, Lina Keller, and Carla Juri


“Morris from America”:  Morris wants to be a gangster rap artist.  Morris likes one marshmallow in his hot chocolate.  Morris is 13 years old.

Although Morris (Markees Christmas) has big dreams of super rap-stardom, he – like almost all young teens – finds himself spending most of his days emotionally confined in a world of parental and scholastic rules, while hormonal tugs between childhood and adulthood twist him into knots.  I’ve heard over the years - ad nauseam - that one’s high school or collegiate years are the best times of one’s life, but I would like to point out that middle school has to be the most confusing and turbulent.


To throw another log onto the confusing fire, Morris’ dad, Curtis (Craig Robinson), found a new job in Heidelberg, Germany and moved the two of them to this picturesque but foreign locale from Richmond. Now, Morris – the only black teen at the nearby youth center - needs to learn the local language, make friends and find positive ways to channel his frustration in this wonderfully quirky and entertaining coming-of-age story.


While Morris attempts to expand his world view on the other side of the globe, writer/director Chad Hartigan adds a turbulent and reckless catalyst, a pretty, blonde 15-year-old German girl named Katrin (Lina Keller).   Katrin smokes, drinks, takes drugs, and loves to mix it up at parties, and Morris is instantly smitten at first sight.  Although we clearly realize that she is a terrible influence on Morris, Keller and Christmas have friendly, on-screen chemistry, and some of their best scenes are when Katrin explores their racial and cultural differences.  Katrin generally likes Morris as a friend, but the initial attraction is because he looks, acts and talks differently than everyone else.   They bond over music, and the film’s soundtrack smartly plays heavy doses of rap while Morris sightsees on his own, and then it moves to techno tunes when Katrin enters his life.


Although a romantic end result seems unlikely, Morris and Katrin’s misadventures are bound to generate smiles and laughs, as we simultaneously hope that the broken curfews (and the reasons for them) do not harm our new 13-year-old friend.  Hartigan helps balance Katrin’s mischief with two likable adults to square the moral scale in the forms of his aforementioned father and 20-something German tutor, Inka (Carla Juri).


Curtis loves his son dearly and truly attempts to grant him space and freedom, but with Morris walking into the house at 12:30 a.m. without much of an explanation, Dad needs to rein in this inexperienced mass of teenage hormones.   The film deliberately spends some personal time with Curtis too, and the script does not treat him as a clueless, out-of-touch parent who blindly barks orders and lays down the law.  Hartigan effectively plays a few short scenes in which Curtis sits alone at a quiet dinner table or ponders a past loss, and the movie contrasts these solitary moments with Morris enjoying overflowing crowds at loud parties.


When Curtis and Morris do capture some instances of real communication, many of the substantive exchanges unfortunately flow in one direction, from father to son.  Morris generally keeps Curtis in the dark.  He does, however, shine a light on some of his experiences to Inka, and she warmly listens and offers mentor or “aunt like” advice.  On a larger scale, Inka is a positive female (and German) role model for Morris and another pleasant character for the movie audience.


Part of the picture’s charm is its German setting, and the beautiful summer environment steeped in foreign culture and language places Morris in unexplored territory.  For most of us, it offers the same, unfamiliar ground.


Although “Morris from America” is grounded with a familiar story arc, the film offers several surprises and a terrific breakout performance from Christmas.  With a speedy runtime of 1 hour 31 minutes, will this little summer adventure push Morris towards a future, glorious rap career?   Well, it is certainly possible.


For now, there is plenty of time to ponder lyrics, experience life and sip a cup of hot chocolate with one marshmallow.  (3.5/4 stars)


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

Hands of Stone - Movie Review by Monte Yazzie

Hands of Stone PosterHands of Stone  

Director: Jonathan Jakubowicz

Starring: Edgar Ramirez, Robert DeNiro, Usher Raymond, Ruben Blades, Ana de Armas, John Turturro, and Ellen Barkin


Ask any true boxing fan to list their top ten greatest boxers of all time and it's a safe bet that Roberto Durán will end up on many of the lists. Roberto Durán Samaniego is Panamanian icon, a symbol at one point during his professional boxing career of freedom for the people. Mr. Durán is widely regarded as one of the best lightweight champions of all time, dominating the division for over seven years and moving up a weight class to defeat Sugar Ray Leonard in 1980. Mr. Durán was a brawler, a fighter’s fighter who talked loud and fought hard with very little flash or flair. Mr. Durán also faced a significant amount of backlash for an in-ring incident that changed his status in Panama from a hero to a coward.


Director Jonathan Jakubowicz brings this biopic to life with the help of Edgar Ramirez, who plays Roberto Durán, and Robert DeNiro, who plays legendary boxing trainer Ray Arcel. Mr. Jakubowicz follows the linear rise and fall path for the story, combining a nice blend of boxing action, a rags-to-riches story of hard work and dedication, and also a political drama that displays the tensions with America during this time in the 1970’s.


The film begins with a defining moment for a young Roberto Durán, watching tensions build and violence erupt between U.S. soldiers and Panamanian protestors and then being shot at for stealing mangos at the U.S. occupied Panama Canal. Durán is an arrogant adolescent who grows into an equally hardheaded man who is a naturally skilled fighter. Retired trainer Ray Arcel spots this talent at a boxing match, prompting him to come out of retirement to train the young fighter and lead him to a match against Olympic and welterweight champion Sugar Ray Leonard (Usher Raymond).


The performances from all involved are great. Edgar Ramirez composes the many facets of Mr. Durán’s personality that both exalted him to iconic levels amongst his people but also ultimately lead to his self-destruction. Mr. Ramirez has a charisma that works for the character; it’s a charm that leads to people loving him but also assists in crafting menacing mind games he would use on his opponents. Robert DeNiro is the performance highlight of the film; it’s so nice to see Mr. DeNiro in this kind of role. He is reserved enough to assist his counterparts but also present enough to display a tenderness and compassion that helps him break through the tough exterior and ego that is Roberto Durán.


Unfortunately the narrative doesn’t do much to help the film reach the potential of the subject. The push to compose an encompassing biopic during this defining time in the fighter's life also leads to moments that drag the film down. Everything seen in the film can be easily found by watching one of the many documentaries done on Durán.


The fight scenes are nicely composed, a mix of the “Rocky” style of boxing photography along with pieces that emulate “Raging Bull”. However, neither really works well enough here to bring the kind of excitement one would have had watching the fighting style Durán was known for.


“Hands of Stone”, a nickname The fighter developed early in his career, offers a tame boxing experience with some really good performances. While the film may not compare well to other boxing films, as a biopic about a great fighter it succeeds enough.


Monte’s Rating

3.00 out of 5.00

Don't Breathe - Movie Review by Monte Yazzie

Dont breatheDon’t Breathe  

Director: Fede Alvarez

Starring: Stephen Lang, Jane Levy, Dylan Minnette, and Daniel Zovatto


The dreaded sophomore slump, a comment successful directors are trying to avoid with their second film. Director Fede Alvarez found his name at the top of the list for the tough task of rebooting the beloved 1981 horror film “The Evil Dead” after his short film “Panic Attack!” found YouTube success. The result for “Evil Dead” was a no-holds-barred gore show that was a fresh and terrifying tribute to the original film. Mr. Alvarez could have done anything he wanted at this point, he chose to stay within the genre and write an original screenplay. “Don’t Breathe” is an unexpected combination of a bunch of different genre inspirations, a film that is as familiar as it is unique.


Rocky (Jane Levy) is a thief. Her two friends Alex (Dylan Minnette) and Money (Daniel Zovatto) are also thieves. They break into houses, steal valuables, and sell them to a dealer who trades the goods for cash. A big score comes their way, a score that will allow all them to find a better life. However, it requires them to steal from a blind war veteran (Stephen Lang) living in an abandoned area of Detroit. The thieves decide that it’s worth the risk and they break into the blind man’s house. Unfortunately the thieves have chosen the wrong house and the wrong person to steal from. Their mistake reveals secrets that place the group into a deadly game of cat and mouse.


It’s a simple premise that twists and turns every last drop of potential from it. The home invasion angle and the wolf in sheep’s clothing angle play nicely against, and with, each other throughout the film. Some film fans will see influences from Terence Young’s “Wait Until Dark”, a scene reminiscent of Lewis Teague’s “Cujo”, and touches of recent films like Jeremy Saulnier’s “Green Room” and Dan Trachtenberg’s “10 Cloverfield Lane. While these are definite influences “Don’t Breathe” also feels very unique and confident of every move that it makes.


Moments of terror and tension are peaked effectively through subtle combinations of sound design and camera movements. The creaking sound of an old wood floor builds one of the best nerve-racking moments of the film. The twists, however contrived, change the direction of the film and add additional layers of dread to the structure. Mr. Alvarez does an exceptional job of crafting these moments throughout the film. While some may categorize these scares as cheap, they are never lazy and often times are completely earned and compliment the moments that have come before it. At one point the thieves are placed in the world of the blind man and within this darkness restraint is held until an exact, perfectly timed moment. You don’t see horror films do this too often.


Stephen Lang is very good in the role of the blind man; he is a character that must display an unsuspecting demeanor that turns into a figure of intimidation and control. Mr. Lang efficiently does this all through subtle mannerisms, and simple positions of posture and movement. Jane Levy is also good, making an unlikable character change enough that the viewer can provide a small amount of hope for her escape. Mrs. Levy is tough and ambitious throughout, giving her character more value than what defines her early on in the film.


“Don’t Breathe” is not without some minor missteps. There are some inconsistencies in editing and the characters are very unlikable for long amounts of time during the film. While this creates a nice dynamic in some parts during the film it also makes the viewer somewhat uncaring of them as well.


Still, “Don’t Breathe” is better than many of the familiar, typical offerings of this kind. This is largely attributed to the talents of Mr. Alvarez who is proving to be a growing master of terror.


Monte’s Rating

4.00 out of 5.00

Southside with You - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

Southside‘Southside with You’ recalls a very important first date  

Writer/director:  Richard Tanne

Starring:  Parker Sawyers and Tika Sumpter


“Southside with You” – “I didn't think that it was possible, but let me tell you, today, I love my husband even more than I did four years ago, even more than I did 23 years ago, when we first met.”  - Michelle Obama, 2012 Democratic National Convention


Barack Obama and Michelle Robinson met in 1989.  Michelle’s Chicago law firm hired Barack as a summer associate in between his years at Harvard Law School.  During that time, he asked her to join him at a local community meeting.


As the film begins, Michelle (Tika Sumpter) is getting ready for the meeting, checking her hair and dressing very nicely.  Her father comments on her appearance, and she assures him that Barack (Parker Sawyers) is a colleague, and she is not going on a date.


“It’s fun to look pretty,” Michelle explains to her parents about her dressy appearance.


Barack picks her up in his older, yellow compact car with a rusted-out floorboard and fresh cigarette butts in the ashtray.   When they arrive at the apparent destination, Barack says that the meeting does not start for four hours, but he thought that they could kill time by enjoying some art at a nearby museum.


Michelle did not want this to be a date, but Barack did.


Writer/director Richard Tanne offers the story of the President of the United States and First Lady’s first date in “Southside with You”.   The film takes place over nine hours or so, on an - otherwise - ordinary Chicago afternoon and evening, and the picture feels organic and sincere during this extended conversation of two people.   The narrative instantly reminded me of “Before Sunrise” (1995) starring Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, as their characters learn about one another over an evening and morning during an extended stroll in Vienna.


This film is very dialogue-driven as well, as Barack and Michelle discover important details about one another, that they would never discover during a busy day at the office.  For instance, Michelle explains that her father suffers from multiple sclerosis but continues to work at the City of Chicago water plant.


In addition, part of the interest for the audience is also discovering the couple’s personal feelings.  Barack expresses his frustration with his late father, because his dad never really finished what he set out to do.  He also says that his dad’s life was incomplete.  Michelle offers some comfort by stating that every man’s life is incomplete, and that is why they have sons:  to help complete their work.


Speaking of work, Sawyers and Sumpter are convincing at playing Barack and Michelle, respectively, and Sawyers especially resembles and sounds like the President of the United States.  In a recent interview with Stephen Colbert, Sawyers said that he was working on Barack’s voice and mannerisms for a while and figured that he could play him in 10 or 15 years, but suddenly, this project emerged.   Sawyers and Sumpter share good on-screen chemistry, as Barack gently promotes their time as a date, and Michelle voices her reservations, but they start to soften over the course of their afternoon and evening.


Although their first date was long, Tanne’s movie is not.   The runtime says 1 hour 24 minutes, but that must include the credits, because my watch checked in at 1 hour 16 minutes.  Indeed, the picture does wrap up to its natural conclusion, but it does not exactly feel long enough for a full-length feature movie.  I am glad that Tanne did not artificially stretch out the narrative to a 90-minute “milestone”, but the overall experience seems on the slight-side of cinema.


Also, much of the intrigue of aforementioned “Before Sunrise” is the entire picture keeps the audience wondering if Jesse (Hawke) and Celine (Delpy) will remain together at sunrise.   Here, no such suspense exists, because we – obviously - already know how Barack and Michelle’s potential relationship works out.


Still, Tanne, Sawyers and Sumpter deliver “Southside with You” with ample amounts of care and thoughtfulness in a charming character study of two exceptional individuals.  The movie is a love letter to the President of the United States and First Lady, and it conveys meaningful insight into that specific moment during Michelle Obama’s 2012 DNC speech.  (2.5/4 stars)


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

Kubo and the Two Strings - Movie Review by Kaely Monahan

KuboKubo and the Two Strings The must-see summer animated feature By Kaely Monahan


Kubo and the Two Strings is an action-packed, epic adventure that will soar into the realm of “classic.” Produced by the same studio that brought us Coraline, this animated film proves that stop-animation not only has a place in cinema, but it can hold its own against glossy computer animation.


The story is set in medieval Japan. Kubo and his bother live outside a village in a cliff-cave overlooking the sea. The boy is inventive and full of zeal, as is cleverly shown by his magical origami storytelling. However, he stands out as having a physical disability. He has only one eye. The other was cut out by his evil grandfather.


Immediately this imperfection stands out against other animated heroes. Sure there have been plenty of children’s tales with parents lost and growing up poor, but few films actually allow their protagonist to be maimed in anyway. How to Train Your Dragon is a recent example, but even in that film, Hiccup’s accident happens at the end of the story.


Kubo does not let his handicap slow him down. In fact, he is mostly fine with his single eye, and is comfortable enough to crack jokes at his own expense. His verve allows him to be a star entertainer in the village, which allows him to scrap together enough coin so he hand his mother can survive.


His mother is a waif-like creature who only comes to herself after sundown. She’s a grand storyteller herself and possesses a strong magic, which Kubo has all inherited. When she is herself she warns Kubo repeatedly to never be caught outside after dark. What seems to be a mother’s overblown concern turns into a life or death situation for Kubo.


As he discovers that his grandfather is the king of the moon and his mother is a moon nymph, who fell in love with a mortal man. His father was killed by the Moon King. And his evil aunts now can track Kubo. In last ditch effort to save her son, his mother sacrifices herself using the last bit of her magic to spirit Kubo away while she fights her sisters.


When Kubo comes back to himself, he is confronted by a snow monkey who talks. Monkey is in fact the figurine he always carried brought to life. Maternal, protective and pragmatic, Monkey protects Kubo as he starts a quest to find magical armor that will protect himself from the Mooon King. Along the way they meet Beetle—a half bug-half samurai—with a memory problem but a huge heart.


Kubo and the Two Strings is non-stop action and fun. The cast is star studded with Game of Throne’s Art Parkinson voicing Kubo; Charilze Theron voicing Monkey and Matthew McConaughey playing Beetle. Even George Takei makes an appearance as one of the villager grandfathers.


Yet even better than the voice acting was the animation. Director Travis Knight and LAIKA studios proved that stop animation is still magical and visceral—more so than traditional or computer animation. The tangible quality to the characters cannot be captured by a computer, no matter how good the software. However, the film did make use of computerized backgrounds and landscapes. Combining computer with stop-motion animation made Kubo dazzle the eye.


If this film doesn’t make it to the Academy Awards for the animation category, then the Academy is doing something wrong. The only disappointment was the lack of diverse voice actors. This film was a perfect opportunity to use Japanese or even other Asian voice actors. But instead they opted for an almost entirely white cast. Hiring Takei and Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa to add some diversity doesn’t cut it. While the cast did splendidly—in fact you cannot complain about their performance—you cannot help but cringe at the Irish-accented Kubo.


Setting aside the lack of diversity, Kubo and the Two Strings soars easily to the top for best original animated story so far this year—and is a must see for kids and adults.


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



Ben-Hur - Movie Review by Monte Yazzie


Director: Timur Bekmambetov

Starring: Jack Huston, Toby Kebbell, Rodrigo Santoro, Nazanin Boniadi, Pilou Asbaek, and Morgan Freeman

124 Minutes

Paramount Pictures


“Ben-Hur” is a film that even the most casual filmgoer remembers. However, there are actually quite a few versions of "Ben-Hur" out, starting as early as a silent film in 1907, but the one everyone remembers is the 1959 Charlton Heston starring, William Wyler directed version. Reimagining this sword-and-sandals extravaganza seems more than just a daunting task, it seems like a foolish one. But in the current state of film nothing is sacred and there is nothing wrong with that. Today we have visionary directors who create amazing works of art, we have performers who bring stunning life to multifaceted characters, and we have technology that makes what used to take days easily happen at the push of the button. This logic makes a new, updated version of “Ben-Hur” seem completely reasonable; and with film icon Morgan Freeman and imaginative director Timur Bekmambetov, who made 2008’s “Wanted”, involved it would seem like “Ben-Hur” is in good hands.  It would seem.


Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston) is a Jewish prince living in a Roman-occupied Jerusalem. Judah is the much beloved son of his esteemed family, his adopted brother Messala (Toby Kebbell) however is looked down upon so he takes every opportunity to display his worth to the family. Messala leaves the family to become a soldier in the Roman army; Judah stays in Jerusalem and marries his beloved Esther (Nazanin Boniadi). Messala, becoming a hero, returns to Jerusalem to oversee Pontius Pilate’s (Pilou Asbaek) safe travels through the city. An incident occurs during the visit and Judah is accused of treason by Messala and banished into slavery. Judah waits years in slavery before returning to Jerusalem for revenge.


Mr. Bekmambetov knows his way around an action scene, dazzling and beautifully so throughout his catalog at times. The highlights of this film, and when it firmly stands on two feet, occur when the action takes over. The first-person perspective on board a sinking ship being rowed by whipped slaves is utter confusion and tension; it’s a grimy moment that introduces the journey towards revenge for Judah. The chariot race in the coliseum is frenzied mayhem, a dirt storm of trampled racers, stomping horses, and screaming onlookers. It’s the culminating moment for Judah, a moment that should be both exhilarating and emotional, a moment that should signify the changes that Judah has encountered throughout his journey. These moments serve mostly as effects-laden distractions but in minuscule flashes you can see what Mr. Bekmambetov was reaching for, simply and boldly a film about revenge and redemption.


While Mr. Bekmambetov can construct great action scenes he has always struggled with the human elements. These extravagant moments of spectacle are devoid of any kind of emotional drama that would display the anger, grief, and confusion that divided two brothers and placed them in an arena where death is seemingly inescapable. In many other instances you can feel the struggling script grasping for any kind of emotion, whether the lopsided romantic relationships, the heavy handed moments of misguided religious movements that lack any sort of resonance, or the divisions pushed along that connect conflicts of the powerful and the seemingly powerless. It all ends up being a disordered mix of incomplete ideas.


“Ben-Hur” tries to be a film that offers the characteristics associated with revenge films while also providing qualities associated with redemptive moral tales. In small ways the film succeeds in displaying a journey punctuated by an awakening through faith. It also ends up being an uneven mess of themes punctuated by moments of emotionless action. Still, in the reboot film world, there is always hope that the next version of “Ben-Hur” will be better.


Monte’s Rating

2.00 out of 5.00

War Dogs - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

War Dogs‘War Dogs’ carries plenty of comedic and dramatic bite  

Directed by: Todd Phillips

Starring:  Jonah Hill, Miles Teller, Ana de Armas, Kevin Pollak



“War Dogs” – “I’ve got friends in low places” – Garth Brooks


Most of us – or perhaps, all of us – had that one friend who always pushed the envelope and thought that any sort of “rule” was simply a four-letter word.  I certainly had such a buddy in high school, and we broke a few four-letter words, and in the aftermath, my parents found me guilty by association and participation a few times. (A few times too many, I may add.)  Eventually, I wised up and - quite frankly - haven’t seen this friend since my senior year.


David (Miles Teller) and Efraim (Jonah Hill) were best friends but haven’t seen each other since their sophomore year.  They did catch up about 10 years later at a funeral, and just after the services ended, they connected on a drive in Miami.  Soon, Efraim hires David to work for his company, AEY.  Since David’s career aspirations are waning as a massage therapist, he jumps at the chance for a new opportunity.


Now, Efraim lived on the edge in high school, and his dangerous life arc has accelerated, because his company – in which he is the CEO – sells weapons to the U.S. military during the Iraq War.


“War Dogs” – directed and co-written by Todd Phillips (“The Hangover”, “Old School”) and based upon a true story – acts as both a comedy and an intriguing drama, and Teller and Hill seamlessly handle both tones with ease.    In 2004, Teller’s David is struggling to make his mark in the world and stands on loose, economic ground.  Simultaneously, he is morally grounded and enjoying a solid relationship with his supportive girlfriend, Iz (Ana de Armas).


Meanwhile, Hill’s Efraim rides into David’s life on a south Florida hurricane with no attachments and limited scruples, so their past friendship-foundation is greatly tested because of their present personas and value systems.   The narrative delivers tension between the two, when Efraim continually pushes the previously-mentioned envelope.  This takes David down a questionably-moral path, but he buys in, because so much money changes hands and falls into his pockets and duffle bags.


With the evolution of their friendship working on a micro-level, Phillips rips us on a macro-level rollercoaster ride to a few far-reaching places, including Iraq and Albania.  He films these locales (which are actually in Morocco, El Centro, California and Romania) with great polish and care, as bleak deserts and decrepit, rusted warehouses look purposely miserable and dank, respectively, on the big screen.  Efraim and the newly-trained David circle the globe and negotiate millions of dollars with government officials and other parties who are not necessarily official.  In the process, Phillips pulls back a curtain and exposes seedy dealings and pallets of cold, hard cash and lets us watch two 20-something kids fake it until they make it.


In one precarious sequence, a Jordanian driver named Marlboro (Shaun Toub) drives the pair from Jordan to Bagdad to deliver the “product”.   Since Iraq is a war zone, the trip seems incredibly risky.  Marlboro, however, says it will be safe and gives them a 50/50 chance of making through it alive.


Terrific, right?


This particular trip through the desert symbolizes their relationship, because even though they both fear for their lives, Efraim pushes to make the journey a reality, while David simply finds himself in perilous circumstances.


The solid supporting cast members - including de Armas, Kevin Pollak and a special appearance from an actor from “The Hangover” – help round out a well-oiled film.  Teller is very good as the straight-man, but this is Jonah Hill’s movie.  In his best performance since “Moneyball” (2011), Hill plays Efraim with a serious case of arrested development, a complicated, sleazy bravado and an occasional stoner-laugh which generates lots of unexpected giggles and cackles from the audience.   This very funny film also keeps us on edge, and, overall, it feels like a first cousin to the outstanding “Three Kings” (1999).  Hey, there’s nothing like having friends and family around when breaking a few rules.  (3/4 stars)


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